Posts tagged ‘sandbox’

January 7, 2012

Revenge of Carcosa and Isle of the Unknown

I received the actual physical books in the mail not too long ago. Aside from a few typos here and there, the art and layout is quite pleasing, but you have likely seen other peoples’ pictures of them already.

A couple of observations:

Isle of the Unknown isn’t a fully-conceptualized setting, but Carcosa is. However, it’s a minimalist setting, with a fairly tight, singular premise around which the whole book revolves. And while I admire that, artistically, I actually prefer maximalism, when it’s done right (i.e. integrated maximalism, not pastiche overcrowdingism). Not that I think either book should be less minimalist and more maximalist, it’s just a personal preference I’ve noticed. Luckily for me, I don’t think either product is too weird to be easily incorporated as one layer of a maximalist setting.

In the poster map, the races of men are colour-coded, which is interesting because there are three fictional colours on Carcosa.* While this adds to the book’s tone of otherworldly strangeness, it is also somewhat difficult to actually imagine and picture mentally. To take a couple examples from other sources, when I imagine garrow, I think it looks like both black and yellow simultaneously (not mixed together), and I think of Terry Pratchett’s octarine as looking similar, but with blue and orange, also simultaneously.

(*Never mind that adding one new primary colour actually results in at least five new colours, that’s something to take up with David Lindsay.)

On the Carcosa poster, Dolm Men are colour-coded with light blue and cream, Jale Men are coded with dark blue and red, and Ulfire Men are coded with cream and deep purple. But when I think of ulfire, I think of red, green, and white at the same time (this might be partly due to some bird that was covered in ulfire-coloured flames in one of Blair’s early Planet Algol reports). Jale and dolm, though… I’m not entirely sure. Sometimes I imagine dolm being a bit like olive green, and other times I can’t imagine what either of them looks like. Maybe jale is similar to yellow and pink and neon colours. I mean, sure, it’s “dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous,” but so is purple.

If there is just one fictional colour, then it’s easy to imagine, because every person’s different interpretation can stand without interfering with each other, as long as they imagine some kind of fictional, hitherto-unimagined colour. When you have to differentiate between fictional colours, that can start to get weird.

That’s not a criticism, just an observation. What do you imagine dolm, ulfire, and jale look like?

I do have some actual criticisms of the two books, though. There are a few things that could have made the books easier to use, at least for me.

I think both maps could have benefited greatly from the addition of roads being marked. Even without them, Isle of the Unknown’s keyed map is pretty good, but Carcosa’s is slightly less so. The poster has a map keyed with the locations of rituals and Great Old Ones, but there is no map with settlements or the colours of the men that live in them. When the locations of certain colours of settlements—such as we find around the other lake (the one that isn’t Hali)—are mentioned as plot points in the hex descriptions, it would help to have this information in map format. Likewise, there is a mention of a trade route road winding around the icy wastes, but no indication of where this road is coming from or where it is going.

The political situation isn’t the most useful aspect of this information, however. Terrain, and especially roads, determines how fast characters can move across the map, and how fast characters can move across the map determines how much the DM has to prep between sessions in order to respond to the players’ choices. If there is a road that stretches across three hexes, on either Carcosa or the Isle, it’s entirely possible that the PCs could travel the whole way in a single day, walking from dawn to dusk. Without having roads on the map, the DM basically needs to prep three hexes away from the PC’s present location in every direction, in order to get an idea of where to even place roads. It seems to me that adding even just major roads is not much additional work when all major settlements are already plotted out, which is the case for both books, and some hex descriptions even mention roads, which is at least the case for Carcosa.

Being able to see the roads helps to envision the possibilities of PC movement, which makes the DM’s job easier.

Any hint of motivation or personality is missing from most of the magic-users and clerics in Isle of the Unknown. They are treated simply like monsters—if you want to kill them, all the problems you’ll face and the lack of rewards you’ll receive (in most cases) are listed, but not much else. It makes me wonder why anybody would want to interact with these characters in the first place. Even a little bit of information would have been useful, evocative, and inspirational—the way threats are summarized in Apocalypse World, for example. Describing a warlord’s personality with “Dictator (impulse: to control)” or the character of a landscape with “Maze (impulse: to trap, to frustrate passage)” goes a long way with a short amount of text.

While Carcosa has numerous settlements with motivation-less leaders and populations listed, there are also many characters who do have goals, connections to other parts of the map, and even some small semblance of personality. It would have been nice to have a little bit of that in Isle of the Unknown as well, though it’s by no means a dealbreaker. And while I think including something like the Carcosan Ethnography supplemental material in the book itself would have been fantastic, so that DMs can just randomly generate genre-appropriate population details and character motivations, it’s good enough without it that I’m not really upset.

