emergent plot – stirring up the sandbox

Aye, I know. I dropped the “P” four letter word in the post title of a supposedly OSR blog. The OSR police will come here with their 1d100 hirelings wielding glaive-guisarmes and hook-fauchards and lay siege to my parents’ place (I’m visiting) until I repent or burn my copies of Ravenloft and Tales of the Lance (those fools don’t know the dungeon/basement has a hidden exit).

Anyway: as previously mentioned IMVHO one of the most important hats DMs have to wear is the MC one: ensuring that everything’s running smoothly and that everybody’s having a good time. Not winning, but enjoying. Most importantly, keep the game going and provide players with stuff to interact with, while feeling more and more a part of the game world and able to intervene on it. Deconstructing the game to its bones you just need to provide players with 1-3 “encounters/events/interactions” for every gaming hour.

One of the most productive ways to do this, for me, is to come up with overly ambitious NPCs and villains, and to make sure their brilliant secret plans to fame/sex/their parents’ approval/gratification/power/gold/munchies are coherent with the setting: this way, for scarcity of resources, as there’s only so much land/gold/etc available, conflict will arise, and the NPCs will be at each other’s throat in no time. Note that NPCs might not even know that they have conflicting plans, or who is opposed to them and in which way, or even that there are opponents… I’ll call these kind of NPCs “big players” (call them factions if you want, but they’re not factions di per se).

Best bit, they’ll be hiring PCs to do the hard/nasty work: this way PCs will possibly ingratiate their patron, get money and experience, push forward the patron’s plans and set back his opponents. Doing this they’ll get a bit of reputation (good or bad) as the words of their deeds spread, eventually being known to other big players in the campaign, which will try to interact with them in various ways: murder, bribes, blackmail, appeasing and so on. This should “automagically” create something that looks like a plot, making it emerge straight from the interactions between campaign elements. The situation should be unstable so that players tipping in a direction or the other can cause things to happen differently.

It might be that PCs will understand what’s going on and decide (probably later in the campaign) NOT to be hired, but to play their own part in the big game, becoming “big players” themselves in what’s “traditionally” D&D endgame (or Ars Magica first “summer” and then “autumn” Covenant seasons).

The most typical way to propel the plans are either “trigger driven” or “time driven”:

  • Trigger driven: things happen when player’s actions (or inaction) trigger them; for example, the Tyrant of Syrak decides to send his war navy to blockade Marchil when the PCs arrive to Syrak, just in time to see the galleons leaving the harbour in full sail, or even better to join them as privateers.
  • Time driven: NPCs do things all the time, interacting with the PCs just by in-game means; for example, the first of March the Emperor sets his armies off to new campaigns, armies that will take a proper number of days of overland travel to reach their destinations, a proper number of days to lay siege to cities and so on. As the time goes by, other “big players” will react accordingly as either their minions will report to them or simply rumors spread.

Note that in both cases I deliberately made the action noticeable to the players, either through rumors or direct interaction: making developments noticeable to players is very important, and justifies spending money for spies and the like. Some kind of rumor mill is needed, possibly with the players spending resources toward having better information sources. Of course some information will be worth a lot.

A simple example follows:

