This page lists the most recent journal entries related to role-playing games (RPG). There are some more pages on the related German page (Rollenspiele).
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.
Do you use creatures that gate in more creatures like the demons and devils of AD&D? Did you like the effect at the table? Would the new arrivals also gate in more creatures?
The reason I’m asking is because I just stumbled upon the following: “Even though the Abyss is a deadly plane where a single misstep can lead to disaster, In the Abyss isn’t intended to be a PC death trap. To keep the adventure challenging without making it too deadly, use the following guidelines when employing the tanar’ri gate ability: If the number of character levels in the party totals 48 or less, ignore gating (figuring that the creatures the PCs encounter are unwilling to become indebted to other creatures by gating in reinforcements). If the party’s levels total 49 to 60, roll for gating only when the text in an encounter calls for it. If the party’s levels total 61 or more, most tanar’ri the PCs meet should try to gate in reinforcements immediately, and gate attempts called for in the text should automatically succeed. However, fiends that have been gated into an encounter shouldn’t use their own gate abilities unless the PCs are making quick work of it all.” (In the Abyss, p. 3)
I’m also curious regarding your thoughts on this encounter difficulty fuzzing by the referee. It’s something I dislike intensely. At the same time, however, monsters with gate abilities are super swingy: a push over, or a great challenge, but as soon as you gate something in and suddenly: total party kill material. To me, this basically implies a strategy similar to fighting dragons: you essentially need to gain surprise, initiative, make sure to buy extra time using spells, and kill it before it gets to use its special abilities. When I was younger, I hated this. “I didn’t even get to use all it’s awesome abilities!” was a common complaint I had. Now I’ve finally determined what this is all about: some special abilities are there for role-playing encounters: telepathy and friends, basically. The shock and awe powers, however, basically just describe the kind of total defeat you’ll experience if you make the wrong choices, if you don’t prepare for your battles. That works for me.
Zak says on his blog, that “[…] a poem should be more than sufficient to describe a setting.”
The rusting earth is warm and breathes
The earth churns and in the depths we breed
Lick water from stone
Suck marrow from bone.
We burned down every hall of gold
Melted down every statue, broke everything we got
Now all we have is mold
We work the earth and rot.
I am not happy.
So, I had a little Easter Convention at our place this weekend. On Saturday we played Darkening Skies by Chris Sakkas, an unofficial chapter two for Lady Blackbird by John Harper. On Sunday we played the Mass Effect Fate RPG by Don Mappin et al. If you know nothing about Mass Effect, you might want to look at the Mass Effect page on Wikipedia.✎
We had decided upon Mass Effect on Saturday evening so I spent maybe an hour or two reading the rules. On Sunday morning, I spent an hour or two looking for adventure ideas online. Let all past and future sages praise the fabulous Mass Effect Wiki. I finally settled on the events described in Mass Effect: Revelation. I had one player who still wants to play the game and so I felt prequel stuff made good material.✎
The prep I did was this:✎
As you can see, I didn’t get to the stats at the end. The PDF has templates for enemies at three different thread levels. Excellent! I had seen the templates for Blue Suns mercenaries, Human Ruffians and a Krogan Battlemaster, so I felt certain I could improvise whatever came my way.✎
If you read the wiki you’ll note that the story starts as two different threads, one following Saren to Juxhi, the other following Anderson to Elysium and both ending up at the Dah’tan manufacturing plant for a showdown with Skarr. I took notes the way I did because I wanted the players to have the choice to investigate any of the different paths. In the end, they discovered that the Turian thieves had handed over the stolen weapons to some human weapon dealers and decided not to follow the trail to Juxhi but spent some time finding their employers, the Blue Suns, and following that lead via a bar looking like Afterlife in Omega, where Aria runs the show, until they finally tracked down Edan Had’dah at the Dah’tan manufacturing plant. That’s when they learned that the Blue Suns were going to attack Sidon. They sent warning and evacuated the survivors a few days later. Then they went back to the local Blue Suns headquarter and tried to force them into an agreement. No more stealing from Turian freighters, as their mission demanded. A fight ensued, which the Blue Suns eventually conceded and all was resolved in the players favor. There were some hints of things to come, the Sovereign, the Geth, Protheans.✎
