Category Archives: gamemastering

I search the body

Some things that can be randomly found on killed or captured NPCs in the Ancient Lands. It’s a great tool for showing the players about the setting instead of telling them, which I think first appeared in Vornheim by He Who Must Not Be Named. Since I believe no kittens were killed in the development of this idea, I have no problems with using it. It’s a great tool that every setting that wants to be more than generic should use.

  • Bag with silver scraps (worth 1d4 x 10 sp)
  • Bag with silver coins (worth 1d6 x 10 sp)
  • Bag with gold nuggets (worth 1d10 x 10 sp)
  • Small gold idol (worth 1d10 x 10 sp)
  • Small carved ivory idol
  • Small carved wooden idol
  • Small clay idol
  • Iron dagger (deals full damage to spirits)
  • Obsidian knife (deals full damage to spirits, breaks when rolling a 1 against an armored foe)
  • Iron tipped arrows (1d10)
  • Obsidian tipped arrows (1d10)
  • A map showing the location of a site in the wilderness (random monster lair or a prepared full size dungeon)
  • Glas jar with glowing slugs (light as a candle, slugs live for 10 days if fed leaves)
  • Crystal that glows like a candle for three hours after lying in a campfire for one hour
  • Pouch with iron nails (1d10)
  • Pouch with opium
  • Pouch with salt
  • Herbal potion (heals 1d4 points of damage)
  • Herbal potion (+2 to all saving throws and Constitution checks against exhaustion)
  • Herbal potion (+1 to attack and damage, -2 penalty to AC)
  • Vial with water from a healing spring (heals 1d6+1 points of damage when drunk or negates 1 level lost from energy drain when worn as an amulet and then rendered inert)

What does an Ancient Lands adventure look like?

In the end, a campaign setting really is just a stage for adventures. And adventures are generally the only way through which players are interacting with it. This really deserves an article of its own, but when it comes to designing a campaign setting you really need to start with chosing the kinds of adventures that will be set in it. I believe the fact that I am only explicitly making such a list now has a lot to do with all my worldbuilding work only really taking shape in the last half year or so.

So here you go. When I think of the Ancient Lands as a stage for adventures, these are what I have in mind:

  • The Lost City
  • The Isle of Dread
  • Quagmire!
  • Against the Cult of the Reptile God
  • Dwellers of the Forbidden City
  • The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun
  • Death Frost Doom
  • Deep Carbon Observatory
  • Slumbering Ursine Dunes
  • Aliens
  • Apocalypse Now
  • Dark Souls
  • Princess Mononoke
  • Red Nails
  • Stalker
  • Super Metroid

You could say a microsandbox. Or a mesodungeon.

Veins of the Earth

So Lamentations of the Flame Princess has released a new book by Patrick Stuart that is about weird adventures in the Underdark, and it’s almost 400 pages long, and starts with a big monster section, and has special rules for light, and a system for food and cannibalism, and random 3D cave environments, and…

It’s looking really good so far. Though most of it is so weird that I am not even sure what I am looking at. Many times it is more tell than show, but it still works quite effectively. Not sure what I might be using from this book, but it sure gives me ideas what I want to do in my game.

The darkness is following them, surrounding them. It infiltrates slender claws behind shadowed columns, reaching towards the lantern, hungering to snuff it out. It backs away reluctantly before the light, it follows carefully and relentlessly, creeping as close as it can. It leaves chew marks in the corners of your sight.

The darkness is a character. It only wants one thing. Rules are hard to remember and details are easy to forget under stress. Intent is not. Intent is easy to recall and unlike detail it actually grows more powerful under stress. You remember who hates you. The more stressed you are, the more you remember it. The dark hates the players; you play the dark. You will probably forget that a candle has a ten foot radius but you will never stop waiting for the candle to go out.

Domains and Endgame in the Ancient Lands

These last couple of days I’ve been thinking about and rereading the rules for high level characters and ruling over domains in the Expert and Companion rules. Domain play has always been something of an elusive beast that few people seem to have any real experience with. Got there once but didn’t stay with it long seems to be the most common statement.

When you look at the Cook Expert rules (1981), domain play is almost completely absent. It tells you that characters at 9th level can become rulers of a domain, tells the GM to handwave a monthly tax income, and has a half page of price lists for constructing a castle. But it doesn’t really go into what play as a ruler would be like.

