Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Systems of Reward II

I realize my suggested player goals are biased by what I find fun. I've always defaulted to the mage seeking more power through knowledge of spells and rituals. But I think if you leave the categories broad enough that players will find room to pursue and be rewarded for goals they enjoy. So here is some rumination on some more possibilities.


Maybe you like figuring out who is pulling which strings and ultimately you want to pull those strings yourself. I could see this working: finding out information could provide rewards that are common, uncommon and rare based on how big a scoop you discovered. And I suppose these power seekers would receive rewards for attaining levels of power: you found an informant, common, you've gained entry to a guild, uncommon, you are a guild leader, rare.

Mixing the knowledge goals and achievement of power goals muddies things for me and starts getting a little to fiddly/specific. Also, the way oe gave less XP for magic items because they are their own reward, isn't achieving power its own reward? I think a player really interested in climbing in political power could work within our simple Knowledge Seeker category. How they put the knowledge to use is up to them.

Another potential problem with rewarding political goal gains is that it seems more solo oriented. What is my artifact hunter going to be doing while you are trawling the court hangers-on for juicy gossip?

Revenge/Family Goals

What about the classic tale of a member of a disgraced clan trying to clear the family name or get revenge on the powers that brought the family low? I think there is room in the 5 categories for this. Maybe the magic sword passed down from generation to generation is a rare artifact the player is hunting for. Maybe the knowledge of the whereabouts of the nemesis is an uncommon XP goal. I suppose you could give XP for achievement of name-clearing or raising the clan status again but I'm not sure how I would measure that as a DM. Rewards for the goals leading up to revenge/justice seem clearer.

I have similar reservations about this as the last category though, 1) you have mixed goals, knowledge/artifacts/achievements, making everything more complicated, and 2) you have a very personal set of goals, why would me mage interested in spell-seeking want to hed into the black swamps to find your father's killer?

Feats of Daring-do/Glory!

I you are a warrior at heart, perhaps you won't be so interested in the goal of protecting your fellow adventurers. You really want to bring acclaim to your name by feats of your sword arm. You want renown for facing off against multiple foes etc. But what would the levels of reward be? I imagine uncommon would equate to either fighting multiple foes at once or a foe of great prowess. And then rare would be twice that? So to get rare XP rewards your first leveler is fighting a minotaur single-handedly or likewise? I don't like the sound of this. Seems like a reward system meant to increase your player death toll.


Let me drop the possible new categories here and think about reward categories in general. I realized a few things as I was typing the above paragraphs:

A reward system only works well if it is understood by all parties.

In other words, you want players and DMs to be on the same page. This is easy with treasure rewards; mo' booty means mo' XP (and mo' problems, ha!), less so with XP for killing creatures; "How many XP is a goblin shaman worth? should we go back and kill it or just lug this treasure out?", and especially difficult with XP rewards for roleplaying; "Does the DM think my dwarf would chase the bandits or stay to loot the corpses? Does she want me to say something witty or be dour/taciturn because that's what dwarves in her world are?".

Broadly defined reward categories allow for awards arising randomly.

See, the good thing about having broad goals is that they can come from random rolls. Common, uncommon, and rare artifacts are only a chart roll away. As a DM you can specify the likelyhood of an uncommon result in a certain type of locale but you aren't required to place items in advance. In fact the risk of the opposite (and this is true of the categories I was pondering above) is that it becomes story-driven and railroady. Rather than a party of adventurers heading into a crypt for loosely related purposes, your character has to twist everyone's arm to go into the Lich Queen's lair because that is where your ancestral blade is.

Can't these two rules-of-thumb contradict each other, though? If a reward system works better when I know exactly what rewards I get for which actions, how do I know how common something is in your world? I think this is a possible weakness and strength of broadly defined reward goals at the same time. On the one hand, players won't know how common finding Gauntlets of Ogre Power will be. So when they pull it from a chest they might be thinking "Is this good, or really, really good?" But on the other hand, a cool aspect of rewarding based on frequency is that players will eventually come to know exactly what is common and what isn't. "We have only ever found Gauntlets of Ogre Power that one time." Hmm, maybe the last is too obvious to really be important, but it seems that reward knowledge would be perfectly transparent if you are rewarding on the first sighting of a creature and that players will realize the second sighting is less significant. Which leads me to think:

Rewards based on rarity will push players to explore.

Right? If you've observed goblins and rats and orcs, or you've found all the first and second level spells twice over, you'll want to go over the next hill or push ever deeper into the megadungeon.

Okay enough blathering from me. What say you?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Systems of Reward

I was just talking with a buddy at work about systems of reward in gaming. I think we started talking about video games but he is the friend I made the Ziggurat bachelor adventure for so we ended up with old school gaming.

I realize that systems in games can be counter-intuitive. For example, one would think giving experience for killing monsters makes sense-- you become more knowledgeable at how to kill a troll by killing trolls etc. But what happens is that system of reward pushes players to fight things, even things they have no reason to fight, even things they should by all rights be running from. Eventually you have players "clearing out" dungeon levels, which would be craziness in a world where living was considered a valuable thing.

The old school way of using treasure as a general, abstract reward solves that problem-- see a troll, hell run, why should I risk my life fighting it, we already found its hoard. But it makes every player out to be a treasure hunter. I've got no problem with a campaign where that is understood, but I am interested in other possibilities. Here are some ideas that I and Mah-Kuss the now-wedded brainstormed:

If rewards push players toward certain actions, you want to find rewards to push them toward actions that would work with groups of adventurers risking dungeons. But the best solution would also allow players a little choice in the goals they want to pursue. So, how about these general categories:
  • Plunderer - the standard Treasure Hunter
  • Collector - an artifact hunter
  • Scholar - a knowledge hunter
  • Defender - protects others pursuing their goals.
  • Adventurer - Glory/Faith Hunter
Okay, so instead of just raw treasure Bob, your player, makes an agreement with you that his character goal is knowledge. There could be several subsets of this, the two we thought of were exploration (knowledge of locations/wonders) and ecology (knowledge of botany/zoology). And to keep things as simple as possible, you assign goals just 3 levels of difficulty:
  • Common
  • Uncommon
  • Rare
These will represent how likely it is to obtain these goals as well as the reward for achieving them. Let's say I have a character who is a Scholar. Observing a giant rat might be common. So, the first time I see a giant rat, I get X experience points. Getting a sample of giant rat tissue/hide might be a little harder: 2X experience points. And, finally, observing a giant rat den and how it functions for a few hours might be harder to accomplish thus 3X experience points.

If we see the above as being a vertical example, horizontal could work as well. For example: giant rat is common, troll is uncommon, will o' the wisp is rare.

This three level reward could apply to all the categories above: common artifact an ancient sword; uncommon, a full suit of armor; rare, one-of-a-kind magic blade.

Defender might be a little different: common everyone comes back alive, uncommon no one takes a scratch on this adventure, rare no scratches and it was incredibly dangerous.

Adventurer is a different beast altogether. I was thinking of warriors doing things for the honor of it, or perhaps clerics doing it for the faith of it it. "It" being any of the above goals. And we realized this might be perfect for new characters, because they could receive multiple experience awards early on when surviving is so difficult. For example they might earn an XP award for finding treasure, an artifact, and getting everyone back alive. But then at some level they could be required to choose one of the other more specific focuses (so, Charlie, you're 3rd level now, what do you see your character wanting?).

