Thursday, May 31, 2012

Pointcrawling Undercities

Today we resume where I left off with Tuesday's “Designing Undercities” post. (Those late night Google Plus marathon sessions of the Hill Cantons invariably kick the tar out of my aging butt--but then again you get what you paid for on this blog.)

Remember the project here is to create a mapping system that helps wrap your brain around the vast and complicated spatial dimensions of a full-fledged undercity. I turn to my old standby in visual organization, the pointcrawl, for some help here. (Longtime readers may remember that I tried to do this once before in thinking about the Realms Below of Sigil.) 

Let's recap the difficulties I was facing and how a pointcrawl system may help:

Historical layers. Tuesday I worked through a vertical cross-section method (reposted above). That process helped immensely in giving me an overall sense of the relationships and history of the differing phases of the undercity, but to effectively run it my badly-wired brain is also going to need some 2D top-down organization. I can capture that kind of mapping fairly easily using only 1-3 letter-sized pieces of graph paper with the pointcrawl method. 

Vast areas of empty space. Remember unlike a megadungeon which typically has a lot of contiguous space relatively tightly-packed the undercity sprawls both horizontally and vertically over much larger areas. Outside of a touch-every-doorknob OCD obsession there really is no need to waste much time and effort representing them—except for the all important dimension of where they lead, how much time traversing it takes, and potential obstacles in that path. In the pointcrawl we solve this by using a combination of lines and symbols that can tell us at a glance all the relevant information we need to know.

Losing the best bits. Related to the above point is the danger of having your most interesting points from a gaming perspective get swamped by the scale. Instead let's take each of those sites and mark them on the map with nice big distinct squares of their own.

Though only represented by a single abstract square each site will get the full detailed, standard graph paper mapping. The squares are abstracted units but my usual rule of thumb is to have a single piece of letter-sized graph paper correspond to each square. A duller area such as a small, residential housing may get collapsed into a single sheet with a larger ground scale and a really interesting or complicated site, especially one that has distinct sub-levels, may need a second or third sheet to back it up.

Entry points and vertical connections get hella confusing. Because they are big spaces that have seen years and years of habitation (of varying degrees) the chance of connections from the surface and between layers is likely to be exponentially higher than a standard dungeon. While it would likely drive you into a rubber room trying to capture each and every one, it helps create an interesting array of explorations options for the players if you have as many as you can captured. The pointcrawl simplifies the complicated dance of lining up horizontal with vertical space by treating vertical connections as simply as the empty spaces: a single line with some simple notation suffices.

Putting it all together here's yesterday's sample undercity as represented by a pointcrawl map. Click to enlarge.

Pointcrawl Map Key
The Lines
Unbroken lines = normal walkable passages (tunnel, corridor, etc)

Squiggly lines = unusual connector (teleportation, magic gate, etc.)

Arrow on line = vertical drop in the direction indicated (stairs, chutes, pits, wells, abysses, etc)

Two bars on line = barrier in passage (cave in, mudslide, locked gate, turnstile, giant critter, etc.)

Number in circle on line = confusing passage (twisty catacombs, maze, cavern system, etc) with number indicating roll for getting lost on a roll or below on a d6. Modify if party employs precautions such as chalking passages, using appropriate spells, hiring guide, and the like.

Dot on line = 3 hours of walking at normal, unencumbered pace along passage.

The Squares
Uncolored square = Recent human civilization mostly on the surface and drawn here to indicate entry points.

Maroon square = Serpent Woman layer, the uppermost layer of the undercity.

Yellow square = Space Elf layer, the second closest historical layer.

Orange square = Latter State layer, second from bottom.

Blue square = Hyperborean layer, bottom most.

I have marched through organizing the physical and conceptual map of my undercity, now we need to get into dealing with the further complication of this beast being a living, breathing social animal: the city part of the “undercity”. Look forward to at least one or more posts picking apart those angle.

Any questions about today's method? Is it clear what I am trying to do with this and how it fits together? Suggestions or opinions on how you think this could be done in different ways?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Designing Undercities

Giant subterranean cities piled out far under the sun-baked city streets. Byzantine, twisty layers of rubble-choked tunnels (nee roads), cavernous temple fanes, forgotten palaces piling on top of each other aeon upon aeon.