Up and Down the East Coast

  • On the East Coast there are two Kingdoms (North and South), separated by tribes of marauding orcs.
  • Kingdom South has lots of alpacas and needs iron for its heavy cavalry. King South is an epicurean slob, but cares much about his people, who loves him back (mainly because of light taxation and reasonable justice system and code of laws).
  • Kingdom North has iron and needs nice and warm textiles because winters there are horrible. King North is very greedy and (as you’ll read) has a nice business going on.
  • Kingdom N and S are very good commercial partners and enjoy a long military alliance against the orcs. There is a sound that would enable them to trade by sea avoiding to sail around the big Isle of Nasty Waters, but it is home to a strangely active dragon (currently trying to assemble a big hoard to attract a mate). No one goes in the Dragon Sound… almost no one.
  • Oversea trading is done via the Trading League, a trust of ship-owners owning galleons seaworthy enough to double the Isle of Nasty Waters. They have bought out, brought in or sunk all other trading companies in the two kingdoms, and talked the kings into taxing imports not coming from the the kingdoms, resorting to pretty much anything to keep on being the real “king of the hill”.
  • Marks on the borders of the two kingdoms would like to be independent, squish the orcs, grab & settle on their lands and join in a league, thus securing an inland trade route. If they could get rid of the dragon they could also secure the Dragon Sound, the Isle of Bad Waters and make the Trading League’s operations less viable unless they get a nice share.
  • Independent pirates try to capture ships for ransom around the Isle of Bad Waters, sometimes fleeing in the sound, where they pay the dragon for protection. They could team up and settle in the sound, as the kingdoms’ war navies are not that big.
  • In the North big landowners are a bit grumpy because of the trading guild, as local winterflax (a kind of flax that lives north) is not commercially viable anymore. Their distance from their Capital makes them not really politically powerful or active. The King doesn’t care as he owns the iron mines, financing fortresses and mercenaries with money gotten from the mines and its thieves guild.
  • Said mercenaries can kick orc asses before breakfast, no sweat, but want to be paid. Or else.
  • The Archery Commanders in the South see the whole heavy cavalry thing as an overly expensive exercise that not only takes away a lot of their prestige, but makes the South Kingdom reliant on foreigners to equip their army, and would like for this shenanigans started by young hipsters to stop and return to the old traditional mounted archer. The “new” heavy cavalry Commanders are a smart bunch of young and brave officers that study military theory, fight very effectively (think winged hussars) and are a bit annoyed at their gramps using strategies and tactics from a few centuries ago.
  • Two thieves guilds (one per city) buy stuff from the pirates and, at times, sinks or capture foreign ships or buy their mutiny; this is done mainly to fix prices (at times both guilds and the trade league act in concert) and both have vast hoards of iron and wool hidden in both cities and their surroundings: the relative scarcity is at the moment created by the Trading League and the Guilds. The North Guild secretly pays his king a quarter of its gains every season, also secretly recruiting spellcasters to curse the local nobles and their lands so that winterflax doesn’t grow well, while the South Guild is tolerated by his king and nobles as they source them with the good stuff anytime they want. Or else.
  • When the players will realize the stupid amount of gold and iron the dragon is sleeping on, they’ll start drooling over themselves.
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Fight On! #9 is out! and about! the Mob!

At last the new Fight On! #9 is out and all is well. I’m also very happy because a little contribution of mine is actually in the issue: an edited version of my 1d6-thieving rules. Ok, I’ll stop gloating right now (maybe in a minute), but I’m quite satisfied with my little skill system. It makes me want to play a thief. 🙂

Beside that, I have three more posts to make on the topic: one on guilds, one of more skills (featuring poisoncraft, diplomacy/bluff/fast-talk and other stuff) and one on organized crime. This last topic would be awesome gaming material if it weren’t for the fact that, being some kind of self-exiled Italian, it’s terribly depressing to write about it. Sure, RPGs feature violence, murder and dismemberment prominently (often on the cover), and despite having used hobgoblin faux-nazists in the past and tons of torture (but never “in your face”) and ethnic cleansing and refugees and racism and lots of other “adult” topics, organized crime is for me still a sore topic in games. Usually there’s a thieves guild somewhere, and gangfights are cool, but it never really the focus of the action. As I’m playing an elf Gangs of Marienburg for WHFRP 1st edition, the most depressing thing about the setting is how everybody is corrupt or corruptible and crime is almost everywhere. I’ve feel tempted a lot of times to just leave Fake-Amsterdam and go to living in the countryside. But that’s WHFRP main thematic, I guess.

Actually the last time organized crime featured in a game of mine we still played AD&D, so that must have been 1999 or early 2000. That’s 10 years ago. It’s gonna be hard.

