Posts tagged ‘adventure’

July 28, 2014

Writing Dungeon World Adventures: Some Tips

Lots of people have made adventures and scenarios for Dungeon World other than me. Joe Banner, John Aegard, Josh Mannon, Marshall Miller, just to name a few. There’s adventures in both the Grim Portents and Mondo Sotteraneo magazines, and then there’s fronts and dangers and stuff in Grim World, Inverse World, and Pirate World.

But I have published the most adventures so far. So probably I’ve learned a few things?
Maybe. Here’s what I can think of right now. Or maybe these are, like, my “opinions, maaaaan.” Whichever, you decide.

A front is just an organizational tool. The real meat is the stuff in a danger: type, impulse, impending doom, and especially the grim portents. Description, cast, custom moves, and stakes are cool and everything but you will do that stuff anyway if you want to and you won’t if you don’t. How you lay out the dangers and their grim portents—the way the DW book shows or some other way—doesn’t really matter, as long as the GM can understand.

I like to include suggested scenes with my grim portents. It is one thing to say “the bandits attack the sheriff” on the grim portents list, and it’s another, more useful thing to suggest how and when they might go about doing that. Give the GM ideas, that’s what your adventure is there to do.

There is a right way to do this and a wrong way. Don’t leave something blank if you’re just going to have to invent it later. If you leave a blank spot on your dungeon map and then when the PCs get there you still don’t know what’s there, that’s a sub-optimal use of your prep time.

Instead, when you are the GM, you should leave blanks so you can incorporate suggestions and ideas that the other players contribute. If they tell you they are exploring this dungeon because the Sword of Matrivhor is supposed to be there, don’t just ignore that and plow ahead with your Shrine of Klogh dungeon that has nothing to do with swords or Matrivhors. Put the sword in there somewhere, instead of, or in addition to, the stuff you thought up beforehand. Or change it to the Shrine of Matrivhor and have the PCs find it already looted, with the sword missing—and a clue that will help them find out who took it. Then continue adventuring.

Or, leave the treasure blank in your prep and make sure to ask the players why their characters are raiding this dungeon—what great treasure do they believe is located here?

In short: When you ask them for stuff, use that stuff later.

If you’re writing an adventure, though, how do you encourage this?

The point is that it’s not just a collection of random, disparate things. You have a collection of people, places, things, and situations that actually work together, play off each other, and interact in ways that you have already decided on (and hopefully some unexpected ways, too).

So: try to leave blanks in later parts of your adventure, but put questions in the beginning that will generate the information you need to fill in those blanks.

For example, there is a scrying pool in Island of Fire Mountain that shows the PCs what life is like for the people they left behind to come to this tropical island. This is one reason why you are told to ask the players where their characters come from and what things are like back home—so you can show them what has changed.

Another example: PCs go into a dungeon. Ask them what they fear might be down here, or what they expect, or how they feel vulnerable. Ask them what they think the creatures down here are like, from the worms in the earth to the trolls they are trying to rob. Later on, when they fall into the mutagenic pools in the abandoned alchemical laboratory, use their earlier answers to describe how their bodies mutate. They become the things they feared would be down here.

Give the GM questions to ask, things to wonder about. Make them somewhat connected to the stuff that you are presenting in the dungeon. This can be a hard thing for many GMs to come up with, so if you give them stuff they can do right away, those questions can become the seeds of inspiration.

In general, I make the assumption that the PCs are unfamiliar with what is being described in the adventure—the people, places, and things—so I try to describe all the stuff that I think is important. The world around the adventure is what I leave up to the GM to either invent or to ask the players about. I also try to include options for the PCs being familiar with the people, places, and things in the adventure, but this is not my default, mainly because this is a fantasy game, so dungeoncrawling and monster fighting and chasing after fleeing thieves are going to be more common than family infighting and small-town romantic shenanigans.

A few other tips:

The goons at the Something Awful forums decided to add tactics to the monster stat blocks, and this is a good idea. One instinct and some moves alone don’t always tell you what lengths a monster is willing to go to, when they might decide to turn and flee, or what would motivate them to attack the PCs in the first place. Listing tactics beneath their moves is a succinct way to communicate this info. Also, if you put NPCs in your adventure (monsters or people) you should probably give them a motivation of some kind, so the GM doesn’t have to invent one. The GM’s job should be to role-play the how, and spend less time inventing the what, which is why she bought your adventure, after all.

