Monday 31 March 2014

Treachery and Inebriation

Betraying your players is difficult. Nevertheless, I thought the most reasonable course for a band of pirates the players had been allying with for the last several game sessions was to set up a send-off that would put our heroes at a disadvantage and rob them of all that fancy loot. After all, the players did charm the captain's wife and put to sleep most of the pirate away party when they thought the captain might be possessed by a giant iron head, and despite their reasons for doing so, the wife is a wizard, a proud one.

All the same, I thought it wasn't fair to completely blindside them. I dropped some hints, a few details that got them suspicious and investigating further. But by that time, the revel on the pirate ship was under way. I brought the miniatures out on the pretext of having a number of carnival-like entertainments the characters could take part in - a dice game, a rope walk, knife throwing and storytelling contests (the latter along the lines of Baron Munchhausen), a dance area. And I gave everyone this drunkenness chart, and sent the drinks round generally, and as forfeits in the contests.

Long story short, half the party wound up "legless" and, without resisting, they were rounded up to be "honored" by the system of Doctor Webb and Professor Spell. A few alert ones who had feigned wooziness and dodged the drinks managed to escape the sticky strands and leap overboard, while others used various magical means to break the webs and get to a place where they could free themselves. A duel commenced, but the captain's wife was soon taken hostage by a leaping dwarf. The dark heart of Captain van der Masque faltered, and a truce arranged whereby the remaining adventurers would depart for the nearby land on a ship's boat.

The drinking system worked all right for these purposes. A normal person has about 1/3 chance of making a Body save in my system, these adventurers closer to 1/2 and more in the case of a dwarf. Experienced drinkers with low levels of adventuring should nonetheless be given some bonuses. 

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Preamble N: Role-Playing Backwash in Literature

Reading someone's list of the top 13 new and forthcoming fantasy novels -- most of which appear to involve white male antiheroes caught up in what you might call a strategic competitive process for seats embodying rulership -- I was struck by the approving phrase "a well-thought-out magic system." 

Indeed, I appreciate that the author in question, Brian McClellan, has achieved something that Tolkien, Dunsany, Leiber, Wolfe, Howard, Mirrlees and so many others failed to do. But I'll also pounce on this phrase as evidence of a second wave of re-infiltration of role-playing games into genre literature.

The first wave: the back-derivation of content from role-playing. But, whether we're talking about a lite-medieval society with dwarves, elves, and polytheistic clerics, or a shadowy modern underworld of supernatural creatures divided into stylish rival factions, this material eventually became hackneyed. Besides,who can compete with the game company's own hired guns turning out Forgotten Realms novels and the like? 

Thus, the turn in the late 90's to content more directly inspired by history. The model here is George R. R. Martin's reach back to English and Scottish medieval dynastic struggles. McClellan, it seems, taps 19th century Europe for inspiration. Being unique in this choice can get you attention, as happened with Saladin Ahmed's detailed creation of a medieval Arabian milieu in Throne of the Crescent Moon. I read that novel, and while it was enjoyable and flavorful, there was something itching at the back of my mind. I couldn't put a finger on it until that phrase, "a well-thought-out magic system," made something click again. 

When I compare Ahmed  to the authors who inspired D&D, the much-discussed "Appendix N" list, I get the feeling of ...

  • not just magic, but a magic system
  • not just characters, but character classes, character options
  • not just monsters, but a monster manual
  • not just adventures, but adventure modules (or better yet, adventure paths)
What is it that gives me this feeling? It might be just a little too much emphasis on the signposts of a roleplaying adventure: combat, healing, investigation. It might be the assembling of a diverse team of adventurers, each with their own talent. 

I had a similar reaction when I read Caitlin R. Kiernan's Daughter of Hounds. I was expecting a warped and transgressive look at a society of Lovecraftian ghouls, and while there was some of that, it was embedded in an all-too-familiar urban monster party -- a world of insufficient light, if you will -- where vampires rub elbows with ghosts and hard-bitten human investigators mourn wrecked relationships.

It's inevitable, perhaps, among generations that grew up with these games as a way to perform fantasy. Appendix N has become preamble, the flow reversed. Literature now draws structure unconsciously from role-playing.  You can read this as a repayment of the turn role-playing took in the 80's and 90's, when it started embedding literary devices, plots, and character development into prepared material, instead of letting them emerge haphazardly from play. 

