Thursday 31 March 2011

Keep That Rule Simple, Graphically

Well, I did up the rule from last post as a one page, semi-literate graphic that you can read from 5 feet away. This is a great exercise in cutting rules flab and bringing it closer to something that will work in a game, because after the rule survives the Procrustean treatment, you can either memorize it or quickly consult it.

In fact, the restaurant Heimlich-maneuver chart treatment is the new acid standard for rules I invent if they're to be used in actual play. Either I should be able make a graphic like this, or it involves rolling dice and looking that one dice roll up on a table. A lot of my rules in squidgy type have fallen by the wayside at the actual table.

Click to enlarge ... if you really need to.

Wednesday 30 March 2011

One-Roll Breakage Rules

It may be a while before I post the Dungeon.ppt you've been awaiting - there's the small matter of my 100,000 word manuscript I have to format and put in the mail by Thursday. It's not for gaming - it's a psychological monograph on moral emotions -  but I did slip the phrase "malevolent and benign" into one of the chapters...

In the meantime, a solution to something that's been bugging me a while...

What do you do when you roll a critical hit and weapons clash in combat? Or a fumble says to test for weapon breakage? Or one of your players is trying to hack a door with an axe?

Do you:
1: Pause the game, haul out the 1st Edition DMG and consult the item saving throw table?
2: Pause the game, haul out the 3rd Edition or Pathfinder book and use the even more complicated material damage system?
3: Remember 3-5-7-9-11?

When a swung weapon (not a spear, arrow etc.) might damage an item, and the weapon is made of material harder or as hard as the item, roll damage for the attacking weapon. I'm assuming you're using standard variable damage where a dagger is d4, longsword d8 and so on. Does it break the defending item?

If it's 3 or greater, a fragile item like a wand or a flask breaks.
If it's 5 or greater, a wooden haft, club or other thin wooden item breaks.
If it's 7 or greater, a shield or other solid wooden item breaks.
If it's 9 or greater, a sword, dagger blade, iron haft or other thin metal item breaks.
If it's 11 or greater, a metal shield or other solid metal item breaks.

Magical items defending against breakage have +1 to this number for every +1 of magic bonus.

A non-weapon surface that an object hits (say, in a fumble), if it's as hard as or harder than the weapon's weakest material, does:

1d4 damage if wood, 1d6 if reinforced wood, 1d8 if stone, 1d10 if metal - in ascending order of hardness.

In such a fumble, an edged weapon that doesn't break or take any damage is still blunted and has -1 to hit until sharpened.

Hacking at a solid item like a door proceeds the same way, except no hit roll is needed. An axe or pick is the ideal tool; anything else that can be swung is -1 damage for this purpose. Each hacker gets one damage roll per round, and the minimum damage roll to score a "breakage" is 7 (solid wood).

An object will take 2 "breaks" to fully break through a 1' square area that is 1 inch thick. So, to take a typical door off its hinges will require 4 breaks, more if thicker; to open a locked chest will require 2 breaks. If in this process a natural 1 for damage is rolled, the weapon takes damage instead, as in a fumble (see above).

So - hack away!

Sunday 27 March 2011

Draft Dungeon.ppt Slide

So, here is what I am thinking of releasing. Click to see it at full resolution:

Naturally, this is a Powerpoint slide, so the released document will have each object as a separate thing you can copy and paste into your own documents. I'll also include a second slide with some tips on how to work with Powerpoint, which makes decent maps but has its quirks. The reason I use it is because:
  • it came bundled with Windows; 
  • AutoRealm kept having issues with line thickness and feature alignment and is no longer supported as far as I can tell;
  • I work best with object-oriented stuff; like to revise and switch things around;
  • and anything else is either tile-based or costs beaucoup money.
The graph paper is currently an overlay made of lines that conforms to the .5 cm grid I'm using, but I'm thinking of including a persistent, tiled graph paper fill pattern for objects instead.

Anything you'd like to see, or find useful, that I missed here?

