Sunday, February 26, 2012

Brendan's 20 Questions

Brendan over at Untimately posed these 20 questions that are likely to affect actual play

1) Ability scores generation method?

4d6. Reroll 1's. Discard lowest number (lowest possible score is a 6). I rely on ability scores a lot, and decent scores can be more important than level. They certainly even the playing field at lower levels, making characters much less squishy.

2) How are death and dying handled?

Unconscious or disabled at zero. Dead or dismembered at neg constitution. I use a hit location chart, so a hit to your right forearm that brings you below 0 either breaks your arm (crushing), or severs a muscle or such. The same location hit bringing you below neg con maims the arm (crushes bone, destroys muscle) or severs it. This does not so much "add critical hits" as increases survival. My characters are hard to kill.

3) What about raising the dead?

One of the reasons for making characters so hard to kill is I don't like raise dead. I can justify magically restoring a limb moreso than bringing the dead back to life. There are some magical wells here and there with such power, but for the most part bringing the dead back to life is something that will more closely resemble a horror story. The movie Wakewood had a good take on this, and is probably the closest to anything I've seen about how I envision bringing the dead back, and the results.

4) How are replacement PCs handled?

Start at 1st level or lowest PC level in campaign. Player's choice.

5) Initiative: individual, group, or something else?

Group, each round. Keeps things lively, without being a burden.

6) Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work?

No. There are location hits, which can be critical if they drop you below zero.
However, everyone is capable of a double damage backstab, if they can arrange it. That is, all the conditions must be met... surprise, placement. It isn't easy for non-thieves. Ambush is the most likely opportunity, but missile weapons can achieve it also. In my games, it is very important to take out sentries and such. But it involves planning, rather than rolling a 19 or 20.

7) Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet?

Lets say you get penalties for not. Since I use a hit location table, a hit to an unarmored head is quite likely to knock you out. It will almost definitely stun you.

8) Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly?

Certainly. -4 to hit. If you miss your target, 10% chance it hits another combatant. Roll randomly for friend and foe.

9) Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything?

Balanced encounters? What's that?

10) Level-draining monsters: yes or no?

You'll know if and when it happens. Don't discount it.

11) Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death?

Certainly. But most will have to do with how much/little damage you take. But yes... there are death poisons and magic. Most work gradually... allowing a window for rescue. (See hating "raise dead" above)

12) How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked?

Very. They affect your armor class. Down to the gold piece.

13) What's required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time?

I don't like mid-adventure leveling. I also don't like having to travel back to "civilization" for leveling. A week of rest, with some sparring with your companions, will tend to do.

All magic user spells other than starting spells must be found. Clerics gain access to spells automatically.

14) What do I get experience for?

Monsters per AD&D, more or less (I don't figure them to the hit point). Roleplaying, completing objectives, innovation. Things you think you should get experience for. I'm easily swayed. I don't like giving it for gold. I see gold as a commodity, and don't want to be limited to how much I make available.

15) How are traps (and secret doors) located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination?

Combination. There are passive rolls, but there is also an exploration component. The more you do, the better your chance.

16) Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work?

Nah. I don't care for retainers much. But if you really want them, you can have them. If you choose a single retainer, he/she will probably be very loyal and under your total control. If you want a handful, they will be mercs, and out for themselves. Morale is a function of loyalty.

17) How do I identify magic items?

Spells will detect magic, but they won't reveal function. They might reveal elemental alignment (fire, water, etc...) or something like that. Best way is to either use it, or bring it to an expert if you can find one.

18) Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions?

Fetishes, potions, and charms can be purchased. Weapons and armor can not.

19) Can I create magic items? When and how?

Not generally. You can have them crafted though. Mainly fetishes, potions, and charms.

20) What about splitting the party?

I enjoy running solo adventures. Splitting the party during a session is a pain in the ass. Sometimes separate sessions are required.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Time Travel in RPGs

I've always been a fan of time travel stories. I believe my first experience in being pulled in to such a story was a Twilight Zone episode, in which a group of friends are gathered in 1961, discussing time travel. One of the friends, Peter Corrigan, soon finds himself back in 1865, the day Lincoln was assassinated. He attempts to prevent the assassination, but fails.

My next memorable encounter with such a story was Ray Bradbury's "The Sound of Thunder", which involved a leisure company that offered safaris to the past. One could travel back in time and kill a dinosaur. But there were strict rules so that the time stream would not be altered in any significant way. These rules are of course, broken.

Both stories showcase two very different approaches to time travel. In one approach, all events along the time stream are fixed. In the other, the slightest change in the past can result in wild deviations in the future.
There are all sorts of fancy terms for theories which fall into either category (Many Worlds Interpretation being among them). Fancy terms and theories aside, when I wanted to incorporate time travel into my campaign world, I had to take a stance.

I decided that for pure logistical reasons, I didn't want my players traveling into the past and re-writing the history of my world. It is hard enough to design a single campaign world. Creating endless variations of that world based on the whims of players hopping through time has always seemed to me to be far too much work. Instead, I settled on the idea that the past, as well as the future, are fixed. One can travel through time, but they can not re-write it.

