Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Publication Consistency & Style Sheets

(Or Schweig Puts on His Stodgy Editor’s Hat)

Those who’ve worked with me as an editor way back during my time running West End Games’ Official Star Wars Adventure Journal and working on the Star Wars roleplaying game line know I’m a stickler for editorial detail. For many regular contributors (and those I hoped to cultivate to become regular contributors and later authors on roleplaying game supplements) I did not view my editor’s duties as simply correcting their work, but helping them improve their writing to more closely reflect what West End and ultimately Lucasfilm expected.

I’m not a huge fan of reality TV shows, especially those with lots of screaming; but if I’ve learned one thing from my few viewings of reality shows featuring the frequently cursing celebrity British chef Gordon Ramsay it’s that consistency counts…and in many cases it seems paramount to providing quality service at least in the restaurant setting if not in many other professions.

Consistency at all levels, both in content and style from the publishing perspective, helps ensure quality product time and again. It meets the general expectations of the broad readership and helps clearly communicate ideas in the common “code” of a consistent language, style, and grammar.

Look at writings from America’s earliest days and you’ll find “literate” people writing with inconsistent spelling and usage, mostly reflecting the phonetic spoken language than a written one, what today we’d see as a near-unintelligible mess. For instance, that last sentence might look like this:
Luk at ritns from Merkas erlyst daze and yul find peepl ritn w. nconsistant speling and usag mostlee flectn the fonetyk spokn langwage then a rittn 1.
They weren’t even consistent within the same document with the same words. It was a kind of a make-it-up-as-you-go process that didn’t always clearly impart the intended message to readers. This is why we have grammar and style within a language; it helps make sure everyone, writers and readers, use the same “code book” of language so we all understand our communication.

Code Book/Style Guide

I learned an awful lot about writing and publishing during three years at my first job out of college: reporting and later editing for The Ridgefield Press, the venerable, weekly newspaper in my hometown of Ridgefield, CT. Not that my four years at an extremely nice liberal arts college in central New York state for a degree in creative writing didn’t help; but the Press gave me a crash course in the practicalities of writing and publishing, with many hard-learned lessons that still influence me today.

The indomitable Executive Editor Jack Sanders -- who still serves as editorial sensei for the Press and its sibling newspapers under the banner of Hersam Acorn Newspapers -- whipped his reporters into shape with constant critiques, reminders, even entire issues of the newspaper “redlined” in red marker noting comments, questions, and errors (all in a style sometimes reminiscent of Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Brigadier General Frank Savage in Twelve O'Clock High). He continually demanded editorial excellence of everyone, from fledgling reporters to seasoned editors.

Upon embarking on the rocky road of reporting for the Ridgefield Press and its associated newspapers, each reporter received a loose-leaf binder containing the Acorn Press style guide. I still have my copy, cherished on the shelf with a host of other, more infamous style manuals and quite possibly more worn with love, devotion, and frequent re-reading than any others (though Strunk & White’s Elements of Style comes in a close second). Although it’s focused on writing for a hometown weekly newspaper in the early 1990s, much of its content remains relevant today, even if only in examining the minutia of style and grammar concerns current writers should still address. It taught me that, no matter how much a publication or publisher claimed it adhered to the conventions of one “official” style guide or another, each one has so many exceptions that it really needs its own to best communicate its specialized expectations to authors.

The Acorn Press style guide and my practical education at The Ridgefield Press led me to write a comprehensive style guide at my next job as editor of The Official Star Wars Adventure Journal at West End Games, a quarterly publication supporting the company’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game with original game-related fiction and source material. I was hired to start the publication from scratch, using established game authors, cultivating new “up-and-coming” writers, and courting best-selling name authors. At the time, West End’s editorial department had, at best, a sketchy style policy based on submission guidelines and a few pages of notes. I have an extremely vague pseudo-memory (or was it a dream?) that some kind of hodge-podge Star Wars Roleplaying Game writers guidelines existed before, most likely as a dot-matrix-printed, faint photocopy of miscellaneous things we expected writers to understand. If it existed, it was hardly comprehensive and didn’t reflect the seriousness with which the editorial staff and Lucasfilm’s approvals personnel viewed material in editing.

