Wednesday 27 May 2015

1PDC 2015 Finalists

I'm pretty psyched that that The Lantern of Wyv made the judges' top 9 in the 2015 One-Page Dungeon Contest. The other eight are pretty jaw-dropping, so I think I'll count my blessings now!

UPDATE: Lantern was part of a three-way tie for first place!

Anna Costa's Panopticon is gorgeous and evocative. I can hear the shrieks of the djinn, see the bloodstained sand.  I confess I'm slightly confused by the geography; I think the image is an illustration rather than a map. There's lots of cool ideas in the text to use.  In play, my concern would be the sameness of thirty-three levels of it (but perhaps visitors are expected to be able to teleport or have other powerful magic).

Lorenzo Santini's Into the Awaroth Woods has amazing graphic design and cartography. There are surprisingly many interlinked clues between the various locations; I think I could run a satisfying adventure with ten minutes' notice and a magnifying glass.  The text is tiny, and the layout crushes it even further, which makes it unnecessarily hard to absorb. The encounter table is pretty, but adds little I'd scrap it in favor of more breathing room.

A Stolen Song by P. Aaron Potter (WINNER) isn't as pretty on paper, but is a fun dungeon. I love that it starts with a capsule overview of what's going on, and it's poignant. The silence effects look like fun, and I dig the joke in room E. The telescope/banshee puzzle aspect is interesting - it would be cool to seed this with a few more noise-related items.
Will Doyle & Stacey Allan's Shambling Throne of the Death Cult King is hilarious madness. I dig the idea of a party spying on the procession for several days, trying to find a way in. I think you'd have to play the zombies as really, really stupid and unable to climb onto the boardwalks, or lethal escalation would be almost immediate.  The main question - play out the probing of the peripheral floats perceptually over several hours, or just hand the players the illustration?

Carlos Pascual's *The Heist* is refreshing, in that it's for low-level adventurers.  The illustrations are charming, make describing the place easy, and somehow the overall tone reminds me of Fighting Fantasy - I suppose it's the way each encounter is an isolated thing.  The page-ordering of the elements is a bit confusing; the dungeon is broken into needlessly many pieces, and the exterior establishing shot appears 'after' the boss fight.  I love that the final trap is the way out, as long as you're not too heavily loaded.

Edward Lockheart's Furthest Farthing's Frog Pond of Existential Ennui (WINNER) is weird and dark, a disastrous encounter between an extradimensional traveller and a hapless village. If the players get to know the villagers, this could be a truly bleak experience. This seems like a must; given the rate of death by ennui, it seems the players would need to be hooked by the pervasive emo ennui, or they might leave and miss out. The black star itself is delightful, a perfect example of a dungeon toy. But.. so many questions! How can the black star come towards you? How does the frog come into play (e.g. how can it avoid being crushed by the black star as someone approaches it)?  Fun.

Joel's Bethell's Sepulchre of the Abyss is very cleanly laid out with nice, concise descriptions. I love weird environments like this with a rationale to them, it evokes the groaning of the walls and little needles of high-pressure water squirting in everywhere. I find the randomness of it a bit disappointing; it seems like a hall stocked mostly with aggressive, wandering sea creatures. The big finale is.. lots more aggressive sea creatures! Seems like it would work best in a game with detailed time/resource tracking.

+MonkeyBlood Design's Escape the Oubliette is really cool. Props to the map, which is one of the very few dungeon maps done in three-point perspective. (Was a 3D model used as a scaffold?) This looks like a sustained dose of a play style I find really interesting. The main quandary is how to inject it into a campaign? Think-for-your-life is way more engrossing with permadeath on the line, but it seems a hefty dose GM fiat is required to inject a party's established, third-level characters into the starting spot. The question isn't whether the PCs will survive, will the GM?!

None of these micro-reviews are objective, so I'll toss one for my own Lantern of Wyv (WINNER) into the pile. I dig the concept (of course), and I think the mystery of the lantern, and the fact there's no rumours about the barge is a good choice for building player curiosity. On the other hand, it does cover a lot of sparsely-populated ground - a coastal forest, a number of empty ruins, and even the lantern itself has more rooms than it needs to for room-by-room play.

And the Winner Is..

I'm going out on a limb and predicting that Monkeyblood Design takes it for Escape the Oubliette. It's tight, it's a dungeon, it's pretty, and it's awesome.