One of the elements I deeply love about Tekumel is that hot and forgotten world's vast undercities. In the core play area empire of Tsolyanu, a long-standing tradition called ditlana in which cities—at least in theory—are razed every 500 years and built over. Part sprawling megadungeon, part still-active underbelly of city life, they have had a fascinating pull on my imagination. Not surprsingly they have been long something I wanted to incorporate into my classic D&D campaign, yet I have never been quite able to pull it over the conceptual hump.

Why? Undercities on a Tekumelyani scales are seriously spatially-challenging beasts. I've had small-sized versions for many years, neighborhoods of cities conveniently bracketed off with cave-in's or very compact and sealed off little settlements (let me count the number of domed cities sitting in lakes I stole from the Holmes side-view example). But the truly sprawling undercity that matches and supersedes the larger environs of the city it sleeps under? Intimidating.

Just to give you an exact sense let's take a passage that Victor Raymond wrote in his ever-useful introduction thread to playing EPT “out of the box” about Barker's underworld under the port metropolis Jakalla:
“...The first level of the Jakállan Underworld is drawn on a 17” x 22” sheet of graph paper, 10 squares to the inch–and each square is ten feet in measure(!). Thus it is assumed to cover an area roughly 1700 feet by 2200 feet – almost 1/3rd by 1/2 a mile in size, centered largely under the ruined Temple of Hyáshra in the City of the Dead. If you consider the map of Jakálla, each hex has been said by Prof. Barker to be 50-100 yards across. To be fair, Prof. Barker has also said that the map is “semi-representational,” i.e. more important buildings appear larger on the map than they really are. Even so, the top layer of the Jakállan Underworld would require several 17x22 sheets to cover the entire city. This suggests that it would be difficult to actually map the entire Underworld...”
It's just not the horizontal hugeness of such a beast, you also have any number of other complications to conventional mapping to deal with: miles and miles of “empty space” (old roads, side-tunnels, etc.); the vertical dimension of historical layers that increase the total size many times; large numbers of entry points from the surface; and of course the potential active use of the upper levels by humans and other surface dwellers (thus also giving it the more complicated social dance of urban adventuring).

One could find a massive piece of architect's graph paper and laboriously fill each exacting section of your undercity in piece by piece, all the while trying to allow for the mental trick of knowing that your map still doesn't reach. I'm not going to do that.

What follows is less tutorial—as you can tell I am no expert—and more of me grasping for a method in designing undercities on a grander, more thoroughly thought-out scale.

Part I: Mapping the Layers
As much as I hate timelines and all the attendant setting-bloat whoha when tackling a undercity it undeniably makes for a practical starting point. I work better answering a series of leading questions while futzing with some kind of schematic.

How old is the city?
How many civilizations flourished here and for how long?

I am going to start with a young city by Tekumel standards, 5000 years, as my world is not quite as ancient. I am going to say perhaps five different civilizations each spanning a convenient millennium.

Who first founded it?
How did they order their city? What did they think was important?
Were they displaced or did they just evolve historically?
What lead to the city being buried? Was it a fiery cataclysm, a more gentle abandonment, or intentional process? Did anything survive on the surface?
How large of a surface area was it when it was abandoned? What structures survived being buried?
Who replaced these city-dwellers?
[Repeat question set above again and again until you have finished with each succeeding phase of the city.]

I take a standard piece of graph paper and start to draw out length wise the layers as I answer them. My squares I am going to say are roughly 250 feet a pop to give me room to work with. I would ratchet these upwards and downwards in scale depending how vast of a city I want, but the exact ground scale is really not so important to me as I am mostly just trying to grasp the overall vertical, horizontal, and historical relationships with this process.

The founding layer is naturally the bottom and I place it there. I color code it for use later (blue in this instance) to help distinguish it from the top layers. I am going to go with my perennial “lost civilization” favorites from the Hill Cantons, the Hyperboreans. They constructed a fairly compact city with cycolpean walls. The city was submerged by a vicious sorcerous deluge a 1,000 years into its life leaving the large stone structures encased in a preserving 30-foot thick layer of mud.

The original citadel, high on a bluff, survives and was incorporated into the next phase of the city (I mark it on the right and make sure it is visible in my next layer) by the Latter States who built a broader, yet less grand city on the site. I draw that layer on my side-view with an orange color and no space between the layers due to the relative shallowness of the layer.

