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2014-06-20 Rewarding a Thing

Recently Ian Borchardt wondered on Google+, what people thought of basing experience gains off of class. He was thinking of fighters gaining experience fighting, magic users gaining experience learning spells, and so on. Ian was interested in applying this to D&D solo play. I think the topic bears a wider discussion, however.

I see two things to consider. How will this rule affect gameplay at the table? How will this rule affect what characters do in the game world?

I remember playing Burning Wheel and related games from Burning Wheel Headquarters. These games usually tie advancement to successes and failures in tests. Therefore, every test you make takes a tiny bit of bookkeeping. How difficult was the test? Did I succeed or fail? Jot it down. That’s too much bookkeeping for my taste.

In the games of The Shadow of Yesterday, Solar System or Lady Blackbird, characters have at least one Key. Each key describes a very individual way of gaining experience.

Example Key from Lady Blackbird:

Key of the Paragon
As a noble, you’re a cut above the common man. Hit your key when you demonstrate your superiority or when your noble traits overcome a problem. Buyoff: Disown your noble heritage.

Each key also has a buyoff. If the buyoff condition occurs, you have the option of removing the Key and earning two advances, which you can use to buy another Key or two.

Whenever I ran or played these games I liked this mechanic because it gave players the choice to pick whichever Key they desired, implicitly telling the GM what they wanted the game to be about.

As players get to select the Keys and they get to change them as part of their advancement, Keys can be more fine-grained than just the character’s class, and yet they don’t require as much bookkeeping as Burning Wheel and all those games because not every roll of the die needs record keeping. Players actively try to trigger their Key, and when it happens, they mark it off. Easy.

It is pretty free form, however. As the referee of such a game, you should have a list of Keys prepared that serves as an implicit indication of where you see the game going. By agreeing on a set of Keys beforehand, referee and players can make sure that the Keys stay within the kind of game they want play. It doesn’t have to be an anything goes kind of game.

Mazes & Minotaurs has the kind of experience system that Ian Borchardt was suggesting. I’ve never tried it, it seemed reasonable on paper, but I had trouble imagining it at the table. After every encounter, the fighter player speaks up and says, “that was worth 3 XP for me, right?” The mage player loots the lab and says, “two new scrolls found, 2 XP?” If it happens a lot, it could be a lot like the bookkeeping after every test in the Burning Wheel Headquarters games. If it happens rarely, it could be like a permanent Key in Lady Blackbird.

Then again, something I like in role-playing games is changing gameplay over time. It seems to me that making this Key basically permanent prevents this to some extent.

In a D&D game with dungeons and wilderness adventures I’d say that rewards based on class lead to a kind of reinforcement that I don’t like. Fighters will want to fight monsters that don’t need fighting, thieves will want to steal from people we don’t want to steal from, etc.

To elaborate – and this goes for solo as well as party play – I think that doing a thing should not be rewarded. That’s going to go Pavlov quickly is what I’m guessing. What I want is players doing things in order to get a reward, in other words, they are doing something else in order to get a reward. The action and the reward should be orthogonal. Fighters fight in order to get treasure. Wizards cast spells in order to get treasure. This is how they get to choose their approach, quietly or forcefully, quickly or slowly, talking or fighting, and so on. It allows for more ingenuity in my book.

Anyway, this is what I expect to happen without actually having tried it, and only based on my D&D 3.5 experience. There, fighting monsters granted most of the XP. Avoiding a fight and going about the mission quietly was always an uphill mental battle. It was going against the

affordance of the rules. The reward structure did not invite players to push harder, it invites players to optimize harder (since combat appears unavoidable, in a way, combat is the reward).


Comments on 2014-06-20 Rewarding a Thing

In D&D, I generally favor granting XP for accomplishing goals, almost like getting XP for completing a quest in a computer game. How you reach those goals is unimportant – what matters is that you get them done. It might be dragging home piles of treasure from an ancient tomb, saving a princess, or stopping a marauding dragon. My only criteria are that the goals are non-trivial and matter to the characters and/or players.

In fact, I like to go a step further – characters level when the players have progressed the story arc or campaign some reasonable amount. Our current D&D Next game evolved away from totaling XP for monsters slain (though if we found a good way to avoid a monster or challenge, we were usually given identical XP for that too), and now just relies on the DM’s feel of the game to figure out when going up a level is appropriate.

– Adrian 2014-07-03 22:07 UTC

It makes sense to level up on achieving goals. Basically you’re saying: A new chapter is beginning. The characters have changed. I like how that ties in with my preference for changing gameplay over time. Enough sleep and magic missile. Time to see some lightning bolt and fireball action. The only difficulty I see personally is how a referee is supposed to handle this in an open sandbox. As the players adopt new goals, the table decides as a collective that upon reaching this or that goal, they will all level up? Or do referees decide themselves? As Courtney argues in his blog post, On Advancement Mechanics, Experience, there’s always the danger of taking away agency from players. If the table agreed on an adventure path, on an adventure arc, then that is not an issue, I guess. I never tried it. I’m glad to hear that it’s working out.

