The Adversary’s Dungeon

Following is a background sketch for a potential campaign.


The rapture has come and gone. Any chosen departed. From below came the Adversary, no longer constrained to the Dungeon, to claim tyrannical dominion of what remained.

Though eternal, hubris afflicts the Adversary. Clever magic applied with savvy and sacrifice casts the Adversary back down into the Dungeon. Even the Adversary is part of existence and so subject to fundamental relations properly deployed.

So organized, the world staggers through cycles of evil and reprieve. When imprisoned, the Adversary cultivates temptations and treasures below. Invitation from those above alone is how the Adversary can return.

Inevitably, memories of past horrors fade and once vigilant guardians become complacent. Some come to doubt the existence of the Adversary below and ridicule the old rituals. Beliefs notwithstanding, opening the Dungeon’s gates requires only will and black magic.

Though deep seals prevent the Adversary from emerging fully even once the gates fail, lesser monsters are not similarly constrained. First as a trickle, then as a torrent, they come, messengers proclaiming by their rampage the Adversary’s impending arrival.

Again the gates are open. Strongholds stoke sentinel bonfires to keep the monsters at bay. Danger challenges the fellowship of humanity as alliances agreed in times of plenty crumble. As armies are tender fodder for greater monsters, only infiltration has any hope of success in reaching the inner sanctum. From the Adversary’s broken body renewed Dungeon gates may be fashioned.

To close the doors and renew all seals, venture below and defeat the Adversary. Or, seek wicked wages by breaking the seals to earn the Adversary’s acclaim and gratitude, inaugurating a new long night.

If the walls can bleed of course they can heal

My friend mentioned in this post wrote up her reflections on refereeing for the first time and even sent me the map sketches. Below the divider are her words. This could be an interesting case study for designers interested in what is useful to a new referee. And it sounds independently like a pretty great scenario.


When my little brothers (12-year old twins) told me they wanted to play when they came to visit me this past weekend, I was both excited to be introducing a new generation to the game I have recently come to love, but also more than slightly terrified at tackling the elusive role of DM.

I wasn’t too concerned about embellishing on the setting or the scenario, nor was I concerned with the edition rules and stats we would use since I planned on throwing most of them out anyway. I was more so worried about the behind-the-scenes mechanics of being a DM in real-time. Ultimately, how could I make this an epic one-shot with a climactic finale, without it feeling forced or coerced or like the players lost autonomy?

Naturally, I reached out to a DM friend, and he sent me this.

I found Michael Prescott’s dungeons to be quite inspiring for dungeon stocking and Dyson’s maps gave great suggestions for layout. The DM Information gave me the language I needed to conceptualize the concerns I had, and gave a really great straight forward and concise guide for how to build a dungeon without any waffling. I didn’t use any of the rolling systems for NPC creation or dungeon stocking, but the suggestions were inspiring.

What I ended up with was a mötley crüe of a game inspired by what I thought were either the most interesting or the most straight forward elements from the other DMs. I drew up a baby map, drew a picture of the town, and wrote up a short and dirty little summary of the key things the players may or may not encounter. Did it look or play like a 5e game? Heck no. But with a few exceptions it worked for me, and designing my own game gave me the peace of mind to improvise mid-play knowing I wasn’t going to miss anything “important.”

The game ended up looking something like this:

Scenario: The Athenian authorities are concerned with the sudden halt of raw silver deliveries from one of the most bountiful mining sites in the land. They are willing to pay handsomely for any adventurer who can get production going again. Upon arriving at the island, players learn that silver shipments have stopped because the miners are refusing to enter the mines. For the last 3 weeks, anyone who has entered is never seen again.

village copySetting: 4th/5th Century BCE Greece, in a mining town on the island of Thassos. Options to explore included the marina, the little mining town, a set of miner barracks outside the entrance to the mine, and of course – the mine itself. In hindsight, grounding the game in non-fiction was probably the best decision I made for players with little to no exposure to fantasy/sci-fi. I knew they’d have at least a basic understanding of ancient Greek mythology and folklore, so the ideas and objects they’d encounter would have natural affordances for future action without requiring too much exploration or coercion.

Special Monsters: This was by far the most fun. Following naturally from an ancient Greek setting, the players would eventually find out that the mine was having problems because recent activity disrupted the centuries-old prison of Phobos (God of Fear) and Deimos (God of Terror), twin sons of Ares and Aphrodite. Their sister – Adrestia (Goddess of Revenge), had lured them to the island and captured them in a tomb in retribution for the fear and terror they had caused her as a child. In search of strength, Phobos and Deimos had been luring miners into their prison and turning them into undead acolytes (complete with eyes sewn shut and ominous chanting- terrifying imagery for 12 year olds!)

Setting up the monsters as part of the story in this way was both limiting and freeing. On the one hand, since the monsters were there for their own reasons, they didn’t necessarily have to kill or even fight my players (thanks, Brendan ☺). This gave both the players and me the flexibility to have an ending that played out however it wanted to. However, this setup also relied on the players getting the information they needed beforehand to make that choice. Overall, this ended up working really nicely. The players got the information they did, and formed lay theories to fill in the missingness. This lead to an ending that was as much of a surprise to me as it was to them.