Exactly 1000 years later, a Space Elf host burns and ravages the city near completely with only some of the larger, more durable. This city is larger and far grander than the other layers with giant plazas, massive pyramids, aqueducts, etc. Foul serpent women (from the future) encase this city again a 1,000 years into its life in a giant bubble of amber and collapse a mountain over it for good measure. I draw in a thick layer to represent the deep burying.

For mysterious reasons known only to their serpentine minds, the serpent women hollow out a space in the mountain rubble and construct a massive underground ceremonial space (colored in maroon) only to abandon it nearly intact after a millennium. The current human city of Dobre Rajetz rises on this spot.

And this is what I am left with (click to enlarge) a simple but functional cross section--and more importantly a conceptual idea of what structures, flavor, and size each layer of the undercity has (and roughly where they fit in relationship to each other). 

In Part II, I take up exploring how to use my pointcrawl ideas to capture both the sweeping horizontal and vertical dimensions of the space.  

Friday, May 25, 2012

“Late” Vancian Magic, D&D and Stormbringer

A funny observation struck me last night rereading Jack Vance's last Dying Earth book, Rhialto the Marvelous. By that book (which was published in 1984) Vance's conception of magic in the setting seems as much (or more closely) akin to first edition Stormbringer as it does D&D which famously relies on “Vancian magic.”

In the first brilliantly-written editions of SB, all magic is "indirect". The sorcerer only draws power by summoning and binding elementals, demons, and higher powers that in turn conduct spell-like effects and “enchant items” by binding beings into them.  The desired effect depends on the exact nature of the summoned creature and how you employ it. To fly one summons an air elemental, to create “magic armor” one binds a certain type of aggressive demon.

It's not a certain or safe process, naturally those beings can and will resist being pressed into service and will visit harm on the summoner if given a chance.

In the foreward of Rhialto, Vance talks about spells being "codes...inserted [by the mage] into the sensorium of an entity which is able and not unwilling to alter the environment in accordance with the message conveyed by the spell...The most pliant and cooperative of these range from the lowly and frail elementals through the sandestins. More fractious entities are known by the Temuchin as 'daihak', which include 'demons' and 'gods'. A magician's power derives from the abilities of the entities he is able to control.”

Quite similar, no? (There is a double irony here in there are any number of examples of direct, non-summoning-based magic scattered throughout Moorcock's stories to not fit entirely with the rpg version.)

Curiously this “late Vancian magic” (the fire-and-forget, more direct-seeming magic of the older versions of Dying Earth and the Cugel stories seem to play truer to D&D) is also featured in a very consistent form in the Lyonesse trilogy which came out around the same time in the mid-80s. Sandestins and demons again make appearances often expressing a crankiness and malice against their summoners.

Now contrast this to D&D where the source of magic is vague and more concerned on the effect until AD&D. The PHB explicitly rules out arcane magic as coming from “supernatural beings” and the DMG goes much further in explaining that spells are tapping into the energies of the Negative and Positive planes.

I'm far to bought in and lazy to ditch classic D&D magic altogether, but it does raise all kinds of interesting opportunities for some variants to supplement it. Perhaps a variant class, a summoner or sorcerer, that relies purely on this kind of “indirect magic”? Or a limited sub-range of ritual-like spells that are more powerful than the normal range of spells, but rely on navigating the dangers (and potentially amusing roleplaying opportunities of exchanges) between caster and persnickety extra-dimensional being?

Something to think about this Friday.  

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Real World “Dungeon” Cross-Sections

Over on Google+ we have an active thread going on interesting real world underground cross section maps, an ever-fascinating source of inspiration for me. Photo dumps are cheap, lazy posts and I rarely inflict them on readers so forgive me for taking a tour through these before gearing up for the (supposedly) meatier posts this week.

The Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow is a jaw-dropping place: massive soaring spaces, whole ghostly cathedrals carved out of salt, and all. I got there a bare hour before closing time on a trip there in the mid-90s (I lived just across the border in Slovakia at the time) and had one of the worst bits of being tantalized in my life of traveling.

