My Games

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

More Half-Formed Ideas from The Onenote

Over a year ago I made a post Half-formed ideas from the onenote. Crazy to think how much my life specifically and the world in general has changed in that time. Anyway, some of those ideas I eventually incorporated into other things, many of them I never did, but now I have more!

Setting Ideas

  • Post-humanity travels back in time as invaders, forcing their past selves to grow more savvy and powerful, until they are defeated, to then repeat the process until post-humanity is powerful enough to defeat some greater threat in the far future.

  • A fully interconnected multiverse. It's about as easy as taking a plane, and it's been around long enough that culture and politics have adapted around it. Certain nations across the multiverse have merged or allied, new interuniversal communities have formed.

  • Heavy Metal Haiku of the Machine God.

  • Nurglopia: Nurgle wins (came up with this idea pre-covid; could either be really good, or in really poor taste)

  • Ithaqua = frost giants, wendigo, Loki (?)

  • What is the original species of Yuggoth before the Mi-Go invasion?

  • Carbuncles as infant outer gods. Most are stillborn, or get eaten by other outer gods or beings of equal power, or take so long to develop that they are irrelevant. Some become true eldritch beings. Others land on celestial bodies and instigate life, or become absorbed into a pre-existing biosphere. In such a case, they may first develop a symbiotic relationship with a lifeform on that world, morphing into something more like that species. On Earth, this would be the basis of anthropomorphic gods, magic, or superheroes. Maybe tied into Lovecraftian Dreamlands?

  • Golemjammer: Like lichjammer... but golems.

  • Something with the Black Dragon Society (kokuryukai) and the Black Panthers.

  • A superhero setting where superpowers are heavily regulated, so rich guys like Batman and Iron Man types use their lack of superpowers as a loophole around the rules. They lobby to keep advanced-tech and non-super vigilantism relatively unregulated.

  • Cyberpunk where there is technically a government but nobody even knows who it is anymore. There are two police forces, both claim to be the government (as opposed to corporate). It's not even that corporations run things, it's just chaos. Clearly there are people profiting, it seems like there are people on the Foucault Flow, but the moon is completely obliterated and the tides are coming whether someone rides them or not.

  • Sarugami Japanese monkey cult.

  • Polterzeitgeist.

  • A fantasy setting of super-OP species. 
    • A species of humanoid / cold iron cyborgs mad rage geniuses like Carnage Kabuto with beetle, horseshoe crab, mantis shrimp, etc. cold iron carapaces.

    • A holographic aerial species of nephilim pixies/nixies with Divine magics (closer to the gods) and aerial dominance.

    • Demons from a dimension of sulfur and mercury, beings of pure explosion animating corpses of extinct species pickled in mercury and gasoline.

  • Landfill animals / plastic beach.

  • Heaven and Hell vs Martians; Heaven and Hell vs Humans; Vampires vs. Zombies.

  • Kingdom of Oudh.

  • Mother Earth expresses her will through technology. Rare Earth Metals are her medium. Teleological technological goddess.

  • Gasoline Swamp: The Primordial Soup from whence hyperlife evolved. A fungus-like species covers the Earth, a constant hazy explosion of spores and heavy diesel energy. Most animal-like life in their adult form are tiny "pixies" with manic energy. They have no mouths and other than absorption of some transient energy, they have only the energy they absorbed in their adolescent / larval / tadpole state. The dominant lifeforms are hyperplants, tesselating undulating monsters which branch, root, fruit, and leaf in real-time. They are not photosynthetic and instead are mainly carnivores (fungi and animal eaters) or predators (herbivores), or some are omnivorous. Their biology is inextricably linked with plastics and microplastics, like if humans wore their microbiome on the outside. Their blood is diesel and most consumption is vampiric; diesel being the most nutritious substance for all hyperlife.

  • Fantasy "salt lick" / oasis setting.

  • A pocket universe that exists as a liminal space between life and death.

  • How would a nocturnal intelligent species mythologize light and dark?
    • Blinding to their dilated pupils.

    • Vividly, grotesquely colorful (cone cells less effective in the dark).

    • Those who go out during the day must wear sunglasses, a hat, or other eye protection.

    • Monsters and demons more so like diurnal species, angelic / majestic creatures more so like nocturnal species.

Random Scifi / Fantasy Ideas

  • Flower / pollen / spring apoptomancer.

  • A reverse werewolf / Hyde / Hulk. Temporarily shift into energetic, manic, ambitious, strong, intelligent, etc, but somewhat unempathetic and detached- like detox Morty.

  • "Butterfy" / pixie chaos(-theory) magic.

  • Parasite of the Gods.

