Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Dungeon Faction Generator - The Immersed DM 01

What is this madness? Another post this month?! Yeah, that kind of happened. It actually wrote itself after those posts the other day about how rpgs are media and how the DM, too, should get a chance to immerse himself in a scenario before he, in turn, generates an immersive experience for his players. This is an example of that. And you can use it without the theory to stock your dungeons, too. Have at it ...

About putting the cart before the horse

The biggest beef I have with Monster Manuals is that they (usually) just create individual entities without a real sense of what their impact is in a gaming world. In other words, I don't care that much about how many attacks a dragon might have or what his breath attack looks like and way more about what a dragon steak would taste like and what a cook would demand for a delicacy like that. Or the cultural impact of having cheap slaves available, with all those weak ass demi-humans. Or how magic is a lot like toxic waste and what impact magic would have on a society in general (the usual suspects: industrialization, & war). The list goes on.

My thinking is that there is the established way of taking a random dungeon and filling it with the monsters you like or want to test or think fitting. Everything else usually comes as an after-thought. This is true to a degree where monsters become staples. There is a widely shared understanding what a goblin could be, in terms of stats, at least, and that understanding, then, (in)forms the playing experience.

I'm not against the meta-gaming part of the game. On the contrary, I think it's crucial for player skill to know the parameters that make a game tick. But if it's the only information the game runs on, it means missing out on the great opportunity to elevate the game from a tactical meta-gaming level to an engaging narrative. In other words: it's the difference between "Hey, it's just a couple of low level goblins, not even worth the xp, but let's get rid of them ..." and "Woah, their colors mean they are of the Stinky Feet clan, they are famous for their mean Blutschnaps, let's see if they know something about the strange orcs we encountered earlier ...".

Not saying it doesn't work, but ... [source]
I'm exaggerating. A bit. Or in as far as both variants are bound to happen in role playing games and a DM can emphasize either to taste. If he has the control, that is. The amount of control, now, is connected to the the information policy at the table. The DM shares information, the players decode it and give feedback with their actions which generates feedback from the DM and so on.

A prepared DM will usually bring some color to encounters. But as soon as we are winging it, like we would with sandbox games or when the players do something unexpected or we actually aren't prepared, well, as soon as we have to improvise and start to construct an encounter going by a monster entry or by a random encounter, we are bound to put the cart before the horse.

Immersion is ...

Immersion is when the brain connects the information it gets in a meaningful way, flow is when that happens over and over again. So it's a succession of events, if you will. You get input, interpret it and produce a result. There are also hierarchies that make it easy to stack information. When used in a role playing game, those hierarchies are connected to what is happening at that specific moment in the game.
Information hierarchy is important ... [source]
I think one of the biggest challenges in encounter and monster design is that it mostly happens without those specific connectors in mind. One of the biggest mistakes is when that connection is ignored, though. Now, in my opinion, good encounters don't start with a monster, but with how it manifests at the table. There isn't a DM with a brain out there who isn't aware of the great tool that is obscurity. Players engage and get immersed when informations are revealed layer by layer (again, hierarchy of information ... piecing something together isn't that different). It's how you produce tension, too.

This being about connectors between a specific scene in some established frame of sorts (campaign area, story arc, established threats, mood at the table and so on), it's worth asking which input will help a DM effectively to produce results in a manner (=hierarchy) that is directly useful in that situation.

In short: the DM needs to be immersed himself to conclude a complete impression of the potential the situation at hand has before he can communicate it to the players in a meaningful way.

Example: Dungeon Factions

The procedure I'm about to present is mainly meant for the preparation of a dungeon setting. But once that is done, it also can be used as described above. And the principles used for that generation process are the same: they are meant to immerse the DM when filling his dungeon. Here is it:

Open in new tab for more detail ...

So the idea is, you take a random empty dungeon you want to stock. With huge dungeon complexes, I'd go from level to level. Make yourself familiar with the area you populate. Now you roll 6d6 (or you change the die-range if you want to put an emphasize on certain results ...) and read the results A to F from left to right.

Example A (4, 6, 1, 5, 4, 6): Some greedy humanoids with an overwhelming attitude that want to expand, are newcomers to the area and are the main theme right now in the dungeon. So this dungeon (or dungeon level) could be hosting an army of Hobgoblins getting ready for war!

You repeat this first step until F turns up to be a 6 (happened here with the first roll). This is your main theme for the dungeon (or dungeon level). You keep generating factions like that until F turns up being a 4 or higher. Your dungeon (or dungeon level) is stocked now.

Example B (2, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1): Some strong magical beasts are in here to protect themselves, they'd rather use scare tactics, have been in this ruin for a long time and live in between spaces ... Maybe some sort of magical experiment that has gone wrong as this place fell to ruin. I'll settle for intelligent displacer rats. Rat infested catacombs with Hobgoblin military camps, so far.

Example C (1, 2, 4, 3, 4, 4): Some cautious natural beasts, also having self-preservation as the main motive and use scare tactics, are also new to the dungeon, but established a small presence in one part of the dungeon (or dungeon level). Giant spider would be the classic here. They'd control an area with their scary webs and catch only what they need (self-preservation).

Your results will tell you a story about the factions, why they are there, what motivates them, how strong they are and how many of them there are. Even if there are conflicts between factions. It'll resonate differently from dungeon to dungeon, even from DM to DM. But that's the point.

Once you have a result, you'll be able to come up with a monster/encounter that fits the description. In the examples above it has always groups of them, but individuals are possible, too. Some weak and weird human, living between spaces, could be anything from a crazy and left behind wizard hiding in the passages of the dungeon to a weird cult processing through the halls, singing and dancing. If it fits the description, it'll find a way into the dungeon.

Using this as a Random Encounter Table?

And here we go full circle. You could use all this as a Random Encounter Table of sorts. As I said above, it's all about how an encounter manifests. Assuming that a DM already has a vague sense of the place the characters are exploring, he should be able to apply the results above in a way that has an immediate value in the situation by answering the questions what the result could be and what kind of signs it would leave behind.

