Monday, October 17, 2016

Some fun with the Sad DM (and other fun thoughts) - Part 3

Alright, that was a fun exercise. Mostly good comments and reader participation, people starting to discuss the problem I tried to illustrate. Good times. I'd still go and post all of it in one post the next time around and I really don't care how big it will end up when I post it. There is something unsatisfying with just pointing out (what I believe to be) problems without also hinting towards solutions in the end. Main problem I see is that people start running in all kind of directions (including myself) without taking the whole thing into account. Anyway, here is the end of it.

If you are new to the whole shebang, you might want to start with Part 1, work your way through Part 2 and then come back here (if you want to) for a more positive conclusion.

What's been established and what's been discussed

I am not the Sad DM, but I had moments close to that. Especially when I started DMing, 24 years ago, but every now and again until today, mostly regarding group politics and lack player dedication, with the occasional disruptive element to keep it interesting. Going by the feedback I got so far and what I hear from gamers all around me, I can say that I was not alone with those experiences and encounters and that those problems still strive, maybe even got worse. So what was that exactly:
  • The leading question, right there at the beginning, was if the common conception that the DM is something like a "service provider" is justified and/or fair. Every concept, idea and problem that came up afterwards, from the polemic ate the beginning, including the thoughts about consumerism and closing with the thoughts about personal freedom versus development, originated from that question ...
  • The position of the DM in the social structure of many groups is at odds with the workload necessary to keep the game afloat. Even the minimalist approaches some people claimed to be the "cure" for the Sad DM need rules ownership, knowledge and understanding if not years of experience to make them work. I agree, they make DMing easier (OSR-blog, after all), but they don't come easily and people seem to forget that ...
  • There is no "institutionalized" (for lack of a better word) gaming culture other than the corporate one and the corporate one sucks. No club or association, no public presence but a fractured (often fighting) patchwork of contradicting forces, leaving beginning gamers with what they can get by sheer luck or corporate advice, nothing else.
  • There's also an alarming tendency towards highly individualized, self contained content customization, meaning we are able nowadays to get what we want far more easily and readily than what we might need. This separation results in a "I don't care"-culture and people just taking sides instead of discussing problems to actually solve them (see your next flamewar for examples). That's taking it a bit easy, but think Immanuel Kant's theory of Enlightenment applied on our usage of technology and how the described nonage separates us ...
  • Our hobby has to compete with so many other hobbies/past-times that way more easily customized and less dependent on other people, that we actually need to do something to keep our hobby attractive to newcomers.
  • It is established that our hobby produced alternatives to the traditional approach, sharing the needed investment to make it work between all participants equally (namely Dungeon World/Apocalypse World, for instance) or allowing for very condensed versions of the experience (one shot/indie-games like My Life with Master or 44: A Game of Automated Fear). I'm not yet ready to accept that they are a natural development instead of an alternative and think traditional games should still be possible.
The photographer had been naked, btw ... [source]
What's left is to offer my opinion to some of the questions that arose in the last two posts. Given how the discussion was spread across 4 days and three posts, there're already lots of opinions and answers around. Not only in the comments (here on the blog and on g+), there are two other discussions about the Sad DM that I'm aware of:
And that's it so far. Many words, many thoughts and if you stayed with me to this point, I definitely owe you some closure. Before I do that, I'd like to state the following reservation up front: I offer those solutions to the best of my knowledge and I truly believe that they have merit, but I have neither the audience nor the pull to actually get this realized any other way than locally (maybe), so what follows could merely be considered propositions and food for thought. If this really is what our hobby needs is another matter open for debate ... Anyway, let's get on with it.

Organized play

The main reason for the lack of appeal (and thus the lack of participation) to participate in an epic role playing campaign is (at least with older players) the limitation to a very small group of people. An example: We all know of the appeal of talking with other, like-minded people about playing one of the TSR classics. They might have heard of it or even played a specific module themselves, so there is common grounds, something to share. The more fractured and unorganized our hobby grows, the more impossible it becomes to achieve that level of common ground.

That's what I meant with separated. It's no problem at all to find people that like what you like, but they are usually all over the continent. And while we are able to connect virtually, we have to disconnect in real life (to some degree). So when I became a fan of the OSR movement a couple of years back and nobody in Germany gave a wet fart about that (still, to some extent) a huge portion of what really meant something for me had nothing to do with my immediate surrounding ...

LAN-Parties: this isn't a new idea ... [source]
Anyway, organized play. The idea here is to produce something that has an appeal beyond playing in a group. Club-organized would be best, as it gets a bit more official and public with something like a club helming it. Think chess clubs with their work shops and tournaments and leagues. Something like that, but you'd have to provide an official gaming board of sorts, a campaign setting. Actually, make that a living and breathing sandbox, with a history, lots of toys and a potential fate.

Now you'd need approved Dungeon Masters to play games in the official setting. They are basically allowed to influence the settings history and future under the rules necessary to make something like this work for any number of groups (schedules where changes can take place and go public and so on). Fringe benefits are newsletters as the world changes all around the group and people talking at club meetings about where they went in the official setting, what they saw and what they changed ... like adventurers would when they meet (I hope you see the appeal in this!).

Next thing would be DM-Rankings and maybe player levels. I think a mentor program for beginning DMs might be a nice idea ... Done right, it just shows what I've seen lacking in many places: the social perception of the DM as service provider changes to that of a narrator. Somewhat of an official, so to say. You want to participate? Get in contact with the club and see how they handle it.

Organize this between several clubs, and you have connected realms that might influence each other. Even tournaments would be very possible in an scenario like that (although difficult, tournament play is a strange beast in role playing games). Either way, with enough people involved you'll have fan fiction, fan art, modules/adventures, a whole setting! And at that point, depending on size and popularity, you may end up getting sponsorship by publishers ...

And that's that, if a club where to take the lead, controlling (to a degree) what will be played and where, the market shifts from dictating what is played and bought (5e is fine, but we need a 6th edition in about two years ...) to support. With mutual benefits, I might add. Because once a publisher makes, say, a setting or module public, they'll make advertisement not for a system (as such a thing should mostly be system agnostic) but for the social aspect of the hobby!

... and you all know what happened. [source]
Where have I seen this?

I know this might not be for everyone, but some might even have doubts tat something like that could work for our hobby. Work in a way that gets publishers interested. Well, the most obvious contender, although a MMORPG and very much corporate, would be World of Warcraft. Huge setting, several groups and leagues, ever changing, events, all that noise. Sure it's a bigger scope than I intent to have in my original argument and brutally expensive to begin with. But think about using all those concepts and ideas just locally and you'd have a lot to go with before you'd be out of ideas.

The first German role playing game, 1977. [source]
Another example is a German game called Magira, the Neverending Game (I dare not call it a role playing game since they started playing it in 1966 ...). The Wikipedia-link only offers the German version, I'm afraid, but google translate will offer some great insights into a game about simulating a fantasy world that's organized by a club (FOLLOW, sorry, all German again) for 50 years now! They have several annual publications (500 pages plus per publication about history, events, art and so on), conventions where they rent a castle to have enough room for all the people ...

They are also publishers of the first role playing game in Germany: Empires of Magira (1977!) I'm sorry, this is some very obscure knowledge, but I just found out that the Hill Cantons had a post about it in 2011, so there you go. Empire had been the grandfather, so to say, of another great and old German role playing game: Midgard. And that's nowadays in it's fifth edition! Add book publications and all that and you get an idea what's possible.

There should be more examples and maybe somewhere out there is somebody with first hand experience about such a thing. What I'm saying here is that I think it's a good idea to do what we did in our hobby to begin with: organize as gamers and play the game to it's full potential. At least have that option for players, you know?

The Emancipated Gamer

This is a short one, but important nonetheless. Some of the discussions the last few days had been about how the Sad DM made many, many mistakes (which was the point, but anyway) and one that was pointed out very often, was that he'd planned too much ahead. It's difficult to assert where we actually start preparing our games, but learning the rules is definitely in there somewhere in the beginning. And that means, it almost always starts with some sort of product.

Sure, some are lucky enough to learn how it's done from a DM they know, but even something like that could go several directions, not all of them being positive. What I'm trying to say is that becoming a DM is difficult and that although we have now decades of experience around to share. But the hobby is too fractured and we lack proper definitions or a canon (remember that "Love letter for your favorite game"-community project? That was a brilliant idea close to what I'm talking about here!).

