Friday, August 28, 2015

An Interview with Zzarchov Kowolski

One of my favorite guilty blogging pleasures has been using interviews as an excuse to have conversations with game designers whose work I enjoy. A guilty pleasure I hope to indulge a bit more as I get into the home stretch of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes project.

Today's interview is with Zzarchov Kowolski, one of a handful of gaming folk that share a single walkable community called Canada (or so I am told). On again/off again in various Google Plus games I have run into Zzarchov and found him to be hilarious, anarchic and creative, but it's his adventure design that I admire the most, in the main because he eschews the D&D as a Straight Guy school of thought, never fails to write a memorable adventure site, and doesn't seem afraid to experiment with out-of-the-box forms.

Hill Cantons: How did you get involved with all this? What drove you into game design and publishing? What have you found to be most challenging about DIY design/publishing? 

Zzarchov Kowolski: NGR (Neoclassical Geek Revival) was my own collection of house rules to run a game in the vein I wanted to run (a focus on stealth, more gameable priest mechanics, more explicit hitpoint mechanics).  At a certain point, especially when bringing new players on board,  it became easier to just teach it as its own thing.  So I began to work upon streamline and better plugging things in together.

Eventually I figured I may as well make this work available to others in case they could provide any feedback or playtesting. Google+ and Constantcon really kicked that into high gear by letting me run with multiple groups which consisted almost entirely of GM’s in their own right, which is a very unique opportunity.  People like Kyrinn S. Eis, Tim Shorts, and Ian Burns were really helpful during the first release.

From there I just kept putting out more and more things.  

HC: What are some of the important things you learned about honing your craft? Did the lessons come in big leaps or bit by bit?

ZK: Once you’ve run through the gauntlet the first time it gets much much easier for the second release.  As a corollary your first release is going to be pretty bad when you look back at in in five years no matter what.  If it didn’t it would mean you hadn’t learned anything in the last five years.  Also, invest heavily in good layout and try to find someone who is good at it if you don’t have the skill.

The greatest challenge boils down to scheduling.  Things always take longer when you get a bigger and bigger team. DIY publishing is very few people’s day jobs and the work has to navigate around people’s schedules.  The more people who are needed at any given point the more likely that someone will experience a nasty dose of life and will need to slow the project to a halt. Keeping small teams for any individual project and/or a hefty dose of patience is really helpful.

HC: Dear lord, tell me about it. What are some other ways you find to cope or work around that kind of delay chain?

ZK: There are limited things you can do to change delays unless you want to become a taskmaster boss or a demanding client  (which I do not aspire to be during my off periods). Finding a good pool of talented freelancers that you have a good relationship with will do wonders. A pool is key,  life will happen to people and if one person is involved in everything you are doing then when life happens to them everything grinds to a halt for everyone.  That in turn means you might not be able to keep things afloat in the interim, and you’d just end up screwing them over even more by not having anything for them to work on when their life calms down.

HC: Many of your adventures feature procedural experiment, innovative bits that set them apart from traditional adventure design. Scenic Dunnsmouth had the randomly-changing, ever-replayable map, Under the Waterless Sea (a personal favorite), alongside its fresh, fun Polynesian setting and weird/beautiful pearl-based economy, had a dynamic mechanic for changing the adventure if you switched sides and aided the Deep Ones. Gem-Prison of Zardax (your most recent baby) has an intriguing series of puzzle diagrams. Can you talk some about those experiments. What were you aiming for? How did they work out in writing and most importantly at the table?

ZK: Whenever I write an adventure for publishing I am trying to focus on a specific reason for the adventure to exist on people’s shelves and be used over and over again.  Scenic Dunnsmouth was designed to showcase how you can build replayable adventures for use with the same game group each campaign without getting stale.

I have run Dunnsmouth probably 8 or 10 times, with the same group at least 4 times. I always stick a version of it somewhere in any game I run.  My home game is a post apocalyptic one at the moment, and you can bet Dunnsmouth is there somewhere.  One of the games with my home group didn’t involve the “main adversary” of the adventure.  They burned the town to the ground trying to find out where “they” were.  It was great when I told them after the fact.

Under the Waterless Sea was on the one hand a way to showcase how to handle the impact of PC shenanigans on large scale events

HC: By doing a weighted point system?

