Author Archive

June 18, 2012

5e D&D getting reaction tables, morale scores

You read it here first.

From Mike Mearls’ AMA on Reddit.

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June 13, 2012

5e D&D’s Advantage/Disadvantage rules

Roger at Roles, Rules and Rolls has a great post exposing the probabilities of the the Advantage/Disadvantage rules called D&D Next: (Dis)advantage. Go check it out for a succinct discussion of the bonus (and penalty), and why it’s different than a flat +/-3.

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June 8, 2012

5e D&D Playtest, Session 3

Tonight I ran another session of the D&D Playtest, picking up right where we left off last time, with the enemies of the party’s new goblin friend running off yelling “Bree-yark” and talking about getting “the Ogre”. The session was very surprising. Rather than give a blow-by-blow, I’ll give the short version: the party killed the Ogre, but were driven off by the goblin chieftain and his troupe–who actually chased the party halfway back to town.

Here’s what we learned:

  • Magic Missile isn’t at all over-powered when you’re not fighting Kobolds.
  • The “laser cleric” effect only happens if your cleric’s player can manage to hit.
  • The Ogre can take out half the Fighter’s hit points in one hit.
  • Advantage should probably be called “Huge F**king Advantage”.
  • Being prone is brutal.
  • The whole Hit Dice/Healing Surge thing is not as huge as I thought.
  • These don’t feel like first level characters.

And finally:

  • Narrative creativity can come back to bite you in the ass.

Honestly, I was surprised I didn’t manage to drop a PC tonight. I was disappointed too, because I wanted to try out the Dying rules. I got the Dwarf down to 1 hit point, but the Cleric and Wizard saved her bacon. It felt pretty epic, actually. I planned to have the Ogre hit to subdue and tuck her into his sack for later, but he couldn’t get a swing in.

The players used all their tactical advantages. They threw a stone with a Light spell so they could loose arrows and spells into the goblin ranks. They used the hallway to bottle up the enemy and a Sleep spell to separate the Ogre from his allies. They used Ray of Frost to pin the Ogre down. And they were pretty canny with their movement too, darting in to hit and then running back to cover to deny the goblins one of their main advantages–lots of arrows.

I made two major tactical errors. The first was not realizing the Ogre had spears for throwing, so he spent a few rounds closing with the PCs, and when he was frozen in place by the Wizard, that bought the PCs precious rounds to maneuver and heal.

The second was when I had the PCs goblin buddy show up and order the five or so allies he’d rounded up from the tribe tackle the Ogre, who was “frozen in ice” as part of the Ray of Frost effect. I thought this was a really cool image: the wild-eyed Ogre, struggling to break free of the ice encasing him, rocked like a statue and toppled to the ground.

Naturally, the players used this against me. :)

On the Ogre’s turn, I narrated him throwing off the goblins and standing up, then running over to the delicious dwarf, mouth watering. The players successfully lobbied for a Strength check. Then, in a fit of soft-heartedness, I let myself be convinced that the goblins should have Advantage, because there were so many of them. (My reasoning was that they are Medium sized creatures, there are five of them, and the Ogre is only Large. I regret this line of reasoning now.)

Turns out that even a monster with 18 Strength has a tough time against Advantage. I wonder if I should have granted the Ogre Disadvantage instead? The players seemed to enjoy rooting (and rolling) for the goblins, who proceeded to hold the Ogre down for three rounds while the Fighter and the Cleric went to town on him, also with Advantage. They took him apart.

They players wisely decided to run, although the Wizard had a Burning Hands in reserve, so they might have actually prevailed. I think had we had our fourth player (the Rogue couldn’t make it) it would have been much less of a nail-biter. People have been saying that these characters are overpowered. They certainly are a hell of a lot more capable than B/X D&D characters. I’d rate them at about 4th level for B/X D&D. Probably about 2nd or 3rd for 3e D&D. I haven’t played a ton of 4e, but 4e characters seemed invulnerable at first level. The two players who have done a lot of 4e mentioned that 4e PCs “never run” and that they liked having to leg it home.

The Cleric player missed all night, so the complaints about his at-will attack were a non-issue for us. The Wizard’s magic missile, that seemed so infinitely deadly in the earlier fights, was also a bit of a non-issue. He couldn’t reliably kill a goblin with one shot, and since I had the cowardly goblins take cover between shooting, he didn’t have a lot of second chances.

Because I wanted to try out the Short Rest/Healing Surge/Hit Dice rules, the players humored me and bandaged up after losing the goblins in the forest (an opposed check, if you’re keeping track). The cleric, who was at 1 hit point, gained back a whopping 2 hit points. The fighter, who was also close to zero, managed to get herself up to half by spending a Hit Die and getting a Cure Light from the cleric. All in all, it didn’t seem too over powered. They certainly didn’t feel like they were in any position to return to the fight, especially with the goblins out in force. It felt more like insurance against bad luck on the way home.

On the other hand, it’s a little disappointing to me to know that they will rest up for a night back in town and be up to full everything. They’re averaging one cave per 24 hour period, and at this rate I’ll have to rename the dungeon “Caves of Law Abiding Beastmen and Corpses” in about a week. :)

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June 5, 2012

5e D&D pushing sandbox play?

I played 5e again last Friday. The players ambushed a couple of Orc couriers carrying a wriggling bundle from their lair to somewhere else in the ravine. Once again the advantage/disadvantage rules shone, as we dealt with long range slinging, a wizard’s familiar hiding in dense undergrowth, and the PCs attacking enemies on higher ground.

