Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Review of Scenic Dunnsmouth

Scenic Dunnsmouth is a recent game book published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, written by Zzarchov Kowoslki.  I had the chance to read it on my flight west.  It's a curious offering.  The centerpiece of any adventures in the book is the backwater village of Dunnsmouth.  The book provides the referee tools to create the titular village of Dunnsmouth before play.   Through a combination of tossing dice and using a deck of playing cards, the referee creates the map, selects the inhabitants, and determines many of their dark secrets.  Dunnsmouth will be unique to each campaign (and potentially let you use the material multiple times).

As the title alludes, the village is a blatant homage to Dunwich and Innsmouth, two infamous locales in HP Lovecraft's New England (albeit with nary a tentacle in sight).  There's the opportunity for folks to have a more fantastic version of the 'Dunnsmouth Look' for instance, and the old families of Dunnsmouth with their dark secrets are well described; the moral decay adds a gothic atmosphere to the proceedings.  There's even an homage to one of my favorite Magic cards from back in the day, Uncle Istvan.

However, I tend to think this style of village adventure would be very challenging to run with the assumptions normally brought to a D&D game.  It's not like ordinary villagers are going to accept a heavily-armed party of 6-10 adventurers to go knocking door to door in full panoply, and still engage in regular conversation.  Yet the referee  needs to provide a plausible plot hook for the players to sojourn to remote Dunnsmouth and talk to everyone.   Ferreting out the secrets of Dunnsmouth represents social challenges, investigation, and plenty of roleplaying - the opportunities for dungeon crawling are thin on the ground.  Some of the suggested hooks include going there as tax collectors (no kidding), or seeking a magical artifact (getting warmer).  There are plenty of mysteries that weave their way through the village that would only manifest through careful interviews.

Scenic Dunnsmouth reminded me quite a bit of the books from Chaosium's Lovecraft Country line.  The little character sketch portraits were a fine touch.  That's where I’d leave the review; if you like the investigative and social aspects of Call of Cthulhu style gaming (without the sanity loss), more talking and less sword fighting, sending your adventurers to Dunnsmouth to snoop around, flip over rocks and check under the carpets, is right in line with those expectations.  I enjoy Cthulhu investigative games quite a bit and look forward to giving this a play when we get back to some horror gaming.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Catching Up With LOTFP - Review of Forgive Us

I'm traveling this week, and my 6 hour flight to the west coast gave me a chance to catch up on some PDFs I've been meaning to read.  Readers here know my latest campaign is focused on adventure gaming and whimsy, and I've been missing the horror!  Today and tomorrow I'll post brief reviews of Forgive Us and Scenic Dunnsmouth, two recent LOTFP releases, and reconnect with the darker side of gaming.

Review of Forgive Us

Forgive Us, by Kelvin Green, features two short adventures and vignette.  It's stark black and white, and the blood stained cover let's you know immediately - there's a bit of nasty business ahead.

The main adventure, "Forgive Us", involves a thieves' guild that robbed a nasty cult; they returned an artifact back to their hideout, opened it up, and let out the badness.  The referee needs to provide an appropriate motivation for his or her players to get involved - quite possibly someone unrelated needs them to investigate the guild.  Supplying your own hook is easy; the idea is that as the players break into the seemingly abandoned buildings that acted as fronts to the guild, clues and tension mounts as the players realize something has gone horribly wrong to the members.

Kelvin unapologetically calls out his cinematic influences, such as John Carpenter's The Thing or James Cameron's Aliens, and the referee would do well to keep those in mind.  Good horror stories build to that moment where the veil is torn and the nature of the horror is revealed; this adventure draws the player characters to that moment and unleashes horror and terror on them in a classic moment stressing greed versus survival.

The second adventure, "In Heaven Everything is Fine", presents a tragic village that calls to mind Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space" and a Twilight Zone episode ("It's a Good Life").  The final adventure ("Death and Taxes") is really just a vignette, involving a trio of cultists and the funeral of an old friend.  How far will the players go to dig up the truth?

All three of the adventures are atmospheric and capture a Call of Cthulhu vibe while letting you use the D&D friendly mechanics of Lamentations of the Flame Princess.  Kelvin's writing style is amicable with a touch of humor, and they're easy to read.  "Forgive Us" can quickly spiral out of control, and the referee should have a good handle on how much Cure Disease is available; I can see a harried group of player characters waking a powerful NPC cleric in the middle of the night for a cure, and then hoping to escape to the countryside before the whole town gets corrupted and overrun.  If there's a town or city you don't like, well, you can shake it up with this adventure.

I enjoyed these, and they'd make a fine addition to your horror themed D&D game.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

What Does a Product Owe You?

A couple of writers I really enjoy posted follow ups to a scathing review of Island of the Unknown by RPG Pundit.  I realize not everyone reads the same blogs as me, so here are links to the articles in question.  First, RPG Pundit's review:  Review of Island of the Unknown.  Pundit's style is bombastic and critical, and every once in a while he wakes up on the wrong side of the bed down there in Uruguay, packs a shotgun with metaphorical buck-shot (shuck-shuck, locked and loaded), and fires off a double-barreled review like this one:  "There are meth-heads on street-corners with no gaming experience who could improv a better setting than this."

If you're not familiar with the Island of the Unknown product, it describes hundreds of hexes on the eponymous island, populated with bizarre creatures and idiosyncratic magic users.  Other than providing one strange encounter for each hex, there's very little over-arching flavor - there are no plot hooks or stories, the magic users aren't provided with motivations or rivalries.

Joseph over at Greyhawk Grognard and Noisms at Monsters and Manuals posted some interesting follow up articles to Pundit's review, on the nature of sandboxes and the nature of monsters.  It's fascinating because they both invoked similar pillars of table top gaming - players at the game table need to be able make informed decisions or their choices are meaningless.  If the players are in a wilderness hex crawl with 6 directions to travel, they might as well roll a 6-sided die to choose - unless the referee is supplying them with enough information to weight the options.  That's where the game is at, that's where the fun is - the exercise of meaningful choice and then handling the consequences.

I love folklore and history.  I love bestiaries and monster manuals.  Noisms discusses how real-world monsters have thousands of years of history and storytelling behind them - the monsters of folklore have evolved and survived the generations, and have mythic resonance for it.  For my purposes, I'll be bold and take his statement the rest of the way:  because real-world monsters have survived as storytelling elements for thousands of years, players already know some things about them.  (30 years of D&D play might have something to do with it too).  Because everyone knows some things about those monsters already, they're the combat equivalent of rumors and plot hooks when encountered.  The player's ability to read the signs, identify the opponent, and make a plan for combat against the monsters of myth and folklore is every bit as important as their ability to sift through plot hooks and make decisions in the sandbox outside of combat.

I'll generalize and say bloggers have a tendency to overvalue new and unique monsters - perhaps that's a perception borne of selection bias since that's what people post on their blogs.  For adventure gaming, those things have to be the exception, not the rule.  Otherwise you rob the players of too much agency, they lose an element of strategy and planning.  Of course this caveat is for adventure gaming.  In horror games, where combat is to be avoided and the monster is meant to be otherworldly and unknown, all bets are off.  Go crazy with your unknowable eldritch mutants.

As an observer of OSR publishing, this discussion around Island of the Unknown raises an interesting question:  What does a product owe you?  There was the Dwimmermount kerfuffle some time back because some of the descriptions in a draft manuscript were bland and the referee needed to elaborate them.  I don't see the same vitriol at Stonehell, an early OSR publication, and the descriptions tend to be quite sparse.  As consumers buying a product, there is an absolute right to pen scathing critiques of products that don't meet our expectations.  It's a free internet, and if you plunked down your money, by all means - get out there and let folks know about it.  Send the publishers a message.  Do it.

In the preface to Island of the Unknown the author calls out that the island is left intentionally bland to make transplanting it to the referee's home campaign a simple matter.  The product does what it says on the tin.  The flip side is making a product so dripping with campaign flavor that adapting to your setting is an impediment.  There is the argument of writing rooms and descriptions to avoid all need for improvisation by the referee - minute details done to excess.  Then there's the idea of providing only those details the referee couldn't make up at the table - the art of providing just enough evocative detail.

