Friday, July 31, 2009

DM Levels

This module is intended for a 5th level DM.

I've seen Quick Starts and modules intended for complete newbies, but after their shaky inaugural flight first DM's are treated as identical in gaming products. Aren't they?

I think there's way more granularity possible than just complete newbie and expert, but I'm not sure how that might play out in terms of tools and products. This would depend on understanding how DMs with different levels of experience function differently at the table-- what they need the most help with and what would be a waste for them.

I read Chgowiz, I think, mention that he never rolls up encounter hit points until the creature is actually hit. I think this is elegant in that, if that flock of stirge is dropped with a sleep spell, or the orc party is parlayed with, all the prep time to roll their HP would be extra, unnecessary work. But for myself, not having enough experience to remember, how many hit dice a hill giant has say, and not wanting to have to fumble around during play looking that up and rolling it and recording it, I roll out everything in advance. Here's an example from my last session:
I tried to make it as simple and clean a layout as possible, but I wanted all the info I might need in play at my fingertips. The big numbers are hit points of the creatures present. These were set encounters, I do something similar for random encounters. I was even thinking of producing a template for that. But I realize this may be considered elementary by more experienced DM's.

So here is my question for you to ponder: As you've grown in experience as a DM what tools or techniques have you grown out of? Or, as you've grown in experience as a DM, what tools did you find yourself inventing because your needs as a DM changed with that experience?

Learning to DM

I've spent much of my life thinking about roleplaying games, more than anyone around me. So when I found a community of like minded folks, I came into it quite confident. I mean, I've dwelt in this tuff for years. You can probably tell it in the tone of my earlier posts. Heck, I think my first post to the Swords & Wizardry forum was a suggestion to change the way saving throws work. But after spending time reading the blogs of people who have been playing roleplaying games these thirty years, and especially after getting a chance to DM again, I feel quite humbled.

In play, I realized that some of the most commonly occurring situations- the simplest things- I didn't know how to handle, hadn't ever made rulings about.

Lately I feel reluctant to make any grand proclamations. I feel like listening instead of propounding. Which seems sort of a bad state to be in for a blog.

I think what I've learned in life about learning is that we have steep climbs, where we are learning a lot about a subject, almost faster than we can take it in, and plateaus where we coast along using what we've learned for a while (and subconsciously digesting it all). I think I'm on one of those steep climbs right now, learning tons. So that's cool, and exciting, but it makes me hesitant to make any claims to knowledge the way I was a few weeks ago.

I suppose this could still be useful to others in that you can observe me learning. And I think there are still insights I might offer up. Here's one: it seems there is a finite set of things you need to be able to handle in a roleplaying game, in fact, a very limited set. What I mean is that you will need to resolve who acts first, who hits or doesn't, what happens when the players head off into the wilderness, how will NPCs act, etc. That sounds trivial on writing it out, but it is profound to the student DM.

Once you feel comfortable with a ruling to deal with wilderness travel and encounters, for example, you are set. You may run across more efficient ways to handle this, more elegant or creative ways to handle this (and this is what blogs and forums are great for), but you won't need to worry "What will I ever do, if the players skip my dungeon and head off into the hills." Once you have your way to handle this, you can sit down at any table, with any group of players and feel confident about refereeing play.

Again, this all seems almost too trivial to write, but I remember my very first attempt at DMing, which was horrible, and was so for the very reason that there seemed to be infinite rulings that I might need to handle and infinite information I would need to know.

I think what I am writing is that I am starting to see the parts of being a DM, which is evidence of my learning. The way when you learn about something enough, it starts to click and it isn't all of a sudden a mass of confusing noise, but you can see the patterns and commonalities.

Another idea that just popped into my head is that DMs at different levels of experience will need very different tools. Which sounds obvious too, but I don't remember ever hearing anyone say "This is a great tool for an intermediate DM" or "This tool really shines for a beginner, but isn't worth it for an experienced DM."

So for a post that started as me saying I'm leery of propounding I'm certainly doing a lot of it, haha. But this last idea has caught my interest, so I think I'll move it to a new post so it doesn't get lost in my blah, blah, blah.

Session Post Mortem

I get so stressed out wanting to be utterly prepared and do everything right and then go play and . . . just have so much fun. I had two players. I decided to roll up an NPC mage to add to their firepower because I was really worried about them surviving.

Well, I rolled on my Hireling Traits Spur for my NPC Ciranil the mage and found out he was a drunk with big feet from a distant land. So I made him come from Asile, my campaigns version of France and gave him my version of a French accent. My players were laughing constantly, not because of my accent but because of my bawdy comments. My friend suggested I record and transcribe my crazy dialog.

I did use the NPC to discourage the players from investigating my unfinished megadungeon. I feel kind of tacky about it, but even if the ground level had been finished, the way I imagine it, it would have been too dangerous for this party.

So the party pressed on to the end of the map where, presumably, the remains of St. Cecily lie. At the end of three long days of hiking with no random encounters (!), they reached a rock face filled with cave entrances.

The first they chose was the easiest to enter. A crude stone sarcophagus surrounded by the skeletons of four monks. The party was wary and on attempting to behead one of the skeletons they awoke them all. Only one of the hirelings, the hated Odric, was felled. And he was back in action after Kira the Cleric cast cure light wounds on him. He immediately continued his rant about not being paid enough for the danger of the work.

They found some rare perfume and a brittle, old cloth roll of beautiful feathers in the tomb. The next cave they decided to examine was filled with furry yellow mold. Thankfully, they decided against venturing in (I really am rooting for the party).

The next cave entrance was harder to reach and required either shimmying along a ledge or climbing a rope attached to a grapnel. They chose the latter and the fighter Anselm, lone survivor of last weeks carnage clambered up to be bit on the face by a giant spider and failed his save versus poison. As I was describing it to him, my friend said you know I'm arachnophobic, you don't have to do that. !! I didn't know. What a horrible way to die.

