Thursday 28 February 2013

Dungeonteller: Amazing Pictorial Play Aid

You should know, if you don't already, that I'm a big fan of graphically enabled, boiled down adventure game rules; also, that a good chunk of this blog is about my attempts to create such rules; also, that I'm not the greatest freehand artist, which I compensate by using an Isotype-style design aesthetic, so I stand perpetually in awe of works like Kata Kumbas with their gorgeous illustrated equipment shops and catalogues.

Another enviable work, just released  by Doug Anderson of the Blue Boxer Rebellion blog, is the kid-friendly player pack (pdf) for his RPG Dungeonteller.

One page rules supplements, you say? Procedural rules for the whole game are a spacious, breezy one page. The rest is content, including great character illustrations, and equipment-shops with price tags. Many neat touches, including different font sizes to make your character's good skills really stand out. Advancement, resolution, basic equipment - everything for players is here, on an ample and very readable two-sided character sheet.

A more conventional presentation of the full Dungeonteller game can be found here (pdf), including a nice little tutorial scenario. Both downloads are free.

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Sketches From Faerie

And now, a few pages from our player Lui's sketchbook (creator of the wonderful Tomb of the Iron God maps). These illustrate sights and marvels seen by the Band of Iron in connection with the faerie realms.

The mind-altering faerie fruit doesn't actually have the Goofy Grape and Loudmouth Lime faces, but it is very addictive. Lui's character has been lucky to survive this far, considering that the high-concept is "an elf who wants to taste everything." 

This is a stop on one of the Faerie Roads - an overgrown cottage where dwells a little fungus-man, skilled at healing with moss and honey-slugs.

On the road, the Band had to step aside and avert their eyes as a faerie army marched by on the way to war. The elf must have peeked because this is a pretty good likeness of the scene.

The two guards I placed at the gate of Leslie Furlong's One Page Dungeon Contest winning scenario, the Faerie Market.

Say hello to the bad guy: Anton the Mountain, retail faerie fruit greengrocer.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

Prestige? Hell, I Was Born This Way

A contradiction:

First, the best way to do classes in a Basic D&D hybrid is start out with a simple list pretty much keyed to the ability scores. Fighter STR, Thief DEX, you know the routine ... Dwarf CON and Elf CHA pretty much slide in there. The runty class, I think, is best reserved for little nippers with no exceptional scores - that's how I make my gnomes. So seven classes, and it's damn clear which ones you're cut out for, and if your DM is a softie they can let you swap a pair of scores to play what you want.

The Grimdarckane Cricketeer Bladerager (tm)
It is also the easiest thing to slip out of that discipline - to get bored of the repetition, and sneak in a druid here, a bard there, a paladin or ranger or illusionist ... And then a genius insight! You can have your simplicity cake and eat complexity too. Just keep the more advanced options as 3rd Edition-style "prestige classes" for later levels, at a point in the game when the players are well used to it, and looking for new challenges and options.

The contradiction? For some classes that people want to play, it makes no sense, because the class is tied in with a background. Why should my vanilla cleric forsake his god and become a druid? That's as outlandish as a Christian curate suddenly becoming a Buddhist lama at 7th level (oh wait). Why should a vanilla fighter suddenly discover her barbarian roots? While it's easy for a wizard to start specializing, or a fighter to join holy orders, or a rogue to pick up the lute and become a bard, some other class-based choices cut to the identity of the character.

Sure, you could require that the would-be barbarian declare a wilderness background as a plain level 1 fighter, but then that's just another option players have to keep in mind when they start, to avoid the disappointment of being trapped in a choice they made when they didn't know any better. That way lies Third Edition madness, where optimal builds are mapped out level by level from the start like some kind of retirement plan.

So another solution presents itself: to make further specialization about what you can do, not who you are. Not about being a barbarian, but about gaining a Berserk Rage feat at level 3. Not about starting as a druid, but getting closer to nature within your faith, picking up some wilderness miracles at level 3.

But then you risk losing the simplicity of class-based design when it comes to NPCs. Instead of being able to say "This is a level 9 druid" now you have to say "This is a level 9 cleric with the Animal Friend and Plant Baron and Rockslide Impresario and Storm Meister special options."

Anyway, I see two ways out of the maze:

1. Different rules for player and nonplayer characters. The PC gets more specialized by feats, the NPCs have a set of named classes that involve a regular progression of those feats. The PCs, then, start out with a simple set of choices, but then have more diverse options than the NPCs in the fullness of time. In the meantime, the DM can handle the complexity that comes from having twenty or so NPC class options.

