Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Making skeletons scary

It's been a long time since I stepped in here. A lot of stuff has happened to keep me from coming back, and I make no bones about having no plans to regularize my posting again. I could bore you with a long story about how this all happened, but if you're anything like me, you're checking this blog to see awesome ideas to put in a game, not listen to some long-winded drivel about the life of a total stranger.

Skeletons. In real life, even the unmoving kind would likely make almost everyone likely to see this blog lose his lunch. If I ever saw one actually dancing around, or God forbid trying to claw my face off, I'd probably shit myself, pop a gasket, and go screaming and crying in a fit of temporary insanity. And I like to think I'm a decently brave guy.

Apparently Spielberg used real skeletons in Poltergeist. Yeah, I'd be making that face too, and you wouldn't even have to pay me.
Unfortunately, it's not the same in tabletop games. Even in horror games, while the players will sometimes pretend to fear, nobody at the table is really scared. Skeletons used to evoke horror even in the description, but that old gag has been pulled so many times it just doesn't work on us anymore.

There have been various antidotes tried. Flaming skeletons, icy skeletons, electric skeletons, big skeletons, bloodthirsty skeletons, etc. etc. ad nauseam. My basic problem with all of these is that they're simply different monsters. They're not just skeletons; they're dire skeletons of some variety. Some of them are really cool (like the Eye of Fear and Flame) but they're not just skeletons. They're 'skeletons and'.

The uncommon and elusive 'drunk driving skeleton', which despite its rarity is responsible for an unrepresentatively large number of adventurer deaths.
Now if you think I'm here to tell you how to bring the mystique, the thrill of grotesque horror back to your players at the table with their beer and pizza and Monty Python jokes, think again. It would take a genius far greater than mine to make them shiver at your pewter figurines the way that Mary Shelley's original audience did in that Chateux on that stormy night. But if you want some real, accessible fear, maybe I've got something for you.

The formula is simple. Skeletonization is contagious. Roughly every 1 in 30 skeletons (or 1 in 20, or 1 in 10, or whatever makes you happy) will, if it touches you with its bare claws or with anything it's holding, cause your skeleton to animate, rip out of your body in an extremely gruesome manner, and start attacking the rest of the party. Save vs. death every time it hits you. Oh, and did I mention that your newly animated skeleton is a carrier for the contagion?

Needless to say, the poor sod this happens to is very, very dead. Though I suppose if his friends like him far too much for their own good and they're extremely clever, they might find a way to subdue his skeleton, collect his meatsack remains, and convince a cleric to both remove the curse (with Remove Curse and Cure Disease, naturally) from the skeleton and resurrect him.

If you're playing GURPS, you can treat it like an Eviscerate spell cast at 21. If it were me, I'd make it Will to resist instead of HT.

That oughtta make your players take skeletons seriously next time they see a gaggle hanging around some wannabe lich.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Session recap 5

This is taken largely from player-written session notes. With any luck I'll be able to do that in the future.

Take heed, and read in awe, the deeds of our intrepid company.

During the last session, our intrepid adventurers regrouped back at the Keep before venturing out once again to thin out the menace lurking in the Caves of Chaos. While in town, they were joined by the large, strapping paladin Borios (and is slightly less-impressive squire, Lars), sent by his order to help root out and end the threat of the undead. Hearing of the Caves of Chaos, Borios was certain that he would be able to lend his sword to good purpose.
Borios was honestly-gotten; after Rori died, the player rolled his stats and got a natural 18 for charisma. Lars was his second character. I recommended he have one in case Borios wouldn't be able to join the party on certain adventures, due to his quest. 
Borios is dedicated to rooting out undead in the eastern marches. He's joining the party because his priest told him there have been rumours of occult worship and possibly necromancy at the Caves of Chaos.
Unfortunately the players didn't really pick up on that. Oh well.
Prior to departure, the adventurers shared meat and mead at the tavern, and learned of the tragic destruction of a merchant caravan at the hands of a gang of orcs and a hulking, monstrous ogre. The merchant was the sole survivor. Surely there was some connection to the increased activity at the caves. While at the tavern the heroes welcomed into their company also a young noble of the house Steelclan, a noted family of Dwarven metalsmiths. He spoke loudly, brashly, and drunkenly of his deeds, and since the company of heroes sometimes does the same, they brought him in.
After recruiting these new heroes to their cause, the intrepid company set out once again for the caves to continue their ill-advised spelunking, mostly due to poverty. First they stumbled upon a cave long and dank, like a corridor before a great hall, piled high with skulls and bones of animals, men, and elves. The cave ended in a door, massive, wooden, and immovable, with a sign crudely scratched out reading "We'd love to have you for dinner." Since none of the heroes were particularly hungry, and since none of the skeletons stood up, wielded rusty implements, and proclaimed fealty to their necromantic master, Borios and the others thought it best to move on.
This was the hobgoblin cave, in case you didn't get that from the description. The players spent a good amount of time discussing whether or not they should break down the door after listening and hearing nothing and checking out the skulls to see if there was anything valuable or informative. Borios' player, who's fairly unassertive when directly asked questions but participates well in the discussions, brought up that there are other caves, and this one seems both difficult and dangerous. So they decided to go down the hill to another cave.
I really like my players.

