Saturday, January 27, 2018

Fighting Goblins in a Creative Wasteland

D&D's Goblins Started Dull
Recently Cecelia D'Anastasio of the relatively mainstream web publication Kotaku published a long piece on the subject of Fighting Goblins in Dungeons & Dragons, and how it is "The Worst".  I don't disagree with her that the sort of tedious back and forth of melee attacks until the inevitable conclusion where the victorious party of adventurers stands atop a pile of dead goblins she describes is "The Worst" of tabletop gaming, and agree that the reasons she identifies describe the problem fairly well:
  • Annoyance at a mundane direct conflict and head to head combat where the opposition does not and can not bring complex tactics to the fight and where because of their perceptions about the enemy the players don't feel risk or excitment. 
  • Boredom and frustration created by a the lack of notable or intriguing elements about the monsters to make them wondrous, interesting, exciting or compelling. 
The problem D'Anastasio identifies is thus complex and two-fold (at least) both diegetic (relating to the story or narrative and how it's told) and mechanical (relating to how the gamified rules and procedures of combat function). In D'Anastasio's game, and many others I suspect, a goblin encounter is both boring and frustrating because there's nothing interesting to learn about goblins or the setting from the encounter and there is no risk or tension in the encounter.  This first problem is the one D'Anastasio provides a prescription to and her prescription, like her diagnosis is fundamentally right, but doesn't go very far.  D'Anastasio suggests that the GM "combine the cliched combat encounter with any of those other things [puzzle-solving or story development, discovery]".  This creative impulse is good, but might not get one very far as long as "goblins" remain two-dimensional known quantities that present no threat but can only be encountered in combat.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

A Map - but not the one you want

I jest, a reader asked for some maps related to my ongoing HMS APOLLYON
project - but I don't feel like publishing those, so here's a map of a twelve sided
folded unnatural space.

I am keying it up as a combination of the ruins of the folded city of an ancient
Carcosa imposed upon by the last bastion and hidden bunkers of the Iron King,
Hawberk I, who was deposed by its current Ragged King.

It's a bad place where refugees from Carcosa find themselves scavenging.

The project contains rooms like this:

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Gold for Experience in 5th Edition D&D

While I was writing this Hack & Slash published this great post about Megadungeon play and 5e that covers some of the same stuff and makes similar points.  I'd also recommend Megadungeon #1 by Hack & Slash (Courtney Campbell) for similar thoughts and a great piece about playing 5E in a dungeon environment.

Classic David Trampier from the 1e
The Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide is a odd book, much like the 1st Edition AD&D guide it is a scattered confluence of ideas, suggestions and game-able content.  Unlike some past guides it seems more interested in offering play options and setting variety to Game Masters, rather then creating the one true setting and manner of playing D&D. 

This is perhaps the strongest aspect of the 5th edition brand - that makes motions in the direction of creativity and setting variation which some earlier editions refused to.  Perhaps starting in the late 80's - early 90's as TSR released setting after setting, the idea embraced in the earliest editions of the game that each table of players and Dungeon Master should create their own world (I'd argue collaboratively), was abandoned and D&D products seemed to push an orthodoxy with settings defined and each setting deadened by reams of officious petty rules and mechanics. For example, the Spelljammer boxed set (a 1989 setting about fantasy space and space faring on magical sailing ships) spends little time offering up the sorts of strange and fantastical setting ideas it's core conceit promises, glossing over some great ideas in favor of complex rules about orbits and star types that seem more appropriate to a hard sci-fi game like Universe or Traveller.  5th Edition doesn't make this mistake, or at least it hasn't yet, and while I may critique its efforts at producing adventures for their devotion to the terminally bland Forgotten Realms setting and heroic fantasy, the Dungeon Masters Guide at least suggests Dungeon Masters design settings that vary greatly and offers some rules to aid in creating settings in 'mythic fantasy' (classical antiquity/mythology), 'epic fantasy' (even more high powered and magically focused),  'wuxia', 'dark fantasy' (Ravenloft effectively), 'mystery', 'intrigue' and 'swords and sorcery'.  Sometimes rules are even offered up by the Dungeon Master's Guide to suggest how to better run these different sorts of campaigns.

The last category of 5e settings, "swords and sorcery", is largely a description of how earlier editions of D&D played (or perhaps were intended to play) - at least in my experience.  Informed by the novels of Vance and other 30's - 60's pulp writers, this fantasy is a bit grim, and darkly humorous with heroes that are only slightly more impressive then normal men (or less in the case of Cudgel the Clever), who largely seek their own advancement and survive mostly by luck and their wits.  The world is dangerous and uncaring, and if these sorts of wandering heroes become involved in an epic quest it is only by their own decision, a curse or accident.