2. Realize that players evolve over more than one character. So, give players new to gaming or to your particular system the easy, limited set of options. By the time that first character dies or they are ready to join a new campaign, they will be more able to handle a complex set of class choices.

Which one do you prefer?

Sunday 24 February 2013

One Page Campaign

Moving on in the 52 Pages project, this is the first page after the character creation section. The basic points of the game have already been explained. Now it's time to be a little bit directive toward the DM and propose a tried and tested training-wheels approach to the campaign for levels 1-3. Amazingly, the isometric graphics are all public domain, from

I think there's still a lot of room for DM creativity within this framework, but probably the most disagreement will be had about the campaign goal. My reasoning is:
  • It's something to work towards, beyond just gaining levels.
  • It gives a little taste of the domain game in a situation where very few adventure gaming groups stick it through to the high levels usually associated with that kind of action.
  • It's a good move anyway, to have a safe "bank" protected by a grateful populace as more and more treasure flows through the party's hands.
  • It drains off some the glut of money that can come with adventuring - and having a base to return to from far travels also drains off some of the glut of time in a campaign.
This last advantage, of course, is also a disadvantage to some. Many players see heroic adventurers as rootless by nature, chafing at any kind of ties to the land. They'd rather put their wealth into a pouch full of gems than real estate.

Which brings me to the final reason of all. It's foolish to pretend, when inventing the by now twenty-dozenth variation on D&D, that this is the Muad'Dib of heartbreakers that will sweep all before it and forge a new world order of roleplaying. No, the best you can hope for is that people will dabble with the system and swipe some of your best ideas. With that in mind I've tried to make it easy to carve the 52 Pages at the joints. Another logical progression from that idea is that, when choosing between generic and distinctive - go distinctive. You may be wrong, but you are doing something nobody else is doing, and diversifying the DNA of this much mutated game.

Saturday 23 February 2013

One Page Dogs and Horses

I figured the 52 Pages needed this one. At the level 1-3 stage it's boiled down to the obvious adventuring needs, cavalry steeds for your foes, and a handful of dungeon-fodder trap-trippers. As always, some silhouettes courtesy of Telecanter, and relative prices checked with my existing price lists and the Medieval Prices guide (where one of my sp = 5 historical pence).

Friday 22 February 2013

A Marked-Up Map

I'm much too kind to show the influence map the Band of Iron left behind in the northern lands. Let's just say that purple worm example in the last post was their doing. It ate a whole section of the town of Goran's Anvil, and the town elders know who was responsible. They also left mortal enemies in the town of Parmentell when they discovered the worm ivory scam, left a controversial legacy in Kaserolle, and oh yeah, the Onyx Sorceress wants to have a word with them about how they shamed one of her agents in Ironhoof.

Here's their much more respectable career in the South. (Ignore the animal lairs for now.)

Made with Hexographer Pro.
They started out in the village of Poynemara at the top, where they left roots (the white triangle) by settling a retired hireling, Adrem, there, and picking up a new henchwoman, Lintilla. Villages are easy when it comes to fame; the party got two stars pretty much by showing up and having those interactions.

Next stop was the small town of Famorgane, a trading post corrupted by fairy-fruit addiction and de facto ruled by the crime boss Anton. Their adventures there initially got the party two crosses at the top, as they somehow fell in Anton's good graces. But Famorgane became occupied by a holy army during the war with Faerie and Anton has fled, so the party only count on one star there, legacy of a public duel with one of Anton's henchmen.

The larger town of Lugho is a place the party has never been, but due to services rendered on behalf of the Duke and Hierarch of the place, they enjoy two forward slashes (beneficial deeds) and one cross of high-level influence.

Schiecchi is the city of the region. It's harder to get fame there, but due to some carousing and a noteworthy incident in which the party's hermit prophet impressed a rich woman with her generosity, they are on one star. They also have a connection with the influential white magician Ulena, hence the one cross.

Finally, they are undoubtedly in the bad books of the faerie lady of the Vernal House for stealing away her mesmerized bard lover. Perhaps there should be "X" 's on top for enmity instead of influence with the ruler? At any rate, the whole house will be talking about the raid for years to come, so three stars.

The passage of time, and normal social forces, can alter the ratings. For example, fame can spread to settlements of equal or lesser size. If they do something that gets them two stars in Schiecchi, Lugho will almost certainly hear of it.

Influence can also spread, following political lines. The famous deed against the interests of the Vernal House will certainly cause enmity among the House's allies, and may even gain the party good will among its enemies. This is what happened in the north, as the warlord Hugo became friendly to the party largely because they were causing so much havoc among his rivals.

