Thursday, May 29, 2014

My Dungeon Has A Dungeon Master

We're still talking about dungeons here at the Lich House - big dungeons.  Dungeons so large they can even be called - dare I say it - "mega"?

When planning the dungeon campaign, one decision the referee should consider regards the infamy of the dungeon and the surrounding area.  Is the dungeon well known?  Have other people tried to explore it before the players?  There is a different set of assumptions required if the dungeon has never been plundered, existing like a closed ecosystem, ship-in-a-bottle or monster zoo awaiting discovery.  I usually go the opposite direction, and assume the dungeon is well known, legendary, and that plenty of other people have been there first.  I assume the player characters are desperados that have flocked from across the civilized lands to the frontier to try test themselves against the big bad dungeon and see if they can do better than those who came before.

Consider the opportunities that arise by taking this approach.  Because the dungeon is legendary, actual legends about the dungeon exist as player knowledge.  There are rumors to hear.  Old timers in town can relay things about the dungeon.  There are probably maps regarding the common entrances that can be purchased.  Large dungeons nearby are good for business, assuming the monsters don't rampage around the countryside.   I usually put a whole economy in the frontier town around servicing adventurers.   The Black City had the nearby Viking camp called Trade Town, and Taenarum isn't far from the fishing village of Psammathous Bay, which despite its isolation, boasts an adventurer's guild hall and a steady influx of freshers arriving by ship from Gythium, the nearest port city.

But if the players aren't the first adventurers to attempt to plunder the dungeon, there are some problems to resolve.  From whence comes the new monsters to replace the fallen?  How is treasure getting restored?  Wouldn't all the traps and tricks already be triggered by previous groups?

I usually try and put a literal "Dungeon Master" into each of my games - a malign figure that's making sure the dungeon stays deadly.  It's an attempt to put a rational explanation behind all the weirdness.  The Dungeon Master usually has his or her own purposes over and above killing player characters, and can even show up from time to time as an encounter.  It's great fun.

In Harrow Home Manor, there is a mysterious cowled figure called The Caretaker - the worm-ridden remains of a Hyperborean wizard - who treads the spider-webbed halls of Harrow Home and makes sure the guards and wards stay intact.  The Black City has the "plasticals", rubbery artificial life forms that looked a bit like grey aliens, usually carrying wrenches or toolboxes.  They serve the large artificial intelligences that run the engineering beneath the alien city.   The AI's themselves manifested 3-dimensional holograms and appeared like 'gods'.  Taenarum is maintained by Lord Skothos and the Eidelons.  Let's meet them.

Eidelons are spirits of the dead empowered by Hades to return to the surface world for specific jobs.  In Taenarum, each level of the dungeon is overseen by a different Eidelon - they have pompous and overblown titles like the Lord of Bones, the Ghoul King, or the Prince of Darkness, and each commands a different type of undead.  The position of Eidelon is competitive.  Each one wants to send the most souls down to the Underworld and get a promotion to the next highest position, displacing a rival.  The lowest Eidelon is the Lord of Bones, the commander of the skeletons.  Whenever adventurers destroy the reigning Lord of Bones, a larva crawls out of the nearest Stygian well within a few weeks and assumes the mantle, becoming the next Lord of Bones.  Ditto if a higher ranking Eidelon is destroyed - everyone else gets an upward promotion, and a new Lord of Bones wriggles out of the Stygian well.

The Eidelons are responsible for setting death traps in their areas and ensuring there are pots of gold to lure adventurers to their doom.  The wealth of the Underworld is legendary and endless, so there is no lack of replacement treasure ferried around the dungeon by other servants of Hades, the furies or the devils.  In addition to various undead, the Eidelons are served by dark dwarves and kobolds.  Kobolds in the setting are small animated manikins with dog-skull heads who set minor traps and supplement the clean up crews.  The dark dwarves revere Hades as Pluto, lord of wealth, and are given free passage throughout the dungeons in return for occasional services rendered.

Major construction and creation of powerful and deadly magical effects is left to Hades' favorite servant, Lord Skothos the lich. Lord Skothos dwells in a palatial sanctuary on dungeon level 10, dreaming of new and more horrible challenges to bedevil adventurers.  He also summons unique and powerful monsters from the Underworld as necessary and places them around the dungeon.  He's like an undead  version of The Joker or Arcade (from Marvel) and Taenarum is his personal Murderworld.  Lord Skothos is Walt Disney's undead evil cousin, a D&D version of the Jigsaw Killer.  He can be encountered anywhere in the dungeon as a wandering monster when conducting inspections, and is glad to speak with any adventurers that can bear his undead presence (although he gets frustrated by low level adventurers that are paralyzed with fear and can't participate in a conversation).  He likes to pick up first-hand feedback from adventurers who have survived nearby traps so he can improve them for the next group - or demote the nearest Eidelon for incompetence.  It's the dungeon version of the customer satisfaction survey.

