Thursday, June 11, 2015

What Makes a Great Adventure?

"Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet." - Robert E. Howard, "The Phoenix on the Sword"

I've been thinking a lot lately about what makes a great D&D adventure, and what is necessary in a published adventure module. In no small part this is driven by the fact that I found a lot to recommend the 5e module Princes of the Apocalypse, but I also found a lot that is lacking in the module.

The ethos of Conan, such as they are, are definitely missing in the atmosphere created by recent editions of D&D. It appears somewhat in a game where the primary drivers are acquisition of wealth and conquest of a kingdom, which is the mode that OD&D set out to realize. Players just wanted to keep going with the dungeon part of the game, though, and eventually the reward mechanic shifted to recognize that fighting monsters would be the main focus of the game. Once that happened, the whole motivation had to change. Instead of being a game where there is treasure and the goal is to find it, it becomes a game where there is a problem, and you have to hack some monsters apart to solve it.

The elements, as I see it, of a great adventure are: a treasure (the motive), obstacles (the reason the treasure hasn't been taken already), and choices (multiple ways to get in trouble).

Treasure I see given a sad-sack treatment in most published modules, which is really weird given the importance of treasure to old school Dungeons & Dragons. There are very few dungeons I can really think of that have an "it" treasure that ties the whole thing together. Too often there is simply a big challenge that has a significant number of coins, gems, jewelry or magic items. It seems to me that one or two really memorable pieces, with corresponding magical powers and/or high GP values, are at least as important as the other aspects of adventure design.

For instance, B1 In Search of the Unknown has a treasure listed as "Onyx statue worth 200 g.p.". What is the statue of? How big is it? How old is it? How much does it weigh? There is an actual famous onyx cameo (engraved gem), the Gemma Augustea, with an elaborate two-tiered engraving. It's 7½" x 9" and about ½" thick. That's an actual piece of "treasure" that the PCs could take. The whole listing can be brief:

Onyx carving, 7"x9", depicts an ancient emperor and court. 200 g.p.

I mean, that's not rocket surgery, but it does give you some hook. You know it's ancient and might have some significance. It might even be a clue to information elsewhere in the dungeon, or it might just be a piece of treasure that's worth describing to the players. Either way, I'd rather have this than the anonymous "Onyx statue." And yet even the description as being made of onyx is more than you'll get in a lot of modules.

Obstacles are the wonderful things that, in the Moldvay Basic rulebook's dungeon generation guidelines, fall under the various categories of monster, trap and special. These are the things that will occupy most of the playing time if the module is played as written, and as such they tend to get the most love.

Back when 3e was new, Monte Cook wrote "The World's Shortest (Yet Technically Complete) Adventure," "The Orc and the Pie." This is a 10'x10' room. The room contains an orc and a pie. (You can see a version here.) This was written with the assumption that the PCs would kill the orc to get his pie – it's in the adventure synopsis, "he PCs kill the orc and take his pie". But even that is a multi-dimensional obstacle. The PCs can use stealth, or magic, or manipulation, or even pay the orc for his pie.

The vast majority of modules keep the monster encounters to manageable numbers that the PCs can take on in one-on-one combat. I think this is generally a shame. After all, OD&D lists 30-300 orcs as appearing, and I think that a dungeon with 150 orcs in a single general region would be a lot more interesting than one with 25 rooms and the equivalent of 6 orcs each. By going over on the "possible" numbers, the orcs are now a real obstacle to be figured out, not just an HP or spell cost to get through the room. After all, if you're going to put orcs in your module, you should do it in a way that is going to stand out.

(As a side note, I don't think that unique monsters versus generic ones does much at all to change the quality of a module. At the end of the day it's not the monster, it's what you do with it; if you have a wildly creative creature that always attacks and does standard damage, you might as well have just used a generic monster. Well-used original monsters, of course, can really enhance an adventure, but they aren't required.)

Likewise, traps should actually be obstacles, not random HP sinks. Especially if you're using a version of D&D where "detect traps" is an ability, make the trap really nasty but put it in the way of something. The PCs see a door, but stepping on the stone in front of it unleashes a trap. They can detect that trap all day, but actually getting into the door requires them to do something about the trap. The corridor is lined with arrow traps; you can see the slits in the wall, but you need to figure a way past them. The goal shouldn't just be to kill unwary PCs, but to actually make proceeding through the area difficult. After all, the traps have presumably been painstakingly built to protect a valuable treasure. Why would they be put in a random place and not impede forward progress?

