Friday, January 31, 2014

Major Campaign Milestones: When Bigger Is Better

When a Fate Core game reaches a major milestone, it's a big deal. This is the time when the campaign's skill cap goes up, refresh increases, or even character's High Concepts change. It's the wrap up of multiple arcs, and oftentimes that means the game world (provided the next campaign will be in the same world) may change as well. This is all pretty well covered in Fate Core, so I don't have a lot to add to it.

If you think about it, though, changing a campaign aspect is a pretty profound thing. It's just a few words. A short phrase maybe. But going from:

When The Stars Are Right



is freaking huge. The world is pretty much over, and just because some words changed.

So the next time I hit a campaign milestone, given of course that it's appropriate, I'm going to try to practice changing the campaign aspect in the smallest way that gives the most impact. It's really easy to succumb to the urge to keep adding aspects to the campaign - I think it's a lot harder to just change one and have it reflect all of the changes you want in the setting.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Short Order Heroes

I first became aware of the Short Order Heroes Kickstarter shortly after I started getting more involved on Google+, since +Jesse Butler had somehow made his way into my RPG Circle (and, at the time, he was local to me - although we never had a chance to meet in person). I thought it was a really awesome idea, but it came about at a time I really couldn't sink any more money into Kickstarters. The Kickstarter was really successful, and I always thought that the cards would be super useful and liked the style of the art.

Now, he's running a contest to give away a set to someone who posts about it and what they'd do with it. This is my entry. First off, I'd give it a proper review, which would include inflicting it on my girls as a stand-alone game. I'd probably even post their opinions (or even a video of us playing). Next, I'd use them to help generating NPCs for a couple of Fate games that I'm planning and I'd probably post them here. Finally, I'd do my darndest to get to Gamex or Gateway (whichever one Mr. Butler can get to) and thank him personally.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Metagaming Is Good (There I Said It)

Or, at least, it can be good and is often not only unavoidable but desirable. It just has to be handled correctly.

When discussing issues of "metagaming" I think sometimes people lose sight of the fact that playing role playing games is always, to some degree, about the metagame. Regardless of how hard any particular player tries to avoid it - and I don't see why anyone would - it's still there. It kind of comes with the territory and the reality is that you are a human being portraying a character in a game. At the end of the day, every decision is a player decision no matter how much the player wants to wrap it in "character decision" wrapping paper and put a bow on it.

In the scope of Fate Core, it definitely requires a little more "meta" thought than many other games, at least from the perspective that some of the rules the player is engaging (namely, Fate Points and aspects) aren't directly tied to the character's attributes, abilities, etc. Yet a lot of the complaints I hear about this are tied to a play style that I honestly can't figure out why anybody would engage. In essence, that the players only ever engage the aspects and Fate Points at a purely mechanical level, apparently void of the context that they are being used in. They apparently place them front and center of what the game is about, instead of...well, what the game is actually about. When I see this, I begin to wonder, "Is that actually how they are playing it? Instructions are just being issued with absolutely nothing hooking in to what is going on within the game, with the GM and players just pulling things out of their collective asses with only regard for the mechanical benefits and not what actually makes sense?" Because, even if that's not how they're playing the game, it's the way that most people I've seen who complain describe it.

For me, the flow of any roleplaying game has always been about what makes sense, what would follow from doing this or having that event happen. The system has always been slaved to the imaginary space in our heads, not the other way around. Fate's no different. So in the case of just engaging aspects at a mechanical level and pushing the "Fate point economy" to the forefront of the game, yes it does strike me as "bad" metagaming. I can see why anyone would be put off by it. I'm put off by it - regardless of what game we're talking about. It's detrimental to the game and the story. And to be clear, when I say "story" I am talking about (to use +Robert Hanz's words) "the stuff that the characters do, and how the world changes and reacts" rather than "the preplanned story the GM wants to tell". To me, while it is jarring to hear someone say, "I make a Fight roll" instead of "I punch the guy in his face" - it's not nearly as bad as only ever saying, "I invoke aspect X to get a +2".