  • A perpetual chain reaction of causality from another universe.

  • Twister Troops: Create whirlwinds and ride them. High mortality rate.

  • Gorgon / Medusa / Basilisk petrification as metaphor for anxiety, depression, or stagnation.

  • A species that births different offspring depending on whether or not the eggs were fertilized.

  • Kawauso as Kappa / Deep One transformation of otters.

  • Mani Jul as Kappa butt ball as Dragon Quest-style Slime.

  • Rocket / impulse deceleration boots.

  • Soft Mother / Wire Mother.

  • Biological implications of a creature with a pocket dimension inside of it.

  • Fossil Golem.

  • Starbarian.

  • Bodhisattva vampire. By rejecting immortality and burning in light, they become "something else".

  • Dog Mutants: Dogs are adaptable and have been relatively rapidly mutated in ways physically and behaviorally unique.

  • Temporal "memory sense"; some alternate memory system as a sensory mechanism.

  • Spellbeasts: Based on the GLOG idea of living spells. These have taken physical form and take various shapes and sizes.

  • A Borg-like cyborg / transhuman hybrid species that loses its technological abilities and has adapted / evolved into a solely organic species.

  • Protobeings: A fantasy pre-history setting. The world is new, low entropy, there is an inherent order to things. The protobeings lack knowledge and history and advancements, but are magical and fey- or god-like, more in tune with nature, but a kind of nature that is uncanny to our perceptions because of its orderedness. Whereas we think of Order=Civilization vs. Chaos=Nature, the relationship between the protobeings and nature is the inverse.

  • Carnopolis Cyborgs: Organic internals have evolved into a robot shell. Mostly nerves and cardiovascular system and brain, and fat as padding. Higher thought mostly digital, brain used more for autonomic processes and memory. Those damaged are sometimes reshaped and given more primitive, animal intelligences.

  • Massive, slimy, dirigible-like floating predator-plant propelled by noxious gases.

  • Coffin monster and/or pocket dimension.

  • Saint as "Holy Vampire".

  • Colorful, iridescent shadows.

  • A city of "exploded" architecture like a multidimensional diorama space.

  • Dragon Mole.

  • Mustard Men: Humanoid plants with balloon-like heads full of toxic mustard gas.

  • Weapon made of a compressed universe or spatial dimension.

  • Rainbow ape fae.

  • Geistlos: Superhumans with no souls.

  • Pugmen: Not actually pugs, just heavily inbred species.

  • Whistle of the Giant Rat.

  • Metallic / Chromatic Bats.

  • Hippo-Ogre.

  • Laughing Gecko.

  • Aye Aye knocking on the wall (weird finger).

  • Neon Dolphin.

  • Living Missile.

  • A creature with spiders / octopi for hands.

  • A lich except with other things instead of a soul like brain, heart, brawn, etc.

  • Souldier ("soul soldier").

  • Bomb bees. Their stingers inject explosive chemicals.

  • Missile shark / robo-bulette.

  • Gun Worm.

  • Caveman weapon of mass destruction. Weapon of Darkness. Debilitator and danger as a relative concept, independent of technology or other forms of progress. Liminal state between human / conscious and "the wild" / beasts.

  • Emoji-Men.

Game Mechanics Ideas

  • Track every killed monster on a character sheet. Can temporarily revive defeated monsters to fight for you, but lose that experience.

  • Garudas and Gaussians: Binary-outcome system.

  • RPG Madlibs.

  • Eightball resolution.

  • Final Form: A game hack or set of tables to generate a DBZ-style "Final Form".

  • Ending Quest: A play on my dissatisfaction with never-ending RPGs.

  • Dice mechanic where you have to roll between two values (probably percentile). This allows you to instantiate both the properties of the PC and their opposition (e.g. roll under attribute, but roll over AC, creating the range to roll within).

  • Vector / Decision Tree mechanic for multi-step action resolution such as heists.

  • Rules-light OSR-style game built around random dungeons with an Enter the Gungeon / Rogue Legacy-style time or generational-based ludo-narrative, and some mechanics to tie each player's characters together in that sense.

  • Some sort of storygame meets tactical combat / strategy wargame wherein events in the past are retconned through time-travel as a function of narration / game mechanics.

  • A framework for creating X-crawl systems.

  • Stagger Stress System (i.e. FFXIII). Morale-derived? Another kind of HP abstraction?

  • Tactical positioning game (i.e. Into the Breach).

  • Jax-based resolution mechanic. Can it be diegetic?

  • Birdwatching / Pokemon Snap-style game.

