Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Alternatives to the Random Encounter Clock

One of, if not the chief function of random encounters is to force the players to make decisions about what to do and what to leave alone. This is usually expressed as a penalty for taking more time or extraneous actions, and it usually is, since random encounter rolling is usually tied to time spent - i.e., actions taken.

Unfortunately, in my experience of GURPS this pretty much completely breaks down. Further, even in systems where it usually works, there are downsides. Perhaps the encounters are too dangerous, especially in a densely-inhabited dungeon where they would bring others. If handled poorly they can become a joke or a severe annoyance for the players. Sometimes they send the wrong message, or they simply aren't wanted in your dungeon.

Nevertheless the function of rewarding time and action economy is worthwhile to salvage. I originally thought of using random encounter tables along with faction diagrams to give reinforcements to the set-piece monsters, but the more I mulled this over, the less I liked the idea. One of the reasons random encounters work is because they give immediate consequences to the players. Generally, immediate consequences are better for informing behaviour than mediate. With the reinforcement idea, or any other scheme that puts off the results, players are more likely to shoot themselves in the collective foot. In the example given, they'd most likely keep doing whatever until the monster density became so great there was no feasible way to proceed, or until it maximized - and then there would be no further disincentive.

Then I had a breakthrough: why does a wandering monster system have to involve monsters at all? If the central point is to make the players economize their actions, that can be done without monsters as easily as with. Further, avoiding monsters makes it work for systems like GURPS as well, where the attrition due to combat is nowhere near as strong as it is in D&D.

To that end, I give you a few 'timers' I've been thinking over lately:

The Timed Dungeon

The essential feature here is that the dungeon itself has some integral timer which makes exploration progressively more dangerous or difficult. Some specific examples:
  • The dungeon is flooding: every <interval> more and more of the dungeon is underwater. To do this you need to know the source, and the relative elevations of various rooms. I'd recommend giving rooms four states - dry, ankle-deep, chest-deep, over-your-head, completely-filled - and rate the source(s) by how many stages it can fill per interval. Generally I'd eyeball the map and flood downhill, with rooms getting to ankle depth before the water spills over to a lower place. Bonus points if you use some fluid other than water - I'm partial to mercury or poison gas.
  • The Archmage is out: every turn roll a d6. Once you cumulatively roll 5 1's, he's come back. The party better skedaddle soon, because he's a 60th-level ubermage able to cast Elric's Flaming Haemerrhoids at will. This works well with archmages' towers, elder dragons' dens, demons' lairs, and generally anywhere you can stock a big nasty that the party knows would squish them flat in an outright fight. A variant has the bad guy already there, but temporarily neutralized - asleep, behind a failing barrier, whatever. Season dice and intervals to taste.
  • The dungeon is unstable: maybe it's situated in the caldera of a live volcano, or in the rift between the astral and ethereal planes. Or maybe the entrance is an old mine shaft that's under serious stress. This has much the same mechanics as the archmage one above, but after a certain accumulation of rolls the entrance will be closed, or the dungeon will collapse, or whatever. A variant on this is the 'clockwork dungeon' - where the map changes every so often, making navigation difficult or impossible. Maybe the dungeon is a wizard's toy, or it's slipping through time, and staying too long will mean you have to deal with dinosaurs or barbarians where you expected your village to be.

The Timed Treasure

 Whereas above the dungeon itself was becoming undelvable over time, in these scenarios it's just becoming undesirable to do so, due to disappearing reward.
  • Kingdom of the Sidhe: After a certain time passes, all the loot in or from the dungeon will lose all value. The adventurers had better retrieve and spend it beforehand! Keep a timer keyed to turns or hours or whatever. Whenever enough time passes, increment it by one. Don't forget to make sure the players know they need not only to acquire the loot, but get rid of it too! An elven favorite is turning leaves into gold, but fresh basilisk blood or psionic crystals that must be preserved by the local alchemist after being chiseled from the walls are also good ones.
  • Explosive treasure: Do you really want to muck around when you have a backpack full of white phosphorous in kerosene? Make the treasure valuable but volatile. It doesn't have to be explosive; it might be an acid, or a powerful djinni bottled in a jar and yearning to get out, or carefully preserved bottles of essence of green slime. Every time the characters do something dangerous, it has a chance of backfiring.
  • There goes the neighborhood: The denizens of the dungeon have decided for whatever reason to pack up and leave, bringing their stuff with them. Much like the coming of the archmage in reverse. Roll a d6. After 3 or so 1's, randomly or by fiat pick a faction; they exit the dungeon with all their treasure. To complicate matters, the PCs might be between them and the exit.
  • Competition: The old standby; have another party racing the PCs through the dungeon. This takes a care and finesse which is outside my scope. I'd think at the very least you'd have structured tables and a general idea of how the NPCs will progress through the dungeon, but coming up with specifics for running this scenario is left as an exercise for the reader. An exercise he'll hopefully then publish on a blog, so I can steal his ideas.
All of these methods only work if the party knows what's going on. I can't stress that enough. Often this can be handled narratively either in the moment ("The dungeon appears to be flooding with a silvery liquid. Judging by its rate of flow, you'd expect this place to fill up fairly quickly - unless there are hidden depths you don't know about.") or beforehand. ("The old man insists that he heard strange rumblings over the last week and the Crypt of Sasura is on the verge of collapse after all these centuries, so you'd better hurry.") Still, that may not always be the case, and the players should always have at least a rough idea of how their time limits are being decided. If that's too 'gamist' or something for you, don't use these methods.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Maps of the area around the Keep

In the session reports I mentioned that the PCs commissioned maps of the area around the Caves of Chaos. One was an extremely local map, and the other a rather broad map showing things in roughly a four-day march, excepting to the west because that's where the Realm lies and therefore not interesting.

