Brainstorming My Halloween Adventure (2014)

Well, I’m alive like a sprouting seed, like the deepest roots of an ancient tree / I did not come here for the bread, no, I have come to wake the dead

—”Stranger,” The Devil Makes Three

With Halloween coming up, I’ve been brainstorming this year’s one-shot RPG adventure. Most years, when I can, I run a Halloween-themed one-shot, usually using a game that’s in development or something that I’m not otherwise playing much of lately. The adventure always has a Halloween feeling, even if it’s not a horror game per se or set in a world without Halloween per se.

A previous adventure cast the players as agents of Abraham Lincoln’s most-secret service hunting warlocks in Atlanta just before General Sherman enacted his plan to burn the city and drive them out. Another stranded ordinary folk on a haunted Canadian island the night a summoned Fomori came to eat people. Ghost detectives and space aliens have featured in the past, too.

This year, I’m taking D&D’s 5th edition for a spin in a war-torn, flu-riddled fantastical hellscape where characters from a BPRD-like organization set out to rescue some missing agents and save a bombed-out town in No One’s Land. In my head, the whole thing has an early 20th-century look with fine black suits, gas masks, and broom-handled pistols mixing with swords and shields and classic D&D monsters. It’s a little bit like Ravenloft circa 1919, I guess. I’m in the brainstorming phase.

That brainstorming involves two things at this point:

First, the aesthetic and thematic elements all go in a hopper. What monsters do I want? What visuals do I want to draw out and encourage? What’s a red herring and what’s the secret truth behind the horror? I’m using D&D, in part, because I want the players puzzling out just what kind of monster(s) they’re facing and how they’ll bring them down. I need twice as many pre-gens because these are all 1st-level characters — many of the PCs may perish along the way.

Second, I make a playlist that has the sort of feeling I’m after and I play it in the background while I’m doing other things, to see what sparks. In this case, that playlist features things like:

  • "A Lyke Wake Dirge" by Matt Beringer & Andrew Bird
  • The Road to Perdition by Thomas Newman
  • Squirrel Nut Zippers
  • Abel Korzeniowski’s music from Penny Dreadful
  • Danny Elfman’s “Wolf Suite” from The Wolfman
  • "Stranger" by The Devil Makes Three

Sometimes I share some of the material I cook up for these games after the fact — usually for free — and this year I’ll do the same, depending on what I get written after-hours before the game session. (If you want, I’ll write more about this year’s adventure when it’s no longer a spoiler for my players.)

Watch me roll like an iron wheel, I can stack the deck when the spirits deal / Time cannot hold me in this cage, I’m cheating death, I jump the grave

— “Stranger,” The Devil Makes Three


Earlier today, ICYMI, I was thinking out loud on Twitter about Twitter as an MMO space and how we might see analogies for other pastimes in Twitter — and vice versa. I use experience-point analogies rather a lot, so this probably isn’t very surprising.

Here’s what I wrote, in reverse order:

I don’t know, but there it is.

Bungie’s interplanetary space-fantasy teems with grand-sounding names that feel almost blandly epic — this is another battle of Light versus Darkness — but the game backs all that up with badass gear, mysterious figures, and rich environments that are all about the interplay of light and shadow. This might be most evident on Earth’s moon. Look at that sky (it changes all the time) and the way its light plays on the weapon of warfare that anchors you in the frame.

The Relationship Between Good Game Writing and Good Game Design

Every game writer should read George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.”

[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.

There’s so much RPG writing out there whose only foundational influence is other RPG writing — “bad habits spread by imitation.”

And Orwell nails it (hence my emphasis) when he points out that this sloppy, thoughtless use of language actually makes our designs worse, not just because it makes the written expression of our designs less elegant, but because sloppy writing actually affects our thinking about games in the first place.

Designers string together bits of description, bits of background, bits of mechanic that have come before without critical thought, with the vague sense that if they’ve come before, there must be some kind of reason.

[M]odern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.

If you are an RPG developer and you’ve never received 10,000 words from a freelance writer that has exactly that problem, you’re fortunate.

That said, the good news is up there in the first quote: “…the process is reversible.” There’s a virtuous cycle of precise language and thoughtful design. They feed each other.

Read the essay.

My Eyes On Alien: Isolation

I didn’t spend much time on the floor at PAX Prime this past weekend for two main reasons: 1.) The throngs make me uncomfortable and 2.) I’ve assigned my video-game budget up through February already, so I didn’t need to be sold on games I’m already buying.

Still, I went up there to check out Alien: Isolation because I am deeply excited about that game and I wanted to see if I could watch someone play it. And, sure enough, the booth had a monitor displaying the actual play of those inside a giant, enclosed alien egg with an Xbox One.

The game’s lovely, lovingly realized, and moody as all hell. The loading screen is brilliant — even the loading screen! — and the mission briefing has a great VHS quality I appreciate. But what about the gameplay itself?

There, in the midst of those teeming throngs, with the noise and hubbub of the floor all around us, I watched a dozen or so people flinch and shudder and recoil as the alien itself strode onto the screen hunting the player. It was chilling. The alien looks spectacular — and enormous. It’s tail flickers about behind it and its body language is just discernible enough to know that this thing means business. The folks I saw play didn’t get out of the demo — every one of them was caught and slain by the beast even when they had an incinerator on hand. Their deaths were frightening but still a little classy: smash cut to darkness.

I am going to play this game a whole bunch, I predict.

Dragon Age: Inquisition Will Feature Co-op Multiplayer!!!



Cooperative multiplayer is coming to Dragon Age: Inquisition, and the four-player adventure isn’t as close to Mass Effect 3’s online mode as you might expect. Both share qualities, particularly in their economies, but in almost every instance, Inquisition’s levels, characters, and economy are significantly deeper.

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Having dug Mass Effect’s multiplayer, I am intrigued…

XCOM: The Board Game's companion app is more than just a gimmick

Am I shocked to learn that board-gaming veteran and genius, Eric Lang (Chaos in the Old World, Quarriors!), is blurring the lines between app and board game? That he’s integrating digital functionality into a board game? That he’s made the app something more than accessory or optional add-on? That he’s done it with a franchise as rich and fun as XCOM? That he’s done it, by all accounts, in a way that is not only satisfying and logical but also pioneering and terrific fun? 

I am not. This is what Eric Lang does.

Go get us, Eric Lang.