Yes, but also in having a number of different “commando” actions (including some that just worked out as wartime looting) that would have an impact.  That makes it easier to fairly adjudicate what happens without letting your own moral compass shade reactions to PC generated chaos. That is all secondary though, as far more importantly to me it was a way to make a “water level” that everyone doesn’t hate.  

In another example Thulian Echoes was showing how to replace the dreaded GM infodump for past expeditions. The ability to “play through” the past dungeon delve in the past is a repeatable way to make research into adventurers of your campaign world’s past something more interesting than a sage roll. It also lets you generate some neat consequences to surprise the GM a bit.  Much like Dunnsmouth,  I think there needs to be some interesting gameplay mechanics for the GM.

Similarly, Lamentations of the Gingerbread Princess was an alternate wish system,  The Gem Prison of Zardax is a showcase of how you can have a dungeon spanning set of interlocking puzzles. In addition to its spoiler based goal,  The Pale Lady was also a good test of how much of a song’s lyrics I can get into an adventure without anyone noticing (a lot).  That last one is really more of an author game mechanic.

HC: You've also experimented with trying different funding models. With Under the Waterless Sea you attempted to try and use something like the Steam early access model. Tell me about that. Did it work? Would you try it again?

ZK: The “Buystarter” for Under the Waterless Sea worked,  but it was still a tempered success.  On the one hand it no doubt might have exploded larger if I could have allowed a kickstarter process where people could pledge higher than the initial low amount (I had more than a few people asking how they could do this),  but it also had very low risk.  No one was going to be left waiting for 4 years wondering if they would ever get their adventure (I am not immune to the risk of life happening after all).  I might end up doing it again for a small release.

It ironically hasn’t done much better than my ill-advised surprise release for The Gem Prison of Zardax where I posted about it once on April 1st and then just released it later with no additional pre-release announcements. 

HC: Word of mouth and the power of reviews—especially by “opinion leaders” (for lack of a better word)--seem hugely important to micropublishers.

ZK: Absolutely, there are a lot of things released and no one has time to read them all.  The opinions of trusted reviewers are a big sway to most people.

HC: What kind of reservations do you have about Kickstarter and crowdfunding in general?

ZK: To follow up on the earlier questions,  life happens.  Delays happen. With your own project, you and you alone as responsible for those delays.  Once you take someone's money,  you now have other stakeholders that you have obligations to.  It doesn’t help that the project can easily spiral beyond your control to manage it.  To pick, pack, and ship 50 books is a lot different than 1,000 books.

HC: So what's next? You have a revision of NGR coming down the pike? Anything else?

ZK: I have an updated layout and art version of NGR ready to go,  but I am looking to go for a larger project of breaking it down into a core and full rule book.  I might go for the dreaded kickstarter for that project, with a guaranteed release of at least the updated layout and art versions.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Quick(ish) Tour of Revoca Town

At first sight Revoca Town appears to be an atomized mess of bleak, narrow-windowed tower-houses and muddy alleys sullenly and suspiciously walled off from each other.

Admittedly, repeated glances do not disabuse one of that impression.

The town is, in point of fact, a brooding self-confined mess of mutual hostility, a sorry state only reinforced by centuries of Pikra-Svar, a peculiar local form of blood-feud characterized by ritualized passive-aggression and baleful stares. 

An elaborately-embossed beech post-board--weekly festooned with a host of veiled slights, oblique satire and faint praise scrawled anonymously on small pieces of vellum--plays central stage for Pikra-Svar feuds. Rankled talk of such messages typically dominate conversation for weeks (if not months) over dinners taken in the dark shadows of the windowless halls, ultimately culminating with feigning even knowledge of the physical existence of the rival individual or clan.

Fortunately for the traveler, years of near-universal repressed neighborly hate has left each towerhoused clan intensely eager for outside company. Revoca as such is unique among the towns of the Hill Cantons in not only not wanting to utterly fleece newcomers, but in actively competing to host travelers. That is...for roughly a week in which time they become too familiar and find themselves suddenly and viciously put down on the board.

People of Note
Brako the Heinous. Just outside of town sits Weapons and Shit, a one-stop hut/craft shop/dojo run by Brako, an ancient, not-yet-set-on-fire 41-year-old Chaos Monk. He's got Himyari throwing stars, shit on chains, nunchuks, kamas, fucking pommel horses. All that shit.

Princess Zuzu, Girl Wizard. The potent, precocious and precious Zuzu will trade and cast spells if you sit for tea with her and wear a party hat (and throw in some change for her next admiral's uniform). Totally not a real princess. 7th level User of Magic.