If we now take, for instance, Example A and use it in a totally different context. Say, this comes up while the characters are in a human controlled metropolis. A overwhelming and expanding humanoid faction could mean some sort of humanoid crime-syndicate spreading in the shadows. Encountering something like that could be anything from a robbing, because the characters are in a dark corner of the city at night or maybe some strange signs on the wall or meeting one of the victims ... as you see fit.
All a matter of perspective. [source]
Rather than being specific it lets the specific arise as a narrative from whatever is at hand, while being entirely random at the same time. It's also immersive and that will, hopefully, help a DM getting an understanding of the place, which I deem far more important than knowing how much hp one hobgoblin might have.

That being said ...

Of course you'll have some of the same results with just using your good old and true Random Encounter Table and monster entries. I also think that the ideas and concepts at work here are nothing new but more likely something every DM uses on way or another. Doesn't even matter if they are aware of it or not. It's just something we do when we DM: we take what is there and make it sing.

What I'm trying to show here, though, is that there might be other ways of producing content, be it for preparing the game or when we are winging it at the table. Some of those ways are about how we actually experience books or movies or other kinds of media by generating content from something vague. The specific makes us lazy, while the vague activates us and lets us explore the possibilities.

Alright, I'll leave it at that. I hope you guys find the Dungeon Faction Generator useful and take something away from my ramblings here. We are just scratching the surface of the possibilities our hobby offers and how much there still is to explore regarding module design or rules, to name but two examples. It's part of the fun, right :)

Please feel free to add your thoughts, impressions or comments about this ...
If this somehow resonated with you and you want to see my take on it in something bigger than the Dungeon Factions Generator, you should take a look at the module I published the other day: Monkey Business (and thanks for the support if you've already done so!).
Bonus Picture!

[horse]


Thursday, May 25, 2017

Discussing "Story vs. Rules" again, are we?

I'll join a good band wagon when I see one and I believe this is a good one. Regular readers will be aware that I love to talk about story and narratives and how the rules can inform and manipulate our gaming experience. This is a bit like what a bull must experience when he sees something red. But in a good way ... Here are my 2 cents.

Whose talking?

So we are having four opinion pieces out there talking about "story vs. rules" again:
  • +Douglas Cole over at Gaming Ballistic ("From that perspective, that’s what I think game rules do. They set up genre and task expectations. They (hopefully) reinforce world design, and constrain choices and action to those that would be appropriate for the game being played.", I really liked that one)
  • +Bannister Nicholas over at Dungeon World Dev ("So if Fun trumps Story.. doesn't that mean that guiding the game, to be more fun, is another form or railroading? What if the natural progression of the 'story' is to become a classic tragedy? If the GM obeys the fun rule, it forces a comedy, from what could have been an awesome tragedy, to something in the middle, and no-body wins.", I like that he compares this to railroading ...)
  • +Vb Wyrde over at Elthos RPG ("One of the principal roles of the GM is to balance the two during the course of each game. Sometimes the Story gains the upper hand, and the GM adjudicates things along Story lines, maybe fudging a die roll, or placing a monster somewhere other than directly behind the next turn of the corridor. Sometimes the Game predominates the GM focuses on the rules, battle map tactics, and the exact factors involved to accurately derive the necessary die rolls needed for success.", loved the diagram, too)

All offer valuable thoughts and insights, they started a discussion and gathered, all said and told, around 60 comments, with even more people reading it and taking something away. That's good stuff and entertaining.

But it is also well explored territory, of course. So there is, for instance, also a podcast over at The Escapist from 2015 ("More and more role playing games are driven by story instead of simulation ...", from what I've seen, this is all kinds of not my thing, but it is there) or this fun little essay from 2008 ("We have defined a software architecture that allows the implementation of our approach of the interactive storytelling: the player controls the narrative, but not the game. The game defines an interactive environment in which the player can, by his actions and decisions produce a storytelling under the supervision of the controller.", quoting a shit-load of interesting titles in that direction!).

The list goes on an on. Once you do a little research (and I scratched just the surface here), you get really fast really deep into the subject. And going by that essay I quoted last, I'd say especially the video games industry is way ahead in taking their research seriously. They are pushing it, actually financing people doing the leg work and all that while we sit in our own little echo chambers, asking the same questions again and again as soon as the first echo has faded away ...

Anyway, different topic. You get my drift. What I'm saying is, we can check out the work others have done in similar areas before we write our pieces (theories about writing, video game design and so on are all over the place), apply them and get more, I don't know, elaborate answers? Because while all of the quoted above are in their own way somehow right, I couldn't help but be reminded of the story about the blind men describing an elephant. Everyone describes a part of it, none the whole beast.

Here is my piece of the elephant ...

Once you start dabbling in game design or campaign building or writing about role playing games in one form or another, you are confronted with all the problems outlined above, so I, too, thought about this time and time again.

The essence of it is, we define our world by the stories we experience and tell each other. It's as simple as that: everything is story. Story is the elephant, if you will. The rules how stories work are as old as mankind and we have thought about how those stories work for about just as long. Conclusively, all that is true for stories in general, will be true for the stories we tell in role playing games. I imagine it to look something like this:

Also true for role playing games ...
The CHARACTERS are the center piece and everything resolves around them as ENCOUNTERS in the established WORLD (could be the DM in the moment of play, the world described in a novel or tv series or the world as you see it, to name a couple of examples, narrative would be another good word for it). A WORLD could be defined now by (at least) 4 corner stones:

  • STRUCTURE: or patterns. Structure lets you recognize and work with established patterns in a world. Is it a comedy or a tragedy? Is it magic or technology? English or French? All those patterns will shape everything around them and, in the end, the story.
  • THEMES: or labels. It's the selection you chose to describe your surroundings. Easy example would be the description of a game by the winning side compared to that by the losing side ("best referee ever!" vs. "cheating bastard of a referee!"). Fake news is another good example of labeling to influence a story.
  • RULES: or consistency. It's the rules we play by. Could be laws, could be D&D or a social contract, could be grammar ... They are always there to one degree or another and shape how we behave or judge behavior, for instance.
  • GOALS: or motivation. This is what propels the action. You want world domination? That's what you work towards. You are lonely? There you go, you'd want to meet someone. You want xp? Do what you have to do to get them and advance in levels ...
ALL THAT cumulates to STORY, every time, again and again. Depending on the story you tell, the parameters might shift and change in prominence, but they are always in effect. So if you are in the story about a couple of friends meeting to play a game of D&D it will have different parameters than the story the characters of those friends will encounter in the campaign they are playing. While the motivation in the first story might be, for instance, to have FUN, the story in the campaign and what the characters experience might just as well be a tragedy. Those things can happen simultaneously, even without conflicting with each other.