In the next cave, they stumbled upon a massive ogre, who, quickly outwitted by our elven mage Ellarion, was soon fast and quite magically asleep. Juan Pendleton, helpful as always, made sure he didn't wake up. He then shot a mattress he thought was a bear, making certain everyone knew his predilection for wanton violence was still strong.
The book is fairly clear: from a distance the ogre's mattress of bearskin and leaves looks like a sleeping bear. Nobody got close enough to tell the difference until after Juan shot it and the arrow just sunk in.

This was the ogre who was involved in the assault on the merchant caravan, along with the goblins who live next door.
The encounter with the ogre was actually quite amusing: he heard people rooting around in his other cave and came out for a look. He was suspicious, but didn't immediately attack, partly due to his mercenary inclinations and partly due to the fact that I rolled an effective 10 on his reaction roll. So Ellarion asked if he'd like to hear a song.
Sleep is a very powerful spell indeed.

Within the cave, our heroes discovered the fresh remains of a retinue of men and elves, surely the merchants overtaken on the road. A tragic end to good folk, though they were certainly not the only to fall victim to such a gruesome fate. The ogre kept a vast store of treasure. Coins silver and gold by the sackful, a mammoth wheel of good, hard cheese, and a cask of fine brandy, for which Pious Inebrius most certainly did not trip over the others to claim. Nestled near (or, rather, firmly beneath) the remains of the poor souls who fell victim to the ogre were also a magic scroll and several elegant arrows. Ellarion claimed these, being the only one who knows anything about runes or the proper way to use a bow.

While on the road, the intrepid company was overtaken by a pack of orcs, and Borios, fluent in orc, invited them to take the hard cheese the company found, and refrain from trying to kill our heros. The leader of that filthy band graciously accepted, and left under the slightly misguided notion that the cheese was somehow made from ogre milk.

This was a random encounter on my table for the wilderness around the Keep. The players saw the orcs first, but given they were laden down with treasure and without a sleep spell, they felt it was best to parley. These are orcs from tribe B, though the players haven't taken the time to figure that out. Fortunately for them, with the cheese in the hands of an underling the boss orc of this little raiding party agreed to say he never saw the party if they left each other alone.

Shortly after setting camp, along came a band of merchants, the chiefest of which was rather fussy, rotund, and not particularly friendly. They also being bound for the Keep. The two parties rested separately, and arrived within a short span of one another the following morning.

The dice were hot for random encounters.

Upon returning triumphantly to the Keep, our heroes conducted themselves in a properly heroic fashion. They deposited their hard-earned monetary spoils at the local bank, learning to their dismay that many of the coins were counterfeit hunks of lead in gold leaf. With the remaining coin, they reserved rooms at the local inn. Borios spoke with Theodoric, who commended him for his service, and offered lodging to Borios and Lars both (and free stabling for Borios' monstrously large steed). He encouraged Borios to continue to focus his efforts on the cave.
There was some talk about not turning in the coins and trying to pass them as currency around the keep rather than taking the value of the gold. The banker pointed out as gently as he could that he already knew about these coins, and would be very, very upset if they showed up in circulation.
Theodoric is the curate of the church in the Keep.
The party also decided to rent one of the Keep's apartments for six months with some of their recent windfall. I ruled this would mean that staying in town for a week would cost 2 gold each, instead of 10, meaning it would pay itself off quickly. Minus incidental expenses, of course. 

Ellarion learned from the clerics that the scroll is indeed a divine one and promised to give it to Pious, who should be able to make good use of it provided he's sober enough.