I was happy with the plot. At first I thought I’d need more maps or pictures, but in the end Fate isn’t a map based game and the video game may have a lot of map-oriented shooting but the story itself doesn’t really depend on maps. It’s just interesting locations and systems. This worked very well.✎
Character generation took a long time but one of my players had never played a Fate game before and she liked the character creation system. I had A6 index cards on which they wrote beginning, middle and end of three adventures, and that really worked.✎
I was unhappy with the fight. Should I have used just one heavy hitting boss and a ton of mooks? I used a “moderate threat” mercenary for every player (Guns +3) and a boss (Guns +5) and the players were all veterans (apex skill at +5), It took a long time for shields to go down. Luckily I remembered making concessions is part of the game and broke it off after the third mercenary went down. As I’ve said a few years ago, I don't like bennies (or Fate points). This cushions the entire experience and invalidates it, as far as I am concerned. When we talked about it after the game, we all agreed on the difference between heroic deeds and Hollywood action. It just isn’t a “sacrifice” if you have a enough Fate points to cushion the blow. Jörg then suggested the perhaps this would change over time. If we played a longer campaign, the aspects would grow in importance. Players would compel each other. We’d start taking an interested in those particular aspects and we’d want to see how characters grow and change. Perhaps!✎
Before starting the fight I also made sure people had the necessary shields, armor and weapons based on their abilities. In the rules, any of Resources, Leadership, Rapport, Contacts or Security allows you to buy, steal or borrow equipment. And so we made sure they all had the necessary equipment before going into the one and only fight of the session.✎
I have always liked the Diaspora rules. In 2010 I ran a short lived campaign where we moved from Traveller to Diaspora. Unfortunately I had missed the document Hacking Diaspora to Mass Effect. That would have been around 100 pages instead of around 250 pages. Perhaps that would have worked better? It would have been less crunchy, perhaps!✎
I recently had the most amazing conversation on Google+ about railroading. I’m going to try and collect the things I said but if you want to know more, I definitely suggest checking out the thread on G+. If you can’t read it, let me know and I’ll plus you into the conversation.
It all started with my recommendation to read Justin Alexander’s blog posts on the same topic: If you roll behind the screen, or if you like to fudge a rare dice roll, or let players always succeed, or like to think that illusionism is ok, i.e. if you think players not knowing makes your tiny railroading nudges ok, then maybe you should read it. I’ve read the first four parts and liked part two and three in particular. Much better than the first part! I suggest skimming part two and reading the bold text. If that doesn’t make you want to read more, then you can skip the articles.
In a reshare of that post somebody started talking about having an interesting location no matter where people went, but making sure that investigating the location was optional. I said that the term many people use for this is illusionism. It’s the illusion of choice. Once players start to suspect, how will you ever regain their trust?
Alternatively, would you agree to tell them openly that there’s an interesting location nearby and they can choose to ignore it? If so, no problem. Skip the part where your players make decisions that have no effect. Skip going through the motions of choosing a road when every road leads to Rome.
Then again, what about improvising a world? Neither I nor the players know what lies to the east. If you go east, I’ll roll some dice and we’ll find out. If the world grows as players explore, that can work – it’s not misleading players – but when I realize that the referee is improvising as we explore, rolling on random tables as we explore, when there is no actual world to explore, then why are we playing a game about exploration? In these cases, I’d prefer the referee to be open about it and then we can agree that the structure is not “explore the map” but “choose our next adventure location” and we can skip the map. The ref can just show up and say, “hey murder hobos, I bought Castle Dragonstein and the 59 Shades of Doom and I think I’m going to run it!” And we’ll be all like “Hell Yeah!”
