Saturday, 30 September 2023

A Downtime Calendar

One way to bring a setting's calendar to life is through downtime. When you spend a month cooling your heels and recovering from the road, each month has distinctive, meaty benefits.

Set the list out where the players can get it, and let them make their own choices. It doesn't even matter if players are actually able to make use of the benefits they want. If all that happens is the party lamenting, "Damn, shame we have to travel during Ferch," it's doing its work!

Here's a set of calendar downtime benefits appropriate to the sort of campaign presented in the compendium, scattered communities in a wilderness full of danger. If the party spends the full month engaged in rest or aiding the community, the benefit is theirs!

# Month  Benefit of a full month of downtime
  Anvial Winter's stillness brings clarity. The guide you seek will find you.
  Bolc As the snows subside, old paths need mending. Those who do warden's work are blessed: they will not get lost on the way to their next destination.
  Cindal Spring dawns. Planting time means grudges must be set aside, at least for now. If you seek a favor of someone influential, ask it.
  Ferch Rains reveal what must be repaired. Find the old stones and new and get to stacking.
  Greel In the humid season, if you seek an ally with special skills, you find them. They will aid you, but summer's friend betrays in autumn.
  Halvilary Summer's forges burn hot and true. If you are procuring gear, one item made for you this month is of remarkable sturdiness. It will never fail you.

Juthon Long idle days and warm summer nights are fertile ground for schemers.
  Marial Summer's last light is golden. Rest in it, and all injuries to the body are cured, however severe—but scars, grief and curses are yours to keep.
  Samber Nothing like a month in the fields to cement a bond with the community. Whatever else has come before, you are welcomed as if you were born here.
  Tershon The last of autumn is no time to start a long journey, but those who feast well in Tershon will not grow hungry until they are home once more.
  Nollen The hopeful stand watch over the roads, praying for cold winds to bring lost friends. The steadfast will not be disappointed.
  Rinth In the darkness of winter, secrets slip from cold-numbed hands. Something important kept hidden by the community is revealed to you.

(These rules are MOSAIC Strict.)

Sunday, 3 September 2023

The Fires of Lost Tlarba

A dense and dusty city toils under a flickering yellow sky. None may enter, but everyone does. All may leave, but none do.

Prickly selks stand at the gates. Their halberds gleam like razors, but their eyes are dull from the heat. The crowd inches forward toward the city's mouth.

Sickly smoke rises from the burners along the high walls: a thousand fires of caylum wood, oracle grass, the narcotic feathers of the santhum bird. Travellers cover their mouths and noses, hoping to ward off the stupor that will soon take them. Others breathe it freely in the hopes they will acclimatize. None will.

The crowd moves again, and the gates loom overhead. Everyone who passes them is looking for something. Everything lost winds up in Tlarba, they say, so where better to look? This is why you came, but maybe it was a mistake.

Robed sisters push and weave through the entry line, offering marks of return. "Sixty silver and we'll fetch you out if you're in too long." Ink-black fingers tug at your skin. "Here is best," she says, jabbing at your cheek. "How long do you want? A year? Three?" She isn't joking.

The nut-seller at the side of the road laughs. "Don't waste your money, they can't get out either." He scoops roasted seeds into a folded leaf, "Buy these instead. They won't get you out, but it's best not go in wanting!"

As you reach for them, he catches your sleeve and pulls you close.

"I mean it," he hisses. The humor is gone from his face. "I went in a prince. Choose better!"

He shoves you back into the lineup, laughing once more. Stupid man. Who comes here if they have a better choice?

The crowd moves again, and you pass the gates. Pilgrims, families, warriors, nobles; their mules, horses, dogs and goats. Each enters in their own way, but the sweet smoke claims everyone who draws breath. You're still thinking of the nut-seller's words as it takes you.

