Sunday, October 11, 2020

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


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. 


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: 

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

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 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.  

Friday, October 2, 2020

Mad Musings on Streamlined (Mega-)Dungeons, with Strange Rules-Light Inspiration...

 This one will cover a lot of ground, but I promise you it's going somewhere. At least, I think it is. That's why I want your feedback at the end. Pretty please

TL;DR: Dungeons and Geomorphs have been around fuh-revah, I know. But I'm chewing on ways to combine "dungeon flux space," geomorphs, and some principles borrowed from semi-abstract fast-play rpgs to make a dungeoncrawling experience that hits most of the traditional old-school notes while pushing the really fun (to me) stuff to the forefront. In some ways, this is a development of my thinking earlier this year about streamlining RPG procedures even further in old-school play. I'm not really sure how well this would work (or how helpful it really is)...but it's been my hobby distraction during a pretty busy week. What do you all think? 


I GM'd for my kids last weekend. Their characters realized they would need to confront an old enemy, a dimension-hopping wizard tyrant currently in league with a group of volcano-dwelling fire giants planning to drown the local realm in fire. Rather than a direct confrontation, one of my kids favored a risky but cunning idea; since there happened to be another site nearby rumored to house a trio of ancient dragons, perhaps they somehow could persuade or trick the dragons into aiding them against the wizard? Off they went to the dragons' lair, where they ended up face-to-face with a red, a green, and a white dragon. As it turned out, they discovered that the dragons were forever trapped within their lairs, bound there by an even older wizard who now lay entombed in the frozen crypts across the valley. Free them from the older wizard's power, the dragons promised, and they would aid their liberators! Off the adventurers went to look for the old wizard's bonds. In the frozen crypts, they fought their way past half a dozen frozen dwarven mummies guarding the wizard's tomb. Fortunately, once inside, they found the crystal sphere the wizard had used to entrap the dragons. Unfortunately, the wizard's ghost floated into and then animated the skeleton of a dead dragon buried with him! The two heroes defeated this dracolich in fierce combat, and set off to liberate the three living dragons...but there our session ended...

The time I GM'd before that, I ran two adult players through a post-apocalyptic scenario. One controlled a dune-buggy-riding gang of cyborg followers; the other, a philanthropic but ambitious minister, leading a small band of devotees. The two players teamed up to wrest control of a local mine from a cruel ruling bank - but they also had to deal with not one but two invading armies from surrounding foreign states. They struck a deal with one group of invaders, and then defeated a platoon-sized force sent by the other invaders, and shut down the eldritch teleporting gate that had enabled their invasion. All the hubbub had awoken a kilometers-long metallic chaos beast slumbering beneath the region (its face read "BOEING" in the Ancient Script) - but one PC hopped on his motor-bike and let the chaos-beast chase him all the way to the other invading army's camp, just outside the play region. Upon his safe return from the ensuing slaughter, the PCs teamed up to assault the fortified bank, and wrested control of their local community, founding a new and successful small state. 

Whew. Those were fairly epic sessions, with the kind of shenanigans I'd normally expect to read about from a high-level, long-lived campaign. But in fact, in each case I was running what amounted to a one-shot, with character generation included in the same session. Oh, and setting generation as well. How? Because I've been running more of On Mighty Thews, and experimenting with the boundaries of this nifty little sort-of-narrative-game-meets-sword-and-sorcery title. I've recently explained here what I like about this game and how I came to appreciate it, so I won't repeat all that. More critically, though, I will say that after repeated plays, I'm not entirely sure I like handing the players the narrative power represented in that game by Lore rolls (my players come up with very cool ideas, but it makes it harder to run the sort of old-school game I'm accustomed to - not railroading, but building a coherent world with hidden information)., this game sure flies, and it allows players to get so much done, while still facing some meaningful decisions. 

So, hmmm, I've been wondering...what more could it do? I've experimented with simple domain and warband rules for the game...anything else? Could you run an old-school dungeon well using this resolution system, with or without Lore rolls? Would On Mighty Thews' ability to provide sometimes-tense but really fast combats work well in an old-school dungeoncrawl? Well, that's what I was wondering, when...everything below happened, too. 


A commenter on Reddit recently alerted me to a new branch of games - Trophy, Trophy Dark, and Trophy Gold. They're about (probably doomed) expeditions into dark woods and ruins. The whole thing feels aesthetically like a hybrid of Symbaroum or WHFRP or Into the Odd. It's very rules light. Whereas Trophy expects the party to die or go insane in almost every session, Trophy Gold (currently running a kickstarter) expands and develops Trophy's simple rules, but aims for a hybrid with a more old-school dungeon-crawling feeling where there is at least some real chance that your poor rat-catchers might survive a few missions. And I do emphasize feeling, because in the end TG still looks very much like a narrative story-game that produces old-school-like narratives. Overall, I don't think this is a game I'd want to run extensively - too prone to railroading in service of story goals, for example. 

But. Oh goody gumdrops but. There are some really clever ideas in this game, and a few of them might just start showing up in my more traditional old-school-flavored rpg campaigns. 

