Monthly Archives: May 2012

Confined Zombie Horde

Image from Wikipedia

The players in my current campaign are deep in the crypts of Death Frost Doom. They have woken the dead, and spurned the friendship of one creature that might have been able to help them. I’ve heard the players talk about wading into the undead horde and attempting to cut their way to the surface, so I decided I needed to know how I would handle that in game mechanical terms. The basic idea that I settled on is to treat the entire horde as a single creature with a huge number of HP and a variable number of attacks depending on the disposition of the undead horde front lines.

Assuming Moldvay stats for zombies, the horde will have 2 HD (9 HP on average) times the number of undead in total. The undead are shoulder to shoulder, approximately 2.5 per five feet of front (round up). So if a horde was surging up a corridor 10 feet wide, the front would be 5 zombies wide. Putting down an HP total of zombies equal to the front line of undead will push back the horde five feet and create terrain difficult for PCs (movement rate is halved), though the terrain is not considered difficult for the horde. The horde will advance 15 feet per round.

The horde will surge as one toward any source of life and flesh. Due to the close nature of the horde, it will take extra damage from area attack or grenade-like weapons, as they are more likely to catch more undead within their blast radius. The horde should be considered to automatically fail any saving throw associated with such an attack, and any damage is doubled. Examples of such attacks are flaming oil, explosives, and fireballs. The confined zombie horde should only be treated like a single monster while it is confined; if it breaks out into the open for whatever reason, encounters should again be run as with individual undead.

Horde attacks:

  • The horde front line gets six attacks against any adventurer foolhardy enough to engage in melee. This number of attacks increases as the horde advances around the character. For example, 10 attacks if the throng advances five feet, 16 once the character is surrounded.
  • Surge and trample: if at least two front line attacks hit, the enemy is knocked prone and pulled under the horde. On the next turn the monsters will advance over the character as if the area was unoccupied, and the horde will make nine attacks against the overwhelmed target. These attacks are in addition to the standard attacks made by the horde front lines against any other targets.
  • Jumper: once per round, optionally, 1d4 zombies (adjust for situational logic) from the rear ranks will clamber over the shoulders of the front lines and fling themselves at any living creature nearby. Range is 20 feet, and if the attack hits it will do double damage.
  • Any PCs overcome and reduced to 0 HP by the horde will be torn apart and eaten, and thus the PC corpse will not be recoverable.
Holding a line against the horde is difficult to impossible, as the undead will just sacrifice their front line in order to overcome the defense (for example, zombies will impale themselves on set spears, probably disarming and spear wielders in the process). Make sure to deduct HP from the horde whenever individual undead detach themselves in addition to when the horde itself is damaged.

The Death Frost Doom horde (at least the part underground) is 9885.5 HD, or 44,484 HP (assuming the average of 4.5 HP per die). I was nice and rounded down.

What do you think, is this horrific enough to represent a zombie multitude?

Image from Wikipedia

Vaguely Fourth Edition Conversion Details

Any advance movement by the horde is considered to be shifting (that is, it does not provoke opportunity attacks). Forced movement that would move the horde away from characters is ineffective (the mass of undead behind preventing any reversal), though at the referee’s discretion such forced movement may decrease the number of horde attacks during the next turn as the “fleeing” undead will act as an obstacle to other zombies. Single zombies may be pulled away from the horde as normal and should then be treated like individual creatures again until they rejoin the horde (which should be considered to happen automatically if the horde advances).

Characters enveloped by the horde are considered prone and restrained (and grant combat advantage to the horde). Zombies may also target any defense (AC, fortitude, reflex, or will) when attacking characters that have been overcome, and will generally target the most vulnerable defense. Normal attacks are +5 versus AC, and the horde defense are AC 17, fortitude 20, reflex 10, and will 15.

I consider each hit die to be worth 10-15 HP in Fourth Edition, so total horde HP is 98,855.

XP for Roleplaying

Here are the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay first edition rules for awarding XP for good roleplaying:

These points are awarded to players on an individual basis and reflect how well they portrayed their character. Was the character played in an entertaining fashion according to alignment and career? There will be times when it is obvious that players are running their characters simply as extensions of their own personality, and this need not be a bad thing, but the gamesmaster must decide whether the character’s career, alignment and background mean that he or she really should be different. Give each player a rating (this is probably something you should keep to yourself), along the lines of Bad, Poor, Average, Good or Excellent, and award 0-50 EPs as a recognition of the way the character has been ‘brought to life’.

When allocating experience points for role-playing, you should bear in mind the player’s own conception of the character. For example, a player may have decided that his dwarf is taciturn and consequently have very little to say during role-playing encounters, but become very active during more action-orientated situations.

Generally, each player should receive 30 Experience Points per session for roleplaying, with some players gaining more and some less depending on the circumstances. Only those players who have impressed and amused you with their roleplaying should gain me maximum reward; conversely only those who have added nothing whatsoever to sessions should receive none You should avoid encouraging competition amongst the players – don’t always award the largest amounts to the player with the biggest mouth!