The other player decided to head back to town. I feel bad about them losing characters. And I certainly don't set out to try to kill them. I told my friend, "I try to think of what might live there and then put it there. You have to kind of expect a sort of naturalism". Or something of that sort. But they both seemed to have great fun and want to play again. I think it will be such an event when someone reaches 2nd level we'll need to have a cake.


Well, knock-on-wood, I'll be playing Swords & Wizardry with at least 2 players in 5 hours. It's been a two week hiatus since the party successfully cracked the secret of the ruined convent.

At this moment I am not prepared. I have a lot of ideas floating around in my brain, but I have no idea where play will take the party today. They have a map pointing to the tomb of St. Cecily (they don't know that's the destination), but that is a three days ride through inhospitable terrain.

Following the path the map presents should also take them by my embryonic megadungeon. It is the ruins of an ancient city built by a mad, Caligula-esque Emperor. I only have a vague idea of what they would find there if they decide to leave the trail to explore.

Anyway, I plan to firm up my ideas on random encounters for the hills they'll be riding through. I will rough out the caves at the end of the map, assuming they plow through the wilderness and make them. I'll also prepare some specific encounters for a hill giant and a patrol of a tough, pony-riding, hill people I have in mind.

One thing I'm realizing about wilderness travel: it's hard to give players choices without specific landscape details. I'm wondering about the legendary Western Marches campaign, how specific did the DM get in his descriptions of the land they were travelling over? Because if you don't have something like a crude topographic map, it is all a hazy, vague area to be moved through where ambushes can spring from anywhere. Maybe this is why wilderness travel is often handwaved to get the party to, and into the dungeon.

I want to give the same sense of adventure and danger that the party gets exploring dark, underground passages for their journey through the wilderness though. I'll see what I can come up with and pay close attention to how it plays out.

Magical Portals - The Plain

This door was intended to contain reliefs of scenes of a legendary tale in each panel, but I never finished. I suppose the upside is that you could fill them in with your own story now. I am fond of that lock- who says door have to have only one key?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Magical Portals - The Loquacious

This door is a little busy for my tastes now, but I had great fun locating the same phrase in as many languages as possible. Again, there are probably errors, but the phrase is supposed to be
"from the least to the greatest." And the door opened when the people wanting to pass through were ordered thus by height.

The ninth line is my own version of Dwarvish runes. The eleventh is a script for my own language I made up (partially) called Nuush.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Magical Portals - The Elvish

Once upon a time there was a DM that spent too much time thinking about AD&D instead of playing it. Because of this, he concocted more and more puzzly things to spring on players. And when the chance arose to play, lo did he give them a room with 6 magical puzzle doors and the player were sore bored.

Centuries later he decided that perhaps someone could use these doors in their megadungeon, though he advises strongly against more than one door per level! Here is door the first:

It is inscribed in Professor Tolkien's Elvish and the inscriptions mean:

I don't claim that this is grammatically correct (elves are known to be lax with their grammar). These were basically three snippets of poetry by a single Elvish author dealing with grass, and a clump of fresh grass presented to it opened it. All that work and there was an elf in the party who read the door and opened it with no work at all :)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

World's Largest Cave Found

Apparently deep in the jungle in Vietnam. More pictures at the story.
At 262-by-262 feet (80-by-80 meters) in most places, the Son Doong cave beats out the previous world-record holder, Deer Cave in the Malaysian section of the island of Borneo.

Deer Cave is no less than 300-by-300 feet (91-by-91 meters), but it's only about a mile (1.6 kilometers) long.

By contrast, explorers walked 2.8 miles

via Neatorama

Update 7/28/09: Nellisir points out the Sarawak chamber, may actually still be the biggest cave chamber:

You could fly dragons around in these things!

Sandbox Accessories - Empire Ruins

Your Romans, or Thulians, or Atlanteans left traces didn't they? The idea that much knowledge was lost in the dark ages combined with mythical places of strange magical arcana like Atlantis or Lemuria can be hinted at in ruined structures. I like the idea of roads most. What better way for an adventuring party to find the lost ruined cities of those cultures than to stumble across a road and follow it to its origin?

Just the existence of such things lends an air of age and history to a sandbox. It also triggers the inquisitive part of my brain, starting me thinking about what trade travelled on these roads and where is all the wealth generated by said trade. In addition to road fragments I think it would be cool to run across an ancient bridge:


And tunnels:

Not tunnels leading to a dungeon, but tunnels as a fragment of civilization. Maybe they serve as a safer way to travel through dangerous territory. The Romans made some very long aqueducts. Read here about one over 100 kilometers long that took more than a century to excavate.

But what about the element of the fantastic? I like the idea of remnants of building that are difficult to discern what they were for. Perhaps they were a hippogriff stable. Perhaps a great summoning circle. Perhaps a cage to keep the tentacled demi-god imprisoned, long since broken. Bat in the Attic has a nice post on lists of kings evoking history in a sandbox. I like the idea of statues or great stone heads of these emperors scattered through the wilderness. Or how about a stone stelae somewhere listing the roll of rulers that must be referenced at various times in the campaign, and each time requires a dangerous journey to the stela.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Sandbox Accessories - Shaped Trees

Odd trees will always make for interesting landmarks. For example, a tree growing from another tree:

In the backyard of my childhood home was a single tree onto which my father had grafted plums, nectarines, and peaches. The oddness and wonder of how humans could manipulate plants has stuck with me. And if you've been on the internet long, you've most likely seen posts of trees shaped by people into chairs or woven patterns. These fascinate me as well. A braided tree could make for a memorable feature in your sandbox:

These trees always seemed very elf-like to me. And just think, what elves, living for centuries, could coax from nature with patience. Bridges:

That is in Bangladesh. Or this:

Of course those are crude in comparison to what elves would be able to craft. I'll leave the elf-bridges to your imagination. How about roadways lined by trees for miles, even across plains where trees are scarce. Or, within, forests, avenues of trees still discernible to the observant:

But, the truly fantastic would be whole buildings shaped from trees:

And even that is just the barest idea, crude in comparison to my imagined elf cathedrals. Even whole elvish cities shaped from trees only to be abandoned.

