Thursday, January 23, 2020

Zine Review: The Dirge of Urazya

The Dirge of Urazya is created by Jack Shear of Dolorous Exhumation Press, author of the long-running blog Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque. The zine is available in print + PDF here for just $6, and in PDF here for $4. Shear has written about the process of making it here and especially here. He did it all, from writing and illustrating to assembling the zines by hand. The zine presents the background of an apocalyptic gothic setting, and provides a series of questions for players and DM to answer in a session 0 where they collaboratively build the setting for their game together.

How is the Zine Made?

The zine is trimmed and saddle-stitched (stapled) with a black cardstock cover. The interior is 26 black and white pages printed on decent white paper (a step up from copier paper, maybe 24 lbs). Let's start with the cover. Just look at that thing. With just a few brushstrokes of white acrylic paint applied in a stencil, shear has created the ragged outline of white fangs, which emerge, luminous, from the darkness of the pitch black background. There is an aura or mood that hovers around the zine before you even open the cover. This simple but clever artistry is why I love handmade zines. Hand-painted covers using a homemade stencil? Brilliant.

It makes me think of a range of other possibilities. I'm a lover of elegant ink stamps. How about a white cover with a black and white illustration, embellished with a single elegantly placed red stamp? Or why just the cover? How about a motif that runs through the pages of the zine. You could pay black and white printing prices and then hand stamp certain pages of the zine. It would be a delicate operation, but the effect could be striking.

Back to Shear's zine, the interior is laid out in a single column for each page (double column for the facing pages), using the free word-processing program LibreOffice. It is self-illustrated by Shear. The opening illustration of the castle outline is great. The other interior ones have crude DIY vibe, which won't win any awards but work with the overall aesthetic of the zine. Again, I love about this zine how much Shear is able to do with basic resources.

The zine was printed online by a service called Best Value Copy, a competitor to Mixam, which I talked about last time. Shear ordered the prints as unassembled sheets, and folded, stapled, and trimmed them himself. Although this is not a big deal by any stretch of the imagination, unfortunately there are telltale signs of printhead smudging or misalignment in the zine. In inkjet printers, printheads are little nozzles that spray droplets of ink onto the page. In laser printers, they're lenses that fire a laser beam at a drum, building up an electric charge to attract toner to the drum in the pattern to be printed, which is then transferred to the paper. In both kinds of printers, the print heads can be become dirty (inkjet printers get clogged, laser printer printheads get smudged). In inkjet printers, they also need to be lined up and coordinated with the paper that's fed in, since they jiggle and spray the ink directly on the paper. If they're misaligned or dirty you get strange features, like blurry or darkening text or thin white lines running through text and images.

In my copy of the zine, the type on some pages is a little crisper than on others. In particular, the type tends to get marginally darker and blurrier as it moves across the page. It was subtle enough that I had trouble getting a photo of it on my phone, because the phone corrects for the differences in the shade and blurriness of the writing. To be clear, It's not the kind of thing you would notice, unless you know about printing and are anal about this kind of thing. But if you're going to pay someone else to do the printing and copying of your zine, you probably don't want this to happen, so I guess I don't recommend Best Value Copies. But I do recommend Jack's zine!

Castlevania is in the zine's appendix N, with good reason

What is the Zine About?

The zine presents the fantasy setting of Urazya (Eurasia). Humanity here was ruled like chattel by the Nobility, four great vampire houses. The vampire houses jealously guarded their knowledge of powerful magic and technology (including AI, and robots), keeping the human masses they ruled in ignorance. The vampire houses fell in the Global War, a nuclear and magical apocalypse that left standing only the great Capital, a Duskvol like gothic metropolis with crumbling steampunk technology, ruled by humans. The Capital is surrounded by the Borderlands, an uncharted post-apocalyptic wild-west, full of small villages, witches, demon worshippers, and--of course--vampires. Beyond this lies the Devastation Zones, forbidden irradiated zones full of mutants, environmental hazards, and lost technological wonders. The players play a group of "hunters": monster-slaying heroes.

The briefly presented scaffold of setting material is neat, but I had a little trouble holding the three thematic elements in my head at one time. First, you have a post-apocalyptic Gamma World type setting, with AI, robots, radiation, and mutants. Second, you have a setting where great vampire houses ruled ignorant human chattel. Third, you have a gothic metropolis, with dark streets, occult secrets, demons, vampires, werewolves, unhallowed fey, and 19th century historical trappings, including both the gothic city and a wild west periphery. I found that I could get two out three of these in view at any time. When I tried to hold them together in my mind, the closest I could get was the kitchen-sink aesthetic of Rifts, which I don't think is quite what Shear is going for, since it treats any period trappings as just one part of a pleasing but incoherent melange. To be clear, I think this may be a failure of imagination on my part (maybe I just need to watch more gothic themed anime), and more importantly, it is an issue that could be posed and hashed out in the Session 0 that Shear's zine equips you to run.

This is another item from Appendix N.
I haven't read it, but I always love Yoshitaka Amano's art.

This is where the zine really shines: the real innovation is what the zine does with this setting. The zine presents a simple system neutral procedure for a session 0 get together, in which your group collaboratively creates a setting on the provided scaffold. The retro-gaming scene (OSR, NSR, *Dream, whatever) has been excellent in providing vivid and intensely imagined worlds in a bottle. In other words, it has excelled at worldbuilding in the service of open world style (sandbox) play. But this has tended to take an authorial form, where someone invites you to play in their created world, and an associated culture where people encourage each other enthusiastically to share their creations with one another. The scene has not explored collaborative worldbuilding sufficiently, although there are some notable and excellent exceptions, like the home village generation in Beyond the Wall, or the use that some have made of Microscope to launch campaigns. I think this is a shame, because there's a lot of room to experiment with techniques for drawing players into collaborative worldbuilding, without undermining the asymmetry between player and DM that is crucial to retro-gaming play.

The method of collaborative worldbuilding the zine presents involves breaking the setting into 4 thematic sections: the world, the Capital, the borderlands and devastation zones, and a catch all including technology, the populace, magic, and the hunters (the party). Each section first provides some setting background to serve as the scaffolding for improvisation. The background is followed by a brief section called "aesthetics, themes, and imagery" that names a themes and mentions common elements to give you a sense of the flavor you should aim for in answering the questions. For example, the aesthetics, themes, and imagery of the section on the Capital begins like this:

Urban Decay. Slums and tenaments, rust, fog-choked streets, gangs and the criminal underworld, ramshackle homes made from scavenged materials, vermin, graffiti, outbreaks of disease.

Each such section is followed by a series of five "prompts", i.e. questions, about different aspects of the setting that the group poses to themselves and collaboratively answers. This is the heart of the technique, and it's worth looking at some of the questions Shear poses.

My favorite question is this one from the prompts on the capital: "Whose thrilling exploits are written about in pulp novels and penny dreadfuls, adapted to the stage, and the subject of popular ballads?" This is an amazing question, because it's such a creative way of projecting your imagination into the setting. In essence, it asks you how the people in the setting imagine their own heroes. It also shows rather than tells a lot of setting materials, communicating that this is a place where there are penny dreadfuls, and that people in the Capital read pulp fiction, and throng to a lively theatrical scene. It conveys immediately that there are legendary hunters or daring criminals out there, and that they have a role in the popular imagination, which might or might not align with reality. The answer to this question just oozes adventure possibilities: one hopes that the party of hunters will, in one way or another, cross paths at some point with this figure of popular legend. I can also imagine these kind of questions eliciting riffs on a theme, sprawling unpredictably outwards into a shared world. 

Other questions are more prosaic, such as, "Name an eldritch horror and describe their cult." The question is solid, conveying that the setting has eldritch horrors and cults. But it lacks the verve of the question about the penny dreadfuls. Most of Shear's questions are of this latter, more generic sort, for example, "What commodity is currently sought after in the Capital?" I though this was a bit of a missed opportunity. Perhaps this latter question might be pepped up in line with the penny dreadful question like this, "What commodity in the mail order catalogues has recently become all the rage in the Capital?" This would suggest that there are old-fashioned mail order catalogues full of wares and consumer fads in the city. It presents the same information but in a way that conveys the sense of a broader world, while also suggesting elaboration into immediate adventure possibilities. What are the main catalogues called? Who is running them? In short, I find the penny dreadful versions of the questions more fun to think about, and I suspect they would produce more fruitful collaboration.

