Thursday, August 9, 2012

Questers into the Unknown

I have been working again on Questers, this time translating it to Dungeon World. So far, this is my progress. Let me know what you think, and I will add it to the blog Treasury for future access. Credit where credit is due, it owes a lot to Vincent Baker (Apocalypse World), Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel (Dungeon World) and Ryan Stoughton (E6 D&D). And while we are at it, here is an excellent map of Unknown Kadath.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Bonded to the World

In many ways, how players are rewarded at the table will define your game, and thus your game world. After all, the world only comes to life in response to the players' action (or inaction), which is then driven by their goals. Rewards give the players an indication of what they should be doing, generally speaking. At the same time, rewards are much more than mere incentives, which would lead players along a predesigned course. Rather, how the players go about achieving these rewards is unique to each group and to each story, and thus rewards must be open-ended. As mentioned in the previous article, players should always be given problems, not answers. How they answer problems is an expression of their freedom within the game world, and is the very narrative of the story itself.

Perhaps a good example of this can be seen in "Old Geezer" Mike Monard's fascinating on-going "tell-all" about the early days of Dungeons & Dragons. As he describes, experience awarded for defeating monsters in the Greyhawk dungeon was almost nothing, perhaps only enough to round off the experience gained from treasure, and that in his own games he does not reward any experience for monsters. The picture that immediately forms is one in stark contrast to modern "dungeon delving" games, with the players cast as "amoral mercenaries out to loot the dungeon," as one commenter put it. Where there is no reward, there is no risk-reward structure, and thus monsters are carefully avoided, like elite soldiers sneaking deep behind enemy lines in some subterranean fantasy Vietnam.

In the same way, a game that does not have a clearly identified reward structure is a game (and a game world) with an identity crisis. Without a framework of rewards (whether fame and fortune, or something else entirely), the players will not have a clear idea of what they should be doing. Without player action to fuel it, the world cannot come to life. This is probably one of the most discussed aspects of Dungeon World, still a work-in-progress, and several iterations of an "experience" system have been proposed (experience being one way to quantify reward).

One of the options that has gained the most traction, although not the current "official" solution, is Ryan Macklin's experiment. A hold-over from the primogenitor game Apocalypse World, this system has each player pick a basic strategy for another player to pursue that session (such as pulling stunts, defending others, acting diplomatically, solving possibles and so on). Each time the player acts accordingly, they earn experience, rewarding immediate and short term narrative styling. Thus, a Cleric (bidden to be more aggressive that session) will show a new angle to his character, as he beats the goblin he interrogates, or lashes out at his superiors in the monastery.

This is a fine system in itself, but perhaps more suited to the game it originated from (Apocalypse World is all about psychologically breaking characters down in a ruined world where no one is granted tomorrow). As forum-goer nemomeme points out, the reward structure determines what the very game is about. We must be careful to think about the essential design goals behind the game before tackling rewards.

So what is adventuring about? The very principles of Dungeon World (which make it so interesting and unique) demand that the fiction comes first. Like microgame adventures, the rules are discrete components that have specific triggers from the fiction, and are otherwise out of sight. The principles also state that the game is a conversation, so thus the rewards should also be in conversation. Perhaps a good model for reward, which is based on the fiction and also in constant conversation, would be Jeff Rient's article on "eXPloration".

Here, I can imagine players and referee discussing, as a group, what they want to do, as it comes up in the fiction. They could even create "experience ladders," listing some goals and objectives. Once players have achieved (or failed) all of their plans for a front (a living, breathing local situation), and the game master has no more moves to make, this should indicate that the front has been fully explored and the next expedition should be chartered. Each player might have a different list, but commonalities and overlaps are expected, as the party is acting within the same local area. An example might be:

• Find the slave camp deep in the jungle (+1 Exp)
• Defeat the Guaraxx lurking in the delta (+2 Exp)
• Get revenge on those pirates (+1 Exp)
• Discover what has made the villagers so frightened, and make it safe again (+2 Exp)
• Climb to the top of White Doom Mountain (+3 Exp)
• Spend a night in the Lost City (+1 Exp)


These goals are constantly being discussed, revised and traded as the fiction dictates, and represent paths of action parallel or tangential to the plot of the front. They give the players a clear idea of what this world is about (that is, the cool and amazing things to do and see, the supernatural adversity to overcome and the bonds to play off between players in the process). In fact, in many ways, this is merely an extension of the bonds rule from Dungeon World, which gives players an initial motivation before the first front is even encountered. Here, in addition to being bonded to each other, the players are bonded to the world. Most importantly, this method lets the fiction come first, which is an essential quality of Dungeon World, and a great deal of what makes it so unique.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Worldsmiths

I wanted to expand a little on the previous discussion of campaign preparation. I do not believe a referee's preparation should look anything like a published adventure module, which were fixed and scripted scenarios developed specifically for the tournament milieu. These are, of course, fun to read for inspiration or to run the players through a "gauntlet" typical of gaming conventions. However, for home games, these adventures are far too scripted, and go against the basic principle that narration is neither controlled by referee nor by player (as discussed in the previous article).

Yet, it is imperative that the game world seems real and adventureful at every moment and in every scene. Some work must go into world creation, but this fashioning and shaping cannot have a stymying effect. The generative process must be continuous through the process of playing, so that the world comes alive and retains full fluidity. Player decisions, ever capricious, must remain meaningful.

Marshall Miller has given a good example of what this might look like for Dungeon World, a fan variant of Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World. That game already divides the environs of a game world into Fronts, which are living, breathing local situations that the players can get themselves mired in. Not only is a Front (e.g. the Caves of Chaos) a vivid and lush location to explore, but it is also an ambiguous, evil force to oppose the heroes, a ticking time bomb (with signs of the looming disaster), and a creature in and of itself (capable of executing its own moves and maneuvers against the players). A Front is a setting that truly comes to life, like the Mines of Moria, and opposes the heroes by its very nature. It must be carefully explored, discussed and negotiated by both the players and the referee alike, with the primary vehicle for this being dice rolls and decisions.

What Miller has added to this is the notion of the "Adventure Starter." This is another sort of environ in the game world, contained within a quick, flexible toolkit designed to spark the initial interest and action. An entire "Adventure Starter" environ consists in a reminder of the referee's guiding principles (make the world real, make it full of adventure etc), a list of scenic impressions to colour your descriptions and make the world real, some open-ended questions meant to both inspire sub-plots and to hook your players, a list of artifacts and creatures that might be of utility for the referee and finally a list of new moves open to the players while they explore the setting. Importantly, there are no maps, no pre-scripted story and no hard timelines. The referee could glance at the two-page setting and read as much or as little as he likes without missing anything important.


Both Fronts and Adventure Starters are an excellent way for a referee to prepare the environs and locales of the game world. They are inspirational and fluid, and may be used before and during the game to drive interesting scenes. At the same time, preparing this kind of gaming world is not about pre-establishing events, plots or geography. Those are answers, and the answers that the actual playing experience will give you are always better. Rather, the referee should start to think about preparing problems which do not necessarily have an answer… yet. Confronted with a living, dynamic and danger-filled world, the players' actions and words fill the adventure-engine that the referee has prepared, fueling gameplay that players can actually care about and feel.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Say No or Force Them to Make a Saving Throw Versus Death

Flipping through Diaspora yesterday, I came across a sentiment increasingly common to modern roleplaying games. At the core of Diaspora (and many such newer games) is the phrase "Say Yes, or Roll the Dice." Essentially, this axiom requires the referee to always endorse the players' proposed strategy, or at least give them a shot with a die roll.

For Fate fans (which includes Diaspora, Spirit of the Century, Legends of Anglerre and many other related games), this has been heralded as a very "tactical" system. Players are constantly coming up with spur of the moment plans (actually, justifications for why they should win), which the referee must then accept, or let the dice decide. It is reminiscent of old school procedure, where the referee listens to the plan carefully and then comes up with a target number and rolls the die to determine success. The only difference is that "Say Yes…" precludes the referee's veto. The referee is instead slavishly committed to accepting every player strategy, regardless of how believable it is, or how it circumvents the referee's own schemes. Rather than staging a tactical opposition, the referee is subject to player whim.

