Jan 23, 2020

A Brief Note on Alignment

So I finally struck out "Good" on my originally "Chaotic Good" wizard's character sheet and wrote in "Evil". It's funny, some of my most popular characters have been Chaotic Evil wizards, which many people consider an "unplayable" alignment for PCs.

I'm not a great believer in alignment's value, but I have played with many people who consider it tremendously important. I have therefore had to develop a "theory" of alignment.

Most people I know who really care about alignment love the version with the full nine positions, as opposed to the earlier Law vs. Chaos version. They also tend to prefer the psychological interpretation of alignment, rather than the Moorcockian cosmological interpretation.

My position therefore attempts to be comprehensible to those people and address both their desire to specifically situate any and every character in one of the nine positions and to address the psychological elements that cause them to be so situated.

Broadly speaking, I treat one's position on the good-evil axis as a matter of sentiment, conscience, and instinct.

Good people are by default deeply concerned with the well-being of others, and callousness or harm to the well-being of others is an exceptional state that requires strong reasons or experiences and is constrained to the minimal scope necessary (at least ideally). Their conscience militates for them to care as a general tendency, albeit one that can be resisted or overcome in specific situations.

Evil people tend to callousness to the well-being of others. This does not mean they are universally and completely callous, but rather that caring deeply for the well-being of others is the exceptional state of affairs for them, and is specific in the same way that callousness is the exceptional state for the good person.

Neutral people are not strongly inclined to be either particularly concerned with, or callous to, the well-being of others, and mostly default to states of mild concern or distaste unless given specific situational reasons to lean one way or the other.

In this rubric, the law-chaos axis is about whether extrinsic or intrinsic motivations predominate in one's reasoning. That is, a chaotic character is strongly driven by conscience and individual drives, while a lawful person is mainly concerned with extrinsic motivations (whether materialistic or more abstract ones like "respect" is irrelevant).

I do stretch extrinsic motivations slightly here to include extrapolations or extensions like "a right authority orders it" where the extrinsic motivation is a more just (or whatever) world built on universalisable moral principles, though I don't consider this essential to being lawful.

The focus on extrinsic motivations in lawful people tends to require their engagement with social structures or individuals who can provide these extrinsic rewards, and this engagement (even potentially antagonistic engagement if they want to do something like reform a rotten institution so it can function properly) is the basis of their lawfulness.

Neutral people don't have a strong tendency either way, and instead tend to waver between whichever of the two - extrinsic or intrinsic motivations - is stronger in a given situation.

Anyhow, all of this is codswallop since real human morality does not work this way, but I do find that this set up is more robust than most folk-theorising about alignment online, while allowing one to assign alignments to characters in games in ways that people find prima facie appropriate even when they are not aware of the rubric.

I play a lot of Chaotic Evil wizards under this rubric because I like playing characters with strong intrinsic motivations (I'm a "proactive" player) and because my characters tend to be relatively callous towards the well-being of others (they do kill monsters and harm people who resist them, after all).

On the other hand, the reason I can get away with playing Chaotic Evil characters in games is because rather than playing them as sadists with poor impulse control, I portray them as above, and often take care to make sure the other PCs are the exceptional instances of sentimental attachment.

I also try to make the inner motivations of these characters interesting and fun and then to portray them trying to actively and positively recruit others to help them realise them, while also being extremely risk-tolerant about the consequences (whether for themselves or others). This fulfils being Chaotic Evil based on the rubric laid out above, but tends to be taken extremely well by other players. 

I don't have any recommendations here. I developed this rubric to form a mutually-intelligible basis for analysis with some people I play with who love alignment and who want to use it characterise the psychology of characters, and I do so successfully. I find that its development aids me in playing characters with all sorts of unexpected alignments in ways that don't diminish the other players' fun.

Jan 17, 2020

Planning a Campaign as a Series of Decisions

Back in January of last year, I wrote what is rapidly becoming one of the most popular posts on my blog, The Basis of the Game is Making Decisions. One of the things I mentioned there was planning sessions and campaigns around reaching decisions instead of the referee pretending they were writing a novel's plot that the PCs imperfectly realised. I say a bit more about why one ought to do this in the anti-narrativism post I wrote years ago, but I also had a request to demonstrate the practice of planning this way.

As background, it would be helpful to read the Alexandrian's post Don't Prep Plots. I also believe in preparing situations (or problems) instead of plots and consider my decision-based method to be one way of doing so.

The method I'm going to describe is intentionally quite sparse when compared to other methods of preparing. I use it because it is "low prep" and undemanding.