After the collaborative prompts, there are various further tools for play, including a set of "Additional Prompts". These are not formulated as questions, but rather seem to be different elements (locations items, villains, gangs, etc) that can be included in the game by DM with further elaboration. They were a tad generic, e.g. under uncanny locations one entry is "An island used for secret rendezvous". There is also a list of one line adventure seeds that strike me as quite useful. There are several alternate campaign premises (play revolutionaries, or missionaries, or entertainers, etc.), and very barebones character background and personality traits that didn't do much for me. 

In Sum

This zine shines in two ways. First, it shows you just how much you can do starting with a good idea, a free word processing program, a long-arm stapler, and some creative flourishes.  The second is that The Dirge of Urazya is innovative, presenting an original template that can easily be reproduced. At its best the template fills a real lack in retro-gaming play. The zine's structure of four sections, each with background scaffolding, followed by terse notes on themes and imagery, and then a series of collaborative prompts is solid and could be easily replicated with any number of settings. In fact it's a great premise for a continuing zine. I think it would be neat if Shear continued with future issues for other worlds: each issue presenting a different world to be collaboratively built in a session 0. I hope he does it.    

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

So You Want to Make a Zine: Printing

This is the first a series of posts about the craft of zine-making for tabletop rpgs, all intended to act as a community resource to lower the bar of entry. You can find the rest of the posts under the tag, "So You Want to Make a Zine?"

I'm also going to be linking to resources as they become available. Let's start with this: if you're thinking of doing zinequest, check out this post at Caradoc Games for a bunch of good links. If you use twitter, start following @zeshio and check out his data on last years zinequest. Join the discord server linked there for real time help from a community of zine makers!

But back to the main business. This series will cover all aspects of zinecraft, from writing, to working with artists, layout, and physical assembly. This post is about the options for printing your zine. I'm going to cover four options, with a couple of permutations along the way: (1) use a copy machine, (2) print at home, (3) print it at a print shop, and (4) have an online company print it for you.

Option 1: Use a Copy Machine

The most barebones option available to you is typing up or handwriting a zine on loose sheets of paper that you photocopy and then staple together into booklet form. (More on assembling a zine in another post!) In terms of startup costs, you could literally have 100 issues of a medium zine made--say 32 8.5 x 5.5 pages plus a cover--for the price of $45 dollars worth of black and white copying at 5 cents a side, plus the price of a long arm stapler and staples. Here is a guide by the wonderful Julia Gfrörur that makes this process crystal clear. The main headache will be getting your pages in the right order.

She originally linked this on this twitter thread, making clear that she wanted this guide shared widely. I was put onto that thread originally by Jack Shear's excellent blogpost about making a zine here. (Hi Jack, I'm going to be reviewing your zine Dirge of Urazya soon!) While you're at it, check Gförur's etsy store too where you can buy a $1 physical copy of this guide along with her other alluring zines.

One downside of photocopying your zine is that you'll probably be using copy store paper, which is very light weight. Also, any images in your zine are going to lose some details in copying if they're complicated. An upside to this method is that it allows you to use collage in your zine rather than fancy layout programs. Just cut out a public domain image, and glue it right onto your page. You can do the whole thing in analogue, just like the punks did it in the 1980s! You don't even need a long arm stapler if you do a zine  like Mike Davison's Boarding Action, which was a single sheet of double-sided paper (admittedly, it's more a newsletter than a zine):

This is actually on pretty thick blue graph paper, so I think Davison
actually scanned it and then printed it at home.

To sum up, the bar to entry for the copying technique is very low. You need almost nothing to get started, and it can be really satisfying to make something with your own hands. It gives you the freedom to use collage techniques, and hearkens back to the DIY values of the punk and riot grrrl scenes. Just for very detailed images with a lot shading to reproduce a little unclearly, and you'll need to be satisfied with copy paper, which can feel a little thin.

Option 2: Print It at Home

Another option is to print your zine at home. Provided you have access to a computer and printer, this allows you more control over the process. You can lay things out digitally. That might sound intimidating, and it can be if you use a professional layout program like InDesign. But it's possible to do simple layout in Microsoft Word. For example, Gabor Lux's excellent Echoes From Fomalhaut, one of the most popular and well-loved retro-game zines, is laid out entirely in word! And if you have access to a scanner, at home or through a copy shop, you can even combine the analog and the digital methods by scanning collaged pages in and so forth. Printing at home also allows you to experiment with fancier paper, within limits.

This excellent zine is laid out entirely in MS Word. A little utilitarian, but otherwise fine!

But there are a couple of problems you're likely to run into printing at home. First of all, if you're going to buy a printer, make sure that it has the duplex function, i.e. can print double-sided. Otherwise, you'll have to feed each sheet in twice to get both sides done, and if you do that, good luck keeping the pages in order.

The second thing to think about is ink, which is expensive. One way to get around that is with Epson ecotank printers. They're not cheap, but once you make the investment, ink is very inexpensive. So depending on the volume of printing, over the lifetimes of the printer they can end up being a steal. I have the Epson ET-3750, and it's a wonderful machine, but it costs $355 new, (there's a less expensive but still great ET-2750 that costs $300). It prints relatively quickly, and does pretty good color and black and white images, and also color scans and copies. You could easily use it to print a full color zine for the staggeringly low cost of 15 cents a zine, immensely cheaper than a color zine copied at a copy shop. Counterintuitively, it's cheaper to print a color zine using this printer than it is to print black and white zines. But even for black and white you'll print each issue for under 25 cents, which is amazing.

Epson Ecotank 2750

A cheaper option in terms of initial outlay, but more expensive in terms of ink, is a monochrome (black and white) laser printer, which you can get in the $50-$80 price range, although they're a dying breed. On the higher end of this spectrum is the Canon Image Classic line of monochrome laser printers. I have the Canon Image Classic LBP 251dw. It prints duplex in black and white at superfast speeds, with reasonably crisp image. With an official high volume black ink cartridge for this printer, you can print a 32 page zine plus cover for only 55 cents, only slightly more than a copy shop, although you'll have to pay for your own paper.

This Canon Image Classic is a simpler model than what I have. But it costs only $80. 

A problem with all home printers is that in big print jobs, things often go wrong. There are jams, which are obvious, since they grind everything to a halt. But there are also insidious problems that creep in without your noticing it, for example misaligned print heads that lead to smudged and blurry text and images. There are also more arcane technical problems. So if you're printing high volume at home (as you will be if you do 100-200 print runs for your zine), plan for some headache, some heartbreak, and some wasted supplies.   

Another problem is that, depending on how fussy you are about images, and how complex the images your zine has, it's hard to get detailed images to come out looking crisp and pretty, with all the details visible, and the contrasts just so. This problem is only amplified if you're printing in color. What's more, no matter what the printer says on the box, my experience is that no printer you can get for your home can handle high volumes of printing on heavier (i.e. fancy) interior paper and cardstock covers. It's going to misalign your print heads, lead to interminable jams, and ultimately break your printer. This is wisdom won from great personal suffering.

So my advice to you, if you're going to do your printing at home, don't go crazy with your paper quality, and don't include highly detailed images with a lot of fine contrasts. Make the most of what you've got. With a little patience, it'll be a step up from photocopying, with more options and control over the process. It'll work great as long as your demands aren't super exacting and you don't push your equipment too hard.

Option 3: Print at a Print Shop 

This option is more expensive than other options, although not necessarily as much more expensive as you might think (and in large volume for some methods it'll actually be cheaper). It's also the level where the technical limitations are really removed. Print shops can do high quality printing in big volumes very quickly. They can handle heavier paper weight and cardstock. You can purchase paper directly from them, or you can give them your own special paper to print on. They also can fold, staple, and trim a zine for you. In fact, the trimming services they offer, especially for offset printing, outstrip anything that you can do at home, allowing you to go "full bleed" with images that run right out to the edge of the page. (This is only possible with precision trimming, since every printer leaves a border of white around the pages printed. To make that border go away, you need to be able to trip the top bottom and right side of the zine perfectly. I have a super fancy trimmer, but I could never reproduce this effect consistently at home, certainly not over large quantities of zines.)