This is, perhaps, seen as contrasting adversarial-style refereeing. It also developed, however, in response to a style of Dungeons & Dragons that increasingly defined characters by "Player Options," "Powers" and other mechanical advantages. Instead of thinking through a problem, players would simply look down at their character sheet for all the answers. Written in 2002 at the height of the third edition, The Burning Wheel fantasy roleplaying game was, in many ways, a response to what Dungeons & Dragons had become. In contrast with a referee-dominated narrative and players with mechanically enabling character powers, The Burning Wheel introduced the "Say Yes…" paradigm for the first time, and thus framed the referee as an enabler and the players as holding narrative control.

Of course, buying into this premise of "player control versus referee control" has obscured the original simple and elegant functionality of Dungeons & Dragons. Recently, I asked Mike Monard (veteran of the original Lake Geneva campaign) whether referees back in the day would punish Magic-Users who neglected utility spells and front-loaded combat spells by throwing in obstacles that would require the former. His response was illuminating, and is worth quoting here in full:

"Remember… the world was created first, THEN the characters were created to explore it. The way Gary, Dave, and the rest of us did it, we would set up our dungeons such that you would need a selection of both combat and utility spells. Choosing how to allocate your limited spell slots was part of the fun, as was dealing with not having a certain spell where it would be useful.

The world came first, so changing the world based on player spell selection would have been cheating. It's about the only way for the referee to cheat, in fact. Any ref who changed things on the fly to punish players based on that day's spell selection would have found themselves without any players.

What was there, was there. There was a nest of six trolls on Level 1 of Greyhawk. If you went there with three first level characters, you found six trolls. If you went there with nine 11th level characters, you found six trolls. Changing the world as you seem to be describing above would have been anathema. It is really the only way to cheat as the referee.
"

The referee developed a world, the players investigated it, and changing things after the fact was cheating. It was part and parcel of suspension of disbelief that the world followed its own laws and trajectory. How player decisions might intersect with that trajectory was largely unpredictable, and there was a level of excitement and discovery for both players and referee. There is a classic movement here which is common to Shakespeare plays, whereby one person would pass partial information along to another individual, who would then filter it further to a third. Consider the Doctor who agrees to provide the Queen with a vial of poison but, fearing her evil designs, actually gives her a sleeping draught. The Queen, thinking the elixir to be a poison, hands it further to the naive rival princess, promising that it is a healing balm to be taken when she is feeling ill. The King falls ill and the princess administers the sleeping draught. Chaos ensues.

Likewise, the referee may know what is really going on, but this is filtered through interrogated non-player characters or partial clues that the players may find. Only half of the truth reaches the players, who then introduce a further (and unpredictable) abstraction through their misinterpretation of the situation. This beautiful friction makes for the stuff of true legends. Here, the referee is neither adversarial nor enabling, but rather purely neutral (which reminds me of an excellent and illustrative Knights of the Dinner Table comic, where the Knights are able to "outsmart" B.A.'s flagship dungeon).

The take away from all of this is that we as referees must again become world-smiths. It is hard work, and tremendous preparation must go into the campaign as well as each individual session. Different webs of non-player characters must be charted, including individual motives and knowledge. Interesting eventualities must be at least initially considered, while some obstacles with no apparent solution should be cataloged (perhaps a dungeon at the top of a perfectly sheer cliff, encouraging the players to be creative). The story will take unexpected turns, and the referee's encyclopedic register of history and dramatis personae will breath enough life into the world that it will take on its own momentum. In all of this, narrative control belongs to the friction between player knowledge and referee impartiality. As the authors of Adventurer Conqueror King put it, "every campaign is a law unto itself" and the excitement comes from these worlds taking on a life of their own.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Every Fighting-Man is Unique

I am not aware when it came about, but at some point a vicious rumour crept into our collective understanding of Dungeons & Dragons. This rumour subtly, surreptitiously put forth the notion that the original game, in its basic, open-ended template form, was somehow too limited. There weren't enough monsters, there weren't enough classes, there weren't enough powers or abilities. The original game, so this shadowy speculation would have you believe, just didn't have enough stuff.

So the next generation of more "advanced" games came out, promising more things for the throngs of adventure-hungry players to do by promising game rules that were packed with more stuff. Ironically, on the other end of this history (some thirty years later), we are now flooded with such games—enough to stack from floor to ceiling in a dusty, unvisited brick-and-mortar gaming store. We certainly have enough adventure, yet, we have very few players hungry for adventure. What went wrong? What was it that originally enchanted those players, who came from every walk of life, and made them so esurient?

Today's games have naturally attracted a very different, and far less diverse crowd (which is unfortunate, not only because we lose perspective and creativity, but because many of the so-called "gamers" are individuals that no one in their right mind would like to spend an afternoon with). The excessive influx of systems, mechanics and rules to our Saturday afternoon scenarios naturally caters to rules-obsessed types, and the move away from free-form, communal decision-making and storytelling alienates people who didn't sign up for this level of commitment. But there is also a delightful agility that was somehow lost in this sad transmutation.

I believe that earlier adventuring aficionados truly understood that the original game was merely a template. The apparent limitation, for example, to choose one of three iconic character options (Fighting-Man, Magic-User or Cleric) belies the fact that these choices were never meant as more than basic blueprints from which characters were built. Looking in the three little books, for instance, one finds extremely few limitations: ability scores have next to no impact on the game, the rules allow dual and multi-classing, and any character can attempt any action. There was essentially an adventurer, and different options determined what access he or she had to different equipment and spellcraft.

One of the rarely highlighted aspects of the original game in particular is the concept of level titles. This dizzying array of honorifics is typically understood as a strict progression, one to the next, so that a Hero becomes a Swashbuckler or a Sorcerer becomes a Necromancer or a Bishop becomes a Lama. Yet, as we can see, this progression is not altogether coherent (why should a Catholic Bishop become a Tibetan Lama, exactly?), which may have led many to simply discard level titles entirely. At my table, I encourage my players to really make level titles their own, however, and use them to define their characters.

Maybe Toki, a Japanese Fighting-Man character, starts off as a Veteran. By level two, I encourage him to describe how his Fighting-Man is different, and soon he takes the level two title "Sohei" (or warrior monk, becoming an ascetic mountain warrior). During level two, I allow him to track monsters through the woods or navigate untamed mountains. By level three, the campaign has taken another turn: Toki takes on the role of a pirate and starts swinging from ropes and intimidating his opponents.

Customizing level titles is an excellent way to show your players that the archetypal classes are merely base templates from which characters are developed. I do not believe a party with 14 Fighting-Men should feel like a party with 14 Fighting-Men. The fact is that the Fighting-Man class, like the other classes, is broad enough to contain every sword-swinging hero one could dream up. Each character should be different and unique, and the rules of the original game are just open-ended enough to allow that. In reality, there is nothing more alienating than bringing a new player to your table and telling him that his character concept has to fit within your game's hard boundaries and strict definitions, and this is one of the main reasons that this hobby lost its diverse player community: we stopped asking people to bring their own creativity and ideas to the table.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

What is a Setting?

Campaign settings have always held a rather schizophrenic place in this hobby. The first settings, Blackmoor and Greyhawk, were merely the dungeon and the environs around it, extending further only rarely, as the adventurers pursued other plots (and then collapsing back to the central dungeon when new players came in). A great example of this are the adventures of Robliar, Tenser and Erac, who dropped through the chute to China in the ruined pile of Greyhawk Castle, only to adventure back to the other side of the world, drawn like a magnet to the tentpole of the campaign. Other campaign events created new areas, such as the domain of Iuz (a foe who was originally released from the dungeons of Greyhawk), yet these new area always deferred to the original environs (with no sustained campaigning in the new regions).

Yet, when TSR took off, it became profitable to publish fully detailed and designed campaign backdrops. World maps were drawn up for the first time ever, and the local environs around Castle Greyhawk became the "World of Greyhawk" (true, the original Greyhawk was situated on the C&C Society map, but the extent of this map is unknown and apparently not well developed). With published settings, the concept of a campaign backdrop turned from the small, local region to the internation and global scene.

Still, I suspect, most referees ended up designing their own settings for their home campaigns, much like Arneson and Gygax themselves had done. The natural impulse is not to delineate a sweeping world, painting with a broad brush, but rather to go ever smaller, refining the details and going deeper into the very concept of the setting. The former approach is geographic, and creates boundaries that delimit thought even as the "broad approach" is meant to liberate possibilities by making the world seem "big." The latter approach is conceptual, and defines the setting as an idea, not a fixed and stale cartography where the possibility for new events must be fit into a pre-existing framework. They are fundamentally different approaches, one structural and the other theoretical, that produce very different experiences for the referee (and we must remember that the referee is a player too, and that campaign preparation is part of the game).

