Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Sandbox Lessons from Westeros

I finally got around to reading the books of A Song of Ice and Fire at the insistence of one of my players.  I'm not quite done with the last book currently out, but I've enjoyed them quite a bit.  I think Martin has done a good job of providing plots that both provide for genre expectations at the same time as surprising me every now and again.

Anyway, as with anything I approached the books with the eyes of a DM and I found some simplifications Martin adopted to help him tell his stories that might also help DMs trying to run players in a big, imagined world.  Some simplifications you might consider for your fantasy world:

  1. Simple Family Names - There are some allegiances in the books that are complicated by marriage, but most are related to your immediate family and families in the books are clear because they have the same last name.  Bastards are also clearly marked by a traditional last name, and marked in such a way that you know where their family is from (Snow, Rivers).  This allows you to have a lot more characters floating about with out losing track of where they are from and where their allegiances most likely lie.  (Many, though not all, of the place names in the books function in similarly simple ways: Oldtown, King's Landing, Winterfell, Riverrun).
  2. Simple Coats of Arms - Along the same lines, heraldry is simple and almost always utilizes an object appropriate to the location and vocation of that family.  And soldiers wear badges of these arms.  So you can usually tell just by looking who different troops belong to.  That's the point of heraldry, but in real life it is much more complicated.  I think that for many of the arms of Westeros players might even be able to guess where the family hails from without former knowledge.
  3. Simple Long Range Communication - Ravens - By sending message via the ravens, word of deaths and crimes can spread relatively quickly.  And while uncertainty of arrival is always mentioned as a possibility, it's never been a plot point in what I've read so far.  So, in effect, the castles become points of civilization where news is heard and only someone traveling between them won't be privy to important goings on.  Individuals can also send messages, using the ravens like a mail system.  This means you don't have to have a complicated system to track the spread of news based on travel times of merchants or peasants, just have ravens carry the news and get on with the show.
  4. Assumed Knowledge NPCs - Maesters - Every castle has a source of history, technology, and healing.  And because of their vows, these maesters while serving that family, are generally neutral and not seeking power or wealth of their own.  Have a wound or question about historic lore-- head for a castle.  Priests are a similar resource, a septa or septon in every castle, but because of the low magic beginning of the series, they are less important in the books.  It might be more important in your world that every castle has a chapel and a priest.
  5. Assumed Dumping spot for troublesome NPCs - The Night Watch - It seems a neutral faction with its own military but concerns other than ruling, might be handy for many reasons.  Having an order to put criminals or potential threats to succession in means these threats never disappear, can be questioned by players, and can become threats again if they break their vows.  Also, the faction can be a place for players to look for aid, if it aligns with the order's goals.
Another smaller one might be simple cultural rules shared across the whole world, like any knight can make a knight, or that any marriage can be annulled if it wasn't consummated, or breaking bread with a host means they can't harm you.  Then, if players know these rules, they know the import of someone breaking them.

Anything you would add?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Collaborative World Building

I've had my players in this little sandbox for a while and needed a larger world outside of it.  I am not good at this because of indecisiveness and wanting to keep the infinite possibilities of an unwritten world as long as possible.  So finally I just asked my players to help.  I took a big piece of paper, cut it in four and asked them to draw some land.

They asked me about scale.  I told them ,"yeah, I don't know, don't worry about it."
After each of them had drawn some territory I had them pass their maps to another person and draw places people might want to live.  They were adding more features than I had intended.  I just needed help with some geography and where cities would be located but they were putting strange portals, ghosts, cave entrances, etc.
So I took there maps home and treated them as if they were folk maps, I mean that I made the scale much larger than their images seemed to show, because I wanted more than just four little sandboxes. 
I traced the major features and tried to interpret some of them.  Nicely enough, they had included some swamp, coastal marshes, mountains, forests and deserts, so there was geographic variety.  There was also ocean on a few of the maps that I interpreted as a central sea.  Here is what is what my interpretation looks like:
The scale is about 30 miles to the inch.  Don't know how realistic or game efficient that is but it seems good enough.

Putting it into Play
That took me about 2 weeks to get around to doing.  Then this Friday was one of my players birthday.  He asked if we could play using the map they had drawn parts of.  So I wracked my brain for a way to try and have a session that might tie into this newly made landscape.  I finally decided it might be fun to just give the some free mobility like I talked about in this post.  So I basically gave them a hot air balloon.  It is called the Wicker Tower, has an encumbrance limit and a magical stove that uses meat as fuel (so they have to land every now and then to hunt).
I used the elephant encumbrance sheet I had lying around.  It is 20' tall and 15' in diameter.  The boxes along the edge are hit points.  The six boxes in the middle represent the weight of one person and all their gear or the equivalent.  My players thought I did this explicitly to strip them of their hirelings (no, just trying to make them have to make choices, I'd actually forgotten how many total hirelings this party had).

