Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Weird landscapes

Sometimes I find myself in need of weirdness generators. At present I'm trying to set up a weird landscape generator.

So far I only have notes:

The undulating ground is earth but looks like waves on the sea. Ridges resemble breakers. Perhaps over a million years the waves will break.
The flat ground is like red marble, with veins that change colour as you observe them.
The red earth sprouts fleshy trees that produce red sap and inviting fruit. Anyone killed here will produce a new tree in 3 months.
The rocky ground is streaked grey and yellow. A dull green fog hangs over everything.
Towers of black glass dot the landscape. Monster encounters are more common near them.
Though the sun is shining, the sky is black and stars can be seen.

Undulating ground like waves in the earth
Plain of red marble with veins of changing colour
Forest of fleshy trees with inviting fruit
Rocky ridges of streaked grey and yellow
Towers of black glass dot the barren landscape

Clear, though the sun is shining the sky is black and stars can be seen
A dull green fog hangs over everything – visibility 50 yards
Mirage of colossal city in the distance

Black lightning strikes – storm lasts d6 hours, save v death ray every hour or take d6d6 damage

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Notes on my original megadungeon and other ancient goodies

Looking in an old box of papers in my loft, I've come across some old gaming stuff, which it seemed was transferred from one box to another nearly 20 years ago without ever really being sorted out. These papers, on closer examination, included:

... the notes for my original megadungeon. These would be about 30 years old or a bit more. I only got round to detailing a relatively small area of the first couple of levels, and no-one ever played it. Like Silvergate, it is a Dwarf city; but really that's where the similarity ends. My idea with... not even sure it had a name ... was to take things I had and bodge together the bits I wasn't otherwise going to use to make a crazy labyrinth. In pre-internet days decent maps were like gold-dust and primarily this was a way of recycling unused maps from White Dwarf. There were some scenarios I thought I wouldn't play without a lot of work, generally because they were for AD&D and I didn't have the Monster Manual. Because of this various monsters were somewhat obscure to me - I think, Sahuagin and Kenku particularly. Everything I knew about Sahuagin I gleaned from DDG; I knew nothing about Kenku at all. I seem to remember that I eventually decided I'd just replace them with Lizardmen and Halflings respectively. Some of this stuff might even end up being incorporated into Silvergate: there's a nice bit with a petrified giant I might include.

... the first 'wilderness' setting I designed, in approximately 1983. It featured a castle, and nearby a dungeon stuffed with Orcs and evil priests. Obviously, it was heavily influenced by Keep on the Borderlands, which came packaged with my copy of the Basic Set. One of the things that really dissatisfied me at the time with my version - and it's a criticism often levelled at the original - is that the scale is all wrong. I abandoned work on it when the idea of a large inimical-humanoid base in a dungeon two miles or so from the castle of the local lord just seemed... daft. There may, however, turn out to be some things that can be salvaged, though I don't remember very much. I haven't even looked at this stuff since I was a teenager.

... notes towards my first 'campaign setting', referred to in this post where I discuss my much-later Arthurian campaign:

...The Four Treasures - two of which had become the direct objects of mythic quests already - would each be linked to an element in the classical system of elements (Earth, Air, Fire and Water). Each element would also be linked to a race. This goes back to a very early stratum of my campaign-design, the first campaign notes I ever wrote in about 1981. Back then, I assigned the elements on the following basis: Dwarves - Fire; Elves - Air; Halflings - Earth; Humans - Water. This time, I assigned them as Dwarves - Earth; Elves - Air; Humans - Water; Orcs - Fire...

Well, those are the notes I found, though I now think that they're probably from 1982 instead. Some notes about meeting an old dying Halfling on the road, and him pressing a jewel into one party member's hand and telling them a scrap of poetry. And then dying of course. I imagined it would be an epic quest, naturally - except it never happened, I never ran it. I wouldn't even consider doing something similar now - far too railroady, not enough opportunities for player choice. But perhaps the set-up could still work as a lead-in a bit more dramatic than hearing a rumour at the tavern.

