Posts tagged ‘cr0m’

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…

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.

October 9, 2010

Red Box to d20: Thief

Before we get too far into the Thief let’s talk about Skills, since he’s the only Red Box class that has what is a “modern” conception of skills. Whereas the other classes’ attempts to do things are governed by a variety of rules: the surprise rules covers hiding and sneaking, door opening is covered by the open doors rules, finding pit traps can be covered by the “trap goes off on a 1-2″ rule, and of course there’s Moldvay’s offhand remark about rolling under a stat.

For our d20 conversion, I’m going to use stat checks in lieu of skills, modified by various situational bonuses (ie Elves get a bonus when searching for secret doors, but not when searching for treasure in a pile of garbage).  Thieves are going to work the same way, which means that stats are going to be even more important for Thieves than for any other class. And it also means, given the difficulty of rolling decent stats using Red Box’s 3d6 in order method, that Thieves get completely screwed by this system.

Both seem faithful to the original text. :)

So here are the Thief’s saves, with the Fighter in parentheses:

Death Ray or Poison (Fort) 13 (12)
Magic Wands (Will) 14 (13)
Paralysis or Turn to Stone (Fort) 13 (14)
Dragon Breath (Ref) 16 (15)
Rods, Staves or Spells (Will) 15 (16)

Virtually identical. Fort 13, Ref 16, Will 14.5.

BAB HD  Fort Ref Will
+1  1d8 +2   +0  +0
+1  2d8 +2   +0  +0
+1  3d8 +2   +0  +0

It’s weird to think of the Thief as bad at Ref saves. I’m actually starting to wonder if Dragon Breath maps well to a Reflex save, considering that the Fighter is better at it than a Thief. It makes you wonder: how did the designers imagine the Fighter surviving a blast of fire from a Dragon? Hunkering down behind a shield and gritting his teeth, or diving out of the way? Likely neither–it was a simple calculation of: Fighters are tougher than thieves.

Next let’s have a look at the Thief skills:

Level  Open Locks  F/R Traps  PP   MS   Climb  HS   Hear Noise
1      15%         10%        20%  20%  87%    10%  32%
2      20          15         25   25   88     15   32
3      25          20         30   30   89     20   50

Man, this is a weird class. Thieves are actually not the stealthy, skilled burglars they’re cracked up to be. If anything, they are amazingly nimble climbers and desperate pickpockets who likely live short, brutish lives. I wouldn’t hire these guys for anything except climbing impassable walls and other underground barriers in order to place ropes for the rest of the party.

I’ll give Thieves the following bonuses:

Level  Open Locks  F/R Traps  PP   MS   Climb  HS   Hear Noise
1      +3          +2         +4   +4   +16    +4   +1
2      +4          +3         +5   +5   +17    +5   +3
3      +5          +4         +6   +6   +18    +6   +5

It’s a little weird, I’ll admit it. I’ve made him a worse climber at 1st level, in order that he can get a small bump at 2nd & 3rd. I’m comfortable giving him the same percentages in d20 for Open Lock, because even the simplest lock is a DC 20 in the d20 system. Ditto for Finding and Disabling Traps, which although they are separate skills in d20, don’t need to be here.  Same with Pickpocket (Sleight of Hand in d20).

The Listen skill specifically says a 1st level Rogue using MS to sneak past you is DC 15. The +4 seems reasonable enough. Climbing a typical dungeon wall is DC20, so our +16 is actually a bit low to map to the Basic numbers, but the d20 system isn’t granular enough to do 1% bumps, so I’m going to keep it, if only so we can end up with a number near 89% at 3rd level.

Hide is tricky, so I’m going to use the same reasoning that I used for Move Silently and move on (silently). Hear Noise jumps from 32% to 50% at 3rd level, so I’m going to do what I did with Climb and back into the higher number, giving Thieves a nice +2 bump per level.

So not terribly faithful, but approximate.

This exercise in converting the Red Box classes to some sort of d20 approximation has been interesting. I never realized how underpowered they are compared to their d20 counterparts, never mind the stat bonuses.

