From Funnel to Freebooters

Long time, no update. Busy busy busy, etc.

In the hours not consumed by my day job, I’ve been editing and laying out the main rulebook for Stonetop, Jeremy Strandberg’s bespoke Iron-Age fantasy RPG that ties adventuring to community-building. Currently, the main book clocks in at 250+ pages, and Jeremy is cranking away at the remaining few chapters. We’ll be kickstarting the whole thing once all of the content is in place and a substantial portion of the art has been commissioned.

Speaking of which, this past month Jeremy and I both got very excited because, after searching for an artist for over a year, we found the right person for the job. Her name is Lucie Arnoux, and here’s a spriggan-y taste of the work she’s starting to turn in:

I think my favorite part of the indie self-publishing thing is hiring artists, giving them fairly simple directions (“he’s a small mischievous humanoid of fae origin, I imagine him made of wicker”), and then being surprised and delighted by what they turn in. Lucie is doing a wonderful job, and Stonetop is going to look great thanks to her.

In other news, I’m sorry to report that Tales From the Sodden Reach, our online Freebooters campaign, has ended with a whimper. It didn’t really even end, it just dropped off into the ether, thanks to the (expected) challenges of coordinating the schedules of busy folks across different time zones. I’m actually quite sad, since I was  really looking forward to seeing if the PCs could safely escort a herd of crystal-encrusted cattle back to civilization, and there were a number of fun surprises waiting for them in the wings…

Farewell shaggy valuisa, we hardly knew ye. (drawing by Jan Burger)

The good news is that I just started a new campaign, which I’m calling From Funnel to Freebooters. We’re playtesting the new “funnel” rules for the 2nd edition of Freebooters on the Frontier, wherein a bunch of level-0 villagers get in over their heads, and the survivors (if any) go on to become full-fledged level-1 characters. Our first session was just villager and settlement generation, and you can see it here:

I’m super-excited to see how this turns out, and afraid for the villagers. I already care about them too much.

One thing we tried this first session was to draw a collaborative map using the Zoom whiteboard tools. They were a little wonky, but it worked out okay and got the job done. Here’s what we came up with in-game:

Of course that would not suffice for me in the long run, so during my prep time I translated our scribbles into this:

For those following along at home, I’m adapting the adventure Legends Are Made, Not Born, by Chris Doyle to give these villagers a run for their silver pieces. It’s got a classic feel, and like all Goodman Games adventures it has nice variety, good internal logic, and the potential to become very deadly. By asking a bunch of framing questions near the end of this first session, I was able to customize the content to suit these first steps of collaborative world-building. I had never done that before, and I think it worked quite well to make this pre-published adventure feel like a natural extension of our (vaguely Finnish) setting.

Finally, I won the Vermont Book Award this past weekend. Did not see that coming.

Freebooters on the Frontier 2e playtest update

This past week I completed another edit of the basic rules for the 2nd edition of Freebooters on the Frontier, my attempt to recreate my personal experience of playing OD&D in 1978 with new-school mechanics. Along with this revision, I made a pass at the culture and settlement generation process which I’ve been envisioning for a while, which I will discuss at greater length below. The page design on these parts feels close to final, and over the next few weeks I’ll be updating the other playtest files (Beasts & Booty, Plumb the Depths, playbooks, etc.) to match. If you want to check any of this stuff out, feel free to download and take the game for a spin yourself. Here are the current playtest files. Be warned that these are just the essential rules, with no explanation;  you’ll need to know how Dungeon World or other PbtA games work in order to make sense of it all. I’d love to hear what you think.

Placeholder cover

Even as I recognize that the culture and settlement generation stuff takes Freebooters a big step away from its previous, minimalist iteration, I’m excited by the possibilities, both for creating interesting content on the fly and for facilitating prep between sessions.