"Specials" are often the whole reason modules are worth buying. I mean, would B1 In Search of the Unknown be anything other than a monster-ridden "fantasy Ikea" without the Room of Pools? This is where the adventure gets to evoke a sense of wonder and change the flow of the game and create its unique experience. In Moldvay this is one-sixth of your rooms; that may be a bit ambitious, but then some of these will just be something interesting instead of a really transcendent moment. But a great adventure has at least one of those.

Choices are why people hate railroads. It's why they hate quantum ogres. When I read a module, I usually look for branching points on the map, and see what happens if the PCs pick one versus the other; you can usually tell whether a module's going to be good or not by that expedient. Even if it's a small dungeon, there should be at least two paths with meaningful unique places to go. A module without meaningful choices offers nothing to the players as a challenge; even very limited alternate paths can really change the tone of an adventure. I like Justin Alexander's Jaquaying the Dungeon for more on this.

The trick with choices is finding ways to give the players information about the choices they are going to make. A blind selection between left and right is a coin flip, not a meaningful decision. Rumors, hints elsewhere in the dungeon, information gained through monsters, partial maps, or any sensory clues are all ways to inform a decision. One corridor is warmer than the other? That changes the calculus. Doubly so if the PCs think there might be a dragon in the dungeon.

A lot of information-gathering tricks are just underused. For instance, graffiti; large underground complexes in the real world frequently have "street" names to indicate different corridors. Why not have that, particularly in a language of underground humanoids or other intelligent dungeon denizens? Any kind of signal about the "areas" of a dungeon makes for solid information. Even deceptive clues can drive player choice, and later be put together into a bigger picture.

I really think this is the dividing line for a great adventure: if meaningful choices are not created, if the map is just random or the choices are all made blind, then it can't create the kind of play that I think exists at the highest level of D&D. Players have to be able to route around obstacles, which usually will mean picking between two. And that's the beautiful thing in an open adventure design.

By these standards, I don't think there are that many great adventures. For the most part, what people see as both classics and great modern adventures are ones where the "specials" or the particular use of obstacles (usually monsters, except S1 Tomb of Horrors, a master class in traps) are memorable. S2 White Plume Mountain is probably the only module I can think of where the treasure is as noteworthy as the dungeon, while Caverns of Thracia has a terrific choice structure. But I do think these are good criteria to judge an adventure, and worthwhile goals for a designer setting out on a new one..

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Talking White Star Blues

I don't do many reviews of RPG products here, and I'm not about to start. But I do want to talk a bit about James Spahn's White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying, because there are some things worth talking about.

I think White Star was marketed poorly. It's slick and well laid out, and a lot of people in the OSR are talking about it in terms that glow more than the lens flare on the cover. There's already fan material and even a zine that I've already ordered. And that's all to the good, but clearly some people got the wrong impression, and some of the reaction to White Star has been pretty negative.

My impression is that the marketing, and the book itself, is almost too slick. Given what it is, White Star would be better off looking less polished and more "white box."

The game, as written, is not so much an adaptation of Swords & Wizardry: Whitebox as it is a reskin. It re-themes D&D magic-users as Jedi - "Star Knights" - who wield lightsabers ("Star Swords" that do all of 1d6+2 damage) and cast "Meditations" instead of spells. Fighters are Mercenaries, Thieves are Pilots, and Elves are Alien Mystics.

What really cements this is the experience system: it uses "credits" as the measure instead of gold pieces, but you get XP for killing monsters and gaining credits. Despite the back-cover claim that the game takes you "out of the dungeon and into the stars," when you read the sample adventure it's a space dungeon. And I mean, I have nothing against that; it's kind of a cool idea to have a D&D dungeon in space, and to replace your two-handed sword with a lightsaber ("Star Sword") and your crossbow with a laser pistol. But that is really what it's doing. The Star Sword does 2 points of damage more than a stick. The laser pistol does the same. Meditations are spells, period. Things work like they do in D&D, not like they do in Star Wars (or any other space opera). Because of the game's logic – really D&D's logic – you're basically going to be playing D&D in space.

Now, I don't think that's bad per se. The book has some cool science fantasy monsters and artifacts in it. And any game with Space Monkeys can't actually be bad. But I do think it's marketed wrong, possibly because it's so easy to bury the lede. This isn't Traveller, it isn't Firefly, and despite some trappings it's not Star Wars. This is Swords & Wizardry set in space dungeons.

This isn't a review, so I'm not going to answer the question of whether it's worth getting. A lot of the book is a reskinned restatement of Swords & Wizardry. The parts that are good, like the robot PCs and the 22 pages of aliens and creatures, are quite good. The parts that are lame, like the Meditations, are irretrievably lame. But hey, it does have Space Monkeys.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Petty Gods - Across the Finish Line

The project to revise and expand Petty Gods – a spiritual sequel to the Judges Guild classic Unknown Gods – is finally complete. This is a hefty tome, almost 400 pages, of deities created by many authors throughout old school gaming (yours truly included).

