Saturday, 2 September 2017

HSI - The Guide & an Interview with Jacob Hurst

The thing you can mention to people, and thing which I in fact did mention to people at Gen Con while I was shilling it, the 'unique feature' about Hot Springs Island is that it has its own guide book.

That is; it has a guide book, written in the 'voice' of the campaign, as if it were an object that the PC's themselves found or came into contact with, and one you can hand directly to the players in the same way.

I was going to talk more about this but Jacobs answers to my questions were more interesting than anything I was going to write anyway so here you go....


Patrick - "There is a LOT more info in the Guide than the Dark - deliberate or maybe design oversight? If they are not familiar with the setting then I can imagine the DM saying "Hold on, pass me that guide...""

Jacob Hurst - "Kind of a design oversight I guess. The Dark was going to have a set page count of 192 for always because it was apparently a good page count for paper math with 8.5x11 pages. I don't know if this is actually true, but I'd seen a number of 192 page sketch books that were that size so I believed it.

Then I ran out of room.

If it's info I consider to be important it's in the dark.

Part of it too was to give the players the monster manual, and see what happens.

At gen con Zak broke open my awareness of myself when he was selling my books to people saying approximately "no one does this (the field guide)! Ever have a player who says oh that's an ochre jelly and it's weak against blah blah at the table, well this may or be true."

And I realized then, that that was me. I was that person who consumed the monster manual and knew all the weaknesses and then when playing I was "ruining" the game with my "out of game knowledge". And I would always get so mad, because who gives a fuck if everyone knows Trolls are weak against fire?

And after Zak said that stuff it made me think more, and I think that the problem is that the rpg business system is inherently broken.

Lets look at a multi-player video game. Everyone who plays buys a copy of the game. If there are 10 people playing a map, then 10 copies of the game have been sold.

With table top rpgs, if 6 people are playing, only 1 person is allowed to buy the game, because if the players buy and read the module or setting or whatever then they know all the secrets and "spoil" it (for themselves and potentially everyone else).

The field guide attempts to give everyone the fun info, but NOT the spoilers.

I still don't think that knowing Trolls are weak against fire can ruin a game, but I can now understand how that knowledge can enable players to pass through content at a rate much faster than a DM expects. So when they only prepped to the troll encounter and that was supposed to be the "final battle of the night" and you breezed through it in 5 minutes, it takes the wind out of their sails. And it's not really anyone's fault but the adventure creators who didn't give the DM tools to roll with variable "content consumption" speeds.

Now I may have


Now I may have totally failed at that, but that was the intended goal.

Regarding the DM asking to see the book, they might. They absolutely might. But they may also just smile and say "sure, go ahead and do that."

The parts of the field guide that aren't true aren't exactly defined, and the DM gets to decide.

For example, I didn't want any undead on the islands. In the FG under the shadows it says "These creatures are not undead and cannot be turned by pleas to the devine." for me, that's true. But when Donnie runs, he treats them as undead, and well... That's OK. Far as I'm concerned that's intended. "


Patrick - "Also, tell me more about the reactions of new players to the Guide Book, what did they do?"

Jacob Hurst - "Now, about the Field Guide. We played and tested the island a lot with people we know. We had done it a little with people we don't know, but we hadn't really had the "full field guide experience" 'till Gen Con, and it worked amazingly well. I'm even going to go so far as to say unexpectedly well.

When Donnie ran the games, the Field Guide would be found, as a treasure item, on a corpse. And then he'd slide the book onto the table. It's some beautiful theatrics really.

The player's viscerally know that it's important, because well I mean... here it is, on the fucking table in front of them right now. And it looks pretty nice. But in the game world it was on a corpse so you know... there's danger associated with it.

Because it's physically limited only one person can really be looking at it at a time, unless two or more human beings get physically close to one another. So the person with the book tends to become the "caller" at the table, or the "right hand man" of the caller at the table. Or the book gets passed around (again, physical interaction).