Interestingly, it was setting stagnation (and setting over-definition), that first drove Arneson to boredom with Braunstein, leading him to create Blackmoor. The Napoleonic scenario had been fully described and defined, and the possibilities exhausted, by a structural approach to the scenario that put characters in relation to each other like chess pieces. Instead of focusing on the politics of the scenario, however, Blackmoor focused on the root inspiration at the core of the setting. As the DCC rulebook says:

"Make your world mysterious by making it small—very small. What lies past the next valley? None can be sure. When a five-mile journey becomes an adventure, you'll have succeeded in bringing life to your world." (Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, page 314)

Here, the sage advice to "think local" should be paired with a conceptual approach to campaign definition. There is world enough in the 50 miles around your central megadungeon: make things happen there! Festivals are thrown, distant merchants arrive, new enemies appear, alliances are struck and broken. The core concept of your campaign inspiration is often difficult to articulate, but one should not flee from this and start detailing regions that no player will likely ever see. Instead, turn back and develop that core concept more and more, mining it for new inspiration, and do not be afraid to let it change as your interests (or real events from the campaign) require. No one truly knows where such a setting will go next, yet it always feels like home.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

New Gary Gygax Setting

I don't usually do this, especially after my recent rant about Kickstarters that "over-promise," but I have to make an exception for John Adams' (of Brave Halfling Publishing fame) new project, the Appendix N Adventure Toolkits. Unlike some of the lest-tested indie publishers, who are riding on the coattails of OSR-Kickstarter craze, I know Brave Halfling's work well and have a lot of trust in John's ability. He's been around for quite a while now, and I even own some of his early publications for Castles & Crusades, Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord. He has been behind a lot of truly excellent products, like the "Old School Gaming Box," Delving Deeper (the original Dungeons & Dragons reprint with Rob Conley's Blackmarsh) and Perilous Mazes (the Holmes Basic Dungeons & Dragons reprint).

His latest effort, however, is stunning. While it started out as simply a single, low-level module, the Appendix N Adventure Toolkits has surpassed my expectations. I find it somewhat difficult to interpret Kickstarters sometimes, so I will break it down for those who haven't had a chance to check this project out yet. After breaking four stretch goals, the project is now giving each supporter (at the paltry $20 level): a PDF copy of each of the five full adventure modules (one of the scenarios which will never be released again), a digest print copy of each of the same (each signed, numbered and shrink wrapped), a poster to hang up in your den and a special edition box to store the modules. For an extra $10, you get a second copy of each module (I guess one would be a play copy and the other a keeper? Or maybe a gift to your nephew to get him into roleplaying?) and eight (8!) more PDFs of new rules and options for DCC characters and classes.

This is really a fantastic value, and a very neat idea to boot (especially the collector's box for storing everything), and the artwork previews already released are top-notch. However, what caught my attention in the first place was the next stretch goal: an original setting developed by John Adams and Gary Gygax through their correspondences. This unpublished work was going to be for Gary's last game, Lejendary Adventures, but came to a halt with his passing. While I never thought Gary was the best game designer, his worlds have always inspired me, and I have found him to be quite a wordsmith when drawing up an old-school setting. Now, if this project gets enough funders, anyone who puts in that same paltry $20 donation will get a sixth print and PDF, "The Old Isle Campaign Setting," in addition to a color poster map of the setting. I cannot be alone in finding it a shame to leave this final work undiscovered, which was written by Adams, but with the keen editing and insight of the original Dungeon Master. Count me interested and in support of this project.

Friday, June 15, 2012

SUPER OD&D

Marv made an interesting comparison over on the Goodman Games boards. To me, Dungeon Crawl Classics is like a Super OD&D (in the tradition of Super Mario Brothers games). Indeed, it has many similarities to the three little brown books of the original game, yet it makes thewy additions and expansions to that base as well. The first volume of that game alone shares basic assumptions about the social scale of experience levels, the power of classes, the protected niches of characters, the nature of magic.

Take magic, for example. Via Chainmail, the magic system in the original game is highly unpredictable, where magic-users can cast a spell only to find their spell miscast without benefit (and lost), cast successfully (and retained for future use) or caught somewhere in between, in limbo until the next turn. DCC takes this basic principle and adds much more detail, so that miscast spells might also transform the caster into a hideous creature, or successful sorcery might prove unexpectedly powerful. Add in supernatural patrons and character-specific spell manifestations and you have a magic system that is built from the same basic foundation as OD&D, yet with much more muscle to it.

Similarly, the progression of power for fighting-men is modelled directly on OD&D. While later "advanced" editions of the game weakened the fighter, introducing the "linear fighter, quadratic wizard" quandry, it is important to remember that this problem is entirely foreign to the original three little booklets. A ninth level fighting-man was simply nine times more powerful than when he first started out (similarly so for magic-users). He fought as nine men, with nine attacks (each the strength of one man's strike). While his "advanced" cousing, the fighter of AD&D was reduced to two or three attacks a round, the DCC warrior returns to native soil in a unique way, making three attacks, each strike the strength of three men (for identical output to the OD&D fighting-man, but with less dicing). Add in critical hit charts, fumbles and mighty deeds, and again you have a robust and powerful addition to the original game.

Even the social scale of characters in DCC is reminiscent of the original game, where a first level warrior is no mere soldier. Roughly speaking, a first level character is already the hero of the townships, an unlikely local that rose to unexpected prominence for his deeds. His tales will be told in the few villages of the valley for several generations. A level two character is the celebrity of a major city, well known by all but the unsophisticated. By third level, an adventurer has already rose to the prestige of a conqueror-king or slayer, whose legend will endure. This is far removed from the scale of power in later games, but is actually perfectly in line with the concepts found in OD&D.

More comparisons can, of course, be drawn with the other volumes, but this is just what comes to mind while paging through Men & Magic. I am curious how this plays out over longterm play, but I suspect the pace and style of DCC would be very reminiscent of the original three little books. Of course, it was always a design goal of DCC, it seems, to start at 1974, but only go backwards from there, instead of forward into the future.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Kickstarter

It's raining today. I'm in the home stretch of working at perhaps my second worst job (I worked at a nursing home when I was a teenager, which takes the cake by far). I always love the rain—gusting about and dreary. It reminds me of a vacation in Ireland from my childhood, where I first walked wide-eyed into a small, bright store. "Games Workshop." I didn't know what they all were for, lining the walls and display cases, but I left with a promo magazine and nearly spent the rest of the trip staring intently at one particular picture of rank-and-file Wood Elf spearmen defending a dark forest.

I worked all the next summer at my first job, earning $3.15 an hour on a neighbor's farm (I had to haggle to get that extra 15¢). I was there from 6am to 4pm, shoveling hills of manure to a location 3 feet away, running away from homicidal stampedes of dairy cows, and finding lucky cowbells in the tall weeds (long story). After the summer, I picked up the well-worn brochure again and called the number on the back.

That was my first fantasy gaming purchase. The next high point would come in 2005, when I accidentally chanced upon a dusty copy of HackMaster 4th Edition in a store. It perfectly captured everything I loved about AD&D (I had been indirectly led to 2nd Edition through Warhammer Fantasy Battle). I loved this unlikely hobby. I found there was nothing else like it, nothing which created a whole new world within my daily imaginings. And I loved working for that, and buying into that. Pen and paper gaming, whether wargaming or roleplaying, became the satisfyingly open-ended, undefined daydreaming that buouyed me in the work-a-day world that it so contrasted. As the tongue-in-cheek call to arms on the back cover of the HackMaster Player's Handbook read:

"For those of us that live in a world that forces us to conform, to abide by the rules day in and day out; for those of us that suffocate in our daily routine of breakfast cereal and ham sandwiches; for those of us that slave each day in our cubicle working for the Man; those who would be heroes if it weren't for the constraints of reality, we present:"


Websites, forums and online communities only entered into that picture later. I didn't even realize Games Workshop had a website in the beginning, and used to order completely from printed catalogs, referencing only small, grey photos to specify with the ever-patient sales rep exactly which Wood Elf spearmen poses I wanted. There was a sense of adventure in not knowing everything that was going on in the industry, or not knowing about everything that was due to release soon. The possibilities were endless, and the frontiers of that world mysterious. I was happily in a bubble, and eager for every new bit of news that was so hard-won at the time.

