Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Megadungeon Project for 2014

One of the things I've been missing on the blog is a regular reason to post content - I haven't been purchasing as much 3rd party stuff for review, and the Black City posts are mostly game reports.  Regarding the Black City, I am making consistent progress on turning notes into a written manuscript, and I also got a new computer tower over the holidays.  I'm putting some energy into updating mapping software and turning my pencil and graph maps into something electronic.  In the meantime, I'm looking at changing things up for next year to give the Lich House some more focus.

The Junkyard, the name I use for my parking lot of half-baked ideas, is littered with various mega dungeon concepts in sundry stages of development.  For 2014, why not dig one out of the Junkyard, and make it a weekly, public project for posting on the blog?  The structure would do me some good.  I remember fondly when The Society of Pole, Torch and Rope was a thing and Amityville Mike posted the first cut of Stonehell through updates every week or so.

To this end, I'm going to get some feedback from my players, and ask any dear readers to take a moment and drop a comment or vote on the new poll.  Here are the contenders for the 2014 blog project:

Harrow Home Manor
Regular readers have probably seen the name Harrow Home Manor - there's at least a dozen Harrow Home related posts out there.  Harrow Home is a gothic horror themed dungeon beneath the Yorkshire Moors.  Sorcerers and wizards escaping persecution have gathered in the halls beneath Harrow Home to pursue their arcane research far from prying eyes.  An ancient cyst of unknown properties rests in the depths of Harrow Home, daring investigation and madness.

Death Mountain
There is a tortuous entrance to the Greek underworld and the realms of the death god Hades through Death Mountain.  As god of death and wealth, Hades' dungeons of Death Mountain are filled with deadly traps and unimaginable wealth.  Whereas most of my themes involve low magic and a subdued degree of fantasy, a setting like Death Mountain presupposes active gods, powerful magical effects, and a degree of heroic fantasy.  All of the legendary monsters of Greek myth could have a place here.

Vaults of Xibalba
I spent a phase last year reading a ton about colonial history, the Caribbean, and the age of piracy, but my general discomfort with pure hex crawl and wilderness campaigns kept me from going any further.  The Vaults of Xibalba is an attempt to bridge the gap, by placing a large Mayan-style ruin on a mysterious island off the Yucatan coast.  A chasm rift across the ruins is the mythic road to Xibalba, the fairy otherworld and realms of the dead from Mesoamerican folklore.  We always see dungeon style adventures with Tolkienesque elves and halflings and wizards, how about pirates, buccaneers, voodoo priests and bokors?  The Lords of Xibalba are powerful extra dimensional prisoners in the ruins, and the dungeons beneath the ruins hold both ancient prisons and gateways to the realm of Xibalba.
I'd be intrigued to develop any of these dungeons on the blog - so let's hear what grabs your fancy.  Harrow Home and Xibalba would be low magic, using LOTFP style rules and early modern technology - guns and rapiers.  Death Mountain supports a much different flavor of magic (lightning bolts and fireballs, woot) and would probably work best with Labyrinth Lord or ACKS as the default rules.  Harrow Home is heavily influenced by the horror tradition, Xibalba touches on my love for ancient astronaut theories and weird science, and Death Mountain would be an homage to Ray Harryhausen movies and has "the gods" (who could just end up as horror inducing extraterrestrials if I don’t carefully curate the themes).  They're all pretty interesting!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Black City Game 29 - Rub a Dub Dub Two Elves and a Tub

We missed a few weeks of gaming (for reasons) but got the group together last week for one more game before the holidays.  Now I'm hoping for another quorum this weekend, last game of 2013.

When last we were here for a recap, the party had been exploring the sprawling caverns beneath the Black City.  They had performed multiple forays into a free standing building they were calling "the Dome" - a 200' oval structure sitting in the middle of a fungal forest.  Each time they left the dome and returned, a new detachment of plastic-man guardians, alien-like humanoids I call "plasticals", were back on guard duty within the entrance.  We ended the previous game session after the party had breached the Dome's entrance once again and defeated the new set of guards.  This week's session resumed exploration from that point.

East of the entrance chamber was a round tunnel ending in a locked blue door.  The Black City uses a color-coded locking system for many of the powered doors, and the party no longer owns a blue gemstone pass key.  That was a dead end.

To the north of the entrance was a room lit by flickering electricity coursing through a crystalline structure.  The knotted, ropy pillar of clear crystal extended from beneath the floor up through the ceiling of the dome, and the lightning flashed into it from below at irregular intervals.  The crystal column was 10-15' diameter.

