Into the Unknown

Happy Fourth of July folks! Remember, it’s not enough to value your own liberty, you have to love other peoples’ liberty just as much as your own.

And also remember – two or three hotdogs is probably sufficient unless you want to put on a fireworks display in your gut to rival the one outside tonight.

Now then … I’m busy working, as I’ve mentioned before, on an Old West supplement for Grit & Vigor. I love working on things like this because they give me a chance to learn about things about which I only have a passing knowledge. A couple days ago, I started working on something like random encounter tables for PCs wandering around in the wilderness. I wanted to keep them relatively simple – just suggestions a VM could use to spice up an overland journey. I started out with some general categories of “encounter”, and then realized that I had no idea how frequent these things should be. What to do?

Then it occurred to me … Lewis and Clark kept a diary!

So now I’ve spent a few hours going through the diary and making notes on what they encountered each day, both while traveling in the summer and fall, and camping in the winter. Pretty interesting stuff – I highly suggest giving it a look – and here are the results, according to my encounter definitions (with the definitions following):

Encounter Travel Camp
No Encounter 01-46 01-31
Danger 47-57 32
Ruins 58-67
Herd 68-76 33-34
Predator 77-84
Warriors 85-91 35-40
Settlement 92-96
Travelers 97-99 41-00
Omen 00

Danger: This is a danger of some kind that strikes a person unawares, such as a snake bite, illness, a fall that results in injury, pests, etc.

Herd: This is an encounter with numerous large her-bivores, such as bighorn sheep, elk or bison.

Omen: This is an event that has spiritual significance to one or several of the adventurers.

Predator: This is an encounter with a large predator capable of killing an adventurer, especially if it achieves surprise. In the American West, this is probably a bear, cougar or pack of wolves.

Ruins: The remains of a settlement, such as mounds left by the Mississippian Culture, or an abandoned settlement (see below).

Settlement: A settlement appropriate to the region and time period. This includes trading posts and forts.

Travelers: An encounter with a small or large group of travelers. These people may or may not be capable of defending themselves, but their purpose is not one of violence and the group probably includes women and children. This could be a wagon train, a migration of American Indians or a prospector and his mule. There is a 1% chance that they are accompanied by a famous person appropriate to the time and place.

Warriors: An encounter with a relatively small band of armed men. It could be a hunting or war party of American Indians, a troop of U.S. Cavalry, a gang of outlaws or European fur trappers. There is a 1% chance that they are accompanied by a famous person appropriate to the time and place.

That’s enough for today – I have to prep the dog for the horrors of fireworks tonight. Be good to one another folks – love each other – it’s the only way forward!

Notion – One vs. Many

Here’s an idea I had today while walking the dog. It’s about combat with multiple attackers in RPG fights of the B&T variety.

When a character is facing more than one opponent, they can make a choice on how many of their foes they want to “actively engage” each round. For each foe they actively engage beyond the first, they suffer a cumulative -1 penalty to their attack. Any foe they do not actively engage gets a cumulative +1 bonus to attack the character.

For example: A fighter is facing three goblins. If he decides to actively engage one goblin, he gets to attack that goblin with his normal chances. The other two goblins, because they are not actively engaged, attack with a +2 bonus (+2 because there are two goblins not actively engaged).

If the fighter actively engaged two of the goblins, then he suffers a -1 penalty to his attack that round (-1 because there is one “extra” goblin he is engaging). The one goblin who is not engaged gets a +1 bonus to hit the fighter (+1 because there is one goblin not actively engaged).

If the fighter actively engages all three, the goblins get no bonus to attack, but the fighter suffers a -2 penalty to his attack.

If you use a rule wherein the fighter class can attack multiple opponents, you can still use these penalties, but apply them to each of the fighter’s attacks during a round.

Note – I planned to use an image from Cyrano de Bergerac (1950) where he was fighting several men, but couldn’t find it. I stuck with Cyrano anyways, because he’s my hero.

Godzilla, Hitchcock and Disaster Games

I was recently thinking about my love of good old-fashioned Godzilla movies, and that led me to thinking about using giant monsters in RPGs.

