Archive for October, 2009

More like World’s Most Pretentious Dungeon

October 28, 2009

I’m confused.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about this “World’s Largest Dungeon” as it’s actually titled on the cover.

But here I find a map online (archived) and it actually seems rather small.

I count something close to 164 x 164 squares per map segment if you don’t count the connecting corridors. The map is 3 x 4 segments (minus one almost empty one), which gives you 26,896 squares each, for a total of 295,856. Actually, this map doesn’t contain other segments I’ve found on that site, which bring the total to 16 maps (430,336 squares). But one of those 16 is a lava field area which is mostly boring open space, so consider that to be a number with an uptight little asterisk next to it.

Does anyone know if that’s the whole thing? There aren’t additional supplemental materials, extra levels, etc?

Because the first Undermountain boxed set was about 160 x 240 per map, 38,400 squares.

If you can read that, the Dungeon Level, Storeroom Level, and Sargoth Level were present in the original boxed set. The latter two each had two maps, while the first dungeon level was just one map. So the boxed set mapped out 192,000 squares. Obviously WLD beats the boxed set out on that number.

But Undermountain contains another 5 levels, and 15 sublevels. I don’t have those products and can’t find maps for them. But at a minimum each of the 5 other main levels would be a single Undermountain map, and the sublevels would probably be a minimum of a sheet of 4/inch graph paper (32 squares x 44 squares, 1408 squares per page). So we’re looking at 405,120 squares for Undermountain.

Here’s the problem I see. WLD came at the issue trying to be large. It had to outdo everything else. They probably set a goal based on surface area, variety of monsters used (I’ve heard they cram at least one of every monster from the 3E SRD somewhere in the dungeon). I question the use of space in both. But WLD just seems like a more severe violation because it has something to gain by padding out the dungeon with 20′ thick walls, huge blocks of solid rock, and huge swaths of empty space.

It’s possible that later Undermountain products came out and invalidated their claim, and supplemental maps were published for WLD. It feels like the posturing among architects trying to see who has the tallest building. Secretly adding a spire to yours at the last minute to screw with some architect in France. Of course they could add sublevels or map segments or whatever to continue the race.

Then again, let’s take Temple of Elemental Evil. Note very large if you count up the maps. Certainly nowhere near 400,000 squares. But in the latter parts of the dungeon there are “elemental pocket dimensions” accessible via the dungeon. They are mapped interior areas with monsters, keyed encounters, and no civilization. They are dungeon areas as much as any part of WLD. There are four of them and they are each at least a mile across. That’s 278,784 squares per square mile of pocket, four pockets, which brings us to 1,115,136 squares (plus whatever is in the Temple itself). Of course they may be more than a mile, exactly, but it’s been a while since I ran the module.

I’m interested in seeing the WLD developers put out new material until they hit 42 map segments (26 more to go). Or at least put out one segment with a scale of one square = 50 feet. Until then perhaps they should ship the module with a piece of masking tape over the part on the cover where it says “Largest”.

I wouldn’t otherwise be so snarky about this, but when you claim a superlative title you invite appraisal. And WLD doesn’t stand up to its claim. Nor is it very good quality, according to every single independent review I’ve read.

Side note: all of these products use 10′ squares. So I’m not comparing apples to sheep here!

What I’m interested in when it comes to dungeons is quality. Very large is nice, but if it’s garbage then I’d rather just use something else. I need intricate, interesting, something fresh and unique. I don’t want something that looks like it was put together using a simple random map generator.

Now a complex map generator, good enough to fool you into thinking the map was made by hand, could really get things going. Which makes me wonder why there isn’t an auto-generator for some multiplayer FPS game. Like how Spelunky does things.

Economics of the wilderness sandbox

October 27, 2009

Let’s say you have a pretty standard sandbox D&D setting: a small fortified town surrounded by a whole lot of wilderness. That wilderness has a lot of natural wealth but also ruins from older civilizations. The main developed land, the country of origin for the players’ characters, is way back in the other direction. This is the frontier of the frontier.

So the adventurers have some starting equipment and a little cash. They can buy some basic equipment in town at the general store but not in huge quantities. Supplies are a bit limited, especially of metal since they don’t have a foundry (or know where they can mine for metal nearby). But the PCs can buy armor, weapons, rope, torches, 10′ poles, food, a couple donkeys or dogs. Nothing spectacular.

The adventurers go out and find some treasure and return with it. Some of it is in the form of coins, other treasure is old jewelry, gems, statuary, etc. Things you can’t just spend as money. At some very early point the adventurers will want to buy things that the general store doesn’t have and the blacksmith doesn’t know how to make (or doesn’t have materials for), or sell things that nobody in town wants or has the money to buy.

It’s in the DM’s best interest to place civilization far away. A year of travel by horse and river to get there and back is appropriate. You want people to play in the sandbox full of opportunity, not just siphon off the big cities. You want them to embark on their own adventure, not undertaking missions for pay from the wealthy and powerful. Not to say a city-based game of intrigue can’t be fun. But that’s not what this is.

So how do you get new supplies to the players, and let them sell their old goodies? I have a couple answers.

NPC Merchant Caravans
First off, there are merchants who will come to the fortified town in the wilderness to pick up trade goods and transport them back to civilization. People back home want the furred pelts, the strange taxidermy beasts, the seeds from new flowers and trees. Incidentally, having your wilderness extend in a north-south orientation with boundaries in the east and west helps encourage a wider variety of plants and animals not found back home – you see changes in seasonal temperatures with latitude changes, but not so much with longitude changes.

