Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Le Monastère de Saint Gastronomie (Review)

A whimsical mini-campaign set in rural medieval France. Players are monks who must gain the allegiance of local monstrous factions in order to save the world. Due to the nature of the system and adventure, it will be difficult to avoid spoilers in this review.

The adventure was part of Kickstarter’s third Zinequest event, and available as a reward. I have not yet found it for sale outside of that. The PDF is 36 pages, written and illustrated by Guy Potts. It includes “standee” paper miniatures for all of the monsters and monks.

UPDATE: You can now buy the game on itch for $7.50!

The System

It comes with a light set of rules that would be easy to swap out, but it would be a shame to do so entirely. The core of these is three stats, roll-over stat checks, a neat little initiative mechanic, and so on. But it also has three key elements that make the system feel tailored to the adventure: miracles, sins, and the timeline. I would consider grafting these subsystems into any game I ultimately used.

As all the characters are monks, there are no class options, spell lists or starting equipment. But there is magic! Before starting, the GM makes a secret list of specific miracles (“create a spring,” “bring a statue to life,” etc.). Characters can pray freely, and if they happen to ask for a miracle on the list, once per monk per campaign, that miracle is granted. (14 miracles are provided to start, with space for four more.)

Similarly, the GM is encouraged to create a list of “sins” (perhaps modeled on existing religious ideas). (Even without a list, certain actions in the module are defined as sins.) Whenever a monk sins, that player marks a circle on their character’s sin-o-meter. Then, the GM rolls 3d6, re-rolling one non-6 result for each sin marked. If the result is “666,” then each character takes a permanent damage. Characters who die this way are especially dead. I think this is a fun and thematic way of handling morality. It allows for a lot of luck-pushing and emphasizes the religious nature of the characters without punishing them outright for making hard choices.

Finally, the whole game takes place over 28 days, so time taken to heal or travel becomes important. This also informs the other two mechanics in their scope: players may choose not to “save” their miracles or may be more reckless with their sins, given this limit.

The Campaign

The adventure provides a compelling amount of direction for a sandbox. The characters are summoned by a dying monk to stop the current abbot (Pierre the Pious) from summoning an angel of death to purge the world of sinners, annihilating France. To do this, they need to recreate the three traditional products of the abbey under the old abbot (Reynard the Rotund): beer, wine, and cheese. Then they must barter them with local monstrous factions in exchange for their support in the coming battle.

The adventure is seven hexes with the monastery at the center, and each hex has an overland map and an underground dungeon. Three hexes house the monstrous factions and three hexes contain the supplies and equipment the monks will need to reproduce the recipes and arm themselves. The whole map is full of connections and secrets.

The Good

The adventure exudes charm from the art, the tone, the scope. The included system is elegant, as are the mechanics found throughout for dungeon elements, puzzles, social interactions, traps, and so on. (To be sure, the art in this review is not the style of the art in the book, which all matches the cover much more closely.)

It claims to be targeted at absolute beginners, and I believe it. It’s friendly in tone and well-considered in many small ways, from using only d6s to laying out the maps in a radial manner (so that they are easily covered by simple fog-of-war effects, or even sticky notes). In particular, I appreciate that it provides many opportunities to fill in some blank spaces, but it never feels incomplete without them.

The Bad

The adventure sits in a weird place as a drop-in. Not too much relies on the players being monks, so you could drop other characters in pretty easily. (If you’re the planning type, you could even have them meet Brother Bartholomew beforehand.) But the climactic battle seems like an end-of-campaign event that would be hard to continue after, and the tight timeline doesn’t leave much room for side-quests. It’s also slightly too long to run as a one-shot.

I’d like to know more about Pierre and his ritual. The book mentions that he will be out of town if the players think to kill him. But it’s unclear if the ritual could be prevented some other way. Does it have to happen in the palace? (Then could Pierre just be kept out?) Is timing important, or is Pierre just too busy to cause the apocalypse right away? (Then could he be delayed or misled?) If this is a Watchmen scenario, why bother keeping him away on business? Ultimately I’m not too worried about this because the draw of supernatural agriculture is probably pretty good and the clues leading to it are plentiful. But I do expect these questions to come up.