The halfling rogue started things off by sneaking up the side of the ravine to cut the orcs off, and then smashing the skull of the one carrying the bundle with a lethal sling stone. The rest of the party and their kobold scouts (see last post) burst from cover and laid down missile fire, wounding the remaining orc, who yelled an alarm and ran. Just before he ducked out of sight, the Wizard’s magic missile caught him, and that was all she wrote.

The dwarf fighter slit open the bundle to find–not the captive dwarf or halfling she was expecting–but a captive goblin. As orc patrols began coming out to investigate the noise, the party retreated to the kobold cave and conducted a whispered interrogation. It turned out that the captive goblin was the son of the recently killed goblin chieftain, betrayed by his uncle to the orcs. The party agreed to take him back to his home where he claimed to have allies.

Fortunately, the guards at the cave entrance were sympathetic, although they were put off by the appearance of an Elf and Dwarf with their would-be chief. Unfortunately, a second goblin patrol aligned with the new chieftain came around a corner and attacked. The party quickly drove them off, although the Wizard had some scary moments when he was hit in rapid succession with two spears. Then the Fighter stepped in and killified the aggressors. The allied goblins, freaked out by the situation, ran one way, while the hostile survivors went in the other direction, shouting for their friends to “bring the Ogre!”.

It was a quick session, but Caves of Chaos is still bringing the Old School, and the new rule system is continuing to make me happy as a DM, and my Wizard player even happier. The Fighter and Rogue players seem content with their characters too. It’ll be interesting to see how they fare against the Ogre–or whatever else they decide to do. This playtest is definitely pushing the “sandbox” angle of play.

And that brings me to the title of this post. After reading the play test documents, I wasn’t sure whether WotC was giving lip service to sandbox play or if they intended to make it a design priority. Well after reading this article, there’s no doubt in my mind that this edition of the game is intended to support the sandbox.

Check out this quote, where the designer is talking about the new way characters increase in power:

DCs do not scale automatically with level, and instead a DC is left to represent the fixed value of the difficulty of some task, not the difficulty of the task relative to level.

That sounds a little sandboxy, right, where there are set difficulties that players can choose to tackle in any order? Well check out these snippets from the rest of the article:

Getting better at something means actually getting better at something. Since target numbers (DCs for checks, AC, and so on) and monster accuracy don’t scale with level, gaining a +1 bonus means you are actually 5% better at succeeding at that task, not simply hitting some basic competence level.

Nonspecialized characters can more easily participate in many scenes. While it’s true that increases in accuracy are real and tangible, it also means that characters can achieve a basic level of competence just through how players assign their ability bonuses.

The DM’s monster roster expands, never contracts. Although low-level characters probably don’t stack up well against higher-level monsters, thanks to the high hit points and high damage numbers of those monsters… the lower-level monsters continue to be useful to the DM, just in greater numbers.

Bounded accuracy makes it easier to DM and easier to adjudicate improvised scenes. After a short period of DMing, DMs should gain a clear sense of how to assign DCs to various tasks.

It opens up new possibilities of encounter and adventure design. A 1st-level character might not fight the black dragon… But if they rally the town [guard]… and whittle the dragon down with dozens of attacks instead of only four or five, the possibilities grow.

It is easier for players and DMs to understand the relative strength and difficulty of things. Under the bounded accuracy system, a DM can describe a hobgoblin wearing chainmail, and, no matter what the level of the characters, a player can reasonably guess that the hobgoblin’s AC is around 15;

It’s good for verisimilitude. The bounded accuracy system lets us perpetually associate difficulty numbers with certain tasks based on what they are in the world, without the need to constantly escalate the story behind those tasks.

The items are definitely a nod to complaints that in other editions, nothing really changes, just the DCs get harder for the same activities. I think it’s also great news that even if you’re not super-specialized, you’ll still be able to play a role in the success of your party. One of my favorite things about B/X D&D is how level the playing field is, in terms of talking, improvising solutions, etc.

The bit about improvising and adventure design–that’s music to my ears. One of the main joys of running B/X is not having to worry about level appropriate challenges, “precious encounter” design, or other complexity. And the example of the party rallying a bunch of militia to drive off the big monster, that’s right out of the “Combat as War” handbook that’s the default mode of the OSR.

And finally, the verisimilitude, which could also be called “consistent reality” and making it easier for players and DMs to judge it, that’s a corner stone of any kind of sandbox. Players need information, so they can make informed choices and maximize their agency.

tl;dr: w00t!

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May 26, 2012

I played 5e D&D tonight!

Like most of the nerdo-sphere, I signed up for the 5e D&D playtest (I ain’t calling it “D&D Next”, because then I’ll have to call the next edition “D&D Next 2″). And tonight I ran the adapted version of Caves of Chaos for some friends instead of painting miniatures.

Before I get into what I liked and didn’t like about the playtest, some bona fides. Everybody in the group has played or is still playing B/X D&D. One of the guys is an active player at Red Box Vancouver, one of the guys was a DM for RBV in the days when we had more players than we could handle, and two of the other players were not only active RBVers, but were with me when I ran Basic Fantasy way back in 2008 and first started on this whole retro-roleplaying thing.

Of the group, we’ve all played a metric ton of 3e. I’m not sure about the active RBVer, but me and the other DM dropped out of a 4e group after about 6 months and the other two players stayed in the 4e group for a few years–and they both still really like a lot about 4e. So we’re not all dyed in the wool OSR evangelists, but everyone is Old School Friendly at a bare minimum.

So… the playtest. We started our game right at the edge of the ravine, the halfling rogue (all characters are pre-gens) looked for and found a track leading to a cave hidden in the trees (no roll). He crept up to the cave, spied it out and was about to head back to the party when a gang of Kobolds threw a spear and dropped out of the trees to attack (he described peering at the cave entrance and trees for guards, but bombed a stat check to notice the hiding monsters).