This is a page from the "print ready" version of the PDF I bring to my digital print shop.
See how page 34 is 3?

Before discussing the options, my main advice about printing at print shops is this. Prices and services vary tremendously. You need to find a printshop that is careful, competent, and willing to do what you want to do at a reasonable price. Different print shops are willing to do different things at different prices. There is no alternative but to talk to a whole bunch of print shops in your area, and find out what services they offer, and what rates they're willing to offer you. I recommend going in face to face if you can. (They often may want you to email to get a quote, so do that, but face to face meetings are even better.) I hate this kind of thing, negotiating, asking people what they're willing to do, getting turned down, etc. But it's worth it, since once you find a print shop you work with and trust, this will be a valuable relationship that will support and enable your zine-craft. Since zines are potentially long-running affairs, this can be a long term relationship. You should take it seriously and find out who is out there doing printing, and what they might be willing to do. 

This Indigo Digital Printing, the print shop I used for Issues 1 & 2 of Through Ultan's Door. 

There are two printing options for your zine: digital printing and off-set printing. They are very different printing techniques, in theory each better for different sorts of jobs. (But as we'll see, changes in pricing may be shifting the balance towards offset printing for a wider range of jobs than in the past, at least for a brief window....before offset printing is replaced by advances in digital printing.)

Digital Printing

Digital printing uses electrostatic rollers called drums to apply toner to paper, one drum for each color. The drums use an electrostatic charge to attract the toner onto the surface of the drum, which is then rolled onto a sheet of paper. The paper is then heated to fuse the toner to the sheet. 

In terms of quality, if you've purchased my zine, you can ask yourself this: does my zine look good enough for you? If the answer is yes, then digital printing will work fine. The word on the street is that digital printing does better with black and white than with color--since it loses some of the sharp contrasts and vividness of color printing. Since most zines are black and white, digital printing seems like a good option. 

Illustration by the amazing Orphicss.

In terms of price, there is no setup cost for digital printing. I've watched my print shop do it a few times now: they just load the paper into the machine, toggle a few settings on the computer, and the machine starts churning out copies. Given that there's no setup, it makes no difference if you're printing 1 copy or 1000 copies of something. For this reason, it has a lower cost for smaller print runs than offset printing, since no setup is required and volume doesn't affect the pricing. This is another reason that digital printing is a good option for zines, which often have a small print run of 100-200 copies. 

But there is a catch. Owing to the availability of high quality color digital printing, print shops have phased out black and white digital printers. This means that if your zine is black and white, it will have to be printed on a color printer. In fact, it's likely that your digital print shop won't even list separate prices for black and white printing. And this isn't a good development for us, because most zines are black and white, and color printing is much more expensive. 

Indigo printing works with me because of the volume of sales I'm bringing them to offer me a considerably lower rate their full color price. But it's still not as cheap as I would like. I'm paying 10 cents a side, so $2 to print a single zine. And I'm providing super fancy paper for them to use and doing the assembly by hand. The paper costs me about 55 cents per zine. So it's costing me $2.55 in total for materials and printing for each zine, even before we factor in the price of layout, art, and editing--PLUS countless hours to assemble them myself. 

Here I am trimming the umpteenth copy of my own damn zine

Don't get me wrong, in the past I've enjoyed physically making my own zines, and it does allow me to hold my assembly process to exacting standards. But I feel like I could definitely do better, both in terms of price and in terms of focusing my effort where it counts.  Right now I'm shopping around Chicago to see if anyone will do offset printing at a lower price using my own super special paper. I'm hoping they can assemble the zine for me to a sufficient level of quality, so I can focus my energy on the creative rather than mechanical side of zine production. Also, if I'm being honest, my circulation has grown enough that physically assembling zines threatens to take the joy out of the whole thing--and in fact is becoming nearly impossible.

Offset Printing

Offset printing is an older, more exacting, more tailored printing process. In contemporary offset printing, they begin by separating the colors of your PDF into black, cyan, magenta, and yellow, and etch each color onto its own separate flexible aluminum plate. Each of these four plates is put onto a roller, and the parts of the plate without an image are dampened with water. Then a vegetable oil based ink corresponding to relevant color is applied, flowing to the parts of the plate that are dry. The image is then offset (or transferred) from this roller onto a second roller with a rubber blanket on it. (That's why it's called offset printing.) Sheets of paper then are run through these four sets of rollers, where the colors mix to produce the final resulting image.

Offset printing is offered only in select print shops, since it requires expertise and machinery. It comes with fixed startup costs, since the plates must be etched for each job separately. So it is expensive for smaller runs. But the vegetable based ink is much less expensive than the toner used in digital printing, so the larger the run is, the less cost there is for this method of printing. At high volume, offset printing is actually cheaper than digital printing. It produces higher quality images, particularly when it comes to color images, and gives you some more paper options. So if your zine has fancy color art that's a little complicated, or images where the color scheme and crispness really matters, then off-set printing might be for you. If you're doing a large print run (1000 copies), then off-set printing is almost definitely for you. But for smaller volume print runs, say under 200 copies of your zine (and likely, if you're just getting started, you might want to do a 100 or 200 run), off-set printing might not be economical.

However, given the elimination of black and white digital printing, offset printing is becoming increasingly attractive economically speaking, and may be less expensive even for some smaller print runs, if you can find a print shop that will work with you on smaller runs of offset printing in your area. There are other, more specialized and arcane printing methods, like risograph printing. But I don't know much about it yet. When I learn more maybe I'll write a post about it.

These pretty colors were made with a risograph printer

Option 4: Print through an Online Printer

If you can't find a good printer near you, or just want to compare prices, there are now excellent online printing services that fill the role of printshops. It used to be that your only option was print on demand services that handle both printing and distribution. You submit a PDF, and then they host it. When a customer orders a copy, they have a printing center that prints one up, and then they handle the shipping. These services were attractive at the time for those who didn't want to worry about figuring printing out, or trek to the post-office and deal with packaging a ton of orders. The main print-on-demand services I've seen people use are Lulu and DriveThruRPG. The problem is that in terms of printing, these print-on-demand services are set up primarily to print books rather than zines. As a result, they don't give you many printing options, in terms of materials and binding, and all the printing is (obviously) digital. The zines that I've ordered from Lulu or DTRPG never feel or look right. Often they're perfect bound, or have a glossy cover that seems chintzy in a depressingly corporate way.

Luckily, nowadays there are outstanding online print services that are not print on demand. They print, fold, staple, and trim the entire print run of your zine for you. They pack them in a box and ship them to your door for distribution. The online printing service that most people I've talk to currently use is Mixam. Depending on how large your order is, they will either print it digitally (for smaller runs) or offset (for larger runs). You can select different paper weights for the interior and cover, and even various finishes to apply, as well as your method of binding (likely saddle stitch for a zine). The service, in addition to having numerous options, is also remarkably affordable. Have you read Tuesday Knight's Games, Mothership, Dead Planet, or Pound of Flesh? Did you think they were pretty? Well, they were all printed through Mixam.

This looks good right? It was printed on Mixam.

Printing my zine, Through Ultan's Door, at Mixam would save me a lot of money, although it would give me a little less control over the process.  If you are willing to handle distribution yourself, but don't want to fuss with a local print shop, then Mixam is an excellent option. The only technical hurdle is that you will have to prepare electronic files that match their specifications. But even that's pretty easy: you upload pdfs of each separate zine page in the order they are read (e.g. 5, 6, 7, 8, etc). So you don't even need to worry about having a print-ready copy with the crazy page order.

So that's a wrap for my first post in the new "So You Want to Make a Zine?" series. My next post is likely going to be on finding artists and commissioning illustrations from them to bring your precious zine worlds to life. Or maybe I'll talk about setting up a webstore. Look for upcoming posts in my other new series "Zine Reviews". I'll be starting with separate reviews on (in this order) The Dirge of Urazya, Lowcountry Crawl, and The Doom That Speaks "zinis". In the meantime, if you have further thoughts on printing, want to share your experiences, or know about other online resources and discussion, drop a comment below!