What then, becomes the point of time travel adventures?

My approach to time travel in my campaigns has been convoluted, but resulted in many fun adventures. The basic premise behind time travel is that you may find that the things you know about the past or future are simply wrong, or that you yourself were an instrument in shaping things the way they are. Most events are malleable to some extent... as long as your excursion through time results in people BELIEVING the same things they've always believed, actual interpretation of how those beliefs came to be are an emergent result of game play.

For example, in the case of someone trying to stop the assassination of Lincoln, they may find that someone else actually committed the act and framed John Wilkes Booth. Or that Lincoln's death was faked, and it was a double that was killed. Or any number of possible events that have the end result in the belief that Lincoln was killed at the Ford Theater by Booth on April 14, 1865.

The thing to consider is that according to game world rules, the reality encountered by the players is the ONLY reality... it was always the only reality. They did not change the past through time travel. They merely discovered the truth of it.

I will give a concrete example of one such adventure I ran. The Lord of Time (who I refer to as Darkstar, Archon of Time in my current campaign) recruited a certain gnomish thief for a mission. It seems that the Dwarven city of Stonehaven had fallen to an evil force. Within the stronghold is a Dwarven artifact. If the evil forces get ahold of this artifact, they will not only subdue the Dwarves, but control them as a force. The gnome must enter the Dwarven city, find the artifact, and steal it.

Now.. the problem is that the city has already fallen, and Darkstar doesn't know if the evil forces have gotten their hands on the artifact yet. He does know that prior to the invasion, the artifact was safe in the vaults of the Dwarves. So... he sends the gnome back in time, just prior to the invasion. The gnome can't simply go snooping around the vaults, nor can he ask for the hammer. He must wait for the invasion and the following chaos to ensue in order to be able to freely explore. And so, he actually becomes part of the futile defense of the city. He later finds the artifact. Once he has it in his hands, his "recall" spell is triggered, and he is re-united with Darkstar.

Now... something interesting happened during this adventure. He found himself in a battle which the Dwarves were destined to lose, because it had already happened. While his actions could have an affect to some extent, there was a limit to the affect. He was in what many players would consider a "railroad".

Personally, I don't concern myself with such terms. I know how I want to use time travel, and how I don't want to use it. The success of the player's mission was not guaranteed. He found there were things he could affect, and things he couldn't. He recognized these quickly, and rather than complaining about it, switched strategy. He used his wits to convince the Dwarven king to move the artifact, and while it was in transit, he had his opportunity to steal it. All in all, it was quite a memorable adventure. One of the fun things about it was being able to put a player character in the middle of a battle, but be unconcerned with the overall result of it. He knew the battle was lost before he ever started. He still had many opportunities to shine, helping individuals who otherwise might have been "collateral damage".

Running such adventures is challenging. As in Back to the Future 2, people and artifacts can wind up being in two places as the same time. Time travelers can potentially meet themselves. One must keep an eye on the development of Djinn artifacts.

From a lecture by Princton professor Richard Gott:

Self consistent time travel stories have some interesting features. We
introduced the concept of a "Djinn" - a particle whose world line is
like a hula hoop - a circle with no ends (the name was introduced by
Igor Novikov).  An example was given with the 1980s movie "Somewhere
in Time", (in which a pocket watch that was given to the protagonist
by an old lady is brought back in time and given to the younger
version of this lady, who in turn grows old to give it to the
protagonist - thus this pocket watch, which has never been near a
watch factory, is a "djinn").
There are numerous other challenges in running time travel adventures. Particularly ones in which time is self consistent. However, they can be very rewarding, and quite memorable for all involved.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

I need suggestions!

I've come to a creative block on my Shatterworld blog. So far, I've detailed monsters, men, some geography, and the mythos of Calabria. I need to pick a direction for my next series of posts, but don't know where to go. Some options:

1) More geography
2) More history
3) Spotlight on specific cultures (rangers, paladins, mercenary warriors, clans, clerics, magic users)
4) Legends

If you have any ideas on what direction you'd like to see me go, leave a comment. Maybe something that I haven't even touched on yet?

All the support and encouragement is greatly appreciated!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Just a little experiment in drawing

Just a little thought exercise in perspective drawing. Nothing to see here. More along.

Ok... if you really want to know, it is a representation of a sine wave in 360 panoramic views.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

"Barbarian" Classes: Fighter, Thief, Druid, Bard, Witch

"Barbarian" is a pejorative term typically assigned to groups of hunter/gatherers by those who consider themselves "civilized". This post specifically describes the "clans of men" in Calabria, and how standard Labyrinth Lord and similar classes fit within the "barbarian" or "noble savage" context.

"Barbarians" have a +2 penalty to their reaction roles when dealing with "civilized" people.

