Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Role-Playing Futures

There's been a conversation going on at the RPGsite forum about the possibility of adapting social mechanics from other games into D&D. This suggestion spun off from another, rambling discussion about what if anything can save D&D 4th edition from its less than stellar sales figures. Based on a Wizards market survey from 1999 that segments the tabletop RPG market, Ryan Dancey (architect of the Open Game License) thinks that the players who just want to hack and slash or play cool characters have been lost to MMOs, and games need to focus their rules on the other motivations, like story play.

Well, I have bad news for the tabletop RPG market. You can do a perfectly good story and character driven game without selling a single rulebook, die or figurine. Thousands of fans have been doing this for years now online. Their "sourcebooks" are popular anime/manga or fantasy fiction series. I hope to soon have a guest article or two about this interesting scene that may be one future of roleplaying.

Really, what we know as a role-playing game wraps an unstructured character interaction and problem-solving system around a quite structured combat and adventure game core. I'll say it again: you don't need to structure the social game with rules for it to happen. Thinking you that do, as a tabletop game publisher ... turning to the dark and clever arts of the Forge school of social mechanic design, in hope of breaching the mass market ... sorry guys, that's like being a ragtime piano roll publisher in the 1920's and thinking that you can overcome the wireless and phonograph by getting more into Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

(I mean, I handle live theory for a living, as an academic. I know the temptation to believe that by having the coolest theory you can master praxis. But it ain't necessarily so.)

I like the hybrid of improv and rules because it lets people participate on different levels. I think Zak intuits this too, in his recent must-read post about creativity in rock bands and gaming groups. I realize other people may lean more toward pure rules, or pure improv, and that's fine. Imagine if the previous generation of Fletcher Pratt naval wargame players had butted in on the D&D generation, demanding Wellsian skill-fire procedures and ballroom-sized dungeons, dammit! I don't want to be that dead hand of the past.

From the industry side, the money is obviously to be made from selling an "official" structure of rules and paraphernalia; people are not going to pay a red cent for something they can just do with their friends on line using shared canon knowledge from media they have already consumed. The real question is not market segmentation, but how you adapt a game to the new generation of users, where people spend a lot of time on-line just because it's convenient, and want their face-to-face activities to be short, well-defined and conclusive.

That's my opinion, anyway. But now I put it to you: What would you do if you were running Wizards of the Coast right now?

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Six Questions for Christmas

Stuck on an idea for an adventure location, dungeon level, or what have you? Here's my Yuletide present for you: the SIX QUESTIONS TABLE.

Roll 3 d6 of different colors on this table for each adventure location. Let's call them white, black, and red.

The white die is something about the area that is generally known or easily found out.
The black die is something unknown about the area.
The red die is false information or appearance about the area, that hides a different reality.

Each number on the dice sends you to a row of this table, where another d6 is rolled; for the red die, roll twice on its row, the black die for the false reality and the white die for the true one.

A roll of 6 (except as HOW) always means "none of the above; invent your own."

1: WHO: a being that rules the area.
1 = Warlord; 2 = Wizard; 3 = Priest/cult; 4 = Monster; 5 = Extraplanar being

2. WHAT: a thing that defines the area.
1 = Treasure; 2 = Magic Item; 3 = Knowledge; 4 = Portal/Key/Map; 5 = Magic/Sacred Place

3. WHERE: special features throughout the area.
1 = Fire; 2 = Water; 3 = Natural/Rough; 4 = Worked/Elaborate; 5 = Plants/Growth

4. WHEN: roll again on the 6 Questions for something that was formerly true of the area. If you roll 4 again, use this table:
1 = Was a mine; 2 = Was a temple; 3 = Was a fortress; 4 = Was a settlement; 5 = Was a tomb.

5. WHY: the use of the area
1 = To imprison; 2 = To produce; 3 = To protect; 4 = To learn; 5 = To store

6. HOW: the working and nature of the area's perils
1 = By machinery; 2 = By magic; 3 = By nature; 4 = By brute force; 5 = By superhuman skill

Example: I roll a white 6 (HOW), black 4 (WHEN), red 1 (WHO).

My roll under the white HOW is "By machinery."
My re-roll for the black WHEN is 5: WHY, then 6. Creatively, I decide it was formerly used "to destroy."
The red, deceptive WHO die turns up a 4 - "monster" for appearances and a 3 - "priest/cult" for reality. 

I decide that the legend of the place speaks of a giant monster, The Gnasher, who dwells in the middle of a vast cave system filled with perilous machinery. In reality, The Gnasher is the object of worship by a secretive cult of troglodytes left over from the place's former, unknown function as the wrecking yard of an advanced civilization. The trogs keep the machinery oiled and working.


Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Folk Saints: St. Hermas

St. Hermas, clad in dragonscale, gifts a loyal adventurer with cash and loot.
Yes, the pious wanderer prays to the canonical St. Seraphina of the Wandering Stars. But the quest for adventure and treasure in Mittellus has led to the popularity of the folk-saint Hermas, wherever chancers gather to wrest long-lost treasures from the oblivion of the earth.

Hermas, so the legend goes, was a fearless soldier in the North in the times of Invictus and Amalthea. He was anointed into the Revelation by Amalthea herself, and performed many useful services of a special nature for them and their followers. In the wars against the monsters of the Far North that followed the death of Amalthea, Hermas preferred to stay off the battlefield, conducting perilous infiltrations at long odds with only a hand-picked band of misfit comrades.

The tales told of him are as many as the notched and worn copper pennies that fill a fifty-pound sack. How he killed an ogre with a nail; reversed the flow of a river and drowned a whole kobold lair; made a false prophet tear his own head off in a game of dares and forfeits; convinced a dragon to yield its cache, one coin at a time.

True to form, his final adventure was as audacious as it was doomed. Finding a doorway to Hell, he slew devils left and right before finally meeting his martyrdom at the hands of the Evil One. In some versions of the legend, he tricked the Devil by offering his own soul in exchange for a companion's, knowing himself to be incorruptible; then fought to get it back, achieving that goal just before he died. Therefore he is also known as Rescuer and Ransomer of Souls.

As a folk-saint, Hermas appeals to adventurers, highwaymen, smugglers and other enacters of desperate deeds. His symbol is the X of crossed swords, and he is often depicted wearing dragonscale armor, raising two swords with mounds of treasure at his feet. His cult is controversial in the Church; some tolerate it, seeing it as a way to keep otherwise unreachable individuals thinking of the World Beyond, while others damn Hermas as a fiction and pagan relic who encourages theft and murder in a holy name. Those of the tolerant persuasion often pair Hermas with the canonical saint Seraphina in their oaths and prayers.

Many shrines and temples to the Saint have been erected by wealthy adventurers, and it is there that his powers manifest directly, for he has no holy order. Such a shrine will always have an object by which a band of adventurers can swear the Oath to St. Hermas. The Oath's form of words varies but usually enforces cooperation and fair sharing among the band, with oathbreakers subject to supernatural comeuppance of a dire and unspecified nature.

The Saint brings ruin to breakers of his oath.

Some shrines also feature small practice dungeons, cemeteries for adventurers killed in the line of duty, shops or training halls where affiliated professionals sell goods and services of interest to adventurers, or libraries where the collected wisdom of explorers and warriors can be read for a fee. Many are the stories of small and capricious miracles the Saint has performed in his shrines to reward the faithful and generous. His word and gospel is that of earned prosperity, and that alone is enough to earn him his steady following.

(Info on the historical St. Hermas here. Often confused with St. Hermes.)

Monday, 20 December 2010

Death and Aftermath

Knights, samurai and other warrior elites know that the point of life is not just to live well, but to die well. Adventure games, though, typically give no rewards in themselves for a good death. Nevertheless, the recent heroic self-sacrifice of one of my campaign's characters gives room to illustrate how death may be given its consolations, both through mechanics and gameplay.

The game referee has to project a difficult illusion. On the one hand, the adventure must be seen to be gripping. Death and serious consequences must be seen to lurk around every corner, or the delve becomes little more than a parody of work, dungeoneers clocking in, clocking out, and collecting their haul.

