Category Archives: RPG Design

Tomb of Annihilation – Captains of Chult

Large stretches of Chult are coasts, and with Port Nyanzaru being a port, it is an obvious choice to reach distant parts of Chult by sailing along the coast rather than braving the jungles or the sluggish rivers – but ships are expensive, so how does explorers in Tomb of Annihilation get there? By hiring transport on a ship, and in the dingy taverns of Port Nyanzaru, there are captains who offer their services for a reasonable fee.

I really like the concept of guides in Tomb of Annihilation. It may seem obvious, and yet it is so rarely done this well in wilderness adventures. Expanding upon the idea, thus allowing us to increase the scope of expeditions into the wilderness, I added Experts for Hire as mentioned in my previous post, and now I have Captains for hire. An assortment of captains, each with their own little kernel of a potential adventure, and a series of random events ranging from bad weather to weird and inexplicable phenomena. Captains of the Coasts of Chult can now be found at DM’s Guild. My previous Expedition Crew supplement was Experts of Chult, and I am considering adding a third one.

I am running my own Tomb of Annihilation set in the Mystara setting, and there may be hidden a few references to that setting among the captains, but easter eggs seems to a part of D&D 5th edition, so it is merely keeping with the style.

 

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Tomb of Annihilaton – Experts of Chult

Tomb of Annihilation is an interesting campaign module, not just because of the modern attempt to create a hex crawl adventure but also because of some the tools the adventure contains. One of these tools are the Guides. They are NPCs with well-developed personalities, quirks and secrets, and not just that they are set-up with nice handouts, making them easy to present for the players and keep in mind.

The guides may not be a revolutionary thing, but they are still something I have not seen in other hex crawl adventures. Some adventures may suggest hiring a guide and even add a few details, but having a roster and letting the players choose between these set-ups is quite inspiring.

For my ToA campaign (which is set in the Mysrara setting) I am planning on running larger expeditions with more henchmen, and thus I wanted to add more NPCs for hire, and they did not all need to be Guides. Some could be experts with valuable skills, and thus I set up a bunch a small selection of Experts for Hire. The Experts of Chult – which now can be found at DM’s Guild.

Using henchmen, that are more than anonymous torchbearers and sword caddies, is also an opportunity to add role-playing situations to an otherwise eventless trek through the wilderness. Travelling through the wilderness may present the players with obstacles and challenges, but many are dealing with savage beasts or difficult terrain, but many does not include beings to interact with, and having NPCs jog along means there continuously will be beings to interact with. The experts add skills or bonuses to skills, but getting access to these require interacting with them, and that creates opportunities for role-playing.

Experts of Chult is the first of my Expedition Crew supplements to Tomb of Annihilation. The next one is Captains of the Coasts of Chult, as seafaring along the coasts will likewise be a part of my campaign.


Dungeon Crafting: Breaking Down Walls

Dungeons have been likened to flow charts. As in-fiction tools to structure the game leading the characters from one room to another. In one design tradition this has led to D&D 4th’s linear adventures leading the players from one combat to the next.

However, many paths through an adventure is part of the fun not just for the players but also for me as the DM, as I am not just presenting the adventure setup but playing it by adapting it to the choices, the players make. Right now, I am running two different groups through the Dungeon Crawl Classics module The People of the Pit, and a part of the charm is the different choices the players make and the different routes they pick.

Now commonly adventurers behave nicely, when exploring dungeons. They kick in doors, negotiate peacefully or violently with the inhabitants, collect treasures and then move to the next door. As they gain levels, they gain new powers such as teleport, pass wall and gaseous form allowing them to circumvent doors and walls, and soon choose their own way through the dungeon. Some dungeon designers do lot like that, and they create teleporter-immune dungeons to avoid the players’ options of circumventing the dungeon flow chart (and not wanting the players to skip to the end of the dungeon, there is a certain logic to wanting to restrict teleporting, but it is also cheats the players of using their hard-earned resources).

Yet, I find a pleasure in designing dungeons with multiple paths and multiple entrances allowing the players to choose their own approach. It also requires me to create the dungeon in such a way, that it can be explored in multiple ways. There is no guaranteed route, which means that each encounter must be able to stand on its own.

To increase the various ways a dungeon can be played, I add areas, where the players can break the walls of the dungeon flow chart. Once the map has been drawn and the rooms designated, I sometimes go back and add a detail to the map. It can be a blocked passage between two rooms, whereby I show the players the existence of a potential passage, if they decide to clear it, but it can also be a fragile brickwall, they can choose to knock down. In some dungeons factors are added to increase the chances of a wall being knocked down, it may be a room with a hill giant swinging a large club, that if the giant misses with a certain amount hits a wall and knocks a hole into it, or it is a room with an owlbear chained to the wall, and if it is provoked, it may tear its chain loose leaving a hole in the wall.

  • Choose 1-3 areas in the dungeon – after it has been populated – and mark a wall in the area as fragile

Fragile walls can be poorly constructed brick walls, thin cave walls, a worn down wall, a collapsed doorway.