The clans each have a general territory they claim as their own. These territories are most often in rugged wilderness such as forests, mountains, remote costs or even small islands. Each clan has a totem animal. Totems include but are not limited to: bear, wolf, gryphon, eagle, deer, horse, badger, squirrel, boar, viper.

Most adult members of the clans (both male and female) are fighters. Spread of levels is similar to those of "civilized" cultures, with only a small percentage reaching the highest of levels. A chieftain might be 10th level or higher, with his sons typically also being among the highest levels in the clan.

Clan members have limited ability to assume "animal shape". For three consecutive days, once per month (usually centered on the full moon) members have the ability to assume the shape of their totem once per day. The duration of the transformation can be as long as four days, but each day the member does not transform back to human, there is a cumulative 25% chance that they will forget their humanity, and remain permanently in animal form. (Remaining in animal form for four whole days automatically results in permanent transformation)

Clan members in their home territory or similar terrain gain several advantages. Due to their close ties to their animal totem, clan members are only surprised on a 1 in 6. With two turns of mental preparation they can also perform the following as a thief of half their level (round up).

Find Traps (snares, pits, etc...)
Hide (camouflage)
Hear Noise
Detect Smell (same chance as Hear Noise)

(These abilities typically don't work in environments very different from their home territory, as they are unable to discern sounds/smells/traps elements that are out of the ordinary for that environment. A clansman of a forest environment would be displaced underground or in a city. Certain strong smells, such as orc or their totem animal, might be detectable regardless of environment).

Fighters are limited to medium or light armor (nothing more than 40 pounds of armor).

Thieves can not pick pockets or locks, but perform other thieving abilities as a thieves 2 levels higher

Each clan has a resident Druid. However, Druids are respected equally among all clans. Druids are the arbiters of the clans, and a ruling by a Druid is respected equally among all clans. A Druid can demand the cessation of combat between two clans for up to three days, but such cessation can not be demanded again for one year by any Druid.

Bards are identical to Druids, with the following exceptions:
They must use a chosen instrument to cast their spells.
Casting spells takes two full turns
They do not have the Druid armor or weapon limitation (but do have the clan armor limitation)
They get Charisma bonus to casting spells (targets must subtract Bards charisma bonus from saving throws)

"Witches"are anomalies in their clan. They are considered "touched" by the gods, and typically live apart from the clan.

They can create "fetishes", potions, and charms. These items can be used one single time. They can be used by the Witch, or given away. They are only effective as intended if they are given freely by the witch, as in most cases they must be made specifically for the recipient and the target. If taken against the will of the witch, use of the items can have unpredictable results. These items can match the effects of any Druid, Cleric, or Magic user spell of level equal to the Witch.

Witches are zero level for fighting purposes.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Three Pillars of D&D

"Much has been made of late in the online community over a post on Wizard's of the Coast's "Rule of Three" about the "three pillars of Dungeons and Dragons". On 2/7, Rodney Thompson wrote in response to the following question:

"I frequently have games when throughout the entire session we go without any combat whatsoever. What can I expect from the new edition in regards to this style of play?"

Rodney responds in part:

"Over the course of the last year, we've distilled the essential experiences of D&D down into three general categories: exploration, roleplaying, and combat. We believe these form the three main pillars of gameplay in D&D, and, while broad, they can help guide our design...

The goal, then, is to support all three of those elements in the design of the game in such a way that the individual gaming group can choose its focus and have a satisfying game experience. This doesn't mean we necessarily need the same amount of game mechanics supporting each; obviously, combat has tended more toward detail and more rules support, and that may well be true going forward, but we also want to make sure we're paying a similar amount of attention to the other two experiences...

This philosophy is something we want to extend beyond just character design; it should affect adventure design, monster design, setting design, and every other aspect of the game. Our goal is to make it so that you make choices for your character that speak to your preferred play style, and that it's OK to do so even if other members of your party make choices pointing toward a different play style. Adventuring demands a certain amount of competence in all three areas of the game, but when you customize your character you might push yourself more in one direction or another."
So, what are they actually talking about when they mention these three pillars or aspects? Can the game stand one one or two pillars at at time? Is it possible to play the game using none of these pillars?

What are they actually talking about when they mention these three pillars or aspects?

I believe the pillars can be broken down more or less like this:

1) Player vs. Monster: Combat
2) Player vs. Environment: Exploration
3) Player vs. NPC or Player, or Self: Roleplaying

Keep in mind Monsters and NPCs can be interchangeable. For clarity in this article (if you'll forgive the tautology), I'll define a monster as something you fight, and an NPC as something you don't, even though they may be the same entity.

To be clear, the reasons for engaging in combat, in exploration, or with other characters are all part of the larger umbrella of roleplaying. It is as if ROLEPLAYING is the foundation upon which these three pillars sit. To that end, I think "roleplaying" is a poor name for one of the three pillars. But rather than get in an uproar over semantics, I think it would be more productive to discuss what I think they are actually talking about, rather than the word they use to describe it.