The Little Brown Books or "White Box" are the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons - presenting a simple and somewhat muddled set of rules that almost compels a 'swords and sorcery' style setting and game (at least as the 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide defines swords and sorcery) because the combat mechanics are high lethality, power levels flat and the exploration rules encourage caution and the accumulation of treasure rather then seeking combat.

Monday, December 4, 2017

SCENES FROM A SHIPWRECK - HMS Apollyon - Painted Ship on a Painted Sea - Adversary Design

One of the three main potential adversaries/NPCs within the Duke Brimstone Yacht Club area is Murial Coranado a 'Revenant of Debauchery'  who is not especially hostile, but capable of life draining attacks and immune to non-magical weapons.  If treated with respect and caution she is likely to be a curiosity and if plied with liquor may even become something of an ally and source of information about the ship, its history and the region.

I'm not a fan of 'Boss' monsters, and try to design my regions more so they present a puzzle, mystery and story rather then a series of challenges leading to a climactic fight.  The other two potential adversaries (as opposed to simple monsters or random encounters like the Limpet Bears in the last post) are the angry spirit of a petty bureaucrat and a near unstoppable (but very stupid) giant sea slug.  The Bureaucrat will grow increasingly angry if his domain is disturbed, while the slug will hunt the party pushing them deeper into the hull.  All three are designed to present a variety of potential encounters and uses to the players, not only combat - though other then using the slug to dispose of other enemies, it's not really up for conversation.

AREA 16 - Main Bar (Illuminated) [Monster/Treasure] Light streams into this long room from observation windows of thick glass, blindingly to anyone emerging from the darker recesses of the hull.  ‘L’ shaped the longer arm an ornately decorated Bar (Area A16b) and the shorter a Lounge (Area A16a) filled with lushly stuffed leather furniture.

AREA 16a - Club Lounge - (illuminated) [Monster] Chairs and couches upholstered in cracked leather, weathered by the sun, are array around several tables of polished black wood.  Glassware and empty bottles are scattered about, but are especially thickly stacked on a table by the windows overlooking the Pool (Area A2), where a withered corpse [sidebar] in the tattered remains of an evening gown still leans in one of the chairs.
  • chairs and couches - Examination of the chairs will reveal that they appear to be made from a variety of shades of human skin, seemingly confirmed by the presence of a face here and there on the upholstery.
  • Withered corpse - (Murial Coranado, Revenant of Debauchery) [See Sidebar] HD 4 (HP 16), AC 13*, ATK** +5x2 (Claw/Claw)***, INT 0, MV sluggish (3)
    *Immune to normal weapons/explosions, damaged by fire, magic, silver, hexed and blessed weapons.
    ** Murial’s bony talons drain life from the victim on each strike, Save v. Paralysis or lose one level of experience/HD.  Reduction to -1 LVL or 0HD causes instant death without Save.
    *** As a Revenant of Debauchery Murial Coranado exudes reeking alcoholic fumes that will cause any creature in melee combat with her and capable of intoxication to become uselessly, reelingly drunk.  Each round close to Murial combatants must Save vs. Paralysis to act at all.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

SCENES FROM A SHIPWRECK PART II - Grave of Giants Sample Rooms


"The abyssal seas hold their secrets deep, and few living known more than a few of the terrible beasts that swim them, but the trawlers of the darkness know, they have seen and hunted the depths for flesh, bone and souls, dangling from their long thorny lines past light and into the crushing depths. They threaten to pull even the Leviathan to the surface with bony claws.  These are not the skulking feral dead of the lost spaces, these are the ghoul nobility of the sea, loyal to their fisher queen Moab whose dead pearl eyes have gazed on the ruins of stone cities beneath the waves and whose oracular mind holds unwanted secrets of the past and future."
  • From the confession of the Necromancer ‘Tenebrous’ on his treasonous dealings with the Ash Plague

