Saturday, November 30, 2013

Table Top Versus the Console

I've had some time off this week and spent a lot of it playing Black Flag, the Assassin's Creed IV game.  It's a gigantic pirate sandbox where you sail around the Caribbean, listening to sea shanties, and plundering like a terror of the seas.  I usually don't make any time for video games, but c'mon - pirates.  PIRATES!  I could rave on about the merits of Black Flag, but I'll save "The Ode to AC 4" for another post.  Just keep this image in mind - a gigantic pirate sandbox, where you can explore Mayan ruins, walk the streets of 18th century Havana, or Kingston, or Nassau, and then sail around shooting other ships, boarding them, and taking their stuff.  Yo ho.  It's enough to make we want to go mix a batch of grog and hoist the colors.  But I'll save that for later.

This whole AC4 experience got me thinking about our gaming mediums and the strengths of the table top environment versus the console.  As a referee and world builder, it's humbling to think your RPG experience is competing with the work product of dozens of developers and artists.  The vistas available in modern video games - whether it's tossing back rum in the squalid streets of Nassau, or standing atop the Mayan ruins of Tulum, the imagery and views are spectacular.  The wife and eldest kiddo spent a lot of time exploring the wilds of Skyrim last year, so I saw plenty of that snowy, northern land, too, during their excursions.  So why do players return to the table?

As a quick aside - I have to imagine the topic of comparing console gaming to the tabletop is one that's been prosecuted to death, either on the blogs or boards.  I'd be eternally grateful if any readers can point me to some well regarded thoughts already out on there on the interwebs.  There's no need to recreate the wheel, and I'm perfectly comfortable standing on the shoulders of giants.  I'm sure this is a topic smart people have already addressed.

I'm not one of those folks who believes console gaming is going to eliminate table top gaming (at least anytime soon).  The experiences are quite different.  So how do you maximize the things that are amazing about table top gaming and eliminate the question of competing genres?  Furthermore, what are the aspects of the experience from the player's perspective that makes them want to come play tabletop, when they could be sitting at home on the Xbox, making their electronic avatar dodge sharks during a wreck dive for sunken loot off the coast of Florida?

The three broad areas of differentiation that spring to mind are freedom, shared world building, and the social dimension.

The interactive nature of a live referee allows the players tremendous freedom to choose where they want to go and what they want to do, constrained only by the referee's imagination and world experiences.  You may not think of yourself as a "shared world builder", but the very nature of the back-and-forth question-and-answer between the players and referee develops the world through play.  I'm not so arrogant as to view the referee's role as paramount..There are two components to a game element entering the shared mind space of the players and referee - the players need to focus on the element through game play, and then the referee needs to create it at the table - either through improvisation or reprise.  The players are the midwives that aid the referee in giving birth to the game world.  (Those are the kinds of metaphors you spout when you try to write while drinking too much leftover holiday wine).

So what's this bit about the social dimension?  I'm a big believer in the idea that gaming creates shared experiences and shared memories.  We go on vacation to exciting places… the trip might only last a few days, but we carry the memories forward long after the vacation.  Is it any different with why a group would choose to tackle The Tomb of Horrors or travel to the White Plume Mountain?  The problem with sitting in your dark basement basking in the glow of the flat screen, is that you’re sitting alone… in the dark.  No one else really cares if you pulled off some amazing multi-kill combo.  I guarantee thousands of similar gamers have done the same thing - some are even better than you.

But that particular table top gaming moment is a unique creation, experienced by the small group, and never to be seen or experienced in that way again.  When your character "pulls off an awesome move" that saves the rest of the party, there's the immediate gratification of the other players and a story to remember for some time to come.  As a referee, there's the chance to show of your clever creations, challenging puzzles, and interesting setting, every time the players come over to roll the dice.

I've spent some time on the blog musing about "Why Dungeons Matter"… various posts defending the dungeon as the primary locale for adventures.  (I'd go dig up links, but you know - too much wine.  Maybe tomorrow).  I could see the "dungeons matter" philosophy becoming a corollary of this philosophy - "Why the Table Top Matters".  It's an important subject - it transcends editions and game systems.  How do we maximize those things that at the table that set the tabletop RPG experience apart from other games?

I'm comfortable that the default rules we use, my approach to developing a setting and campaign and adjudicating situations, does a fairly good job at highlighting the strengths of the medium.  The challenge is to do it even better.

My daughter is waiting for her bed time reading - looks like I'll tackle the rest in a part two.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Black City Game 28 - Don't Bathe in the Crab Pool

We reached a quorum of regulars this past weekend and got in another Black City game.  The players are in the vast fungal caverns of the second level; they had just entered a domed structure, negotiated past an acid bath trap, and finished a tough fight against a handful of rubbery alien servitors (the plasticals).  Some of the servitors were able to shoot electricity out of their arms, and one of the NPC clerics (Bottvild) was slain by an electro blast.

After the session recap, the players looted Bottvild's remains, her sister Borghild sliced off her head (so she doesn't return as a gjenganger) and they discussed the next place to explore.  They didn't experiment much with the control room at this point, other than to study the holographic "sand table" which showed a map of the caverns, with various points of interest highlighted.  Hopefully they took some notes.

Timur the Elf had blasted a new tunnel with the disintegration ray, and Brutok used his dwarven mining experience to determine the diagonal tunnel breached a further chamber, and he could sense water and air currents.  The 30' round tunnel opened about 5' above the surface of a large deep pool of circulating, murky water.  The water swirled slightly, as if fed from below by a rising underwater current.  There was no place else to go without dropping into the deep water and swimming, but craning their necks to the north, the party could see a beach area just at the range of vision.  If they continued regular exploration, there might be another room within the dome that leads to the water cave.

Time out from the game.  Someone is knocking at the door.  It's the son of one of the dads, a neighbor.  We can just barely hear him whisper to his dad, "Dad, someone flushed a whole bunch of toilet paper, and now poop is coming out of the shower.  That's bad, right?"  I'm sure any of the parents (with boys) can relate.

So Adam had to leave the game for a bit.

