Friday, February 28, 2014

Aaron Allston Passed Away

I was saddened to read this morning that Aaron Allston passed away.  The power trio of D&D authors that shaped my early years with the game were Tom Moldvay, Bruce Heard, and Aaron.  Aaron wrote for TSR at a time when the D&D line had a lot of flexibility for innovative products, and his name is on The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, The Hollow World, The Dawn of the Emperors Boxed Set, The Wrath of the Immortals set, the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, and other Mystara products like the Poor Wizard's Almanacs.

I think it makes fine sense to do a retrospective and take an objective look at these products and how they shaped the ongoing market - they're all still sitting on my game shelf.  But not today.  I wasn't blogging when Tom Moldvay passed in 2007, but I would have liked to have done the same thing as I'm doing here:  take a moment to mark the author's passing, remember their contributions to the hobby, and express thanks for the many fine hours spent with friends enjoying their work.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Problems of Gods

"Of utmost importance is the relationship between cleric and deity…"
AD&D 1E DMG p39

First Edition has such a curious stance on the subject of deities.  The Dungeon Master's Guide proscribes quite clearly that each cleric should pick a deity, that the DM should develop a list of observances and practices for the cleric, and that the player needs to follow along.  The cleric's continued service is required to gain all their higher level spells.

When was the last time an old school game laid out observances and practices for the player's deities?  For that matter, how often do you even require a specific deity?  Maybe I'm just not paying attention to the campaign settings - or we've all bypassed anthropomorphic deities and created institutions and philosophies for the clerics in our games.  It seems preferable to pledging fealty to an ideal than an immortal super dude with cool powers and a fancy crib on an outer plan.

Of course, AD&D goes further than requiring a deity and some basic observances - it expects the DM to measure the player's behaviors and grade them.  Continuing that section from the DMG:  "The deity (you, the DM) will point out all of the transgressions, state a course of action which must be followed to retain good graces, grant the spells which the deity deems are necessary to complete the course (but never in excess of those which the cleric could normally use!) and pronounce anathema on the cleric until satisfactory redemption has been made."

Yikes.  The 1E advice turns the DM into a middle manager with the cleric player as employee.  Set some performance standards, hold regular performance reviews and coaching sessions, and be prepared to follow up that feedback with specific examples of the improper behavior!  I can’t really tell if Gary is joking here.  D&D really does prepare you for a job in the corporate world after all.

4E gave some behavioral advice for the players, too - things like, "You are a follower of the Death God:  you wear lots of black, have picnics in the cemetery, and carry a dog-eared volume of vampire fiction in your backpack…"  (I kid, I kid).  But the 4E approach did try to give the players a set of short and practical tips to act as role playing hints, without expecting the DM to grade their performances.  Progress.

The old Deities and Demigods Cyclopedia reinforced the focus on clerical behavior:  "Deities of all types, from the highest to the lowest, expect a great deal of work from their clerics in return for the power to perform miracles.  Clerics are expected to behave in a manner exemplary of the teachings of their faith."  One thing I really appreciated from that book is the focus on Divine Awe and Divine Horror - the fact that characters below 10th-12th level are likely going to be cowering in reverence or utter horror.  I never had a god appear in any of my AD&D 1E games back then, but I'd definitely take advantage of those rules.  So - it's not great that you (as DM) are expected to micro manage the behavior of the clerics in the game, but if a god needs to show up and slap a verbal warning or write-up on the malefactor, you get to throw down some overwhelming Divine Awe.

Has anyone seen divine encounters "done right?"  I can't think of too many examples in the canon.  There's that chance Iuz and St Cuthbert get involved in the later stages of original Temple of Elemental Evil - there's an encounter where they can show as part of an escalating supernatural conflict; once they appear, some powerful magicks are quickly thrown around to bolster the opposing forces, and then the two deities retreat to allow the mortals to settle their own affairs.  I always thought that scene was flavorful, but then the gods get out of the way and let the players get down to business.

These are the thoughts that are concerning me right now - how to put meddlesome, humanistic deities in the game without becoming "the dungeon master as middle-manager"; how to make the gods spectacular and awesome; how to have the gods act as meddlesome irritants without them becoming game-wrecking DMPC's like Time of Troubles or Dragonlance

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Dungeon as Estuary

Context:  A gigantic, multi-level dungeon, where dungeon level = monster level.

Problem:  Why do creatures of the same relative power level congregate on the same dungeon level?

Answer:  The dungeon represents an estuary, a confluence of diametric forces - Chaos and Law.  The very deepest sections of the dungeon open upon otherworldly vistas and allow the forces of Chaos to bleed into the world; the surface bathes in the light of the sun, the ultimate symbol of Law.  The dungeon is a brackish mix of diminishing Law and increasing Chaos the deeper it extends.

The powerful magical monsters and creatures of Chaos can only freely exist in the depths of the dungeon, closer to the source of ultimate Chaos.  Each level they ascend brings them closer to Law and increases their discomfort; at most, such creatures will normally be found a maximum of 1-2 dungeon levels above their normal encounter level, returning to the depths at the first opportunity.

Likewise, the increasing power level of the denizens of the dungeon depths places a limit on how deep surface dwellers can penetrate the dungeon depths before the danger overwhelms them.

I'm not sure how far I can ride this particular metaphor, but I was looking for a solution as to why orcs live on level 1, and gnolls on level 2, and ogres on level 3, and the ogres sometimes raid level 1 and 2, but have their permanent lairs on level 3, and so on.

This idea that Chaos and Law drives each other away can be taken beyond the dungeon, too.  Creatures of Chaos have free reign on the surface during the hours of night, when the withering eye of the sun is hidden away.  Chaotic fairy magic melts with the coming dawn, and the undead return to their graveyards and tombs before the first ray of sun.

I keep hearing "Night on Bald Mountain" melting away into "Ave Maria" when I think of it this way, but that's just me.  I've seen Disney's Fantasia movies over and over again.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Harrow Home Level 1 - The Thurman Gang

Here's the final bit of Harrow Home level 1.  The map is here:  Harrow Home level 1.  Technically, I still want to put together a wandering monster table and put notes together for "The Diary of Wil Fuller", but this completes the keyed sections of the map.

Thanks all for the lively discussion the past few days around random dungeon generation - it's given me a lot to think about!  Harrow Home level 1 is the polar opposite of the random approach.

