Sunday 23 April 2017

Hot Young Note Pad Action

There is nothing in life quite like a fresh new note pad, especially when it is well designed. Check out this beauty.

Cue line about wanting to fill that full of.... ahem, where was I?

While I'm on the subject of note pad pornography, here are some soft core teasers from my favourite line, Croquis. They are for fashion designers, but don't let that put you off: the paper is just lovely to write on, and they flip incredibly nicely (they just fall open, as if they simply can't wait for you to get your hands all over them.... ahem, where was I?).

Check out those spirals. Phwoar. 

The best thing about a note pad is it being empty, I think. The promise of all those unspoiled pages and what you could do with them. I think I might use my latest one to plot out a megadungeon. I mean 240 squared pages - it would be rude not to. 

Friday 21 April 2017

On Friendly Algorithms and The Southern Shore of Bubghismur

A new discovery: a fantasy map generator which has become my obsession:

The best thing about it? It also comes with a built in language/name generator. The stuff it comes out with is amazing:

The Outer dom Doshshom Wilds

The Kingdom of nal Korphu

Outer Mamuwi

The Southern u Moostia Wastes

The Sultanate of Lost Eskinoot

The Sultanate of Lost Eskinoot. This stuff is GOLD.

Check out the twitter feed, which spits out a new map every hour:

There is quite a lot of public discourse about how AI and algorithms are going to fundamentally rob us of employment, agency, and meaning. I am to some degree persuaded that is true, but at the same time there is also a lot of public discourse about how disruption associated with major technological change also brings new opportunities and tends to simply enhance what human beings already do rather than replace it. (People who makes this argument tend to forget that industrial revolutions also tend to come along with major international armed conflict and/or major social rebellion and civil war, but still.)

But anyway. This deployment of an algorithm is a case in point for the latter argument: a new technological development that does not replace human creativity but enhances it. These maps don't do away with the need for human imagination - they spur it on. What is the Sultanate of Lost Eskinoot? What is Eskinoot and why is it lost? Who is the Sultan? etc., etc. The questions flow out instantly and overwhelmingly. Suddenly you've got an entire campaign setting.

To illustrate, here's one I created earlier - The Southern Shore of Bubghismur. I might key it all out properly in a future post, but this took me maybe 20-30 minutes earlier on:

Red-orange is arid desert. Yellow is semi-arid desert. Green is flood plain/wetland/vegetation (the spot around Yumdutchuch is an oasis). Grey is rocky hills and scree/cliffs. Now all I need to do is actually key it out properly.

Do one yourself!

Thursday 20 April 2017

Literary Dungeon Making for Fun and Profit

A long time ago Talysman posted this interesting idea about creating a dungeon short hand. As somebody for whom drawing up dungeons is probably the hardest of all DMing tasks, I am always on the lookout for stuff like this.

The core of the idea is simple: "a way to represent a dungeon as text and a way to take arbitrary text and turn it into a dungeon". What interests me the most about it is the idea that one could take a piece of text (fiction, poetry, etc.) that you enjoy or  think is interesting and transform it into a dungeon.

Because I have been reading Wallace Stevens poems to my unborn daughter so she grows up to be all pretentious like me, I've got a book of his poetry handy. Let's experiment. The first two stanzas of the poem "Invective Against Swans" are as follows:

The soul, O ganders, flies beyond the parks
And far beyond the discords of the wind. 
A bronze rain from the sun descending marks
The death of summer, which that time endures

Now let's turn it into a basic dungeon framework based on Talysman's dungeon short hand. I am going to be much, much looser with the rules here - the length of words will be approximate, and the West - East flow not so regimented. (I am dashing it off to demonstrate a wider point.) In real life you would in fact want to be even freer I think to make the flow more interesting. You would also of course add in corridors, staircases, doors and so forth - whether in the manner Talysman suggests or just as to taste. But for illustration's sake:

The question now arises, then - what's the "value added" to this beyond just being a way to arrange rooms and connections when feeling uninspired?

Well, it allows you to also incorporate literary flavour. Think of the stanzas of the poem I cited as the basis not just for the rooms and layout but also the contents. Again, being rough and ready, this results in:

So now you have a guide to fill in contents. Where it says "soul" it would suggest something undead. "Ganders" I may not choose geese exactly, but maybe some giant bird or bird-man. "Parks" suggests a garden zone. "Discord" an area with a magical trap which causes conflict between friends? "The sun, descending" could be an area where there is an open roof with a sun dial. "Bronze rain" could be - well, there are all sorts of ideas which might spring to mind from that if you want to get creative. "Endures" could be some incredibly old magician who never dies, or a galeb duhr or something. But you get my point.