I wonder if I should take the amusement park analogy all the way for Taenarum.  Perhaps there is an operations center near the palace of Lord Skothos where kobolds and Eidelons monitor different aspects of the dungeon.  "Drat, that stupid player character thief disabled another trap in sector 3.2.  Better dispatch a work crew to fix it before another group heads that way.  Oh - and someone put a large bounty on the head of this 'Black Dougal' character.  I'm tired of that guy disabling our traps.  Let's get him with a poison needle or something."  Escorting monsters to their new lairs, resetting traps, replacing treasures, and hauling away the bodies of dead adventurers - all in a day's work.  It's D&D's answer to Westworld.

Next time you're approached by a solitary cloaked figure while trudging down some forsaken hallway in one of my dungeons, be warned - it could be the Dungeon Master!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Megadungeon Practices

I've been meaning to do this for a while - list out the practices I've incorporated into building my megadungeons.  I've been running megadungeons for the past 3 years and have been building up some useful experiences.  The previous megadungeon was called The Black City - it was all about Vikings exploring the dungeons beneath a ruined, alien city in the frozen north.  The current campaign (Taenarum) involves the road to Hades.  The defiant god of the underworld has populated a massive dungeon with monsters and traps to lure arrogant heroes to their deaths.  I've also had this on again / off again relationship with a project called Harrow Home Manor, but it's on the shelf for a little while why I focus on summer gaming with the neighborhood kids and family - Harrow Home was too horror oriented.  I'm sure I'll get back to the horror soon.  That is not dead which can eternal lie... you know how the lines go.

The concept behind a megadungeon is to have a location expansive enough that most or all of the adventures can happen in and around the dungeon.  During the campaign, there will be side treks in the wilderness and excursions to towns and cities, but the primary action is back in the main dungeon.    The dungeon should have enough material for a party of adventurers to progress through many levels of experience by moving down to more dangerous levels - maybe all the way from levels 1-10 if you're ambitious.  I've incorporated another piece to the definition as well - the megadungeon should be large enough that multiple adventuring parties can be exploring it at the same time.

In no particular order, Beedo's principles for the megadungeon campaign:

Top Down Design
I start with a compelling rationale for the megadungeon - an elevator pitch - and then make sure there's a good variety of themes for levels and sublevels.  This provides an outline for the overall project, a roadmap on where you're going.  Here's a recent example of this approach:  Nodes of Taenarum

I like the megadungeon to have "highways" in and out - a mechanism for fast access that lets experienced parties quickly get down to the unexplored areas without wasting a lot of table time dealing with trivial wandering monsters and travel.  The Black City had 'the transit tunnels', a series of subway tunnels beneath the ruined city.  Taenarum has the wide, spiraling 'road to the Underworld'.

Vertical Transit
Each map should have multiple ways up and down (unless choke points are an explicit part of the design - but like salt, use them sparingly).  I also like chutes, elevators, and portals.  The vertical access points also provide rationales for why monsters of higher and lower levels mix it up.

Use a Stocking Algorithm
I typically use a home-made random stocker modeled after the Moldvay BX version, where 1/3 of the rooms are either empty or contain monsters, and the other 1/3 is either a trap or special.  I've even done some posts on the blog giving some ideas how to build a random stocker in Excel.  Take the time to create useful trap and "special" tables for yourself.

Customize Monster Lists for Areas
Build unique encounter lists to fit the thematic areas of the dungeon.  Include the chance of encountering weaker monsters from the level above, and stronger monsters from the level below.  They travel around!

Deeper Levels = Greater Danger
Make it clear that deeper levels are more dangerous.  The megadungeon is a player-driven sandbox, and this structure lets the players have a degree of choice over the amount of risk they'd like to undertake.  Here's an example of a rationale for why depth = danger:  The Dungeon as Estuary.

Gold as Experience
Making gold the primary vehicle for gaining experience motivates the players to seek lucrative hoards and prioritize treasure over combat.  Roleplaying, trickery, and noncombat solutions are just as relevant as fighting.  The standard for giving out experience is about 80/20 - 80gp for each 20xp of monsters killed - a 4 to 1 ratio.

Progressive Elaboration
Start with a minimal keyed description for each room, and add more details only as necessary when the area becomes relevant for game play.  It lets you create the maximum scope in the least amount of time:  Developing the dungeon through progressive elaboration.

Pacing Advancement
A major advantage of using Gold as XP is that you can calculate how much treasure can be potentially recovered from an area as a lump sum, allowing a top-down approach to allocating experience across each level and sub-level.  This gives the referee rough insight on how quickly the party will be ready to descend to more dangerous areas.

Harmonizing Random Results
I'm a big proponent of not altering dice rolls during game play, but I do advocate adjusting random results during dungeon stocking.  However, the challenge of reconciling inconsistent random results (like antagonistic monsters living nearby) spurs creativity.

Set Piece Locations
One way to ensure large semi-random levels maintain their interest is by including some well-designed set piece encounters on each level - they act as points of interest, destinations, and landmarks.

Factions and NPCs
Too many unintelligent monsters are boring.  Rawr, I'm a monster.  Invest time in creating interesting factions and NPC leaders that have their own goals and motivations for being in the dungeon.  It opens up a political roleplay dimension during dungeon exploration.

Overarching Stories
Don't be afraid to put some story behind the dungeon inhabitants.  "The cultists of Pan are exploring the dungeon to find the lost elemental artifacts and return the world to primordial nature; the followers of Hecate want to open the gates of Tartarus".  Giving the NPC factions motivations and goals allows stories to emerge naturally as the players interact with them.

