Art to inspire an Optimistic Post-Apoc Game

Like a lot of people my age, my image of the apocalypse is largely filled with the green-tinted DC wasteland of Fallout 3 the bleak, ruined Boston of Fallout 4 and countless images of the Zombie apocalypse from the zombie craze that filled my time in high school. However, I do like my settings a bit more colourful and optimistic then these games. As I went over last time there are plenty of good literary inspirations, but these often don’t have any art aside from the cover. Lately I’ve been posting a ton of dragon art over at my Tabletop Games focused Mastodon account. A lot of this art I find via the Vintage RPG tumbr, and while going through it I’ve found some good art to inspire an optimistic setting that just happens to occur after the world has broken.

A bear in Napoleonic garb, including one hand in it's coat
From The Second edition of Gamma World (1983)

When I was young, I wasn’t a fan of Gamma World due to its much discussed “Gonzo” attitude and wanted something more serious. While I’m still leaning towards something more serious, ehhh, it had some good ideas.

Another account giving me ideas for this is Black Ray Gun: An exploration of the world after the Apocalypse, which has the excellent URL of “Post Apocalyptic Flim Flam”.

A figure larger then the trees, made of twisted wood but wearing armour, or possible with technology as its face and around its wooden body
A second view of the previous figure

These images from Magic the Gathering also inspire me with their vaugly Studio-Gibli style look. As if you’d be walking through the forest and come across one of these left over from a much more advanced civilization, just waiting to be awakened, or still doing their final task.

The inside of a torus-shaped space station, extending off into the distance. It is clearly abandoned and overgrown, but done so as to look more peaceful then anything.

I also found this image via Post Apocalyptic Flim Flam/Black Ray Gun and it really resonated with me, emphasizing the peaceful, serene side of the fall of civilization.

I’ll probably post more of these as I come across them.

Until next time, Stay Geeky

Published in: on July 20, 2021 at 2:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

Marking from a TA’s perspective

It has been a VERY long time since I’ve posted about chemistry, I was an undergrad at that point, but I wanted to write something longer and more easily linked to then a twitter thread. I’m about to finish my Ph. D. and while I’ve done a lot less marking then many students, I’ve done enough to have a few opinions I thought professors might find useful. This is mostly based on my most recent experience, since it is fresh in my mind. Also, the list is not in any particular order after the first few big ones.

First: Don’t split marking up by student. This WILL lead to uneven marking as there is always stuff that needs a judgment call, and with one student I can remember “I’ve seen this way of answering the question before, what did I do there”. Now, you can do careful coordination and this semester I’ve tried to do that, but it makes marking take a lot longer and will never be as good. I’ve spent a lot of time describing my marking decisions, but I still get emails from students going “I lost a mark for this, and my friend didn’t.” Instead, split marking up by assignment or question. That way if one TA is a much harder marker then the other, every student gets the hard TA and easy TA equally.

Second: Don’t have big tables of balanced equations. They are the WORST to mark. So you’ve got a table of five equations, each with two reagents and two products. That is just five things to mark, right? No, you have to check that each of those products and reagents are correct, and have the right numbers of atoms. Then each of those products and reagents has a coefficient. So for something like “2 Al + 3 Cl2 Ž→ 2 AlCl3 (s)” I have to check three coefficents, two subscripts and three compounds. So for a table of five of these type of equations I have to check 5*3*2*3= 90 things for one table. At a certain point my eyes start glazing over and I worry I’ll miss mistakes.

Third: Don’t include things on the assignment that aren’t marked. I’ve had one assignment that had a page that wasn’t marked. That felt bad as some students (probably those who were running out of time) did that page and not marked worked. Boom, none of that work helped their grade.

Fourth: Make sure the question you are asking is what you think you are asking. Students will often answer very literally, so something like “What do you see in this part of the online interactive” will get a literal description, when what the professor wanted was just a description of the motion of the ions. Likewise, make the scope of your questions clear “Which ion is never soluble” is bad. “Which ion is not soluble in question three. is good. Also, check your answers. I had one case where there was a correct answer the prof didn’t realize since they’d accidentally not given an example where that ion was soluble. It isn’t a particularly insoluble ion, they just never showed it.

Fifth: Don’t worry about making the assignment total some round number of marks. I have had one prof who made every assignment total 10 marks. This leads to a lot of questions worth half a mark and other such annoyances. Your TA can normalize a grade at the end. Having to say 0.25/0.5 is more of a pain and more confusing to the student then 0.5/1.

