Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Party-Based Level Progression

Okay, this is more of a question than some brilliant proposition.  I think I need more coffee because my brain is muzzy on this topic.  What I'm wondering is, since this is a social game that generally expects a group of people to play, why doesn't the group all level at the same time? Why does it matter, if in a party playing D&D, a thief is 2nd level while the magic-user is only first?

Is it because one player might suck and is not pulling their weight and because of poor play is a level behind everyone?  That's not really possible in old school play is it?  If you're playing and the party gets loot, XP is divided.  You would either have to constantly be splitting the party or be absent.

Okay, so you have to play to level up and if Joe Blow only shows up every tenth session I can see why he shouldn't deserve to be the same level as everyone else.  But a party with too disparate levels really isn't tenable is it?  Eventually if Joe keeps coming he's going to die facing the increasingly difficult challenges the higher level party is facing. 

Is it because it is an attempt to manage the different power levels of the classes?  (Oh no, the dreaded balance!) Presumably this is because a wizard gets very powerful and will start tilting things into the mid-game very quickly.  But couldn't you then just shift an MU's abilities up a level or two?  Or not.  What would happen if a party of a cleric, MU, fighter, and thief all moved up to second level at the same time?  And from second to third?  What difference does it make to the game, other than a lot of bookkeeping, that one character might level 2-3 sessions later than another?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Achievement-Based Level Progression

What are the things you would expect to be able to do in a fresh D&D game or you’d be disappointed? On going up in level, what new things do you look forward to being able to do?

It's surprising to me that as radical a revision 4th edition is, they still have the thousands of experience points- D&D's last fiddly little bit-- hanging about like a vestigial tail. They came very close to smoothing them away in standardizing the level progression table and in making the innovation of the combat itself as a unit of measurement. But, as far as I know, thousands of experience points are still needed to go up in level and thousands of xp need to be tracked.

If you're going to assume that accumulating power is a fundamental part of D&D, then you're going to need some way to track that growth. That's fine. but couldn't we find some way to cut down on the bookkeeping the way Delta's "stone" did for the pounds of encumbrance?

One possible unit to track experience might be the Combat itself, so players go up in level after 10 combats, maybe. But this is to make a dangerous misunderstanding-- which is I think a mistake the 4e designers made-- to assume D&D is a game about combat and getting better in combat. But as much combat as old school D&D has, veteran players know that getting the score without having to fight is even more of a success. And there are whole realms of the game that have nothing to do with combat- gathering rumors from NPCs, magic pools, tricks and traps.

Another unit to track experience might be the Session. There is nothing more fascinating to me then to hear hoary old DMs talk about how experienced a party should be after so many months of play. If you pay attention to these discussions you really get the sense that D&D, as wild and wooly as the sandbox might be, has patterns to it that are closely linked to level.

The most extreme example is the Endgame, with name level characters setting up castles and gathering armies. But I think that you would expect the hijinks a party of 8th levelers can get into would be different than those of first levelers as well.

The problem of just leveling by time played-- "Okay folks, this is our fifth session, you all are second level now." -- is that it de-links leveling from success. And this is dangerous because experience points have been important in defining what D&D is about. If it is about combat prowess you give points for monsters defeated, if its about successful dungeoneering you give xp for gold piece value successfully recovered. But if progression is based on session, what is it all about-- attendance, perseverance?

I think we can have our cake and eat it too. Taking a cue from video games and their Achievements, what if we allow leveling only after certain level-related accomplishments have been made?

Two things would need to be done:
1) Make a list of those things that are most fun doing while at level X. This would require some experience on the part of players and DMs, if the highest I've ever gotten a character was 2nd level how do I know what is most fun about name level. and then

2) Decide on a subset of those for each level of your campaign. Because I wouldn't want these to be related to video game achievements in that players would know what they specifically needed to do-- "We need to rescue someone or we'll never go up in level!"-- (at least, I don't think).

Keep in mind, I certainly don't think you need 20 levels to feel progression or, god-forbid, 50. I think we could make the number of levels more granular too, something between 5 and OD&D's 10.

So, what things would you expect players to accomplish before moving from first to second level?  Here are some ideas off the top of my head:
  •     experience the Mythic Underworld
  •     survive a dicey combat
  •     outwit a trick/trap
  •     interact with some local NPCs
  •     aquire some treasure
  •     find a magic item (however minor)
Notice, this list could be equal part things to experience at that level- encounter a dragon- and thing to successfully achieve- make 1000 gold.  What I like about this idea is that it recognizes the fundamental

patterns of D&D-- and yet allows for personal tailoring like houserules. Want you game more about roleplaying, leave out the underworld requirement or vice versa.