One of my signature elements is to have lots and lots of NPC rivals to the players - other adventurers, explorers, treasure hunters, and so forth - friendly rivals back in town, dangerous opponents when met in the dungeon.  Some of the most memorable moments emerge when the players finally get the better of their long time rivals.

X is for Killing
The megadungeon is a sandbox where the players are free to try anything; if you've put something in front of a group of players all holding sharp pointy things, don't be surprised if they stab it.  There are no DMPC's or Mary Sue NPCs in the sandbox:  X is for Killing

Campaign Events
Have a list of random events that are happening in the world, place some of them on the calendar, and call them out as they happen.  Even though the players are focused on the dungeon, this puts the world in motion and creates a sense of time and verisimilitude.  Example:  Campaign Events for the Black City

Flow of Information
There needs to be a steady flow of information from you to the players so they can plan interesting excursions into the dungeon.  Two easy forms are rumors and quests, discussed just the other day:  Rumors and Quests.  Treasure maps are awesome too.

Plan to Restock
My players don't typically return to areas they cleared previously, but the dungeon should provide a rationale for why monsters return and areas become populated again.  In Taenarum, there are Stygian wells that allow undead and spirits to creep back into the dungeon, and there are powerful servants of Hades that literally reset traps and restock areas with enchanted monsters.

I hope to make this a living list of principles - I'm sure I haven't captured everything in one pass!

Edit - here's the first thing I forgot to include on the first pass:

Support Episodic Play
Place a town nearby the dungeon.  Start and end each game session back in the town (preferably at the tavern, for style points).  This allows players to come and go in between game sessions - important when you're gaming with adults who can't meet every week.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Dungeon Quests and Rumors

I'm formalizing a new technique for my sprawling megadungeon, Taenarum.  Let me know if you've done anything similar, and how it's been working out.

The basic problem is scope.  Taenarum, the entrance to the Underworld, is somewhat large - it is spread out, if not dense.  Each dungeon level spans 4 sheets of graph paper as quadrants.  The quadrants contain anywhere from 25 to 40 rooms, and each has a slightly distinctive theme.  The main road (a vaulted 20' x 20' passage) wends through all 4 quadrants as it spirals down into the earth, eventually leading to the River Styx some 9-10 levels below.  On either side of the main road are the many side passages and lairs that constitute the encounter areas for that level.

I'm pacing the dungeon so that a party should have to explore and loot somewhere between 1.5 and 2 quadrants before feeling ready to head down to the next level.  I certainly don't expect anyone to clear the dungeon.  It's just not that interesting to crawl a massive dungeon room by room.

In the past, I've used rumors and hints in town to give the players more choices about planning their game session.  The idea of calling them "rumors" and "quests" is to put some more structure and discipline into the mechanism from my side of the table.  Rumors are nuggets of information that don't have an expiration date;  quests are windows of opportunity to do something for gain, but if you pass the opportunity by, it's assumed some other adventuring group attempts the quest and the opportunity is now gone.  I just completed mapping and stocking the final quadrant of level 4, so I'm way ahead of the players and campaign - I'll be able to start on the campaign hex maps shortly.  I'm circling back to create rumors and quests for the 16 or so quadrants that are already out there.

Here's why these types of things, the rumors and the quests, are important.  The players need information to make decisions and create plans.  If the players are aimlessly wandering, and know very little about the dungeon, each decision - to go left, or to go right - isn't much better than a coin flip.  The game is much more satisfying for all involved when the players are creating explicit plans to follow their own goals.

The players naturally pick up clues and information just by exploring the dungeon, certainly.  You want them to have a list of open questions and potential goals or targets that carry over from previous sessions, so each game night starts with them planning the night's excursion.  Almost every game session of Taenarum starts back at the adventurer's tavern.  The image of grubby adventurers pouring over maps and notes and arguing over objectives across a wooden table, surrounded by mugs of drink, is fairly well grounded in their actual behavior.

I give the players an opportunity to learn a new rumor each week just by networking at the adventurer's guild hall - they've gone out of their way to make introductions to some of the other groups that visit the place.  Now I'm going to start formally introducing quests - maybe not one per session, I'll see how the pacing goes.  I'm going to attach some kind of monetary award to the quests to make them more enticing - but ultimately, remember that the real rewards are in the dungeon.  Perhaps a few hundred gold pieces (per dungeon level of the quest) is enough?

Since I have two different groups of players exploring Taenarum, introducing rumors and quests gives them additional reasons not to trod the same ground.  I may have mentioned this, but they do share notes and try to visit the same places if there's a chance to get the same boon!

I could eventually add people to act as patrons for the quests, but for now I'll just improvise a villager, adventurer, or visitor to the town as the situation requires.  One of the first things I make for a new campaign are some tools for quick NPC generation - they come in super handy for these types of things.  Perhaps I'll even introduce a message board where quests get posted.

Below are some sample rumors and quests for the four quadrants of level 1.  One of the groups already discovered the source of rumor 1.1 (the shrine of fate) and guided some traders to the market (quest 1.2).

