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.
Brendan was thinking about limiting magic users on Google+ and I started thinking about my own house rule…
I’ve been using the strict reading of the B/X spellbook rules for a while in my campaign.
What I’m seeing is that magic users worry about the spells they will eventually pick because they know the number of slots is limited. Read magic is important because it grants access to scrolls and without it scrolls have no value since you can’t copy spells from scrolls.
What I’m also seeing—but I don’t know whether that is related—is very few magic users and the few magic users I’ve seen are all low-level henchmen to player characters of a different class with levels 4–6. It seems to me that magic users die quickly when the whole party is low level and that’s why my players have been avoiding them as primary characters. I don’t think this is due to my house rule.
What I’m not seeing a lot of—even though I hoped to see a lot of it—was player characters seeking out high level magic users and elves in order to gain access to new spells. The characters learn new spells from the few magic users and elves they meet during their adventures. Maybe I need to add rumors about particular spells.
For now I’m still happy with how things have turned out even though they didn’t turn out exactly as I had hoped for.
More thoughts about reading B/X D&D in the links from my Ode to Ode to Black Dougal.
Recently, Gregor Vuga talked about the West Marches campaign model on Google+. He summarized the model as “one safe home base + lots of very dangerous wilderness” and wondered about adding cities that are “interesting places where there might be a lot to do”.
Here’s what I wrote, slightly edited.
I run a similar campaign. There are some small differences in how the thing is organized, but in terms of using many cities and other safe havens, I have had no problems. I treat settlements either as safe places and thus as not very interesting with the exception of one, two or three important non-player characters. Or settlements are treated as a simple adventure locale with a handful of “rooms” (one, two or three buildings) with a particular enemy and their minions need to be fought (were rats, cultists, evil tax collectors). The key is that once the adventure is over, the settlement returns to safe place status. There’s never an invitation to spend more time in a settlement. Most adventure and all the treasure is found outside.
I think this is still compatible with the West Marches campaign model because it depends on what you want from it. I want to encourage players to choose a goal or a destination, and go there, and do something. The original West Marches did this by saying the starting village was boring and safe. If the city is teeming with intrigue, then adventure comes to the players. They did not “choose” this adventure. So that’s what I want to avoid. If I treat other cities either like the starting village (boring, safe) or like a dungeon (remote, dangerous), then I am still achieving my goal. Whether you still want to call this “West Marches style” I don’t know.
If I wanted to add cities as interesting places to my campaign, I’d make sure that cities are generally boring and safe but they contain adventuring locales. In my game, for example, the players visited Sigil. It’s a big city, it has factions, it has adventuring locales, and so on. Not a problem, as far as I am concerned. Sigil wasn’t their home base. Players came to Sigil in order to achieve something. They did that, navigated the dangers, visited interesting locales, got involved in intrigue, and left again. Had the players decided to stay in Sigil, perhaps that would have made things more problematic. Will the faction war catch up with them? Will they still get to choose their adventures, session after session? I tried to mitigate this by declaring their guest house to be safe and boring, for example.
I guess what happens is that I just redefine the sandbox. It’s like a fractal. Once you get to Sigil, the thing is self similar: a safe place, adventuring locales, more dangerous when farther away, and so on. Basically “one safe home base + lots of very dangerous wilderness”.
In 2012 I wrote about old school fanzines, and this being a wiki, I sometimes updated the information when I found some more information. Time to start a new page with the real updates, however.
Which magazines released an issue in 2013? Did I miss any? Should I change the description? Leave a comment. In no particular order…
Also note this thread linking many more!
Recently I happened upon a discussion on Google+ regarding the introduction of facts by players. The example given involved an Indiana Jones character spontaneously identifying snakes. Does the referee determine the kind of snakes or does the player determine the kind of snakes?
Wilhelm Person suggested a skill check to get narration rights:
When you roll for knowledge skills. If you succeed you get to decide what the truth is.
If you fail the GM tells you what the truth is. Sometimes the GM lies.
Here’s what I wrote:
If you manage to foster the right atmosphere at the gaming table, it can be just a matter of using an ellipsis, a pause, a knowing look—and players will interject cool ideas by themselves. That’s how I try to have it work at my table. The obvious benefit to me is that we don’t need a skill. Another benefit is that it limits itself to situations where players actually have cool ideas. Otherwise—particularly if you’re not playing a story game—you might get a helpless shrug or an empty stare in response to a success on the knowledge skill check. Players are not always ready to spew forth the Apocalypse.
What seems to work best, in my game, is to combine it with a 1 in 6 chance. Most players will immediately suggest something very positive for them. I might make a doubtful face and say “OK, 1 in 6 chance that these cannibals fall for your ridiculous explanation. But what if it doesn’t work?” Usually the table is in brainstorming mode at that point and we all determine the rest before rolling the die. I find that accepting all suggestions at the table and have the dice decide works better than discussing it, looking for consensus—long talk disrupts flow, as far as I am concerned.