You generate a handful of key decisions, assign elements from the campaign world and specific adventure to one of the possible branches of that decision, and spend most of the time between any two decisions playing out the consequences of the previous decision and setting up the next one.

When you start to get towards the end of the chain of decisions, you either extend the chain further, or conclude it and move to running downtime before setting up another. You can run multiple chains of decisions at once if you so please, so long as you make it clear to players which decisions are associated with which chains.

Here's an example:

You have four PCs: A, B, C, and D, playing in a Necrocarcerus campaign set in the Ooze Salient. The PCs are freebooters and camp followers hanging around the Association of Useful Citizens' military base. You want to run them through a scenario where they are hired to break into an abandoned incarnation temple in no-ooze's-land, steal a load of nepenthe (memory-juice) crystals, and then escape before either side can capture them.

The first step is to break this into a series of discrete decisions and graph out answers where you can:

Will they take the job? (Yes / No)
How will they get out of the military base and into no-ooze's-land? (Stealth / Talking their way out / Fighting / Magic)
How will they find the temple? (Guided by something / Searching the area)
How will they secure the nepenthe? (Not my problem)
How do they escape without getting caught? (Fleeing / Killing / Trickery / Magic)

The answers don't have to be complete lists, but it helps if you have a rough sense of the most obvious options PCs tend to employ. The important thing is really to get the questions rights rather than the possible answers, because the questions form prompts you can ask the players directly at the table.

I write these on index cards, but there are fancier technical ways to do it. I then line them up left to right, in order, from the first problem to the last problem.

The second step is to generate a bunch of elements that can feature in the adventure. You're going to want at least two for any given decision point, but more is better. I encourage you to recycle things, but since this is a mock example rather than an ongoing campaign, here are some ideas based on regular fantasy stuff:

Ooze-knights on motorbikes
A Cuban communist air-pirate + her air ship
Somebody's specific memory-juice in a reusable thermostat
A twelve-armed demon who is chief marketing officer of an "Uber for dental hygiene" start-up
Cyber-trolls that all started off as one troll
A dog with strong opinions
A cool magic tank that shoots lasers but not from its gun
The prophetic intestines of a guy named "Joseph Blankenwell"
A boiling cloud of acid with a New York accent and a heart of gold
A skeleton rights activist who is also a cleric of the Big Fire
A giant wolf-spider thing who works for an insurance company
A Jacobin golem with wheels
Thousands of obols
A nuclear reactor on tank treads with a giant glowing crack
A 33-gallon fishtank with no top that's full of expired fireworks
Six ghost paladins on a holy quest that's kinda sketchy and low-key racist
An EDM dance party club
The colour "red"

I write these on post its or cards, one per post-it or card. At this point, if you're still jacked full of energy, you can pick a few of the cards and sort them under each problem like a curator. Or you can just shuffle them and stick few under each until you get a good combo.

The pile of cards are the relevant elements that you're going to introduce that can be used to solve the problem. The PCs can introduce their own elements of course, and you want to hold back a few cards so that if they come up with an idea that depends on them knowing something or dealing with someone, etc., you can whip out an element card to slot into that proposed solution.

If you want to get clever and run a "living world" you can also foreshadow elements under the next card or introduce them as Chekhov's gun type thing, and you can allow elements from previous problem cards that weren't used to recur (I just grab the unused ones that seem interesting and stuff them into upcoming piles). As elements are revealed, feel free to throw the cards onto the table for them to keep track of. You can write the name or location or use or whatever else they need to know on the other side of the index card. You can also write up new cards as you go.

For example, if the PCs want a guide to the incarnation temple and the dog with strong opinions is the thing they need, you could write "Imprisoned within the heart of a giant stone statue of well-known ethical philosopher Sabina Lovibond" so they remember that they have to break into the heart of the giant stone statue of well-known ethical philosopher Sabina Lovibond to free the dog so it can show them the way.

I suggest badgering the PCs with the questions periodically because they'll forget them and get off-track. If you let them get off-track frequently, you're running a "sandbox".

You can change specific questions ( and create more or remove others) as PCs progress through them and gain or lose interest in them, and move everything around - this isn't meant to be a rigidly mechanical system, but precisely the opposite - a way of condensing one's focus to only spend time on what one needs to in order to move things forward.

I hope this helps illustrate the idea that campaigns can just be series of decisions of varying scope via the demonstration of one technique of planning and implementing such a campaign.

