Monday, December 11, 2017

A Night to Remember

Last week, I finally saw James Cameron's Titanic (in theaters, no less!), and can honestly say it didn't live up to the twenty years of hype preceding it.  (Despite perhaps being a technical masterpiece, the script is terrible.  And James Cameron makes a woman the main character despite clearly not knowing how to write women.)  But we're not here to talk about movies; we're here to talk about role-playing games.

I got through the atrocious writing by focusing on how D&D-able it is; specifically, the modern-day salvage story.  (You could also make a very strong case for Traveller.  I mean, the salvage crew feels like a Traveller crew in the way the doomed crew of Nostromo also feels like a Traveller crew.)  If you're like me and have been living under a rock for the past twenty years, a salvage crew heads down to Titanic looking for a legendary diamond set in a necklace.  They don't find it, but they find an old drawing depicting it on a woman.  The woman, now 102 years old, gets in contact with the salvage crew and tells them her story in the hopes that it will enable them to determine where the diamond landed during the shipwreck.

The setup would be a bit like Zzarchov Kowolski's Thulian Echoes: the player characters catch wind of the fact that some notable treasure is locked away in some dungeon that used to host regular life, like a castle or a shipwreck.  (I immediately thought of Palace of the Silver Princess, which contains a ruined palace and the promise of a giant ruby.)  The environment is so inhospitable that the player characters want to gather intelligence before delving the dungeon, so they seek survivors of the place's doom and interview them.  (You could also do written accounts as in Thulian Echoes, but I think I like the unreliable narrator aspect an interview brings.  Like the "lucky breaks" from Thulian Echoes, except the players may or may not know about it.  Essentially, the challenge of Thulian Echoes comes from the unintended consequences of revisiting a dungeon centuries after the last adventuring party passed through it.  And maybe the fact that it's all a lie.  The challenge of this theoretical Titanic adventure comes from the fact that the interviewee might be lying or suffering from dementia.  Or maybe it's also all a lie, and you get lured to the shipwreck just to be eaten by deep ones.)  Once you've found a suitable survivor, the players get to play through a mini-adventure as the people living in the place before its ruin.  (Depending upon how you want to run it, it might also be a good chance to try out another system, like Hillfolk or Bedlam Hall or whatever.  Although if your players are fine with playing level 0 common folk, then just stick with D&D.)  Track where the treasure ends up, write down whatever parts of the map the interviewee mentions, and then the current party goes and makes a surgical strike trying to find the treasure.  You might want to come up with some ground rules, something like:
  • If the treasure leaves the dungeon, it's lost.  You might still be able to interview people and track it down, but it's not in the shipwreck/manor house/wherever you expected it anymore.
  • If the treasure is too close to the door, it was stolen by grave robbers in the intervening decades.  It's fine if all the treasure is in the same room, but not too close to the exit.
Although maybe those things don't bother you — after all, if the location is difficult to reach (like a shipwreck), then even being inside the door is a challenge.  And if the treasure leaves the dungeon, maybe the PCs can figure out the interviewee is lying and still has the damn treasure.  (Wouldn't it be something to see Bill Paxton shaking down Gloria Stuart for the Heart of the Ocean at the end of Titanic?)

It also occurs to me that if the player characters track down multiple interviewees, you could play through the flashback adventure multiple times and get some sweet Rashomon action happening, where the truth ends up being somewhere in the middle.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Modern United States Random Name Generator

Did I never share this?  Apparently I never shared this.

For my Unknown Armies game, I built a random name generator using U.S. Census data.  First name data comes from 1974 birth records (representing the mean age in 2011), and surname data comes from 1990.  It generates ten male and ten female names at a time, in what should represent a statistically accurate distribution (at least according to Behind the Name).  Click CTRL+R to refresh (but don't be a jerk and edit it, or else I'll be forced to hunt you down).

Random Name Generator

Monday, October 16, 2017

Enchanters and Illusionists Rule the World

In a world with enchantment spells, can you trust your neighbor?  In a world with illusion spells, can you trust your senses?

