Oct 12, 2017

Considerations from Playtesting Feuerberg

I've been running a Feuerberg game since this summer (June or July, I can't remember) using Into the Depths, basically playtesting pieces of it and generating material as I go. It's a fun campaign and the players are great. That's also why I haven't been posting a ton about it, since I don't want to "spoil" anything before my PCs get to it. Playtesting always makes such an important difference to a final product when done properly, and I love doing it for my own games and for others'.

What's been discovered after four months of play

Here are some insights I've had about the Feuerberg setting while playtesting it. None of this will affect my current campaign, it'll come into play with the next iteration.

One Mountain, Not Two

Feuerberg really needs to be compressed down into one mountain instead of two, though with a number of sub-peaks and ridges on that mountain. I originally split it up into two mountains (the titular Feuerberg and its smaller cousin Himmelberg) so as to space out the content and emphasise the feeling of wandering around a wilderness as they travelled the mountain, but I think this detracts from the megadungeon feel and makes it more of a constrained overland sandbox. A good megadungeon needs its spaces and subsections to relate and interact with one another. The two mountains break that up and create two separate zones without clear relations.

Here's a crude sketch of what I think the new, consolidated, Feuerberg will look like:

Definitely not giving up my day job to become an artist

More generally, I need to consolidate locations across the playspace. No need for two weird forests when one forest with the interesting elements of both would do. I'm still thinking through the details of how to do this, but one idea is to curve the mountain and its sub-peaks slightly so that it has one large valley in front of it that includes the areas PCs start in, and two smaller valleys behind it, each of which can have a distinct theme and feel.

Make Overland Travel Harder / Make Dungeon Travel More Attractive

Ultimately, I want PCs to go into the dungeon underneath Feuerberg and use it to move around as much as they clamber over the surface. But I've set it up so that it's relatively easy to traverse the mountains (except for the death zones near the top) with lots of interesting sites to visit there, whereas the dungeons underneath the mountain are relatively unexplored and unknown. There are multiple things that I need to do differently, but one is to make overland travel a smaller and more challenging part of the game, to encourage the PCs to use the dungeon to move around.

Part of the dynamic of play should involve the ability to see interesting locations aboveground, but to require at least some underground exploration to get to them. This means more sheer, difficult to climb cliffs with interesting things at the top of them. Currently, such barriers do exist at some points, but I mainly left them higher up the mountain so as to funnel PCs towards certain areas of interest in the end-game. These should be closer to the bottom.

Make it Easier to Access the Most Interesting Locations


Feuerberg has a bunch of really interesting locations that I, as a world-builder, think are visually compelling and have set up as sub-zones with extensive exploration opportunities. I realise now tho', that I've stuck them somewhat out of the way. I was hoping to lure exploration towards them, giving PCs a reason to cross more of the overland wilderness, but I think it will actually work better to push at least a few of them closer to the PCs' home base. It'll clarify major entrances to the megadungeon and give clear options for progress.

To do this, as well as in light of the reduction to a single mountain, I'm going to move the location of the town of Hoch, which serves as the base town for the PCs, so that the PCs don't have to march across most of the map to reach the areas that I'm most interested in them exploring. I'm also going to match up a few initial quests to each of these sub-zones more clearly to provide reasons for PCs to go immediately towards them.

Other Changes

I think I'm going to tie some of the factions a little more cleanly into the history of Feuerberg, but I can't go into the details right now both because I'm still figuring it out, and because I don't want to spoil anything for my PCs. I think I'm also going to push some factions deeper into the dungeon, and pull some slightly more towards the surface or closer to the starting area so that the PCs can encounter them more easily. I'm sure as I playtest things further more improvements will be discovered.

Oct 1, 2017

Into the Depths Revisions After Playtesting

I haven't yet rewritten Into the Depths nor asked my dear pal Chris Huth to remake the one-page version, but I have been playtesting it a lot this year via my Feuerberg campaign. I've been collecting player feedback, and noting my own feelings about things, and here's what I'd change:

1) I'd increase saving throws to success on a 16+ instead of a 14+. This would make it harder to save, and make bonuses to your roll from gear and the like more important. It starts you off with a 25% chance of saving, instead of a 35% chance.

2) I'd pull the helping rules out into a separate section called "helping" since the "Turn your 1d6 roll into a 1d8 roll" rule seems to be the most commonly overlooked rule in the game, and its current placement under risky and dangerous actions make it appears like it only applies in those circumstances, as opposed to more generally..

