Monthly Archives: September 2016

War Cry of the Flame Princess: Ability Scores and Character Levels

1474423181OSR games, particularly in the Weird OSR scene that Joseph Manola lined out so well here, predominantly focus on low power, low magic adventures in whichopponents are either normal guys or extremely deadly eldritch horrors. While it’s a style that I find very appealing, my greatest love is still Sword & Sorcery. Particularly Conan and Kane, but also Hyperborea, The Witcher, and of course Star Wars. The uselessness of Stormtroopers aside, at least when they are deliberately letting the heroes escape or fight against ewoks, they are all works in which the protagonists are at the very top of what humans can be, but not outright superhuman. And while they have to be cautious, they are always on the offense.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is my favorite RPG system by a good margin, but it does retain the inherent squishiness of the D&D Basic rules. Which is by design, but I think not fitting so well for Sword & Sorcery. Starting at higher levels is an option, but I always find that unsatisfying and it also means that new wizard players start the game with a considerably wider range of spells from the outset. (Which might sound appealing to some, but my spellpoint conversion already increased the number of spells.)

An in my opinion neater solution is to roll 2d6+6 for ability scores and also let the players assign the six numbers as they see fit for their chosen character class. 2d6+6 considerably shifts the average up and makes 8 the lowest score possible. But since modifiers in B/X are relatively small and don’t increase linearly, the result is that characters will on average have a combined total of +4. A +2 here and two +1s there isn’t hugely imbalancing, but with the ability to assign the scores to abilities freely (and getting maximum hit points at first level) this allows players to make considerably sturdier characters than rolling 3d6 in order. A fist level fighter with 10 hp or a +4 to hit is entirely doable.

The other method I am using is to firmly stick to the paradigm that any NPC who isn’t an outstanding combatant is a level 0 character, and to use a bestiary of entirely custom made creatures. The high end for regular monsters tapers off around 10 HD and I am using relatively smal numbers of special abilities each. In the fiction of the world this makes even 4th level characters already members of the top tier of people who roam the world and who are able to confront gods, demons, giants, and dragons. Maybe not one of those 13 HD behemoths, but certainly one of the smaller 7 HD ones.

Dungeon Crawls and Antagonists

During my planning for a new campaign based around loosely connected dungeoncrawls instead of a longrunning epic quest or an open world sandbox I realized what always had been missing for me from dungeon modules. (Aside from plots, since I used to be young and stupid.) It’s great villains. Great antagonists are one of the big draws of Sword & Sorcery and pulp adventures and even though some boss monsters from early D&D have become famous, the early modules consistently had a lack of actually great villains.

The main problem with a generic dungeon crawl is that it has enemies in fixed places and some enemies who are randomly encountered wandering around. And any supposed villain was almost always in his throne room or something to that effect, waiting there at the far end of the dungeon to be the big final fight for the dungeon. Saying a few arrogant lines before a fight to the death does not make a great antagonist. A great and memorable enemy for the players is a villain who does things and they have meaningful interactions with. In movies villains often have most of their scenes in which they show how cool and badass they are far away from the heroes and they only run into each other very late in the story. In an RPG that does not work. You only get the moments where the villain interacts with the heroes to make him cool.

There are several ways to do that before the final fight in which the villain is killed. A really neat idea that I’ve seen in many wuxia stories is that the world of martial arts masters is actually pretty small and everyone knows absolutely everyone else. Even if they’ve never met before, people have heard enough about each other to get a good idea who they are dealing with. In a campaign in which every NPC without a name has no character levels and the majority of named characters are only first or second level this can easily be made to be plausible as well, regardless of the specific setting. When a major antagonist spots the party he might be able to recognize them simply by their appearance and weapons and react to them accordingly. This is not so easily done when the players encounter a new NPC, but any NPC friendly to the party might be able to tell them about some of the people who have been seen near the dungeon or in the company of the dungeon’s current master. Though that friendly NPC might only have heard some vague rumors that could be of greatly varying accuracy and might be misleading the players to expect someone who turns out quite different in person.

Another good method is to drop plenty of clues about the presence and status of a powerful NPC in the area before and after they meet him in person. Captured enemies might talk about their masters and superiors or the party might overhear them talking about them. Or the villain placed a lot of recently made traps ib an area that seems otherwise uninhabited. Corpses of monster killed by antagonist who are nearby are another alternative. Lots of corpses full with arrows, cleaved into pieces, or burned to cinders will give the players certain expectations who they might be facing in the near future.

