For a while now I’ve noticed a strange fact:
Recently, somebody asked the following on G+: “If you use monster books, or even monsters from blog posts, what does your workflow look like?”
So here’s how I did it for The Crown of Neptune. Some doodling and brainstorming yields the following. I see a shark, a lamprey or moray man, and an aboleth. And I see a first table of random encounters on the right. Spider crabs, squids, sharks, mermaids, dinosaurs, wales. This dungeon is going to be about sharks and dinosaurs, and as you go deeper it will turn into underwater horror. Or so I think.
This is what I ended up with:
How do I arrive at the table in the middle of this sheet?
I start at the beginning and think about the environment. My adventures are almost always locations on a greater hex map. That already gives me some monsters from the surrounding area. In this case, that would be the plesiosaurus. Looking for dinosaur stats leads me to the Rules Cyclopedia and aquatic dinosaurs. The entry is disappointing.
The dungeon is underwater. So I’m thinking of monstrous animals. Sharks, obviously. Sharks have a nice stat block in the Labyrinth Lord book. I feel better already.
Not sure about wales. They seem pretty boring. Perhaps a creature to talk to, or to charm? The Labyrinth Lord book has stats for killer whales and they’re in the range I like right now: 6 HD.
And I want simple, humanoid, intelligent monsters that players can interact with. Some sort of nixie, or merfolk? Nixies and sirens can charm people and I’m thinking that this is a more brutal environment. Let’s pick merfolk instead. I remember something about tritons but they’re not in the Labyrinth Lord book. Merfolk will do.
OK, further down. Let’s start bringing that horror feeling. My campaign features neogi. Eel headed spider slavers. This reminds me of morays. Morayfolk! Or Lampreyfolk. Once they hit, they keep drawing blood without needing to attack. A classic special ability and easy to add. Think giant weasels or stirges. I’m not sure where I get that HD 2+1 from.
Spiders. Crabs. Spidercrabs. They look a lot like the giant crab monster from the Labyrinth Lord book. AC 3 instead of AC 2, 1d10 instead of 2d6. Trivial changes.
The kraken is a giant squid from the Labyrinth Lord book. My players know I love the kraken. In my mind, this kraken was huge. 50m long arms! It should have had a gazillion HD. But seven attacks is good enough, I though. Let the monster look tougher than it is. Labyrinth Lord, giant squid. Works for me! HD 6. Ideal.
Not sure where I got the giant clams from. Since they can’t move, that looks more like an obstacle to me.
And now for some unterwater undead. Kraken made me think of ink, and that made me think of dark clouds. Wraiths? And some more variations on the crab and on the lamprey themes. Simple variations in numbers. Things get tougher as you go down.
An astral spider is an intelligent planar spider from the Rules Cyclopedia, I guess. Or a variant on the aforementioned neogi and giant spiders. Giant jellyfish is a variant on the kraken theme but with paralysis instead of multiple attacks. I imagine them being soft targets which is why they don’t get eight attacks or more.
The giant anglerfish was supposed to be a building that can bite. I don’t know where I got the 36 HD from. It was basically a huge trap.
Further down! A gibbering mouther? An elf encased in an evil mech? I must have been thinking of the Goons in the Caverns of Slime:
3d6 Goons (HD 5; AC 3; Atk 1 slam +3 (1d6+3); MV 6; in combat the poor creature locked inside will be begging for forgiveness and cry for help even as it fights) are alerted to the party’s presence by imperceptible sensors embedded into the walls and ceilings of the building.
More kraken. And my version of an aboleth, since I couldn’t find one in the Labyrinth Lord book.
Basically the whole adventure is nothing but a map, random monsters, some of them with an obvious lair, and if a lair exists, then with treasure, and some traps or curious things to investigate – such as the dead diver I added because I had listened to the story of how David Shaw died.
Back to the initial question, though. How do I use monster books?
