Burning Sanctuary

I’m looking to leverage the situation of the English Anarchy. I have not given much consideration for non-human character stock.

What’s the big picture? What’s going on in this setting that makes it ripe for adventure. What’s changing, evolving, declining?

British Isles

14th Century English Isles

The Norman barons had once sworn to install Empress Matilda as Queen of England. But upon King Henry I’s death in 1135 they, along with the church and people of London, raised Stephen of Blois to King of England. Empress Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou fled England.

Though supporting King Stephen, the barons have used this time to expand and tighten their holdings in England and Normandy. A Welsh rebellion has succeeded, as King Stephen focused on England and Normandy.

Both the Earl Robert of Gloucester (her half-brother) and King David I of Scotland (her uncle) have declared for Empress Matilda. King David I of Scotland has broken his earlier treaty, once more invading northern England. The Earl of Gloucester is in open rebellion.

Stephen has responded to these revolts, by attempting to seize control of Gloucester. Part of that campaign has been the siege and capture of Shrewsbury.

What’s the world’s culture? What are the cultural analogs? Analogs can be taken from historical earth, current events or fantasy works.

Its 12th century Northern Europe. Serfs are bound to their lords manor. Knights follow a complicated code of chivalry, established by the papacy to better shape their aggression.

There is a general chaos as Norway, Denmark, and France cope with civil wars and succession conflicts.

What’s the conflict in which the characters are involved? What are the sides? What’s wrong?

Three days ago, you declared sanctuary at Shrewsbury Abbey. Per the law of the land, you have 40 days to either confess your sins or abjure the realm. You have surrendered your possessions. Per the charter of Shrewsbury Abbey, you are free to move about the abbey’s holdings; a few fields for sheep.

Yesterday, King Stephen hanged over 100 knights that had defended Shrewsbury. But the castellan of Shrewsbury, Willian FitzAlan, managed to escape and join in rebellion.

It is September 1st, 1138 A.D.

What physical place does this conflict take place in? What ecology, environment, place?

12th century England. Keeps and castles dot the landscape, many wooden motte and bailey, though a few are stone fortresses. Connecting pockets of civilization are trails and roads, some reminders of the Roman empires. Ancient burial mounds dot the fields. The old forests remain, a reminder of past eras.

What’s the name of the most important place in this setting?

Near the heath and hills of Wales is Shrewsbury, a city with an abbey and motte and bailey castle. It is along the river Severn.

What’s the name of a faraway place that folks talk about, dream about or mutter under their breath about?

Rome, the divine seat of power and progenitor of the empire of the eagles.

Who are the antagonists? Who is opposing the goals of the characters?

There are two major factions:

  • King of England, Stephen of Blois
  • Empress Matilda, claimant to the Crown of England

King Stephen

  • Matilda of Boulogne, queen consort of King Stephen
  • Bishop Henry of Winchester – Brother of King Stephen
  • Count Eustace IV of Boulogne – son of King Stephen
  • Archbishop of Canterbury Theobald of Bec – appointed by King Stephen
  • Earl Ranulf de Gernon of Chester – loyal to King Stephen, though upset at loss of holdings to Scotland
  • Pope Innocent II – supported by letter King Stephen’s claim
  • Roger of Salisbury – Chancellor of England, Bishop of Salisbury
  • Miles of Gloucester – loyal to King Stephen, though he is reconsidering

Empress Matilda

  • Henry FitzEmpress – son of Empress Matilda
  • King David I of Scotland – uncle of Empress Matilda
  • Earl Robert of Gloucester – half-brother of Empress Matilda
  • Count Geoffrey of Anjou – husband of Empress Matilda
  • William FitzAlan – Castellan of Shrewsbury and Lord of Oswestry
  • Brian Fitz Count of Wallingford – loyal to Empress Matilda

Imagine all of the characters are standing a room/ruin/field with the antagonists or their minions. What do the antagonists want from that meeting? What do the characters want from that meeting?