AlexSchroeder 2014-07-03 22:35 UTC

Another good article on the topic of rewards: Don’t reward your players for role-playing. I laughed when I got to “I have an intrinsic dislike of extrinsic rewards.” I totally agree with this: “Giving out an extrinsic reward destroys the intrinsic fun. When you’re rewarded for performing an activity you enjoy, you lose interest in performing it for it’s own sake.” The post also includes a link the abstract of A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation by Deci, Koestner and Ryan. The article is also available via Research Gate. So what’s the point of XP in the first place? It’s there to “make sure that the game you play tomorrow is different from the game you played today.” This is something I keep saying about long-term campaigns: There needs to be a promise of ever-changing gameplay. XP is part of this. (In D&D, I think the other part is due to how spells are structured.) And if you’re handing out XP to “make them role-play more,” Jack Mack has you covered as well: “It’s a type of behavioral conditioning, a skinner box made to get your friends to behave the way you want. You shouldn’t need this. If you have a player who’s shy and doesn’t role-play much, why use a passive-aggressive rewards system to punish them for playing that way? If you dislike the way someone plays, why not just talk to them about it? Extrinsic rewards are just going to make them enjoy role-playing even less than they did in the first place.”

A blog post full of win.

I ended up having an interesting discussion with Tim Franzke in the comments to my Google+ post and on his Google+ reshare. One of his points was that in BWHQ games (Mouse Guard, Burning Wheel, Torchbearer, …) he’s having great fun with getting rewarded for role-playing, an activity that he enjoys. I said that as for providing both rewards (intrinsic and extrinsic), I could only reiterate what the blog post said:

Intrinsic fun AND extrinsic fun, that must combine to make the game more fun than ever, right?
Well, research has found that’s not quite true. In the words of this literature review: “…expected tangible rewards made contingent upon doing, completing, or excelling at an interesting activity undermine intrinsic motivation for that activity.” Giving out an extrinsic reward destroys the intrinsic fun. When you’re rewarded for performing an activity you enjoy, you lose interest in performing it for it’s own sake.
– Jack Mack

If it isn’t true for you, I said, then I’ll argue that Burning Wheel is different because of the following:

  1. Some of the rewards comes at the end of the session, so they are pretty dissociated from the act. Perhaps that undermines it.
  2. Most of the rewards don’t reward “role-playing” but succeeding and failing at tests, being useful, moving the story forward, moving the story in unexpected directions, making people laugh.

As for me, I feel like getting paid—I feel dirty!—when we need to talk about most valuable player, embodiment, mold breaker and workhorse. It’s not too bad because I don’t think about it during the session. I’d argue that the negative effects of the extrinsic reward don’t affect me that much because of #1 above, the rewards at the end of the session are far removed from actual play. It’s still an awkward situation for me, and one of the many reasons I don’t play Burning Wheel.

On Tim’s own thread, he summarized his experience as follows:

I like getting rewarded “for roleplaying” because it makes me do suboptimal things. It creates neat decision points.
– Tim Franzke

In a recent old school D&D session run by Harald, my cleric lost an arm. So what to do? No more shield use? Use a spiked shield and switch between protecting myself and bashing people? I decided to try and run my cleric as a pacifist. No more attacking. Clearly a suboptimal decision, and I didn’t do it because I expected a reward, I did it because I think it will be fun. I still want him to go on adventure, fight monsters and take their stuff, because that’s how I’ll get XP and level up, but the absence of a reward doesn’t mean that suboptimal decisions will not be taken. In fact, I’d argue that being humble without expecting an extrinsic reward would be more humble. The player would feel humble. The other players would be astonished at the humility. It would be a more valuable experience for the humans sitting at the table. Sitting at the same table, I might feel the urge to tease you, saying: “But you just did it for Artha…” Perhaps we’d enjoy ourselves because of the irony as we are players sitting at the table making our characters do things we know the players don’t feel at the table. There’d be a lot of winking and eye rolling, of “my character is so humble, he cannot accept this bow!” and “of course he is, hahaha!” The meta level turns into the source of entertainment. Speaking for myself, I find this reduces my enjoyment, unfortunately.

On the same post, I got pulled into a discussion with Robert about “extrinsic rewards for X but not Y” vs “extrinsic rewards for X and Y”. Clearly, I’m in the camp of “extrinsic rewards for X but not Y”—the interesting question should be why I prefer to reward looting but not role-playing, right? The answer in the context of Jack Mack’s blog post is that role-playing is an activity I enjoy at the table, it has intrinsic value, where as looting is something that has no intrinsic value at all. I just do it because that’s what I need to in order change the game over time, or in Jack Mack’s words, “to make sure that the game you play tomorrow is different from the game you played today.” It’s one of the things that makes role-playing games a game. It’s also left to the table to decide how far we want to go in the pursuit of this goal. And the thing you’re rewarding doesn’t have to be looting in every game—but it should be something that isn’t intrinsically enjoyable or you’ll spoil it. Perhaps it doesn’t spoil it for you and others, and that’s fine, too. The research says that there’s a tendency for extrinsic reward to spoil your intrinsic enjoyment, however.

