Monday, 26 November 2018

A co-operative megadungeon proposal

The idea here is a Megadungeon based on the London Tube Map. I'm calling it 'The Labyrinth of Nodnol'.

The iconic Tube Map from TfL
This map is pretty famous (link to Tranport for London site here) and shows a bunch of underground locations. Some of the names are pretty evocative - Baron's Court, Queensway, Redbridge, Barbican, Mudchute... there are two 'Arsenals' (ie weapon-stores) on the map. Some names may relate to monsters, and some of these come in clusters - there are a few in the north-east part of the centre that start 'Totten-' that might relate to undead for example, or in the south 'Peck-' names may be related to Halflings ('Peck' is a pejorative used by the humans about the Nelwyn in the film 'Willow'). Others may refer to Elves, Giants (or KGOHGBO, AD&D 'Giant Class' monsters), hammers and axes (Dwarves?), as well as various birds and trees, and maybe other creatures too. There are multiple routes around these underground locations, with differently-coloured passages that may (probably do) relate to different levels. There's a watercourse running through it.

To me, this all says that this is a megadungeon. I think on a quick and non-scientific count (possibly using a slightly-different version of the map, I used one that also listed the stations) that there are approximately 400 named locations on this map. Were each a room or cave, that would be a largish dungeon.

The way I'm envisioning it, some stations - those that just have a block, like this:

- will just be a room off a corridor. If possible, the name of the station should have something to do with the contents (that might be inhabitants, function either ancient or current, features, treasure or decoration).

Other stations, that are interchanges, are marked like this:

These will be intersections between corridors, entrances (like this one), or both (anything with the old British Rail logo, seen here in red and referring to a connection with the railway network, will be an entrance to the complex... I think there are at least 60 of these, maybe about 65).

The entrances might work like this (I'm assuming as a hypothetical that the Northern Line is Level 2 here, but the intersections can actually come between any number of lines and with the rail network):

Some things will take some thinking about. Stations where multiple lines converge might be stacked, something like this (again, this is only a hypothetical):

Here, the two N-S tunnels are at the same level, but the E-W level is a level lower. The room then spreads over more than one level, and I think that will definitely be the way forward with this. But lines that come to an intersection might not actually be together. The District (green) and Circle (yellow) lines mirror each other a lot. It might be better not to have two sets of corridors between the same locations on the same level.

I need to try to isolate the lines to work out which work best as being 'the same' levels and which would be better on different levels. I also need to work out what this means:

Is that one room accessible by two corridors? Is it two rooms, each accessible by different corridors? Is it two rooms in the same place on different levels? I don't think it can be a single room; that would necessarily make it an interchange (ie a way of getting from one corridor to another). It has then to be two rooms (either on the same or different levels). So I need to up the number of 'rooms' - each time a station like Bayswater appears it needs to be counted once for each line that comes in. Interchange locations are a bit trickier - one big room over different levels, or linked rooms? I guess the situation might have to dictate that. Perhaps one of the other symbols (there are two different wheelchair symbols) might be used to decide it - for example, if there's a wheelchair symbol there's 'access' between two (or more) rooms, where there's no wheelchair it's all one big room.
There are also some other symbols - a kind of 'long' (Latin) cross, a little like this † - which surely represents something. Death, it looks like. A trap? There aren't many of them and putting traps in the same places on different floors or in neighbouring but unconnected rooms (as would probably happen if this means 'trap') would be a bit predictable. Maybe more undead? I like the idea of monsters in clusters but not so keen on having areas of traps. OK if they're connected to a particular kind of monster (Kobolds are the obvious monster for trapping but Goblins and others might also be candidates for setting traps) but otherwise, trapped zones seem forced to me.

There are also seven stations (that I could see) where boat logos are displayed. The best reason for this is that it provides access to the ?underground water-course. I'll have to check the levels carefully to make sure these are all on the same dungeon level, or provide some good justification otherwise - an underground waterfall is fine to move from a higher to a deeper level, but makes travelling 'upstream' really tricky.