OK, so we talked about setting up a game of Hexcrawling and how the game will eventually reach its limit if the known region keeps growing and more and more factions are being introduced, more lairs, more assets, more domain turns; the game starts to collapse under its own weight. We also talked about my Domain Game Goals. The things I like. The things my players like. We have come to the point where we need to talk about the kind of procedures that will offer us an interesting domain game without growing as the domain expands.
I think this is key: The procedure must always take the same amount of time. Think about random encounters. No matter how big your party, you always roll once for random encounters. The monsters might be stronger. The trek might be longer. But the number of rolls is constant. But think also about its failure modes. If the party travels for eight weeks, do you roll for over 100 random encounters? I don’t. That’s why random encounters only work at a certain scale. Our domain game procedure will also work at a certain scale. We’ll postpone thinking about attaining immortality and godhood, for now.
The simplest solution would be a random domain roll. The results on the table are all either adventure hooks or role-playing opportunities where we get to see what kind of people the player characters are.
Several things are still missing. In order to track the “mood” of the current campaign arc, you could run with Chris Kutalik’s idea of a chaos index as explained in his blog post The Weird is Rising, Thanks World Engine.
I think I’d like more of a multi-dimensional framework that takes the gods into account. You could use something like the fronts on the MC sheet for Sagas of the Icelanders. Have a list of gods or other influences, list some keywords (“Hel: breathe disease, consume, hoard with greed”) that will color current events. This forces you to vary the description of the results depending on what front is in ascendancy. Use the result of the random domain roll to build a little four step countdown. If the party does not engage, step one happens. If they leave it to fester, step two happens. If they are busy elsewhere, step three happens. If they don’t take care of it now, step four happens. As time keeps passing and more rolls are made, issues are piling up. This is good.
If your players have “traits” that influence the domain game such as Sticky Fingers which I mentioned in previous post on the same topic, some of the results on the domain roll table should reflect that. In a Dispute situation, for example, Sticky Fingers might allow you to ignore the first two steps of the countdown as your thieves infiltrate your neighbor’s domain. You will have to handle the issue eventually or just move to War.
The important thing is this: I’m looking for a solution that limits the number of dice rolls and that doesn’t require any sort of computation before rolling. I don’t want to roll for every unconquered monster lair. I don’t want to add a bunch of numbers on the wiki for every roll I make. I don’t even want to look at what the last roll four sessions ago was before making a roll.
I recently wrote about my current setup for a campaign wilderness map and the associated hexcrawling that goes along with it. The greater context is the promise of ever changing gameplay. This is true for characters with saving throws replacing armor class as your most important defense, this is true for spells that change how the game is run, and I want it to be true for the campaign itself where dungeon looting yields to wilderness exploration, and eventually to kingdom building.
Kingdom building is what the domain game is all about. Wilderness exploration is about travelling from here to there and the creatures you encounter. It’s about learning who your allies and enemies are, new towns with new leaders and their own economic goals, monster lairs, humanoid tribes, instigating war, brokering peace. Eventually, the players are going to lay claim on a lair or a town. Now what?
Let us consider existing options for the domain game. The simplest rules I know are the ones in the Expert set by Cook and Marsh. Fighters get a land grant, build a castle, clear the surrounding area of monsters, organize patrols, attract settlers, raise taxes. Any mercenaries hired cost money. Clerics do the same thing, but their castle is only half as expensive and they get fanatically loyal troops for free (5d6×10). A magic-user gets to build a tower and attracts apprentices (1d6). A thief gets to build a hideout and attracts more thieves (2d6). Demihumans are like fighters. They build a stronghold and attract settlers of their own kind. Elves are automatically friends with the local animals. As for the attraction of settlers, all it says is that spending money on improvements (“inns, mills, boatyards, etc.”) or advising will do it. The details are up to the referee.
If you want a bit more detail you can use An Echo Resounding. It’s what I have been using for a while. A while back, I wrote a summary of the rules. Apparently you can add a lot more details by using Adventure Conqueror King System. There is an interesting comparison of An Echo Resounding and Adventure Conqueror King a forum I read a few years ago.
