Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Weather Tables From a Real Meteorologist (and a Simpler Alternative He Also Uses)...

Ok, so the stormy specter of weather arises from time to time in all of our games, and the more immersive the setting, the more likely we are to incorporate it.  Like the passage of time, weather is one of those things we all seem to agree matters but don't always get around to doing.  Well as it happens, yours truly is a retired meteorologist and happy to tackle it, so let's start by setting a few ground rules.  Just to make the whole thing easier.  If you're one of those daring souls who imagines a flat earth (well, as long as we're doing the whole magic thing), I suppose scientific accuracy doesn't really apply and, to be honest, it shouldn't have to...


But if you're a stickler or, like most of us (I'm guessing), then your world is spherical.  This stuff matters, but I'm guessing no one wants MET 101 and more importantly, I'm not much interested in rehashing it.  So here's a link if that's your thing.  No, I'll just get to the good parts and explain what probably should be happening; and this is the case even if you follow my link...


Oh, and let's make another little assumption.  Let's assume the campaign is set in the mid latitudes of our hypothetical sphere.  Good.  Now things get easier.  Basically, most weather most of the year is the result of migratory pressure systems.  Lows with their attendant frontal systems and highs with their characteristic stability.  As the low approaches, expect southerly winds with increasing (and lowering) clouds and precipitation (rain in late spring or summer and snow in winter and/or early spring).  Eventually, the front passes, the winds shift, and it gets both cooler and probably drier depending on the air masses involved.  Often, the winds pick up and become stronger with very cold air.  Rinse, lather, and repeat as necessary...

Or for greater simplicity, just consult the following weather table:

Clear/partly cloudy
Partly/mostly cloudy
Clear/partly cloudy

*Precipitation (rain/snow) varies by season

Now, here's a cool trick: Roll 1d10 to establish the starting day, assign the applicable weather (adjusted for season) and follow the progression down the chart, returning to the top and continuing.  There, (most) weather made easy!  It might be the only weather table you'll ever need...

The above assumes a retreating high pressure system replaced by an approaching low and frontal system to trigger clouds and precipitation.  Of course, the latter is seasonal except in the south, where applicable.  There's not a lot of snow in Florida for a reason.  Ditto for your world's equivalent (the bona fide tropics work differently).  And as a caveat, during the summer months, the jet stream moves north and a semi-permanent subtropical high dominates more of the mid-latitudes, producing a stabler pattern which makes the above less pronounced.  You know, summer for most of us.


Now, if you didn't follow the link (shame on you), just know that air flows clockwise around a high, counterclockwise around a low, and reversed in the southern hemisphere!  Lows suck.  All of their air spirals inward (surface convergence) and up, so you get instability, clouds, and precipitation.  Highs blow, meaning air sinks and spreads out (surface divergence).  Cold air masses are always more dense and the winds stronger.  Seriously, highs blow.  But there are exceptions to this.  And pressure changes across these systems.  Sometimes quickly, sometimes not so much.  This is referred to as the pressure gradient.  The stronger the gradient, the higher the winds - and with more intense the weather; well, in most cases...

But sometimes, the gradient is non-existent, especially under a high, and the winds are calm.  Here, moist conditions in the fall or winter can result in fog that only dissipates when the winds pick up or things heat enough to break the inversion (don't ask).  Just compare to your own experience.  


Good question.  What about it?  First off, let's assume a 1 in 1d6 chance of a severe weather event on days when precipitation is called for.  If something bad is indicated, just assign a seasonal hazard.  Thunderstorms can spawn hail, high winds, and tornadoes, while winter is prone to blizzards and ice storms, etc.  Pick what you like and make 'em hate you...   


Now, the equator and subtropics are a little different.  Here, you see a steady pattern (no fronts) influenced mainly by terrain effects and/or migratory cyclones.  Typically, afternoon thunderstorms and morning to midday stability with lots of humidity.  Tropical storms and hurricanes are pretty much a bogey you can throw in to stir things up.  And you can add whatever rules you want (or have handy) for environmental exposure and the like. 