The Thurman Gang

Thurman is an aging robber who made a pact with the masters of Harrow Home years ago.  In addition to payment for services rendered, he is supplied monthly with bottles of a unique potion - "Wolfsblood" - a concoction that enhances aggression, strength, and dexterity.  He calls his men "the Reavers" and has organized them into a warrior's cult.  Bandits, robbers, and ex-soldiers are recruited into the Reavers if they're intimidating, violent, and capable of following orders.  The Reavers are sent all over the north to arrange robberies, kidnappings, and black market purchases for the masters in the deeps of the dungeon.  One mission might take them to a distant vicarage, stealing a rare book; the next is in London, to kidnap the descendant of a wizard's enemy.

Thurman thinks of himself as a Viking lord of old, and treats the Reavers like the loyal retainers of a Viking jarl.  Membership involves oaths of service in return for a silver ring, a ceremonial silver dagger, and a brand (the Norse runes for wolf) seared into the member's chest.  Once a month, the Reavers return to the lair in time for the full moon, gathering in the chamber of ritual for the monthly consumption of wolfsblood potion.  Reavers that miss the ritual go through intense withdrawal and suffer debilitating weakness.

In game terms, the Reavers are treated as "berserkers" - while they use firearms and missiles at range, once combat is fully joined they wade into battle and let bloodlust take over.  Their eyes flare red and their features take on a bestial cast, a side effect of the wolfsblood potion.  They don't check morale and always fight to the death.  They have traded humanity for power.  Each reaver carries a silver dagger with a wolfshead pommel (worth 50sp), a silver ring (worth 25sp), and 3-12sp in crowns and shillings.  For convenience, here's the bestiary entry on reavers:

Bandits, Reavers
AC as Leather, MV 12, HD 1 + 1, Atk 1, Damage 1-8, ML 12, AL C.  1-8 appearing.  Reavers are bandits who have joined the Thurman Gang and taken on The Mark of the Beast (a rune-like scar on the chest).  They never check morale and get +2 to hit in combat.  Thurman's Reavers prefer heavy melee weapons - axes, mauls, and archaic swords - and each carries an ornate silver dagger.  (1-2 in 6 carries a firearm).

The descriptions of the lair below assumes a daytime encounter, when members of the gang are sleeping in, under a low state of alertness.  The lair is more active in the evening.  3-12 additional members are present during the days preceding and during the full moon.  (If the referee isn't tracking the lunar cycle, make it a 1 on a d8 chance).

Members of the gang know some rumors about the dungeons.  The "big three" power brokers in the deep levels include a wizard named Gregorius - a cruel mage that appears like a child; the Mistress, creator of Harrow Home; and a creepy specimen they call "the Skull" - some kind of undead monster.  They're familar with the Conways, a gruesome gang of cannibals on the second level, and they frequently do side jobs for Nicoletto, also on level 2.  If asked about the Wretched, they know he was an apprentice to one of the Big Three that stepped out of line ages ago and was cursed.  His servant (the Freak) has been replaced a couple of times since Thurman has been around.

The group has a powerful enemy - the werewolf matriarch of Osmotherly (Osmotherly is a remote hamlet on the edge of the western moors).  Gregorious holds a progenitor wolf (an ancient European werewolf) trapped in the dungeons, and makes the wolfsblood draft from a mixture of the monster's blood and magical reagents.  Thurman has guessed the source of wolfsblood potion, and the ceremonial silver daggers carried by members of the gang are a hedge against lycanthrope attacks on the moors.  Gregorius has warded areas of the dungeon, but the werewolves always find a way down.

The reavers can travel by day and look like ordinary people when not raging.  Members of the gang are good trackers.  If the reavers survive an attack on the lair, they try to track the characters back to any nearby villages or towns.  The referee is encouraged to establish ambushes, assassination attempts, and similar reprisals until the lair is clear and Thurman is finally defeated.  Thurman gains reinforcements as agents on missions return to the lair.

Note:  Rooms 24 through 34 are not built from brick and plaster like other sections of the undercroft; the stone has the texture of limestone but is not constructed of individual blocks or stones - it was stone-shaped through magic.  The doors are wooden with metal hinges and are hand crafted.

22.  Stairs Down
A large staircase descends down here.  It follows the brick and plaster construction of the rest of the dungeon.  The door to room 23 is barred from the other side.

23.  Bandit Entrance

A wooden ladder descends into this room from the trap door in the floor of the gatehouse.

Note:  there is a permanent illusion placed on the north passage, such that the wall appears to be solid.  The door to the south is a false door.  Chimes on the back side of the south door ring when it's opened, revealing a blank brick wall.  The door to room 22 is barred from this side.

The illusiory wall is partially translucent when viewed from the north - like peering through a hazy curtain.  Guards in room 24 are aware of loud noises and light sources in room 23.

24.  Guard Room
Two guards are posted in the room, but there's a 50% chance they're asleep - one is slumped over the table with a tankard, the other on the cot.  Loud noises or the chimes in room 23 wake them up 4 out of 6 times.  During a response, one readies the musket to fire at anyone coming through the fake wall; the other heads into the complex to rouse the lair.

Room contents include a table and oil lamp, stools, cot, and a piss bucket.  There's a loaded musket on the table and 3 extra rounds.

Reavers (hp 5, 8)

25.  Jail
Four pairs of shackles hang from the walls.  Roll to see if there's a current prisoner:

1  A winsome lass facing a fate worse than death at the hands of Nicoletto (level 2).
2  A violent convict destined for Meyer's arena (level 3).
3  A yeoman farmer slated for sale to a monster (Ryksna Sprosna, the undead scientist of level 4).
4  A dishonest merchant awaiting an uncomfortable reckoning on level 5 (with Gregorius).
5-6  No one at this time.

26.  Great Hall
The great hall has a three long trestle tables and benches running down the center of the room.  Nearly a dozen Reavers are sleeping around the room - slumped on the table or sleeping near the walls on bedding.  If the alarm is raised 1-3 awaken each round.

The tables are cluttered with drinking horns, tin utensils and plates, along with dice, knucklebones and some cards.  Wall hangings evoke a Viking hall of old - battered, archaic shields, axes, and Medieval tapestries.  The dim room is lit by smokey torches at intervals.

