Thursday, May 31, 2012

My megadungeon "best" practices - Part IV

Some more so-called wisdom earned while doing my long-last first megadungeon.

Revise, revise, revise. Sometimes while I'm stocking, I realize what I put down can't be there. The dragon can't get out, the orcs can't live there because they can't get past the vampire, etc. Or it's architectural - the only thing that makes sense in the little corner is a door that's not on the map.

So I revise - I add tunnels, I block off rooms (would you leave a nest of infectious zombies a door to your lair, or brick it up?), and I fill in extra places.

Nothing is so perfect that you might not create choke points you didn't intend, or open up ways up and down or side to side that you wouldn't have.

And again, sometimes it's the luck of the stocking roll.

Never be afraid to fix something after you find out that what's in the room can't be there without fixing it.

So you're thinking you could just come up with a good reason why the dragon is there anyway, how the orcs got stuck, why the door isn't bricked up yet. And that's fine - but which takes longer?

Corollary: It's a matter time-to-benefit ratio. If you can take five minutes and come up with a good reason, great, do that. If it's going to take longer, it'll take less time to make a bigger door or draw an extra corridor or note the door is bricked up. Choose the more interesting option when possible, but don't sit and agonize over something you can fix with a couple of pencil strokes on the map.

If you think of a better idea later, use it someplace else and put the "mega" in "megadungeon."

Friday, May 25, 2012

Why rob the monsters, not the merchants?

So, in my last post's comments, we got into a small discussion about this question:

Why do adventurers risk death in dungeons instead of robbing the merchants, who, demonstrably have the money to buy the loot off of the adventurers?

In my games, anyway, what holds them back is combination of personality constraints, law, armed force, and long-term economic interest. None of this applies to monsters - it's generally legal in my games to kill off dangerous critters and recover lost or stolen goods and keep them.

Personality constraints - not everyone is purely greed motivated, and robbing Balto instead of sacking the Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord just isn't an option for them. Paladin-types won't rob the merchants. Neither will priests of the Good God. Maybe the Settites have a strong orderly streak reflected in your Code of Honor or Vow or (for D&D types) alignment. Maybe they are purely greed motivated but have a strong line of separation between "doing a dangerous but profitable job" and "robbing businesspeople in town."

Law - it's illegal to rob the merchants, and so you suffer the threat of legal repercussions. In any legal system, too, resisting imposition of the law is also illegal, so you just compound the charges if you don't cease and desist and take your maiming or branding for robbery like a man. Scoff at the law? Well, the law has . . .

Armed force - even a badass can get swamped with numbers, and the townsfolk will have numbers. They may even have experience dealing with adventurer-types. And if they live near monsters they might have some reserve firepower to deal with it (siege engines, Greek fire, magical one-shots). They may include retired or current adventurer-types. Local weapon instructors might enjoy jumping in on a fight. They might even hire Toshiro Mifune and six of his buddies to kill you next time you ride on by to rob them. Even if they can't beat you in a fight they can make you a pariah, which sucks even if you are wealthy. Spend it on what, basically, if you're an exile from society?

And if you survive this, expect a bounty on you. Maybe not a huge one, but it'll be there, and it won't help you any. The bounty hunters don't come after you when you're ready to kick ass, they come after you when you're sleeping off that hellacious fight with the demonic lich-troll or out of arrows after fighting the orcs. Think repo-men. They don't carjack you, they come drive it or tow it away while you're asleep. You do want to be able to sleep soundly, right?

Finally, Long-term economic interest - aka greed. You could rob the merchants, but then what? In the long run, stealing (legally) from monsters and selling the take to merchants is a stable enough way to make money. A one-shot grab that makes it impossible to grab more isn't a good long-term idea. Don't burn the furniture. A merchant might have 4,000 sp for the 40% resale value of your 10,000 sp jeweled box but he probably doesn't have 10K . . . you won't get much more than selling him the stuff. And you can keep coming back, if you don't rob him.

There are other reasons why robbing them might not even be worth it.