A 3' long spider, made of glass, scuttled down the pillar from outside the dome, coming to rest down near the roots of the pillar.  It formed a ball and then merged with the crystal.  All the thousand nodules and lumps that made up the giant crystal column were all glass spiders, detaching and reabsorbing into the mass of crystal.  The players treaded very lightly around that particular room hoping to avoid attention!

One of the doors out of the glass spider room led to the pool caverns near the lair of the Crabstrosity, the villain of last week's game.  The party displayed no interest in exploring anything near the Crabstrosity.

When the opposite door out of the crystal room was opened, the front rank was hit by a wave of oppressive heat.  Beyond was a large dim room, hot like a sauna, and filled with a few heavily shielded tubs and a moveable section of floor.  Some stationary figures near the walls jerked alive and stumbled towards the party, moving ponderously in bulky, oversized armor - heat and radiation shielding.  This was an interesting fight because the armored aliens were tough to hit, and as the fight turned into an attrition battle, the party had to deal with fatigue due to the heat, making it even harder to hit the aliens due to exertion.  They prevailed due to their numbers, but I liked this angle of attack (high armor class creating an attrition battle, and the extreme heat punishing the party for an extended battle).

They ended up guzzling a lot of water rations to rehydrate, and discovered sealed tubs and a capstan-like winch for retracting the floor.   While everyone else retreated outside of the room, the two elves got suited up in the alien heat-shielded armor (the aliens are elf-sized) and the elves began tinkering.  Over the course of a bit of pulling and prodding, they discovered a lead-shielded bin of crystals, glowing white hot and casting off incandescent heat; the winch opened the floor to what a played called "a nuclear reactor" and lowered a heavy duty basket on a chain out of the ceiling - I guess someone could take a ride down into the nuclear reactor.  There were also some blank, non-charged crystals (which they looted).  The elves ended up leaving all the "hot" stuff, ditching the radiation suits, and joining the rest of the party out in the cooler air of the spider column room.

I like big boss style monsters.  In the north of the Dome was a room with these amazing, orb-like balls stuck to the walls in a gooey matrix.  They looked valuable - very valuable.  Hunlaf the Saxon went to work chiseling one off the wall, but the giant crystalline spider queen lurking up near the ceiling swung down overhead and started stabbing at his bodyguards with bladed forelegs.  The same bluish electricity that sparked through the spider column pulsed through the queen, and this monster was able to project it into an electrical field.  Guys were getting fried just by attacking the  giant hanging terror.

Mustafa, their most impervious fighter, took the monster head on and got bitten, stabbed, and paralyzed by spider venom.  Most of the smart people started retreating at that point, and plinked it with arrows (or magic missiles, if applicable).   A few of the tough guys stayed below, jabbing up with spears or otherwise trying to smack it from the ground, like a gigantic piñata.  It was pretty tense, because multiple people were close to dying from the electric field damage, but then they killed it and had to worry about a gigantic alien spider dislodging from the ceiling and crashing down on them.

In the end, the only death was one of the lower level retainers, who died underneath the crushing weight of the spider when it fell out of its perch.

The party rolled the giant spider off of the survivors, dragged the paralyzed Mustafa out from under, and Hunlaf finished looting the amazing grapefruit sized orbs from the walls of the room.  They looked to be worth about 1,000sp each, and they ended up finding nearly a dozen of the spheres - quite a pay day.

The trip out of the dome was harrowing, as a number of smaller glass spiders detached from the central column and chased them out of the structure, circling back to pour out of the hole at the top of the dome and come down across the roof towards the party from outside.  They made a stand near the dome entrance, and one of the wizards used a Phantasmal Force of a dragon to scare most of the glass spiders to death.  Badly injured and out of magic, the party didn't relish a journey through the fungal forest, with its teeming swarms of carnivorous giant insects.  They went back into the dome to find a sealed room they could use for short term rest.

Someone remembered Odin, the alien supercomputer that acts as their patron, had given them a bunch of Odin memory crystals that would allow the Asgardian deity to seize control of new sections of the undercity.  The elves started looking around the entrance chamber for one of the telltale compartments that housed a memory crystal.  Success!  They replaced the original crystal with Odin's, and a glowing hologram of the All-Father began to materialize in front of them, laughing maniacally as his power grew and grew along with his expanding computing power (in game terms, he gets more psionics as the players add more of the city to his collective).