Joe Banner puts little sidebars in his adventures, with interesting and useful pieces of information that might be the results of the PCs spouting lore about the things they encounter. This is a good idea! I didn’t do this in any of my adventures, but I should have.

This works better for spout lore than it does for discern realities, I should add. Discern realities results should be right there in a description of the location or situation, but spout lore results can come from sources far afield. Also, if you have answers ready and don’t have to do too much thinking, it encourages players to use spout lore more often, because they know they can count on it actually being useful.

I’ve written this mostly of these assuming you want to write adventures for other people to use, but these are also tips you can use for your own adventures. If you’ve run even just a few of your own adventures or DW campaigns, you probably have a good idea of what you find easy to improvise during a game and what you probably need to prep for. So skip the tips that don’t help you do that prep. Most of these things don’t really rely on each other.

April 25, 2014

DW2: Island of Fire Mountain

At long last, both the DW and the River Knife series of adventure modules are complete trilogies.

Island of Fire MountainA small island in the South Seas. A lone fort plagued by cannibal hordes and a race of monsters. A ship, wrecked on the rocks of the far shore, missing all its crew and passengers. An ancient city that stands in ruins, guarded by the very elements themselves, and rumoured to be full of ghosts. All this and more lie waiting for a band of intrepid adventurers. Will they bring peace and prosperity to the island, or merely line their pockets? Will they discover the secret of the lost city of Kuna Lii, or will they leave the entire world in ruins in the attempt? Come ashore, and find out for yourself!

What size is this book?
It’s 102 pages, black and white, 6×9 in print, 5.5×8.5 in pdf.

What do you get with this book?

  • Inside this adventure module, you will find:
  • A complete island, with numerous warring factions and a ruined city.
  • New monsters, characters, and magical items to vex or aid the PCs.
  • Customized starting procedures and advice about asking the players questions that contribute to the setting, while keeping the island a mysterious place for them to explore.
  • A new base class: the Elementalist.
  • Cover art by Robert Scott, from the Prismatic Art Collection.
  • Fantastic interior art by Nate Marcel and Tony Dowler.

Where do you get this book?
You can buy Island of Fire Mountain in print and pdf from DriveThruRPG, for $20. Or $8 $15. Or $7 if you only want the pdf.
You can also buy the print version by itself from Lulu for $16. $12.

December 28, 2013

DW3 Ghostwood Haunts

Before the year comes to an end, here is a new book! Ghostwood Haunts is an introductory adventure module for the Dungeon World fantasy role-playing game. This is the sequel to DW1 Lair of the Unknown.

DW3 Ghostwood HauntsWhat’s the adventure about?
In the midst of the Ghostwood, the village of Knifesbridge holds a mere few thousand souls, but trouble enough for all. A gang of bandits preys upon the local road traffic, drug addiction spreads through sleepy village streets, and corruption at the heart of municipal politics stymies all attempts to restore law and order. Worse yet, a dead witch’s ghost seeks vengeance, and a demon waits to walk once more beneath the Ghostwood’s leaves. At the crossroads between these fronts lies and old, abandoned tower, and the secrets buried beneath it will tear this village apart.

What’s it look like?
It’s 138 pages, black and white, 6×9 in print, 5.5×8.5 in pdf.

What do you get with this book?
Inside this adventure module you will find:

  • Two complete fronts with three dangers each.
  • NPCs for each of these six dangers, plus more to populate Knifesbridge.
  • Suggested and optional scenes that further the villains evil scenes.
  • Crime, political corruption, and drug addiction.
  • Ghosts, witches, and a demon.
  • Maps of important locations.
  • Three new compendium classes: the Bounty Hunter, the Drug Addict, and the Infernalist.
  • One new base class: the Magnate.

Why is DW3 the sequel to DW1, Johnstone?
That’s a good question, Johnstone! It’s because DW2 isn’t finished yet. Look for that one in March or something.

Where can you get it?
The pdf is available at DriveThruRPG for US$7 in pdf, and $15 for both print and pdf.
  Andthere is a print option at Lulu (with no pdf) for US$12.

October 28, 2013

RK3: The Third Verse

The Third VerseThe third installment in the River Knife series of adventure modules for Dungeon World and Labyrinth Lord is done. The Third Verse is a collection of four minidungeons inspired by Tony Dowler’s maps, joined together into one perilous meat grinder of a delve.

Buy the print version from Lulu for US$14. It is 72 pages, saddle-stitched, US Trade-sized, B&W on cream-coloured paper.

Buy the pdf from DriveThruRPG for US$6. It is digest-sized and includes an extra pdf with just the maps.

