Friday, November 12, 2021

Old Work Revisited and a Free Adventure

GAZING BACKWARDS INTO THE ABYSS

Hel's Crow's Final Rest (release) PDF

In the dingy fall of 2012, a little over nine years ago now, when I had newly returned to Classic style RPG play and the online community around it seemed full of possibility I wrote Hel's Crow's Final Rest.  The blog Ramblings of the Great Khan had put together a little contest for short viking themed adventure, and this was my two page entry. 

An RPG friend of mine, mv, has been working on improving their layout skills and asked around for short things in search of layout. I offered a few old adventures and mv picked Hel's Crow's Final Rest. Over the past several days mv and I have gone back and forth about layout and I drew some new art for the old adventure to offer it up again in a more contemporary form.

It's interesting looking back at one's own old work. A glimpse into a different time, and 2012 was a different time.  The "OSR" was a younger school of RPG design, having just emerged on Google Plus and started to merge its Revival and Renaissance into a shared conception of play. My experience with post 1995 gaming was largely limited to running Patrick Wetmore's Anomolous Subsurface Environment and playing a few of the early online games on Google Plus. Rule sets hadn't proliferated and Labyrinth Lord was the primary retro-clone. The term "OSR" wasn't even in general use and many of the personalities that would come to dominate the scene and innovate within it hadn't started blogging.  Yet in 2012 there was already a robust culture of play exploring rules light older editions of a variety of games (not just Dungeons & Dragons) and a community of creators focused on setting design, adventure creation and rules hacking shared via blog, but not yet the production of new derivative systems for sale. Hel's Crow's Final Rest is a product of this time of vigorous amateur adventure design.  It's a simple location/situation based advetnure, but strikes me still as fairly representative of the sort of small adventure in 2012 - a little compressed to fit into its original two pages, but very much an example of mid-period "OSR" design.

At its core Hel's Crow's Final Rest is a faction based negotiation built around a single encounter.  Again this is because it's not a dungeon crawl, but a short adventure. One could argue it's scene based even, but it's still designed with a location as its subject - the Sea Shrine of Aski.  My adventure designs remain focused on location, even today, and like Hel's Crow's Final Rest try to derive much of their play from faction negotiation. This necessitates unclear moral lines (which Hel's Crow has - though it has obviously good and obviously evil factions) so that there's no obvious best choice for players. Here the players are asked by a powerful evil force to recover an artifact from the shrine sheltering refugees from Aski, and can do that through trickery/negotiation or through violence.  Heroism and direct confrontation with evil in the adventure leads only to a quick and messy death, while monetary success (and thus level advancement) is far more likely to come through the characters decision to engage in evil acts themselves.

The cartoonish Norse setting reflects the grim character of this quandary - but I think manages to do so without fully embracing the "Grimdark" sensibilities that would later become an OSR hallmark.  Such dark themes and lack of clear "good" choices are a useful tool for designing with high lethality systems, producing adventures that have a high degree of player choice and moral ambiguity/decision. Such settings set player expectations by cautioning them that characters can die easily and that survival depends on making choices and problem solving.  An alternative of course has always existed in "Gonzo" settings which use absurdist humor to similar effect, and in 2012 the question of which style of setting Gonzo or Grimdark would dominate future OSR design was still an open question.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Classic Vs. Treasure, Part 1

All Illustrations are
Howard Pyle's from 1883 - 1921

TREASURE TROUBLE
One aspect of Dungeon Crawl play that All Dead Generations hasn’t covered in any detail is treasure. This is an oversight, because treasure, like exploration, like encounters, and like combat is an important element of fantasy RPGs and especially important to the older style of play that All Dead Generations discusses. When we consider how treasure works in fantasy RPGs it usually seems fairly simple, even in Classic games - pick up the treasure and bring it back to civilization for experience and leveling. It is this simple, this is the gist of treasure in Classic fantasy RPGs -- pure reward ... but like everything else in the interconnected edifice of Classic play treasure presents its own complexities that interact with various important procedures and mechanics. Unfortunately the way treasure is structured in most classic systems makes it less of a reward and more of a chore, eating up play time with logistics and calculation.