  • Spaceship bridge crew game inspired by the LAN game Artemis. Rather than sitting at a single table, ideally, the players should be spread out. Each player operates some stations (engines, weapons, piloting, etc.). The captain receives specific information from the GM, and because the players are spread out, generally the captain is the one who will coordinate between the different stations. There is perhaps an "event deck" that the GM draws from periodically and/or at a fixed rate so that there is a semi real-time element to it, creating tension.

  • A combat resolution die (e.g. d4 for short, d8 for medium, d12 for long) rolled at the beginning of combat. Combat always resolves at the end of the die, with the outcome determined by the amount of progress made e.g. if enemies were mostly defeated, they are entirely destroyed or run away; a critical mission is failed (failed to deactivate the bomb, an enemy sniped the prince, the boss arrives, you were spotted, etc.).

  • Spells tied to an attribute and/or HP e.g. a level 1 spell costs 1d4 HP/int/wis/cha, level 2 costs 1d6, level 3 costs 1d8, etc.

  • A super-fast creature that behaves physically fluid-like and exists in a gameplay sense "between actions". It moves so fast that it resolves its actions between the resolution of other actions.

  • Animal setting generator: Roll ten animals from a random animal table. Two are humanoid and intelligent, two are intelligent but not humanoid, three are mundane, three have fantastical properties (roll twice on a magical quality / mutation / etc. table).

  • Rainbow beasts puzzle: Monsters are color-coded ROYGBIV, and can only be injured if a wand / lasergun is set to the corresponding frequency. The enemies may be a mix of colors, so the party would have to decide which colors to target on each turn.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Grilled Squid and Peanut Butter

Originally posted in the OSR Pit.

The anime Food Wars is about a highly competitive, iron chef-esque Japanese culinary high school. It’s funny, engaging, clever, mouth-watering, dramatic, sexy, basically all of the things I like.

The main character, Yukihira Soma, is in some ways a very stereotypical shonen anime character, but there is one characteristic about him that I feel is unique, and speaks to the intelligence of this show.

He likes to experiment; combining ingredients that make absolutely no sense together, that are even viscerally disgusting. And, he doesn’t really care whether or not it works. There is value in the exploration and experimentation, even if the end result cannot possibly succeed, because he understands the fundamental components of cooking and can meaningfully apply these speculations.

And so, he makes grilled squid and peanut butter.

This is how I think about genre conventions.

I can respect a well-realized but otherwise basic setting, and I can even see the logic in conforming to these conventions. Game of Thrones, for instance, is about political machinations and grand drama, at a level of depth which would be difficult to do in a very Weird setting; in this case, it makes sense to keep it mostly low fantasy, and mostly traditional fantasy where it’s supernatural at all.

Likewise, I can understand the logic of less is more; of using a mostly mundane setting to accentuate one very Weird idea, and explore that well. As much as I love the Lovecraft Mythos, creators often struggle to make it work to the same effect when integrated into an already overloaded, high-power fantasy setting. Or similarly, taking something that is well understood, and subverting it in some very clever way, like the comic book Rat Queens which juxtaposes modern sensibilities with traditional fantasy to positive effect.

But for me, I like Weird, Gonzo, Pulp. I want a million ideas jam-packed together, that don’t really make sense and don’t pretend that they do. That is fundamentally different in some critical way, intentionally or not, as the sum of its parts or at the level of its parts, than anything that has come before. There is an art to all of those cases I describe above, but there is also an art to doing something truly Weird, genre-defying, and unapologetically unrestrained, and those are the works that most inspire me and that I strive to create.

Sometimes those ideas work and sometimes they don’t, and it’s important to understand why. I’m willing to acknowledge when an idea doesn’t work, or when I think it failed to work because of something I did or didn’t do that is ancillary to the core idea itself.

These ideas require more buy-in from the audience. I can’t leverage your preconceived notions of orcs and elves, or colonial marines, or whatever else the case may be. That means I have to do more to earn that buy-in, to pique the interest of the reader, to express the core concepts coherently, or have such compelling ideas that even without context they are engaging. It also means the ideas themselves have to be better. All of this, when the audience for something of that sort may not even be that large. Some people just want orcs and elves, and there’s not anything I’m going to be able to do about that.

So, sometimes, I create something that I know can’t possibly work, something like Grilled Squid and Peanut Butter, just to see what happens. 9 times out of 10 I am more interested in an ambitious idea that fails, than a safe idea that succeeds.

But also, there is a difference between throwing random shit together or making over-ambitious hypotheses out of ignorance, and doing so because you understand the things you’re doing and want to understand them better.

