Jul 29, 2015

Using Spreadsheets to Organise Dungeon Information

When I'm designing a dungeon, I produce my documentation so that I can run it using three documents. These documents are a map and two spreadsheets. The first spreadsheet covers random encounters (and traps), the second covers the rest of the dungeon. I'm going to discuss producing and using the second spreadsheet in this entry. This may be mainly of use to new players rather than experienced ones.

I draw on two of Courtney Campbell's documents for my random generation needs: Tricks and Treasure. I also draw extensively on the AD&D 1e DMG's random tables. These are the actual engines churning underneath producing specific outcomes, what I'm discussing is how to document these decisions, including what data is most useful to include and how to structure it to be concise, consistent, and easily referenced.

Here's the layout I use. This is a selection from a real dungeon I ran players through. "OB" is short for "obols", the standard currency in Necrocarcerus.

When I'm filling this out, I start by rolling for the contents of each room - what combination of traps, monsters, treasure, etc. does it contain, and I mark each one with a "x" until I come back and fill in the entry. For monsters and traps, I mainly just use the random encounter tables I mentioned above, unless I get my interest piqued by a specific monster or puzzle. I use the "Special" column mainly to note linkages between rooms. i.e. "So-and-so's quest leads here" or "The key from Room 14 opens these doors", or weird exceptions like "Impenetrable glass doors" etc.

I use this format because it's built around making the information easy to reference in play, whereas I find traditional adventure layouts tend to bury this stuff in longhand paragraphs. The categories match up exactly with the generators I use, allowing me to rapidly generate and sort information, as well as track it during the dungeon generation process. If you haven't tried using something like this to organise your dungeon information, I strongly recommend giving it a try and seeing how it runs for you during play.

Jul 15, 2015

Testing a New Layout

What it says on the tin. If there's any difficulties with the new layout, especially if it impacts legibility, let me know ASAP.

Jul 13, 2015

[Review] Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures / Further Afield

Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures was a slow burn for me. I bought it something like a year and a half ago, read it, thought there were some interesting ideas in there, but struggled to find the need in my life for another retroclone. It wasn't until the release of Further Afield that I decided to go back and check out the system more thoroughly. This involved downloading the numerous playbooks & supplements Flatland Games have made available for free on Drivethrurpg.

The system for Beyond the Wall is fairly simple. It's a typical retroclone with the same six basic stats they all have, a simple skill system using ability checks, and a magic system for levelless Vancian casting with rituals required for more powerful effects There are ten levels of progression, and three classes. These are presented fairly cleanly.

Where the system shines is in the procedures used to build the environment for play. There are several of these, but they break down into three categories: Playbooks, the shared sandbox, and scenario packs.

The shared sandbox denotes the area of the game world where the game takes place, and comes in two basic scales, which are integrated with one another. The first, contained in the core rules, is village generation. While using playbooks to create their characters, each player has the option to name and describe NPCs and locations in the hometown of the characters at certain points during generation. These may be related to the rolled result in the playbook, or not. The second scale involves generating the region the hometown is located in (rules on doing this are in Further Afield) and incorporating "threat packs". Each player goes around and gets to generate two major locations that their character knows something about (there are tables and rules that constrain this decision in useful ways). Players get to pick how they know about them (have they seen them personally, read about them in books, or heard local stories about them). This choice changes the roll the referee makes to determine how accurate the information is. Referees don't place major locations in this process, but they determine all the minor locations, and organise the map into regions.

Referees also get to choose to incorporate "threat packs", which is how they get to place major locations into the shared sandbox, as well as determining what the major threats facing the area are. Further Afield introduces the concept of a "threat pack", and comes with four examples (a dragon-boss, an imperial invasion, a magic kidnapper and a creeping blight). Threats have an "imminence" rating which slowly rises over time, and determines how active they are. They include one major location that the PCs may travel to deal with it, and typically suggest several minor locations. They have some information about overcoming the threat, bosses and monsters, an encounter table, relevant items or spells, etc. They also incorporate a table that at least one PC rolls on that determines how they are connected to the threat. This is a very clever concept on how to structure this kind of information, and it's something worth adopting into any sandbox game with large over-arching threats.

