Monday 30 April 2012

The Die of Crazy Coincidence

Having praised the loose-ended approach to building a fictional story, I want to share a device I use in play to tie loose ends up. It is a six-sided Die of Crazy Coincidence. When I deem it possible that a crazy coincidence might happen I roll it, and the coincidence happens on a 6.

A couple of examples:
  • The party is headed out to the castle to fight some bandits. By crazy coincidence is their friend the ranger just coming back from his conclave in the woods and does he run into them and offer to join their righteous expedition? (He did, and this saved the party's bacon.)
  • Last week, the party was heading out of town on a caravan. I roll up some random characters along for the ride. One of them is a "Guard" and the other is an "Elf"? Is the elf the very same high-elf who had been pitching woo to one of the party members? (No.) Is the guard the very same fellow who went into the dungeon with the party, blackmailed them for a take of the treasure on account of their using illegal poison arrows, thought they were quits because he didn't testify against them in their trial, and is leaving town because his corrupt ways have come to light? (Yes - and in yesterday's session, a carousing episode in a far-away town gave him his comeuppance in a completely randomly determined yet amazingly elegant way.)
In literature, coincidence has had a long and controversial history. Aristotle thought it added greatly to  satisfaction with the story if, for example, you had a guy who murdered some dude being killed by the self-same dude's statue falling over. Early Western literary genres - romance, picaresque - thrived on scenes where characters thought left behind cropped up again, or new characters had some kind of connection with old ones. This technique was disparaged by 19th century realists and 20th century modernists, but made a comeback with postmodernism. Today's literary advice for amateurs generally warns away from coincidence, though if you read closely you'll see they take "coincidence" to mean an unexplained, deus ex machina appearance at the end - not the proper harvesting of a coincidence that is carefully developed earlier on in the story.

All this comes from my reading of an article by the literary scholar Hilary Dannenberg called A Poetics of Coincidence in Narrative Fiction (Poetics Today 25:3, Fall 2004, if you have university library access). Let's leave aside the theme of separated family members meeting by coincidence - which underpins a surprising number of classics from Oedipus Rex, to The Tempest, to Fielding's Tom Jones. A more general use of coincidence, corresponding to my use of dice, is to have characters meet again when the reader thinks they have separated from each other.

In general, Dannenberg says that such coincidences in literature demand an explanation by the author, who often complies. Sometimes coincidence is explained explicitly as a sign of the hand of Providence within the story. Other times it's done with a nod and a wink to literary contrivance; certainly it is more satisfying to pick up an old character where they left off and develop them further, than to start anew. But at still other times, particularly in realist novels, it's just explained as one of those chance meetings or an incredible happenstance. In effect, this last one is the explanation I give my players when I announce the chance for a coincidence and roll the die in plain view.

Now, if I was being a total realist about things, the coincidence die would only hit on a 1 in 100 chance or lower. Indeed, sometimes when something would be just too bizarre a coincidence, I roll 2 dice and require 2 sixes (in today's session, there were human heads on stakes by the side of the road - does anyone recognize them?) Yet even this 1 in 36 chance, or the 1 in 6 normal chance, is weighted heavily to let coincidences happen. And in this I recognize I'm telling a literary story, that sometimes could get some good mileage out of recycling and developing a character, but works best if it's seen as not completely stage-managed.

Saturday 28 April 2012

Final OPD Entry

Well, here is my final entry to this year's One Page Dungeon contest. I really want to thank all the commenters on the previous post who gave me useful tips to make it look and work a lot better.

More than just an entry, this represents an encounter system for wilderness adventures that goes somewhat beyond the traditional hexcrawl. In my pro copy of Hexographer I've been custom-installing all the special silhouette icons as I go along. It might be useful to release a copy of the customization file with all the silhouettes in it, but I'll have to work around some issues with the pathname references first, and make sure it includes a wider selection of Telecanter's and my silhouettes.

Friday 27 April 2012

Mad Men Story Lessons

My wife and I are currently deep into season 2 of Mad Men. Apart from its amazing period detail we're finding it to be a very deep and fascinating show. Nothing could be further from Dungeons and Dragons than Mad Men's Papers and Paychecks. And yet in commentary on a Mad Men blog I ran across an insight that made me feel tons better about the way I run my game.

They report an interview with series creator Matt Weiner where he says:

There’s a mystery being unraveled and pieces are not connected and sometimes they are. Some things go nowhere. If there wasn’t stuff that went nowhere, you wouldn’t be excited about the things that go somewhere. When you’re telling a story where you don’t want people to know the end it’s very important that you keep them on their toes.
Later on, one of the blog owners, Roberta Lipp, posts this comment:
This ain’t Harry Potter. Like Harry Potter (sorry, it’s all I had), everything is carefully planted. But unlike it, not everything is some seed for the future. And not knowing which is which does create incredible tension.
This removes my last possible regret about running a campaign where events get improvised week to week and sometimes at the actual table. Once a writer or DM gets serious about running a mature, multilayered game - call it the "Second Edition of the mind" - there is a temptation to take it too far in the scripted direction, and make everything have a point and a purpose. But then you get a life that looks like a story, rather than a story that more realistically is a thread running through life.

Here's how the mind works: it takes the chaos of right now and imposes order on it, connects the dots and tells a Rorschach story. The more things recede into the past, the more the story gets smoothed out. Dream researcher J. Allan Hobson found that people awoken in the middle of REM sleep, when they actually dream, give very incoherent reports. The smoother if still surreal stories we tell to psychiatrists and friends are the product of processing in non-REM sleep and waking life.

Although loose ends can get edited out of memory, their existence can also create suspense, as Weiner reveals. Working in the non-interactive form of TV, Weiner's loose ends can illustrate character points or something about the world. Our medium as gamemasters, though, requires players' active collaboration.

So, maybe we can say that a gaming session becomes relevant to the larger picture the more it holds opportunities for the players to define their characters and to find out about the world. All that's needed are a few overarching structures - the kind provided by the Law vs. Chaos conflict, for example - that doom-laden events and prophecies without a plan can hang from.

Thursday 26 April 2012

One Page Dungeon Entry: Old Bastard's Barrens

Click to read it.

Yep, that ol' dirty bastard. He carved his face on a mountain.

If your comments don't get me to change anything I'm submitting this to the One Page Dungeon Competition this weekend. Big field this year, it looks like. Hopefully this'll stand out.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Player Advice: Follow Through

Part of our final session for the adventure on Sunday was a kind of post-mortem. I don't know about the rest of you; whether, once players are well clear of an adventure, it's usual for the DM to run down for them some of what they missed.