All of this I'm sure could combine into an interesting dungeon environment. But... I won't do it all. And that's why I think it would be a good thing to open it all up. Who wouldn't want to be part of building a co-operative megadungeon around the London Underground?

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Subverting setting expectations II - two suggestions for reskinning B/X

What if...

... there were no female Dwarves?

... there were no male Elves?

I quite like the idea of Elves and Dwarves being the somewhat sexually-dimorphic representatives of a single species (so the offspring of a Dwarf and an Elf would be an Elf or a Dwarf). Of course, assigning the sexes other way round is also possible, but 'The Dwarf-King' and 'The Elf-Queen' are probably more mythologically-grounded in the Western canon than the other way around. That in itself may be reason enough to insist on bearded Dwarf women and willowy Elf men, however.

There is no reason why this can't work with the standard B/X rules. There's nothing in the rules to say that Elves and Dwarves have to have stable nuclear families of their own species. There's nothing really in the fluff that says anything about Elven and Dwarven families either, but the point of the experiment is to remove the fluff anyway and just concentrate on what the rules tell us. The fluff says that Dwarves "often live underground", whereas Elves generally "spend their time feasting and frolicking in wooded glades" (B9). Both races enjoy feasts and exquisite craftsmanship. It's starting to sound to me like they may actually be the same race after all...


What if...

... the offspring of a male human and an Elf (always female) was a Halfling (of either sex)?

... the offspring of a female human and a Dwarf (always male) was also a Halfling?

Halflings, being either male or female, and en masse both male and female, work fine as a stable population in their own right. So there's no real reason to alter them, I decided. But, there would probably be Halfling communities near all of the others, and many Halflings living in and around Human, Elf or Dwarf settlements. Maybe fewer around Dwarf settlements, but still there perhaps. They make sense as the somewhat-odd offspring of these 'fair folk' and humans. After all, they look somewhat like Dwarves, and act somewhat like Elves... in fact this whole conception started with a desire to make a B/X campaign where people could play 'Half Elves' and 'Half Orcs'. I decided that if people wanted to play a race that was somewhat arboreally-inclined and good with missile weapons, a bit Ranger-ish, they should play a Halfling, as Halflings are the Rangers of B/X. By the same token, Dwarves are the Barbarians of B/X, and if someone wanted to play a Half-Orc (a race I believe that is often used as a basis for a Barbarian) they should play a Dwarf, ie an angry hitty thing. I came up with a chart that looked something like this:

What this means is that the child of an Elf-Human union would be a Halfling, the child of an Orc-Human union would be a Dwarf, and a Dwarf-Halfling union would produce a Human. By the same token an Elf-Orc union would also produce a Human, and an Elf-Dwarf union or Orc-Halfling union would a produce a human half the time (the other half being, respectively, Halflings and Dwarves). I never did run this, because to be honest the presence of Orcs bothered me; for this to work maybe they need to be a playable race.

But, taking this basic idea (that the races are just blendings of other races), I then played around and decided that male Dwarves and female Elves as members of the 'Fair Folk', and Halflings as 'Half-Fey', might actually make more sense.

I do not propose to run this as a campaign. It is more of a thought experiment at the moment, part of my poking into what B/X can actually be made to do without doing any violence to the rules.


An alternative D&D setting

Keep Humans but scrap the other three PC races. Elves, Dwarves and Halflings, as presented in B/X, are pretty much tied to tropes inherited from Lord of the Rings, and beyond that to various bits of European literature like the Morte d'Arthur. Instead, non-Human PCs can be Chandali (tricksy, nimble forest-living folk, a bit like non-shit Ewoks), Voorn (mostly tough angry fighty dudes with some construction-related skills - I imagine them as somewhat rocky and trollish) and Jadarath (tall noble blue-furred tiger-people who combine fighting and magic).

In other words use exactly the same rules, but change some names and descriptions to get a different take on some familiar fantasy tropes. There's nothing in the rules to connect Elves with forests per se, or Dwarves with mining and smithing. So re-skinning them means cutting away the 'cultural baggage' derived from Tolkien and re-imaging what the rules could refer to in a different setting.

