Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Awesome Pain in the Ass That Was DragonQuest

Continuing my trio of bargain-bin rescues from Glasgow (actually a gift from Paolo, in lieu of buying an adventure from the system) I present to you DragonQuest, 2nd edition!

Why does this RPG system set my teeth on edge? My nostalgia should be all for SPI and the days of punching out wargame counters, all for Deathmaze and Citadel of Blood and War of the Ring and Sword and Sorcery. But good boardgaming chops do not guarantee a good roleplaying game.

Let's judge a book by its cover. Sorry guys, RPG players are not just dreaming of being Conan. D&D art got that right more often than not. They are in a fantasy-hero world, but team players; just like they're in a horror world, but not doomed, and in a science fantasy world, but stone cold medieval. The Frazetta muscleman hoisting up the results of his DragonQuest like a trophy bass is someone else's idea of "sword and sorcery".

The writing style of the game is a 180 degree reaction against the fast, loose but evocative D&D writing of the time. No gaps and confusing terminology here! DQ is buckled and strapped into the case law structure of an SPI wargame's rules (see 3.7.5.1 and apply the Rules Writing Procedure). If the GM has leeway, we'll tell you exactly where that leeway is. It's meant to be clear, but it's mechanizing and alienating on the page. The wargame influence also shows in the tight regulation of combat on a hex grid.

Maybe case-law would work if the mechanics were more elegant, as in Metagaming's contemporary offering The Fantasy Trip. But they're standard Rolemaster-type fare, a percentile skill system with "RPG 2.0" features like separate fatigue and physical damage, damage-reducing armor, critical hits, background packages, custom advancement ... Determining target numbers might have you multiplying 39 by 2.5. Damage involves frequent table lookups to see if a crit and physical damage happen. God forbid you should have a d6 laying around the house, here, roll one of your d10's and take half for a d5 instead. And roll four of those d5s to determine your character's stats.

What's a Satanic panic?
But it's funny how often interesting magic systems come attached to clunky base mechanics, while elegant systems like TFT or RuneQuest have difficult or prosaic approaches to magic. Certainly, something was possessing SPI around the turn of the 80's. They had a boardgame about the demons from the Lesser Key of Solomon, and worked some of those names into their Citadel of Blood adventure game. And yes, there's a whole school of DQ demon summoning that ramps up to 16 pages of fully powered Goetic infernal royalty. That menu is clearly where all the love lies, and the other magic schools suffer collectively by comparison. Some are solid, some near-unplayable like the Water Magic school with its Aquaman-style restriction.

By the way, there is a lot of cribbing from D&D, especially in the monster list. And in the kind of rules that compel game balance. Wizards can't cast near cold iron or while being distracted by damage. Player characters who poison their weapons might nick themselves. This points at the heart of the problem, that Dragonquest isn't built around a compelling setting (implicitly, as in D&D, or explicitly, as in Runequest). So much of it is generic that the special stuff fails to stick.

For example, instead of alignment, your characters get a quasi-astrological Aspect which gives them bonuses and penalties for very short periods of the day or year, or around a birth or death. Sounds cool, but it doesn't really resonate with any other social or magical structure, mostly boiling down to an optimum time and place to do housebound skill tests. Only the death aspect has any impact on the typical adventurer, with a +10% bonus just after a mammal dies near you.

At least the 2nd edition book concludes creditably, with a tight little sample adventure in a bandit oasis. It maybe shows, though, that DQ doesn't really know what kind of fantasy game it is. The journey to the camp is described last of all, oh yeah, you might encounter a sand golem. The real detail is put into the characters at the camp, their secrets and intrigues. It's not really necessary that one is a halfling and another is a hobgoblin. The magic, too, is subtle, pulp-story stuff. There are other consequences of aping the pulp era (the camp is run by one "Alla Akabar," and roles for NPC women comprise jealous wife and sex victim). Perhaps the game is more suited for would-be Conans after all?

