I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Friday, January 28, 2022

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (quick review)

I bought this book literally by its cover (and back cover), not knowing the author had written at least one fantasy classic before (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which I haven't read yet). I'm trying to stick to the classics but this one got me curious. Anyway, the name of the artist Piranesi and the theme interested me.

I was positively surprised by the book. At first, it seems like a relatively simple and purely dreamlike fantasy, but as we get closer to the more mundane explanations for the bizarre world the narrator lives in, we realize that the book deals with deeper themes, such as the human capacity to create and to get lost in other people's creation, childlike innocence, trauma, Stockholm syndrome, identity, the meaning of learning and memory, the contagious character of madness, and ultimately the beauty of the world and other possible worlds - and how dangerous beauty can be.

The plot - a man exploring a surrealistic, labyrinthine and nearly infinite world, almost devoid of people - is reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges (The Library of Babel, Funes, The House of Asterion etc.) and also of my own Planet Asterion (because it is also inspired by JLB, of course).

The writing is great. The book starts a bit slowly but never ceases to hold you attention. I could hardly stopped reading and finished in a day or two. The conclusion might not live up to the mystery (does it ever?), but I found it very satisfactory. It makes me wonder how much of our world - which we accept without question - is arbitrary or purely the whim of other people we barely know.

In brief: a short, excellent book that I really enjoyed. 

Highly recommended.

Is this relevant for RPGs? 

This is definitely a good source of inspiration, especially if you're into Lovecraft, Borges, surrealism, dreams (and dreamlands), mind-warping, postmodern magic, and so on. It doesn't contain big heroes, monsters, or fights. The setting, while relatively simple, is interesting and evocative.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Improvisation, railroading, illusionism and the man behind the curtain

I tried to make this point a while ago, without much success. I'll try again from a different angle.

Here is the idea: sometimes, improvisation (i.e., coming up with things on the fly) leads to railroading (or quantum ogres, illusionism and similar things), and sticking to pre-written material (settings, mechanics, etc.) is a good defense against this.

Let's define some terms before we begin. This is the best/oldest definitions I could find, and they seem decent enough:
  1. Improvisation: the art or act of improvising, or of composing, uttering, executing, or arranging anything without previous preparation (source).
  2. Railroading: Railroads happen when the GM negates a player’s choice in order to enforce a preconceived outcome (source).
  3. Illusionism: A term for styles where the GM has control over the storyline, by a variety of means, and the players do not recognize this control (adapted from this source).
It is easy to see how closely related railroading and illusionism are. 

It is harder to see how railroading  ("preconceived outcome") can coexist with improvisation ("without previous preparation"). But, as I'll try to show, the GM often has preconceived outcomes ("in the end, the PCs find the villain and beat him") that goes AGAINST previous preparation ("the villain is Lord Sanydun, he has 50 HP").

One of the main problems of railroading and illusionism is removing agency from players. Not only do their choices cease to matter, but also they are tricked into believing that they do. To use someone else's analogy, it is like letting your little brother play Street Fighter with you, but giving him a joystick that is not connected to the console.

I decided to write this after watching a video from a popular creator (whom I like) with these kinds of GM advice:

1. "If the players mention they suspect an innocent person, maybe you can decide that now HE is the culprit!"
2. "Fudge your die rolls or HP if the encounter proves too difficult".
3. "If a player rolls very well when searching for something that isn't there, maybe it is!"
4. "If the players are talking too much, throw an encounter at them".

Also, to sum it up, something to the effect of "never let the players see the man behind the curtain" - which sounds very close to illusionism.

Now, if that is what rocks your boat, fine. I just want to add that this is not the only style of play and is, in fact, anathema to another style which sees illusionism and railroading as things to avoid.

Let's analyze the advice above.

Advice 1 is the classic example of "improv". But it completely devalues any mystery, any clues you throw at the PCs. You may argue that this is not railroading because the GM hadn't conceived an outcome beforehand - the DM thought the culprit was A, but when the PCs accused B he changed. However, in this case, the outcome enforced by the GM is the PCs find the right culprit; he is negating the player's choice of accusing the wrong person!

Come to think of it, as long as the culprit gets caught, the fact that he was NPC A or NPC B is inconsequential - you cannot claim that changing the culprit is not a "preconceived outcome" because, again, the outcome you are forcing is that the PCs get the bad guy.

