Oct 28, 2018

Songlines in the Dawnlands

I've written about songlines before, back when I was using Openquest to run the Dawnlands, but as I convert it over to Mythras, it's time for new rules.

A brief recap of songlines for those new to the Dawnlands:

Outside of the cities of Durona and Kaddish, there are no maps of the Dawnlands, and even in the cities, most maps are cadastral surveys used to sort out parcels of land rather than tools of navigation. While people are loosely familiar with the concept of maps, the low levels of literacy in the hinterlands would make them near useless anyhow.

Instead, people use songlines to get around. These are songs that encode the necessary directions for someone to get from one place mentioned in the song to another place mentioned in the song by decoding the rhythm, tempo, mode, scansion and actual semantic content of the lyrics.

Most songlines are vast historical epics tracing the journeys of heroes and peoples across the Dawnlands, criss-crossing and entangling one another to create both a tight mesh of navigational information as well as a comprehensive history. Songlines do not necessarily trace the shortest distance between two points it may connect, and part of the expertise and lore of using them well is to understand when and how to switch from one songline to another to cut a journey short. The elders of a clan typically serve as a storehouse of knowledge about the songlines, and clans trade unfamiliar or new songlines with one another as prized goods.

What this means is that there are two skills in Mythras that allow one to find one's way from place to place. The first is the Sing skill, and the second is the Navigate skill. Navigate covers overland travel off the songlines (which for the purposes of the skill's description on pg. 48 of Mythras are "unusual journeys" "in completely unfamiliar territory"). It works exactly as described in the Mythras corebook, and is mainly used by people who learn it as a professional skill through their careers.

When PCs are following songlines, which count as the "normal" way to travel in the Dawnlands, they use Sing to find their way (Sing is a standard skill available to all characters).

To determine the length of a journey, either pick a number between 50 and 1000, or roll 1d1000. This is the percentage the navigator has to accumulate in an extended task roll using their Sing skill in order to successfully guide the party to where it wants to go.

Each day of travel, they roll their Sing skill. On a critical success they accumulate 50%, on a standard success 25%, on a failure 0%, and on a fumble, -25%. When they have accumulated a percentage roll equal to or higher than the roll of 1d1000, they have arrived at their destination. If for any reason they drop below 0 due to fumbles, they are lost. It's very hard to get lost while using songlines, but they also channel travellers along courses that may not be the most direct route, and other travellers, bandits, etc. are much more likely to be following songlines themselves rather than roaming around randomly.

PCs may aid one another or augment their Sing skills with relevant passions, skills, etc. If they can collect an especially useful or direct songline, they can shift the base difficulty of the Sing rolls down to Easy (rolling 1.5x their skill).

For every 100% accumulated, the PCs will come across a landmark or area of interest that serves to reorient them with a new verse (that is, verses typically cover 2-4 days worth of travel).

PCs can also use the rules for crafting equipment on pgs. 65-67 of the Mythras corebook for crafting songlines, using the Sing skill for task rolls. This requires them to have travelled the course involved, and can either involve merging together two or more songlines, or being part of a group where someone successfully uses the Navigate skill to find the way.

Oct 16, 2018

Searching: Describing Actions and Rolling

When I run old school D&D, I use a group-based perception system. You can find an old version of it on this blog, and versions in both the Necrocarcerus house rules document and Into the Depths, but here's a summary that doesn't require you to click somewhere else:

Every object has a concealment score (obvious objects have a concealment score of 0), ranging from 1 to infinity, with most hidden objects being between 3 and 10. The party as a whole has a base or passive perception score equal to the number of PCs in it.

This is their base capability to notice things as they move along in an orderly fashion. It represents them looking around for potential points of interest or danger, but not interacting with or examining things in detail. It requires no time or actions spent to observe the world around them at this level.

If the PCs stop moving and start examining the area around them, they roll a d6 and add it to the base perception score. Typically this kind of search requires a turn.

If the party's perception score equals or exceeds the concealment score of the objects, they discover the object once they come in sight of it (which is usually limited by the availability of light).