One way to explain roleplaying as Mr. Thompson uses it is by exclusion. If it isn't combat, and it isn't exploration, it is roleplaying. (However, this only serves to define the three pillars in a tautological way).

"Combat" would include rules for chances to hit, chances to be hit, death, and most forms of physical or psychic damage. Specifically in D&D, Armor Class, Hit Dice, Hit Points, Damage, Saving Throws, etc...

"Exploration" would include rules for mapping, searching for secret doors and traps, detecting secret doors, traps, slopes, or structural anomalies, etc...

"Roleplaying" would then include rules for "everything else". Alignment and class behavioral restrictions, reactions, loyalty, followers... basically social interaction. To that end, I might have chosen "social interaction" (of the characters, not the players around the table) as the name for the third pillar, although this falls short to me.

Can the game stand one one or two pillars at at time?

It is certainly possible to run a game of D&D without combat. I don't know exactly what that game would look like, as I've never played in one. I have however, had game sessions without combat, just as the poster of the original question has.

Is it possible to run a game without social interaction. The game can be essentially a hack and slash, where you "kill first, ask questions later". Later as in after the game session is over.

It is possible to run a game without exploration. A game can be a series of set pieces. Rather than wandering around either on land or below ground, players can be presented with a series of battlefields. The entire relevant playing field is in view the whole game. Once a scene is resolved, jump to the next.

It seems by further reduction that you can stand a game on a single pillar, rather than two. A game with no exploration and no social interaction becomes tactical combat (something like Warhammer or Chess). A game with no combat or exploration becomes like improv theater. A game with no combat or social interaction would be like the video game Myst. Any of these options can make for a fine game. But it wouldn't be like the D&D I know.

Is it possible to play the game using none of these pillars?

Certainly if you use the tautological definition that roleplaying is anything that isn't combat or exploration, playing without using any of the three pillars is impossible. But if the third pillar is essentially rules for social interaction, at least that provides a question to explore.

What might such a game look like?

There would be no combat.

There would be no exploration; each scene would be presented in toto by the DM.

There would be no social interaction.

I think a game like Candyland fits the bill. (Games like Parcheesi and Sorry have an element of combat)

Edit: I think the game Stockmarket might fit the bill. As I recall, there really is no way to harm another player, besides by a random roll of the dice. It is an unusual strategy game in that regard:

I for one am willing to buy into the three pillars as identified by Mr. Thompson. Although I think they could have done a lot better job in choosing the name for the third pillar. But since I can't come up with a perfect name for it, I'll concede their choice.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Haunted Houses Part 4: Design Considerations

Part of my motivation in detailing my evolution as a haunted house designer is to see where the design considerations for a live interactive theatrical experience and alternate reality games (ARGs) can overlap with those of an RPG. Let's see how well I do.

1) Plant seeds early

The idea here is to introduce elements of the adventure way in advance of the audience actually encountering the adventure. This can be done in the way of classified ads, you tube videos, blog posts and such in an ARG. In RPGs, they can be events that occur in the path of the player. Games like the Elder Scroll series (Skyrim, Oblivion, Morrowind, etc...) have small "side quests" that a player can pick up. Any of these could potentially lead to a major quest.

Example: In a dark and deep dungeon, players meet a lonely dwarf who hasn't seen the light of day in hundreds of years. He has a brother who lives far across the kingdom. He gives the players an item, asking if they ever find his brother, to give it to him, along with a message. Now the average player isn't going to drop what he is doing, and undertake a quest to cross the kingdom to find this dwarf. But... should circumstances down the road lead to interaction with someone who happens to know this dwarf... the "quest" becomes the harvesting of a seed. A fulfillment of sorts.

In modern weird horror, a seed could be planted by giving players a mockup of a newspaper. The main article might apply to their current quest, but a side article could mention something seemingly small, which later will grow into a larger adventure.

Mutant sighted on farm

2) Visibility at a distance

One of the things I learned in designing for theme parks is that you have to make things BIG. When people are looking at objects from 100 feet away or more, those objects need to be very large to get their attention.
My rule of thumb is objects should be 50 percent larger than normal. Here's a 9 foot tall scarecrow I made as an example:
Size Matters

What does this mean for game design?  There should be build up to an adventure. Something that can be seen from a "distance". Don't just drop a dungeon on the heads of the players. Allow suspense to build up as they approach it. If this is a Dragon's lair, what clues are around? Is the earth scorched? Are there shed scales on the path? Are there charred bodies and bones along the way? Fleeing peasants?

If you are entering Orc territory, how do they mark it? Is there some sort of perimeter fence, marked with "scarecrows" like in Planet of the Apes?

Except for unusual circumstances, let the players see their goal "from a distance", and give them plenty of opportunity to turn back.

3) Opposing Forces

A conflict can be much more dynamic if rather than just the players and their prey, there is a third player in the mix. This third player can help or hinder the party, but the main thing is that they are not allied with the monsters which the party is hunting. Maybe there is something they want, that the players can do for them in exchange for some assistance. This third party can be a witch, an orphan, a giant, a mermaid, or any entity that has its own goals and motives. 

