Monday, 7 December 2015

Three For The Grave

In the far south, villages dot a marshy river valley. Life is difficult on the neath, but a long-standing tradition saves them when the food runs out. Unfortunately, cannibalizing the ancestral host is a recipe for disaster, and there are signs one has already begun to unfold. It begins with the bears..

On the big map, this adventure is set in the far south, between Aridenn and Noripur:

Once again, a big thank you to my patrons, whose support means that this adventure and the associated art are all CC-BY-NC.

Art bits:

Saturday, 31 October 2015

The Oracle's Decree

A reptilian sorcerer commands the last outpost of a vanished empire, torn between madness and continuing the task set him by his silent masters: destroying the world piece by piece.

The desert swarms with willing guides, but are they more trouble than they're worth? The desert has ways of taking its toll from everyone who dares enter.

The Oracle's Decree features exterior and cutaway views of Pelaago, a cliff-side fort on the outskirts of a desert wasteland, the scaly Heelan

This adventure is set up a bit like a pointcrawl; you can either randomize the desert encounters as suggested, or arrange them on the landscape when you situate the adventure on your campaign map.

If you're using the Big Map, Pelaago is located on the eastern outskirts of the Blightlands, and the cliff marks the edge of the Firevault plateau.

A big thank-you to my patrons who make this project possible. If you enjoy this adventure or any of my others, consider dropping some coin in my Patreon tip jar!

Thanks to their generosity, this adventure and all of the art are released for non-commercial reuse under CC-BY-NC 3.0.

Full-resolution TIFF art: Pelaago Exterior - Pelaago Interior - Heelan Eye - Water Shade

Friday, 9 October 2015

Making a 3D Map, Part 3

It's finally done! This has probably been the largest, most complicated traditionally-drawn map I've done so far.

As explained in previous posts, I don't have a scanner large enough for me to draw this at the size I wanted to work, so I decided to work piecemeal, scanning each section as I completed it, then reprinting it in cyan on card stock.

The cyan could all be all removed in Photoshop, leaving me with a mosaic of pieces to assemble.

"The old wizard hands you a map in four sections, apologizing about the size of his scanner."
I'm pretty psyched about how it turned out.  Here's the final, assembled map:

click to embiggen

To get it at proper viewing size, you'll need to check out Bedrock Games' upcoming Wuxia RPG, Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate!

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

PC Knowledge and the Bandwidth Problem

In my last post, I wrote about how vigilance is an experience that's very hard to simulate in role-playing games. This is one symptom of a very general issue: talking is slow.

Role-playing is very low bandwidth.

This comes up a lot for lore-heavy games. There just isn't enough time, in-band, to communicate anything but short tidbits of information about the game world.

I've occasionally tried (and nearly always failed) to create a form of suspense where the players know a bunch of lore, and then in-game events relate to it.  In my imagination, players notice discrepancy I've planted, and react with appropriate alarm.

"Wait, what? A Sigornian Templar without a cassock? He's an imposter!"

In real life, they never notice.

I've seen many posts by GMs, frustrated that they've got all this canon, but the players aren't interested in doing homework to absorb it all - so they don't understand the subtleties the GM is trying to convey at the table.

"Now, over here is where the empire invaded in 485 NE, or 982 ZE by the Orgothan calendar.."

Talk Faster?

Not only is talking slow, but few players have any interest in listening to a gargantuan info-dump that I stayed up all night writing.  You could write a big setting book, but then the problem is finding players that want to read it.

I do know some players who lap this sort of thing up, (history buffs and whatnot) that love rolling around in canon and try to use it at the table, but in my travels they're a small percentage. Many people I've gamed with can barely remember the single major clue they found last session.

Nevertheless, the problem endures because playing knowledgeable characters is awesome.

So, how do we get players to feel like their characters aren't idiots, bumbling around in an unfamiliar world?

The Solutions I've Seen

a) Write down all your lore, and find a bunch of players that enjoys reading it and make your group out of them. (Be prepared for this to be almost none of your original group.)

This seems to work best with popular culture settings like Middle Earth and Star Wars, mostly because the 'lessons' aren't an info dump, but emotionally interesting stories with setting information as a byproduct.

b) GM tells you what your character knows, when it's relevant; either when the PC asks for information or when a situation arises that a knowledgeable PC would recognize as significant.