The first is just the local map with the numbers taken off, which I include here because someone else might find it useful.
Bet you can't tell where the numbers used to be

(Oh, also the Caves of the Unknown are missing, because Cedric the sage didn't know they existed.)

I really like this map from B2. It has some serious charm to it. I especially like the sudden interruption of 'standard' terrain features to show a stand of tamaracks in the swamp. I don't know why, but it shows a sort of quirky artistry to me that I find endearing. It helps bring the area alive - like this was a map actually drawn by one of the inhabitants.

One of the other things I wonder is whether the Keep is drawn to scale, and I think so. That would put it at somewhere between 100-200 yards in its longest dimension, closer to the former than the latter. It really is a pretty small place if you're treating it as a town. I'd estimate it very roughly as about the same size as Le Château de Rolle.

The other map is a sort of rough-and-ready thing I threw together in Hexographer in half an hour:
Things within a 4-day walk from the Keep

Those ruins to the south of the swamp are the Caverns of Thracia. I'm beginning to think the players will never go there, which makes me a little sad because everyone should get a chance to play in (and run) a Paul Jacquays module. However, they discussed it (in an upcoming play report) and realized they would either have to brave the swamp to and from the Keep, or set up a temporary base camp at the ruins (once they found them).

Most of the rest of the map is undetailed. I have rough ideas of what I want to put where (e.g., the cave in the moutains is an old dwarven stronghold, Limbick's Tower is the ancient abandoned tower of an Imperial archmage.) One thing I'm particularly excited by on this map is Old Isk, which is the ruins of an old Imperial trading city. I want to make it into a 'city dungeon', with a very small population living among the ruins of the old civilization - like Constantinople after the Crusades. I'm mulling over ideas for that, but it'll probably be a sort of psuedo-hexcrawl/pseudo-dungeon with a lot of random generation of buildings, treasures, and encounters.

Then if the players don't go there, I can plop it down in another campaign.

Monday, February 17, 2014

On the advantages and disadvantages of history for life

Creating a detailed setting for your game is an urge that bites every GM. It's one of the theoretical pleasures of the job: you get to create and inhabit the mental vistas of an imaginary world. The draw of that sort of escape from the quotidian concerns of the world we have is not to be scorned; both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, to name just two writers with deep connections to our hobby, created vast and intricate imaginary worlds for their own amusement.

Unfortunately, one of the pitfalls that befalls DMs is the assumption that they can and should treat their games as some sort of open-ended novel. For this game, the creation of a large and detailed setting has several disadvantages:
  •  It encourages the DM to hand out setting packets. At best these are enjoyed, then forgotten. More usually, they are ignored, or are a pain to read, and are still mostly forgotten.
  • The base world assumption of D&D is, now, something with which players are already familiar or can rapidly become so. It is familiar. Creating your own setting reduces that near-immediate familiarity, and therefore requires more work in communication from you and the players.
  • Much of the time, the way a setting is written is not really gameable. It's a toy for the GM about which the players know and care very little.
  • Setting often restricts player agency. Whether it's directly (you have a 12th-level fighter in every little hamlet in the countryside to keep a damp on their hijinks) or indirectly (they can't go form their own duchies because the Benevolent Empire already claims all the available land).
Despite all this, we still do it regularly. If we're honest, it's because tinkering with the game world and finding or creating new things in it is one of the things that keeps us coming back to the table.

With that in mind, I've been bitten by the setting bug. I want to write up a world to play around in, bang about D&D's core assumptions and monster sets a bit, and generally enjoy crafting a world that's a bit...different. I blame Goblin Punch. In order to avoid the pitfalls mentioned above, I've set out these design goals:
  • All setting information must be gameable, either directly or indirectly. This means creating random encounter tables rather than waxing poetic on the local fauna and detailing cultures that the players might interact with, rather than those on the other side of the continent.
  • Setting assumptions should be clear and consistent. They should also be of a nature that they can be quickly explained to players at the breech, that is, at the necessary moment.
  • The setting should not force any actions on the player whatsoever. None of this, "You're all from Westphalia, and you've been at war for generations with the Bournians, so you all hate them." Let players make their own characters.
  • The setting must be interesting. Nobody gives a damn that the Duke of the Northlands likes wearing purple all the time and is in a long-standing dynastic cold war with the other branch of the family, unless the Duke is also the realm's only bugbear with a title he earned at the Battle of Five Armies and the duchy's main export is magically preserved human skin for use in the creation of powerful scrolls. Aka Greyhawk is a perfectly good setting already, so no need to recapitulate it.
  • The setting must be flexible enough to accommodate things learned in play. For example, maybe (because a player brings in a slew of dwarves with German names) that dwarven culture is proto-Prussian. While some things should be set as 'this is the way it is', efforts should be made to allow the players to influence the setting through their choices at the gaming table.
  • Further, the setting must be close enough to the default setting assumptions that I can plop old modules into the game with a minimum of tweaking. One of the things I really want to do is e.g., play thorugh the Lost Cverns of Tsojcanth, or see how the PCs deal with Ravenloft. This means that if my setting doesn't have, say, orcs, there should be a clear orc-equivalent for module purposes (even if it's just bandits).
With all this in mind, I'm hoping to do some long-term setting development on this blog. Said setting would mostly be for a theoretical future game, because the current one is a sort of just-in-time development case. Still, bits might make it in if they don't contradict what has already been established.