In editing a periodical that required contributions from numerous authors, I needed a more standardized, comprehensive guide to what we expected substantively in terms of content and approach as well as in grammar and style. I viewed a Star Wars RPG and Adventure Journal style guide as a manual covering all aspects of publishing such material through West End Games. In consultation with the Star Wars line editor at the time as well as production management, we made sure it included a wide array of useful information, much of which was influence by what was covered in my revered Acorn Press style guide:
  • An outline of the submission process, including contracts and assignments of copyright, what we expected of writers as professionals, information about payments, and writing diagram and illustration suggestions.
  • A guide to what authors should and shouldn’t do in the Star Wars universe at the time, with notes on working within existing continuity.
  • Guidelines on writing adventures, source material, and game-related fiction (the “game-related” designation an essential part to avoid infringing on other Lucasfilm licensees’ rights to publish fiction).
  • Style and grammar guidelines on punctuation, capitalization, italics and bold, and other miscellanea as reflected in West End publications.
  • A master reference spelling list noting many proper names from the Star Wars universe.
  • Style definitions addressing individual issues, from common grammar problems to Star Wars-specific matters (similar to sections in Strunk & White’s Elements of Style).
  • A master stat format guide for almost every form of stat used in the game, in both long and short forms.
Version 2.0, August 1994 of the Star Wars Style Guide I drafted was almost 60 pages long. Every author who had a project accepted for development got a copy, and some were sent to prospective authors. I’m sure some fellow editors thought the effort was a waste of time, paper, and postage, but it established a common foundation on which everyone could work. (I find it ironic that some who play and write game rules don’t necessarily like following other rules, like those for using style and grammar in a publication.) It also served as a “rulebook” of sorts to help ensure what came in from authors was closer to what we (and Lucasfilm) expected in terms of content and quality, making editor’s jobs slightly easier so they could focus on other important issues.

In paging through my lone surviving copy of the style guide, I’m struck by some of the more interesting tidbits we included, some tailored to game writing, others to the Star Wars universe:
  • A laborious but informative step-by-step walkthrough of the submission procedure, from the proposal (with all the required forms), review, first and final drafts, and payment, with notes on when to expect to hear from editors at each stage.
  • Tips for writing in the Star Wars universe like “minimize real-world references,” “no superlatives or absolutes” (like “all customs inspectors in the galaxy will do this”), and “use the major players sparingly.”
  • “Avoid the future tense” in writing adventures (something I still notice in some scenarios today).
  • “A blaster has a ‘sight,’ not a ‘site.’”
  • “In Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game we have gamemaster characters, not NPCs or non-player characters.”
  • “Wookiee is spelled with two E’s at the end” (thanks to this I still do a double-take writing “cookie” with only one E).
Bear in mind the document was customized for both the Star Wars license and roleplaying game materials; however, it represents a comprehensive guide to writing in the gaming profession, from editorial expectations to basic writer information, all with an eye to producing quality product. Some folks might balk at all these rules, suggestions, and details, but they offered a pretty comprehensive idea of the expectations West End editors and Lucasfilm approvals personnel had for writers. Following the style guide helped editors prepare manuscripts for approval and publication; those who made life easier for editors were more apt to get future work.

Lack of Style in the Internet Age

I’m sometimes discouraged by the lack of attention to consistency in style and grammar today, whether in personal communication, official correspondence, or published material (particularly internet content).

I’ve had a few day jobs in the publishing field since leaving West End Games after it declared bankruptcy in 1998, and most of them had their own versions of style guides -- some formal, some sketchy -- for their publications.

In my years in the publishing field I’ve referenced the monumental Chicago Manual of Style and AP Stylebook; many editors used them more as general suggestions than rules, and then almost arbitrarily so (driving many writers and editors somewhat insane). I recall one senior editor, when asked to clarify a style issue after consulting an established guide, simply shrugged his shoulders and uttered the non-committal “It’s just a judgment call.”

