Friday, December 30, 2011

Choosing the Lesser Evil

Horrible Choices in Call of Cthulhu, and Carcosa

Ever have one of those soapbox posts, you get on your high horse and blah, blah, blah and rant, rant, rant?  I sat down to write a Carcosa review, and then it morphed into a long post about violence and morality  and stabbing goblins in the face.  I re-read that awful bitch-fest and decided to go in another direction.  You'll thank me later.  I still talk about Carcosa a bit in the wrap, but this post mostly became about the difficult ethical choices you often see in Call of Cthulhu.

I've heard Ken Hite speak a few times on the podcasts, and he frequently identifies Call of Cthulhu as the only moral role playing game.  There are no alignments in the game, so it's not like you can label yourself Lawful Good.  Where would this idea come from?

It's fairly simple; characters in Call of Cthulhu are investigators trying to stop ancient horrors from entering the world, but the act of investigation in Call of Cthulhu destroys your character.  Playing the game (successfully) is essentially a selfless, moral act.  As characters investigate situations involving the eldritch horrors, they accrete sanity damage.  The more they fight against the horrors of the Mythos, the more sanity they lose, and the easier it becomes to keep losing sanity.  It's the sanity death spiral.  Character death or forced retirement is inevitable...  the only question is how long can your character keep up the good fight?

While the "sanity death spiral" is a death of a thousand cuts, a frequent horror theme requires a much more explicit form of sacrifice.  Back in my "horror in dungeons & dragons" post, I called this theme The Monstrous Choice: Is the group willing to do whatever it takes to stop an even greater evil?

I spend a fair amount of time forced to read subjects like "decision theory" as part of the corporate gig.  I'm familiar with the theoretical problems around outcomes and expected value calculations, and how they should influence decisions in a business setting.  Yawn...  It's remarkable how quickly the theories get tossed out the window when faced with a real world situation, when your pulse is racing and everyone is watching and Monty Haul is asking if you want to keep your prize or see what's behind door number three.

It's the same with the ethical constructs - folks can have their well thought positions on "the ends justifies the means" or "two wrongs don't make a right" (simplifying consequentialism versus deontology) - but there's nothing like putting a face-to-face table top group right in the middle of a deep ethical crisis during a gaming session, then sitting back to watch how they work through the problem when they've got actual skin in the game (so to speak).

Spoiler Alerts!  Spoilers for Beyond the Mountains of Madness and The Black Drop, forthcoming.

I've had some unforgettable Cthulhu games that stared unblinkingly at difficult ethical choices, and I would say all the participants came out of those games with memorable experiences.  Here are a couple of war stories demonstrating The Monstrous Choice theme to illustrate the idea.

Beyond the Mountains of Madness
BTMOM is Chaosium's epic campaign (440 something pages) that puts the players in the role of Antarctic explorers following in the footsteps of the ill-fated Lake Expedition that discovered the Mountains of Madness and the city of the Elder Things.

Deep into the module, there's the strong likelihood the group will be faced with a terrible choice.  The ancient Elder Things had built a god-trap that keeps a world-breaking entity imprisoned just outside our space and time, and the god-trap requires the brain of a hominid to function.  Earlier in the adventure, the reawakened Elder Things kidnap a key NPC in the expedition and carry him off to their tower as replacement parts for the machine.  When the party finally learns his fate, they see his decapitated head powering the machine, and it's quite likely they cripple it when they pull his head out of the machinery.  As things fall apart, they learn the true function of the machine and its earth-saving importance as a key piece of the god-trap.  Where can they get a still-living brain to insert back into the neural matrix?  :Gulp:

In hindsight, it's easy to see that section of the adventure is a screw-job, but it is effective in presenting the group with a terrible choice - either watch the god-trap fail, releasing The Prisoner, or sacrifice a party member or NPC to the machine.

The group didn’t have much time to struggle with this one… they were tossing out some half-hearted ideas such as drawing straws for a volunteer when Deb took the helm.  She calmly took out her revolver and gut-shot "Cole the Cook", who was played by Dennis, and then coolly informed everyone, "There, I've made our selection.  I suggest you get Cole into the preparation tank before he bleeds out and I need to shoot someone else".

The sudden violence snapped everyone out of their paralysis, and they reacted by dragging Cole off to the acid bath where his head would be prepared for insertion into the machine.  Cole screamed and cursed while he was carried off, but no one bothered to question the morality of what they were doing; they were too busy saving the planet.

That's only a small section in Beyond the Mountains of Madness; it's a massive adventure and a true magnum opus for Chaosium and the authors.  I keep hearing that a second edition is in the works (a German second edition was released last year) so I'll keep my fingers crossed - I'd love to have that one in hard cover.

The Black Drop
The Black Drop is a Trail of Cthulhu scenario put out by Pelgrane Press; it's hard to believe it came out all the way back in 2010!  It's a short adventure, suitable to two nights of play, or a single epic session.  It involves a remote outpost of the French government on the far southern Kerguelen Islands in the years prior to World War 2.  At the same time the players arrive to bring supplies to the small group of French colonists, a party of four or five Nazis arrives for their own nefarious purpose, heading into the mountainous interior.

Over the course of the scenario, we learn that the Kerguelen plateau was once part of ancient Lemuria; Lemurian artifacts have been recovered on the island; the Lemurians kept a sleeping god in a state of torpor beneath a basalt temple on the side of a mountain there.  Every thirty years or so, when an astrological event happens, the transit of Venus, the god creeps towards wakefulness.

The twist in the scenario is that the Nazis, whom everyone expects are the villains, are actually a group of occultists that know the island's horrible truths, and their secret society sacrifices its members to keep the evil god asleep, by performing a gruesome bloody ritual as the god stirs.  It's quite likely the players don't figure this out until they've knocked off a number of the Nazi scientists, eliminating necessary members required for the final ritual and creating some tough choices for themselves.  Meanwhile, the small group of French colonists are all cultists that have fallen under the power of the god as it creeps towards consciousness; they cause no end of trouble running and gunning across the mountainous interior.

I ran this one as a one-shot with my D&D group that summer, and they were off guard when the straight-up hunt for cultists pivoted into the difficult ethical choice of teaming up with the Nazis for the sacrificial ritual.  One of the characters, Adam, abandoned the expedition at that point, making the Kantian choice - "Let justice be done, though the world perish"; he'd rather perish and let the world be destroyed than team up with Nazis.  The others accompanied the surviving Nazis to the ritual site and helped entomb the gargantuan god-thing back in torpor as Venus made its solar transit, but it involved a lot of squick.  A bunch of dudes were drugged and more or less fed to the god to keep it immotile, while one character masqueraded as the high priest, and returned it to its slumber beneath the earth, using the Lemurian artifact.  Only one PC survived, but it was a "team effort" to succeed.

As I was reading through Carcosa, and considered the previous Carcosa controversy that roiled through D&D discussion boards a few years ago, it struck me the root cause is one of perception; people are looking at the setting through the wrong lens.  Carcosa is a horror setting with a D&D label.  Carcosa brings The Monstrous Choice, so common in horror gaming, and thrusts it into the forefront of D&D, challenging the players to survive in a hostile, evil world.

An actual review of Carcosa is still forthcoming from me.  It's a cool book, with some whacked out ideas, and it deserves it's own post.  I'm reminded of something I wrote some 6-7 months ago: defending the horror.  Back then, brouhahas were brewing over gruesome D&D art.  My answer now is the same as it was back then, and speaks to why players like to challenge themselves against such things; the darker the world or setting, the brighter the light cast by even a single candle, and there's great satisfaction in success when so much is on the line.

*About the Watchmen scan:  I only lightly studied ethics in high school, but the first time I can remember having long discussions with friends about ethical quandaries involved Moore's Watchmen.  Who was right, Ozymandias or Rorschach?  I still love that book.

In my CoC experiences shared in this post, Deb was an Ozymandias and Adam was a Rorschach - a funny way of looking at them!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Lazy Map Day - Thule Island

I worked on some maps over the holidays - relaxing stuff.  First, I want my maps closer to black and white, for easy printing down the road.  And since The Black City is using more real world geography for inspiration, I updated the archipelago map:

Here's a faded version with a hex overlay I'll use for island stocking.  The scale is 1 hex = 24 miles.