The most obvious way to incorporate giant monsters in a game is to make them a monster that the PCs are supposed to slay. I say obvious, but I think I mean “wrong”. It seems like a cool idea to fight Godzilla … but how interesting is combat in games really? Combat in games (and movies, really) should serve something bigger than itself.

Giant monsters are flesh-and-blood stand-ins for natural disasters, like the jotuns in Norse mythology or all those skeletons running around in old paintings of the Black Death years in Europe. This idea offers a way to run a disaster game – symbolically. The characters cannot fight a plague germ itself, for example, but they can swing swords at zombies (or wights, if you want an undead monster that can spawn, which would be a better representation of a disease). With the disease made symbolic, you also need to make the discovery of a cure symbolic – i.e. the PCs have to track down the demonic artifact or evil high priest that launched the plague and destroy it to stop the danger. You might consider going the route of many cartoons and have all those horrible undead monster turn back to normal if the originator of the plague is stopped – depending on whether you’re aiming for hopeful or hopeless in the tone of your game.

Still, a disaster made flesh-and-blood is really what I was writing about at the beginning of this post. Another way of incorporating disaster – be it from tsunami, virus or giant monster – in your game is to use it as a backdrop to the action. Think of it as a dress rehearsal for the post-apocalypse. The disaster sets the stage and creates some new obstacles/challenges to overcome as the PCs attempt to accomplish their goal. The PCs might be on the trail of a murderer in a pulp detective-style game, and have to deal with flooded streets and downed power lines due to a hurricane.

If you go this route, make the disaster or its aftermath a key aspect of the action. If Alfred Hitchcock was going to set a movie in Paris, you can be dang sure he was going to use the Eiffel Tower as a key set piece – probably the climactic set piece. After all, he reasoned – why bother setting a movie in Paris if you’re not going to use settings and things that are only found in Paris. Likewise, why set a game in a flooded city if those flood waters are not going to loom very large in the action and resolution of the game.

Make sure you also use the emotion that goes with a disaster scenario – fear, confusion, sorrow, hope. Introduce emotional choices for the players – hunt down the murderer OR help victims of the disaster; hunt down the murderer WHILE worrying about their own loved ones. This forces them to play their characters, and not their character sheets.

I can think of three ways to introduce a disaster into a game. The first is to begin the game with the conditions already in place. With the city under lock-down due to a pandemic, the detectives seek out a man who stole a formula that might stop it. The PCs go into the game knowing the hazards they’ll face, and can thus prepare for them.

A related scenario to the one above is the count-down to a known disaster. The weather service says that the hurricane is going to make landfall in 24 hours – 24 hours in which the PCs must find and apprehend a fugitive from justice. This scenario and the one before it are also useful for historic games and historic disasters – the Spanish flu, Hurricane Katrina, the sinking of the Titanic. The player know, so there’s no point in trying to surprise them. Use their knowledge against them to create tension – again, I bow my head to Hitchcock for this advice.

“Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.”

This suggests a third scenario – the surprise disaster. The players know that their characters have to apprehend a fugitive from justice and begin the game with that foremost on their minds … and then an hour into the session Godzilla rises from the sea and the game changes dramatically. No time to prepare – just a fight to survive in a city suddenly turned upside down … and maybe a chance to accomplish their original mission that may put them in even more danger. Remember, games are interesting because of the choices we must make in them – figuring out how best to utilize limited resources.

Just a few ideas for incorporating disasters into games – and I hope my readers are staying safe from the current disaster sweeping the globe. I don’t know if people are over-reacting or wisely reacting at this point – but I do hope we all come through it suffering as little damage as possible.

Of Beans and Baggins

Sad news lately, as another three folks I dig shuffled off this mortal coil. Of course, I’m speaking of Kirk Douglas, Orson Bean and Robert Conrad. This post, if you couldn’t tell from the title, is inspired by Mr. Bean (okay, that’s funny – didn’t occur to me until I just wrote that).

For those who like geeky pop culture, Orson Bean is best known as the voice of Bilbo Baggins in the Rankin/Bass production of The Hobbit. That film has its detractors, but I’m not one of them – I love it. I love the voice work and the character design, and … well, maybe not all the singing, but that’s okay.

