Tuesday, May 19, 2015

AD&D's Apocalypse and Domain Game Index

Mad Max Fury Road is predictably jamming my nerd circle frequency on Google Plus. Naturally thoughts run to things post-fall-like and discussions around post-apocalyptic gaming are breaking out here and there. An interesting thread on Big Purple has resurrected an old school line of exploration: the apocalypse of D&D's implied setting.

That thread dovetails nicely with my blog indexing push, so let's run a circle back to two series of interlocked Talmudic ruminations that started with the post-apocalypse of AD&D's original flagship setting Greyhawk and led to analysis of the implied domain-level play in first edition.

If you read one post out of this list, I would suggest “What Rough Men Tell Us About AD&D's Implied World,” one of my personal favorite posts (and I usually hate with a passion the things I write). If you read a second check out the “Howling Emptiness of the World of Greyhawk” or the last post “AD&D's Apocalypse and Hereafter.” Do make sure to read the comments, they are half or more of what makes the threads interesting and the posts bounce dialectically from them.

Post-Apocalyptic Greyhawk

Some seriously nerdy number crunching around the population density of the Greyhawk gazzeteer revealed a very interesting fact: that world is much crazy empty compared to medieval Europe. Rumination on that wildness and its implications launches the series. “...Even the wildest places of Europe at the time are orders of magnitude more settled and prosperous than Veluna. Those wide light green clearings on the Darlene map turn out not to be dull vast tracts of farmland peopled by plump, happy yeoman, but barely held little bastions.”

Analysis and historical comparisons supporting the previous post.

Emptiness comparisons between the Wilderlands and Greyhawk and the two apocalypses of each setting.

A full exploration of the post-apoc dimensions of Greyhawk and encounter tables in the DMG.

Domain-Level Play in AD&D

A second branching thought train starts here. The first edition hardbacks support a wide and robust (but horribly organized) range of domain-level play guidelines and rules with implications for game play that are more interesting at points than recent attempts to implement “domain games.”

What the DMG actually lays out for domain play and how that differs from later attempts.

Another one of my personal favorites despite the long awkward header. The weird gonzo beauty of what happens when you use the DMG encounter tables for demense recruitment (as suggested by the book).

In which I try to figure what the hell is going on with all the name-level characters and large bands of "human monsters" the Monster Manual prescribes and the implications of that.

Taking the previous thought and comparing to the near-apocalypse/collapse of 14th century France. Many of the previous thought trains come to together and reach climax.

Some further postscript analysis about NPC, hirelings and production of goods by the book.  

Thursday, April 30, 2015

HC Psionics: The Psychonaut Class

Oh psionics, you scamp. Sigh.

For galactic aeons I have wanted to develop the weirdo psychic powers of the Eld  in the actual existing Hill Cantons campaign. Invariably I always seem to bang my head against the brick wall that is D&D psionics. An interesting and helpful discussion on Google Plus turned up all kinds of svelte, homebrewed systems by Ramanan S, Roger GS, Courtney Campbell and others (seriously quite well-done and free projects, check them out).

But I kept getting into that cafeteria mentality of wanting a little of this jello salad, some of this mystery meat and a big heap of this pecan pie.

One thing that really shook out for me was that I was more interested in a psionics-based class that was less rooted in a spiritual/inner/monky kind of focus—not a great fit for space elf sadists—and one more like the bad-good psychic horror-thrillers of the 80s such as Scanners and Firestarter and the goofy exuberance of post-apoc science fantasy novels like Hiero's Journey.

I also didn't want a whole new subsystem or mechanical layer to run the damn thing but liked the approach taken by others to treat the powers mostly like spells and retaining the traditional save-vs-XX system (Alex Schroeder alluded to this in the discussion and it stuck).