The last few pics came from here, look there for more interesting landart ideas.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sandbox Accessories - Balancing Rock

I've been thinking about things players might encounter in the wilderness that are interesting, memorable, but not necessarily hazardous. Basically, the cool things that make you want to be a tourist, but kicked up a fantasy notch. So I thought I'd pick something I'd love seeing from the real world and then give some fantasy idea that is similar. So, for the first installment, that old standby, the balancing rock.

This one is from Garden of the Gods, Colorado (cool name, huh?). Your lost, hungry characters, on seeing this, will know exactly where they are and how to get home. In a fantasy world, what if there was a cave or lair in a balancing rock? A nest on top of it? Or, better yet, the balancing rock is so big, a forgotten city is carved right in the side of it and that is where the adventure will take place!

Walk very carefully and don't poke too hard with that 10' pole! :)

Creature Feature - White Blight

White Blight, also known as troll's bread, and cave flesh, are actually gigantic puffball fungi. They can grow to thirty or forty feet in diameter and will assume the shape of a smaller space, hiding features and blocking passages. The blight is fibrous and spongy, with grayish spores inside. It can be hacked through with difficulty. The spores emitted will make breathing difficult, but they are not deadly.

This fungus is largely an annoyance, especially when it has grown up since an exploring party's last visit to a cavern and must be cleared to continue exploration.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Creature Feature - Sword Ticks

Sword Ticks look nothing like ticks and their hazard is not limited to swords. Though, they are as small as ticks and can jump the length of a man, they are more a kind of tiny subterranean limpet, or arthropod with a very hard shell. Living in massive colonies wherever iron or it's ore is present, their great numbers and stony coloration make passages appear to shimmer.

Preferring steel above ore, they will jump onto swords, shields, and armor-- anything ferrous. Once onto the object they lock on and are protected by their shells. Strangely, they do not consume metal and, if removed, leave no trace. But it is nigh impossible to remove these pests-- even fire seems to do little-- requiring caustic chemicals or magic.

Once clumped with sword ticks metal objects become almost unusable due to the added weight and bulk. Swords become difficult to wield and impossible to sheath. Armor becomes ponderously cumbersome. Many a weapon has been discarded to a sword tick swarm.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Deadly Distraction Compilation

I threw together all my troublesome creatures so you can have them handy. It's not a work of art and will need revision, but I wanted to make it available. Three of four players canceled for our planned session today, so that's why I've got so much time to post.

Stat Blocks

After posting about the kind of product I want, I got a bad feeling, that maybe something just like I was talking about has been available for years and I'm the only one who doesn't know it. So I've been poking around a little bit to see what products are currently available. One thing I noticed is everything provides "stat blocks."

When I read that I think of "blocks of text." I hate that term. I don't want monsters or NPCs to have blocks of anything. What happened to just stats? When did the information for monsters and NPCs become blocks of stats?

I like the fact that Swords & Wizardry monsters basically let you know: How hard they are to hit, how many hit points they have, how much damage they do to you, and how fast they can move.

Okay, there's a little more than that, but, I wouldn't call it a block.

And for NPCs? It makes me think of sports stats. "Here comes the local baker stepping up to the plate, he's got a good streak going this season . . . looking at his stat block I see, WOW, he's got an 80% success rate on loaf rise! That's tough to keep up. Okay, let's see how he does today . . ."


So voting for the Ennies starts today. It's notable because Swords & Wizardry is up for a vote for best free product and Mythmere Games, along with several other OSR publishers, is eligible for best publisher. I wasn't even going to mention this, figuring if you found your way to my blog you probably already know this.

But I went and voted, and looking at the entries up for vote in the other categories I felt that weird way I do when I'm in a craft store. I'll be there buying paints for minatures or green felt for where the undead will spring from the villiage green, but to get it I have to push my way through plastic flowers and glitter buttons and plastic fru fru.

It is alien to me. The best cover art categories, for example, all look like bad comic book covers. The cartography seemed to focus on battlemaps. The categories themselves speak to different values; Regalia!? Where I come from that's what you prance around in when you earn a doctorate, are these little paper hats for your core books? Listen OSR, I NEED YOU! If you disappear, it will be just me again muttering off in a corner while everyone is optimizing their feats for five more years.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Villages & Maps

I wrote previously about my current task of fleshing out the local sandbox for my players and my difficulty with map scale. I'm still working on that. But in my daily rambling through the internets I ran across the D&D Doodle blog and something clicked in the way this map is drawn.

Apparently this is the base town from the 4e Dungeon Masters Guide. The style is a teeny bit too cartoony for me, but then, that's part of its style, and what made me stop to look at it. It reminds me of a Disney style attraction map that I loved as a kid. On seeing the buildings presented isometrically, I knew that that's how I want to draw all my towns and cities if possible.

I've also been researching medieval villages and recommend Life in a Medieval Village by Frances and Joseph Gies. It gives enough meat for me to understand the dynamics at play in a village without getting dry and scholarly.

I know now, for example, that villages will tend to cluster around 1) the manor house 2) the church 3) the road 4) all three. I also know the person living in the manor is not the lord but the man working for the lord, the reeve. Why does this matter?