In the Companion set, a lot more ink has been spilled about it. There’s lots and lots of rules for management and accounting. But as far as I am able to tell, there still is no real guidance of any kind what players would actually be doing in play. Doing the accounting for a domain and occasionally fixing the mess caused by raiders or disasters? How would this be appealing to players who so far have been exploring exotic places, navigated deadly dungeons, and had dealing with monsters and evil sorcerers?

It could be a fun game to some people, but doesn’t seem to mesh at all with what D&D has been up to that point. And much more importantly, it’s not a group activity. One player rules a domain and makes all the descisions for it. If all the players have their own separate domains, how would they be playing together? You can of course play a game of warlords, but that would be a competitive game, not a cooperative one. And a group of characters who have been working together for years wouldn’t suddenly become rivals and send their armies against each other. The only practical way I can see for having PCs become rulers over domains would be to have them retired from play and have them occasionally appear as quest giver NPCs played by their old player. Who would then be playing a new adventuring character to actually go on that adventure. If you have a large scale campaign with dozens of players and multiple GMs I could see that working for a handful of high level characters. But this simply isn’t the reality of how D&D is played. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of such groups that still exists today could be counted on the fingers of one hand. If there even are any.

One argument for domain play in a campaign with more Sword & Sorcery leaning that occasionally comes up is that Conan was a king. Kane was a sorcerer-warlord and Elric was an emperor. But the important part is that their stories are never about ruling and managing their domains. Sword & Sorcery tales about rulers are always about leaving the court with a sword in hand and fighting monsters. If you want to emulate the high level adventures of popular Sword & Sorcery heroes then domain management rules are completely irrelevant and out of place.

Occasionally there are big battles between armies, but even then those stories are not about being a field commander. It’s always about personally going after the enemy commander or pulling awesome stunts to destroy the enemy forces without having your own troops stab them dead one by one. Mass combat isn’t something that happens in Sword & Sorcery either. What you get is raids with a group of maybe up to a dozen people. Which would be a group of PCs and their henchmen.

So I’ve come to the descision that the high level elements of the Ancient Lands setting will simply assume that there is no such thing as domain play. Taking control of a stronghold and gathering followers will simply be down to players actually fortifying a place and talking to people. It may be done at any level and take whatever scale seems appropriate for a given situation. But for all intents and purposes characters will pretty much stop to advance after 9th level and only gain small increases in hit points at a very slow pace from their continued adventures, plus skill points for specialists and spell points for witches. (In my War Cry of the Flame Princess rules fighters reach maximum attack bonus and witches maximum spell level at 9th level, and scouts maximum Bushcraft and Stealth skills at 10th level.) I only ever had two campaigns reach 11th level and that was both in 3rd edition which has pretty fast level progression. So chances are pretty high I won’t ever see a 10th level character in the Ancient Lands anyway.

Adventuring seasons and long term campaigns

A few weeks back, Joseph had been writing about the idea of having parties going on adventures only for some months of the year when weather permits it and then returning for the winter to deal with business back home. It’s an idea that goes back at least as far as Pendragon, but also more recently appeared in The One Ring. And in both cases it seems to be an element that is quite popular with players and that constitutes a pretty important part in giving these games their unique spin. It basically has to main effects on a campaign.

One is that players have to regularly return to a safe haven for overwintering, which can nudge players to get involved in more urban or social adventures which they normally wouldn’t seek out. It also allows for a good blend of exploration adventures and domain management if that later aspect is desired.

The other thing that it does is to create a much stronger sense of the passing of time. One oddity of megadungeons, super-modules, adventure paths, and other kinds of published campaigns is that they often take characters from first level to high levels at an incredibly fast pace. Often just a couple of weeks or a few months at the most. After which they are as powerful and experienced as NPCs who have been at it for decades or even centuries. Even if the campaign includes time jumps like “after 5 weeks of sailing” or “several months later”, these things don’t tend to be felt by the players, to whom it might just as well have been “later that afternoon”. By regularly alternating between adventuring season and winter camp, you at least communicate the idea that the campaign stretches over a couple of years.