I get the feeling there might be some kind of Old School ex-cathedra edict against it, hidden somewhere in page 38 of the Dragonsfoot forum topics. After all, it breaks the kayfabe, gives players unearned knowledge benefits in the shadow currency of the exploration game, and generally screams utter capitulation to the  "let's surf the internet for spoilers" reflex of the Information Age.

But I was feeling generous. Just this once, right? And in the retelling I saw a lot of times where the players didn't follow through. They noticed a strange shape about the map but only speculated about a hidden compartment ... went through every setting on a device except the one that actually did anything ... hit a bump in the pool but did nothing to drag it up ... figured out the exact thing to do in order to get some sweet resources and, in the absence of any possible confirmation from me, then forgot to actually do it.

"Let me see that dungeon map ...." *STAMP*

Of course, we're playing for fun and we've had a lot of it. And maybe that's the point - that the fast and loose style of play leads to a lot of fun situations. Where "fun" arises from poking a button with your finger instead of an iron spike, tasting an unknown liquid found in the dungeon, or simply role-playing your barbarian fighter running full speed ahead into an army of kobolds.

Sometimes, even, checking your swing can save you from unimaginable fates.

But if you want my advice on how to prosper as an adventurer (yeah, wow, I'm getting soft as a DM), then ... Take notes, especially when you have an insight. Read those notes. Follow through on them.

This is the prosperity gospel of the well-designed dungeon.


In other news, my player Mike has summoned the hordes of reddit to view the player-created dungeon maps I posted yesterday and in a short 24 hours it has become my most viewed post of all time (yeah, beating that other one that cheated its way to the top because it shows up in people's Google image searches for 4th edition character sheets). Welcome, and I hope some of you stay a while!

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Tomb of the Iron God: My Awesome Players' Maps

Lui, who plays the party elf, was responsible for mapping in our recent run of Matt Finch's Tomb of the Iron God. In the course of play she made these profusely illustrated beauties that go way beyond "Here be monsters." Spoilers for the module, of course; click to enlarge. And yes, that is Official Social Cognition Graph Paper.

Monday 23 April 2012

One Page Dungeon (?) Entry Preview

I'm not really entering a "dungeon" in the OPD contest this year ... it's more of a hexcrawl, with an easier-to-understand version of the original hexcrawl rules, keys for each letter and icon, and a hexmap. Part of which currently looks like this:

 Between this effort and almost finishing the Weird encounter table page I've added 30+ icons to the Menagerie download, including several Fiend Folio, MM2, and Varlets & Vermin creations. Here they are on parade:

Click to enlarge.

Sunday 22 April 2012

We All Grew Up On a Square Planet

So yeah, the wife and I just fell over laughing the other night trying to read aloud Zak's Helm-of-Opposite-Alignment smashup of that much-celebrated indie game, whose alignment is apparently opposite to "Hakim Bey's Ledjinndery Subventures."

But I want to point out that Zak's procedure:

1. Take an RPG product you find profoundly uninspiring
2. Turn to the first page
3. Going sentence by sentence, write the exact opposite until you have a whole game.

sounded very familiar. Because when the guy who wrote this in 1975:
If the time ever comes when all aspects of fantasy are covered and the vast majority of its players agree on how the game should be played, DandD will have become staid and boring indeed. Sorry, but I don't believe that there is anything desirable in having various campaigns playing similarly to one another. DandD is supposed to offer a challenge to the imagination and to do so in many ways.
Applied rule 3 to come up with this in 1978:
 Returning again to the framework aspect of ADVANCED DUNGEONS 8 DRAGONS, what is aimed at is a "universe" into which similar campaigns and parallel worlds can be placed. With certain uniformity of systems and "laws", players will be able to move from one campaign to another and know at least the elemental principles which govern the new milieu, for all milieux will have certain (but not necessarily the same) laws in common. Character races and classes will be nearly the same. Character ability scores will have the identical meaning - or nearly so. Magic spells will function in a certain manner regardless of which world the player is functioning in. Magic devices will certainly vary, but their principles will be similar. This uniformity will help not only players, it will enable DMs to carry on a meaningful dialogue and exchange of useful information. It might also eventually lead to grand tournaments wherein persons from any part of the U.S., or the world for that matter, can compete for accolades.
He made sure that every single edition of D&D  from then on would come from that  Bizarro universe.

Saturday 21 April 2012

Iron God: Should All Dungeons Have a Climax?

To close out my play report/review of Matt Finch's Tomb of the Iron God, here are some of the changes I made in actual play, in line with my last post about dungeon story. Spoilers follow.

The goblins had smart leadership, and I played it that way. After their group took about 50% casualties  in one epic battle, I had them leave the dungeon. In a later session they snuck back while the party was in the dungeon and blocked their exit with a large rock. Although the party eventually moved the rock by chipping away at the doorway (soft limestone), the tactical situation they walked into, fighting up on a stair surrounded by enemies, was almost suicidal for the party. They only prevailed by  luring the overly enthusiastic goblin troops back downstairs into a much less favorable position while their leaders were still under a sleep spell.

I also thought it wasn't realistic to have the animated iron statue of Ardarus just stomping around the same area as the goblins. I decided that the goblins had confined him to his room by stopping the door with an iron brace, but that when they left the dungeon they threw the bar into the storage room. The clues were the notches still carved into the wood of the door and the stone of the ground. The party picked up on the clues and found the abandoned brace. So they approached the room with extreme caution and were able to block the door again when the statue came to life.

The second level raises the question: should all dungeons have a climax? Tomb of the Iron God is interesting that way.  Its "goal" area - the caverns of the Iron God -  comes on the first level. The second level is a series of strongly themed rooms, where undead stalk, and treasures and other things are hidden in the burial niches carved in almost every wall. In hindsight this arrangement was fine, because it helped preserve naturalism by defying the conventional expectations.

Also, in play it turned out there were a couple of strong concentrations of dangers and treasure on the second level which created climaxes of their own.

The climax I helped to juice up was the three-sarcophagi room. Here, I added a lone ghast living in the secret chamber under the middle tomb. The ghast, it turned out, while still human, had been a mastermind behind the priests' turn to necromancy, and left a diary behind for the players to puzzle out. The poison gas trap in that room, I moved to the left tomb (realism again - if the middle tomb had been disturbed, why was the gas trap still working?), and signaled it with the effigy on the tomb: an alchemist surrounded by toads, snakes and spiders.

The other was the room with an army of skeletons. This proved a tactical challenge on par with the goblins, and this time everything came from the module, which explicitly details their maneuvers. To their credit, the party saw groups of skeletons peeling off into the side corridors, and decided to fight a retreating battle rather than be outflanked. Eventually they found a strong position behind an opened pit and emerged victorious.

