A long while back I got to attend a training seminar by the McChrystal Group. It inspired me to write a bit about using that business framework in RPGs, and in S2E7 of the Aeon game, it came up again.

How? We were trying to work out ways to use a recent treasure trove of information to split up our quarry, the selfish and violent Rep Singleton, from his major resource base.

As we were spinning plans, something was bothering me. Without rehashing it all, I felt that many of the plans were a bit convoluted, and also didn’t ring true to something that would not cause both our quarry and the mercenary army he used to lead to sit up and take notice of us rather than at each other.

We resolved this by reverting back to my six questions that all prospective evil overlords need to answer (or really, the GM must answer for them) in order for plans to make sense.

Without further ado, here they are again.

1. What will the world look like after the main actor gets his way?

There needs to be a concrete vision of the future here. Some picture – even if it’s twisted – where the main actor sits back with his or her beverage of choice (wine, beer, the blood of the enemy, whatever) and says “Ahhh. Now that’s how it’s supposed to be!”

If you can’t articulate that goal, then you need to keep going. I always rebel at the concept articulated in the Matrix movies – “What do all men with power want? More power!”

No. That power, wealth, or whatever isn’t usually the goal. In fact, it’s more like #6 – how you keep score.

But for our example case, as we were spinning plans to make it look like our quarry had betrayed this monstrously large power base, we needed to ask and answer a question – what could be worth it? He had access to a powerful army, influenced them heavily from behind the scenes, and wielded the power of life over death for any within his reach.

So . . . why betray something that huge? Either the end goal was revenge over someone, and he was willing to burn his resource base to get it, or his goal was to end up with something bigger. By perhaps offering up secrets from the one organisation, he can roll up and either collapse or assimilate his other competitors. And maybe even make a play for ruling the world (that sort of goal is more plausible with certain in-game and real-world mental disorders).

But we then had a few ideas for things that our quarry would like to see the world look like when he’s done, and that made the rest more plausible.

Turing it around, we then asked ourselves the same question. What would the world look like when we were done, as heroes?

Well, we wanted Singleton in jail, stripped of power and influence. Both because we promised, but also because he was a corrupt, violent man that was gaining in influence an using it to hurt people. As heroic types, that’s a problem.

We also wanted Blue Skies, the massive and powerful Private Military Company, to not have an army of 500 metahumans trained like SFOD-D. The redeemable should be working with other hero teams to help people. The neutrals should be left to guide themselves. The criminal should be brought to justice. Mostly we focused on the metahuman component there, but we seemed to have joined Team Iron Man for the moment – that much force needs a responsible check. And we also wanted to dissipate and disperse Blue Skies without leaving a spectacular power vacuum that would just allow it to be re-established “Under New Management.”

So that’s what our world would look like if we win. That let us get on to other things.

Heck, even more locally and immediately, we wanted Singleton’s wife safely in Witness Protection, Singleton arrested, in jail, and out of power, and not a single soul interested in his redemption.

2. What are the main actor and his helpers willing to do to achieve their goals?

Methods are important. We knew from the data dump that both players would be willing to do pretty much anything to achieve their aims. Blue Skies wants to remain the premier PMC, and probably has other goals of their own that we will need to figure out in order to oppose them effectively, especially since we have hard evidence of the atrocities they’re willing to perpetrate to accomplish whatever mission they’re on.

For the heroes, we are much more circumscribed, which is one of the things that makes us heroes. We’re much more tightly tied to the rule of law, to evidence, proof, and justice, due to our sanction by the MAPS program. Like a mini-Avengers team.

So we won’t purposefully cause plans that will hurt anyone but our quarry – Cannot Harm Innocents deliberately. We have chosen to work within existing power structures, but are willing to engage with some fringe elements such as hacktivists, and The Pusher, to ensure that the known violent criminals will be brought to justice formally.

Because almost certainly we will not be willing to, say, simply shoot the old management in the head from 700 yds. Or engage in a systematic anti-metahuman purge. Avoiding that was the climax of last season, so no.

And right in the moment, our S2E7 plans included lots of shady behavior, but we tried to break as few laws as possible. We were constrained in how we sought evidence, we tried to ensure that anything we did discover was not fruit of the poisonous tree, so we could act within our status as legal agencies and not vigilantes. We came close in a few places, but managed to do this right.

3. What does the process of winning look like to the main actor?

For setting up Singleton, we decided that winning looked like his selectively leaking information to competitors to set them up to be either eliminated or assimilated, so that eventually Singleton could sit at the head of an even larger PMC, also integrate Blue Skies, and either set up a government of his own, or continue to wield influence within the US government. That seemed plausible enough, and such machinations were part of ye olde data dump.

For The Cavalry (us), that looked like getting ahead of, and stopping, major illegal activity and various atrocities that Blue Skies was involved in. It looked like getting to the other metas who could be influenced and enticing them to leave Blue Skies behind. And it looked like the company tearing itself apart from within, since we didn’t have the resources to take them on directly.

Again back to S2E7, winning looked like Singleton telling his wife to get out of his sight to ensure he wouldn’t harm her, that we got enough data to help keep Singleton from exerting enough power to find and punish his abused spouse.

4. What does the main actor need in order to win?

This is part of the strategy part. What resources do we need, or did Singleton need, to get with the winning part.

For him, he needed clandestine contacts and arrangements with other PMCs and with large clients. Planting such evidence (especially variations of real evidence, which we had lots of ) to indicate that he was setting out to displace or replace the Board of Directors at Blue Skies, as well as start into another business for himself. So he needed money, contacts, independence, and plausible deniablility.

For out plot against Blue Skies, we need Singleton and Blue Skies focused on each other. We need to get Blue Skies’ key players likewise at odds with each other. We need access to the metahuman ranks and a way to pick off the ones that are good-natured enough to join the forces of light and sweetness. We need to have data as to their plans so we can interfere with the most egregious of them. We will need a way to keep our activities from betraying the fact that we have compromised their files and are reading their mail.

For our S2E7, we needed a distraction to give Leslie Singleton a reason to be first seen by her husband, and then to be told to leave – he had to want her gone. We needed a distraction that would keep him busy while we got her to Witness Protection. We needed a safe room that simply could not be found. We needed the information to prevent future follow-up attempts. The fact that we got all of this and enough data to start nibbling at Blue Skies was a bonus.

5. How does the main actor go about getting what she needed to win?

This is all about tactics, and it’s flexible. In the case of breaking up Blue Skies, we’re still working it out. For our notional plan for keeping Singleton on the run, we just needed a few hits here and there to keep them focused on each other.

The details of the tactics we used to get Leslie out were detailed in the play report.

6. How does the main actor know if his plans were succeeding or failing?

This is all about metrics. Concrete win/loss figures or some sort of scoreboard that we can use to determine what courses of action are worthwhile, and which are not.

For getting Leslie out, we were looking for how smoothly our plan went according to the timeline, how many contingencies we had to pull out (like dealing with metahuman protection instead of human bodyguards), and the extent we got data – almost literally ‘how many counts of criminal activity can we score evidence for?’

We didn’t do as well in pre-establishing metrics, so that’s an area we can do better on in the future.

Parting Shot
The use of these questions to figure out what a person or organization will do has helped me a lot in working out plotlines – even complicated ones – for my gaming. If I have (say) a Vampire Overlord near the top of a Vampyramid/Conspyramid, what is it they’re trying to do? What will the world look like? What about the competition? What do they think the world should look like? Where do those things overlap? Where are the different? What resources does each faction need to win? Are they the same or different?

All of this will drive how the bad guys carry out their plans. And those plans will make sense – or at least be consistent – because the tactics will be directed at getting the strategic items that the orchestrator needs in order to “win,” in order to bring about their new world.

The “nice” thing about this framework is it can also be used to logic your way through the illogical. If your Cthulhoid demigods are trying to rewrite reality, you can still get to “what do they need to do this?” and then drive tactics and plans.

If you’re working up Hydra or some other Nazi-like classically evil organization, you can work through the things they’re willing and unwilling to do, and what winning looks like – and look to real history to find metrics, horrific as they are.

And for the good guys? Working through at least one good answer to these questions will restrain the worst Leroy Jenkins impulses, which can lead to fairly campaign-destroying behavior at times.

I used to play in +Ken H‘s Monteporte campaign, and I remember it fondly. Recently, he rebooted it, and posted some session notes here. They struck me with two thoughts.

Tangible is Good

He writes:

Resource and Time Management: We are keeping more careful track of resources, such as food, torches, and arrows. We are also tracking encumbrance. We are working to streamline the process for the former while relying on the simple and elegant system in Bloody Basic for the latter.

 I have long been a fan of tangible items to do this sort of thing. Matchsticks for torches. Poker chips or something like it – beads, whatever – for generic expendables like fatigue or mana. This was a suggestion from +Steven Marsh with respect to The Last Gasp (Pyr #3/44) that turned it from “gee, how will this ever work at the table” to “yes, this is spectacularly cool.”

Short Sweet Sorties

The other thing that struck me as particularly notable was a comment he made on continuity.