These days it doesn’t seem to matter. Style guides, from longstanding cornerstones of the publishing industry to customized rules for individual publishers, have become dinosaurs in this ever-changing Internet Age where people e-mail, text, blog, and otherwise communicate using the written word so casually that anagrams like OMG and AFAIK, once occasional code, now seem like acceptable grammatical concepts. The internet has blurred the line between professional writing and casual communication; perhaps the English language is rebounding back toward the days when everyone spelled words the way they liked without regard to whether they’re understood.

Okay, time to take off my stodgy old editor’s hat and rejoin the rest of the 21st Century….

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Game Company Communication Then & Now

Technology constantly marches forward at a seeming exponential rate. New developments change how people carry on with everyday activities, as I’ve noticed in my professional life as a writer, editor, and game developer. I look back when I first started more than 20 years ago and see how I conduct business today; let’s face it, I started in publishing when “cut and paste” meant exactly that. I remain amazed at the changes the Internet Age has wrought in how game companies and customers share information.

Internet connectivity for individuals, corporations, and institutions today seems ubiquitous (though many in our society’s less-prosperous levels still don’t have regular access…); one cannot imagine a company without access to the internet and all the communication tools it offers.

I’ve seen these technological developments affect various aspects of my own life at different stages, from an editor at a game publishing company to a freelancer and sole proprietor of a small game studio advancing my own projects. I think some of the more pronounced differences come from examining my work on staff as a roleplaying game editor with the late, lamented West End Games from 1993 to the company’s bankruptcy filing in 1998.

Author/Artist Communications

Then: During my time at West End editors communicated with authors and artists by mail and phone. As editor of The Official Star Wars Adventure Journal, I perhaps had more traffic with authors and artists than most other editors at the company, with a host of contracts, critique letters, and other formalities for each of the magazine’s quarterly issues. Letters and contracts were printed and copied before going in the post, and authors and artists signed and returned official paperwork (voluminous thanks to the company’s licensing arrangements with Lucasfilm), which we countersigned and returned one reference copy (and some went to Lucasfilm for counter-signing). Long-distance phone calls covered basic revisions and last-minute logistics. Toward the later 1990s West End had some e-mail capability shared on one account by all the editors…meaning that everyone read everyone else’s business and, given everyone’s creative egos, passed judgment and shared their opinions, welcome or otherwise. When I finally and reluctantly entered the Internet Age on my own, I conducted a good deal of e-mail correspondence using my own computer and my personal e-mail account…this in the company’s last six months of viable existence.

Now: Most of these communications logistics -- even contracts -- go over the internet in the form of e-mails and attachments. Necessary “phone” conversations can occur over Skype or Google+ Hangouts for free. Editors can view work by potential authors and artists on their web and social networking pages without having to solicit printed game-writing and artwork samples (or lug them back from convention meetings). Without the delay in waiting for snail-mail, business occurs far more rapidly, with game company staff able to make informed decisions after some web surfing for information about potential writers and artists. Communication with contributors occurs more swiftly yet as clearly as a written letter.


Then: West End Games had several print venues available for advertising, primarily gaming magazines. Paid advertising often remained expensive and thus a constantly debated strategy. While the company welcomed positive reviews, it remained reluctant to send out comp copies and actively cultivate reviews after getting burned by a critic who was sent a preliminary manuscript lacking artwork and yet reviewed it as the finished product. The company also pursued advertising opportunities through its distributors and at conventions, traditional options available even today, though reaching only a sliver of the overall gamer population. West End didn’t do many bulk mailings while I was there -- a catalog or two and several issues of Infiniverse (see below) -- but I recall seeing Ron, loyal assistant to the owner, hunched over piles of folded, stapled newsletters, mailing stickers everywhere, consulting the bulk mailing binder like a baffled sage trying to decipher some ancient, impenetrable manuscript.

Now: The internet offers a host of tools for more effectively communicating with customers, from company websites and social networking sites to forum posts, e-mails broadcast to lists, and press release “blasters.” These venues also offer the means for swift feedback from consumers and fast, two-way communication with individuals to better foster a relationship between companies and fans. Websites display “catalogs” for current game lines (whether or not they’re actually sold through the site) the company can easily update, promote, and support with supplemental gaming material.

