Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

Thanks to everyone reading.  Thanks for all the great comments and all of you with blogs of your own.  I've enjoyed this conversation of ours immensely.  Here's to an awesome 2011.

Poker Personalities II

Oddysey has a nice post here about the kind of social interaction that happens in her game with Trollsmyth.  I think I first saw this after I had already written my last post, but I realize now that my poker personalities would push players to do what she calls politics.  It's really about discovering the weaknesses and foibles of npcs to use as leverage against them.  Which is fine if that's what you're looking for: intrigue, politics.  But I don't think it would be conducive to the type of play Oddysey mentions enjoying in that post.  So, what mechanics might push players toward that type of play?

I think you could tweak the card suits idea a little and get closer.  Imagine the suits represent similar realms but experiences, skills, and opinions rather than exploitable secrets   For example:
  • : Memorable purchases, moments of fame, dreams of success.
  • : Lost loves, stories of home and family, nationalism
  • ♣: Tales of hardship, monster encounters, war stories
  • : Teaching of philosophies, religious doctrines, guild bylaws
You keep the same system I suggested previously: npcs have 1 public, 3 private, and 1 secret bit of information.  Now, give a character experience each time an npc is engaged about one of their bits of information.  Finding out about someone's tragic past is not enough, you need to engage them personally.  So, the discovery of information would only be a part of the process here, you would need to hear it from the horses mouth, sit down to get more details, maybe give them advice.

How would this conversation be systematized?  I don't think it needs to be. I think it would become very obvious to a DM if a player was trying to hit on three subjects in quick succession just to rack up experience. It would seem unnatural and might shut off the npc completely. A measure of trust and comfort would need to be achieved to broach more private topics and I think players and DMs would have a natural sense of that.

So, how much experience? I'm not sure. Maybe 100 xp for private ideas, 200-500 xp for secrets. I think it would need to scale with levels though, or you would find going up in level would require conversing with more and more people. Trollsmyth and Oddysey would best have a feel for the pace here: how many conversations feels like enough to go up in level. Perhaps becoming friendly and conversant with 10-20 people would be enough to move the character forward a level.  So, multiply xp awards by level to keep the number of interactions consistent.

I'm having an intuitive tingle that letting players pick five things for themselves might be fruitful too.  Maybe you get twice the experience if you find someone with a similar religious philosophy, or who has had similar traumatic war experiences.  This would push players to explore npcs, searching for those like-minded souls.

I thought about giving experience for sharing information about npcs with other npcs, but I think that would just push towards gossiping.  I think it will be useful enough to find out about person A from person B so that you could confront/or console person A about that subject.

Heck, this might even work for romance.

As far as the cards themselves, this could all work with them being completely discrete: a hand of 5 clubs is five separate experiences/memories of hardship.  I think it could be interesting to make runs of the same suit or same card mean something, though.  Showing similar ideas memories related to each other.  The numerical value of a card could represent chronological sequence-- you discuss memories 3, and 4, before the person will reveal 5, or vice versa.

If you didn't do this and only wanted the bits of info to be discrete, what would the numerical values represent?  They could be how much that person knows/has to say about it, or how willing/unwilling to share about that subject.

Anyway, I think it is possible, with simple, abstracted mechanics to push towards almost any type of play you might think of.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Three Pics

Maybe you could use these three as npcs:

From Strange Peoples (1901). Public Domain.

Countdown Clock Record Sheets

I dug the idea of countdown clocks that Risus Monkey blogged about so much that I made some record sheets.  Apparently these come from Apocalypse World of which I now nothing. But as I understand it you use the clock to keep track of big happenings in your game world like war or plague.

Here's a sheet to track a single thing:
I was thinking this could be worldwide or regional and that you could just make tally marks to track sessions.  Obviously, the "ifs" are triggers, the "thens" results.  Triggers could be something as simple as a certain number of sessions played.  Triggers could also link to other clocks; maybe war at 6:00 starts the plague up.

Here's a sheet to keep track of all the clocks running in a game world or region in one easy to see place:

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Two Pics

Here's another potential NPC portrait:
And this one looks like it could be straight out of a classic module:
Bonus: the book calls the growth on the walls skeleton plant. Public Domain.

Mark of Uru

Animation by Nigerian Obinna Onwuekwe.  The production qualities of this are pretty crude. But I'm fascinated by fantasy coming from a different cultural perspective.  It's also interesting to see Onwuekwe use techniques/tropes right out of anime.

Apparently this and two other cartoons were released on a DVD called African Tales.  The first two episodes are still available online:

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tomb Entrances

These could be useful to show players.  What lies within?
From Sculptured Tombs of Hellas (1896). Public domain.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Ghost Leg or 阿弥陀籤

Saw this on Metafilter:
"Amidakuji, or "Ghost Leg," is a lottery party game from Japan. At the top of a sheet there are a number of spaces for people to write their names. At the bottom there are prizes. There are an equal number of each. Between them is a map obscured behind a sheet. The map is made of straight vertical lines connecting the names and prizes. Connecting those lines at random intervals are horizontal lines. When it's time to pick winners, the sheet is removed and players can follow the lines to find their prize. You follow the line from your name down until you encounter any horizontal line, which you must follow, then continue down, continuing to follow all horizontal lines you encounter, until you reach your prize. No two horizontal lines can touch."
I'm attracted to the fact that 1) it's simple , using just paper and some kind of writing utensil, 2) it randomizes, 3) it does so in an engaging way-- with participants required to watch as the outcome is revealed. Not sure how I might use it in game, but an interesting tool to keep on the shelf.

Bonus geekery: this is where the old arcade game Amidar came from.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


I'm no expert, but from observing my own process of learning it goes something like this:
  1. completely unaware of something
  2. begin noticing something
  3. able to repeat outcomes based on that knowledge
  4. theorize about that something
  5. experiment and fail often in trying to pin it down and its boundaries
  6. act intuitively and largely unconsciously, but pretty consistently now
  7. finally act consciously and build on that knowledge. Learned it.
Also from my experience these things seem to happen in stages that feel like plateaus to me. And parts of the process are very frustrating and uncertain especially around 5 when you are starting to have the hunch something is true but can't quite express it or replicate it yet.

