Saturday, 18 April 2015

D6 Awkward Treasures #1

Perhaps it is the Warhammer GM in me, but some of the best fun I’ve had at the table has not been watching the players’ travails in search of treasure, but in watching the players plot and scheme once they have obtained said ‘treasure’. How do they get the treasure back to civilisation? How do they elude or defeat rival claimants? How do they convert the treasure into wealth or influence? In standard D&D-esque games, the adventure precedes the PCs getting the treasure. But if the treasure is, let’s say, awkward, the obstacles to reaching the treasure can be surprisingly, disarmingly easily overcome. Getting the treasure is a prelude to adventure, a pre-credits sequence so to speak. The real adventure begins once the PCs have the treasure, perhaps only tenuously, in their possession.

With this in mind, I will present six ‘awkward’ treasures, with some notes on turning possession of the adventure into an adventure in itself. Naturally, most of these have the tone of a low-fantasy 'caper', though some have a more magical character. I haven’t given these treasures a GP value, not only because most of these things are priceless, but because if you actually want to use any of these in your game you’ll have to fit them into the economy of your campaign. Obviously the reward must have the potential to compensate for the inconvenience of transforming these ‘treasures’ into wealth, but if the players are making real risk/reward decisions, there must be the potential for them to make a loss - though this need not be financial.

#1 The Ornamental Birds
Rainbow Fantails are beautiful, bad tempered, high-maintenance pets, about the size of a peacock, only both more spectacular and much more vicious. If you didn’t know that these were dumb, pea-brained birds, you might get it into your head that Rainbow Fantails were haughty, snobbish aristocrats, such is the attitude they present. Their highly territorial nature means that they are most often kept in large gardens, where they shelter in miniature mansions and are served on by their own staff. As most Rainbow Fantails that are found in the city states of the Ebon Sea were imported as eggs from Bactaraya, a breeding pair is extremely valuable. And that is what the PCs have in their possession.

The PCs might come into the possession of these birds in a relatively mundane manner, as the loot from an urban heist or a caravan raid. More adventurously, they might find a lost, abandoned garden as they explore a ruined villa and its grounds. They may spot the birds in the wild and, softly, softly, catchee birdy. Or they might be gifted the birds by a grateful, if mischievous, Raja.   

Turning a pair of Rainbow Fantails into wealth or power is complicated. Obviously, the birds could well be highly distinctive stolen goods with only a small, specialist market of buyers. But it is transport will be the key issue – if the birds are subject to stress their plumage fades extremely rapidly, turning a dull brown and coming to resemble to entirely unremarkable Dun Hen.

Transporting a Rainbow Fantail is best done at night, in a sealed wagon, when the birds are sleeping. During the day, they must be allowed to roam, but being stupid, domesticated animals, they must be vigilantly protected from predators. They demand luxury, and time and skill must be spent preparing their food each day, and their wagon must be appointed with silks and shiny baubles. Naturally, they ruin their quarters in short order, clawing the fabrics and swallowing the baubles.

[Each day, count up the number of sub-optimal conditions - food, accommodation, freedom, threat, noise, weather - 'suffered' by the birds and roll 1d12. If the roll equals of exceeds the number of sub-optimal conditions, the bird is content. If the roll is less than the number of sub-optimal conditions, the stress might have triggered the fading of the bird's plumage. Toss a coin - tails and the bird loses it's beautiful tail. Terrible conditions might count double, and if the bird is exposed to extreme stress - if it for example, attacked - skip straight to the coin toss. On the other hand, if the roll is a 12 for two consecutive days the female has laid an egg!] 

If the PCs bore of this, the birds can be killed and their plumage sold for a fraction of the birds’ value, so long as their death is quick, painless, and unsuspected.   

In game terms, handing the PCs a pair of Rainbow Fantails can be used to produce an overland journey during which the players must make a number of risk/reward decisions, deciding which route is best for travel at night, which terrain is safest for the birds to roam during the day, which settlements to make their waypoints for resupply, perhaps with a mind ensuring the information does not reach any potential pursuers. Such a route might well lead the PCs into more adventure, and both the acquisition and 'disposal' of the birds ought give the PCs enemies/contacts/friends among the local elite.

Of course, you could add a bit more magic to this treasure, but this suits my low-magic world. It was inspired by the real world trade instolen pedigree dogs and the international smuggling of endangered creatures

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

A Grittier Domain Game

I am a big Kevin Crawford/Sine Nomine fanboy. I wish he’d been given the job of writing D&D5e using his Stars Without Number engine (crudely: Basic D&D with a Traveller-esque skill system), not for the simple, effective system itself, but for the sandbox tools he could build into the game – whether that is giving the GM the machinery to generating adventures, alien ruins, the actions of factions and domain, or the dark plots of those devoted to Elder Things. 

