That Dungeony Feeling

This is a description of a game that doesn't exist, but which I've been playing in my head for a few years. It's not exactly D&D. More exactly it's an aesthetic that D&D in some some incarnations can provide, but which D&D does not guarantee, and which later editions have veered away from; an aesthetic that can be triggered by certain props (maps!) or art or books or even video games. It's inspired by the Retro-Clones and the Old School Revival, especially Swords & Wizardry, but those games are enablers rather than ensurers.

The dungeon aesthetic is tricky and elusive. At its core is the idea that the adventurers are treasure hunters and explorers venturing into an environment that is itself a deadly dangerous antagonist. If the adventurers become lost, they might die of thirst or starvation. If their light-source fails, they might stumble into natural hazards that would otherwise be easily avoided. Of course there are also fatal traps to be watchful for, as well as the creatures and monsters which inhabit the labyrinth.

Although the adventurers might sometimes be forced to fight for their lives, this is not an attrition-based skirmish-level combat game. Fights are somewhat rare and often better avoided - every opponent is potentially deadly and every combat is important. Combats are also over with quickly; in general the rules don't provide an arena for making tactical decisions; rather they're invoked from time to time as needed to generate or access important information.

Most of play is spent in free-form or "systemless" mode. The GM describes situations and provides sensory information (What do the adventurers see? What do they hear? What do the walls feel like? Are there any smells? Tastes?). The players are in charge of their characters, describing their actions. The GM provides cause and effect by inventing consequences. Generally, common sense prevails.

From time to time the GM will invoke the system by calling for an Ability check on one of a character's six abilities (STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS, CHA) to discover if the character can do what the player wanted. Abilities are rated from 3 to 18. If the character has a related skill, the skill's rating is added to the Ability score as a bonus (in which case the procedure could more properly be called a Skill check.) The GM may apply a temporary bonus (+) or penalty (-) to the rating to represent important situational features. The player rolls 1d20. If the roll is equal to or less than the total ( Ability + [Skill] + [Bonus / Penalty] ) then the character is able to do whatever it was the player wanted.

Otherwise, the character can't do whatever it was the player wanted, and the GM invents the consequences. The door is too stuck, the boulder is too heavy, the chasm is too wide (and the character falls to his doom!) Ability checks show what characters can and can't do - not what they DO do. If the Ability check fails, the character can't succeed unless and until the situation changes favorably in some way.

Example: Boron the Really Strong (STR 17) wants to force a door. The door is jammed from the other side with iron spikes, so the GM assess a -2 penalty, making the final target 15. Boron rolls a 19! The door is too stuck even for Boron's mighty thews. There's nothing he can do for the time being. Boron must find another way to go, or return later with a battering ram (or a sorcerer who knows "Knock.")

How did the GM know how big to make the penalty? He just made it up! The dungeon is mysteriously dark and dangerous; not every door or every iron spike is the same. Consistency isn't the most important thing. In general, though, penalties and bonuses are small - no more than (+/-) 5, which represents a relatively vast 25% chance! If there are a host of interesting factors at work there's no need to enumerate them - the GM just assigns one number to represent all of them.

Ability (Skill) rolls are made to learn whether or not a character can do something the player wants. Sometimes, though, the GM will call for a Saving Throw. Each character has a saving throw (determined by class) that improves as the character gains levels. For some rolls the saving throw is modified by one of the character's Ability modifiers. Saving throws work just like Ability checks, except that they determine whether or not the character was able to avoid or resist some hazardous event.

# 19 -9 = 10 -3 = 7, 6, 5


Melee Attack: d20 + STR modifier + to-hit bonus (from level) + size modifier
Ranged Attack: d20 + DEX modifier + to-hit bonus (from level) + size modifier + range penalty

Defense: 10 + DEX modifier + defense bonus (from level) + size modifier + shield bonus

Damage: Melee Attack - Defense + Weapon - Armor

To be continued...

The Hero With A Thousand Faces

I just finished reading this book by Joseph Campbell. Overall it is sort of like going on an acid-fueled spirit journey. I guess now I'll never need to experiment with drugs. However it does contain intermittent fits of lucidity that represent interesting and useful structural analysis.

Campbell seems to argue that the structural components of myth are the product of a universally shared human subconscious. This gives them the nature of self-existent, automatically compelling story elements. I think Campbell has distracted himself with a lot of postmodern psychological mumbo-jumbo into missing an easily hit mark.

The elements of the Monomyth are not self-sufficiently universal.They arise as common situations across cultures due to the universality of human nature - self-interest or self-destruction.