Something like this would be useful, maybe?
So you go with the products you use or what you can gather online. If you are lucky, you'll get it right fast enough. But I believe it'll go just as often the other way. In a way this is very close to the argument I'm making for organized play. DMing is not necessarily an occupation, but referees of all kinds of sports all over the world are able to get certified and learn what they have to do and how. What's missing for game masters is that it's publicly recognized occupation to begin with.

Is it so different from being an author or writer? Well, to solve this, we'd need to clarify if role playing is an art form or a sport, for instance. That's what I mean with a lack of definitions and why we need to organize apart from the industry. In short, we need a lobby. Or something like that. Why is it that we never get to discuss what role playing games actually are and what they could (or should?) be for society? I know there are uses for therapy (read somewhere it's already done, but can't find it ...) and we all know what we can learn from playing. But nobody cares? Why?

Anyway, part of that whole idea to work on something resembling a "gaming culture" (as we don't have that) is to collect and condense the experience of 4 decades of history into an easy accessible guide for DMs, a system agnostic breviary or pamphlet, of sorts ... I know there are several books that try to encompass this sort of thing, for instance (but none of them short or free or in any other language than English or easily accessible, btw), and advice is all over the place, some good, some bad, some debatable. But did we actually do any progress in any of that?

Alright, enough for today

Did I catch all loose ends? I'm not sure, but please consider checking out the forum discussion linked to above, as the discussion (from page two onward) actually covers several additional angles to what I wrote here (a book trade angle, for instance, how writers didn't get any kind of recognition only a couple of hundred years ago, or think about copyright ... stuff like that). And I'm really getting tired right now ...

The DM without a cause is happy now! [source]
So a bit more closure. Nothing of this is new, of course, TSR tried it at least up until 2e AD&D and I think this is to a good degree because of the hobby origin TSR had. All that changed with 3e and in a worse case scenario, the coast dwelling wizards will do to D&D what they did with Magic: a corporate controlled gaming environment that is perceived as the standard.

Well, I believe we can do better than this. And I know, all of this sounds like frecking politics and as I wrote above, I'm not even in a position to start a movement like this. But I'd really, really like to see that our hobby, with it's millions and millions of players all over the world should be recognized as socially relevant.

Just for comparison, WoW has around 2.5 million players right now (according to this source), is that really more than those playing table top role playing games? I don't think so (actually, this source here talks about 5 million alone playing D&D, and that's a couple of years back ...). So if something has that big of an cultural impact (also that last link, around 20 million people world wide are estimated to have played D&D at some point in the past and that's 8 years ago and not mentioning other role playing games), how is it that there is no unified effort to make it public?

I'm sorry, this ended up being more meandering than I intended. I don't even know where I'm supposed to end this right now. We have a great hobby, with some huge potential to be even more than that. Think about the possibilities in therapy or education, for instance, think about the possibilities to have this recognized as art or sport ... All of this is possible, nothing of it will happen if nobody starts working on it. And who else but us, those who played it for decades with dedication, would be most qualified to start that kind of dialogue.

Friday, October 14, 2016

More from the Unhappy DM (and other sad thoughts) - Part 2

As it happens every so often, it's the posts I hesitate to publish that get the most traction. Thanks for the lively response, guys! One problem with three-parters like this is that it's hard to follow up on the first one, especially if people already made up their mind what's it all about. So I'll go ahead and use parts of a post here I wrote and not only hesitated but didn't publish at all because I thought it's too bleak in its outlook. I'm glad that the response so far indicates that it will meet some understanding ...

If you haven't read Part 1, you might want to start here.


Technology has separated us. We all live in our individual little bubbles and our real life social circles overlap less and less with our digital ones. Some might say family and work will do that to you and that's life. And I would say, it is bullshit. Fact is that we are often forced to work irrational hours and times to earn enough money for the portions of entertainment we want to consume, paying extra for it being "flexible" or a "service" when, in the end, we are just milked and burned out and milked again ...

Pogo [source]**
But I digress. No, really, the current understanding of "work" is a big social problem and that's all fine and dandy, but it's the consequences that really get me riled up nowadays. Our use of technology (or how technology uses us?) may have started as a practical substitute for real life interaction, but with highly diversified life styles and the possibilities of customization, we are, well, fucked.

An individual won't need much more than internet access and some sort of device to use it with to be totally independent from everything else. Customized tv show schedules, enough games to play several lifespans, customized news and opinions. You'd never need anything else, you can just let go and ... drift. It's really that bad and getting worse*.

I could go on and tell you that this happens in cycles and hasn't changed the last 30-something years ... movies, music, cloth, trends, everything gets recycled relentlessly and we are not at a dead end in our development, we are in a brutal, advertise-fueled downward spiral to powerless uniformity. Gleichschaltung, as some bad Germans said in a dark time that should be well behind us, but is everywhere around us instead ...

As I said, I could go on, but this is about gaming and you might just as well see Demolition Man (1993) or Matrix (1999) or V for Vendetta (2006) for entertaining mainstream-ideas where we are heading and Fight Club (1999, based on a novel from 1996) to get an idea why (all four movies and ideas at least 10 years old, based on other ideas far off the mainstream way before that ...). Or go and read 1984.

Change begins with seeing the problem and communicating it. Realizing that we are, indeed and to some extent, slaves to consumerism out of the necessity to "work for a living" (and vice versa) means at least questioning this vicious cycle and maybe looking for an out ...

What's the problem again?

Alright, with that we have the second piece of the puzzle: people are separated. The third piece to understand the Sad DM is, paradoxically so, our need to relate. The smaller the special fragments are that make our life, the harder it gets to find others with the same interests. An easy fix here are mass phenomena. Be a Harry Potter fan and you'll find access easy enough. Dedicate yourself to it and you might end up having a voice, too!

Every niche has fandom like that, but the reason for mainstream being so popular is the low level of investment with relatively high pay-off. That's why we love to take sides. Pokemon GO, Game of Thrones, Star Wars ... you just need to consume to be with the crowd. And the beauty of it is, that the only thing you really need to do is just that: pay for it and invest very little brain capacity. In other words, dedicating your free time to do nothing at all.

On the spectrum now between Extreme Ironing and seeing Big Bang Theory to have something to talk about at work, I'd put role playing games more towards the ironing side of things. It's a niche and we know it. So the problem here is clear: a guy (or girl) dedicating enough time to learn a rule system and create some adventure, maybe even a campaign, maybe using a game that's not so popular (or just old), will more often than not come to a point where the effort doesn't generate the outside dedication it deserves ... And at that point it feels damn close to Extreme Ironing.

Extreme Ironing is a thing now ... [source]
Add people being people to this and every amount of time a campaign manages to gather is a small wonder indeed. But even then, players only prepare for games in the rarest cases and often only come to get entertained instead of contributing, group harmony is always a problem and the more people are estranged from each other (for the reasons stated above) the harder it gets to make gaming a unified effort. Every DM knows aspects of that story told in Part 1, I'm sure.

Now you add family or other social responsibilities and see what's left as soon as you are out of school or university. But it actually goes deeper. The whole SJW phenomenon is somehow connected to this, flame wars fit here as well, as people lose their ability (or decency, because internet) to communicate properly. You don't have to look far to read something stupid on the internet ... And all of that cooks down to:

Freedom is a problem

Yes, I said that. Especially if you are not free and believe everything is free choice. It is actually something like this: in getting told we are - within restrictions -  free to do as we please and do what we want, we are mislead to take the easy road. With telling us, we are perfect as we are and the possibility to keep this delusion alive by having our very own, highly individualized echo chambers, we are raised to ignore that truly interacting with others has the chance of discovering things about us we hadn't been aware of. We are taught into stagnation instead of development.
It's a problem ... [source]
At times I think every possibility for us to learn from the past or to evolve beyond a stage developed in the 1980s, is short-circuited like that to keep us, I don't know, unorganized and paralyzed? Doesn't matter, as those problems exist and we are free able to dedicate our time to do something against those problems (I wanted to add "until they come for us", but that'd sound outright paranoid, right?). Role playing games are, in my humble opinion, one tool to make such a difference.

So what can we do to make this actually work?

Dedication, recognition and ... more work?!

I'm trying something new here: shorter posts and closing with more questions than answers. Part 3 will take care of the rest and connect all the dots as far as I can see them. Humanity has a great gift of evolving through sharing experiences and I think we (or say: most of us) are losing our connection to that drive. That's what we get isolated for, that's why the Sad DM is sad more often than not, maybe it's even why role playing gamers got hunted down in the eighties as satanists or get ridiculed today by shows like Big Bang Theory, maybe it's also why the market would rather see us buying than talking, making and sharing ... I'll leave it at that for now for you to contemplate upon.