Robert said that that some people don’t find intrinsic pleasure in RP and that “extrinsic rewards give them an incentive to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do.” The original blog post has a whole paragraph dedicated to this:

In comparison, I always see role-playing reward mechanics recommended as a way to change how people play. You do it to make them role-play more. It’s a type of behavioral conditioning, a skinner box made to get your friends to behave the way you want. You shouldn’t need this. If you have a player who’s shy and doesn’t role-play much, why use a passive-aggressive rewards system to punish them for playing that way? If you dislike the way someone plays, why not just talk to them about it? Extrinsic rewards are just going to make them enjoy role-playing even less than they did in the first place.
– Jack Mack

I think that’s exactly the problem I have when Robert explains that he teaches “within a system that has exam structures imposed on my class by the government, parents, the school management, etc. Within that framework, it is sometimes necessary to use extrinsic rewards to encourage students to develop skills and knowledge that are not valued by the system.” If I were sitting at his table, and he were offering me extrinsic rewards for something I wasn’t doing because of an intrinsic enjoyment I felt, then it starts to feel like work and school.

You might point out that my characters are looting for XP, so what’s the difference from role-playing for Artha? I think the concept of a game is important, here. We’ve come together to play a game and the game is about particular activities. These activities are driven by goals. Loot is a simple goal to work towards. In Burning Wheel, beliefs act a bit like individual goals. Sadly, when I encountered them, they were often not clear cut goals, but they certainly can be, and when they are, it works quite well. Using instincts to my disadvantage, using traits to drive the story in unforeseen directions, being funny, being the most valuable player, the work horse, and so on—these aren’t goals. At least, these aren’t goals in how I understand them. These aren’t goals that provide direction to my activities.

Tim said that these mechanical rewards for things that I don’t recognize as goals do motivate him to make disadvantageous decisions. I can’t argue against that. All I can say is that for me, the referee making failure interesting is the only thing I require. I don’t require a reward.

As to why I consider the use a trait to drive the story in unforeseen directions not being a goal that provides direction to your activities, the way I see it this: we come together, sit at the table, the last session we told the game master that we wanted to explore the Gnoll ruins. What will be looking for? Option 1 is “loot”. Option 2 seems to be “looking for a way to drive the story in unforeseen directions”? That doesn’t sound right. It looks like the difference between strategy and tactics. “Loot” or the belief “I’m going to kill the lord of Xitaqua” will tell the game master what we want to do, it’s about the big picture and it will give us a sense of accomplishment when we have done it. It will take a session. Me having the trait “Playful” and throwing some bones at the lions, possibly changing the course of the expedition is something that happens spontaneously, it changes the scene, it changes the story in unforeseen ways, it doesn’t give us a sense of accomplishment. (At least it wouldn’t do that for me?) “Loot” or a specific belief says what we want to accomplish. A trait might suggest a way of accomplishing said goal, or change how we’re accomplishing said goal, or complicate out attempt of accomplishing said goal. It will not tell us what said goal is, however.

Well, if anything, I don’t think I ever wrote that much on a Google+ thread. 😊

AlexSchroeder 2014-07-07

I am going to respond to only one thing, your question about a sandbox. The way I see it (and this is just one point of view), in a sandbox game, the players are essentially “exploring” an unknown map. In some cases this is the literal act of mapping out unrevealed hexes on a map. In other cases it is finding out what is hidden in a particular wilderness hex. In other cases, it is the interaction with particular notable features on the map – like what do you do with that increasingly belligerent warren of kobolds, or the mysterious lone wizard in the mist-shrouded tower. I could see attaching XP rewards to all of these activities, if you really wanted a clearly laid out reward system – or you could play it by ear (not sure if I would want to give out XP for just exploring hexes, but I could see games where it would work). Dealing with the kobolds (slaying them, forcing them to leave, negotiating a treaty, defeating the chieftain and becoming the new kobold chief) might be worth a small XP reward, while exploring the lair of the legendary red dragon Ashfang (and slaying her / taking her treasure / appeasing her with sacrifices / becoming her agents) might be worth more. Bigger risk or more difficult task, higher reward, and so forth.

Now that I think about it, I think I am mostly reiterating what you said about exploring the gnoll ruins – the difference between what the goal is versus how we accomplish it in-game. I prefer rewards for the former, not the latter.

– Adrian 2014-07-07 18:31 UTC

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2014-06-17 Isotope

Yesterday I ran Tony Dowler’s Isotope for four friends. It’s a free game and your can download it from his Patreon page.

Isotope is a 4-page post-apocalyptic RPG. When I read it, it looked like a simpler Apocalypse World to me. Easier to create characters, none of the playbooks, moves, and all that extra. I was reminded of Vincent Baker’s 2011 blog post Concentric Game Design. There, Vincent says that Apocalypse World has 4 layers of rules. The first layer has a few stats and uses 2d6: “On a 10+, the best happens. On a 7-9, it’s good but complicated. On a miss, it’s never nothing, it’s always something worse.” That’s basically what Isotope does.

There are four classes, human, mutant, wolfling and troll. Assign -1, 0, 1 and 2 to the four classes, get some perks, mutations and some equipment, go. It has an optional list of character names. We played for about 2½h. After the game, players said that they really enjoyed character creation. It was short and the two pages of classes, names, mutations and equipment provided all the setting information they needed and just enough complexity to have them pondering their choices without getting bogged down.

The rules being so short we ran into two issues. One player really wondered about gaining levels and hit-points. You basically have between seven and twelve hit-points. Roll a d6 for every level you have and pick the highest result, add six. You optionally reroll whenever you get to eat, drink and sleep and you reroll when you gain a level. I think I get it but something about how this was worded confused one of us, as I said.

