Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Typology of Random Encounters: In the Dungeon

Most of my games this past weekend were driven by the random encounter. And, despite the image above, none of them were with bears. Although one was with a crocodile. That, along with general considerations about dungeon design, has me thinking about the types of random encounters you'll find in a large dungeon or megadungeon.

Type I: Faction Members. When you have a faction in the dungeon, it should be represented on the random encounter table, unless there's a good reason that its members stay put. So if there is a goblin tribe, a gang of bandits, or a cross-species evil cult, you should be able to run into them. This allows for PCs to figure out what else might be in the dungeon without knocking down every door, and provides opportunities for faction members who leave an encounter alive to tell their allies about the PCs' activities.

Type Ia: Factions without a Base. It's possible for there to be a faction in the dungeon that is an itinerant group. This should be a temporary condition; perhaps you have a group of cavemen who've wandered into the dungeon for shelter, or maybe a half-dozen goblins got away when the PCs beat their king. They will initially be "homeless" within the dungeon, but within a session or two, they may take over a cleared room.

Type II: Predatory Monsters. There are "big" monsters that have their own room in the dungeon, but logically will be wandering about looking for things to eat. It could be a pack of hell-hounds or the minotaur; whatever it is, it's not home. If the PCs kill a significant monster outside of its lair, of course, now they have to find its treasure before anyone else does.

Type III: Animals and Unintelligent Creatures. These are your Rodents Of Unusual Size, your skeletons and zombies, your oversized bugs and so forth. They are here on little more than instinct, and most are optional encounters one way or another. The PCs can throw some rations to distract the R.O.U.S., or have the cleric turn the skeletons, or just go around them and hope the reaction roll isn't an instant attack. (These encounters should always involve reaction rolls.) They don't have the same impact as faction monsters, although they may also come from another room. I particularly enjoy relatively innocuous animals like dungeon chickens (there is a coop in my dungeon).

Type IIIa: The Clean-Up Crew. Jellies, slimes, oozes, globs, glops, puddings, molds, blobs, and various other unwholesome growing things come along and eat dead stuff. Sometimes they convert the PCs into new dead stuff to eat. These come in particularly handy if the PCs are in an out-of-the-way corner and you roll a random encounter.

Type IV: Non-Player Characters. In the encounter tables for older editions of D&D, NPCs with classes and levels were regular entries. (OD&D used the level titles for this, which is great if you remember the level titles.) They are distinct from faction members; generally once somebody has at least 2 hit dice, you should think up a name and a background rather than leaving it at "bandit #479". Fighters and thieves may have hirelings; wizards may also have familiars; clerics are more likely to have acolytes. They may have a relationship to one or more factions, and in time may constitute a faction in themselves. It's also entirely possible that they will join the PCs, and if they do so, they could also betray the PCs. Sure it's possible for bandits to do that, but in my experience PCs get stabby once someone says "stand and deliver."

Type V: Wandering Oddities. Perhaps the most neglected category, strange and wondrous effects can sit on the random encounter table along with all kinds of monsters. This can be as simple as an unknown sound, seeing a figure disappear around a corner or down a hallway, optical illusions, or even minor magical effects. This is a good way to reinforce a theme throughout a dungeon or dungeon level without necessarily dedicating a room to it or hammering it home constantly. It could be a detail like a particular fungus that is growing in this level, or mini-features like having carvings left behind by the cult that is operating nearby. This makes the dungeon a richer and stranger place.

Each of these types feeds back into solid dungeon design, and helps tie together a living environment that has strange and wondrous features. Featuring multiple examples of each type should help fill out that encounter list without the exploration feeling like a slog.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Actual Play x2: Moon Men and Peasant Rebels

Both of my A/D&D campaigns ran within two days of each other, so this is a double dose of actual play.

In my AD&D game, the PCs finished exploring a map that we had started way back in September. The dwarf got turned into green slime, but the cleric and paladin did nicely. The magic-user that the dwarf's player rolled up came with a fresh rumor (I'm as subtle as a brick, right?) of a dungeon to the northwest with orichalcum. The characters went in and saw a lot of statues, some of which caused intense delusions, but mostly didn't interact with them. The PCs had their first encounter with a dungeon chicken. Then there was a room with beastmen which prompted the comment: "Far be it from me to make presumptive comments about the tastes of wolf-headed men."