I had hidden some crawling claws and shadows in storage alcoves in the mines, but no one explored these. Also, a swarm of spiders came into unplanned existence from a bleeding cave wall when one of my players seemed to have decided he would rather mine for silver all day than finish the quest 😉

dungeon copyMap: Super simple. The most complex thing was the final room where Phobos and Deimos were imprisoned. I took inspiration for this room largely from the great hall in Michael Prescott’s map, “The Chain of Heaven.” The room ended up being a 180-foot cylindrical cavern mirrored in silver ore, with a hole 90 feet up where the miners had originally broken through and disturbed the prison. At the base of the cavern was a shallow pool surrounded by an earthen ledge. Otherwise, the map had 2 other larger rooms and a few alcoves connected by hallways, and I suppose the town and marina count as part of the map too. Note to self for the future: long hallways leading simply from A to B with nothing in between are a waste of time and space.

Stock: I decided to keep the role-playing and potential combat areas separate, allowing for information gathering in the first half of the game, and exploration/combat in the second half. In hindsight, the game probably would have been more complex and interesting if these things were mixed, but for the sake of story telling and introducing players slowly into game mechanics, it worked pretty well. I also kept treasure to a minimum given this was a one shot game.

Marina/Mining Town/Barracks: This is where the players could gather information. There were 5 main sources planned, and the players ended up getting 4 of them. A marina keeper directed them to important folk in the town. The last two men out of the mine (one of whom went mad) gave them the run down on the last thing they saw before fleeing the mines. They spoke to Bion, the local philosopher and historian, about the Gods. Finally, they spoke to a miner’s son, who swore he could hear his father’s voice from the mine at night.

map copyMines: Nothing too exciting in any of the other rooms except for a bunch of abandoned miner tools and the monsters that no one found. The walls of the mine bled if axed. The first main obstacle in the prison was the 90-foot drop to the bottom. Also, the pool couldn’t be looked at directly without risking mind-control, but indirect looking via the mirror-like silver walls revealed two glowing human-heart-shaped orbs at the base of the pool. There were 4 doorframes around the perimeter of the cavern, behind which were small alcoves. In the event of a pool disturbance, these alcoves filled with apparating undead acolytes who didn’t attack unless provoked, but chanted menacingly about a choice that had to be made. At one end of the cavern was a large sacrificial platform, upon which were a golden gong and a black dagger. Both the gong and the dagger were ornately carved in patterns unrecognized by any of the party, but seemed weathered and tarnished with age. I had originally intended a blood sacrifice with the dagger to wake Phobos and Deimos, and a ringing of the gong to summon Adrestia, but of course – neither of these things happened and Adrestia still showed up!

Compared to some of the games I’ve played as a player, this is really sparse stocking. I was worried about that before we started, but it actually worked well for a 3 hour game with young and brand new players because 1) it allowed for a focus on building a transporting story more than a game with treasure splitting, repetitive combat, and/or undirected information seeking would have allowed, and 2) the sparseness afforded elaboration on all the elements in an environment together– everything in the room had a purpose, and it was up to the players to figure out (or, in some cases, tell me!) what that shared purpose was. If I were doing this again, I’d say this amount of stocking is just about right.

Mechanics: In terms of game mechanics, since my players were brand spanking new to the game and I was already worried enough about keeping the dungeon straight, I knew I’d want to keep them as simple as possible. This meant getting rid of alignment and 5e backgrounds. We didn’t track movement. Skill checks were only used when whatever they wanted to check was unexpected and I needed a few extra seconds to invent something plausible. I actually found structuring combat with initiative was really helpful. The players got super excited about how they were going to kill the thing, so being able to go through a list systematically was a good way to keep things straight.

In hindsight, I wish I had simplified even more. Even the skills-only character creation process took nearly an hour and already had one of my players thinking DnD was complicated. If I could go back, I would consider getting rid of race and skills and just using the appropriate ability checks for skill checks.

Final Details: The best lesson came in the form of a logical anomaly in play. I accidentally made the opening to the final prison much smaller than would have been possible given other information they had. My mom pointed this out, and as I’m wracking my brain for a semblance of a plausible explanation for this anomaly, my brother turns to my mom and says, in a tone only a 12 year old can pull off, “DUH!! If the walls can bleed of course they can heal!” Not only a perfectly plausible explanation- but way better than anything I would have come up with! I somehow managed in my shock to put an all-knowing DM smile on my face as the players moved on to break down the wall. The moral of the story – it’s often best to just shut up for a second and let your players do the talking.

Overall, DM’ing was a fantastic experience that I would love to do again. While it was a bit nerve wracking to get started, once I had hooked on Phobos and Deimos the rest kind of fell into place and I ended up with this cute baby dungeon that I was quite literally giddy with excitement to have the players explore.

I loved seeing the different personalities of my players, and listening as they elaborated with such creativity on the tasks I had designed for them. My one brother was super into role-play and kicked ass at getting information out of people. Unfortunately he also had a penchant to jump into situations without thinking, which lead to near death quite a few times. Luckily, my other brother had the most ingenious ways of using his spells to make combat virtually irrelevant, and it was absolutely hilarious hearing my mom use vicious mockery to kill a swarm of spiders.

Oh, and the players loved it ☺ My brother bought his first set of polyhedrals the next day, and we played a second game that night!