This would be a way that players could have compatible goals that would give them reason to venture into dungeons/tombs together and yet not force them all to be tomb robbers. Your wizard player really likes the idea of finding spells, there you go: common, uncommon, rare. Your fighter is looking for better gear: common, uncommon, rare. Your player wants to pursue some other goal that can be reached by just raising money (house, clothes, good food), fine let her seek treasure the old fashioned way.

We envisioned a story emerging from these slightly different character goals. For example the party is down in a dungeon and coming back out. The Scholar sees what looks like a roper in the next chamber and desperately wants to investigate, the Collector has the Crown of Arpas and could cares less, the Defender is happy everyone is till healthy and strongly objects to investigating.

What do you think?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Seven Giants of the Urals

I had to resurface to share this awesome find. A real land feature from the Urals. I saw this on Neatorama. Amazing.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


I had a few goals of my own going into my bachelor party gaming session. One of them was:

I have Gygax' Role-Playing Mastery and though I don't think I'd recommend it-- it seems to spend a lot of time talking about the obvious, one thing did catch my eye. On page 83 Gary talks about adding flavor to games and gives a list of 7 things to shoot for:
  1. wonder & fear
  2. adventure & heroism
  3. problem solving
  4. role-playing
  5. combat, conflict & battle
  6. group operation
  7. enlightenment & education
Well, actually you can see it's more than seven things. Three, four and five seem pretty straightforward to me but the others are interesting. I really felt my session in the abandoned nunnery was a success because it elicited fear-- was it Jeff Rients touching on the similarities between gaming and horror movies? Anyway, I feel I can design scenarios to evoke fear. And it works. And it is a cool goal to have. But wonder?

How would you evoke that? I would like to try. Just describing things with words, can it ever be the same as seeing the Grand Canyon, or Bridalveil Falls? So, as I was brainstorming for the bachelor party session I always had that in the back of my mind, what would be marvelous, what would make the players pause, surprise them. I'm not sure if I pulled it off.

Part of the problem may be cliche, the players all pretty much expected something big and bad down that hole. And my connubial temple visit sort of turned into a Pirates of the Caribbean ride (at least in my head). But I'm not convinced you can evoke wonder with verbal description. Have you managed it?

Epithalamium - Post-mortem

Sorry to drag this out, it gives me a reason to come back and post. It also gave me a chance to reflect a little more coolly on the session (I'm pretty self-critical). I'll write about the session in general and then zoom in on certain themes.

Overall, the groom seemed to have a blast, laughing quite a bit. Kaiser's player who hasn't played since high school was enthused enough to suggest we meet monthly to game. Garrett's player is what my grandma would have called a card, he is quite funny and throws himself into roleplaying, and while he can be a little much at times I think he definitely added to the fun factor of play. I've been gaming with him in a 4e campaign as a fellow player but I think I'll invite him whenever we get together for S&W in the future.

As for the adventure, the start seemed to drag a little: they saw the opening ceremony, and had to decide how to enter the temple, then follow couples in. It took a while for any kind of conflict or tension to occur. Pretty much when Ehud cast charm person it shifted from an observation of a living temple to an adventure.

Even in the bowels of the temple there wasn't much going on until they encountered the room of birds. That combat lasted forever for old school play! I had all combat in the swirling screeching birds give -4 to hit, so the players survived but they couldn't hit their foes either. And they weren't just standing in the room wacking at each other, they were running from door to door as the guards tried to flank them and catch them outside the room. So, it lasted almost too long, but at least they had some tactical decisions to make.

They didn't really want to explore the temple much, that damn hole was too much a draw. Serves me right I guess. I suppose I could have had the priests put a stone cap on it or placed guards around it. So several of my interesting rooms were never seen.

Now that I think of it ol' Mah-Kuss was kind of a cliche-- the god which is really some foul creature being fed sacrifices? If I ran it again I think I would try for something more unexpected, maybe Mah-Kuss is a god, but his avatar require 665 bodies to contain his powerful essence. Down the hole, and the players are suddenly ringed by hundreds and hundreds of young women speaking with one voice.

I think I'll write more about how the goals worked in another post, but I was surprised that two of the players didn't seem to even try to pursue their primary goals. Maybe they were waiting for some sign from me or didn't know what they were supposed to do but . . . ?

We always joke about people wearing beards or capes when they game so this time, mid-game, I left to use the restroom and came back with an ornately embroidered robe on, representing the high priest of Mah-Kuss. They seemed to be surprised and amused by that. After 5+ hours of play by that point I was losing my spontaneous humor, so I invited them to put on the robe and give some words to the assembled couples-- I think some of that ended up as video on somebody's Facebook.

In the end, it was fun. I have some things to brush up on-- movement in combat, dungeon layout-- but that's how you learn and get better.

I think I'll make another post soon on some more abstract ideas from the session.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Epithalamium - The Recap part 2

The party not being satisfied with what it had accomplished and not being daunted by losing most of their hirelings plotted to investigate the offeratorial hole in the ziggurat. Using the proceeds from selling the gear off of the slain temple guards they found more hirelings, bought rope, and down the hole they went.

The vast chamber was only dimly lit. directly under the hole was a pile of treasure and bones. Before the party had much chance of sifting through the jumble a huge shape moved toward them from out of the darkness.

What emerged looked like a 40' long pale caterpillar with tentacles waving around a gaping maw and a large eye ominously moving around on a tail. This eye quickly turned the hirelings Puru, and Rajeesh to stone. Kaiser and one of his hirelings lobbed pints of oil at the maw and successfully lit the great worms head on fire, before it managed to bite Kaiser in two. Gorlac, also bravely chopping at the creature's head, was bit in two in turn.

On the creatures flank hireling attempted to blind the foul eye by throwing handfuls of treasure at it. Several more were turned to stone until Garret Osmond managed to land a massive blow with his mace on it, forcing the creature to retract it in pain. Kaiser's hireling, the 60 year old with wodden stumps for both feet somehow managed to pick up his dead master's bastard sword and swing the killing blow.

The glistening hulk trembled and lay still. Only two of the original party remained, but their quick filling of backpack netted them treasure worth 5,100 gold pieces.

Poor Gorlac will never know the fate of his mother, although it may be safe to assume they share the same grave now. Poor Kaiser seems to have succeeded posthumously in desecrating the temple of the fould Mah-Kuss that he considered a demon. Garret Smallwood never even inquired about his long lost sister but seemed pleased with his new wealth. Ehud the club footed managed to find a bride and become rich, but seems to have failed miserably at honoring the temple of Mah-Kuss, if only for all the chaos and bloodshed he helped instigate.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Epithalamium - The Recap part 1

Once every ten years the Ziggurat of Mah-Kuss the Eternal Bridegroom is opened to the public. At all other times it is the domain solely of Mah-Kuss and his priests, but during the festival couples come from miles around to ask the blessing of Mah-Kuss and to be wed under his auspices.

This festival brings sellers and merchants, gawkers and tourists as well as people with more private goals. Among the crowd this decade were the fighters Gorlac and Kaiser; Ehud the clubfooted mage; and Garrett Osmond the cleric.

A procession of voluptious young women, clad only in white robes, rode five pure white pregnant mules up the ziggurat's steps and to the a circular hole in its crown. Each women carried a precious gift which they dropped into the hole as an offering to Mah-Kuss. They then jumped in themselves, disappearing in the darkness below into what seemed to be a vast space.

