Thursday 30 November 2023

The Isle of Wight: Planning the Sandbox

One of the defining aspects of this campaign is my choice to run this on the real, actual Isle of Wight. I had thought about filing off the serial numbers, but the more time I spent poring over Google Maps, the more tempted I was to use the real place.

Approaching the Needles Tourist Attraction

The sheer amount of information here is truly overwhelming, but also like catnip to my brain. For one thing, players can get a good map of the whole place that really kicks player planning up a notch.

Ordnance Survey - Needles Attraction Area

When the players get to a location, I can actually pull out Google street view and show what it looks like.
"It looks like this, only the bus is burned"

Then when you get to a location, the GM can actually pull out google street view and make it really clear what the players are dealing with, and what it feels like to be there.

Preparing a Real Place

I forget how he put it, but Ken Hite once said that a sandbox is a load of sand your players can do anything with, but it's also great to have a bunch of plastic dinosaurs buried for them to find. This feels like phase 2 of my prep that I'm only now starting to enter, before this I had to figure out how to handle players going anywhere.

Dungeons are deliberately constraining, but I've got almost the opposite - the players have a motorboat, which means they can go to a huge number of places on the island. A circuit of the island is less than 100km, so they can pull into any cove, isolated bed and breakfast, seaside self-catered holiday cottages, and any of a number of actual towns, villages, manors, pubs, and other facilities.

The only way to handle all this is to have a set of tables, enough to be able to roll with any location the players might visit.

The Big Weather Table

Instead of having a weather table to roll on, I decided to pre-roll the weather. The players are starting on a cargo ship, making day and night forays through swift tides, landing on rocky coasts or via estuaries that turn into mud beds at low tide. For this reason, I built out a fairly comprehensive weather table:

I'm especially fond of the little tides notation:

↑12:00 ←14:52 ↓17:45 →20:37 ↑23:30

This is ↑ high tide at noon, peak ← westward flow in the afternoon, ↓ low tide at supper, eastward flow in late evening and then the second ↑ high tide just before midnight.

There's a similar one for the moon (which is important when the players are sneaking around at night without lights):

 ↑07:00 🌓13:15 ↓19:30

That's a 🌓 waxing moon that ↑ rises at 7 AM, highest at 1:15 PM, then ↓ setting after supper. (What's important about this is that the moon is up in the day, and will provide no light at night even if the sky is clear.)

Making a big weather table like this does take time, but I'm now firmly in favor, for two reasons:
  1. Handling time is much faster than randomly rolling the weather. I just switch to the Weather tab and there it is, today's weather.
  2. I never forget to roll. There's always some weather (even if it's nice).
Because of these two effects, even though the weather and tides have not yet been a meaningful bother, they're always there adding a little bit of texture.

Other Tables

I won't share the actual content of the other tables so as not to reveal the man behind the curtain to my players, but here's what I've made so far:
  1. Day and night encounter tables for town streets, parks, rural areas, and coastlines.
  2. Random situation for street intersections, accumulations of cars (lots, crashes, jams)
    • Vehicle types and condition (e.g. burned, out of fuel).
    • Car crash damage table
  3. Random infected behavior tables.
    Like Year Zero "monster combat action" tables, so far these have been really good for creating slightly chaotic encounters without me feeling on the hook for setting the danger level.
  4. Site condition table - what's going on in this building?
    This one has a few dimensions, based on the location on the island (mostly, how close was it to the initial spread of the infection), and then how lucky was it?
  5. Loot tables for cars, service vehicles, farm buildings, clinics, restaurants, households, campsites, bakeries, shooting ranges, and aircraft.
  6. Survivor tables: what they're doing now, their reaction, how they make decisions, where they're based, the state of the group back at the base, their larger-scale goal and anti-goal (e.g. communicate with other groups, hiding will just get us all starved), their theory about the infection, and what they know about the infected.
Most of these tables were made by hand, but I do have to say that for random loot tables, ChatGPT is incredibly useful.  Of course, all the obvious caveats about ChatGPT apply, but for scutwork tasks like, 'list the shit that's in a rural village medical clinic in the UK in 1989', it's very very fast.

I've now got a prompt that will let me just specify a context, and it will produce output that I can just paste into my self-rolling tables sheet. It's fast enough that I can make and add a new table during play, in about the same amount of time it would have taken me to roll random treasure.

Again, this works specifically because of the kind of game this is. I'd never use this for the cool treasure in the wizard's vault, but for generating the picked-over contents of a blood-spattered .. uh.. aerospace research factory, it's a godsend.

Self-Rolling Tables!

I may write more detail about this in another post, but one of the best things I did with my tables is make them all self-rolling. They're in google sheets, and so every table has one or more die rolls to generate a series of results, and the table highlights itself to show those results.

This is a self-rolling car damage table:

This result has picked out parts of the car that have been damaged depending on the car's speed. Lighter stuff is damaged at low speeds, the darkest color implies high speed damage.