And I hope we can continue the lively discussion that started with Part 1. Comments are, as always, very welcome.

Some final thoughts about the Sad DM: It seemed like lots of people took the story about the Sad DM really to heart, but many added that the poor guy had been set up for heartbreak for planning his whole campaign in advance. The story isn't very clear about how he exactly prepared it, but that's not me being clever, it just allowed (in its unintentional vagueness) for some room to project our own ideas in there how he did it. The reactions show that many actually assume he did the very same mistakes so many of us did in their early DM years: going all-in with a super snowflake scenario, having non-player characters essential for the main plot (okay, that part is in there but a classic as far as rookie mistakes go) and putting so much work in there in general that he couldn't anything else but fail.

If I had written somewhere in the beginning that our Sad DM is, say, 16 years old, there'd been just some nodding and the consensus that he'll learn ... And that's a big part of the problem as I see it. There are better ways to prepare campaigns today. Those DMs needn't be alone, as we have decades of experience worth sharing***. Which leads to almost the same questions that came up at the end of Part 1: What do publishers actually do to make it easy on the new customer (or why don't they?)? Where is that recognition? Why isn't there a general platform (a lobby?) dedicated to support and spread our hobby from the very core, like you'd have for chess, for instance? Because, let's be honest, when all is said and done, it's bullshit to discuss what people should be playing and way more important to get dice into hands, right?

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself again and like to get back to what this post here had been about by closing with a reminder from Orwell's 1984 (the slogan of the fascists that control the world in the book):
That book doesn't have an happy ending. Think about that for a second ... And then, maybe read on in Part 3.

* Check out Her (2014), if you haven't already. That's what's coming for us in the very foreseeable future. And once this happens, the isolation will be complete.

** Special Thanks to +JD McDonnell for sharing this picture. The perfect fit for this post!

*** And I'd like to think we do that at least partially with blogs and forums and what-not. But is it really effective? Look around, use what I've written above: it's all echo chambers or vehicles for advertisements. There's no movement right now with enough punch to force a change. That's another strength of capitalist culture, actually: labeling trends to isolate them, then commercialize what swims to the top, building another monetary border where the logic of the market dictates instead of the human drive to evolve from experience. See the changes in the OSR as an example here, if you will.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Unhappy DM (and other sad thoughts) - Part 1

This is the first part of a long October post-series about Dungeon Masters being people too and why all that matters and how role playing games are more than a product. All are topics that come up every once in a while, here and irl. Since it's rare to read something about those aspects of our hobby, I thought I'd oblige ... So here are some thoughts questioning the common conception of the DM being a "service provider" and searching for some causes. It's all very connected, I think.

A very cruel story (the DM in a nut shell)

[the events here are staged to protect the innocent] So a guy shells out 150 bucks for the new D&D 5e core books, sits down for months to prepare a setting and a campaign about a fragile princess that needs protection, just like in The Neverending Story. There is maps and dungeons and non-player characters, a collection of pictures he likes and a sandbox full of hooks to keep the players busy while also doing some learning of the new rules, testing them on the side and working his problems through the forums. Months of preparation and transition, I tell you, while he has his regular game running as usual (of course).

The Neverending Story: All kinds of weird ... but in a good way! [source]
Somewhere towards the end of his preparations, he starts teasing the players with the new campaign. Maybe just mails and pictures, maybe a dedicated blog or a fb-page or forum. Interest is low (maybe a bit higher as it'd be usually, due to the fact that 5e is the new cool kid on the block ...) and he trucks along: sends around write-ups about the setting, possible character backgrounds and pictures.

Then the first player comes and says something like "Why not just play in the Forgotten Realms?! We have always been in the Forgotten Realms!". Others agree and the DM is forced to buy more books (because he needs the newest iteration, of course) ... let's say that's another 50 bucks. He's able to salvage most of his work so far and finds a place to put the new characters in. Just a little extra work, right?

The old campaign comes to an end and the new one needs some coordination. 2 players say they'd like to pause a bit (but actually want to play FATE instead) so new players are needed. It's easy enough to get replacements through the rest of the players and their connections ("my girlfriend always wanted to play ..." or "I know a guy who'd be game!") and all is well until it turns out that one of the regular players has a problem with one of the newcomers because of another game they played in together and things get all political and she leaves ...

In the end there's a completely new group constellation in a setting the DM doesn't particularly like or hasn't his heart in, anyway (and with the guy that made the original request been gone too, adding injury to insult) and with a bad taste of politics before the new game could even begin.

Next thing you know: scheduling the game is a bitch. People have other things to do. Festivals in the summer, other games they are more invested in, life in general, you name it. To keep them all happy the DM ends up playing board games with those players available, waiting for the moment when the stars are right and everyone has time.

Good thing is, he gets a feel for the new players. Bad thing is, he really doesn't get along with one of them. The reasons here are secondary, but he just thinks he doesn't want the guy in his game. There are implications, of course, as it's a good friend of one of the players who stayed for the new campaign and there's always the possibility of bad blood because of such a thing. So he leaves it as it is.

And then that day happens. All have time, all are there. The new campaign can begin!

Our DM wants a good start and goes all in with the preparation: miniatures, painted and paid for, dungeon tiles, background music ... he even practices how to play the NPCs to full effect! Character creation is the first hurdle, though. THAT GUY wants to play some class from one of the Forgotten Realms source-books and it doesn't fit. There's an argument and it's going on for so long that the DM just gives up to get the rest of the game set up properly. He can always ignore THAT GUY and his character ...

Anyway, characters are made, pizza was ordered and eaten, the game starts and the DM weaves his magic. People get into it, fun is had and as the characters meet that fragile princess so important for the whole campaign, one player destroys it all by saying: "Yeah, well, I stab her IN THE FACE!", high-fiving his neighbor and celebrating his little destructive impulse with stupid laughter.
Made a puppy cry, too ... [source 1 and source 2]
After all, it's just a game. Right?

A true story? No, not entirely.

The above is fiction in as far as it never happened to me as described there. But I have experienced parts of it, heard others and read about even more. So you could say it's a pastiche of things I know happened to people helming a role playing game. As a matter of fact, the list of small slights, impersonal carelessness, unsocial behavior or in-group politics doesn't end with what I illustrated in that little story above. It's merely scratching the surface, I'm afraid.

That's a problem.

There is something about role playing games that defies the very core of the society big parts of us live in: you just need some rules, some dice and some friends and you can play one and the same game ad infinitum and you are set for life. You can do all of this yourself and it's possible to play it completely without technical support. It's a capitalist's nightmare and all you need to do to make it happen is ... well, you only need to refrain from doing something else.

Isn't it strange how people get committed to something like a tv series or a movie franchise but have a hard time bringing the same enthusiasm into a pursuit where we actually could be part of very much the same instead of just, you know, consuming it? Well, there're phenomena like World of Warcraft where you come pretty close to participating in a way you'd as a player in a role playing game. But people still have to pay for it and do so very willingly. So what's that all about?

Consumerism, recognition in the hobby and all that ...

My ventures into consumerism grew into a massive post in its own right, so it will be in Part 2. The short of it is, we are so trained to getting everything - especially our entertainment! - packed in friendly little doses that it's getting harder and harder to step away from this and do something by ourselves. But why that is and how all that is connected to why we somehow on the one side expect a DM to do all the work and on the other hand don't get involved enough to invest our time because it doesn't cost a thing, well, all that is part of that next post.

It's bothering me a bit that I just described the problem in this post here and couldn't hint towards solutions or anything. But I hope some of it rang true with some of you. I hope this will help starting a discussion and maybe raise an awareness to some aspects of our hobby that get neglected far too often: the fact that DMs do all the work, inside and outside the game. We organize, we socialize, we do all that is necessary to make a group of people ... happy? For what exactly? Why isn't that appreciated enough? Where are the publishers actually supporting DMs for playing their games? Not just with free swag (which is nice, of course), but with ... I don't know, workshops, badges, recognition beyond what was paid for ...

Alright, I'll stop for now. This is all over the place and while I need to go far deeper down that particular rabbit hole, I'll also write a bit about what can be done and what has already been done. That'd be Part 3, though.