In D&D, the question of trust is linked to the question of procedures. If I implicitly “promise” to run a game about exploring a map and having random encounters between interesting locations, I’m “betraying” that trust if the map doesn’t exist or if interesting locations move into our path at my whim. Yes, it’s possible to run a game without making this promise but then I need to be open about and not tell my players that this will be a game of map exploration. If it is agreed at the table (perhaps not even said out loud but simply by a wink and a nod) that we will have a road trip from A to B, then players are not making decisions about where to go next since they are on the road from A to B, and therefore players aren’t bothered by locations coming up in a predetermined sequence.
The problem of trust, the problem of railroading, of invalidating player choice, of illusionism, is when I tell my players that there is a map to be explored but behind the screen, I treat it as a road trip and no matter what they choose, the next location is the one I want there to be.
As Justin Alexander says: “GMs tend to overestimate the degree to which their players don’t notice their railroads. Lots of players are polite enough not to pull back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t see his feet poking out from behind the curtain.” (part two)
Perhaps there exists an algorithm so good that it would be impossible for players to ever discover its existence? Sure. What about procedurally generated content? My idea is this: I’m going to imagine a world for your characters to explore and we’ll pretend that it is real and that actions will have consequences and it’ll be cool. In reality, of course, the world has not always been there and its defined boundaries don’t extend very far. It is understood that I will be adding to the world as we go, that I will do a certain amount of just in time preparation. It is therefore impossible to have a perfect imaginary realm that has always existed and extends further than we’ll ever be able to explore. At the other end of the spectrum is the referee freely improvising the entire world and just saying what they think would make an interesting adventure. Procedural generation is somewhere on this line, preparing 10 minutes before the game starts is further along this line, and so on. And the more I realize this, the more I see that there is no actual world, imaginary or not, to be explored, the more I will be disappointed if and only if exploration was part of the point of our game.
Sure, we can have procedurally generated background for the things that don’t matter. But if I know that you’ll roll on that table of things the dead have in their pockets, looting the dead is no longer interesting. It’s grinding. I want the gold but I don’t really care what they have in their pocket because it’s not really there. We can also have procedurally generated content for parts that don’t matter.
In a Wicked Age is a game where the map doesn’t matter – our games have always been about our goals and relationships. We can have a randomly generated city for In a Wicked Age. But we can’t have randomly generated characters and goals in this game! Because that’s what the game is about!
You might say that players killing a dragon in my game and all of us rolling on the random treasure table is the same kind of procedural content generation and you’d be right. I don’t care, however, because the game is not about the kind of treasure the dragon has. We’re rolling because it’s fun to roll high and be rewarded for it, it’s a mini-game utterly divorced from the rest of the game. Exploring the map is not utterly divorced from the game—or if it is, nobody told me. I’m playing under the assumption that exploring the map makes sense because there is a map to explore. If it is not, I might expect us all to roll for the content of the next hex together, at the table, looking up the results, cheering and weeping as we go and it will be cool. But it’s not the same game as before. I might not enjoy it as much.
That’s where the feeling of betrayal and the question of trust comes in. Do you feel an implicit promise about an existing world was made? Was a promise about a map worth exploring made? If I think there was and it turns out there isn’t, I’m going to wonder what I’ve been doing at the table. That moment of discovery will be a sad one. I’ll be as interested to play as when we tried the Mythic Gamemaster Emulator.
If we implicitly agree to explore a map, then don’t generate the map. Since we also implicitly agreed that there would be wandering monsters, rolling for wandering monsters is not a problem. As you can see, I will not prepare each and every thing the characters may interact with in advance. This is not my point.
The point I’m making is also independent of the rules. Even if the rules said to do the very thing I’m arguing against, that doesn’t change my point. You could then claim that I’m not playing by the rules, but the value judgment still stands, the argument still stands.
This is not about interpreting the rules, this is about describing the kind of procedural game content generation that is OK and the kind of procedural or improvised game content generation is not OK because it frustrates players. It’s also about the nature of this frustration. Why are people frustrated? Maybe not all players, obviously. But why me, for example?