What would literature that draws on role-playing be, without role-playing that draws on literature? I suspect the derivation would be less obvious; the end product, more postmodern.

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Lit-Up Drow

You know something about the dark elves, the lost race, the Drow? They've adapted over millennia to an underground environment. Through melanism?


Here's the real story. Those glowing fungi that light up the Underdark? That are distilled and concentrated by the dark elves for their witch-lamps? They illuminate in reverse.

Black turns to white under that light ... orange to blue ... green to red. Early Underdark explorers glimpsed the Drow under those conditions and leapt to conclusions. But out of their element -- say, if one of them were to become all broody and alienated because his society like totally didn't respect his alignment choices, and skip town -- the Drow are pale, dark-haired ectomorphs styling the very finest in white and yellow apparel. Not that different, really, from the regular kind of high elf.

Well ... it's a good story, anyway.

Monday 24 March 2014

Take Only Treasure, Leave Only Footprints

Wandering monsters usually are mentioned as a reason for players to take time in the dungeon seriously; to work efficiently, without searching every crevice for treasure; and to refrain from brute-force solutions to doors and chests that would make loud and long noise.

There's another reason I haven't seen implemented, which is -- to give consequences for overly zealous damage to the environment.

Photo by awelshgirl
Think about it. If you get back home and you find someone has knocked your mailbox over, you might want to take a further tour of the premises, see if the vandals are still around, or at very least see if there's been any more damage to your turf.

Likewise, if the dungeon presents tempting urns to knock over, furniture to smash in search of treasure, wooden doors to blast with lightning bolts ... these operations will not just make noise ... they'll leave tracks. Tracks much more detectable than Hansel and Gretel's bread crumbs. Come to think of it, the usual pile of corpses and blood from a dungeon combat will also have this effect. Your typical party of adventurers is an ecological disaster waiting to happen.

And maybe Smokey the Werebear is out there ...

Try this for size. As explorers go deeper into the dungeon, as you roll wandering encounters for them, also roll encounters for any "disaster scenes" they have left behind them. If an intelligent monster turns up at that scene, make a morale roll for them. If they pass, they will go off in search of the wreckers, following any tracks that may have been left behind, otherwise going randomly. If they fail morale, they will make excuses to find something better to do.

So as the explorers go deeper into the dungeon, leaving their mark, they may find more enemies attracted to their trail and bedeviling their return. Which in turn encourages play closer to Special Forces on a long range patrol, and further away from dungeon vandals on a smash and grab party.

Sunday 23 March 2014

Another Sunday, Another Mad Archmage Delve

Only three people showing up but going ahead and playing anyway and rolling up an even more miserable gnome henchman-fanboy so the gnome's player can play, still recovering from his injuries at the knife and fork of a Boschian spoonbill demon... (spoilers for Castle of the Mad Archmage follow...)

Rolling a crazy coincidence 6 and running into the orc and goblin with the dire badger and dire weasel you'd fought and defeated and let live last time and finding that the rubble kobolds ran them out of the castle tower where they went to live ...

And knowing they'll find some kind of acceptance in the grimy, raucous suburb of the Grey City where dogfighting goes on ...

And finding out they're lovers (...)

And then cleaning out the last corners of level 1 and down the small stairs to level 2 and blundering into a room with the usual trash in it and getting jumped by giant centipedes, losing a hireling to poison (count so far: 6 dead hirelings, 1 survived) and having the night elf weakened by it ...

And then along come some earnest rival adventurers, Lightning's Hand, up from exploring a deeper level and they trade a poison antidote to the night elf for maps and info about the first level and the possible secret library which excites their savant ...

And on into a room where there's a strange mural of clowns on the wall ... six zanies picnicking, Pierrot, Colombina, Harlequin, Pulcinello, Weary Willie and Pennywise ... frozen expressions behind painted smiles and halted gestures, with only Harlequin looking out of frame, smiling contentedly. What can it mean?

And on ... to the Moat of Knives, thousands of slashing and leaping blades crossed only with daring, ingenuity and a couple of planks lying around... to a treasure room where, without lockpicks, bashing opened only two of three chests ... a decent haul of coin, an oddly shaped piece of wood and a sword in a red leather scabbard with smoldering edges ... bags of coppers thrown over the gulf, one faltering and spilling its ruddy load beneath the swirling blades, a weird wishing well ...