Merchants might lack cash on hand. Maybe you sell you 10,000 sp jeweled box to them for 4,000 sp, but that doesn't mean you get 4K all at once. Maybe it takes a couple days to scrape the cash together, or it takes a couple of merchants to put the cash together. Or a consortium buys the big items - that would make sense, and explain why most RPG rules (and sane GMs) play out one transaction and say "that's the best price you find in town."

Or the money is stored at some local guildhouse or bank or whatnot. Maybe they issues letters of credit on big sales ("take this note to Bleign the Banker, he'll give you the money.") So maybe it's not even worth robbing them.

Of course, there is the old reliable "everyone is a retired high level adventurer" solution. That makes all of the above irrelevant - you can't rob Balto because he'll be tougher than W E R D N A. But I prefer the PCs to be the Conans and Elrics of the world, not go to them to sell their trinkets.

Finally, if you want to play of game of thieves and looters, that's totally fine. But it does mean sacking dungeons is probably not where your interest lies. If you really want to plunder the Ancient Tomb of Evil & Gold, it's best to not shit where you eat by killing the merchants.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Player Impact on the Megadungeon City

As I mentioned in my last post, I've got a vague but persistent world for my Dungeon Fantasy game. It's vaguely defined but it's a sandbox within the PC's immediate area. I figure it's broad enough that I can keep setting any future DF games within it, regardless of the addition or subtraction of special powers, races, technology, and other stuff.

I like the idea of players affecting the setting. Their home base for the local megadungeon/big damn dungeon is the 20,000 person city of Stericksburg. I decided the make the place easily affected by the PCs. So I'm currently tracking the city of Stericksburg and the spending of the PCs.

The idea is that PCs spending money in town increases the value of the town. It doesn't matter how much you loot or hoard, it matters how much you spend in town. For example, right now I set a few die rolls I can use when I want to know if a given odd item or adventuring-only is available.

No roll: Basic items.
15 or less: slightly odd items.
12 or less: adventuring items.
9 or less: special order items (spider silk rope, crossbow sights, potion belts, etc.)
6 or less: lesser magic items
Unavailable: special magic items

Anything people want to buy, I roll against.

I've got some (currently vague) thresholds for improving those numbers. Once the PCs spend enough money on upkeep, bribes, carousing, etc., the categories shift up one each. So the more the PCs spend, the better. You want the city to support multiple alchemists? Keep spending money and sacking the dungeon and more guys will brew more elixirs and more of them will be kept available for sale. This encourages PCs to squander their cash, order crazy stuff, and - yes - upgrade their gear. The "wasted" money might count for more, to encourage people to blow cash on the intangible partying over new swords, etc. But any way the spend it, it increases their access to gear they want and need.

This will be similar for services, hireling availability, access to the upper class (everyone loves a big spender), etc. The more they spend, the better the city gets.

I know I should factor in players buying, but I figure, once money starts flowing in, everyone will produce more in the hopes of getting a piece. Plus it's simpler. The players know this, so they have a direct incentive to spend, spend, spend.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Persistent Setting

Brenden brought up the idea of a persistent campaign setting. He name-checked Robert Conley, who then further discussed the idea.

Basically it's the old-school idea of a persistent world that different gamers and/or gaming groups interact with. It's not reset for each group, but rather any game changes effect all groups that follow.

When I read Brenden's post, I was a bit surprised - doesn't everyone do this?

- In my very early D&D days, we'd run group after group through B2, T1, X1, or S1 and the next group would only encounter what was left after the first group made its pass.

- In my high school days, I drew up a game world and ran people through it. We had a "major" gaming group, and then, for the guys who had much more time to play, a "secondary" group of (initially) lower-level guys. These groups had some interesting overlap - at least once, a "major" group PC assigned a "secondary" group PC a quest and sent them to mop up some dungeon they didn't have time to deal with. Eventually both groups converged in a game-finale sacking of a castle (Great Stoney, from Dragon Magazine). The "secondary" group fought the flunkies and cannon fodder, and the "major" guys fought a major devil and a bunch of githyanki knights and assorted nasties.

- When we switched to Rolemaster, I initially had one group go through the Known Worlds setting, and then switched to Greyhawk for a fresh start. We'd done some Greyhawk D&D adventuring and I had NPCs from that game appear in my Rolemaster games.

