Archive for June, 2009

Geiger at GoPlayNW

June 30, 2009

Apparently Ping, James Brown, Eric Boyd, and Matthew SB played Geiger Counter at GoPlayNW 2009 and had quite a time of it. It was even mentioned twice on One Cool Thing (since Jason was there to film his trademark video montage).

James Brown said: “Jonathan Walton, you bastard. Why didn’t you show me that game before?”

And Jeremy Tidwell, who didn’t even play the game, said: “And they had this map of this space station. They were drawing as the fiction went along. And they were adding in all these little bits and pieces, ventilations and… y’know… the wave of chaos was moving through it. But they were creating the setting as it progressed and that seemed really awesome. I really want to play this game.”

Rock. Major props to Ping and the boys for bringing the awesome!

Meat Lightning: Campaign Creation, Part 1

June 29, 2009

The Stormchaser (formerly HMS Investigator) is a decommissioned and officially condemned 118-foot ice-strengthened merchant barque formerly of Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s Royal Navy. While searching for remnants of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition in 1853, she became frozen in the arctic Canadian waters near Lancaster Sound. Only a small fraction of the crew survived the long nine months of being frozen in until the summer thaw broke the Investigator free. The ship limped home to England barely held together, having narrowly escaped being crushed and sunk by the expanding ice. The arctic death of Captain Warren and unproven rumors of cannibalism among the few survivors led to the decommissioning of the ship and its illegal sale into private hands, despite being condemned. According to official navy records, the HMS Investigator was intentionally sunk in the North Sea in 1855.

Did you eat the bodies of your dead crewmates in order to survive?
Did you kill any of them in order to eat them?
Did you kill Captain Warren?
Did you eat Captain Warren?

The decommissioned Investigator was sold, as is, to a research group led by Dr. Francis Caldwell and secretly funded by the Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge. Caldwell had conducted pioneering work in the scientific study of animal magnetism and had sought to expand his research to include the magnetic field of the earth itself. Consequently, he hoped that the newly renamed Stormchaser would ferry himself, a handful of assistants, and a deviously ingenious magnetic engine of his own devising to the arctic, as close to the magnetic north pole as the weather and ice would allow. However, Caldwell could find no proper crew in England willing to sail north on a “cursed” ship whose true identity was readily apparently to any able British seaman. In the end, Caldwell was forced to make grand promises to the Investigator‘s survivors so that they would return to their former posts and scrounge for the rest by hiring foreigners and ne’er-do-wells with no knowledge of the ship’s history.

Do you know that the ship is cursed?
What has Francis Caldwell promised you, that you would make this journey?
What do you hope to find or escape from out in the arctic?
Who will miss you while you are gone?

In October of 1857, the Stormchaser is frozen in for the winter 20 miles off the east coast of Boothia Peninsula, where Sir John Ross discovered the magnetic north pole in 1829. On November 12, Dr. Caldwell is in the midst of preparing to sledge his magnetic engine over the ice — and eventually all the way to the magnetic pole — when mutiny erupts. A dozen of the Stormchaser‘s crewmen are secretly servants of the archon Asmodeus and have been charged with destroying Dr. Caldwell’s machine and killing all other members of the expedition.

Which side do you initially take in the mutiny, Caldwell’s or the mutineers?
Whose side are you really on?
Who leads the pro-Caldwell forces defending the good doctor and his infernal machine?

Okay, that character now begins their first mission. Your objectives are:
1. Protect the doctor and his machine.
2. Capture, kill, or drive off the mutineers.


JLC Muzak?

June 27, 2009

I’m sitting here in Bruegger’s Bagels and Jump Little Children’s Mexico just came on the speakers… but it’s not Jay Clifford singing but some female vocalist. Who in the world is it? Also, if I search for the song, how many of the tracks I find will be covers of James Taylor’s Mexico?

P.S. iTunes has failed me. I have no idea who that was.

U.S. 2 – Spain 0

June 25, 2009

In case you missed the greatest ever victory by the men’s US soccer team, the NYTimes has a great article summarizing the significance of the game.

Spain was the #1 team in the world, having gone unbeaten for 35 wins and ties and won their last 15 outright. The US had been very generously ranked at #14, probably higher than we deserve considering we play in a relatively week North American conference where our biggest opponent is Mexico. Spain has a dozen players who are household names all over the world: David Villa, Torres, Pique, Puyol, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Fàbregas, Sergio Ramos. The US has a bunch of guys who play for mid-level European clubs and then a handful of standouts from the MLS.