Anyway, the merchants tend to travel in caravans of donkeys for security. They bring some guards too. The caravan sets out at the first thaw in the south and moves north as the weather improves. By mid Summer they have arrived at the border town and trade all their manufactured goods away, buying raw resources of the wild, and set out for home. They’re chased back by the Fall and the quickening frost and arrive back in civilization in the middle of winter. Of course it may not snow there every year, but if it does snow they will see it as they roll into the big city.

You can request specific things from the merchants when they come to trade. You’ll see them again in the middle of next Summer. You can also leave money with the shopkeeper in town so that if the merchants come and go and you’re out on an adventure the shopkeeper can buy the item for you. He’s pretty trustworthy. But if you want to sell things you have to do it with the caravan directly. The shopkeeper just doesn’t have the money on hand to buy every ancient gewgaw you haul back from the dungeon. You may need to build a house in town just to store your loot for the next caravan.

Player-Sponsored Caravans
The players could get together and invest in their own caravan. They hire whoever will go, send their henchmen along, and hope to see them again next year. Figure out how many donkeys a man can handle, how many donkeys the caravan will need, and whether anyone else in town wants to get in on this too. The players should add additional men and donkeys to account for losses, and there are costs associated with the travel.

The DM should roll some dice to figure out how successful the travel was, the selling, and the buying. From that he can decide whether they lost too many donkeys and had to leave some goods behind, what price they were able to get for their goods, and whether they were able to find what they wanted to buy for sale (and at what price). If the henchmen are untrustworthy the DM should roll for their loyalty. Assume that nothing catastrophic happens to the caravan unless the players went exceedingly cheap on the expedition – at that point, losing 1d4 donkeys may be the whole thing.

If the caravan outright fails, the DM should decide whether the henchmen straggle back or just flee the wrath of their employers.

Players Travel Back
This is the least desirable outcome. In this case the players go back themselves to sell their goods and buy what they want. Explain to them that the route taken by the merchant caravans has dangerous terrain but not a lot of monsters or treasure.

If they insist, you can run the whole trip randomly, or map out the trip route and likely branches, or just roll for success as above with some bonus based on the level of the PCs. They should be more successful than normal henchmen even at first level.

Emphasize how there is little oportunity back home. Anyone who was fleeing debts or marriage or imprisonment should find their villains show up. And of course there was no extra experience or money gained – else the merchants who travel this route every year would have several levels and possibly even magic items!

Be sure to add a year of character age. This will be rather important to the Humans if the party wants to travel back to civilization every year.

Note that the caravan travels at the prime adventuring season. If the players want to adventure during the winter they’ll find little forage, few game animals, risk exposure to cold and being trapped in a storm, becoming lost more easily, and missing occasional dungeon entrances they would otherwise have spotted easily. In all, adventuring in the winter is awful!

Finally, this works only if every player wants to travel back home. If some wish to stay behind then the group is split. At that point the DM may want to simply roll for the caravan trip success, have the players whose character left make up new characters, and use the new characters with the PCs who stayed behind to go on adventures for the year while the PC caravan is gone.

Players Settle Down
If a player strikes out and settles an area of wilderness, raising a castle to protect people nearby, he will attract settler peasants. Along with these will come trappers and hunters who operate in the area and also pay taxes to the PC lord. If they survive a few years the Summer merchants will come with more finished goods for the larger population and more money to buy their raw goods. The caravan may even swing by the village instead of expecting them to come to the original fort!

Eventually the PC lord’s domain becomes established enough to support a population of specialists. A tailor, stonemason, carpenter, armorer, swordsmith, bowyer, ropemaker, weaver. These people will be able to actually create the finished goods out of the raw materials that were always traded to the Summer merchants. Now those merchants have to buy finished goods, and so must bring more money and better refined goods with them.

At that point, the merchants will be bringing things of high value that the local nobility (the PCs) will want to buy. The townsfolk mainly buy and sell among themselves but sell off goods to the merchants in exchange for their coins and luxury products from back home. Note that the best manufactured goods will still be produced back in the home civilization. The most talented craftsmen, using the best tools, in the established and traditional ways, are not coming to the frontier until long after it’s gotten boring and the players want to adventure farther out.

Sandbox boundaries

October 23, 2009

When speaking of a sandbox campaign I mean one where the DM doesn’t provide any direction. There are rumors, scraps of maps, occasional bounties or proclaimations. But the players shouldn’t feel like there’s any “next part” to the campaign. They decide what comes next. Interesting stories are a consequence of their decisions rather than the other way around.

But the DM needs to do a lot of preparation beforehand for a sandbox to work. That preparation is well rewarded, though, as the same information can be used many times during the same campaign, and the enriched campaign can be used again with another group later to excellent effect.

(Of course, with all the adventure and treasure reset and little if any presence of old powerful characters as cameo NPCs)

This means that the campaign is really still with boundaries – after all, without wooden slats all the sand would fall out and nobody would have any fun. So how do you design your wooden slats without making the players feel cramped?

First off, the sandbox area must be very large and contain far more than sufficient interesting decisions to sustain the players.

