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!

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

In The Care of Bones

For this month's adventure, I collaborated with the inestimable +Sean Winslow.  He handed me a sheaf of hand-drawn sketches of the site some months ago, curious to see what I'd do with them. His halo of margin notes was very inspiring!

An underground shrine at the center of a grassy plain was once a widely known destination for pilgrims in search of miraculous healing.

Now, with no pilgrims about, the energies of the place have been directed toward a clan of velvet spiders, who have grown to great size and ability.

I'm pleased with the result. I had fun grounding it in prairie details, but there's a hefty dose of whimsy mixed in with the usual deadliness.

+Tim Groth has already come up with several ideas for how to weaponize vain hope!

As usual, this is released under CC-BY-NC. Feel free to pull it apart and do your own thing with it so long as it's non-commercial.

EDIT: Graphics!

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Destroying your Dreams for Fun and Profit

When I start creating something (or planning to), I usually have a vision. I'm going to write, draw, paint or program this really cool thing.

The more I sit and think about it, the more awesome it gets.  Yet, as soon as I put pen to paper, the pain starts.

I start sketching, and .. I dunno, it doesn't look quite right.  I keep going and before long I'm holding my head in my hands. What is this ill-formed monstrosity that's emerging on my paper?

This isn't coming out right..
This isn't how I imagined it..
What's going on?
This sucks!

All that's happening is my blundering efforts are doing nothing but failing to live up to my vision. Aaugh!

This can last an uncomfortably long time. Sometimes, I quit.

You're not what I had in mind

The Trough of Creativity

This has happened to me enough times that I noticed, and named it the Trough of Creativity.

Things start awesome, then soon degenerate into a wilderness, and feelings of regret that I ever started.

'Trough' - like a low place, with potato peelings. And mold. Not the sort of mode that feels like 'art happening here, man.'

If I persist, however, something interesting happens: a new thing begins to take shape. It doesn't look like my vision, but, I dunno, that bit is sorta neat.

Before too long, I'm happily clucking away, adding detail to something that I'm happy with. Something unexpected. Something real.

This is the trough of creativity - for an illustration, I can get out of the trough in about an hour of steady work. The main problem is that psyching myself up to begin the descent can take weeks!

Visions are Empty Lies

The main problem is that my 'vision' of my project is deceptive. I think that I've got a clear picture in my head of how it's going to look. The more time I spend thinking about it, the clearer that picture gets.. or so I think. All that's left is to draw it, write it, right?

What I really have is a clear picture of how awesome it's going to look. How awesome? Really awesome. I can totally imagine myself, looking at the finished artwork, feeling like a million bucks. The figure's stance? Out of this world. My grasp of lighting? Divine!

Just like in dreams - I'm reading a book, but when I wake up, I can't remember what it said. This happens because the book didn't say anything. All the parts of my brain that process language were happily asleep; the part that knows what it feels like to read a book was dreaming.

My daydreams are just the same - exciting, tantalizing, but almost entirely devoid of useful detail.

The worst part is that I can't tell. I think my vision is all worked out but for the doing. This is the ghost's lie.

To Begin, First Kill Your Dream

This is painfully obvious once I start the business of actually creating. I can have a vision of holistic beauty without imagining any actual details. For a real-life piece of art, however, the holistic impressions only come from the parts working together: there need to be parts, or there's no whole!

What keeps me from entering the trough is this:

I believe the vision is real, and I don't want to damage it.

I'm scared, because my unconscious knows that as soon as I start, my precious daydream is going to be blown away like a puff of smoke.

And yet, this is the only way to begin.

The Will o' the Wisp

I think the proper use of vision is as motivation.  The hunger to create shows up like a will o' wisp; the only thing it's going to do is lead you off the path and into the swamps. But that's as far as it goes.

If you want to go any further, you're on your own.

Better keep moving.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Quick Dungeon Method

I've been wanting to do this for a while but never made the time. Here's a video of my process for making an 'old blue' map.

I made a couple of mistakes on the video, notably setting the recording framerate to "ass", but there you go - better luck next time.

My process for making these is completely different from my hand-drawn maps, which should be obvious immediately.  The Photoshop template I'm using has a bunch of useful layer effects all ready to go.

Instead of drawing walls, I'm painting floor space.  I'm literally just grabbing basic shapes for brushes and painting in white, and the outlines grid and get added automatically.

It's a shame I didn't manage to record my mouse cursor, as I think that would make it all a bit clearer - instead of rooms appearing, you'd see me dragging a square brush around for corridors and rectangles, and then using circles and hexagons to make the various notches.

What's fun about this is that I can build up a complex outline a bit at a time (see 1:30 to 2:30) instead of knowing in advance what the outline of the room is going to be.

 Architectural adornments like this don't do anything for grid-based fights, but I hope they convey an baroque impression that would affect the GM's description of the place.  Room #6 is clearly not a crude stone room.

The texture I lay down from 7:40 to 8:15 isn't lost, I just hide it and bring parts back with a chunky 'boulder' brush. (You can then see me go around twice with a 'pebble' brush.)

The final product is a bit simplistic; it's not as lovingly crafted as hand-drawn ones, but it's really, really fast.