In this new setting, it's the Chandali who live in the forests, in Ewok-like villages high in the trees. The Jadarath live in towering cities wreathed in cloud and are something like Furry Jedi seen through the lens of the Mahabharata. The Voorn, I'm not so sure about yet, I need to think about them more, to find ways of not making them 'Dwarvish'. They can still all fit into the Quest for the Relics of McGuffin, which I take as being the default overarching plot in so far as there is one for D&D.

I originally came up with the re-skins of the three demihuman races as a mental exercise, but now I'm considering developing this outline for gaming purposes. I'm thinking of a campaign set in this world, which will be somewhat inspired by Journey to the West AKA Monkey (or Monkey Magic, as it was known to almost everyone in my youth). Not in terms of a specifically Asian-themed setting (though I'm sure that's doable... see Flying Swordsmen from 'What a Horrible Night to have a Curse' for instance as an example of how do D&D in a mythologised version medieval China), but in terms of an episodic or picaresque structure (technically a 'picaresque' is the story of a picaro or rogue, and of course, in Journey to the West, Tang Sanzang isn't a rogue, but Sun Wukong (Monkey), Zhu Bajie (Pigsy), Sha Wujing (Sandy) and Yulong (who is the son of the Dragon King and transformed into Master Tripitaka’s horse) would probably count as rogues of one sort or another). The idea, anyway, would be to have an overarching 'quest' (in Journey to the West this is obviously Master Tripitaka's journey to India) but to pattern the game via the incidents on the journey. A series of one-shots strung together with an overarching 'plot', which is the quest that players buy into as the conceit of the game.

I've written a little before about arranging a journey-based game with a changing party here and I think that the structure holds up. But it does mean that the players have to agree that 'the quest is the thing', as I have discussed recently. That, in turn, comes back to why the PCs are adventuring. But this  post is just about different ways of considering 'where' - especially if it doesn't have to be a standard Tolkienesque setting.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Questing in Elfgames VI - PC motivation

"The Sages of the Temple of Unpr'onounc'eable tell us that in the past, McGuffin the Great ruled wisely and well, with the aid of powerful magic, over a mighty Empire.

However, things now aren't as good as they were then. The Empire fell, the Dwarves are angry and the Elves are sad, while evil Lord Doombad raises an army to conquer everything.

You, a group of heroes aspiring or established, must journey to the many parts of McGuffin the Great's empire, collecting the Relics of McGuffin, and bring them together to the Temple of Unpr'onounc'eable, where they can be used to stop Lord Doombad."

... the plot of pretty much everything ever. Honourable mention to Tolkien whose plot was 'get rid of the Relic of Lord Doombad', but that sort of trick can't be repeated too often.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think it's a bad plot. It certainly gives the protagonists the opportunity to travel around, learn a bit about themselves and the world, meet interesting new people, have some adventures... and that I'm fairly certain is pretty much what people are seeking to do with their characters when they play D&D. It should be possible to play D&D in a way that relates in some way to this kind of 'storyline'. Hopefully, without too much of a problem with regards to railroading, which isn't something I'm a fan of.

I think the trick is in getting the players to agree to the overarching conceit but allow them freedom within that. I've talked a bit about this before - particularly in this post about Questing in Elfgames. Basically the players need to agree that the PCs will take the existence of the quest - whatever it is, it doesn't have to be the 'Quest for the Relics of McGuffin' described above. It doesn't matter if they go and do a side-quest I suppose, but they need to keep coming back to the main plot. What they can't really do is ignore the quest. For this sort of idea to work, there needs to be some reason for the PCs - any PCs - to be doing it in the first place.

This is the most difficult part of the whole process and it is the point where character backgrounds, quests, mentors and all these questions about linking the PCs to the world background fit together. In fantasy literature it is often some secret that the protagonist(s) learn that convinces them to embark on some quest - Frodo finds out the nature of Bilbo's Ring, Garion learns of his heritage, Eragon learns something of the world and its mysteries from Brom, and so on. Other times it's more to do with personal relationships, loyalty, or just straight-up cultural conditioning. Pug goes on his adventure mainly because of loyalty to Duke Borric, and in 'portal novels' such as the Fionavar Tapestry or the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the protagonists generally fall in with whoever they meet first - which of course is how Edmund ends up on the 'wrong' side in Narnia. The stories continue because there some drive on the part of the characters that keeps them fixed on the plot.

