Monday, August 25, 2014

How Not to Write an Adventure

Jason Paul McCartan at OSR Today wrote a short link to an article from a site called RPG Knights that alleges to give advice for how to design adventures. Unfortunately, it's really not. The advice given is a recapitulation of Freytag's pyramid (in a modified version slightly different from the above, where the rising action is temporarily interrupted), the dramatic structure you learn in middle school, without significant insight into how to make it into an RPG adventure.

This kind of adventure writing is lazy, bad and everything that should be avoided both by referees and by writers creating modules for RPGs. If you've already written the plot, the PCs aren't the protagonists; they are just along for the ride. And that sucks.

In a well run roleplaying game, the elements of Freytag's pyramid (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement) arise organically out of player choice. Plotting them in advance prevents this from happening; if your climax requires that a certain character be in a certain place at a certain time, well, the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley*.

An RPG adventure needs something completely different. It's a type of writing that is totally different from writing a screenplay or short story, since the referee is not an author and doesn't know what the protagonists will do. So it should be no surprise that the elements needed are totally different as well.

The main responsibility of the adventure is that it becomes plot when PCs are exposed to it. This requires it to have potential conflict, or the seeds of conflict, within it. This doesn't need to be anything fancy; it's just another way of saying there should be monsters and/or NPCs standing between the PCs and what they want. A dungeon will often do this literally, for instance by having the quintessential orc and pie. If the PCs decide they want pie, that instantly transforms into conflict between the PCs and the orc. Nothing fancy is required, and it can be as detailed or simple as the referee prefers.

Conflict can be between factions, or between NPCs, or simply with the PCs. The more complex your potential conflicts are, the more ways that adding PCs can make the plot go pear-shaped. What is critical is that nothing ever be indispensable. There can be no NPC who can't be killed, no monster that must get away from a fight, nothing that the PCs need to find or know or do that will stop the adventure cold.

Everything else, really, is optional. A dungeon with monster and treasure keys is a baseline for a solid adventure. But there are a few different elements that help a good adventure.

  • Background. This can be revealed through exposition, items, and dressing. The real shame of a lot of professional adventure writing is that it has extensive background that is not revealed to the PCs organically through the elements in the module.
  • Methods of discovery. Ways to reveal background and information about the world and their enemies to the PCs are helpful. This can be through books, talkative NPCs, visions of the distant past, or many  other strange and odd ways to show the world to the PCs. Rumor tables are a classic method for revelation and point up the key fact that they are not necessarily reliable
  • Physical obstacles. Sticking a chasm between the PCs and a goal, or making an adventure location particularly dangerous to approach, are good ways to add to the conflict without reference to more NPCs or monsters. Traps, of course, are a personal favorite.
  • Dynamic world elements. A good adventure has elements, usually random, that can happen throughout the adventure so that it is not static. For instance, a random encounter table indicates that events outside the PCs' adventures are happening, and it is not necessarily a good idea to respond to all of them. Other examples include timed changes to the setting, such as the Swedish Army that will be coming soon in Better Than Any Man.
Again – none of this relates directly to plot, and if the players want, no story other than "PCs go in, get gold and leave" needs to be told in the game. Each of these points can be covered whether the adventure is a good dungeon crawl or a solid city adventure where a sword is never drawn and a spell never uttered. What's important is that the adventure be open-ended and have several potential forks, because no plan ever survives contact with the enemy, and no plot survives contact with the PCs.

* The English for this line from Robert Burns's Scots poem "To a Mouse" is usually given as "The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry."

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Modules Worth Emulating

I was thinking recently about the new fifth edition of D&D, and how honestly I don't much care for its adventures so far. They are not strictly "railroads" in that players don't have to follow the plots to their conclusions, but they are a sequence of episodes that happen in a certain order, more or less no matter what the PCs do. And I don't like that model at all.

And the natural question is, what modules do I think are better models?

No reader of this blog should at all be surprised that I'll start with B2 Keep on the Borderlands. It's a natural choice, because it's the best module. I mean, there are other contenders, but certainly for low levels it's brilliant. The module can be attacked from almost any angle, but it works brilliantly. Hordes of kobolds? 1st level PCs possibly wandering into an encounter with an ogre? Death traps? Monsters right on top of each other? Gygax put it all in a sandbox and it all works.

B2 is brilliant because it presents a sandbox where every choice is possibly lethal. Simply fighting it out is rarely the right choice; PCs need to learn to explore, negotiate, trick and improvise. It's just big enough for the neophyte referee to not be overwhelmed, while giving the party truly free rein. There are several potential plots, or new ones can emerge through gameplay, but the module would work if you didn't pursue any of them, or added new plot lines in that were totally irrelevant to the existing rumor table.