All the same, more could have been done with the story behind the undead. Having skeletons and zombies detailed into guard duty and menial tasks ... finding the necromancy lab where they were raised ... having some clue of why the decision was made to raise them (from town and some documents in the dungeon, I let the party conclude that it was part of the extortion of funeral customers ... pay up more or your loved ones are consigned to a walking hell) ... and how the much more evil switch was decided on from mindless undead to creating actual ghouls (this, I revealed through the ghast's diary, was his doing,  connected to the cult of Orcus.)

Another realistic consideration I added: what the families who buried their dead in the catacombs would have done once they found out that corpses were walking around in there. This created a number of missions for the party, where long-dead loved ones identified by particular personal items were sitting in one niche or other, and a bounty would be paid for the return of their bones. This kind of issue marked a larger opportunity for dungeon-story development that I mostly missed this time around. Are there haves and have-nots in the burial places? Did one group of people get singled out to be turned into skeletons and zombies? Is there a special section where the monks themselves are buried?

If you're running the module, I found that the second level tends to drag on a bit. I would recommend you trim anywhere from 4 to 8 of the rooms, or replace them with a different styled area ... perhaps a necromancy lab and makeshift shrine to darker gods.

And again, just because I'm pointing out how the module could have been better, doesn't mean I'm slamming it. It is a great setup, and it's probably more fun to work out these details yourself than to get them store-bought. If I run the Tomb of the Iron God again I will certainly take some of these ideas into account and make it a dungeon with a much stronger story behind it. Not a story with an artificial climax like the level boss of a computer game, but one that's woven all through the dungeon. I want to leave players with the impression that their exploration has been about more than filling in a sheet of graph paper.

Thursday 19 April 2012

D&D is a Story Game ...

But the DM isn't telling the players' story, but the dungeon's.

This is the best way I know to set up the last chunk of my comments and improvements-through-play for Tomb of the Iron God. Because in addition to making the dungeon's features more suitable for analog play, I also needed to thread a more coherent story through the adventure.

Like exploration or roleplaying, figuring out the dungeon's story doesn't need an explicit in-game reward, because it carries its own reward. All the same, story-delving can pass clues back to the adventure game. Insights from the dungeon's story help the players figure out where its treasure is, how to defeat a monster or bypass a hazard.

The dungeon's story also informs the larger campaign. What if the builders or occupiers are a faction in the wider world? Might there be secrets they don't want known? Stories they don't want told? A back-and-forth begins between the story of the dungeon and the story of the wider campaign. The most meaningful adventures get themselves embedded in this way.

Whose history is it?
Take all the advice and dialogue about how gamemasters should handle the party's story, and turn it into how they should handle the dungeon's story. It's different, of course; the history of the dungeon is set already, while the story of the party spools into the future. And yet ...a "railroaded" revelation of history is instantly recognizable, as clue follows on clue in a linear fashion. Histories are more interesting if their parts are not all equally discoverable, and seem a little incomplete even when totally revealed. Even more compelling, though difficult to pull off, is the Rashomon history - where different parts of the environment reveal different perspectives on events, and each group that goes through is likely to get a different story.

Part of old-school revivalism among the more experimental games set has involved just such a focus on generating adventure backstory through play - whether How to Host a Dungeon or Microscope.
If not generated by play of its own, then a story is hard to improvise. It can be done - I'll show you how, next post in this series - but it won't click as well.

So if I would urge one thing on module designers, it's this: Give the adventure a story of its own. Lay some initial clues down, make the structure of it interesting. Everything else I can handle - the mixed dwarven and Imperial coins in the hoard, the doors of stone because they couldn't be bothered to haul wood so far, the way the kobolds fall down and worship the party when cornered because they believe that the Architects will come again.

Oh, and who's telling the party's story? Why the party, the dice, and the DM, in one big contested collaboration. But the dungeon's story rests on one pair of shoulders only.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Iron God: Taking Secret Doors Beyond the Letter S

Level 2 of the Tomb of the Iron God module is the actual burial place of the corpses consigned there, and it has more secret doors than a season of Scooby Doo cartoons. There are other things that aren't ideal about it and I tried to fix ... which I'll get to in the last post of this review. But the secret doors were the toughest thing to work out on the fly.

(This post is not as spoilery as the last one, so no cut.)

Anyway, we are not talking about dwarven or magical workmanship here. I ended up deciding that most of the doors could be seen; either in passing with a d6 skill check if you're on the same side as the door (exploration movement is slow going as it is, and most party members have a 1 or 2 in 6 chance), or automatically if you're giving that area special attention. No, you cannot give every area special attention - or at least I'm going to make that process player-boring, and eventually you as a player are going to make the choice that it's better to die a hero than live an obsessive grind. But an exception can be made for the niche-lined walls that parties have an interest in searching for loot.
The secret doors show as outlines of fine grooves in the limestone corridor walls. In the burial chambers, they appear as seams down the middle of a row of stacked niches, the halves sliding back both ways when opened. Niche doors usually open by pressing a button at the back of one of the niches, and these buttons also open the corridor doors, though they may be some distance away from their chosen door. Part of my map notes involved working out which niche button would open which secret door. There was a good moment when I combined one of those buttons with a poison needle trap that was already in the key. "Okay, you push the button in ... with your finger ..." Well, the dwarf had a great save and made it, but from then on, used his axe handle.

What was hard was squaring the many, many secret doors dividing the level into sections with the appearance of wandering skeletons and the need of nonintelligent monsters to rove around the dungeon. Some of it I just handwaved, other times there would be floor plates on the inside of a secret area that could let skeletons out. The players quickly grew paranoid and started whispering about a "skeleton factory."

As with pit traps, it's all-to-easy to answer "Why did the monks put so many secret doors in their burial ground?" with "Because it's a dungeon, duh!"  But if I had it to do over again I would have reduced the number of S'es on that level. Make some of them plastered-over concealed doors, which is more plausible if you're talking about a burial ground where some sections eventually get full. Just erase the unnecessary ones, like the ones that represent only a shortcut between two areas you can reach anyway, or the ones that hide one down-stair area from another.

This obsession with secret doors - on every level! by the half-dozen or more! - has apparently left its mark upon a whole generation. You see, as D&D players grow up, they get certain ideas about how their family lairs should be constructed ....

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Iron God: The Pit, the Pole and the Point Dwarf

This post has spoilers for Black Blade's Tomb of the Iron God adventure module. But not any spoilers for my players who have marched through most of it. So be forewarned and see you on the other side of the cut.