Sure, this was a one-shot win, but something more than a fluke, a sign that American men’s soccer has grown some teeth and believes in itself. The team next has to play Brazil in the Confederation Cup Final (2pm Sunday, ESPN), which no one dreamed we would ever be playing in, and Brazil didn’t look unbeatable against South Africa this afternoon, only winning on a beautiful indirect kick by Dani Alves in the 88th minute (out of a 90-min game), who came off the bench just to plug one, it seems.

Time to start dreaming.

Hard Boiled Pixels!

June 24, 2009

It’s happening. Justin’s going to edit, looks like. Also, I might do layout myself since Fred’s busy with his new kid (congrats, Fred!). Here’s the first few paragraphs:

INTRODUCTION: Return to the Early-Mid 90s

This is a handbook for creating Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons campaigns in the style of 16-bit, isomorphic console RPGs, specifically those released in the 1990s for the Super Nintendo and more recent offerings for the Gameboy Advance.

Primary inspirations include The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Nintendo: 1991), Secret of Mana (Square: 1993), Final Fantasy IV (Square: 1994), Chrono Trigger (Square: 1995), Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (Square: 2003), The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (Capcom/Flagship: 2004), and the recent re-release of Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls (Square Enix/Nintendo: 2004). If your favorite console RPGs are not on this list, hopefully you will still find the guidelines and options in this handbook helpful in designing a 4E campaign that equals or surpasses your best memories of playing console games.

This handbook was put together during the process of co-designing and playing my current 4E campaign, Doppeleffect, with my friends Dev Purkayastha, Eric Pinnick, and Eben Lowe. Throughout the text, examples from Doppeleffect will serve to illustrate various concepts and design decisions.

Keep in mind that, in some cases, my design recommendations are undoubtedly influenced by the premise and specific circumstances of my current campaign, including the preferences and play styles of the other players. As this handbook seeks to make clear, making a console-style campaign that really rocks socks entails adapting the guidelines given here for local conditions of your own play group. This requires investment and participation on the part of both the Dungeon Master and the rest of the players from early on in the campaign-planning process.

Consequently, the next sections walks you through the preliminary planning stages, where you and the other players collectively brainstorm and build the imaginary console game that you will be playing over the course of your campaign. Later chapters cover the smaller scale, session and encounter-level planning and execution that will become the focus once your group is ready to begin play.

Hard Boiled Pixels?

June 21, 2009

Just a concept I’m working on, based on various people’s questions about and interest in the 16-bit 4E game I’m currently running. The OBE guys (Fred, basically) have yet to approve of any of this, so it’s just work on spec at this point, but I figure they could probably be convinced, once the product was actually written (seeing as how I’m notoriously flakey). I’m going to update this post occasionally as I flesh out the outline and think of other things that I want to include.

1. Why 16-bit 4E?
2. My Campaign (used as an example throughout)


How flexible will you be? Do player choices actually matter? How?

1. Premise
2. Characters
3. Title Screen
4. Introduction
5. First Encounter
6. First Dungeon
7. Magic Items
8. Boss Monsters
9. Going Forward
10. Towns
10. Building Towards a Climax
11. Final Confrontation
12. You Win!


1. Item Management
2. Treasure Parcels
3. Quests & Milestones
4. Leveling
5. Designing Combat Encounters
6. Designing Non-Combat Encounters
7. Skill Challenge: Grinding
8. Boss Design

1. Figure out what kind of maps and sprites you need.
2. Start by hacking existing maps and sprites.
3. Download appropriate ones from places like the Video Game Atlas and the Spriters Resource.
4. Use grids to divide them into 32×32 pixel tiles, figure out what needs to change.
5. Move 16×16 pixel tiles around until you get roughly what you want.
6. Fine tune stuff by editing the tiles pixel by pixel.
7. Once you get comfortable with how lowfi maps work, you can make your own custom tile sets.

– ?

1. Overland map of some kind.
2. Regional map.
3. Dungeon map.
4. PC Sprites.
5. Monster Sprites.
6. Item Sprites.

It Begins: At Least 13 Dead in Tehran

June 21, 2009

As the civil unrest surrounding Iran’s recent election becomes more violent, I can’t help but be deeply worried about what the eventual outcome will be.