Another great sandbox module is Better Than Any Man, the 2013 Free RPG Day module for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. BTAM is much more plotted than B2; in fact, the plot is iron-clad. The Swedish army is going to invade, and lots of people will die. But in context, this threat is nothing but a timer. Whereas in B2 the players can go back pretty freely to the Keep and recuperate, in BTAM they have an absolute need to finish the adventure in a certain time period or the sandbox goes away.

BTAM is dark, and disturbing, and has nasty stuff about sex. It also has great ideas, like an infinite repeating tower and several other interesting mini-dungeons. There are really only two that lead directly to the climax, but getting there is neither assumed nor a very good idea, to be honest. Instead it offers a number of very inventive locations to explore before the PCs should get out of Dodge Karlstadt while the getting is good. The timer of the looming Swedish invasion is a great way to encourage this without forcing it.

Then there's B1 In Search of the Unknown. It's Mike Carr's module that B2 was written to replace. B1 was solid, though: it provided the only extant module with a geomorphic level ("paper-thin" walls) and separated the rooms, the monsters and the treasure so that the referee had to place all of the enemies and loot logically. A good learning exercise, but it also greatly ramps up replayability. With certain exceptions like the room of pools, a referee who's run B1 multiple times can still be surprised when playing through it as a player.

The weakness of B1 is that the room descriptions are really long and overly mundane, and that it's not given over to randomness.

But Geoffrey McKinney fixed that with his Dungeon of the Unknown. I've spoken highly of this module before, and I'll do it again: DotU is a riff on B1 that provides new maps, and new monsters, including several monster generators. There are also weird encounter areas to be found. It's really quite stingy with treasure, using Geoffrey's idiosyncratic money types, but otherwise it's a great riff on what B1 did so well.

What's really interesting is that Dungeon of the Unknown is much more of a dungeon creation kit with a filled-in sketch in the back. I think that approach is something more modules should follow.

Then there's S1 Tomb of Horrors. It's the most infamous "tournament dungeon" and its actual tricks are pretty well known, especially the Great Green Devil Face. Despite its reputation, S1 does one thing very well: it gets PCs to do things that cause their own horrible deaths. You walk into the entrance? It collapses, you die. You pull the lever? You die. But it's always your fault.

What I love about Tomb of Horrors is how few monsters it has. It's one of the deadliest modules ever, but aside from a gargoyle and a demilich there just isn't much to fight. And that's brilliant. As I've said before, LotFP modules read as if James Raggi took this as an artistic manifesto.

Each of these is something I'd love to see more of in modules: the sandbox aspect of B2, the time pressure in BTAM, the modularity of B1, the kit format of DotU, and the non-monster threats of S1. Even those of us doing OSR modules could stand to go back through these and pick up a few of their ideas.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Everything Herein is Fantastic

I've been going through the "Better Living Through Clones" series of posts because of a basic realization about how I view Dungeons & Dragons. Fundamentally, the rules of the game are similar in any given version, but no single variation is precisely to my liking. The logical conclusion is to find the rules I like best, steal them, and use them on my own terms.

While my current game uses B/X, this is mostly accidental; I wanted to run B1 and started by asking for players for B/X, and have just kept going with it. I like the game, and it has some good rules that should be part of any referee's arsenal. I decided a while back to continue with B/X through the campaign's natural ebb and flow, and it's still going strong. I also intend to run some Metamorphosis Alpha once the Goodman reissue comes out.

But for the long term, my true love remains OD&D, and eventually I want to go back to it. Part of it is that D&D is an "ample framework" ripe for modification. This is why I've been slowly working through so many other games; I want to see tested ideas that can fit within the limits of this framework. EPT damage, for instance, is possibly the best way to do d6-based damage, while I like LotFP's trade-offs for extra offense or defense.

I've always felt it was a shame that so much emphasis has been placed on literal clones, with so many games having mild variations on Charm Person, Cure Light Wounds, the Sword +1, +3 vs Dragons and the orc. I prefer the approach of Geoffrey McKinney's original Carcosa, published as Supplement V. A couple of other Supplement Vs and a few Supplement VIs came out, but none were, like Carcosa, focused expansions of OD&D. I see creating such a "Supplement" almost like a medieval guild member's "master piece" – the work that proves that you've gone beyond a journeyman and come into your own.

An interview from ten years ago with Dave Arneson had a quote I found interesting:
Going into a fantasy world was actually again kind of a copout from my point of view. I didn't want people always coming up with some new book saying we just had to use because it was right and the old one was wrong. This was a fantasy world, so who could come up with anything to prove that he was lying or that a monster wasn't accurately represented?
This reminds me of the OD&D afterword, which this post's title is taken from:
In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you?
Running OD&D doesn't actually require rules to be much different from running B/X or Swords & Wizardry, or really even from a "light" version of AD&D if you like it. It can work like any of those that you want. Instead it is a way to inscribe the quote above on your banner: everything is fantastic, and the game works as the referee wants it to work.