Our staunch adventurers were incredibly tempted by that hole. And only after much discussion did they and their mostly female hirelings decide to follow the teeming crowd of couples into the ziggurat itself. Garret began questioning his local hireling Anand while in line about the customs involved with the event. He also attempted to woo a women in line, with little success; she expected him to have something of value to offer Mah-Kuss before even considering wedding him.

Inside, after some stalling with the traditional kiss of the giant stone phallus, the group passed through heavy velevet drapes into a large space, dimly lit and smelling of moisture. Before them was a lagoon of milk and couples were getting into wooden boats carved in the shape of lotus flowers. Each boat had a priest acting as a gondolier.

The party noticed that the priests embarking on the boats had different color robes of silk: blue and green. They also noticed there seemed to be some friction between these two sects. As the boats floated past islands of baboons and a giant peacock, Ehud cast a charm spell on his priest-gondolier.

Caru the priest in blue, told Ehud, his new fast friend, of a quick way down to the next level of the ziggurat. As he rowed off course the surrounding boats jostled after him with shouts and arguing. As the priests argued on shore the party and its hirelings headed down a ladder into a large room. The room was featureless but for a giant stone egg. After finding that the egg rested on the floor and not on a pedestal, Garret Osmond rallied the hirelings to heave on the egg. They egg began to roll after which it smashed into a doorway with a crash, blocking it.

The square room had doors on all sides. The party went west. The wide corridors were lined with life-sized stone statues of women, presumably some of the 665 brides of Mah-Kuss. They explored several empty rooms, heard what sounded like a baboon through a wall, and saw a nude couple frolicking happily past. They also encountered two green-clad priests while Ehud quoted from the Codex of Mah-Kuss that "marriage is a yoke" The priests asked "A yolk? As in an egg?" with furrowed brows upon which Garret and Gorlac proceeded to quickly brain them.

After more wandering the party entered a very large chamber filled with exotic birds. These cockatiels, doves, canaries, and various birds-of-paradise raised a cacaphony and flew back and forth through the air as they entered. As the party entered a party of temple guards also entered through an opposite door. These oddly pale folk were dressed in gold tinted lorica hamata and carried gladii.

What followed next was a confusion of birds, of fleeing, of entering the bird room again, of baboons and guards. At the end of it Kaiser was unconsious, Gorlac had brained several opponents, Garret had tried baboon carcasses as a missile weapon and Ehud was long on his way fleeing back to the ladder.

The party and what was left of the ill-starred hirelings met up with a group of six priests clad in green. They convinced them that they had been set upon by priests clad in blue. The Green priests, outraged, escorted the party up by way of another ladder.

The party found themselves where the boat ride would have ended if they had completed it. Another large phallus to be kissed, velvet drapes to be passed through and they were in a huge room full of couples ready to be wed.

A physical confrontation between green and blue priests was stopped by the high priest who proceeded to marry all the couples. One of those couples was Ehud and his former hireling Indira, the drunk with the remarkable beard.

to be continued . . .

Friday, September 25, 2009

Epithalamium VI

Arrgh, the spatial aspect of a dungeon is the hardest. Brainstorming all the possible oddities, puzzles and interesting sites is fun, but I want players to have actual choices. If they choose a hallway that never leads them to one of my favorite set pieces, so be it. I can't make this a linear run through everything I've come up with.

But how to organize it then? I'm thinking partially by logic-- how does the temple work, what functions does it need to fulfill? I don't think I've ever designed an adventure around a location that was still functioning, it is certainly different.

But my organization can't be solely logic, right? I'd like the players to have some combats semi-early on, then some puzzles, choices, then harder combats etc. So, I suppose this is game designing, not building a simulation.

I like having brainstormed the possibilities first though, I think I could almost improvise the map, based on the rhythm of action and player interest. That's a little scary though, so I'm hoping to wake up early tomorrow and make the hard decisions.

I think the key is to have a an idea of what players might try (of course you can never predict every possibility) and have clues ready to help them guide their decisions, so if for example, they want to tie two 50' ropes together and descend directly to the lair of "Mah-Kuss", good for them, they'll hear the movement of something very large and the screams of one of the women self-sacrifices that survived . . . umm no longer surviving. If they want to start assaulting any priest in sight, well there are those oddly pale guards in lorica hamata . . . and their buddies that will come running. If they want to wait until night and try to sneak in, I have to think about what will be going on in the temple then.

Here are a few more fruitful marriage quotes:
  • And when will there be an end of marrying? I suppose, when there is an end of living! (Tertullian)
  • Let us celebrate the occasion with wine and sweet words. (Plautus)
One last thought, what if I made pdfs of possible features, rumors, and player goals and then asked readers to come up with their own map/ziggurat layout? Seeing various different layouts would be cool. Of course you all might not be as interested in the material, but it could be a standard one-off for bachelor party old school gaming :)

Epithalamium V

Coming down to the wire now. I think I'll have 4 players. Three of which have some D&D experience, but no old school play. One guy very familiar with 3.5 was all geared up to generate a character. I told him not to worry about it that we would do it on the spot. He was quite surprised.

Even if these guys were all familiar with Swords & Wizardry I wouldn't want them bringing characters pre-made because I realize how fun and ridiculous the process of rolling the dice in order and rolling up hirelings can be.

I found some short quotes around the internet about marriage. How's this: Imagine three archways passed under with three inscriptions
  • Marriage is the triumph of hope over experience (Samuel Johnson)
  • Marriage is the triumph of imagination over intelligence (Oscar Wilde)
  • Marriage is the triumph of Mah-Kuss over another Bride!
That reminds me, I keep stumbling over whether this Mah-Kuss is the Unwed, having 665 brides for all enternity, but no wives, or whether he is The Great Husband, he of 665 Wives. So I decided that this would be a point of contention between two sects. I'm not sure how the conflict between these priests will come into play, perhaps an actual battle? One school (He is Ever a Groom but Never Wed) in green silk, the other (Each Bride Is Conquered as a Wife) blue silk.

This quote seems fruitful:
  • Never strike your wife - even with a flower. (Hindu Proverb)
Aha, my Deadly Distraction the Glass Golem. This could be a warning inscription. I'll just change the shape of the statue to that of a dancing woman.

Also, I can't believe I forgot that old chesnut: Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue. I think I'll include that as a puzzle, maybe statues of Mah-Kuss' brides will fit the bill.

I still need to type up & print out some rumor cards and the goals. I want to type up a list of titles for Mah-Kuss so I don't have to completely rely on improvisation.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Epithalamium IV

Here's what I've got so far: The Great Ziggurat of Epithalamium dedicated to Mah-Kuss the Ever-Wedded is off limits to all but the priests of He Who Takes All Brides, except, every ten years during the Festival of Fecundity. That festival is occuring now and for several days couples and their families will be streaming through the temples antechamber seeking the Connubial One's blessing.

The players, for various reasons, will be tempted to sneak deeper into the temple than allowed, to investigate, pillage, and desecrate-- depending on their inividual goals.

