Tuesday, 7 February 2023

Interview with Patrick Stuart on Yoon-Suin

 I was interviewed again, and it was good.


Subjects include Yoon-Suin, scientologist-inflected jazz fusion, 70s/80s SF, hating on Hollywood, monetizing D&D, the Spear of Eternity, and more.

Monday, 6 February 2023

Poetic Dungeon and Hex Keying

For a long time now I've wanted to write up a pseudo-Japanese dungeon or hexmap (maybe in a setting like this one) in which each entry in the key consists of a single haiku (5-7-5 syllables) or stanza of an extended renga (5-7-5-7-7 syllables) - not excluding stats. So a typical entry for a dungeon chamber might read something like:

Here eight red oni

Cluster around a dead troll

Skinning it with knives

Red oni: HD 2, AC 5, #ATT 1, DMG By weapon +2, Move 120, ML 9, TT S, U, V

And a typical hex entry might read something like:

A gold dragon's lair

Is found here in a dark cave

Atop a sheer cliff

Within is a captive girl

The local daimyo's daughter

An entire book written in this form would have a rhythmic and mesmerising quality to read, and keeping to a fairly strict poetic structure of this kind would be a way of benefiting from the creativity of constraint. One wouldn't have to use Japanese poetry as the model, of course - think of a pseudo-European version written all in the form of sonnets, or rondels, or Beowulf-style alliterative verse, or alcaic stanzas, or even clerihews; or a pseudo-Middle Eastern one all in ghazals, or whatever. 

[I am currently running a Kickstarter for the 2nd edition of Yoon-Suin, the renowned campaign toolbox for fantasy games. You can back it here.]

Saturday, 4 February 2023

An Interview Featuring ME Talking Yoon-Suin: A Vehicle For Fate

 


Long, long ago there was a podcast called A Gaming Podcast About Nothing, which for a brief period rivalled Joe Rogan in terms of audience numbers, reach and influence. Since 2016 it has lain in abeyance. But BEHOLD! It has been reborn in video format, much as a long-dormant volcano, in rousing itself from slumber, spews not only magma and toxic gases into the atmosphere, but also GROWS. You can watch it above. In it, I talk about Yoon-Suin, Cohen brothers films, DMing philosophy, give Kickstarter advice,  moan about the Royal Mail, and much, much more.

(And if you want to hear old episodes of A Gaming Podcast About Nothing or 'AGPAN' as it was affectionately known by the 3 people who actually listened to it, they should all still be available to download.)

[I am currently running a Kickstarter for the 2nd edition of Yoon-Suin, the renowned campaign toolbox for fantasy games. You can back it here.]

Thursday, 2 February 2023

The Most Human Type of Game: Negotiating the Winning Conditions

Tabletop RPGs are an interesting example of that fairly small subset of games: ones in which the players negotiate the winning conditions with each other through play.

I don't know if you've had this kind of experience, but the purest enjoyment I have ever had when playing a game of any kind is that which I used to get when playing knockabout games of football with my friends at the local playing fields after school or on weekends. Football has rules (they are actually conventionally called laws) and among them are those concerning the length of a match and how it is won, the size of the pitch, and so on. But we never abided by them. We played almost entirely in freeform - all we needed were two nominal goals ('jumpers for goalposts') - and we often didn't keep score. There were no throw-ins, no fouls, no penalties, no offsides, no real dimensions even to the pitch (we often continued the action behind the goal, like in ice hockey, with the ball remaining in play). Very often we played a game which we always called 'cuppy' (it goes by different names in different regions of the country, apparently), in which there was only one goal and one goalkeeper and the outfield players all competed against one another or in teams of 2 or 3 to try to get the ball and score. These matches could go on for hours, until somebody would stick up their hand and call out 'passing and shooting!' or 'heads and volleys!' and we'd switch to a different variant.

The salient feature of these games were that, when they started, nobody would ever specify how they would end. We'd just play. And play. And play. And eventually get bored - at which point somebody would say 'Next goal wins', and everybody else would nod their assent and that would be that; the next team or player to score would win. Or somebody would say 'Let's just do a penalty shoot-out.' Or 'Let's just take shots at the crossbar.' Or, sometimes, 'Let's just go home.' The winning conditions of the game worked themselves out as the game itself was being played - through a curious collective decision-making process that was never explicit and yet almost always reflective of the consent of everybody participating.