Of course you could make level progression more granular in another way using these achievements- by leveling as a group rather than individually, but that is a whole other post.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Mountain Trails

Spring snow melt, limb falls, and tree falls will obscure a trail in one
season, obliterate it in two, unless it is maintained or very well
built.  The different races make different types of trails in the
mountain wilderness.

Elvish trails are social.  Meaning there are no markers, but individuals who know a way.  To learn a trail means to have someone show you the way they go.  There is no best way and often as many paths between two points as individuals.

Dwarves survey an area, then build a trail along the optimal path.  Their trails are engineered like small roads with standard procedures and materials.  Usually 4' wide, they bridge waterways, cut into cliffsides, and take into consideration drainage and erosion.  These last for centuries unattended. Dwarves do not care that they are easy to see and follow because their homes are great fortresses.

Orcs, like pigs, take the easiest path up or down a mountain.  They will not work at a trail unless forced.  Then they might push trees over waterways and mark paths with piles of rocks or their own dung.

Humans are various and unpredictable. Some see trails quite like elves.  It is said the Tainish rangers have a proverb-- journey once, your trail.  Journey twice, my trail-- but it's hard to say if this is true because they are so secretive.

Some see trails more like Dwarves.  Emperor Claudius Vibrius ordered a series of tunnels bored right through the Copper Mountains for a merchant trail.  The cost was immense in lives and gold and some say things were uncovered, deep under the mountains, that are better left to sleep.

Others have their own ways through the wilderness.  It is said, before Heirus the Eremite, the forest opened up with a sigh, rocks and logs rolling aside for him.  Imran the Solitary blended like a chameleon as he levitated slowly through the forest, making even the Elves wary of him.

Hobbits do not like the forest and rarely venture there, which is odd, because they are so well suited for it.  Stories say those that braved the wilderness were so light of foot and quiet they could walk up and pet a doe before she knew the hobbit was there, and that even Elves have trouble tracking them.

Some say there are secret trails that are well-built of stone and redwood, as if by Dwarves, but camouflaged behind manzanita growths and the contours of the land itself.  Who made these?  Elf and Dwarf together?  Gnomes?  None know, but the Elves often use them as do the oldest and wisest of the rangers. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Certified Dungeon Master

I just walked past a car advertising for a Certified Classical Homeopathist (as opposed to the dreaded new school homeopath bastards) and thought it must be pretty easy to say you are "certified" at something.  So, what about DMs?

If you were in Human Resources at a fabulous Role Playing Resort (you know they're coming) what qualifications would you want from potential DM hires?

I'm guessing you'll want to see them in action.  Maybe throw a set adventure at them, that they can create objects and handouts for, and then for a different session force them to improv completely?

I know for myself that every session seems to be a first experience with something: first sea travel, first splitting of the party, first urban adventure, first heist, etc.  I still haven't got a lot of mid level character experience, or high level character experience.

Maybe the resort would have beginner players go with a newer DM.  Or, actually, you'd probably want the opposite: your most experienced DMs handling player first experiences.

If there was a qualifying exam to become a Certified Dungeon Master, what would you want it to test, and here's the kicker for those of you experienced with Assessment, how would you know if they did well?


Looking back at a post I made almost two years ago now, I'm depressed at how little progress I've made.  In fact, I lost ground, because I'd made three svg geomorphs since that post that have been lost (the only reason I remembered making them was because I have printed hard copies).

I am determined to press forward. There are a few hurdles for screenprinting.  Getting the supplies is a piece of cake, they weren't all that expensive and they ship them right to you.  But there are other hurdles:

1. Darkroom
You have to have somewhere you can apply the photosensitive goop that makes the whole process work.  And be able to see to apply it, and not worry too much if you make a mess.  Last time I put a special bulb in a bathroom.

2. Water with Pressure
After exposing the goop to the sun you have to wash out the non-exposed goop.  You really need something like a pressure washer for this.  If you look at the picture from that old post you can see where I screwed up trying to brush out the goop (because all I had was a normal faucet and it wasn't cleaning the stuff too well).