To add this aspect to your game, you don’t actually need any specific rules for it. All you really need to do is track the passing of days on the calendar. Even if it’s just a simple campaign of going to the dungeon and poking around, placing the dungeon a few days travel from the next village and putting each village with a dungeon a week or two apart  from each other will lead to a lot of time passing between each session. If you have a sandbox (one that isn’t about filling out a 6-mile hex map), put the various locations a good distance away from each other and players should very quickly rack up pretty long travel times. Once the campaign reaches the end of the ninth or tenth month, simply tell the players that weather is getting increasingly awful for camping in the wilderness and that they should find a place to stay until the fourth month or so.

If it fits the campaign, you can then simply jump ahead to the next spring and continue from there. There are also a good number of great adventures that can be had during the winter. But these are usually not long expeditions into the wilderness. Much more commonly these are things with isolated villages being threatened and no help coming until spring. The kind of places where you would expect adventurers to stay for the winter. These don’t have to be elaborate adventurers. They can easily be just simple one-shots for a single session, but can also be pretty big things as well. The advantage of this is that you will have the players remember that they actually have experienced a winter and it’s not something that was only mentioned once in passing. For my Ancient Lands campaign, I am planning to make a simple Random Event table, on which I will make one roll for every month in winter camp. With a 1/6 chance four times in a row, something is almost certainly to happen; perhaps even two things. These would probably have to be rolled in advance and not at the table, so you can prepare some material for it. But again, it doesn’t have to be big things. “Frozen Zombies” or “Winter Wolves” would be enough as a hook for the GM. Then you can start with destroyed farms or dead cattle in a stable and have the players deal with it as you usually would in a sandbox. Since the players are kind of stuck in the place and have nowhere else to be, they probably wouldn’t resist looking into it.

But when it comes to running an campaign with a level based system I also got another idea. There’s a small and perhaps not too well known rule in the 1981 Basic Set that characters can never gain enough XP to level up twice after a single adventure. However, the book doesn’t really specificy what constitutes an adventure. I am assuming it means a single session, but when you’re playing the long game you can also think much bigger. Like a whole year bigger. Which, when you consider it narratively, still isn’t really that long. A young adventurer who goes adventuring every year could easily reach 9th level well before age 30. Make it twice as much and you end up with PCs reaching their maximum number of Hit Dice around 40. That seems very appropriate to me.

In fact, it would be quite critical that the campaign is laid out so that characters don’t reach their annual XP cap on a regular basis. The required XP scores for advancing to the next level are roughly doubling with each level which leads to lower level characters catching up to higher level characters pretty quickly. Be they replacement characters for dead ones, new additions to the group, or characters who have suffered energy drain. If all the characters in the party reach the XP cap every year, then the lower level characters will never be able to catch up. So when you estimate how much adventuring the party will be doing in a year, I think aiming for half the XP needed to have the highest level PC reach the next level would be a good baseline.

If the difference in character levels gets really big you run into some problems with encounters anyway, but it’s going to be troublesome here as well. You can easily have characters with an XP cap a hundred times higher than others, which can very likely mean that the lower level PCs would reach their maximum right after the first session of the season, which I guess wouldn’t really feel that fun for the players. One possible option would be to have a year in which the highest level characters don’t go on adventures. However, unlike with spliting the players into two groups and having them adventuring separately for one or two adventures, you can’t really have these adventures simultaneously when you want the lower level characters to catch up with the higher level ones. The players with the higher level characters would have to wait until the other group has finished its adventuring season before they can get back into the action. I think that wouldn’t really be feasible for more than one session or two. Perhaps those players might like to play henchmen or create secondary characters, but I am not sure if they’d be really happy with that either. While I’ve heard that it used to be quite common for players to semi-retire their high level characters and start new ones in paralel, I don’t know if this is something players would still enjoy doing with the expectations they have today.

Random Campaign Idea: Diadokhoi

All PCs start as 10th level characters as officers in a massive army that has been on campaign for years. The campaign starts with a huge battle that aims to crush the enemy army at its last stand. The party leads their soldiers against the enemy’s royal guard and as victory is certain a call arrives over the battlefield: The Emperor has been killed!

The enemy army has been destroyed, its king and generals slain, the survivors routed. But the emperor has no heir. The imperial court is thousands of miles away. What is going to happen now?

