Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Running Background Events in RPGs

One of the most interesting and most difficult things I do in the original settings and campaigns I've run for DCC and Dark Heresy is to create worlds that remain in motion around the characters. That is, many assumptions in RPGs don't really go much beyond what the characters do, to whom they do it, and what happens to them as a result of those specific events. While there are potential ramifications to their actions and the outcomes of those actions, they tend to be very much of a piece.

For example, a group of PCs may have to make a decision about whether an NPC lives or dies. Do they behave mercifully or vengefully? Do they help the NPC advance her cause, or do they thwart it. Clearly, with the hero/villain relationship, this is fairly easy. We try to impede the opposition however we can, and still stay in character (or alignment). So, if Villus the Paladin slaughters a bunch of people, they'd best be Evil. If not, then he can expect to revert to being a fighter for violation of alignment (or some similar outcome). You'll notice, here, that Villus is both connected to, and largely in control of, the thing that happens as an outcome. His actions "cause" it.

But what about things like social relationships between NPCs, or the unfolding of processes that affect the game world, or other things that are largely independent of the PCs' actions? Now the PCs might have some effect on those things, certainly, but they are not the only factor at play.

In Dark Heresy, I used something like this for my Order of The Infinite Way campaign arc. I used a "Plan" for each faction in that game, and provided options for what they might do. These include things like overall strategies the particular faction is pursuing, or tactics they might use to either advance that strategy or to respond to some specific action on the part of the PCs:

House Politics
Depending on how the PCs approach things, they may stir up some of the noble houses, causing them to attempt things they see to be in their best interests.
House Cortenses: Will definitely try to assassinate Paxxu Melus and his closest family, including Paxxu Gloriana.
House de Jagger: Will attempt to stay out of it, and let the local authorities take care of things. Will support their allies, particularly Sapphon and House Dekkarta.
House Dekkarta: Will do their best to keep stable the relations between the houses, but will also be willing to aid PCs if civil war seems imminent.
House Gallo: May use chaos to launch an attack on House Narutha.
House Lemulio: May use the opportunity to betray Sapphon, in hopes of taking over his enterprises.
House Mythrux: Wants desperately to hide its connection to the sorcerous arts. Will aid Willian Bellhouse, if Narutha attacks him.
House Narutha: May use the opportunity to take out Willian Bellhouse, in hopes of taking over his enterprises.
House Paxxu: May use opportunity to attack House Cortenses and take out their young ruler. May also use opportunity to take out Sapphon and assume control of his enterprises.
Criminal ActivityIt may be that the PCs do things to hurt the business of the various criminal gangs.
Willian Bellhouse will be far more likely a target, because of his affiliation with the Cold Trade and House Mythrux. He will attempt to do damage control if it seems like they are getting on his case, even to the point of removing his allies from the picture.
Sapphon will try to keep a lid on things, and will preserve and protect his enterprises. Surprisingly (or not), he will attack anyone who causes damage to the working classes. He will also attempt to help his allies, if help is needed.
 Again, the PCs can affect the action, but the NPCs have their own shit to deal with, and it goes beyond whatever the PCs are trying to do.

For that sort of situation, the PCs act as a trigger for some things. The NPCs may also simply take some initiative if they see an opportunity to do so. Again, the PCs have some role, but the NPCs are independent agents out to serve their own interests. They also, of course, are blinded by their own prejudices, acting on knowledge that only they have, and so forth. This helps the world seem more real to me, and also sets up a situation where those actions (both of the PCs and NPCs) have long-lasting effects. For Dark Heresy, unfortunately, these don't persist in the same way as for DCC. For one thing, the PCs usually move from planet to planet, leaving behind a swath of complications. I don't get to play with those toys again, unless they decide to revisit that place.

In games or campaigns with a more durable locale, this is very different. If the PCs commit a crime, or acquire a noble patron, or otherwise "connect" with the setting, the long-range consequences (for good or for ill) become fodder for additional adventures. Of the blogs I read, I think that +Zak Smith's Vornheim setting seems to get used in his home games in the sense that I'm talking about here. His players do some crazy shit, and they continue to deal with it as the campaign goes on. PCs live, die, leave, come back, etc., but the world just keeps spinning the way it does. The vast undead army doesn't just go back to sleep because a new set of PCs is in play. The world does not "reset." That's cool. I like that a lot.

 The stuff that +Adam Muszkiewicz and I are doing with the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad campaign is a lot like that, in how it's unfolding. In fact, my players are in the midst of some things that will have some long-term effects, depending on how the game plays out. I don't want to spoil that, so I'll talk more about it in a later post.

One thing I am doing, though, that's interesting (to me) is the playing out of a particular set of interlinked processes. They're happening in the background of the adventure, and they're pretty much independent of the PCs' actions. They are, however, dependent on the actions of the NPCs. They include (without going into too much detail) an attempt to make something happen. I'm running this as a straight d20 check against a DC number. The DC number may be affected by PC actions, by the simple passage of time, or by success on the part of the NPC. Over the course of the game, though, it tends to get easier. For this, I'm having the players make a roll for me. I don't say what it's for. I just ask them to roll. If they do this thing, then Something Important has occurred to a greater or lesser extent. Sometimes multiple successes are required for a particular large Something Important to happen, or maybe those successes amplify the Something Important in particular programmed ways.

The other thing I'm doing is making a check at regular intervals to make a Process play out. The process is an ongoing thing. It will happen unless the PCs are able to intervene. However, until they are in a position to make that happen, it proceeds automatically. For this, I've been using "exploding" dice. If you've not used this before, this simply means that I pick a die type (e.g., d4, d5, d10, whatever). If the rolled result is the maximum, then the die "explodes." You roll it again, and add the result. If that result explodes again, then you roll again and add the result. You repeat this until you finally roll a non-maximum result. So if I rolled a d5, and got a 5, I'd roll again. If I got another 5 I'd roll again. If I got less than 5, then the rolling would end, and I'd total the results. Dark Heresy uses this for damage rolls (Emperor's Fury). It's a fun mechanic, and my players have had some great successes with it, especially +Jason Miller, damn his eyes.

Notice, though, that the d# determines the likelihood of dice explosion. With a d4, you have a 25% chance and with a d10 you have a 10% chance. However, when the larger dice explode, the absolute magnitude of the effect is potentially much greater. It is, though, much less likely to explode in the first place, let alone multiple times in a row.

I'm using this mechanic to model a background process, and to determine the magnitude of its success. I can also use the explosion mechanic to tell me if other, subsidiary effects are accomplished. So, for example, let's say some NPCs are attempting to undermine a curtain wall though the use of sappers. I might say that they have to accumulate a certain total of "labor" for it to happen (The PCs can impede that, of course, but I won't deal with that here.). So, I pick a d6 to represent that process. Since it's an exploding die, it's represented as d6! If I roll a 2, then I simply subtract 2 from the amount of labor the sappers have left to accomplish. If I roll a d6 and the die explodes, then I keep rolling until I achieve a result lower than 6. I total the results and subtract that number from the labor total.