The Function of Treasure
First, recovered treasure is the Classic player’s metric of success. Even in Classic rule sets that provide experience for defeating or killing monsters (something I dislike as it sends confusing messages about the goals of exploration), the majority of characters’ experience will come from the treasure recovered in the dungeon. Random treasure generation has been a mainstay of Referee preparation since the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons however, and it has an enduring appeal because imagining treasure is delightful - it’s a space where wonder can enter RPGs, this alone makes it valuable. Yet, these formative random treasure systems, as found in all early Dungeons & Dragons, reject wonder. Despite the gambling style fun of rolling up random hoards, random treasure has been largely unvariegated mass of coinage.

There are mechanical reasons for these coin hoards, coins are far easier to generate randomly and far easier to track encumbrance for. Dungeons & Dragons has also long used coin based encumbrance, with characters able to carry a few thousand coin weight (it varies by edition and represents a failure point for early dungeon crawl mechanics - see below). This ease couples well with the gambling appeal of random treasure generation, and the random “treasure types” that appeared in the 1970’s white box have endured appeal, despite most older editions cautioning against coin hoards for various reasons. However, even when a designer or referee doesn’t use random generation or design advice cautions against it the treasure tables set the standard and expectation of what treasure looks like in Dungeons & Dragons, and from there fantasy adventure as a genre.

More influentially random treasure generation in early editions of Dungeons & Dragons provide guidance about the expected speed of character advancement. For example, if the party defeats a dragon in 1981 Basic D&D and takes its hoard they will find the glorious Treasure Type H, worth an average of 50,000 GP. This of course isn’t really a linear challenge system as even the relatively weak six Hit Die White Dragon has such a hoard, while the much more dangerous saber tooth tiger (big cats are absolute terror beasts in Basic) they will get only a few hundred gold from its paltry Treasure Type V (or more likely nothing - the chances of having even d100 GP is 10%). Still, Treasure Types and random coin hoards are the main way that early editions offer referees and home designers a means of visualizing the rewards of successful adventuring and so provides clear metrics for pacing and level advancement.

Yet, treasure should be more than coins. Coins are a simple game currency that characters can exchange on a 1 of 1 basis for experience points, but “treasure” is, like fantastic locations and strange creatures, a concept that offers up the excitement of fantasy. Yet I won’t suggest abandoning random treasure generation in favor of inventing unique treasure caches as part of adventure preparation, perhaps lovingly describing each valuable object after reviewing the online collection of the British Museum for inspiration. This is time consuming fun, but it neglects an important element that makes coin hoards useful -- coin hoards work perfectly with early Dungeons & Dragons coin based encumbrance system to create complications and allow players to make informed judgments about the relative value of specific treasures.

The coin system is still of course dull, but it need not be as it’s easy to expand and cover a wider variety of treasure with minimal change, once one recognizes its mechanical basis and if one is willing to set aside some of the implied setting it creates.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

A STRUCTURE FOR CLASSIC EXPLORATION PROCEDURE


The Procedural 

Dungeon  Crawl

The “Procedural Dungeon Crawl” gets mentioned a lot on All Dead Generations” and many of the pieces here describe its theoretical underpinnings -- but what exactly is the Procedure in the Procedural Dungeon Crawl? Not “What is Procedure?” in some abstracted way, but specifically, what Procedure does one follow to produce a Turn of Classic Exploration play?

Below are two lists that breakdown how I would run a Turn of Exploration in both a Classical way (using OSE similar clones or 1981 Moldvay Basic [B/X] mechanics) and how I actually run my own games (using house ruled 1974 Dungeons and Dragons.) Both function just fine with the other rule set however (some movement distances are different, and by the book OD&D adds procedures for incidental traps that I omit because not every square foot of every dungeon has broken pit traps in it) as they are Procedure rather than mechanics.