Thinking about it, this approach may be more productive as a way to plot out entire zones in a dungeon rather than rooms. Pick a favourite novel or book of poetry and flick to a random paragraph or poem, and use its structure and contents as a way to map the basic structure of a layer of dungeon. The specific content and detail comes later.

Tuesday 18 April 2017

Useful and Non-Useful Maps: Three General Principles

You see a lot of maps being shared in various online groups and forums. Many of them are excellent. Not all of them are, though. This post is offered in the way of constructive critique for all those kind souls who share their work with others.

Three General Principles of Usefulness in Maps

Maps must be for things that are difficult to envisage in your head, difficult to explain verbally, and difficult to sketch in 30 seconds on a scrap of paper. You sometimes see maps that look a bit like this:

It ought to go without saying really, but in such a scenario a map is not really necessary. Everyone can imagine a fallen tree and 6 goblins on one side and 4 on the other attacking, and the DM can readily explain it to the players. If it becomes necessary to work out who is positioned where, it is trivially easy and fast to sketch it all out on a scrap of paper.

Make Use of White Space. White spaces on maps, whether inside chambers or outside, are useful for communicating information. Numbers to look stuff up on a key involve faffing around and are best avoided if possible. See below:

The number 6 directing the reader to a key is more of a hassle than the others. Communicate info even by shorthand in the actual spaces on the map to aid comprehension at the table.

Maps of Towns Are Frequently Not All That Useful. If it's important because it may be the likely site of a battle or chase, or it contains lairs or dungeons the PCs will have to escape from or navigate their way to, then a map of a town can be handy. Otherwise you simply don't need detailed town maps at the table. If the PCs want to go to a certain inn, library, whatever, then they can just say they're going there and go there. If a random encounter takes place, you can sketch a few streets around it.

Sunday 16 April 2017

"People are taking the piss out of you every day"

I detest advertising in all of its forms, except when I'm doing it. I don't do it often so I hope I'm forgiven with this post, which is to advertise


Yes, I have finally done it. Only two years after I released the first Noisms Games product and about a year after I released the second one. The website is here:

Go there if you like. I dare you.

Since we're on the subject of my schemes to take over the universe, here is a list of what I'm currently working on in what I think is the likely order they'll get released:

  • The Devil in the Land of the Rushes, which is for an un-named and top-secret (although not that secret because I'm alluding to its existence right here) ROGUE PROJECT with MYSTERIOUS COLLABORATORS. This is well on its way to completion and is quite short.
  • Behind Gently Smiling Jaws, which is about a campaign world that exists inside a crocodile's memory.
  • Something Yoon-Suin related which I am not really allowed to talk about yet but also involves MYSTERIOUS COLLABORATORS. 
  • The as-yet-unnamed adventure module [Project X], whose working subtitle is "Giant Crow Ghosts Eating Samurai in the Forest".
  • Probably another issue of The Peridot.
  • A proper book-length treatment of the Fixed World (, which I hope will be my ode to what I think of as "traditional D&D".  

Friday 14 April 2017

Points of Dark

The Dark Ages loom large in the historical imaginary of Western societies, bolstered also (I think) by the regular bouts of social collapse which seem to have happened with such regularity throughout European history (the Black Death, the religious wars, the Thirty Years War, etc., etc.).

I believe this is why the whole "Points of Light" idea is so compelling - it taps into a faint but deep-rooted collective vision of little beacons of civilization huddled behind walls while chaos and evil reign outside. That motif was first given the moniker "Points of Light" by the D&D 4th edition team, but it can be traced via Tolkien all the way back to Bede.

(This may also be the reason why cowboy films and sengoku era Japanese stories find such fertile ground.)

What is the opposite? Naturally, "Points of Dark". A civilized world where there are spots of evil and lawlessness existing here and there like a cancer, but a prevailing stable society overall. I'm no expert on this at all, but I have a broad sense that this may be more in keeping with a Chinese historical imaginary - a society kept broadly in harmony by law, Confucian principles of governance and a well-educated bureaucracy, though threatened perhaps by corruption or moral degeneracy. The Points of Dark setting is not one in which evil lies openly around every corner. It's one in which it has to be rooted out, or searched for, or revealed. Or, alternatively, one in which there are simply very deep, focused concentrations of disorder and malice dotted around the landscape - like, I dunno, entrances to the mythic underworld?