I’ve never liked rules like this for a number of reasons. One, I feel uncomfortable judging and rewarding players by how well they have entertained me. Especially since this passage suggests keeping it secret from the player. If this is an incentive system, how can it function if the player does not know for what they are rewarded experience?

That being said, I do like the idea of roleplaying XP, though I know this might be criticized by fundamentalists that believe XP should only be from treasure and monsters, preferably with more coming from treasure. If there are roleplaying XP though, I think they should be less subjective. Another flaw with awarding XP as suggested by Warhammer 1E is that in my experience such as system often leads to roleplaying caricatures rather than more balanced personalities, because caricatures stick out more. For example, a depressed character will be portrayed as moping all the time.

One idea that I have been playing around with is to allow players to select some goals for their characters, the completion of which will result in XP rewards. Something like minor, substantive, and major goals which would award 100, 500, and 1000 XP respectively. A 100 XP goal might be something like getting a hellhound pelt crafted into a suit of leather armor, fashioning a hat out of a shroom head, or transcribing looted dwarven books and donating them to the library of Ioun (all actual examples from my current campaign). Some might object that that some of these things come with their own reward (like getting a suit of armor) but the same thing is true of treasure.

The best part of this is that it seems like it would reward engagement with the setting. I’m always looking for ways that I can get players to be more self-directed. Adventure paths have trained players to just go along rather than venturing out on their own. Goals would need to be negotiated beforehand, and thus would not be arbitrary. A good goal, just like in real life, should be easily measurable. It also offloads some work from the referee to the players, which is often a good thing.

Wisdom from 1986

On the referee’s role:

To help decide what happens the GM uses the rules of the game. While the players don’t need to know the rules in order to play and enjoy the game, you must be familiar with most of them. Don’t commit the entire book to memory, but you should at least know where to find the rules for any given situation. You decide whether a dice roll is necessary, which test to use (see Standard Tests below), and what the precise results of a successful or unsuccessful test will be. Mostly, though, you must rely on your imagination and common sense; the test of a good GM is not whether the rules can be recited from start to finish without looking anything up, but whether situations that may not be fully covered in the rules are dealt with in a consistent and realistic fashion. After all, in a fantasy game the Impossible happens quite regularly, and no set of rules, however large and complex, can hope to cover every possible eventuality.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay first edition, page 63.

I love that it says the players don’t need to know the rules in order to play or enjoy the game. The player’s interface is assumed to just be naturalistic. No need to think about bonuses or builds or really anything other than what could be described diegetically. There’s this stuff, and these things happen, what do you do? This is so different from the system mastery assumptions many games make now. It also helps that most of character generation is random (though there are some parenthetical notes about advanced players being able to choose careers).

That test for what makes a good ref is also right on. Not rules memorization, but rather flexibility and skill when adjudicating the parts of the game that are not spelled out clearly (because there will always be parts that are not handled clearly by the rules). I might add organization and note taking to the skills a good referee must possess, but that is a different topic.

Reading this rulebook is my first real exposure to Warhammer, and so far I’m really enjoying it. The art is fantastic. All the percentile dice feel like overkill, but I could probably get used to them. When I played in the 90s, the heavy use of miniatures turned me off, though even back then it had a “metal” reputation (though I’m not sure I would have considered that an unalloyed good back then; my taste was more serious and less gonzo). It is true there is some miniature shilling in the book (along with some full color photo plates of Games Workshop miniatures) but the rest of the book is so good I think I can overlook that.

Cities of Bone

Cities of Bone is a minicampaign associated with the Al-Qadim setting. I just recently picked up a used copy because I have a weakness for necromancy themes. I don’t own any other Al-Qadim products (though I did own Arabian Adventures at one point), so I’m not sure exactly how it fits in, but it seems somewhat self-contained. I love the idea of a desert land strewn with ruins, though if I ran this myself I would probably make it more culturally neutral rather than use all the custom classes and spells (which are mostly detailed in other products anyways).

The scope of the product seems almost perfect for a sandbox (see what I did there?), though the organization is poor and how the various locations tie together is not clear. There is enough material to keep players occupied for a while while still begging for referee customization. There is no pretence of Cities of Bone being a complete setting. The snippets of history and background that are provided support the adventuring sites rather than overwhelming them with trivia.

The set feels strangely unfinished, as if it was rushed out the door. The Adventure Book has no proper cover, though it looks like it should have one (it’s just saddle-stapled paper, like the interior of one of the old modules with detachable covers). Despite that, the production values are relatively high, though the overland map cards do not connect (that is, they seem to be three random samples of the Zakhara map, which I only discovered by looking up a full map on the Internet).

The interior layouts are gorgeous though, using two-tone gold and black borders (I bet they just reused that work from Arabian Adventures). There are six color full page cards, and all of them have (attractively rendered) dungeon maps. There is also a poster sized map which reproduces the Jade Palace of the Necromancers and, while pretty, would be entirely useless during play. Oh, and an eight page saddle stapled Monstrous Compendium style NPC book (one NPC per page). I may not be doing a good job making it clear that I actually like this set, despite the general 2E decadence.

