Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Robbers' Bay, Queen's Landing, and the Desolate North

Fifty years ago, then-King Marcus II of Albilonia had an idea. Banditry had been a perpetual problem for the realm and he was determined to put it to an end. The rule of law would be established. But carving a new standard of civilization on the hearts of the people requires harsh measures, and soon the prisons were bursting at the seams, and many of the hanging trees were in full fruit.

So he issued a proclamation: everyone in the Kingdom who is found guilty of theft, robbery, banditry, rape, murder, etc. has a choice to either serve out the sentence as usual or indenture himself to the Crown for a period of time dependent on the crime. Those who choose the latter are shipped to Queen's Landing.

Queen's Landing

Needs more snow
Queen's Landing is reached by ship from around the spur of the Spine of the World, a huge mountain range that marks the end of the Known World on all civilised maps. It was chosen as the site for the new penal colony because these mountains are impassible, it has a natural harbor, and when Robin the Seafarer landed here during one of his fabled journeys he discovered salt at the base of the mountains right by the sea. Thus, most convicts sent to Queen's Landing serve out their terms digging in the salt mines, and salt is the primary export.

Queen's Landing is ruled by Lord Marchand (whose family rebelled against the King around two hundred years ago) whose primary concern is to keep the salt flowing. While it is mostly populated by men who have finished their terms of service (indentured servants are kept in communal barracks), some have brought their families with them. Anyone can come to Queen's Landing if he wishes, and volunteers will even be paid a resettlement fee by the Crown, so the town does boast a small but non-negligible number of women and children, many of the former doing a brisk business in the town's whorehouses. The free population of Queen's Landing fluctuates around five hundred souls, with another five to eight hundred slaves attached to the mines.

Queen's Landing is situated at the mouth of Robbers' Bay at the base of the Spine of the World, which makes it the northern-most known dwelling of civilized men by far. The land stretches away to the north and west, remaining rugged and mountainous for as far as surveys have seen. Conifer forests are the rule, at least near the town: what the geography and flora are like further into the wastes none can say.

The town is walled all round with a stout timber pallisade and permanently garrisoned by fifty men of the King's Army under command of the Governor. This is in part to guard against an uprising at the salt mines, and in part simple prudence. For those caught in misdeeds in the town justice is swift and summary: another term in the mines, or exile. No doubt most of those exiled die, but it is just possible that some do survive.

The residents of Queen's Landing subsist mostly on hunting, trapping, and fishing. The growing season is too short for most crops, being only two-and-a-half months, though in lucky years crops of potatoes and sometimes rye can come in. Just recently, experiments with herding the local wildlife have been undertaken, adding butter and caribou meat to the staples of the colony. Very occasionally the hardy fishermen manage to snag a whale: these creatures are often seen cavorting in the Bay, and are prized for their blubber, which makes excellent oil.

Queen's Landing imports much more than just labor: because of its situation it will be dependent upon the Kingdom of Albilonia for basic foodstuffs like wheat and almost all finished products for the foreseeable future. Most trade is done in salt, which is also the primary export. Others are obvious from the above: furs, fish, timber, and precious stones (more on this last below).

Demihumans in Queen's Landing

Humans are by far the most common race in Queen's Landing, even moreso than the home country. Next come dwarves: these hardy folk do well in the harsh conditions, being generally hale of limb and body, easily acclimated to the cold, and not as worn down as men by the gruelling work in the salt mines. Indeed, most come voluntarily, wanting to see the Spine of the World and live in its shadow. Not one elf has been sent to Queen's Landing to work as a slave, and only a handful have come as volunteer settlers, since they have a hard time with the cold, but the rugged and wild beauty of the wastes does draw some. Most rare of all are halflings: not only is the cold and hard labour harder on these folk than any other, but they find the necessity of covering their parietal eye with headgear to keep from freezing due to their baldness both disorienting and depressing. (The widespread feeling among halflings of the Kingdom is that you would have to be demented to want to do such a thing.)

Using Queen's Landing as a base for Adventure

The town itself is an isolated spot of safety at the mouth of a great unexplored desert. The Desolate North doubtless has its share of unknown treasures and opportunities for those bold enough to risk hypothermia and who knows what other dangers. In the past few years, a few
adventurers have trickled north to land here, hoping to make a fortune. Recently, Queen's Landing has made contact with a tribe of indigenous peoples who seem open to trade and bring tales of ancient ruins buried in the ice which never melts. One dwarven sage insists that the Spine of the World is the site of an old dwarven megapolis from before the Great Opposition turned the North into a barren wasteland. And, most promising of all, one band of adventurers recently returned - missing three members and looking like walking, frostbitten skeletons, but with seventeen sapphires, each the size of a thumbnail.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

New beginnings and real-world dungeons

I think I've finally decided to get my gumption up and try my hand at creating a new campaign.

