Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Hacking & Running B10, Night's Dark Terror: Part 2.

Now begins the second part of my post-campaign reflections on the old TSR UK module B10, Night's Dark Terror (the first part of this discussion is here). As I noted previously, B10 is great fun and a strong resource, but it can benefit from some changes here and there. As I summed up early in my previous discussion:

Here's my verdict in a nutshell: B10 is really good, more a flexible campaign platform than a single adventure, a somewhat-open, sandboxy romp, and great fun. All that being said, the module as written needs some TLC to avoid railroading, maintain logical coherency, and get the most bang for your buck - but the module's flexibility allows all the modifications needed to whip it into really fun shape. Recommended - but so are some changes.

Today's post picks up right around the half-way point through B10, but I'll be continuing with the same goals - not so much to review B10 (look, it's good) but to discuss how and why I modified it while running the module. Apart from a few things, this second part will include more changes that are probably subjective - in other words, for the second half of the module, there are a few things that I suggest any GM should change (and I'll explain why), but there is also plenty of flexibility for whatever each individual GM might want to change. I changed lots, but don't feel that my changes are all somehow necessary just to make this thing work well (though, again, I suspect that a few moderate tweaks in the back half will really make this thing an even better experience for any gaming table). I've tagged each section with some buzzwords about "more mandatory" or "less mandatory" alterations, but you should naturally take these labels with a hefty grain of salt, to taste. Think of much of this just as an individual campaign report.

If you'd like to snag a copy of B10, you can find a copy right here. You don't need, but might benefit from, the old Karameikos Gazetteer, as well (both are affiliate links).

As before, please note that

MASSIVE SPOILERS WILL BE EVERYWHERE,

So stay back if you're a player or would-be player in B10. Otherwise...let's do this.

[EDIT: as before, I ended up writing quite a bit more than expected, so this is now part 2 of what I suspect will be a 3-part discussion. I'm interested in feedback on whether this depth of discussion is helpful and interesting, or whether this is getting too down into the weeds. Gentle reader, what think ye?]


RESCUING STEPHAN: THE ASSAULT ON XITAQA 
SUGGESTED CHANGES ARE LESS MANDATORY ;-) 

Note that this is the point where our campaign shifted from play-by-email using quite OSR, OD&D-adjacent rules, to weekly, live video-chat games using a PbtA ruleset fusing bits of Dungeon World, World of Dungeons, and Freebooters on the Frontier, but all with a GM determined to continue to approach everything from a very OSR-influenced mindset. A few sessions in, I gave the players a chance to switch back, but they all reported enjoying the new system and its dynamism.

Speaking of dynamism...this is one of the things I sought to heighten throughout the second half of the campaign: certainly dynamic consequences to bungled rolls in-game, but also dynamic, unpredictable events in a world where things are happening around the PCs, or dynamic, open choices for players, with real and meaningful consequences and effects on the game-world. This meant that I've continually been delighted to see our world develop through play in ways that surprise me, even though I fully retain the traditional D&D/OSR GM control of narrative reality. I would recommend the delights of this approach near and far, and I suggest that it can be implemented in a variety of ways, even across different rule-systems. The timeline that I'll discuss shortly below is one (potentially) system-agnostic way to do so, for example.

Ok. So - having returned to Sukiskyn to gear up after assaulting the wrong gobrach stronghold (oops!), the PCs prepared to raid Xitaqa, a ruined ancient city set into a ravine across the river to the north. During their preparations, they met a strange old hermit among the refugees at Sukiskyn; the old man offered a staff of striking to the party for their coming battle, if they would agree to owe him a favor in return. To be perfectly honest, this only happened because one of the PCs was looking notably under-equipped in comparison with his peers, so this was a bit of a cheeseball move on my part at the time - I had no clue who this weird hermit was. As you'll see below, however, this worked out just fine - the hermit ended up having a notable role to play, all in due course.

Once geared up, the PCs headed north. As per the module, they tangled with an Iron Ring scout patrol outside Xitaqa...but my players ended up not only sparing one of the enemy for questioning, but they spent resources healing him and tried to convert him to their cause. A good ol' secret reaction roll showed me that the scout in fact refused to actually betray his masters, so he fed them some (mis)information about Xitaqa - just enough to get them in trouble - then pretended to ride off peaceably away from Xitaqa. In fact, he later turned around and shadowed the party there, planning to ride in and audibly warn his master about the intruders.

That was just one of several possible events included on a LOCATION TIMELINE that I drew up to make the Xitaqa raid feel a bit more dynamic. Timelines are easy in a PbtA game that prompts the GM to look for negative consequences when rolls don't go well (the Dungeon World "adventure fronts" system), but they can be implemented in a traditional turn/round-based D&D-game, too: either have a pre-set time when various things will happen, or - for maximum chaos - treat the timeline as a list of possibilities, and whatever triggers your next check-mark - whether it be failed rolls or number of turns elapsed - just roll randomly to figure out which event happens next.

At risk of overburdening this post, I'll share what my timeline looked like. As you can see, it included a number of overlapping fail-states, but also some conditions that might be bad for the bad guys, too. Keep in mind that Stephan is the prisoner everyone is trying to rescue; Golthar is the mad Iron Ring master who's got him prisoner and under torture. The gobrach are the local goblins...but I felt they needed more spice, so I added a shaman with unstable necromantic powers, a giant pet Dire Ape chained up in the gobrach "king"'s throne-room, a secret passage behind that throne-room's wall into the basement of Golthar's tower, and a colossal jackal-headed animated statue capable of mind-control in the basement, instead of a gelatinous cube. What could possibly go wrong?

Each danger represents a separate timeline countdown; each number is a 'beat' on the countdown to some unpleasant thing going wrong.

Danger 1: Stephan is killed 
1 - Stephan screams in pain again / PCs overhear gobrach joking about how the boss is about to kill off another prisoner
2 - …and again, screaming from the tower
3 - …and again, then…
Impending Doom: Stephan is killed!

Danger 2: The Gobrach consolidate to hunt down the party
Impulse: to catch and torment outsiders
Grim portents:
1 The gobrach inform their chieftain of intruders and the patrols begin to coordinate; Lord Vlack (the gobrach shaman) is summoned from the tower.
2 Gobrach patrols begin systematically searching the canyon / Vlack arrives, if feasible
               if/when there have been significant Gobrach casualties, Vlack will unleash powerful magic, but lose control of it - reanimating ALL corpses at Xitaqa, which will turn on ANY bystander, from both sides of the fight!
3 Gobrach locate the players and begin hunting them relentlessly (BUT - whenever significant casualties have occurred, Vlack will reanimate them, and lose control!)
Impending Doom A: The gobrach horde locate the PCs and close in with all remaining troops
Impending Doom B: Undead hordes tear apart Xitaqa!

Danger 3: Golthar attacks the party and/or escapes
Impulse: to discover the location of Hutaaka, then escape
Portents:
1 The treacherous Reaver rides urgently into Xitaqa, shouting a warning to Golthar
2 Golthar finishes with Stephan (or his hand is forced and he flees)
3 Golthar blasts open his tower and flies away to the W/SW (toward Kelven)
Impending Doom: Golthar flees and acts on his educated guesses to find Hutaaka 
Finally, I also kept a simple tracker of two gobrach patrols moving about the city, which ended up boosting the tension...