I discovered The Lord of the Rings when I was maybe 13 years old. I found a copy of The Two Towers at my grandma’s house – it was owned by my Aunt Karen, she of the Star Trek and Doctor Who fandom, who was only 16 when I was born, so she was the young, fun aunt in my life. I had just gotten into D&D in sixth grade, so Tolkien was a real revelation – I honestly had no idea that “fantasy” existed as a genre. It was all new and cool to me. After reading Two Towers, I went back and read Fellowship, and then Return, and it was all so adult and complicated and grown up and cool. Then I discovered the Hobbit, and well, obviously that was a kid’s book, and being a junior high school student, I was well past things like the Hobbit and fairy tales.

Of course, the reality is that I was past fairy tales, and also not yet ready for them.

In college, I was lurking around a used book sale at UNLV hosted by the library and the college radio station (KUNV). I picked up a cassette tape of the China Beach soundtrack (loved it), a vinyl record of Adam Ant’s Manners and Physique, and a really cheap hard-cover of Hobbit. I read it, and took a step towards wisdom. I mean the wisdom of simplicity, as in simple > complex.

It was after reading the book that I sought out the film. I was working at the Video Park (World’s Largest Video Store – no joke), so getting a copy was no problem. It knocked my socks off. The voice work, by such luminaries as Bean – just the perfect hobbit voice for my money – Otto Preminger (legendary director and my favorite Mr Freeze), Richard Boone (absolute legend from the days of radio, and as Paladin in Have Gun, Will Travel), John Huston (my favorite Gandalf voice), Hans Conried, Paul Frees, Thurl Ravenscroft, Don Messik and Brother Theodore. Just great voices. Voices like that are pretty much unknown in this day and age – I think it was the smoking that gave them that quality, so honestly, it’s better that we don’t have those voices anymore, but they’re really a beloved part of my childhood.

Then there’s the design. Great stuff all, but can I tell you how much I love the elves in that cartoon. So alien, so weird – much better than the pretty boys running around in most fantasy stories. So bloody cool.

Now for the game-able pay-off.

I was thinking about plotting out how many XP old 0-level halfling Bilbo Baggins managed to earn in the Hobbit. He manages to sort of defeat the trolls, so that’s worth a few XP, and he gets a magic ring off Gollum (ring of invisibility / major artifact), but what he mostly does is save the dopey dwarves from danger. How do you award XP for saving things? Something like that would be pretty useful for chivalric campaigns, too, since knights in shining armor are supposed to do lots of that work.

Let’s consider really old school D&D for a moment. I remember reading some interviews with the original players of D&D, and they made it clear that the point of the game, early on, was treasure. Treasure is where you earned the big XP. Monsters gave you XP, sure, but they also had a tendency to kill you. Smart player wanted to find a way to get the treasure without fighting the monsters – or without fighting them fairly.

Back to rescues. When you’re out rescuing dwarves or maidens or singing princes (NO – NO SINGING!), the rescued party is like the treasure you’re seeking. So what’s that treasure worth?

My first thought was to make rescuing a person worth as much XP as you’d get fighting them – which kind of works for a bunch of dwarven fighters, but not so much for innocent children and other 0-level types. What we need is an effective level (or HD) for rescued people without a bunch of class levels of their own. Here’s an idea:

We’ll start with 1 HD for everyone. We’ll add +1 HD for Lawful/Good creatures, +2 HD if they’re effectively helpless, like children, and +1 HD if they’re mostly helpess (i.e. no spells, no weapons training). If we’re doing chivalry, maybe we add something for the religious – like nuns, religious hermits, etc. – and maybe for being part of the noble classes. I guess folks can come up with other bonuses based on their own campaigns.

So, if a band of adventurers set out to rescue a Lawful princess who has given her life to God, she might be worth: 1 HD + 1 HD for Lawful + 1 HD for religious + 1 HD for noble + 1 HD for being mostly helpless (no spells, no fighting ability as such) = 5 HD.

So, RIP Orson Bean – God’s speed, sir.

Less Than Ideal

Here’s a little idea that just popped into my head that I thought folks might find useful when one needs to generate a NPC personality on the fly with very little to go on. It works on the idea of, for lack of a better term, stereotypes.