Friday, February 14, 2014

A supplementary theory of rule generation

I've seen a lot of posts on the nature of the shift from O/BX/AD&D to 2nd and beyond both in the nature of the rules and their proliferation. Many of these posts have been very helpful for formulating how I want to play D&D, and enlightening besides, because I'm interested in this stuff. (Learning about the history and evolution of your hobby is fun in itself.)

The general consensus seems to be, broadly speaking, that the earlier versions of D&D were naturalistic (according to a pseudo-technical definition evolved in the OSR), 'objective' (by which I mean the world didn't change to accomodate plot or narrative, but rather treated those as emergent qualities), and action-focused, rather than character-focused.

One of the myths of the OSR is that rules proliferation was driven by an attempt to make the game "fair" and curtail the power of the GM as used for evil. By myth I don't mean to imply its falsity; I mean something like a cultural story. Personally I think there's good hard evidence in the way certain rules and mores in our hobby evolved for this myth. Further, even beyond questions or truth or falsehood of the essential facts, the myth is good and useful, because it makes us think about social interaction at the table and form the correct response to the spectre of social friction.

However, I don't think it tells the whole story. To that end, let me offer another explanation, meant to go side-by-side, rather than replace the above.

Most OSR bloggers I have read got into the hobby as kids in the 80s. These folks cut their teeth on B/X or AD&D with their brothers and neighbors, with lots of time and the general social difficulties children have influencing their gaming. It's true, there are bloggers out there who started in the 70s, or as adults, or in the 70s as adults, but I feel pretty comfortable saying that the lion's share of the OSR bloggers out there to whom I have been exposed either are the children of the 80s or strongly influenced by them.

I have a different perspective. I started gaming in the 90s, with GURPS - with adults. (I was three.) By the time I started regularly playing with people in my own age group, I was in college. So I largely side-stepped the difficulties of gaming with (other) children, who haven't fully developed a social consciousness. I never really experienced the difficulties of an unacceptable adversarial GM relationship, or gaming with people who can't be 'adult' about things.

One of my other hobbies is mucking about with computers. This is hardly surprising; there's a large intersection of gamers and computer hobbyists of all stripes. One thing about computer hobbyists, no matter what distinct strain they adhere to, is that they like tinkering with things and building things. For some it's more mathematical constructs, others play with soldering irons, still others like creating and refining software.

I think those urges spilled over into the hobby of gaming as well. People started making new rules not just to fix what they considered broken but because they wanted to improve the system they used. Tinkering with improvements and redesigns, while putatively useful, is actually often an end in itself. Some people garner enjoyment from the tinkering.

This same thing happened with rules. I posit that some of the rules-creep that happened happened because people enjoyed making rules and having rules.

Unfortunately, while the process of making rules can be fun, and being able to say you have rules is enjoyable, the actual use of those rules can be a real bear. Especially when those rules were made at root for the fun of their own making, with actual play being secondary. (c.f. AD&D's weapon speed factors)

This urge is still with us today, and while we have a cautionary tale against changing the game to make it more 'fair' I haven't yet seen anything like a consensus narrative addressing this problem. (Peter's Has that come up in actual play? is the pioneering exception, for which the man should get massive kudos. Everyone coming here already knows about that post, but go read it again.)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


 Scax, the player of Rori and new to the table, rolled an 18 for charisma last night for his new character. Naturally, the question came up of his playing a paladin.

I'm not sure whether or not I like paladins. Sure, the concept is fun - he's a questing Holy Knight, like Percival or Galahad or the Templars or the Hospitallers. But if we're honest, isn't that niche pretty well covered by the Cleric if you want godly powers, or the Fighter with appropriate background tweaks?

Still, with the exception of the monk (whom I find egregious) and the assassin (annoying), I'm not going to curtail my players' options. If they want a paladin, they can have a paladin. Really, I can't blame them; the role has a certain irreducible flavor.

According to S&W Complete, "Paladins will not work with characters other than those of Lawful alignment unless ordered to do so by a superior officer of the Paladin’s order, by a Lawful prince, or by the high priest  of a Lawful temple." I disagree.

First, such a restriction means one of two things in play: either it is a restriction on the rest of the players, and not the paladin, or the paladin will never be played. That's not fun. Second, it's not really how I see a godly crusader behaving.

So for my game, instead, Paladins have to have some specific goal which reflect why they're going adventuring. This can be pretty much anything that passes the sniff test, and is dependent on the creativity of the player. Some examples might include, "End the influence of the Cult of the Red Hand," "Pacify the Dagoland Marshes," "Root out and destroy the heresy of Pelasgos that is gripping temples in the hinterland," "Convert all the orcs from the worship of Tectonicus their heathen god," or whatever. Specificity is important, not only because it needs to be a restriction and a direction, but because it seems a great way to flesh out the world further. (Suddenly there's a Dagoland Marshes, or a heresy in the church, or a cult, or a general religion of orcs.)

A Paladin will not do anything that doesn't obviously and pretty directly further his goal. You want to go spelunking in those caverns you found last week? That's great. How exactly does that relate to erecting a shrine to Isel and teaching all the pagans in this land to worship Him? Well, that's what I'll be doing while you lot are off futzing around. For this reason, I recommend having a back-up character to play whenever the party wants to do something that doesn't align with the Paladin's goals.

