Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Gundobad Games is ... five years old!




Wow! This blog turns five years old today. 

On April 10, 2019, I released an introductory post and then, the same day, a discussion titled "If Only We'd Never Taken that Treasure: Some Musings on Archaeology and the OSR." I'm very grateful to you all for reading, responding to, and supporting the blog.  

Looking back over some personal highlights from the half-decade:

+ I offered a number of posts mashing up academic historical insights with gaming: for example, these have included entries about the late Bronze Age, patterns of societal collapse across history, the logic of feudalism, or a mini-series on why Merovingian Frankish Gaul would make an excellent basis for a fantasy sandbox campaign. 

+ I reviewed a number of game systems, adventures, and accessories. In my reviews, I strive to offer robust, thorough insight into the product under discussion, and to be as constructive as possible while always offering an honest and fair appraisal. I'm particularly pleased that I could help offer early publicity for some notable small-press items, including the now-famed adventure Black Wyrm of Brandonsford and the skirmish wargame Space Weirdos

+ I wrote some stuff to sell that I am proud of. Most prominent has been Brazen Backgrounds, my system-neutral character-background generator for Bronze Age (or other sword-and-sorcery) settings. Less polished-looking but still fun is my Hunters and Highwaymen: 30 NPCs + Story Hooks for Taverns, Highways, and the Deep, Dark Woods (affiliate link). I also wrote up a cooperative blackpowder skirmish game that I really love, though I've never got around to marketing it. This thing has been such a hoot that it has grown quietly in the background, providing the basis for our household's preferred way to run Mordheim-like games and, now, 40k science-fantasy skirmishes - we're currently several games into a little narrative campaign using this system for violence in a grimdark galactic future. 

+ I also wrote a bunch of other weird things and gave them away or described them here. These have included an ultralight, ultrafast, high-powered ruleset inspired by Tunnels & Trolls (but much faster); a set of playbooks for Apocalypse World-style PbtA gaming, but in a Dark Sun-inspired sword-and-sorcery setting; and yet another Knave hack. I offered some pithy (well, ok, not always) house-rules and tweaks for improving gaming, especially in the OSR sphere: my simple procedure for identifying found magic items without nerfing cursed objects or slowing down the game too much; a system for making it interesting to open secret doors in dungeons that lets GMs get away with showing the whole map to the players; thoughts on fun and simple mass combat rules; a semi-narrative overland travel system that we used to good effect for Night's Dark Terror and Isle of Dread; and a method for making historically coherent campaign-lore backgrounds and maps, without spending half your life working on a novel. This checklist for infrastructure in a faction's lair has seemed helpful, too. 

+ I offered detailed post-mortems on several campaigns, including B10, Night's Dark Terror, a highly modified, Iron Age, Isle of Dread-crawl, and others. I also experimented with running mystery-investigation adventures without a GM or a pre-set plot, whether solo or cooperatively -- and was surprised at how well it all worked out! Some of the ideas I was working on back in 2020 are now appearing (only by coincidence and independent evolution, I believe) in well-known storygames. 

+ As a wargamer, a modeler (but not a model...oh no), and a doodler, I indulged my creative hobby side with strange Warhammer kitbashes and scratchbuilds, fan art, big setting maps, etc. 

So. The blog is now 0.5% of a millennium old. To those who've been along for the full ride, thank you for being part of the journey. To those who've found me more recently and stuck around, thank you for your interest and engagement, which always encourages me to stick with it too. 

Happy gaming, everyone. 





Monday, April 8, 2024

[REVIEW] BRIMSTONE RPG - a "high action" OSR game and toolkit

Brimstone is a new RPG released by Francis Hage of the Steel & Sorcery small press. The game describes itself as "a fantasy roleplaying toolkit built to run games of high action, high adventure, high peril ... designed to be 'rules light, option rich'- to introduce as much tactical depth within as few mechanics and crunch as possible."



Brimstone assumes a late medieval/early Modern setting, something like that of Lamentations of the Flame Princess or Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (I don't think it would be too hard to reskin to other settings). Here, as in WFRP, your character may end up missing limbs, blown up by a blackpowder weapon's misfire, charred by a backfiring spell, or ruing the day they made one deal too many with nefarious cosmic powers. Unlike WFRP, however, Brimstone emphasizes capable, creative heroes who are just as likely to dish out serious hurt on their foes - and do so with flair. Offering almost cinematic action with OSR-compatibility and low mechanical complexity, Brimstone is not just a game about random almost-heroes dying in a gutter. Again, the game's stated goals combine high action with high peril

Overall, I found the game largely successful at meeting those stated goals (please note, however, that this review is based on reading, but not yet running, the game). Francis kindly agreed to exchange a review copy for a fair and honest review. The game is available in .pdf for $9.99 USD at DTRPG.com (DTRPG links on this post are affiliate links, which help support this blog's activities at no added cost). There's also a free Quickstart version, which generously includes about half of the overall game. Even more generously, Francis has released this game under a Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0 license, allowing private and commercial reuse or remixing of the rules. Nice. 

While reading, Brimstone briefly reminded me of bits and pieces of many other games: Old School Essentials-B/X, Dungeon World, Beyond the Wall, TravelerShadow of the Demon Lord, Savage Worlds, Scarlet Heroes, and even a faint whiff of Brindlewood Bay. To be clear, I don't mean that the game feels unoriginal, or that it closely mirrors mechanics from those games. Rather, Brimstone's design pushes beyond a vanilla heartbreaker's bare requirements, thoughtfully tackling a number of larger problems and opportunities recognized by some better-known games. The result still feels like a (well-done) fantasy heartbreaker, but it's also an inspiring and creative synthesis of many different ideas. 

This should be a fun game to run, so long as the GM is comfortable making subjective rulings on the fly (though the core rules, described below, set out a pretty straightforward range of basic parameters for those judgments). Alternately, for GMs looking for fun or quirky new houserules, Brimstone also offers a toolkit oozing with cool ideas. I do have one area of concern: the product's internal prose editing. But that can be fixed (and might be, too, given the author's activity so far). On the whole, this is a fun ruleset that offers much more than the next vanilla B/X clone. 


CORE RULES

The rulebook's helpful introduction clearly lays out which sections you'll need to be familiar with before running the game. Beyond character creation, this only requires reading three extra pages to cover 95% of what you need in your first session. 

The game's core mechanic is simple and easy to adjudicate. Roll a d20 plus your relevant Attribute bonus, along with - in some cases - one (or, rarely, more) "skill dice." Each PC starts with several skills, which are freeform narrative tags tied to a die size. Using these skills in play (or training new ones) allows gradual promotion to higher die-sizes (for example, that measly d4 in Writing Blog Reviews could get leveled up to a mighty d12 someday). You get to add one relevant skill die when you attempt a basic check. 