If you want to add to this, feel free to comment and tell us about your experiences and thoughts about being a DM and if it really is that thankless an endeavor to spend your time with.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Rethinking Armor Class and Damage for the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (DIY RPG Design)

Still no chimpanzee character class ... but soon, my friends. For today I have something else on my mind: just read a post over at Mesmerized by sirens about an obscure (and old) AD&D clone and the librarian showcased a little rule from that game. A rule that lets you hit the armor, too, on occasions and I like that. Already thought about using it, even. But then I read a comment that it became a bit cumbersome to use in the game. Well, I thought a bit about alternative takes on the problem and here we are ... writing an alternative combat system!

This is a test.

It's all about the dynamics of combat, right?

Just started to DM a bit D&D RC on the side the other day. Something light between play-testing Lost Songs of the Nibelungs. Now back in the saddle, I realize, I still like most of my house rules. But there are those I need to replace and most of that is related to combat. I toyed a bit with Weapon Mastery and I think I won't do that anymore (fast and furious is what it should be right now). Initiative is still a problem and cooperation is not really supported by the rules ...

It's little problems and little adjustments here and there, as it has ever been. There is one thing I never got around integrating into the game and that is what happens when an attack misses but would have hit if the character didn't wear armor. It's just a little thing to add a bit color to a fight, but it helps emphasizing that armor actually saves lives. It should have an impact in the game other than being numbers you remember.

Anyway, I'll cut to the chase. We have four categories of armor in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia: none, light, medium and heavy. That's your unmodified Base Armor Class (BAC) and three ways to alter that with equipment. My proposal now is relatively simple: light armor reduces  the BAC by 1, medium armor reduces it by 2 and heavy armor reduces it by 3. So with a BAC of 9 you'll end up with 8 (light), 7 (medium) and 6 (heavy armor). That'll make them easier to hit, going with the combat matrix of D&D. The idea now is to compensate that by raising the damage dice up to 3 categories: from d6 Base Damage (BD) (normal damage) to d8 (against light armor) to d10 (against medium armor) to d12 (against heavy armor).

I have no words ...[source]
That means raising it by two points each, which has us ending up with the following connotation:
  • BD none 1d6 (-)
  • BD light 1d8 (2)
  • BD medium 1d10 (4)
  • BD heavy 1d12 (6)
So if you hit a target, you might end up hitting its armor instead (a result in the indicated range) and if you roll above, you deal damage (minus the indicated range). I'll use those lower results to reduce Endurance (all combatants have [4 + HD (+/- modifier)] Endurance] and lose 1 point or more per round*) ... the price of wearing armor.
Example: An attack with a sword hits against medium armor. Damage is rolled with a 1d10 and comes up with a 3. The cut is deflected by the armor (dealing 3 damage to Endurance, playing it my way). If that had been an 8, though, the hit would have dealt 4 damage (8 - 4 because BD medium 1d8 (4), thinking of it as "above 4" should also do the trick).
With that established, we can talk a bit more about damage now ...


Let's talk damage. Base Damage (BD) for medium sized creatures is 1d6. You use a small weapon, it's 2d6, take the lower result. You use big weapons (or both hands with a normal weapon), it's 2d6, take higher result.

If you go a size category higher, the die also gets a category higher. So huge creatures have a base d8 and giant creatures have a d10 (with the same rules as described above ... claws of a giant dragon, for instance, will use 2d10 and take the lower result) and gargantuan creatures will have 1d12.

I've known fights like that :D [source]
I'm hesitating to give small creatures the d4 ... Let's try that for melee, with the d6 for ranged combat (mirroring the halfling's ranged combat bonus) and a bonus when fighting armored enemies (see below). Rest is as above.

To avoid that characters with high STR continually circumvent those rules, I'd say that bonuses only apply if the result is over (armor class).

Armor and Damage

Now we'll find out what happens if we apply the armor rules above. The easy part is, you can't scale down. So an Ogre will deal 1d8 BD until he fights someone with medium armor or higher (which means: 1d8 (-), 1d8 (2), 1d10 (4) and 1d12 (6)).

The next thing is, you always scale up as written. That's the benefit I talked about when halflings fight someone wearing armor: they'd deal the indicated damage (so versus light armor, they actually get the d8 (2)).

Let's talk Weapons

Weapon size already has an impact, but I'd like to talk a bit about different types of weapons, too. There are basically 3 aspects a weapon can have: slashing, piercing and bludgeoning (the easy variant, of course ...**).

SLASHING - If you do more damage than you would need to dispatch an enemy, you are allowed to cut the next enemy with the rest damage if it is in reach of the weapon (no extra attack, just pass the damage). If that follow up enemy has armor, give the (armor class) as endurance damage and the rest as lethal damage. CRITICAL HITS: Apply modifiers against BD and double the damage (which means that STR might help overcoming (armor class) and that the result above (armor class) is doubled)!

PIERCING - If you roll maximum damage with a piercing weapon, the enemy will lose 1 hp every round from the next round on (either because of bleeding or because something is sticking in him, dealing internal damage). If that damage was dealt with a melee weapon, the attacker can decide to push it further in, which would count as an automatic hit every round he does so but would also take away his mobility (effectively reducing his BD by half). CRITICAL HITS: Maximum Damage, ignore armor, keep the die (you'll do 12 hp unmodified damage, then, against heavy armor)!

BLUDGEONING - If a damage roll against armor only does Endurance damage, an attacker is allowed to add his STR bonus to the Endurance damage (it's that special Umph of blunt weapons ...). If the resulting Endurance Damage succeeds the (armor class), the enemy also needs to make a saving throw versus paralysis or fall down. CRITICAL HITS: Deal damage to Endurance and HP, destroy piece of armor (magic items get a save ...)!

Weapon restrictions for characters still apply as written.

Loose Ends

As it is with complex systems like D&D combat, there'll be some strays that need taking care of:

AIMED HITS - Attacker may take penalty to attack roll as additional damage to BD roll (actually to overcome (armor class), if necessary).
Example (aimed hit with sword against heavy armor): Goes for the head, takes a -8 penalty on attack roll, so it's 1d12 (+8 - 6) damage in the end (unmodified maximum of 14 with a sword ...).
SNEAK ATTACKS - Double damage, reduced by (armor class).
Example (dagger against medium armor): 2d10, take lowest - double result - reduce result by 4 (16 points unmodified damage are possible).
ECHO (old house rule) - Rolling the unmodified maximum on a die allow to add another roll, but one die category lower (d20 - d12 - d10 - d8 - d6 - d4). This still applies for damage rolls, but all follow up dice also need to overcome (armor class) or they'll only deal Endurance damage. Follow up dice are always single dice. This will change some of the results above, but not by much.
Example (two-handed sword versus light armored foe): Successful attack allows for 2d8, take higher result - an 8 comes up (6 damage) and another d6 (single) is allowed - result of 1 or 2 means additional Endurance damage/result of 3 to 5 means 1 to 3 points additional damage/result of 6 means 4 points additional damage and adding another d4 working with the same principles (maximum damage that way would be 12 hp).
MAGICAL BONUSES - Magical bonuses on weapons should apply to the to-hit (as usual) and to overcome (armor class), which means it counts for the original roll and not (like STR-modifiers) after lethal damage is established. Magical armor will reduce the Base Armor Class.
Example (Club +1 versus heavy armor +3): To hit a Heavy Armor +3 means hitting a Base Armor Class of 3, so a normal human would need a result of 17 or more to hit that AC - if that normal human would use a Club +1, he'd only need a 16 to hit the target and he'd only need to roll over 5 with the d12 to deal hp damage (or, alternatively, roll 1d12+1(6)).
SHIELDS - Nothing changes.

The last point I can think of. And a tricky one at that. The Rules Cyclopedia is not necessarily famous for being detailed about how different armor class ratings come to pass other than stating that it is a mix of DEX-modifier and thick skin/scales and maybe armor. That's the moment where you have to decide a few things, the first among them would be what kind of armor the monster is wearing (or what the skin/scales/etc. should count for). According to this you'll have to reduce the given AC by either 2 (light armor), 4 (medium armor) or 6 (heavy armor).

That's a jousting cat armor ... enough said. [source]
The result is the Base Armor Class the characters need to hit and the Base Damage you get (reduced by 2 would mean the BD is 1d8 (2) and so on). In extreme cases you could go and decide that natural armor should account for more than 1d12 (6). In those cases it should be okay to raise the (6) to something higher (but not higher than 12 and that only if you use ECHO described above).

Last Thoughts

This turned out to be quite complete, but also more complicated than I had hoped. I still think that it'll be easier to use at the table (as in: I just need to know those basics to improvise every encounter just based on a description) and also offers some tactical choices and fun results along the way (people getting stabbed or thrown to the ground or slashing all over the place is always fun!).

