Monday, June 30, 2014

Catching up with the Lich House

I've been off the web for a couple of weeks.  Business travel, a major system outage back at headquarters, and then prep for a professional exam all conspired to give me more urgent things to attend than blogging - which, at the end of the day, is really just a vehicle for my musings and chronicles about games.

The Taenarum campaign is still moving forward; Taenarum is my classic megadungeon locale, a sprawling dungeon around the entrance to the Underworld and the vaults of Hades.  The monsters and  themes are heavily inspired by Greek myth and heroic fantasy. I'll need to do a recap of recent game sessions.  The first 16 dungeon areas are ready for play, so I'm moving on to the larger game world.  I've been working on the calendar and festivals, charts for generating annual campaign events, and maps.  I can't stress enough the importance of campaign events outside of the dungeon to help bring the rest of the world to life.  I've also started hex mapping the setting and have some interesting questions to answer - like, should I use characters from Greek legend in the game as kings and heroes?

I also had the chance to read GURPS Horror.  I'm not a GURPS player, but I've been hearing about the book for years as a general resource for horror gaming, and it's written by Kenneth Hite.  I was not disappointed.  I'll consider doing a review, but I couldn't really speak to any of the GURPS game rules or statistics.  My evergreen side project is developing a good approach to running a campaign that merges sandbox style D&D (or similar class and level-based gaming) with horror themes.  I've had some good megadungeon concepts that integrated the horror with a sandbox style of play, such as the Black City or Harrow Home Manor, but since Taenarum is an active (heroic fantasy) megadungeon, I'm looking to do something a little different.  Developing two megadungeons at once doesn't sound enjoyable, even if one is horror and awesome.  July is just about here, which means it's time for some summer Cthulhu.  Altair moves in the sky, and the stars are right.

So that's it for today - I'm back online.  For the readers - do any of the aforementioned topics sound particularly interesting to develop or share on the blog?  Otherwise I'll get caught up on game reports first.  I also need to get out there and see what I missed with other bloggers, too.  Have there been any OSR dramas or tempests in a teapot that are worth spectating?  I'm looking forward to seeing the Basic D&D PDF this week - WOTC is supposed to put it up July 3rd, right?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Review - A Single Small Cut

Last week's travels gave me a chance to catch up on some reading; one of the smaller items in the queue was A Single Small Cut, an 8 page adventure from LOTFP.  What kind of adventure can you pack into 8 pages?  This one includes a thievery fiasco gone awry, a prosaic locale, and an interesting monster \ artifact pair that adds some ongoing potential to your game.  For a mere 8 pages, this one punches way above its weight class.

A group of mercenaries hired by an ambitious sorcerer, Eutaric, break into a church, slaughter the mid-day worshippers, and begin looting the crypts beneath the church seeking an artifact the sorcerer has traced there.  When they find the artifact, horror ensues, and the players arrive at the church just in time to get swept up the mess.

The centerpiece of the adventure is a magic item, the Red Bell, which summons an extra-planar monster - the Corrector of Sins.  The Corrector forms a body from any nearby corpses and presents a frightening combat challenge as well as a gruesome, horror-themed opponent that crawls up out of the crypt.

I really enjoyed this one.  Horror is typically a "conservative genre", where dabbling with things best left alone or blatantly grabbing for power frequently rebounds on he who overreaches.  Many times there's an element of just desserts in horror stories.  The horror is deepened when innocent bystanders are caught in the crossfire.  In this adventure, the players represent the innocent bystanders that get caught up in a heist gone awry.  It's a classic horror situation, and this one has a potential nasty twist and second act lurking.

The ostensible plot hook is that the players are going to this church for healing, but it'd be easy to expand the role of the Red Bell in a campaign.  The author alludes to a set of similar items; perhaps there's a concerted effort to recover them, and Eutaric the sorcerer is part of a larger cabal.  Establishing a prelude where the players track Eutaric and his gang to the church, or a postlude where the players pick up the quest to recover the remaining Bells, would work well for an ongoing campaign involving monster hunters, and such an order is even hinted at - the Order of the Kite.  There is a lot of potential for enhancing a campaign present here.

A Single Small Cut was written by Michael Curtis, a seasoned vet in our OSR space - he's written things like Stonehell, The Dungeon Alphabet, and a number of adventures for Dungeon Crawl Classics.  I'll be frank, I loved Stonehell, so I was a fan already.  A Single Small Cut is a $2 PDF at the usual suspects, and at that price there's no reason not to check it out if your tastes bend towards gruesome monsters, weird objects, and a bit of the horror.  I should mention - it's set for characters in the 3rd or 4th level range.