I had sort of an inkling that giving motivations to each player would be helpful to get a one-off game rolling, but The Rusty Battle Axe's comments were helpful in pushing me further. I start getting a little worried giving players lists of prioritized goals because it seems so different than any D&D I ever played and it seems so boardgamish. And yet, I also have the feeling that this is one of those counterintuitive things that will make the game much more fun (especially in the circumstances of this session). I'm not quite sure why. I think it may be because I am asking for a little story from the players-- not just expecting it to emerge from 4 hours of play-- but I'm putting it into the players hands (no kidnappings or roof collpsings or . . . railroading). So with that in mind here are some more ideas for player goals:
  • find a bride (or groom) -- obvious eh? Didn't occur to me for a while. I think this should be possible even in the framework of a dungeon crawl because there will be captives and priestesses sprinkled throughout the temple, and marriage during this festival is very propitious!
  • Find out what happened to your mother /sister -- again could be any one of the women encountered, maybe I'll just assign a percentage chance that each woman encountered is the one.
  • Desecrate the temple because of a poor marriage -- Mah-Kuss is a sham, you say! Perhaps the characters parents' marriage was ill-starred or the character's own, either way the temple must be dishonored!
  • Honor the temple -- carry some special token of tribute deep into the temple
  • Steal -- you owe money and need some of the ol' eternal groom's trinkets, he won't miss em.
On Adult Content
Americans are generally puritanical. It bugs me that television can show death by beating but a boob flash is considered morally corrosive. So, while I don't want this to devolve into a big bawdy joke, I do want this to include sexuality. I was thinking of the temples in Japan devoted to phalluses and the Blarney stone and thought what if I combine them? I think my players would probably squirm a little to have to kiss a giant stone phallus to obtain deeper access into the temple.

I envision the temple to be one of fertility and fecundity as well as marrige, so maybe there's a big room with newly wedded couples having intercourse. I don't want it to turn into titillation, I'm actually thinking of scenes that will make my players awkward and stand out if they are trying to sneak into the temple: "So, apparently this is the part of the tour everyone gets busy. You all are the only ones left standing, what do you do now?"

Some more ideas in general:
  • An obese women representing a Venus-figure tended by 6 men, a key needed to pass to the next chamber is hidden under one of her massive breasts
  • wicker women-- these effigies attack, weapons include a few bows
  • the groom is a poet in real life-- so I was thinking it would be fun to have a religious text of Mah-Kuss that has 665 metaphors for marriage and that these are callsigns or passwords to move through the temple-- only the priests can't remember all 665 metaphors so anything plausible presented by the players will work
  • A gargantuan egg-- no powers, no threat, just an oddity
  • The groom and I both spent some time in Poland in real life-- so I was thinking of working some in-jokes in Polish into the adventure, maybe have the local village or some of the hirelings be named Polish curse words.
Today is actually super busy for work, but I couldn't sleep with all these ideas rolling around in my head. I'd like to look up quotes/riddles/limericks online about marriage, maybe sprinkle them throughout the temple as inscriptions etc.

Friday I'll have some time to think of how to lay this all out spatially so that the players have choices. Right now my idea of a chaperoned visit of couples into and out of the temple's antechamber seems pretty linear but I'm imagining once they sneak deeper it becomes wide open from there.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Epithalamium III

More brainstorming:
  • 5 sacrificial women riding 5 snow white, pregnant mules, a sixth goes riderless
  • Inside the ziggurat a lagoon of milk
  • In that lagoon, an island with holy baboons (vicious)
  • Wooden boats carved in the shape of tulips to traverse the milk-lake
  • A hallway of censers -- so many that it is nearly impossible to walk down it without sending them clattering, burning oil splashing everywhere
  • Piles of saffron, which reveal pit-traps
  • Great White (vicious) apes chained to captives who are in turn chained to posts - - catching the attention of the savage beasts will cause them to rip the poor victims in two as they pursue
  • Peacocks! (my grandparents actually owned peacocks -- in a wrecking yard no less-- so I'm quite familiar with the lovely devils-- their cry that sounds like "Help!" the buzz of the male's tail as he displays.) Maybe a giant peacock?
  • Voluptuous women crying to be freed from rattan cages -- succubi ( or maybe just one of them)
  • Caryatid columns hidden amongst the many statues of Mah-Kuss' wives

Epithalamium II

I was up around 3:00AM thinking about the possible bachelor party adventure. Many of my original thoughts were things that happened to and around the players, plots basically. But I know the trouble that lies that way. So I've revised my thinking, this needs to be a location.

Grognardia's post the other day about funny names gave me an idea. See, I've long been one of those folks who've cringed at anything that didn't take the game seriously enough. But I'm revising my views as I see that players can take a game very seriously even if it has silly elements. So, I started with my friends name, Marcus and came up with Mah-kuss the Eternal Bridegroom. And immediately I started thinking of things that would amuse my friends: He of the 12 Titles, He of the 665 Brides, Mah-Kuss - the Tumescent Shadow, Mah-Kuss the Turgid, He Who Would Eat His Young if He Had Any, etc.

I'm currently imagining a ziggurat built in the forgotten past to honor this god/demon and his many brides. Inhabited by a albino, round-eyed, tribe of worshippers. (The groom and I were just talking about how 99% of fantasy badies are dark-skinned, so I'll buck the trend here). And at the base of the ziggurat's interior an avatar of Mah-Kuss which is a huge, bloated, albino worm- similar to a purple worm, except the posionous stinger is an eye that petrifies.

I was also thinking about building in references to the players, although that would be easier if it was switched to a female demon with hundreds of statues of her grooms, hmmm . . . Maybe his groomsmen can have statues and I'll give them imperious names and have them look similar to the players.

As far has things happening, I do still envision the start of play is that all these characters are escorting a small party of women to deliver a gift to Mah-Kuss. And these women then jump with their gifts happily to their deaths into the bowels of the ziggurat. If I make the treasures they jump with enticing enough, there should be plenty of reason to search for a way in to try and retrieve the goodies.

Random sidenote. I have an idea for a golden bowl that the players discover somehow which, when its cover is lifted reveals a somewhat gruesome lipless mouth set in flesh. This mouth will make proclomations and answer questions in confusing and problematic ways. Yeah, that interests me.

Monday, September 21, 2009


One of my players and good friends is getting married. This coming weekend there is going to be a bachelor party. Not your traditional bachelor party mind you, drinking beer and playing video games was mentioned. One of the other attendees who has not played with us mentioned D&D. The groom would actually like to game. So I am trying to throw something together in a week, not even sure who will be there and if they all are interested in gaming.

In poetry there is a kind of occasional poem written specifically for a wedding, so I figure why not an adventure? Have you ever written an adventure for a special occasion?

I was thinking about the whole marriage theme and came up with some ideas for an adventure locale:
  • A "bride" offered to something scary and powerful, à la, King Kong
  • A palace or temple devoted to a spouse, à la: The Taj Mahal'
  • A temple of some sort of demon with 666 brides
  • A mating ground of some awesome and dire beasts, perhaps dragons or chimera
  • An alchemical theme, where marriage is metaphorical and various compounds are combined to create something grand à la: philosophers's stone
Maybe my guys can be escorting a bride to her groom, or delivering a gift to an unsavory destination. Thoughts?


I've been doing twice the work for half the pay this season at my job. Next year looks even more dire. All my mental RAM has gone towards trying to do a noticeably good and creative job. I miss posting to this blog. I have a post to follow.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Bell Jar Hive

Which bell is sweetest, tho it dost not ring?
Which town busiest tho it hast no king?

Stumbled onto this while researching Wardian Cases. More pictures here. As for campaign uses, how about a small receptacle at the bottom of this that releases healing honey periodically, or perhaps the buzzing of the hive is soothing and functions as a sleep spell on large monsters.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Wardian Cases

When I was poking around looking for steampunk animals I stumbled upon a post at the Brass Goggles blog about Wardian Cases. Oh, how I love learning, that Wikipedia article led me to terrariums and then paludariums, of which I had never before heard.