I always thought the idea of European knights permanently settling down as rulers in Judea was crazy. But I got totally hooked right from the start when I first heard of generals from Alexander’s army establishing their own kingdoms in Pakistan and Afghanistan after they were left without a leader or a plan after the death of their lord. It’s much more exotic and fascinating than most fantasy.

Obviously it would have to be a domain game campaign, with which I have absolutely no experience. But as a setting it would be one of the coolest backdrops I can think of. Maybe I can take elements of this to integrate into the Ancient Lands. After all, I do have the Mandalorians Qunari Sakaya as a scarily efficient army of compulsive conquerors.

War Cry of the Flame Princess: Wilderness Travel

Wilderness travel is one of the things I always wanted to include as a major element of my campaigns but the rules as written in either B/X or LotFP require too much on the spot calculation and conversion of movement speeds in different terrains that I just can’t handle at the table with my ADD when the players are talking about what they are going to do next at the same time. Adding the attack bonus to a d20 roll and subtracting hit points I can manage, but doing divisions and fractions while paying attention to conversations just ends up with me getting brain locked. All my homebrew systems and my choice of LotFP as the system I am using have been done as means to compensate for my impairment in this regard. Making game mechanics more accessible for people with neural impairments is something I’ve never seen anything written about and might be worth dedicating a post or two to in the future.

Last year I already tried my hand at coming up with a simpler and faster solution, but it’s still based on the underlying assumptions of a hexcrawl with way more precision and granularity than I need for Sword & Sorcery adventures. But a great idea for something much better comes once again from Angry-sensei, who just has some kind of gift for making methods that are practical to use instead of being best suited to programm a computer with. There are two big things of beauty in his proposal. The first one is that it doesn’t require a map with precise measurements or any degree of accuracy. In addition to being quite a lot of work for GMs, the current design standard for maps is basically satelite photography which is something that wouldn’t be available to people within most fantasy world but in my own experience also create a sense of the world being fully explored and tamed. Which is the complete opposite you’d want in a mythic bronze age Sword & Sorcery world. Tolkien’s hand drawn map for The Lord of the Rings is what I consider the ideal form of fantasy map. It’s a tool for navigation that provides an idea of the general layout of the lands but also has a level of abstraction that inspires the viewer to wonder what marvelous places might be hidden in all those blank spots that noboy alive has ever set foot in. The second great thing about it is that it works without any calculations and requires only looking up a single number in a simple table. This post is an adaptation of this concept to the rules of LotFP with some tables for actual use in play.

Travel Times and Distances

When a party makes an overland journey, the first step is deciding on the path they want to foollow from their starting point to their destination. The GM then makes a quick rough measurement on the map (which can be as sketchy as you want) or makes a judgement call how long this path is in miles. At the start of each day, the GM decides which type of terrain the party will mostly be travelling through on that day. Knowing the encumbrance rating of the slowest character or pack animal in the party, the GM simply looks up on the following table how many miles the party covers on that day.

Terrain Unencumbered Lightly Encumbered Heavily Encumbered
Road 24 miles 18 miles 12 miles
Heath/Moor/Plains 16 miles 12 miles 8 miles
Desert/Forest/Hills 12 miles 9 miles 6 miles
Jungle/Mountains/Swamp 8 miles 6 miles 4 miles

Soldiers throughout history have been marching at about 3 miles per hour on good roads, so with 8 hours of marching you get 24 miles per day. While those soldiers would have been encumbered by gear, they also wouldn’t be travelling through untamed wilderness, so I think this table makes a decent enough approximation of plausible travel speeds.

Mounts

Contrary to movies and books, horses do not cover greater distances in a day than a human can. While they can run much faster at short distances, humans (and dogs) are the world’s best endurance runners and can keep on walking with much less need for rest than other animals. The distances covered by humans and horses are about the same. The big important difference is that horses can carry a lot more weight than humans and are much less slowed down by the same loads. Riding and pack animals should have the same movement rates as humanoids but with double or tripple the carrying capacity of an average person for calculating encumbrance,

Water Travel

17 different types of ship with different sailing and rowing speeds, 5 classes of quality, and 9 degrees of weather conditions is a bit more than needed when dealing with travel at this level of abstraction. I reduced it all down to this simple table.

