The Biblyon Broadsheet

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons
Biblyon, Highland
Thursday, August 13, 1992
Jerry Stratton, Ed.
Spotlight on: The Saurian—Wednesday, August 10th, 2022
Isle of Mordol Pylon control panel

If you’ve seen Land of the Lost, this is obviously a simplified version of a pylon control panel. I wanted something that the players could actually use.

You’re eight feet tall. Your tongue forks in and out as your bulbous eyes dart left and right behind translucent membranes. Your scales reflect aquamarine in the sunlight as you drop to all fours…

I’ve been a fan of the saurian ever since Land of the Lost in the seventies. If you look at my first “dungeon”, The Isle of Mordol, there’s an entire sublevel devoted to dinosaurs and dimensional-portal pylons.

My Yellow Forest from Fight On 9 is also heavily influenced by that show. I described saurians in the Yellow Forest encounter list as:

…bipedal lizards with long forking tongues, bulbous eyes, and ears behind eye-lid-like membranes. Their iridescent scales shine green and blue in sunlight, making them appear wet or slimy even when dry. They eat plants and animals, but insects are a delicacy. They farm them in their swampy lairs or hunt giant ones. They can see in the dark, regrow lost arms, legs, and tails, and can move on all fours at movement 15.

The Yellow Forest is part of The Road, and we used the saurians far more extensively than that little blurb would imply. It’s a player character race in Gods & Monsters.1 Some of them are chameleon, and some have prehensile tails—both specialties open only to the Saurian. Disease Immunity is also open to the Saurian.

The saurians of the Yellow Forest live in Angkor-like ruins. The cities of the Angwat are described in detail in The Road.

The saurian is tall to humans, and to any other “official” player character species. It’s actually a large creature, the only large creature in the list of player character species. Saurians literally look down on all of the player character races.

Kolchak: The Montique Fantom (A Daredevils adventure)—Wednesday, June 1st, 2022
Kolchak: The Montique Fantom (title)

Daredevils is the perfect ruleset for a Kolchak game. I ran it last year at North Texas, using The Body Vanishes from Daredevil Adventures 3: Supernatural Thrillers. It’s a classic Kolchak-style mystery. Daredevils works great for noir, and Kolchak is a noir throwback.

Despite, and possibly because of, their lack of structure and detail, the short adventures in DA 3 are a really nice choice for a new Daredevils GM to learn the ropes of the game. While they’re not overly detailed or overly structured, they have just enough of a structure to hang a player-centric narrative onto.

The Body Vanishes is especially nice because the two endings allow for cutting the game short if necessary. It worked well for a 4-hour game without the extended ending, and would have worked even better for a 5-hour session with the extended ending.

Because the television series ended in 1975, I set the game in 1976. And because it was 1976, I set it over the July 4 weekend. This helped make some of the assumptions in the 1920s-based The Body Vanishes still work out in the seventies. It required a lot less technical ability on the part of the police, and by setting it around a major celebration I was able to get that.

Otherwise, for the most part I ran the adventure straight. What I’ve got here is a very thin skin over the original. Locations on a map of Chicago, a new timeline centered around July 4, 1976, and a few NPC replacements.

The biggest change from the television series is that this is an ensemble game. The players can choose from playing Carl Kolchak, the other series regulars, and several guest stars. The assumption is that after the series ended Kolchak has enough people convinced of strange things happening that he can assemble a team of night stalkers when necessary.

Era background

The inflation between 1921/1929 and 1976 was $3.18 through $3.39. So multiply prices by three or four as a rough guide, remembering that a lot of stuff in the Daredevils price list is illegal in 1976 Chicago. Inflation between 1976 and 2022 makes a 2022 dollar worth about $5.05 in 1976. So divide prices by five from now as a rough guide, remembering that very little technology from today is available in 1976. Phones are attached to buildings, for example, and computers are buildings.

Critical (fantasy) race theory—Wednesday, April 20th, 2022
Talk about Critical Race Theory

I created this blog specifically to segregate my political and other (currently, vintage food and vintage computer) blogging from my game blogging. Sadly, some very egregious politics has been blundering around in gaming over the last several years and it’s starting to come to a head. I’m crossposting this on my main blog because it’s as much about the resurgence of virulent racism as it is about gaming.

One of the things that has always interested me and seems never to be explored in games is how having real, definite races of people would affect the imaginary differences we’ve made up in the real world. It seems as though having truly different fantasy races ought to make it obvious how ridiculous man’s tribal hatreds are today. The same ought to be true of the discovery of truly alien races.1

I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently Shadowrun 2E handles inter-human racism the same way I do in Highland: the new creatures are so obviously different that humans in these worlds no longer view each other as different. Inter-human racism is gone. In Highland, there’s the added change that the cataclysm jumbled up cultures so drastically that cultures are no longer associated with skin color.