Sometimes this requires a test of knowledge skills. I see this sort of thing in the context of GM-initiated knowledge challenges (like, you need to know something about elven portals to open this portal.)  GUMSHOE has a particular take on this, where the skills in questions are just pools that can be dipped into a number of times.

This works well for some groups, but it has a few implications:

  • it creates a subtle mismatch between playing a knowledgeable character and feeling like one
  • it reinforces the 'star' pattern in the group, where the most meaningful interactions occur between one PC and the GM

c) Ditch the lore. Scorched earth - focus on what happens at the table, filling in with a sentence or two for context when necessary, but never hanging any developments on whether the players have memorized some in-game lore.

d) Let PCs propose reasonable facts. I see this a lot in the context of player-initiated plans: while the party is figuring out how to infiltrate an elven community, the bard player wonders aloud whether elven patrols could be temporarily deceived by an impression of elven music the bard just happens to know.

The GM hasn't invented any elven songs, but clearly there would be some, and it's plausible the bard might have heard one somehow - success and he performs it well enough to fool the elves. Fail the roll, and by gum he mixes it up with a Sigornian dirge and arouses the curiosity of every elven patrol within two miles.

"Orcs shamans would totally have their own private latrines!"
Burning Wheel uses this to good effect, making it the explicit method for using knowledge skills. (BW has another stat, 'Circles', that lets players propose plausible NPCs the same way, one of the killer apps of the game).

Many play groups do this informally without thinking about it much, with players asking leading questions, "Well, does the Bishop use some kind of washer woman I might know?" or observer-players lobbing in suggestions from the peanut gallery that the GM uses as inspiration (sometimes covertly, sometimes openly).

e) As seen at some Dungeon World tables, one option is to let players propose anything. Even things relating to NPC factions that have just been discovered by the party.

f) Create the lore together, perhaps using a structured procedure like a game of Microscope or The Quiet Year. This will create a group who is super-familiar with the material and deeply invested in it (because they invented most of it), at the cost that you control very little of it. (You could ask that they stick to certain parameters.)

What have I missed?


Some neat suggestions to enrich these options.

1. +Jeremy Strandberg has a tweak to option b), that runs like this.  The GM has set up a situation where one of the templars is an imposter, and calls for a roll.  If the PC passes the knowledge check, the GM says, "You notice that one of the templars is an imposter in disguise. What gives it away?" The player then gets to narrate what they notice.

This is delightful, as it makes the player the person at the table who gets to narrate being knowledgeable, while preserving traditional responsibilities for the structurally-relevant details. (Not to say the player's contribution is trivial or cosmetic, in an ideal world, the player-created detail takes on a life of its own in later play.)

He further points out this is most appropriate for 'Sherlock Holmes' or 'Cadfael' type games, where the players are creating the world while showing how smart their characters are, rather than high lethality dungeon crawls that rely on players interpreting what they see around them.

2. +Christopher Meid also tweaks option b), suggesting that the GM (or possibly the player) can narrate a flashback that explains how the PC came to know the crucial information.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Making Knowledge Valuable

This is a half-formed idea with potential.

Nearly a year ago I wrote about red herrings in dungeon dressing, and how room/area descriptions can instead be useful if they give players knowledge about what's going on in the dungeon.

Reconnoitering the Shrine of Woe

Let's say that the party has committed to taking down the Shrine of Woe - it's a blight on the landscape, disgorging troublesome beasties almost monthly, etc. etc.

They don't know what's there, but rather than go kick in the door and go toe to toe with whatever it is, they equip themselves for a long journey, to tour all the little marshlands villages to see what can be learned about the Shrine.

They then plan out a second and third missions to do recon - one approaching the Shrine from the west, another from the east, to scout out the lands around that place before planning a fourth and final journey to assault the Shrine directly.

In a linear campaign, making this happen is easy: you just structure the chapters of the pre-planned adventure accordingly, but I've never seen this happen organically in a campaign.

If you have, I'd love to hear your tale!

Until then, here's my ideas for ways to bring this about.