Applying the “nested” approach to regional notation and organization that I introduced in The Perilous Wilds to cultures, settlements, factions, and NPCs may seem like an obvious move, but it took me a while to get there. The big shift in this case is how the alignment and values of a prevailing culture may affect its subordinate parts, and the way in which those parts interact to generate hooks and dramatic possibilities all on their own. The best way to illustrate what I mean is to create a culture, settlement, faction, and NPCs here from scratch. You can follow along using the current draft.

First, I choose Albanian as the linguistic basis for naming things in this incipient culture, and because I want it to be one of the main human cultures in my campaign I don’t roll for a random originating species.

A roll of 6 on the Cultural Alignment table gives me neutral—this means that any settlement, faction, or individual who represents the culture’s ruling authority will also be neutral, and skews the alignment of non-authority entities toward neutral. While reducing a vast spectrum of worldviews to the 5 alignments seems simplistic, the interaction between those various entities creates a lot of nuance and unexpected texture. Alignment serves as a quick and broad summary of a worldview, but a given entity (culture, settlement, faction, or individual NPC) becomes complex and interesting thanks to its context and constituent parts. Coupled with the fact that in the latest update to the basic rules a PC can shift alignment at the end of a game session, the 5-alignment system has become much more flexible than it would at first appear.

Two rolls on the neutral column of the Values table give me a 3“balance” and a 12“roll 1d10 on chaotic.” Rolling 1d10 on the chaotic column gives me “celebration.” Noting balance and celebration as the culture’s core values, I move on to Cultural Profile and roll 8, 6, 5, 7: its sizable (possessing 3 features), enjoys a comfortable economy, has a capable military, and a resigned overall populace. For the 3 Cultural Features I get “renowned terrain (woodland/jungle),” “renowned faction (revolutionary/subversive),” and “signature tradition (public space).”

Time to take a moment to step back and look for connections. The picture comes together pretty quickly: this culture developed in a jungle environment, and although it may cover several regions of varying terrain, the primary terrain is jungle. What is it about the jungle that makes it such a well-known aspect of the place? I’m going to say that its incredibly lush, often shrouded in mist due to the humidity, and in possession of some truly gigantic trees.

Considering “balance” and “celebration” in relation to the signature tradition involving “public space,” I decide that every settlement of size is built in a ring around a central greenspace or commons where jungle flora is allowed to thrive. These common areas are considered vital to the balance between civilization and the wilderness, and serve as sites for ritual celebrations of this balance. I want a name for these spaces, and look up how “green heart” translates into Albanian: zemra jeshile. Let’s shorten that to “heart:” zemër.

The last thing to consider is that this land is also renowned for a revolutionary or subversive faction. Perhaps the society-wide emphasis on balance has created an economic system where material wealth is redistributed according to the individual needs of the citizens, but a revolutionary faction has arisen with the goal of concentrating wealth in the hands of the most “worthy.” Although their long-term goal might be to overthrow the government, in the near term they are simply seizing wealth by force; a growing army of bandits with political aspirations. Let’s call them the Golden Hands.

Great, I have a loose overall idea of how this culture operates. I can embellish and expand upon it as I wish as the campaign progresses, but right now the idea of a jungle civilization with ring-shaped settlements and a revolutionary army of gold-hungry guerillas is a good visual to work with. Time to give this kingdom a name. How does “Land of Balance” translate? Tokë e bilancit. Too long. I shorten it to Bilancit.

Next, just for fun, I’ll create a settlement within this culture. On the Settlement Size table I roll a hamlet, and using the column for Bilancit’s prevailing alignment of neutral on the Settlement Alignment table, I roll a 3: lawful. So this small community differs from the overall culture by placing more emphasis on law and order. Rolling 1 feature and 1 problem on the Hamlet tables, I get “noted landmark (statue/shrine/menhir)” and “shortage (water).” I don’t even have a map on which to place Bilancit yet, but these rolls make me decide that some part of the kingdom is desert, and this community resides there. Perhaps it grew up next to an oasis, the water supply of which has diminished in recent times and limited the settlement’s growth. The landmark is a shrine to a lawful god in the Bilancit pantheon, to whom the locals pay homage in hopes that the water will flow freely once again. This place needs a name, maybe “Law-Water,” or “Oasis,” or “Dry Spring.” Ligji i Ujit, Oazë, or Pranverë të Thatë. I like the first one, but choose to compress it to “Ligujit.”