The peninsula ridge where the ruined city and Viking camp is located gets lost at that scale, so I'll be building an area map (maybe 1 hex = 1 mile or 3 miles) that blows up the circled area in great detail for forays near the ruins:

All these maps were done in just a few hours with Campaign Cartographer; I'm not terribly good at it (yet) but it's a pretty powerful tool - I may start doing traditional hex maps and dungeons using it as well.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Answering the Sinking Ship Challenge

Spectacular view of northern Svalbard*
First off, thanks all for the many responses yesterday.  The themes that emerged in the comments reflected similar approaches to what I decided to use.  Folks astutely pointed out, if the idea of the campaign is to explore a megadungeon on a frozen northern island, just start the group there already.   Eliminate any initial chance at a shipwreck, and assume they're some of the adventurers that made it to the island successfully.

Here was my problem:  I do prefer that PC's and NPC's follow the same set of rules.  If there's a chance that NPC ships sink on the way to the island, there needs to be a chance for the PC ships to sink as well - otherwise I'm treating players like the special unique snowflakes in a world built just for them to exploit.  It minimizes player achievement; "winning on the easy setting" is unsatisfying.  So I needed a way to put some risk back into the journey.

My own way of reconciling these two competing positions is like this:  new groups will *always* begin adventuring right on the island of Thule, at the Viking base camp (Trade Town).  However, during campaign play, once they return home at the end of the adventuring season, all bets are off.  When/if they plan a return trip the following year, they'll need to account for the same risks as everyone else voyaging to the island.

When the group plans a return trip the following year, there will be choices to make to mitigate the dangers of the journey.  They could sign on with an experienced captain (and offer back shares of their loot), or buy their own ship and hire their own captain and navigator.  They can make riskier choices, leaving early in the season to get a jump on the competition, risking more dangerous sea ice, or play it safe and wait for warmer weather.  The amount of cargo will be a factor as well.  I'm sure resourceful players would come up with ways to use the spell lists to reduce risks of weather or ship damage.  If you're going to have an element of "courageous seagoing exploration" in the game, you owe it to the genre to give the players a chance to make both bold and safe choices.

A number of comments involved switching the discussion from "make it safe to the island/ or die" to "make it safe to the island/ or deal with complications/ or die" - in other words, stop thinking about sinking as an either/or proposition, and add some degrees of failure to the mix - maybe supplies are lost, the ship arrives but is damaged, resources and hit points are gone, that kind of stuff.  Great ideas, and it's given me a lot to develop.

Campaign play for the Black City is something I'm putting in the appendix.  After these discussions, I'll be adding a section on navigational hazards and complications to cover rules for making it back and forth to the island safely when it's used in an ongoing campaign - thanks for the help!

*The picture is another spectacular view of Svalbard, this one in the northern part of the archipelago in high summer - the photographer's full set is here, creative commons: Kenyai's Svalbard photos.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Game-Mastering Dilemma: Sinking the Player's Ship

Sea ice off the coast of Svalbard
Holiday break is over, and it's back to work.  Hope everyone had a nice break and is charged up for another year as we countdown to 2012.  Let's kick things off with a game mastering dilemma.  I'd love to hear how different DM's would approach the issue outlined below.  I don't know whether folks still think in terms of GNS* and games theory (see notes below), but my first thought is this can also be analyzed as a GNS problem - your priorities would inform your own solution.

The Problem
I've been working on a campaign setting on the blog on and off for a while, called The Black City.  It's a ruined alien city on the shore of a frozen northern island; I'm calling the island Thule, but the real world inspiration is Spitsbergen island (part of the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic circle north of Norway).  Viking adventurers have discovered the ruined city and the lucrative treasures found in the icy ruins.

Ocean travel during the Dark Ages was dangerous, and ships were frequently lost.  For example, the records of the Viking expedition from Iceland to Greenland report that nearly 50% of the initial colonization fleet didn't make it (either turned back or were lost at sea).  The trip from Lappland to Svalbard is equally as long - about two weeks across open ocean, with the only possible stop at Bear Island in the Barents Sea.

During summer, June-August, the ocean north of Lappland should be passable and navigable with little or no sea ice.  The Atlantic current keeps the southwestern Barents Sea warmer than comparable latitudes in the Arctic.  The confluence of Atlantic currents and cold Arctic waters does create strong currents and frequent mists and fogs, complicating sailing conditions even when the sea ice is gone.  There's only a few months of favorable weather for exploration of the ruins each summer. 

We can calculate chances that ships will sink while making the 2-3 week journey, and I'd hazard to guess it's not a trivial percentage.  Sinking is a death sentence in those cold northern waters for everyone on board.  We could quickly identify factors that might cause a ship to sink  - foundering in high waves, getting caught in a squall or storm, crashing into rocks or sea ice while sailing blind in heavy mist and fog.  One could identify factors that would reduce the chances of the same; the experience of the captain and crew, the load and cargo, the presence of beneficial magic, and how early in the season the ship sails (there would be more ice in May, like the picture).

Here's the dilemma for old school dungeon masters:  When the adventure requires a hazardous journey just to arrive at the adventuring site, should the characters have a chance at failing to make it?  Killing the entire party, by sinking their ship on the way to the dungeon, would be identified as a "negative play experience" by modern designers.  Aren't the player characters special unique snowflakes that should be granted sufficient 'plot immunity' to at least make it to the dungeon?

Let me hear how you'd handle this type of ocean travel in your game.  My thought is most DM's would give player ships a chance for sinking or blowing tragically off course based on whatever weather charts they're using, but would then let the players get shipwrecked, washed ashore, or clinging to wreckage, rather than instantly killing everyone.  But washed ashore or shipwrecked is not an option in the arctic waters.  So what would you do?

I had my own solution written as part of the post, but its better to hold that back a few days and first hear how other folks would handle the situation without establishing any precedents.  I've also got a new poll up on the right to get the discussion started.  Let's hear some reasons why we should or shouldn't sink the player's ship in the comments.

*GNS Theory
GNS theory was used on The Forge to analyze approaches in games based on whether the rules were trying to advance a particular agenda - gamist, narrativist, or simulationist.  A simulationist approach might declare that ships will always have a chance to sink and the game rules will try to model a world with internal consistency; the gamist approach might consider it a mere resource problem, and by applying the right choices to the percentages, the players can "win"; a narrativist approach might let the players handle the description of their own journey (along with precautions) and just resume the story at the island.

**Sea Ice pictures
Atmospheric and glacier research is done at Svalbard, along with limited mining, and lots of folks seem to post interesting blogs while they're up there, full of excellent pictures; these sea ice pictures came from this blog (link) and show sea ice conditions in May.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Holy Sword

Moonlight shone bluely off the great blade which lay waiting.  "In this sword is locked that before which they (the evil hordes) cannot stand.  When their demon gods have been driven back into the Middle World, the human savages will despair and flee.  We got here soon enough."

He looked up at the figure on the cross.  Bending, he took the sword Cortana in his hand…  Holger felt the illusion that masked him dissolve.  And his memory returned, and he knew himself.
-Poul Anderson, Three Hearts and Three Lions

Folks often comment how much inspiration Gygax took from this book of Anderson's; they say Holger Danske, Ogier the Dane, is a model for the paladin class, and he indeed performs many classic paladin deeds - detecting evil, laying of hands, bonded with an intelligent war horse.  The D&D troll is clearly from this book, and the story explicitly uses the Law vs Chaos alignment axis.  When the civilized realms of man are identified as bastions of Law, I hear echoes of Keep on the Borderlands.

But an overlooked piece at the end is when Holger finds the object of his quest, the magical sword Cortana, buried in a ruined Christian chapel in the pagan lands.  All the forces of Chaos in the story have contrived to keep him from finding this powerful weapon, for it is said it can singlehandedly turn back the tide of Chaos.