Odin assured the players he'd be able to override and lock the doors, ensuring no patrols or detachments would intrude on them while they rested.  It was just a little hard to sleep underneath the glow of the power-mad hologram chortling with glee.

I had a Christmas themed Black City event all lined up, something I'm calling "The Fractious Night".  Alas, last weekend's game went too long and we didn't get to experience the Fractious Night last week.  But it's still a holiday week and there's time before New Year's eve for us to finish out 2013 with a blast.  As we ended last session, Odin stopped scanning the banks of data in the alien work stations and tilted his head as if listening to a far off voice.  "All grows still and silent in the fungal forests of the sprawling caverns outside.  A great evil stirs.  The Fractious Night approaches".

Monday, December 16, 2013

Living Statues are not Golems

It always seemed curious to me that AD&D had the classic Golems - Clay, Flesh, Stone and Iron - whereas the Basic D&D book had lower level creatures called "Living Statues" - Crystal, Iron, and Rock.  I always viewed it as  part of an "AD&D just gets better stuff" syndrome.  However, in the Expert rule book, classic D&D would add variants of the Golem, such as the Wood, Bronze, Bone, and Amber Golems.  Strange that the archetypal Clay Golem or Frankenstein-like Flesh Golem never made it to classic D&D!

However, there are a few key differences between the Living Statues and Golems that make the oversight more nuanced and more interesting - the overlap between the monster types is incomplete.  Regarding Golems:  they have a morale 12, meaning they never check morale, and are unaffected by Sleep, Charm, and Hold spells.  They're also immune to non-magic weapons.  They're firmly in the realm of powerful magic constructs, true automatons - mindless and dedicated to relentlessly following the creator's orders, heedless of personal danger.

The Living Statues have a morale rating of 11.  There's a slim chance that a statue chooses to disengage from combat or retreat - the self preservation instinct implies awareness and a degree of consciousness.  Living Statues are unaffected by Sleep, but they are affected by mind control - Charm and Hold spells work against them - more evidence that a guiding consciousness is present within the construct, differentiating them from their more powerful cousins.

For my campaigns, Living Statues are constructs like Golems, but achievable at lower cost - represented by the weaker combat statistics and fewer magical immunities.  The short cut to creating a Living Statue is imbuing the creation with a degree of will.  Independent thought makes the Living Statues less reliable as guards and servants -they're capable of interpreting commands loosely or abandoning their posts in the interests of self preservation.  The idea of a powerful wizard with a bunch of unreliable stone flunkies is kind of funny.  I suppose that's why Living Statues end up collecting dust in the odd corners of low level dungeons - they have a tendency to forget their mandates or get abandoned for more effective servitors by the high level wizards.  For a pulp fantasy setting, the Living Statue is imbued with the soul of a sentient being or a summoned outsider during creation, allowing some unusual story possibilities.

It does make me wonder if such a theme appeared somewhere in the classic pulps of the early 20th century.  Living Statues seem to be a Tom Moldvay creation; I don’t remember seeing them in Holmes (and please chime in if they went back to OD&D).  Moldvay's bestiary is rife with pulp action monsters, and his power trio of classic D&D adventures - The Isle of Dread, The Lost City, and Castle Amber - borrow ideas heavily from 1930's era weird tales.  They are practically homages to Robert E Howard and Clark Ashton Smith.  (If you're new to the hobby and enjoy weird tales, I highly recommend those adventures).  I have to wonder if the Living Statues are a throwback to the weird tales era that I'm overlooking.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Pirates, Assassin's Creed 4 ,and the RPG Sandbox

Sandbox games are fun.  I've really been enjoying logging onto the Xbox after the kids are asleep for the night, slipping into the world of 18th century pirates, and figuring out what I want to loot or explore that particular evening.  It's given me a lot of ideas that translate equally well into the tabletop RPG realm.

Without further ado, here's  an overview of Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag (hereafter referred to as AC4).

I had mostly resisted the clarion call of Skyrim, and religiously avoid the FPS games (first-person shooters like Halo and whatnot).  But when I saw that the latest Assassin's Creed game involved pirates, I was intrigued.  When I saw that the game included a giant pirate sandbox where you can sail around a faux Caribbean and listen to sea shanties while hunting ships, I was totally onboard.  This is probably the first video game I've played "seriously" in 12-13 years.