The target numbers for checks, meanwhile, are straightforward: normally 12, the TN goes up to 16 for hard checks and down to 8 for easy ones. The book notes that you can do flexible things with this basic system, if you want to: for example, you could use the three-tiered TN system when a roll really calls for variable measures of success (beating the easy/normal TN but falling below the hard TN could, at the GM's discretion, qualify a partial success on a hard task). 

The Attributes (you add those bonuses to checks, too) are Fortitude, Finesse, Wits, Willpower, and Appearance. Were I to run this, I'd probably change up the names. Fortitude and Willpower make me expect Reflex, but nope - we get Finesse; Appearance is basically Ye Olde Comeliness score, which ... is not one of the old TSR-era rules I particularly miss (it's not Charisma; that's covered under Willpower). And finally, the game's hit points get called Vigour - but with both Fortitude and Vigour jostling for attention, I'd much rather see the game stick with traditional names that will get out of the way, and instantly communicate how they differ from each other (after all, the game uses Hit Dice, which you roll to calculate your Vigour ... see what I mean?). 

The skill dice system, and its intuitive rules for using and improving skills, really appealed to me. I was less into the rules for xp; the party gains "xp dice" which they roll as a pool after sessions to see how many xp they earned. I'd rather just grant set amounts of xp and avoid disappointingly low numbers sometimes rolled on large dice. 

Inventory is slot-based. Distances and measurement are treated loosely, with semi-abstract range bands. Works for me. 

Overall, the core rules look great, though they occasionally are a bit fussier than need be. The bits I don't like are modular enough to trim out with ease.  


COMBAT AND MONSTERS

This part is interesting! 

Over the years, I've run lots of OSR and PbtA (Dungeon World) gaming. When I run lots of OSR stuff, I miss the dynamism of combat and action in DW; when I run lots of DW, I miss the more objective, precise nature of OSR or d20 combat. 

Brimstone sort of merges both approaches, sticking closer to OSR mechanics but adding more room for really dynamic (and subjective) actions than one often sees in old-school sessions. 

The attack roll is a basic check, with some twists. Roll d20 plus your Fortitude or Finesse bonus, trying to match not an Armor Class, but a regular check's target number - again, this is normally 12, but drops to 8 or climbs to 16 for easy/hard checks. The GM can make a snap judgment about setting the target number, but the game suggests subtracting an OSR monster's descending AC from 20, and then using the nearest of the three TNs. 

Nothing too unusual so far. But the game adds a bunch of simple twists and features that really reframe combat. Quite a few games have used combat "stances" to boost offense/defense/etc. during fights. Brimstone follows suit, but applies its weapon-skill-die system to its "attack styles." Before attacking, players choose flexible, defensive, or aggressive ways to apply their weapon skill die on their round; alternately, they can apply the die as extra damage to adjacent targets (rather like Ye Olde Cleave ability). On defense, attacked PCs choose whether to Dodge (with Finesse) or Brace (with Fortitude and Armor), each of which triggers different effects on a Critical Success. 

The real twists come in with "Creative Attacks" and "Heroic Reactions." A Creative Attack is a lot like a "combat stunt" in various other games. However, where an OSR stunt is often restricted to moves that don't directly deal damage, these now also let you mutilate, spindle, whorl, blind, or otherwise disable a foe (the game offers the example of shooting out a cyclops' eye). The attack roll is made vs. Wits. Then, there are additional criteria for success:

For achieving the intended goal of the attack, there may be damage requirements to achieve the intended effect. A common number to use as a threshold is 5 damage to have a significant limb-impacting effect occur, although this could increase based on the size of the foe. A good rule of thumb is roughly 20% of the target’s maximum VIGOUR. The GM should advise the player on any requirements before they attack.

This will require GM rulings, often on the fly. But it allows for players to get around the normal, "vanilla" hp-ablation rules in D&D, letting them attempt the kinds of dynamic attacks that I like in (some) PbtA games. 

"Heroic Reactions" are defensive, triggered by enemy actions, but they allow further "narrativey mechanic-bending" behavior (at GM discretion). Basically, they let one PC in the party, per combat round, give up their NEXT action to take action in response to an enemy on their turn. Some very short examples given illustrate the range of options: in one, a demon attacks with a sword, and a player fires their blunderbuss to take them out. But in another short, one-line example, players are encouraged to "shoot a firearm to deflect an incoming projectile." I believe that latter example would require activating a Heroic Reaction, and then using it to attempt a Creative Attack. As this illustrates, clever players can use these mechanics to do all sorts of things that they normally wouldn't get to try in an old-school D&D game, all while using broadly OSR-based mechanics. 

That being said, I had to sit and pore over the short pages of combat rules for a bit to figure out how these things click together. It's not that the rules are really complex; they're quite simple. But they deviate from many common OSR practices just enough that I think some GMs and players could miss the intended point. I think Brimstone would benefit from one of those one/two-page "example of play" narrations that some rulesets include - something that illustrates what it looks like when a group of inventive players and a responsive GM play Brimstone the way the author intends. 


CHARACTERS AND CLASSES

Apart from classes, by the way, the game provides each character with some flavorful color: backgrounds, past soul incarnations (!), "bloodlines" (think "race"/species). These are simple and feel narrative-gaming-infuenced, but they also offer just enough mechanical heft to still feel at home in an old-school dungeongame. They gave me faint "tasting notes" of the Traveler lifepaths; there's also a single-page, one-size-fits-all-backgrounds table akin to Beyond the Wall's tables for past ties between player characters. 

The classes are simple, but flavorful, creative, and fun. Each one gets a class-specific Vigor/HD die size  and a class-specific Initiative die. At level 1, each class starts with a base class ability, and then gains new class abilities at every even level (so, 5 times over the course of the game's levels 1-10 range). The classes are all pretty neat; as I outline them all briefly, I'll say a bit more about a few of them, to give you a sense of what's on offer. 

Barbarians' key ability is a "Constant Rage" power. Having recently run a Pathfinder 2e campaign, I think I winced a bit initially when I saw this, remembering fiddly conversations about when a PC's rage "triggers" and how long it lasts. Not here; in Brimstone, it's an always-on thing for Barbarians. In combat, any damage they take from any source other than allies gives them Rage points, which can be spent 1-for-1 as bonuses to to-hit, damage, or Fortitude save rolls (until the end of your next turn). As the game notes: "Jump into the thick of things. You don't want to have high ARMOUR -- maximize your incoming rage." This strikes me as ... a really elegant way to support popular stereotypes of a minimally armored, mightily thewed barbarian raging in combat. 

