Wednesday 30 August 2017

51 Black Doors

In Ben Robbins' original West Marches campaign, some parts of the dungeon were dramatically tougher (but more lucrative) than others:
Dungeons generally had the same or near encounter level as the region they were in (for all the obvious reasons), but to make things interesting I designed many of the dungeons with “treasure rooms” that were harder than the standard encounter level, well hidden, or just plain impossible to crack. So even when a party could slog through and slaughter everything they met, there was a spot or two they couldn’t clear, whether it was the fearsome Black Door, the ghoul-infested crypts of the ruined monastery, or the perilous Hall of Swords. They usually had to give up and make a strong mental note to come back later when they were higher level.
Lots of times they never came back. They really wanted to, they talked about it all the time, but they never got around to it because they were busy exploring new territory. Rather than being frustrating each new “incomplete” seemed to make players even more interested in the game world.
Was there actually good treasure in the treasure rooms? Yes, really good treasure. Every time the players cracked one it just made them more certain that all those other sealed or well-guarded rooms they couldn’t beat were chock full of goodness.

I was in the mood for brainstorming some 'black doors', and here's what a bunch of creative folks came up with:

d% What bars the adventurers' way?
1-2A slab of black granite, positioned like a door but actually built in place. It extends several feet into the surrounding masonry.
3-4A trap door at the top of a long natural chimney--above it is a room filled with ghouls (dozens) that walk back and forth over the trap door.
5-6A 20' section of corridor, the floor is literal lava. It's flowing from a rent in one wall and draining through a wide cracking I to a chamber below.
7-8A door of gnarled and bulbous vigorous oak. Every attempt to chop it causes it to sprout extra thickness.
9-10A gale force wind that howls down the corridor extinguishing all natural flames.
11-12The opening in the top of the chamber is smooth and slopes upwards, like a reverse whirlpool. Acidic oozes drip along the surface.
13-14A sphere of annihilation blocking a corridor. On the ground nearby, many skeletons missing a head or arm or more.
15-16An aquarium, positioned like a door. It is filled with water and anti-pufferfishes (they are full of explosive gas that ignites as soon as they are not in water anymore). One glass pane is super thick and can be drilled while the one on the other side will shatter as soon as it is hit or pierced.
17-18A door of living wood that grows thorny arms and claws to tear the flesh of anyone who comes close.
19-20A door rooted into the living rock around it, made entirely of a solid plank of magically treated trollbone. Any attempt to penetrate it rapidly spawns one or more angry, confused trolls with (healing) wounds from the tools. Meanwhile the door itself heals itself from the power of the mountain and borrows the rock's invulnerability to acid and fire.
21-22A reverse gravity spell that makes you fall onto the stalactites at the ceiling, 100+ ft above.
23-24A glassy abyss that quickly shears ropes.
25-26An open archway, flanked by silent statues, gazing down on the path between. Anyone who passes between is vapourized by energy beams fired from the eyes of the statues. (Lifted wholecloth from The Neverending Story.)
27-28The veins of metal collect here into a single polished mirror. Anything that goes in instantly comes out. Any spell or object thrown, any individual that goes in walks right back out. Any mirror carried through is instantly rendered opaque.
29-30Seven buttons must be pressed at the same time to open the door. Each is encased in a heavily enchanted portal in the room, locked tight and wreathed in a curse or elemental trap.
31-32A frictionless corridor that gently slopes upwards. 80' long.
33-34An oily pool surrounded by glowing stones. One stone is taller than the others and covered in glyphs, and acts as a control.
35-36A series of climbs and falls through a long hallway, 30' high, with small locked doors at the top and bottom. The top 15' is bathed in positive energy, the bottom 15' in negative energy. See Planescape elemental planes for effects.
37A 40x40x40' room; the entrance is a small round opening in the dead middle of the ceiling.
38-39A petrified gelatinous cube blocks the corridor. Its semi transparent carcass still holds some treasure, and can allow you to see the movement of indistinct shapes and light on the other side. How did the gelatinous cube wind up in such a fashion? A rare disease or some magic? Would stone to flesh return it to normal?
40-41An earthquake has caused the stone to shear - a 10' wide corridor has been offset by 9'10" leaving only a two-inch gap.
42-43An empty stone arch sits at the bottom of the dungeon, rune-rimed and inert. Ancient writing covers the walls, describing a ritual, a portal - but those who study them are compelled to leave.
44A small labyrinth where the dead ends are formed by grills of heavy iron bars. Deadly oozes move through them unimpeded, and take the shortest path toward living creatures.
45-46100' corridor ends in a room. In the room is a crackling metal globe on a post. Occasionally, lightning cracks off the globe and hits the wall of the room. It also zaps the nearest thing in corridor with lightning once every five to ten seconds.
