Saturday, August 3, 2013

Very Enigmatic Obelisk

Have you ever made a dungeon and then ran it months or years later and not made any sense of your notes?  Not that you couldn’t read them, but you just didn’t have ANY CLUE as to what you were going on about.

Once your memory goes, forget it.

This happens to me more lately.  Not just because I’m getting to be an old fart, or that I design (and run) while a bit soused, but because I give my players free reign to go where they want.  They’ve found 6 separate entrances so far, each with many branches and their own character.  Often they’ll switch from one to the other for whatever reason; they don’t have enough clerics, another player has a map for an area, they heard a rumor, they have a goal in mind, etc, etc, etc.

That’s by design.  But it does mean that I’ll make something, more than what they explore, and then they won’t come back to it for months or more.  Sometimes I’ll have warning, sometimes I won’t.  It makes DMing interesting. And enigmatic.

So last week they went to another entrance to the ‘abbey’ (what my players call my megadungeon) and I found something surprising to me the DM.

All over this level of the “Abbey” is a notation:

"enigmatic repeating obelisks" (each 50%)

I haven’t the foggiest what the obelisks are for, or what they have a 50% chance of doing.  They are indeed very enigmatic.

This portion of the dungeon is a former lair of a Suel necromancer, beneath the haunted Pholtan abbey meant to guard the evils within.  These areas in particular are inhabited by several competing cults of various death gods, each claiming that the evil dead power within is from their deity.  One faction is actually just hedonistic and uses the undead as tools to make life easy.  Plus there are connections to the Ghoul Kings lair, an oracle that paints possibly prophetic murals on the walls, golden statues to gods, etc.  And after last week when on a player’s request I randomly rolled a charisma for a priestess of Incabulous (god of plaques and other nasty deaths) I got an 18.  And she got away in a spell of darkness so she’ll be down there too.

I wonder if SHE KNOWS what the obelisks do?

 Eh.  Maybe they'll go someplace else tomorrow.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Old School Dislikes

Elrad of Back to the Dungeon asks 3 questions about what we like and dislike about "Old School Games" (tm).  Avoiding the question of "what is an old school game?" and including Castles and Crusades and Dungeon Crawl Classics to Hackmaster even, I thought this was good for discussion.

Back in the day, each table had it's own house rules, the way that DM and group interpreted and molded the game to their campaign.  One of the cool things about the OSR (as opposed to most games of 4th and 3.x) is how we're returning to that.

We have an embarrassment of riches of old school game systems.  One of the advantages of so many variations, covers if you will, riffed off of the D&D base is that we can pretty much mix and match, cut and paste, and agglutinate a set of rules from our prolific diversity.

Here I've expanded some of my answers to Elrad's questions.

So what are some of the features of different Old School Games and their clones that you dislike and why?

I dislike to hit tables and THACO, so I use the d20 base to hit that's found in Castles and Crusades.  I use that because it removes more of the math.  The players usually have one number to add to their die-roll and their called out result compares directly to the armor class I have for the monster.  I have found it to be the fastest in play for me.

I hate non-weapon proficiencies (NWP) as the worst possible implementation of skills/talents/feats. By defining something as an ability you deprive others of it.  If you allow a character to choose "Mapping" as a proficiency do you allow others to map?  NWP systems typically allow only a few opportunities to choose them; a couple at first level and then not every level after that.  This would be fine if they were by definition all heroic level abilities.  But if they are mundane?  You're not letting players choose very simple courses of action that they could imagine normal characters performing.  I prefer free form stunts and try to encourage players with them.

I also confess to liking maps and miniatures. It's part habit from DMing too many years of 3.x and part reaction to an old school DM that couldn't keep player positions in his head and had very misleading sketches and descriptions and a tendency to "gotcha".  However, I must admit it can slow down the game both in my presentation and in players spending time choosing their precise square.

DO you have a house rule against the disliked feature?

With the variety of different old school rule sets, I've been able to choose one that more fits my style. I think that this is a great time for the OSR precisely because we have so many choices.  I've not even read them all.  In fact, if anyone thinks that system X (Blood and Treasure? Dark Dungeons?) would better fit my play style, by all means point me to it.

However, even after picking the base system I preferred, I do dislike some aspects of C&C: encumbrance and surprise/perception checks. I have houseruled in modifications of other systems (Lamentations-style encumbrance and 52-pages surprise.)