Nothing of this is new, you know, ...

... but the implications for role playing games are not very well established, it seems. So, yeah, you could say that "Fun trumps Story trumps Rules", but it'd be comparing apples and oranges with a chimpanzee. Even if examined in a specific context like role playing games, you'll end up with a huge variety in parameters (some may call it "taste") and it still doesn't explain what actually is happening in the collaborative story-telling we do for fun. Why do we experience a flow when we play and how do we facilitate something like this? How do we get the whole group on the same page for the stories we want to experience? Or how shape the different parameters like rules and themes and structures in our games? To what effect?

There is no right or wrong because there is way more than two layers to begin with. A rule in a game, for instance, has several layers like that, starting from how it is formulated right to how the individual interprets and uses it, but also how it effects the game itself and how it manifests. If you are up for a little experiment, try and change the word on a D&D character sheet from Charisma to Fate. Or at least announce to your group that you aim to do that and see what happens. You just do a small shift in meaning, but you'll be surprised about the effect (I was). Or try to use the French terminology for D&D instead of the English one.

Rules shape games like that and on many levels. THACO got lots of hate because the rules hadn't been explained properly (according to some). Ascending Armor Class is superior to descending why again? It isn't, it's a matter of agreement to explain and experience the game a certain way. I believe understanding that or finding an understanding what either does in a game is far more important than discussing taste or what is "fun". But I'm digressing again.

Are we having fun again? [source]
More stuff to read (bonus round)!

This particular topic is one I wrote and read a lot about in the last couple of years, so if you are interested to read more about this, I'm more than happy to give pointers. Here are some of the posts I wrote about story and related topics, most of them lead to other posts, essays, articles, books and what-not written by other people. Have fun:

Narrative Distinction and the DM (a series, starting September 2015)

Thoughts on Stories in Open Worlds (April 2016)

Narrative Flow vs. Player Skill (July 2016)

The Random Narrative Generator (lots of theory and an example, September 2016)

The Secrets of Escapism (a series, starting December 2016)

There might be more, but it's plenty as it is so I'll leave it at that. The illustration displayed above is something I had on my mind for a couple of months now and based on some of the thoughts formulated in those posts linked here.

Anyway, my two cents. Thanks to the guys linked above for inspiring me to write this post. It's all good reading and they get their points across, got others thinking and discussing. Good show. I hope my entry adds to that.

Have a nice picture of blind men tackling an elephant as a parting gift:

[source]

Monday, May 22, 2017

It's all Monkey Business! (now with the new new)

Drug trafficking monkeys with guns and ninjas and tanks, a jungle at war and lots of toys to play with, completely with an Edgar Rice Burroughs vibe and all the gonzo I could cram into it ... you guessed it, this is another plug for the module I published 3 weeks ago: Monkey Business. That and quotes and a review and a couple of words what is in store next.

Get it here! It's PWYW, too ...
Word!

Here is what nice people in the community said about Monkey Business:

“I dig its arcade approach to Edgar Rice Burroughs jungle fantasy!” (Gorgonmilk)

"I took a small peek into the PDF and I like what I saw. You want this." (Sophia Brandt)

“This is balls to the walls gonzo done with an even old school lethality & a dangerous balance.” (Eric Fabiaschi, with a whole review on his blog!)

"I was lucky enough to have a prerelease look at this adventure and it is chock full of fun." (Eric Nieudan) 

"I got the chance to check this out over the weekend. Jens D.​ delivers the goods! If you're like me and ape men, stoner shroom dudes and a jungle filled with cannibal tribes are your thing, jump on this." (Adam Muszkiewicz)

"Are you looking for some Gonzo Jungle Action featuring Drug Dealing Apes and Tarzan, the King of Slackers? I'm happy to pitch Monkey Business your way. Jens D. is a wonderful writer, and even if you never play this game, its really entertaining to read. And who knows ... you might just slip this into your campaign one crazy night when everyone is looking bored. :)" (Vb Wyrde)

"Jens took the idea of a module and went deeper. Delivering a product that is fun, irreverent, and a bit gonzo, but also useful. It's full tools built for any GM who may want to set up a jungle hex crawl adventure. The author put in a lot of work making sure a GM could use the whole product or any part of it to run anything from a one session wacky adventure to a whole jungle based campaign." (Mark van Vlack in a non-review on his blog)

Thanks to all of you! +Greg Gorgonmilk+Sophia Brandt+Eric Fabiaschi+Eric Nieudan+Adam Muszkiewicz+Vb Wyrde and +Mark Van Vlack (and while you are at it, follow those guys, if you don't already).

Picture!

MB even got featured in an OSR Circular. And in very good company, I might add. Looky here:

Made me happy :) [source]

I already got asked by a friend where he has to give his soul now ...

New!

So the first one is, obviously, that I'm working on the print version. Needs time, as always, because: busy irl. But it'll happen, maybe I'll get the proofs ordered next weekend. We'll see. I want this in dead tree form. I really do.

Then I really got to say that writing this thing was loads of fun. I had to power through the whole dtp stuff, but now that it is done, I'm happy with the result. So I want to do more of the same. I'm already planning the next module. Working title so far is Murder In The Hole! and it'll be a murder mystery procedural ... more on that when I get there.

I want to tackle some bigger things while I'm at it. I know I am slow, but at least I keep that stuff in sight ... And now that Mark van Vlack agreed to collaborate with me, I think I will take another look at The Goblin-Tribe Simulator board game. But that'll need some play testing and what not, so don't hold your breath (always a bad idea here, btw).

I'm confident I can get it all done, some of it maybe even this year! I already managed to get one thing out there, chances are I'll manage again ...

The icing on the cake will be Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, of course. And if any of you remember The Grind, that'll happen too, eventually.