At the far south end of the wall is a high-backed wooden throne.  Thurman is present, but when invaders first enter the hall, Thurman retreats behind the chair along with two of the nearest reavers.  They disappear through the southern door (concealed by the throne) to make a stand in the gauntlet.

The western door to the stairs lead down to Nicoletto's lair.  It is barred from this side.  If players stop to notice, the outside of the door features heavy scratches and gouges.

Reavers (hp 6, 5, 2, 4, 4, 5, 2, 4, 6, 5)
Thurman (hp 12 - stats like the other reavers, but he fights as 3rd level)

27.  Barracks
6 Reavers are sleeping off their drink, although the room has stacked bunks to accomodate 30.  In addition to wood bunks with rope springs, straw mattresses and blankets, the room features trunks of personal effects and noisome chamber pots.

6 sleeping Reavers (hp 9, 3, 5, 6, 8, 7)

28.  Store Room
The room is piled with barrels of low-grade supplies - 2 barrels of smoked fish (5sp each), 4 barrels of beer (10sp each), 1 barrel of hard tack (5sp), and 2 barrels of water.  There are also useful supplies - crates of torches, a crate of lantern oil, and other necessities the referee deems useful.

In one corner, a blanket is draped over 2 casks of brandy (200sp each) and crate of fine crystal glasses packed in straw (200sp).

29.  Kitchen
A pair of terrorized servants dwell here.  Along the north wall is a crude stone hearth and a fire with a tripod and stew-pot.  The room smells of fresh bread and game meat in stew.  There are usually 40-60 man-days of fresh foods (game animals, flour, barrels of water) piled in the south half of the room - enough to feed the lair for 2-3 days.  Buried in the supplies is a crate with two large bags of imported coffee beans (150sp each).

The servants, a matron and daughter (Annie and Nattie Avery), were kidnapped from a farm near Pickering over a year ago.

30.  Gauntlet
The gauntlet is a series of physical challenges the Reavers use for sport and defense.  Shaded areas are 20' deep pits filled with refuse and the contents of chamber pots (2d6 damage and a 1 in 20 chance of picking up a disease).  Each floor area has a sconce with a dim smoldering torch offering meager light.

Assuming Thurman and a pair of reavers retreated from room 26, the two reavers are posted east of 30b with shortbows and 10 arrows each.  Hiding in deep shadows, they shoot at characters swinging to 30a.  As invaders get ready to swing to 30b, they retreat across 30c with bow and quiver and shoot from there.

30a.  A rope swing requires a character to leap off the ledge, grab the rope mid-jump, and swing to a narrow ledge.

In order to grab the rope and swing, the character needs to roll a 5-6 on a 6-sided die, with the following modifiers:

+2 for unencumbered
+1 for light
+0 for heavily encumbered
-1 for severely encumbered
+  strength ability modifier

A thief or specialist can make a climb check and add +2 to the roll if the check is successful.

Note:  Reavers are encumbered and get a +1 or +2 ability modifier due to wolfsblood enhancements, allowing them to easily traverse the gauntlet.  Over-encumbered dungeon explorers are another matter.

Characters that fail drop into the 20' pit.

Characters need to make a second check (substituting dexterity for strength) to scoot along the narrow ledge to area 30b.

30b.  There is another rope swing here requiring characters to jump to swing east.  Any reavers to the east with shortbows can be seen retreating to the south once characters reach 30b.  If they have arrows left, the reavers retreat beyond 30c for another volley, otherwise they move past 30d and prepare for melee.

30c.  Four 20' wooden poles are mounted here, requiring characters to jump from pole-top to pole-top.  Use the same modifiers as area 30a except only dexterity ability modifiers count.

30d.  Two crude stone-shaped statues of northman warrior stand here - conical helms and noseguards, with hands on axe helms.  Swinging back and forth behind them is a pendulum blade, requiring the same modifiers as 30a to jump past (substituting dexterity for strength).  Characters that fail take 1d8 damage.  The arm of the pendulum can be chopped with an axe in a few minutes of work.

30e.  The floor here is a checkerboard of dark and light 5' squares.  The dark squares are safe, allowing characters to walk diagonally along the hall.  Each light square requires a trap check (on a 1-2, the square swings down, dropping the character into a 10' hole.  Characters can save vs Paralysis to grab the edge and catch their fall.

31.  Ritual Room
This large, vaulted chamber is supported by caryatids carved to look like fierce Vikings holding the ceiling.  The center is dominated by a 10' circular dais flanked by two burning braziers filled with oil.  A pedestal on the dais holds a rune-encrusted bronze bowl and a pair of stained, empty bottles.

If Thurman escaped to here, he'll don a chain shirt and helmet (improving his AC to chain) and come from behind one of the pillars wielding a double-handed maul, entering a berserker rage.  He wears a key around his neck.

The bronze bowl radiates magic and is worth 50sp as a curiousity.  It belongs to the wizard Gregorius.

32.  Exit
A heavy portcullis bars the way down the escape tunnel.  There is a winch just inside the hall.  The tunnel leads up after 300 feet and opens onto the moors.  Large "wards against werewolves" are carved into the stone of the tunnel not far from the outside entrance.

33.  Treasury
The large chamber here is a dump for all of the "valuables" the bandits have collected - ordinary equipment and gear like wagons, saddles, extra boots, shovels, and farm tools.  It also holds treasure.

In the south corner are a pair of heavy chests.  One of them is full of copper pennies - 10,000cp.  The other has 1,000sp in mixed shillings and crowns, 4 of the ceremonial silver daggers (50sp each), and 20 gold guineas (1,000sp equivalent in gold).  Both chests are locked and heavy to move.  The key to Thurman's room also opens the chests.

34.  Thurman's Room
The door to this room is locked (the key hangs around Thurman's neck).  Compared to the reavers, Thurman lives in luxury - an actual cabinet for his clothing, a large wooden bed with comfortable mattress, his own table and wall pegs for cloaks, coats, and hanging weapons.  He keeps a fine set of wheellock pistols on the wall (700sp value) and a bandolier of rounds.  He has a sturdy chair with velvet cushion (100sp), an expensive violin he can't play (500sp), and a quality mirror (50sp).  There is a heavy coin purse on the table filled with 150sp.  The room has necessities and an oil lamp.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

From an Alternate Universe - Meet the Anti-Beedo

Or, A Theoretical Framework for Building the Sandbox Megadungeon

Yesterday's post concluded with this delightful challenge:
Pick One:  Do I want to spend my time working on the kind of dungeon that I, as referee, will never expect to finish, or work on the kind of dungeon the players will never expect to finish?