Second, impartial boundaries are more fitting than ones the DM “role-plays”. In a sandbox campaign the DM acts as the referee, the arbiter of the rules, the creator of people and places, and the decision-maker for NPCs. The DM is absolutely not an adversary. If players want to push against a boundary its resistance should be obvious and expected, and outside the supposed agency of the DM.

Imagine this. The civilized world is to the south. This isn’t a barrier – this is where the PCs came from. But that way lies little opportunity, the journey is far, and PCs who go back do so to retire.

To the north and west are great mountain ranges with peaks so high you need breathing magic just to get past the first stage, and cold-resistance magic for the next. If you need an image, think of the part of Lord of the Rings where the Fellowship is trying to go over the mountains instead of through Moria.

To the east is an ancient and decadent civilization with mind-control towers scattered throughout. White-frocked Shepherds form an army of spies that ensure obediance in their own people. Anyone who enters will soon fall under the sway of those malevolent stone spires, under the onslaught of their brain-warping emanations. The country is insular and does not go to war or explore – the army and explorers would be free from the state’s mind control and that’s something they aren’t willing to risk. They can’t expand the country because the secret of building the towers is lost. They are an inheritor civilization.

But in the center is a verdant and wild land. There are dark goblin fortresses clinging to the sheer cliff walls of the mountains. Nixies frolic in the forest pools below, playing mean-spirited pranks. A deer wanders among the ruins of an ancient human city, the stones covered by the moss it munches, while a cougar in the undergrowth licks its chops. Bear cubs play in the mouldering ruins of a village inn as a waterfall splashes down the road, falling as it passes under an old sturdy bridge of Dwarven stone. Standing on that bridge you see a river valley spread before you, thickly wooded hills on either side, draining toward a great broad river beyond.

A single tear, man.


October 22, 2009

Well I missed a day. That, Mr. 1d30, is the sound of inevitability. Well at least I didn’t just scramble around and come up with some crap to post and …


So very sorry.

Anyway, I’m still out looking for a gaming group. We’ll see how that goes.

A few magical miniatures

October 21, 2009

Armor Stand Figurine
This is a tiny sculpted armor stand. It can be commanded to enlarge to normal size, such that a suit of armor for a Medium or Small creature could be placed on it. It can then be commanded to reduce back to figurine form. In its figurine form, the individual armor pieces are part of the solid figurine, so they cannot be removed.

Cat Jacks
These cute little caltrops are shaped like cats and kittens in various poses, but all have multiple glittering points on ears, claws, noses, and tails. One bag of Cat Jacks can be thrown over four 10’ squares. Each square requires one action for spreading. The caltrops have normal effects on people walking through them but do not remain stuck into boots and feet. They fall out immediately.

When commanded, the Cat Jacks all stand up and bound into a bag held by the commander, who must be in an adjacent square. The command word can be said under the breath so nobody can hear, but the speaker must be holding out a container for the cats to hop into. This takes a single action. The cats do not otherwise animate – only to be retrieved.

Incidental losses of cats due to not picking them all up, or one occasionally getting stuck in someone’s foot, are replenished while the cats are in their bag. They do not reproduce beyond their normal count, even if split up into smaller bags. Loose Cat Jacks lose their magic when a new kitten is born from its set.

The caltrops can be split up into separate containers, or multiple sets of caltrops can be combined into one.

Cragnard’s Wise Appraiser
This figurine is of a posh gnome, which can turn into a living gnome dressed in rich clothing and with significant divination abilities. The Wise Appraiser can be employed for up to three tasks per day, and fights as a Level 0 Normal Man. If slain, he cannot return for three weeks.

Using a gnomish or dwarven underground detection ability, the appraisal skill (for which he has a bonus of +11), or a Detect Magic spell counts as a single task. So does fighting for one battle. If the gnome is called upon to Identify he can do so as a level 6 Magic-User, requiring no spell components and only a single round. This counts as three tasks and can be used only if he has three tasks to give. If he identifies a cursed object he is unaffected by it, and describes a false set of magical powers.

Delmar’s Traveling Camp
Made of canvas, this 1’ square of cloth is embroidered with the scene of a tent camp. When shaken out, a sparkling glitter fills an area 20’ radius around the user. Inside this area, the user can create one of two camp types:

Type A: Four one-man tents and two small campfire circles.
Type B: One large three-man tent and a medium campfire circle.
Type C: One two-man tent and a large campfire circle.

Campfire circles each burn for one hour and remain hot for cooking for another hour, unless fuel is added to them. The tents are of good quality cloth, and are solid enough to withstand a Gust of Wind spell and warm enough to keep people inside alive during a heavy snowstorm.

The camp comes with three summoned bodyguards, human Fighters of level 2, equipped with Chainmail, Shield, Metal Helmet, and Spear. They have abilities as normal humans, but are immune to mind-affecting magic.

The goods and people summoned disappear if taken more than 30’ away from the edge of the camp, if sold, or if destroyed. Slain or destroyed articles cannot be summoned for three weeks – the camp appears without them. The camp otherwise lasts 9 hours and can be summoned once daily.

Dignard’s Work Crew
A miniature pickaxe an inch across, when rapped on a stony surface three times this charm summons a dwarven work crew complete with tools and working songs.

The crew consists of five dwarves of 2 HD, each with +6 in Mining, Lumberjack, Mason, Blacksmith, and Carpenter. Each is a specialist as well, gaining an additional +3 to one of those skills. Each dwarf can be identified by his skill because they refer to each other by the skill as if it were their names. A small metal insignia on his leather and metal cap shows which specialization each dwarf favors.