On the other hand, character death really sucks. I'll leave it to Trollsmyth to spell out some reasons why, but it's no fluke that it's essentially vanished from commercial online gaming, and my Niecely Informant doesn't see much call for it in her own freeform online endeavors, either. For people who don't have a lot of time to spend playing, the grind back up to reasonable power levels can be very demoralizing. "Old school hardcore" is all very well and good, but it's a philosophy devised in an age when people gamed two weekday nights and all weekend.

One way I cushion the sting of death is to award half the old character's experience points to any new character the player rolls up. In fact, if I'd set out thinking from the start, I'd use this rule to separate good deaths from bad - a heroic or selfless death would allow a respawn at 2/3 xp instead of 1/2 xp. Interestingly enough, Ephemera's player (my wife) has rolled up another wizard, even down to the same main Sleep spell, so it's not too much trouble to pass the new character off as a student from the same school ...

Another way is the aforementioned negative HP tables, that dole out the threat of maiming or incapacitation as a less serious gradation of death. Sometimes the threat of consequences is enough. This goes even for systems like 2nd edition with its highly generous death's door rules - if the GM is plotting the campaign world well enough, failure in a mission will feel like the loss of a limb, as the consequences on the PC's allies and acquaintances make themselves clear.

Barring any further mechanical tweaks, this kind of social GMing can go some ways to showing the consequences of a good death. Ephemera's sacrifice has so impressed the man she saved, Fergus, that he has foresworn his bandit ways and with a few of his fellows has been sworn into the Trossley Village Guard and given domain over the newly opened east gate (facing the Castle). The bandits slept by her spell were trussed by the survivors and taken to justice - all are due to be hanged, even the Young Fergus, after a scene in which he rebuffed his older self. And Ephemera's mentor in Utherton, Joya, has been profoundly affected and is showing the party survivors a level of help she would have only given her student.

Ephemera has been given burial in the tomb-wall that lies in the garden in the back of the Temple of St. Hermas. Who knows? It may be that her name and legend will be enough to secure the party a more favored status in the town, as everyone awaits the tide of hungry treasure seekers ....

So how do you handle character death? Are the adventurers just leaves on the wind, rootless treasure seekers to be cut down and spring up again? Or does their death carry some meaning ... and in what way?

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Trossley: End of Innocence

Last week's session was a tense, hard and brutal slog with one of the three PCs dead at the end and the others unconscious, saved only by NPC allies.

With the bullying behavior of the Skull Stackers bandits dominating the Gray Courtyard rampart overlooking the dungeon entrance, a shadow was cast over the prospect of dungeoneering. But now is a good time to mention the NPC Fergus, a bandit from the rival Invisibles gang and veteran of the old days of the Castle, who had been hiding his cohorts in the illusion-concealed and empty Castle ruins.

What are the consequences of an empty dungeon that suddenly restocks itself for mysterious reasons?

Well, Fergus was disconcerted by the appearance of his dead comrades - and, amazingly, even his younger self - when the Skull Stackers gang "respawned." One session prior, he had turned up in town, having fled the Castle in the night after it reappeared and ... came alive.

This session Fergus pulled himself together and, urged on by the priest and Mayor, proposed that the party join the Invisibles in immediate hostile action against the Stackers. Fortuitously - as it turned out - one of my frequent "wouldn't it be cool if this happened" die rolls worked out and the woodland warrior NPC Burnsteen was back in town and eager to join the fight.

Approaching the redoubt of the Invisibles, Fergus was hailed by the small garrison left behind, as his rival for leadership, Brom, had gone foraging in secret with the main strength of the band. The two sides were facing each other on opposite sides of a tower with two doors and adjacent wall, neither side daring to step in the tower or make for the top. Now with the numbers and magic, the party decided to rush into the breach. The other tower door was open, the Skulls nowhere to be seen. Most of the force quickly gained the top floors of the tower, with two Invisibles bandits stationed at ground level - just in time to be swept forth by the charge of the fearsome half-orc fighter Grainne leading the Skull Stackers band.

The ground floor friendlies panicked and ran, Grainne chasing them out into the further court but then retreating after being peppered by missile fire from tower and battlement. The dwarf Grumpka held the stairs against the assault of the axe-wielding foeman lieutenant, while shooters behind and to the side took their angles as best they could, screened by Fergus. Once again, Grumpka's bad luck was good luck as she got downed to exactly zero, earning only a concussion rather than any roll for lasting effects. Fergus and shooters downed the axeman, and then Grainne took to the stairs, swinging her mighty two-handed sword, her armor of strong viridescent goblin-metal protecting her to an exemplary extent.

Fergus took a wound, quickly healed by the holy militant Boniface, and then counterstruck for a critical that faced Grainne with the option between maximum damage and falling from the stair. I chose the fall for her, and then Fergus made an exceptional morale roll that had him leaping on the hulking amazon, sword blade choked in gloved hand for an up-close brawl!

It was then, as Grainne's followers crowded around and tried to pull Fergus off, that the wizard Ephemera made her brave and selfless choice to try to save Fergus. Descending the perilous stair, she won initative and cast her sleep spell. All but Grainne, even Fergus, fell asleep... and getting to her feet, the half-orc won initiative, overtook the frail spellcaster, and dealt out instant death.

Grainne then leapt up the stairs. There fell Boniface - left arm out of commission for a week, by my new negative hits table. There fell the dull-witted Balm - loss of left hand, by the same table. Cordoon, Callow and Burnsteen finally faced her, and Burnsteen finished her with a well-placed sword thrust.

I'll finish with the "death & dismemberment" table I'm using, working off similar efforts by Trollsmyth and others, but leaning more toward Norman Harman or Eric Minton's bloodier versions.

A blow that takes a player character or follower to zero HP results in unconsciousness for 2d6 rounds.

A blow that takes the character or follower below zero HP requires a roll on this table, using 2d6 with -1 for each point the character finds him/herself below zero after the wound is inflicted. Yes, this one is a real killer .. if you roll boxcars at -1, you're well advised to play possum, as the next hit will almost certainly kill you. It's somewhat tempered by the "unconscious at 0" rule, though.

2 or lower: Instant death blow to random vital area.
3: Fatal wound to random vital area. Will die in 1d6 turns unless Cure Critical Wounds is applied.
4: Severed or crushed random limb. Will bleed to death in 3d6 rounds unless tourniquet, cauterization or Cure Critical Wounds is applied. Cannot act for 2d6 rounds due to shock. Limb is permanently unusable.
5-6 Serious wound to random vital area. Cannot act for 2d6 days or until Cure Serious Wounds is cast specifically to remove the wound, not for hit points - the unusability is independent of hit points.
7-8 Serious wound to random limb. Cannot act for 1d6 rounds due to shock. Limb unusable for 2d6 days or until Cure Serious Wounds is cast specifically to remove the wound, not for hit points - the unusability is independent of hit points.
9 Light wound to random vital area. Cannot act for 1d6 rounds.
10 Light wound to random limb. Cannot use limb for 1d6 rounds.
11+ Fight on you lucky (?) weasel! No effect.

Limbs are rolled on d6/d6: 1 = eye (1-2) ear (3-4) nose (5-6); 2= left fingers (1-2) hand (3-4) arm (5-6); 3= right fingers/hand/arm; 4 = non-vital torso wound that affects use of both legs; 5 = left foot (1-2) leg (3-6); 6 right foot/leg.

Vitals are rolled on d6: 1 crown/brain 2 throat 3 heart 4 lungs 5 guts 6 kidneys or other.

Next post, the aftermath of the slaughter and some more general comments on PC death.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

D20 and Gelatinous Cube Breed

And their baby will either roll the exact number you want, or eat a hole in your palm.

(start video at 2:00 for best effect)

Wednesday, 15 December 2010


When two groups meet by chance in classic D&D games, there is a chance for each to surprise the other. Breaking it down, what factors might be going into this?
  • Lack of awareness: One side might have lost attention - sleeping, eating, reading, sexing. One side might be blind and deaf in its environment, like a lightless swimmer under dark waters.
  • Lack of concealment: One side is giving itself away - taking light into the dark, noise into the silence, laughing, gambling, brawling.
  • Exceptional awareness:  One side might be waiting by the door to ambush oncomers all day and all night. One side might have ESP, or heat vision, or elven ears.
  • Exceptional concealment: One side might be hiding behind a rock, on the ceiling; invisible.
The typical situation of a party going into the dungeon is gross lack of concealment, with naked lamps and clanking armor; but high vigilance; forging on into unknown territory.