I can think of only a few equivalent examples of this phenomenon - long games of Monopoly or Risk resulting in deadlock, perhaps, but those are a little different in that the winning conditions were clear from the outset but simply took too long to realise, resulting in consensual cancellation between the players. Or childhood games, where the action would flow from hide-and-seek to cops-and-robbers to chariot-races to whatever else without there ever being a clear resolution to any of them. 

At any rate, table top RPG campaigns also usually have this quality, too - a defined start but no clear end, and in which the decisions as to what is the winning or ending point develops organically through the process of playing itself. Indeed, if one were being pretentious, one might say that an RPG campaign is something like a process of becoming, in which the very activity of playing the game is a way of working out how it comes to an end - such that it is only at the end that one can look back and understand what the game was about. Was it about this character getting to level 20? That character ending up being King of Saxinraxinland? These characters slaying the gold dragon under the mountain? None of that was ordained in advance; it happened as a result of choices (and dice rolls) and their consequences that took place within the game itself. Or maybe it is revealed that there was no natural conclusion, and that the whole thing was merely a bunch of stuff that happened. In a sense, you play to find out.

There is something deeply human in this, I think - the idea that, with one's friends, and some vague rules or principles, one comes through a long process of decision-making to an emergent conclusion about what you all have really been doing all this time. There's no way a computer can replicate this. I think it's something that really only we can do, and hence to be celebrated.

[I am currently running a Kickstarter for the 2nd edition of Yoon-Suin, the renowned campaign toolbox for fantasy games. You can back it here.]

Tuesday, 31 January 2023

Playing to Win versus Playing a Role

When I used to play computer games, I was almost exclusively interested in strategy and tactical wargames - Europa Universalis II, Crusader Kings (1 and 2), Civilization (I-III, V), the Total War series, and similar. 

The appeal here was for me never really winning (and indeed despite playing Europa Universalis II or Medieval II: Total War for hundreds of hours respectively, I don't think I have ever actually bothered seeing things through to completion in either of them - whever one gets to a certain level of power and advancement things rapidly become boring). Rather, what I liked about them were the flights of fancy that one's imagination tends to take when imagining oneself to be the ruler of some alternate-universe version of a real place with real purposes, objectives, whims and eccentricities. I didn't make war, construct settlements, make technological advancements, etc., because it made rational sense given the aim of winning the game on its own terms; I did so on the basis of what I thought would make the most sense - both rationally and emotionally - given that the place I was purportedly 'ruling' was real and governed by people with human motives. The aim, for instance, is not to conquer Province X because that leads towards the overall end of conqering The World. I aim is to conquer Province X because the damned Spaniards (or whoever) pissed us off 20 years ago and need a punishment beating. The aim is not to build a city that is designed specifically to grind out military units of a certain kind, but to build a city that would be nice to live in and reflective of its geographical surroundings. And so on.

It won't surprise you to learn that I kind of suck at this kind of game when viewed at from the perspective of winning. But it was the only basis on which I could ever really enjoy them. I was in other words really playing them as though they were RPGs, but in my own head. And there is a pecular phenomenology to this, which I'm sure you have also experienced - a strange dual consciousness that develops in one's brain as one enters the type of fugue state which good computer games can produce: simultaneously aware that one is playing a game and must click the mouse here and there to do this or that, and yet also imagining oneself at the same time to be a real person within the world that is being depicted.

When, in later years, I eventually stumbled across internet forums and discussion boards for these games, it amazed me to discover that while lots of people played them in the manner to which I was accustomed, many others did not. To many people, playing, for instance, Civilization II was not a project of immersive role-playing, but one of figuring out various 'tricks' to maximise one's advantage and thus derive satisfication from winning in very rapid or improbable circumstances. The idea was to figure out loopholes and 'hacks' that would achieve this, often in ways that were prima facie unrealistic - the best example perhaps being a user on the old Paradox Interative forums who would post about his unusual Europa Universalis II exploits such as 'Conquering the World as Lakota' or 'Converting the World to Islam by 1550' or whatever. I have absolutely no issue with people doing this - it probably scratches the same itch as getting really good at solving Rubix Cubes - but it was a very alien approach to me and one that I could never hope to emulate. 