The dwarves come with enough hand tools for each to do every job, 2 wheelbarrows, ten buckets, five lanterns, two portable forges, and a small cart.

The workers disappear under many conditions: if they are attacked, when the summoner dismisses them, when their time expires, or if people nearby begin to talk of using them for some dangerous enterprise (such as walking down a hallway one by one setting off all the traps). Slain workers cannot be summoned for three weeks; they do not appear when the rest of the crew does. All equipment summoned disappears when the crew does, regardless of magical protections or planar boundaries.

The workers stay when summoned for up to six hours, during which time each does as much work as a human laborer would in 18. The work crew can be summoned every other day.

Gondolin’s Potioneer
An exquisitely-crafted statuette of a dragon. The Potioneer is a personal assistant with a very specific purpose – it feeds the owner potions when needed. Think of the statuette as the home for the almost-incorporeal creature.

In times of peace, the little spectral dragon perches on the owner’s backpack and watches everything going on around. It can’t talk, and does not warn of attack, but it carefully catalogues the owner’s stash of drinkables. It knows where they are kept, what they do, and in what situations the owner would like to have them administered.

In dangerous times, the potioneer clings to the owner’s potion belt, waiting for the perfect time to pull one out, unstopper it, and race up the owner’s clothing to his shoulder. It then waits for the owner to open his mouth before sloshing the potion into it.

Effectively, the potioneer uses up all its actions every round caring for the owner. It cannot feed potions to anyone else, nor can it take potions from anyone else. It administers a single potion every round on the owner’s initiative. The owner gets to choose which potion, or even if a potion will be taken at all.

The potioneer can be struck, but the quick little dragon is at -10 to be hit. Since it’s incorporeal, nonmagical weapons have no effect. If the dragon takes even a single point of damage, however, it disappears until the next sunrise. At that time it pops out of the statuette, yawns, and asks if the owner found any new potions in the mean time.

Note that the potioneer can be asked to deliver other drinkables besides magical potions. As an example, if the owner were left out in the desert with all his gear, but tied up so he couldn’t reach his water flask, the potioneer could get it for him. It could not untie him, tell him a story, yell for help, or do anything not related to giving him a drink.

Incredible Merchant Man
The merchant-man is a figurine of a man next to a crate. When summoned, the figurine becomes just a crate. The merchant appears and accepts whatever goods the summoner gives him, up to 100 pounds of goods and up to 10,000 GP in money. The merchant can be given instructions to buy or sell things at a certain price, and will not deviate from that price. He can appraise within 1% of its true value without fail, but cannot detect or identify magic. He can detect counterfeit coins 99% of the time as well.

The merchant-man will buy goods until he contains more than 10,000 GP in money or gains more than 100 pounds of goods, or if it has no more stock or no more money. He can be told to hold things that are not for sale. If the merchant would purchase an object that would put it over 100 pounds or down to zero GP in money, or if he would sell an object that would place him above 10,000 GP in money, the merchant fails to carry through the transaction and disappears as normal. If the merchant sells his last sellable object he disappears.

All money and goods are stored in a non-space that is not extradimensional, and cannot be accessed by anyone but the figurine-holder and the merchant. If the merchant is attacked, the merchant disappears. In any case, one month after the merchant is summoned it disappears.

When the merchant disappears, all remaining goods and coins stored appear at the summoner’s feet – no matter how inconvenient this is at the time. The figurine then becomes the merchant with crate again.

The merchant-man counts coins, paper money, gems, etc. as “money”. Bars of silver or gold are a trade good, not money, because they’re of an inconveniently high value. Grain, even if used commonly in trade, is a good and not money because it’s inconveniently bulky.

If the merchant is covered by an Anti-Magic Field or is Dispelled, he disappears as normal. The only possible way to raid the merchant-man’s inventory is through Limited Wish to steal one item or half the money, or a full Wish to steal either all items or all money. If either occurs the merchant-man disappears with the remaining valuables as normal.

Obsidian Oracle
An Obsidian Oracle is a statuette of a bald man sitting cross-legged, wearing a toga or similar wrap. The oracle has a tiny slot in the statuette where a rolled paper can be stuffed. The oracle will destroy the note and attempt to answer the question written on it. The answer is audible as if the statue spoke it. The message is destroyed in a puff of flames whether it was a question or not.

The oracle tries to use ESP on the questioner, searching for forgotten or overlooked information. If it can manage an answer with that information, and it’s an answer that the questioner doesn’t have, the oracle offers it.

The oracle can decide if Augury, Legend Lore, or Contact Other Plane would be the minimum necessary to discover the answer. If the ESP fails to discover an answer that the questioner doesn’t already know, or if there is no information, the oracle uses one of these powers. It activates the least power first, and gives the resulting answer. If the spell is not powerful enough to get an answer, the oracle intones “the answer is hazy.”

If the oracle is asked the same question again, whether it gave a useful answer or not, it attempts to use the next most powerful ability that would be appropriate.

It can use ESP any number of times per day. It can use Augury 5/day, Legend Lore 3/day, and Contact Other Plane 1/day. If it cannot use the necessary ability, and cannot use a more powerful one instead, it answers “the stars are not aligned – ask again later.”