Unfortunately it’s turning out to be too much work for me. When I look at the monthly campaign summaries—something I write every four sessions—I notice that there is some free form stuff in the Sages and Spies inspired by recent events, my players’ interests and adventure hooks, and there is some stuff generated by the rules of An Echo Resounding. For every lair I need to find out whether it spawns units. If it does, these units need to attack a nearby location. I need to resolve these fights and if the units win, they plunder the location they attacked. For every non-player domain I need to figure out what sort of move they make during their domain turn. This involves looking at the numbers and rolling a d20, but often it has been so long that I feel I need to double check those numbers or I find little mistakes. In the end, a lot of time gets spend for very little gain. Or, to look at it from another perspective, I spend some time looking at numbers and rolling dice to produce text that is boring compared to the free form stuff I write up for the Sages and Spies section.
The stuff players like about the system don’t involve that much maintenance. They like knowing about their units and they like going to war every now and then. They like to build things in their domain. In my game, gold spent yields experience points. Since I have a list suggested prices for buildings, this encourages them to build temples, hospitals, towers, bath houses, and so on.
|a small statue for a well or a garden||50gp|
|a small, public altar made of stone with spirit gate und a small well (5ft.×5ft.)||250gp|
|a small shop made of wood with a place to sleep in the back room (15ft.×15ft.)||300gp|
|a simple wooden building with one floor such as a tavern, a gallery or a gambling den (50ft.×50ft.)||700gp|
|a wooden building with two floors in a village (50ft.×50ft.)||1500gp|
|a stone building with two floors in a village (50ft.×50ft.)||3000gp|
|a manor house with two floors, marble columns and statues in a city (50ft.×50ft.)||10,000gp|
|a provincial castle with six floors (60ft.×60ft.) and an inner courtyard (30ft.×60ft.) surrounded by a wall||75,000gp|
This leads to a strange effect: Build a large wooden Freya temple for 1500 gold and you’ve got a temple and 1500 experience points (gold spent = xp gained). Spend a few domain turns building a temple, however, and you will have a temple, it will give you Wealth -1 and Social +4, and a powerful 9th level cleric will come and settle here (using An Echo Resounding).
Having two very different ways of building a temple complicates things. It seems to me that paying for the temple using their own gold is a more visceral experience for players. They built it. This is what it cost. It’s easy to embellish it. It’s easy to list it on the campaign wiki. It doesn’t require anything on my part except determining a suitable price when they ask for a quote.
I also think they don’t mind getting a 9th level cleric, but there are still questions: why haven’t we met them before? Why aren’t they coming on adventures? In fact, why isn’t this a player character?
My game allows players to run multiple characters. In a particular session, players can bring up to three characters. The character with the highest level is the main character, the others act as secondary characters. Experience point gained for killing monsters is split on a per head basis. Treasure—and therefore experience points for gold—is split by shares. Every main character gets a full share, every secondary character gets half a share.
Sometimes, players will grow tired of characters. Sometimes, characters will break bones or loose limbs. These characters are perfect fits for these roles. Majordomos of castles, priests in temples, heads of guilds, captains of ships, regents of towns.
This is how I hope to achieve a greater identification with the setting. Over time, more and more important folks will be former player characters. It’s also ideal for a new campaign. At first, no high level priests exist. As soon as the first player character cleric reaches 9th level, however, raise dead is an option for all the player characters in the region—even if they’re playing in a different group! And raise dead will remain an option even if the player running the character abandons them or if the player leaves my table. The character has been established, backstory included.
My players also love their units. This is not a problem. We can keep the champion levels introduced by An Echo Resounding. The chapter introducing champion levels is Open Game Content. I’d go further than that, though. We could get rid of all the resource points and simply say that all other need to be equipped and hired.