Something that is easily forgotten and never appears in published modules and adventures because it requires a lot of flexibility from the GM is that every NPC who isn’t killed can show up again in later adventures. Sometimes even if they have been killed (but don’t do that too often, it gets lame very quickly.) Often it’s presented as the default or even only option that any encountered enemy will automatically attack and be killed. But that’s really not necessary and also quite lame. Except for mindless undead all enemies want to live and rather escape than die. If you make use of that option you will end up with a lot of enemies who escaped alive pretty quickly. For the main villain of a dungeon I would even plan ahead to let him fall back a few times before the players might corner him. But only if it’s tactically possible. If the players manage to cut of escape routes or get a few lucky hits that kills the enemy leader in the first or second encounter than that’s what should be happening. It’s not necessary that he will still be able to fight in the last fallback position. The minions might fight on for a while by themselves before they flee from the party or a lieutenant might take over command for the big bad. That lieutenant might turn out to be the actual big antagonist the players are going to remember from the adventure.

If a prominent antagonist survives an adventure, I would not usually use him agaib right in the next adventure and go after the party. That would only encourage the players to never let anyone survive. Wait three or four adventures and then let the players have an unexpected run in with an old acquaintance of theirs.

Though all that being said, I think a dungeon crawls should still be about the dungeon first and everything in it optional. Instead of making a major antagonist the final goal of the dungeon, he should simply be the main attraction. The villain’s lair shouldn’t be in the farthest and deepest room of the dungeon but better in a more central area. This way the players are given plenty of opportunities to avoid a confrontation with something scary like an undead sorcerer or a dragon, but they also will get close to the lair several times throughout their exploration, which gives the villains more opportunities to be on the players’ minds, making them more memorable.

Bounties and Rewards are also Treasure

In B/X and I believe most OSR games these days the primary source of experience points for PCs is treasure which they bring back from their adventures. If you go with the rules as written the XP gained frok overcoming enemies is tiny to the point of being marginal if you want to have even a modest pace of character advancement in a campaign.

I quite like this approach as it makes lethal combat a means to an end instead of being the end in itself. And only one means among many others. But while giving one XP for every gold piece found in a dungeon and brought back to town works well enough for a game about treasure hunters it does have it’s limitations in pretty much any other scenario. I think mines are a great environment for a dugeon crawl, but how much treasure can you hide down there in an at least somewhat plausible way? Or take adventures in which all the opponents are wild animals or spirits with no use for treasure. Simply putting big pots of gold in random places is neither believable, nor fun.

A simple workaround for this are bounties and rewards. An owlbear with 1,000 gold coins in its cave would be silly. But an owlbear whose head is worth 1,000 gold coins when delivered to the village elders really doesn’t stretch plausibility in any way. (Aside from gold being apparently worth almost nothing in most fantasy games.) Yes, a trophy is not exactly a treasure. But there is plenty of precedent of valuable tapestries and paintings whose only worth is that someone in town will give the party a bag of coins for them, and they have always been regarded as treasure that counts towards calculating XP. Treating reward money for things done in a dungeon as treasures taken from the dungeon is a perfectly valid thing to do.

Another nice trait I like about NPCs announcing rewards for certain things is that it’s more noncommittal than having an NPC hiring the party for a quest. When you send the players on a quest it brings with it the expectation that there’s a planned plot that the players are meant to play out and I think I’ve never seen players deciding to just not complete a quest unless they were obviously set up by an evil NPC. A notice of reward is much more open ended and more of an optional objective that can be done when doing stuff in the dungeon. If there’s plenty of other stuff to do and grab, players are more likely to think twice about asking a dragon for his head or taking a gem that keeps an underground garden alive. Decisions are always the most interesting when there is no obviously better option to pick.

How I run my games

Running an RPG really is an art. Primarily because rulebooks almost never even mention how you do that. The first edition of D&D was a collection of notes that an apprentice DM would get after he had been trained by an older master and somehow everyone kept doing that ever since. Two page Examples of Play are garbage. The only exception I know is the 1983 Basic Set for D&D. And that is after four decades and hundreds of games. Other than becoming an apprentice of the GM of the group you play with (simply observing a good GM at work won’t do it), the only people who can teach you to be a good GM are old GMs who explain it on the internet. The Angry GM and Matt Colville are both super helpful and there’s a lot of equally great stuff by The Alexandrian. (Links to all three are to the right.) I think I was a pretty poor GM myself until I started doing more research three years ago. Practice alone doesn’t make you any better if you just keep making the same mistakes every time. But all the methods to use as a GM are only options and not all of them work for every purpose. You need to have some reasonably clear image of what you want to do before you can pick the methods that work for you.