How many of us have wondered about exactly why these foolish adventurers are willing to keep plunging the dungeons over and over again, no matter the attendant dangers, and no matter how rich they get? How many of us recognize the utilitarian benefits of gold-for-xp, but either feel uncomfortable about its inherent ethical message, or - maybe even more of us - just don't find treasure all that interesting after the 15,000th gold piece? How do we motivate players AND player characters in a believable, narratively-interesting way? 

Meet Burdens from Trophy Gold. Treasure in this game is pretty abstract - it seems to work like "this pile of gold counts as 1 Treasure, and so does that magic knife we found, and so does that silver crown we pilfered." This means that by session's end, each player will hopefully have a real but fairly small number of Treasure Points they personally got from the party haul. Well, you had better get more each time than your Burden, because your Burden is the number of Treasures your character must bring back from each session or THE CHARACTER FUNCTIONALLY DIES. Huh? See, the assumption is that these hardscrabble characters are in terrible debt to various cold and uncaring social entities back in 'civilization.' To advance and become more powerful, your character may outfit more impressive gear between missions, or even new spell-rituals - but each of these improvements earns you greater Burden. Fail to find enough treasure per session, and you fail to pay your harsh debt-holders back in town...and they come after you. You narrate what happens - debtors' prison, or just a crushing wage-slavery back home...or even death...but either way, you create a new character and hope for better luck next time.

This system means that characters have room for meaningful advancement, but the act of advancement also raises the stakes in future adventures. You might be more powerful, but you also must accomplish more, or your character is toast. This accomplishes a TG design goal of creating characters who always feel that traditional low-level angst about being a few mis-steps away from failure or death...all the way throughout their character arc. And that's without even mentioning the threat of dangerous beasties eating you in the dark. But Burdens provide a compulsion to go deeper into the dungeon, to take that one extra risk just this once, because you have to do so to save your character. Other games have already played around with indebted characters (Classic Traveller, Electric Bastionland...) but I don't recall seeing one that makes debt-service so urgent and necessary every single time you play the game. 

This is quite a simple yet elegant idea. I could imagine it working well in a variety of old-school style dungeon-crawl games. You could even alter the 'currency', so that whatever kind of accomplishment you want to emphasize becomes the ticking time bomb that could derail a character. 

That being said, I don't like how TG makes simple, mundane weapons and armor the things that add burdens early on - to harness this idea, I'd rather let characters just have the mundane stuff (see the 'no shopping' section of Barbarians of Lemuria for inspiration!) but make more exciting and powerful tools or weapons cost Burden. 

If TG sounds worth checking out, you can buy it on DriveThru in an issue of the Gauntlet's Codex: Gold magazine - but for the time being, the rules are available for free download on the Trophy Gold Kickstarter page. 

Anyway. There are a bunch of other small ideas in TG that I might borrow to play with, (Ruin is an interesting way to handle health) but I wanted to highlight Burdens in particular. And maybe harness them? 

Maybe like this? ... 


So, a few months ago, I had a wild fling with the megadungeon phenomenon. 

Unfortunately, some health issues affecting a regular player led to a pause and change to our ongoing Isle of Dread campaign. To fill the interim space, I decided to set up a drop-in, open-table, zoom-able megadungeon campaign. I pored over my options; I already have Barrowmaze complete, Archaia, and Highfell ... I considered all the main stand-ins...and ended up purchasing both ASE 1 and Stonehell, and compromised by pitching Stonehell, but with a science-fantasy post-apoc background!

We ran a few sessions. We had some very fun moments. I got kind of bored. Now we're playing On Mighty Thews instead for a bit. 

Why was I bored? Not because of any flaws inherent in Stonehell, I think (I'd recommend it, cautiously). But...just...all that pure, unadulterated old-school dungeon-crawling wasn't terribly fulfilling, for me at least. I soon realized that more faction action was needed, so I made sure to insert that, and it definitely helped. But I think I kind of wanted the players to just move through it all a lot more quickly, to spend more time encountering the really cool stuff and a little less time checking out just one more alcove. 

It's quite possible I could have run it better. I also note that the players were traversing the undead-dominated "Quiet Halls" on level 1 for several sessions...and I just read an interesting older blog post about pacing megadungeon "slow" vs "fast" levels that said this: "A series of long hallways with 10' by 10' crypts that monsters burst out of is a tremendously slow level, as anyone who's run the Quiet Halls in Stonehell can attest." Hmmm...maybe I just jinxed myself by running the wroooong laboratory experiment! But it's made me wonder: is there a way to keep the nuts and bolts of old-school-style dungeoneering, but make everything I really want to see jump right out to the forefront, make it more tense and more uniformly interesting? 

And then my various ideas, from the various elements of this post, started to congeal together. 

So I'm messing around with this idea. It might be a really great one, or it might be terrible; or it might already be done and tried and available and I don't realize it. I'm hoping for some feedback on just how fun and useful this approach seems. I'm kind of working through this even as I type, a bit, so thanks for bearing with me here...

