Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Now Published! Hunters & Highwaymen: 30 NPCs + Story Hooks for Taverns, Highways, and the Deep, Dark Woods

I'm pleased to announce the publication of a new GM's resource from Gundobad Games: Hunters & Highwaymen: 30 NPCs + Story Hooks for Taverns, Highways, and the Deep, Dark Woods

This product significantly expands the NPCs + story hooks project I've been discussing this winter here on the blog (especially here). Thank you to all who expressed interest in these vignettes! 

You can grab it for a few bucks on DriveThruRPG.com, right here (affiliate link). 

But what is it?




HUNTERS & HIGHWAYMEN is a system-agnostic collection of 30 characters (NPCs) you might meet along a lonely highway through a dark forest, or in the warm firelight of a country tavern along just such a road. These motley folk are suitable for any RPG settings that evoke late medieval or early modern European society. Each character encounter will add color and flavor to such a setting – enlivening the places that usually just lead to the adventure sites – but many of these encounters offer adventure story hooks in their own right.

Here's one example (see the DTRPG product preview, or the earlier list of 12 samples on my blog, for many more!):

1.6. SCHOLAR: this roughly 30-year-old natural philosopher has come to this district to find a Dragon Rose, which blooms briefly, only once each century, atop arcane ruins. He has been crisscrossing the region’s roads and woods for several weeks.

On the highway: this agitated young man has just found and harvested a Dragon Rose in full bloom an hour’s hike off the main road. He knows he has only five days of bloom left to get the flower to a Stasis Glass at the Royal Academy – seven days’ journey away. His entire career hangs in the balance! The scholar will accost any competent-looking party, offering to pay them 1,000 gp each if they will help him hijack a fast coach and get him home on time (back home, he is easily good for the money).

At a Tavern: if encountered indoors, the scholar has not yet been so lucky. Weary, obviously bored with tavern society, and low on traveling-funds, the scholar will approach any party of obvious adventurers and offer to sell the location of remote ruins he has found within a day’s journey into the woods.

The product is a 16-page .pdf (full-color cover, front matter, 1-page ad, and 11 pages of gaming content).

Although I initially planned to craft a small micro-setting to go with these entries, I thought hard about it and decided H&H would probably be useful to more people if I kept it generic enough to fit different settings. Nonetheless, the entries do reveal an implied social setting that could frame many sessions of adventurous play. The introduction page in H&H briefly describes that setting; it offers one illustration of the kind of 'late feudal' society I described in my 2019 post on the the logic of feudalism, plus more than a spoonful of a Brothers Grimm-esque creepy fairy tale vibe. If there's actually a clamor of demand, I can certainly flesh out this setting in more detail, but for now, know that these story hooks should fit well in any late medieval or early modern setting for D&D, WFRP, or similar games. 

Please have a look, let me know if you have any questions, and happy gaming!

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

You are Road-Wardens in the Wulfmarch. By the Prince-Elector's Law, this means...

This is just a little extended micro-setting campaign pitch, tying in to my discussion yesterday.



You are Road-Wardens in the Wulfmarch. By the Prince-Elector’s Law, this means:

- You have the right to bear arms openly. 

- You have the right to ask any on the Prince’s highway their business and destination.

- You have both right and responsibility to interfere in any – and only –situations that threaten the innocent, that disrupt traffic along the highway, or that subvert the Laws of the Prince-Elector or the Empire. 

- You answer only to the Prince-Elector and his agents – at least in theory…but power, in the real world, is complicated.


You are Outsiders in the Wulfmarch. By virtue of the ancient Wolf-Curse, this means: 

- Most locals depend on you, but many of them dislike you. 

- Many people just want to be left alone, and most of them deserve it.

- Some people want your help, and many of them deserve it. 

- You might be able to make things better, if you don’t make them worse. Unfortunately, there are several definitions of ‘better’ around here.

- In these woods, there are wonders and horrors beyond your understanding. 


"Not to worry lads ... I'm sure them Road-Wardens ain't nigh..."



Monday, November 23, 2020

More on NPC encounters, and a (merely semi-grim) micro-setting.

In my spare time, I continue to type away at a growing list of interactive NPC encounters to add color to journeys along dark, forested highways, or to season the overnight stays at taverns along the route (as I recently described here). My list has more than doubled in size, and I'm envisioning a d4 x d6 or even d6 x d6 table of 36 encounters that I'll hope to have available...sometime soon. 

Here are a pair of further examples (not yet edited much, I should note; these will need some trimming):

Cannoneer – a team of oxen has been pulling a heavy wheeled cannon, but their cargo is swathed in cloth that mostly obscures it. The cannon has been sent from the distant fief of an ally to the Von Liebegg family, who sense that a local war with their neighbors may be in the offing soon. However, one of the cannon’s heavy wheels has broken and the whole team is now standing idly by the roadside while a few armed men stand about chatting. Pacing back and forth anxiously is the lead drover, a well-dressed man whose face is lined with worry. As the PCs approach, he hails them and asks them if they know how long it should take someone to reach the next settlement and return, on foot (he has sent someone for help and is worried that they are taking too long). Looking about nervously, he tries to convince the PCs to stay to help guard their cargo ‘in case of bandits,’ but he also vigorously tries to prevent and PCs from approaching the cargo or identifying it. 

At a tavern: the cannoneer and his men have stopped here for the night. The cannoneer-drover is inside eating and resting, but his men are outside with the animals, guarding the shrouded cannon. Several times an hour, the drover hurries outside to make sure that nobody has tried to interfere with the cargo. His men are getting thoroughly sick of this. 


Kennelmeister – this dog trainer is leading his charges to the nearest settlement. PCs will first see a swarm of 14 dogs – some large and muscular, others merely small but vicious – charge down the road, baying at them. Moments later, a whistle will sound, the dogs will retreat, and the Kennelmeister will come into view around a corner in the road. He is a polite but no-nonsense man, quite willing to help anyone with legitimate pressing needs, but otherwise wanting to be left to his journey. 

