forking paths

Adapting the Viridian Maw as a one-page setting. by Nathan Harrison

Image: a screenshot of the one-page setting PDF layout, with lots of text, a random table, and a color hexmap. (Click image to access the PDF!)

Image: a screenshot of the one-page setting PDF layout, with lots of text, a random table, and a color hexmap. (Click image to access the PDF!)

After I started working on the Viridian Maw in earnest, but before I hit on using it for an RPG zine, I was inspired by a wave of pretty cool one-page settings going around in RPG spheres. I think the first one I saw was either the Ashlands or Sorabu Forest, both of which seem to trace back to The Savage Tundra of the Winter King and/or an earlier Reddit post that first spawned the idea. I liked how the brevity of the format meant packing a lot into each included detail, and letting mystery & suggestion do a lot of heavy lifting. The zine I ended up with is a lot longer than one page, but a lot of that ethos is still present in how I wrote it.

At the end of making the zine, I wanted to see what I could distill back into something like the one-page setting format that helped shape my ideas. Both as an exercise, and as in-kind sharing with everyone else who generously shared their ideas & work. Since this issue of the zine doesn’t delve much into specific characters, I wanted to focus on a sense of place above all for this one-pager. I wanted to include one of the random tables too, since random tables are great! The random ruins table seemed the most “portable”, so it made sense to include. (The random encounters table leans heavily on referencing the unique flora & fauna described in the zine, which I didn’t think I could squeeze into a one-page format in a satisfactory way).

I rewrote the entries for each hexmap location into a series of descriptive paragraphs, took the setting pitch for the Viridian Maw from the zine introduction and tightened it up for space, and fiddled with layout & details until I was happy. Which I am! If I had room, I might break out the little adventure seeds & such into their own sections, but as it stands weaving them into the location descriptions worked best to fit everything in. Since my personal preference is to leave more blanks, I’m calling my thing a “setting kit” rather than just a setting. It asks for a little more input from the user (like maybe some rolls on the random ruins table!) to get things lined up and pointed toward adventure.

As far as how to use it, I’d say there’s honestly no wrong way. For example, with the random ruins table, you could roll up 1-3 ruins per hex in advance and see which ones the players stumble across as they venture into the Maw. If you’re into low-prep GMing (like me!) you could wait until players go nosing around for interesting sites, or do something like climb a tree and ask what they see, then roll up ruins as-needed in response. You could stick strictly to the roll results; re-roll things that don’t feel right or make sense; pick arbitrarily from the lists — all are perfectly legit routes to go!

One thing I considered including in the zine itself but cut for space was some info about my influences for the Viridian Maw itself. Here’s what I wrote before deciding it didn’t have a good place to fit (links added for your convenience):

A few different influences set me to whipping up RPG material in this vein. The biggest probably being a few novels by Jeff VanderMeer: the Southern Reach trilogy (Annihilation in particular) and Borne (plus its follow-up novella, The Strange Bird). All are great, and I highly recommend reading them. Each feels a little like sitting in on a wildly creative run of Apocalypse World sessions, and it was easy to be inspired by them.

Parallel to that, I’d been nursing ideas for a “fungal megadungeon” for a while, writing down bits and pieces as I ran my players through the Barrowmaze (a recent megadungeon emerging from the old-school RPG realm). It is a truth universally acknowledged that a GM playing anything is only a hair’s-breadth away from making their own version of it, and I’m no exception.

So the main ingredients of this stew are those weird ecologies from VanderMeer’s books, a general interest in wilderness sandboxes and megadungeons therein, and being very up for excuses to read about fungus. Mushrooms: A Natural and Cultural History, by Nicholas P. Money, was great fuel in that regard. Mostly I learned that fungi are weird enough in the real world that any made-up mushrooms from me could be pretty strange without tripping my personal “too much” filter.

For making my ideas gameable without being too limited to this or that specific system, I looked to the examples of a couple setting books that do that. The Hot Springs Island sandbox material and Veins of the Earth were great examples of making interesting creature entries without being too tied to any one system. Both gave me some good ideas for dense, useful random tables, and I also revisited the Oracles from In a Wicked Age on that front.