Although I've called out various projects on the blog as "megadungeons", I would submit they fall more into the camp of 'dungeons I may never finish' rather than 'dungeons so large the players may never finish them'.  It's very hard to write both briefly and evocatively, so they end up more detailed and wordy than I'd like, and my pace of development is usually just ahead of the players instead of miles ahead of them.  One snap of burnout or gamer attention deficit disorder, and BAM - we're on to something else, like Cthulhu gaming.  Then who knows if they'll ever get finished.

Let's take a look at how Harrow Home is being constructed.  I've previously stated the map is the very last thing that gets done by me.  I start with a notebook and create a written scheme for each level, identifying set pieces and major characters and encounter areas.  I spend a lot of time in meetings or traveling with my notebook, so I'm able to jot notes all the time.  The scope of the map is bound by the extent of my written notes.  The encounter ideas and set pieces are adjusted as necessary to fit the map, then I circle back and embellish any filler areas or empty spaces.

Maybe what follows isn't serious advice, but it goes something like this:  When you need to do something differently than how you're doing it, imagine how another person behaves, and then just act like the other guy.

So how would the Anti-Beedo approach a gigantic megadungeon project?  (Here's an aside about poor Beedo.  My blogger handle, Beedo, is gone.  I recently took the G+ plunge and it merged my G+ and blogger accounts.  Alas poor Beedo!  I knew him.  A fellow of infinite jest.  Now all of you are stuck with me).

Our imaginary Anti-Beedo starts with the map - the bigger the better.  I'm not terribly creative at drawing, so let's go find an appropriate random dungeon generator.  (If you know of a random generator you like, the Anti-Beedo would be grateful if you shared it in the comments).

Next up, the Anti-Beedo needs to quickly stock this monstrous thing.  I have no problem 'programming' in Excel to create a random dungeon stocker; I've frequently used the algorithms from Moldvay's Basic.  The content is another matter.

First off, you'll need a gigantic bestiary to go along with those gigantic maps.  I really liked the encounter tables from AD&D Monster Manual 2, from back in the day.  All the monsters were given ratings of Common, Uncommon, Rare, and Very Rare, and the encounter tables used bell curves assigning rarity based on a slot in the curve.  I could get behind that type of approach for structuring a large bestiary.

The esteemed Hack and Slash blog has a lot of resources for generating tricks and traps - I've used Courtney's trap generation tables plenty (check out the OSR resources area in his sidebar).  That'd be my first place to help fill out random stockers for tricks and traps.  I had heard someone was putting an index together for the 1d12 guy - The Dungeon Dozen (indeed - there is a fantastic index here).  Are there any other resources you guys like to use for tricks, traps, and specials?

You see where this is going.  Phase 1 of the Anti-Beedo's project is to draw maps - huge maps.  Anti-Beedo starts with the task I usually do dead last.  Phase 2 involves the creation of a giant bestiary, and tables for generating flavorful tricks, traps, and specials.  While I spend my time on "story" and cool encounter ideas, the Anti-Beedo mocks at such efforts this early in the process.  Randomize it up, baby.  Run your crazy dungeon stocker algorithm through dice rolls, Excel, a programming language, whatever.  Voila, you have the barebones for an instant megadungeon.  A gigantic megadungeon.

Phase 3 is actually going through the room by room descriptions and jotting in some brief notes that make sense of it all - incorporating the dungeon's back story, adding motivations or plots to the inhabitants, creating explanations for the placement of lairs, and so forth.  The stuff I usually do first, the Anti-Beedo tackles last.  And instead of jotting idle thoughts in his spare time months in advance, the Anti-Beedo saves it for game prep the week of the game.  He's all about the "just in time preparation".

Up until now, this has been a thought experiment.  Should it go any further?  Could I take one of my ideas and jam it through the Anti-Beedo's madness and see what comes out the other side?  I'm intrigued that the end result is potentially a vast, lightly detailed locale that provides a strong framework for improvisation - but allows the referee to elaborate between sessions.

Monday, February 10, 2014

You Will Never Finish That Dungeon

Dwimmermount was in the news again.  Tenkar's Tavern, the tabloid news service of the OSR, spurred a discussion last week when it was announced completion of the Dwimmermount kickstarter is changing hands.  Alex M, the publisher and driving force behind the Adventurer Conquer King series of products, is taking over the writing of Dwimmermount.  He's targeting a March-April completion of the draft.

This post isn't really about Dwimmermount.

Actually it is about Dwimmermount, in so much as Dwimmermount represents many problems of the published megadungeon.  There are problems of  time, and effort, and level of detail - what I call the sandbox triangle*.  It's about completing the dungeon.

However, today I'm not talking about the creator, the referee, finishing the creation of the dungeon - putting the pen down and closing the book.   That's one avenue of discussion - but rather I want to talk about the referee's expectations for the players.  Are the players ever going to finish the dungeon?  I had an epiphany the other day.  Consider this whole exercise a variant of the My Precious Snowflake Encounter™  problem.  To wit:  when you sit down and write an encounter, do you expect the players to meet with that encounter?  Or do you create your setting with essentially fungible encounters, and it's fine if the players skip whole sections?

You see, there's this conceit that a megadungeon should be too big to map, too big to fully explore.  The players are only expected to experience bits and pieces of it.  Unfortunately, maps with openings and unexplored areas drive players absolutely farking nuts.  Players are completionists by nature.  They need to explore those unknown areas and finish every last room and corridor.  It's like a form of table top OCD.  Player psychology runs directly contrary to the megadungeon ideal of large areas unexplored.

Here's a novel thought:  maybe the megadungeon ideal runs contrary to the psychology of referees, too.