In D&D – heck, in so many things – there is a general conception of what an elf or dwarf or magic-user (etc.) should be. Maybe these ideas come from the game books or other pop culture, and maybe they change over time, but they do exist. Take elves, for example. Lots of RPG’ers have an idea in mind of how an elf behaves and what they look like. Consider this as, rather than a stereotype, an ideal. The ideal elf in old D&D was 5′ tall, Chaotic Good, came from the woodlands, etc.

How many elves, though, live up to this ideal? Perhaps, when an elven NPC shows up, we can roll a dice, perhaps a good old fashioned d6, to find out how close the NPC is to the ideal. Maybe a “6” means we have the perfect elf in front of us. But for every point lower than a “6”, we dial that elf one step from the ideal.

Here’s where we get free-form with this thing. The ways in which the NPC differs from the elven idea is up to the DM. Say we roll a “5”. We have an almost ideal elf, but he differs in one particular way. If we think of elves as having happy personalities, maybe our elf is morose. Maybe he doesn’t come from the woodlands, but instead the coasts. Maybe he’s a step away from Chaotic Good – Neutral Good or Chaotic Neutral. Maybe he’s stout instead of lean, dresses in scarlet instead of green – whatever your conception of an elf is, this guy doesn’t quite live up to it.

Roll a “3” for a dwarf, and he differs from he dwarven idea in 3 ways – he’s Lawful Neutral, lean instead of stout and is funny instead of dour … or he has auburn hair, prefers the woods to being underground and thinks elves are groovy.

A simple d6 roll, an idea of an ideal, and a little imagination to get a memorable NPC.

Rainbow Fantasy II

While rainbow fantasy has warriors and weapons and swordplay, it also avoids killing (except for robots – you can bash them up and not get in trouble) and doesn’t seem to care much about treasure. In other words – it is far removed from the “kill things and take their stuff” genre of fantasy gaming.

In rainbow fantasy, the point is about promoting, for lack of a better term, “goodness”. Evil must be stopped, but should not be killed, for to kill is evil. Moreover, some monsters that appear to be evil turn out to be misguided. In rainbow fantasy, the goal is to stop the evil without taking life, and thus experience points are handed out for exactly that. Killing a monster in rainbow fantasy does not get you XP – and in fact, it should get you something like a cumulative 10% deduction for XP earned on an adventure for each creature purposely killed.

To help this sort of fantasy along, it is important for the GM to do three things.

The first is to make sure that adventurers can choose to stun a creature when it reaches zero hit points rather than kill it. A stunned monster remains unconscious for 1d4 rounds and then awakens with half of its lost hit points restored. The monster must immediately make a morale check to remain in the fight. And speaking of morale checks …

The second is to institute strict morale checks for monsters, perhaps using a modified scale that makes each successive check more difficult. In rainbow fantasy, the bad guys lack courage because they lack goodness, and thus they will run away before it is necessary to kill them.

Finally, they must understand why the bad guys are fighting – what motivates them. They may be agents of “Evil” who are driven to be evil for the sake of it. They may be laboring under a misunderstanding – twisted into aggression by the bad guys through deception, or simply acting out of an innocent misunderstanding. They might also turn out to be far from evil, but in fact potential allies on a quest once everyone has had a chance to get to know one another. This means that talking and dialogue are very important in a rainbow fantasy game, as are reaction checks. Adventurers can earn experience points by understanding their enemies, apologizing for accidental slights and forgiving misunderstandings, and finding a way to live in harmony.

This might not be popular with lots of gamers – there is after all some therapeutic value in pretending to be Conan the Barbarian – but there might be more value in roleplaying solutions to problems that do not involve violence. In the real world in which we live, you cannot solve every conflict you have with swordplay – in fact, you can solve very few problems legally with violence. Practicing the resolution of conflict without resorting to violence and argument can come in pretty handy, as can making sure that the conflict you think you have really is a conflict and not just a misunderstanding.

What it comes down to at the end of every episode of He-Man and the Master of the Universe and She-Ra, Princess of Power is a moral. The challenges faced should be built around a morale, and the key to winning the adventure is identifying the moral and putting it to use to overcome the challenge.

