Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Managing Sandbox Scope

The ongoing campaign is a product, governed by the same rules that constrain any kind of product development - time, scope, and resources.  And these constraints translate into sandbox terms through the freedom, size, and level of detail you're putting into the sandbox.  We know this subconsciously; the dungeon is a popular adventure locale precisely because it constrains freedom and size, making it easy to develop.

My wife and kids are even familiar with the term sandbox; they both have characters in the Skyrim game, which they tell me is an "epic sized sandbox", and are frequently encouraging me to give it a try and pick up some ideas from it.  (I'm usually too busy for video games, but it sure looks impressive).  The wise Google tells me that Skyrim was developed by a team of 100 developers over a couple of years of development.  How does a home DM compete with a project with those kinds of resources behind it?

You can't break the law of physics.  If it takes 10 minutes for you to write an encounter, and you want to make 6 of them, it's going to take an hour of game prep.  But there are some simple techniques we can use to make sure you're focusing your energy on the right 6 encounters for the next game session.  Sandbox gaming doesn't have to overwhelm the DM; here are three simple techniques to get the game started right and keep it going once launched.

Kick it Off with an Adventure
Choice requires options, which in return requires information.  Nothing drags on a game session like a gigantic information dump, and you don't want to start your new campaign putting the players to sleep.  Introduce the campaign with a simple adventure and let them learn about the larger campaign world later, through play.  They'll thank you later.

I have no problem starting off a new campaign with the player characters outside the gates of the ruined manor outside of town, possessing their starting gear and some rumors about a lost treasure.  There will be plenty of time for them to learn about all the other places and things to do later on.

Why it works:  "Show don't tell" and starting with some early action are tried and true narrative techniques from other media that work fine in the RPG context, too.  Restricting the first game to a single plot hook or adventure site puts a cap on how much prep you need to do up front and launches the game right into an adventure.

What's Next Week
A good sandbox practice is to reserve time at the end of each game session to ask the players what they'll do next week.  Based on the current night's activities, the players already have an idea what they want to do next… continue exploring the dungeon, go to the city and find a Remove Curse, follow the treasure map into the mountains.

Why it works:  The sandbox structure gives the players a ton of freedom to make their own plans; this can be daunting to prepare in a vacuum.  By giving you some advance notice on next week's plans, you can focus your weekly efforts, and keep preparation to a reasonable window.  (IT geek side note:  For all you project managers and Scrum folks out there - this is basically weekly sprint planning for your campaign.  Your players are the product owners reprioritizing the backlog as input to your sprint.)

Leverage the Tools
Plans change, and while the players indicated last week they were going to explore the dungeon, running into that petrification monster early on in tonight's session changed their priorities; now they're off to the city, mid-session, to seek a cure.  EEK!

Smarter folks than me have written primers on building fantasy sandboxes with just enough of a skeleton structure to support improvisation if things go in an unexpected direction.  I like the simple "tagging" approach used in the Sine Nomine books, Red Tide or Stars Without Number, coupled with a hex map and lay of the land.  ACKS has a whole chapter on campaign creation as well.  The approaches are not mutually exclusive.

However, that sandbox skeleton needs to be supplemented with some tables - wandering encounters, for instance, to help create game content on the fly.

Why it works:  Tables are a direct, experiential way to define your setting - you're building the details of your setting while creating your own tools at the same time.  Tables can cover wide geographic areas and maximize setting scope with the least effort.  They're the ultimate tool.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Megadungeon and the Horror

After a busy week that limited my writing, I'm ready to revisit the topic of mixing the megadungeon with horror.  Last time I talked about it, I was pointing out how the current megadungeon, the Black City, has evolved into more of a zoo than I had hoped (Help, My Megadungeon is a Zoo) - now I'm ready to turn to the question whether mixing the megadungeon structure and a strong horror theme is even viable.

Let's take as given that the megadungeon is a good structure for a campaign.  There are plenty of folks that have tried to run one, unsuccessfully, and written off the structure as dull and unviable.  That hasn't been our experience; however, the defense of the megadungeon format is a different post.  I've got other problems to tackle here.  The megadungeon is a good way to manage the Sandbox Triangle.  The triangle comes from the non-gaming disciplines of project management and product development; if you increase the features of something, like software, either the time gets extended or you have to throw more resources on the project.  Newsflash:  your campaign is also a product.  Furthermore, in sandbox terms, the creator is always balancing the freedom the players have, with the size of the sandbox, and the level of detail - particularly during inception.  The dungeon, any dungeon, is a constrained structure that limits freedom logically, allowing the DM to generate greater depth of detail or a broader scope for the same time effort.

There is an appropriate discussion to be had about the merits of a gigantic dungeon with minimalist descriptions, versus the small dungeon with baroque detail.  Both emphasize different corners of the triangle.  We'll come back to that point.

So now I turn my attention to two exercises - listing the characteristics of a good megadungeon, listing the characteristics of good horror scenarios, and then taking a look and see where there are and are not synergies between the two.

The characteristics of a megadungeon:  many large levels, highways in and out to various levels, themed levels and sub levels, interesting set piece locations, multidimensional challenges (including puzzles, tricks, traps, and combat challenges), lots of empty space for exploration, deeper levels = deeper danger, resource management, factions and NPCs and varied threats, and a steady flow of information to the players that allows planning and strategy - typically through patrons, rumors, and treasure maps.  Megadungeons as written products are frequently sparsely described, to support more scope and larger levels.