Saturday 26 March 2011

What do we want in a map? 3: DM Attention Markers

An adventure map can approach a high level of detail, offering an aerial view of every bed, box, barrel and biscuit in every area. This is obviously important if you're playing 21st century D&D, with its need to regulate everything in every 5 foot square that could affect combat.

Old school module maps, though, impress with their sparse design. Apart from the keyed columns, statues, doors and stairs, and maybe some important features like pools or lava flows, the rooms of old TSR modules for the most part look empty. If it's really important to know where the chest or the painting is, you might get a letter or a symbol somewhere.

Was this just lack of artistic talent or patience? Maybe, but I also wonder if the stripped-down maps might be a security through obscurity practice. Just as the original TSR module endpage maps were printed in their memorable light blue to foil photocopying, perhaps they were also sparsely detailed to foil peeking players, or to protect against a Wikileaks-level structural failure of the DM screen. You can see where the door goes from room 26, but not what's in there; that secret is in the close-set pages of the adventure key.

I also don't think it's that important to have what's in the room drawn on the map, unless you can make it all artistic and right purty. Unless you've got the dungeon all on one page, you're going to want to open your notes up to room 26 anyway when the players break through the door. And working from the notes, you can improvise more definite locations for things if you need to, or follow simple instructions in the key like "Chest against North wall."

But what I do need to know, when I look at the map, is what's in each of the four areas that 26 connects to. If there's a loud water-driven mechanism behind the door in 27, I want to be able to describe its muffled clunkings to players who've just busted into 26. If there's a rancid smell down the 30' hall to 29, that too. And most importantly, I want to be aware if there's a monster in 25 or 28 who'll wake up and join the party if they start trying to hack through that chest with axes and sledgehammers.

Most importantly, I want to know all those things about neighboring rooms without having to write them obsessively into the key for every adjacent room.

And so ...

Color is optional, but I think helpful. Anyway, these are the kinds of thing I always forget about in the adjacent room until they're halfway done exploring it. Then I have to tell my Plato's cave spelunkers "Oh yeah, if you look through that archway it goes 20' and then there's a flickering red light and smell of roasting flesh."

Hope these will help me remember all that when they first crash in ...

Dungeon Stairs ... Better?

Ahem ... OK, I've come up with some new stair designs that won't bite. Now I need to know if they don't bite.

Insight #1 was realizing that stairs are a lot more useful if they have a label showing what off-map area they lead to. In that case whether they lead up or down will be self-evident.

Insight #2 was that old-school 1e DMG style stairs are not ambiguous when they disappear into black map rock. So a way to show their third dimension when they're in the middle of a floor would use a black outline, thicker at the "disappearing" point off-map.

So, the stair on the right starts at the bottom and goes up toward the top, and leads to area 31 on the first dungeon level. The one in the middle starts at the top and goes down, of course, but the label also tells you where. The one on the right is the plain style for a same-level stair that might, for example, take you up to a dais. It always tapers, to show the up and down directions.

As for the spirals, the most useful thing about them, I realized, was the "landing" showing where you could get on the stair from the floor being mapped. So I cut a pie wedge out of the traditional icon ...

The one on top spirals up and down, while the lower left one leads up and the lower right one leads down. The arrow always points gravity-ward, a convention from my slope arrows.

Further suggestions?

Thursday 24 March 2011

Map Symbol Monster: Juggernautiloid

I'm thinking over all your staircase solutions in the comments from last time. In the meanwhile ...

Hit Dice: 11+11  AC: 0  Damage: 6d6 (crush), or 3d6 (bite & swallow).
Move: Special (see below). Intelligence: Animal

Found in long, straight, flat underground corridors, this perilous dungeon beast occasionally escapes above ground, where it survives best on salt flats and desert plains. Shaped like a rolling cylindrical wheel, the juggernautiloid stands some 8 feet high and 8 feet wide. From the side, it appears to be made up of overlapping segments, like a nautilus shell, except the segments are articulated; one pair can open up to reveal a mouth full of sharp, siliceous teeth. The beast itself has a hard, rocky carapace, and independently rotating eyes on each side of its body.