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Zines: Two New Series of Posts

Zines are amateur magazines, usually inexpensively printed, often with small print runs, and a D.I.Y aesthetic. While I don't know much about the history of zines, you can find a seriously oversimplified overview here. The story as recounted there is that zines began as part of science fiction fandoms, and then in 1970s and 80s, when copy shops opened, were adopted by the punk scene in London, L.A. and N.Y.C. In the 1990s there was efflorescence of zines in the riot grrrl scene.

There is a long history of zine-making in the ttrpg community and its precursors, which is natural given that ttrpgs grew out of the science fiction and wargaming scenes that already had a rich zine trade. Jon Peterson talks about some of that history here. Before he ever dreamt up Castle Greyhawk, Gary Gygax published the Domesday Book zine for the Castles & Crusades Society, in the pages of which Dave Arneson first published details about the Blackmoor setting as part of a play by mail fantasy game. Early zines in the hobby included Lee Gold’s still running Alarums & Excursions. Judge's Guild had several zines, including the Judge's Guild Journal, Dungeoneer, and later Pegasus, although over time they became more professional and less zine-like. Tekumel had its early zine, The Tekumel Journal, followed later by a few others, including The Journal of Tekumel Affairs, The Imperial Courier, The Eye of All Seeing Wonder, and Visitations of Glory. The Arduin Grimoires were printed entirely in zine format. Even Skyrealms of Jorune, a game that almost no one ever played, has had five different fan produced zines: Borkelby's Folly, The Danstead Traveller, Sarceen's Knowledge, Journal of the Tansoor Society, and, most recently, Segment Sho Caudal.

This isn't an accident. In many ways, zines are an ideal form for DIY tabletop gamers to share their adventures, houserules, settings, systems, and so on with one another. Unlike in the early days of our hobby, when one had to mimeograph an entire issue, the bar to entry at present is extremely low. If you do things right, and if you have the skills (and gear) to handle the electronic side of the operation, a zine might cost you as little as a dollar to print and ship at the price of a regular letter. The technologies for selling zines online are also basically free. For $150 you could easily have a 100 copy barebones print run of your own homebrewed creation that you share with your fellow gamers through social media and a webstore, or a through a third party site like DriveThruRPG, Lulu, or

The retro-gaming zine scene is currently going strong. Some of the most interesting DIY work that's being done is being done in zines. There were a raft of exciting new zines of all sorts spurred recently by Kickstarter's excellent ZineQuest in 2019. Thankfully Kickstarter is doing it again next month, so we're about to see another slate of new and returning talent. I've put out two issues of my own zine, Through Ultan's Door, and I'm hoping to debut issue 3 at GaryCon this year.

But I can't help but feel that things aren't as easy as they should be. Our collective knowledge about the craft of zine making is huge. But how can someone who is just getting started, or who's trying to pick up a few new tricks, tap into that wealth? To help, I've decided to relaunch and extend a series of posts on this blog called "So You Want to Make a Zine?" This extended series of posts will share my own knowledge, and (more importantly) the knowledge I glean from talking to other zinesters about the craft, logistics, and economics of zine-making. I plan on covering everything from how to print a zine to how to physically assemble one; from how to write a zine to how to find and work with artists; from how to set up webstores to how to layout a zine. Hopefully the comments section of these posts will provide a host of other resources as people chime in. I'll also be linking to other people's blog posts and youtube channels, whenever I find useful information. 

I've also decided that I'm going to another series of post titled, "Zine Reviews". I've done some zine reviews in the past, before I started making my own zine, including a review of Melan's fantastic Echoes Fomalhaut zine, and a review of the older and now defunct AFS zine. But going forward, I'm going to do at least a couple of zine reviews every month, and I'll be focusing not only on the content (as I did in the past before I knew anything about making a zine), but also on the production choices, physical quality, layout, and so on. I'll also try to do the occasional review of an old zine, or run of zines from early in the hobby.

Stay tuned.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Magic items are born not made

"Govannion discovered and set down the high secrets of all crafts. These Arawn stole to hoard in Annuvin where none may ever profit from them." The potter Annlaw's face turned grave. "A lifetime have I striven to discover them again, to guess what might have been their nature. Much have I learned--learned by doing, as a child learns to walk. But my steps falter. The deepest lore yet lies beyond my grasp. I fear it ever shall. Let me gain this lore," Annlaw said, "and I'll yearn for no magical tools. Let me find the knowledge. And these," he added, holding up his clay-crusted hands, "these will be enough to serve me."

Annlaw drew up his coarse robe and seated himself at the wheel, which he quickly set spinning, and on it flung a lump of clay. The potter bent almost humbly to his work, and reached out his hands as tenderly as if he were lifting an unfledged bird. Before Taran's eyes Annlaw began shaping a tall slender vessel. As Taran stared in awe, the clay seemed to shimmer on the swiftly turning wheel and to change from moment to moment. Now Taran understood Annlaw's words, for indeed between the potter's deft fingers and the clay he saw no separation, as though Annlaw's hands flowed into the clay and gave it life. Annlaw was silent and intent; his lined face had brightened; the years had fallen away from it. Taran felt his heart fill with a joy that seemed to reach from the potter to himself, and in that moment understood that he was in the presence of a true master craftsman, greater than any he had ever know. "Fflewddur was wrong," Taran murmured, "If there is enchantment, it lies not in the potter's wheel but in the potter."

Lloyd Alexander, Taran Wanderer

This post is written for a world in which Arawn has not stolen the deepest lore of the crafts to hoard in Annuvin, but where that lore is known by master craftsmen like Annlaw Clay-Shaper. It is also written for a world of rare magic, where magical items are unique and not available for purchase.

This post is a followup to my rules for commissioning the creation of splendid artifacts. These allowed the players to take remarkable materials acquired during their adventures to master craftsmen to have them made into splendid but non-magical items. Splendid items have a unique identity and provide non-magical benefits. They also evoke the achievements and experiences of the party. I mentioned in passing that most splendid items are not magical, but that every magical item is also a splendid item. But how does a splendid item become magical?

A splendid item has been imbued with the idiosyncratic visions of a true artist who employs the deepest lore of his craft to breath life into rare materials. At the highest levels, craft itself passes into a kind of proto-magic, for the artisan speaks the hidden language of things, and composes an artifact set apart from ordinary objects. Such items are receptive to the impressions of remarkable events in which they play a role, which kindles in them their latent magic. Magical items are not made, they are born.

When a splendid item plays a role in a wondrous, epic, improbable event, it becomes magical. The enchantments that results is unpredictable, but the splendid item usually contributes something of its own unique nature, and something of the magic of the events that touch it. A magic item is thus influenced by the kind of artifact it is, the materials from which it is made, the intentions and artistry of its craftsman, and the events of which it has been a part.

Cursed items are kindled in the same way. When they are involved in great treachery, hideous blasphemy, terrible misfortune, or pitiful failures, befitting a tale of woe or perfidy that might be memorialized in poetry or told across the campfire for generations, then they acquire a devious and ruinous nature, weaving such afflictions as befit the combination of their own nature and that of the misfortunes of which they have been a part.

This means that every magical item comes with an origin story. It is a story that begins with the materials of its composition, and the identity of its maker, and ends with the tale that kindles the flames of its latent magic. In a game in which this system is used, spells identifying the nature and workings of magical items (identify) are stricken from the spell list. One identifies a magical object and its powers only by learning the story of its birth. Luckily, I have rules for non-magical research to help uncover things like this.

The Mechanics

When a party member is carrying a splendid item, and the item plays a role in a remarkable adventure, then either the player or DM may propose that its magic has been kindled. Both must agree that the events that transpired were worthy to live on in speech or song. If they agree, the DM should then decide on the magic of the thing in collaboration with the player. As the one who knows the level of magic in the setting and what would be "gamebreaking", the DM has the final say, but should endeavor to incorporate the player's suggestions. As a rule of thumb, the more remarkable the splendid item, and the more worthy the tale, the greater the magic kindled. Try to make the magic unique, fitting some combination of the spirit of the materials, the wielder, the craftsman, and, above all, the event that gave it birth.

