Thursday, November 26, 2020

Icewind Dale: Running the Good Mead Election

I'm a great fan of Justin Alexander and his remixes of WOTC material (even though I've not yet had an opportunity to play any of it). The newest WOTC outing, Rime of the Frostmaiden, looks solid as these things go, and I may just end up running it. Albeit with some changes, and after I'm done with everything else on my plate.

The Alexandrian has already done great work done in that direction, but the parts which most appeal to me in the sandbox approach is the idea of getting to know the Ten-Towns, their inhabitants, and rising to become actual heroes, not just heavily armed hobos. The reputation system promised in Rime would help do that... if it actually existed. That's something to change.

I've just skimmed so far, but one bit I really do find appealing is the conflict in the town of Goodmead. In summary, this town produces lots of honey and mead, exporting it to other towns, but trade has been disrupted by a giant that stole some casks and killed the town leader! In the course of this quest, the party can steal back the mead, with or without killing the giants, gaining the town's respect and restoring trade. But they also have the option of bolstering their ranks with local soldiers to help them!


Even better, if they succeed, they can get involved in local politics. The town needs a new leader, and it's between a popular but corrupt dwarf logger, Shandar, and a well established but reluctant cask maker, Olivessa. But Olivessa doesn't want the position, so if the PCs want in, she'll throw her aid behind them.

That's a great setup. Giant hunt after one attacked your mead hall? Straight Beowulf. Muster the locals to fight the menace. Awesome. Get involved in seedy local politics, demonstrating you've really made an impact on the community. Sweet.

The execution is, disappointingly but not unexpectedly, less well done. After dangling an opportunity for local leadership in front of the characters, the module takes steps to nullify it, and makes only a token concession to player freedom. The dwarf used his Zhentarim contacts to stage a scene to make him look like a hero, also it all happens in a cutscene. Sure, the party might be able to 'expose the deception' but the module really seems to strain against the idea.

Not in the least because I can't find any details of the election in the book. The loggers like Shandar, and Olivessa comes from an old family... and that's it? No mention of how to do an election scene either, despite how flavorful that would be. Does it take place in the meadhall, after every voting town member has abstained from mead for a day to keep their head straight, followed by an orgiastic drinking session? Who votes? Every adult who resides there? Only heads of households? Only those capable of fighting? Only a council of elders? Do the candidates get to cast votes? Is there some kind of anonymity or is everyone supposed to call out their vote before the town? What is the situation like that a small, insular frontier town would consider making their leader an individual who has only just arrived? We need to know dammit!


Good Mead is a town of just 101 100 people. Of those, just over a fifth are willing and able to fight in the militia when the time comes. The same seems to hold true for most other towns. You can't have a population below Dunbar's number and not have flavorful gossiping and politicking! 

And what about mechanics? I'm not asking for a rigorous electoral subsystem, but at least give me something that connects to existing mechanics! Can the candidate's Charisma score turn the tide? Is their reputation score going to impact their likability? 

That's a whole lot of missing speculation about missing stuff. Here's how I would run it.

Asking the Big Questions

First off, who's voting? In my mind small towns like Good Mead would be run as collections of households, and the head of each household votes. This brings the number of electors down to a small enough number that the PCs can meaningfully know who they are, get to know what they think, and put real human (or dwarvish, whatever) faces to the townsfolk.

Aside
By not specifying what the election looks like, the implied default would be a popular vote of adults, which is how I think a lot of people would end up running this. To me, that betrays a lack of imagination. How is a small town like this made up? A bunch of atomized individuals? Don't make laugh. It's family all the way down. And when the community is made up of families, not individuals, it makes a lot more sense for votes to go by head of household.

Of course who counts as the head of a household? Olivessa comes from a lineage that helped found the town, but explicitly has no surviving relatives. I suppose she would count, but that very assertion might be a matter of political dispute in the town.

Likewise, Shandar has only lived in town for a few years. No mention is made of a family, just that he's popular with the other loggers. A bachelor and a recent immigrant is out of the norm. 

Also, where's the previous leader's family in all this? Any children or spouse should be important voices here. 

This gets further complicated by the inciting incident of the election, the verbeeg hunt. If the PCs go ahead and do the quest themselves, without mustering a militia, they have more leeway to do it their way, but they haven't demonstrated their leadership ability to the townsfolk. Also, the townsfolk would be uneasy if they didn't kill the giants.

'Three kobolds in a trench coat' is 100% a character idea I came up with years ago

By bringing a militia with them, even a small one, the party not only displays leadership, but has witnesses. Witnesses who can tell their friends and family how cool the party was under pressure, or how fearless, or how adaptable. Or, witnesses who can tell everyone how the party chickened out and negotiated with the giants instead. No good.

And if the town is really made up of households, how many of the heads of households are coming along on the giant raid? More to the point, how would it look for a prospective town leader to not go along with the party? Olivessa and Shandar are both statted as commoners. Meanwhile a fifth of the town population has the stats of a tribal warrior. Why are these people the frontrunners again?

The Hunt

Before the election even starts, before the party even gets to Goodmead, Olivessa and Shandar should be having a visible effect on the town. Introduce them and the leadership vacuum up front, not after the giant hunt. Their leader is lying dead in the town shrine, trade is disrupted, everyone is living in fear of giants in the woods.

Olivessa, seeing as she's probably not making casks right about now, is leading a civic ceremony, a memorial to the old town speaker. Shandar is boasting back at the mead hall. Both are yet unaware of the deaths of the five militia members who went out to hunt the verbeeg. 

If the PCs accept the quest to go hunt it themselves, Shandar should insert himself into the situation. Some of the loggers are bound to be among the militia members, and coming along for the ride will let him share some of the glory, even if it's undeserved. 

This is also a good place to introduce the militia, and the opportunity to raise it. Since many of the townsfolk are with Olivessa at the memorial, this will be a good moment to introduce her as well.