It's a fascinating phenomenon to observe this tension between products that spoon feed the referee everything they need, on the one hand, versus less verbose products that require adaptation and thought.  Of course, the reactions to the aforementioned products leads to these contentious reviews and internet squalls - and who doesn't enjoy some popcorn moments here in the blogosphere?  We're people.

For my part, I'm on the side of saying that Island of the Unknown failed for me as well.  The author's previous work, Carcosa, is also a massive hex crawl, but the encounters and inhabitants of Carcosa are filled with motivations, and motivation creates story.  One random hex in Carcosa may be filled with escaped slaves seeking safe haven; they're fleeing the bad guys in the next hex.  The bad guys will pay a reward if the runaways are captured.  No matter which hex is encountered first, the players will have the opportunity to learn information about something else nearby and engage with story.  Island of the Unknown is littered with idiosyncratic magic users (all lavishly illustrated) but none of them have personalities or stories or ties to the larger whole.  It's a greatly missed opportunity.

I suppose in a roundabout sort of way that describes my own litmus test for a successful product.  I can embellish details about empty rooms or turn bland treasure into something more interesting, if necessary.  What I want a product to be doing is providing goals and motivations for the inhabitants and antagonists.  I can take it the rest of the way.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Taenarum Game Report - Medusa Follies

Over the holiday weekend, we didn't get the regular gaming group together, but we did get in a couple of family games.  Here are game sessions two and three for the family.  Sit back and enjoy tales of daggers implanted, frightened children, and a cleric that gets totally stoned - in the bad way.

There are a number of issues I still need to work through from a campaign perspective - for instance, I don't have a good calendar built to facilitate tracking the two different groups exploring the dungeon - I'm using a modern calendar but would love to research how the ancient Greeks tracked time and make the dates 'authentic sounding'.  Another issue is that my 12 year old is playing a character in both games.  Keeping his player knowledge straight isn't easy.  Since he plays a Magic User in both games, he's asked if his two characters could know each other and share notes between games.  One benefit I'm seeing is that the active group is able to focus on unexplored areas; he can let them know where the other group went to help avoid unproductive time at the table.  We'll see how that goes - so far it's fine.

After a week or so back in town, the kid's group headed back to the dungeon.  They ended up searching over some old ground again - for instance, they couldn't resist messing with the giant stone titan head and triggering the fear gas.  Holly the (Christmas) Elf ran out of there claiming "the Crampus is after me, the Crampus!" after dosing herself with fear gas.

Tragedy struck when Matthias explained what he knew about the Medusa mural in a nearby room.  The mural was a wall-sized painting depicting a dark and fallen Greek temple in a vast chamber.  There are obvious stone statues of people like adventurers visible.  Matthias relayed that the mural appeared to become 3-dimensional if you stared too long, and it acted like a portal to elsewhere.  "Don't touch it or you'll get sucked in!"

Every group needs an instigator, a player that boldly declares, "The DM wouldn't have a portal to Medusa's lair as the third room of a dungeon for first level guys, right?  I'm going to stare at that thing until it becomes 3-D and step through."  In this way was Starbuck the Cleric lost forever.  The portal seemed one-way, and she was quickly petrified after wandering around the ruined temple and getting  discovered by the Medusa.

Not much else exciting happened this session.  They explored some rooms and fought some bandits.  During the bandit fight, Holly the Elf used ninja-style cartwheel techniques to get near the bandit leader and "implant him with her dagger".  You're going to do what?  "I'm implanting my dagger into the bandit."  Don't you mean impale him with your dagger?  "No, I want to implant it - right into his chest!"

On the way out, the mage used his Read Languages to read the ancient script carved into the head of the stone titan.  It said FORSAKEN in the language of Olympus.  Once he said it out loud, the head rumbled, opened it's mouth, and a stone tongue stuck out.  Sitting on the tongue was a black lacquered key.  They have the Black Key!  They don't know what that means yet.

A few days later, we got in another family game.  It's pretty convenient being able to get your whole gaming group together "after dinner for an hour or so" with minimal ceremony.  Wifey took over Milo, the NPC fighter, while a new NPC joined their crew, a dwarf cleric named Boomer.  I'm sure other Battlestar Galactica named NPC's will be thrust upon me shortly when they need to recruit help - Adama, Balthar, Helo.  She just watched the whole series on streaming.

Game 3 saw them explore up the main hallway of the first quadrant until they found a gigantic shrine to Poseidon.  Along the way they found a storage room holding petrified adventurers (which made them think maybe the Medusa can see out of the mural sometimes); they found a refuse room, a pit trap.  A bunch of pig-men attacked them in the Poseidon shrine, using a knockout gas.  A rumor in town warned that pig-men try to take prisoners and turn people into more pig-men.  The final area of the night involved a statue of a large bronze warrior, articulated, that creaked and changed position anytime you looked away.  One of its poses seemed to be pointing to a barren area on the map, and they used that to search (successfully) for a secret door.  They left the secret door for next game

Of course, this happened:  "You know what else changes poses and moves every time you stop looking at it?  A WEEPING ANGEL!  Oh no, there's a weeping angel in the dungeon!  And it's going to eat you!"  That was the older brother, teasing the two younger ones at the game table and making monster faces.  Later I had two crumb snatchers asking if they could sleep on my floor in sleeping bags that night.  "Weepy angels are so scary, why did you put one in the dungeon, Dad?  I can't sleep now."  Kids are pretty entertaining during the game session, their turns of phrase and watching how they approach problems, but there are potential downsides.

Latest Roster:
Holly the (Christmas) Elf - Magic User /Thief
Egrog - Fighter
Leonidas - Paladin
Mathias - Magic User
Milo - Fighter
Boomer (NPC) - Dwarf Cleric

First Victim of Taenarum:
Starbuck the Cleric of Apollo, petrified by a Medusa

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Using VLOOKUP to Generate Game Content in Excel

Part 1 on Monday looked at using RANDBETWEEN and IF statements to generate random numbers, evaluate conditions, and return a result.  Today we'll take it another step of the way in terms of generating stuff for your game by showing how the VLOOKUP function in Excel works.  VLOOKUP stands for Vertical Lookup, and requires your content to be in a vertical list.  The first column is the lookup value -  the number you’d be trying to roll on a die in a table.  If your table consists of 10 wandering monsters, you'd expect column one to list the numbers 1 to 10, in ascending order.  The whole set of columns (B2 through E11) is an array.  Here's a simple table we'll use for an example:

The basic syntax of the function is =VLOOKUP(lookup value, array, column index of the data to retrieve).  In the example above, column B is index 1, C is 2, D is 3, E is 4.  Here's how a simple VLOOKUP formula would look to return a random 1st level monster from that table:


Let's break it down.  A random number (RANDBETWEEN(1,10) is substituted for the lookup value.  The array is the entire table - cells B2 through E11.  I also recommend going and putting dollar signs in front of the table array values so the actual formula looks like this:


The dollar signs lock the lookup (in Excel terms, it's called an absolute reference).  Normally a formula increments the cell values when you copy and paste the formula to other cells.  The dollar signs ensure the vlookup consistently checks the correct cells for values.

You can easily change which column the content is retrieved from by updating the column index -


By updating the column index to 3, a result of 7 on the RANDBETWEEN number yields "gray ooze".  You can even get fancy and make the column index a random number, too - let's say you didn't care if the VLOOKUP returned a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd level monster, you could put in a formula like this in place:


VLOOKUP is an important building block.  Along with the RANDBETWEEN and IF statements we looked at Monday, we're cooking with gas!  Let's look at a simple practical example I used in the Black City game to generate tons of Viking names on the fly.  Consider this logic I used for Viking names.  First you have basic names (given names).  A last name has a 50% chance of either being a father's surname, a location, or a nickname.  So Vigor son of Baldi could be Vigor Baldison, Vigor of Zealand, or Vigor the Hook Nose.  As long as you have content tables with the three lists - the first names, the locations, and the nicknames, automating name creation in Excel with the functions we've reviewed is a snap.

