Those Darn Freewheelin’ Players

I’ve never understood why GMs—particularly newbie GMs, who themselves were players not too long ago—assume that a gaming group will only ever make binary decisions: right and wrong. That the group’s best goal is to follow the one road that takes them to The Plot, and that every other avenue leads to Not The Plot. Maybe it’s because D&D has an odd tendency towards binary results—rolls are on pass/fail basis, no degrees of success, nothing gained on a “close but no cigar.” Maybe it’s just the fear of failure, a new-GM mania where players diverting from a specific sequence of choices is a sign of personal failure. Regardless, it should be an expectation at this point: if you give your players the choice between heading North or going South, you really shouldn’t be surprised when three of them pick Left, two of them pick Purple, and one fucker tries to pick Kumquat.

They’re not trying to destroy the GM’s carefully laid-out plot. They’re not trying to cause chaos and negate all the GM’s hard work and planning. They’re trying to engage the GM’s world. This is players going after things that were brought up in-game, things they were interested enough in to pursue.

Really, don’t even bother giving the players options to choose from. That way lies madness. Accept that the results will be random regardless, and most likely be interesting (in that they can lead to Adventure and Danger and Loot and other cool shit), and leave your questions open-ended. Instead of “Do you go North or South?” ask your players “Where do you go from here?” And then just roll with the results. It’s less frustrating for the GM, less frustrating for the players, fun is had, everyone wins.


My regular D&D game is a case study in this, like a horrible documentary of a new DM’s first crude attempts to maintain a campaign. (To the DM’s credit, he runs a pretty decent beer-and-pretzels game for a guy who’s been out of the hobby for around 30 years.) He comes into situations expecting certain outcomes, and I kind of feel bad for the guy when the group never exactly meets them: rather than following the expectations of the plot or GM, they follow what interests them. Shouldn’t be a surprise, as this is what players do. Things that interest me will get more attention; things that don’t, won’t.

I don’t want to get bogged down by details, but both cases (D&D 5th and Edge of the Empire) had the GM leave very strong hints towards what the next plot-point should be—the expected route we should take to visit Location X/NPC Y/Planet Z. Though, the game was left open with many other avenues, other rumors to follow, other plot hooks, and when we took them, the hammer came down. And hard. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but at least one was pretty clearly a case of the players going off-track and the GM wanting to drag them back to where they were supposed to be using force. It signals to me that the game has some issues where we’re given several opportunities to follow one plot and end up punished for trying to do anything else.

I should note that in both cases, we’re playing canned modules; this goes back to some posts I made late last year on the same topic—riding the rails, trying to maintain a balance between letting players go wild in an open world and having some semblance of an overarching plot to tie things together. I’ve long had a love/hate relationship with canned modules—I lean more towards a “structured sandbox” approach, by which I mean “insert hooks and threads to drive the plot along when player-generated random shit isn’t happening, while riffing off whatever content the players (and their character backgrounds) generate.”

At their best, modules provide an excellent framework and are idea mines. In reality, I have yet to run an adventure module “as-is” in my life—there is always something that ends up tweaked, fudged, or overlooked in order for the group and the module to coexist. With 3.x (and I lump Pathfinder in there), it was balancing encounters to challenge the more CharOp’d players while not overwhelming the others and giving them some roleplay encounters during down-time. With Edge of the Empire, it was adding in NPCs and locations that would crop up whenever the players went beyond the confines of the adventure and tried to interact with things the designers didn’t document, or expect. (Pretty sure they weren’t expecting my players to burn down the camp as a distraction in the speeder race scenario.)


Perhaps that’s why my current GM’s frustrations interest me so: he is firmly of the opinion that you can’t play a canned adventure more than once. I’ve played and ran some of the same adventures several times, and only the general setup or setting was ever the same; it’s usually a different experience every time, because each group approaches things differently. (The second time around, I tend to lay low and play more of a support role, since I’m curious to compare how each group tackles the same path). More to the point, I don’t try to railroad players, as that’s part of my big dislike about canned modules—I run them very fast-and-loose and try to adapt them to the group, and if that means sacrificing some of the written word in exchange for fun, so be it. My DM friend instead tries to force the group to adapt to the adventure.

