One Page Monster Manual

Apparently my effort toward participating in the Fight ON! Fantasy Table Competition paid off big time and I managed to get the third place (which oddly got published under my real name and not my nom-de-plume). Which is WAAAY better than I expected. One Page Monster Manual is the result of compiling previous work on what monster entries are really about in a more organic form, adding some tidbits to it to make it more self-standing and less sucky. And, most importantly, not using on the viral SRD licence.

I’m really, really inspired by the other entries: it looks like a lot of people did a very very nice job. Al got the second place with a very nifty entry that I’m going to use for sure in my games, for example.

I’d like to keep the “FO! version” under cover until the mighty fine Fight On! peeps put it out, but if you’re wanting to use a previous version it you can find it (together with many other crunchy bits) almost at the end of the free download Transcription of the Lost Pages: Volume 1 (in a multipage A5 version with a lot of whitespace).

And yes, I have more improvements. But without feedback (which is obviously very welcome and always appreciated) I’d rather concentrate on working on other things.

The Chemistry of Dungeons, or: help me I need dungeons and I just have an old organic chemistry book. Also, writing to Gary.

I’m going to write possibly the nerdiest post ever.

Suppose your players left the village of Somewhere Away and decided to pursue the Dodgy Villager That Secretly Is A Pawn Of The Villain: you need a dungeon where the DVTSIAPOTV and his boss can meet.

And you just have a chemistry book: opening the book for inspiration, you see  meaningless chemichy blabber about lignin. Wood and paper are made of this stuff. What if you could turn all that drivel that allows us to keep our lifestyles possible in a fantastic adventuring locale? Behold lignin:

Instant Dungeon! And a big one!

First of all, the theme: lignin is about wood or paper, so it could be something like a dungeon full of constructs and animated objects, or full of books, or a library, or a magical miniature castle made of paper that you can enter if you touch, or a network of treehouses.

Now, what do you do with this map? how do you read it?

EASY!

And requires zero knowledge of chemistry:

  • the lines (bonds) that links atoms above are CORRIDORS: 3 in 10 are either hidden, closed by a locked door, closed by a door. To determine which room has the key, roll a dice on the map and that’s the room: It can be either hidden or held by a monster (50%).
  • C means CARBON and Carbons are rooms with four exits, or CROSSROADS. Roll content as per empty room. You should also come up with a small random monster table adequate to the location (6 entries are good, too many seem really random and nonspecific).
  • O means OXYGEN or OBSTACLE. It can be a room with some nastyness: usually to stop intruders; traps, guardian monsters, locked door, trapped locked room with monsters, or simply a cave in that makes the passage unsuitable. Oxygens have 2 exits, like a passage. If an oxygen is lonely next to a carbon you have a DOUBLE BOND (described later).
  • H means HYDROGEN, and hydrogens are room with a single exit. They contain stuff and nasties.
  • N means NITROGEN and also NETWORK: the (usually three) rooms connected to it form some kind of small cluster of logically connected rooms, like a guardpost with barracks, studio, den or apartment. Dress accordingly, and use for important stuff peculiar to the dungeon.
  • DOUBLE BONDS happen when you count the exits between rooms and some are missing, while in some graphs are displayed as a double line. Two distinct passages link the two rooms, usually one of them is secret/locked/hidden/trapped, or one of the two rooms is split into two parts by a chasm, bars or whatever you prefer. See it as an occasion for interesting tactical choices in combat or exploration. Also, read MinnenRatta’s comment below.
  • If you have other letters, throw in random stuff according to the atom, or not if you can’t be bothered: it’s just there to kickstart your imagination and its deconstruction it’s only for your benefit. If you see strange lines connecting stuff, treat as special/trapped/secret passages. If you see, like in the picture below,  three/four lines connecting, it’s a CARBON/CROSSROAD. If there’s a bend that bend is a carbon crossroad that has two hydrogen rooms next to it (unless double bounds are present, reducing the number of hydrogen/rooms adjacent). The bit to the right is a long corridor with 10 rooms spread between the two sides, and a room at the end. I guess the below dungeon is good for a drug smuggling hideout.

  • To finish, sprinkle secret doors that link more or less remote areas of the dungeon. And pick a number of exits.
  • Of course you might expand the meanings above to elements of the same groups. Halogens such as Fluorine and Clorine are EXTREMELY NASTY ROOMS, chalcogens like Oxygen ans Sulfur are obstacles and so on.

DONE. Ok, my nerd club membership has been renewed for the next 15 years or so.

And now the occasional tiny letter to Gary.

Hello Gary,

I know you’re dead and you can’t read me me. Also I guess you can’t read wordpress. I guess this makes me look a bit stupid, or romantic. Well, I wanted to thank you post mortem for having published my favourite game. I never met you and I can’t say much about you, but thanks for having given me such an empowering hobby.

That’s it. Ok, enough time spent writing to corpses buried thousands of miles away. Back to science!

On Playtesting and (Unintended) Consequences

Playtesting is an odd beast: when there are no problems and the game goes well, you’re not trying hard enough.

In the past weeks I’ve not being posting much as – unbelievably – I’ve being playing games; not only some new boardgames like 7 Wonders and Colyseum, but also the last revision of the Civilization boardgame (all of which I warmly recommend you to try).

In addition some work has been done (not only by me) on putting together a faux-retroclone fantasy adventure game. I’ve been trying a variety of combat systems to find where the fun is while keeping the combat as abstract as possible and, in order to do so, a lot of gaming blood was shed. In the process some fighting systems clicked immediately, while some others were more hit and miss; an example of the latter, my favourite system treats melees as a set of fighing contests, with winners wounding losers.

A significant aspect that became apparent in the fourth playtest session was that, being the game d6-centric, matching melee +1d6 vs melee + 1d6 makes even a small difference in melee very significant: a difference of 2 means a two-fold reduction in damage inflicted and, at the same time, receiving 1.5 times as much damage. And, obviously, fighting hand-to-hand against someone with a melee way higher that yours is ground for character termination.

While this might seem a bad combat system per se (and sure it seemed to me when I noticed), we must not forget that no rule exists in a vacuum, that rules drive the game in specific directions. That we put rules in place, ultimately, to make players win in the easiest way they can come up with.

For example an expert swordman might have no problem entering a low-level dungeon with no armour, knowing well that mobility and skill will protect him enough, allowing for a fast extraction (of treasure), while a more modest fighter will don heavy armour, a large shield and surely bring plenty of mates, preparing for long and worrying fights.

For some we want some games we want melee skill to impact heavily in fights: fighting against a way better opponent should be deadly: in this case using d6s instead of d20s makes for a less luck-based, more strategic game, where fights are treated seriously by at least one side and, at the same time, makes clever use use of terrain, cover and missile weapons critical. It makes for a game where being slowed by the burden of heavy armour can be fatal as not knowing when to flee from a one-sided fight.

More playtest sessions will follow, both Sunday at the Glasgow University Occupation Charity Gaming Fundraiser and Monday at the usual Glasgow Indie Gamers meetup. If you happen to hang around western Scotland, come join us! 🙂

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.