Sight, though, is not its best sense. Its powerful echolocation can detect intruders at a distance of over a mile in a tunnel, or 500 feet in open air. When it senses prey far away, it starts to flex its segments, beginning a slow, rolling acceleration; the first round at 30', the second at 60', and so on to a maximum speed of 180'. It prefers 10' corridors that it nearly fills, so that prey cannot escape. It can also brake at 60' per round. In spite of this, if the creature hits a wall it takes damage equal to 1d6 per 30' of speed it was going at.

The roller's attack normally just crushes prey, to whom it returns at leisure to scrape up with its bottom jaw. But a "to hit" roll on a multiple of 5 instead involves being hit by the mouth segment and swallowed whole. From inside, a being armed with a sharp weapon can attack the juggernautiloid, whose guts have AC6. But attacks take -1 to hit per round inside, while gastric juices do 2d6 damage a round with no save.

The juggernautiloid was reputedly created by a wizard seeking to raise awareness about mental illness. Tall tales circulate among deep dungeon explorers: if trapped in an area without long passages, the juggernautiloid will lie on its side under a shaft and seek to trap prey by extending its segments up, in mimicry of a spiral staircase. Experienced adventurers refer to long corridors prowled by these creatures as "roller derbies," and the flattened remains of crushed armor they leave behind are "roller coasters."

Wednesday 23 March 2011

What do we want in a map? 2: The Jagged Edge

The classic stair map icons, as shown in the 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide, were one kind for going down (here, shown on the left) and another for going up (on the right):

That's fine if the stairs run off into their own little passageway, as in these examples. It's clear that the one on the right is heading up from top to bottom, for example. But then you get the stairs in the middle of a room:

Which way are the stairs on the right going? You can't tell because the "up" symbol isn't directional. So let's just use the symbol where the lines get smaller in the "down" direction. That's what the latest edition of D&D suggests, and that's the symbol on the left.

Except now you have another problem. You can't tell whether the stairs are going down to your level, or going down off your level. It looks like all the standard stair mapping ideas have something ambiguous about them.

Enter my solution: the jagged edge of reality.

This edge - really, a bunch of triangles glued together - tells you which end of the stairs goes off the map, to the next level up (if the wide end) or down (if the narrow end). You can also use it when a passage goes off-map, connecting pages of a mega-dungeon, for example.

And spiral stairs. Well, those are their own special fun, because it also makes a difference which way they spiral. Do you come out at that square of floor, or this one? Yes, back to obsessing about handedness again.

Here's my solution. It has a kind of quirky charm, I think, even if it's maybe a little busy for the classic old school feel. The two jagged edges show you that it leads both up and down from this level. The narrow end shows that you keep the pillar on your right as you descend. That means any bat that flaps at you is going to hit your shield...

Well... I still don't know. It kind of looks like the result of a freak accident between Sputnik and Charlie Brown's sweater. Anyone have a better idea to show the verticality and handedness of a spiral stair?

Tuesday 22 March 2011

What do we want in a map? 1: The Elvis Door

I'm going to lead up to the release of my dungeon mapping Powerpoint resource with a few reflections on what I find useful in site maps. If you want to jump ahead and see the Dungeon.ppt protocol in action, check out my OPD entry "Egg of the Gazolba" which I've now linked in the download section.

The classic old school look to maps is a great starting point. Playing a low-rules, easy-improv game gets hamstrung by the requirement to have everything laid out in professionally produced battletiles. And yet there are a few improvements that I'd find real useful when looking at the map in actual play.

Improvement number one is showing which way hinges swing on doors.
Door fight ... roll init!

Huh? It's lost in the blogosphere now, but before I started my current campaign I saw someone's dungeon map that had that detail, and scoffed. How picayune can you get!

Then I got DMing. And my players wanted to know which way doors swung.

