Posts Tagged ‘experiment



13
Oct
11

a glimpse of siddím

art by Adam Paquette

Instead of addressing actual problems, I’ve been working on a complicated Underdark setting for what amounts to a one-shot.

Siddím is a riff on Thomas Gold’s Deep Hot Biosphere idea: life originally evolved as bacteria and unicellular organisms deep underground: slimes, basically.  (I haven’t read Gold’s book and just using it as window-dressing.)  Siddím: a subterranean slime pit where life evolved from mindless ooze into a civilization of Slithering Trackers, who built their city here.  In time, fungi evolved to feed directly off the caustic slimes, leading to Myconids.  Throw in some Aboleths in a deep underground lake where some slime-streams meet.  Sprinkle with Duergar, Troglodytes, and a “lost world” sinkhole populated by neanderthals and giant bats, and you’ve got the region, a sort of Icelandic Underdark.  Siddím is a holy site to the Jubilex cult, which uses purify food and drink to feast on the slimes, and relies on a Slaver Guild to supply their landlords with fresh meat.

All of that is background scenery.

The one-shot I’m working on is a jailbreak by a group of slaves owned by a trading coster of Mind Flayers, who have emerged from an abscess in the Collective Unconscious to trade with the Aboleths.  The Mind Flayers have set themselves up in a Fortress Dam constructed ages ago by the Duergar, but has since been converted into a pound lock by the Aboleths who use it to portage over a really steep and rocky subterranean rapids.

I don’t want to think about the number of hours I’ve spent working on this thing, but it’s involved doing Internet research on speleology and cave ecosystems, Leonardo da Vinci’s plans for mitre gates (PDF), coming up with bizarre Dungeon Theology, revisiting the 2e Psionics Handbook, and playing around with famous D&D monsters.

This is a crazy hobby.

designed by Da Vinci

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02
Jul
11

non-violence (and slime gods)

As convention season approaches, New York Red Box Charter Member E.T. Smith made an intriguing remark while musing about convention games:

I barely even notice game descriptions [at conventions] anymore. They nearly always, to me, read like a variation of “Some dudes are doing something you don’t like. Stop them with violence,” so they don’t tell me anything about what might make the game interesting.

(emphasis added).

And he’s right.  It would be pretty neat to play some games where the primary conflicts couldn’t be solved through violence, if only as a change of pace.

Figuring out how to do a “non-violence” session of D&D:

  • Maybe violence is just a strategically dumb move, like if every monster in the dungeon is way tougher than you.  This becomes more of a stealth mission, either trying to creep into a place, or trying to escape.  For several years now I’ve wanted to run an adventure where PC’s are accidentally teleported into a much deeper level of the dungeon than they anticipated . . .
  • Maybe violence isn’t the focus of the adventure, though this begins to get into areas of play that aren’t well-supported.
    • A cross-country or oceanic race, for example, would offer the chance to overcome a lot of wilderness hazards.  (In D&D, most wilderness hazards take the form of monsters you have to kill; I much prefer Mouse Guard‘s approach to wilderness and weather hazards.  But I suppose with old-school “imagine-the-hell-out-of-it” principles players could try to cope with travel emergencies.)
    • An attempt to solve a particularly vexing problem by means of researching a new spell or magic item.  Spell research is one of those cool things that tends to happen away from the table, but trying to acquire super-bizarre metaphorical ingredients, like “the tears of the moon” or something, might require a lot of creative thinking from the players.
    • An attempt to build a stronghold.  I can imagine all sorts of stuff going wrong here: incompetent architectural design, labor trouble, low-key interference from neighboring powers who want to test the new guy on the block.  And of course the peasants are watching to determine if this new guy really deserves their respect.  Again this gets into social-style adventuring that isn’t always handled well by D&D rules, but would probably be an interesting change of pace.
  • Maybe violence is morally problematic – like, the whole scenario is caused by horribly wrong violence and its tragic after-effects can’t really be remedied by more of the same.