Celebrating, as always, at the tavern, our intrepid company continued to gain in popularity with the locals. They wooed away from the merchant his men-at-arms, John and Teddy, who offered a step discount for their services and promised to recruit their comrades, Otus, Langard, Sigurd, and Helga, to the cause of adventure. Pious soothed the ego of the preening merchant, Edward, and promised to give him first pick of any "liberated" dry goods the company may find amongst the caves. Edward offered an 80% purchase price, far to generous. Pious and Edward then shared in the holy rite of most-certainly-not-Bacchus, and subsequently passed out.
Edward is the same merchant they met on the road, and out from under whom they rented the last apartment at the Keep. Originally he was seethingly upset that the party had done so, but Pious was so persuasive that that's smoothed over now. It helps that he's also a worshipper of Bacchus, so he considers Father Pious as one of his own.
 Just as a side note, Langard is actually an old veteran hireling of the Caves of Chaos: he was hired by the first group I ever ran this module for. As such, he knows a thing or two about the caves.
There were quite a few hijinks in town with Pious getting very drunk and sharing coin and brandy all over the place, not to be outdone by Heinrich or Juan. This was the session I changed the house rules for XP: they had to spend their gold if they wanted to earn anything from it. The results were both amusing and entertaining. 

Where will the adventure take our heroes next? To the mysterious ruins to the south, setting up an expedition to explore and collect artifacts of immense and arcane power? To the town of Hommlet, to combat the growing threat of the Temple of Elemental Evil and its pernicious influence on an otherwise peaceful village? Or will they once again brave the Caves of Chaos, facing down evils both ancient and contemporary, fighting for the honor of their fallen brethren? The world is in need of their efforts, which they will happily lend in full force. After, of course, they attend Mass.
After discussion, the players decided to stick to the Caves of Chaos. There was a good bit of interest in the ruins to the south (which happen to be the Caverns of Thracia), but they finally decided against it after tabulating the costs: they'd have to either set up a nearby base-camp and pay their day-laborers and men-at-arms to staff it, or risk walking both ways through the swamp and jungle each time they wanted to find the place again.

Monday, March 3, 2014

House rules: Other people's house rules

I'm hoping this is the start of a small series of posts about house rules I use. Some I made up, some I snatched from other places. In posting about them, I'm not just going to re-hash what the rule is, but also give some mild analysis on how it affects the game, how it actually plays out, and so forth.

Without further adieu:

Other People's House Rules

Every one of these is something someone else came up with originally.

Ritual magic

Synopsis: This house rule comes from Semper Initiativus Unum. The basic idea is that magic users and spell casters can cast some spells outside of combat without preparation if they pay gold and take a large amount of time.

Purpose:  This gives magic users and clerics a deal more flexibility. The idea is to get their utility spells into circulation, since (especially at lower levels) caster slots are limited, and they tend to go for things that are likely to be useful in combat. Specifically, the rule is structured to make it progressively less desirable to not prepare higher-level utility spells if you want to use them.

Experience: Obviously this hasn't seen a lot of use in my campaign, but it has seen some. We've been very short on magic-users in general, but our elf has done this once with detect magic. Both I and his player appreciated the ability to do so, even if it didn't net him anything in the instance.

Verdict: Cautiously optimistic

XP for gold spent

Synopsis: This is an old one. The basic idea is that PCs earn experience not for simply bringing treasure back to civilization, but for spending it in actions that don't directly benefit them as adventurers. The Mule Abides has a pretty good writeup that ties it to The First Fantasy Campaign.

Purpose: This primarily accomplishes two things. One is splitting the PCs' resources and forcing them to make decisions about what to spend coin on, since buying e.g. armor doesn't count for xp.The other is provide some verisimilitude for xp gain.

Experience: I don't give a fig for the verisimilitude argument, but I do like forcing decisions on the players about what to do with their loot. Not only does it allow me to give them more loot, but it also allows me to restrict how much coin can be spent on adventuring supplies without the players having no recourse but to stockpile coin. Poor adventurers are good adventurers, after all. Further, there's another side effect: it increases player 'buy-in' for the world as they interact with it in ways different from just treating it like a backdrop for the dungeon. Our best session to date was mostly spent roleplaying with NPCs and finding ways to dump coin on them.

Verdict: I highly recommend this house rule precisely because it broadens the players' conception and care about the world. I'm having a lot of fun and the players are having a lot of fun.


