Testdrive! Vornheim: the Complete City Kit (Part 2)

Last weekend I played a session of Vornheim, using a PDF on a netbook as the physical copies were still at the printer’s. The preparation and first impact with the game has been discussed already here, what’s missing is some kind of play report and conclusions.

Except the conclusions are right here, and the report follows: if you like any of urban adventuring, random tables, sandboxes, the OSR, improvisation or preparation as opposed to using a premade heavily described setting, get Vornheim now; it’s probably the most-bang-for-the-buck RPG product I’ve ever bought in my life. If you ever plan to run some kind of city adventure, or you like random tables, still get it. I actually recommend it to any GM that can spare a handful of euros both to be aware of what can be done in terms of how handbooks can do to support your game and read  important bits of RPG theory that somehow till now managed not to be published. Just start a short campaign in Vornheim to acquire a taste for it, throwing stuff at your players faster than they can cope with, and see what happens. The city will cope with your initial clumsiness. 😉

V:tCCK is also a stunning example of how to write a setting describing what the characters and players interact with, instead of describing the whole of it. While this might be initially seen as shallowness by a non-OSR perspective, it turns out to be its greater strength. What stuck me, and that contributes to making V:tCCK so awesome, is that it doesn’t describe Vornheim. It gives you a method to create one, two, infinite Vorhneims. They are never going to be the same, but they’ll never be different.

And now, some short commentary on the game. Andrea, if you’re reading, stop now. 😛

My players rolled two new pcs, and with some kind of NPC-ex-machina the session started with an airship mooring on a mast on a Vornheim tower. Their weapons have been immediately taken care of by the police and, thanks to a rat-trap seller they managed to get directions to Zord tower.

Actually the bad reaction roll got them bad directions and kinda got them lost in the tower,(roll) ending up being assaulted by a damsel feigning distress and her accomplices. After the damsel (hf t3), fighting with a sword previously camouflaged as a shirt whalebone, fell under dagger blows and her goons ran away, the party managed to befriend a nearby (roll) glassblower, that allows them to hang out in one of his empty storerooms in exchange for some help in the shop due to a really teary story narrated by Pyeerroo. The “damsel” is searched and, together with money, a (roll) golden statuette of a bicephalous pig is found in her moneybag. The statue is so going to be a recurrent McGuffin, leaving behind a trail of corpses.

Pyeerroo is Andrea’s halfling thief, strangely resembling Hannibal Smith as they both love when plans come together and smoke cigars. Except Pyeerroo’s cigar is never lighted as he’s poor and can afford just to chew it a little bit.

In the room they manage to stabilize their “wounded comrade” and to interrogate her. Tuns out she’s a member of (roll, roll, see below) the Mob, the biggest thief guild in town, with hands in many other businesses as well. Tara (that’s her name, I watched some Buffy recently) barters some information and promises of collaboration for her freedom. The party manages to win her trust and admiration by giving her stuff back. Except the sword, so now PCs have illegal weapons again 🙂

On the way to the tower they met (roll, roll, roll) Gruk, a half orc physician and surgeon that uses modern techniques. Modern as in “they work and kill less patients”. After a short discussion about them being dark skinned southerners and what that means for Vornheimans, they befriend him and tell him that they’ll visit him soon. Then they start to climb up the tower, looking at the various establishments inside, with Pyeerroo ending up in the unlicensed brother at the end of the session.

They’ve been exposed to a number of things unmentioned: slow pets puzzled them but then somehow realized that it’s just a way to show social status by wasting time, architectural elements like towers and bridges, megastructures, gardens, and the Wyvern well.

Anyway, they never mentioned the serpent reader to anyone. Yay paranoia. 🙂

A player asked for feedback quipped:”it seems like Eberron”. Actually they meant Sharn. The fact that they couldn’t remember Sharn’s name says a lot.

Anyway, here are the guilds for thieves and physicians I came up with, from small to big, following the method described here.

Thieves:

  1. Black Fist
  2. Comrades of Empty Pockets
  3. United Bakeries (the baker’s union is just a cover, but they still make good bread. Don’t go for their meat pies unless you like human flesh tho)
  4. Blind Eye
  5. The Ring
  6. Dagger & Thaler
  7. Magnificent Beggars’ Kingdom
  8. The Mob

Physicians:

  1. Vorn Devote Healers
  2. United Unions of Physicians & Musicians (due to restructuring of the building they shared they ended up joining forces)
  3. League of Amputators, Leeches and Cuppers
  4. Surgeons and Physicians Convivium

Testdrive! Vornheim: the Complete City Kit

I really wanted to write a recension of Zak’s Vornmeim from LOTFP, but I decided against.