King Stephen demands your loyalty and assurances of such; Be they hostages or holdings. You will take up cause against Empress Matilda and fight to ensure that Eustace is his heir.

Empress Matilda has similar demands, though she seeks Henry FitzEmpress as her heir.

Alternately, imagine the characters standing at the scene of some great disaster or calamity clearly caused by one of the antagonists. What’s the disaster? How did it happen? What are the characters going to do about it right now?

The peasantry has been taxed to its breaking point; Starvation is rampant and disease lays waste to villages. Banditry and worse are the result of two nobles fighting for the scraps of a decaying kingdom.

What type of magic exists in this world?

Lets talk about this. I am thinking of Faith and at least Folklore from the Burning Wheel Codex.

This will be a table conversation.

What character stocks are in play in this world? Which are restricted and why?

  • Humans are the dominant character stocks. It is said that the Welsh are the descendants of the Elves.
  • Trolls haunt the hills and fens.
  • Great wolves live in the ancient woods of the world.

I’m up for including others.

What cultural traits apply to the characters of this game world? Pick three character traits for each culture.

  • Anglo-Saxon: Folksy, grumbler, charitable
  • Anglo-Normand: Refined, tall, arrogant
  • Welsh: Beautiful singer, rebellious, proud
  • Scottish: Rugged, independent, boisterous
  • Irish: Rugged, artsy, story-teller

What’s your resources cycle? 1 month, seasonal, 6 months, annual? What’s the game world’s currency? Who collects the taxes? What do people do for work? what’s the major economy?

Resource cycle is seasonal. The kings taxmen collect the taxes. Pound, pennies, and farthings. The major economy is agriculture. Most people are peasants or yeoman scratching out a meager living.

Material world: what weapons and armor are available? Are some weapons and armor restricted to certain cultures or character stocks? What property is available? are resources and gear otherwise restricted?

Firearms and plate mail are not available.

What Makes a Good Role-Playing Session (for me)?

My default mode is critical pessimism; I’m working on that. In reviewing my blog posts, I am critical of game sessions.

So I decided to flip it and reflect on what makes a good role-playing game session (for me)?

A good RPG session requires a good group of players.

Good players are:

  • Generous
  • Respectful
  • Trustworthy
  • Curious
  • Invested
  • Active

This is the foundation. With a good group of players, most game sessions are good game sessions, even Fate.

It is one of the reasons I enjoy Games on Demand at GenCon and Origins; the GMs are invested, excited, and ready to facilitate their games.

In the case of a one-shot session, this is adequate. But for extended play, I need more. I need meaningful situations.

Meaningful Situations

At its very basic, do the character’s actions impact the fictional state of the world? Flipping this around, does the fictional changes of the world impact the characters?

Is the GM presenting situations that challenge the other players? And are the players attempting to advance their character’s agenda through overcoming challenges presented by the GM?

A key ingredient for meaningful situations is that risky ventures may pay huge dividends or bring about disastrous failure. Which asks what is at risk? What is there to gained?

  • Fictional advancement
  • Laughter and enjoyment
  • Mechanical advancement
  • System mastery

Fictional advancement, laughter, and enjoyment are not dependent on the rules. Though random tables and results can add a lot to the enjoyment as they give unexpected responses.

The other two bullet points – mechanical advancement and system mastery – are game system rewards.

Game System Rewards

In older editions of Dungeons and Dragons, characters gain most of their XP (and mechanical advancement – through gaining treasure. Conflict was dangerous and yielded little XP compared to treasure.

Domain rules become a natural extension of ever-growing wealth.

In more recent editions of Dungeons and Dragons, the characters gain most of their XP through combat.

Meaningful Rewards

Even though the most efficient method to gain XP is via treasure, the older editions have procedures that push the characters towards conflict. In this tension I see an elegant reward system.