And that was the climax, except on returning to the stairs, some of the rubble kobolds were waiting to roll a stone column on the party unless they gave up loot ... 500 coppers now, 500 later was the eventual deal, but later never came as a swift sleep spell dealt with most of them ... the bag disappearing with the last surviving kobold, and a thrown axe frightening the Mule into a headlong rush, getting pelted with sling stones by backup kobolds, injuring its leg ...

Limping, shaken, with one mottle-faced corpse on their sprain-legged not-quite-a-mule, they returned ... but richer ... richer!

Friday 21 March 2014

Gotcha World

The "Gotcha" mentality of the Original Adversarial Game Referee is responsible for more than one in thirty-six monsters in the AD&D Monster Manual ... between mimics, lurkers, trappers, rust monsters, ear seekers, rot grubs, jackalweres (my high school dungeon had one who used the not very clever pseudonym Jack Alwere), other lycanthropes, dopplegangers, rakshasas ... later books and editions continuing the trend on well into the zone of sheer awfulness. Add to the "Gotcha!" factor all the cursed items, tricks, traps, perma-spells and situations, and we have a clear candidate for one of my thirty-six genre tables. You don't even get a verb. Just GOTCHA!

May I also remind you that the tedious process of rolling d20 on each of the three (well, here, two) columns of the table has been automated, and the results added to a gigantic generator including all (by now) 24 genre tables, on this perma-page. One, two, three ...

"Petrified tree trunk taming dubious oracular advice."
"Sasquatch living with illusion of ruins."
"Ogre mage healing a shaft to the surface."

Did I mention you should feel free to change the verb? Either that, or live happily with surrealism.

Thursday 20 March 2014

RPG Blog Dodge

You may have observed that I don't take part in any of the "blog hop" events where large numbers of writers pledge to each tackle the same topics each day for a month.

The reason is simple. I have been blogging on gaming since 2010 and there are people who have been doing it for longer. I read more blogs than forums because I see much less repetition and sameness on blogs. There are of course bloggers who re-hash the same old topics as well. But new insight into old topics is rare, and I find blog writers doing a better job of sharing new stuff, perhaps feeling that they have more of an obligation to showcase ideas.

So I would much rather sign up to a perpetual and ongoing old school RPG  "blog dodge"- wherein you resolve to dodge the topics of:
ascending AC * what do hit points mean * what does [insert ability score] mean * race as class * racial level limits * gender stat limits * racial balance * class balance * Vancian casting * critical hits and fumbles * what good are megadungeons * lethal poison * character mortality * GMs fudging dice * railroading * where do monsters eat and shit in the dungeon * player skill dealing with traps * level draining * what should xp reward * do you use this goof-ass rule from old old D&D like brawling, weapon length, psionics, contracting diseases at taverns, etc. * sexual politics in RPG * racial politics in RPG * artistic depictions of women in RPG * real world religion and D&D * satanic panic * do you use alignment and if so what system * can rules stop bad or antisocial players * realism in D&D combat (lack of) * realism in D&D timekeeping (lack of) * encumbrance and how it sucks * wandering monsters * pretend sex and romance in your rpg *  variable weapon damage * killer GMs * Monty Haul GMs * EDITION WAR * D&D VS OTHER GAME WAR * the morality of murderhoboism * do you use miniatures * do you make the players map * skill systems * behavior at cons * should RPGs be made for soccer moms or should the long demonic tongue be unfurled overtly in abomination * [insert class/race] does not belong in real D&D * rolling vs. building the characters * omg falling damage * pant pant stop
You get the picture. Did I miss any?

Actually, for each of these topics what would be useful is a final stake in the heart, a scholarly treatment that links to examples of all the arguments from every blog, every forum topic, to wit "I have read all these topics extensively and I can tell you there are only three viable positions on this issue and each of them has six arguments and here they are." Or use that scholarly topic to come up with some completely new take on it. But don't post up your opinions and then watch the comments section fill up with more opinions and these opinions repeat all opinions for 20 years on the subject.

The sad thing? I don't know if it's true but it seems to me the way to get view bait and comments on a blog is more to hash over these issues in a combative way, than to present original content. Well, rise above! The content I treasure is unique. The blog should go beyond the letters column in Dragon magazine from 1986. The dodge starts now.