This post is basically my current playbook on how I am running games.

When in doubt, yes

Any time a player has an idea and you say no, the game stalls for a moment. Whatever vague plan was forming in the player’s mind will have to be discarded and a completely new approach considered. Saying yes keeps the game moving forward. Generally you want the game to maintain forward momentum and avoid situations in which players are overthinking things. For that you want to encourage and applaud their crazy ideas, not create the impression that they have to figure out what you think the correct solution should be. Even when the question is something like “Is the bridge made of wood?” and you have not thought about it before, answering yes will probably lead to the most interesting result. Whatever it is that the player is thinking about, it’s probably something that will only work if you say yes.

What are the players trying to do?

This is probably the most important thing that a GM has to understand. Before you decide the outcome of an action it is crucial to confirm that you and the player are on th same page. If players say they want to do something that seems nonsensical, it’s almost always because their picture of the situation is different from what you meant to describe to them. In an RPG the GM is the eyes and ears of the players. They can always only know what you tell them. If they get something wrong it’s your fault. And that means it’s your duty to make sure that you and the players are imagining the same situation and context.

Only when you know what the intended outcome of an action is can you decide what the best method is to handle it.

Do we need a roll?

Many rules heavy games have a mechanic for almost everything players might want to do. And that leads to a stong tendency to use mechanics for everything. But most of the time doing so is nonsensical. Most actions do not require a die roll. When it seems obvious that an action should succeed it should succeed automatically without a roll. If an action is effectively impossible, no roll is needed either. Dice are rolled when there’s a clear chance for both success and failure and failure also has a consequence. If the character could just keep trying until he rolls a 20 or a 01 then the question is not whether he can do it but how long it will take him. If there is no consequence of failure, no roll is needed. The most common forms of consequence are taking damage, alerting enemies, time pressure and anything that will make it impossible to try again. When player roll dice it should be a meaningful moment, not just tedious routine.

Sometimes only the first attempt wil have a consequence but successive attempts will not. For example a character kicking in a door could surprise the people on the other side. But only on the first attempt. If the first attempt fails anyone on the other side will know someone is trying to break the door and be alerted. A second or third failed attempt won’t have any further consequences and need no additional checks. It’s enough to tell the player that it didn’t work the first time and ask if he wants to keep doing it until it works or stop.

Only roll again if something has changed

Generally every action should require only a single roll. If a character disguises himself as a guard and fools the guards at the gate, no additional rolls are needed to fool the guards in the courtyard. That’s still the same situation of wandering around without being noticed. If the character would attempt to enter a restricted area or take a prisoner from the cells then he is doing something that would make people take another closer look at him and a new check might be required. If you would check for every guard the character walks by it would be only a matter of time until a roll fails and the whole plan of getting inside disguised as a guard becomes impossible.

What does the other side want?

Any time an encountet happens, whether it’s planned or random, the first thing the GM has to do is take a moment and decide what the NPCs or monsters want. It’s almost never to kill the PCs at any price. They might want to rob or eat them, get them to leave, prevent them from getting past, and possibly a wide range of other things. And usually, above all, they want to stay alive. To effectively play the people and creatures the party encounters, whether it leads to a fight or not, you have to know what they want to get out of the encounter. What tactics they use, when they might retreat or surrender, whether they attack first or need to be provoked to fight, and how they might negotiate all depends on what they want from the PCs.

Reaction Rolls

Enemies in videogames are stupid and all they can do is running straight at the characters and start hitting until they are dead. Henchmen in movies tend to do just the same. And most RPGs seem to assume the same thing of NPCs and monsters. But that’s a complete waste of interesting interactions and that’s what RPGs should be about, not combat. In the heat of the moment it’s often difficult to come up with interesting ways in which creatures react to spotting the party and so GMs usually default to instant attack. The reaction roll is a very simple and extremely useful mechanic to address that. If the reaction of a creature is not automatically apparent, roll a dice to see what it does. In B/X D&D immediate attack is a very rare result. Much more commonly they are hostile and waiting for a good opportunity to attack or just chase the party away, or they might wish to avoid a fight or even be friendly. The important part to remember when using reaction rolls is to question whether the reaction would really be automatically apparent. It’s a matter of tone for the campaign, but just because something is said to be evil or occasionally eats people doesn’t mean it has to attack. When in doubt, make a reaction roll.

