Friday, 19 July 2019

[MODULE] The Nocturnal Table (NOW AVAILABLE!)

The Nocturnal Table

I am happy to announce the publication of The Nocturnal Table, a 60-page game aid dedicated to city-based adventures, lavishly illustrated by Matthew Ray (cover), Peter Mullen, Stefan Poag and Denis McCarthy. Originally conceived in 2010 as an article for Knockspell Magazine (but only published in the Hungarian), the supplement has since gone through a lot of active play over multiple campaigns, and been expanded with additional material to offer a handy guide to design and run adventure scenarios in a large, sinful city filled with action and intrigue. This is a game aid designed for regular table use, and formatted to be comfortable and accessible. Whether your pick is Lankhmar, the City State, the City of Vultures or Imperial Rome, this supplement will help generate much of the texture of the streets – from illicit warehouses to the monsters and madmen who prowl the night! Citing the back cover…

“The City is a maze. A labyrinth of alleyways, plazas, shortcuts and hidden thoroughfares, it isn’t any less treacherous to navigate than a dungeon. At least during the day, the worst one can expect is a greedy patrol of guards eager for a shakedown, or a thief in the crowd, ready to make a grab and run for it. At night, the sensible and the timid hurry home and bolt their doors. Ecstatic revellers, madmen, assassins, religious fanatics, thrill-seekers, enigmatic apparitions and tiger-headed opium nightmares prowl the streets. And the guards are still not helping. 

The Nocturnal Table is a supplement intended to bring you this city by way of an encounter system, random inspiration tables, NPC and monster statistics, as well as a giant nighttime random encounter table, whose three hundred entries can serve as interludes as well as springboards for complicated investigative scenarios and fantastic conspiracies.”

At the core of The Nocturnal Table is a 300-entry table of random encounters and odd events you can run into at night in a busy fantasy metropolis. From a patrol of guards carrying a slain comrade, to a sinister beggar-catcher soliciting the aid of dishonest adventurers, or a skeleton covered in grey ooze, its eyes glittering gemstones shambling towards the party, all the wonder and menace of a city-crawl are at hand. But that is not all. With The Nocturnal Table, you can…
  • …create general encounters with the aid of a comprehensive encounter system. A caravan in Hightown threatening the party? Six jackalweres offering secret information near the port at night? Or a magic-user accusing a PC in the bazaars? That could be the beginning of a story (or the end of one).
  • …generate merchants selling strange and fantastic goods (as seen in Echoes From Fomalhaut #01 – that table would have been a crime not to reprint here). Is that jovial guard selling weapons as a form of bait? Are that credible horseman’s sugared fruits really from a foreign dimension?
  • …find out what’s in their pockets. The guard came up with a pouch of 12 gold and a folded hood, but that horseman? His 50 silver, 5 electrum and 10 gp was also accompanied by a weird diagram.
  • …generate local colour on the fly. Ominous, gurgling pipes overhead? A drunk who insists he has just seen a party member go the same way “just a while ago”?
  • stock warehouses with exotic goods to plunder! Leave those odd, primitive swords and the rustic carpets collecting dust in the corner, and find out how much those ceremonial globes may be worth.
  • …and set up secret meetings and investigation sites. The meeting will place behind the old, crumbling mosaic – but don’t touch the drink. And the trail leads on, by the sign near the mortuary… just take care: the children are spies!
Guidelines are also offered to re-use the encounters and chart contents for the construction of bizarre plotlines and sinister conspiracies which rule from the shadows… while the City sleeps (these guidelines have been previewed on this blog). All that, and more are at your disposal in… The Nocturnal Table!

The print version of the supplement is available from my Bigcartel store; the PDF edition will be published through DriveThruRPG with a few months’ delay. As always, customers who buy the print edition will receive the PDF version free of charge.

Do note that a flat shipping fee is in effect: you will pay the same whether you order one, two, or more items (larger orders may be split into multiple packages and shipped individually – this does not affect the shipping fee).

