Monday, August 28, 2017

Unifying Random Encounters

Something that has been on my mind a lot has been random encounter tables. Each dungeon of my Megadungeon campaign has a different encounter table. And each has different mechanics. This bothers me.

First off, let's go through how random encounters are supposed to work by the book. I'm using the Rules Cyclopedia or BECMI here, but Basic D&D should all work the same when it comes to being in a dungeon. Every two turns, or every time the PCs do something that might draw attention to themselves, roll a d6. If it's a 1 (or a 6, if you want, the point is there's a 1-in-6 chance), then a random encounter is triggered. There's more rules for different situations, but that's the standard.

Then, you roll on the random encounter chart to see what you get. In the Rules Cyclopedia, for example, each dungeon level has a 1d20 table.

In a very good post on his blog Papers & Pencils, Nick LS Whelan reveals that he uses a 2d6 table. At the extremes—2 and 12—he puts Dragons and Wizards, respectively. Because they are awesome, dangerous, and should be an ever-present threat in a D&D game. What Nick introduces here is the weighting effect of the bell curve. Some monsters are more rare than others.

(I've always disliked the term "bell curve" to apply to anything number less than three dice, because you don't properly see the shape of the underlying Gaussian distribution. But anyway...)

Also, let Nick's velvety vocals whisk you away in podcast form here at Blogs on Tape. Complete with the theme to Dragon Warrior!

You could also easily convert the underlying bell curve into a percentile die roll. E.g., roll 1d100. A 1 is this monster, while a 2-3 is this other monster, etc. More on this below.

In Rappan Athuk (Frog God Games), the random encounter roll is combined with the result roll. As an example, on Dungeon Level 1, a single d20 is rolled and only results 1-4 have encounter entries. Therefore, the chance (1-in-5) is higher than your standard 1-in-6, but if that result is triggered, there's no need to roll another die.

On the one hand, this approach saves time by not having to roll multiple times. If you have very perceptive players, they may also get wise as to when you make one roll (your typical no-encounter) or when you make two (the encounter roll and the result roll). In this case, the one-roll method is advantageous in case you'd like to delay the reveal of the encounter. For example, maybe a result is rolled, but the creature is stealthy and would like to track the PCs for a while.

As a negative, you either get very few actual encounter entries in the table, or you need a much higher granularity.

Maze of the Blue Medusa has one of the best encounter tables I've seen in a product. It is a single d100 table, broken into a few columns that depend on where the party is in the dungeon. However, this usually just colors the frequency of individual encounters. Results from 1-20 are constant. 21-50 are encounter results that are location-dependent, usually referring to results 1-20. 51-74 is usually some sort of resource management, which is brilliant. For example, the PCs are hungry, or a torch goes out. Only on a result of 75-100 (slightly better than 1-in-4) does nothing happen at all.

This last table has me thinking about a few things.

First, there are a lot more potential encounters in this table than using any other method. However, I've found that most of the encounters in the Maze are more like vehicles for interesting action than straightforward combats. 2d4 screaming art critics is probably going to play out much differently than 2d4 kobolds.

Second, interesting events can be considered encounters, such as when that torch goes out. An encounter is really just a complication in the situation. If the torch goes out, then that's a surprise situation that you've got to deal with. Same as if you're messing with a door and a dragon saunters around the corner.

Lastly, the dungeon in question should inform the encounter table. Maze of the Blue Medusa has a dense encounter table because it is a dense dungeon. There's a lot of stuff there for the players to discover and interact with. Rappan Athuk is a sparse but deadly dungeon. Encounters there should be more rare, but they should usually scare the crap out of you.

So I am thinking about reworking my encounter tables to fit a unified paradigm. I'm leaning towards something like 3d6, where one of the dice is the "control" die, and the other two constitute a 2d6 table modeled after Nick's post above. Really, this is no different than the standard D&D method, except that the rolls are all made at once.

Perhaps later I'll go into other aspects I don't like about some random encounter tables, once I've had a chance to implement this idea into a game. But a lot of it might have its beginnings in my older post, Lessons from the Table.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Gen Con Post

Everyone's recapping Gen Con, so here's mine.

Wednesday.

I drive down to Indy. I park my car at my work colleague's house. He is gracious enough to let me keep my vehicle there while I attend Gen Con. Spend 5 minutes trying to explain D&D to him. I don't think I do a good job. Get an Uber to Indy. Guy is an unemployed electrical engineer. Smart dude. Sign of the times.