When Holger grasps the sword, the magical illusions that were obscuring his identity melt away, and the blocks on his memory placed by the Enchantress Morgan le Fay disappear as well.  I often wonder if these simple lines provided the inspiration to have the Paladin's holy sword to dispel magic when unsheathed?  I'm not familiar enough with the original texts of the chansons de geste to know if there are other examples, perhaps of weapons like Durandal piercing the glamors of Faerie. I would imagine "Excalibur" would be a good model for using a holy sword in the campaign as well.

I highly recommend checking out Three Hearts and Three Lions if you're a student of D&D's history; it's one of the stronger inspirational sources.  I have a review of it here:  Three Hearts and Three Lions review.

Changing gears, I wonder how many folks have used an actual holy sword in their game?  I can't recall too many instances of such a weapon showing up in the published works - the one that stands out for me was an Astral jaunt published in Dragon, where the party travels to recover the holy sword "Fedifensor", defender of the faith, and battles githyanki.

I'm confronted by the question of when/whether to introduce any holy weapons, as my regular campaign (on hiatus due to the holidays) will resume with the characters in the mid-levels - levels 6-7 - about to embark on their world shaking quest to recover the Demonomicon.  And they have a paladin as  a main character.  Sooner or later, the question will arise regarding the possibility of finding or using such a powerful item to aid them.

Would a holy sword be strongly tied to a deity or particular religion?  Meaning a Holy Sword dedicated to St Cuthbert wouldn't work fully for another Lawful Good deity, if the setting were polytheistic?  Perhaps that's getting too close to the uncomfortable question of whether scrolls of clerical magic in the possession of an evil cleric are dedicated to the evil deity in some way, and couldn't be used by the lawful cleric that claimed them.  There seems to be a strong need for such items to be fungible and usable regardless of religion.

It's given me the chance to consider how such a weapon would exist in the setting.  Any holy sword previously created or recovered by servants of the main religion would quickly find their way into the hands of the established hierarchy, and would be heavily guarded and kept at a central location.  The questing knight that first recovered such a weapon, assuming he's not the church's champion, would likely be instructed turn it over to the Patriarch or similar leader; we're talking about pious lawfully aligned characters, after all.  It's unlikely such a powerful deterrent would be sent out into the world on missions, unless it were in the hands of the religion's established champion.  The risk of loss is too great.  Our paladin in the campaign is from an ancient sect that predates the primary monotheistic church, so it's even more unlikely he'd be able to gain the confidence of the theocracy.

Holy swords still lost would be just that - lost and forgotten - or heavily guarded by minions of evil or the forces of chaos, to prevent their recovery.  In the excerpt of Three Hearts and Three Lions, there was an arduous quest into the pagan lands, a vicious fight against a troll, and the forlorn cemetery around the church was guarded by the "Hell Horse", a minion of Hell itself.

For Gothic Greyhawk, such a weapon is in the hands of the Church of the Blinding Light, the theocracy behind the Pale.  It's unlikely players would ever have access to an existing holy sword in a meaningful way.  Rather, the players would need to make it an explicit goal to determine if such a weapon were ever lost in a previous age, and make it their primary quest to recover if it themselves.  And even then, they'd run the risk of the bureaucracy stepping in and laying a claim to the weapon in the name of the greater good.

I could always go the Excalibur route, and have such a weapon come from "on high" for a limited purpose, returning to the divine realm or the great beyond once it's limited purpose was fulfilled.  I need to think on it further; having the sky break open and an angelic being descend to earth on a shaft of golden sunlight is completely over the top, but could work in a game where the cosmic strife between Law and Chaos boils in the background.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Lovecraft and Me: A Confession

A week ago this place passed its one year anniversary, and I set some goals for the coming year.  One of them is to do more blogging on Lovecraftian subjects, diverse and sundry; a post per week on a topic related to Lovecraft or the Call of Cthulhu RPG.  A lot of the inspirational reading I'd like to complete this year includes Lovecraft predecessors like Dunsany, Machen, and Chambers.  I've had a long career running Lovecraftian games, so there are plenty of reviews, campaigns, Keeper techniques, and mechanics to discuss, plus the chance to get advice and insight from the community.

A blog is such a personal thing, it seems fitting to start such an endeavor with recollections of how my lifelong interest in this author's works became fixed in place.  Cast your mind back to… 1983!  Yep, that was the year I picked up one of the early Cthulhu boxed sets, the one with the stapled rule book and the classic cover over to the right:

I'll be honest with you, I had never read a lick of Lovecraft prior to getting that boxed set, and much of the flavor of the setting evaded me.  The fixation on the 1920's was baffling.  Instead of serious investigations, we usually ended up playing it D&D style, picking characters who were typically "Veterans of the Great War" so we could justify loading them down with shot guns and tommy guns, kicking in doors and yelling at the Deep Ones to "Get some!  Blam, blam blam!"  Heh.  In defense, I'll point out that we were just starting high school.

I went on to read a fair amount of Lovecraft afterward, especially the Random House editions like this one on the left, with their sensational covers promising blood and horror, but delivering only nervous aesthetes and musty tomes.  I still have a copy of that one in the attic.  My favorite story was At the Mountains of Madness, which I had read via a hardback borrowed from the town library.  It still is my favorite.

It wasn't until college that Lovecraft made sense to me, and I remember the moment clearly.  I was going to Montclair State University; it was still called a college then, and they had just initiated a liberal arts honors program; I was in the inaugural class.  Regardless of major, the honors program forced a worthy load of humanities on the participlants.  I was suffering through a sociology class that was exploring the modern mindset (Simmel's "The Metropolis and Mental Life", that kind of stuff) when I finally made the Lovecraft connection;  HP Lovecraft's stories reflected a modern mind stripped of its romantic ideals.

In the preceding 50 years or so before Lovecraft's writing, Darwin's On the Origin of Species postulated a theory of evolution that transformed humanity from created beings to evolved animals.  Revolutions in Europe had seen the fruition of Marx's Communist Manifesto and the evidence of the Hegelian dialectic in action, a refutation of the great man theory and prior forms of historical analysis.  (Nowadays, we forget the kind of revolutionary fervor the anarchists brought, even to America.)  Freud's theories reduced the inner self to a series of mechanistic urges explained through repressed desires and childhood traumas.  Bringing it all together, the world had just witnessed the bloodiest war in history, displaying inhumanity on a massive scale across the poisoned trenches of World War I.

These new theories were an assault on the special role of humanity in the divine plan; religion was under siege.  In fact, these ideas were antithetical to any form of Romantic world view.  It was then I perceived Lovecraft's singular achievement - he was the first modern horror writer!  Lovecraft embraced man's new place in the cosmos.  We are animals, advanced and intelligent, but animals nonetheless, floating on a big rock in a sea of stars.  Not only are we prisoners on this rock, we're slaves to our biology, slaves to our psychology, and the progress of history is not the unfolding of a divine plan, but the mechanistic reactions to economic forces.  We are alone.  Except Lovecraft pointed out, we're not alone.  When he gazed into the night sky, he didn't see an empty void; he saw monsters.

So that's what did it for me; the recognition of his significance in the annals of horror made me a lifelong fan.  Bam!  Hooked for life.  Nowadays, someone would just hop on the internet, read an essay on Lovecraft on Wikipedia, or find some published criticism, but back then we had to do our own thinking, and my newfound understanding of Lovecraft seemed a profound personal achievement at the time.  I was quite proud of developing my appreciation honestly.  My games of Call of Cthulhu were never the same, and I went on to run many memorable campaigns.

These days I'm far more optimistic about the human condition than I was back in my "jaded" twenties.  Perhaps it's related to fatherhood and all the joys that can bring.  I appreciate that Lovecraft's writing appeals to both atheists and the religious minded.  For instance, one of the higher profile scholars of Lovecraft these days is Robert M Price, an American theologian and instructor at a seminary.  The connection between religion and existential fear runs deep.  But I'm afraid that will be a musing for another day.