Rumor:  There's a secret shrine to the Fates that grants boons - a bronze man points the way!
Quest:  Clean the despoiled shrine of the goddess Aphrodite and earn her blessing.

Rumor:  The Arch of Greed - a great treasure lies beyond it.
Quest:  Find the shortcut to the monster market to help guide some traders.

Rumor:  There's a chasm that provides quick access to a few of the lower levels.  Bring ropes!
Quest:  Rescue another adventurer from enslavement to the dryads (or the alseids - can use this one multiple times).

Rumor:  There's a statue hidden in a pit that pours healing potions out of it's mouth!
Quest:  Pig-men of the sorceress kidnapped my daughter, please rescue her.  (In reality the daughter ran off to be an apprentice).

*Image is from The Shady Dragon Inn, a great resource for NPC's and parties for classic D&D.  Sadly, it's not in PDF on yet.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Taenarum Game 6 - Revenge is a Dish Best Served for Fish

The paladin is a problematic class.  The origins are tied up in chivalric legendry and Ogier the Dane (from Three Hearts and Three Lions).  These are stories heavily influenced by Christianity and a view of the world informed by virtue, vice, and extraordinary powers granted through divine grace.  What happens when you transplant the paladin class into a different culture?

I certainly don't have it all figured out, but I'm leaning towards a standard that requires loyalty to a deity, courage, bravery, and a desire to gain fame  - an adaption of the Homeric ideal of heroism.  "Lawful" as an alignment in the Greek setting means aligning with civilization and the Olympian gods against the forces of Chaos.    (Hades, Hecate, and a few other deities don't see eye to eye with the Olympians and fill the role of cosmic antagonists - along with the monstrous Titans and their ilk from before the rule of the gods).  Honor is paramount and shame and cowardice are the banes of the heroic Greek paladin.

With that in mind, the priest of Poseidon back in town counseled the group's paladin he needed to avenge the companion left to die last session, in order to regain Poseidon's favor and his personal honor.  The rest of the group was using the time in town to recruit a handful of zero-level men to join them as retainers.  The players are calling themselves "The Squealing Six" after getting thrashed last week, a joke on words from the name of some more famous adventurers in town, a high level NPC party calling themselves "The Nefarious Nine".  There are actually only 7 members of the Nine, but there's a belief it would be bad luck to change the name.

The players are also starting to realize that the dungeon of Taenarum is very big, and it's a good idea to have a mission in mind and gather some information about it beforehand.  Moe the Bard has inordinately high charisma and has been making friends around the Adventurer's Guild.  He learned that every level has a major "boss" called an Eidelon, and the boss guards a giant key.  The more experienced groups spend time finding the lairs of the Eidelons and how to defeat them.  The Eidelon on the first level is a skeletal spirit known as the Lord of Bones.  The players don't know where the lair of the Lord of Bones is yet.

The mission on this particular excursion was the revenge quest for the paladin.  Their plan was to go to the underground market and track the Hades cultists that abused them last game so the paladin could wreak some vengeance.  Most intelligent races descending into the dungeon seem to pass through the market, and information can be had for the right price.

Now that the players know some short cuts, it's only an hour or two to the second level market.  They drove off some wandering encounters along the way, and consulted with the knowledge broker at the market, a grey dwarf named Atreos.  "Yeah, I know the guys you're talking about - they were at the market yesterday.  They're camped down on level three now - at least for today.  I could tell you how to find them for the right price…"  It cost 150gp for the paladin to get the information - he had to beg and borrow from the other players, but they pooled their money and learned the location of a short cut down to level 3 and the likely locations of the encampment.

The players were naturally reticent about going all the way down to the 3rd level of the dungeon for their revenge quest, but as long as they could be in and out fairly quickly, they ultimately agreed to do it, and tracked the cultists to their temporary encampment.  Unlike last fight, this one quickly went in the party's favor.  Their dice were hot; the front line fighters made some difficult saving throws to avoid the leader's Fear spells, and the party's archers were effective at taking out some of the minions that stood back to fling rocks with slings.

Of course, having a Sleep spell on your side trumps everything, and the bad guys were subdued by the Sandman.  Alantir planted his spear in the chest of the cult leader and declared his vengeance on behalf of Poseidon, fulfilling the priest's admonition to defeat a powerful minion of Chaos.

This was Moe's Marauders first major victory in 6 games, and they ended up retrieving just under 2,000gp in treasure - fine purple cloaks and tunics the cultists wore, a pouch of bloodstones, an ivory medallion, even a few hundred gold coins.  The cultists had bronze banded armor that upgraded a number of the fighters.  The leader fought with a cruel looking mace that appeared to be enchanted.  Good times all around.

Rather than exploring further on level 3, the players retreated from level 3 back to the market on 2, and then ultimately back to the first quadrant of level 1 to continue exploration before wrapping for the night.  In one room they found yet another staircase down to level 2, and fought a mob of zombies that appeared to be posted near the stair case as guards.

