Saturday, November 12, 2011

My City: A D&D thought experiment

I just sent the following in an email to my players, in preparation for whatever I will be running as a game in the new year. Once I have gotten the results and melded them into a city design, I will post it for you and for them.

I want you to think of a city - from the perspective of a D&D character. This doesn't necessarily have to be a character you end up playing, but this should be thought of in a worm's eye perspective, rather than that of a designer.

You may be from the city, you may have traveled here from a long way away, you may be just passing through. Make decisions about these things as you answer them. There is no minimum or maximum to the detail you provide, but remember that I am not asking you to create an entire city, just a city as your character sees it. Don't worry about the overall world setting, it can be anything you imagine as a fantasy world. You are not responsible for designing the entire world, just answer the questions as they are asked.

I will be using your responses to craft the city and world. With five of you providing possibly contradictory responses, please understand that not everything will be used in the full context you provide.

1) If you traveled to the city, how did you get here - what means of transportation? If you were born in the city, how do you get around?

2) What is your favorite part of the city? What is your connection to this place?

3) What is the most dangerous part of the city? Have you ever been there?

4) If you got into trouble in the city, who would you ask for help?

5) If you could remove one group of people or things from the city, it would be the...

Have you done anything similar for your game? Are there any other questions you think I should have asked?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Steal this Trap: The Flusher

I created this trap as a way to make a dungeon more variable- if the players were able to avoid it, their trip to the final boss would be somewhat less dangerous, or dangerous in different ways. It also represented the villain's first line of defense against intruders.

The flusher depends on three Decanters of Endless Water, and a large hinged trapdoor. On arrival at the dungeon's front door, the party was presented with a combination lock - tap the colored circles in the right order and the door opens. Fail to do so in three tries, and three Decanters set into the floor begin to inundate the room.

With successful swim checks, a hero might be able to get out, however the trap door will come into effect in another three rounds.

Assuming the players fail to guess the combination, the water fills the room and once a certain weight threshold is reached, the trap door opens downward, discharging the heroes (and a lot of water) into a water filled pit on the edge of a swampy dungeon level.

In my case I placed a large carnivorous plant to waiting to grab anyone flushed in, and a young adult black dragon which was brought here and left as a guardian by the villain. These challenges can be adjusted based on the party level, and the initial "flushing" effect need not be lethal as the pit could be changed to a flat dungeon floor, replacing the risk of drowning with a small amount of falling/crushing damage.

During my session the party managed to sidestep the trap once(one player used insane Batlogic to correctly guess the combination) but there is no reason this trap could not be re-used if it fails to be triggered.

So please, steal my trap for your home game, and let me know how it works for you.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Failed Experiment

As I am preparing to run a new D&D game soon, I thought it would be good to stretch the old design muscles a bit. Maybe get some feedback that doesn't involve players whining as their character is slowly digested. You know, like they do...

This adventure, titled Failed Experiment (not to be confused with expirement, which is failed spelling), is an adventure which touches on multiple arcs of my Doorways campaign, and as such I can't give a lot of details on the backstory. Descriptions will be based on what the players encountered.

If this adventure is used outside of the context of Doorways, one clue needs to be provided to the players ahead of time, or the encounter in 3 should become something less dangerous. During the orientation, the new explorers are told of a password "fealty" which was found to control the clay golems that were guarding the Doorways when they were discovered. Since that time the password has been changed to keep them under administrator control, but if a clay golem is encountered while exploring, that password should be tried.

1 The entryway - this room is tiled with five foot stone slabs (conveniently enough for mapmaking) with various geometric shapes. The slabs marked with a spiral symbol may be safely stepped upon. Magically levitating or flying over an unsafe square will still trigger a trap effect. Non-magical flight will not trigger a trap, or any weight under 30 lbs.

Description "This room, roughly 40' by 85' in size, is illuminated brightly by glowing patterns on the five-foot square slabs which make up the floor. The ceiling is 10' tall and dotted with neatly spaced circular holes, so that 2-3 holes are above every square. Similar holes are present on the walls all around this room, and each slab (except the first one immediately in front of the door, which is unmarked) has a circular hole in the center. A llitter of bones and fragments of grey-black eggshell is scattered about the floor in this room."