Monday 16 April 2012

OSR Contradiction 2: Player Skill vs. Minimal Dungeons

Does OSR mean an Old School Regurgitation of everything that was played, printed and xeroxed in the olden days of the adventure gaming hobby? Or an Old School Refinement, taking the best products and learning from them, and looking past the rules as written to mine the reminiscences of the founding roleplayers and see exactly how they had fun?

Geomorph by Fighting Fantasist
Certainly, if you look at almost all old school modules you'll see two things that had rules associated with them: pits and secret doors. Especially in the early days, these rules were rough and ready, betraying the miniatures origins of the game: roll a d6 and fall in on a 1 or 2, roll a d6 and detect the door on a 1. Because there were rules, and character features that improved the odds, it was seen as necessary to include pits and secret doors in any dungeon worth its salt. Leaving them out would be like leaving sand traps and water hazards off a gold course.

Many, many games were played with this mechanistic, 8-bit digital method. Many more would be played using the more sophisticated rules that interacted with character skills and eventually turned into Spot checks. What almost nobody was doing was the "player skill" method that's seized the Old School mantle. Next to no space in Dragon magazine was dedicated to elaborate analog mechanical trap descriptions in the manner of Courtney's Hack & Slash blog. What you saw instead was rules, charts, tables.

So does your Old School Reenactment involve tooling around a graph paper funhouse just rolling for pits and doors? And if your Old School Rejuvenation involves tapping ahead with a pole, what effect does that have? Is the pit lid heavy or light? Might it tip open or echo with a tap? These are questions that need analog solutions, immediately bypassing the "roll 1 or 2" crudity of the Old School Rules.

Tomb of the Iron God is the dungeon we have been playing in since January. It's by Matt Finch, who also authored the 95 Theses of player skill, the Quick Primer. By the Primer, using player skill for pits and secret doors requires analog descriptions of their mechanisms. But in the module, recreating the more usual form of Old School play (or perhaps just out of reflex), you have oodles of un-detailed pit traps and secret doors. Bam! Contradiction. Yes, the module notes tell you to ad-lib ... and ad-lib I did. But I would have appreciated being tossed at least a bone or two for such frequent, important, and eventually unexplained features of the catacombs.

Next time ... my solutions and the players', an in-play review.

Sunday 15 April 2012

OSR Contradiction 1: Play vs. Fiction

Attempts to enforce purity in the Old School Ratatouille are doomed to fail. Why?  Because in its glorious diversity it's fallen into at least two contradictions that I've become aware of writing recent posts. These contradictions are not fatal, except perhaps to an exaggerated sense of traditional gaming orthodoxy, but they bear mentioning.

Contradiction 1 relates to something I noticed a while back: Old-style D&D combat (any kind of D&D combat for that matter) bears little resemblance to the give and take of pulp fantasy combat. OK, so it's not the most original observation that D&D combat is not realistic. But it's remarkable that even the general style of play of high-level D&D heroes is at odds with the cautious, life-or-death approach taken by even the greatest heroes of early 20th century fantasy literature.

But also, as Aaron Steele recently remarked, "One of the unique features of Dungeons and Dragons is the idea of the ADVENTURING PARTY." The vaunted pulp fantasy influences can't really account for this confluence of archetypes that quickly settled in a foursquare formation. Fafhrd and the Mouser, the Eternal Champion and his sidekicks are duos cut from essentially the same cloth. The Fellowship of the Ring may have contributed the "fantasy races," elf-dwarf ribbing and all, but their mission is completely different and they're missing a few key players.

I've personally rejected the neo-Old School arguments to drop thieves ("Hey, everyone's a thief") or cleric-types ("Hey, no room for goody-goodies in Hyboria"). Only recently have I realized why.

In the first place, even taking both measures at once will bring you no closer to your Weird Tales utopia; you'll look in vain for all those pulp adventure stories featuring the sword-wielding barbarian and his wizard buddy. Drop the wizard PCs, and you'll have a true pulp adventure game (resembling perhaps Searchers of the Unknown). But it won't be D&D, or even T&T.

In the second place, the four classes are classics because they set up instant character conflicts within the party, but on a tame enough level that the party can still work together. To illustrate:

Silhouettes by Telecanter & myself
The fighter-wizard axis is the classic Kirk-Spock, Aubrey-Maturin, Narcissus-Goldmund alliance of opposites. Not all fighters and magic-users fit the stereotypes, of course. But the classes as developed in fantasy gaming tend to bear out the roles by making the wizard the combat-weak master of powerful but limited resources, and the fighter the more durable frontline figure.

The cleric-thief axis sets up moral debates and conflicts, encouraged by the altruistic nature of the cleric's gifts, and the acquisitive, loner nature of the thief's methods. I've had to express these in two ways because different play groups work differently with them. Some see the conflict as between the thief and the party (the labels in parentheses), others as seeing it as between the party and the rest of the world.

The moral axis may not work sometimes. It lets clerics and paladins be asshats by insisting on moral action detrimental to the party, and thieves and assassins be asshats by insisting on selfish action detrimental to the party. Things work out best, perhaps, when the thief advocates for the selfish and immediate interests of the party (as opposed to robbing sleeping companions) while the cleric advocates for the long-term moral interests of the party (as opposed to telling the truth to the Dark Lord's guards).

Perhaps these problems with the moral axis, or its suggestion that there is more than the looter ethos, leads some to reject its classes completely. I can't ... because that's not D&D. Despite all those problems, and implementation problems that persisted for twenty years, thieves and clerics nevertheless stuck around. I just don't see it as a positive to insist that the long-lived and very resilient party structure of the game is some sort of tumor that has to be excised to reach purity.

Contradiction 2 is coming up, and it leads in to my review and play guide for Tomb of the Iron God.

Saturday 14 April 2012

Analog, Digital, Procedural

I haven't posted that much about my Tomb of the Iron God campaign - though I did share one memorable mini-game event. I have been reluctant because a) I'm not sure people want to read play reports, honestly and b) it's so tied into the Tomb that I really wanted to wait to the end to do a report.

That report is coming, but it will be more a review of the module and description of how I altered the Tomb for my playing style, than what the players did therein. And to get into that I need to talk about the three things I find useful in an adventure key, without the cliched and restricting terms "crunch" and "fluff".

Analog details: Descriptions in real-world language of the physical environment, serving three purposes: to set an atmosphere of immersion and discovery; to give hooks for player creativity as they interact with the surroundings, and to provide grounds for old-school rulings of the kind famously described in Finch's Primer. This can also extend to psychological descriptions of NPCs and their motivations.

