On Eating your own Dogfood: generating adventure settings using AFG MOSTROTRON and MONDOTRON

I’m a firm beliver in eating your own dogfood. As I’m putting together “Castles on the Hills, Dungeons beneath” and I was feeling the white page syndrome, I decided to prototype MONDOTRON, an incomplete campaign Points Of Interest generator to kickstart writing on CotHDB: toss dice in, shake, get dungeons, settlements, weird and secret stuff out. Creatures would come out of MOSTROTRON, the AFG creature generator (you can find something similar but with a simpler structure here).

Two approaches seemed obvious: one more simple, teleological and user-oriented and one more simulationist. After jotting down a number of deciding factors to be used for the simulationist approach I decided to ignore them (for now) and go forward with the simple “table with of possible results”. MONDOTRON is going to be a stopgap solution: I need a usable setting generator soon rather than a perfect one later.

The simplest approach is to, for each hex or node in your map (maybe generated with Hexographer), do the following:

  1. come up with a name, possibly based on the geographical features.
  2. use a table to determine if monsters, treasures and traps environmental hazards are present.
  3. place monters, treasure and traps environmental hazards appropriate to the location. If the room location is empty, add an interesting and visible landmark or a special thing (ruins and standing stones are always a decent option), if the treasure is unguarded it might be buried, monsters might be in a dungeon and so on.
While this guarantees results which are exactly the same as dungeons with bad weather, such as a tribe of goblins and their hoard in a 30’x30′ room hollow in the woods, the result is not an open-sky dungeon: the main difference between dungeons and wilderness is the quality of the interaction with the environment. In a dungeon stone walls stop you from evading the ogre sentinels while in the wilderness only the most extreme environments, such as lava, crevices and vertical cliffs stop you in the same way, and only if no way to fly, abseil or climb are available. In the wilderness the lay of the land is much more interesting, interactive and varied than dungeon stone walls, and forgetting this will lead to frustrated players.

So, yes, this approach works. Can be improved on but it’s solid.

On the other side bringing a pickaxe in a dungeon might allow patient adventurers to loudly dig themselves and treasure out of trouble. It’s been done and it works.

A more sophisticated approach is to have a table with expected results, like this one:

  1. Dungeon: underground complex. You might be familiar with the concept.
  2. Special place: hot springs, standing stones, an extremely deep crevice. Players’ interest should be piqued.
  3. Hidden place: an hideout, a crypt, a buried treasure, you get it. The location must not only be remote but also purposely hidden.
  4. Outpost: small, single settlement, like a farm, an hunters’ lodge or a fort
  5. Village: a bigger settlement. Towns and cities should be extremely rare as they need extensive food supplies, which means miles of fields around them and security from monsters.
  6. Nothing special.

So for each hex you roll on the above table and then on the relative subtables. If you want to have a more mundane setting roll a dice bigger than a d6. You can also throw in modifiers depending on the location and its surrounding. This is the solution used for MONDOTRON. Sure it has a number of shortcomings: distribution of content can be far from perfect (but of course improvable), and a random approach leaves you hostage to luck. Also it doesn’t usually produce extremely interesting results because of its structure: the goodness of the result is on a first instance due to the single entries and not by their interaction.

It has of course a lot of plus sides: first, it’s really easy to write and to use. Second, leaning on any simple generator takes away hard choices but allows the author to take over when the creative cogs start cranking.

Also, it rides intuitive continuity toward the weird fantasy and pulpy end of the spectrum, possibly forcing a more heavy-handed approach to justifications to incongruence resolution. Intuitive continuity tells us that such incongruences are in some way justified, and can be roughly classified in one of the following classes:

  • No interaction. the first, simplest case is that the two entities do not interact meaningfully. Mostly non-changing.
  • Unbalanced interaction. This class of interaction has uneven tensions. The situation is therefore dynamic, change happening or about to happen. This part of the scenario is already evolving and will reach its natural conclusion unless meddled with, conclusions that will have consequences. Players should feel empowered not only to cause change through action, but also through deliberate inaction.
  • Balanced interaction. The third case is that the interaction is somehow beneficial for or tolerated by both sides. The tension must be balanced by another tension: this tension can be either internal (like a deal between a city and a warlord) or external (such as parents stopping brothers from beating the heck out of each other). The tensions will mostly counter each other and bring a non-evolving status quo, but might as well result in a new tension toward another element in the scenario. The resulting tension might end up destabilizing the whole: the example is a city paying some kind of tribute to a warlord and, as the lord makes new enemies, the city will suffer from their hostility too, in turn causing problems with the warlord and going back in due time to an unbalanced interaction.

All three lead to adventure scenarios but timing and opportunities are much different. Players can decide to intervene in all three scenarios, by either:

  • for the first class, forcing interaction between the parties.
  • for the second and third class, removing interaction or its causes, for example by blockading traffic between the city and the Warlord.
  • for all cases, acting in favour or against one of the parties, or as a new separate party, thus either stabilizing or destabilizing the situation.

Now, a number of factions, people and circumstances might lead adventurers to do some of the above. I’m pretty sure you can came up with these on your own.

a parcel full of AFG

The first batch of AFG copies arrived today, sporting a colourful but temporary cover and a full set of new stuff like character creation, two combat systems, various advancement systems, achievements, spells, Holdings and MONSTROTRON, my new and revised monster generator. It’s completely cleric- and experience points-free, but still compatible with most of your OSR swag. AFG will be available in PDF, Kindle and A5 Deadtree version later on this spring. Preliminary talks with artists are promising toward showing pretty pictures both inside and on the covers.

