Sunday, February 24, 2019

Advice on Making Maps

As a cartographer, I (Stentor) sometimes get asked for advice on making maps for RPGs and novels. I've written up what I think are some key questions to ask to guide your map-making.

I'll preface this advice with an observation: most cartography advice out there is actually geography advice. That is, it is advice on creating a believable world, rather than how to map that world. So something like "rivers should join together as they go, not split apart" is geography advice. It's telling you something about how rivers work, not about how to properly map whatever rivers there are in your world. My advice below is meant to supplement this advice on geographical worldbuilding with some thoughts on the question of how to make maps of your world.

My main advice for maps is to ask yourself: who, in the world, is making this map, and why? Every map simplifies and distorts the world it represents, and every map requires sacrificing some things in the service of others.

Even something as seemingly basic as geometric accuracy (e.g. consistent lat/long coordinates) may not be a priority. Those medieval "T&O" maps weren't drawn like that because the mapmakers were ignorant of the real shape of their world (sailors were using impressively detailed charts at the same time) -- they look like that because the goal of the map is to show the world as an orderly creation centered on the holy land, thus expressing the medieval Christian worldview.

I would recommend that you ask yourself:

1. Who is making this map? Are they a trained cartographer, or a newbie? Are they a leader or rebel with an axe to grind? Are they someone who has absorbed all the conventional wisdom of their culture? Get inside the perspective of the cartographer and think about how they would see the world, and what their agendas and skills are.

2. What tools do they have at their disposal? Is the map made with pen and paper? rock carving? a printing press? a computer? This will shape the style of the map drawing -- certain shapes are easier to make with a pen than a chisel, for example.

3. What knowledge (correct or not) do they have about the world? What things can they find out easily versus where are their gaps? How did they get that information? This is especially important in fantasy settings. Take a look at medieval European and Chinese maps, and in particular how they represented each other's subcontinents.

4. What will this map be used for? Is it for coordinating the movement of armies on a battlefield? finding your way around a city? going on a pilgrimage? showing off the extent and glory of the king's domain? tracking tax revenues and grain production? finding auspicious locations by ley lines or fengshui-type principles? Every map is good for some things and bad at others, and the choices made in creating it will be those that serve its intended purpose. Remember that the infamous Mercator projection was a brilliant breakthrough for captains navigating sailing ships even though it's a terrible way to show population densities.

5. In what context will this map be found? Will it be printed in an atlas? hung on a wall? folded up in someone's desk? part of a longer reference text? a propaganda poster? Any mapmaker will be thinking about their intended audience and how to communicate best with them.

Use the answers to those questions to clarify your answers to the specific choices that need to be made in assembling a map:
  • How much area will this map cover, at what scale? 
  • What projection will your map use, if it's broader than a city or small region? 
  • What features will be made prominent on this map, which will be backgrounded, and which will be left off altogether? 
  • What kind of symbols will you use to represent those features? 
  • If there are areas of uncertainty or lack of knowledge, how -- if at all -- will they be indicated? 
If you want to learn more about these issues, a couple good places to start are How To Lie With Maps by Mark Monmonier, and Making Maps by John Krygier and Denis Wood.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Looking for writers for More Kittens (paid gig)

Glittercats Fine Amusements is planning a February Kickstarter for "More Kittens," an expansion book for the Laser Kittens RPG, and we're hoping you will contribute!

More Kittens will feature a variety of material making use of the core mechanics from Laser Kittens:
- New Laser Kittens settings: We've published settings for kittens in the White House, kittens in space, and kittens in a haunted house, but there are so many more places where kittens could have adventures.

- No Kittens? No Problem! The Laser Kittens system can easily be hacked to play a variety of other sorts of characters. How about baby dinosaurs learning to roar? Or a misfit gang of possums, bears, and ibises finding treasure in human trash?

To express interest or pitch your idea, email stentor.danielson@gmail.com. Pay depends on the scope and complexity of your work, but we're committed to making sure you are compensated well. Folks who are new to RPG writing are especially welcomed to get in touch!