It's available in three formats:

Free PDF from RPGNow
Softcover on Lulu
Hardcover on Lulu
(Lulu code FWD15 saves 15%)

It took years to come together and exhausted several editors, but it's finally here thanks to Richard LeBlanc. I'm extremely excited to have this book out there; it's a huge accomplishment for our community to have put together something like this.

The "Writer" credits are extensive and include a lot of excellent people. The meat of the book is not just the Petty Gods of the title, but their chapters full of Minions, Knights & Servitors (monsters), Cults & Cultists (natch), Divine Items and new Spells. There's also an article by M.A.R. Barker (letting each of us share an author credit with the late Barker), one on the Gods of Barsoom, one full of tables about the Jale God, silly ones like "Petty Foods of the Petty Gods" and "Petty Classifieds," and an Appendix N. Gods are indexed by name, writer and artist, and each entry includes full credits.

I'm proud to have taken a part in creating something that is really quite cool, and give tremendous thanks to the people who've contributed to and driven it, particularly the editors.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

That's One Large Spider!

Zach H. over at the Zenopus Archives blog has done another of his excellent Holmes Manuscript series comparing the published Blue Book to the original document Holmes provided TSR. He's into the Sample Dungeon at this point and describes the giant spider as originally conceived:
He is Armor Class 3, plate mail, has 1 hit die and a poisonous bite.
The final text is significantly emended:
He is armor class 3 (plate mail), has 6 hit dice (31 hit points), and his bite causes 1-8 points of damage and is poisonous (-1 on saving throw dice because it is so strong)
For a first level group, that is straight-up nasty: 31 hit points takes 9 average hits to kill, and at AC 3 in Holmes that takes 36 attacks. It's quite likely to be a TPK unless the PCs just run from the encounter. Certainly a good lesson, but it points to the giant spider becoming standardized as a type.

The spider pictured above is a Brazilian wandering spider, reputedly the most venomous spider in the world. The largest is the giant huntsman spider, whose leg span reaches up to twelve inches. A Goliath birdeater tarantula only goes up to 6 ounces, and that's the heaviest spider by weight. So that gives us parameters for spiders.

Humans are the archetypal 1 hit die creature. At minimum, an adult human is about 4'10" tall and weighs 100 lbs. According to the square-cube ratio, if we took our maximum spider and made it 3' in width, that would be over 100 lbs already, and at 6' it would weigh almost 500. Compared to a person, I think that's enough to merit extra hit dice!

But Holmes's giant spider could be the more modest 3' wide spider. That's still a mean critter, but it is a sensible 1 hit die. We could scale up by a hit die per foot of leg span, with a 6' spider being 4 HD, and the monstrosity in the Blue Book at 8' and over 800 lbs. This gives us a good scale for giant insects in general, and allows for a flourishing variety. Maybe the spiders on your 3rd dungeon level have 3 hit dice. That would make them 5' wide and weighing as much as an NFL offensive lineman (over 330 lbs.). Similarly, we can change the effects of their bite, or even make them non-poisonous (if such a thing can be imagined).

Here's a chart based on some quick-and-dirty math:
1'6 oz.1 hp
2'14 lbs.1-2 hp
3'122 lbs.1
4'216 lbs.2
5'338 lbs.3
6'486 lbs.4-5
7'662 lbs.5-6
8'864 lbs.7-9
9'1094 lbs.8-10
10'1350 lbs.9+

From here, you can get an idea of the size and hit dice of any giant insect or arthropod you care to put in your game.

Spitder Image by Techuser, CC-BY-SA

Friday, April 24, 2015

Chainmail and OD&D Morale

In an thread about OD&D, Mike Mornard posted an observation about Chainmail morale as applied to a typical D&D scenario.
Well, for starters.

Morale. Morale is the key to winning a battle. Last stands are renowned because they are so rare. You don't win a war by killing every man, woman, child, and puppydog in the enemy country, and you dont' win a battle by killing every man in the enemy army. You win a battle by killing enough of the enemy that the rest decide to leg it.

CHAINMAIL has "morale due to excess casualties," and it also assigns troop equivalents to manlike fantastic creatures (kobolds, goblins, etc.)

So, goblins attack as heavy foot and defend as light foot. For morale checks, then, I'd treat them as Light Foot.

Light Foot check morale at 25% casualties, and stay on a roll of 8+ on 2d6.

