New on Desk #89 — Tabletop Theater

Gah, took me a fair while to figure out what to write about this week. For some reason I haven’t been inspired with the topics lately.

The tools of the trade

Lately I’ve been thinking about the practical gaming tools used at the roleplaying game table a little bit. This hasn’t been a grand undertaking, more of a series of small considerations. Check this out, I’ve been separately inspired multiple times:

I have a stack of the blue ones, bottom right; I like that design the most.

OSR iron-on patches: I got a bunch of these cool patches at a very agreeable price earlier this year. The purchase was a bit impromptu, which is rare for me; the idea is to use them in some small crafting project, like creating dice bags for our local gaming crew or whatnot. As these things go, the patches sit on my desk for now, waiting for the right inspiration. Could be a dice bag, but I’ve also considered some more complex possibilities.

Filling an Amazon order: An order of AV supplies was falling short of the free shipping limit, so I spent a considerable time looking for frivolous things to buy so Mr. Bezos would pay for the freight. A GM screen was on focus for a long time; I don’t historically use one, but I’ve been thinking that it might help some players keep from outright sitting on my lap during the game. I’m a bad shopper (by which I mean, conscientious consumer), so after concluding that I’d rather craft my own to get it exactly the way I want it, I instead just bought some cheap dice cups and pleather coasters.

Didn’t buy these yet, but maybe next time…

Considering hexagons: I was visiting with the local stonecutter to run one of their cutting machines, as one does. It’s the kind of business that produces a lot of rubble. It’d be nice to think up some fun uses for stone in playing pieces or such. I made some initial sketches for inch-width hexagon pieces that might be nice to have for various gaming needs. Afterwards thinking about it I concluded that it’d probably be better effort/satisfaction ratio to shape the tokens from wood. And then I realized that actually, I could just buy tokens for next to nothing, like a civilized person.

These small ideas relate to a general proclivity towards gilding the play environment. I’m historically a very minimalist gamer, which I find is common among Finnish roleplayers; some pencils, paper and dice are all you’ll get, supply your own imagination. If we’re lucky there’s a rulebook at the table, but more likely I’ve just memorized the entire thing. And those pencils and dice, don’t expect them to be bespoke for the campaign; they’ll come out of my gaming pack that I’ve assembled like a decade back. It can answer most gaming needs simply because I only ever bother to put more stuff in there instead of taking it out.

A couple of years ago, ever since I moved back to Upper Savo, I’ve started paying more attention to gilding the environment of play, though. Miniatures, maps, luxury handouts, soundscapes, all kinds of things. These recent ideas about play tools and such are continuation of the trend. I don’t quite know what the appeal here is, unless it’s that my gaming’s finally at a level where I can afford to pay attention to the paraphernalia and presentation.

I should write more about the wider play tools topic at some point. For now, some observations about the above ideas:

Where to put an OSR patch?

My original idea for these blue OSR patches was that I’d craft them into little appreciation gifts for the players in our on-going Coup game. (Yes, you online players would also get these if you weren’t, well, online. Satisfy yourselves with the knowledge that you get biannual campaign ads that I don’t bother the tabletop group with.) I like the design, and while most players don’t really care about doctrinal details like “OSR” (often for many it’s just “a D&D campaign”), they could learn.

I’ve been stuck on the particular details of what to attach the patches to, though. Here are the main candidates:

A simple dice pouch: Easy to create (or buy from Amazon, because why ever make anything yourself in this postmodern reality) and a classic gaming tool. A canvas patch fits well on the side of one. A choice of thick quality fabric, and it’s not even that cheap of a thing. One problem is that the players often don’t have dice (Finnish gamers often use communal dice, and that’s the case for most players in this group as well), but I could just give them some with the pouches to fix that.

Elaborate dice pouch: The biggest reason to not go with the simple dice pouch is that I have difficulty letting go of an item without over-engineering it. After all, why make it a dice pouch when it could be a combined pencil case + dice pouch? The dice and pencils are always used together after all, and if I’m encouraging the players to bring their own dice, they could also start carrying their own pencils. I could probably get the exact kind of pencil case suitable for patching (and holding a suitable number of dice and pencils) at Amazon, too, because why take any joy in being able to make a thing when you can just buy a thing.