So that's how my obsession with HPL began, many years ago.  I can assure the regular readers there will be plenty of Dungeons & Dragons posts on the way; I'll consign the Lovecraft items to a weekly flirtation.  But I'm looking forward to working in discussions of Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu, horror gaming, and reviews of the source literature into my blog's regular mix of topics.  Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mythic Geography and the D&D Setting

Sailing to paradise, Middle Earth style

Yesterday, I mentioned how the idea of a dungeon as Mythic Underworld crept into my brain and conspired to lure me away from my regular projects.  Something else got stuck in my head - the idea of Mythic Geography.

Like me, I would imagine most of the readers are all products of the scientific world view*, that the earth revolves around the sun, the moon orbits the earth, the passing of seasons is related to earth's tilt, that kind of stuff, and this view of "world as spherical planet" informs just about every D&D setting I can recall.  Whatever outer planes or divine realms exist, they exist outside the material world and its scientific laws.  But the world wasn't always viewed this way.  While the myths themselves typically take place in a time before recorded history, they postulate little or no distance between the sacred realms and the physical world.

Mount Olympus is a real place, and in the mythic world view the gods live on top of the mountain.  Dark caves can lead one right to Hades, like poor Orpheus.  The rainbow bridge lends egress to Asgard, Jotuns live beyond Russia, and somewhere above the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates, one ought to find the Garden of Eden.  I'm no expert on mythology, but I would hazard the guess that most mythologies have their equivalent sacred sites where god and man meet - Native American myths provide explanations for places like Devil's Tower, Wyoming, for instance.

Most D&D settings, and quite a bit of fantasy literature, use the scientific view of the world (the setting is basically a big planet) and they consign the mythical elements to other planes and dimensions.  But just a bit of reflection reveals that there's fantasy literature that supports a view of mythic geography more in line with the mythic worldview of our own prehistory.

The most obvious to me is JRR Tolkien's Middle Earth.  In Middle Earth, you can actually sail across the oceans from the Grey Havens to reach the Undying Lands - an equivalent of heaven- as long as you have the right kind of ship.  That kind of physical journey beyond the mortal world is right in line with a mythic view of geography.

Faerie is typically presented as a magical realm somewhere beyond the mortal world, accessible through portals of fey crossings; in the worldview of Poul Andersons's Three Hearts and Three Lions, the realm of Chaos and the faerie lords is a physical place just beyond the civilized lands of Law.  Fairy is a shadowy, twilight realm, immune to the orbit of the sun or the intrusions of broad daylight; it defies scientific reality.  One can physically walk from the mortal world right into shadowed Fairy.

Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series puts the Summer Lands, a faux-Celtic version of heaven, also across the ocean (though I found Prydain's Book 5 derivative of Tolkien in many ways).  Avalon is another mystical land where the journey to the timeless mystical realm is physical, not spiritual - Arthur takes a boat.  HP Lovecraft's Dreamlands is full of mythic significance, mountains that provide access to Earth's gods, or ships that can sail into the sky and eventually reach the moon.  Pratchett's Discworld is carried through the universe on the back of a giant turtle.

Gaming Ideas
How would a D&D setting look if it embodied the mythic worldview?  Imagine how it would be if climbing the tallest mountain gave one access to the palaces of the gods, or any deep cave might eventually lead to Hell?  The myths and stories of such a world would be full of their own versions of Daedalus and Icarus, of those slain like Actaeon for seeing things beyond mortal ken, or analogs of Orpheus that went unwisely to the underworld seeking a lost love.

Sailing across the ocean might be a way to get to heaven - but it would be guarded by fierce monsters, islands of enchantment, a flaming cherub or seraphim, or other hazards laid down by the gods themselves.  Imagine walking far enough north to cross over into the shadowed lands of the dead, somewhere beyond the north wind?

I don’t know that such a myth-centric setting has been made, but I'd love to hear in the comments if someone is familiar with one - thanks!

*I do realize a large number of my fellow Americans believe science is a myth.  Somehow I don't think they're reading Dungeons & Dragons blogs, though.

Grey Havens picture is from this gallery, with many artist's renditions:  Grey Havens gallery

Monday, December 19, 2011

Musings on the Mythic Underworld

In which Beedo commends some Fourth Edition and pushes some Wordsworth

I tend towards the "rational" dungeon design, even if the dungeon itself is filled with irrational elements.  "Dungeon X was built by Mad Wizard Y, here is where the laboratory used to be, here is where he built a zoo for extra-planar creatures, the reason the level is overrun with mutated elementals is because the wildlife escaped from the planar zoo."  That kind of stuff.  The players may never figure it out, but the DM always has a plan.

I'm working on the dungeons for the Black City, and although the levels involve weird science fantasy and technology left behind by sorcerous aliens, underneath the covers, they're also very rational.  "These machines are psychic enhancers, the reason the level is infested with loathsome crawlers is because the immortal Hyperborean strapped to the dream engine continues to birth them from the nightmares in his subconscious while he sleeps the unending sleep."

As long as dungeons are big holes carved into the ground, it's hard not to get sucked into the "rational" trap, looking for explanations that support the weirdness you want supported.

It's time like this, I get hit with pangs of envy - the green grass on the other side of design, going with the conceit of "dungeon as mythical underworld".

It seems to me, to pull it off properly, you need to spend some time developing the campaign cosmology up front.  It makes a big difference whether the world is a ball of rock floating in space, or if it's a flat expanse where the descent below the ground is literally a passage out of the world and into another plane or dimension.  The idea that the moment you go underground, you enter the Greek Underworld or the realm of Niflheim or the land of Sheol is such an intriguing counterpoint to my default position - that dungeons are big places carved into the ground by people.  It reinforces an idea of sacred geography - climb a high enough mountain, you can reach Heaven; go deep enough into the earth, you'll end up at Hell.

Torog:  imagine if this gruesome god made your dungeon
This is one area where I loved the Fourth Edition explanation for the existence of the Underdark.  During the prehistoric mythic time, the gods fought the primordials for control of reality - a theme straight out of numerous real world myth cycles.  One of these battles between god and titan went beneath the earth, smashing huge voids in the rock and creating caverns.  The primordial was killed, but the god was maimed and cursed by the dying titan, and trapped by the titan's curse beneath the ground.  This god, Torog, became a god of torture and pain, dragging his broken legs behind him as he smashed huge tunnels in the underworld trying to find a way out.

It also explains the presence of an Underdark in the mirror worlds to earth, the fey realm and the realms of the dead.  As a god, the Crawling King was able to smash laterally into those other dimensions, but still couldn't escape being trapped beneath the ground by the titan's curse, regardless of realm.

Okay - that is a bad-ass reason for the existence of a mythical underworld  beneath the 'real world' - an epic fight from the dawn of time, and to this day, the god of pain and torture still drags his broken body around down there, punishing interlopers and plotting against the surface world like a crazy Mole Man with his Mole Monsters. I've often thought the 4E default setting would be excellent for old school gaming (albeit one would need to include modernisms like Eladrin and Tieflings and Dragonborn to maintain the history). Has anyone in the old school world dared to put together a Dragonborn or Tiefling Race-Class?  (Beedo quickly ducks the barrage of rotten tomatoes).

Whatever I work on after the Black City, I'm expecting it to include a cosmology that describes geography in mythic terms and not rational or scientific terms; that seems best for supporting the mythic underworld as I'm describing it here.  I am curious if folks have had success with this approach - where the sun and moon, the stars, the passage of seasons, day and night, are all explained in mythic versus scientific terms.  I question if the dissonance from a scientific world view is too much for the modern player, or whether it's just trading one type of rational explanation for another.  I'll leave you with some Monday poetry on the loss of mythic meaning:

THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

William Wordsworth, 1806.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Artifact Rant

The future of Gothic Greyhawk
Here's how the 1E DMG describes the artifacts:

Each artifact or relic is a singular thing of potent powers and possibly strange side effects as well… Those artifacts and relics which you bring into play should be so carefully guarded by location and warding devices and monsters that recovery of any one is an undertaking of such magnitude that only very powerful characters, in concert, and after lengthy attempts have any chance whatsoever of attaining one.  [An artifact] is a super-weapon that is certain to blast the whole campaign to smithereens, unless it is given proper limitations (and also a nemesis creature in some cases).
--1E Dungeon Master's Guide

You get the gist of the sentiment.  Artifacts hold game-warping power, so the official advice is to gimp them by the difficulty of finding one, consigning artifacts to the end-game.  A slew of drawbacks and side effects afflict the owner, ensuring artifacts are a self-limiting problem.  Alternatively, they show up as mere plot devices and macguffins.  The 4th edition took it a step further, having the artifact literally disappear after a short while (I'm not kidding - they bampf!). 

