Friday, February 13, 2015

Dunes Stretch Adventures Rolling, Rolling, Rolling

The holiday period was naturally a bit of a bear (pun not intended) for the Slumbering Ursine Dunes production crew. While we got the main adventure out before deadline for the PDF and just on deadline for the print, I spent an ungodly amount of time troubleshooting Print-on-Demand issues with Lulu and DriveThru.

January was slower than anticipated but we made progress, so fortunately this isn't leading up to a slew of the usual Kickstarter excuses and nervous shuffling. In fact I feel rather proud of the fact that we have pushed the stretch adventures up from small 20-page mini-adventure affairs to four separate full-length adventures—Fever Dreaming Marlinko, The Misty Isles of the Eld, Anthony's California Dunes and What Ho, Frog Demons-- that will be close or as long as the main adventure. (All four will also be available in both PDF and print form on DriveThru.)

Which all leads up to the actual point of this post. Each adventure is developing a highly-distinct look with a single artist devoted to each. I've found myself getting caught in a “dialectic” in which I see these magnificent pieces and get inspired to do more writing—Luka's illustrations spawning several new additions to my weighty bestiary section in the Misty Isles already.

Similarly seeing some finished work by Jeremy Duncan (who as a player in the campaign made a number of character sketches that will forever be what I see in my mind's eye) for Marlinko. This grotty piece shows the sparagmos rite in the catacombs of the bizarre alien cult Church of the Blood Jesus. So lovely.  

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Ursine Dunes Pointcrawl Map Download and Review Round-Up

One thing I have greatly appreciated from the Slumbering Ursine Dunes project has been the chance to grow as a writer. Nothing helps more than honest critical assessment and fortunately I've been receiving much to think about how to up my game from thoughtful participants in our milieu.

Brendan S for one in his thoughtful review raises some challenges about how to present adventures for better use in the heat, smoke and noise of the table. We've been talking a good deal about that at the Hydra meetings and we are trying to rise to that challenge. 

The first and easiest step is providing a full-size download of the cramped A5-size pointcrawl map (and this may have broader interest to folks who haven't bought the mini-sandbox). You can find a letter-sized PDF as a download right here.

We are also producing a "dungeon pamphlet" as a separate download that will organize the whole adventure into its gameable at-the-table elements. That piece will go out to backers for free. 

Also while we are at here are some of the other fine reviews of SUD:

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Talking Special Snowflakes and Strange Stars with Trey Causey

Resplendent in its Star Frontiers-homage, full color cover, Trey Causey's Strange Stars setting book has finally hit the virtual stands both in PDF and print form. Having watched this product grow from a wee germinal of an idea--and had any number of rambling, tangential conversations with Trey along the way--I feel entirely to close to give the book a decent, critical review. (But really you should buy this thing, it's one of the best pieces to come out of the tsunami wave of DIY hobbyist products in recent months).

A little more interesting is to open that conversation stream a little to a broader audience (as I did with his Weird Adventures) to hear the what and why that went into the making of SS.

Hill Cantons: Let's talk Strange Stars. I will admit to being deeply fascinated watching you grow these worlds and products bit by bit from the floor level via posts on your blog, From the Sorcerer's Skull. The sepia/black and white images and little digressions that came out with Weird Adventures sucked me in and kept me pulling for you all the way to press time. Tell me about how SS came to be and how it developed on the blog. What moved you to do this and what was the process like doing it in this slow reveal-by-blog type way?

Trey Causey: With doing a blog six days a week at one point (now roughly five), I spend a lot of time brainstorming/daydreaming content. I had toyed with a couple of science fictional concepts that didn’t quite take off (though I’d sort of like to return to them one day) like an alt-history pulp space and a science fantasy Greek mythology thing. One sort of fun (I thought) but largely throwaway post I did was on Talislanta as a space opera setting. That post got some positive feedback, which always tends to prompt me to expand on an idea a bit more.

I got maybe three more posts out of it and in the comments to one of those, Brutorz Bill of the Green Skeleton Gaming Guild suggested I ought to do my own sci-fi thing, like “Weird Adventures in Space.” Thinking about doing my own thing (but with Talislanta Space ideas still in my brain), I wound up writing the first of the Strange Stars posts—though it didn’t have that name or any name, at that point. It grew from there, becoming more and more its own thing as it went on. Ten posts and about a month later, it was christened “Strange Stars.”