Now, it might seem strange, given that Other Dust is a post-apocalyptic game set in the far future, but the more that I have considered the ‘Groups and Enclaves’ rules in Other Dust, the more I think that they would be ideal – far more so than the higher level ‘domain game’ of An Echo Resounding – for the kind of fantasy gaming that I understand as being an aspect of distinctive RuneQuest play. That said, to my shame, I’ve always run RQ as more or less percentile D&D. The sort of play that I am talking about is that in which the Player Characters are members of a community (or communities, what with cults, tribes, clans, kingdoms, etc.) and their adventuring is often conducted for the benefit of those communities, not only for the personal gain of the PCs. In other words, Other Dust provides the tools to add some mechanical heft to a grittier kind of OSR domain game.

In Other Dust, Kevin Crawford proposes that the engine (and verisimilitude) of the sandbox can be maintained by running a ‘faction game’, determining and resolving the actions of the various Groups and Enclaves of the campaign region between ‘traditional’ adventure sessions. There are different kinds of Groups – Creeds, Raiders, Polities, Families, and Cabals – and it is easy to see how these could be translated into RQ-esque (or other Bronze to Iron Age inspired) fantasy equivalents. Creeds become (what else) ‘Cults’, Raiders could be renamed ‘Warbands’, Polities are ‘Nations’ or ‘Tribes’, Families stay as they are, or are perhaps are renamed ‘Clans’, and, well, Cabals cover just about everything from secret societies to merchant combines. These Groups have Tiers – ranging from 1 to 3 – which represents the level of their influence over the campaign region.

Groups have resources; Food, Tech, Morale, Influence, and Security, and by exceeding certain thresholds – which depend on Group type and Tier – Groups can earn ‘Progress’, which helps them perform actions, but groups also have a certain level of Ruin, which can impede actions (and might lead to the end of the Group entirely, if not checked). Of course, the best – as in, most fun – way to get rid of Ruin is to solve the problems that generate Ruin points by way of adventure.

Most Dark Ages inspired gaming (and most D&D, in fact) is post-apocalyptic – even in heavily fictionalised settings there is a fallen (Roman) empire, barbarian invasions and ethnic conflict, the spread of an millenarian religion (Christianity), and a place for the wandering ‘hero’ and his warband. I have been looking for *my* Dark Ages game for some time now, and I might have to do it myself by reskinning Other Dust. 

Monday, 6 April 2015

Fear of Disruption - Guilty!

I was reading through The Doom-Cave of the Crystal-Headed Children, and in the introduction Raggi writes:

"This year we’ve got a dungeon that’ll work as a totally mental one-shot just as well as a completely disruptive part of an ongoing campaign. And if you’re not wanting disruptive, then what’s the point? “Oh let’s have an adventure that doesn’t look like it’ll rock the boat, I’m sure that’ll have a better chance of getting the players excited and of being something we all remember later on with fondness.” Pffft. You want carefully considered, scientifically tested, carefully balanced adventures that are constructed to have beginnings, middles, and ends, all of which can be slotted into your pre-plotted campaign without changing it? I call those types of adventures ‘fillers’ and once a regular progression of events becomes evident, once the outcomes of an adventure are discovered and known, that adventure becomes boring, and I’d never publish what I’d come to think of as boring."

I'm guilty. All GMs probably are, and a great many adventure designers are too - but that can be seen as necessity, they are writing material for campaigns unknown. But I hope I remember this passage more often than I forget it, and make sure that, as a GM, I'm not afraid of an adventure being 'disruptive' - and that I keep clear in my mind that if the campaign is more or less unchanged after the PCs have had an adventure then yes, Raggi is right; what's the point?

You don't prefer the Status Quo, do you?

Friday, 27 March 2015

Madame Desadalie’s House of Wax - Skeleton Encounter #6

I finally get round to getting a sixth 'interesting' Skeleton encounter finished - something other than "Tomb, Skeletons (6), 200GP". This goes with:

#6 Madame Desadalie’s House of Wax

At the edge of the Scholars’ District, where rents are cheap and adventurous students slum it, mixing with artists (piss-, con-, and avant garde), poets, musicians, and other social and political dissidents, there is Madame Desadalie’s House of Wax. A salon, favoured by intellectuals with a taste for luxury, the lounge is opulently furnished. Oppressively so. The walls are lined with extravagantly patterned fabrics, lush potted plants imported from southern jungles loom over the couches on which guests recline, and elaborate, slowly turning, cut-glass lamps create a disorientating flicker of light. And then there are the waxworks.     

