LampCorp – a Business Card TTRPG

Over the weekend, Caverns of Heresy on Twitter began dropped a VERY cool minimalist RPG designed to fit on a standard business card. Other game designers I love joined in, and momentum built for this unique and inspiring challenge. Dubbed #pleasurecardrpg (as opposed to a business card), it turned into a game jam on itch.io, so I figured I’d give it a shot. Only thing is, I mistakenly thought it was a one-day challenge, so I poured basically all day Sunday into sketches in my notebook and fiddling around with InDesign and, well, the rush shows a little.

This is V1, with the design and rules I settled on at the end of the day. It was a fascinating exercise, and the results are still pretty damn cool, if I may say so myself. I picture this being a ruleset that could be used in a simple corporate-dystopia setting or even a high-tech cyberpunk world: telling stories of climbing a ladder, resolving issues with individuals who have entirely different agendas but who are purportedly striving for the same goals. It feels like a rich environment for storytelling, conflict, and character building in a cookie-cutter world we can see with our eyes closed.

Big inspirations for the project: the 80’s TTRPG Paranoia, Company by Max Barry, and Prurient’s Through the Window. Satirical, but with some jagged edges to explore. If you want to spend the whole game at the edge? I think the system supports it.

Next steps here are to reword/rework the text on the second side. I don’t think I fully convey how the resolution system works, and the examples (and diagram) may be a little confusing. Ideally, I want the whole system to be on the card and not require an explanatory dev post on itch.io to fill in the blanks. I’m thinking of it like a haiku: the form is there for a reason. The shorter and more refined I can make the text, the better I will feel about the whole thing.

The Canyonlands – a mood board for a ttrpg campaign

The Canyonlands stretch from the Kalakar mountains, through the Fatherless Desert, to the sea. It is said that if a person remains in the canyons for a single day, they will never be found again. They will be lost to any pursuers, to any allies, and to themself. There are civilized beings that inhabit the lands: the minotaurs of the Tomingo labyrinth, flocks of nomadic aarakocra, and kobolds—seemingly endless in number—who reside in the massive Starlight Cavern. Any of these groups will warn travelers against venturing into the canyons, but they will also be there to loot the bodies and return with the wares of the unfortunate and heedless.

Your mark has been in the canyon called Quickrock for at least 48 hours, depending on which Kobold camp you ask. You followed his trail to one of the numerous entrances to Starlight, and though the time and specific details about this individual vary, they all say he went into the canyon, one pack, alone. At least 48 hours ago. Headed to the Pole. Headed to magical power and the wrath of that blasted landscape when it burst into the world, two decades past.


This is the second game I’m planning that takes place in my unnamed “new magic” world, but I am deliberately trying to not use any of the locales, characters, or themes from that game. I just like a world where magic is new and still scary, and I figured out a little of what its deal was when I ran that game.

Thri-Kreen leaping into action.
Thri-kreen predator by Jason Engel

The Canyonlands region is inspired by a lot of Dark Sun artwork and a bit of the Dark Sun design ethos. The sorts of things that live in this terrain are either exceptionally hale or exceptionally good at scavenging–sneaking, ambushing, fighting dirty. The few civilizations that exist are insular in nature, and the many, many attempted civilizations that have come before can be found across the landscape in various states of decay.

Headless, winged statue
Retrieved from Archillect on Twitter

I want to run this in Whitehack 3E as a modern take on OSR gaming. The physical cost of “miracles” fits well with the dangers of new magic, and the open-ended nature of the system seems like a good match for the idea that there hasn’t been time for official training to develop, nor expansive spellbooks to be written, so the characters are likely creating these spells for the first time. I want it to feel like craft, discovery, and happy accidents.

Whitehack 3E
Whitehack by Christian Mehrstam

Whitehack is also designed to be challenging and deadly, which are two good descriptors of the Canyonlands. The PCs, as members (in some form or another) of a massive criminal syndicate, start the game as disposable resources for their handlers to throw at a problem (“a mage wanders into the canyon…”) until it is resolved. I’m well-versed in 2E (and I understand 3E is not mechanically very different) but I don’t think any of my players will be, and this will be a shift from the “character-as-extension-of-self-from-level-one” nature of modern D&D. I also want to stop giving money to WotC.

So far, I’ve written a few thousand words on the region, and maybe a thousand more on the first gameplay session. This is the part where I tend to get stuck (and it’s where I fizzled out on the 900 Cells), because it is so dependent on the characters’ choices as they interact with the world and learn more about it: say, are they going to resent being used as fodder by their shadowy masters, or do they like the perks that come with it well enough to take some risks? Will they take their task seriously, or will they spend days hanging out with the Kobolds? Everything’s a valid option here, and that influences the worldbuilding.

