New on Desk #19 — World of Near

The Quest for Lucre from a few weeks back has had a positive effect on my overall activity profile; after discussing things with various friends I recognized a few practical low-hanging fruit to grab for. The first concrete result has been putting the World of Near, my TSoY-era magnum opus, up for sale in digital format for the first time.

A fantasy adventure game with heart

The Shadow of Yesterday is a fantasy adventure drama roleplaying game from the mid-’00s, designed by one Clinton R. Nixon – computer programmer, Forge admin, free culture advocate and an all-around practically minded gamer. For me personally TSoY was something of a revelation back then, as Clinton had successfully captured much of the platform that I was working on myself at the time: we had both been playing 3rd edition D&D in our own parts of the world, and the narrativist adventure game implied between the lines was of interest. Making the character building subgame dramatically relevant, and switching to customizable experience gain systems could make for a game that was more about the identity of the fantasy adventurer than about the incessant fighting that as at the focus of modern D&D. Hybrid adventure-drama thinking, along lines similar to e.g. Burning Wheel and Fate (and Dungeon World a decade later).

After getting over Clinton stealing the march on me, I got into TSoY pretty eagerly, as it’s basically the game I wanted all along anyway. I was big into publishing key games in Finnish at the time, and TSoY was one of the games that got the treatment, so that meant playing even more of it. TSoY was (and is) a great game because of how effortlessly it masters the entire scope of the fantasy adventure game: you have sweeping magic systems, exotic locations, pre-industrial cultures and bold individuals doing exciting things, all implemented with progressive game design techniques. TSoY was in its time an important trailblazer design for such core hybrid design ideas as flagging (players expressing their interests and reactions via explicit game mechanics) and dramatically sensitive mechanical modularization, and it was one of the few games that had a full-blown modern conflict resolution system, consistent scene framing and purposefully focused mechanical chassis in a fantasy adventure game. It’s completely party-agnostic, you can just as easily play it party-based or scenario-based.

A few years later Clinton was looking to move on, which isn’t that difficult for an indie publisher – at that time mainly a matter of closing up your support forum and maybe telling regular correspondents where you’d disappeared to. I was pretty active with TSoY at the time, so when Clinton asked me to take up product support (answering questions and teaching best practices of play to interested players), I was happy to do so. I also, with Clinton’s blessing, took the opportunity to put together my own edition of TSoY. Not difficult to arrange, Clinton put the game under open license specifically for this sort of thing. My thinking at the time was that the practical culture of TSoY had advanced enough to justify a new edition that would incorporate the various mechanical innovations and fresh insight into the literary material that had been developed over the mid-’00s.

I published the new edition of TSoY in 2008 and 2009, split into two books. I opted for a rules and setting split, with Solar System (2008) being a generic rules treatment and World of Near (2009) a campaign and setting sourcebook for actually playing TSoY. One of the quirky things we did here was making the rules book a cheap, light-weight pamphlet (albeit what, 88 pages long, so not a short one per se), while the setting book is more reflective of the size and scope of the overall game, being a traditional book with covers and such niceties. The idea was that while Solar System was available and usable separately, we could pack it up as a freebie alongside the setting book as well.

I’m happy to report that Solar System, which was published first, was generally well received by the scene at the time; making it cheap ($5 or 5 €) was apparently attractive, and TSoY was an active enough consideration for many hobbyists. My impression is that people have mostly felt that the booklet does a good job teaching the game, and inspiring the reader to try it out themselves.

The larger and more ambitious World of Near retailed for $20 a year later, and was something of a disappointment insofar as attracting audiences went. My overall sense is that the relevant subculture I was concerned with at the time (often called the “Forge diaspora” at the time; nowadays it’d be “story gamers”) was experiencing a progressive trend, and a big book high fantasy game, no matter how exceptional in its literary qualities, didn’t attract attentions. Small and hip games about personal issues were more the flavor of the day.