A while ago, I talked about Quelong and loved it. Yesterday, I got to run it.
As is typical for my Planescape-Spelljammer-Traveller mashup, I started off by summarizing how the party got back to the Astral Sea and used the red pill to return to Sigil. There, they contacted Lissandra, a dealer in planar gates they knew from a previous expedition. They described their goal and I decided for myself that Zadara was going to sponsor a mission to Qelong on the condition that the party provide at least one hands-on experience with a god weapon. The party agreed and so Lissandra’s “anonymous client” coughed up the diamond dust worth 5000 gold pieces I deemed necessary to transition from Sigil’s Slag to Qelong…
At the end of a three hour session we ended with the party standing in front of the cylinder, having just thrown a naga-kin against it’s shell and watching the naga-kin burn to death.
How did it go? It was straight forward. The party had two goals:
Here’s what happened, and where I got the information from. You decide for yourself whether that’s the kind of 3h session you’d like to play in.
The party arrives in Qelong and the character that can fly investigates the area; he decides to land near a peasant hut along the canal. He sees Varangians harvesting the former inhabitant’s livers and everybody at the table is disgusted even though the dudes seem nice enough and offer the flyer a job as a scout. Report to Diamond Geary about 25 miles up north, they say. This was from the random river encounter table.
They also visit a lotus temple and learn about the importance of the canals and stupas in keeping the Naga Qelong asleep. They hire a 3rd level monk named Xue Sijhanouk to serve as a guide. This was improvised based on the Gold Lotus description and the henchmen rules. The monk brought the player map aboard. It’s “from an old religions text” and only vaguely up to date. Players like hand-outs and maps. They also like the lotus as a power for law and civilization, resisting the aakom.
Learning about the aakom poison in the water, they spend 400 gold pieces to buy rations and water for 400 days. This is a party with 10 characters ranging from levels 1 to 6, plus one wolf, so that leaves them 36 days to adventure. They also own a chalice that casts cure disease 5×/day, and they have two high level clerics with them. We look at the numbers and ponder ignoring the aakom poisoning rules. In the end I decide that since the weakest character in the party has 1 hit-point and the cure disease only masks the effect without getting rid of the poison, we’ll keep track of the 1 point/day aakom poison accumulation. That’s easy to track, toghether with the rations.
They buy a sampan (a small boat) for 5000 gold pieces and sail and row up the river. This was from the description of Qampong.
Three giant pythons drop on deck and one of the giant ape characters in the party breaks a foot. I later noticed that the pythons in the book have 2 HD stats but I used the ones from the Labyrinth Lord book which have 5 HD. No problem. This was from the random river encounter table.
They come to a village full of refugees and learn about the Varangian blockade and their confiscation of all goods. Hundreds of villagers beg for food and water. I offer to scratch 100 rations to feed the crowd and the party agrees. They spend the night. This was from the random condition of village table. I didn’t roll on the village encounter table.
Along the way, the party also meets a guesthouse. The inhabitants are extremely helpful and generous. The party is immediately suspicious and discovers that the inhabitants are in fact all evil cannibals. The guesthouse is set on fire and the party leaves. This was another entry from the random river encounter table.
They reach Jamqar Long and see the squalor, the refugees, the Varangians (the refugees called them “evil dwarves”). They talk to the Varangians and learn that Diamond Geary is on the other arm of the river. They spend the night. This was from the description of Jamqar Long.
They reach Sajra Amvoel and Fort Hawk (players chuckled at the latin name) and talk to Geary and Hagen. Geary is interested in hiring them, Hagen would love for them to find the cylinder but doesn’t want to risk his own men. It’s easier to harvest aakom from the refugees. They also see Hagen feed liver to the large hawk in his lab. Should the party locate the cylinder, however, Hagen offers to bypass its protection and as a reward, the players would get an ordinary Varangian share of the profits. The players decline and want to split profits 50:50 with the Varangians. This Hagen declines. They part on uneasy terms. Before leaving, the party also talks to the four clerics in the shrine. The monk henchman notices the non-traditional lotus ponds and disapproves of laymen using the lotus power. The clerics explain how they need to cooperate with the Varangians—including offering up terminal cases for “harvesting”—because the Varangians are all that keep the refugee situation from breaking down completely. The clerics also explain about Xam and Thip Qelay. There is some sympathy, there. This was from the description of Sajra Amvoel and the Varangian NPCs.