What is the Third Verse like?

Based on a series of old Red Box Vancouver adventures, this module includes:

  • An abandoned fire temple, complete with old traps and new inhabitants (like exploding ghouls).
  • The tomb of the Red Mummy, and ancient an powerful king, who had malevolent machines built all around his mausoleum.
  • Those machines, churning beneath the surface of the earth, tended by automatons, sending evil spirits against the people who live above, and allowing demons to venture forth into this world at will.
  • And finally, below everything, the shrine of an ancient, forgotten goddess, where the actual third verse, the solution that will cure this land of its ills, is located. But can you make it this far?

The Third Verse is not intended for low-level characters. Experienced dungeoneers only!

See an 11-page preview of The Third Verse here!

The text of this module is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

ALSO: I have a Patreon project for making monster manuals going on right now.

November 4, 2011

Under the Chimera, another home-made module

Here is another short module I made for Red Box Vancouver. We enjoyed this one for a total of four zany sessions, mostly owing to the mutagenic liquid. You can read the session summaries starting here.

This one was also created using Dave’s Mapper and the Moldvay Basic rules. There are no mutation tables provided in the adventure, but I would recommend either this or these, since the giant system-agnostic compilation of all mutation tables everywhere that I’m working on is not yet finished.

So, here it is for you. Again, the last two pages are just the map on page 2, but bigger, just in case you need it. Anything I haven’t provided, use that book you see to the right!

Under the Chimera

October 14, 2011

The Hidden Ziggurat, a home-made module

This is a short module I made for Red Box Vancouver. I ran three sessions of it, and short summaries can be found on the RBV forums, starting here.

I used Dave’s Mapper to generate a random dungeon map, and made a few slight modifications in Photoshop. I then stocked the dungeon using the rules in Moldvay’s Basic D&D, then added my own ideas so that the dungeon made sense in the end, including some nice colour text culled from a previous phase of black ziggurat enthusiasm. And with the addition of a few short wandering monster tables, I was done.

So here it is for you, if you want it. The last two pages are just the map on page 2 but bigger. If you don’t need them, don’t print them out. There are no monster stats here, because you can get those from the Moldvay Basic book.

The Hidden Ziggurat

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…

August 6, 2010

Running a Red Sandbox

Ever since I read Ben Robbins’ now famous West Marches blog posts, I dreamed of running a sandbox of my own, but when I tried to imitate Ben’s experience, using first 3.5e and then Savage Worlds, the prep killed me. Not to mention I couldn’t get the players to organize games, or to set session goals. I could get people to show up just fine, but they expected to play whatever I had prepared. Combined with the heavy amount of up-front prep in a West Marches game: maps, dungeons, wandering monster tables, treasure… and a compelling “history” to tie it all together, well, it was tough without external deadlines and solid direction.

Then along came the old school renaissance, especially New York Red Box. They were having such a great time, and Red Box seemed like it had it all: low prep, lots of tables and charts for winging it, and a really simple system. The One Page Dungeon template sealed the deal; I started my wiki/forum and started running games a few months later, in March of 2009. A little over one year, 44 sessions,  four DMs, thirty-six PCs (not counting the ones that didn’t survive their first adventure), dozens of retainers and thousands of gold pieces later, here’s what I’ve learned about running a West Marches-style sandbox with Red Box D&D.

1. Give the players a hex map.
Ben specifically mentions this, so I have nobody to blame but myself. I don’t have much in the way of art skills, so I tried describing the lay of the land during games. Nobody listened on the way to the starter–and for months, the only–dungeon. Nobody remembered in-between sessions, when the planning was supposed to happen.

Then I wrote up wiki pages for each area, with links to adjacent regions. Even more confusing and harder to visualize than traveling through the area in-game. Finally I broke down, cropped the Nentir Vale map and replaced the place names with my own. That sort of helped. But not really, because I only gave them the immediate area around town, which is what Ben did.

For why I think that didn’t work out for me, you’ll have to read #4 below.

I’m pretty sure what you want is a big hex map, so players can tell how far apart everything is. And on that hex map, you want interesting looking names and pictures, separated by swathes of white space. And the interesting names and pictures don’t necessarily have to be where they really are on the players’ map, just in the general neighborhood. That way players can make meaningful decisions like “let’s do a three-month trek to the Spire of Iron and Crystal” or “let’s see what this ruin is two days down the Dwarf Road”. Versus “let’s go north through the Haunted Forest and find out what’s on the other side. Hope there’s gold!”