The last interesting thing to note about this game is that they figured out how to get through "The Black Door".  There is a stone titan's head not far from the entrance with the word "Forsaken" inscribed on its forehead in an obscure language.  When the word is said aloud, the head tilts back and a stone tongue is thrust forward, bequeathing a Black Key to the speaker.  (One of the players called it 'a giant PEZ dispenser').  Naturally enough, the Black Key opens the Black Door, and beyond it lies one of Hades' "mystery boxes".  When the players opened the box, an object came to them out of a blinding light - a randomly rolled magic scroll.  This one contained the spell Fireball - the players practically had a nerdgasm of joy at their good fortune.  The kids obliged by humming the music from Legend of Zelda that plays whenever Link opens a chest.

Cast of Characters
Moe, a Bard
Talus, a Magic User
Alantir, Paladin of Poseidon
Etor, Spartan explorer
Connell the Celt (Billy) - NPC

Zero-level fighting men - Dorus, Eutropios, Dunixi, Apostolos

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Rapid React - The New D&D Covers

Big news yesterday - release dates and covers for the newest edition of Dungeons & Dragons are all over the internet.  Plenty of peers in the OSR blogosphere have been posting the news.  I'm a bit conflicted about the news!

The largest issue I'm having is that the covers belie an approach to anime fantasy that sits far outside my desired game experience.  I want a game inspired by fantasy literature, not wuxia inspired fantasy super heroes flying through the air and bashing monsters on the noggin.  The new covers scream out that the monsters are bigger and more ferocious than ever, and the heroes fly!  Is that what D&D has become?

On the other hand, I'm going to reserve judgment on the actual game play - the playtest reviews have been generally positive and folks that follow the words of the Mearls have reported the new edition is meant to support a range of play-styles - including old school sensibilities.  The buy-in for the starter set is fairly inexpensive and there's no reason not to sample the game when it comes out.

Here’s the important part:  the mass market opportunities inherent in a successful boxed set trumps everything.  Consider my neighborhood.  Our street is infested with children.  Last count, there's like 18 kids ages 7-13 in our section of the block alone.  My oldest (a 12 year old) runs a backyard game of Traveller on the picnic table for a group of kids that grew up on HALO style video games.  When last I checked, they were exploring a derelict ship where space spiders and venom zombies battled pirates and the survivors.  However, the parents of these kids aren't going to seek out an obscure game shop and buy a massive tome of Pathfinder or order a Traveller hard cover online.  They are the kind of parents that will buy their kid a $20 D&D boxed set if it's in the games section of Target or Walmart.  If this thing is successful, I could see our entire block playing D&D by summer's end with a half dozen copies of the boxed set in the hands of kids.  Whatever RPG throne Paizo assumed with the death of 4E, it appears to be short lived - no offense meant, Pathfinder fans.

I'm cautiously optimistic about the new WOTC game.  A rising tide raises all ships and helps all RPGs.  I hope the new edition is a smashing success and would like to see the game line do well.  I'll take it a step further and say, despite the awful covers, that I also hope this is a game I'll enjoy playing.  Why not?  It has the potential to be Dungeons & Dragons again, and inspire a new generation of kids that missed out on the heyday of the early 80's.  Heck, while we're tossing gold pieces in the wishing well, I'm even going to hope for an OGL type of agreement to allow folks to make compatible works.

In the meantime, I'll continue to pay attention to bloggers more passionate about WOTC than myself who are reporting on every word of the Mearls and the minions.  It's going to be an interesting couple of months, right?  C'mon, WOTC, we're pulling for you to get it right.  Now if I can just stop judging books by their covers...

Friday, May 16, 2014

Six Weeks of ACKS

My new campaign started at the beginning of April.  It's a Greek-myth inspired dungeon called Taenarum.  The minions of Hades, the god of the underworld, have turned the legendary road to the Underworld into a sprawling megadungeon filled with traps, tricks, and wealth, to lure and defeat the followers of the other gods.  I wanted a setting that was high fantasy and characterized many classic tropes of D&D and dungeon crawling, appropriate for my kids and family while also being interesting to the adult gamers.  So far, so good.

I also decided to structure the campaign using ACKS - Adventurer Conqueror King System.  Most of the games I've run the past two years have been a bit more horror-themed and used Lamentations of the Flame Princess as the rules.  Both ACKS and LOTFP are OSR clone games derived from BX style D&D using the OGL.  I picked ACKS for this campaign because I plan on building out the campaign world to allow military campaigns, domain rulership, and campaign roles, and that type of support is built into ACKS from the ground up.  It's a solid campaign builder rules set.  After the first month and a half of using the rules, here are some of the player-facing elements that have had the biggest impact on our games.

Character Creation
ACKS supports the various standard class types you'd see in BX, but the core book adds a number of alternative classes like Bard, Explorer (a ranger variant), and Assassin that you'd see in something like 1E AD&D.  The Player's Companion adds a ton of additional classes, like the Shaman, Barbarian, and Paladin, along with demi-human hybrids that combine popular base classes.

As referee, I'm content with just the core classes in the game (fighter, cleric, thief, and magic user).  However, the players in both groups immediately gravitated to alternate classes.  We've had paladins in both games, dwarven craft priests, the elf magic user \ thief combo, a bard, an assassin, and an explorer.

The other player-facing option is the proficiency system.  A few of the proficiencies are combat skills (like bonuses for a fighting style) but many of them are knowledge-based and have been popular with the players.  Normally I have a first aid style house rule, but the Healing proficiency eliminates the need for a house rule and makes those proficiency decisions carry more weight - it's fairly important to have 1-2 guys with Healing skill to help with first aid, especially at 1st level.