3. Images
Yeah, common sense that you have to have some image(s) to screenprint.  But let me lay out a little what I want to do:
  • I want hexes printed on both sides.  That means you need to make a rig that makes sure you are printing in the exact same spots on both sides.
  • I want to print in two colors.  Another reason to need the rig above.  To do this I will need to make 4 passes at a particular piece of cloth.  It means I need to make sure I use a lot of layers when building my svgs, and once I decide which features will be in which color, it will require two separate transparencies printed out.
  • I'm going to try to print 4 tiles at a time to make the process easier.  This means I need to get a bigger screen.  I may need to order another squeegee (I'll see if I can make the one I have work, it's about half the size of the four tile setup).
So, what to do about these hurdles?  I inherited a semi-broken netbook that I loaded Inkscape onto.  I am going to try and deal with #3 in the mountains.  It was 107 yesterday in the valley and I would rather be up where it's cool.  Once I get the images made I think the other hurdles will seem small.

I also made a little progress, in that 1) I decided my prototype set will consist of 8 back-to-back tiles and 2) I chose the designs of all 8 of those tiles.  Next I need to determine the encounter triggers for each tile which will be tricky.

Ok, enough blah blah blah, just wanted to let you know what I've been thinking about and struggling with lately.

Oh, and I am gathering material for a standing desk. I hope to enter the fall never having to slump in front of a computer again.  Stay in the shade!  I think it's going to be a hot one again today.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Silhouettes XVIII

First, have another centaur:

and a sphinx, which oddly enough is not one of the original monsters:
Now, continuing with the OD&D Critters:
Not that imposing, but as always I'll keep an eye out for something better. And for pirate, I think the most iconic representation is going to be in 17th century dress, with firearms.  That won't work for most D&D games.  How about a compromise, and use of the skull and cross bones:
These were made from Emanuel Wynne's flag. God bless Wikipedia. Not really silhouettes, but they should function to mark areas of pirate activity on your campaign maps.

Mountain Notes

Video Game designers, use this as the texture for salamanders or, better yet, black dragons in your next game.  And make sure it's glossy, and has that squeaky-crunchy sound when you hit it with an axe or sword.

Seeing this texture makes me think of a large toad that's skin looks just like charred wood.  It burrows underground and up into firepits.  It likes the warmth and it means bad news for all the adventurers around making s'mores.  Why?  I'm not sure, but anything interrupting s'mores is already dire.

A One-Stick Dungeon!
I've always loved these beetle(?) paths.  Party asks the druid, "What's the path look like up ahead?"  Druid pulls some bark away from a stick, "We better turn back now."  Maybe these could be used as a material component for a Maze spell.

Treant brood are actually humanoids scaled like pangolins.  After a good, long life of mountain warfare with orcs and giants, they put down roots and transform.  Giant Sequoias actually have small cones compared to other trees.  Oh the comeuppance, when the little cone-boy picked on by all those pines turns into the Gentle Giant!

When I think of foothills, I think of oaks.  Mountains, conifers.  But there are actually some mountain oaks up pretty high.  I saw some at 6500ft.  So if you need adventurers to run into a deciduous dryad in the mountains, it's possible.  She'll just be smaller and colder.  That makes me think about the trees just on the edge of the tree line, battered, wizened.  If those trees could talk, or had dryads in them, that would be a place to find out things about the world.

I go by the general rule that adding wings to things makes them cooler.  So, winged giants.  That would scare the crap out of me.   Think Paul Bunyan Angel crashing down in the forest ahead of you.  'Course, I'd jump on my winged-bear and get the hell out of there.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Object Qualities

My Holy Grail for a long time has been a treasure item generator that would come up with every thing you might think of and some you would never think of.  I pondered this a little before and decided there are so many variables, it's probably best to separate out what the item is from the qualities of it.  So here is a roll all the dice chart to generate the qualities for any object.
I realized when I was almost finished that the materials would need to be different for clothing, so that part is kind of tacked on.  Think of the whole thing as a draft (this blog is a draft, my life is a draft).  Let's try it out:

Let's say the party finds a cup
1, 6, 1, 6, 10, 9
This cup is crude, half-size, 600 years old, and in pristine condition.  It is made of copper and is notable because it is an important ceremonial item.

Or a key
3, 2, 8, 2, 9, 20
This key is well-made, twice normal size, 200 years old, and has been repaired.  It is made of crystal and is notable because it is from some strange race or culture.