Horror scenarios usually involve some kind of twist or trick to bring home the horror - I listed a bunch of them a while ago, here:  Horror in D&D.  Everyone has their favorite techniques, and I always learn something when folks share.  Horror scenarios usually have a strong contrast between the mundane world and the nmonsters; monsters are rare, dangerous, terrifying, and unknown.  Horror requires atmosphere, a build up of tension, a reveal.  NPCs antagonists verge on the gothic or grotesque.  There are a wide range of effects you can achieve, creating stress, tension, uneasiness, the creeps, shock, mounting dread, sometimes even scaring the players themselves.  Horror scenarios are baroquely described, to support the depth of atmosphere and detail; the locales are frequently small or limited.

So how do the demands of the two structures match up?  One of the largest issues I see is the difference in scale and detail - the sparseness of description in a large megadungeon vs the baroque detail of a small horror site.  Next is the need for a varied set of threats in the megadungeon, versus the rarity and danger and uncanny monsters in a horror scenario.  Then there's the paradigm of dungeon level = danger level, and GP = XP.  This implies balance and the ability to plan risk vs reward, which frequently has no place in horror.  Finally, in most horror games, the player characters have a hero-complex and are motivated by philanthropic goals or save-the-world morality; D&D characters are free to be heroic, but the game doesn't dictate it, and actually rewards a bit of callous treasure grabbing.

I have some ideas on how to reconcile some of these problems.  The megadungeon could still be large and sparse, for instance, reserving the horror bits for detailed and intricate set-pieces scattered throughout.  The unique and terrifying monsters can be reserved for the same set pieces.

Avoiding the megadungeon zoo and the banality of monsters in the rest of the encounters is a major problem.  I could take a cue from the Black City and make many of the opponents mundane threats like other explorers.  I'm not sure that could carry a large megadungeon on its own.  But I feel like the answer is in this direction - use lots of human opponents, of many different stripes, and perhaps even use recurring monsters that fit the theme and become mundane over time, to fill the role of combat threats.  The monsters in the set pieces are there to bring the weird and the horror and the atmosphere.

I did broach the question of Call of Cthulhu versus D&D style play some months ago (LOTFP vs Call of Cthulhu), and I'm quite confident a D&D style exploration game with the GP = XP paradigm works better for a sandbox than COC's heroic style, which compels characters to follow a plotted path.  I tried a COC sandbox a year back and it left me cold.

My fixation with the megadungeon structure is why I keep coming back to it over other project ideas, like that Spanish Main sandbox or the Colonial hex crawl.  An easier horror campaign could certainly be built by creating an early modern sandbox area and populating it with smaller locales made by converting Call of Cthulhu adventures to a D&D format, or using them for inspiration to make something period-appropriate.  After 30 years of short Call of Cthulhu adventures in my collection, there are tons and tons of haunted sites, sleeping monsters, nefarious wizards and cults that could fill out even a large sandbox.  That option is always available, if I end up dissatisfied with the horror themed megadungeon inquiry.

I think when I return next, it will be looking at a few of my Junkyard megadungeon ideas, like Harror Home Manor or the Benighted City of Lichtstadt, and seeing how they'd fare against the challenges I've presented here.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Gatecrashing the Magics

This has been a poor week for blogging - I lost a key person on a critical project, I'm scrambling to replace them, and the boiler at the house died.  A few rough days and late nights at the office  = no energy for interesting RPG posts.  But it's almost the weekend!

On the other hand, the boy and I have been playing a bunch of Gatecrash sealed duels, time permitting. (Gatecrash is the latest Magic: the Gathering set).  We got a booster box and have been slowly cracking it, 6 packs at a time, building sealed decks, and using the same pool of cards for about a week or so by just tearing the decks apart and rebuilding them with different color combinations (or Guilds, if you follow MTG).  I figure it's a good way for us to learn the card pool and get comfortable with limited, before the kiddo tries his first draft.

Apologies for the jargon - I played a lot of Magic "back in the day", like back during Ice Age (an early Magic expansion) and it’s weird but fun the game is still going so strong with totally different generations of kids some 15 years after I moved on to other things.  The kiddo had picked up a few "event decks" with his own money after learning how to play via the iPad game; next thing you know, we had a handful of event decks, and it was only a matter of time before we were tearing into some boosters and conspiring to play a draft at Gencon.  (Event decks are 60 card preconstructed decks, with 15 card sideboards, ready for a play).  The goal is Gencon and slowly building a collection - if we play mostly sealed and draft between now and Gencon, we'll accrete enough good cards to make some nice constructed decks by the fall.  Since any packs we buy just go towards playing sealed at home, we're getting a lot of use out of the cards on their way into the long box.

The current sets are all themed after the world of Ravnica, with a gigantic metropolis and 10 competing fantasy guilds.  If only the boy had caught the Magic-bug a year earlier, we wouldn't have missed out on "Innistrad", a trio of Magic sets all themed on Gothic horror.  :Sigh:  I'm sure I'll draw ideas for new monsters for table top gaming from some of the Magic art; it's really great stuff.

Who else out there in RPG-blog-land is a Magic player on the side, casual or serious?  I know a lot of us mess around with miniatures, and the kiddo and I play some Heroclix and Dungeon Command.  But those games take a long time end-to-end, with setup and play easily clearing an hour or more.  A big thing I've noticed is how easy it is to fit a 10 or 15 minute Magic duel into a convenient time slot - really helpful when you're playing zone defense with three kids.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Review: Tales of the Scarecrow

Spoilers below; be warned.

This is a short review of the Tales of the Scarecrow PDF published by LOTFP; it's a short, horror-themed location that can be dropped into your old school fantasy campaign.  Corn fields and scarecrows are fantastic for horror settings; they're mundane and commonplace in the rural world, but have appeared in enough horror movies that players will quickly tap into the creepy vibe once they realize they've crossed over from the normal to the horrible.

It's a short book - 10 pages - black and white, and describes a strange farm with surrounding cornfields, some tragic inhabitants, and a few unusual magic items.  (You can get a copy here:  Tales of the Scarecrow).