"And then that mean old ogre stole my comb. You wouldn't mind getting it back for me, would you?"

4) Try to make it scary.

I mean, here the players are, crawling in dark holes, feeble torch in hand, trying to hunt down something before it hunts them. There's always room for a little Michael Myers type of action:

Put the SURPRISE! back in surprise

5) Make it creepy

There is always room to make a scene creepy. A little music box. Mist. Howling. And kids.

I'd start running about now

6) Use humor

When all else fails, use humor. I tell this to my haunted house actors. You aren't going to scare everybody. And really, you job isn't to scare them. It is to entertain them. So if Plan A doesn't work, use Plan B. Or C. Or whatever you have to do. Just keep it fun.

"Sorry for scaring you with the scarecrow mask and all that. If you can out-drink Og here, you can have the map!"

Haunted Houses Part 3: Incident at Froggy Bottom

For the next five years following Grimmwood I worked desiging in theme parks for Halloween. The work was steady, paid well, was low risk comparing to producing your own event, and allowed me huge creative freedom. Things wound down in 2008, and in 2009 I found myself once again with an empty barn to fill.

At this point, I was not interested in super-imposing something onto an existing structure. That is, I put a gothic manor house inside the last barn. This time, I wanted whatever was in there to make sense in the context of it being a barn.

Why was this farm "haunted"? Why were people going into the barn? What was in there?

I settled on an idea... that the farm had been contaminated by a meteor. Some sort of virus. Mutants, zombies, mayhem. At the time, there was an "incident" at a local theme park. People believed that they saw some sort of "ufo" in broad daylight. It was humorous, and the perfect thing to build upon.

So I just had to create my own video:

So... now we have a "What?" We also have a "Where?" (On the farm). We also have a "When?" The video above was posted August 4th (Nearly two months before our event would open).  Next up was the "Who?"

I decided that there would be two distinct groups. One to expose what was happening to the public, and another to try to cover it up. Thus were born PHRAWG (Paranormal Heuristic Research Awareness Group), and Darkwater Industries. For PHRAWG, I created a blog. For Darkwater, I created this poster:

The essence of the event was that Darkwater had taken over the entire farm, and was doing experiments, but due to the Freedom of Information Act and interference from the PHRAWG activists, the site was open to the public. Darkwater agents in hazmat suits lambasted you for being foolish enough enter the barn, and warned you that if you were contaminated they would have to kill you. Once in the barn, the "experiements" break free, and all hell ensues.

Something lurking overhead

Corpse "Re-vivification"

Human-Arachnid Hybrid

Human-Animal Hybrid

All in all, the event was very well received. Many people commented it was the best haunt they had ever been to. It was humorous, creepy, and scary as shit.

Next up: Design Considerations

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Haunted Houses Part 2: Grimmwood

In my last post, Haunted Houses, I outlined my path from 8 year old kid building models of horror monsters and decorating his bedroom with a spooky theme to being presented with an empty barn to fill for a professional Halloween haunted house.

Barn which housed Grimmwood Manor
I had been working in the Halloween business for a while, and one thing I wanted was a "theme" I could not only hang my "haunt" on, but could also take with me. There were haunts that had traditional victorian house themes. There were lunatic asylum themes. There were haunted hotel themes. There were even sci-fi themes. What was my theme to be?

I decided to pick up on an idea from video gaming. I had recently played the game Silent Hill 2, and that game had various spooky buildings in a town. I thought... what if my theme is an entire town, and this particular year's "haunt" is just one of those buildings in the town? I can vary the design from year to year if I want by focusing on a different building in the town. An so the town of Grimmwood was born. Grimmwood had a university, a hotel, an asylum, and a sprawling gothic house called Grimmwood Manor.
The town even had a vistior's pamphlet!

I decided that the audience were essentially like PCs in an RPG adventure. That is, a haunted house audience isn't like a movie audience, or a concert audience, or a theater audience. They are there not only to "watch" the show, but to be part of it. They can talk to actors, ask them questions, and be chased by them. So my story starts with an invitation, "left under your door"

It seems that you, the guest, are descended from someone who once lived in the town of Grimmwood, and for some reason, Professor Grimm wants to see you! But soon, another message is left!

50 points if you can identify the guy in the photo!

Upon arriving, (and buying your ticket and getting in line!) you are greeted by Dr. Payne, who fills you in on the rest of the story. 
Dr. Payne (right), a patient, and the butler peering out

It seems the good Professor has been a patient of Dr. Payne for some time, and is quite mad. He seems to think if he can recreate the events leading up to the night his uncle Victor died, he can contact Victor via a seance. It so happened Victor died on the night of his daughter Iris' wake, so they've dug up dear iris and placed her body in the parlour, just as it was!

Iris Grimm

Portrait of Victor Grimm
The tour of the house ends with a seance gone bad, and "something" summoned that shouldn't be there.