47-48An area of the room (e.g. the ceiling) is actually a powerful magnet that draws all ferrous material to it. Not even a storm giant is strong enough to dislodge it (though he could certainly create an offsetting electric field...). Not as useful vs. bronze age technology.
49-50A 100', pitch dark hallway of trip wires and pits ends in a door with a detailed demonic face twisted in rage. The door causes fear in any who lay eyes on it - the power of the fear is greater the more clearly the face can be seen. When dim torchlights merely brush its shadows, it's just a sense of imminent and growing doom, but in full light the intricate details of its horrors can be seen and inspire a panicky flight in those who behold it. The door is not locked.
51-52A wall of seemingly impenetrable glass stands before you, treasures beyond your imagining lay just on the other side.
53-54This looks to be a dead end, save for the tiny opening at the bottom of the wall, just wide enough to fit an arm through.
55-56A small, naked -- androgynous and neuter -- humanoid figure with mayfly wings and glittering white skin sits in a diminutive high backed velvet armchair reading a book. Calmly addressing the party, it looks at them with black, void like eyes and speaks in a hauntingly beautiful voice, "Welcome. I am the door of black. Do you have my key?" The book and chair are illusions, and the powerful fey wields unlimited spheres of annihilation in the same way a child would throw rocks, plucking them out of thin air. If attacked, the first action is to simply eliminate the weapons used and calmly respond, "No, young one, that is not the key."
57-58Reverse door: The treasure mcguffin / thing you've been sent to recover can be reached with relatively little difficulty, but it is mystically tethered to the room or the dungeon, impeding your escape. This could manifest in a few ways. The object grows in weight with each step you take. Its weight is tracked per person based on how many 5' or 1m squares they travel with it item while in the dungeon. The doors all close and you must find a way to open them all. Roll d20 on this chart for each "door". Reroll this result. There is a literal tether attached to it, but you can only see it with detect magic / see invisible or similar. It can't be broken by brute strength.
59-60The corridor is split by a ravine 18' across. The inner walls of the ravine are soft and porous, and crumble easily.
61-62Giant stone golems surrounded by anti-magic cloud.
63-64A pool of liquid, 30' wide, with a 30' high ceiling. There is a very narrow and slippery path around the pool. In the centre of the ceiling there is a hole with a ladder that leads to the next room. You barely see the ladder from the edge of the room. The liquid in the pool feels greasy like soap and is much, much less dense than water. It weighs next to nothing. Wood floats, but just barely. People sink dramatically.
65-66A submerged passageway, too long for a swimmer to simply hold his breath.
67-68A wide chasm, 100' or more across, filled by giant spider webs, with a narrow plank bridge set in the webs themselves. The webs are occupied, and burning them removes the plank bridge as well.
69-70A literal black door, haunted by the souls of every PC and hireling who has died in the dungeon. If any bear a grudge the door is held shut; if all are satisfied with the surviving party it opens freely. Accusatory wails give clues to how they can be appeased.
71-72A collapsed tunnel requiring reasonable engineering skills, a block and tackle, sweat, and a lot of wood to clear and shore up.
73-74A corcscrewing and twisting mile long, 2 foot high tunnel, very warm, filled with stinging ants.
75-76A few friendly but quite strict museum guards or park rangers with views on poaching and interfering with exhibits.
77-78A hallway that is incinerated with flame every 30 seconds. Usain Bolt could run across it in 31 seconds.
79-80Motherfucking pool with a couple of submerged froghemoths. Eyes visible. Get across it.
81-82Another standard: just a big-ass descent. Better come back with 500 feet of rope (and not the cheap stuff, because the cheap stuff will break if it has to hold up 500 feet of heavy hempen rope).
83-84A long tunnel. Like 50 miles long, devoid of water.
85-86Wall of fire. Come back with the sigil of Eldrune, an anti-fire spell, or just more hit points.
87-88A door of sacrifice, with an obvious sacrificial altar mouth, that requires the brain of a sentient creature. The door is also some sort of punchy, fighty golem thing.
89-90The classic puzzle thing, e.g. a portal of burning flames that deals 66 hp damage to everyone passing through, except those who are completely naked. Above, an inscription, "Leave your mother. The world awaits." or some other stuff like that.
91-92A metal door in an echo prone room where unsavory creatures sleep. I'm thinking batfolk goblins on the ceiling, or a swarm of styrges, or drowsy zombies. More than an average party can comfortably deal with.
93-94The door is a bit more difficult to break down than normal, and it cannot be done fast without magic. Most mundane attempts will awaken the monsters.
95-96A set of runes written in paint; anything not flesh becomes immaterial if it gets within 10 feet.
97-98A wailing door. It's cries can be deafening and responds violently to any interaction with it. Unknown to the party, it just needs to be sung to sleep.
99-100A blind and somewhat senile ancient Beholder whose eye-bolts still function -- or, most of them do, or some of them have random effects due to experiments the Beholder attempted on itself. Does it still have a full mouth of teeth?

