Dungeons & Swords & Sorcery

I’ve written about my thoughts on how to evoke the style of Sword & Sorcery in a fantasy adventure game before in the past. I’ve been thinking about it again recently while looking to find the spark again to continue work on my setting, and my thoughts have been revolving primarily around the role of dungeon crawling in a Sword & Sorcery campaign.

While classic dungeon crawling is a very fascinating and fun form of gameplay in its own right, I think the archetypical dungeon crawl is not a good basis to build a Sword & Sorcery campaign around. The classic dungeon crawl, with its complex underground labyrinths, countless traps, secret doors, and numerous small hidden stashes of treasures all over the place naturally promotes a play style that is very cautious, methodical, and calculated. It encourages players to progress slowly and with care, to examine all the small and possibly insignificant details, and to take any precautions before following through with well thought through plans. In a well deaigned dungeon, this can be hugely exciting and thrilling. But it’s a kind of exitement and tension that is very different from the style of Sword & Sorcery. This is a style that is all about fearless and even reckless initiative, where fortune favors the bold. Heroes are certainly relying heavily on cunning and trickery to take down foes much stronger than themselves, but often these are things improvsed in the heat of the action and more of a gamble than much of a plan. In a Sword & Sorcery themes campaign, players spending a lot of time over maps and rummaging through large boxes of tools to disable a dangerous mechanism with a minimum of risk is something that you want to avoid, not to have as the default approach to playing the game. While a lot of useful things can be taken to create a great Sword & Sorcery campaign from oldschool roleplaying, the classic dungeon crawl probably isn’t one of them.

Still dungeons as a concept and an environment are really cool and absolutely have their place. But I think they need to be approached quite differently.

The first thing that I see is that dungeons should be relatively small in scope. Typically in a Sword & Sorcery adventure, a dungeon is only one chapter of a larger story. As such, I think dungeons of a size that the players can get through in two or three hours should be quite big enough. Heroes usually don’t enter a dungeon to explore its secrets, but to track down something or someone specific that they have good reason to believe to be somewhere inside. Going into a dungeon is usually more a kind of raid than an exploration. Get in fast and quietly if possible, grab what you came for, and get the hell out again fast. The dungeon is not a place to be mastered or conquered, but to be survived.

As I said above, in a Sword & Sorcery style campaign, we don’t typically want the players to stay in one place long and go through everything with a fine comb. There are two main ways to encourage that. The first one is to avoid having the players be weary of traps. If every floor tile could be a trap, things will slow down a lot. And most of the time, there won’t even be any actual danger in the first place. Environmental dangers and constucted defenses against intruders can totally work, but they should be announcing themselves to the players instead of  being hidden. Be it obvious pits of spikes, moats with hungry crocodiles, a hallway with mummies in open coffins that line the wall, or two dramatic gargoyle statues on top of the gate. What we want to accomplish is to have the players understand that if a passage looks empty and perfectly safe, there is no point for them to stop and take all the time consuming precautions to make sure there really is no trap. And this has to be absolutely consistent. It might seem fun to have a completely unexpected trap jump at the players now and then, but when you do it once, the plaeyers learn that it could happen at any time when they don’t expect it, and then they will always expect it.

Similar to the placement of traps is the placement of treasure. Having some spare change hidden between the couch cushions to reward players who spend the time to check for there is a great way to encourage them to really search everything in an area they come through, and it can be quite a lot of fun for players to do this easter egg hunt. But just as wit traps, this is something that w don’t really want in Sword & Sorcery adventures. Instead of lots of small portions of valuables being hidden all over the place, I think having just one big hoard of all the treasure in one place works much better. Yes, it’s all the joy of discovering treasures crammed into a single scene instead of having it spread out evenly, but that also means to joy in that moment is more intense. This hoard can be placed right behind the greatest danger in the dungeon, but it doesn’t have to. Getting the whole haul out while the biggest threat is still on the prowl can be even more exciting. And the main pice of the loot could also be somwthing that might be a very powerful weapon against that threat when the players encounter it later.

The role of PC Heroes in Star Wars

While I am working on my Hyperspace Opera setting, I am frequently getting out various Star Wars RPG books to look for ideas. And unsurprisingly, it’s always just a matter of time until I start to think “Man, I should run a d6 Star Wars campaign in the meantime.” It’s Star Wars! It’s amazing!