In the course of recruiting the militia, note that the two veterans are heads of household in Good Mead (we can give them some names later). If they like what they see during the hunt, their votes will most likely go to the party. If they don't like what they see, they will most likely oppose the PCs. And if they happen to die, well, their places are taken by their children, who probably don't like the party too much.


Leadup to the Election

After the hunt, assuming it went well and the party wants to run for speaker, the next section can run mostly as written. Maybe some of the veterans take Olivessa's place in encouraging them to run. Olivessa needs to know the party actually cares about the people before throwing her support behind them. The role of a speaker is really just to negotiate with other towns and resolve conflicts, without special authority in the town itself.

Shandar protests, and the party will hear, probably from a younger person, that Shandar just left the town, the PCs ran him out! This should pique their curiosity. Tailing Shandar to his meeting with the Targos speaker should be an option.

The plan is to make Shandar look like a hero by staging an invasion by some thugs, which Shandar is in the right place to prevent. Instead of turning this into a cutscene best to make the PCs inability to act a bit more diegetic. In particular, have a distraction get them away from town briefly, such as another verbeeg sighting (very easy if the second verbeeg was left alive. In this case, there may be an alliance between it and Shandar). Once the party returns to town, looking like chumps, Shandar was in place to prevent a real threat.

This should clue the party in to some foul play. Thugs don't appear out of thin air, so they must have come from somewhere, and they're probably still close by. 

Running the Election

When the day of the election comes, flavor it as you like. Personally, I like the idea of the entire town crowding together into the mead hall, with the electors abstaining from alcohol for the last day, casting their votes in front of everybody, representing their families. When the winner is declared, they get to give a little speech, and inaugurate a feast. This is a good opportunity to suck wealth from the party's pockets to pay for the food and entertainment.

How many electors there are is up in the air, but I'd put the number around 20. This isn't a rigorous method, but if you want something besides 'win if the dwarf is exposed, lose otherwise', then maybe introducing a random element might help. 3d6+Cha bonus could work, maybe adding Reputation on top? That's how many electors vote for you. Get the majority, you win. If Shandar is still in the running, add a modifier to his benefit due to his 'heroism.'

And if the PCs want to go ahead and become speakers for other towns, a system like this might be generalized. Oust the sitting speaker somehow, then convince the people that the party is the right way forward. Put their cronies in place in towns where the PCs can't become leaders themselves. Rime of the Frostmaiden is now a political intrigue campaign.

You're welcome.

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Saturday, November 14, 2020

Towards a Simple Magicka Game

I've written a fair bit about converting videogames to tabletop experiences. It's kinda my thing, even if lots of it doesn't amount to much. I consciously moved my play habits from videogames to tabletop not all that long ago, and just in the last week I've gone back to my Steam library, largely looking for some inspiration. 

So lo and behold when I remembered the first PC game I ever played: Magicka. 

Staff and sword and robe these wizards have, but Gandalf they are not 

A glorious, creative, buggy mess which I absolutely adored. It got me into PC games, which got me into CRPGs, which eventually brought me all the way here. Now, the time has come to close the circle.

Magicka is a loving parody of fantasy games, both of the video and tabletop variety. It references D&D and Diablo in its opening narration. Of course, I didn't understand the references then. My sense of humor was still on the level of laughing at the silly accents. Coming back to it all these years later, the fingerprints of tabletop games are all over it. 

And it occurs to me that it might make for a quite entertaining and over-the-top combat engine. Let's take a walk. 

The Basics

In Magicka, you are a wizard. That means you are a staff-and-sword wielding, cheese-and-sausage eating, destructive murderhobo psychopath. So we're already on good footing. Spellcasting is your bread and butter, and it could not be farther from a Vancian system if you tried.

Spells are cast by summoning elements and stringing them together. There are eight elements, plus three combination elements:

Core Elements
Water
Life
Shield
Frost
Lightning
Death (also called Arcane)
Rock
Fire

Combination Elements
Steam, Fire+Water
Ice, Water+Frost
Poison, Water+Death


Each element also has an opposite number. Opposites cancel each other, so you cannot cast a spell which contains both fire and frost, for example. Some elements have multiple opposites:

Water/Lightning
Life/Death
Frost/Fire
Rock/Lightning
Ice/Fire
Steam/Ice
Poison/Life

Finally, Shield is its own opposite, as you cannot cast a spell with more than one shield element.

You can cast a spell which holds up to 5 elements at a time. You can combine them as you wish, so long as you don't have opposites. That's really the only limitation you have. More elements means more power, and the more of each type, the stronger the characteristics of that element are in the spell. For example, you can stack together 5 Life elements for a powerful healing beam. If you're fighting zombies, which are harmed by Life, you can drop one of the life elements for Rock, so you can charge an explosive Life projectile. 

Puzzles and the Landscape

Beyond combat, spells have a wide variety of uses for puzzles and altering the landscape. Lightning charges ancient machines, frost freezes water and makes it passable, destructive effects can knock down walls and barriers, shields create new ones, and can also redirect magic beams. These possibilities should be greatly expanded in a tabletop setting. 

Good old problem solving

Many Kinds of Spells

There are a ton of different ways to cast spells, and a ton of different forms they can take. Just casting normally, there are gouts of flame or steam, boulders, fast-firing ice shards, beams of life or death, and crackling lightning. You can also cast them in an area centered around yourself, like a nova of frost, or a rippling earthquake. 

You can cast them on your own person. This usually means summoning a personal shield or healing yourself, but it also means getting water on yourself when on fire, getting fire on yourself when wet, or accidentally casting Death on yourself and taking damage. 

Finally, you can cast a spell on your weapon, which transforms its weak melee attack into a magical effect. This can be simple, with Death for more damage, but you can also use it to add status effects, like burning or wetness. You can also combine it with shield and other elements to create straight barriers away from you.

Shielding deserves a special mention, as you can cast them alone or with other elements, creating barriers or domes, or personal armor or wards which reduce damage from some sources, usually at the cost of reduced movement or particular weaknesses. 