Once a small cargo port for the transfer of incidental goods, the Whale Tomb is conveniently located near Spinal Rail and also provides access to the sea.  For undead of Queen Moab’s “Trawlers” it offered a perfect space to gather the materials for and conduct the rituals to raise a “kraken”, the reanimated corpse of a whale or other large sea creature which the Plague uses as a siege weapon. Upon discovery of a clean rail connection to the Whale Tomb from her domains deep in steerage, Queen Moab dispatched a research expedition of intelligent ‘Hollow Men’ defended by a few Gun Wights and led by the rather scholarly Fyke Trawler, a Greater Revenant of Duty.  Midway through the process of raising a Kraken the undead were stopped by the intrusion of a well armed gang of cultists from the Cult of the Ravenous, a cannibalistic swarm of demon worshipers loyal to the Hyena Headed Demon King of Slaughter (See Area C - The Roundhouse Tunnels for details).  The undead have abandoned many of their ritual spaces and fight a stolid defense against the raiding tactics and sniping of the cultists. Fyke Trawler is crafty and experienced, but he isn’t a fighter and his dead aren’t really warriors.  The Trawlers are in a desperate situation and uncharacteristically willing to ally with any third force they come across - even the living.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

SCENES FROM A SHIPWRECK - HMS Apollyon Painted Ship on A Painted Sea - Room Design

Below are some sample rooms from areas of the HMS Apollyon that I have been writing up over the last year or so. These are partial and scattered selections from a much larger work, but I am happy to share them, giving some preview of the project (which may or may not ever be completed).  I recently asked some people what ongoing project they'd like to see finished, so I will be working on this and perhaps posting additional updates and samples.

They also show my current approach to dungeon keying, which tries to both preserve the level of detail I find interesting and remain immediately useful to a Game Master during play.

HMS - cover processed faded.jpg

Duke Brimstone Yacht Club - Area A

“The HMS Apollyon is graced with a special chapter of the The Duke Brimstone Yacht Club, many of that storied order of light-hearted nautical diabolists having joined our great experiment! While the camaraderie shared aboard ship, even one as great as ours, has allowed the ‘Duke’s Men’ to accept non-members holding 1st Class, 2nd Class and Elite Cabin Class tickets (and up to two of their guests) for visits and enjoyment of its sinfully excellent bar, join club approved day charters, or view any member’s yachts currently in its whimsically decorated pool, the club offices, lounge and other areas are limited to members.

Members, and non-members alike may avail themselves of the Club’s generous yacht storage area and use its launching facilities, chandlery and naval architecture firm for a small fee.”
                    -HMS APOLLYON, Cabin Class Entertainment Guide.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Divine Wight - Part 7 Animals in the Jungle of Midnight

In addition to encounters with mythical beasts and dangerous inhabitants it seems important that a cursed jungle contain a large amount of wildlife.  While it would be easy enough to include these encounters on a monster encounter table, the goal is to both provide some separation between the (mostly) less dangerous encounters and the deadly, as well as increasing the number of chances for explorers to meet up with strange life.  These creatures also add some opportunity for resupply as many are edible.

Table 4 - Creatures of the Jungles of Midnight (*for stats listed below)
Giant Panthers* - A stalk of 1D6/2 Giant Panthers, 8’ - 12’ feet long and cruelly curious these creatures may stalk man-sized prey or lounge with yawning indifferent.
Dream Birds - Bursting with color and singing triumphant rilling songs in almost human voices, flocks of 3D6 of these birds are hunted for their plumage which is worth 100 GP a bird. Autochthons hunt them with wax stopped ears to avoid hearing their mournful death songs.
Slate Lizards* - Like dull blue river stones, up to 4d6 flat round lizards huddle on a bank or cling to the boles of trees - always basking in the sun.  These creatures are no more aggressive or intelligent than any other 3’ long reptile, but being of the basilisk they are dangerous.
Prophetic Birds - Avian shapes made of pure inky night, these immaterial creatures exude the cold of the void and their movements are prophecy.  A cleric may observe the birds to cast Augery without using a memorized spell on a successful 4D6 WIS check.  On a failure the Cleric and companions are doomed with a -1 on all rolls (as a Curse)
Glass Deer* - Noble troops of deer, most are placid but the stags are territorial and can be aggressive. The glass deer of Jungles of MIdnight are transparent tending towards translucent with age and somewhat immaterial, but their flesh is still succulent, if light.
Blue Bees - The sweet drone of buzzing honey bees indicates the presence of a monumental hive of blue bees.  Glassy and electric blue, the honey in their hives (unprotected raiders will be stung for 1D6 damage per round, for the 1D6 rounds it takes to recover each unit honey) is hallucinogenic, mildly poisonous and valuable - 250 GP per unit, with 1D6 units per hive.
Large Serpents* - 8’ to 18’ long these great constrictors are predatory and malicious,devoted to the Colossal Serpent they will be become placid if it is killed.
Glass Herons - Flying above in wedges that sparkle with sunlight or stalking fish in the river and pond shallows, these birds are like smoked blue glass with shearing beaks and brittle feathers that shatter with a tinkling snap.
Howling Monkeys* - Dirty slate, shambolic scavengers and thieves with 2-6 arms and wizened crafty faces.  They make a near constant cacophony of hateful screams, seemingly from the sheer joy of disruption, and stink with their own foulness.
Butterfly Migration - Sapphire lords, a butterfly with a 2’ wingspan, rich vibrancy and long feathery antenna travel in locust like swarms.  They are defenseless to the birds that trail after them nibbling at the edges of the swarm.  THe birds dare not eat too many as the butterflys are deadly poisonous, even to a larger creature if eaten in bulk (a meal’s worth requires a Save v. Poison).
Crocodiles* - Mottled purple, blue or grey the crocodiles of the Midnight Jungle are oppressed and disdained by their divinely inspired brethren, but they can be as mean and dangerous as any hungry 6’ - 10’ reptile - hunting in the river’s shallows.
Swarm Fish - A colony of thousands of fish, moving with singular intent and mind, flashing blue and silver glass  in the water the fish swarm is curious, but largely harmless.  An excellent food source it can easily be tricked into sacrificing some of its members - going so far as to risk 1D6 rations worth of fish leaping into a net or boat to investigate any sparkling objects displayed within.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Divine Wight Part 6 - Jungle Tables 2 and 3: Landmarks and Hints