A non-encounter encounter with the dungeon cat preceded a pair of Selenites. I played them up as hostile, and they had a paralysis ray that zapped both the cleric and the paladin before the men-at-arms made short work of the moon men. This got the PCs the paralysis ray as their haul for the dungeon so far.

This morning I ran Sunday AM D&D, and prepared two potential adventure sites; of course the PCs didn't reach either. There was a non-encounter encounter with giant ferrets before they ran into a lot of difficulty getting across the river. I rolled up a troll on the encounter list, so of course it was living under an old bridge. The PCs wound up in a war of words with the troll but they were mounted and it didn't pursue them out of range of its bridge.

They went upriver and found a hillbilly named Bartto willing to row them across, but he couldn't take their mounts. They went further up and found a ferry, but it had been taken over by militant peasants (or bandits depending on who you listen to) who were immediately hostile and suspected them of being royalist spies. They went back to Bartto's crossing and overnighted, when I rolled another encounter - a giant crocodile - and rolled that it surprised them. This turned into a nasty shock when Bartto was rolling across the river, and the dwarf managed to get the boat across the river, but Bartto and the party's Magic-User, Treb, did not make it. They made their way down to the river town and found that this part of the world had a lot of tension related to the uprising upriver.

But these posts are about the lessons learned from running games, so here they are.

1. Encumbrance is a pain, but it generally works. AD&D 1e has a particularly brutal encumbrance system in terms of its requirements, but it makes players very conscious of what their characters are carrying and wearing around. My players look for ways to lighten their loads actively, including it as a factor in choosing armor and so on. I know it's a pain in the ass to track, but in an exploration game - which is what I'm running at its core - it really makes it feel more like you're making meaningful decisions.

2. It was a coincidence that both a chicken and the cat from the encounter list came up (and yes, it's a chicken and the cat) but both had good interesting effects. The players were freaked out properly. (There's a good reason for the chickens; the cat is special.)

3. The encounter charts in the Rules Cyclopedia are great. They encapsulate a lot of the ideas of the B/X / BECMI line, and feature some really neat animal encounters. They're a very good tool for wilderness hexcrawling. They've really fleshed out the world of the Sunday AM D&D game in a way that is fun to run.

4. So much of what actually happened in these games was driven by random encounter tables and reaction tables. For instance, the ferret non-encounter was a sequence of rolling "neutral" on the encounter charts, and played out with both sides avoiding each other. The insurgents, on the other hand, immediately rolled a "hostile" result toward the PCs. When I don't have a particular answer to a player question, I assign a percent chance to it, roll percentile dice, and improvise something from the result. I'm very happy where I am with this in exploration games.

5. It was fun to have both the full dungeon experience (which the AD&D game went into) and the full hexcrawl experience (as we hit it in the Sunday AM game).

The last thing to note is how good it is to be gaming regularly. And regular games, of course, mean more frequent blog entries. I'm not exactly at a regular clip but this January has been pretty good for a recent month, and I hope to keep the current pace up.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Getting Principled

I've been reading the new edition of Apocalypse World, which is way outside of the D&D and OSR type games that I usually play. I like a lot about it, but want to focus on one area in particular. AW has a list of principles that the Master of Ceremonies (that's what AW calls the referee) is supposed to follow when running the game. They're a bullet point list of ideas - "Barf forth apocalyptica", "Look through crosshairs", "Ask provocative questions and build on the answers," "Respond with fuckery and intermittent rewards", and several others.

While the particular principles of Apocalypse World are idiosyncratic to that game, I think the broad idea of making such a list is sound. When GMing, it's easy to get lost in a back-and-forth of things, and a bullet list of ideas is a good reminder of what you want to do and how you want your game to run. This is a first draft of my own set of ideas on how I run and things I'd like to make sure I do when I run D&D.

  • Make a balanced world, and then throw off-kilter weirdness into it.
This is important to me because weirdness stands out better against a more prosaic backdrop than in a sea of unending oddity. But it's not just a sea of bland, it's interrupted in real and strange ways.

  • The hidden parts of the world contain danger and wonder, often side by side.
This is why I like OSR style gaming. You find amazing stuff sometimes, but either it's trying to kill you or its owner is.

  • Don't go out of your way to kill PCs or to save them.
I place a high value on fairness, which is the only way to be a referee in a world that has real danger and the possibility of death.

