Monthly Archives: May 2017

What about sub-mega dungeons?

When I started doing research about good dungeon design, I made an interesting observation. Pretty much everyone who is writing about the design of dungeons is talking specifically of the rather special case of megadungeons. I can understand the fascination with these massive places that can remain not fully explored even after multiple campaigns set inside of them. But when you start looking into the details of what people are writing about the design, you find a lot of recommendations that I don’t think carry over well into games of exploring multiple different dungeons over 1 to 4 sessions each.

The whole logistics are really quite different and the journey to and from the dungeon takes up a much bigger role in the campaign when the party constantly has to relocate their base camp. Like most advice that is around for worldbuilding, megadungeon advice mostly concerns itself with the really big pictures. But what seemingly gets overlooked is the small scale design of encounters and individual rooms. These are problems that a lot more GMs are having to deal with, yet it seems that nobody really has anything smart to say about this element. As a GM poorly experienced in running dungeon crawls, I’ve been doing a lot of searching for such information, but it appears to be curiously absent.

The Ancient Builders

Ruins play obviously a great part in the Ancient Lands and someone has to have build them in the first place. While I don’t want to have a generic post-apocalyptic world I decided to keep things simple and focused and have the majority of ruins be from an ancient time and build by fey races instead of being build by past humanoid civilizations. Ruined castles can have signs of past inhabitation by people, but people-build ruins are going to be almost all abandoned villages. Mortals just don’t have the ability to build castles like spirits can, and never did. It’s not that mortals lost knowledge and abilities they had in the past, but simply that spirits are just much more powerful in every way. Fortunately for mortals, most fey castles have long been abandoned and only few of them are currently inhabited. The fey races are not particularly attached to stability and leave lots of stuff behind when they are done with them, but these tend to remain around for a very long time after that and over thousands of years those abandoned castles add up.

Naga

Of all the old builders, the naga are the ones that still have a strong presence on the material world and inhabit and maintain many of their ancient castles, particularly in the southern lands. Around the Inner Sea and the northern lands these are all long abandoned, though. Naga ruins often consists of steep, tower-like ziggurats surrounded by smaller buildings with flat stone roofa that housed vast numbers of elven slaves. They can easily be identified by their lack of stairs, with levels being connected by ramps. They are also generally found near coasts.

Tower Builders

The tower builders were a civilization of shie that built a large number of citadels throughout the northern parts of the Ancient Lands. All their castles have a square base and smooth walls that slighty narrow inwards until reaching a flat top. These towers are build from huge stone blocks that are very accurately fitted together and each have a completely unique shape. Inside, the ceilings are held up by massive supports that start close to the walls and lean sharply inwards to form a kind of trapezoid arch and provide a lot of cover and hiding spaces.

Rock Carvers

Ruins of the Rock Carvers are mostly found in the area of the Inner Sea, particularly the Akai and Tavir Mountains, but also in various places in the steep rocky cliffs on the coast. Rock Carver ruins are often seemingly low and bulky constructions compared to the other styles of castles, but are mostly located underground, which hides their frequently massive proportions. Often the only parts visible above ground are a steep and extremely thick wall and an only slightly higher citadel that guard the main entrance to the rest of the stronghold. Often these have very few windows that are barely more than arrow slits, but castles in well defensible locations high up in the mountains sometimes have large numbers of great balconies and tarraces overlooking the landscape below. Smaller ruins are often completely invisible from the outside and appear only as easy to miss caves that reveal themselves to be spectacular underground castles. While the working of walls and tunnels is always extremely precise and without any irregularities, many ruins include large natural caverns that have remained entirely unworked and kept in their magnificent natural form.

The identity of the Rock Carvers is a complete mystery to everyone but they have often left behind many enchanted stones and gems.

Tree Weavers

The Tree Weavers were another group of shie who created numerous castles and palaces in the Ancient Lands. Their ruins are widely regarded as the most magnificent ones and appear to have been grown from gargantuan petrified trees and living rock rather than build by masons. Except for floors and stairs, which are covered in tiles of polished marble, there are no flat surfaces or straight angles to be found anywhere in these ruins, with all walls slightly bulging outwards and all ceilings being domed. Many ruins consist of tall towers that often have smaller side towers branching off from them in seemingly impossible angles like enormous stone trees. Other buildings have large marble roofs made from a single piece that look like the shells of colossals turtles.

Tree Weaver ruins are often home to a great amount of plant life, much of it being dangerous and even deadly to people getting too close.