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

[BLOG] Noise or Signal? Further Thoughts on Creativity and Randomness

Art by Virginia Frances Sterrett

Creativity aid, not creativity replacement? We have been there before, and it is a slogan uniquely suited to describe a family of products designed to help GMs develop their own adventures. Random generators have been used to jog our imagination and come up with interesting new combinations ever since Ready Ref Sheets and the Dungeon Master’s Guide appendices; while random tables fell out of fashion between the mid-80s and the early 2000s, they have experienced a revival and they are going as strong as ever. Procedural generation is heavily featured outside tabletop RPGs, permeating the worlds of computer games from Elite to Minecraft (not to mention the deep, dark well of roguelikes).

Randomness, of course, produces no innate meaning, and leaves us to project our own onto it. A dungeon room with a “fire throne”, an “ogre taskmaster” and a “magic warhammer” is a hodgepodge of disparate elements; it takes human imagination to connect the dots and turn the random gibberish into something meaningful. (Perhaps the fire throne is a torture implement, the ogre is a jailer, and he has stolen an imprisoned dwarf’s weapon? Or we are in the hall of the fire giant king, the ogre is his underling, and he is guarding the king’s symbol of power?) Just like modules are a framework to run an actual adventure, random tables serve as the framework for the GM’s imagination. And just like modules, the eventual results should bear the personal mark of the GM, and, ultimately, the whole game group. This is how we co-create, and this is how the whole can be more than the sum of disparate parts.

If it is all so subjective and variable, can you actually review a collection of random tables? Can you actually tell a good table from a bad one? I have used a lot of random tables over the years, and have found that some have proven consistently useful, while others are barely ever touched. There are qualities which make certain tables more suitable to provoke the imagination. It has to do with the entries’ imaginative power – their capability to evoke images which can be spun into fantasy adventures.

To work their magic, we have to trust the tables enough to follow them somewhere. But they must take us someplace special – imaginary places of wonder and menace. A table that does not push us out of our current frame of mind is not a good creativity aid, because we are already there. D&D has a common language – of oak doors, dark corridors, pit traps, wizards and goblins and maybe beholders – which is intimately familiar even to people who do not play D&D. They are “tropes” (a horrid word embodied in that most horrid product of internerd autism, TVTropes). Good tables take us beyond the basics – it is still the same language, but a richer, deeper, more varied layer of it.

Art by Edward Coley Burne-Jones
Some of the imaginative power of random tables lies in the strength of individual idea kernels, but just as much hinges on the combination and juxtaposition of elements which fit together in ways which are not altogether comfortable. Creative tension – the shock of unexpected combinations and the images they create – is what takes the mind beyond the limits of routine thought patterns. Yet there is a limit to oddity, where it ceases to be meaningful. Square birds in purple sauce? These elements don’t fit into a coherent hole. There has to be a “bridging” moment where the pieces shift together, and create something new. “Serpents” and “gates” are both powerful images in their own right, laden with symbolic significance – but a serpent-gate? That is surely something more. A “serpent gate mirror”? Now we are getting there. However, we are also getting more specific, which may limit our options, and reduce us to obvious paths where potent images are diluted back to cliché.
  
Results open to interpretation are better than static and immutable ones. This lies at the heart of the “oracular” power of tables – they tell the truth, but the truth they tell is different from perspective to perspective. This is a tricky balance to achieve – specific enough to be powerful, general enough to fit many different situations – and just vague enough. Dreams are the classic go-to example (and indeed, the Surrealists had already discovered this, including the use of random generation to combine dream-images). The best tables can be reused again and again, because their results have a universal character. This does not mean generic. The “Ruins & Relics” table from Ready Ref Sheets, the random wilderness encounter charts in the Dungeon Masters Guide, or the very first “Locations (Overview)” table in the Tome of Adventure Design all have a strong personality them that influences their results. Indeed, “Ruins & Relics” is as core to the identity of the Wilderlands as the DMG charts to “the AD&D campaign”, and the ToAD table to Mythmere’s vision of “weird fantasy” as the key to the rediscovery of old-school gaming. These tables are foundational.

And finally, there is randomness. A totally random generator is just the noise of a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters. It may produce something good – but it won’t. A random generator whose results can be predicted, or which does not produce novelty, is superfluous: everyone possesses the ideas it produces by default. And there is a third, subtle distinction: while a kaleidoscope always produces something different, it always produces the same thing – a kaleidoscopic image. It is a powerful tool, but limited.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

[NEWS] The Lost Valley of Kishar and Echoes From Fomalhaut #05 released in PDF

New PDF releases

I am happy to announce the publication of the PDF versions of The Lost Valley of Kishar and Echoes From Fomalhaut #05, now available from DriveThruRPG. The Lost Valley offers a 6th to 8th level wilderness adventure, a journey to a lost world inhabited by prehistoric beasts and other, even stranger beings. This module was written by Gabor Csomos, and won first place at a 2018 adventure design contest. Second place went to The Enchantment of Vashundara, an excellent adventure in its own right. This module, written by Zsolt Varga, is featured in Echoes #05. The zine also introduces two towns: Tirwas is a community once governed by egalitarian customs, and now divided between a group of powerful Landlords, while Sleepy Haven is a seemingly idyllic coastal settlement… or is it? A second adventure, set in a network of abandoned storehouses and caverns beneath Tirwas, is also featured.

Both PDF publications are provided free to those who have ordered them in print – and print copies are still available at emdt.bigcartel.com. However, if you wish to place a print order, it may be a good idea to wait a week for the next EMDT release, which is…

***

Lurking
The Nocturnal Table! (And no, that will not be the final cover on the left – it is being finalised by Matthew Ray.) This supplement is a “city adventure game aid”, originally written in 2010 as an article for Knockspell magazine, and later expanded for standalone publication (which did not happen at that time). A Hungarian edition was released somewhat later, and was used extensively in our city adventures and campaigns. The present English edition, a hefty 60 pages with lavish illustrations by Peter Mullen, Stefan Poag and Denis McCarthy, features further expansions and additions based on those adventures.

At the core of The Nocturnal Table is a 300-entry table of random encounters and odd events you can run into at night in a busy fantasy metropolis. However, this is just one part of the deal – further random charts and guidelines are provided for running city scenarios featuring thievery, fantastic conspiracies, and weird locations. Want to generate a random warehouse’s worth of valuables to plunder? Create a shady locale to meet with a contact? See what was being carried by that patrician you have just pickpocketed? All that, and more are at your disposal in the supplement. This is a supplement designed for regular table use, and formatted to be comfortable and accessible.

Hopefully going on sale next weekend!

***



In other news, what am I working on? My focus as of late has been mainly on Castle Xyntillan, a large funhouse megadungeon for Swords&Wizardry. This work is in the first proofreading stage (and a short appendix or two are still to be finalised), and the first art orders are starting to roll in. I have also received the first versions of the poster maps (note plural) by Rob Conley, and I must say they are beautiful examples of gaming cartography. These will be maps to both use at the table and marvel at! (And I hope you will agree on this point when you see them.) The current plan for Xyntillan is a 112-page full-sized hardcover, roughly the size of the 1st edition Monster Manual, with four separate map sheets on durable paper. I am shooting for Christmas, and we will see if we get there on time. With a project that has been in progress in one form or another since 2006, you start to accept small delays in the hope the end result will make up for it.

And speaking of delays, Echoes #06 is obviously going to be late. It looks like a mid-September release (which is still fairly realistic), and I hope it will be worth the wait, too. Issue #06 will feature some of the materials which have provided the zine’s raison d'être, the stuff I really wanted to see in print. We will be visiting the City of Vultures!



Wednesday, 10 July 2019

[STUFF] Further Adventures in Morthimion – LEVEL 2

Around the corner, you see...

[Players wishing to adventure in Castle Morthimion: STAY AWAY!]

From the beginning, Castle Morthimion has been intended as a “filler” dungeon we could turn to when I was too busy to prepare for our regular games, or when we didn’t have a sufficient player turnout for campaign play. The great thing about OD&D is that you can play it on and off in gaps of time – for example, on a train.

Which reminds me, last weekend I was happy to welcome Santiago Oría (known on various forums as Zulgyan) in Hungary, and in between showing him the sights, and arranging a larger game in the City of Vulture with the gang, we had a three-hour train ride which we spent playing OD&D. You can play a pretty functional pickup game of OD&D in that fixed time period, and there was even time for a second expedition.

Monday, 8 July 2019

[BLOG] The Sinister Secret of THAC0


It is called ADVANCED Dungeons & Dragons, meme lady!
Of all things AD&D, THAC0 may have the most undeserved bad reputation. You will find people going to war for the honour of the weapon vs. AC table, weapon speed factors (I personally like them), level limits (damn right!) and grappling, but THAC0’s treatment is at best apologetic. Neither the TRV old-schoolers nor the new kids like it much, while both sides find it a convenient target to point and laugh at. Convoluted, counter-intuitive, a chore, “high math” – it has all been said before. 

In fact, THAC0 is significantly easier and more elegant than it looks. This post, then, is written in the interest of public information – clearing the record and venturing a guess why THAC0’s status has suffered undeservedly. (Similar points have been made in the past, but sometimes, repeating something can be useful. Surely, people are still stubbornly wrong about THAC0’s merits!)

The simple elegance of the THAC0 mechanic is easy to grasp. Here is how THAC0-based combat works:
  1. Take your THAC0 value.
  2. Roll 1d20 for your attack and subtract it from your THAC0.
  3. The resulting value is the AC you hit.

That’s it. Now you can do THAC0!

For example, your THAC0 is 20. You roll 10. 20-10=10. You hit AC 10.
Or your THAC0 is 14. You roll 17. 14-17=-3. You hit AC -3.
In the most complicated case you may face, your THAC0 is 14 but the GM grants you a 2 to hit bonus for attacking from higher ground. You roll 12 and apply the modifier, making 14. 14-14=0. You hit AC 0.

THAC0 in the Nobody Cares
About Rath Edition
Hardly rocket science. But if it is so simple, what has made THAC0 the red-headed stepchild of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons® mechanics? The answer is depressingly simple: the THAC0 I described is not the THAC0 AD&D has actually tried to sell us. Here is the rule from the 2e Player’s Handbook (full text in image to the right):
  1. Take your THAC0 value.
  2. Subtract the target’s AC value.
  3. Roll 1d20 and beat the resulting value.

To make THAC0 work with this method, you need to know your opponent’s AC – an information which is kept by the GM, and (often rightfully) hidden from the players until combat develops. In comparison, the first method keeps GM information in the GM’s hands, and preserves some of the “fog of war” of the game (of course, the players will eventually figure out how well their opponents are fighting, which is a fine learning process).

The second approach, while it uses the same number, removes both some of the speed and some of the convenience of the mechanic. It does not grant a clear benefit over combat matrices (we will not go into esoterica like “repeating 20s” this time). However, it is clearly inferior to the first take, which is a smooth subtraction-based mechanic, and it is easy to cite 3rd edition’s Base Attack Bonus + 1d20 vs. AC method as an improvement. What makes the case of THAC0 more curious is how many of the explanations start from the second variety, and how few people seem to even know of the first. It is not entirely obscure – you can find it in these posts Mixed Signals and THAC0 Dragon (but then someone with that handle would probably know his THAC0) – but it is not the common knowledge it should be.

Patient Zero
The ultimate reason may be simple inertia. You can learn about THAC0’s history from this post by Jon Peterson (including valuable comments by Lawrence Schick, who had proposed, but failed to get an ascending AC system implemented), and he posts the rule as it had first appeared in a 1978 copy of Alarums & Excursions. The implementation is clearly the same as the 2e version; however, here the GM is supposed to calculate and keep a record of character THAC0s. This makes much more sense by separating player and GM knowledge, but it does offload extra work on the GM. Interestingly, a 2017 post on Hexcellency outlines a card-based method that seems to reinvent this practice! In any case, you can draw a straight line right from the A&E piece to the 2e rulebooks – THAC0 had remained remarkably stable despite the (theoretical) existence of a more efficient algorithm for its use.

Monster cards

So that is the sad tale of THAC0, which had never lived up to its real potential, and has mostly been replaced either by ascending AC systems or a return to combat tables. It is one method of combat among many – just make sure to stick with the first version if you are actually using it.

Now it makes complete sense


Sunday, 30 June 2019

[REVIEW] Bitterroot Briar


Bitterroot Briar (2013)
by Lang Waters
Published by Expeditious Retreat Press
2nd to 4th level

Bitterroot Briar
Enchanted forests may be the number one staple of fantasy literature (probably going back to our caveman ancestors’ fireside tales), yet good forest adventures are hard to come by – which is why I tend to seek them out with particular interest. Bitterroot Briar is one of these modules: it revolves around an elusive enchanted grove surrounded by a ring of impenetrable briars, and hiding a series of lost mysteries.

Unfortunately, this scenario feels bloated at only 10 pages (not counting the cover and the OGL). It spends a paragraph where a good sentence would suffice. An overwrought backstory is followed by the description of an uninteresting village community. There is an area map which has no function whatsoever: the wilderness it depicts is represented by a random encounter chart, while the main adventure location’s position is entirely subjective. No other areas are described, or even located on this map. It is a mystery. Getting to the briar has no rhyme or reason to it. It is not at a specific location, so you can’t look for it; and there is no transparent means of getting there. It is mostly built on a random encounter chart and GM fiat.

Some things probably wouldn’t work so well at the table either. There is a one-column “Lore” section in the appendix with a childrens’s song containing important clues for the inside of the grove, but I know no GM who would break into a song during a game session, and thanks God for that. No, we didn’t sing those Dragonlance love poems either. This is not the best means of giving the characters a hint.

Map to Nowhere
The grove itself is an interesting concept: an anomaly of time and space, where visitors are shrunk to minimal size, and time passes out of synch with the normal world. As a neat touch, some of the grove’s inhabitants are transformed humans who were trapped here a time ago, and are now living as insects and other small animals while still acting according to their original personalities. The former good guys are bees and the former bad guys are ants, while the main antagonist is, of course, a snake. The seeds of an interesting adventure are there. Sadly, the actual location key does not actually do much with this material. Some entries are, again, a complete mystery:
“B. DEAD TREE: This tree has already been looted.”
“5. ORDINARY TREE: There is nothing of interest about this tree.”
“9–11. ORDINARY TREES: These trees have nothing unusual about them.”
Eight of the 26 keyed areas have nothing of interest to them. Eight more are lazily placed treasure drops:
 “F. DEAD TREE: An empty iron flask lies in the tangled roots of this dead tree, about a foot below the surface.” (Note unobtainable treasure.)
“G. DEAD TREE: A sword +1 dangles from some wines in the mid-branchs [sic] of this suicide.” (???)

You get the idea. There is, simply, a lot of padding, and because of the padding, even things which would be otherwise okay feel like more padding. The module has four different random encounter charts (one for the surrounding woodlands, one for the grove, one for the pools and one for a mini-dungeon found in a fallen oak). You would never notice, or even consider it a feature if the module had an abundance of useful content. But this is a module which takes its sweet time on these side issues, and leaves us hanging when it comes to the actual worthwhile content.

There is some potential there: conflict between the miniature denizens of the grove, the return of old history, treachery in the village that is linked to the grove, some interesting faerie animal characters – all of these could be incorporated into a fun, whimsical module, and it wouldn’t have to be longer than the present work. However, it never becomes a cohesive whole. Worse, once you strip out the chaff, not much of a location that could be used on its own. Some encounters are actually rather imaginative or at least moody, but this is a module where the whole is not more than the sum of its parts. Bitterroot Briar is frustrating because you see flashes of unrealised potential, but no easy way to set things right. Unfortunately, something elusive seems to have been lost in the writing here.

No playtesters are credited in this adventure.

Rating: ** / *****

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

[REVIEW] Magical Murder Mansion

Magical Murder Mansion

Magical Murder Mansion (2019)
by Skerples
Self-published
Mid-level

Before you stands a bizarre creation: a funhouse dungeon that tries to make sense. It is a neatly engineered mishmash, an IKEA nightmare that would pass an EU inspection. You see, the killer cucumbers are all according to directive, and the death ray room will kill you in a fair way. Do not run. You will, in fact, have fun. Welcome to Magical Murder Mansion.