What follows is the origin story of a magical item from my dreamlands game. This item is a high-powered magical item that is epic in flavor. So keep in mind that memorable stories come in all varieties, from the humorous tales of a trickster to stories of astounding sheer dumb luck, and many items, splendid as they are in one way or another, are considerably humbler than the war hammer Tempest Revelation.

A Splendid Artifact is Made

A century before Ultan's door opened in the space beneath the stairs of a printshop off Eidolon Alley, an equally incongruous door was seen floating on the oily waters of Lake Wooling by a fisherman heading at dawn to catch two-headed trout. Trying to haul the valuable door out, the fisherman accidentally opened it. This induced the strangest vertigo, for the door seemed to open not into the watery depths of the lake, but rather into airy jungle heights with no land in sight.

Soon word of this impossible portal made its way to the Chatelaine. Her rule was then young, and she had not hardened and been so corrupted by the power she wielded, which was in those days less absolute, more in need of compromise and friendship. But her magic was potent even then, and there was a man who served her, a sworn knight, who drew power from her blessing. His name was Sir Garanax, and he loved her not a little. She knew, or at least suspected, where the door led, and sent Garanax beyond its bourn as ambassador and champion.

In those days, the Zyanese aristocracy still travelled the White Jungle. Thus, in his jungle travels, Garanax came to know the nobles of that city, and eventually found his way to the court of Lathanon, last of the Incandescent Kings. He was often a guest at the King's legendary Hanging Palace in the lower levels of the jungle. It was there that he met Lathanon's concubine, the unparalleled Lady Shirishanu--Guide, warrior, poet, beloved of the Sibilant Maiden. Garanax was won over by Shirishanu's courage, grace, and potent fancy.

Soon she began to eclipse the Chatelaine in his heart. More and more he clung to the oaths he had sworn the witch queen of Rastingdrung as shield to protect himself against these divided loyalties. The Chatelaine was delighted by this connection to the royalty of Zyan, a far more illustrious--and wealthy--lineage than any available to her in the waking world, and encouraged his connection to Lathanon's court and Shirishanu at every turn. But it was not easy for Garanax, who longed more and more to be by his lady of the dreamlands, and who felt even his oaths to the Chatelaine threaten to become hollow words. And he feared that were his vows to become empty promises he would no longer be a knight.

Something in his troubled mind led him to have the war hammer fashioned. He sought first in the waking world the carvers of Rastingdrung, legendary throughout the Wilderlands for their work with the shining beach, a tree of lustrous wood that glistens like silver when oiled, and grows only in the hills about Lake Wooling. He went to Andori, greatest of the carvers, whom they called the Troubador, for his hands flowed across wood like the fingers of a musician across a fret, calling musical forms from the depths of the wood, and he sang the simple and ancient songs of Rastingdrung with his fair voice as he worked. Into Andori's workshop he went, carry a fine piece of shining birch hewn from a tree split by lightning the night before. From this the Troubador fashion a handle of silver shining wood that flashed upwards like a crackling flash across black stormy clouds to a setting at top into which a hammer head might be placed.

Next, in the dreamlands Garanax sought Lathanon's mason, the incomparable Asmorath Por whom everyone deemed mad, for he gave stones tender alchemical bathes to alter their inner constitution as one would lovingly bathe a baby, and could be caught whispering and cooing to the stones, and wept bitter tears as he shaped their surface with chisel and plane. To Asmorath Por he brought his prize possession, an uncut piece of dusk topaz from the depths of a cumulonimbus mine--claimed as were-gild from a spirit of the air he had briefly imprisoned in one of his many escapades in Wishery. This remarkable stone the mason shaped into the head of the hammer, fitting it into the handle, harder than steel but lighter so that it could be swung with a savage force. The mason's alchemical treatments altered the stone, so that one saw on its surface the colors of a cloud dipped in pink at dusk, but beneath in the depth of the stone one could see the darkness of night or perhaps a storm cloud, which showed through now and again. And in rare moments, the stone would appear to churn or roil. Such was the masterful art of Asmorath Por who understood stones perhaps too well.

Sir Garanax named the hammer Tempest Revelation, for the Chatelaine was a queen of storms, and Shirishanu a font of revelation. Tempest Revelation was a splendid artifact granting Sir Garanax a non-magical +1 to damage. But it was ready to be the stuff of legend, and waited only for its magic to be kindled by a deed worthy of song.

The Magic of Tempest Revelation is Kindled

During one of his many rambles through the jungle, Sir Garanax came upon the unmistakable trail of the Sanguine Wyrm, a terrible serpentine dragon that haunted the jungle's bright groves. Cunning Garanax tracked it to its lair. Returning to the Summer Palace where the courtiers feasted and made merry, he called on them to assemble a hunting party. The bravest of them rode out, the noblemen and women arrayed for hunting on their strange mounts, with a splendid retinue in train.

Surprising the beast, they drove it from its lair. Crafty Garanax attacked always from below, directing Lathanon's noble hounds to chase the serpent ever upwards, harrying him at great cost, for the old Wyrm was desperate in its rage and its thirst for survival was boundless. They pursued it until the great beast, exhausted, was tangled in the densest jungle where the boughs grew in thickets, and had no choice but to face his pursuers, hampered and constrained by the cutting branches that ensnared him. There the Wyrm slew many, as its terrible jaws gnashed the life from many well-clad noblemen and women, and its gyrations sent their splendid retinue spinning into the depths.

Seeing that this must be ended or King Lathanon himself would be slain, Garanax hurled himself at the maw of the great beast. In its rage, the Sanguine Wyrm swallowed him in great triumph, not realizing that it had brought its own doom home. For, as the jaws snapped on him, Garanax slammed Tempest Revelation in a terrible blow on the lower jaw, through the soft muscle of the tongue, shattering the bone beneath utterly. As the beast's head whipped from side to side, Garanax was tossed to and fro in a black and bloody whirlwind, but the others rallied, seizing the moment of vulnerability to pierce it with their long spears, and the teeth of hounds tore its flesh until it no longer moved. As Garanax emerged from the mouth, spitting up blood and covered in bone, the magic of Tempest Revelation was kindled.

The Enchantment

Tempest Revelation is an intelligent war hammer +2/+4 vs. dragons. It is ego 9 and intelligence 13. It does not speak, but can subtly affects the feelings of its wielder. It's powers differ depending on whether it is in the dreamlands or the waking world. In the dreamlands, once per adventure, the clouds on its hammerhead can blacken and roil, releasing a 6d6 lightning bolt with a crash of thunder. In the waking world, once per adventure or downtime, the hammer when struck against unblemished stone, will produce phantasms, calling forth an illusory scene, as a clairvoyance spell. These revelations are chosen by the hammer. Sometimes they provide useful intelligence, but just as often they show the wielder something they would rather not see. For the vision is influenced by the nature of Tempest Revelation, which loves ambiguous relations and divided loyalties, and will often reveal scenes chosen to complicate relationships. For it is a hammer for border crossers, and code switchers, those with conflicted identities who dwell between two worlds. Those who wield the hammer find over time that their heart becomes capacious enough to contain unresolved contradictions, although never comfortably, and they are drawn ineluctably into fraught triangular relationships.

Since Tempest Revelation is a truly splendid artifact, its wielder a great hero, and its birthing an epic event, we know that its enchantment must be powerful. In early editions of D&D, powerful magical weapons are: (1) intelligent, (2) have large bonuses to hit and damage which are often greater against certain kinds of foes, and (3) have multiple powers that can be used once over a given period of time.  Thus, Tempest Revelation has a hefty +2 to hit and damage against regular foes, and a whopping +4 to hit and damage against dragons, since the Sanguine Wyrm was a dragon of sorts. Since Garanax made the hammer as an expression of his conflicted heart, Tempest Revelation bears this imprint in its personality and disposition. Since it was created from materials from both the waking world and Wishery, it has different powers in each milieu, each corresponding to one of Garanax's patrons, for the Chatelaine is a witch queen of storms, and the Lady Shirishanu is a font of prophecy. In the dreamlands, the power is straightforward, owing to Andori's simple and plain songs, but in the waking world, the power is crooked, tainted by Asmorath Por's madness.