Anywho this is what was left over when I sat down at the table, a goofy little PC class heavily-inspired by Mutant Future that I am throwing out there for feedback. The version below is very much a work-in-progress. What actually will appear in the Misty Isles of the Eld will feature expanded/gussed up descriptive text and the deformations and powers will be revised and expanded (you will note the current lack of 4th level powers).
Requirements: INT 11, WIS 14
Hit Dice: 1d6
Maximum Level: 8
The class is predicated along the lines that psionics and similar mental powers are attributable to mutations from the fallout effects of “magical” radiation. Since the Eld make heavy use of such magitech, the Eld and a select elite of Eldman slaves have organized a corp of Psychonauts who willfully expose themselves to mutagenic doses and spend their careers attempting to master the correct mental disciplines to rein in the mutations. Blah, blah, blah.

The Psychonaut saves and fights as cleric. The character can only use leather armor but is allowed to fight with any weapon.

Each level the Psychonaut gains powers similar to spells. However powers are not mutable/memorizable like spells, once chosen they remain in stock in perpetuity. Most powers have variable numbers of times that they can be used in a day or week.

The exposure to the mutagens necessary for the original transformation into a Psychonaut leaves lasting effects. Indeed as the Psychonaut unlocks and masters unused portions of the brain when gaining new power levels, so does he often lose control over the deforming aspects of that transformation. As such a Psychonaut will gain a defective mutation when attaining levels 3, 5, and 7.

Level Progression Chart
Hit Dice (1d6)
Defective Mutation
Defective Mutation
Roll d6
1 Almost passable. Physical deformation under the clothes line such as a third nipple, stubby tail, etc.
2-3 Minor visible physical deformation (-1 CHA). Eld Psychonauts treat result as no effect.
4 Major visible physical deformation (-2 CHA). Eld Psychonauts treat result as no effect.
5-6 Mental deformation (see chart below). An Eld or Eldman Psychonaut unable to mask such a deformation will be summarily executed.

Mental Deformations
Roll d6
1 Psychobabble. There is a 25 percent chance on each occasion that the character opens his mouth to speak that he will inexplicably begin shouting in a manic, incoherent manner much as though he was speaking in tongues. This condition will persist for 1d6 turns. Strangely religious zealots and oral health specialists will understand the character just fine.
2 Mumbler. The character is unable to speak in anything beyond a quiet mumble. Creatures of INT 13 and higher can understand the character if within five feet of the Psychonaut, all others will not be able to make out what is being said.
3 Compulsive Contrarian. The character compulsively disagrees with any direct suggestion, assertion and even basic statement of fact verbally presented to him.
4 Imposter Syndrome. The character actively believes that he is a fraud and not really the ranking Psychonaut everyone else believes him to be. As such he must roll 4d6 against his WIS to use any power. A second attempt can be made a turn later and the self-esteem issues related to that power will only fade with a new day.
5 Phobia. The character develops a single, persistent and deeply-irrational phobia as per the GM's discretion.
6 Second Brain. The character develops a second brain that hinders his thought processes. This brain has 1d3 first level powers and a mental deformation of its own, which should be kept secret from the player until an opportunity to discover them comes about during play. This second brain may have an entirely different personality and motives than the character, and may even try to foil the character’s actions at inconvenient times at the GM's discretion. Once per month the second brain.

Power Level Chart

1 0 0 0
2 0 0 0
2 1 0 0
2 2 0 0
3 2 1 0
3 2 2 0
4 3 2 1
4 3 3 2

Power Level 1
Zaxxyn's Accelerant of Aptitude
Once per day the Psychonaut is capable of concentrating his mental energy to such a degree that one of his abilities is doubled (up to a maximum of 18) for 1d12 consecutive rounds. Usable once per day.

Dxxmilx's Duellistic Deduction
During combat the character can attune herself to the minute body language of others to the extent that she can often tell what they are going to do before they do it. This gives her a +1 to hit in combat, and +3 hp damage per damage die rolled in a successful attack. Can be used in two discrete encounters during a day.

Affected Apportation
The Psychonaut can teleport any object 10 pounds or less in sight range to a known location within a 500 feet. Usable once per day.