At a tavern: the din of over a dozen canines barking from the rear of the tavern is fierce and astonishing. The innkeeper has rented barn-shelter and food scraps for the night to the Kennelmeister, who will diligently sleep with his dogs. But the noise is terrible. The harried innkeeper quietly approaches the party and asks them to ‘make the Kennelmeister move along’ (the innkeeper intends to keep the dog-trainer’s money, and will even share half of it with the PCs if they help him). Obviously, the PCs are free to help the Kennelmeister instead if they wish. 

While working on these, I've been torn between keeping them pretty generic, and thus useful for many settings, or letting them reflect a specific setting. I've decided to flesh them out a bit with a micro-setting, envisioning something very compact that could accompany the list - something to ground the encounters and give them real color, but nothing so specific that it couldn't be modified easily for someone else's table. 

In fact, I think a fun approach would be a short guide to a 'Highwaycrawl.' Offer up a very short micro-setting with a pointcrawl map of highway segments, settlements, and taverns - along with some known wilderness trails. Give some system-neutral procedures for generating encounters along the road. Then - here's the key pitch - set up the party as newly-hired Road Wardens tasked with keeping the roads safe and open, so they have a real reason to move around encountering these folks. Finally, keep the map open and vague enough to allow GMs to dump their favored dungeons onto the map if desired. 

For the micro-setting, I decided to embrace an old idea of mine from one of my first blog posts: build a campaign around PCs who are unusually mobile, and provide story hooks directly relating to the ways that other people depend on or want to exploit that mobility. Here, however, I'm not looking at a really big setting (a faux-Bronze Age Mediterranean) but a relatively tiny setting (one dark, forested Duchy on the edge of a late-medieval Empire). 

Here's the postage-stamp version of the micro-setting idea. Does it sound like a fun place to game?

The Wulfmarch should be prosperous, given its silver mine and location along an important trade-route, but the locals are held back by an ancient curse: when the men of the Wolf-Horde failed to seize the region eight centuries ago, the dying Wolf Khan swore that if he couldn't have the land, then no-one would. Today, any native-born man, woman or child out after dark in these woods is hunted by the terrible Ghost Wolves, dire beasts that come and go like shadows, but whose terrible fangs are all too corporeal. As a result, the people of the Wulfmarch huddle closely together in central, walled settlements near the highway, and refuse to take any journey without a secure haven within a day's easy walk or ride. 

Thanks to extensive sub-infeudation by the Prince-Elector's vassals, the Duchy is now a patchwork of petty noble holdings. Most of these lords don't even live here; they send non-native agents to exploit the lands and take away the profits to other estates up north. The Miners' Guild, staffed by Outsiders, pays well enough to maintain almost total control over the region's silver production, which rarely enriches any native-born household. Because of the Wolf-Curse, even the Wardens who keep open the highway must be Outsiders, capable of chasing quarries or investigating problems...that might keep them out after dark. 

And there are certainly problems for the Wardens to investigate. The petty lords are caught in an escalating web of insults and feuding; the common folk (some say) have had nearly enough, and begin to talk openly of revolt; and - here and there - even the respectable suggest that a few prayers or sacrifices offered to the Ghost Wolves might be an acceptable price for safety...But the price is high. Some Wolf Cultists (the wise shudder to say) became the beastmen who roam the woods...while others, who so far have only sold their humanity on the inside, might be willing to open the gates that protect isolated settlements from the hungry darkness...

I've got a few design motifs in mind here:

+ For some reason, lately I've been thinking a lot about Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. I've always had a thing for Warhammer's Old World - but I'm less into the level of grimdark often associated with it. I really like the mundane, darkly humorous setting, but I'd like it even more with a bit more room for hope (keep in mind that GW officially blew up the entire setting, eventually...). 

+ One of my favorite blogs is Joseph Manola's Against the Wicked City. One of his classic posts has provided inspiration for me here. I'm trying to write a little setting - and rich character encounters to match - that provide a truly gritty stage, but one in which "love matters" - people are valuable, even when they're awful, and there just might be a way to fight for a better status quo. To quote ATWC directly

Let me put it like this: the Wicked City represents a failure state. It is meant to communicate an idea of what can happen when, under conditions of extreme social stress, the failure of human beings to love one another reaches epidemic proportions. ... The symptom of this inhumanity, this failure to love, is dehumanisation ... so to be against the Wicked City is to be against all that, against this miserable grinding system of oppression which keeps turning people into literal and figurative monsters. In a more traditional fantasy game the assumption would be to make a long list of all the bad people, and then kill them ... You can totally play it like that if you want to ... I've tried to keep open the possibility of approaching these as social problems, requiring social solutions. 

+ In the moments when I tolerate my delusions of grandeur, I would like my little list of interactive encounters to be really well-suited for something like that. There are plenty of monsters to kill, but there is also a whole horde of grubby people just trying to live their lives, often at each others' expense, and maybe the PCs' efforts can do something to make it all a little brighter. Or, you know, just go kill monsters. 

Thanks for reading. 



Wednesday, November 11, 2020

d12 NPCs + Story Hooks: People to meet on the highway or at the tavern

To keep at something fun between bouts of grading papers, I've also been typing up a list of NPCs with complications, the sort you might encounter along a lonely highway through a dark forest or in the warm firelight of a country tavern along just such a road. These are loosely intended to suit a late medieval or early modern European-ish setting - anything from WFRP's Old World to many D&D campaigns. I suppose I am imagining a "Hunters, Highwaymen, and Horrors" kind of setting. A party of Road Warden PCs tasked with keeping the roads open would be perfect for these encounters. :-) 

This list is also inspired by my recent positive experiences rolling up (urban) NPC contacts on The Nocturnal Table, though I am of course shifting the action out-of-town here, and a bit more Brothers-Grimm/WFRP than traditional Sword-and-Sorcery. 