2. Make the first dungeon small.
Fully half of the early adventures in my game were in the Lost Mine, the “starter” dungeon. Why? Because not knowing what else was out there, and being busy adults, my players were content to go over the same ground, again and again. Also, Red Box characters are fragile. In a world where the average blow from a weapon does d6 hit points, and fully 5 of 7 classes have d6 hit points at first level, information is the difference between yet another massacre on the Rope Bridge of Death or survival. It pays to go back to familiar territory, because you’ve got prior knowledge of some of the dangers. Knowledge your companions paid for with their lives.

My first dungeon was pretty big: two levels and about thirty rooms/features/death-traps. Even now there are still areas the players haven’t explored and treasure they haven’t uncovered. If you want the players to explore the wilderness, you want them to finish the starter dungeon, and you want them to finish with solid leads to other “plunder pockets”. Not kill nine months and an equal number of characters fighting the same gang of stirges and goblins.

3. Bribe ‘em with xp.
None of the players doing session summaries? Award xp for writing them. Nobody talking on the forum/email list? Award xp for signing up. Nobody showing up to a last-minute game? Award xp for attendance. Because the pace of Red Box advancement is glacial, and survival so difficult, it’s like a license to print money. And as everyone knows, in Red Box D&D money == xp. I’ve awarded almost 1,000xp to one player for his session summaries, more than all the xp he’s earned from enemies and treasure, but I don’t worry about unbalancing the game because we both know that odds are that character will die long before he hits 2nd level, at which point it hardly matters if he had 9xp or 1,999xp. And yet because leveling is such a grind, players will do anything to increase their chances of getting another hit die before some shrimp with a rusty spoon ganks them. I know I will, and I play a thief. A THIEF! (My thief died soon after I wrote this — cr0m)

4. Don’t run a West Marches game.
I know, this probably should have been #1, but I don’t think Red Box and wilderness exploration for the sake of wilderness exploration mix well. In the original West Marches, Ben was using 3e D&D, where you went up levels for defeating enemies. Thus, it was worthwhile cruising for wandering monsters and filling in the wilderness map while uncovering new dungeons. Every wandering monster encounter was worth xp (if it didn’t kill you). Not so in Red Box. Monsters are worth bupkis. And they’re worth even less than bupkis, when you realize that nearly every one of them is a potential TPK. I’ve seen a lone orc take out three PCs in three rounds. Do you know how many orcs are in a wilderness encounter? 10-60.

It gets worse. You can run into much tougher monsters in the wild than in the dungeon, where the level below ground roughly corresponds to the level of the bad guys. Also, monsters you encounter in the wild are, by definition, not at home. And home is where the money is. And we already know that money == xp. So in the wild, you have a better chance of running into stuff that will kill you faster than the stuff that already kills you very efficiently in the dungeon, thank you very much. And that stuff won’t have any treasure, so if you survive, you stand to earn at best a few hundred xp.

As a party. Your PC will get 50.

If I ever do this again (a virtual certainty), the wilderness exploration won’t be the focus. Or rather, filling in the map between suspected pockets of awesome will be the focus. Getting from Threshold to the Caves of Chaos, yes. Crossing the ghoul-infested Haunted Forest to find out what’s on the other side, no.

5. Everybody loves being an elf.
It’s not just because you can fight and cast spells. Wait, no. YES IT IS. If anyone ever wants to make a new rules-light sword-and-sorcery game, they’d do very well to let everyone cast a couple of spells. People love being able to solve their problems more than one way, even if it means giving up the laughably remote possibility of ever reaching second level. The Elf is great because he’s a wizard who can fight with a sword, unlike every other wizard except Gandalf. And Elric. And probably a lot of other cool wizards. I’m not terribly well-read when it comes to fantasy, okay? That guy with the flaming sword in Song of Ice and Fire. What do you mean he wasn’t a wizard? Wasn’t he the guy who killed some chick with a shadow? I stopped reading when it took him four years to finish the next book. They need to put out Cliff’s Notes. I’m telling you, there’s an untapped market there.

Where was I? Right, and people love being able to contribute positively to the adventure after their one spell is gone, by firing arrows, finding secret doors, or looking for footprints with their infravision. Which brings me to my next point.

6. Fracking infravision.
You can’t go ten steps before someone wants to track someone else using the heat of their footprints. Cue discussion of infrared cameras. Cue discussion of conductive properties of shoe leather. Cue discussion of ogre footwear. Cue the DM slitting his wrists.

Darkvision. Monte Cook, et al got that one right.