Surface Skim
The Psychonaut can read the emotional state and barest of surface thoughts of a visible sentient creature for 1d6 turns. Raw emotions, preparations for violence, and hints of deceit will be reveled--though their precise nature will be unknown. For example, the Psychonaut will know that the subject is lying but will be unable to tell the exact nature of the lie. Usable twice per day.

Power Level 2
The Psychonaut releases powerful antiorgasmic energy in a 20-foot radius from herself. All opponents inside that radiance must save versus spells or suffer -2 to hit and saving throws for 1d6 turns due to the intensely uncomfortable and unsatisfying effects and will be unable to enjoy amorous activities for 1d6 days after the attack. Usable once a day.

Cerebral Boreworm
A single bolt of mental energy infallibly strikes a single visible target up to 60 feet away causing saw-like serrations to appear on its forehead for 2d6 hit points of damage. Usable twice per day.

Sleep Egg
The character can will herself into a one-hour coma that heals all of her hit points and cures minor afflictions. While in the coma state a glowing white egg-shaped energy field protects the sleeper from all non-magical attack. This power may only be used three times a week.

Flx's Flammifer Firkin
Same as Pyrotechnics. Usable twice per day.

Pohlxx's Psychometric Dowser
Same as Locate Object. Usable twice per day.

Power Level 3
Ninx's Biting Troll
A spoken phrase delivered with such psychic backing force that it cuts to the quick. A target failing a saving throw will be unable to move or act for 1d6 rounds. If used against the target successfully a second time the target's brain will become fried, the subject will be in a rocking, babbling catatonic state for 1d6 days. Usable twice per day.

Burlix's Brainsploder
The Psychonaut can target up to 1d12 living creatures in a 30-foot radius in a single burst of violent psychic energy. The creatures must be three hit dice and under or be higher-hit dice sentient creatures with WIS 7 or less. Any eligible creature so attacked and failing their saving throw versus magic will have their head instantly explode in a slow motion fashion raining pink mist and bits of gore. Usable once per day.

Necrocognitive Recall

Same as Speak with Dead. Usable twice per day. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Hydra's Wet Hot Summer

It's going to be a busy, busy summer for the Hydra Collective. Keeping to one of our core visions to serve as a quality publishing vehicle for DIY game designers, we are expanding way beyond the Slumbering Ursine Dunes crowdfunded line of adventures.

Just a few of the big-ticket items coming down the bend...
Trey Causey's Armchair Planet Merges with Hydra
Trey Causey, blogger and author of some of the best DIY gaming products around (Weird Adventures and Strange Stars), is bringing his publishing outfit, the Armchair Planet, into our worker-owned company. You can find his freebie supplement for WA, Strange Trails, at the Hydra storefront.

Trey has already been working with us on the Dunes as an editor and bringing his insights and experiences to the collective table as a publisher. We are, not surprisingly, excited to have him come aboard as a partner and co-owner.

But that's not all, this summer (date TBA) we will be publishing two new Strange Stars supplements that will translate the system-less setting book into two fully-gameable products: Strange Stars Fate (SF Fate author John Till's translation and adaptation to the FATE system) and Strange Stars OSR (an adaption of the setting to the popular, old school Stars Without Number rules).

Publishing Jason Sholtis's Operation Unfathomable
Our next big publishing push is expanding Operation Unfathomable. OU is a combination underworld, outdoor and dungeon romp by Dungeon Dozen author and prolific gaming illustrator Jason Sholtis that has been published in little, tantalizing bits here and there. 

This extended dance remix version will feature:
  • Twelve all new Underworld encounter areas including a complete Chaos temple and the cult of actively hostile weirdos it houses.
  • A small wilderness sandbox featuring five factions of sentient beings embroiled in mutual exploitation and (in some cases) ruthless destruction plus a variety of adventuring possibilities.
  • Scads of entirely new monsters, treasures, spells, and NPCs, all easily harvested for use outside this adventure.
  • Many new maps and illustrations (like these beauties below).