If you say that this is not a problem for you and you don’t see the frustration and neither do your players, then that’s fine. I guess there’s no need to continue this conversation with people that don’t see the signs of a problem.
Rolling on random tables is cool and I do it myself, but only when we all implicitly know what is going on. My players know: there are random monster encounters and my rolls depend on them taking too long and making extra noise. They also know that going in particular directions doesn’t change that, so all they need to decide is whether they want to keep bashing those doors, whether they want to use those silence spells, and they don’t need to decide whether to go left or right as far random encounters are concerned. My main beef is that as a player I feel I’m exploring a map and it matters where I go and latter I discover that the referee was rolling on table for random hexes (it’s better if these hexes stay where they are once rolled up, obviously). But the net effect is like playing endless random dungeons in computer games. I’m not interested, or at least: significantly less interested. But if my GM says, “people, these are the cities and travel between these cities takes a week and every week I’m going to roll on this table and every time you are on the road I’m going to roll on this other table” then that’s perfectly fine. I might still have an opinion about the game (and I might like those tables) but at least I’m not wondering whether to go north or south in order to trigger a particular event. I already know that these will be random and I will act accordingly.
If you’re thinking about players leaving the area you prepared and improvise the area – something I do myself, all the time! – then a first step would be to be open about the situation. I think my players know that they too can step so far away from the prepared stuff that I’ll try my best to improvise and maintain the illusion but we all know that this is not how I want to run the game. I will take steps to avoid this. For example, I’ll ask at the end of the session about plans for the next session and I’ll prepare for that. That works often enough. Not always, though.
As for switching one monster for another because the one determined by a random table don’t seem exciting enough, my goal would be to use the first monster – e.g. kobolds – because that’s what my encounter table told me but I’d try to make it as entertaining as I can. Are they tough bastards with barrels of flaming oil, Tucker-style? Or perhaps they’ll grovel and beg and promise to lead them to a dungeon or help them ambush a greater common foe? Or perhaps they’ll simply run and we’ll laugh for a few seconds, imagining their antics before moving on.
You might think that you’re doing the best by switching to were rats but it made me think of Oblivion where your surroundings level up with you. It was great at first, but later I was a bit disappointed. I didn’t like it after all. And that’s why my level 1 dungeon remains a level 1 dungeon full of kobolds and I expect my players to delve deeper very quickly and not fight 50 kobolds just because they can. It’s boring and we all know it. To replace every kobold lair with gnolls or hill giants or red dragons … eventually this method will break down, right?
How did we get here? Why do I assume “promises” and “trust” and why do I feel “betrayed” when railroaded? Where did I get all these ideas if they’re not explicitly in the rules?
When I learned to play, a few of us read the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide and tried their hand at running a game. Some of us only ran a single sessions, others ended up DM for life. But reading those rules back then, or reading the blogs these days, and talking about it, and talking about the experiences we had, and the things we enjoyed, I think all of this produces a culture of shared assumption and norms in the circle of people I actually play with. So, the principles we grew up with was:
The kind of railroad we experienced when we started playing were maps that had invisible walls that we could not pass no matter what we tried, monsters that could not be beat no matter what we tried, treasure that could not be found no matter what we tried, non-player characters we could not kill no matter what we tried, and those experiences were intensely frustrating. There are of course lesser evils.
So, this is where the notion of trust and promise and betrayal of expectations comes from. If you want to use different words for it, no problem. The experiences still stand, however. My claim is that where as the game may or may not have claimed something in particular, those were the issues I had and I’m actually not that interested in discussing whether my expectations were justified or not, or whether my words are the precise words to use. If you need to use different words to talk about the same issue that’s fine.
Back to players leaving the area I have prepared for. What if they enter a forest I know nothing about? Is my decision about the encounters there equivalent to springing an encounter I though of no matter in which direction my players leave town? I think the answer to the question of where I stand is that both situations are indicative of a game I don’t like as much as the ideal game I strive for. Do I need to choose between those two evils or can I compare each to my ideals?