As is often the case with indie designers, I’m not really that into persistently marketing and discovering audiences, so I did the typical thing and just shrugged at the flop. In hindsight I could have taken the game and went to the trenches with it, as other people with different personalities have done, promoting it to new audiences outside our particular indie game bubble of the time. The book did take some work, and I was absolutely confident about its quality, so the lukewarm reception was of course a disappointment, but it’s apparently not in my nature to be stubborn about stuff like that. I’d wisely only printed up 300 copies of the book, so it wasn’t an economical disaster or anything. Thinking back, I think I’m actually more bothered by the book’s lack of attention now than I was then; at the time I was just happy and proud to have succeeded in pulling together such a rich and vivacious book (which was amply affirmed by the inner circle of TSoY enthusiasts, who of course got their copies), and didn’t really care about the fact that it sold barely any copies.

This book I made, World of Near

So anyway, World of Near. It’s a pretty expansive book, conceptually comparable to other “big fantasy games” like I dunno, Earthdawn or Exalted: there’s sweeping geography, many cultures, histories, magical cosmologies, much more than you’d realistically speaking need for a campaign. The scope makes plenty of room for mixing and matching, picking the parts that inspire you and ignoring the rest. The general thematic thrust is very west coast USA; I see pulp fantasy here, sure, but also things like Elfquest and Glorantha. Feminism, Vietnam War and the culture war are major touchpoints. The treatment always aims to present only the core concern, leaving setting detail to be developed in play, so boring gazetteer stuff is minimal and most of the page count is dedicated to broad strokes and rules crunch. The core nature of the book is that it’s a compilation work, of which I consider myself more of an editor than author: many people have contributed their imaginations into the world of Near, I just pulled things together into a consistent book.

Leafing through the book today, it also strikes me that my treatment of TSoY is very mechanically intense. The Solar System is a rare generic rules system in that it’s a genuine switch system, like its predecessor Fudge, capable of running very light, but also very heavy, and World of Near is, I have to say, a tour de force in how to do stupidly intricate mechanical constructions in TSoY. Clinton’s original book is mid-weight in comparison, although my additions do build logically on what came before. Anybody telling me that they like their TSoY in a sleeker form have my sympathy, and I’m very much available for advice on how to practically use World of Near for a mechanically streamlined campaign. (It’s naturally counter-intuitive to not use some parts of a game book, but in this case it’s very much appropriate; TSoY is heavily modular, you’re not supposed to use everything simultaneously, and that goes for the overall mechanical involvement, too. Your campaign process is supposed to control the introduction of mechanical crunch.)

We didn’t put out a pdf version of the World of Near at the time, which no doubt contributed to the low sales. The plan was to create a nice pdf after we got the print publication hassles out of the way, but the lukewarm reception and unrelated other projects drove that to the back burner. A few hobbyists took the time to put up nice html pages for the book (it’s CC licensed, as all TSoY stuff is) back then, so there wasn’t much urgency in the pdf version to my mind.

Fast forward a decade, though, and things look a bit different: I’m not sure if there’s any html version of the book up in the Internet anymore. TSoY in general has been largely ignored over the last decade if the amount of mail I get about it is anything to judge by. That’s something of a shame, as it’s a very legit game, but so far I’m not aware of anybody having any major ambitions for developing it any further. For now World of Near remains the last word on The Shadow of Yesterday.

I don’t know if I’m ready to get back into TSoY myself quite yet, but the least I can do is finally putting up a pdf version of the book. It wasn’t a huge amount of work to finesse the old print files into something good enough to distribute, so the combination of an interested hobbyist asking about it while I was also musing about the Quest for Lucre got me motivated enough to go through with it. Maybe a pdf edition generates a bit of a cash flow, and in the best case it’ll introduce the game to some new gamers who’ve never seen it. TSoY was the new hotness about 15 years ago, which is long enough that many current gaming hobbyists may have never heard about it.

Getting these books

If you want to give me money for the Solar System and World of Near, I’m selling both on paper and now also in pdf at the Arkenstone website at reasonable price points. This is the best way to give me money, as it minimizes go-betweens. Purchasing the World of Near also gets you a copy of Solar System as a freebie, so don’t buy both.
Buy TSoY stuff directly

Alternatively, you can just download the pdfs at DrivethruRPG, where I uploaded both books a few days ago. They’re priced at pay-what-you-want, which means that they cost nothing. Please don’t feel like you need to not download them because you don’t want to pay; I’m much more happy about a new reader than about a few bucks.
Solar System
World of Near

I felt that the pay-what-you-want pricing was appropriate for books that are openly licensed and pretty old, too. I don’t hate money, as I hope the Quest for Lucre demonstrates, but I like attention for TSoY even more, so I expect this’ll be a happy compromise all around. The books have already generated a few euros at Drivethru, and over a hundred downloads from eager packrats, so who knows; the tragic yet hopeful legends of Near may soon reach some new audiences.

