Thursday, July 31, 2014

Encumbrance: The Beauty of the ____________

I am now, officially, a huge fan of the blank.

A couple weeks ago, walking into school from my truck, I found myself carrying four wooden dowels of various lengths, two bags of large marshmallows, my lunch box with a one-liter water bottle clipped to it, four pieces of posterboard rolled together, a camera, a 13 gallon trashbag full of miniature terrain (very light, very bulky).

Although my total load was insignificant (maybe 10 lbs), as I did the one-finger pull to open the door and get into the building, it was clear that I was carrying about as much as I could in terms of bulk.

The old standby
you must know nodwick

I like to set some limits when it comes to how much players can have their characters haul around in my role-playing games, but assigning every piece of treasure or gear an encumbrance value and/or weight to track is way more granularity and record keeping than I'm up for in my recreation.  Delta at Delta's D&D Hotspot has created a neat, thematic encumbrance system, and it's fine for gearing up at the start of an adventure, but really I want something that can allow players to quickly self-adjudicate in situations like ...

"I want to take a spear from the frog-guys"

"I want to carry the potion and the monkey-mace"

"If I drop my shield can I take the elf's bow now that he's dead?"

"Can I just bring the whole chest along?"

Dagger for Kids (Brave Halfling Publishing) has no system for tracking weight or encumbrance; the game is aiming for a much more minimalist style of play; so I had to find something I could live with that was rules-lite, intuitive, and self-managed.

I offer for your consideration ... _______________ ... the humble blank.

Want to carry an extra weapon?

That takes a blank.

Pack some rope along?

That's a blank too.

Find a sack of coins at the bottom of a chest?

Yup.  A blank.

Each of my Dagger for Kids character sheets has six of these lovely blanks preprinted on them.  Call them "equipment slots" or "inventory spaces" or whatever.  My student-players know how to use them intuitively and don't even need to be told, "If you've filled them all then you can't carry anything else unless you drop something first."

Using blanks -- inflexible, severe, and abstract as hit points -- adds a delightful layer to the dungeon-exploration game: we award experience for treasure successfully recovered from the dungeon only to the character actually carrying it.  So, often as not, every valuable find requires players to choose between dropping a piece of gear to pick up loot, or keeping the tools they may need but passing up on the best source of experience points.

I like my student players to think about things like: "If I drop my lantern in exchange for a sack of coins, will our remaining torches last long enough to get us back out?  Should I dump the iron spikes instead?  What if we get chased by a monster and need to jam a door shut?"

As you may have guessed, my dungeons end up being littered with discarded gear -- for a reason -- which is awesome.  Groups of explorers also find that they have to stash treasure in the dungeon with plans to return and recover it later, which can lead to the creation of player-generated cryptic notes and treasure maps!

Some items, like that big treasure chest, may require two or even three slots, while tiny items, like rings and broaches, don't require one.  As a GM, I assign treasures both a value in gold pieces / experience points and a number of equipment slots that it occupies.  This encourages evaluative thinking as players pick which items to carry along.  Want to lug your friend's body out for proper burial?  Better be ready to get rid of some gear to free up the three blanks you'll need.


In this experience-for-treasure-carried, six-item-only approach, henchmen, linkboys, porters and other non-combatants take on a distinct value ("Squire, my mace!").  Since characters in Dagger for Kids don't have any ability scores (no strength or charisma stats for e.g.), I've toyed with the idea of using character level to determine a maximum number of retainers.

As an aside, in my middle school games, all standard starting equipment and weapons are "free" -- explorers are assumed to come from among members of a social class that can bear arms and risk exploring the underworld rather than spending their days laboring in the fields.