And once again, here's an easy little chart to break it down:

Late night/early morning
Clear/partly cloudy
Clear/partly cloudy
Partly cloudy
Early afternoon
Partly cloudy
Early evening/overnight
Partly/mostly cloudy

*Light/steady winds (any direction); variable/strong with thunder

As indicated above, wind direction varies but is usually light outside of thunderstorms.  Often, terrain helps channel air, causing winds to flow along natural features, whether valleys or any adjacent mountains, etc.


Of course, weather magic is doubtless an element, and this defies all of the above.  You don't need anything here to know that a storm out of clear skies or snow in the summer (or tropics) are signs of something amiss.  You piss of the local shaman at your peril, so don't do that.  Really. 

There, that's not too much, and we offer it mainly as a quick-reference guide for GMs and as a guard against "daily weather tables" that might produce unrealistic progressions.  Of course, such charts are great for establishing starting weather, after which the first table applies.  But for time-strapped (or ingenious, because despite being a meteorologist, I do it this way), you can simply begin your campaign at the "real world" time of year and at a similar latitude.  Then just follow the actual pattern.  This saves a lot of time and let's your players worry about the weather in two worlds!  All fantasy mirrors real life, so give 'em hell if you've got it, and go where the wild winds blow... 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

"It" Movie Review (We All Float)...

So here's something that doesn't happen every day - a movie review!  You see, every now and again there's a movie event.  Something big based on something bigger that gets a lot of hype in geek circles and either delights or disappoints when it finally comes out.  And this summer, in a season full of lackluster disappointments (my opinion), there's something which, thankfully, succeeds and (interestingly enough) is also a perfect fit for late summer going into early autumn - Stephen King's classic novel IT!

Now, in the name of full disclosure, I'm a rather huge Stephen King fan.  But that's not the big reveal.  We publish fantasy RPGs, so I imagine people think I do fantasy like the Cookie Monster tackles an Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate chip.  Not so much.  And that's the big reveal.  Aside from a few notables (well, a respectable amount), I don't read an awful lot of fantasy anymore.  Tolkien?  Moorcock?  I love 'em all.  Blood of Pangea is heartfelt.  And I thoroughly enjoyed Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams (get it)...

But when it comes to fantasy, I prefer mine as gaming.  To me, that's where it makes sense and feels right.  Guess I'm a crappy geek.  Book-wise (and despite the fact that my all-time favorite is Kingdoms of the Wall, a sci-fi masterpiece by Robert Silverberg), I prefer literary horror after King, Straub, and (the great) T.E.D. Klein.  This is modern fantasy with all the pretensions of John Updike.  Stories about real people facing off against the innumerable monsters in their lives - only some of them supernatural!

And King has always been about people.  Plausibly real and relatable.  There's nothing like our own world with all its intrigues, and his movie adaptations didn't start getting good until the Hollywood types finally figured that out.  Yeah, King loves his monsters.  And he certainly created a compelling mythology.  But his stories were always about people...

Enter IT.  The 2017 Muschetti IT and not the (inferior) 1990 miniseries.

SPOILER ALERT:  The town of Derry, Maine sees a sudden rash of disappearances, and a handful of kids discover the culprit's a monster.  Read the book or see the film.

Disclaimer:  This is a movie adaptation, so it doesn't perfectly follow the original book, which begins with adult characters in the 80s being summoned back to Derry and recalling their childhoods in the 50s - and the evil they temporarily defeated.  The movie focuses on the childhood end of things, with a planned sequel for the adult reckoning.  That said, a few scenes are missing or changed.  Most notably, a giant bird and the animated Paul Bunyan statue.  But movies flow differently, so I mostly forgive them...        

We all float down here...

OK, first things first.  The movie is well cast and acted.  The banter between the kids is a bit frantic at times, but I imagine my own adolescent ramblings were at least as much, if not worse.  And the decision to shift this portion of the story to the 80s was a truly inspired move by the producers.  Some have made unflattering comparisons to Stranger Things.  But I think the choice had more to do with giving contemporary audiences a sense of nostalgia they could relate too.  Remember, the kids come back 27 years later to finish things, and that works out to being roughly in the present day for moviegoers.