That’s where the brilliance of Yukihira Soma comes into play. He understands flavor profiles and cooking methods, he understands Grilled Squid and also Peanut Butter, and where they work and where they don’t and why, but he chooses to experiment anyway, just to see if there’s anything he missed, some emergent, inconceivable phenomena, that would make it delicious. Or that still fails, but that he might take with him to another recipe.

So I will end with a food idea. The next time you make pancakes or waffles, mix some soy sauce into your maple syrup; 2 parts maple syrup to 1 part soy sauce, or to your own taste. You can even very briefly boil or simmer them together to get some more caramel-y notes. Some people completely balk at this concoction, but the mix of sweet and salty, and especially these two with rich, complex notes, is wonderful. Not just the saltiness, but also the umami of the soy sauce, combines so well with the sweetness of the maple syrup. It’s even better than salted caramel, or like the sauce of mitarashi dango.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Modern / Progressive takes on Genre Fiction

Originally posted on the OSR Pit.

I recently watched both Doom Patrol and Harley Quinn on HBO Max, and both shows are excellent and brilliant and really spoke to me both in unique ways.

One thing that really struck me, and this is something I’ve been feeling for some time, but hadn’t seen it done as explicitly as in these two shows, is how these shows recontextualize the tropes of science fiction, fantasy, superheroes, Weird, etc., which were historically portrayed as horrific and rooted in xenophobia, in a way that is consistent with the original concepts, but is now empowering and inclusive. It all feels much more relatable, even as a straight white cis-gender male, and just as if not more so creatively and intellectually engaging.

I had read Grant Morrison’s run of Doom Patrol years ago and I was generally aware of how much Grant Morrison has inspired me over the years, but the show felt like it was reading my mind in terms of exactly what I’m trying to do with Maximum Recursion Depth. Likewise, I haven’t fully processed it all yet, but the Harley Quinn show has me excited about and interested in superheroes in a way I have not felt for several years now. I think Marvel and DC would do well to incorporate these ideas into the comics if they hope to remain relevant.

I realize that there have been many other works along these lines, like The Ballad of Black Tom or Lovecraft Country for HP Lovecraft (the latter I still have not read nor seen the show), Imaro or possibly also Elric for Conan (neither of which I have read, unfortunately), and of course many more. But I do think there’s something about these two shows, in particular, their specific sensibilities, that to me seems really telling about what the future of genre fiction and probably also RPGs entails.

This feels very in-line with a lot of the indie TTRPG / SWORDDREAM-space, the sort of post-OSR-exclusivity BS that always drove me crazy, where we can talk about and acknowledge these more complex social issues, and also Weird high concept fantasy, and we can do both in a way that is organic and functions on multiple levels of subtext.

So when I say modern / progressive genre fiction, I don’t just mean in the social equality sense per se, but in a very literal sense, I think these kinds of works are telling about the future of genre fiction.

I’m not entirely sure what the point of this post is. I’d assumed, at the beginning of the Trump era, let alone whatever happens from covid, that this was all going to have a profound effect on culture and zeitgeist, but I wasn’t sure exactly what shape that would take, but now I think I’m beginning to see it, and it has me very excited. So I guess this is just me putting those thoughts out there, and asking if other people feel the same way, or have other thoughts about the future of genre fiction.

The key components I see, and this is absolutely a non-exhaustive, stream of consciousness list, but roughly:

  • Characters who are deeply flawed, but conscious of this fact and, importantly, are striving to improve.
  • While interpersonal conflict exists, real communication is important.
  • Weirdness happens and to a certain extent, you just have to be willing to go along for the ride.
  • Weird can be dangerous, but it is not to be feared.
  • Normal can be just as weird as Weird.
  • Weird can be just as normal as Normal.
  • Not just intellectual white men can be quirky, brilliant, angsty assholes.
  • It is not unreasonable to look at the universe, at the macrocosmic / cosmic scale or the microcosmic / societal scale, and feel existential dread or nihilism, but it is generally better to try to relish in the absurdity of it all.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Retrospective: Pixels & Platforms

I enjoyed writing the Mythic Beings Retrospective, a re-examination of my very first post, so I decided to do another retrospective. I recently published my second game, Maximum Recursion Depth, for the Eclectic Bastionjam, so I thought I might do a retrospective on my first game, Pixels & Platforms for the SWORDDREAM DREAMJAM (I also wrote an article about P&P for the high level games blog).


P&P is intended to simulate the experience of old-school 2D platformer videogames in a tabletop RPG, using a resolution mechanic building off of Lasers & Feelings. It is loosely framed within my setting The Quantumverse, although the way I present it in P&P is more so like an off-brand NES crossover (although I do have bigger ideas for that setting which I haven't written about).