I'm a huge fan of "templates".  Templates are character concepts that include a few pre-selected proficiencies, a wealth roll, and full kit of starting equipment.  It makes character creation really fast for the players and helps with generating NPC's quickly as well.

Spell Casting
The biggest change to spell casting is not requiring memorization for Magic Users or selection for Clerics - no more Vancian magic.  If a given spell is in the character's repertoire, they can use it on demand.  They're still limited to the same number of spell castings per day, but if a character can cast 2 first level spells per day, they don't have to preselect them.  The rub is that spell casters have access to a smaller personal selection; a magic user might have 2-4 total first level spells in their spell book.  In other versions of D&D style games, casters aggregate a lot more diversity in their spell book over time.

As you can imagine, this approach has been very popular with the players.  I've seen a little more use of utility spells than before - the Magic Users sometimes cast spells other than Sleep, for instance.  I'm looking forward to seeing a level 2 cleric in action and whether this means less Cure Light Wounds and more creativity with the clerical lists.

Fighting characters in ACKS are remarkably fun at low levels.  The default game has a cleave rule that grants a free attack when a fighter drops a foe, and it has allowed the 1st level fighters to shine on multiple occasions.  Fighters also gain a damage bonus, reinforcing their ability to cleave.  I'm always glad to see enhancements that help fighters in a more elegant way than AD&D's weapon specialization.

ACKS uses a different approach to armor class.  Characters have a single base target they're trying to achieve with a to-hit roll - for all first level characters the number is 10 - and armor class is added to this number.  A monster with medium armor might have AC 3 (10 + 3 means you need a 13 or better to hit) while a heavily armored opponent might have AC 6 or better (16 to hit).  After a game session or two, it's been really easy to manage at the table.

One of the other big changes in combat is the death and dying rules.  Dropping to zero hit points or below only means the character is knocked out of the fight; until someone stops to survey the damage, it's not clear if the person is dead, dying, or just unconscious.  Factors for death and dying include whether the knocked out character is at zero hit points or lower;  does the person trying to stabilize them have first aid; is magic healing involved; how quickly did you get to stabilize the person after the fight.  Even when the character recovers, there's the chance to accumulate nagging injuries and scars, which add some flavor to the results.  We've had guys that can't be saved due to mortal injuries, bleeding out on the ground; one of the fighters has a permanent limp, and another is basically 'punch drunk' from having his bell rung too hard (yo Adrian).

Overall, I'm really happy with how the ACKS rules are playing out at the table, and the players are definitely enjoying the variety, choice, and subtle increases in character power.  It hasn't stopped the game from being challenging or deadly.  It's been a great choice so far for this style of game.  I haven't gotten far on building out the larger world, so I can't fully report on applying the campaign setting creation guidelines.  I'm sure I'll be able to report out on those experiences within the next month or so.

Does anyone else have experience with ACKS, and what are your observations?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Best of Both Worlds - Revisiting D&D and the Horror

D&D and horror should go together like chocolate and peanut butter.  It should.  But the two types of game experiences don't usually share the same objectives.

The objective of the D&D style game is to explore and gain treasure.  Ruins and abandoned habitations filled with treasure are the default adventure sites.  The monsters are incidental.  The horror game is about uncovering a mystery that puts the protagonists in contact with the monsters.  The cooler and more horrific the monsters, the better.  The objective is to survive and resolve the situation (assuming that's possible).

Horror serials reveal the difficulty in rationally explaining why the same set of protagonists keeps running into monsters, and so their structures tend to revolve around two basic forms.  The most common approach is to make the group investigative - monster hunters like the agents on The X-Files, or the two guys on Supernatural; relic hunters like Warehouse 13 or Friday the 13th.  Some horror serials are locale-based, where the recurring horror situations involve a common nexus, like the house and sanitarium locations of American Horror Story, the village of Sleepy Hollow, or the mansion in Dark Shadows.

My ongoing quest is around reconciling the two game structures - exploration and investigation.  My platonic ideal for D&D involves ruins and wealth to recover.  I love the D&D sandbox style because the players are placed firmly in charge of planning their excursions.  Unfortunately, this mostly precludes the monster-hunter style of campaign, reserving that for games that embrace the 'save the world mentality' like Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu.  For combining genres, I feel like the ground is firmer by taking a 'relic-hunter' approach, where the players either get a list of potential ruined adventuring sites to target or a list of artifacts to recover.  Pursuing their own pecuniary goals is what motivates them to explore and interact with the supernatural world.

Anyway, it seems reasonable that you should be able to build a campaign around a series of ruined locales, each rumored to possess lost wealth, but when investigated, thrusts the players into opposition with eldritch horrors - letting you  implement the best of both gaming styles.  A bigger challenge for me is whether to place such a game in a historical setting and make it amenable to the traditional 30 x 40 hex map.  For myself, one locale where I've done some work is 'Gothic Yorkshire', an interesting area in northern England where there's a density of old ruined abbeys and crumbling castles - it even fits on a standard hex sheet.  I'm also perennially drawn to the Mesoamerican ruins of the Yucatan and the world of the Caribbean; sadly, that area is a tad large for a traditional hex crawl, although a 'saltbox' would work just fine.