If these seem useful, let me know if a longer list like this would see much use. This is potentially just the first batch ... as I've lots more to grade. :-) 

Happy gaming!


Source



WHO DO YOU MEET ALONG THE BORDER HIGHWAY THROUGH THE GRIMWALD? 

Roll 1d12 (for now), then consult the table below. Expanded details follow. Repeat encounters with the same person are allowable, and may lead to unexpected twists.

1    Crossbowman
2    Drover
3    'Recruiter'
4    Nun, solitary
5    Nuns
6    Mystic
7    Preacher
8    Puppeteers
9    Robber Chief
10  Scholar
11  'Swordsman'
12  Swordsman, fuming


1 - Crossbowman – this skilled crossbowman sports a jaunty yellow-feathered cap and carries a large, well-crafted crossbow. 

On the highway: He is traveling on foot. If one of the PCs is carrying a crossbow, he will approach and challenge the PC to a contest of marksmanship. He wagers a beautiful gold brooch worth 100 gp, and will begin the contest if the PC stakes something of equal value. If the PC refuses, the crossbowman will mock them for timidity before moving on. 

At a tavern: the crossbowman will approach inside a tavern and challenge using the same conditions as noted for the highway (the proposed shooting contest is to happen outside, unless the participants have clearly had too much to drink. 


2 - Drover – this pleasant-faced, stout fellow is walking alongside a team of four oxen pulling a wagon laden with cheap cargo. One of the oxen can speak, and will greet the party politely as they pass. If engaged in conversation, the ox (with its owner's bemused permission) will claim to have been an old lord of a great merchant house, now cursed to bear the form of a beast. The ox, however, has no desire to be ‘cured,’ as he finds his new body pleasantly healthy and strong, and his new life far less stressful than his old endeavors. The drover, however, is less content, and will mention that the ox knows the location of his (former) family treasures…the drover will happily sell this knowledge to the party, and the ox, equally bemused in his turn, will happily oblige his drover.


3 - Recruiter’ – the bailiff of a military ‘recruiting’ venture, accompanied by 2d8 guards (Lvl 1 Fighters), is running a press gang to conscript troops for a pending low-level border war among noble families. Will try to ‘recruit’ the PCs by force, if the press-gang outnumbers them 2-to-1. 

At a tavern: the bailiff and party enter the tavern, look around, and try to clear it out of any 'recruits' who look like they'll come easily. Unfortunate 'volunteers' will beg the PCs for help, if the PCs aren't already involved. 


"Right lads...just sign or make your mark there...
no no, that's quite alright...no need to be conscious when you sign...
"
Landsknechte


4 - Nun - young, traveling alone, and looking anxious. She is on her way to the bishop’s see to report her Mother Superior as a Dark Cultist. She suspects that They are on the road looking for her. If the PCs look remotely trustworthy, she will ask for the party’s protection. 


5 - Nuns - an old Mother Superior traveling with 3 lower-ranking Sisters. They are looking for a nun from their convent who has gone missing. 

On the highway: They will approach and ask tearfully whether the PCs have seen the missing woman. 

At a tavern: the Sisters will enter the tavern hesitantly, moving from table to table and quietly inquiring about the missing nun. They will leave quickly once they have asked all patrons. The Mother Superior will take a long, comprehending look at the nearest gambling-match on her way out. 


6 - Mystic – this young man wears recent bruises instead of clothes; his garments were taken from him by bandits down the road. His face is radiant with joy at finally being parted from his last material attachments. 

On the highway: the happy young man offers to bless the party (he heals 1 PC to full HP or removes 1 poison/disease – once only). He will not accept financial payment, but will accept food, if it is offered. For modesty's sake, he will also accept a new set of undergarments, after thinking about it for a while. 

At a tavern: the naked mystic can be seen picking through the food refuse-pile behind the tavern. If approached in a friendly way, he will respond as above. 


7 - Preacher – this robed, mendicant preacher is moving from town to town and village to village, preaching a message about the dangerous rise of hidden Dark Cultists, the injustice of the nobles, and the worthy dignity of the common folk. His rhetoric has become more radical of late, and the writ of authorization he carries, signed by the local bishop, technically has been revoked. 

At a tavern: the Preacher enters, stands on a table or upon the bar, and begins a sermon calling on those Who Have (inside the tavern) to donate to those Who Have Not (in or near the tavern). If in doubt, the PCs qualify as those Who Have. The preacher refuses to accept any donations himself. 


8 - Puppeteers – troupe of 1d4 puppet entertainers with a garishly-painted (red and blue) covered wagon that doubles as a small puppet-show-theater. 

On the highway: the puppeteers are chatting happily with each other and barely notice the PCs. As their wagon rolls past, the PCs see a small puppet’s head poke out from the wagon and turn – as if watching them closely - as they pass. 

At a tavern: the puppeteers have brought their show inside the tavern. As the PCs enter the tavern, they see the puppet-show conclude with a farcical romance about a young hero who dies horribly, leaving behind a lost treasure and a lonely maiden (the maid closes with a dramatic speech about ‘future heroes who must right these wrongs'). As the puppeteers wrap up their show and leave the tavern, one of them passes by the party’s table. His eyes momentarily go blank, his jaw goes slack, and then he whispers, “But who is the puppet, and who the master?” quietly to a PC. Then they depart the tavern, as if nothing had happened. 


9 - Robber Chief – this once-beautiful woman’s face is hard and scarred. She wears trousers and a loose, belted jacket that does not fully conceal the glint of an iron cuirass about her torso. She is quite visibly armed with several long knives and a short sword, and she caps off her ensemble with a very wide-brimmed blood-red hat. She was separated from her crew in a recent job that went wrong, and is now making her way back to their cavern-lair a day’s walk from here. The woman is a very experienced fighter and a hardened rogue, and should not be trifled with. 