There's other stuff too; a fairly meticulous cave-system with different factions of Orcs is one thing I think I saw while I was looking through the pile of paper, which may also end up as part of the long-stalled Orc settlement in Silvergate. Another is a series of notes trying to build a campaign from In Search of the Unknown, where Zelligar comes back and blackmails the PCs into doing stuff for him. Basically, it's my unused DMing notes 1982-87 or thereabouts. I didn't however find my DDG-inspired pantheon I wrote around 1983 - that would be interesting I think. A more careful sort through what is actually there is definitely in order (just in case those notes are there).

Now I'm seriously thinking that I should just smash all this stuff together and call it a sandbox... it should all more-or-less work, though it lurches from the gonzoid to hackneyed and back again with gay abandon. There's a certain naive charm about it. I mean this isn't 'old school', it's not retro or revivalist - it's genuinely just old.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Quantum Difficulty and fudge in the sandbox

I like Dreams in the Lich House, I read and re-read it on a regular basis.But, I already have a work email and a university email and a personal email and a gaming email... I'm not going to start another email addy to comment on it and oher G+ forums. So I don't, I occasionally comment here instead.

There has been much discussion lately on DitLH about quantum difficulty and whether this negates player agency. It seems to me that that John Arendt is absolutely right and quantum difficulty is an utterly reasonable way to deal with time in games.

Surely, no-one is claiming that only players have agency in an invented world? If not, then why can't monsters increase in levels over time?

The players, when they're Level 1, hear about some 'vicious' bandits in the locality. How vicious? Vicious enough to be told that they're vicious, that's for sure. Maybe there's 8 NMs, a couple each of Lvl 1 Thieves and Fighters, and a Lvl 2 Cleric. So what's vicious about them? Perhaps the PCs were told the bandits are vicious by a local tax collector - the bandits target tax collectors and string them up while giving the loot to local poor, which is why the locals love the bandits and hate the Sheriff's men sent to round them up; or perhaps the bandits only attack caravans with only a few guards and murder all their captives but one who is released back to civilisation to spread the word. They don't actually have to be 'hard' to be 'vicious'. They just have to get a reputation for being brutal to those in their power. Level 0-1 NPCs can be vicious. Most Orcs are 'vicious' and they're the equivalent of Lvl 1. I'm sure the Sheriff of Nottingham and the Abbess of Kirklees thought the Merry Men were 'vicious', even at the start, though we might think of them as the good guys. They're still basically bandits, and being 'vicious' is a question of perception of action, not necessarily an accurate reflection of power to carry out that action.

Maybe then our gang should be: one L2 Cleric; two L1 Fighters; two L1 Thieves; 8 NM - not an insurmountable obstacle at all for a Level 1 party, and coming in at 14 levels in total. So anyway, the PCs ignore the bandits and go exploring other parts of the sandbox. 6 months or 2 years later, what are the bandits doing?

It seems to me that the only thing you can guarantee that the bandits aren't doing is behaving exactly as they were 6 months or 2 years ago. One of the things that is regarded as disconcerting in Kafka's books is that time passes strangely. A man torturing a second man in a particular room is still there, possibly months later, still torturing the same second man. Is this really how dungeons or sandboxes should operate? Should those Orcs still be fighting the same Goblins in the same room if you go back 2 years later? Likewise, should the bandits not have either been caught, or alternatively attracted more followers or otherwise increased their fighting ability? I'd think change would be inevitable; the local law-enforcement might have sent patrols (allowing the bandits the opportunity to ambush them and get better kit and maybe a few new recruits from the underpaid men-at-arms who didn't want the job anyway, for example), The bandits may have upped their raids on local caravans, settlements, temples, wherever they can get loot, and attracted more recruits through their fame. Other outlaws may have come to join them, desperate landless men might journey into the forests/badlands to seek them out.

So 6 months or 2 years later, the party is say L3 and the bandits might number one L4 Cleric (she's been levelling up in the meantime), three L2 Fighters, four L2 Thieves, six L1 Fighters, 8 L1 Thieves, two L1 Clerics, and a L1 Magic User, as well as 20 NMs. That's 45 levels and a much more serious proposition, though of course the party should still be able to take them. Effectively, the bandits have levelled up at the same rate as the party.