For all the interweaving and jacquaying, the PDF would benefit from hyperlinks, but it is short enough that it’s OK without.

Conclusion

I was expecting a short adventure, but instead I found a small world, full of character and innovation, with well-crafted support for its unique size. I wish I could tell you to buy this, but it doesn’t seem possible at the moment. I’ll update this if that changes. (UPDATE: This has changed! you can now buy it here! I recommend it!)

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Ritual Entrances of the Palace Semi-Infinite

One of the main inspirations for the Palace Semi-Infinite is The Gardens of Ynn, and one of the things I love about Ynn is the ritual entrance. While I prefer to keep the exact relationship between the palace and reality nebulous, this is an option I'd consider for similar ritual entrances.

The Main Entrance

Anyone can get to the Palace with an invitation. A valid invitation must:

  • be written in ink. Some frequent visitors even tattoo their invitations, although this is considered gauche.
  • state the parties invited. The scope can be specific ("Jane Doe") or broad ("the bearer of this invitation") but must be somehow limited in number ("with a retinue of not more than seven") and time ("before the feast of St. Alouicious in the year 2003").
  • be signed. An invitation will not work for the person who signs it, even as a plus one.
  • be written (technically, only signed) inside the Palace.

Present your invitation to a guard or doorman at the entrance to any building and convince them to open the door for you. When you pass through, you will arrive in a random (but consistent) room of the Palace. (Some people claim that the guard must "announce" your arrival as part of the ritual, but this is in fact unnecessary and increasingly old-fashioned.)

The Servant's Entrance

  1. Find a coin on the ground that is not yours and which you did not see drop. It must be worth at least 12 of a smaller denomination of coin. Pick it up and keep it.
  2. Recite: "I, [insert name], gladly accept this payment for a week's honest work."
  3. Enter thru any unwatched door.

You are marked as a servant of the Palace for the next week. This means:

  • a small bonus to remain unobserved by palace inhabitants (other than servants).
  • a penalty to the reaction rolls of palace inhabitants.
  • you are unable to sign invitations to the palace.

At the end of the week, you will be ejected from the palace (if you haven't escaped already), unless you secure more stable employment first.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Other Crews

Rival adventuring parties are a classic device. But if I expect one to appear more than once, I'd like to make it an explicit foil to the party, differing most in only one aspect. This is not a complete taxonomy, only a brainstorm of common narrative roles.

Aspirational

Anything you can do, these guys do better. In the best case, they're friendly and distant, fighting far-off battles. Maybe they like you and occasionally check in. Maybe they really like you and they'd go so far as to sacrifice for you.

Counterpoint

These guys are Gary: they look down on you and just by chance know all your weaknesses. It's not that they're better, they're just accidentally your worst matchup. And they'll take your girl/guy/job/reputation.

Sucks

Anything these guys do, anyone else could do better. These guys are you, half a campaign ago. Maybe they're fans! Maybe they're impostors!

Done

After you have everything you want and settle down, you might become these guys. Of course, anything that risks the status quo might stir them from their comfortable retirement.

Gumptionless

If you were to give up or turn back, you might become these guys. They'll fight to stop anyone trying where they've failed before: after all, they know it's no use.

Immoderate

These guys will cross every line you've ever drawn. They'll betray allies, fight dirty, lie, cheat, steal, kill, all of it.

Rich

This crew didn't earn their strength like you. They bought themselves tools and influence. They took shortcuts and their power is consequently brittle. Tools fail, followers defect.

Alternative

These doppelgangers just did small things different. Maybe they're aligned with an opposing faction, maybe they're from a different homeland. But they want the same things as you and operate similarly.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

RPG Linguistics

In many editions of D&D, everyone learns a handful of languages at character creation, and then either never thinks about them again or never has the one they need. I propose an alternative, with 5e as a base.

Characters learn fewer languages.

Everyone knows common. There are no racial languages. Only learn a second language if your background calls for it.

Each language satisfies a narrative function.

Common—common is great. Everyone knows common unless there's something strange happening. Don't think about it.

Ancient—dead civilizations speak and write this language. You might know it if you're a treasure hunter, a time traveler, or a classics major.