Svart the Woodcutter. Tight-lipped Xamuran rover of the mythic wilderness to the east. Though he looks like he would kill you soon as look at you, locals say he's the man to hire as a guide (50 gold suns or a 1/3rd share a session). 1st level Ranger. Hp: 8. Big ass axe.

Father Hog/Sister Sow. An immense, centuries-old, ring-eyed talking pig runs religious services in the community. Switching between the roles of a gruff but jovial, mustard-yellow-berobed Father Hog half the week and the world-wise, maternal, rouged, midnight-blue-gowned Sister Sow the rest, the pig manages to serve both the local Sundome and softshell-heretical Evening Star Lodge.

That's one dedicated pig, pa.

Places of Note
Our Lady of the Not-Lake. While most outsiders might recognize this as a flower-festooned, “country”-aesthetic pagan shrine to the Pahr lake godlet, Mojca (pronounced MOY-tsa) of the Tarn, locals will correct you, maintaining that this is, in fact, Mojca the Creek-Goddess. The narrow, broken-edged lapis-lazuli-covered pedestal the primly-painted idol rises out of seems to have been at one time a large circular (perhaps “lake-like”?) surface.

The Void Lodge. A rather large and tolerated community of heretics live in Revoca. Worshipers of Habeka the Lady are mostly members of the moderate Evening Star Society, but even members of the mystic sect the Starry Void have some aboveground representation here in the form of an underground lodge.

Which I acknowledge is a confusing way to put it.

Throvemesto. Miners make up a distinct community just to the west of Revoca proper. Behind a wooden stockade sit rows of tidy, stone dormotories. The miners, proud working folk, disdain both the “bow thugs” of management and the residents of Revoca who they view as insufferably "mental."

Hrad Morva. Perched up on the high mound north of town is the strangely contrasting sight of the Lady's castle. The bulk of an ancient earthen hill-fort jostles with the new-fangled chateau.
Places to Stay
Everywhere (see the first section above). Start with the better families with the sturdy well-kept towers near the market and then work your west through the increasingly immiserated clans. Visitors who have attained a Rank greater than that of Third and exhibiting a manner less than base are invited to dine and dwell with the most noble Knyaz Draga III “the Twitterlight" at her castle, Hrad Morva.

Or avoid the whole game (you would, with your coastal elite ways) and stay at the Four Dumplings, a quaint, three-bedroom, tower-inn run by the invasive and saccharine-friendly cat-masked widow Pani Velka. The cost in coins is cheap (5 silver ladies/night), the cost in emotional comfort immeasurable.

Places to Shop
It's simple, you can't buy anything but the barest of staples until the bi-weekly markets on Drunkday and Moonsday. Fortunately an aspiring border ruffian or murderhold procurement specialists wandering the rickety market stalls and charming refuse-decorated grounds can find an array of tools of the trade for purchase. There is always a chance of finding strange and enscorcelled items strangely on a random-seeming weekly-fleeting basis.

Revoca Town Fun Facts
Xam. Defying easy stereotype are the Xam, a tight-lipped, industrious and physically distinctive group of locals with dull-golden skin that seems to glisten sparkly in the sun. They as, a race, seem inclined to humble, physically-oriented positions such as shepherd, water-fetcher, pigkeeper or woodcutter. Uniformly curly bronze-red hair and gray-eyed with a look of perpetual menace, really they would kill you as soon as look at you.

The Xamuran Whistle. A regional dialect made up of  high and low whistles developed by Xam shephards, naturally expressing a limited vocabulary and range. Most all native Revocans can at least whistle a few cutting tones.  

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Misadventure, Mishap and Exploration Challenges in D&D Wilderness

I knew the ladder was a Bad Idea. My fortysomething mind microcalculated risk and sagely pshawed it long before my ankle got caught between the doubled up last rungs.

But I had passed by earlier in my long meandering walk and it nagged at an earlier me, defying me to go up and see just what was on top of an aging, abandoned industrial block of a building. Anticlimax that's what. Four seconds of panic then a “hey idiot twist your leg” moment followed by a totally-not-worth-it pile of broken glass, a handful of steel vent ports and an obstructed view of asphalt wastes and new lofts.