Crowd-funding has changed a lot about the indie publishing industry. Yet (and I hate to be the first one to suggest it, as it seems to be breathing such real, quantifiable life ($) into the scene), I suspect there is a bubble here that is close to popping. Indeed, game designers have taken to crowd-funding largely because there is no current technology for making traditional publishing-distribution chains viable for niche markets. Like Google Checkouts, Kickstarter (et al.) allows reliable direct sale opportunities for small publishers that have been largely shut out by conservative distributors. But what cost is there for this immediacy? Niche hobbies thrive on interest, but while everyone seems to be excited about stretch goals, interactive product development and tiered reward levels, I can't help but feel that some of the magic has been taken out of the process.

As consumers, we are getting a lot of direct information through participating in funding, whether in the form of special sneak peaks, previews of potential new products or simply some small part in sharing the product design. But more interaction, and more information, is not always a good thing. I can imagine a Kickstarter burnout in the future, where the excitement that crowd-funding pre-orders generate is overtaken by information overload. A burnout where our building interest in seeing a project as it developes dissapates a little more when we finally receive the product we have been over-expecting. Crowd-funding means you are paying ahead for a product that you will not have in your hands for many months. Even with great products, what is the evaporation rate of that excitement that must survive that long stretch?

There are other problems with crowd-funding as well. It seems to be accelerating the already miserable state of distribution, pushing local gaming stores further to the fringes, and increasingly moving communities online. One of our local Islamic scholars here in Toronto remarked about that final point just last weekend, while speaking before a (traditional) dinner fundraiser for his school. In reference to online education, he argued that it is ironic that online communities are supposedly all about connecting with each other, while in reality they leave us more practically disconnected than ever before.

I don't really have another answer, and simply saying "well, the glory days of roleplaying games are over" and letting the entropy of distribution set in seems passé. Kickstarter et al. seems to have breathed new monetary life into the OSR, but let's not forget that the OSR began well before industrious-types had figured out a way to capitalize it. It was carried then by traditional enthusiasm of tangible substance. While websites like Kickstarter have been proven to generate hype, at the end of the day, the enduring proofs in this hobby are quality products on the one hand, and an abiding sense of mystery on the other. Unfortunately, crowd-funding tends to be antithetical to both ends, as it creates a very low barrier for self-publishing, while also flushing out the entire discourse of what makes a satisfying roleplaying game product into terms of what is immediately gratifying. Even then, with the nature of project funding, the immediate gratification of spoilers, previews and shared development are only deceptively immediate, creating dangerous over-anticipation.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Cosmic Alignment

John (of Thistledown Post) put up an interesting discussion on alignment in the DCC RPG. As he relates...

"The system of alignment in the DCC RPG is one that reflects its old-school heritage... Law is given as the choice of those who would uphold society's system of order and rules, producing the common good. Chaos is all about over-throwing authority, exercising personal power, and self-serving ends. The middle ground is Neutrality, the choice of those who choose not to decide, (hmmm...sounds like a famous Rush song of which I'm fond.)"

It is interesting that DCC specifically chooses not to equate Law with "good" and Chaos with "evil." Point in fact, the DCC RPG core book describes bugbears, goblins, hobgoblins, and troglodytes as being Lawful, and thus vulnerable to be Turned by chaotic Clerics. It is undoubtedly surprising to some that such traditionally evil creatures would be categorically Lawful in alignment, until you consider that there may be multiple axes that the struggles of the "urth" orbit around. Morality and Order are two such axes that do not necessarily always converge, as they have their own alien interests and objectives. Rather than seen as a graph or chart, perhaps aligning morality with order is better seen as a complex gyroscope, where good and evil is one ring and law and order are another (where even further alignments, include political, planar and magical could be included).

Certainly, neither pole of order (Law or Chaos) apparently comports itself to morality. As John describes:

"In my campaign, Law and Chaos will be struggling for dominance. Either potential outcome will not be good for the mortal folks of the world. If Law wins, the world become stagnant and unmoving. If Chaos wins, the world becomes a place of ever-changing pain and torment."

As the sun burns away and the old stars draw ever closer, ethics are increasingly merely short term sources of guidance. In truth, the dominion of either Law or Chaos will have an ultimately tyranical effect that will blot out all life. Law will crush its own people under heel, or simply allow them to die out and fade away in a perfect utopia, doomed by entropy like Tolkien's elves. Chaos will turn the world over into rioting and ruin. Neutral forces are aligned to the very passage of time itself, and seek either to prolong the titanic struggle that lays waste to the urth as long as possible before the imminent and inevitable end, or are entirely uninterested in the world's fate and worship the very fatality of it all. Dread Cthulhu, who would mindlesly tear the urth to pieces like a wet paper towel were he ever to turn over in his sleep, is notably Neutral in the DCC RPG book.

What I like here is that morality is something that veils the perhaps less obvious, but in the long term more dire, conflict. Morality concerns itself with the present, contingent and earthly situation, and represents an entirely different axis that intersects at times with Law and Chaos, which are more cosmic in origin. Ultimately, it is the ancient struggle between the latter forces, however, that march the world ever closer to inexorable collapse.

Here, the world is never to be saved, and the downfall is more or less inevitable. The urth is doomed, and stands in the shadows of a late age where the powers of order have long since committed to mutually assured destruction. This long tide from the deep oceans of the cosmos is drawing in upon the tiny urth, and will wash over its edifices and civilizations.

We can start to see a convergence between the concept of different planes of existence and the different interpretations of alignment (which has been, at times, a stand in for morality, psychology, planar politics or societal disposition). In the ancient mind, the world was seen as flat and the cosmos extended above it, with each heavenly body moving in perfect circles above (an attempt to understand why the same star would occupy a different part of the sky at different times of the year). What if these cosmic rotations of the empyrean were the wheels of countless irreconcilable alignments and orders, each arrayed against each other and against the terrestial surface in complex webs of machinations, alliances and feuds. Only when the different forces arrayed against the urth had come into perfect balance, and these stars were in perfectly aligned, would true Neutrality reign and draw forth the old ones. At last, the stars are right.

Appendix A: Alternate Alignments
I find it is important to move alignments away from Platonic absolutes. In the Warhammer setting, the human psyche itself makes an impression on the metaphysical, and massed human emotions and thought can empower or even create entities in the raw chaos of the beyond. When you stare into the void, sometimes the void stares back. Here are d24 alternate alignments to drop into your campaign.

1 Psychological (from the village's deep-seated fears)
2 Chemical
3 Radiation (from the nearby nebula)
4 Planar
5 Linguistic (from the dead language recovered by the scribe)
6 Magnetic
7 Musical (from the mindless cacophony echoing in the deep)
8 Ethical
9 Elemental
10 Rhetorical (from an argument long forgotten)
11 Temporal (pouring forth from the black hole)
12 Cultural
13 Political (of the local petty barons)
14 Familial
15 Artistic (of the last masterpiece of the legendary painter)
16 Energy
17 Ancestral (from the forefathers that look down upon their tribesmen)
18 Philosophical
19 Moral
20 Gravitic
21 Mechanical
22 Mythic
23 Poetic
24 Organic (from the puddle of mossy slime by the roadside)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Review: Sailors of the Starless Sea

Sailors of the Starless Sea is the first adventure module available for purchase after the release of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game. Starless Sea is meant to be an introductory adventure (for zero to 1st level characters), which showcases the different style of play promoted by DCC RPG.

The actual printed booklet is thin; only 18 pages, 13 of which comprise the actual text of the adventure (2 more pages are maps, 1 page of handouts, 1 page of full illustration and a 1 page flyer in the back for promoting the game). Noteably, only six of the thirteen pages of the adventure are full text, with the other two thirds of the book being rather lavishly illustrated in the moody style of Stefan Poag, Doug Kovacs, Jim Holloway and Russ Nicholson. This is good for inspiring the Judge and greatly adds to the art-value of the book, but a few of the pictures will be difficult to share with players as they share space with text.

The adventure itself is meant for 10-15 zero level characters, or a slightly smaller number of 1st level characters. For the uninitiatied, Dungeon Crawl Classics campaigns can optionally begin at zero level, where each player rolls up three to four poorly armed and equipped peasants. In a manner reminiscent of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, these would-be adventurers face a steep curve of natural selection, leaving only the strongest to advance on to first level after completing the first adventure. Although this method is optional, providing each player with multiple characters does a great job of achieving a number of things. First, it provides a learning curve for new players. Second, it allows you to get multiple chances to roll a great set of Ability Scores without compromising the "3d6 in order" mantra. Third, it adds a little bit of dark humour to the first game, which helps ease players into the campaign before there is a truly meaty plot for the players to sink their teeth into.

