Wednesday, October 29, 2014

News as Campaign Glue

For some time I have been putting together a laundry list post of “best practices” for running long campaigns online. (The current weekly Google Plus game is rolling into its fourth year—about half the life of the whole Hill Cantons campaign.)

One of the biggest hurdles of running games online is social cohesion. There is just something about the lack of direct human contact that ratchets up the flake factor beyond the usual range of adult scheduling issues: players drop out of games within minutes of kickoff; gamemasters cancel sessions with wild abandon, campaigns fizzle after a single game; the video hangout freezes/drops/freaks the fuck out etc.

One coping mechanism is that you have to be a lot more conscious and deliberate about engaging players between sessions. Creating a campaign rhythm and rapport because vital. At the low end of the effort poll is creating a community page or other discussion and information hub, but I have found that it helps for a gamemaster to be proactive and create certain regular entry points for the players to be able to plug into and feel the dynamism of a campaign.

Beyond the weekly “take,” a combined After Action Report and loot/exp haul, I have churned out with on again/off again regularity a weekly news report as a “campaign cohesion linchpin.” Mirroring the exact style of 50-word news briefs I had to churn out each and every day for a while as a news editor, the reports invariably feature 3-4 points (that rarely go over three sentences) and an image. You can see examples here and here.

My campaign news briefs come in at least several recognizable stripes (often combining two or more):
Obvious Adventure Hook. The incredibly not-subtle, bang-you-over-the-head “here be adventure” hook. Usually involving a discernible mission, macguffin and/or defined bounty. This is always either an announcement that I have designed a new area or to a tease a site they may have missed in their sandbox explorations (hate wasting material).

Example: For five long centuries the sleepy Kezmaroki-ruled island of Ptuj has tolerated with a resigned shrug its sister isle, Tolmin, lost to the Weird. Last year alas Smok, a youngish offspring of the great wyrm Zirnitra herself, descended on great wings onto the House of the Axe, a shunned temple of the cthonic goddess called the Mistress of the Mountains. Terrified Ptujians, whose rural residents have become the favored snack of the great beast, are offering a substantive bounty for the slaying of the dragon: gender-appropriate nubile concubines, a small mountain of the island's vintage corn liquor, a local latifundia estate, and 10,000 suns of cold hard cash.

The Subtle Hook. Perhaps only subtle relative to the above is a mixed item (from the list below) that may contain a line signifying that an actionable adventure or geographic place may be interesting enough to warrant in-session exploration. The actual site or mission will often be obscured.

Example: Vatek son of Vatek, is claiming to have unearthed a 500-stone beet from his tenant farmer's field in the hamlet of Ctyri Ctvrt. Most strange of all is the twisted face-like blemish near the giant beet's crown. A local shepherd claims to have heard a booming voice emanate from the storage hut where it is currently housed two nights ago. 

Oblique Background. The Hill Cantons has developed firmly in the bottom-up worldbuilding camp, accreting levels of detail as the campaign rolls on (really starting just as a wilderness map of a very small bounded area). I have a strong preference for presenting small interesting little bites than dumping large reams of setting info.

Example: The Blood Rains have swept into Kezmarok leaving syrupy, sticky puddles and residues throughout the city. The Patriarch has declared the ritual sympathetic mourning period to commiserate with our most holy Sun Lord as he suffers his silver-chained beating from his spurned former wife, the Celestial Lady. On pain of a hefty fine, all residents of the city must wear the customary mustard yellow through this period.

The Big Ticket Event. Most all long campaigns start to generate dramatic large-scale events; the bloody wars and earth-shattering cataclysms that make our world so lovable. Some of these truly huge events sculpt the world the players have to negotiate, others are significant and dramatic but may be actionable of the party (the latter here).

Example: Two weeks of inexplicable, furious flurry of activity in the Turko-Fey siege camps have been followed by an even more ominous development--a fusillade of shelling by the dreaded dragonne-cannons. While bonders have braced pikes-awaiting for the usual half-hearted sortie following the bombardment, the guns seem to have not abated in their fury. In the first time in the five centuries of the Kezmarok siege the outer of the three massive wall seems dangerously close to a breach.

The Whimsy. Quite often the last news item is an example of “I write whatever the fuck I want.” These on self-indulgent ocassion run over long from my usual “keep it quick” format. Shockingly also often these tend to morph into Subtle Adventure Hooks.