Instead, keeping with the spirit of the manual, I’ll just use it and see how it rolls. Later on today I’ll play a game and I want to do a fat hour of prep. While listening to Therion’s Vovin. The followup and final opinion on Vornheim is here.

Anyway, PCs travel freely between Capolago (home base in my campaign) and the Dungeon of the Mad Archmage (run by Bowser’s player, my cousin Andrea). How to get them to Vornheim? Actually, not how (that’s easy, airship or sea ship laden with rare woods and food), but WHY?

I need a local hook that can kinda push them there in a nice way. Rolling a random page lands me on the Library of Zorlac: Archmage Darkcloak will demand the PCs, since they caused the death of his apprentice Roderick and since Bowser owes him a favour, to recover a serpent reader. Noone heard of such things in my campaign world, but DarkCloak knows that “such unique and misterious artefact from another world” is owned by a private book collector in Vornheim. Recover it, or else: they’ll have a contact in Vornheim, i’ll come up with that later.

So far, easy: snake readers can be quite expensive but are not unfindable in Vornheim. But I need some intrigue. Comes out the connection table on page 53. Darkcloak is connected by NPC1, a native Vornheimer called Dick the Wit, which is (roll, 5) secretly (as in “one of many Dick’s personas”, roll roll roll) Okto of Skarr, a lotus addict aristocrat owning lots of really good farmland close to Skarr, a city far away (actually, he doesn’t). Okto entered Vornheim’s who’s who by feigning to be (roll roll roll) cousin of Kyle of Zord (yes, the family name is different, marriage between families happens, and he knew that Kyle doens’t know about his family branches and that one of his half-cousins’s wives is from Skarr), a sweaty and insecure epicurean employing the best chefs in the city, unwittingly sharing power with his sister, Tittlieb of Zord (yep, it’s the Vornheiman female version of Gottlieb, or Amadeus, but in this case she loves Tittivilla), a grubfight champion. Tittlieb (roll, roll) hates the f*ck out of Dick but respects Okto.

Ugh. Conflicting constraints. I love conflicting constraints 🙂 Constraints are directions allowing design to flow.

Tittlieb hates Dick as they used to be lovers in their youth (15 years ago), but ran away with all of her jewelry. She’s still mildly upset about it. At the same time she respects Okto as he’s rich, interesting, great at entertaining guests, and a relative. She doesn’t know about Okto being Dick, as he’s a damn good actor and conman. Conflicting requirements fixed.

Anyway, Dick and Kyle want to get rid of Tittlieb, and promise the PC that they’ll tell them who the book collector is if they manage to find a way to make Tittlieb GTFO of Vornheim. What not many people know is that… I need more stuff. What? Location, location, location. I need to populate the tower housing the Zords, called Zord Tower.

From the building table, a brothel ( “The Soft Damsel”), a food market hall full of pickpockets, a lawyer studio (“Pugnale, Portafoglio & Pantalone” [knife, wallet and trouser]  are the three lawyers), the mason shop that built and maintains the tower, a tavern (where Tittlieb plays grubfight), another lawyer studio (“Ingannamorte” [deathtricker]), a curio shop (“Magic Box”, sells magic boxes), a nameless winery, another lawyer (“Gragnuoli Brothers”), and another brothel (not belonging to any corporation, therefore illegal, seeming a normal apartment shared by a number of ladies). And two airship mooring masts (one in the market, one in Zord’s villa on top), 4 air bridges connecting the tower to other neighbouring tower clusters, 50% chance that a secret passage links any two given buildings in the tower (known to the old masons obviously, 1% that an inhabitant knows of about passages).

Many lawyers studios… I need guilds!

There are (roll 2d6) 4 lawyers guilds in town: the Most Estimated Union of Barristers, United Piemakers and Lawyers, Vornheim Black Advocates and Grand Advocates Guild. I pick Italian surnames for lawyers, insurers, bankers and moneylenders, just because of my genuine hatred for what they are doing to the place where I was born and raised; as a result NPCs from the above categories are usually evil and rich sociopaths that entertain good relationships with the mob. Ah, don’t get me started on the Vornheiman mob.

