Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Joesky Tax: A Game Anecdote

After a lot of lead-up, I'm finally running DA2: Temple of the Frog for the Sunday night crew. In an ideal world, I'd run the original version, but it requires so much work to bend it into shape that I might as well write my own adventure.

To explain the lead-up: the classic Crux of Eternity crew ran through a modified version of S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and informed the local university about it. Since then, the university has been running a research program to fully investigate the crashed spaceship, and have subsequently learned that there are other pieces that were scattered across the Sorrowfell Plains when the thing passed through the atmosphere. The Sunday night crew has since been tasked with researching the other pieces. One such piece landed in the foothills of the Hoarfrost Ridge and allowed me to run Lost Laboratory of Kwalish. Another landed in the Bogbeast Fens and was discovered by cultists of Bobugbubilz, who proceeded to call it, "The Egg," and ascribed religious significance to it. Five years ago, this minor frog temple proceeded to become more organized and militarized, and is now proving to be a notable nuisance in the region with ties to slavers in the big city up north. (Which, if you know the adventure, you'll recognize as the basic setup of DA2: Temple of the Frog. Astute observers will recognize a couple of differences — like the whole thing about The Egg — which will likely be revealed with the fullness of time.)

In addition to the original goal from DA2 (rescue a high-value prisoner), the university has tasked the player characters with capturing any extraterrestrial technology they can find. The PCs decide to sneak into the City of the Frog — ignoring the original adventure's infiltration hook, assuming (probably correctly) that they probably won't be able to pass themselves off as slavers or wannabe frog-cultists — and they prioritize rescuing the prisoner because she and her men are skilled fighters, so they can outfit her and her men and double their party's fighting force.

The plan goes to shit pretty much instantly.

They sneak up the canals using a combination of water walk and control water and are almost instantly spotted. They switch from stealth to speed, and their main asset is that it's foggy and the middle of the night, so there's a lot of confusion, so they don't get murdered by crossbow bolts. They make their way to the middle of the town so they can cast locate creature on their quarry, hoping to find her in the warehouses and barracks.

She's in the basement of the Temple of the Frog, of course. The precise place they didn't want to go.

They cut west, get pelted by some crossbow bolts, use control water again to get over the wall, and are now in the courtyard of the temple. On the plus side, they neutralize the guards and the alarm is sounded, so no more guards can easily approach from the City of the Frog. The bad news is that they don't have a control ring to actually enter the temple, so they're just. Stuck there. With a temple full of cultists at their backs.

Their current gambit is to hopefully trick one of the cultists in the City of the Frog into approaching, then stealing a control ring to enter the temple. We'll find out how that works on Halloween!

The Orc Problem, redux-upon-redux

Not to beat a dead horse too severely, but Dwiz at A Knight at the Opera wrote a post about The Dreaded Orc Discourse™ a little bit ago, and it's a far more salient examination of the issue than I can muster.

(I know I already said the included links ought to be the final word on the subject, but well, here we are. Despite the vaguely sensationalist title and the fact that I'm probably still allowing demihumans in my dungeon-y, dragon-y elfgames, it's very, very good.)

Read it, won't you?

I Don't Think I'm Going to Allow Elves to be Playable Anymore on A Knight at the Opera

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Zen and the Art of Triage: Revised Objectives for UA3

This idea is only half-formed, so expect a small amount of brainstorming, especially toward the end.

One of the major innovations in third edition Unknown Armies is the Objective system. It's both a method by which the players can delineate their goals, while also giving everyone a countdown and a road map to fulfilling those goals. (In play, it acts a little like collaborative tools for scenario generation, a little like clocks in Powered by the Apocalypse and Forged in the Dark, and a little like a convenient quantitative method by which characters can fulfill their goals by improvised magick, which was notably lacking in previous editions but exists in the source material like Tim Powers' Fault Lines trilogy.)