Any time a weight of 30' or more is set upon a square (or something of that mass is levitated over one) roll a d10 and consult this chart – if they step on a safe square, roll anyways and ignore the result. All traps are spell-based, assume a caster level of 8, and a relevant attribute of 18.

1 nothing happens

2 burning hands is cast from the floor – 5d4 damage to anyone in the triggering square, and to anything flying or levitating in an adjacent square. Reflex dc 15/half

3. Magic missile is cast from the west wall targeting the first person or object to trigger this square. 4d4+4 from the four magic missiles.

4 nothing happens

5 stinking cloud is emitted from the floor. Effects as per 20’ radius, fortitude dc 17 negates, 8 round duration

6 web spell is cast from the ceiling above the triggered plate, 20’ radius, reflex dc 16

7 darkness is cast from the east wall, caster level 8, targeted on the triggered plate -

8 nothing happens

9 flaming sphere is cast from the west wall, every round for its 8 round duration it will simply bounce in this square. – 2d6 damage per round for anyone in that square, reflex 16 negates.

10 lightning bolt is cast from the east wall, targeting in a straight horizontal line through the triggering square. The west wall absorbs the bolt rather than reflecting it. 8d6 electricity damage, reflex dc 17

The secret door on the west wall will not cast any trap spells, so ignore any results indicating a trap coming from that section of wall. It appears the same as the rest of the wall otherwise.(search dc 18)

2. Hallway

Description 'This hallway is neatly carved and smooth, apparently cut from the native stone and seamless. There is no dust, and the stone appears polished. Immediately beyond the door are two statues set into the left and right wall, each in the form of a grinning gargoyle, holding a stone shield and club, apparently carved from the same stone. The gargoyle on the left bears the spiral symbol on its shield, and the one on the right has a simple skull etched into the shield. '

The spiral and skull represent a warning, as between this point and the laboratory(5), any right turn leads to traps and other dangers.

The large X-in-rectangle represents a 30’ pit trap hidden by a hinged trapdoor(spot dc 23, search dc 18) which will drop with as little as 40 lbs of weight - the walls are as smooth as the rest of the dungeon, and are difficult to climb (climb dc 19) – in the bottom the adventurers will find a metal belt buckle, several dozen rivets from a suit of studded leather armor, and a +1 short sword of spell-storing (contains web, cl 10) – none of these show any sign of corrosion.

The stick figure icon in the top-right corner of the map is a clay golem – if not pacified with the command word “fealty” it will attempt to grapple a party member and take them for holding in room 3. If it suffers 25% of its hit points in damage, it will begin fighting more violently. Remember that while in the 5’ passageways it will take penalties to movement and combat for being squeezed,_Position,_and_Distance#Squeezing

2a The false door

Description 'As the hallway turns it becomes a more stately 10' corridor, with a double-door at the end, cunningly crafted from the same native stone.'

Starting at the door and for 15 feet, the corridor has an acid pit concealed by a trap door which opens downward. The weight of one medium creature (and his gear) will not trigger the trap, but two or more party members on the trap door will cause it to open, letting them fall in.

The trap may be escaped with a dc 18 reflex save for those on the north and south edge (moving to safety or clinging to the false door), and a dc 22 reflex save for anyone caught in the middle. A swim check (dc 15) is necessary to move in the acidic slime, and climbing out at the north edge is a climb difficulty of 15. Climbing up in the middle or door side is a dc of 19, with another climb check dc 15 required to slide along the wall to safety in the next round.

Anyone immersed in the acid will suffer 2d6 damage per round, and those who have been immersed will suffer an additional d6 damage for 3 rounds thereafter as the acid neutralize it. Attempting to wash the slime off with water or otherwise neutralizing it will reduce the damage by 3 points and the duration by 1 round.

The double-door at the end of the hall is a cunningly crafted fake, (search dc 23 will reveal the trickery - the dwarven ability to detect stonework will also work). On any lesser search result, the door appears to be unlocked, but stuck shut.

3 The guard room

This room is bare and empty except for four clay golems – they are under orders to hold any intruders (they will attack if they suffer 25% or more of their hitpoints in damage) – They may be commanded with the same word “fealty”

Needless to say, the golems don’t have any way to meet the needs of a prisoner for food and water, so time will be limited if the party plans to return to rescue them.