The party could build an armory, buy equipment for four hundred heavy infantry (swords, chain and shield is 60 gold per person based on prices in Moldvay’s Basic D&D or 24000 gold total + 3000 gold for the armory itself based on my list of buildings above). Then, if the town is big enough to supply enough able bodied fighters, four units of heavy infantry militia will automatically be available whenever the town is attacked.
Hiring mercenaries will require less money. Human heavy foot guards in peace time will cost three gold per month (1200 gold per month for four units), twice as much in war time (2400 gold per month for four units).
I don’t think I need to use the War Machine rules introduced in the Rules Cyclopedia. I can keep using the unit combat rules in An Echo Resounding, the B/X Companion by Jonathan Becker, or the M20 Mass Combat Rules by Greywulf. I’m not sure what my favorite mass combat rules are, for the moment. I’m tending towards keeping the rules from An Echo Resounding because rolling for attack and damage is easy to remember. There is no scale factor and there is no /Unit Attack Matrix/. That makes it easier to understand.
What about the abilities your champion gets that aren’t tied to units? Sticky Fingers gives you +4 Wealth value. I don’t want to think about domain income, upkeep, taxes or tolls. When Chris Kutalik started rethinking domain-level play in his campaign, he suggested the use of domain skills and a skill check to go along with it. I don’t want to introduce skill checks and I don’t want minor and major skills in my game, however. Sticky Fingers does sound like a skill, though.
So, that’s where I’m at right now. What about abilities, or aspects?
Based on a recommendation on Google+ I took a look at Houses of the Blooded. There, you have domains consisting of provinces and each province consisting of ten regions. Each region produces something, and based on that you can have armies, goods, trade, and so on. I think it interesting, but I don’t think I’d want my D&D to be about it. Too much detail, it’s not really part of player characters, we wouldn’t want to spend time on it at the table, and so on.
I was also looking at the King Arthur’s Pendragon and The Great Pendragon Campaign. My campaign fell apart because of many reasons, but the lousy winter season where you’re supposed to look after your family, your manor house, your lands, build fortifications and all that—this part of the game just was not exciting enough at the table. And that is a problem. As Chris says in one of his blog posts, there’s always the danger of these systems turning “boardgamey” or “beancounterly.” Or that all the decisions have no consequence after all.
I’m still chewing on this.
I’ve recently started a new campaign. Here’s how I did it.
First, I got myself a hex map. I created this one using Text Mapper:
Repeat until you like what you’re seeing. The random terrain is generated using the Welsh Piper’s algorithm as described in Erin D. Smale’s Hex Based Campaign Design, Part 1; the icons are based on the Gnomeyland SVG Map Icons by Gregory B. MacKenzie.
This is the regional map I got:
On this map, I placed a city, a few towns, a few lairs, a few resources – all according to the setup suggestions in An Echo Resounding. Unfortunately I can’t show them to you because they’re secret, but I did print out this map and use little stickers to help me picture it all, in the top right corner:
Then I picked the starting location for my adventures and added some details:
I added some taverns, a ruler, a keep and some guilds to the starting town and wrote it up: Greyheim.
