Results tagged “dungeons and dragons”

Jeff Grubb on Spelljammer's origins

Dungeons and Dragons design veteran Jeff Grub recalls the origins of Spelljammer, an early-1990s D&D supplement that allowed players to launch their faux-medieval fantasy campaigns into outer space.

Here is the image I pitched. A knight standing on the deck of a ship in space. He doesn’t freeze. He doesn’t blow up. He doesn’t float away. Everything that follows comes out of that one image, which is captured (with more to it as well) on the final cover Jeff Easley did. All what people have called “Grubbian Physics” with its air envelopes and its gravity planes, comes from creating a universe where that image is true.

The idea using a single image as a design cornerstone for a game (or a role-playing game’s setting) resonates with me. A single, powerful seed-image also lay at the core of The Warbler’s Nest, and was instrumental in getting me to actually complete and ship the game. I really just wanted make it real and share it as an experience; the rest of the game was almost just a delivery system for that one moment. (Which helps to explain why the whole thing’s so short…)

More thoughts on the passing of cruelty

I find it interesting, as an aside to yesterday’s column, to examine how applied cruelty has fallen from favor across multiple game media over time.

I chose the word “cruelty” quite intentionally, referencing Andrew Plotkin’s famous Cruelty Scale for interactive fiction and adventure games in general, even though that particular yardstick actually hasn’t seen much use lately. Today, adventure games worth playing rarely require players to keep more than one save file. Gone, largely, are the days where players must save early and often, managing an entire tableful of carefully named save-positions for easy — and inevitably frequent — access.

(In fact, the main reason the concept came to mind at all was Sarah Morayati’s excellent but unforgiving Broken Legs, a game that overtly classifies itself as belonging to the thorniest rung of Zarf’s scale, the one where games merrily — and silently — allow you put them into an unwinnable state. The game is an intentional stylistic throwback to certain knotted puzzlefests of yore, leaning against the modern trend that favors narrative over puzzles.[1] The game (which took second place in last year’s IFComp) succeeds because the player character — the irascible, scheming drama princess Lottie Plum — is an acerbic joy to play, and she tells a rollicking story, even if she herself is more interested in sabotaging all her peers than actually performing on-stage. But it’s a story you’ll need to patiently play though several times, if you want to give Lottie the best ending.)

Board games, too, have largely become a stranger to cruelty. When we filmed Diplomacy last year, I initially felt disappointed that no players got eliminated from our game — an ever-present possibility in this game from the 1950s. Not only would that have added easy drama to our unscripted, televised narrative, but we could have capitalized on the very concept of a board game that can “kill” players, forcing them to stop playing while their friends keep going — something that seems flatly outrageous by today’s tabletop design standards. Never mind certain shambling zombie-games that still manage to keep up this pretense…

And when’s the last time any of you with a tabletop RPG bent have ever had a character die — or, at at any rate, die without your full consent as a player? A few years ago, some local friends decided to play a game of first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, taking the circa-1975 rules literally as written, with the GM making no exceptions. This was back when phrases like the character must make a saving throw versus poison or die could be found dozens of times in any given rulebook or adventure description.

The result, of course, was a massacre, with individual players sometimes ripping through several character sheets within a single session, as their powered-up superheroes succumbed in a heartbeat to unlucky die rolls around falling-rock traps or venomous spiders. Nobody tried terribly hard to develop their doomed characters’ abilities, nor was there much call for inventing a completely new persona for each of their mayfly alter-egos. Clearly, these rules fit much better to a time when the game still had one foot in the category of miniatures-based wargaming.

So, the next time you’re playing a game of any sort that recognizably punishes failure without diminishing your level of fun, thank all those before you who have gave their in-game lives — over and over and over again — for the sake of inspiring better game design.

[1] Sarah reminds me about Jon Ingold’s delectably evil Make it Good, another capital-C Cruel game of recent vintage that is far larger and more difficult than her own work. The key point for me, though, is that I played Broken Legs more recently, and my memory is weak. So there’s that!