At any rate, there's enough 80s pop culture going around that even youngsters can relate to its imagined yesterday and, really, those days weren't all that different (and the movie would doubtless lose some of its magic if the kids were face down and transfixed by their cell phones all the time anyway).  So younger audiences get both a feeling of familiarity plus a glimpse into a lost, but relatable, past.  All in all, a sound choice.  Now, I straddled two decades (I turned 13 in 1980), so it really hit the sweet spot for this reviewer!

And the cinematography?  Well, it certainly delivers.  Its perspective and timing is eerily effective, and the famous scene with Georgie in the rain works perfectly.  I don't like violence against children.  Not one bit.  And I'm not a huge fan of suffering or splatter flicks that glorify it, so this was a little hard to watch on the face of it.  But it's part of the story, after all.  This scene, to me, was the most important indicator (and an early one at that) as to how well the film would perform.  A clown in a sewer drain is pretty ridiculous imagery, so you have to get into the head of a little boy and create something both seductive and menacing  (I've always thought that the two overlap).  And it works because Pennywise is depicted as just human enough in dark shadows, and because Muschetti wisely retained King's original dialogue.  Let's just say I was both pleased and disturbed. 

What the @#$% is this?  The 1990 
miniseries was a floater of a different kind...

Now, something that stands out is how kid-centric the film manages to be.  Adults exist, obviously, and we see glimpses of them all.  But this is mostly a story about kids at a time in their lives when they stop being appendages of their parents and start forging their own identities and relationships.  And sometimes, the adults become the villains by proxy and, in the case of Beverly's character, actual villains of the worst sort.  We see glimpses of who they are through the effect they've had on their children, and this helps keep the emphasis squarely where it belongs.  It's an approach that only occasionally falls flat.

But what about the film's titular villain?  Pennywise the Clown is played with fiendish enthusiasm by Bill Skarsgard and is both closely human and horrifically, well, off.  The depiction works.  One thing I didn't like about the 1990 miniseries (aside from pretty much everything) was how common Pennywise appeared.  He (she/it) just looked like a clown with bad oral hygiene.  And the garb was too similar to what you might see at the circus today.  But Muschetti's version achieves something positively baroque; an outfit from another century that's creepy and profane in the way early black and white pictures are creepy and profane.  It's the grotesque imagery of 1865's advertising.   

And, of course, CGI helps.  Pennywise is portrayed as the cosmic entity "he" truly is (read the book, people), deadlights and all (really, read that book).  And there's something vaguely spider-like in its movements, which also plays into the story, albeit in the inevitable sequel.  This isn't Freddy Krueger or some other lame (and generalized) thing of earthly evil (I like literary horror and not the swill served up in most horror films).  And because the original book began in the so-called present, with a grown-up Loser's Club returning to Derry to end things for good, we know the sequel isn't destined to be some cheap extrapolation of a superior original.  This, alone, gives me high hopes... 

Now, a word about scares.  A few have complained about the lack of them.  I find this absurd because the scenes where each character individually encounters Pennywise are pretty frightening and, in the case of Bill Denbrough, atmospheric and spooky.  But it's doubly absurd because scares are cheap thrills.  Scares are bullshit.  Going to war was scary.  So what?  I can't stand the vapid "jump-scare" crap (some of which was advertised in the trailers) being served up these days.  No, this is a story about people.  Young people facing off against evil and ultimately winning.  And the intended effect is more that of a knight entering a dragon's cave.  Scary, sure, but also rather heroic.

The film has its flaws.  Bill Denbrough's stuttering is shown, but never referenced.  Same with the spoken device used to counter it.  Likewise, Richie's penchant for silly voices is shown in dialogue, but the "beep, beep" reference (used only once in the movie) is likewise never explained and would doubtless fall flat with the uninitiated.  Hurried editing, perhaps?  Maybe an extended DVD release can fix this, and maybe that's the plan.

At a little over two hours, IT never drags.  The film does what it needs to, although I found myself wishing for just a little more.  Movies aren't books.  They can't achieve the third person deep King is known for, leaving the audience to rely on their eyes and the dialogue to get the point across.  And this one pulls it off where the miniseries failed.

And so Stephen King gets what he deserves.  A movie franchise (of sorts) and an adaptation that actually works.  And no John-Boy as Bill Denbrough either.  Yep, that's a bonus!

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Five Things We've Learned by Being Humans Who Also Happen to Play Tabletop RPGs...