Campaign and Continuity: One of the challenges for a dungeon-based campaign is maintaining momentum and continuity. We lost a lot of that in the final dozen sessions of our last Montporte campaign. We changed rule sets, lost players, added players, and the main threads of the campaign were lost in all of it. This time around, we are starting with a couple of goals (explore, establish trade relationships, and find a dwarven city), using a simple rule set, and playing with a smaller group (and only playing when everyone is present).

The key here seems to be “starting with a couple of goals,” and frankly, given the “we all have real lives” nature of things, I’d be very tempted to see if I could arrange for, at any given time, the player to be given, or able to articulate, about three fairly short-term goals that are knowable, known, and able to be “checked off” the list.

Sure, it’s not as pure as a “go explore!” game. But it allows for missed sessions, new characters and players, and a bit more shuffle in the lineup.

In fact, I think I just thought of something that would make a great addition to the background tidbits that provide nice characterization hooks in 5e. In addition to backgrounds, ideals, and flaws, each character should probably have an endpoint.

I touched on this when I wrote Hirelings have a shelf life. Most people, in fantasy and in real life, are working/adventuring towards a goal. Perhaps it’s to have his own kingdom, by his own hand (Conan). Perhaps it’s to buy a castle (Flynn Rider). Or even simply to impress Murron (William Wallace). But, like the soldiers in Mulan, they’re working towards “a girl worth fighting for.” And then they’re done.

The nature of the goals animated two in-character departures by +Tim Shorts in +Rob Conley‘s Majestic Wilderlands game. Those goals are always there, and they very much animate why the charaters stick together. 

Having a stack of short-term and long-term goals is just good sense. Consider it added to the Heretical D&D project.

Thank to Tim H for provoking my brain this morning!

Weekends in Penang. Sigh. Poor me.

+Mark Langsdorf did a lot of work, and it turned out really well. 

He made a player-facing skills list based on the worked-example publication GURPS After the End 2.

It takes all the uses of attributes, skills, and advantages from the book and consolidates them by skill. So you get something like 

Traps Trap a meal (30)
Complementary skill for trapping a meal with Survival (30)
Per-based: Detect traps while scouting (32)
Per-based: Spot a security system (33)
Per-based: Spot a pit trap (36)
Per-based: Spot simple switches (36)
Disarm traps (36)
Salvage a concealed gun (36)

Except you get it for every single mention of a use or skill. 
This is a fantastic cheat-sheet, and worth emulation for other genres.

Yesterday’s Alien Menace session was fun, but I think could have been better in a few areas, and they represent some teachable moments for me as I get my GM hat back on.


The concept of the mission started with an idea about a different alien type. Rather than just sectoids, I decided to try and mix it up. That led me to start to sketch things out, which was brainstorming in both directions.

I tried to use my “book of pretentiousness,” but it’s really the wrong tool for the job. After flirting with various methods, I finally downloaded XMind. What I wanted was something that could help me create an adversary map or murder board – something like what you see in Chuck, where you can plunk factions or ideas down, and then connect them.

+Kenneth Hite talks a lot about adversary maps and faction pyramids in Night’s Black Agents, which I raved about in a G+ post and will do so again at length. He also had some advice about plotting a thriller that I tried to follow but didn’t take far enough.

But more on that later.

In any case, I used the Mind Map to do some background planning, and borrowed the Who-What-Where-When-Why-How structure common to fiction and elaborated upon in GURPS Monster Hunters 2 – which is another good reference work to deal with plotting out mysteries, clues, and how to weave a little bit of investigation and discovery into what are otherwise thriller/action-hero genres.

What Went Well

The good news was that my plotline held together well. It was not a linear plot, although of course there was a critical path of “yes, they could do this” that was the backbone. I knew they would fly to the planet where the scout team was lost. I knew more or less that it was an Earthlike world of about 1.2 gravities and that the scout ship had set down intact. I knew they were going to deal with the scout ship, the “structure” where the team disappeared, return to the transport ship, and come home. I also knew that something was going to happen when they got back to earth, and had a series of ideas and some preparation for that.

So all in all, my planning process, facilitated by the mind map software, was good. I was able to ask myself “what might they do?” at every trunk of the planning phase, and I came up with good contingencies and key information to drop off that was available and thought through enough to hold together in most places. Not all, though . . . more later.

The other thing that went well is when the players came up with things that I hadn’t thought of, I mostly let them do it and was able to weave it in well.

Lessons Learned

Not everything went as well as I’d have liked, but there were some take-aways that will help me plan for future events. In no particular order, brainstorming as I go.

Every step should have excitement potential: In my original concept, I wanted the recovery of the drop ship to be fairly trivial in terms of what was obvious. This was fine, but come on . . . the players will always be expecting the GM to mess with them, and so it’s a good thing to play to type a bit. The retrieval would have been perhaps more interesting if there had been something more to it. An angry bit of native fauna, or something contaminated, or a mechanical problem, at least.

Remember the genre: I told the players to make soldiers. And they did, Which was good. But when you make a bunch of guys who solve problems with a hail of bullets, you need to make sure that most problems can be solved with a hail of bullets. If you don’t, then you have gimped the players and basically pulled a bait-and-switch, which is uncool. Especially when, on a 275-point budget, it’s entirely possible to create chracters that can do both investigation and combat, and be competent-to-excellent at both or either.

The players control the pacing: One thing that tends to happen, at least for me, is that I will decide which parts of the adventure should be slow, and which will be bullet-riddled shoot-em-up. That’s all good, to an extent. But sometimes the players will focus laser-like on a place or incident, and if they’re doing a bunch of ‘what if this” and “what if that” when your notes read only “the shuttle is perfectly fine, and can boost to orbit with a few minutes pre-flight” then it might be time for two ninjas with guns to kick in the door. Or if you have some big mystery and invesgitation scene planned, and they wave their hands at it and want to breeze through with a few die rolls, they may be telling you something you should heed. Each little scene should contain a resolution by inquiry, a resolution by violence, or a way to either slow it down or speed it up. based on their preferences. But if I, as GM, dictate pacing, I’m setting myself up for expectations mismatch, and that’s where people start making Monty Python jokes or provoking inter-party strife.

Engage the entire group: I made a couple unforced errors here, largely in service to the previous point. I was trying to force the pacing a few times in both directions. In the dropship recovery scene, I effectively didn’t engage any of the group. Unforgivable to not even ask “what will the freakin’ PCs do?” when they may be there asking questions for tens of minutes of game time.

Engage the group 2: If you’re going to throw combat at the group, even if it’s supposed to be pretty pro-forma or one-sided on the players’ part, make sure you give everyone a chance to do something. In the mission yesterday, I threw only a single slugbeast at the party, which +Peter V. Dell’Orto neutralized in one burst. Granted, the challenge was the expanding cloud of cannibal macrophages (large eaters!), not the gunfight. But I could have easily thrown five to ten of these guys at the players and made a real fight out of it. Even if it were only two or three, with the right kind of forethought, it would have been a very intense scene. I downplayed it too much, I think.

Recon is not Sherlocking: There’s a difference between recon for tactical objectives (a soldierly thing to do) and Sherlocking, which is to determine what the challenge is in the first place. The key to engaging a group of tactically-oriented characters is to make the objectives known, but the methods unknown. “How do we best achieve a known objective” puts agency for decision and action in the players’ hands, where it belongs. “We need to leverage skills no one has to even find out what to do next” is Sherlocking. One of these two things is fine. The other is not. At least given the expectations for this particular game.

Parting Shot

Lessons learned does not imply a failed game. I think the players had fun, but I also think more entertainment could have been had with a bit more attention to more formulaic plot options. Sure, use the mind map to create a plotline flowchart, scenario map, or incident web. But then, take each node and ask yourself what will the character’s do? Do you have something to engage the Scout’s Danger Sense? No? Bzzzzt! Thanks for playing. Do you have a long-distance target for the sniper, or at least something to take large-caliber single shots at? Hrm. Something with intelligent reactions that ducks when you shoot at it? Well, the guy with the suppressive-fire weapon could be more engaged. And for God sakes, let the On the Edge medic sprint across an entirely hazardous combat zone to rescue an injured companion at least once.

Don’t throw in depth Sherlocking at a bunch of thugs when you told them to make a bunch of thugs. This is not Dungeon Fantasy where you expect the players to round out a series of niches such as scout, front-line fighter, magical buff-monster, healer/undead foil. Where no-mana zones, insubstantial foes, super thick armor or ultra-nimble dodge monkeys (perhaps literally) force all sorts of solutions to problems. from investigation to punching them hard in the face. The genre assumptions there say “if you miss a niche, the GM is free to punish you,” more or less. When the GM’s directives lean towards “everyone’s a Knight, Scout, or Swashbuckler,” but you throw in a puzzle that can only be solved by a Wizard?

Party foul.

I don’t think I stepped over that line, but the plot seemed to be hurtling towards that, and the players, all experienced RPGers and authors, sensed it. In fact, the next thing that was going to happen was a fairly obvious clue (and likely this will happen offline betfore the next game) that would give the team an objective they can follow, or failing self-direction, an obvious mission that their Patron can give them: You guys turfed up something interesting. Here are your objectives. Go shoot something.