A note on notability-- with this chart pretty much everything will be.  You could ignore it if you just want an run of the mill item.  Also, that is the one aspect that most likely won't be apparent from the PCs just examining the object-- you could at least guess on most of the others.

A note on value.   These characteristics should probably affect the items monetary value.  But the variables depend so much on context I've left that out.  For example, an old sword might be more valuable because it is an interesting artifact or it may be worth less because it is not made with the most current technology.  Likewise, an object that is supposedly cursed (think the Hope Diamond) might be spurned or it might be sought out by a particular type of collector.  I'm not happy to leave more work for the DM but I'm not sure how to do this otherwise.

Ideas for additions or revisions?

Update 6/20: I've fixed the kooky "Size" math.  I would rather it be in words-- half-size, double-size, etc-- but got tired of fighting the formatting (maybe next revision).  I also removed mother-of-pearl from materials (consider it a possibility under "Gem") so I could put a "Roll Twice" result.  Because some cups should be gold-washed, or filigreed, or set with gems.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Mountain Map

Here's a sandbox for ya.  Don't see maps like this in modules.  This was surveyed in 1937 and printed in 1958. I cropped it some.  I'm at the yellow dot.

(p.s. Apparently I got StumbledUpon just when I'm at blogging lull.  Ah well, keep on truckin'.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


I'm thinking of offering some screen printed gaming stuff and wondered if Etsy might be the way to go.  Having somebody else handle the monetary transactions would be a boon as well as being able to start small with a few listings at a time.  Anyone have experience with it?  Any potential pitfalls?

Sporeheads: These humanoids with large, soft heads.  If they are disagreed with in conversation these burst open to shower spores everywhere.  Anyone in 30' save or become a sporehead in a week.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Another Update

I'm posting this from a national park making it too difficult to make silhouettes or find artwork.  I should have posted a joesky last couple posts but I'm kind of tapped.  I even canceled a game session Friday and probably this Friday. I always feel guilty about that, for years I was desperate for a group to play with and now I've got one clamoring to play and I cancel.  But to prepare to the level I'm satisfied with feels kind of job-like right now.  It can wait.

I also need to prepare something for the SoCal MiniCon which I haven't yet.  Nervous about that.

I have been working on hexagonal geomorphs up here, though.  If all goes well I'm hoping to post more about that soon (still looking for a few svg files).  And I've read 5 books in the last week and a half which is nice, because when I'm back home I don't read anything that isn't on the computer screen.  Another of them seems worthy of posting about once I finish it.

 Okay, blah blah, how's this for a game idea:
man with a growing golden beard, kept in a cage to harvest it.
  Wish I could claim it as my own but it's from one of the colored fairy books.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Medieval America, Punters, and the D&D Endgame

Richard mentioned the term "Medieval America" in a post recently and that has been rattling around in my head.  I think he was getting at something a little different (though this seems related).  Then I encountered the word "punter" and sat for a bit trying to imagine how I might translate that into Southern California English.  Anyway, the mash of ideas got me thinking.

Is Dungeons & Dragons fundamentally founded on the American idea of rags to riches?

I mean, Arneson and Gygax could have started players out as Hamlets and Arthurs and in the wargames they all had experience in, I imagine most characters represented by  players were of aristocratic origin.. But they didn't. They were just soldiers going down under those castles to see what fortune they could find. 

Now it may have just been that the most natural roles for players to take on when the great transition was made to one player, one character, was that of the poor soldier schmucks.  And  I know you have the examples from literature like Conan that they may have been modeling the game after, but you also have Arthur and all his knights and Aragorn.   And I like the Idea of D&D as a picaresque, but what if that was just a result of the fact that we humans tend to have time to play games once a week, and this pushes them to be episodic by nature?

So what do you think?  Is D&D partially the way it is because Americans all think they are CJ scraping their way up from the bottom, claiming their demesnes by the sweat of their brow, by their cunning and doggedness, if not ruthlessness?  Would we all be playing something closer to Pendragon if the first RPGs came out of Europe?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Unix and Magix

I feel like I've said this before, but if you think of magic as a predictable system of powerful arcane commands, there is no better metaphor in our world than computers.  And, no, I don't mean GUIs, I mean get under the hood, the command line.  You need to know what obscure formulae to use and if you don't use it exactly in the way you are expected, it will either just not function or, sometimes, put you at great peril.