A fragile section is more than a door. Doors are in active use, doors are expected to be opened, and they can be closed. Doors are expected to open. Breaking down a wall is an irrevocable change to the dungeon. It is forcing a connection on the flow chart, that wasn’t there, when you began the adventure. It is a change, the players added to the dungeon.

  • Add a signifier near the fragile wall to help the players see the option

Signifiers can be many things. It can be information revealed, when the room is examined. For instance, it may be details in the wall’s construction, that dwarves and thieves can identify.

It can be something revealed by accident, when the players explore the room or interact with its inhabitants: It can be monsters chained to the wall, an unbalanced statue tipping over, an accidental strike during combat (any fumble by a large enemy) or an area attack (an area attack spell dealing 15+ damage or being 3rd level or higher).

Signifiers can also simply be visual cues: They notice a bit of light shining through a crack in the wall, a section of the wall simply just appears as fragile, or tools being used to damage the wall have been left in the room.

Giving the players the option of forcing their way through a section of the dungeon can be fun as a DM, if you allow them the choice and allow yourself to be surprised by their choices. This is why, it is an interesting thing to add the fragile wall sections to your dungeon after having populated the dungeon. In this way breaking down the wall is not something anticipated by the inhabitants, and the encounters are not designed to handle it.


Wandering Monsters as an invitation to role-play

For or against wandering monsters? Are they an important part of the game or are they disrupting the game?

In my previous post I spoke about viewing equipment as a limited resource in the game, and that any part of the character sheet could be seen as a resource to be spent. Another resource-influencing element of the game is the wandering monster. So, let’s have a look at the phenomenon.

In some games, I have no use for wandering monsters. When running Transhuman Space or Delta Green, I don’t use wandering monsters, and when playing a character-driven drama using the D&D 3rd edition rules, I do not use wandering monsters.

In other games wandering monsters are disruptive for the flow of the game. Playing D&D 4th, where each combat easily eats up two hours of game time, you never get anywhere, when checking for wanderers for every 30 minutes of in-fiction time. One time we attempted to run module B4 The Lost City using D&D 4th, and due to wanderers, we never got to anywhere in the adventure. That made us abandon D&D 4th and move on to play older editions of D&D.

In yet other games, such as AD&D, D&D 5th (we are two thirds into Curse of Strahd) and The Hinterlands (Hinterlandet) – my own retro-clone – I do happily make use of wandering monsters.

There is a time and place for wandering monsters, and what I want to do here is to have a look at using them at the right times.

When Wandering Monsters

Wandering Monsters can serve as a timer in the game forcing the players to move on and making it difficult to rest after each encounter. The resources are dwindling, and you have to explore as much as possible, before you run out of time.

Wandering monsters works well with versions of D&D or clones thereof, when combat lasts no more than about 15 minutes of game time – and this is something I strive for. Once combat is initiated, I want it to end as fast as possible (and this, the why and how of it, I will explain in a following post, so bear with me right now and focus on the wandering aspect).

Wandering monsters work even better, when used as random elements to generate play. With this I mean that rolling on random tables, be it weird spell effects or critical hits can create unforseen elements, that creates opportunities for role-playing. For instance, I am running The People of the Pit using Dungeon Crawl Classics right now, and the strange random elements creates events for us to role play around from critical hits almost pushing a character off a steep ledge to a bloody nose making a player speak with a nasal voice for a while to the mercurial effects of the wizard’s spells to the gods’ response their clerics’ spellcasting. These things add color or create situations, that gives us opportunities to roleplay and do more than just fight monsters. This is what I want my wandering monsters to do as well.

This works best, when wandering monsters are perceived as anything but a combat. Many adventures have monsters to show up, 2d4 orcs, 1d6 goblins etc. and then it is supposed to turn into a fight: ‘Three orcs appear. Roll initiative’.

This is one of the things I like about Curse of Strahd, where the wandering monsters table contains several entries, that are either strange objects found or evocative, brief meetings (like a skeletal rider on a bone horse passing by). This is also one of my own guidelines, when writing The Hinterlands modules, and that is, that every encounter must foremost be an invitation to role-play, where any combat occurring is ideally instigated by the players.

Now it is easy to say ‘that is how I always do things’, when monsters appear at random – but it is whole lot easier, when the entries on the wandering monster-tables gives you the inspiration and the ideas.

Setting up Wandering Monsters

Creating entries that allows for more than combat the entries can be strange events (like a wind whispering their names and the last person, they dreamt of) or foreshadowing of coming encounters (for instance using the foreshadowing, the first result generates the boot prints of a nearby band of orcs, or the bloody victim of an owlbear or the leftover rust from a rustmonster’s meal).

  • Foreshadowing
  • Strange events

Another way is to give the wandering monsters an errand. They are not here to fight the adventurers, nor are they looking for them. Instead they chance upon them, as they are on their own way. By giving each entry a reason to be out walking, you can give the players a chance to role play and find alternate options, when they encounter them, to solve in the problems.

  • The monsters are minding their own business being on an errand

When setting up errands look at the dungeon and try to imagine the daily activities of the dungeon. Are goblins going hunting? Are kobolds cleaning areas for ritual activities?

