Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Skeleton Art Gallery

You may or may not be surprised to know that I was part of an improv comedy group for a few months before I left grad school. (The most obvious side effect of this is that I can enjoy a game of Fiasco with the right group of players.) I thought I had some pretty successful performances after a while, but there was one problem I had more than anything else: it took me a while to establish a scene. If I had to tag in and add to an existing scene, or play off of one that just ended, I could really shine. But if we were standing in a void, with a proverbial blank canvas, I was very slow.

Now I am running my first campaign that, while not using dungeons that I myself have created, deviates significantly from the module-centric lineup that I have traditionally followed, since most of my gaming occurred at conventions. Let me spill the secret about this new Megadungeons game, wherein I juggle five megadungeons at random for the players: I am reading none of the dungeons' front matter. No accounts of why these dungeons are here or what factions or other stuff like that. Quite frankly, I don't have the time to read a bunch of backstory.

The lone exception is Maze of the Blue Medusa. A lot of the encountered rooms suggest that you need to be somewhat familiar with the entirety of the Maze, and besides, it's an enjoyable read on its own. This is an aspect not common with most RPG material.

Anyway, I usually skip everything and head straight to the dungeon. This is efficient, although I am noticing a distinct variation in the quality of what I'm given when a new room is discovered. Blue Medusa, for example, never disappoints. Even a straightforward empty room with naught but rope bridges plants the seeds for potential adventure if the PC's decide stop and investigate. Other dungeons feature more ho-hum encounter tables, and more empty rooms than I would like.

Now this is where veteran GMs can have a field day. A room that is listed as "Empty" can and should be viewed as a blank canvas for the GM to create something interesting. Just because something is devoid of treasure or monsters does not mean it is barren and featureless, like an empty self-storage unit. I have heard tales of other GMs turning an Empty Room into something quite engaging just by painting a vivid enough picture of where hidden secrets might lie within (spoiler: there are none.)

As for me, my old improv weakness once again rears its head. In order to improvise, I need a seed, a Suggestion From The Audience. I often try and flip to a random table, but usually I'm unprepared. Even if I am prepared with tables, I often find that it takes me a while to translate what I see into something I can use. Either the results don't make sense for the game, or it's frustrating to decode into something I can make tangible. I am sure that it is just an issue with how my brain works, because I know that all I need to get going is a few words strung together, just enough to strike the match that will be tossed on the gasoline.

To remedy the problem, I have begun to sit down and think of usable word strings so that I can write them down as my lone version of DM prep.

As an example, one of the things I have written down in my notes is "Skeleton Art Gallery." Already, I have enough to get my mind working, but the concepts are as pliable as putty. To use this example, perhaps this room holds twelve skeletons arranged throughout the room. No, let's say they're fourteen: seven for the heavenly virtues and seven for the deadly sins. They were arranged here by an Inquisitor who went mad from heavy metal poisoning...

And we can see that the ball is rolling.

Or, there is a legit art gallery full of postmodern artwork that drives the people who look at it insane. They can't stop looking at it, dissecting it, trying in vain to understand it. They forget to eat or drink, but the desire to "get it" keeps them alive. By now they are all animated skeletons, trying to ask the PC's (most likely in vain) what they see in this particular piece. They are engaged in the Sisyphean task of comprehending the incomprehensible...

Such phrases as "Skeleton Art Gallery" are sufficiently stimulating while simultaneously being liberating in their vagueness. They're like a Rorschach ink blot or word association game. After stumbling on the versatility and usefulness of these phrases, I naturally wanted to write down as many as I could, then jam them into a d20 table (or a d30 table if I happened to be especially creative.)

Then I got another idea, probably cobbled together by the fact that Maze of the Blue Medusa started off as just a dungeon map of pictures, then got "written" after the fact. (I think that's the story of its Genesis. I'll have to research that.) Anyway...

Why not arrange these seeds graphically, compartmentalizing them into the rooms they represent, and then use this to build up a dungeon? Here's what I'm talking about:

While I've been working on an original adventure module to publish, this little map could very well be the start of my first original dungeon, which is already double the size compared to when I took this photo. Granted, it could easily be dismissed as a Funhouse Dungeon (especially if I'm not careful with the room, "Ducks Planning Shit.") However, I love this because it turns out that this is exactly the kind of prep work I need to be doing for myself.

I guess the moral of the story is one that a lot of the DIY RPG community has already learned: find out what you need at the table to help you run a game, then go out and make it.

PS., The alternate title for this blog entry was "A Post That Talks About Improv But Doesn't Mention 'Yes, And.'"

