Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Zoomswoop Virtual Tabletop

I've been running more games than ever before during this pandemic. At the moment, I've got a usually-weekly 13th Age game and a more-or-less biweekly 13th Age Glorantha game. I realize that many people run games a lot more often than that; I can't claim to be a prolific GM!

Instead of using Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds or Astral VTT, I've been using what I call zoomswoop. For the talking and the non-combat roleplaying, I'm one of the talking heads on the group video call. When it's time to roll initiative, I swoop my camera down near a battlemap, set up the minis, and until the battle's over I play action-puppeteer with everyone's miniatures and my monsters, with occasional camera call-backs for hand gestures and body language cues.

I admit I kind of love it. When I'm responsible for moving all the miniatures, hypothetical moves and stutter-step fakes abound. The barbarians shake with rage, the necromancer cowardly turns his back as he runs away, and the dwarf ranger's loyal and ridiculously effective monitor lizard ends up leaning on its boss or climbing atop the enemies. Interpreting character actions with tiny adjustments is fun, and the players focus on their actions, their dialogue, and their smack-talk. Plus I get to pan the camera up every time the ridiculously large escalation die gains a pip. 

Two cameras would work. But using a single-camera swoop lets me keep my I'm-thinking-face off camera part of the game. People know that when I bring the camera back up to talk it's gonna be important. 

I suspect that lots of other people are doing the same thing w/o feeling the need to coin a term for it! But maybe not. My players expected to be using a virtual tabletop and some have been surprised that the zoomswoop works. 

[aftermath of the battle when the PCs caught up with the Crusader pipers who had taken the head of Inigo Sharpe into an ancient draconic battlefield; escalation die at left]


Tuesday, September 15, 2020

A Blue Sea Picture for Smoke Sky Days

This is a picture from better times on the West Coast. It's a stained glass masterpiece by our friend Steve Carlyle. Every day is better because we're around it any time we're in our living room. 

Friday, May 1, 2020

Northumbria's Markland: Music for work, and exploring continents

I've become fond of the Cryo Chamber dark ambient label, available on Bandcamp. My favorite album in the genre, so far and by far, is Northumbria's Markland, the second of three albums focused on Norse journeys to North America. I could type awhile about its moody sweep and beautiful soundscapes, but I'm no music critic, and it turns out that the album was selected by Simon Heath, who runs the Cryochamber label, as one of the label's ten notable productions. He wrote about Markland quite well here, an interview that contains something like two hours of samples from the Cryo Chamber label.

The same interview reveals that Heath started composing music to accompany sessions of the KULT roleplaying game! Years later, after the Kickstarter for the second edition of KULT, Heath found out that it wasn't a one-way relationship: "Talking with the authors [of the new edition], I found that they would at times listen to Atrium Carceri while writing--the loop of inspiration had come full circle . . . . "

Of the ten albums Heath chose for the label showcase, there's a long Hastur piece that comes with a 20 page booklet and an alien visitation album that does not go well for humanity called Visitorsby Eximia, made of field recordings from Eastern Europe. That's another of the albums I listen to fairly often while working. Visitors isn't surprisingly uplifting, like Markland, but sometimes an alien invasion is the write-soundtrack.

Today, May 1st, Bandcamp is giving 100% of all proceeds to the artists! Check out bandcamp.com for a whirling presentation of the albums being sold right now. If you miss today, Bandcamp is still awesome as a way to listen for a long time and decide if you want to buy.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Monster Design Tools: Using Size/Strength as Well as Level


Igor Coura asked a question on Twitter that’s better answered in prose. Igor is in the middle of converting some monsters from other F20 games to 13th Age, and found himself wondering why we use the category of large monsters to mean “twice as powerful as a normal monster.” Other F20 games tend not to do it that way, when they want a more powerful monster they just use a higher level creature.