As well make it a trapper keeper: But, if I’m designing a light infantry carrying solution (the GM is the heavy infantry in this simile), why just dice and writing implements when they could be carrying some paper as well? Extending the item into a file folder (with the pencil case at the top end, sitting above the papers) would facilitate using the thing as a writing surface and while players don’t need to carry papers to and from the game (we usually centralize character sheet storage), they do have their personal notes and character stables, so personal folders of some kind are indicated anyway. Admittedly a file folder takes more space than just a dice pouch, so more cumbersome to carry, but maybe it’d also help players take the game more seriously?

Something else entirely: I could just do what Thaddeus, the patch creator has suggested, and grace some hats or such with the patches. That’d be nice for a more urban gaming culture, like as convention wear, but around here it’d feel a bit unnecessary.

Fortunately there isn’t any time pressure on this, so I’ll make some decisions and finish the project when I get around to it.

An intermission on GM screens

I actually didn’t purchase a GM screen from Amazon, but I sure did analyze my way through the decision tree. I’ll share the conclusions with you:

The screen has to be blank: Tacky gamer art gracing the screen would only ever be an option if it wasn’t tacky and I was coordinating the screen with a specific campaign. Not happening, like I play any games that actually get screens produced for them. A blank screen in uniform color (no producer logo in the middle of it, please!) is a far more aesthetic choice if you’re looking for a quality general-use screen for long-term use.

Pockets are nice…: This might come as a surprise, it sure did to me. At first blush it seems like you would obviously want the screen to have transparent plastic pockets (on both sides!) so you could put game-relevant references up on the screen or even use it to display handouts for players on their side of the screen. A vinyl screen, and you can even write on it with water-soluble ink.

… but unnecessary: However, after careful consideration I’ve concluded that all of the above is just so much noise; in the real world you can just clip whatever you need on the screen. Or use tape. And why would you write on the screen itself when you can just write on a piece of paper you clip on the screen. That entire feature-set is ultimately a red herring. Doesn’t hurt, but should not be chosen over other issues.

Ideal geometry: The dominant GM screen format is a 4-fold upright letter/A4 shape. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t really have much use history with GM screens, but I’m concerned about this being a bit too high to be ideal! Also, the three-hinged format is not quite aesthetic. A minority of screens are instead shaped like three sheets sideways: two hinges, similar overall width, less height. I suspect (I’m open to being wrong on this!) that this is the superior shape. Just difficult to find a quality screen in this shape.

Usable as a file folder: Storing the GM notes inside the screen while traveling is such an obvious use case that I don’t quite know what to think of any screen that fails to be usable as a file folder as well. That’s just leaving utility on the table.

Quality construction: According to my Amazon delving, GM screens come in plastic and cardboard, with the occasional exceptions few and far between. Hinges seem to always be pressed (that is, the material of the screen, whatever it is, gets compressed so it’ll bend). I’m sure that this is practically good enough… but it’d be fairly easy to improve on, too! The few wooden offerings are artsy artisan novelty products, which means tacky (or at least over-engineered) design and hefty price tag.

Stand-up solution: All screens I saw predicated their ability to stand up and screen the GM’s space on the screen itself bending from its hinges, forming three or four walls standing at angles to each other. (You know what I mean.) For whatever reason I didn’t see any of the obvious alternate solutions, which makes me suspicious about whether this is really the best way to go.

All in all, I ultimately decided that I’d be the happiest with the GM screen if I either buy some nice file folders and mutilate (craft) those into a screen, or go slightly heavier and construct the screen out of solid wood panel with leather hinges. Because I specifically don’t want the screen to be graced with elf tits, it seems like an item that I actually should be making myself instead of buying it from Amazon. Who knows when I get around to doing that, of course.

My dice pedagogy theory

The big idea in buying coasters and dice cups is, of course, to use the coasters as dice drop platforms for the cups. A leather cup can be dropped directly on table surface, of course, but the dice themselves rattle loudly and could conceivably hurt the table surface. Thus the concept of the landing pad. A coaster suits the purpose just fine.

As for why I grew interested in dice cups, a simple observation: a distinct subset of gamers suffers from a tendency to throw dice vigorously sideways. This causes the dice to fall off the table. I do try to instruct on efficient dicing technique, but it’s slow going. No doubt it is entertaining to throw the dice sideways and see them roll on the table.

