Jul 31, 2018

Managing a Living World Using Rumour Tables

In this post, I elaborate a method of using reaction rolls and rumour tables to generate a dynamic background to the world as PCs adventure through it. I've been told that I'm very good at creating the feeling of a "living world", and this is one of several techniques I use to do it.

The method is fairly simple: Take a rumour table with a bunch of rumours and roll on a reaction table for every rumour your PCs haven't followed up on. Use the result of the reaction roll to determine how the situation develops and update the rumour appropriately. Remember, some rumours should be false or misleading, and a hostile result should make them more so, not less.

e.g. Rumour: Blue lights and strange noises seen around abandoned Castle Windwell (true; a ghost is causing it)

Reaction Roll Result:

12: Julie the Amazing found and reconsecrated the ghost's body while the PCs were busy with something else. She's now got a ghost-blessing and is roaming around looking for more adventure.
9-11: The ghost has been quiet lately. A local shepherd snuck in to explore and saw a golden chalice, but got scared and ran off before he could grab it.
6-8: No change
3-5: The baron sent out some men-at-arms to investigate, but they never came back. (The ghost has killed them and reanimated them as zombies).
2: Julie the Amazing went out to deal with the ghost, but she came back possessed with ghost powers, and has been roaming around town causing trouble when people least expect it.

You just keep on doing this after each adventure. For extra "verisimilitude" recycle names and problems across each local area, so you get the sense of who the movers and shakers are in that area. If Julie the Amazing pops up in three different rumours each covering some of her recent exploits, you get the sense that she's an important person locally, both because of her deeds and the interest others show in them.

The nice thing about this method is that because of the bell curve, you'll have slow developments and changes over time that feel like a world in motion happening in the background of the PCs' adventures. This is a pretty simple technique, but that's it's advantage - it's fast and easy and doesn't require a ton of reflection to work.

Jul 28, 2018

Wiki for OSR Rules Variants

If you're in the OSR Discord channel, you've probably seen quite a few links to this recently, but I thought I would share it for those who aren't: Valzi / Michael Bacon is putting together a wiki for OSR house rules and variant rules. He's developed a standard submission format if you're interested in uploading your own. At the moment it's primarily Bacon's own material, interspersed with some of the better known works of Courtney Campbell, Skerples and Brendan S. and a handful of pieces by others.

Anyhow, I recommend people go add their own stuff to this, since I think a wiki-reference for all of the creative rules design work the OSR has done over the past ten years would be extremely useful. If you're not sure how, either reach out to Valzi at the OSR Discord channel or via his blog.

Jul 20, 2018

Mystery Cults and Magic Revisions in Into the Depths

The new magic system in Into the Depths is the piece of the game that's undergone the least playtesting. I've played in campaigns using Magic Words variations, but haven't stress-tested the implementation of the system currently in Into the Depths (if anyone has, I'd be interested in their feedback on how it worked).

Current Magic Rules

For those who don't want to check the PDF, here are the current published rules in their entirety:

1) Initiation: To cast spells a PC must be inducted into a mystery cult. A PC can only be a member of one mystery cult at a time but can abandon their old tradition and join a new one by undergoing a new initiation. Levels of initiation don’t carry over from one cult to another. A PC learns two magic words (referee’s choice) when they join a mystery cult.

2) Knowledge: PCs can know a number of magic words equal to their character’s level (not level of initiation). They can know a number of magic spells equal to their character’s level. PCs can forget words and spells with one day’s work.

3) Creation: All spells are combinations of words. PCs can use as many words in a spell as they have levels of initiation into their mystery cult. Words cannot be used twice in the same spell. It takes one day of work to create a new spell, or to replace one a PC already knows with a new one.

4) Learning: PCs learn new words by finding them on adventures or experimenting on their own time. If a word is found on an adventure, only one PC can learn it. If a PC develops a magic word, they can teach it to others.

5) Casting: You can cast as many spells per day as you have types of spell trappings at hand. If you get more types of spell trappings over the course of a day, the number of spells you can cast increases. Lose some, and it decreases (losing unused castings first). Rare trappings may grant more castings.

6) Effects: Negotiate with referee during spell creation. A typical spell targets one thing or person, or one 3x3x3m cube within 30m and either causes 1 instantaneous change or has effects that last 1 hr. The base damage of a spell is 1d8. Adding words to a spell can modify these factors.

There are a few changes I think I want to make already, plus some additional elements about getting initiated into a mystery cult that I want to add. I suspect in the next version, the list of magic words and the list of magic items will be moved to another page to free up space (and hopefully, expanded in both cases).

Revisions to Magic Rules

A PC learns one magic word (referee’s choice from the cult list) when they join a mystery cult, if they are able to. If they can't learn a new magic word, they may forget one they already know and instead learn a new word from the cult. A PC's initiation level can't exceed their character level.

They can know a number of magic spells equal to their initiation level. If they change the mystery cult they belong to, they decrease the number of spells they know to one until they gain more initiation levels in the new cult.