Arrayed around the room are six, life-size wax figures. These are sculpted into a likeness of the great and good of Byzantia, particularly those despised as oppressive or vulgar. Prince Geffri, a gambler with bad debts as well as a womaniser and sadist. Guildmaster Hoffenhaus, reputed embezzler. Countess Katterine, rumoured to have unnatural… appetites. Bjorn the Black, public executioner. Chancellor Illantine, whose taxmen are feared even more than the secret police. And the Sage Vorinus, whose pithy, but on reflection empty, aphorisms are treated as the height of leaning by the ‘common’ people. These waxworks are uncanny likenesses of their subjects – uncanny being the word. Their eyes sockets are empty hollows, and their faces are locked in inane grins. They crouch, on all fours, serving as tables for the guests. Hidden within these dummies are animated SKELETONS under the control of Madame Desadalie.

SKELETONS (6) = AC: Special, HD: 1, HP: 6, MV: 60’/20’, ATT: 1 short sword, DAM: 1d6, SV: F1, MR: 12, AL: C, XP 13

These Skeletons are a more difficult proposition in a fight than usual; their wax ‘shell’ protects them from damage. The force of bludgeoning weapons is absorbed, and slashing weapons cut through layers of wax before biting bone. In the first round of combat, these Skeletons have an AC of 0. On each round of combat their AC worsens by 1 as the wax cracks and begins to fall away from their bones, until, on the eighth round of combat their AC reaches 7. If the Skeletons are attacked with fire, or similar, double or even triple the rate at which AC worsens.

Why would the PCs encounter these Skeletons? Madame Desadalie, an attractive, if overly made-up middle-aged woman (who, it must be said, can resembles a waxwork herself) is widely suspected of harbouring agitators and even outright rebels. This is true, and the PCs might be sent on a mission to capture a fugitive or steal incriminating documents. Or they might be interested in a bit of freelance burglary – the party could recover 10d100GPs of bulky objets d’art on a successful raid. Of course, PCs are a rebellious bunch themselves, and may find themselves more directly involved in the ‘occult’ politics of Byzantia. Who supplies Madame Desadalie, no necromancer herself, with her wax bodyguards?

Okay, this one doesn't fit on a 4"x6" index card - and even at this length it doesn't include any real details about Madame Desadalie, her connections, etc. It is about 100 words too long. The index card conceit is a good discipline all the same - and very useful at the table - and I'll try to keep to it as much as possible. 


Monday, 23 March 2015

Crypts & Things Remastered

Here's a Kickstarter that I backed: Crypts & Things Remastered.

I like the orginal Crypts & Things - it is a neat swords & sorcery-specific take on Swords & Wizardry. The game has tough, human-only PCs, magic is risky (and magic items even more so), there is a simple but effective 'skill system' based on Saving Throws, and the GM advice (and list of inspirational material) is top notch. I find it to be a more effective evocation of the swords & sorcery genre than Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, though AS&SH, which I like a lot, is a very clean and well put together 'Advanced' OSR game. I'd use AS&SH over AD&D1e, (and happily allow demi-humans, pulling the rules straight from the 1e PHB), but if I wanted to run straight-up OSR swords & sorcery I'd choose C&T.

But where AS&SH was clean, well-edited, with a consistent art style throughout, C&T had more than its fair share of typos (sorry Newt) and featured a broad mix of art, some very good, some a little rough. I'd imagine that to some readers these superficial vices might obscure the many virtues of the game. So I was very pleased to find out the C&T is getting 'remastered'. The most obvious change will be a consistent art style, with David M Wright providing the art for the entire book, and a thorough re-edit. But there will also be changes to the system - but importantly none which break its basic compatibility with OSR games and classic D&Ds. I am particularly looking forward to the replacement of Saving Throws with a Test Your Luck mechanic, and expansion of the PC background table, and a streamlined system of consequences for the use of Black Magic - PC sorcerers tempted to use darker magic accumulate corruption points! That said, it sounds like the use of White Magic now carries its own consequences too - using magic to resist corruption and protect life attracts the attention of... things.

With a week to go, it looks like Crypts & Things:Remastered will hit all its stretch goals, and all backers get immediate access to the Beta. It is this kind of thing that makes me really excited about the OSR - for all its distinct flavour, it is fundamentally intercompatible with AD&D 2e and earlier editions, their clones, and other derived games.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Typology of DMs?