Saturday, 28 April 2018

One Page Dungeon 2018: Beneath the Nameless Towers of the Kremlin

This year I thought I would do something gonzo and topical about all the rumors, disinformation, and horrible truths surrounding the Russia of the Czars, the Soviets, and Putin. There is a wealth of material, some of it verified, some of it shadowy, some of it obvious bullshit, and some of it (like Mushroom Lenin) a purposeful hoax. Any adventurers from any world using time or dimensional travel might find themselves summoned to the mad science labs under Moscow, embroiled in a Kremlinological intrigue.



Linked pdf version with sources for all the history and mythology.
 

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Why the City?

File:Dommersen Gothic cathedral in a medieval city.jpg
"All I wanted was a repeating hand crossbow!"


Continuing the discussion about urban supplements and adventures ...

Cities and towns are ambiguous places in fantasy adventure roleplaying games.


They are safe places where parties can expect to rest, refit, do business, and train in a predictable way.
They are boring places where the above activities take place, between real adventures, with little fuss or muss.

BUT

They are dangerous places of adventure, crime, fights, intrigues, in the tradition of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser and dozens of other fantasy sources.
They are interesting places full of local color and characteristics.

Because of this dual role, and other characteristics such as their non-linear, fractal organization, cities are easy to get wrong in play. Players just want to trade and heal up, but the GM comes barging in with plots and names and scenery and thieves and murderers. Players want to get involved in the city, but the GM doesn't have details, or has so many details that there's no place to start. The encyclopedic organization of nearly every city book ever produced, including the one we looked at last time, doesn't help with this at all.

If you want the city to be safe and boring, in fact, there's no need for any special material about the city, other than a name, location, and approximate size to gauge the availability of goods and services.

Otherwise, it's useful to think about four kinds of "actions" in urban play.

Player-to-GM, mandatory. Players expect they can do a number of things in a decent city or town. Find an inn to rest, a temple to heal, various shops to buy equipment and sell loot, places to train. An urbanity without any of these features is damaged and in need of explanation, as when you buy a sword that is prone to break at the first blow.

Player-to-GM, optional. A lot of urban play revolves around players asking for goods and services that are not standard or listed in the rules. "Can I buy a repeating crossbow? Can I commission one? Can I find an arena fight? Is there a wizard who wants to trade spells with me?" The GM can agree, flatly refuse, or put some kind of test or adventure in the way.

GM-to-player, optional. GMs can also insert clues or hooks to tempt the players into adventure as they go about their mundane business; strange buildings, odd happenings in the street, the old man in the corner of the inn. Or, the players can just get things done and move on to the next dungeon.

GM-to-player, mandatory. This is when characters, plots and situations force themselves on the players. Guards barge in, thieves sneak in, wizards demand their time, the neighborhood is on fire; a thousand ways for the city to compel adventure.

Now, this scheme can help coordinate GM and player expectations about what they think is fun about cities, with players being able to talk about their need for more or less GM involvement at any point in the campaign. But it also suggests a better way to organize books about cities.
  • You start, literally, with the party at the city gates, describing what they see and what they have to do to get in.
  • You list the most common targets of Player-GM Mandatory play -- inns, shops, temples -- how to find them, and any "color" peculiarities about them (the temple has a dragon's skull for a dome! the inn has a goblin barkeep!) The players can stick to that shallow level of interaction, or dive in deeper.
  • You then describe ways to satisfy a number of Player-GM Optional requests, including things they may not have thought of themselves. The unusual goods and services in the town, and what they have to do to access them.
  • You give hooks and encounters that are GM-Player Optional, things they may see in the street. This is how you introduce factions: start with visible signs in society, later the full story of who is involved, and how these interact behind the scenes.
  • Finally, some strong moves that are GM-Player Mandatory. These can proceed logically from the party's other business (they see something they shouldn't have seen, so assassins are sent after them; a messenger from the Red Wizard Guild tries to talk them out of further business at the Blue Wizard Guild store). They can introduce contingencies, countermoves, campaigns.
The first two of these are kind of what I was getting at in the Street Guide Without Streets years ago. It's also a similar structure to the functional method of room description in adventures. With a little thought about what's useful, writers can satisfy both the GM's need for accessible information, and the player's variable needs for involvement with the goings-on in a city.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Can We Do Better than the Tyrant's Demesne?