Adventurers in the "Points of Dark" setting would not, I think, be desperate vagabonds, cut-throats or madmen. They would be more likely to be something akin to knights errant, or, to use a different and more interesting analogy, adventuring civil servants - officials of the bureaucracy sent to investigate, diminish, subdue or co-opt the black places on the map, wielding their wax-sealed papers and regulation staves. Their aims would be less "bring back treasure for XP"; more "report back to the local court judge/imperial representative; bring back treasure for tax purposes if possible". Their activities would be just as risky and just as interesting, but their status would be official. Not so much murderhobos as murdercrats. 

Wednesday 12 April 2017

A Theory of Psychic Geography

I was reading an article in a magazine earlier today while waiting to see the doctor. It was about a particular village in Northumberland and spending a weekend there on holiday. Not massively edifying on its face, but it fascinated me because the author unwittingly postulated a theory of psychic geography that I really enjoyed thinking about. 

The basic observation is this: if you are in a certain place (e.g. a village in Northumberland) you get a view of the world which is filtered through the location and its inhabitants. Spend some time there and you end up seeing the world from the perspective of that village. This does not mean you adopt the political and social attitudes and/or prejudices of the people living there. Rather, it means you begin to understand geography, time, space, and so forth, in the way they understand it. The city begins to feel far away. The weather begins to take on epic importance. The nearby forest begins to spook you. And so forth. 

This, I think, is the source of the psychic wrench that you get whenever you come back home from a holiday. You got used to viewing things from a different perspective while you were wherever you were staying. Now you have to shift it back to the one of your home. 

It only takes a little bit of imagination to construct a world dominated by principles of psychic geography.

Think about this: even in a fairly homogeneous part of the world like the Northumberland countryside and its villages, there is in fact quite a lot of variation. There are the chocolate-box villages full of holiday cottages and gastropubs for the tourists. There are the actual real lived-in villages, which mix slices of society in strange ways (lawyers, accountants, actuaries living in the bigger and older houses, from which they commute to their city-based workplaces every day; agricultural workers and handymen living in the newer and typically pokier developments). There are the really off-the-beaten-track places (often just a single street, full of inbred types who squint at newcomers). There are the no-frills farming villages which haven't been at all gentrified because they are a bit far to commute to the nearest city. There are the newbuild ticky-tacky villages (a bunch of new houses plonked somewhere vaguely nearby a bigger town where "first time buyers" are supposed to live). And there are the barrack villages where the families of RAF officers are domiciled. Somebody could come up with a more detailed taxonomy than this, but you get my point.

All of these different village-types have different atmospheres and attitudes, and it isn't hard to imagine that if you spent a few days living in an RAF officer village you would come to adjust your perception of the world in a certain way that would be somewhat different from how you would adjust your perception of the world after a few days living in a no-frills farming village. This is because geography, time and space mean different things in those different contexts.

Imagine, then, a world in which after you spent a few days in a place you actually slipped into a different plane - imagine that psychic geography was actually real. Imagine if moving from village to village, town to town, city to city and so on meant moving between psychic filters which changed the way reality is perceived and hence the stuff of reality itself. In village A, the nearby forest is haunted, and the nearby city is 100 miles away because the people in the village almost never go there. But in village B, on the other side of the forest, the nearby city is only 10 miles away because the people trade with it quite a bit. And in village C, which is inside the forest, the forest is completely benign but the outside world of open fields and skies is full of foreboding. 

As the PCs move between these locations, psychic geography does not shift immediately, but, let's say, after d3+1 days; if they spend d3+1 days in village A the forest, when they travel through it, will be a place of danger, thronged with ghosts. But if they make it to village B and stay there a couple of day,s the nature of the forest itself will change and their journey out will be pleasant. When they get to village C they rest another few days and suddenly the city, which seemed once so far, is now close at hand. As the PCs build up local knowledge about their surrounding psychic geography, they can of course use it tactically. (Need to see a sage in the city very quickly? Go to village B and hang out there for a weekend. Suddenly the city is altogether closer than it was!)

Friday 7 April 2017

Human Creativity on Rocket Boosters

From the most recent Against The Wicked City post:

Lore accumulates. It accumulates fast. A dungeon grows into a wilderness which grows into a campaign world. When I was 14, and I had just started a new AD&D campaign, I drew a circle in the middle of a piece of paper and said to the players: 'This is an inland sea. The dwarves live to the north-east and the elves live to the south-east and the humans live everywhere else.' By the time I was 18 I had written hundreds of pages of information on the geography and history and races and religions of the enormous fantasy world which now sprawled out in every direction from that original circle-on-a-map.

