Monday, 3 August 2015


Some time ago I got a chance to playtest Torchbearer, and it forever changed how I view dungeon crawls.

Torchbearer takes encumbrance, light and hunger and makes them chunky enough to use all the time, and then makes them central to game play.

The net effect is that dungeoneering feels like spelunking or even scuba diving: a descent into a place that is inherently hostile to human life, and where a misplaced tinder box or a torn backpack can mean the difference between a comfortable trip home and a harrowing tale of survival.

The core of gameplay is the same as many other RPGs, the players say what they're doing until the GM feels it requires a skill test of some sort. Characters have a bunch of skills (e.g. Fighting 3, Cooking 2, etc.) which tell you how many d6 to roll. If you roll enough 'successes' (4-6 on the d6), you've made it.

This happens inside 'the grind', the steady wearing away of the characters' resources. Every meaningful action the party carries out takes a turn. Torches last 2 turns, lanterns 4, and every four turns the gnawing of hunger worsens. If you have food or water to eat, great, otherwise you start earning Conditions.

Characters don't have hit points. Instead, injuries, bruises and all manner of mishaps are represented by conditions: Hungry, Angry, Afraid, Exhausted, Injured, Sick, Dead. Most of these come with mechanical penalties. Unlike the 1hp fighter who's basically fine, a Torchbearer character with a lot of conditions feels like a half-crushed insect crawling for cover. A badly roughed up party is a sorry thing indeed.

One tool the characters have to help with time is their Instincts. Each character gets one, an instinctual action they automatically take without having to coordinate with the others. The thief's might be, 'Always probe the ground ahead for traps,' while another character might have, 'Whenever we camp, make poultices for the injured'. Instincts don't take up a turn to carry out, so a party with well-chosen instincts feels like a well-oiled machine.

Overlaid on top of this is a large-scale turn sequence, divided into "phases". In the Adventure Phase, characters explore, fight, disarm traps, haul loot, and so on. By expressing their characters' flaws in various ways, they earn 'checks', a sort of metagame resource that allows them to camp - where they can rest, recharge spells, try to deal with their wounds and ailments, make preparations. The number of checks you earn limits the amount of stuff you can get done in camp.

This is one of a couple of places where the system isn't trying to be naturalistic, to 'get out of the way' and help you resolve situations 'that would occur', it's definitely trying to make situations occur. Going with the flow involves treating this like another tactical challenge to be mastered: when do we camp? Which tests can be we afford to blow so we can earn some checks?

Instincts are part of this. Our playtest group wound up with a lot of camp-related instincts, which was awesome: the moment we decided to camp, everyone knew exactly what we all needed to do.
This brings me to skills, one of my favorite parts of the game. Torchbearer skills form a well-designed little knot of mechanics, each referring to one another through hidden economies that make them all useful. During character creation for our second playtest party, we were actually looking around to make sure someone had Cooking skill - it's that important.

"Fine, I'll go back to look for the cooking pot."
Combat is handled using the 'Conflict' mechanic, a generalized procedure for resolving complicated situations like fights, an escape through a labyrinth, bargaining for one's life with trolls, and so on. Conflict is pretty neat, but I have mixed feelings about it.

All conflicts have a goal, which is awesome - before any fight, for example, the party has to decide what they want. Are they merely trying to drive off the stirges, or actually kill them? Or is the party trying to get away, using violence as a deterrent to pursuit? This determines what's at stake. If you're fighting to drive off the enemy you're risking serious injury and there's an off chance someone might die, but if you're really surging forward to do fatal battle, death is on the line for everyone.

Conflict resolution is handled by comparing a script of three secretly chosen actions: Attack, Maneuver, Defend, or Feint, each of which has a lead character, round robin style. (Our side's script might be Wallen Attacks with his sword, Bortle Defends by casting Shards of the Ancients, followed by Zebulba Attacking with his bow.)

As you reveal actions, they interact with the enemy's choice, and ultimately do 'damage' to each side's 'disposition', a number representing the quality of their tactical position. Attack reduces the other side's disposition, Defend improves yours, for example.

Weapons interact with this in neat ways - mutual Attack is a brutal melee that does massive damage to both sides, unless one side has bows, in which case it's turned into an opposed roll. (Always have bows.)