But enough of that, picture your intrepid players conquering the strange blue glob guarding a dungeon room to find a bell shaped glass housing something wondrous. What you ask? How about:

  1. A tiny community of thumb-sized villagers.
  2. A collection of rare herbs of every color (you needed a blue plant for that freeze spell, right?).
  3. A collection of ordinary looking herbs, which when the glass is lifted smell of maple syrup and cause mammals to feel amorous.
  4. A single plant of the most deadly Dart Poison Flower.
  5. A sample of rare underdark flora that die if the glass is lifted.
  6. A putrescent looking mess of fungus which, after exposure to light for a short time, emit lantern-bright light for hours.
  7. A living ecosystem containing beetles that taste like chocolate.
  8. A pair of lizards that produce a cry of a perfectly pitched note, useful for court bards.
  9. Peppers so hot they will cause damage to anything foolish enough to eat them.
  10. A single mundane plant which has a human shaped root that cries for milk or blood.
  11. Twelve delicate flowers that will let those that smell them forsee the future but forever become addicted to the scent of the flower and search for it ruthlessly.
  12. Plants enveloping a small replica of your local megadungeon's surface features.
  13. The last breath of a dead demigod.
  14. A foul tasting tuber needed by Dwarves to breed.
  15. A seedling of a rare giant plant species (see Sequoiah Gigantea).
  16. Grey-Black lichen growing on rocks that emits heat equivalent to a small fire.
  17. A talkative toadstool.
  18. A thought-to-be-extinct hops plant required for a legendary hobbit brew.
  19. Flowers that only bloom on the holy days of a particular saint.
  20. A tiny shrub which exudes mithril sap.

What I Want

I posted before about a kind of roleplaying product I'd love to have: maps of locations-- especially villages and towns-- rendered in isometric (or axonometric, something I learned from blogging!) projection.

Well, I have the perfect example, and you are probably familiar with it. When I was a child I was fascinated by the books of David Macaulay. I was probably more fascinated by these books because I never owned any of them; I either encountered them at the library or school.

His book Castle, published in 1977, tells the story of an imaginary but realistic castle being built from scratch. Paying attention to details and research, but not getting hung up with a specific historical site, this book really strikes a chord with me and probably holds a lesson for world/setting design.

I tried merging two halves of the castle picture itself, but it didn't come out well because of the binding. So here is one half of the two page spread showing the finished castle in all its glory:
I love that. This is what I want. I'd like a book with 10, or 20 of these. I suppose I'll have to try and create them myself, but I'm not an artist so it will be hard work.

I'm not sure why this is what I want, something about these images evokes a place in a way a map never does for me. A map is an abstraction that lends itself to tactics, which is fine, but an illustration like this can do that and breathe a little life into a fantasy setting.

If you find this interesting at all, you should check out Macaulay's other books. He had several in this style: Cathedral, Pyramid, Mosque, Mill, Underground, and City, which I have big plans for.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Thoughts on DMing

How many regularly practicing gamemasters are there in the world? One hundred thousand? More, Less?

I use metaphor a lot to understand and learn. I keep trying to find a metaphor for what a DM does, is it like being a chef? Like being a DJ in a club? Sort of for both, but not quite either. Seems a rare hobby indeed, we have here.

One last thought. I keep hearing this idea that rules complexity is added to roleplaying games to help counteract "bad" DMs. I'm not sure if anyone believes that, but I think it is fallacious. Say for example that a "bad" DM (whether that means new, unskilled, or just a jackass, I'm not sure) needs help describing and bringing combats to life. So, someone adds more rules to combat: hit location charts, critical charts, action points, etc. And combat becomes bogged down as the poor "bad" DM needs to keep checking all these charts. Rules complexity and explicitness do not make for a better game experience by simulating an expert DM; they change the gaming experience completely.

AD&D Coloring Album

Grognardia had a post on this a while ago and there is a link in that post to most of the pages from this album, but the two most important are missing-- the start of the adventure in the tavern and the final treasure room.

I remember being in a little craft store as a kid, being bored, and then finding the art instruction books (learn how to draw a tiger!) on a rack along with this. I don't know why my mother was even in there, maybe buying sewing patterns, she sewed for a while, but I do remember asking if I could have that book and being ecstatic that the answer was yes (she was always leery of the demonic nature of our beloved game, though I always reiterated "The ugly things are in the book because that's what we have to fight!")

The coloring pages were nice, with some wonderful representations of classic monsters. And I mentioned in a comment, hell, I'll quote myself:
This is no Sinbad voyage, the party meets at a tavern and plans their assault on the dungeon. Party members are lost to beholders and ettins. The dungeon is a weird underworldish place, with elemental beings. I remember one room shows a never ending battle between an army of gnolls and and one of hobgoblins (?). And in the end the remnants of the party stumble upon a door leading to a room full of treasure. The echoes of the dungeon as an abstract set of challenges drawn on graph paper is in each drawing and my ~10 year old self could sense it and was intrigued. In essence it was a new genre. I realize that, just now, in writing this, neither S&S, nor high fantasy had anything like this gang of armed men exploring hazardous, semi-random rooms.
Yeah, so the old school genre of play captured in a coloring book from 1979. And after checking, the battle in the book is between hyena-like gnolls, and baboon-like hobgoblins. The fact that the artist had to choose a "style" to render hobgoblins, I think is more evidence that humanoids in the classic game are generic baddies that scale in power to give players something to whack at. Not that that is necessarily bad or good, but I think I crave a little more from my monsters.

I particularly love the album's picture of the treasure room. In writing this I'm realizing these two images would make for a perfect, iconic DM's screen. I'd probably pick the fight with the beholder as the centerpiece and then you'd have a triptych, with the call to adventure, strife, and glory of success.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Creative Consumables

This has been percolating a while in my brain, is the OSR about sharing creative material that will always need to be renewed? Are we just replacing a corporate producer with each other?

What I mean is, I think this list of 100 ways to disarm megadungeon traps is fabulous, and this list of interesting treasure items I've used in play myself I like it so much. But what happens after I've run through all those items, or at least the ones I find workable?

Obviously I value this stuff. I just wonder if there are things I can learn from these lists, some tool I can make from each so that they aren't just non-renewable resources.

The only things that spring to mind at the moment, as far as principles of gaming, is that flavor is important-- treasure items are more interesting than another pile of generic "gold pieces" and you need a way to disarm a trap to allow for players to figure it out, to make it more than a "roll to disarm" situation. But that still leaves me needing to generate the hundreds of unique, interesting items on each list. So I suppose, is something like a Roll all the Dice chart called for to try to help produce these?

Or is there something more subtle, harder to pinpoint that I can learn by looking at the specific items on these lists? I think the answer to the last is, yes. I think if I can muster the time and mental cycles, I would like to analyze the items on those lists and try to learn what qualifies as an interesting treasure item, and what makes for a good trap trigger. So, even if in the end I have to compile a list of 100 of my own treasures I'll better be able to.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Work Starting

I'm having to start devoting all my mental cycles to work. I really want to keep posting frequently here, because it is something I value and enjoy. I just don't want to post crap just to post. Won't be valuable to me or you. I'll do my best.

This unfortunately affects playing S&W, too. I'm starting to jones for some play. I'll even try to see if I can play some 4e, but the DM works with me, so he may be in a similar situation regarding mental cycles.