And of course, if enough years pass, fickle fame will fade from memory; but the party's roots, influence and deeds will live longer.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Making a Mark on the Map

Players love their character sheets, the filling in, gearing up, gaining levels and skills and goodies. They also love maps, filling in the blank spaces of the unknown. But what if the map of a realm - like character sheets - also told a story of their gaining power, influence, and notoriety in the world?

Below is a fairly simple way to mark up the icons for cities, towns or strongholds on a map, that records what kind of legacy an adventuring party is leaving there. Here are the icons that can be written around the place's symbol on the map (shown here by a square):
Influence: This is the sway of the party with the powerful folk of the place.
  • No crosses mean they have no pull, or are even sworn enemies. 
  • One cross means they have an ally in at least one influential figure. 
  • Two crosses mean the actual ruler of the place is friendly to them. 
  • Three crosses mean the party actually rules the place, or at least can dictate to its rulers.
Fame: This is how widely known the party is in the place, by name and appearance.
  • No star means they're unknown, except to a few they've interacted with. 
  • One star means they have become known among a section of the people.
  • Two stars mean they have become the talk of the town, at least for a while.
  • Three stars mean they have left a lasting legend that will endure for many years to come.
Roots: This is their lasting connection with the place.
  • No triangles means the party has no real investment there. 
  • One triangle means a personal connection - maybe one of them comes from there, or they settled a retired henchman down in the place.
  • Two triangles mean the party owns property there and visits at least once a year. 
  • Three triangles mean the party spends at least two months a year there and takes an active part in its affairs.
Deeds: There can be up to three backward slashes representing deeds that are "bad" to the interests of the settlement or stronghold, which might actually be morally good, and up to three forward slashes representing deeds that are "good" to their interests. These deeds may or may not correspond to the party's Fame at large, but they should be known to someone. Some deeds may be controversial, earning both kinds of slashes according to whose interests they serve and undermine.
  • One slash is a deed affecting the temporary interests of the place (for example, robbing a citizen's purse, or buying the bar out at every tavern in town).
  • Two is a deed that leaves a permanent mark (for example, murdering or saving the life of a prominent citizen). 
  • Three is an act that changes the place drastically forever, or saves it from an utter calamity (for example, causing a giant purple worm to rampage through a district, saving the city from the purple worm, or building and endowing an entire magical college there). 
I suspect that leaving their mark on the map of the world in this way can be so appealing to players that they would go out of their way to earn such "achievements," pulling outrageous stunts and displays, buying real estate, yanking the strings in court. And if  the game gets to the point of settling down and establishing a domain, it's very useful to see at a glance where your friends, roots, and enemies are.

Next post: An example from actual play.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Four Clocks: Real, Play, Game, Leveling

Time passes in four ways when you're playing a D&D-based campaign. Real time marches on; in that real time, you are playing at a certain pace and length of sessions; on top of that, you're keeping track of in-game time, or Gary's no friend of yours; and your players' characters are leveling at a certain rate, which determines how fast they can progress to new challenges.

Not quite what I meant ..
Here's how my currently longest running, Band of Iron campaign is tracking in terms of the three clocks:

Real time: About 13 months
Play time: About 35 roughly 4-hour sessions
Game time: About 3 months
Leveling time: Near or at Level 5

While I think the ratio of play to leveling time under my 52 Pages rules is just about right, and the ratio of play to real time is about as good as we can make it, game time is progressing awfully fast. Spring has barely turned to summer in the game world. But in the space of 3 months the party has visited 6 adventure sites, had two extended wilderness treks, dealt with business and pleasure in 5 different towns and cities, and gone from zeroes to heroes.

AD&D did a better job, as I recall, of pacing out the action in game-time. My characters only have to train one day per level they're gaining. AD&D had a system which nobody ever followed strictly, in which players got graded on a 1 (best)-4 (worst) scale for how they'd played their characters, and then had to take that amount of weeks times their level to train up, paying a brutal 1500 gp a week. The costs may have been impossible, but leaving them aside, the long passage of time between adventures lent a certain grace to the campaign. Also, the different experience amounts to advance meant it was rare that two characters trained at the same time, so that's more time waiting, visiting home villages while your companions level up and so on. In the high school campaign I played in, long travel times also advanced the calendar, especially combined with the requirement to visit fixed sites for training or plot reasons.

And yet ... A stately pace is realistic and satisfying, perhaps, to the world builder, but it's also anathema to a certain kind of scenario where there's time pressure, or things get scarier under the players' noses. In that case, players can end up frustrated, able to level but unable to spare a month or two while a villain still remains at large or the world slides into danger.