Glass Makers

Ruins of the Glass Makers are the most mysterious ones and widely regarded to be by far the oldest. Many even believe that they were build by spirits that have long retreated into the eternal dark of the Underworld. Ruins of this type are made or a very hard dark material that greatly resembles glass an comes in various hues. Surfaces require a great deal of force to damage and tend to merely chip rather than fracturing. Rumor has it that at least in some ruins such damages slowly heal over the course of decades and centuries but they are so infrequently visited that nobody has ever really seen it happening so far.
The architecture of these steuctures, if it can even be called that, tends to be highly bizarre and often seems to serve no discernable purpose. However, they all share in common that they contain large underground sections of which generally much less information is available.

Glass ruins often have areas of high corruption and are sometimes haunted by trapped demons. Sorcerous relics can often be found in them and they are highly sought after by naga and sorcerers.

Moderately Hyped

I’m not really keeping up with video game news these days and the last time I heard about Star Wars games was when LucasArts became defunct and Battlefront 3 ended up being a gorgeously looking disappointment.

But this week I became aware that there appear to be new Star Wars games in development, which to the rest of the world has already been known for a year. After having sat throught the last two movies besides my better judgement I made the descision to banish pretty much everything post 1999 from my headcanon (except for Jedi Knight games and KotOR) and didn’t really have any hopes of anything new coming out that I would care for. But the details about one particular game in production did get a curious raise of an eyebrow.

The game is being made by Visceral Games, who made Dead Space (“interesting”), with the team being led by Amy Henning who was also in charge of Legacy of Kain and Uncharted (“nice”). And it’s being set some time before the first movie, putting it straight into the Classic Star Wars period (“oh, sweet!”).

This could end up being not terrible and worth playing.

However, rumor has it that it’s going to be an open-world game and I absolutely hate those. Though that’s not actually true. What I hate are sandbox games where you do nothing but lame fetch quests and collecting crafting materials with some lame story tacked on that gets swamped by the busywork. It seriously harmed The Witcher 3 and was the main reason I never even bothered with Dragon Age 3 and Mass Effect Andromeda. However, even with an open-world, The Witcher 3 has a great story with actual nice characters very much unlike a Bethesda snorefest and Baldur’s Gate, Gothic, and Stalker are actually all open-world games as well. They just aren’t shitty sandboxes in which “you can do everything you want”, except for playing a good story. So I am not writing this one off as pointless junk yet. The ability to roam in two dimension instead of just one is not at all an inherently bad game element in itself. The Witcher 3 actually used it really well, except that the world was way too big and the density of meaningful content much too low. When this game is out, I’m probably going to at least read some reviews to see what people think about it.

In the Land of Zero-Level NPCs a 4th Level Fighter is a Hero

One thing I really love about oldschool D&D, and which changing was a major flaw of the d20 system, is that nonplayer humanoids have fixed stats like monsters and don’t have levels like PCs. That’s not just orcs and gnolls, but also dwarves, bandits, and berserkers. Not only is this really convenient for GMs who have a lot less work to prepare for a session and can simply pull stats for any minor NPC out of the book if an unanticipated fight breaks out, it also brings with it a number of very interesting assumptions about the world and the position of PCs in it.

I have adopted the policy that every NPC too minor to get a name in advance is automatically a level zero NPC. Which means effectively all guards, soldiers, bandits, and civilians. Named NPCs have to be significantly more skilled in combat than the average soldier to become even 1st level fighters or amazing skills to have levels as scouts (fighter-thief) or specialists (thief). In such a setting a 1st level fighter is clearly a Veteran and a 4th level fighter a Hero. And of course that’s what Gygax and Moldvay intended when they put these titles next to these fighter levels. 1st level PCs are not raw recruits and 5th level characters not “low-level”.

I’ve started to get the impression that high-level characters (level 13+) were flawed pretty early in my 3rd edition days and I’ve recently seen people make good arguments that these have been tacked on later in a somewhat haphazardous way and were not part of the original design that quickly ran out after 9th level. But it’s something that is relatively easily ignored, at least until Forgotten Realms became the de facto official AD&D setting going into 2nd Edition. Forgotten Realms had this odd thing going on where high level NPCs are numerous and make their homes in quaint unassuming villages or go into semi-retirement to run a tavern. Which I can see as having some charm, but becomes a really bad influence when it’s taken as a precedent. If there are level 15 or 20 NPCs found in farming villages, what’s the point of 2nd or 6th level PCs other than being errand boys? 4th level is no longer heroic and 8th level most certainly not super-heroic.