Some of this stuff, like magical research and stronghold-building, skirt pretty close to the carousing mechanisms that the New York Red Box uses between sessions.  (The workings of the carousing system has been pretty opaque to me as a player: Tavis uses some kind of Apocalypse World -derived 2d6 + Ability Mod system, where 10 is an unqualified success, 7-9 is a compromise somehow, and 6- is a bad failure; Eric I think is using something like a saving throw system.)

Anyway: as an RPG player I’d like to play in the occasional game that wasn’t predicated on solving conflicts by the application of superior force, that’s all.  (I am not saying that violence in gaming is bad; just that it’s boring sometimes.)

tax: 2e Slime Cult Specialty Priest

Been mucking around with 2e lately.  The 2e Cleric is ridiculously powerful.  Perhaps as an acknowledgement of this, the 2e Players Handbook introduces Specialty Priests, which are sort of like themed mini-Clerics.  The 2e Druid is arguably one example of this though they don’t explicitly say so in the text IIRC.

Anyway, specialty priest who worships primordial subterranean slime gods:

Restrictions: Constitution 15, Charisma 12.  Followers of the Slime God must be hardy to endure filth and ordure, yet they remain mysteriously compelling.  Alignment: any non-good and non-lawful.  The Slime God is indifferent to human welfare and scorns efforts at systematizing.

Weapons Allowed: Non-metal armor and weapons that are mostly wood.  Flasks of burning oil, acid, and poison are permitted.  The idea is to be immune from most Ooze attacks, while mimicking them in return.

Spheres: Major access to: All, Charm, Creation, Divination, Elemental, and Necromantic.  Minor access to Animal, Healing, Plant.  According to the cult, slime exists at the juncture between insensate matter and all living things–the protoplasmic goo is a link between plants, animals, and the raw elements, and the quintessence of life itself.  I’m throwing in Divination and Charm just because I like the idea of extremely charismatic priests driven mad by unspeakable insights.

Granted Powers: command Oozes, Otyughs and Fungi (as evil Cleric commands Undead).  At Level 7, transform into Ooze (as Druid’s shape-changing ability).

Ethos: To the anti-priests of the cult, we weren’t created by any gods in the service of a divine purpose.  We crawled into the sunlight after countless eons of muck for no discernible reason.  If you’re puzzled and confused by the world you live in, that’s perfectly understandable: it’s not supposed to make sense.   We’re just globs of muck, doing what globs of muck do: eat, shit, puke, ejaculate, and die.  There’s no relief from that: it’s the bedrock of our existence.  And if the social institutions of the surface world appear corrupt, hypocritical, and historically contingent–almost as if there was no divine plan at all–well, that shouldn’t come as a surprise .  If you’re expecing our society to be pure and wholesome, you’re misunderstanding who and what we are.  There’s no destiny.  There’s just the continuous consumption of rotting flesh to shit out nightsoil to keep the thing going.

Amid all that mindless biological twitching, there’s a lesson to be learned.  Don’t let people tell you to do stuff on the basis of some goofball ideology.  Here and now is what matters.  Being left alone, and leaving others alone even if it means they’ll drink their own piss, is a cardinal virtue: you don’t have authority to tell others what to do.  And that applies to yourself too.  You have to reconcile yourself to the fact that your life and its attendant suffering is pointless.  Don’t have hopes, or daydreams, or wishes for anything other.  Just this: over and over, just this.

14
Jun
11

Red Box Armory: Pikes

No, not that kind.

The pike is a very long spear, typically 15 feet in length, intended for use in mass combat. Pikemen gather in large ‘hedgehog’ formations, so called because they bristle with spearheads like a hedgehog’s spines.

Pikes may be used to attack opponents 10 feet away (or farther, for especially long pikes) and always gain initiative against an attacker who’s closing to melee range while using a shorter weapon. However, they may not be used at closer range, nor may they be thrown. A successful pike attack inflicts 1d6 damage.