"This room is a small domed natural cavern 10' high at its apex. Its walls are moist and caked with formations of off-white and beige limestone, while a layer of fine sand covers the floor. A crude gate of half-rotted oak logs lashed together with rope stands at the north exit, held closed by a twine latch on the inside. A patrol of 6 kobolds armed with clubs and throwing stones is resting here and telling stories. The troops are wary but led by a hothead, Kzitch."

Digital stats: Numbers and classifications in game terms, on which game procedures and rules can be based.

"The north door can be easily opened from the south side, but takes a door opening roll at -1 from the north side. There are 6 kobolds - a leader with 4 hp and five with 3,3,2,1 and 1 hp. Kobold: AC 13, +0 to hit, damage = club 1d6 or thrown rock 1d3 with 30' range, move 9, morale +2 if leader alive and present, -2 otherwise."

Procedural instructions:Directions for running the adventure in an if-then format.

"In this room are 6 kobolds including a leader. If they detect the party first, the leader will take 1 combat round to rally his wary troops, and then charge headlong. If surprised by the party, they will rush behind the gate and attempt to hold it against the party. If the gate is pushed by those on one side it will start to topple forward to crush those on the other side, possibly creating a shoving contest."

So, at one end of the descriptiveness scale is the minimalist kind of description found in the Stonehell or Castle of the Mad Archmage megadungeons. Statblocks are often dispensed with, you are lucky if you get hit points for the creatures, and the DM is usually left to provide details about the physical surroundings and play out the logic of the encounter.

At the other end is the maximal style of, say, Ruins of Undermountain, where everything and every contingency is described along all three dimensions in great detail, you get to know every hobgoblin's government name (I'm hardly exaggerating) and one room description takes up half a page to two pages.

I actually find all three of these elements useful, in the appropriate doses. It's good not to have to flip through a rulebook to find an armor class, and good to have some idea of the monster strategy. But there has to be some compromise, because I want the written material to be manageable and not stretch over multiple pages. Of these three, the one I can most easily come up with myself on the fly is the procedural, and the one thing I would most like to see is the analog.

You see, in Old School play ... fluff is crunch. The sandy floor, moist walls made of soft stone, composition of the gate, and disposition of the kobolds all can feed into the players' improvised plans and the DM's improvised rulings. Critics of "fluff" in adventure writing, already prejudiced by that term, call it unnecessary. Indeed, the prose need not be purple. But basic material facts about the structure of things are something I'd rather not have to improvise, even though I have done so many times running both Tomb of the Iron God and Castle of the Mad Archmage.

Friday 13 April 2012

Ultimate Wilderness Encounter Table 2

Continuing the series ... Here's the table you prioritize if nature's dominant in the area.

The humans and demi-humans should be primitive and isolated. Creatures without a lair/range are just ambient in the water, not really suitable for hex-based stocking. Speaking of that ... my entry for One Page Dungeon is going to be a hex-stocked wilderness with a mini version of the encounter system, some cool features, and a number of possible challenges and scenarios depending on level.

Yes, there will be versions of this for tropical and arctic climes ... eventually.

Thursday 12 April 2012

The Inviolable Fortress of the Player's Emotions

I hate boxed text in an adventure. I know a lot of you do. Others don't. But there's something special a writer can do with boxed text that's worse than pulling toenails. Sadly, I was reminded of that while reading the otherwise excellent Wheel of Evil adventure by Jeff Sparks. Let me explain.

I know a lot of DMs and adventure writers take seriously the commandment to engage as many of the reader/listener's senses as possible. Thus, in addition to seeing walls and ceilings with precise measurements in feet, the players should be led to hear the whistle of the dungeon wind, feel the dungeon sands underfoot, smell the dungeon dung and taste the dungeon luncheon.

Well, sensations are feelings, right? And feelings are emotions, right? So why shouldn't we describe the characters' rising gorge, crawling skin, or sense of peace and serenity? Why shouldn't it be OK to chase a short description of disgusting stuff with "A feeling of revulsion fills you as you view the scene"? To specify that you feel the malevolence of an area "deep down in your bones"? Or just write something like "this room smells foul and repulses you with its slimy aspect"? (All examples from Wheel of Evil, by the way.)

I'll tell you why not.
This has so many other uses than telling players how they feel.
Firstly ... The first thing you learn in Serious Writer Boot Camp is to show, not tell. Instead of writing "He felt disgusted" say "He wrinkled his nose" or "He turned away, holding his mouth." Or better yet - just describe the scene, subtly tweaking the descriptive language to communicate the point-of-view character's emotions. This is so easy to do with disgust in particular that there is absolutely no need to say anything about the player's or character's reaction. "A pulsing, ridged coil of glistening ochre paste, stinking faintly of sweaty feet, snakes forth with a gaseous hiss from the chapped orifice atop a slivered nipple of bone-white plastic..." Put you off your Easy-Cheese there, but you get the point.

Secondly ... As Craig Heir forcefully and concisely argued here, second person presumes the sort of emotional, bodily or sensory reaction the addressed person is going to take. This violates the mind and soul of your player-listeners, and doesn't respect their characters' special senses or reactions.

Shawn Merwin's excellent advice: use third person when writing descriptive text. This leaves it to the DM to translate this into second person, which is great in many ways. It lets the DM adjust for the special abilities, states or knowledge of the characters. And, basic presentation skills only improve when you go from reading text off a page to improvising from notes. Boxed text enables the stereotypical awkward middle-school dungeon master, monotonously reciting from behind the screen without eye contact. It's okay as training wheels, but fatal to any sense of spontaneity.

I don't mean to single out Wheel of Evil, which is otherwise a very cool, varied and inventive adventure. A while back I bought a CD including Bits of Darkness: Caverns, a play aid filled with creative and well-researched ideas about natural underground caverns. But then there's that encounter ... the one where your players are reminded of the horror of being so deep underground and the horror then invades the characters' minds (no magic, just spontaneous claustrophobia and boxed text) ... and they actually have to make a Will save to avoid running around like decapitated chickens.

What a blemish on an otherwise fine product! Make the players scared, I say. Have them lose their way, blow out their light, make them think the ceiling is about to cave in. Do anything, but leave alone the inviolable fortress of their minds!

Menagerie 2

The public domain-based menagerie download zip (rules and tools, right) just got updated with a bunch more silhouettes. As fun as kitbashing miniatures and less messy ...

I had a hard time with the ankheg and bulette until another trawl through the Phylopic site found me some base images that just needed a little carving and filling to do. The Kenku is a mix of Hokusai and Kuniyoshi parts, and the pose is characteristic of those artists.