So simultaneously you get monsters becoming stronger to compensate for 10th level being the new 5th, which leads to the really annoying consequence of players having to wait until they’ve run enough rat and goblin errands to get to the cool stuff of giants, dragons, and demons. Which in twelve years of playing 3rd Edition and Pathfinder never happened to me once. Aside from the one time we started with 14th level character’s I only encountered a beholder once (last session of that campaign) and not a single dragon or demon. So lame.

One common argument I come across for the need for high-level NPCs and mid-level town guards is the question of what would prevent the players from burning and looting villages. To which I have one really simple answer: Nothing!

So the players want to fight guards that can’t stop them and plunder the local stores for anything valuable? They want to become villains terrorizing the countryside? Let them. But that doesn’t mean you have to let them get away with it. Because what do villagers do when being under constant attacks by raiders with supernatural powers? The only thing that can defeat a Hero is another Hero! They call for heroes to save them. It doesn’t need to be Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies. You can start with a party of 3rd and 4th level NPCs. If the players defeat them others will trie, until eventually they become infamous and feared enough that armies a send to deal with them and then 8th level parties consider them a worthy task for themselves. If the players keep defeating them, they are certainly going to have a blast with it. And everything is good.

Eldritch Lore: Elementals

Air Elemental by javi-ure

A while back I’ve seen someone describe elementals in Dungeons & Dragons as fundamentally boring. I think they are really cool, but what is it that they rally have going for themselves? When you look at their description in the Monster Manuals and Expert Sets, really all that you get is a description of how they look and their abilities in combat. And that’s really everything there is about them. What little there is about their role in the wider world makes them appear more like mindless temporary golems controlled by wizards than actual nature spirits. I have to agree. Elementals in Dungeons & Dragons are super lame.

Yeah, well… I’m gonna go build my own fantasy setting. With blackjack and cool elementals!

Elementals

Earth Elemental by javi-ure

Elementals are the oldest and most numerous of the spirits inhabiting the Spiritworld. Even more so than the spirits of trees and animals, they are the spirits of the land, sea, rivers, and sky themselves. They have no shape or form of their own, but wherever the elements are present there are also elemental spirits inhabiting them in the Spiritworld.  Whenever they have a need to interact with the physical world around them they can manifest a body shaped from their element. Weapons can not damage water and fire and even when rock is crushed an earth elemental can maintain a body made from rubble. The only ways to deal any harm to an elemental spirit are magic and the elements themselves. Dousing fire with water or turning water into steam with extreme heat can overwhelm the power of an elemental spirit, causing it to lose its hold over its physical form and disappearing back into the environment to recover its strength. Like all spirits, elementals are hurt by iron as well, but bronze, wood, and stone have no effect on them whatsoever.

Fire Elemental by javi-ure

Elementals don’t have any needs as living creatures would understand them or even desires like the shie, naga, and raksha. They are eternal beings as old as the world itself, who will probably continue to exist until the end of time, long after all people, beasts, and other nature spirits will be gone. Yet they are not mindless forces of nature, nor completely devoid of emotions. The main priority pursued by elementals is to be left in peace. The one thing that drives them into furious rage are disturbances of their comfortable quiet. However what costitutes a disturbance to these enigmatic beings is never clear to tell. The presence of beasts large and small is a constant and regular occurence throughout all the world and most of the time elementals make no distinguishment between people and animals. The affairs of mortals are of no relevance to them and so they are generally ignored by elementals. However, their apparent peacefulness can very quickly turn into determined agression by causing a commotion in their vicinity or merely getting to close for their comfort.

Water Elemental by javi-ure

While elementals usually don’t talk to other creatures they are capable of speech, speaking in the languages of spirits of the earth, water, and sky. They simply lack any desire to communicate with other beings. But when approached with care by a shaman they can be drawn into a conversation and reveal themselves to be quite intelligent creatures of great wisdom, though much of it has little meaning to the short lives of mortal beings. When interacting with people, elementals often take a vaguely humanoid shape but they can also assume forms resembling various great beasts or simply appear as rolling clouds or bulges of water. The minds of elementals are nearly as alien as those of the ancients that predate the formation of the world, but being a fundamental part of the natural world their presence has none of their warping and corrupting effects on the land and creatures around them.

Lesser Elemental

XP: 500
No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Armor: 19
Move: 120′
Air: Fly 240′
Earth: Climb 60′
Fire: Fly 120′
Water: Swim 180′
Hit Dice: 6 (27 hp)
Attack: Slam 1d6
Earth: Slam 1d8
Fire: Slam 1d6 fire
Saving Throws
Paralysis: 12
Poison: 10
Breath: 13
Device: 11
Magic: 14
Morale: 10
Special: No damage from bronze, wood, and stone weapons and natural attacks. Full damage from iron weapons. Half damage from cold, fire, and lightning.
Fire: No damage from fire, normal damage from cold.

