Sunday, June 29, 2014

One Page Dungeon Contest: My Judging

As discussed before, I was one of the judges for this year's One Page Dungeon Contest, which was administered very admirably by fellow blogger and All Around Cool Cat, Random Wizard.

Over the coming days, I'll be posting a small series regarding the One Page Dungeon Contest, including interviewing many of the other judges (including Sean K. Reynolds, Steve Winter, Daniel R. Collins, and Brendan aka "Necropraxis"). I've also been chatting with Ernie Gygax and Benoist Poiré and will post their thoughts as well when they have a chance to respond (they're busy working on an RPG project right now). 

To start things off, I thought I'd offer up my impressions of the contest this year. This was my first time judging a contest like this, although I have of course been aware of the One Page Dungeon Contest for the past several years. 

Right away, the main thing I noticed was that the number of entries was significantly higher than predicted by our friend Random Wizard. Ahem. :) That's actually a cool thing, and a nice testament to the amount of work that RW did to promote the contest and get more entries this year. I had communicated with RW that often times my work schedule is sporadic - while recently I've been at a nice steady level of general business, there are times when my work just explodes and I'll have to pull a few nights' worth of all-nighters to get everything done. As fate would have it, one of these busy periods coincided right during the judging of the One Page Dungeon Contest. I ended up having to travel cross-country from the Los Angeles area to New York four different times in about six weeks, plus another trip to New Orleans. However, this somewhat worked out as it provided me with some time to read on the plane.

My Process
I ended up downloading all of the submissions to my Dropbox and reading them on my iPad on the plane rides back and forth across the country, and I also read some on my phone in other areas where I didn't have a WiFi connection. After I read each submission, I typed notes about them into Evernote, which again I could access easily from my phone, iPad, or desktop. 

Once I'd read through each submission, I went back through my notes and assigned them to one of three groups: "Definite," "Maybe," and "No." Submissions that made it to the Definite and the Maybe categories were re-read and I made some additional notes. At this stage, there were a few entries that ended up shifting categories (a "Definite" might get downgraded to a "Maybe" or a "Maybe" got get downgraded to a "No" but usually what happened as a "Maybe" got upgraded to a "Definite"). 

To give you an example, here's a look at what some of my actual notes were - these are from a variety of different submissions. Each submission would have between four and eight short notes like these as my "first impressions":

  • Layout makes it a bit difficult to follow
  • Frequent misspellings
  • Tons of typos throughout
  • Not clear from the set-up if the party is supposed to know ahead of time that they are supposed to helping [NPC] or if they are supposed to just figure it out along the way
  • Main bad guys are not part of standard monsters found in typical fantasy RPG rulebooks, and there's no mention of where to find the stats for such creatures
  • Like the idea of giving the GM ideas for expansion beyond just what's on the page
  • No major typos!
  • Simple layout is a bit deceptive - there's a lot of fun stuff in here
  • Very dense text makes it difficult to discern the main theme/goal
  • Actually some really clever ideas in here but the design and layout is not well-executed for a one-page dungeon format
  • Some of the descriptive text is very difficult to read (too light and/or too small)

That's just a few short examples, but hopefully you get the idea. 

Please No Typos
I'm sure I'll take some flack for this as many people might not think it's important, but I can assure you that proper spelling and grammar makes a huge impact. For me reading, after the third or fourth typo, I ended up tuning out, and therefore might have missed what could have been a good idea. When reading through over 100 submissions, cutting entries out for constant typos is an easy way to cull the herd. One or two I could excuse, but where it becomes a problem is constant misspellings of common words that should have been caught in a spell-checker (e.g., "seperation" instead of "separation") or it might only have been one word that was misspelled, but that word was repeated throughout the submission because it was also part of the title of the adventure.

Also, since this was only a one page submission, it seems as though it should be a relatively simple job to read over and edit your work at least once if not twice. Not a good speller? Have a friend read your submission next year. 

Presentation Is Key
Again, after reading through 100+ submissions, something that was a nice site for sore, tired eyes was a clean presentation that makes good use of white space and has a nice, easy-to-follow layout. I can't tell you how many times I ended up sighing after opening up a new PDF and seeing a wall-of-text with little or no illustrations or graphic designs to help break it up. A one-page format is not an excuse to write a two- or three-page dungeon, then shrink the text down to an infinitesimally small font size and reduce the margins to 0.05" just to cram it all in. If you find yourself having to make your text smaller than about an 8 point font (I'd really prefer no smaller than 10 point, although the actual font itself does make a difference as well), that's a sign that you need to edit your adventure and cut it down. 