Next steps: flesh out a few possible options, fill in the blanks for the important stuff that’s happening already, and tables. Everyone loves a table.

More to come.

Composing in the Editor

For me, writing has always come and gone in massive, mercurial cycles. I never know when I’m going to be jolted with the urge to write, and I never know when that urge will disappear, and I never know how long the time between will be. This time, it’s been maybe seven years? Seven or so since the last time I’ve viscerally needed to get my thoughts out. I’ve certainly tried to force it from time to time since then, and I’ve gotten by at least OK where I’ve needed to write, but friends: I think it’s back.

The realization came when I was trying, desperately, to come up with a 250-word proposal for an academic poster. I knew what the topic was, I knew how it would be a relevant and worthwhile poster, but when I opened the text editor, it was worse than pulling teeth. Pulling fingernails maybe. Even here, I’m already at 150 words and the content of this post is less important. Maybe more meaningful? Digressions pad out the word count nicely. Anyway.

I’m in a phase of my career where writing is huge. I lucked into a couple publications in 2020, but moving forward, I will need to be able to sit down and write. Having a kid, a family, a house, a life during COVID-era quarantining, I can’t necessarily wait for the tides to shift in my mind. There are moments when I have time to write, and I need to be able to use them. So, I’ve been taking the little gaps throughout my day to journal, and it’s started working.

Used to be, I would spend the bulk of my day in a coffee shop–shoutout to Pablo’s on 6th–getting dangerously caffeinated and spilling ink. Used to be, I’d have a book or two with me, and when my hand or mind got tired, I’d spend an hour or so reading. Used to be, I would do this every day. Of course, I didn’t have major demands on my time like “work” or “child,” so this bohemian lifestyle wouldn’t exactly be practical today, but I can take some things from it.

For one, just general daily journaling (ideally in a journal with a Pablo’s sticker on it) has helped to keep the gears oiled. If I know I’m spending at least a little bit of time working on ~my craft~ it’ll be significantly easier when I need to make 250 words happen on demand. For two, reading & writing are better hobbies than some of those others I’ve taken up during quarantine, like drinking & watching junk TV. For three, it’s probably a bit better behavior to model for the aforementioned child than the aforementioned quar hobbies.

If I can remember to, I suppose I can post some of those things I write here. A lot of it has been pretty standard D&D fare so far, and I guess that’s something I’ve written about before. I know I’m prone to big promises and disappointment when it comes to blogging and goals and creativity, so for now the only promise I make is that I’ll hit publish on this entry as soon as it’s done.

Novembeat: a Recap in Progress

Yeah, so I slipped almost immediately. Day three–what could have possibly been on my mind this November 3rd?–and four and five disappeared into the ether, never to be seen again.

ON THE SIXTH DAY, I emerged and forced myself to use an interesting combo I’d rolled up for one of my missed days.

“Caye” emerged from an interesting sound I found in the Volca Modular. Something like an Alto Clarinet almost. A far-away, longing sound, like sitting on the jetty, watching bigger ships moving in the distance. I paired that image with some found percussion and a harp loop from some Samplified pack or another, then tried desperately to get the Volca Keys to do something resembling playing nice. It’s so brassy, but I think I managed to get it somewhere near where I wanted it at the very, very end (around 4:36, as I quickly pull the filter off). It’s not a perfect tune, but it got me out of my funk a bit.

DAY SIX, PART TWO, BUT I’M COUNTING IT AS DAY SEVEN.

It is no surprise that I have a fondness for the Durham, NC-based acid-funk power quartet, the Mountain Goats. Recently, I’ve spent a little while tracking out some of my favorite songs on the OP-Z, and, well, this is one of them. Everything is going through the OP-Z, and I have a sizable amount of Reverb and Chorus effects on my whiny vocals. Just the way I think John would have wanted it to be if he had an OP-Z instead of a Casio back in 1996.

DAY EIGHT: THE OCHO started as a challenge on a Korg Volca Discord Server I help moderate. You’re learning all sorts of things about me today!

They picked a few synths out for me to use and I figured if I wasn’t going random with this one, I could cheat further and add in some NTS-1 effects and Midilooper assistance. This recording came at the tail end of about an hour of just noodling around between these joyous devices. I had a chord progression on the OP-Z from my next tMG cover (name that tune and I will venmo you $10!) and then I just kind of plugged things together and went for it. The A-55 preset (tee hee) on the MicroKORG is a long-time favorite: I’ve had this thing for at least a decade, and I always jump to it when I want to figure out a melody.