But I'm writing about this now because I just realized something about the Man of Wounds.  I realized that creature can evoke sympathy in players.  Their first reaction can be: "Oh my god! What happened to it?!"  if it isn't just snarling and leaping immediately to attack. I had a realization about this with the Vomiter a while back and even sat down to try and craft a creature based on making players feel sympathy.  But I forgot.

Looking back at the session my players encountered the Man of Wounds, it seems I was working off of this idea unconsciously.  For example: It had no weapon of its own in hand, so it seemed less of a threat; it shuffled along slowly, again less of a threat; but most importantly the sounds it was making were closer to those of pain than anger.  When a random encounter roll brought a second of these beasties into the tale I decided at the drop of a hat that it would be female.  Now, even though my players knew these things were hostile and violent, they seemed to pause a bit.  I even had tears streaming down the Woman of Wounds' face.

I think I must be a stage 6 with this idea of trying to have sympathetic monsters because I'd completely forgotten the post on the vomiter and the peasant king.  My natural reaction is to be frustrated with myself, but hey at least I caught on eventually.  And if this is the way learning happens, why be disappointed?  Now, it seems really appropriate, at the end of the year, to go back and reread some of my meatier posts to try and remember what I'm in the process of learning as a DM and dungeon designer.

p.s. What is the value of one good idea?  For example, one monster, one treasure?  I'd say pretty high.  My players now dread going back into that section of my dungeon.  With one monster the imagined world became fleshed out, the risk of exploration was made real, the Mythic Underworld was manifested in all its strange danger.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Seasons Greetings

And Merry Christmas! My boss just gave me the D&D animated series DVD as a gift. I'm going to go watch some and fondly remember when our hobby was mainstream.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

DMing the Folks

I've been seriously toying with the idea of running my father and stepmother through a session of old school D&D (pretty sure mother and stepfather are a lost cause).  As I get older it seems sad to me that my family really has no conception of this game I love thinking about and playing.  When I talk about blogging and the satisfaction it gives me they listen patiently, nodding their heads as if my hobby is body modification or building a time machine in the backyard out of auto parts.

But, they are pretty conservative protestant types and anything reeking of creepy or demonic is only going to confirm their worst preconceptions about the game.

But how would they get a thrill from exploring if there are no threats?  I've been thinking almost as if I were going to play little kids, something Christmas-themed with elves, misfit toys, and snow.  But that feels a little condescending.

I was just thinking maybe the key is to push the tone from creepy to alien.  If creepy is unsettling because the threat seems wrong to you and it knows it's wrong (like little men stuffing a dead monk with cherries).  Alien might be threatening at no fault of the threatening object (like an ivory statue of Justice walking slowly, inexorably toward you). I'm not sure-- this seems a fine distinction and could be dangerous to get wrong in this context.

Another focus could animal threats-- I've always been a sucker for ants as foes, maybe wolves.  Or the environment-- heights, lava pits, water filled rooms.

Apart from figuring out a threat, I have a craving to make some kind of wondrous machine.  Something like a big laboratory console with buttons that do cool stuff when manipulated in different sequences.  Maybe the promise of wonder is enough to pull explorers forward in lieu of threats?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Relationship Record Cards

Here are some 4' x 6' cards to keep track of who's interacting with who in your steamy world of fantasy intrigue.  Here is a pdf.  I realize I was sort of muddling power or decision making structures with personal relationships in my last post (and sure, they are related).  I've made two types of cards the first has a typical pyramid hierarchy like you might expect in a guild or church:
This next one:
 is meant to record things like vendors in a market place, or maybe the players at court, groups of people scheming and interacting but not necessarily in a hierarchy.  Here's the back to record the names of the people involved.  You would probably want individual records for folks if pcs start interacting with them, but this is just meant to be a key to the diagram on the front:
And here is a crude example of how you might use one of these:

I've used playing card suits as per this post.  I drew a few relationships in certain directions and some going both ways. These can mean whatever makes sense to you.  Maybe 6 owes money to the guildmaster.  Maybe 8 and 10 like getting together to debate while 7 is extorting money from some out-of-guild entity, maybe without permission. 

My guess is that, as DMs, you probably would only need these as you generate, we humans seem to be wired to remember this kind of stuff fairly well.  But, these cards could be useful for your players trying to unravel the various power relationships in your world.  And if you want players to engage your world socially, giving them some of these would help send that message to them.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Faction Frameworks

So, following yesterday's post, what does a DM do if you want to develop some factions?  I think the best way to do this would be to develop each individual npc in the faction and see how the relationships result in a faction social dynamic.  Bottom up.

But, perhaps you suddenly need several factions because the party travelled unexpectedly to a city you haven't fleshed out.  Or maybe you just want to try and generate some factions the other way, top down. What to do?

I was toying with the idea of using chess pieces as a generative device.  And you might still do this, the faction has members that are rooks, bishops, and knights and their abilities/relationships are somehow related to what those pieces can do on the board.  But I'm not really a chess player (gasp).  And the factions that were coming out of that framework were fairly simple and hierarchical.

Now, guild structures and militias may actually be fairly simple and hierarchical.  But, by faction I'm thinking rather broadly. And also thinking of interpersonal relationships more than power structure (maybe the King is in love with one of the Pawns).

So what would yield a more complex, familiar structure that we could use to help here?  How about this as a faction structure:
Look familiar?  Or how about this?
The first are the positions in baseball, the second hockey.  Some of you (Christian, ze Bulette) seem pretty enthusiastic about professional sports.  I figure a DM could take a sport they're familiar with and use that to build a faction or social web in-game fairly quickly.  What is interesting is that they don't tend to form pyramids with one person in charge.  The baseball grid looks like it has a triumvirate of influential people, the hockey grid, a pair pulling the strings.

Maybe you could think of what pcs are trying to do as plays: gaining guild membership requires you talk to A then B then C, your out!  Or, you have to get by the goalie first.

You might even get more specific: "Okay, the Fighters Guild is like the 1978 Whoevers, this guy they're threatening is the pitcher, looks really impressive, but if the keep the pressure on he's totally going to choke."