Many of the entries that made it to at least the "Maybe" category are ones that stood out due to a solid and/or clever layout, easy-to-read presentation, and no recurrent typos or grammatical mistakes. A few of my notes along this line were:
  • Very nice layout
  • Gets a little difficult to read because the text is so tiny
  • Fun layout but almost gets into the way of reading (e.g., needing to turn my tablet sideways to read certain parts)
  • Pretty nice presentation and that's austere and not too text-heavy
Themes Are Important
However, to move past the "Maybe" stage, entries had to have more than just good presentation, spelling, and grammar. Given the prevalence of free maps available online as well as the amount of very inexpensive PDFs of maps and such, just offering a map with a few room descriptions isn't really enough. To me, the One Page Dungeon Contest is a chance to be creative and show that you can come up with an idea that goes beyond, "High on a dark hill rests an ancient keep..." or yet another kidnapped heir/princess/child that needs to be rescued. 

Show Me How Creative You Are
Following up on the above point, many of the "dungeons" that made their way to my "Definitely" category are ones that included a clever hook or just non-standard fantasy tropes. 

A few things I liked that I noticed as I went through the entries:

  • Science-fiction themes. I know a lot of people don't like this and one judge specifically said (after the fact) not to do this, but for me, after reading submission after submission of standard fantasy it was nice to have it broken up a bit with science-fiction.
  • Non-Standard Fantasy. Similarly to above, there were some fun non-standard takes on fantasy, such as pulp, clockwork, etc. that were different and fun. 
  • Use of Creator Knowledge. What I mean by this is, there were a few entries where it was clear the creator used their real-world knowledge of things they had studied or just hobbies of theirs as an adventure hook. Specifically, one dungeon relied heavily on architectural knowledge and another one involved "scene names" that were fantasy puns of some old 1950s comedy musicals which at first glance seemed like an amusing one-trick gimmick but on a second reading revealed a well thought-out adventure. 
  • A Good Title Stands Out. I really didn't want to name actual submissions for my examples but there's no way to talk about this without specifics. Two different entries illustrate this point. "Vikings Vs Mutant Goatmen" and "Outlaw Camp in the Prehistorical Shrine of the Mermen Maiden." Now, neither of these made their way into the finalists (although one of them was in my Top 10), but I can tell you as I scanned through the entries and saw the vikings and mutant goatmen one, I was really looking forward to reading it. It piqued my interest. The one with the outlaw camp and the prehistoric shrine I thought should have won a prize just for having not only what I think was the longest adventure titles in the submissions, but also one of the most creative and idea-inspiring titles.
  • Random Tables. These are a hallmark of the so-called Old School Renaissance and while the dungeons don't necessarily have to adhere to an OSR sensibility, I think the one page dungeon format really lends itself to the use of random tables for things like NPC personalities, mundane items or clues the heroes might find, NPC names and titles, etc. It's a smart way to save space but still get across a feeling for your theme.

A Few Other Things to Note

You'll note above that I several times use the word "clever" in a positive way to donate dungeon designs that caught my interest. Being clever is a way to stand out from the rest of the pack of submissions and illustrate your personality as a game designer (within the one page dungeon format; it's obviously not the end-all, be-all of game design). However a corollary to being clever is that you shouldn't be clever "for the sake of being clever." Cleverness is, admittedly, a bit vague but your design needs to hold together and be useful with a minimal amount of prep. That's part of the one page dungeon design to me - as a GM, I should be able to print it out, grab some dice, and start running it right away. I'll allow for some minor "cut this out" type of stuff. But, as an example of what I'm talking about, there was one dungeon that I thought was extremely clever and fun but it involved the GM needed to go out and buy some additional materials that aren't exactly found at your corner drug or grocery store and do a pretty significant amount of physical prep work (not just reading it and making sure you know your monster stats or rules for fire damage, for example) but actual "crafting," for lack of a better word. 

Don't get me wrong - I actually really liked this dungeon and the "clever part" was something that allowed the dungeon to essentially be "bigger" than a single page. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that a one page dungeon entry was not the right format for this design. 

I should note that you should take this piece of advice with a grain of salt, because the dungeon of which I'm speaking actually made it into the finals; some of the other judges obviously liked it well enough.

Finally - Why Did the Winning Entry "Win"?
I actually did select the winning entry as one of my Top 10 finalists, so that vote would have helped propel it to the top. Note that these are only my thoughts on why I picked this entry, not necessarily why it won according to everyone else.