Advice 2 will make the players believe they can win any encounter, or worse, they can win any encounter if you let them. It removes player agency. Again, the outcome the GM is forcing is "the PCs win the next battle".

Maybe the only caveat here is if you throw a random encounter at the PCs, through no choice of their own... but even then, I'd prefer letting the Pcs run away or negotiate than fudging the mechanics. For one, it will make they have a better grasp of how powerful a dragon or ogre is.

Advices 3 and 4, again, make the setting feel artificial - as if responding to what players, not PCs, do. Notice that number 3 is a thing that could happen in Dungeon World, for example (IIRC), but DW at least assign consequences for failing your search roll - otherwise, everyone would be searching for treasure everywhere.

Number 4 deserves a caveat: IF the PCs are in a dungeon where you roll for random encounters every 30 minutes, and the players talk for 30 minutes in-character, you should obviously ROLL for random encounters. Likewise, if someone would hear them, etc.

It is not illusionism if the players know

It is not illusionism if there is no illusion. If your players know that fudging dice and HP is the DM's prerogative in this campaign, or that you'll decide whodunnit is as you go, or that a good dice roll will let you find treasure where anywhere, this is not illusionism, it is a style of play.

This is a very important distinction because, as we'll see, DMs must make things up as they go in both styles.

Some different advice

Let me try some alternative advice to the "man behind the curtain" method described above.

- The GM must present an internally coherent setting for the PCs to interact and explore.
- The GM must believe in the authenticity of the setting as much as the players.
- The GM should not alter the realities of the setting (at least not DURING PLAY) to accommodate, entertain, defy, reward or punish players, but only because of things that happen WITHIN the setting. In other words, the setting is defined by PCs and NPCs and not about GM and players.

Another tips I mentioned before that might be related:

- Let the dice push you out of your comfort zone. Your PCs all failed their saving throws - now what? Your important NPC was killed before he could start his plan - what happens now?
- Expect the unexpected from your players. Do not expect them to follow a predictable path, or always find the right culprit, or only pick fights they can win, etc.

How to AVOID illusionism?

Let's say you and I prefer the same style of play - how to avoid illusionism, railroading, etc.?

Well, one idea is use a published adventure, or write your own.

If you follow it to the letter, without improvising, you cannot execute any of the four advices mentioned above.

(BTW, having a plot telling you what happens if the PCs fail or do nothing will help you tremendously. It will relieve you of the temptation of enforcing the preconceived notion that the must win).

Of course, if your PCs stray from the course, you must improvise. However, do NOT improvise a reason to force than back into the adventure. That is exactly what railroading is. Just think of the logical consequences of their choices. 

Also worth remembering that pre-written adventures should NOT dictate what the PCs do, but should only describe NPCs, places, events, and possible ramifications. "In game railroading" is also terrible advice IMO - for example, "if the PCs refuse the mission, the king arrests them until they accept". Here is a good post about the subject.

And what if they enter a random town, far from the original adventure site? Well, then you improvise, but it is ALSO okay to say "I hadn't prepared this, let's take a small break". Remember, it is NOT illusionism when they know you're making things up on the fly.

When to "railroad"

It is okay to talk to your players before the game about a specific premise or even adventure. I recommend GMs that dislike improvising too much do exactly that.

This is NOT exactly railroading, because the players are aware of their choices (or lack of choices) - although the PCs will have no choice in the matter. For example, "hey folks, I have this cool dungeon we can play, what about we run that on Thursday?".

Giving SOME choice to the players is even better. "Okay, I imagine the PCs can go to places A, B or C next Thursday... What do you think? Maybe somewhere else?". If you're mid-campaign, a simple "what you think you're doing next?" will often suffice.

Of course, if you give them just one choice, the players can respond with "why would my PC go into this dangerous place", etc. But after the thing has been settled, it would be rude for the players to just go off-grid without a reason, forcing the GM to improvise on the spot (unless, I guess, the GM is cool with that too!).

As general advice, I'd say that this "railroading" is expected at the very beginning of a campaign - even implicitly. Are we playing Tomb of Annihilation? Yeah, I do not expect the PCs to be disinterested in Chult in the very first session.

Is it okay to "railroad" beginner players so they can learn the game? Well, I can see not wanting to kill every PC in the first fight. "Training wheels" could be useful. But how will they learn that a dragon is dangerous if they beat it at first level? How will they learn their choices matter... if they don't? Why would they play attention to clues if there is no "right" answer to the mystery?