I hate the mentality of dangling something amazing and then yanking it away before anything meaningful happens.  (Horrible side effects, I can live with).  It calls to mind all the things I dislike about bad sci-fi or fantasy.  "Let's introduce something amazing and cool, a one-shot silver bullet or magic pill, and then remove it before the status quo is permanently affected".

Quite a bit of sci fi or urban fantasy can be analyzed in this manner.  Indy recaptured the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis used it to change the war, but the authorities can't have that magic box running around; better hide it in a massive warehouse with all of the other unmentionables.  Powder dies, ET phones home and hops on a ship, John Travolta with all his mind powers gets killed by a tumor, and pretty much every episode of Star Trek included a MacGuffin that disappeared at the end of the episode.  The aliens always melted into green goo before Mulder and Scully could get their proof of extraterrestrials.  The truth is still out there.

Don't get me started on the comics.  The worst offenders at dangling untold power and world-changing stories, only to reset everything back to the status quo, are those jokers writing the comics.  My criteria for a good comic series usually involves the degree to which main characters get wasted and the world gets messed up.

Progressive writing allows the setting to move forward, for better or worse, and explores or alludes to the changes in the coming new world.  The cure for cancer is real, or nuclear fusion works and the world has an endless source of renewable energy; the old regime crumbles away.  The aliens discovered at the bottom of the sea stop World War 3 when we're at the brink of destruction.  Things will never be the same again.  It's much more interesting to imagine how that new world looks, than return again and again to the way things were.

This is how it needs to be with artifacts and truly powerful magic items. You don't come back to town with a Staff of Wizardry or a Holy Sword or the Hand of Vecna and act like nothing happened.  If a group finds a campaign warping item or artifact, let the campaign get bent and warped.  Oh man, I just had an epiphanous moment - I'm basically coming at this the same way as James Raggi a few weeks ago over on LOTFP - one important ingredient for weird fantasy is total disregard.

Yes - I am most definitely advocating total disregard.  The next phase of Gothic Greyhawk involves a quest for some world-breaking artifacts, and I fully intend to let the campaign get warped and bent out of shape if they get recovered.  The players are already squatting in Strahd's old million gold piece castle and we'll be dealing with the ramifications, both positive and negative, of what it means to win a kingdom (or at least a remote mountain barony).  They destroyed their previous home area by unleashing a horde of zombies and ghouls; the post-zombie world is certainly more interesting than it was as "medieval mundania".  Blowing shit up is fun.  Don't be afraid of letting the party win the lottery, and then watch them figure out how to handle the problems brought by too much money.  When the party is presented with a plunger attached to a big chunk of dynamite, you need to take off the safety switch and let things explode.  Failure *is* an option.  Kill your darlings, as the writers say; Mary Sue needs to die, and you need to stop being a slave to the campaign's status quo.

--This PSA brought to you by Dreams in the Lich House is more of a pep talk and manifesto for my upcoming campaign, than sound advice for any of you, but any discussions of dead Mary Sue's and world-breaking super weapons in the comments would be much appreciated.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

525,600 Minutes of D&D Blogging

Dreams in the Lich House has been around for a year - first post was December 14th last year.   Table top role playing games are such an interesting hobby; the bloggers and players that visit here are well educated, and I appreciate that the discussions cross over into film, horror and fantasy literature, history, and mythology.  It wasn't hard to find interesting stuff to write about to keep a blog going for a year; I'm confident there will be plenty more to discuss in year two.

Thanks to all who've dropped by this corner of the internet from time to time to leave a comment or drop a vote on a poll; I've learned a ton from the blogging community and my games are better for it.  Thanks!

Year One Goals
Last year, I had laid out some goals - run a campaign for the year, run a bunch of Cthulhu one-shots, design the Black City, and read 12 books off my Appendix N list.

I did run a campaign for the entire year (Gothic Greyhawk) and that one is still going strong.  I bombed on working in some Cthulhu one-shots.  The Black City project is moving along again, and I should be ready for adventurers to enter it in a few weeks.  My reading project got derailed halfway through the year - I started L Sprague De Camp and then got buried by historical reading - 17th century research, Viking research, and the tech books - GIMP and Publisher to help prepare for publishing some day, Joomla to help build a church site, and some career-related enterprise data warehousing.

I did get 11 books out of the way off of Appendix N, so it wasn't a total loss:  Gormenghast, The King of Elfland's Daughter, Three Hearts and Three Lions, The Broken Sword, The Worm Ouroboros, Return of the Sorceror, The Moon Pool, and books 1-5 of Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series.  I'm currently reading Alexander Dumas with the oldest kiddo.

Looking Ahead to 2012
I'm going to keep "active campaigning" and "appendix N reading" as evergreen goals, and add two new ones for 2012.  First, I expect to get the Black City published.  I'm undecided if that means the whole thing in one book, or just the islands and first few dungeon levels to get the campaign launched.  I'll make revisions after some early play testing and decide in January.

The second goal is to include more blogging about Lovecraftian gaming - at least once a week I’d like to have something that's either a book review, game review, module or campaign review, monster discussion, literary review, rules discussion, or whatever, in the Lovecraft gaming space - mainly Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu, but I like Dark Ages Cthulhu and Invictus just fine, as well as Delta Green.  The only cautionary note involves the gamer ADD; there's so much awesome stuff out there it might drive me into paroxysms of campaign indecision.  Hopefully I can sublimate such impulses into one-shots, or harness the ideas for use in the active games.

Okay, there's enough introspection.  Useful posts to resume shortly.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Define Hopeless

I appreciate all the discussion around ability score methods from yesterday, and I note the poll has a flaw - for old school methods like 3d6, it doesn't differentiate between 3d6, once-and-done, versus rolling multiple arrays of 3d6 attributes and picking one.  Lots of folks that use 3d6 roll a series of characters (I saw x6 was a common number in the comments), and they'll pick one they like.  The idea is to avoid "hopeless characters".

Two questions come to mind - how do you define hopeless, and where did this idea of "hopeless characters" enter the thought process?  It's not in Moldvay.  The DMG 1E approach, 4d6, purports to avoid unplayable characters, but doesn't define what one would look like.  LOTFP has a suitability check.

I do one of two things - I have the player tally up the ability score modifiers, and any character that nets out at zero or higher is not hopeless.  If it's a "high powered game", I might make the tally +1 or better.  For instance, if the attributes were 13, 10, 11, 7, 13, 12 - the character would have +1 for strength and constitution, -1 for dexterity, and would net out at +1 - not hopeless.  The first "not hopeless" character you generate is a keeper.

I do like the idea of rolling five or six sets of scores that was championed by a number of folks, because you can make the unused sets of scores into NPCs.  Starting groups usually hire mercenaries and torchbearers, so those unused stats can be assigned to the hirelings.  When we play tested ACKS in the city with Tavis and the Mule Abides folks, this was used to great effect.  Speaking of which, ACKs day is getting closer; I keep expecting to see a printing announcement for that one.  Guys are building churches, refurbishing the castle, all that stuff in Gothic Greyhawk, so the final release of ACKS will be a welcome sight.

We have an interesting character in that current game that danced along the line of hopelessness - his initial stats were something like 16, 15, 13, 12, 7, 5 - he netted out at +1 (+2 strength, +1 intelligence and wisdom, -1 constitution, -2 charisma).  Bo made him into "Forlorn the Elf" - freakishly strong for his size, but frail and haughty and unable to attract decent henchmen.  He's since lost a point of wisdom due to one of those old school random things.  But he's survived to level 5 and has become one of the more interesting characters in the group.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Man or Superman?