Without spoiling the story, the module launches the adventurers right into the action from the start. There is no detailed home base, and the adventure begins at the entrance of the dungeon with the presumption that the adventures will conquer it in a single expedition. Although there are parts that are indeed very deadly, there is a clever way to gain reinforcements during the crawl, and defeating the module in one go is certainly feasible for clever players. This last part is key, as there are monsters in the adventure that are almost certainly unbeatable and must be approached intelligently. There are enough clues on how to handle these "puzzle monsters," but overly brash parties will likely receive little more than a TPK for their trouble. These monsters are obvious and clearly horrifying enough, however, to not allow even the most jaded players to entertain the slightest hope of conventional victory.

The dungeon, an ancient Chaos Fortress, is detailed with intricate, three-dimensional maps that really come to life. Although there are relatively few rooms left in the crumbling pile, they are all varied enough to provide a really robust adventure. This seems to go directly against the OSR megadungeon mantra of "half of the rooms should be empty." Indeed, there is no grid of hallways and square chambers, and each encounter section of the fortress is its own mini-adventure, with excellent ambience, a unique story to tell and different challenges for the players. Its hard to esteem the maps enough, and Doug Kovacs has done an excellent job interplaying art and cartography to paint a vivid terrain in the reader's mind.

Like the encounter environs, each lurking monster is unique, with no recognizable enemies to be seen (I believe this may be one of Joseph Goodman's design goals with DCC RPG). The treasure is also novel and original, with no +1 short swords to be found. Each artefact comes with a history of who owned it previously and a description of what dangers lie in possessing such a powerful relic. Some treasure will be evident to the players, but inaccessible until they advance in power, meaning that the party may have to return to the fortress later on to secure these prizes (which is a nice touch, suggesting a "Return to the Starless Sea" session down the road).

The action in the module can only be described as high-octane. Unlike a normal low-level adventure where the players are stuck rescuing the local merchant from goblins, Starless Sea throws beginning adventurers into what feel like major events. Instead of relying on their ability (indeed, zero level characters have little), players must defeat high-level challenges with their wits (the puzzle monsters mentioned earlier being just one example of this). The end of the adventure leaves the players feeling that they have achieved larger than life things, although at a terrible cost, and creates an exciting opening for further adventure as the heroes are born away on perhaps the greatest prize and namesake of the module. There is also plenty of opportunites to draw long-term villains from the adventure, making the module a decent foundation for a larger plot.

For a dusty shelf price of $9.99 for the dead tree version ($6.99 for the PDF), and considering the amount of art in this module, it is hard to pass this by. The stats are generic enough to run the adventure with any OSR game, and (with a little editting for gore) Sailors of the Starless Sea would be an exciting introductory adventure for new players of any age. It is best used, however, to introduce players to DCC RPG, as (much like that tome) the contents are a very evocative old-school primer on how to bring that 1970's heavy metal ballad feel back to your gaming table.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Magic in Questers

I admit, I have always liked the way David C. Sutherland III drew a magic-user. Pointy hats, stars, long beard... I really can't imagine it being any different. Flipping through the excellent and classic Sutherland and Trampier art of the late 1970's Dungeons & Dragons, I find a cohesive design sense and style that readily inspires one to adventure. The almost ligne claire method of "DCS," and the very human proportions of his figures, in particular perfectly reflects the style of the J. Eric Holmes edition of Dungeons & Dragons, by giving you the basic outline and letting you fill the details in with your imagination.

I own a copy of the Holmes edition, and I am quite fond of it, but never seriously gave thought to running it. Holmes is sort of a messy proto-AD&D, which is great for people who want a game that is not cut and dried, but who cannot stomach the complexity of AD&D. Both of these descriptions match my style perfectly, but Holmes has the same problem for me that the original game has without Chainmail—the d20 combat rules, which produce absurdly high mortality rates.

Recently, however, the Holmesian artwork and Nicolas Dessaux's excellent Searchers of the Unknown have inspired me to take another look at a rough and tumble, rules-light way to play in the sandbox created by Sutherland and Trampier. My version of Searchers, which I am now calling Questers into the Unknown in homage to a HackMaster module, is quickly becoming a favorite game of mine. As one of my dear readers noticed, however, there is no magic system. This is largely intentional, of course, as I think any referee worth his salt can improvise the effects of a spell just based on the title of the spell (thus, keeping magic magical). Characters were meant to collect magic items (potions, wands, staves, scrolls, spell books) and spend them at their leisure, effectively making every character a magic-user (in the same way that, before Greyhawk, every character was a thief). But that still did not account for the fact that there were no pointy-hatted, long-bearded old men walking around in Questers. If I wanted to be true to the implied world of Holmesian art and fiction, I would need to account for this.

And so, here are the extremely optional rules for magic in Questers into the Unknown:

Spellcasting
While potions and wands have limited use, magical scrolls work slightly differently. When a hero tries to cast from a scroll, roll 1d10 against his armour class for the somatic element of the ritual. If the roll is equal or less, the scroll is cast successfully and may be cast again in the future. If the roll is higher, the scroll is destroyed, the magician visibly ages and he permanently loses 1 hit point (which may not be restored). Heroes may cast a number of spell scrolls a turn equal to their level (Hit Dice).

Thus, like everything in Questers, you are not bound by hard categories or numbers, but rather the development of the character is completely up to choice. Characters that are predominately spell casters will be lower hit points, older and not wear armour (and they will need a train of henchmen to carry all of their wands, staves, spell books, scrolls, potions etc). There is also room for a Gray Mouser-like thief, wearing light armour and casting a spell now and then. There is a simple spell burn mechanic to discourage overusing spells (especially for heavily armoured characters), but a dedicated magician can still turn on the fireworks and explode handfuls of spells in a single round of combat.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

Looking back, I am coming more and more to admire Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and I am grateful for having a nearly compete collection of the second edition. I came a little too late in the game to get into the first edition (although I do own it, and the major campaign arc The Enemy Within), but I found the second edition to be an excellent game. I think that version was incredibly conscious of the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which was admittedly the three hundred pound gorilla in the 10'x10' room in 2005. The result is a game that parallels the competition in clarity and internal symmetry, but one that takes an entirely different path in terms of player power and goals. Sure, WFRP characters do become more powerful, but not particularly offensively (as D&D characters might), but rather defensively. WFRP characters become more scarred, thick-skinned and tougher through their travails. The goal of a WFRP character is not power. It is that faint glimmer of hope: that drive to survive the short and brutal affair that is medieval life in the Old World. It is a seemingly small difference, but it makes a fantastic contrast from the Dungeons & Dragons experience.

And, for your entertainment, here is an illustrative example of the same scenario being played out in each game:

Dungeons & Dragons
The players hear of an old barrow tomb in the mountains above town. They trek up to it the next day, disarm their way past traps, fight through rooms of skeletons and ghouls and pry open the sarcophagus. They grab the coins, treasure and magic sword inside, but not before the remains rise to attack them as a lich. They lose a henchmen in the fight and go back to town victorious, throwing a party with the villagers.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
The players hear of an old barrow tomb in the mountains above town. They trek up to it the next day and find the old tomb half-buried in earth and vines. They find the chamber sad and empty, and pry open the lid to reveal the remains of an ancient barbarian queen and her child. Overcoming any moral qualms, they grab the only item of apparent value (a deteriorated ancient necklace) and shuffle back to town. Unable to find an interested buyer, and worried the jewelry might be cursed, the players toss the necklace into the town well and go back to the inn. That night, a banshee appears in town and leaves a wake of murdered children. The locals gather into an uncontrolled mob to find the culprit, but accidentally chance upon the midnight rituals of a local cabal of cultists (including the mayor's secretary and the local baker—come to think of it, his Monday meat pies did taste a little strange...). The mob breaks out into a full scale riot, half the town burns down and the players are rounded up the next day, tried as witches and hanged.

Friday, April 27, 2012

My Variant of Searchers of the Unknown

Like the regular Searchers of the Unknown, but faster paced, so that you can start the first session in Quasqueton and be in Erelhei-Cinlu by the fifth!

Build PCs
Roll 1d3. Create that many PCs.

1) Choose an armour
No Armour (AC 9)
Leather armour (AC7)
Chainmail (AC5)

Plate mail (AC 3)
(Shields reduce AC further by -1)


2) Roll for hit points
1d8 per level (HD). So, 1d8 for a PC starting at level 1.