The key to maintaining player agency I think is information. For this tripling of the bandit threat, the players should be told that the bandits are gaining more strength, hitting bigger targets, doing more audacious raids, ranging further afield, or whatever (maybe all of these). If the rumours about the bandits keep coming, the reminders that they're there still keep coming up, and the players ignore them, then when the PCs finally do get there, they can expect different conditions than there would have been if they'd taken on the bandits before clearing the Hobgoblins out of the Old Tower and then going after the Kobolds in the Endless Swamp and the cultists in the Forbidden Temple and whatever else the party has been up to in the meantime. As long as the PCs keep hearing about the changed conditions (and if the bandits are attacking either mobile of fixed targets in the area, why wouldn't the PCs hear about what's happening?), then what's the problem? The bandits want to become more powerful, they have a drive and dynamic to do that I think, and in game terms, it's up to the players to stop them. If they're not stopped, then the bandits should become more powerful.

Though this example uses bandits it holds good for anything. Successful Orc tribe breeds more warriors or attracts another tribe as allies; dragon matures a bit and is a bit tougher two years down the line; middling wizard has the time to complete his researches and is really nifty with his new death-spell; gelatinous cube spawns loads of copies of itself if it's left undisturbed to replicate, or whatever else.

To me then the notion of 'quantum difficulty' isn't a problem, it's an essential recognition of the passage of time, a way of imparting a dynamic structure to fixed encounters and a way of making choices have consequences (concentrating on this threat now leaving that threat for later gives the latter a chance to thrive). Much more of a problem would be to eternally peg encounters to the levels as first heard about, as if only the PCs can learn by experience. Pretty sure 'monsters' can do that too.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

One more for the Observer's Book of Monsters

The Fossegrim ('Waterfall-spirit') is as its name suggests a spirit that lives in a waterfall. They are always male and mostly found in Scandinavia. In Sweden they are sometimes called 'Stromkarl' ('River-man'). They are very talented musicians apparently, and can with gifts of food sometimes be tempted to teach their skill with fiddling and harping to mortals. They also mate with females who go bathing at the waterfalls; if the offspring of this union is male, it will on reaching adulthood reveal its Fossegrim nature and find a waterfall to inhabit.

Distribution based on approximate usage of the term 'foss' (Norwegian, Icelandic) or 'fors' (Swedish, I kinda guessed about distributions); in Northern England, especially in North Yorkshire and Cumbria, there are many waterfalls called either 'Foss' or 'Force', so it seems reasonable that Fossegrimen live in them.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Hurrah for Christmas

Well, it's certainly that time even if there's no snow here... and I thought I would post with the gamiest thing I received as a Christmas present this year, from my lovely brother and sister-in-law; Diana Wynne Jones's "The Tough Guide to Fantasyland".

Written somewhat like a "Rough Guide", it is based on the principle that Fantasyland is a real place (with Embroidery, Rabbits and Dark Lords and other such arcane subjects) and the important information about the place is included in the book. It's a little bit like early Pratchett in some ways; a good-humoured and affectionate piss-take of fantasy tropes.

It is a) very funny (it's funny because it's True - Diana Wynne Jones knows her stuff of course), and b) very sobering (because one recognises many of the clichés that one liberally sprinkles over any fantasy gaming/fiction endeavour), and c) very enlightening (because by analysing the clichés and pulling them apart it's sometimes possible to find the bits that work while discarding the bits that are overused). It goes as much for fantasy gaming as for fantasy writing I think, and will I hope allow me to either a) avoid or b) play up the clichéd elements as appropriate (because sometimes, it is appropriate).

It has also left me wanting to write two things: first, a fantasy series that uses (literally) every cliché in the book, and second, a fantasy series that subverts every cliché in the book. Can we imagine a fantasy world where witches don't attempt to seduce unkempt strangers who are not lost heirs, while hordes of Barbary Vikings don't drink ale and have good-natured fights using battle-axes, and avoid sacking nunneries from which there won't be one survivor? I'm not sure but I'm suspecting I'll have a lot of fun trying.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

More Thyato-centric world-mapping

Following on from a post some months ago about re-mapping Mystara as if the main map is like Ptolemy's and drawn from the point of Thyatis, I've started pulling it apart.