Today I worked with the words of power: sudo, chown, and fstab.  The last one almost did me in.  If I were a mage, a demon nearly ate me.  I thought I had the solution to my problem, but it was really a tesseract loop:
  • Read-only filesystem (I can see you fiend!)
  • You are not the owner of these files (what is the demon's name?)
  • Try chown and chmod (these words of power shall bend you to my will!)
  • Read-only filesystem (foiled, noooooooo!)
Blarrgh, I was looking for some old geomorph files on a dead laptop, but I think I'll just go into the mountains, I'm burnt.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Priest of Chaos Said . . .

Life is Chaos: the weeds in the plowed fields, the orchards gone to woods, the shore worn away by the sea.  Chaos is long patterns: the rivers unfurl, the clouds move as they will but each with their own way.

The Elves make homes in the trees, but not by killing them and cutting them into sharp-edged planks then watching those rot and weather.  No, they watch for the trees' patterns and shape them slowly and live among them; the tree living, the Elf living.

Order is the hubris that mans' whims can be imposed on the world, and dooms them-- man, woman, and child-- to a lifetime of wearying burden.  Chaos is not the burning of cities, but realizing the foolishness of building such at all. Chaos is not lawlessness, but realizing that men, like trees, have their ways, and to lay laws upon them without acknowledging this, is to cut them down and bury them in plank-sided boxes.  Come with me.  I know not where I'm going, but we will learn along the way.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Serendipity VII

I used this one to represent a stained glass image of St Letholdus entering battle.
This is Scylla. I have never seen a representation like this, with human faces that have tentacles like beards, freaky cool.
Remember to worship that hydra.

Fable III

Fable II had problems, but the first half of the game was fun enough for me that I played it twice and would like to play it again.  Some things I liked about it:
  • buying and fixing up properties,
  • making money by trading in goods,
  • making choices that affected how my character looked,
  • interacting with npcs
Of these, I think only the first was not harmed by changes made in Fable III (though, a case could be made that they messed up the balance on this too; I quickly earned 1.5 million gold, where in the last game buying property was pleasantly challenging).

The Two-Item Store
I have never seen a video game regress as much as this did with its stores.  They went from stores with inventories that you could buy and sell items of a particular type, to stores with 2 or 3 items on pedestals that you walk up and buy or not.  You can only sell things at pawn shops.  Why?  Was this designed for use on tiny phone screens?  Are people so simple that they had trouble buying things from a list?  I had a fun time buying low from one merchant and selling high to another in the last game.  This game, I didn't even bother buying things for my own use.

You Are What You Do
I liked that you would change appearance if you did evil or lazy things, if you ate a lot of meat pies, or if you used big hammers in combat.  I made choices to avoid looking certain ways in the last game.  This is a very good way to make players care about choices.  This was pretty much neutered in Fable III.  Sure, your avatar changes, but minimally.  I maxed out magic-use and by the end of the game the only difference I could tell was that it looked like I had bad makeup on.

But more than that, the last game let you make choices as you went up in level about what to get better at.  This game dumbs that down as much as they did stores.  At certain points in the plot you go to the "Road To Rule."  In that location are a certain number of chests you can open to give you better abilities.  But that means you open a chest for better melee, no choice of melee moves.  It also means you can't buy properties, businesses or have kids until certain levels. Its hard for me to put into words all the things I didn't like about this set up.  I'll try:
  • I could only guess at when I would "go up in level." This meant if I wanted one of the abilities (like, hello, buying businesses) I had to plow on into the plot rather than exploring the world at my own pace.
  • When I did go up in level-- well, you didn't really go up in abilities unless you'd earned enough XP (guild badges) so you probably won't get all the abilities unlocked that first try.  Why?  Did I go up in level or not?  If you don't want me to get melee level 5 when I hit that level of the Road to Rule, why are you linking them?  Why not let me level up like the last game?
  • Some things like the emotes, should have been available far sooner in the game (it actually didn't matter much because they broke the emote system so badly).
Basically the level up screen, like pause screen, was made a real, physical place in the game.  I like that they were trying something new, but here the abstraction of a screen rather than a real place is much simpler, easier to understand, and easier to use.  Again, were people having so much trouble with the concept of leveling up that they needed leveling up to be physically represented as a road?  I don't buy it.

There are other regressions-- why can't I tell the how clothing or food will affect my appearance, why were the job mini-games all boringly homogenized- but I'll move on to my biggest disappointment.