The only thing I have to give up here would be a more detailed approach to armor (as in: when it says you wear light armor, then that's what you are wearing ... there are no 3 different kinds light anymore). But for that you get to know when armor is hit and to what effect. I'm tempted to tinker with initiative and maneuvers, too. But that's for another post.

We'll test in on Friday and see if it flows :) Comments are, as always, very welcome. Is it an alternative or is it by itself again too baroque to really make the effort worth it?

* If Endurance is reduced to zero it needs a INT-check to cast spells and every point below that reduces AC and to-hit by 1. This goes on until a negative value equal to the original Endurance is reached, at which point fighting becomes impossible and a save versus paralysis is necessary to keep consciousness ... 

** It's easy enough to go the Weapon Mastery way with this, expanding it with very specific abilities for some weapons. I'm still resisting the urge ...

Thursday, September 29, 2016

GrognardPunk (or how we need proper definitions to discuss games and all that)

Today I'll be revisiting another post of mine. But instead of talking about how I changed my opinion towards something I wrote more than 3 years ago, I'll post and expand upon a fragment I didn't use in the original post. It's been sitting in my drafts for a long time now and I think it might be of interest to some of you. As the title suggests, it relates to gaming ... a bit. 


I wrote a DungeonPunk Counter-Manifesto a while back. It was a response to another manifest that I just couldn't let stand as it is, so I presented an alternative. My initial post back then actually had a long introduction to my train of thought and reference points. But, as those things sometimes go, it started to overwhelm the original idea to formulate a counter-manifest. So I dropped it, thinking that people who know about "punk" and read my response will relate to what I made (or not).

Post modern approach about it ... [source]
It's the nature of manifests that they are individual expressions claiming their statements as general truths. In the context of the exchange of manifests above, I thought it became clear that it is simply different approaches to give a bit color to that theater of the mind we call our hobby. Because, you know, when all is said and done, we are just talking elfgames here. So there's another reason to drop the analytics in the original post: it's all fiction. Nothing more than a thought experiment about how the punk-attitude could (or should?) manifest when playing an old school game of D&D. How to play a punk to play a game.

Successful or not, that's what I did in the original post. It's not about "look how punk I am!!!" or being one of the cool kids, it's not even "this is how it's done!". It's just how I'd do it in the given context and as a response to an attempt I don't agree with (and which I basically interpreted as a hedonist attempt to assimilate punk ...).

All that aside, there are good reasons to talk about the origins of words, their changes over time or how semantics illustrate that no meaning of words is really fixed and why we need even more words to attempt something like a definition. Not to formulate a truth, but to find a common ground to communicate.

So what's this about again? Here's that (slightly altered) fragment (also check this definition of PunkPunk if you haven't in the original post):


Authenticity and the Punk

I have to admit, it all gets a bit fuzzy down the decades, but if you get to the core of it, it's quite easy to see what punk could be. Wiki quote:
"Punk-related ideologies are mostly concerned with individual freedom and anti-establishment views. Common punk viewpoints include anti-authoritarianism, a DIY ethic, non-conformity, direct action and not selling out." (from here)*
Right? Right. Nothing about fashion or music here. It's all about attitude. Anything else would be posing, then.

Also interesting is the history of the word. It was already around in late medieval times and meant a piece of rotten wood, at best suitable as tinder. It is documented for the first time in 1596 and Shakespeare used it in Measure for Measure (1603/04) to describe a prostitute. After that it was used to describe homosexuals, which changed in the 1920's to describe a rookie, especially among criminals (source is the German Wikipedia page about the punk subculture here). Words are funny that way.

But what does that mean for a genre? It needs to illustrate a world that leaves room for something like that. A dark and oppressing world, where enough young people are powerless and uncontrolled (because insignificant) enough to form an active subculture and desperately "fight" the establishment with some Nihilism in the mix. Cyberpunk got that right (as a genre and as a role playing game). Warhammer is the closest to DungeonPunk I know of.

And one of those three is a poser ... [source]
The "Posers"

I don't see that for Steampunk, to be honest. Sure, you could have a clock-driven artificial limb, but that's from the cyber part of Cyberpunk. Our perception of the Victorian Era doesn't lend itself easily to a punk attitude. Too distinguished, too sophisticated in our historical view of it, with the establishment on its rise to power. So for me, it's mostly just posing with the tropes. As do most of the others. Let's see some highlights.

Stone Punk has The Flintstones as the prime example. There is no need to comment any further...

Eberron is strongly associated with DungeonPunk. Nothing against the setting, but that label rubs me just wrong. Here is part of a short description (tv tropes being the source again):
"It's a Dungeon Punk setting influenced by pulp serials, Indiana Jones and Film Noir, as opposed to classical High Fantasy. Eberron has taken a different path compared to most D&D settings in that it averts and subverts most classical D&D tropes." (from here)
See the discrepancies? Indiana Jones is pulp and the pulp serials where inspired by noir fiction which has some roots in the modernist movement Expressionism and, arguably, Poetic Realism. Anyway, I digress. None of that is associated with punk. It's the default setting for DDO, no punk there either.

Going down the list, one might realize that most other punk punk iterations (including Steampunk) are closer to the pulp serials we know and love than to anything punk. That's not a bad thing. It's just not what the name suggests.


And here's the expansion:

Well, that's Semantics for you ...

And that's maybe the morale of the story: words and their meaning change over time and instead of arguing what punk is in the definition I quoted above, I could just as well say that all the people talking about punk really talk about a weak piece of wood, only worth to start a fire (if at all), with another guy arguing it's all about prostitutes ... All this is right, to some degree, as the word held all those meanings at some point or another. Some of those meanings went obsolete and new meanings are added on a regular basis. And occasionally a word will hold contradicting meanings until common use has sorted it out.

Steampunk is a good example for the process, actually, as it shows how common use and acceptance forces an additional semantic dimension onto a word when used in another context (steam + punk) because referencing another strong denotation (cyber + punk). In that sense steampunk is nothing more but the Victorian interpretation of the cyberpunk aesthetic and not the attitude (with the (weak?) attempt to somehow make it work by using airship pirates, because pirates are long gone at the end of the 19th century but way more punk than the Victorian Era could ever be**).
How is that "punk"? Well, it isn't. [source]
It's all good, then. Things change and punk just isn't punk anymore. Right? Well, not so much. The whole idea of language being a fluid concept that is used to communicate content includes us using it and a change in language is actually a compromise between opposing forces: those who want a change and those who want to keep it as it is. We are all more or less active parts of this and as such responsible for what happens, which leads to:

The Evil That is Google! [cue for dramatic music]

Well, I guess I screwed my ranking just now ... Anyway, the internet is our general source for information these days. You want to know something, you "google" it (another word, a completely artificial one at that, gaining additional semantic dimensions because of common use). The phenomenon I'm talking about here is that the further you get away from what is considered mainstream, the more obscure get the sources.

What I'm saying is: google "sandbox", for example, or "OSR" and it's people like me you'll stumble across. Our hobby is too young to have anything resembling a codified definition of most of the terms we use to communicate gaming thoughts. That's a problem and a process, that's what we write about and why we write about it. It's also why we have said responsibility.

And that right there is the reasoning behind my original post. Check for the word DungeonPunk (as I originally did in 2013) and it won't turn up much (still doesn't). So when I encountered something that went against every definition I could find about punk, I felt obliged to propose a public alternative***. Not that it had (or has) any kind of impact for anything but my own gaming ideas, but it is out there and people can use it to form their own opinion based on my findings.


"grognard", another word that accumulated additional meanings and strayed somewhat from its original denotation. Well, GrognardPunk doesn't exist as such, really (and obviously means "grumbling rookie", for those wondering :P ). I mean, the definition above actually describes the DIY-niche of our hobby as well as it describes punk. Grognard (as we understand it) might pair up nicely with punk, but I could also say that's a weakness of the definition itself and it definitely doesn't mean we are all punks now (a problem you'll get for finding common denominators). So that's my last thought on the whole shebang: if you do it, do it thoroughly but stay open minded ...

MonkeyPunk? [source]
I think that definitions and semantics are important when discussing, well, anything worth discussing. Because if we at least share the common understanding that it is all open for debate and if we discuss to explore what it all could mean instead of who is "right" and who is "wrong", well, then (and only then) we are able to gain some insight from it and might end up being better than we were before. But that just doesn't happen if we are rigid, uptight, political or ignorant about those things. Topics like "what punk means?" or "what is a sandbox?" matter, that's why they are discussed. That's why they deserve to be treated with sincerity (which starts, for instance, with finding out what a word actually could mean, before using it for a manifest).