Of course, simpler magic items will lack such complexity. For these more humble artifacts, one must choose one or two powers, deciding whether to emphasize the materials, the maker, the wielder, or (most likely) the event kindling the item's magic. The guiding principle is that whatever enchantments are selected should serve as a fitting end to the tale of the item's creation and birth.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Cultivating Relationships

This is a continuation of my series presenting a system of downtime activities. The idea is to introduce a downtime minigame that encourages the players to pursue various avenues that make the world a more dynamic place, choosing at most one downtime action. You can find the rest of the series here. I'm going to let you in on a secret. The way I'm developing this system is by asking myself, "What do my most engaged players already do that is generative of dynamic and fun games?" My goal is just to create a system that reminds players who maybe don't intuitively do this kind of stuff that it's always an option.

So here's something that player characters often want to do in downtime in my experience: cultivate relationships with people. Here are some real examples from my game.

  • A player character wants to befriend the guards at the Pagodas of the Hanging Merchants to use as a source of information. 
  • A player wants to spend time with a boy the players rescued from a cult, trying to acculturate him to the waking world, and undo his brainwashing. 
  • A player wants to seduce the Chatelaine of Storms, the evil witch queen of Rastingdrung. 

The basic mechanic I propose continues the use of clocks from earlier posts. When the player announces the intention to cultivate a relationship of one kind or another, the DM should set a clock. Sometimes this clock will be a generic relationship clock. In other cases, where the stakes are higher and the goals more specific, the clock will tailored to the individual and relationship in question.

For generic clocks there are four ticks representing four levels of intimacy of relationship: Acquaintances, Associates, Friends, and Intimates. To advance the clock on a relationship, the player says how their character is strengthening the bond between them. This is connected with one of Vincent and Meguey Baker's koans: "If you want to do the move, do it." In this context what this means is that you cannot deepen a relationship by saying "my character deepens the relationship". You must say how the character does this, how the relationship is deepened. The DM will judge if this makes sense. If so, the player will roll 2d6 modified by charisma, and advance the relationship clock on a 7+.

However, in some cases it makes sense to give a tick for free, as people who share an adventure, for example, will be acquaintances, or someone on whom the character has lavished extraordinary and much needed generosity will be associates. By contrast, for many people and relationships, it makes sense to put a hard limit on the clock, absent an extremely convincing way of deepening the bond. Sometimes it is hard but not impossible to overcome barriers, and so a penalty may be applied. On the other hand, there may be excellent reason for the NPC to be receptive, in which case, there may be a bonus.

Each level allows the character to draw on the relationship for information or favors to different degrees. However, in some cases it says that favors "may come with a cost". In these cases, to draw on this higher level of favor may strain the relationship, and so comes with stakes. The player rolls a reaction roll (2d6) modified by Charisma. On a 6 or lower, the NPC will decline the favor. On a 7 to 9 the NPC will perform the favor with the DM reserving the option to introduce a complication. For example, they might do it, but it might remove a tick from the clock, or they might do the favor but request one in return, which if unrequited will remove a tick. Or they might get the wrong idea about the character and what they want. Or whatever. On a 10+ they will simply perform the favor.

As a side note: You might wonder why not also have a mixed result on a roll of 7-9 for advancing the clock on a relationship? My answer is influenced by an insight of Emmy Allen's on twitter. Old-school D&D is a different game than Apocalypse World and its progeny. The game is not generally driven by escalating consequences of partial success, "faustian bargains", and the like. It is rather a game that is structured around resource management and high-stakes success/failure rolls, and "fictional positioning" is about tactically setting the stakes of those rolls, and avoiding them where one can. One thus must introduce mixed results carefully into this style of game or they will make players feel like their characters can't do anything, since crummy or mixed success is not generally a thing. (After all, Apocalypse generalizes the sole mechanic in old D&D that worked this way: the reaction roll.) In this kind of a game, it's better to reserve mixed result rolls for optional situations that involve pushing the limits, where the players know the stakes and that mixed results are possible as a special outcome. My thought is that merely trying to get to know someone better is not such a situation.

The Generic Relationship Clock

1 Tick: Acquaintances

Someone who you know from around the way.

  • There is an easy opening to casual conversation. General information that the NPC has nor reason to keep secret will be easy to extract. 
  • The NPC will do small and costless courtesies.

2 Ticks: Associates

There is some bond of a lesser kind between you, some shared pleasure, common interest, small shared experience, a minor debt of gratitude, etc.

  • The NPC will share or keep an ear out for gossip. 
  • The NPC will do small and costless courtesies.
  • The NPC will do minor favors, although they may come at a cost. 

3 Ticks: Friends

There is a serious bond between you, real pleasure in one another's company, a common cause, a major shared experience, a debt of real gratitude, etc.

  • The NPC will be willing to share what information they have unless they have a very good reason not to. 
  • The NPC will do small favors.
  • The character may request major favors, although they may come with a cost.    

4 Ticks: Intimates

There is a deep bond between you, like true or very old friends, or those who fought in war together, or lovers, or someone who looks up to you with deep respect.

  • The NPC will share information freely with you.
  • The NPC will do major favors. 
  • The character may ask the NPC to walk into the flames with them, although it may come at a cost. 

An Example of the Use of a Generic Clock 

Suppose Salinger one-eye has decided to cultivate a relationship with a guard named Pergamor at the pagodas of the hanging merchants. Observing the guards, Salinger learns that they gather around the campfire at the end of the day to drink, gossip, and gamble. He decides it makes most sense to bring a gift of drink collectively to the guards, and sit with them at their campfire. He rolls 2d6 modified by charisma and gets a 9. He is now an acquaintance with Pargamor.

In a later downtime at the pagodas, he wishes to deepen the relationship. In a great victory, the party has recently routed the Lurid Toads who were plaguing the guards and the merchant vessels. Salinger's player says he will bring a drink to Pergamor alone, regaling him with the full tale of the routing of the toads. Since this heroic act has left a favorable impression on the guards, the DM rules this overture will automatically advance the clock. He is now an associate of Pergamor, who drinks and listens eagerly with a dawning respect.

The character now uses his connection to get gossip from the guard. This Salinger can do for free. But as it turns out, this is not enough. Salinger wants Pergamor to do a small favor for him, delivering inside information about the manifests and schedule of the merchant ships that sail up to Zyan. He wants the information now, and doesn't want for the next downtime to deepen the relationship. So Salinger decides he will risk the cost for a minor favor. To sweeten the deal he offers to pay Pergamor for the information. The DM allows the player to make a reaction roll modified by +1 for the generous sums in question. The player rolls a modified 7, squeaking by with a complication.

The DM decides that Pergamor will do the job, but that the offer of money has turned the relationship into a business proposition, and that no further ticks on the relationship clock can be gained. Instead of a potential friend, Salinger is now the bank.

Custom Clocks

Fetching to be sure...
...but she's just not having it.

But that was a little prosaic. Sometimes something special is called for. Let us suppose now instead that Salinger One-eye wishes to seduce the Chatelaine of Storms, the powerful witch queen of Rastingdrung in the waking world. The party knows she takes paramours from time to time, including most recently the visiting nephew of the World Emperor. She also maintains a court that full of backbiting shenanigans worthy of a Jack Vance novel. She is fickle and narcissistic and takes pleasure in humiliating people. She keeps a stable of apprentices, whom she pits against one another. She is, in other words, a real dangerous piece of work. When Salinger's player proposes this course of action, I think, rubbing my hands together, "Well, this will call for a special clock."

This is a long term campaign goal for the character. It is also something fun and dangerous and full of potential consequences. As a DM my thought is: let's keep this going for a while and spin out the drama. Let us say the clock will have 5 ticks instead of 4. I also think that this is a peril-filled proposition that will enmesh one in palace intrigues. So merely to advance ticks should come with some danger. So here's what I have come with.

Some ticks in the relationship have a requirement that the player must meet in order to make the roll. Furthermore, the relationship roll comes with partial successes that introduce complications, to be determined by rolling on the "complications table" to come. Remember that "To do the move, do it"--the player must describe how they attempt to deepen the relationship with the Chatelaine.