Second Edition products are afflicted with a fetish for standardized presentation, and Cities of Bone is no different. It feels like everything starts with an official template for required information. For example, in the Campaign Guide (32 pages), every area has the following categories: Ruler, The Court, Population, Features of the City, Major Products, Armed Forces, Major Mosques. Even if it’s a ruin which is occupied by undead and obviously doesn’t need such schematic presentation. Example: Ysawis, City of the Dead; Population:

More than 5,000 animated skeletons and zombies lurk in and around Ysawis. All were animated by the necromancers. The number grows continually, for each day, Sumulael and Kazerabet add 20 to 30 more to the population.

Etc. This reminds me of the Monstrous Compendium format where every page must have a magic resistance field (even if it is usually “Nil”), a special attacks field, a habit/society section, and so on. This inflexibility is a major weakness of Second Edition, but is not fatal (just slightly annoying, as it feels like everything is padded). There are some nice sections in the beginning of the Campaign Guide about the dangers of tomb robbing (diseases) and some details about tomb specific dungeon dressing.

The bulk of the product’s text is in the 64 page Adventure Book, which is basically a collection of six modules that share a theme but are otherwise unconnected. None of the adventures are spectacular, but all are serviceable and have enough background to make them interesting sandbox locations. One of them punishes the PCs for recovering any treasure but provides a “story reward” of 50k XP if the party makes it in and out (there are hints about how to do this).

The longest of the adventures centers on the Jade Palace (pictured partially above) and has palace intrigue with five different powerful NPCs that players can ally with, which is pretty interesting and nonlinear (especially since it is set in a ruined city full of undead and also has a stuffed tiger zombie). As written, there are many railroad elements, but it has potential (and also seems heavily influenced by Clark Ashton Smith’s Empire of the Necromancers). Overall, I can’t unreservedly recommend this box in general, but it has enough elements that appeal to my sensibilities to make it worthwhile to me.

OD&D alignment diagram

I already posted this on G+ and OD&D Discussion, but I figure it can’t hurt to throw it up here too.

I like thinking about the implied setting of the 3 LBBs, so some of the info contained here is also taken from the encounter tables. For example, nixies, pixies, and dryads are not listed under the giant type, so I am assuming that they are not so much faerie creatures as manifestations of natural essence. Also, the dwarf/gnome and goblin/kobold pairings makes me think those creatures are more closely related than other monsters in the same category. Further, the divisions of the giant types into chaos/law makes me think of a unseely/seely court kind of setup.

Some info about terrain is also included (flyer, swimmer, underworld). Based on TU&WA, it seems like purple worms, minotaurs, and medusae only show up underground.

Generative Games

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about procedural ways to generate campaign elements. In my mind, this is significantly different than randomly generating things using some framework, which is often how computer tools work. There can also be randomness in the kind of system I am talking about, but each decision point need not be decided randomly or from some set of limited options. The ACKS guidelines for creating a campaign are kind of like this, but are perhaps a bit more free-form.

That is, the rules for such a system must be clear enough to guide you at every step, though they don’t need to be algorithmic. These are, it seems to me, the same requirements for a good game, and in fact there are a number of standalone games that can be used like this. Microscope was probably the first of these kind of games that I have started to investigate recently. It is a collaborative game that designs a setting. I really like the idea of using Microscope to build a D&D campaign setting, as the resulting setting would grow from the entire group rather than just the referee. It seems like a very natural way to navigate the problems of expectation regarding genre and tone. See also the discussion of Microscope on Monsters & Manuals here and here.

How to Host a Dungeon is a game that develops a dungeon by proceeding through historical eras. There are some standard assumptions about fantasy races built in, but it should be easy to hack for other styles of setting if so desired. It is available in PDF for $5.

FrDave over at Blood of Prokopius also had a recent post about using the railroad board game Empire Builder to generate underworld settings like the one presented in D1-2 Descent into the Depths of the Earth. There are also themed versions of Empire Builder, including Martial Rails, Lunar Rails, and Iron Dragons (about “fantasy” railroads). My guess is that the original is probably fine for this purpose, as some post-processing will be needed in any case to adapt the results for use with a tabletop RPG.

I asked a question on G+ about other such games, and someone mentioned Dawn of Worlds, which is freely available in PDF. It looks somewhat similar to Microscope, but it starts with the premise that every player is a god that has a certain level on influence on the resulting world.

Several people suggested the computer game Dwarf Fortress, a text-only computer game that simulates a dwarven colony. I have never played Dwarf Fortress, but there is an interesting article about it in the New York Times. I don’t have time to look into this game now, but I know it has a very devoted following and might be worth returning to at some point. I’m not sure how easy it would be to import the game result directly into a tabletop RPG, but it could still provide inspiration (and maybe maps).

I would be curious to hear if anyone knows of other games that can be used in this way, or if anyone has experiences building setting elements using games like this.