Here are some of the requests my last batch of middle schoolers made when thinking about their starting equipment:

"Can I have ...

a grappling hook?

a rope?

some dynamite?

a radio?

rope arrows, can I get some rope arrows?

a slab of meat, like a big steak?

a horse?

some matches?

an extra torch?

something that can burn ... some oil?

a bandage.  If I put a bandage on does that give me back my hit points?

a katana -- it's NOT just a sword

a javelin or a spear

some antivenom

some kind of healing potion or something

some food -- does food heal wounds when you eat it?

an extra wand.  If I have two wands does it let me cast an extra spell?"

lifted here

Ah, a new generation of would-be power-gamers in the making!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Teens vs B4 The Lost City

pic accessed at Rexque Futurus

For the second week of Adventure Games Camp, I was scheduled to run 20 more hours of tabletop role-playing for a fresh batch of a dozen rising 6th-8th graders.  I knew I wanted to continue exploring the ruined city of Bawal Bayan in its pulp jungle setting, but wanted to keep things fresh and interesting too ... it couldn't all be frolicking with white apes ...

So I flipped around in B1-9 In Search of Adventure, that often disappointing 1987 digest of Basic-series D&D modules, and realized that for all the acclaim that it gets among the old school gaming crowd, I'd never actually run Tom Moldvay's B4 The Lost City -- heresy!

DMB4 The Lost City

What better opportunity to mend my ways?

I yanked B4's step-pyramid out of the desert, plunked her down in the temple district of Bawal Bayan, and dispensed with the "lost and dying of thirst" railroad opening (which is swell as railroads go ... water as treasure is a nice twist), just leaving a secret door open and letting teenage curiosity run its course.

I made a few other decisions at the outset:
  • I'd only deal with the first 5 tiers of the ziggurat
  • I'd tie this adventure to the emergent plotline of the prior week: the Yuan-Ti ritual interrupted prior was a rite of Zargon.  With the temple well now collapsed, the degenerate serpent-men were seeking a new way below Bawal Bayan to reestablish contact with their foul patron.
  • All the Cynidiceans would be warped into inhuman monsters to sidestep some ethical questions.  They were twisted by the influence of Zargon, but maintain a facade of humanity, assisted by their custom of never uncovering the face.
  • I'd use a random chart to determine reactions when Cynidiceans met strangers with "naked faces": disgust, fear, titillation, etc.
  • Apart from some cosmetic changes, I'd run the 50 keyed encounters as-written (monster placement, AC, hit points, attack routines, treasure, save or die poison, etc.), all dice rolled openly.
  • The adventurers could leave the ziggurat and go explore other parts of the city if they so desired -- nothing but curiosity and excitement would hold them there. 
  • We'd use Dagger for Kids as our rules set.  Apart from equipment, characters would only have three stats: armor class, hit points, and a saving throw (15+)
 Here are the sketches that I made while running the adventure:

The topmost level of the ziggurat.  I enclosed the three statues
within a shrine and ruled that the doors were corroded shut.
1' x 1' air shafts perforated the sloping walls ...
the perfect invitation for giant bees.
Left of the stair,
a secret door
stood slightly ajar.
Closer inspection revealed that the body
pinned in the threshold wasn't human.
Beyond the door, their first trapped room!
No fatalities yet, but a lesson in caution.

Down the corroded rungs of the ladder,
the next layer of the ziggurat
felt like a maze.

Dangerous creatures had crept down
the air shafts to propagate in the darkness.
Were they birds, bats, insects?
Not everything left behind by
the ancient builders was foul.
Limbs extended from the copper
orbs and they tried to talk in
scratchy, unintelligible voices.
[ I replaced B4's sprites with these modron-inspired fellows ]  

Like their masks,
the statue of their god
showed far more craft
than the "Gormites"
seemed capable of.
The hunched, masked acolytes claimed
that the world beyond the ziggurat had been destroyed
and believed the giant bees were divine messengers.
It was easy to trick the slow-witted Gormites and subdue them with a sleep spell.
Beneath their masks,  however, they weren't human at all!
The 3rd level down contained a rotating corridor.
Defeated Gormites made checking for traps easier!