Part of the reason for this is because aspects naturally flow with the language of what is happening within the game. To me, they demand to be used as seamlessly as possible. Their influence on the game is about what the characters are actually doing with them, and not how they can be manipulated from a mechanical perspective to do things. From that perspective, that's the good kind of metagaming.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Aspect Magic, Part 2

In my last post, I went gave an overview of how aspect magic in my fantasy setting works from a game-perspective. I've since had some time to somewhat solidify how it works from a system perspective. Essentially, anyone can use magic simply by taking a Lore stunt, and Sigils are created by making a Lore roll. The Sigils have to be created somehow, whether they are drawn, etched, painted, built into, etc. an object or character. So far, so good.

The Mark from Dishonored
The base difficulty comes from the scope of the Sigil. The scope is essentially what kind of aspect the Sigil is - boost, situation, character, High Concept or even game aspect. It's also possible to use Sigils to grant stunts. Once the scope is determined, the exact aspect or stunt that the Sigil represents has to be determined. From there, how has to be decided - does it add an aspect to the thing that bears it, does it modify or replace an existing aspect, or does it remove or nullify an aspect? These base actions can be summed up simply as addition, alteration and removal (replacement is actually removal and addition combined). There will be some other factors that go toward the difficulty, mainly the quality of the Sigil itself. The more permanent or well-crafted the Sigil, the more potent it has the possibility of being - a Sigil scrawled in charcoal on a piece of paper isn't going to hold up as well as one carved into stone and inlaid with silver. Sigils can be created from nearly anything that can be used to make a pattern, from a bundle of shaped sticks to a tattoo to an engraved amulet to architecture. A well-crafted Sigil is one of the most effective ways to increase the Sigil's Resonance.

Prototype Addition Sigil - this would have to be modified based on the exact effect
Example modified Addition Sigil to add flame to something. While this would be completely functional it's very basic and doesn't account for Resonance modifications. The actual Sigil would likely have embellishments and other more varied elements. For the astute, yes this is inspired by Chaos Magic.

Resonance is a measure of how the Sigil reacts with other aspects - namely those of the person utilizing it. For Sigils that operate somewhat independently of a character - say, a ward on a door - Resonance applies to that object. The base Resonance is determined by the scope of the Sigil, and can be modified by both how well the Sigil is created and how complex the user is aspect-wise. There are techniques for increasing Resonance, and a failed Lore roll can be turned into a success by decreasing it. Whenever the Sigil is activated, the character (or GM, if the Sigil is static) makes a Resonance roll. Failure means the Sigil works, but there is a side effect. I'm still deciding exactly how that works, but most likely it would be a choice between a compel on an aspect or one of the character's aspects altering the effect of the Sigil in an unexpected way.

That sums up the basics of what I have so far, and I'm definitely a lot closer to a workable system with a few tweaks.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Review: Laundry Files: Agent's Handbook

This is a followup to my review of The Laundry RPG.

The Laundry Files: Agent's Handbook is a sort of player's guide to The Laundry. It adds a ton of options and bells and whistles to player characters in The Laundryverse and, by extension, Laundry games overall. Like the core rulebook, it's well-written and put together and chock full of good information.

Pretty much every base is covered by the additions: new character professions, training courses, additional information on how to navigate the Laundry bureaucracy, expanded weapon and equipment lists, and guidelines for playing atypical Laundry characters ranging from non-humans to clueless civilians, and character templates. The equipment lists I kind of glazed over (as I typically do) - they appear complete, and have a couple of cool little widgets, a bunch of firearms that should satisfy gun-bunnies, but their inclusion or lack thereof isn't a selling point for me.

The biggest appeal for me in this book is the first chapter: Tradecraft. This is something that I was chomping at the bit for when I finished the main rulebook. This is really, really good stuff that covers everything from how to keep an identity, gather information, recruit informants and agents, various ways of signalling and passing messages (with a great reason why the Laundry sticks to older methods such as dead drops), and field operations such as tailing, evasion, surveillance, etc. The section incorporates the occult elements and tactics The Laundry employs seamless with the time-honored traditions of spycraft.

My second favorite chapter is Black Budget, Red Tape which adds some more detail to navigating the bureaucracy surrounding The Laundry. There are even Bureaucracy Random Encounters to drop on unsuspecting players. They are intended to make things a little livelier (especially when failing the check on one of them requires that you return to the office to fix it).