Let's see, it's been a while now, but if memory serves...the PCs infiltrated the city, shot dead some pterodactyl-bat-things that the shaman keeps around the tower (but neglected to drag the bodies into hiding, so...) as they progressed deeper into the city, they ended up hearing a trumpet-blast from the direction of the canyon where they shot the flying critters dead (a patrol had just arrived and crossed paths with the arrow-festooned pterodactyl corpses). Important to note - don't make the timeline itself be a straightjacket - if something happens that should change it up or advance it more quickly than expected, then just go for it. The PCs ended up in a giant rumble as they tried to scout out the "king's" lair quietly but got detected...after this, they fled through the secret tunnel into the basement of Golthar's tower. Here, not one but TWO of the PCs voluntarily submitted to the colossal statue's urging to "open your mind to me" (I mean, some days players just hand you candy, right?). Two of the characters, temporarily re-assigned as GM-NPCs, marched off upstairs. One player followed them, another got distracted and searched a room for treasure (!!!!), and eventually they found Golthar, his brute torturer friend, and poor Stephan (still alive!) upstairs. There was an epic fight, of course, and Golthar almost got away...he blew a hole in the tower wall, but got torched by a fireball (a one-shot fireball using my "titans' tears" magic system). Then he tried to fly away, badly wounded, but a very lucky long shot by a player-character archer killed him off.

Oh...outside, pandemonium had broken out, as the gobrach shaman's attempts to raise undead forces had gone awry...the PCs hastened their relieved rescuee, Stephan, out through the bedlam of a gobrach zombie outbreak, and escaped back to Sukiskyn. Yeehaw.

Some Wonderful Internal Art from B10, by Helen Bedford


AFTER THE RESCUE - WHY STOP THE IRON RING, NOW?
SUGGESTED CHANGES ARE OOOPER-DOOOPER-SUPER IMPORTANT

B10 really consists of two interlinked mission-arcs: first, it's oh no, we must find and rescue Stephan! and second, it's oh no, we must help Stephan find and loot Hutaaka before the Iron Ring does! As the party transitions from the first to the second, I would STRONGLY SUGGEST making some simple changes to the setup of the latter adventure goal.

Once he's safely home at Sukiskyn, the battered Stephan reveals that a MacGuffin tapestry is actually a magical treasure map showing the location of Hutaaka, a lost and forgotten city, supposedly loaded with fabulous treasures, of an arcane jackal-headed precursor group known as (wait for it) the Hutaakans. Stephan also reveals that his captors were the Iron Ring slaver organization and that they are searching with all their might for Hutaaka, so they can loot its treasures (and no doubt invest the whole thing unethically in tax-sheltered offshore accounts...ok, that last bit may be an extrapolation). Stephan, having just been tortured repeatedly by the Iron Ring, clearly understands that The Iron Ring is Bad People, that Bad People Do Not Deserve to Get Even More Treasure, that Honest Good Folk like Stephan and the Player Characters Do Deserve to Get Rich Soon, and therefore that Somebody Really Ought to Do Something About This.

Honestly, I thought this was super lame.

You may not, in which case power to you. There certainly is a venerable tradition of S&S or OSR adventurers who are purely in it for the Benjamins. Several of my players (and I) have a more heroic streak, so something a bit more motivating was in order (to be clear, the lure of giant treasure-piles certainly would play a factor, too...). I also felt that this was an entirely uncompelling way to handle Stephan, not to mention his relationship with his family. ("Hi Mom, I'm home from being kidnapped and tortured! So sorry you all had to go through that emotional agony while I was gone! Anyway - I'm ... um ... leaving tomorrow to keep tangling with the bad guys, because legend and a city of gold and reasons! Ok? See ya!"). Finally, the Iron Ring itself seemed a bit daft if they were willing to pour so many resources (including personnel - my PCs ended up killing a LOT of servants of the Iron Ring) into a vague hunt for a treasure-pile that might or might not still exist, when by all accounts they were already raking in the gold through their usual extortive means. No, some higher stakes were called for.

How you change this is not particularly important, but I would suggest you make some kind of change.

As one (too) often does, I turned to another MacGuffin. No, wait, come back! There's more. Not just a MacGuffin. A relic with potentially world-changing significance...with setting-breaking potential...posing a significant moral dilemma...with zero strings attached on what I'd allow the bad guys OR the player characters to get away with. Let me explain.

In my non-canonical version of Mystara, the Hutaakans' desperation to protect their hidden valley motivated them to open contact with dark forces beyond the firmament (thus letting in Kartoeba, the Lovecraftian beastie that prowls their ruined city). They used these powers to create a magical weaving-loom with almost Norn-like powers over the unfolding of destiny (which my players immediately christened The Loom of Doom).

If one sits at the loom and weaves a picture or map of a kingdom, then within one month's time that kingdom will be utterly destroyed, one way or another. 

This was the jackal-headed refugees' nuke-option to remove any power that might one day threaten to overwhelm hidden Hutaaka. Having learned of this dangerous relic, the Iron Ring's motivation was not just to gain riches, but to gain ultimate power and be able to force any kingdom to its knees by threatening it with total annihilation. Stephan's motive, and the party's, was to prevent this from happening.

Yet...there was another complication. One of the key elements of our campaign that I really played up was the ethnic tension between the outsider Karameikan overlords, of Thyatian descent, and the native Tral (Traldar in the book) population conquered by them in earlier generations. That tension is active in canonical Karameikos, but I really ramped it up.

AN IMPORTANT ASIDE: let me acknowledge a potential elephant in the room. I started incorporating themes of what we'd now call imperial or colonial oppression and ethnic tension in this campaign right from the beginning, a year ago. Our version of Mystara is an Iron Age setting, and such issues certainly were already relevant, in different forms, in ancient societies. Yet without context, I suspect that some aspects of our campaign - ethnic tension between settler-rulers and a local native population; heavy-handed enforcement provoking street riots; and moral dilemmas about the appropriate limits of resistance - will currently sound either like an over-trendy attempt to cram the latest current events into our gaming for commentary, on the one hand, or a blithe attempt to make light entertainment out of what are all-too-serious problems affecting our society right now.

As a historian who spends a lot of time pondering these kinds of weighty issues, I included these factors in my campaign because they are part of the human social experience and I wanted to consider their effect on Karameikos, before they were dominating current headlines. It is a very unfortunate coincidence that the real-life tragic killing of George Floyd and the dramatic events since then, which have drawn needed attention to many underlying injustices, took place during the same year that I GM'd ethnically-related tensions spilling over in Threshold, for example. The in-game conversation was not meant as a reaction to specific current events, but neither was it meant to make light of very real concerns that have marred our and many other historical societies. Although you will not normally hear politics discussed on this gaming blog, I believe that Black Lives Matter. Please don't turn my comment feed into the latest battleground for the culture wars, whatever your stance, but also please don't think that I intended to make light of any of this stuff.

What incorporating Thyatian-Tral ethnic tensions in our campaign did mean was dramatically heightened stakes and questions when it came to the Loom of Doom. As Stephan asked the party sometimes during their overland journeys, what do we do with the Loom if we find it? Just destroy it...or maybe try to do some good with it? Destroy the Iron Ring outright? Destroy the Karameikan regime?  Can you even use such an evil object for good means? And can we live with ourselves later if we hold the means to destroy the Iron Ring in our hands, and let them go? I didn't insist on specific answers, and left this up to the players. This meant that even though I was firmly in control of the narrative world as the GM, I had real uncertainty throughout this campaign about how it would end - whether with a destruction of the loom, or with an overturning of crowns.

In my opinion, emphasizing the tensions between the different groups living in Karameikos also helped explain why it wasn't logical simply to go ask the authorities for help. I was a bit puzzled, reading through B10, as to why the nearer authorities in Kelven are never expected to send the cavalry, at least eventually, to smack down the goblin and Iron Ring forces causing havoc across the countryside. In my version, this was partly because the ruling elite at Kelven were clearly compromised themselves by Iron Ring influence, and there was enough underlying suspicion of the authorities that no-one was eager to go hand the Loom of Doom problem off to them.