The pitch: PCs play probably-doomed heroes and possibly-redeemable rogues who must clear a giant, winding dungeon of evil before it destroys their homeland. But said homeland aboveground is on hard times, and is now ruled by avaricious, heartless brutes who will destroy the PCs if they don't make their regular payments. Thus, the PCs have to get a certain amount of Treasure (Burdens from TG!) each session, and they must shut down and sanctify a certain number of 'dark sources' in the dungeon per session, or the forces of darkness will overwhelm their society and the players lose the campaign (so you can lose the campaign together as a party, and you can lose your player character individually). Oh, and things in the darkness want to eat you. 

Some inspirations: everything mentioned above, plus Blades Against Darkness, Into the Dark, Into the Odd, The Nightmares Beneath, etc., etc. Oh, and especially The Perilous Wilds, which already includes a system for semi-randomly generating themed dungeons quickly or on the fly. This is like that, but with the more concrete map of a geomorph added to provide a bit more tactical content for engagement within each dungeon Area. 

How I envision this working: each dungeon 'level' has two kinds of spaces: Flux Space which stays unmapped, and Areas. Flux Space are the nigh-endless miles of twisting corridors or tunnels that interconnect, wind, double back, and generally cause navigational headaches while actually permitting Jacquay-style movement between different Areas. Areas are those spots where Danger, Reward, and interesting stuff converge, the places worth 'zooming in' to see what happens in play. And yet the areas themselves aren't abstract; they need to permit good ol' fashioned old-school tactical dungeoncrawling. So each Area is modeled by ... a 10x10 dungeon geomorph. 

Geomorphs by Dyson Logos

You need a stack of geomorphs, like the free ones Dyson has on his website, to run this thing. You can use top-down or side-view geomorphs (or mix them up, even better!). The geomorphs don't have to fit against each other, because each Area is surrounded by Flux Space rather than another geomorph. 

Each Area/Geomorph has one Dark-Source that is seeping evil into the world from deeper within the dungeon. These must be shut down and sanctified to make safe each Area, one at a time. Expect 1 Dark Source and therefore 1 Area per player in each session, more or less. If you don't shut down enough Dark Sources, something really bad happens, maybe even campaign-loss, or minimally an XP penalty or something like that (I'm thinking to keep this game tightly focused on the actual dungeoncrawling by linking the dungeon to a city above, but keeping the actual city stuff abstract and out of the direct lens - except when city factions show up, for example). 

Each 'Level' would be a target ideally for a single session of play, allowing the Players to run through approximately # of players x Areas in one session (this will require use of fast play rulesets...I think). Each Level has one or more Factions which will have some presence each session. Each Level also has 1 randomly-generated narrative twist that is triggered when players reach a certain Area on the level, and stays in effect thereafter (maybe the players discover a live human prisoner, for example...or a new schism occurs within a faction present, etc.). At any rate, Factions need to be a big thing in the random encounters - Yoon-Suin-style random-generation for 3 above-ground factions and 3 subterranean factions to make each campaign its own bespoke thang. 

Each Area also has 1d3 Threats and 1d3 Treasures, randomly or deliberately assigned to rooms on the Geomorph. When moving through a Geomorph, a random encounter also occurs with 1-in-6 chance every time you enter  a new room, or every time you take certain actions (resting, testing a secret door, etc.). Each Area/Geomorph is either Garrisoned (intelligent foes who are organized and maybe fortified), has Monsters, or is Abandoned & full of Traps as Threats. Because the number of Threats and Treasures per geomorph will vary within a narrow consistent range, there is constant incentive for players to just push to see if there is another treasure on this one before they go back to flux space to find a new geomorph...but there might be other threats too. 

Another by Dyson Logos.
I feel his geomorphs hit the right balance, small enough to run through fairly quickly amid 1-3 encounters, but just big enough to have a couple corners that might call out for further exploration...

This could work simply as a system-neutral approach to building dungeons, I suppose, but I'm thinking it would work best with something somewhat abstract and probably using conflict-resolution rather than task-resolution. But it could work either way. Maybe Into the Odd could handle it well? 

Folks, this post is much more rambling than is my wont ('s been a really busy two weeks...). Thanks for bearing with me. If you have any input on whether this makes sense, whether it's already been done to death, or whether it looks fruitful to develop, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks, happy gaming, and best wishes!

Saturday, September 12, 2020

On a method for handling SECRET DOORS in dungeons

Some conversations today on reddit got me thinking about secret doors in dungeons - or, more specifically, about the mechanical procedures used to determine whether the PCs find and open such doors. In theory, at least, secret doors are one of the cooler elements of an adventure setting. In practice, however, I've often found their mechanical execution either disappointing or unwieldy. On the one hand, having a predetermined X-in-6 chance of detection is simple to adjudicate, but it seems a bit lame to me - much of the time, the door simply won't be discovered, and whatever cool prep lies behind it goes unseen. A different approach could be to make the existence of doors more readily apparent, but present them to players as puzzles. Or, still alternately, one could just richly describe the layout and dressing of a dungeon room, sprinkling detail-seeds that astute or curious players can respond to, hopefully manipulating their way into secret rooms. THAT, however, requires a lot of work to do well consistently, made much worse by the fact that even published modules (in my experience) don't bother to explain how one gets into a secret room, just the fact that it's there. 