Friday 8 May 2015

Fear, Perception and Tactics

I'm a fan of 'perceptual play', particularly in combat: rather than describing the tactical situation from a bird's eye view (e.g. showing it using miniatures), the GM describes exclusively through the PC's senses.

Playing this way opens up some fun ways to use fear.

In short, fear is a physiological process, just like exhaustion or injury. Understanding what it does gives you tools for making terrifying situations feel more visceral and more tactically challenging.

Don't Tell Me What I Feel

It's usually not a good idea to describe PCs' emotions. It's alienating - maybe the player's not feeling it, or perhaps they're feeling something else entirely.  Even so, there's a fruitful grey area where it pays to push that line a little.

This is because emotions are physiological processes, for the most part, and as such they come with bodily sensations, and those are totally the GM's province.

Next time you feel angry (for example), ask yourself how you know you're angry. If you focus your attention, you'll notice something in your body.

Many people pay so little attention to this it's practically a lost art, but the sensation is there. (Sir Ken Robinson put it well, saying that some of his colleagues were so disembodied that they think the purpose of their bodies was to take their head to meetings.)

You may not control the PC's feelings (and you certainly can't control the player's), but you're in control of their perceptions, and you can ramp up the symptoms of emotion to the point that they become tangible threats to deal with.

Fear and Perception

When you're afraid, your perception moves involuntarily to the periphery.

Where, before, you could concentrate on a complex task (e.g. someone speaking about philosophy), when fear strikes, all that goes. You start to notice motion in your peripheral vision, and sounds behind you.

This is why nervous people are jumpy, their bodies are anticipating predator attack ('jumping' is a reflexive counter that can surprise the attacker, buying a second or two of time).

With acute fear, you can (amazingly) lose the to ability to absorb complex or non-threatening stimulus: spoken instructions (even simple ones) might just go over your head entirely.

This is why anxiety makes it pretty hard for you to to get your thesis written.

Not only that, but lose our advanced and resource-intensive faculty for empathy, to understand the motives of people near us, even if we know them well.

This is a major obstacle in trauma therapy, actually - if a client starts remembering a trauma, they can no longer figure out the therapist's motives, because that part of the brain is literally not getting enough blood to do that job. The therapist's motives become indecipherable, and therefore threatening.


When you're in full-on terror, your body goes into dedicated threat-detection and -avoidance mode.

Your eyes go wide and unfocused, your breathing gets shallow (or stops entirely for long periods, you freeze to make yourself harder to spot).

Panicked people often stop breathing out (amazingly) - this may be related to making themselves look bigger, as cats do with puffed-up fur - but in any case it leaves the sufferer feeling unable to get enough air, desperately trying to breathe in but finding there's no more capacity.

Just Gimme the Symptoms

Anyways, enough rambling about that. Some specific things that could happen for them to react to, or which could happen if they fail to push themselves (e.g. by defying the danger of the animal terror gripping them):

  • they can't speak
  • they can't understand speech
  • they can't do anything requiring focus (e.g. casting spells, forming an escape plan)
  • their hands stop working and they drop what they're holding
  • they can't move
  • they can't let go of something (a railing, someone's hand)
  • they can't look, or they can't look away
  • they shut down completely and their perception is flooded by something trivial (e.g. the smell of their jacket)
  • they stop breathing out

Imagine trying to flee a zombie and you can't look away! You'd have to move backwards!

As a consequence of all this, fear denies them access to the tactical big picture, which costs them the initiative.

They turn to help Joe, but Joe's not there - Joe moved to fend off a zombie, and they didn't notice. Things just start happening that they have to react to, all around them.

Joe: I attack the zombie!
Peter: I help, moving on his flank.
GM: Oh, are you trying to watch Peter? While surrounded by zombies? That's Defy Danger, man!

Composure is a Resource

This style of play constrains player choices, which needs to be done carefully. It's probably wise to set this up ahead of time through foreshadowing. ("Most who faced the Balrog were struck dumb, and were slain where they stood.")

Over time, the effects of terror are like failed saving throws, taking damage, and the darkness of caves - they suck, plain and simple, but it comes with the territory. Smart players will be looking for ways to account for it.

bet you didn't notice my three friends behind you