About a year ago, I had to leave my old one behind to move to a new job and a new school. This was really a shame, because I had a group of players who seemed to really 'get it' and they clicked pretty well together. We were having great times. Alas. Yes, I know I could have tried to keep it up with something through Roll20 or G+, but even if that had been successful, I'd have sorely missed the face-to-face element. Those guys were just fun to hang out with.

It's time to start another. Last time, I plopped down B2 and used it as the core, planning to expand later. It's a good solution, but this time i want to try making something original. I still want large portions of the world to be decided via co-creation with the players, both because that's easier for me and it's a lot more fun, but I want to start with some specific ideas.

I think I'll be starting with a tentpole dungeon; one that will perhaps turn into a megadungeon, but I don't plan on that initially. I'll also add a large swath of wilderness for later hex-crawling.

I'm conflicted about some of my possible plans, though. For example, I'm fond of the idea of severely reducing the variation of goblinoids (who needs goblins, orcs, hobgoblins, and bugbears? just replace them all with norkers and bandits), but at the same time I want to have room to plop down existing modules if they strike my fancy, because who doesn't want the Caverns of Thracia hanging out somewhere in their game world?

At the moment, I'm fond of the idea of a wilderness with a large main river running into a map-defining bay, forming a delta and a saltmarsh. Hopefully I can advise you to stay tuned to this space for further developments.

And now for the price of admission.

During WW2, the Swiss government undertook a massive military project to hollow out the Alps for use as military bases and population centers in case of German attack. They also mined all the roads and passes, and wired all their bridges and many of the mountain-sides to collapse. The plan was to sacrifice the main valley - which could not be held against the superior war machines of either the Axis or the Allies - but to make taking each new mountain, and each new valley after it, into a living hell for which the Stalingrad campaign is but a pale comparison. After the end of the war, the project continued, fortifying Switzerland against the possible outcomes of the Cold War, even to the point of proofing these bunkers against the use of tactical nukes.

In effect, the entirety of the Alps is a string of dungeons.

Entrance to a real-life dungeon. I think this is an aircraft hangar.

In true Swiss fashion, many of these have since been turned into cheese caves, for the maturation of Gruyère-type cheese. While it seems less cool, this is actually a good thing for us, since it means you're much more likely to get a look inside.

You are at the head of a set of stairs that descend steeply into the darkness. You cannot see the bottom.
The 5' corridor continues another 60 feet before coming to an apparent dead end.Do you search for secret doors?
Many of them also include suspended footpaths between mountains, so cleverly concealed from above that you can't find them even if you know where you're looking. It only takes a little imagination to turn the whole of the Swiss Alps into a megadungeon, waiting to be explored. Especially if, in some alternate historical future, "the Swiss delved too greedily, and too deep."

For those who are interested, plenty more pictures of old Swiss military mountain caves can be found here: Fortifications Suisses

Saturday, June 13, 2015

JDIMS - Joint Dungeon Inventory Management System

I've heard and read a lot of complaints that tracking encumbrance is just too much work, or too fiddly, or too unfun. I sympathize. After all, who wants to be ciphering and double-checking rules every five minutes instead of killing goblins and taking their stuff? Yet at the same time, people do recognize that encumbrance management is an important part of the game: it's about recovering treasure, and part of the core mechanic of the game is figuring out how much you can bring out for what level of risk.

There are a fair number of good alternatives out there, but none of them quite feel right to me. So I made my own.

First steps

Before going on an adventure, calculate your encumbrance according to the normal rules. You're in town; it's time for bookkeeping anyway. Additionally, you can choose to re-calculate encumbrance according to the normal rules at any time, so long as you're not bogging anything down in the game. By the same token, the DM can require the same, of course

 Item classifications and their meanings

Once you're on the road, items come in two main categories: Small items, and Large items. What category an object falls into is a combination of weight, bulk, and how much care must be taken with that object in trasport. It's important to note that this only matters for new items you pick up, since you're using your previously-calculated encumbrance as your starting point.

Small Items

Small items don't weigh you down. Some common examples of small items include swords, scrolls, potions, cloaks, very small rugs, helmets, and spellbooks. 100 coins also count as a Small item in my game.