Get checked in. Where's Mike? Down at the Yard House. I'm rooming with Mike Evans, who I've gotten to know well over the last year, and his friend Omar. So I go to the Yard House. Also there are Zak S, James Raggi, his wife (I believe?) Maria, and Jez Gordon. I immediately feel sorry for Maria being hajjed off to Nerd Mecca. She seems pleasant.

Zak has a reputation for being a jerk online. To the contrary, he is very personable and nice. Even though I'm clearly just some dude who's along for the ride, I get the sense that he welcomes and respects me. Zak continues to be a great guy throughout the convention. He is also very well read. Zak and James mention Thomas Ligotti's Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe. I have never heard of this book. I should look into it.

Mike and I get our Goodman Games GM briefing, and get our GM badges. Rejoin Jez and Omar for food. We talk about game creating and ideas. Jez tells me to get my ideas out there and even shares my recent blog post. I get really jazzed up about FERAL. All in all a great conversation for getting pumped up for Gen Con.

Thursday.

9 AM first DCC game. Escape From the Purple Planet. My only funnel of the convention. All the players have a great time, but it only lasts about two hours. Don't know if I'd run this at a convention again without some serious tweaking.

On the bright side, I get to visit the dealer hall early. Get my Maze of the Blue Medusa "All Rolled Up." Very cool. combination dice bag and storage kit. If packed smartly, it's all you need for gaming.

The LotFP booth is magnetic. I probably spend wasy too much time there. Not only do I get to meet Patrick Stuart, but I then get to witness the first moment Patrick and Zak meet in real life. That is magic.

The other booth I spend a lot of time at is the Goodman Games booth. Much bigger, being run by a horde of people. Immediately grab a number of DCC modules, a DCC trucker cap, yadda yadda. There was never any question. I'm impressed I spend so little. Get to meet Stefan Poag and Peter Mullen. Mullen tells me how he makes those awesome color images for games. I manage to get all the possible signatures I can for my DCC Gold Foil book.

Meet up with Mike, Zak, Zzarchov Kowolski (who I'd only met online), Patrick, Stokely, and others and we all game in a PvP Lamentations game run by Zak. I thought we were just going to fight each other but no, we start on opposite sides of the dungeon. Way cooler idea. I order hasty room service and manage to get out in time to run Caverns of Thracia at 8 PM. In-game, I take a magic sword and Zzarchov (team leader) pushes me down a pit. I think we end up winning.

Caverns of Thracia is great. The group sticks to Level 1 of the dungeon because they find a secret prayer chamber. Most of it is your standard dungeon crawl. However, with about an hour left, the fighter goes into overdrive so the group can explore as much of the dungeon as possible. Continuous escalation until the final encounter: three ogres with one dressed as Macho Man Randy Savage. The PCs take over the dungeon in the name of Thanatos, God of Death.

Friday.

Morning game at 10. Turns out it was cancelled because Clint Krause got rear-ended by a semi. Thankfully he's OK. More dealer room. I end up buying a drawing of a wizard done by Zak. It's really fucking good. I can't remember if it's today or Thursday when I get all the signatures for my books. Like, all the signatures. Even the zine where Patrick did an interview. Even The Worst Breakfast by China Mieville and Zak. Even Death Love Doom, which Raggi called me a sick pervert for owning. That made me smile.

The reason I spent so much time at the Lamentations booth was because I didn't want to interrupt any potential sale to ask for a stupid signature on a book that was already mine. I begin to get very self-conscious about my lurking. No one seems to be put off by my presence, so I just stay out of the way while waiting for a lull so I can ask for my stuff signed.

Also, I think Friday was the first time I met Jacob Hurst? I love this guy because he's a printing process nerd just like I am. Only he's got an actual product, the Swordfish Islands books. I'm calling it now. It's going to win some ENnies next year.

Game at 2 PM. The Jeweler that Dealt in Stardust. Level 3 DCC but I still manage to kill a player later on in the adventure. One player keeps cutting the faces off of spiders and collects them. I really love this one because it's an elaborate heist. Of course, the players make off with a haul of imitation treasure worth virtually nothing.