Magicks

In addition to regular spells, you can cast Magicks, which must be learned from ancient texts. These have special effects, acting more like, and in some cases transparently being lifted from D&D. Haste to move around faster, Thunderbolt to deal a shit ton of damage to a wet enemy, Random Teleport to get out of the frying pan (and possibly into the fire) and, of course, Revive.

Notably, Revive is a very simple and easy Magick, which all wizards should know and be able to cast quickly. This is intentional. Death takes you out of play only temporarily, unless there's a TPK. 

This should be one of the primary avenues of character progression, which distinguishes characters at the start of a campaign from the end. You've always been able to throw storms of steaming lightning around, but more exotic effects require some adventuring, finding lost scrolls or proving yourself to teachers, to learn.

Gear

Besides Magicks, another mode of advancement should be equipment. The games have a variety of staves, weapons and other gear items which provide various bonuses and penalties, and which in some cases have powerful effects orthogonal to normal play, such as instantly killing a particular boss. 

In a tabletop version, it is conceivable that gear should be the main way characters are differentiated from one another. 

And the possibilities for magical duels!

The Fun of Magicka

The fun of the videogame largely comes from the tactile experience of pressing buttons to cast spells, string them together, and deploy them in the heat of the moment. Moving around while trying to cast, and catching your teammates in the crossfire, is a big part of the fun. The ease of resurrection also means that blowing up your teammates is a reason to laugh, not curse each other. 

That panicked, frantic effect doesn't translate over well to tabletop RPGs, in which you can actually mull over your turn. Enforcement with timers would be tyrannical if overused, and even then would not render the desired effect. 

In the translation from videogame to tabletop game, I would say that a shift in play experience would be in order. Cooperative teamwork (with some allowance for playful inter-party murder) is the name of the game. 

Moment to moment gameplay should also be addressed. The dominant tactic should not simply be to charge up maximally powerful spells every round and throw them everywhere. The desired direction of play should still have that frantic element. We want to create situations in which a chaotic mix of spells and melee, charging and holding, defending, attacking, healing and changing the landscape, are the norm. Death rays shot from across the map are boring, and should be the exception.

The Framework of the System

This is the basic idea for how the system (which is primarily a combat system) would work.

The basic restriction on spellcasting is the 5 element limit on any particular spell. We want there to be a reason to not constantly use spells with 5 elements, which are the most powerful. My proposal is to use a sort of Action Point system. In this system, summoning an element takes 1AP. You, as a PC, have 5AP in total. If you want to cast one big spell, it's your turn. However, you can also move a space, swing a weapon, or take a more abstract action, with GM ruling. 

You can also cast multiple different spells, or many of the same, if you so wish. A player's turn may well include casting a basic shield (1AP), moving a space to be in front of an enemy (1AP), enchanting their weapon with fire and lightning (2AP), and swinging with it (1AP). Alternately, a wizard may move two spaces to a dead friend's resting place, throw up a domed shield, and cast Revive (a 2AP Magick) to get them back on their feet in a somewhat safe location. 

The goal is to create a situation in which dynamic mixes of actions combine to create varied and entertaining play. Besides the combat engine, the presence of puzzles and NPC interaction fill out the play experience to give it more variety and texture. 

All this carries its own problems. With multiple players throwing potentially landscape-altering effects willy nilly, enemies doing the same, and a large number of tactical options to choose from in any moment, this can all get really overwhelming for GM and player alike. 

It can get really chaotic

Some cuts make sense. For one, I think that eliminating many of the usual dice rolling events used by D&D-alikes makes sense. By this is refer mainly to to-hit rolls, damage rolls and saving throws. If a player goes to swing their blade at a goblin, they just do so, and the appropriate damage is dealt. of course, Enemies do the same. This can greatly speed up play. 

The same goes for spellcasting. Moreover, I'm currently imagining a very simple damage system for combat, in which 1AP = 1 element = 1 point of the appropriate damage. When deciding their actions, players can simply call out 'Three fire and one lightning on the ogre!' which everyone one knows translates to three points of fire damage and one of lightning.

The same goes for status effects and landscape changes. A frost spell freezes a body of water and allows you to walk over it every day of the week. A fire spell will melt it and cause your wizard to drown with just as much certainty (wizards can't swim, dontcha know). A poison spray will sicken, frost slows, water wets, fire burns, life heals, death hurts, etc. 

This would be simple to the point of boredom, so it gets complicated by resistances and weaknesses, both of the players and the enemies, which would be best expressed in terms of Damage Reduction, rather than percentiles or AC, as well as status effects. Burning stops a troll's automatic life regeneration, being wet doubles lightning damage (or something like that) stone armor gives you some points of DR versus physical damage, and so on. Some parts of this mechanic, especially the idea of weaknesses as negative DR, are potentially weird, and need development, but I think the fundamentals work. 

The system should be simple enough to work for enemies as well without placing a burden on the GM. Give weaker enemies lower AP totals and restrict their possible actions. Some can just move and attack, in melee or at range, others have special moves which fit into the element system, like spitting jets of water, and some very dangerous enemies can cast spells, just like player characters. Boss creatures may well have more AP than PCs.

This simplified system actually makes the action economy very transparent. I don't know how initiative/order of action may work. I'm fond of player vs enemy sides in Swords and Wizardry, but I don't think it would fit the frantic tone. 5e style rolled initiative may work better, with groupings of some enemies for an easier time. 

This focuses on the combat system, which I expect to be the most complex part, as it so often is. But I don't intend to make something which only works for combat. The creation of fun puzzles involving spellcasting mechanics would likely be more difficult than setting up a combat, but very important, as well as social interaction. Outside of combat, I expect spellcasting restrictions to loosen, and be based more on player desire and GM ruling.

The Role of Randomness

It may also seem like the whole game is an overcomplicated chess match without random elements, a tactical exercise without opportunities for real surprise. This too concerns me, which is why I would like to shift random elements onto more special, but important events. For example, hits, damage and status effects don't require rolls, but lots of major effects do. For example, shields reflect beams, which can hit other entities. Which entity? Roll it. The Thunderbolt Magick hits one random creature with huge lightning damage. Using it is a solid gamble when you're outnumbered, but a bad idea when you outnumber the enemy.