Some people, in other words, seem naturally to prefer 'playing a role' and others to prefer 'playing to win', and while there is likely to be some cross-over/overlap between them, I think it's fair to say that everybody has an inkling which group they most closely align with. The question for you is: which group are you in, and do you think the people who prefer 'playing a role' naturally congregate more towards table top role playing games, as one might intuit?

[I am currently running a Kickstarter for the 2nd edition of Yoon-Suin, the renowned campaign toolbox for fantasy games. You can back it here.]

Yoon-Suin 2nd edition Kickstarter Stretch Goal Announced - Yellow City Poster

It's my great pleasure to announce that the Yoon-Suin 2nd Edition campaign that I am currently running has a stretch goal and it's one that I'm very excited about. 

Jason Thompson, also known as Mock Man - professional RPG illustrator, comic book artist and editor, game creator and all-round good egg - is going to produce a grand A3 poster depicting in Wimmelbilderbuch-style a scene from the Yellow City in all its vibrant glory. 

This is going to be included with every physical copy of the book delivered to backers (that is, only to backers and not for sale after the campaign) for no extra charge and no additional cost in shipping. It will be a fold-out under the front cover. 

All that we have to do is get to the £70,000 target by judgment day and the stretch goal will be activated.

And here are some pieces from Jason to get you salivating about what he might come up with:







Friday, 27 January 2023

On Structural Conservatism and Substantive Revolution - the OSR and the 'Coincidence of Opposites'

It's very interesting to me that criticisms of the OSR have tended to focus on its purportedly almost paleoconservative desire to return to a past golden age that has long since sadly faded. To its critics, the 'movement' seems to comprise only fifty- and sixty-something neckbeards who pine for their youthful glory days and see newcomers as johnny-come-lately entryists bent on perverting their beautiful game.

It's strange critique, founded on must surely be wilful ignorance, because while it is undoubtedly true that the OSR was always mechanically conservative in its approach to a style of play, it was anything but conservative in the substance of the types of campaign it gave rise to. 

(Here, of course, I should make clear that I am not in this entry talking about political conservatism, but 'small "c" conservatism' in the general sense of opposing change or commitment to tradition.) 

When one thinks of cornerstone releases of the early-mid OSR era, one thinks, for example, of:

  • Deep Carbon Observatory and Veins of the Earth
  • Death Frost Doom
  • Carcosa
  • Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko and Misty Isles of the Eld
  • Vornheim, A Red and Pleasant Land, Maze of the Blue Medusa (like it or not, we all know Zak Smith's stuff was of vast formative importance and influence)
  • Qelong
  • Hubris
  • Bastion
  • Kabuki Kaiser's stuff
  • &c
And one also thinks of the many famous blogged-about but not released settings of that era, such as:

And one then is led to ask: does this seem like a particularly conservative movement to you? It doesn't to me. If anything, it seems like one of the most creative things to have ever happened to RPGs - a veritable cultural outpouring that utterly revolutionised certainly fantasy role playing and probably the entire hobby. 

People who decry the OSR for being 'stuck in the past', in other words, are either disingenuous or spectacularly ill-informed.

I recently happened to listen to Iain McGilchrist delivering a public lecture on ''The Coincidence of Opposites'. In it, McGilchrist gives an hour-long precis of what might be called the philosophy of opposition, identifying a recurring theme in myth, religion, science and philosophy of opposites being both necessary and coeval, rather than mutually exclusionary. This would appear to be the case here, where an insistence on staying true to a particular method or play structure coincided with an extraordinary proliferation of new ideas that continues to wash over us to this day. I have written before about the importance to creativity of imposing limitspurposive constraintcreative constraint and creativity through constraint (that last post being from 2010!); this seems to be another example, in which the general principle is evidenced at a higher level of abstraction.

The other side of the coin would here be the link between mechanical creativity and substantive conservatism and I think there is something to that - it's interesting that while the implied or explicit default settings of D&D 3rd edition, 4th edition and 5th edition do have their fresh elements, they are much more committed to a form of mainstream high fantasy which doesn't demonstrate all that much in the way of creativity. This is despite them being, of course, mechanically quite innovative. 

Is it just that human beings, even very creative human beings, only have a certain capacity for creativity, which they must ration out between substance and form? Answers on a postcard.