Thank you all for the support. If you haven't seen Monkey Business yet, please check it out. And if you have an opinion about it, feel free to share!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Hit Points as Confidence (Lost Songs of the Nibelungs - design post)

With the 400 pound gorilla out of the way (pun intended) I can start concentrating on other things that need attention. Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, for instance. There have been some changes and one wrong turn with the latest update for the f2f-group. I won't talk (yet) about the wrong turn, that problem is solved, and I already talked about Skill Ranks a couple of weeks ago. Today, though, we'll talk about an epiphany I had regarding hit points (Health) in Lost Songs. Let's get at it ...

Hit Points, what art thou?

This is an discussion as old as the hobby, I believe. Every now and then I see someone tackle the topic to define the logic behind it. Is it luck? Or just brawniness? How do you explain that a low level character gets killed by knocking his head on a door frame while a high level character can get chewed on by a dragon and still walk away smiling? Some would say, experience is what makes all the difference.

I mean, look at professional athletes failing. It almost always looks horribly hurtful. And yet, more often than not, they seem to make their save for half damage and walk away with a scare. It's fascinating what the human body is capable to avoid instinctively, if he's trained. Look at Shaolin monks how far training can really get you.

They are not kidding ... [source]
It's something I learned from Judo training, so many moons ago: I did that for almost 9 years, starting pretty young (I had been 8 or 9) and one of the benefits of the training (like getting thrown on the floor constantly and all that) will result in a hardened bone structure. Because the body just reacts, over time, to the new constant challenges it is facing. Especially when you are still growing (it also results in short legs, but that's a story for another day).

What I'm saying is, training and experience will have a body handle damage differently on so many levels, that "hit points" are actually a good way of reflecting this. Without training or, in other words, without people constantly hitting you with pointy metal sticks, you'll get hurt so much easier. And yes, that also explains why a wizard shouldn't get so many hit points, since the brain is his muscle of choice.

We could start a discussion about thieves now, but we won't ... Okay, a short one: mechanically speaking, the thief is great in avoiding damage before it occurs, sneak attacks will shorten a fight from the beginning, high DEX will give a good natural AC and great saves against physical damage will all, theoretically, result in a lower damage average than, for instance, your basic fighter will have. So lower hp are somewhat justified. If it's a d4 per level, as the D&D Rules Cyclopedia suggests, is still a matter of debate.

(Liquid Courage house rules make total sense in that context, btw)

Hit Points in Lost Songs, though ...

Never change a running system, right? Unless you write your own system. I mean, Lost Songs still has some strong ties to D&D. It's not obvious, but it's there. So the change in terminology from "hit points" to "Health" was merely cosmetic in the beginning. But it didn't jive right with me. As a matter of fact, it'd been the one of the things that just never made sense in the game. And here is why: the core concept of Lost Songs of the Nibelungs is about reducing a character's ability scores. That's where the hurt is. "Health" was merely a buffer, a resource a character could deplete without much harm.

In a way that still is what I described above. The buffer grows with experience and it takes longer before it gets to a character. But calling it Health made less and less sense, because a character would lose those points in a fight, and if that's all he lost, he'll regain it with a night's rest (if that). Only damage in the ability scores would take longer to heal, so he wasn't losing Health at all ...

It's been a bit frustrating, to be honest, as those things tend to threaten the integrity of a game every time you can't explain how that "Health" damage isn't even a scratch. Well, I guess the title gave it away, but it wasn't until a couple of weeks (months?) ago that my good friend +Mark Van Vlack compared Health in Lost Songs to something like confidence. And boy, did that resonate with me!

What Confidence does for you

This solved several problems at once. For one, it explains well in the narrative the game tends to produce. Those early hits the character takes? They don't deal physical damage, but instead damage the confidence. Imagine going pumped into a fight, all confidence and balls, and then you realize that last strike came pretty close and the next might hit ... That's how you get the opponent to make mistakes: you make him insecure. It mirrors quite effectively how fights actually tend to go down. It builds up until one gets lucky or makes a mistake, then it escalates very fast.

Both hit, both fail their Saves ... [source]
I also want LSotN to be a game where you can taunt an enemy into doing something stupid enough to have a direct impact in a fight. Reducing an enemies Confidence before the first hit is thrown is very much that. It all makes total sense.

There's more to it, though. Another thing LSotN was lacking, although connected, was to find a fitting mechanic that allows a character to regain some of that "Health" damage. With the change to Confidence, it got quite obvious what tat could be. Because how do you gain confidence? When things work out, that's how. So a new rule now is that if a character rolls a successful Save, he regains as much Confidence back as he rolled over the difficulty.

Which leads to the fourth consequence of this simple change of terminology, because characters can not only recharge their Confidence, the can over-charge it. In other words, characters can get "Overconfident". That's neither a bad nor a good thing.

Overconfidence, blessing and curse

The good is, they can ignore any disadvantage on tests (active rolls), so they can run, swim and generally stay alive in this state. He'll even get an additional d6 to his rolls. That's what adrenaline does, it's a natural high that keeps you functioning. So you basically can regain your Confidence in Lost Songs by taking a breather (depends on a character's level how often he's able to do it, though).

Now imagine a character on the run. He's hurt, no Endurance left and he gets that break. Sitting there, breathing heavy, he realizes he's still alive and has a chance (regaining Confidence and Endurance, in this case). So after 20 minutes or so, he decides to pull himself up and try once more to get away. DM demands a Save here, because he still is hurt and all. Right now the character pulled it together somewhat. His Confidence is back, his Endurance, too. If he doesn't make the Save, his body demands more rest, but if he makes it, he'll also gain Overconfidence (unless he just hits the difficulty, that is) and can ignore his aching body for a bit longer.

Every test he'll make, will reduce the overconfidence, though, because that d6 he gets to roll with his tests works as a bonus, but reduces Confidence, too. And any disadvantages he has still apply on Saves (mirroring the danger to overdo it due to Overconfidence). So this could save a character's bacon in a tough spot, if at a price, and it also helps describing what a character is going through.

But there is more. While overconfidence makes you ignore disadvantages and helps you overcoming challenges, it's also that kind of stubbornness that brings it own kind of problem. So the rules here are that Overconfident characters can't share dice in Combat (give or receive) and that they won't get a benefit from Skill Rank group effects (because they don't listen!).