- Finally we really got going with GURPS 1st edition. I had just gotten the grey box Forgotten Realms, so I set it there. I ran so many groups there from around 1985 until the early 90s that I lost track of them - there was one or two abortive starts and then a big campaign that rampaged around the Inner Sea, Thay, and eventually the Savage Frontier and down as far south as the deep jungles. Many players came and went. Then I stopped playing for a bit, but when I re-started in 1994 with new players, I set it in the Forgotten Realms. They met retired PCs and NPCs from the first group and interacted with them. They followed up on half-done adventures from the first group. And eventually, they got scattered and beaten up - and split into two groups in the process.

Amusingly, one PC - Malkav the Apocalypse, self-proclaimed son of the god Malar, solo adventured for a while. He caused much havoc down the line. He got rescued by Malar cultists, beat them up and ran off with their stuff, founded an empire (while an NPC - we did it by narrative), fathered a son (a later PC of the same player), and then sent assassins after his son to "toughen him up." That later PC joined another group of PCs, who eventually ended up hiring an NPC who worked for Malkav and who led them to their doom.

Characters wove in and out of those games - they often encountered each other, or their kids went adventuring with a new group, or fought organizations founded by previous PCs, or got handed down magic items from older PCs. So as the GM I say "That +2 axe you got from Skullcrusher Kurgan was picked up off an ogre guard in that big fight I told you about the day you generated your PCs." Or a player says "A dragon? My uncle Ayyub once slew a dragon" to his fellow players whose previous guys adventured with Ayyub and never met no dragon.

Experienced PCs from one group - in fact the two earliest PCs from the 1994 group - eventually ended up frozen in stasis and freed much later, and joined the very last group of PCs to adventure in that world.

Again, the changes were all persistent and crossed groups and lasted over time.

So it's actually my normal game mode. My previous game - set against in the D&D Known Worlds/Mystara, was deliberately designed as a one-group location. It wasn't meant to persist, merely to be a locational vehicle to tell the story of that group's adventures.

My current game is set in a very vague world, entirely set up to justify the dungeon-bashing we want to do. I've already told my players that if, say, we do another DF game but with sci-fi crossovers, I'd set it on some remote part of the same world. Far enough to explain a lack of cross-contamination but close enough to allow a crossover if we wanted to do so (and to use the same rule base).


Some of Brenden's points as worth extra discussion:

"What if multiple groups are playing at the same time and affect each other? What if one group plays in "the past" with regard to other groups? It seems like temporal paradox could potentially be a problem, though realistically I don't think it would be difficult to avoid."

Just let that happen, it'll work out. It's easier to play downstream than upstream, but if you insist on doing upstream play, set it in an area remote from the other play areas so they can affect places before the downstream groups visit them.

Paraphrasing here - can the GM become too concerned with the campaign over the players?

Hell yes, and we call that "the published Forgotten Realms stuff." Good luck trying to change that world - the GM really does need to consciously let the players trash the world. If some parts are meant to be static, so be it, you can make it so and even tell the players it's meant to be so. But you have to realize it's just a location for adventures, and let it go. You can benefit from a good bit of background, and the play will generate even more.

The players can get a bit concerned, though, so you can't willy nilly blow the whole world up as a campaign event. It'll annoy them that their retired lord spent real-world years clearing out a domain and you just nuked it to bother their new characters. If you need a clean-slate change, put the game world down and play on another one for a while.

Finally, let me end by saying this: this is a great way to play, as a GM and as a player. The players know the world because they helped shape it, even the parts their (current) characters don't. Competitive groups - thinking of Jeff's Wessex games here - are effectively cooperating in an endeavor but racing for the glory and loot. With the same players over and over, they own the world.

If you haven't tried a persistent game world, give it a go.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

You Are Not Entitled

I've been thinking about how I run game. One thread I think that runs through it is this (usually unstated) rule:

You are not entitled to success. It doesn't matter why you think you should succeed, or how clever your plan is, or how detailed your description is, or how skilled your character is (or for that matter, you are as a player).