Sunday 16 March 2014

Between Gygax and Greenwood

Here is a representative treasure description written by Gary Gygax. It's from Steading of the Hill Giant Chief.
The jade coffer is worth 5,000 g.p. and contains 6 healing potions. The crown is begemmed and worth 25,000 g.p. The small sack holds 276 p.p., 29 base 10 g.p. gems, a scroll of 7 magicuser spells (pretend to roll, but they are all 1st and 2nd level), and a map showing a location several hundred miles away which supposedly has a rich treasure (it is a fake, naturally).
(I love that "naturally". Whaddya expect? A treasure map for free? This is the guy who invented the ear seeker! Suck it up!)

Now here is part of a vampire's hoard, published by Ed Greenwood about 13 years later, from Ruins of Undermountain.
Also in the sack is a small (5"” × 5"” × 2”" high), flat, plain ivory box (value: 7 gp). Its lid slides off in grooves to reveal the contents: a black silk garter and a coin-sized plate of human bone, carved and polished into the semblance of a staring eye. These items are actually a band of denial and an eye of aiming, respectively; both items are detailed in the Magical Items chapter. 
There is also a stout book, of parchment pages locked with iron hasps between two pieces of black, smooth-polished slate. It is a spell book, the spells recorded one to a page; the book has six blank pages at the end. Thearyn'’s spell book details the following spells: [long list] 
There is finally a leather drawstring bag, heavy with coins (43 cp, 21 sp, 36 gp, and 18 pp), and a small copper coffer (worth 5 gp) which contains satin wrappings. Within the satin folds are a tiny ivory statuette of a mermaid (worth 4 gp) and gems: six 5000 gp rubies (deep crimson red, crown cut); and four unusually large sapphires, each worth 4,000 gp (clear blue, cabochon cut). DMs are urged to modify this hoard to fit the individual campaign.
Of course, the differences between writers may be exaggerated - there are Gygax treasures that are more unique and Greenwood treasures that are more bare-bones. But it's no exaggeration  that Greenwood got his start in the hobby by elaborating on what had before been left generic, through his eye-opening treasure and ecology descriptions in the Dragon magazine.

"The skull belonged to a jester, Yorick..."
Still, looking back, the descriptions seem less magical and more self-indulgent. Can't the DM just determine how small a small box is, or that a spellbook has parchment pages? Are we required to study the terms of the jeweller's art? Old School writers today have to navigate between these two poles. Some are kinder to the Greenwood way, some less so, but the general agreement is: you need to make descriptions interesting, but do it efficiently. Here are some guidelines for doing that.

Information has to ultimately be of use to the players. It has to give them information useful in problem solving, evocative descriptions that create an atmosphere, details that add to the sense of discovery and piecing things together.

  • Don't write about what the characters can't actually discover. The classic example is the room in an early draft of Dwimmermount where "There were plaques, statues, and other similar ornaments all long since looted and removed to other parts of the fortress." There's a tiny example in the vampire's hoard, too: the disk of "human bone." Boy, that's going to put a chill down the players' backs when they get the DNA results back from the lab.
  • Detail for the sake of detail may give short-term interest, but detail that supports top-down discovery pays off better in the long term. In the page or so that the vampire's hoard takes up, there's no hook to larger discoveries. You'd never know that "He is searching for a way to augment his magical powers so he can master the creation and control of gates," his main motivation from earlier in the description.
    Does he deal and trade with other powers in the dungeon? Why the hell is this vampire living in a dungeon, anyway?  That last unanswered question makes clear that beneath all the clever traps, combat situations, and treasures, Undermountain is still at heart a monster zoo.
At the same time, it's also a mistake to think of the DM as an invisible conduit through which information should flow from writer to players. The DM is a person who wants to be entertained by creating entertainment. A lot of advice on adventure writing focuses on making the descriptions easy to read in play, on describing things in a logical order. That's good, but not enough.
  • A description should involve the DM actively, while saving space, by leaving to the DM things that can be easily imagined. The dimensions of the box, how its lid opens, the ordinary material the bag is made of: none of that is necessary to describe unless it challenges the players or contributes to a larger meaning.
  • This means that description should be reserved for things that can't be improvised: details of startling originality, or clues that support a larger process of discovery. I like how the nested containers and wrappings of the treasures give drama to the unpacking of the vampire's trove, and the basic descriptions of the items are certainly original. So, the first paragraph can boil down to: "Also in the sack is a small flat ivory box worth 7 gp. It holds a black silk garter (a magical band of denial, p. **) and a carved bone eye (an eye of aiming, p. **)."
  • Writers should keep in mind that a good DM will want to fit the adventure into their own world. That's another difference between Gygax's wide-open Greyhawk world and Greenwood's detailed Forgotten Realms. Let's suppose that the vampire's hoard gave some clues to his former life as "an 18th level adventurer-wizard, once of Lantan." Perhaps the box has a Lantanian design, or the gems are an unusual type known to come from there. That description would still only be good in a world containing Lantan. A better way to go is to make Lantan generic, describe it as "a far-off land of scholars to the south" and give appropriate descriptions to some of the goods and treasure. 
  • Too much time describing the history and set-up of the adventure in loving, campaign-specific detail is also useless to a DM with their own agenda. "A baroness wants evidence of her past crimes erased. She has tracked down all copies of an executed historian's book, except one, traced to a wizard's tower in the wilderness which swears fealty to a different law. She needs deniable agents to go get that last book by force." That is all the DM needs to fit the adventure into their own campaign.
It's because of the need to involve the DM that I have a certain tolerance for bare-bones descriptions like Castle of the Mad Archmage's. Yes, there certainly could be more, but what I have to fill in during the course of play takes on a life of its own - almost like writing my own adventure, with very little preparation needed.