On the highway: if the PCs look particularly shifty, she may try to recruit them into her band. Otherwise, she will stare at the PCs rudely but yell at them to ‘keep their eyes to themselves’ if they try to communicate. 

At a tavern: the PCs become aware of this fellow tavern-‘patroness’ when she stands up from the bar, noisily finishes her (third) tankard of ale, points vaguely toward the PCs, tells the bartender “they said they’d pay for it, thanks,” and turns and walks toward the exit. 


10 - Scholar – this roughly 30-year-old natural philosopher has come to this district to find a Dragon Rose, which blooms briefly, only once each century, atop arcane ruins. He has been criss-crossing the region’s roads and woods for several weeks.

At a Tavern: Weary, obviously bored with tavern society, and running low on traveling-funds, the scholar will approach any party of obvious adventurers and offer to sell the location of several remote ruins he has found within a day’s journey into the woods.

On the highway: this incredibly agitated young man has just found and harvested a Dragon Rose in full bloom an hour’s hike off the main road. He knows he has only five days of bloom left to get the flower to a Stasis Glass at the Royal Academy – seven days’ journey away. His entire career hangs in the balance. The scholar will accost any competent-looking party, offering to pay them 1,000 gp each if they will help him hijack a fast coach and get him home on time (back home, he is easily good for the money). 


11 - 'Swordsman' - apparently…this thinly-built, clean-shaven young fellow has fine, elegant features, and wears an ornate cuirass and a sword - but seems to handle both uncomfortably. In fact, this ‘lad’ is the young widow Jenna von Radstein, on her way to try to kill her husband’s murderer. Roll again on this table to identify the murderer (or, at least, the suspect…). 

On the highway: 50% chance von Radstein, if accosted, may ask the PCs to help her quest for vengeance. 

At a tavern: 50% chance the widow approaches the PCs and asks for their help finding the murderer; otherwise, the widow thinks the killer is here at the tavern and will attempt a very public retribution on her own. 70% chance she has identified the correct killer. 


12 - Swordsman, fuming – this advanced student of a Fencing-Master is quite good at fighting (mid-level Fighter) but is smarting after a recent training-bout that ended in defeat by a rival. He is carrying a letter from his Fencing-Master to a colleague, but he is so insecure and troubled that he will stop to challenge a PC to a first-blood duel at the slightest provocation – even if he has to engineer that provocation himself. 



Sunday, November 8, 2020

Can you run a CO-OP, Shared-GM Urban Mystery Adventure that doesn't go full 'narrative gaming'? Procedures and a Play Report

There is a small but robust world of resources available for solo RPG play. One might therefore assume that resources for cooperative play with multiple players using solo tools should be just as numerous, but it ain't so - unless one sets aside just a few key contenders, or moves well beyond playing something that feels like a 'normal RPG' and into the fairly different world of narrative story games. Lately, I've been running a drop-in, episodic campaign that mashes up Blades in the Dark and On Mighty Thews. Due to various schedule constraints, I have recently needed to emphasize low-prep or even no-prep gaming. Also, as much as I love usually haunting the back side of the GM screen, I do sometimes tire of always being the GM. So, last night I pushed the envelope even further. Building on my recent success with a solo mystery adventure using On Mighty Thews, I set up a cooperative gaming session in which we combined heavy use of random tables, structured game rules, and diffuse GM authority. The result: an urban mystery/intrigue adventure with four players and no GM, real suspense and uncertainty, and a meaningful, coherent mystery that started absolutely from scratch and then took just a few hours to unravel

Some tools of the trade



In case that sounds fun to emulate, allow me to unpack all that. 

Please note that all DTRPG links below are affiliate links. 


SOLO, BUT WHAT ABOUT CO-OP?

Before I say anything else, let me say this: go check out Ironsworn if you haven't already. It's free (for the base game), and uses a modified PbtA-engine that allows solo, cooperative, or traditional GM-run gaming using one system. If Ironsworn is your jam, you can probably ignore everything else I have to say here. As it happens, however, I've never really been grabbed enough by Ironsworn to dive deeply into it. Perhaps I will at some point. For now, it seems to have more bells and whistles than I'm aiming for, but also still can benefit from some other, external resources. I am using a couple pages from Ironsworn's oracle tables in my synthesis below, but I find my own mixture of multiple but simpler resources more to my taste. 

Other than Ironsworn, what options are out there for running a cooperative game session with multiple players? For the most part, I am setting aside here the whole world of shared-authority narrative story games like Fiasco, Archipelago, Microscope, etc. There's nothing wrong with them - I've had great fun playing Fiasco and Microscope - but those games don't function in the same way or pursue the same goals that I'm after right now. One sometimes encounters the complaint that such games lead to little more than a shared creative writing exercise. If that sounds fun, go for it! 

What I want right now, however, is a way to play co-op that incorporates much of the experience of traditional RPG gaming, even traditional old-school gaming. This means principles such as: meaningful uncertainty and suspense within a coherent story, albeit one that is allowed to emerge through play; some sense of dependence on a reality 'out there,' so that the in-game reality is not simply determined by the whims or ideas of the players; and an actual chance for character death with or without player fiat, allowing for meaningful risk-taking in play. All that, but with almost no advance prep, and no GM. 

There is ample discussion of playing solo in a trad-RPG way (check these out for example, or check out the subreddit for solo roleplaying), but there is not much discussion online (that I've seen) for moving these techniques up to the level of a group playing together. Nordic Weasel Games' Blade and Lockpick can help, though I find its resolution system a bit too abstract for my tastes. No doubt there are other candidates out there; feel free to mention them in the comments. 