It is possible to just arbitrarily key time to adventures, as in some of the suggestions on this thread - take a year in between scenarios, and so on, making sure all the level advancement happens when adventures are not on. I'm not entirely happy with this, for the same reason I prefer experience points to session-based leveling. I like players to have an in-world reason their characters are passing  time, rather than just enforcing artificial time-outs.

Perhaps a good compromise is to have players get their hit points as soon as they level - representing the development of their instinct - but get other level-related stuff only after training. I could also stand to examine some of the other features of the system, such as prophets being able to heal up a seriously injured character who doesn't get a terrible death and dismemberment roll at zero hit points or less. Maybe those seriously injured guys need to spend some time in bed, prophet or no prophet. The "Pow! Healed! Walk again!" does get a little disconcerting when a character, by all rights and rules, ought to be spending some time in the penalty box, if not outright dead.

Any other thoughts on how to handle the long-term passage of time?

Sunday 17 February 2013

One Page Bard

I know I've been harsh on them before, and their treatment in 90's D&D can stir suspicions of April Foolery.  But damned if last week one of my players didn't want to play a harmonica-toting bard. Thus, this class for the 52 Pages rules:

The original idea for the AD&D bard was a kind of multi-classed jack of all trades, and as you can see I've kept that approach. With "character hit points as morale" it makes sense to give the bard a wide-beam "healing" power that complements the prophet's. Magic spells, like the healing, are slow; the bard works best between or before combats. Add to this a halfway decent fighting statline, with chain armor and missile weapons, and you have a class in the same range as the elf but with a much different feel. I've also kept a little bit of the "bard as hireling" idea, in that the healing depends on the level of the target as well as the bard.

Saturday 16 February 2013

Preposterawesome Cockodrills

The word "preposterawesome" came to mind while watching The Man With The Iron Fists. It also applied to my experiences watching Skyfall and The Hobbit. It is when you are aware that your disbelief is not just suspended, but in freefall without a parachute, but you somehow manage to suppress your x-ty-eight year old brain and enjoy it anyway with your eight-year-old brain.

There are some role-playing games that have it, mostly by Palladium. Whether Synnibar does remains to be seen, but one of my players was a Kickstarter backer and is making noises about GMing it (or rather, taking on the mantle of whatever preposterawesome name Synnibar has for the referee).

When preposterawesome fails it becomes either preposterawful (like Turkish Star Wars) because even an eight-year-old can see through it, or spuriawesome (like Sky Captain) because it tries so hard to be awesome but is obviously playing note by note from The Complete Idiot's Guide To Being Awesome, like roleplaying games that dole out Awesome Points!!! or make you roll Just Got Real Dice!!!

Anyway, the shining example of all time is undoubtedly Clark Ashton Smith's epic poem about being a Dungeon Master, "The Hashish Eater." The medium is "bad poetry" - the nightmare you might have after downing a Milton, Coleridge and Poe milkshake just before going to bed - but he just kills it anyway.

[...] They come,
The Sabaoth of retribution, drawn
From all dread spheres that knew my trespassing,
And led by vengeful fiends and dire alastors
That owned my sway aforetime! [...]
And griffin-mounted gods, and demons throned
On-sable dragons, and the cockodrills
That bear the spleenful pygmies on their backs;
And blue-faced wizards from the worlds of Saiph,
On whom Titanic scorpions fawn; and armies
That move with fronts reverted from the foe,
And strike athwart their shoulders at the shapes
The shields reflect in crystal; and eidola
Fashioned within unfathomable caves
By hands of eyeless peoples; and the blind
Worm-shapen monsters of a sunless world,
With krakens from the ultimate abyss,
And Demogorgons of the outer dark [...]

Demogorgons I can see ... kind of like medusas or draculas ... but ... cockodrills?


Paternal line: crocodile
Maternal line: hybrid of rooster (m) and mandrill (f)
HD: 5
AC: 3[17]
Damage: d12
Move: 9" (15" in water)
It lurks in a tree or the water and then jumps out and bites. If it gets a tasty morsel on the first bite it runs, but fights if it has no escape. Its hands can fling mud in your face if it has no better mode of ranged attack. With a spleenful pygmy as a rider (halfling with berserker morale), it overcomes its sneaking nature and fights as a fierce war steed.

Thursday 14 February 2013

Valentine .. Watch Out For Green Slime!

My wife and I have a special love for the kind of cards that appease the gender-role needs of pre-adolescent boys, when teacher forces them to give Valentines to yucky girls.

 It's a genre ripe for parody ...

From Marvel Flipside
 and for D&D tie-ins.

Anyway, this is a sticky holiday for those unlucky in love. So let's soft-pedal the public schmaltz, and celebrate the romantic instinct in true Gygaxian style. Enjoy!