The halfling won initiative and ran back to the party with the monsters in hot pursuit. He was narrowly missed by a rusty dagger hurled by one of the kobolds (ie dagger -2, hit him for 3 points of damage, but in 5e the text says that until you are below half hit points, you haven’t taken any physical damage). By then the rest of the party had come out of hiding.

The elf wizard fired, what else, magic missile (automatic hit, AD&D-style). The player, who is especially fond of playing Magic-Users in B/X, was thrilled that magic missiles are an unlimited “cantrip”. He was also pretty excited that wizards get three spells at first level, instead of the usual “Sleep or nothing” of 1st level B/X. The lead kobold dropped like a sack of potatoes. The wizard’s player was also very happy that 5e lets you split your move, so he could run within range, cast his spell, and withdraw to behind the safety of the fighting-types.

Next the dwarf fighter and human cleric attacked. The dwarf fighter fired his crossbow at a kobold, killing it. The cleric called on the power of Pelor and a radiant beam from heaven burned another kobold alive.

In subsequent rounds, the kobolds took a few hit points off the halfling before he was able to slip into the treeline and hide. Then he was able to dash out from cover and stab from behind, giving him “advantage”, which means you get to double your chances to hit. The dwarf went to town with his two-handed axe, and discovered that even when he misses, he does some damage with an ability called “close call”. The player seemed to like that a lot (she is a 4e fan and that mechanic is *very* 4e).

I don’t remember if the cleric used his radiant beam spell again–I think it may also be an unlimited orison, much like the wizard’s magic missile. I do remember that the wizard used his split move to go all Emperor Palpatine on some unlucky kobold (shocking grasp… total overkill, but a lot of fun).

In any case, the kobolds routed and were cut down as they ran, except for one that surrendered and was taken captive by the halfling. After much ridiculous roleplaying by yours truly, “Meepo” led the party into the cave where he promised to introduce them to the Kobold King.

Here’s where I should mention the “hook” for the adventure that I used, from a list of possible ways to interest the players in the dungeon. Although the adventure suggests several ways to introduce the dungeon, including the tried-and-true “there’s gold and monsters, what else do you need to know?”, I thought it would be more interesting if the players were tasked with opening diplomatic relations with the monsters, offering tribute from the nearby towns if they would leave off raiding.

Speaking of the adventure, it’s practically a love letter to the OSR. Not only is it an extremely faithful port of the Caves of Chaos, arguably the most influential dungeon ever written, but it specifically encourages sandbox play over plotted adventures, suggests parleying with monsters, the possibility of TPKs from reckless exploration, playing off factions against each other, etc. There’s also a lot of rules text devoted to the idea that the rules should get out of the way of running the game you want to play. The designers are definitely paying attention to the OSR blogs.

The players ended up sending the wizard’s familiar (a cat) to scout some of the kobold lair while they negotiated with the Kobold King, attended a meagre feast in their honor, impressed the yokels with a display of magic (Light + Mage Hand FTW!) and successfully negotiated an exchange of a promissory note for four scouts and the lowdown on “The Master”, some sort of necromancer who has united the tribes through fear of his power, plus information about a still simmering feud between two of the orc tribes that could be exploited.

It’s 1am and my kids are going to wake me up in six hours, so I’m going to end this with a couple of lists.

Winning:

  • Advantage/disadvantage rules: love this, along with…
  • Helping rules: finally, a way to meaningfully help another character!
  • Simple combat: splitting up your move made combat way more fluid, as did the absence of Opportunity Attacks and all that standard/minor/move/swift action hair-splitting.
Pretty cool
  • Stat checks: seemed like a nice compromise between old-school “roll under your stat” house rules and modern skill systems.

Meh

  • I wasn’t keen on the Close Calls fighter “I missed but still did damage” power. But then again the whole “I hit but since hit points are abstract didn’t hit (or maybe I did)” design is a muddle (albeit a beloved muddle), so I could change my mind.
  • Where are the Meatshields? No henchmen or hirelings. :(
  • No morale rules or reaction tables. The first seems like it would fit really well with the streamlined combat, the second with the emphasis on “interaction” as one of the three main pillars of play (Combat, Exploration and Interaction).
  • No wandering monsters. Not much resource management yet.

I’m really curious to see how the at-will wizard/cleric cantrips/orisons will play out. The players seem to love it, but I wonder if I’ll miss the game of resource management that is the Magic-User in B/X. Ditto for hit points and healing, the characters have a ton of hit points at first level (equal their Constitution score and then some). They also have the ability to recover some hit points if they rest right after a fight, which looks a lot like healing surges from 4e, but also reminds me of the very common “bandage yourself for 1-3 hit points” house rule in OSR games. Only it’s more like 1-8 hit points.

I haven’t looked at the characters much, but they seem to have 3e/AD&D style stat inflation (ie 4d6 drop 1). The players seem excited to be so much hardier. I’m curious to see if that will translate into their being “fool-hardier” or just invincible.

Stay tuned. We continue the playtest next week. :)

-cr0m

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September 16, 2011

One Page Adventurizing XP2 (part 2)

(This post may not make a lot of sense unless you read part 1 first.)

To recap, I’m taking the otherwise excellent location-based adventure XP2: Song of the Beast Gods and giving it the One Page Adventure treatment to make it’s existing hooks even more robust, for my sandbox-loving, rails-jumping, plot-ignoring gang of players. Again Thulsa, the author, has created a really good location-based Swords & Sorcery adventure, without any sort of reliance on the players following a set path, any sort of pre-determined events, etc. And for $5 it’s a really good bargain: you get three locations, a bunch of NPCs and his highly atmospheric World of Xoth setting (with Cultural feats, a new class, et al)–all statted out for the Pathfinder RPG. Xoth is shaping up to be my go-to S&S setting.