I wouldn’t call myself a “great” GM, but I have enough experience behind the screen that I see this guy’s frustration—that tone in his voice, the fidgeting around away from the table, the curious surprised “really? are you sure?” when someone heads towards another rumor point instead of the one the book specifies should be next. I feel for him. But a big part of becoming a GM is learning how to let the minor things go, and how to play to the table’s interest, and I kinda hope he’s learning Murphy’s law of combat: no plan survives past contact. There’s plenty of tools in the GM toolbox to help out here—improvisation and winging it, pre-planning all possibilities and making notes on them, learning how to make the plot appeal to each player—and usually, “bringing down the hammer” is the least successful option out there.

A History of Violence – Far Cry 3

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar—sometimes you just want to play a vidya game that’s good-ole-fashioned pure entertainment, something like Blood Dragon or the Shadow Warrior remake. Other times, you may be looking for a more cerebral experience; there’s been a growing trend of first-person shooters that deconstruct or subvert the usual cliches (Spec Ops: The Line comes to mind) or otherwise offer a more intellectual approach (such as the multi-layered mindfuck of Bioshock: Infinite).

Far Cry 3 finally answers the long-standing question, “Can a game where you shoot pirates and set fire to dangerous animals also have a complex psychological element?”


The game subverts the standard shooter experience through its protagonist, Jason Brody. No hardened badass here, Jason is a rich-kid layabout from Los Angeles who came to poverty- (and pirate-) stricken Rook Island looking for cheap thrills. He didn’t expect to be captured by drug-smuggling thugs, nor to see his brother die in the escape attempt. “I’ve… never fired a gun before,” he tells his tutor, a drunk from Liberia who replies with, “There’s a first time for everything.” But before the credits roll he will fire many guns, and stab a lot of people, and blow up a wide number of vehicles; “I’ve killed a lot of people” Jason states bleakly in the end narration.

This is the rags-to-riches equivalent in the shooter world: a scared rich kid on vacation who rises to become a bloodied warrior. You start with no knowledge of guns, no skills, and only one weapon slot, but your rise to power will change all of that. The natives latch onto Jason as their hero, seeing in him the salvation to their oppressive pirate problem. Yet something’s not right with Jason; his friends express apprehension at what he’s become: covered in tattoos (representing unlocked skills and powerups) and loaded down with weapons (purchased with the ill-gotten gains looted from dead pirates). He undergoes several long dream-sequences through the island’s many narcotics, even fighting back an ink monster reborn from native legend.

Expect to see a lot of similar vistas.
Expect to see a lot of similar vistas.

And Jason may be something of an unreliable, self-aggrandizing narrator—a twenty-five-year-old kid who’s blowing his deeds out of proportion, lost in a haze of blood and drugs and the Hollywood hero he’s become. We see the game through his eyes, watching his simultaneous rise as a warrior and descent from civilization, see his take on his white-man’s-burden experience… and it subverts a lot of the old cliches by becoming them. He almost single-handedly frees the oppressed natives—for example, his native allies only arrive conveniently after he’s cleared out an enemy encampment. He wins the heart of the native princess who becomes his lover, the “white boy” saving the poor hapless natives… until you take the second of two endings, where you realize she was neither as helpless as Jason depicted her as, nor did she need his help as much as he needed hers.

Meanwhile, the gameplay is what Far Cry 2 should have been—the respawning enemy encampments are no longer annoyances but central game elements; the vast wilderness is no longer barren, instead teeming with flora to harvest, fauna to hunt, pirates to kill, and interesting vistas to discover. There’s a smattering of local NPCs giving out quests. And no more of that malaria malarky. Gone, too, are degrading weapons. It’s a game you can get lost in—out of immersion and a desire to explore, as opposed to getting lost in Far Cry 2 due to the empty wilderness and repetitive missions. One of the reviews compared Far Cry 3 “like Skyrim with guns,” and the description isn’t half bad—if future games in the series welded more RPG elements to such a solid story, we’d have pretty much my ideal shooter. As it is, it ranks as one of the best buys of this era of electronic gaming.


