Monday, July 31, 2023

The Problem of Spotlight Management in OSR Games

I listened to the “expert delve” segment of this episode of Fear of a Black Dragon (starts around the 28 min mark) with great interest. Jason and Tom were discussing “spotlight management”, that is making sure that each player gets roughly equal time in the “spotlight”, i.e. being the one who gets to contribute to the game, by saying what their character does, and so on. 

Almost all the techniques they mention involve situations where the PCs are in different places doing different things. Their advice is excellent: to consider narrative beats, to switch from one PC to another at cliff-hanger moments (i.e. moments of high drama) that keep people engaged, and so on. They also talk about systems that incorporate different turns more more systematically. Although I could be better, I’m not the worst at what they are talking about. For example, during my downtime segments in my face-to-face game, where PCs break up to all pursue individual projects and activities, I try to move the spotlight around intuitively using something like the ideas they float. I think it works. 

But outside of downtime, in the OSR style games I run, the party is almost never separate. “Never split the party” may be a tired trope, but it’s also sensible practice in old school games. You might think, great, if they're together then it will be much easier to keep everyone equally involved, since the scene is shared. In a more narrative heavy game that was focused on individual characters as individuals, or on their relations to one another, that would be true. In such games, you can move the spotlight around in a single situation by simply asking each players in the situation what their characters do, or how they react to the situation, what they're feeling about it, and so on. 

But the way I run the game, outside of downtime, the focus tends to be on collective problem solving. The players tend to talk freely amongst themselves about what they are going to do as a group at each step. Sometimes people don’t even say what their separate characters are doing, but announce what the group is doing. And this is how I like it! In the games I run, the focus is not on individuals taken separately, nor on their relation to one another, but rather on the exploration of fantastic and perilous spaces by the group collectively. I always allow this kind of collective deliberation, even when it's utterly implausible in the game: in the heat of combat, in the middle of a high-stakes conversation, at any point really, since what I’m here for is the cooperative problem solving that is the heart of the particular flavor of challenge based, sandbox play that I like. 


The problem is that what controls the spotlight under those circumstances is not me, the GM, but rather the social dynamics of the players' freeform collective deliberation about what to do. In order for me to move the spotlight around in that process, I need, essentially, to intervene in the group's deliberations. But I don’t have a good way of systematically doing that. It's hard to know what the proper technique to intervene to move the spotlight without disrupting the freeform deliberation among players. 

I’m blessed in my current face to face group in that no one dominates the conversations. They manage the spotlight relatively well. (The problem is MUCH greater in online play, I’ve noticed, probably because normal conversational dynamics break down over videoconferencing.) But even in my current face to face game, there still is one player who is a bit more passive than the others—despite being a very canny player. But he just doesn’t speak up as much in the group's collective deliberations. 


I can rectify this to some extent, insofar as often characters will act individually, especially when we’re focused on tight scenes where it’s less about what decision the group is making and more about what contribution to a shared effort each character is making. In those circumstances, I can ensure that the spotlight travels to the quieter player. But this is a far cry from the kind of “spotlight management” that Jason and Tom are talking about. If I'm going to be real, it’s more like spotlight damage control. 


I actually have no idea how to solve this problem. I’m tempted to say that without changing the kind of game I’m playing, there’s really no way to manage the spotlight in the core experience. I hope that’s not true, but I’m afraid it is. Any ideas?



Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Google Plus Mixtape, Track 03: Savage World of Krül


I was on Google + for five years. I met so many of you wonderful people there. We shared practices, information, and bits of wonder, frozen starlight, passed gleefully from one outstretched elfin hand to another. I learned how to play Dungeons & Dragons with you, in rewarding and novels grownup ways. But now Google + is gone. So I made you this mixtape. I think you'll recognize some of the songs. I hope you like it.

At long last, I return the Google+ mixtape, my homage to the OSR scene on Google+. This mixtape seems unfortunately timely once again  as the app formerly known as Twitter--poor substitute for Google+ that it ever was--wobbles on its last legs. You can "listen" to track 01 here and track 02 here. In track 02, I pointed out that gaming groups on G+ were essentially superbands. All the players were DMs in their own fearsome games. Numerous campaigns were run where every participant was the most committed member of another group. I pointed out that you can also trace patterns of influence between them, which is connected to my point that the OSR was, more than anything, a play culture.