The typical situation of bored watchmen is of greater concealment, but lower vigilance. Undead watchmen are more vigilant. Gambling, shouting watchmen are less concealed.

Nope. No dice roll needed.
Most surprise situations can be resolved by detailed enough setting notes about what the guards are up to, whether the vampire is stalking prey or playing the pipe organ, whether the spider is hiding in the webs or scuttling along the floor. For situations where the DM wants more spontaneity, a monster vigilance roll might be needed to see whether the monsters are in a position to ambush, or are giving away their own position. The chance to spot the ambush can be handled as a passive perception check (spotting, plus listening if the ambushers are moving). If the ambushing party has a hide skill and successfully uses it, the perception check gets more difficult.

To determine the enemy's disposition randomly, roll 1d6 for each individual, up to 5; the remaining individuals have similar profiles to the 5 rolls already made, in the order rolled.

Undisciplined groups and individuals:
1: vigilant; 2-3: distracted; 4: distracted and making noise; 5-6: asleep.
Disciplined groups and individuals: 
1: ambushing already; 2-3: vigilant; 4: distracted; 5-6: asleep (at least one member of a disciplined group of 2 or more will be vigilant)
1-2: ambushing already; 3-4: vigilant; 5-6 asleep.
1-2: ambushing already; 3-6 vigilant.
Vigilant to the range of their senses, unless in a situation to ambush (such as an ooze dropping from above.)

Example: Our group approaches a right turn in the passage, torches blazing. 100 feet down the corridor is an open guardroom where three undisciplined kobolds are lounging. Will the kobolds hear the clank of armor and see the reflection of light on the wall? The roll for the trio is 1, 6, 6, and the signs of the party approaching are pretty blatant, so the one vigilant kobold notices without having to roll, and scuttles over to shake and wake the other sleeping two.

This makes a much quieter noise (but can't be seen)  so I give the two party members in front a secret roll on their d6-based listen skills, one has a listen skill of 1 and the other has 2. The one with 2 rolls a 2 and hears some scuttling, faint groaning and whispering ahead and to the right. Round 1 is over.

Round 2, the party stops, hides the torch behind a shield and sends their infravision-having, non-clanking dwarf to look down the passage. The vision only goes 30' so he sees nothing but passage. His listen skill is also a bare 1, but he rolls it, so he hears some more noises of blades being drawn, buckles being buckled, and footsteps. The kobolds are arming themselves. At this point, if a party member with a fast move and a torch were to run screaming ahead, he would probably catch the two dressing kobolds, if not the vigilant one, by surprise. But no, they go cautiously. And the kobolds get one more move, unheard, to set up their ambush in the corner of the guardroom just right of where the passage comes in.

After a couple of rounds creeping down the passage in full defense mode, the party reaches the entrance of the guardroom, then state that they will swing out quickly and attack to the sides. Because they are wresting surprise back from the kobolds (at some risk to themselves!) I deny the kobolds the surprise attack they would have gotten, and normal initiative is rolled.

If the players had not shown guts like that, though, I would have judged the kobolds to be perfectly hidden behind the corner, so the front right member must make two successful rolls to "notice detail" (my proxy skill for reacting quickly to a visual stimulus) in order to deny the surprise attack prior to initiative.

The moral? Time is not always on the party's side; and the cautious approach won't always give the best results. This insight is the best cure for over-cautious party creep I know.

Sunday, 12 December 2010


Alexis recently asked an excellent question: how realistic are the "standing orders" players give DMs about the attention and discipline of their characters in the game? The example he gave was when players claim that their characters keep to a perfect fighting formation during an eight-hour hike. But this could easily be extended to other common claims:

"By default, we are always checking carefully for traps ahead of us."
"Here is our standard procedure to deal with opening a door ..."
"Just to let you know, every time we stay in an inn we post watches, sleep in our armor, and spike the door."

But in reality, how good is human attention? Not that great. Psychologists have found that vigilance and self-control are limited resources, easily depleted. The tough part, though, is making this limited resource an interesting factor in an adventure game.

Some DMs just work with the standing order. Like DMs who overlook encumbrance, they eliminate player decisions about attention as a resource, in order to simplify play. This kind of game assumes a certain amount of vigilance at all times that's a baseline for trap detection rolls, surprise checks, and other such tests of passive perception. It also requires the DM to hold the line and not let players achieve any greater vigilance even if they swear up and down they are being extra-careful. That chance to be surprised, to miss a trap or a secret door, represents the weakness of the characters' attention, just as the chance to surprise represents the weakness of their foes' attention.

Some DMs use "player skill" to simulate character vigilance. "If you do it, you have to say it." This means that player boredom substitutes for character boredom. If the ritual of verbally checking every square foot of space becomes too tedious for the player, that simulates the character slipping up. Although consistent with the Old School dogma of substituting player skill for rules, I'm not convinced that this one meets the ultimate criterion of gaming - fun - in the same way that using player skill for problem solving and social interaction would. Taken to the extreme, this method puts optimal play for survival at odds with enjoyment and spontaneity. It is really only feasible, as I see it, under a regime where the DM avoids placing meaningless "zap traps" and hidden compartments everywhere. Player skill becomes more meaningful when there are clues to when players should be alert, and demonstrated safe or boring spaces where they don't have to be alert.

Player skill also becomes more meaningful when there are in-game choices to be made. Just requiring a "say it to do it" approach to attention doesn't really work because it trades an out-of-game resource (time and interest) for an in-game resource (safety). In computer games this kind of tradeoff is known as "grinding." What in-game resources, though, can be traded for vigilance?

The classic answer is "game time." Searching high and low as you proceed eats up time in the game, and there are many ways to make time count. Ticking scenario clocks, wandering monster checks, and rival parties are just a few of the most popular. Time pressure, in fact, is one of the most effective force multipliers for the bad guys, forcing risks that a smart party would not ordinarily take.

A more intriguing possibility, but one I've never seen implemented in any gaming system, is to treat attention as the limited resource it is. Optimal play of an adventure game typically places no value on the characters being able to relax in a space they consider safe, let alone any other creature comforts. As a result, power gamers run their characters as ascetic paranoiacs, always ready for battle, always "looking carefully for traps" even in the privy of the local tavern. In reality, someone with this attitude would be at risk for some kind of stress disorder.

A rough model for a mental resource game system might involve the following:
  • Each character has 2 hours of sustained vigilance in them for any 4-hour waking period, plus or minus a half hour for each point of Wisdom bonus or penalty they have. 
  • Vigilance is consumed by attending carefully in any given direction. If advancing while scanning for both near and far dangers (i.e. traps and potential foes ahead), it is consumed at double time. Players should keep records of whether their characters are vigilant or not, and the time consumed this way.
  • Staying vigilant beyond the basic time is possible, but incurs a "debt" of negative hours - stress, if you will - which can only be recouped in an area seen as completely safe. So, if you are staying in an inn and posting watch overnight, that doesn't count because the party is not treating the area as safe. 
  • Consequences of vigilance debt can include temporary loss of Intelligence, Dexteriy and Charisma - one point per point in debt - and perhaps even random insanity-like symptoms when the negative debt reaches an amount equal to the original number of hours.
I'll leave it to the comments and maybe another post to discuss the merits and flaws of such a system, and how exactly vigilance - however ruled or defined - might interact with randomly determined surprise.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Into the Dungeon!

Three different runs of the same dungeon now - my Level 1 for the Castle of the Mad Archmage.

Four ramps going down. Each party chooses the same ramp.

And two out of three choose the same door out of three after that, ending up in the well room guarded by armored kobolds. Both times the charge was led by an angry dwarf ... both times a kobold fell in the well. (To be fair, that well is kind of like the proverbial Act I pistol.) This time, the Trossley group had a sleep spell on tap, so they fared much better against the kobolds.