Supplemental Material

Then: To its credit, West End Games in its heyday had some innovative ideas beyond those in published rulebooks and supplements. The company tried several ways of disseminating supplemental materials to fans. The evolving campaign setting of TORG comes to mind, with different realities invading earth and battling for control of various regions, plans which player groups tried to foil by running published adventures. Each scenario had a form gamemasters could snail-mail back to West End to report their group’s accomplishments, material editors tabulated and used to change the campaign landscape in future products and updates, particularly the periodic Infiniverse newsletter. (For this purpose a huge world map dominated one wall in the office, marked with pins and stickers to delineate the back-and-forth progress of the invasion.) It was an innovative approach to TORG’s inherently changing setting, one hindered by the realities of snail-mail communication. The company also included updates in published product; for instance, many Star Wars roleplaying gamers got their four-page, folded “rules upgrades” for first edition as an insert in early shrink-wrapped adventures. In 1997 we created a full-color, quick-start Star Wars Roleplaying Game flyer (Mos Eisley Shoot-Out), complete with map, counters, and scenarios, to distribute to potential new players at conventions and other venues, but its distribution channels were so limited that few made it into the hands of potential customers (I still have a small pile of them somewhere…).

Now: This material often falls under the “free downloads” category. Rather than sending a postcard requesting more information or a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a newsletter or free scenario, fans simply log on and download free resources from the game company website. Companies can easily upload and announce new errata, free adventures, quick-start rules, and other promotional materials, adding value to fans’ existing games and making a show of good will toward consumers. It’s heartbreaking for me to comprehend how much more different and vibrant the evolving TORG campaign world might have been in the Internet Age, how much better the successful Star Wars Roleplaying Game line might have been supported through an avid fan base, or how on-staff and player supplemental material might have enhanced other licensed and non-licensed game lines.

Many speculated West End’s demise came about through its absence of any internet presence when the web landscape was just emerging. No doubt the lack of information technology savvy -- a single e-mail account and no company web site -- hobbled West End in its desperate, final efforts to stay afloat, but it might only have helped if they were already firmly in place. Other forces, perhaps the same elements that deemed e-mail and internet too expensive and time consuming, pushed the situation beyond the brink of financial viability. I sometimes contemplate what West End’s presence might have looked like had it enthusiastically entered the Internet Age at an earlier point; whether or not it might have saved the company, the imagined internet presence of West End Games -- complete with free download resources and scenarios, press releases, art and editorial previews of upcoming products, and a greater rapport with fans -- remains a faded dream of what might have been.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Basic D&D’s “What Is Roleplaying?”

The debate over whether roleplaying games should include “What Is A Roleplaying Game?” sections in their introductions continues raging across the internet on message board and blogs and other venues. While my own experience tells me such introductory explanations, however short, remain an integral part of any game (if only to provide complete newcomers to the hobby with some direction), my overall instinct tells me that the inclusion and length of such an explanation depends on the product.

Many gamers came to the hobby through the Moldvay-edition of the basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed set (though this assumption, too, is often contested). I’ve been paging through it lately since I’m developing two projects combining old-school dungeon-crawl action with game mechanics and presentation geared toward kids. I noticed the rulebook contains a brief introduction to the concept of roleplaying games I consider an ideal middle ground between too little and too much: two paragraphs on “What Is A Roleplaying Game?” introducing readers to the game concept in broad terms without lengthy discussions and examples outside the realm of the rules themselves.

DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® Fantasy Adventure Game (“D&D® Game” for short) is a role playing adventure game for persons 10 years and older. In the D&D rules, individuals play the role of characters in a fantasy world where magic is real and heroes venture out on dangerous quests in search of fame and fortune. characters gain experience by overcoming perils and recovering treasures. As characters gain experience, they grow in power and ability.

At least two persons are needed to play this game, though the game is most enjoyable when played by a group of four to eight people. This game, unlike others, does not use a playing board or actual playing pieces. All that is needed to play are these rules, the dice included in this set, pencil and paper, graph paper, and imagination. the game may be more exciting if miniature lead figures of the characters and monsters are used, but the game can be played without such aids.

The rulebook then outlines the various chapters and provides definitions of various game terms and concepts, elements of most any roleplaying game orienting new readers to the game system and setting.