Friday 14 March 2014

Postal Surprise Challenge

Quick thought on something neat for game-masters to do:

1. Go on Ebay.
2. Look for people selling lots of cheap pre-painted plastic fantasy miniatures ("dungeons dragons miniatures" and "pathfinder miniatures" seem to work)
3. Bid on a bunch of them from a single seller.
4. See which of your bids win.
5. Ask for combined postage.

Ones that got away.
6. When the package gets there, don't open it right away.
7. Tell your players, "Some strange creatures have been sighted in an abandoned (something) outside of town. Do you want to investigate?)" Hold up the sealed package.
8. Make up some inspired reason why those creatures should be working together.
9. See if they take the bait!

I've got the package in hand and am going to try it this weekend. Even if you don't usually use miniatures, who could resist opening up the "sealed deck" adventure?

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Where All The Tables Dwell

Don't mind me. I'm just messing around in the vein of the last post, putting up pop-up links to give you random results based on these tables. When the post is complete I'll add the ONE BIG TABLE with everything so far, and bookmark on the right, and maybe use this post as a placeholder for yet more pop-up random stuff of mine. How to use:

1. Click link.
2. Observe the pop-up.
3. If the verb doesn't make sense, the two things are just doing whatever makes most sense for them to do.

The "became" verb needed a little finessing.

24/36 Genre Encounter Tables (click for random table)

1. SAVAGE: Prehistoric Times
2. SWAMP: Wet Teeming Life
3. INSECT: Arthropod Overlords
4. DARK: Lightless Abyss
5. EVIL: Agents of Mortal Sin
6. MANSION: Eccentric Family Values
7. MYTHIC: Olympian Heroes
8. PRISON: The Panoptic Carceri
9. TOMB: With the Dead in Dead Tongues
10. FILTH: The Wisdom of Repugnance
11. HORROR: Monster Chiller Theater
12. ABOMINATION: Hail the New Flesh
13. BEAST: Hoof and Horn
14. PLANT: The Green Realm
15. FAERIE: Fey Arcadia
16. FUNGUS: Mushroom Kingdom
17. SURREAL: A Week of Gifts
18. HOLY: Divine Light
19. GIANT: Someone Your Own Size
20. MEDIEVAL: Days of Olde
21. NEAR ORIENTALISM: Arabesque Tales
22. FAR ORIENTALISM: Mysterious East
23. CARNIVAL: Circus of Misrule
24. GOTCHA: Adversarial Referee
25. EARTH: The Enduring Element
26: AIR: The Transporting Element
27: FIRE: The Destroying Element
28: WATER: The Transforming Element

ALL THE TABLES so far, jamming together...

Other tables

509,124 Problems and Counting (derived from Bag of Problems)

Bag of Tricks II

General Dungeon Room Contents

Random Treasure

Monster Encounter:
Characters are: 1st level | 2nd-3rd level | 4th-5th level
Category I
General * Desolate Stronghold
Category II
Category III
Category IV
Category V