Thursday, January 22, 2015

On Sandboxes Growing Into Special Snowflakes

The debate around Special Snowflakery has taken some interesting turns. For one Courtney counterposes what I think is an over-narrow definition of the Special Snowflake setting (and lumps in the heavy-handed/railroady elements that I also dislike) to what he may think is my over-broad and likely murky definition. The principled disagreement is all fine and good, I learned things and got a chance to clarify my own thoughts. 

Strangely, a number of people both on these posts and on Google Plus seem to raise counter-points that I not only agree with whole-heartedly but have been central features of the six-plus years of the Hill Cantons campaign—and a re-occuring thread in the posts here about that play. Small is beautiful, less is more, and that play should drive what is vital in a setting world are all things that I have written about—not as abstract principle—but as part of my own observations about where the players and I where taking the sandbox campaign over the years.

Further the discussion made me think hard about whether or not my campaign world was itself a special snowflake. I mean sure in many ways its a very traditional D&D game: the mechanical baseline is a mostly untouched B/X clone and most all play revolves around micro-site underground exploration. All roads lead to the dungeon is a running and not inaccurate (and terribly funny) joke in the Hill Cantons.

But it has had any number of grand experiments (pointcrawls of all stripes, domain-level play, stupid player classes, etc) and it has grown up with a steady accumulation of highly personalized setting details—up to and including the hubris of actually inflicting that hubris on the world through publishing the Slumbering Ursine Dunes. It's hard to not admit in the end that it has very much evolved into the most special of snowflakes.

How a simple barebones sandbox grows into that whole other thing is an interesting open question and one tied to the zig-zagging actions of the players. Tazrun, a PC thief, dies and the party wants to raise him from the dead so they decide to break out of what has been the geographic delimited campaign zone and go to the big city. Then that big city, half-ruined Kezmarok in my case, becomes a whole new arena for the players—and then itself gets dropped for a wilderness clearing new phase. The world and its details start accreting.

I would hazard a guess that it mirrors other folks sure but steady building up from the ground floor (and yes this is your place to chime in about that experience).

Obviously I speak best to my own experience. Fortunately for me that experience rather well documented over the years here. Doubling back to my indexing project I can kill two birds with one stone.

The Road to Snowflake Perdition
I am tempted to skip right over this as vaguely embarrassing but it all started here, my very first post for a blog that was intended just to be a campaign clearinghouse. The campaign was nothing but a few terse setting dress lines. A skippable but relevant post. 

Five sessions and a month in and I am already pushing at the limits of what I had intended to be a plotless West Marches. Still I apologize for worldbuilding impulses. The links here are wonderful, some classics in the thinking of sandbox campaigning in neo-old school circles of the time.

I try to have my West Marches cake and other quasi-plotted elements too by introducing hare-brained and baroque mechanics to keep me supposedly grounded. Some ideas I have kept with me, like the general dynamic of creating just-in-time mystery but most dropped.

Musing on the campaign “stages of evolution” and wondering if it is part of a generalized pattern for all long-running sandbox campaigns. The comments are interesting (and a shame that the Google Plus side vibrant discussion is lost to the ether.)

Kicks off a series of articles about Top Secret networks and character-based sandboxes. The attempts to do this as part of a espionage part of the campaign were not found to be all that fun by several players (and it took the campaign too much away from site exploration for my own tastes) so it was quietly killed in the night.

I finally recognize that the WM like features of the campaign are long abandoned and wonder why the many other “West Marches” have disappeared.

One of my favorite posts, I evoke the final season of Lost and a high-falutin' literary concept to return to talking about how mystery and worldbuilding are evolving in the campaign.

Taking a cue from Morrowind I talk about how to introduce info dump as an optional experience. (Note I have been way too overwhelmed to do anything like this over the last year of the campaign).

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Quick Addendum to Special Snowflakery

Somewhere in the middle of yesterday's discussion—and work day--I got a chance to sneak in two hours of cross-continental anarchy and laughter in Harald Wagener's Sylvan Realms online game.