Paladins do not, however, have any restrictions of association based on the class. If consorting with Chaotic people truly will further the goal of converting all of the elves to the Munificent Blood, then consorting with Chaotic people is what you will do.

If a paladin ever accomplishes his task, he chooses another. (Or, alternatively, he's retired, because frankly at that point you've come as close as possible to 'winning' D&D.)

Monday, February 10, 2014

Session recap 3 and 4

Late in the week of the party's convalescence, a new sage moved into town, taking residence in Father Jovian's old apartment. His name is Cedric, though they still haven't asked. His specialties are (major) old Imperial history and geography and (minor) monstrous humanoids. My rules for sages are sort of a vague nod to AD&D; sages generally have an area of major expertise and an area of minor expertise. In their major area, they can reliably answer all questions but the sort nobody would know, plus general related questions. In their minor area, sages can reliably answer questions any specialist might know the answer to, but nothing absolutely specific. Either way, it takes 100 gp and a week's time to answer questions that aren't merely general in nature, plus any costs of materials.

Once I'd explained the difference between going to a sage and just listening for rumours (more expensive, but the answer is guaranteed accurate, and if he doesn't know he'll refund your money) the players decided it would be a good idea to visit Cedric. They asked him for a couple maps of the local area; one just around the Keep, and another of the wilderness a few days beyond. He readily agreed, and they came to terms of 50 gp now, 50 gp on delivery if they're satisfied with the map. Swallowing his pride because Cedric is a travelling sage whose reputation has not yet shown itself around here, he agreed.

Meanwhile, the party has been getting a bit of a reputation as the Slayers of the Basilisk. The local townsfolk have been showing them respect, buying them drinks, and generally treating them like minor celebrities.

After their week of healing, they decided to head back out to the newly christened Basilisk Cave to see if they couldn't find out any more information or ferret out any more treasure. Since they knew the location, they could easily go back. (I didn't roll a 1, they didn't get lost.)

When they got there, they immediately noticed that the smell had changed - more musky, less acrid. Sending the elf to peek his head in, they discovered a bear had taken up residence and was currently napping. Considering the problem for a good long while of quiet back-and-forth outside the cave, they decided the smartest course was to Sleep the bear, then slit its throat. Further discussion led to spending a day smoking the bear meat and trying to salvage the pelt (that didn't go well).

Braving the cave again, they decided to retrace their steps to the basilisk room. There they found the statues of their erstwhile friends, as well as the unmolested corpse of the basilisk, still fairly fresh. Turns out basilisk is highly poisonous. Pablo had a stroke of genius, then: he jimmied off one of the lizard's scales. Pius quickly decided to help, and they managed to remove the rest after a short bit of bloody work.

Meanwhile the party bust down the rest of the doors uninterrupted, finding all the rooms to be much like the first two, with only the mummified lizard as the object of possible value. (It actually is worth ~100 GP to an apothecary for various medical preparations, but they still haven't asked anyone.)

The one room on the west wall was different. It looked more ornate, though in monkish fashion; it had a tapestry so old and rotted away it could not be discerned and crumbled into wet dust at the first touch on the north wall, and the old 'dresser' and 'bed' were inconspicuously carved with symbols of snakes and other reptilian figures. Then the elf noticed that the stone of the southern wall didn't quite meet the joint, and after a little inspection they found that it was a secret door designed to slide to one side.

Cue the search for the trigger, which took much longer than it should have because they searched everywhere it wasn't, including the northern wall (with its own secret door that they failed to find, concealing the as-yet unpillaged temple treasury). Eventually they found  press switch recessed under the lip of the bed, and the door slid back. They were unable to make sense of what was revealed: an old collapsed bed with what looked like an ancient elven mummy/skeleton on top of it. However, they did make sense of the torc it wore, and took that before leaving to explore further, neglecting to search and so not finding the box of silver handcuffs underneath the remains of the bed.

Pressing on through the bronze doors, they came to what was a dining hall, and the explanation of what became of this place. There was a hole in the ceiling, and under it was the remains of an old bronze cage. Seated at the long table were six extremely realistic statues of lizard men, albeit with some anatomical oddities - larger crania, finer fingers, and (though they didn't get close enough to see this) the suggestion of feathers.

Poking around the room they didn't find much of interest - all the cookware long since degraded, the sound of dripping water coming from the hole - but Elarian did check the doorway to the southwest. He heard snakes, lots of slithering snakes, and saw that the walkway ended in a jagged break-off not that far along. The party decided to avoid the 'snake-pit', thereby avoiding the one treasure I really hoped they'd find. Alas.

Instead they poked their way up through the ceiling, finding a natural cavern. Faced with a choice, they curved left, coming eventually to a widening cavern that something-or-other was using as a trash-heap. After poking around in the trash and getting freaked out when some of it moved, they discovered that a) it was covered with a sticky, tarry substance, and b) magic missile didn't make it stop moving.

Player of Pius: "Wait, did we just strike oil?" (No, no you didn't. You found an immature black pudding.)

Losing interest, they went further, heading straight instead of right at another fork. This is when they found a foul-smelling cavern and the source of the weeping and moaning that had been suffusing the whole place. The floor was covered with pools of green goop. And at the back of the cavern, a shambling pile of the stuff, whence the cries, reared up and started shuffling toward them. When a Sleep spell didn't put it down, they took the wise course and decided to bug out and back to town.