3) Shift getting "Good Ats" to odd-numbered levels instead of even-numbered levels so that you get your bonuses spread more evenly across levels - improvements to your scores on even levels and Good Ats on odd ones. As it currently stands odd-numbered levels are comparatively dead, while all improvements happen on even levels.

4) I don't know that I'd use it in my online games where we tend to have more of a "pawn" style of play, but I'm strongly tempted to add a rule where when you camp, if you tell a unique story that relates to your character's backstory and describes them doing something interesting, you can become Good At that one thing for the rest of the adventure. Alternately, I might make this the effect of a boozy party item.

5) I should probably add some Bad At rules where you only roll a d4 instead of a d6, with each Bad At giving you another Good At.

Those are the main changes I've noticed and wanted to make, though if any readers out there have more, I'd be willing to take them under consideration.

Sep 22, 2017

The Necrocarcerus Alchemy Supplement

I wrote these alchemy rules for what is rapidly becoming the "never-to-be-finished" Necrocarcerus Rules version 3.0. Someone asked for a list of alchemy ingredients, and I realised I already had one written up, so I scraped the rules and the lists from that document and have uploaded it to Google Drive as a handsome PDF. As always, most of it is a series of bad in-jokes and allusions for which I apologise pre-emptively.

These rules represent a distillation and refinement of the procedures in Procedural Metapharmacology and Alchemy: The Junkie's Science, and can be supplemented with the procedures outlined in those posts as well as in my post Determining Magical Item Components (all of which are actually just more prolix variations on the advice "Use your random encounter table to determine what the PCs need"). Enjoy!

Sep 17, 2017

A Few Notes on Combat Styles in Mythras

Combat styles in the Mythras family are left with relatively undefined scopes in the rules as written. Individual referees are left to figure out how many combat styles their setting will have; how many (and which) weapons any given combat style encompasses; and which the special trait(s) each style will have. Having now designed about twenty different combat styles for several different settings with very different feels, I'd like to share some of my impressions.

As an initial qualification, I'd mention that Luther Arkwright, the one published science fiction setting, breaks from a bunch of what I'm saying below, though it arrives as a similar set of conclusions about how combat styles should work nonetheless. I'm also leaving aside "Monster Styles" since they can be created off the cuff without consequence.

The Observations


1) PCs will typically have between one and two combat styles right out the game, and the slow increase in skills in Mythras means that most will either stick with their original styles or pick up at most a third. I've never seen a PC with four or more combat styles, never even heard any one discuss the possibility as a realistic option for their character's development.

2) In my experience, the typical Mythras party has PCs all come from a shared cultural background, so you'll find that most of them share the same primary combat style. But, every other character in a typical party will have a career that allows them to access a second combat style (or in the case of Mythras Without Tears, will sacrifice a professional skill choice to gain access to a second combat style). Most of these PCs will want their second choice to be unique withing the party (unless one of the combat styles is particularly good). So when you're trying to judge how many combat styles you need for the party alone, use that as your baseline assumption.

3) Though they may not realise it at the start, most PCs will eventually want one of their two combat styles to have a fairly good ranged weapon (usually the short spear), at least one to let them use a shield, and at least one with the Mounted Combat trait (even if they don't need to invoke it all that often). The more they can layer these into a single style, the more desirable or necessary that style becomes.

NB: If you're a PC and you notice your enemies are using a combat style that has a trait other than Mounted Combat, try to get your enemies to jump onto their steeds (perhaps by fleeing on your own with them in hot pursuit) and then remind your referee about capping their combat styles with their Ride skill. You won't be popular, but you will be nigh-invulnerable to most stock enemies.

4) If there's a trait that rewards a bunch of PCs using the same combat style in tandem with one another (i.e. Shield Wall, or Formation Fighting) either everyone in the party will take it as their primary combat style or else it'll fail to reach the critical threshold of three PCs and be ignored / snubbed. If you're using careers, it's extremely unlikely that three PCs will get access to, and choose, the same secondary combat style through their careers, so you have to make it available at the Culture stage. In parties with multiple cultural backgrounds, don't expect people to take these combat styles.

5) The Mythras core has just under 60 weapons in it (counting shields), but most settings use a much smaller subset - I believe there's about 13 (counting shields) in Mythic Britain, and around 25 in Shores of Korantia's combat styles (with most of the variety in a small number styles that are less common). In the Dawnlands, I went for 12 - ten actual weapons, and two kinds of shields (I am considering adding another three of four, but haven't made up my mind).