It doesn't. I'm sure you can whip out a map of a village in a few minutes that we could use as a adventure base and we'd have fun. But somehow, constitutionally, I want to know how things work underneath. Once I know the reasons and underpinnings, then I can make changes as I need. Part of it probably has to do with confidence, but part of it is probably related to curiosity-- I really do want to know what it was like living in a medieval village. So, here I am reading about the construction of cruck-houses, in order to have a feel for the buildings that make up a village, in order to make a map of a village that my players may spend a night in. Haha.

It's kind of sad. But it's interesting too, did you realize that people in Northern Europe had forgotten how to use rafters?! This was something the Romans knew. So the villagers regressed to these cruck-style roof supports (at least circa 1200-1300).

Needless to say, all this research takes some time. But I'm hoping once I have it under my belt and feel comfortable with this knowledge, that I'll be able to, not only whip out maps of villages, but handle any questions players might have: "Oh, those peasants are carrying barley to the tithe barn," or "It's night, so the sheep are all in the lord's sheepfold" etc.

So, combine the cool isometric map view and the realistic detail and you have what I want in a village map. I went hunting around the web and found this!

This is so cool, exactly what I'd love to look at as a player in a campaign. I found this here. Which is apparently from a book by John Simkin. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the book for sale online. And it's only one image. So I pulled out some paper and pencil and I'm trying to emulate the style. But I'm not a trained artist. This is the kind of thing I'd love as a product. Give me five generic villages drawn in this way, with the briefest of keys just listing the types of buildings-- tithe barn, mill, tavern-- and I would pay good money for it.

I suppose this it what the hobby is about: scratching our own itches, houseruling the way we want, designing our own dungeons etc. So I realize this might not interest you at all, but I would love a project that set as a goal to map and key a variety of historically realistic settings: a village, an abbey, a castle, a town. I know each of these have appeared in various levels of realism scattered through various modules and articles, but I think it would be cool to have the set together as a realistic baseline. Then if you wanted to add some fantastic elements or gonzify it you could.

I stumbled across Midkemia Press' free download of Towns of the Outlands and I like it quite a bit. Its almost what would satisfy me. I love the different themes of the settlements: there's a mining town, a tribal fort, and a smuggler's cove, for example. But it has that generic D&D supplement feel to it, like somebody who knew no more than I do about mining technology in the 1300s plopped down and pulled something out of thin air. Well . . . I can do that.

I suppose what I'm looking for is all the complexities and niggling details of expertise in the subject boiled down into a simple product I can use, knowing the expertise is behind it.

I wonder if I'd been born in the UK or somewhere in Europe if I'd be this fascinated with these things. You have to keep in mind that where I'm from 100 years is oooooold. That in elementary school I studied Chumash indians, which was cool, but somehow grinding acorns between to stones doesn't capture my imagination like a castle under seige.

Update 7/24/09: Added the link to the Yalding page. Thanks Chris for pointing it out. The site is worth poking around at. Here, for example is a map of Caerphilly Castle.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


I watched the movie The 13 Warrior again last night. I love the way it shows the protagonist learning language over time. I've always liked the richness and "realism" languages (and writing systems) add to roleplaying. Actually, maybe it's the other way around and the game is more an excuse to explore and play around with language because I enjoy it so much. Anyway, I've used a lot of Latin and Esperanto in my games as inscriptions and trigger words for magic items. I never achieved characters having to deal with speakers of a different language, though. Probably because I didn't know how to simulate that.

I was reminded of a post I ran across at Knights & Knaves that fits right in with my mission of simplicity as well as the ideas of abstraction and games within games that have come up in my last few posts. Werral proposed a method to have players roleplay their level of ability in languages. I really like it. I especially like the possibility of hirelings that don't speak the common tongue well. I also like that there are only 6 levels of ability, and really there are only 3 word restriction rules to be remembered. This is rich enough to add flavor and, I imagine, humor to the game table but simple enough that it can be applied to the character who has 6 languages. Here are the rules in brief:

0 - Gestures only
1 - No verbs, only proper nouns
2 - No verbs
3 - One verb per sentence
4 - Fluent with an accent
5 - Native fluency

To distinguish 4 and 5 a little I might take a suggestion from that discussion thread and make level 5 fluency grant a level 3 ability with dialects within that language.

I'm monolingual, but in my time in Poland I probably got to a 2.5 in Polish. What flabbergasted me was how I could suddenly understand Czech billboards and even snippets of Russian spoken in movies. I'd thought those languages would be as different as Italian and Japanese. So, another intriguing idea is setting up language families as a DM and then allowing speakers of closely related languages to be able to communicate in them at a reduced level. I don't think it would complicate things too much to say, for example: speakers of Orcish can speak Goblin at one level lower.

I plan to incorporate this in my campaign, but it requires some decisions on my part about what languages exist in my world.

ps - Anyone know if Werral has a blog? I couldn't find one but would be interested to see more ideas like this one.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Telecanter's DM Spurs - Magic Items

A post on the Swords & Wizardry forums asks for a random magic item generator. Now, I have been thinking about a random treasure item generator. Magic item is different, it implies the PCs will be using it, you need to think about things like rods, wands, orbs etc and deal with the various powers. Where the item generator I was going for would generate any kind of interesting valuable items you might find.

Anyway, I tried to oblige. Consider it a draft because the "items" familiar and uncommon are too vague to be useful to me as a DM, I think. But this is the constraint of the Roll all the Dice method, I needed the d12 and d20s to describe the magical effects.
I'd like to do better, or at least implement a second roll all the dice item generator that you could use in tandem with this.

OSR - Meta Ideas II

Okay, let's try again. I think what I have come to is this: What players want, what companies want, even what DM's want may not make for the best game at the table.

So what would make for the best game? I don't have the experience to answer that, I'm still learning. Maybe a way to approach this is from the other direction, what do these three groups want.