Serpent-men, apparently servants
of a power called "Zargon",
trailed the explorers into
the ziggurat and laid an ambush.

Another cult of degenerate remnants from the
ancient city, the Children of Usamagiras were
diminutive and could only speak in whispers.
They feared the daylight, but their system of
bronze mirrors allowed them to reflect starlight
onto their pentagonal altar.  The explorers
dubbed them, "creepy wizard babies".

The Daughters of Maradura
were xenophobic and warlike.
They also wielded the sharpened
bones of their severed left arms
as ritual weapons*.  They agreed
not to attack, but only if the
explorers brought the heads of
slain Zargonites as tribute.

[I lifted this disturbing little idea from Monster Manual Sewn From Pants

Where to find Zargonites?

Down below the catacomb level of course!
The very first tomb was that of a court fool.
His spring-loaded sarcophagus hinted of the
decadence that had rotted the city from its roots
and the explorers most certainly did not approve.

Magic, brass urns teleported their contents back
to the fool's tomb.  The clever adventurers pried
the urns loose and rolled them along with the party
to provide a ready-made escape hatch!

A labyrinth of trapped tombs nearly proved more trouble than it was worth,
especially when the novice explorers had their very first run-in with ghouls.
The jaguar-club was guarded by animated
skeletons.  What was special about it?

Five levels down now ... things were getting
increasingly dangerous!  Animated, magnetic
iron warrior-statues, living stone dragon-
gargoyles who couldn't be harmed by mortal
weapons, more traps, and when the wizard
tried on that strangely preserved robe,
he was dominated by the mind of an ancient
priest from before the fall, obsessed with
destroying the leader of the "new" heretical
cult of Zargon.

The wizard's face began to turn silvery and smooth.
A shining mace, recovered from the catacombs,
helped the dwarf pound his way through foes
until the gargoyles tore him to bits.

At last, only an elf (she utterly fearless) and the possessed wizard (he compelled)
dared probe deeper into the ziggurat.  Their walk below the earth became increasingly dream-like as they entered the halls of the ancient city's last remnants.
 GM: Beyond the door you find a chamber in which a large number of masked people mingle.  Some recline as they consume that bitter, grey bread you saw the others eating before while others listen to a speaker reciting poetry about the final days before the destruction of the city, "before the new age brought by our Lord Zargon."  When they see you [rolling dice] many of them begin to laugh.  "Oh, what a delicious joke!  Oh, you've outdone yourselves with this latest jest!  Bare-face indeed ... she looks so real too."

Wizard: Okay yeah, we're so funny, ha, ha.

Elf: Should we cast a sleep spell on them and sneak past them?

Wizard: I don't have any first level spells left, do you?

Elf: I can only cast web.

Wizard: Let's just play along and head for that door.

GM: As you pass through the room they start to applaud.

Wizard: We love you too.  Hail Zargon.

GM: In the next room more masked figures are gathered around a wheel playing some type of strange game.  They seem to be gambling based on their spins of the wheel, but the evidence suggests that apart from winning piles of jade tokens that sometimes the players are killed. [rolling dice] "What do you want?"

Wizard: We are the secret police of Zargon.  We are here because we've heard some disturbing things about this game ... 

GM: "Nonsense.  Everything is as it should be here."

Wizard: Oh, I doubt that ...

Elf: Well maybe if you gave us something, we'd say that the inspection is over and we could just go.

Not only were the explorers successful in bluffing their way past the gamblers but, through their questioning, they also identified the bottle that they had acquired earlier as a potion of "Eternal Slumber" (its match, along with a potion called "The Delight" was being used in the game and gamblers were sometimes required to drink the poison).

Soon they had bluffed their way into the heavily guarded Shrine of Zargon to confront the evil priest.  Even as they entered, the wizard's face completed its transformation into the smiling, silver features of Usamagiras, the Star Sage, foe of Zargon!