Returning to the control room, they went down a side passage and found a room with a catwalk overlooking a slow moving sluice of bluish fluid.  Some lights flashed on the wall alongside the catwalk.  Brutok went out to investigate, stumbled back from the wall, and fell backward into the blue goop.  His body went rigid and he begin to drift with the flow of the goop.  (Unbeknownst to the others, the wall had briefly shown a frightening 3-d hologram of a leaping nightmare monster, startling Brutok and causing him to stumble off of the walkway.  Then the blue stuff paralyzed him).

Mustafa jogged out there to fish Brutok out of the goop, while the other characters watched from the safety of the doorway.  They had looped a rope around Mustafa in case he stumbled as well.  He was also startled by the leaping hologram monster, but the other guys kept him from tumbling into the goop, and he was able to fish out the dwarf when he realized the monster was just a mirage.  As they carried Brutok out of the room, it was clear that any exposed flesh touching the blue goop went tingly and numb.  Brutok was covered with the stuff!  It also seemed to be acidic, eating holes in his clothing and raising welts on his flesh.  (It's actually an enzymatic solution that was breaking down proteins, but who's checking?)  The main thing is that Brutok was about to lose his pimp fur cloak and tricked out fur boots.  One of the guys suggested taking him to the pool of water and dunking him a few times to rinse all the blue stuff off.  Off they went.

The last time they visited the pool and leaned out over the murky water with their lantern, I rolled to see if the lurking "Crabstrosity" that lived in the pool noticed them.  Apparently, dipping a nice plump tasty dwarf all the way down into the underwater Crabstrosity lair and jigging it up and down at the end of a rope is enough enticement to lure the monster out of the depths.  (Anyone who's done crabbing in a bay knows the party performed the perfect technique).

"Oh great Cthulhu, please accept our humble sacrifice and grant us great powers…"  That was Adam, who had just returned from his household poop emergency (a plumber was on the way) in time to see the party desperately battling the tentacles of the giant crab monster.  The thing had already sliced Brutok to ribbons with its claws, and was attacking the guys on the ledge with the tentacles and threatening to drag them into the soup too.  The players were furiously trying to chop the tentacles and keep their front line from getting pulled down (and the front liners were pulling on the rope tied around the dwarf).

I can't make this stuff up - dunking the dwarf up and down into the Crabstrosity pool and then trying to fish him out before he was eaten alive was one of the funniest things in recent memory.  Unless you're the dwarf (in which case you have choice words for your compatriots).  Timur the Russian Elf eventually blasted the tentacles with Magic Missiles, and the party safely retreated deeper into the tunnel.

First aid and Cure Light Wounds were applied to the mauled dwarf, who hovered near death's door (-1 hit points).   He's had a number of recent "near death" experiences, provoking the Odin cleric to quip, "Clearly you're too short for Valhalla.  They keep throwing you back to grow some more".

The players figured it was a good time to retreat, and they were near enough the surface elevator that they bushwhacked through the fungal forest and returned to the upper ruins. They spent a bunch of time advancing the calendar on the surface; Halam (a level 1 NPC cleric retainer from their ship's crew) was promoted to the active roster and became a henchman; Zakhar and the Byzantines completed their mission to copy a Disintegration scroll off of one of the dungeon walls; a trip was made to the Tower of Astronomy, where "Odin" had finished crafting a suit of man-sized adamant armor in payment for prior services.  Odin gave them a vague quest about extending his influence to the caverns, and then cast them out of Asgard (in other words, they were instantaneously teleported off the orbital space station and down to the ruined city).

So it was a week or so later in game time when they made a second foray into the caverns, fully healed with XP awards (Ben Underfoot leveled up), and returned to the giant dome in the forest.  The "stone walker" guardian wasn't replaced, and this time they knew the procedure to get through the acid bath air lock trap without injury.  Unfortunately, there was a new detachment of Plasticals operating the control stations in the first room.

This time, the squad of Plasticals was led by a brainy one (a Mark IV in my notes) - a construct capable of dominating humanoid brains with amazing psychic powers.  They had fought one of these before, and it put the whammy on half the party, so the guys prioritized missile fire at the brainy alien.  Its head was blown into green goop like the Martian heads in Mars Attacks, after Timur unleashed the Magic Missiles its way.

The party handled the rest of the fight really well.  The fighters crashed into the meaty guards, and Agnar leaped off a catwalk onto one of the blasty aliens below, impaling it with his spear in a style worthy of a viking hero (one of the guys said he "air assassinated" the alien).  Vitaly the Elf (9 hit points!) made a suicide charge into one of the blasty aliens, and should surely be dead, but he's wearing alien-sculpted adamant plate (the ancients were elf-sized), and Vitaly learned, fortuitously, that adamant provides electrical resistance.  He managed to live.

That was it for game night - we had toilet emergencies, blue goo jokes, and the party almost fed their helpless, paralyzed dwarf to a voracious crab monster.   All in a night's work.

Current Player Characters:
Mustafa of Arabia, a scimitar wielding desert warrior (L4)
Brutok Bearslayer, a dwarf (L4)
Borghild, a Norse cleric of Odin (L4)
Timur, Russian Elf (L3)
Vitaly the Lucky, Russian Elf (L3)
Ben Underfoot, Halfling Scout (L3)

Retainers or NPCs with the party:
Agnar Beigarth, a Northman fighter (L4)
Tribunas, Byzantine magic user (L3)
Visin Thorsteinson, Norse Fighter (L3)
Hunlaf the Saxon, Thief (L2)
Halam (Cleric of Frey L1)

Friday, November 22, 2013

Another Look at Lamentations of the Flame Princess

I've been meaning to circle back to the topic of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LOTFP) rules set for a discussion.  We've kept it as the default rules for the Black City campaign, and I ran the first half of the previous campaign (Gothic Greyhawk) using the same rules as well.  Since one can get a legal PDF copy of the Moldvay edition of the D&D basic rules nowadays, you might wonder why I've stayed with a simulacrum.

The LOTFP book line features adventures that have a lot more horror content than typical fantasy adventures; a few feature graphic art or gruesome themes.  The (implied) default setting for many of the adventures and rules is the Early Modern period rather than a Feudal or Medieval period.  The rules themselves build off of classic D&D, but the magic has been toned down to seem more literary than the comic book style approach of default D&D, with flying men shooting at each other.  (D&D magic has pretty much carved out its own genre of fantasy after almost 40 years).  If you want to check out the LOTFP rules, a free copy of the rules is available at RPG Now.