So. I'm back.

Visiting Paolo up in the northern lands, we went to the excellent game shop Static on King Street and browsed its second-hand trove. I came away with two third-party products from the glory days of my first encounters with D&D, the early 80's days of electric-typewriter-and-Letraset layout, amateur art, and occasional gemstones of creativity amid the dross of naive simulationism. Paolo added thereto a third item from his collection. In the next few posts, I'll now review and muse upon these items in ascending order of interest value.

First up: WITHIN THE TYRANT'S DEMESNE, "a complete campaign module set in the world of Haven." The stats are from the "Thieves' Guild" game but very similar to the levels and abilities of D&D or its then-numerous improved systems. The authors don't get cover billing, but it's a collaboration among four names, chiefly Walter Hunt and Richard Meyer. The artists include -- is that Jeff Dee? no, the similarly cartoon-deco-styled V. M. Wyman (are those sci-fi lady initials?), and some other less talented names.

Overall: A standard fantasy city where the intrigues are predictable.

Cons: The kind of gazetteer-style design Zak's Vornheim reacted against. We start with a regional map and history, call out the factions and describe in detail each of their characters, go for a "tour" around the city neighborhoods, involving more building, shop and character descriptions, and finally -- in a 48-page book -- get down to six pages of plots and encounters that deploy what we've seen.

There's very little bizarre about the place, even in its weirdness. There's a tyrant, who keeps power through his brutal guards, the unfortunately named Redshirts, and also through a coopted thieves' guild. There's a merchant society, a bunch of wizard guilds. Reading about the other characters, it doesn't feel much like a tyranny is going on. Political allegiances of most shopkeepers are down to a random table. Explicit descriptions of oppression, resistance, toadying, plotting, and cowardice are few and far between. Probably the most memorable encounter hook is a bunch of blobby chaos creatures who bring back human meat for a butcher, Sweeney Todd style.

Awful wordplay abounds, like the gang modeled after The Who with a "Dr. Jimmy," a "Quiet One," etc.; the potion seller Plazebo; throwing in some obscure US labor movement references, a wizard called Ilgwu who is involved in a plot with the resistance leader Johill. But ...

Pro 1: In a fantasy world filled with Butars, Adars, Radmars, Bonams, Corams, and the occasional Lobar (all from the Tyrant's Demesne, mind you), it can be hard to get names straight. Yes, awful puns can help the DM remember who's who.

BUT, the players must get the puns only too late, or never. So Plazebo is too obvious; the Who goons could be just under the radar. Likewise the most clever name in the module, a lockpicker named Kasserine Khyber, after two famous mountain passes from military history. I once had a party do a whole campaign where Rick, son of Nick lived in a millhouse with a water gate near the Ford of Jerrold and was being investigated by the Wood Warden Burnsteen from the rangers' Post... Thankfully, they never got it until I revealed the scheme.

Pro 2: The intrigues, when actually described, are decent spots of mystery. There's a fairly linear plot to follow and discover a traitor to the Tyrant; a more multi-threaded plot involving apparitions of the apparently dead Johill, with a Scooby Doo-type explanation; and a number of short encounters that highlight some of the other secrets of the town. They're just hiding behind long stretches of description that follow neither the logical order of player engagement with the setting, nor the order of GM preparation to run any given adventure. The helpful table of NPC stats in the back can't mitigate this.

To do better in a modern-day roleplaying work, we have to realize what the city is, functionally, for the players and their characters. And that's the next post.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

One Page Dungeon 2017: Worm Scramblers of the Deep Dire Door

No matter how inactive my blog, I have been trying to come up with something for the One Page contest every year since 2013. This year I was going to post another suite of rooms from my megadungeon but inspiration struck at the last moment - "what if you had a dungeon that was inside a door? A giant door?" The rest practically wrote itself thanks to a very detailed engraving of a crunchy old-time castle door, some pun-generated monsters, and a meta-puzzle about opening the Door from within and who might want you to do that.