If the forest is unknown and I have nothing prepared, then perhaps nothing needs to happen. “You slowly make your way across the forest but there are no incidents and you arrive safely at Oathcomb seven days later.”
Less ideal solutions:
If there is a particular encounter you want your players to have, then that’s fine. After all, sometimes the sun shines and sometimes it rains and that’s not about railroading the players. It’s railroading if the players get to choose things that have no effect. If there is an information indicating that a dragon is waiting for them outside the city and no matter what they do, they’ll meet the dragon. That’s frustrating. If you manage to pull it off such that the players believe they had a choice but blew it, then congratulations, you were lucky once. Every good referee can pull this off every now and then, for a session or two. But sooner or later – or so I claim – the players will grow suspicious and the game will feel a bit more hollow because of it.
!Do I want to be surprised! by an encounter; do I like using random tables? Yes I do. I like the surprise of random encounters, but only if the players understand that particular kinds of events are determined by random tables and the players like it as well, eg. random treasure, wandering monsters.
Do I mind moving an encounter I had in mind from one road to another? It depends. If the encounter was not centrally related to the kinds of choices players made at the moment – if players think they’re exploring an area and that it matters whether they go north or south, it bothers me to get the same encounter no matter what I do; if a small number of encounters are placed by the referee no matter where players go then that’s fine; if the encounter is placed because it kicks a new campaign arc and is therefore peripheral to the activity of exploring (going north or south) then that’s fine; it’s not fine when I discover that I picked seven directions and realize that I would have gotten the exact same sequence of events had I picked seven different directions. Why did you waste my time and tell me that I needed to pick seven directions if if doesn’t matter what I do. Just tell me that we’re on a road trip and bring it on. It might be a good game without cheating me.
At one point Jason went back to the rules. His point that if something isn’t in the rules, then assuming said thing and realizing that the referee was not providing it – such a map prepared ahead of time – wasn’t “betrayal” because nothing had been “promised”. The discussion continued and he wondered why I was blaming the referees instead of the rules themselves.
To me, this rule based approach is weird and confusing. I’m thinking of the railroading and player choice invalidation problem as problems that are unrelated to any rules. In the abstract, role-playing games provide a framework for players to make decisions and influence the events at the table. This breaks down as more and more decisions made have no effect on the events at the table.
Why was the person doing that? Power dynamics? Lack of empathy? Ignorance? Were they doing so because of the rules? Perhaps. Who cares, though? A bad game is a bad game even if the rules as written say that this is within the rules. I only care about the why and how and improving my game (and the game of people I play with).
Jason then tried to frame it as an equivalence. Both I and the imagined railroading referee I’m complaining about got our values from somewhere. Was I prepared to say something positive about these other values that weren’t mine?
I said that I don’t attribute negative motivation to that other person; instead I attribute bad technique and describe unintended consequences. I believe people when they say they are doing what I am criticizing for the enjoyment of the table. It’s just that I think that they are failing to do the best job they can and based on my own experience, I have a hypothesis for how this comes to be.
Now, given that I believe we’re talking about bad technique, there’s no need to identify positive motivations to that person. “Your backswing isn’t great, I think you’re holding the club to close too your body. If you want to hit that ball, you need to let it drop on the way down.” Bad technique doesn’t need balanced perspectives. Your golfing can be improved, that’s all I’m saying.
Later, Harald had some questions. His first question was about randomly generating content and placing it on the map, and keeping it there, and integrating it with the rest. Is this taking away player agency?
The idea of randomly generating placing content and then keeping it there is cool. But does it provide the best experience at the table if this is how we run the game? I don’t think so. A thought experiment: given the choice between doing (A) what Harald described and (B) providing players with a list of rumors about interesting locations and directions of how to get there, and implicitly acknowledging that on the way to these locations random encounters will happen and some will stay on the map (essentially option A), then I’ll say that option B is clearly superior. I’m making the decision to go to a particular location, I’m making the decision to take a certain amount of risk (based on the distance traveled, based on the regions we’ll travel through), I’m making the decision to continue or to turn back, and these all have consequences. If we’re using just option A, then some of these decisions aren’t as great. I can’t choose to go anywhere in particular. I can’t choose a different route to avoid the Griffin Mountains. All I can do, in effect is to continue or to turn back. Yes, it’s still cool. But it could be even better!