Something very tall summoned

Like my first spook house at the historic tavern, this event went over well with adults, as well as with older children. The middle group... the teenagers looking to get drunk and grope their girlfriends in the dark, were less enthused. It was a ton of fun to design and run, and I got many enthusiastic responses. I have to say I believe the thoroughness of design was a result of many years of designing and running RPG adventures.

I built the story on character devlopment. Each scene had a "host" character who would interact with the audience. Sometimes the audience would get chased out of a room, sometimes not. The actors were great at owning their character, and improvising their parts. Because like RPing, you really never know how your audience is going to react, and you have to be able to adapt to each individual situation.

Next: Incident at Froggy Bottom

Monday, February 6, 2012

Haunted Houses

I was inspired by a post created by Trey over at From the Sorcerer's Skull about the Mystery House. It is his riff on the Winchester House, which has always intrigued me. See, I'm a haunted house designer. That is, I have designed "haunted houses" for theme parks, farms, and even a 270 year old tavern once owned by Patrick Henry's father-in-law.

When I graduated from high school, I really didn't know what to do with myself. I wound up getting a job at a local costume/magic shop I had been purchasing from for years.. Turned out, they weren't only a retail shop. They were one of the largest wholesalers in the country. They had warehouses that ran an entire city block.

The company was owned by a gentleman that once did "midnight spook shows" at theaters. He was known as "Dr. Evil" way before Austin Powers ever came on the scene:

Dr. Evil

Dr. Evil (who I know as "Phil") was a haunted house enthusiast, and sold much merchandise to Jaycee groups around the country (to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars per haunted house). He even co-wrote a book, "How to Operate a Financially Successful Haunted House"

I worked at this costume shop for three years, and had plenty of opportunity to look through that book, along with many other books on special effects makeup, horror movies, and things that go bump in the night. I knew that one day I would operate my very own haunted house.

Truth be told, I had been designing "haunted houses" since I was about 8 years old. I had almost every Aurora monster model that had been put out. Frankenstein, The Wolfman, The Mummy, Dracula, The Salem Witch, King Kong, Godzilla, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the Forgotten Prisoner of Castle Mare. I used to "haunt" my bedroom on my summer vacations. I made my first coffin when I was 13, and got coffin handles for Christmas. I even slept in it one night. I was goth before goth was ever invented.

In 1994, my wife and I moved to Virginia, near Richmond. I heard about a place that did a "haunted history tour" the year before. It was a 270 year old tavern, where Patrick Henry was a bartender. I managed to get to a meeting of the board of directors (the tavern is owned by a preservation foundation). I asked them how much they made the year before. They told me $1000. I told them I would rent the building from them for $1000 if they let me produce my own haunted house there. And they did.

The Hanover Tavern
I had a stipulation placed upon me. The event had to feature the actual history of the tavern. This was to be an educational tour. So I did my research, and there was an interesting array of people who had stayed there. From Patrick Henry himself to General Cornwallis, George Washington, and P.T. Barnum. And so these were the ghosts you met. Cornwallis had come back to pay his bill... in the form of a hand reaching out from a grave, and a ghostly illusion of him materializing on the back porch. A ghost appeared warning you... projected onto a white bust of George Washington. And P.T. Barnum and an assemblage of dead clowns awaited you in the dining room... with your tour guide's head the main course!

What was cool to me about the attraction (and to many of our patrons) was that there were no chainsaws. There were no rubber masks. There were no teenage actors. This was a weird form of interactive theater, where adults were having a blast having the daylights scared out of them. I was in heaven.

The location was rather remote, and financially, it turned out not to be quite worth the effort I had put into it to make it work. It was several months worth of work, a fairly stout investment (not only did I rent the place, but bought the props, paid the actors, etc...), and quite exhausting. I was not ready to just jump in and do it again the following year.

However, in 1999, a local radio station wanted to do a haunted house. They had a venue they used for concerts in the middle of Richmond. They hired me to design and direct it, but in the 11th hour the city shut them down due to building code issues. Well... didn't quite shut them down. The station just didn't want to spend the $150,000 to bring the building up to the city's demands. I had a blast designing it. It was called the Fright Factory.

The premise was that you were entering the lab of a scientist working on a time machine. The lab has been destroyed.  He is on recorded video, talking about his experiments. But as he is explaining the machine, something goes wrong... a portal opens, and he is grabbed by a demon. As you leave the lab through the portal, you are sent through time to various different locations... from Poe's reading room to an egyptian tomb to a victorian graveyard, and finally a Hellraiser type of chaos... winding back in the pristine laboratory. The professor unscathed... wondering how you got there... just as the demon comes to whisk him away.

The following year, I found myself decorating for Kings Dominion Fearfest. Then in 2002 I designed and directed Busch Garden's Sea Dog Cemetery (zombie pirates!). By this time, I had gotten quite good at making props. I had been doing film and theater for about 10 years.