Skerples was in the mood to get through some of these doors with a small party of 1st level adventurers, and posted how they would go about it along with a review of some doors he didn't like. It's a fun read!

A few notes in response to the responses I've seen floating around. None of this is conceptually new! I was reminded that 'gating' is an old concept from video game level design--familiar from 'you need the red key card' situations.

Obstacles also serve lots of different purposes, depending on how they're written.

  • You can have very constrained railroady things that try to force players to do a side quest first (the aforementioned, 'fetch the red key card').
  • Similarly, you could have gates that are puzzles which the designer wants the party to solve in a particular way, with railroady dissuasion of alternate solutions.
  • You can have gates that are meant to act as filters to guarantee that characters have specific abilities or pieces of equipment (which can also be a bit railroady).
  • The gate might be serving primarily as a marker to the players that the ecosystems/dungeon fauna on either side could be dramatically different--in the same way that mythic underworld entrances do. Perhaps bad stuff has been sealed in.
  • The gate might just be an obstacle which demands the players invent a solution (but without prescribing what that is), an old-school staple.
  • Some doors could be all of these things - a door with powerful active defenses (e.g. lightning) that blasts away at parties who don't have the red key card (but tough, magically defended might be able to slog through and defeat the door directly), but which even determined and inventive (e.g. by hiring a team of miners and tunneling around the damn thing).
Doubtless there are more!


Many thanks to: Adam "Bison Court" D, Andrew Muttersbach, Ara Winter, Arnold K., Brent Newhall, Brian Lee, Brian Murphy, Claytonian JP, Dave R, Eric Nieudan, Evan Edwards, Follow Me, And Die!, James Shields, Jason Abdin, Jean-Fran├žois Lebreton (Jarnos), Jesse Alford, Jesse Cox, Luka Rejec, Matt Kay, Michael Atlin, Mike Edwards, Perttu Vedenoja, Rob Brennan, Skerples, William Altman, William Benjamin John Davis (SinbadEV) .. for their contributions.