I'm undecided, but I'm inclined to say "no railroads for beginners". In my first Demon Lord adventure, a couple of random thugs almost caused a total party kill. I thought the adventure was too hard - but it did set the tone for the whole campaign.

Should we improvise, then?

Of course. You need at least some improv to run RPGs. What I'm saying is: do it carefully.

For example, you often need to improvise to find out how the NPCs reacts to the PCs. How the events unfold. Etc. 

You also need to improvise to find out things about the setting you hadn't established before. But when you do so, answer your own questions using the setting's internal logic, not the necessities of the players, the moment or the "plot". 

For example, if the player asks "can I full plate armor in this town?", ask yourself "how big is this town?", not "how bad does the PC need this for the next adventure".

You do not change inanimate things and past events because the PCs had an idea, desire, or particular die roll (unless, again, the PC could change the world in such way with his or her actions).

You also improvise anything that players expect you to improvise, of course - what is the blacksmith's name? 

But you do not improvise freely when the answer should be found in the setting - "is there a blacksmith in this town"? When the players ask you that, they do not expect you to be creative, but to give your honest assessment of what you be expected in the setting. Here, you are not looking to be creative, but genuine.

You can also improvise (or, at least, create) anything when your players expect you to do so. For example, between sessions. Or when you ask for a 5 minute break. Or when they break into a random house. Etc.

Its often good to improvise "HOW" but not "IF" (the monster dies, the castle breaks, the NPC escapes, etc.). This is probably worth an entire post.

Oracles and random tables

These are not improvisation. They require previous preparation. If you have a table for random encounters, and you get a dragon encounter, throwing a dragon against your players from nowhere is not improvisation.

But what if these tables are more like oracles? "17 - an ally is revealed as a traitor". Still not improvisation while you roll, but you'll have to interpret the result to the best of your ability - which does require some improvisation. Again, just let the players know that this is the kind of game you're playing - an ally can betray them at random. If there is a transparent mechanic for that (e.g., morale rules), the outcome is not improvisation (although you might have to improvise motives, etc.).

Creation x discovery

Actual improvisation usually trains actors, musicians, etc., to come up with unexpected responses. They are still constrained by other factors - the beat, harmony, or previously established facts. Which is a fine way of playing RPGs*.

There's another way of doing things, however. Many writers describe their processes not as creation, but discovery; i.e., there is a deeper truth about their settings and even characters that they must respect. The goal is not to come up with something unexpected, but to be faithful to the "true nature" of setting in character. 

This is an equally valid approach.

(*One good comparison I got from my friend Jens is jazz - because in jazz you can go "off-key" and even play around with rhythm. But, still, you do not do it alone - you take cues from the band, from the harmony, from the existing beat, etc. You do not set the tone and rhythm for the whole band).

But I LIKE fudging dice!

Again, if that's your preference, that's fine. I'd advice you be transparent about this - let your players know that fudging dice and HP is your prerogative, or that you'll decide whodunnit is as you go. If everyone is on the same page, that's okay (just not my preferred style).

I'd argue, however, that it is useful to let people know both styles exist - at least so people can try both ways and see what they prefer.

Recommended reading:

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Useful reviews are comparisons (book hierarchies)

When I review books, I try to focus on their own merits. Let's say, for example, that Lieber is a fun read despite being better or worse than Tolkien. 

In my latest review, however, I compared The Black Company (unfavorably) to Tolkien, Bernard Cornwell and George RR Martin. As I've mentioned, this might be an unfair comparison, since these three are some of the greats, and it adds a negative note to a book I enjoyed (kinda).

However, I think these kinds of comparisons can be useful in at least four ways: 

- If you liked book A, you might like book B.

- Conversely, if you didn't like book A, you'll probably dislike book B.

- If you have many books to choose from (let's face it, we will never read everything we want), choose book A over book B. 

- It establishes a (subjective) hierarchy of book preference that is clearer than giving a book "four stars" (or, even worse, "seven out of ten", which means basically nothing), etc. 

This last point makes me intensely curious about creating a hierarchy of ALL fantasy books I've read... and my RPGs! Anyway...

