Monday, May 27, 2013

Fiction Word Cloud

Word cloud treatment time. And yes... there were a lot of salamanders.

Why Fiction?

We have written a fiction to go along with Hot Springs Island, and I've just finished draft #2. It's taken longer than I thought to get here, and it's ended up weighing in at 11 chapters, an introduction, and 16,131 words. According to wikipedia that's enough to be called a novelette.

Length, when it comes to writing, is of course utter bullshit as any sort of gauge of quality, but damn it, it feels good to be at this point. For our process, we all get together and brainstorm out the storyline. Then, for draft #1, Wintergreen vomits forth a landslide of words and phrases in the way that only he can. For draft #2, I go through the landslide to shape it up (he likes to forget about characters in some scenes and throw out the transitions between them) and prospect for all the gold nuggets buried in the scree.

But why? Why the fuck are we writing fiction? We're doing it first and foremost because Wintergreen and I enjoy it (and we're probably subconsciously trying to compete with Safari's awesome art in our own way). Secondly, like all fools errands, we're doing it because of a belief structure.

You see, I think that many people stick to rails over sandboxes because they don't know how to build a story with the pieces that they have, and that's what Hot Springs Island, and the Swordfish Islands are all about. The idea, is to use the fiction as a way to illustrate the possibilities that exist, or, to use corporate platitudes, train the player by showing, and not by telling. Everything that happens in the stories adheres to the play parameters we set regarding travel times, and all the monsters and encounters are encounters can be encountered in the areas where they were encountered.

There aren't really any heroics that take place in the stories, some characters die and much of the stories are about fleeing from the creatures encountered in some way. I also really tried to make sure that there was no clear cut good and evil because that's the totally wrong vibe for the islands. I think I managed to pull it off without unnecessary character death or deus ex machina, but we'll see. We'll see.

The first set of stories covers the Martel Company Marines exploration of the elven ruins on Hot Springs Island when Captain Rand and crew first arrived at the islands. Twelve marines go into the ruins in hex 19, get attacked, separated, and only 4 of the original 12 make it back to the ship.

The marine named Harp took the orange path and fled northwest, hit Crab Mouth Lagoon, and then cut back south along the coast.

The marines Harvard and Unger ran southeast from the ruins and discovered the Buzzing Glade before cutting back along the beach to reach the shore craft.

The marine Indio spent most of the night in the ruins themselves before cutting and running around the city's ruined wall to reach the beach.

All the stories are written as journal entries, compiled by Matthias Mayford, the navigator and helmsman of Captain Jeremy Rand. He kept a running log throughout the group's adventures in the Swordfish Islands, and with the help of his goblin assistant Zilbee was able to transcribe the marine's tales almost verbatim.

The second set of stories covers the adventures of the crew of the Siren's Folly. Captain Rand has two ships, the Siren's Blade, and the Siren's Folly. The Folly is run by Captain Patrick Marsh, Rand's right hand man, who he plans to put in charge of the eventual adventurers guild they're going to open up at their new port town of Swordfish Bay. Patrick insists that he needs to experience the perils of the islands first hand if he's to have a chance of actually being respected as said guild master.

For their trip, the party manages to stay together.

Over their trip they encounter three of the islands factions, and seven points of interest. Opportunities to engage in combat, or avoid it completely are made clear, and the consequences of the characters actions and choices are detailed.

Hopefully, they will eventually serve their purpose. We'll see.

Why the OSR likes Metal [speculation]

Growing up, music was a huge part of my life. In elementary school I sang in a boys choir, and then in middle school, high school, and part of college I was in the band, in addition to doing some singing here and there.

In middle school, I had a pretty exceptional band director, Mr. Ruiz. He was so passionate about music, and would rage from the podium in that wonderful way where, though his voice and demeanor were intense (and perhaps even disconcerting or even frightening for some people) the root of his rage grew from a place of great compassion and care. "You can do better! Stop holding yourself back. Practice! Don't give up! Don't be lazy! Feel it! Improve!"