As for the title… it's a clever allusion to the player's chance of reading the situation before the chaos starts.  Well titled indeed.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Alas Poor Feedly, I Knew Him Well

Day two of the DDOS attack against Feedly, and I've lost track of many of the other blogs I read.  Supposedly the attack is mitigated, but I still haven't been able to get to Feedly.  Is anyone else in the same boat?  After google reader was taken out into the field and shot, I ported everything to Feedly.  It's been a good reader so far - although the effort is manual to add things to a blogroll so I rarely get to it.  It was much simpler when blogger had a follower widget on every blog and you could just hit 'follow' and then import them directly.

I've had to manage DDOS events in my career - no fun.  DDOS mitigation costs aren't burdensome to a big company, but I can imagine they're crushing to a start up.  It highlights how these cloud service providers we rely on are actually small shops behind the scenes.  Good luck Feedly team!

How are you keeping up with blogs these days?  Is there another popular reader, or are you just watching the G+ stream?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

You Had Me At "Bounded Accuracy"

I'm starting to get interested in this new D&D Starter set that Wizards is putting out in July.  The adventure included sounds like a blend of wilderness hex crawl and mini-dungeons; the latest column from the Mearls reveals it has 4 dungeons and 5 adventure locales, enough material for a party to advance from levels 1 through 5.  On the interwebs, folks have mentioned it's inspired by B10 Night's Dark Terror (although I don't have a WOTC direct source to quote).

The new edition appears to swing the pendulum back towards supporting the types of adventures and campaigns I want to run.  The biggest philosophy shift is the idea of "bounded accuracy".  Monster armor class doesn't scale with level, and player character accuracy stays within a narrower band as well.  You no longer have the 4E problem of a marauding troll with an armor class over 30, literally impossible for the levies of peasant archers to damage using the rules as written  4E didn't lend itself to fantasy simulation.

A commitment to bounded accuracy implies the new edition will support world builders, and that makes me happy.  World building is the best part!  So what combat attributes are going to scale with level?  Damage is going up, and hit points are going up.  That means the levy of peasants is going to be able to protect their village against the marauding troll through numbers - but if the troll lays a hand on one of them, it's going to tear them apart.  Flipping it around, you can picture battles where a high level fighter cuts through a large swath of lower level mooks because the fighter's attacks are powerful and damaging, but the mooks are still tagging the fighter and wearing away resources.  It feels like a better implementation of the "minion" concept from 4E.

It'll be interesting to see how damage scaling applies to inanimate objects and structural hit points - is chopping through a wooden door with an axe any different for a beefy peasant compared to a skilled fighter?  From the little I've read, it sounds like those types of activities would be handled as skill checks, and bounded accuracy applies - leveling the field between the strong peasant and the fighter.

I also really like that they're releasing Basic D&D as a free PDF.  Kudos, WOTC.  Between the starter set and the free Basic game, we'll have plenty of opportunity to evaluate new D&D before the hardcovers start shipping.  I'm even fine with a delay in learning about an OGL or other 3rd party creator license - the books aren't going to be out until the fall anyway.

Where are you at with the upcoming new edition - interested, indifferent, or actively hostile?

Monday, June 9, 2014

Campaign Structures and Scenarios

A reader (Michael Shea) asked last week what are the other campaign structures besides a sandbox style and an adventure path.  It's a good question!  Aren't there countless campaign styles?  Plus, we often conflate scenario structure with campaign structure.  But maybe it's not that complicated.  From a reductionist perspective they can simplify down to two basic approaches - sandbox versus plotted.

The sandbox campaign style is player-driven.  The referee creates and describes the game world and the players identify and launch their own adventures exploring the game world.  Information in the sandbox game is usually stored as maps and keys; the dungeon or hex crawl (for fantasy games) or the sector map (for space-based games) are common documents.

The plotted campaign is driven by plot hooks that lead the characters to predefined scenarios.  Mission-of-the-week style games (like spy games or super hero games) are plot-driven.  Many of the adventure series modules from the TSR days of classic D&D and AD&D were plotted.  Modern "adventure paths" show how an entire campaign can be scripted from level 1 through high level play.  Most Call of Cthulhu campaigns are presented as plotted campaigns constructed of consecutive investigative scenarios.