Game Notes

A marina town in ancient Greece on the island of Thassos, a mile or so south of a silver mine. Rumors are that the Gods had spited the mine, as miners had mysteriously been disappearing and random wails of the men who worked there can often be heard at night.

The miners refused to show up to work in protest, so the Athenian authorities promised significant reward to anyone who would enter the mine to appease the Gods. They were losing a lot of money from the stalls in the silver trade.

Dock

NPC – Marina Keeper (Trechus the Keeper) – repeats the intro.

If asked: Says that it seems to have started about 3 weeks ago, when two miners (Nilus and Kittos) ran out of the mine in Terror. Nilus has gone mad and is being housed in the infirmary. Kittos hasn’t left his side since the incident. From that day, anyone who has entered the mine has not returned. They called in Bion the local theologian to

Town

Bookshop, Infirmary, Market, Bar, Inn

NPCs – Nilus, Kittos, Bion
Nilus wailing: The pool! OH the Horror, Oh Phobos, Oh Deimos, my fear, my terror!

Kittos: The miners had recently broken ground into a cavern they hadn’t seen before – the cavern was larger than they had ever seen, and unusual for the rock formations found in the mine. Oddly, the cavern was basked in a pool of light seemingly emanating from the sparkle of more silver embedded in the walls than any of the miners had ever seen before. This was a great find, and since the miners get to keep a small portion of whatever silver they find, Kittos and Nilus thought they would be rich. Kittos was behind Nilus when they broke through, and could see the silver in the wall, but only Nilus looked in, yelled at the splendor of the room, and then started screaming in terror. Kittos yanked him back and ran out of the mine, and Nilus has been wailing these words ever since.

Info (if you can calm Nilus’ Horrors somehow): At the base of the cavern was a pool of water. The rubble from knocking through the wall disturbed the pool. When Nilus looked in the pool, his greatest fears and terrors ripped through him.

Bion: Knows the myth about Phobos and Deimos being coerced by their sister Adrestia to the island of Thassos, where she trapped them in a tomb to save her and her brothers (Eros and Anteros) from the troubles of horror.

Miner Camp

Miners are congregated out in the pavilion beside, playing games and drinking because they refuse to go in – you can talk to them and get more info if you really wanted to, but it seems they don’t know much except about the wails late at night, and this constant echo sound like chanting from deep within. Even the vermin have fled.

The son of one of the guys who went in swears he hears his dad in the wailing.

Mines

NPCs – Lots of Monsters: Cultists, Gods, Gross Hands

GONG – If they ring the gong on the big table, the room starts shaking, the cultists chant louder and the pool begins wavering, but then Adrestia appears and stills the pool.

DAGGER – If they offer a blood sacrifice on the tomb, they awaken Phobos and Deimos and basically die.

 

Initiation

B51-duskA friend of mine who just recently started playing D&D wanted to run a game. Previously, she had played a session or two with me using LotFP and separately a number of organized games (mostly Adventurers League using 5E but also one or two Pathfinder sessions). She asked me to recommend a module, planning to use 5th since that is what she had books for and was most familiar with.

I had no immediate candidate because 1) there are not that many modules for 5th, 2) most of them are wordy or bland, 3) while recently more directly usable modules have been published such as Forgive Us they still require prep especially for a new referee that will need to deal with stat conversions to 5th, and 4) I believe the true potential of tabletop RPGs lies in personal creativity. So, mindful of information overload and the value of time time limitation, I suggested a compromise approach that I felt would be capture the best of both worlds while minimizing low-payoff preparation.

Following is the advice I provided.

Option 1: use one of Michael Prescott’s one-page dungeons:
http://blog.trilemma.com/search/label/adventure

Option 2: pick one of Dyson’s free maps and stock it by hand according to guidelines I will send momentarily:
https://rpgcharacters.wordpress.com/maps/

Option 3: use one of Dyson’s adventures here:
https://rpgcharacters.wordpress.com/downloads-games/

For a guide to dungeon stocking, I sent a copy of pages B51 and B52 from Moldvay Basic. This is the single most useful short explanation that came to mind regarding what referees actually do for effective prep in D&D. In outline:

  • Part 8: Dungeon Master Information
    • A. Choose a scenario
    • B. Decide on a setting
    • C. Decide on special monsters to be used
    • D. Draw the map of the dungeon
    • E. Stock the dungeon
    • F. Filling in final details

I heard that she created a island scenario in mythical Ancient Greece and ran a session last night. I am hoping I can get her to write up a postmortem about how the game went and what was most useful as a new referee since there are a lot of opinions about decreasing the barrier to entry for new tabletop gamers but not so much thoughtful reflection on the experience of actual new players and referees.

Damage symmetry

Consider this house rule for traditional D&D:

When an attack roll misses, the attacker suffers damage from the defender.

This gives every attack roll the potential of loss as well as gain. Damage inflicted by the defender would be based on the equivalent of a basic attack as situationally appropriate. For example, someone attacking a dragon from behind and missing might take tail swipe damage.

How do you think it would change the game?

This shares some properties with what I have called monological combat before, though it remains more firmly within the familiar D&D approach to combat turns. See also: monological combat example and monological save versus magic.

Some potential consequences I can see include:

  1. Encourage avoidance behaviors because attacking feels riskier.
  2. Decrease the sense of stasis caused by several misses in a row.
  3. Speed up combat by increasing average damage per round.
  4. Cut down hoards of unchallenging enemies quickly.
  5. Decrease the defensive value of armor.