I want to know more about the people of Ligujit. Who are they? What is their relation to the Bilancit values of balance and celebration? A hamlet is comprised of just a handful of dwellings, so I decide that all of its residents together comprise a faction, and they look to a single leader. The rules state that the lead authority of a settlement shares the settlement’s alignment, so I know this person is lawful. Starting with this leader, I roll up the four most prominent inhabitants of Ligujit. Rolling NPCs is straightforward except when it comes to alignmentin this case, I’ll roll everyone’s alignment (except the leader) on the lawful column of the NPC Alignment table. I generate all of their names using the Albanian name generator at the amazing Fantasy Name Generators site, and interpret occupation rolls according to the context (e.g., the result “innkeeper/tavernkeeper becomes “cantina proprietor”).

FACTION: Hamlet of Ligujit (lawful)

Miror Ciftja (cantina proprietor; lawful (loyalty); leader; disciplined, courteous, reckless; notable chin, ponderous, charismatic, paranoid)

Tonja Hamiti (desert guide; evil (fear); aggressive, antagonistic, wrathful; squints, notable clothing, traumatized, rebel)

Nanda Mujushi (religious zealot; chaotic (disruption); fair, antagonistic, obsessive; doughy, imposing, taciturn, cultist)

Enid Aliu (cartographer; neutral (luck); bold, wasteful; missing teeth, tall, reclusive, fugitive).

And from these four I can spin the drama of the desert hamlet of Ligujit. Poor Miror must be barely holding the place together, given that two of the three next most prominent residents are an evil rebel and a chaotic cultist. No wonder he’s paranoid! Tonja is fed up with having to share the money she earns for her guide work with the rest of Ligujit and yearns to join the Golden Hands, but she’s going to try to scare the locals out of their valuables before cutting out. The sleepy-looking, apparently harmless Nanda secretly worships one of the Bilancit gods of chaos, and is plotting to destroy the shrine that stands at the edge of the oasis pool. Enid the mapmaker is the only person of note Miror might be able to call upon if the situation worsens, and even then he might take some convincing.

Out of a series of random rolls,  I’ve easily worked up a portrait of Ligujit. When the PCs pass through, they might just camp out for a night before moving on. But if they need the services of a guide and/or mapmaker as they search for ruins in the sands, they may end up learning more about this place. And if they wake up one day to find the shrine toppled and the freshwater spring reduced to a trickle, they’ll have a special kind of problem on their hands.

So that’s an example of how generating the various nested components of a culture can result in a matrix rich with possibility. I’m pretty happy with the basic procedure and the way the various parts relate; I just need to add a few sections (pantheon generation!) and refine the contents of some of these tables.

Sense of Place

I’ve always loved dramatic narratives that unfold in a mundane context, because of the way the believable little details of a familiar place make it all seem so much more possible. The suburban development still under construction in E.T.; the motels, diners, and gas stations that populate the second season of Fargo; the Pacific Northwest as depicted in My Own Private Idaho. Many of the more memorable one-shots I’ve run were set in real-world locales, where specific aspects of an actual place and time give everything a certain verisimilitude. Among those were a session of Bootleggers that played out over the smuggling corridor between Quebec and Providence, RI during Prohibition, and a game of Spirit of ’77 set in Atlantic City during the age of disco.

In early December of 2018 I ran a session of PSI*RUN, Meguey Baker’s excellent game about renegade psychics, and—hoping to conjure that sense of drama juxtaposed against the mundane—employed a method I’ve used a couple of times now. PSI*RUN always starts with a crash, where the vehicle transporting the imprisoned, amnesiac PCs takes a spill from which the PCs can escape, thus beginning their adventure.