A further note on how some of the game's tiny details can work well together: the Barbarian's Initiative die is only a d6 (they'll roll this to try to beat the GM's initiative score to determine who acts first in combat). For comparison, the Fighter-equivalent rolls a d10, and the Thief-equivalent rolls a d12. So the Barbarian is relatively slow to activate; this offers some thematic reinforcement, it also interacts nicely with the Barbarian's Rage ability - they want to take some empowering damage on the enemy turn, and then retaliate in force on theirs! 

Entertainer: you're not just a bard, but a bard-like performer with a hovering gaggle of faerie spirits who've bonded to you and can share magic spells with you (though there's a caution: you need to keep talking to them, even though others can't see them, because they'll abandon you if they get bored. So the game pitches this character as a powerful person who appears to talk to themself routinely). Lots of flavor in this class. 

The Master of Arms is the game's Fighter. I really liked how Francis handled this class. It showcases how this game can take things to 11 while remaining OSR-compatible. The Master of Arms starts with an extra d6 weapon-related skill of their choice, that they can add to hit, damage, or FORT save rolls (this rather reminded me of DCC's Fighter Feat die). The also gain different "Feats of Flair" and points to spend activating them. These are free actions that don't take up your main action on your turn, and they let you do various narrative-bending, impressive things in combat (instantly load a firearm, dash a "suitably epic" distance to interrupt an attack against an ally, etc.). These look very fun, though a couple of them could be worded a bit more clearly (otherwise, GMs will just need to make some house-adjudicating). 

The Master-of-Arms - character class art

One of the abilities available to this class, "Counterstrike," stood out to me as a fun design choice. It lets you allow a foe's incoming attack to hit you automatically in exchange for a free attack back against them. Here's the hook: if your free attack KILLS the foe, the damage from their auto-hit against you gets negated. In other words, a warrior with this ability can size up wounded or weak opponents, then make a risky choice to try to take them out on their own enemy activation. This is the kind of small option that spices up combat with meaningful decision points without burying the game in too much crunch. I like it. 

The Scoundrel is Brimstone's Rogue/Thief. Their core ability = mysterious luck, expressed mechanically as the ability to change any rolled check to a 50/50 coin flip - even after a failed regular roll. You lose this ability (until you've rested) as soon as you fail a coin flip. The Scoundrel's various level-up options are juicy, handy things that empower fast, sneaky, well-equipped characters -- but without too much mechanical load or bonkers overpowering. 

Hunters are Rangers, of course, and their key feature is an animal companion. That trope can bore me quickly, but there's a twist here; your companion can talk to you, but only in one-word statements (Foe! Treasure! Left!). Fitting the pattern emerging here, the other class abilities are pretty simple but flavorful, and would be fun for an imaginative, engaged player who knows how to tackle a dungeon or wilderness with some good ol' OSR-style agency and problem-solving. 

Then we get into the Alchemist and several magic-using classes (Sun Priest, Moon Witch, and Wizard). The three magicians are aligned with the game's cosmic factions (Sun, Moon, and Hell); each has their own flavor and access to different spells. 

I'll just unpack the Sun Priest in a bit more detail. On the surface, they are your standard D&D Cleric, albeit limited in their daily spell/prayer choices to Sun- and Healing/Protection-related magic (the combined list for both spheres contains 25 spells, and the other kinds of spellcasters have their own, differently-themed spell lists). But there's a bit of a Gandalf vibe going on here, too; they need to use a magic staff, and their level-up abilities include things like returning yourself from the dead if you pass a Hard Save, or always being believed so long as you never tell a lie. There's an option to share your magic with an ally, or even to ask the Sun (cough cough the GM) for an honest answer to a Yes/No question, once per in-game week. 

This character, once again, is pretty simple, but it feels totally distinct from the other magic-using classes, which thematically express their own ties to rival cosmic forces. Spellcasters can also gain access to magical "keywords," which they may use as relevant to create their own spells, in consultation with the GM. 


The Moon Witch - character class art


SOULS 

We come now to another of the game's distinctive features. I noted earlier that Brindlewood Bay (of all things!) was one of the games I thought of while reading Brimstone. This piece - the "Souls" rules - is why. Brindlewood has a 'crowns' rule that a player may invoke as, essentially, a 'get out of jail free' card - it's a little piece of characterization you reveal to negate death or other horrible fate - and you've got a finite number you can take before your character is lost permanently.

Brimstone's "souls" rules are a bit like that (though I think Brimstone's version is more interesting). In this game, the implied setting involves a three-way cosmic conflict between the Sun, the Moon, and Hell. Here, human souls can be traded away for divine/cosmic favor - up to four times (that is, the human soul can be quartered, cut into four fractions). A character finding themself in a dire pinch may call out for aid to any of the three cosmic powers, offering to "sell their soul" - or more accurately, one quarter of it - in exchange for what amounts to a "limited wish" effect. 

I would have appreciated a bit more guidance/clarity on the limits surrounding this power. This is one of those cases where Brimstone reads like a distillation of one play group's extended experiences, but occasionally without the clarity of looking over their shoulder for a full campaign. I get the impression that players might bargain with their soul to escape death, or perhaps to achieve some really profound goal. The sky really is the limit here, but just note that this subsystem is going to require a thoughtful GM's adjudication. 

On the other hand, selling one's soul - as the phrase implies - involves a terrible bargain. You can only do it four times. Moreover, each time you do so, you roll on tables for the power with which you bargained (each one has their own table). These will impose a "vow" - sort of like the vows some systems require of their paladins - along with a punishment to be imposed should you ever break that vow. Note that if you've sold multiple portion of your soul, you will be burdened by multiple vows - and any incoherence or conflict between your vows is your problem to solve (I don't mean that as a criticism of the game; the intent here is clearly to saddle empowered PCs with some pretty significant, complicating, and potentially entertaining problems). 

Selling bits of soul to multiple powers is most likely to exacerbate conflicts, since the different powers' agendas are so opposed. Well, why would you bargain with multiple powers to begin with? Because getting a wish fulfilled by the Sun or Moon isn't guaranteed; you have to pass a check to pull it off. On the other hand, as the game notes, "Hell is always listening." You don't have to pass anything to gain infernal bargains. This means that the game's mechanics are constantly tempting players with great power that can be obtained at any time -- but usually at a pretty significant cost. I was intrigued by how thoughtfully, but simply, these rules model one of the great dilemmas in fantasy source literature (Faust, Moorcock's Elric, every classic Warhammer champion ever, etc.). 

Intriguingly, there's also a half-page of rules on how to combine magical artifacts with the Souls rules. Great artifacts can work like cosmic patrons, too, offering profound power to those willing to bind part of themselves. As the game notes, the most powerful (and demanding) of artifacts, ones that require up to 3/4 of a human soul to unlock their full potential, "will always tempt the wielder to give more, perhaps even giving them a free taste of what is to come." 