[source]
And that's that

There's a moderate amount of Saves in the game and only part of them will result in Overconfidence, but it is something that characters could use to their advantage, force even. The picture I have in mind here is barbarians screaming at each other with all the aggression they can gather. In Lost Songs that could force an easy Save, which would most likely result in Overconfidence, exactly what they are aiming for. It might give you the edge you need to win a challenge. But it also works to motivate soldiers in a trench to make that last attack ... It does a lot.

And it's a shift that, once more, underlines the style of gaming LSotN supports. The player nurtures his character, helps him, manipulates him and makes the necessary decisions to keep him alive. Characters are entities on their own. They feel or hurt or are stubborn. Players work with that by giving them a good time every now and then, feeding them and do all kinds of stuff to keep their characters happy instead of just alive.

It's a bit more involved, but sometimes that the kind of story I want to tell. And it helped intensifying our game, in my opinion. 

Could work in D&D, too

There are already house rules out there, using Constitution as the real death zone for a character. It'd be where damage goes when the hp are gone. And once that's zero, the character is gone for good. With a rule like that in place, you could use the rules described above without any fuzz. Only problem I see is that damage stays linear in D&D as the hp grow, while Lost Songs has a high variety in that regard (from not-so-much to lots of damage), but there are rules for exploding damage out there and all kinds of other shenanigans one could use to make it work, so I'm not worried.

It'll change the game a bit, though, as fights start out as battles of wits, getting ugly only in the end. It'll make slaughtering low hp critters look so much crueler, too. All I'm saying is, it'll work.

So here you go, that's one of the biggest changes Lost Songs has gone through and it was only by changing a word. Funny how that goes sometimes. Ideas and impressions are, as always, very welcome.

-----------------------

And also, if you haven't heard already, I managed to get a module out there. It's a PWYW "balls to the wall gonzo" procedural junglecrawl called Monkey Business and you can get it here.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

3600+ Treasures (Monkey Business design post)

Yesterday drivethru surprised me by going live with Monkey Business after less than one work day. Talk about fast ... Anyway, today, after over 94 downloads (thanks a lot, guys!), I'm a bit less panicked and I thought I'll start a series of posts about the procedures in MB and how to use them. The first will be the Jungle Treasure Generator. Enjoy!

The thing about treasure tables ...

Well, going with the D&D Rules Cyclopedia here, I'd say they are at least cumbersome. I mean, I definitely had all kinds of attention when I read some random loot to the players. Even when rolling the results live at the table, I saw only concentrated faces and lots of scribbling. But that might have been the huge amounts of gp, to be honest. Players do take that seriously.

There's two things I found lacking, though: (1) it took ages to get results and (2) while you got lots and lots of variety, they usually lacked all kinds of flavor and depth (bonus: going pure random would often result in ridiculous results ... we had phase spiders with a  boat once!). So a DM would have to roll that beforehand. But that'd mean that he couldn't use random encounters ... unless he prepared the whole list. And honestly, who would be crazy enough to do something like that?

Well, not me, that's for sure. So when I sat down to write Monkey Business, one of the first things I knew I needed to have in the final product, had been a jungle treasure generator of sorts. It needed to be fast and bring flavor to the table. It's one of those things you can spend way too much time with. This is what I came up with:

Open in new tab for better readability! Strange fact:
it looks better in the pdf ...

One roll: treasure, flavor and even Quest Items!

So you roll 4 dice (2d20, 1d8 & 1d12), the d20s will give you a descriptor and a general category (I just use the left d20 for the left column and the right for the right column ...). The sum is your base gp value, but that might get modified by multipliers. Now either the d8 or the d12 will get used for column 3 (materials) while the unused die will either give a number of doses, the usability of an item or just make it even more valuable (as another multiplier, no less).

There are several benefits from handling it like this. For one, it's just one roll and reading the result. Easy. Than it has a high level of variety (3600 variants, and that's not taking different doses or usability into account). Usability brings yet another aspect to treasures other than indicating if the group could do more with it than just selling: it might end up being quest items!

It doesn't even mean that the characters need to be aware of that fact (in true sandbox fashion), it just means that the item has a meaning to someone out there beyond its money value, which definitely can come in handy for a DM at some point. But it is a good reason to send characters around, looking for ruins and what-not.

Finally, using descriptors and general terms in conjunction with all kinds of material will just give a DM a general direction (and curses!). He'll still have to decide what exactly the characters find. This is where the flavor comes into play. As DMs we are used to making judgment calls about almost everything in a game and the main question is always: what makes sense right now. This being a jungle setting, the hard data resulting from the roll has to manifest as something that fits. Describing a result like that will automatically add flavor to the game and makes a whole lot more than 3600 results possible.

I'd even say that no treasure will be alike that way ...

It needs a bit improvisation to work, but, as I wrote above, it's nothing a DM wouldn't do anyway, so it really shouldn't be a problem. The real boon is that you'll end up with individual and colorful treasure every time. And if the group realizes that there's real money in exporting those treasures, you'll have a whole different thing coming (like real treasure hunters).

All flavor: a Hawaiian hand-weapon made
out of wood and shark teeth! [source]
Examples?

Sure, why not. We'll say the characters are in a dense jungle area, exploring some ruins and they find:

[d20s: 3, 7, d8: 8, d12: 1] = an ancient, small accessory made out of pelt (usability 1, value 38 gp)

I'd say this is some sort of hairy and holey pouch made by the long gone inhabitants of those ruins. Since the usability is so low, I'd say it was designed to hold something unusual, a meaning lost in time. It has some value for being very old and I'd say it could fetch maybe 10 times as much sold to a collector outside the jungle.

[d20s: 17, 8, d8: 6, d12: 8] = a rare big accessory made out of iron (usability 8, value 156 gp)

That's an interesting one. Big, made out of iron AND quite useful. A cage comes to mind, maybe. Yeah, I'd go with that. The group finds an iron cage in those ruins, something former visitors have left behind for some reason or another and it's a thing not often seen in a jungle (it being rare and all that, maybe slaver accessory? conquerers?). This thing is still fully functional and could sure come in handy one way or another. A bit bulky, though.

[d20s: 7, 11, d8: 4, d12: 8] = a cursed tool made out of predators (usability 8, value 30 gp)

Now that's something. A tool made from a predator ... the fangs of some beast are an obvious choice here ... I'd say it's the cursed set of torture tools made out of bone and teeth. The former owner had been an evil witch doctor who found his end in those ruins ... maybe in that very cage the characters found earlier. As a curse I'd go with some light forms of possession and the urge to torture someone. Or something like that.