The quality of the LOTFP printed books has been trending upward.  The last thing I received from the publisher was the hardcover printing (pictured above).  But look how tiny that hardcover looks compared to that d20!  You need a magnifying glass to read anything.  Just kidding, that's a giant sized d20 - you can read the rules fine -but the book size is smaller than the US custom - A5 print size.

There are many choices in OSR rules, not to mention the availability of the original TSR rules I mentioned.  Here's what I continue to like about the LOTFP version:

Skill System
The Moldvay Basic edition has an implied d6 skill mechanic recurring through the rules - d6 is used for hear noise, secret doors, surprise, triggering traps, and so on.  The LOTFP rules extend the d6 mechanic to cover a lot more common adventuring tasks and demi human abilities.  I like the simple, consistent mechanic.

The Thief (Specialist)
The LOTFP version of the Thief is now called the Specialist, and the thief type skills have been converted to d6's, aligning them with the demi human abilities and other adventuring skills.  (I never liked the percentage roll mechanic).  More importantly, the Thief gets to allocate his or her own points, allowing him to do some things extremely well, even at first level .  A new Thief could put 3-4 points into "tinker",  allowing a 50% or more chance to succeed at picking locks and disabling traps.  The TSR version of the class wouldn't have a 50% or higher chance until beyond 7th level - an eternity in dog years (or game time).  Of course, the traditional version of the class is well-rounded - the 1st level Thief has a 10-15% across 6 or so abilities, making him or her incompetent across all the skills equally.  I'd rather have a character than can do one or two things well, even at first level.

The flexibility of the Thief skill system is the number one reason I use this rules set - it's my favorite innovation.  I realize 2nd Edition AD&D went this path, but I like the simplicity of d6 skills on a Moldvay style D&D chassis.  The skill system is also modular and easy to extend the number of skills, allowing the class to represent other professions.  In The Black City campaign, I've added skills for Lore and Performance so that Skalds and Bards are also represented by the Specialist.

I'm still waiting for a player in my game to make a Specialist loaded with Climb, Sneak Attack, and Stealth, running around like an Assassin's Creed style parkour expert.  It could be done pretty easily and would be a ton of fun.  You could totally do it with this type of class.

Character Class Alterations
There are subtle changes to all of the character classes.  Fighters are the only characters that increase in fighting ability, and they gain some unique combat options and tactics.  Clerics lose Turn Undead as an ability; it's now a 1st level spell.  Neither Clerics or Magic Users are limited in their weapon choices (although spell casting for Magic Users is still constrained by heavy armor).  The unique capabilities of the demi humans have all been pushed slightly, strengthening their identity - Dwarves are tougher and hardier, Halflings are sneakier, and Elves are elfier.

Magic has been toned down - spells that are extremely flashy or difficult to explain in a real-world setting are removed.  No more flying Magic Users battling in the air with Lightning Bolts, Dr Strange style… and you can't go to the local church and buy a Raise Dead spell every time someone dies, either.  Experience points for Magic Users and Elves have been adjusted down slightly to account for their diminished fire power.

Combat Options
A number of simple combat options have been formalized, like Press (full out attack), Defensive Fighting, and Parry.  The suggested initiative system is "individual initiative", which leads to a more chaotic style of melee.  There are some adjustments to missile fire, an aim rule, and firing into melee.  Otherwise, combat runs much like TSR versions of classic D&D.

Design Repercussions
The changes to the Fighter and the power level of spells has repercussions to how one designs encounters and adventures.  Here are some observations from running the game for dungeon style adventures for the past few years.

First, because the other classes don't advance in fighting ability, scaling the armor class of monsters and opponents with level is a bad idea.  Adventures for this rules set often cover a much wider range of levels because there isn't such a tightly bound "sweet spot" - you often see things like "for levels 1-8" because combat is only one dimension to an exploration game.  As long as you understand this relationship between combat ability and opponent armor class, there's less concern about game balance here versus traditional adventure designs that have to account for the exponential power of wizards or the difficulty of challenging characters loaded with magic items and AC buffs.  Lower level parties absolutely need retainers to help with the front line fighting - but that goes with most old school systems.

The overall damage output of a party doesn't scale as in types of D&D - Magic Users don't have as many mass effect damage spells, and Fighters don't get weapon specialization or similar buffs.  I'd urge catuion about putting many high hit point monsters against a party, as in classic D&D.  Fights will turn quickly into attrition grinds.  Large battles with tough monsters, like G1-3 Against the Giants, would be a rough experience if run using the LOTFP rules.

Undead become excellent horror-oriented monsters under these rules, since it's much harder to nuke the whole monster type just by having a powerful Cleric along.  (That's another case where having a character above the recommended level hoses a traditional adventure module).  Choosing to take Turn Undead instead of other level 1 spells becomes a legitimate resource choice and not an every encounter freebie.

The lower powered rules set compliments my preference of putting campaigns in a real world or pseudo real world setting.

House Rules
There are a few house rules we've been using.  We use a first aid\bind wounds type of rule after combat; I allow a two-weapon fighting variant (where the off-hand weapon either provides a minor attack or defense bonus).  For natural 20's, the current 'critical hit' rule is that the player treats the damage roll as the maximum value (so a critical using a sword deals 8 damage instead of 1-8).  One other thing I've used as a treasure reward is "adamant weaponry", extremely sharp blade weapons that give a bonus to hit, but not to damage.  This has allowed some of the non-fighter classes like Dwarves or Elves to improve their chances against some of the hard to hit monsters.

There is one major change I've considered but haven't pulled the trigger.  I've been meaning to take a closer look at OD&D and explore how it used the d6 for hit points and weapon damage, and see if that would work here.  The simplicity of "nothing but d6's" is intriguing.  For instance, I'd love to be able to track monster hit points by rolling a giant pile of d6's at the start of a combat, and ticking them off on the dice directly.  One can dream!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Design Approach for Death Mountain and Harrow Home Manor

I'm finally getting around to answering a reader's question in a comment (Dwimmer Gan) who posted some questions on the Death Mountain post - I got distracted by game reports and the notes on megadungeon topology\design philosophy.  Here's the question paraphrased:

How do you handle conventional dungeon dressing in the megadungeon?  In other words, why would the god of death, Hades, put a kitchen, lounge, armoire or laboratory in his dungeon?