In reality, I suspect that this is wishful thinking. It is easy to be disappointed by the resilience of such racism in the real world, and it’s hard to say that it would not remain resilient even in worlds like that of D&D or Shadowrun. When self-described anti-racists make claims that are right at home among slavers, it’s difficult to be optimistic about any impending end of racism.

This is especially true when people complain about it being “racist” to name a player character’s fantasy race. There has long been a weirdly racist attempt to analogize human races to fantasy races. But in games such as Dungeons and Dragons where the rules of the game make it abundantly clear that fantasy races really are superior and inferior in various ways, this conflation of real-world and fantasy is blatantly racist. Players and pundits who make this equivalence are accepting the racist belief that some human races are superior and some are inferior.

Kolchak is back, baby! At North Texas 2022—Sunday, March 27th, 2022
Carl Kolchak

“Now, here, are the true facts.”

It’s the fall semester at Illinois State Technical College. Carl Kolchak and his loose band of night stalkers investigate strange happenings as the school’s sports team breaks record after record. Choose a pregen from many of the guest stars who appeared on the Kolchak: The Night Stalker television series.

I’ll be cracking open Daredevils again for The North Texas RPG Con on Thursday morning of 2022’s convention. This year’s adventure is “The Big Creep” and takes place at Illinois State Technical College in the fall semester of 1976.

Sign up is live starting Friday evening, April 15, at 8PM Texas time! Note that it currently says the game uses the “RPG” rules. That’s because Tabletop Events doesn’t have Daredevils in their system yet.1

Here’s the TV Guide version:

Carl Kolchak and guest stars investigate strange happenings at Illinois State Technical College.

If you’re a Kolchak fan you may remember ISTC from the Demon in Lace episode. Both student journalist Rosalind Winters (“You hear about that kind of thing all the time. There’s probably a hundred of those tablets around.”) and Professor of Archaeology Dr. C. Evan Spate (“It seems to be some sort of religious rite, or maybe even a form of recipe.”) will be available as pregens.

As well, of course, as all the old favorite guest stars and regulars. Kolchak himself is available, and if you’ve ever felt like letting loose a barrage of abuse at an abusive reporter who can’t understand why nobody believes him, Tony Vincenzo is also available.

Plots are for the dead—Wednesday, February 16th, 2022
Plot is where games go to die

In Plot is the opposite of roleplaying, I wrote that “no one, not even the GM (especially not the GM), knows what the plot will be, because any plot relies on player interaction.”

Especially not the GM because plot must be directed action, by or upon some observer. This is true even in fiction, where some things the author knows must have happened are not plot until they are written for the reader. Sure, the walk-on character probably slept within the last twenty four hours. But that’s not part of the plot until it has some effect. Likewise, the plot of Mountains of Madness is not boy meets girl despite Lovecraft knowing that boys and girls were meeting all over the world while Dyer and Danforth were exploring the subterranean ruins.

That’s despite all the efforts of Hollywood to require a boy-meets-girl subplot in any such movie. The fact is, much of what I dislike about tying roleplaying to movies isn’t even true of movies. From Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (or Waking Life) to The Breakfast Club to Napoleon Dynamite or Lost in Translation, movies can be great without a traditional plot. An arbitrary beginning, a middle that is about the characters, and an arbitrary ending that doesn’t really tie anything together can be a great movie. A typical D&D game is in the middle of those extremes.

I dislike comparing roleplaying to novels and movies because too often this means dumbing down the roleplaying to ensure specific outcomes. But our understanding of “plot” comes from those sources, so it’s worth looking at them. The most basic requirement for being plot in non-roleplaying formats is that plot must be presented, directly or indirectly, for the reader to read it or the viewer to view it. There can be more restrictive definitions of plot, but less restrictive ones are a hot mountain of madness.

Saying that there are plots in the game that don’t involve the PCs is like saying that there are plots in the novel that readers never see, or plots in the movie that viewers never see. If an NPC’s plot never comes near the PCs’ plot, how do the players discover it? How does it matter to them? If the only player that knows about it is the GM, how can it be part of the narrative? How can it be involved in the roleplaying of a roleplaying game?

It may be true that there’s a character who never shows up in the book who is hunting a murderer who also never shows up in the book. But if the author is the only person who knows that’s going on, it’s not part of the plot. It’s not part of the book or the movie.

Plot is the opposite of roleplaying—Wednesday, January 19th, 2022
God plays dice with the universe

In Burning Wheel, Luke Crane writes that “…nothing happens in the game world that doesn’t involve a player character.” But if NPCs aren’t proactively running their own storylines even when the player characters aren’t involved, doesn’t this mean the NPCs are static?

For example, the orcs are defeated and the player characters leave the frontier village that had been threatened by them. Do the villagers stop everything once the player characters leave? Or do they continue with their lives, long after the PCs have gone, making their own stories and living their own plot lines?