For me, the things I liked best about the Island of the Lizard God are below. You'll note that most of the things I say about it are things I mention up above as to what makes a good entry:

  • It had a nicely drawn and very colorful map
    • Again, after reading through over 100 submissions, most of which were in black-and-white, having this one in full color was a nice change of pace for my eyes
  • It has a fun, pulp-fantasy theme (not just standard stuff like goblins and undead) with lizard-men and a dinosaur god
  • It had a non-standard setting (a tropical jungle island) as opposed to yet another deserted keep or dungeon
  •  A random table for weather, with some fun and colorful descriptions (e.g., "gasping humidity" and "pyroclastic firestorm!")
  • The adventure itself is easy-to-understand on first reading - it's not so complicated that a GM couldn't read it quickly and have a firm grasp on how to run it immediately
  • Despite being only one page, and has a ton of different ideas and area descriptions without feeling cramped and difficult to read
  • While lizard-men aren't so typical that they're cliché, they're common enough that most fantasy game systems have a description of them or something very similar in their bestiaries, so the stats are easy to come by

That does it for my thoughts on the 2014 One Page Dungeon Contest.  I would love to hear your thoughts on my process as detailed above, especially if you entered this year's (or even a previous year's) contest. I'd also like to hear from others in general about what you think makes a good one-page dungeon adventure. 

I'll be posting highlights of an interview I did with some of the other judges later this week, so you can see how they approached judging the contest (many times differently than I did). And then even later this week, I have a few other things to say about a couple of special entries in this year's contest.

Hanging: home office (laptop)
Listening: "Blue Rondo A La Turk" by the Dave Brubeck Quartet
Drinking: Double Jack (Double IPA) by Firestone Walker Brewing Company

Thursday, June 26, 2014

80's TV Thursday: Manimal

Image © Watchr Media 2014
Yep, there was actually a very short-lived series back in the 1980's called "Manimal" which was ranked #15 on TV Guide's "50 Worst TV Shows of All Time."

Of course, this was 1983 so I was just barely 13, and I thought it was really cool. Anyone else remember this one?

Similarly to another show from 1983 that I've talked about before, Wizards & Warriors, Manimal also only ran for 8 episodes (including the 90-minute pilot), albeit on NBC (W&W was on CBS).

Manimal is about..., well, the title pretty much says it all. It's guy who is part man and part animal. Neverind the fact that humans are "animals."

More specifically, the show is about Dr. Jonathan Chase, played by Simon MacCorkindale (a character on a variety of TV shows, including Counterstrike and the British series Casualty). Dr. Chase is a wealthy and handsome young doctor who spent his youth in African with his missionary father, where he learned the secrets that "divide man from animal... animal from man."

The good doctor is accompanied by his friend Ty Earl (played by Michael D. Roberts, best known as Rooster on "Baretta"), and together the two of them help solve criminal cases for Police Detective Brooke MacKenzie (Melody Anderson, best known as Dale Arden from the movie "Flash Gordon"). Only these two companions know Dr. Chase's secret of how he can transform into animals, which he does frequently when it's useful to help Brooke close her cases.

Animal Transformations
While Dr. Chase has the ability to transform into any animal, he transforms into a hawk or a "black panther" (which, again, my buddy Cal would point out is a mythical creature, since black panthers not a separate species but just a melanistic color variant of either a leopard or a jaguar) in pretty much every episode. At points throughout the series, he also turned into a horse, a snake, a dolphin, a bear, and a bull. A source of ridicule for the show, Dr. Chase's clothes would rip off of him during transformation and yet not be shown anywhere on the ground, and when he transformed back to human form, his clothes were miraculously back, completely intact.

We Really Hate Those Scary Communists
Bad guys on the show were often just the average every-day criminal element (hijackers and pseudo-mob types), but there were some more exotic criminals such as a guy who stole a race horse and then entered it into a race.

We also get a completely realistic Chinese guy who masquerades as the legendary "Dragon" in Chinatown, as well as a Bulgarian diplomat and some Russian "agents."

The Writing on the Wall
The show ended after only eight episodes, on December 17th, 1983, but the character of Dr. Jonathan Chase was resurrected briefly for a guest-spot on another show in 1998 called "Nightman."

Anything Good Here for my Role-Playing Games?
There's probably some stuff you could dig out of the whole "I learned how to divide man from animal from rituals I was taught in African as a young boy" but it's probably more appropriate to a pulp-style 1930's type game than it was to the 1980's when the show aired.