So here’s my slightly updated progress from last post:

Revenge of the Hyena Princess

The Situation

A long-lost princess has returned to usurp her younger sister’s place and get her revenge, with the help of the Hyena God’s secret cult.

NPC Goals

Evil Princess: Kill opposition to Hyena God Cult. Sacrifice Good Princess when The Stars are Right. Stay disguised as Good Princess ’til then.

Handmaiden: Escape slavery. Free Good Princess. Expose Evil Princess.

And that’s where I stopped. The rest of the NPCs are either minions of the EP or have good reasons to oppose the Evil Princess–but at the moment are in the dark about her conspiracy to sacrifice the Good Princess during a ritual that will transform her and the other cultists into Beastmen and break the hold of the current god on the city.

This isn’t a huge problem, but it does create problems if the players don’t get involved with the Handmaiden, who is the only NPC that suspects something is going on. Even she doesn’t know that the Evil Princess is masquerading as the Good Princess when she meets the PCs.

At the starting point of the adventure, all the Handmaiden knows is that a rich man from the city paid the desert nomads to raise a young girl who disappeared when she came of age. The Handmaiden isn’t able to warn anyone unless she is rescued from the slavers and returned to the palace, where she recognizes that the supposed Good Princess is acting strangely.

Here are the other NPCs with a stake in the Situation. As before, I’m using titles rather than names, because it’s easier to remember: General, Guard Captain, Good God Acolytes, Royal Steward.

NPCs without a real stake (or who can’t do much) who can be regarded as assets: Slaver, Royal Scribe, Senile King, Good Princess.

There are also some goons, hideouts and other useful assets attached to various NPCs.

So let’s give the Evil Princess some serious opposition.

Good God Acolytes: Escape the Palace before we are killed. Get word to our superiors that the Evil Princess is evil. Spy on her with the Guard Captain. Recruit the General with Proof: the Scroll or the Good Princess.

Assets: a pious servant at the Palace, Guard Captain, the loyal Palace Guards, a desolate tomb outside of town, keys to the temple treasury, the Handmaiden (and the other handmaidens).

I’ve rewritten these guys such that their God has let them know not to trust the Evil Princess with omens. They have seen a Scroll that details the upcoming Stars Are Right moment and the secret signs of the cult. They know the Good Princess is missing. They’re in-the-know, have resources, but lack muscle and can’t move freely.

These guys are going to want to enlist the PCs to help them get out of dodge, send messages that won’t be read by the cult, go between themselves and the Guard Captain who manages Palace security, and try to get the Scroll (now hidden) or the Good Princess (missing) to the General to bring his troops to bear on the problem.

Since I’ve made the Guard Captain an asset, I don’t need to worry about his goals. Same with the Handmaiden. They’re the same as the Good God Acolytes–which also means either can stand in for the Acolytes if they’re killed or missing. Now we’ve got some good guys and some bad guys. How about someone on the fence?

General: Preserve my life and position. Keep the army strong and intact. End up on the winning side. Get richer off this argument between priests.

Assets: 400 light infantry (City Guards), 150 camel riders, keys to the city, a tower in the Citadel.

And finally, the Evil Princess in full:

Evil Princess:  Keep conspiracy secret. Prevent the Acolytes from getting help. Make sure the General stays neutral. Sacrifice Good Princess and transform my allies when The Stars are Right. Disguise myself as the Good Princess ’til then.

Assets: The ear of the King, the Royal Steward, disloyal Palace Guards, keys to the royal treasury, the Torturer, catacombs under the Palace, undead minions, a secret chamber in the catacombs, a secret prison, the life of the Good Princess, the Scroll, the Slaver, Slaver Guards.

Smart money is still on the Evil Princess, especially if she recruits the PCs to her side. Of course, that means they’ll end up transformed by her ritual, and may not approve of that. Her Situation is also the most precarious: if the Court or King figure out that she’s not the Good Princess, the jig is up. If the General doesn’t stay out of it, his army can wipe out her band of disloyal Palace Guards and undead minions. If the Good Acolytes get away, a powerful theocracy to the south will invade her little city-state.

What else would I do here to round things out? I’d re-write the Slaver and his Guards as members of the desert nomad tribe that raised her, so she has somewhere to retreat if everything goes pear shaped for Team Hyena.

If the PCs work for the Evil Princess, I’d have the General take an active role in playing the two sides against each other. Offering the Good God Acolytes protection, but not escape, until the Evil Princess has time to make a counter-offer. Putting his soldiers between the PCs, their objectives and the Evil Princess (curfews, an extra guard on the Palace, locked city gates). Even using soldiers to attack the PCs and weaken the Evil Princess’s position.

If the PCs work for the Good God Acolytes, I’d throw everything the Evil Princess has at them, re-kidnapping the Handmaiden, assassinating the Royal Scribe and anyone else in the know. Using them to flush out other allies of the Acolytes. Trapping them with the Guard Captain. Spying on them with Palace servants and desert nomads. Murdering them if they come into the catacombs.

Whew! This is getting me really excited to run this game. :)

Last part. The hook! Replace “hired” with “convinced”, “enlisted by”, “seduced”, etc. as needed.

The PCs…

…decide to rescue/help the Handmaiden and…

…are hired by the Good God Acolytes to oppose the Evil Princess.

…are hired by the Evil Princess to do her dirty work.

…are attacked by the Evil Princess’s cultists and hired by her enemies.