It's actually pretty important if you treat door opening as a major event fraught with danger ... as you should. Whether the door swings in or out will determine what method you use to open a difficult door: push or pry. This has real consequences if you're trying to combine many man-strengths into one, following my "feats of strength" method. It's easier to get multiple people to push than to operate a crowbar. Where's that ten-foot jimmy when you need it?

And then when you open the door, you're not just going to swing it all the way open. It creaks open ... you peep in and see ... which half of the room? And monsters could be lurking this side or that.

So okay, I could just wing it, say "right" or "left." Or roll d6, evens or odds. But it seems like the kind of persistent detail I really should have put down, graphically, on a map. Especially because it can make the difference between opening a tough door and having to hack it down.

It can even give some clues about the defensive architecture of the dungeon. Were the builders worried about invaders from the topside? Then the doors push in, as explorers progress, because the opening side is more easily barred. What if the doors have to be pulled open? Then the concern was more about barricading whatever could be rising up from some place in front of the party's line of march. Then again, if the door gives on a 10' x 10' broom closet (yep, I think an adult green dragon could fit in there), it's probably going to open out into the more spacious room or hallway.

Anyway, I modified the traditional door icon with a slanty-topped "Elvis hairdo" rectangle from the Powerpoint flowchart shapes set.* The slanty top would show how the door opens. And because that was kind of hard to see, I added a line across the shape, to make it clearer that the shape was a swinging triangle stacked on a traditional door icon. Results to the left. I'm not taking chances, anyway. My dungeon.ppt file also has some classic, flat-topped door icons, and I resort to those when I need a slab, sliding door, or other hingeless apparatus.

The Elvis door works fine on my maps, and keeps my players happy. But I have to know, is this the kind of thing you find useful?

*You know, a pompadoor.

Sunday 20 March 2011

The Egg is Laid (Nonviolently)

Instead of serializing the Egg of the Gazolba "nonviolent" adventure, I decided to do it all at one go and make it my entry for the One Page Dungeon Contest. The current draft can be seen here. Comments are welcome; I haven't officially submitted it yet, so still some room to tweak.

A few notes:

1. All the challenges were made using my tables (Bag of Problems and Bag of Tricks, see links to the right).

2. It's not that the players are sworn to nonviolence - of course if they are high enough level they can chop through the troll and ranger - but rather the looser definition of nonviolence, with nonviolent solutions predominant, and available for each problem.

3. I hear kids are a big part of why some people are interested in nonviolent adventures. For the youth run, give lots of hints, maybe a talking squirrel good for one solution. And of course you may want to replace the mildly adult, noir-ish twist ending with something more straight-up. For example:

Dividing this area from 10 is a vast canvas painted with cartoons of the very first Sultan... Exploring overseas, taking a living Gazolba bird as symbol of his reign, sailing away ... The Manalishi speaking with emissaries of the King of Birds ... Inspecting the canvas too long gives headaches and minor damage.

On the south side is a shrine to Truth, incense holder and blue flame. Light incense from area 7, and the Manalishi’s voice tells how keeping the Gazolba as the captive symbol of the kingdom is not right; the Sultan can very well wear a crown in the shape of a Gazolba. She can teleport them anywhere from here, back to the Sultan or to return the egg to the King of Birds .... What will they do?

Friday 18 March 2011

Comic Punks

Old-school gaming is not the only nostalgia of my generation, no sir. Andrew Weiss of the music/comics blog Armagideon Time has unleashed Comic Punx, dredging up those super-wack takes on the Punk movement to be found (mostly) in mainstream comics from the 80s.

I mean, some of these portrayals make that Quincy episode look like MRR.

And the funniest thing was that back in the day, the people with mohawks were not the ones to watch out for. They were usually "peace punks" or at the worst, self-destructives. All those 80's comics artists should have been drawing skinheads for their go-to street goons instead.

Monday 14 March 2011

Re=imagination: The Piercer

James M. of Grognardia has invited us this weekend to share our reimagining of a classic D&D monster.

I sat there stumped all weekend on how to contribute. I mean, the campaign I run doesn't really reimagine whole races. It's intentionally a classic, old school, Modern Medieval Fantasy, tribute to a homage to a blast from the past.