There are also some downsides:

- It creates imaginary "feuds" between books, authors or fans (I enjoy both Tolkien and Moorcock greatly, despite Moorcock's unfounded criticism of Tolkien; I also enjoy The Witcher despite Sapkowski, AFAICT, never gave Moorcock due praise since it's such an obvious influence). 

- It forces you to say something (slightly) negative about each book, even the ones you enjoyed ("this is decent but not to the level of GRRM", etc.). 

The first point is easy avoidable by being an adult. 

The second point might be a plus: it is easy to only make reviews of things you enjoy, and say everything is cool and fun; but this is not useful at all. Making reviews of things you didn't like to balance it out feels like a bad idea to me; life is too short to waste time with a book I already disliked.

What about RPGs? Well, the same reasoning applies - and even more so. After all, you could read 20 books or more in a year, but read, learn and play more than three or four RPGs will be hard to do. And when I look to an RPG, I am usually looking for an alternative to my current game, and not an addition to my library.

Let's think of Star Wars, for example. A fan of the Star War franchise might be interested in the movies AND the series AND the books AND the comics... But if you want to PLAY a Star Wars campaign, you'll probably want ONE system to run with - either d6 OR d20 OR Genesys, etc.

(This applies to RPG systems and maybe tools - adventures can be read like other books, i.e., useful additions, not alternatives; it is easier to combine adventures than RPG systems. It is still useful to have an hierarchy if you're looking for a new adventure).

I remember that at least one blog did exactly that - comparing, I think, Mutant Crawl Classics to Mutant Year Zero in the same review, for example (if you remember which one, let me know!).

There is a huge downside to this, however; the RPG niche is small, and many people talk directly to each other through social media. Most of us want to support, and not compete, with each other; and saying A is better than B is likely to leave a bad impression in both. So, it is something I feel I'm not as likely to do with indie publishers (although I'll never publish a review if I cannot be honest about it).

Other than that, however, I think I'll try to incorporate more comparisons in my RPG reviews; it might be useful.

Further reading:

Sunday, January 09, 2022

AI-generated monsters

As you might know, Teratogenicon, my biggest book so far, is about generating random monsters. I'm really pleased with the results - I tried creating a few monsters and it worked out really well . And the book looks amazing - just check the previews!

I'd like to make the process automatic someday. It is probably not hard to do, and I already have all the tables, but I know next to nothing about programming. Well, anyway, here is someone who does:

User Deep-Fold just posted some AI-generated monsters on Reddit. They look vaguely familiar (they are based on official monster art), but very weird, sometimes in ways that a human mind would have a hard time reaching... Truly alien stuff. Makes me wonder if one day we'll write monsters inspired by AI-generated images... 

Here is some of my favorites. 

Flayed beholder:

Burning cockroach demon:

A couple of folks who would fit in Dark Souls:

Lard golem:

Flying orifice:

Whatever the heck these things are:

Unfortunately, there is no better resolution available.

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Extremely simple combat maneuvers (OSR and 5e)

Here is the idea (source):


After a creature rolls for damage, they *can* propose a manoeuvre. The defender may choose whether to accept the manoeuvre or take the damage. Manoeuvres include disarming, pushing, stunning, blinding, breaking gear, tripping, pickpocketing, climbing, restraining, etc. The GM should veto impossible manoeuvres.

This is an awesome idea IMO (and BTW Knave is a great game if you want to check it out before 2e comes out).

But I feel it has one step too many and is missing some risk.

First, creatures will always avoid a blow that will kill them - which is good, but becomes predictable. And no one will take a really serious maneuver, except to avoid death.

Second, you roll damage but you don't DO anything with it (other than maybe intimidating your opponent) - so one step too many.

How about this: BEFORE you roll for damage, you can propose a maneuver, etc.

Now, the defender has to think twice: is it worth the risk? What if it is a critical hit (see below) - maybe it is best to take the maneuver after all!

This feels more organic to me - imagine two opponents exchanging blows, until one takes so many wounds/steps/blows that he or she realizes it is best to fight another day. Or two grapplers fighting until one has to choose between tapping or choking - let's say, for example, that we are playing in a setting that losing is bad but passing out is worse. A playful medieval mêlée comes to mind; it is okay to concede defeat but fighting until passing out means you're taking it too seriously/personal and you'll lose face.

Declare before you roll?