There’s another option I hadn’t thought of before that’s bound to be appealing to Fistful of Dollars/Yojimbo fans:

…are hired by the General to protect the Acolytes and force both sides to deal with him.

In some ways, the General ought to be opposed to either side “winning”. If the Acolytes get away or the Evil Princess does her ritual, the General’s city is probably going to get invaded by the theocracy that worships the Good God.

Well, what do you think? How would you adjust things to make it even easier to roll with whatever the PCs dish out?

September 16, 2011

If your adventure says “by now the PCs will likely investigate”…

… you don’t play with the same kind of people I do.

I kid, but only a little. I was reading an independently produced module, XP2: Song of the Beast Gods, when it occurred to me how spoiled I am by the OSR’s emphasis on exploration and sandboxes. It’s rare that I read what I used to think of as “an adventure” before I got the OSR bug. Even good adventures–and Song of the Beast Gods is a very good adventure–tend to assume a certain amount of player engagement, simply because if you’re playing adventures and not a sandbox, it’s not cool to blow off whatever the DM prepped.

On the scale of assumed engagement, where 10 is Death in Freeport and 1 is Tavis Allison’s White Sandbox, Song of the Beast Gods is definitely on the low end. It’s a location-based adventure, so that means that the author, Thulsa, does not assume any sort of time-line or sequence of events. Instead he lays out some NPCs conspiring to conduct a ritual sacrifice, three separate and detailed locations for the action, and three or four suggestions on how to involve the PCs in the conspiracy.

In this, he’s my kind of adventure writer, because instead of assuming the players care about a Chaotic outpost (B2), some amnesiac priest (Freeport) or the threat of being executed if they don’t murder a bunch of giants (G3), Thulsa gives us a Situation and a couple of ways into it.

The PCs can either cross swords with a venal slaver and rescue some sexy handmaidens–getting as a reward the instant enmity of the cultists–or they can find themselves caught up in an attempt by the cult to kidnap victims for their upcoming crazy-ass ritual. Unfortunately for DMs like me, if they get to the location in some other circumstances, the adventure assumes they will likely start their own investigation. Hence the title of this post.

If you know anything about Red Box Vancouver, you’ll have some idea of how much I laughed at the idea of PCs deciding to investigate the weirdos running some podunk town, when they could just as easily… leave. Or get drunk. Or find some horrible prehistoric beast to murder. Especially since these are supposed to be Swords & Sorcery heroes! They’re supposed to do Conan stuff, not investigate decadent nobles acting a bit strangely, even if it is on the say-so of a drunken guard or an attractive handmaiden.

Then I remembered my One Page Adventure experiment from last year and figured this was the perfect opportunity to road test that idea with a for real adventure that I’m going to run for a couple of friends. So here it is, my One Page Adventurizing of XP2: Song of the Beast Gods. (Spoilers for XP2: Song of the Beast Gods follow.)

Revenge of the Hyena Priestess

The Situation

A long-lost princess has returned to usurp her younger sister’s place and get her revenge, with the help of cultists of a former god of her people.

NPC Goals

Evil Princess: Kill opposition to Hyena God Cult. Sacrifice Good Princess when The Stars are Right. Stay disguised as Good Princess ’til then.

Handmaiden: Free Good Princess. Expose Evil Princess.

And here’s where I run into my first challenge. Other than the Handmaiden, who has already been caught by the slavers at the start of the adventure, every other NPC described is either one of Evil Princess’s minions or has no goals other than “keep the status quo”. There are a couple of acolytes of the current god who would oppose the Evil Princess’s plans, and of course the captain of the guard isn’t keen on any plots that involve impersonating the legitimate princess, but until any of these guys have proof of what’s going on, they sit around eating dates in the palace.

It also means that unless the PCs get hot for the Handmaiden when they run into the slavers at the oasis at the start of the adventure (the adventure assumes that the PCs are heading for the city where all this is going down–which is a perfectly acceptable assumption. Even a OPD has to assume you go into the dungeon!) the DM has to rely on a bit of luck and force to get them involved. The adventure suggests they get attacked by cultists, which in my games usually ends with a pile of enemy corpses, which could make the players curious enough to investigate. Or it could lead to the players deciding to skedaddle.

There is another option, not suggested by the adventure, but that seems really obvious to me if you know the people I play with: they’re hired by the Evil Princess.

If I was an Evil Princess looking to bump off the King, some Priests and other upstanding members of the court to clear the way for a mass human sacrifice to reinstate the worship of an ancient beast god, I’d be hard pressed to find better employees than a team of wandering killers with no connections in town.

So that’s going to be my entry point: barring unexpected interest in the well-being of slave girls and small-time nobility, I’m going to plan for the PCs being propositioned by the agents of the Evil Princess to do her dirty work. So the Evil Princess is going to need some serious opposition, because right now there’s only a slave girl standing between her and apotheosis as the Hyena Queen.

Come back for part two to see where we go from here…

September 13, 2011

Wordle for RBV’s forums

Because Johnstone’s post made me curious.

November 11, 2010

the one page adventure, part 2

If you haven’t read the previous post, this one might not make a lot of sense. In that post I talked about trying to come up with a one-page format for non-dungeon adventures–political games, mysteries, crime stories, urban adventures–anything that isn’t just about exploring an underworld region.

Here goes.

The Exiled Lord

The Situation

The Bad Lord hired a Lying Merchant to frame the Exile with a forged letter planning the assassination of the king at the wedding to the exile’s Betrothed.

NPC Goals

Bad Lord: Marry Betrothed and get her lands. Keep conspiracy secret.
Lying Merchant: Sell info to the highest bidder.
Exile: Clear my name. Regain my lands. Marry Betrothed.
Betrothed: Get out of marrying the Bad Lord.