The LOTFP rules seem to be fairly popular out here in the OSR blogosphere - how are you running your D&D\horror hybrid game?  I don't see a lot of discussion around campaign structures so I'm presuming a lot of folks go with the tried and true "plot hook of the week, leads to adventure of the week" style of campaign.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Taenarum Games 4 and 5 - Bad Luck Ain't No Luck

It's been a while since I put a game report together for the regulars.  We had a game night before my San Francisco trip, and another this past weekend, so this post is covering both sessions.

One thing about the upper levels of Taenarum, there are lots of cultists and devotees of the gods that wander into the dungeon, looking for lost shrines and enchanted statues - either to pay homage or make mischief.  Encounters with clerics and acolytes of various gods are common.  One of the first areas the adults visited on this night was a spectacular temple to Poseidon in a vaulted, sea-green chamber.  The paladin, a follower of Poseidon, wanted to have a 'Poseidon Adventure'.  And he did.  There was a gang of iconoclasts desecrating the temple, rustic-looking fellows with helmets adorned with curling rams horns and goat's fleece mantles.  Pan cultists!  The paladin cried for an attack against the defilers.

Connell, their Celtic henchman, went berserk (which gave him immunity when a cultist tried to "panic" him with a Fear spell and a shrill note on a reed pipe).  Etor the explorer cleaved through multiple lightly armored acolytes.  In typical hero fashion, the paladin rolled a 1 on initiative, missed his save vs Hold Person, and got to watch the rest of the fight from the ground.

The Pan cultists weren't too difficult to defeat.  When he finally recovered from paralysis, the paladin vowed to buy a mop and bucket and clean up the temple on his next trip.  The players went on to explore a few rooms, eventually figuring out how to open the secret door that led to a monument to the Fates.  Before the three statues of the weavers was a brass bound book, the Book of Blessings and Curses.  It's basically one of those 'wheel of fortune' type effects, where the metal plates of the book randomly flip to an effect when it's consulted.  Kids love the random stuff.

My players were brutalized by the fates.  The party wizard was polymorphed into a house cat.  The cleric lost all his experience.  Etor was knocked unconscious and Connell was injured almost to the point of death.  Only the bard came away with a blessing, but by then, they needed to leave the dungeon and try to recover.  This is what happens when all the kids at the table chant for each next player to roll the book, roll the book, roll the book.  "I hope we've learned a valuable lesson here," said the kids after the train wreck.  "Peer pressure is bad".

A fair amount of the next game was spent in town getting town stuff done.  Moe the bard did some networking with other adventuring parties, and ultimately made friends with Lamachus, a magic user associated with the "Nefarious Nine", the most successful adventurers active in town.  The Nine are also the leaders on the scoreboard.  Lamachus was in town for a few days and was willing to Dispel Magic on their magic user for an appropriate fee.  Now the running joke is they frequently catch Talus, the party mage, grooming himself by licking his skin, gnawing on raw fish, that kind of stuff - cat habits.  "I'm doing it again, aren't I?", when he realizes everyone is watching him.

The paladin was good for his word, and bought a bunch of expensive fish to burn on Poseidon's altar as an offering, along with a mop and bucket to clean up the desecrated temple.  They scared off some Zeus cultists who intruded on the dungeon temple during the clean up - if the wandering encounters are any indication, that Poseidon temple must get trashed all the time by opposing cultists.  The paladin player was delighted to receive a divine blessing for restoring the temple.

As the night progressed, the players killed some bandits, ambushed some pig men, and found "The Black Door".  If only they knew where to find a Black Key.  (I'm joking, they had heard how to get a Black Key at one point, I'm sure it's in their notes, they just can't seem to put a complete game together yet).  They found a statue of Apollo with an inscription calling for offerings of poetry.  The players interpreted poetry to mean humorous limericks, and a few of the guys immediately set to writing limericks as the night progressed.

Sadly, this was another game night that ended in crushing defeat for Moe's Marauders.  They lured a "gray ooze" out of a room where it was pooled up against a door, and defeated it in the open.  However, beyond the door were some desperate and crazy Hades cultists, led by an arrogant jerk (Xerxes).  The situation might have resolved okay, but Mack the Dwarf took exception to some of Xerxes' haughty insults and sucker-punched him in the groin, inciting a brawl.  The cultists were heavily armored in bronze mail and quickly beat down the paladin and Gregorius, another henchman.  Moe the bard was scared off with a Fear spell and fled into the dungeon.  Hit points were dwindling.  Talus the Mage threw himself prostrate before Xerxes and begged for mercy, claiming how foolish it was for them to challenge the power of Hades.  One spectacular reaction roll later and they began to discuss terms of surrender (instead of facing a TPK and rolling new characters).

While Xerxes began to call out options to allow the players to ransom themselves, the others did first aid on the wounded.  Gregorius was dying unless he got some magic healing; the paladin chose to lay hands on himself and let Gregorius die.  Yikes.  This is the problem with paladins in the game - I don't like being in the position of determining which selfish behavior goes over the line.  Regardless, letting a companion die while using magic healing to pad your life total is very non-paladin like.