This is a beauty of a map (click to enlarge):

Now a more isometric view:

And an actual look down onto one chamber:

You have undoubtedly seen at least a little of the vast underground cities of Cappadocia in Turkey, but they never fail to impress me no matter how many times I take a gander. To get a sense of the sheer size of the largest of the 36 underground refuge cities, Derinkuyu, check out this bit from Wikipedia:
“The underground city at Derinkuyu could be closed from the inside with large stone doors. The complex has a total 11 floors, though many floors have not been excavated. Each floor could be closed off separately. The city could accommodate between 35,000 and 50,000 people and had all the usual amenities found in other underground complexes across Cappadocia, such as wine and oil presses, stables, cellars, storage rooms, refectories, and chapels.”
Cross section:

From-above map of one level:

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Proairetic Code and Player-Driven Mystery in the Sandbox

Picking apart the sometimes brilliant, sometimes horrific trainwreck that was Lost, the TV show, never ceases to fascinate me. What gives it an added kick for me is that I always find something that comes back around to how the Hill Cantons campaign evolved from being a straight-up, zero-plot West Marches clone to being the complicated mess of a sandbox bursting at the seems with literally hundreds of outer and inner mysteries.

I am not sure which was the chicken and which was the egg, whether I was drawn to the show after developing elements in the campaign or that the elements came to mirror what I was watching on the boob tube. The origin is not important, it happened.

Accidentally through that evolution I think I may have found something portable to future (and possibly you the reader's) campaigns .
Let me first turn to a wonderful and relevant wrap-up critique of Lost from a fellow San Anto resident on the Ludic blog (well worth checking out here). He wrote:
[Lost] was expert at managing what Roland Barthes identified as the proairetic code — the sequences and actions that propelled the reader into the narrative, and the way those sequences and actions helped impart overall meaning to the text.  The most amazing trick of the proairetic code, one capable of being mastered by something as low as wrestling or as high as Shakespeare, is to involve the reader in the creation of the text; its complexity creates conspiracy, and inspires the viewer to create narratives where none may exist.  This was obvious from the very beginning with Lost, as it provided us with enough narrative hooks and background enigmas that we couldn’t help partake in speculation and theorizing.  Thus did it engender a world even more complex and full of wonder than even the show’s creators were capable of imagining.”
In other words, the show created the (perhaps illusory) sense that the arc of the series was as much driven by the viewer as it was by the writer. The sheer tantalizing density of mystery invited--indeed forced--the viewer to make their own connections and answers. If you substitute player for viewer, and Gamemaster for writer you see the possible applicability to a sandbox.

Let me recap the campaign's evolution to bring me back to point. In the beginning there was just pure site-based evolution. To flavor it up I would throw little weird setting dress moments in the session for ambiance. Here was a sudden lunar eclipse and mysterious over-flight of massive dark-shrouded creatures, there a cryptic oracular reading. It was all a facade really, just something to cover the site-based exploration.

But overtime I found the players getting more and more into trying to piece together those bits. Why did the Hyperboreans build a mountain citadel here and a tomb complex 25 miles over there? Why are the runes we are finding matching what we found on the blue-shining gate on the golden barge? Etc. And as they probed I started developing answers just ahead of them.

As those just-in-time answers became more complicated, I worried about the creeping meta-plot and the inevitable long hand of GM-centered creation. So I tried to develop a whole process involving index cards to keep it flowing organically from the bottom, only creating layers to those mysteries when the players actively sought them (longer, detailed explanation of the process back here and here). The deeper they dug into the more there was there. 

This got a little cumbersome, but I stuck with it. Every month or so I would sit down with my notebooks and try and draw connections to all the multiplying bits in bigger arcs. Looking over all that work this morning, I see scores of unexplored question marks (some tied into explored ones, many completely blank other than the trigger) and many more at varying levels with these morass of arrows connecting them to each other.

I think the players (I could be self-deluded and high on my rhetoric) have thrived on this. I love following the post and intra-session discussions on Google Plus by players, it's a reward in itself for me. Hundreds of comments pile up, questions and hypotheses about the what and the why of things they encountered. Sometimes they are shockingly accurate, down to what pulp fantasy literary source I obviously jacked this or that element from. More often they are wildly off, but on occasion their connections and theories are too rich for me to ignore fully—and then low and behold partial or full self-fulfilling prophesy occurs.