Type Favorable Conditions Average Conditions Unfavorable Conditions
Canoe 24 miles 18 miles 12 miles
River Boat 80 miles 60 miles 40 miles
Sailing Ship, Slow 120 miles 90 miles 60 miles
Sailing Ship, Fast 160 miles 120 miles 80 miles

I’ve done some researching of my own about the speeds of (admitedly modern) sailing ships and the numbers in the Expert rules and LotFP seem to be way off. These numbers for distance travelled in a day are much closer to what you could actually expect from real ships. For canoes the distance is given fr 8 hours, as for marching, but for the others the distance is for a span of 24 hours since they are powered by wind and people can take turns with steering while the others rest. For canoes and river boats favorable and unfavorable conditions means going downstream or upstream. Average conditions would be on lakes. For sailing ships these apply to the weather and the wind in particular. Whether they are favorable or unfavorable can be determined with a simple roll of a d6, with a roll of a 1 or a 6 indicating that less or more distance has been covered that day. On the seas travel distances can vary greatly, but this is a good enough approximation for a game.

Wilderness Encounters

Another suggestion by Angry that I also take pretty much as is is rolling for wilderness encounters by rolling a number of d6 bases on how how much monster traffic is present in an area the party is travelling through on a given day. For every die that rolls a 1 there will be an encounter sometime during the day. At what time during the day and in what terrains these encounters will take place is up to the GM to decide. I got curious and calculated the odds for wilderness encounters with this method:

#d6 Threat Level No Encounters 1 Encounter 2 Encounters 3 Encounters
1 Settled or desolate 83% 17%
2 Wilderness 69% 28% 3%
3 Hostile Wilderness 58% 35% 7% 1%
4 Hostile Patrols 48% 39% 12% 2%

They are not actually as high as I expected. Not having any encounters at all still remains the most likely outcome by a good margin and even at higher threat levels the chance to have multiple encountes in a single day is very low. As Angry explains it in a much more elaborate way, this is actually a pretty nice addition to the regular wilderness encounter rules. It raises the number of factors players have to consider when picking a route to three: “How long would we be at risk at encuntering monsters in that area?”, “How dangerous are the monsters we might encounter in that area?”, and now also “How many monsters are in that area?” Go through the swamp that is choking with giant spiders or risk the shortcut over the mountains where almost all creatures have been killed by a dragon?

I  very much encourage using the rules for foraging and starvation. Carrying a large amount of rations means the party wil be slowed down but make consistent progress each day. Not packing enough rations for the whole journey (to make room for treasure for example) means that the party is travelling lighter and at a faster speed. While finding enough food in the wilderness is relatively easy with a trained specialist or a scout, the time it takes is highly unpredictable and can cause the party to actually make even less progress in a day. It’s a nice layer of added uncertainty that the players can consider in their planning for wilderness journeys.

Since more than a single encounter per day is very unlikely even in the more crowded regions, the encounter tables should be stocked in a way that there is real danger for the party. If the players have no reason to expect the possibility of a character dying or the party getting captured then they also have no incentive to hurry up, making the whole exercise of wilderness encounters moot.

Encounter Distances

If an encounter happens, use this table to determine the distance as which surprise rolls are being made by both sides.

Terrain Distance
Forest/Jungle 2d6 x 10 yards
Desert/Hills/Swamp 3d6 x 10 yards
Heath/Moor/Mountains/Plains 4d6 x 10 yards
Lake/Sea 4d6 x 10 yards

When travelling on rivers, use the row for the surrounding terrain. The distance for encounters on sea or lakes are for encounters with monsters. Ships can be seen from much larger distances.

One Page Cultures

Dealing with cultures in a campaign setting is always a tricky issue. There are a lot of good reasons to provide a good range of different cultures with unique and distinctive character instead of going with some kind of generic Standard Fantasy Setting. But at the same time there’s always the very real risk of excessive lore dumps that make the setting less accessible to newcomers. While Tekumel and Glorantha always looked quite intriguing to me, I was never able to get even a foot into the door, so to speak. There’s so much and I don’t know where to begin reading. My goal with releasing Ancient Lands material is not just for it to be read but also to be used in actual games. I don’t want to write fiction (at least with this undertaking) but to create RPG material. Good RPG material.