Impaled corpse for Busch Gardens

In 2003 I decide to make a go of it on my own again. A local farm was already doing a Halloween event, and let me use one of their barns. I got the local Ren Faire to provide most of the actors. This is the year Grimmwood was born.

More in my next post...

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Oh, the Horrors of Railroading

I am continually amazed that one of the most popular topics to discuss on RPG message boards is the subject or "railroading". Railroading is a pejorative term used to describe a style of running a game in which the sequence of events which the characters face and the results of those events are to various degrees controlled by the Game Master. That is for example, if a GM decides that he doesn't want the PCs to be able to kill a bad guy at their current stage of the adventure, and so makes doing so impossible, it is considered a railroad by some. If a GM designed an encounter and eliminates all options for the PCs to avoid it, it is considered a railroad by some.

The degree and range of what players consider railroads varies widely. I've seen players describe impassable topography as "railroading". What is perfectly acceptable underground... corridors and locked doors that limit options... above ground (impassible mountains, lakes of lava) become railroads. Dragonlance is derided as the pinnacle of railroading.

Frankly, I find it all a bit bewildering. Not so much that this poster or that on an online forum have their opinions. I mean geez, we are a peculiar lot, and probably give WAY more thought into the complexities of playing tabletop RPGs than 90 percent of players you will actually ever meet at a table. But it is like if you choose to be in the least bit a "story driven" GM, that somehow you are not only maligning the reputation of the entire hobby, but that your contagion might make it way over to their very table, and destroy their ability to ever enjoy the game again.

People like their "mega-dungeons". They like their "emergent stories". And for every descriptor you can give a game, there is a wide array of individual instances and exceptions to what people actually mean when they use these terms. For me as a player, I tend to hate it when there isn't a clear goal for a party to undertake. I don't like wandering around in game worlds looking for something to do, and am given two or three options, all of which equally don't have anything to do with my character and his personal motivations.

I like a big red sign that says "THIS WAY TO YOUR NEXT ADVENTURE!".

And I like to have a reason for adventuring besides "killing stuff and getting gold".

As a GM, I play as much for my own enjoyment as for the camaraderie around the table. I like running adventures the way I like running adventures. I've always been lucky to find players that liked my GM style. But I'd rather not GM, than GM in a way that is fun for others, but boring for myself. I am not a public servant.

So to all the GMs out there, whatever your style; don't be apologetic. Don't let anyone tell you you are doing it wrong. Hopefully, you will find players that dig your style. Maybe you don't even know what your style is, and will experiment with a variety of approaches... from "railroad" to "sandbox" to "rules as written" to flying by the seat of your pants. And hopefully, you will find players who appreciate your particular brand of zaniness. Because no matter what, we have a zany hobby. And no amount of rationalization can deny THAT!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Snow White: A Tale of Terror

I just re-watched one of my favorite movies tonight. Snow White: A Tale of Terror. It features Sigourney Weaver as the evil queen, and Sam Neil as Snow White's Father. Monica Keena does a spectacular job as Snow White. The piece was made in 1997. Apparently it was original produced for theatrical release, but wound up on Showtime.

Kost Castle, Prague

There are many things I love about this movie. To start, much of it is filmed on location in the Czech Republic.  Kost Castle provides the exterior shots of Lili's (Snow White's) home. Many of the interior shots are also shot in an actual castle. Dobrichovice Castle is listed as a location, as well as Emauzy Abbey and Valdek Castle.

The character arcs are wonderful, from the queens slow but steady descent into madness to Snow White's evolution from a frightened child to a woman who confronts her demon. Even the brutish "dwarves" have a nice evolution from thugs to protectors of Snow White.

Spoilers follow!

One of the things I like best are the depictions of magic. A small bird being buried by sand in an hourglass precipitates the collapse of the "dwarves" mine. The queen dancing and twirling down the hall in billowing robes, ecstatically toppling life size statues (of saints?) heralds a woodland storm that topples trees. A sling aimed at a raven pierces the queen. Very neat, evocative stuff.

There are also disturbing images, most notably surrounding the queens stillborn child, and her obsession with bringing him back to life. One of the most memorable images is Snows father, lashed to an inverted crucifix and hoisted into the in the castles sanctuary. Then there are the castle servants, apparently poisoned and turned into maniacal killers (zombies?). And a little girl's faithful dog turned killer. In one of the most interesting turns, the "prince" (prince "charming") is seduced by the queen, and later killed by him.

The transformation of the queen into the old hag is wonderful. The scene where she gloats over the paralyzed but aware body of the poisoned Snow White is powerful.

The stained glass coffin, made from the windows of the abandoned church, is brilliant art direction.

And finally, the wonderful wardrobe with the mirror in it. The "source of evil". (can't find a good image of it!)

Snow White: A Tale of Terror walks the line between darkness and perversion, and IMO stays on just the right side of it. This is how a fairy tale should be told!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Points of Darkness: The Cursed Tome

I recently watched the episode Cigarette Burns from the Masters of Horror tv series. This disturbing 1hour story was directed by John Carpenter, and written by Mick Garris, Drew McWeeny, and Scott Swan. The story involved the fictional lost film La Fin Absolue Du Monde (The Absolute End of the World), the viewing of which turns its audience into homicidal and suicidal maniacs.

