Yesterday I ran a game for eight players (I usually cap at six). We had already established that this was going to be a raid on a pirate fortress. I knew that it was going to have 80 elves ready to fight, 80 elves sleeping (all 1st level), a 9th and a 7th level elf, and a red dragon. The party allied itself with some commando elves and so the attacking force consisted of eight player characters and their eight henchmen with levels between 1 and 7 as well as the command elves, six 6th level elves and eighteen ordinary 1st level elves; forty characters in all. I handed out little index cards with the stats of the elven commando leaders and their henchmen. Three hours later it was all over, most of the pirates slain, the dragon dead, the enemy leader killed, her second in command take prisoner, the dragon hoard secured and the fortress being towed to the players’ domain. (This is a big mashup campaign using Spelljammer ships and fortresses, and An Echo Resounding for domain level play.)
It was a very unusual adventure, but I like the change in pace!
The fortress was structured as a series of encounters with a mini map I kept behind the screen, usually with ten elves, sometimes with a leader of level 1d6+1; sometimes with more elves about to arrive. Good use was made of hold portal to prevent elves from joining up and good use was made of silence and sleep to surprise enemies and incapacitate a dozen foes in the surprise round, haste was used to quickly position archers and casters, sneaky thieves were used to scout ahead and best prepare for assaults, and to avoid tricky hallways with enemy archers hiding, several lightning bolts were used to kill the dragon before it could join the elven sorceress, they survived her cloudkill with minimal losses and managed to dispel it the next round…
It was a bloodbath.
For ease of reference and consistent spell selection of both the allied commando elves and the defending elf pirates, I used a technique I described previously: my spell book notation lists the spell-book of the top elf or magic-user with spell level and spell name, and a third column with the character level at which this spell is usually picked. This helps me run a lot of spell casters. This list would begin as follows, for example:
|Spell Level||Character Level||Spell Name||Notes|
|1||2||shield||AC 4, AC 2 vs. missiles|
|2||4||detect invisibility||5 rd./level|
|4||7||polymorph||AC 0 1d6+1/1d6+1/3d10 MV 240|
|4||8||dimension door||360 ft. or 120 m|
|5||9||cloud kill||⌀ 30 ft., MV 6|
The most important skill of all is a sort of military “go! go! go!” efficiency at the table, however. No questions about who rolls initiative. Roll all the dice – have d20s and damage dice of matching colors and have all the colors assigned to your dudes and roll them all at once. All enemy elves, regardless of level, had AC 4. When your turn comes up, just tell me “I hit three times, damage is 4, 5, 2.” That’s the plan, anyway. Also, pick a leader who tells me where the party goes. Which stairs do you pick? Quietly or quickly? When the fight is on, just keep pushing. When the fight is over, let players talk, laugh, investigate, debate.
The picture shows the kind of notes I had prepared ahead of time. As you can see these are crude sketches of the area and enemy positions. Most enemies were all elves with a single magic missile memorized. If the party won initiative, it was usually over in a few seconds.
As you can see on the little fold-out flow-chart on the left, the encounters weren’t all arranged linearly. My main idea was this:
It worked for me!
In the final analysis, it was a lot easier than I expected. Was it because the commando elves were too strong? Was it because the party had four extra players I had not expected? (Two of them are new players from my Sunday campaign and another two players are not regular players so I wasn’t counting on them.) Oh well, I think it’s only fair to not adjust difficulty levels on the fly.
We stopped play midway through year 510 of The Great Pendragon Campaign after a devastating battle in May and ended the campaign. Too much railroading, too many sudden death moments, too many fiddly rules that slow us down but don’t further our enjoyment, too much leafing back and forth in the book… I’m both sad and relieved, in a way.
The discussion was kicked off by one player who felt like quitting the campaign and explaining all the things he didn’t like. I agreed with a lot of it. I had written about it myself. Another player said he’d like to play on weekdays instead of weekends. Another player was missing. My wife wanted to continue playing but was suffering because of a recent string of character deaths. The last player was new and said he had been unable “to get into it” in the three sessions he had played with us.