Clockwork Animals II

My last post about a steampunk butterfly, led me to search again for clockwork creations that might fit in a fantasy campaign as monster/artifacts. So, here are a few more arcane creations I found:

A Clockwork Rhino by Pierre Scalaire:

A Clockwork Arachnid by Christopher Conte:

And another by Cazouillette:

A Giraffe by Andrew Chase that I missed in the last post:

It's not even that I'm obsessed with this stuff, but it seems a subject that captures the imaginations of artists and you can actually find examples and illustrations online.

Clockwork Butterfly

Okay, they call it steampunk, but we can re-purpose it. This is an nice little mechanical butterfly illustration by deviantArt user ursulav.

Which makes me think . . . when I was searching the web for clockwork animals earlier, I don't think I tried the search term "steampunk animal." Hmm . . .

via Boing Boing

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tools - Dominoes II

Okay, I'm a goofenheimer; in trying to ascertain the usefulness of a regular set of double 6 dominoes for randomization, I decided the probabilities produced weren't very useful. But I didn't think of limiting the dominoes to draw from!

And because dominoes have the odd quality of including blanks, you can pull all the blanks (except the double blank) and have six tiles from 1-6. The chance of pulling a number is exactly the same as rolling the same number on a d6.

So, there you have it, I have solved the great stranded-on-a-desert-island-with-no-dice-but-ahh-we-have-dominoes-problem. Pull the one through six blanks, put them in a black velvet bag (all DM's have one right?) and let the player draw a tile. After drawing, place tile back in. Stir. Repeat.

Actually, by selecting the dominoes available for your drawing pool (so you have to choose 1 of the four tiles that have pips adding up to 6, for example) you can produce numbers with linear probability (each equally probable) for:
  • 1-6
  • 1-7
  • 1-8
  • 1-9
  • 1-10
  • 1-11
  • 1-12
So, now our lovely, shiny bones can also substitute for our d8, d10, and d12s with other numbers thrown in!

You could also, add zero to all of those ranges by adding the double blank tile. And, technically, you could generate a number from 1-28, but that would require you to assign numbers that don't correspond to the tile faces (the 6-2 stands for 13, etc.) and that would be confusing, require a chart and defeat the whole purpose.

Of course, this is just fun mental exercise, never practical in play except for some kind of limited minigame. But it's that possibility of minigame that's still tickling the back of my brain. I'll try to flesh this out and post something soon.

Along those lines, I read on some forum about Shadowrun (?) using a deck of playing cards to resolve NPC encounter reactions. Is anyone familiar with that? Can you direct me to it on the web anywhere?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Patterns of Choice

Have you seen this? It's a graphic by Michael Niggel that visualizes all the choices of a particular Choose Your Own Adventure Book.

I love this sort of thing. It reminds me a little of artist Stephanie Posavec's work.

I wonder if my brain is changing as I age, I seem drawn to these patterns, and looking for patterns in systems. Or maybe it's too much time in academia.

Imagine if your last session was mapped out as a series of choices-- and then a whole campaign.

The first via Boing Boing, the second I encountered long ago (on the web), and it made an impression.

Tools - Dominoes

I was sort of obsessing over dominoes over the weekend. I love the way they are so similar to a six sider, like a d6 exploded, like some tesseract version of a d6.

So, some things I sat down and figured out that I hadn't known before: in a double six set of dominoes there are 28 tiles total. Each number, 0-6, has seven tiles. There are seven doubles.

Because of the way the pips work, there are more occurrences of some numbers than others. I made a little chart of occurrences over pip total.
Hmm, not so much a bell curve as a step pyramid.

So, if you threw all these bones in a bag, what would be the probability of drawing a tile with a particular pip total? Well, keep in mind I'm no math expert, but I calculate to get a tile with only one occurrence would be ~3.6%. To draw a tile with two occurrences would be ~7%. To draw a 4, 5, 7, or 8-- numbers appearing 3 times-- would be ~10.7%. And finally, to draw a 6 would be ~14.3%.

To compare that to the more common six sided die toss, rolling one d6 has an equal chance of getting 1-6 at 16.67%. And the bell curve that results from tossing 2d6 will get you a 6 13.89% of the time.

So, if you find yourself stuck in a vacation cottage with no dice but a set of double six dominoes, even though the number range is so similar, it isn't really possible to simulate six siders. Telling your player to draw a 6 from the bag of dominoes is less than the chance of rolling a 1 on a d6.

If you tell your player to draw any tile with a certain number on the tile-- not the pip total, but one of the sides of the domino-- the chance of success is 25%. Drawing either one or another number, say any tile with a 5 or a 6 on it, would be a 50% chance. The chance of drawing any particular tile, say the 5/6 is ~3.6%.

Again, doesn't seem too useful a range of probabilities to use in play to determine outcomes, but I haven't given up on the shiny bones! I was racking my brains trying to think of a way to use them to produce a simple dungeon generator. I also think they may be a cool way to do a NPC reaction minigame. I'll post more on those two possibilities later.

In the meantime, have you used dominoes in a roleplaying game? Have you heard of them being used?

Monday, August 10, 2009

System Chunks

In commenting on a post here. J. Rients said:
'. . . I really think we all need to look beyond this whole "system" thing.'
My interest in the quote may be far from what he was getting at. But when I read that I thought of my recent experiences as a DM and how I realized there are basically a few situations/subsystems you need to learn to take care of in order to run a roleplaying game. And once you have a system down for taking care of those things, you're set.

I like the idea that these "chunks" can be chosen or even hand crafted by each DM. Isn't that what people are sharing on their blogs anyway? How to restock a dungeon, how to handle wilderness travel, how to award experience points. The customized ways to handle these challenges that experienced DMs have developed.

I think it would be awesome, if someone sat down and wrote a book on roleplaying games that addressed each of these areas that constantly pop up, and how they were dealt with by various game systems. So, for example, skills and character differentiation could be a chapter, with class-based game examples on one end all the way to extreme skill lists on the other, with commentary on what those lead to in actual play.

The last part is the kicker-- it sounds like a big book of roleplaying rule theory, except more than anything, roleplaying reality seems pretty counterintuitively opposite what the theory often suggests, in my humble experience.

It's not a completely novel idea-- The Player's Option: Spells & Magic, book for 2e had something similar. It listed many variant magic systems including point based, sorcerous and magic granted by "alien" powers. But that isn't what I'm talking about. That book feels like a brainstorm. You would have a hard time convincing me that any of those methods had ever seen play in an actual game at time of publication.

What 'm envisioning would be someone laying out a spell point system, for example, and then people with experience with those rules give examples of the implications of those rules, how they actually affected play.

Anyway, forget the book, I still think it would be useful to think about roleplaying in terms of system "chunks." Maybe some of you already do. I think I'll try from now on. And while it might seem elegant for a rulesystem to handle things in a uniform fashion, rolling only d6s for instance, I think if you conceptualize the game in chunks you are freed up to have more appropriate systems for each of them. So, I might resolve wilderness encounters, for example, in an entirely different way than dungeon encounters. I might have NPCs that have no "levels." I might have a system that handwaves encumbrance for food and water but gets really crunchy when carrying loot out of the dungeon is concerned.

