Saturday 27 June 2015

On Lego Castle Design

My kids have finally reached the age where they can play with legos, so for the last couple months I've had the opportunity to build things with them once or twice a week. I was really into legos as a kid, but it's been 15-20 years. Anyway, getting back into it, I'd like to talk about designing castles.

Simple castle construction
As a kid, and even as a teenager, I remember finding lego castles a frustrating challenge. I would get a castle play-set, build the thing according to the instructions, and it would turn out great, but if I tried to build something of my own design, it would end up quite disappointing.

Now, working with my own kids, I've build a few, rather humble castles, each a bit more complex than the previous one, and I'd like to take the opportunity to share my novice thoughts on castle design.

Sorting Pieces

So this is something which is so obvious to me now but which I don't
Corner piece
think I knew as a kid. Before you start building something, take five minutes to sort out the pieces you will likely need. This saves you time looking for specific pieces later, and it also gives you an idea what materials you have on hand. When building a castle, that usually means:

  • all the various large castle wall pieces
  • a good supply of the various types of pillar pieces
  • any grey or black arch
  • lots of assorted grey bricks
  • a good number of black bricks

The Walls

Castle with various wall types
Now let's talk about the walls. When I was a kid trying to do this, I would connect several lego wall pieces together and get a very boring castle. So the first thing I would like to point out is that you have many options regarding walls:

  1. Wall/Door Pieces are quick to put up and cover a lot of space. 
  2. Arches on Pillars are a great alternative to a filled-in wall pieces since they are quick to put up, don't use a lot of bricks, and give decent access to the inside of the castle, which is important if this castle is for your kids to play with
  3. Open it's also valid to leave rooms artificially open on one or two sides so the kids can play. That said, you still need to keep things structurally strong. 
  4. Bricks can be used to fill in between wall pieces or even to build entire walls, but this is time consuming and uses up a lot of pieces. They're nice and strong, though
  5. Crenelations are good for the top level or can even go under an arch
  6. You can also make a drawbridge, portcullis--I'm not there yet, though. It requires hinge pieces, string...
Castle Walkway/Flooring Example

The Floors

So you've finished a level of walls on your castle. Now you're going to need to put floors and walkways.  This isn't just a place for your lego men to hang out. Having a broad and well-supported floor will help you put the next story on your castle.

So you pick out some thin lego pieces for your flooring, but how do you support them? The castle wall pieces have a lip to support a floor, but that usually only gets you 80% of the way to something load-bearing. You'll need to come up with a creative solution to get you the rest of the way. Upward-slanting pieces can help with this.

The Foundation

Foundation needed...
Another challenge is if you have an irregular base plate like ours. Before you can even start your castle, you need to create a surface to build on. That means covering over the pits and expanding the floor with pillars and arches. It's a bit of work, but it results in a more more interesting construction.

Embracing the Subjective

So these are the general ground-rules, but you can take them in a lot of different directions and create some really diverse castle designs. There's no correct design, but there are a few categories one can judge the castle based on:
  • Complexity of design- how many stories does it have? Are there separate sections?
  • Structural integrity- how strong/stable is this Tower of Babel you've erected?
  • Accessibility- I mentioned this before. Can the kids easily access all parts of the castle and put their guys there?
  • Colors- is the coloring aesthetically pleasing?(This is a hard one--takes a lot of work if you're picky about colors)
  • Variation- do you just have flat, featureless walls or are their variations? (bonus points for greebling!)
  • Decorations- are there flags, crenelations, colorful roofs, etc?

A whole lot of castle!
All in all, this is a very deep, complex creative venture and I completely understand the guys who make a full blown hobby out of building gigantic lego castles. A lot of things are like this: coming up with an idea, developing it, modifying it, trying to get everything to fit together just right like a puzzle. DMing your own sandbox can definitely be like this. Even composing a semi-coherent blog post...

Tuesday 16 June 2015

Kicking Sky-Fortress Keister

Well, a month has passed and we finally picked up where last session's cliffhanger left off. Would the party survive? What kind of vampire would be be turned into?! Sparkly or shiny?

The answer, my dear friends, was "None of the above."

Clubbing Amongst the Clouds

WARNING: this GIF may cause blindness,
nausea, and whooping cough
The vampire's thralls that confronted Weiwei were a bit pissy, but they weren't looking for a fight. They refused to commit to anything, even biting the dark elf, without permission from their master, who was taking a beauty sleep. So the party decided to piss-off and look for somewhere more "happening".

On a side-note: the party's composition was a bit different from last time, due to some misplaced character sheets, so we were joined by a couple anonymous pre-gens. So Drogo and Roarrawrurmph had stand-ins. I was still playing as Rama and Kunab though.