Let's say I've created my precious snowflake, the Coolest Trick Room Ever™ - the Room of 10,000 Spiders.  I've put a lot of time into that 10k Spider Room - I really want to make sure the players experience it.  What are some scenarios for the extended design?  Perhaps my dungeon is so large the players may never experience 10,000 Spiders before they move to the next level (: sad referee :).  I could put the 10k Spiders right in their path, so they're guaranteed to meet it - perhaps I don't mind a bit of the old Illusionism, shuffling around quantum ogres and whatnot.  Another expression might have the levels sized small enough to ensure the players find everything, giving in to their completionist OCD urges and the referee's need to see his or her work experienced and validated.  A different flavor of that approach is to put in hints, clues, and other pointers to help them find the 10k Spiders room, even if it was off their path - the blaring neon sign approach.

Do you write interesting, detailed encounters and place them in a design so large that there is only a slim chance the party will actually meet your Precious Encounter™?  What are you, some kind of masochist?

I submit that there are very few (published) dungeons that are so large in scope the players are expected to experience only a fraction of each level before descending downward.  Execution of the gigantic dungeon involves one of three basic approaches:

  1. The place is gigantic, but it's only detailed at a high level at first, and the referee will elaborate more details ahead of each game session.
  2. The place is gigantic and detailed at a granular level, and the referee spent a gargantuan amount of time writing it.  Oh the humanity.
  3. The place is gigantic, but only certain pieces are detailed at a granular level, and the referee is moving them around as necessary so the players run into the detailed stuff.

Which brings the conversation back to Dwimmermount.  Dwimmermount seemed to be one of those Type 1 settings - vast in scope, but lightly detailed; and now it's en route to becoming a Type 2 setting - vast in scope but detailed like a much smaller module.  Dwimmermount is somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 rooms; the original five levels of Stonehell is also in the neighborhood of 800 rooms.  Barrowmaze is somewhere under 200 rooms (the second installment brings it up near 400).  I have one of the early versions of Castle of the Mad Archmage, and it weighs in at almost 1,000 rooms - the clear heavy weight of the published megadungeons.

There are plenty of good reasons to run smaller lairs and dungeons.  They become self evident as you read the notes above - you never have to worry about the players missing a Precious Snowflake Encounter™ or your work going to waste, for starters.  For a published module, the experience you're presenting to the reading audience is homogenized - lots of people will have the same reminiscences.

Why would you put together a gigantic, sparsely detailed megadungeon where a fair amount of your work may go unnoticed?  This is what I've been mulling.  It implies that the encounters and areas, which might be interesting and unique, are still representative and fungible.  It’s okay if the players skip areas and head down to a more challenging level.  You've designed it such that the players don't have to complete everything.  (In fact, grinding XP on the easy levels seems anathema to the whole thing - like boiling ant hills or something).

I have some further thoughts on why the megadungeon is so alluring, despite the inherent risks to the referee's time, sanity, marriage, and social life, but I'll save them for the comments or a follow up post.  I didn't mean for this to be so discursive!

Before I forget, here's that funny epiphany I had the other day:

Pick One:  Do I want to spend my time working on the kind of dungeon that I, as referee, will never expect to finish, or work on the kind of dungeon the players will never expect to finish?

*The sandbox triangle is a project management truism adapted to sandbox gaming.  The sandbox game balances freedom (scope), effort (time), and detail (quality).  If you don’t have a lot of time, but you want the players to go anywhere, the sandbox won't have much detail.

If the players tell the referee their plans in advance (ie, we're going to Goblintown next week), the referee can use the allotted time to make Goblintown more detailed.  The referee's prep time in between sessions hasn't necessarily increased, but by self-limiting their scope, the players have allowed the DM to focus on more details in a specific area.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

It Came From the 1950's

Musings on The Thing From Another World

My oldest son graduated from listening to bedtime tales a few years ago, relegating my nightly read aloud episodes to the two little ones;  however, the process of exposing him to great stories continues unabated.  He's become an avid sci fi reader, and we've been trying to work the occasional movie classic into the mix as well.  Movies from the 50's are pretty safe as far as content, so science fiction stalwarts like Them!, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Thing From Another World are in the queue.

Does everyone remember the original The Thing?  A UFO crashes in the ice, some soldiers and scientists at a remote arctic base uncover an alien encased in ice, the alien escapes its icy confinement and starts hunting the isolated humans, using their blood to grow an army of things.  It's a classic set up for a horror story.

What struck me so much on this recent viewing were the gobs of political propaganda.  Scientists are depicted as reckless maniacs willing to sacrifice anything to make peaceful contact with the monster; the air force soldiers are the stalwart heroes, drawing a firm line and refusing to bend in the face of outsider aggression.  The message is clear:  don't trust scientists and intellectuals; scientists created the atom bomb which led to the Cold War; intellectuals want to appease the socialists and the communists and the dictators of the world.  The army, on the other hand, toppled Hitler, saved West Berlin, and will halt the advance of communism wherever it rears its head - making sure no more dominos fall.  It's pretty much all right there in the film - a snapshot of early 50's psychosis just beneath the surface.  "Watch the skies, everywhere! Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!"

I can't wait until we watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Oh no, there's a communist under my bed!  Jinkies.  I did have the chance to spend time with the kiddo talking about life growing up in Cold War America -  what a different world it was back then.

Horror is a fairly conservative genre.  A lot of stories involve punishment of transgressors by the monster - characters that cross a written or unwritten rule invite doom down upon them.  Don't pick up hitchhikers, don't go make out in the woods as a teenager, don't creep into the neighbor's house and try to prank them.  Don't open the book of forbidden knowledge.  The nail that sticks out is the one that gets hammered!  It can be a bit tiresome.

And yet… it's so dang effective to use this approach in dungeon designs.  The players do it to themselves, amiright?  I didn't make them climb into that dank pit seeing if there was a magic goodie in that chest, they did it to themselves.  Who knew the floor of the pit was a Mimic?

Our steady heroes in The Thing From Another World also invited the horror into their base camp.  They could have blown up the thing in the ice, but they wanted to study it, see what they could learn.  Even a straightforward sci-fi yarn like The Thing ultimately involves destruction ensuing inexorably from a quest for blasphemous knowledge.

I asked the kiddo what he thought of the movie.  "The monster was kind of dumb - it just strode around like Frankenstein, bashing things and snarling.  No way could that thing pilot a space ship.  The real aliens are still out there.  What they do is put these bio-engineered mindless killing machine vegetable monsters on flying saucers, crash them into somebody else's planet, and then let the monster go to work smashing things in advance of the real invasion.  The scientists were trying to talk to the wrong alien."