Personally, I'm proud of this encounter. The shambling pile of goop is actually a troll who years ago was exposed to green slime. It has been eating away at him ever since, but his natural regeneration has kept him from completely succumbing, though it is somewhat compromised now, as are his Hit Dice. He's quite insane as well from the pain. However, what he wants most of all is for it to stop, so as soon as someone thinks to use fire, he would gladly just sit down and burn to death. Perhaps not terribly original, but I like the combination.

Anyhow, back in town the players decided to wait for the completion of their map, taking odd jobs and living off the fame of being the basilisk slayers for a bit. In the meanwhile, Pablo and Elarian took the scales to the local leatherworker and had him make a pair of cloaks, for which there was just enough material because this was for an elf and a halfling.

When the maps were ready (a subject of a different post), they went to see Cedric and managed to avoid paying any more for his work by instead bargaining information and their incomplete map of the Caves of the Unknown. Cedric was ecstatic - it's not every day you make a brand new discovery - and now considers the party his friends. Which doesn't mean he'll charge them less, but it does mean he likes them and is willing to put their commissions first - excepting of course the Lord of the Keep, by whom he hopes to be kept on retainer.

Armed with their new maps, the PCs set out for the Caves of Chaos. Amusingly, they came at them backward, which is to say through the woods from the direction of the Caves of the Unknown rather than from the road as Gary intended. Because of this, the kobolds hiding in the tree don't see them, and they naturally decide to check out the first cave mouth:

This one right here. The one with the gnolls.

They poke their heads in and come quickly upon the gnoll guard picket. The gnolls don't immediately attack, because they want to know what these strange people want in their cave. However, two of them do go off to rouse the others, just in case. Meanwhile the party attempts to communicate once it becomes clear this isn't necessarily a fight, but it turns out none of them speak Gnollish. (This is actually a question in play; I'm using a house rule to determine language selection.) Then the elf opens his mouth to bring attention to himself, having previously been in the back.

Gnolls hate elves with a passion. So they open fire. Gim is seriously injured, but not dead. (0 hp) The party rushes the gnolls, who somehow manage to not only hold off these superior numbers but actually inflict wounds and strike down Pablo when he takes a swing at one of their shins. Morale broken, the party runs, picking up Gim but leaving Pablo's body behind. That's fine; gnolls love halflings!

After patching Gim up enough so he can walk, the party returns to town to lick their wounds and plan. They buy lots of oil, some buckets, and some rope. They also consult Cedric.

It turns out that gnolls hate and fear uncontrolled fire. Also, they have very sensitive noses with a keen sense of smell. Which means, one of the players realizes, that one way to disable them would be to muck with their sense of smell - much like how if you want to get bloodhounds off your trail, you spread cayenne pepper along the ground. The party promptly thanks Cedric and goes off to buy as much powered horseradish as they can get their greedy mits on.

An aside: the party's Magic User, Jib, is a halfling with strange ideas. Rather than considering what he does magic, he calls it 'vougence' and carries around a large, complicated, tubular piece of machinery he calls the Elliptotron. It is with this that he casts Magic Missile.

The horseradish thus acquired, it is decided, can be stuffed down the barrel of the Elliptotron and, if Jib prepares Magic Missile that day, he can shoot it out one 'dose' at a time. Or, if he actually casts Magic Missile, it will all come out in a sort of Poor Man's Dust of Sneezing and Choking. He has enough for six such 'doses'.

Also in town they run across Juan, Pablo's brother who got a letter from his dear sibling and came out to help him make his fortune. Alas, too late, but he has the family resemblance.

Back to the gnoll cave at slightly after dawn, the party sets up their trap. First, they saturate the ground outside the cave with oil. Jib, Elarian and Pius hide above the cave. Gim and Rori, a new fighter from a new player that night, flank the cave to take care of any gnolls who come out. The plan is for Juan to run in, insult the gnolls so they run after him, and then dash back out. When the gnolls are outside the cave, those above will drop buckets of oil on them, and then light it on fire.

The plan works fairly well, except that one of the gnolls is missed by his bucket. Regardless, they burn nicely. However, as before two of the gnolls had gone further into the cave to bring out reinforcements. We ended up with an archery battle across the burning pit, which was something of a standoff because, while the gnolls had more HP, they only had one bow.

Eventually it became clear to the party that the rest of the gnolls had no intention of coming out and facing the fire, which was dying down at that point anyway. Plucking up their courage, Gim, Jib, Elarian, and Rori rush into the cave to face off the ~8 gnolls gathered there, hoping to put them out of commission with Jib's Magic Missile. Unfortunately this proves to be a tactical mis-step, as Rori takes an axe to the skull and Jib is cut down before he can finish the spell. Elarian rushes to take up the Elliptotron and finish the work. One of the gnolls slices into him as well, but he manages to hang onto consciousness just long enough to loose the powder. (He was at exactly 0 HP; I rolled to see if he managed to keep the spell and if he managed to get it off before losing consciousness.) Down went the gnolls, too concerned with the excruciating pain in their noses to put up a fight, and the PCs promptly slit their throats. The final casualty list was 3 PCs to 12 gnolls; pretty good for level 1.

Then, rather than press forward, they decided to retire back to town. They were severely depleted, and it was late. We'll pick this up again in the coming Saturday, though we'll be down one player, because he moves this week to sunnier pastures. Hopefully we can find a replacement. (If not, 3 is an acceptable number for now.)

