Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Simple Sandbox

I've stumbled upon another exciting and elegant solution to a DMing problem. I found it via The Welsh Piper but a lot of crunch is added there that I'm not sure I'd use. You can certainly check it out. The original idea is from Greywulf. He calls it Six sided gaming: hex magic. I'll call it Simple Sandboxing.

I had a session early on where I asked my players what they planned to do for our next session so I could prepare. One player said something to the effect of "Were obviously going to follow the treasure map, cause there's really nothing else to do." I felt horrible when I heard that. What I wanted to provide was a world where players had options, could go wherever they pleased. But, beacuse of all the work and the many decisions of world building I only provided enough info for that particular session. I don't think I even provided the town they started with a name.

Greywulfs idea might seem obvious at first, to help you as DM prepare for a campaign with as little work as possible. Here's Greywulf's instructions:
"... use a simple blank hex grid. Set the scale small - say, one hex = 3 miles - and put one adventure inside the centre hex. Populate it according to the needs of that adventure, then move on. Work around that one hex adding other adventures, all around roughly the same power level. Think about the kind of adventures you (as GM) enjoy playing, and the feel you want to impart.

By the end of this, you've got seven adventure settings and a solid core for the game world."
Very nice preparation aid. Efficient. Practical. But the exciting thing for me is the reason Greywulf gives for doing this:

"... evolve the world as the game progresses."

Of course! The most elegant ideas seem obvious once you encounter them. And this isn't too different from the idea of random world building, where you let the dice determine ahead of play what is in the world. But it is different enough to really deserve notice.

I am absolutely comfortable now letting story emerge from play. In fact, in the session we will be playing today the object the players seek might be in one of four roughly equivalent places in a tomb complex (I'll roll as when they search each to determine if it was in that room). I did this so I wouldn't subconsciously try to channel the characters a certain way with my dungeon design. Or have expectations of what they should do. I also thought it might force me to think more about what might happen if players went any of the possible four paths, were some more perilous than others etc.

I'm confident that their explorations will feel natural to them and a sense of story will emerge from the adventure. But with my gameworld I feel a paralyzing desire to know everything in advance of play: what was the ancient world history that might result in tombs and treasures, what are all the world religions, what is the current political setup, what does this whole continent look like, etc. etc. Why can't I let these details emerge in exactly the same way? In actuality, because I was unable to make the hard decisions and perform the labor intensive worldbuilding I wanted to I, in effect, am following Greywulf's philosophy: I added an ancient culture (Similar to the Mauryan Empire) to account for the latest tomb, a treasure map found in said tomb indicates there are apparently more of said tombs along this coast, oh yes, I made it a coast so I might use my previous one-page dungeon the Coastal caves, etc. So by necessity my world is already emerging.

The difference between my haphazard emerging and Greywulf's idea is one of elegance and purpose. If I can come up with ~6 adventure hooks/hints that surround the starting adventure area than I can plan a little more how those things affect each other/work together, but, more importantly, I can offer players a variety of options they can choose from, to follow their own interest and let them drive the emergence of the world around them.

For example, I have them on a coast, if I make sea travel an option with an island hook, they may take to that route with zest and have an entirely nautical campaign and that would be cool.

So, thanks to Greywulf for this. I'd really like to think and write a little more about the implications of this idea, but have to go now to finish preparation for today's session.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Simple Combat Maneuvers

I just stumbled on this elegant way to add flavor to combat. It was posted back in July by Joshua at Tales of the Rambling Bumblers.

Here is the system in a nutshell:

If your player wants to perform a maneuver, say disarm an opponent, they make a normal roll to hit. A critical hit results in the maneuver being successful. A normal hit means the opponent has to make a choice: be disarmed or take the damage from the hit as normal.

This is really a clever little rules hack. It allows for players to try to do things in combat that might be beneficial and interesting besides just whacking away at an opponent. It also allows me to have monsters try things like pushing players around or swarming over them, with the player having to make a decision about what happens.