The routing here was fun to figure out. The Volca Drum is providing clock for the OP-Z, which is sending MIDI to the Midilooper, which is sending Track A (channel 2) to the Volca FM and Track B (channel 3) to the MicroKORG. A potential next step for this setup would be to run MIDI Thru from the Korg to the NTS-1 on channel 4, and loop some effect parameter changes from the OP-Z. That was one step too complicated for this run, but maybe next time. I will definitely pull this combo back together in the near future. Between the variety of sounds on the Drum (which I used very sparingly, in a show of remarkable restraint), the limitless FM potential of the… FM, and the timeless MicroKORG–not to mention the one-size-fits-most OP-Z–I suspect this small rig could span the gamut of electronic music without breaking a sweat.

DAY NINE, yesterday I was somewhat dreading another big setup like the above, so when I rolled up the MicroFreak, I skipped the rest of the dice and went with this.

Simple bassy patch on the MicroFreak, and maximum wubs on my shiny new Werkstatt (which is replacing the Wavestate on my roll table). The PO-33 was a bit of an afterthought, but I’m happy it had some Nicotine/Bactine to contribute. The fun discovery here was that you can set up the Werkstatt’s filter to respond to pressure on the capacitive keyboard on the MicroFreak, letting you PLAY the wubs. I am not very good at that yet, but I got it down well enough to record this quick and fun number. Again: a very interesting early discovery that shaped my path. Novembeat is all about happy accidents, and I think this one is the happiest so far.

Today marks the 1/3 mark of the challenge, and even though I’ve already skipped a couple days, I’m feeling energized and ready to keep pushing ahead. I received some killer suggestions from some other Discord pals, so today might be totally insane or simple and mundane. Maybe a mix: Insane in the Mundane. Feature image forthcoming.

Novembeat 2020

You don’t need me to tell you it’s been a rough year. One cost of 2020 for many has been a persistent general malaise if not outright unflinching depression. For me, this year has taken a lot of projects that I derive genuine pleasure from (music, reading, writing) and twisted them to feel like chores less worthy of my time than doomscrolling foreign real estate listings.

Enter: Novembeat. It’s a challenge, kind of. It’s an inspiration, maybe. It’s a community, without a doubt. This month, as established by a few years of this event (visit novembeat.com for more info!), I am going to try to create a tune every day. But Jason, you hypothetically say, back in December 2019–two posts ago, might you hypothetically add–you talk about participating in “Jamuary” and then didn’t make it more than four or five days! Yes, true, I’ve tried this sort of thing before with disappointing results. I could argue that in January of 2020, I was mid-move with an infant and a 9-5 requiring an hour commute. My environmental factors at the time were not conducive to a marathon of music-making.

But now? Baby, I don’t leave the house! The kid is a little more self-sustaining and I have a whole room full of musical gizmos at my disposal. Plus, I’m adding a little fun to the mix with the addition of needlessly complex rules and philosophies for myself!

  • Tenet One: I gotta finish the month. I need this. Even if it’s a quick ditty, I’m putting something out there every day.
  • Tenet Two: I need to use things I don’t use very often. I’ve been accumulating gear without using the gear I already have, and that’s a shame, because I like the things I have!

With those two core goals established, I named the gear I have and want to use* and made a list. That doesn’t quite cover it: I made a D&D-style d20 roll table and plopped the 18 pieces of gear on there in alphabetical order. A 20 is a critical success and I can pick what I want to use. A 1 is a critical fail and someone else tells me what to use. Every day, this will determine what gear I get to play with, with a d4 determining how many I use. Here’s the table:

I’m excited for when I have to make a full song with the Monotron Delay and nothing else.

Day one brought me the combination of Arturia’s MicroFreak and my beloved Casiotone 701. I’d never used the two of them together before, and the growing pains were real. Like many other Casio keyboards, the Casiotone has a selection of 16 simple beats, with zero external clock control, limited customizability (aside from a touch-pad “fill”), and some genuinely jarring bass line accompaniment. After about a half-hour of playing around I was ready to record, and I realized I wrote a 4-chords-and-a-bridge sadboy Mountain Goats song. I have never written lyrics before, but they showed up unbidden and really bummed me out.

Screenshotted for posterity.

