Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Necromancers' Wish


Here's adventure number twelve, The Necomancers' Wish!

An ancient mine that one yielded a strange and magical pigment, now used by a tribe of beastly goblins as a tomb for their necomancer-lords. Over the centuries, the spirits interred there have accumulated into a potent ancestral host, who have bequeathed a weird and transformative power upon their successor..


The theme for this adventure is transformation, generally involuntary - sometimes harmless, and sometimes not.

The Necromancers' Wish is meant to be placed in your campaign near a wilderness or desert: just beyond the last settlement is a series of caves embedded in a cliff.  Smoke has been seen coming from the cliffs, as has happened on many summer mornings.

But this time, there's a strange disquiet in the town, and those who can sense such things believe it's an omen of bad things to come.

Map Art

Like the adventure itself, the map art is released under the cc-by-nc license.  Have fun with it!

Mines of the Ricalu

Thanks again to everyone who's been supporting my adventures on Patreon!

Thursday, 18 September 2014

A Metric for Campaign Lethality

I present the milliwhack.

This is a measure of the rate at which characters become involuntarily unplayable (through non-resurrected death, crippling, permanent incapacity, concept-destroying transformation, maiming, reduction to idiocy or insanity, going permanently MIA, left for dead as the mind-controlled thrall of an Illithid, campaign-ending TPKs, etc.)

A campaign's milliwhack (mW) rating is calculated as follows:

1. Add up the number of involuntary-unplayable events (usually character deaths, but see above).
2. Divide by the number of sessions in the campaign.
3. Divide by the average number of players per session.
4. Multiply by 1000.

For example:

I played about three years of bi-weekly, Paizo adventure path 3.5e and in that time we had two TPKs and perhaps two PC deaths in the interim. Call that 60 sessions with a party of 4-5 (so, 9 unrecoverable deaths) so that play style rates 33 milliwhacks.

11 deaths / 60 sessions / 4.5 players-per-session * 1000 = 41 mW

In four one-sessions games of four-player Fiasco, I've seen maybe two deaths (both mine). So that play style rates 125 milliwhacks.

2 deaths / 4 sessions / 4 players-per-session * 1000 = 125 mW


Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Dirty Hex Crawl


In which I propose a campaign structure inspired by John Wick's Dirty Dungeons!

Home on the Range

West Marches style, play starts out with a single explored hex (perhaps a 30-mile hex, it doesn't matter much), and a safe community where the party starts and ends all of their adventures.

Play starts off like Dirty Dungeons. To recap:
  1. Players decide what the adventure is, by pretending they've researched it extensively in the town's library, wizard's tower or tavern, and explaining what they've learned.
  2. They take turns describing the threats of the dungeon.
  3. Minor threats earn them a bonus die, and major threats earn them two. These all go into a pool.
During the adventure, players can use the bonus dice to help themselves out with rolls.  (The precise mechanic depends on what game you're playing, it could be Advantage in D&D 5e, or a +1 forward in Dungeon World.)

For every five minutes they spend planning, the GM can introduce a twist - their information is out of date

The GM has the job of stitching this stuff together on the fly, which isn't for the faint of heart but is great fun.

When the adventurers get to the prize they're after, whatever that is, they can use the bonus dice to improve the quality of the treasure.  (Again, this will depend on what game you're playing.)

Dirty Journeys

When the players want to do it all again, there's a problem: they've exhausted the adventure potential of the region they've explored.  They need to explore!

This works exactly like Dirty Dungeons, except:
  • For every four challenges they create, their journey is considered to delve into one new hex.
  • The party needs to bring survival supplies: rations and so on.
  • Loot (and there's always loot) is incidental. The real payoff is that each hex ventured into reveals a potential adventure location the players can now research.
Now, the players can return to plundering with more Dirty Dungeon missions.  The difference is that any travel through the new hexes involves (at the GM's discretion) the challenges that were established, if they weren't somehow defeated during exploration.

These challenges do not come with bonus dice!  They just cause problems.  In fact, the GM is free to use twists to develop them further - perhaps bandits move into the home hex, or expand their operations, or their bandit shaman summons something nasty.  (In Dungeon World parlance, they've become a Front.)



Dirty Quests

If the problems encountered during exploration become too awful to ignore, the players can Quest to deal with them once and for all.  Perhaps the bandits need to be driven

This, too, is handled exactly like a Dirty Dungeon - the players design the bandit stronghold (or whatever) in the same way they'd design any other adventure: the players contribute challenges in exchange for bonus dice, and the GM adds any challenges that the party has to travel through.