Still I am glad I did it. I can even bend this back to elfgame relevance. But first some shaggy dog.
It's the summer of 1993. I, along with a gaggle of earnest, hoodied, patched and gamey-smelling anarcho-punk rawk kids, have been busy wearing out our welcome at a Madison coop house of earnest, bright-eyed local hippy-vegan kids. Aaron, a lanky (and yes gamey) buzz-headed kid from the Bay Area is holding court about the trains he hopped to get here: the long hours (days even) waiting in a yard for a "hot" express train, what kind of car makes a terribly uncomfortable ride, what it's like to get chased off by security (the “bulls”) etc. 

It's all misadventure, but I am instantly drawn in. We talk for a while and exchange piles of collage-suck xeroxed zines. His opens up a decade of doors for me. Between the shaggy dog stories of everyday life in the Bay Area hardcore scene and sweet, funny poems about Punk Rock Love, there were all kinds of misadventures filled with little mishaps. Long accounts of walking tours, most of it trespassing in abandoned industrial, almost all of that just about daylong adventures exploring the urban spaces that we most all just buzz on by.

I guess I gravitate naturally to that kind of exploration and the things that stick in my mind are always framed by some setback: the sapling breaking as I cross the creek, smashing the binding deep in the snow-covered woods on my crosscountry ski, lying in the keel of a boat retching with six-foot swells, watching half my backpacked in food for the week slide down a gorge, watching all my gear float down a creek suddenly engorged over night, running from a group of teens in the great hollow-shelled Detroit railroad hotel, running from security guards inside a shuttered factory, running from what I thought was a bear.
Me inside the Detroit Railroad Hotel circa 1997. 
Watching my dad fish out my brother who has been pulled under by the murderous current, losing my intertube with my dad and brother in a raging Kern river rapids and having to spend the afternoon climbing a mountain in shorts and cheap plastic flip-flops.

That last--which happened when I was still flush in my awkward, rpg-engrossed tween time--gets me to the relevant gaming-related point. I went home and wrote a version of what happened into a dungeon: a mile-wide underground river with some “come drown in me” boats and roaring rapids, whirlpools and secret caves. It was super crude mechanically and railroady but I remember having some kind of Shit that Can Go Wrong table. It probably was my first attempt to do real

Which leads me to my second punchline, maybe one thing that has made wilderness adventuring weak sauce in many D&D presentations is that it doesn't capture mishap well. I mean sure you have the usual beautiful organic misadventures of actual play. The “holy shit, I knew that scattering of bones and high smell of decay was a bad sign...why did we crawl in here” moments.

But generally outside of some mechanics for getting lost, food resource management and the one-off listing of things like rock falls on an encounter chart there isn't a lot of modeling of the horrible, funny things that happen that make the wilds and travel themselves such an adversary.

The closest I have seen to having a good, solid model of environmental challenge was the obscure Heart of the Sunken Lands put out by Midkemia way back when. Worked in there was a whole subsystem where the players had to deal with daily occurrences of such joys as horses going lame, jungle rot, spoiling food, etc.

I know, I know it's not rocket science figuring out these things. Maybe many of you have already homebrewed your own ways to do this (please, do share), read/adapted lifted something from other rpg products or think that it's just not a fun thing to throw into a game (maybe totally valid), but I kind of want to throw in more of that in my wilderness games. 

The wild places should have things, elements that are scarier than just the eight hit dice whozeewhatsee you run into. More ways to model hard gameable resource choices one has to make when an ankle turns, food is suddenly gone, blinding storms or the trail washed out. 

Yes please.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Campaign Reset: Revoca Canton

Summer is a traditional time of experimentation in the eponymous Hill Cantons campaign. Generally that experimentation clusters around opening up a whole new geographic area with some tinkering around the edges of things that strike my fancy (the Feral Shore phase two years ago around this time coming into being with my conscious experiment with a pure wilderness area with super-dense hexstocking and an unobtrusive domain game).

This summer I wanted to broaden the traditional Tuesday night on Google Plus stable of (absolutely great) players with some new/old friends and reset the campaign a bit from its pushing 8th level power range back to my old baseline low-level game (at least for a bit, the object being to integrate back into that campaign in a couple months). Thus Revoca Canton is born.
Click ye. 
What is this place?
Nestled up near the northeastern corner of Marlinko Canton in the Weird-haunted, barely-borderlands backhills is the smallest and (perhaps) oddest of the Hill Cantons, Revoca. Indeed it's a patch of humanity so tiny and remote that its government isn't even centered in the place. A modest little, quaintly-gabled townhouse in Marlinko harboring two ancient, retired swineherds cum public officials makes up the entirety of the cantonal Rada (council), tax collection and other administrative functions in one cranky, “it's cold in here” epicenter.