Yes, we're dipping into the Fiend Folio and Monster Manual 2. I'm putting the humanoids into the "Evil" encounter page and the giant invertebrates into a "Weird" encounter page, and the weirdos need company. Not even Basic D&D and Runequest will be safe from the monster raiding ... and maybe there's a post in that.

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Beaked Dogs

I don't know why it is that of all the random bits-and-pieces monsters you could make (rabbit-headed giraffes ...rhinos with butterfly wings ...) there seems to be something natural, almost inevitable, about the dog with a beak.

This no doubt comes from the unholy mental stew of Dwarf Fortress (where the "beak dog" is a thing) and Moorcock's hunting dogs of the Dharzi, as immortalized in the first edition of Deities and Demigods. 

A third, weird influence: the Montauk monster, often described as a beaked dog but in all likelihood a bloated, rotten raccoon with the face eaten away. How boring. Doesn't the government have a high-security research facility on Long Island? Haven't they been experimenting with ways to summon the Eternal Champion? Or at least communing with the Mad Archmage Xagyg?

Anyway, the inevitable part is this: the two animals most often domesticated by humans for hunting are the dog and the hawk. Put together the bloodhound's nose and the eagle's eye and you have a near infallible tracker. So then ... the beaked dog. Sorry, Fiend Folio, I do believe you can take your devil dogs back to the Drake's Cakes factory, and tell your death dogs, "Hey, more heads is not better."

Using the Old One-Armed Man protocol, we'll start them as a wolf, add a hit die for mutation and presto... Not quite as tough as the Dharzi dogs were statted up to be but then again, those had to be some kind of match for Elric.

Armor Class: 7 [12]
Hit Dice: 3
Attacks: Bite, 1d6+1
Move: 15
Special: Tracking, No surprise

The beaked dog is a long-ago creation of the same mad wizard who cobbled together the much less useful owlbear. The race is now kept and bred for hunting by creatures of unusual tastes and appetites, as well as roaming wild across weird and trackless plains in packs of 2-12. Its keen hearing, smell and sight make it a near-faultless tracker (only 5% chance per mile of missing a scent or visual trail) and impossible to take by surprise. Because of the creature's rarity, beaked dog eggs, laid in clutches of 3-7, are worth up to 1000$ each.

Monday 9 April 2012

This Is the Story of a Thing That Is Not a Story

Here's the difference between an immersive game and a story:

The persons in a story don't know they are in a story.  The persons reading it do.

So the person playing an immersive game shouldn't be aware of a story structure to his or her experience, either. The player should be focused on the play within the world, not consciously waiting for the big twist, the climax moment, or any of the other screenwriting-class crutches. ("Hey, GM, is this the part where they invade my safe space?")

Just like the experience of playing a tactical miniatures game, i've found the experience of playing a "story game" with mechanics aimed directly at narrative elements can be enjoyable, but is ultimately somewhat "cool" in all senses of the word. It sticks a critical, self-aware distance between the players and the characters. Perhaps this is what some people want ... but to me it comes off a tad insecure.

Embrace character identification! It's our hobby's dark, dorky secret. Hell, I'll even let you wear elf ears to the table if that helps.

These thoughts have come up as I preside over the wrapping up of our Tomb of the Iron God game. Instead of a big, climactic mastermind fight, there have been a number of tense moments, revealing areas, and epic battles, and the party is currently debating how many loose ends to tie up in the dungeon before moving on. C'mon ... you know you want to fight the Eater of the Dead ...

Sunday 8 April 2012

Prognardia: Rock 'n' Roll Moorcock

In the chronicles of the long, bong-bubbled affair between fantasy literature and rock 'n' roll, no writer has plunged deeper in than Michael Moorcock. At three five-year intervals - 1975, 1980, 1985 - his hero Elric phased through hi-fi speakers to the delight of nerdy teens, brought to life by the legendary bands Hawkwind and Blue Öyster Cult, through lyrics penned by Moorcock himself.

Hawkwind and BOC, actually, have a lot in common. Both were born in the late 60's, early 70's rock scene. At that time many questions that were later to incite bitter civil wars were being tried out from both sides, sometimes by the same band and sometimes in the same song. One such question: loud and fuzzy and sludgy, or precise and artistic and clean? Before the Sex Pistols and Ramones squared off against Pink Floyd and Yes, the early albums of Hawkwind and BOC pitted psychedelic reverb and science-fictional lyrics against the guitar crunch that would go on to fuel generations of punk, metal and grunge.

Hawkwind: Urban Guerrilla (1973; later covered by Mudhoney among others)

BOC: Cities on Flame (1972; later covered by Iced Earth among others)

Between the two bands, BOC's advantage is that their lyrics and approach always hit that fine point - gonzo, but not silly, a kind of controlled, knowing over-the-top. If they were roleplaying sessions, BOC would be Expedition to the Barrier Peaks with Erol Otus GMing, while Hawkwind would be Middle Earth RPG run in costume where the big reveal is that Tom Bombadil is an evolved life form from the Cygnus Nebula.

(Then again, the Cult's music eventually dead-ended into a kind of optimized, Jim Steinman,  album-oriented rock. Hawkwind has had the more illustrious influence - their bassist, Lemmy, would go on to found Motorhead, leaving an indelible mark at the boundary of punk and metal.)

Anyway, Moorcock's first outing with Hawkwind came on The Warrior On The Edge of Time. Apart from the title reference to the Eternal Champion, Moorcock himself intoned relevant-themed poetry on three of the album's tracks, like this one:

Hawkwind - The Wizard Blew His Horn

Best of all was when the gatefold opened up, a flap fell down and it was revealed that this seeming innocent record album cover was actually a shield ... The Shield of ... hold on, I think it's got letters on it ... The Shield of Chaos!

Fast forward to 1980, where Moorcock writes the lyrics to "Black Blade" on BOC's Cultosaurus Erectus album, first person from the point of view of Elric himself. And the band goes wild with sound effects, Vocoder and Hammond organ:

Moorcock also contributed a couple of lyrics to other BOC albums, but "Black Blade" is tied the closest to his fantasy works.

Now it's 1985. Most of the prog class of 1970 is reinventing themselves. Floyd have broken up, Yes, Tull and Genesis have gone radio-friendly, King Crimson have followed Fripp into the experimental guitar maze. For Pete's sake, This is Spinal Tap came out last year! Yet oblivious to the mockery, Hawkwind and Moorcock thunder down the rails. They crank up the earnestness of their sword-and-sorcery stage show to 11 with an entire concept album about Elric called The Chronicle of the Black Sword.