Bonus dice can be pulled down for advantages, as usual.  Loot is incidental to the situation, rather than the goal, and bonus dice are converted directly to XP if the quest is completed. (Though at a lower rate than loot - this is after all a plundering game!)

Other Details

There's probably lots more that can be done with this - two things that come to mind are terrain and settlements.

If the GM is using journey twists to create durable terrain problems ("As you reach the end of the mud flats, you see a mountain range rising up to blue heights and white-dotted peaks.") that force players to move laterally.  Particular quests might involve trying to find secret mountain passes, or establishing relationships with communities that could provide guides.

And speaking of communities, while they may be wary at first, parties that prove themselves by accomplishing useful Dirty Quests might be able to establish new places to adventure from, cutting journey times (and dangers) significantly.

What the..

This will of course seem like a weirdly hippie way to plan a campaign, but it's definitely worth a try if you have players who are as stuffed full of ideas as the folks in my home group.  The player investment I got from playing a single Dirty Dungeon really surprised me, and as GM, I didn't in the least feel creatively alienated or anything like that.

I'm curious to see what would come of something like this. Send me your ideas!


Sunday, 24 August 2014

Though Flesh be Vast

Here's the adventure to go along with yesterday's map preview.  This one started out with me wondering what it would be like if a dungeon were viewed by under-worlders the way we see the proverbial mountain-top monastery.  Remote, inaccessible, spiritual places.

Deep in the ground is the world of the dradkin, but with so little sunlight, they are dependent on scarce food resources. Starvation is a constant threat.  The cult of Inceraugh prophecies that one day their great under-good will show them a path to the surface, a fabled place where fat animals blunder about, grazing on a never-ending crop of lush plants that sprouts from every surface.


This adventure is potentially quite dangerous, because the dradkin are so numerous. Their society is breaking into factions, but the party will have to be clever to find and make use of them - or else be polite and generous enough to parlay their way into some hospitality. For now, at least, Incerat operates cohesively, so clumsy or ill-prepared attacks will be provoke punitive counter-attacks.

The rulers will be hard pressed to keep this up, however - the ritual avatar feedings must continue at all costs, and if Incerat's pious warriors are busy mounting a defense, the slave pens will soon be emptied.

Much of Incerat is lit (at least dimly), but consider being careful about PC light sources. If they are guests of the dradkin, they could easily become utterly dependent on their hosts just to get around.

Edit: here's a rainbow-tinted map that uses color to indicate depth beneath the surface.

Note on Power Levels

If you're using a system with a flatter power curve (e.g. Burning Wheel, Dungeon World, World of Dungeons), the threats as described will probably be ample. For established D&D characters, the pious warriors should be quite capable (e.g. 4-7th level fighters), with the fleshpriests having several levels of evil clerical powers in addition to the listed dradkin rituals.

Maps and Illustrations


Thanks again to everyone who's been supporting my adventures on Patreon!

Though Flesh Be Vast - Map Preview

I'm about to release an adventure for August, but while I'm still wrangling with the text, here's a preview of the map.


This one's a little different, it's a two-page map spread.  A series of natural caverns gives way to an underground settlement, with roads that extend into underworld areas beyond.

I'm experimenting with the use of old-school style blues grid lines to convey the scale. I'd be curious to hear they're useful or just distracting.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Making Circular Rooms on Isometric Maps

Once upon a time there was a wizard who was forced to work in a rectangular laboratory where the feng shui was all wrong and magical eddies formed in the corners and besides they were kinda dark which reminded him of the way his homunculus would go off and sulk when the wizard wouldn't let him do the important bits and it blew his concentration and none of his rituals or traps or evil plans came to anything so when the party showed up he wasn't even there for the boss fight and it was this huge anti-climax and everyone said the campaign sucked anyway and it turned into this huge nasty thread on reddit and everybody started playing story games instead.

Dungeons need round rooms.

Unfortunately, round rooms are tricky to draw on isometric (or axonometric) paper. With a top-down map you can easily use a compass, trace a quarter or shot glass or whatever.  I recommend this - I like to think I can draw and apparently even I can't free-hand a small circle very well:

I suck - anyone have a shot glass?
On an isometric graph, it gets even trickier, because the circle is foreshortened into an oval. But what sort of oval?

I find it helpful to make guide-marks.

