Tag Archives: technique

Generative tables

Taichara recently posted a collection of tables for random potion characteristics. I really enjoyed them, so I created a modified set for my campaign and added an extra table for potential side effects. You can find the results as a one page PDF that can be printed out conveniently for a gaming binder.

These tables are valuable because they allow me to add a lot of detail to a campaign world with minimal effort. I don’t have to go through the rules and annotate the magic item entries potion by potion. With a set of tables like this, the first time PCs find, for example, a potion of heroism, you can roll up a description and from then on that’s what a potion of heroism looks like. You can describe it in the future and perceptive players will know what it is. Rolling on eight tables in the middle of play can be cumbersome, so I would recommend rolling up some sample potions beforehand and adding them to another single table, which would be the one you actually roll on during play.

This kind of procedure could be used generally for any domain which might need to be detailed on the fly. Some examples: spell components, NPC personalities, shops present in a village. Such tables are like unbound precompiled details. Nobody, not even the referee, knows what a potion of levitation looks like before one is discovered. I think that’s a good thing. It helps keep the setting fresh, and can lead to (but does not require) interesting referee improvisation. A while back, I discussed the difference between random tables used for preparation and random table used on the fly. The nature of this set of potion tables seems to lie somewhere between prep tables and play tables. It’s the unbound nature of the descriptions that are important, because beforehand you know you might need to describe a potion, but you don’t necessarily know which potions might need descriptions.

This is another method to allow players to engage with and learn about your campaign setting (and to make your setting richer in the process). Further, all this detail can be campaign-specific, so that every game is a unique process of discovery.

20 Quick Questions: Rules

Jeff Rients has a great list of 20 quick questions to add campaign details in ways that are likely to affect actual play. I was thinking, based on this other post by Jeff about treating all editions of D&D as a toolbox and this post by JB over at B/X Blackrazor about creating his own version of D&D, that it would be useful to have a list of rules that often change from campaign to campaign.

Here are 20 rules clarifications that are likely to be needed anyways at some point.

  1. Ability scores generation method?
  2. How are death and dying handled?
  3. What about raising the dead?
  4. How are replacement PCs handled?
  5. Initiative: individual, group, or something else?
  6. Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work?
  7. Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet?
  8. Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly?
  9. Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything?
  10. Level-draining monsters: yes or no?
  11. Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death?
  12. How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked?
  13. What’s required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time?
  14. What do I get experience for?
  15. How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination?
  16. Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work?
  17. How do I identify magic items?
  18. Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions?
  19. Can I create magic items? When and how?
  20. What about splitting the party?

If you decide this stuff early, you are less likely to have misunderstandings and more likely to all be on the same page.

Edit: index of some responses here.

Mnemonic Module Text

Justin Alexander (of The Alexandrian) left a comment about boxed text on a Grognardia post that has stayed with me. (I would link to the comment itself, but recent changes to the Blogger comment system seem to prevent such direct linking.) Justin wrote:

(a) clear separation and identification of all the information the PCs should have upon entering a space makes running a module infinitely easier for the GM; and (b) boxed text is an immediately useful way of making that separation while also providing (when properly executed) a useful tool in its own right.

I agree with this, but though boxed text is intended to be information immediately perceived by PCs, it is often cumbersome to read (with literary pretensions), can be quite long, and often does not include items that the referee should be immediately aware of (say, a pit trap). So while it can help (sometimes), it is not a complete or perfect solution.

As an example, consider this area description from the module I am preparing right now, The Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom:

11. SHAMBLING MOUND LAIR: Ropy pillars of fungus grow from ceiling to floor here, ranging from one to four feet in diameter. A young shambling mound grown by the Shroom makes its lair in the back of the chamber, hidden from sight by the many fungus pillars. In addition to guarding the passage, the shambling mound guards a treasure casket, trapped with a poison dart trap (3 darts, 1d3 damage, poison +3 saving throw, attacks as 2HD monster). The casket contains 1200 gp, 10 pps, 1 potion of healing, and a fungus staff. The staff is made of a spongy fungus material that can be looped or folded (it is coiled in the casket). Whenever combat threatens (e.g., a surprise roll is called for) the staff snaps straight for battle and becomes a +1 quarterstaff in all respects. This ability acts as a warning, granting anyone with the staff in hand to be surprised only on a roll if 1. If it is stored in a backpack or other container, it may very well damage the container when it straightens. 