Now include faction-life and intrigues. Consider anything you would like to reveal to the players about the life in the dungeon, especially things they can use to ally with factions or play them out against each other. Perhaps they overhear the bandits gossiping about dividing the spoils, and how there are grumblings among the bandit king’s lieutenants? Perhaps they overhear that the orcs are planning to hire the services of the local hag?

  • Reveal factions, secrets and daily life through their activities

To keep this easy to use and create, it is my advice to try and keep each entry as a single sentence.

  • Keep the description to one sentence

They can look like this:

  • ‘two almost adult wolf cubs comes bouncing loudly playing with each other, if disturbed they will run off and warn the pack returning with additional 1d4 wolves’
  • Five kobold slaves replacing burned out torches while loudly complaining that the bugbear chef favors the goblins with the best food
  • 1d4+3 orcs with fishing rods each bragging about the size of their latest catch
  • 1d6+1 goblins running off with wine from the cellar willing to bribe the PCs to keep silent on the theft
  • Orc chieftain and bodyguards on the move, while the kobold butler is loudly complaining or advising the chief to look proper before meeting with the slavers.

There is nothing to stop the players from declaring initiative, if they want to fight, but you have opened the door for them to do other things, and it is easier to use alternate strategies, when the situation includes more than ‘2d4 orcs appear’ – and you can breathe life into your dungeon.

Wandering elsewhere

Once you have this praxis in place, you can use it in villages and towns to create encounters there as well:

  • 7 drunk members of the city guard extortion a dwarven goldsmith
  • Two competing town criers trying to outdo the other yelling still higher trying to present the most sordid gossip for a few coppers.

From here it is a small step to introduce wandering monsters or random encounters or events in other games such as small towns being investigated in Call of Cthulhu by investigators.

  • Two villagers appears idly talkning but they become silent the moment, they see the PCs, and only the word ‘the hollow’ is heard.

My Final Wanderings

This is how I like to play out and use my wandering monsters. They are not combat encounters appearing at random, but tools to create life in the dungeon, and they are invitations to roleplay. By setting them up head of the game or writing them into adventures, it becomes easier for the DM to improvise and create exciting situations – and the players can still declare initiative any time they want.


Sound and Noise in RPGs – When magic and monsters can hear you

Sometimes they hear you. Then they come for you.

This is an article on how sound and noise can play a role in your game. Below are presented three magic items, that one way or another encourages players to talk or stay silent. Likewise are below three phenomena or techniques that are tied to the words and the sound the players use. These ideas are based on materials from the Hinterlands Adventures (which you can find at RPG Drivethru and at DMs Guild). The descriptions below are kept somewhat D&D agnostic, so that you can easily use them in your D&D 5th, Labyrinth Lord or AD&D game.

Magic Items

  • Potion of Roaring Strength
  • Powder of Silent Wandering
  • Whispering Skull

Potion of Roaring Strength

The potion comes in an iron flask with a depiction of a roaring lion. The liquid is golden, sweet and strong, and it gives of a musky smell.

This potion grants the imbiber +4 bonus to strength tests, +2 to melee attack and damage rolls, and doubles the changes of opening doors, lifting gates etc.

While under the influence of the potion the imbiber cannot whisper, and the imbiber must speak yell, when speaking, otherwise the effects of the potion disappears immediately. The player must speak loudly, when speaking for his or her character, or the effects of the potion ends. Otherwise the effects of the potion lasts 2 hours.

The potion can be found in The Flooded Temple.

Powder of Silent Invisibility

This fine, glittering white powder usually comes in a cloth bag containing 1d3 potions. When thrown in the air it turns all creatures in 10ft diameter circle invisible for as long, as they are silent, or until they attack. Once turned invisible the creatures do not need to stay together to remain invisible.

Any creature who speaks, immediately become visible, and this applies to the players too! Any player who does not merely neutrally describe their character’s actions will see their character turn visible again (in some instances you might even want to have the players write down their actions, as they may difficulty coordinating their actions, when unable to speak).

The Powder appears in the adventure Tomb of the Dragon’s Heart.

The Whispering Skull

Wondrous Item, rare

A gold plated human skull with a cruel smile. Imbedded in gold plating are tiny swirls hiding enchanted symbols, that any arcane spellcaster can identify as arcane symbols related to arcane spells.

If you listen to the skull, you can hear it whisper secrets. If you attune to this item, you can use its two powers.

The secret of wizards: Each whispering skull recites one particular arcane spell, and if you spent 15 minutes listening to the skull, when preparing spells, a wizard can memorize the spell from the skull as if the wizard was studying his or her own spellbook. The skull’s spell cannot be transcribed.

The spell the skull recites is 70% of the time anecromancy spell of level 4-9, and the remainder 30% a divination spell.

The secret of adventurers: If you listen to the skull for 15 minutes before entering a dungeon, the skull will tell you a secret about the dungeon – but only if you whisper a valuable secret to the skull, that you have not told it before.

DM rolls hidden on the table:

1-25 The skull reveals the whereabouts of a treasure in the dungeon
26-70 The skull tells about a mystical danger or a hidden trap in the dungeon
71-85 The skull reveals the whereabouts of a hidden treasure in the dungeon
86-00 The skull lies

The Whispering Skull appears in the adventure Tower of the Star Watcher.