I'm also interested in chunks that aren't, for whatever reason, encountered much. Diplomacy, NPC encounter reaction/interaction (not skill rolls), espionage, and trade (or even, GASP, romance), would be cool possibilities, for subsystems, minigames, or at least ruling guidelines.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Magical Portals - The Last

I'm off to the mountains to spend a little time with family as the last gasp of summer. I may not post for a few days. I give you this door in parting. I'll be thinking about my grand project while I'm up there so I should have more to post about soon. Have a nice weekend.

My Grand Project - Monsters

I'm still working all this stuff out, so it feels odd to share such an early draft of these ideas. But I thought I had better, because without sharing what I'm doing, it would be too easy to put it on the back burner again.

For monsters I envision using a deck of cards. I like the idea of the components necessary for play to be household objects that most people will likely have- six-siders, cards, been recently thinking about dominoes. Also, cards seem to be the component of choice for gaming and you can get decks printed relatively cheaply (my first impression after brief research, anyway).

So cards, but what kind? Doesn't that limit us to 52 monsters? Not necessarily. I love the idea of combining simple parts to derive complexity. So you have something like the hanging man in the Tarot which means something and Death, but when drawn together they have a different meaning. I envision something similar.

Perhaps on the first level of the catacomb, you will draw one card for a monster and thus can encounter 52 creatures. But on the second level, imagine when a monster is triggered you draw from the deck twice. The first card is the base monster, the second will modify the first. Let's say you draw Skeleton first, which means you'll have to deal with the ubiquitous bony undead, and the second card is Rat. Rat will have the connotation of horde, so it isn't just one skeleton but a whole bunch. If you had drawn the cards in the opposite order: Rat > Skeleton, well the Skeleton card's connotation is . . . well, skeletal. So that would indicate a Skeletal Rat.

If I can come up with 52 monsters that also have reasonable secondary connotations to modify their fellow cards, and if my math is correct, that means we've bumped the number of possible monsters from 52 to 2704. If exploration on a deeper level of the catacomb requires drawing additional cards, say 3, then you pop up the number of possible monsters to 140,608 (is that right!?).

Of course this entails choosing modifiers that can work together and base monsters that can be modified without twisting logic too much. And it entails base monsters that would easily be used as the modifiers, and doing all this without being too bland. Anyway, here are some modifiers from a list I made 11/27/99:
  • Skeletal
  • Zombie
  • Spectral
  • Ghost
  • Wicker Effigy
  • Stone
  • Lame
  • Blind
  • Diseased
  • Pair
  • Pack
  • Horde
As you can see, some modifiers weaken the base monster, it isn't all about threat inflation. Wouldn't it be cool to encounter a Blind Lich, or something? (well, okay, not a lich if I'm playing solo, but maybe a Blind Rat, haha).

Hmm, even as I write this I'm seeing problems. See, I envision the modifiers to have certain traits associated with them, the way skeletal things are typically considered to take half-damage from all but blunt weapons. But what then is a Skeletal Ghost Rat? If on the third level of the catacombs you draw three cards Rat > Skeleton > Ghost, Wouldn't any typical Ghost modifiers cancel out the skeletal ones, thus making them pointless? I'll have to ponder this.

Another problem: one way to use a deck is to have more cards of a certain type to make them more likely to be encountered. So for example you have 4 Rat cards and 1 Ghost card. Otherwise you have an equal chance of encountering annoyances and killers. So if I want to shape the probabilities of encounters at all, you can throw out the huge number of possible monsters to encounter above, they will be much smaller. Maybe that's okay, though, you don't need a hundred thousand monsters do you?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

My Grand Project II

Here is a rough mock-up of how the hexes might work in play. You start at the red spot, maybe you've lowered yourself down a hole on a rope. Now, you can choose one of four directions to travel. You decide to head East. You reach the edge of the tile and need to determine what the next tile will be. So you roll 1d6 for which tile, and get a 2. Then you roll 1d6 for which side of tile two and roll 6. So you spin tile two around until the sixth side aligns with where you're at.

Now as you first enter this tile you take note of the numbers-- leaving side 2 to side 6 gives you 26. Uh oh, the first loculus has a symbol for monster and the "E" means any entrance to this tile with and even number triggers this monster. Your 26 being even, means you've got something to deal with. Maybe it's a skeleton, and you smash it with your trusty club. There is nothing more of note around so you need to decide which direction to go from here. You decide North West.

So, you go through the same process, roll a 3 and a 2 and plop tile three down with it's second side aligned with your passage. (If you had rolled a one here, this would be a dead end) So your number on entering the hex is 12. And that loculus to your left has a gold symbol that triggers on "Even." Sweet, you found some treasure. Maybe it is an ivory teetotum that you hastily put in your bag. You notice the other loculus on this tile only triggers on "Odd," so you dodged a possible encounter here, your 12 doesn't trigger it.

You only trigger the encounters on a tile once, backtracking or circling around doesn't do anything. But imagine, way back on your entry tile rather than heading East, you had decided to head North East. Follow the blue arrows. When you generate the next tile your roll of 3 and 3, results in an identical placement of the same tile. The catacomb map is essentially the same. But because your entry number is 13, odd, you trigger the monster but don't trigger the gold. That's Lady Luck for you.

So it is complicated to devise, but I think once you get it, it would be very quick to play.

There are many things I still need to work out. In making this mock-up, for example, I had to come up with a symbol to represent treasure. A dollar sign wouldn't be appropriate for my European friends. So I settled on Sol just now, but maybe there are better symbols. What about Events, like cave ins, how would you symbolize an event? Also, how many loculi do I want on each hex, how many would be too sterile, how many would be too cluttered?

Once I at least have a solid draft I'm satisfied with. I think it would be cool to implement some kind of website where people could upload their own tile designs. To let you all design tile "decks" to share with each other with CC licenses or something. It's all sort of a dream right now, but one can dream, no?

My Grand Project

I spent hours of my youth rolling up characters, wizards and gnomes and thieves. Oh, how I longed to play them through some dungeon or explore tangled woods. I never seemed to be able to find people similarly inclined. I tried the random dungeon charts in the back of the 1e DMG, but they were so random as to be nonsensical to me. I played through every solo module and gamebook I could find, which were nice, but once you run through them, then what?

So about ten years ago I sat down to methodically devise a way to play solo D&D.

I had found a design textbook in the boxes of my father's college books out in our backyard shed. I was intrigued by the way it talked about combining the functional features of a product and this was the biggest influence on this project.

I took stock of all the things you needed to determine in play, e.g. monsters, treasure, hazards, and the map itself. I decided the map could determine some of this. [I think I'll need to post separately on the many iterations of prototypes I made, I just want to get something posted today.]

I had several breakthroughs and many setbacks. But eventually, my system worked out to being a 1) Catacomb, because I felt the smaller, more windy features would be easier to create than a typical dungeon, at least at first, and 2) It would be hexagonal, the largest regular polygon you can tile with, but also easy to use with the most common of dice, the d6.

Yes, yes, you might be thinking, there have been hexagonal geomorph systems before (there must have been, but I don't know of any personally [well, except the brief mention in the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide]). But what I think is cool about my system and may be useful to others is the way the map helps generate encounters.

Here's how: On the geomorph (that seems to be the term people would most understand, but is it a trademark?) above is a loculus, a place in the catacomb wall where a body has been sealed. Well, it was sealed, but that was centuries ago, perhaps it's been broken open and a spider lairs there now, perhaps the skeletal remains of its occupant still clutch a glowing dagger. In all the loculi of these geomorphs will be a two symbol code, the second designating Monster, Treasure and, maybe, Event. The first symbol is the key, and determines the likelihood of the second of triggering.