While the game was straight-up, by-the-book Labyrinth Lord, it doesn't have a single standard player class. Instead we had a short-list array of thematically-linked classes: Forest Gnome, Witch, Warden, Enchantress and War Bear (do you have to even ask what I ended up playing). Each class had unique quirks and abilities. Marcy the witch (which subbed in for our first War Bear casualty) had her potions, Gnorman the gnome his weasel animal friend (which for a round my slain War Bear's spirit managed to possess).

Our opening information was pretty bare bones, a list of terse bullet points. But it like it instantly had a good deal of off-vanilla flavor a lot of nagging little mysteries: no human settlements, no real civilization other than the lost elves. Just a 30 mile by 50 mile section of wooded mythical wilderness, geographically isolated from whatever the hell the larger world is.

In other words, despite lacking an elaborate setting elaboration, it was most definitely a special snowflake setting. It was unique, interesting and in its hardwiring instantly signaled a particular flavor: dark fairy tale.

For see you don't have to have—and indeed it probably works better to not have at the get go—tome-like setting description, long sweeping historical accounts, continent-wide maps, etc. It can grow up bottom up from a simple, but personalized base through play and work outward to whatever it wants to be.

You don't need it to be achingly weird or be another one-up in the Gonzo arms race that FLAILSNAILS at times seemed to be in the Google Plus scene. You can even take rather staid and familiar elements like that of enchanted woods and fairy tale creatures—and then toss in a 30-foot blind essence-dreaming freakzoid from the Chtonic Codex and hit all my sweet spots (while scaring the piss out of me).

Tomorrow I defend the comfort food joys of Vanilla D&D fantasy for balance.  

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Rehabilitating the Special Snowflake Setting

Tool around an old school/OSR forum, con or blog at the tail end of the last decade and one wouldn't have to go far before hearing the dismissive phrase “special snowflake” aimed with deadly force at fantasy worldbuilding or character backstory.

To be sure there seemed to be a good deal of antipathy to the idea of creating detailed, minutely fleshed-out imaginary worlds. A bit of defiance even: “no one cares about what color hats the burghers of Madeuptown wear or the burial customs of Whatthefuckistan.”

I understood and agreed to some extent with much of the impulse. Decades of Tolkien pastiche, awkwardly-executed exotic setting and paid-by-the-word splat had left behind reams of setting whoha. It was--and is--too much this steady accumulation of bad and failed imaginary worlds.

The ultra-terse settings of the Wilderlands and Greyhawk folio were often cited as counter-examples. This trend ran along for a while and culminates with the creations of (to borrow and madly mangle a phrase) "nega-settings" like the Isle of the Unknown. And then without much acknowledgment the phrase and the sentiment starts disappearing over the past few years.

I say good fucking riddance.

See a part of me always bristled at the notion. For I genuinely like robust worldbuilding. You can actually make me care about color those damned hats are or whether or not those sad Whatthefuckistans swaddle their dead or not.

And you don't need a random chart or oblique mechanical hiding of it, that can help, but really you just have to make it good. It needs to reach through the page or better the gaming table and grab me.

Look I dig the gamey aspects of well-aged D&D and its brethren: the micro-exploration and tactical choice of the dungeon, the emergent story (if any), the boardgame-like rise of zero-to-hero etc. But I also just want the rush and thrill of pretending to walk the streets of a deeply imagined city.

Concretely my favorite experiences as a player (and what a real joy having had a chance to play in as many divergent campaigns as I have thanks to the Google Plus boom) have all entailed at least a few sessions of “off-topic” just schlepping around interacting with other GM's worlds.

Meandering through dark alleys and salons in Jeremy Duncan's baroque Galbaruc only to have my scumbag/sailor character's spine get ripped out in a street boxing match. Taking a day job as a corrupt rookie cop in the Sword-and-Planet meets He-Man wildness of Robert Parker's Savage World of Krul. Hustling at a wine bar with my Apollo-the-demonic-snakegod-worshiping priest in the ancient astronauts meets ziggurated (not a word) ancient Mesopotamia of Evan Elkin's Uz (really he puts this kind of robustly world out every few months). Plying a magic caravan in the refracted real world of Michael Moscrip's Anglia.