Earlier on, we posted an article about the role of the GM/referee, and it prompted some discussion (and questions) about what kind of GM I might be.  So instead of flogging a dead horse, here's five simple rules we try our best to live (and game) by:

Disclaimer:  The following is our opinion.  It might differ from yours, but that's not a high crime or misdemeanor, so take it with a grain of salt and humor us.  

(1) Games are great.  But actual people and relationships are (almost) always more important.  You can stop here if you want, cause' the rest is just fluffy window dressing...

(2) Hopefully, the people in your group are also your friends.  And if so, hopefully you value these relationships for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with your hobby.

(3) If one of your players offers to sacrifice their +2 plate mail to keep a cherished character alive, it's the a good-faith negotiation that's well worth honoring.  In these situations, just balance the fun everyone had when the character was alive against any reservations about propriety.  The integrity of the rules takes a back seat to these considerations, especially when a player is volunteering to lose something to keep something else.

Really, challenge is about risk and uncertainty.  But it's also about making sacrifices and understanding that everything costs, so don't turn away any paying customers!  

(4) Sometimes, the spouse or significant other of one of your players will join in just so they can feel part of what their loved one is doing.  Please understand that in these situations, the dynamic has clearly shifted, and the emphasis should change as well.  The goal now is to keep everyone involved, because the death of a newcomer's character immediately excludes them.  People before make-believe games.  Live it.  Love it, etc.
Going easy on a non-gaming guest isn't gonna break your game, and if they become a regular (always a good thing), they'll obviously need to adjust their expectations.    

(5) As long as games are played by people, said people will need to negotiate and resolve their differences in a way that scales to the setting and the things at stake.  I haven't seen a rulebook yet that can prevent bad behavior.  It all comes down to relationships, folks...

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Tekumel and the Power of "Maybe"...

We're back from a much-needed break - and maybe we go to a monthly format again.  But until then, we do have a little something to start the week...

So, getting to it, we stumbled upon this old article on the Hill Cantons blog and were immediately reminded of what a kindred spirit M.A.R. Barker was.  Not only did he imagine the weirdly exotic world of Tekumel (which should have been more than enough to secure his place in gaming history), but he also seemed to have the "right" ideas about how gaming should be approached.  I mean, if we're gonna look at a game; any game, under the pretense of adventure, then story matters.  Even if it's just the story created when people get together and make decisions in the heat of whatever battle they've stumble into....

The party flees an approaching band of orcs and finds their escape cut off by a collapsed tunnel.  Now this is a tactical problem.  But it still implies story.  Why are the characters underground?  What are the orcs doing there?  And how did the two parties find themselves at odds?  And, more importantly, how do they get themselves out of it?  At this point, we haven't invoked rule one and really, we shouldn't have to.  If gaming is a participatory social exercise, then the narrative, meaning what happens in the course of an emerging story, is what matters most.  Rules are needed.  But only stories are fun.

In Tekumel, the setting (and story)
overshadowed the system, which is how it should be...

Rules are great (and admittedly, rather necessary).  But I, for one, could never entertain myself just by toying with game mechanics.  The rules always need to map to characters and events.  And story isn't just something built into the background.  Story can also be forward looking - and really should.  In the above example, the characters might hide themselves among the fallen rocks or simply surrender to the orcs and hope to reason with their leaders or successfully escape once a suitable opening reveals itself.  Both make for a great story, but both are only fun when we understand them as a story about characters.

And with that in mind, we're convinced that rules (and dice) are only necessary owing (and ultimately reducible) to the following core principles:

(1) Special powers and abilities necessarily modify outcomes and operate under certain conditions and/or with specified (and generally, quantifiable) effects.

(2) While some actions are always successful and others doomed to fail, many can go either way, and rolling dice creates excitement because an action might succeed, perhaps by the barest of margins.  That is, dice emulate risk and uncertainty.

(3) Moreover, the element of risk and uncertainty is more convincing (and seems more objectively fair) when even the referee doesn't know the outcome in advance!