Teachers for your 1d6-thieves: Fencing, Appraisal and Wizardry

This is the second post of a serie on thieving skills for Dungeons & Dragons. The rules are not meant for a specific edition but can be easily used for anything pre-d20.

in my previous post about 1d6 thieves I mentioned the option of making available different teachers to thieves to make available different skills from the ones provided by the manuals.

This not only reinforces my idea of the rogue class as some kind of “skilled guy” but also satisfies my “designer tickle” of making possible for the thief not only to learn the usual skills but also to achieve something more: I was walking in the woods with my lovely s/o and it dawned on me that the skill points thieves get could be spent rtaining for other classes’ skills, and that an amount of skill points could be spent to, say, memorize and cast spells as a second level magic user, or hit better in combat, or get more hit points.

With a clear understanding that this would be a breach of a number of D&D design aims, I risked arrest from the OSR-Ortodoxy police and tried to setup a group equation to… well, develop a model that says “the skill of casting MU skills is equivalent to the skills of wearing plate mail, having +2 hit points per level, having a good hit roll and using all weapons”, solve it and, most important, see if the model works. After a few hours of fiddling with numbers I ditched almost everything.

It’s better not to go there. The experience reinforced my feeling that classes don’t need to be balanced, the real need is to offer good fun to everybody, and classes are a way to offer different mechanics to interact with the system (think of how different is to play MUs and fighters) for people with different “funs”. At least I came out with few ideas for new thieves teachers/skills. I recommend that players spend time looking for teachers and do “favours” to them in order to be accepted as students. Note that first level characters will probably not have money to pay for the teachers; this is intended.

These new skills are not tested yet (as my players have better things to do than playing these weeks) but I reckon that if you’re willing to try this you might as well be able to deal with the consequences someway. 🙂

Fencing: for every three pips the character gains +1 to hit with a given weapon. The teacher must be a fighter and have a hit roll better than the character considering just class and level for both (plus the weapon mastery bonus for the character). Cost: 1 week per pip and at least 50 gp per trainer level per week.

Appraisal: the character can estimate the value of an object. The precision is given by the margin of the roll: with margin 0 the most significant digit is know, plus one for every point of margin. For example if a character with Evaluate 5 rolls 4 while evaluating a jewel worth 1250gp he will know the two most significant digits (1 + 1 for the margin), so he’ll know “about 1200gp”. Had he rolled a 5 the result would have been “about 1000gp”. Odd objects will have negative modifiers, as well as prices in zones where the character is not used to trading. Cost: I have no clue, but I guess working as an apprentice for a merchant or a fence for a while will be enough.

Wizardry: the character can memorize and cast spells as a wizard of level equal to a fourth of the number of pips. He can memorize spells written in his spellbook provided that while memorizing he succeeds a “Read Languages and Magic Scrolls” check. If a check is failed the spell will be misread and the character can try to memorize another spell in the slot, making misread spells will not be available for the day. To avoid miscasting a spell the character will have to succeed a Wizardry test, with a modifier of -4 for every spell level beyond the first. There’s no automatic access to read magic or any other spell. Cost: 1 month of mentoring and 50gp per pip plus 50 for every existing pips (the first is 50, the second 100, the third 150, the fourth 200, for a total of 500gp to be able to cast level 1 spells, 1300gp more for the second four pips to get a second 1st level spell slot, 2100gp more for 4 more pips and a second level spell slot).