GM: There are about fifteen masked figures in the room, being led in hymns to Zargon by their black-robed, gold-masked priest.

Wizard: We bring a message from Zargon!

GM: [rolling dice] "Why do you have the face of our enemy?  How dare you enter this place?"

Elf: He was cursed to have that face until he delivers Zargon's message.

Wizard: Yes, Zargon will show that he is supreme over all the other guys ... like Gorm ... and those other guys.

Elf: Zargon has a special message, but it is only for the high priest.  The rest of you must leave.

GM: [rolling dice] "Do as he says."

Wizard: Zargon says that an entire new world is coming -- that Zargon is going to make a new world and he has chosen you to be its leader, but first you must pass a test.  (I give him the potion of Eternal Slumber)  You have to drink this.

GM: "That is the potion of Eternal Slumber."

Wizard: Yes, if you have enough faith then Zargon will allow you to overcome its effects.  He will give you the power to rise again in a more powerful form.  Only then will you be worthy to rule his new world.

GM: [rolling dice] "Um, okay ..."

One dead priest of Zargon later, and the wizard had pulled on the gold mask and raiments of the evil cleric.  The pair confined their looting to the body itself, realizing perhaps that they had used up more than their share of luck already.  A quick reverse march was executed and each encounter was begun with an authoritative "Hail Zargon!" to clear the way.  Before long they escaped back up to the third level and from there they were able to beat a hasty retreat out of the ziggurat.

Some take away:

  • B4 The Lost City made for an incredibly fun romp
  • weird creature placement was easily handled with a few cosmetic changes
  • the traps, while basic, were surprisingly engaging and varied
  • the coin-based treasure was boring but was easy to re-skin on the fly
  • I assumed that, with the average character having only 5 hit points, that this would be a bloodbath.  Instead, out of 12 characters, usually venturing down in groups of four, we only had 4 fatalities.
  • By handling the ziggurat and chambers beneath like a Half-Life bunker, it can be dropped into just about any setting
  • While I've already shown that Dagger for Kids can get the job done, there was no point at which it couldn't do everything that the writer required of it to run this module -- in fact, after the first session or two, I basically forgot that we weren't playing D&D
  • Saving throws = great catch all.  Though I never used them this way in years past, I think Ray "Dungeoncraft" Winninger was the first I heard suggest using saving throws as more than a way to decide if the poison was lethal.  Trying to jump a pit, bluff an enemy, catch a handhold while slipping, avoid a green slime, pull a magnetized sword free?  Make a saving throw!  It becomes a sort of level-based, generic dungeoneering skill.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Mini-Campaign Told in Sketches

Remember the days before Facebook and Flickr when your Aunt Gladys would drag out the photo album and plop it on your lap, pinning you firmly to the sofa?  It was part of the ritual of recounting her trip to Albuquerque -- the pictures were grainy, celluloid vestments.

So hopefully this isn't that ... then again, maybe there was something to be said for Aunt Gladys and her efforts to become, if only for an afternoon, a raconteur par excellence ... discovering the frame of a narrative out of so many collected, disparate moments.  Come to think of it, Aunt Gladys had the makings of a heck of a GM ...

Anyway, I'm a sucker for artifacts of actual play.  Nothing thrills me quite like some of those old issues of (The) Dragon Magazine in which you can catch the occasional hint about the shenanigans of Sir Robilar and friends in Castle Greyhawk back in that great-granddaddy of all D&D campaigns.  An actual map like this one is practically the Holy Grail:

One of Gary's own maps; read about it here among other places
I still keep old character sheets from my past campaigns and even some tactical maps too -- I have stats for Bluewater, Zoltan, Utusi, Wolf, Blam!, and Arnold squirreled away and ready against the day that all my old high school buddies suddenly reappear at my doorstep, ready to game after a 25 year hiatus.