In a wild and likely unlawful combination of Throwback Thursday and GURPS-Day, I present something that I thought had been lost years ago.

This was a head-poundingly complex shot at taking the old 3e rules (you can tell because of the Acc 10 assumption for the rifle) and asking the question “where does each bullet go?”

This result shown is almost regrettably good from an illustration perspective. There’s a circle, which shows the actual point of aim of the weapon. There’s a line with three purple asterisks in it, which accounts for trigger jerk and the march of the barrel in a relatively random direction as recoil pushes it around. The assumption is clearly linear. And the red dots are actual bullet strikes, which vary around the notional aimpoint due to uniform scatter.

I had thought this lost, and didn’t have that much interest in recreating it, certainly not with the assumptions present in this older 3e ruleset.

Were I to try this again, I’d make much more extensive use of the Size and Speed/Range table, and fold in the kind of modeling that +Mark Langsdorf did in his calculations on how many shots hit with Rapid Fire. Even my own averaged numbers when I looked at shotguns take a shot (ahem) at this, lacking only the step of tracking each bullet.

Parting Shot

Why would you do this? Good question. Does it add significantly to the game? Only when you’re in conversations about where misses go, or combined with overlays (or underlays?) of character models to allow picking out hit locations. It’s fun, but ultimately usefully abstracted.

Still, here’s the raw sheet, if you want to hack at it – just post the results.

I had a riotously good time making the audio clip for my first Alien Menace session

What audio clip, you ask? You didn’t listen the first time? You missed out on Pyramid Magazine editor +Steven Marsh‘s inspired performance? +Antoni Ten Monrós totally owning the role of the Captain? And +Gerardo Tasistro and me as Jones the Tech and Yi, the videographer, each of whom gave our one or two lines before meeting electric flaming death at the hands of a now-deceased cyberdisc?

Well, shoot. You’d better go listen, then.

I wanted to do this, but was uncertain if I could pull it off. Luckily for me, my Google Fu is strong, and I came across the recommendation to use Audacity.

There may well be better sound editors out there, but this one was free, intuitive, allowed multitrack sound design, and the capture of sounds through your own system. I was able to, within scant hours:

  • Meld the sounds of an arc welder and the supersonic “zip” of an actual bullet to make my blaster sound effects
  • Insert, seamlessly, the sound of the hydraulic lift, which made an unmistakable sound of the cargo ramp on a ship going down
  • Overlay machinegun noises (the Captain’s futile efforts to punch through 5d armor with a 3d submachine gun) with screams that interrupted said noises
  • Put in other partial effects like a few moments of footfalls, samples from a longer clip.

All in all, it took me maybe two hours to make a call for voice actor help, get responses, polish and practice the voice work, and then add sufficient sound effects to make it compelling enough.

Gerardo followed up with a more embellished version quite quickly – but the one I had was good enough, and it seems like a fun way to provide future information to the gamers.

Now if there was only an easy way to share the clips so that all the players were listening at once. I bet +Fantasy Grounds can do it, but I’ll need to figure out how. Google Hangouts should  be able to do it, but again, not sure exactly how just yet.

One last thing: the amazing thing about our roleplaying community is that I’m sure that had I wanted an Englishman for Beake, a female soldier for The Captain, someone of Korean descent for Yi, and an actual Welshman for Jones . . . I probably could have gotten them. I wound up with a Spaniard who speaks four languages, two midwesterners (well, me by location, but I was born on the east coast), and someone from either Uruguay or Mexico – not sure, but it was way more interesting that I could have hoped.

Saturday night put me in the GM’s chair for the first time in probably seven or eight years. I’ve been blogging for while on the prep. We had a full house. So how did it go?

The Interface – Fantasy Grounds

To start with, we can’t get past the issues with the interface and setup. While I’d run a test session over the last few days to have every one of my players connect, and +Eric hil still did yeoman’s work in getting me as far along as I was able to get . . . when it came time to play, my IP address was dynamically reset and so none of that meant a damn thing. Meanwhile, during the whole “make it work, damnit!” process, the IP address reset again, leaving me wondering whether it would do that sequentially and be massively disruptive.

Fortunately, you can in fact do port-forwarding on the fly, and once I got port 1802 hitting the right IP, my guys were able to link in, and it stayed stable for four hours.

Lessons Learned

  • Check the IP 30 min before the session with ipconfig
  • Reset ports if necessary
  • Do this every time

We still had some issues with the interface throughout the night, and if you make a few keystrokes wrong, you can lose a lot. I thought I was removing a drawn line I’d put on the map at one point, and it turns out I was deleting the entire map. Was a quick recovery, but it was a painful experience.

What else with the interface? It’s pretty non-intuitive for everyone. Some very odd choices of keystrokes, and the mouse-wheel is far too important. Scrolling the wheel can rotate your guy, rescale your guy (I eventually fixed that, but it was painful before I did), and increment nearly any active box by plus or minus, which means you can accidentally dynamically reorder the turn in the combat tracker by scrolling at the wrong moment.

When you add monsters to the tracker, they seem to go in with the same name in that tracker, and it’s very hard to figure out who’s getting wounded. I”d like it if when you selected a guy on the map, his entry in the combat tracker was also highlighted. After all, when +Tim Shorts nailed two Sectoid Workers at once with two well-aimed grenades, I needed to make them both dead. I wanted to highlight the guy on the map, then alter his stats. The interface is definitely character-based, rather than map-based.

Finally, for most of the game, the NPCs were a real issue. I was the only one who could control them, and frankly, the NPCs on the players’ side should be player controlled.

I really missed the +Roll20 ability to ping an area on the map by holding down the button, setting off a sonar ping that brought your attention to a particular area. A laser pointer function like exists in Power Point woudl work as well!

Finally, I got bit a tiny bit by fog of war and masking. As players advance and retreat, the sight-lines change, meaning I have to mask and unmask depending on who’s where. What I need is for a MapTools like dynamic vision model attached to the character, plus a way to place vision-blocking spaces into my map layer (but layers don’t really exist in the version I’m playing).

So it sucked?

No. Far from it. All you need to play is there, and it’s very, very powerful. But the interface foibles detraced from the game a bit.The more I play, the more facile I’ll be with making what I want happen. And I know that diverse people are hard at work making the next ruleset for GURPS a reality. I’m sure my players – every one a long-time GM, author of RPG material, or both – will have a lot of helpful advice.

The Game

The game had a bit of a setup phase first:

The Setup

I set up the game intro by having the players think about answers to the following questions. They didn’t have to tell me what they were, but they’d set up the beginning as characters met each other.

  • When I was contacted by an agent from Mr Oliver’s corporation, I was living in what city?
  • What was I doing at the time?
  • What event or activity brought you to Mr Oliver’s attention?
  • How hard were you to track down?
  • How did you respond to the initial proposal to join a fairly secretive Private Military Company?
  • Why did you accept the offer?

After that, and off-camera, they were flown to a fairly remote location and put through a series of physical and mental tests with a group of people that they have not seen since. Swimming, hiking, running, answering questions about politics, shooting and room clearing, heck, even a 48-hour session of . .  roleplaying games, where you required to remain in character the entire time. Hand-to-hand combat. Orienteering. Disassembling and reassembling machinery. Freaking painting and poetry. Training like an Operator. Yoga.

Then, again, the players were encouraged to think about

  • What was your most memorable (in a good and bad) way about the event?
  • What were you good at?
  • What left you thinking “what the fuck?”
  • What did you decide all this was about?

Again off-camera, they were extended an invitation to join the team. They were given a ticket on a private jet (chartered) to Singapore. There each was met by an utterly nondescript man in a grey business suit, and escorted to a private and posh waiting area, where you joined five other people in a waiting room. While the windows to the airport are frosted, the window outside reveals a Bombardier 9000 business jet, a very posh, very fast aircraft with a 14,000km range.

The game started there . . .

Getting to Know You

The team met for the first time in that waiting room. They were handed new employment packets, with double the salary that had originally enticed them to join. The team ate, drank, and talked for a bit. Then they were joined by two more (NPC) team members, and they got on the plane and flew to a private airstrip on Mornington Island in Australia, a roughly six hour flight. This island isn’t much, and still isn’t – but underneath it is now a major facility, owned by Oliver Industries and built quickly and in secret.

After being shown around the place for a bit – their new quarters (more like apartments than barracks – the facilities for eating, drinking, training and exercise, the next morning they had a briefing with Mr. Oliver himself.

Why would a billionaire start a Private Military Company? Even a former special forces guy like Oliver? Not why you’d think. He revealed that his top scientist, Dr. Arthur Beake, had discovered the secret and the physics behind a practical stardrive. Anywhere in the universe was within reach, within certain parameters.

Beake assembled a team, and they traveled to their first world. While Oliver insisted on the inclusion of at least one security officer, Beake and ‘the captain’ were at loggerheads from the beginning. It was Beake’s project to run, and thus the four-man team traveled to a new world, which was shown to be both earthlike in atmosphere and there was something that tracked as very high energy density at a particular location. Beake concluded that the place had been abandoned.