About the scenarios.  There are a handful of common ways to structure individual scenarios.  They can be site-based, event-based, investigative, scene-based, even character-based.  I like to build my sandbox campaigns with a combination of site-based adventures and events.  You can certainly mix and match scenario structures within the overall campaign structure.  A mission-of-the-week style of play (like an adventure module) might have a highly plotted angle to get the players involved, but the adventure itself is a site-based structure and could easily work in a sandbox game.  For instance, the old G1-G2-G3 series of TSR Modules (Against the Giants) are free-form site-based dungeon crawls.  But the plot hook to start the series is something like , "Go kill these giants for us or we'll chop off your heads!"  How about we chop off that plot hook instead and just drop the locations somewhere in the sandbox?

I'm actually fairly forgiving of plot hooks in published scenarios since I'm going to ignore them anyway.  The author has no idea of the best way to integrate the scenario into your campaign, but he or she has to provide something for the finished product.  Tossing the plot hooks is like throwing away the shrink wrap.

One of my pet peeves in plotted games (at least in class and level style games like D&D) is this idea that the plot hooks for low level characters all lead to low level encounters, and then when the players are a little higher level the plot hooks lead to ogres and mid-range monsters, and then a little later it's the giants and the dragons and the liches.  I'm sure are ways to plot that style of game in a manner that doesn't feel contrived, but I'm dubious.  I say put it all in the setting, right from the beginning, and make it the player's problem to avoid the dragon lairs and the giant's caves and the lich's tombs and find the goblin-mugging adventures on their own.  Then again, it's a rainy Monday and I'm cranky.  Nothing that alcohol can't fix.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Sandbox Buddha

It's been a busy week by me - I've been putting up crown molding at the house, taping, repainting, all sorts of home remodeling stuff.  I've learned the ins and outs of the "compound miter saw".  But the project is wrapping up - at least until I start tearing up the old flooring - so I can get back to some writing.

I enjoy bloggers and the folks that visit us out here on the blogs.  It's a chance to learn new techniques, see how other people run their games, and take in some contrary viewpoints.  My recent post here on my megadungeon practices linked to older posts here on the Lich House, and after seeing some of the questions dropped on them, I recognize that clarity and communication are skills I don't always demonstrate.  Let's see if I can improve!

The ambiguity in question is around my sandbox mantra, X is for Killing.  While my joy and excitement in the post is palpable, the actual underlying message was oblique.  The phrase came from Il Male, an Italian blogger (English as a second language), who populated his sandbox with all sorts of things for the players to target:  "Gods are for killing;  clerics worship gods, therefore, are for killing;  if it's not human, is for killing." (sic)  Il Male, what happened to you, buddy?  Someone should compile a list of all the old school type blogs that have flamed out - like a diff between one of Cyclopeatron's old lists and Dyvers mega blog roll.  Anyway, the mantra isn't that all the campaign elements are there to kill the players; rather, it means that it's perfectly fine if the game elements get destroyed or killed by the players.  Nothing in the referee's world has plot immunity.  Nothing is predetermined, and the game can go in any direction.

This philosophy is extremely liberating to me.  It's like a  gamer adaption of Buddhist thought.  Let go of your material possessions and your expectations, referee.  Expectations are the root of suffering.  Allow the experience of your game setting to happen without premeditation.  This sense of detachment from your creations is what allows your game to be open to any possibility.  It allows you to truly be an impartial referee.

Other virtues that are evangelized on the old school blogs such as letting the dice fall and honoring random results, these all flow naturally when you distance yourself from the results and leave behind any expectations that a game session or a combat needs to go a certain way.

Sandbox Buddhism is not the opposite of story.  Your game setting should be loaded with game elements that are rife with goals and motivations and potential actions - the building blocks of story.  Your NPCs must have their own agendas, along with the rulers, the organizations, the conspiracies.  Events are happening all the time in the game setting, regardless of what the players are or aren't doing.  Just don't get attached to any of them.

This game approach is the opposite of the Adventure Path.  Adventure Paths require following a predefined story from scene to scene.  The Adventure Path style seems immensely popular with the 3.x player base.  It's a fantastic vehicle to allow the players to take on a specific role (heroes, marauders) and follow a strongly outlined narrative to an epic conclusion.  However, where I'm at with my gaming hobby, I prefer running games where I have very little idea how things are going to go from game session to game session or how the campaign is going to develop.  I don't know how it's going to end, and it's that detachment from the results that allows me take such a neutral stance.  The players are the drivers that determine the path of the game, not me, and certainly not an author.  The games are significantly more interesting and enjoyable for me by allowing the players to drive the direction.  I'm as surprised as anybody at the end of a game night - and that's worth everything.

I do realize I've developed a great reliance on the megadungeon structure.  For all of its flaws around fantasy realism, it is the simplest campaign structure to put sandbox theories to the test and hone the craft.  As I continue to grow as a hobbyist, I'm sure I'll branch out into the other sandbox forms.  Eventually.