An astonishing thing happened during the discussion. My wife and the player who had started the discussion are both players in my mashup game—the old school sandbox game using Labyrinth Lord, the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Spelljammer, Planescape, and An Echo Resounding. They started comparing the Pendragon campaign to this other game. The other game is crazy (“I’d describe the atmosphere as killer clowns”) but it has more player agency. Pendragon is more about how you deal with the events around you. My mashup game is about the things you do. I rarely need to pick up a rulebook and search for a rule. The NPCs are all strange and memorable. No king Leodegrance, Sir Cador, Centurion King and other faceless dudes that you haven’t interacted with. Pendragon not only suffers from an inflation of NPC names that players haven’t interacted with, it also encourages me to add names, exacerbating the problem. What are the names of the sons of Duke Ulfius? Who cares? I still feel compelled to look it up instead of making it up.
In a way, the big campaign provides a railroad that affects me as well. I am inspired by the campaign, I steer the players towards the rails, I entice them to stay on the rails, they are always present. Like those pesky Paizo Adventure Paths, they shackle my imagination and stiffle my improvisation.
So, where as I am sad to see it go, I am also happy to see how my players love the classic D&D sandbox and validate the choices I made for that mashup game.
Two blog posts I enjoyed today:
Specialization and Assumed Competence illustrates that any system where the gap between a characters with and without specialization increases is a system where the general competence decreases even if the general challenge level of the environment and the actual stats remain unchanged.
On the Deadly Difference drives home a point I’ve been trying to adhere to for a while, now: announce risks and consequences before players make decisions. My Swiss Referee Style Manual ends with the very same advice, inspired by the very same blog.
The following list is from the Hack & Slash blog.
Announce consequences before players commit to actions. There can only be meaningful choice if players know what to expect. (“If you fail the roll, you’ll […]. Do you want to risk it?”)
Provide information if players are unsure. You can wrap it in vague language, but be sure to provide the necessary information. (“It’s hard to say, but you feel a nagging suspicion that he’s probably hiding something.”)
In the same vein, provide warnings if players are putting themselves in danger. You’re aiming for “I knew it!” when something bad befalls player characters. (“You notice that the hanging bridge above the tar pits seems frail. Just make sure nobody cuts those ropes!”)
Provide alternatives if you think that what players want should be impossible. (“You can’t just buy a magic weapon but they say there’s a hidden entrance to a goblin market in the Smoke Forest.”)
Add obstacles whenever players are getting what they want. (“The insect trainer will teach your lizard how to spy ahead if you provide her with a living giant wasp.”)
Fight On! #14 has been released on Lulu! The bestest old school fanzine is back, like a revenant it haunts the living even if we know that it is already dead. Calithena has said that #15 will be the last issue and that saddens me. Issue #14 also came without my Caverns of Slime. This doesn’t make me as sad as I thought it would because we get a fantastic troll fortress instead. Gatehouse, temple, main complex, it has everything and nice, emphatic maps. Thick, black lines, high contrast edges, and yet clearly labelled. Citadel of the Dark Trolls. Lee Barber. Well done!
One of the comments in the announcement thread says “I used the code GETIT25 and got 25% off my order.” Good luck!
This rule is part of my German house rules document, Halberds & Helmets. I just can’t remember the weird rule from the Basic D&D and Labyrinth Lord books. Inspired by skills in Apocalypse World I decided to use 2d6 and ideas by Erin Smale he left in a comment on a Google+ post of mine.
Chase: If you’re being chased, roll 2d6. On a 2, you’re surprised. On a 3–6, it’s a fight. On a 7–9, choose two points from the list. On a 10–11 choose one point. One a 12, you made it, no problem.
- you were separated
- it takes a long time
- you got lost
- you had to drop shields and backpacks
Optional modifiers. +1 for each of the following: if there are twice as many chasing you, if you have a faster movement rate, if there’s a thief in your party, if it rains, if it’s dark. -1 for each of the following: if there’s an elf or a ranger tracking you, if there are wounded party members with you, if there’s snow on the ground.