PPS., I have recently posted my positive reaction to Maze of the Blue Medusa on two subreddits - /r/DnD and /r/rpg. Both seem to be well-received. Please add to the conversation if you're so inclined.

PPPS., I leave for Gen Con tomorrow. Please comment if you'd like to get in touch at the convention.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Lessons from the Table

So last night we had another session of the Megadungeon Madness campaign, and we're up to six sessions. To recap, the players are lost souls in Purgatory, and they are part of a hired expedition to explore Places of Power (i.e., published megadungeons) in order to find a potential escape. The megadungeons are determined randomly with a d30 roll just before each session. One thing I should touch on is that thus far we've just been rolling up some hirelings, maybe getting some supplies, and then heading into the dungeon. A lot of the overall theme of returning to Purgatory and the various consequences of actions have not been explored yet.

The one instance where I'd say this has happened is when one of the PCs used mushrooms found in a previous session to help heal another player who had fallen to zero hit points. The wounded PC hallucinated that the walls were made of breathing meat and now roams the streets of Purgatory naked and raving.

Last night we had another repeat visit (Dwimmermount remains the lone untouched dungeon), and the locale was the same one as the very first session we played. It was the first time this dungeon had been revisited, and so I got to see it with a more enlightened set of eyes.

This blog post hopefully recaps what I've learned thus far in the campaign.

I've learned that I have a certain set of preferences when it comes to book layout and the presentation of information. Last night's dungeon (Stonehell by Michael Curtis) is really efficient, in that for every given dungeon section, you don't have to do much page turning. Sticking to a series of "one page dungeon" formats, pretty much everything you need to run the entire area fits on one two-page spread. You have your map, a random encounter table, and a description of every room. The main trade-off is that because the dungeon is dense, the room descriptions are pretty light. This time around, I had a bit more freedom of improvisation compared to session one, but it still feels like it needs more meat in manyspots. Anyway, I believe that's a gripe that will fix itself with experience on my part.

I've learned that I dislike adherence to D&D tropes. Last night's session featured kobolds for the first time ever. (Even my first-ever honest-to-god use of orcs.) This was the first D&D Trope Monster I've ever used in this campaign or any other. I mean, apart from zombies, but zombies transcend D&D. The point being, even though I've read the article about tucker's kobolds and heard lots of people mention them on podcasts, I didn't really know anything about them other than they had dog faces. So I played them as little wiseguy workers in the dungeon. I really didn't even think about what most people who've played D&D forever understand them to be. Same with the orcs.

I've learned to use an oft-ignored feature of D&D, the monster reaction table. More often than not, we assume that dungeon dwellers will end up be combatants. Those kobolds I mentioned? The PCs didn't fight a single one. Instead, they were enlisted to help the kobolds harvest bat guano. This was because I rolled rather favorably on the reaction table. I think it made for a far more interesting game than if they were just mindless sword fodder. Who cares at that point? I may have to tweak the reaction table, though, because it seems really easy to just be purely indifferent to the PCs.

I've learned that your players are often willing to try new things. I had been silently counting squares of movement for tracking turns and making those random encounter rolls and usage die checks for the torches. (Stole the latter from The Black Hack.) We collectively said screw it, let's use a one turn per room rule. If you want to try out a new rule hack, just give it a shot with your players. Heck, it reminds me of the time I switched a game from FATE to GURPS and everybody thought it ran much better. Just say, "hey I want to try this," and your players just might surprise you.

Finally, I've learned about incentives. For the second straight session, the players' strategy has been screw it, let's burn through these rooms, because the more rooms we map, the more reward we get, and the more XP we can cash in on. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the players are no longer spending a whole session only getting two or three rooms deep. On the other hand, there is not a great incentive to interact with the potentially interesting stuff that's inside these rooms. They aren't springing any clever traps, nor are they rooting around for hidden easter eggs or treasure hordes. Maybe I need to step up my Improv Override game, because I know that if something is presented interestingly enough, the players will interact with it. I've seen my players do it with Maze of the Blue Medusa.

More commentary on future sessions to follow, but don't be surprised if my next blog entry is a report on Gen Con.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Game Mechanics: Dice, Doors, and Decimal Points

So I have a skill system hack I am working on and I want to share it with you.

Start with Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the rules set I am using for my Megadungeon Madness game. It's basically B/X but with some tweaks (ascending values of armor class, a silver piece standard, and no codified bestiary, for starters).  One of the nice things about it is that skills are based on d6 rolls. Virtually everything is a 1-in-6 chance, and specialists (read: thieves, but a less pigeonholed concept) get to invest points into expanding these skills. E.g., put two points in Sleight of Hand and your chance to execute such a task goes from 1-in-6 to 3-in-6.

