Thursday, August 5, 2021

Cryptic Signals - Mausritter, Anomalous Subsurface Environment, Honey in the Rafters, Doodle Champion Island Games


Both WFS and I have written favorably about Isaac Williams' Mausritter in the past, especially its mechanics, so this will be a brief review of Mausritter's adventure generating tool, found on the last few pages of the book. 

The recommended campaign structure for an ongoing Mausritter campaign is a hexcrawl sandbox, where each hex contains a landmark and a complication that potentially makes interacting with the landmark more interesting. The recommended hexcrawl map is 19-hex region formed by a central hex with two rings around it. It's the same map structure as in In the Light of a Ghost Star, the same structure as a Hex Flower, and as Dungeon of the Brain Jar notes, it's a structure that's become a popular template for hexcrawling recently, sort of a wilderness analog to the jewelbox dungeon.

Mausritter's hex flower sandboxes are centered on a peaceful settlement, and each contains two main adventure sites. The player character mice don't start in the settlement though - they start in a hex with an adventure site. Getting to town is your second goal. Surviving the adventure is your first. The example hexcrawl in the Mausritter book actually only details 11 hexes our of the 19, but referees are encouraged to fill them all.

The first roll in each hex determines the terrain - countryside, forest, river, or human town. A second roll generates a landmark specific to the terrain type. These are mostly geographical features. The kinds of landmarks you might navigate by, but not necessarily anything to invite further interaction quite yet. The final roll generates what Isaac calls a "complication." These are mostly additional sites within the hex, places where mice live, and thus places where the player character mice can interact with NPCs. Example complications include religious sites, places where a lone mouse lives, even settlements. There are also ruins, abandoned places, and various naturally occurring locations. Each complication includes both a prompt and a leading question to encourage the referee to develop it further. There are also a few tables to begin generating the central settlement.

As I said, Isaac suggests placing two primary adventuring sites in each hex flower sandbox. There's one set of tables for generating the adventure sites, and another for generating what Isaac calls the "adventure seeds" - the client, their problem, and a complication. So you could pick your adventure sites by looking at the map so far and deciding where you think the two most promising locales are, or you could start by generating the sites and then deciding afterward where to place them. However you decide where to put them, you then pick one to serve as the starting point for the campaign.

I think these tables probably work best if the referee mixes some random results, some results chosen using the tables as a menu of options, and some of their own creation. There are 20 landmarks for each terrain type and a total of 20 complications - so repeated across 19 hexes, pure random generation might look a little strange, especially in a setting that's intended to be less gonzo and more naturalistic. Besides, even if you trust the dice to the maximum extent, you'll still have to make choices, turn the complications from starter ideas to actual locations and place the two adventuring sites. So my sense remains that these tables work better as sparks for the referee's creativity than as full-on stand-alone procedural generators.

Blackpond Manor and Waterland Environs - click here to view

I used the tables to generate a hex flower sandbox. It ended up being very heavy on rivers and human towns. Let's call it Waterland. It's centered on the fallen mouse aristocratic manor of Blackpond. The two adventuring sites are both home to rival cat lords, one of whom obviously believes the other is their star-crossed lover, and the other who is just as obviously a faerie disguised as a cat. Since I generated this map for a review, I didn't exercise any of my own choice or creativity in placing the hexes or developing any of the prompts. This is the start of a sandbox, but it won't be ready to play without a little more work from the referee. (Anne)

Anomalous Subsurface Environment - Patrick Wetmore - 89 Pages - 2011

"ASE" was written early in the "OSR" period and is a rare product of the era that cast D&D nostalgia aside (by embracing other 1980's nostalgia) and successfully creates a novel gonzo setting.  I have been a fan of "ASE" since I discovered it on the authors blog in 2011, written multiple locations for its setting, and even produced art and supplemental maps for it's lower levels (ASE II). ASE is a unique artifact of its time, but like Stonehell offers both cautions and instruction to the aspiring megadungeon designer. 

Choosing to recontextualize (there are elves and goblins in ASE) the Gygaxian vernacular fantasy of early D&D, Wetmore creates a setting largely built around the 1980's children's cartoon Thundarr the Barbarian.  A sort of He-Man progenitor and 1970's effort to mythologize the apocalypse for children, Thundarr is set in a vaguely Gamma Worldesque science fantasy future, as is ASE.  Other influences from the same era (the stone head from Zardoz is a likely opponent) flesh out the setting, and make for a cartoony swords & sorcery whole that's both humorous and complex.  ASE, like Trey Causey's Azurth, is one of the few settings that make "gonzo" compelling, never breaking its dry, deadpan presentation of and extended absurdist, referential reading of fantasy.