Here's a setup for your next campaign setting:
Click for the original post.
The more I think about it, the more enamored I am of it.  Probably the best selling point is that you can drop this into any campaign setting you please — just layer it over the rest of the stuff that's happening and let it run in the background.  (If there are canonical, potent enchanters and illusionists in your setting, they're villains now, protecting their own interests.  Otherwise, add a few puppet masters to your campaign setting.  Nobody's ever heard of them because they know how to cover their tracks.)  Low-level parties might get snapshots of the weirdness, with all the mainstays of conspiracy fiction: mysterious disappearances, unknown benefactors, sudden betrayals, characters whose memories have been altered.  It's only in the mid- to high-level range that you're likely to unmask and smash the conspiracy.  (Or join it.  Or initiate a hostile takeover.)

Of course, clever PCs might expose the conspiracy when they're low-level, and convince disparate allies to do something about it.  But that will always raise the question of how successful they truly were, and whether or not there's something greater at work.  (If your sinister mind-controlling cabal of immortal wizards started with the lofty and altruistic goal of fortifying human minds against Those Outside, well, maybe now the campaign setting has to deal with the aftermath of Lovecraftian entities from the Far Realm ripping through the world.)

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Decapus for D&D 5e

The Tortle Package from DM's Guild includes information on a region in Tomb of Annihilation, stats for the Tortle race, and a couple of assorted bits and bobs.  To my surprise, the pdf also includes stats for the decapus (that links to the Pathfinder version), the monster first introduced in Palace of the Silver Princess and illustrated on the cover by the legendary Erol Otus:

Love the vibrant, unwholesome Erol Otus colors.
The fifth edition version of the decapus is large — both AD&D and Pathfinder list the size as "medium," although that Erol Otus picture suggests it's probably "large" — and basically attacks as one would expect.  It clings to walls and swings from trees, grabbing prey with its tentacles and biting them.  It deals more damage when it's climbing and more of its tentacles are free.

However, the original is described as being intelligent; both AD&D and Pathfinder suggest it's of average intelligence, an ambush predator with the capacity for human tactics.  (Pathfinder also gives it the ability to mimic sounds it hears, which is incredibly cool.)  Very different from the large, agile predator in the Tortle Package.

It just so happens that I cobbled together stats for the decapus over a month ago for a game I'm going to run over the holidays, and so I'll present them here.  These stats are partially adapted from both the Pathfinder version (above) and 5e SRD version.  This version of the decapus is smaller and not as tough as the official 5e version, but played correctly, is potentially scarier as it creeps around, making noises to attract the PCs and then picking them off one-by-one.

Pick the one you want, or use both.  Maybe the "official" version is some throwback (a dire decapus?), with the more intelligent version being a highly-evolved specimen.


"Decapi are solitary creatures that dwell in ruins, caverns, or dense forest (where their climbing ability gives them great mobility through the tree canopy for pursuing prey or evading predators). On the ground, decapi are slow-moving, so they spend most of their time among the tree tops or hanging from ceilings.

"As nocturnal hunters, decapi are quite fond of human, elf, and halfling flesh. When food is scarce, they can exist on a diet of rats, snakes, and other small creatures or dungeon denizens.

"Decapi prefer a solitary life; the only time more than one will ever be encountered together is during their infrequent mating season. Young decapi are born live, and the female gives birth to only a single young decapus during each mating season. If food is extremely scarce, some decapus females have been known to eat their young.

"This creature’s body is a 4-foot-diameter globe of pallid green. Some have been reported with purple or yellow coloring, but they are rare. Dark brown or black hair grows in seemingly random patches. Regardless of its body color, each decapus has 10 tentacles similar to an octopus’s protruding from its spherical body. Each tentacle is covered in suction cups that aid the creature in climbing and moving trees, but also in catching and killing its prey. Its large wide maw sports sickly yellow teeth and foul breath. Decapi seem to be able to speak with others of their kind using guttural noises."

(In the AD&DMonstrous Manual, the decapi language is described as clicking and body movement.)

A decapus hunts with its mimicry ability. When it senses potential prey nearby, it emits sound intended to draw unwary creatures within reach of its tentacles. Usually this involves a creature that will elicit sympathy from the prey being threatened somehow. For example, when typical humanoid adventurers approach, the decapus is likely to create the sounds of a child surrounded by hungry wolves or of a young woman or man being terrorized by bandits.