The shift from one to many players shouldn't be underestimated; it offers problems as well as opportunities. 'Spotlight time' becomes an issue. Reconciling different perspectives and opinions during play becomes an issue. On the other hand, one gains the power and randomness of combining different perspectives, as well. Much of that goes beyond what I'll address here, and boils down to whether the members of a group trust each other and enjoy working well together. At some basic level, however, running a group-game well without a GM is a bit more complicated than just grabbing some solo oracles, and saying 'we'll let everyone interpret the results together.' 

Here's what I did last night. The key principles were to have one facilitator (but without the dominant authority of a GM), rely very heavily on random-table input almost whenever possible, deliberately move the spotlight around when setting up the game, and then rely on a light system that allows PCs to dictate facts about the world, but without guaranteed success and with real risk - either of harm, or of further unexpected wrinkles in the plot. 


SESSION REPORT AND PROCEDURES

First, you might gain from reading two earlier posts of mine: one about a trial of solo procedures, the other about faction and setting design for my current drop-in campaign. We're in a vaguely steampunky fantasy metropolis evocative of Venice and Alexandria. The PCs are secret agents trying to break the power of a several vicious factions that currently dominate the city. 

Random-roll resources on which I relied heavily were:

- The Nocturnal Table. Awesomeness.
- Ironsworn: just a few Oracle tables, but they were quite helpful.
- Scarlet Heroes: quite a few of the oracles and random tables from the solo-play section. 

Scarlet Heroes and Ironsworn already offer their own complete systems. I've set aside the Ironsworn system, as already noted above. Scarlet Heroes' solo procedures include a nice system for structured urban, wilderness, or dungeon adventures, but these felt a bit too structured for me; I wanted more room for the story to grow in fits and starts, organically. So I used the random tables from those games but kept to my own On Mighty Thews / Blades in the Dark microhack for the system, chiefly because it allows for generation of new facts in play, but can make attempting such generation risky. 

The only necessary prep I did before the game was to print out the most relevant pages from the various solo tools I'll mention below, start creating my own character (a few minutes), decide that we would be investigating a recent murder, and roll up the identity of the victim using The Nocturnal Table. The unfortunate corpse had recently been a city official, a tax assessor who counted building corners to determine property taxes. That's not much prep!

Once we got started, I went through the steps below. You should note, to be fair, that while I eschewed many aspects of the traditional GM role, I kept a 'facilitator' role, since I had the random tables in front of me, and kept the group moving on track through the relevant procedures. Having a dedicated facilitator might be a minimum sine qua non for this, but I'm not sure. 

The game started. I picked one player, and asked her: "In what kind of district of the City does tonight's game mainly take place? Financial, residential, temple, docks, or mercantile.?" She chose a temple district. I rolled 4 times on the Scarlet Heroes Urban Locations table to generate a few places in the area to jog our scene-framing ideas. One was an exclusive tea-house, which became important.

We then rolled 3 times on the Ironsworn Settlement Trouble Oracle table to determine 'current events' problems affecting the neighborhood. These would be background noise that might or might not become relevant to the mystery. We went around the table explaining what each one meant in context:

- A debt comes due: the Water Cobras (a bizarre schismatic terrorist group that splintered off from the Fallen Star Cult) have just called in a massive financial debt from the Ribbonguard, the (possibly undead) enforcers who make sure the city stays loyal to its distant Priest-King. We all agreed that this was a pretty bold move. 

- Old wounds reopen: during our previous game session, the Inquisitors (good guys...most days) attacked the Fallen Star Cult right as the PCs were running an op against the Cult, as well. Apparently the feud between those two factions has reignited and is now running hot. 

- Someone is captured: one of the beetle-men of the Old Guard (they claim they are the old Queen's governor and garrison, but transformed into humanoid beetles since the conquest; most people don't believe the city could be that weird) has been caught by the Ribbonguard, and is scheduled for execution later this week. 

I quickly finished generating my own character, using player input to help me choose a weakness/disadvantage, and I informed the player whose characters I've killed the most as GM that he was in charge of adjudicating anything that might particularly affect my character (I'll just say: revenge is clearly sweet for my players). 

Now it was time to set up the mystery. I told the players who the murder victim was. I said that the victim's death was unusual enough to clearly not be random urban violence. Asking one of the players to say how the man died, I learned that he took some kind of acid spray to the center of his chest. Since there had been suspiciously little official investigation, my character (a disgraced former investigator) commissioned the rest of the party to help him crack the case. We then generated 4 possible leads - known contacts of the deceased. For each lead, I rolled on Scarlet Heroes' NPC relationship table and NPC generation table to create some individuals, and then asked the other players to offer a rumor they had heard about how that person might fit into the city's power politics. The leads generated were:

- The victim's ex-wife, rumored to be a covert supporter of the corrup noble House running the city.
- The victim's superior - the Provincial Governor. 
- The victim's subordinate, who moonlighted as a pickpocket, and had gotten in hot water after trying to steal something from the Lapis Eye faction.
- Finally, the victim's grandfather, who was a jaded physician, rumored to have once been kicked out of the Necropolis Gatekeeper's faction for doing something too heinous for even them to tolerate. 

Off to the races! We decided to hit up the district's Tea House to see whether any of our leads might be there. We rolled twice to generate the establishment's normal clientele: priests and enforcers. Wow. Apparently the place used to be a clerical retreat, but after the conquest it started attracting a lot of thirsty government thugs as well, giving the place an oddly divided air about it. 