You get my drift and I'm pretty sure all of you could have come up with different treasures like it. There is a somewhat detailed result and you apply it to the situation. Work with what you have, add to it as you see fit and you are good to go. Some you'll be able to prepare, some you'll have to roll up randomly, but you should be good either way.

More Monkey Business

I hope this was informative and give you an idea what to expect in Monkey Business (at least a small part of it). Either way, I also hope you got some ideas and found something useful here today. This is about sharing tools and concepts, after all.

The next thing I'll showcase here on the blog will be the ruin generator, as most questions so far had been about that one. The important thing is, that tables can do so much more than randomizing 100 results. They can interact and produce something unique and complex from nothing more than a roll of some dice.

And that's that. I'd recommend googling some tools and materials used by native tribes all over the world to get an idea or two. Other than that, I'd like to point out that it's quite easy to use those tables for any other kind of setting, maybe with a bit tweaking, but basically you could use this for a different background and just by taking that into account, you'll get different results.

If you liked this, you couldn't go wrong checking out the module it's from: Monkey Business. It's a PWYW procedural junglecrawl and there's more like the above where that came from ...


Monday, May 1, 2017

Monkey Business is upon you!

I made a thing! It's called Monkey Business and I've talked about publishing this for way too long now. Took ages to complete and it's at least worth the last 20 posts I didn't write, so if you've been following this blog and liked any of my stuff, you might want to go to drivethru and check it out ...

Here's the blurb:
Something steers deep in the jungle. Rumors of a strange drug start making the rounds ... and then things start getting really hairy. Even the cannibals are upset. Monkey Business is best described as a procedural junglecrawl, all pulp and weird and very arcade. Among the files you'll get with the purchase, you'll find 6 files containing:
  • 5 factions, with all the NPCs you might ever need (and it has a dinosaur in there somewhere)
  • exploding goblin hooligans (I kid you not)
  • 160+ random encounters
  • 3.680+ jungle treasures (including quest items!)
  • rules & tools to generate a 790+ square kilometers sandbox (that's about the size of New York City) full with lots of locations and conflicts to explore and encounter
  • rules & tools to generate cannibal villages and all kinds of ruins
  • the complete gorilla HQ, with dungeon map and all
  • lots of cheat sheets for your campaign log
  • plus all kinds of whacky adventure ideas ...
And here's the catch: I'll give you 100+ pages of background and ideas and all the tools I could think of so that you can make it the mini-campaign you want for your group. In true DIY-fashion, I encourage you to take this and make it your own. Or loot what you can and make a run for it ... Either way, if any of this tickles your gonzo, feel free to take a look. And most of all: have fun rolling dice and being weird! 
The system used here is Labyrinth Lord (TM), but it really should work with anything you throw at it (OSR or not), as most of it is pretty system agnostic.
It's all there and more! Hours of play, lots of random tables and all you need to make it happen at the table. I've been talking about doing something like this for years now and it finally happened: I finished something and now it's out there to bring you guys some joy (I hope). So check it out, take a look and tell me all about it!

So that just happened ...

You can get all that goodness here!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

More thoughts on writing modules (Design Post) - Part 2

Finishing something instead of starting it for a change. The idea of this little series (here is Part 1) is to take a close look at role playing games as their own kind of medium and what considerations need to be made compared to, say, novels or instructions. Rule books and adventure modules might be somewhere in between ... but the thing is that it's quite easy to get some solid definitions for the latter and none whatsoever for the former (not that I'm aware of, anyway). There's also almost always the (related) question of what an adventure module should contain and to which extent, respectively how much testing it would need. Let's get into this once more ...

I once had a discussion with a friend whether beer could be argued as a form of medium, since using it will alter communication ... So there is that.

Are role playing games a different form of media?

All right, all right. I think I need to clarify this a bit. The term "media" will carry several meanings, depending where you are coming from. Media in this here context are basically forms of expression in communication. Novels or comics or movies or computer games are great and commonplace examples for media like that. The idea is that media follow certain rules to recognize them by and those rules are pretty crucial to differentiate them from each other and categorize them as a consumer. An easy explanation for this is that you know the difference between a comic and a movie, as they manifest with clear distinctions.

And that doesn't (necessarily) include the means of consumption of said media. Like, movies had been something you'd see solely in the cinema about a hundred years ago, nowadays you can see them on all kinds of screens as long as they can show moving pictures. So the distinction must be in a way more basic definition, not in the technical means to distribute them. For movies it could be something like "a story expressed by following certain predetermined patterns and customs, using some form of recorded moving pictures, often with sound and music to enhance the experience".

There are several forms and developments possible (and already available), from 3d variants or movies with completely computer generated characters, to artificial movie stars or completely customized movie experiences (which should be some developments we might be able to see and experience pretty soon). So I think the crucial part for the distinction is "a story expressed by ...". To take the example above, it's clearly a very different experience to read the comic of a story compared to viewing the movie of it.

To make this perfectly clear: media in this definition are the patterns, customs and rules for stories that make media distinguishable from each other. There are bare necessities part for those patterns and customs (novels need to be read, pictures need to be drawn, that kind of stuff), but distribution and technical possibilities are a matter of change and need to be secondary (so a novel could be a book or a audiobook and there are several ways to view a picture, from the thing you put on a wall to something you just googled).

All this can be expanded by the famous sender-receiver model. Behold:

Media are in the center, but it adds authorship, a
receiver and a feedback-loop [source]

Following the definitions above, I'd argue that role playing games are their own form of expressing stories (messages) and thus ... a medium in their own right. Adventure modules should, consequently, cater the special conditions of role playing games to be effective and could also be considered their own kind of media.

And that means?

Yeah, you might ask that. Should, maybe. Going with that model above, we can conclude part of what role playing games are: they are a means of expression. Not the author, not the recipient and not the story, but the procedures in between. The system, if you will. The dice are, in a way, what the blank surface is for a picture, the different results in conjunction with all the numbers would be the color scheme and the resulting (decoded) impression would be comparable to looking at the painting itself. So on and so forth.