* * *

d10 Where You Awaken, d20 weeks later
  A secluded garden terrace, high above the haze of the city. Succulent plants hang from rows of trellis.
  At bend in a narrow, twisting set of stairs. Fresh air somehow blows from a crack in a clay duct.
  In a large stone chamber, apparently beneath a temple. Chanting comes from above. The stone floor below you is warm to the touch.
  Crazily high up, halfway up a cathedral tower. You sit on a stone ledge barely wide enough for the birds. The squares and rectangles of the city spread beneath you endlessly.
  Sitting at the edge of a fountain in a wide, sunlit plaza. The sparking water cools your fingers and clears your mind.
  Lying in soft earth in a walled vegetable garden. Half-eaten gourds surround you; seeds are stuck to your face.
 A public bath house, at the end of a long pool of oily, fragrant water. Bright morning light comes from slats in the ceiling. Smells of cooking waft in from the street outside.
  In a dark servant's passage somewhere in a grand, stone house. A thin shaft of afternoon light comes from a tiny window.
  On a luxurious bed, somewhere in the high palace. A huge silver washing basin stands on spindles of dark wood.  Curtains billow in the cool night breeze. In the courtyard below, servants are lighting lamps along the edge of a dark, shallow pool.
  You stumble on the road leading out of the city. The yawning gates are behind you. Hundreds of people queue to enter as you once did, but they pay you no attention. Roll no more, your time in the city is over. It is d4 years after you entered the city.


 Exhausted revelers surround you. Some are sleeping, others quietly chatting or combing each other's hair. All are sweaty from dancing, running, or sex.
 You are pale and sickly. A friend mops the sweat from your brow. The sickest among you is now immune to poison.
 Damp, mildewed air blows from a hole in the ground. You have found a way into the labyrinth beneath the city, the streets and alleys of an earlier era, buried by time and new stone.
 Several families are preparing food, setting out tables with fresh bread, pots of stew, and hot, watery wine. Children light fill lanterns and musicians are assembling to begin the song. Adults speak in quiet tones about the business of the city.
 You and a woman you don't recognize hold opposite ends of a sheaf of scrolls, the collected notes of the high palace locksmith.
 You are covered in small cuts and bruises. At first they hurt terribly, then not at all, and rub off like actor's paint.
 A small gathering of students and poets was listening to what you had to say, and is waiting for you to continue.
 You have been running for your life. Your heart is pounding. In ten seconds, d6 strong youths will arrive to beat you for stealing from them. 
 A guard's knife is bloody in your hands. He lies at your feet.
 You have found whoever or whatever you came for.

d10A bit later, you suddenly remember
 Living with a family for a time, learning their skills, working as part of the family business. When you touch your callused hands, you remember that they loved you.
 Squatting in a temple for months. You learned the names of many animals who lived there. If you see them again, they will remember you.
 Wading through a foul-smelling canal. A youth you had made friends with dallied, and that was the last you saw of them.
 Watching a pack of feral people eating a man who had stumbled in the gutter. They tore at him while he groaned. You remember the taste of him; perhaps you joined them.
 Exchanging clothes with a princeling, who then slipped away into the crowds. You still wear his ring, which marks your station in the city.
 Studying with a monstrous, toad-like philosopher who swore off tools of any kind—not just hand tools, but clothes, dwellings, weapons, books. 'Convenience softens the mind,' it would croak. It is right, and its teachings have unlocked something strange and new within you.
 Fighting your way through a riot in the Plaza of Jewelers. Many had fallen, and the flagstones were slippery with blood of citizens and palace guards. The shouting still rings in your ears. Many enemies were made that day; some on each side will remember you.
 Plotting against an order of priests who jealously protect a magical way out of the city. Your fellow conspirators plan to strike tonight, coming up through the servers. They're relying on you find an open the sewer grate in the Plaza of Tears, or they will all drown as they try to escape.
 Riding with the nut-seller in a royal palanquin. He was dressed like a prince, and proudly pointed out the sights as you passed. A location you sought is now known to you.
 You remember an age passing, lifetimes, the end of the world—or at least, the city. An eternity of wind gnawed the stone blocks of the walls and palaces down to nothing. For aeons, you knew only blowing sand and a lifeless sky. Then, one day, a traveller came and planted his staff here. Then another. Slowly, you began to take shape again. Streets, walls, gardens, plazas, alleyways, palaces, canals, and of course: people. Seething crowds of millions, the blood of the city. Your blood.

Whatever your circumstances when you awaken, your relief from the mind-addling haze of the city is temporary. In 2d6 hours, you succumb again.

Thursday, 27 July 2023

Avoiding Inapt Discussion in RPGs

Recently, I learned about the Brindlewood Bay's approach to mysteries via the Darknened Threshold podcast. It struck me that it's does something that Blades in the Dark also does, but in a completely different way:

It avoids inapt discussion about information the players don't have.