My experiences studying the history and workings of Chinese internal security forces lead me to suspect that popular opposition to state authority is rarely successful if central leaders retain control of security forces and can convince them to shoot unarmed protesters. In Tian’anmen, this was a near-thing, since the both the People’s Armed Police (a paramilitary organization with no equivalent in the US) and local army units refused to use violence to clear the square, requiring central leaders to bring in military units from rural provinces, who had little connection to Beijing citizens and were more easily manipulated into seeing the protesters as hooligans or a threat to the nation. Of course, convincing security and army units to use violence to suppress Tibetan protests has never been a problem, as far as I know. If the Iranian protesters hope to survive — both individually and as a movement — they’re going to have to find a way to convince security and army units to refuse to perform the commands issued to them, which doesn’t seem likely at present; they simply don’t have widespread support in enough different channels to have their influence shield them from violence.

What outcomes seem likely or possible right now?

1. It looks like there will be no peaceful “color revolution,” where the unpopular and discredited regime steps aside or completely transforms, as happened in Eastern Europe. It also appears that there will be no successful violent revolution, where the protesters arm themselves and overthrow the current regime. The protesters are in too weak a position for either of those to work.

2. It seems unlikely that the current regime will reach a peaceful compromise with the protesters. People have died and there is too much anger and fear on both sides. From what I’ve seen, it looks like the election results will stand, as they are not being broadly questioned or challenged from within the ruling core of the regime. The isolated individuals within the regime that are siding with the protesters seem to be treading the path of Zhao Ziyang. If the Ayatollah steps in and personally mandates some sort of negotiations, maybe they can turn back from this road, but I don’t see that happening yet.

3. The most likely result I see, then, is that the protesters will be forcibly suppressed by security forces (and perhaps military forces, if it goes that far) on the orders of central leaders. This is the Tian’anmen result, basically, though it’s not clear that there will be one big incident so much as many smaller ones. While this will be disastrous in the short term for the protesters, it’s important to remember how influential Tian’anmen was for China, not just in preserving the continued rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime, but in exposing social divides and issues that the CCP must deal with once they had used violence to secure the regime’s survival, leading them to gradually build a new social contract with the Chinese people over the next two decades. China as it is today would not exist without Tian’anmen, which includes a lot of good as well as bad.

Of course, that’s little comfort to those who are about to give up their lives for what they believe in, either through bloodshed or by being locked away in prison or house arrest for decades. We can only hope that their suffering and the suffering of their loved ones will eventually lead to a better future for the people of Iran, whatever that future may be. And, of course, maybe my instincts are wrong and this conflict will proceed differently.

May we all be guided to the right path (Ihdinā ṣ-ṣirāṭ al-mustaqīm).

LowFantasy: iPhone App RPG Outline, part 1

June 19, 2009

Christian Griffen challenged me to design an indie tabletop RPG as an iPhone app. Here’s the design work. The rest is up to you crazy programmer types, though I’ll be happy to help out however I can.

Guiding Principle

Teach a man to fish. Designing content that people consume is great, but the purpose of this project is to design an app that facilitates users creating, enjoying, and sharing content on their own terms, as active rather than passive participants in the life of the app.


LowFantasy is loosely based on a short game I designed (with some help from Dev Purkayastha and others) called Mare Caspium (PDF).

In broad terms, users create a map of a fantasy world of their own devising, define initial situations for different locations on that map, and then gather a group of friends to explore these situations as characters of their own invention, growing and changing the fantasy world and its situations as they play.

More In-Depth

Users use a pixel editor to design sprites and tiles for mapping their own fantasy world. They use these to build maps, where specific locations are tagged with a number of different Tweet-length written descriptions of various situations that can be encountered at those locations.

Then, a group of users signs on to play an instance of a particular map + situation set, collectively called a “fantasy.” Fantasies are generally played not in real-time, but in the manner of a play-by-email, play-by-forum, or play-by-chat game, leaving messages for each other.

Each user controls one or more characters, who move between locations on the map. When a character enters a new location, a message is sent alerting all the players to a random situation connected to that location that the character is presented with. While the user controlling that character describes the character’s response to the situation, the other players can also describe complications or antagonists connected to the situation. All these responses are Tweet-length and are passed between players, saved as a threaded conversation connected to that location.

Users can decide, at any time, that a character ceases engaging with one situation, either having their character move to a new location or randomly generating a new situation at that same location for the character to encounter.