Monday: Dragon’s Castle

The story in our Mountain Witch Castlevania hack game is heating up now that the Dark Fates are just about all on the table. The last player to reveal their Fate (who is also the one who joined the game last, in the middle of the 2nd Act) did it in a beautifully understated manner, sort of coupling it with the GM’s incidental stuff. Count Dracula comes to hang out with the vampire slayers a bit in a cut scene (you can’t actually confront him before Act IV, which means that meeting him prematurely is dangerous cut scene terrain where he does whatever the heck he wants), and Eric LeCarde is all like “Is it time yet, my Lord?” and Dracula strokes his magnificent chin, musing mysteriously “No, not before the Clocktower. No.” Then you flip out your Fate, The Dragon’s Pawn, and that’s how you do a low-profile Dark Fate reveal without long monologues about complicated backstory. You’re reserving that for later, you see.

The reason for why Dracula was slumming it out in Act II territory was simply that in the last chapter we’d learned that the player character doctor Wilde has an old friend, Nyx the Vampire Slayer, who has been turned into a vampire here in Castlevania, and now Nyx wanted to release the good doctor from his own horrible curse by the same means that she was “cured” from being the Chosen One. That means being, asking the Count nicely to come down from his tower and operate a magical chirurgy to remove the evil spirit from inside doctor Wilde.

Nyx, who I think didn’t quite realize that she was now a vampire, considered being the Vampire Slayer of Buffy mythos to be something of a curse, and she isn’t wrong in any technical sense there: the Chosen One gets her amazing supernatural powers, such as her great strength and speed, from an ancient spirit of darkness bound to the task by ancient shamans. This being the case, Dracula as a supreme spiritist was able to separate the spirit from the flesh, capturing the Kasoiya spirit and for the first time in known history preventing the rise of a new Chosen One after the death (and vampirism) of the last one. Big implications for that particular monster hunter bloodline, and a good example of how the bloodline stuff, which may seem a bit surprising in a Mountain Witch game, can drive a lot of play content.

So anyway, Nyx and Abraxas Wilde were doing their tense two-person dramatic ballet at a private location (the hunting lodge of the Count’s to be specific), getting to know each other after a long time apart, while the rest of the PCs participated in an amusing mind-fuck of their own: the party were trying to rescue doctor Wilde from the evil vampiress, and doing that required crossing the graveyard parked right outside the castle. The occasional skeleton wasn’t nearly as much trouble as was the mysterious mausoleum they discovered bearing the name of Charles Summers, one of the player characters.

Captain Summers at first believed this to be some sort of psychological warfare on the part of the Count, threatening his imminent death. He also was very close to walking away from the completely unforced scene, which would have suited me as the dramatic conductor just fine. However, as curiousity overcame him, the captain finally decided to peek inside and find out what the Count would have stored in a final resting place under his name, and why.

To understand the answer that, a few words about Charles’s Dark Fate. This is also a good demonstration of how convoluted the plotting in this game is. Consider Charles’s backstory:

Nathan Summers is this big-shot vampire hunter from the 16th century with preternatural longevity and luck, the swashbuckler’s swashbuckler, one of the few men who can say that they’ve come out of a conflict with Dracula victorious. Summers is also an incorrigible womanizer with a long history of conquests. As one might expect, his ways finally beget a child upon a paramour of his, a Spanish woman who then had to raise the son Charles alone, with Nathan being off somewhere fighting the forces of darkness. At least the man had promised to come back and recognize the boy as his own when it was time to start training his heir in the ways of being an international adventurer.