Nothing of this is really new, I guess. But it begs the question: if rpgs are their own kind of medium, with rather distinctive necessities and all that, what does that imply for writing modules? To answer this, we need to (1) take a closer look at how rpgs need to operate to produce the kind of output we expect from them (just like you'd expect moving pictures when seeing a movie) and (2) expand the sender-receiver model to the individual groups using the system.

First we need to understand what a system really does. Going by the model above, a sender (the DM and the players are interchangeable in that) encodes (think "feeds") a system with a message (think "story"), then the system does its thing (rolling dice, documenting results and so on), the receivers decode it (again, the whole table), then feedback-loop and repeat. All give input to the system, the DM the setting-side, the players from the character-side of things. The individual system-decoding done by the DM is the valid interpretation of the system in that context.

Second we need to distinguish between authorship of the system and authorship of the story (the message, if you will). I think the importance and role of those different authorships are often confused in their relevance to using the system.

A game designer is writing the rules with the potential DM (the receiver) in mind. The medium in this case would be the, for instance, the rule book. The rules themselves, though, are a matter of decoding and the feedback-loop would be re-reading the rules for clarification or researching it online or whatever.

The point is, the moment the recipient of the that first cycle becomes DM, he also starts being the sender for a completely different cycle, with way shorter feedback-loops through the players as recipients and a completely different desired output (the first is reading a book to understand the rules, the second is using the rules to produce a game).

See what I mean? [source]

So adventure modules are, going by that logic, supplements to help encoding stories for the medium by specifying the input in a way that the system-output has some sort of predetermined desired result.

I'd argue that while you have the reader of that first cycle above as receiver and potential DM in mind, modules fulfill a total different need in that they have the reader/receiver as potential sender in mind and the players as receivers of the desired system-output. Always keeping in mind that every receiver will most likely end up with a very individual decoding in all instances ...

... which is my complicated way of saying that content and presentation of adventure modules need to fulfill certain criteria (the encoding thing above), but are ultimately relatively free in almost everything else (maps, art, just text, short, long ... you name it). There are no rules, there's only taste, because ultimately this will be decoded to the amount the receiver deems necessary and the result will not only always be individual in nature, but also going through a completely different cycle with yet another succession of en- and decodings.

What is "useful" in a module?

Since we all already collect input all the time for the systems we use by looting ideas from movies, comics, books, art, life, you name it, modules have to bring a little extra to the table to be useful. Print is in this regard far superior to pdfs or any kind of digital presentation (blogs, clouds and what have you) if you play in meatspace. It's not exactly the other way around if you play online, though, since digital material can be a real boon in digital environments like roll20, but more of an hindrance in the traditional form of a module as a coherent collection of text and material with a reader in mind instead of a user (which I assume).

At least that's the traditional assumption. If we take the above into consideration, it might be worth also considering that a good module mostly has to put the reader in a position to feed the system with ideas and concepts and messages he wouldn't have come up with on his own easily enough (or even on the fly, for that matter). Again, traditionally that'd be material like vast dungeons and their descriptions or (for more complex games) monster and NPC stats, maybe names, too. But is that the only way? 

So here is the thing: it might be beneficial to treat the reader of a module not as a potential sender, but foremost as a receiver, bring the module for him to life and give him the tools to gather, alter and collect the input he thinks necessary. That would mean, for instance, to have a dungeon and instead of giving a description of every room and creature, you make it a living and breathing thing for the reader and let him decide what the state of the dungeon is when the characters enter. Maybe give him random tables and tools to produce fitting content on the fly, too.

What I'm saying is, nothing needs to be fix in modules, but the reader needs to be able to get a sense of place or history or life and the tools to feed the system in a way that produces a certain kind of module related output, because he's doing it himself as soon as he's the sender anyways. And I, for one, dread the moments when I need to look something up or read a room description aloud (which can be fun, but mostly isn't). So that's it.

To do this justice, modules should be part reading experience, offering some immersion, because heavy decoding is what sticks with us and immersion is the way to that, and part DIY-tools for him to produce the content he needs himself (village or dungeon sheets instead of character sheets, for instance). There's plenty of ways to offer loads of content that way and by ensuring that it sticks, it's way more likely to actually get a huge part into the game without the reader needing to memorize and re-work the whole thing before being able to use it.

Tone, as described in Part 1, also is a big part of that, of course.

[source]
A word on play-testing.

That's just a random associated thought that occurred to me while writing Part 1. Well, at least I started seeing the connection or realized why it bothered me, like, forever: why bother play-testing something when the assumed difference between senders will almost definitely result in very different decoding/encoding processes every time. In other words, here is the explanation why every group will experience a different game even when playing the same system and module.

I'm writing this to once more strengthen the idea that the DM is the one in charge as the sender, not the author of a module. And that means that the play-tests of one individual DM says almost nothing about how the game would run for another group. There's also a correcting element in encoding material, so even if there are any imbalances or mistakes in a module that the writer couldn't glean beforehand, the receiver will most likely change any such elements (and more than that) as he needs it when he'll be sending it. The rest is common sense and how the group decodes the output it gets.

Games or systems, on the other hand, really do need play testing ... lots of play testing.

Not the only way, though ...

Sorry, this was a long one again. And all over the place ... It's not even the whole picture and some of it is guesswork (our hobby being as young as it is). Mostly because I can't possibly have read all adventure modules in existence and it might very well be that I describe something already well known and established. That said, if you think you know modules fitting the description I gave above, please name them in the comments ... I'd highly appreciate it.

So there are, obviously, many ways to write modules and this isn't the only one. Stonehell, for instance, mostly does the exact opposite (as much information as possible crammed on a page, no immersion possible, lots of using it at the table ...) and still somehow works. They all have their place and merit, be it collector items or the first modules ever written and the air of nostalgia that make them still work today or what have you, but I think there is yet a lot to explore and document about what makes a module work and what not. There's also some unused paths worth checking out, I think. A bit like arguing if beer could be considered a medium with the above offered definition.

[source]

One last stray thought: it's systems like 3e D&D and derivatives that try to undermine the DM as sender in the game by making the input very much depending on the source instead of supporting the encoding process ... Just food for thought.

Comments and thoughts about this are, as always, very welcome.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

It's all about the ingredients ...