NPCs Make the Imagined World Go Round
One of the things I liked most about Fable II was that NPCs had a few simple character traits that, added together as a system, lent the world a sense of verisimilitude.  Want to get to know the blacksmith so you get cheaper weapons?  Don't joke around with him because he's a serious dude.  Want to start a family with that attractive vendor?  She likes the lake and chocolate.  So, take her out to the lake and then give her the chocolate as a gift for the best results.  And, when you start a new game, the NPCs are randomly generated.  You may have one game where everyone in town is trying to jump your bones (men and women) and the next game everyone's a prude.  Is there any other game that has anything even close to this?  Because they killed it in Fable III.

In Fable III you can't emote.  You can only interact with an NPC and then you are given a random choice of emote to do or not.  (I keep wondering if I've made a mistake, the new system is so utterly stupid that it can't be intended.  Is there a way to emote and I missed it?)  What that means is that I was doing sexy tangos and playing pattycake with all the men in the world.  Look, I like that the game allows for same sex relationships and crossdressing, I think it's cool, but do I have to sexy tango with every man?  Did anyone play test this?  Is this supposed to be funny and I'm missing it?
So many difficult choices, if only I could just dance with everyone!
Okay, forget about how appropriate tickling grown men is, because the emotes are an abstraction and were silly in Fable II as well.  They still crippled the system though, because what used to be mini-games for the different emotes turned into just holding down a button until the controller vibrates.  Were the mini-games too difficult for people?  I like that they meant you had to pay attention, it was an abstracted sense of working on a relationship.  With the Fable III version it is boring, boring grinding.  I went from happily talking to every NPC in the first village, to not caring, to dreading having to interact with NPCs at all.  Dear game designers, was player dread a goal of yours?  Because I was quite happy with the last system.

I don't think the change had to do with having more cities and thus more NPCs, because the emote engine is still there, you just can't choose how to use them.  So I can only hypothesize that this change was meant to simplify the game in order to reach a wider audience-- but the old system wasn't difficult to begin with.

Unless . . . that bane of my existence, multiplayer mode has something to do with it.  I have no desire to play video games on my console online with random strangers, hell, even with friends.  If I want to play with friends give me a coop mode where we can be in the same room and play together.  But it seems I am in the minority in this.  Designers and players seem to want capture the flag modes with every freakin' game that comes out.  Is that why the NPC interaction system was regressed?  Because of problems with online multiplayer or coop play?

My recommendation is, if you liked Fable II for any of the reasons I mentioned, skip this game and play that one again.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Sunday, June 5, 2011


I'm housesitting and playing Fable III.  I have to say I'm sorely disappointed.  As is often the case, the sequel cut out some of the things that made the previous game interesting and unique.  Ah well, when I hit it rich I know better what game I'll produce.  I'm not done with the game yet, it may improve.  But it says something when the strongest feeling it evokes in me is a desire to play the last game again.  I may do a mini-review in the future.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Some Thoughts on Hosting a Heist

Here are some things I learned while trying to run a heist in my old school game:

Reconnaissance is Exploration
And much the way you would expect it to take some time for players to get the feel for a dungeon level, it will take some time for them to case the location of the heist. 

One of the reasons it takes so long is that players will adjust and concoct new plans for each bit of intel they get.  Find out about the guard patrols-- plan all the ways they might be distracted; realize there is a sewer underneath-- plan how to use it stealthily.  So, learning about a place will be a continuous, rolling strategy session.

That's all fine, because with the right players it's great fun, but it takes time.  Next time I would plan for the fact that casing the joint will require a whole session and the heist will go down the next session.

You could give them all the intel at the start, but then I would treat that the same way you would treat giving a party a map and rundown of a dungeon level: make the most of the player's anticipation of very difficult parts and make the most of the confusion and drama a few errors thrown in can create.  So the fun shifts from, "What could be behind this door?" to "How are we going to handle the troll behind this door?"  Or, even "Why did the thief lie about the troll behind that door?"

Consequences, Consequences, Consequences
The whole reason you case a place is because it's too dangerous to go right in.  That may be because you will get killed or the person you are trying to save will get killed, or maybe, the object you're trying to get to will just teleport away.

This seems completely obvious, but it's something I messed up.  First, the only legal repercussion my players had faced was not that bad.  Second, I didn't put enough guards at my location.  Third, I didn't limit my players movement/power enough.