I should really write something about chimpanzee ninjas next ...

* Is anyone else seeing the parallels to what we came to call the OSR? We should call it GrognardPunk...

** In the end it's all fiction, of course, and pirates are kind of like punks, so Steampunk does kind of work ... but it helps to show that you have to bend the source a bit to make it work good. ClockworkPunk might apply when using pirates for real, I think :)

*** Of course I can see now that the combination dungeon + punk is supposed to reference steam + punk and, consequentially, cyber + punk. The thing is that while "steam" resonates quite well with "cyber" (one technology substituting another, so to say), the same can't be true for "dungeon". And "dungeon" being a really weak link here puts a lot of pressure on the "punk" side of things, linguistically speaking ...

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Random Narrative Generator (a picaresque fairytale sandbox experience for LSotN)

Well, that's something I've worked on for some time now: an advanced and expanded version of the D30 Table of Picaresque Storydevelopment! I had some time to test the whole thing, too, and I think that this (or something very close to it) will be the main DM-tool for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs. It also links to my last post and the discussion with +Ripper X that followed under it and the one with +Ed Ortiz on g+ (which is connected to a post about the social rules of sandbox-play on his blog Dungeons & Dutch Ovens and spawned some discussions on its own). This post shall illustrate my thinking, then: it's a method to weave a random story around a group playing in a sandbox ...

But first some theory.

1. Collaborative Storytelling

This is, in essence, what role playing is all about. It's an experience somewhere between reading a book (interpreting a literary language into a coherent narrative or understanding) and playing a team sport (a competitive social endeavor using rules to achieve a defined goal). The book part applies because we "read" the social interactions and the random signifiers the rules produce like we'd use a literary language to read a book. The team sport aspect applies because we adhere to a set of rules (traditionally) enforced by some kind of referee to advance some sort of story about a group of individuals working together to experience adventures. The result of that is just that: collaborative storytelling.

We actually do this for a long time now ...
All those aspects qualify it, in my opinion, for the use of traditional story telling mechanisms (like they established in literary theory and whatnot). Following that train of thought, role playing being a communication medium in its own right means that those theories and ideas need to be adapted to it to be effective. For that we must not as much answer what kind of stories we tell but what structure naturally emerges when we get down to tell them. In my experience the picaresque is the best fit in most cases, especially for campaign and sandbox play.

Lost Songs as a setting also brings the Dark Ages and its epics into the fold, a lot of it being the source for fairy tales nowadays (fairy tales can be described as the very same legends festered though the centuries and with a romantic spin in the end ...). So that's the kind of story I want to have in my games. Coming more or less from an "old school" D&D background, I almost immediately started to look for random tools to use for that ("almost" because I actually used D&D to fill the gaps when I started testing Lost Songs ...).

The hardest tools to substitute turned out to be the classic Random Encounter Table and the Monster/NPC Reaction Tables. They had been so essential to my DMing style that anything else but using them felt like coming up with stuff. Well, a few months ago I came across that chart structuring all fairy tales down to 31 kinds of development written by Vladimir Propp (chart is on the wiki page, too) and instantly thought I could use that in the game, as randomizing it would necessarily result in a picaresque chain of events ...

2. The Narrative and the Sandbox

Where from does the narrative emerge in the sandbox game? The DM offers, the players decide? Or the DM puts them in there and the players explore it to find them? All that, to a degree, and none of that. The sandbox is a fictional construct and it's easy to forget that it is in that respect more like the equivalent to the language, the paper and the ink that make a book: it's a growing storage of linked information. In both instances, book and campaign, advancement is linear and independent to the turns and twists the narrative might take: you start in the beginning and use the rules to get from chapter to chapter (because it's just as impossible to read a book without using the specific rules for reading it as much as you couldn't play a role playing game without agreeing about some rules).

Rolling the dice from scene to scene is, in that sense, very much like turning a page. The narrative is what happens through that, but not because of it. And that is the crucial point. To keep with the book analogy here: the author writing the story and the reader reading it is the equivalent to the participants of the role playing game producing the narrative.

Book carving by Guy Laramee [source]
For that it's important to realize that we as readers never just consume, we interpret and make it our own story with our own understanding. Same is true for role playing games. While some of the contribution to a story that is associated with an author is traditionally also associated with what a DM does (world creation and so on) it's just as important to see that the players have their part in advancing the narrative with their decisions.

But advancing does not mean that they are creating the narrative. No, they attempt to enforce certain outcomes of situations they encounter by channeling their intentions through their characters and expressing them through the rules, thus informing the story that is formed by the narrative (and the campaign that is formed by the stories). The DM is in that a bit like an author that has lost control over his main characters (a bit like Stranger than Fiction). And this is where we get back to Propp and the twists and turns a story can take.

There are three sources for twists and turns in a role playing game: (1) player decisions, (2) system output and (3) the DM giving it all context. They all are connected, obviously, but (2) and (3) share a very specific bond as the boundaries are very flexible and very much a matter of taste. I see the sandbox game as one side of a spectrum that goes from allowing as much random output as possible and deciding as much as possible. That might mean NPC reactions or what the weather is like, but it also means what turn the story takes.

And this is where something like the Random Narrative Generator comes in: instead of me as the DM deciding how the world reacts, I'll rather let the dice decide that part and find ways to weave it into the narrative afterwards. I actually found it hard to let go of, but just as rewarding. It made me realize that it is very much possible, with the right tools, to leave those decisions on the system side of things. It's fascinating how a group of people can make sense of almost everything and that's exactly what happened in our games. I, as a DM, could get surprised about the development of the narrative as much as the players, but without feeling unprepared.

3. The Random Narrative Generator

All you need is a setting and a place for the group to start. That usually comes with some loose adventure seeds and a sense what's going on in the area. What happens next is pointed towards by a result of the table below and realized as the players interact with their surroundings. Making it work is the first rule of thumb. If a result wouldn't work with the ongoing narrative, make it a story they encounter or hear about, maybe a single incident that has nothing to do with anything else. On the other hand, connect as much as possible. Villains are plentiful everywhere, but if a result goes well with an established villain, use that one for it. If you feel the narrative could use another villain, that's the way to introduce something like that.

A lot of this is vague and abstract on purpose. That way one result could mean anything from the Wild Hunt challenging the group to a game of wits to just an old man that talks in riddles. Whatever fits the flavor you want in your setting or think appropriate for scene.

There is yet a third aspect worth keeping in mind when using this: not all results mean the characters achieve something. Some results will only resolve if external factors somehow intervene. It's the result of a living and breathing world that not just the characters are responsible for it to keep spinning.

It's not what you get but what you do with it ... [source]
The last aspect of this is keeping track of the results. Lost Songs will have a sheet for this, but a sheet of paper is more than enough to get this going and keeping all your ducks in a row. I usually use one or two of those results per hour gaming (sometimes less, depending on how busy the players get with one of those). And here we go (you might skip it, though, and go directly to the example further below):