Synopsis: This one's simple: if a person is down between 0 and 2 hp inclusive, you can spend a turn to bandage them up. This returns 1 HP, and can only be done once until they heal. Further, characters regain 1 HP per full day of rest.

Purpose: This provides some very limited low-level healing, and it reinforces the idea to the players that they're hurt and should consider turning back - or pushing on, but in the knowledge that they're taking a huge risk. You'd think that the numbers on the sheet would do that for you, but it's nice to have another indicator. Plus it's another chance for a trade-off: do the players want to patch up their buddies, restoring 1 HP but risking the chance of a wandering monster?

Experience: The players like it, and it doesn't seem to significantly cut into the mortality of the game; a lot of PCs and NPCs have still died. It's easy to keep track of, too - you can just do it in your head. Plus, it gives me flavor in describing hurt people and how they feel. I'm in favor.

Not dead at 0 HP

Synopsis: My implementation of this common rule is as follows: at 0 HP you're unconscious, at below 0 you're dead. However, if you go below 0 HP, and someone can bring you back to 0 or above before the round is over, you might live.

Purpose: It puts a small wedge of 'not okay' betweeen D&D's much-discussed 'you're fine' and 'you're dead' without making that wedge large enough to significantly affect vitality. It also gives the players some hope when a beloved NPC or PC goes down.

Experience: Bringing someone back up from negative numbers is a very difficult task, since most spells take the full round to come into effect, which means you basically have to anticipate when someone is going to need healing. However, the 0 HP bit has come up a decent bit more often, and it has been fun for all concerned because of the relief from surviving such a near brush - which the players actually feel is very near, since if the dice had rolled 1 higher, their characters would be dead. It has also added fun in some instances where the PCs weren't sure if someone was dead or merely unconscious and bleeding out. I'm in favor.

XP for gold hoarded

Synopsis: For whatever reason you care to justify, the PCs have to sacrifice their gold for XP without doing anything else with it. This is different from XP for gold spent above because it's not just spending gold on things that 'don't matter' - it's not spending the gold at all until they get enough to level up and make a trip to one of these sacrificial spots

Purpose: This was meant to provide an in-game excuse for the existence of class levels, because I think justifying such things inside the game is cool. It was also meant to put the squeeze on treasure, forcing the PCs to make a decision as to whether to spend their hard-earned gold on adventuring advantages or XP.

Experience: In reality, it meant that the gold either sat there being useless like a millstone around the players' necks, or much more likely they dipped into it too far and too fast, meaning they never accumulated appreciable XP-substitute. Either way, they got no experience whatsoever, so it felt to me and to them that they were stagnant. I really don't recommend this.

Alternative: I still have places I call 'navels of the world' in my game where a person goes to suffer strange and weird rituals and be granted class levels, but now I grant XP for gold spent, as above, and the rituals themselves are a mere tax - the square of your current level * 100 gp to advance.

All in all I'm happy with the house rules I'm using. There are plenty more I have that, so far as I know, aren't someone else's invention. There are probably others that are, but are so central to the usual play for the game that I just don't see or remember them as house rules.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Alternatives to the Random Encounter Clock

One of, if not the chief function of random encounters is to force the players to make decisions about what to do and what to leave alone. This is usually expressed as a penalty for taking more time or extraneous actions, and it usually is, since random encounter rolling is usually tied to time spent - i.e., actions taken.

Unfortunately, in my experience of GURPS this pretty much completely breaks down. Further, even in systems where it usually works, there are downsides. Perhaps the encounters are too dangerous, especially in a densely-inhabited dungeon where they would bring others. If handled poorly they can become a joke or a severe annoyance for the players. Sometimes they send the wrong message, or they simply aren't wanted in your dungeon.

Nevertheless the function of rewarding time and action economy is worthwhile to salvage. I originally thought of using random encounter tables along with faction diagrams to give reinforcements to the set-piece monsters, but the more I mulled this over, the less I liked the idea. One of the reasons random encounters work is because they give immediate consequences to the players. Generally, immediate consequences are better for informing behaviour than mediate. With the reinforcement idea, or any other scheme that puts off the results, players are more likely to shoot themselves in the collective foot. In the example given, they'd most likely keep doing whatever until the monster density became so great there was no feasible way to proceed, or until it maximized - and then there would be no further disincentive.