Tick 1: You've Caught her Attention

She has taken note of you, and thinks of you as at least, maybe, in the space of romantic possibility.

Requirement: You can only roll for this tick if you rise to the Chatelaine's attention. This requires having done something remarkable that casts you in a favorable light with her. Let's get real: her possible romantic partners are nearly unlimited, and this has got to at least seem like it might be interesting for her.

  • You have the pleasure of being seen by a very powerful woman.

Tick 2: Flirting

She takes pleasure in flirting with you. She is enjoying the game.

  • You have the pleasure of perilous flirtation with a very powerful woman. 
  • You and the party receive invitations to special events at the palace.

Tick 3: A Discrete Tryst

The Chatelaine arranges for a single discrete tryst with the character to be described in collaboration between the player and DM.

Requirement: You must bestow a remarkable gift on the Chatelaine. But what can you get a witch queen who already has everything?

  • You may privately communicate with the Chatelaine by passing notes through an intermediary.
  • You may advance the clock on one NPC at court to the level of acquaintance. 
  • The Chatelaine will bestow a single valuable gift upon you. 

Tick 4: Sometimes Lovers

The Chatelaine arranges romantic dalliances with you now and again. Your comings and goings are noted at court.

Requirement: You must do something unspeakably debonair or fetching, such as to awaken the flames of the Chatelaine's jaded desire.
  • You have open access to the Chatelaine's palace. 
  • You may advance the clock on two NPCs at court to the level of acquaintance.
  • You may advance the clock on one NPC at court to the level of associate. 
  • The Chatelaine will perform small favors for you, but they may come at a cost.
  • You acquire one rival for the Chatelaine's affections. (This is in addition to any rivals you may have acquired through the complications table.)

Tick 5: Paramour

You are installed as the Chatelaine's paramour at court. For the moment, you have captured her romantic attention.

Requirement: You must vanquish your romantic rival in a public fashion that the Chatelaine knows about. The Chatelaine must be satisfied that you have defeated them in the struggle for her affection. (Merely making the rival disappear does not suffice, for she will merely pick another.)
  • You now must reside in lavish quarters at the Castle.
  • Each downtime you receive an allowance of 500 GP. 
  • You may advance the clock on all NPCs at court to the level of acquaintance.
  • You may advance the clock on three NPCs at the court to the level of associate. 
  • The Chatelaine will perform small favors for you.
  • The Chatelaine will perform major favors for you, but they may come at a cost.

Complications (1d8)

  1. The Chatelaine gives you an unwelcome gift. For example, perhaps she gives you rare fighting fish from the Silver Skein isles that must be maintained in an elaborate fish tank, and fed rare foods for the cost of 500 gp per downtime. (If you cannot pay, they become listless and then die.) Or perhaps she gives you a cursed locket with her picture that loudly commands you in to look at her face at unpredictable and inopportune times. 
  2. The Chatelaine is receptive, but there is something about you that rubs her the wrong way. She wishes you to correct this flaw. Perhaps she requires you to study tiresome and complicated court etiquette with a private tutor. Or perhaps she wishes you to outfit yourself with a wardrobe up to the latest aristocratic fashions. Whatever it is, it costs an arm and a leg (3d6x100gp) and takes 1d4 downtime actions to complete. You do not receive the tick on the clock until you have improved yourself.
  3. The Chatelaine is receptive, but feels you have been too forward and wishes to teach you a lesson. Perhaps she makes the lives of your friends (the party) difficult, or perhaps she thwarts your other purposes.
  4. The Chatelaine wishes you to prove your affection. She sends you on a perilous and preposterous mission. Perhaps she wishes you to steal back a gift she just gave to the King of Zyan in the dreamlands. Or perhaps she wishes you to recover a paladin's body from the lair of the hydra so that she may question his spirit. If you do not complete this quest by the next downtime action, you do not receive the tick. 
  5. The Chatelaine inserts you into palace intrigue in such a way as to win you an enemy. For example, she asks you to judge the acrimonious conflict between two potentates. Or perhaps she asks you to do the job of someone else in such a way as to humiliate them.
  6. Your rise in the Chatelaine's affection wins you a romantic rival. He or she will stop at nothing to undermine your efforts.
  7. Your rise in the Chatelaine's affection draws the attention of a third party at the palace who seeks to advance their cause with the Chatelaine through you. Perhaps they blackmail you, or perhaps they bribe you, or otherwise incentivize you to achieve their objectives. 
  8. Your rise in the Chatelaine's affection has drawn the attention of a mysterious occult entity. Perhaps it is one of her apprentices, a fairy, a demon, or a spirit. They place a strange curse on you. Perhaps you must insult the Chatelaine whenever you are in her presence. Or perhaps they see through your eyes and ears, using you as a living conduit to spy on her.
Aleks, if you are reading this, this is how we will be handling Salinger's pursuit of the Chatelaine moving forward. In light of his enchanting dance performance at the Festival of the Sybarites, he currently has one tick on the clock. You have her attention! What you do next is up to you.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Speaking of Splendid Items...Check Out These Character Sheets

Since I'm going to be running my three-dimension dreamlands hexcrawl at a couple of cons, I thought it would be nice to have official character sheets for the pregens to put everybody in the right mood, since Zyan is 90% an aesthetic sensibility. (There, my dark secret has been revealed!)

I also use a lot of house rules for hexcrawling in an inverted jungle in the dreamlands, and I want the character sheet to intuitively convey some of that information. So there is an information design angle too. Another question I have is how to combine those two things. How do you get killer aesthetics along with sleek information presentation?

But I realized that I had never taken character sheets seriously before, so I had few models to show my designer, Matt Hildebrand, to give him a sense of what I wanted. So I turned to twitter for help. The results were pretty great, and I'm here to share the wealth with you.

First, the two I posted to get us started. I began with one of Logan Knight's character sheets for his house-ruled LotFP game, Cörpathium. Note that in general I'm using mainly lousy screen shots here, and linking to the sites in question so you can get the originals from their source.

I love this sheet. It's beautiful, with the central esoteric icons, and the elegant flanking circles for ability scores and saves, with the ghostly bubbles for mods. That whole shebang is held in place by the orderly lines above and below. But this character sheet also shines in terms of information design. Logan has a lot of house rules, and they're elegantly represented on sheet. For example, there's the reminder for combat options, and the dices with bubbles for skills (including two blank ones for extra skills), making clear how that subsystem works. You can get it here, and if you haven't check out Logan's blog, Last Gasp Grimoire, you need to rectify that right now.

The second sheet I put out there is for a game I've never played, Numenera. When I was designing the White Jungle, I did look at the bestiary once for inspiration on alien beasts. While not every entry was a home run, it was pretty interesting. But check out this character sheet:

I mean, holy hell! The sheet immediately conveys a weird future vibe with esoteric undertones--the kind of game where you might scavenge alien artifacts used by mechanized angels in some apocalyptic ancient war. I love the way the different parts of the character sheet are connected by illustrations of orbs, chains, gears, and biological bits, like that wonderful eye peaking out of a triangle. The design of a fractured circle with the stats in the middle, and the way the skill section somehow looks like triple mechanical wings is amazing.

Here are two sci-fi character sheets that people posted that stand out for their information design, one for Mothership by Sean McCoy, and the other a redesign of a simplified D6 Star Wars character sheet by Jez Gordon.

This sheet explains everything you need to know to both create and play the character. Mothership is, for a rules light game, on the complicated side. If you look closely at the character sheet, you'll see that it's actually designed as a flow chart to follow. By following the arrows, the sheet itself walks you through a kinda fiddly character creation. Somehow it manages at the same time to look like an array on a control panel in some 1980's imagined future. While brilliantly focused on information design, it also conveys something about the aesthetic and implied setting. Nice.

The simplified d6 star wars sheet is another tour-de-force of information design. Jez designed it for kids with autism, like his 9 year-old son, who do better with a more visual presentation. It's charming, with an adorable star wars icon for absolutely every stat. Maybe it's not appropriate for every game, but if you wanted to play a beep-blooping droid who is a buddy cop to a Mon Calamari Jedi, then this is the sheet for you. It also has simple char gen rules in the fine print at the bottom. (Check out his blog Giblet Blizzard here if you don't already know it. It's a treat.)