I also never realized how concepts like niche protection and class balance were really just hand-waved until 3e D&D. Regardless of how you feel about 3e and later versions, you can’t make the argument that they didn’t at least consider how the classes stacked up with each other. Seeing these classes translated into the d20 “lingua franca”, I really understand why only a masochist would play a Thief. I also see that the Fighter, long held to be the workhorse of the Red Box, is actually really a tough row to hoe.

The other thing this has shown to me is that a d20 conversion would be a lot more faithful if, rather than trying to port Red Box classes over, I’d worked on some brand new, 3 level d20 classes.

I’m not going to continue with the experiment any further, but hopefully someone (other than me) found it interesting.

September 29, 2010

Red Box to d20: Halfling

I haven’t got much enthusiasm for the last two classes, but it feels like we’re on the home stretch, so let’s just power through the Halfling and then take a bit longer with the Thief, because he’s the only class is Basic that has Skills.

The Halfling’s saves are identical to the Dwarf, something I never noticed before–that’s how popular the Halfling is at RBV. One thing I did notice is that the Dwarf/Halfling saves are different in Basic and Expert D&D, which is just strange. I’ve been referring to the expanded charts in Expert so I can see where the first improvement is for a class (ie 4th level for Fighters), and the Dwarf/Halfling saves are significantly better. Here they are side-by-side (Basic/Expert):

Death Ray or Poison 10/8
Magic Wands 11/9
Paralysis or Turn to Stone 12/10
Dragon Breath 13/13
Rods, Staves or Spells 12/14

I’d love to know what the story was here. Did they decide that Dwarves needed more advantages? Is one a misprint? It’s weird. Anyway, I’ve been using the Expert saves until now, so I’ll keep ‘em. The Halfling:

BAB HD Fort Ref Will
+1  1d6 +6  +2  +4
+2  2d6 +6  +2  +4
+3  3d6 +6  +2  +4

This guy has the same xp as a Fighter: 2,000. He can’t use long bows or two-handed swords, so he’s no different than a Dwarf (although the wording is different, talking about weapons that are “cut down” to size). He can’t see in the dark, nor does he have d8 hit dice. But his saves are very good. Seems reasonable so far. What else?

He’s accurate with missile weapons, getting +1 to hit at all times. Call it Point Blank Shot, even though it’s quite a bit better than d20 with the lack of a range restriction. He gets +2 to AC against larger creatures, but I’m not going to mess around with size categories right now, so let’s call it a +2 Dodge bonus.

He gets a 16% bonus to initiative. Call it Improved Initiative, to make up for PBS. Their hiding ability is fearsome. Outdoors, it’s 90% and indoors it’s 33%.

Calculating a hide bonus is a little complicated, because the average adventurer has a 16% chance of hiding–never stated explicitly, but in general that’s the rule of thumb for Basic: when in doubt, roll a 1 on a d6. I’m going to keep DC 15 as the baseline, even though Goblins and Orcs have +2 and +1 to Spot, respectively. Why? I don’t know exactly. It seems like a reasonable compromise to handle the range of DCs the Halfling is likely to face from level 1-3. Adding to the trickiness is that the average d20 PC has a 30% chance of hiding with an unmodified d20 roll vs DC 15.

Probabilities are not my strong suit, so I asked some smarter nerds to weigh in. Here’s what one of them said:

A 15% chance of success corresponds to the smaller part of the area under the normal distribution curve about one standard deviation from mean. A 90% chance of success corresponds to the larger part of the area about 1.3 sd from mean. A 30% chance of success is about 0.5 sd, so I’d just up the halfling to 1.8, which yields a ~96% chance of success when hiding outdoors, and a 50% chance (0 sd) to hide in other conditions.
That’s assuming that skills follow some kind of normal distribution, and that returns on ‘investment’ in the skill tapers off, which is exactly how it doesn’t work in d20.

A 15% chance of success corresponds to the smaller part of the area under the normal distribution curve about one standard deviation from mean. A 90% chance of success corresponds to the larger part of the area about 1.3 sd from mean. A 30% chance of success is about 0.5 sd, so I’d just up the halfling to 1.8, which yields a ~96% chance of success when hiding outdoors, and a 50% chance (0 sd) to hide in other conditions.