In and among the pretentious Alice in Wonderland quotes, which lack a frame of reference in-game aside from Jason’s recurring drug trip flashbacks, there’s a deep and layered plot about postcolonialism and “going native,” perspective and unreliable narrators, the ethical perils of becoming a bloodstained hero in a shooter game, and the possibility of redemption after you’ve slain fifty thousand pirates. It’s also a game where a side-quest is to hunt a pack of feral dogs with rocket-propelled grenades; another has you incinerate three man-eating leopards with a flamethrower. So, pretty much made of win.

Appendix N: The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson

broken-swordPoul Anderson shows up on Appendix N several times; I’ve already dealt with his Three Hearts and Three Lions,  and late last year I pounced on The Broken Sword. Between the two, and despite being the earlier novel, I think The Broken Sword is the stronger work—though I see in it fewer direct influences on fantasy gaming.

The novel is the tale of two changeling children—Skafloc, a human babe stolen away to Faerie by the elves, and Valgard, the fate-damned and insane changeling left in the human’s stead, who eventually joins up with the elves’ troll opponents. These two characters grow, but ruin and tragedy follow in their wake, such as when Skafloc falls for a pretty maid who (unbeknownst to them) is his mortal sister; there’s plenty of derring-do and adventure, but at its core The Broken Sword is a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense: they all die at the end. Despite that grim nature, reflecting its Norse inspiration, it’s a pretty solid novel that any gamer with serious literary ambition should read, if you don’t mind a rather stark novel. For more plot detail, see my review here.

In terms of fantasy, this was released mere months before Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings reached the United States; there’s several similarities in that both use Norse myth as a starting point, but while Tolkien wanted to establish his own mythos, Anderson clung very close to the pattern of old sagas, leaving us with a kind of modernized myth. It’s worth noting that Tolkien wasn’t the dominant force in fantasy until the late-’60s/early-’70s when Ace printed the first (unauthorized) paperback edition, and the LotR edition wars between Ace and Ballantine launched its popularity not just among SF readers, but with Vietnam War vets and other mainstream readers. That was, conveniently enough, around the time Anderson revised his novel.

See, the 1970s revision for Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy line was heavily amended. In the process Anderson removed the baroque prose that made it so vivid and unique, yet reflected a clear connection to the Norse sagas of old. (The novel’s set on the British isles, and has a strong “tales of Faerie” flavor, and at times it feels much like the pre-Tolkien fantasies written in England.) For a modern reader, the 1970s version may be more approachable, though the 1954 version carries the heritage of real-world myth in its very bones, and I’m hard-pressed to recommend the revised version.thbrknswrd1971

So, what in The Broken Sword was influential to D&D? Well… not that much, to be honest. I’m having to stretch to find some of these connections, as there’s nothing as blatant as the paladin, troll, and alignment found in Three Hearts and Three Lions. Most of the themes The Broken Sword introduced to fantasy roleplaying games are elements in third-party materials or homebrew campaigns—tropes that players and gamemasters recognize and use, but not themes that are all that common in D&D fiction. (I’m talking big-F fiction; not just the novels, but the world/setting details, the adventure modules, and other game aids.) Continue reading

Reblog: In which I give #WordPress advice


Dear WordPress:

As someone who earns a living working in the field of BI/Analytics, transforming raw data into meaningful insights, I find your new stats page to be a joke. This new stats dashboard displays less data in a less user-intuitive manner than your old site. It is not an upgrade. It is an embarrassment.

It appears that you’re aiming for a mobile-friendly aesthetic, which is a reasonable goal. Unfortunately your stats dashboard removed customization in exchange for a cripplingly limited view of data on my computer, with acres of white space preserved for future generations on the left half of my screen. On my tablet I see your app is using a stats dashboard very much like the old stats dashboard… making me wonder why the hell you brutalized your site but maintained a greater level of sanity in app design.