There was some good old exploring, hacking and slashing tonight - not much treasure but lots of creatures fell. I don't want to discuss too much but there are interesting things brewing with various groups in the Castle and dungeons. The 2-dimensional reaction/morale table is proving very useful, and it's also fun (if a little mind-wracking) to fill in what's going on behind the scenes in the Castle while the adventurers are off healing and resting. It definitely makes an adventure location come to life when it is filled with scheming, strategizing individuals and factions.

Highlight of the evening: the players, already somewhat battered and out of useful spells, are being pelted with rocks from a higher battlement by a group of bandits after a bullying request for treasure was met with a contemptible show of copper. One of the bandits rolls a 1 ... I rule that his fumble consists of throwing too enthusiastically from on top of the battlement, from where he slips and falls, taking a mortal amount of damage. A small moral victory, and why not, I awarded XP for the kill.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Folk Saints: Introduction

My interest in folk saints, and folk-beliefs about Catholic religious figures more generally, began with the Miracle of the Paella. On a visit to Morella, an inland hill-castle town in northern Valencia, I saw the following plaque on a house wall:

It illustrates the miracle said to have occurred when St. Vincent Ferrer, a Catalan Dominican preacher who lived around the turn of the 15th century, visited Morella. His hostess turned out to be insane. Ashamed that she could not offer good meat to the Saint, she slaughtered her young son and served him up, Valencian style, in a paella. The Saint fortunately recognized the meat for what it was, and resurrected the lad in the middle of the dish.

Anyone who spent as much time as my young self poring over the D'aulaires' Greek mythology book would quickly know this tale as a variant of Tantalus' sacrifice of his son Pelops to the Gods. Like the Saint, the gods identified the meat on offer and resurrected the boy. Many other pagan stories live on in European folklore about the saints and other religious figures. In Portugal, Bartholomew is revered by sailors, carries a trident, and is attended by a strange sea monster, like Poseidon. The existence across Europe of Black Madonnas has been seen as a continuation of various cthonic and nature cults, while the dark Saint Sarah of the Gypsies bears an explicit connection to the Hindu goddess Kali. And let's not forget this fellow, who's come a long way from being a Lycian bishop.

Other folk-saints are mainly legendary figures, including the beloved St. Christopher, who was expelled from the calendar by the Vatican in 1969, and has been analyzed as a sort of combination of Hercules and Hermes. Stranger still, some traditions paint Christopher as coming from a dog-headed race - the one pious gnoll on the planet? - not to mention the folk-saint who was actually a dog, Guinefort (see here for both). The legendary Wilgefortis or St. Uncumber was a woman who prayed to grow a beard so she would be liberated from having to marry - clearly this lady was no Dwarf! Another mythical female saint, Ursula, who supposedly led an army of 11,000 virgins to martyrdom, has been identified with legends of the Norse goddess Freya. Speaking of virgins (or not), the less said about the unspeakable Saint Foutin the better.

The hard life in Latin America has led to a flourishing of folk saints who, now more than ever, look after the poor and desperate. Such dubious characters as Mexico's Pancho Villa and Argentina's Evita Peron attract popular prayers. In the midst of the ruthless drug cartel wars of northern Mexico, some sentimental thugs - and many common folk - give offerings to the righteous bandit Jesus Malverde. Apart from historical figures being popularly canonized, other revered figures make their way in from obscure parts of the iconography. Leonard Cohen fans may be familiar with the Anima Sola, a lonely soul being released from purgatory. More eerie still is the modern-day cult of Santissima Muerte, a holy female figure of Death often represented by an actual skeleton, echoing the Aztec goddess Mictlancihuatl, who "grants blessings no real saint would approve."

Does your role-playing game feature characters who flit rootlessly from place to place, constantly exposed to death and danger, living hand-to-mouth in search of the next big score? Maybe they'd be tempted to make a small offering for the blessings of a righteous bandit, or to keep Death off their backs and on their enemies'. The folk-patron of adventurers in my world of Mittellus, St. Hermas, is up next in this series.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Church World Triumphant

Of the three settings for D&D I proposed - the clericless Sorcery World, the polytheist Pantheon World, and the monotheist Church World - I chose the latter for my ongoing campaign. And I'm not regretting that choice.

Running off the D&D grid, with an old rule set, gives many freedoms. One that keeps getting spotlighted is the freedom to use all the red-blooded trappings of 1970's fantasy that were expunged in reaction to parental and Christian pressure groups. Demons, devils, half-orc assassin PCs, human sacrifices, naked lady pictures, naked lady human sacrifices ... Both Third Edition official content and Old School revivalism have produced intentionally notorious products, as returns of the repressed.

But ironically, another historical element purged from the game has never made such a loud comeback: the backdrop of medieval Christianity that gives us clerics, paladins, relics, and a spell list ripped straight from the Bible. In part, this is because the repression was self-imposed and subtle. No atheist or Jewish groups sought to expel D&D from schools because it promoted Christianity, even if the case that it promoted Satanism was equally ludicrous. The shift from a Church World of OD&D to a Pantheon World of 2nd Edition was gradual, and in keeping with the adoption of standard campaign settings, Greyhawk (especially the 1983 version) and Forgotten Realms. Those products, unlike the more open-ended 1980 Greyhawk, forced TSR's cards on the table regarding details of religion.

Uncensored knights from Valdemar Miniatures
With the Satanic panic stinging, it's easy to see why TSR skirted monotheism by the length of a ten-foot pole. Ever since Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for daring to suggest that God had created other worlds than ours, the relationship of speculative fiction to Christianity has been questionable. Any fictional or counterfactual treatment risks offending a religion whose truths are deterministic and rooted in historical time (see here, Experiment 5).

The Catholic Tolkien and Anglican Lewis famously finessed this point by placing their tales, respectively, in a world of virtuous pagans, and a world where Christ was represented in a plain allegory. But presenting an alternate monotheistic Church was not a path easily followed as TSR got bigger and more accountable. The typical North American paralytic reaction then set in, as seen elsewhere when handling issues of sexuality and race: better to burn out and bowdlerize, than to discuss, risking offense and dissension. The "cleric" took on a life of its own as an ahistorical pagan-Christian hybrid who wasn't sacrificing animals and casting auguries so much as healing, healing, turning and healing, all in the name of, uh, Odin or someone like that.

With freedom restored through the return of powers to the gamer, I see no reason to observe the taboo any longer. A monotheistic world has certain advantages. The cleric class gets a lot simpler - no more domain spells, or god-weapon lists. Clerics stick together rather than worrying about whether they should fight each other. The competing concerns of Church and State, moral and temporal, add variety to power struggles without the need to factor in 18 Churches.

Working in folk beliefs that take the Church "halfway to paganism" in some places also add variety, and a further moral question of toleration versus orthodoxy. In fact, I'll be showing off some of the folk-saints of Mittellus in the next series of posts, who are very much inspired by popular beliefs in Europe that represent a syncretism of ancient gods and Christian saints - Voudoun for white folks, if you will.

What's more, I think a fantasy-historical version of the Church can be presented without offending either believers or nonbelievers. The nature and origin of miracles, salvation, and reality can be debated in-world, without the GM needing to pronounce ex cathedra, and the historical Christian church offers enough examples from saints to simoniacs that both the good and the bad can be explored.

But, as with everything from rulings improvisation to in-game romance, this approach requires a knowledgeable GM with a mature and balanced attitude. And that's not something that can be easily extracted from a supplement.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Why's There A Dungeon Under Your City?