Olito’s Igloo
This ivory figurine of an igloo sparkles in even a little light. If it’s resting against something white or mostly white, it turns bright blue and flashes blue lights visible over a hundred feet away in the day, or a mile away on a plain at night.

The Igloo can be placed on the ground and tapped three times, to cause it to grow into a snow-block igloo with a hard icy interior and a small side-door made of a sheet of ice. The igloo is 10’ across outside, with 1’ thick walls, and can contain 4 people. It provides excellent shelter in sub-zero temperatures but does not form otherwise. It also does not expand to cause damage or move objects.

The igloo remains for up to 12 hours per day, in multiple stretches if desired. The way to return it is to be inside the igloo and strongly stomp on the ground three times. The igloo rapidly dissolves, leaving the figurine behind and melting snow within 10′ and ice within 1′. It begins to flash if not picked up within one minute and if it’s on a white substance as described above. A damaged igloo cannot be recalled for one week.

Sea-Chest of the Sailor Apes
When this chest is closed and rapped strongly, it opens and releases 12 standard apes, each with IN 10 and +4 Sailor skill. One of the summoned apes will always be a navigator, with +4 Navigation skill. The apes return to the chest after 8 hours. If one is slain, it cannot be summoned for 3 weeks.

A variant item is the Sky-Chest of the Sailor Apes, which provides 12 apes with Sky-Sailor skill instead. One of the apes is always a navigator as above.

The SenseNet

October 20, 2009

Cyberpunk is based on a bleak future, high technology superimposed and contrasted with frail humanity, hopelessness and powerlessness that enable violence, and the disparity between the ultra-wealthy and those so poor they end up owing money when they die. Cyberpunk, done right, is about more than overclocked elective prosthetics and a virtual reality Internet. Like all good science fiction it’s concerned with people. The new tech isn’t interesting: how it affects people is what’s interesting.

That said, the Cyberpunk of the 80s was based on a Japanese cultural / economic superpower and the rise of the corporation. Old Uncle Bear suggests that this is silly but still awesome and a retro-futurism Cyberpunk would be cool. But his suggestion is a self-referential farce, which is great for some gaming groups but if you wanted Cyberpunk that isn’t it. If you’re trying to decide whether to play Toon, Paranoia, or Retro-Future Irony Cyberpunk then it fits. I disagree with Uncle Bear’s assessment that the corporation is no longer a threat – we’re just currently experiencing a different kind of destabilization that could easily shift in a few decades.

But what seems to be coming to a head soon is Intellectual Property rights. It’s clear that increased control over customers is in the interest of a company. Only laws and ethical restraints prevent a corporation from devastating human dignity and human rights. But because corporations have a lot of money and teams of lawyers they can influence legislation and judicial process. And because the corporation is not an actual person, there is no expectation in American culture that the entity itself will be ethical. The executives have the opportunity to act unethically and say it was for the good of the company. In the end, a corporation would achieve whatever is good for it, at any human expense, so long as it’s technically possible.

Permanence is, I hear, a decent book. I found it through this thread where “E.T.Smith” gives a summary of two interesting ideas from the book.

1: All goods are leased. You pay a small amount (or nothing) for the object but you pay to use it. It stops functioning if you stop paying – or cannot pay.

2: Sensory broadcasters stationed throughout the city modify your consciousness. They can make you see what they want, or what you pay to see. There are pop-up ads that you have to pay to block. It affects everyone. Newborns begin seeing ads for sugary cereal and sneakers with favorite monster on the side while they’re still in the womb.

Of course, the Cyberpunk game typically involves characters who are able to circumvent these procedures. Whether they disable the IP controllers or block the SenseNet (or even hack it), they are not the poor unfortunate souls forced to suffer through life.

Yes, I would rename it SenseNet. Feels more Cyberpunky than Inscape. Or maybe I’d call in InSense.

Anyway, in case it isn’t clear I’m all for using Shadowrun or Cyberpunk 2020 or whatever as-written in terms of technology even though such things are today out of date and it isn’t even 2020 or 2051. For the same reason it’s still fun to watch the Original Star Trek series. Sure they have big chunky plastic buttons instead of touchpads! Sure we have datajacks sticking out of our temples and we need to plug into a computer to use it!

But the setting can change to something more relevant in terms of society. And in terms of tech we can explore its effects without overhauling the game system. I think Cyberpunk loses a whole lot when you exchange sub-dermal plating for nanites, and datajacks for wireless networking. Eventually it becomes indistinguishable as technology and you might as well be playing a Monk or a Magic-User. The trade-off for personal power in Cyberpunk is a loss of humanity, a reduction in how much of you is still flesh and bone. That’s an interesting choice to make and clearly reflects the themes of the genre.

Character Personality

October 19, 2009

Let’s say you’re stuck for a way to describe a culture or character. I often just write a few words to describe something and go off the cuff when the time comes to describe it to the players. One simple way is to define what kind of animal the character or culture is like. Here we go!

The Fox: Delicate, careful, excellent poise.
The Owl: Silent, thoughtful.
The Swan: Belligerent if angered, somewhat all the time, but serene from a distance. Desired but actually undesirable.

The Goat: Voracious. Interested in exploration, able to get sidetracked or stuck sometimes.
The Badger: Vicious, tenacious. Holds grudges.
The Crow: Wary, stealthy, creative. Likely to form small gangs. Materialistic.