Could methods for traps offer useful ideas? For traps, I really admire the Chris M Into the Odd approach - finding the trap is easy, but figuring out how to handle it is the challenge. Also, in the afore-mentioned reddit discussions, some folks mentioned the Angry GM "Click" approach to traps. If a trap does get set off, say "click" and briefly describe what a PC sees, then ask how they deal with it. They could (for example) brace themselves, jump, duck, leap to the side, etc. For each kind of trap, there's an optimal and a least-optimal way to deal with it, so the player has to make a choice that could have consequences. 

Hmmm, I thought...could there be a way to do something similar to handle secret doors effectively? I scratched my head and came up with the little system below, and revised it a little bit across the day in light of the reddit conversation. I doubt very much that no-one has ever come up with something similar - this seems a pretty straight-forward approach. I haven't tested it at the table yet, but I'd like to. I think it sacrifices certain things, but gains even more on the flip side. 


Key concepts:

+ recognizing that the door exists is the easy part; figuring out how it opens is the catch
+ given unlimited time and safety, PCs will eventually get through the door
+ it's a dungeon: PCs don't have unlimited time and safety

So, the party enters a room with a secret door. What happens next?

Except for specific, planned edge-cases, the PCs automatically detect the secret door's existence (maybe they feel a suspicious draft; they notice a recess or bulge in the masonry; they spot varied discoloration in plaster or mortar; they see little holes leading into a hollow space beyond; etc.). 

Although the players always detect the door, they must choose whether to try to open it, and how long to spend on the attempt. Secret doors will open using one of (let's say, for now) five different opening methods, detailed below. A party may spend one turn attempting to use one of these methods to open a door; for each attempt, they must tell the GM which of the five methods they are checking for. However, the mythic dungeon will not give up its secrets lightly; every attempt to open a secret door triggers a random encounter check, with an encounter in 1 on 1d6 (for epic mode, make it 2 in 6). Alternately, the players can say "forget this, let's use brute force and break down the door" - but that either automatically triggers a random encounter, or triggers a risky 4-in-6 random encounter roll.

Some characters (like elves in B/X D&D and its clones) have a special bonus when looking for secret doors. They still get this bonus, but instead of detection, a successful roll means they immediately notice the correct way to open the door. However, this still triggers a random encounter check. So B/X elves, for example, are still useful for this niche, but they speed the party up and reduce risk rather than decreasing the chance of missing a secret room entirely. 

What are the five (suggested) methods for passing a secret door? Here's my working list, though I imagine these could be refined. 

1 DIRECT PRESSURE applied to the door will open it - perhaps it slides back on hinges, glides sideways on rails, or can be leveraged up from the floor. 

2 MANIPULATION WITH TOOLS is necessary to open the door. Maybe inserting a narrow dagger-blade into a crack in the mortar will depress a lever or button that opens the door. Maybe a needle poked through a small aperture triggers the catch. 

3 A SPECIFIC KEY is needed. Some object, somewhere else in this dungeon, must be inserted or applied in order to open the door. This requires somewhat special handling. If the players choose to test for this method, adjudicate as follows. If the players are already in possession of the needed key, they open the door (tell them why). If they have encountered but did not take the required key, tell them that it looks like they need to go back and get it (triggering a decision to spend more time and random encounter rolls to get into this room). If they have not yet encountered the needed key, tell the players that they realize what kind of key is needed, and that they should be on the lookout for an object of the specific description. 

4 AN ENVIRONMENTAL EFFECT must be triggered. Remember how breathing on the little key was necessary in The Fifth Element? The door's trigger must be warmed up, cooled down, licked, wetted, dried, exposed to light or dark, etc. 

5 INTERACTION ELSEWHERE IN THE ROOM opens the door. The interaction might involve one of the methods above, but not applied to the door directly. Sitting on a chair, pulling a torch-sconce, yanking a cord - across the room - will open the door. 

In each case, remember that with this method, if the players choose to try one of the 5 options, and they make the correct choice, then they get it; they don't have to start playing 20 questions to see whether it's heat, water, sweat, urine, light, baking soda, cheese, etc. that triggers the door...they just have to risk the random encounter check. Sounds easy, right? Well, not if it takes them 4 or 5 tries to open the door...

Now why didn't I choose 6 methods, so you could roll on a 1d6 table? Hold your horses, read on...

Each dungeon, or dungeon level - or maybe each dungeon-crafting faction - has its own preferred signature way of opening secret doors. That preferred method is twice as likely to appear, so that a specific dungeon can have 1d6 door-mechanism tables like this: 

Svirfneblin dungeon doors open by: 

1 Direct pressure 

2 Manipulation with tools

3 Manipulation with tools

4 A specific key

5 An environmental effect

6 Interaction elsewhere in the room 



This approach certainly abandons some of the, well, secrecy of secret doors, but it makes some positive changes too:

+ entering secret rooms no longer involves a binary find/fail, but rather is about the resource-management game. Given enough time, the party WILL get into a hidden room.

+ yet time is precious, and paying the enforced encounter check for each attempt to enter makes every attempt to enter a hidden room a calculated risk. Player agency becomes an important part of the process.

+ this may save harried GMs a fair bit of stress and prep time, as they just don't have to come up with amazing dressing details for every hidden door - but they don't have to just say "uh, um, so you find a door and go through it..."