Given a choice as a player, would you like to use this house rule? Why or why not?

Doctrine of proceduralism

Proceduralism is the degree to which a game relies upon explicit procedures. It is one of many different descriptors that can be used to understand and classify games. Other examples of descriptors include mechanical complexity, optionality, loci of narrative control, and so forth. My intent when I build game systems and content is to encode procedures efficiently into the process of play rather than adding rules overhead necessary for the desired relationships. That is, I want the procedures to feel like a part of the game that players sit down to play, not some cost that must be paid. This has been my intent especially with the Hazard System.

In my view, many game designs underweight the immediate cost of performing game procedures during play. For example, in early versions of TSR D&D, encumbrance is handled by measuring weight carried in coins and summing over all gear carried. Though the coin counting encumbrance procedure would probably have the intended effect if it were used, it is often ignored because it takes effort that does not seem to be play. Though individuals differ regarding their tolerance for such hassle, there seem to be few inherent benefits to adding purely transactional costs to the process of play.

Further, procedures are maximally effective when all players in a group comply, meaning that procedure effectiveness is often subject to the player with the least tolerance. In a traditional tabletop RPG, a conscientious referee can often take on an additional burden to mitigate the cost of procedures on other players, but this has its own drawbacks.

This is probably a domain-specific manifestation of general decision-making myopia. For example, people tend to underestimate the amount of time a future task will take even given domain-specific experience. (This is the Planning Fallacy.) In games, this tendency often comes, I think, from a designer focusing more on the desired outcome of a procedure and less on the effort or hassle involved in the practice of using the procedure.

To formalize different kinds of proceduralism, consider that a procedure may either feel like play or feel like work. Call the first kind of procedure intrinsic and the second extrinsic, mirroring theories of motivation. Intrinsic procedures are not always simpler. Instead, they focus attention and effort on the game processes that are most rewarding to the players. For example, more procedural combat rules may be more engaging due to the immediate stakes. That is, they feel like play rather than work or hassle. Procedural fluency then could be thought of as the overall balance between intrinsic and extrinsic procedures.

The definition above incorporates player taste. While my general sense is that heavier logistical procedures are almost universally experienced as aversive, there do seem to be some exceptions worth noting. For example, competitive players or those that value game mastery may appreciate highly extrinsic procedures as long as they can be used, respectively, to gain a relative advantage over other players or overcome game challenges effectively. Though there may be some fit effects between procedure and player personality, even entirely ignoring this nuance there seem to be many opportunities to make game procedures more generally fluent given that few tabletop RPGs pay attention to the concrete experience of procedures in play.

Though play testing could evaluate a game on any number of different dimensions, such as inter-player power balance, compliance with some aesthetic standard, or pedagogic efficiency, I believe that procedural fluency is a particularly good candidate for evaluation. Some questions that might help identify procedural disfluency include:

  1. Are players following the rules?
  2. What are players handwaving?
  3. Are players creating shortcuts?
  4. Do the shortcuts accomplish the same goal?
  5. Is the reward payoff disconnected from the procedure’s deployment?
  6. Do players not understand the intended impact of the procedure?
  7. Do the procedures feel like a drag outside of the game itself?
  8. Is the procedure designed to solve an extra-game problem, such as argumentativeness?
  9. Does the procedure require prosthetics such as spreadsheet software?

Finally, to distinguish this doctrine from the old “system matters” position, it is worth emphasizing that proceduralism is only one dimension of many that define a game and that the experience of a particular game arises from far more than just following the procedural rules.

Under the Eclipse

Eclipse image by T. Kuboki

Eclipse image by T. Kuboki

History has never recorded more than temporary stalemates in the wars between the city-states of the Shallow Seas. Proud Patmos, our city, was one of the greatest. In a daring gambit our admirals sought to build a flotilla in secret with which to crush our greatest rival and establish unassailable command of all other cities. However, the plan was discovered, by treachery or ill luck, and our enemy struck first, burning the warships in their hidden coves and striking the forts on our shores with a ferocity that overwhelmed our unprepared defenses.

Our navy smoldering and our armies in retreat, the Primarchs were desperate. The sorcerer Ascidia Bel, long bereft of influence though as yet unbanished, took the crisis as an opportunity. He promised to defeat the invaders with ancient war magic if the coffers were put at his disposal and his fellow magicians were allowed back to aid him in the weaving of the great spell. With the bonfires of the enemy sighted from our towers and only days away, the Primarchs acquiesced.

Bel put out a call for his dispersed fellows and over the course of the next day a carnival of witches, warlocks, and diviners answered his summons. They worked feverishly through the night, preparing tribute and sacrifices. The wizards dug trenches in forbidden patterns and filled them with the herbed blood of oxen and prisoners. They stacked treasure in pyramids that reflected the light of tall cylindrical bonfires and chanted sibilant magic words that slid off the ears and defied comprehension despite superficial simplicity.

Ascidia Bel uttered the final syllable almost in a whisper but it was clear as a trumpet call. All was still for several moments. Then the ground began to shake and Bel began to scream. His face melted off and his body crumpled forward. His flesh ignited, burning with an intensity reserved for lost chemistries. Still it lies to this day in the central plaza, always burning, never consumed, too hot to approach closer than ten paces. Several of the taller towers, built by secret societies of masons using hidden techniques, collapsed. The faces of the other sorcerers burst into flame but they did not die. They scattered, crawling on all fours, scurrying like insects, fleeing from their fallen chief into the shadows.

We heard strange drums far off. Lights flickered beyond the hills and over the Shallow Seas. From the mist and smoke and raining ash they came. Some shambling, some stomping, some prancing like acrobats. The smallest was the height of four tall men and no two were alike. Hefting terrible weapons, all rust and spines and cleaving iron, they clustered near the radiant beacon of the ruined sorcerer husk, milling like bees around honey to receive their charge, then like wolves scenting prey, set off into the night.

The next day the sun rose shedding little light, obscured by a disk of blackness in permanent eclipse. After the sortie, no foreign travelers arrived. The roads were empty. Venturing forth, our envoys found abandoned way houses. Only dust inhabited nearby towns. Scouting parties spotted unmanned galleys drifting aimlessly, directed now by only tides and winds.

An outrider discovered one of the summoned creatures in a field outside one empty town, standing almost motionless, hundreds of vultures perched on its shoulders and the trees nearby. Soon after, three of Ascidia Bel’s giant avengers returned. At first we fled in panic, thinking that they meant to finish what began the night before the eclipse, but they seemed not to see us. Now, one walks up and down the river ceaselessly. Another stands by the great sundial. The last waded into a storehouse, structural timbers snapping like twigs, then halted as if it had forgotten its intent. They ignore us like we do not exist. Some of us call the creatures Guardians, and lay wreathes and fresh sacrifices at their titanic feet, to which they pay no attention, inscrutable.

Crops were left to rot in the fields. Some saw these events as heralding the dissolution of mortal law, and there was brief unrest, but the troublemakers were either slain or exiled. We do not know if the calamity outside our walls has claimed them. Grain stores remain plentiful, though they will not last indefinitely, and the river is lavish with fish, so our stomachs are filled though our spirits remain anxious.

Around this time beasts began to change, growing to unnatural sizes. We noticed first with the fish from the river, then stray dogs and hounds. The larger the animal, the more feral. Wicked hawks grown large have snatched lone venturers into the sky.

Our city is the last city. The day is drenched in shadow like constant twilight. The night is warm and fetid. I fear we have called up the agents of the end of the world. The bravest of us have formed small companies to venture beyond our walls, but others, terrified of the unknown, form coteries to safeguard what remains inside.


This is the setting background for a Hexagram play test.

Light quantity

Torch image by C. Borysiuk (CC license)

Torch image by C. Borysiuk

Playing yesterday evening using the Hazard System led me to think about light resources again. On paper, I have something about coverage where the number of light sources needed depends on the size of the party (a candle provides coverage for one party member and a torch or lantern provides coverage for 3 party members). This works okay but I am not happy with the calculation step and though it is easy to do initially I also think the details about the number of light sources required tends to get forgotten as play progresses.

The Hazard System does a good job of making sure that illumination matters at a base level, but the model remains slightly too complex to easily handle the relation between party size and resources needed. It is, however, interesting for party size to deplete resources more quickly because that is both intuitive (one of the main downsides to increasing the number of people working on anything is the cost in resources) and provides an engaging tradeoff when players are deciding whether they want to recruit more retainers. This framing seems to naturally suggest a mechanical solution. Why not build the resource requirement into the abstract depletion step and not worry about details regarding which PC is holding what? First pass:

Light required = party size / 3, round up.

When the hazard die indicates light exhaustion, to maintain illumination consume a number of light resources equal to light required number. This can be torches, oil if characters have lanterns, etc. Zero light sources means total darkness. Less light sources remaining than light required but more than zero means some general penalty to actions that need illumination (and the next light exhaustion hazard die result = total darkness unless more light resources can be obtained before then).

(The writing could be improved, but I think that is mechanically coherent.)

This “light required” value is probably a good general measure of party size for other purposes as well at the “dungeon exploration” resolution of play. It could also be used for the number of rations that should be consumed when the Hazard Die indicates fatigue (as requiring each character to consume a full ration at this resolution of play is not entirely satisfying for me). This measure should probably have a more general name, though, if it is going to be used multiply. “Party magnitude” sounds overly technical. “Maintenance” rating perhaps?

Mechanizing alignment

Image derived from Wikipedia

Image derived from Wikipedia

Adam M. recently posted a good piece on deferring the choice of alignment. The idea contained in that post, as I understand it, is mostly narrative; rather than pick an alignment at first level and try to live up to it through character actions, instead make alignment depend upon low-level character actions. Presumably this would then matter somehow during the mid-game or stronghold phase of play, though the post is light on details.

Traditionally, alignment did have several mechanical effects, though only a few of them seem like they would regularly see play. For example, evil or chaotic characters should be affected by spells like protection from evil. However, these effects are few and far between, may not add enough to play for the management hassle, and anyways were largely eclipsed by the way alignment came to be interpreted as something like personality in AD&D and after.

If one is going to defer the choice of alignment, however, why not leverage incentive psychology and make attaining alignment an achievement? One could build something like a skill or feat tree with criteria, either level- or action-based, for gaining status within law, chaos, or whatever moral/allegiance structure underlies the fictional world. Action guidance could be provided by taboos or restrictions, the violation of which might cause an aligned character to fall down a rank. Alignment ranks could also be prerequisites for certain powers or faction benefits in a way that is mechanically transparent to players. Such transparency would make alignment motivational rather than descriptive.