I am hacking that d6 system a bit. Mostly because I love dice pools, but there is also a logic behind it.

First off, rather than expanding the range of success, I expand the number of dice you roll, while keeping 6 the target number. Note that statistically this is more difficult. For example, it is harder to roll three dice and get a 6 than to get a 4, 5, or 6 on a single die (the 3-in-6 case):

(A) Dice pool: 3-dice probablility = 1-(5/6)^3 = 42.13%
(B) One-die probability = (3/6) = 50%

A solution to the increased difficulty is that the GM should be more generous with the bonus dice. We already add dice based on invested Specialist skill points, but let's also add Ability Score bonuses. A +1 to Strength is easily added to your pool if you want to Open Doors, for example. Have a crowbar? Add another die. And so on. This borrows heavily (if it isn't identical) from the "negotiated skill system" that I heard used on the Dwimmermars game of +Adam Muszkiewicz (of such notable endeavors as Drink Spin Run, Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad, and whose name I can apparently spell without having to Google it now).

Another nice feature is that the bonuses can easily go to six or higher. Whereas a 6-in-6 chance of the basic one-die system is a guaranteed success, a pool of 6 dice is only going to yield a 6 at a rate of 66.51%. So don't be afraid to be liberal with your bonuses.

The problem that we have already come across thus far in my Megadungon game is that opening doors is still fairly likely to result in failure. Even with crowbars, people helping, and strength bonuses, you are pretty likely to not open the door.

This is where I got the idea to go straight into story game territory and offer the players a narrative choice. In the first option, the players could choose to let the door be. The door is swollen shut, just like St. Gary said it probably would be. The other option is to note your margin of failure. (E.g., was your highest result a 4? Then your margin of failure is 6-4 = 2.)  I'll let your character(s) persist at opening the door until they succeed, but I get to roll the margin of failure in Wandering Monster checks. (A dice pool of 2 in this example.) Again, each of these is a simple 1-in-6 chance.  The logical basis is that the worse your initial check result, the more noisy your success is going to be and the more likely you are to attract attention to yourself.

I think this is a pretty elegant mechanic for doors if you're going to go Full Dungeon Crawl. I'd like to think that my game ups the tension by emphasizing slow, careful mapping, and keeping track of resources, etc. Wandering monsters (or more accurately, random encounters) are another high-stakes element, and it's nice to put the devil's bargain in the players' court.  The alternative would be to have the players reroll the check while I check for the random encounter with each failure. This has the potential to be tediously drawn out, especially if the player has a small dice pool.

I've already used this mechanical tweak in one full game session, and the resulting random encounter was deadly. But more importantly, the decision of whether to push forward at the door had a lot of gravitas behind it. In all, it's an idea I'm quite proud of, given that I'm only starting to break out of the habit of sticking to rules as written. I'd probably have broken out of that habit ages ago, but it really requires sitting down to run some real games.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Start of the Megadungeons Campaign

Believe it or not, I have finally gotten around once again to running an online game. My last effort was a few years ago, and was a Traveller campaign that crashed and burned after about two or three sessions. That was just on the cusp of my diving headfirst into Old School territory. I haven't been completely out of practice, becoming a somewhat decent Judge for the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, although I have run games almost exclusively at conventions. A campaign is another thing entirely.

I got the itch to run a campaign after generating a fair amount of local interest in a regular game after demonstrating DCC at Free RPG Day. However, the two main people who showed an interest had different nights of the week that they'd prefer, and I have a job that involves a random travel schedule. So I could see the campaign falling apart in my mind's eye before it even took shape.

I started to wallow in a sense of futility the way one does. After all, even all the DCC modules I have is but a small fraction of the RPG literature that adorns my shelves. I have all these books and no means to use them without a regular game going on. I could probably make a sizeable list of megadungeons alone, each one allegedly crafted to be a campaign in and of itself. It started looking highly likely that each would never see the light of day. (Which is an ironic statement since they're dungeons after all.)

That's when the idea for Megadungeon Monday hit me. I'd recently hammered it into my head that, in Megadungeon campaigns, camping overnight in the dungeon should be highly discouraged. A death sentence, even. So, if characters end up back at the same overworld location, what's to say that they have to go back to the same dungeon the next time?

It wasn't long before I came up with what I thought was a cool idea: the characters are actually trapped in Purgatory, eternally waiting for judgement. Some souls have been trapped so long that they have organized themselves into an organization that seeks escape. They are exploring a number of megadungeons simultaneously in an effort to find a way out. And of course, the player characters are enlisted to assist in that effort. All they need is a portal that will take them to a random dungeon, and we have a nice little campaign that not only utilizes all the megadungeons I have on my shelf, but also ties them together in a loose fiction.