The Rat: Self-sufficient, cunning.
The Rabbit: Cautious, communal.
The Raccoon: Playful, leisure-loving, fastidious. Materialistic.

The Wolf: Opportunist. Works hard for the group.
The Bear: Boastful, loud, but realistic.
The Boar: Selfless, sacrificing. May get in above his head.

The Mole: Bossy and impatient. Hard-headed.
The Weasel: Proud. Deceptive, manipulative, selfish.
The Beaver: Industrious, willing to take on complex projects

Then again, one could always roll on the following table a few times:
(Choose one of the two personality features. If you want to, roll again. If you get the same roll use the alternate. If subsequent rolls really don’t make sense, consider the second roll to be how the character really is and the first roll is how he tries to act)

Character Personality Table
Roll 1d30.
1 – Delicate / Coarse
2 – Wary / Careless
3 – Silent / Boastful
4 – Thoughtful / Rash
5 – Belligerent / Serene
6 – Voracious / Picky
7 – Curious / Dull
8 – Vicious / Compassionate
9 – Tenacious / Lenient
10 – Materialistic / Aescetic
11 – Self-sufficient / Needy
12 – Communal / Solitary
13 – Playful / Serious
14 – Leisure-loving / Industrious
15 – Fastidious / Sloppy
16 – Miser / Wastrel
17 – Impertinent / Respectful
18 – Hard-Headed / Milquetoast
19 – Impatient / Relaxed
20 – Considerate / Rude
21 – Proud / Humble
22 – Deceptive / Forthright
23 – Manipulative / Honest
24 – Modest / Shameless
25 – Temperant / Self-Indulgent
26 – Chafes at Authority / Obsequious
27 – Values the Opinions of Others / Doesn’t Listen to Others
28 – Hatred (Roll on the Subtable)
29 – Obsession (Roll on the Subtable)
30 – Fear (Roll on the Subtable)

Character Personality Subtable
Roll 1d20.
1 – Own Society / Neighboring Society
2 – Own Race / Other Race
3 – Disease / Hazardous Chemicals
4 – Religion (Specific or all)
5 – Warfare
6 – Being Outdoors / Indoors (Confined Spaces)
7 – Being Well-Lit / In Darkness
8 – Flying or Heights / Being Underground
9 – Specific Animal Type (Snakes, Spiders, Carp, Elephants, Frogs)
10 – Specific Artifacts (Crossbows, Swords, Tankards, Wedding Bowls, Mud Balls)
11 – Specific Festivals
12 – Specific Game (Board Games, Dice, etc. If D&D is chosen avoid recursion by forbidding the player’s character from rolling on this table for its character)
13 – Time of Year / Season / Weather
14 – Specific Terrain or Climate (Jungle, Arctic, Sandy)
15 – Magic
16 – Thieves
17 – Women / Men / Children / Old People
18 – Books (Written Knowledge in General)
19 – Swimming or Being Underwater / Being Near the Sea / Being Far From the Sea
20 – Fire / Smoke

Introducing new players

October 18, 2009

Soon after I met my girlfriend she decided to try out this D&D thing I was so interested in. She’s never played anything like it before and isn’t much on video games. Recently we talked a bit about the experience and why she didn’t like it – and it turns out a lot of it had to do with how we introduced her to the game.

Imagine that you’re about to sit down to a new board game. You’re going to play with some complete strangers, but that can be cool. They’ve played the game a lot. Assume it’s a bit like Monopoly. You roll dice and move your pieces around, but there’s also strategy involved.

You want them to make you feel welcome, check. But you also want to learn the rules. You want to know how to play and what it means when you roll those dice or move this token around the board. If you don’t know the rules it’ll feel like you’re just going through the motions. And this is what I realized about D&D: you don’t learn how to play by just going through the motions. You have to know why you’re doing it.

Second, the new player knows nothing about the things the experienced players take for granted. This newbie knows nothing about the game setting, or even what country the party is in. Much less history, religion, etc. – the things only a minority of players are very interested in.

Third, the new player needs few options so as not to be overwhelmed. Don’t have her play a spellcaster, for example. But the new player will be learning by watching what the others do, so their activities should be also limited in scope.

Ideally the new player comes into a situation where everyone is low-level (1st level would be lovely) and nobody else knows about the game setting / region. This way the new player benefits from the process of learning and helping each other out that comes when a new party of characters forms up. Her character, at least, is instantly as much of an insider as the others, even if she still feels like an outsider as a player.

Furthermore something simple for an adventure is best. The old introductory adventures like Keep on the Borderlands and Lost City were interesting but concrete and well-defined, and honestly very simple. The DM adds details and weirdness as needed. In this case, not so much of either.

An argument against this is that the player gets the wrong sense of what the game is really like, and may leave dissatisfied with how simplistic it is. I would suggest that the simple approach is better for a new player anyway, because it seems to me that fewer will demand the great detail and complexity that experienced players are used to.

To bring this all together, my suggestion is that the DM have the players each create a new character, such that they are all first-level. While the higher-level party is off on their own adventure, the lower-level party goes off to do something else. The established players aren’t really wasting their time, because establishing a stable of characters of all levels is good for when you want to do a lower-level adventure or you need a character of a certain class for an adventure. And of course, the reward for playing is that you get to play.

Transitioning the new player from being equals with the low-level party into a lower-level member of the established party is less hassle than expecting her to make up a high level character and play it right away. And of course disparities in level are minimized after a few adventures anyway because you need fewer XP to rise at low level than at high level.

Another method would be 1 on 1 gaming, either on another day that week or before the gaming session. The first time out the new player gets comfortable with the game, meets the other players, and is able to jump in better. And she knows that she will get to show up early the next weekend and get more time to ask questions and play examples. You would need to run a separate game during these 1 on 1 sessions, with a different character, but all the 1 on 1 sessions would be a connected series.

Or you could run a separate 1 on 1 game for several weeks until the new player wanted to transition into the main game. This helps overcome the vulnerability ot being around new friends and trying to learn a new (complicated!) activity at the same time.

It goes without saying that the game used should be as simple as possible. Avoid house rules so the player can read the game books during the week. Though you may be leery about loaning your own books to a new player to read – I know I wouldn’t do it if she didn’t already live with me anyway! And you must explain what the game is about. If you can’t explain it, try reading the introductions to the earliest editions of the game. There is a good deal of practical wisdom there.

In Defense of the Gnome

October 17, 2009

He’s actually pretty interesting and can make a good member of an adventuring group. But he has problems. I’m talking here of course of the Gnome from 1E through 3E. I don’t know much about 4E at all.

First, the Gnome is essentially a magical small character. We have a magical medium character (Elf), a nonmagical medium (Dwarf), a nonmagical small (Halfling), and the ubiquitous Human. I can see why they need a magical small creature to round things out. Of course, the half-elf and half-orc are just there for filler and in case your unique and beautiful snowflake needs family angst issues.

From the source material it’s unclear that a Gnome and a Dwarf and an Elf (much less Pixie, Sprite, Brownie, Dryad, etc) are really different creatures. The mythology plays fast and loose with terminology and because we take from many cultures they all have different words for things. It’s the same gripe I have when they have a perfectly serviceable “Werewolf” and then pack on a “Loupe-Garou” with different statistics. Or Vampire / Nosferatu. It’s the same damn animal! But in this case the Gnome fills a PC niche left open by the others.

The Gnome is an earthy character. Not stony like the Dwarf, and not woodsy like the Elf, or loamy / grassy like the Halfling. He’s really right between Halfling and Dwarf. He also does gem work, which specializes him further toward Dwarf, but can speak with burrowing creatures which makes him seem more Elf-like. His illusion magic specialization makes him a good alternative for people who want to play a short magical guy.

So now the problems. Gnomish culture apparently revolves around playing pranks like dumping glitter and goat yogurt on people. If some even gets on the mayor, even better! And gnome NPCs written up all seem to be really weird in general. Tinker Gnomes specialize in steam/clockpunk. Most others seem to be the irritating loudmouth gnome bard who talks like he hits every Ye Olde Reniassance Faire in the tri-state area. The character needs to chuck both of these concepts for the good of roleplaying.

What’s left then? Well, Gnomes are regular people too. Don’t play up the funky prankster stereotype. Make a personality the way you would for a Human. Roll on a table a few times! Or steal from an actor in a specific movie. Or a character from one of Shakespeare’s plays. Or mix one of each.

But playing off the Gnomish ability set creates an interesting culture for us. Let’s examine this:

Gnomes live in generally temperate, moist places where you can get nice forests and rolling hills. Sure they can live anywhere, but we’re trying for a baseline here. They can speak with burrowing creatures, which must give them a sense of how the natural world is faring. So Gnomes have a sense of environmentalism like Elves and may conflict with Dwarves and Humans sometimes over things like mine tailings thrown in a river or silt deposits from logging upriver. Let’s make them gregarious rather than shy like Halflings, just for another difference. So we have Gnomes who travel about and negotiate and trade with other people and who care about their local wild environment.

They have illusion magic, which they would obviously use in defense of their communities. It’s likely that in event of invasion, the Gnomes could hide and the invaders would pass them by. It’s far less likely for Gnomes to get involved in war, or even help others in that case, because hiding is always an alternative. Their connection with nature and with the burrowing animals would further cement their ability to avoid in their home territory.

You’d also see far fewer Gnomes in places that have no burrowing mammals. In these places the Gnome would feel somewhat alone because he doesn’t have constant flows of gossip and chatter from his little buddies.

Gnomes also like working with gems. Gems can be found in many different geologic formations but mainly in places you’d associate with Dwarves: rocky, mountainous, steep slopes that don’t grow grass or trees. But it’s in the valleys and hollow where you do see vegitation and earth where the Gnomes would build their mining settlements. The otherwise ideal places downland that just don’t have gemstones to mine would be where the larger Gnomish communities thrive. Uncut gems are sent on to the Gnomish towns to be cut and set into jewelry. Waiting to cut them makes the danger of transport lower: who would steal a bunch of funny rocks? But in the real world gems are often cut at least a little at the mining town, so whatever works for you.

Religious Gnomes are probably more likely to get involved with a nature religion, like Elves. For this reason Gnomish Druids and Rangers seem especially appropriate and they should be added to the list of allowed classes.

Gnomes still seem to need just a little spice. Something a little strange that makes them interesting, but nothing outright weird like the Tinkers or the Pranksters. If you modify your Elves and your Dwarves, consider giving a little love to the Gnomes too.