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Review: Red Tam's Bones, Dragonsfoot Module DF27

For four months or so, John Turcotte's AD&D 1st edition module "Red Tam's Bones" (available for free here) has been the loose and often-violated framework for the adventures of my main party in and around the lands of Faerie, which in my world extradimensionally straddle the border between the Inviolacy (think Papal States) and the elven kingdoms. So, the main plot seemed ideal - a cranky Abbot underwrites two expeditions into Faerie lands to find the bones, and later the musical instrument, of the bard Red Tam. A few spoilers follow.

All the same, my initial impression of it was negative. Indeed, we are in the world of the wistful and fanciful fey, but it never helps to have the exposition written out in some sort of Anglo-Celtic-Groundskeeper Willie dialect, with smirking asides so coy that like the Eric Idle "nudge nudge" character, it's not entirely clear what exactly is being intimated.

Let us banish boxed text to the training modules, where it will exist only to teach beginning gamesmasters how to turn third-person prose into second-person immersion on the fly - never, ever as a permanent crutch. And above the ruins of its dwelling let us erect this motto from today, from a dude who gets it:

... the intention is not to describe things directly but to put them inside the head of the DM who will then describe them to other people. You are not making a normal form of art, you are making a virus. It is not to be looked at, it is to infect people, go inside them and then they do actions round a game table with other people- Patrick Stuart  

Anyway, once past this barrier, you are in the first part of the adventure, where the party is trying to get the titular bones in a wild goose chase across three outdoor locations separated by encounter rolls in various terrains. There is a path suggested, but it's not a railroad; the players may follow rumors in a different order or (as mine did) subvert the mission entirely. This may cause less confident DMs anxiety, but it was perfectly fine with me. The locations are very atmospheric and folkloric, with challenges going beyond simple-minded combat or riddle-me-ree; my party actually approached one of these spots, the faerie mounds, in their later outdoor travels, but thought better of investigating.

The second part turned out to be really wonderful. The goose chase this time targets Red Tam's rebec (a primitive viola) and the evil faerie lover who drained his soul and gave the rebec to her latest paramour, Diarmuid. Her place, the Vernal House, is a sprawling mansion in ornate decay, stuffed to the gills with strange curios, eccentric residents, and treasure if you can get it. My party cut more or less to the chase, which is easy to do if you ask around, and only sampled a few of the wonders available: the three bird-men in the cottage, Diarmuid's horse, the art gallery on the second floor with a painting that clones one of your characters to create a memorable villain.

I appreciated the different denizens - and one of the most important in my run was a random encounter with a spriggan whom I named Goatgamble. These characters can be set into motion like billiard balls, interacting with the weird environment. Goatgamble reaction-rolled his way into love with an elven henchwoman and craftily led the party to the gallery painting so he could have his own evil clone of her.

If you were to use the Vernal House, it might work better as a one-shot with no set goal or only vague rumors, rather than follow the rebec-stealing plot. Give your adventurers only one shot at its riches - it wouldn't do to have them just clear it out room by room like some dirty dungeon.

Monday 11 February 2013

Folk Saints: St. Gumption

Continuing an extremely irregular series of the folk saints in the world of Mittellus. This one emerged with player input during a session last weekend as I floundered for a name for the main church in Renneton.


A Short Oar Sect image of the saint.
The long-deceased holy woman, Gunderdon of Frusk, often has her name shortened to Gumption when she is honored as an unofficial saint along the wild borders of the True Religion.

Escaping a raid on her convent, this devout sister of middle years set forth on a choppy sea in a coracle with woefully insufficient provisions. Her faith, grit, and determination pulled her through this ordeal and the subsequent trial of shipwreck on a deserted, cold island, where she remained for seven years, defending herself against wolves and sea-devils with a broken oar.

After her rescue, she traveled the wild shore on a donkey, enduring fantastic extremes of cold, dry and wet, surviving horrific tortures of the heathen. Eventually, broken in body but not in spirit, she met her martyrdom on a hot griddle, demanding to be turned over so she would roast evenly, and taking a miraculous three days to cook through and through.

Gumption's faithful scorn the complexities of civilization. If the Church will not canonize her because she never performed any miracles on anyone else's behalf, well, what do those incense-swingers know about anything anyway? Her followers place a premium on self-reliance and stick-to-itiveness, and waste no opportunity to teach these lessons to their children. Temples and shrines to the Saint are scrubbed clean, often several times a day.