Charles’s mother didn’t somehow put her life on a break while this was going on, and what occurred was that she had a second son a few years later, named Victor. The two boys, Charles and Victor, were raised as the brothers they were, with the exception that Charles knew his father to be this big-time hero. Charles would never tire of hearing stories of his father’s deeds, and he treasured the idea of being heir to the man’s skills, his mission and his Charm, the mysterious secret of his unerring aim in all things in life, whether foemen or women. Being a bastard son of a single mother must not have been easy. As one might expect in the gothic horror genre, this knowledge of great destiny made Charles prideful, and as years went by, he developed a streak of cruelty towards his younger brother Victor, who was in all ways lesser than the older boy, lacking a famous father like his, and being smaller and weaker. Charles would correspond with his father as he grew older, and he could hardly wait for Nathan to come back and whisk him away from this dingy port town they lived in.

What turned a cruel sibling relationship into a true Dark Fate was that one fateful day, with Charles being maybe 15 years old, with Victor but a boy, the two went out playing with a pair of revolvers that Charles had found. They might have come in the mail, in fact, an early present from the ever-absent father figure Nathan, who was going to visit “soon” in person, of course and recognize Charles. Anyway, the boys had two revolvers to amuse them, and Charles, the ever-overbearing brother, had and idea for a fun little game they could play: one bullet for each rotating chamber, an energetic spin like the Russians reputedly do, and then, a shot each from 20 paces. Russian poker! Good, clean fun for a manic person!

Why would Charles want to play such a game? To understand that, a few words on Nathan’s Charm: Charles believed, rightly or wrongly, that Nathan Summers, the hero of two crowns (he saved both Spain and England from Dracula’s plots about a hundred years back), possessed the blessings of Fortuna, the Mediterranean paganic goddess of fate. Furthermore, he believed that as the son of the great man, he would grow to have the Charm as well, benefiting greatly of a boon that would carry him the farther the more he leant on it. It may well be that these ideas grew from what his mother told him, or from some passing remark in Nathan’s letters. Whatever the reason, Charles knew things about Nathan’s life and fate, secret things. And he wanted to test them. Prove himself. And maybe get rid of a younger brother he feared would embarrass him when the great Nathan Summers finally came.

Victor for his part was terrified; Nathan was bigger, stronger and ever the initiator in these cruel games of his. He had his ways of getting what he wanted, and Victor, rightly or wrongly, got it in his head that Charles might just shoot him on the spot if he wouldn’t play. Not that playing would be much better, as Charles had been bragging to Victor about his ostensibly great luck, the charmed life he inherited. Charles would test his luck in small ways, ever ascribing great significance to the flip of a coin or a guess proven right. He would come to Victor’s bed at night, talking in great length about the life he was destined to lead. Maybe that was part of Charles’s motivation here: he had told Victor too much, and the weight of that trust had become a burden as he grew older and understood more of the world.

So anyway, Charles believed in the Charm, and Victor knew of the Charm as well, and the two boys took the guns. A foolhardy and senseless horseplay, to be sure, but not guaranteed lethal by any means; your gun might well not fire, with just one bullet in the chamber, and besides, how likely would either of the two be to hit the other, even if they seriously tried, rather than shooting in the air as a duelist often does? Revolver shooting is not a triviality, and these were untrained boys. Yet nevertheless the both of them somehow knew: not only would Charles’s gun have a bullet in the chamber when he pulled the trigger, but the shot would strike true as well. That was the Charm, the unseen wings of fate destined to raise Charles ever higher in the world.

Terrified for his life, what could Victor do but cheat? When the two were taking their steps, counting out loud, twenty paces of honor, the boy clumsily flipped the chamber on his revolver. Charles had of course loaded a bullet in his as well; he had to be fair, you cannot rely on Fortuna without actually relying on her. Victor, suffering of no such limitation, quickly set the gun, ensuring he would at least have a chance.

A few years later Nathan Summers would apparently remember that he had a son waiting in the wings, so to the surprise of everybody involved he did actually show at that modest port in Spain to pick the boy up and begin his training. Nathan is growing tired, and perhaps old. Not wanting to disappoint their benefactor, the family of course introduced Charles to his father; it was the first time they met, and Nathan never knew that it was Victor who was forced to take his dead brother’s place.