I do want random elements to come in relatively often, but most especially when it's deciding if a player character will bite it. With easy resurrection on the table, humorous use of player death is too tempting not to use. I'll have to think more on this. 

Cooperative Play

In order to further enable cooperative play, I'd like to make some changes to the rules of the videogame. In particular, armor and self-shielding spells, as well as useful Magicks, could only be cast on oneself in the original. I think that in tabletop, with the ability to coordinate actions, it makes sense to allow players to cast more beneficial effects on each other. I can imagine a big boss battle where a huge wall of fire has separated the party from the enemy, whereupon the whole party coordinates to put powerful defenses on one teammate, Teleport him through the fire, with that player's actions still ready to go once on the other side. Moments like that are what the system should enable and encourage. 

Actually Running the Damn Thing

Supposing I actually manage to make this work, how does a GM run such a game? Largely like any other, I would say, except that you have to think a little outside the box to come up with non-combat challenges and motivations for adventure. Wizards are potent, but are comically inept in some domains. Tall places, bodies of water and awkward social situations work well. As motivators, you can't go wrong with arcane power, cheese and sausages. 

The most challenging thing for the GM might well be the spellcasting system. In the original game, there's a whole tree of priorities to determine how a spell comes out. Shield plus life or arcane plus other elements create mines, but not if the spell contains earth. Lightning can't mix with water, but if you put water and fire together first, you can make a cone of steaming lightning. If you've played the game, the rules for this may well be intuitive to you, but for a less familiar GM coming to this and wanting to run it, a formal explanation would look like a very confusing flowchart. 

Still, I'm not too worried about that. This is a silly hack to allow people who already liked and knew the game to run a tabletop experience in a setting they like with mechanics they like. 

Keep watching this space, as I (hopefully) develop this further! Oh, and if you like the idea enough to want to playtest it, do let me know! 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Depravities of the Dinosorcerer: Lessons from Playtesting

Earlier this week, I finally ran not one, but two playtest sessions of the adventure I've been writing, Depravities of the Dinosorcerer. Both took place with two players due to scheduling and connection shenanigans, but I expect the Thursday sessions to continue for the foreseeable future. 

This won't be a full report like I usually do, more of a summary plus what I learned from playtesting. The dungeon is meant for a level 3 party to start. The first group was level 3, the second was level 5 and 6, since they were imported from my CX campaign, but they still provided plenty of useful testing information.

Party 1: Thursday

Kel, Dwarf Fighter
Lishan, Druid
And their entourage of fighters and a lightbearer
  • Kel and Lishan arrived in the jungle village of Dewhill following rumors of raptors, and another adventuring party who had disappeared. They entered the dungeon, and were perplexed by a riddle on a bust which commanded them to 'speak the name of magic.'
  • They explored to the west and south, encountering a large, vicious chicken with teeth feeding on the carcass of a cow. A raptor! They tried to befriend it with rations even as it warned them away, and got ambushed by two more of them. They took serious damage, but managed to kill one, and drove the others away.
  • Following the raptors, they crossed a geyser-filled hallway, and located a secret chamber filled with empty chests and sacks, and a single sapphire ring. They were immediately suspicious, and cast Detect Magic, and noticed that it was in fact a magical item. However, on approach, a microraptor jumped onto the pedestal, snatched it, and ran down a spiral staircase.
  • They found the raptor lair, but they weren't alone. A wild-eyed bandit that the raptors seemed to obey, Maxim, offered his hospitality. He had kidnapped the village priest, stolen cattle and jewelry, and offered an alliance with the party to fence off his stolen goods in town, passing them off as dungeon loot, and splitting the profits.
  • Not confident they could take Maxim and his flock on, the party agreed. He showed them the loot, told them how much he expected it was worth, and escorted the party back to town. He released the priest, Bartleby, into their care, with the promise that the priest would not breathe a word of the truth to the townsfolk.
  • Bartleby told the party that Maxim was a were-raptor, makes the party promise to kill him, and gives them a silver dagger. The party rests for a week, during which they sell the loot and give Maxim his cut. They end up with the minority of it, but enough to hire some henchmen and get started. 
  • They returned to the dungeon, this time exploring to the east, discovering signs of another party's passing through, plus a binding ritual gone wrong, which they left alone. The body of a wizard wearing a full helm was discovered, with a massive bite mark in it and a bloody trail leading away. 
  • In a parlor, they found an iron cage with a pixie inside it. Maxim mentioned this one, and said the pixie had a pouch of fairy gold they could split. Instead, the party let the pixie go, with the promise he will return to them when the time is right to take down Maxim. 
  • A walled garden outside had several large amber blocks containing prehistoric creatures. The party followed the blood trail to a fogged-up greenhouse. They entered and found a number of very odd plants, plus a locked alchemy cabinet. The party was haunted by their own voices speaking out in the fog, and a giant toothy maw appearing from nowhere and almost biting their heads off. They ran like hell, and schemed how to destroy the greenhouse and the spirit within.