Players that master this concept see combat avoidance as the best path. Anything that can end a combat is superior than engaging in a war of attrition:

  • Swingy spells (save or die)
  • Negotiation and forming alliances
  • Hirelings and Henchman to absorb failed efforts
  • Stealth and subterfuge

Yet through this all, the system increases character combat efficacy. And challenges the player’s humility regarding their characters; Why not fight, we’re strong enough?

One quick method is to apply Jared Sorenson’s 3 Questions to the rules:

  • What is your game about?
  • How does it go about that?
  • What behaviors does it reward and/or encourage?

In the case of older editions of Dungeons and Dragons, the answers revolve around exploration. In newer editions, it seems to revolve around combat.

Conclusion

I’m particular about my games; I want to enjoy my game sessions. They are a major time commitment. Both the group and system should cleave close to my ideal. A game of pure combat loses its luster.

My ideal answers to Jared Sorenson’s questions are:

What is your game about?

Exploration of a rich world, where characters can pursue personal agendas as well as play to find out.

How does it go about that?

Shared development of a rich world that challenges the characters.

What behaviors does it reward and/or encourage?

That which makes a good player:

  • Generous
  • Respectful
  • Trustworthy
  • Curious
  • Invested
  • Active

Additional Burning Wheel Procedures

Over the past few months, I’ve been looking at OSR rules and procedures. With the arrival of the Burning Wheel Codex, I wanted to map some of the OSR procedures to Burning Wheel Gold.

Reaction

When introducing new NPCs that are not part of a Circle test, consider their disposition based on their BITs and any relevant reputations of the PCs. When in doubt consult the following table:

2d6 Result
2 Hostile
3-5 Unfavorable
6-8 Indifferent
9-11 Favorable / Talkative
12 Helpful

Morale

When NPCs encounter stiff opposition, the GM should reference their relevant BITs to determine a response. When in doubt consult the following table:

2d6 Result
2 Routes
3-6 Retreats
6-8 Assess fight or flight
9-11 Fight on
12 To the Death!

Initiative

If there are multiple actions in which timing is critical, leverage the following procedure for simultaneous declaration:

  1. Players may declare task and intent (+1s for Speed tests).
  2. Game master declares task and intent.
  3. Remaining players declare task and intent (-1s for Speed tests).
  4. All participants roll Speed to determine order of execution.
  5. Resolve actions from most successes to least. Characters may cancel actions but not revise.

This is a refinement on my experience hacking together a Burning Wheel Conflict resolution – a conflict that involved 34 characters that took 20 minutes for talking, stabbing, and looting.

The Disservice of Modern Dungeons & Dragons Initiative Systems

When 3E came out, I loved the initiative system. Circular initiative, readied actions, delayed actions, and attacks of opportunity. The order of actions felt more strategic. And then they added reactions. Oh boy! So much to consider.

But I’ve noticed that combat grinds on and on in these more “modern” systems.

Individual Initiative

Below is a very course grained sequence of actions:

  1. Roll initiative
  2. Record initiative
  3. Player begins turn
    1. Player assesses the current situation, asking the GM for any information
    2. Player determines optimal action
      • Ready
      • Delay
      • Act
    3. Player performs action
    4. GM adjudicates action
    5. Player assesses results
    6. If actions remain (e.g. quickened spells, extra attacks), goto “Player determines action”
    7. Player ends turn and begins waiting for next turn While waiting assess if a reaction is appropriate
  4. Announce next player, goto “Player begins turn”

In summary, while one player takes their turn, the other players are idle. This is the nature of turn based systems.

Some players may plan their next action, butmay scuttle those plans by the time their turn arrives. After all a well-timed Entangle or Fireball can snarl most any situation.

And in the above system, there are many points in which a single player asks the GM to rebuild and describe the current state of the conflict. A battle map can alleviate some of this, as can condition tokens, but it is the nature of the beast.

Players do not pay full attention during other player’s turn. So the GM restates the “current state” multiple times. And in those restatements, not all players are listening. So the table ends up with a fractured understanding.