When one side hits zero, the conflict is over - the winner's remaining disposition determines how bad it is for them. Beating an enemy without taking damage means your team's in great shape and wins without compromise. Winning with only a point or two left feels a lot like losing.

This leads to some extremely tense moments. My players were trapped by a pack of crypt servants, and had to decide whether to try to drive them off, which is hard to do to unthinking undead, or kill them - easier, but exposes them to fatal injury. They opted for the latter, and toward the end of the fight found themselves winning but having lost a ton of disposition. This meant certain death for several of the party members, so there was a desperate last-minute attempt to weave in some Defends to prolong the fight, to secure a better position to try to save everyone.

This is awesome, but always a little abstract. This isn't a system where you lobby for an advantage for fighting from the staircase, it's a system where you script Maneuver and then characterize your maneuver as the clever use of the staircase. It's a subtle difference that requires you to direct your cleverness into the tactical minigame rather than clever use of the environment as described. If you roll with it, you get a fun tactical game; if you fight it, it chafes.

Because the GM assigns conditions based on the final disposition score, this can occasionally put the GM in the position of deciding which character(s) should die.  I tend to prefer a bit more support from the system for such brutal turns of events.

As a GM, running Torchbearer was quite eye-opening, in two ways. First of all, there is so much player-to-player conversation about the tactics and logistics of the situation. In some systems (e.g. Dungeon World), logistics become a problem when it's awesome for them to be. It's as if a narrator is saying, "On this episode, the adventurers find they're short of food.."

In Torchbearer, this sort of thing emerges from the mechanics, and so the players are the first to know.

The players know how much food they've got, they know that the fighter is hampered because he's carrying a torch as well as his sword, so the wizard has to carry the large sack in both hands, which means he can't climb the rope. They're aware of the constraints, the risks and their options, so there's a constant stream of player-to-player planning, querying, and planning, whenever a novel situation presents itself, which is music to my ears.

The consequence of this, however, is that the GM isn't fully in control of the danger level. This really blew my mind.

It's okay, we're leaving!

The constant question for a Torchbearer party is this: should we go on? If we do, will we die? Or, if we don't die, will we be so badly hurt that we can't easily survive the return journey? Have we already passed that point?

Once the party has climbed down a natural limestone curtain, crawled through a tunnel half-filled with ice water, and taken a beating while fighting some kobolds, they might already be dead.

The accumulated dangers from having to get past those obstacles, each of which has an established danger, might already be enough to kill them. This can really sneak up on you, and the sense that you're starting a downward spiral from which you might never pull out is tangible at all times.

The party, and the mechanics of injury, conflict, conditions, time and light is like a Rube Goldberg machine - you put challenges, danger and adversity in, and it might not be until half an hour later that you realize the dose was lethal.

Even between adventures there's no relief!

Adventurers are by definition dirty outcasts with no social standing, and this means that any time they're in town they're facing extortionate bills for everything - accommodations, food, replacement gear, healing, research. The speed of business is slow in dark ages fantasy, so nearly everything you try to do jacks up the difficulty of a lifestyle test. It's another kind of grind!

Adventurers are caught on a treadmill of poverty, injury, and exhaustion.. until they either manage to catch a break, or die.

The one thing you always keep is your improved skills. If you can survive, you'll inevitably improve.

(Note: I was a playtester for Torchbearer, and contributed a few pieces of interior art.)

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Night's Black Agents - House Rules

Tonight we concluded our Night's Black Agents campaign.  We finally figured out to consistently do damage in the combat system.  MP5 with a tight burst to the head, a fat 12- or 13-point spend will do nicely. On a lucky roll you can even one-shot a vampire!

It's a good strategy, because vampires can cause so much chaos and damage you really don't want them surviving into round 3. Killing them in round 1 is ideal!

Tonight's climactic fight finale was two vampires and half a dozen Renfields, which looked like it could slide into a TPK at any minute, despite us coming extremely well prepared - thermobaric grenade to start things off, MP5 headshot, then supporting fire from an army surplus flamethrower.

(Flamethrowers are cheaty awesomeness in this game. Never leave your car without one.)