The overflight and landing was . . . put together quickly. The team landed, and this recording is the only surviving record from the trip.

The team had been wiped out in seconds. The drop ship (unarmed, barely armored) destroyed shortly after. The transport vessel returned home with a horrific tale of hostile aliens. Later studies showed that this hostility was not unique – it was a dangerous universe, and in the words of Nick Fury, humanity was hoplessly, hilariously outgunned, and out matched.

Oliver meant to go back to that world, and others. With soldiers of outstanding skill and flexible minds, looking to bring back sufficient technology to bootstrap humanity into contention.

No F**king Way and Liftoff

Troops would be forgiven for being skeptical, but Oliver escorted them down the hall, into a waiting drop ship, and seven minutes at just shy of 2g acceleration later, they were in orbit, rendezvousing with a 200-foot-long converted submarine. A quick return later, the troops were briefed.

They were to armor up in the best Oliver could provide (and that was pretty damn good), go back to the alien site, and return with as much technology as they could, especially the high energy density items detected in that first mission, 18 months ago. Everything else built to this, including finding and hiring this squad.

Any questions? Good. Gear up, and good hunting.

The mission

They entered the ice cave, and found a nearly perfect cutout in the wall – and the bodies of the dead away team. A hole had been melted through the Captain’s MP5, which Ianali ( +Christopher R. Rice ), the squad medic, determined to have continued through him. Beake had been hit three times, the Captain twice, and Jones and Yi drilled from back to front once each, directly through their hearts. Damage was more consistent with a blowtorch than a bullet.

They cautiously entered the cave complex, and moved into a large room. After a cautious advance, they heard a low noise, and both took cover and went weapons hot. They established sightlines, and soon a three-foot wide, one foot tall floating disc came into view. As soon as it did, the team opened up, and the first shots that were fired were a full burst of 6d bullets from AB Karabus’ (+Peter V. Dell’Orto ) squad support weapon. Despite the armor, AB landed more than 50% shots on target (7 of 12). This jarred the floater, which needed to take a turn to do some sort of targeting sweep. The very next instant, most of the team opened up, , including a devastating blow from Enrique ( +Nathan Joy ) firing an XM500 in .50 BMG for 12d. Other hits and probably a second shot from the Barrett rendered the floater inoperative with nary a return shot.

We were testing two house rules here. One was armor as dice. that worked fine, but it really does mean the GM needs to roll damage, since giving away how much armor the targets have might be too much. The other rule was an alternate take on Aim, and while it worked OK, some tweaks were made to make it even better.

They made careful approach to the north, with one of the NPCs always covering their rear track. They heard sounds that resembled electric discharges, similar to those from the audio recording. Taking no chances, they moved carefully forward until they had scoped out the extent of this north cavern area, and determined that both forks contained bad guys.

As cautiously as one can with a grenade launcher, they took out the guys to the “west” of the map. That brought the easterners running, and when they hit a chokepoint in the cavern, Colton ( +Tim Shorts ) let ’em have it, firing two HE grenades between them. Both were messily killed.

We ended there.

Parting Shot

Pretty sure eveyone had fun, and my first GM experience in 7-10 years wasn’t a total bust. I gave away too much during the fight, and I have to remember that if turn after turn goes by with the players choosing to sit and wait . . . that’s their choice, and if they find it “tense” rather than “boring,” that’s a win.

We also came up with a good alternate rule to handle this sort of situation that will be great next time.

All in all, I can’t wait to go again in two weeks! The aliens can’t wait either.

Cast of Characters

A special call-out to +Steven Marsh , +Gerardo Tasistro , and +Antoni Ten Monrós who rose to the occasion and survived a mediocre script to put together that audio clip that was my record for what happened to the first away team.

I used some free sound effects from the web, plus the Audacity free sound editing program. In probably an hour or so, I was able to put all that together, including splicing in the different sound effects, on multiple tracks where necessary, to allow the sounds to overlay with each other. Tons of fun, and I think worthwhile.

What do you think?

Today the Firing Squad puts Nolan T Jones of Roll20 up against the wall, in a slightly-belated but much anticipated (at least by me) continuation of the Virtual TableTop  topic for the RPGBA Blog Carnival. We’ll be discussing the ideal features of VTTs, where Roll20’s strengths and weaknesses lie, support for major and minor games, and what’s currently enabled and what lies in the future.

Unlike the usual process, we’re uploading the video immediately, with the audio file and transcript to be made available as soon as possible.

Text Transcript

Douglas Cole (Gaming Ballistic): Good evening and welcome to Gaming Ballistic’s Firing
Squad. Today we are joined by Nolan Jones from Roll20.

Very excited to have
Nolan with us today, as I believe Roll20
is the largest virtual tabletop on the market. If not it certainly seems to be
the best known. Nolan, thanks for joining us today.
Nolan Jones (Content Creator Roll20): Thanks for having me.
Doug: So am
I right? Is Roll20 the biggest, best kid on the block.
Nolan: By
everything we know, it is. There is no way to know that for sure, but looking
at Google Traffic, we are actually coming to the assumption that now, if you
added up all virtual tabletops over time together, we are bigger than all of
them, by what we’ve seen just in terms of Google Traffic. We’ll hit a half
million users in about a month and a half, if things keep on pace, and that’s
way more than anybody else has had.

Continue reading “Firing Squad welcomes Nolan T Jones of Roll20”

(Note: This post is dated March 31. Additional posts are available below, so if you came looking, you’ll find them underneath this one until March ends.)

The March 2014 Blog Carnival Topic was “Virtual Table-Tops and Online Gaming.” As part of the carnival, I sought out and interviewed as many creators of computer-based gaming aids as I could find.

While the topic wasn’t as popular as I’d figured it’d be – after all, it’s a blog carnival, an inherently computer-based format – there have been some good insights offered up, and I hope that between the interviews and future posts, this topic continues to get attention.

The Interviews

Firing Squad: Interview with ConTessa founder Stacy Dellorfano

Firing Squad: Interview with RPTools’ Keith Athey

Firing Squad with John Lammers of Epic Table

Firing Squad with Doug Davison of Fantasy Grounds

Firing Squad with Benjamin Loomes of Syrinscape

Firing Squad with Nolan T Jones of Roll20

The Posts

RPGs on-line: how I do it (Roger Bell-West)
I use a bunch of smaller programs that deal with individual components. I wouldn’t say I’ve got much more gaming this way, but some of my players certainly have. It’s not as good as physical presence, but it’s better than not having the player at all. I think there’s more of a feeling of pressure to get on with the game when one’s gone to the trouble of setting up a net connection

roll20.net ( +James Introcaso )
Through talking with some friends, I learned about roll20.net. We tried it out and I cannot say enough good stuff about it.

Virtual Table Tops-The Solution or the Problem? ( James Arthur Eck)
Exploring the Pros and Cons of Virtual Tabletops and how to get the best of both worlds.

RPG Blog Carnival (March 2014): Online RPGs ( Craig Duffy)
Online gaming is great but it requires a significant shift in your expectations.

Not only have I played online exclusively for something like three years, but our games have been guinea pigs for our own virtual tabletop. What I’d like to do today is share some of my experience with you, hopefully helping you have a smoother online role playing experience or convince you that it’s worth taking a look at if you want to get your RP on!

March RPG Carnival – VTT Gaming (Ethos RPG)I thought I’d take a stab at giving my thoughts on it.  Unfortunately, I have a deficit of experience and yet, oddly, an overabundance of opinion on the topic. So, foolishly or not, here I go…Online Gaming with Mr. Insidious ( Mr. Insidious) I’m going to talk about gaming with a battlemat, map, VTT, board, or other media to help show positioning first, then talk about gaming over Skype, and then maybe get into VTT’s specifically.

Here’s my thoughts on VTTs.  I only have experience with two of them, but I think they are the most popular two.  I give a short review of what I think are the pros and cons of both.RPG Blog Carnival (March 2014): Virtual Table Tops and Online RPGs ( +Erik Tenkar )
Let me give you a quick background of my VTT history. I’ve tried (and own licenses for where applicable) Klooge, Screenmonkey, MapTools, Battlegrounds RPG, iTableTop, Fantasy Grounds I and II, Roll20 and a small handful of others that escape me at the moment. Yes, a virtual plethora of virtual table tops.Virtual Table-Tops – Impact on Games and Gaming+Eric Paquette )

Technology helped improve our games in several areas. One area in which technological advancements helped is communications and maintaining groups. In the past, when a group member left because of a move, we removed the character from the game. Now, when certain members of our ongoing campaign moved, we kept playing with them through the online networks.RPG Blog Carnival (March 2014): Virtual Table Tops and Online Play+Ken H )
Douglas Cole (Gaming Ballistic) started off a chain of excellent blog posts on other blogs with his post on using virtual table top systems to game online. I have used three systems: Gametable, Fantasy Grounds II, and Roll20.
Multi User Dungeon – Online RPG Blog Carnival (RPGames.be)
As I have no experience whatsoever with virtual table tops, I’ll talk about some online gaming I did a long time ago : MUD (Multi User Dungeon).My Love/Hate Relationship With Virtual Tabletops+Christopher R. Rice )
I’ve been playing role-playing games for a long time, I’ve been into computers almost as long. When I found out the two could combine…oh man, I geeked out. My first VTT was MapTools (version 1.19 I think). I spent hours toying with it and trying to make it work…and it did. But not the way I’d seen others demonstrate it working. It was incredibly frustrating. When I finally get time to evaluate what software is right for me, I’ll probably come back and edit this post.Virtual Table Tops+David Brawley )

Overall, I think with VTT’s can bring a lot to playing online, and I’d recommend that DM’s running online games check it out.