Ok. Nuff said, I hope, on that front.

So. With that change, the whole motivation for the second half of the campaign changed to something larger, much more dynamic, and (in my opinion) far more interesting than simply wanting treasure first. If you're settling in to run B10, consider whether your particular table make-up tends to favor loot-first missions, or not. If so, then you're good to go. If not, however, consider inventing some plausible reason other than just loot for the baddies to want Hutaaka. It's a half-ruined, post-collapse treasury-city hidden in the mountains, wracked by civil war, and stalked by undead and cosmic horror. Seriously, there's gotta be more than just money involved there, right?

Whew...I'm going to stop here, again, because once again this has gotten longer than I intended. I invite you to comment on whether this level of detail is helpful and interesting, or not really; perhaps such discussions should be more to the point? Or is this useful?

Either way, thanks for reading!

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Recommended: *The Nocturnal Table*, city dressing generator, on sale for about 10 more hours

This wasn't the post I'd intended to upload next, but it's also time-sensitive: for the next 10 hours or so, the current "Deal of the Day" over at DriveThruRPG is by a leading OSR indie publisher, Melan / Gabor Lux. I just bought it, and after a quick look-through, I recommend it.



Please note that the links below in this post are affiliate links, but if you really really really don't want to support this blog that way, feel free to get to the same product by this normal DTRPG link instead. :-) Cheers.

I just picked up Melan's The Nocturnal Table (normally $6.50 USD, but on sale tonight for just $2.60). I'm quite pleased with it. This kind of random-table-heavy toolkit isn't always as helpful as it sounds; for example, as it happens, I also just purchased a different and even cheaper product from a different publisher, which I won't name here, that advertised something similar but ended up a bit disappointing once purchased and opened. Not so for The Nocturnal Table! Here are scads and scads of fun random tables that are generally quite interesting, all geared for making urban environments, characters, encounters, activities, scenery, locations, and events more interesting.

For example, if my PCs wonder who they might bump into on the street - or if I want to whip up some interesting contacts, like just who is selling what around here? - a few dice-rolls provide me with a dishonest and envious acolyte who is selling salts - but with ulterior motives. What's in his pouch or pockets? Hmm...(the dice roll...) 15 electrum pieces, and a house key. (It could have been "a stuffed lizard!"). Or maybe it's an enigmatic matron selling off legal texts - from an impounded property. Or a flamboyant dancing beast selling fine wines, but with illicit additives. A different table offers several hundred slightly more-developed encounters that the party might stumble into somewhere in the city streets - this might be "Dung Seller Oillo Offin (Thief 3) checking his fermentation vats and inviting passersby to inspect his merchandise" or could be something much more alien...or dangerous. The general tone is exotic and a bit weird, but should fit for any sword & sorcery-ish large urban setting.

Lots of stuff like this. Good stuff, available on the cheap for the next little while. Oh, late in the 60-page .pdf there's also a neat little 'conspiracy generator' that guides you through using the tables in this book to make shadowy urban conspiracies. This made me think of the urban Transmissions used to generate mystery plots while in play for the quirky, excellent cyberpunk-noir game Technoir - only, with this many random tables to hand, at first blush it makes me think it might be as (or even more?) powerful than Technoir's transmissions, if perhaps without those tools' very tight focus on one particular place at a time.

Good stuff. I look forward to having this on hand when my own creativity wants either a little break or a little stimulus.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Semi-Review/Campaign Report: How & Why I Hacked B10, "Night's Dark Terror"

A little while ago, my players finished a very satisfying play-through of the old TSR module B10, Night's Dark Terror, set in the vaguely not-Slavic medieval-ish realm of Karameikos - the Grand Duchy that introduced Mystara, an old but rich D&D setting, to many of us (described in more detail in GAZ1, The Grand Duchy of Karameikos - affiliate link).

Here's my verdict in a nutshell: B10 is really good, more a flexible campaign platform than a single adventure, a somewhat-open, sandboxy romp, and great fun. All that being said, the module as written needs some TLC to avoid railroading, maintain logical coherency, and get the most bang for your buck - but the module's flexibility allows all the modifications needed to whip it into really fun shape. Recommended - but so are some changes

If you'd like to snag a copy, DriveThru has it (affiliate link) right here: B10, Night's Dark Terror.

If you're up for the long version, then read on; below, I offer a mini-review and campaign report, focusing on the ways I changed the module - and why. There are already quite a few online reviews of B10, and you should check them out too if you're shopping for adventures. Rather than just reinventing the wheel, I'll try to lay bare some of the design considerations that went into how I used B10. This post will probably be most useful to GMs who are familiar with B10, or who (might) want to run it. In other words, I won't try to do everything that a great review does, but I'll drill down into the nitty-gritty of actually running this thing.

No doubt there are many other fine ways to run this module; here's what worked at our table.

But first:  SPOILERS AHEAD. 

So much spoilage. More spoilage than a black suitcase full of shrimp left on the back porch all weekend in July. In order to break down what works in this module and what I found necessary to change, I will thoroughly spoil every major element of this module - and you should know that some of the module's greatest player joys involve the slow resolution of mystery. You really shouldn't read this post if you are, or may soon be, a player in this module. Otherwise, read on!




PREMISE

Here's the basic idea with B10: you've been hired to escort horses for sale to market up in Karameikos' desolate northeast. But the nearer you get to your employers' homestead, the more you see signs of trouble and disorder - culminating in a nasty goblin siege that descends on said homestead right as you arrive! Presuming you survive that lengthy battle, you then learn from local refugees that most of the neighboring settlements were also attacked - and your employer's brother, Stephan, has been kidnapped by the goblins! Your new employer's family commission you to go find their missing kinsman, kicking off an open-ended exploration of a substantial (and generally interesting) stretch of Karameikan wilderness. After many shenanigans, if you're able to track down and rescue the kidnapped Stephan, you discover that a vicious slaving cabal - the Iron Ring - is behind the goblin attacks. The Iron Ring is trying to wring (sorry...) from Stephan the tools to locate a forgotten ancient city, Hutaaka, reputed to be chock-full of fabulous treasures. Determined to stop his former captors/tormentors, Stephan now commissions you to join him on an urgent quest to find Hutaaka first, and liberate its treasures before they can enrich the Iron Ring. But the lost city holds terrible mysteries that may make it hard for anyone to plunder it...

Ok. That's the outline of B10 in a nutshell. I'll break things down in closer detail bit by bit. If it seems that this overall 'plot' seems...well, plotted, hinting at the plot-heavy approach of post-Gygaxian TSR, well, yeah, you'd be right. But (as I'll discuss) the individual pieces actually do allow a very flexible, open sandbox, with just enough structure for the players to have solid hooks to hang onto as they figure out what else they want to accomplish.


SYSTEM AND MECHANICS ISSUES

Yeah, yeah, system doesn't matter (except, of course, for when it really does). It will be worth noting that we ran B10 over the past year using two different systems, each somewhat outside the mainstream. For most of Autumn 2019, Winter, and much of Spring 2020, we ran this as a play-by-email, using my own homebrew rules that I cheekily called '74 against Thebes (it was...kind of an OD&D + ancient history nerd joke...). These were an evil hybrid of elements from Searchers of the Unknown, OD&D, Swords & Wizardry, Knave, and who knows what. I think they worked quite well.

The play-by-email format is important to note, because it influenced my campaign design decisions significantly for the first half of this campaign; PBEM has its own strengths and weaknesses, and pulling it off well can require careful thinking about pacing and the kinds of decision points that are most likely to keep robust play going well.