Example: Of the many family-dominated usury guilds to escape the collapse of last decade, the Frazas were among the most infamous in deftly transferring their massive debts back to the public treasuries of the cantonal councils. But long before this, they had accrued notoriety far and wide for another feat: the weaving of the Tapestry of Xvikz. A full two centuries ago, then Frazas family head, Franzoht Fair-Breeched, called on his dark powers to summon and bind the Xvikz, a demon from the darkest, deepest hell of high finance.

A great lover of petty humiliation Franzoht tormented the creature by refusing to put the dreaded demon's powers to appropriate use instead compelling him to weave a great commemorative tapestry from the velvety firmament of the domed heavens. That the required scene was both cloying and derivative only added to the sulk of the demon who plodded away needle point in hand. Years stretched into decades as the demon passively-aggressively refused to finish in a timely manner—and each successive generation of bull-headed Frazas refusing to release the demon in turn led to impasse.

Inexplicably fourteen years ago, Xvikz declared his last stitch sewn. Though the resulting tapestry was horrifically underwhelming, its unveiling was heralded as a major cultural achievement in Overkingdom aesthete circles and became a much-sought fixture of upper crust soirees in the borderlands.

Well that's it for today folks. Tomorrow if I have time/energy I may lay out some tips and tricks for both writing these suckers and generating the kinds of campaign events that motivate them.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Bull Ride

The Texas folk-country singer Robert Earl Keen once said about his abortive bull-riding career:
“I don't know how many of you have ever ridden a bull. But it's like getting in your car and riding down the freeway at 70 miles an hour--and then chucking the steering wheel out of the window.”

Well my bull ride with the Slumbering Ursine Dunes Kickstarter is over. It wasn't quite as dramatic as Keen's 15 seconds in the rodeo, but I definitely had a few wild moments. They don't tell you in crowdfunding basic training just how emotionally up and down and work the campaign itself can be. I'm both simultaneously both exhausted and exhilarated.

Though tired I am fired up to do more writing—and more gaming. Through all this madness--even up to the profoundly weird and wonderful session last night in which Tazrun the wolf-raised thief rescued his twin brother from his “kept man” status in Brazona—the weekly Hill Cantons game has steamed on.

Over the next several weeks I will be running some open games for backers both as a thank you and a playtest of some of the new material we are busy tacking on the mini-sandbox. The games will mostly be online on Google Plus but hopefully we will also squeeze in a face to face game or two down here in Texas. Drop me a line if you are interested.

[The rest of this post is a modified excerpt from this afternoon's Kickstarter update, posted for killing proverbial two birds with one stone purposes]
Early this morning the project crew and a sizable number of backers and players counted down to the end in an impromptu Google Plus video hangout. Though I would have been happy and content to have merely funded, coming in at 543% funding, $8,152, and thus hitting every single stretch goal frankly floored me.

Touching way beyond the money was the earnest support of many of you in the broader DIY and old school gaming communities. The sharing and encouragement that helps one feel like all the struggle and effort was worth it. Kickstarter has an interesting, backend array of ways to track where money is coming in and one can tell more or less accurately where pledges are coming in from. Seeing hundreds coming in from the efforts of fellow bloggers, gaming forum goers and Google Plus regulars (almost $2,000 alone there) was a tangibly heart-warming experience.

Thank you.  

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Win a Wargame Contest Results

Although I almost always say this about the design contests I run, it bears repeating as it just happens to be true once again: the entries in the Win a Wargame Contest where an absolute pain to pass judgment on. (You know due to how richly imagined and executed they were on the whole.) Fortunately, this time around I had the sense to recruit two other judges with better sense and talent then me, Jason Sholtis and Anthony Picaro, to help smash through my usual hemming and hawing.

We had 15 entries and used a reverse weighted point system to come up with the results. The top three winners (really four due to a tie) will receive a wargame from my collection (email with pics coming) and free shipping. You have truly earned the kudos.

Also with the permission of the entrants we are planning to use the entries in two ways in the final product bundle of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes:
1. Depending on space 2-4 of the top selections will be used as points on the pointcrawl in the final version of the sandbox adventure with accreditation and a freebie (though I think all the eligible winners are already backers).
2. A PDF compilation of all the entries for backers (and with accreditation) to use as optional expansion points.