However, while making and switching Objectives is relatively cheap and easy, anybody with a modicum of GM experience knows how players get about their character sheets: once you put something on a character sheet, players will do anything in their power to keep it, no matter how foolhardy. So, even if players turn out to be lukewarm about the Objective they've chosen, they will almost never abandon it, even if something more interesting comes along.

In essence: the Objective rules work as designed, but not as intended thanks to the sunk-cost fallacy.

(Plus, characters invariably accumulate personal goals, but in my personal experience, it's particularly rare for a player group to focus on such individual goals, so they just tend to languish in the background unless they are especially easy to adjudicate.)

Enter: Juggling Objectives

I haven't playtested these or even fully formed them, so I don't know how players will respond to them, but the jist is this: the Objective rules still largely work as described in Book Two: Run, with the exception that you can take on as many Objectives as you like. Your cabal is no longer limited to just one Objective. For the purposes of these rules, you are only considered to have additional Objectives if there are points in them. So, if you have "Assassinate the Mayor 56%" and just declared "Successfully cast How to Cut Off Your Own Head 0%" on your character sheet, you still technically only have one Objective. It's only when you increase "Successfully cast How to Cut Off Your Own Head" above 0% that you now have two.

(I don't quite know how to determine when a new Objective is declared, though. Can individual players determine a new Objective whenever they want? Should it be a simple majority? A unanimous declaration? My sense is that it should be a unanimous decision, just like regular Objectives, but different groups might be all about letting individual players determine their own goals without the intervention of the rest of the cabal.)

If you just have one Objective, the normal rules apply.

If you have more than one Objective, pay attention to which Objectives accomplished milestones this session. At the end of every session, if a given Objective is left untouched, it loses percentage points. (All others gain Objective points as described in Book Two.)

I haven't quite decided on the number. I figure either the Objectives lose 1d10+5 points (like a petty milestone), or roll a number of d5s equal to the number of Objectives minus one. (So, if your group is juggling four Objectives, you roll 3d5 and subtract that number from all inactive Objectives for the session.) The former is straightforward and mimics the rest of the extant Objective system, while the latter disincentivizes players from juggling too many Objectives simultaneously. (Rolling Xd5 is less of a penalty in the 2-4 Objective range, but becomes more likely to penalize the cabal at 5+ Objectives. If that seems too low, perhaps roll d10s instead. Again, I'm just noodling through an idea that still needs testing.)

You might want to try both and see how players respond to them.

If an Objective drops to zero points, it goes away. Of course, you can always re-declare it and try again, or just abandon it and continue on your way.

My sense is that this would encourage players to juggle one or two Objectives at any given time while also providing a method by which they can abandon Objectives that no longer suit their purposes without going through the rigmarole of declaring that they're abandoning an Objective. But it might just be additional bookkeeping or underutilized. In any case, if you try them, let me know how it goes!

Thursday, August 12, 2021

X Gonna Give It To Ya

This blog turned ten years old this past Monday, August 9. (Contrast with the first post here.)

It's a very weird set of circumstances that convinced me to start this blog in the first place, but here we are. I don't get to write in it as much as I did when I started, largely because I run a lot of role-playing games. (I'm currently playing in one game and running four on a rotating basis, with a couple of games as occasional things lurking on the horizon. The high water mark towards the beginning of 2020 was ten games — I was running six and playing in four, all of them on a regular, rotating schedule. My advice: don't do that.)

You would think running lots of games would make me more likely to write about them, but that is sadly not the case — there usually isn't enough time to get my scattered notes into a format I could give other people to read. As a result, recent posts usually take the form of "here's something I've been considering and so I put it in front of you" rather than "here's this fully-formed tool or piece of game detritus that's ready to use."

(And honestly, when I need to solve a problem at the table, it's 50/50 odds whether I pull an existing tool or kludge something on the spot. Neither of which makes for a good blog post.)