When COVID hit, alas, and the season of the Zoom drew nigh, we switched to weekly face-to-face (well, comparatively) play over video-chat. We also switched to a new rules-set - not because of deficiences in '74 against Thebes, but because I'd developed a mean hankering to run some PbtA gaming again, after several years "off" of that approach. This time, however, I was determined to run some PbtA action as fully in keeping with OSR principles as possible. (No, no, this actually can be done. I think I've mused on that in an earlier post).

This does mean that our second half of playing through B10 had a different flavor again, this time one that particularly rewarded set-ups with room for chaotic consequences and factional power-struggles spilling over (spoiler alert: they did).

With both systems, we also used magic items called 'Titans' Tears' which are gem-like spells that activate and fire when popped in the mouth. They are each 1-shot/1-use, but have no level restrictions; a little bit like Numenera cyphers, I suppose, but generally using typical D&D spell effects.


NO FEUDALISM, THANK YOU, THIS IS THE IRON AGE

Our campaign also had one other big difference worth noting up front: I re-set Karameikos as a faux-Iron Age setting rather than a faux-medieval setting. Often this resulted in only cosmetic differences, but none of the usual assumptions were on the table about the feudal hierarchy, etc. I was entirely willing to re-write canonical Mystaran lore as needed or desired.

Since our earlier interactions were done over email, I have a record of those stages of the game. Here's how I described the setting and pitch to the new players:

Karameikos! A land of deep forests thick with timber, mountains rich in ore, cold, fast rivers, and plains known for their noble horses. It’s also a land infamous for superstitions, though they may be well-earned; fey and dark things live in the forests (or so men say), there are wind-haunted ruins in the mountains, and outside the few urban areas the locals look uneasily into the wild places around them. 
150 years ago, the Thyatians conquered this land, outlawed the tribal gatherings of the local Tral people, and re-named the country after one of their own noble houses: Karameikos. Generations after the conquest, a sort of modus vivendi has emerged; Karameikan lords extract what metal, timber, and horses they need from the land, using some in their new towns (Threshold, Kel’ven, and distant Specularum, the capital) and otherwise usually leave the locals alone - if they don’t cause trouble. Though robbed of their tribal councils, the Tral have adapted, forming Ru’at - a word plausibly translated “fellowship, guild, faction, clan, army, club” - informal social networks that organize, protect, and police Tral society below and alongside the systems of the Karameikan conquerors. 
As fate would have it, your own path is now connected to one such Ru’at. You followed various roads across this ancient world, but they each led here: through Karameikos, and into deep debt. Your traveling funds exhausted, you have traded your promise of work up front for gold-lenders’ promises of ample recompense in future. Those gold-lenders, it turns out, are members of a Tral Ru’at with connections across northeastern Karameikos. Recognizing your various gifts and abilities, they have sent you on from the town Kel’ven to seek out a homestead named Sukiskyn. There, you are to assist with  two tasks: first, help guard a herd of horses on their way to sale, and then return to Sukiskyn to serve a Ru’at lore-keeper named Stephan, who apparently wants help with…well, the gold-changers aren’t sure. Something lore-related. Since you each owe 2,500 deben to the Ru’at, you don’t seem to have much choice anyway. So off you go to Sukiskyn. 

The module actually has the PCs just going to Sukiskyn to make money, but I've learned from Into the Odd / Electric Bastionland that starting out without money and in terrible debt can be a much more effective way to channel players toward adventure!


THE SIEGE OF SUKISKYN

The module opens with a troubled journey to the homestead of Sukiskyn, and then a really dramatic siege of that homestead by rampaging goblins. As already noted, the aftermath of this battle propels PCs into a search for Stephan, a kidnapped local.

I trimmed the opening very heavily, for two reasons. First, our play-by-email format meant that unnecessary chaff risked losing initial momentum, a really bad idea early in the campaign. Second, a few of these opening elements feel awkward to me, sort of like very modest railroading to get the players to the desired 'inciting moment' from within the narrative - rather than simply starting the narrative closer to that inciting moment. For example, the module has players arrive at Sukiskyn right after the attack has closed in; someone from the farmstead is supposed to come out and dramatically wave the players in to come take shelter with them just at the last minute...via boxed text. Never mind that I can easily imagine some PCs wanting to turn and run away from the battle...which effectively nerfs the beginning of the module.

Instead, I just started the action in medias res:
Sukiskyn is burning. Two of the homesteaders are dead; their bodies lay for some time backlit by the flames rising from the northern palisade, until another wave of attackers dragged away the remains…after which the sound of hooting, jeering, and tearing flesh was only drowned out by someone wailing hysterically inside the besieged homestead. At least it’s quiet now; even the drumming in the woods has stopped. Actually, that may not be a good thing. 
Then a little backstory to clarify what the honk was happening, then I opened with what is supposed to be the climax of the whole siege, the final charge by the enemies. Worked really well for PBEM format; trying to play through the whole battle over email from a cold start would have taken an eternity, without having much clear motivation as to what the point of it all was.

I never described the foes as goblins; for some reason, I think I thought that saying "goblins" would trigger "oh, no biggie then" in my more experienced players' minds. Here's how I introduced what have become a regular in the campaign:
When they first arrived, lighting torches and fires in the woods all about Sukiskyn, jeering and howling and drumming their blasted never-ending drumbeat, Pyotr whispered, “It is the Gobrach! The anthropophagi…” None of you has seen such things before, but the forms that eventually came screaming out of the woods to assault the farmstead were all too real. By torchlight, you saw dark beady eyes bugging out of bizarre, sharp-toothed ape-bat-bear faces, ringed by patchy coarse fur manes. They stood only as tall as bow-legged human youths, but in their hands were cruel weapons, and among their chirps and barks you could hear words, too, calling for creative death and the taste of blood. Some wore wolf-skins and rode wolves as they raced past the walls, shooting at anyone they could see; others only charged on foot, but wore rags and weapons all marked in red. They have come in several waves during the night, and finally burned the palisade and barn to the north, and left two of Pyotr’s family dead in the courtyard. A crowd of the beasts broke into the pens south of the main house, and drove off most of the family’s horse-herd - the animals you’d been tasked with escorting to sale. 
It’s been a long night since then. 
The players seemed to take these critters very seriously, and I think this approach - evocative description rather than familiar name - really helped early on.

Obviously, the players survived the fight (it would be a short campaign report otherwise).


A SANDBOX (SOME ASSEMBLY MAY BE REQUIRED): THE SEARCH FOR STEPHAN

After fighting off the gobrach, my players learned that other foes from the Wolfskull gobrach clan had kidnapped, Stephan, brother to the head of household at Sukiskyn. The PCs were told that if they could rescue Stephan, their debts to the Ru'at would be considered paid in full.

Instead, in the module, there's first some sort of cul-de-sac-ish business with chasing after horses stolen by goblins - but oh no, they were already sold off to horse-thieving bandits, so you can either pay through the nose to buy back stolen horses, or fight bandits. Ok. But this whole thing felt a bit unnecessary. In the module, however, Pyotr (in charge at Sukiskyn) asks the players to go find his brother in exchange for half the value of the horses they were supposed to escort to sale - so I guess there is a point in chasing down these horses, but ... I dunno, just having the players be really deeply in financial debt to these locals, and then having the locals be sincerely willing to clear said debt should they get their brother/son back, seemed more emotionally compelling both from the players' and NPCs' perspectives.

Now, it should be as easy as any D&D wilderness mission: since the Wolfskull clan has Stephan, go journey overland to their lair, nab him, and you're done. But, there's a problem. To quote the module:

If they accept, the party's main problem is that no-one at Sukiskyn knows where the Wolfskull lair is. In order to get the search underway, therefore, it is up to you as DM to determine how much, and what information the party can gain from the homesteaders, the Ilyakana refugees, and any goblin captives they may have. 