Following are the winning places with some excerpted selections (naturally don't read if you plan on playing in the adventure):
First Place
Doyle Tavener with Tree of Hanging Rusalkas. 
(At night.) A large willow tree looms over a small lake or pond. A weird, disharmonious crooning can be softly heard coming from the boughs of the tree above you. (At day.)  A large willow tree looms over a small lake or pond. There is a small stone altar at the base of the tree, from which hang three moppets (small cloth puppets). There are remnants of small cakes on the altar.

A huge willow tree stands here before a small lake, which is itself obscured by a willow grove. Three Rusalkas... hang here on the boughs of the tree at night, while during the day they 'sleep' in the lake bed below the tree.

Humza K. with Vodník Pool
Coming around a curve, a large pond comes into view. Two petrified trees overhang the water, swamp moss drooping down. A half-sunken hut juts out from the middle of the pond, with occasional glints of radiance peeking out.

Zoltán the vodník...can be found here, lounging on a rock and puffing away at a long-stemmed pipe. In contrast to most of his vodník brethren, he appears in mostly human form: long moustaches, once splendid but now waterlogged coat and hat, webbed hands and flapping gills at the sides of his neck.
Second Place
Anne Hunter with Diluvian Reservoir.
A millennia-old dam complex here holds a reservoir of the last floodwaters of the Deluge. The reservoir sits in the low point of a deep ravine. The birch forest here grows thick and ancient; the eldest trees stand like watchtowers around the dam. The floodwaters contain the last undying pairs of extinct prehistoric fauna. Antediluvian treasures lie buried beneath the mud in a ruined Nephilim village. The valley can only be entered from the southwest and northeast. The paths are steeply sloped and choked with seedling birches; ascending out of the ravine takes twice as long as entering.

The dam is maintained by a family of 6 giant beaver engineers... They are an unbroken lineage from the megafauna shipwrights...

Third Place
Robert Parker with the Chaos Monastery
A grueling climb up a switchback trail leads to the top of a massive dune which gently slopes down into a secluded valley at the edge of the Persimmon Sea...In the valley are a rough circle of battered, rusting silver huts. At this distance a pit in the center of the huts can be vaguely made out...

In the valley itself is the Chaos Monastery, the secret training ground of a bizarre collection of martial arts aficionados, social misfits, and lovers of all things awesome. Unlike traditional monasteries, the Chaos Monastery is a place not of quiet contemplation and self-mastery, but rather an occasional gathering place for whooping bands of hooligans to guzzle plum brandy and to establish their pecking order through good-natured bullying and displays of “badass” skill.

Fourth Place
Fane of Grooze, the Grey God by Mike Davison
In a small, hidden vale, there lies a strange stone pillar. This pillar is home to a grey ooze, known as Grooze. He is the god of a small tribe of Feral Dwarves.
[The entry had a fantastic map and nice little mini-dungeon attached.]

Fifth Place
Obsidian by Jonathan Black
Towering spire of twisted obsidian rises up out of a narrow valley of variegated sandstone worn smooth by years of sandstorms and wind. A well-traveled path leads south towards a small oasis, ringed with shrubs and a few fig trees. At the bottom of the spire, someone has built scaffolding around the towering rock to hold it in place as they excavate the sand and stone from around the base. Hidden by  the wood and stonework supporting the spire is a dank hole in the ground, leading to fetid caverns beneath the spire.

Honorable Mentions
Koshchey Bessmertny
Czernobog's Well

Friday, October 3, 2014

Oh Fever-Dreaming Marlinko

The Slumbering Ursine Dunes is lumbering along to its fourth stretch goal, this time putting the ball back into my court to get some more heavy lifting done on the writing front. In this case we turn to the local “home base” of the Dunes region, the eccentric little borderlands city of Marlinko.

In the last KS update I told backers what NOT to expect. Namely that the supplement wouldn't be take "kind of deadly dull keyed map approach that tells you the utterly mundane potter at Building 21 has 3 hp."

In general I plan it less on focusing on that micro-detail of site based descriptions that often bog down fantasy city products (a different tack that makes Vornheim, Weird Adventures and Midkemia's Cities products so refreshingly different and useful). Instead of rehashing that detail you can check it out here on the Kickstarter update.