3) Choose three weapons, or two weapons and a shield
Small weapon (d4 damage, dagger or sling)
Ranged weapon (d6, bow or crossbow)
Melee weapon (d8, mace or sword)
2-handed weapon (d10, greatsword or polearm)


4) Choose a name and a description
Choose a race, like human, dwarf, hobbit or elf (it has no rules effect, but it adds to the fun in the game). Imagine what he was before becoming an adventurer. Your PC is ready.

Example of a character sheet: Eustace the Useless (AC 5, HD 3, hp 14, Dmg 1d10 with voulge).

Fighting
1) Initiative: Each one rolls 1d10+his AC. The best score has initiative, then each one attack in descending order. So a lighter fighter has better chances to strike first.

2) Movement: Your movement rate equals your AC in tens of feet (indoors) and tens of yards (outdoors).

3) Attack: roll 2d6. If the score is under your opponent AC + your own level, it's a hit. If the score is equal to or less than your level, you may attack again.

4) Damage: When you hit an opponent, roll the damage (Dmg) dice. Deduces the result from your opponents hit points (hp). At or below 0, monsters are dead, and PC's are knocked out. Monsters could kill them easily, but they won't. Instead, they keep them as prisoners. This is just more pulp-like.

5) Rest and bandages: After that, all hit points (hp) are restored back their initial score. After all, hit points reflect the capacity to escape or stand hits. If a PC has been sent below 0hp, he may needs a longer rest, or even healing magic like a potion of healing), because he’s wounded.

Experience
PC's gain 1 experience point for amusing the referee. After defeating monsters, each PC gains experience points equal to the highest single monster's HD minus their own level. A new level is gained when they accumulate experience points equal to the square of the next level (4xp for Level 2, 9xp for Level 3 etc).

Based off of Nicolas Dessaux's Searchers of the Unknown.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Dungeon Mono-Tables

Inspired by Jeff's vertical geomorph Castle Dundagel (an idea I have also been thinking of lately) and the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, I have sketched out some mono-tables for random dungeon encounters. Similar to the critical hit charts in DCC, simply roll on the encounter table with a die type determined by the dungeon level being explored. These levels are as follows:

Wilderness ~ Roll 1d6. The wilderness is 83% empty.
Environs ~ Roll 1d7. The environs are ruled by bandits, 71% empty.
Ruins ~ Roll 1d8. The ruins are contended ground, 62% empty.
Level I ~ Roll 1d10. Level I is contended ground, 10% treasure, 10% traps, 50% empty.
Level II ~ Roll 1d12. Level II is ruled by humanoids, 8.3% treasure, 8.3% traps, 41% empty.
Level III ~ Roll 1d14. Level III is ruled by the undead, 14% treasure, 7% traps, 33% empty.
Level IV ~ Roll 1d16. Level IV is ruled by the undead, 12% treasure, 12% traps, 31% empty.
Level V ~ Roll 1d20. Level V is ruled by the giants, 15% treasure, 10% traps, 30% empty.
Level VI ~ Roll 1d24. Level VI is ruled by the dragon, 16% treasure, 13% traps, 29% empty.
Level VII ~ Roll 1d30. Level VII is ruled by demons, 16% treasure and 13% traps, 23% empty.

Encounter Table
1-5 No Encounter
6 Monster
7 Bandits
8 Humanoids + Roll Again
9 Treasure + Roll Again
10 Trap
11 Humanoids
12 Monster
13 Undead
14 Treasure + Roll Again
15 Undead
16 Trap
17 No Encounter
18 Treasure + Roll Again
19-20 Humanoids + Roll Again
21 No Encounter
22 Treasure
23 Trap + Roll Again
24 Dragon
25 Undead
26 Trap
27 Treasure + Roll Again
28 Demon + Roll Again
29+ Demon

When an encounter is indicated, simply roll the same level die on the specific encounter table. I've left the tables for Treasures, Bandits and Demons open for the judge to design. Unlike the other tables, they should be unique, with entries crossed off after they are rolled, signaling the party's progress through the dungeon. The dragon doesn't have a table, as there is only one dragon (although an extra table might indicate if he is sleeping or not).

Traps
1 Alarm (roll on humanoid)
2 Net Trap
3 Bear Trap
4-5 Spear Trap
6 Collapsing Ceiling
7-9 Pit Trap
10 Laughing Gas
11-12 Arrow Trap
13 Crushing Walls
14 Sleep Gas
15 Pit Trap full of (roll on undead)
16-17 Poisoned Darts
18-19 Pit Trap full of water
20-23 Spiked Pit Trap
24-25 Poison Gas
26-27 Spiked Crushing Walls
28-29 Cave-in
30 Dimensional Door

Humanoids
1-3 Kobolds
4-5 Goblins
6 Gnoles
7 Bugbears
8-10 Orcs
11 Orcs + Roll Again
12 Half-Ogres
13 Cavemen
14-15 Ogres
16 Ogre Magi + Roll Again
17-19 Cave Giants
20 Giant King + Roll Again
21-24 Trolls
25-26 Duergar
27 Drow
28 Cyclops
29 Roll twice more, first roll are slaves of second roll
30 Ancient Alien

Monster
1 Giant Boar
2 Wolves
3 Bear
4-5 Rat swarms
6 Giant centipedes
7 Giant rats
8 The Owlbear
9 Stirges
10 Green Slime
11-12 Stirges
13 Gelatinous Cube
14 Yellow mold
15 Giant Centipedes
16 Insect Swarm
17-18 Giant Spiders
19 Cave Bears
20 Giant Lizards
21 Giant Lizards driven by (roll on humanoid)
23 Beholder
24-25 Basilisk
26 Deep Horror eating (roll again)
27 Hydra
28 Black Pudding
29 Giant Cobra
30 Titanic Worm

Undead
1-3 Ghouls
4-8 Zombies
9-12 Skeletons
13 Carrion Crawler
14-15 Wights
16 Lich
17 Wights
18 Plague Zombies
19-21 Zombified... (roll on humanoid)
22 Ghost
23 Vampire
24-25 Wraith
26 Banshee
27 Zombified... (roll on humanoid)
29 Undead Wyvern
30 Giant Skeleton

VoilĂ , one complete dungeon! Let me know what you roll up.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Summoning All Readers

So! I've been thinking again of changing the format of this blog. Life, inexorable creature that it is, has once again imposed its will upon me, and I won't have all the free time to write long articles as I previously had. My original goal with this blog was an online repository of articles from my own, developing thinking on game theory and design. I meant for every article to be excellent, or at least useful, and to be written entirely at my own pace. The layout of the website was meant to have minimal distraction to focus the reader on the text. To be honest, I never really expected to have a readership, and thus I never really wrote my articles with the reader in mind.

Now then, dear reader,what do you think? I am considering switching to a more stream-of-conscious approach (closer to the Gameblog than Grognardia). Shorter articles, more to the point, more comfortable style. I also may end up starting a new blog, so as to preserve this one. Please do provide your feedback and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Dwimmermount

Dwimmermount is a classic dungeon in every sense. The preview for backers of the Kickstarter has a first level that feels both formal and archetypal, yet also lavishly rich in atmosphere. There is a strange mixture of James' staid writing style and the moody ambience that quickly coalesces around the dungeon environs. His writing is effective, and creates a gloomy picture of a ruined hall, with walls and floors now too inert and mute to tell all of their stories.

As James' promises elsewhere, these rather mournful early hallways and chambers will eventually give way to something much stranger. From that discussion, and James' interest in planetary fiction, deeper levels will seemingly take a dip towards period science fiction with Burroughs et al. While it may be judging a book by its cover, from the early drafts I expect the resulting product wil be a well-woven and meticulous classical dungeon, full of ambience and character, with a few twists and turns towards the finale.

In that same discussion, James has expressed interest in using Dungeon Crawl Classics with Dwimmermount. While this is also my current game of choice, the more I read it, the less I am convinced that DCC is well suited by a megadungeon. One of the early design goals was that DCC was not D&D, and would not follow the same path that D&D took. DCC cleaves closer to pulp 1970's science fantasy literature, whereas Dungeons & Dragons became beholden to its wargaming roots. The dungeon is well designed for the later style of play, with gritty room-to-room warfare and strategic exploration and conquest of different zones.

In contrast, Dungeon Crawl Classics seems (perhaps ironically, given its name) better suited for episodic play typical of pulp novellas and the short stories found in the back of cheap science fantasy rags. DCC personas do not fight for every inch of ground with an army of henchmen, but rather they go on flashy capers, discover horrible secrets and fight gross-out final bosses.