What's important about OD&D is that very, very little is actually systematic and regular or predictable in it. This was huge in Gygax's philosophy of game design, and has been rejected in modern RPG design in favor of unified systems. But the lack of systematic detail in OD&D allows the referee to add whatever works for a given problem. The wisdom of this is simple, and it ties into why I've been pillaging other systems for functional bits.

For instance, I think that having unified attribute modifiers is a mistake, because it constrains the system around those modifiers and makes it harder to borrow subsystems that use attributes differently. With OD&D, attributes are, for the most part, just numbers. You can add others, have them work however it works best for you, and not change the game much. I actually think it's very odd that so few people do basic things like expand the list of character attributes; agility, luck, perception, appearance are all possible choices.

This ability to borrow with zero chance of breaking or requiring significant adaptation is critical for the referee to be able to make the game just as the referee wants it. It's not simply a question of being rules light, since compared to Tunnels & Trolls, OD&D is actually pretty rules heavy. The game has to be rules-flexible. OD&D pretty much assumes you will be going and using your own systems (or another completely different system) for a lot of the stuff that happens outside of basic dungeon-crawling and hex-crawling, rather than trying to create a system that handles everything.

This is why I like reading and running other games. I find things that work, find things that I don't care for, and through experience I find and hone the game the way I want it. In the long run my goal is to have a D&D that is thoroughly mine to the point where I don't need a clone or new edition to run it; I'll just need my OD&D books and my house rules. I don't feel that I'm there yet, but I see that as the path a referee should aim for. In the long run my goal is to have what Gary Gygax described in a controversial editorial called "D&D, AD&D and Gaming" in Dragon #26 (June 1979):
D&D will always be with us, and that is a good thing. The D&D system allows the highly talented, individualistic, and imaginative hobbyist a vehicle for devising an adventure game form which is tailored to him or her and his or her group. One can take great liberties with the game and not be questioned.
For me, that's the reason that OD&D still matters, and why it's worth running when there are so many versions of the game that are perfectly playable as-is.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Better Living Through Clones: Fighters & Combat

OD&D and classic D&D tend to have rather prosaic combat systems. Everything is neatly abstracted; there are a few well-known wrinkles, but really it's straightforward d20 rolls where Strength and Dexterity may be a factor, and fighters improve in blocks of 3 levels and don't get much else aside from hit points. Most clones do something about one or both.

Just about every clone breaks up the 3-level bands for fighters and improves the fighter's to-hit chances at either 2nd or 3rd level, if not both. The groups are never exactly even, but tend to improve the to-hit every level or two. This makes 2nd and 3rd level a bit easier than their OD&D / classic D&D counterparts, but generally in a useful way. Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord both have varied charts that are generally applicable here.

Swords & Wizardry has a very simple rule: fighters get 1 attack per level against creatures with 1 HD or less. It makes fighters much better when fighting orcs or goblins, but I have never really liked how it doesn't scale at all. In a d6-based damage system, I prefer Empire of the Petal Throne to S&W here.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess improves fighters at the cost of every other class, making it so only fighters improve their to-hit probabilities. I don't like that approach, specifically because I think fighters shouldn't improve at others' expense. There are some good combat options, though: pressing an attack (+2 to-hit for -4 AC) and its opposite, defensive fighting (-4 to hit, +2 to AC). These are good alternatives to the Holmes parry, which requires the full attack for a small bonus to AC.

Adventurer Conqueror King does a couple of interesting things as well. Fighters and dwarves get bonuses to damage by level, with fighters having (Level/3, round down)+1 points of bonus damage. It's so simple I actually missed it in previous read-throughs of the rulebook. ACKS also allows a Cleave attack. This is similar to the 3e D&D Cleave feat, so the fighter moves on to the next foe within 5' after killing the previous one. The number of such attacks is limited by level (or level / 2 for clerics). I like the idea in general, but I'm not enamored of the 5' space which tends to be a 3e contrivance.

Each of these rules adds interest to combat or makes the fighter more effective without making the system noticeably more complicated. I tend to like the ACKS Cleave for variable damage, with or without its damage, better than S&W's OD&D-based 1 HD rule because of the scaling. LotFP's press and defend, meanwhile, are straightforward and I like the tendency to give up 4 points to gain 2.