The thing that confused me was how combat works if a creature has multiple attacks. The way I see it, combat means rolling 2d6 and adding appropriate numbers. On a 10+, you deal damage as per weapon. On a 7-9, you deal damage and you take damage, I guess? Not sure about this one. On a miss, you take damage. But then the rules say that monsters should have one to three attacks. How does that work? Just triple damage? Wow! Perhaps I should check Apocalypse World or Dungeon World.

The sample adventure provided was interesting but light on stats. As I said in another blog post, I like to believe in the independent existence of my game world. This means that I don’t like improvising monsters, traps and rewards on the spot. If I do, I feel like it’s me against the players instead of me acting as the impartial referee between the game world and the players. Improvising in this context often means adjusting the difficulty, being tempted by an imaginary arc of excitement, reducing player agency.

⚠ Spoilers! ⚠

This is where I made a misake. I started with a few notes:

  • 1 bear, 4hp, AC 0, 3 Attacks, no trespassers
  • 4 mutants, 2hp, AC 1, 1 Attacks, giants, chainsaws, see invisible, wings
  • Grüber, 8hp, AC 0, 3 Attacks, sticky giant tentacles
  • 3 giant ants, 3 hp, AC 2, 1 Attack, acid fog envelops combat

As the game went on, I added more:

  • Orbyx, 6hp, AC 0, 4 Attacks, friendly, curious, hungry, psychic
  • 1 extradimensional shadow dragon, 12 hp, AC 0, 2d6 of non-euclidean space ruptures
  • 4 arachnoids, 3hp, AC 2, 1 Attack, poisonous, hungry

It was quick to do, no problem. It just felt a bit weird to write these things down on the fly.

Figuring out which rooms contained useful loot was a similar problem. Was the big loot in the flooded room at the bottom? If so, what did it contain? What would be the big reward for successfully launching the rocket? Should I run it again, I would have to better prepare a few end scenarios so that I can push players towards one of these endings with appropriate closure as time starts running out. As it stands, the end was a bit flat.

So, next time: More prep!

As far as plot goes: the party got split towards the end. One managed to have the shadow dragon open the sarcophagus and so the character went exploring and found some valuable power tools to sell. The other characters found the map room and managed to set the intercontinental missile targeting system on a few cities by accident, but I decided that more was required to actually launch the rocket. We didn’t have the time, however, so we broke off saying that the delvers camping around the titan sarcophagus had finally caught up to what was happening and would start exploring the structure soon enough. The power tools where the only loot recovered.

We spent half an hour after the game talking about it, comparing it to Apocalypse World (which was deemed longer and harder to get into for little benefit), Lady Blackbird (which was deemed to promise better character development via keys and locked tags) and Traveller (which was deemed to similar in that character development basically meant the accumulation of gear and allies instead of powers).

I said I’d run a Lady Blackbird hack in two weeks time. Perhaps The Bugs of Venus? Then again, I like the original Lady Blackbird characters, I like the romantic angle, and I don’t have much experience in the military fiction genre, didn’t like Starship Troopers too much, don’t know whether I can recreate the Alien feel… We’ll see!


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2014-06-12 Blog to Book

Closet Cases was Patrick Stuart’s recent blog post about bloggers producing a best-of PDF, and possibly a physical book via print on demand. He has done it for his own blog, A False Machine. I guess it was available for free when I got it. I agree with many of his points. Books are read differently from blogs. I take my time. I’m not skimming but exploring, drinking the words. It works for A False Machine because in the end it is a collection of weird essays, inspiring, with a touch of Beat Culture.

Would it work for my blog, though? Sometimes, in my efforts not to ramble, I feel that the result would be not be enjoyable to read in the long term. Perhaps a some of the “summary” pages on this site are all that is required? The Swiss Referee Style Manual would be a good place to start. How I Roll was supposed to be a “best of” collection talking about the gaming I enjoy. What about the German pages, though? There are fewer posts in the RSP category, and fewer long essays like Spielertyp. I probably need to keep these two separate even though I am both.

I think I’d write differently for a book. Aiming for that Zen Slap.

It would involve a lot of rewriting. I wonder. Perhaps I should simply write the text I’d want to read in a book? Then again, I read so much online and so little in books.

The issue remains unresolved. I have some free time in the upcoming weeks. We’ll see whether this idea gathers traction.

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2014-05-31 One Page Dungeon Contest 2014

The One Page Dungeon Contest 2014 page has a link to all the PDF files.

The instructions I have seen to download all the files where these:

  1. Visit the folder view.
  2. Click the blue Add to Drive button.
  3. The button changes to an Open in Drive button. Click it again.
  4. Then click on the “1pdc-2014-entries-pdf” folder itself and see the little triangle.
  5. Click it and click on the Download… menu item.

If that doesn’t work for you (if you don’t have Google Drive, for example), you can also get the 1PDC 2014 zip file and all the individual entries from my Wuala account.


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2014-05-22 Stat Blocks

Random Wizard writes about the OSR Stat Block and mentions Semper Initiativus Unum’s OSR Compatible Logo. I myself use a slightly different notation.

I started wondering: Why is it unlikely that I will be adopting a different notation?

The most important issue is probably that I don’t care enough about other systems and I feel that it’s incredibly easy to move from one system to another. If I can run D&D 3.5 adventures using Labyrinth Lord converting stats on the fly, then I’m sure you can do a quick “19 minus descending armor class = ascending armor class” or a quick “19 minus HD = single saving throw”.

Another important issue is that I usually take notes for myself, so I’m used to my particular format. This format continues to evolve (in minuscule steps). Perhaps we can look to the tech world. The Tao of IETF (the Internet Engineering Task Force) is “rough consensus” and “running code”—and it would seem to me that we are close to rough consensus and we have a lot of actual experience running and writing adventures and monster collections. We’re just quibbling about the details.

Here’s how I feel the B1 stat block mentioned by Random Wizard compares to mine.

Random Wizard and B1: Orcs (1-4) – HP: 6, 4, 3, 1; #AT: 1; D: 1-6; AC 7/12; SA: None

Mine: 2d10 orcs HD 1 AC 7 1d6 F1 MV 12 ML 7 XP 5

  • I don’t like the ranges because simple ranges can be expressed using die notation (1–4 = 1d4) where as weird ranges take too much time to figure out (5-14 = 3d4+2).
  • I don’t like the sorted hit points. Do I randomize the list at the table? If so, I might just as well roll the hit points myself (which is what I do).
  • I usually don’t see the point of listing the number of attacks.
  • I like AC to be at the beginning because I’ll refer to it a lot (every time a player attacks).
  • I’m a big fan of morale. Morale scores are important.
  • I’m not much of a fan of movement, but I sometimes I still care. How many shots can you fire at a charging enemy? Who can outrun the werecamel?
  • I wouldn’t mind listing ascending and descending AC. The simple a/b notation is short and it doesn’t use parenthesis. I like it.
  • As a nitpicker, I don’t understand why AC doesn’t need a colon were as HP, #AT, D and SA need one.
  • For that matter, I don’t understand why Damage or Special Abilities need a label. Isn’t it obvious that the only range or die notation in the stat block must be damage and that the only plain text must be special abilities?
  • XP is optional, I agree (and often forget to list it in my prep notes).

Longer example which includes a name, multiple attacks and various special abilities.

Bel, Slayer of Men, HD 10 AC 2 -/3d6 ML 11 MV 9; flaming whip does no damage but on a hit it grants +4 on the hit with the flaming sword in the same round and on a 20 it disarms the opponent; flaming aura deals an extra 1d6 to everybody nearby; immune to non-magic weapons; immune to fire

Perhaps if more people posted their favorite monster notation and argued for their differences, we could start building said “rough consensus”.


Comments on 2014-05-22 Stat Blocks

Ynas Midgard
The stats for the creatures above would look something like this in my notes:

Orc (2d10): HD 1; AC 7; Atk 1 axe 1d6; MV 12; ML 7

Bel, Slayer of Men: HD 10; AC 2; Atk 1 flaming sword 3d6, 1 flaming whip (+4 to-hit on next attack; disarm on 20); MV 9; ML 11; flaming aura deals 1d6; immune to non-magic weapons and fire

I couldn’t imagine myself putting down more complicated notes on a regular basis; although for some particularly complex ability or attack mode I could use something like indicating what happens on a natural 1, on a miss, on a hit, or on a natural 20.

Ynas Midgard 2014-05-27 15:30 UTC

Same here, sometimes I’ll have extra stuff happen on a natural 20. If monsters have a breath attack they don’t use every round, I also like to give the chance for them to use it (since no d20 is rolled). I like 50% or 1–3/6 better than “every 1d4 rounds”.

In your stat block the “Atk” label is the only thing I would drop. I used to have it my own notes as well, but dropped it as unnecessary. The attack descriptions are not easily confused with anything else.

AlexSchroeder 2014-05-28 06:07 UTC

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2014-05-07 Twenty Questions

Ramanan recently answered Brendan’s twenty questions about the rules used on his blog. Here’s how I’ve been running my campaign over the last years.

(Update: I’ve answered these twenty questions two years ago. The answers are practically unchanged. How embarrassing!)

Ability scores generation method? 3d6 in order.

How are death and dying handled? Roll on the Death and Dismemberment table every time you reach 0 hit points or whenever you get hit after reaching 0 hit points.

What about raising the dead? The highest level cleric in the area is a player character. A long time ago they’ve met another cleric but never returned to that particular town. I would require the fulfillment of a quest upon returning to life.

How are replacement PCs handled? Start at level 1, gain no more than one level per session. This works well because in the long run, you’ll simply loose a level (as XP requirements essentially double for every level).

Initiative: individual, group, or something else? Group initiative using a d6.

Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work? A natural 1 is always a miss. A natural 20 is always a hit and does max damage.

Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet? Some entries on the Death and Dismemberment table take helmets into account.

Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly? I used to say that targets will be picked at random but nobody ever risked it. After seeing Legolas shoot orcs at point blank I was ready to toss the rule but my players wanted to keep it. Effectively the rule is that you cannot fire into melee.

Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything? As in all good sandboxes, some fights require more preparation, so retreats will be necessary.

Level-draining monsters: yes or no? Absolutely. There comes a time when simply hitting each other is boring. Level draining is a change in game play that keeps things interesting.

Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death? There comes a time when simply hitting each other is boring. Save or die spells are a change in game play that keeps things interesting.