Sixth: Don’t make us use annoying grades. Example: Make sure tables have a number of marked boxes that divide into a non-repeating fraction. I don’t want to have to write 1.33333… marks out of 2, and 1 1/3rd marks out of 2 is just confusing. But 1.5/2 is not.

Seventh: Don’t make students marge audio on a presentation when doing things online. I had to mark some oral presentations, and the first one with solo students was fine(tm). I mean, the recording quality was all over the place, but it was bearable, and you never know what sort of technology the student has access to, the lack of a quite space to record, whatever. HOWEVER, as soon as the prof assigned a GROUP project? BAD. The audio quality was often so bad that I got headaches trying to parse what the students were saying. I hurt my ears SO many times when I had to crank my speakers up for the first student, then the second student was super loud.

Eight: Make sure you aren’t assigning the students the same questions over and over. In one course I TAed I the students have a weekly LON-CAPPA problemset written by the university. These are generally very well written, and have been upgraded and tweaked over the years. Then they would get a Sapling problem set, which would redo the same concepts and similar questions, but with a worse input method, ambiguous wordings, and shinier graphics. Then they’d get a tutorial handout that some weeks would basically then duplicate the Sapling work. You could just pick one of these and you’d teach the same amount.

Nine: Make sure you aren’t just asking the students to copy stuff out of the online interactive. There was at least one set of questions that literally ZERO students out of the 80 I was marking got wrong. Then I realized that the question was to write out the equation for some reactions you saw in an online interactive. Except that the interactive showed you the equation below the video. So they were all just literally copy and pasting them in. Which means they were not learning anything, you weren’t marking anything except the ability to notice that equation, and all you are doing is generating marking work for the TA.

Ten: Make sure your marking schemes make sense. For example, A question with four checkboxes, and a note that it is worth two marks, but -1 mark per wrong answer. But no details on what is a wrong answer. If they check “add heat” instead of “remove head” is that one wrong answer or two? The TAs got permission from the prof to just assign each box 0.5 marks, and if that box was marked or not marked correctly they got the marks for it.

Eleven: Make sure your sig figs are consistent if you are going to mark them. There was one question where it was ambiguous if some of the numbers we gave them were infinite precision values or should be taken as a number of sig figs. Therefore, if you are going to do this, be clear. Don’t say 300 mL. Say either 300. mL (the notation our sig fig handouts specifies, but that I haven’t seen since undergrad), 300.0 mL (now is explicit) or 301 mL (technically still ambiguous but no longer has students thinking there is only one digit) or 3.00*10^2 mL.

Published in: on April 23, 2021 at 10:28 am  Leave a Comment  
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A Optimistic Post-Apocalyptic Setting

I decided to dust off this blog to post something a little longer then would fit on Mastodon. I’ve been fascinated with the idea of running a post-apocalyptic game for a long time. It has all the upsides of typical fantasy settings, which is no large governmental network to provide aid, which makes room for a lot of adventures, and yet also allows for modern and science fiction concepts. If I have any readers of this blog left from back when I posted regularly, I’m sure you will be utterly unsurprised by this.

My views on this are heavily influenced by Daybreak 2250 AD by Andre Norton. I read this novel as a kid, and at least once or twice since then, and the images of the protagonist exploring the ruined city not to get weapons or armour, but useful things for his village of people, paper, food, books with useful knowledge have stuck with me to this day.

After that, the earliest influence on me was reading articles on Gamma World in Dragon Magazine as a kid, and seeing all the wild and strange art, mutated creatures and so on. That is the first post-apocalyptic setting I searched for on the internet when I was a kid, and it lead me to the others. I found it’s early fansites tended to lean into what was called back then a more “Gonzo” play style. Very silly, anything goes type of stuff, which wasn’t what I was looking for. However, recently Tumblr posts about it, such as those by Black Ray Gun have made me more interested in the aesthetic, with devices made out of scrap and used for purposes never intended, and the colour of it, after years of Bethesda’s Fallout games green and grey and brown.

When Fallout 3 came out, I being a fan of Oblivion got it, and it made me fall deeply in love with Bethesda games. While it certainly had its issues with the writing of the main story quest, it got the feeling of walking thorough abandoned buildings very well, as did Fallout 4 to a large extent. These games I have issues with though. Particularly in Fallout 4, why are people living in shacks full of holes when there are hundreds of large, dead trees around that could be cut down to make shelter? Why are people not living in log cabins?