That activity I believe has deepened the sandbox experience. It's all good and fun to just have the non-linearally designed dungeons/wilderness sites and the standard adventure hooks--and all the rich emergent story to follows out of play there. I enjoy that in itself too, but I also like having my Big Whopping Something Going on There cake too and--to mix metaphors horribly--having the players also help create it is just icing.

In a funny way it distantly mirrors life. You can coast along fine even having romping fun adventures without probing much into what makes everything tick. But you might also start asking hard question. Why isn't it weird that our lives are dominated by little dirty green slips of paper? What gives that paper that power? (Or whatever.)

The exploration multiples itself and channels your sense of meaning of the larger world. By asking on set of questions one way you find yourself viewing the world in a totally different light (and one possibly radically divergent from a view developed by another exploratory series of questions).

And isn't the best fantasy the dream projection of life with the boring bits cut out?  

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Unbearable Dullness of DnD Wilderness

The road runs crooked here, the braying radio long since turned off. My mind has retreated to that long contemplative place, a slower mode that is all about absorbing details of the countryside. Though the two tons of steel and fiberglass molding are hurtling through time/space at body-smashing velocity internally it feels slow and leisurely.

Old stoned piled fence set off against the gentle curve of a live-oak and cedar covered rise. Great leafy canopies of pecans and elms as the road drops alongside the white limestone banks of a muddy, engorged branch river. Riots of wildflowers bordering old barb-wired posts...and wait is that a herd of alpacas?

It's Conan Country too, this long Hill Country backroad runs 15-20 miles parallel with another that will take you to Cross Plains and Cimmeria. That strong sense of place in fantasy —my own that just has to happen to share part of Robert E. Howard's by the accident of birth—washes over me and, of course, I am thinking of things DnD.

Why is wilderness travel so damn dull in-game?

Maybe dull is over-strong. Why is it so consumed with what punctuates the traveling? The throw of a one and the sudden switch in mode to encounter. Or the mysterious appearance of a site of interest, the burned out, ivy-choked shell of a tower and the like. Granted these can be exciting, the stuff of great sessions.

But why is the land itself left so faceless? It's “forest” full stop, perhaps grudgingly modified by being evergreens or light/heavy? It's the brown dull little triangles of “mountains” arranged in hexagonally-bordered bands. The wildly-varying and satisfyingly-creepy real world spread of wetlands is rendered “swamp”.

I look at the posts of my blogging friends and wilderness is almost inevitably handled as an exercise of game mechanics, the nerdy little debates (granted that I often love overly-much too) about how many beancounting checks for encounters per day over how many beancounting hexes.

Over the years I have managed to both play and run in a score or more of different wilds in a campaign—on a rare occasion recently with people who literally in this game from the first play group—and I've yet to ever feel that you had a strong sense of the Land you traveled.

The terrain has no face, little nuance and rarely itself also becomes the adventure. It lacks adversity. It's tangles and mysteries become obscured by a simple “lost” check. A horse never dies exhausted of it. A party rarely finds a spot that “they can't get there from here.” Occasionally you'll get charts for rockfalls and other impediments, but there seems to achingly little of it.

I can understand why the stick got bent this way. Nothing bores a group of players more than waxing into purple prose for more than five minutes without allowing them to hear the sound of their own voices. To be sure, it's a game. We fidget impatiently at the person who spends an eternity agonizing over whether they build three houses or a hotel on Baltic Avenue. They are hogging the play experience after all.

Of course I exaggerate for polemical effect. Everyday we also have examples of Gms breathing life into that aspect of the game. Why here today is my friend, Michael, giving some evocative twists to trekking through Grot. So here's my opportunity to turn it back to the positive (crap, it's only Monday, I can grouse later).

How are you sexing up that wilderness crawl? Can you impart a feeling of something unique about that land without achieving eye glazing? How do you make the wilderness itself the adventure? What's your trick?

Monday, May 7, 2012

"I am a Golden God"

I finally got around to reading that letter from Gary Gygax in Alarums and Excursions (July 1975) that was making the internet rounds recently.

There's are a handful of marginally interesting historical insights in it (full text here), but the one that I fixated on was this one about a religion in the original Greyhawk campaign: "I recall...that in Greyhawk we do not have existing religions included, for this is a touchy area. We have such groups as "The Church of the Latter Day Great Old Ones," Church of Crom, Scientist", "Brethren of St. Cuthbert of the Cudgel", and so on."

