The Seven-Sided Die

The odds & ends of roleplaying

The evolution of marketing BS (+ Joesky Tax)

written by d7, on Apr 2, 2012 3:20:00 PM.

Or “Printer Marketers Sure Are Embarrassed By Their Products”

I bought a new printer today. The relevance to gaming is that it’s duplex! I can print double-sided anythings now without having to flip the damned paper. This makes a huge difference when I want to print out 140 pages for binding. It also makes printing character sheets super-painless. (Skip to the bottom for the Joesky tax.)

My current printer is a simplex laser printer. It did the job for university papers, but I really want (and arguably need) a duplex printer for the sorts of print jobs gaming brings me. So when I started looking for a new printer I naturally sought out “duplex” printers.

You can’t find duplex printers by searching for “duplex”, and it’s because marketers are assholes.

It used to be this: single-sided / double-sided = simplex / duplex.

Marketers didn’t want to admit their printers were only simplex, so they started calling them “half-duplex”. Marketers of proper duplex printers responded (and I picture them bristling with indignation here) by labelling their printers “full-duplex”.

Already, “duplex” became a useless search term, and “full duplex” didn’t give much better results because general search algorithms are stupid for specific domains. This was some years ago. Skip to earlier this year when I started looking for a new printer.

The Embarrassed Marketers have started calling them “manual duplex”. Unfortunately, the Indignant Marketers hadn’t yet caught up and it was impossible for me to find a printer with the actual features I wanted. (Cue not buying a printer then.)

Thankfully, the Indignant Ones caught up sometime between then and today, as now we have “automatic duplex” printers.

Sigh.

But anyway, yay, new printer. It’ll arrive tomorrow, and the double-sided printing will be glorious.

Joesky Tax

One of the reasons I really, really wanted a duplex printer this week is I just bought the wonderful, just-released 30 Things Can Happen by Creative Mountain Games. It has a d30 on the cover. It contains random tables. They’re useful and flavourful random tables. And it fits tonnes of tables into a mere 34 pages. Which I then wanted to print out double-sided to have as a reference at the table. At $4.50 (it’s on 20% sale right now) it was well, well worth it for me, someone who just committed to launching my sandbox campaign this Friday.

That’s not really content I’m giving you right now though, so it’s not a proper Joesky Tax, so here’s a table of 30 Things that can happen in the dark:

  1. Something small bites you.

  2. A light too dim to have been seen by torchlight is visible in the distance.

  3. A sliding wall opens.

  4. Alarm bells ring somewhere nearby.

  5. You find a small ring on the ground.

  6. The smell of cooking reaches your nose.

  7. Bears.

  8. Your most-certainly-unmagical weapon begins to glow.

  9. Darkness Eaters.

  10. Someone’s purse is cut.

  11. Goblin laughter.

  12. Wow, is this wall ever slimy

  13. A maintenance crew arrives to replace the wall torches.

  14. Stars appear overhead. Yes, I know you’re underground.

  15. The illusory floor is no longer very convincing.

  16. Howling wind.

  17. Howling wind that bears a message.

  18. Doves.

  19. Thousands of baby giant spiders migrate over you.

  20. Drab rocks that are actually light-phobic cave blossoms bloom.

  21. Glowing air jellyfish.

  22. A pair of luminous eyes open on the wall.

  23. The faint glow of dungeon moss turns out to be plenty once your eyes adjust.

  24. Ominous rustling.

  25. The patter of not-so-tiny feet rushing. Roll d6 for direction: 1-2: Away; 3: Parallel; 4-5: Toward; 6: Special

  26. Singing.

  27. Something eats a retainer’s eyes, and departs.

  28. Drumming.

  29. The darkness suddenly gets darker.

  30. Roll twice.

My own hex paper

written by d7, on Mar 30, 2012 12:22:00 PM.

I needed some hex paper for the game I’m setting up. Autarch even has some 6-mile hex paper that’s custom-designed for their particular campaign-creation guidelines. I, however, am Very Particular as my wife well knows, and using four different types of hex paper that uses 24 minor hexes to one major hex on one sheet and then 4 minor hexes to 1 major hex on another and then uses rectangles and hexes together on yet another sheet is just silly. [1]

(Actually, Autarch’s hex sheets are very nice sheets and I’d recommend trying them for anyone who likes hexes.)