Retreat and Morale Checks

Almost all people and creatures encountered by the party want to not be killed above everything else. When it becomes apparent that a fight is lost, have the enemies attempt to save their lives in whatever way they can. They might retreat, surrender, or try to negotiate.

But even when a fight can still be won enemies might get too scared by the killing around them and flee in panic anyway. This can be handled by a morale check. 2d6 are rolled the first time someone in the fight is killed and again when the enemy group has lost half of its fighters, either to death or being incapacitated. If the roll exceeds their morale score they will flee, regardless of the tactical situation.

Random Encounters

In OSR games defeating an enemy in battle gives characters only very little XP compared to the considerable risk they pose and the resources it takes to defeat them. They are a pure nuisance and something to be avoided. Since random encounter rolls are made based on the time the party spends in a dungeon or enemy stronghold, the only way to avoid them is to be quick and don’t spend any unnecessary time in the place. Random encounter checks are also made any time the players do something very noisy that might attract attention, which is an incentive to be sneaky. Random encounters really only work if the players are not meaningfully rewarded by getting into fights. If a random encounter provides a good amount of XP and treasure then they defeat the purpose.

Encumbrance

Most encumbrance system are way too complex to be fun and slow things down so much that they are just completely ignored. A much simpler system is to have every item have a weight of 1 and let characters carry as many items as their Strength score unencumbred and twice as many with being slowed down to half speed. Exceptionally big items like armor count as two or three items, very small items like keys or papers count as having no weight at all.

Going from full speed immediately to half speed seems very unrealistic but is by far the easiest solution to deal with turns on large maps. Having a 3/4 step in between would make it all much more unwieldy.

Turns and Zones

Most OSR games use turns of 10 minutes to track the durations of torches, spells, and potions and check for wandering monster encounters. Usually this is tracked by how much distance of empty tunnels the party has covered. This requires having the whole environment map out at great detail, which I am not fond of. Instead, for larger locations with a lot of empty space, I break the whole sketchy map down into zones of not clearly specified size and each time the party leaves a zone for another a turn has ended. If the party moves at encumbred speed, two moves have ended.

In addition, the end of a fight also means the end of a turn, regardless of how long or short it is. Tidying up after a fight tends to take longer than the fighting itself and for the sake of simplicity it’s assumed that another turn has ended once the party continues its exploration. A turn is only approximately 10 minutes, not a precise unit of time. Some turns are longer, some are shorter, and torches, potions, and spells don’t run on an exact timer either. It’s just a simple approximation.

Preparing Adventures

No NPC or location is irreplaceable

Even though I was born in the mid-80s I am very oldschool in my approach that RPGs area about the players making their story, not about the GMs telling their stories. It has nothing to do with nostalgia or snobbery, I just found it to be a vastly superior use of the great potential of roleplaying games once I really understood the idea. Not understanding this is why my campaigns used to be bland and underwhelming.

Whatever you put into your campaign is there for the players to interact with. It’s not to show off your creative work. If the players decide to do something that leaves an NPC dead or a cool place destroyed then let it happen. If you are not willing to see it go up in flames, don’t put it in the campaign.

Don’t prep plots

The adventure is a story the players are making, not a story they are being told. A good adventure provides things the players can interact with in interesting ways. And GMs don’t know how the players will interact with the things they’ll find so you shouldn’t assume that they will do certain things and then prepare additional scenes based on that. A good adventure is an environment with multiple people who want and do various things. It’s wise to spend some thought on what would happen if the players don’t interfere but don’t write a sequence of scenes that are meant to happen. When you do that the players will make their decisions based less on what they would like to do but more on what they think they are supposed to do.

Yes, almost all adventures that are being released are scripts of scenes. And I also think most released adventuresare bad.

Always have alternative routes

Probably the biggest mistake that is constantly made in dungeon design is to put obstacles in the way of the party that have to be overcome or the adventure can not continue. In a well designed adventure absolutely everything needs to be optional. And the best way to do that is to always have more than just a single possible route to get to an important place. Failure to do that leads to a long list of really bad problems. If the adventure can only continue if a creature guarding a gate is defeated, then the players know that they can not lose a fight against it. It will be easy enough to defeat and if things go wrong the GM will help them out and make them win anyway. From this follows that everything they encounter will be defeatable without much trouble, which leads to the conclusion that everything is meant to be defeated. And just like that the game turns into a meat grinder where combat is always the default response to encountering a monster or enemy.

