athelind: (hoard potato)
Dungeons & Dragons is infamous for having a lot of minutiae that "nobody's ever going to use".

This is a long-standing tradition in the game: as a single example, Greyhawk, the first supplement to the original D&D rules, contained elaborate modifiers for comparing specific weapons to specific kinds of armor that almost every player dismissed as an unnecessary complication.

Blackmoor, the second supplement to the original D&D rules, had a whole section about "Underwater Adventures" that almost always gets lumped into this category. There are pages of underwater combat rules, the effects of casting spells underwater, pelagic and benthic monsters galore, and no small supply of aquatically-themed magic items.

Most players looked at all of this and immediately decided that they would never, ever, EVER venture underwater. The most obvious obstacle of Not Drowning was the matter of least concern, easily handled by spells, potions, or magic rings; the Monsters of the Deep were formidable, but no more so than those found in other, drier regimes.

No, it was the matter of sheer inconvenience.

The normal strategies and tactics of a typical band of adventurers would be severely curtailed in the Undersea World; the mainstay offensive spells, Fireball and Lightning Bolt, were ineffective or uncontrollable; heavy armor limited one's swimming mobility; swords, axes, and other weapons that relied upon swinging were severely penalized, in favor of stabbing and thrusting weapons like spears and (of course) tridents). Bows and slings were useless; the only viable ranged options were heavily-modified crossbows. A party from the surface had a choice between fighting in hobbles, or abandoning their precious arsenal of magical toys.

And for what? The same gold and jewels that every monster hoarded, with the added bonus of overspecialized magic items that were of very little use on dry land -- or in the underground corridors whence most characters in those ancient days spent the bulk of their careers.

All in all, it was deemed far too much trouble for too little reward. Not "risk", mind: D&D players have never minded taking crazy risks with their ultimately disposable, but they have always HATED being impaired, disadvantaged, or "nerfed". A Dungeon Master who dragged his players into an underwater adventure risked horrible retribution: I have heard stories that I hope are only an urban legend about a disgruntled gaming group that added anchovies to the DM's pizza, in order to "maintain the theme".

(Excuse me, I need a moment. Brrr.)

Alas, D&D is also infamous for failures of imagination.

There is a lot of underwater-themed material in Blackmoor -- more material than a DM might need to take a party of surface dwellers on one or two dips in a pond.¹ There's enough there to build an entire campaign around, a long-running game centered around aquatic adventures. If players hate getting dragged underwater once in a while, though, who'd want to pull their party under the waves on a regular basis?

Here's the thing: Blackmoor is also full of intelligent aquatic creatures, many of whom would be entirely viable player characters.

Why not have a whole party of aquatic characters?

Merfolk, Tritons, Locathah, the inevitable Sea Elves.

If memory serves, the section even includes underwater options for the various PC classes -- again, sections that "nobody would ever use" if they were only thinking in terms of surface dwellers descending to an especially damp dungeon.

Of course, since tabletop gaming never throws anything away (except THAC0), the vast bulk of this material was inherited by AD&D, D&D3/4/5, and Pathfinder. Despite this, in the forty years since TSR published that book, we've seen official, published D&D campaign worlds set in a Hollow World, on a dying world, in the Romulan Neutral Zone of Gods and Demons, and far more, but to my knowledge, neither the Lads in Lake Geneva nor their Coastal Successors have ever published a campaign setting based on the adventure potential of three-quarters of the surface of a typical Earth-like fantasy world.

Other than GURPS Atlantis, I don't know of any other game companies doing so, either for their own systems or during the turn of the century's explosion of third-party d20 products. The SFRPG Blue Planet might qualify if you're not too picky about that line between "high fantasy" and "hard science fiction".

I have never even heard of anyone running their own aquatic campaign. I've proposed such a thing myself a few times over the decades (including a superhero variation using Champions), but each time, it's been shot down in favor of more traditional game milieus. Did you really expect me to go a whole post without a single TV Tropes link?

I honestly don't understand this. Mermaids are perennial and iconic elements of fantasy and folklore -- more so than faux-Tolkien elves. The ocean is a beautiful and varied environment even before you start dropping fantasy magic and fish-people into it. The generation that turned this oddball hobby into an industry grew up on Captain Nemo, Aquaman cartoons, and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.