On the other hand, "Shock and Awe" tends to leave you with very few points to mop up the mooks, which turns the fight into unintentional comedy.  The mooks, too, start to run out of points, so the fight system almost does the opposite of what you want, steadily decreasing tension as everyone's attacks get less and less effective, like exhausted boxers circling one another but unable to land solid hits.

"I can't pick it up for 24 hours."
That and melee weapons (so far as we can tell) just suck compared to firearms.  You risk facing lethal damage from stand your ground when you close if your target still has a gun, and once you get there you need to have vast amount of points and pray for a critical - there's no special ammunition to boost damage, no laser sights to boost accuracy, no auto-fire for cheap extra hits.

Spending Preparedness to whip out a concussion grenade and throw it with Athletics is way more effective.

Upping the Ante

I propose three house rules to up the ante, and keep fights nail-biting until the final mook falls.

1. Unforgiven: By exposing yourself to enemy fire to take careful aim, disregarding the danger, you can spend Stability as Shooting.  You can sweat out your suicidal tendencies when you get back to your motel room.

2. Pulling a Muscle: By digging deep and straining your body to make a heroic effort, you can spend Health as Weapons, Hand-to-Hand or Athletics.

3. Multiple Stab Wounds: If you land a hit with a knife or dagger or other nasty, close-quarters weapon, you can treat it like a fully automatic weapon, but you spend Stability instead of Weapons on the extra damage dice. Stabbity stab stab, you psycho.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Quick & Dirty AW-Style Character Art

One of Apocalypse World's iconic features is the stark, black and white character art in each playbook.

There are lots of ways to produce this sort of stuff, some requiring more talent than others, but here's is a relatively low-skill way to use Photoshop to producing vaguely similar-looking images.

(One of the things I like about it is that, with the exception of one step, it's all dynamic. I'm a big fan of adjustable, reversible steps that I can come back and tweak later. Running a series of filters and baking it all into a single layer just feels wrong to me.)

First, find a suitable original photo (which you have rights to, obv.). This is just a photo I snagged off the web, which means this man will presumably track me down and kill me at some point.

Chuck this into Photoshop, as the bottom layer.  Above it, add a Threshold Adjustment Layer, which will make the image look like this:

Tweak the threshold value (from 0-255) until you find a setting that you like.

One thing you'll notice is that (depending on your source photo), you may be looking at a lot of detail, with little 'crumbs' everywhere.  A simple way to chop this down is to make a copy of your photo (above the original) and then use the Gaussian Blur filter.

With the blur filter's preview feature turned on, you can see the effect it'll have on your image before you commit. (This is the one non-dynamic step in this process.)

Next, I chop out the unnecessary background with white. There's lots of ways to do this, but I like a Solid Color Adjustment Layer, using the alpha mask to control where it goes.  (I used the magnetic lasso selection tool to build the alpha mask, for the most part, but simply painting white or black on a layer above the source photo works fine too.)

Now, this is okay, but while a lot of the detail is good, his outline has been lost. To selectively control the threshold in parts of the picture, I use a paint layer to adjust it:

Underneath the white mask, insert a new layer, called 'Adjustment Paint'. Set it to 50% Opacity, and set the blend mode to Overlay. (Overlay can be used to both brighten and darken areas in the layers below.)

Painting black or white on this layer (I use a pressure-sensitive brush, but setting your brush opacity to 30% will do more or less the same thing if you're using a mouse.)

Paint black where you want more black in your final image, and white where you want more white. This lets you tweak parts of the picture to control, essentially letting you change the threshold value in specific areas of your image.

This is the adjustment paint layer over the original photo for illustrative purposes: I actually paint with the threshold filter on so I can see how it looks in real time. Yay adjustment layers!

As you can see, this adjustment layer can be really sloppy. As long as it's under the white mask, it's okay to paint into the background.

 I chose to darken his outline to make him look a bit more solid against the white; I darkened his gun but left his gloves and face fairly light.

This is the final image, about ten minutes' work in total:

Of course, you can do much more work - it still looks very photographic, and the sleeves in particular are all kinda crinkly. To take it further, you can hand-paint final details over the Threshold, using this approach as an 80/20 starting point.