  • Don't fall in love with your own creations.
A puzzle, trap, or monster might go totally missed, or take 2 minutes to solve. Don't worry about your special piece as long as everybody has fun.

  • When it drags, drop a clue or up the stakes
When players spend too much time debating what to do next, either give them an extra factor to help them decide, or have someone show up with a crossbow.

  • The world goes on when the PCs aren't there
Things should happen when PCs leave an adventure site, a town, or any area for a period of time. Monsters build defenses, people leave or change, factions make and break alliances.

  • Run with good ideas from the players
Whether it's a misinterpretation or an addition or just a stray thought, when players bring up something excellent, always go with it.

  • Always offer meaningful choices
No quantum ogres. Have at least two viable options open to the PCs, and a reason to choose or not choose at least one of them..

  • When in doubt, roll on some kind of table.
I always try to have multiple books with tables so I can roll something up on the fly. It's hard to do improv straight from your own head and I should probably do more of just rolling on a table to throw something at the players.

If you've read this far, I'd be interested to read your own list of principles for games you run.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Mythic Underworld: Cerberus and Mysteries

The story of the twelve labors of Heracles is simple. Driven mad by the goddess Hera, he killed his own children. Since this was such an awful deed, he was given ten labors by Eurystheus to expiate himself; technicalities allowed Eurystheus to add two additional labors. The twelfth, capturing the hound Cerberus, is the one we're interested in.

Cerberus (the "C" is hard) is the guard-dog of Hades, who prevents unwanted access to the underworld. He is usually depicted with three heads, although in connection with the Hecatoncheires (100-handed giants), may have had 50 or 100 heads, some of which may have been snake heads. And he had snake tails, or several backs. In any case, you've got a nasty beast that stops the dead from escaping the realm of Hades.

As Heracles prepared to enter the underworld and retrieve Cerberus, he was initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. This was a rite of knowledge, granting Heracles insight into the secrets of Persephone and Hades, and is certainly notable because it is the earliest reference to Greek mystery religions. So armed with new understanding, Heracles descended into the realm of Hades.

It's not exactly clear how Heracles got Cerberus out. Some accounts have him wrestling the beast and beating it, possibly involving the impenetrable skin of the Nemean Lion that Heracles used as a cloak. Others say that Persephone, who thought kindly of Heracles, gave the hero a chain, or possibly that she herself chained the beast and handed it over. The fight makes the more obvious of the two stories, but it's intriguing to think about the hero winning the fight by getting Persephone on his side.

Of course, Eurystheus did not actually want Cerebus, and Heracles returned the beast to its proper place in Hades after having brought it up to the surface. This last bit is probably the most amusing part of the tale; unlike the Lernaean Hydra or the Nemean Lion, Cerebus is not a menace to be slain. Hell is supposed to have a three-headed dog-beast who eats anyone trying to leave.

If all we got for gaming from the tale was Cerberus as guard-dog, that'd still be an interesting twist on the dungeon guardian. After all, Cerberus was not there to keep intruders out, but to pen the denizens of the underworld in. I really like the idea of a formidable monster that is not necessarily an immediate threat for PCs to overcome, but plays a role in the dungeon's ecology nonetheless. Some groups will try to kill simply anything, but that can always be solved by a powerful creature that refuses to offer direct combat. Of course, at some point the PCs will have to deal with the creature – but by that time it will become a strategic obstacle to overcome.

Then there's the little matter of the Eleusinian mysteries. This is a secret initiation ritual that gives hidden knowledge; in many cases this hiddenness was quite literal, and the content of the mysteries have been lost to the ages. Such an initiation is a way to integrate player characters more deeply into the setting. We are used to scriptural religion in the West, but introducing a mystery is an opportunity to create literally esoteric knowledge about the world, which can be revealed to players only when their PCs make a particular commitment. PCs, of course, will be inclined toward the mysteries that grant knowledge of the dungeon underworld they face.

The last idea that I particularly like is the loan of a chain from Persephone. This is a good way to have a taste of powerful artifacts in the campaign, by lending them instead of permanently giving them to the PCs. Most artifacts throw off the ability of PCs to be meaningfully challenged, but having them given on short-term loan lets them flavor the game without dominating it.