There's nothing to force PCs to stick to the quest formula, except the players' desire. This kind of game must depend on the players' willingness to engage with the conceit - but then so does hexcrawling or megadungeon-bashing or any other kind of 'formula' for how play is meant to progress. In a dungeon-bash, the PCs pretty much agree that the procedure is "go and bash the dungeon the DM has created"; in a hex-crawl, the PCs agree to wander about sampling the environment that the DM throws at them; likewise in a 'quest' the PCs have to agree to the conceit of the game, that the quest is important. However, it's maybe not so strictly 'procedural' as some other forms of the game, it definitely has an element of 'story' involved and the PCs would need to agree to be guided by the DM to some extent here. That's perhaps where it gets tricky - there's no way in the rules of B/X to generate big plots, quests, mentors or character backgrounds, and it's not easy to see where such things would come from - unless from Jens's Narrative Generator and similar devices. The best that the B/X rules can offer is the notes at the back of Basic for dungeon-creation. On p.B51, in Chapter 8: Dungeon Master Information (the chapter on designing scenarios), Section A is called 'Choose a Scenario', and gives a list of suggestions.
1. Exploring the Unknown
2. Investigating a Chaotic Outpost
3. Recovering Ruins
4. Destroying an Ancient Evil
5. Visiting a Lost Shrine
6. Fulfilling a Quest
7. Escaping from Enemies
8. Rescuing Prisoners
9. Using a Magic Portal
10. Finding a Lost Race
This is something like a quest-generator... sort of. It at least provides the plot background, but goes no way to linking it to any notion of character background. So, while it goes a little way to providing something that I'm after, it certainly doesn't provide any kind of motivation. Some of the descriptions hint at possible motivations (for instance, the PCs might visit a lost shrine to remove a curse) but there's not enough to hang a system on.

It seems to me that computer 'RPGs' (I can't bring myself to really regard most of them as RPGs but I'm prepared to say games like Skyrim seem to be pretty much the real thing) have an edge here. Players buy in to the plot in order to play the game, whether that's Assassin's Creed, Zelda or whatever. There is an expectation that there will be a lot of player freedom but also some more directed elements to move the story along. That's pretty much a given of the format. Maybe that's a useful line of enquiry for how to make this more 'procedural'.

There is more to come on this, I'm sure...

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Rift City session 15 - pardon me Vicar!

I've left this too long to do really coherent account I'm afraid... but I shall press on regardless.

Several of the frequent players were unable to make this session but undismayed, the five who were there were determined to go adventuring. The party was made up of:

Cnut the 1st Level Fighter
Gene the 1st Level Fighter
Gibbet the 2nd Level Thief
Gwynthor the 1st Level Cleric
Shazam the 1st Level Elf

The party started by examining the rumours they'd been hearing round town. These are, more or less, that a priest is assembling a party of adventurers to take down Ulfang the Black, a Kobold lord; that the Merchants Guild is seeking information about a missing caravan; that a Halfling is seeking money to fund a dragon-hunting expedition, but his last backers lost their money; that many strange beasts and also undead can be found in the caves (which, of course, the party knows anyway), and that the Goblins have been driven out of the caves by Orcs. They're the ones that most relate to the caves, a couple of others are about events in and around town.

My plan was that the priest would serve as the leader of a rival party and if the PCs didn't go and take down Ulfang themselves the priest and his 'alternative party' would do so; but instead the PCs decided to send Gwynthor, their own Cleric, to check out this priest and see about joining forces. Fine by me, either way, the PCs go to the caves.

So Gwynthor wandered from the party's inn to the square where the priest could be found. Behind my screen I hurriedly generated a priest. I have a method for randomly determining where on the PCs' continent someone comes from. I rolled the north-east, a sort of viking-y area. Co-incidentally that's where Gwynthor is from. I rolled for a god from that area and came up with a Lawful god of fighting and honour called Yrt. Co-incidentally that is who Gwynthor worships.