So I recommend: Make the heist happen somewhere where weapons are forbidden.  Make the heist happen where trouble is expected and if the guards come the players will likely be killed.  Or make the legal consequences dire.  And make sure the players know all this.  In other words, if they can just enter the place, swords drawn, shields raised and win the day, it's a dungeon, not a heist.

I put a lot of effort into not trying to expect what the players would do.  I put trees so they might climb the walls.  I put a sewer they might sneak through.  I had pilgrims flowing in and out of the place so they could do some easing reconnaissance and possibly sneak in that way.  I put a place they might dig under the wall.  I included a supply/corpse wagon that they might sneak onto.  I also made sure the party had several magic items that might be of use.

And this worked pretty well.  But, I think to encourage players to break into teams, especially, more than two teams, would require more skillful design.

Why does it matter?  Because much of the drama of the heist is relying on the actions of your compatriots.  If they screw up, your job is that much harder.  Also, it puts players in the position of an observer for a bit, rooting for the other players in the way a regular dungeon adventure doesn't.

So, I would want to design the heist location better to try and make a two or three prong approach a necessity.  Magical locks, magical alarms, nested locations.

The Trouble Meter
I got two results of complications during play.  They both worked well just the way a random encounter mixes things up in an interesting way.  But, the whole Trouble Meter went out the window because my players immediately made themselves obvious to everyone by creating a loud distraction.  I never ended up escalating the trouble meter.

So, you need to take distractions into consideration, because they are part of the genre.  I think this might be related to me not making the location hard/scary enough.  It's one thing to have a patrol distracted for a bit so someone can slip by, and another to say "Hey, here we are.  We are going to cause a hell of a lot of trouble!"  Isn't that why guards are there?  My players should have been much more leery of raising the general alarm.  Or, I should have had a segmented location, where the second team could have still raised an alarm within their area.

The Event Clock
In a pseudo-medieval setting you have dawn, dusk, and noon.  Anything else will have to be rung from a church bell or something.  Times won't be as precise as in a more modern setting.  So the clock wasn't that important during our session. 

I think this is closely related to teams, though.  One of the basic ways one team can let down another in this genre is if they get their timing off.  They might get hung up because of a complication or get sloppy and start a distraction too soon.  So, to make the clock more relevant you need teams and you need time dependent tasks: "Once the magic door is opened you have thirty minutes before it closes again, permanently."

But, it means you need a way to measure time too.  pseudo-medieval characters aren't running around with Timexes.  How do they know when they are supposed to start the distraction?  This means players will need to utilize magic that extends the senses ("When you hear us start yelling, go!") or creates a link between the players.  Or, that the location itself needs to offer some semi-regular events that players can utilize as time markers.

The Rescue

Toral Powerless DP
Mollie Powerless DP
Athydas MU
Gail MU
Yestlick MU
    Janis hireling
    le bouche hireling
    Pita hireling
    Mika hireling
    Fabrino hireling
Derick F
    Jimbo hireling
    Zigfried trained baboon
Luke F
Sarai Rogue

The party is in Mont St Brise, the City of Pilgrims, their ship has been quarantined the crew and pilot incarcerated, their cargo confiscated.  They find that the prisoners are being held in the shrine of St Letholdus, the pilgrimage destination in the city.   They run into Luke and Sarai, brother and sister, whose mother is also being held for witchery.  The prisoners will be burned in a week.

The party follows the throng of pilgrims up the main processional and into the shrine to get a sense of the place.  The shrine is a three story, damaged keep with two entrances, pilgrims enter by one and exit by the other.

After being prevented from scouting the castle courtyard, Luke reveals he has an inborn ability to become invisible and proceeds to explore the shrine itself.  He goes down a set of stairs and finds a dungeon just below the shrine.  His mother is there, along with the ship's crew, the heretic Isabelle and the laodah (ships pilot).

There is also small sewage grate set in the floor.  He decides to see if he can exit via it. In the noisome darkness he has a hard time navigating, turning one way then another, at one point passing withing breathing distance of a silent, squatting figure.  He eventually finds his way out a grate, into the moat.

Mollie, Sarai and Yestlick decide to circumnavigate the castle.  They find several tall trees next to the walls and several sewage grates emptying into the filthy moat. They see Luke as he wades out of a grate.

After much planning, the party decides a two prong approach: one group will enter via the sewers while the other makes a loud distraction.