In this module, the characters will explore the haunted house of a crazy wizard who has apparently shuffled off this mortal coil, but not before turning his mansion into a funny deathtrap where adventurers will love to die. Indeed, it will be Hubert Nibsley – and the GM – who will have the last laugh! Where early funhouse dungeons were created through a stream-of-consciousness loose association approach (magical herbs optional), this is a studied recreation of this dungeon subgenre. Tegel Manor, White Plume Mountain and The Tomb of Horrors are cited in the introduction, which lays out the design goals of the module in a clear and transparent fashion. It is deadly, it is full of bizarre stuff, and it is somewhat adversarial, but it is not capricious – a real “thinking man’s dungeon” that plays fair and allows for a lot of open-ended problem solving. Of course, it is also a lesson in the ultimate funhouse design – that poking hornets’ nests is a lot of fun.

Magical Murder Mansion is admirably large and complex by modern standards. It describes a multi-level mansion and its 90 keyed areas – and takes only 15 pages to do so with inset maps and a few illustrations, before dedicating the other half of the module to new monsters and other supplementary materials. The entries represent a good compromise between scope and detail. There is establishing flavour (“Tawdry abstract red and orange wall hangings, badly chewed or motheaten”), and GM information presented in a clear, succinct way tailored for table use (“Small water basin full of light pink oil of slipperiness: makes everything it touches frictionless for 10 minutes”).

Most encounters are things to mess with, traps, or puzzles which are reasonably open-ended and typically depend on observation and a little lateral thinking, which usually represents 40-50% of the mythical “player skill”. The author set out to write a module where even failures make sense in hindsight (“Yup, we did walk into this one”), and has stuck to this vision. The action is mostly non-linear (although there is one gated “collect these four objects” puzzle that’s essential), and after the players go through a few encounters, they’ll invariably start to think up crazy schemes to turn the deathtraps and monsters into an asset to combat other deathtraps and monsters. This kind of emergent complexity is nice to see in a published product.

Vegetables Gone Bad

This is not a module for people who like deep immersion, or care for some kind of pseudo-historical veneer over their games. The mansion is completely anachronistic even in D&D’s obviously ahistorical assumed setting (which, ironically, would not have been out of place at a late 1970s game table). It is also filled with gonzo monsters like laser rats, the cool-as-ice wrestling angel, and the veggie-mites, a tribe of animated vegetables. It is all silly, but the monsters are functional, and two (the module’s take on tooth fairies and the mole dragon) are original and quite creepy. It did lack a certain whimsical sense of wonder that’s present in Tegel Manor and White Plume Mountain, which also pitch seriousness out the window, but somehow do better at building an environment that feels magical (the whole "dungeon as mythic underworld" concept). This is, again, a rationalist’s take on these old hallucinatory visions.

It would be unfair to omit the module’s dedication to usability. Dungeon sections are mostly presented on facing pages, one of which displays a partial map of the specific mansion section. The map itself is easy to read, and there is a blank players’ version that could be printed on a larger sheet of paper (something that comes from Tegel). Handy cross-references point to the material you will need. Creature stats are not included in the main module text, but at least they are simple to find in the appendix – along with more useful stuff, like tables for magical accidents and enchanted pools. There is also abundant explanatory text and GM advice about running the module and getting the most out of it.

As mentioned above, Magical Murder Mansion is a sleek, highly polished take on the funhouse dungeon concept. Everything is in its right place, and it is actually quite sensible as some powerful madman’s final prank on the world. Maybe it is just a bit too orderly – it lacks some of the drive and baroque flourishes of the modules it was inspired by, like the Green Devil Face or the Gazebo with a killer vine which has -8 AC and 50 hit points. So what you get is more Scooby Doo than a bizarre Fleischer Brothers cartoon caught on late night TV – which is a criticism only if you were expecting the latter. As a beer-and-pretzels that doesn’t take itself too seriously, it is very well done.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: **** / *****