This style is well supported by the panopoly of modules Goodman Games has lined up, but I am wondering how it would look for novice judges trying to prepare their own material. The approach I have been taking lately is similar to the method I used in an unpublished homespun roleplaying game a while back. I would build a somewhat self-contained locale (called a "setting") and come up with 2 to 6 major spots in the location (called "scenes"). Scenes were evocative locations where significant story encounters would occur (thus, extraordinary events would never happen in ordinary places, and vice versa). Different settings would be connected in a web geography according to how the narrator expected the plot to unfold (and later, redrawn according to how the plot would actually unfold). Settings themselves would be given brief and colourful descriptions, which would help the narrator improvise.

Thus, the city of Swampgut (setting) could be connected to Cairnlands (setting), which would be connected to Blagga's Hold (a setting, with the descriptors: "crumbling for centuries," "dry mud-walls," "red qwartz canyons," "ant-hole hallways" and "dry creekbed"). Once the characters beat a certain number of the scenes in Cairnlands, they could cross from Swampgut, through Cairnlands and to Blagga's Hold. The latter might have four scenes, including "last standing guard tower" (bird's eye view, crumbling steps, massive bonfire, Blagga's spy-falcons), "Blagga's Harem" (deep in the bowels of the fortress, eunuch guards, debauchery, brazen idol, Blagga's platform, poor acoustics), "black pit" (thousands of feet down, lightless warrens, lurking minotaur, sandy arena) and "master kitchen" (hundred cooks, strange meats, massive hearth, hanging pots and pans, chaos and clamor).

How the players interract with such a setting is freeform, and the judge is encouraged to briefly describe otherwise uninteresting travel. The characters could sneak around the creekbed, find a secret entrance in the wall, and creep through winding warren-like halways until they find a peephole that spies into the harem (ahem, to overhear the infamous Blagga's plans, of course). Once the players goals were sufficiently achieved (or failed), the setting would be expended and the story would advance. For settings that are pure obstacles (like the aformentioned Cairnlands), the narrator may require a certain number of scenes to be beaten to open up further settings.

This is a quick way to sketch out a basic map of the story, but it is still flexible to be modified on the fly. By focusing on dramatic moments and places, such a campaign would feel more pulpy and narrative, which can be scaled back according to the tone the judge would like to set. This approach de-emphasizes mapping, tracking of time and supplies, and the general inertia of traditional exploration. This does not provide an actual plot, however, and I hope to touch on a few tips for adventure design in the near future.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Player-Facing Initiative

There is a nice effect that goes along with keeping monsters mechanically freeform. From planning to implementation in the campaign, such enemies remain open-ended in the minds of both the judge and the players. The unknown shifts from simply "what the players cannot see behind the judge's screen" to the unknowable, as it draws from the vague and unthought potential of the judge's ongoing process of imagination and reimagining. Such monsters are free to continually evolve with the world as it is explored by the players, and are infinitely malleable to the twists and turns of plot that are inspired during play.

Dungeon Crawl Classics supports this, and goes so far as to say that monsters and players are not equivalent, and that they do not play by the same rules. This is a refreshing break from other games that try to "stat-out" monsters in terms of player-centric mechanics (giving them levels, classes, feats, skills and so on). Instead of these constraints, monsters are completely unfettered by design limitations, and are freeform enough to allow the judge to continually present them in new and unexpected ways (this is also encouraged by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, I have heard).

Even on a small scale, it is nice to break the symmetry between players and monsters. In the spirit of Robin Law's innovative GUMSHOE system, I have been thinking of using more player-facing mechanics with my world. This sets up monsters and players not as equivalent pawns in a wargame, but rather monsters are just part of a rich environment that players must struggle against. By leaving monster ability and behavious nearly completely undefined, the game simply feels more narratively oriented.

As a concrete example of this, I am strongly considering dropping traditional initiative rolls in combat. The systems that we have come to recognize (group initiative or individual initiative, rolled at the beginning of combat or each new round) are simply not tied to the narrative of the battle at all. For the most part, they are highly random, disconnected from the actions of the combatants and (perhaps with the exception of group initiative) discouraging of cooperative actions. Instead, I am proposing that all combatants describe their actions at the beginning of the round and, if any actions conflict, the player must dice their initiative against a (10 + Monster's Init. Modifier) DC in order to get his action off first. If the sequence of actions is obvious (i.e. ranged attack versus melee attack), no dice are needed.

For example, if a second level warrior (Agility 11) was going to hack an Android (Init. -2) in the Denethix sewers, and the Android was going to toss the damsel he is carrying over his head into the incinerator, the warrior dices 1d20+2 versus DC 8 to see if he makes it in time. The same would go if the Android was going to attack the warrior (to see who gets to roll their attack first).

This nicely mirrors Robert Fisher's advice, and keeps the actions of opponents fairly inscrutible. Monsters fall into the greater narrative backdrop, and are struggled against for narrative goals. Such player-facing mechanics ultimately make opponents less like discrete actors, and more part of the rich environment.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Monstrous

Dungeon Crawl Classics has got me thinking about monsters lately. Like the Random Esoteric Creature Generator, the maxim of DCC is that no encounter with an enemy should be the same. Monsters are aliens, outsiders, and the demons of folk lore. They do not play by the rules of nature that bind men and earthly creatures, nor do they come in the familiar forms and images that mortals are accustomed to witnessing. There is a revulsion and fear of the monstrous that goes beyond pointy teeth and sharp claws to something deeper—something automatically rejected by the human psyche.

J. E. Holmes' version of Basic Dungeons & Dragons came the closest to representing this in play. That humble booklet had a dizzying four score monsters, only the first third of which would even make for a fair fight against beginning characters. As has been discussed elsewhere, the peculiarities of the Holmes edition imply an entirely different style of play than later versions of the game, where heroes approach the unknown with far more caution than bravado.

The Dungeon Crawl Classics book calls to the reader from the same mythos, and provides potent support for making an encounter with the monstrous truly weird (including custom charts and tables for humanoids and undead, and random generators for dragons and demons). Lately, however, I have been thinking, "why not go one step further?" What if one were to drop humanoids entirely? What would a world look like, if the only enemies were humans, the undead or the truly hideous and solitary things dreamt up by the Random Esoteric Creature Generator. Heroes would no longer be paired up against equal numbers of opponents, as if combat were merely sport, but would be truly afraid at the discovery of a new fiendish, unknown and threatening being. I want to be there at the table when a new player asks, "Why is this forest crossed off on the map?", only to receive the answer, "The eyeball beast is there. We don't go there anymore."

This attitude towards play is nicely reinforced by DCC's experience point system as well. Interestingly, monsters are not given any challenge rating or experience point total. In fact, there is absolutely no way for a novice judge to estimate the danger a monster poses to the party ahead of actually throwing it at the players. Experience reward is only determined retroactively (one, two, or up to four points), according to how much the players struggled with the encounter. While narrow-minded referees may balk at this innovation, it is actually an incredibly elegant system which breaks the bad habit of thinking of monsters as having some intrinsic point value. The result is far less bookkeeping, more accurate rewards and monsters that are free to be, well, monstrous. After all, if all encounters are scaled to player power and monsters are not allowed to run amok and put the party to flight fully half the time, the literary concept of monster sort of loses its purchase and the game descends into boredom. Humanoids are just one branch of this problem, as they tend to be narratively predictable and mechanically equivalent to the player characters. A world without them is a world of the unknown, something that players can truly be afraid of.

Appendix M: Extra Monsters
Ghost — Nine foot tall, bipedal outsider. Seen indistinctly from the corner of the eye, and invisible, immobile and incorporeal if looked at directly. The Ghost appears to not have a side or back, but is always facing its prey. A silicon based entity, coated with long, dark brown quills. Believed to have only two arms, each ending in 13 to 17 claws. Complexion is a shadowy void marked by two sparkling ochre eyes. Special powers: Transfixing gaze (only when seen in from a reflecting surface), perfect silence, regeneration (with consumption of bloody flesh).

Small, young dragon (13 years). HD 5 (10 HP), Spd 40', poison breath (Fort vs 15, save or die, 1/day), AC 16, 2d20+8 (claw/bite). Ventriloquism (cast at 1d20+2), Hypnotic stare (Will vs 15), Clear passage through vegetation, copper-coloured, chaotic. (Randomly generated from the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game.)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Admiring the DCC Warrior

So it has been a few days since the pre-order electronic copies of the Dungeon Crawl Classic Roleplaying Game went out. With some time to really let the game sink in, I have been coming more and more to admire the Warrior class. For those who were not fortunate enough to preorder, DCC has seven roles to select from: Cleric, Thief, Warrior, Wizard, Dwarf, Elf and Halfling. The Warrior is DCC's answer to the swordsmen and champions of fantasy literature previously described by the Fighter of Advanced Dungeon & Dragons.