13th Age monster levels determine the important stats that shape every combat: attack bonus, defenses, and hit points. We created the extra-knob for double-strength (and even triple-strength) monsters because we wanted certain monsters to survive longer in a fight, to have more weight as something that the PCs have to take seriously. If you add a couple levels to a monster, it certainly has to be taken more seriously, but as monsters (and PCs) gain +1 attack & defenses each level, the leveled-up monster is also going to be harder to hit and have a much easier time hitting the PCs.

Fighting higher level monsters is certainly one experience. Fighting tough monsters of your own level is another experience. Therefore, when we decided we wanted both experiences in the game, we seized upon the somewhat obvious idea that a bigger creature of a certain level might be tougher than a normal-sized creature of a certain level. Large creatures that are double-the-hit-points-and-damage are part of the story our system is telling. Players can generally count on discovering that large creatures are twice as tough as normal sized creatures, and huge creatures might be three times as tough.

We’ve really liked the impact of having double-strength monsters, so much so that in books after the 13th Age core rulebook we introduced double-strength creatures that aren’t large. We just wanted to be able to emphasize that a named NPC monster was tougher than the rest, or that a particularly puissant spellcaster or wrecker was going to be twice or three times as much trouble to handle.

We didn’t stop there. 13 TrueWays added weakling monsters, creatures that were only has as tough (hit points and damage) as normal monsters. They’re tougher than mooks, and can’t be killed in batches like mooks, but they’re deliberately not as serious a problem as normal antagonists . . . while still using the attack bonuses and defenses that sit in our game’s sweet spot. That felt right for a couple of the new devils invented by Robin Laws, creatures that have abilities that can be serious campaign problems but their raw combat stats aren’t the point. (Shout out to the honey/slime devil, one of which became the star recurring villain of my 13th Age Glorantha campaign when reskinned as a Lunar Chaos priestess.)

And speaking of 13th Age Glorantha, that’s the book where we introduced elite creatures, creatures that are half again as tough as a normal monster of that level. That power level felt exactly right for the Thanatar acolytes—and it’s telling that when I supplied the final hit points/numbers for Ruth Tillman’s similarly spooky jackal priests of the Great Ghoul in 13th Age Bestiary 2(page 123), elite status seemed right. The elite 150% mark is great for extremely dangerous combatants or leaders who you still want to encounter as part of a larger group. Double-strength and large monsters tend to eat up the building-battles possibilities while elite creatures supply some of the same punch while appearing in threatening numbers.

That’s the point of having monsters at different strengths at the same level: to give GMs flexibility when building battles. Well-built battles tell different stories, stories that feel much different when fighting mooks, weaklings, elite, large, or triple-strength enemies. Variable strengths work along with monster-level to provide multiple dials we can adjust each battle and each adventure. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Alphabet Prime Music: A Familiar Thermal

A second batch of songs from my playlist of 224 nothing-but-favorites, this time with a Sesame Street style insistence upon the letter A. As usual, it was the music that got me, the videos are a delivery system.

The Social Network (soundtrack) - Wikipedia
A Familiar Taste
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross; The Social Network
My favorite song from an excellent dark soundtrack.

Recovering the Satellites - Wikipedia
A Long December
Counting Crows; Recovering the Satellites
I had a friend named Rob tell me he hated this album because it was too whiny, despite the fact that he'd loved Counting Crows' first album. Therefore I listened to the album that Rob liked and found that it was insufferably whiny. We detected a pattern.

The Thermals – A Pillar of Salt Lyrics | Genius Lyrics
A Pillar of Salt
The Thermals; The Body, the Blood, the Machine
Logan Bonner introduced me to this band. We saw them in concert at least once, but the venue was so bad I'm not sure it counts. This is probably still my favorite of their albums, though More Parts Per Million is close.

