Archive for February, 2011


saltbox, pt. 2

What are the touchstones in fiction for the sandbox-at-sea? Three broad genres come to mind: Ocean voyages in mythic antiquity (Argonautica, Odyssey), swashbuckling in the age of gunpowder (Aubrey/Maturin), and whaling. There is a model in all of them for a space of incidental adventure (a roving commission!), sometimes in service of a much-larger goal (Ulysses and Jason knew their win conditions), but I gravitate to Moby Dick for my inspiration.

The crew of the Pequod is paid in shares of the valuables retrieved. They are at the margins of society and of unusually cosmopolitan composition for the social setting. The greenest among them enters into whaling motivated by a mix of melancholy in day-to-day life, and “an everlasting itch for things remote”:

I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts. Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it – would they let me – since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in.

But the more experienced are both less desperate and more restrained:

Starbuck was no crusader after perils; in him courage was not a sentiment; but a thing simply useful to him, and always at hand upon all mortally practical occasions. Besides, he thought, perhaps, that in this business of whaling, courage was one of the great staple outfits of the ship, like her beef and her bread, and not to be foolishly wasted. … For, thought Starbuck, I am here in this critical ocean to kill whales for my living, and not to be killed by them for theirs; and that hundreds of men had been so killed Starbuck well knew. What doom was his own father’s? Where, in the bottomless deeps, could he find the torn limbs of his brother?

… and of course, there are strange rituals, mysterious omens, dangerous combats, near-mutinies, blood-forged magical weapons, and at least one hugely dangerous monster on the random encounter table too strong for the adventurers to overcome.

Drawing on all this, I have some goals for the mass of tables determining a day in the saltbox:

  • It must be possible nothing happens, because the sea is vast and lonely
  • It must be possible one day holds many events, because the sea is also dangerous and teeming with life
  • It must be possible to hunt/chase beasts at sea
  • It must possible to encounter, parley with and perhaps pursue and capture other ships
  • and vice versa
  • It must be possible to encounter un-navigable obstacles (scylla/charybdis)
  • It must be possible to discover uncharted territory
  • It must be possible to encounter and survive epic storms

What struts for action am I missing? What useful fiction am I ignoring? And what do I have to offer for reading a post this long? I’ll post some tables after our first play-test, but for now here’s a draft of my player map:

The North Seas?
Big version here


TPK + Bargle = Happy Birthday

the set-up

Our buddy Foner celebrated his birthday today!  I decided, “Hey, I’ll run a game, and because it’s Foner’s birthday, he’ll get to fight a Dragon!”   (Oddly, Dragons occur very rarely in our games.)

To save preparation time, I dusted off the last two levels of Dyson’s Delve, and created a party of characters, each with 30,000 experience points. They would arrive by means of an enchanted boat, sailing across the Sunless Sea on Level 11, in pursuit of the nefarious Bargle the Infamous. To those who began playing with Frank Mentzer’s Basic Set, Bargle has been a wily foe for almost thirty years after slaying our friend Aleena.

let's play a game where your friends die for no reason

3 seconds before a traumatic moment in my childhood

to summarize briefly

Dang it, Foner ended up playing games with other guests, so I guess it wasn’t really a birthday treat for him after all!  But we had a great time, and I kept offering to drag him in, and he kept demurring.  I think he was delighted that we were just one part of a zillion guests having a good time at his place.  Next time, Foner… next time.

The boat didn’t survive contact with two Cthulhu Monsters that live in the lake, and the party lost their only known exit route. They encountered Bargle almost immediately, and while exterminating the warlock and his charmed Ogres, ended up inciting a small army of Troglodytes.

The Troglodytes summoned their lizard-god, a Black Dragon.  The party began a desperate retreat, plunging right into the maw of Tuatara Lizards who mauled them from ambush.  The two survivors likely envy the dead.


Protagonist Horrible Doom
Cleric Melted to death by the Dragon’s breath when Potion of Invisibility turns out to be a Potion of Delusion
Fighter Ripped to shreds by Tuatara Lizards (wow they are tough)
Thief Ripped to shreds by Tuatara Lizards, corpse pulverized by a rockslide
Magic-User Spells depleted, 3 hit points left, invisible, three levels away from nearest exit
Extra Fighter Naked to flee faster, 4 hit points left, heading straight toward a Purple Maggot
Bargle Thirty years after his heartless murder of Aleena the Adept, was webbed, held, impaled by the Fighter’s spear, and then decapitated

some comments

with all this gold I'll buy a refrigerator

25 years and 3 TPK's, but we got him, baby

  • We didn’t play all the way to a TPK because I wanted to socialize with the other guests, but there couldn’t have been any other outcome.  The two survivors had a total of 7 hit points between them, no armor, and no spells.  In the next three rooms: a Minotaur, a Purple Maggot, and three Owl Bears.  Good luck!
  • Dyson’s Delve is jam-packed with monsters, dude.  We never left the combat system, because either waves of enemies would join the fight or the group would barge into more trouble.
  • So: this was my first time in 25 years of play to use a Dragon in play—and the party ran away terror.  They were never on the same level at the same time.  Do Dragons have penises? I don’t know, but they sure get blue balls.
  • Chris, who hadn’t played D&D in twenty years, had a good time.
  • Ann, who had never played D&D at all, had a blast watching.