My working theory, therefore, is that if I give each player a dice cup and a drop pad for it, I can perhaps channel the vigorous instincts of the dashing swashbucklers from doing these insane sideways throws into merely hitting a cup hard upon the table. The dice will rattle and bounce, but stay within the cup! Hopefully the visceral enjoyment of putting the dice into the cup, shaking the cup and upending the cup on the table will prove attractive.

I’m still debating presentation a bit: I could keep the stacks of cups and stacks of coasters separate and distribute them at the table, or I could couple a cup and a coaster, and maybe set up some dice sets (yes, I have too many dice by far) in the cups ready to go. The coasters are kinda foldable such that I could maybe use them as flaps for the cups… food for thought.

I suppose I could sew those OSR patches on the cups to make them official OSR dice cups. The beige cups and blue patches don’t match particularly well, though.

My hexagon playing piece idea

This one takes a bit of explanation… I got to thinking that maybe you could do hexcrawl maps with nicely tactile tabletop gaming chits? (Or dungeon squares, of course, but let’s limit ourselves to hexagons for now.) So instead of the GM describing and players drawing the hex map, as one does, you could have the GM build a bit of an impromptu world map from hex tiles. Players would still maintain their own map, but they could draw it from reference instead of the usual “in the northwestern hex you see…” description flow. At the end of the session the GM brushes the tiles back into their bag, and the next time starts again, so unlike the player map the GM map is more of a representation of what’s been seen recently than a long-term project.

Or, you could just use hexagon tiles for some other games. Assuming you could produce them, there are uses.

An important part of the concept is that the tiles should be pretty hefty, nice to handle. I’m not stranger to cardboard hexes in various boardgames, but I feel like doing this with those would be unnecessarily cheap. If I’m going to bother with a tool like this, I want the pieces to be substantial to handle and easy to line up against each other. The set could involve a hex ruler of sorts, too; a lining device that could be pressed against a set of hex pieces to align them neatly to the ruler and each other. I’m sure somebody’s invented that one already.

A simple illustration of how such angled edges on individual pieces would overlap when pushed together.

So anyway, my actual innovation in the design of such hex tokens was that if you made a bit of a z-axis wedging on the piece edges, with opposite edges alternating top and bottom shaves, you could make two pieces set side by side overlap a little bit. Executed correctly, this design detail could help keep a playing board (or dynamically constructed hexcrawl map) together better than if the pieces were simply aligned next to each other. As an added feature (benefit or bug), such design would enforce piece alignment, because each individual piece would only fit in the pattern if its orientation matches the ones around it.

While that wedge shape detail was what I originally started thinking about while considering stone playing piece design, I don’t know that it’s really that important: as long as the pieces are suitably thick and of uniform dimension, they should fit and keep together well enough. Maybe give them felt bottoms so they slide softly on a playing table.

While you could use playing pieces like this for other things, what I’m currently most interested in is a production workflow that leaves me with a lot of cheap hexagons that I can draw on myself to make the kinds of pieces I want. Hexcrawl terrain, say. The drawing part is pretty simple, I figure that using stencils makes inking individual pieces a breeze.

Another one of these projects that I’ll maybe push to implementation stage when there’s time. Might take a while.

Monday: Coup de Main #61

As my hiatus from the practical game continues, I rely on play reports from the participating players. Peitsa wrote one this time, which is good, as Tuomas’s matter-of-fact observations can be a bit perfunctory. Solid notes-keeping will pay dividents in the future!

Sven the Reaver, 4th level Barbarian, and his companion Stone the Half-Orc.
Bob the Mundane, 3rd level Commoner.
Kermit the Hermit, 2nd level Savage of learned mien.
+ 9 mercenary henchmen of solid character (except you, Petteri, you soddin’ git).

Last time, our party of merry knaves had returned from the ruined monastery to Prigworth in order to gather more intel. The undercroft of the ruins housed undead and quite lively monks, what was up with that?

Prigworth, really? Gnarley does feel a lot like Ye Merrie Ole England, that’s for sure.

Also, I like the dramatis personae. That’s a sensible way to start an after action report right there.

With the crew being, well, what they are, Bob and Sven bumbled around the streets without much success while Kermit had a talk with father Rewalt of the local church. True to form, Bob was bad enough in his attempts that he soon garnered some undue attention from a couple of lads, who were clearly shadowing him around. Bob was however quite attentive to things like that, and managed to drop a word about this to Sven later on. Our viking took immediately to it and shadowed the pair of watchers in turn, eventually getting the drop on them on an alleyway. Before they could draw their swords, both men understood that the grinning man crushing their necks in his iron grip could do horrible things if they resisted. Instead, they talked.