One other thing that's worth mentioning is Dungeon Crawl Classics, with its Mighty Deed of Arms. I like this idea generally but it's so bound to the action die system (a Deed succeeds if the action die is 3 or higher) that I'm not sure I'd use it. But it does make me think: what about using it as general inspiration for critical hits? (As opposed to the critical charts in DCC, which remind me of Player's Option: Combat & Tactics for 2e.) A natural 20 gets some bonus action in addition to the normal damage roll. I've been using a flat +2 but something like a disarm or called shot might feel more appropriate.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Looking at a Real "Megadungeon"

Hat tip to Dave Younce on G+ for sharing this link.

This is a terrific article that looks at a massive megadungeon abandoned Roman quarry / NATO bunker beneath the Netherlands and Belgium. You go into one nation and come out in another. There is a brilliant description of what it was like to navigate the underground tunnels:
Most corners were roughly 90 degrees, but only roughly. Going through the caves was an exercise in left and right turns every 50 feet or so. Navigation was helped by street names. Unlike in the USA, where streets are numbered on a sort of grid pattern, these were zigzag streets. My office on Main Street and J Street, so if I got lost I would just keep walking until I came to either Main or J, and join it. If I went the wrong way, eventually the street would peter out either at the perimeter or a T-junction, and you would just turn round and go back the other way.
This massive complex was built from limestone, and was soft enough to cut with a chainsaw; the bunker was a "black hole" where everything that was brought in was thrown out in one of the underground landfill sites.

The BLDGBLOG link doesn't show much of what this place looks like, but it provides links to some photosets that do. Here they are in a clean format that doesn't block right-clicking:

Talk Urbex - N.A.T.O Quarry
flickr (Behind The Signs) - NATO Quarry
28 Days Later forum - N.A.T.O Quarry, France.
28 Days Later forum - Nato Quarry, Paris Suburbs May 2011
Urban Ghosts - Urban Explorers Discover Corroding Military Vehicles in Abandoned Subterranean Bunker

It's fascinating how wide these corridors are; many are 20' or wider, but even the narrower pathways are anything but claustrophobic. You could easily have full, programmed encounters at any point in the dungeon, regardless of whether it was an "office" (cleared out room) or not. The stairs down are dizzying. And when you find a pile of rocks like this, it only raises the question of what is lurking beneath it.

One of my favorite parts in the quote above is that there were "street names" in this labyrinth. It just seems like a very organic way to tackle a labyrinth; of course, in a fantasy world these "names" might not be written in a comprehensible language for the PCs, but rather a series of sigils or unreadable characters that the players have to figure out are in fact used by the denizens to navigate. And the idea that "streets" are not straight makes sense if there is any defensive value to the layout, as anyone who has driven around Washington, DC can tell you.

The manmade-but-not-worked nature of the stone also has a lot of potential. Since it is relatively soft, it's a great material for laying in secret doors or cutting out niches in floors, walls and ceilings to hide treasure. Tunnels – the kind beloved of kobolds or giant rats – are pretty easy to dig, and PCs can even do some small-scale mining. And I love the idea of ladder rungs right in the stone.

Of course this is just one example of a large structure built underground, but it has some really great ideas for what things look like when people build things beneath the earth.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Indispensable Game Books

Sorry I haven't posted much lately. I've been doing a lot of reading, and busy at work, and at home; I actually have a long-ish post that I've been working on for a bit.

In lieu of a more substantial post, I thought it'd be interesting to note the books that I try to have on hand when I am preparing and running games.

  • B2 Keep on the Borderlands. The PCs use the Keep as a home base.
  • Ready Ref Sheets. This should go without saying.
  • Holmes Basic D&D Rulebook (1st edition, 3rd printing). In case I want to reference any rules or spells left out of Moldvay.
  • The First Fantasy Campaign (1st printing). In case I want to reference any rules; the Blackmoor Dungeon is my fallback if I have absolutely nothing else to run.
  • Metamorphosis Alpha (Print on Demand reprint). For mutations and science-fantasy goodness.
  • Empire of the Petal Throne (Different Worlds reprint). In case I want to use Tékumel rules, monsters, or items.
  • Mythmere's Adventure Design Deskbook, Volume II - Monsters. Obvious.
  • The Random Esoteric Creature Generator. Same.
  • Moldvay Basic D&D Rulebook. I'm running B/X, so it makes sense.
  • Cook/Marsh Expert D&D Rulebook. As Moldvay above.
  • The Dungeon Alphabet (non-expanded edition). For the charts.
  • Dungeon Masters Guide (1st edition, 2013 reprint). For the charts.

Since I play D&D mostly via Google Plus these days, there's also a copy of OD&D within arm's reach as well, and one of the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. But they're generally not in my prep list, and I would very rarely consult them during a game.