This is not to say that the old dashboard is perfect, nor do I mean to take away from the great new data points rolled out in your new stats page. (Wherever those are, keep scrolling, you’ll find them eventually.) What I mean to say is that the data presented is fantastic but that the design is an abhorrent travesty. The ideal is more data points compressed into what’s referred to as a “dashboard,” not more data points dumped into some endless-scroll abomination.

Please fire whomever is responsible posthaste, because I believe they may have misinformed you regarding some important design choices, and I fear what other suggestions they may have. (Any good things they had to say about treegraphs are wrong. That one’s a freebie.)


Originally posted on

(Note: I typed this in the old editor, too.)

Dear WordPress:

Let’s talk about your new stats screen for a bit.  I put up a one-sentence post a few hours ago to confirm that other people feel the same way I do, and it’s amassed eighteen comments and twenty likes in that time, so I’m pretty sure I’m not on my own here.  I’ve been actively blogging on your site for about a year and a half, although I’ve had the account for several years longer than that, and I spend a lot of time obsessing about my stats.  An unhealthy amount of time, in fact.

You recently changed your stats page, and by a number of indications you seem to be interested in user feedback on it.  However, using your feedback form really didn’t give me a chance to explain what I actually dislike about it.  It could be…

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FFC: Gelatinous Cube

These are one of my favorite old-school monsters, and I had a need for some, so I whipped up Fate Freeport stats for my friend the ooze. It’s hard not to like a monster inspired by those quivering cubes of jello you find at cafeterias, one that also functions as a giant scrubbing bubble amoeboid wandering through the dungeon corridors to clean up the mess.

There’s a couple of nasty tricks I remember from my D&D days. One was describing a skeleton gliding towards the group, in reality the cube’s last victim, dissolving inside the ooze’s transparent embrace. That sounds like a cool Create Advantage waiting to happen (hence the stunt). The other was filling pit traps with gelatinous cubes, but that just seems cruel. And overkill.


Also, check out this link for gelatinous cube facts and rumors of the OSR variety.

Gelatinous Cube

Bits of broken weapons, coins, and a partially digested skeleton are visible inside this quivering cube of slime.

Aspects: Quivering Cube of Slime; Mindless Dissolving Slime; Paralyzing Ooze
Stats: STR +2, DEX +1, CON +5, INT –, WIS -1, CHA -2

Melee Attack: Engulf (+2 STR), normal damage and target is Dissolving and Paralyzed.
Defense: Amorphous Form (+5 CON)

Mental Stress: Mindless
Physical Stress: OOOO
Physical Consequences:
Mild (-2):
Moderate (-4):

Paralytic Acid: Anyone who touches a gelatinous cube is Dissolving and Paralyzed.
Transparent: Gains +2 to create an advantage with DEX or CON to hide or be less noticeable.

Jadetech: Red Jade & Green Jade

I reviewed Jadepunk not too long ago, but let’s go through from the top. Jadepunk is a steampunk wuxia setting for Fate that I rather enjoyed. Jadetech is the steampunkish magi-tech powered by colored jade, with each color providing different elemental effects… and the Jadetech game supplements take a more in-depth look at the different colors of jade and the types of jadetech they power. Green Jade was first, and Red Jade came second. (Insert joke about them being Christmas colors here.) Blue Jade is in the works and forthcoming.

A good example of Jadetech: Green Jade’s art.

These two volumes are the first of six products in the Jadetech line, all slated to be $2.00, 16-page .pdfs. Inside are two pages of flash fiction by Benjamin Feehan and ~14 pages of setting and rules by Jacob Possin. The books use the same sepia-toned design that impressed me so much with the core book, with some awesome new pieces of art that keep up Jadepunk’s high standards. Too many digital/print-on-demand books look like they’re cobbled together using sticks, previously chewed gum, and bits of string. The Jadepunk line puts them to shame, just a masterwork from a graphic design angle.

Both supplements follow in the footsteps of the Jadepunk core book; they excel at showcasing the fascinating parts of the setting without beating you about the head and ears with specific facts and finite details. You get a brief history of the jade, how it was discovered, what it was originally used for, and some really cool info about “quality of life uses”—how it makes life better for the average joe in the Jadepunk setting. And while all of it is really evocative and got the ole’ grey matter thinking, I most enjoyed seeing how the types of jade impacted day-to-day life—uses that anyone living in the setting would know about. Giving the jade’s original uses also made it less static, and I loved seeing the uses of jade evolve.