In we went. It turned out that, of our leads, only the Provincial Governor was there with some staff bodyguards. One PC hit up a conversation with one of the bodyguards and learned that the governor had been stressed out lately and worried about some kind of exposure for recent activity. Another PC snuck into the Tea House kitchen and laced the Governor's Tea with truth serum (my current hack uses Blades in the Dark-style Flashback rolls to test whether we have access to stuff like this, and On Mighty Thews-based Lore rolls to test whether we could generate true clues/information). Once the Governor was suitably addled, my character approached and got some information out of his former boss: apparently she wasn't responsible for the killing, and she didn't know who was, either, but she clearly was up to some kind of interesting shenanigans otherwise. As we wrapped up at the Tea House, we encountered a pair of mind-controlled emissaries from the Lapis Eye coming to meet with the Governor. We tried to exchange information with them but the Eye wasn't biting. So, dead end for now down that route; another PC, however, managed to get from the Tea-Keeper the location of the murder victim's larcenous subordinate: (random roll...) a rich mausoleum. Huh. 

Two PCs headed off to said mausoleum to find "Tweedles," the pickpocket (I know, I know...). Random rolls told us this area was 'isolated' and 'hidden' and, keeping with the same theme, it's key feature was that it was used as a hideaway, which seemed pretty suspicious [I find that the sustained use of random roll tables in play tends not only to surprise, but also sometimes to just endorse or confirm the logical sense of narrative direction, but without being predictable]. At the mausoleum, the players found a group of wine-slurping beggars (rolled up from The Nocturnal Table). They got Tweedles' location within the site from the beggars, and went to find the pickpocket. Reaching Tweedles' hidey-hole, a PC snuck ahead and attempted a Lore roll, wanting to create some facts about the location. He rolled well, and was able to create the disconcerting facts that Tweedles' dead body lay inside, and that it had been hit with the same kind of acid to the chest that had taken his boss. The players then tried to check the dark mausoleum around the body for other clues. This time, they rolled poorly...triggering my failed Lore Check procedure:

When someone risks a Lore roll and fails, Roll 1d6.
1-2: Dead end. Look for clues somewhere else.
3-4: Plot twist! Roll on the Ironsworn Major Plot Twist Oracle table. 
5-6: Too much Heat! All this snooping drew the wrong sort of attention. You're attacked; roll on the Scarlet Heroes Foe/Threat tables to find out who attacks. 

They got a 6, and found themselves facing a group of 9 common thugs led by an 'Indentured Mage' with blue energy crackling about his fingertips! Uh oh. 

Fortunately the party's heavy-hitter was one of the two PCs present; the outnumbered players pulled out a win. Despite being completely randomly-generated, this hit squad now obviously was a pretty important part of the story of the mystery. The players searched the bodies for clues (requiring another Lore roll) and found evidence that the attempted killers worked for the Water Cobras - the bizarre, terrorist splinter sect off the Fallen Star Cult - and also found, in the dead mage's satchel, the severed mandible-pincers of a humanoid beetle-man. 

Eww. 

Not wanting to risk another Lore roll themselves, those two players came back to team up with the rest of us. With our combined resources, a Lore roll 'revealed' that one could squirt acid-spittle from the severed mandible; the severed mandible matched the profile of the prisoner being held for execution by the Ribbonguard; and a short text, etched into the chitinous mandible, said 'Debt paid in full via alternate payment.' We surmised that apparently the Ribbonguard had handed a dangerous weapon over to the Water Cobras in lieu of paying off their financial debt. Apparently the weapon came from the recent arrestee; but why, we still wondered, had someone - apparently the Water Cobras - killed Tweedles and his supervisor, a civic official? 

We decided to go interview the first victim's grandfather, a physician named Esteban, to look for more clues. Random rolls indicated that we could find this weary doctor's shop in a 'tattered marketplace.' Upon our arrival, we rolled on The Nocturnal Table to see who else might be present already in the doc's office. It was...oh good grief...a group of ten cultists donning ritual leather masks, offering any passersby a mask as well. 

Ok. That was out of left field, but in context, it sure seemed to link the good doctor to the recent cult activity! My investigator character, observing the scene, successfully made a Lore roll and announced several facts: the cultists all bore the thumb-tattoo of the Water Cobras; the doctor had one, too; and there was a giant metal cage at the back of the shop, covered by a drape but with chitinous insect-feet visible at the bottom. 

At this point, I simply offered to narrate what I thought was going on. The group agreed. The doctor, in a crazed, fanatical voice, called the whole masked crowd forward. Pulling off the drape, he revealed a mangled beetle-man in the cage. The leather masks had mosquito-like beaks...the clearly-insane doctor now called the crowd forward to slurp acidic goo out of the caged victim's wounds. "It will burn, it will burn," warned the doctor, "but it will open your minds to the Old Ones, too..."

You will be shocked to hear that we quickly agreed, as a group, to launch an immediate surprise attack on the cultists and try to free the prisoner. Unfortunately, another random roll indicated that the group of cultists were actually quite strong. We were about one or two rolls away from a near-TPK when one PC - a potions-maker - pulled off a flashback roll to explain the bomb he was carrying. Successfully sneaking around the foes, he affixed the bomb on the room's structural support column, and warned us all to RUN!!!!

My character decided not to abandon the bug-guy, but I had to burn a bunch of Stress trying to rescue him, and ended up accepting a point of ongoing Trauma in order to get him out. We all fled as the building collapsed behind us, burying what was left of the insane slurpy cultists - and our last lead.

Although the rescued, mangled prisoner could not speak, he could write. One last Lore roll closed the mystery for us, as the beetle-man reported what he'd overheard during captivity: the Ribbonguard, after capturing him, had indeed sold him to the Water Cobras to get them to renounce their financial claim. But the Water Cobras had demanded also the right to test the weapon on two public officials, without retaliation. 

What a weird mystery! But we had an answer to our starting questions, after a wild ride - and the whole thing took less than three hours. 


CLOSING THOUGHTS

That was weird, but really fun. The mystery didn't even exist before we started playing, and it ended up developing organically through play until it reached a point of coherence and satisfying (if disturbing) answers. True, those answers all relied on our own interpretation of what dice rolls meant, and they required flexibility and improvisation, but the dice rolls and random tables meant we couldn't predict the final shape of things until the very end. 