The final piece of inspiration for this setting mix is anime. I found Wolf’s Rain after watching Cowboy Bebop during my undergrad, and wanting more like it. It wasn’t like it, at all, but it has a sequence that has stuck with me, where the main characters are venturing through a ruin and are attack by an old war robot following long-forgotten orders. More directly relevant is the asthetic and world of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The contract between the creepy radioactive wastes, the vibrant colours of the toxic forests, and the pastoral landscape of the valley of the winds feels right. People are building new things, using what technology they can, and making due with older bits when they can’t. They KNOW what cars and such are, but they don’t necessarily have the technology base to make new ones, so they use pack animals. They mostly use their own stuff, but are fine with scavenging, though they mostly do so from the natural forest rather then the ruins.

In high school and university I moved into running The Call of Cthulhu due how easy it is to teach, and left this idea alone. However, I ran a campaign of my own making for the first time recently, rather then working in an existing campaign setting, and I liked the feeling. It didn’t last long due to me not having the focus to keep a play by post game running while dealing with grad school, but it gave me a taste. Now I want to run something similar, something I can adapt per-existing adventures to but with my own flavour. Now, due to one of my partners being VERY much not into dark, apocalyptic settings, so I’m thinking of a more stable setting.

The players are from an established farming community that is doing well, and there isn’t that much for them to do during the summer, so they head out after planting, with the goal of finding things that will help their community and getting back before the harvest when their help is needed. Anything from toys for children, new types of seeds, textbooks (or really, any books), tools, or even contact with other communities so that trade deals and mutual aid can be set up. To do this the players would have to explore the local area beyond where the village normally travels, based on the stories of the older members of the community and maps purchased from traders. Track down rumours of ruins in the wilderness, and so on.

Perhaps they find a broken truck in the wilderness, still full of canned food, a perfect emergency stash for their community in case of a bad harvest. Then the adventure then becomes how do they get this back to their community without a working truck? The other thing would be finding good tables of STUFF for the players to find and letting them figure out how it could help their community. I love seeing players being creative in ways I didn’t anticipate and that sort of thing would be very cool.

Honestly, the hard part as a DM would be making sure to show all the small ways the players were improving the town over time, making the players feel good about what they are doing. Kind of like what Three Dog did in Fallout 3, those broadcasts did a lot to make me feel connected to the world and part of it.

Anyway, no idea if anyone will see this after most of a decade, but it was fun to write and get my ideas down.

Until I post again, whenever that is, stay geeky.

–Canageek

Published in: on January 24, 2021 at 5:24 pm  Comments (4)  
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D&D has infrastructure: Things to consider when suggesting games to replace it

One of the things that makes D&D such an attractive game to run is that it has infrastructure. There are entire companies that make adventures for it. It has campaign settings. If I don’t have money there are hundreds of free adventures for it on the internet. Want to write your own adventures, but not the full world? TSR and Wizards have put out something like a dozen settings, and other companies dozens more, and most of these have adventures set in them.

That makes DMing D&D a very easy experience, even if it’s rules are harder to work with.

As someone who enjoys DMing but does not enjoy writing adventures, this is a big factor in me choosing what game I’m going to run. A lot of games seem to look down on the idea that you would use a premade adventure, a stance I strongly disagree with.

I’ve only found one other game with a basically unlimited supply of free adventures: Call of Cthulhu. I think this comes from the fact it had some very good adventures early on, showing people that prewritten adventures can be a powerful shared experience between playgroups. Couple that with a strong convention scene, and a lot of DMs have posted their adventures online over the years.  Additionally, if you have money, there are LOTS of pre-written adventures available for purchase, some of them very good.

I would love to hear about other games with good adventure and campaign setting support, please let me know if there are other games out there with this level of support.

Published in: on July 8, 2020 at 9:07 am  Comments (2)  
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Why it is hard to replace D&D with indie RPGs

Alright, so WotC is facing a lot of backlash that is pushing people away from D&D. I’m not going to write about that, much more qualified people then me already have.

I am going to write about why I think calls to play indie RPGs instead of D&D are naive and misguided.

Indie RPGs are smart, well written, simpler to play then D&D and never going to replace D&D for the same reason that arthouse cinema is never going to replace action movies or hallmark romances. D&D is a game you can play when things outside are dark and you need to escape from reality for a while. Indie RPGs, at least the ones I see being pushed on Twitter to replace D&D tend to have themes and messages and don’t fill the same niche in my opinion.