Geographic Wonders in the World
On the wicker tower they found a corpse with some pages from a book and the map above.  I've been wanting to try Beedo's awesome idea of the Library of de la Torre for a long time.  Unfortunately I don't have all the cool rumors, dungeon locations, etc. that it requires, but I did have a bunch of wonders written up that hopefully might seem interesting enough to visit.  So that's what was on the pages, a selection of my wonders that worked well with some of the features my players had included.
I always have fun making physical game props.  For this I used the cool font mentioned in this post.  I printed them on heavy paper, folded them, soaked them in coffee and then dried them in the oven.  Each entry has a symbol next to it that corresponds to a place on the map.  Though some share the same symbol, so it can be unclear which wonder is at one of a few locations.  Some also have question marks because the location may be uncertain.

Cities and their Rulers
Okay, so I brought those things but I also asked them to do a bit more collaborative work on game night.  I had picked 6 locations from their maps to represent big cities and had them roll up stats for the cities as in this post of Zak's.  I still have to interpret all the results, there was actually an 18 for trade for the city nearest the party, so they were excited about that and are heading there next.  Then I had them all roll up characteristics of the leaders of each of these cities using my hireling trait chart.  Again, I need to digest that a bit but there were some promising results.

Balloon Flying Mini-game
One other thing I did, was try to see if it were fun or interesting to try a mini-game that you don't know the rules to.  I was trying to mimic the process of learning a skill in real life.  The balloon the players wanted to fly had four sets of pullies.  I gave four players a d4, d6, and d8.  They had to secretly roll the three and choose one as their result.  Then I would look at all those and tell them which direction the balloon was going.  Then they would roll again and try to direct it where they wanted, but they could only say "higher" or "lower" to each other.  The idea was that they had to figure out which pattern made the balloon go in a particular direction, then manage that pattern without communicating to much.  It was okay, nothing spectacular.  I intend to forget about it once they get a hang of flying in a wind, then we'll all assume they've learned to work it reliably.

In the end, it was a pretty fun way to make a fantasy landscape and then put it into play.  Now I need to go look at Vornheim again and come up with a map for this city they are going to.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Simple Weapon Quality

Update 4/26/14: I failed at reading comprehension.  Read this post as praise for Brendan's cool rule.

Weapons in old school D&D barely exist.  You chose them at character creation (whichever does most damage, probably) and then forget about them unless you encounter a rust monster or drop your weapon on a critical miss.  That's a bummer because there is a lot more richness in the source materials: weapons forged by masters, weapons forged of rare materials, ceremonial weapons, crude weapons, weapons that break, worn weapons, rusty weapons, dull weapons.  When was the last time your players honed a blade in game or visited a blacksmith to have a weapon made?

Necropraxis has a great house rule to get at this.  Go here and follow all his links to read the cool conversation about weapon wear.  While having a system of wear allows weapons to become part of the resource management of adventure gaming, I'm most interested in how this could make weapons more tangible.  So, I would probably simplify the wear aspect even a bit more.  Here's my go at rewording of it:
All weapons have a quality from 1-20.  If you roll under the quality of your weapon when you attack you "notch" it.  Notched weapons are -1.   If a weapon is notched again, it breaks.  You can hone out a notch in camp.
So, you basically have two pieces of bookkeeping (quality # and notched or not) and one thing to keep in mind as you play (did I roll under?).  I think that would be worth it.

To keep things simple I would consider a weapon that has had a notch honed out of the same quality as a brand new weapon.  In other words, I don't want to have to track how many times a weapon has been notched.  I would probably allow a blacksmith to fix a broken weapon at half original cost, but wouldn't reduce the quality because it was repaired.  I would probably not have criticals affect notching, otherwise, if a critical miss is always a notch than a #1 and #2 weapon are identical.  The same if a critical hit never notches, a #20 and #19 would be identical.

Cool Side Effects
One thing I've been trying to do in my game is make the campsite a tangible place too.  For example, music and freshly cooked food each give +1 to hit point recovery rate.  Having weapon honing be important, would give players another thing to do in camp and another reason besides recharging the magic user to want to stop and camp.

This rule would also make carrying weapon spares an interesting proposition, making encumbrance matter for more than just how much gold you can carry out of a dungeon.  And weapons found in a dungeon could become important if you don't want to risk breaking your already notched, but high quality sword.