Now, individual members of those races, or oddball cultures, I love to get creative with. It's the method for making humanoids interesting that I put forth on the last pages of Varlets & Vermin.  It's what had me populate my players' current dungeon level with one tribe of kobolds more organized than the norm ... and one tribe of kobolds more aggressive than the norm ... among other even more intriguing differences.

Then I thought - why does it have to be an intelligent monster? Why not dig up an idea that I had around the time I was posting about rehabilitating the tirapheg?

And so, my shot at remaking one of the more unimpressive monsters of the Monster Manual.


The tome known as the Monster Manual comes from a time of little dungeoneering and spotty scholarship in the land of Mittellus. From its description, the piercer must have struck the first readers as slightly ludicrous. A monster that hides on the ceiling, which any explorer knows to inspect carefully? And after it drops, what does it do? Does it even have a mouth? Readers might be forgiven for thinking the piercer a tall tale, inspired perhaps by the well-known goblin death trap: a stalactite sawed almost all the way through and connected to a tripwire.

The truth about the piercer - Ferrivorus Pilitesta  - is much worse than that. This tenacious beast of the underworld is a relative of the rust monster and bulette. It indeed has a mouth, just under its pointed snout and tiny eyes. The mouth eats iron and stone, strengthening the carapace. The iron content in mammalian blood is particularly delicious to the piercer.

The piercer's vital statistics are those found in the Monster Manual, with a few significant exceptions. What the Manual left out is that the beast has two powerful legs and a pair of vestigial gripping arms, often missed because they can be tucked close to its conical, pointed-headed torso. Its feet can ascend and hang from sheer surfaces by a combination of suction and adhesion. In particular, its legs, though slow (30' move), can make a powerful leap, once per second, 20' each time. This allows it to jump horizontally and cause damage even after having dropped, if it even sees the need to drop at all.  In other words, a piercer is just as likely to masquerade as a stalagmite.

The weakness of the piercer is its propensity to become stuck in a victim. If a piercer strikes and does damage greater than half the victim's current hit points, it becomes embedded in the victim and takes a full combat round to free itself. Blows aimed at the embedded piercer, however, have a 25% chance to hit the victim if they miss.

Sunday 13 March 2011

Who's your Dungeon Rival?

Tomi Ungerer's "Les Trois Brigands"
To keep the pressure on players, it's a real good idea to have some competition for the spoils of your typical mega-dungeon. Of course, your standard NPC party will answer, but below are eight more unusual ideas.

1. Spyro and Ain, a desperate husband and wife evicted from their farm, carrying a baby (whom they will leave with someone trustworthy at the inn) and accompanied by their dog Ponto. Both are zero-level civilians, and they are carrying a spear, a shield, and an axe between them, equipment they say they found on a dead man by the side of the road.

2. Fazio, a low-level rogue, and the Five Fingers of Fazio, a collection of ex-stevedores, unemployed farmhands, and unclassifiable layabouts whom greed, and Fazio, have persuaded to go dungeon-bound. Fazio has a small sword and boot dagger, the Five Fingers have cudgels, one hatchet, one hammer, and a bill hook between them. Three of them have quilted armor, two have a shield. The whole plan is a swindle, and Fazio sees the Fingers as completely expendable. (Note: this may or may not be his actual motivation in the Trossley campaign).

3. Seven dwarf homesteaders and a wagon pulled by a mule, led by a matriarch with the unlikely name "Ivo Gnarledchasms the Sound of Lozenges." They are well armed and equipped, with axes, hammers, picks, mushroom spawn, casks of ale, and even an anvil. They intend to settle in the dungeon once cleared, and will camp outside in the meantime. They know the story of Snow White and take very poorly to attempts to exploit its comedic potential.