Anthony and the Full Monte
Hydra Collective co-founder and editor/author Anthony Picaro has been busy working on a big league project with Monte Cook Games. Needless to say we are all hella proud of his creative work getting larger exposure. We will be putting out some details and excerpts of his evocative and wry California Dunes adventure later this week. 

Charity for Nepal
The Hydra Collective is joining Inked Adventures, Kabuki Kaiser, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, New Big Dragon Games Unlimited and Sine Nomine Publishing in a charity bundle package of OSR Asian-themed product to support victims of the horrific recent earthquake in Nepal. Our contribution is a PDF copy of Mike Davison's Ruins & Ronin

For more info about these projects, Hydra in general or want to pitch an idea, drop us a line at hydracollective.llc at gmail dot com.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Rethinking Domain-Level Play in the Hill Cantons

If you've followed this blog for longer than you reasonably should, you may remember that 3-4 years back I had spent a good deal of time exploring domain level play. Indeed I ran two whole campaigns, the Domain Game I and II, revolving around that kind of play while trying to hothouse a whole rules supplement, the Borderlands.

My own gaming and writing was swimming around in a zeitgeist pool at that time--with ACKs and An Echo Resounding coming into being as the best published answers to that great supposedly unfulfilled promise of the “End Game.”

Eighty-odd pages of Borderlands were finished and it was closing in on that last push for being published. And then I balked it. I won't get into the nitty gritty (and some of it was an easy "I'm kind of tired of this shit" answer) let's leave it at “I was deeply dissatisfied with how it played.” In a nutshell it failed in the same way I believe most other attempts have failed by not making the “main thing” the main thing.

Anywho there is a lot meat here for a post debating the game design question “why most domain rules for D&D don't build meaningful, engaging long-term play for D&D campaigns.”

That's not this post.

This post is some show and tell of the rough, rough experimental system that we've been using on the Feral Shore portion of the Hill Cantons main campaign. The idea was to develop a system that is neither overly abstract “boardgamey” nor “beancounterly.” 

Instead it aimed to be more like the King of Dragon Pass and the freeform wargame Matrix Game. With NPC advisers carrying and hiding most of the actual domain business (by being “clicked on”) and presenting decision points that gave players choice without swamping the site-based adventure that is D&D's main thing. The system is still pretty underdeveloped and the results somewhat a mixed bag from my perspective to be sure. 

But that's the fun of hothousing these things in actual play, right?
An explored section of the Feral Shore.
Here's an actual example from campaign play. (Okko is a frozen-in-time trap engineer NPC the party rescued and recruited to be the chief steward of their Feral Shore colony.)

Okko's Report on King's Ten
Okko seems to warm to his job and appears to be loyal, able and competent from what you observe. He gives you the following report on how he sees things.

What Okko is buying/building with the 1000 suns (all work listed will be done before next week by the available labor):
1. Two 10-by-30 foot cypress-wood and thatch longhouses. One to be used as a workshop, the other for meetings/light work in the day and sleeping area for 15 at night.
2. A cypress-wood stockade roughly 6-foot high to enclose the area before a proper wooden palisade can be built.
3. 10 medium-sized tents for temporary housing
4. An on-site worker of wood and blacksmith
5. Food for the party and all the hired help for a month.

What Okko wants to know:
Do you want to keep this site as the basecamp? He lays out the pros and cons of the site below and says that since no work has been done yet that he can hold off on the work above if you want to place it  somewhere else.

Site Pros
1. The soil seems fairly rich and arable.
2. Killing off the two crocs seems to have cleared out the area of its most spectacular resident menace. There are normal-sized crocs in the area but nothing as comparable or aggressive.
3. The surrounding flooded areas and serpentine-like higher ground areas are pretty defensible
4. You have plenty of fresh (if brackish) water.

Site Cons
1. It's in the Weird (makes the hired help extremely nervous and likely to mean higher chances of encountering beings who live in the Weird.)
2. It's surrounded by a swamp (bugs, humidity and mud).