The secret of the locale is that this isolated farm is the lair of a vast, subterranean monster; victims are allowed to enter the farmhouse, but leaving is another matter.  As a monster encounter, the locale seems vaguely reminiscent of the monster movie Tremors.  There are a number of ways trapped characters can escape, although all of them are perplexing and/or unpleasant.  Muhaha.

Any regular reader here knows I love the horror genre and like to see more D&D and fantasy games dipping into the space; this is a puzzling little horror encounter that would occupy a night's play and could be interjected into any campaign.  Unlike some other books by this author, such as Death Love Doom, it doesn't cross any lines with gore or mature themes and could be applicable to a wider range of campaigns and styles if you want to dip your toes into adding a horror encounter to your D&D style.  If you're a LOTFP cultist, this one has good examples of "weird" magic items that will please the players while keeping them guessing.  Tales of the Scarecrow should provide a perplexing good time for any players that drop in for a visit.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Time Flies - Days and Weeks Roll Along in the Black City

Keeping a good calendar is fundamental to how I run the long term campaign.  One of the boss's popular quotes:    "You can not have a meaningful campaign if strict time records are not kept".*  Okay, that's a bit over the top - I'm sure some folks have run meaningful campaigns sans-calendar - but I take the importance of keeping a calendar to heart.  A few years ago I posted some basic notes on putting together an annual campaign calendar:  Happy New Year, Greyhawk.  I typically mark off holidays, generate weather, and seed a series of campaign events at the start of each game year.  In this way, you start to put the larger world outside the dungeon, "in motion".

As the campaign moves to mid-level play, and the characters begin to execute strategic plans requiring the passage of time, the calendar becomes important for mapping out when these activities will conclude and what kind of interruptions happen.  I'm raising these points now, as days and weeks have been rolling by in the Black City campaign, and the calendar is proving its value.  When we resume play next game session, 25 days have passed.

So where did the time go?  First, the players needed to spend about a week back in town, receiving a daily Cure Disease spell from the Jarl's cleric, to remove their radiation sicknesses.  They used the interim time to recruit various resources to help in their upcoming ventures.  Those ventures involved re-entering the dungeon with a large party of hired retainers, to exploit some of the opportunities left behind - to copy the alien Disintegration spell onto a scroll, to recover the remaining dragon's hoard, and to teach a trained blacksmith how to use the alien plasma forge to craft the adamant blanks owned by the party into adamant weaponry.  These activities took about 10 days in the dungeon, and the players returned to Trade Town with enough experience for a few stragglers to level up.  Now the elves and magic users need additional time to add 2nd level spells to their spell books.  This is how it all added up to 25 days.

The great thing about the table top form is the ability to count through the days quickly when appropriate, zooming down to the tactical level as necessary.

Part of recruiting resources was negotiation and horse trading.  Valens Lascarius, the Byzantine commander from across the fjord, hired out a party of Varangian soldiers along with another Russian elf, Zakhar, to form a camp in the dungeon and scribe the Disintegration scroll - allowing the PC's to go elsewhere.  The two party elves, and the surviving magic user, all came to Thule with Valens, and joined the party as new player characters to replace fallen characters; in other words, the players have a relationship with the Byzantines.  Those player characters are ostensibly apprentices of a wizard in Constantinople, with the over-arching mission of identifying new magic to bring back to their master.  Since their goals aligned with Valens, they were lent the services of a 5 Varangians, 10 Byzantine soldiers, and Zakhar.  (They still have to pay wage day-rates).  Valens also wanted to make sure his boss, the High Hermite of Constantinople, got a piece of adamant.

Bergfinn was willing to lend them the use of his blacksmith, in return for a gift of one of the adamant weapons they made.  They also needed to pay the smith's daily rate, and take an oath to keep him alive.

Along their travels, they ran into an excursion of Dokkalvir from the fairy realm.  The queen of the Dokkalvir has a strong interest in obtaining her own piece of adamant, and the elves set right to bargaining.  That makes three groups trying to chisel some adamant away from the players.  Historically, the players had a series of previous interactions with the Dokkalvir; Agnar was abducted by the elf queen and given terrifying visions of the future; Dokkalvir guided them past a dangerous monster lair at one point; another group of Dokkalvir was enslaved by Zoltan, a demon intelligence, and threw in with the players to help them overturn Zoltan's reign of terror just a few weeks ago.

No need to recount the detailed play-by-play of this session.  It's going to take Zakhar and the Varangians about 30 days to create the Disintegration scroll, so they fortified a series of rooms in the dungeon and loaded up a ton of supplies.  Most of level 1 is "pacified" at this point, but there's no guarantee it will stay so.

The players had acquired enough Thulium energy discs and pure adamant for the smith to create a pair of hand weapons - a scimitar and broadsword, three spear heads, and two daggers.   Then it took the smith some time to finish the hilts, mount the spear heads on hafts, and so forth.

Chaos and tragedy awaited the players back in Trade Town.  While they were gone, an accident happened in camp, and the tent of their ship captain, Paulson, burned to the ground, killing the captain and damaging the ship.  Was it an accident, falling asleep drunk and knocking over a candle, or was it murder?  Much of the crew abandoned the ship, after looting handfuls of the party treasure, before loyal henchmen left behind were able to take control of the camp and secure the party treasure.  (The henchmen had to pass their own loyalty checks, but none of them deserted - those retainers need a raise!)

That's about where we ended.  The party returned, triumphant with their new forged adamant weaponry, only to learn about a quarter of their treasure was robbed, and many ordinary sailors had abandoned them.  They've got some things to figure out - they'll need a captain and a navigator and repairs to the ship, as well as a new crew.  No one is happy about the disloyal sailors - those sailor oaths were to Paulson, not the players - but some of the guys are spoiling for payback and trying to search for the deserters among the other crews.