Harald also asked about the difference between randomly generating map content vs. randomly generating the treasure some undead might carry since I had mentioned that I didn’t enjoy looting corpses.
I had the same answer as before. Yes, it can be cool. Let’s call it option A. But it sounds an awful lot like grinding in World of Warcraft (which I have never played so this is based on stuff I read). It could be even better! Give me some information that allows me to make a better decision than “let’s kill more undead until we find the bone mirror”. Option B examples: a rumor saying that Vlad the Impaler has one. That Vlad can found in Castle Wittgenstein. On the fifth level. Have a captured kobold offer to guide me to the secret entrance to Vlad’s lair. All these decisions are not possible if we limit ourself to random loot on bodies. Yes, option A is not bad, but all the options B are better. And given option B, looting the undead will always be a minor activity. So minor, in fact, that as a referee I won’t even bother to look at a random table with weird things the undead might be carrying because I already know that it is useless detail. It can be funny for ten seconds. It might be funny in half an hour if an unusual application for the pine cones found on the first level of dungeon can be found. But this entertainment is so tangential, so unimportant, so meaningless in the larger context, that I might as well not bother.
Harald continued this line of inquiry and asked about the difference between randomly generating map content vs. the essentially random outcome of combat.
The way I would analyze this involves thought experiments and better alternatives. So, the situation is a confrontation between party and monsters. Option A is: roll for initiative, fight to win or TPK. This is how we played it when I was a teenager. The only meaningful decisions we could make was “what spells are we going to use?” Option B is: add more tactical stuff. This is what D&D 3, 4 and Pathfinder did. More small decisions, maneuvers, abilities to use, effects to have. Option C is: add more strategic stuff. This what I like best. Do we avoid, fight, run, or talk? Can we learn how to avoid or seek out these encounters in the future? Can we improve our chances of talking i.e. influence the reaction roll? Can we disengage? Can we force morale checks and have the other side disengage?
In short, if encounters turn out to be just randomized outcomes, then this is a poor game indeed. It’s not without it’s charm. I know the excitement of a pitched battle. Will we make it? We need just one more lucky roll! Come on, have the dice cursed us? Nooooo! Fuuuuuh! People shouting and throwing their hands up into the air. These are great moments and they happen even if we pick option A. I’m just saying the game could be even better.
And to return to the matter of railroading: providing the illusion of talking and then have the monsters always attack after a number of rounds (as was common in the Adventure Paths and modules I read by Paizo) reduces the talk option to “ask a few questions to learn about the setting” (much like “loot a few undead to learn about the setting”) when it could be so much more.
So, does it matter whether the map (or whatever the environment of our player agency is) was built from non-random first principles or not? No it does not. I’m sure you’ll smooth out any inconsistencies and provide a coherent experience.
You could of course fake it, rolling quickly, and players might believe it for a while, but when they discover it, the experience will feel hollow. Having done the preparation ahead of time solves the problem. It would have made a difference if we had gone north instead of south. If we later learn this, we will feel satisfaction, we feel like we understand the consequences of our actions and it will be good.
A tangent introduced by Chris referred to the limits of railroading. If railroading is about invalidating player choice, then having meaningful player choice is a prerequisite. So, without information to act upon, all acts are random, all choice bereft of meaning. I like to avoid that. Random actions having consequences is not good enough in the long run for the kind of game I’m looking for. If there was no meaningful decision in the first place, there is no way you can invalidate it. It was already invalid. There was no railroading. There was simply bad design for that particular obstacle.