Ah! Where now is the will to wretched excess? Where now are the swooping Elric mimes? Lost, my friends, smothered beneath the sands of irony. I love this stuff, but I can't really recommend it to the coming generations (although there's every chance a smart 11 year old kid would really dig BOC.)

Saturday 7 April 2012

Ultimate Wilderness Encounter Table 1

Well, here is the first of six wilderness tables to be completed.

This is not everything you can encounter in a civilized area, but rather all the "civilized" themed encounters - humans, other friendly kindreds, and a raft of shapechangers and oddballs. The idea once more is to have a priority of types you can encounter (so that the priority 2/1/4  puts chart 1, civilized, in the middle) and then roll 3 or 4 d6 and take the highest die in the priority that comes up.

Working off that, you consult a chart that matches the terrain - for example, a road going through forest would give you:

1-2 Woodland
3-4 Woodland (or Road if civilized encounter)
5-6 Any

I'll have a set of terrain charts at some point.

Finally you roll 2d10 and take the lower, to give you an encounter. Here's how to use this on the fly.

The top entry in the encounter is the approximate distance in 5 mile hexes from lair (L = always in lair; 0 = 1d6-1 miles away; 1 = 1d10-1 miles away; 2 = 1d20-2 miles away) and time of day the encounter is active (ignore an inappropriate encounter unless you have found the creature's lair). This means you will almost never stumble across a creature's lair by chance.

An X here is a being without a lair; a T means the creature will only be encountered in its native terrain. This last one is more relevant for the hexmap stocking and encounter method I've described before.

The top bold number is the number of creatures in the lair, and the non-bolded number below it is the number of creatures in the encounter. Obviously the number encountered is a maximum for the number in lair. A roman numeral (III, V, X) refers to the number of standard beings you have to have for each higher-level leader-type to exist, and these go up in a pyramid of two (that is, with two basic leaders you get an even higher level leader and so forth).

A "Settle" lair means the beings can be traced to a settlement in range, or if you have not mapped any settlement, a small community of fewer than 100 people.

Some unusual encounters: Homesteaders are just farmers; Wanderers are gypsies, tramps, refugees, or your world's equivalent; Hermits are clerics of that level on a d20 roll of 1-10 and just eccentrics on 11-20; substitute froglings, rabbit people or whatever if you hate halflings; Trickster animals are from my Varlets and Vermin collection; Swanmays and Selkies are from Monster Manual 2 but quite traditional benevolent shapechangers.

I'll let you know when the new silhouettes are added to the zipped download file. Fairly pleased with my werewolf, werebear (based on some long-legged prehistoric bearoid), doppleganger (somewhat distorted from a public domain chupacabra) and swanmay.

Thursday 5 April 2012

Old School As A Gamut Of Emotions

What's the essence of Old School style GMing? noisms thinks it's in being a dispassionate, deistic god who lets the world have its own reality. Telecanter weighs in with a comment: it's all about letting the players have fun.

I don't think it's about control, or fun. Simply put, it is to run the game so that the players can have a chance of feeling as wide a range of emotions as possible, vicariously through their PCs. Not just pleasure or mild challenge, but grief, anger, remorse, fear, side-splitting laughter. On a higher level, this experience translates into more than just the fun of completing an easy crossword puzzle, and evolves into the deeper enjoyment of engagement with serious literature or drama.

The autonomous world then becomes a necessary adjunct to this goal.

  • Sometimes it hands the players the fruits of their actions - pride, remorse, satisfaction.
  • Sometimes fate throws undeserved misfortune their way, whether they can see it coming - fear - or have to pick up the pieces afterwards - sorrow.
  • Sometimes they get more than they deserve - joy! 
  • Sometimes the world gives enemies - anger, hate - and other times allies - gratitude, respect, concern. 
  • Sometimes the universe lets them know just how enormous it is - opening up the twin feelings of awe and terror. 
  • Sometimes it's the people underfoot who get to them - pity, compassion, contempt.
  • And it's only against the serious backdrop of all these concerns that the true release of world-shaking laughter can come ... not the continual, gassy snickering that some hope to engineer through a relentless parade of ridiculous characters and cheap puns.

If you are fudging things or setting them up in the first place to make the game's outcomes fall within a certain range of cautious success, you are denying your players these experiences. If the players suspect that you are fudging things, you are denying them even the stage-managed satisfactions you intend for them to enjoy. If the world is not autonomous, it cannot inspire these emotions.

But also, the players must keep their feelings within the world in order to have the higher-level enjoyment that comes from experiencing even painful feelings as "theatrical emotions" or rasa (see here for an explanation of the Hindu concept). They must be mature enough to respect the separation of the world from the person of the Game Master.

If their grief is aimed at the dice, their anger at the GM's rules or interpretation, their gratitude at the module designer, then they are missing the point. Equally so, it is the GM's responsibility to demonstrate that all his or her choices are made out of necessity, drawing on the logic of the rules system and the logic of the imaginary world.

That, I think, is what distinguishes the old school GM from the balance-gamer who is trying to keep everything fair and manageable, and from the rail-greasing story-gamer who is denying the emotions that come from confronting meaninglessness or exerting true agency within the world.

The old school systems allow these heights and depths, but - like a psychedelic drug - can also go horribly wrong if not experienced in the right company. This is why they are and always will be an underground phenomenon.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

The Great Dwarf Roll

So the party goes carousing, and Shakira the male dwarf (don't ask) rolls 16 on my carousing table:

I take a few minutes to visit the excusado and tell the players to come up with some suitable dare.

It should be noted that we are in the town Kaserolle, renowned for its annual cheese-rolling competition. It should also be noted that Australians are fond of spectacles involving the rapid transit of dwarfs. I'm not going to say it was our Australian who suggested it, but when I came back, the gauntlet was thrown. The dwarf was dared to roll down Cheese Roll Hill inside a great hollowed-out wheel of cheese.

The cheese was made ready, the dwarf lodged within. The rolling through the streets, out the gate, and to the summit of the hill began. Numerous saves vs. nausea had to be made and the dwarf ended up losing a few hit points along the way.

Cheese Roll Hill, as it turns out, is no bunny slope. Perils include the precipitous Great Gorgonzola Leap, the sharp rocks known as the Grater, and a lethal old pine tree in the middle. The aim was to roll the dwarf-enhanced cheese through the town gates. If you hit an obstacle, you take the damage on the die, and the concussion from the Leap was worth d6.

Thanks to Mike for taking pictures
Using analog simulation principles, the cheese-plus-dwarf was represented by a one pound coin.