The city of Greyheim boasts of the following:
- a river harbor
- the keep where Lady Kyle resides; she will hear complaints and remonstrances on Mondays, hear cases and pronounce sentences on Tuesdays, and witness any executions on Wednesdays; she’ll be out hunting every afternoon
- Singing Mermaid, the harbor inn, for dockers, rafters, knaves and gamblers
- Trader’s Rest, the inn for merchants and successful dungeon delvers
- Haversack, the run-down inn for peasants und luckless dungeon delvers
- a temple of Freya, goddess of fertility, harvest, health, fighting, furs, winter, wolves, and many other things besides
- the Porter’s Guild House where you can hire torchbearers and other hirelings
- the Adventurer’s Guild House where you can find new companions and exchange news
- the Halfling Help Harmony is a self-help organization for halflings; they meet for Sunday brunch at each other’s homesteads in the area around Greyheim, talk about politics, collect money for halflings in need
If you’re a thief, you’ll know where to find the following:
- the Thieves’ Guild House where you can report new targets, fence stolen goods and get new tools
I had also picked the location of our first dungeon and determined that travel to and fro would be safe, at first. Nevertheless, I could not resist writing an encounter table for the Elderberry Forest:
Roll 1d6 once per day and once per night. There’s an encounter on a 1. In that case, roll 1d6, add 3 during the day and consult the following list:
- a darkness of shadows (1-12), guarding an old ruin
- a horde of orcs (10-60), roaming the forest
- the black cat of night (1), hunting
- a pack of wolves (3-18), hunting
- a company of dwarves (5-40), travelling through
- a group of elves (2-12), on a spying mission
- an arse of bandits (10-40), out to rob some rich folk
- an aerie of harpies (2-8), hunting
- a sloth of bears (1-4, in summer, ⅙ of the time including the wandering druid) / shadows (1-12, in winter)
Remember to use reaction tables when encountering these. Remember to provide warning signs when approaching larger groups (sound, smoke, smell).
So what does that give us?
What An Echo Resounding gives us on top of that:
But, as Chris says in one of his blog posts, there’s always the danger of these systems turning “boardgamey” or “beancounterly.” I recently mentioned on Google+ that I wasn’t happy with how An Echo Resounding was going:
How do you run your name level classic D&D campaigns?
I’ve been running An Echo Resounding for my group and they say they like it. I think they like it because they get monthly tales of what their neighbors are doing and maybe once a year there is a big battle. I’m sure they also like having champion levels and getting their own units. I run a domain turn every four sessions. Our sessions are short (about 3h) and we have a full table practically every time (6 players) and players will run multiple characters (2–3) and they’re all getting into champion levels. That’s why the player faction is huge, by now. That means I’ve been expanding the map and I’ve started thinking about adding more domains that can band together and pose a new challenge. At the same time, I fear the bookkeeping. So, what am I to do? I certainly won’t move into a more detailed system like Adventure Conqueror King. Are there alternatives to just winging it? Should I simply fall back to the Rules Cyclopedia, using the War Machine, hiring armies using gold, securing allies using boons and favors? Or should I buy Other Dust? I hear that it has a chapter that goes into Groups. Apocalypse World fronts? How much effort is it to run? I’ve heard speak about Other Dust. Anybody else?
To give you an idea of my game, here are some links to my German campaign wiki.
- the domain of my players with all the champion level units
- a new domain of planar dwarves that hate one of the player characters in particular
- a typical page with the events of a domain turn
The first section lists the output of sages the players hired; the second section is monsters and the like from lairs as per An Echo Resounding; the third section is other domains taking their turns as per An Echo Resounding; the fourth section is the player domain taking their two turns; the last section is a list of open plots.
I’m starting to feel a little overwhelmed and now I need a way to reduce the work load.
+Andy Bartlett said:
If your PC domain is growing in power, is it time for some of the smaller NPC domains to fade into obscurity, at least as far as dicing out their actions is concerned?
+Kevin Crawford said:
When player domains start to become big fish in small ponds, you generally just want to increase the pond size. Are they the hegemon in their region? Okay—scale everything up, as given in the advice on page 43 of the book. Their multi-location domain becomes a single site on a now-larger mapboard, where their competitors are a relative handful of other equal-sized regional hegemons, with old rival domains turning into single locations with flavor text, an appropriate Obstacle, and no further existence under the domain rules. That’s what I’d do in your shoes.
I don’t know. That would allow me to drop the smaller domains, but the larger domains would continue with the endless lists of assets and units. I think this is the point where I’m starting to like Chris Kutalik’s approach he described in Rethinking Domain-Level Play in the Hill Cantons:
NPC advisers carrying and hiding most of the actual domain business (by being “clicked on”) and presenting decision points that gave players choice without swamping the site-based adventure that is D&D’s main thing.