How strictly are encumbrance and resources tracked? Not at all. Sometimes we make fun of people if they carry too many weapons. In a chase, the rule is that wearing metal armor halves your speed and that carrying more than 800 coins also halves your speed. You may not carry more than 1600 coins. In practice, money is converted into buildings, salaries for specialists and the like in order to gain experience, and gems are most likely kept, so that I stopped tracking. Thus, the only real rule is that metal armor halves your speed in a chase.

What’s required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time? You gain most of your experience when you spend money. Therefore you usually gain levels between sessions. Training is not required. There are no new spells gained automatically. Spells are always taught from one magic user or elf to another. No copying of spells from spell books or scrolls.

What do I get experience for? Killing monsters and spending treasure gained on adventure.

How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination? Description or dice rolling will work.

Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work? Retainers are encouraged but you can only bring two along for an adventure. The others will perform other duties in your name such as running ships, guarding estates, ruling over towns, and so on. Morale will only be used if you’re giving unreasonable orders.

How do I identify magic items? Experiments, sages, and sometimes I’ll just tell you. There is no identify spell and there is no questing for command words or the like.

Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions? You can buy potions from alchemists and they cost around 500 gold per potion. You might get scrolls from clerics, magic-users or elves if they have a high enough level (finding such non-player characters is very rare) and only in exchange for service, never for gold.

Can I create magic items? When and how? If you reach the appropriate level, you might. We’ll talk about each one of them individually and make sure to turn it into an adventure. Sometimes you can pay for other people to go on adventure for you, but that just means next session we’ll be running the low level scum trying to get those ingredients you need. There will be an adventure.

What about splitting the party? Your call.

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Comments on 2014-05-07 Twenty Questions

CD Gallant-King
I approve of your way of playing, and I really need to do this for my own campaign. For my own reference if nothing else.

CD Gallant-King 2014-05-07 12:56 UTC

Writing things down over the years has certainly helped me see more clearly.

AlexSchroeder 2014-05-08 05:20 UTC

My answers here: http://oliof.blogspot.ch/2014/05/20-questions.html – similar enough but different in some details.

Harald 2014-05-08 06:01 UTC

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2014-04-30 Independent Existence of Imaginary Worlds

Recently, David McGrogan asked for our favorite treasure tables on Google+. I said that I didn’t care for any particular one. I just use the official ones. For me, the most important aspect of using treasure tables is that there is no choice involved. Just roll. It’s like discovering the world by rolling on the table, it’s about being surprised even if you’re the referee of the game, it helps me suspend disbelief. The mechanics make sure that I’m not thinking of it as a figment of my imagination. It feels like a real thing. It’s like learning about object permanence as a toddler. You close your eyes, and you open them again, and the objects are still there. No amount of wishing, crying, pulling, pushing or punching changes this. Rolling the dice makes sure that my wishing has no effect on the outcome. I might embelish this or that, but if a deck of many things comes up, then that’s what you’ll find. If something boring comes up, I might change it. A sword +1 might get changed to an elven sword of a particular elven house. Or it might belong to a set. Or it might have a minor magic effects.

Treasure tables act a bit like random encounter tables. They are also part of the implied setting. You’ll find a lot of potions, scrolls and magic swords because that’s what this is all about.

This also explains why I hate treasure schemes that pull away the curtain and say things like you choose or you should always place or anything else that implies that the treasure found might be simply a figment of my imagination.

This initial impression grows stronger as the dice rolling slowly turns into a ritual. I do it every time when I prepare a session.

I still dole out quests involving particular items which are not rolled on the random treasure charts, of course. But these adventure seeds, these plot relevant items, they are a different thing.

Anyway. Random treasure. No choosing.

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2014-04-28 The Village

OK, time to give my entry for the One Page Dungeon Contest 2014 a spin!

The entry grew out of my Recovering from a lame session blog post. You can get the SVG sources from my GitHub account. I’ve used the Noticia Text font by JM Solé (downloaded it from Google Fonts – click Add "Noticia Text" to your collection, then click the ⬇ down arrow, and choose to download the zip file). I’ve used Jez Gordon’s DungeonFu to create the three little maps.

Right, got my 3d6 and I’m ready to roll.

Inn: Delikatessen. Remember the movie? Clearly something fishy is going on in this red-orange inn. Rumors of cannibalism, I say!

Name: Gorknok. Sounds like an orc to me. Too obvious? A redcap disguised as a gnome. He calls himself “Gorki”, of course.

The faction leaders, traits, goals:

  1. Spider Ali, a magic user, careful, has escape planned, defend HQ
  2. Silent Sereina, a cleric, funny, friendly (join her faction?), return my book
  3. Patra the Good, a fighter, well educated (might help us later?), defend HQ

Looks like an all female cast to me, and all the positive traits. Androgynous Ali in her spider webs, white Sereine, lost in thought, and Patra the Good, the good … fighter? I’m thinking a strong, bulky woman. No nonsense. Thinking of the magic item with the Set connection, I’m going to say Sereina is a protegé of Set, maybe the campaign can find inspiration from the Legend of the White Snake? I guess Sereina is in love with a man that is currently imprisoned somewhere. A potential lead for where the campaign might go: “My husband has left to study a the Seven Harmonies monastery and not returned…”

The goals are weird. I guess Silent Sereina is the active one. She really wants back her book. I guess the two others are on the defensive. The first scene should be agents of Set attacking minions of Spider Ali, at Delikatessen, where the party is meeting up.