Image found at He-Man.org

Sniffing the Flowers in No-Man’s Land

The concept of “Edition Wars” never really struck a chord with me. I started my D&D life with Moldvay/Cook, and then bolted on all the cool stuff from AD&D (classes, races, monsters, spells). I later went to 2nd edition AD&D, ignoring anything I didn’t like and using the things I thought were cool (kits – at the time – being one of them). In 3rd edition I got tired of all the rules and hour long combats that would have taken 10 minutes in older versions of the game and ultimately abandoned it, but I never hated it and there were things in 3rd edition I thought were pretty clever.

And so it came to last Saturday night, when four of my daughter’s friends – aged 17 to 22 I think – gathered around my dining room table to learn D&D. To be more precise, they wanted to get their own game going, but since none of them have ever DM’d, and they knew I was a D&D-er from way back, they wanted to see how I ran a game. My daughter asked me if I was willing, and I was, and so the date was made.

Just a few weeks ago, I had started another D&D game because the wife of an old friend (and D&D player) wanted to try the game out. This game also included my daughter (who had played a couple times with me when she was younger), my friend (as I said, an old pro) and our wives, who had never really played. For this game, I decided to use Moldvay/Cook D&D for two reasons. The first is that I had just bought vintage boxed sets of both and wanted to play with my new toys. The other reason was that I wanted to use a game with few options and few rules so that people could ease into the game playing aspect without being overloaded with rules and regulations. We’re now three sessions in, adventuring in Jeff Rients’ Under Xylarthen’s Tower and I’ve only killed three characters … all of them belonging to my buddy, the most experienced player at the table.

So, having just successfully launched a game for novices with Moldvay/Cook, I figured that would be the best way to go with this new group. But then a complication arose … the kids had all gotten together (no including my daughter) and rolled up characters. With what version of rules I asked? D&D 5th Edition. Hmm.

The problem was that I didn’t have 5th edition and, frankly, I wasn’t going to get it. Nothing against it, but I just didn’t need another version of D&D and I didn’t have time to learn those new rules. I could have nixed the characters and required people roll up new ones for the session I was going to run, but I hate to quash youthful enthusiasm. I could have converted the characters to B&T, but since I knew they were ultimately going to play 5th edition I wanted this training session to be as useful to them as possible. My ultimate solution – I decided to wade into the No-Man’s Land between editions and cling to the faith that D&D is D&D and I could make these different editions work together with absolutely no preparation on my part.

It worked!

What did I end up running? I ran Michael Curtis’ Stonehell dungeon, which was written for Labyrinth Lord with my Blood & Treasure rules behind the DM screen and characters created in 5th edition D&D, except for my daughter, who ran a valley elf fighter named Moon Unit done in B&T. And – I want to stress – I went in 100% cold, with no knowledge of 5th edition other than the fact that lots of people think it’s pretty close to traditional D&D.

How did I handle the rules clash? If I was rolling it behind my DM screen, I was using a blend of Blood & Treasure (surprise, skill rules, saves) and a little old-fashioned D&D (listen at doors checks and reaction checks). If the players were rolling, I let them use what was on their character sheets, sometimes interpreting it through an old school lens. The first thing that took me back was the presence of more bonuses and higher ability scores in 5th edition than in old school games – not a shock, though, since I had played 3rd edition. To make up for the stronger fighting ability of the 5E crowd, I decided to bump monster Armor Classes by 2 points, and I rolled d10 for their hit points. This was after it looked like the characters were going to cut through the monsters like a hot knife through butter. After I made the change about halfway through the session, the fights got tougher and more fun.

I allowed the 5th edition healing rules and death rules to function as-is. If we were playing by old school rules, I killed three characters (including my daughters), two of them with a zombie who rolled really high on damage and who had as many hit points as he could have. Boy, did that zombie scare them. Since we used the new death rules, nobody died – which is fine. I’m not a killer DM, and hey, just getting knocked out scared the crap out of them and made the fights more fun.

The only hurdle I’m not 100% sure how to handle is XP. By 5th edition’s character XP chart, it seems like the group would advance very quickly through levels, making Stonehell too easy for them quickly. The group wants to stick with me as DM for a while longer and they want to explore the dungeon, so I need to keep it viable. For that reason, I think I’m going to use Blood & Treasure’s XP system, which they can then translate into 5th edition’s XP values when I hand over the DM’ing to the player who is planning to become the new DM.