Regardless, the blog continues at its strange, glacial pace. If you're reading this and you have ever used or been inspired by anything you've found here over the last decade, that's all I could have wanted. If you're just joining us, you can see what has been wrought over the first decade of the blog by investigating the widgets and things over to the right of the page. (I might recommend the published works towards the top of the page, or the collections like Artifact April or Spore Week.)

What will the next ten years bring?

As always, watch this space...

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Firehold Megadungeon

This might turn into yet another project I don't have time to write or run, but it's been on my mind lately, so I might as well put it here. (Long time readers might recall my plans for a Carcosan megadungeon; apart from a single session nested in my long-running D&D game, I haven't had a chance to initiate it. Although there is always the future.)

When the dwarves fled from bondage under the tyrannical rule of the giants, they settled across the Sorrowfell Plains, most of them settling into cities and towns that are now familiar to the folk of the world (such as Khuragzar or Sorgforge), but one group of now-forgotten clans settled beneath one of the mountains of the world. 

They called this place "Firehold."

Industrious and versed in runecraft, they made wonders unknown even to other dwarves. The secret of their success was the beating heart of the mountain itself: a uranium deposit beneath the mountain, creating a naturally-occurring fission reactor. When they initially found it, they realized only that it generated heat and made the miners sick. (Although their superior dwarven constitutions protected somewhat, many of them still died, but they were given heroes' burials for their sacrifice to the clan.) But the industrious dwarves soon learned how to harness this energy for their own purposes, building containment units and enriching centers and steam engines. They were the most advanced civilization on Khaldun.

But no one has ever heard of them.

When the lands of Men fell to corruption and devil-worship, the dwarves consulted their histories and feared what they saw coming: another cycle of darkness and subjugation beneath the whips and chains of another oppressor. So they did the most sensible thing they could consider: they withdrew. They secured their gardens and redoubled their mining efforts and ensured that they had supplies for centuries — millennia, even — and then they sealed their highways with rune-magic.

This was their folly.

The corruption of the surface empires did not last long before heroes rose to stop it, and before long it was washed away. But the lost dwarves did not know of the turning of ages; they merely waited for a sign, some manner of augury to return them to the surface.

They never received it.

Whether the gods did not speak to them or they merely misinterpreted the signs, the old priests refused to risk the safety of their clans, and so the dwarves stayed underground in their secure shelter.

But the deep dwarves were builders, not soldiers. One by one, monsters emerged from below, and one by one, districts of the city fell. The deep dwarves were forced to retreat, refugees in their own city, withdrawing to the safety of centralized, defensible locations. Now, the last of the dwimmer dwarves take refuge in the quays and the foreign quarter, praying for a sign to save their civilization.

And all the while, the danger grows beneath their feet, for no one has tended the reactor in generations. If the reactor burns hotter than the reservoir replenishes, or if some tunneling wurm or ambitious underdweller should damage it, it could cause a meltdown or an explosion, contaminating the ground water or spreading radioactive fallout across the Sorrowfell Plains.

In addition to references in ancient archives, there is one other hint as to the location of lost Firehold: the rocs that lair upon the mountaintop build their nest over the exhaust port, so that the steam keeps their eggs warm while they are in flight.

Rules Notes:

A player character who delves into the right archive or uses the right divination spell or asks the right questions might find and unlock Firehold as an adventuring location. A lost megadungeon of advanced dwarven technology, it has long since been overrun by monsters, but is a palace of wonders. (In addition to the standard treasure, the dwarves of Firehold potentially hold lost secrets of arcane, historical, and technological varieties.)

Anyone who finds lost Firehold also unlocks a new playable variety of dwarves: called dwimmer dwarves or bone dwarves in my notes, they have a facility with rune-crafting and artifact manufacture that most modern dwarves lack. (In old-school games, they would be able to craft magic items and undertake other sorts of spell research. In 5e-ish games, they have innate transmutation spells, and are best suited for the wizard or artificer classes.)