I drew on some old or unfinished game designs of my own, too. Most of those aren’t in a form anyone could check out, but one is: The Caravan, a 200-word microgame published here:

Anyway, check out the one-page setting version of the Viridian Maw! And if all or any of the above piques your interest, there’s the full issue of Forking Paths I adapted it from, too. :)

Exploring the worlds of RPG zines and Patreon. by Nathan Harrison

Close-up partial image: an early black & white proof of the cover of my RPG zine, “Forking Paths”, laying atop assorted notebooks in the background.

Close-up partial image: an early black & white proof of the cover of my RPG zine, “Forking Paths”, laying atop assorted notebooks in the background.

I’ve been out wandering the wastes for a spell! The last project I wrote about, Hinterlands, is not dead. It’s only sleeping, I assure you. Not a ton has changed for it since the previous update, but there have been some tweaks… what they are, I confess it’s been long enough that I’m not sure anymore. The latest version of the playtest packet is different than the one from 2017, though, and there’s a Hinterlands micro-site where I’ve collected all the key things. Something that’s new is a pair of online tools to generate villages and characters with relationships. My coding knowledge (Javascript, in this case) is pretty basic, so they look a little clunky, but are still handy if the need arises.

More recently, two things happened that helped to get me out of a creative rut. The first was Kickstarter’s Zine Quest in February. So, so many cool RPG things were put out for that, and all in easily-digestible zine form! I’ve crossed paths with zines now & again as a reader, including zines by RPG designers, but somehow it never clicked as a medium to explore myself. Looking at the Zine Quest stuff had me slapping my forehead for how many ideas I’ve had that are far too small for a full book, and bigger than a micro- or nano-game. It’s flexible, accessible, and in the scope of my current skill in terms of layout. I shoulda gotten into zines a while ago!

Then the announcement of forthcoming changes for Patreon gave me a little extra push. I don’t have anything like a following or fan base, but I’ve always wanted to try using the platform for something. A couple years back, I tried to puzzle out if my ongoing design efforts on Hinterlands could work on Patreon somehow. It didn’t make sense as a per-creation project, and a monthly project didn’t feel right to me either. I just couldn’t see how I could have something of interest or value to share with patrons, along the way to a finished creation.

Ah, but a zine! Now we’re cooking! A project I can finish in a reasonable amount of time, share some stuff along the way, release something finished, and repeat. I soft-launched in March, which means I fiddled with the page & info but didn’t tell anybody, and got myself into the habit of working on the zine & making updates. I’d be remiss here if I didn’t mention there’s a third thing in the mix that’s helped me to get my creative engine working again: the Portland festival XOXO, which I had the good fortune of attending back in September 2018. The energy from that event is what got me off my butt to put up that Hinterlands micro-site last year, and the general good vibes continue to reverberate around in my skull, saying make more cool stuff. (Here’s hoping I can attend in 2019 as well!)

Anyway, at first I thought I might just make a series of one-off zines, nothing holding them together other than me & the Patreon, but everything’s better with a name. I wanted something left the door wide open to go in a lot of different directions, and that jives with the same themes and inspirations that led me to choose Orbis Tertius Press as the umbrella for my game projects. Those themes being: crossing the boundary between the real and unreal; weaving together the imagined and the possible; etc. The “Orbis Tertius” name I chose is a direct reference to a Borges story, and as I pondered ideas for the zine, Borges kept coming through strongest yet again (via a different story this time). And thus my RPG zine took on the name Forking Paths. When I think about what the process of playing roleplaying games actually involves, and how I’m approaching this specific project, it’s really just too perfect.

Working on a game project in these terms has been extremely rewarding so far. If there’s a downside to it at all, it’s only that it’s seriously making me wish I could work on game design as my real, full-time job. So while it’s unlike me to hustle and promote something I’ve made, that’s what I’ve been trying to do a little, to see if there’s any way I can find a path of my own that forks in that direction. And as of today, I’ve finished issue #1 of the zine! (At least in PDF. I’ll be making an initial run of print copies at IPRC this weekend.)

Doing game design work inevitably begets more game designs on the side of whatever the main project is, so I expect I soon may have more to share here than just updates about Forking Paths. If you do check it out and come along for the ride, that’s super cool! And if not, I hope to have plenty of other things to write about here in the coming months, too.