Why would I ever play a *human* in a game? I get to be a crappy human every day at work.  The whole point of gaming is escape; when I game I want to kick major ass.
-Paul, 3.5 gamer

A few weeks ago, I spent some time looking at a series of AD&D rules that were controversial to gamers playing versions of D&D older than 1E - there was an interesting poll (dubious AD&D rules) that inquired after who actually uses those AD&D rules.  Despite the controversial title, I ultimately came out defending most of them on the grounds of creating interesting tactical or logistical choices.  However, one thing I skipped at the time was ability score inflation and race/class sprawl.

It's fair to state that one reason you're still playing an older version of the game is some distaste for characters that are described as "half-dragon elemental lord sorcerer artillery, optimized for area damage".  But the sentiment expressed by my buddy Paul above isn't wrong; wish fulfillment and power gaming sells books and is a big draw for the later edition crowds.  Playing a scrappy "ordinary guy" that straps on armor and descends into the dungeon is an acquired taste, if you didn't grow up playing that way.

The AD&D 1E DMG purports to be a human-centric game, but by the time 1.5 rolls around (the Unearthed Arcana stuff) there are tons of race variants, all with nifty new abilities, ability score generation methods that are off the chart, and power creep classes like the cavalier and barbarian.  This became clear when my son came running downstairs a few weeks ago with Unearthed Arcana.  "Awesome!  When do I get to be a Drow?  Drow are awesome!"  He's been wanting to read the Drizzt books for inspiration for his future Drow; I'm certainly not going to discourage him from any reading at his age (9).  He's already called dibs on making a Drow Ranger if the opportunity arises.  So would a Dragonborn or Tiefling be that far out of place in the milieu of Unearthed Arcana?

I'm firmly in the 3d6-in-order camp for ability score generation, and prefer the simpler classes and races in classic or basic D&D.  It supports emergent character concepts and avoids the dump stat mentality.  Emergent characters means this:  the combination of random generation, decisions in play, and survival, ultimately leads to a more interesting character than if the player scripted everything out via a point buy or rearrangement of the ability scores.  Emergent character is about discovering the character organically through play, and overcoming deficiencies; modern character generation is about creating a tactical build and then measuring if it performs as expected through empirical observation.

Which brings me to an issue I have with the 4d6 methods in AD&D and later - if you're going to swap scores around and do the whole min-max thing to get the character just right, why not just use an old school point buy and be done with it?

Seems like a good time for a poll, since ability score generation is one of those oft-house-ruled procedures that splits the community, and I doubt the 3d6 in order method is the most popular.  So drop a vote on the right or leave a comment.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Maps of Games Gone Bye

I dusted off the campaign cartographer this weekend while working on some maps for Thule and the Black City; I rediscovered all these old campaign maps, plucked from the wreckage of abandoned campaigns destroyed by Gamer ADD.  Anyone else use CC3 for their maps?  I was never great with it, but a B&W map shouldn't be too hard - I think I'm going to do the black & white island maps both in Hexographer and CC3 and see which approach I like best (they'll end up with hex overlays either way).  In the meantime, here are the forgotten maps of yesteryear:

Greek Colonies
At one point, I thought it would be fun to run something in the ancient world, based around Greek colonists to eastern Spain.  Here's the map of Spain, a map of Greece, and then Europe (all done in Campaign Cartographer).  I seem to remember there were dwarves in the Pyrenees, and had a dwarven monastery discovered by the Greek colonists.  Celtic indigents were bad guys.  I don't remember exactly what "Pillage" was about on the Achea map, but I remember my son (who was probably 6 or 7 at the time) wanted me to use it as a city name - I think it was meant to have a Necromancer king and a bunch of undead.  I'm laughing that I used Roman names on a Greek map of Europe!

Tarraco, Greek Colony in Iberia
Achea, with the City-State of Pillage
Continental map for the Greek campaign

Forgotten Realms
These two are from some starts/stops in the Forgotten Realms when we were still fooling around with 4E just before the old school return and Gothic Greyhawk - one is from the Luruar area, the other is Thar in the Moonsea region.

The Moonsea

Nentir Vale
These must have been from the beginning of the 4E time period - they are two versions of the same smooshed Europe, with names lifted from Hyboria.  I can see where I placed the Nentir Vale near the top of the map, assuredly marking these as early 4E era maps.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Movie Review: Insidious

I'm traveling a bit this week, so being kid-free means I can catch a few long overdue horror movies through netflix streaming.  First one up - Insidious.

The first act does a fine job building tension and dread without any gore.  The basic premise is that a kid falls off a ladder and enters a long term coma, and is returned home for hospice care.  Meanwhile, the family is terrorized by progressively more disturbing haunting sequences until they feel forced to change houses.  When the haunting recurs in the new house, they start reaching out to psychics and paranormal investigators - and learn the epicenter of the haunting is the child himself, as a demon seeks to take over his vacant body.  It slides into the surreal when we learn the spirit of the boy is trapped deep in the astral plane, and this is the reason for the unexplainable coma.  And then one of the characters goes on an astral journey to bring him back.

The theme of a disembodied child stuck in a spiritual realm is reminiscent of Poltergeist, but in this one, we get to see the other side, what the psychic calls "The Further"... and see what inhabits it.

Gaming Inspiration
There are moments late in the movie that don't live up to the film's early promise, but the final act is where Insidious is really great for gaming inspiration.  I can't think of much media that involves other planar experiences (unless you count old Doctor Strange comics).  The scenes in the astral plane are inky and dark, claustrophobic, in haunted landscapes with ghostly phantoms reliving moments of horror through stop motion tableaus.  There's a sequence in the lair of a demon that's creepy and evocative in a fun-house sort of way - I loved it.

In D&D terms, "The Further"  is closest to the ethereal plane (rather than the D&D astral plane).  It's a place where ghosts and apparitions roam, and demons from more distant places come closer to the lands of the living seeking victims.  If I ever incorporate ethereal travel into a game, I'll revisit Insidious for inspiration on presenting the ethereal realm as a nightscape of bodiless haunts.  Definitely worth a viewing.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Viking Ships for the Black City

I've been doing writing on the side for the Black City manuscript; a lot of the adventure details won't get posted on the blog, seeing as I expect to run and publish them, but the setting material slated for the appendix is fair game.  Here's are the notes from the secion on typical Viking ships.

A couple of questions have arisen.  Longship recreations can go about 10-11 knots with a wind, which corresponds to 90 miles per day.  Most D&D books aren't clear on whether a day of ship travel is 8 hours, 12 hours, or double or triple for 24 hours, and how often winds change.  Just presenting travel for a typical day isn't quite enough.  More reading is required.

The other question is philosophical and purely a game decision - would you make Norse marines that are not adventurers 0-level men or 1st level fighters?

There are many different variants of the longship - karvi, knarr, snekkja, skeide, and the famous dragon ship (drakkar).  For purposes of gaming, I'm collapsing the variants into 3 simple types - the knarr, a ship optimized for trade and open seas travel, the longship, and the drakkar.  The massive drakkar was a flagship meant for short distance invasions, owned by kings, and typically wouldn't be found in the hands of petty captains on Thule; most vessels on the island will either by piloting knarrs (80%) or longships (20%).

The knarr has fewer rowing stations than a military longship - only just enough for guiding the craft and handling.  It can be piloted by a smaller crew.  Cargo is placed towards the center of the ship; otherwise, it appears like a shorter and slightly wider longship.  Both knarrs and longships use clinker hulls, a single 40' woolen sail and single mast; the crew is completely exposed to the elements, and rowers sit on sea chests, which are also used to store their gear.

Both longships and knarr are shallow draft vessels that need no harbor; they can be beached on shore and carried for portage.  Because the crew needs to eat their food cold while under sail, the preference is to beach the ship whenever possible and make a regular camp on land.

Viking navigators sight a bearing using something called a bearing dial or horizon board, aligning their course based on the sunrise instead of navigating by the stars.  This is especially useful during the long summer days.  A special type of crystal prism, called a viking's compass or solarsteinn, is used to find the sun on cloudy days.