Sarai unlocks a grate, the team enters the sewer, finds the passage up into the dungeon with some trouble and begins unlocking the prisoner's cells.  G had learned enough of the sailors' language to know how to say "go down, bastards."  There was some tension about whether Isabelle would come because she seemed happy to martyr herself.  Her decision to escape with the rest made the party very happy.

Above ground, Toral was winding up into a sermon about the falseness of this shrine.  Z turns himself into a wolf as part of the play.  The whole scene is being watched by Sarai through a weird eye-in-egg so the teams can coordinate themselves.  Toral is winning over the crowd as the guards close in.

Back in the sewer, Mollie is leading the long line of prisoners to freedom when they come to a dead end (first complication) much confusion ensues.  A figure comes out of the darkness at the back of the group where G is.  He misses with a thrown dagger and then it is upon him, clawing and biting.  He is paralyzed and the figure begins eating the flesh from his face.

The rest of the sewer team rushes back towards the fight but isn't very successful.  Suddenly a light blossoms in the tunnel as Isabelle, heretic worshipper of St Cecily, drives the foul thing off.  The team figures out they can dig through the loose earth that has caved in their exit, Luke and Yestlick drag the stiff G.  The prisoners pour out into the moat.

Back above ground Toral is delivering a stemwinder (and the video being Facebooked) when a wagon begins leaving the castle by pushing right through the crowd (second complication).  The party finds the wagon is loaded with corpses (of the ill who have died) and Toral's implications that they have been killed by the Order of St Letholdus drives the crowd wild.  they begin attacking the guards as Athydas puts the wagon driver to sleep.  He also puts one of the draft horses to sleep.  He jumps down to cut the sleeping horse free as Z and his hirelings run into the shrine to snatch some of the offertory gold.  Finally, they jump on the wagon and proceed out the gate just as the straggle of prisoners is coming around in the moat.  Those all jump in the wagon, ad furious descent down the processional ends up with the party being dumped in the sea.  The still-paralyzed G is helped aboard and the party hastily sets sail in their ship.

Unknown to them, their sacks with 12,000 silver pieces were one floor up in the shrine.

Some Thoughts

If you take anything from this, ladies and gentlemen, it should be that a DM can make plenty of big mistakes and everyone still have a rip-roaring time.  So, learn from your mistakes, but don't let the fear of making them keep you from DMing.

I'll post next with some specific ideas about running a heist, but a few more general thoughts on last Friday's session:

10 is too many people playing all at once, at least for that space.

I learned from watching I Hit it With My Axe to give one-time visitors something special to give them some spotlight.  What I have learned though is don't give new players information that will be important to the party.  They have too much to absorb as it is.  They will forget.  They won't tell the party when they need too.  Give them powers or things.  Giving Luke's player the ability to turn invisible for 30 minutes once a day was great, he became pivotal early on (it also gave a reason to get involved with the party-- his mother was being burned because she had powers too).  Giving Sarai's players the eggs of Chinweike also worked well, making her important once the heist started.  Oh, I also told her she spoke Arabic.  She was thrilled when she read the magic word that activated Z's turban of climbing (finally).

If you want to give information that will incorporate new players, give it to the old hands who already know that these new players will need to be woven in somehow.  I guess you could say they are more meta savy, where new players are trying to figure out the imagined world itself.

Big d30 rule for the win again.  Toral chose to roll it, got a 30, and the crowd of leprous amputees began assaulting all the guards in their fervor at Toral's sermon.

I seemed to handle two separated groups okay, switching them back and forth quickly.

I could have done a better job of trying to draw in the quietest 3 players.  I did some, but with the volume of people in the room and all the stuff I was juggling there were stretches that they were too quiet.

The players totally misunderstood my portrayal of the shrine.  I guess they thought a D&D shrine would have sick folk go in one door and come out well from the other door.  I'm thinking that divine healing is as rare in my world as magic use.  They thought the whole city was an evil scam.  I was trying to depict it how I envisioned a real medieval pilgrim city might function. Through that lens, Toral's actions seem almost evil: he's fomenting revolt and violence against dedicated Allfatherans etc.

Now the party is back in the same ship, with the same crew, and almost the same passengers, minus their cash.  They are doing it wrong, haha.  I'm frantically trying to prepare for where they might go next.  I'm working on a city dependent on slave labor, with canals, and an invisible dungeon.