Monday, December 20, 2010

Poker Personalities

Trollsmyth did a few posts recently about how if you want your players to do social interactions in-game you need rules that will push them that way.

I think people commenting on those posts were resistant to the idea that you need any rules to roleplay at all, that it can just happen on top of anything.  That's a post for another day, but I thought I might offer an example of rules that would push players to do more social interactions in-game.

What was really enlightening about Trollsmyth's posts for me, was not that rules shape behavior--that system matters-- but that the rules often shape behavior indirectly.  In other words, if you want players to interact socially you can't just give them XP to do so, it won't work well.  Instead, we need to break down what we mean by "interacting socially" and try to implement rules that will promote, or afford, that behavior.

With the caveat that I've never played any of the World of Darkness games and am very happy with the exploration of old school D&D, I think when people talk about social interactions they mean:
  1. learning about npcs and their desires through conversation
  2. utilizing information learned from npcs to make things happen
  3. investigating npc-npc relationships
  4. building a web of npcs to interact with and gain information from
  5. joining guilds/factions and climbing up through their hierarchies
  6. utilizing guild/faction affiliations to make things happen
    Phew, that's a lot of stuff.  But I think we can do this.  

    I love using simple materials we all have around the house and have experience with, so we'll use playing cards. I think Zak may have mentioned NPC reactions with cards briefly, but I've been intrigued with the idea since I heard a game used cards to resolve pc/npc interactions (was it Shadowrun?). Last caveat, I know this is a simplistic view of humans and their motivations but we have to start somewhere and hopefully complexity will emerge from the simple system.

    Okay, the players want to enter somewhere but Bob the guard is tasked with keeping people out. What to do, what to do? Here's what you do:

    Draw 5 cards, 1 up and 4 down.
    The first card is public knowledge, the next three are private knowledge and the last card is a deeply held secret.

    To get what they want from Bob the players will have to either threaten him, bribe him or convince him with a rational argument.

    What is Bob susceptible to you ask? The suits tell the tale:
    • : Wealth, power and advantages dealing with acclaim, fame and prestige.
    • : Love, lust and approaches to life dealing with the appetites-- but also nostalgia, security, and comfort
    • ♣: Threats of violence and harm, fear, dread
    • : Reason, rational arguments involving laws, systems, explanations, and examples.
    Let's follow peoples' expectations and say low cards are weaker. So, with a two of hearts, it appears Bob is really vulnerable to some aspect of that realm.  Players can determine this by briefly observing him or interacting with him.  Maybe he's a ladies man, checking out every female that walks by.

    If players start following him around or asking questions of people that know him, the DM will flip over those private cards.  Maybe one card for each lead investigated. These investigations reveal:
    So, after a little poking around it seems Bob is susceptible to rational convincing, but because the 9 is the same suit, like a flush, it strengthens his resolve here. The 7 offers some possibility of bribing him but it will be more difficult than utilizing his weakness in hearts.

    The hole card, that last secret, should be difficult to find. Traditionally it is the npc's diary, maybe they talk to themselves when they believe they are alone, or talk in their sleep.  And in fantasy games these could be discovered through magic or mental powers such as ESP.
    The 2 probably puts the nail in any attempts at reasoning with Bob.  Perhaps he is affable and listens politely (the appearance of weakness with the discovery of the 3), but is just too dumb to understand the players' arguments.  But the knowledge of all his traits does not undermine the idea that he is susceptible to persuasion through hearts.

    So, knowing this what do players do?  What is the mechanism for resolving the outcome of interactions?  Two things spring to mind:  First, you could convert player stats to card equivalents.  I think subtracting 5 might work: a pc with an 8 charisma might just be able to personally seduce Bob (8-5 =3).  Strength could apply to ♣, Intelligence to .

    But what about the guild and faction interactions in our list above?  That's the second thing: give members of organizations certain leverages as they advance through the ranks.   Cutpurses in the Thieves Guild might have access to 3, 3♣, and 3.  A Mages Guild member accessing their archives might wield a 10 in examples and anecdotes.

    I think this would push players to investigate people rather than places (discover npc cards), use what they learn to interact with them, get involved in organizations (to have access to powers greater than their stats and personal wealth allow), and continue interacting with npcs even when the short term events are finished (Bob may be useful to apply pressure to another pc in the future, or in advancement in some organization).

    I also think the abstraction of the four suits leaves a lot of wiggle room for creative players.  Maybe players think to influence Bob by bringing around one of his old war buddies, this would fall under s as well.


    Sunday, December 19, 2010

    Curse Lifted

    Our doughty adventurers:

    Toral DP
       Tory hireling
    Z F
       Mika hireling
       Fabrino hireling
    Derek F
       Jimbo hireling
       Ziegfried trained baboon
    Alamon DP
       Morag hireling
    Darius F
       Pegleg Penny hireling
       Mr Pugglesworth talking dog
    Yestlick MU

    Hearing rumors of a fabulous shield embossed with gold coins, the party searched Nidus for two day before finding one of the original vendors where they had spent cursed gold coins.  They bought the shield and noticed an animal arena across the way.

    Bets were made, several folks lost money as a kudu gored a camel.  Toral began prying the coins off the shield as they watched, but one popped off into the arena, luckily Derek sent his baboon to fetch it before baskets of rattlesnakes were poured into the arena.  A tortoise did not fare well against them.  And the final round was a great grizzly against a bull walrus, the bear was the bloody victor.

    After a few more chores, such as Darius finally ridding himself of his troublesome chalice, the party headed back to the sodden temple to put the cursed coins back into their place and hopefully lift the curse.

    The trip was uneventful except on the way out, one of the fly priests asked Derek to assist him with matters in the temple.  Derek resisted what was apparently a glamour and the party readied their weapons, but the fly-armed man seemed to disappear.

    Back in the fresh air again, they felt the curse lifted!  Their oozing cuts and wounds tingling as they began their natural healing process.  Back to Nidus for rest and prayers for healing.  Finally, after weeks of being on edge the party was back to full health and capable of natural healing again.

    They decided to head back to the sodden temple again to investigate a portal that they had opened but never entered long ago.  It had an ancient clay seal.  The problem is that the lower levels are partially underwater and recent tremors seemed to have sunk the temple even more.  The party brought along a canoe.