Good stuff, good stuff, and I’m intending to learn more later on about Nathan and the training Charles (Victor) undertook to become the man he is today. And does he have the Charm? His character sheet says he does, but he doesn’t believe it himself. The game’s rules make it deliciously ambivalent, as Abilities don’t grant you anything as crude as dicing bonuses; I can get quite far indeed without committing on the issue one way or another.

So anyway, as you probably guessed several paragraphs ago, the mysterious tomb that captain Summers discovered in the Count’s boneyard was not for him, but rather for young Charles, the brother he killed in self-defense when he was twelve. The tomb was a simple affair, with a stone sarcophagus hiding the body from view, but there was this scratching and tapping they could hear from inside, and just like a good horror protagonist Charles (Victor) couldn’t just walk away – he had to take a look.

Discovering the teenaged Charles, hale and hearty, was of course a very emotional situation for Charles (Victor), and confusing for the rest of the party. Dragoslava was firmly of the opinion that the obviously undead creature would need to be put down. What made the scene horrifying, however, was the personal glee that Victor had for it, and the seemingly natural reactions from young Charles. The teenager blamed Victor for “bringing him back”, but he was meek and submissive towards Victor, who was now the bigger and stronger of the two, and clearly carrying a grudge for their childhood.

Victor still carries the revolvers, the two-gun akimbo his signature combat technique. The situation quickly devolved into a sorry sort of duel (the first use of the game’s duel rules so far!) inside the dark crypt, with Charles hiding behind his sarcophagus and hesitating to even touch the revolver Victor pressed on him. What was great about this situation was that in this second test of Fate Victor lost, with the young and inexperienced Charles fumblingly releasing a ricochet that bounched off the ceiling and into Victor’s arm, forcing him to drop his gun.

The situation inside the mausoleum degenerated into an entirely honorless wrestling match as Charles insisted on him being the “real heir to the Charm” and so on, while Victor tried to throttle the boy-revenant rather than let him return to the sunlight world, with Dragoslava eagerly assisting him in pulling the boy apart. However, the real kicker to the scene was occurring outside: when Victor’s gun dropped from his hand and set off a seemingly harmless shot, it was Eric LeCarde outside who cried out, as if wounded by the gunshot. There was a particularly convoluted devilry afoot here!

The mysterious injury continued to confound us for a bit of fictional maneuvering, but all became clear when Victor spent a point of Trust and really looked at LeCarde – and realized in a flash of insight why the man had felt so familiar to him all along. LeCarde was Charles his brother, grown up. How couldn’t he realize that before? But then, what did he just kill in that crypt? And how was LeCarde wounded?

It is appropriate to remember here that the GM doesn’t really invent this stuff in Mountain Witch; the players do. I’m just there to provide them opportunities to make these strange revelations.

The thoroughly confused and demoralized party continued on and arrived at the Count’s lodge appropriately in time to participate in the crazy boss fight that doctor Wilde and Nyx-the-vampiress had managed to brew up. While waiting for the Count to arrive, Abraxas had tricked Nyx to leave him alone to search for the Kasoiya spirit that was apparently stored somewhere in the lodge. I’ll discuss dr. Wilde’s own tragic backstory sometime later, but the gist of it was that the man had enough sense to be deeply distrutful of the idea of letting Dracula operate on him to get rid of the Lovecraftian Lamprey biding its time in his guts. So instead, being the clever man he is, he found the pre-African spirit of darkness and consumed it, hoping to purge himself of the Lamprey with some stronger medicine.

I was absolutely over the moon with the sheer insanity of the boss fight arrangement here: we have two ancient inhuman spirit beings inside one of the player characters, both technically boss monsters and worthy encounters in their lonesome, both in a deadly struggle against each other. Meanwhile, there’s the vampiric Chosen One, ostensibly trying to help said player character, except his other friends just showed up with no clue of what’s going on here. A very maneuver-rich situation, which is exactly what TMW wants as a game: it’s technically the very opposite of a bonus-counting math game, so concepts like “my character is particularly well-trained as a fighter” mean nothing to it, while maneuver issues like “are you inside or outside?” or “what do you understand about this situation?” or “who’s against whom here?” are its lifeblood.