And as a reader I want more of the compelling visuals, imaginative reach and clever little nooks of Trey Causey's fantasy 1930s Weird Adventures and the sweet-spot 70s space opera of his soon-to-be-released Strange Stars. More of the grotty and decidedly strange mythic underworld of Jason Sholtis’s Operation Unfathomable (the Hydra Collective's next big project yes, but I am a passionate fan). More of the science-fantasy strange gods and divergent magic of Gus L's clerics in HMS Apollyon

And more newer things like the pithy, baked-into-a-game charm of Chris McDowall's Into the Odd or the pointcrawled epic weirdness of Paolo Greco's underworld in the Chthonic Codex (along with Zak's Red and Pleasant Land the two most physically gorgeous game-related literature I have the pleasure of owning). The list goes just on and on looking through my bookmarked pages.

So bring that special snowflake. More please.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Misty Isles of the Eld Take Shape

With Fever-Dreaming Marlinko mostly done and in the rewrite phase, I have moved over to the next of the big stretch goal adventures, the Misty Isles of the Eld.

Where as the Dunes was mythic wilderness presented with the elements of an outdoors pointcrawl, the Isles are shaping up to be an extra-planar (in this case the alkaline wastes of the Cold Hell/Anti-Cantons) adventure wrapped up in an 18-point pointcrawl spread over three islands. Pinning it all down are two dungeon sites (the body-horror Vat Complex and the stage-facade Pagoda City) that are larger and weirder then the two tent-pole dungeons of the Dunes.

My writing enthusiasm level has gone from “tired but still feeling it” to “amped up, get out of my way motherf*cka.” What's helped is seeing the art develop on both projects: Jeremy Duncan's inspired grottiness (really a perfect fit for Marlinko) and Luka Rejec's irrepressibly charming and darkly funny work. Seriously on the Hydra team page I will no sooner finish praising a piece only to find another piece posted. And I find myself answering Luka's questions about "do the Isles have such and such?" with “they do now.”

Again with the showing and not telling...

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Four Contradas of Fever-Dreaming Marlinko

I've been really feeling the wind in my hoary-cliched sails this week.Not only did it feel good to get the Slumbering Ursine Dunes pdf out early to backers last week (and on sale at DriveThru), it felt even better to put the last touches on the draft of the Marlinko city adventure that was the first stretch goal of the Kickstarter. We had originally imagined it to be a smallish thing 20 pages as opposed to the 66 pages of the Dunes but it's already taken on a life of its own and is hitting around 40 digest-sized pages already.

What's invigorating about the writing I am finding is that in a long sandbox campaign you end up with a lot of dead ends or partially-developed material when the party veers off one way or the other. Having the excuse and motivation to really dig down into half-baked, left-behind ideas and places thus feels like a real treat. I never got a chance to really dig into the city adventures and high weirdness of Marlinko after it slipped from its place of prominence as the party's home-base roughly two and change years ago. And now I do. 

Anywho here's a sample of some of what the new material is looking like...

The Four Contradas of Marlinko
Marlinko was built around the squat, black bulk of the Tomb of the Town Gods, a structure that predates the rest of the city by an interminably long period of time. The ominous edifice sitting in its wide, cobblestoned, circular plaza has retained its position as the dead center of the city. Four wide avenues radiate from it at the cardinal points and divide the city into four contradas or quarters.

The four contradas do not reflect merely a geographic or class division but have deeply embedded cultural and psycho-geographical lives of their own. Each contrada organizes its own festivals, keeps its own histories, and pays fearful homage to the abstract-featured idol of its own unique “town god.”