There are three attributes; JUMP, SPECIAL, and FIGHT, and each attribute has a Light and Heavy input. For each attribute, you choose a NICE! number between 2-5. For Light actions, you want to roll over the NICE! number (lower is better), and the reverse for Heavy. The particulars of what these attributes are used for, and the differences between Light and Heavy Inputs for each attribute, are described in further detail in the Select Screen and Control sections of the game, but this is the core of the game mechanics.

The CPU (the term for the GM in this system), designs a Platform Crawl, a series of Screens (or Stages, or Worlds, depending on the scope of the game), consisting of traversable platforms and various enemies and obstacles. Unlike a real 2D Platformer videogame, there is obviously no real-time input for platforming, and very early on I decided that the challenge should not come from success or failure on JUMP rolls per se; that would basically just be chance and not very much fun. Instead, the platform crawls should be designed such that there are many ways to go about getting from one end of a stage to another, and it's a matter of the party figuring out how to leverage their attributes and special abilities to collectively get across. In some ways, it's almost more like a boardgame than a TTRPG per se, for better or worse. I have some additional thoughts on this which I discuss in the conclusion.

There were a lot of ideas for this game that I think worked, and some that didn't. It's biggest flaws, I think, are that it lacks polish and that it needed more supplementary content. In particular, it very clearly needed to have a platform crawl module included. Despite being a small game, I think it was actually fairly ambitious in what it tried to do, but as a result, I needed to do more within the text to demonstrate to readers how it should work. I also think I needed to have a deeper understanding of it myself. In retrospect, I wish I had designed the resolution mechanics and the platform crawl concept independently and tested them at least to some extent independently, to better understand how to polish the mechanics and articulate them. In general, I needed more playtesting.

That being said, I still think it is an interesting game, with ideas worth consideration and worth exploring further, and I hope this retrospective maybe convinces people to give it a look, or think about these ideas, and maybe I will be able to one day come back to this game and turn it into what it really should be.

Things that worked

The layout could use some work, it's definitely pretty dense, but otherwise, I think looks pretty good. HarveydentMD's cover art is great, and the itch page looks good, and I'm happy with the font I used for the game text itself. It's like a poor man's Super Blood Harvest. In retrospect, if he were even open to doing it, I wish I had commissioned HarveydentMD to do the layout as well and make the whole game look like the cover art and itch page, then it would compare more closely with SBH.

I have mixed feelings about some of the terminology, but overall, I really wanted the game mechanics, down to even the terminology, to be evocative of old-school videogames, and I think I succeeded in that regard. Whether that ultimately makes for a better TTRPG experience is a separate question which I'll discuss later.

The setting. Despite the fact that I include very little explicitly about The Quantumverse within P&P itself, and most of what is included is like an off-brand Nintendo crossover, I still like the way the character classes, enemies, items, etc., generally present. I had some more ambitious ideas for the setting which I never ended up writing about, unfortunately, but I assure you there was more to this setting, in a classic Weird & Wonderful way, if you've been following this blog long enough to have any sense of what that means. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that I'll ever come back to this setting unless out of nowhere there is suddenly an outcry for more on this game or setting, which is a shame, but my main focus right now is MRD.

The classes. With the caveat that they needed more playtesting and balancing, and I don't necessarily think it makes sense for only two classes to have a variety of options given the Spellbook. In retrospect, there should have been some caveat, like maybe the spell they can cast at any one time is selected randomly, so at least there's a tradeoff to their versatility, or something like that. In any case, I tried to give the different classes special abilities which actually made them interesting and change how a player could interact with the world, and I think within the context of the platform crawl design, it makes sense. It's more prescriptive than I generally prefer in TTRPGs, but within the context of what P&P is supposed to be, I think it makes sense.

The core resolution mechanic. The idea of treating an attribute as two-dimensional; as an axis, where the number on that axis doesn't necessarily mean good or bad, but good at one category of thing and proportionally worse at an opposing category of thing, is really clever and in my opinion underutilized in TTRPGs. I don't understand why this mechanic exists only in L&F or L&F hacks. P&P is to the best of my knowledge the first and only game to actively try to build on this mechanic, as opposed to being just a straightforward hack, and also to leverage it in a totally different way, that way being as a "simulationist"-style mechanic.

Along those lines, putting aside the toxic and, I'll say frankly, stupid debates people used to have on "GNS", since as far as I'm concerned it's a decent heuristic regardless of whether it is a fundamental truth of the universe, it is the only game I can think of that is "simulationist", while also being rules light. "Simulationist" games are generally very crunchy, whereas I tried to use the simplicity of the two-dimensional attributes along with the terminology and platform crawl design pattern to simulate the experience of an old-school 2D platformer videogame in the absence of "high-fidelity" crunch. Regardless of whether or to what extent it succeeded, I still think this is conceptually really cool and with some polish could potentially work quite well.