In the works, to be released any time soon (in the next weeks), the first AFG hexcrawl mini-campaign setting: Castles on the Hills, Dungeons Beneath will feature castles, dungeons and an inordinate amount of pillage and is meant to be an introduction to AFG and adventure gaming. I’ll try to be bold and experiment with the format: it’s going to be split in a free downloadable players’ introduction to both AFG and the campaign and a Referee section coming bundled in PDF and deadtree-in-your-mailbox for a handful of dollars.

AFG: 20 questions

Brentan over at Untimately asks some interesting questions which can be summed up as “how do you roll?”. Here are the  answers for AFG.
  1. Ability scores generation method? Roll 3d6 for each of three stats, in order.
  2. How are death and dying handled? if you get under 0, you might be dead. This depends on how quickly you are rescued and the blow that sent you down. If you get another hit when you’re down, you’re most most probably dead meat.
  3. What about raising the dead? Doable, but not straightforward. There are 2 NPCs in my campaign that can do it but it’s extremely hard to talk them into doing so. It happened once. Of course it’s easier and cheaper to bring back the dead as skeletons, zombies, wights and so on.
  4. How are replacement PCs handled? I’ll try to make the player play as soon as possible. My favourite tactic is “you find a prisoner, and you remember he’s an adventurer that left and never came back to the tavern”.
  5. Initiative: individual, group, or something else? Fixed order: Missile, Melee, Movement, Magic.
  6. Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work? They’re not there, but it’s possible to get extra damage at times.
  7. Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet? Sure. Things falling on your head won’t kill you immediately.
  8. Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly? Nah. 
  9. Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything? Of course you can kill everything, but AFG doesn’t care about how many monsters you kill. Combat brings no benefit except the possibility of having to roll a new character.
  10. Level-draining monsters: yes or no? No. Draining monsters heal themselves, then increase their maximum hits after they are fully healed.
  11. Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death? Of course my dear. And in many other cases a failed save might kill you indirectly.
  12. How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked? Resources very strictly. Encumbrance not really, but armour will make you slow, thus unable to run away as quickly.
  13. What’s required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time? You can gain a level or any other achievement benefit at any point, no training needed. But PCs can also train and research: in addition to spell research for Casters AFG offers Fighters rules to develop, teach and learn Secret Weapon Techniques.
  14. What do I get experience for? There’ be no experience points in AFG, characters grow by doing stuff and looting treasures, like Sham ordered. And the stuff to be done depends on both the campaign and what you agreed with the Referee. Also practising tasks makes you earn EXPERT letters. When you accumulate the sixth on a task, you become, guess what?, EXPERT at it. You can also become MASTER later, for added bad-assery.
  15. How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination? Description, but if you prowl slow enough you might just notice them. The problem is that you’ll keep on running into them nasties.
  16. Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work? Yes, but morale does not have hard-and-fast rules yet. There are spells to make wimpy minions go back to the front line tho. 
  17. How do I identify magic items? Unveil Arcana is known by all level 1 Casters, unless the player decides so.
  18. Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions? Sure. You can also buy a kingdom with enough gold. Potions are not that common, but you can easily get mana vessels and fetishes for level 0 spells, so you can cast your own spells.
  19. Can I create magic items? When and how? You need to progress as Caster a bit, but you’ll be able to make minor magic items such as fetishes and mana vessels soon. For magic swords and the like, it’s definitely doable, but I’d rather find an enchanted anvil or some meteoric ore.
  20. What about splitting the party? Sure. When you run away and leave your mates back you might even survive.

AFG is done, and OGL-free

Yes, done. Not complete or perfect, just done.

I wanted to have some early version copies before my spring trip to see family in Milan and I wanted some copies to give to my players there. My plane is next wednesday so I wanted to send the copies before thursday start of business hours.

But the book was a mess. The holdings chapter needed a monster generator and treasure tables, no rules for teaching and for development of Secret Weapon Techniques, lots of spells still missing, sparse illustrations, not many notes on how to create a campaign and run a sandbox/pointcrawl/megadungeon.

But I had enough feedback and momentum, and I’ve been developing the system for the past year or so. Play a bit, ask for feedback, tweak the rules, play a it more, ask for feedback, tweak, lather, rinse, repeat. Repeat. Repeat a bit more. Do math to verify that, no, the system it’s not going to break in weird places. Play again, endure the spells when you can’t muster enough players, enjoy when you can, be thrilled when players rediscover the thrill of adventure gaming and are forced to make hard, interesting decisions. At some point stop working on it because, hey, if I deliver it people might not like it.

So a while ago I kind of froze. Post-postgrad school depression and dissertation burnout really knocked me out for a few months.

Then play it a bit more to realize that, despite still very rough on some edges, testers really like it. And that making expensive armours and firearms available makes financing critical from level 1.

So in the past few days I just went into “software project management” mode and cut features from the first release. No religion chapter, no example dungeon or setting, keep the magical items to the bare AFG essentials. Cut the unfinished spells and campaign development notes. Add the illos you have to get in, and don’t worry if they don’t look perfect. Stop freaking out about typos, bad grammar and remember that, while a couple of sections might not have been perfectly proofread, proofreaders have done a good jobs of being nitpickers.

Then discover that you’ve written a game stat-compatible with most OSR material without using any non-original game mechanic (except stuff written by Sham). That you’ve done away with experience points, spell memorization, the way combat works, clerics, the pain of single-classing and the meh of multiclassing. You’ve written 30 original spells, new magic item concepts, completely new combat rules and that, since the whole manual has been made through clean room development, it’s OGL-free. Because I want people to play the Original Fantasy Adventure Game and I don’t think that it needs to rely on specific rules, giant fire-breathing flying monsters or underground fortifications, much less on the good will of WotC.

This early morning at half past five I sent the final revised file to Lulu. Some parts are terrible, some are good, some need more work. But it’s done.

Done is the drug that makes you feel Great, Done is the ingredient to More.