So when chosing a format to present the various cultures I have created for the setting, making it so that it’s accessible and useable are the key considerations. That means it has to be short. Or as Bryce tends to put it in regard to adventures “terse and evocative”. Short enough to make people willing to read it even when they have no investment in it yet, evocative enough that it makes them want to have it in their games, and providing the kind of information they need to actually use it effectively. So the format I am fiddling around with now is the One Page Culture. One page of text of text has to be enough to cover all the essential facts.

But what are the essential facts? By which I mean “necessary or highly useful to present the culture in an actual adventure”. When I read about cultures in RPG books or other fantasy world, there tends to be a lot of stuff that might be somewhat interesting to read as entertainment, but is almost impossible for the players to actually encounter except in the form of an infodump monolog. So the main consideration is: “What aspects of a culture will the players be interacting with?” Limiting the full length of the description to a single page is a means to ensure the whole thing doesn’t get bloated with descriptions of cooking and embroidery. These are the things I found to be the most relevant for GMs to run a game, in no particular order.

  1. Who are the important people? Probably the most important thing for players to know. When they get to a village or stronghold, who are the people they need to talk to if they need something. Who are the people who matter for things related to adventurers?
  2. What can they do for you? Once you know what kind of leader or official you need to talk to, what kind of assistance can you expect to get from them and what are the limits imposed on them by their society?
  3. Who are the troublesome people? In addition to people who could be of help to the players, there’s also those who could mean trouble to adventurers. Witches, inquisitors, doomsday preachers, and so on.
  4. What can they do to you? If the players have run ins with these people, what kind of threat are they likely to pose?
  5. What services are available? Different cultures may have different good that they are producing exclusively or have various restrictions on what may be sold or provided to outsiders.
  6. How do they fight? What type of armaments are used by warriors of the culture and what’s the common composition of a group of armed people? Do they rely on certain tactics or are there special rules who can be in charge of such a group. Where would warriors be found in an average settlement and in what numbers?
  7. What do settlements look like? While the specifics about different architectural styles are of little consequence, it can be quite useful to have a general idea of the common layout of a settlement for each culture. In some cultures the hall of the chief or the shrine may be in the center, while in others they may be found on a prominent hill at the far side of the main gate. Or the shrine may not be located within the settlement itself but some distance away from people’s homes.  Some cultures may have tall stone houses, others circular single-story farm house with thatched roofs, or underground burroews. It doesn’t have to be alaborate, but if you keep these things consistent the players might quite likely recognize the patterns.
  8. What are shrines and temples like? Since adventurers tend to have to deal with various supernatural poisons, diseases, and curses and may have other needs for divine aid, shrines and temples are going to be places that are quite likely to be visited on several occasions. Giving a brief description of how the culture builds its shrines, how priests look like, and what requirements and restrrictions are in place for assisting outsiders can be a great boon to making a culture appear distinctive. Deep theological concepts or religious celebrations are usually completely irrelevant in actual play.
  9. What animals are around? This item is important for the Ancient Lands in particular, but can be useful for describing cultures in general. If the animals found in settlements are not the typical European farm animals, then what kind of mundane or unusual critters are around instead? The Ancient Lands don’t have horses, cows, pigs, or dogs, but many similar roles are filled by various types of deer, goats, and large reptiles. A settlement of skeyn would have many ogets (large riding goats), while Takari elves of the Mahiri Jungles would use large caravans of huge drohas (hardrosaurs). This also applies to what beasts warriors would be riding into battle.

Adventures for Fun and Profit

But let’s forget about the profit for now.

Noism started an interesting debate with two posts about a seemingly overarching theme of bleakness in modern oldschool RPG releases and discussion. And I think it’s an accurate observation. The majority of content that is getting major exposure these days is pretty dark. But I think the main reason for this lies in the popularity of the works of James Raggi and Zak S., whose personal styles simply are bleak and grotesque. You could easily count Patrick Stuart as also having ascended into this exclusive group. Together they and their works easily tower over everyone else combined. This of course creates the perception that oldschool gaming is dominated by dark and bleak content. And when it comes to commercially produced publications this is actually the case. But I believe these great adventures are popular primarily because they are really good, not because they have bleak tones and dark themes. It probably is mostly a coincidence that the most successful creators are sharing such similar artistic styles.