It seems to me that it is always easy to tell a bad application of the Monomyth from a good one: Lazy craftsmen use the structure as a template, mad-libbing scripts or novels out of it. These works have a quality of arbitrary incoherence. The work of skilled craftsmen may indeed contain elements of the Monomyth (in fact, in some cases the Monomyth is so broadly defined that it is impossible to escape), but these elements always arise smoothly and naturally as consequences of the actions and interactions of the players.
Head a splode!


Well, I guess this is my new writing blog, since the guys over at Greatest Journal are a wad of phracking IDIOT MORON SCUM. Time to make some changes.

Gemma - II

The back half of the eating hall had been curtained off into a kind of command tent. Vencel and Arrio were there conversing in low tones; they did not notice Gemma as she slipped through the slit in the whispering linen with her carefully balanced tray. The two men were hunched over the table, closely examining the long parchment that Arrio had unrolled. Gemma set her tray by the lone taper lighting their work and bent close to see what they were about.

"He can not attack from the northward sides," Arrio was saying. "The river bends there and protects us."

"Yes," said Vencel. "He would rather come in along the road; he would have the river to protect his right flank, at least."

Gemma took the earthen jug of ale from the tray and offered it to Vencel. He took it absently, drank, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

"Thank you lass," said Arrio as he took the jug in his turn. "I do not think he will come along the road. The ground there is clear, it is true, but turns upwards rapidly as you approach the town. Janus would find himself advancing uphill against a charge. There is a reason the citizens of the Empire built on bluffs."

"Ah, I did not know that," said Vencel. He seized one of the small loaves from Gemma's tray and broke into it. "I came the opposite way, from across the ferry. It is good you are here Arrio; it will save me much time if I do not have to learn the land."

His long finger traced the line of the river inked on the parchment.

"So he must attack from the south."
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Gemma - I

Gemma looked curiously around the Scriptor's archive. It had been two years since she had last visited it, but she still remembered its sunlit dustiness and leathery smell with pleasure. The Scriptor was ensconced on his stool, busily scribbling away with ink-stained fingers, the tools of his craft spread out on the benches around him.

"Scriptor John?" she called shyly.

The Scriptor peered down at her over his ledger. A pair of gleaming lenses perched on the bridge of his nose, pinched on with a little golden clip. His hair had grown iron grey since the last time Gemma had seen him, and his hard black eyes were set in wrinkled sockets. But his smile was kindly, and his voice was the same as she remembered, a great rough rumble that seemed to shake the earth with its humor. Gemma had looked forward to that voice.

"Well, young citizen," he said. "I have not seen you for a long time. Who would have known when I penned your name into my census what beauty I was unleashing on the world."

Gemma looked away and shifted her feet as she felt a blush creep up her face.

"You ought not to say such things, Scriptor John," she admonished. "I am sixteen gone now, a farm woman." She displayed her hands for proof; they were tough and callused.
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Writing Fiction


They say that if you're a writer you shouldn't listen to tips from people who aren't out there making a living from their work. This is good advice. I mention this in the interest of fair warning, since I turned away from being a professional novelist a while back but still plan on saying a whole lot of stuff about how one writes fiction. This is for my own amusement, so that I have an organized source of my own thoughts. Anyone else, if you like it - cool. But pay attention at your own risk!

Many moons ago, back before I quit school to focus on music, before I even thought of music as a career that I might need to find alternatives to, I was an aspiring author. For about six years (between the ages of 14 and 19) I wrote all the time - short stories, sketches, a couple of really crappy novellas - took writing classes, read a lot of fiction, the works. I also read a lot of books about writing.

Most of them are useless crap.
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Romantic Fiction

Romance in the sense of "romantic fiction" is a dramatic developing emotional relationship between two characters.

A romantic relationship develops linearly beginning with physical properties; the appearance of characters is immediately apparent. Physical attraction, ambivalence, or repulsion may be instantly established to aide or hinder future relational growth. Over time more depth will be revealed about less superficial character traits by observing what sort of hard choices the characters make when faced with conflicts. These exhibited character traits will either be favorable, enhancing the relationship, or they will be disfavorable, posing obstacles to the relationship. As with any conflict, a romantic conflict is one where the character is faced with a decision that must be made, and that will have lasting consequences of some type regardless of which way the choice is made. These hard choices both arise from, and expose and reinforce contradictions that are inherent in the character. We are unsure what the character will do, because he is kind, yet insensitive, or because she is eloquent yet self-conscious.

In a romantic relationship, these contradictions often lead to an emotional desire to care for the object of affection vs. an intellectual knowledge of sacrifices that must be made to do so. Romantic emotions are terribly strong: Not mere desire, but longing! Not mere pain, but torture! Not mere loss, but desolation! Strong emotions require desperate situations and lead to extreme choices.
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