To get myself back in the mood of this place, the current party continues to disappoint me by stubbornly going everywhere but back to this city, I rustled up old notes from the campaign. Here are some abridged excerpts from the notes (expect cuts and revisions to fit with the focus mentioned above).
The original crappy player's map (to be redrawn professionally, naturally)

Marlinko is a bustling, smallish city of about 6,000 and governing seat of Marlinko Canton. It is the southernmost town-sized settlement in the Overkingdom before it peters off into pure howling wilderness. Though prosperous, Marlinko is deeply infected by it's relative isolation and closeness to the Weird. Life there as such takes on a strange fever-dream cast even by the standards of the rest of the borderlands.

Around Town
The Manse of the Lady Szara. The notoriously-erratic, allegedly -undead lady abruptly moved away three years ago “to visit relatives back in the Corelands” and her town-manse was overtaken by the also-seemingly-undead, thief-hero Kugel the Lucky. Rumors abound about underground excava...cough...cough mini-dungeon.

Catacombs of St. Jack's Church of the Blood Jesus. After three weeks of backbreaking work—under the expert supervision of the Termex the Robodwarf--by devotees of this imported, alien and utterly syncretistic cult, a catacomb space has been excavated by nun-maeneds under the city. The new sparagamos fane and exquiste ossuary-like sculptures are "things of beauty" report cult leader Vatek son of Vatek.

Tomb of the Town Gods. Located in the central plaza is the squat polished basalt bulk of this mausoleum of the sleeping divine founders of the city. The local Sun Lord followers have made a lifetime of quietly ignore the obvious blasphemy of such a thing existing. It is whispered that extradimensional gates lie inside but what fool dares to explore the terrifying silence of that space?

The Guild of Condotierre, Linkboys, Roustabouts and Stevedores's Dome of Supernal Dealings. Marlinko is a “union town” and even the hirelings have lasting organization. The hiring of “scab” henchmen is intolerable.

The Guild of Accipitraries, Drovers, and Ankle-Beaters. Run by the supreme hard-ass, Hurloj Kladivo, a good place for the sale or training of animals. Be wary of kidnapping his daughter.

The Serene Guild of Seers, Augurs, Runescasters and Wainwrights.  For 4000 gold suns answers are given in clear, parseable language. 1000 suns will buy answers in cant with an occasional admit of ambiguity. 500 suns will buy you a parable based on the life and work of our dear Sun Lord to be interpreted as you will and 100 suns will buy you babble in an unknown tongue.

The Drunken Troll. An upmarket inn located just south of the Tomb-Plaza of the City Gods. The inn's silent owner is said to be by local gossips the infamous Yadis, an anonymous, foul-mouthed satirist. The inn is also noted as the home of local second-fiddle mage (and man of letters) Mandamus the Erudite and his companions Uma, Barbarella, and “Martin the Fighter”.

Brothers of the Other Mother chapterhouse. Local chapterhouse of an Orthodox Sun Lord monastic order that promotes the veneration of a less divine “Marian” like mother-figure to the Celestial Lady. These guys are assholes.

Fraza's Brokerhouse. Fraza the freakishly-honest dealer in curios has his showroom here, a good place to experience the novel situation of selling without being robbed.

The News Around Town
The Rada of Marlank (ruling council), in an apparently arbitrary fit of borderlands pique and Pahr identity politics, has decreed that the southern cantonal city will heretofore not be referred to its Nemec exonym and may only be referred to as “Marlinko.”Official reasons remain mirky but one Rada councilmember anonymously stated that it “reminded them too much of Fritz.” Local residents continue to call the city whatever the Cold Hell they please.

Speaking of Marlan...err Marlinko, tiger-wrasslin' has come back in vogue thanks to a self-proclaimed “Master Beastmaster” newly immigrated from points South. Local characters willing to go toe to claw with a lovable furry orange killing machine should inquire with bon vivant Jarek the Nagsmen. A 500 gold sun bounty is offered for anyone who survives the match. 

While Kezmaroki fashion has been bending to the austere and plain of dress since the Turko Fey Anti-Rapture, haute fashion has been taking some risky new steps in the Hill Cantons proper. This week in Marlank, Chovo the Omniaesthete is expected to reveal his new line of fabulously sequined merkins (pubic wigs). Codpieces are definitely on the way out!

In other exotic cult news, the Church of the Blood Jesus has passed its sell-by date as the flavor of the month. Doctrinal arguments over virgin births, a shortage of animals suitable for the Sparagmos rites, and a growing annoyance to the Rada have withered the strange sect's recent growth spate. Despite the setbacks, Vatek son of Vatek, continues to preach the Good Word along with the most devout of the nun-maenads.