It's now mid-July in-game - the month of Midsummer by Norse reckoning - and it's almost time for the island's Thing - an assembly of the captains.

Should be interesting to see what the players do next.  Incidentally, some of these events have represented the convergence of calendar events and prophecy, returning us full circle to how I started this post and the value of a calendar.  Back when I generated the annual calendar, one of the events that was set on the calendar was a fire (June 28th); when Agnar dallied with the Queen of Air and Darkness and saw visions of the future, he learned of a fire that would strike the player's camp in the summer; when it came time for the fire to happen, I made simple chart with various possibilities, chucked some dice, and the rest is history.  So far, two of the Queen's prophecies have come to pass, though the players failed to identify the first one.  Suddenly, the remaining prophecies are much more concerning.  Here's the queen's vision (from Black City game 9, last October):

First would come the fish men, men wearing large scales like the sides of a fish; the player's ship, the Isgerd's Fury, would burn to the ground.  A great king would die, dark clouds would obscure the horizon, and then a massive fleet of viking raiders from a far off land would arrive on the island.

We are now firmly moving into mid-level play.  Here is the current disposition of the party:

Cast of Characters
Agnar Beigarth, a Northman fighter (L4)
Mustafa of Arabia, a scimitar wielding desert warrior (L4)
Brutok the Strong, a dwarf (L4)
Borghild, a Norse cleric of Odin (L4)
Timur, Russian Elf (L3)
Vitaly, Russian Elf (L3)
Mr. Underfoot, Halfling (L2)

Retainers with the party:
Tribunas, Byzantine magic user (L2)
Bottvild (cleric L3)
Visin Thorsteinson (fighter 3)
Hunlaf the Saxon (specialist 3)

Level 1 Retainers that stay with the camp:
Skoldig (specialist), Fafnir (fighter), Halam (cleric), Ivar the Bow-Bender (specialist), and Grimson (fighter)

*The quote is Gary Gygax, of course, from the DUNGEON MASTER'S GUIDE.

Friday, February 15, 2013

A Few True Name Rules

Secret identities; not just for super heroes any longer.

After mulling over the literary use of True Names in popular fantasy, I think the simplest, easiest way to make them useful in the game is to make it a large modifier to the Saving Throw mechanic.  A conservative approach is like this:
When a wizard casts a spell, the wizard can invoke a target's true name; the target takes a -4 penalty on the saving throw.  Likewise, when a victim is targeted by a spell, they can call out the wizard's true name, if they know it;  calling out the wizard's true name grants the targeted character a +4 saving throw against the caster's spells.
The paranoid folks in the literature that fret about their identities are invariably wizards.  I like the idea that penalties to their magic if they lose the secrecy of their true names encourages magic users to adopt a cover.  The evil megalomaniacs will go totally over the line, eliminating all witnesses, which is a great motivation for a villain.

True names can also be embedded into magical amulets, creating a domination or charm monster effect (like the demon amulets), and weaponry can be enchanted with a true name, creating a slaying effect - an arrow enchanted with a true name would become a +4 item of named character slaying, for instance.

Some of the literature goes further, with the use of the true name stripping the victim of all magical power, but there's no precedent in the game for that kind of disarming, and I can't see it yielding good results - either villains die without a fight, or PC's feel totally abused. I did consider alternatives - should the true name grant magic resistance, or prevent all magic use, or a simple protection from evil type effect; there are already a few gigantic spells out there (like True Name in Unearthed Arcana) that grant major benefits to very high level casters.  So I want a generic mechanic that can affect lower level play without becoming game breaking.  But is a +4 or -4 to saving throws enough of a bonus/penalty when the characters unmask the identity of the town mesmerist?

I don't see the true name mechanic making a big difference to ordinary games; it's just not going to come up in random encounters during regular adventuring, assuming both PC and NPC wizards are using monikers, use names, or secret identities.  In campaign play, where the party sets their sights on taking out a major target (like a certain lich in a certain lost tomb), there's now an incentive to go the extra mile and try to ferret out the true name to gain any advantage against an intimidating foe.  Likewise, if a player character wizard starts earning notoriety as they gain power and approach name level, they now need to be worried about NPC rivals trying to do the same to them.  A true name mechanic would be put in place to give a tangible benefit to research and investigation during campaign play, and highlight an activity that gets overlooked in lieu of the full frontal assault.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Help! My Megadungeon is a Zoo

I can use some advice.  See, I've got this megadungeon game, and it's rolling along like gangbusters, but it's evolved into something different than how it started.  I started with this idea of creating something inspired by Lovecraft's city of the elder things, only with grey aliens, and vikings.

Along the way, it became a bit like the wild west - with lots of competing viking groups looting the ruins - many of them every bit as amoral and violent as the player characters.  Human encounters are such a good time.  Sometimes those rival explorers get infected with rage madness and become berserkers, lurking in the dungeon like predators, or they mutate into muscular cannibals with bulging eyes.  The dead ones come back as gjengangers - Norse zombies.  Then there are the remnants left over from the Ancients, the alien servitors, robots, and rogue super computers that once maintained the city.  It's definitely weird, maybe even a bit gonzo.  It's plenty of fun.  But it's usually not scary.

Traditionally, horror scenarios feature more atmosphere, building dread, and a shocking revelation.  I originally wanted the Black City to be horror-themed, but quickly abandoned that plan for high adventure and battle-axe-fueled mayhem.  It wasn't a wrong choice.