Saltbox, pt. 1

Maybe it’s the approach of Spring, maybe it’s a quasi-nautical tangent in the game I play in: I’ve been thinking about the Sandbox at sea (edit: I’m not alone, right, James?). My table-making tendencies are in high gear. But before I start in with tables and minigames, some easier observations:

Remember In Praise of the 6-Mile Hex? A hex with a height of six miles has side and diagonal lengths that are close enough to 3.5 and 7 to make calculation easy, and it breaks down into subhexes… well, it’s in the link.

If you “zoom out” at the proportions discussed there, you’re at hexes with a height of 72 miles. A 72 mile hex has sides approximately 42 miles long, and a diagonal just over 83 miles (call it 84! It’s not modern mapping!). Still fairly easy to calculate against, and has a bonus for ocean hex crawling: Large sailing ships, galleys, and sail boats cover 72 miles in a day. Small sailing ships are a bit faster (90 miles, a hair over the diagonal), but still fit pretty nicely.

Neat! It also means that my wilderness mapping hex paper- about 24 hexes long- covers more than 2M square miles. This is big enough to map a sea the size of the Caribbean and then some. When I drop down to the 6 mile scale, I can map two hexes from the larger map- enough to get several medium islands, like Jamaica, or half a large one.

But I can also use the fact that many smaller islands are less than 6 miles, combined with the Cook/Marsh dictum of land being visible 24 miles at sea (thus requiring entering the hex), to not map smaller islands on the big map at all. I can plan a few volcanic isles, or atolls, or maybe even a transient island that surfaces for days at a time on the back of an ancient turtle, and use them as chance encounters at sea. I like the idea of sailing under the decorative scrolls on your map, and finding both sea serpents and uncharted ritual islands.


What Made for a Successful D&D Birthday Party

Strangely less popular among nine-year-old boys than the unicorn.

This past weekend James and I ran a D&D birthday party for seven boys, all eight or nine years old. We had two and  a half hours allotted, so here’s how we broke it out:

1) Kids arrived and settled in. They all knew one another from school (third grade). Most were new to D&D, although one was in our afterschool class last semester, one is new to it this semester, and one was my son who I have not stuffed quite as full of D&D lore as James believes because the fanatic pursuit of Pokemon lore he shares with the birthday boy competes for brain-space.

2) Kids chose which color dice they want and which miniature will be their hero, both of which they got to keep as “goodie bags” from the party. We didn’t have them do any further character creation (all heroes had the same stats behind the screen) except for name. Lots of the kids who hadn’t played before had problems coming up with a name, so I asked if they wanted to roll for one. I didn’t actually have a table, I just used the time they were rolling the dice to think them up.

3) The scenario was that the heroes set forth from their stronghold to explore the surrounding wilderness in search of magical items to claim and Pokemon to capture. We had the kids construct the wilderness using Heroscape hexes, and the stronghold using wooden Kapla blocks.

4) While eating pizza, kids chose which one of the magic items their hero wanted to start with. James and I designed 14 these to define roles without having to explain classes (although many kids decided “my guy is a mage” or whatever anyways, either through previous exposure to D&D or videogames with class archetypes), and to do the D&D thing of having pre-defined powers that let you do a particular awesome thing and then find ways to try to apply it to whatever situation you wind up in. This worked really well with kids at this age and experience level; some examples were the Sword of Sharpness and the Wand of Wonder. Not every item got used in play but it really helped establish the tone of the game and made the kids feel that their heroes were chock-full of awesome.

5) The kids divided up into teams – one rides the unicorns that the stronghold has in its stables, the other group flies out on its griffons. They got to keep the miniatures for these too, and I used blu-tak to glom their hero miniature onto their steed’s base. James predicted that nine-year-old boys would shun the unicorns, which was a problem because this was meant to be the way we split them into manageable groups for each of us to DM. We gave the birthday boy the choice of which team he wanted to captain, and when he chose griffons that further stacked the deck in their favor. But in the end, we had four unicorn-riders and only three griffon aeronauts. James and I had decided that we’d try to counterbalance the unicorn’s potential pink-factor by saying that they were more reliable than the risky, hard-to-control griffons (as his PC had experienced first-hand in Delta’s superb Corsairs of Medero scenario at Recess). I don’t know if this was what made the difference, but I had a ton of fun roleplaying the balky griffons.