The guide-marks in the four cardinal compass directions are easy enough to work out: if you have a circle with a three-square radius, you just count three squares north, east, south and west, leaving a guide-mark at each of the four spots.

But how wide to make the oval?  How tall?  The red and blue ovals are two alternatives that pass through the four guide-marks.  The red circle isn't bad, but it's not quite right.


Fortunately, we can work out the diagonal distances with a little math.  We know where the northern guide-mark goes, but what about the northeast (or southwest)?  That would tell us how wide to make the circle.  What about the northwest (or southeast)?  That would tell us how tall to make the oval.

Since we're using graph paper, we can use graph coordinates and a tiny bit of math to figure out where the diagonal should go.  The question to ask is this: how far north (or west) does the NE diagonal reach?  The answer is:

coordinate = sin( radians(45) ) * circle radius

sin is a trigonometric function, and the radians function converts an angle in degrees to the same angle in a funky unit called radians.  (Most sin function implementations expect radians.)  These functions are available in both Google Docs Spreadsheets and Excel.

For a radius-3 circle, you should get an answer that rounds to 2.1.

Photoshoppery

If you're using photo-editing software like Photoshop or Gimp, this is the only measurement you need.  (If you don't like doing calculations math, I'll provide a handy table for you, below.) Measuring this out on the graph paper looks like this:


I measured toward the southeast, but any direction would have done just as well.  The point where the dotted lines cross is also a point on the circle.  In your editing software, draw an oval that goes through all five points.

This isn't a Photoshop tutorial, but briefly: use the oval tool set to 'path' mode.  Start at the circle's center, click and drag.  Then hold down the Alt key to force the oval to be centered on the starting point.  Drag around until the oval you're creating passes through all five points, then release.  Use the 'stroke path' command to turn your path into a usable outline.

It should look like this:


The Traditional Way

If you're drawing a map by hand on graph paper, you'll probably need more guides that this.  As a reminder, guides can be drawn in any direction - here I've added the 45-degree diagonal reaching to the northeast:



We've drawn diagonals at 45-degree increments, so for the next level we'll cut that in half: 22.5 degrees.

We need a bit more math. I simplified before, because the north and east coordinates for a 45-degree diagonal are the same, but they won't be for our next set of diagonals.  The coordinates are:

coordinate 1 = sin ( radians( angle ) ) * radius
coordinate 2 = cos ( radians( angle ) ) * radius

For a radius-3 circle, our two new coordinates are: 1.1 and 2.8.  Mark your three coordinates (1.1, 2.1, and 2.8) on each of the four axes, then draw in guide lines for them, parallel the grid lines on your paper.


Use a ruler to make the guides nice and straight or the inaccuracies will add up and your circle will suck, and we'll be back to sulking homonculi all over again.

Admittedly it looks a bit intense, but it's fairly straight forward once you try it.  But what the hell is it for?  It makes more sense once you visualize your circle in there, and how it passes through the guide intersection points:


Rendering the Circle

You're now ready to pencil in your circle.  While you're doing this, there's one last bit of information that will help you: the angle of the curve at various points.  These are called the tangents (a tangent is a line that just touches a curve).

The cardinal tangents are easy to work out: they follow the grid lines:



The 45-degree diagonal tangents are also easy to work out - they're horizontal and vertical lines on your paper:

The Final Strokes

Now, since you're doing this traditionally, you've got no choice but to extrapolate from your guides and hand-draw in the curves.  This usually takes me a couple of tries for each segment, so I use a light touch and keep an eraser handy, but we have plenty of support from the all of the guides we've built up:



Do your circle pencil, of course, only going over it in ink when you're happy with your pencil version. The finished product should hopefully look something like this:



All ready for some magical rituals!

That Chart I Mentioned

If you don't have a calculator handy, you can use this chart:


If your wizard needs a lab bigger than 32 grid squares across, she'll have to use the equations. Comes with the territory.

Circles on the Brain

Of course, there's a reason I'm obsessing about circles. Once you know how to do a circle, you can use portions of circles to make all sorts of interesting things.

Here's the the start of a map I'm working on for an upcoming adventure, the hull of a mighty ark:


This has five layers of semicircles at each end of the ark.. which took a little while.

Thanks again to everyone who's been supporting my adventures on Patreon!


Thursday, 24 July 2014

How far can you see on a hex map?

One of the key aspects of wilderness geography is being able to assess the lay of the land.  This is one thing that the traditional, top-down way of representing geography doesn't say much about.

If you walk north west from Nivereen, you'll emerge from the forest and be greeted by a view of the mountains across the valley.