But as I'm looking ahead to future projects, the idea of a sprawling horror dungeon won't die:  Are the elements necessary to make a compelling megadungeon campaign compatible with running it with a horror theme?  We should be able to do it, right?  We have the technology.  We can make it better, faster, stronger (or darker, scarier, and creepier).  I'd ask for a show of hands, how many folks have run their own successful horror-themed megadungeons, but that's just silly - it’d be an oddball niche within an already small oddball niche.

This might just be my blog's white whale.  Whatever I do after the Black City, it's got to be frightening and dreadful.  A few concepts I've posted in The Junkyard could form the backbone for such a venture - something like the dungeons beneath Harrowhome Manor on the Yorkshire Moors, or the Benighted City of Lichtstadt.  To get my head straight, I may take a day or so to mull and list out the strengths and weaknesses of the megadungeon format, to facilitate discussing which ones undermine the horror theme.

Consider, once again, Lovecraft's city of the elder things from At the Mountains of Madness.  It's a nigh endless cyclopean ruin, on the high wind-swept plain beyond those forsaken mountains.  Massive, sprawling tunnels lie beneath the frozen city.  Is it a megadungeon?  Why or why not?  Food for thought.

Monday, February 11, 2013

True Names in D&D

I realized there's a through-line in all of the fantasy books I've been reading lately - they've all involved the importance of names and language.  I'm reading the Earthsea trilogy aloud to the oldest kiddo; those  books strongly feature the power of true names and language; the language of wizards is an older tongue (the language of dragons), and to name a thing in the old language is to have power over it.  The major arc in the first novel, A Wizard of Earthsea, is for the protagonist to learn the true name of a creature of darkness he released into the world, and thus defeat it.  There's an awesome showdown with a dragon, where the young wizard Ged rightly guesses a dragon's true name and avoids destruction - also underlining the importance of paying attention to history and study old books.

I recently finished The Chronicles of the Black Company, and am eagerly looking forward to continue the series.  Major plot elements involve recovering and guarding old records left from a fallen empire; only late in the story do the protagonists suspect the old documents contain the true names of the immortal antagonists facing the Black Company.  Ultimate success hinges on piecing together scattered lore and finding translators that read the dead languages before a final reckoning.  I greatly enjoyed the Black Company; the novels portray the pragmatism of an elite military faction weaponizing magic in a world of swords and sorcery.

It seems like I should be able to rattle off more fiction that features the power of names; I'm just not remembering… of course, the Dresden files are full of true names and the importance of little bits (blood, hair, fingernails) to target the magic; the Eragon young adult books had the theme as well.  I suppose we're all familiar with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.  Hellboy is bewitched when called by his true name, Anung Un Rama.  And no exorcist or demonic possession movie is complete until the priest names the demon as part of the dramatic ritual of removal.

For that matter, the power of names has a strong religious element to it in Western culture; it calls to mind the Greek "logos", and the hymn at the beginning of the gospel of John:  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...  The name of YHWH, the sacred Tetragrammaton, was forbidden to be spoken because of the power and sanctity of the name.  Off hand, though, I'm not placing the first literary instance of calling out the name of the devil and having him appear.  Perhaps it was Marlowe's Doctor Faustus?  Don't say Bloody Mary seven times in front of a mirror.

Our friends in the Cthulhu space have not overlooked the theme; in the dreaded twelfth volume of the Revelations of Glaaki, reading the name of Y'Golonac subjects the reader to the attention of the god, potentially turning the victim into an avatar of Y'Golonac and a channel for demonic manifestation.

In a moment of monkey brain, my thoughts even jump to TS Eliot, and Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.  The naming of cats is a difficult matter, after all - it isn't just one of your holiday games.  Now pardon me a moment while I go scrub my brain and get back on task.

The D&D game hasn't had a lot of interplay with the true name motif.  A few monster entries in the Monster Manual and Fiend Folio mention the value of true names - mostly involving demons and devils, and amulets or talismans that grant power of the entity.  I seem to remember Skeleton Warriors were the same way with their medallions

THE LOST CAVERNS OF TSOJCANTH* greatly expanded the portfolio of extra-planar spells, and many of them require the entity's true name; part of the power and allure of the Demonomicon of Iggwilv is that the master witch scribed various demonic true names in the book, giving the owner ready access to forbidden knowledge and the means to execute on it.

The spells from the Demonomicon are carried over into UNEARTHED ARCANA, and supplemented with some new ones, such as an actual True Name spell, which lets a caster run roughshod over a victim if he possesses the name - changing the creature's form, sending it far away, or making Suggestion-like demands.

The clones or sequel games haven't gone much further.  LOTFP has a high level spell named Demand, which functions akin to True Name, but requiring bodily bits of the target - straight out of Frazier and theories of sympathetic magic; I like the flavor.  Holy Word is a spell across the editions that calls to mind the forbidden Tetragrammaton.  ACKS didn't seem to have anything around true names, though it would be ideal as a high level ritual for either clerics or wizards.

The exciting thing about this motif - uncovering an opponent's true name as a means to power, whether as part of a spell, ritual, or simple plot device - is that it supports excellent quests beyond the dungeon; the characters might need to borrow a tactic from their Call of Cthulhu brethren and spend time in dusty libraries with restricted tomes, traveling to distant sages, or embarking on a bit of archaeology and tomb-raiding.  Sign me up for getting more of that into my D&D games.  As it is, I'm always this close (pinches fingers) between ditching adventure-style D&D and running my fantasy games like a Cthulhu game.

I've got some ideas of (modest) house rules or additions to make true names universally important if they can ever be discovered; what have you seen out there, either in other games or later editions, as mechanical ideas for making true names important?