It takes one week of work to create a new spell, or to replace one a PC already knows with a new one.

PCs learn new words by finding them on adventures, by increasing their initiation level in their mystery cult, or experimenting on their own time. If a word is found on an adventure, anyone who studies it can learn it by spending one month studying it. If a PC develops a magic word, only they can understand it well enough to use it. Each time a PC increases their initiation level in a mystery cult they automatically learn one new word (referee's choice from the cult's list). PCs can't teach one another magic words.

These changes are mostly minor, but they invest more importance in advancing your initiation level, and give you more bonuses for advancing it, while disincentivising jumping mystery cults. A PC's spell selection is locked in a bit more. My overall goal was to get away from treating magic words as if they were a golf bag of possible effects that you could simply draw from on the fly, or spend a trivial amount of downtime to adapt to the situation.

I also changed how one learns words to make it a little less easy for PCs to simply exchange words with one another. Now, only words found as treasure (i.e. as spell codices or ancient carvings or whatever) can be learnt by multiple PCs from the same source. That incentivises you to go out and find those carvings and grimoires, while rewarding PCs who spend time and money on developing new words a special reward for doing so. 

I also decided that advancing your initiation level should give you a free word to make the financial hit less daunting. You can still know a number of words equal to your character level. From what I can tell, a typical wizard will have a 2-4 level gap between the two, giving you enough space to make developing your own or finding new ones worthwhile. I was debating separating spell scrolls from the sort of magical writing you can learn words from, but instead I decided that requiring a month of study per person was a severe enough penalty.

Mystery Cults

So I'm eventually going to get around to writing a mystery cult supplement that'll be a couple of pages long. There are two new abilities that membership in a mystery cult will bring you that I don't have formal write-ups of yet.

The first is that every mystery cult is built around a Mystery that only members can understand. You learn the Mystery when you join the cult. The Mystery lets you command one type of thing (narrowly defined). Members can, as an action, issue a command to an instance of the thing (no more words than initiation levels) and make a reaction roll. If they succeed (9+ on 2d6) then the thing complies to the best of its ability until the command is fulfilled (referee's discretion). Command the stones to speak, and they might just (better brush up on your ancient tongues). On a 6-8 nothing happens. On a 5-, things go sour - the stones lie, or they deafen you when they answer, or they lash out in anger at your hubris (possibly by falling down on you, or burying you in an avalanche).

I wouldn't allow this to serve as a "blast" spell that could be used an unlimited # of times per day, but I might allow it to be used to create incidental damage if appropriate. I'm also debating if you should retain mysteries if you change cults, with the caveat that your old cult will begin hunting you down, or if it would be simpler just to lose access to it (your whole weltanschauung has changed). 

The second is that every mystery cult teaches its members one form of manteia (divination) when they're first initiated. You can learn a new type each time you increase your initiation level (but you don't automatically learn it). I'm still figuring out the exact rules for performing and learning manteiai, but the root stock of what I'm working with is some ideas developed by Marquis.

Along with these two cult-specific abilities, each mystery cult will have a list of magic words they teach members or that you can learn from gaining initiation levels in the cult.

That means that to come up with your own mystery cults, you need the following:

1) A name for the cult
2) A type of thing (stones, shadows, integers, anger, the colour blue, right hands, undead, flames, etc.) that their mystery can command.
3) A manteia every member learns (or a table of possible types to roll on)
4) Some magic words, preferably with a theme (I'd suggest 8-12)
5) A couple of initiatory rituals that PCs can do to go up (I'd suggest 1-3 to start, and make up more if anyone shows interest in going further)

I'll be creating sample cults for the Old Lands and Necrocarcerus once I have all the details hashed out on how this system works.

Jul 18, 2018

Three Variations on Other People's Ideas

I wrote a sticky note to myself with the best three ideas I've seen other people come up with so far this week (and it's only Wednesday!) and decided to write a bit about how I would implement them.

The first is from Rob Monroe's G+ feed, and is pretty simple: Use Letter:Number for the cell coordinates on hex maps. So the top left corner is A1, the next cell to the right is B2, and the one below the original cell is A2. Use AA...ZZ etc. when you run out of single letters to use as labels. I like this because it is isomorphic with Microsoft Excel's cell coordinate system. I think it's a great idea because it's one of those things that seems obvious in hindsight but that I'd never thought about doing until Rob mentioned it.

The second is Jeff Russell's idea of "flexible reaction rolls" where you either vary the die size of the 2d6 (or use advantage / disadvantage) reaction roll to represent situational modifiers to the encounter, instead of adding or subtracting a static modifier. The particularly brilliant part of varying the die sizes is to make the source of the variation different for each die. One die is under PC control, and varies based on how much they're trying to make a positive or negative impression, while the other is based on the NPC's sentiments and situation.