What I Would Want From My Ideal Virtual Table Top (My Wish List)+Erik Tenkar )
After some discussion with a few of the members of the “Friday Night B-Team” I started to think about what I would want from my ideal online Hangout styled gaming session. The list below is NOT all inclusive, I am sure, nor is it written in stone. It has been on my mind, more or less, for a while tho’. It is fairly focused on Roll20, which is what I use these days, but if one package offered all that I wanted, I’d jump VTTs in a heart beat. I can be such a whore 😉

March 2014’s RPG Blog Carnival is focusing on Virtual TableTops and Online Gaming. I invited VTT creators to chat with me briefly about the state of VTTs, and what’s the future of online RPGs.

This evening I sat down for a brief chat with +Benjamin Loomes, lead developer of Syrinscape, a program that enables playing thematic background sounds and music to enhance the tabletop roleplaying experience. We spoke for a bit less than an hour, and he gave me a pretty detailed walk-through of the program. We spoke about Pathfinder-native content, as well as more generic sounds.

In any case, here’s the interview!
Text Transcript
Douglas Cole (Gaming Ballistic): Good evening and welcome to Gaming Ballistic’s Firing
Squad. This evening we welcome Benjamin Loomes – who is from Syrinscape – which
was designed to create background sound and music for in-person tabletop
That being said, this is
part of a continuing series of interviews for the March Roleplaying Game Blog
Association Blog Carnival. Whose topic is virtual tabletops, online gaming, or
computer enhanced role-playing.
So Benjamin thanks for
joining us this evening.
Benjamin Loomes (Syrinscape Creator): It’s a pleasure. It’s fun. It’s the middle of the day
in sunny Sydney here.
Doug: And
coming on 10 o’clock PM here in Minnesota, where it freaking snowed again here
today! Come on, really?! This is just uncalled for, even for Minnesota.
So just broadly, before we
get deeply into Syrinscape, talk a little bit about how you got into
role-playing. Clearly your interest in music stuff for the game comes from love
of the game.
What got you into
role-playing and what current games do you play?