Is It Good for Kids?
This is just pure campy 1980's fun. I wouldn't think it's all that harmful but as a modern pseudo-police procedural, there are guns, shoot-outs, criminals who steal and hurt people, etc. As always, you should watch it for yourself first before sharing it with your kids.

  • Format: Eight episodes (one 90-minute pilot and seven 60-minute episodes)
  • Where to Buy: This is another series that doesn't seem to be available here in the U.S., but a DVD version was put out in England and later in France about 12 years ago or so. I'm sure you could probably find it streaming online somewhere. 
  • Price: N/A
  • Rated: Not rated
  • More Information: The Manimal page on IMBD

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Stone Sprocketbier (a black rye Kölsch-style ale)
Listening: "Mambo Craze" by De-Phazz

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Anarchist League of Scientists

How's that for an adventure-inspiring title?

Here's a short premise you can use for an adventure style RPG. In just a few paragraphs, I give you a "premise," some character types, setting ideas, and an adventure hook.

The premise: A group of maverick scientists (let's call them the "Anarchist League of Scientists") have worked tirelessly to create a machine that can punch through the barriers of reality. The complete ramifications of the discovery are not fully understood at first, but it's discovered that the machine makes possible the travel to other universes and other realities.

The personalities: Good stories rely on how relatable and fully developed the characters are. Let's create some characters for this story, both PCs and NPCs. To make it a bit fun and not just a standard science-fiction time travel story, let's add some color to our team of scientists by including stuff like the corporate financiers who aren't entirely sure what the anarchist scientists are up to. And, let's make our lead character a bit flawed. He's having an affair with one of his scientist colleagues. Lots of "late nights at the office" type of stuff. And he's a family man, so let's throw some kids in there. Yeah, this is a bit of a 1950s or 1960s pulp throw-back story, so we're got some adventuring kids along for the ride. But, after all, this is the "modern age" so they aren't your goody-two-shoes type of kids from "Lost in Space," 1970's "Battlestar Galactica," or "Star Trek: TNG." No, these kids are a bit worldly (one of them might actually be aware of her dad's indiscretions but is keeping it bottled up inside). And just for the sake of some cool role-playing opportunities, let's throw in a traitor. A guy who wants to destroy the machine, for his own personal reasons. Fill out the adventuring party with a selection of solider-types and more scientists.

The setting: This is the beauty of a campaign like this. Due to the universe-bending nature of the machine, we can create any kind of planets and settings we want. Let's go a bit crazy and think of some really strange and fun alternate worlds. How about a planet of crazy monkey shamans who worship some kind of strange ghost plants who have the ability to inhabit and control sentient life forms? And the entire world looks like a pulp-stylized world of the Himelayas with snow-capped mountains and ancient Buddhist-type temples. Let's do another world that is in a state of battle that's vaguely reminiscent of World War I trench warfare, but the Allies are actually technologically advanced Native Americans who are fighting against the Germans. Just some thought starters - we can add more worlds as we go along.

The challenge: No good story or game is going to be any good without some challenges. So, let's decide that the machine (how about we call it "The Pillar" - that's a fun name that's reminiscent of "2001: A Space Odyssey" and gives all sorts of different ideas about what it is and how it works) is broken. Maybe it's sabotage? But it zaps our team of Anarchist Scientists (including the two kids) to another world and then malfunctions. Our team has to stay alive in hostile environments while attempting to fix the Pillar before it zaps them somewhere else. They all have to be close to the Pillar before it transports them next. Otherwise, anybody not nearby is going to be left-behind forever.

Sound like a fun campaign? Want to develop it a bit more? If so, you can read about it in the pages of Black Science: How to Fall Forever, a comic book published by Image Comics, by Rick Remender and artist Matteo Scalera.

Yup. A comic book. What - no capes? No superpowers? Nope, this is a straight-up old-school style Science Fiction story and it's one of my favorites of 2014. But I suspect that had I put "New Comics Wednesday: Black Science" as the title of my post, many people who don't read comics might have skipped it, thinking it "wasn't for them."

My point is that we can find inspiration for our RPGs from a variety of sources, as well as that there are a ton of really great, well-written and well-illustrated comic book stories out there that don't involve "guys in capes." 

You can read my full review of the first trade paperback of Black Science, which collects the first six issues of the story and is available for the bargain price of $9.99 (or probably less if you decide to buy it from somewhere like Amazon). I reviewed the title recently for ComicAttack. Here's a link to read more.