To simulate the spread of big and small guilds I came up with a neat rule: associate the guilds to a non uniform dice distribution (for example, 4 guilds -> spread with 4 possible results -> either 1d2+1d3 or 1d4 twice then pick highest), then roll for each.

  • PP&P -> 1,1 -> 1 -> MEUP
  • Ingannamorte -> 4,1 -> 4 -> GAG
  • GB -> 3,2 -> 3 -> VBA

The lawyers are always scheming. I dunno how or what. But hey are. They always do. They’ll hire the PCs to do odd, almost perfectly legal stuff.

Now, I imagine I don’t really need a plot or situation as I have a number of locales and odd NPCs and that will fuel the next sessions. I’ll just put the players in Vornheim and let them cause the usual trainwreck. Because they always manage to.

First, pre-game judgment: the book rocks. It threads a path rarely taken: describing a campaign setting encoding its behaviour. I can see a lot of material in the same style supporting it coming out of the OSR. I hope this will happen.

Tip:Generating Campaign Specific Rumours

Campaigns, sandboxed or not, might use some rumours to better motivate lazy players.

An approach is to have a neat campaign specific table compiled. Very neat and integrated, but it takes preparation, and it’s just limited to the table entries.

Another approach is to have a neat generic table compiled, and weave the result from the table in your campaign. Somewhat dirty and random, but good for improv and sandboxes. Some players might feel tricked as this approach might appear not honest to them (“maaan you and your stupid old school tables just f**ked me for no reason whatsoever”). You know what? Tell them to GTFO. 🙂

After reading Vornheim (a mighty fine product, let me tell you, as it defines a campaign through its behaviour and not through mere prose, which deeply satisfies my software engineer aesthetics I keep well hidden under my black beard, soul and clothes) I decided to use Zak’s “roll dice on page” to achieve a more direct solution to the problem. Pick a random page of the campaign setting, roll a d4 on it and, tah dah, what’s under the d4 is the rumour/secret.

Rumour Generation System

A: Pick a page at random from your campaign setting or notes.

B: Roll a d4, make it land on the page, read the sentence under the d4, refer to the following table:

  1. spill the beans and create a true rumour based on the sentence.
  2. refer the opposite of the sentence. It might not be a lie di per se but simply something erroneous or misreported.
  3. take the sentence and spin it so far and fast and hard that it might seem a false rumour but there is some underlying truth behind it. Think chinese whispers.
  4. create a rumour (30% true, 30% false, 40% mixed) based on the sentence, then pick another random page in the book (or some other book) and repeat the whole procedure, mixing the results.
C: try to weave some kind of reasonable tale around the topic, in case it feels artificial.

D is for Delusion and Dream

Given the amount of mad stuff happening in my life in the past 7 months this whole “one post a day” was, in hindsight, quite delusional. As a zen master insightfully said:

The problem is that you think you have time.

And yes, I will never get back the time lost. And neither will you. I dunno if I’ll manage to talk about Bandits and Chaos; one can only hope. I’d like to be able to say something smart about priorities and quality of fun but, frankly, words kinda fail me at the moment, as if the effect of the potion of delusion just waned…

Talking of delusions, in game are hard to pull off as usually affect just a single character as you either have good players that can handle knowing being fooled without exploiting it in game, or you have to pull off some mad mind trick, by telling the player of the deluded character in secret that he perceives a different reality, but not necessarily the wrong one. Time-honoured practices of secret note-passing and having a wee talk with the player in another room will do the trick, but will give off evident signals to everybody (and are best kept short or to low-intensity play sections as they really slow down the pace of the game). Of course you can inform other players about the strange behaviour of their fellow adventurer by describing it getting back first, keeping the misfortunate one privy to the conversation.

The neat part of doing this is that, if done correctly, the deluded one will not know that he’s on the mad drugs, suggesting that some kind of vision or “ultimate knowledge and power of the cosmos” has been imparted on the PC will do wonders for attention-seeking, power-hungry players, and of course there are very few things better than the whole party being talked into doing some mad errand by the deluded one.

Another option is to have players knowing the situation and exploit it for maximum LOLs. YMMV

The nice aspect of the above is that it can be applied not only to delusions but also to dreams and, for maximum shenanigans, to real visions which, of course!, can be induced by a malicious, mischievous spellcaster. And of course the DM can just make up his mind about the nature of what’s going on not only post facto, but also changing it at any given time. After all dreams and visions share many of the hallucinatory qualities of delusions.

PS: I have the tradition, usually when notes are passed around, of passing a note to a player at random. The note will say something like “don’t let anyone know that this note is blank, just pass it back to me”. A well known specimen of these particular notes has been used since early 2000 and nowadays is passed to a player when the everybody at the table is laughing already, for maximum hilarity. Ah, nerdy in-jokes.

On Rules/Rulings and Enjoyability. Or “You mean the entire point of the game is to roll dice?”

There is an OSR roundtable going on at the always excellent Beyond the Black Gate, featuring a bunch of OSR personalities; go and read all of it as it’s particularly stimulating. James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, writer and purveyor or many  fine RPG products, answered the following to one of the many questions asked:

“You mean the entire point of the game is to roll dice?”

An answer that made me think about action resolution and how it interacts with dice rolling, and what good action resolution is.

I wanted to make a short post and it’s becoming a long unreadable mess, so I deleted the rest and rewrote it here in a fraction of the wordlenght. Let’s start with a real-life experience.

My (30th!) birthday party, 10 players at the table, half of them never played with me before. I was half drunk, full of pizza and unbearably caffeinated, with scarce prep. Starting from a prepared location I decided to run a fast-paced post-disaster investigation, with a dash of drama, followed by humanoid hunt. Everybody had a really good time, rolled dice when appropriate and partecipated. Why?

I knew what the game was about.

Good rules/rulings use dice (or not) in ways  that guide a specific game in the direction that is enjoyed most and bad rule/rulings make for a “meh” game, the variability of rulings pushing far more the boundaries for both awesome and terrible experiences and reflecting appropriately on the “”social capital” the DM can command from players.

Obviously clumsy DMs with scarce experience might want to use rules as a crutch and come up with rulings at an appropriate rate, while more DMs more expert with the game allow themselves more room for rulings. Wilder games might want rules and rulings pushing for more random outcomes and settings than adventures in Middle Earth. We don’t just roll dice: we roll dice only when we don’t manage to prepare an automatic success through other action: for example blocking a door from being opened might require a strength roll, but nailing the door shut not only is automatic but also automatically succeeds at blocking the door.

The advice for you, master of any skill and orientation, is that before you pick a set of rules or start flailing rulings left right and centre you should understand first what the f**k your particular game is about, and plan your actions accordingly. Any campaign is potentially different. Heck, that might even change depending on adventure or on players’ moods, and surely it depends on yours!

Once again, know your game, your players,  yourself.

Toying with Zak’s Tables

Zak recently put up a table to generate adventures, sorta. As I haven’t done anything RPG related since early september and I have to run a Yule D&D Game (as most of us at the table are atheists), I have no clue what is going to happen and how I’m going to handle my sandbox using our homebrew.

Since I’m feeling quite rusty I’ll set up a major plot to happen in the background: obviously players will be able to thwart it in any reasonable way, but the NPCs behind it will of course change their plan in response to PCs’ attempts. Zak comes to rescue.

Let’s roll all the results, then look them up: 16,74,36,93,3,91,2,54

  • Where’s the basic plot of this thing coming from?

16 The Triumph of Death painting by Breghel

Uh, it’s actually Bruegel, love his art to bits. Zak suggests to run the thing as a guerrilla scenario. The painting also somehow reminds me of a certain LotFP adventure which fits perfectly with the location. Yay for tie ins. At this point there are six different factions capable of mustering armies big enough to invade the Free League. Plus, of course, there is the option to spin this around into an allegorical army, but a real one will do for now.

  • With a side of what?

74 Such logic as reigns in the Realm of Beelzebub (mm1 v 1).

I don’t own the book and my campaign is disgustingly mundane, as in “all the evil is caused by humans being human”. Extraplanar stuff and weird logic annoys me. I hate what i’m about to do, but a reroll is in order. I hope the OSR Police is not reading. 😉

56 Motorhead

Ok, I’ll add the missing hĂ«avĂż metĂ€l umlaĂŒts. I know f*ckall of Motörhead, so i grabbed the lyrics for first song I found on google (Iron Fist): it mentions a dark moonless night, flying hooves, dark beasts of Satan and a healthy dose of Doom & Gloom. Metal propah. Two of the above factions qualify, so it could be an occasion to narrow it down or to add an ally or an enemy to the invaders… interesting. I can see some nice dynamics as PCs try to influence factions.