Yeah, this is kind of a problem, since it's saying that all progress on the module comes screaming to a halt unless the GM will whip up some reasons for making future progress possible. Hrrmmm. I have the sense from reading some discussions of B10 that some parties have had to just wander around, hexcrawling through the wilderness to see whether they happen to find any Wolfskull goblins hiding under a rock. Hexcrawling is all well and good, but probably not as an efficient response to an abduction by violent and potentially man-eating enemies.

To be clear, this wouldn't be too hard to address by having somebody know something. But the module, as written, adds some insult to injury here. Basically, whenever/however the players do finally discover the Wolfskull lair, if they can infiltrate it successfully they will learn that Stephan was there, but now he's been relocated to some other place called Xitaqa. And if/when the PCs return to Sukiskyn to ask whether anybody has heard of Xitaqa, they'll hear...Nope...but, oh, funny thing, one of our old-timers does know this crazy old legend about a centaur-spirit out on the moors, and if he really exists then he might know where Xitaqa is.

Which is cool, and fine! But...ummm...how come nobody mentioned this supernatural tour guide when we were all desperately racking our brains to figure out where the Wolfskull goblins might live?

In fact, Loshaad - said supernatural centaur spirit - is a watchful protector of horses in the region, and he seems to keep pretty effective tabs on everybody who might be messing with horses anywhere near Sukiskyn. I'm pretty sure that goblins who've been running off horses from homesteads would qualify there.

The fix is trivial, in my opinion, but it requires re-ordering some of the content as written in the module. You just have the family mention the centaur-guy right away, as soon as it becomes clear that nobody has any clue where Stephan might actually have been taken.

In no way does doing so prevent a rich series of overland journeys mixing random and fixed encounters. My players set out east to find Loshaad, the centaur-spirit. Meeting him, he told them (as per the module) that he would exchange information if the PCs killed two dangerous werewolves who'd been preying on wild horses in the area. The PCs agreed, but first they headed off further east to the local barrow-downs (quite pragmatically thinking that they needed more magical loot/weapons before fighting werewolves, and realizing that a row of ancient barrows might do the trick).

The barrows in the module are ok. I re-wrote them, not because they were bad, but they just didn't suit my aesthetic taste at the time. More significantly, I used the barrows to start planting clues about past history and other things in the sandbox setting - in this case, an ancient necromancer-lord named Nuromen. If that name rings a bell, it's because it comes from another module, BLUEHOLME: The Necropolis of Nuromen (affiliate link). As I thought about populating my little Karameikan sandbox, I decided to drop said Necropolis into the map (I used it to replace the stuff on the Island of Lost Dreams within the sandbox map, which I wasn't personally crazy on; but sticking Nuromen's old lair on the island in that lake looked like great fun). As it happens, the Nuromen module even has goblins who've been searching around the place recently, which fits in perfectly with what's going on around the B10 sandbox. And B10 has this weird, old row of barrow-mounds...so I added a slab at the barrows proclaiming it to be the edge of Nuromen's former territory.

Later, a random encounter that called for "elves" gave me the perfect excuse to drop in the 'hook' from the start of the Nuromen module, which has a fey princeling appear to ask PCs to go retrieve a stolen crown or something like that from the necropolis. The PCs ended up demurring politely, since they were hot on Stephan's trail, but I can say that the sandbox itself in B10 is one that allows very easy slotting in and out of content.

Oh, and the barrow-mounds are where one player character died in the jaws of an undead-possessed rabid cave bear, teaching the party that age-old lesson: hey, don't split up the party in an OSR game when you don't need to.

They got their loot (and they got their replacement PC, another debtor sent along to reinforce the search for Stephan by the concerned family's Ru'at). They tracked down, fought and killed the werewolves (and one PC got bitten and infected). Then it was off to Loshaad, who revealed that there had been a TON of gobrach activity of late at two sites (Xitaqa, and the Wolfskull lair) and that Stephan was probably at one of these. He also told them where they could find each of these sites.

Then the party hoofed it back to Sukiskyn where a sympathetic healer was able to cure the bitten almost-lycanthrope. The party deliberated over where to go, and decided...to head southeast to the Wolfskull lair.

Big, epic fight there. My hat's off to my players for clever tactical play against great odds here. They won, they rescued a human prisoner, and they learned...that they'd chosen wrong, and Stephan had been taken to Xitaqa. So off to the north they went, ready for a big showdown.

Oh. One other thing. The players did find one particularly disturbing magical item in the gobrach shaman's chamber at the Wolfskull lair. I included it more as a colorful illustration, as a sign that there were kinds of powers at work in the world that were very much not aligned with the PCs' values. Not, you see, as something really to be taken seriously, much less harnessed...

+ Ok, bear with me on this one…you mess with arcane powers in dark holes in the world, and you’ll find some weird stuff. You find a Titan’s Tongue. This is a life-size metal sculpture of…a tongue. If someone slices off their own tongue and then puts this metal sculpture in their mouth, two things happen:
+ their own severed tongue hardens and turns into a Titan’s Tongue. 
+ the metal tongue placed in their mouth grafts itself onto the stub, softens, and becomes (what appears to be) a regular tongue. However, from that point forward, anytime the wearer puts a Titan’s Tear in their mouth to activate its power, a portion of the power is absorbed by the Tongue before discharge. The player with the Titan’s Tongue in their mouth makes a Saving Throw (if they have a Scholar or Priest background or Sharp-Witted Trait they get a bonus die on the roll). If they pass the Save, the Tongue retains an imprint of the power released; from that point forward, the wearer of the tongue may cast the same “spell” effect once per day. [Ooooooooh….any takers…? I really don’t know how your characters will react to this - as an unclean aberration to be thrown away, or as grounds for some ritual tongue-piercing as a group bonding activity…]
The players asked for some clarifications...

Side effects? Really? What could possibly go wrong? Just kidding. You do know a tiny bit about these things from various whispers in the most ancient of lore. In a nutshell: the Titans' Tears themselves - despite their odd name - seem to contain powerful energy that was meant, one way or another, for the benefit of humankind since near the beginning (whether that energy was willingly stored up or sequestered away in an attempt to retain it from humankind, either way it was energy meant to assist humans in their tasks in the Order of Creation). 

The Tongues...are different. 

There are some other processes or powers that are reputed to have similar effect - (essentially making Titans' Tears a sustainable resource) - and there is some chance that you might yet encounter those - but the Titans' Tongues are the product of very ancient arcane experimentation by human sages, long ago, who wanted to contain and accelerate whatever powers they could obtain. They found a magical method of preserving power, but one that required pain and defacement as part of its cost. This is to say that the Tongue is an object meant to manipulate something healthy, using rather unhealthy methods. You do not know of any clear direct negative side-effect (or mechanical/rules-based penalty) for using it, but it would mean making something a bit askance from the Order of Creation a literal part of your own body. There is some chance that beings highly attuned to that Order might recognize it and react negatively toward you. It is a high-powered item, but not necessarily a nice one. 

Also, if you think about the way it works, there's a good chance that the tongue sitting in front of you used to belong to the gobrach Lord Vlack. Anybody want to wear his tongue? :-) 

So a bit of a moral/aesthetic dilemma for y'all. Any further questions while we're in the ruins of the Wolfskull Lair?
The PC who got bitten by the werewolf way back when? Well, he decided he wanted the tongue. Ewwww.


LET'S BREAK FOR A MOMENT...

This is getting quite substantial, so I'm going to stop for a break between posts here.

Is this helpful? Do you have other ideas for making B10 click and run well?