The actual fight was tight and over pretty quickly despite its potential complexity; the players have learned to use the rules effectively by now, and they made short work of Nyx, dragging her forcibly to the window and burning her vampiric self up in the purifying light of day. I might have preferred to keep her around for further dramatic developments, as she was deeply significant to Abraxas, but them’s the dice. (I would have had her retreat from the situation soon, but didn’t get the chance, as Dragoslava was both motivated and very effective here. She has, symbolically speaking, taken Nyx’s place as Abraxas’s female best friend, and wrestling the old girl to the ground and grounding her braincase under her boot certainly made the point abundantly clear.)

While the two dark godlings roiled inside Dr. Wilde (they actually engaged in a Duel as per the rules, embedded within a Boss fight), Dracula showed up, as I mentioned earlier; Nyx had sent word for him, after all. He wasn’t the happiest with the monster hunters for killing Nyx, but as is ever his nature, he didn’t snuff out the over-proud mortals then and there, preferring to drop some cryptic moral wisdom and leave. The Count is a rather Machiavellian figure, so it is only proper for him to act in perpendicular ways for mysterious reasons.

Tuesday: The Disc Golf Galactic Summer Foils

A little bit of something different, let me quickly relate a summerful story about our disc golf excursion earlier this week. With the corona thing discouraging many social hobbies, this has been agreed upon among my overall nerdy friends as an acceptable compromise activity: a few generally responsible (self-quarantining) people engaging in an outdoors sport that doesn’t require close physical contact seems sane enough. Disc golf works well as a social sport, as those who’ve tried it out know: you do a bit of bragging, bit of disc flipping, lug refreshments around a more or less sporty track, and have a change to talk over recent news over a couple of hours. It’s a good deal.

I know that it’s pretty soon in the season to call it, but I did warn the crew when we set out that doing a 18 hole course will have a psychological impact compared to the more common 9 holes undertaking: sometime after the 9th, as your body accomodates to the routine of throwing the disk, searching for the disk, finding the disk, your sense of time and space elevates and you achieve the flow state of perfect golfiness, which is next to godliness. It was somewhere around the 7th hole when I realized that we were experiencing a perfect summer day, with the warmth of the sun, long-quarantined friends, refreshments (there was a sale on coconut water) and a fun and varied course of mud, cliffs and trees at Mount Palois. It was around the 12th hole when I realized that what we had here was the season’s definitive match; early in the season, yeah, but the fact was that I was beating the pants off these regional-level posers, my head was distinctly feeling golf-ball shaped (but much bigger after my accurate and consistent drives), and it was generally obvious that this would be the match that defines the local rankings and competitive relationships for the rest of summer. Mount Palois is apparently the greatest course in Upper Savo, too, so it was only appropriate.

So there I was, perfectly spheroid, having realized my true hidden nature, torn behind the veil, revealed myself as a golf god. Truly insufferable, but what can you do in the face of greatness? To think that I had been worried about Antti, the ol’ shot put champion, who’d obviously been doing secret drive training over the winter. Sure, his every drive shoots impossibly far as he dances over the tee like a 300-pound ballerina, pirouetting like he’d spent his youth training throwing sports (while I was mainly throwing dice myself), but what matters it when you lack the spatio-temporal perfection of the golf god, the precision to send the disk out in a way that actually, you know, stays on the lane instead of flying so very, very deep into the woods.

Out there, trudging through the mud, sand and moss of Mount Palois (it’s spring, the course gets surprisingly muddy in places), I discarded my fears of Antti’s long drive; as long as I keep well behind him as he throws, so as to not die from direct impact, the average accuracy will surely ensure that I come out ahead in the long run. And being that the Marquis apparently poses no threat to me, does this not mean that we might as well crown the season’s champion already? I fear nobody else, and now I apparently don’t even fear him.

Why, I doubt that even calling him out like this will inspire Antti to beat me in a rematch. That doesn’t sound like a perfectly human reaction to insufferable smugness, no.

Thursday: Varangian Way

Getting back to tabletop games, we’ve started a new playtest project at the RPG Club Hannilus. As the reader might remember from last week, we wrapped up our Fables of Camelot campaign, so the slot was open for new games. There’s something of a spring productivity book going off at Hannilus, with several designers having games in playtestable state, so we’re a playtest club now, I guess. One of these projects ready for playtest is, of course, the club host’s very own Varangian Way.