I wanted one sheet for any scale I could think of. I liked the logic laid out in In Praise of the 6 Mile Hex, and I’ve got some skill with the drawing functions of ConTeXt, so I made some hex paper with 12 minor hexes to 1 major. With these sheets I can scale up or down in 12ths, giving me 6-mile hexes for my core scale, ½-mile hexes for detailed maps, and 72-mile hexes for large regional maps. I doubt I’ll bother with a continental scale for this campaign, but 864-mile hexes should handle that fine if I do.

Screenshot of the hex paper I made

Download it here:

[1]

Translation for those who can’t hear my tone of voice: tongue firmly in cheek there.

Simple hexcrawl horizons table

written by d7, on Mar 21, 2012 11:13:00 PM.

Reading In Praise of the 6 Mile Hex I started thinking about how useful it would be to be able to say how far a PC can see from any given height. How far can the halfling see while perched at the peak of a 200-foot tree? How far if the tree is surrounded by 100-foot forest canopy? How far if that tree is in the middle of an empty plain? How far if there is a 50-foot wall to the north?

All things that might be solved by guessing or just giving the most situationally-convenient answer, but for an old-school game I prefer things that eliminate my unconscious bias from the outcome, to better be a referee with all that title’s implied impartiality.

I realised I needed a table. So I made one.

Survey Distance

Vantage Height (ft)

Miles

Hex

1⅓

Prone

3

½

Standing

5

10

6

1

15

7

20

9

40

10

50

12

2

75

14

100

15

120

18

3

180

24

4

320

30

5

500

36

6

735

42

7

1000

(Here’s a more compact HTML version of the table.)

The exact numbers have been massaged to be more gameable, but not by much — 75′ instead of 76.27′, 20′ instead of 22′, ignoring the difference between how tall a human and a halfling stand, etc. I’m also using 6-mile hexes in this table; if there’s demand I could work up a 5-mile hex version easily enough.

The table is easy to use:

  • Survey Distance is the radius of a circle around the surveying PC. Vantage Height is the height of the object the PC is standing on (not the height of their eyes when standing on it).

  • To find out how far a PC can see from a vantage of a certain height over flat terrain, find the nearest height under Vantage Height and find the answer in hexes or miles.

  • If a PC wants to know how high they need to get to survey the land a certain distance away across flat terrain, find the nearest distance in miles or hexes under Survey Distance and take the answer in feet on the same line.

  • If intervening terrain is taller than the Vantage Height, then it forms the visible horizon in that span of the view.

Initially I thought it would be easy to figure out the visible distance over intervening features like hills and forests (e.g., “Can I see the river valley beyond the forest from the tallest tower of my castle?”), but it turns out that’s a geometrically non-trivial problem so it can’t be approximated by just subtracting or adding to the values in this table. However, the answer to “Can I see the edge of this forest of 100′-tall trees from the top of this 200′ tree?” is a simple matter: just use the difference of heights, and if the Survey Distance reaches beyond the forest’s edge then the edge is visible. [1]

Eventually this table will go into a set of custom landscape-oriented reference sheets to fit into my customisable DM screen, and it will be so useful the one time I ever need it. ;-)

[1]

Whether the forest’s edge “looks like” an edge from that vantage and not just trees all the way to the horizon is debatable, but you might as well give it to your players in that case since the distances and heights necessary to make it visible-yet-in-doubt at so very particular that I think it would count as screwing them over. Thus ends the minutiæ of a minutia of a minutia.

Dyson Logos' awesome and easy map tutorial

written by d7, on Mar 16, 2012 3:48:15 PM.

I discovered Dyson Logos’ inspiring side-view dungeon map tutorial a couple of days ago. Since then I’ve been experimenting with the style and I find it suits me really well.

A drawing depicting a cut-away view of a waterfall descending into a sinkhole, with caves in the walls. A tree and a ruined tower overlook the sinkhole.