I've been working my way through the 5e DMG over the past couple of days. I like what I see. Lots of random tables - including a carousing table! Reasonable advice, even if sometimes too much stress is put on a D&D adventure being like a 'story', which might set a DM's expectations such that there are heightened temptations to railroad and fudge. But, I repeat, despite that language, which is difficult to avoid, the advice is reasonable. Certainly much better than the 2e Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide - the first supplement to the 2e DMG, which itself was much inferior to the 5e version - which sometimes seems to be nothing but advice on effective railroading. Along with some sweet isometric maps...

But to go back to my last post, raising the subject of the DM's 'fun', the 5e DMG has a breakdown of different player types. I've seen this kind of stuff in quite a few places now. It's all perfectly sensible advice. The DM is advised to cater for the different player types in his or her group. The player types are described in a non-judgmental way, so a player wanting a hack and slash game is not described as inferior to a player seeking immersive roleplay. But what I want to know is, has anyone done something similar for DMs? A typology of DMs? On that *doesn't* read as a list of 'the ways in which your DM is shitty', but as a mirror image of the typology of players; 'these are the types of DMs that exist, and if you are going to be a good player at the table you will have to adapt your play to their DMing style'?

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

On the DM's fun

One thing that is often missing from discussions of running RPGs is that the DM needs to be having 'fun'. I put the word fun in quotes as what a DM (or a player for that matter) gets out of the game doesn't need to be the kind of enjoyment that produces euphoric, face-stretching grins. But 'fun' will do for now. There are plenty of discussions that argue that the DM is responsible for the players' fun. The role of the DM is likened to that of an entertainer, a scriptwriter, artist, actor etc. Fewer argue that the players have a reciprocal responsibility, and those that do often frame is as a responsibility to the group as a whole and not a special responsibility to the DM. 

"Hey, I'm playing this game too. I do all the work for this game. I'm the only one who knows the rules. I'm the one who prepares the encounters and locations. I'm the only one here who doesn't get to enjoy the vicarious high of victory (or the thrill of failure) through the adventures of my personal avatar. I'm the one who can't take a back seat for a few minutes (or a whole evening) and let the other players pick up the slack!"


C'est la vie.

Yet the DM is, unlike a scriptwriter (or what have you), part of the group of people meant to be deriving pleasure from the game. DMs are not the producers with the players the audience. DMs are playing the game, we are audience member number one. The DM is the most important participant. Because of the vast difference in required investment (time, energy, and, given who buys most RPG books and other paraphernalia, financial resources) between players and DMs, that the game satisfies the DM is the number one requirement of a good game. Sure, the players' fun is important, but a player can turn up unprepared, roll a few dice, engage in a bit of chit chat and still have had a minimally entertaining evening. The DM having fun is in players' self-interest - it produces better games, with more engaged and committed DMs.

This was going to be a post about Molvay and Mentzer's take on Morale, NPC/Monster Reactions, Random Encounters and Treasure Tables, and how they are all part of my fun as a DM. Thinking about those procedures got me thinking about the way that rules like that have slipped out of fashion. 

"I know what the monsters will do, how they will react, when they will flee, and I will place treasure appropriate for my group. I am a competent DM."

Sure, but then it is easy for part of my fun to become invested in certain outcomes. If I have placed a particular magical treasure as I think it appropriate for the PCs to find it, I have become invested in this as an outcome. If I leave it to myself to decide when the monsters will flee, it is easy for me to become invested in a certain outcome, and then I believe that it is only a short slip to dishonest encounters in which, for example, the indeterminate number of wolves are programmed flee after causing 'x' amount of damage to the party. And so on. 

Yes, as a DM I make decisions about what happens in the game world, about what exists and how those things behave. Of course I do. And I derive a certain amount of fun from that. But once I am at the table I like to play, I like to be surprised by things. I don't want to know in advance how every Monster or NPC will react to the PCs. Perhaps those Elves that are (I have decided) predisposed to help the PCs react badly (based on a Reaction Roll) to the PCs. Arrogant Elves. Perhaps the dice fall differently when the PCs encounter the (I have decided) ordinarily hostile Goblins. So... the Goblins are impressed by the PCs menacing demeanour, and seek to make alliance. Without a Reaction Roll only the most egregious PC behaviour would derail the reaction in which I have invested. But here? Here the PCs actions have meaning because I don't know how things will turn out, only probabilities which are affected by the actions declared by the players. Great! The game becomes one of exploration for me, too! I get to explore the fantasy world that I have created and find new things out through play.