Before I go into detail about how and why they work, here are the “Classical” and my own “Neo-Classical” (with plentiful ideas from other bloggers and designers) methods of running an Exploration Turn as I understand them:

CLASSICAL EXPLORATION PROCEDURE

TURN BEGINS
A. Referee calculates and Players note equipment and/or status changes due to passage of a 10 minutes.
B. Random Encounter Die Events are resolved. (Can Open Encounter Procedure).
C. Referee describes surroundings (Can open Encounter or Combat Procedure).
D. Players ask questions about surroundings or events and the Referee clarifies.
E. Players state actions.
F. Referee confirms player actions with clarification of any mechanics used.
G. Actions are resolved. Any movement is calculated.
H. Players note any status or equipment changes on Character Sheets.
I. Roll Random Encounter Die for next Turn.
TURN ENDS



NEO-CLASSICAL EXPLORATION PROCEDURE

TURN BEGINS
AA Referee describes surroundings (Can open Encounter or Combat Procedure) and applies Exploration Die results from the prior Turn.
BB. Exploration Die Events are resolved and noted. (Can Open Encounter Procedure)
CC. Players ask questions about surroundings or events and the Referee clarifies.
DD. Players state actions.
EE. Referee confirms player actions with clarification of any mechanics used.
FF. Actions are resolved.
GG. Players note any status or equipment changes on Character Sheets.
HH. Roll Exploration Die for next Turn.
TURN ENDS

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Classic Vs. Five Rooms

FIVE ROOMS DON'T MAKE A DUNGEON

This blog is largely devoted to repeating a single message about game design, hammering away at the same subjects for what I hope is a growing audience. At times it feels repetitive and foolish, but then when one looks out into the larger Roleplaying Game community there’s still a lot of confusion about these same subjects -- the “Dungeon Crawl” style of play.

So once again what is a Dungeon Crawl? Why might some adventures or play styles that call themselves Dungeon Crawls fail to deliver on the promise of the genre? To explore this topic I’ll discuss a design exercise/theory and adventure format popular in the Contemporary Traditional community, the “Five Room Dungeon”. To some extent this distinction is one of definition, but I think it’s a useful distinction as it will hopefully introduce some players to the Classic style of play or at least provide tools to think about the differences between play styles and examine what sort of experience one’s table provides.

The Contemporary Traditional community has its own ethos of play, values, design principles, preferred mechanics and of course play style, and my goal isn’t to pass judgment on them, denigrate, or otherwise offend. Rather I want to present some reasons why designing and playing following the Five Room Dungeon format may not feel much like dungeon exploration and why it doesn’t fit within the (or my) definition of a Dungeon Crawl derived from or following the Classic play style found in such adventures as Caverns of Thracia.

This is all certainly not to say that Five Room Dungeons are bad or don’t work for the play style that they are designed for, only that they aren’t a panacea for adventure design or a great place to start when learning about Classic play or the Dungeon Crawl. To help understand why, it’s necessary to describe what goes into a Dungeon Crawl, or perhaps a “Crawl” more generally, as the Dungeon Crawl shares key elements with wilderness adventure designed as Point, Hex, or Wave Crawls. The basic structure of the Crawl style adventure contains three elements: Space, Exploration and Procedure.

Crawling Into the Past 

What does the Dungeon Crawl promise? To some it’s a label for any adventure set in an underground maze or even any fantasy adventure regardless of design and mechanics. To me and as used here, the Dungeon Crawl label implies something more: an adventure in a complex environment filled with danger: traps, monsters, secrets and mysteries -- something beyond just combat or NPC interactions where the location and environment is an important character in the game. Focusing more narrowly, the simplest definition I have for a Crawl as a set of design principles is to say that it’s a play style or adventure where the locus of play is:

A fantastical SPACE that is EXPLORED PROCEDURALLY.

I’ll be looking at each of these elements a bit individually, and they may already be familiar to regular readers of All Dead Generations, but I’ll only be discussing the definitions and how the elements work holistically rather than the details of their history or supporting mechanics.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Classic Vs. The Aesthetic

AESTHETICS


“Clewd the Fighter straps down his heavy heater shield and loosens his arming sword in its sheath, while behind him Sister Agata’s kneels, her mace resting on the flagstones and lips moving in a prayer to St. Cuth the Chastiser. The rest of the party stands behind: Rastar the wizard - impassive, Dougal the thief, picking his nails with a barbed knife, Blackleaf the elf, eyes unfocused thinking back to some riot of flowers or bloody skirmish in the forests of his home three hundred years before, and three stalwart hobilers in thick hauberks recruited from Fort Tribulation and wielding 12’ bec de corbins. The band is ready, and with a shout Clewd kicks open the rotten oak and rusted iron bands of the damp swollen door, bursting into another of the square stone cells beneath the ruins of Castle Doomeye.

Squealing goblins scatter for their crooked spears and rusting implements of war, surprised by the adventurers. In the guttering light of a torch held by one of the Fort Tribulation Stalwarts, the band sweeps through the humanoid’s lair. Black blood splatters, and the goblins fall to blade and bone crushing mace before they can organize resistance. Only Blackleaf can understand the subhumans’ cries for mercy, their gurgling mongrel tongue incomprehensible to the people of law and civilization, but Blackleaf delights in their terror, as his people and the teeming goblin filth have waged a war of annihilation for ten thousand years. In moments the chamber is still and the brave adventurers, inured to the stink of split bellies and ferric tang of blood, ransack the goblins’ corpses for a handful of copper trinkets and braided rat tails.

Dougal grunts, sniffing a dubious, yellowed goblin sausage before tossing it back onto one of the foe’s corpses and points to the damp swollen door on the other side of the room. Beyond the maze of dungeons and gray stone corridors continues, winding ever deeper. Shockingly regular and featureless, only a mad wizard could conceive of and construct such a place to conceal golden treasure and ancient sorcery.”

NOTE: THIS POST IS NOT ABOUT THE USE OF HUMANOIDS OR THE RACIALIZED OTHER IN DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. OBVIOUSLY GYGAXIAN VERNACULAR FANTASY IS STEEPED IN UNEXAMINED MID-CENTURY AMERICAN CULTURE AND ATTITUDES ABOUT RACE. ONE CAN'T CHANGE THIS BY DECLARING HUMANOIDS COSMICALLY EVIL, OR NOTING THAT D&D IS JUST A GAME, AND THE ISSUE PERSISTS OR EVEN WORSENS IN CURRENT EDITIONS WHICH REMOVE NUANCE AND MORAL DECISION WITH A TENDENCY TOWARDS COMBAT FOCUSED PLAY.
THIS POST IS ABOUT HOW AESTHETICS  (SETTING, PLAYER EXPECTATIONS, THEMES AND IMAGERY) INTERACT WITH MECHANICS AND DESIGN PRINCIPLES. 


Dungeons & Dragons has specific aesthetics, the most frequent a product of the particular vision and play style of its early pioneers, changed and complemented by the way their games evolved and refined through the art of early TSR publications, and in the half century since. The Mid-Western campaigns of Greyhawk and Blackmoor were a pastiche pulp Swords and Sorcery, Tolkien and wargaming ephemera. While the earliest art and description for Dungeons & Dragons is haphazard and fairly fantastical in nature, much of the late 1970’s Dungeon & Dragons art suggests a knowledge of and concern for historical arms and equipment. Especially in the work of some artists, characters are fully armored and wield a variety of authentic looking weapons. Gygax’s particular interests also push in this direction, with the increasingly detailed (and apocryphal) equipment lists of AD&D and his indulgence of an uneducated obsession in medieval weaponry. Gygax’s first editorial in Strategic review is an odd pseudo-historical (it was used by “primitive” and poor peoples) justification of why spears are ineffective in Chainmail while his second is a compilation of loving description and mechanical details for varied polearms that doubles the size of the Original Dungeons & Dragons weapon list.