4. Elf and Safety Inspector. A mid-level cleric, one Sister Kunda, has become slightly deranged and is convinced that the dungeon is an unsafe working environment. She intends to rectify this by finding and disabling all traps, catching all monsters and releasing them in the wild, and incidentally carting out all the treasure she can find, because coins have sharp edges and someone might slip on them. Until her job is done she is very insistent that nobody else should go down into the dungeon. Her sidekick is a cynical female elf named Thyale, who helps the good Sister chiefly so she can claim in truth that now she's seen everything.

5. Bax is a mid-level hunter, or ranger if you will, from an aristocratic family. He has become fixated on finding and killing one particular monster deep in the dungeon. He would rather not have any distractions on shallower levels if he can help it and is always looking for news of a quick way down. His entourage includes Mahlathi, a tall, taciturn warrior from the southern continent, who knows no Common but whose language Bax knows; a pipe-smoking bard, Landreaux; four hired crossbowmen; and four baggage handlers.

6. Reckel is a dark, brooding half-orc warrior. His company is made up of shabby, disreputable humans - a spell-slinger, a scout, three rough-looking bandit women. Their intentions are sinister. Aided by his command of most of the major humanoid languages, Reckel has a messianic vision of uniting all the humanoid groups and patrols in the dungeon, marching forth and conquering the nearby area. Not all the humanoids in the dungeon go for his scheme, but he is very good at bargaining with them and they will likely let his team pass through safely.

7. Young Lord Borgis is a spoiled and dissolute nobleman's son from the nearest city. He is here to fulfill a bet, made while drunk, that he could spend a night in the dungeon and emerge alive. He has the best equipment that money can buy, and a grizzled, much-put-upon veteran bodyguard named Deague. But he has also brought along his two foolish friends, some female companions, and a mule loaded with wine and sherry, and he intends to make a joke and picnic of the whole affair. In the likely event that he is lost in the dungeon, his father will offer a large reward for the retrieval of his body and a larger reward if he is returned alive.

8. A standard adventuring party, with fighter, cleric, magic-user and thief. Except the fighter is a doppleganger, the cleric a penaggolan, the magic-user a rakshasa, and the thief a wererat. They met as part of a powerful arch-wizard's menagerie of shape-changers, and were subjected to unspeakable sorceries and humiliations. Escaping upon the wizard's demise, they swore to live as humans from now on, to see how truly human they could become. The rivalry with the players' party, though, makes for a sore temptation to exploit their special powers - one that each of them will have to face in his or her own way.


The first two of these rival bands have been met in the Trossley campaign. Last night, the party hacked down, with axes, the door to a trick room (not one of my finest) where any noise would disturb the teetering stacks of bronze pennies and send them swirling down into the depths. Then they came across a couple of Grinning Skull orcs from a lower level, also attracted by the noise, and killed one. There followed a tense fight with four wandering spiders, which left the hireling Balm comatose from poison but surviving his second saving throw and becoming a Level 1 fighter.

Near the end of the fight, when the players were starting to panic, a light from behind revealed the coming of Fazio and the Five Fingers! They rushed forward to help, and their contribution to the fight was minimal but gave a player morale boost when it was sorely needed. With healing spent and Balm near death, the party decided to leave the dungeon to Fazio and his Fingers.

And of course, I needed to know what happened to them. So I ran them through the dungeon, rolling decisions to go left or right as needed, also making checks against their morale and loyalty when needed. Indeed, that's how they got to the fight with the spiders in the first place. About the rest of their day, all I can say right now is - it's fun to be an adventurer as well as the DM ...

Thursday 10 March 2011

You know what's better than a hot elf chick?

(The player of a female dwarf in my Old School Players campaign insisted on the beard. Screw marketing ... keep gaming real ... Play Old School!)

Elf chick meme starts here.

Wednesday 9 March 2011

IF Theory Reader

The Interactive Fiction Theory Reader is available on Lulu. It's a very nice compilation of thoughts about interactive adventure design and atmosphere from the text-adventure game revival of the mid 90's. In it is my old (I guess by now "classic" essay on interactive fiction, Crimes Against Mimesis. It's too bad I didn't have time to update it for the book - for example, by adding in material from this series of posts. But there you go.