I mean, I get why some of my other pet ideas have no traction in the gaming world; even I can see that playing a squad of inch-tall CMDF agents might have a limited appeal.

This one, though, seems like a natural.

athelind: (RPG: grognard)

This post links to

Yesterday, I found myself reading, and it reminded me of one of my quirks as a Game Master: as I've mentioned before, when I GM tabletop, it doesn't matter what genre the game is supposed to be ... there's about a 60% chance that it'll turn into a horror game.

It's not that I'm particularly fond of horror as an RPG genre. I just have a knack for it. When I'm GMing, at some point, I'll look at the players, smile wickedly behind my GM screen, and think, "oh, I just had an idea that might really wig them out."

You see, if you want to run a really effective horror game ... don't tell your players.

Over the span of three decades and change, I've done this in classic first edition AD&D, in a space opera game, and in two superhero games. Not a lot, I suppose ... until one notes that my stints behind the screen are rare and years apart.

The campaign that dove the most deeply into the horror rabbit hole was SUPPOSED to be a superhero game. I've alluded to this one before: the players were playing game versions of their real-life selves, and got super-powers when a UFO exploded near them.

I really intended -- I wanted -- to run a Fantastic Four-style campaign, using weird and amazing powers to explore bizarre phenomena and deal with off-beat threats.

However ...

The players were not primarily comic book fans.

What's more, this was the 1990s ... at the height of popularity of the X-Files.

Exacerbating matters, one of the players was, in real life, a Marine MP who had worked with FEMA at some point. I said, "UFO Crash", and he replied, "I'm not allowed to say whether or not FEMA has a plan to deal with this situation, but if they did* ..."

This was the metaphorical equivalent of reaching over, jerking the wheel, and sending the car into a spin. The whole party immediately slipped into Aaiiee Conspiracy Paranoia the Government Will Vivisect Us Mode, and I realized I had just lost control of the campaign.

So I did what my race car driver father taught me to do in a literal spin:

I turned in the direction of the spin and stepped on the gas.**

So, they all had Powers and Abilities Far Beyond Those of Mortal Men ... and they all wanted to lie low, go back to their lives, pretend it never happened, and try to keep the Gummint from ever finding out who was there at the crash site.

I could have doubled down on superhero tropes, and set up a big, public situation where Only They Could Save The Day ... but I had a sneaking suspicion, somehow, that this wouldn't goad them into action. I realized that, despite everyone signing on to play a superhero game, they didn't want to be superheroes.

They wanted a Paranoid Conspiracy with the Government Out To Get Them.

So I gave it to them.

I took the exact same power set that one of the PCs had: Teleportation, and a global scale ESP that manifested as erratic visions, a "teleport destination sense", and the ability to pinpoint technobabble "anomalies" that included other people sharing their power source ... and I gave that template to an implacable sociopath that the Shadowy Government Conspiracy had kept under lock, key, and power damper until they needed him to find the PCs.

([ profile] kolchis gave me the invaluable suggestion of looking to Dean R. Koontz's gallery of empowered sociopaths for inspiration.)

He slipped his leash almost immediately, and started stalking them.

I gave them a few initial hints ... and then, when they'd all gathered at a restaurant to talk about the weird shit that had been happening to them individually, the Marine MP didn't show up ...

... and as they were sitting there, right outside the window where they're sitting, a body slammed into a car from a significant height, shattering the windows, denting the hood, and making the alarms go off.

The body looked just like the missing party member.

The PARTY'S clairvoyant was able to tell that, even though there wasn't a mark on the corpse ... the heart was missing.

I then shifted to where the missing party member actually was ... in an alley, with the water from a recent rain dripping off a fire escape ... drip ... drip ... drip ...

And he wasn't alone.

I shifted back to the alley, where the party realized that the body before them wasn't really their associate -- the build was wrong, the height was wrong -- but someone else whose face had been ... sculpted, somehow.

Back in the alley ...

(... drip ... drip ... drip ...)