I call this “Gygaxian Vernacular Fantasy” -- a bricolage of Tolkien, Conan and Osprey Publishing’s Medieval Warrior series full of dungeons, evil humanoids and +1 swords that is incredibly influential. The paragraphs of fiction above are an exaggeration of the form, emphisizing its retrograde and unexamined morality, and by now it should look quotidian. In the 1970’s it was novel, and useful for early Dungeons tying down the more fantastical elements of Swords & Sorcery with the details of medieval wargaming. It has been highly successful since, creating the basic understanding of "fantasy" seemingly worldwide. Yet, that very success has led to some of the present difficulties in writing for it or playing it.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Classic Vs. The Past

A PDF of this 60 page adventure is available on DriveThruRPG.  An introductory delve into a densely interactive classic dungeon crawl designed with contemporary sensibilities.


RPGS Aren't Played As They Were In The 1970’s And Even Classic RPG Design Must Grapple With It!

All Dead Generations is a blog about “Classic Gaming”, something that Retired Adventurer’s “Six Cultures of Play” essay in April identified as “oriented around the linked progressive development of challenges and PC power, with the rules existing to help keep those in rough proportion to one another and adjudicate the interactions of the two "fairly" … The focus on challenge-based play means lots of overland adventure and sprawling labyrinths and it recycles the same notation to describe towns, which are also treated as sites of challenge.”

While the essay notes that I use the term Classic to perhaps describe something different then it’s version of Classic play, I’m not sure I fully agree. Yes, All Dead Generations frequently suggests rule variation from the primary sources of what Retired Adventurer identifies as the Classic style (AD&D and 1981’s Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert books) and certainly my preferred aesthetics of phantasmagoric Western or opium fever Dunsanyian fantasy are somewhat far removed from the Gygaxian vernacular fantasy of gray stone corridors full of orcs that make up most classic adventures, but as far as ethics of play and play-style goals I place both All Dead Generations and my adventure design firmly in the Classic tradition. Why the distinction then? There are certainly still plenty of designers working with the Gygax aesthetic, and perfecting adventure design that reflects back to Keep on the Borderlands or even Castle Greyhawk. I’m not, and moreover the entire purpose of Jewelbox Design is somewhat antithetical to the maximal dungeons traditional for Classic play.

I’d argue that All Dead Generations and my current dungeon design seek to offer the same sort of “progressive development of challenges” and fairness that are the core of Classic design, but make them functional for contemporary play. By contemporary play I don’t mean 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons or its design principles, I mean the actual physical conditions that most RPGs seem to be played in in 2021. Two or three hour sessions, played at most once a week seems the modern standard, especially for online play. This is very different then how Gygax and other early designers appear to have run their tables and visualized play. While it’s a bit hard to pin down the exact length of Gygax’s sessions for Castle Greyhawk, Gygax notes in the April 1976 issue of the Strategic Review that:

“It is reasonable to calculate that if a fair player takes part in 50 to 75 games in the course of a year he should acquire sufficient experience points to make him about 9th to 11th level, assuming that he manages to survive all that play. The acquisition of successively higher levels will be proportionate to enhanced power and the number of experience points necessary to attain them, so another year of play will by no means mean a doubling of levels but rather the addition of perhaps two or three levels. Using this gauge, it should take four or five years tosee 20th level. As BLACKMOOR is the only campaign with a life of five years, and GREYHAWK with a life of four is the second longest running campaign, the most able adventurers should not yet have attained 20th level except in the two named campaigns. To my certain knowledge no player in either BLACKMOOR or GREYHAWK has risen above 14th level.”

The important context here is that while the number of sessions played is somewhere around one or two a week (though Gygax apparently ran Greyhawk more often with different groups), the length of the campaign is assumed to be many years. The length of session also seems to have generally been far longer. The original announcement for Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign read “There will be a medieval "Braunstein" April 17, 1971 at the home of Dave Arneson from 1300 hrs to 2400 hrs with refreshments being available on the usual basis.... It will feature mythical creatures and a Poker game under the Troll's bridge between sunup and sundown.” An eleven hour game session. One assumes that Greyhawk ran on a similar basis, at least on the weekends, and even on weeknights and for younger players at least 4 to 5 hours.

