Monday, May 18, 2020

What's Happening with Through Ultan's Door 3?

This a long overdue update on issue 3 of my zine, Through Ultan's Door. I want to tell you what's in the zine, why it has been delayed, and what my plans are for the future. Let's start with the fun part.

Through Ultan's Door issue 3 takes you down the Great Sewer River that winds through the undercity of Zyan. The issue is big. In fact, it's big enough that I had to split it into two zines. So issue 3 will be a double issue, each with its own separate detachable cover with a map on the interior. The covers, each featuring one of a pair of rival NPC potentates, have already been completed. Huargo, who also did the cover of issue 1, is back again with a stunning depiction of the Sewer Wyrm Cephaia, Prophetess of the Muddled Waters. Orphicss, who did a gorgeous illustration in the interior of issue 2 is back with an illustration of Cephaia's rival the Cranemay, a fey sewer witch. (The illustration at the top of this post is a clipping from Orphicss cover.) Here's what the double issue contains:

  • A lovely sewer pointcrawl map by Gus L
  • Rules for pointcrawling the river
  • A huge and lavishly illustrated sewer encounter table
  • A light treatment of four points on the pointcrawl, two of which were features in past issues (The Ruins of the Inquisitor's Theater, Catacombs of the Fleischguild), and two of which are brand new (The Churning Gate, the Harbor).
  • Three separate hidden locations on the Sewer River each of which introduces a major faction or NPC: the Ruins of the Verdant Purveyor, a wreck that serves as the base for the Black sewer pirates; the Fen of the Cranemay from the cover; and the lair of the Cranemay's rival, Cephaia, from the other cover. 
  • A full treatment of the Dam of the Lurid Toads, ominously polite parasites who have established an infestation and blocked the sewer river with their slime, demanding payments in fresh meat. 
  • A full treatment of the Sanitarium of the Benefactors, an entire disturbing settlement on the river with the possibility to transform a campaign. It has its own keyed map by Gus, three opposing factions, numerous NPCs, encounter tables, and so on.  
  • An article with houses rules by Gus L for playing opium dreaming wizards.
  • An article on the maladies and afflictions of Zyan, describing some diseases and conditions of this city of the dreamlands, including Furniture Pox, Floral Buboes, Shadow Blight, and more!
As if that weren't enough, Gus L has also written an entire delightful companion adventure, Beneath the Moss Courts, that expands the wreck of the Verdant Purveyor into a full adventure location and the Black Hand pirates into a major faction. The adventure also reaches up into the law of offices of a corrupt Fee Inquisitors in Zyan Above. (This will thus be the first published glimpse of the city.) Gus played in my original dreamlands game. He has been a collaborator on each issue of the zine, volunteering valuable feedback on the manuscripts, supplying art, and drawing delicious maps. He helped me launch the zine, he gets Zyan, and he is also one of my favorite retro-gaming authors. This issue raises the level of collaboration between us to bring you a fragment of Gus' vision of the dreamlands. 

Gus's illustration of the pirate captain

This companion adventure will be available as a free PDF on DTRPG and, but it will also be available for purchase as a zine in the same house style as Through Ultan's Door. In other words, instead of a single zine, I will be releasing three separate zines simultaneously: Issue 3 of Through Ultan's Door parts I & II, and Gus' Beneath the Moss Courts. And yes, I will also be reprinting Issues 1 & 2 of Through Ultan's Door as well. So actually that's five things all together.

Realistically, with just issues 1-3 and Gus' companion adventure in your hands, it's probably enough to sustain roughly 30 sessions of play beyond the veil of sleep. It's enough to launch a full campaign in the dreamlands.


I have run into a series of delays bringing these five things to you. The first was caused by the size of issue 3. At first I clung stubbornly to the idea it would all be in a single issue. When that didn't work I started carving off parts to put in issue 4. Finally, in consultation with Matt Hildebrand, I hit on the idea of a double issue. Then I had to reorganize the material into that format. All of this delayed the zine quite a bit.