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Lair of the Wretched - Harrow Home Manor

Work is closed, it's a snow day in the north east, so let's roll out the next installment of Harrow Home Manor, my 2014 megadungeon project.  The section below details areas 11 through 21 on the first level map - mostly involving something I'm calling "The Lair of the Wretched".  I'm collecting everything on a Harrow Home page for ease of reference.

A few notes.  First, I'm posting these weekly as I write them.  The notes are more than the bare-bones I'd use for the home game, to convey enough info, but they haven't been play-tested.  I figure we'll have enough 'critical mass' for Harrow Home by this summer, and the players should be done with level 2 of the Black City by then, so it'll get some run on the table top then.  I'm sure the draft will change after an encounter with real players.

For instance, the Wretched is practically "ogre-powered", a tough fight for first level characters, and it uses extreme hit-and-run tactics.  My groups tend to be large, with plenty of henchmen, and I'm okay if they retreat after getting a bloody nose to regroup and come up with a new plan.  Or they'll have a Sleep spell handy, right?  So the toughness of that particular "boss" could ratchet up or down after my gang gets their hands on it.

I'm also trying to incorporate a "show-don't-tell" approach to the writing style.  I could put a whole background together explaining the story of Wil Fuller and how he came to become "The Wretched", but there's no way the players will learn that at this point in time.  Or what is the story behind the creepy mask in room 12 - besides an excuse to blast the players with the collected works of Clark Ashton Smith?  I'm trying to stick to those things that can be observed or learned by the encounters at hand.  It's tough not to blab blab blab and let the readers in on the juicy secrets.

Apologies to all who voted for Xibalba in the 2014 dungeon poll.  I realized upon reflection that Harrow Home has a ton of readily available depth, whereas my Xibalba notebook is going to take some time to get to the same point.  I'll keep plugging away at it.

In the meantime, grab some hot cocoa, stay warm, and enjoy this week's piece of Harrow Home Manor as we continue to explore a horror-themed dungeon.


11.  Undercroft
There are four stone crypts in the room, one near each corner.  They were looted and emptied of corpses long ago.  However, a small satchel has been stuffed deep into the crypt in the north east corner - it holds a pile of silver pounds (196 sp).  A large adder is hiding in the crypt as well.

Adder (hp 7)

In the middle of the south wall is a large painted eye (right in the middle of the secret door).  In the southeast corner is a jutting brick.  Pushing in the brick opens the secret door to room 12.

Note:  In the hall east of room 11 is another secret door - it leads to a narrow spiral staircase up to the chapel.  A disguised handhold allows the door to be pulled open.

12.  Secret Room

A pair of stone pedestals in the south corners hold reddish light that illuminates the room.  The light is a continual light magic effect, and dissipates if the pedestals are moved or broken.  Hanging against the south wall is the effigy of wraithlike figure, heavy cowl and robes, with a ceramic tragedy mask hanging in the cowl (the Mask of the Caretaker).  Behind the robes, hanging off a peg, is a crystal scepter.

The mask is enchanted.  If a character puts it near his face, the mask latches on to their skin, and psychic tendrils burrow from the mask into the character's face.  The character writhes in pain, assaulted by otherworldly visions through the eyes of the mask, before lapsing into a coma-like unconsciousness.  The mask releases its hold in about 12 hours - but the others won't know that.  A Remove Curse also forces the mask to drop off.  The mask only works once.

A character wearing the mask is exposed to Hyperborean magic and visions of ancient Hyperborea - humans worshipping loathsome giant toads in cyclopean ruins, the first workings of magic inscribed on clay tablets, a black object streaking across the sky and destroying a hilltop temple in a fiery explosion, cataclysmic waves and the sinking of Atlantis.

A magic user or elf wearing the mask gains 2,000 XP from the visions and ancestral knowledge, and has a 1 in 6 chance of absorbing how to understand and read Hyperborean from their sojourns from beyond.  When the mask is removed, their eyes are permanently red-hued and bloodshot, reducing reaction rolls by -1 around ordinary people and frightening peasants.  They are hence spell-marked.  (Other character classes won't gain any XP, but still have a chance at learning Hyperborean and are spell-marked).

As a physical artifact without any further magic, the mask is worth 100sp.  The scepter is hardwood inlaid with gems and gold and worth 2,000sp.

13.  Chamber
The room is empty.  The doorway to room 22 uses a heavy post and lintel frame with runes and symbols engraved into the stone.  The runes act as a ward against lycanthropes (although players shouldn't learn this property without expending a Read Magic spell and deciphering the intent).

14.  Cistern
The vaulted room here is dominated by a murky cistern surrounded by a low circular wall.  On the far side of the cistern, a heavy ring is attached to the side of the water and a chain stretches into the murk.  When a character walks around the cistern (perhaps to pull on the chain), they step on a loose stone triggering a blade trap.  A scythe blade swings out from the south wall, sweeping anyone south of the cistern at ankle height.  The trap does 1-6 points of damage.  If a 6 is rolled, the character must save vs Death or lose a foot!  Dismemberment is mortal without quick first aid.

There are clues to the trap - discolored stains on the floor south of the cistern, and a long groove holding the scythe blade isn't hard to see if the wall is inspected first.

If the characters succeed in pulling up the chain, a heavy load is hoisted from the water - a bucket of rocks.

15.  Entry Room
This room is lit by a smoky torch in the southwest corner.  In the southeast corner is a wooden chest, opened, and piled with enticing silver coins.  Stretching across the east half of the room in front of the chest (north-south) is a tripwire; anyone approaching the chest has a 2 in 6 chance of triggering the trip wire, dropping a 20' net down that envelops the eastern 2/3rds of the room.  Metal bangles on the net make a loud racket when it falls.  The Freak in room 16 shambles forth to investigate the noise, wielding a heavy club.  He strikes to subdue, preferring to knock victims unconscious.  "Master prefers live food."

Characters trapped by the net can cut themselves free in 1d4 rounds if appropriately armed; they lose dexterity and shield bonuses, are +2 to be hit, and can't attack while under the net.

The chest is full of real silver coins, 235sp.

16.  Servant's Room
The room smells rancid and subhuman.  It is the noisome lair of a once-human - The Freak.

The Freak
(AC as Chain & Shield, HD 3 + 1, HP 21, attack 1 club, D 1-6+1, MV 9, ML 9, AL C)

The Freak is a human that has mutated into an amalgam of ursa, man, and insect.  The left arm is chitinous with a bear claw on the end, the human head is bulbous, with antennae and mandibles making speech difficult, while the body shaggy and partially carapaced.  Despite these infirmities, the Freak is preternaturally quiet and surprises on a 1-3 out of 6.

Once a condemned prisoner named Gordon Davis, the Freak was saved from the hangman by the Mistress, and geased to protect her descendant.  Each time he breaks the geas, a different piece of himself has gone "monstrous", a curse nearly as bad as his fallen masters, and he's resigned himself to lurking in the dungeon, capturing meals for his master, and hoping that death is an eventual release.  He's not so sure.  An expert trap maker, many of the traps on level 1 that capture or maim victims were placed by the Freak.

If engaged in a drawn out fight with the characters, the Freak identifies his condition as the price of making deals with wizards and the true cost of magic.  He and his master are warnings - turn back now or face similar fates in the depths of Harrow Home!

The room has remnants of clothes and footwear that no longer fits, shredded bedding destroyed by the Freak's carapace, and buckets for water.  Buried amidst the detritus are keys to the shackles in room 17, and a golden locket (value 285sp) with a woman's painted portrait, a reminder of a life forfeited.

17.  Prison
A half dozen shackles dangle from the walls here.  If characters are knocked unconscious by the Freak, they'll be imprisoned here.  The slain are dragged to room 18 for "the master".

18.  Scrawling Chamber
Note:  Rooms 18-21 are the lairs of a creature that calls itself the Wretched (and named its servant the Freak, back when it cared about such things).  There's a 1 in 6 chance the Wretched is hanging around the ceiling of room 18 waiting for a meal, otherwise it's somewhere in room 20.

Cracked human bones and skulls litter the floor, evidence the marrow has been slurped.  The walls are covered with chalk scrawlings and drawings, like cave pictures - but all of them are 8' off the ground, in the vaulted part of the ceiling.  They depict a spiral motif with a giant egg-like object in the middle of the spirals.  In some of the pictures, the egg is cracking and a horned man with a devil beard is coming out.

19.  Cistern
Another murky cistern sits in the center of the room.  Up near the vaulted ceiling, difficult to see unless actively searched, is a chalk scrawling:  "I left my life beneath the flagstone of the tower."

20.  Warren
Niches in the walls are resting places for centuries-old cadavers.  Shortly after entering the warren, the party hears scuttling near the ceiling and might catch glimpses of a large cloak fluttering along the ceiling as something quickly darts around a corner.  They've entered the hunting grounds of the Wretched!

The Wretched
(AC as Chain & Shield, HD 4, HP 24, attack 1 bash (and see below), D 2-8, MV 6, ML 10, AL C)

The Wretched is tall and gaunt and insectile, scuttling along the ceilings out of sight, wrapped in a tattered cloak.  Beneath the cloak, the thing is a human changing inexorably into a giant bug, with oversized hind legs and new arms growing out of the ribs.  A second head, like a giant locust, is growing out of the shoulder, pushing the deformed human head out of the way.

In combat, it can launch itself 60' and bash for 2-8 damage, jumping away next round automatically and scuttling back into the dark shadows, or it can grab and bite with hooks and claws (damage 1-2/1-2/1-3).  The insect head can spit a stream of spittle 15' that forces a save vs Poison or become nauseated (incapacitated) for 2-5 rounds or until the glop is washed off.  The Wretched scuttles around the ceiling, attacking every few rounds from unexpected directions, speaking to itself about the tasty bits of marrow it's going to suck out of the character's bones.

The Wretched's hit and run tactics in the high ceilinged warren is challenging for low level characters.  There are opportunities to retreat in between bash attacks.  The Wretched is vulnerable to a Sleep spell, and clever players will think of something - perhaps trying to use the net from room 15 to catch it.  Calling the Wretched by the name "Wil Fuller" forces a saving throw vs Spells or the creature becomes confused and unable to attack for a few rounds as memories of its former identity rush back - perhaps it asks for death in a lucid moment before the insect brain takes over again.  If the Wretched fails a morale check, it retreats to room 21 (and flees down the stygian well if it fails a second morale check while in room 21).

Scavenging the centuries-old corpses in the niches takes 32 man-turns (4 searchers could get it done in 8 turns) and turns up around 200sp in incidental treasures - silver rings, necklaces, coins, belt buckles, and other salvageable loot from the forgotten dead.

21.  Sanctum & Well
A dark circular hole (like the cisterns common on level 1) sits in the room, but there's no water within - the stygian well extends to unknown depths.  There is a large standing mirror in the northwest corner of the room, and a collection of personal effects near the well.  Chalk writing covers the walls.

A shadowy monster is bound to the owner of the mirror.  If the Wretched still lives, the shadow attacks from the mirror, surprising on a 1-5.  If the Wretched is dead, the slayer of the Wretched is the new owner of the mirror and lord of the shadow.  The creature can't detach from the mirror and is very hungry.  It is highly intelligent and offers nefarious counsel to its new owner.  Killing the shadow destroys the mirror and frame; otherwise the grotesque art piece is worth 2,000sp.

The Shadow in the Mirror
(AC as Leather, HD 2 + 2, HP 14, attack 1 slash, D 1-4 and strength drain, MV 9, ML 10, AL C)

Other items in the room include sheafs of papers, a book of spells, centuries old and tattered clothes and footwear that no longer serve a purpose, and a leather satchel of trinkets.  The sheaf of papers are fragments of the Dream Codex; before losing his faculties, the Wretched subjected himself to the Dreaming Angel in hopes of learning a spell to undo the curse turning him into a giant bug.  He's collected 7 sheets (7%) of the Dream Codex.

The spell book belonged to Wil Fuller (the Wretched in his prior identity).  The book contains the spells Read Magic, Feather Fall, Shield, Enlarge, Comprehend Languages, Change Self, Knock.