Varangian Way is a dramatic storytelling sandbox game about 8th century vikings exploring Eastern Europe. The game posits a pretty unique storytelling style: you have a map of the region, with a sort of strategy game going on as the players model the rise and fall of nations, and in between they process a roster of protagonist characters who have relatively compact and interleaving adventures in the milieu that changes and develops around them as decades pass and what started as a prehistorical wilderness slowly transforms into one of the greatest nation states of Europe. It’s basically like Star Trek, except instead of captain Kirk you have Rurik of Dorestad, instead of the Alpha Quadrant you have Eastern Europe, and instead of year 2750 it’s just 750.

The game’s in early development, as we say in the game design business, and the playtest campaign is what I like to call an “explorative playtest”, or “pre-alpha” as you might prefer. What this means is that you basically spend about 50% of the playtime having a development meeting among the players, trying to figure out how the game actually does all the various things it needs to do. Fun times, but only if you’re interested in game development and want to help Petteri out in a very practical way.

The actual play was, of course, rather awful (as should be expected of explorative playtesting; it’s work). We made the fundamental mistake of creating several protagonist characters right from the start, like you would do in your everyday roleplaying game; in hindsight it would have been better to start with just one, with one player focusing on protagonist and others dealing with GM duties. It would have made getting the game going much faster and more focused, which is important for a game that attempts to build up to being very wide; you can’t start wide, it’s something the players need to build up towards.

The design process is feeling good, though; Petteri seems to be motivated, and solutions to various problems pop up effortlessly, and clarity increases visibly as we go along. We decided to have at least one more session immediately next week, and I expect that it’ll be much smoother by then. I expect that we’ll want to go down to a e.g. bimonthly schedule on this in a bit, as Petteri will need to focus on designing the game instead of playing it, but we can clearly benefit from at least a couple of sessions back to back here at start.

Club Hannilus Minutes

Speaking of Club Hannilus, the Discord server has been working as something of a lightweight cultural saloon for the members. Aside from the three to five regular play-participating figures there are a few observers, and we do talk about stuff not immediately related to the games under play. Petteri actually established a number of extra channels on the server in a futile effort to organize the babble, so at Club Hannilus we now enjoy expanded amenities such as the “Actual Play Cooling Lounge”, “Game Development Links” and the ever-popular “RPG theory Smoking Room”. Let’s look at a few topics that have come up recently:

  • We’ve developed a pretty ambitious roadmap for future play projects as various possibilities occur to us. The most immediate plans involve Varangian Way, as described above, as well as Flame/Star/Cthulhu, the folk fantasy slice-of-life-game I discussed in the earlier newsletter, and Land of Nod (unrelated to the well-known OSR blog), an old game of Paul’s that we should take out for a swing.
  • The typology of adventure games (GM, party, mission) and drama games (independently acting, personally motivated characters) in roleplaying was discussed. The realization that stuck with me from the exchange was the idea that the history of traditional roleplaying is generally a history of game masters who want to tell stories, coupled with players who… don’t, preferring an interactive game of exploration and adventure. Weird, isn’t it, how these desires have nothing to do with each other? Yet we still persist.
  • Dice mechanics and their probabilities have been a strong on-going topic as we’ve e.g. attempted to figure out alternate ways to achieve the interesting and useful mathematical properties of the Sorcerer dice. I underwent a personal mental breakdown achieved by meditating on the BRP attribute opposition table: why, in the name of God, would you make a table like that and then make it linear of all things? You have a relatively light-weight game system, and you opt to have a single look-up table in your game, used only occasionally, and the table consists completely of a single, regular first-order function that any school kid can calculate in their head. To experience the same breakdown, take the Sorcerer dice odds, put them into that BRP table and meditate upon how much more useful that table would be for its intended purpose of universal attribute contests if the actual target numbers it spits out were something other than “+5% for each point of difference”.
  • A contributor has been gracing us with interesting stories – more like questions and queries – about their attempt to join a D&D 5th edition Forgotten Realms campaign despite never, ever having played any D&D in their life. (Seriously though, this is interesting and I hope to hear more about the project as it progresses.) It’s amusing how little sense many things seem to make for them, like when they decided to play a Barbarian (one of the character classes in D&D), except it proved surprisingly difficult to find a Forgotten Realms home culture for the character, one where it’d make sense for a Barbarian-classed character to come from. The GM apparently didn’t help at all when they suggested a Mongol-like horse nomad origin, and adviced the player to “not worry about it, it’s just a fantasy game” when the player noticed that Barbarians fight with two-handed weapons rather than bows. Speaking as audience, I sort of expect nobody at the game table to give a flying fig about the character’s backstory, but the player clearly has a rpg background where it’s inconceivable that they wouldn’t create their character with love and attention.
  • Speaking of, I again grew let’s politely say “inspired” when the Forgotten Realms thing came up and the contributor expressed some worrisome curiousity and willingness to learn more about the setting so as to be able to play better in it. Very reasonable in general (if misguided here; I’ve never seen a mainstream D&D campaign where the players needed to study the setting), but Forgotten Realms happens to be a particularly “special” vanilla fantasy rpg setting, even discounting the D&D flavour, so… It was several hours before I grew bored of educating the club about the delightful minutiae of Realmspeech, the I suppose you could call it a dialect of English that they seem to speak in the Forgotten Realms. I never even got around to discussing more usual gazetteer topics, the language alone proved such a delightful thing to laugh at. Definitely something you should learn if you’re ever playing in a Forgotten Realms campaign and want to be a good character player, forsooth. Even better if you’re not playing in English.

