Wednesday 28 March 2018

One More Fantasy Heartbreaker

It's my birthday this week, so I'm taking some time off. The Earth has gone all the way round the Sun almost 23 times since I was born, and I think all that spinning is starting to get to me.

The blog continues in earnest next month.


For now, I'm announcing a Thing, mainly so that I feel some pressure to actually do the Thing.

I'm making a game! I've made games before, this one's a little different. I love the DIY scene, the community of players and designers all cobbling away, sharing and adapting great ideas, each person building their own take on OSR gaming for their own group. This will be my contribution, I guess.

Here are a few general notes on what this game is:

- It's light. Very light. I've fit an early version of the rule book on 2 pages, and character creation with all the options and spells on another. You could copy a character sheet onto the palm of your hand.

- It's not d20, or based on old D&D rules in that sense. You use a d12 for everything, because the d12 is the best die. (You can convert any other OSR thing into this real easy, though.)

- The prevailing setting in most OSR stuff is historic-ish fantasy horror and/or New Weird. The implied setting in this game will be just as generic, but very different. I have no idea if anyone will want to play in it, but I do! At the very least there will be a new kind of aesthetic out there in OSR gaming.

Here's everything Joseph Manola has written about Romantic Fantasy, which Spriggan suggested should be called Hope and Heroism. It's a genre that is a natural fit for OSR play, and will be (I hope) exemplified in this game.


If any of that sounds like something you'd be interested in, I'll be posting chunks of design and my process here until it's done or implodes or something suitably final happens.

I think transparency in any creative process is a great thing, and I think it's a large factor in what sets games like these apart. So, here I go.

More information next time!

Monday 19 March 2018

Better Treasure (1d20)

Ah, loot. Sometimes it’s a useful magic item or gadget, sometimes it’s a pile of coins. That bit in between doesn’t get explored much. Some gems amongst the coins, or an ornamental sword perhaps, but that’s about it for items that are clearly valuable but not inherently useful.

Here are a few more, as found in a particular country in the far north of my 5e game’s setting.

1: Roll again, but it’s a well-made fake.
A living but remarkably docile beetle, with the appearance and monetary worth of a gemstone. Worn as jewellery, worthless when dead.
3: A coin with a grinning half-moon on one side and full moon on the other, palm sized and not part of any known currency. The metal is not of this world.
4: A sculpture of an athlete. Clearly has religious significance.
5: A painting of dogs running an abattoir. The signature proves its worth.
6: A hanging scroll for a wall made of fine papyrus, inks and watercolours depict fishermen at sunset. In its native country, this would be passé, but here folks are just catching on.
7: The last known painting by a famous artist. The player character least likely to know about these things recognises it instantly.
8: A terrible painting, derivative and lacking in soul. The frame is ornate and laced with fine metals.
9: An abstract sculpture. The metal is worth a lot on its own, but convince someone this pretentious piece has meaning and they’ll pay tenfold.
10: A take on a well-known painting that 1d4 of the player characters have heard of. This version presents a view of the same river, but from below the surface, an artist with their easel depicted on the bank. Part of the water nymphs’ irony movement of the last century.
11: A tiara bearing the mark of a northern court jeweller. Cast aside by a petulant princess, its stunning workmanship overlooked for a flashier design.
12: An elven evening gown made from leaves that were seduced into growing this shape naturally. Too revealing for most polite society soirées, but those elves love this stuff.
13: Silk pyjamas of a corpulent noble. The material is fine, and of volume enough to make several garments that could each be sold at the price of the original.
14: A fur-trimmed cape. There is a minor tear, easily repaired in an undetectable manner, but that clearly wasn’t a good enough solution for its snooty owner.
15: A woollen hat made from the fleece of cosmic goats. The milliner clearly was unaware that their creation would not protect from cold due to its material’s ineffable essence, and upon realising this cast their work aside. The wool itself still has value, though.
16: A sealed capsule of some astral origin. Nobody of this plane would know how to open it, but it has immense value as a curio or conversation piece.
17: A locket with an engraving: if found, please return to given address. The owner will offer a reward even greater than the locket’s considerable worth.
18: A pair of earrings that were the height of fashion 1d100 years ago. Someone old enough to remember that craze will, upon seeing them, decide it’s time they made a comeback, and offer a large sum.
19: A necklace of ice crystals suspended in time, never melting. Only a noble would be able to afford it, but a wizard would offer anything they could for the chance to study the enchantment.
20: A treasure mimic (see: the Graverobber’s Guide to Slimes).