"Shrunken adventurers" is a trope verging on cliche so I gave the GM the chance to make the door an actual, 300' high door in some unfathomable dungeon, which I think is the clutch choice for sure. Anyway, it feels good to be able to throw something into the ring on fairly short notice!

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Cold Iron: Forgery and Reality

European folklore often paints fey creatures as allergic to iron. This supports the idea that people with Bronze or Stone age technology, defeated by iron-using peoples, passed into the victors' mythology as faeries and other weird beings. The first and finest expression of this belief in gaming comes from Runequest, where technology is Bronze Age, meteorite iron is rare and near-magical, and elves and trolls can't stand it.

As with so many other issues, Runequest had the elegant solution and D&D ham-fisted it. In a medieval, iron-using society, there's nothing special about the metal itself. Thus the peculiarity, in the AD&D Monster Manual, of seeing iron as the bane of demons and other evil creatures. And the backpedaling, in a couple of entries, to insist that only "cold iron" bans a ghast or harms a quasit.

Adding injury to St. Dunstan's insult.
As I understood this back in the day, "iron" must mean something different from steel. Most likely, the carbon involved in forging weapons in the medieval-Renaissance world somehow disrupted the mojo of iron, so you would have to special-order a mace head of the same stuff as your cauldron or door handle. And, it would be reasonably balancing to say that non-carbon iron couldn't make up a useful blade, because it would be too soft or brittle.

"Cold iron" is near-meaningless, more a poetic epithet than a technical term. Iron can't be extracted from ore without heat, and "cold forging" is a modern industrial term which assumes you can die-stamp a sheet of rolled iron (which passed through heat in the smelting and rolling processes). One obvious way to get iron "cold" is to chip it off a meteorite, but with what tools exactly?

Over the years, the D&D rules got cleaned up to the point where only this "cold iron" can harm some immune monsters, and the 3rd edition SRD lists it as a special material: "This iron, mined deep underground, known for its effectiveness against fey creatures, is forged at a lower temperature to preserve its delicate properties ."

Well, but there's something too game-y balance-y about this solution, full of vague and passive rules-speak. "Stuff that harms the Weird is super expensive because it comes from a Place of Rareness." It makes sense but lacks resonance. The same goes for meteorite iron. I suppose if only dwarves or lost human races had the technology to whittle blades from meteorites that would sound a bit cooler. But ...

Why not have iron (as opposed to steel) just show up the ability of non-carbon-forged tools and household implements to resist the supernatural? After all, the silver that devils and werewolves fear is dirt-common in the D&D world. Silver pieces are crappy coins that make slightly more expensive sling bullets than lead. A party in my campaign once bought a silver teapot, filled it with sand, and swung it as a flail against the equivalent of wights. So why not have desperate halfling housewives fending off a quasit with a skillet? Or adventurers chucking their iron door spikes at ghasts? 

As a bonus, if elves can't stand iron spikes, it throws a little game balance into elven PC's who (at least in AD&D) are far superior to poor old humans.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Content, Advice, Procedures and a Rat Carpet

Chris McDowall on G+ asks:

GM Sections

Advice is better than Content
Procedures are better than Advice.

Where does this sit on the Truth to Horseshit Spectrum? 


I reply:

I just see a continuum of description from static to active. Pure content just describes what is there and lets you (GM) figure out what is going to happen. Add advice, and there are some suggestions as to likely things which will happen. Add procedures, and you have detailed mini-rules for some of these things. I don't think there is a law for balancing the three, but I do think that good game writing contains all three.


To elaborate:

Writing rules or scenario for a game that will be run by a Game Master is actually a very forgiving job. What you omit, the Game Master can just fill in using improvisation. What you overwrite, the GM can just ignore. Every GM wrestles somewhat with the texts they interpret. Some even enjoy wrestling -- as I enjoy filling in the details of the mainly bare-bones Castle of the Mad Archmage, as others enjoy using a stripped-down rule set and making with the rulings.