Party 2: Friday

Boroth, Human Fighter
Corby, Human Cleric
And their entourage of crossbowmen and a fighter
Taking place in an alternate universe of our Castle Xyntillan game
  • Boroth and Corby traveled to the southern jungles in search of Idred, who had been investigating an old wizard's abode there before disappearing. They left behind their halfling companion due to his hangover, and arrived with their own hirelings. They quickly deciphered the meaning of the riddle, with Corby yelling out Abracadabra! and opening the eastern door.
  • They checked the west, and their hireling said he saw a colorful chicken eating the carcass of a cow. The party decided it must be a cockatrice, and decided to avoid it for the moment. They explored to the east, finding Idred's signature in a guest book, and the failed demonic binding. With the book that contained the binding spell nearby, they fixed the ritual and forced the demon to manifest. They asked it where they might find Idred, and it gave cryptic answers before disappearing. 
  • They found his bloody corpse in the next room. 
  • They immediately followed the blood trail outside to the greenhouse, discovered a number of very odd plants, plus a locked alchemy cabinet. They were creeped out by hearing their own voices speaking out from the fog, and they sent their hirelings outside while they tried to speak with the presence. It attacked from the fog, and they fled. 
  • They put their heads together, and decided that the best approach was to smash the greenhouse to pieces and pull the cabinet outside so they could loot it. This worked quite well, and the fog spirit was forced to follow them outside, where it lost its invisibility. The fight was tough, and it chomped one of their arbalists in half, but it was soon slain, and the party collected valuable potions and reagents.
  • In the parlor, they found the pixie in the cage, and after some questioning, let it out. As part of their deal, it would return to them if they called.
  • They returned to the site of the supposed cockatrice, and found that it was instead three raptors, which they utterly crushed. They navigated the geysers beyond and were received by Maxim, who offered them his hospitality. Seeing that he was a bandit (and, they assumed, a wizard) who had kidnapped the priest, the party elected to kill him. They managed to surprise him and his raptors, and turned the tide of the battle with a Hold Person spell. From there, the raptors were swiftly destroyed, although one got away.
  • They restrained Maxim and released the priest, who informed them that Maxim was a were-raptor. They found a pagan lizard idol on his person, which Boroth removed, but was not taken in by the idol's magic. Corby, being a sixth level cleric, had the option of simply casting Remove Curse, and Maxim was reduced to a pathetic, ordinary bandit, begging not to be returned to town for judgement.
  • That was not the end of the adventure. Boroth and Corby explored the southern area, found a secret door hidden behind a sarcophagus, ran away from poison gas, and found the hidden tomb of the wizard Khorbus, although they elected not to break down the amber tombs without proper mining equipment. Then, they descended to the next floor.
  • In the second floor, they found a looted treasure room, incinerated a pack of undead circus monkeys, played peekaboo with a gargoyle, and met a squadron of lizardman soldiers who took them to meet their religious leader. My session plans effectively fell apart there, so the sessions concluded nicely.

Playtesting notes

The first room, containing a bust, a riddle, two doors and an ankylosaur skeleton, worked pretty well. It set up what needed to be set up. I'm surprised that neither party took a closer look at the skeleton, though.

The second room was less of a hit. It was also empty of traps or monsters, but had some flavor text which was meant to build tension and give a sense of the dungeon's history. A guest book contained names from seventy years ago, plus a recent signature from the last party to pass through. That part worked, but it also contained a bunch of glass spheres hanging from the ceiling with dead fireflies in them. It's an evocative image in a visual medium, but in narration it turns out to be a very fiddly concept. Gonna be changing that one.


The third room, which was a mimic fountain in the original draft, was the changed at the eleventh hour and became a failed demon binding. That was better, but when both parties searched the surroundings, I realized something was missing, so I added a book which gave more information on the nature of the binding. The second party took this in an interesting direction by completing the binding, which I hadn't even considered before. Good direction, going to clarify the room more, and probably going to put the book elsewhere in the dungeon.

The fourth room is, again, empty, but builds tension with the wizard's corpse and foreshadows the monster in the greenhouse. This room doesn't do much heavy lifting, but it also doesn't take up much space or time, so I'm keeping it.

The fifth room, with the pixie, the sunroof and the secret door, works pretty well. I'm going to rework the pixie encounter a bit to emphasize the fairy gold, in order to more effectively tempt parties.

The sixth room, a hidden fossil storage, was discovered by both parties in short order, which I like. The monster encounter here was hobbled by trying to make it into a reference, which none of the playtesters got, so I'm changing that one around.

The walled garden worked decently as a connector between many other rooms. However, there was one big issue. As soon as I described the amber blocks containing preserved prehistoric creatures, both parties immediately observed that, yes, sixty tons of amber ought to be worth a lot of money. As a GM, I cannot help but agree, and would be disappointed if my players did not notice this. However, as a module designer, I cannot help but scream that such a thing would utterly destroy the XP/gold progression of the dungeon. Even if my designer-self were to specifically include a note such that the blocks would be worth much less, or could not be removed or sold, my GM-self would recognize this as petty revisionism and would likely ignore that instruction at the table. Gonna change something here, don't know what.

The greenhouse worked very well. There was a change in tactics as soon as it hit the table, since the fogling was supposed to try to lure a PC or hireling away into the fog before beginning its attack, but in practice there's no way to do that. A few creepy exchanges with stolen voices works just fine, and has a great effect. Smashing up the greenhouse was also a solid tactic.

The cattle pen with the hidden raptors worked as expected, though I need to work on the order of my narration. That's staying.

The geyser-filled corridor is a neat idea, and it served as a solid obstacle, but I'm falling out of love with it. It may stay, it may go.

The velociraptor lair worked pretty well, no complaints. Need to work on my own narration.

The room filled with empty sacks and chests didn't work. I had an image in my head like an Indiana Jones movie, with the party approaching the ring on the pedestal, only for it to be stolen by a magpie dino. It just doesn't work in play. Also, why is there a whole room of looted stuff, except for one valuable item, in the open, not hidden, directly across from a bandit's hideout? Seriously past me, what the hell?

The room with the demon sarcophagus worked well, though I need to rework the trap to look more urgent. 

The fourteenth room wasn't entered by either party, and I think I might rework it along with room 12 into something more coherent with the rest of the dungeon.

At multiple times in the sessions, I said out loud, this is why we playtest. I've already reworked a goo amount, and this floor is the smallest section of the dungeon. I can scarcely imagine how much playtesting must go into big products like WOTC adventures. I'm suddenly a lot more understanding about logic errors in adventures.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

In Favor of Writing Boxed Text, But Not Publishing It

Hey, remember that dungeon I was writing on this blog? Well it hasn't been abandoned and left to rot like all my other long-term projects, no sirree. It's actually been under rather intense construction, and I'll be running the first playtest session later today.

I'll publish the updated (and much improved) version of the first floor of DEPRAVITIES OF THE DINOSORCERER later, once it's not a spoiler for my playtesters.