In terms of rules, you get a lot of things built using Jadepunk’s Assets system (11 items in Green and 12 in Red). Green Jade has a few minor additions—brief rules for building animals (spoiler: it’s replacing their Secret Aspect with one called Instinct),  which include some brilliant Assets, animals modified by green jade exposure. There’s also a new challenge scenario that looks pretty cool. (I was sold by its pulpy title, “Stuck in the Sargasso.”) Red Jade’s sidebars are more setting-centric and are rich in flavor; there’s not as much rules in Red though there is another scenario idea, evading the cliff guns of Kausao City in your airship. (Sold!)

Red Jade versus Green Jade -- which will win?
Red Jade versus Green Jade — which will win? (Trick question; answer is “both.”)

I’m finding it hard to work up any criticism. Red Jade would have been nice with a few more infusions (potions) instead of more guns, though Jacob Possin has already said he’ll include more infusions for the upcoming Blue Jade, so problem solved. Come to think of it, I would have liked to see creatures tainted by red jade as well. I’m still torn on the world: I love seeing it presented in broad strokes, with very evocative details yet still plenty of room to run wild in. But part of me really, really wants to see more—if the broad strokes are this evocative and rich, just imagine all the parts we aren’t seeing! I can wait to see that, though. I have no doubts that Jadepunk’s details—the things we don’t yet know about Kausao City, much less the world beyond—will be revealed in the long run.

Actually, I know it’ll be revealed in the long run, since the Kickstarter’s stretch goals included an adventure series, a martial arts expansion, and a world supplement, on top of *World and Cortex+ editions. So, safe to say there’s a lot of Jadepunk in the works.

For $2.99 at Drive-Thru or the Reroll Store (where 30% goes to charity!), you’re buying a lot of great ideas, a lot more inspiration, and some Assets that may help you understand what the versatile Asset system can do. These Jadetech books are worthy supplements with impulse-buy pricing; you really can’t go wrong at that price. The setting remains rich and evocative, and there’s a wealth of information to get you thinking not just about jadetech Assets but about jadetech’s role in the world. I’m eagerly awaiting future volumes.

Appendix E: Appendix N, Alive and Expanded

A few years back when I started down the dark path of book blogging, one of the first things I did was to slap a copy of Appendix N on the site. The appendix, as you may already know, was Gary Gygax’s reading and inspiration list in the back of ye olde Dungeon Master’s Guide, the pulp literature that inspired him to start building up medieval fantasy roleplaying games.


Originally I was going to try and read all the books on the list; I’ll still probably try, but I’ve only read a handful of them in three years and the rest just aren’t things I want to pick up and read, say, tomorrow. Maybe after a few more books, I’ll be ready to read them tomorrow; maybe after another few hundred. Who knows. There’s some good stuff on there, and a lot of it would be yet another re-read for me—I feel like I’ve read the Lankhmar tales to death, and while I want to read them again, and know I’ll read them at least another half-dozen more times in my life, there’s just so much else out there to read.

To bulk up the word count I threw in a few paragraphs of analysis—nothing particularly deep, just codifying some thoughts I’ve had over the years, and some thoughts that came to mind while posting.

As a gamer and speculative fiction enthusiast, I’m intrigued by the legendary Appendix N found at the back of the original Dungeon Master’s Guide. Gary Gygax was a voracious reader, and his reading preferences impacted the directions where his fantasy-based wargame went. Namely, its ascendency from a traditional medieval wargame with orcs into nerddom’s greatest and most enduring hobby.

Probably the most obvious influences include how magic works in Vance’s Dying Earth world, magic items and historical scope from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the gritty pseudo-historic peoples of Howard’s Hyborian Age. Put Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser in Hyboria, populate it with Lord of the Rings-inspired elves, orcs, and dwarves, and you’ve got the basics of D&D.