A certain amount of doubling up on weapons between styles is good (since it allows a character not to have to carry a golf bag of swords), but you don't want too much overlap since that lowers people's willingness to take it as a second style without a further incentive. And that incentive might actually convince them to take the second style and ignore the first anyhow.

In practice, I find the ideal is about three weapons, especially if you're designing a lot of styles that count shields as one of those three. That lets PCs who take two combat styles use four offensive weapons, and at least one kind of shield, possibly two, without penalty. Three weapons also helps keep the style focused - with four weapons you tend to start asking yourself "What would the most common secondary sidearm for this person be?" a lot.

I also have a tendency to create a single combat style in a campaign that allows you to choose any two weapons you want. You gain in freedom of choice by losing that extra slot. This helps accommodate the folks who really, really, really want to wield a particular weapon that wouldn't otherwise be available.

6) There's a temptation that's indulged a lot to create near-identical combat styles differentiated by culture (usually with a slightly different sidearm or . Instead, I recommend picking the common types of soldier in your campaign setting, creating a combat style for each one, and then just reusing them across cultures to save time.

The Conclusions

Combat styles tend to work best when they have about three weapons per style. You should assume that at least every other character in a typical party is going to want a unique combat style. If you want a style that synergises when multiple characters have it, make it a cultural style rather than a specialty style you get access to through a career. Mounted Combat is an inobviously excellent and useful trait, so having it in a couple of styles is a good idea.

Aug 31, 2017

(Re)Introducing the Dawnlands

Over the nearly ten years (since 2008!) that I've been designing and running the Dawnlands, a lot has changed. I thought I'd take the opportunity to reintroduce the setting to new readers of my blog. It's shifted from a D&D 4e setting to an Openquest setting to one run by Mythras. And for folks who've been following it since the old RPGsite thread, a lot of names have changed, and many of the original D&Disms have been stripped out or altered significantly. Rather than make people dig through five year old blog posts, here's a brief introduction to where the Dawnlands is nowadays.

The Dawnlands is a psychedelic mythic fantasy setting built atop a layer of social realism and very loosely inspired by the historical khaganates of Western and Central Asia. Literary inspirations include Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars; the Secret History of the Mongols; Constantine Porphyrogenitus' De Administrando Imperio; Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road; Calvino's Invisible Cities; Borges' short stories and many others. The archetypal Dawnlands story is something like getting cursed for bringing a crappy gift to your cousin's wedding, and having to go take magic mushrooms so your ancestors can guide you to the lost grave of a cannibal-wizard guarded by creatures made of his solidified spite so you can steal the crown he's buried with and bring it back as a better wedding gift to get uncursed.

The Dawnlands is an area about the size of Oregon (about 250,000 square kilometres) with six main cultural groups and two cities, with an overall population of about 2.5 million sentient beings.

The main species are:

Habiru - Canine-headed men broken up into racial groups based on what type of dog. The Kartakalli coming from the north are Habiru (with white-furred wolf heads), but a jackal-headed and a grey-furred wolf type are both indigenous to the Dawnlands. Originally, these were hobgoblins, orcs, and gnolls.

Humanity - There are three main racial groups, the Kads, the Qurun, and the Weykulni. Neighbouring groups present as visitors include the Salt Men, the Men of Rhuap, the Goguriz, and the Men of the Three Towns. In the original version of the Dawnlands, Kads were humans, the Qurun were elves, and the Weykulni were orcs.

Urum - Scaly-skinned humanoids with weird eyes about a metre and a half high. There are several subvarieties, with the most important being the Nethom, a distinct phenotype who rule the southern city-state of Durona. Most Urum live in Durona, in the Orthocracy of Kaddish, or amongst the Forest Dreamers. In the original Dawnlands, the Urum were halflings, goblins, kobolds and the like. Nethom were originally dwarves.

Voidmen - A refugee population from the southern Kingdom of Falling Stars that rules alongside the Nethom in Durona. Dark-skinned with eyes that appear to be empty fields dotted with stars. They live much longer than anyone else (centuries).

The main cultural groups are:

Duronans (pop. 500,000) - A rich society of highly stratified castes with Nethom and Voidmen at the top as zamindars and thakars, and a vast ryot and slave population underneath them. They are busy establishing colonies throughout the south-west Dawnlands, and trying to stave off a slave rebellion. They worship those of their ancestors who have attained divinity and live amongst the stars. Durona was originally called "Dwer Tor" in earlier materials.