Thursday 24 August 2017

Chariot of Worms

The weird, meandering tunnels found in dwarven mines stand in stark contrast to the orderly architecture of the masters. They weren't carved by masons, nor by water, but by void worms.

A mature void worm is 50' long, with a body made of nothingness. Where it lies, no rock exists. It inches forward slowly, occasionally intersecting. Once it has passed, there is undisturbed solid rock once more.

The appearance of a void worm often goes unnoticed. They're silent, and whatever they eat, they are uninterested in surface dwellers. They're heralded by nothing more than a circular opening appearing in a wall, enlarging to the full diameter of the worm, revealing an ever-shortening tunnel.

An hour or more later, when the worm crosses whatever room or corridor it blundered into, a similar breach opens on the far side.

At the tip of each tunnel is a seam of gold, which to the untrained eye appears to be a natural part of the rock. A thick, rich vein of pure gold! But alas, mining this kills the worm. The worm's nothing-body begins to rot immediately.

Crumbling, porous rock encroaches on all sides, replacing the smooth tunnel with crunching, delicate spurs of natural rock. In a few weeks, the void has closed completely.

The brave or foolhardy might run along its body, using it as a momentary glimpse into the surrounding rock, to other caverns or true seams of value, but the risk of being trapped is ever-present.

Wise miners let the worms pass.

The Four-Lamp Chariot

According to the Ricalu, it was the Jorn that first figured out the worms' dislike of moonlight. How, nobody knows, but a lamp stuffed with lune moths will halt them completely.

Four such lanterns, arranged as the corners of a tetrahedron three paces in height and held in a frame of iron, can imprison a worm completely. A grinding (but stable) tetrahedral 'room' results, with the void worm's gold seam meandering around the rock face as it seeks escape.

By judiciously dimming one of the lamps, the worm rebels and expands in that direction. The frame is dragged with it, slowly pushing the chamber through solid rock.

By this method, many secret spaces can be reached.

The Queen's Chariot and the City of Worms

Of course, a single worm will only take you so far. According to Titardinal, the Queen of the Jorn rode in a six-lamp chariot driven by four worms (one a juvenile). With all four pushing, it was so rapid it bore her retinue through the bones of the earth at a brisk jog!

But even this pales against Jorn legend. Supposedly, the ancient masters of the deep forged twelve mighty beacons, and enclosed so many worms into an icosohedral cavern so massive it held an entire city, bathed in flickering lune-light.

So potent and numerous were its worms that the masters of the city could relocate it at will, leaping from vault to vault overnight. Iron-clad Jorn would pour out of the ground and butcher any who refused tribute.

A Word to Sorcerers

However, not even the sages of the Lycaeum were able to conclusively determine if this underworld city really existed, let alone where to find it. Their program of chariot-experimentation under Bashkanal was a failure. Surface sorcerers have no maps, and no guides of the underworld, and many esteemed lives were lost in collisions with voids, earthblood, and worse before the remaining lune lamps were returned to their posts in the great brass dome.

Sunday 20 August 2017

Resolution: Awesome or Tangible

I'm going to caricature two different sources of 'drama' in two different play styles. I like them both, but as building blocks of play, they seem to produce very different play experiences. Whenever I've had a lot of one of them, I yearn for a bit of the other.

Awesome Action

The party is wandering through a large, many-chambered cavern. They enter a large chamber split by a chasm - it's wide, but not so wide that jumping across seems impossible.

"I leap across!"

In an instant action game, this is a perfectly good play decision. The GM has made an offer (in the improv sense), and there's a wonderful back and forth to be had when the players and GM are riffing on each other's contributions.

Here's a resolution procedure from Blades in the Dark:

Here's a similar one from Dungeon World:

The key thing I want to focus on is the way the consequences of the action (especially the bad ones) are decided after the player rolls.