7. It’s a slow burn.
Don’t go whole hog filling up your wiki with stuff before the first session. A wiki populated by DM-written pages is a sterile, alien place. Write the bare minimum your players need: a brief intro to the setting, the hex map, the starter dungeon, house rules, done. It’s way too easy to put lots of energy into tweaking the forum, downloading old school artwork, writing all kinds of interesting NPCs, etc. That time is better spent constructing wandering monster tables, writing up very solid leads to the next dungeon, and stocking your map. My rule of thumb as a DM–which I break constantly–is to only write pages that help me run games. I write-up retainers, because I need to remember which ones are cowards, which are lazy, which are traitors, etc. I used to write-up session summaries, but players do that now (see #3). I do record the shares of xp/gp for each session, for book-keeping purposes. And I update the timeline so I know where and when everyone is. Everything else I’d like to leave to the players.

The reality is that I still spend way too much time on the wiki, but not as much as I used to.

Also, it took nine months of gaming and mentioning my sandbox on the internet before we got walk-ons. I put a link to my wiki in my signature on Dragonsfoot, pestered the NY Red Box guys on their forum until they linked to me, and made occasional comments on various old school blogs. For the first few months, I only had enough players for one group. It takes time to bring in casual players, friends, and eventually, every nerd’s dream: a stranger who tracks you down on the internet.

In all seriousness, the great thing about attracting players off the internet is that they’ve usually done their homework. That is, they read the blogs, have read your wiki (more than the rest of your players can say), and want to play your game. It’s a great feeling, and so far they’ve been an injection of enthusiasm and fun, that after 15+ months, any campaign can use.

8. The wiki is a backup.
When I started this, I got an old three-ring binder for my rule books, dungeons and character sheets. It’s way, way more useful than the wiki. It’s got notes jotted here and there, scraps of paper, old retainers, sketches, all kinds of maps, characters, dead characters, loot calculations… in short, it’s got context. And it goes to every game I attend. The wiki is always out of date, you can’t quickly search it unless you already know what you’re looking for, and you need to be online to access it. It’s great for restoring lost character sheets, remembering what happened two sessions ago, or tracking xp. But it sucks for figuring out who got the healing potion, where the blue stone came from, or which part of the Mine to explore next. It’s a pen-and-paper game for a reason. And that reason is: Gary wrote it in 1974. But paper is still pretty handy.

9. Red Box is an arcade game, not a video game.
There’s an element of slot-machine gambling with Red Box. You roll your stats, 3d6 in order, and see what you qualified to play. Did you make elf? Dwarf? Fighter is cool. Thief? LOL.

You play your character like you play a game of Space Invaders. You know you’re going to die. It’s just a question of how much glory! Bad luck with the dice (whether its yours, during play, or the DM’s while stocking the dungeon) means you start over. Good luck and skillful play (some people would say “cowardly”. People with dead characters, mostly.) means you make it to the next round.

Over at New York Redbox they’re playing a game of White Box where the PCs start at third level. I’ve noticed that game has a lot more investment in the setting, a lot more complicated schemes, etc. I imagine some of this is due to the increased longevity–or at least the expectation of longevity. A first level Red Box character has no such expectations.

10. D&D is a flawed, human creation.
I got into Red Box for the nostalgia, but I stayed because it’s a fun, rules-light system. What it’s not is perfect, by any means. I started this experiment slavishly devoted to playing “by-the-book”, to see how the old girl held up after all these years. The good news is, she holds up fine. The even better news is, she still needs some help from us. House rule the hell out of it. Try things on for size. The nice thing about a rules-light system is that you can introduce new rules without bringing the entire game down. I’ve got house rules about dying, fighting with two weapons, maintenance costs, lock-picking, splintering shields (all of which I stole from the internet)… and probably more. I’m definitely going to take a long, hard look at xp and advancement before I go much further. (We introduced carousing after I wrote this — cr0m)

There are blogs out there that are devoted to the idea that the rules work, if you interpret them correctly, or in the right context, or with Chainmail handy… and they might be right, but that’s a lot of effort. Change ‘em. They’ll be fine.

My secret wish (other than a decent public space for gaming on weeknights in Vancouver. (we now play at Waves Coffee on Broadway @ Spruce — cr0m)) is for one of the players to propose a custom class. Someday!

I hope it’s not too obvious how hard I had to work to get to ten, but I couldn’t stop at seven. There’s no seven-sided die. Thanks for reading, and if you’re in Vancouver, BC, and want to play–look us up:


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