Then I had a breakthrough: why does a wandering monster system have to involve monsters at all? If the central point is to make the players economize their actions, that can be done without monsters as easily as with. Further, avoiding monsters makes it work for systems like GURPS as well, where the attrition due to combat is nowhere near as strong as it is in D&D.

To that end, I give you a few 'timers' I've been thinking over lately:

The Timed Dungeon

The essential feature here is that the dungeon itself has some integral timer which makes exploration progressively more dangerous or difficult. Some specific examples:
  • The dungeon is flooding: every <interval> more and more of the dungeon is underwater. To do this you need to know the source, and the relative elevations of various rooms. I'd recommend giving rooms four states - dry, ankle-deep, chest-deep, over-your-head, completely-filled - and rate the source(s) by how many stages it can fill per interval. Generally I'd eyeball the map and flood downhill, with rooms getting to ankle depth before the water spills over to a lower place. Bonus points if you use some fluid other than water - I'm partial to mercury or poison gas.
  • The Archmage is out: every turn roll a d6. Once you cumulatively roll 5 1's, he's come back. The party better skedaddle soon, because he's a 60th-level ubermage able to cast Elric's Flaming Haemerrhoids at will. This works well with archmages' towers, elder dragons' dens, demons' lairs, and generally anywhere you can stock a big nasty that the party knows would squish them flat in an outright fight. A variant has the bad guy already there, but temporarily neutralized - asleep, behind a failing barrier, whatever. Season dice and intervals to taste.
  • The dungeon is unstable: maybe it's situated in the caldera of a live volcano, or in the rift between the astral and ethereal planes. Or maybe the entrance is an old mine shaft that's under serious stress. This has much the same mechanics as the archmage one above, but after a certain accumulation of rolls the entrance will be closed, or the dungeon will collapse, or whatever. A variant on this is the 'clockwork dungeon' - where the map changes every so often, making navigation difficult or impossible. Maybe the dungeon is a wizard's toy, or it's slipping through time, and staying too long will mean you have to deal with dinosaurs or barbarians where you expected your village to be.

The Timed Treasure

 Whereas above the dungeon itself was becoming undelvable over time, in these scenarios it's just becoming undesirable to do so, due to disappearing reward.
  • Kingdom of the Sidhe: After a certain time passes, all the loot in or from the dungeon will lose all value. The adventurers had better retrieve and spend it beforehand! Keep a timer keyed to turns or hours or whatever. Whenever enough time passes, increment it by one. Don't forget to make sure the players know they need not only to acquire the loot, but get rid of it too! An elven favorite is turning leaves into gold, but fresh basilisk blood or psionic crystals that must be preserved by the local alchemist after being chiseled from the walls are also good ones.
  • Explosive treasure: Do you really want to muck around when you have a backpack full of white phosphorous in kerosene? Make the treasure valuable but volatile. It doesn't have to be explosive; it might be an acid, or a powerful djinni bottled in a jar and yearning to get out, or carefully preserved bottles of essence of green slime. Every time the characters do something dangerous, it has a chance of backfiring.
  • There goes the neighborhood: The denizens of the dungeon have decided for whatever reason to pack up and leave, bringing their stuff with them. Much like the coming of the archmage in reverse. Roll a d6. After 3 or so 1's, randomly or by fiat pick a faction; they exit the dungeon with all their treasure. To complicate matters, the PCs might be between them and the exit.
  • Competition: The old standby; have another party racing the PCs through the dungeon. This takes a care and finesse which is outside my scope. I'd think at the very least you'd have structured tables and a general idea of how the NPCs will progress through the dungeon, but coming up with specifics for running this scenario is left as an exercise for the reader. An exercise he'll hopefully then publish on a blog, so I can steal his ideas.
All of these methods only work if the party knows what's going on. I can't stress that enough. Often this can be handled narratively either in the moment ("The dungeon appears to be flooding with a silvery liquid. Judging by its rate of flow, you'd expect this place to fill up fairly quickly - unless there are hidden depths you don't know about.") or beforehand. ("The old man insists that he heard strange rumblings over the last week and the Crypt of Sasura is on the verge of collapse after all these centuries, so you'd better hurry.") Still, that may not always be the case, and the players should always have at least a rough idea of how their time limits are being decided. If that's too 'gamist' or something for you, don't use these methods.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Maps of the area around the Keep

In the session reports I mentioned that the PCs commissioned maps of the area around the Caves of Chaos. One was an extremely local map, and the other a rather broad map showing things in roughly a four-day march, excepting to the west because that's where the Realm lies and therefore not interesting.