Domain Skills and Resolution
Each PC can take a Major concentration and a Minor from the following list and computes their skill on the second chart below.

Domain Skills
1. Martial (Strategy, Tactics)
2. Sorcery (Magic, Science)
3. Supernatural  (Religion, Mythic, The Weird)
4. Skullduggery (Intrigue, Diplomacy, Criminal)
5. Steward (Planning, Economic)
6. Ranging (Scouting, Hunting, Expeditions)

Domain Score
x1 level for your Major
x.5 level for your Minor (round down)
+/- best single ability modifier for INT, WIS and CHA
+/- special circumstances (things like education in a certain skill, upbringing, etc)

Example: Kraggo of the Mountains is a 4th level fighter with a 7 INT, 11 WIS and 17 CHA. He takes Martial for his Major which gives him for 4 for his lets plus 2 for his CHA for a total of 6. He takes Ranging as his minor for a total of 2.

Domain Ring NPCs
The Domain Ring is your team of NPC advisers. Beyond providing for gamable action points in and between sessions Ring NPCs are the ones taking on the actual (and often boring and/or granular) tasks of running the demense. Delegating work to the Ring represents “rule by sinecure” inherent for a game where the PCs are adventurers first and has a mechanical advantage as such. A single PC can add their skill level (must be the exact skill being used by the NPC) to any domain action roll taken by a Ring NPC.

Current Ring Members:
Okko, Steward 6
Balzas, Martial 4
The Holy Drunk, Supernatural 3
Priestess of Marzana, Sorcery 3, Supernatural 3

Domain Action Resolution
If there is a particular situation that I think will call for a roll against an appropriate PC or NPC's relevant skill. The relative difficulty of the course of action described will be adjudicated secretly from my judgment of what is described.

Near Impossible: 5d6 against relevant Domain Skill
Unlikely: 4d6
Fair: 3d6
Good: 2d6
Excellent: 1d6

Slam Dunk: 1d6-3

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Small is Beautiful in the Sandbox

One of the most satisfying parts of being part of a hobbyist subculture that loves pulling up the hood and jawing at disturbing, perhaps commitable length about the various whirly bits is running into your own little epiphanies. Tuesday I slammed my laptop cover down and threw my triumphant fist in the air with a “fuccck yeah” with the last great push on the Misty Isles of the Eld manuscript (the second big stretch goal adventure coming out of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes project, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko being in lay out).

Later that night with the self-congratulation dying down it struck me that after laying down yet another small bounded 1-4 session wilderness area that the mini-sandbox has been my favorite way to game wilderness for a good long time. I mean thinking back to my beloved hoary TSR favorites Castle Amber, The Secret of Bone Hill, Keep, and that Gygax Lovecraftian temple one that I am suddenly too lazy to look up they all to a one have a small wilderness area (and often a small scale human civilization bit) as a short main exploration phase.

Somewhere horseshoe close to when D&D was born and the oil crisis was rearing its head, a collection of essays called Small is Beautiful became a public intellectual one-hit-wonder. Needling large-scale economies and political organization as being beyond a sustainable human scale.

Hey but fear not I come not to throw some politics or meaty real world thought in your face-- besides I'm still enough of an Old Leftist/Modernist reactionary to freakishly get a woody walking the grounds of the rusting hulk of a horizontally-integrated factory complex like the Ford Rouge—but to acknowledge there is something there there when it comes to designing to wilderness settings.

Insert your mileage disclaimer—by now we all know that people who talk in absolutes in a hobby environment are buttholes—but I think there really is something there in this area when it comes to sustaining a long campaign. Think of it this way, D&D is primarily a game where the main play experience is meticulously exploring highly-contained space. It doesn't have to be a dungeon but that classic format sure comes back over and over because it simply works

Wilderness hexcrawling has been there too as a suggested major play arena since the get go. OD&D has its random generators. B/X went even further presenting it as conceptually as a whole new campaign frame for when PCs hit mid-level. But from my experience there has always been something awkward and challenging about making all that wide yawning space notboring—and thus something you and the players will return to time and time again continuously.