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Space Knight Academy -- a space opera hack of Laser Kittens

Kittens are great, but perhaps you are more interested in stories about spaceships and laser swords and mystical powers. In that case, you're in luck -- check out Space Knight Academy, the copyright-non-violating hack of Laser Kittens. Play a Space Knight Cadet learning to use The Power to protect the Galactic Imperium from various kinds of bad guys.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

200 Word RPGs: Occupational Safety and Health Adventures, and Micro Kittens

 Stentor submitted an entry to the 200 Word RPG contest. This year's entry, Occupational Safety and Health Adventures, was named a finalist.

You are a team of co-workers. Decide together:
- What is your workplace?
- What big project is the boss breathing down your neck about?
- How is your workplace catastrophically unsafe?

Individually, name your character and decide:
- What is my role on the team? (coordinator, expert, grunt, caretaker, gofer)
- Why do I keep messing up? (lazy, greedy, incompetent, dishonest, arrogant)

Take turns framing scenes starring your character. Everyone else plays their parts and NPCs, as needed. Each scene should lead to a point where one character (not necessarily yours) must risk their safety to move forward with the project. That character's player chooses:
1. Accept the injury. Don't tell the boss.
2. Report the unsafe condition. Tell the other players what new safety rule the boss has imposed. The other players decide how the workspace will be altered to comply with this rule, in a way that makes the workplace less safe and less efficient overall.

The game ends when either:
1. The project is completed. The team is congratulated by the boss for a job well done, and for their good safety record.
2. One character accumulates three injuries. The team is reprimanded and the project is given to another team.

You can also check out last year's entry, Micro Kittens:

3-5 players

You are a kitten who wants to get adopted from the Humane Society. Pick a description of why you should be adopted (fluffy, cuddly, playful, tiny, polydactyl) and a description of why you haven’t been adopted yet (dirty, skittish, old, aggressive, sick).

Roll 5d6. Keep them -- this is your pool. Pick someone to be the active player. When you’re the active player, frame a scene in which you act. Other players portray other characters in the scene. When you do something ADORABLE in one of the categories below, place a die next to it, as long as it’s different in number from the other dice already there. If you act according to one of your descriptions in this scene, you may re-roll one die from your pool before selecting one to place.

MESSY
ADVENTURE
AFFECTION
MEOWS

The player to your right invents a complication based on your die’s number as follows:
1: Someone gets hurt
2: Someone gets in trouble
3: Something gets lost
4: Something breaks
5: Someone new arrives
6: Something brings bad news

The player to your left now becomes the active player.

When you have done four adorable things, tell who adopted you.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Success Mechanics vs. Story Mechanics

This blog post is my attempt to think through some of my (Stentor's) design philosophy for the three game design projects currently at the front of my mind. I'm not claiming these ideas are new or sophisticated, and I'm certainly not proposing them as normative for anyone else's design. It's just useful to me to spell out what I'm trying to do.

The three games I'm currently working on are:
* Catpocalypse World: Cats surviving after the human apocalypse
* Get Ready 2 Rock: A band on tour getting themselves in trouble
* Admiral Earth: The Earth Team uses the powers of nature to battle eco-villains and summon the planet's greatest defender, Admiral Earth

All three games are rooted in the Apocalypse Engine to various degrees. In particular, all three adopt the "moves" structure -- when a character does particular actions, then you are given a description or list of the sorts of things that might happen in the story. Most moves involve the application of a randomizer (dice roll or card draw) plus modifiers to select between good, compromised, or bad menus of outcomes. A very large percentage of the design work on these games involves writing, testing, and re-writing moves.

The important distinction I'm trying to keep in mind is between what I'm calling success mechanics and story mechanics (or success moves versus story moves, since I'm focused on writing "moves" in an Apocalypse Engine context). Success moves clearly separate the role of the GM and the player. The player inhabits and controls the character, while the GM is fully in charge of the rest of the world. Like real people acting in the real world, characters then encounter situations where the outcomes of their actions are uncertain -- they don't know whether their skills will be adequate to overcome the challenge posed by the outside world, and whether luck will favor them in executing their plan. Success mechanics step in to give us rulings on these outcomes, usually with the application of some randomizer (e.g. dice or cards) to represent the character's uncertainty. The result of the mechanic tells us whether the character succeeds in overcoming the world's barriers or not. The nature of those barriers, and the sorts of outcomes available from overcoming them, rest in the GM's hands (albeit sometimes with their own mechanics and randomizers). Games that are heavily investigative ("solve the mystery") tend to rely heavily on success mechanics. The GM has already decided what the truth behind the mystery is, and so the real question to be decided at the table is whether different strategies by the characters succeed at uncovering clues and piecing them together.