Techniques and Mechanics

  • Wandering Monsters
  • Song Lock
  • Curse of the Faeries

Be silent – or the troll comes for you

Whenever the players are noisy, they risk attracting monsters that may attack their characters. If they do not act and play quietly as their characters would do when moving through caves and grottoes, they will allow the GM to use wandering monsters against them.

Place a cup or glass on the table and have a collection of counters, dice or crystals ready.

Tell the players that their noises are reflective of the noise their characters make.

Whenever a player is noisy or makes a noisy activity (dice clattering, a chair creaking, a bag of chips rustles), you grab one of the counters and put it into the cup. Make sure the PCs see it. Allow the players to whisper loudly without being penalized (unless they overdo it), so that you still can hear them, when they are planning things or talking to you.

Whenever a certain number of objects are in the cup, a roll on the Wandering Monster table is triggered. Then empty the cup and begin collecting again. A fitting amount might for at start be 5 counters, and then you can increase or reduce the amount as needed.

Certain actions are pure and simply noisy. Combat with weapons and armor banging against each other, people yell in anger and fear, and magic roars through the area. Whenever combat begins, just add a single counter to the cup and allow the players to speak freely.

Sing Friend and Enter

The magical stone door is hardened through enchantments to resist most attempts to break it or force it open, and yet, there is a simple way to open the door, that may confound most adventurers. It is known as a Song Lock.

Etched into the surface with silver runes is an ancient song, and merely singing the text is what is needed to open the door, however the players must sing the text. For each being wanting to pass through the door, it must sing the text written on the door. Give the players a simple text to sing, and have them sing it together to open the door. Until it is sung, the door does not open.

A variant of the Song Lock appears in the adventure Tomb of the Dragon’s Heart.

Faerie Curse: Bound Tongue

The Knights of the Flower are champions of the faeries, and they master both the art of combat and magic. Their task is to challenge mortals, and to do that, they must master many different arenas, not merely combat using sword and lance, but also riddles, puzzles and magic.

The Knights of the Flower are encountered in the Hinterlandet woodland adventures – to be translated and published later – and among their abilities is the curse Bound Tongue, they often use when they challenge mortals to solve riddles.

The curse is tied to a specific word, and every time the player uses this word, their character suffers a bloody slash on their tongue, as if an invisible knife had cut it in punishment. The DM keeps an eye out for the words, the player uses, and every time the player speaks the chosen word (which might be ‘sword’, ‘initiative’, ‘but’ etc.), the character suffers 1 point of damage or 1d4 points (dependent on which version of D&D, you are playing. Up to AD&D 2nd edition it is suitable with 1 point of damage, and from 3rd edition 1d4 points of damage is typically suitable).

The curse is lifted, once the puzzle is solved, or if the Knight of the Flower is satisfied with the adventurers’ actions.

Hinterlandet (The Hinterlands) adventures contains more of these meta-play elements using sounds and voices, and more examples will appear in later adventures.


Design Principles for a Hinterlands Dungeon

photo (87)There are many guides and posts on building an exciting encounter or creating a three-act structure or five room dungeon of combats, but when we began designing adventures for OSR-clone Hinterlandet (The Hinterlands) different principles were being used.

  • Many ways and none is the right one
  • There are bosses, but no boss fights
  • Balance is not the issue, avoiding combat is
  • There will be death

These are some of the key-elements, and now that I have begun translating the adventures into English from their Danish originals, and adapting them for D&D 5th edition, it might be the right time to have a look at the principles behind the adventures.

Many ways and none is the right one

The dungeon must have more than one way to go. It cannot be linear, and ideally it has multiple entrances, and it allows the players to choose directly or indirectly between the entrances. A great part of the fun is to see the players choose, and when running a living campaign with multiple groups running through the same dungeon, the different choices are interesting. Many dungeons emphasize the multiple paths by giving the characters the option of breaking down walls, falling through floors to other areas or scaling the walls to gain quick access to other parts, i.e. in Tower of the Star Watcher the PCs can scale most walls and enter different areas in almost any order.

There are bosses, but no boss fights

It follows that when the PCs can choose multiple paths, there will rarely be a boss monster exactly at the end of the dungeon, and it helps bring the world to live, when the players know, that monsters in the dungeon do not behave according to computer game logic. I.e. in One Night amongst the Necromancers the ‘boss’ is moving around in errands, and stealthy PCs can easily find their way to him without working their way through all the rooms. In other adventures, such as Grave of the Alchemist, one of the worst monsters resides just inside of the dungeon and to gain access, it must be defeated in some manner.

Balance is not the issue, avoiding combat is

The encounters in Hinterlandet are not really balanced, and this feature is carried over into their D&D 5th edition adaptions. However, many encounters include creatures that can be avoided or snuck by, or they begin with parlay – some monsters are hungry and can be bribed, some are sleeping or distracted, others are mistaking the PCs for other residents or guests, and yet others are suspicious but not hostile. Rarely does a monster attack, when the PCs enter. Instead the players are invited to interact with the monster, and this results in many great moments.