NPC Resources

Bad Lord: a fortified manor in the country (site of wedding), a town house, a personal bodyguard, two squads of soldiers, 4,000 cash, a carriage, a court magician.

Lying Merchant: a warehouse, a wagon and driver, a personal bodyguard, 6,000 cash, line of credit for 10,000, an office in town, contacts with a smuggler’s crew, personally skilled at forgery, a bribed guard captain, a hideout in a bar he owns.

Exile: 2,000 cash, a personal bodyguard, a huge estate in the country (unavailable while exiled), a good horse, a terrific disguise.

Betrothed: 3,000 cash, access to her father’s estates, a line of credit for 5,000, a sexy servant girl, was a childhood friend of the king, a brother in the clergy.

Hooks

The player characters are…

Hired to protect the Merchant from the Bad Lord’s goons.
Hired by the Bad Lord to kill the Merchant (or Exile).
Hired by the Exile to steal the info, buy the info, or kidnap the Merchant.
Hired by the Betrothed to protect the Exile, steal the info, etc (as above).

Replace “hired” with “asked, begged, blackmailed, etc” as fits your campaign.

Stats (Basic/Expert D&D)

Bad Lord: Noble, AC2, HD 3, HP 21, Damage 1-8 (sword).
Personal bodyguard: F2, AC2, HP 9, Damage 1-8 (sword).
Squad of soldiers: 8 Normal Men, AC 4, HP 3, Damage 1-6 (spear).
Court magician: M-U3, AC 9, HP 8, Damage 1-4 (dagger), Spells: Charm Person, Sleep, Detect Magic, ESP.

Lying Merchant: T1, AC7, HP 3, Damage 1-4 (dagger).
Driver: Normal Man, AC9, HP 4, Damage 1-4 (club).
Personal bodyguard: F1, AC5, HP 3, Damage 1-8 (sword).
Smugglers:
1 Small Galley
12 Buccaneers, AC7, HD 1, HP 6, Damage 1-8 (sword)
6 Buccaneers, AC7, HD 1, HP 2, Damage 1-8 (sword), 1-6 (crossbow)
2 Buccaneers, AC5, HD 1, HP 4, Damage 1-8 (sword), 1-6 (crossbow)
Bribed Guard Captain: F1, AC2, HP 1, Damage 1-6 (mace)
Bartender, Barmaid, Bouncer: Normal Men, AC 9, HP 2, Damage 1-4 (club)

Exile: Noble, AC2, HD 3, HP 11, Damage 1-8 (sword).
Personal bodyguard: CL2, AC2, HP 6, Damage 1-6 (mace).

Betrothed: Noble, AC9, HD 3, HP 13, Damage 1-4 (dagger).
Sexy servant girl: T1, AC9, HP 3, Damage 1-4 (dagger).
Brother: CL2, AC2, HP 7, Damage 1-6 (mace).

Howto use this Adventure

First of all, make your players pick sides, at least temporarily. They need to be inserted into the Situation with one of the Hooks, and then their Employer/Friend/Blackmailer/Enchanter uses them to achieve his goals. Roleplay out the relationship. Is your Exile a weak-willed sycophant? Maybe he relies on the players to decide how to protect him. Is the Bad Lord an honorable man who took a dishonorable path? Let him justify it. Maybe he doesn’t want to kill the Exile–that’ll make the job of the PCs working for him harder.

Improvise, but keep the NPCs working toward their goals. What’s the first step? After the PCs act, then what is the next logical step for their employer? For their antagonists? Rinse and repeat.

Suggestions

If the PCs work for…

Exile, send goons to kill him. Then make the PCs hide him. Then send goons after the PCs. Send the servant girl to make contact. Have the Merchant use his contacts in the criminal underworld to hunt them down. Send the Merchant to bribe them. Then get the law to arrest them on trumped up charges. Get the Betrothed’s brother to heal them up or offer temporary sanctuary. Use all your resources to pursue the goal–but remember that the goal isn’t “kill the PCs”. At least not necessarily.

Betrothed, send the PCs to watch over the Exile and goons to kill him. Ask them to spirit him to sanctuary on her fathers’ estate, or at her brothers’ church. Get the law to come after them. Send smugglers to kidnap Betrothed. Make the PCs want to be in two places at once. Have the Exile want to confront the Bad Lord. Make him a difficult person to mind. Make sure both parties act like nobles used to commanding underlings, and make sure the PCs remember they are hired help.

Bad Lord, it’s much more straightforward. Send them to attack and kill the Exile. Have everyone else oppose them openly. Then go after the Merchant. If the Exile gets away with the help of Betrothed, have the players kidnap the servant girl and interrogate her for information. If the Exile hides out anywhere, have the players burn it down or attack the people who help him. Let the players figure out how to use the Bad Lord’s wizard and his information gathering abilities. And don’t forget to send someone to kill the wizard. The Bad Lord uses them for plausible denial. The Bad Lord has never seen these men before, your majesty. They certainly aren’t part of his household. He will take them into custody and see that justice is served…

Lying Merchant, send goons to kidnap or kill the Merchant. Then send the Exile to revenge himself on the Merchant. Or the servant girl to suborn the PCs. Or the Betrothed to appeal to their good nature. Whatever works. Then send them to protect the Exile while the Merchant can arrange a truce, as leverage. Have the wedding go forward. Then have the Exile refuse to work with the Merchant unless the PCs rescue the Betrothed. If they fail, have the marriage happen. Then have them protect the Betrothed from the Bad Lord’s killers.