Meanwhile, I wanted to share a little insight I found while doing some last minute rewrites of the floor. 

Last night, I decided to break an OSR taboo and write boxed text for my adventure. A piece of text for each room to be read verbatim upon entering. However, you can expect it won't be in the published version of the product.

I wrote it for myself and myself alone, in my own style and cadence. It's for my own use during the playtest, to anticipate exactly what I would say when gametime came and writing it out ahead of time to reduce mental load. 

The great benefit of writing the boxed text has been in editing. This draft has gone through so many versions, with numerous changes to the content, that my eyes have begun to glaze over sections that haven't changed in a while. Going through and rendering the room text into narration exposes the weak points in the description, as well as which pieces of content jump out and which don't, which are evocative and which aren't, which ones Bryce would like and which he wouldn't (that is the only objective measure for dungeon quality).

So I encourage you: write boxed text, just don't publish it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Castle Xyntillan Session 25: The Henchman Strikes Back

In the last session, the party delved into Castle Xyntillan's interior gardens and improved their knowledge of the Castle's structure. Will they seek the Grayl? Will they all survive this next excursion? All this and more in this week's session of Castle Xyntillan!

The Party

Longo Lightfoot, Halfling Thief, wears a sky-blue headscarf. Played by CaptainSabatini.
Corby the Joyful, Human Cleric of Sucellus, wears a short, conical hat. Played by diregrizzlybear.
Idred the Most Omniscient, Human MU, wears a full-visored greathelm. Played by David Perry.
Boroth Swinney the Joyous, Human Fighter, wears a masked helm depicting a happy human face. Played by Justin Hamilton.
Francois, Light Footman, noticeably dogless. 
Hubert, Heavy Footman.
Gwynefa, Arbalist.
Emil, Lightbearer, strange obsession with some Malevols.
Karo, Arbalist.
Allan, Arbalist, claims to know a great secret, pursues a Malevol for past crimes.
Clovis, Heavy Footman.
Eric, Light Footman and cart driver.
Oscar, Arbalist of unusual strength
LaBeouf, Camp Cook.
Raymond, Mule.

Casualties
Hubert, crushed by the shambling mound's tendrils

Loot
Pile of silverware, 700gp
Metal wand, unidentified
Bedazzled snuffbox, 1300gp

The Game
  • The party turned their attention to the great corridor that spans the east-west axis of the castle... and which is haunted by a giant boulder that rolls up and down its length. They spend a good deal of time figuring out how to deal with it, such as by casting Web and stopping it. They ended up going with a different option.
  • Longo jumped in front of the oncoming boulder, magical hammer-and-sickle raised, and yelled 'THE POWER OF LABOR COMPELS YOU!'
  • The dice agreed with his chosen method, and a natural 20 on the turning roll sent the boulder rolling in the opposite direction.
Corby: Your attack was not very effective.
  • They follow the fleeing boulder east, where it sat, gently quivering, at the end of a rounded corridor. To the north, they spied a high-roofed room filled with varicolored bubbles, which they opted not to mess with.
  • While the boulder was still afraid of them, they traipsed to the west. The great double doors at the end were locked, but another route opened to the south. They entered a ruined hunting hall, filled with macabre trophies and inhabited by a herd of disfigured, moss-covered deer. They stuck to the walls, and the deer stalked them from a distance. The first door they tried was locked, and they were nearly backed into a corner, but they managed to escape the deer, even as Idred was nearly run over by the boulder again.
  • Nearby, they found a sitting room ruined by water damage. A rocking chair held the fungus-ridden corpse of a butler, which squicked the party out to no end. Longo crept across the room with a pole.
Idred: What are you poking?
Longo: The butler. 
  • They breathed a sigh of relief when poking the butler caused nothing more than a rocking of the chair. The nearby wardrobe collapsed when it was poked, revealing a coffin filled with silverware, which Longo sacked. Worried about the fungus, they elected to burn the room down with torch oil. It lit, but the wet wood filled the corridor with horrid smoke, and they fled.
Longo: You were not nearly this concerned last time I started a fire.
  • Their next discovery was by the steam bath, where they found another giant frog. Several bottles of perfume sat next to it, which they chose to leave alone.
Boroth: Do you have Speak With Animals?
Corby: No, Speak With Dead?
Boroth: We're going to have to get into a violent altercation with this frog.
Idred: Call it improved interrogation.
  • Their mapping indicated the existence of a secret area nearby, but before they could complete their search, Boroth's vampire-sense tingled. Maltricia, who had been partying with Serpentina in the Lake Tower, began moving back to the castle. The party redoubled their efforts, but failed to locate anything. 
  • In another room, they located what they believed to be another portal to the Indoornesse. A painting of an autumnal landscape had a pile of fall leaves in front of it. Outside, it was still early summer. Longo threw a stone, which passed through and became a part of the landscape. 
  • But the leaves concealed a surprise! A hulking humanoid mass of vegetation, a shambling mound, stood and attacked!
  • The party fought bravely, but it quickly proved to be a greater challenge than anticipated. Their weapons and Idred's Wand of Cold dealt reduced damage to the creature, but they soldiered on. In the end, they dropped the monster, but not before it seriously injured Corby and Boroth, and crushed Hubert, one of their longest-serving hirelings!
  • The morale of many of the hirelings was broken, and they pressed for a retreat from the castle. The party relented, but not before cleanign up the room and placing a statue back on a pedestal, which gave to Idred a strange metal wand!
Longo: Hooray for Zelda puzzles!
  • Only one thing remained before the party ended the expedition: Tristano Malevol. They cut back to the four-armed skeleton's tomb and arrayed themselves for battle. Longo and Boroth walked up and placed their hands on the lid, opening it.
  • Tristano leapt out, announcing that he had heard their approach, and demanded they all stand and fight. The party gladly complied. A wave of bolts and throwing spears descended on the skeleton, with one of the spears striking him through the eye socket.
Tristano: (pulling out the spear) Last time., it was me doing that to your sister, Karo! Ha ha!
  • Tristano's desire for a glorious battle was cut short when Longo and Corby moved away from him, and Idred unleashed his Web. Tristano ended up glued to his own mausoleum, pathetically begging for his unlife and apologizing for his offenses as the party took turns grinding him to dust.
  • As the party washed their hands of the matter and looted the body, a sound assaulted their senses. A scream, amplified by the very stones of the castle, from the east. Maltricia Malevol, vampire Countess of Xyntillan, was screaming in rage as she learned what the party had done.
  • The Groomsmen knew their cue to leave, and took it. Until they returned to town, they kept their sunstones handy, sleeping with them.
Epilogue
  • The journey to and from Xyntillan takes two days. On the return trip, it takes a day to get out of the Three-Rainbows River Valley and through the mountain pass, and another day of easier travel through idyllic farmland. The party had grown accustomed to the journey.
  • But they rarely ran into anyone else on the road. This time, as they exited the mountain pass, they saw a figure draped in a long cloak sitting by the side of the road.
  • They hailed this figure with weapons ready, which identified itself in a panic. It was Fernand Bonnel, proprietor of the Black Comedian Tavern, the party's own stomping ground. Between sobs, he told the party what had happened.
  • Rel had returned to Tours-en-Savoy with a squadron of orcs and the authority of the Count. He had declared the Groomsmen to be outlaws, and took over the Prefecture. His pet monsters broke into the Black Comedian and kidnapped Claude Malevol and Giacomo. Claude fought like a devil, but they were both dragged away in chains and tossed in the dungeon. The party's favorite shops had been turned over.
  • Town was no longer safe.
  • Their enemy had struck while they were away, had outplotted them. And the party began to plot themselves.
  • Newly declared criminals, with their allies scattered and one of their closest friends imprisoned, where will the party go? How can they bring the fight to Rel? Will they all survive the encounter? Find out in next week's session of Castle Xyntillan!
Takeaways