4 The quarters

This room is bare but shows signs that there was once habitation here. Depressions are in set in the floor where the feet of two beds would have been, and several iron nails are scattered in the room, along with several gold teeth and a silver dagger. 43 gold and 25 silver coins are scattered about the floor, and the broken remains of a water basin. An everflowing flask of water is sitting in the corner, deactivated.

5 The pit

This rounded chamber, and the narrow passageways leading to it, are used the black puddings that inhabit this dungeon – the passages are appropriately sized for a small-sized or smaller creature, but the puddings can pass through slowly. While the puddings are drawn for reasons unknown to the laboratory in 6, they use the steep downward shaft leading down from this chamber when driven to feed – where it leads the team was not able to learn, but it is at least 50’ straight down.

6 The laboratory

This room, once used for research, has three entrances, two concealed entrances on the east wall (search dc 18) , and one of the pudding-tunnels behind a workbench.

There are three stone workbenches in this room, covered with the remains of broken beakers and glass tubing. If handled delicately, 3d4x10 gp worth of alchemical equipment can be recovered, and the optics for three pairs of goggles of minute seeing. A silver dagger has fallen behind one of the workbenches.

In any of the areas aside from 1, there is a 10% chance of encountering a black pudding – no more than 2 will be encountered in total unless the party spends 10 hours or more in this dungeon(a third will return from the depths). The clay golems will ignore the puddings and vice-versa, unless they are keeping a prisoner in which case they will defend him or her.

And that is the adventure – it has a bit of a killer DM feel to it, and I don’t intend to run it for my current party (especially after posting it here), without doing some fine-tuning.

If you’re asking “where is the treasure?” then you have not been paying attention – the clay golems are worth 40,000 gold each, if controlled – it is probably far more wealth than this dungeon should have generated for them. This is more of an exercise, stretching my design muscles. I will say that I don’t feel any of the challenges are unfair for a 3rd-7th level party – a black pudding is tough to beat, but can’t keep up with the party and can be dealt with at range. The golems can be used, if controlled, to defeat them as well.

If the party turns off their brains and play this like Diablo, things will go very badly. I think this represents the design philosophy I am planning on – fair but very tough.

Am I hitting that mark?

No meaningful post today

I have something cooking which should be ready tomorrow.

For now, have you been watching Dragon Age: Redemption?

Seriously, go watch that. Caveat, it is not family-friendly.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Applying the List Method

So in my earlier post on design, I mentioned how I would give a list of possible adventures with limited data on which to decide what to do next.

What about in town? When staying at a motel or hotel, in almost any town or city, a list is provided:


The Owlbear's Nest - Come sit by our hearth and listen to the finest in local bards, and choose from our unmatched selection of dwarven ales.

Beholder's Eye - Our master chef will levitate your meal directly to your plate, a dining experience you will never forget.

The Extended Rest Inn and Tavern - Proudly re-opened after extensive re-modeling. Please leave your pet dragons at home.

Little capsule descriptions of local businesses written to attract customers. This list does not have to be complete, but will include most that are on the beaten path.

Unlike the list of doors, these locations will have to be fleshed out a bit more in advance, but won't require the same list of details. Maybe a floor plan, a menu, and a list of four NPCs (shouldn't need combat stats of their own) to provide local flavor.

When the players are traveling to these locations, I don't plan to skip "ok you walk to xyz bar", at least the first time. Mentioning businesses, open and active or closed and boarded up can provide hooks for future adventures, establish these places in everyone's minds.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

My own personal edition wars

In preparing for a new game, I have to decide which system to run. It isn't an easy decision.

Pathfinder? In the next week I am expecting to receive a copy of the Pathfinder starter box, and I plan on picking up the core book if it is not under the tree this year. Am I going to run Pathfinder? Maybe. I have heard good things about it and it seems to address some of my concerns with three dot five.

Four-eee? I recently was confined to a small home in Ballard, given stimulants and piloted a Kenku Rogue for about 21 hours. Our DM, Mr. wh40d6 ran a fine game and I had a good time. I didn't feel as much frustration with the abstractions of fourth edition as I have in the past (I played once for about an hour and became extremely ill, but I can't prove that 4e was to blame).