You get the idea. Roll with whatever the players do. And if they out think or out maneuver your NPCs… that’s great! That is the equivalent of packing a 10′ pole, remembering to check for traps, or kitting out the front line fighters in heavy armor. They get to win. Same thing the other way. If they act too aggressively or put a scare into the NPCs, have them throw everything back at them. But remember, you have to play fair. If the Bad Lord can’t find the PCs hideout with his resources, he’ll need to talk to the Merchant to tap the criminal underworld. Ditto for the Merchant, the Betrothed and especially the Exile. Let them bribe for information with impunity, but only in their social circles or among their servants.

And there you have it. It got a little wordy at the end, so that might be something I’d omit from the actual template. I did this a little backwards for Basic/Expert D&D and listed their cash (ie treasure) first. The final version of the one-pager for B/E D&D would probably have the treasure pre-generated. The Buccaneers stand to have quite a bit (Type A) and each Noble has a small chance at gems, jewelry or a magic item.

What do you think? Any feedback? I’d love to keep tweaking this and then take it for a test drive.

November 3, 2010

the one page adventure

I’m not gaming much these days, thanks to parent-teacher conferences and my toddler failing her morale check vs Hallowe’en. What I have been doing is reading blogs about gaming–the time-honored substitute for playing–and lately found this post by a blogger named Flynn: GM Mentoring: the One Page Plot.

Maybe because I’ve been running One Page Dungeons for the last two years, but lately I’ve been wanting to run games that aren’t primarily about exploration. I’ve been wanting to run games that are about achieving in-game goals while rival NPCs do their best to stop you. In other words, adventures. Naturally any post that promises a one-page version of an adventure got my attention.

In a follow up to his original post, Flynn outlines an interesting adventure involving an exiled lord framed by a rival and a venal merchant for treason, so the rival can marry the exile’s betrothed instead.

Compared to most published adventures, Flynn’s template packs in a lot of information in a very small amount of space. In that sense it’s a model of brevity–it has everything a DM could need, short of stat blocks, to run the adventure. But I’m spoiled by the One Page Dungeon Template. I want something even more brief, even more skeletal, with only the barest minimum necessary to scan and run on game night.

Anyone who has talked to me about DM prep lately knows that I’m a huge fan of a blog post called Don’t Prep Plots by Justin Alexander. He’s got a lot of great articles on dungeon and adventure design, but that one is by far my favorite. He says, in a nutshell, that contingency planning for player actions is at best a partial waste of time (because you prep for X and Y, but the players only choose one, so half is wasted) and at worst a complete waste of time (because we all know that players have a knack for surprising DMs and thus rendering all prep useless).

He recommends preparing Situations instead of Plots. Plots are a sequence of events. But he points out that you can’t be sure what the sequence of events in a game are before you play (unless you railroad, which has its own problems). A situation is a set of circumstances, period. What happens after that is based on what the players do and what their adversaries (played by the DM) do in response.

The other advantage a Situation has over a plot is that it’s a lot shorter to write.  We all know the plot of LotR, so I won’t transcribe it. But can we agree that it could take several pages to summarize? At the very least, you’d be hard pressed to fit the entire plot on a single page, even if you left out many, many details. So here’s the same plot, written as a Situation:

Frodo and his companions must cast the One Ring into Mount Doom before Sauron finds it and takes over the world.

Boom! What happens next is up to the players of Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, et al. And we already know that it might not go like the DM planned.

A situation really makes the DM’s life easier, because he doesn’t need to remember all sorts of contingency plans. All he needs to remember are some NPC goals and the resources they have to achieve those goals. So if you’re playing Sauron and you know the Ring is in the Shire, you look over your sheet of resources and think: army of orcs, too slow… Saruman, can’t be trusted… evil men in Bree, too weak… Nazghul, fast, smart and unswervingly loyal, perfect! It’s the players’ job to deal with it, so you don’t need to worry about complicated if/then scenarios, and you can go back to picking a craft beer for game night.

I’ve tried to give one of my own campaign ideas the Situations Not Plots treatment, but I had a hard time, probably because it’s tough to kill your babies–and if you’re like me, you usually have several cool “scenes” in mind when you think up an adventure. And any given scene may or may not happen with a Situation-based game.

So I decided to give Flynn’s very cool one page plot the Situation treatment (by accident because I didn’t read his post clearly enough and understand what kind of feedback he was looking for). But I enjoyed the exercise enough that I decided to blog about it.

In any case, this isn’t an attempt to fix Flynn’s adventure or imply that it has problems, it’s just me seeing an adventure I thought was cool and trying to make it work for my style of DM prep. None of the following will make sense unless you go read about his adventure now.

Here’s Flynn’s synopsis:

The party must protect an one-legged, greedy trader from the actions of a branded, slovenly noble, who is motivated by love.

It’s a really cool premise, and the characters are interesting! They’re morally gray, with the “good guy” exile being slovenly and sort of unlikable, the merchant being a greedy, treacherous type and the “bad guy” being a jealous lord. The only person you could consider “good” is the betrothed, and she’s completely in the dark!

So the first thing that I thought when I read the adventure is how most of my players wouldn’t care a bent copper piece about a squabble between a scruffy noble and a greedy merchant. The next thing I thought was how they’d be most likely to care about whomever could pay them the most. And that got me thinking that they’d most likely end up working for the “bad guy”, rubbing out the pesky exile or tying up loose ends by murdering the merchant.

Clearly I needed something more flexible than a plot. Here’s my attempt at a Situation:

Bad Lord hired Lying Merchant to frame Exile for Treason, using false Evidence.