However many heads Cerebus has, the story of Heracles subduing him has a lot of interesting wrinkles for the D&D underworld. I do want to tackle more Mythic Underworld segments, because Greek myth alone has a lot to offer in this regard.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sunday AM D&D: Actual Play Notes

A partial map made by players in my Sunday AM D&D campaign showing the Fazren Hills and the town of Farwater.

I've been using the Rules Cyclopedia and have to say that I've been enjoying it. We're using the optional skill rules, which add a very minimal but useful layer to the game. They're built on top of the "roll-under" system familiar to most B/X players, and add depth without dominating the way the game is played.

A couple of encounters in today's game were interesting even though they didn't result in direct interaction between the PCs and monsters. We've been playing in hexcrawl style, and the PCs were heading out at the north edge of the woods; I rolled an encounter overnight and it was a dragon. The characters had cover from the trees above them, and I only gave the dragon a 10% chance of noticing them and taking interest. The dice didn't show that, so I let the dragon fly over and focused on the incredible noise of its wings as it flew by in the early morning hours.

Later, after the PCs had secured a big treasure, I rolled another encounter in the overnight. This time it came during the dwarf's shift to watch, and a couple of elves were rolled. (Of course the dwarf was up for the elves.) I had them avoiding the PCs' campfire, and it wound up being a case where neither side wanted to approach the other.

Both encounters served to give a sense of depth to the world the PCs are in. Neither was actually about them at all, but instead just things they happened across. It's a richer place because it has things totally removed from the PCs and what they're doing. Also - having a dragon in the second adventure, even just a fly-by, simply feels right in a Dungeons & Dragons game.

One resource I used was the d30 Sandbox Companion by Richard LeBlanc. It's a really nice booklet, although I'm very much tempted to roll up a week or so of weather in advance of next week's game. It's a very good system for having weather actually happen during a wilderness exploration, it's just a thing that takes a minute out of the game when you actually roll precipitation.

Between the two was a short dungeon trip with a significant treasure. It will be interesting to see if the PCs go back next week for more - and if they find out what else was in the ruin they were exploring.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Goblins, or Why Use Humanoids

(Note: this post contains spoilers for my Sunday morning game.)

The first time I ever played D&D, I took a piece of graph paper, sketched some rooms on it, and stuck a few goblins in them. Two players went through them, beat the goblins, got the treasure and some XP. I've enjoyed goblins ever since.

I feel like there's a particular prejudice against using default humanoids in OSR games. I think that two points from Bryce Lynch's review standards sum up the reasons why.
  • Non-standard monsters.
    • The party should not know what to expect. What are it’s attacks and weaknesses? Mystery, wonder, and fear!
  • Go light on the humanoids, or even replace them with normal bandits, etc.
    • If all it’s going to do is swing a sword and die then it can be a human. People can do can pretty disgusting stuff.
I've actually tried using this approach in my games for a while, and switched between humans and odd monster races (beastmen, Selenites and others) for my main monsters. But I keep going back to goblins. Why? Well, frankly I don't think a gang of bandits is necessarily a better match than a horde of goblins, and having the option to use either makes the game a bit richer. Sure, the bandits might eventually say "Stand and deliver," but I feel like they're possibly more of a cliché in my game than goblins are.

(As an aside, I'm not picking on Bryce; I like his reviews and I think his standards are good, I just find them a useful statement of an attitude I see in a lot of places.)

When it comes to humanoids, I think the key is to focus on a single type of monster. In my Sunday AM game, there is an influx of goblins in the Fazren Hills, so they'll be a piece of the low-level games. I don't intend for the goblins to act as a step on the cursus honorum before the PCs get to orcs and hobgoblins etc, but rather to use them as one of several factions in a larger sandbox.

For the goblins in the Fazren Hills, what the PCs will find out as the game goes on is that the goblins who are now pushing into human territories have been exiled from the Fae realm. Many of these goblins have links to that realm, and one of the things I need to work up is a chart of minor effects of this exposure – minor illusions, short-range teleportation, conjuring minor items, strange features, and so on.

I particularly want to play with this idea because I love the notion that goblins are really bogeymen, in the old fairy-tale sense. There was an element of this in the bugbear, but there's a reason that we talk about ghosts and goblins, and bugbears was a vocabulary word until Gygax decided to make each thesaurus entry into a monster.

