Archive for March, 2010


I’m a big fan of Dyson Logo’s artwork.  Recently, he’s been posting some very cool geomorphs.   I wanted to play with them, and I probably could have just printed them and cut them out, but that would be too easy.  I am a programmer by trade, and to the man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail…

So I wrote a little program, which quickly became a big program, and I figured after all that work I might as well share the output with everyone.  It’s a fairly straight forward program that allows you to place and manipulate geomorphs, and export the end result to a PNG file.  I haven’t written out full documentation yet, but here are some quick bullet points:

  • Selecting a directory in the brush library scans that directory and all sub directories for image files to use as brushes.
  • Select an individual brush and then click on the canvas to drop the geomorph into place.
  • You can right click with a brush selected to rotate it.
  • You can use the move tool to scroll the canvas around, or drag with the middle button while using a different tool.
  • You can zoom in and out using the buttons in the tool bar or by using the scroll wheel on the mouse.
  • Switch to the selection tool to select already placed geomorphs.  You can then drag them around, or right click to rotate/delete.  You can also use the delete key or the arrow keys to shift it around.
  • You can overlay a grid and snap the brush to that grid.  You’ll find the default settings for the grid conveniently work very well with Dyson’s geomorphs.

The app doesn’t come with any geomorphs, but I suggest you head on over to Dyson’s blog to grab some of his stuff.  Or if you have some of the original TSR geomorphs, you could probably scan those in fairly easily.  Anyway, here is the application for download.  I don’t have a version for Mac yet, or any 64-bit versions, but if anyone wants them I’m sure I could figure it out.

Geomorph Painter – Windows Installer
MD5: f0d410ca7b19fe0b756eed34d496e9b8

Geomorph Painter – Linux Binaries (.tar.gz)
MD5: 0bbb7b36b66625968808da2325f8a2a2

Let me know what you think.  Hope it’s useful to someone.

Organic Character Creation

James Maliszewski has written a very interesting post on his blog about character creation and character death in old school gaming.  What specifically caught my attention was the following:

Characters are only truly born after they’ve survived a few adventures. The kind of detachment necessary to undertake this kind of play is made easier with random generation in my opinion. When you sit down at a table without any preconceptions about the kind of character you want to play and see what the dice give you, it’s a lot less traumatic when that character suddenly dies in play than if you provide him with an extensive background, personality, and goals due to careful thought beforehand.

This reminds me very much of a difference of opinion Delta and I discussed frequently a long time ago when we played 2nd and later 3rd edition together.  This is probably back in the late 90’s or early 2000’s, well before the existence of an OSR or retroclones or the like.  Back then, I really liked to think through a character before sitting down to play him.  Sometimes I would write background, a couple paragraphs and occasionally even several pages.  Point was, I had a solid idea of the character I wanted to play before I even started rolling dice.

Delta had a totally different approach.  He had no pre-conceived ideas of what he would play before starting character creation.  He’d just roll the dice and let that guide him.  His character was very vague at the beginning, but quickly took on a lot of personality.  This was a radical idea for me.  The point we were probably disagreeing on was random rolling vs. point buy character creation, but in retrospect I see our differences were very much new school vs. old school.

In that very long running campaign, Delta played a rather arrogant yet also weakling priest.  Sometimes grating, but always funny, the character was really enjoyable to play with.  The name of the local gaming club I run (Helga’s Heroes) is derived from that character’s name, or at list a mispronunciation of it.  Anyway, point is, the character had legs, survived through the entire multi-year campaign, and was seriously fun to play with.  My characters, on the other hand, I think are much less memorable.  In fact I grew tired of the first one, and orchestrated his dramatic death so I could make a new one.  At the time I blamed the transition from 2e to 3e, but I think there was a bigger inherent problem.