First thing I did after this is specify the treason and the evidence. Mainly because it’s easier for me to remember “planning to assassinate the king at the wedding” than an unspecified charge of treason). Also because if there’s false evidence, the players are going to want to examine it, destroy it, or otherwise interact with it. Not to mention DMs don’t have time to figure things out, they’re downloading/buying your adventure because they want you to do their work for them.

Here’s the re-write:

Bad Lord hired Lying Merchant to frame Exile with a forged letter planning the assassination of the king at the wedding to Betrothed.

I’m also using descriptions rather than names at this early stage. DMs have a hard time remembering names if they didn’t come up with them, and I’m no exception.

The next order of business is to come up with some NPC goals. This is the part that creates the real Situation. The summary I wrote above is static. The Exile is exiled, and the Bad Lord and Lying Merchant are getting away with it. So let’s whip up some goals that shake things up:

Bad Lord: Marry Betrothed and get her lands. Keep conspiracy secret.
Lying Merchant: Sell info to the highest bidder.
Exile: Clear my name. Marry Betrothed.
Betrothed: Get out of marrying Bad Lord.

Now we’re talking! That jerkwad Merchant isn’t content with the dishonest buck he’s making by framing the Exile. Now he wants to sell what he knows, too. This puts him in conflict with the Bad Lord and creates lots of hooks. Replace “hired” with “asked”, “begged”, “forced”, “blackmailed”, etc as fits your game:

Hired to protect the Merchant from the Bad Lord’s goons.

Hired by the Bad Lord to kill the Merchant.

Hired by the Exile to steal the info, buy the info, or kidnap the Merchant.

Hired by the Betrothed to protect the Exile, steal the info, etc.

Note that Flynn’s original hook is in there, so we’re remaining faithful to the original adventure idea. Except now it’s a lot more robust. There are lots of ways to engage with the adventure, and we can guess from their goals how each NPC might react to any actions by the players.

Next we need to figure out what resources the NPCs have at their disposal. This is the part that feels the most like traditional “DM prep”. You examine party powers, look at CR/ELs, levels/Hit Dice, etc. Or maybe you’re running a sandbox, so you just decide how powerful the Bad Lord is, and let the players figure out whether they can take him (or if they should work for him instead).

So here’s what some resources might look like, minus the stats for whatever game system you’re using:

Bad Lord: a fortified manor in the country (site of wedding), a town house, a personal bodyguard, two squads of soldiers, 4,000 cash, a carriage, a court magician.

Lying Merchant: a warehouse, a wagon and driver, a personal bodyguard, 6,000 cash, line of credit for 10,000, an office in town, contacts with a smuggler’s crew, personally skilled at forgery, a bribed guard captain, a hideout in a bar he owns.

Exile: 2,000 cash, a personal bodyguard, a huge estate in the country (unavailable while exiled), a good horse, a terrific disguise.

Betrothed: 3,000 cash, access to her father’s estates, a line of credit for 5,000, a sexy servant girl, a childhood friend of the king, a brother in the clergy.

Then let the players do whatever they want and have the NPCs use their resources accordingly. No worrying about contingencies, no elaborate encounters going unused, much less time wasted.

It practically runs itself! If they get hired by the Merchant, they’ll quickly find themselves facing off with the Bad Lord’s men, being scryed on by his wizard, attacked by the Exile, approached by the Betrothed’s sexy servant girl, etc. If they are hired by the Bad Lord to kill the Exile, he and the Betrothed will do what they can to stop them. The Merchant might even decide that having the Exile alive makes his position stronger, and pitch in.

And lets say they meet the Exile and kill him on the first encounter. Big deal. The Bad Lord will naturally want them to bump off the Merchant next. And then he might want them to bump off the Betrothed after the wedding, so he can inherit without having to deal with her. And then what? Well the Bad Lord can’t have a bunch of adventurers wandering around knowing his darkest secrets…

Every step of the way you’ve got options. And what’s more, every step of the way you’ve got more material for future adventures, more NPCs popping up with a stake in what’s happening. The father of the Betrothed. The brother of the Exile. The master thief who wants the info to blackmail the Bad Lord. The Other Lord who is a rival of the Bad Lord. And on, and on.

The other nice thing about this design is it quickly exposes logical inconsistencies that often crop up in plot-based adventures, particularly ones that involve any kind of conspiracy or mystery. For example, why hasn’t the Bad Lord murdered the Exile already? Sure, the short answer is that if he had, there wouldn’t be an adventure. And that’s fair enough, but this gives us a chance to fill in the blanks a little, and gives us even more material to work with.

That’s why I added “a terrific disguise” to the list of resources for the Exile. Originally it wasn’t on his list, but now I consider it the reason he’s not already a corpse. Then I got to thinking–the king must not be very strong if he can’t execute a traitor, even a noble one. Maybe it’s a situation like medieval England, where several Dukes nearly as strong as the King rivaled him for power. The King may have had to compromise with exile, or risk civil war.

That makes everything a lot more interesting! Suddenly the Exile might have more options, and a powerful family. His estate is confiscated, but the rest of his family might be able to protect him if he can get to their territory. Other Dukes might welcome this loss in prestige for his family–or might want to help to keep the King from getting too strong. Foreign princes might give him safe haven. He might need the players to spirit him over the mountains. Or he might need them to break up the wedding long enough for him to assemble an invasion force.

Once I sort that out, I add it to the summary (which is probably a small paragraph  or series of bullet points by now) and then I have an answer when some pesky player asks why the Bad Lord didn’t have the Exile killed. The King couldn’t execute him, so he banished him instead. And Exile evaded the Bad Lord’s thugs with his terrific disguise.

Next post I’ll format my examples as a one-pager and see how it turns out.

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