That is quite a wall of text to reread in the midst of play. Note that more than half of the paragraph is treasure description. I had already read the module once through, and I remembered that there was a room with a shambling mound, and I also remembered the fungus staff, but I didn’t remember that they were in the same room, that the chest was trapped, or the important entry description (thick ropes of fungus). This was the text I wrote in the margin:

  • thick pillars of fungus floor to ceiling
  • hidden shambling mound
  • guards trapped treasure chest

Look at how much easier that is to assimilate quickly. It is enough to remind me of all the important aspects of this area. The bullet list is not a substitute for the detailed prose description (which the referee still needs to read beforehand to get a sense of the overall module). Even a concise paragraph of prose text cannot really be read during the play without breaking the flow of the game. If I had not written those notes, I probably would have to reread the entire paragraph to make sure that I was not forgetting anything important.

I don’t mean to pick on Matt’s module, I actually highly recommend it. It’s well written and very creative. Pod-Caverns just happens to be the module I am using right now. This is only a suggestion for module writers intended to help make modules easier to use.

See also: Zak’s posts on annotating maps (and here).

Random tables as tools for deep design

A few days ago, Matthew Finch (of Swords & Wizardry) released the Tome of Adventure Design (TOAD; awesome acronym). Of course I bought a copy right away, but I haven’t had a chance to peruse it in detail yet. However, one passage did jump out at me immediately:

I should say up front that these are tables for deep design – in other words, most of them are too long, and contain too many unusual or contradictory entries, for use on the spot at the gaming table. There are already many excellent books of tables for use on the fly; the tables in these books are different. They work best as a tool for preparation beforehand, providing relatively vast creative resources for browsing and gathering, rather than quick-use tables designed to provide broad, fast brushstrokes.

It seems to me that randomness has two direct key functions in old school gaming:

  1. Inject impartial uncertainty into situations that would otherwise be hard to adjudicate (this is common to newer games as well); this function is carried out during game play.
  2. Assist in creativity; this function is usually carried out prior to play.

The first function, when properly employed, also helps create situations which can surprise the referee in addition to the players. This is such a common aspect of table-top RPGs that I don’t think it needs any more discussion.

The second function is newer to me, and also seems to be one of the core OSR referee techniques. I remember playing around with the random dungeon generator in the Gygax DMG, though I’m not sure if it led to any substantive adventure locations. I had the sense, and I think many people still have the sense, that “good” design comes directly from a planner, and that using tables would be somehow cheating. Using tables to design your masterpiece setting would be akin to Dostoevsky using dice and tables to determine the plot of Crime & Punishment (also related: frustrated fantasy novelist syndrome).

This seems to be an almost Hegelian process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, where the thesis and antithesis are random results which at first glance seem contradictory. The reconciliation of this incompatibility is what prompts the creativity.

There are several other good products that I have come across that are based on similar principles:

25 Words & 1-Page Documents

One of the primary lessons I have taken from my research into OSR design principles is that preparing too much, in addition to wasting time, can also actually result in a less interesting and more constrained campaign. Instead, it is better to pursue a “just in time” strategy.

So, assuming I want to put this theory into practice, what is needed? There seem to be 2 categories of prep required: 1) setting & 2) rules (obviously there is some interaction between the 2, but I think it useful to consider them separately).

For the setting, first a basic concept or inspiration is needed. This doesn’t need to be complicated or even original. Using 25 words or less to summarize seems like a reasonable rule of thumb. Here is my first pass for the campaign I am currently working on:

Outcast adventurers, empty throne, squabbling nobles, mythic demihumans, dark fae elves, black magicians hunted, wizards unleash monsters, no dwarves or halflings, morlocks delve.

The rest of the setting info is probably referee-only. Including:

  • Basic hex map
  • Starting settlement
  • 1 or 2 levels of “dungeon”
  • Encounter tables for areas developed
  • List of hirelings
  • Several interesting surface locations (can be published modules)

We’ll see how that goes. I’m sure I’m overlooking something.

I would even say that you don’t need a map handout for the players. Let them map it themselves, and then be amazed at how their take on what was described differs from the maps behind the screen.

What about rules? Rules prep should includes what classes are allowed, how initiative is handled, etc. (A list of such common rules requirements would be useful to have, but I’m not going to do that here.) The way some people handle this is to essentially rewrite their own version of the classic rules. This is a wonderful thing, as it has given us products like Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, and Weird Fantasy Roleplaying. (I realize that there are also other motivations behind the retro-clones and simulacra, such as keeping classic rules in print, but I don’t think anyone would argue that these products don’t also scratch the “this is what I play” itch.) But such extensive work is inimical to the core principle of “just in time” prep.

Instead, assume a common baseline, and then come up with some notes explaining how the proposed campaign differs. Example: B/X D&D baseline, but without clerics, replacing the thief with the LotFP specialist. This will allow you to communicate your vision to someone that is not as obsessive about your setting as you are (probably all of your players).

Divide the notes into the parts that concern the players and the parts that concern the referee. Each should become no larger than a single-sheet document. Situations that almost always require house rules (such as character death) should be included in the player’s document. The 25 word summary could also be the header of the player’s document, to quickly give a sense of the mood.