The fact is, by thinking that much about my character before hand, I had played out a lot of the interesting parts of the character before I even sat down at the table.  Indie gamers would say I was playing before we played.  By allowing myself to toy with the character that much ahead of time I had already done the most interesting stuff I would ever do with the character, and unless the DM played into that background material and twisted it in interesting ways, the character would generally feel pretty flat.  Sometimes a DM can do that sort of thing, but it’s difficult, especially when you have a table full of players.  How do you play into one character’s background without ignoring the rest?

I’ve since come around to Delta’s way.  While I do allow my players one stat swap after rolling 3d6 straight for their stats, if I were playing at my own table I wouldn’t even do that.  I let the rolls inform what the character is.  More than just the rolls though, I let the game inform who my character is as we play.  By doing this, every game is always about my character, because my character is about what happens when we play.

Back in the 2e days (I’m talking mid 90’s now) I used to rail about the absurdity of level based systems.  It made no sense to me.  But now I see that levels are a direct game mechanic expression of this kind of organic character development.  Your character changes over the course of play, both his personality and his statistics.  In and out of game changes each reinforce the other.

Anyway, clearly I’m a believer now.  I love letting the game build my character.  I can’t imagine going back to the other way.  On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if my opinion made such a 180 turn over the past 15 years, what will the next 15 years hold?


Recently in my home campaign the players have been exploring Stonehell, Michael Curtis’ mega-dungeon which I’ve pre-empted into my own world.  I don’t know how much of the campaign will be occupied with the exploration of this truly massive dungeon, but so far it’s been fun.

We had a rather hilarious encounter with a green slime (the paladin now has no pants), but the humor aside I realized I really liked the lead-up to this encounter.  I’m not sure if Curtis planned it this way, I certainly didn’t notice the connections myself until we were playing it, but if not it’s a really lovely bit of serendipity and if so I think he’s certainly to be commended for the work.  But I’m getting ahead of myself, let me describe the situation.  You can follow along if you like, the rooms in question are rooms 2-4 in section 1A which is included in the free preview of Stonehell.

The party comes through the rooms in reverse order, starting with room 4, which is burned to a crisp.  Soot on the walls, charred furniture, smell of smoke — actually I think that’s the entire description of the room Curtis gives right there.  The next room is an old feast hall, filled with cracked and broken furniture, torn apart tapestries, etc.  So far, nothing very exciting, just so much set dressing.  Finally, the last room is the kitchen, which contains not only broken up crockery and the like, but also an old sink with a pump.  Naturally the players decide to work the pump, and out of this pump comes the green slime.

So what do the players do?  What any player who knows his D&D lore does, he gets some fires going.  They light up a couple torches, but they know they need more.  They run back into the previous room and start breaking up the furniture and tearing down what’s left of the tapestries to make some torches to fight off the slime.  That’s when it hits me.  Holy crap, someone’s done this before!

Think of it, many years ago, an earlier group enters the same rooms.  Maybe they even start in the kitchen, which isn’t as destroyed as it looks.  But sure enough there’s green slime there, maybe even more than our current group encounters.  They realize they’re in trouble.  In the scuffle to escape the room, they knock over tables and chairs, breaking up the nice stoneware.  They flee through the feast hall, and realizing they’ll need torches, they smash up the nice furniture and tear down some of the tapestries.  But the slime is still coming at them, so they fall back further.  In the third room is where they make their stand.  What was in that room?  Who knows, they torched it.  The slime was everywhere and they burned the slime completely.  All that remains is some soot, ash, and a smell of smoke.  The party evaded their doom this time.  Or maybe one of them didn’t, and the slime he turned into is now in the drain of the kitchen sink.

Maybe that’s not what Curtis had in mind, I don’t really know.  I like to think he did, because it’s just so darn clever.  It’s like when a party enters a cave full of scared looking statues, but much more subtle.  With the statues, everyone is on the look-out for the basilisk right away.  In this case, even I didn’t see any connection when reading the descriptions — only the players’ actions in the fight gave it away.