In this next example, here are 10 given names (out of around 300) to show how the concept works.  I called this worksheet "name content":

On the next worksheet, I'll go ahead and put the following formulas in place.  You'll note that when you highlight an array of cells in an external worksheet, Excel prepends the sheet name to the array - it shows up as 'name content'! in the examples below to let you know it's referencing another sheet in the workbook.

Column 1 - generate first name
Formula:  =VLOOKUP(RANDBETWEEN(1,10),'name content'!$A$2:$B$11,2)

Column 2 - use a random number to generate type of last name (1-4).  This is just a working cell to create a value for columns 3 through 5 to check against:
Formula:  =RANDBETWEEN(1,4)

Column 3 - check the value in column 2 to see if there's a surname (on a 1 or 2 out of 4); if so, retrieve a firstname from the 'name content' sheet, and append "son" to the end to make a Viking surname.
Formula:  =IF(B2<3,VLOOKUP(RANDBETWEEN(1,10),'name content'!$A$2:$B$11,2)&"son","")

Column 4 - check if the last name identifies the character's homeland; if so, retrieve a location and add "of " to the beginning:
Formula:  =IF(B2=3," of"&VLOOKUP(RANDBETWEEN(1,10),'name content'!$A$2:$C$11,3),"")

Column 5 - check if there's a nickname; if so, retrieve a nickname and add "the " to the beginning of the nickname:
Formula:  =IF(B2=4,"the "&VLOOKUP(RANDBETWEEN(1,10),'name content'!$A$2:$D$11,4),"")

Column 6 - Let's concatenate the first name and the content of the other columns together to make a handy column for use in the game:
Formula:  =A2&" "&C2&D2&E2

Here's the working table with all the formulas in action:

We get a nice list of Viking names (all with A's in the first name, since I only put about 10 in the content table.  But you get the idea).  Here's that list:

Aran Anirson
Agnar of Dublin
Agnar the Black
Alrek the Beer-Drinker
Anir the Bellower
Annund Armodson
Alfgeir Agnarson

Muhaha - what will you do with your new powers of Excel?  Many times, I generate a list of names and personalities in advance, and keep them saved in a text file for use during the game.  When a need arises, I'll just pull the top one off the list as necessary during the game.  When the players run into bandits, or traders, or start talking to a random guy at the tavern, the improvisation goes much better when I can rattle off that it's "Alrek the Beer-Drinker" who they're talking to instead of 'random Viking guy'.

In fact, I use long lists of personalities, quirks, and mannerisms generated through VLOOKUPS quite a bit. I don't do well improvising interesting people on the fly and can use a little help. I may not know how I want to portray the bandit leader (so they're not like every other bandit) when I roll a wandering monster, but once I see that the leader is violent, or jealous, or risk averse, I can take it from there pretty easily and make a fun encounter.  NPCs with personalities keep the game interesting for me, and you never know when that random encounter is going to lead to a memorable scene or a future henchman or an enduring villain because you took the time to give the character a name and a personality hook, and then something funny or meaningful happened.

Getting back to Dungeon Content, I try to have giant tables of empty room types and trap types to integrate into the random stocker, as well as monster customized for each level and area of the dungeon.  You should see how the same techniques of content lookups and concatenation used to generate the Viking names can be used the same way to integrate content for a dungeon stocker.  However, let's be clear about something.  This is not programming.  The goal is not to make a finished tool to publish.  The goal is to give you a reason to dump all those random tables and content lists you've been acquiring, to dump them in Excel and to arm you with some basic techniques to generate tons of cool content during your game prep - and to do it much quicker than rolling and flipping pages and writing stuff down.

However, one type of content where there's no substitute for hard work and brainstorming is 'Specials'.  The 1E DMG has a pretty good list of dungeon objects and special properties, and -C over at Hack and Slash put together a list of types of specials - descriptors like Riddles, Quests, Terraformers, and Shops.  For a large dungeon like Taenarum, I try to smash it all together and see if something inspires me while trying to make sense of a bunch of random inputs.

Here's an example from this morning:  I was working on a room on level 4 of Taenarum and it contained a 'Special'.  The random results indicated it was trapped, weird, involved a pillar or column, and was intelligent.  Furthermore, the trap had to do with blindness.  Yikes.  What to do?  Well, the adjacent room has 'tritons' which clambered up from level 5 below.  Tritons in the game are scaly fish men with bug eyes and gills.  I decided the thing in the room is an Obelisk (close enough to a pillar for my purposes) and the tritons are worshipping it.  They're triton heretics who have turned their back on Poseidon, and the Obelisk represents Dagon, who they consider a scaly lord of the deep.  Furthermore, Dagon is trapped in the Obelisk itself!  In truth, Dagon is no god or demon, but was an Atlantean sorcerer imprisoned in the rock by Poseidon before the sinking of Atlantis.  The Obelisk was retrieved from the depths and hidden in the dungeon by Dagon's followers - it was brought up from the sea caves below.  The Obelisk communicates telepathically and can strike unbelievers who touch the stone blind.  Smashing the Obelisk destroys the magic prison and releases Dagon from an interdimensional space.  He's now an insane wizard with a god-complex and a bad attitude.  Great fun, right?

This is why jamming together a bunch of random results from giant mega tables is entertaining.  Dagon the mad wizard could make for an interesting campaign plot twist if the Obelisk is ever found and broken.  I doubt I would have put something like it in that area of the dungeon without being forced to reconcile some random inputs.

I hope this series has been helpful.  I'm at close to 500 rooms for Taenarum, the new dungeon, and a big part of why it's going so quickly is having tools that I like.  Whether the end result is good or not is a judgment best reserved for my players, but the two groups seem to be enjoying the campaign so far.  We got in a couple of family games over the holiday weekend, so I'll have some game reports before the end of the week.

Edit:  Based on requests in the comments, I've tried to put a sample Excel with the formulas out on a public DropBox - try to access it here:   VLookup Examples

Monday, April 21, 2014

Excel and Random Dungeon Stocking

If you're familiar with a programming language, you can go pretty far in automating a random dungeon .  Not everyone is a programmer, but lots of people use Microsoft's Excel - it's been a workplace standard forever, and lots of students get access to Office at university.   Here are some tips on generating basic content with Excel that anyone can try.

The 1980 Moldvay edition red book for D&D has a simple stocking approach on page B52 - one d6 roll for room contents, and a second d6 roll for treasure.  Today we'll automate those rolls in Excel.  The first Excel function we'll look at is RANDBETWEEN - it generates a random number between two end points.  For instance, type "=RANDBETWEEN(1,6)" in an open cell in Excel to generate a number from 1 to 6 (omit the quotation marks when you put it in Excel).

Because of how quickly you can copy formulas between cells in Excel, this is also handy for generating lots of random numbers without rolling dice.  I always have a spreadsheet open to the side when I'm running a game, with around 20 cells of "=RANDBETWEEN(1,8)" to generate lots of hit dice for wandering monsters.  I have similar lines for other common hit dice values - "=RANDBETWEEN(1,8)-1" for those 1-1 HD monsters like goblins (treating zeroes like ones) or "=RANDBETWEEN(1,8)+1" for hobgoblins.  You can add multiple results together -  "=RANDBETWEEN(1,8)+RANDBETWEEN(1,8)" adds two 8-sided rolls together for a 2 HD monster.  You can use this approach to generate ability scores on the fly for NPCs - a formula like the next one generates an ability score between 3 and 18:


I leave one cell free on the sheet where I type a letter or number - you'll see that whenever you make a change to that cell, all of the random values reset, effectively 'rerolling' all the random numbers.  There are many rolls that are important to roll in front of the players - attack rolls and monster saving throws, for instance.  But for set up items like hit points, it's great to have this kind of thing handy while you're running a session.