Townhouses aside the real day-to-day governing of the canton is just where it has always been with: the Lord of Revoca. Or rather, Lady, as the seat has not been held by a man for over 17 generations. Somehow, miraculously even, succession always comes back to a female of the Morva family. The closest to producing a male heir being three generations ago when the then Knyaz, Vlanka the Knob-Toed, begat three sons—only to see each die in an abrupt freakish accident—and her niece Draga I succeed her. Currently the title is held by the winsome and hard-nosed, Knyaz Draga III “the Twitterlight", who at 17 remains scandalously unwed.
What is Worth Seeing/Avoiding?
The Tarn. A cold, dark uplands lake said to have harbored its own Old Pahr nymph-godlet, Mojca, back in the hoary day. The locals in Revoca Town refuse to acknowledge the lake's existence:stubbornly refusing to address questions about it and going as far as to build a tall obscuring palisade to block its view.

The Stuz. While the Tarn is utterly ignored the thick old-growth woodlands to east are at least acknowledged—and deeply feared. Ancient beeches mix with sour chestnut, gooseflesh vines, large-leaved lime, gnome pine and a startling profusion of hypervividly-colored fungi (many said to hold sorcerous powers) on its murky, trunk-littered forest floor.

The Stuzika (or Stuz in local slang) is mythic wilderness staying always at an almost evening hour and an eternal early autumn. The Stuz is said to not just have a single, terrifying Leši (great, hairy, green-eyed woodland spirits like one would find in a sensible forest, but no less than three of wildly varying temperaments—all ruled over by a “silvan czar,” a venerable and highly erratic Leshy overlord. Travelers are advised to keep slices of salted and buttered bread at hand as these offerings are reputed to be much beloved.
They would kill you, soon as look at you.
Vlkodlak Reserve. When an infant is born with teeth--feet first--in the Hill Cantons, the parents shudder. Inevitably despite any supplications to our dear, inestimable Sun Lord, such an unlucky babe will find themselves shifting into the bestial human-eyed wolf-like creature called the vlkodlak. In times past great maroon bands of such shapeshifters would roam these backhills rudely fostering plagues among cattle, gobbling up children and urinating into any open container visible.

The great scout and wolf-fighter Nit Arseson put an to the local menace in a spirited, martial campaign a decade back, corralling these creatures into a picturesquely arid and refreshingly wind-swept strategic hamlet amply protected by march-wardens and inwardly-barbed walls. Local denizens pay in great numbers to watch the Vlkodlaks perform with charmingly morose faces their monthly ritual of peeling off their wolf skins to hang dry on tree branches.
Poor sad Vigbrand
Revoca Town. Town being a very generous term for this largish village of slate and dung-mortared towerhouses, it does fill out the role of a market town with its twice-a-week open-market. Improbably enough it is rumored that once a month when the two months are high that even Lesi (appearing no higher than a blade of meadow grass when outside their leafy home), spirit-maidens, man-wolves, marsh-witches, dirt-gnomes, chaos-monks and other fell creatures can be seen leisurely ambling among the market stalls and bidding on sheafs of barley, colorful beads, nunchuks and other goods.

Perversely enough, the townsmen maintain a charmingly rustic shrine to Mojca and all water in the town is provided from the Tarn through well-serviced, lead-pipe conduits.

A local “throves of vigbrand” mine, an eye-grating reddish precious stone attributed by legend to the agonizing stabbing death of Vigbrand, a hero-cult aspect of the Sun Lord, ensures a relatively prosperity to this isolated little burgh.

Chaos Monk Monastery. Really one shouldn't make eye contact with them.
Great Aviary of Komius Otmar. Jaromil of Dvec, a journeyman in the Schrimpschongers and Whittlers Guild in Marlinko and descendant of the great hero Adalfuns, was found dead, from apparent suicide, on the Black Altar of Expediency more than two years ago. Without descendants his famous map that shows the location of the lost Great Aviary of Komius Otmar, the crazed Master of Horse of Overking Raginmud XXXII, has become a matter of public record. Interestingly the location is revealed to be just east of Revoca in the ruggedly hilly part of the Stuz.