But then I grab something to take some notes and start looking for ideas what the campaign could be about, and where and when it would be set, and the whole thing begins to lose traction really rapidly. The main reference for what Star Wars is and what makes Star Wars cool are the adventures of Luke, Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and Lando. They quickly turn out to be major movers and shakers, destroying the two Death Stars, having several encounters with Darth Vader, and being directly responsible for facilitating the death of the Emperor. Their interactions with the setting and the major power players within it, and their perspective on the world as a whole are very different from what a group of freshly made PCs could ever experience.

But why does that have to be?

It is convention in RPGs that a party of new PCs consists of people with no significant accomplishments who are each just one out of a thousand or even a million of similar people with similar aspirations. They are bit players and peons, who through their deeds can slowly grow in strength and make connections to possibly one day become important actors in the fate of their worlds. And this works great for a great range of games, settings, and campaigns. But for a Star Wars game, this just doesn’t hook me. Playing rebel grunts ambushing imperial patrols to steal a crate of blasters, or irrelevant cargo pilots who have a rival crew trying to steal their cargo doesn’t really capture any of the things that make Star Wars amazing.

So instead of having a party of fresh new characters who first arrive on the scene at the start of the campaign and then look on the big picture from far below, why not have the players play PCs who are capital H Heroes? We have established that the Emperor and Vader killed all the Jedi except for two, but in that big galaxy, there could very well be a third who is also out fighting the Empire on his own in a complete different region. When we meet Han and Lando for the first time, they are not ordinary scoundrels. They both have reputation and influence that indicates they are pretty big shots in the circles they associate with. And Leia is an imperial senator and appears to be at least in the second tier of the leadership of the whole Rebel Alliance. Luke really is the very notable exception here, and that’s because he’s the main point of view character for the first movie. By the second movie, his role has already changed completely.

This idea is certainly not new, but it has never occured to me. PCs in a Star Wars campaign don’t have to be extras in the story of the Rebellion against the Empire. They absolutely can be protagonists in a story just as big as the one of Luke and Vader.

Pathcrawls

We are now resuming our irregular schedule.

I’ve never been friends with the idea of hexcrawling. Lots of people fill the term with all kinds of different meanings as long as there is at least one hex map involved somewhere, but to me it always carries the clear meaning of being the same concept as dungeoncrawling, translated from dungeon rooms to wilderness hexes. Which means the players are going from hex to hex, color in the new hex on their map as the terrain type they discover, and ask the GM if they see anything that they can check out. Like the player map for The Isle of Dread.

Some people will say that hexcrawling is much more than that, but there’s plenty of people around who strongly assert that every single hex should have something in it to discover, so the idea is there. That just doesn’t sound very fun to me, as it easily turns into wandering around aimlessly waiting for something to happen. I also think it breaks the believability of the world as a 24 square mile area is massive and you could spend month exploring just a single 6-mile hex without ever spotting a cave, statue, or tower that is somewhere between the hills and trees. As I outlined in a previous post, I think it is much more plausible for PCs to find new sites when they either have instructions for how to reach them, or they are visible from a road or river the party is travelling on. In many ways, this is simply a pointcrawl. But there are various things about the pointcrawl map as originally proposed that I find inconvenient for how I want to run my campaigns. Where do you put boxes for new sites that are added to the world as a consequence of players tracking randomly encountered creatures to their lair or base without messing up the map? What if players decide to take shortcuts through woodlands or swamps where there are no roads or rivers to follow? These issues can be quite easily fixed without really overturning the whole system, so consider this a tweak on pointcrawl maps.

First thing is to draw the map for the area in freehand with no grid. (Even the hexmaps I posted recently started that way before I added the hex grid.) Primarily coastlines, mountains, rivers, lakes, and swamps, and such things.

Second, add the major settlements, strongholds, and ruined cities to the map.

Third, draw the roads that people build to connected these settlements.

Now that we have the main rivers and major roads, as the fourth step, add any other sites that people in the area might have discovered already and could give the players instructions on how to find them.