Who else is there? Rolling for a conspicuous person… Ælvig, a singing huldra looking for a man (HD 3). Another woman! She has a fox tail, but hides it. Of course the party members will spot it. Mentioning it, however, is a grave insult. Remember that a huldra is somehow hollow inside and lined with bark, open at the back. It’s weird, and terrible. If any of the players is interested in the weirdness of faerie love and faerie courtship, this would be an opportunity.

Let’s look at the magic items. I get:

  1. elven sword
  2. bane cards
  3. ring of djinn mastery

Clearly, the book is not amongst the magic items! How about the The Investigation into the True Names and Habits of the Lords of Air. The person with the ring of djinn mastery – Ali — borrowed the book because it was necessary to learn more about the ring. A close encounter with a djinn resulted in great damage to the book. Spider Ali thinks its disgraceful to return this book and sent ample gold instead. Sereina feels there is more to this and decides to up the ante. So, Spider Ali has the ring.

Patra the fighter owns the elven sword and realizes that it might grant access to elven lands. But this would require some elves. Make a not for later. If one of the players is interested in elves, the campaign could go there. We need some elves nearby! The elves of Red Acorn forest are at war with pig men. Will you join them, hoping to win their favor?

That leaves the bane cards. They are in the hands of the redcap Gorki. Should the players spend too much time at the inn, the redcap will use the cards on one of the characters when they’re alone and kill them, and prepare a cannibal feast for any who would join him. Uncovering these shape shifting recap is going to be a side quest.

I guess we’re done? Get a monster book and write down some stats? As for maps, I’m not going to use the tower twice.

Spider Ali keeps tamed war spiders instead of animated objects in her tower. Let’s say he has has the spell charm spider instead of charm object. The spiders’ poison is not lethal. It paralyzes victims for an hour. Oh, and give Ali a web spell instead of read thoughts.

Silent Sereina is running a little temple and has ten followers and two acolytes (C1) with light spells they’ll use to blind foes. Patra the Good has taken up residence in an old bakery and running a little protection racket in order to finance her visit to the Red Acorn forest. You’ll have to bring gifts for the elven lords, right?

The thing took me a bit less than an hour. What do you think? A useful tool? Not efficient enough? It’s probably faster if you don’t spend time googling for images and writing it up as a blog post. 😏


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2014-04-27 Recovering from a lame session

I recently read a Google+ post by Dallas M where he says that his game didn’t go well. He suspects too many beers and considers nuking the game. Here’s what I said:

It happens. I’m not sure what the exact fail moment was, so I’m just going to assume “players didn’t know where to go and had no ideas so they got drunk and picked on each other and nothing interesting happened”. I’m also assuming low level characters in a typical starting village in a frontier region. My basic advice is “send ninjas” except I’m going to be more specific than that. 😃

In order to get the campaign back on track, I’d prepare three mini-adventures consisting each of an interesting NPC boss, something they want (an item, a service, protection), and their minions. Basically one of these groups is going to attack the players, another group will seek the help of players, the other is there as you backup if one or the other needs help, or an additional complication. Trying to put the pressure on players, force them to pick allies and enemies, run it, and after the session you can build on that: add allies in need of help, enemy organizations grow, NPCs hide in strongholds (small dungeons).

Three sections for your notebook or for an index card each:


Make sure you use a reaction roll to determine how these NPCs react to players and surprise yourself as well as your players with unexpected results.

Random list of wants:

  1. his or her son’s engagement ring, which he lost in a rigged bet
  2. a overdue book borrowed from her personal library
  3. an apology by another NPC for what they said yesterday at the Roaring Boar
  4. proof of cooperation of another NPC with a newly arrived monster tribe in the region
  5. protection from the minions of another NPC looking to steal a supposed treasure map
  6. the return of a son or daughter that has run off with the thieving gang run by another NPC

Minions need to be prepared. Start with one or two dozen minions. Thieves, kobolds, lobster men, hooligans (fighters without armor), mercenaries (fighters with armor). Split these up into groups of random size. Some will be easy to overpower, some the party will have to avoid, outsmart, split up, and so on. Being able to recognize bad odds and being able to do something about it allows players to use strategy, to decide when to pick fights. When in a fight, make sure you use morale checks in order to provide your players with surrenders, traitors, opportunities to show mercy or cruelty.

Locations need to be prepared. Start with very small maps. This is where you should have treasure, tricks, traps, and the NPC. Make sure you use reaction rolls if the party decides to parley in order to surprise yourself and your players!

At first, the sandbox elements happens between sessions. Players only get to choose between three groups that are actively engaging with the players. Player reactions determine where the sandbox will grow between sessions. We just need to make sure is that players always have a handful of things to do, always a choice to make.

Time passes and I decided to try and make it into an entry for the One Page Dungeon Contest 2014! You can get the SVG sources from my GitHub account or download the PDF. I’ve used the Noticia Text font by JM Solé (downloaded it from Google Fonts – click Add "Noticia Text" to your collection, then click the ⬇ down arrow, and choose to download the zip file). I’ve used Jez Gordon’s DungeonFu to create the three little maps.


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2014-04-17 Crazy Campaign

Recently I was responding to a Google+ post by Gavin. He was putting together a list of potential goals for the wizards in his campaign because he felt that players tend to shy away from doing cool stuff.