*Gygaxian titles require all caps.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Extracting Value from the Megadungeon

Earlier this week, an article at Hack and Slash pointed out how megadungeon play should really be divided into 3 activities; exploration, encounters, and extraction.  I'm due to write a game report before this weekend, so rather than do a usual recap, I'm going to focus on extraction - why it's such a key part of the megadungeon experience, and how it has influenced play in the Black City.

Extraction is all about exploitation of the player's discoveries.  The characters are exploring the environment, discovering new things, and now the players need to figure out what they want to do with them.  In some cases,  the problem is treasure related - how do we get it out of the dungeon to bank some experience?  Other times, it's a resource or enabler that's going to support the player's long term objectives, or send the campaign in an unusual direction.

From a game play perspective, what's important is that the dungeon discoveries force the players to plan and choose their next steps; ignoring the resource is a choice.  Each delve into the dungeon starts with the players deciding a new course of action; over time, many of these goals will revolve around exploiting things that were previously discovered, but put on the shelf.  One of the powerful levers in the DM's arsenal is NPC adventurers; the players should constantly be worried about leaving a valuable resource behind, risking that a resource is discovered and exploited by rivals.  The Black City has a gold-rush and Wild West atmosphere, (but with vikings).  The opportunity costs of decisions are ever-present.  You don’t want a pan-handler jumping your claim!

This is one of the biggest differences between how my megadungeon works versus a traditional dungeon; the megadungeon is dynamic, changing, and influenced by forces outside the players; the players are not exploring a static area at their leisure, which goes into stasis when they leave.

So how have these concepts played out in the Black City?

Last game session was all about dealing with a dragon's hoard.  A mountainous pile of coins is perhaps the archetypical "problematic treasure".  Much of last game session was spent organizing the party, and some of their prisoners, into work crews, to separate silver from copper, to drag the silver, gems, and jewels, to a secure area, and then plan how they could dump equipment and encumbrance to carry out the most loot.  It's a dangerous overnight journey from the Ice Cave dungeon, through the dim Transit Tunnels, and eventually to the surface and Trade Town, so they needed to plan well.

Along the way, there were plenty of wandering monster opportunities, but not too many materialized.  They had another encounter with a "living rock" and caught a rare glimpse of the 'Servant of the Impresario'.  There have been a few encounters where it seemed like someone was spying on them - in this case, they caught a cloaked figure in the distance, with what appeared to be a large video camera for a face, observing the remains of the dragon, before eluding them.  A taste of things to come, perhaps.

The players have left numerous exploitable resources scattered across the miles of Transit Tunnels.  Scrawled into a wall near the "polar bear junction", they discovered an alien version of the Disintegration spell, written in alien glyphs (and deciphered at one point with Read Magic).  Shafat, the wizard of the tower, pays 1,000sp (1,000xp) per spell level for new magic, so transcribing it off the dungeon wall onto a scroll would net them 5,000xp (or their own Disintegration spell scroll).  But it would be an undertaking to secure a remote series of rooms for an encampment that might require weeks of transcription.  What would you do?

There's the Jotun's head frozen in the frost gremlin cave ceiling, and knowledge that the Jotun's body is somewhere in the glacier.  Jotuns are like the titans of old, immortal proto-giants with the powers of a god.  Apparently the blood (ichor) from the Jotun's head turns creatures into bestial lizard monsters like the frost gremlins.  Of course, one of the kids wants to use the ichor to create combatants for a gladiatorial arena back at Trade Town, to compliment the gambling ring the party is sponsoring.  Because it would be cool to make your own fighting lizard-man-gladiators.

They have a couple blanks of pure adamantite, which can be used to craft unbreakable adamantite weaponry in the alien forge - but they need to be able to find a weaponsmith, teach the smith how to use the plasma forges, and secure the forge area (which was near some morlock lairs); they already have one or two "thulium discs" to power the forge equipment.  But seriously - who wouldn't want some unbreakable adamantite weapons?  Don’t leave home without them.

Meanwhile, the next areas they're considering exploring include surveying more of the surface ruins - closer to the glacier - or finally descending beyond the Transit Tunnels to the fetid, swampy mushroom-choked caverns below - the level I'm calling the "Warrens of Decay".

Exploiting these resources requires planning, manpower, and time - and time is the biggest opportunity cost.  Summer passes quickly on Thule - the game-calendar is approaching July (Midsummer month by Norse reckoning) and later in August, crews begin to leave the island and sail south before the winter storms.  Spending days or weeks on extraction reduces exploration time, unless the party divides and conquers, appoints henchmen, hires other crew from Trade Town, and so on - all viable strategies, with different risks.

Since I said this post would double as a game report, let me conclude with more notes from last week.  After moving the most valuable bits of the dragon hoard, and loading appropriately for the long trek, the party returned to Trade Town.  The Jarl's officers collecting tariffs had never seen such a haul of coins, and news spread throughout the camp that the players had slain a wyrm and laid hold of a vast treasure.  They were feasted in the Jarl's hall that evening, regaled him with tales of their great deeds, and the honor and acclaim of the Spitsberg Pirates continues to grow.  I'm beginning to think their leader, Agnar, must be a fighter-skald, with his ability to weave a tale of glory to dazzle eager listeners.

Despite the session being heavily focused on logistics, the players had a good time - the efforts of many weeks of gameplay came to fruition with experience points, recognition by their peers, and the respect of the Jarl.  It helped that they made some generous gifts - politically astute.  The Jarl's advisor, Falki the Odin Priest, will arrange Cure Disease for all the members infected with the radiation sickness after the tussle with the radioactive zombies, though this will cost them a few weeks back in camp (and some money).