There was a figure who was always JUST out of our missing party member's line of sight. Any time he'd turn, there'd be a voice behind him, or off to one side, or above him, patiently explaining that, after his "translation", nobody else was really visible to his new senses. He came to understand that he was the only real thing in a world of shadows; he could see souls, you see, and nobody else had one ...

(... drip ... drip ... drip ...)

... until he sensed the PCs ... being born.

After two decades, I don't remember all the details of the encounter, or why, but it was something along the lines of, "go back to your friends ... and let them know ... I am a jealous god. And I am coming for them."

And then, as the session ended, I queued up Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper."

*They did. It is no longer classified. Fnord.
**This works. It's saved my life twice, once in a '71 Chevy van, once in a '97 Ford Aspire.
athelind: (Sci Fi)
The Threepenny Space Opera: An Introduction


This is the first in a series of posts under the head of The Threepenny Space Opera, in which Your Obedient Serpent bandies about ideas and concepts for science fiction RPG settings. These are primarily Notes To Myself, and the different concepts may or may not be compatible with each other in a single milieu.

I have been in a Star Wars Saga Edition game for the last four years, and, while I enjoy it a great deal, I confess that I enjoy it in spite of the setting, not because of it. It is hardly an original insight to assert that the Lucasian setting isn't "really" science fiction, but rather, fantasy with a thin veneer of technology; it has some truth to it, but that doesn't curtail my ability to enjoy a rip-roaring laser-adorned Hero's Journey.

If forced to pick a side when the line is drawn between Romanticism and Enlightenment, however, Your Obedient Serpent falls squarely in the latter camp.1 There are elements of Classic Space Opera that are Very Important To Your Obedient Serpent, and they can only be shoehorned into the Galaxy Far Far Away with great effort -- and are entirely absent from, say, Dark Heresy and many of the other starfaring settings offered to the RPG community.

I am rambling, which is nothing new. Let me therefore invoke that tool of PowerPoint abusers worldwide, and proffer a Bullet List:

  • I want a vision of a hopeful, optimistic future. Cautionary tales are an important part of the science fiction estate, but they aren't, contrary to Post-Modern thought, more "mature" or "sophisticated" or "valid". When all the visions of the future are dystopian, when the only message from tomorrow is "Beware", then where will we find the hope and inspiration to drive us forward?

  • I want to Explore Strange New Worlds. Even Star Trek: the Next Generation fell short on this one, keeping NCC-1701-D largely within the borders of the Federation, boldly staying where everyone had gone before; the movies, of course, abandon the notion of "exploration" entirely.

  • I want to Save the Day with SCIENCE!! I want a setting and a system where the Vulcan manning the sensors contributes as much to the adventure as the Dashing Space Pilot.

  • And on that note, I want a game that doesn't shy away from starships and space combat, while making sure that ALL the player characters can take active roles when the Space Pirates drop out of Netherspace, or the Negative Space Wedgie looms on the main screen. I want a game that's not afraid of starmaps, and where travel between the worlds is an opportunity, not an obstacle (or a quick screen-wipe).

There will be more forthcoming.

1 In the topsy-turvy backwards world of Literary Jargon, I am an unrealistic dreamer because I reject Romanticism.

athelind: (Eye of the Dragon)
Goodness. I've let this lie far too long, and I apologize -- particularly since my last post of any substance was "I'M HAVING CHEST PAINS."

I should remedy that, and shall.

First and foremost, HEALTH:

Said chest pains proved not only to be not life threatening, they weren't even a significant health issue. They were, yes, Pre-Ventricular Contractions, and, yes, I do have a family history of PVCs -- but there are no structural issues with my heart. The doctor said that I could go climb Mount Kilimanjaro were I so inclined.

The "flips" have entirely faded, at this point, and considering that they started immediately after I got back from last year's Maker Fair ... I rather suspect the high-voltage jolts I got for funsies from the Van De Graff generator a few booths down from us might have triggered a little persistent twitchery in the old timer.

(Come to think of it, that anxiety/panic attack I had at dinner that one night during Maker Fair might have been the first manifestation -- that feeling of "panic" and "trouble breathing" might have been connected to "GAH MY HEART SHOULD NOT DO THAT" ...)