Add plenty of optional content

Players aren’t really into exploring. Players are into discovering. So add plenty of hidden stuff to adventures that can be discovered through the actions of the players. They will probably miss a good deal of them so prepare them in a way that takes that into account.

Don’t make important things hinge on a single die roll.

If you want something to be found for certain then make it impossible to miss. It’s not common but still happening all the time that very substantial parts of adventures will only be accessible if the players find a hidden thing, make a saving throw, or succeed on a skill check. When you include such thing, always ask yourself what happens if the players fail.

Make battlefields interesting

Some games have a lot of rules for battles and others have very little. Even if you have a complex battle system it might seem fun to just rely on the standard maneuvers but every fight will be several times better if it takes place in an interesting battle field that both sides can use to their advantage. Add rubble, pits, fences, pillars, tables, stairs, balconies, barrels with oil, giant spider webs, huge furnaces, and chandeliers to swing on. Nothing is more boring than a featureless square room.

Placing Treasure

In a campaign in which characters get XP primarily from retrieving treasure, my rule of thumb is to take all the possible XP from fighting opponents in a location and multiplying it by 10 to get the value for treasures that can be found in that place. A good amount of it will be in the lairs of creatures but most of it well hidden and easy to miss. In the long run this should lead to a ratio of about 1:6. Treasure is put where it makes sense. In a location with mostly animals, most treasure would be in hidden staches while in an area with many humanoids much of the treasure would be in their lairs.

To have an easier time with encumbrance each treasure item takes up one slot of inventory space and has a value of either 100, 1,000, or 10,000 XP.

Thief Skills (for OSR games)

Thief skills in OSR games are always a weird thing. Thieves have a skill to hide and to sneak but what about other characters who try to quietly move around unseen? And the chance to successfully pull it of is a measly 15% for first level thieves. With less then an 80% chance it’s not worth to even try. Sadly, D&D never explained itself on how this is supposed to work and all we have are various interpretations on what those skills and odds are actually meant to be for.

Stealth (for B/X)

The actual names for hiding and sneaking in D&D are Hide in Shadows and Move Silenty. This means hiding when there’s nothing to hide behind and moving without making any sound that could be detected. These are things that an average person could not do. In situations where other characters would automatically fail without getting a chance to roll dice, a thief might just be able to pull it off with a big amount of luck.

For regular hiding and sneaking I simply have characters make a Dexterity check, possibly modified based on how good their hiding places are and how much ambient noise is present.

Climbing (for B/X)

As with stealth, the climbing skill of the thief is actually called Climb Sheer Surfaces. Again, I agree with the interpretation that this applies to climbing things that would normally be impossible. And again, climbing things that are regularly climbable is done with a Dexterity check if necessary.

Locks (for B/X)

Unless there is time pressure, which there generally is not, a single roll is made to attempt to open a lock. This roll simply determines whether the thief can open the lock or not. If he fails then it’s beyond his skills.

Traps (for B/X)

I handle the detection of traps in two ways: A general quick lookover and a specific interaction. The thief skill is used only for the former. The player can declare that he quickly checks if something looks fishy and a roll is made. This roll is made in secret, which allows me to roll multiple dice in case there are multiple traps. If a roll is a success the character spots the trap. But any player can declare to do specific things to make sure there really isn’t anything hidden. A thief rolling to detect traps is only a chance for auto detection. Manual searching will find or possibly trigger a trap based on what the players are doing.

Dungeons and Wilderness in Modular Campaigns

In my previous post about modular campaigns I have been rambling about the reasons for structuring a campaign into individual chunks that can easily be moved around, rearranged, and modified. (It’s all still work in progress.) The key idea being to have the convenience of episodic one-shots with an irregular group of players while also giving the players agency in choosing where they want to go and what motivates them and getting a campaign that better captures the spirit and atmosphere of Sword & Sorcery tales. What I haven’t really been talking about yet is how I want to structure each module to get as much out of every session as possible (occasional players should not be left hanging at the end of a session with nothing seeming to have been accomplished) without making thing too rushed and not neglecting a proper buildup of tension and atmosphere. Because that’s something I only worked out these last days.