Cigarette Burns has a very Lovecraftian feel about it. A theater buff who owns a small theater is hired by a cinephile to find this legendary film. When it premiered at a film festival, the audience went nuts, killing one another. The film was supposedly destroyed, but in fact has been making rounds of small showings, always with disastrous results.

I loved and hated the film. I loved it because I think it was the most faithful adaptation of Lovecraftian type horror I've ever seen. I hated it for the same reason. It is a disturbing movie. It is as close as any movie I've seen has come to giving me "bad dreams". I really don't like watching cruelty on film, and there is certainly cruelty here.

This is an interesting point for me to make. I love the old Universal Horror films. I like Hammer Horror. I hate Freddy, Jason, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Saw. I have no desire to see Hostel. Even though I've worked on movies doing gruesome special effects (in one movie, I blew into one end of an aquarium tube full of blood to make blood spurt in a scene where a Clown gets his throat slit), I really don't like gore, particularly when it is portrayed in a realistic brutal way.

I think with games, as well as movies, one has to pick their battles. You have to decide just how much cruelty you are going to depict, describe, and revel in. As an example, I think having PCs captured and forced to watch one another being helplessly slaughtered goes way over the line, not for any concerns about railroading, but because players should not be subjected to such an experience. It is one thing for a player to choose to have their character knowingly face danger and risk death. It is another to expose them to true monstrosity.

I don't think it is too much of a spoiler to call La Fin Absolue Du Monde a "snuff film". If you dont' know that that is, count yourself fortunate. It is the particular victim in the movie that makes the watching of the fictional film a supernatural experience. It is simultaneously a cool and horrific concept. For me, it gives what feels like a genuine peek behind the curtain of forbidden lore. And it is as close as I care to get.

So, if you are looking for something less on the cheesy side, and more on the disturbing side for your weird horror stuff, Cigarette Burns might be a good choice. But only if you aren't prone to nightmares.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Just what the Hell is an Archon anyway?

I've done a lot of posting about the "Archons", and their role in the Shatterworld setting. The basic idea is, there are seven main gods, representing Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Time, Plants (Flora), and Animals (Fauna).

Each of the seven gods have an Archon. A physical representative on earth, who is essentially an immortal.
I guess you could call the Archon an "avatar", but I think that a "mediator" or "proxy" would be a more appropriate description. They were obviously inspired by the Istari from Lord of the Rings.

Essentially, the world was created in seven "days". I don't know if a "day" has any relevance to a 24 hour period or not. But in each phase of creation, each "day", another of the seven parts of creation came into being.

First was Time, because without time, there can be no "change". Everything is static. There is no "first", nor "second", etc... Fire can't burn, wind can't blow, water can't flow and things can't grow.

Next was Air. I mostly picked air as second so it would precede fire, since fire needs air to burn (at least in our immediately perceivable world). It is all good to say "let there be light", but if that light needs oxygen to burn, one might re-think the order of things.

After Fire came Water, then Earth rose from the Water. This seems to me more natural for some reason than saying there was Earth, and it was dry, and then it started raining.

So, once we had Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Time, all these elements could merge to create life... plant life. So on the sixth day, plants were created.

Finally on the seventh day, the animal kingdom was created.

The Archons taught mankind the "secrets" of their domains. How to harness wind power, how to forge steel, how to plant crops. That sort of thing. They also taught "magic".

I just created the blog post for Phusis, the god of plants. On each of my posts, I do a lot of searching for artwork that evokes something very specific. I found this piece by Thomas Cole. It is from his Voyage of Life series, and represents Childhood.

I chose the image for the primordial feeling of the vegetation. This to me feels like a "new world". But as I looked at the boat, with the angel and the infant, it got me to thinking. First I thought perhaps I chose the wrong piece, because I actually hadn't noticed the infant at first glance. In my "story", mankind doesn't exist at this point. So who is the infant?

I thought perhaps the angel was the Archon, but then it hit me. The infant is the Archon. The Archon is created on the same day of creation as his/her domain. So here we have Callawin, the Archon of plants, as an infant, being introduced to the world by an angel.

Each Archon, being a physical entity, enters the world as an infant. By the time they are encountered by man, they are grown to some level of maturity. Their appearance is determined by the facet of creation they oversee. Some are male, some are female. Some are old, some are young. Darkstar, the Archon of Kronos starts out each year as an infant, and grows to old age throughout the year. So if you were to encounter Darkstar multiple times, you might not recognize him, because he could have been an old man the last time you saw him, and now he is a teenage boy. But he remembers you. (That is, unless he is time traveling, and the version of him that you are now encountering is meeting you for the first time).

So there you go. Archons are immortal physical intermediaries of the gods, each a servant of a particular god, who entered the world as an infant, was educated by an angel, an became a shepherd of men.