Greater Elemental

XP: 1,200
No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Armor: 21
Move: 120′
Air: Fly 240′
Earth: Climb 60′
Fire: Fly 120′
Water: Swim 180′
Hit Dice: 8 (36 hp)
Attack: Slam 1d8
Earth: Slam 2d6
Fire: Slam 1d8 fire
Saving Throws
Paralysis: 10
Poison: 8
Breath: 11
Device: 9
Magic: 12
Morale: 10
Special: No damage from bronze, wood, and stone weapons and natural attacks. Full damage from iron weapons. Half damage from cold, fire, and lightning.
Fire: No damage from fire, normal damage from cold.

Elder Elemental

XP: 1,900
No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Armor: 23
Move: 120′
Air: Fly 240′
Earth: Climb 60′
Fire: Fly 120′
Water: Swim 180′
Hit Dice: 12 (54 hp)
Attack: Slam 2d6
Earth: Slam 2d8
Fire: Slam 2d6 fire
Saving Throws
Paralysis: 8
Poison: 6
Breath: 9
Device: 7
Magic: 10
Morale: 10
Special: No damage from bronze, wood, and stone weapons and natural attacks. Full damage from iron weapons. Half damage from cold, fire, and lightning.
Fire: No damage from fire, normal damage from cold.

The greatest thing that D&D forgot

Now this is not going to be a big, or even any, revelation to many people who are reading sites like this, but over the last weeks I’ve been doing more research on great adventure location design, which led me many times into dead ends because of the same single preconception the people writing have about D&D as a roleplaying game. So here you have it from my mouth:

Early D&D* was an exploration game, not a combat game.

I think this is probably the single most important aspect that distinguishes oldschool roleplaying from “modern games”. With AD&D 2nd Edition it’s a bit muddy, but we can safely say that 3rd to 5th Edition and Pathfinder are all combat games first that have some additional rules for non-combat situation tacked on to them. But with oldschool games, the situation is really very different. Combat is something that can happen, but the whole game is build in a way that you really don’t want it to happen. Except if it is for dramatic reasons, of course. Stopping a major villain and slaying a terrible monster is great. But the rules as a whole are all set up to make combat a bad thing for the characters.

Combat provides very little XP, except when it opens the way to treasure that gives the party a lot of XP. Getting access to the treasure without combat is always preferable. Combat is the primary pressure put on players to not spend too much time in dungeons rooms and not simply dealing with obstacles by destroying them. Because both these things attact potential combat. Encumbrance exist to slow characters down, which means they take longer to explore the dungeon and are less capable of escaping from a fight. Encumbrance only is a bad thing if players don’t want to fight.

Combat also is deadly and gets characters killed, even if the party wins a fight. But combat also isn’t necessary. Any time the party encounters living things in a dungeon and there is no good reason why those creatures and NPCs are hostile, the rules have a reaction roll to determine how they react to the party. And the creatures attacking on sight is the least likely reaction. The next most unfriendly reaction in the Basic Set is “Hostile, possible attack”, which I regard as being most sensibly interpreted as “attacks if provoked by the party’s actions”. There is a chance that a monster actually reacts friendly and the next most positive result is that the monster leaves or considers offers. Because the monster does not want to risk a fight with likely dadly consequences either. And if a fight breaks out, there is also the Morale check, which is used to determine whether monsters who are taking casualties decide that they would rather abandon the fight than risk now even more possible looking death.

The whole game is set up so that combat hold almost all risk and no reward for the players and that even their oppponents prefer not to fight. Combat is what happens when an encounter ends in catastrophy.

D&D being a game of exploration instead of combat also explains the majority of traditional spells that keep getting carried on by each new addition even though they seem to be pretty much useless. They are useless in a combat game. But hold portal, levitate, and speak with animal all make so much sense in an exploration game.

* That is pre-Dragonlance, 1974-1984.

Ancient Lands: Game or Sourcebook?

I am currently working on a manuscript for an actual Ancient Lands setting book. It’s happening. Any year now.

While organizing the material I have so far I came upon the important question of how much rules stuff I should be putting into it. All my material is very directly based on the Lamentations of the Flame Princess rules and 90% identical. Legally and technically I could write and publish my personal customized LotFP variant but I’ve started to have serious doubt whether this is really a good idea.