Sometimes this is a result of the rules. You the player give an utterly convincing explanation of how to fight the battle - but you're playing an illiterate barbarian with Strategy-8 and you rolled a 17. Or you describe a totally awesome chandelier swing into melee and a swipe at an orc's head and just plain roll badly and miss. Or you just have a string of bad rolls and your crime-fighting vigilante, The Batdude, gets beaten by a mugger. It happens.

Sometimes it's a result of the campaign situation. You role-play a great explanation to the King why he should back your lord's war, but he doesn't back you - because the GM already determined the King isn't interested in helping. You have this awesome plan for making silver-plated handcuffs for capturing werewolves but the blacksmith doesn't know how to plate silver . . . and the GM isn't convinced your character does, either, just because YOU do.

Sometimes, yes, it's a GM who is being a bit too inflexible or rules-literal. But even so, you aren't entitled to success. If the rules say a situation calls for a roll and the GM makes you roll despite you clearly being unable to fail, so be it. That's what the GM is for.

I've seen this with players of both the old school and new school stripe. It's usually subtle - the implication that you aren't respecting the genre, or you're a slave to the rules, or you didn't really give the plan a chance. You didn't respect the concept of the character. You didn't realize that player skill is supposed to trump your game's direction. You didn't realize . . . something.

But in my games, it all comes down to that one thing: you are not entitled to success. I do believe you are entitled to a try, and I'm usually willing to set a ludicrously low chance that your utterly unlikely plan might work anyway (for more, see the third rule here). But I still might just say no, you can't, you fail, it's impossible, it doesn't fit the game, your character couldn't possibly know how to do that. And I figure that's part of the prerogative of being a GM.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Paint reveals, not conceals

I haven't been writing much lately because I've been busy. I have ripped through a lot of minis, lately, painting them in batches. I'm taking advantage of clear weather, good for painting, priming, dipping, and sealing.

For me, this was the most important basic painting lesson:

Paint reveals details, it does not conceal them. If you put some paint on a mini, the little details pop out. They don't get covered by the paint but rather show in better relief. In fact, you can often figure what some obscure and tiny detail is by sticking a little paint on it and see what shows through.

Corollary: Mold Lines Must Be Destroyed. What I learned from the lesson was that you can't paint over mold lines and conceal them. In fact, in my experience it's better to over-file and over-smooth a mini and wipe out mold lines with extreme prejudice than to leave them. You'll see them later, for sure, and that irritates me. Sometimes I'll prime and then re-file and then spot-prime before I start painting.

There is probably some flimsy way to tie this to gaming in general - "details reveal, they don't conceal" or something like that. But I'm too tired to think of one.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Goreyian Lovecraft

Thank to my friend and former paladin Tom for finding this:

What if Edward Gorey Illustrated Lovecraft?

The link is to a post on The Lovecraftian, a blog about H. P. Lovecraft over on Wordpress. The post selects the most Lovecraftian pictures by artist Don Kenn. His stuff really does look like Edward Gorey's, but with even more monstrous themes (if that's possible.

Pretty cool, and I fully intend to stat one or two of those guys now. Like maybe these . . .

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

When to Roll (my Philosophy of Die Rolls)

Now that is a pretentious title.

Commenting on someone else's blog on an unrelated matter made think about when I choose to roll and not to roll in a game. I say "I choose" but I here mean "I choose to, or I require" a die roll.

In general, I roll when:

. . . there is a chance of failure or of great success, and the consequences of failure or success can be interesting. Combat is a great example. There is a chance of failure, and failure can be interesting. It isn't always, but it can be. Screwing up in combat is a potential source of fun in games. The reverse, too - we still talk about crazy unlikely critical successes in combat years after the dice stopped rolling. The involvement of the dice make it more fun for me, so there are a lot of rolls here.

You could easily create a game where there is no randomness to combat (Amber Diceless did that, didn't it?). You could play a game where the results of combat are purely a result of player description of their actions in the situation - no dice, no randomness, just player ability vs. the GM's vision of how that description would play out. Oh sure, that's rare, but I figure that's more of a function of the original RPG's (D&D's) origin from a dice-based wargame.

