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.

May 9, 2018

Into the Depths: Errata Already

Beloch of Papers and Pencils (one of the original playtesters) very kindly walked me through a number of ambiguous wordings and suggested some minor rules changes for Into the Depths. I'm grateful for his keen eye, and have incorporated most of them in. As a result, eight days after my first major update to the rule system in two years, here is the new version of Into the Depths incorporating Beloch's suggestions and a few minor changes I decided on after hitting publish last time.

Most of the changes are very minor. You'll notice slightly clearer wording in the grappling section, the sections where carrying capacity is explained (backpacks now let you carry 8 + / - Armour Mod. items, with special Frame Packs adding +3 to that capacity), auction catalogues let you assess the value of things slightly more easily, and some minor formatting, punctuation and phrasing changes in a few tables and other sections. I also removed a rules loophole Beloch spotted, where you could spend a day creating a new spell and suddenly gain half a level repeatedly. That's been changed so that creating spells no longer qualifies, only creating magical artifacts does.

If you're not sure what version of Into the Depths you have, I've been date-coding them for a while, so this update is 20180509, versus the version without errata, which is 20180501.

May 1, 2018

Happy May Day: New Into the Depths

It's May Day today, and in the spirit of the day, here's a brand new expanded version of Into the Depths for free! (Link is to a downloadable pdf on Google Drive) (2018-05-11 edit: I've now changed the link to the newest version incorporating errata)

Into the Depths is my "core" ruleset for playing old school fantasy adventure games, as conveyed in four densely written pages. I've been running and playing in games using it for a little over two years now, and this is the first major revision since 2016, with the revisions based on my experiences playtesting it over that period.

Into the Depths might be the game for you if you're looking for a low magic rules-set that mechanically encourages dynamic fights and chases and that has a stellar gear list that serves in place of a power or magic system in most instances.

New material includes:
More gear options
More secret fighting techniques to learn
A magic system
An updated levelling rubric
The ability to be bad at things
Rule sections rewritten for clarity and ease of use
Numerous tweaks to the mathematical structures

One last change is that I'm opening up the copyleft on it further. Previous versions of Into the Depths were available under a noncommercial Creative Commons license. This newest revision is now available for commercial use (with attribution) for anyone who would like to publish and sell works using it as the ruleset.

Apr 24, 2018

Into the Depths: The Long-Awaited Magic Rules

I'm writing up some magic rules for Into the Depths finally. I'm drawing on a bunch of ideas that Beloch of Papers and Pencils (Magic Words), and Courtney Campbell of Hack & Slash and Benjamin Baugh (Spell power as trappings) have each developed, but using variations on those ideas within as simple a system as possible.

Here's the draft text of the Into the Depths magic rules. The list of magic words itself is forthcoming, I'm still deciding how fine a grain I want on the terms, and what selection will be most evocative and useful for referees and players thinking of coming up with their own.


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 induction. Levels 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.

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 for whatever price they want.

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

6) Effects: Negotiate with referee during spell creation. A typical spell targets one thing within 30m and either causes 1 instantaneous change or has effects that last 1 hr.

Magic Trappings

This is a selection of possible trappings, not an exhaustive list. Each type of trapping grants one additional spell per day.

Assistant / Apprentice Must also be initiated into same mystery cult. Can be another PC. Must spend an action helping cast.
Bric-a-Brac An accumulation of wizardly garbage: Stuffed alligators, jars of spider legs, etc.
Drugs / Mana One-use, usable only once per day. Save or hallucinate. Small item.
Familiar Counts as henchman who is of no combat value and full of sass. Unbuyable, must be recruited.
Grimoire A magical book full of cryptic suggestions, bizarre claims, and unsettling illustrations. Cost based on title.
Idol The creepier the better. Not normally portable.
Locus / Sanctum A sanctified and prepared location that focuses mystical energy. Not portable.
Obsession Unbuyable. Spell gained through obsession can only be cast to effect object of obsession.
Panoply / Regalia Priestly or wizardly robes, hat, etc. Cannot be worn with armour.
Sacrifice One-use, usable only once per day. Sacrifice a sentient being’s life. Usually unbuyable.
Staff / Athame Counts as two-handed weapon (staff) or small weapon (athame). Must be in hand when casting.
Talisman A cauldron, mirror, amulet, etc. that serves as a focus. Must be used to cast the spell.