The new training courses hit the mark with the kind of corporate training that I've seen (such as "Achieving More With Less", "Aspiring to Senior Civil Service" and "Managing Changelings") plus military training courses and (of course) occult courses such as "Eschatological Countermeasures" and "Occulinux Installation and Use." There is also a small selection of Special Instructor Courses, dealing with specific oaths, rites, and books - these are courses you can sign up for (they're assigned) and the cost doesn't come out of your departmental budget. They of course cost SAN instead.

The chapter on Weird Characters is one of the ones least likely by me to get any use, but it is nice to have a "template" to put over an existing character if you need to turn them into a Gorgon or a Residual Human Resource (aka zombie, but HR doesn't want us to use that term anymore - it's insensitive). Parallel Dimensional Refugee characters are interesting - basically they're people who have slipped through from a similar dimension. Fringe meets the Laundry makes Walter Bishop's form of crazy a lot more ominous.

Likewise, Outside the Laundry has some pointers for running non-Laundry campaigns, such as civilian paranormal investigators, independent sorcerers, or just plain cultists. Unfortunately, a lot of it can be distilled down to 1) avoiding the Laundry because if they catch up to you, it's pretty much over or 2) coming up with contrived reasons the Laundry is looking the other way. The options seem somewhat unsatisfying to me (at least at the moment), and I know that I'd rather just play a straight Laundry game. There are also more details for playing agents agents from other OCCINTEL agencies.

Join the Black Chamber! Kill, and become host to, unspeakable horror!
The final chapter gives a brief summary of The Laundry during different eras. An Eighties campaign would probably be pretty cool - while computing power wasn't anything near what it is today, but they were still potentially dangerous and we didn't have ubiquitous cell phones, or email, the Web, etc. In a way, it had the beginnings of the truly dangerous stuff without a lot of the technology to fight it.

The book wraps up with print-outs of various forms (such as the Incident Report Form  - SBB1C, Sorcery Licence Application, and Reality Excursion Assessment - SSB2) plus a copy of the Official Secrets Act of 1916 and a blank warrant card. The forms aren't intended to be something players are forced to always fill out, at least not without a good reason (having your line manager come and dump a stack of forms on your desk is probably the opening salvo in a round of bureaucratic maneuvering).

I don't typically buy every supplement for game lines unless I really like them, and usually there are a couple that I think are pretty much essential. Vimary Sourcebook for Tribe 8 is one of them, as was Scavenger Sons for Exalted. I tend to be partial to gazetteer-style books over "Look, new whiz-bangs!" books. I'd place the Agent's Handbook somewhere midway between Absolutely Essential and Nice To Have. There's a lot of good information, and the book is well worth the money. But the mileage you get out of it is is going to vary - you could run an Laundry campaign and not use 50% of the book. But the 50% that you do use is going to serve you well.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Aspect Magic, Part 1

This is a very short overview of the magic system that I'm developing for my Fate Core fantasy world. I don't have a lot of the mechanics down, and actually have a much longer description that I'm not going to go into (yet).

Basically, magic use ties directly into Fate Core aspects. Not just that when you cast spells you can declare aspects, but the very act of using aspects is magic. Aspects are a fungible thing that actually exists in the metaphysics of the game world. For the time being they are called Aspects (with a Capital A) within the game world, but I'm leaning toward something like "Virtues". It's kind of similar to the concept of Plato's Forms, but not quite - an individual's aspects are their own independent metaphysical thingies, and not shadows or copies of some higher form. All of the aspects that make up a thing, whether it's an object or a character, are interconnected to one another - and those aspects are connected, indirectly, to others around them. I've described it as My Little Relationship Map: Aspects Are Magic (or, alternately, Magic Is Aspects). Normal aspect use and using magic to manipulate aspects comes from the same source - the difference is that using magic, you can bend or break the rules.This may sound a bit like metagaming the metagame, and in some ways it totally is.