[I am currently running a Kickstarter for the 2nd edition of Yoon-Suin, the renowned campaign toolbox for fantasy games. You can back it here.]

Thursday, 26 January 2023

The Motivated Sandbox Search or 'Haystack' Campaign

There has long been a trope of fantasy fiction in which the main character or characters have to search a wide geographical area for certain items - often fragments of what is itself a larger item - in order to assemble them into a great artefact of some kind (often to forge a weapon so as to strike against some Dark Lord or other). It is almost certainly inherited as a storytelling device from ancient myths and sagas - in which heroes often have to perform a set of certain 'labours', slay a series of monsters, etc., in order to realise some greater ambition.

I can't remember the first time I ever personally came across this trope (it was almost certainly through reading some Fighting Fantasy gamebook or other) but I instantly latched onto it; when I was about 10 or 11 a friend and I both sat down together to launch what we were sure were bound to be stellar careers as novelists, and my book - The Spear of Eternity - concerned a quest ranging across the continent of Snith in search of the four parts of the eponymous spear, so that it could be reassembled and thrust into the heart of the 'Death Lord', Keshin.

There is something addictive about this structure. It provides a basic formula or pattern which possesses the power to satisfy precisely because of its repetitive nature - we can see what's coming, but, like in an episode of Columbo, the enjoyment derives from the manner in which the resolution comes rather than the ending, which we already basically know. This method of storytelling also builds tension by creating a series of mini-climaxes and denouements before the final moment of victory. And it can, let's face it, give the author a bit of license to really string things out. It is no accident therefore that writers still latch onto it - as JK Rowling did, of course, with Voldemort and his horcruxes. 

(Indeed, my 5 year old daughter is a big fan of the Rainbow Magic books, which consist of seemingly dozens of series, each of which involves the two main characters, Rachel Walker and Kirsty Tate, invariably having to journey across Fairy Land to find seven items which seven fairies have dropped so that they can foil the arch-villain Jack Frost in the final volume. Even to an adult, despite the crushing repetitiveness of the formula, there is a kind of pleasure to be derived from discovering how the authors have managed to write yet another variation on the same, rigid framework.)

Interestingly, the RPG equivalent of this storytelling device exists in that strangest of places - the Lagrange point between a sandbox and a railroad. On the one hand, there is an overarching plot. But on the other, there is no preordained way in which it has to play out: there's a rod with seven parts (or whatever) scattered around the world, and the PCs have to find them. Where they look and, how they go about looking, is up to them. It is perfectly possible to play this kind of campaign in, essentially, a 'sandbox' fashion: 'You have to find the 13 Rings of Yamtether; they're somewhere out there in the continent of Flax; here is a big list of rumours about places they may or may not be found - go!' With a big hexmap and lots of places to explore, you've got yourself quite a game going.

The motivated sandbox search, as it will be henceforth known (but I also rather like the term 'haystack campaign' - feel free to use it) also manages to achieve the difficult task of marrying player agency and freedom with the idea that the PCs are the 'heroes'. Giving them free rein to go wherever they like provided they are searching for the Six Ladles of the Holy Chef in order to slay the Bouillabaise Demon of Doom creates space for a unity of 2nd edition-era 'good guys' D&D with the roguish sensibilities of old school play, and may be worth fiddling with for that reason alone.

(And one could, of course, just as easily run such a campaign entirely within one massive megadungeon - of, say 9 levels, each containing one part of an item which needs all the others in order to be put together into a greater whole.) 

*

[I am currently running a Kickstarter for the 2nd edition of Yoon-Suin, the renowned campaign toolbox for fantasy games. You can back it here.]

Tuesday, 24 January 2023

I see that there is evil, and I know that there is good - it's the in-betweens I never understood...

You will perhaps have come across this PBS story about D&D, which circulated a month or so ago.

I am totally out of the loop, so I'm not sure if it received a lot of push-back (I suspect it did), but it's hard to discuss the substance of the article without getting dragged into culture war nonsense - and I think that's the last thing D&D really needs at the moment. What interested me about the piece, though, was this paragraph: 

Old School Renaissance, or OSR, is a gaming movement whose players claim they are “against outside politics permeating their game space,” said Dashiell. These players support the use of traditional fantasy tropes in game design, such as the existence of “good” and “evil” races with no nuance. OSR gamers are often seen as the old guard of tabletop gaming and tend to idealize the past, which “defaults to a white, masculine worldview,” Trammell said.