To put it another way: These type of indie RPGs are a dinner at a classy French restaurant, D&D is the local pub. Yes, the French restaurant is better food in most ways, but you have to put on nice cloths and take the time to learn an etiquette about forks and such. D&D is the local diner- yeah, it is greasy and probably bad for you, but you already know where it is and can go in your comfortable cloths. (I mean, D&D probably costs more then the indie RPG, but no metaphor is perfect)

Let me break down what I mean. D&D relies on tropes most people already know: Dwarves are short and like ale. Elves are dexterous archers and wizards. Halfings are hombodies. Adventures tend to be simple- There is a dragon that has taken over the Dwarves homeland, there was a murder at the harvest festival and you need to find who did it, etc.

Most indie RPGs try and get away from this. That means the amount of buy-in you need is much larger. You need to sit down and put in WORK to learn the new setting. You can’t rely on easy tropes you already know. That is an issue, it makes the game less accessible to new players. Now, I agree and am learning more and more that a lot of these tropes are harmful and we need to stop using them- that doesn’t mean we can just stop having tropes though, that means we need to use less harmful ones.

Another thing is that D&D’s style of mechnics are very simple to learn as a player. The DM is the world and all the people who aren’t players. The player controls a character. A lot of indie RPGs break this model, which makes things harder on both the DM and player. I’ve talked online a lot about how narrative games are a bad fit for mysteries, as the DM can’t assume the players won’t add details that change clues or give the person they had intended to have committed an alibi.

Therefore if you want to replace D&D with something, I would suggest looking for games that fulfill the same niche as it. Easy to understand the setting, uses elements that people are already familiar with from popular culture, and that uses traditional mechanics.

Some games I think that are examples of this, though many of them have their own problematic elements:

  • Pathfinder (Ok, it is basically D&D)
  • Numenera
  • Alternity (Star Drive is basically a 90s version of Mass Effect meets Firefly, Dark Matter is basically the X-Files RPG)
  • The Call of Cthulhu (1920s and 1990s are both fairly easy settings to grasp, and it is easier then you’d expect to cut out the racist elements or even all of the supernatural bits.)
  • Basic Roleplay System (BRP) (Powers Call of Cthulhu)
  • GURPS – Much more complicated setup then D&D, but much faster then you would think in play. No setting though, but you could steal another games setting and such if the DM is willing to do some work

I would love for other suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments

Published in: on July 5, 2020 at 11:54 am  Comments (1)  

On a Wildspace Deluge

Continuing my series of finding the best Spelljammer bits from around the web, Hack & Slash has a post showing some of the best

Ghost Ship by Brom, showing a group of people with drawn weapons on a very battered hammership.

Spelljammer could have used more art like this. It feels like something is happening in this picture, rather then just people standing around.

official art. For example, I did not know that Brom did Spelljammer art. It also shows off some of the problems with the art: Designs that didn’t match the rules, or descriptions of the ships, a lot of the art being reused too many times to save costs, and some of it being um, rather bland to be honest. You’ve got a swashbuckling setting with people leaping from ship to ship, and most of the art just has people standing around.

Hope you enjoy this little bit of Spelljammer,
–Canageek

Published in: on July 23, 2016 at 9:00 am  Comments (4)  
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On Reflections in Wildspace

I love the Spelljammer setting. It is silly, swashbucklery and D&D IN SPAAACEEEE. However, it has some issues that occur when contact is made with the players. This post, from the Hack and Slash blog has solutions to a number of the problems with Spelljammer. First, it solves why you can’t make a killing just running goods from one point on a planet to another, in a really nice way. Then it has some advice about trying to do too much, some ideas about 3D space battles and why you can rule no 3D battles (I’d just rule that moving off the 2D plane is a very slow process that can take hours, myself, but each to their own.) It them wraps up with some details on XP, gold, weapon ranges and some other system-specific things.

I recommend any DM running SJ check it out, it isn’t long and has some good points.