    There was a lot of engineering and logistics they led to naught.  After tying ropes to the canoe and shuttling the big party across trap infested waters, and then stripping of armor placing it in the canoe and swimming into even deeper water, the party was set upon by spider-geckos.

    These creatures are not much to fear by hardened veterans, but with the party armorless, swimming, unable to use shields and most weapons, it meant chaos and an end to the expedition.  Fabrino and Yestick both had close calls and barely escaped with their lives.  The party decided to turn back at that and head for the safety of Nidus.

    Some Thoughts

    First, some little notes: the talking pug puppy was a birthday gift for Darius' player, she seemed to love it.  Z was desperate to save his hireling Fabrino, unconscious, floating face-down in the water-- because he'd seen a favorite hireling fall to her death into the Maw just recently.

    The party seemed frustrated they didn't get farther into the temple, but it balances with the palpable relief they felt earlier when the damn curse was lifted (they been cursed for ~6 weeks real time).

    Now two major DMing puzzles.  Lesser one first:
    1) I don't think I've ever read any DMing guide mention what to do with parties travelling through previously covered dungeon terrain.  These folks had been a certain way so many times that rolling to open doors, etc. was boring, so I just rolled 4 encounter rolls-- 2 going in 2 going out-- and handwaved the rest.  That's fine.  It worked.  It makes sense for the DM to make a judgement call to keep things paced briskly.  And yet it worries me a little.  What if, for instance, I'd though "Uh oh, they're getting frustrated trying to get this big party through the water here" and handwaved that?  I think I'd lose the real sense of accomplishment they'll feel when they finally get somewhere, and take away the motivation they feel because they really want to beat the damn water now.

    But wait a minute, the difference is simple isn't it?  In an exploration game new places always trump something seen many times.  So I probably made too much of this.

    2) I mentioned in a previous post that, because the party was looking for cursed coins they'd spent, it seemed like a cool opportunity to have at least one end up overseas.  And I felt a little uneasy about that; isn't that a little railroady?  Anyway, I never prepared my sea travelling encounter tables and such to my liking, they've been cursed for weeks, and we're going into the holiday season with few sessions for a while, so I had the guy sail back to Nidus bringing the coins right into their grasp.  Right decision?  I don't know.  Better than a half-assed ocean voyage I suppose.

    Is this a problem because I'm wanting to play a sandbox style game but I haven't yet given them a sandbox?  They don't even have a map of the local environs!  I guess what I wonder is where to trust the emergent storyline that is bound to be interesting in ways none of us can predict, and when to nudge the events in the world as DM because I see a narrative opportunity.  I feel like I may have pondered this somewhere before-- it has to do with players having a choice?  Anyway, I'll stop here and go drink some more coffee.  Hope you're all having a nice December.

    Saturday, December 18, 2010

    Animal Arena

    Weeks in the making, with a cast of hundreds, I bring you Animal Arena!

    Resplendent in silks and hennaed patterns, radiant with gilded hooves and tusks, the animals are led into the amphitheatre to the peal of bells and horns. And those placed together are often so exotic and absurd, it all seems more a holy pageant sacrifice or display of decadence than a fighting event.

    In a nutshell:
    • roll to see which of the almost 100 animals will enter the arena
    • Each has an attack die of different strength-- roll these to see which bests the other
    • Three rounds determines the winner
    We had a session last night that involved a kudu goring a camel, a tortoise bitten to death by rattlesnakes, and a grizzly fighting a walrus. Players seemed to enjoy it.

    Okay, it's still Beta if you want to bet on the outcomes.  I envision players getting to bet at the announcement of the first animal, at the end of round 1 and at the end of round 2.  But the odds should really adjust based on the attack power of each animal involved and how the rounds have gone so far.  Unfortunately, I am neither mathematician nor bookie.  Maybe someone can offer a system/chart of odds I could include in a revision.

    Monday, December 6, 2010

    Sacrificial Stone

    Serendipity: searching books for nautical charts of islands to find a sweet illustration of an aztec sacrificial stone in a book about traveling the mediterranean.

    Bonus points for the author name of Hezekiah Butterworth.  Book here

    Apparently the stone is currently in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico. Here is a pic.

    I'd want to edit out the modern stuff in the background, but I thought I'd give it too you relatively unaltered. Public Domain. 

    Still Cursed

    Toral DP
    Alamon DP
    Darius F
    G F
    Z F
    various hirelings

    The party knows now that a merchant carrying the last cursed coins they need has left on a ship.  Poking around the harbor, they found prices for passage to be be very steep (and they spent most of their wealth acquiring the other cursed coins).  So, they decided to make another foray into the catacombs near the mouth of the Maw.

    After the past few sessions of trudging back and forth with only a few rats to dispatch, the blood started pumping again when they encountered a Man of Wounds. They were befuddled and kept trying to hit it with weapons.  It wasn't doing too much damage, but you must remember 3 of the party members are cursed to be unable to heal.  Toral finally asked for a miracle, and the AllFather held the creature.  G wrapped a rope around its neck and, time running out dragged to the edge of the Maw and pitched it in.

    Whew.  Then they encountered a Woman of wounds much farther in with less chance of a miracle.  More experimentation was tried: no, burning oil didn't seem to affect it; yes, arrows stuck in it with no effect. While warriors engaged it all sides, shields breaking left and right, Alamon managed, after several attempts, to spike its feet to the ground.  The party backed off and left it there.  But no sooner than they had caught their breath than several dog-sized black ants attacked.  One of Torals sturdy woman warrior hirelings was laid low before they bested the insects.

    After looting many of the catacombs' loculi they returned to the stairs and were leaving the Maw when a strange, black hummingbird creature approached.  G eventually skewered it with an arrow, but not before Z's beloved, beareded hireling Pita, fell to her doom.

    All in all the party lost to hirelings and gained only a few odds and ends of armor to sell.  They found no where near the asking price for passage and may go back and try to negotiate with the ship captains.

    Some Thoughts

    Yes, Hireling death is important.  After Z watched his die he said something to the effect of: "Man, if my character dies I would just stop, I like him too much."  Which sounds to me like he had experienced a littl vicarious death dread.