Shadow of the Demon Lord review

Rob Schwalb is probably best known for his work on 3rd, 4th, and 5th edition (“new school”) D&D, though he has also worked on many other RPG properties, including Green Ronin’s Song of Ice and Fire tie-in, Warhammer, Witch Hunter, and Numenera. Shadow of the Demon Lord is a solo effort, originally crowd-funded. The short overview is that it is a (dark) high fantasy setting with some innovative and streamlined mechanics, both in the core engine and in the character build system. Like many non-indie games, it does not provide much in the way of referee procedures, instead trusting that you more or less know how to run RPGs already, but in this regard it is no worse than games like D&D 5, the AGE system, or various Fantasy Flight 40K titles (just for a few examples).

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 3.16.07 PMEngine. SotDL will be easily recognized as a d20 game. The two major resolution systems (attack rolls and challenge rolls) are d20, roll high and represent fictional results at a rather low level of abstraction. For example, attacking with a weapon or climbing a wall. Attacks are d20 plus some ability versus opponent defense (basically, AC). The other resolution system is the Challenge Roll which is a target 10 ability check. For both systems, bonuses and penalties are applied by rolling some number of d6s and taking the greatest result (much like the advantage rule in D&D 5, but only applied to the bonus dice and with more than two dice possible). The positive dice are called boons, the negative banes, and they cancel so that 2 boons and 1 bane reduces to a single boon. This sounds like a fun approach that also restrains potential bonus inflation.

The fast turn/slow turn approach to combat looks promising. Players always get to act first but combat turns proceed in two phases. Player fast actions are followed by enemy fast actions. Then, player slow actions are resolved followed by enemy slow actions. Each combatant only gets to take one action of either type generally, however, so opting to take a slow action (like casting a spell) means that you grant the enemy initiative. This is a rich tactical tradeoff that also obviates the traditional initiative overhead, which in my opinion often does not offer much in terms of gameplay beyond the casino uncertainty of simple side-based initiative as suggested by Moldvay Basic D&D.

Character Build System. There are around 50 pages of class options and that does not include spells (a separate chapter of almost 40 pages), “ancestries” (that is, races), or “professions” (that is, backgrounds). This means that more than a third of the 272 page book is made up of essentially character build options. That may sound somewhat damning to anyone (like me) for whom character optimization feels like homework. However, it’s actually done very cleverly.

Characters don’t have levels. Instead, the group as a whole has a level and there are advancement rules for up to level 10. Player characters begin at level zero and gain a class (“novice path”) at first level which is expected to be at the end of the first session. The novice paths are takes on the classic 4: magician, priest, rogue, and warrior. As characters advance, they gain an expert path at level 3 and a master path at level 7. Extra abilities from each path (and ancestry) factor in regularly as the group gains levels. For example, the advancement that comes from attaining level 6 comes from the expert path that was chosen at level 3. This means the various path abilities are interleaved trough character development rather than sequentially gained, such as with Warhammer style careers or D&D 3 prestige classes. It feels tight.

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 3.22.55 PMMost interestingly, the consideration set of path options explodes at each tier. There are 4 novice paths, 16 expert paths, and 64 master paths. Though there some clearly related sequential choices, there are no prerequisites. A character could be a magician, wizard, necromancer or a magician, wizard, sharpshooter. In all, there are 4096 basic class combinations just considering the paths. Recall that on top of the three paths, there are also ancestries, professions, and spells (for magic-using characters). The paths are laid out in a way that is not intimidating to me (which I rate as a significant achievement considering how I generally react to extensive character build options).

This kind of flexible, cross-archetype advancement was pretty much what I was going for back when I was working on the initial version of Hexagram (prior to The Final Castle), and as far as I can tell is completely realized here. And, it largely avoids the mess created by most multi-classing approaches. So, A+. The slow unfolding of character options is a wonderful example of smart game design that seems like it would serve many kinds of player well.

I have not read the options closely enough to know whether they are exploitable in the sense of being able to create a much more effective character based on rules mastery, but my general impression is that this danger is minimal. I also doubt initial character creation would take more time than Basic D&D. Select an ancestry, roll for or select a few ancestry background details, roll for or select a profession, roll for gear by starting wealth, and you are done. There is a standard battery of personality type questions, but they are really just suggestive and could easily be skipped in favor of just extrapolating based on the other background info or developed in play.

Referee Procedures. SotDL addresses how to run the game in chapter 9 which runs a bit under 40 pages. Most games within the D&D tradition have rather weak or only implied referee procedures, especially in second edition and beyond. Random encounters become relegated to optional subsystems and subservient to satisfying narrative development. Impartial game resolution is often deemphasized or eliminated within this tradition. Instead, fiction-derived and player satisfaction principles dominate, with deference to hero journeys, three-act plots, and ensuring that every player gets a chance to shine.

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 3.13.08 PMThe referee guidelines remain mostly within this paradigm. The first part of the chapter is tips about how to use the resolution systems (when to call for a challenge roll, for example). There are some notes about intended theme and how to convey horror, terror, and revulsion at a high, conceptual level. There are some good principles buried within, such as thinking about and planning roughly for at least three adventure conclusions, corresponding to success, failure, and partial success respectively. This approach would ensure that player actions have an effect on the story development which I find more satisfying than predetermined plot.