Until next time, stay geeky.
—Canageek

Published in: on July 3, 2016 at 2:27 pm  Comments (2)  
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Odd Sources of Inspiration: Russian Military Mapping textbook: Post 1: Time

I read a couple of really cool articles a while back, Inside the Secret World of Russia’s Cold War Mapmakers and The Soviet Military’s Eerily Detailed Guide to San Diego (Both by Greg Miller on Wired). These articles directed me to “Russian Military Mapping: A Guide ot Using the Most Compreshensive Source of Global Geospatial Intelligence” (East View Cartographic, 2005), a translation of a Russian military textbook. Based on some of the reviews and comments, I thought this would be an excellent resource for ideas for a DM.

Time: I’ve rarly seen it mentioned that days get shorter in most worlds as you go north and south. When going to the icy north, remember that days will be shorter in winter, and crazily long in the summer. This is something people notice easily; how many times do we talk about how short the days get in winter, despite it happening every year? If you are travelling north rapidly, even on foot, you’ll notice this much more quickly then normal, doubly so if you are travelling north in the fall, or south in the spring.
Also, at high levels with teleport spells recall that time zones are a thing. If the players teleport three large kingdoms over, it could be an hour or two out, depending on the scale of your maps. Easily enough forgotten if clocks aren’t common. But if they start teleporting really long distances, then they’ll notice it was morning when they cast the spell, and evening now. You could use this to add time pressure to a game. The players know they have to stop a plot that happens at midnight, and teleport to the right location early in the morning, and are horrified to discover the stars already in the sky!

I think I’ll keep these posts short, and on one topic, so I’ll leave this one off for here. Until next time, stay geeky.
–Canageek

Published in: on May 9, 2016 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Cosmonomicon: Spelljammer + Dragonstar + 5th Edition D&D

Another post on some cool Spelljammer stuff I found the web a while ago. Jordan Short over at The Mox Boarding House has written up a cool mashup of Spelljammer with Dragonstar, and given advice on how to run it in 5th edition. It strips down a lot of the stuff blogging down both Spelljammer and Dragonstar, mostly edition-specific rules that neither are really enhanced by, and makes a pretty cool setting out of it, known as The Cosmonomicon.

For those that don’t know:

Spelljammer was a 1st and 2nd edition AD&D setting that took D&D into space, and let you fly ships from one campaign setting to the next using magically enchanted boats. It never really caught on, due to how strange it was, and, likely, due to a lot of rules and bookkeeping related to the flying ships and spellcasting in space. Mostly though, I think it was how strange it was, an odd mashup of swashbuckling, D&D and planar travel. There was also a Shadows of the Spider Moon article in Polyhedron magazine that attempted to update things to 3rd edition with a new setting.

Dragonstar was one of the setting that came out in the rush of 3rd party products after the OGL came out and was mostly lost in the rush (The company killing Living Dragonstar didn’t help.) It added a lot of Science Fiction elements to D&D, and made the players trying to exist on the edges of the Draconic Empire, right after a red dragon took the throne and has begun sending out his orc legions and drow secret police. This gives a very Star Wars + D&D type vibe that I find really cool.

The Cosmonomicon takes the Dragon Empire from Dragonstar, some setting bits from Shadows of the Spider Moon, removes the technology from Dragonstar and replaces it with Spelljammer’s flying ships. It doesn’t have all the details from Spelljammer (no crystal spheres or such), but I think that enhances things and removes a lot of the unnecessary complications. He also gives some useful details for playing in the setting in 5th edition.

I encourage you to check this setting out and enjoy: I think I’ll be borrowing some of this if I ever run a Spelljammer game. As a note to my readers: these posts on Spelljammer material are being shared to Wildspace: The Spelljammer Fanzine, which is something you should check out.

Until next time, stay geeky
–Canageek

Stripped Down Spelljammer

I’m a bit late on this, but the excellent Blog of Holding has published stripped down rules for Spelljammer, trying to fit the essentials onto one page. I agree with his point that Spelljammer has a couple cool ideas, then bogs them down with a bunch of overly-complicated rules about Grubbian physics and extra rules for clerics. To quote: “I’ll break out my copy of Spelljammer. OH NO IT’S 200 PAGES! THIS BOOK IS TAKING TOO LONG TO READ! THE PCS HAVE ALREADY IMPLODED IN THE VACUUM”

The first blog post covers the basics of the setting and physics, boiling it down to a short paragraph (plus expositions explaining the decisions to help the DM understand why they have done, something useful for when you want to expand upon it for your game.

The second builds a 20 entry random encounter table that also helps explain the setting.

And finally they flesh out the setting and compile things into a one page (illustrated!) setting document.

Published in: on January 26, 2016 at 12:06 pm  Comments (6)  
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