As anything would that’s developed in bite-size bits over a period of a couple of years, Strange Stars sort of lurched in somewhat different directions at times. The earliest posts are trying hard to rationalize science fantasy concepts into something a little harder sci-fi. Then there came a bit of weirdness probably inspired by Prophet and revisiting old issues of Heavy Metal, and here and there, small doses of “serious” science fiction brought on by my reading Alistair Reynolds and Charles Stross. All the time though, I knew I wanted it to mix the stuff I read in modern science fiction novels with the stuff I saw in mid-60s to mid-80s sci-fi comics, films, and paperback covers. The aesthetic was always important—which is often a frustrating thing when you are not yourself an artist.

HC: We've talked a good deal one on one about immersive worldbuilding and setting work as part of the DIY rpg scene--both of us seeming to fall down on being fans of those kinds of efforts. I rather like how SS hits a sweet spot balance: it's unashamedly and purely about setting/worldbuilding but it breaks info-dump down into tiny bites and leaves a lot of evocative questions off stage. How do you see SS fitting into the discussion of so-called Special Snowflake settings?

TC: Looking at the stuff produced on blogs and in publications by the DIY crowd we’re both somewhat associated with, I think it’s clear people like setting stuff, despite what’s sometimes said about it in the abstract. I think the real issue isn’t “setting versus no setting” but the suggestive leanness of a pulp fiction novella versus the over-elaboration of a multi-volume, doorstop fantasy epic.

The debate often framed as “setting detail versus freedom” is really something more like “inspiring setting versus constraining setting.” If I'm right, and the second issue is the real one, then there are things we can do about it. The traditional, prose heavy ways of delivering setting information are the prevailing style, not necessarily the best way to do it. I wanted to try something at least a bit different.

There’s always a balance to be sought, though. The things that some people complain about regarding settings are exactly the things other people like about them. I got minor complaints about stuff that Weird Adventures didn’t address, and I don’t doubt I will get some of that with Strange Stars which leaves even larger lacunae. Sometimes I left things out due to space considerations, and other times because I hadn’t thought to include it. What I would really love to see is Strange Stars not as one special snowflake, but a number of them because people take it and come up with totally different stuff to fill in those holes. I want to read a G+ or a blog post and catch myself thinking: “but--but that’s not how I would do it at all!”

HC: The Terran Trade Authority and Galactic Encounter books of the late 1970s were huge aesthetic influences on my young brain (as were the Star Wars fan booklets and comics). Classic Traveller was free of any illustrations for years and those books filled in the blanks. There clearly seems some linkage to those image-rich books in your inspiration stew. Can you tell me about that and the other inspiration points?

TC: There is, indeed. The Galactic Encounters book, Aliens in Space, was the only one of these I read in childhood, but it made quite an impression. I bought it a few years ago and a couple of books from imitator series. I have also always been a fan of reference works for fictional worlds (particularly well-done, fan-made ones) like the Star Fleet Technical Manual, and the Starfleet Medical Reference Manual, but also more recent things like the image-heavy Dorling Kindersley Star Wars and Star Trek books. Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials is there, too. A lot of 70s comics like The Legion of Superheroes by Grell and Cockrum, and stuff by Chaykin and Starlin were on my mind, too.

A lot of these things have design aesthetics that seem a bit silly at times, perhaps. Certainly they never seem “cutting edge.” That was part of the reason I liked them and wanted to draw from them. The future is never going to be exactly how we view it in the present; like the past, it’s a different country. Using outdated styles, I feel like, gets us past what’s currently cool in to something just a bit alienating—like the real future is likely to be. Also, I wanted the future to seem “lived in” and grubby, but again not the lived in and grubby of dystopian futures of the 2000s. The seventies is the point where science fiction first moved from sterile and shiny to grubby and worn, visually.

HC: Layout and design wise SS is impressive for a one-man DIY outfit. What did it take to get it to that point?

TC: Thanks. Mostly, I would say it took the technical acumen of Lester B. Portly. Before that, though, the conception was a long time in coming. I had been sort of trying to write something “Strange Stars” since late 2013, but it just wasn’t flowing. Sometime in early 2014, I got the idea to do a whole setting book in pictures. I’m sure it wasn’t from nowhere; there was probably some discussion on G+ or something that inspired it.

Anyway, this panel in Prophet was the first thing I thought of.