This system has a lot of safety rails - the dungeon master has guidelines on how much xp an encounter should have, character classes have well-defined roles, players manage resources in the form of power cards which add a great dell of homogeneity to the game. A player only needs to learn one or two mechanics, like marking a foe, to play a new class or role. A wizard has a sharply limited list of combat powers and rituals, which is easier but feels limiting.

There are also some excellent simplifications. A monster has a level, and a set xp value, which makes dungeon stocking and xp allocation much quicker for the DM. Single-hitpoint minions provide a great source of dungeon fodder that is quicker and easier to run. Movement, much as it pains me to admit it, is a lot quicker and easier when you just say that diagonal moves are also 5 feet.

Aggregated skills - "perception" is spot, listen, and search rolled into one. This is great unless one is playing a rogue, as it is wisdom-based. More on this later... "Stealth" is hide and move silently together. "Thievery" covers removing or setting traps, and pickpocketing. Similar reductions are made in social skills as well, I am told.

4e also turns saving throws into resistances, so the attacker rolls against fort rather than the defender making a saving throw. Interesting, but I could take or leave it. It is, I suppose, more consistent.

In short, many little changes that make the game easier (but more limiting) to play, and remove DMing headaches. I can't bring myself to embrace 4e. I will happily play it in the future, but just not ready to call it my game. Maybe I'll like what Monte is Cook-ing better.

Retro-gaming/OSR I should have a card printed up saying "I believe that newer does not necessarily mean better, and embrace the themes of classical gaming." just so i can claim to be a card-carrying grognard.

That being said, I don't like old-school saving throws and descending Armor Class. They are more work than they are worth to keep track of. I do like simple character sheets and large, forbidding dungeons.

The "old school" scene is alive and kicking, but my players just aren't excited about it. Sites like jrients, bxblackrazor and grognardia are good jumping off points if you are curious.

Three-dot-five Third edition, so they told us, was the most researched and playtested system ever. Until they came out with 3.5 to fix all the broken stuff.

I like 3.5, I really do. I have run or played more of this edition than any other version of D&D. It is a comfortable, well-worn suit, but it also has some annoying holes that I keep meaning to patch.

I. Lots of source material, which different abilities and options for players who want to really give the DM a headache. Even the official material is pretty questionable at times. However plugging this hole is tough. Despite the headaches of the material that is unbalanced, there are plenty of fun, well-balanced classes, feats, and spells.

II. Complicated experience. In order to figure out how much a combat is worth to the party, one must take the number of enemies defeated, and their CRs, and consult a table in the DMG, to determine what the overall CR of the encounter was. If two monsters are in a fight and they have different CRs, the rules are a little murky, but it is touched upon. Then, after finding the CR of the encounter, the DM must find the CR on a table (cross-referenced by party average level) and divide the experience points by number of players. I got pretty fast with this, but it really makes the static XP in Pathfinder/4e look appealing.

I had actually made this part tougher on myself by figuring experience separately for each character based on their level (the theory being a 2nd level character would learn more from an encounter than a 5th level one). This is probably a bit wrong-headed as the points needed to level up grow at each level, and I never had player characters more than a level different from one another. It suited my desires for granularity and fairness.

III. Movement - In 3.5, most characters move 30' per round, which is 6 squares. Feels limiting, but it works pretty well. But what about diagonal movement? Let's see.. 5^2 +5^2 is.. 50, and the square root of 50 is 7.0710678118655 or so.. Yeah lets go with 7.5, which means every other square moved diagonally is 15, which doesn't leave you with a decimal after moving 28.28 feet.

This approach appeals to my math geekery, but even a simple count-off like 7.5, 15, 22.5, 30 will trip me up in the heat of battle. 4e makes it 5 foot movement, which is more than a little broken (whee, by moving this way I can move fifty feet per round!) but it really makes things go quicker. For the sake of an easier quicker resolution of movement I sacrifice logic and physics, and after running a long 3.5 campaign .. 30, uhh.. 37.5, 45, 50... 2 point 5.... Yeah I think it is a price I can pay.

IV. Boring critical hits.. Well perhaps I won't fix this, but I keep wanting criticals to do more than double damage. Not triple damage, but stuff. Limbs shattered, heads removed, weapons and armor destroyed, the carnage of a fantasy battle.