Only use the modifiers if you remember.
These days I read a lot less books than I used to. I read too much blogs on the topic of role-playing games, too much time spent on Google+, also on the topic of role-playing games, I skim this role-playing book and that PDF, and since I’m mostly interested in the Old School Renaissance of role-playing games—namely D&D from the nineteen eighties—I also feel like I ought to like the books recommended by one of the founding fathers of D&D, Gary Gygax in his Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. If you’re interested, you should check out the articles in Martin Ralya’s blog tagged Reading Appendix N.
These books are weird. Compared with the The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire or Malazan Book of the Fallen, these older books are short. There are sometimes short stories, collection of short stories, novellas, or little paperback books. All of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian fit into two books of typical size for these fantasy series.
A while back, I remembered how eagerly I read all those Darkover books by Marion Zimmer Bradley and I decided to find them all second hand, in German, on Amazon, and buy them for Claudia. Every now and the she reads one of them, interspersed with some Steven Erickson and George R. R. Martin. We start talking and comparing. There are two aspects I like about these books:
Tolkien may have started this dreadful fashion of telling multiple stories at once. But in his case, at least each segment was long, very long. When I read George R. R. Martin, I feel like the author is suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder. Is every little segment ending on a cliff hanger? When I start noticing the literary devices, when I start to see the man behind the curtain, it doesn’t really work anymore. It starts to bore me. I start noticing that—like in Zeno’s paradox about Achilles being unable to overtake the turtle—as the number of segments increase, the time slot available decreases. As more stories are told in parallel, less actually happens. Plot is reduced to flashes and still images.
I am exaggerating, of course. In comparison with older books, however, I start to appreciate a tight plot, a unified vision, a drive forward. All the Conan stories stand on their own. They can be arranged in some sort of chronological order, but that’s not the important part. Similarly, the Darkover books can be read in any order. You get the occasional reward for regular readers. Older stories are referred to, but understanding this is strictly optional.
I was once again reminded of this when I read The Walrus and the Warwolf. It was published in Paizo’s Planet Stories line (now discontinued). I liked it very much. The book itself wasn’t short, but the chapters were short. The characterizations were short. Things happened. I felt that it incorporated not the best of literature, of language, of fancy words and synonyms and antonyms but it incorporated what is best in story telling. Keeping things short. Just enough words to let the reader’s imagination embellish it all without ever taking too long to read.
I’m hoping that I’ll like the other volumes in Hugh Cook’s Chronicles of an Age of Darkness series. I’ve ordered many of the volumes second hand, via Amazon. I also ordered the four books that got translated into German. Perhaps Claudia will enjoy them as well.
Notes for a session:
As you can see, the magic user was not yet a high-level Vivimancer when I ran the adventure. I had to push him up to 15 if I wanted the clone to be based on the actual spell-casting ability of the dude. At the time I justified the clone with rituals and machinery… You might also notice the notes on snow apes, rocket men and shark men. Indeed, I ran this as the tower in the middle of the lake of The Forgotten Depths.
At the time the baboons were “blood monkeys” and the player characters forced one of them to cross the blue room and mash buttons. They didn’t realize that this would revive the clone and once they monkey came back, they killed it. Cruel!
They stole the clone’s spell book and still befriended the clone (who didn’t know that it was they that had stolen the book). Once befriended, they decided to “help” him retrieve his spell book and “hunt” for the blood monkeys that must have done it. And strangely enough they soon found it “in the forest”. All is well that ends well, I guess.
In my game, the clone wasn’t a Vivimancer but a Polymorpher. The spell selection for Vivimancers is cooler, though. It explains the dense plant life, the mushrooms, the degenerate humans, the intelligent monkeys, the minotaurs, and so on.
Resulting second draft:
It still needs some proof reading. The idea is to submit this for Gavin Norman’s upcoming Vivimancer Supplement. Today I learned that a one page adventure for A5 paper is harder than it looks.