The tables below continue the random encounter structure for Jungle travel - they represent Landmarks and Non-Combat/Indirect encounters with jungle inhabitants.  With encounter checks three times a day, and the expected length of the party's time in the jungle 6-10 days the point of these encounters is to both provide relief from more dangerous combat encounters and to make each day of travel more interesting.  Landmarks serve the additional function of providing milestones for travel and a place to retreat to if the party becomes lost.  The general goal of these tables and those that follow is descriptive - to make wilderness travel more then a chain of monster encounters.  Some of the landmarks might themselves make for small adventure locations if a GM felt enterprising or a party was less goal directed and wanted to search the dangerous jungle rather then head for the ruins or fallen god.

Landmarks and areas of interest are often found in the Jungle of Midnight, and are useful as they provide points that a lost party can often find their way back to.

Table 2 - Landmarks in the Jungle of Midnight
Abandoned Village - The sense tragedy fills this clearing, and above hangs the unraveled crumbled ruins of an Autochthon village.  A search will reveal a dread emblem of corrupt magics and/or a midden of cracked fire roasted human bones.
Marble Ruins - Graceful arches, fluted columns and decoratively carved blocks crumbled and scattered by time.  Often these ruins are blanketed with flowers.
Waterfall - From a high plummeting cataract to a series of small drops and turbulent rapids, waterfalls in either jungle streams or the great river make a cacophony of falling water can be heard for miles, making them excellent spots for an ambush.
Legion Post/Grave - Ancient forts and cenotaphs of sorcerously sculpted stone mark the Jungles of Midnight as a former march of the Imperial Legions.  These near imperishable vestiges slowly sink beneath the riotous life of the jungle.
Improbable Growth - Groves of tall bare trees with roots that erupt in lavender foliage, meadows of tree sized orchids and twisted paths wending through man-high succulents.
War Machine - Trapped in vines and entangled by jungle trees, the twisted remnants of an ancient Imperial Colossus towering above the canopy, the crushed crumbled stones of a floating Vheissuian fire temple blanketed in pink coral like growth or the moss colored stone bones of a dire wyrm are a monument to ancient wars.
Autochthon Village - Like mussels clinging to a rock, the people of the Jungle build their homes from wicker and black clay, stuck fast in the branches of the greatest of forest giants.  Among the foliage and fruits the Autochthons can go about their domestic tasks protected from many of the Jungle’s predators.
Stone Face - Colossal and timeless, carved boulders or entire sheer cliffs marked by vanished carvers with a variety of faces: human, beasts or god.
Monolith - A marker of forgotten deeds, antediluvian or simply ancient.  The history of the great stele and rain channeled statues is lost, but they still stand in the jungle.
Bone Yard - A stinking hole in the jungle, like a cancerous growth, where the bones of unlikely beasts and slaughtered sentients rot in great, piles of spongy yellow on brittle bleached white.
Dead Water - Glassy clear to the depths of the river, where the pristine wreck of an ancient war machine rests, tangles of wire and struts of bonewhite gleaming among polished river stones this area of river is devoid of life.  The water here is a polluted sink of deadly magics.  Drinking it or swimming here requires a save vs. poison (every round for a swimmer) or it results in a convulsive, corrosive death.
Bridge - A thin span of near translucent marble, ancient beyond reckoning, a tumble of fallen logs, tangled artfully with vines, or a brutal manipulation of bedrock into a low arch that marks the Successor Empire’s poor grasp of military geomancy.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Divine Wight Part 5 - Jungle Encounter Table 1: Monsters.