Given this disparity in time, both of the individual sessions and the length of campaigns, it’s very unlikely that the classic megadungeons of Greyhawk and Blackmoor, or even shorter published adventures like Tomb of Horror were approachable in shorter, less frequent sessions. In an interesting example, the 1975 Origins I run of the Tomb was supposed to be two hours, though famously only the a level “Evil lord” and 14 orc retainers played by Rob Kuntz finished it with a virtuoso display of calculating orc sacrifice that took 4 hours. This 1975 edition of the Tomb was lengthened for commercial release, with more complexity and puzzles added that greatly expanded play time.

Kuntz’s delve into the Tomb of Horrors varies from another aspect of early play that’s different from present conventions, Robilar the Evil Lord completed the Tomb of Horrors solo, with a large number of retainers. While there’s several stories of similar solo play or adventures for small numbers of drop in visitors, the party size that explored Gygax’s castle Greyhawk during it’s long weekend session ranged up to 10 or 20 players. As anyone who has run a group of that size can attest, organizational efforts and decision making take longer, but the party’s ability to handle threats (combat especially) are vastly improved. Contemporary, and especially online play, depends on smaller parties. Rime of the Frost Maiden, a recent WotC campaign, is designed for four to six players, compared with the six to nine players Keep on the Borderlands suggests.

While they overlap at the edges, and vary, all three of these circumstantial elements: campaign length, session length and expected party size are generally smaller in contemporary play. The limitations imposed by technology as well as different expectations of how rpg play will work have changed since the mid 1970’s. While none of these 2021 conventions are worse or better then those of 1976 they do militate for a different style of adventure design and perhaps rules modifications that account for shorter sessions.

Monday, March 29, 2021

So You Want to Build a Dungeon?

You want to write a dungeon adventure for a classic style roleplaying game, and you want it to be good. How does that work?

What exactly does a “dungeon” imply and what is it as a game tool?

A dungeon is a specific kind of adventure, one that has its own form and which requires certain elements to be successful. More, a dungeon is a “location based adventure”—an adventure that will involve the exploration of a fictional space room by room. It’s certainly not the only kind of roleplaying adventure, but it’s the primary kind for a particular exploration, navigation and problem solving style of play that is both the oldest and still a compelling one. A dungeon must be a fantastical location, but it need not be an underground maze or cave system: buildings, shipwrecks, space stations, castles, formal gardens or the corpses of an enormous beast all make fine dungeons.

What is necessary for a dungeon adventure is to create a bounded fantastical space, “Rooms”, linked together in some order that the players can freely navigate: backtracking, turning, and determining routes. Within these Rooms the designer places obstacles and rewards. Traditionally this means a series set of stone corridors and chambers filled with monsters, treasures and traps. However, neither the aesthetic of the space or the nature of the inhabitants, valuables and challenges within are fixed elements of design, and reinterpreting the dungeon space can make for a novel and exciting adventure.

Likely when you decided to write an adventure you already had a story in mind, and that’s good, but since location based adventure is about the players’ decisions, that story will recede into the background. Given freedom to scheme and explore, players are as inventive and truculent as a proverbial herd of cats, and trying to force or trick them into telling a specific story is about as successful as ring-mastering a cat circus. Rather than a story, consider your ideas a “Theme”, one that will inform the “Ecology” and a “Layout” or map that together define the dungeon adventure. Putting a plot to it is likely to fail when the players, unaware of the plot, follow their own interests.This is the joy and burden of location based classic dungeon crawling, that its story has to evolve from player decision.

The most dangerous part of a designer’s story is a climax or ending because it’s very hard to include one without making dangerous compromises to the dungeon adventure form. Narrative beats make assumptions about how the characters within a story will act, and become very difficult to maintain when those characters’ decisions are being made by someone other than the author. Players decision making is unlikely to bind itself to even as simple a narrative structure: incident, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. The players may decide that they wish to avoid the climax’s confrontation by siding with the antagonist or they may simply turn away from the rising action as they become distracted or the risk seems too high and the rewards uninteresting. Instead the dungeon designer is best building only the space for a story to unfold, and relying on the players to determine the narrative within that story.

Old Games

Let’s talk about old tabletop roleplaying games - specifically the kind of games played in the 1980’s and recently depicted in the nostalgia...