Taking this idea to the extreme, you could declaring a maneuver before you even roll. I am not sure it would work as well. You either have lots of declarations for nothing (if missing = losing the maneuver) or, if you must ACCEPT the maneuver EVEN ON A MISS, I'm not sure anyone would take this option. But it is not an absurd idea either - it is basically similar to giving your opponent a chance of surrendering.

Blade to the throat

Here is another use for his mechanic: surrendering enemies. You hit and let your foe choose damage or surrender with your blade to his or her throat. If he or she moves, they take damage, period. Maybe even a critical hit etc.

Morale, surrender, etc.

The whole thing encourages creatures to find solutions to combat in addition to always falling to death. If playing an OSR game, we could make this interact with morale rules somehow (maybe a morale penalty if you're prone/disarmed/bloodied/etc.?), making the choices even more interesting.

Bloody maneuvers

On a darker note, you can use this to turn combat a really bloody affair... as suggested in the oddskull blog (link below), a chopped hand or foot might be a viable alternative to death! Of course, the GM and players can feel a bit sadistic if using this method... Maiming an enemy on purpose when you could knock him out, or simply slay him if necessary (or if you're mean), would be a rare choice for rational, non-evil, creatures - but maybe would be expected from beasts, oozes, etc. ("Do you fight on or just pull what's left of your arm?"). A choice is between a prized magic item and death might be better... But it does open lots of possibilities, right?

In Fifth Edition

Since this is optional to the defender, it can be easily ported to 5e without risking of unbalancing things. 5e has its own maneuvers (and even concentration, saving throws, and "contests in combat" that can be used of this) but this can add another layer to the games' tactics.

In other games

In Risus, when you're reduced to 0 HP your opponent will just choose what happened (knocked out, captured, etc.). Honor + Intrigue has a dueling system where both opponents try to get advantage and a wound only happens when you've taken a few steps back.

Critical hits

Critical hits are more intimidating than normal hits, since the damage (in most systems) is greater. So, this will encouraged the defender to accept a maneuver. Or you can do both at the same time: let the defender can choose between taking augmented damage OR normal damage and a maneuver. The attacker choose which pair of options to propose, if any.

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Additional reading:

Sunday, January 02, 2022

Happy new year, 2022 RPG projects, and some non-RPG book reflections

Happy new year! I hope you have a great 2022!

I'll go through my 2022 RPG projects first. My bestiary of Brazilian monsters is the main project. Writing (and researching) is harder than I though, but the monsters are AWESOME. Weird and dark, exactly to my taste... And the art will be amazing (see for yourself in the link above).

I still want to write my minimalist 5e, and my 5e house rules for dark fantasy (Fifth Edition Lite and Fifth Edition Dark). I'm a bit stuck but I think I can do something good with this.

Other than that... well, ideas are a dime a dozen, as they say. The most important bit, I think, is making writing a priority - and a daily habit. I'll talk about Planet Asterion, Rise of the Red Sun, Chronicles of Adryon and my Brazilian hexcrawl when I have something to show.

I'm in the middle of a Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign, which I'll finish around February/March, and then I'll do a small review of the game and adventures (they are quite cool). After that, probably back to OSR or minimalist 5e.

2021 has been a productive years for this blog - 92 posts is a personal record. I didn't publish many PDFs - my latest was 5e Manual of Arms: Armor & Shields, back in April - but we did manage to get the pint version of Teratogenicon, and it looks great.

I've written more reviews than usual, and commented on a few "deal of the day" and other sales. I have few comments on these posts, but some people say it is useful. So, if you want a review of one of your books and the subject fits this blog (5e, OSR, weird and/or dark fantasy, especially if you have a deal of the day programmed), get in touch (through MeWe, Reddit, or a comment in this blog).

Well, in fact, feel free to get in touch to make suggestions, discuss ideas, and so on. This is the main purpose of this blog after all.

Now, if you'll allow me some brief reflections on non-RPG stuff...

I've read a couple dozen books in 2021. Mostly non-fiction - finance, happiness, self-help... Trying to improve my life, be happier, find purpose. Some were good, some weren't (I especially enjoyed Rolf Dobelli for easy tips, if you want a recommendation). I've also read a couple of short classic I had never read - The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Notes from Underground. And they felt not only more meaningful but also more useful. I'd recommend reading both regardless of your tastes.

I'm not sure what to make of this - but in 2022 I want to prioritize reading the classics over current non-fiction.

Anyway, all the best for you and your families! Happy 2022!