1. The city was flooded over 100 years ago. After the flood, the powers that be decided to raise the ground level 10-15 feet by importing massive amounts of earth. On top of the flood deposits, this buried - partially or completely - all the buildings in the flooded area. The underground rooms are the remains of completely buried buildings, cellars that once were ground floors, and tunnels that once were alleys and thoroughfares connecting them all. (Chattanooga, Tennessee)

2. The city is built on sandstone hills, with natural caverns underneath that were used for storage and cellars, and latter enlarged, connected, and linked with other chambers and complexes cut into the soft sedimentary rock. At one time or another the caverns have housed inns, taverns, breweries, bowling alleys, industrial shops, and sewage disposal. (Nottingham, England)

3. The city prospered at an amazing rate, but was hampered by natural barriers - rivers, gorges, steep rock faces. A bridge built across one of the dry gorges proved more popular as a place to settle under than to cross, owing to a superstitious incident that cursed the span in the eyes of the cityfolk.The bridge arches were walled and floored, and a series of vaults created, which held masses of the dregs of society living in appalling conditions. The vault-dungeon today is inhabited by a few degenerate hold-outs, the ghosts of murdered people, and whatever it was that caused the exodus of squatters some twenty years ago ... (Edinburgh, Scotland)

4. Followers of a persecuted religion needed a place to bury their dead. In the outskirts of the city, they tunnelled into deposits of soft tufa stone. A refuge in times of danger, these catacombs also housed rich treasures of devotional objects and grave goods. (Rome, Italy)

5. In the busy and disreputable seaport, captains who needed sailors could turn to gangs of waylayers, who used elaborate ruses and trapdoors to abduct able-bodied men. A network of tunnels, chambers and holding cells supported all kinds of kidnapping, forced prostitution and slavery. When contraband substances came to the city, the tunnels were not just the means of smuggling, but housed sordid vice dens where anything could be had ... for a price. (Portland, Oregon)

6. As the city grew, the stench grew intolerable until the king ordered a sewer to be dug. Later monarchs hired more and more sophisticated architects until the sewer network branched all over the city, on many levels, and with some tunnels big enough to drive a cart through. "Crime, intelligence, social protest, liberty of conscience, thought, theft, all that human laws pursue or have pursued, have hidden in this hole..." Yes, and rats. (Paris, France)

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Castle Is Open

This evening's session found the players cleaning the last few scrub polyp-monsters from the millhouse cellars and getting into a long, involved episode of dealing with the potentially toxic smoke from a disturbingly human-like mushroom they had shot in its little wrinkly face and set on fire.

They then headed into the other direction from Trossley, eastwards to investigate the loud noise from a couple of nights ago, and found that the Castle of the Mad Archmage had reappeared.

Carefully skirting the bastion from which the raucous sounds of suspected bandits wafted, our intrepid adventurers circumambulated nearly the whole dimensions of the pile. (When I roll for wandering monsters, a 2 rather than 1 on d6 indicates the sound, track, smell, or other clue to the monster, rather than the monster itself. Adds drama ... and lets the party go pick or avoid a fight if they want to.)

They next entered the one clear gate into the walls, at the low end of the huge slanting limestone rock hill whose surface the castle walls entirely bound. Passing through the gatehouse tower, they were attacked by a large black-widow spider as it rappeled down on its thread from the upper storey. After some confused misses on both sides, Grumpka the dwarf clove it asunder with her axe.

As the sun was getting low in the sky, it was decided to head back and head out the next day. Funny how Motley Tom chose to pitch his tent selling magic wares near the boarded-up east gate of the town ... almost as if he knew something about the coming increased popularity of that direction. And now Clem, the youngest son of the ten-foot pole magnate, is getting back into the game ...

So! It begins. I've added a castle "upper works" to the Cellars of the Castle Ruins that I was running this summer. The spider is an homage to the first encounter from Grendelwulf's very recently divulged sketch of Gygax's original first level to Castle Greyhawk, which I highly recommend as a historical document and a great example of Old School principles - seriously out of level monsters, groups of dwarves and elves to bargain with, trick rooms and secret doors a-plenty. Hey, if I'd had that to work from, maybe I wouldn't have written my own first level for the old Castle. But I'm happy with my own work and eager to get some use out of it.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Ephemera's Report

[This account of last week's game is penned by my wife, also known as the magic-user Ephemera. Notes from me, as GM, are in brackets.]

As every student of the arcane knows, there is a time for all things.. a time to press the attack, and a time to regroup.  The adventuring band retired to Trossley, rested a night but soon stepped up to fight once again - the horrifying not-plant, not-animal creature glimpsed beneath the millhouse was still at large. 

Fortified by a few supplies and stalwart city guards, mostly healed, but once again recklessly advancing with their divine spells expended, the party returned to the mill.  (Minus the faithless oathbreaker Lessig the Elf, who left in the night taking Ephemera's generous pay advance with him. [1])  They brought the  "lump monster" to bay and dispatched it along with a few other similarly slimy denizens; the group left full exploration of the tunnels for another day.

The party and allies took heart from this success, but all was not yet set to rights. The foul millstones remained.  After Ric son of Nic had been executed by the townspeople in the earlier incident, Trossley went to considerable effort to remove and bury the stones.. but a short while later, they had vanished from the burial site leaving only an empty hole. 

Next order of business:  resupply and continued investigation.  The party set out for the nearby city of Utherton, a very different community from Trossley - as evinced by its 3cp entry toll and thriving commerce.  The party visited Utherton's famous Street of Ranged Weapons, adding Cordoon's brother Callow to their ranks as a henchman.

Utherton's religious authorities also differed sharply from the down-home priest of Trossley.  Despite the urgency of the stones' sorcerous threat, little succor came from an interview with the sub-sub-hierarch of the Church. After some remonstration, he spoke of inquisitors of St. Damien [2] to arrive in Trossley in a matter of weeks.  The party also consulted Ephemera's arcane mentor Joia, who gave some hope of a means to investigate the party's possibly evil, possibly magical loot.  She also shared knowledge of the Dark Mother, a dark, sorcerous, chthonic being invoked by the spectacled sorcerer in his last fight and revered by earthly evildoers.

Finally, returning to Trossley the adventurers fell in with a strange traveling vendor of exotic magical wares - Motley Tom by name, looking to purvey his expensive goods in the village, little realizing how far the adventuring spirit had fallen off in recent years.  And back at the inn Lessig had returned his pay with a note of apology.. apparently his oath of loyalty sworn before St. Hermas was more than empty words in the Saint's eyes...

[1] I judged her generous offer of two weeks' pay in advance would incur a loyalty check; hirelings must be kept content but hungry .... Even with the bonuses from the Oath of St. Hermas, not much you can do against boxcars. The loyalty, reaction and morale rules are definitely earning their keep in this game.

[2] St. Damien is the patron of a secretive and itinerant group of Church exorcists, dispatched to purify people, places and things from unholy influence. Trained in White and Gray magics, they gain access to all spells of dispelling at one spell level lower. They wear black soutanes and skullcaps, and are well equipped with blessed waters, crosses, weapons and parchments. Due to their infrequent appearance and grim legendry, they are held in awe and trembling by most common folk.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Mapping Woes: Any Ideas?

My output of rules and game theory ideas has been slowing down as real life increases its demands, and Actual Play (TM) also puts requirements on my time. The hope is that the experience proves a testing ground for the theory, anyway.

One pragmatic problem that's come up is what to use for dungeon and campaign mapping - with the aim of producing not just something useable, but something that can be shared and shown out with a fair amount of pride. My original maps for the Cellars of the Castle Ruins, which I was running over the summer, were done using the freeware program AutoRealm. However, while richly supplied with graphic elements like stairs, rubble, jagged lines, and doors, AutoRealm consistently showed problems with maintaining line thickness at various resolutions. Perhaps combined with this, snapping to the graph paper grid was often a little bit off, and the map's shapes would shift around no matter how much I fiddled with it. The upshot of all this was that AR wouldn't produce a production-ready graphic that I was happy with, though the rough and ready map was fine for running sessions from.

For the Trossley campaign I experimented with mapping a few key sites in PowerPoint. Although it's a fairly good object-oriented program that allows a grid and approximation to graph paper, it's harder to get one's hands on the requisite shapes for mapping. I may have to hack together some stair, door and window icons for cutting and pasting. All the same, I'm confident that Powerpoint will serve my needs in the short term, even though the maps do look a little pedestrian.