  • Where am I going to get an idea for the big, crazy fight?

36 That Jack Vance story with the eyeball-collecting monster.

FUUUUU-

Erm. I gave a glance at the list a while ago and, while reading this, I though I’d never be able to fit this in in any way. First, I’ve never read Vance. Second, a search did not return much. Third, eyeball collection? FTW?

Maybe a spell requires a huge numbers of eyeball, a Carcosa-style summon for example. Or the monster is a human obsessed with making people half blind: maybe he’s the warlord of the invaders, and all his army is half blind. Or maybe the eyes stolen are “eyes of the mind”. I’ll probably go for the first.

  • And the totally incongruous element?

93 Roll a random monster. Build the most stereotypical situation you can around this monster. Investigate all possible naturalistic inconsistencies in said situation.

Ah, incongruous elements as random aspects for the evolutionary refinement of a campaign. I love the stuff: that’s what I love in sandboxes.

Well, ok, the homebrew doesn’t have a random monster table, and neither does the League. Google returns this.

My mouth is still slightly ajar.

I guess I’ll cope.

I can picture the thing as a huge behemot 200 feet tall. I have no idea how it’s gonna interact with the other factions, but the ecology is easy.

  • The multivalent trick the PCs can fuck with and turn against the adventure?

3 Frank Miller Daredevil (Run 2–you wake up to find your greatest enemy is slowly destroying your life for fun using his/her political influence.)

Urm. PCs have no greatest enemy. Oh, wait, I forgot about greed. No, not PCs’ greed. Now they have an enemy. Oh, I forgot about someone is holding a massive grudge, someone with scarce political power but with a big smile and an even bigger stick. The big stick can provide great leverage, and she’s quite nasty. Also players have no idea that she is a she.

  • And the new monster?

91 The people who were supposed to be doing this would have no problem with it, but we’re stuck with the PCs.

Ooook. This is hard.

It might be PCs becoming vampires/werebeasts.

It might be PCs creating monsters. As in golems and stuff.

It might be PCs “creating monsters”. And it happened thrice already. Nommy option, I’ll keep this, and possibly one of the above

  • Dumb prop/DM gimmick?

2 Frank Miller Daredevil (Run 1–fall in love with someone who wants to kill you.)

Easy-peasy.

  • Nondeath situation-altering punishment a PC might face?

54 The Younger Edda.

Ugh. The first part of the younger edda is some sort of epic. As result of the invasion the regime change might strip them of their chartered group status and crenelation benefits: in fact, changing their group of recognized adventurers to a group of adventurers armed and dangerous.

Overall comment: it’s a useful tool. Feels like divinating with a postmodern tarot deck, a welcome addition to my toolbox, where I also briefly discussed usage of an actual decks. I’m really satisfied with the table even if some of the entries are a bit extraneous to me (like those regarding american comics), but nothing forbids from swapping entries with more congenial stuff.

A bunch of new players, a single new game. Possibly…

After a longish hiatus here I am, a thousand miles away from last post, writing soon-to-be lost papers again.

Anyway, I’m about to start running games for a number of players, having diverse qualities:
Some of them are expert players, a few of which have played with me. Some other never played D&D or haven’t played in years. Some strong affiliations exists between the bunch, of the friendy, political or romantic kind. Oftentimes all of them combined.
Most importantly, none of them attended the Old School. Which might not be a problem as they’re either willing to try or completely unexposed to any idea of how RPGs are meant to be enjoyed.
My first thought was to take the campaign I ramble about now and then on this very blog and continue it, turning old PCs of note into NPCs and, well, capitalize on existing work. Another option would be to start with a new, better design for the campaign, developing earlier a multi-plot system and not waiting for when players are done with early dungeoneering, when they realize that actually the “outside world” has good opportunities to grab fame and fortune too, some of which don’t involve a particularly gruesome death.
Anyway, given a so diverse bunch of players means having to cater to diverse needs, but I’d really like to have an “open table” where anyone can turn up, be welcome and have fun.
I’m about to go to Oban and Kerrara for a few days… let’s see if Western Scotland is good for inspiration 😉

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.

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.

against the grain: evolutionary sandboxes and fun with hexmaps

Our sandbox campaign is picking up speed lately.

Players are keen on following the seeds I plant and other things I mention. They are taking way more initiative, doing things on their own and buy pack mules and mercenaries to guard their remote camps.