Jeff lists a couple of possible modifiers for the NPC die, but I think I'd want to abstract out from the ones he lists. The key thing in terms of modifiers for the NPC die is that they should relate to factors external to the NPC themselves rather than being adjudicated as if they were the sum of the possible subcomponents of their attitude. That is, the NPC die grows larger the more secure their position, or shrinks based on their relative deprivation, rather than summing up the relative importance of them being an angry, aggressive but also easily amused individual. Which of those predominates in the current encounter is determined by the actual result of the reaction roll, not its die size.

The third idea is from the Marquis, and involves getting rid of divination spells and replacing them with a divination ability that produces answers to questions with varying degrees of success. The magic rules in Into the Depths are the part of it that has yet to be playtested - in the next campaign I run, I'm going to be fiddling around with them quite a bit, with the expectation of issuing something with extensive changes.

With the Marquis' idea itself, there are three components:

1) Pick a style of divination. Each kind has a focus it requires and a type of information it provides

2) To use divination, roll 1d6 and add various bonuses and penalties to the roll. Depending on how high you roll, you get better and more clear information.

3) You can learn more kinds of divination each time you level up.

I think I would use a 2d6 reaction-type roll for this (I use a system with three bands of outcome - <5 is negative, 6-8 is neutral, 9< is positive). I might even do something like the above with flexible reaction rolls but am still thinking over whether that might make it too easy to do divination and be too complicated to adjudicate here with all the different types of divination.

<5 provides cryptic symbols with lots of room for interpretation; 6-8 provides an answer with at least one solid piece of information, though you might have to decode what it is, 9+ provides an exact answer with at least one clear, reliable and solid piece of information.

Anyhow, it's been a great week in the OSR so far. Keep up the good work everybody!

Jul 1, 2018

Players Tracking the Damage They've Done + a New Role for PCs

Matt Colville has this video with some good advice on the logistics of running monster encounters. It also introduces a new PC role: the "monster wrangler" who is responsible for assisting the referee in moving the monsters and tracking their various abilities etc.

Colville also has this video where he recommends having PCs track the damage they've dealt to monsters, which I agree with (I also have PCs record and track initiative). If you're concerned about resistances and the like and aren't able to wrangle the mathematical tool Colville describes, you can have the PCs use 3 colours to write down damage. Blue, black and pencil works fine. One colour should be damage types they're weak against, one types they're resistant to, and one colour should be damage that's neither. You can change up which colour is which from each encounter so the PCs don't automatically know that "blue" means "bonus damage".

This is a good addition to the list of possible PC roles you can use, which currently runs:

Monster Wrangler
Rules Coordinator

Jun 17, 2018

A Proposal for Designing Rules

My proposal is that the referee ought to:

1) Keep track of recurring questions that the PCs ask them
2) Decide whether these have interesting but uncertain answers
3) Establish rules that balance PC agency and randomness for the ones that do
4) Explicitly dismiss the ones that don't have interesting answers as irrelevant to play

This sounds simple and yet is widely ignored in actual rules design. For example, one can find dozens of minor tweaks of how combat works in various versions of D&D, but very few designers have developed anything covering "Can we find a good spot to camp for the night?" One might say that's not an interesting question, though that position is difficult to maintain if one is also rolling encounter checks overnight.

A few years ago, I created my own rules for chases because I found that despite the frequency that chases appeared both in games and in related material, no one really wrote rules that covered them very well (a few people had written rules for fleeing that resolved doing so in a single roll and were mainly intended to be used by the PCs when fleeing monster).

On particularly appalling oversight is lacking teamwork rules. "Can I help?" is such a common question PCs ask, and yet anything other than a blind methodological individualism is uncommon. Long-time readers will remember that I was shocked to discover that the One Ring game doesn't even have rules for PCs to help one another with ordinary tasks. I've spent a lot of time coming up with teamwork rules for Mythras, Openquest, and Into the Depths because their absence in other games drove me up the wall.

I think there are many more examples of recurring questions at tables that have no rules or procedures to resolve them that probably should, and that effort to design new rules would probably be much better spent on them than elsewhere.

May 15, 2018

Making Rivers on Hex Maps

This post is so simple that it's almost cheating. In case you hadn't already thought of doing it, you can use the procedure outlined in my post on making paths through the wilderness to also generate rivers courses in hex maps. You can do this ahead of time or during play, as you prefer.

To make your rivers a little straighter, I suggest rotations of the d4 be to the second-next clockwise face that doesn't currently have a path on it (instead of just the next clockwise face, as per when you're creating paths).

I also suggest that any time you either generate something that looks absurd or that has 3+ streams flowing into a single hex, you make it a little pond or lake. Hexes adjacent to water-filled hexes count as having one stream flowing into them across the adjacent face if you're rolling for rivers. This will give you a handful of lakes and ponds of varying sizes.

I come from Canada, which has most (in the sense of a slight absolute majority) of the world's lakes,  so I always think fantasy maps don't have enough open bodies of water of significant size on them, but this is a bit of an idiosyncrasy. If you do this procedure a few times across the length of the map, you'll eventually end up with a nice hydrological basin with rivers and lakes all connected up.