I've been revisiting my write-up on Sigils for this. This is leading me toward this style of magic (called Evocation as a working name, but may change because that doesn't quite fit) being worked by inscribing Sigils on to things. The Sigils take common forms, that are customized when they are inscribed for the exact effect and the nature of the aspects involved. That takes it kind of full circle, because this whole exercise is to create a magic system for the fantasy setting I'm working on that supports my inspirations in the Thief video game series, Dishonored and other similar worlds.

Thief Glyphs, from Thief: The Dark Wiki
I've already gotten a number of really great suggestions for setting it up, but for the time being I don't have a lot of details. Right now it's moving toward something similar to Tolkien's magic or the True Names of LeGuin's Earthsea novels (but with a slight difference, because here we're actually changing the aspects instead of trying to compel them - no pun intended - into doing something).

The bucket list for the fiddly bits so far is:
  1. You can't create something from nothing.
  2. "Deeper" aspects (possibly those things that affect the core aspect, or high concept) result in more powerful magic. Thanks to +Teo Tayobobayo's post on "flat" vs. "round" aspects, I kind of have an angle on this.
  3. There is possibly an indirect, metaphorical element to how magic is done. Not sure how far I'd go into concepts of contagion and similarity (as I was initially kind of avoiding them) but in the end it might look something like that. Thanks to +Nick Pilon for suggesting that.
  4. Powerful magic resonates more strongly among any connected aspects. In the end, it's not that much risk to light up a magic crystal at the end of a staff. But creating The One McGuffin Artifact is something that can result in really big changes. Similarly, the more complex something is (i.e., the more aspects it has) the better the potential to do "great works", and the more risk there is of resonance among the connected aspects.
  5. Any side effect from this resonance is taken on somehow (more than likely, as a Consequence) by the caster.
  6. Part of magic use is understanding the connections between various aspects. In this way, magic is predictable and repeatable. It's the potential for failure that leads to unforeseen side effects. It also leads to cool scenes with scholars who keep constellation charts - but instead of stars, it charts aspects.
I'll be posting more design-type ramblings as I continue to develop the concept.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Design Journal - Climate (Or How I Learned I Just Didn't Care)

First, I'm not going to be posting any climate maps or anything similar, because honestly I started out pretty strong and then just fucking gave up.

January surface winds and pressure. It's probably wrong. Don't tell me if it is, because I don't give a crap
Basically, I got through portions of this guide on mapping climates and when I got to a particular point, I decided I had enough information to just wing it. Part of that was the realization that there are good parallels that can be drawn with continent placement on Earth - for example, the northeastern most continent is about the same location as Europe, so it's probably not too far off to map climates on the eastern coast to Europe at the same latitudes. The size of the main continent (which, by the way, is about 60% of the land mass of the planet), the odd shape of the landmasses and the lack of significant land masses in the upper latitudes of the southern hemisphere would seem to throw a lot of complication in to the mix (from what I can gather there would be a continuous band of high pressure over the southern oceans year round). I don't have the patience to try to figure out detailed climate for every region in the the whole world.

In the end, with some creative airbrushing and a few extra gradient layers I whipped up, this is what I wound up with:

I know it doesn't look much different than the last one, but there's shading there trust me.

What I learned from the whole process is that while it's nice to have a good overall feel for how climate works, unless you have the patience and inclination (I don't) there's little reason to put a lot of effort into trying to figure it out. That probably will rub a lot of world building types the wrong way, but honestly I'm going to be zeroing in on one region and forgetting about most of the rest of it for quite some time.

Right about there...
So, aside from the pretty much standard advice on desert placement, some rough idea of ocean temperatures and maybe surface pressure, I'd say my best advice on gauging climate is to take a look at similar locations on Earth, make some educated guesses, and then make the rest of it up. Maybe after a while, if I can justify the expense, I'll get something like Fractal Terrains and try to have it automatically generate rainfall and climate or whatever. But nobody should hold their breath.

This really should be me motto for anything I do gaming-wise

I did come up with an interesting technique for the pressure gradients in the first map, driven by my near pathological aversion to hand drawing anything. I was able to adapt this tutorial to generate a layer with a bunch of contour lines, then select the ones I liked and cut and paste them. In the end, they look hand drawn - just not what they would look like if they were hand drawn by me (that red arrow in the image above? Took me four tries before it looked anything like an arrow - I'm a writer, not a drawer).

Friday, January 17, 2014

Review: The Laundry RPG

Before I go any further, I need to make a confession. I'm not a fan of BRP. It's a perfectly serviceable game system, but honestly I could take it or leave it. I know that this might be disconcerting to some people, but I'll chalk that up to exposure to QUEST RUNE GLORY. A nice man with a warrant card will be along shortly to ask you a few questions.

What I am a fan of is Lovecraftian-style occult trappings, various forms of geekery, and espionage.  Four or five years ago I was introduced to The Atrocity Archives - the first book of the Laundry series by Charles Stross - and I was hooked. It was only within the last year or so that I discovered Cubicle 7 had published an RPG set in the Laundryverse.

For those who aren't in the know, the Laundryverse is like Lovecraft meets The IT Crowd meets any variety of spy novels. The Laundry is a branch of British intelligence tasked with keeping the lid on occult happenings that are becoming all too frequent, because the ability to summon up things from beyond space and time is as (relatively) simple as getting the geometry right. Programmers can accidentally call up things that suck out their brain just by creating a new video compression algorithm, and that's pretty much the ramp up to the bigger show of the elder gods coming and turning everyone into meat puppets. Combine that with a self-sustaining bureaucracy that requires all of your paperwork to be filed on time and that you account for every expense or office supply requisition (for very good reasons, too) and you have a series full of dry British humor, obscure mathematical references, tech that can be re-purposed for occult workings (like the Necromiphone or "stoner guns" that reproduce the effects of a Gorgon's gaze) and of course all of the nasties that a good Call of Cthulhu game should include.

The book's foreward opens with Bob Howard - the protagonist of the novels - being assigned the task of reading over the rpg to make sure that it doesn't contain any real occult information. There a few faux-handscrawled notes in the margins that are Bob's comments, but they peter out toward the middle of the book and don't return. It's a nice touch, similar to the scrawls that are in The Dresden Files rpg. Overall the writing is wry and has a smart tone, and did a good job of keeping my interest. However, after a while the sardonic attitude starts to feel forced and wears thin. By the end I wanted to groan every time I read the words "squamous", "rugose" or how something wanted to evict me from my brain.  The artwork is pretty solid and generally matches the tone of the game, although I wasn't fond of the style of some of the character sketches.

System-wise, the game is vanilla Basic Roleplaying (BRP) - roughly 3d6 for stats, percentile for skills, roll under, various other dice from damage, SAN loss, etc., etc. At its heart BRP is a very simple, solid, and time-tested system. I'm reasonably sure there are a number of differences from the BRP that I learned playing ElfquestCall of Cthulhu 1e or Runequest 1e (yes, it's been that long) but I couldn't tell you what they are because all of the basic elements are the same. The system for sorcery is pretty much tailored to the Laundryverse (it would have to be). Nothing jumps out at me as being horribly unbalanced or wrong, only a kind of ambivalence toward the system as a whole, and despite the ease of reading the underlying rules are fairly dry. One side effect of this is despite a lot of goodness in the book, personally I didn't get much of a "Gee whiz, that's cool!" feeling about the mechanics behind sorcery, or warrant cards (enchanted identification that can make the viewer think the holder is some other government official, or even bind them to silence), or other setting-specific elements.

Where the book truly shined for me is in the remainder of the material. The detailed description of various aspects of the Laundry (structure, history, training, activities, personnel), as well as sorcery, various threats and other background information is remarkably well done. It's well-written in a lively manner, clear, and informative. Contrary to my tendency to gloss over descriptions of monsters, spells, equipment, etc. until needed I read pretty much every entry. There are quite a number of "handout" style pages scattered throughout the book that would be great to print out. In a move that is not seen in too many rpgs these days, there are a handful of scenarios in the back of the book. The designers also included neat extras like a random codename table (YELLOW WATCHER TACITURN) and even a random mission generator:
  • Mission: recruit potential asset
  • Real situation: there's a leaky source of thaumic power that needs to be contained before more weird stuff happens
  • Hostiles: PLUTO KOBOLD (Mi-Go)
  • Location: Airport, seaport or train station
  • Bureaucratic Meddling: There's an issue with the agent's weapon permits, no lethal weapons can be used.
  • Dramatic Situation: Perform an impossible heist.
Two chapters are dedicated to advice on playing in and GMing a Laundry game and give a good feel for how the game can be run and some other good advice. I did feel that there was distinct lack of discussion on tradecraft (as in, how to do spy work). I'm more than passably familiar with the basics, but it would have been nice to see more of a nod toward the Laundry's Special Operations Executive pedigree in terms of how they do their job. Of course, there is the Agent's Handbook (next up on my reading list) and from a cursory glance it does include this sort of information.

One great thing about the inherent nature of the Laundry is how well it molds itself to ensemble-style play with disparate character types. A number of people are brought into the Laundry because they've made some discovery or seen something and the Laundry's solution is to bring them in, give them jobs and make them useful. Because of the nature of the work, it's not like these people can continue with their former lives or live with any old random people - so the Laundry sets them up with secure accommodations and other Laundry employees as roommates. This creates a near-perfect setup for a group of a PCs, where a bunch of people who probably wouldn't willingly want to work together or share a bathroom kind of have to.

As I've been doing with all of my reviews, I created a sample character but unfortunately found that the form-fillable PDF I had created can't be saved. It was easy enough to create a character that had a few core competencies, but I felt the need to tweak the chosen profession slightly (consultant) in order to reflect my character concept more accurately. On a similar note, I noticed something about the skill bonuses for the Computer Hacker/Tech profession that kind of bugs me (and is true of many games that represent programmer-types). I don't know shit about electronics or electrical work, so why would I get a bonus to electronics or electrical repair skills? Maybe I know more than the average person does (likely) and maybe I'm atypical for computer nerds, but I pretty much know how to install PC components. The last time I tried to rewire a lamp I blew it up. But I can write SQL like there's no tomorrow. I know a reasonable number of programmers who are less computer savvy than I am regarding operating systems and hardware (I did do technical support for a few years), and I've seen power users who aren't techies that can run rings around me in applications like Excel.

Overall if you're a fan of the Laundry novels, think decidedly British humor is funny, or want something more geeky/sarcastic than Delta Green, you can't go wrong with this game. The authors and Cubicle 7 did a great job realizing Stross' universe in roleplaying form (which probably isn't surprising, considering that Stross has a roleplaying pedigree).

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Building a Mystery

I've started futzing around with how I want magic to work in my Fate Core fantasy setting, so I've been thinking a lot about the role that magic will play, and what it can be used for. What problem or challenge is it intended to solve within the setting?

To this end I'm running down a couple of paths. The first thing is that the magic "system" isn't going to be something that fully explains how magic works, or all of what it can do. The second is that the players still need to still be able to meaningfully engage with the magic.

In the end, it will mean that magic is knowledge. Like all knowledge, some of it will be widely known. Some of it will be a well-kept secret. Some of it will be unknown, for now - or completely unknowable. That's going to take a lot of consideration and doodling around to get the mix right because I also want to eschew spell levels, spell points, conservation of magical energy (which will mean reevaluating another setting element that I wanted) and a whole host of fantasy magic tropes. It means that for all intents and purposes, binding and packing a wound and using some "magical" method are along the same axis of knowledge and effectiveness and not considered (in the setting) to be separate - a chiurgeon will know how to do both and won't think of one method as "magical" over the other, but rather in terms of which one is the most effective for the situation. This leads me strongly toward the embryonic magic system being (in Fate Core terms) indistinguishable from Lore. You either know how to do it, or you don't. There's no special thing that makes someone a "mage" aside from a lot of the right kind of knowledge.

Even then, magic being knowledge doesn't keep it from being a mystery. Characters may use it, they might know what they need to do in order to achieve some effect, but they can't ever really understand it. In addition, it's visceral. Exposing yourself to it changes you. It's not necessarily that it damages you or hurts your sanity (although it may), but at some fundamental level some part of you is different afterward. It leaves a pit in your stomach, the taste of iron in your mouth, and you just know that now something feels wrong. Think of The Heart from Dishonored. Without spoiling too much about who it belongs to, that realization puts an entirely new spin on The Heart. It's a little more than some McGuffin that you can use to find things - it's actually in a way both wondrous and horrifying. And, you don't have any idea how it works or need to know how to use it. Similarly, in Thief Garrett has no idea how magic works at all - it's just something that he needs to avoid pretty much at all costs (despite that most of it seems fairly mundane with waving of arms and casting of spells). When it does impact him, it's a potentially life-changing event.

My next step is going to be fleshing out exactly how this all fits together in the context of rules, what the limitations are, and how to make it something that is both playable and atmospheric.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Design Journal - World maps and heightmaps

When I first started mucking around with creating a world map for the embryonic setting I have in my head, I had a pretty good idea of what tools were out there (namely GIMP and Wilbur) and what they were capable of. Before I even had an inkling of what the map or the world itself was going to look like, I also knew I wanted to use this general process:
  1. Use a natural, as opposed to hand-drawn or generated, shape for the ocean and landmasses of the world. I had entertained the idea of using maps of Mars and projections of what the early Earth looked like. It just so happened that a more complete radar map of Titan's north pole came across one of my news feeds, so I grabbed that.
  2. Generate the height map randomly, somehow.
  3. Use Wilbur to create the rivers, because along with drawing coastline details I don't like drawing rivers.
Other than that, I had little to no inkling about how to do any of it. What I didn't realize is exactly how exacting that process would be.

Luckily I was able to find a number of great tutorials on Cartographer's Guild, namely Arsheesh's Eriond tutorial or RobA's Regional Map tutorial, which introduced me to a lot of basic concepts such as the "three layer sandwich", generating noise, randomizing coastlines, using gradients, etc.

Unfortunately, I wound up grinding to a standstill when it came to the height map. I had to do a lot of tweaking and fixing things when following Arsheesh's tutorial. Eventually I settled into a pattern of airbrush or blend a region (particularly around the mountains); save the grayscale map; load into Wilbur to see what was working and what wasn't; tweak again in GIMP; wash, rinse, repeat. Part of the pain was self-inflicted. I had used +Keith J Davies' mountain tutorial to generate mountains on an early prototype of the map - before I had discovered Arsheesh's tutorial and attempted to bring Wilbur into the mix. The geology of that prototype stuck in my head, particularly a ridge of latitudinal mountains that bisected the central continent. I started to develop ideas about climate, civilizations, cultures, you name it from that map, and tried to carry forward those mountains into every later iteration of the map.

Luckily, eventually I was able to get everything sorted out, resulting in the map you see above. At some point I might try to codify what I did to get it to this point, provided that it's even reproducible.

Next up, I'll go over some of the resources I'm using to take a really rough stab at climate (which I'm still working on) and eventually start outlining some of the inhabitants of this world (and quite possibly a name!).

Friday, January 10, 2014

Aspectless Fate

There was a thread on RPG.Net about running Fate "aspectless", since the poster's group wasn't really getting into using aspects descriptively (i.e., just saying they spend a Fate Point to get a bonus or reroll without a lot of exposition). It doesn't sound like they were using aspects incorrectly, more like not really getting into it. The poster wanted to know if it would break anything to just use the Fate Point economy, with the equivalent of compels, Create Advantage, invokes, etc. but without having aspects. I'm going to expand on my reply to that thread a bit.

Fred Hicks has said that aspects are the least mechanical part of Fate Core. While having too many can bog things down, the number of aspects doesn't affect power level so much (since they're really all the same, mechanically speaking). As such, going completely aspectless in my mind doesn't really hurt anything...but at the same time, I believe that you really can't go completely aspectless. This isn't due to some, "You have to play the game this way!" dogmatism, it's because of my emergent view on aspects. I think that in spirit, when we play any roleplaying game we're using aspects whether we know it or not. When you describe a door as an Iron-Banded Door, you're tapping into the imaginary space that tells us what an Iron-Banded Door is like. Or when you say say a chasm is Too Big to Jump Across. Whether that means having to roll an Overcome with the proper justification to get through it, or defining the door as having 20 Structure Points and 5 Armor that has to be battered down or somehow bypassed - it's the same thing. We use language to communicate the properties of things, and aspects are language. They come about naturally from simply ascribing descriptors to people, places or things.

Obviously in terms of actual aspect use in Fate Core it's a little more than that - mostly because of the negotiation process that can take place with justifying how a 98-Pound Weakling can rip a door off its hinges (protip: they can't, at least directly, and I'd deny that invoke). But the processing, for me, of whether or not that's possible is pretty much the same regardless of whether or not 98-Pound Weakling is in the form of an aspect or some other truth within the game system. And, in the end, if players are just offering, "I invoke my Trained Swordsman aspect for a +2. I roll to hit." in a Fate Core game, they're likely just doing the equivalent in any other roleplaying game (and, honestly, if they're narrating how their blade whistles through the air toward their doomed opponent when playing another game, they're likely to do it in Fate Core too).

So, to that end, I'd say that it's perfectly possible to play Fate "aspectless", but only to the degree that you can get away from attaching descriptors and qualities to things in a type of game that is mostly about describing and qualifying things. Which, unless you're games take place in completely white empty rooms with characters only vaguely taking any kind of action, means never.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Unified Fate of Gaming

This is an expansion on a response to +Teo Tayobobayo's probably somewhat hyperbolic post on the Google+ Fate Core community, where he said he thought Fate Core was the Grand Unified Theory of Gaming. At least in spirit I tend to agree with him.

I'm not particularly fond of game systems for their own sake. This doesn't mean that I don't like fiddling around with mechanics, but I don't have the energy or patience to deal with game systems that require too much work. The systems that are actively uncooperative and fight against what I want to do are straight out. That leaves a large swathe of game systems that I just don't care if I never see again (Exalted, every flavor of d20, GURPS, HERO), and a small gray area of games that work just okay (Silhouette, Interlock, BRP, earlier versions of Storyteller, Synergy) and I could either take or leave.

What makes Fate Core a huge deal (for me) it it makes want to roll up my sleeves, dig in up to my elbows, and do something with it. That's what a game should do...make you want to play it. t's like getting that first real Lego set for Christmas, that has a bunch of different shaped pieces and spinny thingies and rounded pieces and not just primary colored bricks. Fate Core sparks my creativity and makes me want to see what I can build with it. Tribe 8 was the last setting to really do that for me, and honestly Basic D&D was the last game.

In between those two, I've trudged a fine line between being in love with the idea of gaming but not being super enthusiastic about the process. At no point while I was completely in awe of Exalted's setting did I feel the same about the system - it was, "Do I have to use this?". Even as much as I love Tribe 8's setting, the system was more of, "Meh, I already know it so I might as well use it."

Just that get-me-out-of-my-seat reaction to Fate Core is enough of  a game changer for me. But it's also unified my thinking toward roleplaying games in general. The headspace that Fate Core resides in for me carries across to any game I can imagine myself participating in. A lot of Fate's underlying principles are so broadly applicable that it has become a game that I think nearly everyone should read if only for the experience. It's turned me somewhat evangelical about the whole thing  - which might be good or bad, because I'm sure some people are getting sick of hearing nothing but "Fate Fate Fate Fate" out of me.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Design Journal: Creating Maps - Found Coastlines

For the past few weeks, I've been experimenting and tweaking around with generating maps using GIMP and Wilbur. I've looked at a number of tutorials on Cartographer's Guild, particularly RobA's tutorials and Arsheesh's Eriond tutorial (as well as +Keith J Davies' methods for creating mountains). I've learned quite a bit in the process.

I have become quite fond of using "found items" for coastlines. In my case I used a radar map of Titan's north pole, reversing the shapes of the lakes to become the land. It underwent some heavy processing to get to the final form. Using a variety of methods, starting from the regional maps tutorial and transitioning through various techniques used in the Eriond tutorial I was able to go from this:

 To this:
To this:

And, finally, this:

The great thing about this method is that it can used with all kinds of naturally occurring shapes. Shadows on a wall. Stucco patterns. Puddles of water on concrete. Just snap a picture and start doing some editing on it and the result will likely be a pretty convincing, randomized but not too much so, coastline.

Next up, I'll talk about the pain I went through creating heightmaps in GIMP to be used in Wilbur, and some lessons I learned in the process.