Because the dungeon crawl is more about resource management and mapping, I am stealing Dwimmermount's premise that maps of rooms are worth money. The PCs' employers reward them cash for mapped rooms, which then translates to XP once it gets spent.

The only thing that was left was playing the game itself. I had a feeling that sticking with local players was going to be a headache, so I expanded my pool by posting online. I generally have better success playing on weeknights as opposed to weekends, so I picked Monday, as it is least likely to see me in the middle of a business trip.  Of course that didn't work for anyone else, so leave it to my friend Sean to introduce me to the term "West Marches."

Now, I had heard of the "West Marches" term before, and I had always dismissed it. The reason being, I had assumed it was somebody else's Gandalf-ass boring shit setting, like Forgotten Realms or Mystara or something. As it turns out, it was actually a gaming style that someone who was running into all the same problems came up with. (http://arsludi.lamemage.com/index.php/78/grand-experiments-west-marches/) They just couldn't be bothered to call it anything else, I guess.

Essentially, the idea is that in terms of the game itself, the players are supposed to be the ones taking charge. Game night and even the game group is irregular. There are always more potential players than show up to any one session. Once someone can gather a group to play, they inform the DM and then (pending the DM's availability) the session is on. The only thing is, the session wraps up in a "home base" of the starting town.

So of course I changed things up that this is now how I'm running my group. It's met with some success as I've already run two sessions. However, they've been with the nearly the same players. They're certainly enthusiastic, although I'm hoping to drum up some excitement so that I can run some sessions with other players as well. My friend Sean is probably the next most enthusiastic, but he lives in Japan, so the time zone difference is a major setback.

Another great side effect is how I want to keep this blog updated by posting about all the stuff I'm using to run the game. Maybe I'll get someone to post some comments and get some good ideas about even more tools I can use to make these megadungeon delves even more exciting.

Monday, May 22, 2017

On Setting and Culture, 1: Another of These Desert-Loving English

I think you are another of these desert-loving English. Doughty, Stanhope, Gordon of Khartoum. No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing. 

When I was pretty young, maybe just starting my teens, I rented (from the Blockbuster Video on Military Highway) the 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia. I immediately considered it the greatest film ever made, and have since dialed it back to simply my favorite film of all time. Beautifully shot and an epic tale, the film is chock full of symbolism and themes that I don't think I'll ever fully comprehend. It's also probably inadvertently set the standard by which I have judged every fantasy setting.

I periodically think about the film in different contexts. The quote above from Prince Feisal (played by Sir Alec Guinness) is always one that I come back to, and represents one of the film's key themes. Lawrence is a character who does not fit in England, but who will never truly be an Arab, despite his great victories for the Arabian tribes. He is a man without a culture or identity, and this causes a great personal crisis.

As your stereotypical white guy, I have strong genealogical ties to a variety of European cultures. Some other stereotypical white guys I know have stronger ties to one particular culture (e.g., Polish, English, or German) than I do. I know, based on my grandparents' lineages, that I'm a combination of at least three different European nationalities. If there's any nation-based culture that I belong to, it is simply that awkwardly catch-all American culture, which is assembled from pieces of other cultures - a brownish-grey clay that is achieved by mixing all the cups of Play-Doh together.

In the film, an early conversation with his Bedouin guide establishes that Lawrence is not your typical fat Englishman. He is different. He does not fit in with his own culture and thus is able to cling to another. What a shock that a kid who eventually gravitates towards Dungeons and Dragons, one of the bastions of geekdom, would identify with this character. If there's anything that could paint me as even more of an outcast, it's that I didn't even have friends who played the game. There were lots of nights spent alone reading the 2E DMG, letting my imagination entertain me.

(And who am I kidding. I'm doing the same thing right now, keeping a blog of all the things I think about while thinking about running RPGs. Only instead of having one DMG, I have the entire internet.)

Dungeons and Dragons conjures a lot of different imagery for a lot of different people. During my period of new fascination with the game, Dragonlance seemed like the dominant setting on the shelves, with Elmore and Easley at the artistic helm. Despite the existence of settings such as Dark Sun, the feet of D&D were firmly planted in Medieval European fantasy. I had never heard of J. R. R. Tolkien, but I knew his work through pure osmosis. It was not until my first actual game that I realized just how deeply my favorite film had influenced me. We were English explorers who were shipwrecked on a fantasy continent. No sooner did the opportunity present itself than I had my character abandon all aspects of his former self and establish himself in his new world, taking particular interest in the towns and villages on the edge of the desert.