That’s assuming that skills follow some kind of normal distribution, and that returns on ‘investment’ in the skill tapers off, which is exactly how it doesn’t work in d20.

The consensus was that +4 to hide indoors and +9 outdoors was a reasonable compromise, given the complexities in translating Basic’s percentile system to the d20 DC system.

So here’s how the abilities shake out:

Weapon Proficiencies: All (except long bows and two-handed swords)
Armor Proficiencies: All
Hide bonus: +4 (+9 outdoors)
Point Blank Shot, Improved Initiative, Dodge (+2 vs Larger than man-sized)

And that’s the Halfling. Next up is the weakest class in Basic, the poor, pitiful Thief.

September 28, 2010

Red Box to d20: Cleric

Next up is the Cleric, a class that I consider to be the best overall class in Basic D&D, despite what I said earlier about the Elf. The Cleric is nearly as good a fighter as the Fighter–he does slightly less damage and his ranged weapons suck–and he’s got the same hit points as an Elf. But instead of 4,000xp, he needs even less than the Fighter: only 1,500. And he can turn undead as well as cast cure light wounds once he makes 2nd level. Even though Elf is the most popular class at Red Box Vancouver, it’s no coincidence that of the three highest level PCs, two are Clerics.

In other words, the next time someone complains about the CoDzilla in 3.5e, tell them it’s part of a long tradition of divine ass-kicking. 

So the Cleric. Here are the saves, with the Fighter and M-U for comparison:
Death Ray or Poison (Fort) 11 (12, 13)
Magic Wands (Will) 12 (13, 14)
Paralysis or Turn to Stone (Fort) 14 (14, 13)
Dragon Breath (Ref) 16 (15, 16)
Rods, Staves or Spells (Will) 15 (16, 15)

These are surprising. Looks like the Cleric has one of the better Fort-type saves in the game ~12.5. Ref is not great, but no worse than the M-U, at 16. And versus magic, the Cleric is decent, ~13.5. Using DC 15 as our baseline:

BAB HD Fort Ref Will Spells
+1 1d6 +2 -1 +1 none
+1 2d6 +2 -1 +1 1 1st
+1 3d6 +2 -1 +1 2 1st

Clerics don’t get spells until they’ve “proven themselves” to their god by leveling.  We can revisit that when we look at spells. They can use all armor and all non-edged weapons (swords and arrows are specifically called out in the text as examples). And they can turn undead.

Armor Proficiency: All
Weapon Proficiency: Simple, Martial (non-edged).
Eschew Materials: Basic has no material components or focuses.

I gave the Cleric Martial weapons because the warhammer, a highly iconic cleric weapon after the mace, is a Martial weapon. That’s something I might change when I give the equipment list the d20 treatment.

As far as turning undead goes, I don’t see any reason why we can’t use the d20 version. It’s close enough to the Basic one, although because Charisma isn’t a prerequisite for the Basic cleric, we’ll use Wisdom as the operative stat.

Saves are still a little weird to me. Being no good at Ref works with the whole “heavily armored priest” archetype, but being better at Will saves than an M-U is strange to me. I think it’s the M-U that is weird, though. There’s an analysis of the Basic classes that shows that they’re all about as powerful as their relative xp costs… except for the M-U which has a very high xp cost to the amount of powers it has. Maybe the M-U saves were nerfed at some point for the same reason?

Next I guess I’ll tackle my two least favorite classes, the barely used Halfling and the nearly useless Thief.

September 27, 2010

Red Box to d20: Elf

Elf. The best class in Basic D&D. You can fight. You can cast Sleep. You can wear Plate Mail and use a Sword. D&D sure did love Elves back in the day. Admittedly, they need twice as many xp as a Fighter to level, but given that they combine the Fighter class with the M-U class, plus the Elvish abilities, the price tag seems actually pretty cheap (Fighter + M-U == 4,500).