+ although it may still be optimal to provide player-facing maps that omit secrets, this system means it is no disaster if, in a pinch, a GM must share maps that show where all the secret doors are. Of course, knowing to where the doors lead offers powerful intelligence, so hiding that information is still best practice. When time is tight, however, this means a GM can get away with sharing almost any map, if need be. 

+ making different types of dungeons or even different dungeon levels just slightly more likely to feature specific methods of opening secret doors lets players study patterns across those dungeons and make more informed choices in light of what they notice. This boosts coherent dungeon design and player agency. 

I think I like this approach. It could be combined with "special" doors that don't follow these rules, of course, but for most dungeon secret rooms, I think this would solve most of my problems without actually causing any new headaches. What do you think? 

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Wow, that worked! Solo urban investigation using On Mighty Thews + Nocturnal Table, etc. [Session Report and design discussion]

A week ago, if you'd asked me how I might run an urban-investigation scenario with a meaningful mystery in a solo RPG session, I probably would have answered with real doubt that it could be done, or at least done without sacrificing logical cohesion or suspense as the Player/GM either generated or dictated their own story. 

[TL;DR for this post: I'm pleasantly surprised to discover that one can run a satisfying urban mystery adventure solo by combining the light narrative game On Mighty Thews with a detailed random-table toolkit like Gabor Lux's urban generator, The Nocturnal Table. Session report and analysis follow.]

Well. A few nights ago I had the rare urge to try some solo RPG action. I have the remarkable (and free!) Ironsworn and its (paid) expansion, Ironsworn: Delve, which together look to my eye like the current 'state of the art' in rich solo or co-op RPG design. However, I've only tried playing Ironsworn once, and just haven't ever felt enough energy to sit down and really parse through its rules to the point of fluency. Very much recommended (especially as the base game is free!), but these days I really find that after spending my days thinking hard about writing, teaching, and scholarship, I have limited patience for digging into a new system if it involves much complexity. Still, Ironsworn comes with handy tables and oracles for generating a variety of uncertain outcomes. Could one use that kind of random table, but hack in an even simpler resolution system? I started wondering whether any of the other, more minimalist rule-sets on my hard drive might work, supplemented by various random-table resources.

Hmm, I thought...what about On Mighty Thews? That's a really lightweight framework...

Now, mark ye well, herein we see the fickleness of the hearts of men. Only a few months ago, on this very blog, I had the following to say about Thews
There are some storygames that almost completely do away with the 'concrete reality of the shared fiction' ... I have the ruleset for a narr[ative] game called "On Mighty Thews" that I greatly respect in terms of game design - but I just can't get behind its agenda. It uses a delightful, elegant chargen and resolution system, and/but it works by inviting players to introduce new facts about the world (ranging from "the first hobgoblin falls dead from the log bridge" to "ah, but those runes on the gate are the work of Atlanteans, my ancestors! I read their glorious words and command the gate to unlock." The reality of the game-space is in perpetual limbo, and in some of these games, nothing is sacrosanct about that reality unless/until it gets fixed through narration at the table. I can respect what these games seek to do, but I generally don't find them appealing.
10:19 AM

Those are not remarks that anticipate adoption of Thews as a resolution system! But maybe because I've played a couple games of Fiasco recently, I was more willing than usual to give the game another try. To my surprise, I found that Thews works really well as a solo system, if supplemented by rich random-table resources. Why? How? Well, Thews does allow regular creation of in-game "facts" by the players  - but it also regulates and limits when and how extensively a player may do so. It turns out that those regulative limits made all the difference, in my experience - especially for running a mystery scenario. Yes, in Thews, "the reality of the game space is in perpetual limbo," but a player's ability to speak "facts" into that limbo is controlled by several factors:

+ Characters' simple STAT array includes "Warrior," "Explorer," and "Sorcerer." (There's only a bit more to the game's character-generation process). Your ability to speak "facts" into the game is contingent on successful "Sorcerer" rolls. This means that a highly competent warrior is unlikely to control the flow of fictional "facts" in the game narrative, so characters face real trade-offs in their priorities.

+ Characters are only allowed to narrate "facts" about lore in the game-world at specific moments. In particular, your opportunity to "spout lore" (so to speak) about something is limited to the moment when it first appears in the game. Your characters cross a bridge and find an ancient, crumbling altar? RIGHT NOW is your chance to attempt a Sorcerer roll so you can announce the "facts" you know about that altar. If you bungle the roll, that's too bad: apparently your desired "facts" aren't the real facts moving forward. 

+ There is a similar process for generating "facts" about what happens (instead of what's there) -- so when you are fighting opponents, you could declare a wound on an enemy minion as a 'fact' - but this is somewhat separate from the lore-crafting itself.

+ Finally, higher rolls earn you margins of success that mean you have more "facts" to narrate - but you gotta do it right now - you can't save up "facts" to spout later. 

As it turned out, combining these constraints on player creativity with the wide-openness of random tables generated a really delightful synergy. For solo play, I needed the GM's ability to dictate facts combined with the player's capacity to discover a not-yet-known mystery. How'd it happen? 