Medium aberration, chaotic evil
Armor Class 15 (natural armor)
Hit Points 44 (8d8+8)
Speed 10 ft., climb 30 ft.
Str 16 (+3), Dex 13 (+1), Con 15 (+2), Int 10 (+0), Wis 11 (+0), Cha 12 (+1)
Skills Deception +3, Stealth +3
Senses darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 10
Languages Decapus
Challenge 2 (450 XP)
Brachiation.  A decapus can move through trees at its climb speed (30 feet per round) by using its tentacles to swing from tree to tree, provided the trees are no more than 10 feet apart.
Mimicry.  A decapus can mimic any sounds it has heard, including voices.  A creature that hears the sounds can tell they are imitations with a successful DC 13 Wisdom (Insight) check.
Multiattack.  The decapus makes four tentacle attacks.
Tentacles.  Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target.  Hit: 6 (1d6+3) bludgeoning damage, and the target is grappled (escape DC 13).  The decapus can grapple up to four targets in this fashion, grappling a single target with every pair of tentacles.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Fear and Loathing in Indianapolis: GenCon 2017

"My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights – or very early mornings – when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at 100 miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder's jacket ... booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change) ... but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that...

"There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. ... You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning...

"And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave..."

— HST, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

GenCon 50 (August 17-20, 2017) has come and gone.  (And it only took me a month to publish this after-action report!)  In most ways it was less frenetic than the previous version, and lacked the same nervous energy.  There are still ways to optimize planning for future expeditions, but they are able to be tweaked without difficulty.

Soberer minds have already given the straight dope on GenCon — a post from Zak S. over here, a post from Patrick Stuart over there, a wild Mike Evans post somewhere in the middle.  Expect this, then, to largely be a travelogue.  I'm not sure if we'll be back next year, but we will certainly return.

All pictures are by Nicole and I, except wherever obvious exceptions occur.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

There is a set of stone gates that mark the end of the lands of my ancestors.  That is the gauntlet to be traversed to reach Indianapolis.

If I take one more step, it'll be the farthest away from home I've ever been.
Of course, there is no threat greater than...

...the raw, existential horror of the Midwest.
The accompaniment on this year's drive was provided by The Secret History of Twin Peaks.  I've heard dissatisfaction with the book, given that it doesn't do much to peel back the layers of mystery around Twin Peaks, and it ties in the entities of the Black Lodge with UFOlogy and John Keel's ultraterrestrials.  However, I felt those were features rather than bugs (and not all that surprising, given the identity of the Archivist).  Of course, getting into the new series would be a whole other blog post.  Ahem.

Finally, we arrived.

Strangers on a train.
We were in the Crowne Plaza, in one of the rooms in an old train car, which is kind of neat, because you can pretend you're a hobo if you want.  And they give you earplugs because it's directly under the train tracks.  So there's that.

Also, we were in the Charlie Chaplin room.  They name all of them after celebrities; I'm guessing the feature in this one is that HUAC kicks you out if you stay too long.

If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill the Buddha.
We had a couple of tickets to pick up from the will-call line, and since badges were sold out, that took no time at all.

Badges?  We don't need no stinking badges!
Thursday, August 17, 2017

The teeming throng of humanity strains against its bonds, searching only for one thing: commerce.

Before the Dealers' Room opens.
Thursday morning Nicole and I wandered around the convention and hit the dealers' room dressed as Hugh the Barbarian and the Flame Princess.  A couple of pictures out in the wild can be found here, here, and here.  Pictures inbound:

Hugh conquers GenCon 
The Flame Princess conquers GenCon
The Flame Princess and James Raggi
Hugh and Michael Curtis
Hugh and the Dark Master!
Hugh and the True Hugh
Also, in our wanderings, we came across a group of gnomes.  Nicole had to take a picture, as we recently played through The Gnomes of Levnec, and she now plays a horde of gnomes in that campaign.

Protip: Gnomes are delicious.
The dealer's room was not nearly as frantic as last year; we picked up the new Goodman Games releases, the Lamentations of the Flame Princess shirts, and a Lost Pages zine I had somehow missed.

But first, a brief cosplay interlude:

Praise the Sun!
A friendly capitalist robot.
After retreating to the hotel to change into civilian clothes, we tried to get into Thunderhead Mesa, Greg Stolze's Unknown Armies game.  We failed, but fortunately, somebody captured audio of one of the sessions.  I haven't had a chance to listen to it yet, although I know there's a ton of background noise; the gaming rooms at GenCon are loud.

That night, we were scheduled to hit the They Might Be Giants concert at 8 PM.  Some GenCon press folks interviewed people waiting in line, and you can hear my stupid voice at about the 1:37 mark, doing a Shatneresque "Dr. Worm."