However, a die explosion can be a trigger for some other things. Perhaps it could advance the process up the die chain, making the die a d7 or d8 instead of a d6. Maybe, in-game, this means that they got more conscripted labor to aid the process. Maybe it makes something else happen, even something unrelated tot he process itself (e.g., a new, more powerful NPC enters the lists). Whatever you decide the explosion means, it helps to make the outcome of your process a bit more interesting by adding the possibility of nonlinear results, the introduction of more narrative elements, or whatever else. To be frank, I like it because it creates more chaos in the results. It make surprises happen for me and for the players.

I'll let you know in more detail how this plays out, after this campaign arc ends. Stay tuned.

Addendum: In many ways I'm an RPG sophomore in the original sense of the word: A wise fool. I know a lot about some very specific games (Dark Heresy, Warhammer Fantasy RPG 2nd ed., D&D to some extent), but sometimes attempt to speak outside of that expertise as if I'm an authority. It's the nature of posting a blog, I guess: The presumption to speak with authority. I don't mean to be an ass when I do this. I simply am engaging in a very public form of thinking aloud. So, with this exploding dice thing, it's just a new thing to me. I heard about it. Saw a version of it somewhere. Whatever my encounter with it might have been, it made me think about how I could hack it for my own purposes.

I surmise that someone has probably done what I'm talking about here in a game I'm not familiar with, or has written about it elsewhere. If that's the case, and I'm just repeating their ideas, it's not intentional. I don't play that many games, and don't claim broad RPG expertise. So, when people make reference to what I write about by comparing it to this or that rule in some game I've never heard of, I feel kind of stupid, sure, but I also sort of don't care that much. Oh, I reinvented the wheel? Cool. If it's an original thought, well... that also was an accident. Individual results may vary.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

MGoU-H: The Mysterious Temple of the Serpent God, Session 2

When last we left these druken, tentacle-addicted louts our intrepid heroes they had arrived at the port of Samsara, a den of villainy and scum (naturally), only to find it ravaged by Serpent Men. Through questioning of the few survivors, they managed to find their way to the home of Balas Forktongue, a man with a reputation for being odd, even in a place full of weirdos.

They were joined there by another group of zero level characters led by Phil, who will be joining us in our campaign. Phil seems to fit right in, making the absence of +James MacGeorge somewhat easier for us to bear. I handwaved the zeroes in by suggesting that the village (having been annihilated, pretty much), does not really favor the prospects of anyone who tries to return to his or her "old life." So we had a Radish Farmer, a Hunter, a Woodcutter, and an Elven Navigator. The Elven Navigator was someone from one of the recently arrived ships in Samsara's harbor. He claims he's just interested in finding out what's happening. It may be that his motives are somewhat less pure than that, but that's up to +phil spitzer to decide.

My readers may remember that last time the party found Forktongue himself killed in a brutal (totally metal) ritual. This session, Denny Smedd the thief recovered a ritual knife from the victim. There are designs and terrible runes engraved on the blade, and the overall design of hilt and hardware is suggestively Ophidian in flavor. It's made of that extremely hard black metal they keep stumbling across in my games. For mechanical purposes, I needed to make it a thing in the world. So, it's a big knife, bigger than a normal dagger, smaller than a shortsword. So, damage is 1d4+1. It's also made of that black metal, which is harder than steel. So, +1 to hit. I worry that I might be putting too many +1 items in the world. However, given what they're about to face, I probably shouldn't worry too much.

The party (Well, really they are mercenaries, now--They have a flag, you know.) searches the room, looking for whatever they can find. First item of business is a sheaf of papers found in the smashed chest lying next to the hidden compartment in the floor. They were coded in some crude cipher. I gave Formerly Ian the wizard and Nimue the cleric a chance to read them. They were not successful. However, Phil's plucky Woodcutter offered to take a look. BTW, check out this fuckin' guy:

STR 14
AGI 17
STA 10
PER 11
INT 18

If this poor bastard survives, he should make a really, really excellent thief. He'd also make a really, really excellent wizard. Pretty decent warrior, too, come to think of it. Phil will probably want to keep this 2 hit point prodigy safe and sound until he levels up. The rest of his zeroes seem to have somewhat grimmer prospects. However, this is DCC and we all know that the dice don't favor anyone, longterm. He may fall and some other champion may arise.

Anyhow, the (apparently very well-read) woodcutter crits his check to make sense of the papers (Natural 20+3!).

Here' the relevant section from my module:

A valise containing a sheaf of papers, still lies in the hole.

Note: This chest held The Serpent's Eyes, which were stolen from the Temple of the Serpent God. The papers are in some sort of cipher or shorthand. Any player character with an Int of at least 9 may make a DC 10 Intelligence check to attempt to make sense of them. If successful, the PCs will learn some or all of the following, depending on the degree of success (Give them one of the following items of info for each success, and one additional for every point above the target DC for the check):
The Revelations of Balas Forktongue
  1.    This person was Balas Forktongue. He was indeed the contact of Amor Ba'Gish. And there are several correspondences between them in the packet of papers.
  2.    Balas Forktongue, his manservant, and four mercenaries visited a ruined temple that lies within the jungle about 10 miles to the northeast of Samsara.
  3.    Within the temple, he found a large idol, depicting a huge, two-headed cobra-like, cyclopean serpent, each of the heads containing only one eye. The sockets of the eyes were empty.
  4.    They also discovered a vault in the underworks of the temple where two large, red stones were stored in a locked casket of unfamiliar black metal. They managed to open it and removed the stones.
  5.    The Eyes of the Serpent themselves were made of a heavy, dark red, faceted stone with luminescent properties.
  6.    Balas Forktongue sent a message to Amor Ba'Gish, detailing the find and asking a truly staggering price of 50,000 gold pieces for the Eyes of the Serpent. Surprisingly, Amor Ba'Gish accepted the price without haggling, which fact Balas Forktongue bemoans in his notes. He was sure he could have gotten twice his asking price or more.
  7.    There are a variety of mechanical traps which they managed to avoid, for the most part, though one of the mercenaries was grievously wounded, and was later killed by a large lizard
  8.    They also managed to escape from a gigantic lizard-like creature. The wounded mercenary and the manservant, on the other hand, were not so lucky. Their deaths, however, allowed the others to escape just steps ahead of the creature.
  9.    Balas Forktongue's true target was a weapon he refers to as the Frosthammer of Graki Deathstalker. The Serpent's Eyes were an unexpected discovery, but one that soon became more interesting to him.
  10.     The temple contains, at its heart, a gigantic egg-shaped machine, made of the same weird stone as the Eyes of the Serpent.
  11.     The name of the temple is Kraa Sssa'a Laass ("Temple of Sssa'a Laass" in the tongue of the Serpent People).
  12.     They found strange beings in the temple, their bodies metallic and in the form of Serpent Men. They seemed inanimate, but they were not statues. They had flesh on their forms, but it was cold and unresponsive, though uncorrupted by time. Perhaps they are the guardian the ancient scrolls spoke of (but they don't seem to match the description which suggested that a powerful master of the arcane guards the ruins).
  13.    They found other machinery there, but all of their fumbling around with it only resulted in illuminating a red glass panel of some kind and initiating some kind of droning sound which grated on the nerves. They left soon afterward.

So, they party is operating with all of the relevant information. Though the info is not complete knowledge, it's a nice way to start their adventure.