How many of you use a miss-mash of many rulebooks and systems? 

See above. I'd steal bits from DCC and Hackmaster too if I could get my co-DM to agree to it.

I'd also steal the different demihuman racial classes idea from ACKS.  However, I'd want to use it to emphasize how freakin' weird the demihumans should be.  

What is your final system or lack thereof like?

I'd really like to implement a tightly-bound armor class system and use 2d10 instead of 1d20.  I'd prefer a bell-curve over the flat resolution system.  I think it would be a better match for the slow leveling and generally gritty play that I prefer.  That would take some work and the result would be a bit outside the old school family; not in aesthetics but it would limit how easily pieces from other games could be mixed and matched with it.

I confess I love extreme fiddly detail in magic systems. That's part of my draw to DCC.  In fiction, your source of magic matters and there's great "play" (ie, choice and consequence) in it. 

My ideal system would also allow the DM to seamlessly dial detail in and out: from a mapless free form system all the way to a Hackmaster second by second combat resolution depending upon the nature and level of the challenge. If it's primarily an exploration or negotiation challenge, a grid is imagination-draining and time consuming without benefit. Same for a few goblins to a mid-level party - nothing dangerous or interesting in that combat. But a "boss" fight? A detailed combat system can be fun then. My ideal system would help the DM present different challenges in different ways (allowing the players to choose their method of course.)

What is an RPG game breaker that you cannot tolerate?

I dislike disassociated mechanics and intense character building.  But that's why I prefer old school games. However, a good DM and a good group could still draw me into playing 3.x or 4th edition.

Really, for all that I've talked about rules in this blog post, DM skill, DM and player style match, and group compatibility matter more for my table fun.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Torchbearer: Old School Dungeon Crawl? Late notice of kickstarter

Torchbearer is an incarnation of the Burning Wheel/Mouseguard rules designed for what is now understood to be the original dungeon crawl game: exploration and resource management.

I've never played Burning Wheel or Mouseguard.  As I became aware of them, I was developing my taste for lighter rules and mechanicless narrative.  On the other hand, these are very thoughtful gamers.  The kinds of challenges that they present are at the core of Torchbearer game play are ones that I've been trying to present in my own games. 

From an interview:

The cramped caves, the oppressive dark, none of that came across the way it felt in an actual cavern.
“I wanted to make a game where caving and dungeoneering felt like a big deal,” he says, “where your character could be cold and wet and feel the oppressive weight of the dark.”


How much food and water will you pack? How many candles, torches, or flasks of oil will you stow in your pack? All of these basic essentials are used up over time and unless you can replenish them, says Olavsrud, “things will start to go very poorly for your character.”

In other words, if a cave troll doesn’t get you, dying of thirst or starvation just might.

“It gets even more interesting when treasure becomes involved,” Olavsrud adds. “You need to fit treasure in your pack somehow. It often requires discarding valuable gear.”

The game hinges on choice, consequence, and conflict, and your inventory lies at the heart of each expedition.

 I could steal that sentence for the aims of the dungeon crawls I'm running.

Here's a character sheet:

The conditions lead me to believe this is a very gritty game.  "Dead - may not use wises, tests, or help", uh-huh.   I've been dubious of mechanics that limit choices or simulate fear, but the way some of these are expressed "Angry, can't use beneficial traits" and "Afraid, can't help or beginner's luck" are interesting.  But there's a lot here I'm sure I don't get the implications of: it's been decades since I've played a game with dice pools (Shadowrun first edition, I think)

On the other hand, I have a distaste for handling some of these challenges with abstracted checks.  I don't want players to think about what die pool they will expend to meet a challenge, but how their character would physically negotiate the obstacle.

I'm intrigued enough to get a pdf of the kickstarter.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Specials: Statue of Prophetic Doom, the goddess Wee Jas

"Specials" aka "Saturday Night Specials" are one of the fascinating set pieces of old school play, whether they're in a megadungeon or a location in a hex crawl.  By definition they are "unbalanced" and potentially either capricious or magnanimous.

Sometimes they are adventure goals and occasionally they are obstacles.  Often they are the focus of megadungeon faction conflict, and they frequently are listed on your rumor tables.  They should be in some way enigmatic, unstandard but definitely memorable.

One common old school standard recommends that 5% of megadungeon encounters be "specials", but I've been upping the percent in my recent level creations.  I like'm too much as a DM, even if I could be accused of being too cautious with them as a player (well, with some of my characters.)