In play, you'll randomly determine the next hex and its location. For now, let's say you'll roll two differently colored d6. The first will indicate which of the six available hexes to lay down, and the second die will tell you which face aligns with the passage you are in. Those faces will generate a two digit number.

Now, back to our loculus, the first symbol will refer to the two digit number that your entrance to the hex generated. This symbol could reference Odd/Even, Double, Odd Double/Even Double, or a Specific Number.

If we have two tiles with all six sides accessible, the odds for the above categories work out to 50%, 16.7%, 8.3%, and 2.7%. This gives me, as a designer, a range of probabilities for things to trigger. Each tile will have different triggers, and each time you enter the tiles you'll be coming from different directions, so it will be impossible to game them, knowing which tiles have better treasure etc. It will be largely random.

Now the problem comes in, when the tiles don't have all 6 sides accessible. My example above cannot be entered from side 6 or 4. So the chances of an Even triggering are down to 25%, and the chances of Odd are up to 75%. Doubles, Specific Numbers are all affected. It would be easier to make the tiles all accessible on all six sides, but that makes the catacomb infinite, and I don't think we want that.

So, what this means, is I have a lot of work to do, hand choosing the triggers for each tile so that they trigger in appropriate ratios. First I have to finish making the tiles. And I'm having a bear of a time learning to make SVGs with Inkscape. Each step leads to new revisions. I've just decided, for example, that the hexes will be 6' across and that I will hand draw gameboard-like squares in the passages as above.

I have always intended to give the whole set of these away once I'm done, as downloadable SVGs (so you can edit them and resize them to your heart's content), but I think it would be cool if I could make something I might be able to sell in addition. Don't get me wrong, I don't think there is even a tiny market for something like this. But I guess I'm thinking of the product I would want if I weren't making it myself. I'd like to offer that to people and be able to cover costs.

Anyway, printing these tiles on paper will work, but I think having them printed on something more sturdy and durable would be even cooler. To that end, I began learning how to screenprint this summer! Who would have thought that all my thinking on this project with a little boost of excitement from the OSR would end up in me learning a completely different craft!?

Still learning, but I did produce a prototype that let's me know that this is possible. I can actually do this.

Disregard the hex grid there, I just wanted to see how fine a line the screenprint could produce. Fine indeed, it turns out. Also, the blemishes there resulted from me brushing on the emulsifier when I shouldn't have, so it will look better next time.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Magical Portals - The Zodiacal

Umm . . . what would you do, faced with this at the entrance of an abandoned keep and every time you touch it, it shocks you? I think I imagined solution had something to do with same / different. The center four symbols are holy symbols for saints in my campaign world and three are male, one is female. I think you were supposed to select that symbol and then . . .Virgo?

Magical Portals - The Leonine

Deciphering this as well as some of my other old runic inscriptions has driven home the idea that runes shifted through time. I'm not sure what version of runic alphabet I originally used, but it seems to be some later Saxon variant. This is an old riddle, but it appears I may have had a Middle English version of it encoded into runes.
Lookest at my face and I'm someone--
Lookest at my back and I'm nought.
Put a mirror up to the lion head and it will roar and open the door.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Qualities of a Great Old School Module

I saw this comment by Guy Fullerton in speaking of the module The Shattered Circle (TSR 11325, from 1998) here and thought it really worthy of note:
"It has a lot of elements that remind me of ~1980 era releases: Ease of dropping this almost anywhere in a campaign, a fairly open dungeon layout, some good traps, player (not character) puzzles, enigmas, potentially unbalanced encounters, places that strongly promote DM improvisation, and plenty of opportunities for the party to make choices between fighting, communication, or something else entirely.

It has a backstory, and although it supports a rather standard altruistic way for the PCs to interact with that backstory, it by no means forces the party to do the altruistic thing."
I would love to explore each of those points a little.

1) Ease of Dropping Into a Campaign

This seems related to my post about Detail being dominant. It seems a hard line to walk, but the module should provide interesting details without pinning me down. Things like very specific gods, historical events, and fleshed out cities and cultures would probably be no-nos. I'll decide if my world has viking-mole-dwarves or not, thank you very much.

2) Open Dungeon Layout

I'm guessing this means the dungeon isn't linear, there are multiple possible paths. Sounds good to me, and relatively easy to take into consideration while designing, except if the location is a tower or something similar.

3) Good Traps

I don't disagree, but I'm not sure what good traps would be. Traps that can be seen by players, strategized against-- not instant, silent killers? Or just interesting, as in not another pit?

4) Player Puzzles

I love these myself, well making them anyway, and realize how difficult it can be to make them challenging without frustrating. If a module had one or two puzzles that managed this successfully, it seems that would be a plus indeed.

5) Enigmas

I like this too. One problem is that players tend to think every detail is significant, so if you mention a lever, it must be important. But why shouldn't there be weird atmospheric effects, or non-threatening oddities every now and then to please the explorers among us?

6) Potentially Unbalanced Encounters

This goes hand in hand with 2). Without this openness is only avoiding the feeling of being railroaded. With this possibility, openness of the dungeon becomes strategically imperative. But make sure to give the players clues to approaching encounter dangers, or the only choice they'll have is whether to run or fight.

7) Promotes DM improvisation

I strongly like this as a suggested feature, but in my inexperience am not sure how I would provide this to DMs in a product of my own design. Present NPC motivations and let encounters work themselves out? Provide clues, but only brief ones, as to what could happen if players take certain actions?

8) Opportunities for Choices Between Combat/Communication/Other

This seems related to 2) and 6) but still worthy of a goal to strive for. Seems like this would weigh against modules with only dumb, hungry jellies or rabidly fanatic cultists. Try for conflicted, intelligent humanoids of some type.

Any other points that Guy hasn't touched upon that you think a great module should have? I'll add my own two cents with:

9) Re-visitability

It should be a location that would be interesting to revisit later. Perhaps there are magical fountains or pools that are permanent features. This doesn't mean a module couldn't be about a collapsing cavern or erupting volcano, but if the DM has to do the work of importing it into the campaign world and learn the details enough to run players through, it would seem like a nice touch to make it a landmark of sorts, a place to come back to.

And . . . I can't think of another to make it a nice round ten. Let me know if you have any more or disagree with any of the nine here. Thanks to Guy Fullerton for the great quote.

Update: Maybe a tenth would be

A Reason to Visit, but Ignorable

The players can be altruistic and helpful, but they can just be looking for gold if they choose. But it requires a certain amount of narrative to provide a problem the players might help with. And it takes some skill to not, then, require PCs to follow some expected course of action.

Magical Portals - The Dwarvish

A brass or bronze door set with small green gemstones. The position of the stones is a simple alphabetical code which spells out . . . I'm not sure. I'm going to have to dig my language binder out of storage, but I believe it means to hold one's beard and knock, and the door will open.

If I can dig out my old language folder I'll update these door posts with exactly what I'd intended them to mean.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Magical Portals - The Wizardly

I believe that this door says, "Danger!" or "Caution!" in Japanese. Please correct any errors. The danger the door warns against is a shock from trying to open it without solving the magic square. Magic squares are probably old hat in dungeon tricks by now, but things like this fascinate me. I believe this was a classic 3x3 Lo Shu square where all the sums should equal 15. Set the dials correctly and the door is unlocked.