I realized, of course, I wasn’t going to be able to afford enough art to do a whole setting book like that, so I looked to the Dorling Kindersley books as the primary model. I put sample pages from several of those, and sample pages from some pages from comic books like DC Secret Files and Handbook of the Marvel Universe and started talking to Lester. His initial thought was that what I wanted was too expensive, but was willing to provide his help to paring it down.

Once we had a vague idea of the basic template (which Lester would keep refining as we went on), I picked out the fonts I wanted and made a style guide. Before the design was finalized, I already had the artist working on the images. The first few pages (the Vokun and Alliance spreads) were the hardest, but after that we pretty much had it down.

HC: You have some mechanically-minded supplements coming up the pike that will translate SS into something that can be run straight out of the box. Tell me about those.

TC: I knew from early on that I wanted to do implementations of the setting in multiple systems. John Till of Fate SF stepped up and offered his services to do the Fate supplement, and he’s been putting a lot of work into it. I think Fate fans will be pleased. I’m compiling and rounding out the Stars Without Number based stats that I used with most of the blog posts in the setting, plus adding some random generators for orbital habitats, adventures,  and the like.

I got an email the other day from a guy wanting to do a Traveller supplement; I would love to see that and anything else that gets somebody fired up enough to do it.

HC:So what's next? What other projects have you been mulling?

TC: So many possibilities, so little time! I’ve got science fiction/science fantasy jones at the moment. I’d like to compile my Baroque Space (space travel in a solar system governed by alchemical science) posts and maybe go back and do the same with Gods, Demigods & Strangeness (the Greek myth thing I mentioned). The past couple of days, I’ve been contemplating a Heavy Metal –style psychedelic space opera universe design kit. I would love if Strange Stars was so successful that I was able to do a deluxe edition with pages and more art.

Of course, there’s my Baum/Dunsany/Adventure Time Land of Azurth campaign—and the Weird Adventures Companion that I want to get out before I die. That’s about all the dreaming for this month.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Five Hottest Clickbait Books of the Hill Cantons

I love the hell out of books and naturally my bibliomania pushes its way into the campaign. In fact my notebooks are sloppy with this kind of in-game artifacts and self-indulgence. Five best-selling examples from the campaign year 40214...

A Briefe and True Report of the Divers Land and Peoples of the Feral Shore
Author: Alojiza nad Hromon
Physical Appearance: Crimson pelgrane hide cover with a gorgeously-illuminated interior rendered in the ink of bisytsia (she-devil) tears. Pressed paper (disappointingly cheap and thin). 86 pages
Cost: 149 gold suns and 99 copper sags

The third best-selling release this year from the Guild of Potboilers, Ghost Writers, Scribes and Jakes Farmers. The book is “selling in the tens,” an astounding commercial hat trick for the guild, and relates the author's experiences having scandalously dressed in simple cloth and cut her exquisite curly main into a bob to pass as a common laborer in the little-known Kezmaroki crown colony called Karldeset (or King's Ten). Strangely the book is written in the form of random tables.

Choice Excerpts:
“5. The colonists of the Shore differ much in apparel from the Kežmarokis although little in indolence and deceitfulness.”

“38. The Lords of the Shore are coarse and low. Indeed they wallow in their base natures, self-describing their Company as the Nefarious Nine. Colony discipline is handled quite-literally by a clown who fear of curbs the excess of vice commonly found in an assemblage of drink-besotted laboring men. And the rest of the bizarre Nine number among them an oily grifter, a disturbing doctor of unknown academic acumen, a full-toothed handsome but shady royal pretender, a foppishly-attired cave dwarf, a vinegar-smelling half-giant, a drunken alien priest, and a clockwork midget.”

“59. It is an error to call those on the Shore heretically ultra-orthodox (as is the common way with Kežiamoors), the folk are true pagans raising a vast new temple—in between two villages inhabited only by monkeys--to the vanity of the dead many-faced gods of the Old Pahr.”

A Brief Relation of the World-Dungeon Unitary, As it Was Delivered to the Folk of Marlinko
Author: Son of Mulmak
Physical Appearance: Folded, continuous codex with pressed paper and printed by a cutting-edge “printing press”. 16 pages.
Cost: 20 gold suns
A provocative new pamphlet rocking the excitable (and riot-prone) academic world of the Cantons. The booklet theorizes that mirroring the surface of the world is a vast subterranean network of dank chambers, byzantine tunnels, tomb complexes, fiendish traps, treasure houses, and creatures fell.