One day while preparing for a performance (probably UIL, but I sadly don't remember), he stopped us all suddenly saying "No no no no no no!" He directed specific comments towards the brass, woodwinds and percussion, and then said something I'll never forget:

"Music," he said, "is like life. It's all about tension *pause* *pause* *pause* and release. Tension... and release."

The problem, as I now recall was that we kept fumbling over rests. We weren't respecting them and staying quiet for their full duration, and he stressed their importance, and the way in which the silence can actually be used by the composer to build tension. Build anticipation.

The ongoing refrain I hear in the OSR is player agency above all. Meaningful choices. Real, in game risk. With justly failure and poor decisions.

Because the risk is real, and because there is no set story, no one at the table *actually* knows what's going to happen. On top of that, because the players and DM (I think it's safe to say) are rooting for the characters to succeed in the face of terrible terrible danger, or die gloriously, the tension can become enormous as the game goes along.

Railroading is like playing a video game with the cheat codes. There's no risk. It becomes boring. Pointless even. If you already know what happens, why have me pantomime along? Just read me the damn story and be done with it.

Metal then, as a musical genera seems to fit this mentality better than most any other musical genera out there because it can take work to enjoy. Fifteen minute songs can drone along, creeping through the sludge. Guttural vocals and dissonant, chaotic passages can seem to actively fight against the listener, but then... the tension breaks and a metaphorical sun shines through the clouds.

Take for instance this track by Temple, Rising from the Abyss:

I can tell you now that there is extreme beauty at the 6:27 mark. Extreme. But it's very simple. It's not fast. It's not glorious, speeding arpeggios, but the first time I heard it it stopped me in my tracks. I wanted to know more. I wanted to know why I thought this spot was so fantastic, and after listening to the track closely, I realize that 6:27 is so damn good, because at ~4:15 a journey through a repetitive wasteland begins. It's not actually a wasteland of course, but it's very radio unfriendly, and all it's really doing is building, and building, and squeezing, and intensifying, and building even more. Ratcheting down, tighter and tighter until finally, at 6:27, the sun breaks through the fucking clouds, and everything resolves.

Now see... if you just started at 6:27, it would suck. Or at least not have the same amazing quality to it. The journey shapes the track. Like the journey shapes the game. The excessive risks of terrible body horror in the Teratic Tome build the tension for the characters and the table. The player agency makes it all real.

Fuck yeah.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Light in Dark Places

+Patrick Stuart has me thinking. He wrote an excellent introduction to our section on elementals which I'll likely post up soon (the complete section on elementals intro and all), and he seems to have become my current blog crush. If you're not reading False Machine and you've somehow found my blog, go and read his pretty words.

Patrick is working on a project about the dark places under the earth, and in one of his recent recap posts about the subject he said this, and I haven't stopped thinking about it:

"13 the impossiblity of darkness  - This one is important. I still envision a Light Economy as being a very important factor in driving/limiting exploration and travel. Light is a quasi-currency in fact. Always running out, always needing to get more. This should also key into making the players obsessed with light and the kind of light they have. It should highlight an important factor which is the living, liquid relationship between light and darkness."

I'm very excited about this project because I like caves. A lot. You see, I'm from Texas, and we've got two key cave ingredients, limestone and water, to generate a ton of the things. I even went so far as to get married in a cave this past December on the day the world was supposed to end. Since I'm opinionated, and since blogging is kinda all about having public conversations with strangers I figured I'd go ahead and throw a stone down this well.

Light in caves sucks. 

It's absolutely critical to being able to do anything in one, but it's awful and horrible, and I'd like to suggest that two aspects of this suckage be taken into consideration (since I'm opinionated). 

The Lantern Trope

If you do a google image search for "holding a lantern" you're going to find a ton of pictures that look like this: 
Do you know what happens when you actually do this and you're in a place underground where it's dark? You go fucking blind. This visual trope of holding a lantern up near your head (a non bullseye lantern) seems to have completely saturated the public psyche, and it's kind of unfortunate. I suppose from the perspective of gaming, where you hold your light source may just be pixel bitching but I got to learn first hand just how terrible this "hold the lantern up at the level of your head" actually is.