peeking in the toolbox

This article is written as some kind of followup of a post written by my favourite bat, but as my average article gestation time is measurable in months, well, it kinda spun off in its own direction.
Here’s the content of my toolbox: what I use when I need some help during improvisation:
  • AEG Toolbox. Toolbox is a thick book chock full of tables: the original book is quite d20 oriented but the stats can be disregarded as needed. Back in the day my toolbox was literally just this handbook (and the d20 core books). AEG put out also Ultimate Toolbox (excerpts available), which is TONS of new material and not a reprint of the old stuff in a posher book, this time in system neutral format. I’d get it but as I have the first one I’m not willing to spend money for it. I always find a bit hard to find stuff in this kind of book.
  • Monsterless Manual from Beyond The Black Gate, because at times you need to have stats for a wench or a sergeant, or you want to insert an interesting dramatis persona but don’t know who (the same way we crack open the monster manual looking for an interesting encounter). Dragon Lords of Melnibone (d20 version) has an equivalent section, but with more fluff: the Monsterless Manual has justs stats and a random personality table. Hiring tariffs would have been a nice addition (how much is a wench? and a soldier? and a doctor? for a month? or an hour?), as well as “meaningful names” for characters, such as… ok, can’t come up with anything in English but a wench called “Darla Presti” sounds totally right in Italian; about that, see here for the concept, here for villains, and here in general, because nomen omen est.
  • Kellri’s netbooks. You know them already, or at least you should. As previously mentioned, my campaign without CDD#4 would have been much more boring, or hard work, but possibly both; being similar to AEG Toolbox, it suffer the same lookup-problem (but it’s cheap).
  • Roleplaying Tips’ Session Checklist (second part here). It’s the second most gaming-significant article I’ve ever read, the first page of my RPG ring-binder used to be the same handwritten checklist. I might as well put it back there or even better stick it to the binder cover. If you’re interested, the first one is here, but mostly concerned with other stuff.
  • my RPG ring-binder. Years of game writing and improvisation produce an amazing quantity of material, yet most of it it’s never recorded. And I don’t mean plots and bad acting, I mean NPC personas and stats, motivations, locations, stuff players really enjoy and so on. I understand that you might not want to break the game flux and rhythm taking notes, but GMs might be literally throwing away the best bits of their improv efforts. It’s like not taking notes while brainstorming: you might lose gems.
  • Everway decks and a tarot deck. I got Everway used for 5 quid but never played it (the full set of cards can be bought for cheap on ebay), and one of my best friends bought me a tarot deck. Both are tools used to build narratives around protagonists, and I used both for improv and adventure-writing. There are countless sources that teach tarot reading, I use Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot and Place’s The Tarot, and you can resort to automatic spreads if you have no decks around. There are also many versions of Ravenloft Tarokka decks you can use. Everway cards have questions on the back, which kinda handholds brainstorming but makes it way faster; overall better than a tarot deck as it’s not “polluted” with christian and jewitchery themes that might make it alien to your fantasy world.
  • For dungeons, I usually resort to geomorphs. Lately I printed and cut DysonLogos’s and Risus’s. If there’s the need to “save” the dungeon disposition, I can use a digital camera or a webcam.
  • Websites: Cartographers’ Guild and Google have nice maps/props, and I stop by Age of Fable and Chaotic Shiny when in need of generators.

fun was had

A few highlights of last sunday’s game.

  • we used ZZARCHOV’s initative rule instead of the usual “declare and roll”. Strongly recommended.
  • a scouting party was sent out to investigate the road to the tower bridge they wanted to cross. I almost cried tears of joy. Said party fails to realize that the tower is occupied by an Evil Mage.
  • a fireball aimed at the party wipes out 25 people (all the followers, mercenaries and companions except one), all the mounts and mules. This happens before the fighting starts; the other 6 characters either survive the blast and break after a failed morale save or were a distant from the blast. Plinking FTW!
  • the party cleric (an hulking adept of Cthulhu in plate armour, played by Riccardo) casts Silence on himself, grabs the resident Evil Mage and uses it as a bobsled down the tower stairs. Ouch. The mage pulls out his dagger of life stealing and hits the cleric. Ouch. Riccardo goes “Now I’m really pissed off“.
  • the party berserker (by himself), under attack from 6 crossbowmen shooting from arrow slits, bashes down the entrance door, slays all of them, goes upstairs, sucks up a fire trap spell opening a door to the main room of the tower and picks a fight against 5 doppelsöldners. After getting painfully gutted in the process, is left dying on the floor. The player (Mattia) used the word “badass” every phrase while doing all the above. It looked like the offspring of the forbidden love between the Python’s Sir Lancelot and a combine harvester Vs the smurfs. But the smurfs always win at the end, especially if in plate armours and armed with two handed swords.
  • Due to dumb luck rolling on the death table, the berserker wakes up a turn later and quaffs a healing potion, only to meet the boss doppelsöldner, ending up on the floor again. Only to get lucky on the table again later.
  • The Most Important Thing happened: plenty of fun was had even if some PCs died, levels were lost and so on.