The party moves up the river. The clerics decides to use detect magic to attempt to find the arm of the river that would lead them to the cylinder and I agree that this would work. As they move up the river, they are attacked by 13 naga-kin. Two are taken prisoner and there is some talk regarding the Naga Qelong (a four headed serpent demigod) and Set (a seven headed serpent god). The naga-kin have never heard of Set but agree that he sounds very powerful and vaguely related. The naga-kin also agree that the aakom poisoning must end but for now it serves their purpose in weaking the canals and stupas. The situation remains unresolved, for now. The party spends the night.
On the forth day, they reach the cylinder. After much talking, one naga-kin is thrown against the cylinder and expires in the flash of fire as the other naga-kin watches in horror. That resolves the relationship towards the naga, I guess. The flying character managers to make a drawing of the inscription and the party now feels that they have earned their “pay” from Lissandra’s client. They haven’t found the elven sorceress, however.
Looking back, I think I should have played a non-stop thunderstorm track instead of Two Steps From Hell.
What do you think? Not enough atmosphere? Just enough atmosphere? Quicker than you thought? Does this session summary make you want to tweak the encounters in the Qelong book?
I use a Death & Dismemberment table in my game. One entry is for broken limbs. You roll again and may break your sword arm, your shield arm, a leg, or your ribs, with appropriate effects. No sword arm, can’t attack. No shield arm, can’t wield one. No leg, need a wooden leg (but no further effect once you do). But what about broken ribs? I read somewhere that you can’t strain yourself because the broken ribs might puncture your lung. So that’s what I use: can’t fight or you’ll die.
It’s a long setup, I know. Last session, my players met a dwarf pirate named Sawty with a saw mounted on his helmet. Uluf has a tengu horn which is way too powerful, summoned the flying swordsmen, killed half of Sawty’s crew and took over. A reaction roll showed that Sawty really liked Uluf. I decided that Sawty wanted to get rid of the guy who runs the show, Black Dagger. Uluf and his horn seemed like the perfect tools. Uluf wanted to get the treasure of the Bastille of Terror. Sawty convinces the reluctant Uluf to follow him and use the tengu horn in Black Dagger’s hall, kill him, and split the treasure fifty-fifty. Reluctantly, the players agree. Uluf leads the way. Sawty does his part, Uluf blows the horn, Black Dagger is killed by the tengus and the player characters cheer. Sawty is cackling triumphantly and leads Uluf to Black Dagger’s treasure hoard. The other player characters trail after them.
Sawty is a true pirate. He shows no regard for his fellow pirates, kicking their corpses out of the way, laughing. All he thinks about is gold and ruling this place. Uluf feels bad. Sawty quickly finds the treasure and disarms the trap. As half the treasure is spilled before Uluf’s feet by the pirate dwarf, Uluf snaps and decides to kill Sawty. A player backstabbing the honest pirate! A pirate who was as ruthless as they were. It was tense. Uluf’s player felt perhaps like a lot of murder was being committed in his character’s name. Uluf and Sawty fight.
When the other player characters offer help and healing, Uluf says no. This is a duel. Initiative is rolled again and again. By strange luck of the dice, both Sawty and Uluf end up in with two or three hit points each. Sawty scores a critical. Broken ribs!
Uluf’s player: “I don’t care. Sawty has to die!” And he rolls and he hits and he runs Sawty through, just as the broken ribs pierce his lungs and the pink foam starts showing. They both die amidst the spilled coins of the pirates’ hoard.
I loved it.
Courtney recently talked about treasure design on his blog. I use treasure for advancement and I agree with his assessment: random generation is makes players come back for more.
Random treasure is also an opportunity to develop your world. How do you explain a dozen hobgoblins carrying 5000 gold pieces? When I rolled it up, I decided that a bunch of hobgoblins were on their way to pay taxes to their overlord. The party then stole the treasure, inadvertedly visited the hobgoblin overlord (an evil wizard) and gifted him the gold by throwing a huge party (in order to gain XP), saw the same hobgoblins arrive at court (!) and had to think about a way of preventing the hoboblins from telling their master what had happened. Luckily, they had a cursed potion of conflict and quickly poured it into the wine used to welcome the hobgoblins. They started squabbling immediately and the party made a getaway. I loved it.
Courtney also says that one should “avoid blurring the line between treasure and junk lying around”. I agree completely! It’s boring. That’s why I don’t allow selling used armor and weapons for half price. It’s junk. Get me some new treasure if you want XP.
In a sandbox, there’s some tension between player goals that involve treasure and player goals that involve plot advancement. What happened to the elves? If there are no dangerous monsters with a lot of treasure, discovering the truth about the elves can be boring. My solution is to make sure that wherever there is plot, there is also danger and treasure. Thus, if the missing elves are all petriefied in a hall (as in my Wilderlands game), there must be gorgons, medusas or basilisks nearby with appropriate treasure. If there are armies of hobgoblins on the march (as in my Red Hand of Doom game), then the dragons accompanying them will have their usual treasure along on the march, carried by the footmen or by slaves.