I made a pair of characters for On Mighty Thews, then opened up some random-table resources: Ironsworn, Ironsworn: Delve, Gabor Lux's The Nocturnal Table (which I've written about here), and Sixteen Sorrows by Sine Nomine Games. As it turned out, I ended up mostly relying on The Nocturnal Table, with just a bit of input from Ironsworn. Nocturnal Table offers innumerable random data points to flesh out a decadent sword-and-sorcery-tinged city; I was able to generate some initial "leads" using these, try to explain them using my own creativity, and then govern whether or not I was onto a red herring or an actual "fact" using the Thews rules - and turn back to the random tables in Nocturnal Table whenever I needed a fresh set of leads or clues. 

Below, O patient reader, I'll tell you the story of what happened, and then close with some final analytical comments. To illustrate how this worked, I'll insert [R] to show where I relied on a random dice-roll to generate content or determine an outcome. 


I decided to play in a pseudo-Byzantine, decadent urban metropolis. Conducting the night's investigation would be a pair of friends somewhere between Holmes & Watson and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Our characters:


Sorcerer (d12)

Explorer (d8)

Warrior (d4)

Scholar (d10)

Former spymaster (d6)

Reserved (d20) 

Azzur is a 'retired' spy (he left under circumstances I might want to flesh out in another session...) turned scholar. He's rubbish at fighting, but his keen eye and learned mind make him a formidable investigator. His d20 trait, "Reserved," details his typical bearing - in Thews, you get a re-roll token if you play through a Scene in accord with this trait, but if you attempt something desperate and violate your core trait in the process, you get to roll a d20 with the attempt, once per scene. So Azzur is normally tight-lipped, with his cards close to his chest, but if he's ever rattled enough to abandon his reserve, he will throw himself into his efforts.


Warrior (d12)

Explorer (d8)

Sorcerer (d4)

Ice-Fang, his father’s sword (d10)

Strong (d6)

Hates killing (d20) 

Varak is a brawny northern barbarian who came to the Great City as a mercenary, but since arriving he has turned from his heathen past and from murderous violence as well. His pacifistic d20 trait means that he will try not to kill opponents when possible, but if something really provokes him - watch out. 

So much for the cast. What happened? Below are (lightly edited) notes from my actual-play session. Please pardon the stream-of-consciousness flow to these notes - they are mostly written as I typed them during play, thus illustrating the way the story developed organically. 

You start by adding locations that match your characters' Values and their opposites. So I noted that this city includes some prominent locations:

Reserved: Chapter-House of Spies
Uninhibited: The Lotus-Smoke Dens
Pacifistic: The Church of Creation
Murderous: Assassins' Coven 

For good measure, I threw in a Barbarian Quarter by the Docks, as well. 

There has been a disastrous accident. [R] 

Well - what appears to be an accident, at least; but for some reason, Azzur isn’t convinced that’s so. Let’s find out why - and what happened!  [R]

“A devious subordinate eunuch was selling souls, to facilitate an arrest.” And he was somehow involved in the ‘accident’? Ah, maybe the accident claimed this eunuch’s life…and Azzur knows through his connections that the eunuch was involved in some pending arrest…so he’s wondering just how ‘accidental’ all this was.  Ok, so the eunuch is a former colleague of Azzur's from the city's spy-service. [I ended up interpreting "selling souls" metaphorically...this time].

Assyrian head of a royal attendant, probably a eunuch 
(Metropolitan Museum of Art: Image in Public Domain)

The eunuch - and those near him - were wracked with a sudden sickness [R], exposed to…something, while resting. Azzur has noted that the site was subtly marked with chalk [R]…Perhaps some kind of amphora full of particularly noxious stuff was served, or fell and broke, and overwhelmed them with the fumes…many recovered but the eunuch was asleep and never awoke. Hmmm. Ok, that will do. Azzur suspects this unlikely 'accident' was not entirely...accidental, since his old friend was investigating something. 

In his pocket, the eunuch had a petrified eyeball and some rouge [R]. Weird! 

3 people Azzur thinks might know more [R]:

+ Garbage collector Mortho Tass, pushing hand-cart full of rags, and lamenting the loss of the regal purple robe that was snatched from him. 

+ Telquanar the Pirate (carries a balm against skin disease) and 8 pirates; four throw a weighted net from above, the rest grab the goods and run. 

+ Oltremor the barbarian robber: robs his victims all on his own, and the six slaves are only there to carry off the loot. Wields an ornamental scimitar. 

Azzur wants to know what the dead eunuch was working on in more detail, and who might have gained from his death. Because the dead eunuch was carrying a small pot of rouge (and, bizarrely, a ‘petrified eyeball,’ Azzur investigates the rouge, and realizes it isn’t rouge; it’s a red balm against a skin disease, which he knows is used by Telquanar the Pirate [Not sure whether I rolled here, or just rationalized this]. 

Azzur and Varak visit the garbage-collector Mortho Tass, hoping he can tell them the whereabout of Telquanar the Pirate. Tass laughs and says that he can indeed, but he wants something in return. Tass recently acquired [R] (says he ‘found’, but huh…) a regal purple robe…and then it was stolen from him, snatched away by one of the 18 drunken members of the Procession of the Goat-cult [R]. Wonderful. Tass wants Azzur to snatch the purple robe back for him, after which he’ll point the way to Telquanar. 