Evening, I drop off gear, grab a bite to eat and head to the ENnies. Get to meet Rob Monroe and his lovely wife. She talks with me about a wide variety of subjects but we spend a lot of time talking about Shakespeare. I have two versions of Macbeth I have to watch now. The ENnies go splendidly. Mike wins one, Spellburn wins one, and Lamentations picks up four. John Wick wins a lot of awards. I still think he's an asshole because of (1) his Anti-Tomb-of-Horrors rant, and (2) because of that goddamn hat. But he seems genuinely over the moon and I'm happy for 7th Sea. Also Mark Diaz Truman seems to have worked on it quite a bit and that guy seems cool.

ENnies after-party goes well. I'm surprised the Marriott let it continue to midnight. It carried on quite a bit more into the wee hours of the morning in the bar. I learned Stokely's Top 5 comedies so now there's a Nic Cage movie I need to see. Met Nicole and Stuart Pate, who cosplayed as the Flame Princess and Hugh Heftblade. Also got to meet Ken Beaumann who published Maze of the Blue Medusa. He was wearing a kickass Iron Maiden shirt.

Saturday.

Breakfast with Jez, and I think with Zzarchov, although that could be Sunday. I forget. But the one with Zzarchov we talk about an upcoming adventure of his. In fact, I've helped playtest two things for Zzarchov and I'm glad to know both are still in the works.

Sean Poppe shows up and actually delivers the news about Clint. (Again, I can't rmemeber if it's Saturday or Sunday...) Glad Clint is ok. We discuss art and projects and just keeping on doing shit. Sean gives me one of his zines and it's awesome.

Saturday at 2. Last game. The Temple of Laserface and the Kung Fu Masters of the 4th Dimension. It's a blast. Ends up with two wizards trying to outdo each other while spellburning twenty each. Sezrekan vs. Bobugbubilz. I ended up printing multiple copies of the "playtest" of this adventure out and handing it to people to read. It acutally consists of a lot of the stuff leading up to the adventure, but not the adventure itself. It's kind of embarrassing, given how incomplete it is.

Mike's kind of steering me towards publihsing the adventure as a DCC adventure. It's certainly zany enough for it. Although I also like the grittiness and groundedness of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which I would be able to use if it were published as a system-neutral product. But the size of the DCC community would help me get an adventure out there a lot more effectively.

Anyway. After ToLatKFMot4D, I was suddenly left with a void. No more games to prep. Everyone is busy doing something else. So I get super depressed. I've never been remotely suicidal but it was intense. I wait until Inferno Road at the Embassy Suites, but not even that can cheer me up. I end up hanging out at the bar. Mike Evans shows up, and I chat with him, and Bob and Jen Brinkman. Jen asks me to sign her first DCC book, which she is putting into retirement. I sign page 88. Also hang out with James Walls and family before going back over to where Inferno road was. They are now playing Flammable Hospital, or at least what I assume is Flammable Hospital. Jez insist's it's "Jez Just Wants To Go Home." Jez, when will you learn IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU.

Sorry, that was an insider joke in case anyone was wondering.

Sunday.

Mike and Omar leave before I get up. I brought way too much shit, so I have to make sure I get it all packed up properly, which takes some time. I pack gradually, making sure that nothing gets damaged on the ride home.

I keep my Peter Mullen cover DCC book in my backpack. He signs it. I see him sell a boatload of artwork. There's a raffle at 2 PM but I have to hurry through the dealer hall to get to everyone.

Tales from the Loop is sold out. I buy one of the last two slipcase sets for Call of Cthulhu. I stop by Lamentations booth to buy one more piece of original Zak art. A knight impaled through the gut. This and the wizard perfectly encapsulate D&D for me. I cannot wait to get the pair of them framed.

I get pictures.




I go back to the hotel, and get my bag. The Uber ride is a blur. I'm kind of glad that my colleague is out and has left my keys in a hidden location. I don't want to waste any time. Have to get hom before there aren't even any fumes left to run on.

End.

One big takeaway from Gen Con is the inspiration. Seeing Patrick, Mike, and the absent Kiel win awards for their writing inspired me to put some honest effort into getting my adventure down on paper. Players at my table have always seemed to enjoy it, and I think the DCC crowd would find it new and different. It may also be my foot in the door to being a serious creator. If, you know, it turns out I actually have any skill at being a writer.

One step at a time though. That's how I got through Gen Con.

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.