Random Wizard wanted to know more about my preferences and suggested that perhaps I “prefer a game where details are written out before hand?” He thought that perhaps I wanted to “keep the DM from making up things on the fly” or to “prevent nonsensical things from happening from random tables.” I’m not so sure. The reasons he suggests don’t resonate. I know that referees need to make up a lot of things on the fly and I know they give their best to give coherence to the results of dice rolls. Thus, I wouldn’t describe myself as preferring a game where details are written out before hand, in a general sense. If we’re playing a game were exploration matters, then I’d like to make meaningful choices regarding said exploration, and if these meaningful choices involve movement on a map, then I’d prefer that map to be written out before hand. The list of prerequisites is long. At the same time, I think improvisation makes sense when talking to non-player characters. I think a reaction roll table injects some interesting randomness. I like random wandering monsters. I like road trip adventures or river travel adventures where the obvious route is going to take use through a fixed sequence of locations and events (plus some additional random encounters). I don’t think it’s so simple to nail it down unless you accept a very abstract description such as: I like meaningful choice.
To provide some more context, I’ll try and think of a game that doesn’t involve a map. Let’s say this is an urban setting. The city has 12 factions. The party leaves to meet one of them. I wouldn’t like it if we went to visit the 12 headquarters without knowing what to expect and without a way to learn it. Without information, choice is meaningless. If there is information, then clearly something has been prepared before we arrived on site. It doesn’t even need a written form. Perhaps the referee has eidetic memory. In addition to that, if the referee determines the characteristics of the faction as we enter their head quarters, I will loose interested quickly because I don’t feel like I’m exploring something that already exists. I feel like I’m exploring a randomly generated dungeon in a computer game that offers nothing but random dungeons. I don’t like it. But perhaps we don’t need to choose a headquarter to visit. Perhaps there is a party at the palace and every faction sends an envoy and we get to talk to them. Clearly, no decision needs to be made. We’ll just talk to them all, in whatever order the referee provides them in, and we’ll see how it goes. No fake decisions so far, no problem so far.
It’s weird to read just my side of the story. I did some minimal editing. I’m not sure how easy it is to read without the other G+ comments. There is a lot of repetition.
Today we played Sagas of the Icelanders. I spent about half an hour skimming the book, having read various playbooks and some stuff online, some months ago.
I had three players playing the Skaldmey, the Seiðkona and the Huscarl. I noticed that the fighters picked moves such as Belligerent, No Mercy and Freya’s Light. That seemed to indicate armed conflict. The witch picked Bonecaster. That seemed to indicate some searching. I decided to make this about a whale. If somebody managed to harpoon a whale, there was a 50% chance that it would wash ashore in the following days, dead. In this case, half the whale belonged to the owner of the land and the other half belonged to the owner of the harpoon.
We quickly introduced relatives. Picking a last name automatically determined the names of parents. The relationships at the beginning determined additional background: The Huscarl belonged to the family because his father had been killed in Norway and the father’s friend had taken the boy back to Iceland. The Seiðkona had maybe killed and buried her husband and made sure to set the Skaldmey on her path of rebellion.
The player characters venture out to find the whale. Some bone casting follows. They arrange to bring along an ally from a neighboring homestead, a young man thirteen years of age, defend their honor against malicious comments from the elder brother, find other neighbors having also heard about the whale, pick a fight, kill one of them, both parties call for reinforcements, a standoff ensues and finally the whale is divide 50:50, partly to avoid a feud about land ownership because this is a bay where oath breakers are drowned and therefore it belongs to neither family, and partly to avoid a feud because the Skaldmey had killed one of the neighbors in a wrestling match, tempting fate.
Some of the interesting things I saw at the table:
At the end of two and a half hours, all three players said they liked it. One of them had run a few sessions of Apocalypse World for us, ages ago. He liked it. The other had played in those Apocalypse World sessions and he had also played in my One Shot of Colonial Marines. He said that he liked Sagas of the Icelanders best.
Ramanan said that D&D modules needed to be written in Hemmingway’s style. That’s something I totally agree with. Rafael then proved the point by providing this gem:
That summer, we journeyed into many dungeons. We went down into the Crypts of Khaxa’Muuanda and the Forgotten Tomb of King Rheghrad and the Ossuary and the Cave of Dragons that was neither truly a cave, as it was a cleft in the mountains, nor did it have any dragons inside it, for the demons had driven them all out, and there was no gold in there either, damn it. That summer we visited them all, and we drank our healing potions in the sun and we slept on thin sheets on stone floors and thought ourselves lucky.