Multiple characters can occupy the same location at the same time and can choose to encounter the same situation or different situations.

When a specific situation is marked by one or more players as having been resolved, it is no longer randomly generated and assigned to characters, but becomes part of the “history” of a location. Users can choose, during play, to add new situations to locations or simply allow the pre-generated situations to gradually all pass into history, leading the game towards an eventual conclusion as the character converge on the final remaining situations.

During play, users can also alter sprites, tiles, and the descriptions associated with specific characters and locations to reflect changes that have occurred over the course of the game.

Fruitful Void

There’s a whole lot of things that specifically are not supposed to be part of the app’s design:

1. We don’t tell people what to make with this, though there should probably be a number of example “fantasies.”

2. We don’t moderate, control, or distribute content (which is important for legal reasons), but allow users to pass content to each other through normal channels. If somebody wants to make Harry Potter fanfic fantasies or NC-17 stuff, that’s their business and nobody should be able to sue us for it. It’s like suing GMail.

3. We don’t tell people how to moderate or manage characters “encountering a situation.” People come up with their own resolution, whether it’s freeform or dice or whatever, using whatever methods they like. Perhaps we have a few included methods that have full native support, including freeform (which we don’t have to design for, but might explain a bit).

Anyway, that’s the gist. Next time, more specifics on features.

Doppeleffekt Content Moving Elsewhere

June 17, 2009

Instead of flooding my blog with all the stuff I’m making for Doppeleffekt, I’m posting stuff to a thread I made on SG. AP posts will still get posted here, with links to the stuff I’ve used in various sessions, but “lonely play” stuff from in-between sessions (prep, reflection, ideas, etc.) will go in the other thread.

Tomb Interior Map 1

June 17, 2009

These tombs were sealed in days of old
Once with amethyst, twice with rose
For those who seek what the gravesinger stole
Once with amethyst, twice with rose

Desert Maps

June 16, 2009

For anybody that wants to use them. In two pieces so you can print them out on two full-size pages.

Doppeleffekt: Prep, Title Screen, Intro, Level 1-1

June 16, 2009

Today I ran my first session of 4E and it went really well.

Pre-Game Prep

My fellow players and I decided that we were going to play as if the campaign was a long-lost mid-90s console RPG, so I wrote up a few paragraphs of background with that in mind and Untervolkstum II: Doppeleffekt was born. I hacked the desert map from Link to the Past into a suitable encounter map, created some 8-bit gnoll tokens for the initial opposition, had the players pick PC sprites from Final Fantasy Tactics, and we were good to go.

Yesterday, Dev sent me the following character background for his Dwarf Earthstrength Warden:

Korin Slatesinger is made of moxie and courage. She has grey eyes. Like slate. She loves hiking and breaking rocks with peoples faces (and vice versa). She always sticks up for her friends, but has trouble backing down when she gets in over her head. She recently became old enough to choose her calling as Warden, but her parents didn’t like that at all. Everyone in her family has worked at some level with the local clergy – if not directly serving the dwindling Dwarven churches, then adventuring as a Cleric or Paladin. It seems like she’s set herself up to be something of a black sheep, but there’s something in the wild mountains that seems more real to her than the dusty divine tomes. Indeed: although none in her family recall it, she is actually one of the descendents of Kirohim Gravesinger, a Cleric of a forgotten dwarven God of the Earth, who adventured with the Noble Ones but was lost in the escape from the Old City. She perhaps has more in common with her long lost ancestor than she knows…

And Eric sent me the following for his Tiefling Fey-Pact Warlock:

Melia dates from the original “Untervolkstum,” where she appeared as a minor antagonist before joining the player’s party. Melia proved to be a popular character, particularly due to endless fan debate over whether she had sacrificed herself to cast a final spell, or had simply expended her “demonic vitality” and fallen into a stasis. As a result, Melia appeared in early promotional material for “Untervolkstum II: Doppeleffekt,” both laying on a funeral slab in the crypt of the palace and also as a mysterious hooded figure in teaser magazine ads. In the opening dialogue of “Untervolkstum II: Doppeleffekt,” Melia awakes from her thousands of years of slumber, having been revitalized by strange forces concerned about the fate of Svartalfaheim. To reflect this pact, Melia’s Job Class has been changed from “Mage Knight” to “Warlock.”