Oh, and if needed, 1d6 explanations for how these incongruous treasures got to the dungeon in which the players find them:

1: Magpie men. A nest nearby.
2: Bungles; animated bags with little feet that love to steal, but dump their contents when they start feeling weighed down.
3: An astral anomaly. Any magic user detects the traces of long-dormant spatial rifts in the area.
4: The original owner turns up as soon as the treasure is found, asking politely for it back. They are a doppelganger, and their disguise is how they stole it in the first place, before putting it somewhere for safekeeping while they left to feed.
5: Goblins who fancy themselves critics of art and haute couture. One displays his find to the others, who wear stolen monocles and make thoughtful noises as they appraise it, stroking their chins.
6: The wraith of a spurned lover who clings to their former paramour’s belongings as a kind of pathetic revenge.

Friday 16 March 2018

Animal Folk (1d20)

Upon discovering a new village or town, the population are not human, but animal folk. Use as many puns and references to the nature/diet/stereotypes/myths of the original animal as you can. They wear little hats or waistcoats or something.

1: Roll again but it’s just that animal, not a person-version. The town is overrun.
Frog. Upstanding and noble, like knights in a fairy tale. Their princess is a human.
3: Racoon. Genial and lazy, like good-for-nothing uncles. Join the feast! What, leaving already?
4: Fox. Sly and inquisitive, like greasy salespeople. Eager to sell their enchanting wares.
5: Catfish. Friendly and dull, but well-meaning. A giant one out by the waterfall offers advice.
6: Crow. Pious and brash, like haughty nuns. The first night you stay, someone robs the shrine.
7: Cow/Bull. Hard-working and passionate, outspoken frontiersfolk. Won’t suffer ne’er-do-wells.
Pig. Friendly and wise, like fat old critics. Can tell you anything about any food they sniff.
Owl. Stuffy and bookish, like terse librarians. You can stay as long as you don’t make noise.
10: Caterpillar. All but one are cocooned, the last is tidying up before he joins them.
Macaque. Good-humoured and lascivious, like staff in a bordello. Know some great stories.
Mouse. Actual size. Borrowers-style, under the floorboards of a seemingly abandoned house.
Bear. Polite and genteel, keep a few treasures. If you come in winter, they’re all asleep.
Bat. The night sky is to them as the beach is to surfer dudes. Something’s been hunting them.
Goat. Rural and standoffish, like ornery farmers. Best be on your way, now.
Lizard. Sunbathing and off their faces on pipeweed. Got any food?
Deer. Very well-to-do. They sell little snowglobes and kitschy wooden ornaments.
Warthog. Brusque but kind. They’ll offer their ugliest child in marriage, plus a huge dowry.
Crab. Terminally unimpressed.
Roll again but they share the place with humans, roll 1d4. 1-2: They live in harmony, 3: They have an uneasy alliance, 4: One knows nothing of the other.

Tuesday 6 March 2018

Slime and Silliness

Here's me making a case, in a roundabout way, for why abject silliness has a place in your game. You can skip to the end for the D&D bits.

Our Story Begins...

In the early 1980s, Akira Toriyama, author of the popular manga serials Dragon Ball and Dr Slump, was contacted by a game developer called Yuji Horii.

Horii had won a competition by Square Enix, and along with a few other developers, had been sent to the US for a games conference. It was there that he'd learnt of the American RPG Wizardry! - a dungeon crawler which took the tropes of fantasy gaming and mixed in puns and real-world references. It was one of the first games to take D&D-style gameplay and digitise it as a video game dungeon crawler - at least, one of the first with flashy colour graphics.

Horii was smitten. He and his team of developers cooked up their own RPG, inspired by Wizardry!'s gameplay, fantasy world and sense of humour. Toriyama had already combined an epic fantasy quest with puns and slapstick in his Dragon Ball series, and agreed to come on board the video game project as a character designer.

Father vs Son

A few years after Horii's new game, Dragon Quest, was released to huge sales and critical acclaim, a translation of Wizardry! came to Japanese shores. It received modest success, even going on to become more popular in Japan than it was back home in the States. It still fell short of its spiritual successor. Far short.

Dragon Quest is the most popular video game franchise in Japan. It's up there with Mario and Pokemon, and is considered the national video game of the country. There are themed bars and cafes. Kids got arrested in the hundreds for truancy the one time a Dragon Quest game was released on a school day (they've stuck to Saturdays since). When I was there last year, stores that didn't even sell video games had little placards and posters up, reminding everyone that a new instalment in the series was on its way.

Dragon Quest's gameplay, at least in the first instalment, wasn't too dissimilar from Wizardry!. Horii had made sure of it - he wanted to emulate the game in almost every aspect, such was his delight with the concept. On paper, there was almost nothing to distinguish the two, other than that Dragon Quest was on the more family-friendly Famicom console.

There was one more problem with Wizardry! in Japan, though: the translation had failed to preserve any of the jokes. The Japanese audience didn't mind - it was a fine game on its own, and they didn't know any better. But with its humourous streak lost, it just couldn't compete with Dragon Quest.

