Monday, February 29, 2016

Grim Frontier: The Game

One of my favorite things about the Hydra Cooperative is that we have started slowing evolving away from just being a publishing vehicle for individual DIY rpg projects and into a space that can synergize and cross-fertilize on projects. A couple months back Hydra partner Trey Causey posted about the Grim Frontier, an idea he had for a hardcore survival rpg/setting.

His summary:
“Potentially easy death, resource management, and some horror elements beloved by many old school gamers; an evocation for modern audience of the strangeness or alienness of new environments through use of Roadside Picnic-esque zones element...Ancient mounds,giant skeletons or mummified dwarfs borrowed from the real folklore of the West; vaguely late 18th to first few decades of the 19th level of technology, probably with low magic.”

The concept hit me as I was deep into my own thoughts about a survival small-scale “domain game." We started the game design equivalent of a jam session with Robert Parker, Humza K, David Lewis Johnson (who gussed up that piece above), Trey and I riffing and expanding on elements. It's a backburner project—we have so much to finish like Misty Isles, Strange Stars OSR, Operation Unfathomable, Broken Fire Regime—but a fun one.
Here are some of the design goals:
Grim Frontier Design Goals
Three Main Themes. Exploration, treasure-hunting and surviving/settling. Provides a potential beginning, middle and end arc where the characters may go from just basic survival to reasonable comfort to growing/leading a whole small pocket of civilization in the wilds.

High Lethality. Characters are fragile and powered down and the threat level is constant and high.

Hostile Wilderness. The wilderness should be as much or move of a challenge as monsters. Travel mishaps and disasters become huge and relatively frequent challenges. Exposure, dehydration, hunger are just around the corner.

Almost No Civilization/Safe Zones. Outside trade post, some tiny fragile and suspicious neutral holdings and that's it.

Troupe Play. Each player has several characters that he/she can cycle through. This both helps with the high lethality and gives the player skill variety and characters to accomplish downtime activities between sessions. Instead of NPC hirelings you are for the most part using your own PCs.

NPC Dynamics are Important. Loyalty and morale are even more important than most games. To either entice an NPC—and backup PCs--to leave civilization to come to this godforsaken place or ally with you, close attention needs to be made to their needs and desires. Charisma and success matter a lot. Low morale and loyalty NPCs are more likely to desert, steal, or mess up during downtime. Higher levels provide bonuses. Good CHA, success during adventure sessions and providing a comfortable existence

Downtime. Characters not in use during a session are assumed to be able to do a small range of activities over the week “turn” between sessions. Many of these are base, scouting or scavenging oriented.

Organic Link Between Domain Turn and Adventure Session. The game revolves around two play arenas:
1. the traditional face-to-face adventure session where the players choose one of their PCs to play and the players go after some big ticket adventure goal (like exploring a large ruin, raiding a large resource cache, etc).
2. a mini-game/subsystem that takes care of all the domain/downtime activity of the PCs and Base around weekly turns. Grim Frontier will make the link between this activity and the session more organic and frequent. So say a downtime PC goes on a chart-resolved scouting run and learns some valuable, but sketchy details about Zone X that might guide the player goals for the next session. Or a downtime PC has a mishap is trapped under a fallen log and has to be rescued in the session.

Base Building. Base building is a key player activity in surviving the deeply hostile environment.

Housing (start with tents and can build larger structures that provide more durable structure)
Fortifications (palisades, stone wall, trenches, towers and traps)
Workshops (blacksmiths, carpentry, etc)

Base Resources. Base resources are somewhat abstracted and you need basic thresholds of each to both survive, maintain (keep up morale/hit points), and thrive (build expansions or new settlements). Resources can be scavenged in downtime and pursuit of large hoards/caches may become goals in adventure sessions.

Hardware (nails, tools, plows, etc)
Ammo (or Powder and Ball)
Raw Materials (wood, stone, iron, etc)
Luxury Items (provide bonuses to morale and loyalty, have a chance of converting mook NPCs

Hit Points. A la Robert Parker's excellent downtime house rules for Krul, hit points are re-rolled per session according to the level of accommodation and luxury at the home base. More comfortable and more sustainable bases provide bonuses to rolls for hit points, the obverse is true for hard scrabble bases.

Equipment Deterioration. Shit breaks and downgrades. A good steel axe becomes worth its weight in gold.

Tech Level. Late 18th/early 19th century (black powder firearms).

Treasure and Artifacts. Treasure/artifact hunting is an important goal/activity beyond survival. Supernatural or high technology artifacts are rare, powerful and highly sought out in some of the sites/zones. Tradeable goods are important also for relations with other enclaves and getting badly needed supplies shipped in from distant civilization. Luxury items can be consumed as a base resource and provide significant advantages.  