Speaking of time being short, my "day job" is throwing multiple deadlines at me right now, so posting is looking to be intermittent through the end of the month.

I tend to make 4 kinds of posts: "program" ones where I work my way through a series of essays or observations; "product" ones where I give you something I've been working on, like the current Gazolba adventure or the house rules; play reports (mainly to keep a record of what goes on in my campaign); and "impromptu" posts where I riff on something that's turned up elsewhere in the web. The impromptu ones are easiest to do, so expect more of those in the next few weeks. And it's interesting that one such post - Why's There a Dungeon Under Your City? - is my all-time most popular in terms of pageviews.

Sunday 6 March 2011

Trossley Campaign: Politics, Economics and ... Puppets?

After a long hiatus due to our travels and various other infirmities, the campaign got back rolling Friday evening. Reaction and morale rolls ensured that the remaining hostile kobolds of the Am'rash tribe would stand down for now, so the first half was spent cleaning up remaining pockets of resistance and engaging in humanoid politics. While Boniface the militant came away with a sword of virtuous steel formerly wielded by the Am'rash chieftain, the coin and other effects fell to the Yurog kobold allies. They had offered to "play a game" back at their lair to determine the division of these spoils, a generous offer the party unaccountably declined. Proceeding were interrupted as a group of five orcs chased a Yurog scout back up from a lower level (the result of a "does this cool thing happen" roll). After a joint show of strength, the orcs backed off, and with this increasing the pressure, the party decided to make their apologies, though with some grumbling from the Yurog.

Back in town, more politics ensued, the party being summoned to the Lord Mayor Felmere to give a briefing on the reappeared castle to the local Earl, Grangor of Pendry, and his daughter, the celebrated beauty Ellimer.  Both the Earl and the Mayor grew interested in any treasure flow from the castle. Grangor left with a poor impression of the Castle's worth - the coinless adventuring proving to be, perhaps, somewhat fortunate this time. Felmere, a former adventuring henchman, had other suspicions about the prosperity of the restocked dungeons. Spurred on by news of the arrival of another, somewhat raffish rival adventuring party in town (another "cool thing" roll) he floated a proposal for an adventurer-friendly "tax" on recovered treasure in the form of a compulsory payment toward the purchase of one of the town's abandoned properties.

The main play issue this session brings up is the difficulty I had in creating a conversation between NPCs with the party as audience. I felt like a puppetteer, switching voices not altogether successfully. Maybe some handy finger puppets - or at least miniatures for the figures involved that I could pick up and wave around - would help keep things straight as to who was talking. If that's not, you know, too weird.

I think most DMs try to avoid such NPC-on-NPC scenes for good reason, but the more intrigue one throws into the stew, the more they become inevitable. Any tips for handling them, of course, would be very welcome.

Saturday 5 March 2011

Egg of the Gazolba I

Finally making good on my promise last month, I'll be sharing a non-violent adventure idea over a series of posts, populating it using my problems generator and tricks generator. Note that violence is not necessary in the adventure, but can break out if the players mess up a couple of situations.

The recommended party level, too, is variable. Interestingly, it is not so much skills and character levels that would make the adventure too easy, but access to the kind of powerful non-combat spells that usually are turned down in favor of fireballs and the like. I would hazard the general observation, too, that this kind of magic is a major consideration in any adventure where tricks and problems predominate.

At the end I will produce a map, which will also be an opportunity to share with you another feature you've asked for - my adventure mapping system and the Powerpoint mapping symbols that go with it.

Introduction (and with apologies to Clark Ashton Smith)

The legitimacy of the Sultans of Janpore finds embodiment in the person of the Gazolba bird. About the size of a goose - in the same way a gazelle is about the size of a donkey - and plumed gorgeously in green, red, violet and white, the living Gazolba, only specimen of its kind, literally sits on the head of the true and rightful Sultan on occasions of state; a heavy, serene diadem.