So here we go. Everyone fights like our poor Fighter, so let’s jump right to saves. Fighter’s and M-U’s saves are in parenthesis for comparison:
Death Ray or Poison (Fort) 12 (12, 13)
Magic Wands (Will) 13 (13, 14)
Paralysis or Turn to Stone (Fort) 13 (14, 13)
Dragon Breath (Ref) 15 (15, 16)
Rods, Staves or Spells (Will) 15 (16, 15)

It looks an awful lot like the designers just took the better of the two classes’ saves and gave them to the Elf. Boy they had a hard-on for Elves. So let’s do the same thing. And we’ll split the difference with HD, just like Basic:

BAB HD Fort Ref Will Spells
+1 1d6 +2 +0 +0 1 1st
+1 2d6 +2 +0 +0 2 1st
+1 3d6 +2 +0 +0 2 1st, 1 2nd

Weapon Proficiency: Simple, Martial
Armor Proficiency: All
Eschew Materials (as M-U)
Darkvision (as Dwarf)
Search bonus: +3
Immunity: Ghoul Paralysis.

Elves can see in the dark like Dwarves, have a bonus when searching for secret doors similar to the Dwarves searching for traps, etc. They’re also immune to the paralysis of ghouls, which doesn’t have a d20 equivalent that I’m aware, but we’ll just make it a special feature.

And that’s the Elf. This is getting easier now that we have our base classes to work from. Next I’ll do the Cleric, which is easily the best class in D&D (some things never change, huh?) and I guess I’ll do the Halfling and Thief, which have to be the two worst classes in Basic D&D.

September 24, 2010

Red Box to d20: Magic-User

On to the Magic User. I’m a little anxious about this one, because I never play M-Us, so let me know if I miss anything.

The amazing thing about M-Us in Basic is that they fight as well as a Fighter from levels 1-3. Fighters really get a raw deal in Basic.

Their saves are:
DR/Poison (Fort) 13
M Wands (Will) 14
Para/Stone (Fort) 13
Dragon (Ref) 16
R, S, Spells (Will) 15

So Fort is 13, Ref 16 and Will 14.5. This surprised me. Magic Users are a little worse than fighters at dealing with Death Rays or Poison, but significantly better at resisting Paralysis and being Turned to Stone. That is just plain odd. They’re not as good at getting out of the way of Dragon Breath, which makes sense, and they’re good at resisting Spells… but no where near as good as a Dwarf. And only a little better (10%) than a Fighter. All in all, a real dog’s breakfast for Saves, and they don’t map very well to what you’d expect: sucks at Fort/Ref, good at Will.

Then again, M-Us have some serious disadvantages in Basic, so I won’t mess with saves just yet, but make a mental note to revisit this class again. So here’s the M-U:

BAB HD Fort Ref Will Spells
+1 1d4 +2 -1 +0 1 1st
+1 2d4 +2 -1 +0 2 1st
+1 2d4 +2 -1 +0 2 1st, 1 2nd

This class doesn’t feel right. +0 for Will saves just looks weird. And it has the same Fort save as our Fighter? Something ain’t right here. I’m wondering if I need to look more closely at my Magic == Will and Dragon Breath == Ref approximation. Come to think of it, I have no idea if a DC 15 Ref save is even remotely approximate to dragon breath in 3.5e. So before we go any further, let’s examine that.

A Basic Red Dragon is a 10 HD monster with average hit points of 45, which is also how much its breath weapon does. That puts it roughly equivalent to a Wyrmling or Very Young 3.5e Red Dragon. The DC for those categories: 15 and 18.

The DC 15 Ref save seems okay to me, as does the Dragon Breath to Ref save conversion. The Fort and Will values we ended up with are strange, but I’ll have to come back to that, when I do the Spell and Poison conversions.

M-Us can’t wear any armor or shields, and they can only fight with daggers. A lot of DMs allow them to use quarterstaffs or other small weapons, but by-the-book, they’re guys in a robe with a knife and a book.

Armor Proficiency: none.
Weapon proficiency: dagger.
Eschew Materials.

Basic (and I believe Expert) have no material components for spells. Basic has no rules for writing scrolls, copying spells into spellbooks, or making magic items. Expert D&D notes that M-Us can make scrolls and magic items when they hit “name” level, but that’s out of our scope. I’ll keep the Basic spell progression until I convert spells. I think we’re done.