As a megadungeon ASE is a stellar example, its maps (only one full level here - an excellent the setting gazetteer fills much of the book) are especially noteworthy - sprawling beyond the limits of a single graph paper page and designed with an attention to the fictional ecosystem.  The keys are generally short and written with joyful economy.  Yet this is also ASE's biggest weakness, it's a unique and novel space and, while the keys deliver necessary information in a digestible format, the very novelty of the setting seems to require more -- presenting a core difficulty of the megadungeon, that it can best exist as part of a larger setting or aesthetic because for it to remain comprehensible in a usable fashion it needs evocative minimalism that the referee can expand on.  ASE manages this, at least for me -- but for a referee that didn't grow up watching 1980's UHF and playing Basic D&D the necessary references might be harder to grasp.

ASE is a wonderful example of a megadungeon level - spatially well designed, faction rich, too sprawling for full exploration, and full of novel puzzles.  It is also somewhat incomplete. Of the eight promised levels of the ASE only three are published, (each over over 100 keys) and Wetmore appears to have moved on to other things.  Still, if you have the dedication to run a game that reaches to 4th level of a megadungeon ASE's size, you likely have enough to produce your own additional content. Anomalous Subsurface Environment is a worthwhile adventure both for the Classic designer and referee. (Gus)

Honey in the Rafters by Isaac Williams

Honey in the Rafters is the introductory adventure location included in the original Mausritter boxed set. The keyed location for the example hexcrawl included in the Mausritter rulebook, it serves two purposes: to provide an out-of-the-box (literally) experience for an initial session of Mausritter and act as an implicit guide for how to prep an adventure for Mausritter. More than anything, it is that second purpose that I value in a starting adventure. Starting adventures are instrumental for training referees to the type of prep best suited for the game. When I started playing Dungeons & Dragons, much of my early prep emulated the bloated adventures of the 3.5/Pathfinder era. I wish I had instead cut my teeth on something like Mausritter. Honey in the Rafters says to the burgeoning referee that all you need to run a game are a few d6 tables, a couple of factions and a mental map of the location. This simplicity and elegance are befitting a system like Mausritter.

A cursed sunflower sprouts outside an abandoned cabin. From this flower blooms the adventure’s various factions. The flower and its pollen attracted a colony of bees and a hungry skunk (as an aside, bees and skunks sound harmless enough to you or I, but imagine how deadly those foes would be for a party of adventuring mice). The honey from the bees attracted a cadre of mice belonging to a sugar cult. Each faction presented sounds fun, but I would have liked to see more explicit connections between them. For instance, maybe the skunk wants to eat the sugar cultists in the cabin but is afraid to enter because of the bees, the bees want to drive out the skunk from the sunflower field and are distrustful of the sugar cultists’ leader, and the sugar cult wants the honey (that is made clear) but is blissfully unaware of the skunk. These types of connections are particularly helpful for an adventure where factions are such a central component.

Honey in the Rafters not only demonstrates how to write a Mausritter adventure, it is also useful for would-be homebrewers curious about adding spells and items to the mix. The adventure includes a handful of spells and items that are absent from the Mausritter book (such as Taffy, allowing a mouse to stretch its limbs to unnatural proportions). Particular standouts here are the weapons—what self-respecting mouse wouldn’t wield a candy cane or lollipop instead of a sword or axe? After reading Honey in the Rafters, I am like those sugar cultists, left wanting more, more, more of the sweet stuff. (WFS)

Doodle Champion Island Games

This review is a bit of a departure, since the Doodle Champion Island Games is a video game, rather than a tabletop RPG. It's a free-to-play in-browser game made in a collaboration between Google and Studio 4°C. The release of the game coincided with the start of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, and the game itself casts the player as an aspiring athlete who travels to an island of champions to test her prowess. The game art reminds me of the 16-bit pixel art from the SNES era, and features very brief cut scenes with anime-style animation at key moments. The reason I've chosen this to review though is that it's a fun little sandbox, and there are some elements to it that I think are worth pointing out.

The setting of the game is the eponymous Champion Island, which has a vaguely asterisk-shaped eight-legged map. The first "leg" is the dock where the player character, Lucky the Cat, arrives on her boat. Each of the other seven legs is home to one of the island's seven champions and others who live in that area. There are rugby-playing oni, a tengu who loves table tennis, a skateboarding tanuki, and an owl sitting atop the climbing mountain. There are beaches, a volcanic peninsula, and a bamboo forest, and the cosmopolitan Tanooki City which has the largest and most diverse group of residents on the island. At the center of the island are statues depicting the champions and trails - marked by signs and helpful NPCs - that lead to each leg of the island.