Turns out, the two served a local knight, Sir Gavin, who was involved in a search for a missing noble girl, Violet Harrowmoor. After the air cleared of any potential violence, the men took Sven and Bob to see Sir Gavin and it became immediately apparent that yeah yeah, of course the party had seen the girl in the ruins with the spirit called Mr. Rag and Bones. Being upfront about the situation seemed to suit the knight fine and together they soon rushed over to the church. Given that father Rewalt wasn’t too hot on negotiating with terrorists, he wasn’t too keen on Sven’s nonchalant suggestion on trading relic teeth for the children with the spirit. Instead, the good old cleric handed the party more nuclear options in the form of holy water and protective scrolls, so they could go and snatch the kids back while preferably destroying the jolly old crow-man while at it.

So far so good, the party had quickly managed to find a new, related quest source willing to hand them money and weapons without garnering undue infamy.

Next morning, the soldiers of fortune rode quickly to the ruins and dismounted. Sven briefed the men once more on their orders, emphasizing the primacy of the grenadier role and steeled them against possible losses. Who knows what might happen with these spirits?

Without any particular haste, the troop made its way to the belfry. The three kids therein were found quickly as well as confirmed to indeed be Violet and two others. While Sven’s words might not have been enough to sway the potentially charmed minors to come along peacefully, there’s not much that five year olds can do against professional soldiers taking them captive. Kicking and screaming, the party carried the children down from the tower as Sven and Stone blocked the way up against the inevitable anger of Mister Rag and Bones. And angered it was, soon storming down from the stairs in a squawking cloud of crows, battering and scratching the men in the cramped passage.

While Sven’s blade certainly struck some of the birds down from the flock in ruin, it was quite clear that it was rather futile in comparison to the splashing of holy water, which in turn sizzled and boiled the roiling mass where it landed. At least when the dumb fucks managed to throw it, unlike Petteri the Merc, who drank the bloody thing instead in panic. At least he avoided a lethal strike by one point, so maybe it worked somewhat after all? Better luck there than with Stone, the poor bastard, who copped a bird in his eye.

The fight here actually engendered a fair bit of theory discussion afterwards, in which I participated as a scholar of the game. Mr. Rag and Bones was a complex monster, an undead spirit being animating a flock of dead ravens to act as its body. The Coup rules chassis would of course interact with the weapon immunities and swarm qualities in ways requiring referee ruling.

The referee on the spot is correct in their spot ruling by definition, so the discussion afterwards, and second-opinions and Monday-morning quarterbacking aren’t about changing the ruling. But the review and discussion is an excellent way to air opinions about the rules and shake them down for next time a similar situation comes up.

The substantial issues in this case were minor in substance while being technically convoluted, concerning the way stunting rules interacted with weapon immunities, and how the Cleave feat behaves against a swarm of monsters. I’m sure it was enlightening; at least it was for me!

As the fight upstairs slowly rolled downwards, Bob led the soldiers carrying the targets to Kermit, who was preparing the protection aura around the whole troop to shield their escape. Sven’s group crashed down with the murder of crows in tow, but as soon as they stepped near Kermit the seething press of birds halted, as if smacked against a dome of glass. With this respite, Sven took the extra flasks from Kermit’s belt and threw them at the monster while the maneuver shifted out of the tower. Outside, they walked carefully towards the others who were readying the horses. While there were some occasional slips where some of the men stepped too far from Kermit’s protective embrace and almost got caught in the storm of birds, the spirit had clearly taken a great deal of damage and eventually had to disperse in rage lest it eventually be destroyed in its futile attempts to breach the barrier. These protective scrolls were no joke!

Jumping on their steeds, the company wasted no time in galloping back to Prigworth and rode straight to the church with the possessed children. While Sven fetched Sir Gavin to inspect the situation and cough up some money, the priests started their work on the children and the sick. For sick there were, as Stone and Petteri the Merc had been mauled by the hateful apparition and started sporting black, necrotic blight on their bruises. While things seemed pretty rough for Petteri, perhaps bedridden or dead in a few weeks if the ministrations of the church orderlies failed, Sven wasn’t having that with his buddy Stone and slapped a scroll of Cure Disease into the hands of the healers. He had been carrying one here from the Old World and it seemed to be needed now. He hadn’t saved the Bastard’s life just to have him die to some bird flu in such an embarrassing manner.

