Sunday, March 13, 2022
Tuesday, February 22, 2022
|A draft cover for a potential|
Crystal Frontier adventure
This is as it’s meant to be. Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier is a stand alone product, a dungeon with a minimal amount of setting to supplement it and maintain a Fantasy Western aesthetic. Hints and implications rather than a gazetteer with detailed descriptions.
Yet, The Crystal Frontier has been my home campaign for over a year, getting on to 25 sessions, with a 3rd and 4th level party. I’ve also written or at least written up notes on several more adventures for the setting, including the two large projects I’m working on currently covering the Frontier’s North Eastern coast, where fewer crystals fall, but the old history of the land is closer to the surface. So, while there’s only minimal published information on the Bull Kingdom and its Warlock King, The Successor Empire and its Syndicates, or the environs of the Crystal Frontier at large, I have a great deal of knowledge about it. For example I currently have enough notes and rough maps to quickly prepare, or run the following Crystal Frontier locations: The Tower of Musk (A manticore lair), Old Argento (Ruined former provincial capital), The Palace of War (A crashed yet mostly intact Empyrean invasion fortress/megadungeon), Cold Manse (ghoul infested haunted mansion), the Tower of Flints (pirates, owls, and a shrine to an Imperial sea god), Cold Water Hamlet, Stone Quay (a port ruled by cattle drovers), The Palace of Reflections (an extradimensional Empyrean villa accessible via a magic scroll and infested with a blue wyrm of unreason), The Bone Fields (ancient barrows being dug up to obtain ancient magic infused bones for fertilizer) and The Dead Colossus (a walking castle destroyed by the Warlock King himself during his ascent to power). Some draft art for these location illustrates this post.
I won’t reveal much detail about these locations or the factions and histories underlying them unless I get to publishing them as adventure locations (which is honestly unlikely in most cases), but I’m quite happy with this situation. These locations have evolved through my home game, and emerged from play because they make sense based on player interest and actions as part of what has been a largely emergent setting. Other people don’t need many details of the entire setting region, let alone the world its part of to run my adventures, and it’s likely best if they take the time to do their own world building as needed, taking or discarding the hints and vague outlines that my adventures provide.
Worldbuilding & Gygax ‘75
Setting is one of those popular aspects of RPG design that I enjoy immensely, but also don’t really find much use for. Like me, it seems that many referees and designers enjoy building their world, filling it with detailed minutia, histories, locations, and people. I’ve always found this both inevitable and secondary to, or worse inhibiting of play. There’s a great deal of advice on “world building” offered on blog posts and published in guides. Even most editions of the Dungeon Master’s Guide seem to contain a huge amount of suggestions about it. I don’t want to do that and I don't for my home games. At least not in the ways that it’s popularly suggested. I want the world of the setting to weigh lightly on my campaigns, to come through during play, but not demand a great deal of fidelity to some sort of “setting bible”. Instead my settings, especially anything I offer to others, should have big holes and unexplored spaces for me or another referee to add whatever they like. Most world building advice rejects this goal, and is often very “top down”: starting with the world, it’s cosmology, gods, and continents. This seems wrong to me.
|I even made a little logo for|
I am usually not especially charitable to Gygax, I find his rules fussy, his ideas about refereeing antagonistic, his public behavior fairly odious (the litigiousness alone!), his writing frustrating, and the cultish fawning over him that still persists in parts of the hobby disgusting. However, Gygax also produced excellent adventures and championed the hobby of fantasy RPGs to great success and with obviously sincere love and conviction. I may not share his weird fixation on polearm variety, but I do appreciate that from the very dawn of a hobby he was one of the its primary inventors who got many things right in ways that have sometimes been too casually discarded. One such thing that Gygax did better then more contemporary sources (such as the 5th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, which starts with a section titled “A Master of Worlds” and immediately leaps into designing a multiverse or entire world as a setting, cosmology first) was give setting design advice.The Gygax Dungeon Master’s Guide has a section about mid way through, “The Campaign” that begins with:
“What lies ahead will require the use of all of your skill, put a strain on your imagination, bring your creativity to the fore, test your patience, and exhaust your free time …Your campaign requires the above from you, and participation by your players. To belabor an old saw, Rome wasn't built in a day. You are probably lust learning, so take small steps at first. The milieu for initial adventures should be kept to a size commensurate with the needs of campaign participants … This will typically result in your giving them a brief background, placing them in a settlement, and stating that they should prepare themselves to find and explore the dungeon/ruin they know is nearby.”
Excellent and still trenchant advice which is better laid out and elaborated in the 1975 interview a few years prior. The “Gygax ‘75” process has become a bit of a regular challenge among designers who work with older editions of D&D, and it’s well explained here at DIY & Dragons. It’s also starting up again among several bloggers I enjoy, and spurred by the question regarding the Warlock King I’ve decided to apply it to the Crystal Frontier!