It’s weird, I know. My sandbox has monsters and treasures wherever the interesting plot elements are. That’s simply how D&D World is. Every peaceful mission goes into dangerous territory, every army carries loot, every museum houses monsters. If there are no monsters and no treasure, I'll try and handle it in two sentences. “You sail down the coast to Tlan and talk to the sage. Two weeks later, you’re standing at the harbor. <insert what the party learns>. Now what do you do?”
If you find that you have a lot of players with a lot of hirelings—on a typical session of mine there will be between ten and twenty characters in the party even though we have only four or five actual players at the table—you’ll find that they can easily defeat “level appropriate monsters” in a dungeon and yet they are easily defeated themselves by higher level monsters such as gorgons, medusas, basilisks and dragons. I find that using a lot of weak enemies works best for me. When they recently investigated a forest hut, I rolled up a random encounter with 6d10 goblins. These attacked in waves of around 15 each, spaced a few rounds appart. It worked very well and there was a decent chance for treasure. It ended up being 11000 copper pieces… Oh well!
Remember Ode to Black Dougal and his series “B/X is my Favorite”? I linked to all the articles in my Ode to Ode to Black Dougal. Today I stumbled upon an old series on Greywulf’s site. I was reading on Rob Conley’s blog how his players had One Thousand Four Hundred and Fifty Orcs Slain and how he had used AD&D’s 1st ed. Battlesystem to do it. I googled for it and found Greywulf’s series talking about the War Machine rules. And then I started reading the entire series.
Let’s start with just the facts, ma’am. The D&D Rules Cyclopedia is a 300-page hardback book released in 1991 that collated the vast majority of the Classic D&D rules from the Basic, Expert, Companion and Master rules (and other supplements) into one single tome. Unlike 3rd Edition’s Rules Compendium, the Rules Cyclopedia contained everything you need to play – and when I say everything, I mean….. everything. From complete character generation for all levels of play from 1st to 36th (and beyond) to monster stat blocks, a complete game world (with colour hex maps) and more, the Rules Cyclopedia has the lot.
Basically, if it’s in D&D, it’s in this book. Want a Druid class? Paladins? Wandering Monster Tables? Planar Travel? Castle building? Seige combat? Naval combat? Manscorpions? Treasure tables? To get the equivalent content in 3rd Edition D&D you’d need all three Core Books and many other supplements to boot. By my reckoning, to equal the Rules Cyclopedia’s $24.95 value, you’d need to invest well over $200 in any other edition to even come close. Oh, and that $24.95 was the cover price back in 1991. Now, you can get all that goodness for around five bucks as a PDF from RPGNow. What’s not to love?
Anyway, here’s what Greywulf wrote:
Hehe, I just read my old review again.
When I stocked my dungeon yesterday, I used the Moldvay Dungeon Stocking procedure. To be honest, my wife used it. The two tables are somewhat confusing.
I couldn’t find a blog post translating Moldvay’s dungeon stocking table into a single table. I’m sure I saw it somewhere. That would have helped us. (Edit: I guess I was remembering this discussion of the OD&D restocking procedure by Sham.)
Let’s do it ourselves, then. Writing out all the results:
1 2 3 4 5 6 1 M$ M$ M$ M M M 2 M$ M$ M$ M M M 3 T$ T$ T T T T 4 S S S S S S 5 E$ E E E E E 6 E$ E E E E E
|#||Contents and Treasure|
|6||Monster and treasure|
|2||Trap and unguarded treasure|
Transforming this into a d36 table:
|d36||Contents and Treasure|
|1–6||Monster and treasure|
|13–14||Trap and unguarded treasure|
Or divide it by two to get a d18 table:
|d18||Contents and Treasure|
|1–3||Monster and treasure|
|7||Trap and unguarded treasure|
Too bad there is no such d18. We should change that to a d20 table. Let’s see if we can do it using Labyrinth Lord.
We just multiply the percentages from the table:
|Contents||With Treasure||No Treasure|
We could simplify the above by rounding to increments of 5% and translating this to a d20, reusing the order from the d18 table:
|d20||Contents and Treasure|
|1–3||Monster and treasure|
|7||Trap and unguarded treasure|
It’s very close to Moldvay, I’d say. And it’s probably less confusing. I can’t count the times I got confused by the Moldvay tables.
Reordering it for excitement, I guess:
|d20||Contents and Treasure|
|7||Trap and unguarded treasure|
|13–15||Monster and treasure|
I need to stick this into my campaign book.