Guildsmen of the Illustrious Workers of Wood (commonly referred to as the “Totterers”) are celebrating the fifth century anniversary of their local lodge this week. A giant wickerman has been erected in the Plaza of the Horned Oracle for the festivities.

The scurrilous tribe of were-worms who migrated from the Weird into the Slumbering Ursine Dunes last month have stepped up their depredations in the area. The Rada has hotly debated a plan to introduce giant robins into the dunes to halt the menace. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Contest Extension and More Brazonia

So today is the day that the Win a Wargame Contest ends. Several people have asked about an extension--and though we already have 11 rock-star entries--your pleas have not fallen on deaf ears. The contest deadline has been officially extended to Saturday 7:00 in the pm Central US time.

To be fair to those who made early entries, those of you who have already submitted can take extra time to work on your entry as long as it makes the new deadline.

Since I have you all on the hook here is a map of Brazonia that wild and wonderful northern nation nestled on the World Canal mentioned yesterday. More details later.  
Click to Embiggen. Hex Scale: 5 miles

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Welcome to Hy-Brazos

In every long-running sandbox campaign there comes a time (really many times) that the players run full tilt toward the undefined edge of your known world. An adventurous GM who likes surprises runs with this even if it means having to call a timeout while you hastily change the reel. 

The Nefarious Nine made a break for the little-known land of Brazonia, a vestigial product of my attempt to run a wargames campaign with a great fine old wargamer/blogger. (This land, Himyar or the Scarlet Sultanate, came into focus the last time this happened.)

He says Hy-Brazos still runs muddy like she's run all along
There’s never been no cane to grind and the rye's all but gone.
-Dirt-Gnome Porch Ballad

What brought the loud-talking, tall-tale-loving, slate-skinned Sons and Daughters of Dahn, today's Brazonians, thundering across the World Canal from the Southeast Quarter three centuries ago no one alive today truly knows. Or perhaps it's just that no one really gives two ocular bat guano pellets about why, the Dahnii themselves included--a people so confused by the faulty mnemonic devices of their holy drunk-skalds that they seem only to care about the present and the mythic past-future.

What is know is that before their fearsome war-wagons rolled inexorably over the Trackless Wastes into the delicate civilized valley of the great Hy-Brasos River that the Dahnii lived grim horse warrior lives of not-quiet desperation in eternal conflict with the shadowy macronauts, star gliders, fell youngminds and other figures only hypothesized by men of science and reason.

At that time before the walked into the supernal light of our most Puissant Sun Lord, the Sons and Daughters worshiped in sweaty, mare milk-speckled yurts only the pagan Seven-Horse and their hero-founder Dahn. In that benighted time they were said to dwell on the fringes of the Forest of Copper never daring to enter having been chased by demons from the Forests of Gold and Silver respectively. On the edge of that dazzlingly-beautiful woodland, they swaggered and yelled and fought and loved and fought some more.

With their warlike ardor and an unholy love of obscure derivatives markets one could truly call them “barbarians” and not feel terribly behind the times. A point really only underscored by their crushing of the flourishing Hy-Brasos civilization, a secluded and achingly beautiful borderlands melange of cultures that tolerantly mixed glammer-slyphs, rose-cheeked dirt-gnomes, kuduk quarterlings, talking dogs and hardy Nemec missionary-pioneers of the Sun Lord.

In that timeless exchange of invigorating cultural exchange that marks History the Dahnii bestowed upon the valley inhabitants the gifts of death, peonage, horse-stew and junk bonds while the Hy-Brasosites gave them back religion and the clap. To this day the Dahnii-speaking Brazonian majority still feel cheated.

Today's Kingdom (or Empire to the locals) of Brazonia uneasily mixes features of what came before. The grays-skinned Dahnii have increasingly taken on the features of their subject peoples. Here a sturdy Dahnii burgomeister with balloon-nose and fondness for green peaked caps, there a fierce cavalry-leader with a penchant for glitter powder.

Local culture such as it is seems to have one foot in the refinements and baroque hierarchy of the Overkingdom, another still in the warlike horse nomad past. Thus in the city of Great Dahn grey-walled sundomes and townhouses that would be home in the Cantons vie across muddy avenues with bizarre Sunlord statutes lead by seven-headed horse teams, melancholic wee-people ghettos, and high-backed kurgans.