Google searches revealed Mike Mornard saying on Big Purple that he started those running jokes with neutral characters going to the "First Church of Crom, Scientist", Lawful characters being "Mitra's Witnesses", and “Chaotic characters belonged to the "Church of the Latter Day Great Old Ones" (nee Lovecraft)." Further searches had Rob Kuntz confirming the actual existence on the Greyhawk city map of the both the Crom and Old Ones temples. 

It's hard not to love that bit from before fantasy gaming became Serious Business. The mix of pulp fantasy with absurd humor hits a sweet spot and reminded me of how vaguely disappointed I was about the mostly dullish deities revealed in Dragon magazine circa 1983. We had been playing in our own corner of the published setting for almost three years already with a strange and eclectic mix of gods and the like, the canonical “newcomers” seemed so anti-climatic.

I have written before about how religion in the Hill Cantons campaign tends to distantly mirror my own all-over-the-place ambivalence with a (mostly gentle) emphasis on the human vanity and absurdity aspects.

Recently we even had the introduction of a somewhat cargo-cultish brand of medieval Catholicism thanks to the battlefield conversion of an evil high priest by the interdimensionally-hopping Father Jack. Vatek, son of Vatek, is not the best of listeners and throwing into the mix his rarely sober spiritual mentor and lack of doctrinal materials, he's created a rather distorted, dionysiac mystery-religion version of worship of the “Blood Jesus.” With nun-maenads and a small flock gathering around him I am sure this is going nowhere serious.

That the events above were player-triggered gets me around to my second point. One of the exceptions to my disappointment with the Greyhawk canonical deities were the “quasi-deities”, mythic heroes just below demi-gods in status. Some of them were explicitly mentioned as having been PCs in the original campaign such as the gunslinger and swordsman Murlynd, a character of TSR co-founder Don Kaye.

Those mentions and the half-page section in the first DDG on “Divine Ascension” (which is a surprisingly easy if power-gamey process by the book) totally grabbed us at the time. Our “end game” was never really about carving out a wilderness hold—though we did that—but about that megalomanical drive to ascend to demi-god status. In retrospect it seems nuts, but it was there and there in spades in how we played around that time.

Now obviously the BECMI series would come along and institutionalize that as the ultimate power arc, but do others remember the earlier reach for the stars? Did it play a role, even if just a distant and never-obtained carrot (as it was for us, fortunately)?  

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Arneson Hoard and the Public Domain

Am I alone in finding the “gold rush” news of the auction of Dave Arneson's mother lode collection profoundly sad?

For a little over a year, I have heard a number of Midwestern friends talking in hushed tones about a great horde of Arneson's papers, manuscripts and gaming who-ha lifted out of a sealed storage shed in Minnesota.

Now in the hands of an rpg auction house, an undoubtedly white-hot bidding war is about to commence--and thus my case of the sads. A golden opportunity to regain missing pieces of the early history of our hobby once again slips out of the public domain and eye and into the hands of private collectors.

Looking through the pictures over at the GeekDad exclusive, it's hard not to notice how great of a loss we are talking about. Just take a gander of the pictures of a spread of the Domesday Book, the near-lost newsletters of the medieval wargaming Castle and Crusade Society that D&D sprung Athena-like out of the head of. Pre-D&D details of Blackmoor are among some of things covered in the issues. And that leaves out all the unpublished manuscripts found in there.

This is not a rant against private collectors per se. I have known several collectors who have a profound love of the game and its history. Some like Harami who drop by to provide real insights into the grand experiments of that day. I sincerely hope that one such collector has an eye to sharing highlights and missing links with the rest of us “fever pitch” fans.

It's hard not to be with GeekDad in openly pining for a public archive to swoop in like this and help preserve it for the long haul. 

Compare to what happened with the legacy of one of other hobby giants, M.A.R. Barker (who serendipitously is being mourned and celebrated as I type by our friends up in Minnesota). Again you had a giant collection of gaming history, but instead of auctioning it off, it was donated to the Tekumel Foundation (assisted by the Aethervox Gamers). 