Players want powerful characters and they don't want to die. They want a lot of gold and magic items. They also want to have fun and be excited, scared and wowed as they play.

DMs want products to help them shoulder the burden of creating entire worlds from whole cloth. They want settings and adventures rich in detail and preparation that they can revise and reuse in their own settings. They want to provide more logical rules and they want play at the table to be fast and fun.

Companies want a product that gamers find so useful it will provides steady and reliable income. They want a larger market. They want to sell more products while building a good brand.

Okay, I cheated a little. Those are all written from the angle that problems will be caused if they are fulfilled, or they are in opposition to each other. I'll shut up now and just ask you:

What can the OSR produce that would make for a better game at your table?

Monday, July 20, 2009

OSR - Meta Ideas

Mr. Sean Wills posted a question to the Swords & Wizardry forums asking:
What new ideas do you think will drive future adventure and rules-supplement design in different directions to the path OD&D took ?

Are there zeitgeist ideas ? What is 'so NOW it hurts' ? Why hadn't those ideas surfaced previously ?
I like this question. As usually happens, as I was writing an attempt at an answer I was discovering more ideas with each sentence I wrote. So, a little more writing to try to tease those out.

I think the biggest thing that the OSR can offer that is different from the development that roleplaying games of the past took is that Hobbiests can usually offer better what other hobbiests want than a big publisher.

What the publisher needs is sales and to get sales you have to offer things players want. But the great irony of this hobby is that what players want often ruins the game.

One great product for a publisher is a setting. Because Detail is Expensive, the company is better set up to offer something so detail intensive. The company can even offer it in installments, slowly revealing the area while earning a steady stream of income. Remember all the I.C.E. products, detailing Tolkien's world region by region? I remember when I saw one of those I wished I had them all. I didn't like the idea that I wouldn't know the canon detail on Mordor, for example. Wasn't the Known World handled in a similar way? I'm not sure, Greyhawk was the world of my youth. I clearly remember the excitement of getting the Greyhawk boxed set for a birthday. It encapsulated a lot of the things I love about roleplaying games, different cultures, languages, hints at epic events of the past. I ate that thing up.

And yet I have never set any adventure in Greyhawk. I was always afraid that I would do something "wrong." Part of the reason I liked the setting was the sense I got that it had a real history, that a lot of it got developed through play. But that feeling also gave me the sense that a real person had developed this and was an expert on the history of his world. Now its true that I could have ignored that, and many people must have, but I think that eventually there will be a level of detail that is unassailable to a DM, a level of detail where a setting wants stories set in it not adventurers exploring it. Tekumel is an example of this for me too.

Because Detail is Dominant, the more you put in your product the less likely I will use it.

Along those lines I was fascinated to read that the original Forgotten Realms boxed set promised that certain areas would never be developed that those areas would be left to the DM. What better evidence that what the DM needs is not what the company is offering. In effect, TSR was saying, "We have this setting we are selling as a product line and we realize doing this makes it less useful to you, so here is a little bit of it we'll leave for you to use." It doesn't really work, though, because your area would border on their areas, and eventually, they'll do some world changing event that will be hard to ignore even in your backwater.

Anyway, what about the OSR? I haven't checked out Points of Light yet, and I don't have the old Judges Guild Wilderlands, but I wonder if these are closer to what would be useful to DMs. I think the setting has to manage the fine balance of saving the DM the grunt work of setting up a plausible array of cultures and countries without closing off any possibilities. But maybe this is really tilting at windmills. Because placing cultures implies a history, and trade routes and climates and you are quickly immersed in implied detail again.

Maybe the solution is: forget the damn big picture, my players and I don't need more than the briefest idea that there is a Lemuria, we certainly don't need a whole continent mapped to play first level characters. So what do we need?

The common answer is adventures! Modules! I think this is another thing that is deceptively desirable. You have an adventure like the The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, packed with goodies and bad guys, your players go in clean the place out and . . . never think of that location again. At least that's what we did as players in my campaign.

What I want are locations. I keep reading this term that old school adventures are "location-based", and maybe this true in comparison with later developments in roleplaying-- the adventure paths and such. But without those later developments I think the term would be laughable. The classic modules were set up as adventures. They were designed to be run at a convention in a matter of hours, with a goal. This was not, "hey let's go explore that cool series of caverns" it was "we have to neutralize the Drow threat".

This is great for the company, they can reuse the detail developed for use in their conventions, because Detail is Expensive, remember. But for me the lowly DM it causes a lot of problems. The adventure implies you have Drow in your world, and mountains in a certain relationship to settled lands, and that certain events have happened in your world. Where do you stick these modules? And the excitement of wildly different locations for modules means, what, I have to have my characters travel to the jungle one week, the mountains next week, underground the next?

Where is the product that gives a rough sketch of a swamp area with monsters and features that are plausible for such a terrain? Or a product that outlines a system of caverns. Oh, wait that was B2 The Keep on the Borderlands. That module seems to be critically acclaimed, and yet where are the similar products that give the brief outlay of a small area that a DM can drop into a their world wherever they want?

Where are the towns? The only one that seems to ever get mentioned is Hommlet and that is pretty closely tied to the TOEE and the world of Greyhawk. I want some generic, semi-realistic medieval towns to plop down in my world, and cities, and castles.

Maybe what I'm talking about is not detail, but the tools to make my own detail. The flurry of hireling generators and things Like James Raggi's random Inn generator spring to mind. While these kind of things have been offered before, I think they are counter to the goals of a company. If you sell a hireling generator, and it's a good one, well the DM will never need another one, and they'll never need a list of hirelings.

Wait, wait wait. I'm realizing that I'm rambling on here and just sort of freewriting instead of deriving some ideas as I had hoped. I think I'll publish this anyway, in hopes it's of interest, but try a fresh post to boil it down more.