The strange “polymorph other into human for a limited time span” is magic item I wanted to keep. I felt that perhaps a player would be able to take advantage of it, or maybe they’d feel like dismantling it and taking it on to their own ship. They never did, however.
Over on The Rusty Battle Axe the author says “Megadungeons were all the rage in the tabletop RPG blogsphere back in 2008-2009. There are plenty of posts on megadungeon dating back to the period.”
I still haven’t run a Megadungeon, even though I have bought several: Stonehell, Rappan Athuk (twice), Castle Whiterock, Tomb of Abysthor, … I feel like I would like big dungeons. When I prep for my games, however, that’s not how it works.
If you look at my Swiss Referee Style Manual you’ll note that it is practically without advice for dungeon adventures. That’s because my dungeons are small. Usually they are one page dungeons. How come? When I prepare a game, I usually start from the answers I got at the end of the last session. I almost always end by asking: “So, what are we going to do next time?”
I write down the relevant non-player characters: people to meet, people to oppose, people with jobs to hand out, with quests that need resolving. I usually end up with one to four characters.
The bad guys are usually in a defensible position so I prepare spells, minions, rooms, a map… a one page dungeon, a ship deck plan or a village with a few important buildings (in which case I won’t prepare floor plans for the buildings). I usually end up with four or five buildings or ten to twenty rooms, a sketch of a map.
I think of complications. This is usually something that works in layers. Every two or three days I have a lame idea that I mentally add to the adventure. After two weeks, however, five lame ideas make a cool complication. I usually don’t think of a solution. The gargoyles want the player characters to leave, consider themselves to be /Übermenschen/… The elves are petriefied by a gorgon bull and the players have neither the saves nor the spells to survive a direct encounter. As it turns out they managed to get the gargoyles to accept their commands and the gargoyles brought all the petrified elves to the survace.
I think of rewards. I usually start by rolling on the appropriate treasure tables and embellish the magic items, if any. A armor +1 and shield +1 turn into the golden halfling armor of Priamus Bullfighter who disappeared 21 years ago from Elfenburg. The sword +1 turns into the blade of the herring knight, smells of fish allows the wearer to feel how far away the next air bubble is… I make a mental note to add the remaining equipment of said knight to the dungeon or future adventures… If my players decide to follow up I will place his city or temple on the map, and add the protector saint of all fish, and his paladins, and their special abilities, and there will be rescue missions, and favors to be granted…
Working iteratively is important for my process. I try to pull in non-player characters from very old sessions. Wespenherz, the new hireling, is an elf that they had rescued from bad guys in a previous campaign up in the north. This ring they just found was forged by Qwaar the Axiomatic and didn’t Muschelglanz write a book about the rings of Qwaar? Yes he did and as far as he know he had decided to investigate the Barrowmaze and never returned… It gives depth to the campaign, some players remember and start digging through the campaign wiki, older players explain newer players what happened back then, … I love it!
This sort of thing doesn’t come easy. As I said, every two or three days I have a lame idea, but after two weeks I’ve had enough lame ideas that together they make the game better. Much better.
The process also shows why it’s hard to integrate megadungeons. When I look at them, I want to skim them for interesting non-player characters my players would want to contact, for prison cells my players would want to rescue interesting non-player characters from, for interesting rewards my players might want to be looking for. And that’s so damn hard.
I still remember placing the Barrowmaze in my campaign and having an important non-player character flee towards it. I was using Nualia, an evil fighter with an evil sword from a Pathfinder adventure and decided that her dad was a priest of Nergal who lived in the Barrowmaze and was involved in the power struggle. Then I had an evil authority person from Kerealia fleeing towards the Barrowmaze because the players had ousted him. The dungeon itself was ok, not overwhelming. We rescued a dwarf from a pit and he’s still with us.