I didn't see a list of sample artifacts, but this is a juicy, juicy mechanical/thematic setup for the kinds of trouble I love offering my players' characters. [Oh - the author recently announced future plans for this system, including a zine supplement with material like ... sample artifacts!]. 


MISCELLANY 

Brimstone calls itself a toolkit, right? It also includes rules for things like transport animals, mass battles, sea voyages and naval combat, fun and unpredictable blackpowder-weapon use, downtime, overland travel, afflictions, etc. 


EDITING

Unfortunately, this is where I do need to offer a critical assessment. 

The layout and overall appearance of the book seemed quite good, but I had some issues with the book's organization and -- at the opposite end of the editing spectrum -- a need for better clarity and line-editing throughout (for context, this is based on the v1.1 version of the file). Happily, the author has already tackled some editing issues in a first update. I hope he'll do so again; this game is really fun, and it deserves a pass by a professional editor, if possible. 

I'm not going to belabor this point other than offering a few examples below (I will pass more detailed feedback on these issues to the author). I don't think this issue should make Brimstone hard to play/run, but it did make the game text frequently distracting as I read it. I noticed things like: consistently absent possessive apostrophes, some mis-spelled or inconsistently spelled words, use of the plural form "dice" instead of the singular "die," a pair of inaccurate page cross-references on p. 29, the occasional sentence that looks incomplete or incoherent, and a few important items not included in the table of contents.  

If these issues can be cleaned up, then Brimstone will be a very handsome-looking game indeed. 


FINAL THOUGHTS 

If you're the kind of gamer who's already settled into B/X (or whatever) and sees no need for any more input from hacks or new games, then you probably don't need this (and you probably haven't made it this far in my review, anyway). But if you're the kind of gamer who pays any attention when something like Black Sword Hack or a new Whitehack edition hits the streets, then you'll probably find something interesting here, too. 

I mentioned in passing that the author recently announced plans for further development of this game. It absolutely deserves such development. What's already here is fun and imaginative, and shows a good sense for designing simple rules that pack a lot of thematic punch. I can't quite shake the feeling that more editing and a bit more explaining what the author means through some examples of play would help. This is clearly a labor of love from a specific table AND also a toolkit that can be useful for others, too. In its present form, the rich content creaks a little from rough presentation, here and there. But if this can be tidied up and developed further, then the future for Brimstone may be deservedly bright. It is already inspiring me to think about its "toolkit" options, and to revisit some of my own houserule ideas again. 

Thanks for reading, and happy gaming! 

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Painted Update - $$-store Birdhouse Turned 40k Imperial Shrine

 As I explained in my last post, this started life as a cheap wooden birdhouse from the dollar store. Add various bits of junk and bitz-box bits, and now it's a minor shrine for the 40k imperial cult. I may still tweak it a bit, but it's now mostly done. 

I wanted to combine a bit of Oldhammer goofiness with a vaguely sinister feeling of faded glory. I think this should help spiff up the table games quite a bit. I almost threw away the handful of birdhouses I purchased dirt-cheap, but after this result, I may convert the other two into something Warhammery as well. 







Sunday, March 3, 2024

Dollar Store Birdhouse turned Galactic Imperial Cult Shrine

I got in some time building a 40k-ish terrain piece this weekend. Here's a WIP shot. This was once a wooden birdhouse from the dollar store, but I've augmented it with a bunch of doodads from old broken plastic toys, household trash, GW wargaming bitz, etc. Now, it's a small local shrine for the galaxy's imperial cult/ecclesiarchy.  


I imagine this is a reliquary shrine holding a few items from a revered saint - probably a fallen Space Marine or Inquisitor (for example, I'm planning to hang a terminator marine's helmet in the (currently blue) circle left of the doorway). Generations ago, the bored authorities were persuaded that this shrine merely holds pious replicas of mighty relics - as are, to be sure, the replica armaments hanging on the building's outer walls. But, in fact -- as true initiates in this cultic chapter learn --  the (genuine) remains stored within were retrieved illegally from a crashed spacecraft or smoking battlescape, long ago. Like a galactic cargo cult, these local imperial cultists now revere objects they only dimly understand. 

Someday, perhaps, the authorities will catch on, and come looking for gear that should not be in civilian custody. Or perhaps it will be pirates, thieves, or some other kinds of cultist that come looking. At any rate, the shrine and its armed acolytes are ready to fight for their treasures. 



The preacher's platform upstairs should make a nice sniper's perch, as illustrated by an obliging marine scout and a preaching inquisitorial agitator. I look forward to getting some paint on this thing -- and then maybe crafting some hanging banners to pump up the decorations. 


Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Converted Inquisitorial Preacher - finally painted

 In my most recent (battle-report) post, my pictures reveal many unpainted figures (sigh). Well, tonight I got some paint on another of my converted/kitbashed minis. This one is the radical preacher (and agent provocateur) for my recently-started "Re-congregant" inquisitorial retinue (for the Inq28 Warhammer genre of gaming). It's quite fine to cut up and design new miniature characters, especially with the zany diversity typical of such warbands. 






This guy started out as a Reaper Bones alchemist, but had a run-in with my hobby knife and some 40k Skitarii/Chaos Marine bits. I should still drybrush the base, but it was time to put the paints away for the evening...


Sunday, February 18, 2024

Inq28 slaughter (and kitbashing)

 I just suffered what might be the worst thrashing of my wargaming career. It was, however, still pretty fun. :-) 

To make matters worse, we were playing a game I designed - a game that continues to provide excellent fun and dynamic, narrative play. For now, it's called Bright Blades, Burning Planets -- a competitive skirmish game built on an older cooperative swashbuckling ruleset I made some years ago, called Bright Blades, Black Powder. I wrote my Bright Blades rules systems to offer dynamic, tactical movement and meaningful choices across the game, especially during the core interactions of combat. They provide fast, cinematic, dynamic, slightly ridiculous play. Of all the game systems I've ever designed, I think I love it most. :-D 

Well, I've been in a bit of an "Inq28" mood of late, kitbashing my own Inquisitorial retinue. Meet the ill-fated gang that assembled for today's skirmish: 



Aside from the lack of paint on most of these fellas, I like this little team! Moving from left to right: 

+ The Inquisitor: he's a member of an obscure Ordo Historicus sent to research and preserve arcane secrets about past threats to the Imperium. However, he's also aligned with the Recongregator philosophy - a radical viewpoint held by a minority of Inquisitors who recognize the Imperium as just as dangerous to humanity as the xenos and chaotic threats around it. In other words, he's an anarchist agitator with an Inquisitor's credentials! The miniature is mainly an old Marine Captain from the Battle for Vedros boxed set, but I've given him a thunder hammer and an alternate powerpack as well. 