Some Principles of Valuable Knowledge

  1. Danger is distributed unevenly
  2. There are hidden exploits
  3. Rewards are distributed unevenly
  4. There are clues that explain the layout
  5. Preparation involves trade-offs

Uneven, Hidden Dangers

Danger varies wildly - some areas are safe, while other areas nearby are downright lethal. Much of this isn't obvious. Monsters have horrible, non-obvious powers - infection, curses, leap attacks.
  • They are warded off by certain preparations or weapons
  • They are dangerous unless unusual preparations are made
  • They inflict harm that requires unusual treatment
Consequences might spring, trap-like, from innocuous sources. You ambush a small pack of goblins, but reinforcements boil out of every hole in the ground for miles. Deadly things are sleeping in caves, but awaken with determination to punish any who have disturbed them.

Potential allies are easily offended, and have unadvertised cravings and needs.

There Might be a Way..

On the other hand, there are exploits. Monsters have hidden weaknesses. Sites have solid defenses, but hidden access.

There's a long, winding canyon through Jutland that keeps off the worst of the sun and stops the orc ridge-scouts from ever spotting you. Morton villagers know a dry path through the Gormarl. Water shades can't stand the taste of vinegar, so sprinkle some in your footprints.

The Spawn of Ubratna will turn you inside out with a look, but powdered limestone sends them scrambling for the dark places.

The Gomarl is dangerous, sure - especially if you get lost, but in the summer (and only the summer), it's full of blackfruit, which will keep you alive for days. If you know the ways in and out, it can be worth diverting through.  Anders' Rock is hollow, and conceals a spring of good clear water.

A Bowlful of Nothing

Even so, not all pain is gain, because rewards are distributed unevenly. You might know how to placate the Devil of Folly's Basin, but the only things there are sand and broken glass. Avoid it!

On the other hand, the wasteland giants are weak and divided, and their emperor rules in name only. The outer clans will benefit from his downfall so won't come to his aid, making his vault is ripe for the picking. Better yet, Queen Malian's tomb is completely unguarded, all you have to do is find it.

The Skirts of Athena

This is all well and good, but if players don't have a way to find out, they'll be blundering randomly into fame and fortune, or a gruesome, profitless death.

As I wrote in Interesting and Useful Dungeon Descriptions, I like to build descriptions from a short list of emitters - core facts about the adventure location that are constantly throwing off evidence.

A halo of clues, sightings and rumors, that spreads out through the dungeon, rewarding investigation. Sometimes, the edge of the 'hem' makes it as far as nearby communities.

Players come to expect that by looking for facts, they can steadily build a picture of the situation around them, a picture they desperately need.
  • What sort of place is this? (What can we expect of the layout of the rest of it?)
  • What's been happening here? (What might happen again, soon?)
  • What's in here with us? (Where is it? How do we prepare for it?)
  • What does it want? (Should we avoid it?)
  • How bad is it? (Is it a militaristic, vengeful gestalt? How brutal is it with prisoners?)

Trade-Offs in Preparation

The party can't balance itself against all possible threats and obstacles. They can be as prepared as possible, but a general state of being well prepared is inadequate for the variety of challenges out there.

They need to make specific preparations, and if they're wrong they'll be out of their depth quickly.

If it's easy for the part to prepare for any eventuality, there's no need for recon.  Recon missions are about going in quietly, learning what needs to be learned, and getting out again - so a subsequent foray can be planned that makes different trade-offs.

If the party is full of plate-armored spell-mages carrying their repertoire of magic and two hundred pounds of useful gear with them in a bag of holding.. they're not going to need to make multiple forays.

Instead, imagine expedition prep is all about trade-offs:
  • Specialist gear is heavy, or has other side effects (e.g. warm clothing makes you hot)
  • Magic must be chosen well in advance (perhaps components or spellbooks are heavy, expensive and/or easily lost)
  • Special preparations are expensive and have a shelf life (e.g. potions, ointments, poultices)
  • Hirelings provide strength in numbers and can carry everything, but they eat a lot of food and leave a trail that can't be missed
  • Certain foes require large, specialist armament (pikes for giants, crossbows for water shades, the wheeled scorpio for wyverns and harpies)
If this all works, I suppose it's players going out and creating their own hard-won assets and options, top-quality gameable campaign capital.

The Water Shade

We'd been travelling in the parch for days, making good progress. If luck held out, we'd be at Arijan by month's end.

But then the signs started - first with Elwon, draining his wineskin before noon day after day, at the barrel again before supper. He'd always been a greedy shit, but even after the captain had a stiff word with him, he wouldn't stop drinking.

Come that third morning, he was in bad shape. Skin drawn, cracking, raving about water.. always water. Then Nedlo spotted it, clear as day.