As Google+ lay on its deathbed, I frantically helped people to download the G+ communities that had served as the home of their amazing campaigns. I took the opportunity, with permission of course, to interview the players in the campaigns, with the idea of sharing some inside reflections on the longer running campaigns of G+, some better known, and others less. As it happens, I got hung up for TWO YEARS writing the post for Track 03, which was originally to be on Chris Kutalik's Hill Cantons campaign and the superband of players inaccurately called "The Nefarious Nine". But on some solid recent advice, I have decided to unstick myself by shuffling the order of the tracks. So I have elected to bump up the Savage World of Krül, the campaign of Robert Parker, player of the unforgettable ne'er do-well Manzifrain in Chris Kutalik's Hill Cantons campaign. (Now that I am unstuck, you will hear more about Manzifrain soon enough.)

Without further a'do I present to you:

The Best Kept Secret of Retro-Games

Having played alongside him during my brief stint in the Nefarious Nine, I can say that Robert Parker is an interesting player. In fact, he's the dream player for the kind of DM who is in to deep world building. For him, the great joy in playing in a sandbox game is coming up with theories, plumbing the depths of secrets, unravelling the mysteries in a campaign as they relate to the open-world goals of the party. Information is for him the real treasure.

I've also enjoyed talking with Robert. If I tell him what I'm thinking about running, he's always casually like, "Oh, that's what you're going to do? Have you read Brian Aldiss' Hothouse?" Or, "Oh, have you taken a look at the early cyberpunk zine Mondo?" Or, "Oh, do you know about Traveler's rules on animal encounters?" His recommendations invariably completely change how I'm thinking about what I"m working on. He's also been SUPER interesting to talk about on the topic of how to run sandbox games that are not focused on location-based adventures (i.e. dungeons). For instance, he can tell you how to run a sandbox supers game, or talk about how to run a mystery sandbox for Call of Cthulhu, or a planet-hopping Traveler sandbox game.

I'll let you in on another secret: he was a driving force behind Hydra Coop. To a not inconsiderable extent you have him to thank for the bounty that cooperative venture has provided to the retro-game scene. He also came up with some of the most interesting rules to Fever Dreaming Marlinko and the forthcoming Slumbering Ursine Dunes Completish Omnibus. I guess what I'm trying to say is that Robert is probably the most interesting guy you may never have heard of in the retro-game scene.

The Savage World of Krül

While a member in the Nefarious Nine, Robert ran an off again on again game from 2012-2014 called The Savage World of Krül. Other members of the Nefarious Nine played in it, including Chris Kutalik, Cole Long, David Lewis Johnson, and Michael Moscrip. When I interviewed his players about it in 2018, sometimes I got the feeling that I was watching a sketch with Stefon in Saturday Night Live. "If you wanted to have a wild time back then, the game to play was Savage World of Krül. This campaign had everything: He-Man style chest harnesses...Tex-Mex sorcerers...cyborg gangs...wax dungeons"

Robert described the campaign this way to me: "It was a colonial sword & planet gone to shit game. Lord of Light-style god-beings come from a sea of possible realities, enslave the local humanoid population, breed humans, and then it turns into ugly late capitalism before collapsing into a post-apocalyptic ruin of city-states ruled by the descendants of demonic entities and their inbred half-human spawn." The Appendix N
for the game (in fact Appendix B in his ruleset) included entries like Zelazney's Lord of Light series, Kirby's Fourth World comics, Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure novels, Brian Aldiss' Nonstop, Gene Wolf's Book of the New Sun, as well as the entirety of Leigh Brackett's work.

When explaining what made the game memorable, Cole referred to the NPCs: "the flamboyant Tex-Mex magicians, the Clock King, and all these different crazy gangs with cyborg-surgery dues." He also dwelt on the disorientation induced by the setting, which seemed at first glance to be a gonzo planetary romance. That is, until the party found treasure like a wardrobe full of tuxedos, or came across an NPC running what was apparently an ancient photo booth. Was the World of Krül then somehow Earth? The disorientation they described reminded me of the signature effect of Gene Wolf, who carries you along thinking you know what the setting is in his novels, only to casually drop elements 100 pages in that, in combination with the increasingly suspicious narrator, throws everything you thought you knew about the setting into question.

Welcome to Mindfuck Dungeon!

Several players also described the game as sporting some of the most memorable dungeons they had ever seen. The central campaign dungeon was Mindfuck Dungeon (MFD). MFD was the watchtower of a powerful witch who had gone missing called the Clock King. It could be approached from above by paying a hefty entry fee to a gang called the Metal Fingers, or from below through undercity crawl from any of a series connecting locations. There was a central staircase that rotated between four dungeon quadrants on the second level, and could be controlled by finding missing clocks throughout the dungeon. You could only unlock the lower levels of the dungeon by finding all the missing clocks. (Although you could also approach the lower levels from the exterior or hidden elevators.) 