    Thanks to Roger the GS; the Man of Wounds worked brilliantly: the party was puzzled, frightened, and ultimately pushed to not one, but two creative solutions.  It was exciting for me to watch.

    I made a few jokes about Shopping & Dragons-- apparently an abstracted, chaotic city that involves a gambling game to find stuff works.

    Exploration needs some fast-paced tension to go with the slower moving, contemplation and decision making.  It also needs fear, or exploration is just time consuming.  Combat with creatures supplies both nicely.  Combat with strange creatures does it even better.  I imagine the early dungeoneers must have had similar experiences when encounter the first rust monster or ooze.  When players no what it is, time to invent something new for them to encounter.

    As far as logistics, for less experienced DMs, here is how I handle combat:  Group initiative every round, I go in order around the table asking for player actions (if you have a bunch of combats you can go in the opposite order so the same person isn't always first), I count to five on my hand for the player to tell me what they are doing.  Keeps things fast, tense and abstract.  I'll ask players to describe the result of their attacks at times, but I find I'm better at describing crits because I've been paying attention to the whole combat and have a feel for what is most dramatic.  An example, Z rolled a one while fighting the ants and saw his bastard sword fly into the nearby Woman of Wounds.

    Wednesday, December 1, 2010

    Dictamnus albus

    Another wierdity of the world I hadn't heard about until recently, a real-life burning bush:

    From Wikipedia:
    "In the summer months, the whole plant is covered with a kind of flammable substance, which is gluey to the touch, and has a very fragrant smell; but if it takes fire, it goes off with a flash all over the plant."

    Monday, November 29, 2010

    My Idea of a Ranger

    I think something like this fits my idea of a ranger much better than a duel-wielding badass:
    "In 2006, Joss Naylor ran 50 miles up and down seventy Lake District fells, ascending more than 25,000 feet in 21 hours. Not his best performance, but to be fair, he was 70 at the time."
    That post gives more context about fell running and a video. So, you have someone who's already had children if they wanted to, they've had a long life in the area and know it as well as anyone can, they can run for days, ghosting invading forces.  Hell, with the abilities these fell runners have, they could keep tabs on an enemy's position by running back and forth between it and wherever they're reporting.

    Okay, maybe add in proficiency with a bow, but I see them mostly as scouts.  Not an interesting archetype to play I suppose, especially in a group where you wouldn't be able to utilize your running ability without leaving them in the dust, but this will probably be the standard for wilderness roaming rangers in my world.

    Friday, November 26, 2010

    The Travel Triangle

    Flying by the seat of my pants, with no world map, and a party that may be setting sail soon, I started thinking about the bare minimum I needed to have prepared.  And what I came down to was the fact that in fantasy literature/movies dramatic travel choices generally can be abstracted to the long safe way or the short iffy way.  Thus, I present to you the Travel Triangle:

    Okay, it doesn't help you much as a DM, because you still need to know why the short route is dangerous and probably have different encounter tables prepared for both routes.  But if the travel comes up at the end of a session, you might quickly improv a travel triangle choice that a) your players can decide for next time and b) you can flesh out in preparation for whatever decision they might make.

    Let me explore the idea a little.  The easy route may involve taxes, social interaction with guards, or other less dangerous costs of its own, but usually its just longer, takes more time to traverse. The short route is generally the shortest distance between the two points, but the difficulties it entails may actually make it take longer to travel.  But what are the various reasons the short route might be treacherous:
    • A named monster: giant spider, giant, dragon.
    • Terrain: quicksand, swamps, lava, caverns, reefs, whirlpools, canyons, mountains.
    • Climate/Weather: tornado alley, desert, frozen pass, glacier, ice cave, lava.
    • Humanoids: cannibals, headhunters, orcs, berserkers, raiders, slavers.
    • Architecture: ruins, gates, crumbling mines, crumbling bridges.
    • Magic: fairy woods, bermuda triangle, blighted lands, demon halls.
    It seems there are two important factors involved with this travel choice 1) how much of a difference is involved between the two routes and 2) how much does the party know about the conditions of each.

    It seems like the short route should be at least a third shorter to be tempting at all and maybe half the distance/time to travel as the other.  As far as knowledge, the party might know nothing, thus stumbling into the dangers of the enticingly shorter route.  But the real drama seems to be when they have at least ominous rumors for the iffy route.  Too much knowledge and the choice might become a sort of dry accounting, but knowing something called the Blood Saint lives along that path: "Hmm, we might want to take the longer way."

    Which makes me think of issue 3) what is at stake behind the decision.  In literature/movies time is almost always a scarce commodity that forces the protagonists to take the route they know is more risky.  I think I'd rather set up the geography of these triangles in my sandbox somewhere and then wait for players to get themselves embroiled in plots that put that time pressure on themselves.

    I wonder if there are other dramatic travel choice patterns I'm not thinking of.

    note: it would probably make more sense to draw this choice as a semi-circle, but Travel Triangle is just catchier :)

    Thursday, November 25, 2010

    The Curse of the Faceless Coins

    I'm two session reports behind and thought I might catch up.  Today seems appropriate because I'm thankful that I have such a large group of smart, funny people to game with.

    So, two Fridays ago the crew looked like this:

    Gail MU
    Mollie DP
    Alamon DP
    Toral DP + hirelings
    Darius F
    Yestlick MU

    Knowing that the latter three in that list had been cursed by removing some faceless coins from the Sodden Temple, and that they had spent them all over Nidus, the party set out to get them back. They offered a 2-for-1 deal on gold coins and drain much of their wealth in exchanging for the coins that were brought in that way.  But . . . that didn't bring in all the coins, there were still some missing.  So they sought out one of the vendors.  On arriving at where his shop used to be they encountered what turned out to be funeral music.  Seems this armor vendor would go down into the Maw, into some catacombs and collect armor there to sell.  This time he didn't come back.

    So, the party went down into the Maw, into the catacombs and found his body with some of the coins still on him.  On the way in, there was an abandoned golden chalice that Darius picked up and put in his bag.  And near the vendor's body was a large, heavy-looking chest.  Putting a dagger into it and shutting the lid made the dagger disappear.  One of the clerics asked their god successfully where the dagger was and they got the sense it was far away. There was a little back and forth where the party had to prevent Darius from getting in the chest.