Here, just for kicks, I've chosen a slightly lower threshold point to make it darker, adjust-painted the face back up, then put a black stroke around the white mask for a slightly more cartoon, cut-out look:

For reference, this is my final layer arrangement:

Monday, 27 July 2015

House of the Tyrant

At long last, the next adventure is ready: House of the Tyrant!  Novy Dom is a bustling but isolationist city-state carved out of cliffs at the mouth of a river gorge.

The reason for their isolationism is their leader: a monstrous and paranoid tyrant that inserted itself by force, then set about protecting itself with layers of toxic bureaucracy.

Like the Unmended Way, I classify this as a settlement rather than a typical adventure. There is plenty of danger beneath the surface, but players can't murderhobo their way through it - that would provoke far too much resistance. They'll need to use diplomacy and circumspect cunning.

There's also plenty of gold here, but the real treasures are allies: if players can avoid getting into trouble long enough to make some friends, Novy Dom could be a safe (or safe-ish) harbor, a useful jump-off point. If they bungle it, Novy Dom becomes a costly tar pit, waiting to snare and exploit them whenever they return.

For this reason, House of the Tyrant works best in campaigns where travel logistics are an important part of the challenge - securing fresh provisions, expedition planning, guides, and so on. (Members of the Gatherers' Guildhouse would make excellent wilderness guides!)

On the Big Map, Novy Dom is situated in the north, on the coast of Blightlands. It stands at the mouth of the Greatcleft, a river system that would allow a boat expedition almost as far as the Firevault mountains. (Boating being an easy way to haul expedition supplies and loot, a lot easier than hoofing it over the Blightlands.)

For some reason, this map took me ages.  I showed it to my daughter last night and she said, "Neat! Wait.. are you still working on that one?" Sticky summer has arrived in force, and with it, moist paper curling in the humidity. (Thank goodness for waterproof ink.) A big thanks to my readers and patrons for their patience.

Though it took me a long time, the city of Novy Dom actually has roots older than that - it was a key location in my old "Grunweld" campaign.  In that game, King Menaka was a Burning Wheel-converted Beholder, who came to a sticky end at the point of Siggar's sword in his summer palace gardens.

Something I did differently this time was engage a copy editor - two, in fact!  Brent P. Newhall and Andrew Young were both good enough to help me beat my purple prose into something readable. Layout constraints being what they are, I wasn't able to take all of their suggestions, so any errors you spot are still all my own.  (Please let me know!)

As always, this content (the PDF, the text, the map) is free as in beer - use it, chop it up, remix it and rewrite it so long as it's non-commercial and you attribute the original.

Novy Dom Map (TIFF)

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

1PDC 2015 Finalists

I'm pretty psyched that that The Lantern of Wyv made the judges' top 9 in the 2015 One-Page Dungeon Contest. The other eight are pretty jaw-dropping, so I think I'll count my blessings now!

UPDATE: Lantern was part of a three-way tie for first place!

Anna Costa's Panopticon is gorgeous and evocative. I can hear the shrieks of the djinn, see the bloodstained sand.  I confess I'm slightly confused by the geography; I think the image is an illustration rather than a map. There's lots of cool ideas in the text to use.  In play, my concern would be the sameness of thirty-three levels of it (but perhaps visitors are expected to be able to teleport or have other powerful magic).

Lorenzo Santini's Into the Awaroth Woods has amazing graphic design and cartography. There are surprisingly many interlinked clues between the various locations; I think I could run a satisfying adventure with ten minutes' notice and a magnifying glass.  The text is tiny, and the layout crushes it even further, which makes it unnecessarily hard to absorb. The encounter table is pretty, but adds little I'd scrap it in favor of more breathing room.

A Stolen Song by P. Aaron Potter (WINNER) isn't as pretty on paper, but is a fun dungeon. I love that it starts with a capsule overview of what's going on, and it's poignant. The silence effects look like fun, and I dig the joke in room E. The telescope/banshee puzzle aspect is interesting - it would be cool to seed this with a few more noise-related items.
Will Doyle & Stacey Allan's Shambling Throne of the Death Cult King is hilarious madness. I dig the idea of a party spying on the procession for several days, trying to find a way in. I think you'd have to play the zombies as really, really stupid and unable to climb onto the boardwalks, or lethal escalation would be almost immediate.  The main question - play out the probing of the peripheral floats perceptually over several hours, or just hand the players the illustration?