These two paragraphs provide enough of a description of roleplaying games to complete newcomers to the hobby without cluttering up the book’s introductory portions with overbearing definitions of basic elements of such games. Whether this approach worked in an introductory product like the D&D basic boxed set remains open to debate.

As a gamer, I’m well-versed in the workings of roleplaying games and don’t necessarily need a lengthy introduction to the form in rulebooks I buy. I don’t mind them, I just skip ahead to the rules and setting chapters. Sometimes I find “What Is A Roleplaying Game?” sections good material for people I’m seeking to introduce to gaming; some contain basic overviews of the game setting for orienting new players to an innovative genre.

As a game developer I’ve often included “What Is A Roleplaying Game?” sections -- often with solitaire tutorial adventures to impart basic rules and setting concepts -- because the projects were in some degree directed at newcomers to the gaming hobby with prior interest in the setting: things like the Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game, whose primary purpose was to draw Star Wars fans into the roleplaying game.

Whether one feels “What Is A Roleplaying Game?” sections have a place in rulebooks remains a subjective issue. Longtime gamers often find these introductions superfluous, especially when they feel such space would be better served with rules and setting material. The approach taken in outlining the concept of roleplaying games doesn’t always click with the newcomers given their different ages and backgrounds; the Moldvay-edition introduction above might seem too brief and sketchy for some without continuing into the rules, which, by their very nature, introduce specific new concepts by teaching the game engine (a case where plentiful examples provide immense help).

Perhaps the best approach remains keeping “What Is A Roleplaying Game?” sections in rulebooks short and basic, when necessary at all. The Moldvay-edition introduction to D&D provides a good example how to briefly outline the game and setting for new players. The exception remains product specifically intended to introduce newcomers to the roleplaying game hobby, especially children. With today’s technology, publishers can find other venues for explaining games to complete newcomers, particularly through supplemental product available free online, such as introductory adventures, quick-start rules, and tutorial videos.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Thank You, Mr. Harryhausen

This past weekend I had a chance to watch The 7th Voyage of Sinbad on the big screen. Despite what seem today like dated, homebrew special effects -- combining stop-motion animation and live-action through a process called Dynamation or DynaRama -- the film made me realize I owe a debt of gratitude to special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen for bringing to life on screen the amazing fantasy beasts that inspired my sense of wonder and imagination I channeled into my nascent roleplaying game experiences.

I grew up on a steady diet of television broadcast movies, especially versions of Harryhausen’s work, including the aforementioned first Sinbad film and the subsequent Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (coincidentally released the same year as Star Wars, which inspired me in another genre), Jason and the Argonauts, and the original Clash of the Titans. During this formative stage of my youth, before the flood of various flavors of fantasy films in the 1980s, such entertainment based on classical tropes appealed to my emerging enthusiasm for archaeology, legendary tales, and adventurous stories.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad embraced many elements I felt, even as a kid, represented the fantasy genre…not space fantasy like Star Wars, or what I’d call “high medieval fantasy” like Tolkien, but entertaining fare like deceitful sorcerers, obedient jinni, treacherous journeys to strange lands, magical spells, captivating princesses, cyclops, dragons, and sword-wielding heroes with bravery and determination.

Many might consider Harryhausen the king of fantasy films before the genre re-emerged with a vengeance through such 1980s fare as Dragonslayer, Conan the Barbarian, Legend, Ladyhawke, Labyrinth, and Willow -- many enabled by Industrial Light and Magic’s groundbreaking work in Star Wars, as well as other pioneers like Jim Henson’s Creature Shop -- in an age well before today’s ubiquitous and often shallow-feeling computer generated images.

Audience Thrills

At the theater screening I attended recently the audience consisted of two distinct demographic groups: older adults (like myself) who enjoyed this genre when they were younger, and parents with kids seeking an afternoon’s diversion of fantasy and/or an opportunity to share a piece of their own childhood with their kids. The manager’s introduction noted a newspaper review from the film’s 1958 release emphasized the horrific elements of the “fantasy” movie, including screams from kids and parents leaving theaters with their frightened children.