Then the party searched the rest of the place. It was filled with old junk, none of which appeared to be particularly valuable. The also found things on Balas Forktongue's desk:

There is, in addition, at a desk in this room, a long scroll case made of waxed leather. It contains a map showing the coastline, the port of Samsara, and a marked destination some distance to the northeast. The location is on the other side of what appears to be some sort of chasm or ravine. There are a series of notes on this map, sketches of places, a drawing of a magnificent egg-shaped construction, and another of what appears to be, perhaps, a door. The door is massive and decorated with disturbing runes and a large inscription of something that appears to be a war hammer, possibly dwarven, wrapped in the coils of a constricting, two-headed serpent of evil aspect. Next to it is a scribbled note that asks, "Frosthammer of G. D.?"
Also, on the back of the map is a remarkably well-rendered charcoal drawing of an immense tumble of ruined towers and buildings, their cyclopean stones strewn like the dice of the gods themselves, and overgrown with vines and trees. A squat, blocky, roughly pyramidal building with crude snake head architecture, and sitting on a rocky prominence, is marked with the note, "Kraa Sssa'a Laass." The language is Common, but what these words mean is unclear, for they are not words in the Common language.

After some dicking around, it was decided that the party would start out for the temple immediately. The Hunter (Vergil, by name) used his knowledge of the area to inform the other PCs regarding what they could expect from the terrain. Using this knowledge, they were able to make good time. Their trek through the dark jungle seemed interminable, but they eventually followed the game trail to a semi-cleared area. There, the found that a whole lot of the smaller trees had been snapped off at the base. Toward the northeastern side of the clearing, they spotted a teepee-like structure. Vane and Denny decided to have a look. Denny was fairly silent, but Vane sounded like a bus tub full of saute pans. Their movement away from the rest of the party put them about 60 or 70 feet away when Vane's noise woke up this guy:
Four-armed ape-man: Init +3; Atk bite +6 melee (1d6+5) or slam +8 melee (dmg 1d8+5); AC 15; HD 6d8 (27 hp); MV 40’ or climb 20’; Act 4d20; SP rend for additional 1d8 damage if more than 2 slam attacks hit same target in one round; SV Fort +10, Ref +6, Will +2; AL C.
The ape attacked Vane and Denny, clouting them soundly, inflicting damage and knocking them prone. I knocked them prone in lieu of the other two attacks the ape could have made. Basically, I chose to grant the monster an Advantage instead of rolling the other two attacks. However, I couldn't really justify not attacking them at least twice. 

Then the ape saw the rest of the party. Enraged, it charged toward them. Jerkal the wizard (who looks like Kenny Rogers) got hammered by the ape after it beat down Denny and Vane. He was the only guy in the area, and both attacks (again, minimum 2 of the 4 allowed attacks) landed very, very hard. He was reduced to something like -10 hit points.

The rest of the fight was a bit touch-and-go, but the party eventually did in the ape, and didn't take as much damage in the process as they could have. Jerkal was healed by one of our many clerics (a must in this game), but lost a point of stamina, permanently. The other injured party members were also healed. However, Smolken incurred Diety Disapproval, and now will Heal at -1 until his completes a Quest-to-be-determined. Bummer for that guy. Bummer for the rest of the party, too, come to think about it. Dice can be quite contrary in this DCC thing.

So, Virgil the Hunter skinned the ape, Vane claimed yet another set of giant ape balls (*sigh* + *head shake* ... What is wrong with that guy? I think if he were alive today, he'd have a mullet and would drive a truck with those Truck Nutz things on the trailer hitch).

Vane, IRL.

Anywhoooo... The party camped in the clearing overnight, and the new zeroes were introduced to the miracle of Purple Meat, ingesting a dose each of the powdered form of the the Purple Tentacle from Beyond Space and Time. Again, Muppets were witnessed. Other things happened as well, but I didn't write them down so I won't report them here. The important thing is that Phil is clearly fitting in quite well with the rest of this party. Hmm... maybe not "party." More like "Party Van."

Hey, how else you gonna solve a groovy mystery? 
You gotta have one o' these bitchin' vans, right?

So, the Party Van moved out again the next morning. After a few hours, they crested a steep, rocky hill and beheld the temple:
At last the PCs reach the edge of a cliff. Below lay a vast, ruined landscape of broken architecture. The former temple complex has been reduced to little more than house-sized blocks strewn across the landscape. The sole, remaining structure of any note is the Kraa Sssa'a Laass, or "Temple of Sssa'a Laass" dedicated to the two-headed serpent god, whose aspect is that of a cyclopean, two-headed cobra. 
The temple, of course, was across a gorge. The span of the gorge was around 50 feet and it dropped probably 70 feet.

The temple itself is a partially-collapsed, pyramidal structure, overgrown with vines and surrounded with and overgrown by gigantic tropical hardwoods. Colossal snake heads spout waterfalls which cascade down into broken fountains and spillways, and into the gorge itself on the collapsed side, where the temple gapes open.
The gorge itself contains a variety of debris, including what appear to be large statues (of Serpent Men and of Sssa'a Laass, the Serpent God) and other monumental features. The wall of the gorge on the temple side dropped enough masonry into the gap that crossing is possible below.
There is also a waterfall cascading into the gorge, not too far from where the PCs first catch sight of the temple from the trail on the other side of the gorge. (Waterfall Entrance—As the PCs walk down the trail near the gorge, have each player make a single Luck Check to spot, using the highest Luck mod for their PCs) If successful they see what seems to be a natural cave behind the falls.
To reach this entrance, they either (1) climb down over the wet stone surface (DC 10, or DC 5 with rope) from the temple side, or (2) climb down from the Samsara side of the gorge to the massive stone obelisk that spans the gorge to within 8 feet of the entrance. The climb down to the "bridge" is about 50 feet (DC 5 with rope). 

The PCs decided to cross there, though there was a bridge further to the West. Formerly Ian the wizard cast Rope Trick to good effect, and the PCs used it to cross over to the temple. They didn't descend to the entrance behind the waterfall, because they saw a huge lizard come out of that hole and climb off along the wall, to the west (in the direction of the bridge). The lizard was a brilliant yellow color, with electric blue stripes.

In crossing, Banvha the halfling haberdasher almost fell, but used her Luck to survive. I ruled that even zero level halflings can regenerate Luck, as it's a racial trait. Hey, it's a halfling thing. You wouldn't understand.

They made it across the gorge and entered the lower level of the main temple building. There, they found the remains of a fire, and signs of human habitation (smells like piss in one corner). They began to explore the interior when the lizard made its comeback appearance. Here's what they were dealing with:

Spike LizardInit +2; Atk bite +5 melee (1d10) claw +5 melee (1d10); AC 15; HD 3d12 (20 hp); MV 50’/30'; Act 2d20; SP spiky claws on limbs allow creature to climb sheer surfaces at speed of 30; SV Fort +1, Ref +2, Will +1; AL N

Abel the wizard cast summon animal, and conjured a quartet of dogs. They attacked the lizard, and the lizard slaughtered two of their number. Vane thought to go full Steve Irwin on the lizard, but I said that he probably could not actually get his arms around the jaws of the beast. He tried a Mighty Deed to leap upon its back. Failed. Was right in front of it. Eventually, though, the PCs killed the damned thing, and nobody died. Their immediate thought was to make cowboy boots out of the beast's hide. The Banvha the halfling haberdasher thought that was a FABULOUS!! idea. She's got real plans for that hide. Vane is getting into professional wrestler territory, possibly verging on pimpdom, with his wardrobe choices. Sort of a hypermasculine (trying too hard) combination of Rob Halford,

Rob, we love you!

the Road Warriors,

600 lbs of "Please, please don't hit me."

and just a little bit of rainbow viking on a unicorn with an AK-47, if you know what I mean, and I think that you do.