Things that did not work

Due to time constraints, I only had one playtest, and that one playtest went poorly, which was part of why I did not follow up with as much additional content for the game as I had originally intended. I do genuinely think the poor playtest was in part due to extenuating circumstances and a couple real rooky mistakes in how I ran it, but it was still discouraging. I made a lot of changes after that playtest which I do think were for the best, but those changes were not playtested, so I am not as confident as I would like to be that those changes succeeded. There are also some things when I look back at the game, even without further playtesting, that I know are rough around the edges and need more work.

I said this in the overview, but this game absolutely needed a platform crawl module included. At the core of P&P is a very goal-oriented, puzzle-like design pattern that I think could really appeal both to OSR gamers and the kinds of people who like the tactical combat of D&D 3.+, but without a demonstration, I think it was hard to explain this concept to anyone. Also, frankly, I am not a very visuospatially capable person in the first place, so in retrospect, I wish I had collaborated with someone with those kinds of sensibilities, or even attempted some kind of random auto-generation approach. While this game is not crunchy, it does require a playmat or some other visual or tactile representation, and my reticence to acknowledge that hurt my playtest and the lack of that kind of support really hurt the game as a whole. I do not own Mario Maker, but my players had rightfully suggested that something like Mario Maker could have been a useful tool for roughly designing platform crawls. I still think that, or just taking asset rips of the stages from old-school 2D platformer videogames, could work really well for P&P, at least as proofs of concept.

My hope was that the terminology would be flavorful, and also intuitive. However, at least in the playtest, everyone had a very difficult time keeping track of the terminology, myself included, mainly from being flustered because I definitely understood it all beforehand, but if I failed to keep track of it while running the game, that means it failed. After the fact, I completely reworked the terminology. Rather than having separate terms for each end of the axis for the three attributes, and using the terms Left and Right "Inputs" for the axes of the attributes which obviously got conflated with left and right movement across the Stages, I replaced Left and Right with Light and Heavy, and just referred to them as e.g. Light Jump and Heavy Jump rather than unique terms for each. I also think maybe some kind of visual aid even within the game text itself, like a graphic showing what a rollover vs. a roll-under success would look like next to the description of Light and Heavy Inputs, could have been very helpful. Given how the first playtest went, I am somewhat skeptical whether these new terms work and would ideally like to playtest them as well, although I do hope they're at least an improvement.


Talking about this game really makes me want to playtest it again, and design a proper platform crawl module to go along with it. This concept I genuinely think has so much potential, but it's very experimental and just needed more time and playtesting. I almost would want to make it a sub-game, like run a campaign in The Quantumverse using something more like an Into the Odd / Super Blood Harvest hack, and then make platform crawls an occasional thing like one might do with hex crawls, dungeon crawls, point crawls, etc. That would also put a lot of burden off of this system to accommodate more heavy lifting in RP or non-platform crawl activities, which is decidedly not the case.

If this at all seems appealing to you, please let me know. My main focus right now is on developing and expanding Maximum Recursion Depth, so it would be hard to justify putting more work into this unless there was any interest whatsoever in it, but clearly I'm trying to talk myself into it...

Monday, September 7, 2020

Four-Dimensional Hexcrawling Through Abyss and Space

Space and Underwater settings and campaigns are hardly novel, but anecdotally, it seems like nobody is really satisfied with the mechanics. Many games with mechanics for this kind of movement are super crunchy attempts at simulation which don't appeal to me, personally, or they're handwave-y and basically just treat movement through those spaces as regular land travel. The latter is generally fine for me, but it would be cool to have some kind of middle ground; an attempt to model this kind of movement in a way that doesn't just exist for the sake of simulation, and isn't super crunchy, and also adds something to the game experience.

Here I outline an idea for how to design a hexcrawl in four dimensions; not just two axes (left/right, forward/backward), but also up/down and moment, or baseline movement (e.g. a school of fish, a massive space fleet, etc.). These ideas have not been tested yet, and there are edge cases I can think of, but hopefully, people will find this idea intriguing.

In addition to managing a hexcrawl, these same mechanics should theoretically be applicable to grid-based combat, or even just as fictional positioning helpers for theater of mind play, but I am primarily describing these mechanics in terms of a hexcrawl.

Finally, I'll also say that this was also somewhat inspired by three-dimensional movement in Veins of the Earth. While I model three-dimensional space in a very different way here, that may have been the first game I had read that really made me think about how to model space in a game that seemed fun and not overly cumbersome or simulation for the sake of simulation.