From Stephen King's On Writing:

Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth.

From Tolkien's Tree and Leaf:

The Lord of the Rings was beginning to unroll itself and to unfold prospects of labor and exploration in yet unknown country as daunting to me as to the hobbits. . . . I had then no more notion than they had of what had become of Gandalf or who Strider was; and I had begun to despair of surviving to find out.  

From Galileo's The System of the World in Four Dialogues:

If I behold a statue of some excellent master, I say with my self: "When wilt thou know how to chizzle away the refuse of a piece of Marble, and discover so lovely a figure as lyeth hid therein? 

From an interview with George RR Martin on the origins of A Song of Ice and Fire:

I don't build the world first, then write in it. I just write the story, and then put it together. Drawing a map took me, I don't know, a half-hour. You fill in a few things, then as you write more it becomes more and more alive.

There are whole books waiting to be written on the history of the metaphor of discovery used as a way of explaining the human creative process. (Who knows? Maybe these books already exist and I'm simply ignorant.) It is exceptionally common to either use the word "discovery" directly or allude to it. The person starts off with an initial seed or idea and starts from there, becoming more and more detailed and extensive in unpredictable ways. Gradually, the creator uncovers more and more of his subject - like gradually pulling a sheet away from some hidden monolith of unknown contours. The whole thing may never be truly revealed in its entirety.

I think this is why the procedural generation of things is so exciting and interesting. Whether you are rolling dice on tables to "discover" what you are going to put on the campaign map, simply filling in the blanks as the PCs interact with the setting, or rolling on random encounter tables during play and extrapolating more of the campaign world based on the results, it is like super-charging the creative discovery process. Something which is painstakingly slow and difficult in normal circumstances gets rocket boosters.

Wednesday 5 April 2017

The Core Commonalities of D&D

For a while now I have been meaning to write a blog entry about that profoundly odd artifact, the Wilderness Survival Guide. But it has defeated me. There is too much in there to read and take in, let alone write about.

But it did spur me to think about the practice of D&D. One of the interesting thing about hobbies (they share this with religious groups, in a sense) is the way they mix conformity and diversity. No judo, chess, book or archery club does things in exactly the same way as another. They share certain core commonalities (the rules of judo or chess or whatever) but there is a nebulous space of difference around those core commonalities for each group. One judo club does their warm-up one way and other does it another way. One chess club rotates opponents every 30 minutes, while one just pairs people up for the evening, etc. Different hobbies have slightly more core commonalities than others (you get much more uniformity, I guess, between hobby groups based around sports with agreed rules).

When groups collide you can get a certain amount of friction over what the core commonalities are. Maybe the simplest and best example of this is the "Free Parking" rule in Monopoly. Some people think the "Free Parking" rule is harmless fun which adds a bit of enjoyable randomness to the game. Some people think that it undermines player skill. Usually the friction ends up getting resolved pretty quickly because, really, nobody cares about it that much. But things can get heated when other areas of friction appear; there was once nearly a serious falling out in a game of Monopoly I was involved in at university because of a disagreement over the use of "outside payments" for properties. (Somebody, if I recall, offered to sell Old Kent Road to somebody else, who they happened to live with in the "real world", so they could complete the "Browns" - in return for washing all the dishes for a week. This did not go over well with other participants. But I digress.)

Reading the Wilderness Survival Guide got me thinking about the core commonalities of D&D. There is no way that all of the rules in that book could ever have been intended to become standard. It has to be understood simply as an additional supplementary toolkit - if you happen to need rules for fighting while climbing, or the availability of medicinal plants, you might refer to it. But equally, you might not. Some groups will not refer to it at all because of the simple reason they haven't got it. Others may just incorporate some of the rules they use often or which they find most useful. A few might rely on it extensively. But you couldn't describe any of it part of the common core.

What are the core commonalities of D&D, then? What rules exist for more or less every group and are applied more or less universally irrespective of the edition?

Hit points and the six stats. Levels. Separate 'to hit' and 'damage' rolls. Those seem as though they exist everywhere. You can't really have AC, because it means different things depending on the edition. What else is there? What is the distilled essence of the game beyond hit points, stats, levels, and to hit and damage rolls?

Subsidiary question: could you make a version of D&D in which the rules just consisted of hit points, stats, levels and to hit and damage rolls?