So let's imagine a hypothetical game where everyone is just a person capable of a general range of actions.  Dice are minimized and the "challenge" lies in thinking up a suitable strategy in the first place.  Melee is easy.  Roll 4 or better on 1d6 or suffer 1-3 hits based on the target's size and/or power (10 hits is fatal).  Success kills the enemy and failure forces another round with the potential for even greater injury.  Non-combat actions, in all their variety, are easier still.  Just roll 4 or better.  If the characters and story are interesting (and if the players get caught up in events), they'll have a blast despite the lack of rules because, ultimately, we don't play to tinker with dice.  We play to become legends!

Of course, precedent would eventually kick in, certain rulings codified, and additional rules developed to account for the stuff of the setting, and at this point, the above becomes a proper game, complete with detailed charts, tables, and source books.  But our hypothetical game simultaneously reveals not only the hobby's biggest strength, but also its inherently self-limiting nature.  Because ultimately, all we need to know is that success is either yes, no, or maybe - and then have 'em roll for the maybe part!  Everything else is just the story...    

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Homunculi (for Diceless Dungeons)...

OK, no dissertation this week, just a little something for Diceless Dungeons; a sorcerous companion that can be magically fashioned, albeit with difficulty, from a forbidden tome that will only be found on adventures (a dragon's hoard perhaps)...

Click on the above link to get this creature (item?) in pdf form.  But also read on to consider the special role of the homunculus in a quasi-medieval world setting...  

Now, this ruleset doesn't go into too much detail about its implied setting, and this is by design (the referee should be free to create whatever they wish).  However, it does suggest something vaguely medieval; a place where magic is rare and, more importantly, widely feared and mistrusted.  That said, any magical writing is going to be exceedingly rare and probably forbidden, and while the homunculus so created offers obvious advantages, clever referees should avoid the tired assumption that magic (and at the very least, magic of this sort) can be practiced with impunity.  All power comes at a price.

That being said, going about in public with a miniature demon on one's shoulder is sure to attract the wrong sort of attention, and even the act of hunkering down for days at a time performing strange rituals will doubtless alert religious authorities!  None of this has anything to do with special rules and everything to do with proper role-playing, which we've always maintained was diceless to its very core.  So roll your minds and get busy playing!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

My First Time (Toys Without Tots)...

Remember your first time?  The excitement?  The sweat?  No, not that first time.  The other first time.  I mean, when you first realized that you were a gamer

So, testimonial.  The story of my first time (minus the sweat)...

Back in the sixth grade, I used to catch the bus on a street corner just one block away from where I lived.  We'd been there for years, and I clearly remember walking to elementary school and passing my future bus stop every day.  Hell, I even remember doing the math and calculating how old I'd be in the year 2000, getting the numbers right, but utterly failing to anticipate home computers and the whole Y2K thing.  But yeah, I knew that I'd turn 33 in that future time and was pretty sure I wouldn't get that awesome flying car...

But back in 1978, I found something better.  I found role-playing.

Now, I was a sixth-grader and in the process of outliving my interest in toys.  Sort of.  The truth was, I was still interested in play, but I didn't know how to channel it.  I liked models and still appreciated my Shogun Warriors and Star Wars action figures.  In short, I still loved the stuff of childhood play, but didn't have clue one about what to do with any of that...

Check out these toys.  I mean, who could resist?
(Image courtesy of the talented painter: The Mighty Eroc)

Play without toys?  Adult play?  I craved some mythical next step...  

OK, so, back to the bus stop.  It sat on the driveway of a house on a corner lot.  And sometimes, usually on warm summer nights over the previous season, the garage door was open to reveal people playing something around an elaborate tabletop diorama.  I was intrigued.  And yes, it was a war-game.  But my curious inquiries led me to a friend and his older brother who was becoming interested in a new kind of war-game called D&D.  And so it began.  My first character was Elvor the Slayer, an elf in the old-school, meaning he could alternate between fighter and magic user between adventures.  He died in old-school fashion, but the genie (so to speak) was already out of the bottle and doing stuff. 

So I was a role-player now.  It was a Saturday afternoon in early Autumn.  We were still rubbing summer out of our eyes, and there was lots of pre-game chatter about Star Wars and the latest episode of Buck Rogers coming on that night.  And there was also an adventure; something about exploring the ruins of a crypt.  But what I really remember is rolling up my character and getting a 14 intelligence.  Exciting stuff.  And then there was the game.  It was like playing with really cool toys in my mind.  Only the best toys ever...