The top is what Thyatians imagine the world is like. The bottom is what they actually know fairly well, with the disconnected bits that they know about existing in an existential quantum void-soup somewhere beyond what is 'known'.

They know the sea-lanes around their kingdoms but not much land (except the areas where, in my version of history, the ancient human Empire united what is now the Grand Duchy, Thyatis, Ylaruam and the Soderfjord Jarldoms).

This dislocation actually helps with things on the map that don't make sense. For example, how does the 3,000 mile Streel River rise in hills maybe only a few hundred feet tall near the NE coast, then flow through the Broken Lands? It doesn't have to now, it might rise in the mountains of Glantri, but the rivers in the Ethengar Khanate can now flow west from the Broken Lands to the east coast, exiting via the NE fjordlands if that makes more sense.

But, perhaps, I'm looking at this all wrong. Maybe, it's simplest if the top map is 'real', and I now mess around with the bottom map to produce the map of the world as seen from Thyatis. That doesn't solve the problem of stupid geography ... but perhaps we can live with it.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

A new world... and a new campaign

Some colleagues and I are starting a  gaming group - we played our first game on Saturday gone and are planning to get together perhaps on a weekend every month or so. I won't be running this game, as someone else has volunteered to be DM, so for the first time in ages, I'm actually playing a PC!

My character is Sir Darlan of the House of Vong, a minor noble who is also a Paladin. I've never played a Paladin before, and I've never played 5th Ed either, so it's all new to me. There will be a report at some point soonish.

Meanwhile, I'd done a bit of work on a setting for a game if I ended up running an old-school game (we only worked out who was DMing about 9 days ago). As it won't see action in its current form in either of my other campaigns, I thought I might post it up here. This was the basis for a campaign I was planning...

Iriond 1411336555

The plan was to start simple - a location, with a few encounters round it, possibly with a vaguely oriental feel - somewhere with plains-nomads and ancient and empires. Something away from my normal generic western/northern Europe setting anyway. Perhaps I can utilise some means of generating adventures from the pdf I just downloaded - the Swords and Wizardry scenario generator pdf, which though its more geared to a faux-Japanese setting is close enough to what I'm after I think.

I rolled 4 4 8 4 9 10

So the party meets in a Tavern
with a Sensei (Senior cleric?)
They hear of a Kidnap
by a Ninja (thief/assassin?)
Which they can foil by going to a Dark fortress
and Winning a contest.

I could have just taken it from there, though of course the players might not.

Except that I got a bit carried away with a hex-mapping technique from - though in line with the hex-maps of the Known World from BECMI, I'm not using the very sensible 1-5-25 mile hex-progression suggested, but the slightly-more-difficult 1-6-24 mile progression.

Anyway this is the 6/24 map I came up with, based on a small area of the far north-west of the Iriond map, in the area between the Bladegrass Plains, Tumunzar Spires mountain range, and Forest of Thorns, all of which seem like excellent adventuring locales to me (I started making icons for the hexes, but then decided on colour-coding instead):

The marker is for settlement for the PCs to begin in; the area is mostly mixed plain and forest, with some hills and a few little bits of other odd terrain thrown in - a few lakes (one of which is large enough to make it onto the Iriond map if you look really hard), some hills and swamps, and some odd bits of desert, which I'm thinking are more like dust-bowl type areas than proper desert.

I've subsequently started keying in the hexes with encounters (a few individual hexes have changed since I started so this doesn't quite represent an accurate map), and pretty rapidly populated the area, as least in outline. I also spent far too long playing with the random generators at Chaotic Shiny...

The hex with the settlement and the six surrounding large hexes are done - at least in terms of keyed encounters. That's pretty much an area with a radius of 36 miles around the town. There are 49 keyed encounters in that zone including a dozen settlements of different types, a few monster lairs, 6 different terrain types and some locations where frankly weird stuff is going on.

I also had a blast thinking of various themes and stuff that I wanted to include. Not sure where it's all going in the end, perhaps it'll be used somewhere!