The node-based approach I use to create the dungeon topology allows for smaller areas to explore, with fairly narrow themes.  A level may end up with a similar number of rooms to the traditional approach (where a huge sheet of graph paper is filled in with rooms and corridors), but the varied themes make it easier to create interesting rooms that complement the theme.  I'll still use random tables to help with inspiration and to get some directional guidance, even if I stray from the strict results of the dice.

Death Mountain, the Greek-styled megadungeon, involves a series of unrelated mini dungeons on each level, along with a signature area featuring a "boss" fight, and a trap-laden gauntlet.  Hades created the plentiful levels of Death Mountain to challenge (and preferably slay) adventurers, so it makes sense for each major level to have a "tomb of horrors" style gauntlet that ramps the challenge level.  Each gauntlet is hard to enter, separating the 'inhabited' areas of the dungeon from the artificial challenges of the gauntlet.  Beating a gauntlet earns the adventuring group some special keys, but it's possible to descend without them.  The boss area  represents a tough zone where the inhabitants are directly connected to Hades' agenda.

Level One of Death Mountain has The Entrance Halls, a series of monumental chambers near the entrance to the mountain housing vast statues and trophies extolling the greatness of Hades; there are some secret shrines of the  Olympians hidden there, a bandit camp, some 'safe areas' for new adventurers to buy and sell, and the fantastic shrine to the Moirae, the Fates (a wheel of fortune type of place with random boons and banes).

There's  a deep chasm overlooked by a series of caves; a wayward artifact of Demeter fuels monstrous growth (the Food of the Gods) so this cave complex is crawling with the giant insects and other monstrous vermin that plague low level dungeons.

One of the distant passages leads out to the mountainside and the Mountain Caves.  Raucous satyrs beat their drums to Pan and lure the fierce Oreads (mountain nymphs) to their wild parties.  Satyrs are the ultraviolent, rowdy troublemakers of the dungeon - I'll use them as Greek-style Orcs.  There's even a scenic cave grotto with an underground waterfall, home to a cave Naiad and the tormented artist inspired to sculpt and paint her image across his workspace.

The main dungeon areas are the Legion Halls, home to a small army of skeletons that patrol much of the first level.  There is a vast necropolis where flesh eating scarabs devour those interred, preparing them for future service in the Legion.  You don't want to die anywhere near the Legion Halls.  The "boss" of the first level is an Eidelon of Hades known as the Ambassador of Bones.  There's a Well of the Dead, a dark howling hole that extends all the way down to the shores of the River Styx.  Beyond the Legion Halls is the MoonGate and the entrance to the first level gauntlet.

I think I have the first 3 levels of Death Mountain sketched out in this way, with 4-5 dungeons on each level, and a list of sample or representative monsters.  Death Mountain isn't meant to be too serious, just a fun way to hew fairly close to the tropes of standard D&D, but I also wanted to make a dungeon that would be fairly interesting some day for the kids and family.  They love the Percy Jackson young adult books, and the theme is rife with possibilities.

Another megadungeon taking up space in the brainstorming notebook is Harrow Home Manor.  I don't think I've talked about it much recently but there are plenty of labeled posts on the blog; Harrow Home is a ruined manse on the Yorkshire Moors.  Escaping the fires of the inquisition, sorcerers and wizards from around Europe came to Harrow Home and carved out vast underground palaces and lairs beneath the desolate heath.  There's a dark presence deep beneath the ground there, a growing cyst containing a Neolithic horror.  Many of the magi have made it their life's work to study the otherworldly emanations of the cyst and use it to fuel their experiments.

What's been so interesting about the design of Harrow Home is that each mini-dungeon is the lair of a different mad wizard.  They're all paranoid and chaotic, providing opportunities for enterprising (and unscrupulous) adventurers to prey on the weak, make alliances with the strong, and act as agents for some of the powers.

For example, consider the lair of Nicoletto the Reanimator.  Hook-nosed and ill cast, Nicoletto sits on a crooked throne, wearing a metal cap and rough fur cape.  His warrens are filled with alchemical homonculi imbued with the lustful spirits of outsiders (demons).  (I realized after writing up the character, he sounded a bit like the Moleman with his Moloids).  Nicoletto's lair is full of spacious, well-appointed living spaces with high peaked halls.  Isolated and paranoid, he's filled his living areas with traps and chutes that drop intruders down into the warrens of his misshapen creations.  The ever-present traps makes it tough on his servants and guests!  Because Nicoletto needs a steady stream of reagents and victims for his experiments, he's one of the first magicians that can be targeted when players defeat some of the bandits and thugs that camp in the cellars of the old manse and learn of Nicoletto's contact with the surface world.

Harrow Home is intriguing to me because each mini dungeon is essentially character-driven; the design task is to identify the mad wizard and their project first, figure out how they fit into the wizard politics of Harrow Home, and then start sketching out their personal dungeons and lair.  It would be interesting to tackle the setting as a group of players, because each new mad wizard's lair offers so many opportunities.  Consider the smarmy alchemist above, Nicoletto - do you treat Nicolleto's lair as a heist, learning about him from others, and figure out how to break in, infiltrate, and loot his treasury?  Do you knock down the door and try a frontal assault, like any other dungeon delve?  Or do you attempt a political approach, and find out how he can provide information to take down an even bigger fish?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Dungeons with Hexes

Last week's post (megadungeon topology) looked at alternate approaches to laying out your sprawling campaign dungeon.  Inspired by the vastness of Tolkien's Moria, I've been drawn towards creating megadungeons that act more like wilderness adventures than depicting endless 10' corridors across a gigantic sheet of graph paper.

Plus, it was a chance to pay homage to the High Gygaxian way of doing things - Descent into the Depths of the Earth and Vault of the Drow.  Where the old ways are still the best ways.