Monsters and Madness
Art by Parker Simmons (@parkerrsimmons)
While Wizardry! had you fighting dragons and skeletons, Dragon Quest mixed in all sorts of silly critters. Toriyama's trademark playful style brought a sense of the ridiculous to every enemy in the game - even a simple armoured knight becomes a chunky cartoon lump with trademark Toriyama shoulder pads.

The design wasn't the only thing that brought a sense of fun to the fantasy. Dragon Quest games are full of puns and jokes, to a level that Wizardry! never dreamed of. Mercifully, this sense of humour has survived the translation back into English - the team that translates the series have done a fantastic job preserving the nonsense.

A few examples spring to mind - maybe my favourite is Abbot Jack, who runs Alltrades Abbey, a temple in one game where characters can change their Job (Class). Jack of Alltrades, of course, turns out to be host to a terrible demon: the Master of None. Or there are the monster names - they don't have weretigers like in D&D, instead they have weartigers - demons in tiger onesies. The huge mythical sea beast that lives off the coast of a town where everyone speaks in Welsh accents is called Lleviathan.

Dragon Quest is not a comedy series. These are well-crafted and expertly balanced RPG games, and later instalments have some of the most memorable stories and characters in any video game series. The pervasive sense of fun is just what elevates it all to something greater.

The Slime

The Slime. Look at that lil face!

Dragon Quest's mascot, as designed by Akira Toriyama, is the Slime. The creature is everywhere in Japan - he has toys, collectables, merchandise, food products, even his own spin-off game series. The only official controller Sony have ever released for the PS4, other than the default Dualshock, is shaped like one of these idiots. Ask a Japanese child... hell, ask any Japanese person to draw "slime", don't even mention Dragon Quest - they'll draw that little dumping-shaped doofus.

The Slime is the first creature you fight in the original Dragon Quest, and serves a similar purpose in every subsequent game. It's a weak, low-level monster that doesn't do much more than get in your way and force you to learn how the battle system works. There are other slime variant that show up later that might present more of a challenge, but this guy is happy where he is: as a weak, pathetic blob of goop with a gormless grin and nothing much else.

He's fun, and that's all he needs to be to be one of the most famous monsters in gaming.

Start Talking About D&D or I'm Out of Here

There we go. Familiar territory.
The Gelatinous Cube is one of the most famous of D&D's original monsters. There are few veteran dungeon crawlers who don't have at least one tale of wandering a suspiciously clean corridor in some underground lair, or seeing a skeleton floating seemingly in space before the dreaded ooze attacks.

The Cube, along with the Rust Monster and the Rug of Smothering, come from the Gygaxian School of Fuck You, That's Why. These are creatures specifically designed to trick and trip up players who think that they know everything, or that they're safe, or that they've worked out how to beat the dungeon.

This is... not a fun way to play, for most of us. But it sure did give us some iconic monsters.

Get to the Point

Dragon Quest's monsters are dumb, fun silly cartoons. Toriyama's idea of a Chimera is a fat snake with a goose's head. But they want to kill you.

The Gelatinous Cube - or the Owlbear, or a bunch of other WotC IPs, are stupid. They're weird little beasts imagined up by a man who wanted to fuck his players over so much that he wrote backstory for a bag of knock-off dinosaur toys and used them as minis, so they wouldn't be able to predict what was coming. They're stupid monsters. But they want to kill you.

It doesn't matter how nonsensical the concept is. Try explaining to an Owlbear that it's actually more cute than scary. It's just gonna keep trying to rip your character's face off. You'd better learn how to kill that adorable Slime, or it's going to kill you. The fight is still the same as it would be with any other monster - get rid of their HP, hold on to yours. It's just more fun when you and your friends are all cracking up about the demon in a onesie.

The most bizarre, the most ridiculous, the most laughable parts of your game are probably the best parts. They'll certainly be among the most memorable.

You're all sitting around rolling dice and pretending to be other people. If you can't laugh, what hope is left for you?

Plug Time

Art by Nicoletta Migaldi
In the spirit of the inherent silliness of the Slime, here's a thing I made. Content for your 5th Edition game, but easy enough to convert to other systems.

9 monsters, 4 spells and a playable race - all slime.

It's pay-what-you-want, and you can get it right here.


EDIT: A corollary! One thing I didn't mention, lest I began writing an article about Dragon Quest rather than TRPGs, is just how much DQ has influenced the entire fantasy genre in Japan. Mainstream depictions of fantasy in cartoons, comics, films, and especially other games to this day owe a huge debt to Toriyama's work. So, by extension, there's a big D&D flavour in the modern Japanese fantasy genre (because, y'know: D&D >> Wizardry! >> Dragon Quest >> everything after).

That even comes back on itself on occasion. Check this article out, with the official Japanese printing of the Rules Cyclopedia for old-school D&D. See the little hat on the cleric, the whole look of the clothing, the Shoulder Pads? That's straight up Toriyama. Pretty cool!