It wasn’t the vibe I wanted to establish for week one, day one, so I scrapped it and started a new MicroFreak patch: something wavetabley that would sparkle in an arpeggio. Rearranged my sadboy chord progression to highlight the bassiness of the Casiotone, played a few loops, swept the filter, and called it a day. You can listen to it here:

In terms of music I’ve made, it’s not my strongest showing. I didn’t have my boots on. But that’s part of Novembeat, too. Tenet One. I’m putting something out there every day, so at some point I need to commit to it and follow the tune through to its logical conclusion. I think I did that here, and I intend to do it at least 29 more times throughout the month.

I should also add a thank you to Kumie (Kumie?) for his blog post inspiration, as well as the whole of the Red Means Recording Discord community for being such inspiring and talented musicians!

The Bird of Passage

Here we go again! Today I was fortunate to guest on the spectacular D&D talk show, The Dungeon with Andrew & Harlan. During said show, Andrew mentioned one of my favorite projects that I’ve sadly let wilt away: The Bird of Passage. The BoP was (and, I guess, is) a short-form zine of spectacular adventure, foofaraw, stuff and nonsense that I’d hoped to turn into a quarterly affair. Time passed, and it fell by the wayside in favor of other projects like “baby” and “Ohio,” but the fact that it stuck around for someone other than me has been neat, so maybe I’ll give it another go.

At the very least, I’ll get issues one and two printed and done! So for the time being, take a look: THE BIRD OF PASSAGE!


The parchment cracks and sheds as you unroll and flatten it on the sitting-room table. Every edition has an air of antiquity about it. THE BIRD OF PASSAGE, volume unknown, issue unknown. Print run of two, or perhaps two hundred thousand. This one arrived today, rolled tightly and slipped into your daypack at some point during your morning errands. Who delivered it? Don’t ask stupid questions.


Hell yeah. Hell yeah! Bird of Passage forever.

Next: In The Vast Forest! It was an adventure and now it is a music. Stay tuned.

Community Medicine: Sequence 01

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k-vQJssbP30

This is a brief exploration with a couple minimal synths I received this Christmas from my wonderful mother in law: the Teenage Engineering PO-24 Office and the Korg Monotron Delay. Out of all of the Pocket Operators, the PO-24 seems to be the most maligned. It has a very specific, noisy sound that is hard to fit into the workflow of most PO-based music. I’ve never had that feeling about it, though, and when I was first introduced to these little wonders, it was at the top of my “OMG I need this” list, alongside the PO-20 Arcade (first one I got!) and the PO-28 Robot. At that point, they hadn’t released anything in the 30-series, which took the rough concept of these synths–specific-sound doodads on the cheap–and exploded them into wildly customizable powerhouses. For me, as much as I enjoy the ability to sample whatever I want on the PO-33 KO or synthesize my own voice with the PO-35 Speak, having a set of constraints to the tools was kind of part of the appeal. Whenever I have to input my own sounds into a synth before I can even start making music, it’s a major creative block. The original six Pocket Operators just go, and you can crank them up to their limits in no time. Also, I LOVE the rough-around-the-edges vintage printer and computer sounds. They get really gritty and heavy with a little filtering and delay (provided here by the Monotron), giving an almost industrial techno vibe. I expect I have many more similar explorations to come with these and my other assorted pocket synths. Jamuary is just around the corner, but more about that later.

Community Medicine: Cementing

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rtrUTSFMe8

For the past couple years, I’ve been experimenting with electronic music production. Synthesizers and software, bleeps and bloops, harsh noise and chiptunes: I’ve kind of dabbled in all of it, and maybe spent a little too much money in the process. Every once in a while, I get the nerve up to hit record, and anything that makes it to YouTube or Bandcamp gets stamped with my “Community Medicine” moniker. Why Community Medicine? I like the sound of it, I guess, and most of the tracks are inspired by some aspect of the healthcare system and my work and experience within. This one, for instance, is of a part with another, noisier track called “Curette” (both of which can be found on Bandcamp!) and are in reference to my recent tibia surgeries. FUN, UPLIFTING STUFF! In the new year, I expect to play around a lot more with generating “finished” pieces of music, be they songs, explorations, or just unstructured jams.

Man with spear leaning against a tree in a vast forest

Adventure Hook: In the Vast Forest

Oh, yes. I nearly forgot that moving off of my hosted WordPress site of yore to a newer-fangled one means none of my old content is here anymore. Going to try to transfer things over! Here’s the hook that got me on my whole “I could make a D&D zine probably” obsession. In the Vast Forest was almost the title of the zine, but I didn’t want to wind up with a “Bad Company by Bad Company off the album Bad Company” situation. Anyhow, here’s the new and improved version of my first written-to-be-consumed adventure hook!

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