Getting back to the dungeon stocker, let’s take a look at using the IF function in Excel (a simple type of if-then-else you'll see a programmer use) and marry it up with our random roll.  We can nest a couple of "If" statements to generate room content in line with Moldvay's tables.  Assume you've put your 1-6 die roll in cell A1.  In cell B1, go ahead and put in a formula like this:  "=IF(A1<3,"Monster",IF(A1=3,"Trap",IF(A1=4,"Special","Empty")))"

Breaking it down step by step, the formula first checks to see if the dice roll is less than 3 (meaning a result of 1 or 2) in which case the value is "monster".  If it's not a result of 1 or 2, it checks to see if the result is 3, yielding "trap"; it goes on to check if the value is 4 (special) and anything else is "empty".  Simple, right?

We need to add a second dice roll for treasure in cells C1 and D1.  In C1, go ahead and put another d6 roll - "=RANDBETWEEN(1,6)" - and in cell D1, put a slightly more complicated "IF" formula like this:

"=IF(AND(B1="Monster",C1<4),"Treasure",IF(AND(B1="Trap",C1<3),"Treasure",IF(C1<2,"Unguarded Treasure","No Treasure")))"

By using IF and AND, we're able to evaluate two results at the same time - the room contents we generated previously and the new dice roll - to see if treasure is present.

To finish up today, go ahead and copy the four cells down the page.  An easy way to do it is to highlight the four cells containing formulas (A1, B1, C1, D1).  In the bottom right corner of cell D1 there is a little square in the highlighted outline - by clicking on it, holding, and dragging your cursor down the sheet, you can auto-copy the formulas down the page.  This way you can generate the contents of lots of rooms at once.

Even if you don't plan to do any random dungeon stocking, the random number generation available in Excel is really useful.  Let me know what you think.  In part 2 I'll cover how the VLOOKUP function can be used to retrieve actual content results from our content tables to make the stocker provide a little more value.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Game 3 - He took an Ogre to the Knee...

We left off last week with the regular group arriving at "the market", a place deep on the second level where denizens of the underworld crept towards the surface to trade with the surface dwellers.  The players had hired themselves out (as first level characters) as bodyguards to a trader and his retinue.

While Kyriakos the trader set about to conducting his business, the players wandered the market.  Grey dwarves rubbed shoulders with cloaked and masked strangers - referred to obliquely as "the Faceless".  A pair of nymphs wandered through, and the party saw multiple hags bartering with outsiders.  Other humans included goth-garbed followers of Hades, and other merchants like Kyriakos.  Narkessa, a blind seer, offered prophecies from behind a screen, but they never saw what kind of creature is Narkessa.  The players could only window shop, since they're fairly poor.  They learned there was an adjacent hospice run by one of the grey dwarves, and they were able to afford a place to sleep despite the exorbitant cost.

During all this mingling, they paid a guard some 'information money' to learn a little about the dungeon outside the market.  This part of the dungeon had a large temple to Ares and a cult of bloodthirsty followers of the war god.  The market was neutral ground.  A band of Amazons established a hideout somewhere south of the market and were conducting raids on the Ares cult.  There was also a witch that often came to visit the market.  But the most important thing they learned is that there are nearby stairs going up and down!  A shortcut up to level 1 would cut the trip to the market by half at least.  Agreeing to meet back up with Kyriakos later in the day, the adventurers left the market to scout for the stairs.

The stairs up weren't too hard to find, and they ascended back to the level 1 dungeon to look around.  Almost immediately, the air was split by the sound of a klaxon - the ear-splitting screech of "shriekers".  Matthias thought this was worth a Burning Hands spell, and scorched the shriekers; the melee guys quickly finished them off.  However, the damage was done, and within a minute, a troop of patrolling skeletal hoplites marched into the room from the north and assaulted the party.

Even the regular group has a couple of kids in it (three sons of dads - all twelve year olds).  Every time Connell the Celt does something, the kids all start singing "Con-nell, he's the greatest warrior ever, a hero of renown…" and playing air guitar - I realized they've given him the Billy-song from Adventure Time.  I can see how they think of Connell a bit like Billy - Connell just runs headlong into most fights, swinging a giant 2-handed axe.

This is pretty much how the kids treat Connell the NPC
Billy, er… Connell, indeed ran headlong into the skeletons, busting out "berserkergang", a proficiency.  A couple other guys joined him, and they quickly smashed the first rank.  Then Mack called on Hephaestus to banish the undead, and a successful turn undead roll drove the skeletons away.

The last room of the night was far to the south.  The players were trying to find an easier way back to the main road out of the dungeon.  They found a large room where the walls are completely filled with bright mosaic tiles.  Outlined in the tiles are the likenesses of various monsters - a lizard man, a goblin, a white ape, and so forth.  Searching the walls, they found a secret door, but as they touched the wall, the mosaic of the ogre they touched flashed briefly; the ogre mosaic disappeared, and suddenly two very real ogres materialized in the room behind them.  Yikes!

Two ogres for first level guys is rough.  Necro-Leo (Leonidas the Necromancer) had a Sleep spell for one of them.  When he does his sleep spell, a black cloud appears above the target and the victim dreams black thoughts - or so the player tells me.  For the remaining ogre, they went to wolf-pack tactics, getting 4 melee guys around the ogre  so they could take it out quickly.

Connell got smashed by the ogre's club, below zero hit points, and went flying out of the fight.  The other guys cut down the ogre before anyone else got smashed; the dwarf crushed the ogre's leg with his hammer, and then skull cracked it when it dropped.  It was a big night for Mack the Dwarf.

The death and dying rules for ACKS are quite a bit different than regular D&D.  Basically, the guy is considered to be lying there in an indeterminate dying state (or not - Schrödinger's dying character) until someone checks on him, and then you make a roll to see the extent of the injuries.  In this case, Connell was just below zero hit points, Necro Leo was a trained healer and got to him immediately, and Necro Leo rolled amazingly high on a giant 'mortal wounds' table.  Connell was only knocked out, and recovered with 1 hp - but he now has a permanent injury, a -1 to initiative due to scarring - perhaps a bad knee.  After which Moe immediately quipped, "I used to be an adventurer like you, until I took an ogre to the knee…"

After the ogre fight, the remaining mosaic tiles in the room had faded.  They could still see the outlines of the other monsters, but they were no longer vivid.  Where the ogre mosaic used to be, there was now a keyhole for an oversized skeleton key.  A mystery for later.

The players were low on resources and hit points.  They made their way back down the stairs to the market on level 2, meeting back up with Kyriakos and his retainers.  The plan is to use the hospice room to rest overnight in the dungeon, regain spells and some hit points, and then escort the traders back to the surface.  They need to try and recruit a couple more zero level guys back in town to act as fighters.

Sadly - no family-kids game this weekend.  Another sleepover foiled my attempt to get everyone to the game table.  My children clearly have more of a social life than myself.  : sigh :

Cast of Characters
Moe, a Bard
Talus, a Magic User
Mack, a Dwarven Craftpriest
Leonidas, a Necromancer (Necro Leo)
Connell (Billy) - NPC

Missed the Game:
Etor the Explorer
Alantir, Paladin of Poseidon

*Image is "Billy" from the Adventure Time cartoon

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Developing the Dungeon through Progressive Elaboration

I'm a general manager these days, but most of my industry experience is in IT project management.  Software projects are notoriously high risk and prone to under-delivering or killing the budget.  Over the past 10 to 15 years, different approaches to structuring  software projects have come into vogue to help guide the creative process.  I always enjoy seeing how I can apply stuff learned on the day job to the night job - campaign creation.  Your campaign development is a work product.

Traditional project approaches use a structure called 'waterfall'.  All the activities of a phase are completed before moving on to the next set of activities.  In software terms, that would be identifying all the requirements for the software first, then creating designs and blueprints, then building it, then testing it, and so on.  The work product from the previous phase is an input flowing into the next phase, usually represented through a step chart (gantt chart), therefore the term 'waterfall'.  In campaign creation, you could imagine creating all the hex maps first, then maps for all the towns and cities, then descriptions of all the towns, and so on - exhausting one activity completely before moving on to the next thing.