The end result of this process is a well-developed sandbox with lots of hooks and details that doesn't require a ton of referee investment at the front end.

Playbooks are the process whereby characters are generated. They're essentially a set of lifepath tables. Going through them, the players create NPCs and village locations as well as defining their relationships and shared history to one another (and generate their stats). Though theoretically there are three classes with multiclassing allowed, it's the playbooks that really develop the diversity here, with multiple playbooks to choose from per class, as well as multiclass playbooks that allow you to create rogue-mages and warrior-mages of different types. The playbook also includes most of the reference information that the player will need to play the game on the last two pages. There's currently somewhere around twenty playbooks by Flatland, mostly available for free. After play begins, if a character dies, a player can simply use the ordinary character generation rules to create a new character and add themselves back to the party.

The result of using the playbooks is to fill out the hometown of the characters and the relatonship between them with very little work needed by the referee.

Finally, scenario packs build on the work done before, and are the equivalent of adventures in Beyond the Wall. The ones released so far are written so that most of the relevant NPCs are actually generated from the list the PCs created during character generation (or from other NPCs added as the story goes on). Each scenario pack has a table of precipitating events that PCs roll on which give them a few clues, omens or warnings about what's coming. They then flesh out the various items, monsters, locations goals, etc. involved, often by using random tables that gives them a fair bit of replayability. They're a little more loosely written than typical dungeon adventures, but the information is presented so that the module is flexible, rather than vague.

The great strength of the system is how these different pieces work to feed into one another to diminish the demands of setting up and running a sandbox for referees and players. I've come to appreciate games that do this more and more (I am fond of Sine Nomine's games for similar reasons). I think I'm going to line up my next offline game to be Beyond the Wall because of this.

Jul 5, 2015

[Review] Amber Diceless

I bought a physical copy of the Amber Diceless RPG while in Scotland last week, and read it cover to cover. I've heard people talk about it for years, but diceless roleplaying games tend not to be my preference. My main complaint is that most of the ones I've seen (Nobilis 2e, most notably) confuse avoiding a physical randomiser (dice, cards, etc.) to resolve disputes with having underdeveloped procedures of play and mechanics.

Amber isn't really an exception to this, though it's the beginning of this paradigm rather than a latter development within it. It's a bit frustrating still, because the game clearly does care about using procedures to depict specific themes and create certain emotional experiences, but doesn't carry this through consistently. The attribute auction that begins a new campaign is reasonably well-known, and creates a very specific experience (player competition) that is intended to play itself out in the rest of the game. More procedures like this would have been great, and there are a few others, but the game emphasises that its goal is ultimately to have you progress to freeform play.

I know the formlessness of freeform roleplay was lauded during the late 1980s and early 90s, with the idea that rules served as barriers to the imagination being its guiding aesthetic principle, but that underlying principle wasn't true then, and it isn't true now. Rules and procedures and mechanics are affordances, and using them well is about choosing the specific kinds of behaviour, themes and affects one wants to be able to produce. Freeform roleplaying strips away those affordances (this is different than minimalism about rules) with the hope that unconstrained imagination will somehow pick up the slack.

So I find it weird that Amber lauds this kind of playstyle, while it's at its best when it's furthest away from it.

As it is, we get extensive, very well-done, samples of play that seem capable of development, but stop short of being true procedures, because they don't provide clear decision points or criteria by which to select from different choices. In particular, advice on how to adjudicate characters choosing and/or switching which stat or attribute is being compared could be more extensive and standardised. If one is relying on referee judgment as the main means of resolution, then it's important to train that judgment with not just examples, but also maxims and guidelines.