Ceremonial—this language is a secret for religious or magical reasons, like Druidic or Hebrew. From a world-building perspective, I'd limit myself to one of these per setting, even if that requires some contortion.

Underworld—this language is a secret for reasons of discretion, like Polari or rhyming slang. Dialects change, but learning on-the-fly is built-in to its rhythms. Written, this is the ability to read hobo signs, notice graffiti, etc.

Technical—this is how experts in a field talk about stuff. Even if you're a published author on the topic of applied divination, you can still muddle through someone's notes on optimal well-drilling or drop some convincing techno-babble.

Otherworldly—aliens and old Gods speak this. (Angels, devils, and other outsiders speak common: they want you to understand them.)

Foreign—someday you will find yourself somewhere where they only speak French. Until then, it's a social signifier of a misspent education, a party trick or a bit of flavor.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

A Pair of Failed Careers

Into the Odd is my one-shot game of choice. It has just enough of everything. Just enough mechanics, just enough character, just enough world. I understand where Electric Bastionland is coming from, but it's always seemed like the "just a little too much" counterpart for my purposes. That said, the Failed Careers are elegant little thought-forms, similar to Troika! backgrounds, and I had some fun putting these two on paper. With some quick wombo.art (I'm a little meh on it, but it works), they're ready to go.

Courier

You took things places.

Sample Names
Major, Fries, Tate, Owney

You Get
Uniform, Letter Opener (d6, concealable)

CashWhat stopped you?
£1Snow. Take a heavy down coat (Armor 1, Bulky).
£2Rain. Take rubberized boots.
£3Heat. Take a light metal water bottle.
£4Gloom of night. Take a lantern.
£5Forgery. Take a jeweler's loupe.
£6Honor. Take one letter, unopened, undeliverable.
HPWhat were you good at?
1First-class mail. Test Wil to turn dogs.
2Special deliveries. Take one bicycle. You can outrace anyone on a paved street, but cannot stop or notice anything along the way.
3Packaging. Never break a fragile object.
4Routing. For any address know the name of someone who has lived there or lives there now.
5Labelling. Immediately and accurately know the weight of anything held in one hand.
6Paper routes. Always know this morning's headlines.

If you are the youngest player,
the whole group is 10k in debt to the vagrant's HOA. You technically can't sleep on the streets.

Burnboss

If you don't set small fires, the big ones will rage uncontrollably.

Sample Names
Morgan, Smollex, Danver, Kangg

You Get
Shovel, Hatchet (d6)

CashHow'd you get out of the game?
£1Deregulation. Take a directory of your competitors (d6).
£2Technical arson. Take an expired license.
£3Backdraft. Take no hair.
£4Antidrought. It is still raining when the game starts, wherever you were licensed.
£5Aggressive noncompete. Other crews will not talk to you.
£6Burncrew mutiny. Take one gilt-edged page from a holy book, a hole burned thru the center.
HPHow did you start fires?
1Flamethrower. Take one (d6, Blast, Bulky).
2Ritual duel. Take one flint sword (d8, sparks against steel).
3Pyrokinesis. Test Wil to ignite any dry material, once/day.
4Advanced optics. Take one magnifying glass.
5Alchemy. Take three firebombs (d6 Damage each round until extinguished).
6The old-fashioned way. Take one fancy lighter. You can do tricks with it.

If you are the youngest player,
the whole group is 10k in debt to Hurly & Sons Insurance Insurance Insurance. Collateral damage incurred is not added to your debt.

Monday, November 29, 2021

A Peek Behind the Curtain

I put Crisis on Christmas on itch.io on 25 Dec 2019 for free, where it has since been downloaded 375 times. On 15 Dec 2020 I significantly revamped the material and, as an experiment, changed it to PWYW. (Although as before, an unmonitored free download was always linked from here, after some early complaints about getting downloads from itch to work.) Since then, 11 people have opted to pay a total of $31 (which warms my heart).

From 5 March to 31 March this year (2021), Crisis on Christmas was part of the Independent Troika Creator Bundle. I do not know how much information it is appropriate to share about the numbers behind that, but it contributes $8.88 of revenue. These sales are accounted for as a separate product by itch.