The second delay was caused by the fact that I have to change my printing process this time around. Thus far, I've been digitally printing the zine and hand assembling it. I realized that with five items coming out at once, there was no way I could handle the assembly of the physical products. I also realized by consulting with other people and shopping around that I was overpaying for my printing. I really would love to do offset printing for the next run, and have the print shop fold and staple the interior of the zines. (I think I probably still have to do the covers myself.) It took me a long time to get a series of quotes from a few places. The long and the short of it is that I still don't have this settled. I can get my zine digitally printed and assembled for the price I was paying just for the unassembled zine, so that's an improvement. To do offset printing I have to shoulder some significant costs to do a higher print run, which I might well do. But it's a commitment and I'm not sure.

The third delay was caused by the fact that Matt Hildebrand, who did the layout for Issues 1 & 2  had too much work on his plate, and had to put Through Ultan's Door on the back-burner. I couldn't have launched the zine without Matt, who designed the entire house style of the zine, and worked closely and quickly with me to put issues 1 & 2 together with great skill. It's a good thing, because it means his work is rightly in demand, but Matt has too much on his plate to handle the zine right now. This took a while to figure out. Then I had to find another layout person. Luckily, Lester Smolenski who was an original player and a playtester on all issues of the zine has agreed to do it. He's a wonderful graphic designer.

Then came the fourth delay: the quarantine. I suddenly had two weeks to redesign two lectures courses in an online format. Since then I have been churning out lecture videos at a sickening pace, while simultaneously providing full time childcare. Unfortunately, we're on the quarter system, so I am having to teach two entire 10 week courses under quarantine. I put my two games on hold and set aside working on the zine as well. I needed to take a break from any "deadline" stress in D&D to focus on crisis management. During the quarantine I've enjoyed playing in Nick K's megadungeon campaign, The Twilight Age, which has been a blast. (More on that another time.) I've also been able to do a little more blogging, and tinker with other projects, like thinking about a possible future sword and planet campaign. But I'll be done teaching in 3 weeks, and I'm gearing up to get back to the zine. I'm excited to finally pull it all together.

There is a fifth thing, but I hope it won't be a delay. I need to work out a better system for printing labels and pre-paying postage. With so many products, I can't handle hand labelling everything and getting exactly the right postage on each piece of mail. I need to pay a service that will allow me to print postage and labels. This especially true because I've decided to handle my own international shipping at present. Since this involves filling out customs forms, I need to do everything I possibly can to economize on the time I spend on shipping. I'll still make the boxes pretty, but I need to pick up the speed with more efficient systems.

Future Schemes

This brings me to a report of my plans for the future. I have commissioned a poster from Huargo, who has done the most artwork for Zyan. He has immersed himself in the setting. He understands the vibe well and I find the art that he does for the zine immensely evocative. The sketches he provided at the start of the quarantine were brilliant. We'll see where it goes. When it's available I hope to have it for sale through my Big Cartel store.

I have a pretty good idea where Issue 4 will take us. I think it's going to focus on the religions of Zyan. There will be a writeup on each of the Unrelenting Archons. It will also contain the Temple of the Archons found at the back of the flooded caves occupied by the Lurid Toads. It's a dungeon of portals that takes you to the interplanar precincts holy to several of these alien deities.

Issue 5 is likely to be another double issue. It will contain a second pointcrawl, through the Apartments of the Guildless to the south of the Ruins of the Inquisitor's Theater from issue 1. I have plans for future collaborations with other authors, including an exciting companion adventure that I hope will be released with issue 5. I like this format of modular companion adventures that thematically fit with Zyan, but also give glimpses of Zyan from the fever dreams of other authors. It lets me keep my authorial voice while expanding the circle. Let a 1000 Zyans bloom!

Issues 6-10 will likely take you into to the white jungle, a 3-D hexcrawl through an inverted alien jungles of the dreamland! I'm very excited to share this material with you, which is, I think, my best material.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Strange Games

I've been thinking about it recently, and all my early experiences in D&D were *super* weird. Some were great, others not so much. But all were very strange, and adversarial in surprising ways.

My first game ever was with Sebastian in 5th grade. It was a competitive, diceless game set in the dreamlands. The lord of the dreamlands came to each player character separately and offered each of us the object of our heart's desire if only we could be the first to best him in his realm of dreams. Sebastian ran the game one on one with freeform rules in merciless style, with players competing against one another. I wrote about it at greater length here. Definitely an auspicious weird start to gaming.