Meanwhile the gnoll chieftan has to figure out what to do about his depleted tribe. The PCs are going to take at least a couple days to recuperate, so the bugbears are going to come sniffing about, smelling weakness. However, they'll be repulsed once they find there are still 13 able-bodied gnolls. The gnolls will send to their disaffected kin in the Moathouse, but they won't arrive for months. However, all the males that are normally in the common room will be stationed in the entrance, and they'll have built a makeshift barricade out of the old burnt table, broken chairs, and mounds of earth and branches.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Start of a new campaign + Sessions 1 and 2 recap

The game I'm running now is based on Swords & Wizardry. Originally we were using the Core Rules, but I quickly switched to the Complete rules once I found out they were actually available for free. There's practically no difference; Complete has a few optional classes, and it says a little bit more about Strongholds, wilderness, and monsters. All of the mechanics I've been able to track down are the same, though.

It actually started quite a while after the GURPS DF game finished; I and a couple friends from my former workplace went to a local con, and there I convinced them to play with me in a S&W White Box game. They loved it. For this reason I seriously considered sticking with the White Box rules, but I had done a few test runs with that system and knew I wanted to eventually move to something slightly more complicated, with things like variable weapon damage and hit points. I figured making the move at first was easier than making it later.

I rustled up two extras, two of whom had never played D&D before but were interested, and I gave them the choice: they could start in Hommlet or they could start in the Keep. They chose the Keep. Since I'm all about player choice, I told them that Hommlet was a few days to the east and that there were rumours of an old set of ruins a few days through the swamp to the south. (The Caverns of Thracia.) So far they've only been interested in the Caves, which is fine by me.

The setting is intentionally vague, and at least so far hasn't diverged much from  the "medieval fantasy" background assumption of D&D. I'm running it like Points of Light, by which I mean the PCs are all from "the Realm" of which the Keep is the easternmost fortress, but the area they consider civilization they could walk across in a couple weeks. What else is out there? That's a good question, but it's not uninhabited. The Realm just considers them all "barbarians and savages with whom we sometimes trade."

A thousand years ago, The Empire collapsed as it was overrun by barbarian hordes. They left behind ruins, artifacts, etc. etc. The Church of the Realm is the Church of Sol Invictus. Alignments are based around this: if you're Lawful, you believe in Sol Invictus (or perhaps a related god, outside the Realm), civilization as a righteous thing, and all that. If you're Neutral, you don't really care one way or another. Perhaps you've lapsed, or perhaps you follow the Old Ways (druidic paganism). If you're Chaotic, you're opposed to Sol Invictus for some reason - maybe you don't believe in this civilization, maybe you worship one of the Darker Gods, or whatever. Notably, Magic Users are always chaotic, because the arcane forces they toy with twist them, and elves are always Chaotic because they're closely aligned with the Fae.

Generally, I'm going for a Dark Ages Europe feel. There's a Constantinople out there somewhere, but the PCs don't know about it.

Class levels also exist as an in-game phenomenon. In order to gain class levels, you travel to one of the 'navels of the world' - places of old power that the priests and scribes used to be controlled and sanctified by the Empire before it collapsed, and that are now sacred to Sol Invictus. If you go to a Lawful one, you come out either as a Fighter or a Cleric. If you go to a Chaotic one, you can come out as a Fighter, Cleric, or Thief. Naturally the Church doesn't admit that Chaotic navels (generally, those controlled by entities not aligned with Sol Invictus) exist, and they claim that the power of the navels comes from Sol Invictus. It certainly seems like they're partially right, what with Lawful Clerics getting blessings in line with the powers of Sol.

In order to become a Magic User, you find another Magic User to expose you to the secret artifacts and eldritch rituals.

Further, if someone has class levels, you can tell. They have a sort of mystical charisma and an air of competence - Fighters move with more grace and self-assurance than mere men-at-arms. Clerics are also obvious, and thieves are if they want to be, or to each other.

Anyhow, I have four sessions to quickly recap for posterity. I won't bother to make a distinction between the sessions at this point, but later I'll be writing recaps as they happen. (Mostly for my benefit. I don't like writing them, but they're a good place to stick information I need to keep track of that showed up in the session.)

When the curtain opened, we had:
Gim - a Lawful dwarven Cleric
Tiny - a Lawful Fighter
Pius Inebrius - a Chaotic Cleric who worships Bacchus
Elarion - an Elf Fighter/Magic-User
Buddha - a Neutral Cleric to a dead god

They spent the session meandering around the Keep, seeing the sights and meeting the locals. They heard a few rumours about the Caves of Chaos - like how the big dogmen live high in the caves, while the little dogmen live low, and how there's a huge vault of treasure in the southernmost caves, but also a wizard who would kill all trespassers - that I probably need to remind them of because it's been long enough I bet they've forgotten. They spent some time in the Traveller's Rest Inn, the name of the tavern and inn in the Keep, and recruited a few local laborers for their expedition. They also encountered the Curate of the Keep, along with the traveling priest and his two initiates, the latter group of whom readily agreed to go out with them to vanquish the evil in the Caves! These were Theodoric, Jovian, Bob, and Ted respectively. Those of you who remember the module know that Father Jovian is both Chaotic and evil, so he's coming along to make sure they fail and die.

Come the next morning they set out early, though they lost Buddha for a halfling ne'er-do-well named Pablo (who sports a Gordito moustache). They stopped by the Church for Theodoric's blessing, and he confided in Gim that he didn't exactly trust Jovian.