Telecanter's DM Spurs - Hireling Traits

I don't have a lot of experience with hirelings. In our 1e campaigns of the past we had parties consisting solely of player characters and, if needed, players controlled two characters. But it wasn't often needed because death seemed to be a mythical event that happened off-stage to peasants.

Fast forward to today and Swords & Wizardry and I've got four players taking 13 people into a deserted convent in a brash and incautious way. The ants and stirge are feasting well. But how do I as a DM differentiate these damn hirelings. I'd used Steven Cook's Quick NPC Checklist to give me names physical features and traits all at once. But that list was finite and I apparently need an infinite way to come up with the barest characterization details for these hirelings on the fly. And so, I crafted:
To do this I consulted a lot of sources starting with Grim's Roll All the Dice Npc Generator, Robert Lionheart's Random Hireling Generator from Knockspell #1, Fitz' cool NPC Personality Profile Generator, and the beloved 1e DMG.

To be clear this will not tell you what armor, weapons, or experience your hireling will have. To determine that you should check out Kilgore's Labyrinth Minions, or Bulette's Hireling Generator. (Please post a comment if you have other recommendations)

What this is meant to do is give a spur to your imagination to come up with some broad and brief traits so your hirelings will have some distinguishing features. Some notes:
  • Read the d4 with the d20 for a single personality trait.
  • The d6 is a rough age range, I tried to allow for young linkboys and old cooks and such.
  • Read the d8 with the d12 for a single distinguishing feature.
  • The d10 is meant to indicate the distance the hireling has travelled from their birthplace. I left this as the barest suggestion because it seems scale would depend heavily on your particular campaign, but I suggest 1 is a local, and 10 is the farthest away your campaign has room for, perhaps from over the Sea or from deep Under-mountain.
Let's try it:
3, 5, 3, 1, 2, 1

abundance, 50s, marked, 1, ears, pride

Okay, this local boy in his fifties has cauliflower ears and an abundance of pride. Maybe he was a champion wrestler and is haughty because of it, but he's past his prime and reduced to working as a porter or sell-sword.

One more time:
2, 2, 5, 1, 9, 3

lack, 20s, habit, local, feet, bravery

This local in his twenties is not a coward, but he won't be charging into battle any time soon and he has an annoying habit of shuffling his feet.

Some last suggestions: I use different color/style of dice when throwing these to try to speed up reading the results. I'd probably try to throw them in some contained area so you're not having to track down the 12-sider under the table. Most importantly and the coolest idea, though, comes from Jeff Rients' comment on Bulette's hireling generator: think about letting your players roll this.

I've mentioned the fun my players had rolling up their hirelings, I think this would work the same way and fits right in with Delta's post about games within games. I think you should be ready to help, the whole table should, in interpreting the Spur's results, but I think taking an active part in determining these traits will fix in the players mind which hireling is which and why they should care that the stirge is currently pumping out his lifeblood :)

Have fun with this. I hope it is helpful.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

More Thoughts on "Roll All the Dice"

I've been working on a Spur for Hireling Traits and in doing so noticing some features about designing for Roll All the Dice charts.

First, the d4 and d20 are useful bookends; whichever category has the most options needs to fit within 20 and the d4 helps you think of the overall theme in the most abstract way: what four chunks can it be broken down into?

Second, the middle dice are all nicely within 2 of each other. What this meant for me is that I would often have to bump a category up a die and then rack my brain for two more listings. It could work the other way too; if you have to bump down a die, really strain your brain to consolidate two of the entries. Here the format becomes a generating tool.

Finally and most interesting to me, some features of the dice can really aid the DM in reading the results quickly. I noticed this when I changed the distance category in my Encounters spur away from a simple die result x 100 feet. So, I consciously tried to keep this in mind with the Hirelings Traits spur-- for example the d6 is age in decades, and, in general, lower numbers mean less, higher more.

Creature Feature - Mock Pond

The mock pond, usually found in small subterranean depressions, eerily resembles a small body of water, right down to the ripples and simulated fauna. If a creature attempts to drink from the pond it will become hopelessly stuck. Organisms trapped this way are digested very slowly by the pond. In fact one clue to the location of a successful mock pond is a ring of creatures face down in a mysterious pool.

Mock ponds are thought to be motile, and the adventurer that puts great stock in the pond as a landmark may be disoriented on the next visit to its cavernous domain.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Playing vs. DMing

I really want to be a player. I've mentioned before that I've never even got a character to name level. I never get to play as much as I would like. And yet, somehow this leads to me being the DM. I've always got the game brewing on the back of my mind, thinking of cool scenarios or monsters.

I think even if I got my fill of playing (probably multiple times a week, every week), that I would create my own dungeons and items and such. So maybe it isn't just that I want to play, but I want to play in what I envision in my own mind, as impossible as that is.

I've long been on a quest for solo play because of this, from geomorphic map systems, to cards, to randomized danger rooms for DC Heroes. Still at work on this in fact.

Anyway, I wonder what the constitutional connection between playing and DMing is. It seems as if all you bloggers are DMs. I don't remember running across a blog of someone who is solely a roleplayer, though I'm sure they must exist.

And it isn't that I don't enjoy DMing. The last two experiences were exhilerating in a way playing could never be, for me. But it feels more like an act of creation than recreation. More work than play.

So what's the connection for you? And if you had a choice for a weekend of fun with your group of friends, would you rather play with them or run the game for them as DM?

Clockwork Animals

Andrew Chase's mechanical animals seem to have been around for a while, but they're new to me. This seems especially relevant to me because I was recently thinking of some posts on clockwork creatures but just couldn't come up with illustrations I was satisfied with. I like these, they seem rough enough to fit in a fantasy milieu but elegant enough to appear as if they were crafted by the best engineers of the ancients.