Scrum (a type of "agile development") is focused on quickly getting a working iteration of software published, putting it in front of the customer, and moving on to the next iteration while incorporating feedback and customer insights.  If the waterfall approach had you building one large layer at a time, the Scrum approach involves a 'vertical slice of the cake' that has a snapshot of all the layers accounted for in that mini product.  In dungeon terms, imagine creating a few rooms, fully mapped and detailed and keyed and packaged, and then getting some players to experience those limited rooms.  You'd incorporate what you learned in the first game session when you prepared for the next session.  That;s a bit like a Scrum project.  I'd say most just-in-time campaign creation uses that approach.

The approach I've been taking with Taenarum involves "progressive elaboration".  There was a software project management approach championed by IBM in the late 90's called "RUP" - the rational unified process - that used progressive elaboration as a core method.  One of the driving metaphors was developing a walking skeleton, and slowly adding on to the skeleton the way a sculptor would add clay to a metal frame.

In Taenarum, I've started with expansive maps of the dungeon levels, without adding too many details - just the layouts and number of rooms.  I make some notes on the theme of the level, and a list of monsters to plug into the random stocker.  Then I use a random stocker to quickly add raw content to the rooms.  These few things give me that underlying 'metal frame' - the walking skeleton.  Sometime later I do another pass over the level, harmonizing  and rationalizing the random results to make it either coherent or interesting… (and sometimes even both).  Doors, secret doors, and other map objects get added in.  Treasure is added where appropriate - first as gross sums to balance the level, and then it gets decomposed into more interesting forms when time permits.

Here's an example.  After the first pass through the random generator, I'd have an entry like this:  Room 7, monster & treasure:  Traders.  Next it becomes a 'trader camp' with 5 traders and 800gp treasure.  On the third pass through, I decide to give the main guy a name and personality (table driven) and change the raw treasure total into something more interesting.  (Pro tip:  the ACKS book has handy tables for trade goods as replacement treasures for coins - the tables are massively useful, regardless of system).  Here's how the final room ended up looking in my notes:
7.  Trader Camp
Pillared chamber used as a camp by a party of traders led by Kyriakos of Gytheio - a handsome man with earrings and the attitude of a practical joker.
5 Traders (level 1 fighters) and 3 slaves (normal men).   Incidental weapons (spears, clubs) and leather armor
Trade goods:
6 bundles of fox pelts (90gp total)
2 casks of distilled wine (400gp total)
3 rugs (15gp total)
8 weeks of food, water (40gp value)
100gp, 1500sp
10 +1 arrows with bronze tips, carefully wrapped
I use a little excel sheet to generate hit points on the fly, and can improvise or derive combat stats as necessary, so I'd usually never put that kind of thing in my notes.

You may wonder - why bother with all those iterative passes over the same material, when I could have jumped right to creating the entry for room 7 on the first pass?  It comes down to balancing scope and detail.  The barebones version of the level, with a map and raw content, lets me improvise as necessary if the players wander farther into the dungeon than are fully prepared.  Any one of us could improvise a room like the Trader Room - the worst case is that it might slow the game down a little if you need to roll a bunch of dice at the table.  By starting with the skeletal framework, I've been able to sit down with a couple of hundred more rooms available than otherwise - Taenarum is over 300 rooms in just a few weeks of development.  The finishing details get added as time permits, or when I know there's a good chance the players will visit a given area in an upcoming session.

Back before I mused about becoming the Anti-Beedo, I was definitely a 'vertical slice of cake' kind of referee, who would have completely finished  Room 7 Trader Camp before moving on to Room 8 - I developed things serially.  Anti-Beedo wants to cover as much ground as possible, and is willing to leave the finer details ambiguous until time permits or it's necessary for clarity.  The approach is working, and I've been happy with Anti-Beedo's results so far.  I have more dungeon material in Taenarum in just a few weeks than I had in the Black City after many many months.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Dungeon Gold and the Nearby Town

There are a handful of small things that are different between ACKS and the other retro clones in delivering that classic dungeon delving experience; the big area where ACKS is significantly different is the amount of space allocated to setting creation and campaigning.  The core rules balance detail and utility to provide a straightforward approach to structuring domains, from the largest cities down to the smallest villages.  If the player characters stumble into an otherwise non descript village, answering these types of questions is a snap - the odds of finding a few hirelings, whether there's a cleric with a cure disease spell, or just how tough is the local knight.  There's nothing stopping a referee from winging it based on the needs of the story, but in ACKS, you don't actually have to wing it.  There's an underlying method.

One area where I found the rules silent was the effect adventurers have on a local economy.  Characters return to town with thousands of gold pieces over the course of a level, and the local lord is taxing them along the way.  10% seems to be a fair rate, both in ACKS and from the 1E DMG's recommendations.  If the player characters are the only adventurers in the area, perhaps there isn't a noticeable effect from an occasional windfall to the local lord.  If you’re using scattered lairs across the countryside, the effect of adventurers is diffused.  But when you're considering a well-known megadungeon, with lots of rival adventuring parties launching similar excursions, the amount of gold returning from the dungeon becomes significant.  A week ago, I pointed out how a standard party would return a few million gold pieces from a 10 level megadungeon.  That's a lot of money to tax.

Castle Greyhawk wasn't that far from the free city of Greyhawk.  Adventurer's gold wouldn't warp the economy of a major city.  But how about that frontier village or borderlands castle where a stream of dungeon gold represents more revenue than the annual economy of the place?

What I'm doing in the Taenarum game is assuming that consistent exploration (and retrieval of dungeon gold) has shifted the economy of the village higher on the revenue charts.  The charts use population to derive the base income, market class, and demographics of the village.  The dungeon gold gives the town more income than an equivalent village that isn't near a giant megadungeon.  This results in a higher class of market - more readily available adventurer goods and hirelings - along with a tougher local thieves' guild and a stronger local ruler.  It's a nod towards the gold rush \ boom town effect where glory seekers head to the frontier to find their fortunes, along with merchants and specialists to service them.  However, it's only shifting the class of market slightly when compared to other small habitations.  The player characters still need to travel to the nearest major city for significant expenditures, powerful spells, and rare items.

Adventurers are knuckleheads, and putting a lot of them in the same place at the same time guarantees tavern-clearing brawls that spill into the streets.  Our little frontier town needs a "sheriff".  The higher income supports a demographic shift for the major NPC's in the town - an in-game explanation for why the local lord is a retired 8th level fighter, or why there's a higher level cleric on hand for 3rd level spells.

One area I'm less knowledgeable about is inflation.  Do any of you put inflation into your games?  In Taenarum, the village of Psammathous Bay is less than a day's journey by boat to the nearest city.  It's not that far for resupply.  Still, it seems reasonable to assume adventuring gear is at a premium.  ACKS has some arbitrage rules.  They seem like the next thing to look at to determine an appropriate inflationary modifier for adventurer gear on the frontier - as long as it's not too complicated.  At the end of the day, it's still a game about the dungeons and the dragons, and not papers and paychecks.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Taenarum Game 2 - This Little Piggy Went to Market

Players!  If there's a choice out there that sounds interesting, they're going to take it.  You'd better be ready, DM!  That's my cautionary note from last week's game.

We only had one game night last weekend instead of two.  My daughter decided it was more exciting to have a little girl sleep over with a bunch of her friends.  D&D lost out to American Girl Dolls.  That's fine, the family game night should be back on for this weekend.  The regulars were able to come as planned the following night.

Lykourgos, proprietor of the adventurer's guild hall, commended them on surviving their first week, but also remarked that 150gp wasn't enough to get them on the scoreboard.  "If I put every adventurer group that survived one or two trips into the dungeon and came back with a little gold, the wall would be full of the nobodies.  Survive a few excursions and get a thousand gold or more, then we're talking.  You'd still have a long way to go to be like the Nine".