Story moves, on the other hand, put the GM and players both in the role of storytellers crafting a story about the characters and their world. While players may have primary responsibility for choosing their character's actions, the question faced by the player in acting is not "am I good enough (and lucky enough) to succeed at this?" but rather "where does the story go when I try this?" That is, does the overall story go in a direction favorable or unfavorable to the character. This question goes beyond just the things under the character's direct control, potentially reaching into any aspect of the world not yet made canon by appearing in the story. An investigative game in a story mechanics context would give the players control over how the mystery unfolds and perhaps even what the real story behind it is. I specifically like the structure of "moves" (as opposed to the "skill checks" that appear in many games) for story mechanics because it creates the opportunity to give specific narrative prompts for how the story proceeds.

There is definite overlap between the two -- succeeding at one's intended task is one obvious way that the story can go in a direction favorable to the character, and vice-versa for failing at it. But thinking in terms of story moves opens up new possibilities.

 For example: say you have a move that applies when a character hacks a computer system, and one of the characters in the game hacks into the villain's email to find incriminating information. In a success mechanic context, the GM will have already decided what kind of incriminating information is potentially available. The question to be answered by the mechanics is, is the character a good enough hacker to get some or all of that information? In a story mechanics context, the question to be answered by the mechanics pertains (or at least may pertain) to the content of the emails themselves as well. A poor result from the randomizer may mean that the information in the emails turns out to incriminate an ally rather than the villain, because uncovering that is one way for the story to go poorly for the hacker character (despite being a "success" in the sense that their skills were adequate to access the computer system).

Another example: my current favorite basic (i.e. available to all player characters) move in Catpocalypse World is called "You Meant To Do That." The inspiration, of course, is the way cats can fall off of something or otherwise have a total wipeout, then pick themselves up as if everything is going just according to plan. This is such a distinctive cat behavior that I knew there had to be a move about it in a game featuring cats. Originally, this move was called "I Meant To Do That," and its structure heavily drew on the "Keep Your Cool" move in Monsterhearts. The question to be answered was, when pulling off a stunt, do you draw negative attention and look foolish, or do you convince others that you're still in control. I realized that I had written it as very much a success move, deciding whether the character was successful at keeping their cool in the face of obstacles like nervous tics and other characters' perceptiveness. But I saw an opportunity to turn it into a more story-focused move*. The new text reads:

You Meant To Do That: When someone has seemed to fail at something but you wish they had succeeded, roll [2d6] + the same attitude [stat] they took (but using your own bonuses etc.). On a 10+, explain how their apparent failure actually created a great opportunity or accomplished something useful, and they take +1 to taking advantage of it. On a 7-9, your confidence gives them +1 to extricating themself from the mess they made.

The new mechanic gets away from the idea of a character succeeding or failing at some action they're taking in the context of obstacles in the world. Instead, it gives the player a chance to re-write the next step of the story, pointing out how an apparent failure could actually turn out for the best, perhaps in a way anticipated by neither the target character nor the GM.

 I don't intend for all of my moves to be quite as meta as "You Meant To Do That," but it illustrates my approach. When writing prompts for outcomes, I want to ask myself not "what would it look like for a character to succeed/fail at this?" but rather "what would it look like for the story to go in a direction favorable/unfavorable to this character?"

*As well as using this move to cover the need for a "helping" mechanic, which was open after I removed the very Monsterhearts-ish strings mechanic that didn't fit the game's approach.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Playtest Report: Get Ready 2 Rock in the frozen north

I had a great session of Get Ready 2 Rock today at Breakout Con in Toronto. (Also a new logo, courtesy of Cynthia Lee.) The players were Sleeping Ginger, a Gwar-esque rock band from far northern Canada. Members of the band were Ricky J-Shot (The Cute One, bass), Sir Clemens (The Moody One, drums), Drax Smith (The Ringer, keytar), Widowmaker (The New One, pan flute), and Ed (The Forgettable One, cowbell).

The band was traveling by dogsled to a big music festival in Fairbanks, Alaska. They stopped for the night at a Canada's Greatest Motel location in the remote not-even-a-village of McConnell's Crossing. The whole band had to share a single room because the rest of the motel had been reserved by their rivals, Blond Riot, who soon arrived in their reindeer-drawn sleigh.