If the PCs are broken up into small groups, then each sub-group has a passive perception score equal to the number of PCs in it. If only a few PCs stop to examine things, then that's a sub-group as well, but they still add a d6 roll onto the sub-group's score as they actively search.

Hirelings, retainers, pets, etc. don't contribute to this score unless the specific specialty skill that they were hired for is spotting things, like a tracker dog or something.

These are the mechanics that slot into a larger process. That process is actually split down the middle. The initial phase is that of passive observation as PCs move. This passive observation is interrupted when they encounter various obvious objects in the space around them (furniture, architectural features, creatures, etc.).

Then, instead of immediately allowing PCs to roll for actively searching an area, I stage the "roleplaying" element where they can interact with and examine the objects. That involves them making specific statements that clearly indicate what and how they are examining something. "I check under the bed", "I cast detect magic and examine the room for auras", "I bang on the walls and listen for echoes", "I cut open the monster's stomach".

If a PC describes something that should reveal the hidden item or object, then it simply does, no roll required. This is their reward for clever ideas. It doesn't matter if it has a concealment score they could never reach numerically, if they luck into or deduce how to find it, they do.

Eventually, I bring this phase to a conclusion when the PCs run out of obvious ideas (it can be very quick sometimes if they're stumped). At that point, they can invoke the active search rule and spend the turn. But that's it. Once they get whatever they're getting out of active searching, they're done and can't find anymore stuff until the situation changes somehow.

The combination of benefits and restrictions here is surprisingly effective at pushing players to at least come up with a few ideas about how they're searching, and it prevents them from just spending a turn and actively searching an area instead of doing any sort of description of how they do it. I recommend attempting it in one's own games if one does not already.

Oct 11, 2018

A Brief (Re)Introduction

My blog traffic has suddenly picked up through a combination of reblogs, Reddit comments, mentions in Youtube videos, and people adding me to RSS feeds as G+ slowly wraps up. I figured it was time for a reintroduction for all of you new readers.

I've been playing roleplaying games for 28 years now, since I was eight years old. I started with Palladium Games' TMNT and Other Strangeness before moving to the Rules Cyclopedia of D&D and from there through many other games in the intervening decades before coming back to old school D&D.

I play a lot of different games, but I mainly write about Mythras, Openquest, Stars Without Number, and my own "neo-clone" of old school D&D, Into the Depths. I also write a fair bit about my ideas about playing the game, though I try to keep the theory-posting to mostly practical matters. My two main campaign settings are a Central-Asian-inspired psychedelic dark fantasy setting for Mythras called "The Dawnlands"; and a gonzo post-apocalyptic afterlife setting for Into the Depths called "Necrocarcerus" that satirises a lot of the tropes of D&D.

The most important considerations I have when running games include information presentation and accessibility; creating surprise and wonder during play; how to shape and vary the risk PCs face and the agency and control they have; distributing tasks throughout the entire play group (but not "GM-less" play); the operation of incentive systems and social dynamics; creating "living worlds"; and all sorts of play that don't involve the imposition of narrative control by the referee on PCs, but that nonetheless emerge into satisfying situations evocative of the best parts of fantasy and science fiction narratives.

The things I've written that people have found the most useful (as determined by page views, reblogging, copying into their own games, etc.) are:

My redesign of the traditional wandering monster table
My extension of the concept to handle traps 
My use of it to populate and repopulate dungeons as the PCs pass through them
My use of it to determine magical item components
My use of it to create radiant quests
My notes on randomly determining how tables can interact with one another

My notes on running "technical plots" (Plots where a situation has to be resolved through a technical solution instead of punching someone out).
My thoughts on designing rules to make them feel like more skill or luck in involved
My thoughts on how to determine what you need to come up with houserules for
My reviews of popular OSR products

My procedure for PCs who are exploring the wilderness in hexcrawls
My chase rules
My teamwork rules for Into the Depths (Mythras, Openquest)
My perception rules
My alchemy rules for Necrocarcerus
My rules for treating backstories and knowledge as types of gear

My ideas about moving beyond the party-structure in RPGs
My ideas about PC roles (and here's an update on which ones I use these days)
My ideas about letting PCs make rolls for things like wandering monsters