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Erol Otus DDG Pantheon

A few months back I posted on Google Plus about another chuckle-worthy find from my days as a tween DM. Among the coverless Dragon issues and ripped up modules that single time-misted, roach-infested box found in my mom's garage (the one with the partial key for Tree Maze of the Twisted Druid) has several cryptic loose leaf sheets.

This is perhaps one of the oddest and it took me six months to figure out what the hell I was thinking 35 years ago: that I tried to develop a pantheon out of Erol Otus's Deities and Demigods cover. I loved the shit out that cover (still do) with all its evocative weirdness and the simple fact that other than those ghostly pseudo-Egyptian it was totally independent from the contents of the book. It was a free-floating piece of Otus fever dream.

So anyway in its unedited glory, this is what I got...
Part 1: The Kutalikean Cover Pantheon
Halgorr, Major, Glory/Light/Scourging (sic), Lammasu, M/F clerics, Gold, Sunrise, Temple Hall. 600 hp.

Sinthimaxx, Major, Serpents/Deviousnes (sic), Vipers, M clerics, Secret Hall. 550 hp.

Vortok, Minor, Corruption/Chaos (Evil) , slime priests, lose (?) caverns. 300 hp, AC -10

Hatshepsut (LN), Minor

Shebaka (TN), Minor

Settnaknteh. (CN), Minor

Part 2: The Other Gods
So anywho scanning over Otus's equally wonderful title page illustration with its own made up gods, goddesses and divine critters, I just realized 12-year-old Chris missed a golden opportunity. I mean look how wonderfully this rounds out the weird fantastical cohort of deities on that cover?

Woe gets the best of it here with that Sarku-like lichy dead god and ichor-blasting tentacle fell god. Bonus points though for Weal's laser-ray pigeon god, Quetzalcoatl-ish, and Thundarr.

So who are these deities? What's their portfolio? 

Monday, February 1, 2016

Hexcrawls vs Pointcrawls

Despite the header this is not a cage match between hexcrawls and pointcrawls. Pointcrawl reputation notwithstanding, I both love and use hex maps all the time in my campaign. Having run all kinds of wilderness in my campaign, I've started to become keenly aware of how each format complements certain types of outdoor gameplay.

Let's unpack the distinctions.

In a hexcrawl, the party is presented with a 360-degree, six-direction choice most every time it exits a hex. Terrain will often foster soft positive and negative natural choices, the presence of a road running into a different hex or a bordering “open” or “rough” hex (easy/quicker travel in a grasslands or what) codes incentivizes/deincentivizes choices.

The problem from a design perspective with that approach is this the “paradox of choice”, that lovely study that showed that an over-abundance of variables, tends to surprisingly reduce meaningful choice by causing option paralysis (that “fuck it, let's just do this” exasperation). And I believe that paradox often extends to the designer of the hexcrawl. I find making hex maps an incredibly quick (maybe too quick process) I think about the kinds of sub-regions I want, pop open hexographer and the map just flows out of geographic naturalism (or at least some kind of internal logic).

Unless you densely pack your hexes (I am insane about this) you end up with large amounts of empty hexes. Now you need pacing (and a sense of travel) and a principled sandbox GM just has to live with the fact that players may never see this or that thing you worked so hard to make, but it does mean at least for me that I can make some sub-optimal choices about placement.

A weird serendipity often hangs over the map when you start playing put these kinds of hexcrawls. The party runs this way and that way, sometimes running into a good run of interesting hexes, sometimes just somehow, inexplicably hitting the dullest string of hexes one could imagine.

A pointcrawl on the otherhand is all about the deliberate path choice of say a dungeon. You place a node much like a room with its doors and corridors leading out.

The drawbacks are much like that of dungeon design again. Make the decision choices too limited, too linear and/or too chokepointed and you end up straight-jacketing the players and making for a dull-ass map to explore.

Secondly it's also more challenging presenting an environment where wide-open wilderness exploration for its own sake is the goal. Sometimes you do want that 360-degree exploration/clearing or serendipity. Hexes give an exactness of space and have the advantage of being gridded with a recognizable number pattern. Being able to call a hex number is a convenient short-hand both for the GM during play and for players thinking about how to explore an outdoors area.

The punchline here is this...

I use a hex map when I want a campaign phase that...
3. is quick and dirty.

I use a pointcrawl when I want...
1. choice in travel and exploration to feel more deliberate and meaningful.
2. to highlight the major and minor sites in a wilderness as the major goals of exploration. (Revoca being an example of a pointcrawl hidden behind a hexmap).

Oh and while I am on the subject, Luka (again for the umpteenth time in our collaboration) wowed me with this weekend with this beauty of a pointcrawl map for Misty Isles of the Eld. Maps can and should be beautiful also in themselves, no?
Do so click on me.