If you like these, pester me and I'll put up more of them.

Statue of Prophetic Doom

This statue of golden stone is of the goddess Wee Jas and is linked to her portfolios of vanity, death and magic.  Larger than life size and the focus of a large worship room.  In one hand she holds a crystal ball and before her is an offering bowl.

 (A statue of the goddess Wee Jas depicting her vanity attribute.)

The Sycophantic Attendant
The statue is frequently attended by a sycophant, currently a deranged fawning and simpering creature on the cusp between life and undeath.  His name is unimportant and forgotten in any case in his devotion to the goddess.  He greets all equally, imploring them to worship the goddess and extolling her virtues.  If the statue is molested or offerings (see below) are stolen, or he himself is attacked, he will defend himself as a 3rd level multi-classed cleric/wizard.  If he is killed the statue will cease to function until another attendant is attracted to devote themselves body and soul to Wee Jas. (And could that be one of the characters attempting to manipulate the attendant-less statue?)
While he will prattle on about the glories and majesty of Wee Jas, his most repeated and insistent phrase is this:
"If you donate to her as she deserves, she will reward you and grant you a vision of your death."

The Offering Bowl
If questioned the attendant will reply that Wee Jas values gold, jewelry, beautiful objects and magical items.   What the attendant won't reveal is that the statue requires an offering of 100gp per character level squared.  A character that places less than that in the offering bowl will believe they see the statue react with a dismissive rolling of the eyes.  More and the statue will seem to smile upon the character, though with no effect more than the minimum - it is just her due after all.
The statue knows how much each character contributes even on multiple visits, and offerings below the amount remain in the bowl - though removing them will provoke threats at the least from the attendant.
After the minimum amount for a character is contributed, those offerings disappear and the character will receive their prophecy and reward.

The Disappeared Offerings
While the attendant believes that the offerings are rendered onto Wee Jas, actually they are transported to a secret room beneath the statue accessible from the level below.  While taking the offerings risks the wrath of Wee Jas, currently another faction of the dungeon (a cult of Nerull) are in possession of the room and are protected.  Nearby however is an ancient cache of offerings unknown to the Nerull high priest.

The Vision of Prophetic Doom
The statue will grant the character a vision of a potential death. The doom that a character receives is a weakness to a particular death as determined by the table below.  The effect of the prophecy can not be avoided - it will remain in effect until the character dies as a result of that particular doom.  Short of Atonement from a friendly life-giving deity (also a 5th level spell just as is Raise Dead), death from a particular doom is the only way to relieve the prophecy.  Death from another source will not remove the prophecy either.

The Reward
While the character now has a fatal flaw, Wee Jas is just in her own way.  The character receives enough experience points to raise a level and be half way to their next.  So a 1st level character would be 2nd and half way to level 3.  A character can only have one doom - but if by chance they return after death from their doom, they may receive another and another reward.

The Dooms
The character receives a vision of themselves dying from their particular doom, but the player is unaware of the actual mechanics.  Roll a d20 of course!
  • 1-4 Poison:  any poison the character receives will be fatal.  Antidotes, spells of protection from poison or other means will have no effect.  The only way to avoid the doom is to not to receive poison in the first place.
  • 5-8 Fire:  all fire saving throws will fail and all damage from fire is tripled.  Any protections from fire are ineffective other than avoiding fire in the first place. 
  • 9 Old Age:  while the character may indeed live to a ripe old age, ANY aging effects (such as the touch of a ghost or a haste spell) will cause the character's death.  As most "common" Raise Dead spells are ineffective for deaths of old age, this result is not as beneficent as it would appear.
  • 10-14 Unlife:  any drain from an undead creature, such as a level drain, strength drain from a shadow or similar effect will completely drain the life from the character.  No protections or contraceptives are effective except avoiding unlife.
  • 15 Drowning:  the character will fail in any attempt to hold their breath under any liquid for any duration, and no magic that allows a character to breathe underwater will succeed.  While the character can still swim, any immersion of their entire head beneath water will result in a horrible accident in which the character drowns.  The character can still safely bathe as long as they can't be completely immersed, nor do they need to fear normal eating and drinking.
  • 16-17 Backstab: any unknown attack with an edged weapon from behind is treated as a successful assassination attempt.
  • 18-20 Fall:  any fall causing damage will be fatal.  While the character can fly with magic or a steed, any break in their flight that begins a fall will be fatal and re-initiating any flight magic will be unsuccessful.