Of course, that class was always rather lumpy and assymetrical in power and ability at different levels—something which you either loved or hated. This created a marked difference in the feel of low-level play (characterized by extreme lethality) and high-level play. With mundane armaments, a first level fighter would likely die upon his first wound. By ninth level, the same fighter would withstand nine or more wounds from an equal opponent. While toughness progressed linearly, the ability to inflict harm did not. The attempt to bridge this gulf in low and high-level play came to one extreme in Dungeon & Dragons 4th Edition, which made the relative deadliness of combat scale perfectly over all 30 (!) levels. Without a doubt, this was even less satisfying than the gap of previous editions, as now nothing changed at all as characters gained experience and supposedly progressed.

I was curious if the new Warrior of Dungeon Crawl Classics had addressed this issue, so I decided to crunch the numbers and find out. One thing that stood out immediately is that the scale of characters in DCC is very different. There are only 10 levels, but each level means a lot more than in any edition of D&D. The result is that low level DCC characters are noticeably more resilient in comparison. While a zero level DCC character is weaker than even the humble Fighter of AD&D, by the time that DCC Warrior reaches Level 1, he is more powerful than his peer, taking an average 3 sword strikes to bring down (a nice, well rounded number in my opinion).

High level characters also seem tougher than their AD&D compatriots, at least at first glance. The average 10th level Warrior has 68 hit points (compared to the Fighter's 53), while weapons cause the same damage in both games (1-8 points for a longsword, for example). However, high level DCC Warriors can really dish it out using the simple "Mighty Deeds" mechanic. To give you an idea, a 10th level Warror will make three attacks a turn, each one hitting as hard as three sword strikes on average, and each attack having a 20% of achieving a truly nasty critical hit (the average critical at that level is +3d12 damage with a free follow up attack if the attack drops the victim, but instant death results are common). It gets even more ugly for a dual-wielding warrior.

The end result is that, armed with mundane weaponry, a fight between identical high level Warriors will be over in about three to four rounds. Again, there is the nice symmetry with the number 3, yet the perfect scaling of Dungeon & Dragons 4th Edition is avoided. High level fights are very different than low level fights, as they should be, with multiple attacks, tactical Mighty Deeds, critical strikes and so on. Such duels are much more flashy, fast moving and narratively surprising, while low level fights are more nail-biting, gritty and personal. Interestingly, this is attained without giving the Warrior a single new ability (in fact, the Warrior does not gain any new abilities as he levels).

On a related note, while their are no rules for resurrecting the dead (unless you count the gruesome and temporary "Replication" spell), there is a chance for your character to survive a lethal encounter. A fallen character will take time to bleed out. If he is not rescued and does bleed out, the party could recover the body within an hour and might find that he's actually still alive. Life is neither cheap, nor death completely avoidable, which gives just the right feel for pulp fantasy.

Fighters have always been my favorite class to play, and I am happy to see that they get a good treatment in DCC. Often their chance in the spotlight it stolen by Magic-Users and other more specialized classes, especially at higher levels, but the simple addition of rules like Mighty Deeds and specialized critical hit charts mean that Warriors will continue to be the central characters right up to the end of the game. Furthermore, the careful attention to pacing at each level implies that there was an impressive amount of care, concern and playtesting put into Dungeon Crawl Classics, which bodes very well for potentially running long term campaigns with this game.

Appendix S: Extra Swords for your Warriors
Dagger: Lawful, +1, Int 8, urges to enforce the law, death dealer to warriors (Fort save DC 1d20+10 or instant death), light at will (20').
An unnamed dagger used to overthrow a tyrant long ago.

Longsword: Chaotic, +1, Int 7, urges to punish interlopers and those who interfere and to slay lawful dragons. +1d4 dmg vs lawful creatures, 20' darkness, strength +4.
Barbspite: A sword forged by the hags of Drearmore to aid a fanatical and corrupted hero in his self-destructive quest.

Longsword: Neutral, +1, Int 5, urges to live alone as a warrior hermit, +1 critical range vs clerics, speak thieves (druid) cant.
Sword of the old ways: Hammered by druids to resist the new faiths, the sword of the old ways drives the wielder to withdraw deeper into the wilds to avoid the encroach of foreign civilization.

Dagger: Lawful, +2, 12 Int, Empathical drives wielder to punish murderers and slay chaotic creatures. Unerring throw vs Serpents, +1 dmg vs men, detect magic (1/day), detect water (1d8x10'), Thunder Blade, Supreme willpower.
Blade of Sph't: Created by the underground dwellers of Shokassam to mercilessly hunt down the cult of snakemen that was hiding in the desert and raiding, torturing and sacrificing their people. The hero used the thunderous booming of the dagger to draw out their avatar - an enormous cobra.

Going Mapless

I have been thinking about this for a long time, and recently the excellent judge's advice in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game has inspired me finally to give it a try. Amongst the excellent essays in that manuscript is a treatment on campaign geography, which suggests, in part, to "think locally" in terms of player knowledge. In particular, the section on "The Known World" argues to "make your world mysterious by making it small–very small. What lies past the next valley? None can be sure. When a five-mile journey becomes an adventure, you'll have succeeded in bringing life to your world."

This idea has been consonent with my own thinking for a while now, although I have come at the problem from a different direction. A while back, I was having trouble gearing up for the next campaign. I would sketch out an exciting story, only to fail to see the magic in it the next day. I would draw up a great world map, and find it unremarkable afterwards. I realized that painting with these broad strokes and planning an itinery for the players was actually incredibly constraining, not inspiring, to my thinking. By setting my creativity to paper, and clearly defining it, it had lost that spark of imagination, and therefore my interest. I was experiencing referee burnout before the campaign even began.

Frustrated, I turned to some alternate forms of inspiration for a while and left roleplaying behind. I found myself playing old video games again and Zork, in particular. I had grown up on these (and grown out of them, I had thought), but games like the excellent Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom pulled me back in for a while. I rediscovered that these old text-based adventures were actually immensely satisfying and inspiring. Confined to individual "rooms," exploring the locales of the Great Underground Empire or the Slaver's Kingdom turned reflectively inward, becoming more detailed, immediate, graspable and relevant to the player. If there was a "greater" world that was, by definition, beyond the player, it was well out of sight.

This changed my view of tabletop roleplaying as well, and I returned to my next campaign with a new attitude towards refereeing. I redrew maps as information webs, horizontal cut-aways, brainstormed flowcharts and in many other previously unrecognizable forms. I avoided top-down maps and left distance scales out entirely. The result was an enormously fun and successful Castle Zagyg campaign.

While DCC does not suggest dropping maps entirely, my thinking lately has been pushing more and more towards this end. Increasingly, I am writing down the scenes for my next campaign in list form, or as quickly-jotted notes randomly arrayed on unlined paper. Sometimes I draw lines between them to connect thoughts, but for the most part I leave this decision making until I am actually running the session. Importantly, I no longer feel compelled to explain any coherent logic in the storyline, as my players do a fantastic job trying to make sense of it with me. It requires a little give and take, and the players may or may not be consciously aware that they are shaping this story with me.

The play is more local, and relevant to the players, but the events of the world around them are not completely under their control. I throw the scenes at them which I had dreamed up earlier, and some stick more than others. Players pursue unexpected avenues (which they are wont to do) and play evolves in a living way. This keeps me interested each week, allows me to update the feel of the game according my current inspirations, and avoids the double pitfalls of storytelling that is too much or too little in the hands of the players. So far, I cannot recommend this approach enough.

Appendix S: Extra Scenes

Fight the minotaur prison warden of the black oubliette!

Chase the thief over the red-tiled rooves of Bloodhaven!

Fight extradimensional analogues in the crystal mirror room!

Scale the barren, sheer mountain face to the ominous stone mouth-door (the doorbell/handle is just a black hand-sized hole in the door...)

Query the three hags of the sump (for every question you ask, they ask another in return, but be warned: any topics you reveal will turn out disastrously later!)

That's no golden idol, it's a golden battle-bot! (any damage you do will descrease its value as treasure!)


What did you come up with?

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