Below are some examples demonstrating how I've used a hex approach in the home campaign, the Black City.  First up is a look at the Transit Tunnels.  The surface of the ruined city is a hex crawl composed of tumble down blocks, where locations with extant buildings or points of interest are marked by letters.  I used the outline of the city as a foot print for the dungeon level to plot, spatially, where the entrances to the dungeon from the surface city were located.  Continuity is a thing, right?  From there, it made sense to treat the first level like an extensive tunnel system similar to a modern day subway.  The locations of the small "mini dungeons" were plotted as nodes.  I prefer having multiple smaller dungeons, over a large 100+ room level, as it's easier to build strong themes into the distinct spaces.  Can't escape the whole "must be rational" thing.  Let there be a method to the madness, as the classic article once said.

Thus was born the Transit Tunnels.  Here's a view of the map as well as one of the individual dungeons.  It goes to show you don't need any actual, you know, map making talent or mad software skillz, for something to work well at the table.

Scheme for the Transit Tunnels - the Well of Woe was at "A"
 The "Dragon's Den" mini dungeon

The dungeon map is from "The Dragon's Den", listed as node E on the Transit Tunnels.  At the end of the large east-west tunnel in the center of the map was the frozen lair of the white dragon, and the humongous chamber south of that passage was the lair of Zoltan the Welder, one of the alien super intelligences that could manifest a physical form and interact with the world.  Zoltan had enslaved some Svartalfs, and the players took great relish in destroying it (the Assault on Zoltan).  My printed version of that map has all the numbers and hastily scrawled notes.

The players are now exploring the next level down, the voluminous "Warrens of Decay".  Once again, I used the surface of the city as the starting footprint to plot where entrances from above allowed ingress to the warrens, and plotted dead zones for any of the surface structures that extended to the deep levels.  For instance, the Spire of Thaumaturgy (north of the glacier) has an elevator into the deeps - that needed to be carried through the warrens.

Hex map for the Warrens
For folks that read the game reports, the players started near area 28.  The Cairn of the Dead Roman is location 6 in the lower part of the map, and the Kingdom of the Cave Men is area 2.  The domed structure where the players disintegrated the Stone Walker is near areas 9 and 10.  Many of the locales are mapped as small dungeons, making this place exactly like a night-bound wilderness hex crawl with many small lairs.  I won't say more about the Warrens, as this map is currently active in play, and any players reading the blog could pick up inadvertent spoilers.

The impetus for these posts on megadungeon topology was a comment on Death Mountain by Dwimmer Gan; I still need to circle back and talk about my plans for level 1 of Death Mountain!  Both Death Mountain and the structure for Harrow Home show a different take on this node-and-line based approach to top down design.  I'll talk through how they're shaping up in my notebooks.  It's a curious practice, but I design game spaces via text first, moving from notebooks to a text file, and drawing the actual maps as one of the last tasks.  I suppose that makes me an auditory person (rather than kinesthetic or visual).  Or maybe I'm just bad at maps.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

I've Been to that Place, Too

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain... 
-Roy Batty, Bladerunner

Jim Flame Princess sent out an update for his recent campaign (the hardcover LOTFP referee book) to showcase a new piece of art.  The hardcover of the rules book came out extremely well, so I backed the referee book campaign as well.  Here's the latest piece of art:

Art from the new LOTFP referee book
I've been to that place!  Well, not me personally, since I'm usually the referee, but it feels like I'm there with the players, as I create the scene through words and gestures and the action unfolds in our shared imaginations.

I appreciate that modules are valuable for creating shared experiences.  Reminiscing with your friends about exploits from the campaign is great fun, but published adventures allow us to share those reminiscences with other enthusiasts in the hobby who weren't at the same table.  "I remember hearing about how your group defeated Strahd von Zarovitch… now when we got trapped in Castle Ravenloft, here's how it went down…"

Like anything, the ability to relate a tale briefly and well is paramount.  I don't mean to encourage the long-winded, "Let me tell you about my character…" monologues.

I'm usually not a meme person, but it would be interesting to hear brief recollections from various published modules in a form similar to that Bladerunner quote above.  It could be something recent (an OSR publication) or one of the classics from the hobby.  We can have some fun trying to identify from where these oblique references originated.  Feel free to drop your "Roy Batty" style memories in the comments.  I'll get a few started:

  • I've seen the endless dead pour off Death Mountain and sweep aside the human villages below like a hungry tsunami.
  • I watched with morbid curiosity as a pair of foolhardy dwarves failed to outrun a giant rolling boulder, while humming the Indiana Jones theme.
  • I've sat to dinner with the ghostly inhabitants of a mist-shrouded castle and tasted food brought by spirits - and watched as some of my friends joined those spectral revelers, forever.

Before I forget, does anyone else recognize the picture?  In other words - Who else has stood beneath the ozone sky and watched the evolved Neanderthals twist in their bio-capsules?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Megadungeon Topology

A reader posted some feedback about the Death Mountain idea, and I realized my reply was becoming meaty enough to warrant its own post.  The question from Dwimmer Gan had to do with dungeon dressing one of those gigantic graph-based megadungeons.

To launch the discussion, let's start with the term "megadungeon".  The popular conception of the megadungeon seems to be one or more sheets of graph paper, absolutely packed with rooms and corridors.  The difference between a regular dungeon and a megadungeon seems fairly subjective to me, but let's say anything with 100 rooms per level is moving directionally towards a megadungeon.  There are usually other defining characteristics applied to  the megadungeon as well, but those are tangential to my point here today - I'm focused on pen and paper presentation.  Just keep that picture in your head - lots of graph paper, filled with lots of rooms.  You've all seen the style.

I would have quit the hobby a long time ago trying to stock one of those gigantic maps.

Sketching maps is one of the least interesting things to me.  90% of my dungeon design is done sans graph paper, in notebooks;  I spend my time imagining the spaces, set pieces, and environments of the dungeon.  Putting little numbers in rooms and trying to slap dungeon dressing in there makes me cringe. However, the map making side of things is an area I'd like to improve!

The formative example for me was  the Mines of Moria.  Tolkien's sprawling creation was seared in my memory as the epitome of the vast, underworld space, the dungeon as mythic underworld with its goblin kingdoms and centers of power.  But how would a dungeon master take such an expansive vision and reduce it to graph paper and notebooks for use at the table?  There was a Mines of Moria game book for Rolemaster (bye ICE) that presented Moria as a vast underground wilderness.  The ICE product was ambitious (and difficult to use) but it was tremendous at freeing me from thinking purely in terms of 8 1/2 by 11 sheets of paper filled with endless rooms, doors, and corridors.

