Monday, December 17, 2018

Friday, December 14, 2018

Ever Upward

Ever Upward

Building the Viking Airship for Echoes of Ragnarok IV

by Jason "Aeston" Rosa

"Come, my friends.
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
the sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die."

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Sometimes big ideas have very humble origins. In this case, it started at my son’s birthday party in July where a table of Rhiassans amused themselves by talking and making jokes about moon encounters that could be utilized in our upcoming event (yes, cheese was mentioned several times). We had yet to really plan any more than the very basic concept of the dungeon crawl and this was our first real brainstorming session to try to nail down rooms and mechanics that could be used.

We spent a lot of time talking about moon tropes and concepts and at one point someone asked “What about a room where they actually have to get to the moon in the first place?”. That was it, that was all I needed to hear. Immediately my mind started reeling with concepts of a viking longboat being propelled through the skies by players rowing. Though the specifics would come later as the concept was revised again and again I knew back then that the lion’s share of this event would take place on what I planned to be one of the greatest ships the Realms had ever seen.

The creation of this ship, the painstaking work that went into the props and mechanics and puzzles, was one of the most fun and satisfying aspects of preparation and event holding that I have ever experienced. My goal in the aftermath is to tell you all as much as I can about the experience of the ship’s genesis and execution so that it can be preserved for history. In my usual manner, this article is bound to be verbose. Feel free to skim through and just looked at the captioned pictures. I won’t be offended.

The Control Panels

As many of you know, this event was first scheduled to take place in early October. That didn’t work out as planned, of course. Due to reasons beyond anyone's control, I ended up needing a rather major abdominal operation. I’ve had a couple smaller operations in the past which I recovered from relatively quickly, and I remember thinking to myself “okay, after a couple of days I’ll get started on the props for the event”. Boy was that incorrect. For weeks after the operation I was incredibly limited in what I could do. But i was determined to still accomplish what I could to start bringing this vision to fruition.

As I worked through my convalescence I knew I needed to occupy my time in some productive way, and though I couldn't do much physical activity, small woodworking projects were possible. I decided to get started on making the controls for the ship. The first part of that was laying out what they should all look like in blueprints. With Google drawings I drafted up different control ideas drawing most of my inspiration from what Star Trek TOS instrument panels looked like.

Examples of my original schematics for three of the eight instrument panels.

Once those ideas were drafted and I was satisfied with the placement and variation of different types of controls, I could start putting them together. In my limited capacity I was still capable of using the band saw and drill press and doing some amount of sanding before I got tired, so every day I spend a few hours slowly putting together levers and dials and making knobs and switches. I looked forward to it every day, actually. I think it was an important part of my healing process.

A dial and a lever prototype I created as I made all of the control components.

It took weeks to complete all of the individual controls before I could even start to put them together. By the time I had to cut the plywood to actually make the instrument panels themselves, I was feeling more or less back to my old self. As I assembled each panel according to my blueprints I started to think about what type of puzzle I could create that necessitated using all of the controls properly in a high-intensity situation.

Four of the instrument panels actually coming together as the controls are assembled.

It was then I recalled an iPad game that I used to play with some of my friends that lended itself to this idea. Space Team. The game itself was sort of a Star Trek parody. Each connected iPad had a set of controls on it, levers, switches, etc, and each would give a read out of commands for controls that were on other players’ displays. Games usually devolved into shouting matches after a few minutes as everyone was shouting commands at one another and simultaneously not listening for commands directed at them. It was equal parts hilarious and frustrating. Perfect for the Realms.

Spaceteam game screenshots.

So the next task was a gargantuan one. I had to create each set of commands for each console. Draw each state of each console for each step to create a marshalling guide. Distribute those commands from each console to other consoles to create the puzzle itself. Create the displays that the players would actually see and the print-outs that had the commands on them. Then double and triple check everything so there were no mistakes in any of the materials (there was still one mistake left when all was said and done, thank goodness it was on the tutorial level). It was many, many hours on the computer to say the least. Adding a paper cut out of a computer screen with some clear cellophane completed the illusion that the players would be looking at display.

Creating command lists on my laptop.
The last task was to add color and detail. I spent several nights writing on runes, painting the switches and other controls, and adding text. When all was said and done I had eight instrument panels all with varied and interesting points of interaction, all which fit the medieval-steampunk aesthetic I was going for. I was very proud of the end result.