I started by doodling from memory an old dungeon I ran years ago for D&D 3.5 and shook out some of the kinks in the style and started making it look good. I found that the real key to making it look good, as he points out in the tutorial, is to go over the lines that separate solid ground from air a second time to darken them. It’s such a simple thing, but when you slow down to make the tracing accurate it transforms shaky, amateurish lines into confident, polished ones.

The sample at right is a work-in-progress so the crosshatching hasn’t been finished, but it gives a good idea of how nice the results look even when it’s incomplete [1]. The crosshatching gives it a great finished look, and isn’t nearly as hard as I anticipated. The trick I’ve found is to slow down enough to make the lines evenly spaced and parallel – getting the orientation just right is much less important.

I’m still finding it hard to conceptualise the layout before committing it to ink and I’m still running into room shapes and details that look better in my head than when executed on paper, but practice is very quickly paying off. I’m learning what sort of shapes look good and which convey information well much faster than I would have thought, so the exercise is having a very encouraging effort/payoff curve.

I have to say that I’ve never been good at drawing a straight line without a ruler, and yet look at how nice those lines look! This sample is only the second map I’ve done since reading the tutorial. I don’t consider myself to be very artistically skilled, so if I can do this, so can you!

I haven’t tried it in pencil yet, but I think pen is the way to practice. Drawing in ink is forcing me to think about what I’m doing rather than rushing something onto the page just to kill the abhorrent blankness.

For more map awesomeness go read through the rest of his mapping blog, the (hilariously misnamed) A Character For Every Game. And if that only whets your appetite for maps in this line style (side-view and otherwise), there’s always Tony Dowler’s Year of the Dungeon. Now that I’ve shown myself that I can do this at all, I’ve got a stack of index cards that are earmarked for drawing Dowler-style microdungeons for even more practice. I’m determined to have a hexcrawl that is well-stocked with my own subterranean creations among the One Page Dungeons and published megadungeons I’ll be using.

[1]

Even when photographed with a cellphone under terrible conditions. Post-processing makes it marginally presentable, but don’t look too close at the tower in the top-right!

Making a calendar

written by d7, on Mar 15, 2012 4:47:00 PM.

I’m in the early stages of setting up a sandbox setting for potentially multiple groups with variable player rosters. In brainstorming how I would organise my records for such a persistent setting independent of the PC parties, I realised I needed to create a calendar. I’d need to keep track of when things happened so that I could restock dungeons believably, track the progress of event lines the PCs neglect to interrupt, determine the likelihood of items on fallen PCs remaining where they died, and sundry little play logbook things I like keeping track of like local weather.

The last time I ran a game where bothering to track time made a difference I already had a calendar provided by the Forgotten Realms setting; the time previous was more than a decade back and I fudged with an expired real calendar for some year in the 1990s.

But I like building settings and the bits that make them unique, so I didn’t want to use a real calendar, and obviously I wasn’t going to be handed a published fantasy calendar.

I’m also lazy, and I wanted a calendar that was conceptually easy while not being dull. So here’s how I went about building one.

Calendar specs

I had a few requirements for my calendar that were dictated purely by usability and personal convenience. Sure, I could make something arbitrarily complex, but I wanted something that would at least have a chance of being comprehensible to players who will frequently have more important things on their mind than what month it is, let alone whether it was a month of short days or how many feast days there were coming up.

  1. I wanted to have regular months. No variable days per month, no leap days, no funkiness from one month to the next.

  2. I wanted to have a year roughly equal to 365 days. I’ve read novels where the year was a very different length from ours, and it takes mental gymnastics to follow along whenever time is relevant to the plot. I wanted “a year” to mean a year to my players.

  3. Ditto weeks. If possible, I wanted 7-day weeks so that when an NPC says, “Your sword will be ready in a week, m’lady,” my players would immediately know what that meant without having to ask me (again and again) how long a week is in my weird funky calendar.

  4. Months I wanted to be in the rough neighbourhood of real-world month, but I wasn’t going to push this one too hard because…

  5. I didn’t want too many months. Players are only human, and humans deal best with quantities that are roughly seven in number, give or take. I didn’t want to have 12 months, really, as that’s just too many to ask players to care about paying attention to. My desire for the calendar to be meaningful in play to others than myself would best be served by having the fewest number of months so that players actually remembered them and had a rough idea of what they meant without having to constantly say, “Marpenoth is roughly like March”. [1]

I also had some stylistic preferences that I wanted to fit into the calendar.