Now I’m wondering how I can channel some of this myself for my own future work.  Perhaps some piles of glass and wet spots on the floor where a past party chucked some vials of holy water.  Maybe some old dried up wolfsbane sprinkled about on the floor.  Or a spattering of sand and some blood stains where a magic-user once cast sleep and then slit his enemies’ throats.  Or perhaps the most subtle of all: a door iron spiked shut.

I Can Just Barely See You

I made a shocking discovery last night about the spell Clairvoyance that’s got me sitting here with a pile of player handbooks at my desk (OD&D v1, Moldvay Expert, 1e PHB, 2e PHB, 3e PHB, and 3.5 PHB).  But first, some background.

I gave up on new editions of D&D when 3.5 came out. I know it’s in vogue to rant about 4e, but for me 3.5 was the breaking point. My problem is what I perceive as the board-gamification of D&D that perhaps started in 3e but really became apparent in 3.5, and my primary example of this is the spell clairvoyance.

In 3e, clairvoyance has an unlimited range.  It allows you to see “a place familiar to you or an obvious one (such as behind a door, around a corner, or in a grove of trees).”  While the spell could be used in your standard dungeon crawl to see what monster is behind the next door, that seems a fairly mundane use of a 3rd level spell.  This spell always felt to me like a real story or plot driving spell.  This is how you spy on your enemies, find out if your patrons are secretly treacherous, etc.

In 3.5, the description doesn’t change much, but the range is reduced from “unlimited” to 400′ + 40’/level.  With that minor detail, suddenly the plot implications are gone.  The spell has been reduced to simply looking behind the next door at what monster is there, and I’m sure players quickly pass on it in favor of another fireball.  Bah.

Only, it looks like this isn’t as new a development as I had originally thought.  I was reading the description of this same spell in the Moldvay/Cook Expert book, and lo and behold the range is a scant 60′, even shorter than 3.5.  What’s more, the description specifically mentions that it allows the caster to “see an area through the eyes of any single creature in it” and “is blocked by two feet of rock or a thin coating of lead.”  So now not only is the range very short, but there’s got to be an actual creature to cast it on and it’s blocked by thick walls.  This is a very different spell from the one I’m used to.  When did it change?

In OD&D, it’s very similar to the Moldvay/Cook version.  Actually all it does is refer to the ESP spell but with a visual component, but ESP mentions a 6″ range and being blocked by stone/lead, which seems likely where that came from.  It’s the 1e PHB where suddenly the range becomes unlimited and the spell looks like the plot tool I remember it as.  It remains this way in 2e and 3e, the versions of the game I probably have played the most, so I suppose that explains why I remember it that way.

I stand by my complaints about 3.5 and 4e.  However, I think I’m going to have to house rule in the 1e version of this spell to my B/X games.  Man, I hope this isn’t my first step towards becoming a 1e guy.  All those tables… 🙂

Other People’s Material

When running a game, I am a great thief of other people’s material.  I love stealing and adapting bits of modules, plot ideas, etc. from printed works and stitching them together into a great quilt of a campaign.  Some of the stuff in there is my own invention from whole cloth.  Sometimes I steal only a map or an idea and flesh it out.  Sometimes I steal entire chunks or even an entire module and stuff it into my campaign.  I would say though that the majority of things in my game are not my own work.

My current campaign started with the classic module L1: Secret of Bone Hill.  I mixed in a little Idol of the Orcs and have let some rumors and legends drop about Stonehell.  The best thing about using stuff like this is I never feel bad if the players aren’t interested in one of the threads.  Stonehell is a huge undertaking, a campaign unto itself, but I’d hate to run it that way.  I’m much more tickled by the idea of there being this huge dungeon out there in the world that occasionally the players may find reason to make surgical strikes into, but would be very unlikely to explore completely.

I think this is part of what I enjoyed so much in our first Round Robin game.  In that game everyone was GM and player.  Each person in turn would GM for a couple sessions, then pass the reigns to the next guy.  I loved trying to tie up the various threads the other GMs left me.  There was something very satisfying when the players discovered that events from two different GMs were in some way related, and that it wasn’t all just random.