As yet, the adventurers in our campaign have not chanced upon this special.

Also, please inform me if you know who I should credit for the image of the creepy asylum inmate.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Letter to a new player

We've been recruiting for more players for our co-DMed old school sandbox.  We've used a variety of means: Pen and Paper games, Meetup, forums - and personals sites (really - a higher percentage of those folks actually reply and show up to game, go figure.)
One of our new perspective players emailed the other DM to ask if his group (there's only one group) was "inclined to share our political views."

Our current group includes a variety of people - women, poly people, queers, etc.  This is Seattle, so it's generally left of center too.  But we're not recruiting for an underground cell or anything - just people it would be fun to game with.

Here's the background:

I met two prospective players at my girlfriend's coffee shop this week.  We talked about the campaign and rolled up characters.  I did wear a hat with a small rainbow pin, but otherwise I had no overt badges, and no agenda besides the game.  95%+  of what we talked about was how we like to play pretend elfs and roll funny dice.

There were two exceptions to that conversation focus.

The first was that one of the guys, an avid computer gamer and first time table top player, mentioned how so many computer game conventions that he did not understand were being explained to him now that he was learning about table top games.  I replied that many of the computer game pioneers got their start in tabletop games, one of whom of course was Jennell Jacquays; I did mention that Jennell transitioned from Paul to Jennell just as she had transitioned from tabletop to the computer, going from 3 dimensional dungeon layouts to 3 dimensional Quake and Halo levels.  The double mention of transition wasn't meant to be anything other than a poor pun and one that I don't think Jennell herself passes up on her own bio page ("the future will be about changes").

The second exception was the May Day Anti-Capitalist March, that was chased by the Seattle Police up the street right outside the coffee shop.  (Normally I'd have attended such a march, but I'd gone to the earlier Workers and Immigrant Rights March, and I'm trying to give a leg injury time to heal - and last year the black bloc was a bit unjudicious with their choice of property destruction as speech).  The Seattle Police armored personnel carrier rolled by, and I made the remark "Our tax dollars at work."

The spectacle passed and we went back to talking about how we pretend to be elfs and wizards.

The next day the other player, having rolled up his halforc, emailed the other DM, asking if his group was "inclined to sharing your political opinions" and if not he'd "like to switch groups".

The other DM just messaged him that 'this might not be a good fit.' I didn't want to quite leave it at that, so this is what I sent to him:


I understand you wondered about the politics of the group and all that.  Well, we try to make a group that is welcoming to people of all kinds - queers, women, poly people, anyone who wants to play.  A lot of the world, a lot of the gaming world, is not so welcoming to them (us, speaking for myself.)  So it might feel 'political' to you.

If a person's politics fits into the status quo, then nothing in the status quo feels political.  But if you're outside the status quo, everything is objectionably "political".    So a place that feels political to you might be just relaxed to others.

Understand we'd like to have you at the table.  You seem like a real enthusiastic player - and that's fun.

In the wider gaming world, women are often assumed to not be serious players, gay is used as a pejorative and people censor themselves to fit in.  We want a table were everyone has respect and we don't have to censor our preferences and beliefs.

It's also just one group.  You could certainly only show up when one DM is running the game and not for the other.  But the player community would be pretty much the same.

So if you're cool with us being who we are and can be respectful, then please come and roll dice and pretend to be an elf (or an orc or what-have-you) with us.



Friday, April 26, 2013

House Rules Doc

Whoa-kay.  Lots going on that I could write posts about if I was organized and people wanted to know.  Using personal add sites to fill up slots on your campaign?  It actually has better results than MeetUp and other game finder sites.
Or the whole process of stealing, writing, negotiating a set of house rules with my co-DM.

It still isn't complete, but the current Table of Contents is this:

Sources we've stolen from:
  • ACKS
  • RuneQuest Cities
  • DnD 3.5 PHB II
  • Roles, Rules Blog
  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess
  • Some dude I read on a forum
  • Another dude I read on their blog

It's still being edited but I'll make it public once I've got better attributions.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Encumbrance on the Group Loot Sheet

If I'm stealing someone's idea with this post, please let me know.  Recalling the alcohol-ridden haze of my last BS session with my co-DM, I no longer know whether I said "I've got this great idea" or "Let's swipe some OSR-blogger person's idea".