But it was the summer of my 6th grade that I fell head over heels in love with D&D. I did it with a kid named Natty. He was an unlikely partner. In retrospect, he reminds me a little of Tom Sawyer. There was an air of mischief about him, and something fickle and a little cruel. He was very athletic; I remember how into the government-required physical tests they put us through in public school he was: he trained constantly in regimens of push-ups and sit-ups to outperform the rest of us. Although his parents were bohemian types who lived in a dilapidated loft apartment on the edge of Tribeca, he was not a nerdy highbrow type.

Like me, Natty had been bitten by the bug. His older cousin in rural Pennsylvania, a senior in High School, let him play with his group of older friends when he visited them on family vacations. His first edition of D&D, which I remember vividly, was a hand-me-down old beat up blue Holmes book. From this legendary teenage DM, Natty picked up many old school habits, particularly location based adventures in a sandbox setting, and a general ethos of challenging the skill of the players. He even had inherited a single sheet of hex paper which we photocopied endlessly.

I was the person he found who had the same yearning for fantasy worlds. So that summer I slept over at his house as often as we could get away with it, usually twice a week, sometimes three times. We would stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning by dousing our faces with ice cold water and then holding them over the air conditioner. In retrospect, most of it involved mapping a homebrew world that we mostly wouldn't use and writing a set of Fantasy Heartbreaker rules rather than actually playing. But it was still glorious. And when we did play, it was pure magic.

Later, maybe in the summer of 7th grade (1988), he was going to run Top Secret for me and a few other kids--he was a great DM, really world class. But he was in a foul mood that day and didn't want to, and so he declared I had to DM instead. So I ran a zero prep game of AD&D, which I had never done before (zero prep is still not my bag). It was pretty intimidating. To make things worse, Natty tried to ruin the game for the rest of us by making a chaotic evil megalomaniacal halfling thief based on the one-eyed little person rapper Bushwick Bill. Obviously, OBVIOUSLY, this was not enlightened politics, but it was a formative experience.

Bushwick Bill, apparently comparing himself to Chucky.

Despite--actually because of--Natty's best efforts to throw every possible monkey wrench into the game, it turned out to be the most fun session we'd ever played. By a lot. After an entirely gratuitous criminal spree, the party was on the run from the law, chasing some cursed treasure in a scenario I stole from the Temple of Terror Fighting Fantasy book. The adventure they were on proved perilous. So after the first session the players said: look this is so much goddamn fun, we're not going to get killed on this stupid adventure, so we're quitting that quest, and are going to do something else that better suits our fancy and has a lower probability of fatality.

This was the start of an amazing, player-driven, open campaign, played infrequently but over many years. The motives were always revenge, self-aggrandizement, and early domain play. As I remember, all the hooks involved various powers and potentates brushing up against them and casually insulting them and lording it over them as though they were nothings. This would enrage the halfling's amour-propre and the party would begin plotting revenge. It was all heists, and stealing noble titles, and murders, and being bandits who were trying to claw their way into being respectable lords and ladies. One of my favorite things about playing with this group was that they always made me, the DM, leave the room while they schemed and hatched their plans. They never wanted me to know what they were going to do in advance. They were in essence springing their plans on me. I took great pleasure in seeing how their many plots unfolded, often in the dark about what they were up to until the last minute. When they pulled it off, with some unanticipated twist, I burst out grinning. Anyone who tells you evil campaigns can't be fun is wrong: this one sure was.

But let's continue. A really weird game I ran for too long as a kind of self-punishment started in 8th grade. My friend George had heard I played D&D. He wanted me to run D&D for him and a couple other friends from Junior High. George was an odd bird, with a racist, megalomaniacal father, who had made a small fortune in Taiwan working with the Moonies, exploiting their cult labor in his export business. George was, predictably, a little cracked, although wonderful in his brand of ostentatious madcap antics. But the long and the short of it was that I wasn't that into the idea of playing with him. When I accidentally double-booked our game, I just ghosted on the group, which had a number of other mutual friends in it.