The first is just the local map with the numbers taken off, which I include here because someone else might find it useful.
Bet you can't tell where the numbers used to be

(Oh, also the Caves of the Unknown are missing, because Cedric the sage didn't know they existed.)

I really like this map from B2. It has some serious charm to it. I especially like the sudden interruption of 'standard' terrain features to show a stand of tamaracks in the swamp. I don't know why, but it shows a sort of quirky artistry to me that I find endearing. It helps bring the area alive - like this was a map actually drawn by one of the inhabitants.

One of the other things I wonder is whether the Keep is drawn to scale, and I think so. That would put it at somewhere between 100-200 yards in its longest dimension, closer to the former than the latter. It really is a pretty small place if you're treating it as a town. I'd estimate it very roughly as about the same size as Le Ch√Ęteau de Rolle.

The other map is a sort of rough-and-ready thing I threw together in Hexographer in half an hour:
Things within a 4-day walk from the Keep

Those ruins to the south of the swamp are the Caverns of Thracia. I'm beginning to think the players will never go there, which makes me a little sad because everyone should get a chance to play in (and run) a Paul Jacquays module. However, they discussed it (in an upcoming play report) and realized they would either have to brave the swamp to and from the Keep, or set up a temporary base camp at the ruins (once they found them).

Most of the rest of the map is undetailed. I have rough ideas of what I want to put where (e.g., the cave in the moutains is an old dwarven stronghold, Limbick's Tower is the ancient abandoned tower of an Imperial archmage.) One thing I'm particularly excited by on this map is Old Isk, which is the ruins of an old Imperial trading city. I want to make it into a 'city dungeon', with a very small population living among the ruins of the old civilization - like Constantinople after the Crusades. I'm mulling over ideas for that, but it'll probably be a sort of psuedo-hexcrawl/pseudo-dungeon with a lot of random generation of buildings, treasures, and encounters.

Then if the players don't go there, I can plop it down in another campaign.

Monday, February 17, 2014

On the advantages and disadvantages of history for life

Creating a detailed setting for your game is an urge that bites every GM. It's one of the theoretical pleasures of the job: you get to create and inhabit the mental vistas of an imaginary world. The draw of that sort of escape from the quotidian concerns of the world we have is not to be scorned; both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, to name just two writers with deep connections to our hobby, created vast and intricate imaginary worlds for their own amusement.

Unfortunately, one of the pitfalls that befalls DMs is the assumption that they can and should treat their games as some sort of open-ended novel. For this game, the creation of a large and detailed setting has several disadvantages:
  •  It encourages the DM to hand out setting packets. At best these are enjoyed, then forgotten. More usually, they are ignored, or are a pain to read, and are still mostly forgotten.
  • The base world assumption of D&D is, now, something with which players are already familiar or can rapidly become so. It is familiar. Creating your own setting reduces that near-immediate familiarity, and therefore requires more work in communication from you and the players.
  • Much of the time, the way a setting is written is not really gameable. It's a toy for the GM about which the players know and care very little.
  • Setting often restricts player agency. Whether it's directly (you have a 12th-level fighter in every little hamlet in the countryside to keep a damp on their hijinks) or indirectly (they can't go form their own duchies because the Benevolent Empire already claims all the available land).
Despite all this, we still do it regularly. If we're honest, it's because tinkering with the game world and finding or creating new things in it is one of the things that keeps us coming back to the table.