We're going to use Lamentations-style encumbrance straight on the sheet where loot gets recorded.
 (click to embiggen.)

There's supposed to be this great mini-game in OSR rules, the trade off of choices between how much equipment you bring in, how much loot you take out, and how fast you go on those activities risking wandering monsters and pursuit.  But most of us (feel free to beat your chest about how you count each copper piece and scrap of orc leather) haven't played that game.  Enter the Lamentations of the Flame Princess encumbrance system, stone equivalent encumbrance, and other simplifying encumbrance schemes.

Lamentations style encumbrance is great as it simplifies the math.  Here's a link to our slight "quantitative easing" of those rules as we've modified them to fit the flavor of Castles and Crusades that we use.  But it still doesn't provide the choices between equipment, loot, and movement in a dynamic fashion, because most groups don't hand out the treasure as they go.  They have one person keep track of it on a loot sheet.

So on that loot sheet is where we'll calculate encumbrance.  At the beginning of the session, the Quartermaster/Loot Recorder/real life hireling will pass around the loot sheet.  The players will enter their character's name, movement, and how many item slots they have free before their next encumbrance break point.  As loot gets acquired, the Quartermaster records it amongst the characters with slots available.  As per the Lamentations style encumbrance, a quick glance (even a notice as treasure is picked up), you'll know if you're going slower.

Here's what it looks like when it's getting filled in:

Also, bonus:  if they let an NPC die, we'll know what treasure they lost. Cue evil laughter.

After some compromises, I managed to squeeze 6 characters onto a page.  So even our biggest adventure party yet will have room on two pages for each PC and the assorted NPCs and hirelings. 

With these rules, they may have a reason to hire a Nodwick - and keep him alive.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Traveller Campaign: DM ADD

The sandbox co-DMed Castles and Crusades game continues.  With school I'm not there every week, but the game goes on.  I'm also playing in a bi-weekly Hackmaster game, thankfully not DMing on that one.

But a buddy bugged me about running a Traveller game.  What the hell?  Why would he do that to me?  Not that I've never done that to him (twice, for the record).  But then I couldn't get it out of my head until I'd written 3 pages on it.

Here's the first, the overall setting "What has the Galaxy gone up to now?"  If I get around to it, I've got campaign assumptions, and a page on initial location and characters and a bit on some initial hooks.

The big question: does this make you want to get out 2d6 and a sheet of paper and roll for survival?  Or yawn at all the tropes?


The Directorate is over.  It’s done.  Its fuel tanks are empty and its lost and adrift.  Ain’t no refueling this sucker.

It wasn’t the Free Federation of Planets Rebellion.  They didn’t have the ships, nor the credits it takes to staff them.  They were crushed, like all the other threats the Directorate had ever faced.  We were all one happy corporate interstellar state, XXX parsecs wide, from the XXXX to the XXXX.

But once that Rebellion was done and peace was assured, the creditors came.  The Travellers Aid Society, the Interstellar Monetary Fund, Monsanto Terraformation, the shipping cartels, the different engineering corps, they all called in their chips.  Pay those debts.  Red numbers on the balance sheet were redder than any rebel’s bleeding heart.  

Patronage and payroll were the heart of the Directorate.  Bankrupt, the Directorate’s bureaucracy shattered.  It might have been in the interest of the other interstellar institutions for the Directorate to continue, but who wanted to be the one to write off their loans?  Screw the greater good, we have our balance sheet.

Most didn’t notice it so much at first.  Yeah, the Directorate furloughed some staff, mothballed some cruisers.  But that was just the moment in the airlock before the outer door opened.

The real difference was felt later.  A few pirates, always out there on the edges, hiding out in a nebula where it’s hard to scan, or using electronics to hide their nature, hit some bigger fish than usual; they were testing the atmosphere.  The victims sent out their distress signal.  Instead of getting help from Directorate gunboats jumping in, they got a message: pay up.

Which is where we are today.  Different portions of the Directorate bureaucracy and military are now mercenary, as overlords, paid enforcers, or gangs.  Different shipping corporations have different contracts, settlements and even mergers with the neo-Directorate entities that still try to maintain their monopoly of force.  The now mostly free planets are going their own under malign independence.  As yet, no planet or planetary coalition has managed to build a force that survived a challenge of a neo-Directorate entity.   

Commerce continues, risky, expensive and fragile but like transplanted life is determined to blossom in the new environment in whatever way possible.