Quest for Lucre

The Quest for Lucre progress bar

8%

Let’s take a practical look at how the Quest for Lucre is doing. As the long-time reader (from two weeks back, that is) remembers, I’m motivating myself to be productive by listening to the accountant; the goal is to have my indie publishing brand make 2000 € of profit this year. Might not happen (read: I don’t see how it would, right now), but let’s see how far we can get.

The meager profits so far, approximately +160 €, are mostly from incidental long tail sales that Arkenstone occasionally makes to visitors at our relatively moribund Finnish webstore and English publishing site. Some little is outlying royalties still trickling in from long-ago projects. The publication of the World of Near pdf this week has contributed by roughly a percentage point so far; in comparison, a friend poring over the Arkenstone retail selection for any additions to their personal collection jumped us up by two full points just this week. I need more friends, clearly.

State of the Productive Facilities

I’ve actually just about finished the promised GNS Simulationism article, it just missed my internal deadline for the week and will come up next week. Next on the to-do list (which I’ve put on the new front page, by the way) is one more Cyberpunk 2020 Redux article, so I guess I’ll start on that next.

Meanwhile, I’m happy to report that the May polls have gotten off to a strong start, with plenty of voters and some exciting new trends in the results: for once CRedux seems slated to lose a poll, as y’all seem more interested in not only TSoY, but also a few theory articles. I like the CRedux mafia getting shown to its place, although admittedly the project has grown on me a bit over the spring. I’m personally maybe a bit less enthusiastic about the theory articles (they’re more boring to write than game design or creative writing), but your authentic opinions are the point here, so it’s good to know that it’s what you like.

[May 2020] What should I write about in more depth?

  • [theory] Historiography of D&D (19%, 32 Votes)
  • [theory] The Sacrament of Death (17%, 29 Votes)
  • [design] more C2020 Redux (16%, 26 Votes)
  • [design] TSoY and SS update (14%, 23 Votes)
  • [theory] A Big Model overview (10%, 16 Votes)
  • [design] Microfit wargame (5%, 9 Votes)
  • [writing] Chronicles of Prydain setting notes (5%, 8 Votes)
  • [design] HX Fighter Program Wargame (4%, 7 Votes)
  • [writing?] Hellraiser and Evangelical Christianity (4%, 7 Votes)
  • [design] Let's get Subsection M3 moving again! (4%, 6 Votes)
  • [practical] How to create online play tools in Google Sheets (2%, 4 Votes)
  • [writing] Superhero Tulpas (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 61

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So that’s it for this week. If all goes well, I might advance the Quest for Lucre next week as well by setting up that Patreon account. We’ll see what happens in a week.

1 thought on “New on Desk #19 — World of Near”

  1. Pingback: Kiinnostavia blogauksia: toukokuu 2020 | Efemeros

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