Leaving aside the fact that it is very sloppy journalism not to interview somebody who actually considers him- or herself to be part of the OSR alongside somebody critical of it so as to offer a variety of perspectives, I'm curious about the assertion that '[OSR] players support the use of traditional fantasy tropes in game design, such as the existence of 'good' and 'evil' races with no nuance'.

First, I am compelled to say that I don't think that claim is empirically true. Do any of the main OSR authors/adventures/campaign-settings reproduce the idea that there exist 'good and evil races with no nuance'? I honestly thought the whole point of OSR gaming was to return to an idea that the PCs are rather amoral Vancian rogues who are just out for what they can get, and in general to avoid the whole good/evil dynamic (which most of the genuine grognards would say was an imposition foisted on D&D during the days of 2nd edition). 

But setting that to one side, it's interesting that, reaching for a stick with which to beat OSR gamers over the head, it was the accusation of deploying 'traditional fantasy tropes' of good and evil races that Trammell ultimately chose. Partly, this is because the idea of the existence of inherently good and evil races, or even individual people, has simply become seen as cringeworthy throughout the culture: our popular fiction (in literature, TV and film) tends to lionise anti-heroes and celebrate villains who show redemptive qualities. We don't now tend to think of the universe as being animated by metaphysical 'goods' and 'evils', let alone Good and Evil - no doubt due to increased secularisation - and therefore smearing the OSR by associating it with such old-fashioned, retrograde nonsense is a very easy tactic to use.

But partly the problem is, I think, the uncanny-valley effect. Nobody I think really has an issue with evil beings that are very different to us, such as evil dragons, or evil demons, or evil intelligent giant insects. That isn't the source of the complaint. What people don't like is the idea that there are things - orcs, drow, and so on - which look sufficiently similar to human beings as to hint that there are comparisons and analogies to be drawn (almost always where none was intended), and which are described as being uniformly evil. Especially when the word used to describe what those things belong to is 'races'. I totally understand the squeamishness that results from that, especially once the step has been taken of making those 'races' playable as PCs, resulting in people wanting to identify with them. The very phrase 'evil race' frankly just sounds bad to the modern ear, even when it plainly isn't intended to be used in such a way as to refer to real world people. 

I had come to the conclusion a while ago that evil humanoids are probably unnecessary, partly because humans beings themselves can be evil enough to function as antagonists if you want a good vs evil campaign, and partly because I like the idea of monsters as singular, special, and significant - one-off entities who the PCs must struggle to vanquish, and who are imbued with a symbolic value as a consequence. I think Tolkien's work has been very unfairly traduced down the decades, but I do understand why there is a desire to get away from the good/evil dichotomy at least when it comes to humanoid 'races'. My own preference of course would be to ditch the orcs, goblins, drow and kobolds altogether and do something more creative - fat chance of that, though.

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[I am currently running a Kickstarter for the 2nd edition of Yoon-Suin, the renowned campaign toolbox for fantasy games. You can back it here.]

Friday, 20 January 2023

On Yoon-Suin Adventure Sites

Yoon-Suin 2nd edition (which you can back now on Kickstarter) contains 12 adventure sites. 

These are fully mapped, fully keyed, fully statted-up locations which you can drop in anywhere on a hexmap for your PCs to explore, or run as standalone adventures. They are basically runnable 'out of the box' - with almost zero prep needed. Many are also created in such a way that they can lead to much bigger megadungeon-style locations. 

Here is an example of some of the maps (drawn by Tom Fitzgerald) though obviously not in final form and without the keyed info:





And here are some examples of the kind of stuff that is in the keys for various places, taken at random:

‘Statues from the Lost City of Selefarran Vo, whose people in their final decadence made their children fight in war, while the adults themselves grew fat and feeble.’ A room filled with three dozen or so statues of children, made from white stone but with their hands, feet and noses painted red. All are depicted wearing scale mail, and their hands are sculpted in such a way as to indicate they once held weapons. Almost all are broken to some extent, and some are entirely shattered. One girl still holds a javelin in her left hand. It is made from teak, and the head is of jade; its design is starkly and deliberately minimalist. It is worth 500gp, and is magical - it was used for fighting bhoots, and it always hits when thrown at an undead being, doing maximum damage.