    Back in town they heard another vendor had left town on a sea voyage.  Asking the gods about the location of the faceless coins again gave the result they were far away.

    They made a trip into the Sodden temple and deposited the coins they managed to collect back into the brass urns.  That room also contains the rotting carcass of an elephant and the party was attacked by huge maggots with some human features (an ear on the back, a human tongue).  Gail was rendered unconscious, and Darius splintered a shield saving his life.  He unfortunately took damage in the battle that will not heal until the curse is lifted.

    Next Session:

    Derek F +hireling
    Sarah MU
    G F + hireling
    Z F + hireling
    Hugelina F
    And a MU whose name escapes me

    Derek has found out that he too is cursed.  He, though, spent almost none of it.  So the plan is to re-enter the Sodden Temple and put the cursed coins back in the brass urns.  The journey is rather uneventful, they did rescue some prisoners and fight a few rats.  They found a well that led down to a lower level and at one point the party was strung through 4 rooms trying to decide what to do.  Caution finally prevailed and they made it back to town safely.

    Some Thoughts

    One problem with session 1 was we had an additional player I didn't know was coming until an hour before.  He's played some 4e but never been in my game before.  The party was already immersed in their own storyline of trying to lift the curse and he seemed left out a little. If I'd know he was coming I would have tried to design a perk or something to make him important for the night.

    An interesting thing, the human features that the maggots had was a player's suggestion!  I rolled with it and they were duly creeped out as one of the maggots licked Mollie's shin with a human tongue before biting.

    You can never predict what players will do. I thought, having learned they had spent the cursed gold, they would make a list of the vendors they spent the coins at and try to track each down.  But perhaps the time that had passed and the shifting nature of Nidus made that seem unlikely to them.  So, their scheme to buy back at 2-to-1-- a huge money sink!  I think most of that party is flat broke now.

    Interesting to say that party, because inadvertantly, it seems there are enough players to make up two parties. I would have never predicted that.  The last session, because of some miscommunication, I found out the day of the session that our normal host was in Vegas!  So a quick change of venue led to two of G's roommates playing with us.  It was also Derek's player's birthday so his wife agreed to come try playing.  So, in that session, 3 of the 6 players had never played before.

    This time I knew the birthday boy's wife was coming so I prepared to make her a ship captain.  I printed out several images of ships and named them in different languages.  But at the last minute I didn't give one to her because as they rolled up characters there was talk of going back to the temple and I didn't want them to think they had to go to sea. Also, there was plenty for her as a new character to think about.

    Most of these trips back to the temple have been pretty uneventful.  But they party has remained mostly on level one of what wasn't too dangerous a place.  It is almost too little danger though, might need to make sure they encounter stiffer opposition next time they enter or they'll start feeling bored.

    I am currently trying to work out a rough sense of my world, ships, and, ocean encounters because I imagine the next step will be for them to follow the last few coins. But then, who knows, maybe they'll climb into that chest or go down into the maw again.

    Wednesday, November 24, 2010

    Have an Island

    Part of me doesn't want a map because it feels each detail cuts off a multitude of possibilities (thus the abstract city of Nidus).  But I'm at the point where it isn't really fair for players, now that there are several locations they've encountered, to not let them know how places are situated in relationship to each other.  I could have drawn my own map but the old simulationist in me starts whispering: "But what of the geology? The scale?" and I start researching island geology and I end up spending hours and still have no map.  So hell, I'll just use a real map and give myself freedom to fudge any details on it that don't work toward my ends.

    In tracking pictures that were sources of inspiration for Nidus, one place I ended up was this old map of Santorin Isalnd that struck me as just the right style.  I was ignorant at the time that it was the quite interesting ancient island of Thera. Here is the public domain map from 1848:

    Here is a version where I've removed most of the place names and some details to allow for customization:

    I always imagined Nidus as a cliffside city facing the open ocean, but here the water inside the ancient caldera is the much safer harbor, so I'll probably say Nidus is located where Thera actually is, although it's bigger and climbs higher.

    One thing cool about using a real location is that you can find actual satellite pictures. So, if the party finds a magic carpet or tames a flying beasty I can show them this:

    Of course, I'd probably want to edit out that airstrip first.  :)


    I've been consuming-- movies, video games-- and miss making.  Although, I did have two fun sessions I haven't written up yet.  With Thanksgiving I have a little breathing room now.  I'd like to post some things.  Sorry to C'nor; I set comments to older posts to need approval so that I don't miss them like I used to. 

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010

    Group Exploration

    Still feeling a little fatigue in my creative muscles, also DMing regularly on Friday nights takes some of the juice that I would normally use to post on here.

    But I've been playing Fallout: New Vegas.  First, be careful it's buggy; the only console game I've had that's frozen on me.  Second, it's more linear than Fallout 3; sure you can go into the hills, but when they say your bullets won't hurt the critters up there they mean it.  But even after all that and some other little annoyances it really gives me something I crave.

    I love exploring and scavenging.  In the game, I see an abandoned gas station up ahead and I burn with curiosity to see what's in it.  I know from experience there won't be much of value, some radioactive food, a little cash, some ammo.  But I want to see it just the same.

    And then once I've barely survived the giant scorpions surrounding the place-- and spent more ammo than I'll ever be able to buy from the combined trash in the place-- I proceed to pick the place clean.

    I imagine if this video game allowed for cooperative play, most folks would find the way I play boooooring.  How does this compare to an oldschool D&D game? I wonder if group exploration is fundamentally different from solitary exploration.

    That is where I see our group play slow down most, (or maybe I should say that is where play happens?) when the group is trying to decide where to go and how long to stay there.  Not sure what to do about that other than talk with players about what they enjoy most in the game, and try to facilitate the group communicating with each other when they make decisions.
    A recent post by Trollsmyth made me think about the idea for an exploration based game is not so much to have appropriate rewards to be found after appropriate exertion, which I've long thought, but to have interesting things to find and interact with.  I think this applies here because if a party of six find a glowing sword, five people go without-- but if the party finds a fountain that does weird things to imbibers, each party member can choose to interact with it or not.