Yes. Cool. So in about 1980 or something – it must have been a bit later than
that – when I was about 10, yeah it must have been later than that. It’s back
in the distant past.
I was 10 years old on a
camping holiday on Smith’s lake, which is above Sydney, and my parents gave me
the red box, the original red box, with the crayon that colored in the numbers
on the dice (and you wiped it off).  And
you went on a little self adventure with the cleric, who you got friends with,
and she healed you, and she died and all that stuff.
So I read that red box and
it totally blew my mind. I just really fell in love with the whole fantasy
genre obviously. I read lots of stuff, I read lord of the rings when I was
young. I’m still a bit of a sci-fi and fantasy tragic: Star Trek or Lord of the
Rings or Star Wars obviously, anything, just give it to me!
So I started playing when
I was about ten, I played as teenager, not a lot of incredibly immerse
role-playing when I was a teenager, lots of dice rolling and collecting massive
amounts of gold pieces off dragons and stuff.
And then I probably took a
bit of a break from role-playing while life took over, and Uni and all that
stuff. Maybe from 16 or 17.
Late 20s I got back into
it, just when 3.5 starting coming out – which is really great, and I fell in
love with that.
Since then we built up my
gaming group with a bunch of really creative people. I’m a composer and
classical singer and musician, so I’m surrounded by actors and directors and
writers – so we got a fantastic gaming group.
Now we play incredibly
emotional and story-driven epic role-playing games, whether it be Star Wars or
Pathfinder – we play lots of Pathfinder – Call of Cthulhu, all that stuff.
Amazing activity.
I love role-playing
because of the social aspects, sitting around the table, looking at each other,
laughing at each other, being stupid, telling those big epic stories.
Does that answer your
Doug: It
It’s funny you mention. .
. I had forgotten about the crayon – because I have a similar role-playing
history to you. I started with Dungeons and Dragons, actually, technically it
was probably Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, because I played with a friend.
Again, it was 1980 or 1981,
I was ten, I asked for it for Christmas. I think my parents got me the red box
and the blue box, the basic and expert set.
I remember sitting down
with my father, the one time he ever
played. “Here’s all the characters you can do and you got this. . . ” and he
goes “I want to be elf.” And I didn’t know that he was fairly voracious
consumer of the Tolkien books. I think that they got thrown away, but I had a really early edition of Hobbit and Lord
of the Rings paperback. Probably you know one of the first couple with the very
odd sketchy cover that was really interesting.
From what I read I remember a brownie cover which was very cool.
Doug: yes.
Exactly. So I played and whatever, but it sounds like you got a interesting
game going.
I also heard of this thing
called “The Dicestormers” to bring role-playing games to anyone who wants to
watch. Tell me a little bit about Dicestormers.
Yeah, so about 18 months ago, our gaming group – who are pretty much stagey
people whether we are salesmen or composers or directors or whatever. We just
grabbed a couple of cameras for a lark and filmed our games.
The first one we filmed was
Star Wars d6 and put it up on YouTube. It just got heaps of views, and then
straight away they started commenting and demanding more content.
And we’ve just stick the
cameras up whenever we play now, we got more cool stuff, we have four cameras
generally and a really good audio recorder, and we edit the games after.
I have a fantastic set up
at home where I have a projector that projects – a normal theater projector –
but we stick a mirror up on the roof, and it bounces the maps back on the
table. And we’ve now got 3D maps, because we have little white blocks built up
on the table, because it actually projects the cover on the top of this 3D
Doug: Oh,
And yes, we’ve been videoing. . . and it’s just gone bananas there are so many
people watching, there is about 10x people watching as minutes that go past.
For every minute that goes past this interview, 10 people are watching a minute’s
worth of video.
And we’re getting about
30,000 views a month now, and what’s fantastic about the game community is real
connectedness right across the world, people are always commenting on a videos,
and encouraging us, and picking up rules violations, and asking for more stuff.
This incredible community
has grown around us. Dicestormers, all one word if you search on YouTube, you
can’t miss us.
We’re coming up really
high: if you search for Pathfinder RPG, I think we’re like the second hit from
the top or something.
As you said it’s. . . we
almost feel like you’re modeling one of the ways you can role-play. Quite
cinematic. Quite epic. Really storytelling focused. Lots of dice and all that
stuff. Lots of stuff happens, and lots big successes and epic fails.
I feel like a lot of young
players are looking at us and saying “Wow, I’m really learning from you. Which
is really cool, and quite humbling as well. It’s such an amazing hobby,
anything we can do to make it stronger and better is good for us.
Doug: I
agree. It’s not just good for the hobby, and the more people that play and more
immersive and – popular is the wrong word – but the more people play, the more
easier it’s going to be to have the market base to have innovation within it.
If there s enough market
out there so that someone can try something, and do well enough to encourage
them to try again, you can get enough failures to get the real successes out
there. You got to try stuff: very few people are going to walk into the first game
mastering experience – sometimes even their first roleplaying experience – and
are going to go “I am a natural game master and everything I do is soaked in
awesome, all the time.”
[Benjamin laughs] You have
to have the epic fail out there as the game master, where you have six people out
there looking at you like this [mimes disbelieving look]. “What just happened?
You really want us to do that? No?”
Benjamin: We
get those on our channel, people get to see us making actual genuine mistakes.
There is a classic moment
in one of our games recently – where we actually played four games in a row on
the international tabletop roleplaying game day theme and I was GMing at like 12:30 am in the middle of the night – and
I had this remorhaz miniature, and I was like “You come over the hill, and
there’s a remorhaz there . . . and it attacks you.”
And I’m like “Oh, that
wasn’t very a. . . maybe it wasn’t there . . . can I take it off the table?”
Everyone was laughing and
laughing, it was the worst set-up for a non-dramatic battle that you could have
possibly have wanted.
So people get to see us
play, warts and all which is really cool as well.
Doug: Tell
me a little bit about. . . so you’ve got your projector, and you flash it up,
and you got this really cool set up, and that’s neat for a face to face game – but
to what extent do you use computer aids to enhance your tabletop games?
Obviously, you’re
broadcasting over the Internet, so there is something going around there with
computers – even if it’s just a proxy for a pair of eyeballs, or a audience.
What. . . do you think
that’s going to be core to the future gaming experience or do you think it’s just
kind of temporary?
Benjamin: I
think. . . apart from Syrinscape, which we’ll talk about, with the whole audio
thing which is totally computer-based.
For me, sitting at the
table, the ability to search rules and . . .  let’s go back a step actually.
In preparation I’m using a
computer lots. I’m brewing up an individual description of a monster, or had a
template applied to it. I can print out individual sheets of all my counters
all ready to go from the computer. I can bring up a rule clarification really
really fast, and that makes a big difference.
One of the things that filming
our games for the public has done is those dead spots, flat spots. I’ll look
through the book a while, and try and find the rule – no one is going to want
to watch that. The ability to do text searches on games is really fantastic,
and that’s totally computer-based, Internet-based.
The sharing of ideas
across a social media community helps us. People are pushing for what they
think might be cool, or they’re suggesting things, and it’s actually – our
gaming group has become a worldwide interaction, with everyone out there
contributing in their own way, which is really cool, and that’s totally
dependent on computers as well.
Doug: More
broadly, what do you think that that means for the roleplaying game industry –
the content creators, the marketing, or dice manufacturers? I don’t know.
As far as an industry, you
got the game guys, but do you think there is a lot of room for a healthy cloud
– to use an overused word – or peripheral support pieces, as a part of the
gaming industry?
From the very top, for a starter, it was Paizo who really got into the whole
beta test online, actually directly starting a conversation with users, rather
than delivering what the user was supposed to like, and it would be the next
thing for them to take.
Paizo really asked the
users, and extended beta test on that Pathfinder game, and developed a
community around themselves – and they basically do that every time they
release a book. They’re not just doing a pretend beta test – it certainly
appears genuine, and the ideas of the users and the community get incorporated
into their new books.
Then going to the actual
question, the thing with PDF you can publish a book or gaming content
incredibly cheaply. I’ve bought and paid for cards, printed out, of all the
monsters you can summon.
Which is fantastic,
because I barely used to summon things because it’s a pain in the butt.
Especially if you’re playing a celestial template, or augmented template, or
whatever, and I can support a tiny little publisher who went and set all of
that out correctly using the OGL – and I can give them money for the work
they’ve done.
Then you’ve got publishers
publishing physical gaming aids, like spell cards, which are fantastic, and I
used for a long time . . . plus you got apps. Most of my guys, now, when they
are casters, they got a little app on their phone that brings up all the spell
Yeah, there is a whole big
set of companies that now can survive. From the very top ones, who are using
all those online things, and smaller and smaller companies who are able to do
it on a hobby basis to support it on the costs they got.
And I think that’s really
exciting and it gives us more great stuff to play with.
Doug: It
does seem a little bit that the key to that is some kind of – whether its open
gaming or a system resource dictionary – it’s some amount of content that’s out
there for anybody to use, reuse, repackage and make some money of off it in a
unique way, without bringing the holy wrath of Paizo or Wizards of the Coast,
or someone, down on them.
Benjamin: And
that was the genius of the d20 system and that whole open gaming license, which
just happened to be when I came back to gaming, and I think that’s lucky for me
and wonderful – and that’s what Paizo, obviously forced into the situation, had
to then develop a game within that system.
There is obviously a big
crossover from people who had the concept of the OGL originally, and those
people who were in Paizo when they lost the magazines and all that stuff, so
it’s a logical continuum for them, and a gaming industry philosophy for them.
But I think it really is
the way of the future, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens with D&D
Next. They’ve tried to do public trials of their rules and everything, and got
some big decisions from what they do then release-wise. That’ll be really
interesting to watch and how they sort of structure their business.
Doug: Yeah,
I was impressed. I’ve obviously been playtest leader for a couple of GURPS
books, and those playtests are like . . . my book was I think twelve people.
Tactical Shooting was twelve or fifteen. High-Tech was maybe a few more. I’ve
been participating in other Steve Jackson Games playtests where you got about a
dozen or maybe two dozen in the past playtests, but not many, and I guess that D&D
Next or 5th edition – which is “Dungeons and Dragons” I guess is
what they’ll call it – had a quarter million people or something like that.
I’d be very interested to
hear their impressions, afterwards, of the signal-to-noise ratio for a playtest
that was that broad.
[laughs] Yeah. We say on our website that Syrinscape is developed as part of a
community, the only reason it exists is because people demanded it, and
demonstrated a desire for it to go from the next level as the little thing that
it was that I had – that was a homebrew kind of thing.
The market created its own
market research, and its own clear stats about how many people were probably
interested in using it, and that helped me get the funding and financial
backing to develop Syrinscape to the next level.
It really is a user-demanded
system, and because people are so engaged in this community, they will
criticize, or complain, or write, or encourage – especially encourage. I’ve
found 95% of incredibly positive, encouraging, thankful, and grateful comments.
Every single day I’m waking up to more people thanking me for making Syrinscape,
and what it does and what I’m adding to people’s table, and it basically
Doug: I was
going to say that’s a perfect segue: what is Syrinscape? What’s it do, and why
would you write it?
That’s right, as I said earlier, I’m a musician and composer, and I love
computer games with their big thundering scores, and all their roars and sounds
like that.
We all know that if you to
a movie and turn off the sound, then the noodle kind of drains out of the
I’ve seen things where you
put different soundtracks behind the same footage, and you can completely
change the interpretation. Someone is cutting up carrots in the kitchen, and
there is nice happy music, then you think “It’s nice happy carrot cutting
music” or if you put a spooky sound behind you, the imagination immediately
paints this monster creeping up behind them, or stab them, or eat their ankles,
or something like that.
I was playing this tabletop
roleplaying game, sitting at the table, and there is no soundtrack at all,
obviously. And lots of people have done what I did, which was to start to use
computer game soundtracks that I was stealing, ripping off the games I own, or
using movie soundtracks.
And they’re pretty good,
but a lot of these soundtracks have really strong associations with particular
plot points, and I was finding the wrong music coming at the wrong time, or it
was evoking. . .  You can’t be putting on
Lord of the Rings soundtracks without being there in Hobbiton with the actual
hobbits. Are we Aragorn or are we something else?
Movie soundtracks are
written specifically, and they have rises and falls. That was working
reasonably well, so what I started doing was making 10 minute audio tracks,
which actually a lot of people are doing on Kickstarter now, where you got ten
minutes of environmental noise sort of going on, maybe with a wind loop behind
it or maybe a music track.
We found really quickly,
because you might spend an hour in a particular environment discussing the way
you’re going to skin the goblin you just killed, or whatever. You start to
notice patterns really quickly, and I was actually surprised, but if you get a
sort of [mimes bird and monster noises]. Once you’ve heard that five times in a
row you start to notice it and it starts to pull away from the table.
That’s what we are
designed to do. Human beings are designed to notice patterns. That’s really
important for our survival, and we’re really good at it.
So I sort of extended the
passages, and I was mixing them out on a sequencer, Q-bass, so I made them 20
minutes. But that becomes a lot of work, and then you still notice the patterns
pretty much.
So I started looking
around for something that would do generative sound playback of samples. There
were a few products, some of them written in the past, but a lot of them were
abandoned, or weren’t flexible enough, the sound was dodgy, a lot of them were
too dense.
You put in a wolf and it
pretty much goes “Woof! [pause] Woof! [pause] Woof!” and you’re like “Ah!
Not being able to find
anything else, I’d done a bit of programming in the past, and I found a
programming language that seemed appropriate, and programmed my dodgy, home
version that would do something like what it did.
So of course, because it
was an online world, and I lived in a community, I just shared it. And the
reaction was just amazing, and so strong, and people really really liked it.
I haven’t really explained
how it works. The reason why Syrinscape works well is, what it does . . . take an
element, okay. In fact, should I show you this on the actual interface?
Doug: Sure!
Go ahead. Yeah.
Benjamin: This
is Syrinscape in a bar fight, and I need to turn the volume up so I can hear