If Eracle is the folk saint of strength, Gumption is the folk saint of constitution, and other elusive qualities besides. In social relations she is called upon to lend chutzpah. Where initiative is needed, she doles out moxie, spunk, pluck, pep, and good old-fashioned get-up-and-go. In uncertain situations, she recalls horse-sense to mind. And when danger looms, her blessing reinforces guts, strengthens the kidney, stiffens the spine, and thrusts the chin upward. Her spiritual enemies are lazybones, stay-a-beds, those who dilly-dally and shilly-shally, dingbats, duffers, poindexters, and the legions of the lily-livered.

Prophets of the Saint dress in plain, frayed and much-mended clothes, and carry as their sacred weapon a broken oar. There is a rift between the Long Oar (as staff) and Short Oar (as club) sects, often coming to blows; the Long Oars are seen as decadent by the Short Oars, and foolish in their hope that Gumption will eventually be canonized.

All her prophets lack the ability to abjure evil creatures, but emanate a 10' radius aura of morale (+2 for allied NPCs and animals). Additionally, they can exhort others to buck up and pull themselves together, having the ability to dispel fear, confusion, and paralysis at will by touch (at 1st level), at 30' distance (at 3rd level) or for all creatures in a 30' radius (at 5th level). Finally, they save at +4 versus all mind-affecting magic and distractions.

The B Team Can Relieve Your Campaign

A couple of recent gaming developments have made me really appreciate the practice of keeping up more than one set of characters in any long-term gaming group.

Part of my recent travels involved returning to the Cafe 28 on New York's 5th Avenue where some of the Red Box NYC games take place. Investigating, I found that a Glantri game was taking place the night before I took off back home, so I showed up to a table packed full of Erics (no, seriously, there were 4 Erics out of 7 guys at table).

One of these Erics was blogger "the Mule," who'd been present at my previous foray, and another was the GM. He ran a B/X game mostly by rules as written with some nice touches - no duplicate spell memorizing, declaring only spells and withdrawal from combat before the initiative roll. The players had maps of Eric's megadungeon from three years of continuous play, spanning five levels and hundreds of rooms. This "Chateau D'Amberville" is based on Castle Amber in the sense that The Lord of the Rings is based on the Elder Edda. It was truly a great glimpse into the potential of the format.

As it turned out, my newly rolled wizard character - Raz, son of Taz - was adventuring that evening with a B-list party consisting of players' secondary characters, mostly level 5 and 6. This explained the nonchalance when two of them got double-level drained, in merciless old school style, by some unexpected spectres, which we quickly fled from. I admired the good spirits of these players, who were evidently playing in a very free-wheeling table with drop-in party composition and multiple characters.

On returning home I unleashed the lead-in to an episode I'd been brooding over all January - a climax adventure that could take place in one session, and would cap off the plot of the "Faerie war" arc they'd been following since the summer. Today I learned the limits of plot-heavy climax adventures ... when one of the players called in sick and we realized that we just couldn't play on in this adventure without her.

So we decided to form a B-Team with the existing group, rolling up new characters and embarking ad-hoc on an adventure. The A team (Band of Iron) had started in the Valley of Milk and Cheese where I had also placed Jeff Sparks' Labyrinth Lord adventure Wheel of Evil, purchased but never engaged with, an appropriately cheese-themed adventure. And so, the new group started in the uneasy town of Renneton, got a good way into the cheese caves, and everyone seemed to enjoy the change of perspective and freedom from the burdensome importance of actions in the by now year-long main campaign.

Perhaps this is what most campaigns need past a certain point - a way to deal with missing or guest players, to blow off steam, and get the kind of fast-and-loose play that comes with an adventure rather than story focus.

Saturday 9 February 2013

Broken Arrows

By coincidence, I had been thinking about one of the logistic aspects of the game this week that I seem to blow off in my campaigns - keeping track of ammo. Then Talysman writes about it so I feel I should share my thoughts.

Are most people overestimating how many arrows would be lost in combat, given enough time to recover them afterwards as part of the ten minute post-combat rest? This blog has 50% attrition, Talysman has 33%. It doesn't look like too many arrows would be broken even shooting against armor (here) so the main source of loss would be sticking in the wound and being broken off, being trodden on in combat, or just disappearing into the distance. It may be useful to overestimate these occurrences, though, if only to have ammo supplies play a meaningful part in an adventure.
Also topical for Valentine's Day.
In battlefield combat, of course, there is the factor of not wanting your enemy to easily pull out arrows or use them back against you, that led some historical archers to use arrows with the point intentionally loosened. Most of what adventurers are fighting, though, won't have bows themselves. The option can be given to loosen heads if needed, but it seems more important to explorers to be able to conserve arrow stores.