I think a sandbox game needs strong factions, and ruling out humanoids cuts off a whole category right off the bat. The problem with most humanoids in D&D is that they're just an entry in the monster zoo, the ordered thesaurus that the PCs have to kill to get the treasure. I'd say that a good faction in an adventure or sandbox campaign has the following:
  1. A strong hook
  2. A tangible goal in the game
  3. Something that distinguishes them from other factions
Overusing humanoids and overusing humans alike make #3 more difficult. My feeling is that one of any given type of monster makes it easier to do #3 both in terms of the factions, and in terms of making it stand out. If everything is special and different, then it all goes into a kind of sameness. Taking an established monster and tweaking it is a good way to make them stand out but still keep the game familiar and grounded.

At the end of the day, I just like goblins. But I do think they can fit into creative old school play in a way that I don't think is properly acknowledged.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Looking Back and Forward - the OSR in 2017

2016 has a bad reputation around the Internet because of celebrities dying and certain things about elections, but as far as old school gaming, "good" would be an understatement. It was a pretty phenomenal year.

First and foremost, 2016 saw the publication of Maze of the Blue Medusa. Not just the best RPG product of the year, it's one of the seminal products in the whole OSR, an adventure with such dense and imaginative ideas that you could get lost in it for years. Just the wandering monsters in the book are a revelation, much less the hundreds of keyed areas. Patrick Stuart is one of the most creative voices working in old school gaming today, and the book clearly benefited from both Zak S's artwork and his relentless dedication to doing things extremely well. Also, its layout is revolutionary and sets new standards for RPGs.

A thing I like but haven't talked about much is The Black Hack. This was released in March and quickly created its own ecosystem of products. Black Hack is a stripped-down, ultra-light clone of D&D that incorporates a number of clever ideas for streamlining play. I am particularly fond of its usage die concept for abstract handling of expendable items, where a die reduces in size as the item is used up. This squares well with things like arrows and abstract combat. My favorite particular supplement for the Black Hack is a bestiary called Waste-Land Beasts and How to Kill Them. It's a terrific collection of post-apocalyptic nasties with some great illustrations.

Maze of the Blue Medusa winning out on the product front overshadows some great adventures. Misty Isles of the Eld is a psychedelic sandbox addition from the Hydra Cooperative. Lamentations of the Flame Princess delivered both Rafael Chandler's World of the Lost (a dinosaur romp in Africa aimed directly at my heart) and Jeff Rients's Broodmother SkyFortress, each of which could have won product of the year accolades in some other year. They even overshadow the new Carcosa modules by Geoffrey McKinney, which were good but could have been incredible with some art and layout work.

The Swords & Wizardry Whitebox ecosystem also put up some great work. One that I particularly think is going to create some great convention play is WWII: Operation Whitebox. This is a special forces-oriented game that I am hoping to run in convention play. White Star also got a Companion that, I think, elevates it over the original game considerably and makes it a really solid engine for sci-fi gaming.

Bruce Heard, formerly of Mystara, released Calidar: Beyond the Skies, a god-focused product that mingles story and supplement in the style of the Princess Ark stories from Dragon magazine. Autarch released Lairs & Encounters for its Adventurer Conqueror King system, which provides a valuable assortment of monster lairs that can fit into a hexcrawl.

So yeah, 2016 was a good one for the old school. What is on the horizon for 2017?

A couple of new system books loom. Swords & Wizardry Complete will enter its 3rd edition, with an improved layout and a new cover and an awesome all-woman team doing the update. Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea will release a second edition. And Jim Wampler's Mutant Crawl Classics is due out from Goodman Games. All of those have a chance to redefine the landscape for the next year.

I'm hopeful that a couple of delayed adventure projects will hit this year. Ernie Gygax and Benoist Poire's Marmoreal Tomb would be a big one, particularly for people like me with a lot of cash in the release. And it's looking like Jim Ward's Epsilon City for Metamorphosis Alpha will also hit this year, making that an officially thorough system.

I'm excited for Clint Krause's The Driftwood Verses, a sea-drenched adventure done up for LotFP (but not an LotFP release) and the Hydra Collective's Operation Unfathomable. Not to mention that Patrick Stuart could just win another year's releases if Veins of the Earth comes out from LotFP and lives up to the reputation that he and Scrap Princess have built with DCO and Fire on the Velvet Horizon.

And that's just what we already have a bead on for the coming year. The OSR has been firing on all cylinders for three years now, and it shows no signs of slowing down. So grab your dice and buckle up, it should be a good one.