George decided, as a kind of punishment for me (he was vengeful like that), that he would DM the game and have the party fight and kill an ancient red dragon. He somehow missed the rule that you can only get 1 level of experience from a single adventure, so the characters were all high-level as a result of the treasure haul, and he gave each of them precisely that combination of magical items from the 1E Dungeon Master's Guide that would make them nigh invincible, rings of wishes, and all the rest. This started a super-weird campaign, which I played partly out of guilt for my original sin, although there were admittedly some great people involved, including George. My challenge was to set up adventures and foes who might actually beat them. In a sense, I was trying to kill them in ways that were at least semi-fair, and I just kept failing because George was incredibly good at power-gaming. Much better than me, as it turned out.

I came closest to killing him once with the help of Peter, one of the other players. Peter had decided that George's power-tripping evil character (the group was evil again) was a frightening (and, more to the point, irritating) tyrant, and decided to kill him. He told me just how he wanted to do it in advance, planning it meticulously.  I set up the scene, making sure not to tip his hand in advance so that George wouldn't be clued in through my misstep. The look on George's face when this carefully planned treachery was revealed was incredible in an awful way; it went from disbelief to shock to lethal hilarity in about the span of a minute. It all came down to a SINGLE die roll. Peter's traitorous player character was a fighter, and really only had to hit George's magic-user once with his super special magical sword (maybe a sword of sharpness?), which required a roll of a 5 or higher on a d20. BUT HE MISSED. George's character killed him. Peter left and didn't come back, and this strangely antagonistic game went on without him.

At some point, we wrapped up the game and started playing an ordinary game of Dark Sun with 1st level characters. It was fun, partly because I loved Dark Sun, which I mashed up with a Ray Harryhausen, Golden Voyage of Sinbad thing. My heart wasn't quite in it, and as much as I enjoyed the setting, my DMing felt formulaic at times. (A lot of guarding caravans across the desert.) But it was how I got to know @flatvurm (Rob Abrazado), whom I've reconnected with through the Gauntlet recently, which was cool.

Before our group broke up, we all worked together one summer for George's father, alongside exploited Taiwanese immigrant labor and a gaggle of Moonies, during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. George's father was selling Olympic lapel pins that his factory in China produced.

That blue slug, with lightning bolts for eyebrows, was called "Izzy", which was short--I kid you not--for "What [the hell] is it?" It was the first digitally drawn mascot, unveiled to universal disbelief. As the olympic mascot, it was featured on every one of those lapel pins, reproduced for each different event, with a fencing foil, diving into a swimming pool, wrestling, etc. So the extended story of this self-flagellating campaign of frenemies ends with my players and I slaving alongside Moonies to feed the appetites of olympic lapel-pin collectors for a universally reviled blue slug mascot. Really, looking back at it, how else could it have ended? That trip to Atlanta was fated from the moment Peter failed his attack roll.

But there's an epilogue to that epilogue. In an even stranger twist of fate, Peter was a very serious foil fencer in real life. At that time, the US was not as strong at fencing as it is now, and the rule then was that the host nation automatically qualified in every team event. So this Atlanta Summer Olympics was a once in a lifetime opportunity for US fencers to compete in the Olympics. Peter took the year off college to train. He shot up in rank and managed to qualify for the US Olympic team when through some miracle he beat the Russian powerhouse Dmitry Chevtchenko at an international competition. (Chevtchenko went on to win the gold medal in men's foil that summer.) Having missed his fateful touch against George's character in the game, in real life George and I watched Peter duel with the world's greatest swordsmen at the Olympics. In the match we watched, Peter was up by a monumental five touches against a Chinese fencer (first to 15 touches wins). He only needed to roll a 5 or more to seal the deal and advance to the next round. What do you think happened?

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Using Multiple Downtime Actions for an Adventure Hiatus

People enjoy snickering at Gary Gygax's infamous pronouncement that a campaign without strict time records is meaningless. But he had a point for AD&D rules as written, which do require information on the passage of time for all kinds of things which have to do with downtime: cost of living expenses, training to raise a level, learning and creating spells or scrolls, creating magical items, reading magical tomes, building castles, and so on. The passage of time was built into the structure of downtime in AD&D 1E, so that to use the numerous downtime systems of that ruleset you actually do need to keep strict calendar time. So one way to read Gary's remark about calendar keeping is as emphasizing the importance of downtime activities for longterm campaign play, along with the point that in AD&D 1E they work through the keeping of time records.