The definition of a magic system introduced in installment one could be sharpened from "any set of rules designed to simulate supernatural powers and abilities" to "any set of rules and symbols designed to simulate the alteration of reality through the will." This definition echoes Crowley's first axiom from Magick in Theory and Practice ("magic is the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will"), though it can apply to games without requiring designers to buy into any particular philosophical scheme.  Rather, an appreciation of magic requires only a little reflection on the profound mystery of the will: by deciding to do something, we can make it happen. For example, we focus our will to pick up a glass of water at lunch, and we do pick it up. Magic is an extension of similar taken-for-granted acts of will into a more profound longing: to control not just our immediate surroundings through the direct use of our body, but to shape nature, technology, other human beings, and the spirit world through the force of the will.

hereirule.jpgPerhaps most specifically, the fascination with magic stems from a desire to guide and shape the forces that govern the course of our individual human lives. The exercise of will to create change in life is murky and difficult, thwarted as it often is by forces both internal and external beyond our control. But in games, there is the potential of mastery, of understanding rules and then manipulating them through strategy in order to achieve a desired outcome. "Here I rule" is the marketing slogan of Magic: The Gathering, a declaration often accompanied by depictions of a skinny adolescent smirking confidently while surrounded by the fearsome monsters. As gamers, many of us identify with that sentiment.

As magic systems in games evolve, various forms of alteration of reality become formalized into types or "schools" of magic to categorize the ways in which players can alter a simulated reality. 


Gestural input is to some extent inherent in the language of magic, as seen in the phrases to "cast a spell" and to "weave an enchantment." The fantasy of weaving magic can be vividly seen on the cover of LucasArt's Loom (1990), in which two hands weave a glowing cat's cradle out of multi-colored light. (While Loom lacked any kind of gestural interface, its unique mode of musical spellcasting and melodic feedback will figure heavily into a later blog entry on multimodal feedback and audio magic.) Gesture is also an integral part of occultist approaches to magic, ranging from the pentagrams and hexagrams traced in the rituals of the Golden Dawn and Thelemic magick, the sigils drawn by Austin Osman Spare and Buddhist kuji-in mudras later adapted in the ninja-themed anime series Naruto.


Closely related to the idea of gestural magic is the verbal component of spell-casting, which appears in colloquial speech as a magic word. From David Copperfield to Harry Potter and the 2010 Sorcerer's Apprentice remake, the image of a wizard waving a wand and intoning a word in order to release a powerful magic spell pervades public consciousness of enchantment. Magic words are a direct extension of the arcane grammars that govern ritual and the combinatorial systems of runic languages discussed in the first installment of this blog series. Voice recognition software, now a standard part of Windows and readily available in more precise programs such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking, could heighten the immersive possibilities of incantation as a spellcasting method.

abracadabra.gifGestural input, in which players use a variety of input devices to trace symbols or fashion other secret signs with hands and body, is also especially relevant from a technological perspective after the 2010 E3 unveiling of Microsoft's Kinect (formerly project Natal) and the Playstation Move. These devices offer new levels of motion sensing technology, in addition to existing alternative input methods in the Wiimote and Wiimotion Plus, the Playstation Eye, and the force-feedback controls offered by the Novint Falcon. Each technology could be leveraged for new methods of casting spells, provided that designers can break out of the prevailing tray-of-icons approach to magic represented in many popular RPG's.

Envisioning the most creative use of new gestural and verbal technologies requires, paradoxically, an enterprise of game archeology, looking back into the history of games with magic in a search for hidden gems of unusual interfaces and input methods. Retro gaming and scholarship of retro games can offer a perspective on magic systems before they hardened into a single mold and became homogenized by marketing and ease of use or implementation.

Magick Systems in Theory and Practice: Installment One

I am pleased to introduce Jeff Howard, The Gameshelf’s first guest blogger.

Jeff is Assistant Professor of Game Development and Design at Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota. He is the author of
Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives. He received his B.A. from the University of Tulsa and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently working on a game-in-progress, Arcana Manor, and related research about magic systems.

He plans on writing about games and magic over the next couple of months here, starting with this post. Enjoy! —jmac


A magic system is any set of symbols and rules designed to rigorously simulate supernatural powers and abilities. Magic is pervasive as a game mechanic and fictional construct within games, spanning across genres (RPG, MMORPG, adventure game, action-adventure, fighter, survival horror) and decades (from the 1974 first edition of Dungeons and Dragons to World of Warcraft and beyond).

Magic is part of the very nature of why people play games: to simulate abilities that they do not possess in real life; to escape from the prison of the mundane to the realm of enchanted; to weave the chaotic forces of life into a rule-bound system that can be understood and, at least partially, controlled.

The problem is that many magic systems aren’t very magical. RPG’s, both multiplayer and single player, have the same shortcoming: players press a button on a tray of icons, then watch an animation fire, followed by a cooldown period, after which players press the same button again. This process of spamming a hotkey button or two, cued to one’s most powerful spells, doesn’t feel like magic.

Magic, as depicted in fantasy literature and occult tradition alike, is a complex and arcane art comprised of gestures and words, as well as ingredients carefully combined with ritualistic artifacts in order to draw away the veil between the natural and supernatural worlds. So, the question emerges: how could designers put the magic back into magic systems?