Even now, I find myself nearly incapable of playing a game in a setting that is established as Medieval and European in nature; like Lawrence, I find myself an outcast in such a setting. Dungeon Crawl Classics, although setting-generic, consistently draws from literature contained in the "Appendix N" of the 1E DMG—i.e., Gary Gygax's reading list. While there are elements of  the Medieval era in those stories, there is a heavy bias towards the nebulously ancient (e.g., Robert E. Howard's Conan) or utterly exotic (e.g., Moorcock's Melniboné).  I would say that the closest thing to medieval fantasy in which I've felt comfortable is the assumed setting of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Far more often, however, I will gravitate towards the exotic. LotFP as a publisher has done quite well in this regard. World of the Lost (Chandler), Qelong (Hite)  and Carcosa (McKinney). In addition, there are various "OSR" materials that deviate from the standard quite well. One that receives considerable acclaim (that I have yet to read) is Yoon-Suin (McGrogan).

I titled this post as the first of a series because I'd like to continue the idea of exploring why the standard D&D Settings do not sit well with me, Only next time, instead of my favorite film, I will look at my favorite book of all time.

[Note: the links above are affiliate links to products on RPGNow. Apparently if you buy the products via a link on my page, I get a kickback to spend on other RPG stuff]

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

An update: GenCon, Settings, and Systems.

I thought I would let you know what I've been doing in gaming lately.

First off, I can confirm now that I am running four games at Gen Con this year for Goodman Games as a Judge for Dungeon Crawl Classics. DCC is a go-to system for me, as it is what I typically run and play at conventions, and convention games are pretty much 90% of what I get to do in gaming. I think it's got a great mix of old-school and new-school mechanics conventions, and the rules have been written in order to produce a very definite flavor of game.

If anyone reading this is going, I am running Escape From The Purple Planet, The Jeweler That Dealt In Stardust, Caverns of Thracia, and my own adventure, The Temple of Laserface and the Kung-Fu Masters of the 4th Dimension.

The links above are to the event pages.

Although I have run it twice at GaryCon already, I've officially started actual writing for The Temple of Laserface and The Kung-Fu Masters of the 4th Dimension, which will be my first written adventure, assuming it sees the light of day. I am still not 100% sure whether I will keep it system-neutral or specify a rules set. Candidates are DCC, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, or Swords & Wizardry. It would certainly be the easiest to specify no system, as then I wouldn't have to worry about licensing or trademarks. But I feel like the flavor of the game lends itself towards DCC or LotFP.

Before I leave the topic of Gen Con, I will also be excited to hopefully get to meet some of the creators behind Lamentations of the Flame Princess, one of my favorite rules sets and probably my favorite publisher.

In the regular gaming front,  I'm also playing in a weekly RuneQuest 2 game on Google+, and have been since the end of 2016. I think the system is pretty good, although I have reservations about Glorantha as a setting, Half a year of playing, and I still don't have a good grasp on it. Ask me the difference between Pavis and Prax, and my eyes will glaze over.

A setting that I am much more drawn to is that of Tékumel. I've started reading Man of Gold, Prof. M. A. R. Barker's first Tékumel novel. It's a bit early, but I think that setting is much more my jam, since there's virtually no aspects of medieval Europe present. It is all heavily inspired by Mesoamerica, India, and Middle Eastern cultures.

Now I'm hoping to play in a Tékumel campaign, but I am reading through The original Empire of the Petal Throne fairly slowly, in the hopes of familiarizing myself with the most basic aspects of the setting. More to follow as I learn more about it, but I have just finished reading through the EPT introduction, and I'm going to see what the rules are like. I also have a digital copy of Jeff Dee's Bethorm, but I feel like I should stick to one source as I learn what's what on Tékumel.  If nothing else, I will at least be well armed for the next U-Con convention in November.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Some Progress

My adventure is coming along, slowly but surely. I am currently writing random encounters for the journey to the main location. Already I am up to like about ten pages. I think that everything I've written thus far is a cool idea that might inspire something. At the same time, I'm worried about being too verbose.

Does anyone even run modules as written?

Here's a recent drawing. I am thinking about incorporating it somehow.

You have already seen this on my instagram;

I am gradually shifting that feed from photography (my old hobby) to my boring ass drawings of game stuff. I like the @dommephoto name though so I'm keeping it.

Anyway, sorry for the brief post. If I keep talking about this project, then there's less of a chance I'm going to let it die.