Roll 1d30, 1d6 (for the Story Development Table) and 3d6 (for the Random Encounter Table below)
Story Development Table:
1. Absentation: (even results) characters or (uneven results) someone close (friend/relative) need to leave (1-2) community, (3-4) family or (5-6) secure environment, because (read result on 3d6 table).
Are heading towards danger.
2. Interdiction: (even result) forbidding edict or (uneven result) a command is passed to the heroes to (1-2) avoid […], (3-4) don’t go to […] or (5-6) don’t do […] and it is related to (read result on 3d6 table).
Doing or not doing is going to have consequences.
3. Violation of Interdiction: A villain is involved either in (even results) a lurking or (uneven results) a manipulative manner. A warning is ignored by (1-2) someone close to the group, (3-4) a third party or (5-6) a foe and it has something to do with (read result on 3d6 table).
The group gets involved when the shit hits the fan.
4. Reconnaissance: A villain makes an effort to attain knowledge needed to fulfill a plot. He/she (1-2) seeks information, (3-4) needs an item or (5-6) searches someone for abduction and does so either (even numbers) somewhere in the social circles of the characters or (uneven numbers) to test the heroes themselves. It has something to do with (read result on 3d6 table).
The information is somehow relevant for the characters.
5. Delivery: Villain gains information for one of his evil schemes. The information is (1) incriminating information about a character/the group, (2) the final ingredient for a spell, (3) location of a treasure, (4) black mail material against a NPC, (5) the last piece in his evil plan or (6) inciting war between two factions. The source is (read result on 3d6 table).
Trigger against group when appropriate.
6. Trickery: Someone important for the group is either conned (even results) or kidnapped (uneven results), because (1-2) villain needs the group's help, (3-4) for the money or (5-6) needs it for another scheme. Somehow (read result on 3d6 table) are involved.
Substantial loss, somehow intercepts with the characters plans.
7. Complicity: Either someone close to the characters (even result) or the characters themselves (uneven result) are schemed into working for a villain to (1-2) obtain some treasure from, (3-4) fight someone of or (5-6) acting under false pretense against (read result on 3d6 table).
Conflict because of deception. Either the characters do wrong or see wrong done by someone they know otherwise.
8. Terror (even result) or Lack (uneven results): (1) the characters help is needed to gain a magical item, (2) there is a murder, (3) a friend in dire straits because he owes, (4) there are attacks and thievery, (5) a community needs a problem solved or (6) magical mischief abound. The source is (read result on 3d6 table).
An imminent problem that needs help, people that need saving.
9. Mediation: Group or character gets a message that help is needed somewhere else, either because some sort of catastrophe that happened (even results) or to prevent one from happening (uneven results). This is either (1) a quest to appease the gods or else …, (2) a community is weakened and needs protection, (3) escalating tribe rivalry, (4) people had to flee from their homes, (5) evil has announced itself and is coming or (6) because of some massive loss. Somehow (read result on 3d6 table) are involved.
Time is of the essence here and the characters could make enemies if they won't help.
10. Counter-Action: An opportunity arises to either challenge a local threat (even result) or do someone important a big favor (uneven result). This is about (1) getting rid of a rival, (2) a weakness of an aggressive tribe, (3) the signs are right to deal with some fairy folk, (4) getting rid of some incriminating evidence, (5) the weakness of an evil gets known, (6) help with something and making sure that the benefactor stays anonymous. Reason for the opportunity is (read result on 3d6 table).
Both events will give the characters some high visibility and they'll be recognized as heroes for it if they succeed.
11. Departure: This is an official request for help, the beginning of (even results) an adventure or (even results) a mission. It’s (1) a call for arms from the tribe, (2) a dungeon crawl heist, (3) a holy man with a mission from the gods, (4) a hunt, (5) a foreign official needing help or (6) about an expedition. Somehow (read result on 3d6 table) are involved.
This is a new beginning, a new story emerging.
12. First function of the donor: The group is tested for worthiness, either by (even results) combat or (uneven results) by some sort of contest. Form of test is (1) some sort of race, (2) in public, (3) a battle of wits (like a riddle), (4) an ambush, (5) a physical challenge or (6) official business. The possible ally is (read result on 3d6 table).
No bad feelings here but the opportunity to gain some powerful allies!
13. Second function of the donor: An opportunity arises to do an ally a favor as a spillover from something else the group had been doing. Helping would mean (1) some form of hardship, (2) giving up on a goal, (3) freeing somebody, (4) some sort of reconciliation between parties, (5) gaining the donor some influence or (6) gaining the donor some wealth. Somehow (read result on 3d6 table) are affected.
The group is doing something and something else comes up that could benefit an ally.
14. Receipt of a magical agent: The group gets an award for their actions. This is (1) a magical item, (2) a source of power, (3) something they desired and couldn’t get before, (4) the missing pieces to something they built/may want to build, (5) something from another world or (6) the loyalty and aid of a powerful entity. It manifests through (read result on 3d6 table).
This is not the normal loot but something special the characters might actually cherish.
15. Guidance: The group is (even results) transferred/delivered or (uneven results) somehow led to some crucial (main quest related?) location that (1-2) reveals a donor, (3-4) provides a magical agent or (5-6) leads to a villains home base. Somehow (read result on 3d6 table) are involved.
Someone does the group a favor here, maybe with ulterior motives? Sure :)
16. Struggle: The group is confronted by a villain, either by (even results) combat or (uneven results) by some sort of contest. Form of confrontation is (1) some sort of race, (2) in public, (3) a battle of wits (like a riddle), (4) an ambush, (5) a physical challenge or (6) official business. Use (read result on 3d6 table) as the backdrop for the scene.
This is a stand-off between a villain and the group. Serious business, either way (still not necessarily conclusive).
17. Branding: A random character is somehow marked, either (even results) through magic or (uneven results) with an obvious item. The marking is (1) a sign of allegiance the character has to wear (2) only seen by ghosts, but provoking them, (3) a ring as a sign of friendship, (4) a sign that someone is scrying on the character, (5) a talisman as a sign of respect or (6) some sort of minor body alteration as a curse. Goes back to something related to (read result on 3d6 table).
The magical kind you might want to get rid of or it will have consequences. Getting rid of the item or (for instance) losing it, on the other hand, will result in social repercussions.
18. Someone else’s Victory: A villain is defeated either by (even results) some of the group’s allies or (uneven results) exterior forces. The villain is (1-2) killed, (3-4) outsmarted or (5-6) banished. Somehow (read result on 3d6 table) are at fault for this new development.
One problem less for the characters to solve. But it could still have repercussions (like no award and so on).
19. Another problem solved: Some (even results) misfortunes or (uneven results) issues of the group get resolved. This means (1-2) something missing is found and now available, (3-4) some magical hindrance is gone or (5-6) someone is free to at now. Somehow (read result on 3d6 table) are at fault for this new development.
A problem solved means the way is free for something else, either for the story at hand or another story. Someone might expect gratitude, though.
20. Home: The group gets an opportunity to gather some important news from their home. They get access to those news by means of (1) travelling merchants offering wares from the tribe, (2) warriors from your tribe on a mission, (3) dreams, (4) vision of a random holy man, (5) somebody putting out word that they are looking for the group or (6) a magical agent. The news are about developments regarding some (read result on 3d6 table) issues.
Not necessarily bad news, it should still leave the group considering the trip home to their tribe.
21. Pursuit: Something (even results) or someone (uneven results) is tracking the group to (1-2) capture them, (3-4) harm them or (5-6) intercept when inconvenient and it has something to do with (read result on 3d6 table).
Subtle or not, a pack of wolfs or a phantom summoned by an adversary, it definitely is dangerous enough to think about not confronting it (if the group gets aware of it early enough). Escalate to pursuit if possible.
22. Rescue: The group gets unexpected help in a potentially harmful situation (1) by natural obstacles, (2) by something else happening, (3) by someone taking an interest for different reasons, (4) as circumstances change, (5) as alliances shift or (6) as other heroes appear. Somehow (read result on 3d6 table) are involved.
Either a problem that is about to arise or something that’s a bit in the past and still a problem, this one gets easier to handle (not solved) because something significant happens.
23. Unrecognized arrival: Something changed and the group is (even results) unrecognized or (uneven results) unacknowledged among (1-2) their kin, (3-4) an ally or (5-6) people you should know them, because (read result on 3d6 table) did something.
This is not only about respect (or the lack thereof) but also about the consequences of someone influencing reputations. Very annoying.
24. Unfounded claims: (1-2) a false hero, (3-4) a villain or (5-6) a possible ally steals the groups thunder (even results) publicly or (uneven results) behind closed doors. Somehow (read result on 3d6 table) are involved.
This is not only about respect (or the lack thereof) but also about someone influencing reputations. Very annoying, potentially even threatening a group’s quest and needs to be dealt with.
25. Difficult task: An opportunity arises to gain public prestige by answering a challenge. This challenge is (1) a riddle per character, (2) a test of strength, (3) a test of endurance, (4) a test of wisdom, (5) a test of finesse or (6) a test of cooperation. Those challenging come from the (read result on 3d6 table).
Very difficult, but also very rewarding, this challenge should something that puts a stress test on the whole group.
26. Solution: A quest has become time sensitive and needs to come to a conclusion right now because (1) the gods demand it, (2) it’s about to get worse fast, (3) someone else is about to do it, (4) of a health issue, (5) all the group’s progress is about to get lost or (6) there’ll be nothing to gain by it. (Read result on 3d6 table) bring the bad news.
Whatever the group is doing right now, they need to change course and wrap this one up for good.
27. Recognition: The group is celebrated by (read result on 3d6 table) for (1) being there, (2) something they have accomplished at some point, (3) one of their alliances, (4) something they didn’t do, (5) something they haven’t done yet but are about to or (6) who they are. The recognition comes from (read result on 3d6 table).
This is a very positive occurrence, but still, there might be some hidden agendas abound …
28. Exposure: A (even results) villain or a (uneven results) false hero is about to be exposed and the group is summoned to (1-2) witness it, (3-4) give testimony, (5-6) help enforcing it. The exposure is initiated by (read result on 3d6 table).
This might either be about a known villain/false hero or someone the group hasn’t been aware of until now (which might bring its very own set of implications, like false testimony …). Whatever fits the situation best.
29. Transfiguration: The group gets an opportunity to (even results) heal some permanent damage or (uneven results) compensate some of their losses as (1) they encounter a divine being, (2) they find a safe haven, (3) they get offered sanctuary by a holy man or woman, (4) a ritual feast is about to happen where they are, (5) they get access to a magical agent or (6) a fay offers a deal. Somehow (read result on 3d6 table) are involved with the opportunity.
This is something entirely positive and refreshing. Make them happy!
30. Punishment: A villain suffers the consequences of their actions (1) at the hands of some heroes, (2) as the victims fight back, (3) as one of his/her evil schemes fails, (4) when the gods get angry, (5) as the law interferes or (6) as he gets betrayed. Somehow (read result on 3d6 table) are involved.
The characters are not the source of this punishment, but this may be a great opportunity for them to get involved. Might be a proper riot or might be something as mundane as an execution.
Random Encounter Table (3d6):
Use your best judgement or the order from left to right as the 3d6 landed on the table (with the die on the left being the left column, the die in the middle the middle column and so on) or go from left to right in the order the numbers appeared (if you use digital alternatives). Entities are always agents of the force they stand for. This is vague on purpose as you should be able to use this as it fits the story element at hand. A force of nature, for instance, might be an angry wind ghost or a happy bear or even a recluse. It all depends on the most interesting turn the story could take or what helps evoking the setting. It doesn't always have to be used in concert with the d30 and the d6, especially if you just want to find out the story that encounter is in instead of how it affects the narrative at hand ("is" and "aims for" go a long way here).
A: Entity B: Is C: Aims for
Force of evil Angry Power
Force of nature Mean Trouble
Force of magic Disappointed Dominance
Force of tradition Generous Compensation
Force of culture Forgiving Peace
Force of love Engaging Contact