  1. There would be the usual four seasons. Seasons are usually more relevant to play because villages and weather react to the turn of seasons, not arbitrary month divisions.

  2. Months should relate directly to the seasons. A system that is useful and comprehensible to farmers rather than an hurdle to properly timing plantings and harvest seems much more likely to be in widespread use. If I want to have the date come up naturally in-game in a useful way for the PCs, having NPCs using the calendar in their daily lives will better convey date information than me shoving it at them as meta-game information.

  3. I like how the Forgotten Realms’ calendar includes days that are not part of any month or week, and these are culturally meaningful days. This sort of thing can also provide the wiggle room necessary to make some of the usability specs happen.

  4. I wanted the division between years to be the last day of winter and the first day of spring, rather than the astronomical winter solstice. [2]

The calendar

So I built a calendar with 7-day weeks, six weeks to a month, one extra day-of-rest “feast day” per two weeks, 360 days to the year, two months to a season, and eight months to a year.

A calendar of eight months. Months are in pairs under each of the four seasons. Each month is six 7-day weeks stacked atop each other, every second week having an 8th day sticking out of the right side of the month's box.

It’s not terribly exciting, but I wasn’t going for exciting. It accomplishes the primary goal of giving me something easily-understandable to write in the headings of each day’s entry in an adventure log.

As a bonus it has all these interesting “non-calendar” days for me to play with. Some of those days are going to be special: the one between Early Summer and Late Summer is obviously Midsummer’s Day; the last day of Winter (well, not really part of the Winter months nor part of the Spring months) is some kind of year-death or new year’s day. Similarly, there are obvious prospects for harvest festivals and holy days. Those non-calendar days that aren’t claimed by religions or seasonal celebrations are going to be plain old feast days or market days or whatever sort of day of rest is culturally appropriate to the setting.

You’ll notice the names of the months aren’t marked. There’s an early and a late month in each season, and to avoid the Marpenoth Problem I’m going to assume that the inhabitants of this world are pragmatic and never saw a need to name the months with anything especial or non-obvious. So we have Late Fall and Early Summer, or New Spring and Old Winter, as references for month names. Really, any fantasy-sounding names I created would, if I were being sensible about it, mean those terms anyway, so made-up names would just be imposing a barrier between the players and their ability to reference time.

If the inhabitants are that pragmatic, and since I’m making it all up anyway and might as well have the world be gameable where it’s not implausible, I figure the days of the month are just going to be tracked with numbers. For spice, I might have some people count “the 10th of Early Summer” and other people count “the 3rd of two of Early Summer”. I kind of like the sound of the latter, though, so I think I’ll count time by default with “the [day]th of [week number] of [month]”. That way, “the 8th” will always be the strange day, the feast day, the day of celebration. I can use the other way of counting days as a marker for a particular culture or nation being odd and foreign, with their 32nds of Old Summer and Twelfths of New Winter. I figure they’ll just count the feast days in there too, as the 15th, 30th, and 45th.

Public Domain

For the reasons above I find this an eminently usable calendar for game records-keeping and for informing players, and has just enough flavour to say “fantasy” to me. It’s also pretty generic, being different from our own calendar while still matching our sense of year and week lengths. For a GM who needs a calendar this could be dropped into most implied settings with little to no work. [3]

If you want to use this in your home campaign you of course need no permission from me, but since I hate the headaches that licenses can bring I’ll just make it simple and put the calendar into the public domain. (If you use it I’d love to hear about it, but don’t count that an obligation!)

[1]

Marpenoth is actually equivalent to October in the Realms’ calendar which just goes to show that needing to keep the calendar mentally straight is an additional burden on anyone, GM included, and so likely to get neglected as a PITA.