Hah, that’s such a callback! Sven’s been carrying that scroll in his inventory since the mid-’00s, back in medieval Rumania where he used to adventure before coming to Flanaess. (I played a companion of his in that campaign, for a time!) I can’t remember where he got it, and why it wasn’t given to the party Cleric, either. The real mystery here is how the local healers could make use of the scroll created by worshippers of foreign gods, in foreign language. D&D magic scrolls are funny like that, it’s more than a little uncertain whether the language written in the intensely magical scroll actually has anything to do with the spell.

What then? The crew had successfully, and quickly, organized a rescue operation from the clutches of a highly dangerous monster. Should they, as Bob mused, take the opportunity to immediately go and inspect the roost of the spirit in case it didn’t come back immediately to lick its wounds there? Or should they, as Sven argued, watch after the kids for a couple of days in case the creature came
after them and settle the matter of rewards and boons as soon as father Rewalt was done with Violet’s exorcism? Surely there could be more money and clout to be had than Sir Gavin’s pocket money, if they met Lady Harrowmoor and returned their daughter to the nobles?

That story, too, would be told…

I guess that’s Peitsa promising me that he’ll write an account of the next session as well, then! Very good.

Session #62 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 13.9., starting around 15:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like.

Tuesday: Coup in Sunndi #37

I’m on hiatus from the local tabletop game as well, but I did hear back from Sipi, who graciously took it upon himself to run the game while I’m busy with writing work. As I mentioned last week, the group’s playing some trad-style Star Wars on alternating Tuesdays now, so as I understand it next week’ll be another SW session.

Unfortunately I couldn’t get any of the players participating in Sipi’s game to write me an after-action report, so I’m currently a bit vague on what’s going on. Hopefully this’ll get fixed later.

In the meantime, my understanding is that the delve at the Tomb of the Iron God was opened by a player group on the smaller side, who however cleverly set themselves up with a pretty sweet adventure hook: the adventurers are scouting the ruins of the Iron God Monastery for opportunities of loot and pillage for one of the local outlaw gangs. So having a small party of three wasn’t such a problem there.

So it’s starting well from what I understand, if relatively slow. Let’s keep our fingers crossed! Ever since Sipi figured out the true sociological nature of the war-ravaged principality of Dalmut, I’ve actually been pretty eager about this excursion. I hope we’ll get a chance to explore the… tumultous nature of local politics at some point.

State of the Productive Facilities

I wrote up CWP #26, Physical Cultivation, this week, so the progress is real. Still not quite managing two CWPs per week, but maybe that’s simply too much to ask then.

5 thoughts on “New on Desk #89 — Tabletop Theater”

  1. Heikki Hallamaa

    I’ve been planning to either sew or glue all my accumulated patches on some Velcro hook fabric so I can just slap them on whichever backpack or bag I happen to be using at the time.

    1. Sort of like a sash, except more for your bag than your body. Makes sense. I did consider the sash, but it makes more sense for a person who has more than one patch in their collection.

      1. Heikki Hallamaa

        More like turn the patches into velcro patches, so you can remove them and reattach to any velcro loop field at will. The kinds you have on backpacks and jackets and such, mostly for name tags and such.

  2. Markku Tuovinen

    About tokens: I believe the Memorial Library might have the couple of Fiskars token clippers that I got in the 00’s when I actually run some D&D games and tried to improve games via crafting. They produce 1 inch and 2 inch rounds from even thickish cardboard. Blue handles, steely center.

    Many players are pretty decent at drawing, so draw-on hex tiles would be a neat addition to your toolkit. Wood should provide sufficient heft, although polished stone+label for the drawing surface would be glorious and heavy enough to stay in place in the chaos of a gaming table.

    The overhead projector directed at the table (13 levels of World’s Greatest Dungeon) is still my apex in GM craftsmanship; for the next version I would probably mutilate a table and attach a 70″ 4K telly underneath with a glass top for some more brightness and such; Microsoft Surface on the cheap.

    1. Yeah, I think I remember seeing those clippers somewhere. I’ll keep it in mind, token-wise. I have a few different token projects, a cardboard token could fit in there at some point.

      And yeah, for a digital solution an overhead projector or a glass table with digital display seems to be the way to go. I suppose I’m waiting for the right game for that, something where traditional papercraft tools aren’t so competitive.

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