Huh. What a goat-rodeo, literally. 

Interesting question: is this really just a drunken group of whacky cultists, or is there something larger and darker going on? And is there any significance to the purple robe, or not? And was its theft mere happenstance…or deliberate and important? And is this all connected to the eunuch’s death, or part of something else happening in the City of Dreams? Azzur wonders. (And he makes a successful Lore roll with a margin of success of 2. He will create 2 facts) He remembers from his time among the spies that the “goat cult” was connected to a disgraced spymaster who quit the Chapter-House years ago. Hmm. Also, he recalls that the goat cult often attends the Lotus-Smoke dens, and knowing this, he and Varak head toward that unsavory establishment to look for the stolen purple robe. 

Hmmm. This will require a Contested roll, vs a d8 cultist. Can our heroes find the robe-wearing cultist, isolate him, and get the robe away, or will they find themselves surrounded by angry cultists and Lotus-smokers? 

Azzur, already deeply uncomfortable about the lotus-smoke den surrounds, decides this is an all-or-nothing moment. Not sure that he can isolate the man with the purple robe otherwise, he loudly and flamboyantly pretends to be an enthusiastically intoxicated lotus-smoker (violating his d20 trait of Reserved), and manages to escort the robe-bearer to a private stall - where he and Varak try to separate him from his robe, by non-lethal force if need be…cultist rolls a 5…WOW even with all that, it is a TIE at 5. But the Players win ties! Success, with no extra margin of success. 

Coughing and wheezing, the protagonists make their way hastily away from the Lotus-Smoke Den, the purple robe bundled up under a cloak, having left one slightly-bruised and inebriated cultist asleep by the lotus-pipe. 

Azzur consults his stock of Lore about the purple robe, and (success!) comes up with 2 facts about it:

+ this one belonged to a prince of the city’s royal family. Uh-oh. 

+ that prince has not been seen publicly for a fortnight. Even more uh-oh. 

He decides they’d better try to convince Mortho Tass that this robe is too dangerous to wear around the city. Will he be persuaded by reason (and maybe jingling coin)? Or will he still insist that he wants the robe back in exchange for the location of the pirate, Telquanar? 

Ah! Azzur’s words aren’t persuasive, but Varak saves the day, showing Tass the wiser path (and handing him a jingling coin-purse in exchange for the robe). Varak can dictate two facts. 1) Tass tells them that two weeks ago he took the robe off one of the slaves attending Oltremor “the barbarian robber,” and 2) Tass suspects, based on what the heroes have told him, that Oltremar either kidnapped the prince or IS the prince in disguise. 


Where to next? 

Tass also gives the heroes a simple address where Telquanar the pirate holes up. It’s in the barbarian docks area. Oh, wow, it’s the home of... [R] a grave robber named Morthevole who sells ossified remains as popular good-luck charms for thieves (hey! Remember the ‘petrified eye' found on the dead eunuch? That was probably one of these charms...).

So it seems pretty clear that the eunuch had on his person a grave-charm of the kind sold by Morthevole, and some of the balm that Telquanar the pirate uses. Huh. So…what was the eunuch up to there? Azzur wonders whether the eunuch was … maybe…looking for the missing crown prince? And snooping around a known thieves’ quarters looking for clues? So - are Telquanar and the grave-robber in the thick of it all, or are they just coincidentally related? 

Ok. Azzur and Varak either need to go shake the tree at the Chapter-House of Spies, or they need to do so at Morthevole’s shop for grave-curios. Hmmm. Choices, choices. 

How about they go to the shop, browse trinkets, and let on that they are thieves looking for employment by a bigger boss…’they have heard about some prominent gangs, Telquanar’s, and Oltremor’s, and they wonder wether Morthevole can point them to them, or…” Meanwhile they are also looking for any clues they can find. 

With a tied roll [R], the investigators don’t learn anything, but they do convince Morthevole that they’re thieves looking for hired work. He says to come back that night after dark. They do so - and find that they have a ‘job interview’ with Telquanar and his gang of 8 pirates! Oh, just great. The robbers demand that Azzur and Varak immediately go help them rob a passersby to show their skills and mettle. 

Urk. Probably a bad idea, but they accept…and the victim is…[R]...

OH CRAP - a mob of 3d10 seeking the kidnappers of a child! 23 people go rushing by! (um, surely the pirates aren’t stupid enough to try robbing them?)

Ah…dilemma time…the heroes can help stop the kidnapping, but they'll have to flake out on their ‘job interview.’ 

Yeah, they’ll flake out. [hmm, why was there another kidnapping, though?] 

Ok, the PCs are already up on rooftops, so they can see the … escaping party with a bundled-up child. They launch pursuit. Who are they chasing? 

(Azzur tries a Lore test [R]…rolls a 12! 4 facts or bonuses!!!!!! And...

1: the kidnapper is Oltremor the barbarian…

2: with his 6 ‘slaves’.

3: the kidnap victim is the son of a local nobleman. 

4: take a +1 bonus to act against the kidnapping! 