I'm going to try it in play. I'm hoping this will add a little zest for people that consider fighters "boring." My one worry is that by codifying this it will limit players from a try-anything approach. On the other hand, they seemed to have been trained out of that open mindedness by later rule sets anyway, so maybe Joshua's system will act the opposite, as sort of training wheels.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


If you are crafting your own more abstracted, old school chart you will probably come to the point where you are racking your brain for the categories of a person/place/thing to include in said chart. In thinking about my item chart I decided to make a list of general categories. So, from Aristotle's Categories, the Praedicamenta:
  • Substance
  • Quantity
  • Quality
  • Relation
  • Place
  • Time
  • Position
  • State (shod, armed, etc.)
  • Action
  • Affection (actually affected by, affected in some way)
And because those were even a little more abstracted than is useful, I turned to the adjectival order in English. (Did you know English has a fairly standard order that the adjectives in a sentence appear? I actually didn't until I started teaching foreign language speakers.):
  • Opinion/Judgement
  • Dimension (size, length, width)
  • Age
  • Shape
  • Color
  • Origin
  • Material
  • Purpose
  • Appearance/Condition
Hopefully that's helpful. If it isn't new to you it will still be nice to save this here for myself; I'm finding that on reading my old posts I have interesting ideas that I've completely forgotten about!

Session Sunday

It looks like I have a session this Sunday at noon. We'll probably play ~4 hours. The goal will be to re-enter the Tomb of the Tutors and actually find the Eyes of the Rubricator.

The interesting thing about this session is the possibility of two new players who have never tried any kind of rpg before. There must be something in the water here, but I seem to get 1 complete newbie every session. If I had a better venue to play in I might be able to get ~ 10 people together. I understand now how people can get games going with 2 groups meeting on different days of the week.

Anyway, these new players are an impetus for me to revise my already streamlined Swords & Wizardry rules. For example, all the spell descriptions were aimed at the DM: "the caster targets . . ." while, really if you are showing them to someone who has no idea what a cleric is, the descriptions should be aimed at them: "you can . . ."

I'll have a big chunk of Saturday to finalize this. I'm hoping to have something I can take to Kinkos and have wire-bound. We'll see. My players were impressed that I had booklets made for everyone last time. They were also impressed that I had portraits ready for a few key npcs. Fun stuff.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Bluest Pool

Can you imagine stumbling from rough hewn dungeon walls to this?

Via TYWKIWDBI, although I have no idea how I ended up there.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Puzzle Jugs & Fuddling Cups

Trying to design a random item chart has led me into the catacombs of Wikipedia where I found wonders! Behold, the puzzle jug:
which will spill its bounty all over you if you don't know how to drink from it. And the marvellous fuddling cups:

which you have to drink all at once. Granted, these are novelties probably not worth much in a campaign except local color, but their cousin is even more interesting. This is a cross section of a Pythagoras cup. Also known as the greedy cup, if it is filled to the top of the central chamber it can be used normally, but filled above that and it all empties out the bottom. Surely that is worthy of a dungeon puzzle requiring a certain amount of liquid to be moved from one place to another.

Here it is in action:

Chart Granularity

I've mentioned before that I love using and perusing some of the great random charts created by the OSR. I've also pondered on the blog about the OSR paradox of do-it-yourself versus using all these cool things people in the community make and share. My solution was to try and split the difference, to make more abstracted DM "Spurs" that could help each of us do-it-ourself, but also function as an aid that, like old school play, allows complexity to emerge from randomness.

Also, keep in mind that I have settled on the idea of using Grim's Roll All the Dice method, because it is elegant and a fun game-like way to involve players in a lot of these randomization discoveries. I don't want to stop during play and consult a book of charts, or at least if we must the book should have the fewest possible charts to work elegantly and still be fun.

So, the problem seems to be how granular do you make these spurs. If we would like a magic item generator do we separate out the "Item" part from the "Magical Effect" part?

I think so. An Item Spur can have lots of important info including Size, Function and Material in addition to item type that is hard to squeeze into a spur that is also concerned with Duration, Range, Charges etc. of magical effects.

But even there, how granular do we make the Item Type? Think of jewellery. We could have a spur that would determine item type solely by the location on the body it is worn:
  • Head = Tiara
  • Neck = Necklace
  • Arm = Armlet
  • Wrist = Bracelet
  • Hand = Ring
That works well, and we could probably fit clothing and armor to the same system. So, you might have one die determining Location (arm, neck etc.) and the other Item Type (jewellery, armor etc). Fine, simple, compact, functional. But . . . it loses all the cool flavor, the details, that I would want to have if I were the player receiving treasure. This system will give you a Ring result, but what about pillbox rings, or gimmal rings, or signet rings? If you try to include each of these interesting real world examples, our elegant spur will turn into a multi-page chart very quickly.