There are brave adventurers and there are foolish adventurers, but there are no old adventurers, because it is the kind of job that puts a man in the hot seat and then he makes a mistake, which is his last.
I walked away from that life, and I think of it every day, and my life now is no good, but then, what is?
– Rafael Chandler (ibid.)
In the same thread, Gus provided a very long description of a room and asked us all to rewrite it (ibid.). Here’s mine:
3 thouls (stats here) will attack intruders; one more (Gorzog) will drop from above with +4 on the second round. Gorzog may surrender and tell enemies how to activate the dry alabaster fountain.
Amidst cracked bones stand five sarcophagi, four smashed, one still intact. Above it rotates a blue jewel in a shaft of magical light (1000gp). The intact sarcophagus contains the mummified remains of Buffo the Stuntysmasher, according to its goblin inscriptions. The jewel is a treasure of the Mold Mountain Dwarf clan and they will take offense if the jewel is sold instead of being returned to them.
The walls of this burial chamber are covered in chartreuse grave moss sigils; read languages reveals prayers to Yeenoghu in his guise as overlord of ghouls.
When the conversation turned to other megadungeons, I said the following:
The reason I think I like terseness is because I don’t care about long descriptions when reading, when playing or when running the game. At the same time, the joy I find at the table usually involves monsters interacting with players, the things they know, the things they say, the friends they have, and so on. I haven’t yet seen a megadungeon that takes much of this into account in its descriptions…
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?
The things we liked are the simple rules, the layout keeping rules and character sheet on a single page, this being a different situation entirely than Lady Blackbird…
When compared to Lady Blackbird, I noticed a difference in theme. The thing I like about Lady Blackbird is that the underlying theme appears to be love and friendship. Is the love between Lady Blackbird and the pirate real? What sort of bond is there between Lady Blackbird and her body guard? What sort of bond between the captain and his goblin? What sort of relation between Lady Blackbird and the mechanic? It’s interesting, it’s positive, and it goes into themes that my usual games do not.
In comparison, the theme of Magister Lor wasn’t as strong: revenge and forgiveness, the love and hate between siblings – somehow we couldn’t relate as much. The setup is also highly symmetrical. Master and Apprentice vs. Master and Apprentice. Brother vs. Brother. Magister vs. Demon. This contrasts with the multi-layered Lady Blackbird setup where bonds of various strengths relate characters to each other in asymmetrical ways. This made it feel a lot simpler, or it provided us with less guidance towards a complex situation.
One proposed solution was that we might start our next game without any pool dice, forcing us to start with refreshment scenes. Perhaps that would introduce some initial asymmetries and some “grit”.
Another thing we noticed in comparison with Lady Blackbird was that this is a clear player-vs-player situation, the game does not come with a suggested list of obstacles, events, and so on. These provided a lot of setting and inspiration for the game master to improvise upon. This is lacking in Magister Lor. A list of things to do in the Sanctum would have been nice – even if just a list of things to use against each other! Circuits? Elevators? Traps? Archives? Magical currents? Prisons? Names of demons and their characteristics? It would have helped, I think. Perhaps somebody else will write something like that?
When compared to our goto player-vs-player game, In A Wicked Age, we noticed that Magister Lor does not provide best interests for the characters. There is some guidance hidden away in the keys, but since these try to suggest various ways of running the game without offering a clear “win condition”, I think we all went with the simplest solution: Fight! Master and apprentice vs. demon and apprentice. In hind sight, not the most exciting development.
All in all, 4/5 stars.
★ ★ ★ ★
Here’s how I think about the number of stars: 5 is a recommendation, 4 is a good game with some very good elements, 3 is a good game that I’d play again, 2 is only for people who like a particular thing about the game and 1 is not recommended.