Saturday, June 1, 2013

Podcast in the Works

One of the reasons I have been so neglecting my blog in the past few weeks is because I have been working on a podcast. I'm still not sure how regularly it will be updated, and how long each episode will be, but there are a few crucial things I do know ...

  • It will be about tabletop roleplaying game design theory.
  • Some episodes will discuss various design principals and mechanics, while others will pick apart various roleplaying games.
  • It will be scripted.
  • The first episode will be about The Threefold Model, and by extension, GNS Theory.
  • My goal will to make such walls of text much more digestible, to discuss how their teachings can be applied, and to provide personal opinions on crafting engaging systems.
For a good idea of what to expect, see my post Old School vs New School Roleplaying Games.

Friday, May 17, 2013

RPG Review: the One Ring

The One Ring: Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild is a tabletop roleplaying game set in J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. It takes place in the Laketown and Mirkwood area, some five years after the events of The Hobbit. After the defeat of Smaug and The Battle of Five Armies, civilization is being rebuilt and new frontiers are being explored. The players take on the roles of wandering adventurers and mercenaries, doing such things as scouting out new areas, retrieving ancient artifacts, and fighting the monsters of the wilderness.

The first thing that struck me about the game is the beautiful presentation. The art, by the esteemed Jon Hodgson, fits the setting perfectly and is pleasing to the eye. The only person who I think could possibly have done better is Justin Gerard.

The writing lives up to the high standard set my the art. It provides plenty of information and creates a sense of setting without being overly long-winded or heavy on exposition. It has a healthy respect for Middle Earth cannon, but does take a few creative liberties. Mentioned is the fact that Tolkien himself considered Middle Earth to be a living document.

The rules are a bit of a mixed bag. They usually do a good job of emulating the source material (the books, rather than the films), but they can be rough around the edges. Common complaints include forced character balance and stilted advancement. Characters get better at what they can already do, but hardly expand. Still, the combat system is very evocative of the setting, and the rules for overland travel are equally fitting.

366 pages, spread over two books, make up the core of the game. There is enough content within those two books that one could easily run a long-term campaign without looking any further. However, there is a solid amount of additional content for those who want to take their game to other parts of Middle Earth.

The One Ring game can be sampled and purchased Here. I would say that it is well worth the thirty dollar price tag for fans of Tolkien, fans of Jon Hodgson, and people looking for an alternative fantasy roleplaying game. Perhaps the rules could use another rewrite, but the game is very solid overall.

Monday, May 13, 2013

RPG Review: Woodland Warriors

Woodland Warriors is a unique fantasy-themed tabletop roleplaying game, where the players take on the roles of anthropomorphic rodents. They explore a mostly wilderness-based setting called the Alder Vale, fight monsters, and guard Stonewall Abbey from the approaching tide of darkness. It is inspired by such rodent-based fiction as Redwall and Mouse Gaurd.

The rules system is based on Swords & Wizardry, which itself is based on early Dungeons & Dragons. Those familliar with D&D will recognize many of the system tropes - such as character classes, experience levels, hit points, and the six ability scores. I view this as a strength. It means that Woodland Warriors will feel familiar to the majority of tabletop roleplaying fans, and that it is largely compatible with old-school D&D content.

The writing is mostly clean and concise, but could use editing in some places. One will sometimes stumble on an intimidating wall of text. This seems like more than a minor issue, since Woodland Warriors is presented as an all-ages roleplaying game, and I don't think most kids would want to try and conquer some of the murky word-walls. It isn't terrible or anything. Just a bit annoying.

Most of the writing is pretty to-the-point, not concerning itself much with setting details or atmosphere. Filling in the gaps and creating a rich world is left up to the players. This isn't a bad thing. It can help ease reluctant players into world-building, lower the entry barrier, and bring out creativity. It can also leave players feeling a bit lost; intimidated by the task of fleshing out a setting during play.

The presentation is very minimal. Black sans-serif text on a white background, with the occasional bit of colorful and cartoonish art. There is only one text column per page, and the text size is on the larger side. At best, this gives the book a friendly, unassuming appearance. At worst, it can feel rather bland.

At the back of the book is a sample adventure for beginning characters. I haven't played it, but it looks solid enough. A good introduction to the rules and setting.

I would recommend Woodland Warriors to fans of rodent-based fantasy, and to fans of old-school D&D looking for something a bit different. Its a bit rough around the edges, but the rules are solid, and there is certainly a great amount of fun to be had. The familiar setting, lighthearted tone, and relatively easy rules also make it well suited to families and older children. The core book can be previewed and purchased Here.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Forest's Grasp

The first thing to change was my sense of smell. It sharpened. I could now smell the worms in the earth, the moss and fungus on the trees, and the rotting deer flesh on the forest floor. I could smell the rich salt air coming off the ocean. It made me dizzy. I had to constantly clear my head, stopping to process the smells, so I could go on. I knew my time was growing short, and I had to finish soon.

I pushed on through the trees. I would often stop to step over a rock or fallen branch. My face and arms were scratched and moisture began to soak through my well-worn shoes. The sun was setting above the treetops. Soon I would have only moonlight by which to see.

My limbs were thick and heavy with fatigue. My viscera burned and throbbed. Above, the sun had set, plunging me into darkness. I decided to stop for a while. I could recover my strength.

I walked a bit further. Soon, I found a small clearing divided in two by a fallen tree. It was wet and mossy, but so was I. It was nice to rest my legs.

I waited for a few minutes, catching my breath. I stared at the wet earth beneath me. It was covered in pine needles and fungus.

A strange throbbing filled my arms. I watched my skin grow rough and mottled, and felt my blood turn thick. Pain exploded into my hands. I looked down to see the skin breaking and peeling off the bones, causing dark blood to run down my arms. I could smell myself bleeding, and for a moment, I was incapacitated.

There was nothing but pain, and the smell of blood, and a strange throbbing in my arms chest. I forced my eyes open and saw that my hands were reshaping into large monstrosities of leaf and branch.

I coughed up a thick mixture of blood and sap. It splattered onto my shirt and soaked into the mossy earth. I forced myself to my feet and began to walk again, hoping to recover enough to make the rest of the journey.

I breathed an obscenity as pain filled one of my feet. I felt the leather of my boot break, and my foot being bound to the forest floor. I had grown a root. I had neither means nor desire to cut myself free. Instead, I willed the root to detach, and continued my journey.

My foot was bleeding badly, leaving a bloody smudge with each step. The leg grew heavy and stiff. Only through an effort of sheer will did I continue walking.

More blood and sap flowed from my lips. I spat it out and tried to clear my throat. It was becoming hard to breath. My lungs began to fill with fluid. Darkness crept in around the corners of my vision.

Something caught my eye. Something growing on a tree. I dropped to my knees and crawled towards it, gasping and coughing.
It was some sort of mushroom. Though I didn’t recognise it, the same part of me that could smell the insects under the bark of the trees was telling me to eat it.



I broke a piece off with a shaking, inhuman hand and brought it to my mouth. Through the blood and sap I could taste it. It was cold and bitter and slightly peppery. Not particularly pleasant, but in my current situation, I could hardly care.

After agonizing minutes, my throat and lungs began to clear. I could breath. Some of the strength returned to my protesting limbs. I tried to get up, but felt dizzy, and fell.


My head began to spin. My vision blurred. My sense of smell amplified again, and I was briefly stunned. I could feel the pulsating life in the trees and earth around me. I could feel the stars, and taste the cold blackness between them.


I could feel the place where the roots of the trees connected. It reached up from the blackness towards me, and locked me in its twisting embrace. I screamed until I could no longer hear myself. It spoke to me, and told me its secrets.


It became too much to bare. I left my body entirely and joined it in the earth. I let my soul become bound in its cage of roots.


My consciousness snapped back into my body. I scrambled to my feet and ran. Ran in no particular direction. Ran to put as much space as possible between myself, and the place where some part of me was imprisoned in the arms of the foest.


I was forced to stop when my chest tore open. I toppled over. Branches spilled out of the gaping cavity. Dark, hot blood soaked into the ground. Vines and leaves grew out of my flesh.


Numbly, I stood. Roots were growing out of my feet and hooking into the earth. My arms were twisting beyond their natural limits and becoming branches. There was a stifling thickness in my head, and I knew it was also changing. I could feel blood and sap all over my skin. One last scream escaped my lips before the transformation was finished. choking. It was some sort of mushroom. Though I didn’t recognise it, the same part of me that could smell the insects under the bark of the trees was telling me to eat it.

I broke a piece off with a shaking, inhuman hand and brought it to my mouth. Through the blood and sap I could taste it. It was cold and bitter and slightly peppery. Not particularly pleasant, but in my current situation, I could hardly care.

After agonizing minutes, my throat and lungs began to clear. I could breath. Some of the strength returned to my protesting limbs. I tried to get up, but felt dizzy, and fell.

My head began to spin. My vision blurred. My sense of smell amplified again, and I was briefly stunned. I could feel the pulsating life in the trees and earth around me. I could feel the stars, and taste the cold blackness between them.

I could feel the place where the roots of the trees connected. It reached up from the blackness towards me, and locked me in its twisting embrace. I screamed until I could no longer hear myself. It spoke to me, and told me its secrets.

It became too much to bare. I left my body entirely and joined it in the earth. I let my soul become bound in its cage of roots.

My consciousness snapped back into my body. I scrambled to my feet and ran. Ran in no particular direction. Ran to put as much space as possible between myself, and the place where some part of me was imprisoned in the arms of the foest.

I was forced to stop when my chest tore open. I toppled over. Branches spilled out of the gaping cavity. Dark, hot blood soaked into the ground. Vines and leaves grew out of my flesh.

Monday, April 15, 2013

On Writing Nightmare Fuel

I fancy myself a writer, despite the fact that I have no books published, or even written. Writing is how I occupy my time. I think of stories, write them down, and share the few I like here. Most of my stories are dark. Most have a supernatural or fantastic element. Most are rather surreal. I suppose they could be called "nightmare fuel".

In many advice articles, aspiring writers of horror are told to draw heavily on disturbing elements of our own world. "Best avoid the supernatural completely", they say. "After all, what is scarier than the horrors occurring around us every day."

If the writer's goal is to shock and horrify the reader as much and as quickly as possible, this is probably good advice. But, if the writer's goal is to evoke a sense of atmosphere, create a richer range of emotions than simple discomfort and disgust, and create an experience that the reader will enjoy and reflect on, I advise a different approach.

Look at the works of Neil Gaiman. Not just his surreal road-trip Neverwhere and his dark epic American Gods, but also his books meant for children - namely Coraline. He explores hidden worlds lurking just beyond the edges of our perception ... the kind we all know must exist on some deep visceral level. If written in a convincing way, hidden worlds and dark things lurking in the shadows can be just as convincing and engaging as any real-life horror. Moreover, they can work with a wider range of aesthetics and imagery.

I suppose I can't be considered an effective horror writer, because my top priority is not to scare and horrify. I doubt anyone has ever felt scared, or deeply shocked, when reading something I've written. I don't like to run on shock value. Instead, I create atmosphere. I think of absurd, unrealistic, creepy images. I'm currently working on a story where someone painfully transforms into a tree. This isn't going to scare anyone. But, hopefully, people will enjoy it. They will get caught up in the narrative. They will enjoy the odd, chilling imagery.

My favorite tales of horror are not the ones that have left me feeling the most shaken. I tend not to enjoy those. My favorites are the ones that have interesting, creative setups. The ones that conjure (darkly) entertaining images. The ones that make me see familiar things in new ways.

We read fiction to escape from reality. We read fiction to speculate  and to explore ideas that could never play out in real life. We read fiction to stretch our imaginations and gaze into another world. Why should horror fiction, "nightmare fuel", be any different? Fantasy can be dark, evocative, and engaging - when it is written in an internally consistent and convincing way.