A new player joined this week, playing "Mack", a dwarven craftpriest of Hephaestus.  Once the recruitment and introductions were in order, Moe's Marauders made the sun drenched walk down the peninsula to the sea cliffs where the brooding entrance to Taenarum beckoned.

This time they followed the massive main passage, remarking on the detailed frieze near the ceiling showing scenes of daily life - ordinary folks stalked by little winged deaths.  The road to the Underworld is broad and wide, and everyone walks it eventually, or so it implied.

Where the main passage turned northward, a split appeared in the wall, forming a black-lipped magic mouth with gruesome teeth, enunciating this short message:

Tablet, key and door rewards
with treasures from the death god's hoards;
In order to conclude the quests,
You'll need to find the seven chests.

Heading north, the players found a typical dungeon side passage, and down the side passage was a door.  Connell, their burly Celt, slammed it open, and they were surprised to see a lit room with a handful of humans camped out.  These men, traders, ended up surprised as well, so the two groups scrambled for position and warily got ready for combat.

The NPCs were understrength compared to the party, and it was obvious they were traders with quite a few trade goods.  It was a perfect murder hobo opportunity.  Instead, Moe and Alantir stepped out to talk to the leader and diffuse the situation.  The leader was a handsome guy with an earring named 'Kyriakos of Gytheio', and he was intent on finding the dungeon market on level 2 - 'where the creatures of the underworld meet in truce with surface dwellers and trade underworld rarities…'

Moe immediately blurted out - "We'll guide you there for a modest fee.  Looks like you could use a strong escort."  The wide-eyed guardsmen of Kyriakos huddled with their boss and seemed pretty happy to accept help.  You wonder  if he told them they were going deep underground into a scary dungeon when they were first hired.

Moe's Marauders had heard a rumor in town about a dungeon market, where hags and dark dwarves and creepy inhabitants offer safe haven to surface dwellers that come to trade.  Not knowing anything about the size and scope of the dungeon, it was fairly entertaining that they immediately volunteered to go down there.  An accord was reached with Kyriakos and his men, and they all set out shortly thereafter.  Kyriakos explained that members of his merchant house back in the city of Gytheio roughly knew the way to the market, but this was his first trip.  The great road to Hades spiraled down into the earth, with sprawling dungeon corridors to each side, but as long as you stayed to the main road, you'd reach the market - assuming you survived.

Of course, the players didn't realize it would take them about 6 hours (game time).  The main road spiraled through areas where the floors were worn smooth by countless feet, and the sound of bones clicking on polished marble echoed in the dark.  There as an area where roots and growth of unknown vines threatened to clog the passages.  Another area bespoke of habitation, with sconces mounted on the walls and small oil lamps lighting the way.

There were a lot of 'wandering monster' checks.  The party encountered a patrol of Pig Men.  They butchered a group of goblins fleeing out of a side passage, and then quickly moved on so they wouldn't have to face the 'Red Horror' that the goblins were fleeing.  On level 2, a shambling crowd of moaning zombies shuffled out of the darkness ahead.  The most interesting encounter was with a floating, skeletal figure with piercing red eyes and a burnished crown.  The characters were such low level they were frozen rigid on the spot, most unable to even meet the lich's gaze.  Lord Skotos is the "Dungeon Master", charged by Hades with adding new areas and traps to the dungeon.  After scaring the bejeezus out of the players, the floating skeleton merely admonished them, "Don't destroy anything in my dungeon.  I don't like it".  I can honestly boast my first level party encountered a lich as a wandering monster.

They finally made it to the turn off for the market right as we were nearing time in the session.   A pair of ashen, black clad dwarves lurked in a side passage, illuminated by a smoky torch.  They whispered it was 'This way to the market', and the party headed the way the dwarves indicated.  Dwarves in the campaign are broadly separated into two bloodlines, the tan skinned followers of the Forge God, who favor volcanic mountains and the crafting of exquisite devices; the others are the sullen, ash-skinned followers of Hades as Pluto, god of wealth and the underworld.  These 'dark dwarves' have foresworn the surface for mining the veins of the earth, and they're known to cavort with the undead.

There's no way Kyriakos and his men would have survived the trip to the market without the players.  "Whatever we agreed to pay you, it wasn't enough", Kyriakos remarked, as the injured travelers entered the underground market.  We stopped there, with the players about to enter a strange place, far deeper into the dungeon than any first level party can be expected to go.  Aren't sandbox games fun?

Cast of Characters
Etor the Explorer
Alantir, Paladin of Poseidon
Moe, a Bard
Talus, a Magic User
Mack, a Dwarven Craftpriest
Connell (NPC)

Missed the Game:
Leonidas, a Necromancer
Olympos, an Assassin

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Revisiting the Magic Shoppe

You've got a problem, DM.  Your players are going to earn a lot of gold over the course of their dungeoneering careers (somewhere around 4 million gp).  Unless that money goes somewhere, the quest for treasure is going to lose its motivating force.  On the other hand, draining the coffers through taxes or training costs is fairly irritating.

The campaign should encourage the players to shape the world - provide reasons to build things, hire people, use that wealth to exert force against the setting.  But don't discount the idea of buying magic items, either.  The popular imagination jumps to Crazy Eddie's franchise of Ye Olde Magic Shoppes, one in every city, where "the prices are so low they're practically insaaaaane!"

Let's step back and look at what happens in the real world with rare, unique, and precious items.  They’re typically bought and sold at auctions.  There's a fun Call of Cthulhu adventure (The Auction House) that takes place at a Vienna locale where various occult and mythos artifacts come up for sale - including the Brazen Head.  Half of the fun of that particular adventure is the roleplaying opportunity introduced by meeting all the weird visitors to the auction and trying to appraise and research the provenance of the items before the auction begins.

Apply some imagination and make the commercial side of it worth playing out at the table.  The campaign is already built upon interesting NPC's - perhaps the magic auction is something that happens a few times a year, invitation-only to characters of a certain reputation and wealth.  It's somewhere exotic and secret, attended by the agents of emperors and kings and wizards, and rivals of the adventurers, past and present.  Competition at the auction can easily spill over to the streets once the auction is done - the agents of the Warlord of Thar don't take it lying down when they've been outbid on that heirloom Atlantean sword coveted by his august presence, Thar of the Shining Horde.  Just learning about the auction house itself requires footwork and becomes its own adventure.  It sure sounds like a memorable way to let the players spend a few hundred thousand gold.

Commissioning items is the same - make it quest driven and advance the development of the campaign world.  For Taenarum, the campaign in development now, I'm planning on having the 'Forge Followers of Hephaestus' as a remote sect of dwarves and priests whose holy mission is to craft imbued items in homage to the forge god.  Traveling to their volcanic shrine and commissioning a suit of golden plate armor is an end in itself.  Or perhaps the wizard Darius the Proud refuses to be outdone by his rivals in distant Araby, and can be motivated to craft those Boots of Speed because of a story that a desert wizard did it first.  The key is to put the onus on the players to do their own research, travel plans, and role playing to find creative reasons to spend their money on the items they want or need.  As referee, you just need to leave the door open - none of this "No one ever buys or sells magic items in MY campaigns…"

People with too much money buy and sell rare and unique items every day in the real world.  It's going to happen in the fantasy world too - you just need to figure out how to make it interesting.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Vast Wealth of Dungeons

Four Million Reasons to Embrace Campaign Style Play

There are a number of inter-related factors in old school D&D that work together to support the megadungeon as a campaign centerpiece.  Dungeon level equaling monster level and difficulty provides the players the most direct control over danger versus reward during their planning.   XP for Gold means that creative problem solving and ingenuity is more important than combat - avoiding fights and still making it out with the money is the best path to victory.

One thing you're going to have to face in a dungeon-oriented campaign is the phenomenal amount of wealth that adventurers are going to draw out of the dungeon.  The ratio of experience from gold versus monsters is somewhere near 4 or 5 to 1.  A first level party, needing 10,000+ experience points to move everyone up to level 2, is going to need at least 8,000gp from the first dungeon level alone!