I think one possible solution is to have a Function category, so, if a random roll indicates that an item Depicts, Commemorates, Hides, Stores something, the our spur might be able to produce something similar to real world examples.

Take a look at this cool object that I'd never heard of before yesterday:

It's a Golden Hat which, aside from the fact that it is shaped like no other hat I've seen, apparently has solar and lunar Calendar data recorded on it.

This is a kind of touchstone. I want any Spur I create to be of the right granularity to be able to produce a result such that we might say "Aha, it's like a Golden Hat."

That would be cool.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Crisis of Clerics

I was toodling along, tinkering with the Swords & Wizardry rules (as is the old school way) when, finally satisfied with my tweaks to most of the basics, I turned to Clerics. I never liked the idea that Clerics use the same Vancian magic system as Magic-users. A sorcerer having to memorize a fireball, okay, a cleric having to memorize a prayer to heal someone . . . umm, why can't they just, you know pray, ask their divine power for aid when their friend is hurting?

So, my imagining of the Cleric archetype is that they can cast (petition for) spells of their level (miracles of a certain order) whenever they decide to (are in need of that kind of aid). Simple enough change. Second Edition revised Clerics to function this way. But I also wanted to, because they are pettioning for help, give Clerics a chance that they could ask for spells (aid) above and beyond their spell slots per level.

I started merrily to work on how to implement this at the game table when I noticed . . . whoa, Swords & Wizardry cleric spells, and thus Original D&D clerical spells are very different than the First Edition spells I was most familiar with. In order to cast Create Water you have to have attained 6th level. That's a first level spell in 1e. Yikes! How did I miss this? And is the cleric spell list why of the ~14 characters made in my sessions since I got into S&W only 2 have been clerics?

I decided I better look closely at the Evolution of the Cleric spell list. First, in comparison of 0e to Moldovay Basic, spells don't move around, the difference is a small expansion with about 2 additional spells per level. First level, for example, is identical except for the addition of Remove Fear and Resist Cold. Now I expected that as the years passed more and more spells would be added, which has happened, so I'll focus here more on how the first set of original spells are moved around or removed.

Comparing 0e to 1e reveals these changes:
  • 2nd level Bless moves down to 1st
  • 4th level Create Water moves down to 1st
  • 5th level Create Food moves down to 3rd
  • 7th level spells Aerial Servant & Part Water move down to 6th
  • 5th level Finger of Death is removed from Clerics completely and made a 7th level Druid spell
In Second Edition the moves of the original spells remain, a few new spells are added and all the druid spells a lumped in with Priest spells. The one difference an 0e Cleric might notice is:
  • The Druidic version of Finger of Death is not re-merged with the other Druid spells and becomes a 7th level Wizard spell
In Third Edition, the 0e Cleric's core spells will see these additional rearrangements:
  • 1st level Detect Magic, Light, Purify Food & Drink, and the previously moved Create Water all move down to the 0th level cantrip-like orisons
  • 2nd level Snake Charm is removed completely
  • 3rd level Cure Disease is removed completely
  • 4th level Cures Serious Wounds moves down to 3rd
  • 4th level Protection from Evil, 10' moves down to 3rd
  • 4th level Speak with Plants moves down to 3rd
  • 4th level Sticks to Snakes is removed completely
  • 5th level Quest is moved up to 6th
  • 6th level Conjure Animals is removed completely
  • 6th level Speak with Monsters is removed completely
  • 6th level spells Aerial Servant & Part Water previously moved are now removed completely
  • 7th level Astral Spell moves up to 9th
  • 7th level Earthquake moves up to 8th
  • 7th level Wind Walk moves down to 6th
  • 7th level Symbol moves up to 8th
  • Finger of Death becomes a Druid spell again moving up to 8th, but Clerics can't access it
Not sure what to make of this yet, except that while 2e made a major revision to how Clerics spells were organized, it was very conservative with the spells themselves. First Edition and, especially, 3rd edition, however, made big changes to spell level and even removed many of the classics. Some of these removals make sense to me- Conjure Animals, Aerial Servant, and Sticks to Snakes are all pretty specific monster summoning spells that can be replaced by more general ones. But what happened to Cure Disease? See Below.