+ The Radical Preacher: this chap was an Ecclesiarchy preacher who became disillusioned with the state of his flock. The Inquisitor snapped him up into his retinue, and now employs him making subversive speeches to disrupt imperial order at just the right moment. The figure was a Reaper Bones alchemist which I've modified, adding a Skitarii vanguard helmet, a hand holding a bolter pistol, and another with a chainsword. This guy was recently promoted to Hero status (in my houserules) after surviving an earlier fight. 

+ The Abhuman Beastman melee specialist. Just a Reaper Bones beastman charging with a big axe and shield. I haven't modified this figure, since I like using it for normal fantasy fights as well. 

+ The last two "gentlemen" are veteran tactical troops, one armed with a plasma rifle and one with a belt-fed bolter. These are made from Chaos Marine bodies kitbashed together with skitarii bits and little home-made additions. 

So much for my team. I'm mid-five-part campaign with my kids. One is running a group of champions for a "True Emperor" - a mysterious figure who claims that the thing upon the Golden Throne is an empty husk, and that he is the Emperor of Mankind reborn (a claim long anticipated by dogmatic Inquisitors of the Thorian persuasion). Various imperial servants (and others) have pledged their allegiance to this "True Emperor," who claims he will soon usher in a blissful society of equality for those who have followed him. The fact that his followers include Alpha Legionnaires may or may not be relevant to assessments of his true nature



Also present is the "Sister of Truth," a persuasive (and deadly) speaker for the "True Emperor's" cause. A pair of grunts in carapace armor help round out this squad, as does a former graduate student and current unregistered psyker (recruited from civilians present at our first skirmish). The ghost-looking thing is a token representing the favoring presence of the True Emperor, used for narrative (and humorous) effect without mechanical effect. 

But a third warband was present, too -- a dangerous crew, openly loyal to the Ruinous Powers. They were an exotic mix of Chaos Space Marines led by a Sorcerer, supported by several gun-toting grunts. 



This Chaos warband has a nefarious campaign-goal: they reason that, if the so-called "True Emperor" is more than just a charlatan, then killing him (while still weak) and absorbing his corpse's latent psychic energy would be a great coup for Chaos forces active in this sector. 

For today's scrum, a trial of such shenanigans was in order. All three warbands converged on a ruined necropolis, where -- a thousand years earlier -- a dozen powerful psykers had been sacrificed together on an arcane altar. The Chaos band hoped to absorb the victim's still-present energies as a useful trial for their future plans. The other factions, although not planning to "absorb" the "True Emperor," wanted both to block Chaos' hand and gain this precious psychic resource for their own use. This would require hacking into an ancient control terminal driven by the altar -- the ancient humans' spirits still weirdly fused with the flickering machine-spirit. 


Eager to snatch this psychic prize for their own -- and to wreak vengeance on the false emperor's minions for a recent defeat, my Inquistorial retinue arrived, ready to kick some galactic butt. 




Or so it seemed; I had a dream, when the game was young...but things deteriorated quickly. The Chaos Sorcerer moved ahead of his forces and reached the altar-terminal. 



My Inquisitor, on the other hand, secured a commanding position overlooking the battlefield. Unfortunately, this commanding position also soon exposed him to fire from Chaos troopers hidden behind ruins (top left of picture). He started taking hits. 



Meanwhile, my plasma gunner found cover in a sheltered doorway, and used this position to slow the "True Emperor's" advancing forces. 

But my Inquisitor was in real trouble, buffeted by enemy fire, wounded, and knocked down...



Aaaaaaand an Alpha Legion shooter could still draw LOS to the Inquisitor, despite his prone position. Taken out of action! 



Here's the overall battlefield not long thereafter. 



The Sorcerer successfully hacked the data terminal, and made for the board-edge with his prize. My remaining troops got shot up by both other factions, but mainly tangled in a vengeance beatdown with the "True Imperial" forces. In the end, the Chaos warband got away, and I watched as every remaining figure of mine was taken out of action. Total Party Kill, you might say. 

To add insult to injury, in the post-battle campaign management phase, two of those casualties were confirmed as permanent kills (goodbye, beastman melee brute and plasma-gun-wielding veteran!) - and the only figure who rolled high enough to "level up" from the experience instead of dying was the Inquisitor - but he's already at max level. Oh well. At least I'll get a few recruitment points now to have another go at my shady opponents. 

We have planned this as a five-battle arc, a little campaign, and although I'm getting my little 28mm teeth kicked out, it's pretty fun. It's also encouraging me to keep revisiting opportunities to kitbash more figures. I always feel that kitbashing things bumps up my sense of investment and enjoyment. 

Thanks for reading this far! If you game soon, may you roll better than I did - and have fun!

Friday, February 9, 2024

RPG Alignment ... some musings

 A recent post over at Noism's blog addresses that old bogeyman - alignment in D&D. The post offers some thought-provoking reactions to alignment relativism, both new and old (I remember all that stuff about "neutral balance" in Greyhawk back in Gygax's time seeming kind of irksome. 

At any rate, I don't often wade into related waters on this blog, but reading that post made me think of some old notes I typed up ... woah, almost two years ago. Here is one articulation of an aligment system I was thinking about a while ago. I think it's closest, in terms of edition wars, to the alignment system described in 4th edition D&D, of all things. Plus, it's got my own twist on things. The relative position of each alignment is important, as entities might move back and forth over a lifetime, crossing from one alignment into a neighboring one. 

A possible alignment system: 

+ Good

+ Lawful Good

Evil

Chaotic Evil


In practice and possibly in rhetoric, Good tends to favor the true wellbeing of self and others, even at personal cost (within the limits of the thinker’s understanding of wellbeing). Good recognizes that Law and Disorder both have a place, both are readily abused, and both must be subordinated to the overall promotion of wellbeing. Good also recognizes, however, that Law is usually closer to it than is Chaos. 


Lawful Good tends to favor the wellbeing of self and others, but this is conditioned by a strong pull in favor of Order as a competing claim on individual or collective wellbeing. Because Lawful Good cares about real wellbeing, Lawful Good at times senses a pull toward Good over and against the interests of Law; however, because of Lawful Good’s strong interest in Order and hierarchy, Lawful Good always carries a temptation toward Evil carried out in the name of greater law and order. 


In practice and possibly in rhetoric, Evil tends to favor the perceived wellbeing and felt needs of the self over those of others, and/or the perceived wellbeing of some group over that of other groups (usually, the self is part of the favored group). Because hierarchical structures are useful for maintaining such privilege, Evil often feels some pull toward Law; if the stirrings of conscience are allowed room, this can lead to movement into Lawful Good. However, because Evil pushes against the intended moral order of Creation, the seeds of Disorder also remain latent in Evil as a potential draw toward Chaotic Evil.