One of the great pleasures of Castle Xyntillan, descriebd by Kars in the comments here, is the fact that you really don't know what's going to happen next. The downside is that it's more difficult to effectively prep. I neglected to do more reading of the module, even as the party exhausted the sections of the dungeon I was most familiar with, and it shows in this session. I didn't know the rooms in this section well at all, and both atmospheric details and some content escaped me as I tried to read and narrate at the same time. The moss-deer, for example, were supposed to be hostile on sight. Oops.

It's also clear I gave the wrong impression in some places. In the water-ruined fungus-butler room, the party had a persistent impression that the floor might give out under their feet, even though there was solid ground underneath them. The decrepitude of the room was meant as an atmospheric detail, but it was perceived as a gameplay detail which the characters, with their in-world-knowledge, would have dismissed. Something to work on.

In reviewing my own GMing and reading some advice, I've noticed I use the words 'seem' and 'appear' as crutches. From here I'll be working to limit those uses, and try to replace them with better verbiage. I most commonly have problems with narrating when there isn't anything happening, and the party isn't seeing or hearing anything, but I'm conditioned away from saying 'you don't see anything.' Not sure how to fix this one.

The hammer-and-sickle with the ability to turn animated objects is one of the weirdest and most useful magical items the party has found, and they've made long use of it. Usually, animated objects have a listed HD, but the boulder didn't. Still, it would make sense for this to be an animate object, so I just gave it a large HD. Very lucky roll indeed, otherwise Longo would have been squished!

Monday, November 2, 2020

OSR: How Big Should Your Open World Be, and How Empty Your Dungeons?

I got introduced to RPGs through the Elder Scrolls series before moving to tabletop roleplaying. While I loved the latter-engine games, from Skyrim's icy tundras to Morrowind's blighted wastes, no game in the series is as big as Daggerfall. The exact size is up for debate, but the procedurally generated wilderness is comparable to the area of Great Britain. Some 4,000 dungeons, thousands more towns, temples and farmhouses, and you can visit them all through seamless horse travel! Do you know what this means?

It means that the game is effectively a pointcrawl.

Oh boy, I wonder what's behind those trees?
I know! MORE TREES!

While it's technically possible to travel all over the Iliac Bay on your horse (or, Divines forbid, on foot!) you'd certainly be bored to tears before getting anywhere. Realistic distances combined with 'realistic' travel speed means endless hours pressing the 'W' key.

That is why the intended way to play the game is to fast travel. Open your map, click on a destination, pay travel expenses and watch the days count down over a few seconds before you load in. Oh, and if you're sick then you die on the way. Sucks to be you. 

All that wilderness gets no interaction. Maybe you decide to try riding from one town to another for novelty one time, or you run away from the guards into the forest after you massacre the townsfolk and manage to get away, but then you just open your map and fast-travel to your next destination. In theory, you've got a truly massive open world dotted with adventure just waiting to be found. In practice, you've got a whole lot of distance between anything interesting which always gets skipped over. The wilderness could be a small area around each location plus a prompt to fast travel elsewhere, and you'd lose very little. It's just too big.

So if you're building an open world, how big should it really be?

I'm thinking of hexcrawls like Rick Stump's Seaward campaign, which contain a jaw-droppingly large number of hexes, many just terrain, but with hundreds of labeled locations built up over decades of play. That gives me some of the same feeling as Daggerfall's map, with the distinction that travel in such a hexcrawl has some meaningful choices without taking up much table time. 

These worlds are characterized both by the amount of content in them, and the empty space between that content. For tabletop games, the 'size' of a world amounts to those two factors. How much is there to do, and what resource costs are imposed for getting from one to another? Supplies, in-game time and table-time all count as resource costs, especially if the party is going hex-by-hex. If there are no costs associated with travel, then any sense of distance is a transparent fiction. All your encounters might as well be themed areas in an amusement park.

When the party travels hex-by-hex, choosing the next direction to travel in, rolling for random encounters and getting lost, you can really sell the sense of scale, and the sense of real exploration as well. Check out the Briar Woods session reports in the link above, which get across the grueling nature of exploration in a hostile environment, and how rewarding it can be to discover a secret or to map a whole region. But it also sells how much table-time is sacrificed to build that tension.