Descent into the Depths of the Earth
Here's the thing - Gygax pioneered the "underworld as wilderness" approach way earlier with Descent into the Depths of the Earth and the Vault of the Drow.  (You really can never go wrong returning to the classic Gygaxian adventures for inspiration and problem solving - still a massive fan of the man's work).   Creating the mythic underworld as a vast hex crawl was the missing piece for me.  The approach requires a node and line-based design.  Nodes represent dungeons and cave complexes, and lines are the vast tunnels of the underworld, allowing travel between the sprawling, Stygian caverns of the underworld.  Another inspirational product that borrowed the same approach was Thunderspire Labyrinth from the 4E era - one of the few 4E adventures I greatly enjoyed and would still recommend.  The ideas in it are fantastic.

This node-based style feels EPIC, and supports vast underground complexes worthy of Moria.  It lets you separate your major areas geographically and establish strong themes at each node.  The dungeons and lairs are not so expansive that it's exhausting to stock them.  Putting more distance between lairs, factions, and other inhabitants of the dungeon enhances the verisimilitude.  It's much easier to manage dungeon dressing and similar details by starting with a small, strongly themed lair or mini-dungeon complex.  And from a preparation perspective, it allows the referee to develop the mythic underworld in much smaller chunks -  one mini dungeon at a time  - instead of having to generate a sprawling 100-room complex.  It combines most of the best aspects of the wilderness hex crawl and the graph-based dungeon into a seamless continuum.

Rationality is my shortcoming.  I have tremendous respect for folks that can make those intricate, brilliant fun-house designs, jam-packed on the graph paper, and loosening up my graph-based mapping style is a work-in-progress.  But hopefully I've given you some ideas on a different approach.

I haven't exhausted the topic - putting theory into practice, I'll lay out how this approach has worked in the Black City campaign, my ideas for the first level of Death Mountain, and even my notes for Harrow Home Manor (Death Mountain and Harrow Home are the other megadungeon campaign settings brewing across various notebooks).

Monday, November 4, 2013

Death of a Valkyrie - Black City Game 27

One of the players delivered a fine recap at the top of the session, reminding everyone that we ended last week in the vast dank caverns beneath the city, in the Kingdom of the Cave Men.  The party had made a loose alliance with the nigh immortal Blue Lady, the living goddess of the Neanderthals, joining her for a veggie feast.  Tonight they were planning an excursion into the wild spaces of the caverns to assault a domed building in the fungal forest.

My group is always pretty funny, but when they're on their game, I spend more than half the night laughing.  After the recap, some of the players improvised a bit of "Men At Work".  Older folks from the MTV generation will remember the tune:

Cause we are livin' in a land down under
With blue women and lots of plunder

I met a strange lady, she made me nervous
She just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich

One of my table manners is to rotate the party "caller" (I do use the caller role) based on who brought snacks that week.  Keyser was this week's snack person, which meant action.  Dice and carnage.  His hands start to shake if we spend too much time kibitzing at the top of the session, a condition assuaged only by rolling a d20 to smash something.  His character paces anxiously any time there's a long parley (secretly hoping for hostilities, I'm sure).  He changed his name from Brutok the Strong to Brutok Bearslayer after he killed a frickin' polar bear.  His war cry is a monotone "Brutok, smash!"  With Brutok in charge, tonight would be filled with action.

The group was quickly mobilized and set out into the wilds.  The plan was to navigate back to the "cairn of the dead Roman" as a landmark, then head due north into the fungal forest, aiming for a gigantic pillar, and find the elevator on the other side.  It would be a 2 hour hike.  They wanted to return to the surface to the topside camp, switch out some gear, and bring down their BFG (the alien disintegrator used for minig) to see what happened when they shot the stone walker with it.

There was a couple of wandering encounters along the way - scouting, stealth, and careful play guided the party around a swarm of giant carnivorous flies buzzing over a large carcass; in the next hour, a mob of giant bugs (fire beetles) tracked them down and the party formed a fighting formation to fend off the beetles.  Borghild, one of the fierce lady Odin priests, impaled a beetle with a natural 20, which as usual triggered a chorus of Ride of the Valkyries from the player group:  Daa-da-da-da-DAA-da, da-da-da-DAA-da, da-da-da-DAAA-da, da-da-da-daaaaaaa!  I think if we drank beer during gaming, my group would rowdily sing and clank their mugs together most of the night (wearing horned helmets, too).

After a few hours to ascend the elevator, rest, and sort out the equipment, it wasn't long in table time before they were at the clearing of the domed building, waiting for the stone walker to make its circuit.  One odd thing they noticed while staking out the building was a pillar extending from the top of the dome, apparently all the way up to the cavern roof (lost in darkness).  They caught a flash of light where the pillar met the domed roof of the building, and thought they saw a many-legged spider thing quickly scurry around to the back side of the pillar and up towards the cavern ceiling.

Their plan for the stone walker involved using the alien torc as a disguise to get close to it, then blast it at short range with the mining harness.  It would all depend on whether there was some kind of organic brain in there susceptible to the torc's mind magic.  When you need to risk someone, send in the halfling.  Ben Underfoot put on the torc and stepped out of the forest into no-man's land, awaiting the crunch-crunch-crunch of the 6-legged stone juggernaut.  It stopped in front of the halfling, scanned him with its blue eye rays, and then kept walking.  He gave the party a thumbs up and a grin, fell in behind the walker, and followed it around the whole building, scouting the entrance.

The torc makes the wearer look innocuous and harmless to the viewer; to most of the characters, the halfling looked like an unarmed waiflike child.  They had no idea how he might have looked to the alien guardian.  The torc leads to all sorts of jokes between Brutok and Timur the Elf.  Brutok:  "Put on the torc, elf, I want to see how you look when you're harmless.  Wait, there's no difference.  Maybe you broke it.  Put it on again.  Nope, I still don't see any difference".  He's gotten the elf with that one a couple of times.

Once they knew the torc magic worked on the guardian, they gave the torc over to Timur, who lugged the mining harness out into the path of the guardian, waiting for it to get real close before blasting it in the face with the disintegrator.  The party watched from concealment in the fungal trees.  The guardian was either going to miss its saving throw and turn to dust particles, or immediately crush the elf to a pulp with a brutal stomp.  The drama was palpable during the saving throw roll.  The elf is still here, so you know how that turned out.