I love giant ape balls in a totally manly way!

In any case, this party will soon be easy  even easier to pick out in a crowd.

Before we ended the session, Ol' Sucker, Clave's Egg-Sucking Hound, and Morfans the Dwarf had gone off to explore the temple's interior. Morfans called out for the rest of them to come quickly. They were confronted with a scene of utter horror:

A grim scene confronts the PCs as they approach the ancient stone altar of the Serpent God. It has been used very recently, and flies swarm everywhere. The altar itself is caked in mostly-dried blood. The bodies of many dozens of children lie in piles here. They have had their throats slit and their hearts ripped from their chests. The hearts are nowhere to be seen, but the blood… oh, the blood. It must have run in rivers for there to have been this much blood. 

And that's where we ended. Call me Captain Buzzkill.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

MGoU-H: The Mysterious Temple of the Serpent God, Session 1

So, we started a new adventure arc for Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad (MGoU-H). This time it was me GMing, and +Adam Muszkiewicz resumed his role as player. We were joined by +Gabriel Perez Gallardi+Bear Philippe, and +Wayne Snyder. Sadly, +James MacGeorge will be leaving the game for a few months. He will be missed in the interim. His character, Crag Beerbeard, was extremely talented with his short bow, and iced many a man-ape (pygmy or white) in his time. 

SPOILER WARNING FOR Jason, from my face-to-face group: I'm going to run this for you guys. Quit reading. :)

When we started the adventure, the PCs were in Tenkar's Tavern, in Mustertown, just outside the walls of Ur-Hadad.

Description from Module:

Not as famous as The Soiled Dove, Tenkar's Tavern is a disreputable place at best, though its owner is a retired city guardsman. He had high hopes that he would be joined by a few of his active and retired brethren in the guard, but instead the establishment tends only to attract travelers from distant lands, adventurers, thieves, thugs, disreputable priests of weird religions, hedge wizards, merchants, and other assorted riffraff. They are a surly lot, and gamble and drink and fight in equal measure.
At Tenkar's the PCs are drinking heavily, and telling tales of their adventures to an incredulous audience. Some mutter that they are lying, and then one of these fellows (ably depicted by this Technoviking image) suggests that, if they're so tough, then they'd best put up or shut up. 

Vane Barbute, the chaotic warrior with a set of giant ape balls (No, seriously. Giant. Ape. Balls.), and always ready to oblige a loudmouth who wants to fight, punches homie in the face before he could even complete the sentence. [Correction: It was Xalto, and it was a headbutt. Thanks +Wayne Snyder!]  And, verily, 'twas on. A bunch of Drunken Louts joined in on the side of the Loudmouth. Their tokens looked like this: 

The internet is just the best sometimes. I mean seriously look at 
this guy. Drinking, dancing waving a sword... What's not to like?

Here's how I hoped to do this scene: 
Run this as it unfolds. Nobody will draw weapons on the PCs unless they draw first; then it's anything goes. Fight until the Loudmouth (below) is knocked out. After that, the others will back off and offer to buy the next round, as it's clearly just a bit of a misunderstanding, right?
 Loudmouth: Init +1; Atk dagger +1 melee (1d4+2) hand to hand melee +2 (1d3+2); AC 12; HD1d8 (5 hp); MV 25’; Act 1d20; SV Fort +2, Ref +2, Will +0; AL C.
 8 Drunken Louts: Init +0; Atk dagger +1 melee (1d4+1) hand to hand melee +2 (1d3+1); AC 11; HD1d6 (2, 3, 1, 4, 2, 2, 2, 2 hp); MV 25’; Act 1d20; SV Fort +1, Ref +1, Will +0; AL C.
 Another person observes the fight, one Azziz, a wizard's apprentice who has been sent there by his master, Amor Ba'Gish, to recruit adventurers for a task. He will approach them after the fight and ask them to talk to his boss about a job offer.  
It ended up being a pretty easy fight for the party. There aren't a lot of nuts the players can't crack with 16 PCs, some of them level 2 already. There were a couple of times when I asked whether or not they really wanted to draw weapons. They, after some consideration, decided that, no, that would be a bad idea. THey were correct. It would have resulted in... trouble for them. They stuck to using fists and feet, and all went pretty well. Lots of 1-shot knockouts occurred, eventually taking out the Loudmouth Drunk. The other guys backed off, bought them drinks.

The PCs, having vanquished the foe, and gotten free drinks for their trouble, talk with this guy, Azziz. I really fucked this up, because I forgot that Azziz was the apprentice. I got it mixed up in my head and didn't call the wizard Amor Ba'Gish. So, those of you who are playing... dude's name is not Azziz. It's the other one, Amor Ba'Gish.

In any case, they got the kid drunk, extracted some information from him in a friendly way, and made their way to the wizard's house, inside the walls of Ur-Hadad. For those not familiar with Ur-Hadad, it's a walled city, and really a sort of gated community created to keep out the riffraff (you know, like the PCs). You need an invitation to enter. Azziz the apprentice got them through the gates and to the house of the Amor Ba'Gish, a nice but fairly modest dwelling of adobe and timber.

When they arrive at the manse of Amor Ba'Gish, he greets the PCs warmly. He's a smiling man of middle years and short stature, with dark skin and green eyes (one of them at least). The other eye is an opalescent, faceted, blue-white gem of some kind, but he seems to be able to see just fine with it. He has long, stiff red hairs on the backs of his hands, though his other hair is dark. He invites them to sit for drinks and a light repast as they discuss the terms of a potential arrangement he would like to make with them. Eventually, the PCs noticed that what they might have mistaken for jeweled pins on his clothing were, in fact, brightly colored spiders creeping hither and yon. He doesn't seem fazed by this, nor does he remark upon it in any way.

Amor Ba'Gish speaks at length about the Serpent Men and their history, and of their downfall after the coming of the Imperial Elves. He's a bit pedantic, assuming that the PCs have no knowledge of the topic, but his main point is that he's interested in their abilities for mayhem. For, while what he's interested in having them do is a relatively routine courier job, the destination is somewhat distant, and the cargo will be extremely valuable, to him at least. He intimates that he's merely a collector of old things associated with the Serpent People. 

When they asked what they'd be conveying, he told them that it would be his payment for an artifact recently recovered by his factor, Balas Forktongue in the port of Samsara. After a check, we discovered the several of the PCs knew Samsara to be a den of scum and villainy, like unto fabled Mos Eisley. It didn't surprise them that such a place would be their destination. The payment was contained in a large, metal chest of dwarven make, with a complex lock of dials and buttons. It's made of stainless steel, and weighs nearly 400 pounds. The thieves did their best (at his urging) to open it. They failed, despite some pretty high rolls. They were also told that the chest contains 50,000 sp worth of platinum (we're on a silver standard, so that's like gp in Ur-Hadad). 