That said “dungeons” combining those elements exist is a matter of consensus among scholars, but this new doctrine of pandungeonism that claims that all said murderholes are but the surface manifestations of a single world-dungeon has already drawn the ire of the ecumenical council of the Temple who have deemed it and its anonymous author “borderline heretical.”

The Altricious Cycle of Supernal Japery
Author: Third-Commander Jaasher, translation by Lady Szara
Physical Appearance: Compressed fingernail-clipping cover with scraped donkey-skin parchment.
48 pages
Cost: 250 gold suns
A cruelly satirical book of poetry written in Classical Eld Iambic pentameter now translated into the vernacular of Low Hyperborean by the famous society lady (and rumored strigoi) Lady Szara. The translated copy is subtitled “As Seen in the Slumbering Ursine Dunes” and sports a promotional blurb from Sir Eld: “The underdeveloped hairless ape mind cannot wrap its feeble brain capacity around the sheer joy and wonder of Jaasher's work. Still buy it if you must.”
Five Shades of Azure
Author: Captain Balazas
Physical Appearance: Sparse but functional leather-bound volume with standard vellum. Full-color erotic plates inside. 128 pages.
Cost: 300 gold suns
Choice Excerpt: “Contrary to the prejudices of the Rock [High Kežmarok] our Pahr subjects here on the Shore are not quite the uncouth louts they are made out to be in polite society. To the contrary, I have had many a pleasing—if such a word can be used when suffering the pains of court exile—moment here at Vygrot in their hearty bearded company laughing at their colorful tall tales, seeing the blush of the red-cheeked village maidens in their white linen and floral bodices...[long, racy and embarrassingly clumsy digression].

Lost Vlko and Romuilak the Lupine
Author: Unattributed but commissioned by “He Whose Howls Echo Among the Ages, His Fecundity, Tazrun, the Illuminous and Mighty Seneschal of All the Southlands.”
Physical Appearance: Embroidered leather cover strung with cat-gut and smelling vaguely of wet dog. 64 pages
Cost: 150 gold suns
Choice Excerpt: “For a people who had their origin in the horse-stunk nomad hordes of the Sea of Grass the Pahr people have been remarkably at home in the scrubby hills, rounded peaks, high valleys and crags of Zem. While many of the hill clans have long since been domesticated into the (slightly) more sedate lives of Overkingdom cantons, tales of the “lost kingdoms”, Old Pahr petty mountain kingdoms that dropped from the historical record centuries ago--and into the popular imagination of this day.

One such tale that looms large in the so-called Southern Cycle, that great collection of folk ballads and tall tales of how the Pahr came to migrate, conquer and be conquered in the post-Hyperborean era, is that of Vlko and its hirsute, half-wild founder, Romuilak the Lupine. Many a man of science would like to believe that Vlko still exists, nestled high in the Cerny mountains, with a people prospering by the simple, bellicose virtues of the Old Pahr hidden and secure from modernity.”

Also Rans
A Modest Survey of History High and Low in the Overkingdom's Late Modernity by the scandal-ridden Cantontonal historian Jiri Paveliak (whose elaborate backstory bedazzles all). 

The World-Dialectic: Is it For You? by Jarek the Nagsman.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

On Sandboxes Growing Into Special Snowflakes

The debate around Special Snowflakery has taken some interesting turns. For one Courtney counterposes what I think is an over-narrow definition of the Special Snowflake setting (and lumps in the heavy-handed/railroady elements that I also dislike) to what he may think is my over-broad and likely murky definition. The principled disagreement is all fine and good, I learned things and got a chance to clarify my own thoughts. 

Strangely, a number of people both on these posts and on Google Plus seem to raise counter-points that I not only agree with whole-heartedly but have been central features of the six-plus years of the Hill Cantons campaign—and a re-occuring thread in the posts here about that play. Small is beautiful, less is more, and that play should drive what is vital in a setting world are all things that I have written about—not as abstract principle—but as part of my own observations about where the players and I where taking the sandbox campaign over the years.

Further the discussion made me think hard about whether or not my campaign world was itself a special snowflake. I mean sure in many ways its a very traditional D&D game: the mechanical baseline is a mostly untouched B/X clone and most all play revolves around micro-site underground exploration. All roads lead to the dungeon is a running and not inaccurate (and terribly funny) joke in the Hill Cantons.