Maybe my penchant for hanging onto old campaign artifacts is what caused me to pause as I was cleaning up after my two-week Adventure Games Summer Enrichment Camp.  Flipping back through the tactical maps and sketches that our 40-odd hours of play had generated over the days just prior, I saw something evocative on those sheets of lined chart paper ... this wasn't the adventure itself, but was certainly an echo of the excitement that we'd discovered together down in the dungeon.

Pieced together chronologically, these images, all generated during actual play, form a record of the adventures and misadventures of 16 players, brand new to this most peculiar hobby:

The mouth of The Black Canyon
with the edge of the old croc pool just to the north.
It looked like a good place to start.
In the secret tunnel west of the canyon,
a new friend: a knight left behind
when he was infected by a horrible fungus.

Ernie the Elf tried to help the lost knight
by cutting the slabs of fungal growth off,
but he had lost some things along the way
(not least of all his mind).

The quicksand grotto still held
the moldering carcass of the ankheg. 

Ernie dragged his new friend along with him
as he explored northward
and found the garden of the Yellow Musk Creepers

Ernie took something extra with him
when he left.

Meanwhile white apes tangled
with another part of the expedition.
Look! A tooth!

Beyond the apes, ants.
Notice Vance the Wizard in the lower left.
Hang on tight, Vance!

Badly bitten and shoved into a larder,
Vance and Sir Matthew crawled through
the ant tunnels, seeking an escape.
Instead they found the queen.

Elsewhere, masked pygmies added excitement
and quaint, local flavor to the morning constitutional. 

Once provided with full bellies, however,
the pygmies soon became acquiescent.
Dwarf barbecue, complete with pineapple, shown lower left

Down in the crater floor,
a quick-eyed elf noticed the cone-shape mounds of debris move.
They were carefully avoided thereafter,
but their mystery was never revealed.

The ancient houses and courtyards of the merchants quarter
formed the sprawling maze that explorers dubbed "The Labyrinth."

The gold on the bottom of the pool caught the eye,
until the serpent-woman rose from the water.
Beware her gaze!

Ernie the Elf met his end, not under the talons of monsters,
but by the blade of an ensorcelled comrade.
Of course, the Yellow Musk spores in his blood
meant that Ernie would continue on in a sort of shadow-life.

The Skull Gate gave access to the Temple Plaza and a chance for treasure,
but what's this?  Twist the right skull and a secret door opens!

Why was there a barrel in the mouth
of the secret tunnel?
And what was the acrid liquid inside?
And why was there a sponge on a stick?
Perhaps we should just go a different direction.
The image on the ancient,
bronze portals
hinted that this
may not be such a nice place
to visit after all. 

It was a cheat! Beneath their robes,
the acolytes were not women at all.

Better to use magic and bring the ceiling crashing down,
than see the thing that the acolytes had called up out of the sacrificial well!

What ancient deities were these,
so boldly displayed along the Avenue of the Gods?

Inside the foot of
The Fallen Colossus,
the hermit gave no guidance
as to which box was the right choice.
Hale the Elf decided to trust his luck.

The crystalline spider from the right box.
Was it worth the cost? 

Can you believe the luck?
The explorers returned to the exact same ruined hovel
where Victoria had hid all that treasure a year before.
Another couple yards and they would have found it too!

The sphinx conceals the entrance to a dungeon.
Mind that the counterweight doesn't hit you
when the door is triggered.

The chamber rotates, so how to deduce
which tunnels have already been explored?

Three enigmatic faces,
protruding from the stone wall,
 uttered phrases in an unknown language.
Were they warnings?  A curse?  A trick?

And there you have it -- our first week of adventure, as seen through the sketches and notes generated during actual play.

If you play (you really should play, you know) what kind of artifacts does your group generate during their role-playing sessions?

Do you keep these notes, sketches, or what-have-you, or just have a quick chuckle over them and then send them off to the recycling bin for reincarnation?