Awesome; exactly what I wanted, for a few reasons:

  1. Players are way more engaged now: the empowerment given by the “endgame” usually does that, even if they don’t have fortresses/armies yet, but as previously mentioned they got crenelation rights over a ruined fortress (it’s the ruined Rodemus Castle from Moldway repurposed as “ruined border fortress, blocking a mountain pass used to trade with the Eastern Kingdom” (and before you dismiss “Eastern Kingdom” as a lame name, please note it’s more or less the meaning of Österreich, Austria for your anglophones)).
  2. Their drive make interesting campaign elements emerge and I just need to riff on them, which is helpful because I can simply give full attention to bloom  better focus on NPCs, encounters, locations, rhythm. Furthermore player having ideas keeps me from fretting over planting seeds, as the “campaign elements density” reaches criticality (the point where people start saying “I can’t keep track of what the heck is going on”) sooner, which in my opinion is the sweet spot.
  3. The most valuable insight I gained from running this campaign is that interesting seeds (either introduced by me or by them) are followed more; even better, in a sandbox the best seeds are the followed ones, those garnering interest from players. Bad seeds don’t sprout simply because they’re not followed, removing the motivation to sprout at all, and with it the effort. Obviously the DM can make them evolve in the background anyway, if he can be bothered/remember to. See “criticality” above, and prepare to read more about this as my thoughts on the topic coalesce 🙂

The other topic for tonight is random ramblings on hexmaps.

Using Hexographer I started to put together my campaign map, with 24 miles hexes, as per BECMI set. It started as a “glue” to link dungeons and towns, and evolved by conglomerating bits and bobs from previous campaigns the group was not involved with, and by writing some bad fiction (I’m too ashamed of that to even show it to my players): the first glued bits were B/X Rodemus Castle, Keep on the Borderlands and the Caves of Chaos, Threshold (later removed and changed to Capolago, “LakeEnd”), Sham’s Dismal Depths, a handful of villages and so on.

Here on the right there’s map a portion depicting the Libera Lega di Sidesi, “Sidesi Free League”, a bunch of ex-warlords that conquered bits and pieces of wild lands and asked settlers over. The land still a bit rough, as it’s mostly woods and mountains, but it’s a good place to live as an adventurer. Borders are dashed in red, Capolago is the town right in the middle of the map and Sidesi is 5 hexes south of it. The map is still incomplete as, well, most things are still TBD. The grain is vertical, as you can see.

Why do I care about grain? Because I use hexes to resolve movement and to track positions. Hexmaps have lots of qualities (go read Dunnigan’s Complete Wargames Handbook if you’re interested in hexpr0n), but the fault of introducing distortion if moving against the grain (well, it’s a problem common to all maps with discrete, “grid-like” locations): if in the map right here you wanted to move two hexes to the right you’d moving “two steps” (for example SE,NE) but the “real” distance is the square root of three (about 1.73). Not as bad as “squared” maps with diagonal movement costing 1 or 2 (and not 1.5), but still.

A little advice: orientate the hex grains on the expected “usual” travel directions. If you expect movement to happen from east to west, pick an horizontal grain, if north to south pick an horizontal grain. Even better, take a fountain pen and some good paper, draw a map and use compass and ruler to calculate movement disregarding entirely the grid.

A couple of weeks ago I learnt about the free Judges Guild map template and its design and decided that, well, I had to use it. So I started to draw maps with 5-mile hexes. The purple hex is to show the extension of the “big hex” from the JG templates. Here’s the “more detailed” map, with Capolago in the middle, the Keep on the Borderlands and Caves of Chaos at the NW edge, Rodemus Castle to the SE and the dismal Depths under the ruined castle in the mountain hex by the lake. The south is more developed as it’s where players hang out more. Lots of stuff is not on this map obviously, as my players read the blog… 🙂

Something else to consider when “putting places on maps” is overland speed. Unencumbered PC can travel 32 miles/day on roads, 24 on “easy” ground. This makes me definitely realize that PCs are either trained soldiers, expert trekkers or ĂŒbermenschen: have you walked 32 miles miles a day on paths for more than a week, cooking and setting up camp every day, maybe in the rain, maybe with bad wounds, possibly while having fights with monsters and horders of goblinoids?

Or maybe they were fitter as they walked everywhere and had manual jobs and, most important, were not not unfit geeks that enjoy playing fantasy adventure games.