The eight instrument panels in detail.

Row Row Revolution

The concept of the controls put aside, I also knew that I wanted the players to have to row the vessel in viking fashion. I imagined long oars with giant leaves on the end, very elven in concept. Building them was easy enough. Just some work on the band saw and some sanding.

Part of the construction process for the oars.
When I tried to decide how rowing would work I thought about everyone moving their oars according to a drum beat. It would be easy enough to play a beat over a speaker system but that was just too simple, there was no challenge or interest there. I thought about varying up the beat to make it more involved. Not quite the right solution. Then I thought about a system where we could instruct different oars to move at different times according to the beat. And then I realized I was reinventing Dance Dance Revolution… well in this case Row Row Revolution, instead.

Very fortunately for this endeavor, Alex Groom had quite a bit of experience and skill making digital music, so they were able to take my instructions regarding beat timing, genre, and aesthetic and put together several amazing soundtracks to row to. Once I had the music, my PowerPoint skills were all I needed to create animations and movements of different colored oars coinciding with the drum beats in each song. The last step of the whole process was simply painting the oars to match.

Scripting a Row Row Revolution level in PowerPoint.
The painted oars

I just happened to own a captain’s wheel. I bought it on a whim at the Christmas Tree Shop near Worcester probably about 15 years ago and had been able to use it as a prop here and there over the years. Obviously any ship needs a wheel and it was easy enough to integrate the it’s turning into the Row Row revolution game by adding color to it and a clockwise or counterclockwise rotation instruction (as a side note the wheel was taken by a player at the end of the event and I’d really like it back someday if that’s at all possible).

The captain's wheel, mounted and marked with color.

The need to use powerpoint to make Row Row Revolution work gave way to another idea. I could control the entirety of the boat parts of the event through an on-screen display. It could introduce encounters dramatically, provide visuals for things that were happening outside the ship. Display a countdown timer for the ships control puzzles. Everything I needed to keep the pace of the event on track and clearly communicate goals and instructions to the players. So I set up a projector and screen to act as the magical “display” of the ship, and hooked my computer up to both that and a speaker system. It all worked exactly as I imagined.

A selection of slides used in the PowerPoint deck that the event was paced with.

Other Ship Interactions

So the main mechanics of the boat were the control puzzles and the group rowing. Beyond those there were several side mechanics that were invented to keep many people busy and invested in the ship’s operation.

When I knew I was going to have a viking longboat, I knew the sides of it had to be equipped with shields. I turned to Tom Gallagher for his expertise and after he spent a bit of time chastising me for the size of the task, agreed to be of enormous help in the creation of those ten shields. Each painted differently, each with specific plot-powers. In designing our encounters we knew that there would be a great number of projectiles thrown at the ship. Creating magic shields that could block any of those projectiles, no matter how destructive they were, gave ten people on the boat a very vital job to do.

A selection of some of the shields Tom made for the event.
I wanted there to be a mechanic where the ship could become damaged and the damage was both obvious and visually concerning. The answer to that was to make a number of foam flames, and place them about the ship as it became damaged. When something like an enemy firebomb or a dragon’s fireball hit the ship, we could place fire down to represent that damage. Also when switches and dials were entered incorrectly into a console panel we could place fire on that as well to apply a penalty for not solving the puzzle correctly.

Freshly painted flames.

And of course if we were going to have ship damage we needed a way for the players to repair it. We added several regional spells and effects that could remove the damage from the ship but another simple addition was giving the players a couple of looms and a couple skeins of yarn. This allowed them to weave the yarn into patches which could also repair damage to this ship. It was a way of creating other vital jobs for players to do and trying to make sure everyone had a valuable role in the operation of the ship.

Another simple addition that added a lot of value to the experience was the ballista at the aft of the vessel. The weapon itself was a Yule gift from a couple years ago, given to me by Josh Fitzgerald. I confess that up until that point I hadn’t found too many excuses to utilize the present, but the need for weaponry on the ship was a fantastic reason to bring it out of storage. With some slight modifications made by Alex, and some dramatically oversized bolts that I put together with foam footballs and large fluorescent light tubes, we created a very engaging feature to the ship. The ballista could be used to fire at any enemies around the ship to devastating effect, but the primary utility we wanted to add was that it could deflect asteroids that were headed towards the ship, the only thing that could prevent them from doing damage to the vessel.