When we resume this week, I'm sure they're going to be mulling their options regarding many of the situations I've outlined above - do they plunge right into more exploration, or take time to exploit recent discoveries?  Either way, I'm sure it will be challenging - and fun.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Fundraising for the LOTFP Free RPG Day Thing

I am obligated by all that is terrible and glorious to call special attention to this Lamentations of the Flame Princess effort.  LOTFP is trying to generate funds to create a print-version of a new adventure, and distribute it as part of Free RPG day.  It's already funded as a PDF, but it needs to go further to get published as a free book, too.  You can read the blurb here on the Kickstarter page:  "Better Than Any Man" Kickstarter.

The adventure itself looks awesome.  That cover image is creepy and… more creepy.  You just know the adventure is going to be Sexviolenceheavymetal, as James says, and shock some sensibilities.  If it funds, you can get a printed copy at Free RPG Day; if you support the Kickstarter campaign, you can kick in some extra dollars and have a paper copy mailed and save yourself the trip to the game store.  Four (new) LOTFP adventures are being offered as PDFs for campaign supporters, with print versions offered in the higher levels, and lots of other publishers are including their own books in the perks.  It's a regular party.

LOTFP is leading the charge at extending old school adventures into off-beat genres with its horror and sci-fi adventures - the niche is a tasty blend of weirdness and dread that's never going to be colonized by a big corporation.  More LOTFP cultists, err, players, means more big name writers doing LOTFP cross-over material.  Creative, shocking, and challenging adventures, written by talented folks in our gaming space, are projects I'll gladly promote and throw some support behind.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Goblin: A Custom Class for ACKS

"I am that merry wanderer of the night?"  I am that giggling-dangerous-totally-bloody-psychotic-menace-to-life-and-limb, more like it.
--Peaseblossom, in The Sandman:  A Midsummer Night's Dream

The other day, I pointed out that it's useful to have a character type in the campaign that combines excellent scouting ability, with excellent saving throws (my ill-fated Ode to a Dead Halfling).  Stealth lets the party gather more information, which leads to tactics and strategy and fun, and durability makes it a bit easier to rationalize the risk.  But not everyone likes those furry-footed crumb-snatchers that infest the Shire.  I recently got the ACKS player's guide in the mail, and there's a thorough chapter on creating custom classes.  Without further ado, I present the Goblin - a custom class for ACKS.  (If I must choose an adjectival surname, I shall refer to it as the Goblin Skulk).

Goblins are mischievous, thrill-seeking wanderers from the realm of fairy (I wouldn't use the humanoid of the same name in the campaign).  They delight in risk and adventure; they eschew creature comforts for the open road and the cold of night.  They are the opposite of hobbits and halflings in every way imaginable.

Goblins use 1d6 HD, and fight like a thief of the same level, also limited to leather armor.  Their saving throws are modified by their natural resistances (see fey-blooded, below).  At 1st level, they Hide in Shadows, Move Silently, and Backstab like a thief of the same level.  At 3rd level, they gain Pick Pockets (like a 1st level thief), and then gain Open Locks at 5th level and Climb Walls at 7th level.  (I could be talked into changing around the timing and order the thief abilities unlock).

Because they are Fey-Blooded, goblins are naturally resistant to effects, gaining a +4 on all saving throws (but only +3 vs breath weapons).  They have Infravision to 45'.  Due to their ability to use Glamor, they are "difficult to spot", fading away from sight when remaining motionless.  Goblins appear Inhuman, giving them negative reaction modifiers to humans and demi-humans, but gaining a similar bonus when dealing with fairy monsters.

Goblins need 1,600 XP to advance to level 2, and can achieve a maximum level of 13.

  1. 0
  2. 1,600
  3. 3,200
  4. 6,400
  5. 12,800
  6. 25,600
  7. 50,000
  8. 100,000, and each level thereafter

There you go - a simplified replacement to the Halfling, that focuses on stealth, murder, mischief, and durability.  One of my players can do a spot-on Gollum voice imitation, and I'm sure he'd have a ton of fun skulking around the shadows with this type of character… SNEAKING.

Note:  If you're not using ACKS, it's easy to take a sharpie, cross out the word "Halfling" in your Moldvay BX book, and write in there, GOBLIN.  Halflings get some additional bonuses to AC and missile attacks, but I like the addition of the thief abilities and backstab here - more mischief potential.

*Inspirational image is Robin Goodfellow, Puck, the original goblin, from the excellent Sandman comic, A Midsummer Night's Dream, by Kelley Jones and Charles Vess.  One of my all-time favorites.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Review: B10 Night's Dark Terror

It's odd reviewing a game product 20+ years old, but since it's one of the lesser known gems of TSR era D&D (perhaps because it was developed by TSR UK), and as it just appeared on OBS, I'm forging ahead.  Full disclosure, many an old Mystaran campaign of mine started with Keep on the Borderlands or Night of the Vampire, and introduced Night's Dark Terror at an appropriate time.  (Night's Dark Terror just went up on DnD Classics).

Here's a brief overview of the adventure; the player characters find themselves on the Karameikan frontier, where numerous small homesteads beyond the  moors are being burnt to the ground in the night by marauding goblin tribes.  The adventure describes the sprawling eastern frontier as a wilderness hex-crawl (3 miles to the hex), and has populated Eastern Karameikos with numerous small lairs, tombs, ruins, and settlements, for the players to discover as they track the marauding goblin tribes.

Over the course of the adventure, they learn about the details of a sinister organization coordinating the attacks, and the trail eventually leads them to discover a lost valley in a northern mountain range, replete with two ancient cultures and a crawling horror prowling the ruins of a fallen civilization.  That capstone locale is overflowing with the kind of pulp horror greatness that would make A. Merritt proud.

What's fantastic about the adventure is the way it helps the novice DM transition from site-based dungeon crawls that typically kick off a 1st level game, into preparing wilderness hex crawls, and it also introduces timeline structures, calendars, and weather.  This adventure had a strong, formative influence on my game mastering style.