Off they went and promptly realized they didn't know where they were going other than 'off west somewhere near the road'. They turned north after about half a day on the road, cut through the forest, and finally found a very large clearing on the hillside. They set up camp because it was getting late, and resolved to keep searching come morning.

After a night-time diversion involving orcs that caused no casualties but netted no information, either (Jovian was the only one who spoke Orcish, and he wasn't about to tell the party that these guys were from the Caves or anything useful), they set about continuing to search. After a few hours poking through the clearing, Elarion found an opening into the hillside.

Again, those of you who know the module know that this was not the Caves of Chaos, but rather the Caves of the Unknown.

They gathered round the cave mouth and Tiny shouted inside. That's when the 28 stirges flew out and latched on to one of the laborers, Ted, and Gim. Fortunately for the party they were able to free Gim before he died. Ted and the laborer weren't so lucky, but at least most of the stirges stayed attached to them for the next few rounds, so the rest of the party managed to survive.

Entering the cave, they noticed immediately that it was quite strange, and very old. The stone was worked, but rather than being square, the walls, floor, and ceiling were all gently curved. The place also stank of ammonia and moisture, moreso when the short entryway opened into a large chamber with a tunnel northeast and another to the west that was clearly the place the stirges had been roosting. It also had a small raised area to the north, with a low rock platform that was strewn with the same bones and ammoniac junk that covered the floor. Examining this, they discovered that the thing was likely an altar of some sort, carved with bas-reliefs of snakes and other reptiles in various poses. They also found a small jade statue of a twining snake, which they took.

Deciding the take the northeast tunnel, they discovered that it opened into another smaller room at the end, with several molded wooden doors on the east, north, and west walls, and a pair of large corroded bronze valves ajar to the south. They set about busting down the nearest wooden door, which was still miraculously intact (carved with a snake sigil) but swollen into the doorframe. They sent Pablo in, where he found a large, dusty mess of what looks like it used to be plant fibers all over the room, a low dresser made of stone, and a low sleeping platform at the back of the room. The only thing of potential value he found was in the dresser - a mummified lizard, in the same drawer as a bunch of old stone knives and scalpels, some crusted with ancient blood. He pocketed it and moved on.

Meanwhile the rest of the party was looking around the main room and decided to bust down a few more of these doors to see what was inside. This much noise naturally attracted the interest of the basilisk in the next room, who came to investigate.

Basilisks in my game are very much what you might think - dog-sized lizards who turn creatures to stone. Specifically, you have to look the basilisk in the eyes, which themselves are made of large rubies. They're also immortal and don't need to eat, but constantly ravenously hungry (since most things they try to eat turn to stone before they can).

However, a properly alchemically mummified lizard is proof against this power, and in fact will turn the basilisk to stone if struck by one. Basilisks know this, and are mesmerized by the lizards when presented. (It's a sort of terror; the basilisk is caught between that and the ravenous hunger, and makes a save each round to continue attacking. I made up that mechanic on the spot.)

It took the party a good while to figure out the lizard was why Pablo wasn't turned to stone when the basilisk looked directly at him several times after he stabbed it in the kidneys. By that time, Jovian, Bob, and Pius had already turned to stone, and the surviving laborers had beat feet. It was still nearly a TPK, because they never figured out that striking the basilisk would petrify it. By the end, only Pablo and Tiny remained un-stoned, and Tiny only because he had his guts ripped out.

Fortunately, fresh basilisk blood is an antidote to petrification. It's also a very valuable alchemical reagent, mostly for Stone to Flesh unguents that manage to stretch it further. Pablo, being a worldly sort, knew this. He'd never slaughtered an animal before, but after a few mistakes he managed to get enough blood out of the creature for the four stoned party members to be reversed. (He got lucky; I rolled a d4 for doses. Originally there was a d8, but he wasted quite a bit of blood on the floor.)

After this, the party retired to lick their wounds for a week in the Keep. Turning back from stone is a physically stressful occurrence, and they needed some time off.

This post is getting really long, so I'm going to split the other two sessions off into another post. I'll also write up a little on the Caves of the Unknown.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Tiny post on SM House Rules for Dungeon Fantasy

 Found this in the old posts and thought it might be good enough to throw out there as-is.

Skeletons have SM -1 because they're harder to hit, since the structure isn't all there. The same logic can be used for other creatures, e.g. the Elegant Spears of the Jungles of Zaridun, who have adapted to the heavy monsoons by becoming voluminous lattice-works of chitin to let the water flow through without resistance.

SM can never give more than a -4 or +4 in melee combat, and it will never cause the Size/Range/Speed bonus to be larger/less than +- 4 (by which I mean that the full SM will apply, but the bonus/malus will cap out if it would cause a larger deviation)

For example, fighting a Giant with SM +6 with a sword would only give you a +4 to hit, because after something gets large enough it isn't easier to hit it if it's larger. Is it easier to punch a barn than the Shuttle Assembly Building?

Similarly, if you shot an SM+10 creature from 200 yards away (-12), you'd be at an effective -2. If you shot the same creature from only 15 yards away (-5), you'd be at an effective +4 - the other +1 is lost, because after a certain point it isn't easier to shoot a larger thing. If you were shooting it from two inches away, you'd still only have a +4 - though I wouldn't make you roll unless there were serious other factors in play about whether you could hit it (which the rest of its SM could be used to help cancel out - it is easier to hit the Shuttle Assembly Building than a house if you're trying to do it in a gale).