[2]

Yes, I know that the visible demarcation between winter and spring is fuzzy and varies by year, which is why astronomical divisions were originally used in real-world calendars, but I’m planning on having a cosmology that isn’t based on planets orbiting a star in space. Without the inclination of a planet’s axis the solstice wouldn’t be determinable from the stars and would need good clocks instead. The winter/spring changeover is going to be conventional, fundamental to the establishment of the calendar, and keeping track of its return is the original function of the first calendar of this sort. As a convenience to me and time-tracking (because I don’t really want to figure out sunrise and sunset variations across the year but I still want sunrise, sunset, and midday to be practically meaningful), I may even make day/night lengths invariate between seasons, eliminating the concepts of solstice and equinox entirely.

[3]

Maybe shift the year-split to between the two winter months if that’s your taste, and the feast-days can easily by eliminated if you don’t like them by making the months a straightforward six weeks of seven days each for 42 days a month. And if you really like 12-month calendars you can easily redistribute the last two weeks and the first two weeks of each season’s months to make a third seasonal month, each of four weeks or 30 days (with feast days; 28 without).

DHB Preview: Turn Undead

written by d7, on Mar 2, 2012 1:59:00 PM.

Here’s another taste of how I’m handling traditional D&D concepts in the first draft of the Dungeoneer’s Handbook.

Turn Undead [−1]

You can rebuke undead creatures and send them fleeing or destroy them outright.

Musts: Your High Concept must be related to faith in some way.
Effects:
Rebuke: When you present the symbol of your faith and stand firm against an undead creature, you may make an opposed Conviction roll against its Discipline to place the aspect “Held At Bay” on it.
Cleansed In Light: You may make an attack using Conviction against the creature’s Discipline. If the undead is corporeal, stress dealt in this way is physical rather than mental.
By The Word: By paying one shift you may affect all undead in a zone, or (when using Rebuke) place the aspect “Fleeing!” instead of “Held At Bay”.

I was going to make the Must for Turn Undead be having Divine Miracles (the DHB equivalent of Sponsored Magic I’m using for priestly spellcasters), but for the Cleric template I took some inspiration from very early D&D editions and made spellcasting optional at character creation. So, Turn Undead (and their ability to use armour and decent weapons) is key to making a classic cleric work and I had to hang it on their faith-based character concept rather than spellcasting. The upshot is that characters without the Cleric template could conceivably take Turn Undead given a High Concept that is faith-related, but I don’t think that’s a problem as much as it might be a feature.

What I like about this power/stunt is that it captures the turn/destroy mechanic of D&D’s turn undead ability without needing a big table for it. Does the undead creature have low discipline (a zombie or skeleton, say)? Then you can very likely send it running, and if you’re good enough you can destroy it outright with the power of your faith. Of course, you have to choose which one you’re doing first, but that introduces a nice tactical consideration, I think. Are you facing a vampire necromancer and its zombie minions? If you just Rebuke you’re likely to get enough shifts to turn all the zombies but the vampire will be unimpressed; if you opt to attack then you likely won’t generate enough shifts to fill the zombies’ stress boxes and deal them enough consequences to take them out outright, but you’ve got a good chance of stinging the vampire if you try.

Of course, all this has to see playtesting before it can be considered good and functional under actual play conditions. But I certainly am fond of how this one has shaped up initially.

Player agency and random encounters

written by d7, on Feb 28, 2012 1:14:00 PM.

Nobody likes a railroad, least of all proponents of the OSR. Apparently there has been some debate about the evil of the Quantum Ogre—an encounter that gets dropped in front of the players regardless of where they go or what they do.

Alex Schroeder makes the excellent point [1] that the problem with the Quantum Ogre is really two problems:

An adventure involving the quantum ogre is bad because the players’ choices don’t matter: either they don’t have enough info to make a meaningful choice or the information they have is useless since the quantum ogre will show up no matter what they do. They have no agency – they have no capacity “to make choices and to impose those choices on the world.” Either they cannot make a meaningful choice because they lack information, or they cannot impose their choice on the world because the quantum ogre shows up anyway.

This is a formulation of why I really, really dislike plotting adventures. Apart from plotting being too damned much work, it creates what I feel is an inauthentic experience for the players. That lack of agency turns into frustration, that frustration turns (at best) into an attempt to regain agency, which causes a problem for me: I’m not prepared to do anything outside the plot and the improvised part of play comes off much flatter than the plotted part. It’s a dynamic I really don’t enjoy, so I’ve been striving for the last few years to figure out how to avoid plotting, even when I don’t have a lot of time to prep.