Carlos Pascual's *The Heist* is refreshing, in that it's for low-level adventurers.  The illustrations are charming, make describing the place easy, and somehow the overall tone reminds me of Fighting Fantasy - I suppose it's the way each encounter is an isolated thing.  The page-ordering of the elements is a bit confusing; the dungeon is broken into needlessly many pieces, and the exterior establishing shot appears 'after' the boss fight.  I love that the final trap is the way out, as long as you're not too heavily loaded.

Edward Lockheart's Furthest Farthing's Frog Pond of Existential Ennui (WINNER) is weird and dark, a disastrous encounter between an extradimensional traveller and a hapless village. If the players get to know the villagers, this could be a truly bleak experience. This seems like a must; given the rate of death by ennui, it seems the players would need to be hooked by the pervasive emo ennui, or they might leave and miss out. The black star itself is delightful, a perfect example of a dungeon toy. But.. so many questions! How can the black star come towards you? How does the frog come into play (e.g. how can it avoid being crushed by the black star as someone approaches it)?  Fun.

Joel's Bethell's Sepulchre of the Abyss is very cleanly laid out with nice, concise descriptions. I love weird environments like this with a rationale to them, it evokes the groaning of the walls and little needles of high-pressure water squirting in everywhere. I find the randomness of it a bit disappointing; it seems like a hall stocked mostly with aggressive, wandering sea creatures. The big finale is.. lots more aggressive sea creatures! Seems like it would work best in a game with detailed time/resource tracking.

+MonkeyBlood Design's Escape the Oubliette is really cool. Props to the map, which is one of the very few dungeon maps done in three-point perspective. (Was a 3D model used as a scaffold?) This looks like a sustained dose of a play style I find really interesting. The main quandary is how to inject it into a campaign? Think-for-your-life is way more engrossing with permadeath on the line, but it seems a hefty dose GM fiat is required to inject a party's established, third-level characters into the starting spot. The question isn't whether the PCs will survive, will the GM?!

None of these micro-reviews are objective, so I'll toss one for my own Lantern of Wyv (WINNER) into the pile. I dig the concept (of course), and I think the mystery of the lantern, and the fact there's no rumours about the barge is a good choice for building player curiosity. On the other hand, it does cover a lot of sparsely-populated ground - a coastal forest, a number of empty ruins, and even the lantern itself has more rooms than it needs to for room-by-room play.

And the Winner Is..

I'm going out on a limb and predicting that Monkeyblood Design takes it for Escape the Oubliette. It's tight, it's a dungeon, it's pretty, and it's awesome.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Fear, Perception and Tactics

I'm a fan of 'perceptual play', particularly in combat: rather than describing the tactical situation from a bird's eye view (e.g. showing it using miniatures), the GM describes exclusively through the PC's senses.

Playing this way opens up some fun ways to use fear.

In short, fear is a physiological process, just like exhaustion or injury. Understanding what it does gives you tools for making terrifying situations feel more visceral and more tactically challenging.

Don't Tell Me What I Feel

It's usually not a good idea to describe PCs' emotions. It's alienating - maybe the player's not feeling it, or perhaps they're feeling something else entirely.  Even so, there's a fruitful grey area where it pays to push that line a little.

This is because emotions are physiological processes, for the most part, and as such they come with bodily sensations, and those are totally the GM's province.

Next time you feel angry (for example), ask yourself how you know you're angry. If you focus your attention, you'll notice something in your body.

Many people pay so little attention to this it's practically a lost art, but the sensation is there. (Sir Ken Robinson put it well, saying that some of his colleagues were so disembodied that they think the purpose of their bodies was to take their head to meetings.)

You may not control the PC's feelings (and you certainly can't control the player's), but you're in control of their perceptions, and you can ramp up the symptoms of emotion to the point that they become tangible threats to deal with.

Fear and Perception

When you're afraid, your perception moves involuntarily to the periphery.

Where, before, you could concentrate on a complex task (e.g. someone speaking about philosophy), when fear strikes, all that goes. You start to notice motion in your peripheral vision, and sounds behind you.