Something I struggled the most with is how to deal with the journey from the town to the dungeon. I am a big proponent of skipping the boring parts that serve mostly as padding to make the adventure feel bigger but contribute very little to make the game feel like an adventure and making it memorable. Especially when you have players who only play four hours every 5 or 6 week you don’t want to unnecessarily draw things out when you could do more of the exciting stuff. Simply starting and ending each session at the entrance seems tempting, but I think that’a throwing out the baby with the bath water. I support the notion that most dungeons should be otherworldly. If the essence of Sword & Sorcery can be broken down to a single phrase it would be the encounter with the supernatural. But for a world to be other and supernatural you have to contrast it with a world that is normal and natural. Both the town and the journey to and from the dungeon are this normal world to which the PCs are native.

So, going with the assumption that the wilderness travel is a crucial part of the experience, the next goal has to be to find ways to pack these trips with as much excitement as can be done and making it relevant to the real meat of the adventure that is the dungeon. It’s not often but sometimes you see people make suggestions that seem to be just pure gold. The suggestion someone gave to me is to make the encounters on the trips to and from the dungeon not based on the natural wildlife and local population of the region but on the denizens of the dungeon the path leads to. I think you can actually treat the wilderness journey as the first level of the dungeon. What the party encounters along the way is not unrelated to what is inside the dungeon but already connected to it. With larger dungeons the party might have to make the trip multiple times to haul back the loot and get new supplies, which makes randomly rolled encounters a much more interesting option than having just one or two fixed ones. You can also already include a few “rooms” and branching paths the players may choose from. Sentry posts or creaky bridges that could be collapsed to shake pursuers trying to keep the party from reaching the safety of the town with their loot would be great additions to what could otherwise just be a single straight path through the forest. The wilderness from The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun comes to mind, though it’s a somewhat crude execution of a great idea and more tedious than adding much to the exploration of the dungeon. Through random encounters players could learn of secret entrances into the dungeon or safe places to rest near it without having to make the whole trip back the the town. I think the only real difference between the “wilderness level” and the dungeon levels would be to make wandering monsters check ever 2 hours instead of every 20 minutes and perhaps only once or twice when the group is making camp for eight hours. There’s not going to be much treasure in it (though perhaps a randomly encountered group of humanoids might be tracked back to their nearby lair) but players already have an opportunity to learn about what is making its home inside the dungeon. And especially in OSR games, knowing is half the battle.

Once you reach the proper dungeon I am a big fan of making the players feel that they have come to the other side of the rabbit hole and are not in Kansas anymore. If the dungeon includes surface ruins they often form a kind of border zone. You have reached a strange place and can start exploring but you still have the sun in the sky and fresh air around you and plenty of room to escape if you wish to. But this ends at the threshold beyond which looms the mythic underworld. It can be a door, a cave entrance, stairs leading down, or just a small hole in the ground. Once you cross beyond this point anything could happen.

It’s a bit different when the adventure site lies in an enchanted forest. Enchanted forests usually don’t have a threshold and that’s what makes them unsettling in their own way. You make your way through the wilderness anticipating the see the border to the magical realm ahead until you realize that you crossed it long ago and you won’t be able to get out quickly. How to do this well I am not sure yet. I think it might be a good idea to have two different encounter tables for the mundane wilderness and the enchanted forest. The players might only realize that they’ve already reached the magical realm when they encounter its inhabitants. When the dungeon is in an enchanted forest I think there’s no need to for a visible transition from surface ruins to underground passages. The characters have already committed themselves to the dangers of the otherworld.

How long the trip should be depends on the overall setup of the module, but for the reasons mentioned previously I wouldn’t make it more than two fixed encounter area per possible path (if you have alternative routes to the dungeon) and an average of two random encounters. In a four hour session you probably don’t want to have more than half an hour for each trip.

Now you’ve come to the dungeon itself. How should it be structured? Since the main goal is to allow irregular players to enjoy the game even when jumping in irregularly and to let players have many adventures all over the world I would keep each dungeon relatively limited in size. Usually it shouldn’t take more than two or three trips to a dungeon before the players decide it is time to move on to another module. I don’t imagine playing only the middle one of three adventures into a dungeon to be terribly satisfying. The first contact and the big discovery in the farthest corner are usually the highlights of a dungeon crawl and which give the whole thing context and meaning. With relatively modest sized dungeons I would also recommend sticking mostly to a single theme that ties everything together. If you could split a dungeon into two or three separate dungeons that could each stand on its own, then you probably should.