I started thinking about the cool things that have happened in my campaign, and the cool things I wanted to happen in my campaign but which didn’t.

First, the failures. These were goals I had hoped players would set themselves but they did not.

In my games, I’ve been trying to let players find books on particular topics. I never went all out and maintained a page on the campaign wiki with the actual books they own. My idea was that the books would allow them to research spells related to these topics (one of my house rules says you can only learn spells from other casters, so this sort of research would be the only alternative). I’d say that “building a library” didn’t happen.

Another thing I had hoped for was that players would actively seek out wizards with particular spells but as it turns out, I have not been placing a lot of rumors about particular spells. All the casters they befriended they befriended because of an adventure they were having and they happened to meet and connect on some level. I’d say that “meeting and befriending other casters” went well, but “actively seeking out other casters and befriending them” didn’t happen.

There have been successes as well, though.

One character is sponsoring four sages (and plans to hire more, each costing about 2000 gold pieces per month; usually one week passes in-game for every session). For one, money spent generates XP (one of my house rules). At the same time, every sage writes a little something about the setting. It’s great for me to provide rumors and adventure hooks. It also allows me to add new spells to the campaign. I’d say “hiring sages” has been a success. I think this worked because one of my players is interested in learning new things about the setting, and because of the rules that requires players to think of ways to spend their goal.

The need to spend money has resulted in a lot of public buildings in the domain of my players. We use An Echo Resounding for the domain game, so the gold spent doesn’t actually grant mechanical benefits. But it generates a bit of setting: temples are built (and I can have pirates rob them and kidnap the priests), an ivory tower has been built for the sages, a hospital was built (and taken over by demon worshippers), a bath house has been built (and more are being planned as the backbone of a spy network), a unicorn station has been sponsored, a tavern has been built… “building infrastructure” and contributing to the setting has been a success powered by the rule requiring the expenditure of gold, a price list with various buildings on it, me listing the buildings on the campaign wiki for all to see (seeing the changes to the environment and “leaving your mark”), and events sometimes referring back to things built by players add to a sense of ownership.

Another thing I had was a “master of anatomy” who could graft extra stuff on to characters. One of my players got a replacement arm and a replacement leg (he had lost limbs due to the Death and Dismemberment table I have been using), but the new limbs were gray and shriveled. I just don’t feel like punishing players for missing limbs. If pirates can have a wooden leg, if captain Hook can have a missing arm, why can’t player characters? If you’re missing both legs or both arms, it’s time to quit. I guess “body modification” has been a success.

The same player also got two dragon wings, which required an auxiliary brain to control them (so now he’s a cone head) and the extra brain can act independently in an emergency (although I never remember to roll for it). The Frankenstein look sometimes provokes an explanation for negative results on the reaction rolls, but there is no Charisma penalty. I guess this worked because it was perceived as useful, it was cool and it felt special even if it didn’t provide any real benefit (except for flight, which hasn’t been an issue). I think I’ve managed to balance benefits and drawbacks on this issue. Great!

Another thing that happened was that the players befriended a devil worshiper who proceeded to invite them to a succubus party (a ritual, not a spell). I think this happened organically. I rolled up a random encounter with some hobgoblins carrying 5000 gold pieces. I decided that this was tax. The players defeated the hobgoblins and took the gold. They arrived at a castle and gifted the gold to the wizard, saying that they want to throw a huge party, not knowing that he is a devil worshipper. Excited, he agrees… This was unplanned, but “have fun with devil worshippers” definitely worked. I think the key was to have some lame idea and not being afraid to turn it up to eleventy one.

The key to pushing my campaign to eleven is to use every idea as soon as possible. Do not save good ideas for later! Use them now. You will have more good ideas in the future.

Another thing is that you need to take something the players are doing and amplify it. They want to throw a party? Think of something crazy and let it happen. They want to build something? Think of something crazy to happen to the building, a crazy person to visit the building, something, anything. Let there be cool consequences.

Being generous with cool stuff works even if you fear for game balance. Avoid mechanical consequences for characters, if you want to. That doesn’t mean it cannot be crazy, something for your players to talk about in the future, something the non-players characters talk about in-game!

Always keep adding new plot lines. Minor things. Provide your players with three to five options at the end of the session and ask them what they want to do next. Prepare that. Having players choose allows them to influence where the story is going. My campaign is still about reviving a dead god because a long time ago, one of the players decided that his character was interested in all things elven. When I let it be known that they had a dead god, the player wanted to learn more. This is great. I keep adding stuff where ever the players start looking. To them, the campaign is infinitely deep. It keeps growing where they are most interested because it grows where ever their characters actually do something. Sure, they don’t always follow the main plot and that’s OK.

Some of the best moments happen when the older players are trying to explain past events to new players. They sound like kids. It’s convoluted and confusing and oral history at its best.

I’m not sure these notes will make it easy for you to turn your campaign to eleven. If I had to list things to avoid, I’d say this: Don’t be too cautious. You will be able to fix things later. Don’t prepare too much, don’t have too much seting detail or you’ll be afraid to change it. You’ll be afraid of rulers getting killed, shops getting burnt, characters having to leave towns, the campaign taking surprising directions.

Update: On Normalizing the Fantastic is similar.


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