I am quite enjoying my current employment. My experience with interpreting and displaying complex, abstruse data clearly (read: "Your Obedient Serpent Knows Stupid Excel Tricks") has made me the go-to guy for our company's more esoteric reports, and while I tend to get buried in these Special Projects, I really can sink my teeth into them.

It's still a 50-mile commute, but I'm no longer carpooling with [ profile] kohai_tiger; a few times driving solo gave me a taste for getting in and getting home earlier ... and earlier ... and earlier. When I flew out to Midwest Furfest last November, I started running on "Chicago Time" ... and really never shifted back to Pacific Time. Most days, I roll out around 0400, get to work around 0500, leave around 1400, and get home around 1515, plus or minus fifteen to twenty minutes either way.

Oddly, since I've shifted my shower-taking habits to evening instead of morning, I get up at about the same time as I did when I was carpooling and getting to work between 0730 and 0800 -- but since I seldom if ever have to contend with anything resembling traffic, I get home three to four hours earlier. Drying off becomes relaxing downtime instead of rushed getting-ready time.

I've also found that I enjoy driving in the early hours of the morning, and not just because of the light traffic. I'm very much a morning person, and those crisp, clear pre-dawn hours just seem more alive to me. I confess that I've also been prone to a bit of Seasonal Affective Disorder for the past few years -- but I never had an issue while on The Chicago Schedule. It tried to sneak back on the few days that I shifted back to a "normal" schedule during the winter months. I think a key factor is Getting Home After Dark: if you get up before sunrise, you've Seized the Day. If you get home after sunSET ... the day has seized you.


I've been mostly keeping up with the speculative cinema; I can't believe I've let both Captain America: the First Avenger and Marvel's The Avengers slip by without comment, much less any other movies. On television, Game of Thrones is an amazing achievement, and on broadcast television, I found myself wholly engaged and impressed by Arrow.

I am down to a single game on the RPG front: the monthly Star Wars game hosted by [ profile] rikoshi and [ profile] tealfox. The Wednesday night game sessions alternating between Ironclaw and The Dresden Files were becoming increasingly untenable for me, and once I switched to Chicago Time, I simply couldn't continue. Honestly, I'm suffering a bit of Gamer Fatigue on that front; once the Star Wars game wraps up, I will probably gafiate from gaming for a year or three.

My chronic automotive issues were finally traced to a glitchy OBD-II (On Board Diagnostic) computer. That took nearly two months to get replaced and functioning properly; if she proves stable, I may start keeping a packed Go-Bag, so I can head out for spontaneous road trips on random weekends. I spend far too much time traveling the same hundred miles of road (I take different routes in the morning and afternoon), and spending the weekend sitting around home not going ANYWHERE only goes so far. I'm a traveller by ancestry, instinct, and long, long experience, and by golly, I need to TRAVEL.

Oh, and I've picked up a few more volumes of Raymond Chandler ...
athelind: (hoard potato)


I've finally figured out my utter dis1 for DC's recent business model of resurrecting Silver Age characters who got killed off in the '80s and '90s because they couldn't sustain their own titles.

As I mentioned the other day, I don't like zombies.2

Certainly, remembering, as one example, the long, dragged, out "Trial of the Flash" that closed out Barry Allen's run months before he met his end in Crisis on Infinite Earths is not that far removed from having the fragrance of three-month-old sea lion carcasses waft unbidden through one's amygdala.3

At least when Marvel turns its colorfully-costumed characters into shambling undead mockeries, they're occasionally honest about it.


DC is releasing a series of prequels to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' classic graphic novel, Watchmen.

I reserve judgment on whether or not this is a bad move; really, I'm finding myself far too tickled by the outrage of the fandom (and Alan Moore) to really have many objections myself (and besides, one of them will have Darwyn Cooke art).

However, something occurred to me the other day:

Watchmen is older than most of the "old comics" it was based on were when it was published.