If you're not familiar with the series, you take on the role of a character that gets pulled into a shadowy , ages old conflict between "templars" and "assassins".  The templars seem to be an Illuminati-like conspiracy intent on finding ancient artifacts and ruling the world.  In AC4, the templars are among the colonial governors - men running institutions of power.  The assassins, with their credo of freedom ("nothing is true, everything is permitted") come across like murderous libertarians.  During the game, you sneakg around jungles and towns, hiding, climbing, using exotic weapons like blowguns, and sticking knives in the bad guys.  It's definitely on the violent side.

AC4 starts in 1715 and puts you right into the golden age of piracy.  All of the iconic figures of the time period - Ed Thatch, Charles Vane, Stede Bonnet, Woodes Rogers, Calico Jack, Benjamin Hornigold - they're all weaved into the storyline.  Fun stuff if you're a fan of the period.  There is a mission-based main storyline, where you travel from place to place, initiating each mission with a cut scene that advances an overarching plot.  That seems to be typical video game RPG fare.  The difference here is that the designers have surrounded the main story with a sprawling Caribbean sandbox - and you can take as much time as you like rampaging around the Caribbean until you like it's time to tackle the next chapter of the main story.

So what can you do in this sprawling, pirate sandbox?  You have a ship and a crew, and some personal armaments.  You can sail and find places to explore.  There are islands everywhere and Mayan ruins on most of the large ones - the map even extends to the Yucatan, allowing you to explore Tulum.  There are shipwrecks and undersea locations to explore (but inaccessible until you get a diving bell).  There are a handful of large settlements - Havana, Kingston Jamaica, and Nassau are the biggest - and lots of smaller towns, villages, smuggler dens, and pirate coves along the way.

Here are the various side tasks I've found myself planning and executing; exploring and clearing islands and ruins; diving the wrecks looking for "ship upgrade plans";  looking for cadavers, which carry treasure maps, to find locations that have buried treasure; hunting animals for craft goods, or harpooning sea animals for craft goods - you can hunt for rare black jaguars, or try to harpoon a great white shark; many of the settlements have guarded warehouses to plunder; there are assassination contracts and naval contracts for specific roguish missions; of course, there is sailing around and using the spyglass to look for ships on the horizon!

Naval combat is furious - you have chain shot, swivel guns, fire barrels, and different kinds of broadsides.  Ships can even use mortars, and rams - the game doesn't strive for realism.  The Caribbean map is concentrated, time elapses quickly while sailing, and there aren't merchant ships; the nationalities are basically Spanish and English war ships (carrying various trade goods or money), and other pirates.  This is no simulation.

Once an enemy ship is disabled in combat, your ship can grapple and board, making you swing over on lines and accomplish a number of tasks on the other ship to break morale - defeat a certain number of crew, defeat the captain or officers, sometimes climb the rigging and cut down the flag.  Hand to hand let's you block and parry with cutlasses and rapiers, and mix pistols and sword fighting fairly fluidly.  It's all fun, swashbuckling pirate kind of things.  At higher levels, raking the deck with the swivel gun is usually enough to quell the smaller ships without boarding.  There's a natural progression of difficulty, from gunboats and smaller schooners, up to military schooners, brigs, frigates, and finally man-o-war ships in the far south of the map.  It's set up very much like a tabletop RPG sandbox, where things get more dangerous the farther you go, forcing you to spend money on ship upgrades, and seek out the right kinds of cargoes and ship plans.  Many areas are controlled by forts, which need to be toppled to open the area up for exploration.  Finally, there's a whole campaign side-game where you can send captured ships to your own fleet, and undertake a world-wide network of missions versus the colonial powers by sending your fleet on missions around the colonies, Europe, and Africa.

So what are the kind of takeaways for your tabletop game?  The biggest one I'm experiencing is the affirmation of the "rogues in the sandbox" concept, which is that miscreants and scoundrels on the hunt for money find themselves in a target rich environment and get to be proactive.  In the case of the pirate sandbox, that means skulking around a British town like Kingston, plundering British warehouses, preying on British shipping (or Spanish) - all great fun when you're a pirate.  It lets you plan your targets and figure out how to take down a big haul.  Even failure is pretty thrilling, such as trying to escape a military compound after the alarm is sounded, or unfurling the sails and catching the wind because you couldn't take down a ship quick enough, and now a large man-o-war is bearing down on you.

We usually think of wilderness hex crawls as borderlands or the wilds, with exploration as the primary mode.  Getting a taste of the pirate life is making me see the possibilities in having a civilized (but enemy) sandbox, putting the players in that target rich environment.  If the sandbox describes a realm controlled by an evil power, the players get thrust into the role of insurgents or partisans - very much a Robin Hood style of game.  A similar approach could involve two warring powers with a tenuous border, giving the players the opportunity to sneak across the border, raid various wealthy targets, and whittle away the opposing side's territory by knocking out forts and outposts as a group of "irregulars".