Chaotic Evil tends to favor its own perceived wellbeing and felt needs over others’, but a strong attraction to Disorder often motivates self-destructive actions that undermine long-term fulfillment of its own felt needs. Stronger feelings of self-interest may draw Chaotic Evil toward Evil. 


‘Unaligned’ only exists for non-sentient creatures. Among sentient mortal beings, Evil may be the default alignment in practice (sages debate this point). Movement between alignments is common over a lifetime. 

Saturday, January 13, 2024

Light/Darkness ideas: following up after playtesting

My thanks to all who read my recent thoughts on procedures for light and darkness in dungeons. An unfortunate illness kept half my gaming group out of action last weekend, but the cancellation of our normal game opened space for a little dungeon crawl to play-test those procedures with a couple other available players. 


Playtesting is funny business. Sometimes you discover that something has really clicked; more often, of course, you find in practice the holes and problems that you missed in design. This time around — I got a bit of both! Before I summarize what worked well and what didn’t click for my players, I’ll confess that I’m not a very scientific play tester. My tendency is to be ambitious, and to use my limited play-testing opportunities to try out a bunch of things at once. Any lab scientists out there will know, of course, that this means (too) many variables all competing for analysis. If all my games were play tests, I’d try to evaluate just one rule change at a time.
 
If wishes were fishes... Anyway, some of the problems we encountered have little to do with the light/darkness rules, so I can isolate those out, but it’s worth noting that the session ended with a TPK — for two reasons. First, I was trying out some tweaks to combat rules that made fighting deadlier; second, we had freakish luck - I rolled really well for the monsters, the players rolled really poorly for the first half of the night (though one player did get back-to-back Nat 20s later in the evening), and the random encounter rolls were off the hook frequent! So, combat was deadly and we had more combats than I expected. 
 
Anyway, on to the darkness/light feedback.
 
If you’ve read my last post, you know that one part of my philosophy here is to move away from the ubiquitous OSR emphasis on inventory management. My rules for managing dungeon illumination aimed to create decisions around encounter risk and trap vulnerability without relying on logistical bean-counting. I also wanted to focus on the more emotionally satisfying (to me) narratives of danger looming in the darkness. 
 
All that was validated strongly by my players. In short, they said that they, too, are tired of fiddling with inventory slots; one particularly hates the numerical resource management micro-game. That feedback was validating for my approach, though it certainly pushes against many widespread OSR principles. To be clear, these aren’t players who hate old-school play style and who just want the world handed to them on a bed of 24-times-per-short-rest superpowers. They’ve amply demonstrated their willingness to think creatively while solving problems, or to die horribly while fighting monsters. 
 
So, for what it’s worth, here is one local group’s plea to the indie-OSR-NSR-whattheheckSR design community: Knave, Cairn, Mausritter, etc. are dope, but please keep designing things that don’t rely on micromanaging inventory, too. 
 
Ok, what about the light/darkness thing? 
 
The players enjoyed my greater attention to lighting limits. They endorsed my enhanced narration of the uncertain darkness. Having light sources really only illuminate part of each new room led to more atmospheric play and — in a few instances — extra decision points about which risks to accept. So all that was a win.
 
However, the players advised against the ways I’d mechanized illumination. The setup for the playtest probably didn’t show my rules in their best light (uh, sorry for that one): to save time, I used a free online dungeon with fairly small rooms, and missile combat played almost no role in the session (those factors muted a few of the tradeoffs of the dungeon crawling stances + light states). The fact that bright light made a random encounter much likelier rankled a bit because of the aforementioned wacky dice rolls, which produced far too many encounters for such a small dungeon. Nonetheless, I did agree (with some chagrin) that my formalized attention to mechanical triggers didn’t match the perceived usefulness of the different light states in play. 
 
Where does this leave me? Honest, thoughtful feedback about rules remains helpful, even when pointed against “my babies.” Although the playtest revealed some issues, it also was paradoxically somewhat liberating. My players and I agreed that without implementing my full-blown procedures as described in my last post, we should add the following to our games:
 
+ pay more attention to who is holding the light - monsters may try to extinguish it

+ assume lights illuminate much smaller dungeon areas, to heighten narrative drama and reframe exploratory choices
+ minimize inventory management where feasible
 
Additionally, I think I may still include the option to shine much brighter light that does call for an immediate, higher-risk encounter roll — but I may not make the modifier as punitive. (Think Gandalf, again: “perhaps we can risk a bit more light…”). 
 
What is freeing to me is that my musing about the experience of dungeon crawling has led me to some new resolutions about play, but these are resolutions we hope to implement through fewer rules, instead of more procedures. There’s something refreshing about a freeform solution to a problem. How will it work in future sessions? Dunno. I’d better keep playing to find out.


Saturday, January 6, 2024

Less Bean-Counting, More Darkness: Improved Dungeon Exploration Stances

 When does darkness matter, and when doesn't it? 

First, two anecdotal snapshots: 

It was my return to the hobby, my first time GMing an RPG in decades. In hindsight, the adventure I created was just a linear series of encounters. But the boss fight really clicked! The PCs were in a partly-flooded underground chamber, fighting a hulking half-troll, half-giant-toad thing with big tusks...which kept hopping into the water and then bursting back out to attack a new victim. 

And then the monster extinguished the torch. Today, despite the many sessions and lessons learned in play and study since then, I still relish the look of sincere alarm (could I say fear?) on a player's face as we worked out the rest of the scene. 

Years later. Our stage now is on the inner plateau of the Isle of Dread, albeit hacked quite a bit to suit my own setting. The party's ranger had snuck into an unknown faction's watchtower at night to scout it out, with only moonlight to guide his path. Before long -- once he'd already climbed up into a belltower -- he realized that someone awake and equally stealthy was hunting him through the shadows. The ensuing cat-and-mouse play, with minimal visual description, was both thrilling and consequential -- a risky roll led to the PC accidentally bumping the tower's bell, signaling his location and confirming the party's interference at the site. 

Now, what stories haven't I told you? 

That time that the fighter wanted plate armor, which meant he couldn't carry as many torches as he'd like. That time that a wizard's "Light" cantrip nerfed the entire light-as-resource-management game. The many times that I shrugged and just thought, "well, I'm sure somebody is carrying a torch, let's handwave it and get moving" because I had a bunch of other GM-stuff to process that felt more consequential. I won't tell you those stories, because they're ... boring. 

But they're also far more common, and likelier to happen under the rules I've leaned on for years. 