The entrance to the dome was through a tunnel (like an igloo entrance) and it presented a challenge.  When the first rank used a green passkey gem to open the door, there was an airlock-like area with an opposite door.  Stepping in, the door behind them closed, but the door in front didn't open.  A series of beeps and descending lights on the wall indicated a count-down, and the players needed to decide (quickly) whether to push a button or not.  They didn't push it, and the room doused them with acid!  After the acid bath, the injured front four (all fighters) stumbled out into a dimly lit control room.  It was full of "plasticals", the alien-headed workers that operate some of the functional work stations in the complex, and the four injured fighters were in a battle for their lives.

Over the next few rounds, the succeeding waves of player characters took turns entering the air lock, pressing the button, and avoiding the acid bath.  That left the fighters on their own for a few rounds until reinforcements got through the air lock sequence.

The control room was oval shaped, with an elevated walkway surrounding a sunken area in the center where the aliens had work stations and a holographic map table.  The characters were on the walk way at the south entrance, with guard plasticals on either side attacking them with clubs.  Meanwhile, the two brainy plasticals from the floor got onto the north side of the walkway; one of them ditched down a west side passage, while the other held out it's arm (and braced its wrist) - one of the players described it as "Iron Man getting ready to blast someone with his repulsor."  That seemed apt, since a moment later, he blasted Brutok with a lightning bolt after the dwarf dropped the first guard, giving the electro-plastical a clear shot.   (The electro guys are technically 'Plastical Mark III' in my bestiary notes.)

Visin was dropped to zero hit points, also caught in the electrical blast.  Mustafa was whittling away the other guard plastical (a Mark I model) on the left side of the combat.  The next wave of characters brought the clerics.  Mustafa was the recipient of a Heroism spell for Borghild, boosting him to fight as a 6th level fighter, and he quickly finished the Mark I.  The other cleric, Bottvild, cast a Cure Light Wounds on Visin, getting him off zero hit points for next round.

Unfortunately, that put Bottvild in the line of fire of the next lightning zap, 12 hit points worth!  Brutok made his saving throw, taking 6, but Bottvild only had 6 hp at 3rd level (she's a retainer that's had some seriously unlucky hit point rolls).  An ugly black hole was blasted in her chest, and she died instantly, taking the full 12.  Borghild, the 4th level cleric (and her sister), went berserk, charging the lightning guy with her spear.  She and Brutok finished that guy off, as he wasn't able to get any more lightning blasts off under the flurry of attacks.

The other Mark III returned to the room, bringing a third Mark I guard with it, and the Mark III started revving up its own lightning blast to shoot the party from the west side of the oval.   Timur wasn't having any of it, and lugged the mining harness into position to send a disintegration ray at it.  The Mark III was missed (ie, made its saving throw), but its bodyguard, the Mark I, was vaporized.  Mustafa, still under the Heroism effect, charged into the face of the Mark III, slashing and cutting with dual scimitars.  The Mark III electro guys are plated with metal, making them difficult to injure, so this became an attrition fight.  The Mark III kept retreating down the hallway and blasting the desert warrior at point blank with lightning strikes, while Mustafa whittled its life down.  He would have easily died without the level boosts from the Heroism.  Timur called for Mustafa to dodge, and the fighter stepped aside just as Timur finished the alien off with Magic Missiles, ending the fight.

We had to stop there, because we were 15 minutes over, and we're trying to get folks home on time for work and school Monday.  Overall, it was a strong performance by the players - all the main characters contributed significantly to the successes.  See you guys in another week or so.

Current Player Characters:
Mustafa of Arabia, a scimitar wielding desert warrior (L4)
Brutok Bearslayer, a dwarf (L4)
Borghild, a Norse cleric of Odin (L4)
Timur, Russian Elf (L3)
Vitaly the Lucky, Russian Elf (L3)
Ben Underfoot, Halfling Scout (L2)

Retainers or NPCs with the party:
Agnar Beigarth, a Northman fighter (L4)
Tribunas, Byzantine magic user (L2)
Visin Thorsteinson, Norse Fighter (L3)
Hunlaf the Saxon, Thief (L2)
Bottvild (cleric L3)

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Return to the Black City - Game 26

After a 6-7 month break, the Black City campaign is back on.  Overcoming the 'bumps in the road', we fielded a near complete group last weekend (6 out of 7 regulars) and the party made their first foray into the "Warrens of Decay".

It literally took me most of the week last week just to recompile my notes, reestablish where we left off, and build some refresher notes.  I'll put a super-brief campaign recap here to help orient any new readers that enjoy game reports.

The Black City is a ruined, alien city on the frozen shore of the island of Thule, north of Norway (technically, the ruins are on the shore along a fjord, but you get the idea).  A viking raider, Bergfinn the Bold, discovered the ruins several years ago, and progressively larger raiding parties have returned with him each year.  Now the island hosts a temporary trading camp on the shores of the fjord, where dozens of longships and knarrs get hauled onto the beach each season.  The ship crews head south again before the weather turns too poor.

The sprawling remains of the city are divided by a glacier; the ruins north of the glacier are more dangerous and mostly unexplored (the party's only excursion beyond the glacier ended in screaming and many deaths).  Explorers roam the southern ruins, excavating tumbled cyclopean buildings to dig out alien crystals, gemstones, and strange artifacts that command a premium in southern markets.  People that die in the ruins return to life as gjengangers - flesh eating ghouls - and the ruins are also littered with traps, like the giant stone heads (Watchers) that incinerate trespassers, or skewer them with projectiles.  Explorers that spend too much time in the city frequently develop "dungeon madness" and devolve into berserkers, never returning to camp.  But the most dangerous opponent out there is definitely the other crews, since their loyalty is only to their captain and they're all seeking treasure.  The campaign has involved that 'every man for himself' gold rush ethos.

For the first couple dozen sessions, the players primarily explored the vast tunnels under the city, a vast series of arteries I called "the Transit Tunnels", clearing most of the mini dungeons discovered along the way.  At this point of the campaign, a few of the original characters are level 4, and they're ready to delve deeper  than the Transit Tunnels.  All they know about the next level down is that it's cavern-like, dank, humid, and moist.  Their only glimpse below revealed a vast forest of giant toadstools in an endless cavern.