The problem is that players will inevitably, and rightly feel screwed by this. Player characters are almost always outnumbered by enemies, so the DM has many more chances to roll those devastating criticals. And a player character has to live with the consequences. That owlbear you removed two limbs from probably won't be coming back for revenge, but the DM can just pull two more from the nether for the next battle. Monsters and npcs generally don't survive battles, so never walking again simply doesn't matter.

V. Battle management - Stealing minions from 4e sounds like a good idea, but 3.5 doesn't work the same. There are Area of Effect spells that deal so much damage that even a successful save should kill them. If I use them, I plan on having a "threshold" hp level -do this much damage and the minion simply doesn't get a saving throw. Also I can't easily use minions with "damage sponge" monsters like gargoyles, so I may likely limit their use to battle fodder, orcs who keep the party busy while the bigger bads ready the nukes.

VI. Too many skills – see what I said about 4e above aggregating skills. If I do this I will be strongly tempted to let characters (like rogues) with Trapfinding use intelligence for perception rolls instead of wisdom. It isn’t a huge bonus at higher levels, but it remove the fear of straying from the party that I felt as a 4e rogue.

What will I run? Not sure yet. The nice folks at paizo have released an SRD that allows me to read through most of their rules-set, so I will be spending time poking through that. I plan to go through the various 3.5 sourcebooks and see what, if anything, I feel strongly enough to ban from my game. The “spell compendium”, as it contains a large amount of suspect fan-created material from Dragon magazine, is unlikely to make the cut. I may go into that book in more detail in a future post.

What do you run?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Getting my design on...

It has not been decided what system I will run, who will play, or what the campaign will specifically be, but in the new year, there will be Game.

And I am even planning to run it.

I had been putting serious thought into a campaign based on the consequences of adding guns to d&d. Inspired by images like this:

I saw adventurers cutting a path to adventure with both powder and magic of the black variety. Maybe it would be a sandbox game, maybe it would be a game of intrigue and warfare.

In the wilderness one might encounter groups of elite blue-cloaked riflemen, pursuing the elven rebels of the silver skein, a band fighting for freedom or revenge against the brutal and systematic oppression of their kind. I saw adventurers coming into contact with these factions, taking a side, or trying to broker a peace.

It would be powerful, and dramatic, and grim, and bloody, and.. Started to sound like it wouldn't be any fun. I think the story has potential, but as the backdrop of a campaign had the risk of being a series of downers, including a plan I was working up of having a wilderness community that the players would use as a base of operations, forming bonds with the NPCs, becoming involved in their lives, only to find they had been pointlessly slaughtered by one faction for trading with the other. I just didn't want to run it. Maybe in the future I might use it as source material, but I just don't want it now.

So instead I am thinking of something like Stargate meets D&D, but with the players as prospectors rather than soldiers (so more like Fred Pohl's Gateway novels). A hallway of many doors, leading to many adventures. If a player is missing one week then he doesn't step through the door. It could work.

The heart of how I will run this (if I don't decide to do something else) will be similar to Westmarches. The players will have a list of doors, and the initial scouting mission resuts, and they tell me in advance of the game where they will be exploring. I don't know that this will be a 1-20 campaign, but I can run it for as long as it maintains the fun.

The initial scouting mission is a clay golem carrying a cageful of rats. It is instructed to enter the door, stand still and observe for five minutes, then return through the door. If attacked, it should return immediately. Adventurers wishing to explore these various doors are given the information gleaned from this to decide on which doors to try, and prepare as much as possible. The adventurers are considered expendable, no rescue attempt is sent if they do not return.

B@ R@ Golem returned unharmed, saw worked-stone underground passageway - the rats were all asphyxiated. The scouting mission that followed did not return (they carried a bottle of air)

G@ R@ Apparently dwarven construction, golem returned without incident. No exploration yet.

B@ R@ Golem did not return, one enormous mutated rat came back through door an hour later. No exploration yet

B@ R@ Golem saw nothing (apparently magical darkness) rats returned drained of life by negative energy. No exploration yet.

[blogger is stripping the colors out that I am setting. G next to the @ is green, R is red, B is black]

The first @ indicates the result of the golem's exploration, the second @ any human exploration.

When nothing returns, the door is coded double-black and exploration is forbidden.

Not all the doors will be considered level-appropriate for the players - no idea yet how they will react to this concept.

I may post a sample-dungeon based on one of my hooks, to show how it relates to the exploration mission. Things should be hard, but not unfair.