This is why nervous people are jumpy, their bodies are anticipating predator attack ('jumping' is a reflexive counter that can surprise the attacker, buying a second or two of time).

With acute fear, you can (amazingly) lose the to ability to absorb complex or non-threatening stimulus: spoken instructions (even simple ones) might just go over your head entirely.

This is why anxiety makes it pretty hard for you to to get your thesis written.

Not only that, but lose our advanced and resource-intensive faculty for empathy, to understand the motives of people near us, even if we know them well.

This is a major obstacle in trauma therapy, actually - if a client starts remembering a trauma, they can no longer figure out the therapist's motives, because that part of the brain is literally not getting enough blood to do that job. The therapist's motives become indecipherable, and therefore threatening.


When you're in full-on terror, your body goes into dedicated threat-detection and -avoidance mode.

Your eyes go wide and unfocused, your breathing gets shallow (or stops entirely for long periods, you freeze to make yourself harder to spot).

Panicked people often stop breathing out (amazingly) - this may be related to making themselves look bigger, as cats do with puffed-up fur - but in any case it leaves the sufferer feeling unable to get enough air, desperately trying to breathe in but finding there's no more capacity.

Just Gimme the Symptoms

Anyways, enough rambling about that. Some specific things that could happen for them to react to, or which could happen if they fail to push themselves (e.g. by defying the danger of the animal terror gripping them):

  • they can't speak
  • they can't understand speech
  • they can't do anything requiring focus (e.g. casting spells, forming an escape plan)
  • their hands stop working and they drop what they're holding
  • they can't move
  • they can't let go of something (a railing, someone's hand)
  • they can't look, or they can't look away
  • they shut down completely and their perception is flooded by something trivial (e.g. the smell of their jacket)
  • they stop breathing out

Imagine trying to flee a zombie and you can't look away! You'd have to move backwards!

As a consequence of all this, fear denies them access to the tactical big picture, which costs them the initiative.

They turn to help Joe, but Joe's not there - Joe moved to fend off a zombie, and they didn't notice. Things just start happening that they have to react to, all around them.

Joe: I attack the zombie!
Peter: I help, moving on his flank.
GM: Oh, are you trying to watch Peter? While surrounded by zombies? That's Defy Danger, man!

Composure is a Resource

This style of play constrains player choices, which needs to be done carefully. It's probably wise to set this up ahead of time through foreshadowing. ("Most who faced the Balrog were struck dumb, and were slain where they stood.")

Over time, the effects of terror are like failed saving throws, taking damage, and the darkness of caves - they suck, plain and simple, but it comes with the territory. Smart players will be looking for ways to account for it.

bet you didn't notice my three friends behind you

Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Lantern of Wyv

This month's adventure is also my entry to the One-Page Dungeon Contest, one of the things that got this whole ball of wax rolling in the first place!

The Lantern of Wyv is actually an adventure that's been in the back of my mind for a couple of decades, back when I was coding on Angalon MUD. Text-based adventures are pretty static affairs, and I thought it would be pretty awesome to whip up something real time, a white-knuckle ride you had to be ready for.

The basic idea is this: a wizard's tomb is floating in the sky, and the only way to get there is her funeral barge - it's endlessly repeating her final journey, complete with farewell tour around her watery estate.

Only problem is that the area is infested with wyverns, which are suckers for brightly colored things. Like people.

Assuming players can make it to the "lantern", a number of nasty surprises await.

A couple of usage notes:

1) This adventure requires some engineering. The middle of it is a thrill ride, but getting on board isn't easy. They'll have to construct something, bring magic, or be willing to lasso a fast-moving boat at sea in order to get on board. Once they reach the lantern, the problems are just starting: it's not designed for easy access.

Players may require several trips up to the lantern to bring what they need, which might even include hirelings if the game/campaign doesn't provide parties with gravity-defying magic or similar tools.

2) There's no treasure in the lantern, the lantern is the treasure. It's a device whose usefulness plays out over a regional scale. If your players won't be delighted to have a bird-infested, radioactive flying castle, this isn't the adventure for you.

This is the one-page version (one-page dungeon contest and all); a two-page version with more detail is coming soon!

Also, the Big Freaking Map has been updated.  The Lantern of Wyv is in the north west!