From "WHAT DO I CARE ABOUT IN PLAY?" to "OH CRAP, I MAYBE MADE A HEARTBREAKER!"

I'm grateful for good gaming and fruitful game-thinking over the recent holiday season. My adult gaming group has just started a new ROOT campaign, which looks like it should be a blast. But I also decided I'd like to jump-start some D&D for my kids in the months ahead, so I started thinking about Knave, and how I might like to change things (perhaps I'll say more about that in future posts). After many a keyboard-clack, I sat back and realized that I'd basically just written my own heartbreaker game, with a revised combat system, streamlined core classes that look more fun than a lot of vanilla D&D options, revised encumbrance, and an updated version of dungeon exploration processes.

For each area, it helped to sit back and brainstorm what I really enjoy from a narrative and gamist perspective before returning to a list of common OSR mechanics. I feel like I have ritually eaten a few of my sacred cows over the past couple weeks, and I hope that my new ideas, developed in consultation with the wisdom of the blogosphere, might better provide the play experiences that actually make me happier -- that actually give me better post-game stories to talk about (I haven't playtested this stuff yet, mind you, so I shouldn't really get too excited about my bespoke house rules portfolio). 

In today's post, I'm fleshing out my current thoughts about dungeon exploration. Actually, this involves a fair bit: revised thinking about encumbrance and logistics, encounters, meaningful tactical choices, room/setting description, searches and investigation, and especially light and darkness. The ideas for procedures below are a refined version of my recent thoughts on "dungeon exploration stances," which you all seemed to find interesting but a bit too fussy. Well, they're simpler now. I've also chewed a lot on my response to a variety of other blog posts, some new and some old enough to threaten "classic" status:

https://falsemachine.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-law-of-light.html

https://knightattheopera.blogspot.com/2019/09/lets-do-some-more-diy-d-and-hack-rules.html

https://deadtreenoshelter.blogspot.com/2020/03/ultra-bastard-d-illumination.html

https://www.mindstormpress.com/ransacking-the-room

https://diyanddragons.blogspot.com/2019/10/landmark-hidden-secret.html

https://diyanddragons.blogspot.com/2019/04/your-life-is-forfeit.html

https://diyanddragons.blogspot.com/2019/04/mechanics-for-resource-management-part.html

https://blog.thesconesalone.com/2018/07/dragon-warrior-and-how-i-discovered.html


Maybe come back someday and finish reading  my thoughts, please, after you've worked through those riches. :-D 

Before you read any further, here are the guiding design principles that have shaped my new proposed rules for dungeon exploration:

+ I think I'm tired of inventory management as a key part of gameplay. I imagine this one will be controversial; Knave-style inventory is key to ... pretty much everything (class archetypes, abilities, even Wounds) in many NSR/OSR systems these days. If I'm honest with myself, though, I think there are better ways to get to the emotional play experience I'm looking for - something that keeps logistical choices exciting and meaningful without bogging down play in bean-counting. 

+ I'm not that deeply committed to Gygax's advice about meaningful time records. I mean, they matter a lot when they matter, but sometimes they don't. A recent comment exchange on Noism's blog, with a link to an earlier post about arbitrary time-signatures for combat rounds in D&D, got me thinking about how the length of a round sort of only matters for tracking the logistics mini-game -- but what if (see above) one did away with much of that mini-game anyway? What if combat and exploration focus not on scientific precision for record-keeping, but on the bits of play that (my) players really get satisfaction from -- engaging with the actual adventure? [One might say there's a false dichotomy here, but I'm running with it]. 

+ For exciting play, trade information for risk/vulnerability. Fear of the DARK is intuitive and important, and I want more of it in my games. I'm not inventing anything new here -- on these issues, see that list of older blogposts by other writers, above. The questions that are "logistical" but which also excite me are NOT "did we bring enough stuff?" but "oh no, are we comfortable ignoring that shadow? But can we afford to use more light here?" 

Ok, that's some background on my approach. Now, details. On with the show. 

As a reminder, I am cobbling together all sorts of ideas from other writers, so please do note the blogs linked above as you think about these rules. 


LIGHT LEVELS AND THEIR EFFECTS

All spaces in the dungeon have one of three Light states: Bright Light, Dim Light, or Darkness. 

When a party enters a new room/keyed area, note its Light state. Also, make a random encounter roll, with 12 on 1d12 provoking a random encounter (various factors, below, will make these more likely). 

The party enters a new room. 

GM rolls a random encounter check on 1d12, adding +3 for Bright lights if carried by the party, and +1 for each hireling [this does not include companions, who are limited by a PC's CHA modifier and who will fight alongside the party]. On a 12, there is a random encounter.

The GM describes the room. 

Light may be ambient -- already provided as part of the environment, as sunlight through cracks, torches lit in wall sconces, etc. -- or it may be carried by the PCs. This distinction matters. Most light effects occur no matter who put them there, but when PCs introduce their own light to a dungeon space, the dungeon is more likely to react -- random encounters become more likely. 

Lighting a held candle takes one full action. Digging through your bag to recover a new candle also takes one full action. If your party only had one light held, and a monster just extinguished it (which can be attempted using a Combat Stunt), you can count on at least two rounds until you can see again. Chomp, chomp, the darkness has teeth. 

There is no need to track how many little candles you brought, since the PCs aren't silly enough to come crawling without lots of them.

On Light states:

+ DARKNESS: The GM offers no new visual descriptions of any kind. ALL PC rolls are made with Disadvantage. Because Dim Light is the default, if the players get stuck in true darkness, they can always pull out another candle nub and produce Dim Light again -- if they aren't too busy fending off something with tentacles in the darkness. 

+ DIM LIGHT: this is the default state for moving parties, and adds no further risk to random encounter rolls. It requires 1-2 lit candles (or torches, or whatever; treat them equivalently - as per Dwiz's Advanced Darkness ideas). Every light requires the full use of one hand, which cannot carry a different item. The players must declare exactly who is carrying each light. They should expect that nasty things that prefer darkness may target those PCs or their lights. (hired porters may carry lights, but note that non-professional hirelings each make random encounters more likely -- see below).  In a space with Dim light, PCs take Disadvantage to all their Ranged attacks (but there's no penalty to shoot at somebody holding a light). 

The GM only gives a reasonably accurate description of things within ten feet of Dim lights. Beyond that, they just hint at the shape and layout of the room/space. They describe things in structural terms and as blocks of dim color, shadow, and reflective shapes. 