Also a few words about towns here: During each adventure players will spend relatively little time in the town and will have little interaction with the NPCs. What I would do is to not create a completely new town for each module. When the players wrap up a module and you offer them a few new rumors and hooks to pursue you can easily put one of them near the town they are already in, or in a town they have been to in the past. Since modules are meant to be shuffled around regularly as the players move from place to place I think it’s probably the best idea to keep any town NPC for a module very generic. When preparing each module in advance make notes simply for “guardsman”, “merchant”, or “innkeeper”. These roles will then be assumed by whatever fitting NPC is present in the town currently visited by the party.

Modular Campaigning

I am a huge fan of Sword & Sorcery, which is a style of fantasy that seems like being just perfect for RPGs but in practice turns out quite difficult to do. I’ve tried various things in my last campaigns (which didn’t work out to make it feel like Sword & Sorcery) and been toying with various ideas over the last year to do better in the future. My last plans were something like a focused sandbox, but that doesn’t really capture the character of the style either. Riding into the sunset and landing on unknown shores are such a major element that you can’t really leave out, but one that is incompatibile with standard sandbox campaigning.

The common conventions of Sword & Sorcery have one or two protagonists who somehow have ended up in a dangerous situation. The first difference of RPGs is that you usually have three to six or more protagonists and all of them are supposed to be equally important. But even more importantly, and much less obviously, the method of starting right at the start of the action and skipping the buildup and backstory of the adventure has very different effects in literature and game. When you write a story it works just fine, and it’s tempting to do the same in an RPG to get the maximum amount of excitement out of a limited time span of four to six hours per week or month. But the context under which the characters have learned about the plot hook and their reasonings for making the decision to take it and not do something else are, while not exciting, a very important part of what defines not just their own personality but also how they perceive the things they encounter and how they react to that. It is something that I feel has to be part of the play time and can not be prepared and narrated by the GM. It’s a very important part of the players’ agency and has a major impact on how much the game feels like their adventures instead of just an adventure.

This is one of the big strength of sandbox campaigning that I consider a huge advantage over episodic play. But Sword & Sorcery is a highly episodic style of fantasy. Sandboxes also have to limit themselves to a specific area while Sword & Sorcery tends to be all over the place. I want to eat my cake and have it too. And I think I found a way to do it.

Preparing a whole world to let players roam freely just isn’t doable. Even if you could prepare that much material in advance, the players would most likely see only a few places and might quite well not know what they should do when everything is possible. Preparing three different adventures each session and letting the players pick one also would be a very inefficient way to prepare for a game. But I remembered the idea of the old D&D modules, which are usually a dungeon, a stretch of wilderness, and often a town. They are meant to be easily adaptable to whatever world you play in, you just have to pick a spot where you want to put them. They are obviously a bit bare bones, but that makes it easier to weave in iconic elements of your setting. When you prepare your campaign material like this you can offer players a choice of what kind of adventures their characters would want to go on while keeping the workload no higher than in an average episodic campaign. It could even be less.

How would this look in practice?

This type of campaign is best suited for classic adventurers. People with skill in weapons and magic who take on mercenary work for fame and fortune and go poking around in dangerous places out of greed and curiosity. At the start of the campaign you prepare three modules that each have an interesting location that is worth exploring and perhaps some trouble that is coming from there. The players get three rumors or calls for heroes that serve as hooks for each module. Each hook should include some hints at what can be expected, like pirates, a temple full of undead, fishmen attacking a village, a mysterious tower that recently appeared in the mountains, stuff like that. The players also get information about the general location of each adventure so they can take into consideration if they are interested in tropical islands, a giant swamp, or wintery mountains. The active play may then start in the hall of a lord who has called for heroes where some of the PCs might first meet, with the PCs riding into a village nearest to the site to make their last preparations, or on a ship that reaches the island they are looking for.

At either the end of the session after a module is “completed” or at the start of the next session the players again get three rumors about places that hold adventure. One of these is for a new module, the other two are new rumors for the modules they did not pick the last time. In some cases it can be appropriate to offer the same hook again, like when it’s for rumored hidden treasure or ruined castle that doesn’t go anywhere and where the hook does not include any kind of urgency. The key is to make the modules truly modular. Make them in a way that they can work in different environments and you can easily replace creatures with others more appropriate for the new location and context. If the players really don’t feel like doing something with skeletons in a desert tomb they might still be intrigued by zombies in a jungle tomb.