Apart from the system-specific guidelines though, there is not a whole lot here to distinguish what the referee does from other, related games with one major exception: an event generator called Shadow of the Demon Lord (from hereon, “Shadow” to distinguish it from the name of the game as a whole). The Shadow is a d20 table that generates scenario features reminiscent of Apocalypse World fronts. Basically, the Shadow changes the world in some way, generally creating a looming danger. For example, here is one of the results, Black Sun:

The Shadow eclipses the sun, turning it black. Impossibly, light still emanates from the shadowed disk, but it is brown, sickly, and unwholesome. The sun’s gentle warmth becomes a hellish furnace, destroying life as the landscape becomes a bone-strewn dustbowl.

In addition to setting changes, some Shadow results come with minor mechanical modifications, such as making certain kinds of monsters more difficult, though as far as I can tell that is mostly a sideshow. Most Shadow results are pleasingly substantive and many have further specific tables to help flesh out the results. The Shadow system is useful and does real work for the referee beyond just communicating good advice, which is really the tabletop RPG equivalent of broscience. The system could probably easily be bolted on to other games as an corruption event generator or magic catastrophe table.

It is also worth noting that that advancement scheme is designed around a limited number of sessions (10 or 11) rather than the traditional perpetual RPG campaign. This seems like a good idea to encourage concluding campaigns with a sense of closure rather than seeing them fade away due to waning interest or life intervening (players moving away, and so forth) but such an approach could also be applied to most systems without too much effort.

Setting. As presented, the default setting of Urth is surprisingly high fantasy. I was expecting something somewhat more restrained, or at least thematically consistent. Something like the early entires in the Diablo franchise or perhaps a realization of metal album covers. Instead, the setting is flying castles, institutionalized magic, and demi-humans everywhere. This is a matter of taste, but for me this detracts somewhat from wonder and horror. It feels a bit like someone took all the extra awesome things from the genre toolbox and jammed them into the same setting. Steampunk clockwork! Super-metal demons! Weird west gunfighters! So far, there is little established canon, however, so players should be unlikely to come to a game with very strong content expectations and this could easily be tuned or replaced by the referee. The level of setting detail reminds me of nearby market alternatives such as Numenera. Overall, this part of the book is neutral for me.

Roughly one-sixth of the book is monsters, which are arguably setting content as well, and while some of them are generic, many are creative. They probably deserve more attention in this review, but the post is already running long. I may discuss them more in a future post.

Bottomline. If you are going to have a tabletop RPG with a zillion classes but you do not want it to feel overwhelming to more casual players, this is a good way to do it. Unfortunately, the PDF is not bundled with the hardcopy. Perhaps it is a bit unfair to criticize, but given standard industry practice, this makes me feel like I am being charged twice for the same content. The total cost for me was $46 (hardcopy) + $10 (US shipping) + $20 (PDF) = $76. In the end, I decided that it was worth it to me, but it caused some internal grumbling. You can buy the PDF or pre-oder the physical book here. The physical book has not shipped yet, but Rob confirmed on G+ to me that the binding is stitched (yay!). I will make another note here once I have confirmed that in person. The expected delivery is currently December 2015.

Images used in this post were extracted from PDF screen shots of art in the book that I liked. I do not think all of the art is this good, but there are a lot more pictures not featured here that I also liked.

 

Test-driving Dungeon World

2015-09-26 11.25.53 dungeon world 640I finally got a chance to play Dungeon World on its own terms (as opposed to just reading and borrowing ideas for D&D). Other than myself and the GM, there were three other players, none of which had ever played a tabletop RPG before (but were familiar with the general idea and had experience with computer RPGs).

In addition to general play impressions, I was also particularly interested in seeing how long and complicated the character creation process would be. My previous experiences with powered by the apocalypse games have been Apocalypse World itself (a whole session, rather complicated) and Undying (a whole session, rather complicated). Since this game was explicitly pitched as a one-shot (or maybe a two-shot), clearly character creation would have to be less extensive, so I was curious if an AW lineage game could also do a more expedited intro naturally.

We had four PCs: druid, bard, paladin, and thief (that was me). As far as I know, the setting was mostly undetermined beforehand, with the exception of a few leading questions used for creating bonds and setting the stage. The main such question was a quest hook, something along the lines of: why does your character want to destroy the Chimaera-Hydra? The Paladin’s answer was that the Chimaera-Hydra had been gathering powerful holy books from many religions which were the key to some dark ritual. My (thief) answer was that the Chimaera-Hydra guarded a fabulous treasure which would allow me to get back my lover who had been tempted away by a rich man. There were lots of other leading questions that I forget right now, but it actually did not take very long. I think it was about 30 minutes.

2015-09-26 15.06.57 dungeon word map 640In addition to this collaborative world-building, we dynamically created the beginnings of a world map using post-its based on the setting questions. I think the GM had previously decided that the Chimaera-Hydra lair was in swampy woods (though that might also have been a result of a question that I am forgetting). The starting area was a trade route in the desert called the Crescent Road. To the south was the Sapphire Isles, which was the home of the druid PC and his order. I had stolen maps and other secrets from the druidic order to gain info about the Chimaera-Hydra, which the bard knew about but had not revealed to the druid PC. The paladin had been consulting with the druids about the theft of holy books when the thief was on the isles and at one point protected the thief (probably before meeting the druid PC, though I forget exactly how that went). The level of background ended up being just about perfect, and pretty much all the details were used in play, though I do not think we ever remembered to roll+bond.