There will be death

Even though it may sound easy to avoid the nasty encounters and the tough fights, it is not so. Character death is common, and one cause is traps and magical dangers. Each dungeon usually contains one trap or phenomenon, that will kill or remove a PC from the game. Often there is some warning sign, and usually the PCs can simply choose to stay clear of it, but it will challenge their curiosity, and it will tempt their greed. For instance, in Palace of Sweet Dreams drinking too much of the ghost wine will trap a character in the realm of the dead, and merely visiting the ruins of the palace might result in a character forever lost in its madness.

These are some of the main governing principles for the adventures of Hinterlandet / The Hinterlands. The adventures have all been part of the OSR Living Campaign at Danish roleplaying conventions and have been run for multiple groups. Some characters survive, some don’t, but we always end up with great stories of adventurers’ daring do.


Strange Tales for Roleplayers: Haunted Games

R. Kahn

R. Kahn

“No one plays Whispering Vault any longer. It has become a ghost town. Last time I visited it, it was empty. Completely empty. It was actually rather scary. Everywhere we went, we could feel the silence.”

Those were the words, that had led her to study the roleplaying game Whispering Vault in order to find out, what it was, that had happened. Now she is sitting in front of him, and on the table between them lies a recorder.

“That was the last time, Charlotte played with us. She has never been able since”. He stops. Stays a bit with the words, and then continues:

“I have never tried anything like it before. We created our characters and immersed into them, and when we started playing, we could that the setting was just empty landscapes. You could hear the echo of emptiness reverberate between the buildings, where ever we went. The silence wasn’t the worst thing, though. Our game master could still bring the setting fairly well to live, even if there was cobwebs and dust in most of the scenes we played. What was worse, was the Hunter or the Shadow which we at first called him … or it. At first we thought it was one of GM’s NPCs, some deadly villain following us from scene to scene, until the final confrontation at the end, but it always just hiding in the shadows. No matter what scene, we were playing, if you just paused a little, you could sense it. What was worse was, when Charlotte decided, that she would confront it. She starred out towards it in all the scenes, we had, and I could sense her character growing ever colder and more distant. Even our GM sensed it, and it was then, that I realized, that it wasn’t one of GM’s NPCs!

The Shadow was also present, when we were playing interparty scenes, for instance at one time we were sitting and planning out next move in the game and studying our clues. Our game master said, he would go brew some more coffee, while we were talking. That was when I saw it for the first time. Saw it for real. Just on the outskirts of the scene, between the shadows, was there something moving about. It was a living darkness with two empty spaces, where the eyes ought to be, and when I starred in its direction, it felt as if my character was being pulled into the abyss, down through its eyes. They drew everything towards them.”

He stops. His voice has become heavy with emotion, and tears are forming around his eyes.

“That wasn’t even the worst. That came later. It was, when our party had split up. Our GM had decided to split us into two different rooms, so we couldn’t hear what was happening with the others. Lars and Charlotte was in the living room, and the rest of us was in the kitchen, and GM was gamemastering for us, when Lars comes by. He is just going for the loo, he explained, and then went there. Shortly after came the scream. Cold and empty.”

She can see, that he is shivering, while recalling the events. His body trembles involuntarily, as if the scream is still echoing in his mind. She notices that, he has to stop himself from instinctively covering his ears. “She sat in the room screaming, just screaming. We went in there all of us. There was nothing to see. We search the room, but it was first afterwards, that she managed to explain, that she had been immersed into her character even after Lars left the room – and then it had come up of the shadows. It had sucked her character into itself just leaving an empty shell. The rest of the night her character wasn’t present in any of the scenes. It was just an empty shell every time she tried to play her character.”

She is about to stop the recording, when he continues:

“That is why I never play alone. I can feel, that it has followed me. Every time we play, no matter the RPG, I can feel its empty eyes staring at me from the dark. My greatest fear is that, we at one time will split up the party, and when that happens, it will come for my character. I not certain, that even the GM can hold it back.”

===

These stories are chosen and translated from a Danish Advent Calender (“julekalender”) for roleplayers. They are small, independent stories from the major Advent Calender story arc. In Denmark there is a long running tradition for Advent Calender stories (in the shape of radio plays, tv-series, written stories, candles – but also as blogs with 24 daily blog posts counting down to Christmas) in 24 episodes running from the 1st of December til Christmas on the 24th of December (yes, Danes celebrates Christmas on the 24th).


[Review] Numenera – Tales from the Ninth World

So I kickstarted Numenera, and as part of that, I received the short story collection Tales from the Ninth World by Monte Cook and Shanna Germain. Normally I don’t read fantasy though plenty of science fiction, horror and weird fiction (though I do read fantasy, but it is mostly sword & sorcery-stuff or books published before 1980, such as Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earth Sea) – and stories in Numenera are somewhere bordering fantasy and science fiction. Also I normally don’t read books written in established universes like the Warhammer-stories, Star Wars-stories or D&D-stories. Mostly because I can’t help suspect that it is just written to order, and without the vision that an author brings to his or her own stories. This is probably way to too simplified, as some authors are skilled enough to produce good stories and some do have an interest for writing in established universes (though I soon discovered, that ).