I don’t think anybody left the theater screaming, but I certainly heard at least one child crying for a parent’s comfort during some of the more gruesome scenes…though by today’s standards such tame film violence might only garner a PG rating at best. The film contains some iconic special effects images: the lady in waiting transformed into a writhing, naga-like dancer with four serpentine arms; the two-headed roc (and its unfortunate hatchling) assaulting Sinbad’s crew; the scimitar- and shield-wielding skeleton animated by the magician’s dark magic; and, of course, the formidable cyclops and dragon who battle to the death in the climax. Though some might feel the special effects seemed jittery, stiff, and unrealistic, for the time -- and for those immersed in the screening -- they still impart a sense of suspense and amazement.

Early RPG Influence

Films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and other Harryhausen vehicles greatly influenced my early explorations in the roleplaying game hobby.

One of my first games, both designing and playing, was a clone of Dungeons & Dragons based on my observations of some friends playing. In the absence of my own copy of the rules, I created my own original game based on what I’d seen. This turned into something called Creatures & Caverns, which I’ve offered free at the Griffon Publishing Studio website for years and am currently revising (more as a “ludological curiosity” and marginally as a fun game to transition kids from board games to roleplaying games). The contents clearly reflect the influence of such stop-motion monsters as the cyclops and non-winged dragons as well as a host of mythological monsters.

When I moved on to Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons I brought my penchant for stop-motion monsters into the games I ran. I populated islands in the Sea of Dread (the default Expert Set campaign milieu) with creatures and concepts from Harryhausen’s Sinbad films, particularly the obligatory Isle of the Cyclops. I even included an entire dungeon level based on the later scenes of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, complete with animated, multi-armed statues and bestial green-skinned savages.

Special effects have certainly come a long way from Ray Harryhausen’s pioneering efforts. Though his films were vehicles specifically created to highlight his stop-motion effects, they still operated within the framework of entertaining stories with exotic settings, heroic (and dastardly) characters, and fantastic plots; elements that provided ideal Saturday matinee fare and wondrous inspiration to young, imaginative minds. Thank you, Mr. Harryhausen.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Random Tables: Roll or Choose One

Random tables remain an integral part of roleplaying games, from serving as, one might argue, a cornerstone of the earliest games to more refined and diverse tools in contemporary games: in-game encounter generators, character background devices, even scenario design inspiration.

As a player I’ve enjoyed tables to help enhance character creation, whether it’s background, motivation, or even starting equipment. As a gamemaster I find random tables as good inspiration for keeping the action flowing during a game, creating conflicts for adventure hooks, generating encounters, and otherwise enhancing scenarios I design.

Notable Random Tables

Usually in these surveys I talk about the game form first then provide several iconic examples; yet in this case, it’s probably best to present some of my favorite sources for tables from my gaming experience with notes why they appeal to me, then discuss the form of random table using those to illustrate my points. So here are a number of my favorite sources for roleplaying game random tables that come to mind:

AD&D Dungeon Master Guide: This earliest game rulebook set the precedent for random tables remaining a cornerstone element of many aspects of roleplaying games. Among the many hordes of randomized tables several stand out: the random dungeon generator, treasure tables, the oft-overlooked “dungeon dressing” tables chock full of descriptive setting ideas, and the random monster tables categorized by terrain. It helped established that determining certain, if not many game elements on random tables was the normal paradigm for roleplaying games.

Thieves’ World: One of the earliest and most comprehensive fantasy roleplaying settings was the Thieves’ World boxed set based on the immensely popular fantasy anthologies. The sourcebooks included two sets of tables invaluable for running adventures in the city of Sanctuary and perhaps models for creating one’s own original urban setting: a set of tables to determine businesses according to the city’s different neighborhoods, and a set of tables for randomly generating encounters based on locale and time of day, all wonderfully tailored to reflect the Thieves’ World universe.

Cyberpunk 2020 Lifepath: An outgrowth of the infamous Traveller character generation system, Cyberpunk’s Lifepath system randomly generated genre-relevant pre-adventuring events that affected a character’s life. A series of flowchart-like tables helped determine a character’s origins and personal style, family background, motivations, and significant life events. Like Traveller’s tables, the Lifepath often granted benefits or penalties in game terms, and relied on players to embellish events with specifics and find ways to integrate them into their current character’s stats and personality.