Should the PCs manage to open it, they will indeed find it is full of small bars of platinum, with a total worth 50,000 gold pieces (500 10-gold-weight wafers worth 100 gp each). The chest itself is worth 1,000 gp. Though the chest actually has no additional security measures, its best protection is Amor Ba'Gish himself. For, despite his avuncular manner, he is a terrible enemy. Should they be so presumptuous as to steal from him, and somehow find an antidote for the poison, he will hunt the PCs down using whatever cat's-paws are required to do so. He will get answers about the location of his property, and then he will kill them.

They negotiated the price. He offered 100 sp per PC and 25 sp (total) per day for expenses. They countered with 200 sp per PC, but didn't negotiate higherthe expenses. Eventually, they settled for 130 sp per PC, plus a total of 30 sp per day for expenses. Amor Ba'Gish didn't seem to be too worried about that price, and probably would have agreed to more. In any case, that's fairly serious money for a mere courier job, and the party was a bit suspicious of his generous offer. When asked, Amor Ba'Gish said that the price reflects both the risk faced by the PCs and the value of the object with which they are to return. 

Having negotiated the price, he smiled broadly and proposed a toast to their success, offering them each a small glass of liquid poured into tiny crystal cups from an ancient-looking flask. "This is very difficult to get," he says, "but will perhaps improve the auspices of your journey." At their hesitation, he drank first, to show them it was not poison (though it was poison, actually). I truly expected my players to resist this, but I guess that, with our penchant for sampling all manner of vile brews and arcane substances, they just don't give a shit at this point. So, they drank off the shots. He then immediately informed them of the following: 
 Unknown to the PCs, the glasses are coated with a virtually undetectable (DC 20, but only if looking) contact poison derived from a rare spider. Amor Ba'Gish, naturally, is immune because of his long-standing bond with Atraz A'Zul, Mother of Spiders.
 The poison is long-acting, taking anywhere from five minutes to two months to kill a human target (see below, "Hourglass"). The poison is known as Hour Glass because it's extremely easy to alter the time the death of someone who has taken it, almost to the minute. The period of time can be set by a skilled alchemist with knowledge of poisons and antidotes. Amor Ba'Gish knows these things, and has given the PCs 30 days to complete his task. He will not tell them how long they have, only that they should not delay.
The poison briefly paralyzes the target (about five minutes and then moves into its second phase, where the poison instantly liquefies the victim's innards, making them fit for arachnid consumption. Should they fail to return, they will die horribly. He is perfectly frank in telling them about this, explaining that it is "necessary" given the value of the cargo involved.
 Should the PCs fulfill Amor Ba'Gish's task, he promises to provide them with the antidote, a rare and expensive serum from mysterious Liao, far to the east, and to reward them 100% above the price he had negotiated for their services.

So, after spending some time in Ur-Hadad, provisioning themselves, they made their way to the docks, and their ship. 

Though their passage takes about six days, they are not particularly hindered by the two at-sea encounters they chanced upon--A pride of sea lions (who numbered too few to feel the odds were in their favor, and moved on) and a pirate ship. The encounter with the pirates was more interesting. The wizard Formerly Known as Ian (FKaI) used the helm he got from the Crypt of the Lizard King to guide the ship's captain in among the rocks and reefs, shoreward. I used a series of opposed d20 rolls modified by the helm's bonus (+3) for finding one's way at sea. They weren't particularly successful in getting away, and the pirates were very successful at following them safely through obstacles. Eventually, FKaI just Slept the pirate captain with his foul wizardry (and grew another inch of hair in doing so, because, you know, Mercurial Magic). A couple of crossbow bolts followed, and the pirates failed a morale check. They made their way toward easier prey. 

Hmm... these PCs seem to be pretty formidable. Are my monsters up to the task? Must look into this...

Eventually, the PCs arrive in Samsara. Things are very odd there: 

The PCs arrive at the port of Samsara, only to find it ravaged. Traders from other ports have arrived in the last day or so, and found many of its people slaughtered and the rest, vanished. Some of the citizens of Samsara have since returned from hiding in the jungle, telling outrageous tales about men with the aspects of snakes attacking the town and dragging off the townsfolk, especially targeting the children.
There are funeral pyres burning to the north of the town, on the beach, as is the custom in these parts. In some places there are obvious signs of battle, but not as many as one might think. The attack may have happened during the night, as many of the inhabitants were slaughtered in their homes or even in their beds. Their wounds, from what can be seen, are somewhat different, depending on the victim. Some have puncture wounds, some have large bites taken out of them, and some appear to have been crushed, their bones broken and a variety of fluids dripping from their various orifices. Some have been killed with weapons of various kinds.
Inquiries about the location of Balas Forktongue sent the PCs toward the wealthier quarter of town. As the PCs traveled away from the waterfront, they noticed that people are looting the now-vacant buildings and shops. They also saw their first real signs of sustained fighting: Bloodied cobble stones, dead soldiers, and hacked-apart serpent men with odd spears, the heads of which are twin-bladed and inscribed with strange designs.
Eventually, the PCs were led to a tall, dark stone house, architecturally weird, grim-looking, and carved with hideous creatures of legend and lore and with other odd designs. Any wizard or cleric in the party would recognize that these include runes of protection, prayers, and signs and symbols thought to bring good luck and/or avert bad luck.
An examination of the interior of the house reveals it to be the site of a vile ritual.
The former inhabitant, Balas Forktongue, has been hung by his feet from a beam and his heart cut out of his chest. Strangely, there is little blood in evidence. The victim's skin has been tattooed (or possibly burned) with what appears to be thousands of words in an unfamiliar script. The writing is clearly mystical, and even looking at it causes a sense of unease and revulsion well beyond what seems normal, even considering the condition of the body itself (DC 10 Will Save or dizzy and nauseous for 1d4 hours). Any wizard in the group may be tempted to remove the skin for later viewing. Any attempt to read it requires a Read Magic spell check.
FKaI had Read Magic, used it extremely well, and learned a new 3rd level spell, which I have yet to stat up:
This spell (Inquisition) combines both binding and compulsion, holding its target in thrall and forcing it to answer questions truly—It doesn't matter what language is spoken, as the spell includes a mechanism for translation. It's a 3rd level spell.
They examined the room by lantern and torchlight:
A large ritual knife made of incredibly hard black metal has been driven through the victim's head, in one ear and out the other. On the floor of the room below the body are figures of arcane design and non-Euclidean geometry (of course), drawn directly upon the stone with a silvery, chalk-like substance, and in the same script with which the body is tattooed.
A brief perusal of the premises reveals a variety of tomes of lore, an apothecary cabinet and alchemical apparatus, and a variety of weird implements. The PCs also find a small chest made of dark wood. It is now smashed open. It lies next to a hollow in the floor. A flagstone was removed, exposing a hidden space beneath it, where the box was, one presumes, hidden.
And that's where we had to stop, as we'd run over our allotted time by about 45 minutes. Got to work on that whole time management thing, maybe, though my players didn't seem to mind too much.

So, next time, the PCs will investigate the scene of the crime, as it were, and try to determine what can be learned from the house, possessions, and desecrated corpse of Balas Forktongue. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

New Reading: Daniel Chandler

I wanted to spend my first post this weekend talking about a book I am reading, because I think it's an example of a newer author doing a pretty good job of recapturing some of the feel of classic Appendix N literature, especially (it seems to me) the works of Vance and Lieber.