Wednesday, January 12, 2022
THE BOARD GAME - DUNGEON! Mid 80's box cover of DUNGEON!
In the early and mid 1970’s David R. Megarry, a member of the same gaming group as Dave Arneson and David Wesley (of Braunstein fame) and player in Arneson’s 1972 Blackmoor campaign, began to play around with the concepts he learned dungeon crawling in Blackmoor to create his own game: “Dungeons of Pasha Cada”. He sent initial handmade copies were to friends and attempted to publish through Parker Brothers but was rejected. Eventually, as part of the absorption of the Minneapolis-St. Paul gaming group, Megarry joined TSR and his game was published as DUNGEON!, with Gygax, Steve Winter, and others were added to the game's authors' list.
Built from memories of Blackmoor and the Chainmail Fantasy Supplement for monsters, spells, and concept, DUNGEON!’s rules are a brew of mid-century war games rules that may ultimately lead back to the dawn of American war gaming - Charles A. L. Totten’s Strategos (1880). While DUNGEON! is first and most importantly a board game, in the context of playing old fantasy RPGs, DUNGEON! represents an alternate evolution of Blackmoor, Greyhawk and Dungeons & Dragons.
DUNGEON! was published by TSR, only tangentially part of the Dungeons & Dragons by implication, where it remains (Wizard’s of the Coast last published a version in 2014) somewhat unchanged from the early editions. DUNGEON!'s monster and adventurer selection is firmly set in the implied setting of early Dungeons & Dragons and its name and aesthetics are so similar to early Dungeons & Dragons that in the 1980’s it was often presented as or assumed to be (at least by the folks I knew) some sort of introduction to the game for the uninitiated (its rules with their add for Dragon Magazine imply this as well). DUNGEON! though is a very, very different game from Dungeons & Dragons, both in its mechanics and goals. DUNGEON! has interesting design, intentional design even, with effort put into making a fast, competitive board game that includes RPG elements such as character asymmetry and advancement.
DUNGEON! IS INTENTIONAL DESIGN
Dungeon isn’t a roleplaying game, it’s not a version of Dungeons & Dragons, or even Blackmoor - notably it doesn’t have a referee or dungeon master, it offers no open ended obstacles based on description or faction intrigue. DUNGEON! doesn’t even resemble contemporary refereeless games as it has no elements of shared narrative control or storytelling. It is just a board game, where control of setting and “story” are lodged firmly with the designer and the random determinations of the dice - the players of course have some agency in that they decide where their adventurers go and what routes they take, but it doesn’t offer control in the way that contemporary referee free RPGs like Fiasco do. While DUNGEON! isn’t a roleplaying game in the normal sense, it still contains some of the basics of dungeon exploration: navigation as a puzzle, risk and reward calculations and turnkeeping.
|The Original Board for DUNGEON!|
Combat consists of rolling 2d6 aiming for a target number based on adventurer class and the monster. A second roll determines the result of a lost combat, with only a 2 resulting in the “death” of the adventurer, and 3 or 12 resulting in a serious injury, loss of all treasure, and retreat back to the stairs. That’s around an 11% chance of serious loss (most negative results end in retreat, loss of a turn or single treasure) assuming a failed first roll. Once a monster is defeated the adventurer collects the treasure or possibly a magic item that will improve their future chances by looking at cards in other rooms (crystal balls, esp medallions) or adding to their attack roll (magic swords). Wizards alone can cast spells, mostly to attack monsters without risk of reprisal. Advanced rules exist allowing players to ambush each other.
|Low Level Monsters and Treasure|
These simple rules are meant to create a high risk competitive board game, they don't support character development or cooperation, and they don't present open ended problems beyond player strategy in navigating the board and judging risk. Looking at them closely, or playing DUNGEON!, it's clear how well the rules manage to deliver on this simple concept and how complex player decisions can become.
Saturday, January 1, 2022
Another year has passed, and my 11th blogging about old fantasy roleplaying games begins. Looking around the classic RPGand Post OSR community today I see a lot of folks talking about 2021, what lessons they took from it, what they accomplished. I won't. I learned nothing in 2021.
2021 was a bad year.
Plague. Death. Fire. Flood. Ignorance. Malice.
A year of mute calamity.
Sure, I put some adventures up on DriveThru RPG that got some ideas out of my head and which I hope some people enjoyed. I wrote some blog posts, including helping found the review site Bones of Contention, and managed to run 20 odd sessions of my Crystal Frontier home game, but 2021 is done.
NO PAST ONLY FORWARD
2022 is cracking from the egg now and I have some plans, hopes, and hobby aspirations. I've listed these projects below in rough order starting with the most possible and likely earliest to arrive.
1. CURSE OF THE GANSHOGGR
A 20ish page, fairy tale and saga influenced adventure for Ava Islam's Errant system. The Ganshoggr, a goose-dragon of prodigious size despoils the Goose Lands in the Empire of Birds as a mark of the avian gods' disapproval of the Goose King's war-making and misrule. The King wants it dead, his champions have failed and he certainly doesn't want to fight it himself.
Where brave goskarls have failed perhaps waves of greedy errants may succeed. The Ganshoggr dwells in the ancient barrows of the Anser Kings, hoarding tombgold and plunder. Challenge the Ganshoggr to single combat, unravel its mysteries and weaknesses, murder it in its sleep, or simply steal its hoard and leave the gooselands are turned to a guano poisoned marsh.
Powerful singular monsters in fantasy rpgs tend to be anti-climactic. It’s hard to overcome the action economy or the players’ schemes without making something that can utterly destroy the party without a second thought. The Ganshoggr is an attempt to instead create a dragon that is 1) Very dangerous to confront, almost impossible even 2) Has clear fairy tale “rules” for how it acts 3) Offers alternative means to defeat and has discoverable weaknesses.
2. CRYSTAL COAST EULOGY
Instead this land is mired in ignorance, feuds and old evil. The town of Coldwater rots inland, from the pirate shadowed cliffs and coves, once a plaything of the wealthy Cold family, and now isolated and failing. Obsessed with their customs and artistic pretensions the people of Coldwater ignore the ruins of Cold Manse, burned by revolutionary violence and pretend that families don’t disappear from Coldwater in the night. The Manse is of course haunted, and despite the best efforts of their persecutors, the Cold Family endures.
Demon worshipers and beneficiaries/victims of the Blackheart Contagion, the Colds have endured because they are scheming, immortal cannibals hiding in the undercrypts of their ruined mansion and focused on their own aristocratic pretensions: religion, art, esoteric scholarship and gastronomy. Yet the Younger Colds chaff at the rule of their elders (and the cruel punishments that await family members who defy them) providing for faction conflict and intrigue as well as exploration and the catharsis of massacring ghoulish aristocrats.
Crystal Coast Eulogy is also an experiment for me, a break with Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontiers dense “Jewelbox” style in an effort to create an adventure that still offers faction intrigue and puzzle opportunities, but is less dense to support greater focus on navigation and classic exploration within the limitations of OSE or B/X’s movement systems and exploration procedure. The main problem I have with the B/X exploration procedures is that like all early D&D exploration they seem to assume a far longer session time then online play supports. This is turn demands larger dungeons for them to function well, and larger dungeons are near impossible to write in my preferred style.
Interior Design Draft
My hope is that by using streamlined descriptions for many of the keys, and saving denser descriptions for around 20 important areas I can write a 100+ key dungeon without losing too much detail and setting. Likewise I want to see how well I can design a dungeon for these procedures that functions with shorter sessions which means lots of entrances, shortcuts and discrete sections of the dungeon. Not a full on nodal mega-dungeon, with small sections split by procedurally generated, scale enlarged or otherwise simplified empty regions, but a fully keyed large dungeon that is functional without ignoring movement speed and supply or demanding players explore it in six hour sessions.
While much of Cold Manse is a reference to the Ghormenghast novels, another aspect of Eulogy that I'm interested in is creating a haunted house - a close look at the cover image may see the influence of Disney's Haunted Mansion, and the interior is likewise intended to be filled with ghosts and phantoms that don't follow the standard Dungeons & Dragons structure for undead encounters. There's still a lot of work to do on Crystal Coast Eulogy, but I've play tested some of the first level, and it went well, so I think it's just a matter of sitting down and writing another 60 keys. Then the layout and art of course...
3. CRYSTAL COAST REQUIEM
A companion to Eulogy, this is a regional point crawl with another dungeon (an abandoned lighthouse and shrine to the Imperial Saint of drowned sailors). Cold Manse from Eulogy will be the tentpole dungeon of the region, but it has other things going on, allowing referees with both books to run a region low level campaign. Rather then purely a gazetteer, Crystal Coast Requiem provides details and travel rules for a sub region of the Crystal Frontier, based loosely on the coast of Northern California. Faction and regional conflict, capable of quickly accelerating into a range war.
The core of Requiem is work I did in 2017 to support the re-release of Prison of the Hated Pretender, another dungeon with extensive notes -- instruction on the goal of the design or how to run it. Requiem focuses on faction intrigue, both within its dungeon and at the regional level, allowing the players to reshape the faction structure based on their actions.
I've also got a few other things planned or partially thought through, but the three projects above are the ones I hope to complete. For blog posts and reviews I'm currently writing up Part II of my look at treasure design, a post on the use of random tables in adventure design and another on the problems with nostalgia in the RPG community and design. For Bones of Contention I'm currently reviewing the re-release of Deep Carbon Observatory and looking at its place as an exemplar of mid-OSR design, as well as how it's various and varied experiments in adventure design hold up.
Friday, November 12, 2021
GAZING BACKWARDS INTO THE ABYSS
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
|All Illustrations are |
Howard Pyle's from 1883 - 1921
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
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
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.
NEO-CLASSICAL EXPLORATION PROCEDURE
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.
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