Oh Dear

Pointcrawls lose some of that, especially if you can only reliably travel to places you already know, but they really expedite the process at the table. Want to find the adventure? Here are the locations, pick one, pay the resource costs and roll for wanderers. Quicker, simpler, easier gratification. You don't get to feel much like rugged explorers mastering the world around you, but you get to the interesting content faster.

I recognize that some GMs, Stump included, would protest that the unpredictable events and the intense process of exploration that their games create are as much a part of the interesting content any prepped dungeon adventure or town intrigue. Most days, I even agree, and lean towards that sort of play myself. But if I had started the first session of my Castle Xyntillan campaign by making the players travel hex-by-hex and find the right fucking mountain pass in order to get to the massive dungeon filled with exotic treasures, ancient mysteries and extravagant NPCs, there probably wouldn't have been a second session.

Of course, this talk of open worlds and hex-vs-pointcrawls does miss the point that the same dynamic is present in the smaller scale. D&D and its descendants are fractal like that. Some of the same concern over space between content is present in how many empty rooms are in your dungeon.

'Empty' is, of course, a relative term. I'd like to think most GMs today know an empty room doesn't have to be literally bare. It can (and should) have some flavor text, some hints, some humor, even some treasure every now and then. It can still interact with the rest of the dungeon. Just like how an empty terrain hex can still have flavor text and provide a challenge, by getting the players lost, being a site for weather changes and wandering encounters, and providing context for the non-empty hexes nearby.

Given that virtually all my experience with tabletop RPGs has been in the OSR, I've had it quite firmly implanted in my mind that some number of empty rooms is good for a dungeon. I tend to go by Moldvay's 1/3 standard myself, though I know some people have way more. As a result, I do sometimes forget this isn't the default assumption. I recall the first (and so far only) 5e game I played, where a friend of mine was trying his hand GMing for the first time. In the process of making his very own dungeon, he didn't try to create a realistic space (or even a fully representational map) as much as a diagram showing the flow from one encounter location to another. The flow happened to be a straight line in this case, but the principle applies.

Encounter 1, Gate. Encounter 2, Spike Hallway. Encounter 3, Chocolate River, and so on, until the eleventh and final encounter, a big boss fight. 

There was variety, a mix of puzzles with combat encounters, and one point with two paths to choose from. But it was transparently a path from one setpiece encounter to another. No wanderers, no resources consumed from travel, no time records kept (as the specter of Gygax howls from the infinite space between worlds), and minimal interaction between encounter areas. To someone accustomed to the OSR way of things, this feels odd. But it fulfills the same goals as choosing a pointcrawl over a hexcrawl often does. It cuts empty space between the interesting stuff. Exploration is encounter-by-encounter, not room-by-room. If the GM has put some work into giving the space some verisimilitude, then empty spaces are glossed over in narration. If not, disbelief is suspended and you get right into the next encounter.

On the micro level, I have very strong preferences for empty rooms over the alternative, but on the macro-scale, I don't have nearly as strong a preference, and may even lean to the other side. I can't think of a principled reason for this, rather a parochial sense that dungeon design with empty rooms is The True and Right Way, while hexcrawls seem a bit outdated and harder to do for a novice GM. After all, filling out terrain hexes with the odd flavor text doesn't take any more effort than doing the same for a dungeon room.

It may be a matter of ratio between 'empty' and 'full.' Every couple months when I get swept up in the notion of making a big world to hexcrawl in, I run into a big conceptual wall which tells me I'm going to fill ten empty hexes for each one with real play content, whereas a dungeon will have more rooms with meaningful choices in them than not. 

Sarkomand's Fault, first played draft. Still too big.


Looking at DMiurgy's post on his Sarkomand's Fault hexcrawl, it looks like I wasn't the only one with that impression. He actually dug down and made a hexcrawl that big, and downsized later when it was plainly too much. My takeaways from that post are: 

1. You don't need that many encounters.

2. You don't need that much space between them either.

Even the heavily edited version of that map had more unkeyed than keyed hexes, although those unkeyed hexes were often the site of improvised encounters. I haven't exactly done an exhaustive search of the genre, but I haven't found a hexcrawl with more than half the hexes keyed. In contrast, I don't know of many dungeons where more than a third of the rooms are unkeyed or 'empty'.

Is there a particular reason for this difference of the micro and macro scale, when the cost of stocking rooms and hexes seems similar? I don't know. I leave that to your comments below.

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Saturday, October 31, 2020

OSR Monster: The Stygous Bird

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling, 
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore, 
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven, 
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore— 
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!” 

- The Raven, Edgar Allen Poe The Stygous Bird

The Stygous Bird

On the far shore of the River Styx, spirits pick at the refuse that washes up at their feet. Forgotten thingschurn out from the waters, and on rare occasion, so do lost souls. The unheroic and mean souls cast into the Styx, which cannot bear the grinding tumult and lose themselves entirely. They wash up on the far shore of the Styx like a worn pebble on a foreign beach. Their human form is diminished to that of a pitiful long-beaked bird, most like a plucked chicken with the stature of a man. Without fur nor fat to ward away the gnawing cold of the underworld, these desperate remnants of people cluster and shiver together. They appear in threes, never more.

These Stygous Birds can be called back across the borders of the underworld, being beneath the notice of the infernal bureaucracy. They can be bound with a blood offering. A long cloak and a basket of raven feathers for warmth buys their service on this side of the veil. These servitors are guardians of abandoned treasures, and hunt down intruders in many a catacomb.

Their bodies are oily feathers over a wire-thin body, and a spear-sharp beak jutting out from between dead black eyes. From far away, they might be confused for a trio plague doctors. You will never see one from far away. They are ambush predators, laying deathly still in the perfect dark, without moving or sounding, until they launch themselves upon their prey with terrific speed. If one is incautious, their long beaks may pierce straight through one's ribs and pluck out the heart. 


Stygous Birds are original to Gabor Lux's Castle Xyntillan, and you can find their statblock there.