In a way, my system of downtime activities introduces an alternative, more free-firm, gamified version of the passage of time, with abstract units of downtime. For me this is less fiddly and more fun, but no less rigorous in its way. The rule is that you get one downtime activity between ordinary adventures. (And can do whatever else you want to do that's not a downtime action and makes sense fictionally--do I really need to say that?) This abstract unit represents the passage of time through the allotment of the opportunity to undertake activities. Should one need to convert from downtime actions to calendar time for some reason, one can lay a rough metric on it with a downtime being one week, or two weeks, or a day, as makes sense given the implied rhythm in your game. But, when it doesn't come up for some fictional reason, the system encourages you not to think about it too much.

This post is about another way you can use downtime actions to mark the passage of time. You can use the assignment of multiple downtime actions to represent a longer than usual period of time between adventures. Given a natural rhythm to your campaign, a hiatus from adventuring may be pleasing to the party and make good fictional sense. Suppose the party began in the City State of the Invincible Overlord, reaching 3rd level through local adventuring, and then went an Odysseus style nautical excursion around the Wilderlands, visiting the Silver Skein islands and everywhere else for many sessions. Suppose in their travels they have amassed a great deal of treasure, and risen to 5th or 6th level when they return to their original home base of the City State of the Invincible Overlord. Maybe it makes sense, returning as heroes and seasoned adventurers, with money to spend, and no immediate pressing business, that at this point that the party would take a break from the adventuring life to focus on other pursuits. You can use downtime actions to represent getting on with life and advancing other projects. Here's a rough guide:

Short Hiatus:                             3 downtime actions.
Medium Hiatus:                        6 downtime actions.
Long Hiatus:                             9 downtime actions.
Very Long Hiatus:                    12 downtime actions.

The first might represent a restful month. The second, perhaps a period of some months. The third, perhaps a year. And the fourth, several years, or even a decade.


Now, there are some issues with this use of downtime. There's the boring one that players might try to abuse this system by "advancing the clock" to gain power in the campaign. I say this is boring, both because as a grownup you can negotiate this interpersonally if it does come up, and also because I think the problem is actually the opposite: in dynamic games there are enough high-stakes balls in the air at any given time that the very last thing the players will want is to step back and let things just play out.

Another, more serious, problem is that several downtime actions have dynamic complications that need to be resolved through play. Building an institution, cultivating (some) relationships, and spiritual exercises all have dynamic mixed results that require player intervention. There are several ways you might handle a mixed result. One way is by narrative fiat, say in a play by post mode. The player rolls a complication on a downtime action. The DM then describes the challenge that arises. The player then says how they overcome it. The DM rules whether this makes sense, keeping notes with a view to introducing consequences down the line. Or, instead of fiat, the DM might develop a mini-game with further rolls to see if an attempt at overcoming a complication succeeds, perhaps at the cost of further complications and spiraling downtime actions on a failure. (Note that this would penalize rolls that hazard mixed results, and discourage players from pursuing them.)

Another way to handle it, which could be a lot of fun I think, is to have an "interlude" or "palette cleanser adventure". The idea is that you run a single lower stakes session (or multi-session) adventure focused entirely on the problems that result from the downtime roll. Only players involved in the action play in the session. This is an opportunity to let a player character that maybe hasn't had the spotlight as much get a chance to shine and develop their character. It would be the equivalent of an issue of X-Men that focuses solely on one team member, or the D&D equivalent of a mini-series (if multiple session). This also gives you the chance to switch genres a little bit. For example, we might see some adventures involving a thief pulling a low-stakes con job to handle a complication that's arisen with building an institution. Or you might see more low-stakes socializing, or something akin to an Agatha Christie style murder mystery to overcome the fact that a PC has been framed for a murder by a rival for the affection of an NPC with whom the PC is cultivating a relationship.

Getting the Band Back Together

However you handle the complications that arise during downtime, at the start of the first session where the group gets back together, you should mark the occasion. Linger on it. Have them set the scene about where they get the gang back together again. What's the place they meet? What kind of night is it? How do they each make their appearance? Especially if it's been a while, have everyone describe how their character looks different as the result of the time that's passed and what they've been up to. Give them a chance to tell the other players about their accomplishments and hijinks. (This will work especially if you communicate about the downtime rolls separately with each player.) It will be a nice segue back into the bloody work of adventuring.