A brief statement on the Moment dimension

I'm open to suggestions, but I'm thinking of calling the fourth-dimension "Moment". Taken from the wikipedia article on Moment:
In physics, a moment is an expression involving the product of a distance and physical quantity, and in this way it accounts for how the physical quantity is located or arranged.
I think it would be perfectly reasonable to stop at three-dimensions; that's already novel and potentially complicated enough. However, I was inspired quite a while ago by nature documentaries, specifically seeing aquatic ecosystems, and how these three-dimensional ecosystems work. A school of fish can be attacked from all sides; birds diving from the sky, other fish and aquatic mammals swooping in from below and all sides, so as a necessary survival mechanism to defend from so many vulnerable positions, they are more or less constantly in motion. This was a major inspiration for my Vortekka campaign setting (setting, play report), and also The Jellyfleet and The Choir from Phantasmos (included in my post on Weird & Wonderful Places; even then I was thinking of these moving groups as an alternative to geopolitics per se). 

In this case, the fourth-dimension is like the relationship between different objects over time as a function of their baseline movement. This will be elaborated upon further when I get into the mechanics of this system, but it will hopefully be not as complicated as that may make it sound. The point of a good model is to be parsimonious- to condense more information into fewer arguments, and I think Moment is potentially a good way to do that here.

Extrapolating this idea to intelligent species, you'd have a fundamentally different kind of "geo"-politics, really more of a "moment"-politics, defined less so by static geographical locations (or statically-keyed hexes on your hex map), and instead by nomadic groups and their Moment-level relationship to other nomadic groups or geographical features. I suppose this is also true with nomadic land-dwelling species, in which case I could see this being useful for a land-dwelling campaign with nomadic cultures, or for a pre-civilization or post-apocalyptic setting, independent of the mechanics for a three-dimensional hexcrawl, and in fact, the mechanics described below, despite the labels, can be used independently.

For reasons which should also be more clear when I describe the mechanics, this Moment mechanic could also be a fun way to do chases and races.

Three-dimensional Hexcrawl

Let's start with how to model the third dimension in a hexcrawl; up/down. First, you need to decide on how many "levels" of up and down there are, in the same way that you need to decide on the dimensions of your hexcrawl in two-dimensions. I don't love the idea of treating three-dimensional space as planar, but I don't see a better way around it that isn't mechanically or logistically much more complicated (i.e. requiring some kind of physical diorama or digital tool). The volume of each hexagonal prism can be arbitrary in the same way that the area of a hexagon in a hexcrawl can be arbitrary, as long as it's internally consistent (I guess that's just common sense...). That being said, I'll still be referring to these prisms as hexes, since we're treating the third-dimension as planar, and therefore in effect, it will still be represented as hexes across multiple planes.

So for the sake of simplicity, let's say we've decided there are three levels. In that case, key each hex on your hex map three times, or alternatively take your hex map, and triplicate it. When you key your dungeon, you'll have the normal two-dimensions and level. If one unit of movement is moving from one hex to an adjacent hex, movement between levels can also be treated as one unit. So objects can move either to any adjacent hex as normal, or move one level up or down. Diagonal movements, like going up or down a level and also moving planarly adjacent, should probably be two units of movement, which is about as close as I can think of to model this in actual three-dimensions off-hand without making it massively more complicated.

If you are keying the hexcrawl arbitrarily, there's really nothing more to it than that. However, if there is supposed to be some internal consistency, such as geography, environment, celestial bodies, etc., then you'll want to keep in mind not just these relationships from hex to hex on each plane, but also between planes.

So when prepping a three-dimensional hexcrawl, as already stated, you can decide whether you want to design a separate hex map for each level and lay them all out, or have a single map with multiple keys depending on level (*I also describe another approach further below). I think the latter is probably more practical, but you could potentially have your cake and eat it too by having a separate hex map for each level on a semi-translucent sheet and physically layering them or splitting them as needed (or digitally using layers in some design tool).

If you are using a single map with multiple keys, then next to any object/group token, you should have a die alongside them, with the number on the die representing their level. I would worry that this might get overly complicated in hex or grid combat, although still doable, but for a hexcrawl, my hope is that this will not be too complicated, especially if the only token is the party.

I hesitate to suggest this because I think it would probably just overcomplicate things, but you could also imagine pivoting the hexcrawl, so that for instance moving forward/backward or left/right on a given hex map is actually up/down, and the planes represent whichever axis is being superseded. This could work particularly well if e.g. your hexcrawl is intended to relatively linearly model rising from the depths of the abyss back up to the surface, or being pulled by a gravitational force. 