I’ll have to think of something.
I’m not yet ready to provide a procedure to write a megadungeon. What I can say, however, is based on my experience using Gridmapper and trying to create The Sewer Prison, a little dungeon of 30×32 (I actually wanted to keep it within 30×30) – six levels deep.
What I did was this: I started with the entrance, drew some rooms and corridors, started placing pillars, altars, statues, secret doors, rooms nearby, beds, chests, and so on. Sometimes stairs down. And I kept going through the dungeon, looking for dead ends, doors that didn’t lead anywhere, and I just kept on adding. Sometimes there was a local significance. An area hidden from the rest via secret doors. But if I went on for long enough, I’d forget and what started as a secret segment of rooms on level two would end up going down for a few levels, and then connect to the rest of the dungeon – without a secret door! Oops?
At the same time, I know that I connected all the stuff because I always began drawing stuff starting from an existing corridor, an existing door. And yet, now that I start keying the dungeon, I realize that I have two main problems:
In a traditional dungeon with few stairs connecting the levels, these problems don’t arise as quickly, I guess. But I was really trying to use the third dimension. And now it’s a big mess and I’m realizing that I’m slightly overwhelmed by my own dungeon map. Gridmapper has allowed me to jaquay the dungeon beyond my ability to handle it!
So, what would I do differently?
With blog rolls decreasing in importance and a lot of the RPG talk having moved to Google+, what are the blogs people recommend? I asked on Google+: If you were to recommend five RPG blogs to others, what would those be? If you want to recommend your own blog, please recommend five other RPG blogs, first! That’s how I did it.
Here are my favorites, in no particular order:
You’re welcome to the .ch top level domain Blogspot feels like adding because I live in Switzerland. No idea what this is used for.
Anyway. So many of my old favorites have fallen silent! I basically went through my blog subscription list, looking for names I recognized and checking whether the latest post was less than 100 days old.
Suggetions from the comments on Goole+
When preparing bought adventures, there are a few things that usually need highlighting:✎
Highlighting also keeps me busy as I read the text. After all, these texts are usually boring compared to people talking on the Internet. Highlighting helps me stay focused.✎
The wilderness map in the background has little stickers identifying ruins (other dungeons), lairs (sources of monters), resources (land to fight over), and settlements (the main city and a few towns) – as indicated by the An Echo Resounding procedure.✎
Tags. Colors. Use it.✎
Harald is leaving and his two Mystara campaigns are closing down. I’ll be taking up referee duties and I’ll be running the Castle of the Mad Archmage. I want to run a real megadungeon! All my campaigns go through the classic Basic/Expert phases: The first few levels my players explore the nearby dungeons but soon enough they start exploring the wilderness, meddle in local government, find portals and powerful planejumping magic and end up doing Planescape stuff. This time I announced that I’d be interested in running a megadungeon (one player to another player: “like Diablo!”) and so I started looking at my collection:
So, the megadungeon as a campaign tent-pole is what I’ll be using. And, as Joseph says, players are “just as free to poke around in the local town or city, hie off into the wilderness, or explore smaller dungeons”.
My Regional Map.
I posted it on a new campaign wiki called Greyheim.
I spent a bit more time detailing the city:
The surroundings of Greyheim.
I used An Echo Resounding to add some extra ruins, lairs, towns and resources in the map. Who knows, maybe these will come in handy—here I’m hoping that this kind of preparation will allow me to improvise. Elves acting like jerks? They must be in league with Aredhel. That kind of thing.
I printed the map out and used little color stickers to mark the locations in questions. I don’t need to add it all to the map just yet.
I also printed twenty random level 1 characters using my Halberds n’ Helmets Character Generator. My plan is to run this a bit like a funnel: These are the twenty characters available, pick some, go. Your replacement characters and henchmen will all come from the same pile.
For my campaign, I’ll be using the following rules under water: