Random thoughts on alchemy and sandbox campaigns

With the top level worlduilding for the Shattered Empire having reached a pretty concrete and solid stage, I’ve started turning back to thinking about specific details for an actual sandbox campaign set somewhere in this world. And while discussing some ideas, we happened to talk about players spending the money they get from all the dungeon crawling, travelling merchants as random wilderness encounters, and how generic magic weapons are boring compared to setting up your gear to fight a specific monster. It got me thinking about how the Witcher games don’t let you drink potions or put poison on your weapon while a monster is trying to claw your eyes out. You got to do your alchemical preparations before you step into the monster’s lair, perhaps even brewing up some special brews you didn’t normally keep stocked in your inventory.

And that discussion gave me an idea: Let’s have alchemical ingredients that can be used to create potions to help fight specific monsters, but these ingredients are hard to get and can each be used for a number of different potions.

Usually in videogames with crafting systems, you have basic ingredients that you can pick up from defeated enemies or growing in the environment in practically infinite amounts, and special ingredients that are only dropped from a single monster in the whole game to make one specific item, or make you choose one of two possible items that can be made with it. For the record, I hate crafting in videogames. It’s mostly a pointless waste of time that clogs up inventory space to drown you in junk that is worse than stuff you find. And I think one of the main flaws with these mechanics is the way they treat the ingredients.

But let’s approach this differently to make it something that is narratively meaningful and doesn’t turn into a convoluted minigame. The really badic ingredient, which are dirt cheap and just grow everywhere in the environment, are not even worth tracking. They have negligible costs and require no effort to acquire. And to make the special ingredients much more interesting and meaningful, make them both limited and expensive and make them useful for multiple different things. Letting the players fight a monster and take ingredient A from it, which they can turn into item X is really just a different way for giving them item X from the monster’s treasure. But say instead that there are maybe a dozen of the monster in the whole sandbox and the players might end up with anywhere from 0 to 12 of ingredient A, depending on how they explore the world and interact with the creatures, and that each of the ingredients can be used to make item X, Y, or Z. If these items they can make have limited uses that mostly shine in quite specific situations, the players will have to make a choicd if they want to use the three ingredients they have to make one of each item, three of the same item, or two of one and one of another. Since they don’t know what situations they will be dealing in the future, the correct answer is to keep them stored and make whatever item is needed, once they know it is needed. This adds a few additional scenes to adventures in which the PCs are making specific preparations for the adventure ahead, based on the information they have of what they arw getting into. That’s always great to make a world become more alive and present.

But also, you can make these ingredients available in small quantities for high prices at merchants. If it’s travelling merchants, it’s going to be a one-time offer as well. If the objects that can be made are sufficiently strong and have appropriately limited uses before they are used up, then these ingredients might be worth quite a lot to the players. And asking to take a look at the alchemy chest of each merchant they encounter can be a highlight of each shoping trip.

Buying the ingredient isn’t the same as buying the final item. There’s still alchemical work to be done. If it’s something that takes longer, it can be useful to employ an alchemist, especially when this kind of work comes up regularly. Which also costs money. And that alchemist is going to need a lab. Don’t let him do that stuff over a campfire with a little box of alchemy supplies. A proper lab best fits into a permanent base, which can be a much bigger source of expense for the party.

I’ve not done any work yet on either ingredients that could be found on adventures or be one-time offers by travelling merchants, or the kinds of items that could be made with them. But I think it’s a really interesting direction to follow that could potentially add a lot to sandbox campaigns.

Why do I never see links to All Dead Generations?

Looking back, the prime days of OSR lie now a decade behind us, and while a number of people are still around, occasionally sharing some new thought or insight every couple of months, very little of any meaningful significance is added to the discourse of B/X and AD&D that hasn’t been thoroughly examined years ago.

But one thing still does stand out that really brings something new (back) to the table that has significant value to help understanding how those old games tick and how you can make them really work without existing experience going back to the 80s. Which is Gus L’s “new” site All Dead Generations. This is an excellent resource I never really see mentioned anywhere.

When I finished my D&D 5th edition campaign a year ago, one of the realizations that I gained from it was that I just didn’t get the concept of dungeons. What a dungeon is is obvious, but I never understood how going from room to room filled with monsters and random crack-wizard puzzle-devices was supposed to be fun for anyone involved. As someone who got into D&D in the last days of 2nd edition, when the 90s Metaplot craze was still in full swing, fighting monsters in rooms never seemed like something that contributes to the plot of an adventure or a campaign. And it doesn’t. That’s one of the key things to take away from the many long pages of All Dead Generations. Thinking about a plot when going into a dungeon to explore is already the completely wrong approach. I never figured out how to make it work in 20 years, because that’s never how it was supposed to work. Dungeons & Dragons under WotC has been a cargo cult game, that emulates mechanics from the 70s and early 80s because they’ve seen these things being a major part of D&D, but with no apparent understanding of what they are for and how they work.

All Dead Generations has been a massive eye opener for me and got me super excited about an all dungeon crawl campaign just after I had given up on using dungeons in my games entirely. It’s a fantastic read for anyone who wants to understand how B/X is actually supposed to be played. And yet, nobody seems to be talking about it. I guess partly because there are few people still around who could talk about it, but to do so they’d also need to hear about it in the first place.

So here’s a big shout out to Gus. Which is a bit weird from a marginal nobody like me to one of the well known big guys of oldschool RPGs, but it is what it is. Go check out All Dead Generations.

Something always happens on a 1!

I mentioned this idea in another post last summer in regards to wandering monster checks, but I think it’s actually a rally nice principle that can be applied to all dice rolls without a defined die size and target number.

I’ve talked about accessibility of RPG rules in the past, both here and in several other places, and my personal experience as a GM with ADD has always been that my brain very easily becomes overloaded when juggling numbers at the same time as I am trying to follow a conversation. The trivial task of putting the initiative counts of six to eight participants in an encounter into a descending list has always been the single most challenging thing and greatest struggle to me about running games. (Now I always use group initiative to skip the whole issue.) But another thing that isn’t always easy for me in the heat of the action is probabilities like “2 in 6”. I rolled a 4, is that a success or not? Do we count the lowest two numbers or the highest two? This can be really easy stuff, but for my brain that’s something that takes up completely disproportional amounts of processing power. Not a good situation.

My solution is to make any such rolls a probability of “1 in 4”, “1 in 6”, “1 in 8”, and so on. If I’m using material that uses other odds, I translate them into whichever “1 in N” probability gets closest and write that in my notes. The result of this is that even when my mind is getting overloaded with input from the players and I am trying to establish what happens next, I only have to look at the die in front of me and remember “Something always happens on a 1!”

If it’s not a 1, then nothing happens. Proceed as normal. If it’s a 1, that always means the answer to “does X happen?” is always a yes. I’ve adopted this method as a solution to my specific personal problem, but I think it’s a really neat way to handle a wide range of rolls in general. It’s also helpful for new players who are still trying to figure out what’s actually going on all the time. On top of that, there’s a dozen different ways of how you can roll a die to determine the outcome of an action. Sometimes they have to roll higher than a number on their character sheet. Sometimes they have to roll lower. Sometimes they roll a die and add a number from their character sheet and the GM tells them if it’s a success or not. Sometimes they roll d6 and a 1 is a success, other times they roll a d8 and 7 is a success. Any time you can simply tell a player “just roll that die, when it’s a 1 something happens” is a moment where that player has a lot less new information to process.

I also think it helps with speeding along play and creating additional excitement by simply having a player roll a dice in the middle of the table, and since they’ve seen the same thing a dozen times before now, they already know “something always happens on a 1!”, without you having to explain to them how the odds for this specific roll are working. And by having established that something always happens on a 1, there is no ambiguity on whether that roll really mattered or you arbitrarily decided the outcome in disregard of the die. When the players see a 1, they can jeer in excitement or despair without even having to look at you. In my perception, this is a very useful tool to make players realize that the fates of their characters are entirely in the hands of themselves and random luck, and that trying to figure out what the GM wants or expects doesn’t make any difference.

You could of course switch it around and say “something always happens on the highest number of the die”. But that requires one additional mental step to get to the actual result, which is identifying what type of die has just been rolled. I think everyone who’s played with new players know that it takes them a good amount of time to look for the die in front of them that has the same amount of numbers that you just told them to roll. It may not be immediately obvious if a die sitting in the middle of the table and showing a 10 is a d10 or a d12. And in my personal situation, when I am trying to run an encounter with lots of players chattering in excitement, staring at a die in front of me and trying to remember what meaning there was behind the die I just roll can take me two or three seconds. Figuring out if that 10 on the die before me means something or nothing is an additional step I just don’t need if it doesn’t add any additional value to the game. And ADD is not an uncommon condition, anecdotally even less so among RPG players. I would hazard to guess that more groups have one than not, and wouldn’t be surprised if a good number of them is affected by similar forms of mental overload as me. Even if this seems to trivial to be pointless to you, there might very well be a player in your group who’d really benefit from it. So “something always happens on a 1!”.

Mage Hunter focus for Worlds Without Number

When I was thinking about treating magic as something inherently demonic in nature and commonly regarded as a violation of the divine order that governs the physical world, I originally had the idea to create a Mage tradition like the Healer or Vowed for priests who are trained in countering and negating the effects of magic. But a tradition means the character has to select 8 different arts by 10th level, and the total pool of arts to pick from should be considerably larger than that. But as it turned out, coming up with 12 different powers that counter magic and can be rationalized as not actually using magic themselves is really quite the challenge. To be a good mechanical representation of the concept, having a pretty small selection of very basic abilities feels a lot more fitting, and so I ended up making the Mage Hunter a single focus instead of a full tradition.

Nothing about this focus is really an original creation by me. All I’ve done is to take already existing mechanics from Worlds Without Number and arrange them in a way to become accessible to a broader range of characters. I think this is a good example to show how easy homebrewing new content to bring your setting to life can be.


Mage Hunter

Level 1: Gain Magic as a bonus skill, and Effort with a maximum of your Magic skill level plus your Wisdom modifier. You also gain the Sense Magic art.

Sense Magic: Commit Effort as an Instant action; while it remains committed, you can visually perceive magical energy and get a one-sentence description of the effect of any standing magics or magical items you inspect.

Level 2: You gain the Counter Magic and Suppress Magic arts.

Counter Magic: Commit Effort for the day as an Instant action when a visible enemy mage casts a spell. You make an opposed Wis/Magic check against the casters Int/Magic or Cha/Magic skill checks; if you win, their spell fizzles and is wasted. You can use this art no more than once per round.

Suppress Magic: Commit Effort for the day as an On Turn action and target a visible or known magical effect within one hundred feet. The effect is suppressed for 1d6 rounds plus your character level. Spells cast by more casters of a higher level than you may not be successfully suppressed. You can attempt to suppress an effect only once.

Why exploration works as a game

Numerous keyboards have been worn out on ENWorld over the last month with endless discussions about why exploration in D&D is so bad, why it doesn’t work, how it could be made to work, and that it would work if people just were to actually use the rules that are already there. Obviously, the vast majority of people are arguing from the perspective of 5th edition, which is why that discussion never seems to go anywhere. My conclusion after having run a 5th edition campaign for half a year was that this game doesn’t actually know what it wants to be, or to be more precise, the writers of the Dungeon Master’s Guide don’t understand how RPGs work in the first place. Lots of 5th edition players in the discussion keep repeating the point that exploration is one of the three main aspects of the game. Because the books say it is. But it’s not. It hasn’t been part of the rules since 3rd edition came out over 20 years ago, and it wasn’t included in the rules because D&D as a brand had lost interest in by the mid 80s. I believe what people want is something that resembles the vague stories they’ve heard about the games played by earlier generations that preceded them, but 5th edition just isn’t made for that. Contrary to the designers’ insistence.

One opinion I came across yesterday was something along the line that random encounters are not viable stakes for exploration challenges, because when you have a fight it’s switching to combat and is no longer exploration. And that exposes a fundamental flaw in the underlying assumptions that all these discussions build on. Exploration and combat are not two separate game modes, and neither are social interactions. Or at least, they must not be separate game modes for exploration to work. You can have a pure combat RPG. D&D has proven that for the last 20 years. You also can have a pure social RPG. There are plenty of those around. But exploration just by itself does not work as an RPG. Or at least, I’ve never hear of any such a thing existing.

Exploration, combat, and social interactions are not three game modes that come packaged in a bundle. In a good roleplaying game with an exploration focus, they are components in a unified system, and so entangled that you can’t look at them separately to understand how they work. I would say that the threat of combat is not just a viable component to have stakes in exploration, but a necessary requirement. At least when you’re envisioning a game with warriors and wizards descending into the lairs of monsters and get into lethal fights.

Now here’s the actual point I want to get to: Somewhere else in the several discussions someone talked about how characters exploring a dungeon can simply use some spells to check everything for possible traps before getting close to them and that the game (5th edition) gives players all the tools to do just just, and how that’s why exploration doesn’t have any meaningful threats like combat does. (Might actually have been the same person who said combat can’t be a threat of exploration because then it’s no longer exploration.)

This had me realize why exploration in D&D from the first 10 years is exciting and works as a primary gameplay loop that get people to come back forever. When exploring a dungeon, one option you have is to do everything extremely carefully. Always check everything for traps, never step on anything without poking it with a 10 foot pole, use magic to always scout ahead, always have everyone healed to full hit points, and rest as often as it takes to always have your spells ready. But if you try that, you’ll inevitably get killed by the 5,000 wandering monster checks you have to make. This is not a viable approach. The other option is to just be quick. Kick open every door and charge straight in and attack everything that moves. This approach simply gets you just as dead, only much faster. It’s not a viable approach either. And that’s the main tension that makes classic dungeon crawling work. You have to be both swift and careful, two needs that directly oppose each other. This is a problem with no optimal solution. And that means every single turn is a challenge and a gamble.

That’s how exploration works as an exciting game.