So with this in mind I usually would not have bothered with reading Tales from the Ninth Universe, but vacation was coming up, so I grabbed a bunch e-books and went on vacation.

The anthology consists of three stories each with a sense in the title (smell, taste, sound) signaling the exploration of the Numenera-setting, one by Monte Cook, one by Shanna Germain, and one co-written by the two. All three stories takes place in the Numenera-setting, they all assume some sort of familiarity with the setting, and they are not very good. I was mostly bored reading them, as they felt unfinished and focused on showing the setting, but not about exploring it or telling stories. Just showing the setting.

The first story, The Smell of Lightening, is about a boy growing up in a mysterious castle containing strange secrets, and among the palace’s peculiarities is the fact, that the building grows. The boy belongs to noble family, and his father is secretly delving into the secrets of the castle in order to harness its powers. Then one day arrives a young man masquerading as a servant, but he belongs to another secret order of explorers rivaling the father, and belonging the good guys’ order. Where the father views the building through a lens of magic and ritual, the explorer views it through science some what. The boy explores the castle along with the explorer, discovers a rift in reality, and later learns of his father’s behavior, and vows to stop his father. Mostly the story read as an outline for an even larger story. Much more time could have been spend exploring the premise and the situation, but it is instead just cut short. In a sense I feel I have read the story before, the premise of the ancient house with its many secrets and a lifetime spent exploring it have interesting predecessors, but here it just touches on the story, shows us elements from the Numenera-setting and goes nowhere.

The second story, The Taste of Memory, is about a scoundrel with some weird ability to hide in shadows and a mechanical bird with an addiction for colored inks from octopi-creatures that produces experiences. She returns to her home harbor town, runs into a mutant streetgirl, and she is suffering from her addiction, as she needs a fix. She encounters a fella with a cover story, and she follows the streetchild to a hidden place through a gate, where she confronts her mom, who has developed a new version of the drug. Then the fella tracks our protagonist, steps through the gate, and there the story ends. Once again it felt like reading a story cut short, and one that were exploring some elements in the Numenera-universe, but elements established somewhere else, and therefore not really introduced in the story (this is another reason for not reading stories in established universes, they skip parts of the world building, because they assume the reader is already familiar with these elements). Though better written than the first story, it sort of just ends after having made its reveal (Look! A new drug with new effects!).

The third story, The Sound of a Beast, is the worst of the three. Mostly it is a dull tour of the setting presenting various monsters and places with out narrator travelling with a band of companions and a hostage as they encounter monsters and bad weather (though the idea of rain as monsters is a fine one), which forces them to seek refuge in a tower, where the inhabitants are also monsters, and after a huge fight the story ends. As an evening of gaming this might be entertaining, but as a story it feels like reading a fictionalized report from a session, and it is dull. Again the story’s main focus is on showing the setting, and certain parts of the setting are left unexplained assuming some knowledge of the setting – or just forgetting to present it to the reader, had it not been that the story actively chooses not to explain the elements.

Generally the three stories were a disappointing read, and I am somewhat more cautious of what to expect from Numenera. I like the art of the setting, and the overarching idea of the setting is very interesting – and mostly what attracted me to Numenera in the first place – whereas the rules seems mostly to be one of the many new systems drawing ideas and mechanics from the many new indie/forge/story games and applying them to 90’s style systems, and I am slightly curious to see, if there is anything to the rules.


A New XP-system: Exploration-based Rewards

Recently I noticed, that Erik Mona does not like the experience point system – and thus have created his own system – and it reminds of how I have been doing XP myself.

On the good old pre-2000 days, you killed an orc and gained some XP. You might get 50 points or so, and only needing a few thousands, then that was ok. Unless you played D&D becmi, where an orc gave 10 points, and your first level fighter needed 2000 to go up a level. Then collecting treasures became really important.

But even with the increased XP values of monsters in AD&D, once you needed 10.000 or even more XP, killing a few monsters granting some hundreds XP or so resulted in bookkeeping XP just felt meaningless. This also began being reflected in scenarios, where you huge sums of XP were being granted for reaching the end of a module, and in some cases whole levels were granted (making it even less meaningful to collect XPs for killing a few orcs).

With this slowly deteriorating system for granting XP became still more useless, many began developing new ways of granting XP, and when 3rd edition came around a new shiny model were introduced, and an even shinier one with the 4th ed rules.

Since XP is such a nice thing to drive the game, as it quite literally is an award, you can use it to tell the players, what you want to reward them for. Kill monsters and bring home treasures! Complete modules! Use your class based abilities! For surviving encounters (as Erik Mona suggests)! Spending your money at the inn between adventures (as I saw suggested years back)! Roleplaying! (An always nebulous one for who is to gauge “roleplaying”, and you might end rewarding extrovert or charismatic players or players for ‘reading’ their GM?).

Attending Class, Gaining XP

I just recently ended an eight year long campaign about a group of teenage wizards at The Great School of Glantri. Xp were not granted for killing monsters or picking up treasures, nor were they granted for ‘good roleplaying’, but instead for attending classes and passing exams, and everytime you had enought to level up, you had to pass a test. Failing exams also gained XP, as you still had learned something.