Fifth, add the secondary paths that connect these sites to the main roads and rivers.

Now we know all the paths through the region that parties are likely to travel on. As the sixth step, add sites that could be spotted by simply traveling on one of the primary and secondary paths.

Seventh, mark paths that connect those tertiary sites to the road and river network. Since characters can see those sites from the road, they don’t need any kind of trail to follow. Just keep it in your sight and move towards it. Depending on the granularity you want with distances, these can even be marked as being right on the trail from which they can be spotted.

Only now comes the step to add a hex grid to the whole map. This hex grid is not to divide the wilderness into segments, but simply as a visual aid to easily estimate the length of swirling paths as they meander through the environment. If you’d want to, you could just note the distances between two points next to the path of the map and remove the grid again if you’re working with a digital map. Back in the day, the 2nd edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting box had a hex grid printed on a sheet of clear plastic at the same scale as the maps in the box for just that purpose. I think any print shop would still be able to make such a sheet for you if you have an apprpropriately scaled file of a hex grid on a USB stick.

The advantage of making a wilderness map like this is that I can easily add more dots and more lines to the map, and since the map is based on physical geography instead of a flow-chart abstraction, I can determine the length of any new path easily by counting the number of hexes it passes through. If the players say “You know what, we get off the trail here and just keep heading straight south until we reach the river and then follow it downstream to the town”, it’s trivial to figure out the length of the path, though it would be something you’d have to purely handwave on a default pointcrawl map.

Which might of course be a complete non-issue for many people. This is simply my method that I am using to get the mix of abstraction and precision that I find ideal for my campaigns.

Character motivation in a game with no goals

There have been two thing about campaigns that have been torturing me for many years and caused me endless frustration about never really getting to run the kind of game I really want to. The first of the two is how to make dungeons interesting places to explore, which I finally did discover eventually. (In short, it’s the tension of being careful but not lingering too long in dangerous places, and rewarding poking around in dark holes with treausre as the main XP source.) The other one is the question of what motivates characters in campaigns centered around rogues and scoundrels to go on dangerous adventures other than unashamed selfish greed. You don’t need any additional reason to fight evil snd save the innocents in campaigns in which the party consist of chivalrous heroes, but for many types of campaigns such characters really wouldn’t be fitting the basic premise.

I was recently thinking about how Kenshi could provide useful ideas for the B/X campaign I am working on. It is a videogame with no victory conditions, no quests, no plot, and no real dialogs, but the way the mechanics of the game are set up, it automatically creates the most fantastic stories full of tension and drama all the time. Amd that got me thinking about push and pull factors when it comes to motivating characters in any kind of story.

Typical stories of heroism are all about pull factors. The heroes see an evil, injustice, or threat against others, and being heroes feel compelled to get involved and do something about it. The fact that they choose to take action when everyone else didn’t care or didn’t dare, amd they themselves don’t really have to either, is what makes them heroic. Heroic characters are always popular and characters who are motivated by pull factors tend to charge towards the greatest danger, where all the cool action is. Which is why we see stories with pull incentives being so dominant in fiction. Pull factors also make things easy for GMs since you know what the PCs will be attempting to achieve and which possible paths can lead there even before the players have been introduced to the adventure. Adventures motivated by pull factors are very predictable.

Push factors work rather different. A push incentive is anything that makes it impossible for characters to remain in the situation they are in and force them to leave their default starting position. In most media, a simple push incentive can be that characters hate their current life and want to head out to head for excitement. This works very well in most narrative media where the writer is always in complete control of the whole story and nothing bad will happen to the characters unless the writer wants it to. Players in an RPG have no such control and there are real dangers for their characters that can cause severe damage up to death even when the players really don’t want that at that moment. Within the context of an RPG, players have a strong incentive to minimize the risks to their characters. At the same time, it’s a medium that’s at its strongest during scenes of external action, while being generally very weak at internal reflection. You can write inner monologs and characters struggling with their emotions, and there are many great techniques to communicate such things visually in film. This is something that just doesn’t translate to RPGs.