Once the players fell into a bottomless pit and dropped into the astral sea, they never had the urge to return, hower. Having Muschelglanz disappear in the Barrowmaze is my new attempt at letting the Barrowmaze play a role in my campaign. It hasn’t managed to make itself important. I was unable to find or emphasize anything in the megadungeon itself that would motivate my players to return again and again.
The reason I thought of using the Barrowmaze again was that one player decided to offer a reward for the return of Muschelglanz. I proposed to my players to play a random party of first level dudes trying to claim this reward by going into the Barrowmaze and finding Muschelglanz. They liked the idea so that’s what we’re going to do.
When I started preparing for the next session, I did what I usually do. I looked for cells to put him in. I looked for the headquarter of a faction that held him prisoner. I tried to find the important non-player characters and I tried to find a thing that Muschelglanz might have been looking for. I know that there is supposed to be a tablet somewhere. But everyhing else has been tricky. I really need to skim it again. Gaaah.
Now you know what I would appreciate in a megadungeon. Just in case you’re writing a megadungeon.
I started thinking about it when Johnn Four said on Google+ that he was interested in designing his “own little OSR game”. Like Joseph Bloch, I wondered. It doesn’t sound like Johnn really wants to run and play an OSR game. He’s just interested in designing the rules? There are already so many of them out there! All these Fantasy Heartbreakers…
What is a Fantasy Heartbreaker? I learned about the term from Ron Edward’s essay. They are “truly impressive in terms of the drive, commitment, and personal joy that’s evident in both their existence and in their details” and “but a single creative step from their source: old-style D&D.” Since I like classic D&D, that’s not a problem for me.
Here’s how Ron ends his essay:
They designed their games through enjoyment of actual play, and they published them through hopes of reaching like-minded practitioners. […] Sure, I expect tons of groan-moments as some permutation of an imitative system, or some overwhelming and unnecessary assumption, interferes with play. But those nuggets of innovation, on the other hand, might penetrate our minds, via play, in a way that prompts further insight.
Let’s play them. My personal picks are Dawnfire and Forge: Out of Chaos, but yours might be different. I say, grab a Heartbreaker and play it, and write about it. Find the nuggets, practice some comparative criticism, think historically.
Get your heart broken with me.
This essay, I think, mentions all the important parts:
I also like to read the design decisions somewhere, on a blog for the game, perhaps. Why add skills? Why drop Vancian magic? Why drop descending armor class? Why use fewer saving throws? Why add bennies? Why rework encumbrance?
As for myself, I’m basically using Labyrinth Lord. I’ve been thinking about skills, magic, spells, armor class, saving throws, bennies, and writing about these issues on this blog. And as I’ve said on Johnn’s post: “I just kept running my game and started putting my house rules on a wiki. Then I copied the missing elements from the book. Then I put it all into a LaTeX document. And I keep running my game and I keep making changes to the rules. And that’s it.”
For a while I had an English and a German copy of these rules on a wiki. After a while I abandoned the wiki and the English rules and moved the German text to LaTeX.
I think the important part was thinking about the rules, writing about the rules, changing the rules, reassembling the rules, having something to show others, a place to collect the house rules… and with all that achieved, there’s just nothing to do but make the occasional update. I’m not trying to convince anybody else to use the rules. But if you’re looking for something a bit different, perhaps you can find “those nuggets of innovation” in my rules, too.
• 💔 •
What are those those nuggets of innovation you ask? I think the only thing that’s truly new is how I write the document making full use of a sidebar to comment the main text. And I keep track of my player’s reputation with the various gods of the setting. Everything else I have seen somewhere else: Death & Dismemberment, using 1d6 for thief skills, using a d30 once a night, using 1d6 for weapon damage, limiting the repertoire of arcane casters… Nothing new under the sun. But I’d be happy to
pontificate talk about all these points.
Ian Borchardt recently wrote a lengthy comment in reply to Andy Standfield’s Google+ post about determining CR/EL for monsters. He allowed me to repost it and all he asked for was me mentioning “that it was a G+ comment and therefore not a literary masterpiece – more a stream of thought.” Slightly edited.