Physically, it's about the twice the size of a typical TSR-era adventure, coming in at 74 pages.  There are 6 pages of maps near the back, and the original included a poster map of a homestead where the party is besieged by marauding goblin tribes (and needs to hold out until dawn).  The PDF includes a scan of various cardboard counters that could be used with the poster map.

It's not a perfect module; the introductory plot hook should be replaced by something suitable to the player characters (but that goes for 99% of published works).  It uses annoying bits of boxed descriptive text.  It's heavily tied to the setting of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos, which is found in the back of the Expert book.  The later Gazetteer of Karameikos is nice to have, but not necessary.  Nonetheless, it would be a lot of work to extricate the adventure from the setting and place it in a homebrew setting.  Like any adventure that tries to anticipate the results of earlier player activity, the writer provides a few options; for instance, suggesting a replacement villain if an opponent from an earlier encounter wasn't able to escape the player beatdown.

I highly recommend checking this one out if you missed it back in the day; Karameikos is a solid default setting (I regaled its virtues back here:  Ode to Karameikos).  It's easy to sprinkle a few pre-made adventures into the area for 1st level characters, and use the events of B10 Night's Dark Terror and the wilderness hex crawl of Eastern Karameikos once the players reach 2nd and 3rd level.

New at D&D Classics

Some new titles have been added to the OBS D&D classics section - Cook Expert rules and B10 Night's Dark Terror!  Queued for immediately download.  I reference the Expert rules quite a bit, it's fantastic to have a bookmarked, searchable version.  I'm really happy with the scan of B10 - they did an excellent job converting it to a nice looking, useable PDF.  The original had many oversized maps and double-sized maps, making it problematic on previous scans.  I didn't look for a definitive list of new items, but I don’t remember seeing T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil last time; that looks new as well.

B10 Night's Dark Terror is a phenomenal adventure; if you missed it back in the day, now's your chance.  I'll pen a brief review later, after the nerd-buzz calms down.  I'd still love to see the Creature Crucible series added; the Mystaran Gazetteers; 2E Ravenloft and some of the Ravenloft adventures; and 1E Gamma World added to the catalog, but now I'm glad to wait.

Monday, February 4, 2013

White Dragonology

For a game based on "Dungeons & Dragons", I don't get the chance to throw too many dragons at my players.  Since the players fought and defeated a white dragon statted like one from the Moldvay Basic book last week, I was able to make some observations.

Encounters with dragons are dangerous and random.  The dragon will open the fight with a breath weapon, and there's a 50% chance it will breath each round thereafter (max of 3 times per day).  A healthy 40hp dragon, breathing 3 times in a row, would wipe out almost any mid-level party (120 damage!)  Alternatively, if the DM doesn't roll the 50% chance, the dragon might not get the chance to breath again all fight.  As I said - the randomness of the breath weapon make it dangerous, and random.

Another factor is that the dragon's breath damage is tied to its current hit points.  If a party hits it hard, with a lot of early damage, they can greatly reduce the threat of the breath weapon.  In our game, the players ditched in a side passage, letting an automaton they were controlling engage the dragon, until they could launch an effective bum rush, knocking the dragon out of its high hit points with some solid swings (which allowed them to survive the remaining two breath attacks when they finally came).

As the DM, I wasn't happy with the 50% chance of breathing; my dice were cold and it didn't breath until late in the fight, when its hit point total was greatly reduced.  But I do understand the need to reign in the overwhelming breath attack with the variability so a party isn't overwhelmed in 3 rounds of breath attacks.

The BX white dragon attacks with two claws and a bite (damage 1-4/1-4/2-16) and has only 6 HD.  That makes it a glass cannon - the opening breath is really threatening, the physical attacks aren't fantastic, and the remaining breaths are the mercy of the dice.

Since I wasn't terribly impressed with the BX version, I checked out how the white dragon fared in some of the other rules that frequent my table.

The white dragon in the 1E AD&D monster manual is exactly the same statistically as the BX version, with one important difference:  dragon fear.  In AD&D, dragons generate terror which forces lower level characters to flee or take attack penalties.  The Black City group wouldn't have struggled against the AD&D version - they had too many 1st or 2nd level retainers or replacement characters that would have fled.

BECMI / Rules Cyclopedia
The Mentzer set, and the Rules Cyclopedia, had a major problem because they stretched play over 36 levels - how do you scale dragons to threaten characters over such a long career?  The BX dragons were re-branded as "small dragons", and large and huge variants were added (9 and 12 HD respectively, for the white dragon, with rules to bump the HD even further).  The requirement of rolling a 50% chance for breathing was removed for the large and huge dragons, tacitly allowing the DM to use the breath to do the most harm each round.  The larger dragons are also given some additional combat options (swooping dives, crushes, kicks, tail sweeps, and so forth).

Adventurer Conqueror King (ACKS)
The dragon hierarchy is flattened in ACKS, so that any adult dragon will have 10 HD regardless of color.  The breath weapon is 1d6 per hit die,  decoupling it from the dragon's hit points but keeping a variable factor - which means that even an injured dragon can uncork a ferocious breath attack of 10d6 damage.  ACKS does keep the 50% chance of breathing each round that you see in BX or AD&D (max of 3 per day).  One of the real interesting things is giving each dragon a special offensive or defensive ability, like invulnerability, gem-encrusted hide, decapitating bite, and so forth, making each dragon encounter memorable and more dangerous.

I'm really happy with the uptick in danger represented by the ACKS dragons - any adult dragon is a house, the late-fight breath weapon is still devastating, the ancient dragons are as dangerous as the BECMI huge dragons, and the new special abilities are flavorful and interesting.