While internal push factors like unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and boredom don’t really work in RPGs, there are still external push factors. In Kenshi, there is a single external push factor, which is the need for food. All characters need food, and with Kenshi being a desert moon, there is ver little available. It is very easy for your characters to stay safe in a spot where they won’t be spotted by wirld predators or raiders. But there is no food in the barren desert and so you have no choice but to try getting some. You can try killing wild animals, stealing food from settlements, taking food from unconscious NPCs, or buying food from shops. The first three require skills and come with considerable risk. The last one only takes money, but to make money you also need skills and expose yourself to risk. You can try to reduce your risk by getting better weapons and armor, which again costs money, or you can try building a farm to produce your own food. But then your new farm will attract raiders like flies, so you need to build fortifications and get more characters to keep your food from getting stolen. And those new characters also need better equipment, which means finding ways to make money. And you can see how this snowballs very quickly until you might end up with dozens of characters, several strongholds, and multiple ore mines and workshops to equip your people with the best gear possible. All of this hinges on that little hunger bar on each character that is alwsys going down slowly.

For an RPG, the best push incentives can be the ones that continue pushing indefinitely. Something that just keeps forcing PCs to get up, move out, and do something. The other RPG thing I’ve been tinkering with on and off besides Planet Kaendor is a space campaign about a group of PCs with a small ship cruising around a frontier region of known space. The idea I have for the campaign is one with little room for idealistic charity workers with big guns, but I am also not really interested in making it a campaign about outright nasty criminals. Characters who are mostly just trying to get by but keep ending up in exciting situations is more what I have in mind. Such a premise really needs motivations in the form of push factors. A very convenient one in this case is spaceship maintenance costs. If at any point the players don’t really know what their characters would be motivated to at that moment, when they are set up nicely and life is good away from any immediate danger, simply advance the time a couple of month and deduct the maintenance cost for their ship from their money. Eventually money will start to run out and they have no other choice than start asking around for something that will pay.

Monsters and Treasures in the B/X Dungeon

Getting to work on some dungeons for my next campaign, I want to stick as close as possible practical to what the Basic and Expert rules actually advise as guidelines to see how that really plays out in actual play. I have found that most of the moving pieces in this game are set up very deliberately to form a larger system, and not everything does what you first expect them to do coming from later games. I have learned that it’s almost always best to first pinpoint what you don’t like about the results of a mechanic before you start modifying the mechanic. It’s hard to improve something when you don’t know how it actually performs as designed, and you can easily miss out on something cool if you replace it before having it properly tested. So straight up B/X with only the TSR attack roll procedure replaced it will be for the start of the campaign.

The GM guidelines for making a dungeon in the Basic Rules recommend about 1/3 of rooms to have creatures, 1/2 of which possess treasure; 1/6 of rooms to have a trap, 1/3 of which are guarding a treasure; 1/6 of rooms with a special feature like magical effects or weird machines; and 1/3 of rooms being empty, 1/6 of which have a hidden treasure. For simplicity, lets assume here reaction rolls are made with no Charisma modifier, so half of all creatures encountered will be hostile. In practice, it’s can be considerably less.

In an 18 room dungeon, these fractions come out as nice even numbers, and it’s also a good scale for a mid-sized dungeon or level of a larger dungeon. This gives us the following lineup of rooms.

  • 3x monster with treasure
  • 3x monster
  • 1x trap with treasure
  • 2x trap
  • 3x special
  • 1x hidden treasure
  • 5x empty

Assuming the party spends 1 turn in each of the 18 rooms and 6 turns exploring and mapping the corridors, we get a total of 24 turns. After every 5 turns, the party needs to rest for one turn, which is 4 additional turns for a total of 28. There is a 1 in 6 chance for a wandering monster every 2 turns (or just 1 in 12 every turn), so we can expect 2 random encounters over those 28 turns. With the six monster rooms, that’s a total of 8 monster encounters, and rolling their reaction gives us an average of 4 fights.

(Those 4 fights cause additional wandering monster checks, which at a 1 in 6 chance produce an average of 2/3 encounters, or a 1/6 chance for another hostile creature. Small enough to ignore here.)

I think thia is quite an interesting tally for an 18 room dungeon: We can expect about 30 turns spend in the dungeon, with 4 fights, 4 nonhostile encounters, 3 traps, 3 special features, and 5 treasures. This is much less than I expected. And I love it! With a distribution of content like this, I can see how a place can feel like an old abandoned ruin. Very different from the fortified outposts that make up most dungeons I am familiar with.