Unsurprisingly, they put on a kickass show.  (Although I still should've opened up the pit.)  I was greatly amused that they kept making Indianapolis references, though; I'm guessing nobody told them that most of us wouldn't be local.  The obligatory pictures:

Audience selfie time!
They wanted people to tag their audience selfies with #DepecheMode, evidently starting the musicians' feud nobody knew they wanted until now.  Like you do.

Then we went back to the hotel, because the next day was going to be a long one.

Friday, August 18, 2017

I swore we saw this graffiti on Saturday, but the timestamp says Friday.
Nicole had an event in the morning, so I wandered around a bit before realizing that the convention center is huge and I should probably head to the game we have at 1 PM to claim seats.  We played in an Unknown Armies, second edition, game called Couples, Retreat! written and run by Cameron Hays for 37 Zombies.  The game featured four couples going to a couples' retreat to strengthen their marriages.  Unfortunately for them, the pop psychiatrist who runs the place had certain occult leanings, and the eight people he invited all had various foibles of their own, so the whole thing turned into a fiasco.  It was a lot of fun, and featured a lot of neat background on psychology.  He'd have to update it to 3rd edition, but he should really put it up on Statosphere.

Then we hustled to the Unknown Armies panel.  (Audio is here.)  There were few revelations, as most of the stuff was covered in last year's panel, although we did learn that the intensely popular Sleeper meeting minutes in Book 5 come from long-time Unknown Armies writer Chad Underkoffler. The other thing is that there are no specific plans to publish the long-buried first edition supplement Town Without Pity, but Greg said he'll try to contact Tim Toner again.

After dinner, it was time to head to the ENnie Awards.

The stage is set.
You've probably heard the news in the past month, but Chaosium swept the awards for Call of Cthulhu (it became a running gag for Nicole and I), and John Wick Presents did quite well for 7th Sea, as did Free League Publishing for Tales from the Loop.  As UAFC co-administrator, I'd naturally be remiss if I neglected that Unknown Armies won the Silver ENnie for "Best Production Values," probably because their deluxe set comes wrapped in a GM's screen.

Several of the Atlas Games crew accept the "Best Production Values" award.
Of particular note, Spellburn won the Silver ENnie for "Best Podcast" (particularly noteworthy as they were up against Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff — winning a silver against Ken Hite is basically like winning a gold any other time).

Judges Jen and Jeff accepting the Silver ENnie
Ken and Robin win about stuff
Mike Evans won the Silver ENnie for "Best Electronic Book" for his book Hubris: A World of Visceral Adventure, and gave a brief (but apparently controversial) speech:

It's the company logo!
And as you might expect on this blog, we're most excited about Lamentations of the Flame Princess.  Up against some heavy hitters, they did incredibly well — Patrick Stuart's Veins of the Earth won Silver ENnie for "Best Monster/Adversary" (Chaosium took gold), and the Silver ENnie for "Best Writing" (Tales from the Loop took gold, as it did in each category in which it was nominated).  Not too shabby.  Jeff Rients' Broodmother Skyfortress received a Judges' Spotlight award from Reece Carter.  Most notable, in a huge coup, Kiel Chenier took the Gold ENnie for Blood in the Chocolate (beating the unstoppable juggernaut of Chaosium).

Just repeat this photo four times.  Left to right: Zak S., Patrick Stuart, James Raggi.
Next up: the main event.  Zak S.'s party.

The promised land.
Trollsmyth hosted.  Nicole quickly started talking with Jim's wife Maria and Trollsmyth's wife (Tam, I believe; it was noisy and there was a lot of whiskey) while I wasn't looking.  Eventually, the Raggis left, there's more whiskey, I talked to some drunk people about D&D, Nicole started talking to Ela Darling, and then there's a noise complaint across four floors and we have to move the party downstairs to the bar.

Downstairs, Nicole and I continue to talk to Ela, and I'm pretty sure we're all just living in Plato's Cave while she's living in the realm of Solids.  She does the camming thing, and is working to develop integrated VR and automation tools for it (because we live in the cyberpunk future).  Once those are full functional, she'll probably take them to their logical conclusions in other applications outside of entertainment.  (Assisting people with disabilities is probably the most obvious one.)  Along those lines, you can hear her talking about Apple, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and virtual reality on The Future Is Virtual here.  Fascinating stuff.