    And if party decisions about where to explore mean some players will have to go places that weren't their first choice, the least I can do as DM is to make every place as interesting as possible.

    Not sure I have an insight here, so I'll put it to you: What ways can a solo exploration game differ from a group exploration game fruitfully and vice versa?  What are the limitations of each type?

    Wednesday, November 10, 2010


    Have some boats. If I understand correctly these would be smaller craft more suitable for rivers, lakes, and coastal waters. Some of them may be more modern then you would like, but dhow, junk and sampan have been around for a long time. Also some, like the junk and dhow had larger versions for the open ocean. Of course that's just what I've gleaned from some online reading, more knowledgable folks please feel free to chime in.

    A public domain image.

    懸棺 - or Hanging Coffins

    Never heard of these until today.  Apparently used by the Bo people of China but also in Indonesia and the Philippines.

    I think my Maw just found a new feature.  What other wonders does the world hold that I haven't heard of?  These even have a Wikipedia page.  Another site offers this info:
    "According to Cui Chen, curator of the Yibin Museum, hanging coffins come in three types. Some are cantilevered out on wooden stakes. Some are placed in caves while others sit on projections in the rock. All the three forms can be found in Gongxian where most of China's hanging coffins are located."

    tipped off via Neatorama.

    Tuesday, November 9, 2010

    More Ships

    Here's an Arab dhow:

    A Chinese pirate junk:

    A smuggling junk:

    And a nice pic of an old lighthouse:

    All public domain.

    Monday, November 8, 2010

    Pictures of Ships

    I found a couple good books with pictures of different ship types in them: Ships of the Seven Seas and Old seas wings, ways, and words, in the days of oak and hemp.
    Here are a few highlights:

    Now the trick is to get stats for all these in game terms.  I'll post more about that later.

    These are all public domain.

    Sodden Temple - IV

    I've got a cold and was a little run down on Friday, and yet I had the most fun I've probably ever had playing D&D.  Mostly because its such a great group of players.

    The chaotic party that ended up trapped down in the temple

    Gail MU
    Mollie DP
    Toral DP
    Tori hireling
    Laria hireling
    Alamon DP
    Darius F

    The party spent as much time shopping in Nidus as they did in a return trip to the Sodden Temple. Toral's gold was burning a hole in his coin purse. Together, the party visited an opium den, tattooist, bought phials of tears from one vendor, and bought the pickled tongues of emperors from another vendor.

    Friday. Probably talking to a vendor, they shopped so much.

    They stopped on the oustskirts of Nidus to talk to the prophet of the pot who turned out to be the opposite of helpful, happy as he was in his ascetic existence. On feeling threatened he ran off. He did return later to give the party a few tidbits of knowledge about the temple and the fly cult and the relationship between the two.

    While still in town the party remembered the tall, stilt-like shoes they'd found in the pack of the luckless adventurer in the temple. Alamon put them on an felt them tug at his feet in the direction of the temple.

    They proceeded to head toward the temple and use the shoes to guide them. Getting to the second level of the temple without much problem, they were confronted with a long hall filled knee-high with water. After some experimentation they formed a conga line following Alamon's exact steps.

    A door opened into a room with four cultists. The party made quick work of them, a few criticals meant they were felled in one round.

    A few more halls, another room, and the chopines lead Alamon to a sunken statue of solid silver.

    While investigating the statue they heard noises from the next room.  They searched to find several prisoners chained to the wall.  Apparently they had been kidnapped from the outskirts of Nidus and were, one-by-one being turned into the fly-headed creatures.  The party cut them free and gave them the lanterns to hold.  Toral poked around and found a secret door.

    The party tied a rope to the statue and managed to heave it through the secret door.  Back in a flooded hall, they investigated a door.  It opened into a medium sized circular room with a waterfall pouring into it.  Apparently the room is quite deep.  A headless statue juts from out of the water.  A clay sealed door was on the opposite side of the room.  Gail, the magician swam across and was breaking the seal when the rest of the party was attacked by hungry rats from behind.

    Again the party had little trouble dealing with the rats.  But decided to leave the unexplored door and get the heck out of Dodge.  After much engineering including some stripping of armor. swimming, and rope tugging.  They managed to get the statue out of the temple and back to Nidus.

    They sold the statue and were shopping in Nidus again when Toral realized that a wound on his leg was not healing. He asked for divine aid and the wound healed only to reopen before their eyes.  After much soul searching and actually consulting a mystic in town, he thought he knew the reason.  A quick cut of a blade on Alamon's arm and on Darious' seemed to confirm it.  They had stolen cursed coins from the temple!

    At least that's their best hypothesis right now.  And if that is the problem the look on Toral's face showed the difficulty that lies ahead since they spent all that gold on various thing in the Shifting City.

    Some thoughts
    These players are hilarious-- Darius' player decided she would have him get a tattoo of a unicorn horn on his forehead, Toral's player on encountering a vendor selling the pickled tongues of emperors, bought as many as he could.

    Part of all this shopping was Toral was trying to spend his cash to earn XP.  Consequently he was the first player in my new era of gaming to ever make it to second.  Let's wish him well with that nasty curs currently on him.

    I need to think about the actions of clerics, Toral was smokin' dope and looking for hookers, what does the Allfather think about that?  I think I'll talk about it with Toral's player.  I like the idea of rogues with hearts of gold, but feel there should be some limit.

    The prophet of the pot was almost a bust.  I was trying to act out a Diogenes character and realized that he is the antithesis of an adventuring party and would probably have little interest in them.  So I started to improv some flaws for him.  I think he might be a little lonely in his ascetic existence and maybe a bit of a coward or he might have been an adventurer too.

    The work I put into generating those wonders in Nidus keep paying and paying.  I thought they would just be color, but I finding the players will interact with them if they can: smoking at communal hookahs, buying weird crap they have no apparent use for.

    I'm thinking about exotic animal fights, gambling, and still trying to figure out the exact abstractness of Nidus-- does it have landmarks, does it have neighbourhoods?  Why?  What would they add?  Etc.

    I've been researching ships some, since Nidus is on an island.  Found some images.  I'm looking to Moldvay for some simple sea traveling rules.