Dead before the first room: a phalanx delving in the Castle of the Mad Archmage

After months of begging I manage to talk my cousin Andrea (he plays Charming Bowser in my campaign) into running a game for us. At last he failed a saving throw against Family Pressure and ran Castle of the Mad Archmage using our odd houseruled B/X.

YAY! I wanted to play that as a player. 🙂

Since just me and Riccardo showed up we went to UESM and rolled four B/Xish characters each. For me a cleric, a dwarf, a halfling and an elven mage; Riccardo rolled an elf, a fighter, a dwarven cleric and an halfling thief.

The GM decided that there’s no such things as a first level (the second leve is accessible straight from the outside), so we met a room filled with webs. Barry, my halfling, went downstairs, and sets fire to the thing, retreating immediately, followed by a huge spider, that immediately kills Dolum, my dwarf (a follower with 2hp) because I rolled a 9 and he needed an 11 to save. Darn.

Well, Dolum’s Brother joined the party to avenge his sibling. Thanks DM! 😉 And somehow he managed to lose just him during the whole night. 🙂

We then wiped out the Black Lance (a group of brigands), half a den of troglodytes, a hydra, a bunch of ravenous giant rats and were almost wiped out because a shrieker alerted a band of hobgoblins, attracting a gelatinous cube at the same time (darn random encounters).

It’s also been the only fight where we didn’t use our proven phalanx formation: first line with two haflings and an elf wielding spears and a second line (elf F/MU and a dwarf F) wielding halberds, two fully armoured clerics and my mage in the back. It’s quite powerful as there’s a spear wall at the front, enabling 5 characters to roll to hit (and those halberds hit for a whopping 1d10 hp) yet quite flexible as, spending a round, the halberdiers can move their pointy sticks the other way should someone attack the party from behind.

The last time I played B/X (as opposed to run B/X) was during ’95-’96, using Talorian (MU23), the only other BX character I rolled (well, we actually used Red Box), so last night has been a very different experience: after years I found that D&D is both still fresh (even as a player) and terribly entertaining and challenging. The freedom in exploring a dungeon, in terms of tactics, risk, method, direction, logistics, attitude towards monsters and other encounters is probably what I really dig in fantasy adventure gaming. I hope my players have as much fun as I do, as my campaign world is what I like to write, but try really hard to run it so that my players can have fun.

Whitebox in the mailbox

Wednesday afternoon I found in the mailbox a box from Brave Halfling which contained (ok, no big surprise here) Sword & Wizardry Whitebox Boxed Set.

First thing I notice is that the bottom part of the box needs to be taped as it’s quite flimsy and I broke through it already. Oh well, I’m not that bothered. The (always very polite and helpful) manufacturer excused about this and assured me they fixed the problem for the next run.

Then I actually opened the box to find, well, the twee booklets I was expecting, with solid, if sparse and at times a bit too old stylish for my tastes, b/w art. And a dice set… I’d have preferred just a bunch of d20s and D6s, as the system uses just these. And nice and clean character sheets with a design that seems to have been iterated over a few times, because it looks sensible. The content is very close to the old PDF I printed and punched to add to my campaign notes A5 four-rings binder months ago.

Which kinda begs the question: why not just print the PDF?

Well, the physical edition is pretty, split in different handy booklets, it comes in a box (with plenty of space left for other digest or A5 sized booklets), with dice, all nicely printed with cute covers and with nice character sheets. It’s a game that makes me want to play now.