I've never played 3e, only recently aquiring a PHB. But it looks like the designers were trying to have 1 and only 1 spell for each domain for each level? Is that true? Is that the reason for all the spell movement? I know the domain system in 2e always seemed elegant to me, allowing for Evil High Priests and Medieval-like Templar Clerics in the same system. I don't understand why 3e would throw that out to go back to the seperate Bard/Druid/Paladin list complexity.

I'm sure tracking the spells added in 1e (feeling pretty classic in their own right) would show tons of movement and revisions over time as well.

Now, to satisfy myself . . . what spell list do I give my players?

Update:Thanks to Matt for pointing out that Cure Disease just got renamed.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Surreal Humanoids

I stumbled across this image by surrealist painter Jarosław Kukowski recently and it really made me want to DM. I'm bored by orc-like humanoids but these would be creepy to encounter in the underworld.

I've been thinking about them, decided to call them the Unborn, but have no desire to explain their origin. The only sound they make is the quick inhalation of breath, as if surprised. Some say this is them realizing, over and over, that they live. Cutting their flesh open reveals dry, gristly meat almost like sausage.

I went looking for more, for similar artist's visions I could warp into dungeon creatures and came up with these:

Another by Kukowksi:

And three by Chet Zar:

These interest me as realistic, but strange and frightening. I can't wait for players to encounter the Unborn. What would you call these others?

Tomb of the Tutors - Post Play

Wow, it's been so long I couldn't remember my login for the blog. Hope you've all had a nice start to 2010. Was able to get four players together to play on Valentine's. One brand newbie and two new to the group but with histories with playing D&D. We had fun but it seems I can't get a session together with any of the same players together twice in a row. One result of this is player mortality is high. No one is able to play often enough to utilize their experience to good effect, or to cohere as a team.

I think next session I will have to explicitly tell the group "Think of your self as a SWAT team entering a hostile bunker. You don't know the layout or what to expect, but you have ideas of what you could encounter (stairs, doors, etc.). Have a goal and try to stick to it. When you have to make a decision, try to do it quickly."

This session involved a story that began 1000 years ago. Hearing of the birth of a son to the Mahbit Emperor the glorious emperor Vibius Annius Cinna sent four of his favorite scholars to act as tutors to the boy. Unfortunately the boy died in their tutelage and these four tutors were laid to rest in a tomb as was the custom.

The recent unseasonable rains opened a sinkhole under the scriptorium of a local monastery. And tales of peasants emerging from the hole with gold soon spread word of the possible discovery of this Tomb of the Tutors.

The party consisted of Harod the fighter, Martin the cleric, Lico the mage, Ehud the mage (Ehud the second, actually) and his hirelings Hamo and Hamo's mother (!) Gena the proud. They took up a job offer the mage Edwy the Red to enter the tomb and retrieve the Eyes of the Rubricator.

The Mahbit empire buried their dead in something like recessed pyramids. A large square of earth is removed and tombs bored in the four sides before enterment and the filling of the hole again. So our heroes had four possible tomb entrances to choose. The North was caved in, the West, wide open, had a muddy stream entering it. The East's stone door cap was askew while the South's door seemed well-sealed.

The party chose the Eastern door, crawling through the small opening. They discovered signs of ancient looting and very little else until stumbling into a mass of living roots that nearly throttled the whole party. Upon working their way back out, a pair of giant beetles meant the evisceration of poor Harod (he tried sneaking past the pair with torch in hand). After finally making it back to the tomb entrance they found the rope they'd lowered themselves in by was missing (likely taken by some meddlesome monks they'd seen earlier). Not sure what to do, Mertin decided to trailblaze and explore a small 2' natural tunnel that led to . . . a beetle in it's nest. Martin attacked with surprise sorely wounding the beastie, but his second swing missed, dooming him to beetle food.

Ehud made his way down the tunnel and cast sleep on the beetle and was the sole character survivor (Lico's player had to leave very early). He managed to get out with a grapnel of Martin's.

So, no treasure but what Ehud could loot from his companion's corpses. Some mistakes the party made: 1) not being very careful about their surroundings 2) acting like a bunch of individuals in a tomb together rather than a team (I suppose it was realistic in that this was four characters just hired for the job who didn't know each other).

Currently trying to get a group together to make anothe sortie into the place. I have some creepy thing awaiting. Also working on streamlining the Swords & Wizardry material I give players even more. Look for a spiral bound digest soon.