The Dungeon Dozen Blog: A blog that, almost daily, provides a random table using the oft-neglected d12. The table themes and results tend toward the outrageous -- they don’t always work well as random tables to drop into an adventure or setting, but as lists of similarly themed ideas for locations, encounters, and characters. My favorites include the “Before First Level” series, with one table intended for each of the main character classes to help players create viable (if not sometimes unconventional) reasons why they took up adventuring as a particular class. Others provide interesting (sometimes bordering on “gonzo”) ideas for locations, scenario hooks, or encounters, like one of my favorites, “In the Blasted Lands of the Fallen Moon.”

Chronicles of Arax: This solo adventure game pioneers an innovative design for solitaire adventures. Rather than relying on a series of “programmed” entries with choices (“If you defeat the goblins, go to 27; if you run away, go to 12.”), it presents a series of numbered entries from 1 to 20 (much like a random table) without any “if/then” choices in the text. Each turn the player rolls 1D10 and goes to that numbered entry, confronting a challenge, evading a trap, or fighting the inhabitants. On subsequent rolls the player adds +1 to the die roll for each previous turn, increasingly escalating the numbered encounter; if the die roll indicates a encounter already visited, the player moves upward to the next new encounter. Each entry is essentially a random table result, with encounters escalating toward the higher numbers since one adds the number of previous encounters to the subsequent roll until reaching the climax as the final entry. I only have exposure to the scenario included in the free rules, but Crystal Star Games makes additional adventures available at reasonable prices; though I’ll confess an urge to try designing a solo adventure in this format myself, though possibly based on a simple D6 or 2D6 roll.

Certainly other games used random tables to determine game elements, but those above stand out from my own experiences.

Roll or Choose

The tables in sources noted above raise an interesting aspect about random tables: does one religiously stick with a randomized result, or does one “choose” a result best suited as inspiration for a particular character, setting, or situation?

Some tables lean toward randomizing results rather than offering inspiration: the AD&D tables for random encounters and dungeon generation stand out along with the Thieves’ World tables used in generating the city’s businesses and encounters. While these certainly offer some inspiration for gamemasters at a glance, they’re intended more to spontaneously create unexpected encounters. Their importance remains paramount in such activities as solitaire adventures and character creation.

Some tables intended to offer inspiration provide the instruction “roll or choose,” giving players the choice to pick something that works best for them or put their faith in the power of the dice (a stereotypical gamer behavior) and go the completely random route. Those of us stodgy old gamemasters who prefer to plan things out ahead (instead of spontaneously running adventures on the fly) find such tables sources of inspiration in game preparation but can become stymied by unexpected results if used during play.

The Tailored Table

Perhaps the most useful tables remain those with some degree of customization to the game at hand, beyond simple customization for a genre. Those mentioned above for Thieves’ World and Cyberpunk come to mind. These tables include not simply randomized elements relevant to a game’s broad genre -- which might generate inappropriate results for a particular game -- but materials reflecting the specific setting: unique monsters, treasures, cultural references, and personalities.

For instance, in a short Pulp Egypt adventure I designed for a convention, I included a brief “wandering encounters” table to generate some action while the heroes wandered the labyrinthine passageways between subterranean chambers containing an evil cult’s secret temple:

Random Encounters: Roll 1d6 each time the heroes traverse a passageway; a “1” indicates a random encounter resulting in combat, injury, or incarceration (roll 1d6): 1. foot-long carved scarab hieroglyphs decorating the wall animate and attack; 2-3. a wandering “pet” crocodile sniffs out the heroes; 4. a pit trap sends some heroes down a chute to location 5. Cells; 5. a hieroglyphic ward on the walls “freezes” heroes passing through it; 6. two guards patrolling discover the heroes, attack, and raise the alarm.

These helped infuse gameplay with unexpected incidents between planned locations, offering some spontaneity to the game play without completely derailing the adventure with inappropriate results.

Customizing a generalized table to one’s specific campaign or character takes a bit of work, something more easily done in preparation than during play. The Chronicles of Arax solitaire scenario format probably represents the most refined end of this concept, a “random table” so fully customized as a dungeon crawl that the results both provide randomly determined locations and encounters while still leading toward an adventure climax.