Oltremor: d10 Barbarian

Competition roll - PCs want to catch up to and corner Oltremor so they can confront and stop him. He wants to escape (d10). 8 vs…7+1 =8! Thank goodness for the bonus to spend!

It's Confrontation time! The PCs drop down into the street right in front of Oltremor and his slave-thugs, two of whom are carrying a bundled prisoner. The PCs yell at the kidnappers to stop. The sound of the enraged mob of 23 pursuers grows closer from somewhere behind. 

Oltremar and his thugs will fight!!!! [R]

Uh-oh. Oh yeah! 

Oltremar wants to cut down these impertinent do-gooders, and barge through them to keep going. The PCs want to get the child, and take a prisoner or two if possible. 

[R] Ok…this would have been a tied result of 6 vs 6. But Varak, in a moment of desperate fury, incensed at this vile kidnapping, and feeling a bit … energized by the 7-vs-2 odds - throws his normal pacifism to the winds…he strikes not just to subdue, but wildly, madly, fiercely and vengefully…striking some blows to kill. 

He rolls a 16 on his d20. 6 = margin of success! Wow. [Ooops, I think the margin of success should have been 5, in fact.]

Free success = heroes recover the kidnapped child.

1 = block enemy intent - they don't escape

2 = wound Oltremor  

3 = capture Oltremor

4 = kill one of his m


5 = kill another of his minions 

6 = the other minions flee into the night

[In hindsight, I didn't resolve this scene properly. Somehow I had it in my head that the whole fight needed a one-roll resolution. Actually, I should have done something like 3 wounds to incapacitate Oltremor, then knock 2 minions out of the scene - then one more round of clobbering minion butt before they ran away or were all down. The main thing, though, is that the player can dictate whether they kill or just incapacitate the enemy - definitely looking to ask Oltremor some questions!]

The mob is approaching and we have captured the barbarian kidnapper. Why is he doing this? Has he kidnapped a prince? Is the prince himself kidnapping people for some vile cultic purpose? What’s going on? 

Azzur makes a Lore test to try to recognize the rescued child [R]. Success! It turns out that this child is the pre-teen, only son of the Captain of the City Guard - already marked out as successor-designate to his father’s hereditary post, when the time should come. Hmm (a dark theory is forming in Azzur’s mind concerning why such noble persons’ child heirs are being abducted…but I don't know whether that theory is correct until I earn some further fact-successes to declare them). 

That mob is almost upon them. Not wanting to see the mob tear apart their prisoner before they can question him, Azzur and Varak agree to split up. Varak cuts the thug’s cloak in half and uses it to bind the prisoner tightly, then drags him off through dark side-alleys to have a little conversation. Meanwhile, Azzur unties the terrified kidnapped youth, and then leads him gently toward the oncoming mob. Azzur will try to pacify the situation while returning the child safely - and hopefully will glean more information, or at least a contact with the Captain of the Guard.

For his part, [R] Azzur just manages to calm down the mob and return the child safely to his palanquin-bearing keepers. He leaves his contact information with them and asks for an audience with the Captain of the Guard on the morrow. 

Meanwhile, Varak is intent on punching some information out of Oltremor the Barbarian (Varak is no longer willing to kill here, least of all in cold blood; but he won’t let Varak know that!). 

Varak almost fails to break Oltremor’s grim resistance, but at the last minute, he flashes Ice-Fang, his father’s sword, dangerously close to Oltremor’s neck - and the thug spills the beans (this only worked because of the special sword’s supplementary die, AND because Varak could spend a re-roll token that he earned with his non-lethal Virtue-following while wrestling with the goat cultist, earlier). 

What Varak learns chills him to the bone.

It turns out that Oltremor was hired by a cabal of sorcerers in the city - who are planning a magical ritual to possess the next generation of the city’s ruling elite! Yowza. Unfortunately, that’s all that Varak is able to get from Oltremor. Just who are these mysterious magi? Where are they hiding, and how can they be stopped? 

Our characters will certainly have some ideas what may be going on - but are those guesses correct? I will have to keep playing to find out! 


Hopefully, those session notes are clear enough to indicate how the flow of the game worked. Random tables, mostly from The Nocturnal Table, provided external seeds that I could initially respond to. The game rules from Thews governed my attempts to respond. I was free to come up with my own theories about what might connect the different random-table data points, but Thews also regulated whether and when I could declare any of these theories correct. Quite often, I wasn't able to just dictate enough to clear things up, so I was regularly pointed back to fresh content from the random tables. The table results would regularly throw a wrench in my emerging theories, and suggest that something more complex was going on. Still, continued investigation and engagement with the story gave me more opportunities to keep narrowing down my theories and establishing some of their elements in "fact." 

I never truly botched a roll - Azzur is quite good at attempting those Sorcerer tests - but my vague plan was that in the event of a really bungled roll, I would turn to the Ironsworn table for "plot twists" to see what might happen next. 

If you are interested in checking out any of the resources I used, you can find them here (affiliate links for products at DriveThru): 

This worked really well and proved a very enjoyable experience. I shall have to try it again, and determine who those evil wizards are - and whether they can be stopped in time... 

Happy gaming!