Although the theme was generally funhouse meat grinder, the dungeon was full of liminal spaces with different vibes. There were many sub-levels with distinctive aesthetics; one of cramped rough hewn spaces with pattering footsteps that could be accessed only by pit traps; one immaterial sub-level hanging in the air that only became tangible in the light of a certain kind candle; and there was a double-decker dungeon sub-level, where you would either be walking on the floor or the ceiling, depending on where you entered it. Hearing the dungeon described, it sounds like a giant 3D puzzle full of secrets that rewarded deep play. It also ground through PCs like nobody's business. Robert tells me that one player ran more than 20 different PCs in the campaign. The campaign had other dungeons with even wilder premises like the Waxworks, a living dungeon of shifting organs!

The Most Memorable PC Death

Several players, most of all Chris Kutalik, reported that the most memorable moment in the campaign was the death of Chris's character. Unbeknownst to the party, there was a DERO/anti-life infestation growing in the walls around level 2 of MFD, coiling around the level. It was occupied by malignant creatures who bedeviled the party on that level with the unnerving habit of suddenly appearing out of nowhere. When exploring level 2, one time the party triggered a floor trap. A panel opened in the ceiling revealing a magnet that sucked Chris' heavily armored character (and I believe Michael Moscrip's character as well) up into the ceiling, moving them along a track, and depositing them in the DERO sublevel, before sliding closed. Isolated, these characters found themselves in a space with a completely different ominous aesthetic of polished black walls with a red carpet that ate their feet if they stood still in one place. They were lost in unfamiliar territory trying to reconnect with the rest of the party, until their light source gave out. The party could hear their screams, maddeningly just behind the walls, powerless to help them, as they were hunted through the darkness by the malignant occupants of this hideous space. Giving up all hope, Chris' character ended up taking his own life to avoid being captured by the DERO. Everyone, including Chris, described this as a high point of the campaign.

A B/X Ruleset to Remember

The ruleset for the game, which circulated among players in PDF form, is a masterful B/X hack. My feeling is that these rules stands roughly to B/X as Gus' HMS Apollyon rules stand to OD&D. Both, working with the strengths of the chassis of their game of choice, spin it in creative way to support play in a particular campaign world. Everything in the ruleset conveys and reinforces elements of the setting. Robert's ruleset in particular is designed for long haul campaign shenanigans and play. Since the ruleset isn't published or generally available, I don't want to get into too much detailed, but it's such a glorious B/X hack that I can't resist saying something about. 

Character creation involved a selection two classes: fighting man/warrior woman & warlock/witch, with further hidden weird classes unlockable with a lucky roll or with character death. (Since there was so much PC death Robert wanted to throw a bone to those who perished again and again.) Each of the base classes had a lot of flavor. For witches and warlocks the flavor comes from the selection of 1 of 7 magical schools from this chart. 

For fighting men or warrior women the player rolls on a background table. There are 17 backgrounds, split between wilderness and urban backgrounds, that add 1d6 to one of your stats and sometimes give you some other power. (There is also a small chance to roll on a hidden "weird class" subtable.) These stats serve in part as the basis of a system of checks that allows for your character to have something of the flavor of thieves, rangers, and the like as sort of sub-classes of fighters. You are also able to trade off stats against one another, allowing for a fair amount of customization. 

Equipment was treated by Robert as another opportunity for worldbuilding. In addition to the standard fare of swords and torches, there are very pricey items like gasoline, shotguns, and even dynamite. The system uses a piecemeal armor system that calls out to He-Man or swords & sorcery genres. Robert also had rules for gambling, a set of mini-games that are resolved in the first 10 minutes of every session for those PCs who wished to drop by Xita's House of Games, a seedy gaming house in the city's Low Quarter. There were minigames for  slots,  blackjack, as well as a clever lottery game. I imagine that starting each session with real life gambling sets a nice opening tone. 

Where the ruleset really shines though is in the downtime system. I'm frankly glad that I hadn't read these rules when I was working out my own system of downtime, because they're so good I think they might have captured my imagination. The baseline is a cost of living expense with different expense tiers, tied to different bonuses or penalties on your hit points--hit dice were rolled each session. (If you couldn't pay for any tier there was a table to roll on for being unhoused.)