Alex also mentions the apparent distinction between the Quantum Ogre and random encounters, the latter being a favourite staple of the Old School even while the former is detested as illusionist play. His response is that random encounters are slightly better, because the GM is forced to improvise how to work in this encounter.

I think it’s a bigger difference than that.

The essential disconnect I see between fans of random encounters and their detractors is that I don’t see the random encounter roll as the beginning of a scene [2] where the PCs face the creature, but the beginning of their awareness that something is out there. There are then two parts to a random encounter: the opportunity to notice information and investigate, and the face-off itself. This opportunity is crucial to making a random encounter not just another quantum encounter. By having a chance to engage with hints and clues about the existence of a threat or opportunity [3], the players can make informed choices about this particular encounter. They may choose to confront it, escape it, stalk it until they have the advantage, or otherwise deal with it more-or-less intelligently.

Choice is the ingredient that gives players agency and keeps a game from being a railroad. Random encounters are no different.

What about surprise?

Of course, sometimes, as the DM, you’re going to turn the screws a bit and ask a different question: instead of “Do you want to deal with this thing? How?” you might ask “You’re already faced with this thing! What are you going to do about it? Run? Fight? Door number three?” That’s totally legitimate, but carries with it the whiff of railroading and opens the door to the same frustrations as the Quantum Ogre.

The old school has an answer for this, and it’s a parallel to the random encounter itself: the DM can disclaim fiat choice and turn to the dice. There’s a random encounter, and the DM doesn’t know whether a direct encounter or a distant, clue-laden approach is best for play and the player’s mood right now. Take it out of the DM’s hands and put the question to the dice: Roll for surprise!

Randomness is another tool to avoid railroads. The DM gets put into the same position as the players when they disclaim choice and trust the dice, in that they are equally as surprised by what happens next as the players are. Rather than DM tyranny and imposed ideas, the twist is left to fate.

If the DM isn’t forcing the encounter but the dice say it happens, it may not be be obvious to the players whether this is an instance of a Quantum Encounter or random chance. However, as the encounters add up over the hours and over the sessions, players can tell the difference. The Quantum Ogre is a problem precisely because players can tell over time that the DM’s hand is laying heavy on the encounters they face. By the same mechanism of social insight, players can also tell when that heavy hand is missing, and the randomness of the dice is one of the best ways of taking the DM’s hand off.

[1]

Alex’s post also links to a whole lot of other posts discussing the problem and solutions to the Quantum Ogre and is well worth your visit.

[2]

“Scene”, only for lack of a better word. I don’t tend to think in terms of scenes when I run old-school games.

[3]

Not all random encounters are monsters intent on the PC’s death! Just as often they’re neutral or positive opportunities. It all turns on what the PCs and DM together decide to do with the encounter. Even a clearly-hostile creature can be turned into an opportunity: try having them approach, but not immediately launch into a to-the-death fight. See what happens when the players are faced with a potential enemy who doesn’t immediately attack them.

Dungeoneer's Handbook draft preview: The Druid

written by d7, on Feb 15, 2012 11:08:00 AM.

The first “class” template I’ve finished a first draft of is the druid. Subject to change, of course, but this will give you an idea of how I’m translating the archetypes of D&D into Dresden Files–style Fate:

Druid

Druids are the guardians of nature and the self-appointed arbiters of the relationship between humanity and the natural world. Where small rural communities exist on the edge of the wilderness, the druid is a welcome—if awed—presence that calms weather, tames beasts, and drives out blight. From their perspective, druids serve the wilderness as much as such communities by keeping people’s incursions away from sensitive areas, teaching them how to co-exist with the beasts who are their neighbours, and educating the benighted to avoid the obvious mistakes when planting a field.

Musts: Druids channel the power latent in the patterns of nature, shaping it with their sentience to further and sustain those self-same natural cycles. Like clerics of gods, druids must take Divine Miracles but can only choose Nature as the sponsoring power (a Refresh Cost of −4.) In order to cast rituals, in addition to the other ritual components the druid must bear a focus item: a sprig of mistletoe harvested during the full moon with a silver or golden sickle consecrated to that purpose. Casting an evocation while not in a natural setting (assuming the lack of a natural environment allows the desired effect at all) also relies on this focus item as a link to the natural world that gives a druid their power.