But there are also costs to each of these excesses. 

Working on-the-day to fill in gaps is necessarily going to be slapdash. Cliches will be reached for. Things won't connect. I take it as an article of faith that GMs have more trouble inflicting great ruin or reward on a party if those consequences are not written down. 

Overwriting descriptions and rules has three costs. First, the cost in time for you to think it through and write it. Second, the physical cost to print it - there is less adventure for the buck in a tome stuffed with page-long rooms. Third, the cost for the GM to locate what's important in a piece of writing.

How to get the balance right? In the megadungeon I'm writing these days, each room is described in 50 to 500 words. 

Content is the usual monster, treasure, and hazard description; beyond that, each description must pull its weight either as potential player interaction, as atmosphere, or as a "clue" that gives meaning to the larger structure of the dungeon.

Advice comes about when there is an obvious thing the player can do or the room can do. Advice should not try to out-think the players. There should be gaps for the players to surprise the GM. If this creates an advantage you didn't anticipate, you are allowed one cry of "My precious ENCOUNTER" and then just roll with it. They are sure enough to compensate with some incredible bonehead move somewhere else.

Procedures are needed when the action in the advice can lead either to gain or harm in a way not covered by the rules. Most rule sets will cover the basics of combat, some simple hazards like falling, and treasure gain. For anything else important it is better to rules-write than to hand-wave at the table. Most GMs have a soft spot and writing down the butcher's bill ahead of time is a way to keep yourself honest.

Rat king rug by Pupsam

Here's one room, inspired by Margaret St, Clair, with Content, Advice, Procedures in different colors.

===

56. MINOTAUR BARRACKS. Both doors to the room are closed. Above each door, in the lintel, is carved the head and arms of a minotaur with a two-headed axe. Opening them is difficult because the floor beyond is a living, chirping carpet of 100 pink-eyed albino rat swarms, stinking of urine and musk. A pulsing mauve light suffuses the room, from something blue glowing through the mass of bodies in the middle, piled up 2’. The room’s 50 bunk beds have been turned against the walls, so that the carpet is 14’ wide.

The rats will not leave the room and will not bite, but en masse they are psychically sensitive and very frail. In their midst the mind fills with their agitation, frustration and hatred. Being trod on or roughly handled kills d4 rats per 10’ trodden, broadcasting their death agonies to sentient minds within 10’, who must save (spell/Will/WIS) or take 1 damage per killed rat. If multiple groups are killed at the same time, the range of the death throes is increased by 2’ for every 10’ x 10’ area cleansed, and the base damage is 2d20 per 10’ x 10’ square.

The pile in the middle is a couple of fallen bunks stacked under the rat carpet, with a Lamp of the Azurite shining through, and silver coins worth 1200$ falling out of perforated, urine-soaked bags.

===

So, the Description gives the room meaning, both in-setting (it is part of a series of barracks for units named after mythical monsters; the bunks establish this) and out (the minotaur and axe pay homage to Sign of the Labrys and its carpet of white rats). It establishes atmosphere through light, sound, smell. It gives the "monster" (more of a trap really) and the treasure. Things, too, are described in the order players are likely to find them.

The Advice is short and covers the most likely actions: opening the door, going through the rats to investigate the light. "Psychically sensitive and very frail" plus the other descriptions help judge what might happen if players take creative action. The GM can decide whether, for example, scooping the rats with a shovel is also fatal to them, or how players might fare if they try to leap 7' onto the bunks on the side and make their way to the things in the middle.

The Procedures are necessary to regulate how the "trap" deals out damage. The mass-death effect is important to spell out because of the temptation of dealing with the mass using a fireball or flaming oil. Observing what happens when just a few rats are killed should be enough warning to avoid the disaster. A more merciful GM can alter the damage to stunning, but the level is swarming with very frequent wandering monsters, so this only gives the players a half-fighting chance.