Something that had never occured to me before is that 2 out of 5 treasures located in a dungeon will be in the possession of creatures that mean the party no harm. That puts the players into an interesting position. They probably won’t try to rob a group of nonhostile elves who are exploring the dungeon themselves, but what about a pair of ogers who can’t be bothered to try beating up the PCs? Players might still want to steal from them, and perhaps even kill them to prevent future attacks on travelers on the nearby road. Very interesting stuff.

The Basic Rules also recommend that about 1/4 of XP players gain in a dungeon should come from monsters, the rest from treasures. You could use the treasure tables to generate treasure hoards, but that’s something I always found too bothersome, as a dungeon full of simple insect monsters would have completely different amounts of treasures than a dungeon that is a big bandit lair. My prefered method is to tally up the XP values of all the room creatures and multiply that by 3 to get the amount of gp for all the treasure in the dungeon. (Nothing for wandering monsters, because those are supposed to be undesireable to enconter.) Then I just put the coins in the treasure hoards on the dungeon map as seems appropriate, with the arbitrarily chosen magic item added here and there. (I actually put another amount of treasure equal to the XP of the room creatures into hidden secret rooms that I don’t expect the players to find most of the time, as an additional challenge.)

Interesting stuff. I can’t wait to see how this will play out in practice.

Handling Random Encounters

I created a new tag for articles named “The Yora Rules” and pinned it to the top of the page. Over the years I developed a number of small mechanics and tweaks to the B/X rules and interpretations of rules that don’t clearly spell out a specific procedure. A big reason behind many of my procedure is to reduce the mental workload on my own brain in regard to how I am personally affected by ADHD. Some of my changes might seem superflous and no more easy or faster than the default rules, but they do work often a lot better with the way my brain works, resulting in a much faster and smoother game. I still think they are more elegant in some ways and could be very useful to anyone.

Some I’ve shared here before and have gotten a quite positive reception, so I thought it might be useful to have them all in one place. Frequently I lay out my entire thought process in excessive detail, which I think might be of interesting to some, but isn’t very useful to just looking up how I do certain things or to share it with other people. A year ago I wrote about how I handle random encounters, but that one’s just a wall of text, so here is the actual mechanics in one simple bit.

Step 1 (Preparation): Roll up groups of Creatures

Consider which areas of wilderness the party will likely travel through, how many random encounters are likely to happen on the way, and which dungeon levels they will be exploring in the next game. Use the respective Wandering Monster tables to roll up the creature type and creature number for as many encounters as you expect you will need and put them in short lists for each area.

Step 2 (Preparation): Roll Surprise for the Creatures

Roll 1d6 for each creature group on the list. On a 1 or 2, mark them as being surprised when the party encounters them.

Step 3: The Players roll for Wandering Monsters

In the Wilderness: Roll a die four times per day spend in the wilderness. One for morning, noon, evening, and night. Roll a d12 for most wilderness, or a d10 or d8 for particularly densely populated areas. If the party is in a dungeon at the time of an indicated random encounter, either ignore it or have the creatures run into the camp outside with the hirelings, mounts, and pack animals.

In a Dungeon: Roll a d12 at the start of every exploration turn. (The total number of encounters will be the same as rolling a d6 every two turns, but you don’t have to remember if you rolled last turn or not.)

Causing Attention: If the party does something to draw attention to them, like causing a big fire in the wilderness or making loud noise in a dungeon (such as fighting), make an extra wandering monster check right then and there. Any creatures allerted that way will arive in the next turn or later, in addition to the regular wandering monster check every turn in a dungeon.

Something always happens on a 1: When the die roll is a 1, a random encounter happens. Tell the players that a 1 means encounter before rolling the die in the open. Or better, let a player roll the die. Show the players plain to see that you didn’t make this encounter happen at a moment in the game that you thought would be fun. You’re not making things hard for them when they are weak, or delay challenges until they are ready for them.