Why No Armor?
You'll notice I've left out armor.  Armor presents a different challenge for me.  First, notching would depend on monster attack rolls so, I would have to worry not just about player AC but player armor quality as well and I've got enough to worry about in the heat of combat.  Second, if armor is found in the dungeon, it's not like your going to stop, strip off your old armor and put on the new the way you might immediately start using an axe you find in a crypt.  I think maybe a piecemeal armor system might be a possible solution, but armor is less a concern for me right now.

I'm excited to try this in play.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Class-based Rule Responsibility

I've long wanted to do some player handouts or booklets specific to each class.  Someone wants to play a fighter, give them a handout with all they need to know about fighters: how shields work, weapon damage, missile range, experience chart for leveling.  I haven't made these yet. 

But I was just thinking that in addition to giving that player everything they need to know at their fingertips, it could be quite nice for more casual players to have rule expertise in one realm and not need to worry about the rest.

So, if you have a house rule for armor wear and tear, let the fighter know about it, and they can explain it to the other players.  If you have special resurrection, level draining, or healing rules, let the cleric/priests become the expert on that.  This gives each player a reason to be important and it would probably increase the number of house rules/mini-games you could get away with without becoming too complex, because no players will have to know them all. 

Traditionally, a lot of the rules can be dealt with when need arises and only the DM needs to know the rules at all.  But when your start talking about subsystems like hunting, repair, special house rules dealing with travel, players need to know this stuff to be able to make decisions.  So, split up the responsibility of that rule knowledge.

Magic users could know about your world's languages and writing systems, all about scrolls and making them, perhaps about maps and curses and such.  Maybe also enough vague history of your realm to know what things are older than others.

I would probably include a lot about the undead for divine petitioners, and like I mentioned above, how healing and disease works.

Thieves would know any relevant lock mini-games, of course, but would be a good place to put knowledge of the values of treasure sold in different towns, the going rates for different gems and different types of coins, etc.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sandbox Wonders 12

91. Dark Ice Caves - The ice these caves are found in is a dark, purplish hue.  It melts to water of the same color.  This water freezes in darkness regardless of temperature.  Treasured by desert castellans.
92. The Great Stillwater - This lake in the center of a northern bog is deathly still.  In fact no ripples move on the water when it is disturbed.  If some of this is poured in another body, that water will still for an hour.
93. Ghost Road - Parties traveling on this ancient road see no one behind them and a party far in front of them that looks identical to theirs.  All parties see this.  Two parties traveling at the same time will not see each other until close enough to be mingling horses.
94. The Old Teeth - A line of obsidian plugs jutting from a rocky landscape.  Fires set next to them produce no smoke, as if the plugs breathe it all in.
95. The Round Pools - A flat, stone plain dotted with small, circular pools.  The fresh water never dries up and bathing in one will speed healing of small wounds.  Bathing in several in the proper intervals will heal completely and even restore limbs.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Sandbox Wonders 11

86. Grey Hills - These low rolling hills are a sickly grey and made almost entirely of clay.  They are treacherous in wet weather but folks say bricks made from the clay cannot be broken by siege engines.
87. Keep Tree - From a distance it looks like a stand but it's actually one huge, ring-like tree.  With one entrance and a clearing inside some thirty feet across, many tribes, patrols, and pilgrims have sought shelter here over the years.  Oaths made inside bind like a geas.
88. The Honeycomb - Red sandstone with tight, twisting passages and holes of different sizes worn by wind and ancient water ways.  The best shelter for miles in the badlands, it's said you can hear the conversations of all those that have camped there before in the wind moaning through the crannies. 
89. God's Bowl - In the floor of a rocky mountain valley a massive vein of white quartz holds a pool of water.  This water will never freeze even if taken from the pool.
90. Wight Woods - Evergreen trees that do not move in the wind but move as if by wind if the dead are moving near them.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Sandbox Wonders 10

81. Sand Falls - A plateau in a desert with dunes on and around it.  Every third day sand falls from above.  The sand is so pure and fine it's said a person with cursed weapons or armor can remove them while standing under the fall.
82. The Roots - Acres of twisted roots with no soil.  Very difficult to travel through.  These roots consume soil around them and cuttings are feared by farmers and desired by sappers.
83. Dark Water - Somewhere in the ocean a patch of dark water exists.  It is oily and stinks like-rotting fruit.  Bathe in it and animals will ignore you for a day.
84. God's Breath - These rocky flats are blasted by a continuous downward wind.  So loud that speech is impossible.  It is said someone cannot be scryed for as long as God breathes on them.
85. The Shells - Deep in a desert a vast area of pinkish dunes.  These are actually made up of millions of tiny shells.  Placing the shells in water causes them to revivify as tiny molluscs and crustaceans that are voracious and consume any meat nearby.