Options: An experienced druid can call on Nature’s Wisdom [−1] to infallibly identify wild plants and animals, as well as clean water. Many can Pass Without a Trace [−1] through undergrowth without slowing their pace. A sign of an accomplished Druid is the ability to take on the Shape of Wild Creatures [−2] or the form of their Totem Animal [−1].

Important Skills: Conviction, Discipline, Presence, Survival
Bonus Languages: Druidic
Languages Available: Centaur, dryad, elvish, faun, gnomish, draconic, giant, lizard man, manticore, pixie, sprite, treant.
Minimum Refresh Cost: −4

Dresden Files RPG and the OGL

written by d7, on Feb 11, 2012 3:27:00 PM.

After an exchange on Twitter with Fred Hicks of Evil Hat, the publishers of the Dresden Files RPG, about my misgivings about DFRPG’s OGL notice, I’m somewhat reassured and have a clearer idea of what the future might look like for the Dungeoneer’s Handbook as a product.

As I understand it now, the intent of the “everything new in DFRPG is Product Identity” is filtered through the OGL’s definition of Product Identity (PI). For the simple reason that the Dresden Files universe is a property that doesn’t belong to Evil Hat, they are making sure that the RPG translation of the novels don’t “leak” any of Jim Butcher’s copyrighted work into the world for others to use. The language used is unfortunately ambiguous, but the whole point of the Open Game License is to eliminate doubt about the intent of a publisher using the OGL so I’m happy enough with that clarification of Evil Hat’s intentions.

What this means for the Dungeoneer’s Handbook

This means two interlinked things for the Dungeoneer’s Handbook. Wait, three. [1] Three things for the future of the DHB.

First, it means that it’s going to be way simpler for me if I just make this a personal project never intended for release. (Turns out that there’s another reason this would be the simplest route for me, but that’s nothing to do with DFRPG—see below.) However, pretending that I’m eventually going to show this to people who don’t have me there as the DM to explain away the rough spots means I’m taking a more rigorous approach to the writing and design. So, in practice, regardless of whether I eventually aim for a public release, this first point doesn’t change that pretending that I will in my own head improves the project.

Second, and this is interlinked with the third point, it means that I can’t refer to Stunts and Powers that appear in DFRPG. This is mostly not a problem, since I don’t need most of them to make a derivative work in a completely different setting. I can’t use a Power like “Knight of the Cross”, but I don’t want to anyway. Dresdenverse bits like “Knight of the Cross” are exactly the sort of “special ability” that Product Identity was designed to protect, and the sort of thing that Evil Hat doesn’t want to accidentally just hand away on Jim Butcher’s behalf. Since I’m not using the Dresdenverse at all, this sort of thing doesn’t pose a problem.

While I don’t want to Dresdenverse concepts embodied by stunts and powers, there are generic stunts and powers that aren’t unique to the Dresdenverse that I’d like to use. Things like Toughness, the supernatural ability for a creature to ignore a certain amount of stress unless you find its weakness, is a concept that predates DFRPG and appears in most fantasy RPGs. Werewolves who can’t be hurt except by overwhelming damage (say, being hit by a truck), but are deathly susceptible to injuries dealt by silver, is exactly the sort of thing that Toughness and its higher-powered variants are perfect for representing. These are the sorts of things that I look at as useful Fate innovations that would be great to re-use.