It’s also worth looking at what’s included and what isn’t. Clark Ashton Smith, for one; granted, his reputation is largely a part of the pulp revival starting in the ’70s (and again in the ’90s),but he’s the vital third leg of the Weird Tales trifecta. Why mention Frederic Browne, who as far as I’ve read has mostly done (admittedly superb) science-fiction mystery tales, without mentioning C.L. Moore or Edmond Hamilton? Why Bellairs’ Face in the Frost and not LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea? And where the hell is H. Rider Haggard?

Seeing Fred Saberhagan and Gardner Fox on the list is mystifying to me; it’s like Gygax went to the local bookstore to see what was popular, and just wrote some applicable things down. Saberhagan’s entry (Changeling Earth) is post-apocalyptic sword-and-socery, so popular that it hasn’t been printed since the ’70s. Fox wrote what can favorably be called “Conan pastiches” and unfavorably called “sloppy Conan clones.” Several, like Fletcher Pratt and Stanley Weinbaum, have since faded into relative obscurity.

After making some friendly jabs at Conan clones—really, Fox wrote some passable to decent to surprisingly good historical fiction, adventure, and fantasy, even if I dislike Kyrik—I dug at what Appendix N would look like in the modern age:

Also interesting: consider the influences on the game since Gygax stopped being the influential factor. Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, for sure; Frank Herbert’s Dune, arguably; Glen Cook’s Black Company; Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire; Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun; Terry Pratchett; Anne Rice (Vampire: the Masquerade); William Gibson (Cyberpunk 2020); Neil Gaiman (Scion); China Mieville, in an interesting case of the inspired inspiring the original. Star Wars and Monty Python. Fallout, Doctor Who, westerns, Mike Mignola, Heavy Metal. (The magazine.) Led Zeppelin and Iron Maiden.

Which, along with my earlier complaint that LeGuin and Clark Ashton Smith and some others had been neglected, actually compares pretty well to the new Appendix E:


5th Edition has worked hard to bring the feeling of D&D nostalgia, and out of all the bits designed to evoke the D&D feeling players have felt between, what, six editions now?, seeing Gygax’s list intact with additions is one of my favorite touches.

Most of it isn’t a huge stretch. Several of the new authors are admitted gamers, including Mieville, Martin, Saladin Ahmed, and Patrick Rothfuss (man I still can’t believe I didn’t mention him in the original); I don’t know if Glen Cook and Gene Wolfe were gamers but they write like it. Leaving Mervyn Peake, Ursula LeGuin, and Clark Ashton Smith off the original list always felt a crime, like it betrayed the limits of the creators’ libraries. Prattchet is a nice touch. And there’s a bit more diversity there, with more than three woman—Leigh Brackett, Margaret St. Clair, and Andre Norton are joined by Margaret Weis, LeGuin, Elizabeth Bear, and Patricia McKillip.

I used to roll my eyes at arguments that gaming gave you math skills, taught you cooperation, helped promote reading, things like that, but now I look back and see that yep it was true. Fiction, be it books or movies, ends up driving so many of the tropes and concepts RPGs live off; it’s a prime resource for the average gamer. For reading in specific, gaming works on two fronts: it not only promotes an interest in reading and creativity for those who may have needed some prodding to pick up a book, but it also gives the creative, reader-types another way to implement and use that creativity. Maybe there’s a reason you can point to famous authors and actors who’ve played RPGs.

It’s not a perfect list—Anne McCaffrey or Marion Zimmer Bradley would have been a welcome eighth female author; I find Karl Edward Wagner superior to most of the ’70s swords-and-sorcery Gygax listed; J.K. Rowling would be the perfect addition, great for giving the younger-ish reader some more age-appropriate material. Why only Golgotha Dancers for Manly Wade Wellman? etc. And there’s the issue of personal taste, and that not everyone will like every book on every list.

But Appendix E keeps the spirit alive, and is perhaps the most complete and balanced list you can find that fits on one page, that will appeals to a wide audience, and covers the last sixty-four years or so of fantasy (with some science fiction). For heroic dungeon fantasy gaming, you can’t go wrong with these titles.