Similarly, there are a few occasions in both books where the material is essentially a tableau to be presented to the players, with little opportunity for them to interact successfully with it, or to use it in combination with other setting elements. When the text describes something the PCs can see but never do anything with, when some magical effect can only happen once in one location by accident, or when the benefits of braving obscene risks turns out to be a measly +1, I’m a little underwhelmed. I much prefer the part of Carcosa’s premise that includes finding a giant laser cannon and deciding to kill Cthulhu with it. Especially if it doesn’t work because you used up all the charges destroying castles and fortresses that asked you to pay tithes for safe passage, and now you’re facing Cthulhu with no ammo and no castles or fortresses to hide in. There’s slightly less of that in Isle of the Unknown, but both books should have had a little more, in my opinion.

Those are all relatively minor concerns, though. Overall, I think the good things everybody says about these two books are pretty accurate.

November 20, 2011

What I Have Learned from Random Mutation Tables

Here is a lesson I have learned from using random mutation tables in D&D. I normally use the old Realms of Chaos books for mutations, and usually it’s because characters come into contact with a mutagenic substance like warpstone or liquid derived from it.

First, let me define a term: All fiction, including role-playing games are composed of certain elements: characters, setting, props, and situation. Props are things that are important to the story but aren’t characterized, and aren’t just part of the setting. Right? Mostly, I’m ‘a talk about props here.

One of my main joys in being a DM is putting the players into a strange situation, with a whole bunch of moving parts they can interact with, and seeing them invent solutions to their problems that I would never have thought of in a million years. When you introduce a puzzle, the payoff is pretty minimal, because either the players figure out the solution you’ve already devised, or they don’t and there’s failure and disappointment. But when there’s no set solution, you can be surprised and have to improvise. This is one reason why I like random tables as well, and certainly other DMs will agree. I know Tavis Allison has written a post or two about improvising based on random tables.

However, random tables are a means to encourage improvisation on the DM’s side. What I want to discuss here is improv on the players’ side, and one of the key ways to do this is to introduce complicated props.

In a typical D&D game, your average treasure haul will include mostly coins and swords +1. The problem with these is that the only thing coins actually do is buy stuff, and the only thing a weapon or armour +1 does is change the probabilities of your dice rolls. Having a magic weapon or not might make the difference between fighting a certain creature or running away, but it’s a pretty minimal encouragement to creative problem-solving.

Props that Do a Thing

Better is a prop that does a specific thing: A sword that glows when goblins are near, a staff that casts cure light wounds, a sword that bursts into flames. Now you have a prop that does a thing, and the player’s options just increased by one (and a very visible option, too).

Sometimes, doing a thing can put extra work on a DM, though. Take an example from Playing D&D with Pornstars: Snakes are Books. The one disadvantage to this prop is that whenever the players read a snake, they look at the DM and ask “what does it say?” If you don’t have a random table for book subjects, that can be a lot of stuff to think up. There’s a magic spell from Postmodern Magick (the Unknown Armies supplement) that lets you read any book you know of, just by opening any other book. It’s pretty cool, as long as you don’t have to sit there inventing books and texts for hours on end to entertain the players. But if you have some really awesome random book tables (or a really cool library), this is dope.

In essence, though, these are props that create more props. They get your character access to information, which hopefully leads to some sort of action, because the action is where the game is really at. I want to see how the players combine the various props and spells and stuff that they have, and create some sort of plan. Especially when it involves props I introduced, and the players use them in some way that totally surprises me. And a sword +1 is never going to do that. What will? Let’s think of some examples…

Ring of Protection
Your average ring of protection +1 gives you a slightly better armour class. Whoop-de-doo. How about a Ring of the Untouchable? Whoever wears this ring cannot be touched by another living being, or by that beings clothes. This is an effective mosquito repellant, and it protects against viruses and bacteria that are not already infecting the wearer. Other creatures cannot touch the wearer, even if they are wearing metal gauntlets. Natural attacks, such as claws or bite, have no effect. The wearer cannot be pushed around, unless the pusher uses a tool. Weapons still have full effect, even lassos. Whatever the wearer is wearing or carrying is also affected, so it defeats pickpockets as well. The wearer can be touched by the undead, and by demons and other extra-planar entities.

Sword +1, +3 versus Gnocchi
This sword may or may not give a bonus to hit and damage. However, it hates all gnolls and gnomes and anything else whose name begins with a gn-, even Pietro Gnocchi. Anytime it hits one of these creatures, the wielder may immediately make another attack against anything close enough to hit. If the wielder chooses not to make an attack, he must quench the blade’s thirst with his own blood. Even a small amount will do, but he must take 1 point of damage.

This sword does not actually cut through stone, it’s blade just ignores all non-organic material. It can pass through stone, metal, fabric, dirt etc. as if it were not even there. Stonecutter ignores AC bonuses from metal armour, but not leather, and can attack through doors and walls that are thin enough. Keeping it in a scabbard can be a problem, although the hilt of the sword does not share the properties of the blade. The hilt can be strapped to a belt and will not pass through walls, doors, or armour.

Potion of Mutation
If you drink it, you gain a random mutation! Actually, this is a lot like the snake-books, in that it’s a prop that makes new props. Instead of, say, a book that tells you how to kill trolls, it gives you, say, a third arm which ends in a giant lobster pincer. Good thing I have some random mutation tables!

That was pretty rambly, but I’ve got stuff to do so there it is.

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: