Friday, October 9, 2015

Building Dynamic Sandboxes Part II

The Building Dynamic Sandboxes kickoff post felt a bit light without some of the supporting entries so instead of waiting until tomorrow I am going go ahead and post Part II. (There will indeed be a Part III centered on Faction Dynamics, NPC Actors, and Notebooks, likely Monday).

Beyond having a regular campaign news cycle and building less static encounter charts, I've found having generators for large-scale regional or realm-wide events to be extremely helpful in injecting fluid situations into the campaign. My personal druthers is to concentrate on (or at least having on hand) generators that are either escalating (with PC-action and NPC triggers) or random --even better is when I can manage to combine elements of both.

The Chaos Index. If you've read Slumbering Ursine Dunes or Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, you have perhaps an inkling of what the Chaos Index is. The Hill Cantons has a campaign conceit in which human civilization is hemmed and battered with supernatural/mythic/faerie zones known as the Weird. Because the boundaries between the Weird and civilization tend to move back and forth I put together a track similar to what one might find in wargames.

The track moves up and down when actions inside the game either roll back the forces of the Weird or trigger greater chaos. As the track escalates away from the baseline the afflicted campaign areas get more anarchic and stranger. When things get to relatively high levels things get really odd and start to set off various events.

One, of course, doesn't have to buy into that kind of pretentious cosmological shenanigans. Something like the Index can just easily be adapted for any escalating situation in your campaign: the ebbs and flows of a war and its impact on the surrounding countryside; the rise and fall of a sinister looming great evil/dark overlord, etc.

But let's go back to my Chaos Index for a concrete baseline example. Here's are a few index-related excerpts from Fever-Dreaming Marlinko.
Click on me.
Me too. 

Now that's pretty elaborate and takes some heavy lifting in terms of thinking about the variables that might apply to your own campaign world. The idea is to capture movement, no need to overdo it. 

And, hey, truth be told I use a way more stripped-down, loosey-goosy version at my own table most of the time. I tend to take notes at the end of a session and make a fast and loose judgment call about whether I should move the index. “So the players killed the Ernest Borgnine wizard creating badgerman clones in his vats?” That's going to ratchet down the Weird a slot. “Oh they broke open that lead-sealed chamber containing Nezarr the Aborted, well thats four slots upward.”

Similarly what happens as you hit each level of escalation doesn't have to have a fully-developed chart. One can just as easily seat of your pants as I often do. “Oh this week the Index jumped up pretty high. So that must mean that the war against the kozaks is spiraling out of control. Let me say make it twice as likely that players will encounter a kozak warband.”

Event Charts. Event charts and similar mechanics have been with the tabletop hobby for a good long time but are strangely underdeveloped and neglected by designers. Wargamers of the 1960s-70s frequently employed random chance cards in battles and campaigns, a phenomena that got ported into Dave Arneson's Blackmoor with interesting and sometimes hilarious results.

Oriental Adventures fielded one of the few examples of a good overarching and flexible system for generating events in an old school D&D product. OA's system has multiple levels of magnitude. Big ticket events are diced once a year, medium/regional level events monthly and small-scale daily events are nicely cross-indexed to terrain (and produce some immediately actionable type things like discovering a lost ruined temple and the like).

Though it produces some events that are either or culturally-off (and I want my campaign-shaking events coming in more frequently than annually and monthly) it's an easy system to adapt. The general architecture fits in nicely with the routine of campaign news that I think is important to establishing good habits. I will admit to relying on OA's system quite often when I get stumped for ideas.

Surely you have some personal favorite campaign events systems? Designed your own? Jacked it from Birthright or some other product?

Building Dynamic RPG Sandboxes Part 1

[Part Two can be found here.]

Tabletop rpgs lord over other gaming forms in several key areas. One major area is in the ability to provide robustly reactive campaign worlds that can take players and GM alike into totally unexpected places.

I have my shortcomings as a GM (pacing in online sessions for one) but over the years that the Hill Cantons has been active I've worked like hell to make the campaign feel alive and ever changing—to make all the whirly bits whirl. I've tried to extend that dynamic feel to the published mini-sandboxes of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko. (The upcoming Misty Isles of the Eld has several, some that radically transform the region through player's actions.)

Often providing dynamism is just a matter of thinking through after a session ends how the various pieces of your sandbox (the machinations/reactions of NPCs high and low, what an in-game activity like a massive treasure haul did to change a base settlement, etc) are organically pushed and pulled by players (and other actors), but it helps immensely to develop a range of tools and habits to give it depth and consistent motion. Here are a few of my own tricks of the trade (cut into two parts for length).
Campaign News Cycle. I've written about this before in depth, but an important glue in the Hill Cantons campaign is the weekly news.

Regular news updates serve a triple function: 1. they force you as a GM to have think about the moving parts of your world on a regular basis, 2. it provides players frequent active choices in interacting with these moving parts, and 3. they create the illusion (and to some degree the reality) that your campaign world is a real, living place.

Dynamic Encounter Tables. This is a new piece for me. While I am generally pretty good at developing unique encounter tables (it's an easy and eminently practical shortcut in providing an interesting feel to an area) they have been mostly static.

I've started making them more dynamic in two ways:
1. Adding a variable New Developments slot that is basically a place holder for a special encounter tied to either a recent news event or an action that the party takes. A concrete example is that there has been a recent invasion by horse-nomads (kozaks) just to the north. If that slot is hit on the chart the party will hit something that has to do with event, maybe it's a patrol by the local militia, foraging stragglers from the horde, deserters etc.

2. I have been using encounter pools for total numbers of certain creatures (especially important in the colony-building Feral Shore campaign phase). Kill 30 Grotmen total over the next month? Well their local population is exhausted and something else will fill that niche. It's a pain to track so I do limit this to certain factions or types of monsters. It plays out at the table well, often giving me ideas for what's happening when new creatures step in.

Sample chart:
Upper North Mythic Woods Encounters
1-2  Personality
3-4  Creature
5  Mishaps and Magic
6  New Development

  1. 1d6 War Bears pilgrims
  2. 1d3 Revocan Honeyback Bears
  3. 1d4 Infested Boars
  4. 1d10 Reverse Centaurs (20 total)
  5. 2d4 Dirt-Gnome Mushroom Hunters (30 total)
  6. 1d4 Lost Village Children
In the next part I will chatter on about using a Chaos Index (or other overarching dynamic model), Encounter/Event Notebooks, Faction Dynamics and more. (Quite a bit more is written about sandbox mechanics here.)

Undoubtedly many of you sandbox vet GMs out there have a host of your own, feel free to lay them on in the comments.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Ten Other Eccentrics, Scamps and Scumbags You Will Meet in Marlinko

The ever-talented Jason Sholtis made my week by drawing a just-perfect character sketch of Glamdalf (that's him above), one of many NPCs of escalating weirdness that appear in Fever-Dreaming Marlinko. It reminded me that I have been sitting on this list of “out-take” NPCs that didn't make it into the final draft.

Given that petty crime (especially small-scale grift) is a widespread, popular pastime in that strange little borderlands city, many of the following are likely to be in the annoying nuisance category of urban NPCs.

[Oh also I done got interviewed about the Hill Cantons by Jack. Check it out here.]

Roll a d10 (if you must)
1. Radko the Ruffler. 0-level Man-at-Arms. Leather Jack, tattered uniform surcoat, sabre. Approaches a Fighting Man and claims to have been a veteran in the Kozak Wars. Claims to be looking for honest work or a donation to get him through a hard time. If hired on, he will split at the first opportunity, stealing an item of value from the party.

2. Havol the Hooker. 0-level combatant. Padded, polearm. Hp 4. Despite the name Havol is not a prostitute but instead has gained his underworld nickname by using his long, hooked polearm to grab hang lines of clothes, spring open second-story shutters and commit other pole-related crimes.

3. Poor Tomas the Ubra-man. A second level mountebank. Hp 5. Feigns anxiety disorder claims that it prevents him from fulfilling seed money for a wilderness expedition and is now financially destitute. Carries an Ubra-stick, a white-painted staff that signifies a former patient/indentured servant of the Ubra work camp for the mentally ill. Will ask for specific amounts of alms money (5 gold and 2 silver), offering rumors and gossip (true and useful at first but increasingly more fanciful and far-fetched as he runs out of info). Will pretend to have a panic-induced heart attack if ever confronted.

4. Bedka the Bawdy Basket. First-level thief. Leather jack, hand axe. Hp 3. A matronly, rosy-cheeked pedlar of kitchen ware. She bribes servants to steal items of value from the townhouses of their patrons.

5. Petr, Prigger of Prancers. Second-level thief (stealth skill 4). Leather jack, lasso, sabre. Hp 10. A wee, bow-legged, skilled horse thief, Petr will approach the party either as means to off-load stolen horses (giving deep discounts of 40-50% off the listed horse price or as marks to be stolen from.

6. Janos the Jarkman. Forgerer of papers. He can knock off 200-400 gp worth of inducement fees (bribes) to Marlinko or contrada authorities by filing mountains of official-looking falsified paperwork. Takes a commission of 30% from any cash saved. He's backed by One Armed Jiri and any attempts to cheat or otherwise metaphorically fuck him will suffer retribution from his semi-criminal society.

7. Zela the Inflicted. 0-level woman-at-arms. Half plate (AC:5), spear, sword, large container of tallow soap. Hp 2. High strung, fidgety with deep black bags under her eyes, she will offer her services as a hireling. While earnest in trying to pull her weight, she will panic when asked to individually take on a task even half-dangerous. Discreetly soaping up her face, she will feign an epileptic seizure in such a case.

8. “Whipjack” Wahlo. 0-level man-at-arms. Studded leather. Trident. Hp 5. Broad-shouldered, black-skinned (literally) and barely speaking the local tongue, Wahlo is a shipwrecked sailor from the Scarlet Sultanate. He is quite anxious about his “papers” (forged by Janos above) and being picked up by the local authorities--and is sadly ignorant of the Overking's law granting free right of passage to distressed mariners. Manipulative PCs could wheedle him into serving at a pittance of the hireling rate. A patron however who informs of his legal rights and undue worry will gain his near-fanatical loyalty and gratitude.

9. “Upright Man” Uli. 3rd level thief. Leather, quarterstaff. Hp 15. Though dressed in a threadbare and patch-covered doublet, grey-haired Uli is almost stately in countenance. Uli has a finger in every small scam or theft below Jiri's interest. All on this list owe him a favor, the women owe their hearts and the petty criminals owe him grudging fealty. He may be persuaded to intercede in trouble with any listed here—for a fee.

10. Frazalina. Daughter of Fraza the curio dealer. Thin, spindly-necked and sharped-nosed, Frazalina is uncannily similar to her old man in both appearance and aspect, she is also freakishly honest—and a racist. She is likely to offer a commission for appropriating rare macguffins in local murderholes. She is in terrible company on this chart.  

Monday, September 21, 2015

A Revised Thief Class for B/X or LL

I should know better than to tamper with the core classes. By no means are they platonic ideals but the unbalanced, moldy old D&D classes seem to somehow balance in the mix of a party. And pragmatic me notices that they work more often than not. 


I don't really like the pitifulness of the B/X version of the Thief. There's just something about that d4 hit die and being not all that much better at things thievish at lower levels than your party mates, that doesn't line up with the rose-tints of my AD&D memory with its ballsier thieves.

Anywho here's a not particularly earth-shattering (but perhaps sweet spot hitting) revision of the class that synthesizes elements of the first and second edition AD&D thief with the d6 skill elegance of Lamentations's Specialist. As always eager to hear from fellow gear-heads about if you'd think this works or not.

Comparison to B/X or LL Thief
  • Moves to the 16 percent jumps of a d6, which produces a bit less skill at first level. Climb Walls take a bigger hit to put it in accord with starting second ed levels.
  • Gains skill in larger jumps per level. A second level B/X Thief gains roughly 20 percent scattered across skills, this thief bumps up 32 percent with the two +1 d6 modifiers.
  • Trades in the incremental across-board bumps of the B/X Thief for the focused choice of the second edition Thief.
  • Gets the d6 hit die of AD&D.
  • Collapses Hide in Shadows with Move Quietly into Stealth
  • Starts reading MU scrolls at less of a chance of success but a level earlier.

Requirements: None
Prime Req: DEX
Hit Dice: d6
Maximum Level: None
You know what this class is about. Read Leiber. 

The Thief can not be in favor of the combination of order and weal as an alignment. She/he also knows Thieves Cant, an argot of the local language. 

The Thief can wear leather or padded armor and use any weapon (but not a shield). When attacking while hidden by Stealth behind or on the flank of a creature, the Thief may backstab at +4 to hit and double damage. At 11th level the Thief can backstab at triple damage.

All Thief skill rolls are made on a d6. A skill check is successful if it is at or lower than the skill roll. At each new level past first, the thief can distribute points to a skill as they choose. A skill may be not go higher than 6. The GM should decrease or increase the chance of success for easier or more difficult tasks. Skill descriptions are the same as btb with the exception of Stealth which covers both Hide in Shadows and Move Silently.

At level 9, the Thief becomes name level and gains name level things. At level 9 they can also begin to use Magic User scrolls.

Base Thief Skills
Climb Walls: 4
Pick Pockets: 1
Find/Remove Traps: 1
Locks: 1
Hear Noise: 2
Stealth: 1
Read Languages: 0
Read Scrolls (at Level 9): 3

Hit Dice (1d6)
Bonus Skill Levels
+1 hp
+2 hp
+3 hp
+4 hp
+5 hp
+6 hp
+7 hp
+8 hp
+9 hp
+10 hp

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Fever-Dreaming Marlinko and Slumbering Ursine Dunes Review Round-Up

I have been remiss in posting blogside reviews of my full-length, broke-in-the-head adventures. Promotion—and most of all self-promotion—being one of those necessary bits for micro-publishers that I have never felt entirely comfortable with. 

I do think the reviews, all of them thoughtful, constructively critical and by people who I respect in their own right, have interesting, broader things to say besides what's in the product. 

(Appearing below are some wonderful unpublished concept sketches of war bears and cave dwarfs that came out of the Kickstarter by David Lewis Johnson.)
Fever-Dreaming Marlinko

Slumbering Ursine Dunes

Hill Cantons Compendium II

Friday, September 4, 2015

Hero-Cults of the Hill Cantons

It is known that in the post-Hyperborean period that the Godhead now revered as the Sun Lord roamed the world conducting great feats. Achingly similar stories of his virile prowess and —the bullwhipping of the Unachus, the jilting of the White Goddess, etc--are told throughout the known world. One school of contemporary thought maintains that the Sun Lord was merely a mighty folk hero, a fleshy mortal sac like you and I, another that the many and diverse manifestations are the work of many separate local heroes...

Secular champions of Solarity aspire to join and excel in membership of one of the myriad orders tied to the veneration of individual hero-aspects of the Sun Lord. While not-always-coherent—combining features of religious sub-cults, secret fraternities (or sororities), hygiene-product pyramid schemes and military organizations—the orders serve as an important supplement to the Overking's levies and small standing army.

In truth they also serve as an pillar for status jockeying of the wealthy (who can sponsor “surrogate knights” that legally owe all accolades, titles and bragging rights to their patrons) and the occasional hard-earned (and bribe greased) rise of a tough, resourceful citizen-soldier.
General Requirements of Membership
  • A horse, a suit of half-plate, the favored weapon of the order, the uniform of the order and a pouch of order-ordained fetishes and herbal smudges.
  • A retained man-at-arms in similar martial attire and horseflesh.
  • A leveled ranking as a fighting man or woman of no less than third and of noble or gentle birth (forging the pedigree certificate and bribing registrars for 50-200 gold suns is a well-known and public secret.)
  • A war-trained stallion of such quality that 250 gold suns would be your starting range (preferably of such exorbitant luxury that one should feel a sudden sense of anxiety and regret over the sticker shock at the end of the haggle).
  • The uniform of the order woven from Himyari cotton of the highest thread count (150 gold suns) or from the finest flumph-silk (300 gold suns).
  • A fluted suit of plate or half-plate heavily and richly embossed around a central circular design (leering deodands or empty-eyed cherubic faces being highly popular, usually weighing in from 200-1000 gold suns).
  • An elaborately etched burgonet or great helm with impressive crestage (wizened horns, tapered bird heads etc, 150 gold suns).
  • Two or more men-at-arms and a valet/fetishholder.
Cult Matters:
All ritters are required to bring themselves and their full retinues twice a year to the order's regional musters:
Winterkanc, a fortnight-long series of ceremonial reenactments of the hero's acts and life in the days before our dear Sun-Lord's annual step back from the arduous daily grind of riding through the sky 9-12 hours a day (not that's he complaining).
Sommeroct. A month-long series of elaborate and ritually-inflected “flower wars,” grooming classes, military drills, wrestling matches, weapons competitions, theological debates and skin-care day-spas.

The Big Name Orders
Puissant Scions of the Pointed Stick
Hero-Aspect: Adalfuns

Motto: It Is Better to Suffer the Rich Man's Needle than the Gate of a Horned Camel

Taboos: Crossing a river without three full stops and looks backward. An opponent worth fighting must be bandied with before smiting. Riddles must be answered.

Favored Weapon: Lance or Ostrovan pike. Sabre.

Uniform: Pastel tabard worn over puffed and slashed armlets and tights. The order's copper and lapis lazuli badge is worn on the right shoulder.

Favored Meaningless Alignment Choice: Chaotic, Good, Not-Asshole.

Perks: Mighty Jab, +2 to damage when using pike, lance, or spear. (4th level), Obfuscation, +2 to surprise following verbal bandiage (5th level), Jaunty Tune, resist fear-based spells or powers at +5 to saving throw (6th level). Command of a banner of 10 order brothers/sisters and retinue (8th level).

The Contumelious Companions of Owald
Hero-Aspect: Owald the Obtrusive. The fierce and eternally drunk slayer of Smak the First.

Motto: Here is the Primrose, Dance Here

Taboos: Rumination for more than a minute is to be strictly abhorred. A host-offered adult beverage must never be followed by less than a sip. The color blue is never to be worn.

Favored Weapons: Sword of illegitimate origin (coarsely titled a “bastard sword” by the ill-mannered). Horseman's flail.

Uniform: Ecru surcoat with personal device on the left shoulder and a furious sanguine sun ablaze mid-chest.

Favored Meaningless Alignment Choice: Lawful, Good, Irritable

Perks: Iron Liver, can drink as many drinks as CON without being intoxicated (4th). Resist Contemplation, +3 to any charm, suggestion, or other mentally-based magic (5th). Rivek's Ragequit. May voluntarily enter a berserk state (as per the berserker) for 1d3 rounds. On the final round of the state the ritter can elect to leave combat moving at double his movement without penalty or attacks of opportunity. (6th), Command of a banner of 10 order brothers/sisters and retinue (8th level).

The Golden Company
Hero-Aspect(s): Dalibor and Luboš 

Motto: Twinned Fate is Inexorable

Taboos: Passing twins without offering a gift of worth. The eating of beans and legumes.

Favored Weapons: Great Axe. Metal-banded wrestler's gloves.

Uniform: A black-and-white checkered long surcoat and white-plumed helmet with rough animal skin neck trim. Gold-plated wrestling belts.

Favored Meaningless Alignment Choice: Lawful, Good, Neutral, Supernal
Perks: Luboš's Laconic Clinch-Hold, a grappling maneuver at +3 STR up to 19 (4rd level). Twinned Image, as per the spell Mirror Image providing only one illusory self (5th level). Jaundiced Eye. +2 to hit any extradimensional creature (6th level). Command of a banner of 5 order brothers and a roll on a random wandering monster chart (8th level).

Lady Friends of the Unctioned Falx
Hero-Aspect: Vac the Virile

Motto: Warmth Above, Emptiness Below

Taboos: Using male pronouns for any man other than the Sun Lord. The eating of bread and foods rich in carbohydrates. Being a man (though since gender is a social construction this is more flexible than it appears).

Favored Weapons: Falx, a polearm topped with a long curving scythe-like blade. Preferably anointed weekly with sanctified small beer. Falchion or hatchet.

Uniform: Mustard-yellow sarong. Polished-steel breastplate with bronze inlay. Burgonet mandatory, always worn pushed back and high on the crown.

Favored Meaningless Alignment Choice: Lawful, Good, Neutral, Not Unctuous

Perks:Vac's Wonder-Hands, the grip in one hand is built up so strong as to be able to grip a falx in one hand and perform minor actions in the other (4th level). Detect Dissembling/Bullshit, as per Detect Lie spell (5th level). Drogo's Splintering Spine. Falx produces explosive d10 damage on a roll of “10” (7th) . Command of a banner of 10 order sisters (8th).