So when you have a table of total strangers, who are strangers to each other (like at Gen Con), it's fucking magic. Because it breaks the ice. They now have a reason to interact with each other both in game and out of game, and it's a semi-structured interaction because of the limitations of book being shared (both in and out of game).

"Wizard what IS that thing?!?!"

The main thing they all did with the information in the book itself was to identify and weaponize stuff. Which I mean... is the whole point!

One group had been sent to find the elusive Kujibird. They saw sleeping ivy in the book, and then decided to look for that plant, so they could then use it to catch the bird if they found it.

Basically we gave them a "goal" on the island, and then they'd use the information in the Field Guide to effectively plan their adventure.

One group was dropped off at the elven ruins with the mission of recovering elven artifacts, but they knew the ruined city was fucking dangerous, so they decided to not go to it, and go elsewhere. Because they knew there were other locations out there where they could accomplish their mission, even if they didn't exactly know where they were. So they fumbled around and found the Lapis Observatory instead of dying in the ruins of Hot Springs City.

Frequently too, the person holding the book would end up reading pieces of entries out loud to the group.

It really did work better than I'd hoped it would.


Patrick - "Who did the plants? They are quire botanically sophisticated, in a way rare to see in a D&D products and the en-culturation or the specificity of their processing and use is often quite complex as well..."

Jacob Hurst - Regarding the plants: Everything with Hot Springs Island began collaboratively. Having a whole section devoted to plants was my idea though, and I did the heavy lifting for them. When the 4 of us brainstormed up plants, my guidelines were "all of the plants need to do something. Even if that something is relatively mundane (e.g., 'they're fucking delicious')."

And from there we spitballed up the majority of their core attributes.

We also did some backwards, such as the peppers. And now I'm going to go on a contextual tangent.

One of my personal core ideas for Swordfish Islands was that I wanted a person to be able to play a birdwatcher. Or a "exploration oriented scientist from the Age of Discovery". Which obviously doesn't translate well into your standard fantasy faire. But I used to play Ultima Online (a lot) (Great Lakes shard), and in UO, when you opened a person's character window, there was a small scroll off to one side where you could write your character backstory. I made so many jokes with my friends that they were all the same: "My parents were killed when I was young and so I was raised an orphan on the hard streets of Britain/Trinsic/Moonglow/major city. I did what I had to do to survive and now I want revenge. Death to orcs! blah blah blah."

I've also tried to run numerous games of D&D where the players are super adamant about coming up with "elaborate" character backstories that can then be "woven into" the game. And then... they give me two pages of backstory that's basically the same shit I saw in UO (i.e., boring and nothing to work with). But if your game is totally combat oriented (4e) then can you blame them for gravitating in that direction?

So my whole thing was: Swordfish Islands needs to be a place where you can have a hell of a good time and never have any combat, but it's still an RPG, and deadly and full of treasure and problems. And the real problem needs to be, not finding treasure and interesting things, but making it off the island with them in one piece. A problem of "abundance".

And this is the place from which the plants really came from. I was super obsessed with the idea of making a random bird generator so you could, for example, be a wizard who's life dream was to catch a glimpse of this elusive bird rumored to have been seen on the islands. But doing the generator the way I wanted was going to be stupidly hard, and ultimately pretty boring. So I went with plants.

I love plants. We always had gardens growing up (flowers at my house and vegetables at my grandparents). I was an Eagle Scout in Boy Scouts and for my Eagle Project I "wildscaped" an area in a local park (planted native plants that local animals like). And Poison Ivy is my favorite Batman villain.

Also, around the time we started on all this, I was really into the idea that when the Spanish conquered the "New World" and started bringing back all this gold and silver, they basically destroyed their (and everyone elses) economy due to inflation.

So I combined these and said: Let's come up with plants that do something, and some should have the potential to totally, and utterly fuck up your game world (like Jelly Moss).