Ideas on using Notice in Worlds Without Number

One of the additions that Worlds Without Number adds to the common oldschool structure is skills. The system for skills is not bad. Basic skill checks are 2d6 plus the appropriate attribute modifier, plus the character’s level in the respective skill for the task. Skill level can be as high as 4 at 9th level, but with the way the cost for each skill level increases each time, I don’t think you’re going to see that often, except maybe for skills like Stab or Magic, which are not usually used as skill checks but rather as modifiers to attack rolls or how much magic a Mage can use per day. I think +2 and the the occasional +3 added to attribute checks is the most that will be commonly encountered in the wild.

However, one of the skills is Notice, which is something that is usually considered one of the big things that make newer D&D editions unsuitable for classic dungeon crawling, which in the defense of Worlds Without Number, it never claims to do. The GM tells the players the things in a room that are immediately obvious, and then it’s up to the players to ask the right questions to find the things that are not immediately obvious. “You can not roll dice to avoid playing the game.”

Worlds Without Number does not specify when Notice checks are supposed to be made, but after some pondering, I’ve decided that there’s still ways to both make the skill work and also make it worthwhile to put points into for players. One approach is to make the target number of a Notice check to “notice something unusual” very high. I would consider a character with a +2 Wisdom modifier and a +3 skill bonus to be highly specialized, and quite likely the highest total modifier that players might actually be able to field in play. Maybe a total of +6, but that’s probably really it. With a +5 bonus, a character would have a 28% chance to make a difficulty 14 check. A character with a more modest +3 would only have a chance of 8%. That doesn’t seem too bad.

But to still make players work for their progress, I’d add the following rules to making a Notice check to find hidden things: Since searching an area is a group activity, I’d only allow a single check for the whole group, with the highest modifier of any characters in the party. They don’t get four or five checks to maximize their chances of someone rolling a 12. Also, I am thinking that this method can only discover a single hidden thing. So the players better search the place as well as they can before they make that roll. You don’t want to waste it on something that you could have found yourself with two more minutes of thinking. Making a Notice check should be the the final gamble after the party has given up on finding anything else themselves.

Another way to use Notice checks is when it comes to surprise. Worlds Without Number only addresses surprise in regards to one character waiting in ambush to attack another character. In which case it’s a Notice check against a Sneak check. It doesn’t mention how you’d do that with groups of characters (if everyone rolls, it’s boils down to the defenders’ best Notice roll against the attackers’ lowest Sneak roll), and it also doesn’t go at all into the situation where wandering monsters just happen to stumble into the party entirely by accident.

The regular surprise system in B/X is rolling 1d6 for both sides, and on a 1 or 2, that side is surprised. (Both sides can be surprised, and neither side can be surprised.) This roll could instead by made by having both sides make a Notice check, rolled by the character with the highest modifier. Monsters and generic NPCs in Worlds Without Number usually have a +1 or +2 modifier in whatever skills they would likely to be good at. I think Notice checks to determine surprise should always fall under that. Players would easily have a +2 or possibly +3 advantage over the creatures they encounter, and since 2d6 give a normal distribution, that’s really quite big. But this can be addressed by tweaking the difficulty of the check.

In B/X, the chance to become surprised is 1/3rd, so the chance to detect the other group is 2/3rds. Since most monsters and guards in Worlds Without Number have a skill modifier of +1 or +2, setting the default difficulty to detect a group of adventurers exploring a room to 8 gets the closest to those 2/3rds odds. PCs will regularly have higher modifiers to that, since they also get to add their Wisdom modifiers to their check. But monsters prowling the dark tunnels of a dungeon are much less noisy, so to detect them, the difficulty should be a higher 10. And if you have really sneaky creatures prowling in the dark, that difficulty can increase to 12.

Now you might be wondering: “Why do this much more complicated approach to get basically the same result?” That is a good question, Timmy. If I’d design a game from scratch, I just wouldn’t bother with a Notice skill in the first place. And as GM, I totally have the option to just modify the rules and kick out Notice entirely. But each small change you make to the system comes with a cost when it comes to recruiting players when you’re not in the position to tell your existing group that this is what you’re going to play from now on. Getting players for a more obscure system (that is, everything that isn’t D&D 5th edition) is not quite trivial to begin with. Having a somewhat well known and highly regarded name like Worlds Without Number helps a lot in that regard, but when that’s your way to lure in players to your campaign, many of them will show up to play Worlds Without Number. And every change you make to the default rules slightly decreases the enthusiasm people will have to join your campaign. There’s already a good number of changes I am making to the system, like ditching a couple of foci, two of the magic traditions, and completely overhauling the High Magic spells. I’m ditching much of the weapons and armor lists and the whole equipment modification system. All of this adds up to make the game less of what people think of when you ask who wants to play in a new Worlds Without Number campaign. A change like this doesn’t really change anything on the player facing side of the game. They still can get their Notice skill and all the foci that give bonus skill levels to Notice, and they are still going to make plenty of Notice checks while they play the game. Even players who know¬† the rules might not even notice (huh huh) that anything has been changed at all.