The choice that the players make is not about dungeon floorplans, amount of treasure, or difficulty of opposition. These are all thing they know nothing about when picking which hook they want to take. The purpose of the choice is to let the players define what kind of rumors their characters find interesting, what kinds of jobs they want to take on, what goals they set for themselves, and also have a say what parts of the world the campaign is visiting. These choices are not invalidated by offering them the same module over and over until they pick it.

A module is not an adventure. A module is an adventuring site with inhabitants, obstacles, and treasures, and often some kind of conflict between different groups of inhabitants. The default goal of the players is to make themselves a good picture of the place, grab the stuff they want to keep, and kill whoever they think needs killing. And how this actually works out as an adventure depends quite a lot on what expectations the players bring with them, which is based on the plot hook. Different rumors can lead to very different adventures even with the same module. Imagine for example that you either have Robin Hood looking for people to overthrow the tyrant of Sherwood Forest, or the Sheriff looking for help to defeat a group of rebellious brigands led by a rogue nobleman. If the players pick that module expecting to crush a rebellion, whatever the brigands might shout at them during a fight might sound very hollow. Even if they switch sides halfway in they still get quite a different experience than if they had picked it expecting to overthrow a tyrant.

One challenge when letting the characters roam all around the setting is to have some kind of continuity throughout the campaign. Sometimes you can give the players plot hooks that lead to a town they have been to in the past and where people still remember them. Occasionally you can also have them cross paths with people they once met in completely different places, be it as allies or enemies. But the bigger the setting the less plausible does it become to meet someone a third or even fourth time. A great suggestion someone gave me is to make good use of globally or at least regionally active organizations. Even if the NPCs the party meets are people they have never met before, seeing the emblems of a group they had allied with in the past appear in a dangerous situation can be just as satisfying. Though the NPCs may not have met the party before they can have heard of them from their comrades who did. Organizations also provide a very plausible reason for meeting NPCs several times in completely different parts of the world. They may be on business for their group or have been redeployed to another stronghold. Having one such NPC appear every two or three adventures, either as friend or foe, who is leading a group of NPCs or tells the leader of the group about them creates a stronger sense of the PCs having a continuous adventuring career instead of the campaign being a series of one-shots with largely replaceable characters.

This format also lends itself to open table campaigns or games with irregular attendance. Instead of a regular party the PCs would be individual adventurers, treasure hunters, and mercenaries who know each other and readily join forces when they find themselves in the same area. Better to stick together with friends that going alone or with total strangers. An interesting option is to let every player have more than just one character but only play one in any given adventure. One good reason to do so is when the party for the current game ends up with characters who would be stepping on each other’s toes. Like three expert trap finders or two wizards specialized in illusions. Another situation would be that four players want to play their thieves and so the fifth player for the session switches his heavily armored warrior for another thief so they can make the whole adventure as a team of ninja. Or perhaps past events between two PCs make it seem unlikely that they would cooperate on the objective of the current adventure. Or two characters end up always travelling together but one of the player doesn’t play as regularly as the other. I think a good practice would be to always give each player’s unused characters half the XP that the currently active character gets. (But no equipment.) This makes it worthwhile to have secondary characters that only get used rarely as they don’t fall hopelessly behind.

If you run an open game where the players are different every session you can also sometimes run into the situation that an adventure can’t be wrapped up quickly and needs another session. You might not be able to get the same group together before the next game but can agree on a time slot in the near future. Then you can put that adventure and the PCs on hold for the time being and any of the players who shows up for the next regular session can then play one of their other characters.

I think this approach might actually be the closest you can get to the experience of classic pulpy Sword & Sorcery tales. It does require a little bit of extra work before the first session starts, but after that it’s really no more than for any other episodic campaign. When the adventure is over you have to create one new one. Maybe occasionally update another module for a higher level of characters. But preparing a location based adventure is generally a lot less work tha creating a plotted one as you see with most published adventures these days and the last 30 years. And when you look at many of the stories this is really how they are structured. Take the Conan, Lankmar, or Witcher stories for example. Usually they take place entirely in single location over the span of just a few hours. It can be as simple as The Scarlet Citadel or as elaborate as Red Nails. Both are really just a location in which Conan encounters a situation and then gets himself involved. He makes deals and takes sides, but mostly it’s about exploration and fighting opponents. The plot is really just how he reacts to the people he meets. It’s rarely about any multistage plans of the villains or investigations over several scenes. But the use of plot hooks the players can choose from is what elevates this approach over the standard dungeon crawl just for gold.