So, it turns out that the would-be rival party leader is a co-religionist of Gwynthor... so Gwynthor talked to him, persuaded him that the PCs had a map to the location of some Kobolds (the 'Kobs' marked in the top right) and that might be where Ulfang was, and they all set off together. Now there's an NPC who talks like Sean Bean (because Gwynthor talks a bit like Sean Bean and I wanted to do a voice that 1-stressed the point that Gwynthor and Ademus are from a similar cultural background and 2-I can do and 3-I'd remember next session... I'm always annoyed at myself when one of the PCs points out that the NPC who has a Hungarian accent this session was South African last time. So, Ningal is Penelope Keith, Seggulf the Dwarf is Rainer Wolfcastle and Ademus the wary priest is Sean Bean. I'm now running out of voices. I'm also wondering when Ademus will die - surely, before the end... he's Sean Bean after all).

Ningal's map
Making their way to Ningal's cave, they bore round to the left rather than to the right (Ningal is in the top left of the map just below and to the left of the 'spyders').

Heading in that direction, the PCs both heard a noise behind them and encountered some Gnolls in front of them. Dispatching the Gnolls relatively rapidly, they searched the bodies and found some gems, which they were obviously fairly pleased about. The noise from behind was continuing however, and the PCs decided to leave the bodies and make a hasty exit rather than seeing what was advancing from behind them.

In the next largish cave-area, they found some Kobolds, which was pretty much what Ademus was here for (though Ulfang the Black wasn't here). There were quite a few of them (13, from memory), which maybe made them over-bold. Obviously, even 13 Kobolds are going to find a fight a bit tricky when the PCs have mostly plate mail and all have missile weapons (Cnut lent Ademus a sling, with which the latter was highly ineffectual). The majority of the Kobolds were killed pretty quickly but a few (two or three) managed to flee. And thanks to his Charm spell, Shazam manged to get himself a Kobold helper, yet again...

Searching the area, the most prominent and important thing was a large stone sarcophagus with geometric patterns carved on the sides and lid. The PCs were somewhat nervous about this, fearing that some undead might be a resident, or it might be trapped in some way. However, neither of these things proved to be true, the sarcophagus was merely old large and heavy. Eventually they did get the lid off, and, all preparing to die, they discovered that it contained only an ornate iron key. What it might unlock they don't know yet.

Moving on, the PCs came to the area of the 'vile crawlers' in the approximate centre of the map. These were Giant Centipedes; the party managed to dispense with them fairly easily from memory, if anyone was bitten they must have made their throw because no-one suffered the results of Giant Centipede poison (lots of vomiting).

Having made it this far the PCs decided that they really ought to be high-tailing it back to town so they made their excuses and left. I wished afterwards that I'd decided Ademus should stay the night and continue the expedition to the Kobold caverns rather than returning back to the city with them, but I didn't, Ademus followed them out and 'tomorrow' will no doubt be keen to continue his crusade.

Making it back to town OK, we commenced loot-division. I had already told my PCs that I am slightly altering the XP awards from now on, partly as a result of discussions that I've been having with JensD, who told me about XP awards in the Rules Cyclopedia, where there is an assumption that 10% of the 'next level' (average party next level?) would be given in XP whatever the state of monsters defeated and treasure found, meaning that in 10 sessions or less you were pretty much guaranteed to go up a level. Progress seems to have been very slow for the majority of PCs thus far. After 14 sessions only one PC was at 2nd Level, and that's too slow in my book. I have always given some XP for exploration and role-playing, good ideas and so on. I had told everyone that I would be increasing the percentage for these actions. As a result, with the XP from monsters, the cash from the gems and the other loot, and the exploration bonus, both Cnut and Gwynthor (two of the longest-serving PCs) also made it to 2nd level at the end of this session! Given the speed of advancement so far, that's pretty major news.

So, onward and downward... will the PCs head back to find Ulfang with Ademus? Will anyone else level up in the next few sessions? We shall have to wait and see...