A lot of the way this
works is that things are subtle: I’ll use this one, [the sound of breaking
glass can be heard].
What it will do, this
smashing glass element, will just play a sound every now and then, it picks up.
I’ve got a whole lot of samples in there of various different smashes, you need
kind of about 10 or 20 [laughs, more smashing noises], and as it plays back
it’ll actually pick up one of those sounds, it’ll pick up one of those sounds,
put it out in the 3D spectrum in surround sound, at a randomized distance that
I can set up, and it will play that sound.
That little element will
sit there playing, and you can turn on grunts and shouts as well, and it will
just sit there playing. All of these elements add up, eventually, to what you’d
have in a movie as sound design.
If there is a bar fight
going on: You might have someone whimpering under a table, you might have the
sound of people chatting, so that’s all the elements of the sound design. They
are all completely dynamic. All completely randomized, you’ll never hear the
same sound twice and it will just keep going and going and going.
Now you don’t have to turn
those on and set all those. So over here, on the second panel, are presets, and
it will set up this mixer where sliders are moving.
The music will start in a
certain place, and it will just play the fantastic sound of a bar fight in the
background, until you are satisfied.
On the right hand side
you’ve got one shot sounds, which sounds you can actually set off on a sound
board, like this sound [makes a dull thump], which are all punches sounds. Or
this one, which I like of course: The Wilhelm Scream, which every game
absolutely needs.
There are a lot of spells
here. But the main point of Syrinscape is. . . let’s say you’re in the
Witchwood . . . you just click that,
that’s all the clicking you have to do. Syrinscape will just slowly transition
though, and everyone can try this. It’s free to download and everyone can play
with the top two sound sets.
It’ll just sit there and
keep playing, and every now and then a distant roar or growl or whatever. It
won’t fill up the whole room with lots and lots of sounds, but just be really
really subtle.
So we’re about to have a
bugbear battle, so we click on the bugbear battle sound set. And then suddenly
we’re in a battle and the music will play, there we go, that’s a bit louder.
It’ll just sit there as well, you don’t have to do anything, you don’t have to
touch it. I really don’t want to take any attention away from the games or the
Let’s say we’re in a
spaceship, we’re bringing out [space lasers and ships can be heard in the
background]. That’s cool. I don’t know how that’s coming through the speakers,
but it’s coming through over here.
Doug: It
sounds vaguely Star Wars-y.
You can have thunderstorms, all sorts of stuff like that. Does that make sense?
Doug: It
does. It’s something where you’ll do a couple of presets, or pick some presets
that someone has done for you, and it creates some background ambiance to help
set the mood.
That’s right. It just runs in the background, and is putting on that movie
The music that you get,
which plays every now and then, and all the background wind, which is kind of a
continuous bed of sound, and also those individual events that occur every now
and again like distant roars, or wolf howls, or crash of thunder, or goblins in
the distance, smashing stuff up, or whatever you need.
So that’s it. That’s
Syrinscape, it’s available on PC, Mac, and Android tablets and iPads as well,
so people can try it out on all those devices.
Doug: That’s
pretty cool. So I was wondering, in terms of the overall theme of what we’re
talking about this month, do you see a web-based or client-based version of
this in the future?
Benjamin: So
yes, we built it in the unity engine – it can work in a whole lot of different
contexts, there is a web-browser version, we’ve had a lot of people telling us
lately that we should be integrating it with the online gaming systems, because
there are some solutions. . . Roll20 for instance you can play tracks off Soundcloud
and stuff like that.
They’ve sort of got a free
player kind of thing, with integration of premium content in their business
model. This is the same sort of thing.
You download the player
for free to run within a few games, and if you want to buy more stuff on top of
that, you can do that. Integration into one of these devices makes a lot of
sense in the future.
At the moment it is built
primarily for my tabletop game, but it makes absolute sense online. You have it
on a tablet and you can feed it through a mixer.
Doug: Sure.
It just seems like it would be almost a perfect – and we’re talking in Google
Hangouts on Air, and Roll20 integrates perfectly with Google Hangouts, and it
seems like this would be a fairly straight forward inclusion into a Hangout
Yeah, definitely. That’s something we need to get on to.
What we’re working on at
the moment with Syrinscape is we’ve got the Fantasy player – all that content
is all set up and being built. At the moment we’re concentrating on getting our
Sci-Fi player out, which has some of those sounds that you heard there that I
And we’re looking at
getting an editor, because in my original version of Syrinscape, everyone could
build their own stuff. It’s very important on getting the community involved,
and building stuff again in this version.
That’s. . . hopefully
we’ve got a beta of that in April. Once again, we can get that whole community.
. . they can build what they want, and be contributing, and they can make it
grow as a community.
Doug: Are
you going to publish a set of Syrinscape standards? Your noise level has to be
this. You have to have this clean.
I’m just trying to figure
out how you can make sure the sound quality. . . for example, you were talking
about. . . let me finish that sentence actually.
I have a tendency to go
from one thought to another, and it makes the transcriptions really odd.
You want to make sure that
the content that is being community provided is at least at certain standard of
quality, because otherwise – fair or not – Syrinscape gets the knock for not
providing an immersive environment because somebody is doing something with
sound effects and flushes the toilet in the background or something.
Do you envision some sort
of standards set?
Yeah, totally, yeah. I think what we’ll do is we’ll greenlight.
The current concept is –
and this is open to discussion and argument amongst us – that we would probably
let you build anything you want, and that automatically syncs with your server
home online, and that means you can have it on all your devices when you log in
as you.
Then probably what we’ll
do is to be able to propose the addition of what they built to the community,
and then I think we would have people vetting them.
We also have copyright
concerns as well you know. We need to make sure people don’t just go in and . .
. people can use community commons sounds, as long as they credit them correctly
if there is an attribution license, and that’s so great to be able to pass on
that credit.
So as long as all the
sounds are edited, as you say, if the quality is good enough as you said. I
think that’s really important.
Doug: Yeah,
because otherwise I could see where:
“Doesn’t that sound a lot
like the Avengers soundtrack?”
“Yes. . . yes it does. Yes.
. . that’s going to be a problem.”
The safeguarding of IP in
digitally distributed world is difficult; especially . . . Some people don’t
get too exercised when a fifty billion dollar corporation has a song go public.
It’s a different story when having that song go public is one of 15 songs in an
artist’s repertoire, and “Oh, I’ve downloaded this great song!” Well
congratulations, that person is now eating twice a day instead of three times a
As a writer of a book that
has maybe sold 300 or 400 copies, having a few free downloads done at a couple
bucks a pop is a –  relatively speaking –
a big deal.
Technical Grappling
will never
have me quitting my day job, but for those who might wish to make a career out
of the gaming industry – although I think many gaming industry professionals
will give a word of advice, which is: “DON’T.”
It’s like joint ventures:
just don’t. You still want to? DON’T. You still want to? It’s like converting
to Judaism – you have to be convinced three times. [Benjamin laughs].
Once you get into that you
want to make sure that, yes, you want people to enjoy your product, but you
also want to make sure the artists are getting compensated both intellectually
and monetarily for the work that they put in.
Benjamin: Absolutely.
The thing is, the community on the whole is really really keen to support
innovation and things that are going to make the game better, and they want to
have a mechanism to do it.
And that’s what
Kickstarters have shown if nothing else. Once there is an idea that catches the
imagination, this community is really keen to put their money behind it. Which
is great.
I think what we’re going
to do is build a subscription model, where they become a supporter and they get
access to absolutely everything that they can possibly get access to. And we
get to have a steady stream, and know how big our base is, and adjust our
business model on the basis of that.
I think that makes sense,
and people are asking for that. People don’t want to have to go to a shop and
buy all the different bits and that sort of stuff. They just want to go “Yep. I
believe in that product and I want to make sure it still exists and we can all
keep using it.”
Doug: Right.
I see where that would go, and it’s somewhere between Kickstarter and . . . Patreon
is the other one where you’re just basically funneling money. . . it’s like
buying a subscription to a content creator.
It’s. . . .instead of
saying I’m going to buy Pyramid magazine, and I’ll buy that issue or this issue,
or that issue or Dungeon Magazine or Dragon.
I’m going to throw $10 a
month to Bob the Game Designer, and if enough people do that he’s got a secure
living doing good content. And if that content starts to be not-good, then the
subscriptions go away, and it’s a very active . . .  “Yay Capitalism! Yay!”
(If you’re an Austin
Powers fan. “Oh, we won. Yay! Hey comrades.” I need to rewatch that movie. The
first time I saw that I nearly busted a gut. I was a huge Ian Fleming James
Bond fan, and he [Mike Meyers] did such a great job of doing a homage to both
the books and the movies that . . . the first one was wonderful to watch from
that perspective. Anyways, I digress; see I told you I digress.)
So you’ve mentioned Paizo
a little bit, you’ve got some great fantasy bar fight going on. I hear that
there is something in the works, and I hear that because you sent me an email
saying “something is in the works.”
So why don’t you tell me
about that?
Yeah, so I’m a really strong believer in the Paizo model, the community base,
and the OGL concept and everything like that. I really love what’s been done
with Pathfinder, and I love the game world, and love the quality of their art.
Some sort of licensing relationship
with some of the big companies has always been obvious for Syrinscape, the big
one for us was Pathfinder and Paizo, because we feel a real connection with
their business model and philosophies.
We just approached them
and said “We have this fantastic product, we think that people need to have it
on the table and we’d really love to be able to build content for your game and
directly support Golarion, or just directly support all the monsters in the OGL
which is the Dungeons and Dragons-cum-Pathfinder monsters.”
They liked the product – any
digital product that actually turns up
and is done is a bit of a massive
achievement in this industry. There have been many attempts to produce physical
products some of which have never emerged and yeah, I basically went to PaizoCon
and asked for a meeting. Give me 10 or 15 minutes of your time.