There are some more pictures here.

via Neatorama

Friday, July 17, 2009

Session Cancelled

Drat, I drove back into town and prepared all this morning and all but one of my players cancelled.

Well, I got some good revision done on a magical tower I plan to release to you all once it's finished. It's really the one dungeon I've played multiple people through and because of that, the one dungeon I've made the most revisions to. I can see how this could really end up in a richer, more layered product-- not everyone can playtest five times with completely different players.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Telecanter's DM Spurs - Encounters

I have praised the Roll all the Dice method previously and mentioned I was working on a treasure item generator. I have also been struggling with the idea of detail in design and how much of it a DM really needs.

So as I thought about my treasure item generator, I thought I might actually make two distinct generators, one specific, one more abstract. The second would be a kind of spur, so to speak for the DM's imagination. Well, the exigencies of a real campaign got in the way and what I needed as my players were about to strike off into the unknown with a treasure map was something to help me with random wilderness encounters.

Now keep in mind when I say encounters I mean more than wandering monsters. I wanted to have interesting features and landmarks to bring the countryside alive as my players moved through it. Some of these could be dangerous, but scenic and wondrous things would be cool too.

So I funneled my thoughts on the abstract treasure item generator into this:
I'm excited by this, because while, if you follow the OSR blogosphere you know you can get fascinating ideas for spells, monsters, items and curses-- I think the really useful tool for grognards would be to tap into that marvelous computer you have atop your neck. So, while I think it would be a useful tool to use ahead of play in creating encounters, I'm most excited by the possibility for its use to aid in the heat of play, to aid in improvisation, to help you think at a slant and come up with your own cool idea right when you need it.

I think there is room for other spurs: the aforementioned treasure items, story hooks, etc.

But enough of that, how does it work? Well, I would have a normal wandering monster table for a region with a place on it for "Encounter Spur." When that came up I would read the results and try to shape them into something cool. Some notes:
  • Artifact is in the sense of something made by intelligent actors, not a magical item
  • Element includes fire, water, air, earth, & nature
  • the 1d6 is how characters become aware of the encounter
  • 1d8 is direction
  • 1d12 is encounter distance (this could be revised any way you feel comfortable)
  • 1d10 & 1d20 are the meat of the spur with adjectives and nouns that work together to, hopefully, embrace infinite possibilities
Let's try it:
4, 5, 6, 10, 8, 18

terrain, touch, south west, hidden, 600, solidity

Interesting, I might interpret this as, the players feel rumbling under their feet which, if they follow it carefully, leads 600 ft to the south west, where the ground appears to be hollow. Warren? Secret Cavern?

One more time:
1, 3, 8, 9, 3, 2

artifact, smell, south east, wondrous / weird, 100ft, shape

A little harder. Is an egg an artifact? I'll say it is. So, the smell of rot leads characters to look to the south east and there, 100ft away is an egg the size of a cottage. Roc egg? If characters can smell it, shouldn't monsters too? Lots of possibilities.

Reading all the dice for this is actually like looking up six charts in quick succession. I don't know of any way to make it more elegant though, barring the creation of a paper computer or a little computer program. I hope with practice I'll be able to speed up it's use, to know for example that 4 on the four sider means terrain. We'll see. And I hope you will try this an let me know if it works for you.

Update: I've realized a revision I made was actually a regression. I had the 1d12 x 100 for distance of the encounter, which didn't even need a look at the chart. I changed it to include something closer than 100ft but think that was a mistake now. I reverted the change.

Black Pudding?

What foul prayers raised this curse upon us!? What forbidden wizardries wrought such an inky doom?
Huge blob of Arctic goo floats past Slope communities
How do you fight such a thing? My vote is lots of oil and a little flame.

via Boing Boing

Arguing on the Internet

Whenever one of the continually refreshing old school dust ups comes back around, someone invariably will take the stance that everyone plays their own way and it's all good. This argument implies that anyone having a specific position is shrill or at least wasting their time doing the arguing.

I understand that the old school grognards have been going over this stuff for years before I jumped on. I understand that they are probably tired of seeing the same issues being raised. But come on! Saying everyone does it their own way is the single weakest thing I can think of anyone writing about gaming.

The point of blogs as I see them is to: a) work out things for yourself in a public forum, b) take part in any discussion that arises from said posts. If you are tired of a certain topic, maybe use the blogs for what they're good for-- link to the old arguments, tell us "so-and-so said this a year ago, so-and-so rebutted in this way." If you do that and people still bring up that topic (they will), you can choose not to take part in the conversation.

Here's a hint, if these issues keep coming up, they are in some way central. Or, at the least they are a hurdle beginners need to work through as they learn their craft. Both seem reason to me for discussion and not just a "well, everyone does it their own way."

Update: This is how you do it people! Make a proposal, lay out your reasoning, and even if you are wrong look at the insightful comments the proposal elicited.

Update II: I think my post was a little still-drinking-my-coffee-snippy. I apologize, maybe shouldn't have posted about this at all. It's just I feel like I still have so much to learn and people dismissive of these issues cuts off an opportunity for me to learn from the brightest and most experienced playing. So to sum up the post in a different way:

"Yes we all play our own way, but I'm really interested to hear the reasoning behind why you chose your way."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Creature Feature - Brandyvein Beetles

Mostly subterranean, these beetle swarms, or colonies, may be mistaken for a vein of gold running through the stone from a distance. Also known as merry maidens, and miner's delight, they are considered a good omen by most miners.

On approach an observer will smell a hint of overripe apricots. When directly surrounded by the beetles the fumes of alcohol they exude will be almost overpowering. Anyone spending time in the vicinity of Brandyvein Beetles will become intoxicated. While size and constitution play a role in the extent of the effect, a turn breathing these fumes is enough to make the doughtiest stalwart stumbling, word-slurringly drunk.