Here are game stats for these vessels:

Yeoman farmers and local lords (hersir) are the owners and sponsors of a knarr and crew, putting the vessel in the able hands of a local captain or the noble himself, and hoping for mutual profits.  The knarr captain will be a 3rd level fighter, and the crew of 8-14 sailors will be 1st level fighters.

Militant war-bands that have converted to adventuring from raiding will have a longship, sponsored by an earl or jarl back home.  Longships will have larger crews of 40-50 level 1 fighters, commanded by an experienced 5th level captain and a 4th level second in command.

Most crews will have agreements to split shares of treasure equally, after apportioning a large percentage (33-50%) to the sponsors that provided both ship and captain.

5th level captain
4th level second-in-command
40-50 0-level or 1st level fighters

3rd level captain
8-15 0-level or 1st level fighters

* The ship pictured above is the Ottar, a modern day recreation - you can read about it here:  Ottar.  Very cool.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Too Busy Looking at the Map to Notice the Monster

I had a post last week that brought up issues that happen when shifting time scale and narrative control between players and the DM.  A specific example is daily overland travel.  It's all very high level and abstract; the players say something along these lines:  "We get up early, break camp, and will march all day through this hex of woods, on guard at all times".  Play shifts to the DM, to narrate what happens for that day.  If an encounter is rolled, the time scale quickly shifts down from a daily unit of time back to 10 second melee rounds, collapsing to a granular level.  What are the characters doing, what is the specific local terrain like, when daily time shifts back to combat time?  Random tables to the rescue.

Below are a set of three tables - one for what are the characters doing at the time of the encounter, the other two are for woods and mountain local terrain, respectively.  I spent about 15 years living near the Rockies in Colorado, and camping up in Wyoming, and have a fair sense on both types of terrain.  Our campaign is shifting towards wilderness and mountains shortly.

The charts below can work with percentile dice, but I'm expecting to print out page 71 of the Vornheim book and drop some different colored d4's on a sheet of paper; I included a cross reference column with the Vornheim page in case anyone else agrees that dropping dice on a sheet of paper is rife with entertainment value.  (If the dice lands on the square for "baker", for instance, that guys is actually relieving himself when the encounter comes along.  That sad little monkey).  For my own game, I'll probably have one d4 for the group, and toss 1-3 additional d4's to indicate what a few of the outliers or stragglers are doing.  Players will complain, but anyone who has hiked with the scouts or spent time in the infantry knows that groups don't keep their intervals or spacing, columns do the inch-worm thing, bunching and stretching, and you're always stopping to let the stragglers catch up and take water.

I generated a few sample results to see how some actual encounters would kick off - this is what the group is doing when the wandering monster check happens:

Group 1, in the Woods
These guys are taking a standing rest; perhaps someone just yelled for the stragglers to catch up.  They're near a deadfall in the woods, so maybe they've stopped to try and determine the best way across.  One guy is sitting down, another is tying his shoe, but one guy is on active guard duty - taking his job seriously!

Group 2, in the Mountains
There's a nearby ruined habitation, perhaps an old wooden shack.  Most everyone is rummaging in their packs, except two guys are pouring over the map together, and a third is jogging back - perhaps to tell them no one noticed the monster clearing the tree line behind the party.

Group 3, in the Woods
It's a sunny glade, and these jokers are strolling along fairly casually.  One guy is completely enjoying the scenery (I blame the elf), another is falling back to drink water, and a third is taking a standing rest.  I hope a dragon lands in the glade and squashes all the pretty wild flowers that's distracting these clowns.

I'd feel a tinge of guilt springing something like encounter 3 on a group as an arbitrary DM choice, but when the dice decide, it's all fair game.  I'm ready for our next big wilderness crawl!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Black City Map Post - 1st dungeon level

Lazy post today - work is kicking it and I'm buried until the weekend.  Here's a sneak peek at the unkeyed maps for the first level beneath the ruined city.  The surface hex maps of the city are being revised significantly, partly for black and white printing, partly for function - they originally appeared here (black city maps and transit tunnels).  The first dungeon level beneath the ruins consists of a series of large "subway style" 20' tunnels beneath the ruins called "the transit tunnels".  The 30 x 30 maps below represent nodes along the transit tunnels where there are clusters of rooms, junctions, and small installations for exploration.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

AD&D Rules and the Voting Public

A few weeks back I had a poll running regarding many of the complexities that were added to AD&D that were left out of Holmes and Moldvay BX; one thing I've noticed in the blogosphere is there's way more energy behind OD&D and BX (or Swords & Wizardry / Labyrinth Lord) than AD&D or OSRIC.  Smarter folks have certainly pointed that out too - DIY is more inline with the simpler games, rather than AD&D's " don't do it yourself, we've added all the house rules already".

With that in mind, how did the polling public respond regarding the use of AD&D's sub systems?  124 visitors responded; the original questions were phrased "How many of the following AD&D rules do you ignore, or modify with House Rules? "  For purposes of the results, I switched the percentages around, so what we're seeing is the percentage of respondents that use the rules without changes - that's a bit easier to parse.

AD&D's premise might have been to do away with DIY, but one thing is clear; we like to change around the rules.  Here's how folks voted:

Combat Related Rules
Weapon vs AC (20%), Weapon Speed Factors (25%), Melee Segments (42%), Firing Missiles into Melee (68%), Helmets in Melee (38%), Unarmed Combat (42%)

Weapon vs AC is one of those great ideas that could have been awesome if it was integrated into the system from the beginning - for instance, if the armor types were simplified (none, leather, scale, chain, etc) and if monsters were given armor types as part of their descriptions.  The vampire has AC 1 or 2, but is treated as no armor for weapon vs AC purposes - that kind of stuff.  As it is, no wonder only 20% of the folks use it when playing AD&D.  The only other surprise here to me was the 42% response for using AD&D's unarmed combat rules; it's the one combat subsystem I loathe.

Overall though, these are the types of rules you'd expect in an advanced version of the game, and I've previously argued that they add complexity to player choice, which is valuable, even if they don't work very well as a simulation.

Magic Rules
Spell Components (43%), Casting Times (59%),  Magic Resistance (84%)

84% of the voters use Magic Resistance; makes sense, as it gives the more dangerous monsters some teeth.  My view of spell components has changed over time, and I'd definitely use them if we go "advanced"; they're valuable as quest items and player motivation in a sandbox, and also regulate the use of certain spells (creating an unofficial rarity based on the difficulty of getting the components).

The abandonment of spell components in the player base seems to be one of those things that resulted from overuse of tournament style modules with little downtime or chance to resupply during an extended adventure - it's just easier to hand wave them away and keep the action moving.  Avoids the book-keeping too.

Alignment (67%)

The AD&D alignment system is fairly well ingrained, and it makes sense 2/3rds of the folks claim to use it (though I doubt they use all of the whacky implications).  "What's that dribble coming out of your brother's mouth?  Oh crap, he's gone Chaotic Good on us and forgotten his Lawful Neutral…  I knew he shouldn't have started dating that hippy half elf from down at the bar."

Part of the fun of trying to run a by-the-book AD&D campaign would be figuring out how alignment, alignment penalties and lost experience, penance, alignment languages, and the entities of the outer planes, would interact with the world if the DM extended it to its logical conclusions.

In retrospect, it would have been interesting to split out the alignment sub rules - alignment languages, experience penalties for changing alignment, and penance for fixing your alignment.

 Morale and NPC reactions (66%)

The BX morale and reaction system is so much easier to use, this is one I usually house rule.  2/3rds of you disagree.  Its one of those things where I'd probably get used to it if I bit the bullet and forced myself to keep all those percentage factors handy.

Training Costs (31%), Training Times (30%), XP for Magic Items (67%)

XP for Magic Items is a key differentiator that lets AD&D characters do some power-leveling compared to their OD&D brethren; selling items for gold and XP, or claiming the items for XP, is quite a bit different.  I'd use it when playing AD&D by-the-book, but selling items for gold seems to cross over into implied-setting; not every world has magic items shops or auctions, but AD&D clearly expects some level of magic market.