    Saturday, October 30, 2010

    Sodden Temple - III

    Friedrich - DP
    Zed - MU
    Derek - F
     Jimbo - porter
    Toral - DP
     Laria - hireling
     Tory - hireling
    Alamon - DP
    Darius - F

    Word around Nidus was that someone was spending lots of silver.  Alamon, the sole survivor of an expedition to the monastery of St Eudo, met up with several strangers and Derek and Toral who knew of the source of the wealth: the Sodden Temple.

    The party cautiously approached the temple and saw a red and black robed figure dart inside. Closer inspection showed many footprints leading into it, including some plate-sized prints of what might be an elephant.

    They timidly entered, proceeded to the room with the small pedestal, and . . . had a hard time remembering what the different symbols meant on it.  They decided to try and avoid the room they knew to be littered with copper coins fearing a new brundlphant occupant or ambush.  After some experimentation they opened a door to a small room to their left.  It contained some robes and three brass torcs which intrigued the party but no one was brave enough to try them on.

    They opened a door to the right, and after a short passage opened a door to a room with a corpse in the middle of the floor.  It had been sliced cleanly in half.  Alamon crouched, investigating, and found some treasure and tall wooden shoes in a satchel on the corpse.  While searching the body he saw a glint of metal underneath the reliefs in the room, and running completely around it.

    The room had two doors.  They decided to proceed straight by hooking a grapnel to the door handle and pulling from a prone position.  On successfully opening the door a blade whirred just above everyone's head.

    The next room had a damp crate and nothing else.  After long, timid investigation, the party discovered it held two potions, a scroll, and some plants in a bell jar.  This was all put into Jimbo's pack.  On searching the dead-end room's reliefs, Toral found a secret passage.  Entering the small passage they were confronted with the reek of rotting flesh.  Opening another secret passage revealed a room with a huge carcass, eight fly-headed figures feasting on it, and 50 brass urns around the periphery.

    After some hesitation-- the fly heads seemed content to keep eating- Zed cast sleep and dropped half of them.  Then the ever diplomatic Derek nearly gutted one with his battle axe.  Those fly heads still awake engaged.  Derek sacrificed his shield to avoid certain death to the acid spittle of one of the creatures.  Jimbo was splattered and knocked unconscious.  Toral dropped one with mace to head.  Alamon commanded one to sit, its silken robes sizzling in its own acidic spittle.  And Friedrich dropped one from the second rank with a spear to its solar plexus.

    The urns were revealed to have gold coins, 16 in each.  The party greedily started filling packs.  They noticed that Jimbo's fall had crushed the bell jar in his and that little brown beetles were crawling everywhere.  Toral asked the All Father to aid Jimbo and his petition was granted.

    Happy to have gold coins, the party began a frightened scurrying toward the exit, fearful that the brown, lady-bug like beetles meant something ominous.

    Back at Nidus, shopping commenced.  They found a vendor who tasted their potions for them, tasted one of the bugs, and put on one of the brass torcs all for a price.  The bugs turned out delicious, the torc dangerous.  More shopping led to plate armor for those without it, a new shield and place to stay.

    Some Thoughts
    I really like how the players didn't just go in an clean this place out in one sweep. As different parties consisting of different players return again and again and interact with the location, it starts to have a feeling of verisimilitude of its own. That's cool.

    I'm being forced to make a lot of decisions about what I want my world to be on the fly.  Usually when I feel myself just having finished allowing something I regret.  I want the party to test their own potions, that's part of the risk and fun right?  But Nidus is a teeming, exotic city, why wouldn't some beggar taste them for them for a price?

    I know I don't want magic available for sale like so much toilet paper.  I was feeling very reluctant about the players even finding a library or sage to identify stuff for them.  I'm conflicted, because it's smart that they wanted to, but I want them to have to experiment, feel mystery and tension too.

    We started the session with my revised version of JB's random relationship chart.  Probably because I pared it down to 30 entries, it seemed like everyone was related to everyone.  That wa pretty funny, two sets of twins.  The relationships themselves were forgotten pretty quickly, but the amusement of parsing them seemed to be a great ice breaker.  I wonder if rolling almost anything randomly around the group would work similarly.

    My most consistent player and a reader of this blog used player knowledge at least twice last night. Don't know what to do about that.  Might have to start making magic items do the opposite of what my posts say they do, hear that bastard! ;)

    Darius' player was a new, with only video game experience in regards to rpgs.  She managed marvellously and I'm happy that she might be back next week.  I'm always looking to cut down the testosterone ratio in my sessions.

    Also, an old high-school friend drove into town a matter of minutes before we were heading off to the game site.  I said "want to play D&D?" and he said "sure."  That was cool.  He hasn't played with me since high school and has never seen me DM.

    So, overall, like last session, not very much happened: barely any combat, a trap averted, some weird treasures found, Nidus explored a little and the players safe to prepare for another excursion.  But that was plenty to allow for running jokes, amusing npc interactions, and good times in general. It was surprising to me that I could pull it off after such a long day at work and after such a long week.

    One thing that helped is that it seems like I've passed a tipping point of infrastructure on this blog- magic items, npcs, random charts-- that makes playing with little time to prep possible.  Looking forward to next week.  I think the players are going to find they made a BIG mistake.

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010

    The Temple Awaits

    The vagaries of adult schedules means two of the players from last Friday's session are unavailable while three others who weren't present for either of the last 2 sessions will be.  My imaginary world feels a little more "real," and more picaresque, because no two sessions have the same players.

    If I ever get these people all in the same place at the same time I can go for a personal record of players DMed simultaneously.

    This Friday I'll take my maps for the Maw in case folks want to dabble there.  This will be the first time I'm really prepared to offer the players a choice.  But I have a feeling the call of easy wealth will draw them back to the temple.

    I Really like JB's way of giving players connections between their characters.  I want to try to use it this Friday, but I might edit his 100 entires down to thirty.  I'm afraid I have a bad case of NIH syndrome.  Although, in my defense, it's in modification that we truly learn the ins and outs of something.

    And with the blah blah blah out of the way, have some beautiful color images of poisonous snakes.  Public domain, book here.