The first thing, obviously, is that it’s a considerable amount of work. Raggi’s voice and choice of vocabulary is very different from my own and often not what I think fitting for the setting and that means I have to write everything all over again in my own words. Really not looking forward to that prospect. Simply copying it would also feel just indecent to me. Doing it with the original System Reference Document from WotC is one thing, but with something that has such a personal stylistic touch to it it just doesn’t seem right.

Another big reason is that I think most people really don’t want to see another retroclone. People already have the rules that they want to play with and I think I could be quite certain that nobody would be using the rules as written unless they are already using LotFP. If they even bother reading it in the first place and have not been put off by someone trying to peddle another retroclone.

Instead it seems a much better approach to me to simply take those really new elements that I’ve created and put them all into an appendix at the end. It’s two character classes (including an alternative spellcasting system), seven character races (which can be added to the standard/human classes of B/X), a simplified Encumbrance system and new travel speed tables, an alternative currency system and reduced equipment lists, rules for diving and drowning. As an appendix it would only be 20 pages and nothing of this is really crucial to playing an Ancient Lands campaign. I think playing with clerics and magic-users with access to high level spells wouldn’t be the same as playing with witches, but it’s not something that directly conflicts with the fiction of the world.

I think there would be very few people interested in a book like this who don’t already have their own oldschool roleplaying game of choice and for the odd ones who don’t there are plenty of free options out there. In addition to LotFP, all the rules content could easily be added to Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy, and Sword & Wizardry as well. The biggest difference is always armor class, but LotFP writers have long found a good solution to that. AC 16 (as chainmail) is something that every GM using anither AC system can instantly grasp and covert without requiring knowledge of the LotFP armor system.

There are a lot of good reasons to not include a full set of rules in the setting book and very few for it. It not only seems unnecessary, but like something that might even hurt the chances of the setting getting people’s attention. So I guess I leave it at an optional appendix. This seems the much better choice.

Two decades ago, on a tiny TV in a city not far away

It’s May the Fourth, and not just any 4. May. 40 years ago, in May 1977, Star Wars was first released in theatres. The public had not seen it yet, but it already existed and the hype was already on.

For me, it’s also my 22nd May the Fourth. As far as I am able to piece it together, it was some time in spring 1995, around my 11th birthday, when I had just moved to a new city and went to Hamburg to visit a friend from my old class for a weekend. I remember quite well how my dad dropped my off at the train station where I got picked up by my friend and his mother. But before we drove to his home, we still had to go to the department store across the street because my friend wanted to buy a toy. It was a pretty weird looking toy and in the car I asked my friend what it was. His reaction was pretty much “Dude, you’ve never heard about Star Wars?!”

From what he told me it sounded quite interesting and once we got home he went to show me his collection of Star Wars toys. All the times I had been to his place before after school we mostly played Super Nintendo. And all those little weird figures looked really cool and we ended up playing with them the whole afternoon. And eventually he asked his mom if we could watch Star Wars on video in the evening. Which we did!

I can still quite well remember the room with the small TV that probably wasn’t bigger than 15″. I think I was quite excited by that point and from the moment that Star Destroyer thundered on the screen nothing would ever be the same. I was hooked. Instantly. I’ve known fairy tales and The Hobbit all my life and I can’t even remember a time when we didn’t watch Star Trek practically every day. But this was something completely different. It was simply awesome. In every sense of the word. When it was over I was thrilled and so we just went on watching The Empire Strikes Back right after it. I don’t think we asked if we were allowed to watch videos that late. The next morning we watched The Return of the Jedi and the rest of saturday and sunday morning was all Star Wars.

That same year I finished elementary school and in my next new class I made a new friend who also loved Star Wars. And his dad had a computer but was at work during the day. And on that computer we played X-Wing. A lot! I think for months we spend at least one afternoon after school per week at his place and a lot of that was playing X-Wing. When we got out own first computer, X-Wing was the first game I had to get. And then Tie Fighter.

And then came 1997. Star Wars was rereleased in cinemas. Of course we had to go. My dad thought it was okay. My mother quite liked it. And my brother was just as blown away by it as I was. Then we got it on video as well. And here I am, still gushing about it 20 years later. I can safely say that Star Wars changed my life. I liked Star Trek before and fantastical childrens books, but seeing Star Wars on that little crappy TV on the floor opened up a whole new world for me and came to define my imagination and passions. I am as much a fan of Star wars as one can possibly get before it becomes embarassing. To this day The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite movie ever and all creative work I do is filtered through that movie. This website exist because of it. All because of that little blue and white plastic trash can.