Just to be clear, B10 is a really good module, and the various criticisms here shouldn't detract from how much fun, and how mysterious, it can be for players.

For now, I'll close Part 1 of this discussion with a few rhetorical questions - like How would changing rulesets mid-campaign change the shape of play? Or How did I handle the urban adventures in Threshold? Or TANSTAAFL, so popping that cursed metal tongue into his mouth probably had some unpleasant long-term consequences, right? Right? 


Sunday, June 28, 2020

Updating my preferred Mass Combat rules (weird Dungeon World-Into the Odd-etc. hack)

 Regular readers will know I've been chewing on simple domain and mass-combat rules lately. I've had a "Mass Combat rules Powered by the Apocalypse" blog post due for some time; as sometimes happens, however, actual life went faster than typing, and experiences at the gaming table, testing out my thoughts, plus reading some excellent ideas by others, have brought me to a slightly different place than the one I expected to write about next. :-) 

With significant influence from Into the Odd, Dungeon World, Apocalypse World, Macchiato Monsters, and blog posts from Jeremy Strandberg's Spouting Lore and at "Enthusiastic Skeleton Boys," I've arrived at a second draft of how I (think I) want to handle mass combat in my current campaign. That campaign basically runs on Dungeon World, but even if you're an OSR 'purist,' you might find something thought-provoking here. Comments and critiques welcome. What follows was written primarily to myself, as part of an ongoing interior conversation, but I hope it is clear enough to follow!

[One quick proactive comment: at this stage in the process, you should feel free to say whatever seems helpful in the comments, but I'm less interested in checking out brand-new systems and more interested in critiques to hone this system or its influences. Thanks!]. 

ORDERING UNITS AND THE COMBAT ACTION ECONOMY:

This system complements, but also moves just a little beyond, the normal PbtA game-flow. Individual Units can act like discrete individuals on the battlefield. When a PC commands a Unit, the player may direct the Unit as if it were a second PC, rather than resolving all the Unit’s actions only in connection with the PC’s own dice rolls. This keeps the actual rolls ‘player-facing,’ but it allows a larger array of Units to function meaningfully on the battlefield, without limiting the PCs’ own individual actions. It also prevents weird edge cases in which a PC’s STATS are used to determine Unit outcomes in ways that make little sense.

Normally, dice modifiers for Units attempting actions will be very low.
Green Quality Units: -1
Normal Quality Units: +0
Veteran Quality Units: +1
Elite Quality Units: +2

On a case-by-case basis, the GM may break down a Unit’s Quality bonuses in a few categories:
When Fighting…
When Maneuvering…
When Standing Fast…

(For example – Forest Skirmishers: Fighting +0, Maneuvering +1, Standing Fast -1).
…but normally the basic one-STAT list given above should be adequate.

HOW TO FIGHT WITH OR AGAINST UNITS:

For its combat statistics, a Unit uses the statistics of one of its average members. So, for example, a Large Unit of 100 Green peasant spearmen might have the following stats:

Peasant Spearmen (Large Unit). 3 HP, 0 Armor. Damage 1d8. Green Quality: -1. 

Whereas a smaller band of Brigands might look much tougher:

Brigand Band (Small Unit). 7 HP, 1 Armor. Damage 1d8. Normal Quality: +0. 

...even though the Brigands are only two steps from oblivion (see below), as opposed to four downgrades left for the much larger group of peasants. 

A Unit fights as if it were a single character, with various bonuses and penalties reflecting the size differences among rival units. 

Individuals (that's you, PCs) fighting Units can only roll 1d4 as their damage die, max, but this die-result may be increased by normal damage modifiers (spending ‘Mettle’, ‘Melee’ ability bonus, magic weapon damage bonuses, etc.). If an individual’s attack has the Area tag, then it may deal damage as normal and is not limited to the 1d4 attack die (for example, fireball spells or alchemical bombs are not limited to dealing 1d4 base damage).

The Mass Combat Unit Hierarchy:

Individuals
Tiny Units (10+)
Small Units (25+)
Medium Units (50+)
Large units (100+)

Each step up the Unit hierarchy gives a larger Unit +1 Damage, and +1 Armor. [EDIT: Moreover, when a Unit fights against an Individual, the unit inflicts +1d6 Damage instead of +1 Damage for each step up the size hierarchy, so that (for example) a Small Unit of Archers (bows, 1d6 damage) inflicts 1d6 +2d6 Damage when attacking an Individual]. 

Creatures with the Huge tag in combat with a Unit count as Units, not Individuals (but Huge creatures do count as Individuals when in combat with Individuals). Use a Huge creature’s Hit Point number as an equivalent to the number of men when calculating the creature’s nominal Unit size.

When a Unit reaches 0 HP, it automatically loses a step, downgrading to a Unit of the size below it, and tests Morale to avoid routing. Tiny Units that reach 0 HP are destroyed.

Overflow Damage does not ‘roll over’ when a Unit downgrades; a Unit will only downgrade one step from any single attack – for example, a fireball attack on a Medium Unit can only downgrade it to a Small Unit, even if the total damage is not exhausted by the first downgrade.

Proximity – a PC may join in Proximity with a unit. When in Proximity:
-       a PC benefits from the Size Armor bonus (if any) of the Unit;
-       a PC may try to restrain the Unit to prevent a rout (after failing a morale test)
-       a PC also takes damage along with the unit whenever it suffers harm.

TESTING UNIT MORALE - at 0 hp, downgrade the Unit, then roll 2d6 + Nothing.
On 8+, the Unit holds and doesn’t rout (yet). On 7-, the Unit routs, unless a PC in Proximity passes a Hold Unit check.
·      Modifiers:
-1 if the unit is Green/Frightened,
+1 for Veterans,
+2 for Elites.
(Can treat Large creatures as +1, Huge creatures as +2, or even forego the roll at all for Huge creatures, and maybe Large too, and Brave combatants, on a case-by-case basis).

NPC Commanders of note may grant bonuses as they try to rally their troops, too.

Hold Unit: When a unit routs, a PC in Proximity to the Unit may roll +CHA to try to hold them in place with a rousing speech. It had better be a good speech.
·      10+, the unit holds instead of routing.
·      7-9, the unit holds instead of routing, but choose one:
o   They’re in bad shape, and lose 1d4 further hit points, unmodified by Armor,
o   OR the enemy capitalizes on your little speech to advance further on the field of battle,
o   OR the GM chooses something (which might be one of those two options).
·      6-: the unit breaks, and your feeble attempt to hold them un-nerves other troops - all allied Units in LOS of the breaking unit must test morale, too!

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Putting the MY back in Mystara: a rough map for a new campaign...

Well, I'm indulging in a fun side-post even though I need to finish up that series on simple domain play and mass combat procedures (I still shake my head thinking that I initially intended to write "a single post" on streamlined options for domain play. Good grief; Post Part 5 is still in Draft form...).

At any rate, I thought I'd chat up what's going on at my gaming table. My players recently finished a really enjoyable play-through of a heavily modified B10, Night's Dark Terror, a classic, sandboxy romp through the northeast of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos in Mystara, the "known world" setting of the old BECMI-box days (those are affiliate links above, by the way). B10 is an excellent module (though I recommend some modifications, which I may just elaborate...in another post).

For now, suffice it to say that our players completed the basic arc of the B10 module, and in doing so saved the world (not because B10 tells you to, but because I added a big doomsday threat in the non-spoiler-ese 'place that B10 takes you to.'). Last night, we picked up again to kick off our next campaign arc, which will use X1, The Isle of Dread, as a chassis - heavily "chromed" by a bunch of other stuff, including classic modules and a lot of faction stuff of my own devising.