But to get back to the backwards peppers, we came up with Blindfire vine first. A plant monster that eats you and turns your body into delicious fruit, but because I'm from Texas it was like... let's do spicy peppers! Spicy peppers are so much better than fruit 'cause you can eat them, AND weaponize them (thank you capsaicin!). And my grandpa always competed in chili cookoffs... hey guys, what if on the main island there's an annual(?) chili cookoff, and so they send adventurers to the island to collect the best tasting and hottest peppers? Ok well we should have some other peppers that aren't on a monster plant, but maybe they're only found on the island with active volcanoes 'cause you know... lava/heat/peppers?

And so cachuga peppers on Hot Springs Island were born. A sandbox hook that can be weaponized by creative individuals.

Jelly Moss was a "hey guys, what about a slime mold? Those look fucking cool. Wanna draw something like this Gabe? Fuck yeah! Ok... what does it do? Well they're slimy obviously, slime is sticky... so glue? Good good, but bigger? What if the glue is so good it works as well as nails. Oh that's fantastic. Especially for a fantasy type world where nails are having to be hammered out individually by hand. Dude.. that could totally fuck up an economy 'cause it'd put all these blacksmiths out of work. And their guild would be pissed and paying people to stop that from happening, but the carpenter's guild would probably love it and be paying on the other side. Hahaha yes... ship it!"


Regarding "Botanically sophisticated", well, I cheated. Once we knew what all the plants were, and we knew what they did, I got a bunch of sciency books, and looked for the ways in which plants were described that seemed in line with the plants we had,. I sorted all my plants by type (bush, tree, grass, etc) and then flipped and read and was like "ooooo, vaguely pyramidal, that's a cool fucking phrase". Yoink!

This brings us to another aside. Photography is a bane to doing things this way. If you pick up a field guide now a days on plants or animals, what you typically find is a beautiful glossy picture of the plant or animal and its name. There's no written description, or if there is it's either the most basic shit. All the space devoted to writing now is devoted to what the thing does or how it lives because photography "solved" the what does it look like problem.

So if you want to do this, you have to find books about plants and animals from the time before cheap photography/color printing. If you're really lucky you can find some books from the 1950s-1970s where they publishers were still providing the detailed written physical descriptions AND nice images. But these are rare.

Also, the internet is pure fucking garbage for doing this. And it's all really interesting to me. Like... it's the most amazing time to raise a kid ever right now and yet lacking. My mother got my son a subscription to a kids nature magazine. There was a "find these animals on this page, in the big picture on that page." One of the animals was an eastern meadowlark. So I immediately pulled up a video of an eastern meadowlark singing so my kid could hear it. This is amazing. The number 1 question my kid asks when I'm on my phone is "What are you finding for me?" which is wonderful. And yet, at the same time... we're poorer in a way because I can find this meadowlark song, but I'm not really equipped to process and recommunicate it. How do I describe the song? I don't know. But I can send you a link so you can experience it yourself.

This all sort of ties into that "what the fuck does an elephant look like?" thing that Scrap(?) was sharing the other day with drawings of elephants over time by people who'd never actually seen an elephant.

And all this, imo, is really important when it comes to writing fantasy stuff because no one has seen these creatures or plants or places that don't exist. And as we become more and more reliant upon pictures and recordings and whatnot, I think that it may become harder and harder for people to describe their worlds because they've never had to do it.

[gets down off soap box] Thanks for listening to that.

As usual - SHOP IS HERE.


  1. I decided to reskin everything in my campaign. Nobody knows what anything is. With 5mins work you can turn a troll into something that resembles a 7' tall bull with six eyes and a spiked tail without changing a thing in the stats.
    When nobody knows it's vulnerable to fire, because it's actually just a troll in bull suit, everyone dies really fucking fast because they never expect a 7' tall bull with a spiked tail to have regen or be able to toss rocks with its horns.

  2. I feel like this and Hite's Dracula Unredacted are some of the most interesting supplements because you can hand players a book full of things and they just start making research and motion decisions with you cross-indexing and are capable of making choices about location/travel/other details (in short you've sold me; the moment I get paid this is my purchase list)

    PS thank you for being a sport at gencon and resigning Maze since a friend of a friend was picking it up for me