We fought some kobolds and got a quick (and rather brutal) lesson in why we needed to search for traps and carefully explain everything we were doing.  There was surprisingly little combat, but I staggered away with 2 HP and decided I was wearing my armor next time, although my one spell had helped us stay alive.  It was chaotic, crazy stuff.  And I was totally hooked.  My love of play had survived adolescence, and I found out who I was.

Now, to be clear, I'm a lot of things.  Most more important than gamer.  But my first time, happily devoid of awkward backseat acrobatics, was still a critical (and accurate) revelation... 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

That Rule Ain't Old-School! (Not!)

Nothing too big, folks.  Yours truly is sleeping off a weekend at KantCon, where we play tested an upcoming adventure for Diceless Dungeons.  We had a great table with a fantastic group who creatively overcame terrible challenges and made me work for it, and Robyn joined the fun as an exiled noblewoman tasked with defending these reluctant heroes (they were all criminal, you see).  The Realm was saved and fun was had by all.

But now we're back, and I'm ready to tackle that old debate about what makes an OSR game, not by arguing its definition (I've already made it clear where I stand), but by discussing something I think doesn't make a good basis for one.  Namely, specific game play mechanics!  Now, I bring this up because a few weeks ago, someone argued against a certain game (as belonging to the OSR) because it employed dice pools.  I mean, c'mon people!  Dice pools are a modern idea, right?  New-school nonsense...

Wrong!  Dice pools go back to Tunnels & Trolls from 1975, making them old-school.

The court finds Ghostbusters
"Not Guilty" of being the first dice pool system to hit the 

streets (and the shelves).  It just wasn't...

Which brings up an important fact.  OD&D may have been the first commercially available game.  But rival systems began springing up almost immediately in its wake.  Moreover, the mechanical diversity of these early games was truly immense.  Kind of like the Cambrian explosion.  So here's a list of RPGs, each one released within five years of OD&D, and the innovations they wrought (and before their so-called time, might I add)...

Bunnies & Burrows (1976) - Likely the first skill-based RPG (a break from class)
Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) - Employed phobias (flaws) that would feature in later D&D
RuneQuest (1978) - An early percentile and roll under system.  Also, classless magic use
Superhero: 2044 (1977) - Divided points between ability scores instead of rolling dice
Traveller (1977) - Introduced life paths vs. class, but also employed target numbers
Tunnels & Trolls (1975) - Resolved combat by means of the aforementioned dice pools  
Villains and Vigilantes (1977) - Had pulled punches and other complex combat feats  

The fact is, there were many creative people ready to pounce on this new idea and build upon it with smart innovations.  And thus, we have dice pools almost from the start and shouldn't appropriate them for "modern" gaming exclusively, however intuitive that thought might seem.  Oh, and it does make the methodological OSR seem appealing...

Flaws seem pretty new-school,
but Chivalry & Sorcery had them (phobias) well
ahead of modern D&D.  Just sayin'...

I mean, if every mechanical approach was there right from the beginning, the only way to designate "old-school" in any meaningful way is to focus on specific systems (D&D) and the retro-cloning of the same.  Or old-school approaches to game design.

And I do accept that a methodological core exists.  But its boundaries aren't fixed.  The core has an outer periphery that overlaps the greater hobby; an overlap made up of hallmark approaches and assumptions that may or may not be shared by later systems, but that were still there from the start.  Approaches that have been abandoned by some new schools of thought.  I've already covered this.  But I'll say again that games that deliberately take up an old-school approach deserve a place in the OSR or in some adjacent category.  

But if there's nothing new under the sun, then what ideas are new-school?  I'd say three things at least, although I'm sure I'm also wrong about some of them:

(1) Consolidated mechanics (something D&D and its early peers weren't guilty of), 

(2) A tendency to automate social interactions and/or problem solving, and... 

(3) Breaking down the traditional division of labor between players and the referee and, in general, a greater tendency to approach the rules (and not the referee) as a final authority while making everyone co-equal partners within an emerging gameplay narrative.

At any rate, what's new is old, because innovation abounded in the early gaming scene, which saw a major creative explosion within its first ten years that isn't over by a long shot!