When creating a wilderness encounter table for a sandbox game don’t bother with the details. Work out the likelihood of an encounter with creatures that feels right to you and use common sense in the application of the results. Encounters shouldn’t be in “balance” with the party.
Remember that in a sandbox game, an encounter does not actually mean that the characters have an immediate direct combat encounter with the creature. For example, a party of 1st level characters are travelling through the wilderness and you roll up an ancient blue dragon. Instant party death. right?
No. Have them encounter the dragon on the wing, hunting food. The party won’t have enough meat, magic or gold to be worth the dragon’s bother so it will probably keep on the wing. Meanwhile the characters have definitely encountered a blue dragon and can relish the magnificence of the fantasy encounter (or more likely the terror as they huddle under a tree hoping the dragon hasn’t seen them [“Ha!”] and won’t eat them).
But what’s the benefit of this encounter that wasn’t, you may ask? I’m glad you did! The party now know that there might be a lair of ancient blue dragon somewhere in the vicinity (and by that I mean easy flight range) if you are in the wilderness. They might remember this for later, once they are powerful enough to feel they have a good chance of adding dragon slayer to their resume. But in the meantime the presence of the dragon is going to colour the region through which they are travelling. For example any herds in settlements are going to be small to avoid being a tempting target. Towns might even have an arrangement with the dragon were suitable “princesses” are offered up for sacrifice – and they might actually prefer visitors to one of their own daughters. The dragon might even need a set of human hands and be looking for a set of adventurers to do a task for them. Whilst a threat works everyone knows adventurers are mercenaries and will do anything (even kill) for filthy coin.
Ed Simbalist (one of the authors of Chivalry & Sorcery) wrote an excellent essay back in the day (1978): Monsters are people too which really is recommended reading [C&S Companion – hard to get though now]. Monsters aren’t there as adventurer bait, but usually doing their own thing. Role-playing should be important for the monsters as well. For example, the party is at camp roasting a deer they shot earlier in the day, when they “encounter” a goblin patrol. Certainly this could devolve into a fight but what if the reaction roll is friendly? Perhaps the goblin patrol is actually lost and their leader doesn’t want to admit it (but pretty soon his troops, tired and hungry, are going to revolt). And that roasting leg of deer smells sooooo good. Perhaps they can bluff a tax for travelling through “their” lands. Except the people around the fire seem to be rather hard-bitten warriors rather than peasants and are not likely to be particularly surprised or overawed by a mosquito-bitten goblin troop? You now have a role-playing opportunity – never underestimate the benefit of intelligence (in the scouting rather than goblin’s lack of sense) and making friends. Even with goblins.
That’s all up to how you apply the encounters you generate. But there is still the important part of the players reaction to encounters. And that is to use reason. The sandbox game, unlike the heroic story-path game, isn’t there in the world for them. It’s a living breathing world without them, and the encounter table should realise that. At times they are going to encounter stuff that is too tough for them to beat, in which case running away is an important alternative that often seems to be forgotten by a lot of modern players that think the world must be all about them.
Special small regional encounter tables are a good thing too, although they often develop in play – for example one region I kept on rolling dwarves, which lead to the fact that there was a big mining boom going on here, so the regional chart got created with a lot of dwarvish and mining aspects. Including an encounter of gold nuggets in a creek bed. As our different encounter tables for civilised, frontier, and wilderness areas. And don’t forget all the non-monster encounters. For example, encountering an army off to war leads to “you have been recruited” or even “your horses have been recruited – here’s a chit for them (accompanied by the soldiers laughter as they lead your food and horses away)”. And affect the surrounding game. Good sets of encounter tables drive a sandbox game by presenting stuff. Also a good idea is to have a set of unique encounters on file cards. This could be stuff like villages, big monsters in lairs, and the like. When a “unique” encounter is rolled, shuffle and pull a card. That encounter is now there. Replace and top up these file cards occasionally, and remember to keep track of where the used ones were used.
My own take on wilderness encounters can be found in my Swiss Referee Style Manual.