Though they’d be great to re-use, the PI declaration in DFRPG does capture the names and descriptions of “special abilities” since those do fall under the definition of Product Identity in the OGL. So, I can’t use the name of Toughness in a derivative like the DHB. I can’t even refer to it in my own writeup for werewolves in the DHB, saying “look it up in your copy of DFRPG:YS,” because the name itself is claimed as PI. This sort of thing is probably not what Evil Hat intended to cover with the blanket PI claim in DFRPG’s OGL, but it would have been prohibitive to separate out such things as Open Game Content without getting into grey territory regarding Dresdenverse copyright. A blanket PI claim is the safe, responsible way to handle this kind of thing, even if it’s inconvenient for me. In order to model werewolves and the like in the DHB, then, I have to write my own version of Toughness with a different name, or some other stunt/power that fills the same generic narrative concept of “unnaturally hard to hurt except with weakness X.” This brings me to the related impact on the DHB:

Third, I have to make the Dungeoneer’s Handbook a stand-alone product (should I hypothetically publish it). It would have been far easier for me to just say, “The DHB requires the use of The Dresden Files: Your Story from Evil Hat LLC” and not bother writing up my own special abilities that are already adequately provided by DFRPG. This would have been nice for me as it would save work, and actually I would have felt a bit happier saying “go buy DFRPG! You can’t use this without it!” On the other hand, I realise that would have been more annoying for the hypothetical players who would end up flipping back and forth between the DHB and DFRPG books in order to make their character creation choices.

In some ways this is a blessing in disguise, though. It means that the (hypothetical) release edition of the Dungeoneer’s Handbook will be a complete game unto itself, with no dependencies on third-party “core” books, and that’s a better experience for the end reader and user. (I’m still going to say “Go buy DFRPG!” in a hypothetical DHB release though, because really yes yes read DFRPG.)

Skills: the silver lining

Fortunately, one thing the definition of Product Identity in the OGL doesn’t cover is skills, so I should be able to use DFRPG’s skill list as my base, including the existing skill trappings. I wasn’t looking forward to abandoning/rewriting all that, since they’re even more integral to the mechanics than even the “generic” non-Dresdenverse Stunts and Powers are.

Of course that’s not all

As I implied above, there’s more in the way of such a hypothetical release. As it turns out, the DFRPG OGL isn’t the stickiest bit of copyright that I’m running into as I write. If you recall, I’m aiming to use this as a handbook for a home Forgotten Realms campaign. As I write, I find that I’m embedding a lot of setting concepts from the Realms that there’s no way could ever see the light of day without being infringing. I’m putting them in anyway because I want this stuff available for my players, but if I eventually turn the handbook into a releasable form it will mean a lot of text will have to be rewritten or outright stripped out.

For example, I have a template called Touched by Mystra. Right there in the name, I can’t put that out in a product. However, something like that is necessary to reflect character options related to the way magic has changed in my Realms after the Avatar Crisis, and since it’s directly tied to Mystra (and fiction matters in Fate) it’s necessary to have that baked right into the template. For a home game that’ll be fine, and in the meantime I’m just not worrying about it. It does mean that I’ll be looking in two directions should I endeavour to sanitise the manuscript for publication: toward DFRPG to identify and remove/rewrite any Product Identity that we relied on for our home campaign, and toward the Forgotten Realms to remove (utterly) any references to Wizards’ copyrighted game setting. [2]

[1]

Nobody ever expects the Spanish Inquisition!

[2]

This is one of those ironic bits about living in a digital age. If I’m just blogging about it, I can publish bits and pieces of my home game’s rules that refer to Forgotten Realms copyrighted stuff, because most game companies (Wizards included) consider that to be OK online fan behaviour. However, if I do the very same thing in a PDF for download, it suddenly becomes “publishing” in a sense that the same companies see as a problem. There’s a difference of apparent intent, certainly—publishing a comprehensive PDF carries with it an implication of profiting from Realms details, even if the PDF is free, in a way that publishing piecemeal on a blog doesn’t. As “digital” becomes the norm, though, these sorts of distinctions are going to get even fuzzier. …Huh. That implies that there may be a future clash between hobbyists and game publishers coming, which is kind of unnerving. We’ve been there before, and it was ugly. It could be uglier yet when the difference between hobby publishing and pro publishing collapses.

Fantastic Maps

written by d7, on Feb 8, 2012 2:28:07 PM.

Do you love maps? (Of course you do!)

Do you love to draw maps? (Who doesn’t?!)

Do you love to just look at pretty, pretty maps? (Let us take this as a relatively safe assumption!)

Then get yourself over to Jon Roberts’ Fantastic Maps blog and feast your eyes, read some tips, and satisfy that itch in your fingers to draw some of your own.

That is all.