A Sort of Homecoming
U2, Wide Awake in America (Live)
More than once, friends who were contentedly playing games or hanging out at my house while this playlist was rolling freaked out when U2 surfaced. I understand their hatred, but can't share it. Maybe they hate it because the song is good to sing in the shower. Or because they heard me singing it in the shower.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Playing Three-Dragon Ante Across Two Zooming Tables

Last night we played four-player Three-Dragon Ante in two households. We played with Ann and Rob Dorgan, friends you'll find in the 3DA: Legendary Edition playtester list. Ann pushed past my qualms and we tweaked the game on the fly. 

If you feel like playing 3DA across multiple physically isolated tables, here are some recommendations for a two-table game.

First, I think you need at least two players per table. The ideas that follow assume you don't have any single-player tables mixed in.

Tracking Gold
You're going to need to figure out how to keep track of everyone's gold across split tables. We dared to maintain the game's physical presence by creating stacks of gold for the players across the Zoom-divide and moving gold in and out of both stacks, banking for the players who weren't in the room. It worked, usually, but we clearly weren't entirely up to the process, the game is too distracting to perfectly track coin-movement for players who aren't in the room. So if we do it again, I'm going to vote to have a banker who will keep track of all gold, probably on a google doc or the like, though it could be on paper.

Gameplay
Unless otherwise mentioned, the normal rules work! (But tell me if you play and run into issues we didn't.)

Deck Preparation
Each table creates its own deck using the 70 standard cards and 10 random Legendary cards. Yes, the game could end up with two Druids, one per table!

Camera Set-Up
Set up the cameras and computers so that the flow clockwise around each table matches the positioning of the video of your friends in the far room! It needs to be obvious which players are on your left and right, everyone will have one side occupied by a player beside them and one side occupied by a player in the other room, unless a table has a third player sandwiched in between.

Strength Flights
Go ahead and let Strength flights pick up the ante cards at their own table, if any. If there aren't any left, that's too bad.

No Stealing or Gifting Cards Across Tables
The specific card power revisions below nearly always hinge on the fact that we aren't stealing or passing cards from one table to the other. A power that's going to steal a card from the player next to you at your own table can work the same as ever, but if the card would steal from a player in the other room, it's going to have a slightly different effect.
    The card revisions that follow also apply to Legendary versions of the same powers.

Brass Dragon: If the player to your right isn't in the room, they just give you the gold instead of having the option to hand over a stronger good dragon.

Bronze Dragon: Take the weakest card from the ante at your table. Then draw a card. If there are no cards left in the ante at your table, just draw a single card.

Green Dragon: Same situation as the Brass. If the player on your left is in the room, they can choose what they want to give you. But if they're at the other table, they just pay you the gold. The Green Schemer's left-and-right version of the ability can end up with one opponent being forced to pay and one opponent getting to choose.

Red Dragon: If the strongest opponent is at the other table, they must discard a random card. Well, let's be clear: the opponent next to them chooses a random card from their hand and discards it, because that's more aggressive, like stealing! For fun, everyone sees the card that got discarded. And then you, the player who triggered the Red Dragon, get to draw a card and keep it secret.

Illusionist: Maybe don't play with this one!  This card is all about the fun of swapping Mortals and it's hard to swap across tables, so I'd say you should feel free to skip it, take it out of the game before you choose the 10 random Legendary cards. But if you do play with it, and are prepared to hurt your brain just a little, you could say that it works normally if you swap at the same table . . .and if you swap to the other table, then you all have to use your virtual reality parallel-thinking skills to swap the Mortals for the duration of this gambit. At the end of the gambit, the two Mortals go their tables' discard piles as normal, but for part of a gambit you were caught in the ill-uu-shee-on.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Johnny Reb, Dana Lombardy & Glorantha

As a younger dude who hadn’t entirely grown into game designer boots, in mid 1996 I got a job at Chaosium as Greg Stafford’s right-hand man for publishing Glorantha. Positioned on the right-hand, I learned that neither the left hand, nor the checking account, nor the pockets, nor any other chunk of Chaosium, had money to pay freelancers for work they produced within, oh, maybe three years if all went amazingly well. So, my Glorantha work was mostly about shutting projects down.