We all know that: we see D&D spells and are like "Way cool! I wanna do that!" and then we see a beholder and ask ourselves what his story is. This is something that's been bothering me on and off for a long time now and I think it's time for a post about it. This turned out to be a bit rambling. That's the stress making me think less coherent. I guess. Anyway, bear with me, it has a nipple wizard and a Gygax quote in the end, so that's something.

The origins of D&D magic

They winged it, plain and simple. Man, there are interviews about it*. They made it up as they went along. All that stuff about Vancian Magic? As if it would mean something? All make-belief (and not the kind we usually talk about). And who could blame them. It's been one huge experiment with lots and lots of play-testing. It's genius, too. On many levels, actually.

This is not supposed to be an analysis of what they wrote back then and why but more about what they didn't have. They had, for one, no idea how magic worked in their worlds. It just was a tool. In a way it was used to bridge aspects of the game they hadn't covered ... Hold Portal, Open Lock, all those utility spells had been there for a reason: they are tell-tales about what the original designers felt missing during play-testing sessions. It is nice to have an universal key for everything.

There is a great freedom in that, I think. In a way it's the purest form of our hobby when the game grows organically with the group instead of being predetermined by sets of rules. And if something is missing? Magic is the key ... Just needs a bogus story about ingredients, something you got to do to get it with a little quest on top of it as the cherry. The rest is negotiating with the master, also part of the game.
It's funny how D&D codification changed the whole concept over time. [source]

So many thoughts ...

Here are some ramifications of this. Just from he top of my head. This is by no means a complete list or meant to be one. Here it comes:
  • This is why the cleric can be so brutally boring: development had been the other way around. Instead of saying "If it's needed, we just use the MU for it", they must have said something like "Yeah, so we have a holy man and he needs to do that and that ...". Totally different process. Clerics never really recovered from it.
  • And we just follow those established patterns instead of breaking free from them and doing our own thing. I know, I know, iconic spells, yadda-yadda, all that noise (I love it, too). Can't beat a fireball. Just can't. But what if ... Mordenkainen, Bigby, Elminster, all player characters in games! What's the problem? Does it take another type of player to develop instead of just copying? Maybe.
  • So the wizard in D&D is traditionally weak ... is that because he is the ultimate connector? Not because he's too powerful (always thought that's bullshit, btw**), but very, very flexible in a D&D context? At least when it was played a way no one plays it anymore (exaggerating here, I hope).
  • Would it still be D&D if people just came up with their own spells as the characters grow? I'd argue: yes. Even more so, maybe. You'd still have the same wacko monsters ... or just do that new, too. Would still be D&D. In a way we don't play D&D but mimic the way those old guys played it. A bit like a religious ritual, worshiping it something fierce. But that true form, that would be something else entirely. You'd play how them not like them (if that makes any sense).
  • And yet, the rules don't encourage that really, do they? It's far more difficult to create your own spell. Getting harder with every edition. So what's the problem? Uncontrolled power rushes, I suppose. Designers not trusting the ordinary folks doing it right ... Maybe. But isn't that one of the lessons a DM has to learn? How to judge what works in the game and what doesn't? Well, that might not be what being a DM is all about nowadays ...
He broadcasts, too ...***

So what the hell am I meandering towards?

I believe D&D magic is like a window into another world. It gives us hints how this game emerged from the brains of those people playing it back then. It's less about quoting Vance or Tolkien or whatever, but about developing the game together at the table. A lesson about making it work, sometimes just in a specific moment of a specific campaign. It's full of short cuts, too.

I think I see glimmers of that when play-testing Lost Songs of the Nibelungs. It is a different way of gaming, not only exploring a world, but also exploring a system. It's never the DM alone, it's the resonance created between all those playing. Kind of scary, too, to play it like no one else does. Hard to communicate or compare. It's its own thing. Just like those original games.

Well, what to do with this, though? Should we just ignore the spells when playing 1e D&D and allow players to find their own way? Maybe. But is it even possible? People have expectations, especially when it's about having options. And creating is so much more difficult than just copying. So that might not be a point I want to be making here.

But a thing I see missing more often than not in rule books is stuff that encourages DMs to go their own way, to develop themselves. It's not that I don't see that happening anyway. I do. We all do, I guess. But it's not encouraged. We are made to believe that "house rulings" are tolerated, but not how the developers intended it to be played.

Looking at those first games, or listening to the guys who played back then, I get a totally different vibe. You know, that culture of slavishly copying and ritualizing of what we got sold is successful for more than one reason and I don't want to dwarf or ridicule that. But is that really what D&D was? Or can be? Whatever it is, it starts with encouraging others to create their own and that's so much easier when they get a chance to understand why the things they use work how they work. Right?
I wonder what kind of spell he cast to get there ... [source]
I'll close with some words by Gygax and from the introduction to that first rpg:
"These rules are as complete as possible within the limitations imposed by the space of three booklets. That is, they cover the major aspects of fantasy campaigns but still remain flexible. As with any other set of miniatures rules they are guidelines to follow in designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign. They provide the framework around which you will build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity — your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors, and the fact that you have purchased these rules tends to indicate that there is no lack of imagination — the fascination of the game will tend to make participants find more and more time. We advise, however, that a campaign be begun slowly, following the steps outlined herein, so as to avoid becoming too bogged down with unfamiliar details at first. That way your campaign will build naturally, at the pace best suited to the referee and players, smoothing the way for all concerned. New details can be added and old "laws" altered so as to provide continually new and different situations. In addition, the players themselves will interact in such a way as to make the campaign variable and unique, and this is quite desirable." (D&D: Men & Magic, p. 4)

And one last thing: who is reading this and wrote his own D&D spells. Really curious here ...


* I really like that guy, though. Best wizard EVAR!

** Magic is the ultimate tool. A level 20 fighter, grown organically in a campaign, will be just as nasty as a level 20 wizard. Who wins in such a match will largely depend on the situation, the game, the dice ... really every factor other than the wizards spell roster. On paper, maybe. But I think that's the main problem. In the game all bets are of, people just believe the written word too much ...

*** This is a pic from the Hackmaster Supplement "The Spellslinger's Guide to Wurld Domination" (on p. 88). Don't know who the artist is, but it cracks me up every time ...