Forest Dreamers (pop. 200,000) - A recently-formed theocratic confederation located in the great western rainforest known as the "Forest of Dreams". They worship the Hivehome, the great insect-spirits of the dream world. They are trying to drive out the Duronan slavers. They are split into tribal factions aligned with different temples of the same cult.

Kartakalli (pop. 50,000) - Monotheistic Habiru invaders from the north who worship the god of winter. They toppled the Kingdom of Weykuln and are picking over its bones. The cruelest and most fanatical members of a much more sophisticated society. In the original Dawnlands these guys didn't have a name, so I eventually got around to giving them one.

Orthocracy of Kaddish (pop. 1.2 million) - Once High Kaddish, the paramount state of the Dawnlands, the Orthocracy is now merely its largest mess. An incredible font of magic, technology, culture, but with no real government, it staggers from crisis to crisis somehow managing to survive. Even the vilest gods are acceptable to worship in lawless Kaddish. It possesses the unique magic of "soulforging", which allows it to create new species and transform existing ones.

The Plains Nomads (pop. 150,000) - The king-makers of the Dawnlands, who roam the highland plains of the Dawnlands. There are two main confederations or khanates, each of which despises the others. The Hill People are the descendants of a ruined civilisation known as the Cities of Night, conquered by High Kaddish. The Kadiz were once the ruling landowners of High Kaddish until they were driven out in a revolution. Both groups worship the Storm Bulls and the Wolves of the Earth, ancient gods of the plains.

The Weykulni (pop. 400,000) - Once a proud state controlling the northern mountain passes into the Dawnlands. Now, a series of squabbling nobles slowly being picked off by the Kartakalli as they dispute who should be king. Peasants are fleeing the valley-refuges and great castles of the Weykulni magnates as their armies march against one another. The priesthood of the God of Gates are being hunted down by Kartakalli assassins. Much like the Kartakalli, these folks originally didn't have names, but I was referring to them enough via circumlocutions that I eventually just gave them one.

More to come some other time.

Aug 29, 2017

Mythras Without Tears II

I've been fiddling and experimenting with the character generation system for Mythras since writing this post, and here's what I've decided to use for skills in Dawnlands games. To me, this combines the ideal amount of customisation with speed and ease. I'm also including some passion house rules that make them easier to calculate (and slightly lower on average) than the stock rules.

Starting PCs pick seven standard skills, seven professional skills, and one combat style. They can swap out one professional skill choice to get a second combat style choice. They get 350 points, and can spend up to 45 points on any skill, adding 1% per point spent. They also add +40% to their Native Tongue and Customs skills.

Starting PCs also pick three passions. The first passion has an initial rating of POWx5, the second has an initial rating of POWx4, and the third's initial rating is POWx3. Skill points may also be spent increasing passions as if they were skills. PCs may also swap out one professional skill choice for a fourth passion, which has an initial rating of POWx5.

Art, Culture, Craft, Languages, Literacy, Lore, and Musicianship each have a number of specialties. Customs is the equivalent of Culture for a character's home culture, and Native Tongue is the equivalent of Languages for a character's home culture, but Customs and Native Tongue are distinguished by not having specialties. A character with these skills has a number of specialties equal to 1/5th the skill. Characters test their specialties at full. Outside their specialties, any tests with the skill are at least one grade harder.

One side effect of these passion rules is that most spellcasters are going to start off a little obsessive. I consider this a feature, not a bug.

Aug 15, 2017

Teamwork Rules for Mythras

I had always thought that the rules I'm about to outline were actually part of the core rules for Mythras, but it turns out that they weren't and I'd only imagined that they were (or else Loz and I couldn't find them when we glanced through the rules). I used these rules at Lozcon this weekend (Lawrence Whitaker's weekend roleplaying convention held annually at his home) and they were a hit. In hindsight, they're a simpler version of the teamwork rules I came up with for Openquest.

Whenever characters want to assist one another (i.e. they are all searching a room together; or two smiths working on the same project), they designate a lead. The lead is usually the group member with the highest skill. The lead is the character who will make the roll. The lead may have up to three assistants. Each assistant must have a score of at least 25% in the relevant skill. Each assistant reduces the difficulty grade of the roll by one. If the lead fails or fumbles, both the lead and the assistants suffer the consequences of failing.

This tends to simplify perception and sneaking rolls tremendously.