That being said, it’s still a valid question to ask how we all could produce content that is just as good but taking a more positive outlook on things? Having bleak adventures dominate is indeed kind of a problem, in that it is quite easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm that is surrounding their reception. Deep Carbon Observatory is awesome and makes me excited to make something just as awesome with my own ideas. But at least for me it’s always very easy to fall into the trap of falsely assuming that something similarly great would also be similarly structured. It takes me conscious effort to say “This is not what you wanted to do. You had a different idea that is also awesome and your own.” So I find it very worthwhile to encourage a discussion about what other shapes great oldschool adventures can take and to get people to put more of those out there so that we have a broader perspective on what we can be doing that builds on our own passions and develops into our own personal style.

The original question that started this was “can RPGs be cheery?” I am not a native speaker but this doesn’t seem like a word that I could align with fantasy adventure RPGs. Cheerfulness seems to be in conflict with …well, conflict. As I see it, every adventure needs conflict. Without conflcit there’s no treat and therefore no tension. Maybe you can have RPGs that are cheery, but I don’t see it working for games of the fantasy adventure type. However, what these games do have the capability of is FUN!

To me, the absolute holy grail of a perfectly executed adventure is Raiders of the Lost Arc. It has violence and pain, a terrible threat, and the most evil of evil villains: Nazis! Is it in any way cheery? No, I really wouldn’t say so. But is it a bleak movie or a pessimistic one? I’d say far from it. It’s exciting and wondrous and Indiana Jones is a hero who has no pretentions of glory but is good without a trace of doubt. And it really is fun.

I do enjoy a certain gloominess in my favorite games and movies, but I would say that those are all cases in which the mood isn’t bleak but rather somber. To me the big difference lies in the outlook forward. In bleak settings there is a universal certainty that the actions of the protagonists won’t be making and difference for the better. Things might even end up being worse despite their best efforts. Things are bad and are only going to be worse. Adventures in such environments can be fascinating and entertaining, but unless everyone is set to go down in a blaze of glory, it’s not going to be fun. (Early Warhammer 40k always seems hilarious to me.)

But dark elements or periods of gloom do not have to drag everything into bleakness. As with Indiana Jones you can still have an overall very positive outlook, simply by giving the players confidence that their efforts will make things better. Things will look up in the future because the heroes took great risks and paid great personal costs. if the players walk away with a confidence that it all had been worth it, then even an adventure full of darkness can have an overall positive outlook. A great example for such a tale would be Princess Mononoke. That movie gets outright terrifiying as shit goes to hell, but even then the hero keeps pushing forward because he knows that he can make the future much better than it’s currently looking to be.

I don’t think I’ve consciously been thinking about it this way, but I believe that my Ancient Lands setting is at its core a world meant to be about the struggle for making things better. The setting is build around the concept of treasure hunting, but not about gold fever and the suffering it brings to everyone involved, but again much more of the Indiana Jones type. The main motivation for PCs is the excitement of discovering magical wonders that people back home would never have dreamed of. To reach them, great threats have to be overcome and there is fierce competition from highly dangerous and unsavory people who might use such discoveries to harm. You can easily have the PCs encountering great dangers and dealing with serious threats, but overall I find it an approach that lends itself very much to having a lot of fun while doing so,

As I see it, the world is not so much “Points of Light surrounded by a vast sea of darkness”, but rather islands of the familiar surrounded by oceans of the unknown. When it comes to designing settings and adventures it’s really very much the same approach, but the dangerous unknown doesn’t have to be dark. Even if it’s just unfamiliar you can still have high tension adventures without any need for bleak darkness.

Simple encounter maps for online play

A week ago I was talking about the problem of having tactical encounter maps for online games that are at the same time easy to make, having an atmospheric look, and also encourage the players to imagine the actual environment and not think of the encounter as moving miniatures around.

I think I found a solution that satisfies all three criteria. This is a quick mockup of the idea.

I’m not happy with either the textures for the background or the tokens and the dye job I did on those tokens looks pretty awful. It’s probably going to be a good idea to draw a transparent layer of the rooms in advance in Photoshop or GIMP and then simply drop them over the background texture in Roll20. The standard line drawing tool doesn’t look very pretty and it can take a minute or two to draw a room like this. But if you have to get a map instantly and have nothing prepared, it’s still a good way to make one on the spot that looks mostly consistent with the standard style.

While I used a parchment texture as the default background, I think I will also try to use granite or polished black marble backgrounds for some dungeons as a littl additional mood setting tool.