That collection is being carefully archived and restored with the ultimate eye of being accessible to lovers of that great world-building effort. It's not a theoretical push, we've already seen the re-release of the pre-TSR 1974 manuscript of Empire of the Petal Throne. Several more historical documents including the early-awaited Jakallan underworld are coming down the pipe.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The DMG Ordered me to Show My Work and Irritate My Players

One of the difficult things I am finding about digging into the 1st ed. DMG for Talmudic readings on domain-level play is that I keep finding funky sections that spin me off into long thought-train tangents. Today I raise the white flag and give into temptation and look at two of the ones I just can't get unstuck from my cranium.

Monsters and Organization. Nestled into page 104 is one of my favorite bits of Gygaxian pedagogy. The take-home messages here provide solid advice: think deeply about the intelligence, alignment, and social organization of the adversaries that players face and create contingency plans and strategies for dealing with interlopers. The numerous examples are also pure gold, showing a range of monsters and how they cope with not just one sortie by the PCs but several.

Now here's the part that struck me as both strange and poignant:
“It is necessary that you make a rule to decide what course of action the monsters will follow BEFORE the party states what they are going to do. This can be noted on the area key or jotted down on paper. Having such notes will save you from later arguments, as it is a simple matter to show disgruntled players these 'orders' when they express dissatisfaction with the results of such an encounter [my emphasis].”

Strange know, can you imagine this actually happening at your table in the here and now? It struck me how far the competition-adversity paradigm in rpgs has shifted—even among “old school” circles. I've certainly faced the cocked eyebrow of skepticism from players, the little subtle body language that sounds off, but I can't imagine ever taking out my notebook opening it up to the chicken scratchings of my fevered mind and pointing to prove that they face an “objective reality”. And I certainly could never imagine players feeling entitled to see it. 

That said I'm not sure it's all sunny upward progress to have ditched it. The trust that comes with maturity certainly is but I still like the idea of both the semi-adversity of the GM (I've written about this before here and here)--and having the “fairness” of a tough-knocks situations that can be "won".

Now I am way too much of a seat of the pants bullshitter to have complex, written SOPs for each and every monster situation, but I do quite often set up some naturalistic sketchy orders that I try like hell not to breach the faith of in-game. Usually they are expressed as a range of broad probabilities around courses of action. Something like: “Roll d10, 2d6 space elves 1-3 are laying an ambush back at a good spot in the dunes, 4-6 hunting the players when they get back to town, 7-8 holing up in their current position, 9-10 sending back to the Bizarro Hill Cantons for 2d6 reinforcements, roll again.”

Somewhere down in the recesses of my DM reptilian brain I must have bought back into this. I freely admit it's a weird principle to get hung up on, so I'm curious as to how readers feel about it. Is this in your ballpark of actual practice or some strange vestigial thing you've long since evolved past?

Other NPCs. Turn over to the page before the last one to the last subsection on running NPCs. Most of this is is quite dull and unremarkable until...
“The host of merchants, shopkeepers, guardsmen, soldiers, clerics, magic-users, fighters, thieves, assassins, etc. are likewise all yours to play...These NPCs will have some alignment, but even that won’t be likely to prevent a bit of greed or avariciousness. Dealing with all such NPCs should be expensive and irritating.”

A throwaway sentence but one that packs a lot of Vance in there. Lovers of Jack Vance's work know that one of the enduring themes of his work is that great chunks of humanity are either “marks” or “hustlers” (broadly speaking since many of his protagonists are shrewd but moral actors). Whether it's one of his space operas, planetary romances, or fantasy novels time and time again you see the picaresque travel punctuated by complicated swindles and counter-swindles “in town”.

The two-paragraph example given after this not only reinforces that but—ignoring all the Welsh-sounding name dress--is a golden little window into what looks like actual play in Lake Geneva. Here you have a witless PC, Celowin Silvershield, waltzing into a “strange town” trying to get one of his buddies unpetrified.

He has an annoying time at the tavern getting unhelpful advice (which he has to pay for with drinks) and then has a run-in with an even-more annoying beggar (and pays him off). Then he has to deal (pay off) with a swarm of beggars before even making it to the mage's tower. There he has to deal with a jack-ass gate keeping warlock just to meet with the wizard—just in time to royally piss him off by spoiling his arcane experiment. And if he can't pay the exorbitant sum he gets geased into another adventure.

Love it.

Town should be expensive and irritating. It should be a place for pulply fleecing and being fleeced. It should be a place that makes you want to get what you need, gear up and hightail it back to the next murderhole or wilderness death march.