Post-mortem on a blog (and campaign)

Those of you who were following this blog before have by now no doubt noticed that it is dead. Dead, dead, dead. It was merely wounded, once, and the surgeon did all he could, but after hours of frankly gruesome work on the operating table, up to his elbows in readership, he finally relented and declared it dead.

The campaign it chronicled limped on, at first unharmed by this admission. But it too died, grown alien and bizarre to the wishes of both its creator and its players. It reached a natural point, and so we graciously led it into the stall and quietly shot it in the head. We were all agreed: it was a mercy killing.

Here's the autopsy, in no particular order, for both the blog and the campaign.

Part of the problem was just the group and the group dynamics. Rather than being a gaming group, this is more a group of friend(ish) people who get together to game. The distinction I'm making is primarily that the attitude toward actually getting down to brass tacks and playing your character is much more relaxed, and at least two people are there primarily to shoot the shit with friends. Also, the social order comes first, meaning you can't, for example, kick people out of your game if they're not a good fit for whatever reason. Problems that stem from this were in no particular order:
  • Some players never bothered to really learn the rules. This in turn made not only play but character creation a chore.
  • There was one disruptive player in particular, who could not be excised without probable dissolution of the game anyway.
In addition, character creation was a chore. GURPS, with templates, computer assistance and good knowledge of the options, is not hard to make a character for. However, even with those assumptions it still doesn't beat 3d6 in order. It just can't. Even if you shave it down to take less time (say, experienced GURPS player vs. never rolled up a character in D&D) it still involves more thought and complexity. This is bad for a game where life is cheap, not only because it raises the barrier to entry, but it also shifts some of the emphasis of player decisions into making the character rather than playing the game. (More on this in another post, if people want.)

Further, creating content for the game was becoming a chore. True, I'd already converted the Moathouse and portions of the Temple, come up with random encounter tables and cool stuff, and so forth, but still. The difference in the systems got to be too great. As an example, in GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, the emphasis on tactical combat is at odds with D&D's low-level focus on exploration and problem solving, which meant that I had to do a lot of 'sprucing up' of the dungeon in order to make it both interesting and a challenge. Another way to look at it is that the Temple became not only a chore, but a boring one - I would have been better off writing a dungeon for DF from scratch. The game assumptions, from how to play to how rewards work, were too fundamentally different for me to remain interested in the task of reconciling them.

Am I saying that you can't play 'Old School' GURPS DF? Absolutely not. Not only do I still personally believe that is possible, but +Peter V. Dell'Orto's group proves that it can be done. But I am saying that method wasn't right for me at the time, and wasn't right for my group.

All of that also makes it pretty clear why the blog died, with a couple of added points:
  • The blog itself began to feel like a chore. When I started running out of things to say, I kept trying to push myself to say more. I forgot that I intended to be a gamer who put stuff here to help myself and other people out, not a content provider. In particular, scheduling myself and expecting myself to stick to the schedule was a bad idea.
  • This fed back on my natural cycles of industry, laziness, and guilt. Especially as unfinished draft posts and unwritten play reports backed up, crying out to be written.


For those who absolutely, positively must know what happened after Calowas died, what follows is a hyper-abbreviated run-through of the rest of the campaign.

The player of Calowas brought in a bard, and they all went back out to the Moathouse again. They found that it was now populated by a group of gnolls, previously down in the basement and now broken with Lareth. They ambushed the gnolls pretty effectively and had a fairly one-sided skirmish before the surviving gnolls retreated. While they were picking through the bodies, they discovered that there were also some goblins when the gnolls sent in their goblin thralls to make a truce.

A truce was made, involving non-aggression and information on the one side, and money on the other. The party proceeded downstairs and found Lubash the ogre, who killed the scout and the druid (new player) before being brought to bay. Picking through his stuff they found enough treasure to call it a day.

Coming back, they went down again, skipped past the zombie crypts once more to check out what was beyond the ogre, and found in a large dead-end room a bunch of bugbears. The bard went to 'talk' to them, and found they were pretty well set up, being bugbears - hiding behind an overturned table, ready in ambush by the entrance, etc. They quickly negotiated a monetary truce, and while the bugbears were waiting for the party to throw in the money the party instead threw in a Stench cloud. Bugbears stumbled out wheezing one at a time and the party whacked them all.

Wandering around a bit more, the party found the other end of Lareth's guards and had a long conversation that ended with the party apparently agreeing to go see Lareth. The sergeant told them to put down their arms and follow him, which is when the bard (same player as Calowas) again shot one of them. Cue pitched battle in the hallway with the wizard saving the day with a Mass Sleep spell. After this they go to see Lareth, who is presented as pretty hoss (like he is in the Temple - fourth level Cleric with magic plate and a rod of striking), so they listen to him and are on the verge of possibly joining up when they (still primarily elves despite casualties) find out he worships Lolth.

Cue another battle, this time in magical Darkness against a death-touching cleric (Rod of Striking = 2d deathtouch per blow) which ended well for the party due to a couple lucky hits from the Knight and then the Barbarian getting her big mitts on Lareth and smashing his head into the ceiling repeatedly. His guards didn't have a chance to come in and help him because the party was wisely blocking the door at the same time.

After that, the party looted all the stuff in Lareth's room and on his body (a very nice haul indeed) and we called that the end of the campaign.


So what now?

Some corpses are not quite what they appear.