I have been running the Feral Shore with its central hex-organized map as a major campaign phase now for a year and a half. But the actual thorough wilderness hexcrawl sessions have been a minority often a “we really need to get down to figuring out what is going on behind that ridgeline of the Domovoy villages” kind of impulse from the players. At most even when really player focused we have never done more than three such sessions in our weekly game in a row.

Invariably some other goal—exploring the smaller bounded area of say the Rusevin (a city ruins pointcrawl) or more prevalently a single-site or those beautifully eccentric player-driven quests (“shit really need to go find that Drinking Horn of Radegast to get those drained life levels back”)--pushes its way forward and becomes the main thing.

The hexcrawling in other words is more often a palate cleanser much like a one-off town adventure. Not consciously I believe that's how I prefer, short sprints of such activity around the main course. Maybe that's how it should be: better-designed wilderness should be small in frame and densely packed with sites. (Or maybe I am just rationalizing my own design choices with the Dunes as a small bounded mythical wilderness pointcrawl and the Misty Isles as a small bounded extra-planar pointcrawl?)

But back to you...

Is that the kind of thing you have experienced? Have you run—and enjoyed—long hexcrawl-centered campaigns or campaign phases? What made it different you think? What's your secret, bud? 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Campaign News Porting to the Blog

For going on four years now I have been writing and posting the supposedly-weekly and increasingly idiosyncratic news report for players and spectators of the eponymous campaign to the Hill Cantons google plus page. Having written about how to use campaign news as continuity glue for a long-running campaign and having the blog slip way down the list of my hobby-writing priorities--and thus in need of some love—the news reports will now be appearing right here in the future.

And now the News...
Hinek the Aft, notable local lunatic and mariner, has been recounting wild tales of a supposed landing in the fabled Misty Isles by his patroness and captain the so-called Daughter of Ondrej. Bizarrely his first day of yarn-spinning in the Marlinko bathhouses told of a stark, dead land with “ridges made from the corpses of massive grubs”-- a story quite at odds with the popular conception of the eternally fog-shrouded islands as a bucolic paradise. Even stranger is his apparent self-beating over the night and subsequent retelling of the story in a broken monotone: “The...Misty Isles...are...a...wondrous place filled...with...laughter and light...and that I have...never visited nor can I speak with assurance..from a first-hand account.”

The recent opening of the gaily-painted, if disturbingly and atavistically pagan High Temple to All-Pahr Gods has brought in a influx of curious tourists and dour, bearded faithful to the Feral Shore. When clicked on, the colony steward, Okko, claims that nearly 900 gold suns have been brought in from sales of bric brac such as Svat the Four-Faced carved wooden posts, Marzana garlic wreaths and Radagast painted beer steins in the first two weeks alone.

But income from schlock is not the only thing the new Temple has brought in, the dedication has also brought along two new inhabitants both claiming to have been brought by visions sent from dying Pahr godlings.

The first of which is the strangest, a bass-toned skald with the head of an enormous red rooster by the name of Vyvod. Though an odd sight, residents of Karldeset and the Domovoy villages, have warmed to his deep, catchy, self-valorizing ballads and quite often one can hear on the winds the opening verses from his most popular tune:
Little Pavol and Vyvod
strutt-ing through the for-est
Never evere dreamin' that a schemin' deodand and his posse
Was a-watchin' them an' gatherin' around.”

The rooster bard's appearance was followed the next day by a grizzled, long-bearded, wearing the antiquated heavy armor that scholars call chainmail and looking to all the world like he stepped out of a Pahr-themed historical tapestry. Captain Slavomil as he calls himself is said to have been touched in the head by a command from the long-thought dead god Velesh to throw his axe into a local lake, seek the blessing of the Lords of the Shore and begin to organize a warband for a long journey around the southlands cape to conquer the City of Porcelain, a distant, fabled, demon-haunted city of great delicacy.