I had considered writing a recap on the political situation back in Trade Town - the party's allies, rivals, current events.  But the thought of relaying all that additional background bored me, so  I can only imagine how it would be to read.  We'll skip that stuff unless it becomes relevant for the narrative.  (You're welcome.)

Long ago, the party had discovered a set of clamshell doors in the ground that concealed a shaft that went right down to the caverns, stopping at level 1 below the city (in a place they called The Mist Dungeon).  They chose to marshal various allies to fortify the area around the doors and set up a secure outpost there - both to block rival adventurers from using the same elevator, and to also ensure they could return (since the elevator needed to be operated from the surface).  There were other ladders and access tunnels throughout the first level dungeons that led to the caverns, but after weighing the options, they decided that establishing firm control of the elevator was the best approach.

The cast of characters that went on the excursion is listed below (at the end).  They took a week's worth of food, and only two days worth of water (due to the weight), so they'd have to find a water source if they were going to spend more than a few days exploring.   The "elevator" is basically an open platform that descends due to an unseen mechanism below the platform; as they dropped the 80 feet into the dark cavern, the characters were completely exposed, and gigantic insects occasionally flittered near the shaft of light up above.

The elevator placed them right in the middle of the fungal forest.  During the descent, they saw lights far to the north and south, indicating structures, and perhaps intelligence.  Lighted windows hinted at a vast mound or tower north of a ravine in the upper half of the cavern.  They estimate the cavern is at least a mile across, with a vaulted roof that seemed to be held up by columns.

Their first destination was a dimly lit clearing east of where they descended - they saw a dim glow and a structure only a few hundred yards away.  Once they knew the landing was secure, they formed a marching order, and sent the halfling up front to lead.  His knowledge of "bushcraft" would help identify dangerous giant fungi and avoid spores and giant molds.  They tromped off through the muck and filth.

(DM's Note:  I have the Warrens of Decay mapped and structured like a hex crawl - I'm essentially treating it like a small scale wilderness adventure).

Before reaching the clearing, the party ran into a war-band of primitive humans (neanderthals) wearing piecemeal armor made from gigantic insect parts.  The neanderthals turned out to be friendly, almost worshipful, and after pantomime and non-verbal communication,  the party allowed the cave men to guide them away from the clearing towards the south side.  The neanderthals had described a large, stomping monster back in the clearing that guarded a place of death; the group's halfling and a thief scouted it out, corroborated the giant 6-legged stone horror was real, and so they decided to follow the cave men.

Along the way, they encountered another group of cave men, gatherers out collecting foodstuff from the edge of the fungal forest.  A swarm of giant flies attacked, and Timur the elf impressed all the primitives by putting the giant bugs to Sleep.  The cave men took special care to point out a Christian burial cairn (complete with grave marker and cross) atop a hill, indicating that someone like them was buried up there from long ago.  They weren't the first people to visit the caverns!

Side note:  early on in the campaign, the party discovered some Latin graffiti in one of the Transit Tunnel dungeons;  they've discovered archaic Roman gear in the dungeons; they even thought they saw living legionnaires through a scrying device that revealed glimpses of the deeper levels.   They fully expect to find living Roman descendants somewhere in the dungeons.

The cave men guided the party to a large palisade fortress made of gigantic lashings, complete with guard towers, gates, and other defensive measures.  The cave men had a remarkable settlement beyond the walls, with crude gardens, animal pens, and a stone palace carved into the cavern wall.  The tribesmen themselves lived in a large series of caves spread across the rock face at different elevations.

The party was brought to the palace to meet "the Blue Lady".

The rest of the night was a roleplaying exercise as the group made contact with the Blue Lady.  She wasn't a neanderthal; she looked nearly human, but with bluish skin and silvery hair.  Tall and lithe, she was draped in gossamer that kept no secrets about her (attractive) figure.  She addressed the players from the balcony, in perfect Latin, and then had her worshipful cave men bring them into the audience hall, to the accompaniment of drums and ceremony.

The palace was filled with wonders and treasures and displays of decadence.  The Lady indicated that she hadn't had surface visitors in hundreds of years, and was pleased to entertain; the players were taken by a cave man chamberlain to a watery grotto in order to wash up and make themselves presentable for dinner.

Over dinner, the Blue Lady plied the players with questions about the surface world, the Vikings, and what brought men back to the city; they asked her lots of questions about the cave men, the caverns, and what she knew about the city.  So far what they've learned is that she's very old, if not immortal; when she came to the caverns, the cave men were barely surviving the depredations of the various predators and parasites out in the caverns.  She guided the early cave men to this spot where her palace was built, and has shepherded them ever since.  They treat her like their goddess.

The Blue Lady has a number of specific projects she's pursuing, which keeps her rooted to the area, and the players didn't get access to the labs or private areas deeper in the palace.  Timur the Elf presented himself as a fellow scientist and wizard, and later that evening learned that she carefully breeds the cave men, arranging births and marriages, keeping meticulous records around their heredity.  It seemed like she had creepy intentions for the characters, and was on the prowl for a consort, someone willing to give up the surface world and the adventuring life and stay as her pet in the palace.

The main thing is that the players negotiated the privilege to use the cave man fortress as a sort of home base - it offered protection, fresh water, and the Blue Lady was knowledgeable about the larger cavern.  The players made inquiries about the forest clearing and the huge "stone walker" that patrolled it, and began to draw up plans on how to assault it for the next game.  Meanwhile, they're fairly aware they're playing into the Blue Lady's clutches, whatever may be her secret agenda and motives.

Current Player Characters:
Mustafa of Arabia, a scimitar wielding desert warrior (L4)
Brutok Bearslayer, a dwarf (L4)
Borghild, a Norse cleric of Odin (L4)
Timur, Russian Elf (L3)
Vitaly the Lucky, Russian Elf (L3)
Ben Underfoot, Halfling Scout (L2)

Retainers or NPCs with the party:
Agnar Beigarth, a Northman fighter (L4)
Tribunas, Byzantine magic user (L2)
Visin Thorsteinson, Norse Fighter (L3)
Hunlaf the Saxon, Thief (L2)
Bottvild (cleric L3)