I've mostly avoided sprawling, wilderness hex crawls because they've always seemed on the dull side to me, just a collection of lairs and random encounters.  Boxing with shadows.  Giving the players an actual adversary in the wilderness sandbox - whether it be a colonial power or an occupying force - is a way to let them don that roguish mantle, without running an 'evil-aligned' tabletop game - and they can trade blows with an adversary that's going to punch back once in a while.

Edit:  Rogues in the Sandbox:  I reflected on the way to work, there's no way to tell whether folks still reading the blog are old timers or newer additions.  Rogues in the sandbox is an old theory article written by Pornstar Zak a few years ago, breaking down how super heroes are reactive (waiting around for the villains to do something) whereas villains are proactive - and then he goes on to discuss how villains make such better characters in a sandbox game.  It's a fantastic read, very insightful, and encapsulates well the allure of being a pirate along the colonial frontier.  I assumed folks would know the reference, but then figured it'd be safe to include link nonetheless.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Maximizing the Table Top Experience

I mentioned the other day, I've been spending some time with an Xbox controller in my hand, immersed in the wondrous vistas of various 18th century Caribbean cities.  I've been reflecting on the strengths of the video game medium.  As a consumer of information, you get to bask in the work product of a gigantic team of artists and creative folks - the visuals of modern video games are spectacular.  Computers are obviously good at math - complicated simulations run smoothly in computer based games.  The biggest limitation with the computer based approach to RPG and adventure games are the fixed, plotted story lines, and limitations on the amount of environmental interaction built into the game world.

When I flip the situation around to identify the strengths of the tabletop, don't the limitations of computer gaming point out the types of things you want to maximize on the tabletop?  As a sole creator building your setting as a hobby, you're never going to compete with the macro scale and visual scope of a modern video game built by an extended team of designers.  (I suppose those dedicated few that run the same campaign setting for decades accrete a similar amount of work product over the long haul).  But there are lots of things you can flat out do better on the table top, so let's build around those elements.

If video games present fixed story lines, then our approach needs to be sandbox based and variable.  Extreme sandbox gaming.  The table top setting is elaborated through progressive sessions and offers the players an extreme degree of agency to pick and choose how they want to engage in adventures.  The tabletop game uses a Socratic question-and-answer approach - the players ask questions, the referee's answers reveal the details about the world, but the direction of the questioning (as controlled by the players) determines the focus - and that focus can change from week to week.  Once a video game is shrink wrapped and shipped, the form is fairly set.  In the table top setting, If the tabletop players decide that they'd like to buy a ship and sail off to an island in the game world, it doesn't matter if nautical adventures weren't part of the plan; the table top referee can shift the game's focus to the island in upcoming games.

It should also be pointed out how diverse is each home game .  Just look around the blogs and you see how many different unique settings have been created.

Computers are good at executing complicated algorithms, but not at discussion and negotiation.  Rules lite game systems foster the type of "try anything" approach that requires creating rulings on the fly, whereas a computer game is only going to execute standing rules.  I realize this particular premise is a bit self serving, as it's no secret I favor rules lite game systems.  The approach is collaborative and player-facing despite requiring some arbitration by the referee.  (Player-facing rulings is a topic I've discussed before in a bit more depth:  skill checks in a rules lite system.)

Another advantage to rules-lite table top gaming is avoidance of a system mastery requirement.  Video games have simple controls and a tendency towards effective built-in tutorials to get a player up to speed quickly - the more complicated the RPG becomes either in character creation or mechanics, the more you have to ask - couldn't a computer do this better?

I'm also seeing that it's important to present the players with challenges that emphasize troupe play - group problem solving, planning, and challenges.   The ability to debate different approaches to a difficult problem, to plan and evaluate alternatives, those things are the core of the table top experience.  All of my favorite table top moments and memories are bound in situations where the game has presented a unique challenge to the players and they've had to go 'into the tank' to figure out a solution or approach.  Going forward, I'll try to be more conscious about ensuring threats operate along multiple axes and require planning and circumspection.

If I had to reduce these ideas down to operating principles, they'd go something like this:

  • Develop extreme sandboxes that maximize player freedom of action
  • Maintain a rules-lite approach that prioritizes discussion over rules
  • Create multidimensional problems that challenge the player's skill and planning as a team
  • The game evolves out of the intersection of player and referee interest