The unwieldiness of the pike makes it impossible to casually swing it about in melee. Instead, its wielder must specify in which direction he or she is pointing it. If there are other characters within 10 feet, it takes a full round to maneuver the pike around them in order to change facing. (A group of untrained peasant levies must make a successful morale check each round in order to accomplish this task.) The wielder may only attack opponents within a 90 degree forward arc.

It is rarely possible to bring a pike into a dungeon, as it’s hard to fit around corners in narrow passageways.

Treat pikes as spears for purposes of weapon proficiency.

Cost: 5gp.

13
Dec
10

Glorious Swinginess: Results from the DCC RPG/Castle Zagyg Experiment, part 1

Rules have emergent effects; those that don't fit an individual group's approach may not be used in play. (Cartoon for the DCC RPG by the Wizards of Ur.)

With Anonycon 2010 now just a happy memory, it’s time to review what I learned from the experiment of running the Castle Zagyg adventure using the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. This was interesting for me because:

  • I’m well versed in how this adventure plays out using other rulesets. Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works was written for Castles & Crusades; its unofficial completion Castle of the Mad Archmage was written with AD&D 1E in mind; and the other seven times Eric, Joe, and I have run this adventure at conventions & the playtests thereof, we’ve used Lamentations of the Flame Princess and house-ruled AD&D. I was curious to see how using different rules would change the experience.
  • In my previous experience with the DCC RPG (as a player at GaryCon and a DM at Fal-Con) we’ve played adventures written specifically for this system. I was interested to see how the feel of the game would carry over to a different scenario (Castle Greyhawk’s open-ended megadungeon vs. a Tomb of Horrors-style tournament-linear deathtrap).

I’ll start by addressing comments from readers of the original post. Scott asks:

Can I get some details that distinguish the DCC RPG?

Sure, but first some caveats! My experiences are based on a playtest version. Anything I talk about here may have changed by the time the game is released, and nothing I say should be taken as the official word; this is just my experience as a GM and playtester of the still-unfinished system.

The most striking distinguishing feature that I saw emerging from the rules was that the DCC RPG is designed to generate unpredictability. (In part 2 I’ll address Gregor’s comment and talk about some other features of the game that emerge from other, non-rule aspects of the system).

This is in marked contrast to the most recent edition of D&D, a stated design feature of which was a reduction in swinginess. Narrowing the range of variation in outcomes is useful for game designers concerned with balance, adventure writers concerned with being able to predict whether encounters will provide a level-appropriate challenge for a party of PCs, and DMs whose pre-planned campaign arcs make them concerned with things like ensuring the characters have enough resources left when they meet the Big Bad to make it a challenging fight, but not so many that it’s a cakewalk.

However, many old-schoolers have pointed out that this increased predictability runs contrary to the sandbox spirit, which celebrates playing to find out what happens (as the new-school indie game Apocalypse World has it). We don’t want the heroes’ inevitable-but-just-barely triumph over the BBEG to be prearranged. We embrace systems that give players plenty of tools (from spells and magic items to referee adjucation of a clever idea) that can end or avoid a potentially grueling fight with a single action. And when a string of unusually high or low dice rolls turn a seemingly-manageable encounter into a bloodbath, we consider this not a failure of game design but an opportunity to demonstrate player skill by running away.

Unpredictability is something most of us advocate without doing anything about it. I’ve stated my own preference for a high-granularity system offering players the occasional chance to be the one whose decisions shape the entire session, rather than giving them lots of little choices each with a narrowly delimited impact on the outcome of an encounter. But the guiding principle for my house rule for critical hits – roll damage twice and take the higher result – was to reduce swinginess by keeping the results within the range that’s possible from a normal hit. (My more recent addition to this rule – making a roll of 6 on either die “exploding” so that you roll again and add it to the total – grew out of the desire to allow crits to deal truly extraordinary damage from a crit.)