Eben’s playing a Gnome Cunning Bard, but kinda made his character, Genia, on the spot, so she ended up being the childhood friend of Dev’s character, which was fine for this genre.

Title Screen

I narrated the title screen of the game with some ominous chiptunes music droning in the background, something like: “You fire up your Wii and open up the game in WiiWare. ‘Presented by KraftKomm in association with Nintendo.’ The game opens on a black screen and slowly some text appears… ‘5000 years ago, the underground kingdom of Svartalfaheim was destroyed by a mysterious force. The survivors fled to the surface and their ancestors have lived for many centuries in peace. But, deep below, something stirs…’ And then we see that promo shot of Melia lying on a stone slab amidst the ancient destroyed palace, surrounded by rubble. And right as the music reaches it’s climax,” which it was currently doing, “Melia’s eyes open.”

“The title appears, ‘Doppeleffekt,’ with ‘Press Start’ flashing below. It asks you to enter the name of the protagonist and you put in KORIN.”

Intro Sequence

I also framed the intro sequence but had the players jump in as needed. It opened on the hacked desert map and I threw Korin and Genia’s tokens in the bottom right corner, saying: “Okay, you’re both 8-year-old kids, and one of you has dared the other to go hang out around the ancestral tombs and touch the plaque at the foot of the entrance steps.” Eben decided that Genia was daring Korin and they played that out a little bit before approaching the platform and Korin running up to touch the plaque. I said there was a floating triangle icon above the plaque that meant you were supposed to press A to read it.

Reading the plaque, I described the icon of the conjoined twin-fairy that led to the destruction of Svartalfaheim in the original game, followed by some explanatory text and a keyhole, with text near the keyhole saying, “These tombs are sealed forever, guarded by the spirits of our dead, so that the evil cannot escape, only the Gravekeeper’s Key can unlock it.”

At that moment, the screen shook. Frightened, the characters ran back across the desert. Korin’s father appeared, reprimanded the girls for playing out near the tombs, and dragged Korin back home by her ear. Then he took her out into the fields to show her that a strange black corruption had seeped up from the ground and was killing their crops.

The intro cuts back to the tombs, which rumble once more. Suddenly, in a flash of green light, Melia appears, having teleported to the surface. “It has begun again,” she said, before walking off the screen into regions unknown.

Fade to black…

10 years later, Korin is kneeling beside her father’s deathbed. The old man has eaten too many corrupted crops from his field and is dying. He hands Korin the Gravekeeper’s Key and says that it belonged to their ancestor, known as The Gravesinger. She must use it to descend into the tombs and destroy the source of the corruption, before the rest of her family grows ill or, even worse, the entire village dies from hunger or eating corrupted crops. Then he dies.

Walking outside her house, Korin bumps into Genia who, of course, follows her as she travels to the tombs (“Genia joins your party!”). They arrive to find a group of gnoll graverobbers camped out around the stone plaque, eating one of their comrades who died on the journey here. They talk amongst themselves in a cut scene and reveal that they are waiting for their commander, the Great Rondu, who will tell them how they’re supposed to enter the locked tombs. As Korin and Genia prepare to sneak across the desert toward the gnolls, Melia steps into view atop the hill in the northeast corner of the map. “A mysterious stranger joins your party!”

Encounter 1-1: Tomb Sweeping Day

Um, we killed a bunch of gnolls? The fight was fine but nothing to necessarily write home about. Eric kept Melia focused mostly on zapping one of the 2 gnoll huntmasters and staying concealed, which worked okay. Dev got Korin into trouble early when she got jumped by a pack of gnoll minions doing 7 damage each (5 + 2 for gnoll pack attack) and actually fell unconscious. Luckily, Eben was able to use Genia’s healing powers to bring Korin back and the three of them managed to mop up the rest of the gnolls without much more trouble, staying in cover to avoid the huntmaster’s bows and picking off the minions one by one. The lack of area-effect powers, aside from Korin’s encounter power, was felt, but that’ll probably be fixed as folks level up.

After the encounter, Korin opened the entrances to the tombs and I narrated a cut-scene in which the gnoll graverobber boss, the Great Rondu, finally appeared, praised his now-dead minions for having successfully opened the tombs and quickly ran inside through the far western entrance. The players wondered idly whether their characters saw that happen or if it was just directed at the players of the video game, ultimately deciding that such a distinction didn’t really matter.

And that was our first session. Very cool, actually, and everybody’s excited to see where it goes from here.