The players ended up paying some money to the Hades cultists, and giving them the body of Gregorius - Xerxes and his gang were off to find a Hades shrine somewhere below level one.  As the players bandaged the survivors and limped out of the dungeon, they grumbled about looking forward to a rematch with the Hades cultists.  They have a villain to target now.

Here are a couple of the limericks that were eventually offered to Apollo.  There was another funny one, but the player hasn't sent it over yet - the lure of free XP wasn't enough.  Moe ended up gaining the favor of Apollo and was granted a permanent +1 to charisma.  Here's Apollo's favorite limerick:

“The Tale of Moe’s Marauders”
By Moshe ben Avraham (Moe the Bard)
(copyright 2014)

The Marauders stormed Tanaerum in throng
For they knew that their trip would be long
As the story would unfold
They found little gold
So all they could offer was song.

“The Ballad of Talas”
By Moshe ben Avraham (Moe the Bard)
(copyright 2014)

There once was a wizard named Talas
Who turned into a kitty, so callous
He’d spray his scent on the walls
And cough up furballs
But his kitty litter box was his palace.

Cast of Characters
Moe, a Bard
Talus, a Magic User
Mack, a Dwarven Craftpriest
Alantir, Paladin of Poseidon
Etor, Spartan explorer
Connell the Celt (Billy) - NPC
Gregorius - NPC

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Fifteen Men on a Dead Men's Chest

D&D and Pirates.  I can't quit you.   The weather is warming up and a (not young) man's thoughts turn to horror.  Horror and rum and pieces of eight.  Yo ho ho and the middle school band even played "The Legend of Pirate's Cove" for their competition piece.  Clearly the universe is flashing me a sign, a blinking neon sign, that D&D and Pirates needs to happen.

Last week was good, it was my first time visiting San Francisco.   I was traveling for a technology conference, and had plenty of time in between sessions and whatnot to fill my notebook with scribblings on Xibalba, a Mesoamerican portal to the underworld.  The Greek megadungeon campaign is going swimmingly well, the family gamers love it and the regular gamers are putting up with it, but I need a bit of horror.  For myself.  The regular game is high fantasy and whimsy and adventure, but at I least I can write some horror adventures on the side, right?  It's a necessary outlet.  In this way, the steaming jungles of Isla Mysteriosa and the shade-haunted ruins of Xibalba are taking shape.  It looks like we're going to Gencon this year and I'll probably run some games instead of playing wall-to-wall Magic like last year, so maybe I'll try to premiere it  at Gencon.  That would be pretty sweet.

So anyway - back to the pirates.  Historically, they rove around on these ships that have been gutted to maximize their space for cannons, made flush fore and aft, and rigged for speed.  Larger ships could have a hundred or more pirates hanging on to them, clutching various pointy weapons and shooty weapons, and some of the legendary prizes featured astronomical treasures - a few hundred thousand silver pounds.

Indulge me a second in some game discussion.  Let's say your hypothetical pirate crew (mostly 1st level men or zero level men) capture one of these rich prizes and earns 300,000sp - using the silver standard, where 1xp = 1sp.  if there are a hundred of them, they've each earned 3,000xp.  Cha-ching.  All those surviving zero-level guys become 1st level fighters, and the 1st level crewmen get to level 2.  Experienced pirate crews could be pretty tough, don't you think?  Famous buccaneers like Henry Morgan, who earned millions of silver pieces over his career, would be high level fighters indeed.  Sounds like a game setting.

I'm raising this because players, being what they are, might realize that the ghost-haunted ruins are a tad bit scary and dangerous, and wouldn't it be cool to mutiny and take over the ship and make ourselves pirates, and then couldn't we go attack shipping for "easy money"?  Piracy is like the ultimate expression of the murder hobo ethos.

The other thing that concerns me is starting the adventure.  How would you adjudicate the following type of situation: the player characters are the mercenary adventurers (ie, jungle explorers) hired by a patron to help find and explore the lost ruins.  There are many NPC's along on the venture in a supporting role, but as the players represent unhinged and desperate men (ie, adventurers) they are bearing all the risk of exploration and dungeon delving.  What would be an appropriate split of treasure between the hired adventurers and the rest of the expedition?

In the world of pirates, articles were written up with fairly even distribution of shares amongst the crew - but everyone had an active fighting role.  Is it reasonable for the patron to split 50-50 with the adventurers doing the exploration?  The adventurers and any NPC's that went on the dungeon excursions would get all the XP points, whereas the patron and folks that remained behind would get shares of money, but not experience.

I'm envisioning a scenario where a wealthy patron outfits a ship and crew, and hires adventurers to be the actual explorers that hex crawl the island and explore the ruins.  This lets you put a first level game out on an island without too much fuss.  Replacement characters can be recruited from the crew, but otherwise the NPC's are meant to stay behind.  It keeps the action firmly in the hands of the players.  But it does force you to consider what kind of agreement should exist between the patron and the desperate adventurers willing to hack through the undergrowth and plunder the lost ruins.

You also need to be prepared for when the players dump the captain overboard, take over the ship themselves, and sail for the shipping lanes, with violence on their minds.  Because pirates.