The system worked great. It gave the game a good focus – we are at school and need to balance fun and adventuring with actually attending class, and what to do, when a great adventure presents itself the night before exams? It also gave us space to explore, what happens at wizard schools and how does it feel to attend one?

Exploration-based Experience

For my D&D retro-clone the focus is on exploration. I have been reading and playing a a bunch of the old, really old modules, and one thing that separates them from the 90’s modules is absence of the detailed narratives to draw the PCs through (especially thinking of the Ravenloft and Planescape modules here), and from the 3,5 material, where you go from encounter to encounter. In the older material you explore areas. You map dungeons, you fight monsters, avoid traps and meet weird things, ancient things and strange things. There are plenty of empty rooms, and sometimes there is a room with a large bed and a lady’s hat for no other reason as to pique the players’ imaginations.

So for my D&D retro-clone (previous design posts part 1, part 2) I want an XP-system, that rewards the players for exploring dungeons, for poking their noses into the next room and the next room and the next room again.

This is what I came up with.

The Adventure Points System

For each room investigated the party gains 50-100 Adventure Points (50 for fairly harmless dungeons, 100 for average dungeons).

For each wonder and mystery encountered the party gains 50-400 points. Mysteries can be an enchanted lake, an illusion covering a room or some other supernatural effect. Wonders are the wonders experienced in the dungeons, as finding an ancient wallpainting made by a long forgotten artist, whose art touches your soul, or it may be a natural rock-formation in a grotto of great wonder.

For each trap encountered is gained 50-400 points – and half that much if the trap is avoided or otherwise not triggered. So if you find a pittrap, but never activates it, or disarm a crossbow-trap before it is triggered, you gain less, than if you fall into the pit or get shot at by the crossbow-trap. The basic idea is to entice the players to touch the red button, knowing they will only get half, if they disarm the red button instead of triggering it.

Adventure Points for exploring, for wonders and mysteries, and for traps are rewarded, when the PCs leave the dungeon and have time to rest briefly. Each PC present gains the full amount (four characters exploring eight rooms each gain 800 adventure points).

For treasures brought all the way home, the players each gain a share of adventure points equal to the treasure brought home. The four characters have borught home treasures equal to 500 gold, so each character gains 125 adventure points, however one of the characters hid a gem (value 50 gold) for himself. That character gains additional 50 adventure points, as he does not share the treasure.

The adventure point table

  • Level      Adventure Points
  • 1                             0
  • 2                     1200
  • 3                    2400
  • 4                    4200
  • 5                    6000
  • 6                    8400
  • 7                 10800
  • 8                 13800
  • 9                 16800
  • 10              20400

So far

I have tested the Adventure Points with several groups, and the great thing is that it works as intended. It makes the PCs open every door and stick their head into every nook and cranny. Since monsters don’t reward any Adventure Points, and combat with them generally slows exploration down, the PCs are just as willing to negotiate and use trickery to avoind fighting monsters, as they are to pick fights, and plenty of things are left alive, as long they grant access to more parts of the dungeon.

The extra points for mysteries, wonders, and traps also ensures, that the PCs are less likely to avoid set-ups and potential dangers, as being exposed to these, grants more Adventure Points. The players are eager to explore and map dungeons, to push on and take just one more room, because they are certain to gain points (every room grants points, whether or not any monsters, traps or any other things are present, so picking just one more room is a calculated risk).


Designing an OSR Heart Breaker – Character Creation

I continue my design thoughts on creating a Heartbreaker OSR D&D retro-clone. This time it is about designing characters, and how I want it done. At the end of the post are the rules for creating characters in all their simplicity, but first the frame-work behind it.

I want to use the D&D Clone at conventions, but without pre-made characters, so it must be kept simple and fast, as time spent creating characters is time not spent playing. Also I want an RPG-system, where you do not use one session creating characters, as easily happens with 2nd, 3rd, and 4th edition.

Creating characters themselves can be a small mini-game and I have enjoyed many a mini-game of creating characters. It is like playing a puzzle or building a small engine, where the different elements of the characters interlock. For instance creating a character for Traveller with their background-system, or for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness, where it is quite fun mutating an animal into a mutant ninja (but otherwise it is not that great a rule system), or creating an experienced character with the old Warhammer Fantasy RPG Career System – and likewise creation a third edition character with combinations of feats and skills, and perhaps a few levels in order to activate some weird prestige class from on obscure issue of Dragon Magazine. But it is a game in itself, and it is not the essential part of roleplaying nor of D&D, and I will there dispense with the character creation.

Equipment

Another interesting element is shopping. How important is shopping in RPGs – as part of the character creation and as part of the game? In one sense I enjoy equipping characters, mostly with signature equipment, that interlocks with the character’s abilities. Otherwise it easily becomes a chore.

However equipping a character also contains strategic choices, if the equipment has a function beyond the amount of damage dealt and the defense conferred, but equipment does not really play that role in D&D – once rope, lantern and backpack is secured, and armor and weapons are acquired, the character is good to go, and at later levels so much gold i accumulated, that buying regular equipment cease to be a strategic choice.

And it takes time. Looking at the long list of equipment and then just picking the same essentials is time-consuming, which explains the premade equipment packs.