The satchel contains 40 gold coins, a set of keys (which once opened doors in the ruined castle), and the Serpentine Ring - an enchanted copper ring depicting an ouroboros that allows a magic user or elf to memorize an additional 1st level spell each day.  The ring was a gift to Wil Fuller and is recognizable to many of the wizards in the depths.  Lady Fuller reacts very poorly to anyone bearing the ring in her presence, since it was her gift to her descendant.

The chalk scrawlings on the wall depict a mind degenerating into insanity, and catalog the gruesome transformation - from "I am Wil Fuller, I am Wil Fuller..." to "...the thing growing out of my shoulder is forming eyes..."  A recurring theme involves this sentiment: "It lied to me.  The thing in the pit, it lied.  She lied to me.  The Kept Thing lied."

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Megadungeon Conundrums - Pacing Versus Size

Gus L runs interesting megadungeon campaigns over at Dungeon of Signs - it's a creative, fun place to drop in.  Today he's wondering about empty room theory, the pace of exploration, and dungeon size.  (He's referencing Anomalous Subsurface Environment, Pat's published megadungeon, but the discussion applies to pretty much any megadungeon).

Empty rooms are important.  They support verisimilitude - the dungeon isn't a packed zoo, straining credulity by stacking antagonists next to each other in the dungeon.  Empty rooms support space for lairs and buffer zones and areas for wandering monsters.  Empty spaces reinforce the theme of exploration and build tension into the game.  But when the sessions are short, folks don't want to spend all their time in empty rooms, either.  The larger the dungeon, the more empty rooms, and the more burden on the referee on making that "between time" interesting or motoring to the next set piece encounter.

Our approach has to be more nuanced and account for more variables - the size of the level, how much do you expect the players to explore before descending, the number of players, and the expected fatality rate.  Players tend to be completionists, unless there's a strong impetus to descend.  A party may level up before "completing" the first level, such that the second level isn't a challenge for them by the time they get down there - they'll be well on the way to their 3rd level of experience.

I tend to take the average party size (for my group, that's 6-7 players), and assume they'll level up when they get to 15,000 or so party experience points.  Some XP will get drained by henchmen, some will vanish when the first level characters die.  So maybe the whole dungeon level needs about 20,000 xp distributed to account for leakage.  The blend of monster vs treasure XP varies by edition, but it's usually 80-20 or thereabouts (80-90% percent comes from treasure) - so a first level dungeon could have 15,000 - 16,000 in treasure XP (gold or silver standard, depending on your game).

If there's a strong impetus for the characters to move down before finishing the level, make an assumption on how much you expect them to complete - 50%?  Than the total wealth of the level should double!  Once they clear half of the rooms, they'll be ready to descend.  If you expect them to grind through every last room, than distribute the base amount evenly.  You can see that a 100 room first level is going to feel much differently if each room averages 150 xp of treasure versus a 25 room dungeon where the room average is 600 xp of treasure.  Room density is a factor as well - empty rooms versus monsters\traps\specials - as well as how bland are the empty rooms versus the level of interest in the empty rooms.  It's a lot to consider - no one said dungeon design was easy!

But Beedo - isn't dungeon design a mystical art, irreducible to mere mathematics?  What is all this number-crunching and discussion of average XP per room have to do with My Homebrew's (TM) amazing flavor?  Get your math out of my fantasy.

Running a long term megadungeon is no picnic.  I see groups flame out all the time here in the blogosphere, or declare megadungeons as boring, and the biggest culprit seems to be pacing and the grind of exploration.  When I was in 8th grade and we played all day long on the weekends, those 10 hour epic game sessions fueled by chips and pizza, we had the time to take a 'completionist' approach to exploration and were willing to collect coppers and salvage dented helmets and whatnot to squeeze every last experience point from a place.  Nowadays I'm lucky to get the adult gamers together for 3 game sessions a month, 3 hour game slots.  My people don't have patience for endless dungeon levels where they're expected to clear every last room.  They want the experience of being in a vast place, too big to fully map, but don't actually want to visit every room, themselves.  (It's enough to know it's out there.)

All is not lost.  It is the referee's job to pay attention to pacing and keep their hands on the dials.  If the players are doing well XP-wise, and ready to go down a level, have some things happen that make the rest of the first level unattractive, or provide a strong incentive to skip the rest.  Perhaps rival adventurers clear out many of the remaining areas when the party is back in town, so that the second level is the next "virgin area" to explore.  I've had patrons and similar figures provide missions, quests, and related hooks that keep the action moving down instead of horizontal, before the challenge level wears off.  If it's your own dungeon, make the levels a little smaller and modular, so if the party is made of "completionists", they can still finish the whole map but descend quicker to a new place before any sense of grind crops up.

For the Black City campaign, the dungeon level was vast and sprawling, but it assumed players would level up as they went further from the entrance.  The first level wasn't truly for level 1 guys - it covered levels 1-3, and only the nearby zones were for level 1 guys.  In that one, I did have rivals clear out the other near-areas, encouraging the players to push deeper to keep pace with their growing power level.  Likewise, the second level is really covering character levels 3-5.  Of course, if your dungeon is truly "mega", you have to be willing to let some of your work product go unused in the interests of pacing - unless your players really want to see or map every last room.  In which case, according the math model, you need to draw down the average XP per room so they don't blow the level caps before making it down.

For Harrow Home, the new project I started here, the plan is to have smaller levels, but have lots of them, so the forward impetus is to go deeper into the dungeon.  It's a vertical structure rather than horizontal.  It sounds good in theory.  Will it feel like a megadungeon?  We'll see how it goes.

I'm a big fan of works like ASE and Stonehell.  I do believe megadungeons with those sprawling levels and a hundred rooms can work well.  However, I would definitely take my math-based approach to determine the relative wealth of the levels, identify a fair percentage the players would be expected to complete, and then put some campaign events or drivers in the game that would encourage them to descend before the game reached any level of grind or repetition.  If the math indicates the players need to grind a hundred rooms before advancing, make sure that fits the group culture and play time, or increase the treasure amounts and reduce how much they have to explore before going to the next level.

If you find this type of stuff interesting, I did an analysis of some published adventures a few years ago when these ideas first start percolating around my skull - We Came, We Saw, We Leveled Up, and Treasure By Adventure Module.  They break down things like expected levels earned, amount of treasure, and density, so you can draw your own conclusions about which adventures support the Monty Haul experience versus forcing your players to grind out the coppers for a chance to move ahead.