[In the very unlikely event that any of my players are reading this, tune out and stop reading NOW to avoid the risk of spoilers]. 

I'm sharing below a very crude, rough map that I threw together quickly on Powerpoint for my players before last night's session. It's a garbage map, but it illustrates how a GM might take the "official canon" of old-school Mystara and modify it very heavily to suit a local campaign. For one thing, our campaign is set in a fictional Iron Age setting, not the sorta-generic-medieval-ish setting of the Mystara boxed sets. This means that our "Minrothad" directly evokes Phoenicians and Carthaginians; Thyatians are sort of Neo-Babylonians mixed with Romans.



Anyone familiar with the map of Mystara should notice some dramatic changes here. Ierendi simply does not exist, because...well, because Ierendi. One PC is from "Madhrelia" which the player invented, but they're basically the Huns, so, Ethengar Khanate. Note that the great Mystaran playground of Karameikos has seen some dramatic, dramatic changes. I decided to play up Karameikan/Thyatian and Traldar ethnic tensions quite a bit more than is 'canon' during our campaign, which led to some exploration of premodern colonial/imperial expansion and its resulting tensions as an ongoing element in play. At the conclusion of the campaign arc, I gave the players some very simple tools to dictate what developments they would most want to see happen in the world around them over the next few season before our second campaign arc (with the understanding that there were too many pressing needs to fix everything; they each got just one pick for tweaking 'current events'). All that culminated with the players leading an insurrection at the campaign's end that helped create a free Traldar (just "Tral" in our campaign) kingdom in what had been the north of Karameikos (the family of Stephan and Pyotr, from B10, emerged as the initial ruling family!). Meanwhile the Iron Ring slavers got stomped on hard (the red smush on the map west of Karameikos is what used to be their stronhold).

In the new normal for the next campaign arc, Thyatians are the big expansionist power coming to get everyone. Our "not-Phoenician" Minrothad is still a group of trading-house islands, but the great port of Rothago has dominated its Minrothad fellows so that now only one other port, Minar, stands apart from their hegemony. Minar has invited the Thyatians to back them up (nothing could possibly go wrong with that strategy!) and the Thyatians have also 'generously' stepped in to hold together southern Karameikos after the collapse of Karameikan rule up north. The PCs have learned that one member of the recently-overthrown Thyatian dynasty is alive in hiding somewhere in the Sea of Dread. Speaking of which - each of the PCs has their own reason to go to the Isle of Dread, but those reasons mainly revolve around uncovering the history of the fallen Nithian Empire, because something connected to it is stirring and an ancient threat awakens...insert typical theme music.

I drew up a network map to plot out the interrelationships of various faction leaders. One of my kids complained that it was impossible to figure out, but I protested that it's no worse to keep track of than the eastern Mediterranean during the Roman Republic (yeah, I'm a nerd). To clarify, this relationship map is for me, not the players. To add color, depth, and surprise to these relationships, I used random tables from Renegade Crowns (affiliate link), an old Warhammer Fantasy sourcebook, with pleasing results.



Anyway - thanks for reading. As I hope these ideas illustrate, the settled canon of an old D&D setting is always YOURS to modify as you wish at your own table. I never would have expected a year ago, that I'd be presiding over the destruction of Karameikos, but my players clearly enjoy the agency and empowerment they get from being active shapers of the world, and not merely passive recipients of a frozen status quo.

By the end of our kick-off session last night, alchemical accidents by the party's physician had made one character grow wolf-fangs (permanent) and another stink horribly (temporary), another character discovered that he gets sea-sick, and now the players have reached the Isle and are ready for ... what lies ahead.

Happy gaming.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Simpler Domains & Warbands. Part 4, Really Simple MASS COMBAT (Into the Odd version)

Once, there was Chainmail. Later, there was War Machine, and then Battlesystem. An Echo, Resounding has a battle system. For something lighter, there's Chris Kutalik's By this Axe or the even smaller-scale By this Poleaxe. Delta's Book of War. Etc., etc., etc. These (and quite a few other approaches) generally adopt some or all of the structure...and pace...of classic tabletop wargames. And then, of course, there are the myriad options for playing an 'actual' formal miniatures wargame, without any clear tie to an RPG.

Roight, me lads, form line...eh, wot's that?
We've no convenient mass combat rules? Aaarg, retreat!!!

None of those perfectly fit my current goals and needs as I think about weaving "mini-domain play" into my campaign. If my players are to lead little warbands of followers, clash with corsair crews or cultist gangs, and scatter enemies not just singly but by the dozen, then I'd like a way to manage it all that fits the following criteria:

+ ideally, the mass-combat rules will fit into a session's normal procedures of play as smoothly as possibly. The gold standard here would be integrated mass combat rules that do NOT form a separate sub-system. Yep, this can be done; read on!

+ similarly (or to stress a sub-point within point 1), if possible, tracking damage for gangs/warbands should use the same hp/harm system used to track damage for PCs - though I'm more willing to flex on this point, if necessary.

+ the rules should keep PCs' roles and fates clear and distinct; player characters don't just vanish into a mass of combatants, and PCs ideally should retain independent and critical jobs on the field of battle - they don't function just as bonuses to a larger unit's statline.

+ finally, in keeping with my love for minimalist design, I favor rules that aren't too taxing or complicated - they should work, and get outta the way!

Let's look at some options that I find interesting or appealing, and consider some observations on their strengths and weaknesses. I will also note, in passing, that recent blogoredditsphere conversations have also raised simple-mass-combat questions; for some other takes (and different recommendations) see, for example, here and here (look far down Norbert's post for mass combat guidance) and here [EDIT: and here, too!]. 

Now, for the stuff that I'm thinking about.


INTO THE ODD - DETACHMENT RULES 

Just as Chris M's Into the Odd (and now, Electric Bastionland) includes really nice, dirt-simple "Enterprise" rules that offer a very solid basis for one-brain-cell domain play (recently discussed here), Into the Odd (henceforth: ItO) also includes perfectly serviceable, simple but effective "Detachment" rules for handling combat with gangs, large crews, military units, giant monsters, etc.  If you aren't familiar with ItO, a few tips will be necessary to understand all this: damage automatically hits; instead of rolling to hit, then rolling for damage, you just roll straight to damage. Damage comes off HP without narratively doing 'damage' - but after 0 HP, you start taking "Critical Damage," which comes right off your Strength stat (usually), equates to actual bodily harm, and requires passing a STR save to stay in the fight). You die at 0 STR. 

To wit (taken from the free rules, available in the right margins here): 

DETACHMENTS cost 10 gold to start up, and cost a further d6 gold in upkeep each month, or else they revolt. ... Equipping a Detachment costs twenty times the individual item cost. Detachments start with 1d6 HP and advance in Experience Levels just as individuals do [which, in ItO, generally requires delving missions completed, not a gold-for-xp target]. 

In battle, an ItO Detachment is functionally identical to an individual character, with a few minor tweaks (this means a gang's stats fit on an index card, if not a postage stamp). 

A Detachment deals "Enhanced" damage against individuals (In ItO, this means it rolls 1d12 damage). Normally, an individual can't even attack a Detachment unless that individual's attack is "explosive or suitably large-scale" (so a dragon's breath weapon or a wizard's lightning bolts might toast your own gang of hirelings, but a PC with a halberd can't scratch a goblin warband; you either need to run away, or figure out some more creative way to affect the baddies). If you command a Detachment to do something risky, this "may require a WIL (Will) Save" by the player commanding that Detachment. 

"When a Detachment takes Critical Damage [i.e., 0 HP and damage coming off STR] they are broken and cannot act until rallied. At STR 0 the Detachment is wiped out. When half of a force is broken, the remaining Detachments must pass a WIL save or be routed. Hit Points and Ability Scores are recovered with Short and Long Rests just as with individuals. 