Last year, the wife (fiancee at the time) and I went out to visit Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. While there, we discovered that they offered a lantern light tour through the Natural Entrance as their last tour of the day. Only 12 to 15 people were allowed to go, and I believe it was something you could only sign up for at the caverns themselves (no pre-registering over the ole internet). The offer a "Left Hand Cave" tour by lantern light that's a little more focused on "roughing it" in the cave, but for the tour we went on you walked from the Natural Entrance of the cave all the way to the Big Room. The walk is 1.25 miles and it takes approximately an hour with a stop in the middle to blow out your candles and stand in the dark.

Walking this trail by candle light was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had. The cavern ceiling is quite high throughout, and the candlelight shimmers and jiggles and squirms all over it like a delicate golden net. I wish there was a way to capture the effect in a picture, but in the TOTAL darkness your light really is just a fragile little shell. The way the light shakes and moves just adds to the realization of your limitations, and the stuttering seemed to me at the time to be an effect that would actually make it easier for your enemies to hide from you in the shifting shadows.

These feelings may have also been influenced by the fact that at one point I decided it'd be fun to hold up the lantern like they do in all those pictures, only to be struck blind by the sudden flare of light. Blind may not be the right word, but the stupid automatically adjusting pupils of my eyes immediately shrank up in the face of the brightness, and even though I quickly lowered the lantern back down, I was left dazzled and the world seemed even darker as my eyes readjusted. This experience makes me think that eye patches might be exceptionally useful when adventuring since you can quickly swap the eye your using as your current lighting conditions and needs change. You can stay in tune with the darkness so to speak.

The whole time we were trekking I wanted very badly to have the lantern up above my head, or on my head like a miner's helmet. What's interesting is that in the common image of a person holding a torch, the flame of the torch (and thus the source of the light) is almost always up ABOVE the person's head instead of being EVEN with a person's head like the lantern pictures.

In the end, I'd say that torches seem like they'd be vastly superior when it comes to providing light when adventuring underground when compared to the "standard" lantern (glass on all sides). A glass-on-all-sides lantern is great for sitting in one spot and lighting up a room. Holding it and walking with it would be good for illuminating the ground and lighting up things that might trip you, but if you need to be using it as a mobile light source, you'd better go with a bullseye type lantern where the light emitted is DIRECTED and not permitted to just slop out every which way.

Light Makes Things Grow

All the caves in Texas (that I know about) are made out of limestone, or at least stones rich in calcium carbonate. This means that for the most part, the color of the inside of a cave is a white/off-white/bone-white/ivory. Video games always tend to display the walls and floor of a cave as being grey or dark, but (with the exception of lava tubes) that just isn't really the case. What's cool about this, from a fantasy setting perspective, is that limestone stains very easily, so if you've got a jack-in-the-box type monster living in a hole in your cave, you'll be able to give your players a metric fuck ton of agency by describing the permanent rust colored stains that surround it.

Additionally, if you tour a "commercial" cave (wired with lights and open to the public) as the tour guide leads the way they'll turn lights off and on, so that the only section of the cave that is lit is the one your group is standing in. They do this because if they keep the lights on shit will grow directly on the walls. If you look closely, you can often see spots of green algae growing on the walls near the lights, and it even has the sweet ass scientific name of "Lampenflora" since it's there only because of the light (i.e., humans).

If there's ever a spot in a cave where the lights are on frequently and traffic from the overworld passes through into the underworld, you're gonna get plants like algae, moss and ferns. If it isn't too gauche to make another invocation +Scrap Princess may be one of the few individuals that could appropriately actualize all the exotic possibilities associated with lampenflora. For example... The Moss Hog.

Moss Hog by Scrap Princess

Monday, May 20, 2013

In Obscurity

To the estimable +Patrick Stuart,

Here's my take, for what it's worth, on "What to Do?".

