CHTHONOTRON – a pictorial example

Chthonic Codex: Mysteries & Mystagogues features CHTHONOTRON, which is a pointcrawl generator for the Hypogea. Follow it and you have a serviceable campaign map for you Chthonic Codex campaign, or any similar mythic-caverns-underworld-crazy place with rivers and weird stuff.

So, this is the end result: a map showing canyons in blue, big caves are thick black, narrow caves are fine black. The marks are explained later2014-06-08 17.05.56How did I get there?

Repeatedly tossing 5 dice on the map and tracing a line through them. Starting with the first river:
2014-06-08 16.05.24

 

 

Then the second river, flowing into the first. That die went exactly on the other river randomly, when rivers intersect I recommend making them flow into each other, despite theoretically being able to flow over each other, being underground and stuff.2014-06-08 16.06.01And then repeatedly for the caves. First cave, that leads off map because one of the dice went off map:

2014-06-08 16.08.29

Then second cave and third cave.

2014-06-08 16.09.19

2014-06-08 16.10.17
And so on. Then I thickened the first caves (they be biiig caves), added more caves, thickened the rivers.

Then I added marks to show distances: but since in this setting you usually walk everywhere, they are marked in time instead of distance. And since I wanted finer granularity in some places, I used marks of different colours: the distance between two black marks is 1 hour, between a green and a black or two greens is 20 minutes. This different granularity is not in the book but it’s a very tiny yet useful hack.

The next step is to populate the caves with the Chthonic Contents section of CHTHONOTRON. I’ll leave that up for later, in another post.

 

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 hëavÿ metäl umlaüts. 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.

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.

Sandboxes, pacing, improvisation and expectations: part 2: your players are unique snowflakes a.k.a. psychographics are lame

All the posts in the serie here.

Picking up where I left last time

This post was supposed to be about players psychographics and what drives them and how to deal with that but the topic has been discussed, dissected & bled dry so many times I don’t feel the need to even go near it.

Instead I’d like to go meta on that and spend a couple of words on the relationship between your players and your game. If this sounds like utter poppycock to you, leave a comment:

  • they’re all different: different people means different needs means different things they get out of playing, and different ways of moving in social spaces. If you’re friends with them, cherish the thought that you know how to handle them in meatspace and realize that it takes great people to completely separate what happen in game and what happens around the table, because by its own nature of gamespace is subversive and used to behave in ways not possible in real life. Don’t pidgeonhole players in the usual G/N/S or whichever taxonomy they invented this month: as you have 5-10 people and not 5-10 hundred thousand, you can afford to treat them as unique snowflakes. This allows you to put treats and challenges in your game for all of them. It’s not so much work…
  • on a more general level, in all games, but in RPGs evermore so, every participant is perfectly able to spoil the fun of everyone else, so partially responsible for everyone else’s fun. Don’t play with dicks, and don’t be a dick yourself. This applies even more in sandboxes as there’s no shame involved with derailing the plot, killing important NPCs or torching villages.
  • ask them for feedback: what makes them tick and what ticks them off about how you and other players play. There are some games I’ve run lately which seemed totally lame to me but, after soliciting feedback from my players, were great fun. To get better you need to learn from your errors and your successes, but to tell them apart you need feedback. Also, when things happen at the table take a note (mental or otherwise) of how people react: feedback asked might be not totally genuine for a number of reasons, so understanding how they react to events is very important. Think ethnographer.
  • you’ll see patterns of behaviour: for example, my group never scouts any location. Never ever, and their retinue has a number of rogues. Yours might always scrutinize every corner of every room for treasure, or they might always play wiseguy with all NPCs. If and how you want to use this knowledge as DM is up to you: plot is a metagame element usually absent from sandboxes (at least in its traditional sense of “predetermined string of events that are the focus of the attention”) but you can always metagame in other directions.
  • knowing what they want is easy: ask them! They probably don’t need exactly what they want, but it can be a nudge in the right direction. In general in a sandbox they’ll pursue activities they like (think Pavlov’s dog) and avoid what they don’t, so if they never scout it might be because they don’t like it or because they don’t like falling back or running away (also known as: I’m insecure and I don’t want to fail also in gamespace).

So, yes, you created your world and it’s a shining and beautiful gem but to remember to think of how your end users will interact with it.

Sandboxes, pacing, improvisation and expectations: part 1

I’m going to deconstruct a bit the process I use to build a sandbox, starting from last session. It will take a number of posts because there are plenty of things to write about.

All the posts in the serie here.