Dangers of the Jungle of Midnight
Autochthons (3D6) - A band of Autochthon hunters or gatherers, peaceably finding their sustenance.  They may be fishing for glassy eels from a bark canoe on the river, checking fish traps in a jungle rill, digging purple bulbs from the undergrowth or stalking birds, many armed monkeys and fat slate lizards.  They are usually suspicious, unfriendly and ready to flee.
Brutes (2D6) - From deep in the jungle, hulking, slope skulled, dulled eyed and decked in bones, these massive warped humans hunt and kill, and their favorite prey is their fellow man.  Brutes travel in bands and are usually hostile unless they have recently eaten.
Owlbears (2D6) - Usually arcanovore scavengers, the jay feathered ‘growlyhoots’ of the Midnight jungle have grown more predatory in an environment where all life is infused with magic.  They are lean pack hunters, tracking, circling, and distracting their prey with quizzical hooting and then rushing in from the rear to drag it down beaks snapping.  
Hunting Glass (1)  - Filaments of spun blue glass drape the trees and form mystical sigils that can stun a warp the mind.  Above its trap of symbols, hangs a colony of hunting glass, it will subsume and devour prey that becomes hopeless under the effect of its symbols.
Blue Monks (2D6) - blue monks roam from the city on a mission from their “god”, they are unlikely to talk but also unlikely to attack, preferring to return immediately to the city a inform their fellows before organizing a hunt for trespassers to sacrifice.
Azure Apes (1D6) - Monstrous, four armed horrors are cavorting in a clearing, gorging on fruit, hooting at each other, smashing termite mounds or travelling in a line.  They can rarely resist the distraction of crushing smaller ape-like creatures.
Revenant Legion (4D20) - Only the geases of the ancient empire and perverse professionalism keep this company of ghoulish soldiers endlessly marching.  They plod slowly, noisily through the forest in rusted armor, with broken weapons in warped, lichen splotched hands. The legion has no mission beyond the ceaseless march and sating their undead cannibal hunger.
Cockatrice (1) - small and solitary, the blue cockatrice is one of the jungle’s greatest predators.  It will hunch silently (often in a stolen nest over crystallized eggs) and then burst into its beautiful and and deadly song, leaving prey a fragile petrified statue of blue crystal.
Razor Birds (1D6/2) - A quarrelsome and deadly flock of tall birds, somewhat akin to giant cassowary’s except with long wispy feathers of gentle purples and black over scaled skin that gleams like quicksilver.  They are territorial, sadistic and fond of trapping prey in covered pits.  
Colossal Serpent (1) - over 60’ long this leviathan of the forest has grown almost immortal from devouring godflesh, and is far more intelligent and malicious than any mere animal. It coils in a great pool below a waterfall, whose bottom is blanketed with bones.  The snake considers anything the enters the pool a sacrifice to its divinity but will not attack those who offer proper sacrifice.
Divine Crocodiles (1d6+1) - A pack of crocodiles polluted by the Beaked God’s presence, they are blue and each has a huge third eye, capable of emitting a beam (BV 3 at range, single melee target) that turns all who fail a save vs. paralyzation into glass. The strange creatures guard sunken ruins and are never far from some piece of ancient carved marble.
River Draugr (1D6/2 ) - The bodies of drowned explorers, slither from their river den and float to the surface, waiting for ‘rescue’.  The Dragur will demand help in blubbering watery voices, with bloated faces weeping bloody tears.  If offered a line they either try drag rescuers to the river bottom or sit sullen faced in the rescuers’ boat, obviously dead, and waiting for a chance to stave in the boat’s bottom or seize the helm and dash it against rock.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Divine Wight Part 4 - Jungle Introduction

Dense foreboding jungle the color of a bone bruise, but vibrant with squalling life, spices and bursts of strange color.  Its dangers leak from the body of a fallen god, decaying at its heart.

The Jungle of Midnight is a unfinished country, prehistoric, where a tall, many layered canopy combines with heat and damp to create a steaming, shaded pit, full of obscenity - violent and base.  All nature in the jungle is fighting for survival, choking, asphyxiating, writhing, fornicating and rotting away. Despite the startling blues and jewel greens of feathers and leaves, the jungle it is a place of misery, the trees live in misery, the birds live in misery - they do not sing only scream with misery.  With an overwhelming misery, overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth and an overwhelming lack of order, there is no real harmony as a human could conceive it in the Jungle of Midnight, only the natural harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.