The book is Den of Thieves by David Chandler. It's the first of the books in the his Ancient Blades trilogy. It concerns the exploits of a young thief named Malden who is hired as a patsy in an elaborate scheme to relieve the local burgrave of his coronet, a caper verging on the impossible. Many, many complications arise from this act.

I like the ways he handles things like wizards and wizardry, demons, the thieves' guild, and the world and setting of his story. I also like how he incorporates the demi-human races into the world. They are not just humans with pointy ears or really short humans with beards. They are antagonists, old enemies defeated by the humans in centuries past. This fits really well with the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad campaign +Adam Muszkiewicz and I have going on for DCC.

In any case, consider this a strong recommendation for the OSR community. Grab a copy and see if you agree with my assessment.

The other titles in the series are A Thief in the Night and Honor Among Thieves.

Monday, January 14, 2013

New layout + Mysterious Temple of the Serpent God coming on Friday

Haven't had a lot of time to post this week due to work and other concerns. One of those other concerns has been getting all of my materials prepared for the Mysterious Temple of the Serpent God DCC session starting this week. As of now, the module is written and ready for playtesting. These guys will be the first ones through it. The maps are ready for Roll20. The player tokens are just about done, as well. I'm looking forward to kicking this off on Thursday.

That being the case, we should have a good recap coming up this Friday or Saturday, though I may find time for a post between now and then. I'm also dealing with some computer issues, which I also hope to have resolved this week. Either my main hard drive is about to crash, or the battery on my motherboard is too week to keep my BIOS settings. We'll see...

Also, I have changed the layout of the blog. A few of you had commented about how hard the old format was on the eyes, so I went with something that is, I hope, a bit friendlier. I still need to go through the posts and make sure that all of the text formatting works well with the new layout. Yeah, another thing I need to get around to. Eventually. Soon.

So, until next time.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


I was reading +Zak Smith's recent post about game design and was struck by one passage of the text in a weird way. Here's the passage in question (emphasis mine):
Now I know from the internet that there are actually people in the world who look at a module and see a shiny, squarejawed paladin smacking a hunchbacked kobold with a +2 sword forever and think "YES, EXACTLY THAT!" and for them a design which has a "default experience" running up its spine that they can work off of is what they will consider "good". "Why can't we have Mr Default Paladin Smacking Mr Default Orc right there and you can have your crazy expert-GM arty fringe lunacy on top of that?"
This description of cover art (nice Orwell reference,btw) is spot-on for many gaming products, which, truth be told, market themselves by showcasing what is (supposedly) heroic--Ex. A Fighter of some kind, with a Sword, slaying a Beast. Or, perhaps, getting the Woman:

Isn't this romantic, Conan? Also, when did you last bathe? Seriously, dude, you reek.

This guy is inevitably steel-thewed, his weapon is usually overlarge (projecting much?), etc. Alternately, maybe he has really ridiculous armor of some kind.

But Helmets are for Pussies!

Sometimes, especially for fantasy RPGs, the cover features a Party of some kind, with the iconic character types of the game in question.

Like this.

Or this.

The cover art, in essence, projects a fantasy theme of some kind. Though Zak's post is talking more about game design than cover art, he also makes a critical point: Games, however they are designed, are designed for particular audiences, whether or not the author or designer conceives of his or her task as such, and even if that audience is conceived as a "general" audience. All communication involves an audience of some sort, even if that audience is vaguely defined, and, hell, even if that audience is a party of one(self). 

That is, to put this into the terms of my own area of scholarship, The Designer/Publisher (Source) puts out a Game (Message) to an Audience (Intended Audience), achieving some sort of Effect (or not). So, as regards the cover designs for RPGs, what the hell is going on here? Here are some things that Zak's post suggested to me (also borrowing somewhat haphazardly from Joseph Campbell, Karl Jung, and Ernest G. Bormann).

As audiences for RPG cover designs, we process the cover art as ourselves. This means that what we attend to, how we process it, and where that takes us are both socioculturally predetermined in some way and intensely personal. That is, we are who we are, as a result of where you are, when you are, and how, in particular, we come to be ourselves (both to others and to ourselves). We are individuals, certainly, but we don't make up from whole cloth how we are ourselves. We must draw on what's around us in order to express or communicate (or even recognize) "self."

Others may or may not be from the same "place" and will process these things differently (or similarly) as a result of how they are positioned, socioculturally and personally. Some of these people are pretty cool, and like what you like, and some are complete nutjob dickwad assholes. Some are both or neither of these things.

That is, we don't just process this artwork (or other design element) in the moment. We often use it as something that we project onto some future we envision. RPG books are not about looking at the cover and going, "Yeah that's cool." or "That sucks." Sure one can do that, but it's more likely that we are more interested in thinking about what can be done with it, or, more specifically, "What does this cover "say" about what the game is about, for me and the things that are important to me?"
However, we never just let the thing in question (e.g., the cover of an RPG book) simply "be itself." Not only is that not really possible (You can't just shut yourself off), it also is not particularly desirable, as it makes it pretty difficult to interact with others in constructing the collective narratives necessary for making RPGs "work." Ernest G. Bormann explains it this way:  "We are not necessarily persuaded by reason. We are often persuaded by suggestion that ties in with our dreams" (Ernest Bormann and Nancy Bormann, Speech Communication, 171). That is, we don't just process this artwork (or other design element) in the moment. We often use it as something that we project onto some future we envision. RPG books are not about looking at the cover and going, "Yeah that's cool." or "That sucks." Sure one can do that, but it's more likely that we are more interested in thinking about what can be done with it, or, more specifically, "What does this cover "say" about what the game is about, for me and the things that are important to me?"

An RPG cover, then, presents us with mythology, in the purest sense, the essence of what the thing is about. We project onto that thing based on what it shows us, who we are, and what it shows us about what we want. Some things don't push our buttons at all, so we don't care about them. Some things push the wrong buttons, and we instantly react negatively toward them on some level. But the important thing to remember is that, whatever the work in question, we are positioning ourselves with respect to it, or with respect to the people, places, or things we associate with it, all as a part of our viewing the cover of the RPG book.

So, when I look at this:

Hammertime, yo!

I process it differently than might someone else, and very differently from someone who is not interested in the themes and myths and so forth suggested by its iconography. Even when an RPG book doesn't have a stylized cover, other design elements are included. Even if it's just a blank, black cover, that "says" something  to the viewer. "Dude, where's the art?" or "Dude, this shit's so heavy it don't need no art!" or whatever.

One of the things I find so interesting about this dynamic is people's ability (or inability in some cases) to understand that a person's interaction with a game book (or game system) is, in fact, an interaction between self and the object. So, a person who fails (or refuses) to recognize that the fact that he or she thinks something "is awesome" or "sucks," is very much about that person, and not just about the objective thing in question. It is awesome because of you, not just because it, objectively, is awesome.

That said, when we get into a broader discussion of culture and aesthetics, we may, in a collective sense, have some sense of propriety about what is or is not "good," whether it be an artifact like an RPG book, or some object, style, or activity (e.g., the latest fad or fashion), or whatever. Sometimes things are seen, in a broader, collective sense, to suck donkey balls (This is necessary technical terminology, of course). Still, that consensus is built upon those shared themes and values appropriate to and appropriated by that particular community. This is, no doubt, why groups of gamers who value certain kinds of play, rulesets, and aesthetics can look across a divide that lies between them and wonder, "What the fuck is wrong with those people? Seriously, they suck!" And, no, I don't find it easy to get away from that, even knowing that part of that dynamic is me projecting my values onto those activities, objects, and people. I recognize that I'm doing it, but it's incredibly difficult to get any kind of distance between "me and mine" and "them and theirs."

For me, in the end, to be able to enjoy a game, I have to be able to project some part of myself into the matrix of signifiers in and around the game in question. To me, that DCC wizard cover is badass in a very particular way. It hits some buttons for me. Same thing with Frank Zappa. Other people may, at best, be amused by me and the things I think are cool. I think that was Zak's original point about design: There is no objectively well-designed game that doesn't account for particularity of players and play styles. If a game only has one generalized player in mind, then it misses the point that only people who like that kind of thing will like it in particular. The mechanics may work well. It might be systematically developed and presented in sound ways. However, it can still suck for some players or groups, especially if those players or groups are unable to find space in which to project their own fantasies onto the object (e.g., the book cover) or system (e.g., Dungeon Crawl Classics) in question.

Games that make it possible to project those fantasies in mechanically interesting ways, I think, provide much greater opportunities for broader groups to enjoy them. They may not do anything perfectly in a mechanical sense, but they provide enough wiggle room for particular groups of players to make it work, and work well, for them. That's great, because it makes possible to have gaming experiences where the players can make the experience about them, but allow other players to do the same thing for themselves. Hell, the GM has more freedom in this scenario, as well, to incorporate what the other people bring (of themselves) to the gaming table. Everybody is creating this cool thing (or not, because maybe you just want to chill out and watch your crazy friends do their things), and it's fun. What's not to like about that?

As far as the recent discussion of sexism in games, this also is apt. When one sees "blatant" sexism, then perhaps, objectively, there are elements there from which one can make this judgment (see Conan picture above). Submissive female figure, chainmail bikini, and so forth. However, to ignore that part of what one "sees" involves the projection of one's own shit (sociocultural, personal, etc.) onto that set of signifiers is to mistake the relationship between oneself and the object in question. "It" is not the problem. "It" is a condensation symbol for a variety of other meaningful things. Meaningful in many senses, including very, very personal ones. So for someone to call something objectively sexist ignores that such a judgment must be made from a position from which the particular judge is, well, judging. Sexist. To you.

This is not to say that in broader, cultural sense that some things aren't generally accepted as bloody fucking awful. We do, as a people, find thing we can agree to love or to hate. We do it very naturally. We do it in ways, also, that allow us to form in-groups and out-groups, and to make judgments of various sorts about people, things, activities, and so forth that we like or to which we object. It would be a mistake, however,  to assume that this judgment of those people, things, and activities is any more objective, simply because it is broadly accepted as "true" by a particular culture.

That said, I, personally, can and do make value judgments about people, things, and activities, and do it all the time. It's what allows me to have a sense of what is or is not good/bad, ethical/suspect, etc. I cannot, however, imagine that what I do now will look the same to someone 50 or 100 years from now (or before now). Different context means, usually, different judgments. However, I don't like people who treat women like crap. But when I say that, I don't mean that those women must somehow accord with some fantasy I have about their objective level of subjugation by the Patriarchy. I mean how those women are interpellated (i.e., "called to accept a particular social relationship") into a particular model of feminine virtue. What choices do they have (or are they permitted)?

For me, their agency in the situation is the point. I don't object to women's personal decisions about their sexual lives, or whatever, because its not my choice. It's theirs. Nor do I think that an artist drawing a woman in a chainmail bikini is objectively sexist, as some do, because women are not required as a result of that piece of art, to don such a garment or to accept a subservient position (as if those are synonymous, anyway). I don't object to a woman's choice to act submissively or to adopt the so-called "Gorean" lifestyle, as some do, provided it is, in fact a choice. Objectively, then, no problem, provided the woman in question actually has agency in the situation. Subjectively, though, I don't get it, and don't care for it. I think Goreans are fucking creepy. I think men who think about women as objects to be used are assholes. But I recognize my judgment is at work, here, just as much as in the case of the person who values those things. I may have culture on my side, for now at least (Fuck you, Rick Santorum.), but I am making a subjective judgment.

Still, I might be inclined to make statements about such things, to judge those people and those activities as "fucked up" or whatever. But then I wonder why I'm reacting to them, and realize that it's at least as much about me as it is about them, and I can accept that. The real trick is in being able to do both of these things (i.e., subjectively judging or being objectively ambivalent) at the same time, without thinking you're doing one or the other exclusively. So, "That sucks, but have fun with it. Over there. Waaaaay over there." I can do that: Subjectively objective, that's me.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Thinking about "Skills" in Dungeon Crawl Classics

I got to thinking the other day, just about the various games I've been playing over the last few years, and how they deal with character skills, knowledge, and abilities. The games I've been thinking about are  Dark Heresy/Rogue Trader, Warhammer Fantasy RPG (2nd ed.), Stars Without Number, Zounds!, and Dungeon Crawl Classics (naturally). I think I can say without too much hesitation that that list is pretty in order of most to least granular, mechanically.

With Dark Heresy/Rogue Trader, you get skill mechanics that are based on thoroughly defined areas including basic and advanced skills, knowlege, and talents (like D&D "feats"). Characters must spend XP to "buy" them, and they can sometimes buy them more than once, reflecting relative level of expertise. Each skill/area of knowledge is attached to a character trait (e.g., Intelligence, Agility, etc.), and the player much roll under the total on percentile dice. If the skill is a basic skill, then the player may roll, but must get under one half of the requisite characteristic. He may not test against advanced skills if he doesn't have them. This is a pretty solid system. It represents about everything a character can do, and has some flexibility, especially in the area of character knowledge (culture, lore, etc.). However, one can only learn those skills by advancing in a particular character class, and may not do so outside of it except by GM fiat. That's a bit frustrating to me, as it makes character design fairly rote and mechanical. That's not to say that other systems don't have the same problem, but it seems amplified in DH/RT by the way character creation/advances are handled.

Warhammer Fantasy RPG (2nd ed.) works about the same way, but the skills are assembled in packages. One chooses "careers" and as one advances it's possible to shift from one career to another with some degree of flexibility. This creates a situation somewhat more flexible than DH/RT, in that the player can make the choice of careers (either during or after chargen) that best reflects his or her character concept. Frankly, though, I've not had enough play time in that system to get very far in advances, and never got to choose an advanced career package. It looks fun, though, and I think it could work pretty well.

With Stars Without Number, you (again) have skills associated with particular character classes, and some degree of flexibility in which ones you can choose, especially with the Expert class, which has more skill points to work with as it advances in levels (3 versus 2) compared to other classes. It also uses a 2d6 mechanic for skill rolls, so those advances have a lot of effect on one's ability to succeed. I've only played a few sessions with it, but it seems to work pretty well. It also is somewhat less granular than DH/RT, in that the skill lists are somewhat more general in nature (but not very). For example, one can have skill in Energy Weapons (all of them) in SWN, but in DH you have to specify which one. In RT, you may have the option of choosing a "universal" option which includes all of them. It's a decent system, and I've liked playing it the few times that I have. It's also free to download.