I will note that using The Nocturnal Table's triple d100 table of zany urban NPCs is a real hoot for this kind of thing. Sometimes it just gives you ... beggars. Instead, you often encounter something like the bizarre mask-wearing cultists who starred in our finale. One could set TNT aside and rely entirely on the NPC-generating material in Scarlet Heroes, but combining them really provides content weird enough to throw your story in completely unexpected directions. Highly recommended.

Hopefully my various recent posts have offered enough content to explain what I'm up to, but if anyone has questions about my system hack or approach, just holler in the comments. 

Thanks for reading. Happy gaming!


Sunday, October 11, 2020

From Dungeons to City Streets ... on a new hack and some faction generating

ESCAPING THE DUNGEON? DO I NEED TO ROLL SOMETHING?

Well. Feedback (from one of my players and from a commenter on this blog - thanks!) had me chewing on player agency in dungeon-crawls, as well as the ways that my recent experiments with streamlined dungeon design did (or didn't...) promote said agency. I started wondering whether something already put-together like Into the Dark (aff) would be better (I don't have it, but it's a really interesting-looking trimmed-down Forged in the Dark game for dungeon-crawling, basically) And then my players made it clear that they are ok with dungeons but they really favor something more varied anyway. 

So, this probably marks the end for now of that series of dungeon thought-experiments, though it's been helpful; if nothing else, dungeon geomorphs stand out to me as quite workable "one page dungeons" just waiting to be stocked, which can (in the better cases) be quite robust enough for some short play with flexible links to the next episode. Anyway. Thank you, gentle reader, for bearing with me on that zig-zag. :-) 

Meanwhile gaming continues. Since Into the Dark had me looking over at Blades in the Dark again, the "something more varied" that wound up pleasing my players (and me!) was an urban heist/mystery game of oath-bound secret agent vigilantes in a gritty, corrupt fantasy metropolis. For rules, I made my own hack that combined many of the heist-RPG principles from Blades in the Dark with the sheer mechanical simplicity of On Mighty Thews (aff), which I've talked about recently on this blog. So it's sort of another attempt at a light-weight Blades, but coming from an angle that I haven't seen before. If it continues to come together well, you may hear more about it. 

Our first go at it tonight worked very well, I'm happy to say; in less than 2.5 hours, we assigned pre-gen characters, generated multiple factions from scratch with connections to the crew, then ran a mission. Somebody had just blown up the crew's safehouse (and most of the surrounding neighborhood), and clues at the blast-site pointed to a local nobleman owner of an alchemical factory, with no clear reason for animosity vs the players' crew. So the heist goal was to break into his tower, secure his confidential logbook, and figure out who paid him to blow the PCs' hideout to bits. The job went well, with half the crew climbing a tower to infiltrate the top floor to get at a wall safe and the others arranging a rather bold diversion - guest appearance downstairs at a fancy dress ball hosted by the man who'd just tried to blow them up! 

You will not be shocked, I suspect, to read that violence eventually ensued. The baddie did not end the session still alive (nor did Giovanni, his 8-foot-tall Dueling Golem bodyguard). The players got the villain's logbook from his wall safe and then all made it out alive, but one of the PC agents took enough Stress to take a permanent point of Trauma. To be fair, that player also rolled a "1" three times in a row on a 1d8, which (I believe) has a 0.2% mathematical probability of happening. Yowsers. 

Now the crew knows that it was the Dark Potioners that paid Lord Roethe to (try to) blow them up. Why - and what to do about it - must wait until next session. 


GENERATING SOME FACTIONS

I told the players that they were operating in a kind of early modern Alexandria-meets-Venice (though inclusion of alchemical golems etc. pretty pushed 'early modern' to mean something more like 19th century steampunk, once in play...). To generate factions quickly for tonight's game with minimal prep, I whipped up a 6x6 table loosely inspired by Technoir transmissions, with 6 places our new city might often feature across the top, and 6 adjectives often associated with things in the city below. These were: 

PLACES:
Noble Houses
Fencing Academies
Fallen-Star Cults
Beetlemen Infestations
Necropolis Mines
Leper Colonies

ADJECTIVES: 
Waterborne (involving the canals and harbors...)
Too-learned (cultured and academic, or maybe things-man-was-not-meant-to-know...)
Mercantile (money...makes the city go 'round...)
Alchemical (ya know...)
Occupying (involving the foreign army that conquered the city a while ago)
Precursor (involving the undefined non-human beings who built the city's first layers long ago)

Cross-referencing these can create 36 different factions. At the start of the game, we cross-referenced (picking 1 and rolling the other) and identified 4 factions that I asked the players to define. The city had: 

+ House Aurelian, fighting other Houses for control of the canals. The crew's Heavy knows some of their muscle. 
+ The Dark Potioners, once an honorable potions guild, now turned poisoners. The crew's cat-burglar/potions guy used to work with them before they turned vile. 
+ Some of the city's Occupiers are smuggling some unknown substance into the city and staging it in the leper colonies. What is being smuggled - and why the city's own rulers aren't bringing it in openly - remain mysteries, but the crew learned about it when their sharpshooter killed off the Captain of the Guard last month (!)
+ An Ancestor Star Cult worshipping the city's first Precursor Builders is active in the shadows of the city...they raised a member of the crew (the blademaster) but he left in rather violent terms as a young man when things got ugly in their theology and social relationships. 

This was a fun exercise to generate some content for urban improv-heavy play. 

Monday, October 5, 2020

Abstract vs Pointcrawl Navigating in a Jacquayed MegaDungeon: Notes from Network Theory

(Good grief, who writes these blog post titles?)