Dec 24, 2019

Gaming & Blogging Year End Review

My top three blog posts this year were all in the first three months of the year and were fairly theoretical. They are:

The Basis of the Game is Making Decisions
Adventure Games: What I Meant When I Coined the Term
The Rhythm of Procedure

The "decisions" post was my #1 post this year, buoyed by fairly frequent reposting by others, and some nice shout-outs and mentions (Thanks to Patrick and Skerples and anyone I missed). I'm hoping to follow up in 2020 with more posts developing some of the ideas I laid out there.

It was a fairly light year for gaming for me. I had one main offline campaign that I played in, and two campaigns I did prep work for but that didn't get off the ground. I also didn't play in any one-shots or online campaigns, in a departure from my usual behaviour over the past few years. My extended social circles have known that I play D&D for a few years now, and as the game comes back into popularity, I find that I'm getting recruited as a "professional DM" from time to time to run one-shots for semi-strangers.

My main campaign is a D&D 3.5 game set in an Al-Qadim-like setting and is finishing up its second year. It's a classic AD&D 2nd edition-style high fantasy game driven by characters and grand plots with a fairly stable group set up for long-term play.

The first failed campaign was an Unknown Armies 3e campaign set in rural Ontario for a group of women players I know who all love true crime podcasts. The premise was that a reclusive billionaire recruits a team of freelance journalists to investigate why small rural towns are vanishing (literally). I ended up hitting a wall creatively when it came to fleshing the concept out and cancelled it.

The second failed campaign was a Mythras game set in the Dawnlands (my third or fourth campaign set there, now). It failed because of scheduling issues that meant we would have had to cut into the Al-Qadim game. Of the two failed campaigns, this was the one I was more excited about, and I'll admit to being a bit sad that it didn't get off the ground. However, it did get me to write up a reference document for the Dawnlands, which is a bit of a silver lining.

I was also invited to play in three D&D 5e campaigns, all of which I turned down. I'm not wildly enthusiastic about 5e, and I'm more eager to run a campaign in my limited time for gaming than to play in a second campaign. I also find that a lot of the "professional DM" stuff I get asked to do tends to be 5e, so I'm happy to contain it there.

Since the death of G+ earlier this year, I've found it a bit harder to get involved in online games, which has reduced my active participation in old school gaming. I am rarely on Twitter and Discord, which seem to be where a lot of these games recruit players from. I'm eager to step this up in 2020 and become more active again.

In 2020, my 29th year of roleplaying, here's what I'd like to accomplish. My plans are:

1) Continue in my main offline game as a player
2) Run a 5e one-shot for a friend's partner's son in January (I'm doing her a favour)
3) Update Into the Depths to incorporate Necrocarcerus-specific rules and equipment
4) Run some one-shots or short games online in Necrocarcerus to playtest the new rules
5) Create a new setting using ideas from five different dead campaign settings I have
6) Run a Pathfinder 2e campaign in that new campaign setting
7) Write up the Dawnlands as a big manuscript for publication
8) Keep on blogging

Here's to a great 2020!

Nov 25, 2019

Great Battle Map Drawing Tutorial

This video starts off as a review & discussion of some Pathfinder 2e module called "Fall of Plaguestone" but around 20:40 "Classic DM" (T. Elliot Cannon) begins showing you how to draw good-looking battle maps. I thought this was a very good tutorial and easily adaptable to non-Pathfinder purposes. I'm not great at drawing battlemaps, but I've always wanted to improve.

It looks like Classic DM might be making this a series - on Oct 1 he uploaded a second tutorial video focused on "the Indigo Oasis" module.

Nov 2, 2019

The Encounter Grid: Six Years Out

This post about wandering monsters that I made back in 2013 remains the single most popular post I have ever made to this blog (over 17,000 views and counting). It crops up all the over place - Web DM has an episode that discusses it, here's someone posting it to Stack Exchange, and a link to the post has shown up on Reddit about once every two weeks for years now (example). Someone else started calling it the "encounter grid" a year or two and the name seems to have stuck.

In the nearly six years since that post, I've done a fair bit of experimenting with encounter grids, and have made some changes to how I use them. I thought it might be worthwhile to some of the insights I've had about it since then.

The first insight is that I reversed the order of entries so the monster is more likely to show up the higher the roll is. I also changed some of the categories. It now looks like this:

1d6 roll:
1 - Traces
2 - Spoor
3 - Tracks
4- Noises
5 - Monster
6 - Lair

In the old version, results of 5 and 6 were both "traces", so this has more variety and more clearly communicates that proximity is the value measured by this axis of the grid. Also, my official word on the subject is that if the PCs roll "noises" you have to act the noises out.