In the room are three evil spirits, all brothers, servants of an arch-mage in the Yellow City who sent them to the museum to bring him its relics, but who found the place to their liking and chose to remain. They call themselves the Creeper, the Caller, and the Climber. Each goes about naked, and has hairless chalk blue skin.

The Creeper: HD 3, AC 6, #ATT 1, DMG By weapon+2*, Move 120, Save as F2, TT: None

*Can move in perfect silence, and crawls low to the ground on all fours - he always surprises opponents.

*Carries a kerambit with a black blade - it always does maximum damage (i.e., 6, being d4+2), and is worth 300gp

The Caller: HD 3, AC 6, #ATT 1, DMG By weapon *, Move 120, Save as F2, TT: None

*Can cast Monster Summoning I 3/day

*Carries a gada, resembling a pick, its head shaped into that of a gharial - it does d6+1 damage and ignores armour, and is worth 750gp

The Climber: HD 3, AC 6, #ATT 2, DMG By weapon/by weapon**, Move 120, Save as F2, TT: None

*Can climb on walls and ceilings effortlessly

*Carries two bagh nakh, doing d3 damage each; wounds bleed profusely, causing the wounded to lose an additional 1hp per round for 3 rounds after being hit.

*

The shrine. A circular chamber with exits leading NW, S and NE to [11]. The S exit is a round tunnel 4’ off the ground that has to be crawled through; the NW exit is a thin, low burrow that has to be belly-crawled. Six of the woodlouse men are in here at any one time, engaged in a ritualistic orgy before a wooden statue of their deity, a nameless rhinoceros-beetle god of love and sex with mother-of-pearl eyes (worth 300gp each) Three monitor lizards lie recently butchered on a flat rock against the N wall; around them roam iridescent green rhinoceros-beetle males and females engaged in courtship and mating, and draped around this scene are five ceremonial golden necklaces, each worth 100gp. The room is dimly lit with torches.

The woodlouse men have heightened metabolisms due to their sexual antics. Any reaction dice roll involving them is at -4, and they are only surprised on a 1 (and not surprised at all if the rubble trap in [11] has been activated). They gain a +1 bonus to initiative.

Woodlouse men: HD 1, AC 6, #ATT 1, DMG By weapon (short sword, club, spear), Move 120, ML 7, Save as F1, TT (P, Q, S)

*

The old guardroom. A cell which once housed yuthada vaanara servants, now long gone, who watched the doorway. It has since become the nest of a pair of giant blood pheasant cockatrices - 6’ high quail-like birds with blood red faces, the male’s feathers grey and flecked with vivid red, the female’s drabber. There is one parent in the nest at any one time, with the eggs (or both, if it is night time); the other is foraging nearby and will immediately return to the nest (arriving within d6+1 round) if it hears an alarm call. The parent sitting on the nest will attempt to warn intruders by making loud, aggressive shrieks (which also function as alarm calls) and shaking its head from side to side before attacking. If the intruders retreat the bird will not pursue.

The blood pheasant cockatrices and the Experimenter’s former servants have an implicit and unacknowledged truce: they avoid each other and leave well alone when coming and going through the tower’s entrance.

The nest contains 8 eggs. These are worth 2,000gp each in the Oligarchies (and elsewhere), as the birds are highly valued by the nobility of the Mountains of the Moon as pets, if a method can be found of keeping them 35 degrees warm during transportation or until they hatch (in d3 weeks). They each weigh 5cn. The young eat grubs, small insects, lizards and so on - blood pheasant cockatrices can choose whether to use their petrifying power, and will not do so when eating.

Other than the nest, which is a large pile of sticks, leaves, stones and earth, the room contains stone benches along the outer wall and a rack of 12 halberds on the inner one. The window is opaque blue glass - if looking in from outside one can see the shape of the bird, though one will not be able to identify it. 

Giant blood pheasant cockatrice: HD 5, AC 6, #ATT 2, DMG 1d4*/1d4 (bite/wing buffet), Move 120 (Fly 180), ML 8, Save as F4, TT None

*The touch of the beak petrifies on a failed save versus magic

*

A reminder that you can back the Kickstarter here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/thirdbluewizard/yoon-suin-the-purple-land