This kind of pivot could also be a useful way to visually/physically model the hexcrawl in multiple dimensions without needing a separate hex map for each level; where you have three hex maps representing the intersections of all axes (e.g. left/right, forward/backward; up/down, forward/backward; left/right, up/down). So even if you had ten levels, you should only need three hex maps, if I have thought this through correctly. Talk about parsimony! Even so, personally, I think this would be more complicated than just one hex map with multiple keys, but for another group, it might be preferable, or after testing it might be that this is a better approach.

Four-dimensional Hexcrawl

Despite the label, one could choose to use this Moment dimension independent of up/down, but for the sake of continuity, I will describe this as the fourth-dimension.

In an abyssal, aquatic, or maybe even an outer space hexcrawl, as discussed at the beginning, objects are generally not remaining in place, and so you need to represent their "moment". As with the spatial dimensions, we can measure moment in arbitrary but internally consistent units, like 5 ft for general movement on a grid. As with three-dimensional level, we can use a die next to a token on a hex map to represent its moment (presumably in a different color or size than the one used for three-dimensional level), or as a feature on a key in addition to whatever text is associated with that key. In other words, this is the baseline movement for the token, or key, before any groups have made any active movements.

So if the party have a moment of 1, and the hex in front of the party is of a school of fish people also with a moment of 1, there is no difference between their baseline movements, so if the party move one hex forward on their next turn, they'll reach the hex with the school of fish. On the other hand, if the school of fish has a moment of 2, then the GM would move the key for that school of fish people at the beginning of the turn before the party has made their active movement. 

Admittedly, it could get complicated having to move all of these keys around on your hex map, especially if you're doing it behind the scenes (the players are unaware of what is in any given hex far enough afield), but intuitively I think this moment dimension, or relative distance or baseline movement, is both easier than manually accounting for the active movements of all keys containing nomadic groups, and also just a fun way to mechanically reinforce that this hexcrawl is not static. And also, I think it's ok if certain keys "slip off" the hex map. There's plenty of fish in the sea ;), maybe this is how you treat wandering monsters / random encounters.

You could potentially imagine the keys as being placed on hex chips, like settlers of catan, and that would make it easier to move and keep track of the keys with moments greater or lesser than the party, although that has some shortcomings as well (such as the players being able to see you moving keys tells them that such keys exist...). I think this key shuffling would be the hardest part, unless it were automated digitally, but not necessarily impossible.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Bastionjam Showcase: Cosmic Orrery - Odd Beings

Some of us from the Eclectic Bastionjam decided to do a "showcase", where we'd take a look at each others' works and present them on our blogs or elsewhere. As part of this showcase, I will be reviewing one of Cosmic Orrery's entries: Odd Beings

I really enjoyed this book. I am a sucker for good bestiaries, and this fits that bill. It is short and sweet, each entry feels evocative, and fitting to the setting, but not so specific that they couldn't be used in other settings, and each adds something interesting. These aren't just statblocks and reskinned goblins. Each entry has a unique hook; they are self-contained adventure seeds, unique ways for your players to interact with the game. I'll comment on a few of my favorites below:

Parasitic Shop
This is the second entry. It's basically a mimic, if instead of mimicking a single piece of equipment or a chest, it mimicked the entire shop! One could very easily turn this into an entire quest, baked into some kind of mystery or investigation, with the shop itself leading to a hidden, oozey dungeon (which Cosmic Orrery strongly implies in the text).

Ghost Parliament
Clearly, I am a fan of afterlife courts. The ghost parliament could be a fun way to have your cake and eat it too, in regards to character death. A character dying doesn't have to be the end of that character, but the beginning of a quest to rescue them from death. But making it a court, rather than just an evil dungeon, gives the party so many more ways to approach the conflict. Or, they can just get into a courtroom brawl.

Paperman/Matchstick Boy
These are two separate entries, and on their own they're each interesting in their own right, but they fit together in a way that is not stated explicitly, but to me seems as though it must have been intentional (they were placed back-to-back). You could imagine a story of a paperman, like a robot or AI, emerging from a wealthy manor, learning and growing alongside a sickly child with a cold and standoff-ish family, their only friends prior to the paperman being the characters in the novels they've read in their extensive library. Oppositely, a troubled child from the other side of the tracks meets a matchstick boy, who preys on their fear, anger, and hurt, leading them on a path towards evil. Somehow, someway, the two meet and bring some sort of fulfillment to each other's lives. In the meantime, hijinks ensue, the city drowning in compromising letters once thought lost, and of course, fires run rampant.