One example of this stopping short is the text mentioning briefly how stats can be weakened or damaged, but never actually clarifying how or why they might be (at least that I could find). Another is the discussion about Endurance (an attribute) being used to adjudicate contests that continue on long enough, without "long enough" being clearly explained. There is a bit of information on whether a contest is swiftly resolved or not, but this is presented unlinked to the prior statements the game made about endurance. The worst of the sting of this is taken out by the examples, but I would have preferred more clarity and definition overall. On the other hand, the various powers are well-articulated, with numerous examples of specific abilities and problems that come along with using them, and truly seem like a useful prosthesis for imagining the world and characters' capabilities within it..

I'm not too enthused about the Amber setting itself, but I thought the book did a pretty decent job making it seem interesting and exciting, and the default set-up does do a great job explaining how the party knows one another, why they associate with one another, and what their relations to the broader world and the important NPCs within it are. The discussion of "sockets" and "plugs" by which PCs fit into adventures must've been pretty innovative when first presented, and I think it's something any referee could benefit from reading. The use of text from the Zelazny series is evocative, and I think you emerge from reading the Amber RPG with a fairly clear idea of the kinds of adventures you could run.

I'm sure this review comes across fairly negative, but I did like the book for the most part. I thought the referee advice was strong and useful, and the game was innovative as heck for its time, and still has a lot to teach any referee about how to handle a table well. Like most innovative and experimental work, it's incomplete and not fully worked out, because it's busy creating a style that other games (Lords of Gossamer and Shadow, Lords of Olympus, etc.) would pick up on and develop further.

Jul 4, 2015

Layers of the Sandbox

This post ties in with yesterday's Traveller post, but also with something I'm working on for Necrocarcerus 1.3.

Sandbox settings typically have two different scopes of play during a session, and moving between them well is critical to pulling a sandbox. I'm going to call these two scopes the "strategic" and the "tactical" scopes for clarity.

The strategic scope is the scope where the player characters consider the list of options for missions, tasks and goals. In play, this scope often involves consulting maps and lists, but it doesn't exclude roleplaying. PCs may consult their patrons, discuss their options in character, check in with sources and contacts, etc. This often even includes the actual travelling portion of game-play. The important thing is that they are not necessarily committed to any particular course of action. Deciding whether to smuggle xenopornography to the dolphinoid revanchist militias of an interdicted waterworld (a real example from a Traveller game I ran) is the kind of decision you make at this scope.

I occasionally see this section written off as "prep" with the suggestion that it should be elided or compressed, but I think this does a disservice to the possibilities of play it generates. A common referee mistake here is to undersupply the PCs with information they need to evaluate or predict possible consequences of their actions. While one doesn't need to simply hand them everything they want to know without effort or cost, it's useful to explicitly ask them the critical factors they need to decide between courses of action, and then detail how they can obtain this information.

The strategic scope helps fix the details that feed into the tactical scope. It determines time pressures, goals, resources, allies and enemies - basically it generates the framework of the individual adventures.

The tactical scope really begins when the PCs make a decision that can't be undone without abandoning the goal. So, when they dock at the space station to investigate the SOS signal, or when they make the first move to steal the nuke snuffer from their rival, or whatever. Here we enter the traditional scope of play - usually involving a specific location or small set of locations, where the PCs describe their actions individually and shoot their lasers at enemies, etc. The tactical scope is where adventures happen.

In Traveller, much of the procedural generation material exists to support the strategic scope of play, rather than the tactical scope. I believe this is true of most sandbox games I'm familiar with. This doesn't mean the tactical scope is unimportant, but strong support for the strategic scope is a feature that we use to declare a game is a "sandbox" instead of some other type of play structure.

The part I want to back up to for a moment is that transition between the two, since I think this is the part that trips people up the most. It involves shifting gears between two different styles of play. Some examples of games that have both of these scopes in them and clearly demarcate them are Burning Empires, and Stars Without Number (especially the Darkness Visible supplement). I recommend checking either game out for more information, but I'm going to just mention them here rather than go into great detail about either one.

The demarcation point between strategic and tactical scopes of play is the choice that cannot be undone. This line of demarcation is taken from dramatic writing (a choice that cannot be undone is the transition point between acts of the story in film and plays, specifically). "Undone" doesn't mean the PCs can't leave the dungeon, fly away from the asteroid, whatever, but that they can't do so without some cost or risk that would not occur had they not engaged with it in the first place.