I posted a chart in one of the "scoreboard" posts the other day on how much wealth a party will have retrieved from the dungeon in order to gain a certain level.  It becomes astronomical.  A 10-level megadungeon needs to have something like four million cumulative gold pieces to get to level 10.  If the dungeon is large enough to support multiple adventuring parties, you can double or triple that amount.  What's that mean for your campaign?

Party Level / Wealth Gained
1  10,000
2  10,000
3  20,000
4  40,000
5  80,000
6  160,000
7  320,000
8  640,000
9  1,280,000
10 1,280,000
*Sum is 3.8 million gold to get to level 10...

There seem to be a few schools of thought.  One school of thought attempts to perpetuate, for as long as possible, the experience of scraping coppers, collecting old dented helmets for scrap metal, and really making the adventurers work for every last gold piece.  The idea seems to keep the adventurers poor so they have a natural motivation to take whatever crappy plot hook the DM throws in front of them - or risk getting thrown out on the street as paupers.  It's adversarial and risks making the campaign about defeating the DM's attempts to strip wealth, versus letting the players find fun things to do with the money.  Even Conan got to be king eventually.

I prefer a different approach, which is to continue to ramp up the campaign challenges and provide natural outlets for spending the money.  Adventurers don't follow the same rules as everyone else in the campaign world.    They are the proverbial sports heroes and rock stars of the campaign world.  Their extravagant income is matched only by extravagant needs and expenses.  Giving the players the chance to actually spend the money they've earned is an opportunity to let them make interesting decisions and exercise choice and resource planning.

One of the largest potential expenses is new magic items, especially the expendables and charged items.  I'm going to assume that if ancient dungeons filled with magic and treasures are a real thing in your campaign world, and the adventurers aren't unique, that there are places in the world where magic items are bought and sold, and places where adventurers with way too much cash can go and get their own bespoke magic items made to order.  The meager sword +1 is 5,000gp new, and that high level suit of leather +3 the thief really needs is going to set him back 35,000gp.  Engaging in the magic economy is going to drain money quickly.

Providing campaign incentives for the characters to invest in strongholds, churches, wizard laboratories, and hiring large staffs of NPC's is another natural outgrowth of mid-level play, which progresses into the need to outfit armies and conquer domains in high level play.

The tricks of the "gotcha" style of DM are still fair in small doses - taxes and salvage fees from local rulers skims money off the top, as does a little bit of protection money paid to the thieves' guild.  In fact, one reason mid-level characters need to look at strongholds and lots of retainers is because their own hoards can be targeted by lower level adventurers and thieves while they're in the dungeon deeps!

Embrace the power fantasy aspect of the old school gaming style.  I don't know about you, I'm not fantastically wealthy, and I have to 'punch a clock' Monday through Friday just like everyone else.  Part of the escape of this style of gaming is getting to play a character where money stops being a problem.  When the characters decide to go on an ocean voyage, they go and buy a ship and crew - because they can.  Fantastic wealth doesn't stop sports stars from suiting up to play the next game, and it's not going to stop your players from tackling their next challenge either.  Money is a powerful resource.  The players are going to earn a ton of money in a long term dungeon campaign.  Embrace the challenge of providing creative reasons to spend it and keep the game about player choice and resource management.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A First Look at the Scoreboard

Here's a first look at Taenarum's "Scoreboard" (image below).  There are a few adventurer parties scattered between levels 1-3 that I need to add as well - they're either listed on wandering monster tables or buried in a room key.  A couple of long time bloggers helped me out with some parties from their home campaigns yesterday on G+ - thanks fellas!

I'm convinced more than ever that keeping a scoreboard for progress in Taenarum is going to be amazing.  It creates instant rivalries with the other groups on the board.  It provides an immediate sense of accomplishment for the players as their haul of loot moves them up the board.  It gives me a reason to have people in far off places like Sparta, Mycenae, or Corinth know about any given adventuring company.  It gives the game a funny, ironic, self-referential twist.  And it's going to give me a ton of material for rumors and foreshadowing.

For instance, the group is asking about the third dungeon level back in town.  Whatever bland rumor I had previously can be immediately dressed up.  "Oh yeah, there was this guy a while back - Higgins.  His guys learned that the ghoul king knew the whereabouts of the Bident of Hades, and that his court was somewhere in the northwest quadrant.  Of course, they never came back..."

I also like to put evidence of previous explorers in the dungeon.  I think it hearkens back to my love of Journey to the Center of the Earth, where the characters are following in the footsteps of a legendary explorer, Arne Saknussemm, and they keep finding his runic "A.S." carved along their downward path.  I'll use a ready list of past explorers like the ones on the scoreboard to embellish such details.  I'm keeping notes on the side about at least one notable member of each party for it.

I've seen dungeon concepts where the dungeon has been sealed, and the party represents the first humans to visit it in a long time.  There is a place for that approach, no doubt, but consider the opposite: the dungeon is vast, unknowable, and eternal; generations of explorers have tried to plum its murky depths.  Very few retire to old age; it's always the last mission that spells doom.  Adventurers come and go, but the monsters, traps, tricks, and lure of easy wealth endures.

Anyway, here's a first look at The Scoreboard - it's a work in progress.  It's not too late to suggest your own entry, either in the comments or on the G+ thread.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Friday Fun - Put Yourself on the Scoreboard

My latest campaign builds on the idea that adventurers are the sports heroes of the heroic age.  I've even put a "scoreboard" into the game, like those old high score screens you'd see at the end of classic arcade games.  Parties of adventurers report their earnings back at the adventurer's guild hall, and the proprietor updates standings on a scoreboard.  I'm picturing the actual scoreboard involving little wooden plaques arranged vertically on a wall.  News of the latest standings travels the City States and creates overnight celebrities.

The underlying conceit is that Hades, the god of wealth and the underworld, has developed the road to the underworld into a sprawling megadungeon, Taenarum, filled with tricks, traps, puzzles, monsters, and of course, vast wealth.  Hades can pillage buried treasures from the ages of man, and his Stygian minions mine precious metals from the roots of the earth.  His cleverly baited dungeon is one of the eternal games between the gods.

It is the Greek Mythic age - several decades since the Fall of Troy.  The heroes of the epics are now aged and retired.  Many adventurers in the new generation have perished in the dungeon of Taenarum.   Others made it deep enough to gain huge hoards, retiring to one of the City States or assuming rulership of a domain.  Either way, the Scoreboard is populated with the names of adventuring companies both legendary and quotidian that came to Taenarum and left their mark.

Here's where you can help me out, and have a little fun too.  Come up with the name of your favorite adventuring party, let me know over the course of their career how much wealth they recovered from Taenarum (their score), and indicate if they went on to adventure elsewhere (retiring from Taenarum) or whether they met a violent end in the dungeon - one sung by the bards for heroism or told before hearth fires as a cautionary tale of greed or carelessness.

Not only will your idea have a chance to show up on the Scoreboard in our game (and potentially grace some of my game reports as my groups celebrate passing them by), but I'll get to ad lib your exploits into some of the game sessions, put some graffiti in the dungeon that they left behind, and so forth.  How often do you get to add something fun and creative to someone else's home campaign?

Here’s a chart that shows how much cumulative wealth an average party needs to level up.  The nature of the progression means you just look at the next level down to see the cumulative earnings.  For example, assume a group of 5th level adventurers, the "Sons of Man", perished some years back on level 6, killed by a pair of mated chimeras.  Their cumulative score at the time would have been somewhere above 160,000 gold (the sum of adding up the wealth gained of levels 1 - 5).

Party Level / Wealth Gained

1  10,000
2  10,000
3  20,000
4  40,000
5  80,000
6  160,000
7  320,000
8  640,000
9  1,280,000
10 1,280,000

Drop a line in the comments or over on G+ with the party name, level, score, and anything interesting about them I should know, and I'll see about working them into the story.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Game Report - Taenarum Week 1

I meant for the last post to be a game report, but it ended up focusing on the role of adventurers and my idea of using an actual scoreboard to track the players versus other adventuring groups.  While the players spent a few minutes in town getting oriented and picking up a few rumors, Lykourgos, proprietor of the adventurer's guild hall, added them to the scoreboard.  The first group to have a game night was the family.