First we headed off to some big old tower being guarded by ogres. Someone(Pam maybe) sweet-talked them into taking us up to the top of "the tomb" to check out the view, where we summarily murdered them(Rama managed to knock one off of the battlements with a DCC Feat of Arms), leaving evidence that "the cultists did it". But, the alarm was raised so we ran-off before we could be identified.

We ran into some caves which led to a tense encounter between the wounded party and an adult white dragon. To keep the peace Rama presented it with his magic golden Ale-producing flagon, since anyway he puts little value on material things, valuing the more subtle things in life like returning things to the primordial chaos.

At that point, the party found a secluded passage and hunkered down for a long healing and rest period.

The Politics of Armageddon

After a mostly undisturbed rest, the party emerged from their cave to find the castle's denizens in utter chaos. You may recall that we spent last session poisoning the castle's food stores and fomenting the already latent tension between the castle's various factions. Now was when all that time spent "murdering nothing and taking none of their stuff" paid-off.

First we saw many dead cultists and a few dead giants. Then we were accosted by a Giant patrol. We managed to maintain a parley, and mentioned that our alchemist had cured us all of the poisoning. They insisted we come cure the cloud giant master of this flying fortress as well, so we went along with them.

Cloud Giant
Harlan Ellison in a toga
After much talking and plotting and more talking, we found out that the giants are actually sort of "good" but that they are helping the cultists so that can have a huge Giant-Dragon war when Tiamat rises and all get to go to Valhalla(sort of like those guys from Mad Max). Something along those lines(my mind shuts-off during exposition)...

The tomb, it seems is being run my the spirit of the Cloud Giant's dead wife, so we went to speak to his better half and convinced her(and afterwards him) that we had a less risky way of helping them kick dragon butts. Something to do with collecting the masks of dragon control so they can have their big showdown on a smaller scale.

With all the politicin' out of the way, it was time to clean-up this castle from any cultist allies and that meant one thing-- it was time to go DRAGON HUNTING!


The party headed back down to take-on the White Dragon in it's lair, with a couple Ogre meat-shields in tow.

Now the thing about this dragon is he likes to just hang-out on his ceiling roost like some giant pigeon that you can't get rid of. And the DM played him well--every time we dislodged him, he's kick some butts then head back up there.

It was a tough fight, but we got him in the end, with Weiwei landing the final shot as he tried to escape.

My guys didn't do much damage, but Kunab the Wizbarian kept summoning giant eagles which kept him occupied, while Rama, though he couldn't reach the dragon to do any damage, absorbed a lot of the hits(including 3 successive rounds where rocks fell on him, then the dragon fell on him, then more rocks fell on him), so he was a good and dutiful meatshield.

I have to say, this was my first slaying a dragon in DnD(computer games don't count) and I have to say, it was flippin' awesome!

(Rama still took back his flagon, though. For all his high-and-mighty ideals, he's still that much the murderhobo.)

Post your favorite stock-photo of a dragon and a flying castle in the comments.
This was mine...

Monday 15 June 2015

Humanism and Scifi

The greatest of Literature is, by nature, Humanistic Literature. It teaches us something about the Human experience in a more visceral way than any cold-hearted essay could. It is the epitome of Human Culture, comprising, in the words of Matthew Arnold, "the best which has been thought and said in the world".

That said, there is a different type of Literature that conforms to this definition, yet which is the polar opposite of Humanistic. I am, of course, talking about those categories of Science Fiction that give us a window into other, non-human, modes of thought.

Some Noteworthy Examples

Asimov was one of the first to do this well with his robots and his many explorations of their Artificial Intelligence and it's implications. His robopsychologists must grapple with an intelligence created by Man, but ultimately different.

The Cyberpunk(and post-Cyberpunk) genre updated this approach with it's portrayal of vast AIs floating majestically through cyberspace. It also developed a literature of Post-Humanism, considering how the Human experience may change with the expansion and modification of the Brain,by means of computing and genetic engineering(consider Shiner's "Till Human Voices Wake Us". I'll just mention Ann Leckie's "Ancillar Justice" as a recent notable entry in this category genre. In Leckie's case, she imagines a new form of consciousness formed by the merging of AIs and post-Humans(I haven't gotten hold of Leckie's book yet, but I've heard that it takes-on the topic in a way that is both unique and compelling)

David Brin's long-running Uplift series considers yet another category, that of "Uplifted" animals, whose intelligence has been increased through a long-running program of applied genetics. Brin offers a compelling vision of these creatures(generally dolphins and apes) and their experience, intellectually comparable to Humans, and yet so utterly different. Brin's recent story "Aficionado" offered a good example of this literature.