Each contrada also maintains its own contrada hall (a large, well-maintained, ceremonial gathering place) where it keeps a collection of its own unique banners, ceremonial regalia, historical tapestries, mummies, and most importantly, the various trophies it has won in the single most important bi-annual event: the great chariot race that headlines the Ebon Horse Fair. Throughout the year, contrada trainers keep their chosen condemned convict-jockey revved up and ready for the Black Race. It is well that they do for the losers are hanged and the winner takes a trophy and his freedom!

Včelař (Sullen Apiarian) Contrada
The Northwestern Quarter with its great yellow-and-black beehive and mopey deodand emblazoned banner contains the greatest concentration of affluence and easy living in the city. The great painted-plastered town-manses of the wealthy dominate the coveted plaza and avenue fronts in this part of town.

Despite its wealthy cast, the contrada has a deeply-ingrained inferiority complex--due in large part to its century-long losing streak in the Black Race. The loss has become a self-fulfilling prophesy in recent years with the rash of suicides of convicts who consider being drafted into service as a SA jockey to be a death sentence anyway. Roving gangs of youths from respected families are quick to draw rapiers against any slight as to compensate for the wound to their civic honor.

Sullen Apiarian “worships” or placates Anfolf, the vaguely bee-headed town god said to be a rainmaker and bringer of both wealth and anxiety. When Anfolf in his glowing golden nimbus walked the streets of early Marlinko impressing the bearded Pahr immigrants just getting used to lives not spent on horseback, He was said to literally shower them with the sweetest of honey--and the swiftest of kicks...

Though it shouts “conspicuous consumption,” the yellow-limestone and quartz facade of the Sullen Apiarian contrada hall with its amber and lapis lazuli-encrusted honeycombed frescoes stands handsomely over its small, tight square. The contrada society itself is a broad one with a large burgeoning hierarchy of ceremonial officers arrayed in 27 ranks. Incongruously the higher, more labor-intensive (and not un-powerful) positions are held traditionally by the less affluent members of the contrada (or “temporally-embarrassed grandees” as they like to call themselves).

From here each contrada has a key focusing on the interesting and adventurable sites. Each ward description also has their own unique encounter and random building charts—many of which have triggers and hooks embedded in the escalating random event system of the Chaos Index. Encounter charts that have entries like this...
Maus. A wild-eyed  paranoid dressed in the long-robed, woolen hat finery of a rustic boyar. Maus rants and raves at the characters about the “Axis of Tindrthurn,” a secret postal and matchmaking service that he claims is trying to kill him. If the Chaos Level is 6 and over he is correct on all counts.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Pirate Utopias, Pacification and Promotion

And Now the News...
Traders are bringing back news from the Persimmon Sea that the bizarre gender-eschewing corsair-sect that captured and sacked the isolated Himyari isle of Old Szalé last year has officially declared itself to be the so-called Maraboutic Republic of Szalé-Byeff. The self-styled “pirate utopia” has opened its doors to heretics, escaped slaves, and “greys” (mixed caste rejects from black/white divided Himyar) that swear to its Triple Code: 1. thou shalt not talk in the coarse dialect of otherworld cliches; 2. thou shalt not hold to any gender or its social constructs;and 3. do as thou wilt as long as what thou wilt isn't the other two things and another vague and ill-defined that even pirates would find abhorrent.

The Overking himself is said to be “almost alarmed and concerned” by the disappearance of His Surveyor-Lord of Canton Departments Both Hilly and Forested, Ropucha Ragygtzenacht, in the second week of his official tour of the borderlands. A large detachment of lancers and war wagons from the Black Army has been sent into Marlinko in a “pacification” mission against local peasants whose base ways are surely to blame for the besmirching of the Royal Name.

Despite the official ruckus, the Hill Cantons and Marlinko city itself seem to be on the economic rebound following the otherwordly reappearance of most of its major trade partner, Kezmarok. Marlinko Rada has approved the publication of a new promotional gazetteer to coincide with its new, somewhat opaque tourist slogan “come dream ye dreams that die unheard in dear old Marlinka.”

[Yes that means this thing is done and this thing is now on sale.]