What's the consensus out there - do I really need to put down cash for Campaign Cartographer or the like to get decent looking dungeon maps? Note that tile-based programs are right out for my rather geometrically convoluted architectures, though my modest need for outdoor mapping so far is handled decently by Hexographer.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

HeroQuest: Tactics and Tactiles

I played this for the first time the other night as part of our local pub boardgames night, taking the part of a dwarf in a full party through the first two scenarios. Pretty neat, very simple dungeon crawling missions from 1989 Milton Bradley with help from Games Workshop - the involvement of the hardcore hobby gaming pros definitely shows.

I think when it was released I ignored it pretty much as a "kids' game," and it certainly is that, but it teaches fun lessons. Initiative is achieved by running right at things and whacking them. The dungeon furniture is cool, though disappointingly generic in game effects. The miniatures are really well sculpted and could form a starter set for a beginning DM in a more serious game. Although the game is cooperative in theory (4 players against a game master), the lure of treasure is strong and there's room for some sharp elbows, blocking off doors to rich chambers, and the like. And eventually, in a streamlined way, the rules cover such complexities of dungeoneering as secret doors, traps, hidden treasure, wandering monsters, spells and saving throws. There's something to be said for a character sheet that only has 2 numbers on it ...

All the same, the replay value doesn't seem long on a game like this; a few more characters could have helped things out some, or some way for characters to advance beyond just accumulating more gear and loot. There were a whole bunch of expansions, too, and I suppose the basic game did its part of getting a generation of kids interested in pushing miniatures around a dungeon.

As Grognardia is talking about entry-level games, I think one plus of HeroQuest is its very tactile nature, coupled with simplicity (a lesson Fantasy Flight need to learn) and completeness of play out of the box. The need for miniatures and tactical displays certainly show that the core D&D brand has staked itself on the tactile experience as a point of sale against the computer game juggernaut.

Will that ultimately mean longer legs than the truly interactive, social and creative experience that's offered as a counterpoint to computer games by the old-school revival? Perhaps, but I know which one is more important in my games.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Crits and Fumbles

This is the the table - short, impressionistic and easy to remember - that I use for critical hits and fumbles.

I'm definitely of the "low impact" school of special combat effects. Not so much getting your eye poked out (that's a result for below 0 hit points - another table to work up) or maiming your buddy with a wild swing, but just minor effects that add flavor to the flow of a combat.

When someone rolls a natural 20 to hit in my game, I use the table to help decide what happens. The victim of the hit chooses whether to take maximum damage from the hit, or to roll the damage normally and suffer a random mishap from the table. If the mishap doesn't apply - for example, nothing is carried in a particular hand, or a creature doesn't have a head - then maximum damage has to happen.

As fumbles, the mishaps can also occur on a natural to hit roll 1, for the character who rolled it, but in that case there is no consequence if a particular mishap doesn't apply.

Click to see all
I will sometimes allow a save to avoid the effects, if conditions are particularly good to avoid them. For example, if wearing a helmet, you can make a Body save (with a constitution-based bonus) to avoid being stunned for 1 round; if not, the save avoids being stunned for 2 rounds instead of 1. If solidly positioned on good dry footing, you can make a Speed save (with dexterity-based bonus) to avoid falling. If your held item is a greatsword and the opponent's is a dagger, that's also Body to avoid dropping it. "Repositioning" covers things like charging past an opponent, or them slipping around your back.

Right now, breakage tests are ruled according to common sense, but I'm working on a system to handle quick and easy non-living object damage. That and the "death and dismemberment" table I want to use are both coming up.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Mythos Kids

Kids draw the cutest shoggoths - when egged on by David Milano.

(Note: There are some who take the Cthulhu Mythos highly seriously and recoil at the numerous attempts to make it comically cute and familiar. I'm not one of those. I'd rather people get upset about how Gojira did a face turn from terrifying apocalyptic Hiroshima allegory to campy rubber-suit monster fighting giant frankensteins.)

The Millhouse Burns

Tonight was the climax of the Millhouse Saga. Rushing to the porch of the white house, the adventurers found flames all around, the guardsman they'd posted there beating out his burning clothing (miraculously, he survived), and the Orange Goblin and a hooded figure high-tailing it out of the compound - the Goblin weighed down by a medium-sized chest he was toting on his crooked back.

The party at first decided to let them go, but after extinguishing the flames and fending off the ivy tendrils that still danced to the arrhythmic grinding of the millstones, decided to give chase. Doing a foot chase betwen two parties of equal speed is a tough job. I ended up rolling DEX checks for the fastest runner, the NPC woodsman Burnsteen, being helmed by the player of the militant who got KO'd and ear-gouged by the Orange Goblin, and giving him an extra d6 roll against his wilderness skill - each passed check meant a 10 foot gain. Meanwhile the other two were rolling DEX as well. After some six rounds of this I also started rolling STR checks for stamina. It was fun, especially when the hooded figure turned around to cast Gust of Wind and Force Shield spells to try to confound pursuit, but it was all ultimately preordained as the law of large numbers caught up to the villains.

(If anyone has a better or more conclusive chase procedure than the one I winged up please let me know!)

The sorcerer threw back his hood and sneered defiantly - it was the spectacled figure who'd instigated the whole bone meal plot. The Goblin, who'd dropped the chest a long time ago, turned to fight as well. After a short combat with better party rolling than the previous two debacles, it was all over for the bad guys. A search of the sorcerer revealed some jewelry, a dagger of virtuous steel, and a fearsome black book. The dropped chest was looted of coins, and it was back to the millhouse to try and stop the grinding stones.

The door to the millstone room was open, and a horrific sight within - the rotating stones engraved with silver-chased runes of ominous portent, and smeared with a foul-smelling slurry of blood, bone fragments and chunks. Fortunately, Grumpka the dwarf did extremely well figuring out the mechanism, and a well-placed spear shut down the grinding. A hole in the wooden floor revealed a cellar with something amorphous, neither plant nor animal, covered with tentacles, mouths and eyes; it scuttled away from the torchlight and nobody seemed up for descending. In the next room over was a pillar-like statue of a dense and unfamiliar black wood carved with sinister braids and half-tortured, half-laughing faces, next to a strangely hypnotic rug. Searching the other buildings revealed various mundane treasures, and a rotten top floor that sent Grumpka plunging to land among (luckily, not on) the wounded in the room below.

It was then decided to stop messing around, and gather kindling for a torching of the accursed millhouse, pyre also for the bodies of sorcerer and goblins. In trying to appropriate a barrel for fire control, Grumpka (like everyone else, down to a last few HP) and the captain of the guard came face to, um, eye with a barrel beast courtesy of my Varlets & Vermin selection. Fortunately, the thing was quickly enough put down and the house burned down to blackened timbers in hours. With a mighty crash the demonic millstones fell into the cellar - but ominously, the pillar still stood, unharmed by the fire.

This was the first really successful session, with nobody KO'd, foes defeated, and a decent if not spectacular haul of treasure. Party members are at about 500 xp - we'll have to see if I stick to 2000 as a level-up figure or show some mercy. They could really use the insurance of another hit die ... but good things don't come easy!

Also, props to my wife for surprising me with a custom Roles, Rules & Rolls DM screen for my upcoming birthday! Photos soon.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Mittellus: Religion

Some notes on the religious history of the world, Mittellus, that houses the Trossley campaign.

The Old Way has always been the way of man: gods that were their domains, harvest and springing stag, rills and mountain peaks, served by shamans, Druach votaries, goat-leapers and wind-witches. Cut down time and again by the empires of men, the ancient rites find accommodation, and spring back when empires fall. But this time, they have competition: the Church.

In the dark years after the breaking of the Millennial Empire, it was commanded that three prophets receive the Revelation that there is but one God: Odaus, the sage of the East; Invictus, the young soldier of the West; and Amalthea, aristocrat of the ravaged Millennial homelands. Spreading the word and the blessings of holy miracles, the three found each other within a decade, and the Church was formed. Then, on a mission to convert a King of the North, Odaus betrayed the Lady Amalthea to the barbarians to save his own skin, a despicable act for which his followers in the East blamed Invictus. So was born the schism of the churches, West against East, with Amalthea as martyr.