Whether this is dangerous or not depends on what other creatures lurk in the vicinity.

A Confession

I'm map dumb. I love maps, I'm creative about what to put on them, I just trip up on scale. My current campaign is set in my old game world only because it takes so much effort to invent a new world. Not that I dislike my old world, but I've grown so much since I envisioned it-- I've lived in Europe, I've read a bunch of Livy-- that I want to revise the history and political layout of the world to make it more complex, rich, and "realistic."

Knowing that, and wanting to avoid the tyranny of pre-existant detail, I scooted the window of play down from where my old players explored. This means I have to flesh out what is in this new area. Fine, I have all my original maps-- map of the continent, map of the zoomed in region my players had explored. But I just have a hard time mentally zooming in and out in the way scaling these maps requires. Maybe it is modern day travel and the fact that I can be out of state in a day-- a state the size of a medieval country-- or that I can cross the continent in a day (by plane) or several (by car). I have a hard time clicking in my head what the vastness of the world would be to my characters.

I remember struggling with this years ago, pouring over the Wilderness Survival Guide and the Greyhawk boxed set to figure out how latitude applies to weather and the distance of each degree of latitude. Maybe that's my problem, I'm trying to make it all too realistic, too scientific.

Regardless, I have a hard time deciding whether I should be going from top down- the players are in this region with this river and this trade road-- or from bottom up-- there will be a bridge with a troll here, and an abandoned inn here. The way I tried to deal with this was to use what I know well as model-- where I've hiked in the mountains here, and what that looked like, in comparison to the state as a whole. It worked to a point, but my game world is sort of just a flipped California because of it.

I had a very happy moment when I noticed that past Telecanter had the foresight to write the hex scale on the back of my world map and even used the convenient league (humans walk ~ 1 per hour). But my excitement fell when I saw that the scale on my zoomed in local area map was absolutely wrong. I don't know how I could have made such a mistake: a closeup that uses a larger scale than the original it's zooming in on!

So what to do? Well, luckily I think my local areas scale was really too big-- villages too far away from one another, so I can just handwave it to the correct scale and I think the map still works. For the new area of play I'll stick with moving the frame to an unexplored but adjacent area of my world. I'll use Chgowiz's One Page Wilderness Templates at a scale of 3miles per hex. And I think I'll use his hex-shaped JG template (Judge's Guild?) at a scale of .3 miles per hex to get in closer.

Yes, I definitely think my old "realism hang ups are at play because when thinking of what to fill these maps with, I immediately started wondering where the river was and how that would affect ecosystems. I know, I know, I should just put a magical glacier there or something, haha. It's just one of my quirks I guess.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Creature Feature - Widow's Hair

This subterranean organism, sometimes called witch's hair, miner's bane or torch mold, resembles cobwebs or wispy hair growing from walls, floor, and ceiling. It grows quickly in the presence of light, completely filling a corridor in a matter of minutes.

The mold isn't dangerous in itself, if lights are extinguished, but makes travel through its hair-like tangle slow going and confusing. Dark tales are related, however, of mages caught in widow's hair with items magicked to give light and no way to extinguish their illumination.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Creature Feature - Fool's Runes

Some underground areas are reported to have lichen growing on the stone walls in distinctive forms. These forms can resemble letters, runes, sigils, ideograms, or simple shapes like circles or arrows. For the inexperienced these markings may seem purposeful; a thick "M" in Futhark signaling "go east." Experienced explorers will not be so easily fooled by the naturally occurring lichen.

However, even experienced parties have been misled by using these runes as waymarkers. For, after exposure to light as strong as a torch, the Fool's Runes lichen will have a burst of growth. It takes the lichen at least a turn to metabolize this light energy. This growth is not so much a simple increase in size as a change of shape and location as the lichen grows towards the light source. Many an adventurer has become hopelessly lost on seeing a "B" rune where the "M" once was.

Creature Features

In the spirit of my ruminations on producing things that don't quite fit clearly in a single creature/object/trap category, I bring you Creature Features. Much like the venerable Green Slime, these oddities are living and yet act more like objects in some ways. These weird denizens of the dungeon are trap-like in their ability to be hazardous to explorers, yet they are alive. Place them in your megadungeon with glee.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The D&D Treadmill

Some people feel very strongly about their chosen edition of D&D and those that have chosen the currently supported ruleset get upset at the implication that a new edition of D&D is released solely to earn corporate revenue. But, reading blog comments today by supporters of 4e angry at comments critical of it, I began thinking sympathetically about how they will be in the position of outsider soon enough.

Briefly, the publishing history since WoTC bought TSR:

2nd Edition 1989
3rd Edition 2000
Edition 3.5 2003
4th Edition 2008

That's 11 years from 2nd to 3rd and 8 years from 3rd to 4th. But, really, WoTC was earning revenue from the revision of 3 to 3.5, so that's 5 years. So, you get a republish of core rulebooks in:

I'll go out on a limb here and predict that 4 Edition Dungeons and Dragons will have the core rule books revised and republished, or a new 5th edition of D&D will be published, within 3 years. Yes, you can throw tomatoes at me if I'm wrong, by 2012 you'll see a major republishing of D&D. That's, of course, barring some major corporate restructuring in our currently apocalyptic economy, or something crazy like the Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord taking over the market.

I think the downsides to wanting to play an edition not currently supported have been blogged about extensively elsewhere. I'll just say, the biggest seems to be: in a game where it's hard enough to find good players, good luck finding said players that are also interested in a rulesystem from 5+ years ago.

So, regardless of what you think of the 4e rules, these people really like them. And in a few years, playing the D&D they like, will be like swimming upstream. So I sympathize with them. Maybe in ~5 years we'll see a 4e simulacra developed by fans.