So, twenty goblins rush at you. Your magic user (standing behind your dwarf for half cover) throws Sleep and drops seven of them.

Morale check time!

Now, let's say they make it.

At the next casualty percentage... that is, for light foot, at the second 25% casualties... THEY AUTOMATICALLY ROUT.
Mike doesn't fully describe the mechanic as written. In Chainmail, each troop type checks morale at a certain threshold (25% for light foot, peasants or levies; 33 1/3% for heavy foot, elite, armored, Mongol, and medium horse; 50% for Swiss pikemen, heavy horse and all knights). That triggers a 2d6 roll. If it fails, they run; if it succeeds, they will fight to twice that percentage before they automatically rout.

So when the party is fighting a group of goblins, and kills 50%, the rest should scatter. This trigger went away in the B/X simplification. But it also applies to orcs, which fight as heavy foot, so orcs should check morale when losing 1/3 of their force, and always flee if they lose 2/3. Tougher foes will only flee if they lose at least 50% of their initial numbers.

This system maps particularly well to OD&D, and allows for a simplification. The percentages and minimum score on 2d6 to stay and fight can be grouped by hit dice.

Hit Dice Check Rout Target #
< 1 25% 50% 8
1-3 33% 67% 6-7
4+ 50% n/a 4-6

The referee should set the morale check appropriately for any monsters, so I'd expect orcs to stand on 7+ but hobgoblins to fight on a roll of 6+ due to better morale. A group of 12 orcs will never keep fighting to the last orc; it will flee when only 2 remain. Meanwhile the 6 trolls on level 1 of Castle Greyhawk will check morale once when there are 3 left, but will never flee if they make their check.

In a pinch, these morale rules can be used for other effects as well. In Chainmail, a pike charge or cavalry charge causes a morale check or the unit falls back. While the requisite 10 pikemen can't go into formation in most dungeons, the basic idea works for enemies faced by, say, an elemental that a PC wizard has summoned.

This interpretation makes goblins and kobolds much less threatening, and generally does a lot toward making the lower levels of OD&D more survivable. It's unfortunate that neither the Chainmail chart nor a straightforward means of interpreting it have ever appeared in a D&D product, but I like this as a morale rule.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Convention Play: DCC RPG - Well of Souls

At Philly GamesCon, I signed up to play in Carl Bussler's Dungeon Crawl Classics game for the morning session. Carl ran his own funnel adventure, The Well of Souls, which he designed as an introduction to DCC and also a lead-in to the sandbox module Treasure Vaults of Zadabad. Ever since, I've been re-reading the DCC rulebook. So I'll talk a bit about the adventure, and a bit about the system.

First, the adventure. Eight PCs representing 6 players went down the Well of Souls, and four hours later, eight clambered back out. I had a woodcutter, an elven artisan and an ostler. The artisan would die fashioning makeshift shields, while the woodcutter looked in the wrong cauldron and died falling over a waterfall on a river. The ostler survived, and will have become a thief if I ever play him in a future DCC game.

Well of Souls is a tight module, which if I had any criticism it's that the only serious choice-point is the one at the very beginning. A portcullis locks you in if you go one way, while a solid iron door blocks the other. We encountered dropping cave-octopus creatures, which eventually took out my elf; pit traps and bats; a secret door; a boat, which I added to my woodcutter's character sheet; the aforementioned iron door, which occasioned the needless sacrifice of a duck; a math puzzle; fought skeletons; and finally a giant bronze crocodile that shot either lightning or fire from its mouth. For four hours of gaming, that's a good bit of fun.

I wanted to go through a DCC funnel, because I've heard they are a lot of fun. This turned out to be completely accurate. But I understood a lot more about funnels and how they play into DCC as a game. Your PC has stats, a single weapon, a trade good, and a birth sign. The character is almost entirely random. But the ones who survive wind up having a distinct feel to them, partly driven by the random stuff, partly by the experience of surviving. It's a brilliant way to mix a bit of background with characters emerging from play.

So, on to the DCC system. It's funny how much the DCC game is really the D20 system, but taken in a radically different direction. I like that it changes the 6 basic ability scores, and find that Luck is an intriguing switch from Charisma. It sets the tone from the get-go that things are going to be familiar but different. And the rest of the game builds on that.

One reason I'm interested in DCC as a system is that the Mighty Deed of Arms die seems to me like it's inviting the kind of play I'd like to see more of: creative interaction within the combat system. Older D&D doesn't seem to inspire a whole lot of it, while a Warrior rolling the Deed die on every hit always has a chance to do something spectacular. The worst that happens is that you don't get your extra heroic bit.