7) James and I then each ran a hexcrawl for our respective teams. We chose this because coming up with a more planned scenario would have required coordination, whereas a  purely procedural move to a hex,encounter roll, reaction roll, combat or negotiation, morale, etc. was something we could each wing. I got lucky with my first wandering monster – a griffon, which I decided was a riderless mount like one of my group’s. They used their horn of plenty to produce some horse meat with which to befriend this new griffon, and I had a great time roleplaying the reaction of the existing griffons to the interloper and to this bountiful cascade of meat. Some of the riders failed their control rolls, so one hero was wrestling for control of the meat-spewing horn with his mount while another was carried along on a dive after the steaks falling into the sea. The thing that really paid off in this encounter was that I decided that the newcomer’s saddlebags held maps to the likely locations of two of the magic items, the horn of the valkyries (which I’ll post about separately) and the cloak of shadows (which was being worn by a hobbit thief, who coughed it up after one of the kids successfully had his griffon swallow said halfling).  Choosing between which of these to go after, and then being able to count hexes to the location and plot a course, fortuitiously gave direction to the hexcrawl. Without this, James felt like his group was a little more aimless, so having or finding a partial treasure-map is definitely something to do for next time.

8) Cake, ice cream, and singing “Happy Birthday”. I was glad the parents remembered this part! Maybe our party services should include D&D themed cakes so that we don’t forget the traditionals. I was glad to see the kids were having so much fun they weren’t asking “when will we have the cake?” every five minutes like at many birthday parties I’ve taken my son to, but I would have caught hell from him if we left and then he realized there hadn’t been any.

9) Properly hopped up on sugar, the two teams return to their stronghold and find it’s been taken over by intruders! As they were eating their cupcakes, we set up the miniatures for this. A silver dragon and the skeletons he’d created by sowing his teeth into a field crouched on top of the block-castle, and fielded an army of lizard-men who were advancing on the siege organized by the gargoyles who’d been left in charge of the stronghold and the dragon-hunting Lord who had been befriended during another random encounter (which I used to foreshadow this encounter; he reported that the silver dragon was not sleeping in its lair like it should be, bum bum ba BUM!) . The kids knocked down these miniatures, and their own block-castle, by firing discs at it using crossbows and catapults. James and I were kept busy going “arrr!” and narrating the battle reports while sliding the disks back at the kids (having more ammunition would have been good!). This made for a dramatic climax story-wise, and as actual play it was really nice to let the kids do all the yelling, throwing stuff, and bashing miniatures that we spend so much effort in the afterschool class trying to prevent.

Doing all of this was enough fun for me that I’ve set up a company, Adventuring Parties LLC, to offer birthday parties, bachelor parties, events, etc. Its website is active now although still a little skeletal – click the link to check it out, or just email if you are in the NYC area and have an event you want us to do, or if you’re a Dungeon Master elsewhere and would like referrals to do parties in your area.


The Stakes Should Be Something I’ll Enjoy Playing

I want to talk about a truism in game design theory that you should only roll the dice when something is at stake. In a discussion of scaling skill DCs over at nerdnyccawhis wrote:

When Maldoor made his resurrection survival roll, I should have specified that the stakes of failure included these highly enjoyable pterodactyl cave-babes.

My interpretation of scaling the DCs is that what’s easy for a lvl 1 isn’t even worth rolling for a lvl 10, right? […] If you’re making a lvl 10 character roll to see if he can climb out of a 10 foot pit, that’s kind of lame. That shouldn’t even be an issue for a lvl 10 (personally, I don’t think it should be an issue for a level 1 either unless there is something at stake, but that’s a different story).

chrisg replied: “There’s something at stake! Whether or not your character starves to death before either escaping the pit or punching your DM in the throat.”

This helped me clarify something I’ve long felt about the issue of stakes. It’s not enough to make sure that every dice roll has stakes, or that every decision has consequences. A good game should make sure that playing out the results will be more enjoyable than being punched in the throat.

Sucks along one axis (not limited to 4E, just using it as an example):

  • dice version: Make a Dungeoneering check to see if you can get comfortable enough in this cave for this to count as a rest.
  • decision version: Do you want to pursue the monsters fleeing with the captive, or pause for a short rest?
  • unenjoyable consequences: OK, since you didn’t regain any encounter powers, the next combats are going to be a long slog drained of the usual tactical choices and boring for all of us!

Sucks along another axis:

  • dice version: Your attempted burglary is interrupted by [roll] an orphan waif holding [roll] a battle-axe.
  • decision version: The wives and children of the slain guardsmen rush at you, maddened by grief. What do you do?
  • unenjoyable consequences: So, every time you’re go to town, you’re going to encounter weeping relatives and ever-increasing attempts by the authorities to bring you to justice. No, I’m not persecuting you, I’m just playing out the natural consequences of your antisocial behavior! This isn’t fun for me either, you know.

What should a conscientious gamemaster/designer do about decision points with stakes that you don’t actually want to follow through on? I dunno; being aware of the possibility of this happening is the first step. You could have a discussion about lines and veils beforehand, to make sure consequences stay out of everyone’s squick zone or are dealt with off-stage. You could try not to set up situations that will have likely repercussions that won’t be fun for you to game out. And you can find ways to resolve things more quickly when playing them out in detail will be unpleasant. Being aware when this is going on – staying in tune with whether you’re having fun as you play – is the next step.

Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2011

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