Since I will severely keep treasures in check and make armor really expensive, and keep track of food, players in the game will keep an eye on their equipment during the game, and consider if they can afford more flasks of oil or if they should save their gold for a chain mail. However for character creation I will use a combination of strategic choice and pre-made package. The players will roll 8 stats, where two of them represents equipment (regular equipment and magical equipment). So equipment becomes a part of the character creation process, but it is kept fast.

Character Class Names

Fighter, thief, rogue, ranger, monk, barbarian, berserker …

What’s in a name? – one might ask, and when players pick a thief to play, it is not uncommon for the other players to assume, that the character might steal from their characters, or if a player picks a fighter, what abilities beyond fighting will the fighter have, and what abilities should a fighter have?

For that very reason I have chosen to rename the classes. There are no thieves or fighters, but instead knights of fortune (this one works better in Danish: Lykkeridder or soldier of fortune – so looking for a new title here) and adventurers. For the same reason I have changed other designations – the characters don’t have Armor Class and Hit Points but Defense and Life Points.

Skills, Feats, and Special Abilities

Quite a few feats and powers in D&D are related to combat, and they are about expanding a character’s abilities in combat, and skills are mostly for non-combat things. Abilities can either be seen as expanding the characters horizontally or vertically. With the steady increase of skill modifiers (D&D 3rd is designed for characters to have the same skills all the way through and then continuously increasing them – e.g. so the fighter has a +4 bonus to riding at level 1 and a +13 bonus a level 10, making it both difficult to put a first and tenth lv character together, but also difficult for a character to expand to other skills, as the increased bonus is needed) choosing to increase a new skill is not really an option, and likewise feats can stack and increase their modifier often making certain feats and abilities mandatory – and that is expanding the character vertically. The disadvantages I have just covered, but the advantages is that the PC can be truly awesome at some things and give them a sense of being epic, heroic and/or badass. Expanding sideways or horizontally adds new abilities or skills (as in AD&D 2nd when acquiring a new non-weapon proficiency granted the skill at full level, but whereas increasing it gave a measly +1 bonus, often making it a better choice to add another skill, than increasing the existing ones). The disadvantage is mostly the absence of a gradual development of a skill, but the advantage is that the characters master a broader range of abilities at higher levels, but not necessarily better than low-level characters, making it easier for PCs at different levels to go adventuring together. I prefer this one, as the PCs can gain more abilities and more options, as the players become more familiar with the game and their characters. The disadvantage is that the character might end up a being lousy at many different actions rather than just a few actions.

All the Things at Level 1

One of the curious things when using D&D 3rd or AD&D 2nd with all the Player’s Option-books, Complete Class Guides, various articles from Dragon Magazine and Campaign Settings is the amount of choices to pick, and all these choices are made at (or just before) level 1. After level 1 there are considerably fewer and fewer choices to make, not more choices. The disadvantage is that the more choices at first level, the more time character creation takes. I want to do it the other round. Few choices, actually close to no choices, at level 1 and then expanding the choices, as the character gains levels. Though in this version of the rules, the character remains quite limited in what choices, there are to make at even higher levels.

Character Creation

  • Step 1: Choose a class
  • Step 2: Roll stats
    • roll 3d6 eight times. Allocate the results on the six ability scores and on the two equipment scores.
    • Ability Scores: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma
    • Equipment Scores: Regular Equipment, Magical Equipment
  • Step 3: Fill out the character sheet
    • Add modifiers for ability scores
    • Note class abilities
    • Note Attack bonus, Resistance bonus, and First Aid Die
    • Calculate Defense: 10+armor+shield+dex bonus
    • Calculate Life Points: Class + Constitution Score (not the modifier!)
    • Note equipment and weapons

Ability Score             Ability Modifiers

  • 3-4                              -2
  • 5-8                              -1
  • 9-12                          +0
  • 13-16                        +1
  • 17-18                       +2

These are the steps, and since there no choices as such when it comes to special abilities, it is actually possible to have character sheets that are pre-filled for each class, where you only need to add equipment and ability scores and calculate the scores derived from abilities and equipment (attack, defense, resistance, life points, weapon damage).

Example

Trine wants to create a character. She chooses a Knight of Fortune and rolls stats. She generates 15, 15, 12, 11, 10, 10, 9, 6. She puts 15 in STR and CON, 12 in DEX, 10 in both INT and CHR, and 6 in WIS. 11 is placed in regular equipment, and 9 in magical equipment, and she adds the two equipment packages to her character sheet.

She notes 25 lifepoints (10 + con), Defense 15 (10 + chain mail (+5)), Attack bonus +0 (melee +1 via STR), Resistance bonus +0, First Aid Die d10, and special abilities: Weapons Master (+2 to any damage roll with a weapon) and Chug (+2 to challenge opponents to a drinking bout; +4 bonus to resist effects of alcohol). Among her weapons are a battle-axe. Battle Axe Att+1, dmg 1d8+3, effect: crush shield. Besides her regular equipment she is also equipped with a Lucky Coin, Flame Powder, and Waking Candle.

And within 10-15 minutes Trine is ready to go adventuring.

To be continued …