So – moral of the story. Do not fear different editions. Though I can’t speak for 4th edition, which was a departure from the norm, I can say that different editions can work together IF … and this is important … IF you don’t care about getting things perfectly right from a rules standpoint, and just want to have an enjoyable, engaging, exciting game. Work with the players to make a good session, regardless of the rules, and you’ll all have a good time.

Oh – and I found an online character creator that allowed me to turn my daughter’s B&T elf fighter into a 5th edition elf fighter in about 5 minutes, with the exception of picking a feat or feats.

Dangerous Ground

Combat in D&D and its various descendants is abstract for the most part, making it fast (well, except in 3E) and easy to run, and thus pretty fun to play. So how about using abstraction to introduce dangerous battlefield conditions into a fight?

The Idea

While some battlefields may be perfectly safe to fight in, one can expect many fights, given where they occur and the genre in which they exist, to be fought in dangerous spaces. The floor could be slippery, there could be a fire pit in the middle of it, the roof could be caving in – just use your imagination.

flashVbarinActually staging a combat in such a dangerous space can be tricky, though, because the combat rules are abstract. You can use a battle grid and miniatures, but sometimes they are feasible, or you just don’t want the bother.

One way to get around this is to extend the abstraction of combat – Armor Class, hit points, etc. – to the ground itself.

As the Referee, you pick a number from 1 to 20. This is the unlucky number. When this number is rolled during combat – attack rolls or damage rolls – the roller of the number suffers an effect tied to the battlefield.

For example – the room in which a fight is taking place has a fire pit in the middle of it. The pit is about 2 feet deep and there are hot coals in the bottom of it. The Referee decides a roll of ’10’ (unmodified by anything) means somebody has stepped into the pit and burned themselves for 1d4 points of damage. He also decides this damage cannot reduce them to less than 1 hit point, and that the unlucky combatant must pass a saving throw or suffer a penalty to movement for an hour due to twisting an ankle or burning a foot.

Now – this is key – it is probably a good idea to let players know what the unlucky number is, and what can happen (in general terms) when it is rolled. Why? I’ll let Alfred Hitchcock explain:

“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

When the players know the unlucky number, every dang roll has some tension packed into it. You know how everybody stared with wide eyes and holds their breath when somebody has to roll a crucial saving throw or attack? You can bring a little of that to every roll during one of these fights, but only if people know the unlucky number.

A few things to consider if you decide to use this notion:

If the unlucky number is low, it means it has a more likely chance of coming up, since both attack rolls (1d20) and damage rolls (d4, d6, d8 etc.) can trigger it. If you want the effect to be more rare, make the number higher than 10.

Higher numbers also mean success can be tinged with failure; lower numbers can rub salt in the wound of missing an attack.

You can have multiple unlucky numbers. In the example above, the roof might also be in danger of caving in, so a ’10’ means stepping in the fire pit and a ’17’ means roof tiles fall on a person for 1d4 damage.

The effect can also be a time track. Using the “roof falling in” example above, each roll of ’17’ can bring the roof closer to collapsing entirely on the people in the room. Maybe it takes 3 such rolls before it happens. This introduces some great tension into the fight, and requires players to gamble a bit every time they roll the dice.

You could, maybe even should, permit people a way to avoid these unlucky numbers. Maybe they have to reduce their movement rate or accept a penalty to attack.

Whatever the unlucky number, carry the attack and damage roll through completely before the dice roller suffers the consequences. In other words, if the attack roll brings up the unlucky number AND scores a hit, the hit counts and damage is rolled before the unlucky attacker burns himself, slips, etc.

One could also use this to simulate the danger of engaging giant monsters, with a chance of being stepped on or knocked into or of a randomly flailing tail connecting for damage.

 

JMS-BLACK

 

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Libraries Made Easy

AncientlibraryalexLibraries are a common trope in fantasy art, literature, etc. The old wizard hunched over books amid a sea of books. In fantasy games, though, they leave something to be desired. They can always be used as a backdrop, of course – just window dressing – but I think it’s more satisfying to make them worth their while.

In the past, I’ve tried to detail specific books found in a library. You come up with some cute, old-fashioned title, and maybe decide what important tidbits of knowledge are to found within it, but again – mostly unsatisfying. Not an extreme amount of utility, and often they turn out not to be that useful. The book is written on an equipment list where it is forgotten.

With this system, you can get a general idea of the utility of a library with a small bit of identifying text – less than a monster’s stat block. You might still want to get fancy with book titles, and of course you will still want to describe the sights, sounds and smells of the thing to the adventurers, but at least the utility of the library will be concise and easy to remember.

Library Size

This is the first element of a library – the size. Based on the size of the library, adventurers can get a bonus to answering questions in various subjects. The size of the library also determines how long it takes to find those answers.

Here are the library sizes:

Size Description Bonus Time
Tiny Travel size +5 1d6 minutes
Small Bookshelf +10 1d6 turns
Medium Room of books – a sage’s library +15 1d6 hours
Large Several rooms – a wizard’s library +20 1d6 days
Huge Library at Alexandria +25 2d6 days

There the basic library set up. All the reference text required when you write a dungeon chamber or a city or whatever is “Small Library”.

Note that bonus here is given as a bonus on a d20 roll (and I know, it looks huge at the moment, but read on). For percentile systems, multiply by 5 (+1 = +5%). If you normally roll d6 for skill checks you’ll have to be creative.

Tiny libraries only give you one chance to find information to help answer a question. Larger libraries grant people multiple chances: 2 chances for a small library, 3 for medium, 4 for large and 5 for huge. Each time, one must roll for how long the research takes. One could, therefore, spend up to 60 days researching in a huge library and still not find the answer to their question.

Subjects

While there are many subjects a real library could cover, fantasy adventurers usually have questions that we can bundle into five subjects. For a general library, divide the library’s bonus evenly among the five subjects. A tiny library, then, would grant a +1 bonus to answering questions in each of the five subjects, where a huge library would grant a +5 bonus.

Libraries can also specialize, dividing their total bonus up between the different subjects as you see fit. To do this, you add a parenthetical to the library’s size thus: Medium library (A5, H1, L5, N3, T1). The letter corresponds to a subject and the number corresponds to the bonus.

Subject Basic Advanced
Arcana (A) Spell components, correspondences and general effects of spells and magic items Actual spell research, activation words for magic items, true names of demons
Healing (H) Non-magic diseases and poisons Magic diseases and poisons, other magical effects like petrification
Lore (L) Recorded history of the “material plane”, legends and folklore of the same Lore from primordial times, lore from other planes of existence
Nature (N) Abilities and vulnerabilities of creatures from the material plane (e.g. wolves, owlbears, halflings) Abilities and vulnerabilities of creatures from other planes of existence (e.g. demons, devils, elementals)
Travel (T) Geography of the material plane – how to get from point A to point B and what to expect along the way Same, but for other planes of existence and time travel; also existence of magic portals and how to use them

Subjects are divided into basic and advanced categories. For a basic category, use the library’s full bonus for that subject. For advanced, use half that bonus (rounding down).

Fleshing It Out

This scheme gives you a basic “stat block” for a library. There is, of course, so much more you can do with these things:

1) Describe the thing – the leather of the books, the smell of the paper, the dust, the disorder (if the library is really disordered, double or triple the time it takes to answer questions), the wood of the shelves, the tile floor, the librarian giving you the stink eye when you walk into his library in bloody platemail, etc.

2) Definitely describe the librarian if there is one. If the library is large enough, the librarian should be fleshed out as a full NPC since one might interact with them more than once. A good librarian might become an ally or enemy, or at least an adventure hook.

3) The library could present particular dangers or challenges. Maybe it is so old that each time you use it the overall bonus (or a specific bonus) is reduced by one, or is reduced by one if you fail a save or dexterity check. Maybe there are traps and thus a % chance of stumbling into them (‘15% chance of book avalanche when studying nature’ or ‘rot grubs infest the arcana books’). Maybe the library consists of engraved basalt tablets in a cave at the base of a volcano, with seams of lava between them – the bonuses are tripled, but the research involves jumping over red hot lava that can kill you.