And then, from the experience rules, because someone will ask if I don't mention it:

"3) PCs can be inducted into a mystery cult or magical tradition. This takes 3 months of training under a master, 10,000 SP, and completion of an initiatory task to be determined by your master. Gaining more levels of initiation requires a PC to complete more tasks and pay an additional 10,000 SP and spend three months training each time.

4) It takes one month and 2,000 SP to develop a new magic word of the PC’s choice, if a PC is capable of casting spells."

Apr 1, 2018

The Pack of Lies: Backstory as Equipment and Resource

I've been thinking a fair bit about backstories lately because I just started playing a D&D 3.5 campaign on a bimonthly basis with a group composed of two published authors (one is me), the former editor of a literary magazine, a librarian, and a video game writer, all people who as you might imagine have strong connections to literature. The game is strongly focused on narrative development, driven by proactive character decision making, and is in a way the best possible version of what something like AD&D 2nd edition and the whole "silver age" of RPGs aspired for.

We had a couple of months of prep between when we first sat down as a group to discuss potentially playing a campaign together and when we held our first session (a few weeks ago). Part of the prep included a questionnaire about our characters for us to fill out, and I basically ended up writing 5400 words of backstory for my character. I became the very "12-page backstory" guy that I've mocked in the past. While the referee of this campaign encouraged that and loved the backstory, as a referee I find the prospect of close reading, annotating and then summarising sixty-odd pages of half-complete amateur narrative dreadful.

In Necrocarcerus, PCs begin without backstories or histories, and they get them by finding and consuming "nepenthe", a distillate produced from brain juice that contains their memories from when they were alive. You can, of course, drink someone else's nepenthe and get their memories and thus their "backstory". On a related note, "experience points" from slaying monsters were also obtained by drinking their brain juice, which was essentially an undistilled version of the same fluid. I did this because Necrocarcerus is partially a parody of the tropes of Dungeons and Dragons, and I wanted to riff off the joke that PCs are often "murderhobos" lacking a backstory situating them in the world.

When we encounter "backstory" in narratives, it is almost always in the form of a narration delivered by a character during the actual story. It's backstory because it's a supplement to the narrative that precedes it and clarifies it, but the events of it are already completed. Authors have all sorts of clever tricks for introducing this material - characters in ancient epics brag about their past deeds as a prelude to boasting about their future accomplishments, while intellectuals in experimental novels cite one another's fake books, and detectives in noir novels muse about their past cases. In fact, the most derided way of presenting this material is probably the form most backstories actually take - supplementary, secondary documents that don't take into account the main narrative they're meant to be supplements for.

So getting away from that, I'm interested in a backstory system for use in my games that does a couple of things. I want backstories that are presented diegetically in the game, that are optional but that do reward players who come up with them, and that have different levels of player agency involved in generating them.

In Into the Depths, almost everything one can do is represented by a piece of gear, so here's some gear that ties into generating backstories.

Diary / Journal - Once per expedition you go on with a journal, you can choose to be Good At something. You must tell everyone an anecdote from your journal about why you're Good At this thing. This lasts for the rest of the expedition. If you lose your diary, leave it behind in town while you go on an expedition, etc. then an embarrassing anecdote gets out as someone takes the opportunity to peek inside. You lose your Good At and gain a permanent Bad At. If you make up the embarrassing anecdote, you get to pick the Bad At, if the referee has to, they get to pick what you're Bad At.

S'mores - When you camp with a fire and someone has s'mores in their gear, each PC who wishes may tell one anecdote about their character's life prior to play, and in exchange, they become Good At one thing related to the anecdote. Anecdotes need not be true. This effect lasts until they use the Good At once, at which time it fades. One can only receive a benefit from one s'mores at a time.

Self-Published Memoir - Cost to have it printed is calculated based on its actual title, which must include at least one colon and two adjectives. Carrying a copy of your self-published memoir allows you reroll a save whenever you can relate an anecdote about your past that explains your resilience. "Inspiring" anecdotes grant an additional +1 on the reroll.

Lucky Charm - You can only have one lucky charm active at a time. You must explain why it is lucky for your character. It grants a +1 to one kind of roll (same scope as Good Ats). If you ever lose it, you have -1 to that kind of roll until you recover or replace it.