A water shade.

Head cocked, bold as brass it stood, looking at us one minute, licking at the sand the next. Nedlo said he could feel it in his guts, stealing his water right outta him, but the chaplain told him to shut it. That sorta talk was for drunks and bannets, not proper Kingsmen.

But I felt it too.

The captain started after it, waving his arms to scare it off, but I reckon it was as thirsty as us, and not likely put off the trail by a bit of noise. Without horses, what chance of catching it?  It moved off, came back, moved off, came back.

* * *

For days it followed. After a while, we didn't have the strength to shoo it, and maybe it didn't matter.

Nedlo said every where you go you leave a bit of yourself behind, in your footprints like. Everyone's is different, and the shade can smell it. We always knew in these parts not to say our names to folk, chaplain was always saying, less we knew we could trust 'em. It gives a power over you, to the wrong hands anyways, But how's a man to keep his footprints to himself?

Chaplain didn't have an answer for that one. Fact is, I don't think he ever spoke again.

That's about all I have to say about the water shade. The rest of the story's not fit for your green ears noways, less you're heading into the parch.

You are? That case, I'll tell it, for your insistence - but you'll need a drink for this one. Be a righty and buy me one too.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Making a 3D Map, Part 2

With my trusty cyan maquette and my PITT pens, I've been slowly adding ink to the Tomb of the Timeless Master.  There are quite a few rooms, so I've annotated my SketchUp drawing with notes cribbed from the module.

At this point I'm grateful for the copious perspective-reference lines I sprinkled all over the maquette. For irregular structures like rocky cliff faces (which are really just scraggly lines), it's really easy to destroy the sense of perspective without constant reminders of the 3D space they're filling.

Once I've filled the page, I scan it into Photoshop to use its magic to pull out the blue lines, and clean off any crud.

To add more to the illustration, however, I add a blue gradient map, so that I can use what I've completed so far as a structure to attach the rest to.

Time to stock up on cyan printer cartridges!

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Where Art Thou Vigilance?

The tip is credible: at some point in the next few hours, a sniper will attempt an assassination in the Piazza del Campo. The party has stationed you up in the Mangia tower on counter-sniper detail - your job is to wait and watch for any sign of the threat.

This is what you can see:

Aaaany second now..
This is vigilance: the visceral experience of remaining alert and watchful in a high-stimulus environment with no guarantee you'll ever see what you're looking for.

I've experienced this many times (especially in large-scale outdoor paintball), and I find it so engrossing - yet I have never experienced this in a role-playing game.

What brought this to mind was an Arma video posted by John Harper.

It seems to arise from the fact that Arma missions aren't scripted (as is the case with single-player missions) - I'm on the look out for something that might or might not happen, a state of meaningful, heightened awareness.  If I pay attention, it matters, because I might run into massive opposition.  Or nothing might happen.  A visceral suspense.

Grateful for Nothing

I had the same feeling many years ago during a long ammo supply run on a Battletech MUSE (think Zork as an MMO, with mechs).  I was driving a truck out to an factory on the periphery of my faction's turf to pick up some badly needed replacement armor. My lone escort? A 3025 Catapult: not much if we ran into any real opposition.

I was glued to my scanner the whole time, and despite the fact that we never ran into anything at all, it still scores highly in my memory.

I never experience this in table-top role-playing games, I assume because there's no way to be vigilant.

Players have to ask the GM to see anything, and they're told faithfully what they see, at least to the limit of their perception.  Obscurity doesn't feel like a veil you can pierce with effort, like it does in real life (staring into the twilight to make out if that log is really a log or a sniper).  You can emulate this, but it's more like the GM is stringing you along.  "I look."  "It looks like a log, but it's hard to tell."  "Okay, I look really hard."

I'm working on a hack that has a vigilance mechanic, but it doesn't produce this experience. If anything, the opposite, by pushing the decision to be vigilant up to a strategic level, instead of feeling like it's something you're applying effort to on a moment-by-moment basis.

Tell me your thoughts!  Have you ever felt this way at the table?

Monday, 28 September 2015

The Full-Dark Stone

Great as they were, the Seree wizards of old would never have been able to cast their most powerful magics using talent alone. Still lying around the realm are their spell vaults, tomb-like fortifications that hold the secrets of their magical supremacy.