Should you sell? Should you not sell? Should you piecemeal it? Or launch it all at once? What to do? What to do? I've been asking myself the same questions about the Swordfish Islands.

You see, we were supposed to be doing something short. Something quick. Something modeled after the old Planescape books in which they whipped up a few columns of text to each notable layer and town, sprinkled liberally with hooks, and baked for 35 minutes under the brilliant heat of Tony DiTerlizzi's artwork. And then we kept worldbuilding ('cause it was fun), and that was stupid, because now we like the skeleton we've constructed and are struggling a bit when it comes to fleshing it out. It's going, but it's not going fast, and I became convinced that if we didn't start hitting consistent little victories the whole thing would die unfinished, and unloved. A sad, aberrant little thing.

So we cut it up, and we're going to do ONE island of content for now. Will it work? Will it be acceptable? Will people like it? I don't know. The plan though, and the only way I was able to agree with the decision to dissect the islands is that we'd only release something that was whole and complete, and could stand on its own. There's nothing worse than something that *must* have other pieces to be complete and serviceable.  Your outline, as you've listed it out sounds like it's pretty damn solid. Just be sure to use your blog wallpaper as a guide (and I'm sure you will). You either need to sell the whole earth, or the ENTIRE Cenozoic, or the ENTIRE Jurassic. As long as you don't take an incomplete piece of the Holocene, and try to combine it with scraps of the Triassic and Eocene, you'll do just fine.

Now... is it *right* to sell it? Before I get into this, know that I'm a bit of an extremist on this front. Content has no value and it's what everyone wants. Give the content away for free and sell merch. I want to be like a Saturday morning cartoon. Ubiquitous. In "every household". But of course, there's a problem. The less revenue I get from the content, the longer it takes to create new content. My solution, looking back at cartoons, is to sell merch, and in this case, merch means a physical book. I want the book to be expensive. I want the book to be quality. I want the book to be something that's going to last (with use) for 30+ years like a 1st edition DMG.

I have this foolish notion that eventually I'll be able to enter into a sort of gentleman's agreement with the audience I scrape together. "If you, the audience, will help me pay my rent and bills, I will produce more content, and at a faster pace, for you to enjoy." So, I want to make Swordfish Islands as widely available as I can digitally (since digital copies cost nothing), establish a good web presence so people that DO want to offer support can do so effortlessly, and offer quality "goods" made from quality materials and filled with the content for committed individuals to buy.

The 15 year old me, wouldn't have had the money to buy the Swordfish Islands, but would have had the time to play it. The 30 year old me has the money but no time. My (deluded?) thought process is that giving away the content, but keeping an open door for the aforementioned gentleman's agreement is what the current gaming market needs.

I also think you should use kickstarter. Not to get funds to complete the writing. We've seen how those go. But when you're done, and ready, use it to raise the funds to get editing, layout and to cover the cost of a small print run. It's left a bad taste in the mouth of some, but it did so because they backed dreams and ideas, and not finished products that only needed help becoming tangible.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Crystal Sea Cave

Crystals are awesome. Not because of healing auras and crap like that, but because of their geometrically regular form and symmetrically arranged plane faces. Hot Springs Island, being a place where water and fire duke it out beneath the earth, contains a number of crystal caves. A couple are being mined by an efreet, and one, hidden away beneath a lagoon, serves as the (perhaps last) refuge for a group of nereids.

The nereids have been on the losing end of things for several millennia, and many of their sisters are dead or captured. Until the last nereid is freed (or accounted for) the survivors have engaged in an unbroken lament, singing in shifts for a thousand years inside the Crystal Sea Cave.

The saying we toss around while designing stuff up is "go big or go to hell" so I wanted to include massive crystal growths in most all of these caves. As I was writing things up though, I began to think that I might be getting a big obscene with the crystal sizes (fantasy or not), and then I remembered the Cave of Crystals in Naica mine in Mexico, and all concerns evaporated.

Here are a few of the reference pics I found. Just imagine the humans in the pics wearing adventurer gear, and add haunting, wordless singing of unimaginable sadness echoing through the chambers.