A couple things I’ve noticed while doing this: the first is that the mere act of going through the Basic game makes me want to house rule it to make it more like the D&D I want to play. For example, I’d give the M-U proficiency with swords. Why? Because Gandalf, Elric and probably a bunch of other cool wizards had magic swords they liked to swing around. And it doesn’t really matter, because if you’re a Basic M-U in melee, you’re not going to be proficient with that sword for very long. :P

The other thing I notice is how much 3.5e captures D&D for me, at it’s core. The classes, the class features, the race features, the strengths and weaknesses: they feel right to me. All the supplemental material, feats, etc didn’t always feel like D&D, but the core game hits the sweet spot for me. A great example are those M-U saves up there. They look bizarre! M-Us should be good at dealing with spells (ie Will saves) and crap at everything else!

Booyah. Next up, the Elf. I’m feeling pretty good about him.

September 23, 2010

Red Box to d20: Dwarf

Next I’m going to tackle the Dwarf class. In Basic D&D, the Dwarf is pretty much a Fighter who doesn’t need torches and can find traps. In fact, in lots of ways you never want to be a Fighter if you can qualify for Dwarf (just like you never want to be a M-U if you can qualify for Elf).

By the book, Dwarves can use any armor and any weapon except for long bows and two-handed swords. They have infravision and are expert miners who can find slanting passages, traps, etc. They also have much better saves than the Fighter, whose values are in parentheses:

Death Ray or Poison (Fort) 8 (12)
Magic Wands (Will) 9 (13)
Paralysis or Turn to Stone (Fort) 10 (14)
Dragon Breath (Ref) 13 (15)
Rods, Staves or Spells (Will) 12 (16)

So Fort saves are his best at ~9, Ref saves are his worst at 13, Will saves are a decent ~10.5. We’re using DC 15 as our benchmark, so that would be a staggering +6/+2/+4. That’s about the same as a 9th level Paladin in 3.5e! Basic Dwarves are limited to 12th level, but holy criznut that’s bad ass. On the other hand, saves don’t come up quite as much in Basic as they do in 3.5e, because if it’s not on the chart PCs don’t save against it (or use a stat check, unlike 3.5e where Reflex is used more often for environmental hazards, etc. We’re probably going to have to adjust these saves later, but for now let ‘em stand.

BAB HD Fort Ref Will
+1 1d8 +6 +2 +4
+1 2d8 +6 +2 +4
+1 3d8 +6 +2 +4

For now, give the Dwarf proficiency with all armor and both simple and martial weapons minus the two weapons noted above, but I’m guessing that later we’ll nerf that a bit when we do the full Basic weapon and armor list. As for his racial abilities, d20 is interesting. I’d give him darkvision as is (I prefer darkvision to infravision for mechanical reasons anyway), and also give him a bonus when he’s searching for traps, sliding walls and all that Dwarven jazz. Since we don’t have skills, just stat checks, I think that works just fine, but in Basic his bonus is 16% better than normal, so I’ll give him a +3 when he searches.

In Basic D&D everyone has the same movement rate for simplicity (modified by encumbrance… we’ll tackle that later), so I’ll ignore the d20 movement rate for Dwarves (and Halflings, when we get there).

Armor Proficiency: All
Weapon Proficiency: Simple, Martial (except long bows and two-handed-swords)
Search bonus: +3
Darkvision 60′

I think it’s time to say BOOYAH! Damn, Dwarves rock. I never noticed how much better their saves were than… everyone.

One thing to start thinking about is xp. In Basic each class has it’s own xp chart, and the better classes (like Dwarves) need more to level. If we don’t do that for this conversion, then this class needs to have a few more limitations on it. Even if we do that, these saves are so good, and so much more useful in d20, that I’d be tempted to slap some limits on them. But right now we’re just trying to model Basic, and in Basic D&D the Dwarf is always, always a better choice than Fighter, even with needing an extra 200 to get to 2nd level. So far so good.

Next up: M-U, the base spellcasting class.

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