But I digress.  The danger with using other people’s material is that some of my players may already know the material.  There’s always the chance that they’ve already played, run, or simply read what I’m about to integrate into the story.  This came up just recently when I dropped the name Stonehell into my game.  One of my players immediately recognised it.  “That’s a prison, isn’t it?” he asked.  I froze up.  Oh geez, I’m going to have to seriously revamp this stuff, I thought.

Actually, it turned out he only knew of the material through reading blogs and reviews and the like.  In fact, it was kind of nice that the player knew about as much about the material as his character should — vague rumors, legends, and a general sense of dread.  Unfortunately, I think I immediately ruined it by quickly asking if he had already read the material, tearing us out of the moment and into a metagame discussion.

I think in future I’ll just have to have an understanding with my players that if I introduce something they recognise, that they will let me know they’ve encountered it in the past and to what degree.  Sometimes I’ll be able to say not to worry, that I’ve only stolen the base concept or just the map, or similar.  There’s a chance I’ll have to dump something completely though, and I guess in the long run that’s not so terrible.  In fact, a small part of me kind of relishes having to take the hooks from some other module already introduced in my game, and warp them to something completely different.  Actually, that’s kind of exactly what I like about using material from a lot of different sources.  Go figure.

Technology in My Game

My last post has got me thinking about my own use of technology.  I mentioned a while back looking into getting the Asus T91 netbook to use at the gaming table.  I in fact did buy this machine, and have been using it for some months.  But I want to be sure it’s not just gratuitous technology, and that it actually is making my DMing better or faster.  Sure, I did pay a hefty sum for the thing, but that’s no reason I should force myself to use it if it’s not doing what I want, right?

So here’s what it looks like behind my screen now:

Well, certainly it’s streamlined how much crap I need behind the screen.  Originally I had planned rest it flat on the table, which would make it take roughly the same table space as that pad you see.  I had figured I would use it for the same stuff I use the pad for, given that it is a tablet.  However, I’ve found that writing on the screen isn’t quite responsive enough, making the pad of paper still better and faster at keeping quick tallies for stuff like monster HP or player XP earned.  Also, when set flat on the table the view angle isn’t very good, and it’s hard to see the screen.  So instead I keep it as you see it, slightly angled and using the landscape orientation.

Here’s what I run on it.  First, I’ve got my campaign notes up using tiddlywiki, and in fact I’ve converted some maps I use with my image map plugin (that’s what you see on screen in the picture).  I also have Adobe Reader running with my source books loaded up, as well as nbos’ Inspiration Pad for names and hirelings.

I find it’s pretty good for stuff like jumping around in the source book (hurray for PDFs with good bookmarks!) and my notes.  Also, the battery life is great, lasting well longer than the length of our usual gaming sessions.  However, adding new notes it’s not great at.  The handwriting recognition is still pretty clumsy and slow.  I could open up the netbook, which looks like this:

But I’m not crazy about the amount of space that takes up, and that tiny keyboard really is pretty difficult to use.  I’m thinking I might try getting a nice wireless keyboard, maybe one with a trackpad or other mouse-like device built in, and having that at hand.  It would be nice to pull over when I want to type, but then set to the side when I don’t want it.  Much easier than flipping the thing back and forth and dealing with the tiny keyboard.  That might be worth a try, before having to make the difficult decision between keeping it or switching back to the old three ring binder system.

Someday though, some day I will have a dedicated gaming space to build my ideal gaming table.  I think it would be pretty awesome to have a dedicated gaming table with something like this at the GM spot:

Wouldn’t that be awesome?  Computer access if you want it, but if not simply stack your stuff right on top and its as if it wasn’t there.  I’d probably try to stash the CPU someplace further away, so it’s not right in my way.  Anyway, that’s for someday.  For now, I need to figure out if what I’ve got is more  useful or annoying.