This rearrangement of numbers lets you use this more easily as an ersatz tracking mechanic - the PCs decide to search for a monster or enemy for a period of time (e.g. a watch), you roll 1d6, and that's how close to the beast they've gotten (I would then push them to come up with diegetic ideas to close the remaining gap). You might allow them gear or abilities that add small bonuses (+1 or +2 tops) to this roll when they're tracking, which should integrate smoothly with the way other gear and abilities add bonuses to rolls.

The second thing I encourage you to experiment with is to list more than just monsters on the encounter grid. I wrote this post about using a similar style of encounter grid to generate traps a few years ago. If you stick traps on the same grid as monsters, I suggest you reinterpret the categories slightly - tracks might be warning signs of the trap's operation, while a lair result means you discover multiple instances of the same trap in close proximity (this preserves the maximum die roll as the result with the greatest risk). Beyond traps, feel free to insert environmental obstacles requiring increasing difficulty and risk to overcome.

A third thing is that with an encounter grid that lists aspects or elements of the monster beyond just its existence, you can start repurposing your encounter grid for other uses. Need a simple fetch quest or bug hunt? Need a component for a magic item? The encounter grid lets you easily generate these things. I also use it when I'm restocking dungeons, where it creates a heavily-traveled in, almost palimpsestic dungeon that has lots of evidence of monster inhabitation.

A fourth experiment is to consider using a d8 instead of a d6, but with the bottom two entries as blanks or nulls. The table then reads:

1 - Nothing
2 - Nothing

3 - Traces
4 - Spoor
5 - Tracks
6 - Noises
7 - Monster
8 - Lair

I suggest this for a couple of reasons. First, in my game Into the Depths, when you're doing things like tracking people, you only roll a d6 if you're doing it yourself, but you roll a d8 if you're helping one another out. So this means tracking as a group instead of a single person is rewarded: You still roll the d6 as a lonesome individual, but without a bonus (from clever thinking, gear, a specialised tracking retainer, etc.) you'll never find the monster on your own. So it encourages team-work amongst the PCs to hunt down beasts.

From experience, I have found that rolling every turn as a regular part of a site exploration procedure is easier to remember than rolling every other turn or every third turn. Adding a few null results makes that easier on the players by spacing out encounters. The chances of a monster encounter of some sort (i.e. the Monster or Lair results) reduce from 1 in 3 to 1 in 4 using this method.

As an additional aid, it helps distinguish which die is which, since rolling 3d6 and picking one out either requires a die of a different colour, or a lot of trust in one's players (I have them roll the dice for wandering encounters). Having one die be a different type reduces the chances of a misunderstanding or misreading of the dice.

These are some of the tweaks and expansions I've made to the system over the years. I encourage you to experiment with them yourself and see how they work for your table.

Oct 11, 2019

Two Quick Tips For Being a Better Player

Here are two things that many experienced players do, but that new players often do not know to do.

1) Deliberate on other people's turns
2) Whenever you ask what's possible, include a reason you think it's possible

The first one is somewhat obvious, and yet it takes people a bit of time for people to pick it up. Planning your decisions while other people are enacting and resolving theirs speeds everything up, and only rarely will something change so drastically during their turn that you'll need to throw out everything you've just considered and start afresh just as the referee turns to you. 

Planning on other people's turns is ubiquitous amongst experienced players, and so most find it too obvious to mention as advice to new players. But I can clearly spot when a new player has not yet internalised this practice (and it is a practice many of them have to learn), and I see no reason to not tell them explicitly that this is a best practice. Also, while I try to avoid one-true-wayism, I think this is another one of those techniques that is a matter of skill and not style, and thus that doing this is always better than not doing this. 

Deciding what to do while other people are busy figuring out the results of their decisions is a very simple way to speed up combat and other structured activities without changing the mechanics of the game. The crunchier the system, the handier it is to have 300%+ more time to plan and calculate bonuses and refer to rules before anything is resolved. 

The second piece of advice is perhaps less succinct but also worth learning. Similar to the first piece of advice, I think it is a straightforward matter of skill at communicating and not one of style. 

It's very common for new players to ask broad, abstract questions of the form "Can I do [X]?". Answering those questions is nearly impossible for a referee to do off-the-cuff because doing so requires synthesising information about the paracosm that they have with information the player has about their character, and the player in this case has not volunteered the relevant information that needs to be synthesised. This phrasing forces a wholly unnecessary back-and-forth where the referee has to uncover the relevant information to synthesise into an answer by asking the player questions until they stumble across the right information.