The ballista and special bolts.

The Final Touches

So with all of the working parts of the ship decided upon and created, I now had to make sure it could all be put together in a way that was usable and useful and that conveyed the feeling and emotion that all the players were apart of the same crew, sailing the skies of Norlund. An important part of that aesthetic, then, was the dragon figure head and the tail on either end of the craft. To create these, Lani Jones and I drew out their forms on an 8’x4’, 2” thick piece of foam and cut it using an electric foam knife. The whole concept worked fantastically except for the part where Lani opened the garage door while the dragon head was leaning against the track, thus completely decapitating it. Oh well, nothing some hot glue wouldn’t fix. Some layers of brown paint to create the illusion of boards, and the primary decorations were done.

Cutting out the dragon figurehead.
The head and tail laid out on the same piece of foam.
After a brutal decapitation.
Layer one of the paint.
Spray paint used to make it look like it was made of boards.

Building oarlocks for rowing along with the pillars that would define the sides of the boat and hold up the shields was an easy task done with just some lumbar and screws. The problem that I really had to solve, however, is what the rowers would sit down on while they completed their task. Those of you who are familiar with the UCONN arena know that there really isn’t reliable furniture lying around to make use of. I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to spend more money than I wanted to buying or making stools of some kind. Fortune smiled upon me, however, when I noticed a bunch of sturdy wooden library chairs were being disposed of in the dumpster at my school. I barely fit ten of them in my car for the drive home. One of them had to sit upside down on the front passenger seat. But I got them all. Cutting the backs off was easy enough and I ended up with nicer looking seats for the rowers than I could have ever hoped for.

Absconding with a car full of discarded chairs.
So that was it. All of the puzzles. All of the components. All of the decor. Everything was planned out as best as it could be. The night before the event we built wooden stands for all of the command consoles and glued the figurehead and tail to stands that would keep them upright. The day of the event we arranged everything in place, hooked up the screen and electronics, added paper covers to the stands, strung rope between the oarlock posts, and surveyed the overall quality of our work.

Throughout most of the event, I got to watch the players have an incredible amount of fun interacting with the vessel and engaging in all of the challenges that we subjected them and it to. It was immensely satisfying watching such a set of big ideas come to fruition and having so many concepts work out in real life like I imagined them in my head.

The completed ship on the morning of the event.

This ship was the most ambitious prop with the most ambitious set of interactions that I had ever planned for an event. I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to Alex, Tom, Lani, and to all the Rhiassans that came to paint the different components and help me work through ideas. I especially want to thank the players for being so enthusiastic about it all and simply allowing themselves to engage the spirit of the event and have fun.

I doubt I’ll ever do another ship event. I wouldn’t want to even try to compare it to this one. But I do know that my desire to create new and interesting things for my player base to engage in has never been stronger. Look forward to the next installment of the Echoes of Ragnarok storyline. I know I will.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

What You Missed - Echoes of Ragnarok IV (photos)

All photos by View Staff

One of the eight operation consoles for controlling the airship.

In the cultivation garden, gathering resources to grow Floatstones.

Another cultivation task in the garden.

Yet another task needed to gather gardening resources.

The heroes speak to the elf Llwellen.

The heroes look upon the airship from atop the docks

Heroes file onto the airship and inspect the surroundings.

The questing party takes up posts and positions on the ship.

Learning how to use the operation consoles.

A firefight with air pirate ships.

Dragons of fire and ice attack.

Damage! The console is on fire!

Knitting magical patches to repair the ship.

Rowing to increase the speed of the vessel.

Vines latched onto the ship and plant monsters defending them.

Plucking flowers from the vines and safely disposing of them.

Lowered by repelling ropes, heroes remove flowers from the vines to destroy them.

Collecting resources from space with the help of jet packs.

Attacked by invaders from space!

Connecting magical conduits on the moon.

Trapping moon automatons to keep them from destroying the magical conduits.

Creating storm-shakers to summon a moon storm.

Building bridges over the final chasm at the moon's end.