That view might look something like this:


Or does it? Can we actually see the mountains from there?  What about if we climb the jagged hills to the west of the forest spur?  How far can we see then?

How far is the horizon?

It turns out that the main obstacle to seeing faraway landforms - besides atmospheric interference like fog or rain - is the curvature of the earth.  A consequence of this is that the viewer's altitude is a key factor in how far they can see. (If you go high up enough that you're in space, for instance, you could see nearly half the planet!)

Wikipedia has a wonderful page on the horizon that gives us all the info we need.  The few equations we need aren't that complicated:

Distance to Horizon (miles) = 1.22 x sqrt( observer's height in feet )
Distance to Horizon (km) = 3.57 x sqrt ( viewer's height in meters )

For a hypothetical, 6' tall viewer, this puts the horizon around 3 miles.  (As Steamtunnel pointed out, this is one argument in favor of using 6-mile hexes: an adventurer in the middle of a hex could see right to its edges.)

A 6' tall adventurer standing on top of a 30' town wall, however, could see further, about 7 miles.  An adventurer at the edge of a plateau, 200' above the plains below, could see 17.5 miles - quite a bit further.

Seeing Faraway Tall Things

Most of the time our adventurers are not looking at flat, featureless plains. The more interesting question is stuff like: how far away can I see that tower?  Can I see the mountains?

It turns out the answer is unexpectedly simple: all you need to do is know the horizon distance for the viewer's altitude, the horizon distance for the target's altitude, and then add them together.

So if I'm on the town wall, and I want to know how far away I could see a 100' tall wizard's tower, the answer is:

1.22 x [ sqrt( 6' ) + sqrt( 100' ) ] = 15.2 miles

Now, this is the distance at which we could just barely see the very tip of the tower - we probably wouldn't be able to pick it out of the grass.  Let's say we need to be able to see at least half the tower to recognize it, that gives us:

1.22 x [ sqrt( 6' ) + sqrt( 50' ) ] = 11.6 miles

On a hex map of six miles, we'd be able to make out the tower a full 2 hexes away.

The Meaning of Altitude

A key point I've glossed over so far is how to work out 'altitude'. This isn't elevation above sea level, but the height above the prevailing terrain.  If you're on a plateau 2000' above sea level, that doesn't help you see further along the plateau.

Only add the plateau to your height if you're looking down off it. If you're looking along the plateau, it doesn't count (because it will be the earth-curved plateau itself that eventually prevents you seeing further).

A Linear Approximation

Now of course, taking square roots at the table while juggling all the other GM duties is too much to ask, but I have a simplification that works well enough for the distances we care about:

6 miles + 1 mile / 50' of height

So if you're on a 200' cliff, looking down across a plain to see a distant tower or mature forest (50' to its halfway point), you can see it 11 miles away.

From flat plains, foothills (say, 1000' tall, resolvable when you can see the top half - so 400') could be seen 14 miles away (8+6).

From that same vantage point, large mountains (6000' above the plains, 3000' to the midpoint) could be seen 66 miles away.

Flying on a griffin at migratory altitude (e.g. 5000'), you could see those same mountains from 166 miles away.  (At this point, most likely the limits of atmospheric clarity would be involved, even in very clear air.)

If you climb the tallest tree in the forest, putting you 10' above the canopy, you could see the top 50' of the strange rock spire formation (that protrudes 100' above the trees) from 8 miles away.  (The top of the trees, here, is the altitude baseline.)

A Simple Legend

To help during play, I might work out a simple legend for various terrain types on my hex map. This just takes the height divided by 50', then by my hex width to work out a "visible-distance contribution".

Here's a simple legend for a 12-mile hex map with five types of terrain:

Mountain Peaks (5000-6000'): 8 hexes
Mountain Slopes (2500'): 4 hexes
Foothills (1000'): 2 hexes
Treetops (100'): 0 hexes
Rolling Lowlands (15'): 0 hexes

To use this, work out the height of the viewer and the target over the prevailing terrain, add those together, and add a free half-hex.

In the foothills, looking across more foothills toward distant mountain slopes?  4.5 hexes  (8-4 + 0 + 1/2)

In the treetops, looking to see where the foothills start?  2.5 hexes (2 + 0 + 1/2)

If you're on a mountainous slope (4) looking out across a vast, rolling flood plain (0) to a massive mountain range on the far side, you could make out the peaks (8) from 12.5 hexes away.

Easy peasy!