Here are a couple of ideas:

1. Track ammo supplies using toothpicks stuck in a piece of modeling clay, packing sponge, or styrofoam (personally I hate the sound of squeaking styrofoam so that's right out.) Pull your "arrows" out when you shoot them and turn them in if they break or are abandoned. Indicate special arrows (magic, silver, etc.) using marker on the tip.

2. Arrows, magic or otherwise, break immediately on a natural damage roll of 6; I also have a missile fumble that breaks the arrow. Otherwise, there is no need to have a fiddly "realistic" system or extra dice rolls to model what is ultimately just another aspect of logistics like food, water, and light source consumption. So, breakage and loss are abstracted after the combat; each archer loses 1 out of every 4 arrows shot, rolling d4 to see if there is any loss when a fraction of that is shot. If the party flees the battlefield, of course, losses are total. Magic arrows can be exempted from this due to superior construction, although they may be picked up by intelligent foes.

3. Arrow heads can be loosened to become unusable after any hit (including a hit that would connect with an unarmored target even if it missed due to armor) and 3/4 unrecoverable.

Thursday 7 February 2013

Almost-Encounters: Sights, Sounds and Leavings

Regularly, when I roll for random encounters underground or outdoors in a game, I allow for the possibility that some kind of clue to an encounter happens instead. For example, if rolling a d6 for an encounter, a real encounter happens on a 1 and a clue happens on a 2. In my hex-stocking wilderness system, there's also provision for clues, though on a less frequent basis than real encounters.

I usually make the clues up on the spot. They fall into two kinds: sights and sounds, which can occur even when the party is stationary; and leavings, which the party has to be moving to find. Here are some examples.

Sights: A pair of griffins flying across the sunset, many miles away.
In the night, a brief red glow, sighted across a far-away ridge line (red dragon).

Sounds: Snatches of shouting and song down in the valley (bandits).
A full-throated roar echoing across the plains (lion).
Far away, echoing through many passages, a door slams (dungeon monster - ogre, perhaps?)

Leavings can be...
Body parts: The cast-off skin of a giant snake.
Manticore spikes, embedded in a tree.

Victims: A dead squirrel, withered and drained of all blood (stirges).
The bones and equipment of a former adventurer, scattered all through a long corridor (gelatinous cube).

Tracks: A long wide trail of half-dried slime, bending around a corner (giant slug).
Large hoofprints, going across the road (gorgon).

Smells and vapors: The slight stench of rotting flesh in the air (zombies).
A smoky haze hanging in the air (hell hounds).

Environment damage: A scorched spot on the dungeon wall (hell hounds).
The tracks lead into a trodden and torn clump of thorn bushes (gorgon).

Intentional markings: Obscene graffiti on the wall, written in Dark Rune pictograms (humanoids).
A strong musky scent around the base of a tree (giant wolverine).

I find that using clues this way adds suspense to adventures, gives players options (do we investigate this, or run like hell?), and makes for more meaningful information than most random "dungeon dressing" out there.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Running Bandits Across the Many Worlds

Well, I couldn't get much enthusiasm to blog during my trip in the latter half of January (especially when my computer's hard disk crashed) but did get in a fair amount of tabletop action. Stick with it, there's some more commentary on megadungeon design below ...

My first stop was the gaming in-laws (previously) where my wife rolled up her third first level magic-user with a Sleep spell to venture into the Castle of the Mad Archmage - promptly dubbed "Repetitia." Thus augmented, the usual family party set out to defeat the Skull Stacker bandits in the upper works, led by the green-armored terror, half-orc Grunya (or Grainne - medieval orthography being what it is). This would be the third time the Skull Stackers have appeared in my various parallel universes - the first time in the long-ago Trossley campaign, the second in the Saturday games I ran last year for the local game club.

Accompanying the party was a detachment of the local guard, pushing ahead of them three convicts from the rival bandit gang captured in the previous session. The convicts were chained to polearms and told that their way to mercy was to attack without regard for life.

There followed a tense battle across a curtain wall and tower with scaling of walls, dodging and not-dodging of arrows, opening of one door from within and another door using Repetitia's enlarge/reduce spell on the planks. Dad and daughter climbed a grappling rope to find Grunya and comrades atop the tower while son and the rest of the party battled up from within the tower, landing a critical hit on the leader at the best possible moment to knock her down the stairs. Soon she was dead and the young version of the rival bandit Fergus, who had appeared in Grunya's respawned band when the Castle reappeared, was in custody. Shades of Looper! The captive older version of Fergus offered his own life to hang for the crimes of both if younger Fergus could be indentured to the party as a man-at-arms - very different from how this dilemma played out in Trossley.