Folk-saints Phoebe and Mitras counsel King Thonar

It has been five hundred years since then. Kings and pontifices of the West have waged near-constant war, against priest-emperors of the East and eruptions of barbarians and worse from the edges of the world. Trossley sits in a landlocked area of the Northern Continent Alatoria, within the sphere of the Western Church, but here the reach of the Sacred Seat is tenuous. Mitras, Hermas, Froellia, Uncumber, Eracle and other folk-saints are much honored hereabouts. Priests are trained and knowledge concentrated in fortified phalansteries, and it seems every town of some standing is trying to build a church to rival its neighbors.

Enemies of the Church are many. The benighted Eastern followers of Odaus, even more infuriating for their claim to the true Revelation; the Anti-God or Devil known from the Revelation, a subtle fellow with many secret worshippers and guises; the Powers of Beyond, demons of utmost Chaos who enter the world through the gates of human desire; and those who cling to the Old Way, although these are the least of the Church's worries and are even somewhat tolerated in the Alatorian hinterland.

Silvanian mendicant friars
Against these stand the Church hierarchy and the holy Orders. The unforgiving black-robed followers of St. Hieracon are charged with maintaining doctrinal purity and order among the Church and her faithful. The brown-robed hermits and peaceful wanderers of St. Silvain are popular with the common folk but suspected to be soft on the Old Way. The main Militant orders are three: the Order of Valentia, the Order of the Tower, and the wandering Peregrines. Holy Sequina, the Divine Wisdom, shelters mystics and intellectuals alike in her white-robed Order.

Raise, then, the equal-armed Cross and let the banners of the Church advance! But make sure that the Cross you raise has the horizontal bar over the vertical - the Western church's Hilt of Invictus - and not the vertical over the horizontal - sign of the Devil's own heresy, the Staff of Odaus, sacred to the Anti-Church of the East.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Encounter Reaction/Morale Table

Monsters (including NPCs) without a scenario-specified reaction, and with at least animal intelligence, may react at random, according to their Hostility Rating (from 2-12, average 7) and Morale Rating (also 2-12, average 7). Hostility is their likelihood of a hostile reaction to a group of humans and demi-humans. Morale is their will to assert themselves when confronted with a group of roughly equal strength.

Examples: Kobolds have Hostility 8 and Morale 6. Hobgoblins have Hostility 9 and Morale 8. Dwarves found in the dungeon may have Hostility 5 and Morale 8. A hungry wolf may have Hostility 7 and Morale 9. A hill giant will likely have Hostility 8 and Morale 6 (he is big, yes, but he is a coward when dealing with things his own size).

The DM can simply roll 2d6 twice on an initial encounter, where a result equal to or lower than Hostility indicates a hostile reaction, and a result equal to or lower than Morale indicates self-assertion (attack or bargaining) rather than retreat. Or the more complicated table and procedure below can be used.

Click to enlarge

Attack: Monsters advance and attack the party
Stand: Monsters hold ground, fight if attacked
Retreat: Monsters make orderly withdrawal
Flee: Monsters run away headlong

In quotes: “Result only if party and monsters can communicate”

“Offer Service”: Monsters offer to help the party or fight with them a short while
“Offer Peace”: Monsters offer a longer-term truce
“Offer Alliance”:  Monsters propose an alliance to achieve a mutual goal
“Ask for Service”: Monsters demand the party assist them, will turn neutral if refused
“Ask for Peace”: Monsters demand a truce and will impose other conditions
“Beg”: Monsters grovel and will offer all they have to escape attack
“Bargain”: Monsters parley, but will pay a high price to escape attack
“Parley”: Monsters negotiate a mutually acceptable truce
“Intimidate”: Monsters negotiate but will expect payment or other advantage
“Command”: Monsters demand a payment, bribe, or other service in exchange for truce

In square brackets: [Result only if monsters are cornered or outrun]

Surrender: Monsters throw down arms and beg for mercy
Berserk: Monsters fight without mercy in a last-ditch stand
Fight: Monsters fight, subject to morale checks

In angle brackets: Result only if party flees or retreats

Stay: Monsters do not chase
Pursue: Monsters give chase
No Quarter: Monsters will not accept party surrender, fighting to the death

Monster Hostility Roll (2d6):
-3 to roll if poorly disposed (evil monsters on raid, party invades monsters’ home or attacks them by surprise);
+0 normally (monsters on patrol);
+3 to roll if well disposed (allies meeting in a war)

Once established, a hostility result usually stands, unless the party does something to test or radically improve relations (offering a large bribe, demanding a large favour) which may force a re-roll. Situational bonuses can range up to +/-2: for example, offering food to a hungry animal might give a +2, while an encounter between uneasy allies such as dwarves and elves might give -1. Charisma bonuses to hostility rating only apply to beings of similar species (humans, demi-humans, and creatures with human-like motives) and compatible alignment.

Deception: Creatures of low intelligence or higher who can parley or otherwise represent themselves as friendly will attempt to deceive the party upon a Hostile or Mortal Foe result of 1 in 6 times; average intelligence, 2 in 6; higher intelligence, 3 in 6. Roll a separate d6 for this.

Monster Morale Roll (2d6):
-3 if monsters think they are outclassed by 2:1 (effective hit dice vs. levels) or more;
+3 if monsters think they outclass party by 2:1 or more

Once morale is established, a group rerolls morale when 1/3 or more of its members are incapacitated; again at 2/3; when a leader falls; and when the situation changes dramatically (such as reinforcements arriving). An individual who has lost 50% or more hit points must also check morale. The subjective odds might change as well, and this is reflected in the number of dice rolled at any point. 

Situational bonuses can range up to +/-2: for example, a menacing attitude might give -1 to enemy morale (but -2 to reactions), while being outflanked from opposite sides might give -2. Charisma bonuses to morale only apply to beings of similar species (humans, demi-humans, and creatures with human-like motives) where the high Charisma figure is a leader of the others. Monsters may also have leaders who give morale bonuses but risk morale checks if they themselves fall.

Monsters of low intelligence figure subjective odds on pure numbers, also figuring in size and perhaps counting particularly well-armed individuals as double. Monsters of average intelligence have a more sophisticated idea of approximate levels and fighting capacity, while monsters of high intelligence are able to spot subtleties such as the existence of a magic-user.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Fatal Hatchet of the Orange Goblin

The Trossley adventurers healed and rested overnight. Going down to the common room of the Duck and Whistle, they found the Mayor, captain of the guard, and the village priest in conference with Burnsteen the Warden of the Wood, who had converted an inn table into a tactical display with the aid of crumbs and straw. The plan was for an assault on the cursed millhouse to begin immediately - the captain and four men taking the expected route by the road to the north of the mill, while Burnsteen and the adventurers carried out the "renowned Wood Warden flanking maneuver", crossing the river south of the mill.

Before leaving town, the adventurers - including the wounded henchman Cordoon, who had refused healing from the village priest on account of his own pagan religion and the priest's insinuation that conversion might be the price of health - decided to stop briefly in to the Temple of St. Hermas and swear an adventuring oath on the vaunted altar there. Because of this show of piety, I was resolved to yield mercy in whatever mishaps might befall - this one time!

As they entered the woods, an unnatural stillness echoed in their ears. The birds were silent, and as they approached they felt a low unease that resolved itself into the hideous, otherworldly grinding of the mill stones! At that point Burnsteen loped through the woods, the party following behind. When they reached the lower part of the river, it was flowing more strongly - the water gate had been opened, apparently. They forded without incident and marched north through a forest where the new-sprouted leaves and buds were rustling and twitching, though no wind could be felt.

Eventually they reached sight of the southern white-painted house of the mill complex, part hidden behind some mounds of earth that had been there for some time. According to plans, they waited there until they heard yelling from the north over the maddening grinding of the wheels and the creaking of branches overhead. Then they advanced quickly past the house, with its wall on the left and a long and thorny hedge on their right. In the midst of this, the hedge lashed out at Burnsteen in the front with thorny tendrils, rolling a 1. How does a hedge fumble, you might ask? I was stumped, but my wife provided the answer - two tendrils had both reached for the woodsman and gotten tangled in each other. At the same time, a tree in the rear went for Lesseig, scratching the elf hireling slightly, and the party ran ahead madly, rounding a corner.