1disinterest/disappointment/distaste/disdain/disregard/dyspepsia ...
2I wanna shoo-oo-oo-oot the whole trend down!
3I have a dread suspicion that that storyline, which seemed to take forever at the time, might seem a masterpiece of snappy pacing compared to the "decompressed" storytelling of today's "decompressed".

athelind: (RPG: Setting the Stage)
Another song popped into my head as I was perusing responses to the last post.

It's "defiant and heroic", but in a very different sense than the rest of my examples.

... and definitely not "Wrong Publisher".

Superman never made any money ... )

And sometimes I despair the world will never see
Another man like him

athelind: (grognard)
I'm kicking around a playlist for the DC Adventures/Mutants & Masterminds game I'm going to be running Real Soon Now, and I'm looking for for songs with heroic, defiant themes.

This is what I've got so far:
  • Pat Benatar - Invincible
  • Muse - Victorious
  • Bonnie Tyler - Holding Out for a Hero
  • Queen - We Are The Champions
  • Remy Zero - Save Me (Smallville Theme)
  • Five for Fighting - Superman
  • Rush - New World Man

  • Vertical Horizon - Everything You Want
  • Blue Oyster Cult - Veteran of the Psychic Wars

Rejected suggestions:
  • Ozzy Ozbourne - Iron Man (Sorry, wrong publisher!)
  • The Beatles - The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
  • They Might Be Giants - Particle Man
  • Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

Does anyone have any other suggestions?

This is just ONE playlist, mind. Another (which will get more use) will be purely instrumental, and there may be adventure-specific lists.

athelind: (hoard potato)
Well, Mearls started it:

This is a placeholder to remind myself to talk about core stories in my next post, particularly as they apply both to superhero RPGs and to the comics themselves.

Notes to Emphasize:
  • Different characters (and teams) have different core stories.
    • Batman's Core Story is not the same as Superman's.
    • The Fantastic Four and the X-Men have similar core stories based on familial connections.
    • The Hulk has a very different core story.

  • Core stories change over time.
  • Heroes get dull and predictable when writers forget their core stories and replace them with "Bad guy acts, heroes react, there is punching."
  • Most superhero RPGs assume "act/react/punch" is the core story.
  • What core story am I going to use for Gateway City?

Feel free to provide commentary while I'm gone. Talk amongst yourselves; I'll steal your ideas for the full post.

athelind: (grognard)
Gaming Geekery:

Years ago, on a whim, I picked up a big bag of plastic "gold pirate coins" from a Halloween store during their big November 1st sale. I've found they make terrific game counters; they're big and shiny and, compared to those defective marbles flat glass beads that most people use, much lighter to tote around and much harder to lose.

A year or two ago, I wandered through a party store around Mardi Gras time, and noted that they had even bigger bags of Mardi Gras coins, in gold, metallic green, and metallic purple.

So, after noting earlier in the week that Mardi Gras was in early March this year, I stopped by a local party store last week and got a bag.

I'm ab out to start a game of DC Adventures (a.k.a. Mutants & Masterminds Third Edition). DCA/M&M makes extensive use of "Hero Points", which allow PCs to do Cool Things Above and Beyond Their Character Sheet. They also have a "Luck Control" power which bestows Expendable Resources that aren't quite as flexible as a full Hero Point.

M&M originated the "Toughness Save" wound mechanic. Every time you fail a Toughness roll in DCA, you take a Wound, which gives you a -1 on further Toughness checks (and makes you more likely to take additional Conditions that lead up to Unconsciousness).

I've been using counters for Hero Points since M&M 1st Edition. M&M1 gave PCs a lot of Hero Points, and not only was it a lot easier to keep track of them when we used counters ... there was something viscerally satisfying about the sound they made when you dropped the glass-bead counter in the Big Jar. There's a psychological edge to using something tangible that you don't get just from marking a tally on a piece of paper.

While I was hypnotized by the shinies looking over three different colors of coins, I immediately designated Gold as Hero Points, and Green for Luck was a no-brainer. I wasn't quite sure what to do with the purple ones, at first, until I remembered that keeping track of Wounds was a bit of bookkeeping that would also benefit from counters. Just tossing a player a purple coin (or stacking one up on an NPC sheet) will make it a lot easier to track. "What's my penalty?" "How many coins do you have in your stack?"