A few magical illuminations

October 16, 2009

Lantern of the Incredulous Eye
When lit, this red lantern casts light in a 10′ long wedge 10′ across at the end. Most of this is dimmed by the shadow of an eye which the lantern casts. If the eye passes over a secret door or trap, the device is outlined in yellow. If it passes over an illusionary or polymorphed thing, the thing is outlined in orange.

The outline is visible to everyone. Other than identifying these things the outline has no effect (it is not like Faerie Fire).

It will not outline Invisible things. Natural camouflage is ignored, though illusory camouflage will be outlined. Magical light and darkness is ignored. Concealed doors (those hidden behind some obstruction such as a rug or normal bookshelf) are ignored. This is because they are not secret doors in construction, and even if they were the shadow of the eye does not pass over them because the concealment blocks it.

Honesty Lamp
This small oil lamp lets off only a weak light. But within the 30′ radius of this dim light lies are detected. Anyone in the area can save vs. Spell or make a Magic Resistance check to be able to lie, but you roll only once the first time you speak. Until the lamp is doused and lit again your success of failure on that save stands.

Anyone who attempts to resist the lamp finds that the smoke drifts toward him. This effect cannot be avoided and remains until he leaves the area or the lamp goes out. Anyone who successfully resists the lamp finds smoke billowing about his face, obscuring his features. This, again, cannot be avoided unless you leave the area or the lamp goes out.

In a normal meeting with no funny business it will be pretty obvious who is able to lie. Generally if this happens the lamp is blown out and re-lit. Those who insist on resisting the lamp are told to go away if they can’t be honest like everyone else.

If you’re affected by the lamp and you lie, you begin to choke on the smoke from the lamp. You can barely get the words out but it’s obvious that you’re choking on smoke.

The lamp requires a very fine aromatic oil to burn. This oil costs 10 GP per hour of light where it is produced, but in areas where the oil is exotic and must be shipped in the cost may be as much as 100 GP per hour.

Lamp Oil of Enhancement
When poured into a magical lantern, the lantern’s area of effect radius is 50% broader (so a 30′ radius effect becomes a 45′ radius). The oil lasts for ten lantern activations or one hour of continuous use depending on how the lantern is used. For lanterns with both types of usage, an activation counts for 6 minutes of continuous use.

Sticky Dragonfire Oil
A jar of this flammable oil will spread in a sticky jelly over a 10′ square when thrown. If lit, the oil will burn for one hour dealing 2d6 damage per round anyone stands in it. This is 2d6 per square, so a large creature might take multiple squares of damage.

Anyone walking through finds the oil sticks to their feet, causing 1 HP of damage per round for the rest of the hour. The main oil patch then has -1 damage to the 2d6. You can pick up multiple 1 HP / round globs if you pass through multiple times.

Thrown on a creature the oil mostly covers it, causing the 2d6 per round for an hour if lit. Spread a 1 HP / round glob in 2d4 squares behind the creature in the direction of the throw, as deemed reasonable by the DM. These globs damage anyone passing through, and people can pick them up. Deduct the number of globs from the per-round damage on the creature struck.

If a creature is in the 10′ patch when the jar is thrown, it picks up 1d6 globs from the square it’s on. That ground square out of the four then has minus that amount of damage per round.

You can scrape off one glob per round, but the glob is then attached to the thing you used to scrape. A second round can be used to scrape the glob off from the implement onto the ground. Or you could use a wall to scrape yourself off, using one round per glob.
The oil burns underwater, in sand, in low temperature, even in a vacuum.

Slick Dragonfire Oil
A jar of this flammable oil will spread out over a slick 10′ wide by 20′ long when thrown. Center the closer 10′ square on the impact point and place the farther 10′ square in the line of the throw.

Anyone walking through will slip and fall unless they roll under Dexterity on 4d6. Runners must roll 5d6, crawlers roll 3d6. If you fail you fall prone and the rest of your movement is wasted.

If the oil is lit, it causes 1d6 HP of damage per square you pass through. If you fall into the oil and are covered by it you take 1 HP of damage per round for the next two rounds. If you fall again your two round timer is refreshed – it never goes over two rounds at a time. The oil slick burns for half an hour.

Additionally, if you fall in there is a 3 in 6 chance that whatever you’re holding becomes covered in oil. You can pick these oily items up but you cannot use them as tools or weapons until you clean them off.

If a creature is in the slick area when the jar is thrown, it must save vs. Breath Weapon or get a coating as if it had fallen. The slick still covers the ground.

You can clean off the oil with a cloth or a sponge but you cannot scrape it off effectively.

The oil burns underwater, in sand, in low temperature, even in a vacuum.

Sahuagin Candle
When this squat green taper is grasped and commanded to light, it will light up and stay lit even underwater or in airless space. It doesn’t use up air; it creates air, enough for six Medium creatures huddling around it. The candle burns for eight hours, and can be extinguished and relit later. The candle is also protected from strong wind, but a hurricane will still put it out.

Zune’s Candelabra
This golden candelabra has three branches, and each branch ends in a metal human hand. The hands, carved palm-up with fingers slightly curled, grasp any size of candle up to 6″ across. Any normal candles burned while held in the candelabra last 10 times as long. Magical candles have double their normal duration and +50% to the radius of their area of affect.

Because the hands grasp the candles, they cannot fall out accidentally. Someone must grasp a candle and pull it away. The candelabra will also light or extinguish all of the candles it holds thrice per day, so the owner need not light them manually one at a time.