The DCC RPG puts its money where its mouth is. Although its mechanical core is derived from D&D 3E, the DCC RPG repudiates challenge ratings (that edition’s tools for making the outcome of an encounter more predictable), and offers more new ways for things to turn out in a completely unexpected way than any other retroclone or D&D variant I know.

For starters, extreme dice rolls have more of an impact. There are awesome critical hit charts, whose “foe’s torso explodes like a blood blueberry” style is worthy of being called Rolemaster-esque (although which chart you use interestingly depends on character class rather than weapon type). Strangely I’ve never seen these come up in play, even though the fifth-level warriors in the Anonycon playtest were capable of scoring a critical hit against a one hit die foe on an unmodified roll of 16-20. Critical fumbles played a major role at the Fal-Con playtest, causing the friendly-fire death of at least one PC, but didn’t pop up in either of my Anonycon runs.

The most important source of unpredictability at Anonycon came from the DCC RPG spell check mechanic, where you roll a d20 modified by caster level & ability score to determine the effects of the spell you just cast. A low roll might mean that the spell doesn’t have any effect; a high one can produce unexpectedly potent effects. Here’s an example from the second of the weekend’s playtest.

Rat King: grossest wandering monster EVAR

Eric’s party had just defeated some creepy net-dwelling creatures when a wandering monster check brought a tide of ordinary-sized rats, on the backs of which were born seven rat kings. (The Castle of the Mad Archmage‘s encounter table specified 2d6 giant rats; this interpretation of that result was indebted to the system-emergent aspects I’ll talk about in part 2, as well as to Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants which I picked up at the So Cal Mini Con III’s book swap. )

Rather than confront these what WAS that things, Eric’s wizard decided to get the party into the room they’d just cleared and use the ward portal spell to keep the rats out. This is a classic old-school moment of swinginess: an ability available only to one character has the potential to end a fight before it even starts. 4E sees this as anathema – among other reasons, because an adventure designed around the expectation that this character can seal a door becomes unpredictable again if that character’s player misses a session – and so it eliminates the problem, first by making rituals like hold portal available to everyone who invests a feat and second by requiring them to take so long to cast that they can’t be used in a fight-or-flight situation. (Notably, folks interested in making 4E play more like 1E have reduced the casting time of rituals to a standard action).

“OK,” I said, “you have enough time to get inside the room and cast before the rats are upon you.”  Which is awesome; I love when players have choices that can radically alter a situation. And then the rules of the DCC RPG upped the stakes by tantalizing the wizard with the possibility of safe haven, but making it subject to the whims of fate:  “Roll your spell casting check and let’s see what happens.” Drama hanging on the outcome of a dice – this is why I play RPGs!

Eric rolled a 15: Portal completely disappears for 2d6 x 10 days, leaving in its place only a blank space of wall. During this time no passage is possible via normal means.

Whoa! I’d been excited by the way the rules would adjucate a simple but dramatic yes/no. This result of the spell check mechanic turned it into the improv principle’s yes, but… now you’re sealed into a room with no visible exit for weeks on end!

Everything that happened from that point on was hugely enjoyable for me as a GM because, just like a player, I was exploring the unknown; Eric and I were collaboratively working out the consequences of an imagined situation with no idea how it was going to turn out.

“Can the party tunnel out of here?”

“Well, it looks like the wall between the room and the passageway is just a few feet deep here,  let’s think about the tools you have – hammer, spikes, steel weapons – yeah you can chip away the masonry and slide out some of the stone blocks, but it’s going to take days. Did you bring rations?”

“Yeah, remember when I said I was shopping before I left town, we have a week apiece. Hey, wait, I have a spell that might help out here, contact patron. I’ll cast that before we get started.”

“OK, give me a spell check,” I said, rubbing my hands with glee. I’ll talk about what ensued as a result in part 2 of this playtest report, where we talk about color and non-rule aspects of the system that influence play.