4. An Example

So how exactly does this work? I think an example is in order. Basically you shouldn't need more than an adventure seed and a backdrop to let the show begin. You will need nothing more for what happens next but the two tables above. It has all the twists and turns or NPC interactions you might need. Roll the dice and interpret the result into the narrative as the players chew on it.

Okay, a quick set up: The characters just arrived in a little hamlet deep in an old forest. The hamlet is mainly made out of wood and around 100 people live within the wooden palisade protecting it. There is a small pond in it and a sheriff is taking care of the law of the king. We enter the narrative as a great white bulette (aka landshark, for the uninitiated) starts terrorizing the town (think Jaws meets Tremors):

Great 4e Monster Manual illustration of a bulette attacking ... [source]
First result (13/5//121): Second function of the donor (gaining him some influence). Affected is a force of evil that is mean and aims for power.

First thing here would be to identify the donor. That's potentially a powerful ally. In our set up above my first instinct is to go with the sheriff. So the group is helping in town to prepare against the next attack of the bulette and comes across a mean entity trying to gain some sort of power and doing something against it would help the sheriff gaining more power himself. Here I'd go with a political plot to get rid of the sheriff (they now see an opportunity to accelerate their plans!) and the characters stumble across it somehow as they take care that all citizens are on higher ground (maybe a note they find or one of them overhearing some conspirators whisper about it in the shadow).

This could go several ways, of course. I think the first thing you come up with usually works best. Another option would have been to use something like this as an introduction of someone powerful (not necessarily a potential donor for the group but illustrating their power nonetheless). Setting this up properly as the characters make their way through town and the implications this has would take at least an hour, I think. More if you make that plot against the sheriff a thing. We'll see ...

Second result, triggered as soon as the intrigue is made known to the group (8/3//311): Lack (a friend in dire straits because he owes). The source is an angry force of magic aiming for power.

One could go here and connect this to the bulette, making it the source of the problem or at least a result of it. But my first impulse here is to connect this to someone living in the hamlet, someone the characters already encountered and liked enough to help out of sympathy (for random encounters between developments, I'd just roll the Encounter Table for inspiration and see what happens). An angry magic force aiming for power could be anything from a wizard to a fay or a god, even a ghost, if you want to. So that friend has an obligation to fulfill and he can't do so because of the monster terrorizing town, so he asks the characters if they could go back into town to get this for whatever is lacking (I'd randomize the appearance of the bulette as they interact with the town as long as it doesn't come up as a story development, so there's some risk going into town). Since I can't come up with a solid explanation, I'll go for mysterious instead (players don't need to know everything immediately). I know that friend is afraid of the consequences and even if he won't tell (or is just vague about the consequences) he'll urge them to do him this favor. And he'll bear dire consequences if he doesn't get it. I'll go for now with a religious object (maybe something about a promise he made to a fay connected to it and if he doesn't ...).

As you see, this is about injecting some flow into the narrative. Writing the result down usually brings the first results just by thinking about what it could mean for the narrative right now. Being vague or only revealing part of a result isn't a bad thing, either.

Third result, rolled after the group has decided what to do about their friend's problem (24/6//662): Unfounded claims (a possible ally boasting publicly about thing the characters did). Involved are engaging forces of love aiming for trouble.

So this is a fool in love, talking hero in public to impress a girl. That guy is desperate to proof himself and won't admit that the stuff he boasts with right now are actually the deeds of someone else. If the group already did something in town that he could have seen but not many others (like driving away the bulette or killing looters or whatever) I'd use that. At some point in the narrative the group will get wind of that and might have to deal with it, too. Done right, they could earn an ally doing so (as the guy means no harm and might actually be useful to have around).

Some things come easy, but you already see how this depends on the actions of the players. The group needs to finish things (or fail at them) to make others come in effect. Well, let's do one more.

Fourth result, as soon as I've decided how to use the third (8/1//516): Lack (the characters help is needed to gain a magical item). The source is an angry force of culture looking for contact.

Nothing comes easy. The characters are asked to retrieve a magical weapon to fight the bulette effectively (a legendary arrow, I'd say). For that they must travel to the nearby camp of an enemy tribe and find a way to get it from their shaman. One chance to get the item is doing that tribe a favor, as they are desperately seeking contact to a recluse in the woods (who seems to have good reasons for avoiding them but doesn't know the characters, right?). They are to give that guy something (possibly opening a completely new can of worms).

Another tricky one. How the players take on the problem is totally up to them, of course, and that solution the dice indicate, might never come to pass (although I'd seek an opportunity to hint towards it as they collect intel about that tribe. Time should also be a problem. For one, before they could go and get that item the people need to be safe enough to do so and then they need to be fast about that business, too.

Final Thoughts

And that's how you apply some literary theory to a role playing game. Use this as it fits your narrative. If you want to find out what happens next, you'll just throw the bones and see what they tell you. Believe them and they'll never disappoint you. Right here we have some intrigue, a love story, desperate attempts to rescue a friends soul and a delicate mission to get hold of a magical arrow necessary to fight the pest terrorizing the hamlet. That's a couple of hours worth of gaming and even more in foreshadowing. It all feels quite organic as it evolves and grows as the players do their thing.

The thing is that the story might originate from the setting or the sandbox or it's the answer to something the players want to do, but it always evolves around the group and goes with them until resolved or left behind (to maybe come back and haunt them later).

One last thing: there will be a pdf of the whole thing in the near future and it will have a permanent home in the DM-tools section for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, I'd like to point out that there is a new button under my avatar on the upper right that allows you to print or make a pdf out of parts and pieces of my writing here. It's way more convenient than c/p any of it (if people exist that do such a thing here ...).

I thought about making two posts out of this but I'm glad it's all out there now in one piece. I'm well aware that only a couple of people will read down to this point (thanks, then!) but I think I was finally able to give a complete picture of how I DM my LSotN sandbox. There is (still) more to it as I develop the proper tools to fill that sandbox a bit more, but you actually should be able to use this in every fantasy game out there. I know I'll test this one a bit with D&D the next few weeks.

If you like this one and get an opportunity to test it, too, I'd be happy to hear about it. As usual, comments are always welcome. As this is an entry to an ongoing dialogue, I'd be very happy if we expand a little further on the topic. I know people have other world engines (because that is what we have here) to keep their sandbox alive and I'd love to hear about them.