The next day, the party, now mostly second level, decided to return to the Castle's dungeons and head down the rightmost of three stairs to level 2. After disposing of a spider they found themselves in a hallway occupied by ... not bandits ... okay, brigands. A quick sleep spell disposed of most of the band and in short order they were negotiating surrender terms with the leader, Tov Encher. Tov convinced them that only he could pacify the neighboring troglodytes who had come to investigate the sounds they heard, and so got them out of the level, and set himself free at the price of the gang's treasure.

It's only after running the brigand episode that I realized this was another example of Joe Bloch's hidden depths beneath the Castle's terse descriptions. (I've previously noticed some subtle setups running the west end of the second level, where a seemingly unbeatable monster has the means to defeat at hand, and a fear trap combines with branching corridors behind it, to effectively split the party.)

The group of about 12 brigands lives in a series of 20x20 foot rooms off a straight hallway behind a door, close to the stairway down. To quote:

BLACK SPEAR GANG (#35 – 40). A group of brigands has taken up residence with the idea of ambushing adventurers after they are weakened. They have not been very successful of late, and will often send out patrols to look for likely targets, setting up ambushes, etc.
This is where it pays to read ahead of time and embellish the dungeon. My one idea was that they would try to dissuade adventurers from entering their area, instead shunting them to the nearby troglodyte-controlled corridor, which would easily yield a weakened party for the ambush idea. Therefore, I had the brigands put the delver's rune for "Treasure" on their own door, which obviously (?) would make parties suspicious and choose the other door. However, nobody in the party managed to decipher the rune, so in they went.

The fallback plan for the brigands, in hindsight, would be to put bars or blockades on the inside of the doors, hope the party would bypass the unmovable doors to venture deeper within, and then ambush on return. But DMs, like players, have to live and learn.

Personally, I think working with the design of the dungeon to bring out strategies like this is a fun challenge. But I can see how a product for less experienced session runners might gain value by going beyond the minimal descriptions, and spelling out some of the more interesting possibilities that might not be immediately obvious.

Monday 4 February 2013

The Megadungeon Paradox

As the blogosphere faces the possibility that all we'll have of Dwimmermount is a draft, critical evaluations of that draft are flooding in, from the dismissive to the constructive. One big part of the criticism - really just an extension of last summer's "9 rats, 2000 cp" beef -  is that the upper level maps are boring.

There's a reason for that, very much in keeping with the Phase 1 of the OSR that Dwimmermount represents. Phase 1 was all about copying the old stuff, with a "D&D is always right" mentality. Take a look at this paparazzi shot of Gary Gygax's Castle Greyhawk dungeon Level 1:

It's a hot mess of jammed-together, samey rooms and corridors, and from all accounts the keying was minimal. I'd rather explore even the upper levels of Joe Bloch's Castle of the Mad Archmage than this map - even though the Castle is another case of a Gygax homage intentionally putting the more generic stuff up top and the wilder level designs below. (Besides, the Castle has hidden depths to its design not evident from casual skimming - as I hope to demonstrate next post.)

But from experience of actual play, consider what this design approach means. Most explorers of megadungeons never get past the early levels - just as most campaigns never reach level 10. This means that most people's megadungeon experience is intentionally boring, with the real fun deferred for a lower level that never comes.

Phase 2 of the OSR means that enjoyment and amazement take precedence over carbon-copying the old school. The goal is not to reproduce the means, but the ends, of the class of 1974 - the sense of wonder and discovery now hard to recover from a set of expectations turned cliche.

This means that megadungeons should engage from the beginning, with early levels that reward exploration with variety - not the most awesome and dazzling stuff, certainly, but fun mapping, meaningful phenomena, intriguing hints that draw explorers deeper. I've tried to follow this principle with my first-level completion for the Castle - which I'm more and more inclined to release as-is this month - and with my new mega-project, one section of which is finished.

Sunday 3 February 2013

Don't You Just Want To Slap the 90's ...

in its smug, bard-lovin', Next Generation, Wheel of Time-buyin', Renfairin' face?

Thanks to Internet Archive and its cache of Dragon Magazines, I've been pondering this entirely unremarkable table of contents from #180, where the big big feature is a preview of trading cards, and other articles tell you ...

to have your campaign make sense, to give magic weapons backstory, to intentionally play a low-intelligence character dumb, to haul off your party cleric to perform weddings in his home town, how to raise funds for your gaming club, and please make the acquaintance of this four-horned giant battering ram - get it? - and six-legged earthquake-making dinosaur.

The real posts will resume soon, hopefully with better content than that. I'm back from an extended professional/vacation trip where real gaming took precedence over game posting.