By and large, it's not going to be too terrible for the character. It can't be so easy that the GM feels the player is getting away with something, but it shouldn't generally be lethal. The point of play is for awesome stuff to happen (and pretty soon), so the outcome should be a setup for something interesting. Let's put you in a tight spot to see what heroic move you make next! e.g. How are you going to do this without your sword?

In general, death is off the table because the character is the player's vehicle for contributing to (and participating in) the awesomeness. Why take that away?

Unconsciousness is okay - it's bad, but from a game play perspective it's a bit like a time out. Better to be hanging upside-down from the strap of your backpack, with coins falling out of your pockets!

Tangible Obstacles

By contrast, have a look at the climbing rules from Moldvay edition of Basic D&D:

Here, the consequences are set ahead of time (not up to the GM), and they're not inherently interesting. There's no "dangling from the cliff edge while the goblin advances on you", you just fall and take terrible harm. For low-level characters, it's almost certainly lethal. (Even a level 4 thief only has ~10 hit points, not enough to survive an average 30' fall.)

Climbing up is probably not worth it - after all, the death would be meaningless, and that's rarely satisfying.  So rather than scamper up like a heroic lemming, the players reluctantly turn back.

The natural chimney has now just become a tangible obstacle.

This is frustrating. The players want to explore, but they can't. There's probably decent adventure up there, but it's inaccessible. Who would design a game or adventure this way on purpose?

In a sense, I think this frustration is the root of tangibility. A big part of a world feeling real is that it sometimes clings to its own self-consistent logic, refusing to conveniently bend to the needs of a good story, apt poignancy or instant drama. It just sits there, heavy and stubborn, forcing you to adapt to it.

Later, however, the situation has changed.  Maybe the PCs are fleeing the horror they awoke in room 19.  Maybe the mapper has a solid hunch that chimney gets them to a spot where they might be able to circle around to the jewelled ledge they noticed in the next chamber.

Either way, the chimney is now back in play - the stakes are higher, and when the players accept the risk of death it's no longer meaningless but a poignant underscoring of the seriousness, a testament to their commitment to their insane plan.  The latent drama of the Chimney of Meaningless Death now emerges.

"Oh shit, we're really gonna do this."

How This Relates to Mechanics

As I said at the start, I started off thinking about this in terms of DW's lack of quantitative difficulty, but I've changed my thinking on this. All you need is tangibility, which can come from a few places:

1. The players know the consequences without asking. The GM said it's a 100' climb, so the thief character immediately knows she has a 13% chance of falling from 50' up.

I experienced this feeling a lot while playing Torchbearer, because the players had a detailed understanding of how they were doing. For instance:

2. Consequences are established during play. For example:

PC: How high up is the chimney?
GM: It's at least 100' high, and very steep. Falling is going to kill you.

..or alternatively:

PC: I climb the chimney.
GM: If you call, you're going to die. Are you sure? [as per DW's say the consequences and ask]

The lack of difficulty modifiers doesn't make this impossible, but mechanics that encourage deferring the consequences until after the dice have rolled discourage it.

3. Players make mechanical inferences

Somewhere nearby, maybe, are mechanical inferences that come from quantified difficulty modifiers. Like when a Burning Wheel GM tells you it's an Ob 4 climb. They haven't told you what happens if you fall (or even if falling is a consequence), but you know from your skill rating that you're likely to miss by one, and missing by two or more on a vertical climb has got to be about as bad a consequence as possible, which has got to be a lethal fall, doesn't it?

In Summary

I've got more to say about this, in particular about how this plays out differently at different scales (moment to moment, the session, the campaign), but to summarize the effects of these resolution styles:

Instant action:

1. The GM (and/or the rules) creates a vivid environment
2. The players respond by embracing danger
3. Poignancy emerges from the moment, an awesome adventure is a co-creation
4. The design challenge is for resolution to help the GM introduce exciting outcomes in response to what the players do

Tangible Obstacles:

1. The GM (and/or the rules) creates an environment with hard edges
2. Players respond by balancing risk/reward, and by inventing solutions
3. Poignancy emerges over the long term
4. The design challenge is to help players understand the reality of the situation efficiently, so they can get on with responding to it in the knowledge that their planning effort is worth it

Friday 11 August 2017

What the hell, Gary?

I'm pecking away at my heartbreaker and wondering how long it is compared to, say, Moldvay D&D. Thus begins an hour of cutting and pasting PDF text into a text editor to get some rough and ready comparative sizes for RPG word counts.

Methodologically this is really quick and dirty; I'm just counting tokens - page numbers, separators, everything, but the relative sizes are the interesting thing.

Moldvay D&D is a little beefier than I was expecting. I think of it as a very concise game, but that tiny font is deceiving. I was thinking of it more like Monsterhearts in size, but it's halfway to being as big as Apocalypse World.

Still, it's got nothing on the heavyweights. I had no idea Stars Without Number was as massive as the brick games, Blades in the Dark, ACKS and Burning Empires. Dungeon Crawl Classics takes the cake for largest modern game I measured. It's 56,000 words longer than Burning Empires! Humongous.

But none of these even come close to the AD&D trilogy. The DMG alone is as big as DCC, and as a set it's bigger than DCC and ACKS stacked together. It's huge.


Several folks were kind enough to chip in sizes from their own collections. DCC has been eclipsed by a bunch of whoppers - Vampire, Werewolf, Eclipse Phase, Exalted, and Pathfinder.

The AD&D trilogy is still bigger, but my guess is whatever Pathfinder has for a bestiary (to make a fair comparison) would easily push it over the edge.

Tuesday 8 August 2017

Thieves, Goats, and Rubes

An adventuring party meets someone on the road. Looking at one another slyly, they ad lib a scheme to pull a fast one. Of course it's going to work--after all, the NPC is just a zero-level rube, right?

2d6 NPC Shrewdness
6-8Old Goat

The Naif

The naif is trusting to a fault. They accept what they're told, and assume the good intentions of the speaker. They may be dimly aware of the idea of exploitation (perhaps through fables), but the idea that there might be a swindler talking to them now is so alien that doesn't occur to them.

Although they're easy to lie to, the naif is unused to making the bold moves that will make them truly vulnerable to swindles. There's usually somebody there to handle that for them.

In a dangerous world, the naif is rare. Only the most sheltered circumstances can produce them - talking larva, privileged children, the occasional junior monk.

The Opportunist

The opportunist has heard all about swindles, but has yet to be truly burned by one. They're easy to take in because they're dumb enough to think that they're the one in command of the situation.

Opportunists are numerous, but short-lived. It doesn't take long before they wise up and turn into goats, thieves or swindlers. Occasionally, someone experienced stumbles into an unfamiliar context and falsely presumes their experience and shrewdness carries over.

The Old Goat

The old goat has been burned before - probably more than once. They're keenly aware of how hard it was to build up what they've got, and how easy it is to lose it all. This is on their mind at all times.

The goat is hard to take in because they're alert to unusual situations. They assume great  opportunities are too good to be true, and they're keenly aware of who created the situation before them. If someone else brought it to them, they suspect a swindle. Slow down, check credentials, say no, create distance.

The Swindler

The swindler has a plan, and you're part of it. Your chance meeting probably wasn't random at all, but even if it was, the swindler was waiting for somebody like you.

The swindler seems vulnerable. In fact, they are. There's no way they could take you on directly (at least, not profitably). But the weakness they're showing isn't the real one, it's a ploy meant to snare opportunists. Unlike the opportunist, they know who the mark is: you.

The Thief

The thief is a swindler with a simple plan. They're waiting as long as necessary to take your stuff, and not a minute longer. Thieves driven by desperate need or impulse make a hasty approach and an even hastier retreat. Doing damage isn't their goal, but they'll do whatever they have to.

In some cases, thieves are protected enough that they don't even need to retreat - they have numbers, armor or social standing to protect them, sometimes all three. Your Excellency makes a most excellent thief.