[Edit (November 9, 2017): Ela talks about her work in Rolling Stone, if you're interested.]

Charlotte Stokely was also there, and she's pretty hilarious.  I know I asked her about gaming, but the edges of our conversation are fuzzy, probably because of the Maker's Mark.  Pictures in-bound:

Nicole, Zak, and I before moving downstairs
Myself and Ela Darling.  I don't even know what's happening here.
There was a stone backdrop and shields for some reason.
Ela, Nicole, and Charlotte, prepared for battle.
Throwing up the horns.
Stokely, screaming while pressing a T-shirt on my face, for reasons that made sense at the time.
Jacob Hurst with an awesome shirt.
No pictures, but I also had the chance to meet all-around cool D&D dude Dan Domme.  As we were leaving — we had an early event the next day — we also ran into Satine Phoenix of Maze Arcana fame (although she'll always be Mirror* to me).  She talked about joining Geek & Sundry, and how generous everyone was even though she was the new kid on the block with a somewhat nontraditional entertainment background.

The obligatory selfie.
*Jesus.  If you want to read some ornery bastards griping on the internet, read the comments on the first episode of I Hit It With My Axe.  Amusing, as now everybody loves Let's Plays like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Technically, part of the party should go here, but it's not the next day until you sleep.  The next morning, we did something touristy and went to the City Market Catacombs, an old storage space under Tomlinson Hall (at least before it burned in 1958).  It was neat; the most important thing from the perspective of a gaming blog is looking at the old architecture.

Creepy chair circle.

The last standing portion of Tomlinson Hall.
"Voodoo Corner," so named because it flooded back in the day and was therefore bad market space.
Although I'm just going to assume it was cursed.
The Indiana State Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument
There was generic convention wandering, as we had no scheduled events until the What's New at Goodman Games seminar that evening and we weren't organized enough for a pickup game.  They talked about Into the Borderlands (the In Search of the Unknown and Keep and the Borderlands compilation, published in cooperation with Wizards of the Coast), the DCC Annual (it's apparently coming), a new magazine for pulp fiction called The Magician's Skull, the next Judge's Guild collection, and Grimtooth's Trapsylvania (a DCC setting featuring the infamous Grimtooth from Flying Buffalo).  The footage is below:

Next, we had to hustle to see d20 Burlesque at 9 PM.  It was a solid show, but in retrospect, I should have budgeted more game time, as this would have been a perfect time to play Doug Kovacs' Inferno Road.  There were a couple of brilliant routines — a deconstructed Black Widow who started mostly nude and then put clothes back on, and a Bugs Bunny routine (inspired by this bit, but also reminiscent of Frank Zappa's hand signals) requiring the audience to make the music a capella — but the standout was DC-area native Maki Roll, who not only put on a kickass routine, but did so having driven to Indianapolis that afternoon (seriously, she got there just in time to get onstage at intermission), and then having to drive back to DC the next morning.

We originally had a Driftwood Verses event at midnight, but Clint Krause was in a car accident on the way to GenCon (he's fine, fortunately), and so had to cancel.  With that, it was time for bed.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

We skipped returning to the con and started driving home; a good thing, too, as apparently all the road construction in the Indiana/Ohio region starts at 4 PM, which explains the long, grueling drive home last year.  The most notable thing from the return trip was this graffiti, a clear indicator that we were in America's heartland:

I bet they thought of that comeback themselves, too.

Lessons for future years include hyper-focusing (seriously, trying to divide attention among OSR, Unknown Armies, and random seminars meant that very little gaming happened), and potentially leaving Monday.

Thus ends GenCon.  Being less frenetic and vaguely overwhelming than last year's convention, it didn't feel as magical as the first time, although I guess there's a joke in there somewhere.  But by the gods, we shall return to that broken jaw of our lost kingdoms as conquerors.

Kickin' rad.
And now, cosplay:

A priest of Adeptus Mechanus.
Stan "The Man" Lee
Why not Zoidberg?
Royal rainbow!
Vraska the Unseen.  (Thanks to Jenx for identifying this one.)
Spock's wedding party might be my favorite costume.

Breath of the Wild cosplay!
Raoul Duke, living the American Dream
This is bat country!
One piece of bonus material.  Since Hunter S. Thompson has been referenced a couple of times, and Harry Dean Stanton just passed away, have the 30th anniversary audiobook of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, narrated by Stanton himself:


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