Like the weather table, this means the handling time is incredibly short. I just have to flip to the Loot tab and this is there for me to read off and weave into the description:

These loot tables are rolling on other, much larger tables and pulling out an appropriate number random finds. Pre-rolled loot is especially helpful for me because the players are moving through places that in some cases aren't picked over. When they say, "What's in the car's trunk?" it's amazing to be able to just smoothly transition to narrating them popping open trunks and peering in windows and telling them what's there .. instead of having to stop roll a bunch of dice.

* * *

With all this, I'm able to handle most specific locations, but there are a few situations that still give me pause, namely broad vistas. If the players can see a whole residential neighbourhood (because they're up on a hill), I still don't have a tool to help me generate the overall impression. So far, this has never come up because the Isle of Wight has incredibly steep coastlines in many places, so from the water you can really only see stuff just beyond the beach. But as soon as the players reach somewhere like Cowes, or drive along the Medina river inland.. hoo boy.

Monday 13 November 2023

The Isle of Wight: Zombie Survival

A few weeks ago, I kicked off a zombie survival game set in the real-world Isle of Wight. It's been really delightful!

The campaign pitch goes like this:

On November 4, 1988, a unexpected nuclear exchange takes place across western Europe. The cargo ship BF Fortaleza is travelling unloaded from Lisbon, Portugal to Bournemouth UK when the night horizon lights up with flashes. In the confusion, the ship runs aground on a sand bar off the coast of the Isle of Wight.

With no rescue coming, the crew of 27 shelters on the crippled container ship as winter sets in, glued to the radio for hopeful news. In December, news comes of a mysterious infection sweeping through the cities, with unbelievable reports of people taken by an intense fever and then eating each other.

In January, the UK provisional authority declares mainland cities uninhabitable, and broad-casts an instruction to stop sheltering in place and to flee to sparsely unpopulated areas by any means necessary. Signals from people become infrequent.

In February, the automated radio messages fall silent.

It is March, 1989, five weeks since the last human voice came over the radio. The ship’s supplies will last only a few weeks longer. Reluctantly, the captain asks for volunteers to explore the Isle of Wight, in the hopes of finding other people still alive and the means of long-term survival.

* * *

I'm running the game as a more-or-less West Marches style, in the sense that it's an open sandbox with the players dropping in as they're able. There's a compelling event that gets things going (the home base is running out of food), but other than that there's

I'm trying to run with old school sandbox sensibilities. This isn't a well worn groove for me, I'm very used to trying to maneuver hard to produce a satisfying outcome for each session, avoiding duds at all costs. But I'm letting myself off that hook and instead going with a what would happen? refereeing style.

This can produce sessions that are just so-so, dramatically, but there's a long-term build-up that happens when the world and the events of the game don't conform to dramatic logic, and instead accumulate a sort of stubborn tangibility.

I've written about this before, but the principles of this could be summarized as:

  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


For a system, I'm using a kit-bashed homegrown system I'm just calling 'Isle of Wight'. The aesthetics are deliberately old school, but it's very much a hybrid of a lot of things:
  • levels and xp-for-gold, except the rewards are for survivors, medicine and food
  • old school saving throws to help set the mood
  • core resolution is a sort of PbtA-i-fied Blades in the Dark - roll 2d6, but against three grades of difficulty
  • The Regiment style encounter rolls (so good)
  • Blades-style stress meter, but powered by sleep and food
  • Pits & Perils-inspired inventory with super simplistic encumbrance
  • the table-order initiative with interrupts I used in ALM

At some point soon I'll write about how I'm planning this campaign, which held some surprises for me!

Saturday 11 November 2023

Do Not Anger the Gods

When the servants of the gods fight, they use more than earthly wood and steel. Taking a blow from them can have strange consequences.

d12 Legendary Critical Hit
  Target knocked unconscious for d6 minutes, slammed into 3d6 years of an alternate life of quiet contemplation and service to the being they were just fighting.
  A mighty blow breaks the target's forearm. d6 musical instruments within a league of here also break. Any song or music played within sight of this spot sounds melancholy and out of tune, and brings misfortune (-1 to all rolls) to anyone hearing it for the remainder of the day.
  The target's name is now a curse. Anyone who hears, reads or utters it suffers -1 to all rolls for the remainder of the day.
  The attack causes a deep gash that never fully heals. Every few minutes, a drop of blood falls. As it touches the ground, it sprouts into a delicate, white flower. If the petals are boiled into a tea, whoever drinks them knows what the target was doing in the moment when the droplet fell.
  Weapon impales the target. It is part of them now, as much as the bones in their body.
  Eldritch strike kills the target's dream body. They may no longer sleep. If they try, their empty body rises, possessed for d4 hours. Roll d6 to determine the possessing entity. On a 1-2, a harmless and playful wisp. 3-4, a harbinger of the being that dealt the blow. 5-6, an infernal spirit that lies and taunts.
  Cratering blow knocks the target flat on their back. A hole opens up in the ground, d6-1 paces from the target. Earth and stone crumble away, widening it by ten feet per year, and deepening by thirty. This continues until the target dies.
  A fearsome, life-ending blow misses the target by a hair. Even so, the psychic wake of the attack is so devastating that it symbolically kills the target. From this moment on, no one remembers anything the target says or does. To the rest of the world, it is as if they have died.
  The target is unharmed, but a distant loved one dies instantly. For the next year, any damage done to the target by any enemy doesn't harm them, but harms a friend, ally, or loved one instead.
  The blow splits the target into two halves, which live on separately. Roll d6. On a 1-2 the separate piece is the head, shoulder and one arm. On a 3-4, top and bottom half. On a 5-6, a split down the middle, from head to groin.
  Astral strike alchemically inverts the target. Their clothes and armor turn to flesh: this is now the target's real body, wrapped around a body-shaped sculpture of leather, metal and wood.
  Weapon strikes the target's sternum, shattering their rib cage. Knife-like bone darts shoot in every direction, causing d6 damage to all who fail a save vs. dragon breath. The target must choose: live on as a ribless human worm, or expire in a shower of innards.

Saturday 4 November 2023

A Patterned Magic

Here's a mini-game for a wizard player, designed to encourage tinkering between sessions in a way that emulates downtime magical research.

Imagine a sudoku board with astrological symbols, which corresponds to the pattern of the wizard's preparations and meditations.

Certain tetris-like shapes of specific symbols are how wizards memorize spells. e.g. Fire over Earth with a Sun on both sides of the Earth is the Smiting Fire spell. If that's placed anywhere on the pattern between sessions, Smiting Fire is memorized.

Smiting Fire

Great Patterns

The GM prepares five or so Great Patterns, completed boards which each correspond to the ultimate expression of a particular divine imprint on the world, ancient unholy covenant, or the most secret teachings of a long-lost school of magic. In addition to the memorized spells, the more of the board that matches a specific Great Pattern adds different effects. (If you unwittingly include the shape for Drenzel's Eye, orcs will always find you, etc.)

There are also basic, sudoku-like rules. It's not good to have more than one of the same rune in any given 3x3 'house', for example. The the more rules you break, the higher the chance of spell failure or wacky outcome.

A small pattern containing 6 different spells

Newer wizards can always leave large parts of the pattern blank for safety's sake, or only bear smaller patterns less than full 9x9 size. Wizards bearing patterns with more than a dozen runes radiate faint magic to those who can see; wizards with completed, full-size patterns are psychically radiant, crackling with otherworldly sparks and eddies that tumble from their hair and fingers.


Wizards advance in a few ways: Fragments of these boards are scattered throughout the campaign world.. a strip of runes on an altar, a 3x3 embroidered on the lich's frayed shroud, a dusty tome of mad scrawlings.

Sometimes it's a literal spell, sometimes it's just a part of a Great Pattern, or perhaps just a clue. ("The great meditation of Deel wants not for fire in the upper houses, and thrice Water.")

A wizard's meditation pattern can be changed in play, but this is usually a solo activity done between sessions. (It takes a game hour of time to change one rune if it does happen in play.)

Another way to advance is magical research. If a wizard has a month of downtime, they can submit a pattern of whatever level of completion to the GM. They make a research roll, modified by the money they spend, the time and the quality of their sanctum.

Based on their research success, the GM will reveal one or more clues, complete spells, or matching parts of a Great Pattern in the wizard's submission. (This could be a useful discovery, or perhaps something to avoid at all costs.)

Another way to learn more magic is to watch another wizard perform it. When encountering either instructive, helpful, or antagonistic wizards using magic, there is a chance for the player wizard to discern a fragment of the meditation in use.

A Magical Minigame

The point of all this is to give wizard players a minigame that feels a little bit like actual magical research. Bring the arcane arrangement of runes and symbols into between session play.

The 'minigame' is the tinkering with the patterns, taking all the scraps and clues of what the party has learned and trying to make the best pattern they can. What if that altar was actually to Deel, and the strip of runes we saw there does belong in the void pattern? How do I sandwich all eleven spells I know without having all those pesky suns fry me alive every time I cast a spell? Do I fully commit to the Great Pattern of Deel, or do I try to bash in a few of those handy Sorgite curses in the bottom row?

Some Assembly Required

This of course only works if the GM is ready to prep a few things, giving runic patterns to all the spells, creating however many Great Patterns.

Most of all, it all relies on some tool to quickly enter and analyze a player-submitted pattern so the GM can immediately see everything of interest that will affect gameplay.

Saturday 30 September 2023

A Downtime Calendar

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

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

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

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

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

(These rules are MOSAIC Strict.)

Sunday 3 September 2023

The Fires of Lost Tlarba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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


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

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

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

Thursday 27 July 2023

Avoiding Inapt Discussion in RPGs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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