If you, the player, think something might be possible, it saves the table time to provide that reason upfront. This allows the referee to shift from trying to model all of the possible ways something could be done while at the same time trying to reconcile those models with their imperfect memories of your capabilities to just evaluating your proposition. It's actually faster to list off three possible reasons you think you should be able to try something and get a yes or no answer for each.

Once again, while doing this is something experienced players generally know to do (tho' I still see many of them do it as well), it's something that takes new players a bit to learn. It's often conflated with "learning the system", but I think it's something distinct from that, since one can understand how one's powers work and still fail to provide that information to the referee.

Sep 18, 2019

Determining What PCs Find When They Search Hexes

My overland exploration procedures typically allow for three possible activities. The first is resting, the second is travel, and the third is searching a hex. This article is about the third procedure, searching hexes, and in particular, how to execute step #7, "Referee determines whether the PCs find anything". I'm going to discuss this step from two angles - firstly, placing content in hexes and secondly, the PCs conducting their search.

 As a reminder, I use hexes with a 5 km radius from centre to edge (a 10 km incircle diameter or "10 km hex" for short). A hex this size contains 86.6 square kilometres of area. Here's a calculator that will tell you the dimensions of hexagons of various sizes (metric) if you want a different size.

The Placement of Content in Hexes

My solution here is very simple. Hexagons divide into six equilateral triangles.In my hexes, each triangle covers an area of about 12.5 square kilometres, with a maximum distance of 5 km from base camp (assumed to be in the centre of the hex).

I number the triangles from 1 to 6, and roll 1d6 to determine which subsection any particular piece of content is in. ktrey over at d4 Caltrops has a tessellation system that breaks hexes up into 12 lozenges of equal area if you would prefer that level of granularity, but in all honesty my hexes rarely have more than two items in them at a time to start (not counting wandering monsters) so I don't have much need for that level of granularity.

I also assign each object a Concealment Score that interacts with my group perception rules. When in doubt, I randomly roll a Concealment Score of 1d6+3, knowing that anything with a Concealment Score equal to or lower than the # of PCs is going to be automatically spotted when they enter the hex. I try to make something immediately obvious in at least a third of all hexes, sometimes as much as a half, depending on how aggressive and interested they are in searching hexes.

Searching Hexes

In step #1 of my search procedure, PCs break up into search parties and each search party chooses a subsection of the hex to search. The most common choice in actual practice is that they all stick together and make a random roll of which subsection they're going to search, but they have the option to split up if they're in a rush or feel confident.

PCs searching a hex counts as an active search, so they roll 1d6 and add the # of PCs in the search party, and if it equals or exceeds the Concealment Score of the content, they find it.

A single iteration of a search takes one watch to complete (typically 6 hours), including time spent returning to base camp. Multiple search parties searching different subsections do their searches simultaneously.

This means that if the PCs stick together and search a hex, they will clear it in one full day (6 watches) of searching (without rest), or 2/3rds of a hex if they do. My experience is that they tend to work to the 2/3rds level by spending a day searching before moving on.

I'm not sure of how realistic this is (probably not very), but it strikes a good balance between giving them a change to discover a lot of content and leaving a level of uncertainty about whether they've truly found everything.

Lazybones / No Prep Method

If you're in a rush and having had any time to prep, you can just roll 4d6, preferably of different colours, when the PCs search a hex. The first is the subsection the content is in, the second is the subsection they search, the third is the Concealment Score and the fourth is their active search roll.

If the first and second die don't match, the PCs don't find the content because they're in the wrong spot. If the third die's result is higher than the fourth, the content stays hidden.

I usually do d6+3 for an actually randomly generated Concealement Score, and the fourth d6 will be +# of PCs since it's an active search, but you only have to get to these calculations if the first and second die match.

Once you've rolled the subsection the content is in, I suggest mostly keeping it consistent across further searches because a) it means fewer die rolls and b) it makes things less frustrating for the players because they can whittle down the location by progressively searching all of the subsections.

The sole exception I can think of where it becomes more fun is if the content is moving (e.g. it's a fugitive trying to hide from them by running around the hex), and this will incentivise the PCs to break up into smaller search parties to search more subsections simultaneously. In this case, you should still only roll the first d6 once per watch of searching.


I find these methods allow me to quickly establish whether the PCs have found anything when they search. You have one roll for stocking, and one or two rolls to resolve searching. The level of risk and difficulty of this system can be adjusted using three factors - the granularity of subsections (more likely to miss things), the length of a watch (more resources consumed, esp. time), and the Concealment Scores of content (more difficult to ensure you've cleared a hex). I hope this helps you stock hexes more easily.