Mike, the dwarf's player, angled the cheese-coin just right and wound up rolling off the Leap, taking damage but missing all the obstacles ... and the gate ... in fact, missing the walls altogether ...

What was on the south side of Kaserolle just beyond the walls? Why, a river and some washerwomen's huts. I set up the ramp again, laying down huts using regular d6 (representing damage) and emotion dice (representing attitudes of inhabitants if hit... both angry ...) The cheese missed all the huts and went into the river. I said, what the hell, roll d6, on a 6 there is a fresh water encounter. 6 comes up, and after some more rolling on my under-construction encounter table ...

What better beast to bedevil a Canadian? The beaver, of course, starts gnawing at the cheese that is keeping the dwarf afloat. Clutching to the last chunk, Shakira gives the critter a sharp elbow. "Intelligent but docile" - the beaver, annoyed, tail-slaps the dwarf out of the river and onto the bank, doing more damage and taking him down to 1 hp. The beaver climbs up, but the approach of the rest of the spectators and Rex the dog quickly chases it away.

Thanks to Lui for this stirring portrayal in Photoshop
The spectators, cheering and fist-pumping, take the dazed Shakira and toss him in a blanket. Coins get thrown into the blanket until he has recouped all the money he had spent on ale and the cost of the cheese. The tale of the dwarf is told and retold all the next day and will no doubt become a legend of Kaserolle.

I was actually thinking of making my carousing table more matter-of-fact, giving results that can take effect instantly, so that players can carouse at the end of a long session without more fun and games. I'm not so sure about that any more ...

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Another Consolation Class: The Dilettante

Last weekend I had a player roll up another character with no bonus-giving ability score. Although he happily took on the role of the gnome I have set aside for such an occasion, I realized I was getting a little tired of gnomes. So I started thinking of another profitable class choice for the old-school 3d6-statted PC who has nothing.

A common theme in adventure fiction is the city slicker, coxcomb noble, pretentious artiste, or other product of civilization whose social advantages are stripped away in harsher surroundings. Brom Garrett in HBO's Deadwood and a million dudes before him, the Sayers missionaries in The African Queen, or the various European functionaries in Heart of Darkness come to mind. With such a character in tow, dramatic and role-playing opportunities abound. There is high comedy when they happen to save the day, low comedy when they bumble, and black comedy when they buy the farm or the party decides to frag them for their loot.

At the same time the concept has a limited shelf-life in play, so I came up with the idea to have the dilettante character be a kind of chrysalis. If you can make it through first level with him, he retires and sends in someone better with all the experience he's earned (and it's a good idea if you're playing in a system with variant xp advancement to be very generous, leveling him up by, say, 1000 xp).

If you're anticipating problems with your hardened adventurers eyeing the dilettante's purse and fancy armor covetously, you can hint at social consequences should the well-connected adventure tourist perish. These might include having the higher-level character that was waiting on deck for the PC become a sworn enemy.

Monday 2 April 2012

A Better System-Neutral

Frank Mentzer & co. at Eldritch Ent have been drawing some flak for the "system-neutral" descriptions in their products. Apparently, to avoid being beholden to the Open Game License, they have decided to express key stats in terms of percentages so a 6 HD monster has 30% "Power" and so on.

Ever wonder why Esperanto never caught on? No matter how illogical its grammar or spelling, a universal language will only work if there are already lots of people who speak it. Now, a plurality and maybe even a strict majority of roleplayers run some kind of D&D. From that, conversion to a system without levels, armor class and hit points is going to be laborious and inexact anyway. So if you want to be free of the OGL, why not just go with D&D standard and make up your own names for the usual stats? As Flavor Flav would say, y'all can't copyright a number ...

Power: 2
(is there really a reason to list hit points in an adventure? Most times I just roll them up in the dicebox with my bucketload of d8's)
Defense: 4 (add to 11/subtract from 10 for AC; you can even break this down into physical, active and magical defense)
Attack: 3/3/6 (die maximums will do, you can figure out whether it's 2d6 or d12)
Speed: 3 (x30' for D&D movement)
SA: Paralyzation (give duration in minutes, maybe just let the DM work out the save or use synonyms for Fort/Ref/Will)
SD: undead blar blar

My previous thoughts on old school statblocks.

Social Set Pieces in Campaigns

Although mapping and exploring and figuring and fighting are all lots of fun, the best campaigns also mix in a different kind of action in a less dangerous social setting. I've been doing this in all my campaigns, and noticing a spectrum of the kind of interludes I run. Most of them are heavily improvised with the help of various tables, player input, and off-the-cuff inventions. Many of them stem from the carousing and gourmandising rules, or from attempts to buy services or sell loot. Some are just generated as random encounters.

1. The expository set piece. Sometime's there's just sheer fun in kicking back and entertaining the players. You might play this out as the characters watching a religious ritual that explains a mythic story, a procession in which the major social forces in a city each represent themselves, an overheard gossip conversation between two washerwomen. In my Trossley campaign this role was played by the gourmandising feast of the henchman Cordoon. In the current Kaserolle epic I spent a good half hour relating the rhyming play performed by a troupe of traveling players that was commenting on the current action and giving intimations of connections to larger events ... somewhat inspired by Gene Wolfe's similar use of a theater troupe in the Book of the New Sun.
2. The interactive set piece. Here, there is more of a conversation, although the interaction is not exactly free; it follows set rules or is bound by an interrupting event. Your players might be wagering with the patrons on either side as they watch a horse race, conversing with the other passengers as a ferry barge glides past the main sights of a river city, discussing all the reasons why the long-winded merchant should buy their carpet for fifty silvers as he lists all the reasons why only forty will do. In Trossley the players had their individual questions for the lammasu Saheedra; in Kaserolle last week a gourmandising session turned into a feast at a cheese restaurant that alternated conversational opportunities with several NPCs and lavish descriptions of the courses of the meal.

In short, I find it good to have a structure of some kind for audiences and parties so that the players make every word count and the event doesn't drag or fade.

3. The fully gamified set piece. I hadn't really done anything like this before today in the Kaserolle campaign. It's a set piece where the players not only interact but take part with their own mini-game. Imagine a conversation over a card game, for example, gamed out with actual cards, where the NPC grow more generous or cranky as they win or lose. In Trossley a carousing attempt led to a short knife fight and an enemy made. This time I spiced up a carouse table with  ... well, I'll really have to wait for the photos to get to me to really do it justice. This was unbelievable, one of the best times I've ever had at the table and with the full input and cooperation of the players.

Does anyone else find room for set pieces in their campaigns? What kind of techniques do you use to keep them moving along?