And Purple is a vaguely bruise-like color, after all.

Computer Geekery:

After three-plus years of using Ubuntu Linux and Open Office on my home systems, I have just spent my first three weeks at a job where I am obligated to use industry-standard Microsoft products: Windows, Office, all the Usual Suspects.

I have to say ... I regret nothing! After running smoothly for more than two weeks, Office decided to be Inexplicably Glitchy this past week. Word just randomly slows to a stop periodically, interrupting my work flow to herald me with the icon that [ profile] normanrafferty has so eloquently described as "a toilet-flushing circle".1 Excel, for its part, has decided that I don't really need cell heights to adjust automatically unless I close Excel entirely and re-open the worksheet in a fresh instance.

None of these quirks would be quite so irksome if the applications hadn't run just fine right up until Wednesday or Thursday.

I will say that there are a couple of Excel features that OpenOffice Calc doesn't implement quite as elegantly, most particularly in the little "cell border" button up in the toolbar. In Calc, that just calls up the "Format Border" dialogue. Excel lets you pick from an array of commonly-used border choices (such as "surround all these cells with a thick black line"), which makes it much simpler and faster to insure that your tables all have a uniform appearance. Still, Excel gives me just as many "why won't you do this simple obvious thing that Calc does?" moments as vice versa.

Oh, and Microsoft Visio is a gem of a layout/floorplan program that seems to have no direct Linux equivalent. In fact, it doesn't seem to have any significant Windows competitors. Nothing else seems to combine that "here's a bunch of commonly-used icons to drag and drop onto your layout" interface with the crisp, elegant lines that Viso produces.

Of course, the only credit Microsoft gets is for having the savvy to buy out the company and rebrand the software.

1 Obviously, the toilet is stopped up, since the circle doesn't change in size at all ...
athelind: (grognard)
[ profile] paka posted some thoughts on LotR Elves vs. D&D Elves, in which he noted that Unca Gary wasn't that much of a Tolkien fan, since the Professor's work "wasn't pulpy enough for his tastes".

I responded:
I have long felt that the reason Dungeon Fantasy mutated into its own peculiar, inbred subgenre that, frankly, doesn't really WORK that well was because players tried to graft the tropes of Heroic Quest Fantasy onto a system whose initial assumptions were rooted in the very different tropes of picaresque Sword & Sorcery.

I may be the only person who thinks so anymore, but to me, D&D's haphazard combination of High Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery isn't so much a matter of "you got peanut butter in my chocolate" as "you're wearing plaid and paisley together."

athelind: (Default)
[ profile] paka posted some thoughts on LotR Elves vs. D&D Elves, in which he noted that Unca Gary wasn't that much of a Tolkien fan, since the Professor's work "wasn't pulpy enough for his tastes".

I responded:
I have long felt that the reason Dungeon Fantasy mutated into its own peculiar, inbred subgenre that, frankly, doesn't really WORK that well was because players tried to graft the tropes of Heroic Quest Fantasy onto a system whose initial assumptions were rooted in the very different tropes of picaresque Sword & Sorcery.

I may be the only person who thinks so anymore, but to me, D&D's haphazard combination of High Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery isn't so much a matter of "you got peanut butter in my chocolate" as "you're wearing plaid and paisley together."

athelind: (grognard)
Old leezard is old.

I talk about RPGs with a lot of people, most notably, [ profile] normanrafferty.

The Rat has been gaming almost as long as I have, but that "almost" is significant -- never more so than when he'll contradict me about "how things were in the early days".1 I notice similar disconnects when reading LiveJournals, blogs... even the Designer Notes inside published RPGs.

What Rafferty and most other gamers don't realize is those few short years between 1978, when Your Obedient Serpent started gaming, and 1983-84, when The Rat started gaming, are a lot like the first three minutes after the Big Bang.2

Science Fiction Fans refer to "First Fandom" as those who were actively involved in fannish activity before 1 January 1938. The role-playing equivalent, IMNSHO, would be those already playing D&D when Dallas Egbert went missing on 16 August 1979 (yep, exactly 30 years ago this Sunday).3

Git offa my hex paper lawn, you whippersnappers! )

November 2016

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