And we set down with the
guys and said “Look at this” and they were like “Oh! That’s so cool.” They were
pushing the buttons, and making the roars, and we entered into a conversation
with them, and have agreed to build licensed content for Paizo – and that’s all
official and signed up.
So the last couple of
months have been building whole other content – which I can’t mention what it
is – but once we’re ready for release, we’re doing the final polishing for all
that stuff. Then it’ll start rolling out, and as I said, it’ll be a
subscription base, you’ll be able to get to the ever widening support for every
tabletop experience you want to get going.
Doug: I can
easily see – you can smile mysteriously, because I know you’re probably under
nondisclosure – but I can easily see areas of Golarion each having their own
theme song.
I can see starting with
the most popular monsters, whether it’s a beholder, or a remorhaz, or a dragon,
or a troll, or goblins, those guys have a certain theme song or certain noises:
the goblins getting angsty or getting angry would have a certain background
noise. You can have a troll thump thump thump.
You could really easily
see where something like a . . . you’d load in. . . I just did an interview
with the gentleman from Fantasy Grounds – Doug Davison – you could see, for
example, when you load in these monsters: a bear, 3 dire bats, and a troll, that
it brings in the bear, dire bats, and the troll sounds. And starts playing some
background music.
Yeah, integration with some of these products is really good.
Syrinscape is running as an
API at the moment. We’re just building the native interfaces, so the skin that
you saw before is just a surface controller, and there is no reason that any
other program or web device or whatever can’t control that API. Yeah.
That’s something certainly
that . . .  there have been a few chats
with a few people about it about that sort of stuff and once we find the right
match then I think that’s definitely something that should happen for sure. And
it’s really easy to do as well. The elements are there; you just need any
device that turns on the element that’s the goblin noises, and any sort of player
interacting with clicks, or automatically attached to an icon you put down on
the table, are all possibilities for the programming.
Doug: Another
fun thing that would leverage the power of automatic searching as well as some
of the speech-to-text capabilities that are found on iPhones or whatever would
be something where you’re actually at a tabletop (or online) and it’s listening
to what you’re saying. “Yes, and there are three trolls” and it hears the word
trolls and goes out to the database, comes back with crunching sounds or [makes
growling noises] or something.
Benjamin: These
are the “stupid” ideas that people come up with, and people say “oh, it’ll
probably go wrong and play the wrong thing at the wrong time” and somebody
makes the thing, and it works, and it’s like “Way cool, why didn’t I think of
Lots of people thought of
it, but only one idiot went and did
Doug: Right.
So with that in mind, let me ask: For your tabletop-enhancement environment,
what are you satisfied that exists that enhances your tabletop experience? Can
be Syrinscape, can be anything, but just as someone who is creating content to
make a better tabletop experience and by extension, a better online experience.
What’s good that you like
that’s out there already? What needs to be out there to enhance the experience,
and how do you see that evolving over time?
Mmmm. So I think I’m satisfied audio-wise because I built exactly what I
wanted. I really want Syrinscape to be a community with shared content, so we
get really great content instead of relying on one central team building stuff,
though as long as you control the quality that’s going to work really well.
What’s still lacking for
me at my table is a really useful, easy way to control the maps at the table. A
lot of the mapping programs are focused for online play which is cool. . . but
if people go and check out the Dicestormers on YouTube you’ll see that what
we’re doing at the moment with maps – and I’ve actually been using PowerPoint
to do my maps to control position and the scale, to apply grids and un-apply
grids, and then to be able to show and hide various different areas in an
effective way.
I was using MapTool, which
is amazingly, fantastically powerful, and to be able to move your digital
miniatures around so that it automatically does lighting and all that sort of stuff,
it’s really cool.
But when you’re using
physical miniatures, that doesn’t really work very well, because you’ve got to
move the digital miniature to match the physical miniature.
It takes a really long
time to do all the walls and everything in it in a program like MapTools. So
there is a lot of prep time, so whether there is a better way of sharing maps once
their built – getting excited now.
So also, when I’m taking a
map from a digital product that I own, say a module and then wanting to import
it into any program projector, the resolution is always a problem.
I absolutely love what Paizo
has done recently, where you can turn off the room numbers and hide the secret
doors. So you have a player version of the map, which I can easily project on
the table, but the resolution is nowhere near what it needs to be, it’s just
because they put in a PDF and they want to keep the PDF size down, so they lack
a higher resolution.
But the really big thing
for me, that I haven’t been able to find online at all, is animated elements to
put on my maps.
I would love to be able to
place down easily on my digital map, on my table, a fire element and just draw
an area and have it sort of burning. That’d be so coo-ool! And also a flowing
river just to designate. . . just draw right across the map and automatically
flow, that would be fantastic. Or to be able to have it snowing and wind.
I’m sort of doing things
like that at the moment, just cobbling together things, but I’d love that to be
there in the future, hopefully I’ll get fed up enough and do it.
Doug: So I
was taking a look at the Battlegrounds demo, and it has some of that. It has dynamic
lighting where you have a fire, and it flickers, and you actually see a flickering
light in two zones. The bright zone and the dim zone.
I’m fairly sure it’s got a
robust dynamic lighting module to it, it seems to be a little bit ahead of some
of the other dynamic lightning introductions.
I do know that Roll20 – I’m
not experienced with it yet – but I think it’s part of their rugged reroll
upgrade, they’ve done some neat things with dynamic lightning.
They’ve been talking about animated icons for a while. The last time I looked
was maybe a month ago and everyone saying “Well, yes, we don’t do it yet, and
it’s difficult for this reason.”
I totally understand that,
it can take a lot. . . sometimes when you have to reengineer the whole way the
graphic system works in order to incorporate something like a animated gif or
whatever, it can be really major.
I just want one of these
people to do it, and soon as they do, they’re going to go off, if I can just
chuck down fire and burns my players are going to salivate all over the table.
Doug: The
other thing that would be kind of neat, just thinking out loud: They have these
things all over the place in malls, and in our Minnesota Zoo. It’s a projector
that not just projects, it senses, so if you go [mimes a hand swipe] like this
over a projector screen, and it interacts with the images.
It would be interesting to
have such, if you’re doing it on the surface, or if you put an actual miniature
on there it can sense that. . . there is a barcode on there or something, and
if you move it, it moves the map or scales to the map.
You could have an
interactive system, you’re moving your miniatures on the table, the projector
receiver is finding out where they are, and giving it back to the GM’s screen,
so you can have hidden things or put a river here and you actually draw on the
computer screen touch screen and it shows on the map.
The Microsoft Table Surface thing did that really well, didn’t it? But there
like $20,000 or something. I want that, to take an icon or miniature with a barcode
and draw on a table and say “That’s a shadowed area or whatever.” That would be
so cool.
Doug: It
seems that the capability to not drive it. . . you’d need that special
projector. . .
Maybe you wouldn’t need a [special]
projector, you’d need a webcam, you’d need a [dumb] projector, and you’d need a
tablet that you could receive it to. You’d probably want a full computer with a
touchscreen like some of the new Dell’s. What was it? A 27” touch screen, the
Dell XPS or whatever, and you can do all that and interact with it, viscerally,
and have that experience.
I think we’re coming down
to the end – if nothing else because of the conference call I have in the
Unfortunately I can’t keep
chatting, although you’re really fun to talk to, but I always give my guests
the last word, so I’m giving you the last word:
What do you want to leave
anyone who’s watching this about Syrinscape or the future or the community or .
. . what do you want to let them know?
Benjamin: Yeah,
look: Just get involved in the community. “Make your voice heard.” It is what
drives us I think, and if any of the stuff we’ve been talking about catches
your imagination, talking about it will make it happen. Workshopping these
ideas online.
So go download Syrinscape,
it’s free, you can try it out, so jump on Facebook or Twitter and hammer me
until you get it looking the way you want it to. And we can enter a discussion
and we can argue about things.
Definitely check out the
Dicestormers, people are always saying “You guys should be known more, because
you’re heaps funny and embarrassing.” Just go on Dicestormers on YouTube and
search that out. Then yeah, make comments and pick up all our rule errors and
make jokes about us. We had someone make a special cut of one of our
Dicestormer videos the other day, because Murray’s character was chopping ears
off things and giggling in a slightly maniacal way. They made a video of just
that one slightly scary moment and we totally love that stuff. Community,
community, community.
Most of all: just game!
Get out there and game more! Because it’s good stuff, and it’s fun, that’s me.
[laughs] Fair enough.
Alright, I want to thank
you for your time.
This, just so you know, we’ll
be transcribing this and will show up in a couple of days. I want it to come
out before the end of March, so it’s in time for the Blog Carnival.
Everyone who is watching,
get out there and write posts about this stuff, because it’s part of the “community”
piece: The more people talk, and the more it’s shared, and all the different
videos. . .  You yourself should stop by
the firing squad if you haven’t already, because some of the features you’ve
just talked about, John Lammers talk about some of the things Epic Table can do
and Doug Davison walked me through Fantasy Grounds.
If you’re really into
immersive, deep, epic storytelling, Liz Theis walked me through Realm Works
which is by the same company, Lone Wolf Development, that did Hero Lab. Realm Works
is this huge, scripting, story-driven, mind-map, relationship web. You can do
mapping, you got all this stuff you click on it to share with players. It’s
really neat and for people who do big stories, it’s actually technology that –
and I said this in my post about it – I expected to be unimpressed. It totally
impressed me. When I do my campaigns, I want to do it in this so it’s there and
easy and don’t have to do your prep twice. It was really kind of neat.
Syrinscape is another
capability that you’ve developed to add to the immersion experience for either
people at a table, and hopefully, eventually, people online as well. Thank you
for your time!
Thank you for having me!