The downtime actions  carousing, rumor mongering, gathering intelligence in a variety of modes, including research, door to door interviews, casing a joint, infiltrating an organization and so on. (There is also an elaborate set of rules for using stool pigeons, more on the gang rules below.) There is also a career downtime action, which involves finding or working at a job. The system lists several careers, from stevedore to lab assistant, and so on. It uses stat checks to see if you can land a job (some are open only to individuals with certain skills), or a keep a job, or get a promotion. Getting fired usually has negative consequences. If you have a job you must dedicated half your downtimes to working it, and you receive weekly wages. It's a tidy little system that has a lot of worldbuilding built into it with the different careers. I would love it as a player.  

In addition to this rich offering of regular downtime actions, one genius innovation the ruleset introduces is the idea of a special downtime action. Once per month, a player is allowed to write up a special downtime action that does not fit into the framework mentioned so far. These actions are handled on an ad-hoc basis. Robert explained the significance of limiting specialty downtime action to me in terms of the advantage freeform downtime gives to enterprising and pushy players. The idea is to limit it to 1 out of every 4 downtimes, both to limit the workload on a DM with a large player base, and also to make sure that no one was reaping massive advantages by sinking homework in between sessions. The flexibility of the idea of a limited specialty downtime action is enticing. Interestingly, Robert also allowed players to use the specialty downtime action to play a special 30 minute session (usually at the start of a regular game session), where the player character could try to quickly resolve catastrophes that had come up via downtime, e.g. getting captured by someone you were spying on or the like. 

Perhaps the most elaborate rules in the game were the rules for taking and holding territory and building gangs as the envisioned domain play for fighting men. Four years before Blades in the Dark was published, and far better suited to the OSR playstyle, these rules were a tour-de-force. They explained what you had to do to seize a territory; they had rules for how to handle the gang warfare during the struggle; as well as rules for the monies and other advantages you would receive by securing and holding territory. They also tied in with the downtime actions that involved recruiting and paying gang members suitable for different kinds of jobs, hiring stool pigeons, infiltrating enemy gangs, and so on. 

These rules are not available for public consumption. They are, from Robert's point of view, game ephemera specifically made for his campaign and not for public consumption. However, both the setting and rules were major influence on David Lewis Johnson's Gathox Vertical Slum, another member of the Nefarious Nine and a player in Savage Sword of Krül. You can also find some of them absorbed into the forthcoming Slumbering Ursine Dunes Completish Omnibus So you can get at least a taste of the setting flavor and rules by looking at these wonderful product. As we'll see it also influenced Cole Long's rules for Swords of the Inner Sea, which I'll be looking at in a later track. 

Pay your cyber-surgery dues and you can find me in Mind Fuck Dungeon until the next mixtape trakc drops! 

PS If you'd rather read my posts in emails than in an RSS feed, you can sign up for my newsletter, Missives Beyond the Veil of Sleep here.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Trailer Drop!

By the time you read this, I will have recorded three episodes and a trailer of Into the Megadungeon, my new podcast exploring megadungeon games. I can now share with you the trailer for the podcast. 

You can listen to it here on Spotify

The first episode will drop after Gen Con on Tuesday August 8th. After that, you can expect episodes to appear biweekly through the first season, which I expect to run 10 episodes. 

I thought I would say a little bit more about how the podcast has taken shape. The name of the first season is "Megadungeons as...", with the episode titles filling in the blanks. So here's the list of the first three episodes I have recorded.

Season 01: Megadungeons as...

  1. Mysteries
  2. Persistent Little Worlds
  3. The Question of Space
In Episode 1 "Mysteries", I interview James Maliszewski about his Dwimmermount megadungeon campaign. We address, among other things, what a megadungeon is; how James' megadungeon grew organically from modest beginnings; how exploration of the megadungeon can be exploration mysteries of an entire setting; and his current project, The secrets of sha'Arthan, and the role of megadungeons in that setting. 

In Episode 2 "Persistent Little Worlds", I interview Nick Kuntz, the GM of The Twilight Age, the megadungeon campaign I'm playing in. We reminisce about the (still unfolding) campaign, and discuss the challenges and special rewards of megadungeons campaigns with large player rosters, and how megadungeons campaigns with a lot players can function as "persistent little worlds", where the stories that emerge are less about a band of protagonists and more about an abiding place. 

In Episode 3 "The Question of Space", I interview Gus about his HMS Apollyon campaign. We talk about the idea of placing your starting settlement inside a megadungeon, how to make treasure interesting, and about the centrality of space to dungeoneering. Along the way, you get to hear a lot of choice details about Gus' experience creating and running HMS Apollyon. 