Brindlewood Bay has a Theorize move where players chew over the assembled clues and propose answers to the whodunnit. If their roll succeeds, then their theory becomes the real answer. This is the opposite choice that Blades in the Dark made, but for the same root reason. 

Blades eliminates players interminably planning out their heists, instead letting them retcon in preparations using flashback scenes.

In a traditional game where the heist target or murder mystery is predefined, players can easily spend a lot of time planning for contingencies that will never occur.. or indulging fanciful theories disconnected from the secret truth. 

"You guys are overthinking this," the GM says (or thinks, bored). True as that might be, it's unhelpful advice because the players don't know where they're on and off target, or what they've forgotten (or just plain misremembered). Their conversation is inapt. 

What's neat is the differing approaches to avoid this. Blades makes planning unnecessary by making player choices retroactively malleable. The inapt conversation doesn't need to happen.

Brindlewood, on the other hand, keeps the inapt conversation but makes it into an apt one by having reality bend to meet it. The players theorize at length, but it's not a waste, it becomes the real story. 

* * *

What's neat about holding these up together is how it reveals other design choices that could have been made, as illustrated by two made-up games: Brindlewood Dark and Blades in the Bay.

In Brindlewood Dark, players solve a murder mystery by having a few conversations with the suspects, letting a bit of action unfold, then suddenly launching into an accusation. The accused protests, then the players narrate the clues they noticed, retconning the evidence. 

The accused (or witless Lestrades also at the scene) attempt to recontextualize these clues by narrating flashbacks of their own. Eventually the players close the net or the accused shows their innocence (or at least blows up enough clues to walk). 

Meanwhile, in Blades in the Bay, the players spend 45 minutes planning the heist based up on details of defenses and risks they supposedly scouted out, researched, or paid to learn.. all made up as they discuss. The higher the danger, the bigger the score. 

They then enact their plan. As they do so, they roll for each threat to see if it is really as they understood it. If it is, then plan they made for that part just works.

If not, they're back on their heels and reacting in real time to a situation that has become unpleasantly dynamic. If they handle the chaos well, they resume the later steps of their original plan. If it blows up in their faces, they might just need to scrub the mission. 

Anyways, those are made up games, but they're two different applications of these "avoid inaptness" techniques.

Now I want to overly complicate a heist plan! Blades in the Bay sounds fun! 

Tuesday, 28 March 2023

The Terrible Salt

For a generation, the tides at Vincha stopped completely. What was once an enormous tidal flat was lost under bitter waters. Now they have returned, and the brave and curious are gathering to see what was hidden under the terrible salt.

This adventure features an enormous tidal flat, miles and miles wide. Adventurers who set out from Vincha have a strange and dangerous land to explore, and will need to learn its rhythms to return with anything valuable.

The Terrible Salt is something of an experiment in tangibility. Unlike many of my adventures, there's no wandering monster table. Instead, the tides and the crab swarm move in defined ways from their starting points.

The crab swarm is extremely dangerous. It will outnumber most parties, and unless they have good magic (or horses), it will overrun them and eat them. Avoiding notice is better than trying to flee (since the crabs never stop), but this will require that the players stay aware of their environment.

Being spotted by crabs or trapped by the tides doesn't mean certain death, but players may have to ride out an uncomfortable few days being baked by the sun and freezing at night, all without any drinkable water or means of lighting a fire.

The greatest danger in this scenario is facing both crabs and tides at once, either:

  • the crab swarm comes in at the same time as the tide, and you're fighting waist-high crabs in chest-deep water
  • the party is fleeing the crabs, but is then forced by the tide to shelter on a rocky island before they can shake the pursuit

Fortunately, the map is littered with high spots that should allow the party lots of opportunity to scout out their surroundings and avoid danger. (This scenario contains a compressed version of my take on how far you can see on a hex map.)

As I finished the writing, the coral consorts became my favorite part. The implications of these srange marriages transformed the Salt Lords into something more interesting: an ethically neutral but alien presence in the scenario, inviting the party (or whomever) to take a terrifying step into a different world.

The coral consorts themselves make very interesting maguffins: imagine having to go and talk to a knowledgeable NPC somewhere, but learning that they married the sea and need to be found on the slopes of the Salt Lords' citadel. Good luck!