The newer version, Electric Bastionland, offers a few tweaks: Individual attacks against Detachments can cause damage, but they're Impaired (limited to 1d4); Detachment attacks vs. individuals do weapon +1d12, and have a 'Blast' tag - they affect all targets in an area. 

There are also a few other very short rules for ships, vehicles, structures, etc. Quite recently, one GM put together a very nice expanded model for using these rules in a pirate/nautical setting, quite worth checking out for play at sea or on land. 

Alright, let's discuss these. There are wonderful things here, but also a few points I'd like to change or expand. I love how smoothly these fit right into the (admittedly super-minimalist) rules for normal play in ItO; I like how the dirt-simple rules for financing Detachments work with the Enterprise rules (but don't require you to have an Enterprise to run a Detachment, or vice versa); and the fact that a Detachment can 'level up' in the same way as a PC (by running on adventures) is a very interesting design choice that pushes toward specific kinds of veteran units - rather than just throwing in more cash to make a specific, single unit stronger, you can always hire a new separate detachment, but individual detachments gain experience and Hit Points only by joining you, over time, on those terrifying ventures into the darkness below.

All that aside, as a general-purpose mass-combat/mini-domain-play system, I'd like to see a few changes. Past a certain point, Detachments seem a little limited by the binary way they are defined (something is either an Individual or a Detachment). No matter the size or experience of the Detachment, it still rolls the same amount of Damage. When two Detachments fight each other, only their Hit Points (and equipment, I suppose) differentiate between them. Equipping a Detachment with halberds always costs "Halberd cost x 20" no matter the size of the Detachment. Again, these are brilliantly simple  and will cover most of what anyone needs for a small gang, but I think there are enough edge cases to make some tweaks desirable.





HACKING THE ItO DETACHMENT FRAMEWORK

Several Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) systems that I have yet to discuss handle these issues in a nicely nuanced way; if I were running an ItO game right now, I think I'd borrow some of their ideas, and adjust Detachments like this: 

There are four classes of combatant, ranked by size: 

Individuals
Small Detachments
Medium Detachments
Large Detachments

Detachments can also be differentiated by their experience, which is reflected in their Hit Points, which only increase as they 'Level Up' (just as individuals do). Hiring/forming a detachment costs 1d6 for Small, 2d8 for Medium, and 3d10 for Large. 

In combat, individuals roll normally against other individuals. They roll Impaired damage against Detachments unless their attack has a Blast tag or other suitably extensive damage effect. Detachments roll Enhanced (1d12) damage against Individuals, and regular damage (by weapon type) against other detachments. 

When combatants of the same size-class fight, they roll damage as usual. When combatants of different size-classes fight, the larger combatant gains +1 Armor (damage reduction) and +1 bonus attack die for each step higher above their opponent's size. The attacker's hit dice are rolled together, including any bonus dice, but only the highest rolled result is used.

Examples: 

Small Detachment of musketeers is exchanging fire with a Large Detachment of musketeers. Both Detachments are fairly green, and have 5 HP and 1 Armor. The Small Detachment rolls 1d8 damage, getting a 5, which is reduced by -3 (-2 because the other unit is two steps above them in size, so they gain 2 bonus armor atop their worn 1 Armor). Then the larger unit opens fire. They roll 3d8 (1d8 for their weapon attack, plus two bonus attack dice since they are two steps higher in size), getting a 1, 5, 8. Taking the highest result rolled, they inflict 8 damage, reduced only by the -1 Armor worn by the smaller gang. The smaller unit drops to 0 HP, -2 STR, and they rout (this is a pretty plausible outcome...).  
A more fortunate Small Detachment of spear-wielding goblins  (3 HP, 0 Armor) gang up on a lone but large sword-wielding barbarian (6 HP, 1 Armor). Not-Conan rushes the goblin gang, swinging his blade in great chopping arcs, but there are just so many of the vile things...he rolls an Impaired attack against the Detachment (1d4), inflicting 3 damage. The goblin gang is 1 step larger, however, so they gain 1 free Armor; they are left with 1 HP despite the barbarian's assault. Now they roll to attack, dealing Enhanced (1d12) damage to an individual, and rolling it twice because their +1 size step grants them an extra attack die. Results rolled are = 4, 8. They deal 8 damage, reduced by the Barbarian's 1 Armor, and now the barbarian is out of HP and taking Critical Damage...time to run away, perhaps...


...In which our hero helpfully shows how these rules
let individuals interact with Small Detachments. 


As these examples show, a few tweaks borrowed from Apocalypse World and its spin-offs can add a fair bit of depth and nuance to the simple procedures in Into the Odd, without breaking anything in ItO's more "OSR adjacent" system. 


YEAH, BUT WHAT IF I'M RUNNING NORMAL D&D...

Games using some version of D&D's normal combat rules (instead of the rules as modified specifically for Into the Odd) would need some tweaks to make these ideas work. There are too many possible variations to address comprehensively here, but I can offer a few suggestions:

+ ItO uses Armor as Damage Reduction. If your system doesn't do that, that's probably one key obstacle (though I suppose you could still use these rules with gang-size damage reduction on top of whatever else you're doing with AC). 

+ ItO dispenses with to-hit rolls. Between ItO, my own OD&D homebrew, and Dungeon World, I've gotten accustomed to playing with rules that speed up combat, so I suppose I can only shake my head sadly if you're really, really committed to rolling 3 on 1d20 all the time and prolonging combat. ;-) With the normal to-hit roll procedure, damage between detachments will be less common and less decisive, but that's just normal for to-hit-roll combat anyway. 

+ ItO hands out low Hit Points to PCs, and sticks with fairly low damage levels, compared to many other rulesets. A 20-HP PC is a very experienced, resilient character in ItO. 1d12 is a substantial damage roll. If your system typically involves higher HP or damage totals, I'd suggest increasing the Armor bonus from +1 per size-step to something a little higher, reflecting whatever is the typical range of damage rolled by a basic attack.

+ Along the same track, damage between size-levels needs to be adjusted if you don't want to use ItO's Impaired (1d4)/Enhanced (1d12) damage system. Without letting Detachments roll 1d12 vs individuals, you can also rewrite the hack above so that each size-step up gives the larger attacker +3 damage, or +1d6 extra damage, or something like that (this fits with some of the PbtA/Dungeon World mass combat ideas I still need to write about). 


USING TINY RULES TO GO BIG

"Ok, folks, your scouts' warning was clearly correct; they know you're coming. As you crest the last ridge above Hearthfire Village at the head of your army, you look across the sun-dappled settlement to see that Baron Argov's troops are already drawn up in their battle lines on the low hill opposite from you. You see their banners flapping in the breeze: it looks like Argov's got a Medium Detachment of pikemen holding his right flank, and a Large Detachment of bannerless (and no doubt miserable) peasant levies spread out across his left flank. In the center, you see the red banner of the Venomspike, and you know that the Small Detachment of armored orcs standing there has strength and skill that belies that unit's small size. And if your eyes aren't failing you, that tall figure in black armor at their side is Argov himself, with the foul necromancer in her dark robes behind him...

Now, how do you want to deploy your five detachments as you enter the valley?

I think these simple rules would work really well to game out a mass combat between small armies, in a way that still lets individual characters interact meaningfully with each other and with large units. 





Since my current campaign is using modified Dungeon World rules, however, there are a few other angles that I want to incorporate at my own table. Please stay tuned; next up, I hope to talk about some PbtA warband-combat and simple domain rules in their own right, as they add some further helpful ideas for enriching this kind of play.