Thursday 22 September 2016

[BLOG] Expedition to the ruins of my first adventure module

This is kind of special. The Ruined City was not the first adventure I ever tried to write, but coming after a series of half-baked attempts, it was the first coherent one that survived from my first AD&D campaign. Before, there were the beginnings of a sewer system under a ruined desert city (populated by swamp monsters because we had no money to buy the actual Monstrous Compendium, but had an issue of a game magazine which had swamp monsters in it); an attempt at recreating my favourite gamebook, Deathtrap Dungeon (all I remember was the players killing each others’ characters to avoid having to share the prize money); and something about a giant mountain-sized bird used to scare the party into a railroaded adventure. The Ruined City, though, was the rare adventure I actually wrote down in detail, and managed to preserve in a paper folder. Looking back, it is fascinating, dysfunctional, sometimes surprisingly clever, and occasionally fucked up. Let’s delve into it.

The Ruins
The year was 1993 and RPGs were right before the point where they’d briefly become very popular, then crash back into reality. But before the publication of M.A.G.U.S., which would become Hungary’s most popular RPG (and as it’d turn out, the only one of note), everyone was still playing 2nd edition AD&D, very often taking the form of a photocopied mess of unofficial translations and bolted-on extras. Now, 2nd edition never properly taught DMs how to actually design an adventure in a step-by-step way; which meant most of us picked up the absolute basics by playing in others’ games first, studying the one or two available modules we could lay our hands on, then a lot of trial and error. These are the roots The Ruined City comes from.

It is a bold vision: a nameless Roman-style city buried underground by some immense catastrophe (shades of Pompeii), found in a vast lightless cavern, its remaining sections standing on massive stone outcroppings above a bottomless (1700 m) abyss like so many islands of an archipelago, slowly crumbling away into nothingness. The two maps I still have were originally intended to represent only part of the full city, but the attention span of a 13-years-old Dungeon Master made sure they were never completed beyond these two, and the beginnings of a giant palace in section three (now doubly lost).

This is more archaeological expedition than action adventure. There are a lot of mundane details about the city, its inhabitants and the catastrophe that had wrecked it. There are interconnected clues which hint at more information, or which reveal mini-stories. There are minor treasure objects – I was notoriously, even obsessively tight-fisted with loot and magic items, even more so than the other people in town who had DMed. (The trick was to bring characters from other campaigns into mine, and gain an unfair advantage over other players, because it never occurred to me to confiscate the powerful stuff they had “earned” elsewhere.) Much of the detail is, regrettably, superficial: it is not something that can be interacted with much, and much of it isn’t very adventurous, unless you are into archaeology.

Still, there are some inventive details. There are some decent navigation-based challenges, even if many of them don’t lead anywhere special. Crumbling ledges, rope bridges, investigating a skeletal arm hanging over an abyss. There is a secret room full of gold bars in the courthouse, and a magic item that comes with a notable trade-off (the inability to lie exposes the character to significant risks in a murderhobo game, which ours definitely was). And there is, well, that statue in the temple, one of the most 14-years-old encounters you can imagine. Believe it or not, Riana became one of the PCs’ in-game girlfriend, and later died at the hands of their main nemesis, the evil wizard Malvent.

Fallen Glory
The piece d' resistance of the adventure is undoubtedly the arena on the second map sheet, an extravaganza featuring a never-ending horse race with cursed skeletal champions; the sinister scorekeeper; and multiple ways to become involved. This is a set-piece encounter I’d still be proud of creating today, and it justifies all the effort put into drawing a good arena with a compass and ruler.

If the exploration in The Ruined City is interesting but less rewarding than expected, and the rewards are relatively meagre, then most of the anaemic combat encounters betray a weak understanding of the rules. The 2nd edition rulebooks didn’t put much emphasis on using large mobs of monsters to soften up the party, nor explaining the relevance of damage output. Hence, the special skeletons which are talked up by the descriptions in the location key are actually all complete pushovers, since they either have no Hp to pose a threat to a group of adventurers, don’t do shit when it comes to damage, or both. At least the challenges get progressively stronger as you go deeper into the ruins. Which brings us to the adventure’s conclusion (not featured in the included scan).

If you notice, the skeleton-skeleton-stronger skeletons-even stronger skeletons theme is central to the adventure. The end of this would be the lich living in the ruined palace in section IV, with the understanding that the party would avoid him, and go on a few adventures right under his nose without disturbing his rest. It was not meant to be. After exploring the first section, and solving the arena encounter in the second, the characters headed right for the half-written palace ruins they’d spotted beyond the rope bridge. I tried a last ditch trick to get them to go elsewhere, making them encounter the lich on the bridge, and giving them a stern warning to scare them off. This is how it went:
“After its admonition, the hooded figure looks at you with its burning pinpoint eyes.”
“I attack him!”
“I attack him!”
“I cast magic missile to teach him a lesson!”
“He takes the damage. Next round, he wins initiative and casts lightning bolt for 10d6 damage.”
“...I surrender! I promise to serve him faithfully if he will just spare my life!”

This was completely out of left field, but an opportunity no sensible DM could miss (the alternative was killing off the entire company there and then - and I was a big softy). In a move that’d establish the tone of a long campaign that went up to level 14, the characters swore an oath to serve Eumer the lich, gaining an important, if distant patron for the rest of their adventuring careers. Those who had entered The Ruined City as its prospective plunderers, emerged changed as its agents in the word of the living.

Thursday 15 September 2016

[BLOG] Let me use Huberic of Haghill

Accidental genius or random content mill? Opinions vary about Judges Guild, but there is a truth to both descriptions. Here was a pioneer in its field with enormous output, sometimes with much better contents than the cover, and sometimes... yeah, sometimes the cover, with gloriously garish 70s commercial art, was the best part of the deal. Beyond all the hit or miss stuff, the real fascination with JG’s game materials comes from two main creators; Paul Jaquays with his developed swords&sorcery sensibilities, and Bob Bledsaw’s visionary work in establishing the concept of the game supplement, and running with the idea to blaze a trail from giant city states to enormous hex-mapped worlds, sprawling haunted houses and a few more odd bits and pieces.

Installment-era production values
This is not as straightforward as it seems. Much like the idea of role-playing games seems obvious to anyone after two or three minutes of explanation, adventure modules and setting materials also make perfect sense in hindsight. But when it comes to establishing the formula, going in with no precedent, guessing what gaming groups actually want in terms of support material, then creating products to those specifications and distilling game ideas into structured information: that takes some thinking (it may or may not be relevant that Bob Bledsaw came from an engineering design background).

Early Judges Guild, in the period when it was a subscription service for monthly instalments of semi-random game content, shows well the development of the game supplement idea. The instalments, which were later assembled into larger-scale products, had a slapdash approach to cranking out cool stuff, consisting of:
  • high value-added maps with a lot of complexity and (relatively) very good production values;
  • optional rules filling in D&D’s gaps at a time when there was more of those than an actual fully realised game, clarifying and expanding on things like wishes, geas and quest spells, negotiation, using ability scores to attempt extraordinary deeds (in a much superior ways than TSR’s solution), and so on;
  • game procedures which extended the scope of tabletop simulation to new dimensions (such as mining for precious minerals, trade, running a small barony, being sued at a court of law, buying and selling slaves, picking up hot women in a sinful city state, and so on);
  • and attempts at prewritten adventures.

(Tellingly, there are very few, if any new monsters and magic items, and no supplements dedicated to this purpose: those needs were already being met by TSR’s D&D supplements.)

It is interesting that with the modular, open game framework of early D&D, Judges Guild’s installments approach the concept of presenting a readymade adventure from so many different angles, and essentially come up with multiple solutions to the same dilemma in the scope of only a few instalments:
  • Dungeon adventures presented in the standard “map and key” format. This method was inherited from TSR, with a few differences: none of these dungeons were fully described until Tegel Manor (The Sunstone Caverns discusses the dungeon level’s powerful monsters and factions), but they incorporated a lot more information into the maps themselves than TSR – and in fact later JG – ever would.
  • City adventures based on a map and key foundation, but supplemented with a system of bolted-on charts and guidelines which turn exploring the city into a very chaotic experience (City State of the Invincible Overlord, Modron).
  • Wilderness adventures presented in the form of hex crawls and supplemented with opportunities for strategic play. This is something that also came from TSR and its wargaming influences, but it was only really developed by JG, turning the wilderness expedition into a set of very easily understandable procedures (Wilderlands of High Fantasy).
  • Attempts at procedurally generated adventures (Frontier Forts of Kelnore and the later Village/Castle/Island/Temple Book series).
  • And last but not least, location-based setting modules.

It is this last group – site-based sandbox components – that gets the least amount of attention in old school circles, and which I am looking at now. All this because I want to use Huberic of Haghill.

Haghill and environs 
In the shadow of the more massive JG products, the City State, the Wilderlands and Tegel Manor, there are these small, scattered bits that are intended to be fit into a game, but are neither fully adventures, nor fully world background. Thunderhold and Huberic of Haghill don’t work cleanly as histories or cultural background (as Tolkien’s appendices or EPT’s world information do), but neither do they have a precise “algorithm” to translate them into game procedures. They don’t have a clear or even strongly implied purpose: you are on your own, and you have to figure out how to get gameplay out of them – which is precisely how sandbox games work.

Both of these modules have a brief background outlining a bit of history and notes on who rules the place, a roster of local NPCs, one-line legends and rumours, a roster of shops and taverns, and a hex map (Thunderhold also has the Sunstone Caverns, but that is arguably a different module). In Huberic’s case, it all takes up one very compact page, and it is a thing of beauty.

The man, the myth, the legend
Half this module’s real charm comes from Huberic of Haghill himself, a larger-than-life character who sets the tone for his little corner of the world. Huberic is the kind of guy adventurers dream of becoming after retirement: a fat, hedonistic asshole who enjoys good food and crude jokes and lives on top of his own dungeon. We learn that he has moved into The Tower of Torpid Terror despite the local legends; that he essentially has prudently sealed off the entrances; that “he is especially fond of banquets and uses every opportunity to increase his grisly girth”. He gives gold rings to his favourites and frightens animals and peasants with his 20’ whip. Huberic of Haghill is the kind of person I want to be when I grow up.

The NPCs in Haghill are as random and fantastic as anything made by Judges Guild; including Slaughter Serkart, a 4th level Fighter with a crested helm, a huge moustache and a pair of magic boots; Cobbler Codfall, who likes to badmouth Huberic and is friends with a shedu; and Boomer Bronk, the village’s priest... who is a follower of Yezud the Lawful Evil spider god, and has 6 pet spiders. What is Yezud doing in a podunk village out there in the hills? It is all so delightfully oddball that it is hard not to say “Yes, in fact, he is there because...” Just to get you going, there are seven legends to follow, such as “a vampire tree with golden apples” and “a sea-shore inhabited by murderous moles”. And of course, we get another page with a map of Haghill’s environs, which tantalizingly shows us three cave mouths that were never even mentioned in the text, and lead to the Singing Caverns, whatever they are.

Huberic of Haghill shows both the mini-module concept’s fascination and its limitations. It is interesting due to the things it reveals, but it becomes a mystery due to the things it doesn’t. It remains the GM’ (sorry, Judge’s) task to make sense of Haghill, and develop its leads into genuine connections. And it leaves you hanging with The Tower of Torpid Terror, whose dungeons are never mapped, let alone described, not even in manner of the Sunstone Caverns. The potential main attraction of Huberic of Haghill is mentioned in an off-hand way, then promptly ignored. Let me put it this way: you would never, ever get away with that kind of thing today. And yet, it is perhaps this absence at the heart of Huberic that makes the imagination tick.  What lies below the tower? Installment K doesn’t tell, and neither do followup JG products. In fact, the strangeness of the early, Installment-era Judges Guild gradually gave way to more polished supplements as gaming became more polished and less scattershot (I was surprised to learn there are almost three years between Installment I and Installment Y). The puzzle will always remain incomplete, and perhaps that is the way it was always meant to be.

But Huberic of Haghill shall rise again, because after much neglect, it has found a place in my heart, and it will definitely find a place in my upcoming campaign about adventurous lowlifes and conniving fat bastards ruling hilariously small fiefdoms as petty autocrats. Torpid Terror beware – here we come!

Sunday 11 September 2016

[STUFF] The Smugglers of Cliff Point

Tricorne hats not included
Some of the sand that goes into the sandbox: a seaside lair inhabited by a band of smugglers. It is a typical example of what a smaller adventure location in a sandbox setting would look like. It is functional, although a bit on the generic side. The things that really make such mini-scenarios interesting is how they connect to other parts of the sandbox setting, and how it is the brief description of both a place and an organisation. We learn that the smugglers are involved in all kinds of robbery and illicit trade, and have unspecified links to Lady Ivlan’s assassins. We get acquainted with their leader, who seems to use disguises to move about the seaside towns. The smugglers may be keeping interesting prisoners. The characters may decide to join their ranks, or slip in quietly to steal some valuable item. If they survive their first encounter with the player characters, the smugglers may return again and again over the campaign, helping the characters get around unseen, or they may try to make their lives a living hell. All in all, this is not a cliff: it is a jumping off point.

Tuesday 6 September 2016

[BLOG] The dirt cheap sandbox

Sometimes a good idea is so simple that people can’t help but overcomplicate it. Usually, it goes like this. Some people discover (or rediscover) something and find it is good. Other people also like it, and add their own individual spin on it. A third group of people arrives much later, seeing an esoteric and impenetrable mess of contradictory ideas. It does not have to be that way. A simple sandbox campaign is very easy to make.

No matter how much we talk about it, deep down, a sandbox game is just a campaign where the players have a high degree of freedom in influencing the course of events. This freedom is built upwards from the level of individual decisions (“Do we follow the Jarl’s orders or do we betray his plan to the Assassin’s Guild?”) through adventures (“We would like to join the Assassin’s Guild. I bet they pay better. Let’s try to get into their good graces by doing this mission.”) to having a decisive influence over the tone, contents and directions of the campaign (“We would like to set ourselves up as the new lords of Orthil and its mining operations. Maybe we can get our hands on the neighbouring lands too. Let the Jarl and the Assassin’s Guild come after us if they dare!”). A sandbox game means letting loose a bunch of players in the game world to wreck it (or get wrecked by it) at their leisure.

The Salt Pits
By following the three pillars of the sandbox, choices, context and consequences, the campaign grows through interaction. The more the players engage with it, the more depth, details and connections they can uncover. If the party keeps working against the Jarl and the Assassin’s Guild, they will discover their web of influences through the peninsula. If they don’t engage with this element, it remains in the background, in rough detail. The guild is still there, lurking in the shadows, but we need not know about the mysterious lady running it, nor where and how they ply their trade. The Jarl is a name you hear invoked often, but all the characters will interact with will be his soldiers and officials.

Ultimately, it is really about letting it go. If the players discard one plotline, come up with another. If they befriend an NPC meant for slaughter, use that NPC for that purpose. If they find the cards turning against them, let them find a way out on their own and back out of the adventure. Avoiding over-preparation is important, but even if you have invested that effort into detailing a bandits’ hideout, the work you did will come in handy later in another context (or maybe another campaign).

Some of the most entertaining games I have been involved in were about the GM and the players throwing ideas back and forth, and letting them turn into a complex, interrelated mini-setting: most of this complexity came step by step through exploration and interaction, and some through regular game procedures (such as 1st edition AD&D’s robust and dangerous wilderness encounter charts, or simple guidelines for running out of supplies while exploring the wilderness).

The actual recipe for constructing a working sandbox is dead simple, and doesn’t even take more effort than writing one or two beginning adventures. If I were to build a new dirt cheap sandbox, I’d focus on the following ingredients:
  • An overland map detailing the mini-setting where the action takes place, with a lot of geographic variety, natural barriers and more/less convenient routes through the wilderness to encourage interesting in-game choices.
  • A few rival power centres, from small city states to villages and strongholds, described in a few handwritten pages each with a focus on how to get into trouble or go on adventures.
  • A few straightforward adventure locations; maybe two or three small dungeons and a bunch of smaller ruins and lairs scattered on the map. Have a bunch of one-page dungeons that fit your tastes? This is one good opportunity to use them.
  • A few organisations who can get involved – religious sects, mercantile guilds, even a rival adventuring party or two.
  • Rumours to guide the action and give the players ideas, as well as a few larger-scale legends which can become central mysteries, to be uncovered gradually.
  • Your favourite game procedures and optional rules to make adventuring in your setting a constant challenge.

That’s it. It seems daunting, but it doesn’t have to be written all at once – it just has to be written a bit differently than many people are used to. Some of the things I have learned about running more and less successful sandbox campaigns highlight these differences.
  • First, sandboxes benefit from having a bunch of smaller, modular scenarios instead of a single large one. Sure, a tentpole dungeon or a central city state can come in handy, but the campaign framework relies on variety above everything else.
  • Second, while adventures are often written with strong implications about the way to use them (which is fine in an episodic game), sandbox gaming is at its best when there are several ways a party of adventurers can come in contact with one of its components. A Viking village can be a place to rest and resupply, a place to pawn off a shipload of ill-gotten loot, a place to get into trouble at the longhouse, or a place to infiltrate on a stealth mission.
  • This feeds into the third point: reusability. When campaign elements return again and again, it builds continuity and opens up new ways of looking at and dealing with things. You don’t just fight a group of armed men: you fight the Jarl’s henchmen, who have been on your trail ever since you freed those slaves. As things interact with the characters and each other, the whole sandbox grows.
  • Although continuity and connectivity are also important in other campaign structures (such as the journey or quest), they come to life in a bounded setting – one limited by geography, the players’ interest (meeting lots of demons in a demon hunting campaign), or any other factor.
  • Six, even relatively simple ideas can create odd combinations. Much of the value of the sandbox lies in the space between individual setting elements, and what grows in those gaps. Closeness creates links, and links hint at interaction. The villagers living next to the giant ant hill likely want to have them driven out. The 5th level Fighter and his retinue occupying the tower in the forest may have designs to rule the village, and they may be intrigued by the ruins of the overgrown amphitheatre nearby.
  • Seven, travel is an important part of the experience. Travel helps tie things together, helps to establish proximity and distance, and the game procedures you use for travel add to the content. I’d be using the campaign hexagon system, although pointcrawls and other approaches can work well.

An oddly familiar landscape
There are both advantages and disadvantages to going into detail when it comes to places, people, organisations, etc., but at the beginning, having most things at the level of broad strokes makes most sense. It is always possible to expand on an idea later – but it is useful to have that idea there in the first place to allow it to connect to other ideas and grow. Looping things back to existing sandbox components creates cohesion and generates new adventure opportunities like nothing else.

With some time, it is not hard to generate a small folder’s worth of modular bits to use in your sandbox. Writing one or two small scenarios or locations per session, and a larger one every so often will do the trick. In one of our sandbox campaigns, set in Judges Guild’s Wilderlands of High Fantasy, my campaign materials looked like this:
  • Slaughter in the Salt Pits: A village and its salt mines, ruled by an evil Cleric and his minions. One of the central places; the players ended up taking it over in a bloody uprising.
  • Wolfstone: A rival mining village, ruled by lawful fire-worshippers and home to a wizardess and a trading post where many interesting items would turn up.
  • Armagh: Viking village, two pages.
  • Caravans: A description of a few major merchant caravans encountered on the peninsula.
  • Taxes and Death: When you conquer a small village, the random encounters come to you. Guidelines for that sort of thing.
  • Strabonus: The resting place of an antique warlord, now inhabited by raiding gnolls. A dungeon that became prominent later in the campaign.
  • Attack of the Plant Monsters: A swamp-filled valley containing monster lairs – the kind of place to set the objectives of a small mission.
  • Gnollwatch: A few pages about a keep dedicated to driving the gnolls out of the peninsula, mostly turned to brigandry (barely detailed).
  • The Smugglers of Cliff Point: Hidden caverns ruled by a band of smugglers.
  • Prince Rafazin, the Lord of the Griffins: Mountain aerie of a prince who would go raiding with his pack of trained griffins.
  • Zarthstone: A small town dominated by the cult of Pallas Athene and a fair dedicated to her name, but possessing a seedy underbelly. Multiple mini-adventures involving thieves.
  • The Castle of Odo Ragnarök: Castle inhabited by vampire lord served by a bunch of corrupted crusaders (barely detailed).
  • The Temple of Odin: Site of a badly failed assassination mission (barely detailed).
  • Underwater: A town swallowed by a lake (never detailed beyond concept phase).
  • Taman Hal, the Invisible Tyrant: A major legend about an opulent undersea pleasure palace / tomb (concept and rumours only).

That looks like a lot of stuff and a lot of work, but in truth, it reflects only the endpoint of a campaign arc. By the time the sandbox grew to its full size, it had fairly well developed political conflicts, local history, legends, recurring characters and even a sense of coherence (despite the Wilderlands’ tendency of gleefully throwing together Greeks, Vikings, Horse nomads, Tolkien, and a lot of even stranger things in an eclectic mess). Just like Rome, it was not built in a day, neither did it emerge fully formed from my head: at any given time, the materials in my hand were usually “just enough” to escape forward before the players would catch up and unmask me for a fraud who doesn’t know what is at the end of that back alley. Some of the notes were detailed after the sessions where the players encountered them, and more stuff remained in the form of very rough concepts that never got developed because the players didn’t encounter them. It is all a bit of a mess that barely fits together, and was mostly written in a hurry, or on the long train rides between my two homes. It is a bunch of disparate elements thrown together. When I say “dirt cheap”, I mean it.

Once upon a time, around 2006, I thought about turning my sandbox into a full-fledged supplement (Blackmarsh before there was a Blackmarsh), upgraded, enlarged and the serial numbers filed off. It never happened, except for the publication of some of the individual components through the years (it was not the first case either). I often wondered why – laziness? Moving on to other ideas that excited me more? Too many contradictions within the mini-setting I could no longer reconcile? All of these reasons had played a part. But I now realise it was something else.

The magic of that campaign was found in that hard to define dynamic quality which had linked otherwise fairly static and often generic elements, and assembled them into something much more than the sum of its parts. It was really about the way individual elements interacted and collided as the characters ploughed through them. It was about immediacy, unexpected things, and our mutual willingness to play around. And that’s why the supplement wasn’t, and will never be made. Perhaps there will be something else instead; something encouraging the collision of many different, seemingly incompatible ideas, a grab bag of mosaic pieces everyone can throw up into the air to create their own wild patterns. “Creativity aid, not creativity replacement.” Shake it up, repurpose for yourself, and don’t take it too seriously.