You can move as freely as one likes between the two scopes in actual play, so long as this line of distinction is maintained. If it isn't, you'll find people start getting confused about their options. It helps to call this out a bit in play, often by citing the obstacles to disengagement before the PCs fully commit. "Once you dock with the space station, it'll take a half-hour to disengage and break contact if there are any problems" or "If you go and talk to Murderous Marco and he offers you a job, you'll either have to take it or there will be trouble, regardless of how bad the terms he offers are."

This also helps in defining the scope of adventures. Knowing that the adventure proper must begin with a choice that cannot be undone, you can design your adventures to clearly begin with them, instead of just kind of drifting into suddenly having an adventure, which is a common mistake referees make as they try to manage the two scopes.

Jul 3, 2015

Running a Traveller Session

Natalie B. of How to Start a Revolution in 21 Days asked on G+:

"Who's run Traveller? Has anyone ever written about the procedures involved in running Traveller, a la what Sham's Grog n' Blog did for megadungeon play?

I have a pretty good handle on how to prep Traveller (I think) but a much less solid idea of what a typical Traveller session looks like, and what the engine of play is."

I think this is a great question, and while I gave her a very preliminary answer on G+, I thought I'd expand on it here. I'll be talking mainly about Mongoose Traveller, which is the version I'm most familiar with, and I'm going to stick to talking primarily about the corebook rather than all the supplements.

The core of Traveller is a resource management game, much like D&D. Money. time and opportunity are the player character's resources. The purpose of the ship mortgage and any other debt they acquire is to put a compelling time pressure on them and force them to prioritise, choose and pursue opportunities, which in turn get them the money they need to reset the timer. This is the core engine of play, and all the worldbuilding procedural stuff exists to flesh out these things in play.

To make this engine work, time needs to be tracked closely. Jumps take a week each, with a week of refueling between them in most cases. This means that in most cases, PCs have at most two weeks in a given system to make good on every opportunity available - less if they have to jump more than once or if they have to travel between the capital planet and the jump horizon. Depending on the referee, you may enforce that the PCs can only make payments on their ship in systems that have the complex credit arrangements necessary, meaning they have to spend time going back to these systems, intensifying the pressure on them.

Travelling itself imposes costs. There's fuel, crew costs, maintenance, and then any additional costs for dealing with danger, like buying weapons, repairing damage, etc. There's the costs of picking up trade goods if you're trading, there's port fees, there's taxes, etc. These costs should be concrete whenever possible. You want the PCs to see their bank accounts constantly ticking down, with occasional top-ups when they accomplish something. Usually, you want them to begrudge paying these, since it will drive further opportunities - smuggling; handovers in shifty, isolated locales far from local governments; taking occasionally foolish risks to squeeze out those last few credits or avoid handing them over to someone else.

The last piece is to generate more opportunities than the PCs can possibly ever accomplish, and then to make them either time-limited, or randomly occurring. This forces prioritisation. The most boring Traveller games are the ones where there's only one thing to be doing at any given moment. Opportunities should take different forms - mercenary tickets, booming markets, patrons with urgent requests, secret tip-offs and treasure maps, disasters, the locations of lost systems, illegal ancient alien technology, gold rushes, etc.

By altering variables of opportunities, the referee can influence PC behaviour quite strongly - if all roads lead to system X, then chances are the PCs are going to system X, whereas if everything goes in different, incompatible directions, the PCs are probably to pick either the safest or best paying option.

The last thing to bear in mind with this engine is determining how it faces the players. What information can they obtain before making decisions, and what's a gamble? How do PCs get this information? My experience personally is that the more information the better. The more factors the PCs have to account for, the more agonising any decision is. If you're going to leave a gap in their knowledge, then aim to either have it be to leave out a piece of information that will settle the decision either way for them, or that will drive them to want to acquire the answer.