JMS-BLACK

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Yes, But …

treasure-chest11It’s been a long slog through a dangerous wilderness and then a devilish dungeon. Henchmen have died, PC’s have bled, but in the end, Law triumphed over Chaos (with an assist by Neutrality) and the dragon is dead.

Yes, but …

The PC’s have “won” the game. They’ve completed the adventure. They’re done. Or are they? Since the name of the game is adventure, the end of a particular adventure can be a temporary thing. I draw to your attention Mr. Edgar Rice Burroughs and his planetary romance set on Barsoom. If you haven’t read about old John Carter and his incomparable princess, you should, and in between the Martian sight-seeing you might also pay attention to how ERB paces the books and ends them, at least how he ends the first one because it’s a great way to run adventures.

220px-Princess_of_Mars_largeIn A Princess of Mars, every success by John Carter is a doorway to a new challenge that must be faced (and must be faced NOW!). Once John Carter gets used to the red planet, it’s pretty nonstop action – challenge followed by resolution followed by complication or new challenge, etc. When the book finally ends, the adventure does not. Like all of us wide-eyed kids who saw Han frozen in carbonite and Luke get a rough lesson about his family tree, readers of the first Barsoom novel are left hanging, waiting for the next installment.

The Notion

Almost every success in the game drives the adventurers to a new challenge, and the end of each “module” leads directly into the next for at least three “modules”. After every three, the adventurers have a chance to rest.

The idea here is not a story-driven piece, in which the players are led by the nose. The players can always choose to give up. They just have to face the consequences. They intrude on a dungeon and decide not to face the dragon – fine – but the dragon is now awake and cranky and everyone for 100 miles is suffering for it.

Moreover, when they kill the dragon, a new challenge arises from that now moldering corpse. Think about some of the classic module series of AD&D and how they linked – you finish the slavers in the under city, but now you’re led to their stockade to strike another blow against their evil.

When you design your adventures, think about how to turn one adventure into a trilogy (or how to break a mega-adventure into a trilogy of smaller adventures).

This might involve:

  1. Foreshadowing the trilogy in its first two stages – not in ham-handed way, but in such a way that as new things are revealed, the players get that light bulb moment and start making connections. It might make sense to make sure the players know there’s more in store. If the group is heading off to deal with some kobolds in the woods, an old man in the tavern might mention that he thinks the kobolds are being put up to it by the weird cult in the hills. Another might scoff and say something like, “Oh, I suppose next you’ll tell us the dragon beyond the mountains is causing the drought.” Now they know there’s more out there than just some kobolds in a 1st level dungeon.
  2. When you write the adventures, figure out how they link together, and how each is a separate adventure in its own right. Give the players bite-size chunks – bring the courses of the adventure meal out one at a time rather than all at once. The best way to do this is to make the end of one the beginning of the next one. Each adventure needs a beginning (“You all meet in a tavern …”) a middle (the delve) and an end (“… you open the treasure chest and find …”). The end holds the key to the next beginning, “… but as you fill your packs with treasure, the ground shakes and the giant diamond falls into a crevice … it looks like there’s another dungeon below the one you’ve just conquered.”)
  3. The big idea here is about transitions from one state of play to another. You might think about this in terms of PC level. The trilogy that drives PC’s from 1st through 3rd level will be different from the one that drives them from 4th to 6th level. When the PC’s move from the “basic” levels to the “expert” levels, they leave who they were behind in some ways and must enter a larger, more complex and more dangerous world. The old game had this in mind with the idea of hitting name level and building strongholds – the old life of wandering adventurer would end, and the new life of settled ruler begins. In play, this was also a transition from RPG to wargame.
  4. alternatefuturesHere’s where consequences come into play. In our own lives, there are moments where we have to choose about moving forward – say from childhood to adulthood. We can choose not to, but there are consequences. Choosing to reject adulthood does not mean the world of your childhood lives on. Things still change, and often not for the better. When the players choose to ignore that next challenge, the campaign world they inhabit changes because of their choice. This doesn’t have to be a severe change designed to force them into tackling the next adventure, but it should involve loss and a noticeable change. If in the end the players decide not to follow up, they have to live in the world they’ve created and you can embark on a new trilogy. They just have to accept that the campaign world is different and move on.

Just a notion – do with it as you will.

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