But I grew up playing role-playing games where the dice results matter so I'm biased towards that approach - so we roll a lot of dice in combat. Not for everything, though - I'll roll randomly to see which way an unconscious NPC falls or I might just say "You hit him sideways towards your right, so he falls to his left." I might rule a grenade bounces long and only roll for the yardage, even though I've got rules to see if it bounces long, short, or wide.

I keep this philosophy outside of combat, too. If I haven't pre-determined an NPC's reaction (overall or to a given approach), I'll roll reaction rolls. Chance of "failure" (bad reaction) or "success" (good reaction, maybe especially good) and the consequences can lead to more fun. I'll have you roll Area Knowledge if there is a time constraint on finding a place or not finding it means you can't get something you need to pull off a job. I'll call for a roll against Merchant if you're trying to get a deep discount or sell some oddity for a high price.

This doesn't mean that if there is a possibility of failure you must roll. I won't require rolls for most basic stuff - you don't roll Area Knowledge to find your way back home, or Merchant to sell items or buy items, or make a reaction roll from the town guards every time you enter or leave town. I don't require rolls to slit throats of helpless foes, either. The consequences of failure, high or low, aren't interesting - there is no time constraint, not real "opposition," and a failed roll or great success doesn't make the game better.

But I'll also roll . . .
. . . when I have no idea what could or should happen. Everything from stocking a dungeon to reaction rolls from random people or a chance of coincidence or how much damage you take. I just don't have an idea, and I need one. So I ask the dice. If it's out-of-game but game related, I might discard it and roll again - the dice say there's a dragon and I'm rolling for a tiny room, well, I might roll again and see what other ideas the dice have. In game, I'll keep it and live with it.

This also applies to the situations above - I could really decide the results of everything in my games. It's possible to play games like this, with or without a GM and with or without rules (hey, free kreigspiel). But like I said above, I grew up dropping dice so I like games where I have rules for that for anything I need, just in case I don't already know what happens.

Of course, you can convince me there is really only one thing that can happen, and I'll just rule it happens. That's fine (and encouraged!) as long as it is in-character and makes sense in-game. That's part of playing a role, and it's always welcome (and it always gives bonuses even if I'm inclined to make you roll).

And finally, I'll roll . . .
. . . because, against all odds, it's possible your crazy idea might work. You might manage to sneak in plate armor. You might manage to convince the guards you're one of them despite the fact that they've all worked together for years. Sure, it's possible that you might roll a "3" and hit the bad guy on the other ship at maximum range with your unaimed spear toss in the dark into a confused melee. (He did, and rolled crazy damage and mortally wounded him.)

Yes, disguising your pirates as plague victims so they can get through Spanish territory unmolested might work, but it also requires a lot of things to go your way (disguises, acting by pirates, explaining the presence of all those weapons and such, and overcoming pirates who don't want to play along). So I'll let you roll because, what the hell, it might work. (It didn't, mostly due to the last bit about not everyone want to try and make the ploy work.) You might convince your mafioso brother that you're not with those nutty adventurers, you're just tagging along with them until you could join the Black Hand mafia and work side-by-side with him! (Amazingly, that worked, despite the brother theoretically knowing better.) It seemed unlikely, but it was possible, so I rolled. I could have just decided either way, but it seemed more interesting and more "fair" (in the eyes of myself and the players) to roll and see. Because, you never know.

The rules don't really determine this, although they (obviously) heavily influence what we roll and how it plays out. I'm more likely to roll skills in a skill-based game and more likely to roll attributes in an attribute-based game, or not roll at all in a game with no interesting consequences for success or failure (we didn't spend a lot of time doing non-combat rolls in my Car Wars campaigns, for example).

I often skip rolling when it won't matter, or failure will annoy me in real life. That's why sometimes there are no wandering encounters on the way home from the dungeon at 8:00 pm on a Sunday when I have to wake up at 4:15 am on Monday. Or why I'll say "You've wiped out the leaders and there are only a few turned zombies huddling in the corner. We can just say you kill them all." Failure wouldn't make the game more fun, nothing much is in doubt, and the flow of play would be disrupted if we rolled.

The short version: I roll dice when rolling them will, in my opinion, make for a more fun and interesting game. Sometimes this means rolling dice until your hand cramps, and sometimes this means barely rolling anything at all.
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