But Greg’s dream was that Giovanni Ingellis and his company, Stratelibri, from Italy, were going to produce a Glorantha miniatures game. Stratelibri hoped to challenge Warhammer, go big or stay home. But it wasn't something we could start working on at Chaosium. Giovanni wanted to design our Glorantha game, that was his dream, and in return he would fund it.

So I dove into the world of miniatures gaming. I’d already been turned on to a clever ancients/medieval game called Armati by Jon Kovalic, of all people, who for a brief time helped put out an Armati fanzine. But I’d missed the brilliantly abstracted DBA (De Bellis Antiquitas, which I still love) and its wooly ancestor (WRG 7th Edition, which Charlie Krank & friends introduced me to in Charlie’s game garage). About the same time, Scott Schneider of Chicago introduced me to Great Battles of History, the GMT ancients wargame that plays a lot like a minis game with counters.

Closer to home in the Bay Area, Chaosium’s friend Dana Lombardy wanted to teach me to play Johnny Reb. I put him off for a little while. I believe I was thinking that a regimental American Civil War minis game wasn’t all that relevant to a supposed rival to Warhammer.
The Game Rule Book
the rules at the time; these days some gamers prefer John Hill's newer rules, Across a Deadly Field

After work one day, Dana set up a giant battle (well, giant to me!) and we played for several hours. I'd played write-orders-then-execute-them wargames before, but Johnny Reb improved greatly on that model with face-down order counters executed in a timing sequence that created a dynamic battlefield. Dana was enthusiastic and helpful and wanted to help the Glorantha minis project take off. I remember the Johnny Reb game fondly. Which is ironic, because at the time I was nowhere near appreciative enough.

War College by Dana Lombardy
Dana, closer to now

I was caught up in the strange dance steps of preparing to produce a game that I wasn’t allowed to think about designing. Greg was focused on turning out orders of battle for the various combatants in the Hero Wars, particularly the Lunar Empire. (Some of this work has recently resurfaced in Martin Helsdon’s The Armies & Enemiesof Dragon Pass.) Giovanni of Stratelibri wouldn’t talk about the Glorantha minis game until I visited him in Italy. I thought that was unhelpful, but hey: free trip to Italy!
Il Gioco รจ una cosa seria: una Piazza in memoria di Giovanni Ingellis | ACQUAVIVA PARTECIPA
Giovanni, someone I'm glad to have met

The trip was delightful, Stratelibri were gracious hosts and just meeting and hanging out with Giovanni was splendid in a life/historical sense. But the minis business rolled a fumble. It turned out that Giovanni didn’t actually have time to design anything new, he planned to re-purpose a quirky little cyberpunk skirmish system he’d created years earlier. It hadn’t really worked as a cyberpunk game and I didn't think it was going to work as a Glorantha game. I hadn't really expected to challenge Warhammer but I'd at least hoped to take advantage of Greg’s work on the military histories of Dragon Pass. 

By the time I had returned to California, Giovanni had regretfully pulled the monetary plug because of a) problems with Magic: The Gathering; b) store expansion plans; c) knowing the Glorantha project wouldn’t work; d) choose your own adventure. That was when nearly everyone at Chaosium got laid off thanks to the Mythos over-printing disaster.

But back to Dana. He was on hand, helpful, and would have been one of the best people in the world to talk with about miniatures and wargame design. I stumbled along without recognizing that Dana’s presence in the project was a lucky penny that I should have flipped many times. On the bright side, my mistake wasted less of his time than if I'd understood what I was doing. 

You can find links to Dana’s doings here. If you grab a copy of Green Ronin’s wonderful 100 Best HobbyGames, edited by James Lowder (now of Chaosium!), Dana wrote up Johnny Reb on page 157.