The ostensible goal of the game is to challenge each of the seven champions in their chosen sport and best them, winning a scroll and your likeness on the appropriate statue at the center of the island. But the arenas, marked by red gates, are all right at the entrance to their respective legs. You have to go only a little further in to each leg to find the dojo for that sport, where you can meet the champion and get advice about how to play. If all you do is go to the seven arenas and win the seven sports, the game is quite quick, and a little disappointing. There's an animated cut-scene the first time you challenge the champion, showing off their prowess, that reminds me of the animations in Mega Man. There's another after you win the match to show them graciously passing you the scroll of victory. Although they're not combat, these are boss fights, but these contests are much less than half the game. 

The real pleasures here are exploration and interaction. The island is beautifully drawn, and it has secrets to discover. Not every place can be accessed initially. There are four teams with clubhouses hidden on the island. If you join one, you can get inside their clubhouse, but you can only choose one. The NPCs vary greatly in terms of their dialogue. Some basically serve as signposts to tell you where you are or where a path leads. Some give you a glimpse of their inner lives. All over the island are kappas who just say "Kappa!", but there's one intelligent kappa who gives you a little speech about loneliness. And some NPCs can give you quests. 

The way they do this is by telling you about a problem they're having. If you want, you can volunteer to help, and they'll tell you how. Some quests are fairly simple, like the royal arrow collector who wants help picking up arrows, or the grandfather who wants help catching up to his granddaughter who keeps jogging ahead. Other quests require you to go visit a specific other person - maybe you met them once already, remember them, and can go back, or maybe the quest gives you a reason to go meet them. In a few cases, you'll go back and forth several times before you're done. Some quests unlock new parts of the island, in particular, more difficult versions of the sports, with matches that are longer or have higher scoring requirements and opponents who play harder. And interestingly, some quests are nested. Finding enough driftwood to help the artist make a statue, for example, requires you to find the hidden beach, the bakery, and the hot springs, along with several others. You can earn trophies, kept in a trophy house near the center of the island, for helping people, but the real incentive is the satisfaction of figuring something out and putting it right. If I could make one change to the game, I'd remove the trophies, though I suppose they are a staple of contemporary video games.

I made a comparison to Mega Man earlier, but unlike that game, where you can visit the levels in any order, but they're much easier if you find and complete the secret correct order, nothing in Champion Island pushes you to visit the legs in any particular order, or to finish everything in one before visiting another. In fact the nature of the quests encourages you to wander, explore, and revisit. In both video game terms and in D&D terms, the game is level-less. Nothing is too hard to try it first, and nothing gets easier simply because you've been playing for awhile. You the player might get better, especially at the sports, but Lucky the Cat never gets faster or stronger. It creates a radical openness that I'm not sure you can really replicate in any D&D-like game where characters level up and get stronger over time.

The other difference between Champion Island and other sandbox adventuring sites is that there's no combat. You never have to fight anyone - there are no guard blocking off certain areas, no guardians protecting treasure, no dragons to slay, no wandering monsters harrying you just for existing within the space. I'm not sure the game could remain so open if you did have to fight. The closest analog to combat are the sport-matches where compete against the champions. But like everything else, these are totally optional. I called them boss fights earlier, and perhaps it would be fair to say that these are the closest things to dragons to slay - you want to win the scroll and earn your face on the statues, I guess, but the main reason to play the sports is for the enjoyment of the activity itself, the excitement of competition. In certain versions and editions of D&D, combat is like this, a kind of mini-game, the way the sports are. It may advance a goal, but players also seek it out and spend time on it because they find it enjoyable. It's a contest with clear conditions of victory and loss, it has its own distinct rhythm, and it uses rules that aren't necessarily part of the rest of the game. In most versions of D&D, combat is really the only mini-game, while Champion Island has seven. 

The quests are one area where the game could be made more complex and more interesting, although probably at the cost of its generous, forgiving tone. There's no real way to fail a quest in this game. Some NPCs need to be convinced of this or there, but there's no way to accidentally or intentionally turn them against the thing you're supposed to convince them of. You can always try again. Quests might be uncompleted, but they'll never be uncompletable. The tabletop setting doesn't really lend itself to unlimited tries though, or to NPCs who'll happily repeat your last conversation every time you leave the room and reenter it. Although it contradicts the tone of this game, consequences for failure would make succeeding at the quests feel more meaningful. (Anne)

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