With that in mind, I've been bitten by the setting bug. I want to write up a world to play around in, bang about D&D's core assumptions and monster sets a bit, and generally enjoy crafting a world that's a bit...different. I blame Goblin Punch. In order to avoid the pitfalls mentioned above, I've set out these design goals:
  • All setting information must be gameable, either directly or indirectly. This means creating random encounter tables rather than waxing poetic on the local fauna and detailing cultures that the players might interact with, rather than those on the other side of the continent.
  • Setting assumptions should be clear and consistent. They should also be of a nature that they can be quickly explained to players at the breech, that is, at the necessary moment.
  • The setting should not force any actions on the player whatsoever. None of this, "You're all from Westphalia, and you've been at war for generations with the Bournians, so you all hate them." Let players make their own characters.
  • The setting must be interesting. Nobody gives a damn that the Duke of the Northlands likes wearing purple all the time and is in a long-standing dynastic cold war with the other branch of the family, unless the Duke is also the realm's only bugbear with a title he earned at the Battle of Five Armies and the duchy's main export is magically preserved human skin for use in the creation of powerful scrolls. Aka Greyhawk is a perfectly good setting already, so no need to recapitulate it.
  • The setting must be flexible enough to accommodate things learned in play. For example, maybe (because a player brings in a slew of dwarves with German names) that dwarven culture is proto-Prussian. While some things should be set as 'this is the way it is', efforts should be made to allow the players to influence the setting through their choices at the gaming table.
  • Further, the setting must be close enough to the default setting assumptions that I can plop old modules into the game with a minimum of tweaking. One of the things I really want to do is e.g., play thorugh the Lost Cverns of Tsojcanth, or see how the PCs deal with Ravenloft. This means that if my setting doesn't have, say, orcs, there should be a clear orc-equivalent for module purposes (even if it's just bandits).
With all this in mind, I'm hoping to do some long-term setting development on this blog. Said setting would mostly be for a theoretical future game, because the current one is a sort of just-in-time development case. Still, bits might make it in if they don't contradict what has already been established.

Friday, February 14, 2014

A supplementary theory of rule generation

I've seen a lot of posts on the nature of the shift from O/BX/AD&D to 2nd and beyond both in the nature of the rules and their proliferation. Many of these posts have been very helpful for formulating how I want to play D&D, and enlightening besides, because I'm interested in this stuff. (Learning about the history and evolution of your hobby is fun in itself.)

The general consensus seems to be, broadly speaking, that the earlier versions of D&D were naturalistic (according to a pseudo-technical definition evolved in the OSR), 'objective' (by which I mean the world didn't change to accomodate plot or narrative, but rather treated those as emergent qualities), and action-focused, rather than character-focused.

One of the myths of the OSR is that rules proliferation was driven by an attempt to make the game "fair" and curtail the power of the GM as used for evil. By myth I don't mean to imply its falsity; I mean something like a cultural story. Personally I think there's good hard evidence in the way certain rules and mores in our hobby evolved for this myth. Further, even beyond questions or truth or falsehood of the essential facts, the myth is good and useful, because it makes us think about social interaction at the table and form the correct response to the spectre of social friction.

However, I don't think it tells the whole story. To that end, let me offer another explanation, meant to go side-by-side, rather than replace the above.

Most OSR bloggers I have read got into the hobby as kids in the 80s. These folks cut their teeth on B/X or AD&D with their brothers and neighbors, with lots of time and the general social difficulties children have influencing their gaming. It's true, there are bloggers out there who started in the 70s, or as adults, or in the 70s as adults, but I feel pretty comfortable saying that the lion's share of the OSR bloggers out there to whom I have been exposed either are the children of the 80s or strongly influenced by them.

I have a different perspective. I started gaming in the 90s, with GURPS - with adults. (I was three.) By the time I started regularly playing with people in my own age group, I was in college. So I largely side-stepped the difficulties of gaming with (other) children, who haven't fully developed a social consciousness. I never really experienced the difficulties of an unacceptable adversarial GM relationship, or gaming with people who can't be 'adult' about things.

One of my other hobbies is mucking about with computers. This is hardly surprising; there's a large intersection of gamers and computer hobbyists of all stripes. One thing about computer hobbyists, no matter what distinct strain they adhere to, is that they like tinkering with things and building things. For some it's more mathematical constructs, others play with soldering irons, still others like creating and refining software.

I think those urges spilled over into the hobby of gaming as well. People started making new rules not just to fix what they considered broken but because they wanted to improve the system they used. Tinkering with improvements and redesigns, while putatively useful, is actually often an end in itself. Some people garner enjoyment from the tinkering.

This same thing happened with rules. I posit that some of the rules-creep that happened happened because people enjoyed making rules and having rules.

Unfortunately, while the process of making rules can be fun, and being able to say you have rules is enjoyable, the actual use of those rules can be a real bear. Especially when those rules were made at root for the fun of their own making, with actual play being secondary. (c.f. AD&D's weapon speed factors)

This urge is still with us today, and while we have a cautionary tale against changing the game to make it more 'fair' I haven't yet seen anything like a consensus narrative addressing this problem. (Peter's Has that come up in actual play? is the pioneering exception, for which the man should get massive kudos. Everyone coming here already knows about that post, but go read it again.)