The Seree are gone, but the vaults remain. But the gnawing of time cares nothing for secrets..

On the big map, the vault is located in the foothills of the Wintpeaks, north of Aridenn, but you could situate it in any mountain or escarpment. Relatively close to an existing settlement is better, since that gives a greater chance that there are some 'river people' encountering the vault servants, or exhibiting odd, magical side-effects from the vault's runoff water.

There's very little loose treasure in the vault, but remember that nearly every skull contains a wizard flower!

Vitrum Aquae for Player Characters

If PC spellcasters experiment with the vitrum aquae ritual, it's basically an opportunity for a permanently-memorized spell (which uses up the spell memorization slot), at the cost of a point of one or all of Int, Wis, Cha.

The quantity and quality of gemstone should be commensurate with the level of the spell being crystallized - anything less will worsen the side effects, which include:
  • Losing more points from Int, Wis or Cha
  • The spell uses up one or more additional spell slots
  • The spell is miscast, and can never again be cast in its correct form, and always comes with either minor or major side effects (e.g. fireball always detonates at the wizard's fingertip, invisibility can only be cast on someone else, levitation only works upwards, the wizard can never fly to the east, etc.)

Art Files

Thanks again to everyone supporting this project on Patreon! Thanks to their generosity, everything in the adventure is released under cc-by-nc, so you can pull it apart and remix it for whatever non-commercial purpose strikes your fancy.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Making a 3D Map, Part 1

I'm doing another 3D map for Bedrock Games, and figured I'd show the process I'm using here.

As usual when I do maps for +Brendan Davis, he showers me with sketches, documentation and reference images to help me out. It can be a lot to read at times, but it comes in handy when doing 'dungeon dressing'.

In this case, we're doing the Tomb of the Timeless Master, an adventure location for the upcoming Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate wuxia RPG. It's got a lot of vertical elements - great for isometric or other 3D maps.

Here's part of the sketch Brendan sent me:

After a bit of back and forth, I knew the altitude of everything, which way the stairs climbed and so on, so I could start thinking about one of the big challenges of doing a 3D map: which angle do you pick to draw it from?

Sometimes you're rendering a location that follows Q*Bert topology. That makes the decision easy: you draw the dungeon from the angle that makes it more or less co-planar with the surface of the paper.

3D Maquettes to the Rescue

Some dungeons just aren't that simple, however, and the Tomb of the Timeless Master is one of them. After staring at it for a while, I realized the only way I was going to figure it out was to play with an actual 3D model of the dungeon.  Time to bust out SketchUp!

One of the great features of SketchUp is that you can import a 2D image to use as a reference. Below, you can see Brendan's original sketch.  I've traced the rooms, then lifted them vertically to the correct height.  Before long, I had a little 3D maquette to experiment with.

This let me rotate the model this way and that, looking for the angle that presents the dungeon in an interesting way, and with the least number overlapping elements. Some more discussion with Brendan helped here, as he decided to collapse a few stray bits to help it read as clearly as possible.

Cyan Is Your Friend

How to get from here to an illustration? I like to draw at an exaggerated scale, because that helps with the detail. Unfortunately I only have a letter-width printer and scanner.  I decided to do what I did on a previous illustration: to draw it piecemeal, and assemble it digitally.

To this end, I needed a template to make sure that all the pieces fit together properly.  The basic idea is this: print out a reference in non-photocopy blue, draw it, scan it in again, and pull out the blue using Photoshop, leaving a clean illustration for me to assemble.

With a few tweaks to my SketchUp settings, then a bit of adjusting in Photoshop, I had my template.

As you might be able to tell, I've actually decided to go with a 3D perspective rendering, not isometric at all. SketchUp makes this easy, and 

Working as a mosaic, however, means stitching together pieces of the illustration. Fortunately, the same technique I'm using for the template can work here, too. Where the pieces need to overlap, I can actually just print out the "seams" in blue, connect them by hand, and scan them in again.

Pull out the blue and I'm left with just the new, hand-drawn connection piece (in black), which fits like a puzzle piece with the two halves of the illustration I'm connecting:

Above, you can see part of the chapter heading illustration from the same book. This image appears in a few variations, which required me to join up a few "alternate" pieces of the illustration.  The woman on the left appears in two different poses, but she needs to connect to the same piece of scarf.

Stay tuned, I'll post the map once it's done!

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.