03
Dec
10

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG & Castle Zagyg at Anonycon

This weekend at Anonycon I will be playtesting the forthcoming Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game as part of an interesting experiment in which Eric G. and I will put the Forge axiom “system does matter” to the test. (That’s Eric the White Sandbox player of Bartholomew Honeydew, not any of the other Erics that New York Red Box has been fortunate enough to accumulate in numbers large enough to be confusing; let’s not be thrown off the scent by Mr. Honeydew’s many in-character aliases.)

The plan is that Eric and I will both do runs of Gary Gygax and Jeff Talanian’s Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works, leading into Joe Bloch’s Castle of the Mad Archmage.  We’ll do the same things that were so much fun when Joethelawyer and I ran it at Fal-Con:

  • a convention-long competition to see who can reach the deepest level and escape with the most treasure
  • a persistent world in which each session’s adventure changes things for the next party, and players can return to play the same character in a later run
  • player-created magic items whose effects are unpredictable and descriptive instead of mechanical
  • the likelihood of horrible PC deaths as parties bite off more of the castle and dungeon’s enormous environs than they can chew
  • and, if we have enough players, dividing players into two separate parties which are exploring the ruins at the same time and may clash with one another, as so memorably happened at the end of the first Fal-Con run.

The thing we’ll be doing differently this time is that Eric will be running Zagyg using his own AD&D house rules, while my runs will be using the playtest rules for the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. The differences between one edition of D&D and another are endlessly rehashed, and the DCC RPG has a number of unique twists that I’m quite excited about. But what effect do these rules variations really have on play? I think it’ll be fascinating to get some data on this question by trying two different systems in the same mega-dungeon environment over the course of a single convention weekend.

Courtesy of Wizards of Ur, this is one of the cartoons that will illustrate the DCC RPG rules, inspired by those in the AD&D DMG

The big uncontrolled variable, of course, is that Eric and I are different DMs each with our own styles, and we’ll have different groups of players each of whom has their own approach. I’m pretty sure that these differences in what each person brings to the the table always has a bigger effect on the experience of playing a roleplaying game than differences in the system they’re using; in fact I think a lot of what seem like important differences between this RPG and that one are actually second-order effects, caused mainly by the fact that different groups of players are attracted by aspects of each RPG (which might include rules and mechanics but are equally likely to include the game’s artwork, its image among gamers, the ways it’s marketed, the environment in which it’s usually played, etc.)

However, I think that the tournament format may funnel everyone into a common set of goals and approaches; certainly Eric and I have spent some time talking about standardizing our procedures & playing in one another’s games, and at Fal-Con the goal of getting deeper and finding treasure did prove effective in focusing the kind of play that arose out of the enormous Zagyg/Archmage sandbox.

Since much of this post is promising stuff that’ll happen this weekend – and appearing too late for most of y’all to decide “hey I want to go to Stamford this weekend and play games” (although you totally should, since Anonycon = awesome), I’ll end with some places you can read more about the DCC RPG:

Joe Goodman running the DCC RPG at the So Cal Mini Con III, courtesy of Cyclopeatron

Jeff’s Gameblog with images and notes

Cyclopeatron with a playtest report & interview at a Dead Gamers’ Society meetup

Beyond the Black Gate with a playtest report of a session run by Rob Conley

Bat in the Attic with a three-part report of that session from Rob’s perspective

One thing that’s worth noting about all of the above is that they’re discussing adventures written specifically for the DCC RPG, which in my experience so far have tended to be more or less linearly structured tournament-style adventures that have been fun because of their atmosphere and hideous death toll, in the mold of Tomb of Horrors/Tower of Gygax. I will be very interested to see how the system handles a mega-dungeon sandbox experience that’s more in line with the way my regular group plays; I expect that it’s going to be awesome, and think some of the unique things about the DCC RPG rules will stand out better against a more plain basic-D&D background. Cue discussion of where the adventures published for a system fall into the “system does matter” equation!