Step 4: Referencing the Prepared Encounter List

I am putting this here as step 4, but actually you don’t need to look at the list at this point. Because you already prepared the list in advanced, you knew the kind of creatures and number of creatures in this encounter and whether they will be surprised or aware since the previous random encounter was completed. This is the reason why I prepare this list in advance. Any time the players are talking among themselves to decide on their next step, I can put some thought on how I would use this group of creature if it is encountered in one of the two or three rooms the players might choose to explore next. I do not have to make something up on the spot right as I roll the die on the wandering monster table, which usually ends up just being “there are X number of Y standing in the middle of the room”, which is boring. Having just a minute or half to think about it without all the players staring at you waiting in anticipation to hear what they just ran into can make a big difference.

Step 5: The Players roll for Surprise

One of the players rolls a d6. On a 1 or 2, the party is surprised. (For some creatures encountered, it’s on a 1 to 3.)

If the players are not surprised but the creatures are, the players have one round to act before the creatures spot them. They can use that round to quickly retreat back around the corner they just passed or move into a nearby suitable hiding spot. If they do, the creatures remain unaware of the party until the players do something to reveal their presence.

Step 6: Roll for Distance

In the Widerness: Creatures that are not surprised spot the other group from 4d6 x 30 feet away. If both groups are surprised, they spot each other at 2d6 x 30 feet.

In a Dungeon: Creatures that are not surprised spot the other group from 2d6 x 10 feet away. If both groups are surprised, they spot each other at 1d6 x 10 feet.

Step 7: The Players make a Raction Roll

If the creatures’ attitude towards the party is not obvious because of circumstances (like mindless undead or guards searching a castle on alert), have the players make a reaction roll.

If the party has been surprised but the creatures are not, roll 2d6 for the reaction roll. (No Charisma modifiers apply.)

If the party is not surprised, one character may greet the creatures. That character rolls 2d6 plus the Charisma bonus to reaction rolls.

2: The creatures start to attack immediately.

3-5: The creatures are hostile. They threaten the party with violence to hand over their treasure, be taken prisoner, or to immediately leave the area, depending on what seems appropriate in that situation.

6-8: The creatures are uncertain and observe what the party does next. After the party has reacted in some way, the character doing the talking makes another reaction roll with a bonus or penalty depending on what was said or done.

9-11: The creatures don’t want trouble. They might ignore the party of leave the area, depending on if they seem to be a threat or not. Intelligent creatures might be cordial but not interested in further interactions beyond common pleasantries.

12+: The creatures are friendly. They might invite the party to their camp or lair, offer useful information, or propose to join forces.

Step 8: Resolve the Encounter

The encounter either ends in a fight or a conversation. (Which might result in a fight later.)

Additional Note: Surprised Parties

There is one kind of encounter situation that the B/X procedure does not enable, and that is creatures spotting the party without being noticed and following them around for a while. When the players make the wandering monster check and it rolls a 1, they know something is there. You can’t tell them “you don’t notice anything”. Also, the players are supposed to roll the reaction roll themselves where they can see it. When that 1 is rolled for wandering monsters, the encounter has to happen now.

This is one of the main reasons I don’t roll up the creatures and their number in the middle of play after a wandering monster check and prepare them in advance instead. Same for rolling their surprise.

If I know I have a creature that would stay hidden if it catches the party by surprise, and that creature will not be surprised itself, then I can spend some thought on what it will do if the party fails their own surprise roll, depending on the reaction roll:

Immediate Attack: The creature has been stalking the party for a while and decides to jump them now, getting a free round to attack before the party can react.

Hostile: The creature decides this is a good moment to confront the party. It’s positioned in a way that is most advantageous to itself and no roll for encounter distance is necessary.

Uncertain: Keep rerolling until you get a different result. The creature has been observing what the players do while it was hiding.

Avoiding Trouble: This is inconvenient since the creature can just escape without the players ever knowing it was there. I guess the best option is to let one player catch a glimpse of it before it disappears, and if the party pursues they won’t find any trail to follow.

Friendly: The creature just comes out in the open to greet the party.

Only the first two really depend on the geometry of the area they are encountered in. If the players end up not being surprised for that encounter, they will run into the creature in the middle of doing whatever it is doing. So there are really just three possible things worth considering in light of the next environment the players decide to enter.