I have a bunch of other interviews lined up, including with Luke Gearing, of Gradient Descent (etc) fame, and Josh McCrowell, author of a megadungeon ruleset called His Majesty the Worm. Things I am toying with for future episodes includes incorporating some player interviews alongside the GM interviews from the same campaign. (Luke suggested it, and I think it would be a lot of fun.) I'm also planning an episode called "The GMs Toolbox" that consists solely of GMing tips, tools, procedures, and house rules that facilitate GMing megadungeons. I'm also considering including an episode on sci-fi megadungeons, and another historical episode on the very early megadungeons of the hobby, since all of my interviews so far have referred in one way or another to the early megadungeon campaigns that gave rise to Dungeons & Dragons. 

I'm not promising any of these things, but you can see some of the direction my mind is moving as this project becomes a reality.

Return of the Google+ Mixtapes

In the meantime, I also have plans to pick up some old projects on the blog here. In the intervening weeks without a podcast, you can expect some tracks of the long delayed Google+ Mixtape to drop. The Google+ Mixtapes were intended to be a series of posts commemorating aspects of the OSR scene and play culture as it flowered on Google+. It's intended as one part historical memorialization, useful for those who were and weren't there, and one part reminiscence. I only ever published two tracks, one about FLAILSNAILS, and one about the "Superband" phenomena of G+ campaigns consisting mainly of very skilled GMs. 

The posts in the pipeline pick up where I left off, by providing retrospectives on some of the master campaigns of the Google+ era starting next week, including both well known campaigns like, The Hill Cantons, and some sleepers like Robert Parker's Savage World of Krül and Cole Long's Swords of the Inner Sea. You can expect some player testimony and game ephemera as well. I hope you enjoy it. I know I have enjoyed writing them. 

Also, I've started a newsletter, Missives from Beyond the Veil of Sleep, to which you can subscribe here. it packages my blog entries along with more ephemeral and in progress reflections. Check it out and consider subscribing!

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Into the Megadungeon & Missives from Beyond the Veil of Sleep


Missives from Beyond the Veil of Sleep

First off, given the impending collapse of twitter, and the continuing general crumbling of social media, I've decided to start a newsletter called Ultan's Door: Missives from Beyond the Veil of Sleep. You can read the first newsletter and subscribe here. If you're into newsletters or just prefer to get blog posts in your email rather than RSS feed, then please consider subscribing. 

Am I replacing this blog with a newsletter format? No. Think of the newsletter as a long form replacement for social media. I will cross-post new blog posts to the newsletter. I will also use it to convey more ephemeral or time sensitive information. Likely, I'll cover a bit more "work in progress", or "here's what I'm thinking about in ttrpgs today" content in the newsletter. 

What does this newsletter mean for the Ultan's Door Press mailing list? (Which you can subscribe to here, by the way.) Is it replacing the mailing list? No. The Ultan's Door Press mailing list is strictly for announcements about new products or reprints. I only mail the mailing list whenever a new product or reprint is forthcoming or available or going on Kickstarter. I don't use it to share my thoughts or gaming content. 

In short:

  • This blog: Same as it ever was.
  • Newsletter: A way to get emailed the blog, plus some work in progress or thoughts on ttrpgs of the sort that I would have shared on social media, but in a more relaxed long form style.
  • Ultan's Door Press Mailing List: Only for product announcements. 

Into the Megadungeon 

Perhaps bigger news is that I'm starting a podcast called Into the Megadungeon. It's a podcast where I interview veteran GMs with years of experience running amazing megadungeon campaigns. We'll explore the attractions and challenges of this strange campaign type. The podcast will be focused mainly on practice. So you can expect to hear a lot about people's actual campaigns, how they run them, what works and doesn't work for them, with lots of examples. There will be a lot of talk about techniques, systems, and hacks our GMs have come up. We will, of course, get into theory, but when we do it will be informed by experience and mainly driven by questions of practice. You'll also get to hear about the megadungeon projects that our GMs are currently working on--so it may also provide a glimpse of some fun things that are in the pipeline. 

If you're at all curious about this largely forgotten campaign form that both started our hobby and is seeing a big resurgence now then this is the podcast for you. It's especially relevant if you find the idea of running a megadungeon campaign appealing but overwhelming. The lineup for season 1 of the podcast has some really wonderful people in it, including big names you'll recognize, as well as the GM of the current megadungeon of the campaign I'm playing in. I have the first episode edited and complete, and I'll be recording a bunch more episodes over the next two weeks. 

The trailer drops on a week from today on 7/18, with the first episode hitting the airwaves after Gen Con, early in August. Stay tuned!