I'm thinking the low adoption of training and training times goes back to the prevalence of tournament modules; I can remember many of them implying that "for this module, ignore the training rules and let folks level up during the adventure".  Great precedent, TSR, no wonder they're so heavily ignored.  I'd use them; they ensure the passage of time in the campaign, giving it sweep and gravitas and making leveling momentous, as well as function as a money drain.

Psionics (29%)

29% of the folks use the psionics system?  Wow - rock on you crazy mo fo's, and watch out for those Thought Leeches and Intellect Devourers.  Body Weapon for the win.

I do tend to allow psionics when we play AD&D, but disallow them at 1st level; players get their psionics roll the first time the character has a death experience or similar trauma (raised from the dead), so if psionics show up to warp the game, it's in the mid-levels when everyone is a bit more powerful, and psionic monsters are interesting opponents.

The Bard (54%), The Monk (70%), Demi-Human Level Limits (70%)

The Monk and Demi-Human results make sense - about 30% of the folks change them up, but most use the rules as written.  However, 54% of the respondents use the AD&D bard!  That's got to be a wink wink vote - the whole conception of the bard as fighter, thief, and then bard doesn't seem practical considering the short life span of a typical campaign.  The 1E Bard is out of here.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cooking Bacon In a Dungeon

I love breakfast.  I cook all the weekend breakfasts, and it's usually waffles with fruit and syrup; pancakes or french toast; eggs, meat, OJ, all that stuff on the side.  In the mundane world, we care about what we're having for lunch, for breakfast, what's for dinner.  Days are described by where we went to lunch; periods of the day are measured out in meals.

But I don't want to hear what a character is having for breakfast during the game.  Or lunch.  Or dinner.  What the players need to be talking about is their plan for getting into the dungeon.  Grab gear, and hit the road.  "But I want to buy some things!"  Fine, write the list down, mark off some money, don't do anything stupid like buy 500 vials of holy water, and get back to telling me how you're getting into the dungeon.  We don't need to role play "transactional scenes" like meals and shopping.  I don't care what you're having for breakfast in Greyhawk City.

This isn't meant to sound like a rant (my own players don't always bury me with mundane details) but I raise it as a springboard into a discussion of "DM background authority", "narrative control" and "character advocacy".  Okay, to get it out of the realm of "RPG theory speak", the issue is about this - when is it okay for the DM to speak on behalf of a player character to move things along, and when can the player, to move things along, make decisions regarding  the DM's world?

A simple answer certainly could be, "the DM can never make decisions for the players", but then things won't move along very fast, will they?  And I doubt *anyone* would really play in that style.  Example:  The characters just raised their dead companion and need to spend a few weeks in town healing up; I don't want to go through the painful day-by-day Q&A of what the characters do.  Submitting that nothing exciting is meant to happen, I'll let the time pass quickly by and advance the calendar to an appropriate date.  Assumptions need to be made.  Some DM's will even let players get X,Y and Z done in their down time; does anyone allow players to write little vignettes about what they accomplish in the intervening months?  Like, how does Black Dougal the Thief use his free time to do thief-stuff around town, and rise to prominence in the local thieves guild?  (That's a trick question - Black Dougal is DEAD).  More seriously, does every single transactional scene need to played out in relentless detail?

There's a theory of story telling, role playing, and even improv theater that says what we really care about are peak scenes in a character's life, pivotal scenes where something dramatic happens; no one wants to see how a character brushes his teeth, what kind of toothpaste he uses, did he floss, how does he put his pants on.  D&D is not The Truman Show, and the DM is not an ever-present camera; no one cares.  We want to see the players back in the dungeon mugging some goblins.

Everything changes in the underworld.  A kind of hyper reality sets in, where very moment in the dungeon has tactical import, and we track time down to the smallest of intervals - 10 minute turns, 10 second combat rounds.  Mundane details around food, water, sleeping, praying, memorizing spells, even cooking, become important.  As a DM, I'm suddenly very interested in all of that minutiae, and indeed want them spelled out finely for me.  The ever presence of danger elevates mundane activities to mission critical life saving procedures.  Whether the players are frying bacon for breakfast or chewing hard tack is now an important distinction.

Wilderness travel causes me no end of problems in this area of "advocacy versus narrative control". Our unit of time is on the macro level; we count off hexes in days.  And yet, encounters can happen each day, plunging us from that 10,000 foot view of miles-per-day back into the hyper reality of 10 second combat rounds, caught in a life or death struggle.  What about the in-between?  And where lies the balance of advocacy (player control) and DM narrative control?

Consider this example:  The party is traveling through a wooded 6 mile hex.  Any given hex of woods will have pockets of dense wood, small open glades, streams to cross, ridges to climb, thick brambles to bypass; there are a wide range of obstacles and features in a single square mile of woods, let alone along a 6 mile hike.  When the DM determines a wandering encounter happens with some gryphons, just where does it occur?

I would hazard most of us are okay with the DM quickly determining if the gryphons are flying or landed, hunting or performing some other activity, perhaps the DM rolls some surprise checks and calculates encounter distances to help piece together a mental scene.  All of the data points converge to allow the DM to describe the moment when one of the parties becomes aware of the other one.  Through fiat and in the interests of excitement, the DM chooses to place the encounter when the party is crossing a wide stream, which creates a natural break in the tree cover and exposes a wide section of sky to the circling gryphons.

How much power does the DM have to decide the state of the characters?  This guy over here is halfway across the stream when he hears the gryphon screech, these guys are milling around the bank, that guy over there is taking a leak, that other guy has already crossed and is looking ahead.  There's a balance between springing the interesting scene on the players, part improvised, part generated die rolls, versus the player's expectations, which is that they're always on high alert, scanning the skies, or woods, or ground, or stream, or wherever direction they're being surprised.

Another example, which I absolutely love, is in The Fellowship of the Ring movie, when the hobbits are hanging out on Weathertop, cooking "tomatoes, sausage, and nice crispy bacon".  No PC in their right mind would have a cook fire, with sizzling bacon, in a wilderness crawling with undead.  Characters are mere game pieces, and they're rarely role played to take into account comfort factors unless imposed by the DM… "No, you can't sleep standing up in plate mail".

There's a relationship between the unit of time in the game and the amount of abstraction and player control.  Players control all of their character actions in the combat round; they mostly control their actions in the 10 minute turn (though might establish procedures to fall back on); the traveling day is mostly abstracted to standard procedures; larger units are totally abstract.  As player tactical control goes down, the DM's ability to interpose a situation on the player character necessarily increases.  I could reduce it to a chart like this:

It's one of the many reasons dungeons are the backbone of a game.  There's a much clearer line dividing the adversarial DM role and the role of the players advocating on behalf of what their characters are doing, and the time scale supports that level of description.  The wilderness time scale creates a grey area and often requires a bit of "social contract" to finesse:

I'm going to spring wilderness encounters on you appropriately, based on surprise, distance, party procedures, and so on, and I'll place you guys in appropriate but interesting terrain, and then turn over control of your characters back to you once the scene is set.  You don't bitch and moan that sometimes a monster might stumble by while you're taking a leak, because sometimes you'll stumble upon a monster that's taking a leak… it's a matter of trust.

An alternate approach I've been considering is to change the time scale when a wilderness encounter is about to take place, and give the players direct control earlier in the process.  For instance, when I decide they've come upon a wide steam, let them explain how they're proceeding as typical character actions and go forward from there.  This would slow the game down quite a bit, since I'd want to run a number of "false alarms" each day so the players don't assume an encounter is coming every time we shift into "tactical time".  It would be important to have sub-terrain tables for creating interesting encounter points in various macro hex types.

My current campaign is about to go into an extended wilderness period, so I've been ruminating on how I want to handle daily travel and intermittent encounters this time around.  Oh, the things we do, to strike a balance between detailed character actions and not having to hear what your character had for breakfast that day.

I can see some follow-on posts already; one involves the idea of narrative control in D&D, and do we DMs ever shift it entirely to the players ( like in the new school games); the other involves exploring those mundane details of daily life I casually dismissed.  On topic for this post, though, I'd love to hear how you narrate wilderness travel and handle the shift from travel time to combat time, and shift control of the game back to the players.