The inhabitants of the Crescent Road were wolf-people and worshiped a wolf-god that was controlled by the druids from the isles. The thief was wanted by the druids so the fiction began in media res as we were trying to enter a city on the trade route. We eluded the guards, fled into the city, and lost ourselves in the crowd, though not before distracting the guards with a dramatic display of druid shape-changing. From there we needed to decide how to reach the swamp of the Chimaera-Hydra, which was south beyond the sea. The three obvious potential routes were to the southeast past a ruined temple of the paladin’s order (which I think was destroyed by the Chimaera-Hydra), south over the sea through the Crescent Isles (where the druidic order ruled), or southwest over the rich man’s estate. The rich man’s illegitimate son was a stableboy who died in mysterious circumstances and also happened to have been the bard’s past lover. (It turns out that if you put five gay guys around an RPG table and share narrative control, 90+ percent of the NPCs turn out to be gay guys.)

Clearly I was not interested in dealing with the druids again. We settled on going southwest through the estate, though not without the help of the thief loading the dice that we rolled to decide the direction after voting yielded an even split between southwest and southeast. The rich man turned out to be a wizard, his estate a flying castle, and his stables were filled with pegasi. My elf lover had somehow been brainwashed or something and once the wizard figured out who we were he attempted to snare us and summoned a fire medusa to kill us while we were trapped in the castle’s great hall.

The combat was smooth (though starting with such high HP always feels a bit strange to me since my reference level has become OD&D’s 1d6). Some highlights include the paladin trying to force the medusa’s gaze away by physically wrestling it and accidentally partially petrifying the bard, the druid rallying the dogs in the great hall as a pack, and the elf lover being totally turned to stone. After defeating the medusa and wizard we had to carry the statue with us since we did not trust him enough to de-petrify him immediately. As a side note, the polyhedral damage dice seem unnecessary (1d6+STR would sufficiently advantage martial classes). The extra game pieces introduce complexity that will likely only be appreciated by someone that takes pleasure from D&D allusions.

2015-09-26 13.42.48 dungeon world 640After the combat, the castle began to lurch sideways and lose buoyancy. (Apparently castles need live wizards to fly. Who knew?) So then we needed to decide whether we wanted to flee and save ourselves (leaving all the castle inhabitants to fend for themselves) or try to fix it. Lore Spouting by the bard (who had informal magical knowledge) revealed that there was probably some sort of magical device at top of the central tower. So we split up with the bard going after that and the rest of us heading to the stables for some pegasi to use as getaway cars. If we couldn’t fix the castle, we figured we could still fly away.

We managed to figure out the required ritual, which required bleeding all over it as a sacrifice of life energy. This also resulted in the duplication of the bard’s consciousness within the castle because the flying depended upon an animating spirit. (This was probably my favorite session development.) That is where the session ended. We didn’t reach the Chimaera-Hydra, but we did end in possession of a sentient mind-linked flying castle and with my disloyal lover reclaimed (though he happened to be made of stone). Details.

One aspect of play that I found somewhat surprising was how the rules facilitated archetypal thief behavior. I am not sure I find this completely positive, considering how disruptive such behavior can be in more traditional games where I tend to prefer teamwork, but I was impressed that the rules when followed had this result. For example, in addition to loading the dice to influence the group’s choice of path to the swamp, at one point when in the starting city, I was tempted to craft wolfsbane (clearly highly illegal in a settlement of wolf-people). I also got the party into trouble after trying to persuade a wolf-youth to become a druid zealot follower. I failed the roll+CHA and was chased over the rooftops by guards. Luckily they were less sanguine about an acrobatic four story drop than the thief and so we avoided a fight, but still. The thief is a trouble-maker.

As I understand it, ideally Dungeon World is intended to be entirely fiction-first, with mechanical resolution of moves always flowing from fictional actions and events. In practice, it seems almost impossible to do this with the Spout Lore and Discern Realities moves. Especially Spout Lore. I can see how Discern Realities could naturally follow from a narration such as searching an area, but Spout Lore is really more an improv trigger. Though the rules place the responsibility on the GM, in practice we handled it more collaboratively.

Overall it ran smoothly and the procedures seemed easy for the new players to understand. The collaborative world building and bonds could easily be overlaid on D&D for a referee that did not want to spend time in more detailed prep and seems lighter than many other procedural alternatives such as running a game of Microscope. It might be difficult to calibrate hazard clues and difficulty by improv, though I think it would be doable with practice (I have certainly improvised fair but deadly traps in OD&D before). An exploration game could possibly be done by roughly outlining some key spatial and structural relationships and then determining the interstices during play. This would allow a sense of impartiality beyond collaborative interchange (though that is a form of discovery as well). By default, the content included in Dungeon World seems to shift the tone and atmosphere toward D&D style fantasy. Resisting that would require extensive preparation (new classes, new moves, etc), though perhaps still not more than required for building settings and dungeons for traditional D&D.