As always, thank you to my patrons on Patreon, who graciously support this project! Because of your generosity, the text and art pieces are released under CC-BY-NC 4.0, for your own non-commercial use.

* * *

EDIT: Some additional hooks!

Wealthy relatives of the doomed expedition members want their bodies (or heirlooms) reclaimed from wherever they wound up

The players need to contact an NPC to learn something, last known to have retired to Vincha. However, she 'married the sea' and is now somewhere on the slopes of the citadel

The other end of the inland sea (beyond the citadel) is a prosperous area. If a reliable way to cross the sea (possibly with the blessing of the Salt Lords) can be found, an important trade route could open up

Crabs have been attacking Vincha; myths say that they serve the Salt Lords' will, and that when they are happy the crabs are kept at bay

From the top of the citadel, when the clouds part, you can see anywhere in the world (or so say the songs)

Every river for a thousand leagues drains into the flats. The Salt Lords know everything that happens along their lengths; they have the answers you seek.

Too long have the Salt Lords stolen the vulnerable, taking them away to marry the sea. Put an end to it.

On the south shore of the inland sea is a tower. Well, more of a ruin than a tower. It stood watch at the mouth of a pass that reaches all the way to Urchlund.

News of the tides restarting has reached Fair Riot, and it's said a Duke is coming to survey lands that he claims are his. Now, maybe they are and maybe they aren't, but a map of the flats would surely be worth good coin and a Duke's favor besides.

In my nan's time, people used to go out on the flats looking for oysters. She said there was an old well on one of the rocks with water you can drink. That would be an incredibly useful staging area for further exploration.

Oysters out on the flats would be an incredible boon to Vincha, if only it were safe. The baron has a sack of silver for whomever can lure those crabs away and deal with them for good.

Sunday, 26 March 2023

Incident Report

On Monday, July 20, the Mentor™ learning service suffered an outage that lasted from 4:53AM until service was fully restored on Wednesday, July 22 at 6:11PM.

At Mentor, we don't consider this an acceptable level of service. We sincerely apologize our valued users, institutional customers, and the family and friends of Kyle H. We commit to doing better in the future. This incident report explains what happened, as part of our commitment to openness and transparency.

The roots of the incident start some three months earlier. In April, an automated A/B test of a curriculum modification was proposed by our internal TeachSmart AI. This is normal, and such tests are conducted daily to improve learning outcomes for all Mentor™ students.

Unfortunately, this modification (CT-665.9) was unusual in that it recommended that students begin their learning sessions with a prayer to 'Entity Bezaal'. At Mentor, we have several procedures to ensure that controversial or problematic curriculum modifications don't make it to the public, including random inspection of proposed modifications by our Trust & Safety team.

However, CT-665.9 was not selected for random inspection. This itself is also not unusual; M&L (mindfulness and learning mindset) modifications are inspected at a lower frequency than core curriculum modifications. As a result, CT-665.9 was rolled out to a subset of our students immediately.

CT-665.9 performed well, but not spectacularly, for some time after the test began. Apparently July 19 is a special day to Entity Bezaal (we cannot print the exact name of the celebration), and the invoking prayers suddenly achieved a much greater effect. Learning outcomes in the A group showed a 31% improvement, which is unheard of for an M&L test.

At 5:40 PM on July 19, our Trust & Safety team reviewed the content of CT-665.9 and removed it from production.

Shortly after, at 7:10 PM, a group of individuals breached the Mentor facility in Denver, Colorado, which houses both our primary data center and the offices of our Trust & Safety team.

While Mentor has a strong commitment to both electronic and physical security, our associates on-site at that time initially believed they were facing a group of costumed LARPers from another department. (We believe in a good work-life balance at Mentor, and LARPing in the office had occurred there previously.)

This misunderstanding became obvious at 7:17 PM, when the intruders' greater invocation (we cannot print the exact name) melted the inner wall of our production data center. Mentor employee Kyle H attempted to hold off the intruders with a fire extinguisher, allowing other staff to escape to wade through the caustic mucus and escape.

At 9:47 PM, our secondary incident response team arrived on site and attempted to regain control of our Denver facility. This was initially impossible because of the inhuman strength of the intruders, even after the arrival of Denver police. At 12:02 AM (the morning of July 20), however, this faded abruptly and by 12:50 AM July 20, all floors of the were secured.