But it has had any number of grand experiments (pointcrawls of all stripes, domain-level play, stupid player classes, etc) and it has grown up with a steady accumulation of highly personalized setting details—up to and including the hubris of actually inflicting that hubris on the world through publishing the Slumbering Ursine Dunes. It's hard to not admit in the end that it has very much evolved into the most special of snowflakes.

How a simple barebones sandbox grows into that whole other thing is an interesting open question and one tied to the zig-zagging actions of the players. Tazrun, a PC thief, dies and the party wants to raise him from the dead so they decide to break out of what has been the geographic delimited campaign zone and go to the big city. Then that big city, half-ruined Kezmarok in my case, becomes a whole new arena for the players—and then itself gets dropped for a wilderness clearing new phase. The world and its details start accreting.

I would hazard a guess that it mirrors other folks sure but steady building up from the ground floor (and yes this is your place to chime in about that experience).

Obviously I speak best to my own experience. Fortunately for me that experience rather well documented over the years here. Doubling back to my indexing project I can kill two birds with one stone.

The Road to Snowflake Perdition
I am tempted to skip right over this as vaguely embarrassing but it all started here, my very first post for a blog that was intended just to be a campaign clearinghouse. The campaign was nothing but a few terse setting dress lines. A skippable but relevant post. 

Five sessions and a month in and I am already pushing at the limits of what I had intended to be a plotless West Marches. Still I apologize for worldbuilding impulses. The links here are wonderful, some classics in the thinking of sandbox campaigning in neo-old school circles of the time.

I try to have my West Marches cake and other quasi-plotted elements too by introducing hare-brained and baroque mechanics to keep me supposedly grounded. Some ideas I have kept with me, like the general dynamic of creating just-in-time mystery but most dropped.

Musing on the campaign “stages of evolution” and wondering if it is part of a generalized pattern for all long-running sandbox campaigns. The comments are interesting (and a shame that the Google Plus side vibrant discussion is lost to the ether.)

Kicks off a series of articles about Top Secret networks and character-based sandboxes. The attempts to do this as part of a espionage part of the campaign were not found to be all that fun by several players (and it took the campaign too much away from site exploration for my own tastes) so it was quietly killed in the night.

I finally recognize that the WM like features of the campaign are long abandoned and wonder why the many other “West Marches” have disappeared.

One of my favorite posts, I evoke the final season of Lost and a high-falutin' literary concept to return to talking about how mystery and worldbuilding are evolving in the campaign.

Taking a cue from Morrowind I talk about how to introduce info dump as an optional experience. (Note I have been way too overwhelmed to do anything like this over the last year of the campaign).

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Quick Addendum to Special Snowflakery

Somewhere in the middle of yesterday's discussion—and work day--I got a chance to sneak in two hours of cross-continental anarchy and laughter in Harald Wagener's Sylvan Realms online game.

While the game was straight-up, by-the-book Labyrinth Lord, it doesn't have a single standard player class. Instead we had a short-list array of thematically-linked classes: Forest Gnome, Witch, Warden, Enchantress and War Bear (do you have to even ask what I ended up playing). Each class had unique quirks and abilities. Marcy the witch (which subbed in for our first War Bear casualty) had her potions, Gnorman the gnome his weasel animal friend (which for a round my slain War Bear's spirit managed to possess).

Our opening information was pretty bare bones, a list of terse bullet points. But it like it instantly had a good deal of off-vanilla flavor a lot of nagging little mysteries: no human settlements, no real civilization other than the lost elves. Just a 30 mile by 50 mile section of wooded mythical wilderness, geographically isolated from whatever the hell the larger world is.

In other words, despite lacking an elaborate setting elaboration, it was most definitely a special snowflake setting. It was unique, interesting and in its hardwiring instantly signaled a particular flavor: dark fairy tale.

For see you don't have to have—and indeed it probably works better to not have at the get go—tome-like setting description, long sweeping historical accounts, continent-wide maps, etc. It can grow up bottom up from a simple, but personalized base through play and work outward to whatever it wants to be.

You don't need it to be achingly weird or be another one-up in the Gonzo arms race that FLAILSNAILS at times seemed to be in the Google Plus scene. You can even take rather staid and familiar elements like that of enchanted woods and fairy tale creatures—and then toss in a 30-foot blind essence-dreaming freakzoid from the Chtonic Codex and hit all my sweet spots (while scaring the piss out of me).

Tomorrow I defend the comfort food joys of Vanilla D&D fantasy for balance.