Speak with Monsters

Screen shot 2010-06-22 at 11.39.46 PM.pngAs a palate cleanser after the previous eye-rolling meta-post, allow me to offer a link to Lore Sjöberg’s Speak with Monsters, a gameish webcomic I admire for its doing a lot with a narrow subject space. Specifically, Sjölberg wanders up and down the pages of 1977’s original Monster Manual from first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, adapting its uneven but unforgettable artwork and Gary Gygax’s far-out descriptive text and and rules into a series of four-panel comic strips.

It starts out on a high note with a cartoon starring that mustachioed dude from the original book’s “Rot Grubs” illustration (who quickly becomes a recurring character), and continues to explore other oddities of the Gygax era like Shambling Mounds, Bulettes, and, er, Herd Animals. If you’re like me (where “like me” might mean that you burned all the original Monster Manual illustrations to memory as a child), you’ll gulp down the whole mad menagerie in a sitting, and then subscribe for more.

The Isomorphism of Clerics

Medic and Cleric.pngTwo years after purchasing it (mostly because Portal was on the same disc), I have started regularly playing Team Fortress 2. My delay came from my general lack of enthusiasm about first-person shooters. My writing about it here comes from surprising insights about my own relationship with games that struck me soon after I began to play it.

On the surface, TF2 is an intentionally silly online-only shooter where players, after choosing one of nine character classes, leap into a battle whose goal is one of the time-tested multiplayer FPS standards: capture the flag, king of the hill, or base attack/defense. Sometimes I mix it up with whichever random folks happen to be online when I'm feeling scrappy. My "real" games, though, occur on Sunday evenings with a group known as Clan Elysium who operate out of the web forum Geezer Gamers, a haven for grown-up Xbox Live fans. These times have proven to be some of the most fun I've ever had sitting on the couch with a controller in my hands, and friend, I'd logged a lot of hours under those conditions before this.

There have been three major effects of this experience. First of all, it's reignited my interest in online digital games, both as a player and a ludeaste, and led me to reconsider what kinds of video games deserve the treasure of my attention right now. It also threw some wood under Planbeast, the project I soft-launched last year and then all but ignored; a subsequent post I made to the Geezers' forum unexpectedly led to a small boom of use for that site, and I spent a happy week responding to bug reports that resulted in several significant improvements to the service.

But what I want to write about here comes from the surprising insight this game afforded me regarding the play style I favor, and what this teaches me about unexpected connections between very different kinds of games.

Mutants, Magic and Isometric Bitmaps


Howdy kids! It's Sideshow Joe Johnston, co-host of The Gameshelf. I wanted to add on to what Kevin Jackson-Mead said about one of my favorite genres of video games: Computer Role-Playing Games (CRPG).

As a little dude growing up in the late seventies, I was introduced to the pen and paper game by TSR (now Wizards of the Coast) called Dungeons & Dragons. Maybe you've heard of it? Now the real drag about D&D for me was all the manual bookkeeping that was required. Mapping, character sheets, marching order -- too much like Real Work for me.

It would be years later when I got my hands on a real computer to play Might and Magic II by the tragically defunct New World Computing. Mapping was automatic and even battle could be automated via QuickFight. I love games that play themselves so that I can grab a beverage. Of the M&M series, I enjoyed 4&5 (Clouds of Xeen) the most.

I love isometric 3D tile games, mostly because First Person Shooters make me physically ill. I enjoy turn-based combat games because I not very nibble anymore. As many others have noted, perhaps the finest CRPG yet made is Fallout, the Post-Nuclear adventure series. While I only once played Gamma World, it's clear that the folks at Black Isle Studios really got the flavor and the mechanics right. Heck, the narrator of opening montage for the first three Fallout titles is Ron Perlman, Hellboy himself! I jumped into the series with Fallout 2, which included a much-improved UI and expanded game. However, I think the original Fallout had a more coherent story line. Both should be played by any RPG fan.

When I have more time, I will talk at length about Fallout's SPECIAL system, which is just a ducky model for RPGs in general (even though it's based on GURPS, which isn't quite my cup of tea).

Today, I ran across a fantasy RPG called Undercroft by Rack in the Grass. When I have finished the game, I'll post a review here.

I'm a big fan of independent game designers (like Rake in the Grass) and will try to feature in this blog those games that might have escaped your notice, as well as going on like a fan boy about games you already know a lot about. I'll also dive into the world of TSR's minigames like Vampire and Revolt on Antares. Finally, I love a good casual Flash game, like Funeral Quest.

If you don't like the content, you can get double your money back!

More content later.



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