Zounds! is quite interesting in how it approaches skills. It treats them as "Powers" and "Shticks," something I'd not seen before, but like a lot. Far from having a defined list of skills/powers, it leaves to the player the option to tell the GM what kinds of things the character can do or should know. The system (SFX!) provides a mechanical framework based on skill levels with that particular action/area of knowledge. Generally, you have your starting powers/shticks at 6 or 4, and those you learn later (via XP buy) at 4 or 5. I don't want to go into too much detail here. Suffice it to say that this systems gives the player a LOT of  flexibility to realize just about any character concept he or she might want. It also allows for interesting and flexible character development. +Joshua Macy also has written a variety of variations on this mechanic, with fantasy, sci-fi, supers, etc., a very, very nice array of things from which to choose. All of these are free to download. Also, there's no reason to assume that the SFX! skill mechanic couldn't be tweaked to allow the equivalent of basic background knowledge that wouldn't necessitate a check to accomplish.

That brings us to Dungeon Crawl Classics. Unlike these other systems, DCC doesn't predefine character skills in any areas other than would you might call "class powers," things like fighting, spellcasting, larcenous abilities, and so forth. It suggests using character background to begin. You rolled an urchin? Okay, so an urchin might know the streets in general, and a neighborhood in particular. He or she would have skill in surival in this environment, including knowledge of common resources, challenges, and (of course) threats of annihilation. He or she would have little real knowledge of the operations of empires and kingdoms, but will have opinions about them. He or she would, however, have understanding of how the culture of the streets is organized, who has the clout, who is kin to whom (real or imagined), and the variousl relationships between those and a variety other factors. Mechanically, it's "figure out the character concept based on a loose "career" system."

It's not game-changing, mind you, and it assumes a lot of player and GM skill to get the best results. Of course, what mechanic doesn't? Nonetheless, I like it because it pushes Narrative. That's going to make it more fun for most folks, I think. I like the Storytime thing just about as much as anyone, but where's the crunch? It's just the d20 system, but opened up to include more GM/Player rules diplomacy and character narrative creation. I think it could further be developed to include some development of knowledge over time, not just competence with blade, mace, or spell. If they characters go through some shit, then they deserve a chance to learn something from it. Give the characters a bonus for knowing stuff based on what they should know. This includes character background knowledge and character history. This promotes character development (in both the mechanical and narrative senses). This is important, at least to me. What's equally important is that the characters "own" their past, as it were. The GM needs to use campaign play to give characters resources for their development.

Certainly, GMs can easily use character background and history as adventure hooks. That's assumed. This is more about providing a mechanic whereby we can use that history as part of gameplay. In the frame of  DCC's way of doing this is that what happens in the adventuring is also a huge part of the narrative, but it doesn't tie one to any particular or comprehensive way of addressing "skills," as such, but instead provides a mechanic (d20 DC checks) to allow GMs to do what they (should) do: Make this interesting to the players. Make it about *them*. Make it about their interaction with your story (both at the adventure and campaign levels). Make it possible to tell the story that you, the GM, want to tell. All of this is the ideal situation. How do we get there?

Have a story. Let character actions drive the story. Use the d20 mechanic to resolve challenges, but also allow players who try to get better at particular things to actually get better at them. Easy answer to "how?" is that at the end of every adventure arc (in campaign play), ask each player to name something they learned. Remember, this does not affect combat or other character-specific mechanics (though it could, and that's a story for another day), but it could influence, for example, a knowledge of magic as technology. In game example: My party encountered some kind of weird old tech in a "fantasy" setting. Willl we be able to figure out some things just a little better having had a brush with it before? I think so. Give them a +1 bonus for what specific thing they learned. Use it if they encounter it again. Simple, easy, nonrepeatable bonus. If you write it on the character sheet, then you can use it later. If you don't... well... that's between you and your GM.

What do you think?

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Zounds! They killed The Hound!

So, I finally got a chance to run Harley Stroh's DCC module, "The Doom of the Savage Kings." To make a long story short, shit went off the damned rails. Here's how:

When last we encountered our intrepid adventurers, they were down a hole at the bottom of the Crypt of the Lizard King. This led to the Pod Caverns of the Sinister Shroom. They'd taken a beating from some Pod Men, but had recovered a lot of treasure, some of it magical.

Since Kevin had no actual characters, they left the Pod Caverns, and rested in The Crypt. Then (What luck!) they just happened to encounter a small group of trustworthy-looking zero-levels with a taste for adventure. Now stocked with additional zeroes, they made their way toward the village of Hirot (which now lies about ten miles east of The Crypt of the Lizard King, btw).

As they traveled, mist blew in from the coast, blanketing the terrain in dense fog. Eventually, they happened upon a group of grim-faced peasant leading a trussed and gagged woman, and trailed by a group of armored heavies on warhorses. Inquiries helped them learn that the girl was to be sacrifice to a creature called simply, The Hound. The Jarl (one of the mounted guys) was doing this to follow the advice of his court wizard, hoping to avert The Hound's predations. Chuck, John's warrior was all, "Nope, that ain't gonna happen," and various other things insulting to the jarl and his thegns.

The jarl was enraged at his insolence and draw weapon, charging at the burly (and surly!) warrior. Blows were exchanged. *Ahem* Strokes ... Hits? Oh, hell... Well, anyway, they tried to kill each other. The jarl got stabbed in the face, and he left the field, blinded by blood. The thegns, not knowing what else to do, fled.

The girl filled in the PCs about The Hound, and they made their way to the standing stones. The Mighty Chuck stood in as sacrifice. One of Kevin's zeroes was a Trapper by trade, and she thought it best to use some of the party's rope to set snares all over the fucking place, aided by a tracking roll that helped them figure out from where it had approached in days past. I asked her to roll to see how well she set up the kill zone, as well. Nothing but 19s and 20s for that girl. The ground was well prepared for some hounding of The Hound. About an hour later, it bounded into the kill zone. Some more nifty rolling saw it bound, by one leg and by the head, a chain looped around it, and Chuck and company raining down damage on its sorry chaotic ass. Then the Spear of the Lizard King was involved. The Hound was... vanquished. It took them one fucking encounter, and the damned thing was dead. *sigh*

They tracked The Hound back to its lair, and looted the sinkhole. Then they decided to go to the village to trumpet their awesomeness to all and sundry. Chuck began to talk shit about the jarl. The jarl emerged to contend with him, and it went about like this:

So, MC Chuck, what you got to tell the Jarl?

Personality was checked, the jarl's cred got wrecked, and the legend of Chuck was... umm... something that rhymes with wrecked.

The girl-sacrifice's father was, of course, ecstatic to see her again, and, buoyed by the presence of the PCs (and Chuck's mad oratorical stylings) accused the jarl of fixing the lottery. The villagers got angry. Pitchforks and torches ensued. The jarl and his pet wizard never had a chance. They became very dead, very quickly.

The thegns, seeing which way the wind was blowing, made a hasty retreat. They may be easily startled, but they will no doubt be back soon, and in greater numbers.

The village from this point forward will be known as "Chuck Town." Thus has decreed the Mighty Chuck. So say we all.

I mean this was pretty awesome, but it sure did make for a short adventure. What the hell, Harley Stroh? How did this happen? These guys broke that shit with some straight high rollin'. Oh, and there was Kevin's little idea with the binding and whatnot.