As I noted recently, I’ve been thinking about a streamlined way to handle megadungeons or large dungeons, in which play occurs almost entirely on geomorphs, “Dungeon Areas” where the dungeon’s dangers and rewards are focused - and the rest of the giant dungeon is referenced only abstractly as “Flux Space,” rather than mapping it concretely. 

Last night, via Zoom, I ran a short dungeon crawl into just one geomorph (the top one pictured below). It was fun! Though…I did kill off two player characters and the third fled the geomorph Dungeon Area in terror at the end…

Speaking of leaving the Dungeon Area: in different ways two reader-commenters on my previous post raised the important question of how to link between and describe movement between the Dungeon Areas. This post is just a brief sort-of-answer to note some possibilities and also apply some things I’ve noticed in thinking it through.

First, it’s worth highlighting that all of the standard ‘elements of good dungeon design’ should still be involved as much as possible, but mostly inasmuch as they can apply to each single, geomorph-sized Dungeon Area. That is to say that the best geomorphs for this process will be relatively “Jacquayed” geomorphs, tiles in which most of the spaces mutually interconnect in looping ways. In fact, since many geomorphs are made with the big multi-tile dungeon in mind rather than as stand-alones, one might need to whip up new geomorphs specifically for this kind of application (you can see below some recent rough samples that I made for fun this weekend, and used in play last night). 

Alas, farewell to the character who was picked up,
lofted airborne, and then eaten by harpies in that stalactite chamber...


Ok, great, but how to connect and travel between the different geomorphic nodes? Some options: 


POINTCRAWLING vs ABSTRACT CONNECTORS

Pointcrawling is an immediate and strong contender. Make yourself a node-network chart and you’re off to the races (a recent commenter suggests using the London tube map :-) ). A fixed network map has the signal advantage that it boosts player agency based on knowledge of the game’s concrete ‘reality’  - though (again), player agency can still be important in this system, but pushed as much as possible into the realm of the primary ‘adventuring space,’ the dungeon geomorphs…

Normally, I really love point crawls for designing campaign and adventure spaces. They strike a very nice sweet spot between abstract and concrete. There are much more abstract options available, too - the “depth crawl” has been making the rounds very recently in the blogosphere as one semi-abstract way to handle movement between dungeon areas. Another way is spelled out in The Perilous Wilds…in a nutshell, one has a table of themed dungeon areas, a minority of which are unique. When players travel between dungeon areas, you keep rolling to generate new areas from this table, and once all of the “unique” areas have been found, the dungeon has been fully explored. (In some ways, the whole idea that I’m chewing on could be conceived as an attempt to combine the fast, abstract dungeon design from Perilous Wilds with the concrete spatial reality provided by small maps and geomorphs). 

When I first started thinking about all this, I initially thought right away that point crawl network maps would be more pleasing than the abstract options - and particularly much more realistic. 

But then I got to thinking, and I realized that if you’re working with a truly mega megadungeon, the abstract methods aren’t actually necessarily less realistic. It just depends what kind of network you’re dealing with. 

In network theory, some networks are “decentralized” - they are connected by many disparate connections between network nodes; they have, essentially, no or few chokepoints. A network that is less decentralized does have more chokepoints, more nodes that control the flow of traffic across the network. The more decentralized a network is, the easier it is for traffic to flow uncontrolled; the less decentralized the network, the easier it is for specific nodes to wield influence over the entire network. 

Now, let’s think of a megadungeon as a network of nodes, areas, connected by the various paths one might take around the megadungeon. 

A Pointcrawl is a particularly realistic way to model a megadungeon only if you want that megadungeon to include some chokepoints. Think, again, of the Bridge of Khazad-Dum in Moria: a pretty dramatic chokepoint. Hold - or destroy - that bridge, and you’ll sway the flow of traffic across much of the dwarven city. 

However, think about the other parts of Moria - the endless, winding corridors, the dim unseen neighborhoods that we can only guess at, down all the myriad paths not taken by the Fellowship during their journey beneath the mountains. How to model those areas? 

Well, if we accept that a megadungeon as a whole is and should be heavily “Jacquayed” for easy navigation, then modeling that megadungeon using abstract navigation instead of a pointcrawl is not actually any less realistic! If a megadungeon is a decentralized network, there should be many ways for a traveling party to wander around obstacles, and find a slightly different route from Point A to Point D, perhaps even bypassing Points B and C entirely. 

I used to think about abstract dungeon-area navigation methods as mechanically helpful due to their simplicity, but displeasingly unrealistic. I’ve realized, instead, that they can be quite realistic if the dungeon being modeled forms a decentralized network - if, in OSR gamer terms, it is heavily Jacquayed. 

So, what method do I prefer for the time being for this little project of mine?

Hmm. Hmmm. To really answer that, I need to chew on this some more. While I’m chewing, however, I might as well write with my mouth open, and spill a few more thoughts. 

One option: compromise. Hybrid. Go ahead and assign (say) a single “chokepoint” Area - our Bridge of Khazad-Dum analogue - and treat it as a middle-point for the dungeon. All other areas are either West or East of that chokepoint. You can move abstractly among any of the Areas on your side of the chokepoint, but to switch from West to East you MUST clear and pass through the chokepoint Area. 

Parties won’t spend much game-time in the Flux Space, apart from a few exceptions:

+ what if the PCs are chased out of an Area and still pursued? I’d suggest that they make an escape/flight roll…and if they fail, you simply generate a new Dungeon Area immediately and grab a new geomorph (one that hadn’t existed as a designated ‘Area’ yet) in which they fight out the next rounds of the pursuit combat. 

+ a number of games include travel montage rules for overland travel. These could be modified for use in the megadungeon Flux Space. Give the players a quick sense of the kind of areas they’re traversing, and perhaps even some clues as to what might await in the next Dungeon Area they find. 


Well, these last few posts have been ramble-fests in a very busy time, but I’m enjoying this new (for me) direction in thinking about dungeons. Thanks for reading.