Hope you enjoyed this bit of comic-book gaming inspiration. Please let me know what you think in the comments.

  • Format: Trade paperback collecting six full-color issues
  • Where to Buy: As always, I strongly encourage you to buy this at your local comic book store. You can find one close to you by using the Comic Shop Locator. If you don't have one close by, you can buy a print version online at places like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or you can buy a digital version to read on your desktop, tablet, or smartphone at Comixology. That link takes you to the trade paperback of the first six issues, but if you just want to dip your toe into the series, the first issue is available for only $0.99.
  • Price: This is a real bargain for only $9.99 (cover price)
  • Rated: This is for more mature people - the Age Rating on Comixology is 17+.
  • More Information: Here's the official page on Black Science at Image Comics.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Last night I made a "Corzo Holly" which has tequila, muddled strawberries and basil, simple syrup, and balsamic vinegar. It was fantastic.
Listening: "Tighten Up, Part 1" by Archie Bell & the Drells

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Teaching Little Geeks: Happy Father's Day!

A proud Geek Dad Moment: Halloween 2013
In addition to being, as defined by Urban Dictionary, a "dude" or "man" but "with a much cooler zen-bohemian a d/or streetwise hipster attitude," (Daddy-O), I am an actual biological "daddy" as well, as most of you readers know, so I wanted to take a moment to wish all the dads out there a Happy Father's Day.

This year, I'm unfortunately not going to be able to spend the day with my wife and daughter. They left town on Friday afternoon to spend the weekend with my in-laws in the San Jose area of Northern California. Many of you might be asking, "Why didn't you go with them?" and the answer is that because my wife is a very cool and loving person who knew that I wouldn't have much interest in sitting around while the rest of the women in the family attended my sister-in-law's baby shower. I did my part, however, by buying a Flash Onesie and some Batman socks for my soon-to-be nephew. Geek Dads are cool like that.

So, for me, it's been a bit of a bachelor weekend, going to my local pub on Friday night to catch up on some World Cup games but instead being subjected to hundreds of screaming soccer fans during the NHL Finals. I did get to try to cool new IPAs (new to me, at least) as my pub is currently holding a Summer IPA Festival with about 20 different IPAs on tap in addition to their regular tap list.

Yesterday I was taken in by my friends for game day and dinner. We played Lords of Waterdeep, which I've played several times before, but never won. Yesterday I "won" although technically another player, a young woman named Kathy, won according to the actual rules. She and I tied in terms of number of points, and also coincidentally tied for most money, which is supposed to be the tie-breaker. The second tie-breaker, according to the rules, is most cubes (which represent Fighters, Clerics, Wizards, and Thieves) and by that accounting, Kathy solidly beat me. However, before we started playing my friend Cal said that the house-rule he likes to use is that whoever has completed the "Domesticated Owlbears" Quest can use that as the ultimate tie-breaker card and I had completed that Quest card because it matched my strategy to do so (it's an "Arcana" quest and my Lord of Waterdeep card gave bonus points for each "Arcana" card completed).

We also played a game called Smash Up, which was new to me but it seems like a fun, quick, "gateway" game (good for people who don't normally played strategy board games). Part of the appeal is the fun theme of the game - there are eight factions: Tricksters (leprechauns, goblins, etc.), Robots, Aliens, Zombies, Pirates, Ninjas, Dinosaurs, and Wizards. Each player picks two factions and that because his or her "army" used to capture bases that provide victory points. I ended up with Aliens and Zombies which was a fun combination but ultimately lost the game to my friend Raellen.

Cal and Raellen provided some awesome beer and wine, as usual, and I also brought over a couple of bottles of Stone "Enjoy By" (7/4/2014) IPA, which was really good - very strong pine scenes on the nose but much more mellow on the palate.

My daughter, Joy, about 3 days old.
Nearly 5 years ago (July 2009)
Today while my wife and daughter are gone, I'll be going to the Dodger game with my dad. They're playing the D-backs so there's a good 30% chance they might actually make a decent showing this game. They're been a bit of a disappointment this year considering the amount of money spent on the team and the amount of talented players on the roster.

The rest of my weekend so far has been taken up with playing some video games on my old PS2 (yeah, I'm still playing PS2 - video games really aren't my thing), catching up on some movies on which I can turn up the volume much higher than normal, and of course reading this week's allotment of comics.

I wish all of you out there a Happy Father's Day - let me know in the comments below how you ended up celebrating.


Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Listening: "Well, You Needn't" by the Miles Davis Quintet
Drinking: Black coffee

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