Finally there are the stories that explore Aliens from deep space. This is perhaps the most difficult type of non-human intelligence to imagine, as it deals with things truly beyond the veil of Human experience. I can think of lots of examples, yet few of this that I felt really excel in their portrayals of intelligence that is truly alien to Human experience. Orson Scott Card's "Speaker for the Dead" does a pretty good job of this, with it's "Alien Anthropologists" exploring an alien culture(and finding their initial assumptions turned on their head in the book's climax.)

Know Thyself

These different categories of Science Fiction dealing with non-human minds give us an entirely different perspective on our own situation. Suddenly, through the power of contrast, many of our traits are revealed to be distinctly Human, rather than universal. In this way, fiction blazes the trail ahead of Science itself, exploring other forms of intelligence and learning about ourselves in the process.

RPG Connection

Since this is ostensibly a blog about Pen and Paper RPG's, let's ask the question "Do any Pen and Paper RPG's explore this theme?" 

Answer: I don't know. I don't really read that many RPG products. Maybe in the comments, you could point out the examples you know about. That said, here is a short list of stuff that did make it onto my radar:

  1. Steve Jackson's "GURPS Uplift" rules are an obvious example, though I've never played it.
  2. Cyberpunk 2020 deals with the post-humanism theme with Humanity Loss Rules, resulting in mental illness. One could imagine an alternate set of rules which embraces post-humanism, rather than treating it like a Horror game mechanic.
  3. Monsters and Manuals has posted on this theme. I wonder if some of this sentiment made it into his Yoon-Suin setting...
  4. False Machine's evocative posts on the Derro and other denizens of the Underdark sketch a strange and alien intelligence. I expect that monsters from his "Deep Carbon Observatory" would incorporate this theme, though again, I don't have time to many RPG products these days, even such worthy ones, so I don't know.

Monday 8 June 2015

Fighting Fantasy Cthulhu Review

So, in March(I think) Chaosium released what's basically a free Fighting Fantasy-style book to promote the release of Call of Cthulhu 7th edition. It's been sitting on my hard drive for a while, but I finally found a few hours to play through it, so here's a review of that session.

The Rules

Alone against the flames is a 64 page pdf solo adventure to help you learn you CoC 7e. It's pretty quick to get started--just download it for free, along with an "Investigator Sheet" and the "CoC Quick Starter Rules".

As for the former, I was a bit put-off that the character sheet is two pages. That said you never use the second page and you're walked through filling out the first page step-by-step so it's actually the simplest new RPG I've gone through the process of learning in recent years. That said, no dice were used in creating the character, which was a big disappointment for me. Also, it could have used a more varied choice of careers.

As for the "Quick Start Rules", I groaned when I saw this 48-page document, but actually I only ended-up skimming the two pages on combat that it referred me to when that become relevant.  So AATF really succeeds in throwing you right into the game without making you read tons of material first.

The Adventure

So, as I mentioned before, the format is Fighting Fantasy(disclosure--I've never played a Fighting Fantasy game book before). Basically it's a "Choose Your Own Adventure" plus a character sheet.

I only played through the adventure once(over a few hours) but there are a total of 270 entries and, I'm guessing, probably half a dozen different endings(I got one where my character dies, but at least I survived till the climax and went out with a bang!)

It was quite fun and I intend to create another character and have another go at it!

Horror Games(spoiler warning!)

So playing this adventure was very different than playing a DnD sandbox or even a published adventure. It become clear very early on that we're in a classic horror story plot arc and, of course, these things have rules. In this case, the rules are taken from the story's two major sources of inspiration:

For instance, the game offers to let you try walking to the next town in broad daylight. Now it was fairly clear to me that the only way I was walking out of this town is at night, with mobs of cultists chasing me Innsmouth-style. But at some point, after maybe the third time they gave me the option, I went for it. I immediately failed my outdoorsmanship skill check and it became clear that if I didn't turn back the adventure would probably end there, so I did.

Or when I met the old man, similar to the character from Innsmouth, it was clear that I had a potential ally in this outcast.

Or when you meet the town's Mayor-- it's clear the guy is the cult leader and you had better play dumb.
My point is, that in your typical sandbox adventure RPG, your imagination is the limit and you can chase whatever schemes your twisted little mind can come up with.

In a Horror Plot, on the other hand, it's more of a "game of chicken" with the "rules". It's a horror game so you know it's not going to let you run away too easy(as an aside, this provides an interesting solution to implementing the Naive Victim in gaming), but a the same time, if you wait too long to make your move, then you'll miss your chance. So you keep your eyes open and your ears pealed for any information that can help you and wait for the moment to try your luck and get away. It's quite fun, but it's a different sort of fun, and I suspect you have to be a horror fan to really get the maximum kick out of it...