It was then that the keen-sensed Burnsteen saw the two goblins, one orange and one yellow. They had meant to rush out the front of the white house but were, shall we say, distracted by the thrashing vines of ivy that were lashing out from under the porch. Drawing a bead, the NPC woodsman hurled one of his signature throwing daggers, scoring a crit and catching the yellow goblin in the throat. (I'm ruling that crits either have a detrimental effect on their victim or score maximum damage, at the victim's choice usually; but since this was a surprise situation I gave Burnsteen the choice, and players voted to score damage.) Meanwhile, Boniface the militant, followed by the hireling Balm, rushed the porch, and the orange goblin fled within. As Boniface hacked at the ivy, Balm impetuously rushed into the house.

Now what? As my wife pointed out, the party faced a dilemma. They had just sworn an oath of mutual aid, henchmen and hirelings included, so they couldn't just leave the reckless Balm to face the house of horrors alone. Loyalty works both ways! But they were also on a military operation, and the sounds from the north were not encouraging, what with the captain yelling "Cowards!" and "Come back!" and loud, bestial growls from the same quarter. The fateful decision to split the party was made. Boniface would follow Balm, trailed by a hastily conjured unseen servant with orders to report back if any trouble arose. The rest would head north and reinforce the guardsmen.

Balm and Boniface followed the orange goblin to the kitchen of the house, whereupon, with bad luck "to hit" and exceptional damage from the goblin's hand axe, both of them fell at negative hit points. Meanwhile, the rest of the party ran into a wounded bugbear that was retreating, and wounded it some more; Ephemera the magic-user finally slept it after it swung at her and - very fortunately - rolled minimum damage.

At the unseen servant's bidding, the rest of the party rushed back to the house, to find Balm lying on the ground dazed, bleeding and with his helmet split in two, and Boniface with his ear cut off, unconscious, losing even more blood from a horrible jagged wound and in shock. (The result of rolls on trollsmyth's merciful Death and Dismemberment table and the good graces of St. Hermas and the dice. I may use a more lethal table next session.) The orange goblin was nowhere to be seen, having evidently thought better of administering the, um, coup de grace.

While the guards posted watch, the party searched the kitchen and dining room and found some quite modest treasures - a set of nice plates here, some rather unusual cooking ingredients there. And then, a tap on Ephemera's shoulder from the unseen servant who had been charged with patrolling the grounds ... a gurgling scream ... and the smell of smoke from the front of the house ...

A nice enough cliffhanger for the next session.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Morale and Reactions

What are the two things that are most important to know about a stranger? Or a group of strangers?

Social psychologists know. But so did the early authors of D&D.

The stereotype content model, elaborated by Susan Fiske and other social psychologists, describes how we organize beliefs about other people and social groups - traits and stereotypes. Over the past 20 years, dozens of studies have supported the idea that two key traits, warmth and competence, are major players in our attitudes and behaviors toward other groups.

Warmth is how cooperative the group appears to us. Competence is how strong - how able to do meaningful things - they look. So, jolly halflings might be seen as high in warmth but low in competence. Dour dwarves are the other way around, not very warm but very good at what they do. Kobolds, maybe, are low in both.

When two groups meet in an adventure, the rules of most early forms of D&D have them sizing up each other precisely on these two dimensions.

The reaction roll is the warmth check. That's fairly easy to see. Do they see you as cooperative and will they be likely to cooperate in turn?

But what about the competence check? Well, competence in the dungeon is largely a matter of fighting. If I see you as better at fighting than me, I might run if things seem hostile. If I see myself as better and I don't like you, I might attack. In other words - competence is morale.

Each early edition of D&D has its own way to handle morale checks, but in general morale is tested mainly after taking some amount of casualties in combat. This reflects the origins of the game in tabletop wargaming, where it was assumed that units started the battle with enough courage to approach each other.

And never mind courage. Even rationally, by Sun Tzu's time-tested maxim, an inferior force should not approach a superior. So, in the probing and testing before battle, if any, is joined - that is when the first morale check, off-table, should happen. (Coincidence that this fog of war is exactly the reason for the position of wargame referee, which evolves into Dungeon Master?)

This all suggests that the first encounter between two forces should include not just a reaction roll from the non-players, but a morale check, to see which side they esteem as the more powerful. This will determine, for example, whether their response upon a negative reaction (from either side) is to attack or retreat.

And on the other hand, because both rolls are on 2d6, I'm tempted to make the reaction roll a "reaction check" - with an unfriendly attitude if rolled over the creature's rating, and both of these checks having greater effects if made or failed by a certain margin.

Next post: The combined reaction/morale chart.

Friday, 5 November 2010

The Justice Beast

Yeah, I had to change the zorbo a lot for it to make any kind of sense.

Justice Beast

Hit Dice: 2 or more
Size: S (1-2 HD)/M (3-5 HD)/L (6 HD)
Move: 6
Armor Class: 5 (descending)/14 (ascending); Armor 0/Agility 2/Magic 2
Attacks: Bite 1 + 1d6/4 HD
Special abilities: Grows with enemies
Intelligence: Animal
Alignment: Lawful Neutral
Reaction: 8 (positive)
Morale: 9 (brave)
XP Basis: As Hit Dice when slain

The appearance of this creature? Variously claimed to be a small, fluffy bear-like thing; a white woodland rabbit; a curiously rounded and serene monkey. It is only allegory, of course, yet some insist that the Gods of Reciprocity gave this thing their powers and loosed it on the earth to teach men the consequences of their acts.

Assume for a moment it exists. Its placid demeanor turns to a growling when approached with the intent to capture or harm. Instantly the creature grows; starting from one hit die, it adds one hit die for each level or hit die of creatures within 60 feet who have hostile intent toward it. For every four hit dice it possesses, it rolls 1d6 for damage, adding to this total the 1 hp of its normal attack. Its vigorous defense will end only in its death, or in its shrinkage back to original form, as foes are laid low or routed off.

Flandys the sea captain, they say, once treated such a beast very well. After one short battle, the pirates of her particular coast knew to leave her well alone. In time she came to see the beast as very useful indeed; when it tried to wander off, she had it restrained. For the end of her own tale - used, betrayed and fettered in chains - only the Gods of Reciprocity are to blame.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The Next-to-Last Shall Be Worst

My vote for the worst monster in all of AD&D goes to the one they saved for next-to-last in Monster Manual II.

Somehow it survived into 2nd edition.
Let's see ...

Silly Monster Chassis. The Zorbo is a ferocious, flesh-eating .... koala bear. Now Aussies doubtless know that the koala is a nasty little nipper, but for the rest of us, it's not a creature that exudes any kind of menace. Not scary enough for weird fantasy, not medieval enough for medieval fantasy.

Stupid Ability.  The Zorbo's main ability is the ability to absorb the toughness of its surroundings. Yes, its AC and damage get better when it stands on stone, as opposed to say, earth or grass. This leads to the interesting tactical challenge of defeating it by convincing it to stand on a feather mattress. I'm not sure what is dumber, too: absorbing the hardness of stone without looking any different, or turning into a granite-skinned koala.

Player-Hating Ability. Another characteristic of many bad monsters is that they serve the whim of sadistic DMs with a tacked-on ability that screws players over. The zorbo is no different; his absorption extends to opponents and his touch, unoriginally, makes their armor dry up and blow away. For the rare zorbo who treads on soft earth by choice, doing this might actually improve his AC, but the real reason is to throw the exact same "gotcha!" at players who know to run from a rust monster.

None Of It Makes Sense. As far as unrelated concepts go, "a koala bear" and "absorption of Mohs Scale rating" are definitely in the big leagues of non-sequitur-dom.

Stupid Name. Top it all off with the name Zorbo. For lo, he is ab-Zorbent.

Not Even Flamboyantly Bad. Like great trash cinema, the flamboyantly bad monsters celebrated in fandom - the flumph, tirapheg, flail snail and so forth - earn their kudos by showing a crazy, unbounded creativity at the divergent step, setting up for a more spectactular failure at the "what does it all mean" convergent step. None of this applies to the zorbo.

So, little fella, are you worth improving? I'm not sure, but next post I'm going to try.