As easy as it is to put things on itch, getting your money back out can be complicated. You will have to choose one of two payment modes: direct or payouts. In direct mode the money goes straight to you, but you are responsible for record-keeping, taxes, chargebacks, etc. In payout mode itch handles all of the overhead. Itch recommends payout mode, and I use payout mode, and despite the complications, I would still also recommend it.

Upon selecting payout mode, you will need to complete a one-time tax interview process (it's just an online form) and identity check. This costs $3, which appears as a debit on your itch account (not as an up-front cost).

Seven days after a payment is completed, it becomes available to you as a payout. Payouts are delivered either through PayPal or Payoneer (I use PayPal and so cannot comment on Payoneer). PayPal takes a fee from the payout, which in the US appears to be a flat $0.25. (The "payout fee" is distinct from the payment processor fee, which I think is the fee charged for the initial purchase.) I think this may have changed between my first and second payouts, as the fee is not present on the first one.

While requesting payouts less frequently will minimize these fees, leaving earnings in your itch account for longer than a year will result in itch charging a monthly 10% maintenance fee on the balance. However, at least when I started writing this, it is not possible to initiate a payout on an amount less than $5. This meant I awkwardly had $3-4 sitting in my account for a long time, and because of the seasonal (and low-volume) nature of my project, could not access it.

Because I hadn't requested any payouts during the 2020 tax year, I didn't receive any tax documents for it. Itch did not automatically withhold any taxes for me, so I expect I will have to pay taxes on what remains this year. Given the US dedication to the worst possible tax system, I have no idea what that may come to, but I'll estimate local tax at 5% (arbitrarily) and federal tax at 20% of the remainder (also arbitrarily). Since both these numbers are entirely made up, I don't think the error introduced by calling it 25% is significant.

Itch lets you configure what percentage of revenue you want to share with them for their services. The default is 10% of gross revenue, which sounded fine to me, so I left it.

We can also consider the other costs of the project: a font a liked a lot ($10), and an old Dover clipart book, purchased c. 2000 (maybe $4?). If we don't value my time at all (my friend insists this is what makes a "real game developer"), that's $14.

$39.88gross revenue
-$4.65payment processor fees
-$3.97itch revenue share
-$3.00identity verification
-$0.25payout fee
=$28payout
-$7taxes (estimated)
-$14costs
=$7profit

As bit of fun, I have no regrets about the project, and I remain unreasonably proud of it. There's a lot I could have done to try maximizing profits that just doesn't appeal to me, so this is not a perfect look into "the business," but I hope a little light on such an intricate and hidden part of the hobby might be instructive to others.

Best wishes to you and yours going into this holiday season, and if you haven't had a chance, I'd love for you to check out Crisis on Christmas. If you like it, maybe even leave a tip

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Automating UDEL 1.0

new automatic UDEL tool

Hail Santa at Terminal Velocity invented UDEL, or “Uniform Data Entry Language,” a conlang for Mothership and other sci-fi games. I’ve written this tool to help write it, and while it’s not feature-complete, I thought I’d better release something soon rather than tinker with it forever.

It’s pretty straightforward to use: type the words you want in the box, and click the link to draw them. Words connected by underbars (“_”) will be drawn in a cartouche (i.e. proper nouns). Numbers are drawn correctly, but you’ll have to “pre-process” them, which is to say, break them into groups of 3 digits, etc. If a word is not on the word list, it will be drawn as a blank stave.

Right now the tool is hosted on a Blogger “Page” instead of a proper post, because making it a post somehow hides all the other posts on my blog and I have no idea where to start with that.

Todo

  • Implement underlines. How should they be represented in input?
  • UDEL is nominally symmetrical in many circumstances. I’d like to add an “up” arrow to the left side so that a UDEL plaque, for example, could be oriented from any direction.
  • Implement punctuation.
  • Improve the layout engine. It’s really clunky right now, and strongly favors square numbers of words.
  • Automate representation of numbers.
  • Automate representation of plurals, posessives.
  • Highlight out-of-list words in the input field.
  • Suggest in-list synonyms for out-of-list words.
  • Add a function to export the final image.

Play with it, use it, test it, break it, let me know what you think!