17
Oct
10

super awesome lets pretend time (pt 2)

I managed to clear my schedule this week to help Tavis with his after-school D&D program.  I guess this is Week 4?  (I probably shouldn’t call this Part 2, since it’s the fourth week, but hey.)

My job was to help one of this week’s Dungeon Masters with her prep, and to help her batch of kids stay focused.  Five things were noteworthy:

1.  Our first sandbox!

Although Tavis had observed several railroad adventures in Weeks 2 and 3, this time around we had our first sandbox dungeon.  “My” Dungeon Master RaQuel, with help from her dad, obtained one of those poster-sized battle maps used in 4e: a small town adjoining the ruins of a castle.  The Dungeon Master had prepared a little encounter in each building, which could be explored in any order.  The encounters were plausible, interesting, and (weakly) interconnected.  It was delightful to see.  (I think Tavis said her dad used to be a gamer, and she admitted he helped her a little; I’m curious how involved he was with the design.  But regardless, it was very well done.)

2.   Our first GMPC.

“Okay . . . So, this fire goblin jumps on your head!  He is eating your brain!”

“Ha ha ha, my brain…. my brain . . . . it’s so big, it’ll be a big meal!”

“Okay, so when the fire goblin is eating your brain, he becomes good.  He’s a good guy now.  He is your slave because of your brain.  He is like, ‘Yes master!’ because your brain is so strong.”

(a round later)

“The fire goblin turns into a boulder.  [Places wad of tinfoil on the map.]  It’s a boulder made of tinfoil.  With eyes in it.  And the tinfoil is like really good armor.”

(a round later)

“Okay, you could run to the tower, but the Fire Tinfoil Goblin says, ‘Master, jump on me, I’ll roll there, I’m faster.’  Okay, so do you jump on him to roll there?”

(a round later)

“The prisoner won’t leave without his parakeet, but the parakeet wants food.  There’s a peanut in the tinfoil goblin!  It says, ‘Master, I have the food.  If you want it.’  Do you want it?”

3.  You Will Never Guess What Victor Did!!

The Dungeon Master wrote on the map “Adohna’s Chest!”  But then Victor wrote down “MAdonhna’s Chest” and we opened it!  Hee hee hee!

(This was, to the 8 year old boys, indescribably hilarious.  They hero-worship the 12-year-old boys like Victor.)

4.  Elementary School Teachers are Vastly Under-Appreciated

Spending 80 minutes supervising 5 little kids and getting them to focus on something is hard work.  Oh man.  One kid was literally bouncing off the walls, doing flips over the sofa, doing weird postures that would break his neck if any other rambunctious child bumped into him.  (As a lawyer, I look at this child and see FUTURE PERSONAL INJURY PLAINTIFF written on his forehead.)

I don’t know how teachers handle 30 of these little dudes.  I leave the classroom and want a belt of rum just to steady my nerves.

5.  These Kids Like D&D

Leaving the session, I asked Joan (one of the other Dungeon Masters), “So, hey, is this stuff fun?”  And Joan responded, “Yes!  It’s my favorite game, even more than chess!”  Which made me feel really happy.

27
Sep
10

Red Box Armory: Bolas

Git along little birdies!

Bolas are an exotic weapon from faraway lands. They consist of a cord or chain with weights at the ends, meant to wrap around a target’s legs to entangle them.

When attacking, treat bolas as a thrown weapon with the same range increments as flaming oil or holy water. A successful hit inflicts no damage but binds the target’s legs together. An entangled target can only move 3’/round and must save vs. paralysis each round or fall prone. Removing the bolas takes a full round of action and requires at least one free hand. (If a character is in no position to unwrap the bolas manually, he may attempt to snap the cord or chain with an Open Doors check.)

As a rule, only classes that can use all weapons, such as fighters, halflings, dwarves and thieves, may use bolas, and even then they require some training in their use.




Past Adventures of the Mule

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