Bruno Prosaiko's character sheets are in a class all their own. Check out this character sheet for DCC zero level funnels. (A good scan is available for PWW on DTRPG here.)

That your scores, weapon stats, and so on are written on coiling demon snakes is fantastic. That they're coming out of a 3d box, and that you write you stuff on one side of the box, and money and XP on the other takes it to the next level. Sure, it's a gimmick, but it's pulled off with such panache. Also, it's 100% true to the DCC aesthetic. Having this sheet in front of you would be enough to put your head into the right space from the first minute you butt hits the seat. Also check out these PC and vehicle character sheets by Prosaiko for Solar Blades and Cosmic Spells:

It's the same gimmick, with an elegant design where you're invited to scrawl all over a picture that puts you in the right mood straightaway. It's a different game with a different aesthetic, but it's works just as well.

Speaking of gimmicks here's another class of character sheets folks shared, where the sheet is ostensibly an artifact in the game. For example, here are two character sheets designed as antique passports. The first is for Megamountain Deathcrawl by Slantio. The second is Jez Gordon's design for Hollow Earth Expedition.

Or take this character sheet for Hollowpoint, which is actually just a toe tag. I guess I know how this is going to end up for me. Brutal!

Another genre of character sheet that can be lovely is what I think of as the bespoke, hand-drawn character sheet that hews more or less to the original layout but embellishes it with an artist's sensibility. Here are some nice exemplars of that type. The first is by Gus L of Dungeon of Signs fame. (And a collaborator on Through Ultan's Door.) You can find it here.

What it lacks in ease of information it makes up in spirit in spades. The fact that you write charisma on smiling white teeth, intelligence on the cranium of an alien skull, and inspiration in a flickering flame, combined with the densely packed illustration make this visually arresting.

This two page B/X character sheet by Dyson is simpler, but quite elegant. You can get it, along with a ton of his other character sheets here. 

There's a lot to like about this character sheet. While hewing to more or less traditional layout, it has the clever touch of having you write many things on a curling ribbon. The portrait in the skull-topped mirror is good too. The whole thing has a B/X fairy tale vibe that speaks to me. While I'm talking about Dyson's character sheets, I have to put before his Empire of the Petal Throne character sheet, just because it's my favorite game that almost no one plays. I like his use of Tsolyani script, and the way he let's it bleed over into the shapes of the spaces for stats:

Since I'm not planning (at present) on using a gimmick like these, or even like Prosaiko's delightful schtick (but honestly, shouldn't I ALSO commission a character sheet from him?), more directly relevant for my purposes are some character sheets that are very simple but aesthetically on point. Keep in mind that I know little about these games. Let's start with this neat one from Spirit of the Century.

No, I haven't ever tried Fate. So I have no idea what's really going on here. But I love how they manage to layout all the information as a series of concentric circles. It also has a great pulpy feel, as if the whole character sheet were a Jack Kirby Dr. Strange amulet. Pow! Blam! I will defeat Gorilla Khan with my ray gun and whip.

As long as we're talking about the innovative use of circles, check out this character sheet for 4th edition D&D. It's an edition I never played. There is an equally complicated back side to the sheet as well. I found it here.

I love how the character sheet does everythign with circles. Together they look like floating bubbles , or perhaps planetary bodies in some astrological chart, or maybe even some kind of enlarged cellular structure. In any case, it's definitely arresting and creative in its execution.

More relevant for my less informationally dense nefarious purposes are these two character sheets from In a Wicked Age, a game written by Vincent Baker, who has designed an extraordinary number of very good games.

These are gorgeous character sheets. The Art Nouveau mix of circles and crawling vines is pretty. The layout is innovate too on both versions. Since the aesthetic of Zyan is heavily influenced by Art Nouveaux (among many other things) this spoke immediately to me. And since the White Jungle character sheets should probably have some vines and flowers on them, it's doubly relevant. I was surprised to learn that In a Wicked Age is a sword and sorcery game, since this aesthetic doesn't read that way to me at all. But I dig Baker's stuff and the Sword & Sorcery genre, so I'll be checking it out.

As long as we're talking about circles, who could ignore this beauty from Shadow of the Demonlord?

OK, what did I take away from all this? Mainly it was fun to see what other folks were up. But, if I had to draw lessons, here are a few.

  1. Landscape orientation has serious potential. The Numenera, Spirit of the Century, Empire of the Petal Throne, and In a Wicked Age character sheets show just how striking changing up the orientation can be.
  2. Circular designs are underutilized. Spirit of the Century, In a Wicked Age, Numenera, and the 4E sheet all employ circular design elements in unexpected ways to striking aesthetic effect. Even if we're playing variants of the oldest RPG, we aren't beholden to the columns of circles for stats and saves, or the pentagons for AC, and all that. Think in other geometric arrangements of shapes. Space can be divided in infinite arrays of tessellated geometrical divisions. Don't fear the curves. 
  3. If those delightful Prosaiko sheets teach us anything, it's that it can be aesthetically pleasing to imagine possibilities other than writing on top of a line, or in a straight row of circles. Any enclosed white space can be designed as the receptacle of information about the character. Don't be afraid to have the players write on top of a figurative drawing, or on the teeth of a smiling mouth, or on a curving ribbon that winds its way through the character sheet.
  4. The Star Wars, Cörpathium, and especially Mothership sheet shows us how much information design you can actually fit on the sheet. 
  5. Consider making rules legible on the character sheet in a variety of ways. The innovation of the Mothership char gen flowchart stands out here as especially creative. Also the Star Wars and Cörpathium sheets that shows you at a glance what kinds of dice you need to roll on a stat, and maybe what number you need to hit to succeed. The Cörpathium sheet shows that something as simple as including house rules in a box can look good too.  
  6. It's possible to both have killer information design and convey the look and feel of your game. It may not be easy, but the aesthetic sensibility of a game can be conveyed in a form that is also super usable. Corpathium, Jez's Star Wars, and Mothership all do it.  
Thanks for sharing with me everyone. If you have other striking sheets, don't hesitate to put then in the comments.

Special thanks to @chthonstone, @JasonAbdin, @wldenning, @heckmueller, @DonoghMC, @kurpotts, @GibletBlizzard, @ItsDanPhillips, @NateTreme, @ossianboren, @superbigrobot, @umbral_aeronaut, @fabneme, @hawklord2112, @rudyriot, @scarvis, @jtkercado, @slantio1, @GameDevTeacher, @wrpigeek. If you use twitter, follow them all!

Addendum: In the comments, Gus pointed out that the sheet of his I link above was a send-up, putting a British Punk spin on the very different aesthetics of 5E. But in his comment, he also drew attention to many of his other character sheets that are character specific. This brings up a whole other class of individualized sheets with character portraits that really deserve some blog space. Since this was less relevant for my purposes, I didn't think to include it. But it definitely belongs in this post.

So let's start with Gus' sheets. Here's one for his longest running PC, Beni Profane the ratcathcer, in Brendan S.'s old Pahvelorn game from the early days of G+. You can learn about Beni and see several iterations of his sheet here.

Here's one he did of Brendan S's character Zoad in the Dungeon Moon Campaign by Nick of Papers and Pencils blog, and also a blank do it yourself sheet for use with LotFP.

In this same vein, here is one iteration of the character sheet of Nick Kuntz' long running FLAILSNAILS character Magic Meryl. Check out how the stats are in the flames of burning candles that surround her most metal incarnation:

Here are a couple of nice ones by Logan Knight. The first is from Mateo Diaz Torres' Flowerland game

And this is was a commission, I think:

You can see some of the same design elements from Logan's Cörpathium sheet.

Here's one by Sam Mameli who takes commissions for character sheets. It's a 5E warforged. You can check out his Patreon here.

A more polished, less artisanal, but quite nice version of this genre from the RPG hello, world, a Forged in the Dark sci-fi game about memory collectors in a post-scarcity world.  is the following sheet for the Blade character:

If you have a beloved character sheet, of any of these varieties, or do commissions for character sheets, please post in the comments below with links!

Addendum 2: Check out this cool character sheet that Emmy Allen made for use with the incomparable Gardens of Ynn!