Thursday, July 15, 2021

The World of Ysat'naf

 A bog-standard fantasy world for dungeon-y, dragon-y fantasy systems.

Use all the same fantasy assumptions those sorts of games bring to the table with one major exception: all alignments are inverted. (So chaotic becomes lawful, good becomes evil, and the like. Neutral alignments stay the same, as do unaligned alignments if you're using 4e or 5e.)

We'll keep it straightforward with two simple rules:

1) All extraplanar creatures summoned to Ysat'naf have their alignments inverted automatically. (Depending on how the Game Master interprets things, this may or may not change their core programming. It will at the very least change how they attempt to complete their goals and what sorts of behaviors they attempt to instill in the creatures they encounter.) Why this happens is not terribly clear, and finding the source of this phenomenon would obviously make a good goal for player characters to achieve. (I'm thinking it's some sort of curse upon the land, or maybe some kind of magical radiation that suffuses the atmosphere.)

2) All creatures native to the world also have their alignments inverted, although there is no supernatural force backing this up. (We can casually surmise that this inversion is due to the influence of extraplanar visitors who have had their alignments inverted and then proceeded to proselytize among the native populations.) As such, individual members of the various fantasy races can have any alignment and you might have the occasional "rogue" good elf or evil orc, but populations as a whole tend to stabilize to the opposite of their bestiary-listed alignments. They can retain their well-trod personalities and niches, now recast through the lens of their new alignments, so you get Lawful Evil elves in a strict hierarchy whose aesthetic predilections come across as Toreador antitribu-like displays of blood-daubed wicked decadence — like a whole race of Hannibal Lecters — while Lawful Good orcs now fulfill the Proud Warrior niche, a Klingon-like Golden Horde trying to throw elven imperialists off their land.

To fully embrace the potential Mirror Universe sensibility of such a place, it does not affect most Prime Material natives who might travel here by extradimensional gate or what have you. (So your characters are unaffected when they come through, although their familiars and summoned allies might behave very differently if they originate from another plane.)

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Ours vs. Theirs

This isn't an important update, just something about which I've been ruminating lately. There's functionally no "conclusion" or gameable content to this post; I'm just putting wordcount into the aether so that it is out of me.

Years ago at a local convention, I bought a copy of Tome of Beasts and was busily showing everyone the ridiculous monsters inside when a friend asked the following question:

"Why did you buy that when you can make up any monster you want?"

(An odd question, particularly given that said friend is an author and no doubt realizes that you can write any story you want and yet choose to consume other stories anyway.)

It's a pervasive role-playing game argument that has people firmly entrenched on both sides. On the one hand, why buy material when you can make it up? On the other, why create material when professionals have done the hard work for you?

Surprising no one, I (and I suspect most RPG gamers who aren't Extremely Online™) fall somewhere in the vast middle. I like to use my own content because I create a vast amount of it and because I always make things I enjoy. I like to use others' content because I only have my perspective and using something someone else made gives an air of verisimilitude to any game I run. (I can come up with anything I conceive, but others might create something of which I did not conceive.)

Using others' content comes with two important disclaimers, though:
1) I usually select things I like, and I'm the guy running it, so it's going to sound at least a little like me anyway. (Nicole thought Scarlet Jax was my own creation for years until I offhandedly mentioned that I cribbed her from Dungeon #186.)
2) I do fall in the camp of finding prepping other people's work to be difficult, so the author either needs to make it easy or compelling. (For instance, I understand King for a Day* has a lot of good ideas in it, but the work I would need to do to keep all the details straight means that I am unlikely to use it and would be better served making my own adventure whose details I can keep in my head.)

Those concerns aside, I find the mix of styles to be engaging, and I don't think my players notice the seams terribly often.

What about the rest of you? Do you use published content, homebrew content, or a mix of both?

*A protip for authors: if I have to take more notes to prep your 300+ page adventure containing "nearly 200 NPCs and dozens of unique locations and stories" than I took for a graduate-level course, it's probably too much work.

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