When the Sultan sires male offspring, the Gazolba lays a single, parthenogenetic, opalescent egg. The clutch corresponding to the Sultan's sons lies in a heavily guarded nest in the Carnelian Palace. In the case of the present Sultan, Zadir III, there is only one egg, and the heir is six years old.Young Zadir IV knows that when his father dies, so will the present Gazolba, and a new Gazolba chick will hatch for his own crown.

All these peculiarities of the Sultanate are known to the party, who have been sojourning in Janpore a few days. In good time, a well-fed man, disguised in garb of a commoner's cut but far too well-maintained, seeks them out in their inn. He introduces himself as Arouf, the Sultan's vizier, and proposes a mission that only strangers to the city could undertake, for nobody would believe their story were they to tell it.

It seems that a secret calamity has befallen the palace. The egg of the Gazolba has been stolen - replaced by a painted duplicate. This was noticed by one Mambrun, a palace guard. Only he, Arouf, and Arouf's confidant, the female cleric Yeshaim, know of the theft, which would spell calamity when. It was she who cast the divination revealing that the egg was hidden in the abandoned pleasure tower of the long-departed Blue Witch Xadiva, which sits atop an unscaleable cliff, half a day's journey from the city. The only way in is through a number of caverns in the cliff's surface - but which cavern leads eventually to the tower is unclear. The way to the cliff, however, goes through the Sultan's private hunting forest, which is patrolled by a vindictive and implacable game warden, a half-elf named Vran who is a faultless tracker.

Arouf has arranged for a distraction tomorrow in another part of the forest which will occupy Vran, but otherwise cannot risk any involvement with the caper. The reward to the party for the safe return of the egg is at your discretion; gold, jewels, a ship, or more cruelly, immunity to prosecution on trumped-up charges concocted by Arouf himself. In parting, Arouf makes a cryptic comment about "tests, dangers, and oh yes, fabulous wealth" said still to reside within the pleasure tower.

Thursday 3 March 2011

Fantastic Torch

Amid this amusing series of Photoshopped ads for products only ever seen in movies, behold this dungeon delver staple:

by BRWombat

It's true, even Middle Ages movie torches always go up like they're soaked in gasoline; stay lit forever; are found in sconces without much thought as to who put them there or changes them every two hours or so; and aren't really necessary due to ambient illumination. Yes, the movies are one place where low-tech is better, as we find out further on down the list ...

by Corey Vaspasiano

Tuesday 1 March 2011

Pick Pockets

I'm not racist, but most of them are halflings
Another interesting Slate article reports the decline of the New York City pickpocket. Alas, no more need Mom and Dad instruct their kids to put their wallet in the front pocket. Apparently these darn urchins today with their Pokeymons and social networks have no gumption for learning a craft involving elaborate feats of misdirection and legerdemain.

Well - need it be said? Good riddance.

I was in Barcelona last summer during a wave of pickpocketing. Constant reminders on the subway, from hotel personnel, everywhere. Paranoia undercutting our enjoyment of one of Europe's most amazing cities. My wife had a compartment on her backpack (thankfully empty of anything valuable) opened by stealth. Not much desire there to applaud the exquisite art of the sneak thief.

You know, I also feel the same way about the "pickpocketing" skill in roleplaying games. Even when expanded to "sleight of hand" to allow minor conjuring tricks, it's a basically antisocial skill. It screams out "Hey! Thief! Go off and have a solo adventure!" While whispering "Psst! Thief! Care to try your skill on your fellow party members?" Note-passing campaigns with stealth player vs. player action may be fun to run online, but at a tabletop I see that kind of action as a pain (but see also JB's somewhat different take on the whole issue).

And yet ... if you have a character who is a thief, he or she just might have been trained in this very exacting skill. My solution is to treat it as part of the 1-3 background words a starting character gets in my Old School Players system; so if you choose "thief" you will get a minor chance to pickpocket, ruled on the spot, and if you choose "pickpocket" you'll be quite competent at it from the start. I don't want pickpocketing to be at the center of the campaign but it's fine as flavor. Maybe if the game revolved more about intrigue and capers things just might be different. But in my dungeon-bashing game, there ain't no need.