Blond Riot is only "pretty good," though that makes them better and more popular than Sleeping Ginger. Ed overheard Blond Riot's roadies grousing about how the band acquired fancy $8000 amps, but isn't good enough to hear the difference between that and lower-quality $4000 amps. Sleeping Ginger hatched a plot to trade the roadies their lower-quality amps plus $4000 to get the better amps from Blond Riot. But first they needed to get the money, since between them they only had $200.

Ricky used his charm to convince Marlene, the receptionist at the motel, to call corporate HQ and make a deal that Sleeping Ginger would write a version of one of its songs that was about the motel chain and play it on stage, in exchange for $3800. Meanwhile, Drax and Sir Clemens called a mysterious phone number they found written in the hotel attractions guide to arrange a drug deal with "Randy," who wanted to meet them at the old dock on Black Lake. Though Sir Clemens' drug habit breaks the heart of his father (and the band's manager) Cecil, the two set off into the dark woods to meet Randy. After performing a wild rock'n'roll stunt that left Drax up to his waist in cold water, Randy agreed to sell them $1000 worth of Extasy for only $100. On their way back to the motel, the band members ran into a couple members of Blond Riot, who were also aiming to score some drugs from Randy. Randy -- who had sold his entire stash to Drax and Sir Clemens -- used his satellite phone to call the police. Luckily the members of Sleeping Ginger were able to hide their drugs in a hollow tree, and the police didn't find anything on them. The members of Blond Riot and Randy hitched a ride back to town with the police. When Drax and Sir Clemens got back, they broke the door handle on one of the Blond Riot rooms, to delay them in the morning.

The next morning, Sleeping Ginger headed out on the road. Around midday, they reached the border checkpoint. Fearing that they would be caught bringing drugs into the USA, the band exploited their celebrity to get Charles the border guard -- a huge Sleeping Ginger fan -- to just wave them on through. That night, Sleeping Ginger had to camp at a National Forest since there were no motels in this remote area of Alaska. And wouldn't you know it, Blond Riot arrived at the same campground hours later. Since the members of Blond Riot were clearly frazzled from their day's adventures, they were willing to buy the extasy for $1500. While Blond Riot lay in their tent getting high, Sleeping Ginger decided to prank them by building a bunch of threatening snowmen around their tent.

The next day the band arrived in Fairbanks. After checking in at the festival HQ, Ricky and Widowmaker headed to a local coffee shop to meet Heather, the head of advertising and PR for Canada's Greatest Motels. While waiting for Heather, they were met by Charles. He told them that he had been fired from his job as a border guard for letting them through without checking their passports or inspecting their vehicle. Border Patrol was now on the hunt for Sleeping Ginger. Moreover, the Forest Service was also after them, because to make their snowmen they had pulled branches off of an endangered tree.

Meanwhile, Drax and Sir Clemens decided to try to sabotage their amps, so that when they traded them to Blond Riot, they would sound bad. However, they mostly succeeded in breaking the amps and electrocuting themselves. They took the amps to a local repair shop, and paid a premium to get them repaired quickly. Then they made their deal with the roadies for Blond Riot, swapping amps along with $4000.

Charles helped the band get in touch with his former supervisor, Officer Ramirez. She didn't buy the band's excuse that, coming from a remote part of Canada, they didn't know that you had to show your passport to enter the US. However, she told them that if they played a song about the importance of conserving endangered species, the Forest Service might both forgive their damage to the tree, and sponsor their application for a visa so that they could be in the country legally*.

The next day, Sleeping Ginger had their big show. Not only did they perform a brilliant song for the Forest Service, they also held up their end of the bargain with Canada's Greatest Motels, and won over a bunch of Blond Riot fans.

*Yes, I know this is not how US immigration law works.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Laser Kittens is here!

At long last, Laser Kittens is here! If you backed us on Kickstarter, we hope you love the book. If you missed the Kickstarter, you can order a PDF through DriveThruRPG. The physical book, as well as the beautiful Kitten Cards designed by Rori de Rien, will debut at the IGDN booth at GenCon this coming week. After GenCon, we'll make the physical books and cards available through our website. Pew pew pew!