The wife and kids called themselves Adventurer's Inc. (duhn duhn duhn) so they're on the scoreboard as "AI".  Their roster includes Egrog, a Spartan gladiator; Leonidas a paladin; Starbuck the prophet of Apollo; Mathias of Athens, a magic user; Milo (an NPC hireling); Holly the (Christmas) elf.   (I've explained that the wintry being of the north is Boreas, the father of winter and god of the north wind, but my daughter is still going to call him Santa Claus nonetheless).

The following night, some of the adult regulars (and a few of their kids) formed a second group.  Their nom de guerre for the scoreboard is Moe's Marauders.   Their roster consists of Moe - a bard-poet from Phoenicia (Palestine); Alantir, a paladin of Poseidon; Etor the ranger (explorer); Leonidas the necromancer; Olympos the bravo; Talus a magic user; Connell, a Celtic fighter (NPC hireling).

Both of the groups followed the same sun-drenched path atop rolling hills to reach the towering sea cliffs at the end of the peninsula; they both passed the same massive columns, carved as titans holding a vast tableau, that formed the entrance tunnel to the road to the Underworld.  They both entered Taenarum beneath the baleful gaze of a carved gorgon head above the entrance.  I'm going to compare how they handled similar areas in the dungeon.

The place itself is hewn from red marble, the living rock of the cliffs.  A massive 20' by 20' passage sloped gradually down into the cliff side.  A short way in there was a 10' passage off the main road leading to a room.  Both groups quickly decided to ditch the main passage for the smaller side passage and the first room.

The first area had camp remains, some old baskets, and a bunch of adventurer graffiti - things like:
Diodoros sleeps with the fishes; Spartans rule, Athenians drool; For a good time, ask to dance with Melantha; If you find my head, let me know - signed, Orpheus; Don't eat the pomegranates.
The kid's group immediately set to pulling out chalk and delightfully adding their own graffiti.  I know one of the things was Egrog Rules, Herodotus Drools (Herodotus was an NPC back in town - I guess he made an impression on Egrog).  The elf added, The Magic of Christmas Lies in Your Heart.  Moe's Marauders saw all the graffiti the next night, harumphed, and focused instead on searching.  They found a scrap of paper (papyrus) in one of the reed baskets - it featured a potential treasure map.  The kids never searched the baskets the night before.  Neither group found a loose flagstone that had a hidden cache - they never looked under the baskets.

A nearby room had a gigantic stone head (10' tall) like a grotesque and detailed Easter Island carving.  Moe's group learned that certain activities caused the stone head to exhale a cloud of gas that overwhelmed the senses with fear; there were a few times his guys had to regroup on the sunlit path outside of the dungeon after someone banged on the head with a hammer or tried to knock it over.  There was an inscription on the forehead written in an alien tongue; the kid's magic user identified it as Olympian, the language of the gods.  He plans to use a Read Languages spell on a return trip.  Moe took the time to copy it down and is hoping to pay someone to translate it back in town.

The kids decided to go up a north passage and found a room filled with large clay amphorae.  A gang of black and white striped goblins, invaders from Hecate's dark realm, ambushed them from behind the large pots.  Mathias put them out with a Sleep spell, and the kids killed the goblins and looted a bunch of moonstones (which are precious to the triple-faced goddess).  The adults ended up visiting the same room the following day - all they found were a bunch of dead goblins and smashed clay pots.

The adults ended up finding a few other places.  One included a gigantic mural that showed a colonnaded room filled with statues and perhaps a snake-haired gorgon in the background.  The mural wavered and swam if you looked at it closely and appeared to become three-dimensional and trippy.  No one tried to step through.

Elsewhere they found a large stone sarcophagus filled with a bluish gas.  More of Hecate's striped goblins ambushed them, and after the battle, they stuck one of the goblins in the box.  It appeared to put the goblin into some kind of timeless state.  The wheels are turning on how they could use such a thing.

That's about all the ground the two groups covered for a short game night - remember that they each did character creation and equipment on the same night, so the adventuring time was abridged.  I don't know that I'll do joint game reports going forward, but it was fun comparing how they did.  If you're watching "the scoreboard", the kids earned 630gp while the adults got 150gp.  It pays to be first to an area.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Gygaxian Experiment Week One - Campaign Kickoff

My D&D game has a scoreboard!
I kicked off the new D&D campaign this weekend.  The elevator pitch for the campaign is simple - it's Mythic Greece.    In the far reaches of southern Greece, beyond Sparta, is the legendary entrance to the Underworld - the dungeon Taenarum.  The god of the Underworld, Hades, the mad god, dares you to come plunder the vast wealth of the Underworld.  He's got a special place in the kingdom of the dead for those who fail.

It's a pretty simple premise.  I'll be running two regular groups through it - a family game and one for my regular crew (with some new faces).  This is an unknown frontier for me - multiple groups operating in the same local setting.   You see glimpses of this style of play in 1970's anecdotes about Castle Greyhawk, and odd bits from the 1E AD&D DMG.  I'll be getting some ideas on the blog as I work through the logistics of keeping it straight.  For now, let's move on to the home base.

Both groups started in Psammathous Bay, a small fishing village on the southern peninsula, a few miles from the dungeon.  Psammathous Bay is a picturesque cove on the Laconian Gulf, down the coast from the port of Gytheio.  It has a 'gold rush atmosphere' because of the number of adventurers that congregate in the small village, supporting services like an adventurer's guild hall, traders, weapon smith, and so on.  Each set of players started off in the Adventurer's Hall, introducing their characters, picking up some rumors about the nearby dungeon, and getting an orientation on town from the tavern owner, Lykourgos.

One of the sillier things I've added is "The Scoreboard".  D&D is very much a score-driven game.  I know there are plenty folks out there with their touchie-feely alternative XP ideas (hippies!), but that kind of misses the point.  The XP system (and specifically XP for treasure) is the driving factor in the "game" aspect of old school D&D.  You don't win the game, but it sure feels good when you've earned your way towards leveling up.

There's a tradition in the town of Psammathous Bay of dumping out your loot back at the adventurer's hall for a public reckoning.  Total wealth earned is tracked on a scoreboard.  Lord Yiorgos, the local ruler, mandates a 10% tax on wealth from the dungeon, so his agents enforce the accounting.  It was a natural step to announce the size of the haul publicly, and the scoreboard evolved from there.  There's enough wealth coming into Psammathous Bay from the dungeon that a thieves' guild offers "protection services" for adventurer gold.  The Greeks admire strength of arms and cunning, and escaping the Underworld with the stolen wealth of the death god demonstrates the classic virtues.

The main thing about The Scoreboard is that it creates rivalry between different adventuring parties, and news of the exploits of different groups spreads back to the mainland.  In Gytheio, leaders on the scoreboard are veritable celebrities, and the scoreboard is an avenue to fame and infamy across all the City States.  I'm in the process of populating the Scoreboard with the names of other adventuring groups and mercenary parties, past and present, active and defunct, so the groups of players can measure themselves and watch their climb up the leader board.  Folks that remember my Black City campaign will see some similar themes; I love how the frontier dungeon creates a gold rush atmosphere and aspects of the Wild West; I like the dungeon to involve competing adventuring groups and rivalries that spill outside the dungeon; with Taenarum, I've taken it a step further in tying dungeon activities with country-wide fame and fortune.

Wow - just looked at the clock, I've got to shower and hit the road for work.  Meeting the two adventuring parties and hearing about their first week exploits waits until tomorrow.  I think it was worthwhile to take a moment and introduce some of this stuff - you can see how it will drive an interesting dungeon campaign and play to the strengths of old school style D&D.  Having a literal scoreboard in the campaign is going to be hilarious.