That’s the kind of question that always comes up when someone says something like what Luke Crane wrote. But I’d argue that it’s the NPCs running their own storylines that are static. Such NPCs have their actions locked in without regard to the player characters. They are far more static than the cloud of possibilities that they ought to be in a game that is about roleplaying, about the interaction between player characters and each other, and between player characters and the world.

A dynamic NPC is a cloud of potential narratives waiting to coalesce once they interact with an observer, and the only true observer in a roleplaying game is a player. Non-player characters are not lesser player characters. They are part of the world that the players interact with through their characters.

Of course the villagers would continue their lives, and would do so long after the PCs have gone. But what this means, what they do, only matters once those villagers’ lives involve the PCs again. Nothing happens—there is no plot—that doesn’t involve player characters.

Sandboxing is sometimes described as “plot everywhere”, but that assumes plot must exist. In a sandbox, there is no plot to find. Any narrative must be created by player interaction with the world. Players expecting to find rather than create a plot will be frustrated by sandbox play, as the common complaint about having to “hunt for plot” indicates. Hunting for something that doesn’t exist will always be frustrating.

It occurs to me that much of the misunderstanding might come from an assumption of the GM as a god who knows all, and therefore knows what the NPCs are doing, which implies that what they are doing is always known. If I say that the NPCs are of unknown potential, then, clearly they must be static. God is no longer paying attention to them! But the GM is not god. In a roleplaying game, god is merely one of the GM’s NPCs. The GM does not know everything, and attempting to pretend they do, by treating unobserved and non-affecting ideas as if they were part of the plot, is a failure mode.

Automated Scribus Daredevils NPC character sheets—Wednesday, July 7th, 2021
Scribus Daredevils character sheet

Scribus is great for creating RPG character sheets.

In part 1, the Daredevils NPC generator, I showed how to create simple character data in a form that makes it useful for a simple character sheet. It’s nice, however, to provide players a nice cardstock pregen with a familiar layout. I deliberately made that simple character sheet output from the daredevils script provide the data in a form that makes it easy to import into other software.

I chose to import it into Scribus, an open-source desktop publishing application that creates great PDF files and can be automated using the Python programming language. Scribus runs on macOS, Linux, and Windows.

Scribus has a Script menu; you can choose to “Execute” any Python script on your computer. I keep mine in ~/bin/Scribus, which is to say, in a folder called Scribus in a folder called bin in my macOS user account. You can put them anywhere. An obvious location would a Scribus folder in your Documents folder.

For the Kolchak game, I used a script I called daredevils.py to import the character sheets into Scribus, creating a new layer for each character. The bulk of the work is done in a class called Sheet. Here’s the start of that class:

[toggle code]

  • class Sheet:
    • def __init__(self, characterName):
      • self.skillsRect = self.getRect('skills')
      • self.backgroundItems = []
      • self.quotes = []
      • self.characterName = characterName
      • self.openSection('aspects')
      • # create the layer for this character sheet
      • scribus.gotoPage(1)
      • if characterName in scribus.getLayers():
        • scribus.setActiveLayer(characterName)
      • else:
        • scribus.createLayer(characterName)
      • self.createBox('Character', characterName)
Daredevils NPC generator—Wednesday, June 16th, 2021
Daredevils cover

I ran a fun game of Daredevils at North Texas at the beginning of the month. I set it in 1976 in the Kolchak: The Night Stalker television series universe. I can’t take credit for how great the game was—it was the great characterization by the players of their Kolchak television series characters that made it a high point of the con for me.

But the preparation of those characters was all on me, and I pregenerated a lot of characters for them to choose from. The pregens were various sources Kolchak had used over the series. Everyone from Lila Morton (the bereaved widow from Chopper) to Charles Rolling Thunder (the aged shaman from Bad Medicine), as well as each of Carl’s colleagues at Independent News Service.

This meant a lot of character sheets and it also meant adjusting skills a lot as I attempted to make each character unique and useful to the adventure. I continued adjusting each character as I slowly went through viewing the season again—rewatching Kolchak is never a chore—and added not just stats but quotes and background.

Doing all this rewriting by hand is a recipe for disaster. So I wrote a script (Zip file, 16.8 KB) to:

  • calculate each character’s calculated stats;
  • handle old age for the older characters;
  • verify each character’s attribute and development totals;
  • keep the format of the character sheets standard.

By using a script to calculate the calculated statistics, I ensure that no character has a mistake.1 And when I wanted to add a new calculated stat, I just had to add it to the script and re-run the script on the characters to give everyone that new calculation.

In a game like Daredevils, that’s useful, because while the rulebook lists a few official calculated statistics in the character creation section, there are also unofficial calculations scattered throughout the book. These are calculations that are technically not character stats but for all practical purposes are character stats. It’s nice to give them to the players to see.

When I decided to add the Healing Rate calculation—not technically a stat—I added its calculation to the script, and it added that line to all of the character files.

When I decided to add the optional “Luck” rule, I added Luck to the script, and it added Luck to all of the character files.

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