While everyone was thinking about their characters during setup, I opened Google Earth on my laptop and zoomed in to a random spot in Montana. I chose Montana because I grew up there, and I wanted some of that wide-open highway feel you get in the eastern part of the state. I quickly found a stretch of US-12 that fit the bill, and used that as a starting point. Sometimes, if I find a specific image or detail that captures the vibe of a place, I’ll show it to the players, but usually I describe what I see and let them build the scene in their minds. In this case, I had decided it was the middle of winter, so I kept the image to myself and described the snowy landscape and blizzard conditions as they climbed out of the burning wreckage of the prison van.

The first scene ended with one of the PCs taking over the consciousness of a passerby and driving everyone to the nearest small town in her commandeered Honda Civic. I followed US-12 south to Interstate 94, then east until I hit the next small town: Rosebud, Montana. I zoomed in for a closer look:

Rosebud, Montana.

The PC who had possessed the 19-year-old driver had all of her memories and knowledge, and decided that she lived in Rosebud, so the group sought shelter at her parents’ house. In Google Earth, I dropped the little orange person onto the map and spent a few seconds looking around from the street-level view until I found a likely home:

From there, the middle and final acts of the game played out, with me using the Google Earth street view to describe details and aspects of the physical environment that either added color to the proceedings or directly impacted their tactical decision-making as their pursuers closed in. It was a fun game, made all the more memorable by using real-world reference points.

During the Steam Winter Sale last week I picked up Far Cry 5, because I enjoy open-world exploration in video games and have become increasingly impressed by the ability of developers like Ubisoft to create rich environments. For triple-A titles like Far Cry, dozens of people work together to craft the assets and design the maps, refining every corner of vast virtual spaces down to the placement of an oil can on a workbench. Most impressive from this perspective to me so far have been the worlds of Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. which attempt to recreate the worlds of ancient Egypt and Greece, respectively. There’s a lot for tabletop GMs to learn from the way those two games depict landscape and human settlements in particular, but that’s a subject for another post.

After playing Far Cry 5 for a while, I noticed the “arcade” option that allows you to play on maps created by other users, and spent a few hours dabbling with those, appreciating the enormous range of contributions from seasoned level designers to what I can only presume to be 11-year-old psychopaths (or average American boys, take your pick) who cover their maps with impaled corpses and lakes of blood. And then I made the mistake of opening the map editor myself.

I’m a die-hard worldbuilder. Since I first played D&D in 1978, I’ve left a wake of fantasy geographies, half-baked fictional pantheons, and unfinished treatises on imaginary cultures. I can’t resist the pull of a blank map. So when I opened up the Fary Cry 5 editor, I fell right into it. The game happens to be set in Montana, where I lived until the age of 10, so without even thinking I started to recreate Rosebud.

For someone who spent 22 years of his life trying to imagine what Weimar Berlin was like, it’s been a fascinating exercise. I’m always telling my students at the Center for Cartoon Studies that drawing from life is a way of understanding the world, and in this virtual space I’m engaged in the same activity—paying attention to the way a utility pole leans to one side, how many derelict automobiles a person can cram into a side yard, the shape of a mud puddle. I find these mundane details, juxtaposed by design and happenstance, endlessly fascinating.

In my experience, if you—as a writer, artist, or GM—can create a believable environment, any moment of incidental action or high drama that unfolds in that space has a greater resonance. Details arranged properly can make an imaginary place feel right in the experience of the reader, observer, or player, helping them to inhabit and remember that place, however briefly. In a 3D virtual space like Far Cry, a a lot of time and effort needs to go into creating those details, but in a tabletop RPG you can create the effect with a few well-chosen words. I’ll post more about how I try to do that in the future.

FREE STUFF: Here are some play sheets I made for the session of PSI*RUN described above. The pdf may look messed up if you open it in a web browser, but should look fine if you download it and open it manually.