Several members of the Northfield High School math team are now in custody (They can't be identified because of their age.)

By Wednesday, our response team had vacuumed up enough of the caustic mucus that we could resume full production operations. Regrettably, Kyle H had been magically transformed into a cone snail during the fighting, and was accidentally crushed by the secondary incident response team during this process. Our condolences go out to Kyle's family and friends; his brave actions on that day saved many lives.

Effective immediately, Mentor is putting in place several enhanced procedures to make sure we don't experience this again.

  • LARPing is no longer permitted at Mentor offices or events
  • Basic fire extinguisher safety courses will be made available to all employees and contractors
  • On the recommendation of TeachAI, all employees will begin their shifts with a prayer to counter-entity Ademilos, may his tentacles surround and protect us.
Again, we apologize for the interruption to our services. Our users have come to expect only the highest in educational outcomes from Mentor, and we regret any disruption this outage has caused.

All hail Ademilos!

Friday, 17 February 2023

The Cyberpunk We Got

Taking a covid test in a car speeding through the rain at night feels very cyberpunk. International travel, backseat chemistry..  all I need is a red dot sight on me from a blacked out Mercedes. That makes up for it all.. right?

I guess you can have column A, but not without a little column B.

d10 The future is here but with..
  Implanted augmentation captchas
  Smartgun roaming charges
  Mirrorshades ransomware
  Self-driving car microtransactions
  DIY gene mod banned by moderators
  Retractable finger blade unskippable ads
  Wired reflexes no longer supported
  Designer social movement remotely bricked
  Hacking deck OS Incompatibility
  Monofilament katana supply chain problems

Monday, 30 January 2023

An Era of Standard RPG Terminology

Now that the core of Dungeons & Dragons has been effectively open sourced, a lot of retro-clone designers are breathing a sigh of relief. You can't copyright mechanics, but that hasn't stopped numerous lawsuits in the past. Those days seem to be over!

I thought it might be nice to look at some of those now-free core mechanics that have been with the game since its very early, dungeon-centric editions.

* * *

First up is the Hit Die. This is really the heart of Dungeons & Dragons. The image of this iconic, twenty-sided die is almost synonymous with the game itself. You roll the hit die every time you want to see if you hit something, which is often. After all, this is a game about hitting things!

Next we come to the classic Hit Points. Like many D&D terms, this has been pulled into many other games, tabletop roleplaying games, boardgames, and even video games. The hit point is the location on your enemy where your blow has landed, crucial for understanding if you've poked the bulette in the eye or just bounced off its thick armor yet again. Most ordinary humans have a d6 for hit points, but larger creatures with lots of limbs (looking at you, hydra!) often have many hit points.

Another immediately recognizable term is Armor Class. Right after determining the hit point of an attack, you will need to look up if the target is an armor class or not. Fighters, Paladins, and even Clerics are all armor classes, but Magic-Users, and Thieves are not.

Dungeons & Dragons is a game with no take-backs. If your character dies, your progress is lost! Sad as it is, this is part of the game. Savor the experience! But the game does give you one last chance: if you have a sack of gold or treasured magic weapon, you can make a Saving Throw to try to pass it on to another character.

If you do survive the dangers of the dungeon, ask the DM if you reached any Experience Points. Experience points are the backbone of any long term campaign, allowing the PCs to grow and evolve their abilities. Many DMs like to situate experience points all throughout the adventure. Some prefer to have an experience point after each major accomplishment in a campaign. Some prefer having only one, and require that you go back to town to level up. Neither is better, they're just different play styles!

These are the basics, but as time goes on, successful adventuring groups will have to pick up some clever tactics if they want to maximize their chances. Chief among these is making a good choice about who is standing where, the party's Alignment. Parties with good alignment have a significant advantage when dealing with surprise traps or encounters. Chaotic alignment is much riskier, but can be fun in its own way. Make sure to discuss this with your group before entering the dungeon, as mismatched alignment can be a total party kill.

* * *

Like it or not, the world's most popular role-playing game has seeded the industry with terms that affect the very thought process of game design. By embracing this, instead of constantly renaming the wheel, I look forward to a decade of games that can move past the arguments of the past and use common terminology for the benefit of all.