Five Small items count as one Large item.

Large Items

If you are carrying a Large item, count yourself one step more encumbered. If you are carrying 2 Large items, count yourself two steps more encumbered, and take a -2 to hit and AC. Also, you aren't going to be stealthy. You cannot normally carry more than 2 Large items. Examples of Large items include plate or chain mail, shields, tapestries, small treasure chests, busts, and Halfling bodies.

Free Items

Anything not big enough to be a small item basically doesn't count against encumbrance. This includes rings, jewels, certain other jewelry (often assuming you're wearing it), lockpicks, and generally anything that would easily fit in the palm of your hand and not feel terribly weighty.

Two-man Items

The name's pretty much self-explanatory; these things require at least two adventurers to cooperate to move them. Two-man items count as two Large items for each member of the moving team. Examples include large chests, armoires, and elf-sized statues.

Another example of a large item

Extensions and Variations

The core works pretty well all by itself. People I've played with have agreed that it hits the sweet spot between complexity and plausibility, allowing them to actually make meaningful choices about what they'll carry while not feeling like it takes too much time and effort. However, over time I've identified some tweaks I like to make to differentiate characters and some further rulings I've made that help the system feel more complete.


Characters with a Strength of 5 or less can only carry one Large item, and for them it behaves as though they are carrying two. (Two encumbrance levels, minuses in combat.) Characters with a Strength of 15 or higher can carry an extra Large item before being doubly encumbered. Characters with the rare and coveted 18 Strength can carry two more.


Dwarves can carry one extra Large item before being doubly encumbered, because dwarves are naturally doughty. (Woe betide the dungeon denizens who run across a Dwarf with 18 Strength; they'll all be naked.)

Halflings on the other hand can carry one fewer, because they're tiny.

Elves are roughly human-sized, but slightly smaller. Some items that would count as Small for a Man might count as Large for them, and they only get four Small items to the Large (unless you forget or don't care).

Load Bearing Equipment and Beasts of Burden

These rules assume that characters are entering the dungeon with a backpack and the very basic pockets, ties, and such that come with clothing made for adventurers or outdoorsmen. If for some reason this isn't the case, reduce carrying capacity to suit. (Naked people can carry three small items - one in each hand, plus one between the teeth.)

Ponies and donkeys can carry three Large items. Horses can carry five. Mules can carry six. Good luck fitting a mule in a dungeon. Other more fantastic animals are up to the GM.

Bags come in two different sizes. Small bags can carry up to 3 Small items, combining them to count as one. Large bags can carry up to 10 Small items, counting as 1 Large item. Small chests are the same, but you don't have to worry about your bundle of swords accidentally cutting through it while you're running away from goblins.

Medium chests can carry up to 25 Small items, but they count as 2 Large items. (You can share this load between 2 people if you can't carry enough, and this allows you to easily drop it in combat.)

Large chests are Two-man items, and can carry up to 50 Small items.

A hand-cart or wheelbarrow will allow you to carry 50 Small items by yourself, but of course you aren't going to be stealthy and you aren't doing anything else with your hands.

Potion belts, scroll belts, and the like carry 5 or so of the specified Small items and count the total as just one Small item.

Magical load-bearing equipment such as Tenkar's Flying Disc and Bags of Holding should be similarly rated by the GM for how many Small items they can carry. (I like calling Bags of Holding Large items that can carry up to 200 Small items.)

Once you get to wagons and the like, you've grown beyond the limits where this system is useful.

Use your judgment on what to allow players to put in bags. Just because a glaive is a Large item doesn't mean it'll fit into your large bag.

Parting Thoughts

I like this system because I find it easy to run at table and easy for players to understand. It doesn't require looking things up, ever. I also think that, because of the ease of use in play, it opens up inventory management as a real object that can be manipulated in play. For example, a cursed Loadstone is two Large objects that cannot be put down. Further, temporary effects can really, actually be useful or debilitating in play without requiring a mood-crippling amount of number fiddling. As proof, below I'll share two spells that have made it onto the Cleric list in my game.

Share the Load
Cleric 2
Range: Touch
Duration: 1d4 + cleric level hours

This spell allows the subject to carry one more Large item before experiencing any encumbrance effects. Only works on humanoids.

Burden of Truth
Cleric 2
Range: 30 ft
Duration: 1d4 + cleric level turns

This spell causes the subject to feel the extra heft of 2 more Large items. Save vs. magic to resist. 

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.