Magic is pretty crazy. I mean, the rulebook is only as big as it is because magic is such a big part of it. You don't really touch it on a funnel, but my impression both from reading and from discussions is that magic can really take over the game. It seems appropriate in a way, since it's magic, but I'd be interested in perspectives on the pros and cons. I like the basic mechanical concept of a "spell check"; it's something that Chainmail had but D&D never picked up. (An early clone, Spellcraft & Swordplay, ran with the idea but nobody talks much about that game.)

I don't really want to analyze the thing to death; the point is that, as an RPG that is practically made of charts and uses funkier dice than most, DCC has a couple of feelers out trying to get at my heart. The other thing that really makes me think it has something is the chunkiness of each level: since it was originally only designed to go up to 5th level, it seems like you get a lot of game out of each level. DCC also seems to have what I'll call a unique aesthetic, where each room and encounter is encouraged to be epic, that has been growing on me slowly as I pick up modules here and there.

So a round of applause to Carl, who's got me thinking more and more about DCC.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Convention Play: Metamorphosis Alpha

I spent a good part of the past week updating my adventure, now titled "Rites of Passage," for Philly GamesCon. Unlike my G+ Hangout game, the con game stayed entirely on my 10th deck of the Starship Warden, a pleasant pastoral area with two villages and a handful of strange areas.

The first area visited was a Round House Modular Dwelling Unit, populated per Jim Ward's tables in The House on the Hill. Until the power suddenly kicked out, this was a fun game of MA's typical "identify this weird technological thing," with PCs figuring out soft drink dispensers and discovering a jar of peanut butter and jelly (one of those mixed types). The insane engineering robot activated, but the PCs had just found a robot maintenance device and used it to reboot it (it discovered a firmware corruption) and open the access panel. They left after the power outage with several good technological artifacts, and some magazines and cups.

After this they decided to go to the "Forbidden Zone," a massive high-radiation area. One of the PCs went in but his Radiation Resistance was good enough that it just did damage to him. After this, the mutant with several heightened senses figured out that they were being followed by a mutant bobcat, which did some fancy tunneling and chased them back to the river that runs through the level. It was an interesting encounter, because the bobcat had tunneling claws that let it burst out of the ground. One of the PCs had an Apathy Field that helped them get away.

The PCs took a rest and then went north to a small grove, where they had spotted a dug-up area that hides a laser pistol, a brown color band, and a cougaroid skin. Unfortunately there were squirrels. The PC with Apathy Field tried using it but one o the squirrels had terrific Mental Resistance and resisted. The squirrel then used its trump card – Molecular Disruption. That PC was gone, poof. Quite dramatic. The others used Heat Breath to kill both squirrels and the vines on the trees.

After that, the remaining three PCs tried heading fore (north), and found the field of weird flowers. They were going to skirt it (not a terrible idea), but one of the PCs went to pick a flower to bring home. This happened to be a rose with poison thorns, and I had him roll a Dexterity check to avoid getting pricked. He failed and that was another PC. The last two PCs called it an adventure and went home with substantial gear.

It was an enjoyable game, although I do want to tweak the level a bit more - there needs to be an encounter near the RHMDU aside from the robot to keep it from being a cakewalk. A PC with holographic skin was able to trick the house's access panel into letting him in by imitating a color band, a neat trick but one I probably wouldn't let work with a robot or more sophisticated tech. The fact of "here's a house, try to get in" is a fun challenge. I am thinking it could use some mutant birds nesting nearby to make it more of a challenge.

The grove with the molecular-disruptor squirrels is, I think, a very Metamorphosis Alpha encounter. The squirrels don't have a lot of hit points, but they can straight-out kill PCs if they try fighting. And the trees will try to grab PCs who dig up the goods, but the PCs observed the vines moving and used Heat Breath to fry everything in sight.

In practice, the Mutation Manual is awesome, the best of the Goodman supplements. It has some great new powers that add a whole lot to making mutants, both PC and not, more interesting. I think humans need a bit more edge to make them competitive, which I'll probably work on by tweaking the pregens. I would also recommend reprinting all the powers that PC mutants have for reference if you're running the game. Also, the Referee's Screen is terrific; it essentially has the whole system aside from the mutations on it. Easily worth ten bucks.

MA is a terrific game. It's probably, for my money, the best pure exploration game out there in RPGs. Combat is extremely variable because of the mutations, and the artifacts just make discovering things a pure joy. The level I've designed would probably take three or four sessions to explore thoroughly; I think that's a good length for a very full MA mini-campaign. At some point, I may see about putting it out in the wild, because I think more good MA sandbox adventures are really needed out there.