+ BRIGHT LIGHT: Bright light requires at least 3 lit candles/torches, each held by a specific character's hand. Adding such light is tempting the underground's oppressive darkness and its inhabitants: a +3 modifier to encounter rolls makes a random encounter happen on a 9+ on 1d12. Moreover, the GM makes a fresh encounter check as soon as the party 'switches' to Bright light. However, the GM now describes all outwardly visible features of a room -- what Anne calls Landmark information -- at least out to 30-40 feet (these ranges are for game-fun purposes, not for simulationist accuracy). 

Here is a contrasting description of a room encountered in Bright vs. Dim light:

Bright Light: “You have entered a columned hall, about thirty feet wide and perhaps fifty feet long, with a parallel row of stone columns holding up heavy-looking stone blocks at the ceiling. In the middle of the room, a pile of gold objects - cups, coins, etc.  — gleams in your torchlight, but so does a thin, wet ring of what looks like blood around it. On the south wall, a fairly massive bronze rectangular altar stands flush with the wall, its sides streaked with what might be dry blood. There’s a leering face with horns sculpted onto each side of the altar. Right as you enter, you see a flicker of movement, and notice a humanoid shape dart through an open doorway in the far wall. What do you want to do?”

 

Dim Light: “You see what look like columns rising, fading away into the dark ahead of you. An irregular lump of something, several feet across and high, lies on the floor halfway across the room, to the west; your candle-light reflects weakly off it, here and there. A large rectangular blocky shape, almost as tall as you, is due south. As you enter, you think you see a flicker of movement retreat away into the shadows to the east; now you can’t see anything there but darkness. What do you want to do?” 

 



DUNGEON EXPLORATION STANCES

Last March I wrote about some possible Dungeon Exploration Stances. These updated rules are an improvement, and tie into the Light rules above.

There is no "neutral" stance in a dungeon; the party is always focused on staying alert OR looking friendly OR hiding OR resting OR or figuring things out than they are on all of those at the same time. Pick one, the moment the party enters the dungeon, and treat that stance as in effect until the party tells you they are changing stances. 

These rules assume side-based initiative (roll 1d8 for the party and 1d8 for their foes; high rolling team acts entirely and then swaps initiative; polearms grant individuals first action even if their team loses initiative, unless the other side also has polearms or reach). If ambushed, PC with highest WIS rolls a save to prevent a surprise round. 

ALERT STANCE: 

In Bright Light: PCs can't be surprised by (visible) foes. PCs automatically win the first initiative roll. Disadvantage to NPC reaction-table rolls.

In Dim Light: PCs get Advantage on a Save vs being surprised. PCs automatically win the first initiative roll. Disadvantage to NPC reaction-table rolls. [Don't forget that Ranged attacks are Disadvantaged in Dim Light].  

OPEN STANCE:

In Bright Light: Roll NPC reaction-table rolls with Advantage. PCs automatically lose first initiative roll if attacked. 

In Dim Light: Roll NPC reaction-table rolls with Advantage. PCs automatically fail any rolled saves vs. being surprised. PCs automatically lose first initiative roll if attacked. 

STEALTHY STANCE:

In Bright Light: If the party is carrying Bright light, they can't enter the Stealthy stance. In ambient Bright light, Stealthy stance benefits only apply against sightless foes. 

In Dim Light: PCs roll saves vs. being detected with Advantage. PCs may try to ambush foes with that Advantage, too. If the party is ambushed, the PCs roll saves vs. surprise with Disadvantage. NPC reaction-table rolls are made with Disadvantage. 

RESTING STANCE: 

A short rest takes at least ten minutes (and, in my current rules, resets hit points as per Mark of the Odd games). When a rest is declared, roll a random encounter check (with a 9+ on d12 encounter if resting in Bright light carried by the party). An individual PC may elect to skip the rest (and its benefits) and stay on guard. Resting PCs automatically fail saves vs. surprise if attacked (unless a PC standing guard passes a save vs. surprise), and the party loses the first initiative roll of a combat during a short rest.  

INVESTIGATIVE STANCE: 

 This one is connected to broader issues, so I'll flesh it out more below. 


INVESTIGATION THROUGH CONVERSATION AND/OR MECHANICS

Searching a room is tricky to integrate with stances, because you can resolve a search mechanically, but it's often more fun to just talk things through, inviting player skill to the fore -- until that takes too long and bores everyone. Generally, though, finding the hidden stairway because you asked a clever question is more fun than finding the concealed treasure because the dice saved you. 

Anne at DIY-and-Dragons (in the posts linked above) has some great thoughts about information detection and GM description. I'm riffing off much of that here (she recommends making "landmark" information freely available up front, "hidden" information available if somebody asks about it while risking interaction with the space, and "secret" info only if the player goes looking for it AND passes a dice check. 

I'm thinking of saying that once players have entered a room (at Bright or Dim light) -- and checked for any encounters -- they can choose to engage with parts of the room for as long as they want (that wording choice is deliberate - no need to track rounds/turns, other than assuming that an exploration turn is "roughly the time a party spends exploring one room if they aren't resting"). During that time, they can interact with objects -- opening the chest, stabbing the mattresses, trying on the spare cloaks, sipping from the weird fountain, etc. None of this is mechanized exploration, and whatever Exploration Stance the party was in when they entered remains in effect (as do effects of the light level). 

But perhaps the players want to skip past all that -- or maybe they've interacted with the room for a while but suspect they're missing something. Then, they may declare a shift to the Investigative dungeon exploration stance. This assumes that the party is taking all the time needed to give the full space a thorough shakedown, but they're also making themselves vulnerable to its potential hazards. Upon declaration of this stance:

+ GM rolls a fresh encounter check on the d12, with a +2 modifier for the more invasive searching (and also with a +3 modifier for Bright light carried by PCs, if relevant). If the party now decides to "upgrade" to Bright light, they may, but this triggers a third encounter check (but Bright light is more helpful...).

+ if in Bright light, ALL hidden (but not secret) information in the room is conveyed to the players. At minimum, this includes clues about secret doors and traps (but not necessarily how to open or disarm them). If a wizard is in the party, they might automatically detect magic items in the room, too. 

+ in in Dim light, the hidden information is revealed, but with the following caveats: there is a 4-in-6 chance that each trap, secret door, concealed treasure, etc., will be revealed or hinted at. A wizard in the party might confirm parts of a room that include magic objects. The party thus has incentive to risk Bright light, though they might prefer to play it safe and hope for the best (the GM makes hidden rolls here, btw). 

SUMMARY

As noted, I still need to test these in play, but I'll blogify them in hopes they might inspire you (or lead you all to yell at me about problems I've overlooked). The key ideas are to cut out all the bean-counting around torch-carrying and duration, drilling right down to the interesting questions: what is that scary-looking shape in the shadows? Can we risk more light to check it out? Can we risk NOT checking? Why is the thing with all the eyes wrestling the wizard for the candle? Oh no, it's -- HELP!