This is what happened last session, in about four-five hours:

  • after meeting a basilisk last session, they’re left with a couple of statues of people from their huge menagerie of henchmen, followers and fanboys.
  • so they decide to go and get some trees up the mountains (they’re in a rocky desert/badland type area by some less desertic mountains where actually trees happen to grow).
  • they go up and they kinda totally stumble in a giant rattlesnake. Ms Wyslosky, the badassest fighting-person of the party (follower of one of the two wizards) gets bitten three times before dispatching the reptile. Then fails three saves out of three and die horribly.
  • they manage to make a raft to bring the statues (and themselves) to the nearest city. I forgot to mention to you, reader, that there is a canyon in the desert with a river at the bottom. I also forgot to mention that they’ve never seen any boat on it. On the way some of them fall off the raft (rapids, aha) but they manage not to die or to lose anything except a copied spellbook due to water damage.
  • then they meet a bunch of naiads. Somehow the reaction roll is stupidly high so the nixies are friendly and don’t enslave all of them, instead the leader (Lily) introduces them to their which-queen, which returns the statues to meatyness. Since they can’t pay the queen asks somebody to be left there in slavery: they talk one of their henchmen (an ex-petrified halfling) to hang out with tens of hot water-nymphs. I foresee death by snu-snu for chubby here. Party begs the queen for informations about who could resurrect their friend, which tells them about someone in the desert, the entrance of his place sealed by a stone slab with complex engravings in some forgotten language, and another guy living way upstream by the river, up in the mountains, guarding a mausoleum all by itself by a ruined tower (the word “mausoleum” evokes bad memories to my players). They decide for the latter as the which mention the former is way more inhospitable, but she still thinks that they will get no help.
  • they get back to the Unís, the big merchant city, and don’t find anybody to raise their companion. Duh, magic is banned there, unless you’re a Templar. Templars are a cross between civil servants, secret services and commando troops rolled into one badass corp that hang out in a castle on top of a craig by the city harbour, and they bow just to the Queen. The Queen of Unís has been on the throne for hundreds of years and doesn’t really appear in public. None of the PCs are templars (in this campaign), so no special ju-ju fo them, but they find an experienced mercenary that accepts to go with them (for twice the normal pay).
  • They start walking upstream and meet a flying wizard. After another awesome reaction roll it turns out that, yes, the wizard is actually looking for apprentices and tells the pc the location of his tower before flying away.
  • going upstream they reach a waterfall, try to give a look behind it but don’t manage to due to the strength of the river.
  • they are ambushed by a bunch of grunge elves. No, not those from HackMaster, just grungy elves. Fight is hard but the party overcome the challenge and manage to find their treehouse due to a lucky charme person. And Loot was had.

All of this hauling around the body of the fallen in a barrel full of brine.

Now, 10 encounters in 5 hours. None of this was planned. They all enjoyed. Most things were rolled on the fly using the expert box or Kellri’s netbook or based upon existing knowledge.

I have to go and continue the session now. Next post will be about expectations.

custom tailored challenges: a case of nested social contracts

Oddysey at How to Start a Revolution in 21 Days or Less goes over a number of interesting points about combat. She made me think much about the aesthetic of RPG combat aspects and why we still have the “problem” of uninteresting fights (more about this later).

One of her conclusions, that in some games players like fights because that’s where “the fun” is, strikes true on a group recovering from years of d20 campaigns. ECLs and CRs are there to hint at what a “bespoke challenge” for players is, in a way justifying the inclusion of the fight in the adventure as some kind of social pact: players know that the DM will have put in the adventure plot/locales fights that the group can actually not just overcome “somehow”, with tricks and smarts, but also with the use of violence.

Players will hopefully be in “flux zone”, struggling and ultimately succeeding (winning) their fights, while the GM will have satisfied players: a clear win-win situation. This is possible because RPGs support well the use of violence, with clear rules, but the same could apply to any reliable system to handle challenge. Reliable game mechanics support entwines with reliable custom-made content to ensure that all challenges are approachable by the party.

I’d go further on and say that this kind of gaming leads to different options like retreating, parlay and outsmarting the opponent stopping being meaningful because they’re more complex, more unpredictable, more like hard work than simply doing it the “right” way. More like “The game master prepared us a nice (and safe) way to handle the situation, why bother looking for something risky?”.

This is pure railroading: not in the plot-space but in the ludeme-space (as in “the base elements constituting a game”). But the usual culprit, the Demiurge-GM, this time is not entirely at fault (as if we are entitled to speak of fault) as the players want to win he (mostly) wants to create interesting worlds full of interesting people to kill and plots for players to follow.

How did I ever manage to end up in this situation? How did we?

For years, my problem has been perceived lack of player goodwill. I didn’t feel I could afford to disappoint them and to make them feel insecure that we would have a good time playing together. So I created a safe environment for them to play in.

Safety is, for me, a defining element in games. I roughly define games as some kind of “magic circle” where a social contract is in effect: players can behave in given ways and, if they do, their actions bear no consequence whatsoever on the outside of our little “magic circle”.

Inside the game there is no need for a safe environment as the game itself is already a safe environment.

Do we really need that? Do we really need assurance that our PCs will not horribly die? Do we really need a special world within a special world to ensure that the players won’t wreck the campaign world?

What are we going to lose? Security and reliability.

And what are we renouncing to? We’re limiting ourselves to the known and the acceptable. We’re renouncing emergency. Emergent campaign plots in game worlds filled with unknowns, there just to be explored. Not just unknown settings, but also unknown ways of playing.

The Holy Grail of RPGs or, if you want, how they came to be. Braunstein, Blackmoor and Greyhawk are results of broken social contracts.