Declared Intention then Roll Initiative

I look back with fondness at 2nd Editions declare then roll initiative system. Or Burning Wheel’s scripted conflict. There is both a chaos to the system, but also a greater degree of shared engagement.

Below is a rewording of the above Individual Initiative, but from the perspective of players declaring actions before rolling initiative.

  1. Players assess the current situation, asking the GM for any information
  2. Players declare actions
  3. Roll initiative
  4. Record initiative
  5. Player begins turn
    1. Player makes a go/no go assessment concerning declared action
      1. Perform declared action if it was a go
      2. GM adjudicates action
      3. Player assesses results
      4. If actions remain, goto “Player assesses if their declared action is viable”
    2. Player ends turn and begins waiting for next turn While waiting assess if a reaction is appropriate
  6. Announce next player, goto “Player begins turn”

First, all characters are engaging in assessing the current situation. They do this at the same time. From there, they commit to their actions; Also at the same time. In those moments “all eyes are glued to the GM.”

On a player’s turn, their assessment is most often constrained to their declared action. The assessment is now a simplified “Do I do it or not?” question.

From a systems stand point, portions of the table play move from serial processing to partial parallelization. The players all assess and declare at roughly the same time. Then they act in order. But their action involves smaller assessment, minimal declaration, and instead focuses onadjudication.

Further Dissection

When players must select multiple actions for a given round, the declaration can become burdensome. But I suspect the reason for giving multiple actions is to help satiate the player as they wait longer between their turns.

Below are two tables that highlight the active players for a given step in the encounter. The question marks (?) indicate an uncertainy of what the player is doing. It doesn’t matter all that much.

Individual Initiative

State Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 GM
GM Describes Assess Assess Assess Declare
Roll initiative Roll Roll Roll Roll
Player 1 Begins Turn Assess ? ? Declare
Player 1 Declare Declare ? ? Assess
Player 1 Rolls Roll ? ? Record
GM Responds Assess ? ? Declare
Player 2 Begins Turn ? Assess ? Declare
Player 2 Declare ? Declare ? Assess
Player 2 Rolls ? Roll ? Record
GM Responds ? Assess ? Declare
Player 3 Begins Turn ? ? Assess Declare
Player 3 Declare ? ? Declare Assess
Player 3 Rolls ? ? Roll Record
GM Responds ? ? Assess Declare

Declared Intention then Roll Initiative

State Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 GM
GM Describes Assess Assess Assess Declare
Player 1 Declare Declare Declare Declare Assess
Roll initiative Roll Roll Roll Roll
Player 1 Begins Turn Assess ? ? Declare
Player 1 Rolls Roll ? ? Record
GM Responds Assess ? ? Declare
Player 2 Begins Turn ? Assess ? Declare
Player 2 Rolls ? Roll ? Record
GM Responds ? Assess ? Declare
Player 3 Begins Turn ? ? Assess Declare
Player 3 Rolls ? ? Roll Record
GM Responds ? ? Assess Declare

Proposal

Consider mechanisms in which you can get players to do the same kinds of things at the same time (e.g. declare actions then roll initiative). This is complicated by the more strategic options for each player’s turn.

I find the cost of those strategic options to be slower-paced, less engaging conflicts. And as D&D has moved from majority XP awards for treasure to majority of XP from defeating monsters, this has resulted in a system disconnect.

Take some time to read the initiative section in Philotomy’s Musings. Consider what conflict means in your game. Consider how you want to incentivize the strategies and actions of your players.

Playing at the Game Store

For the past few months, I’ve joined a weekly 5E Dungeons & Dragons game at my local game store – Better World Books. This campaign has irregular attendance; we fluctuate between 5 and 10 players (including the GM). A few weeks ago, we had 10 players and 4 others interested in playing for the first time.

Procedure of the Game Store Game

The following procedure has emerged:

  1. Kick in the door
  2. Defeat the monsters
  3. Loot the bodies
  4. Interstitial role-playing
  5. Goto line step 1

Splitting the Party

I talked with the GM to see if we might want to split the table. It looks like we could support two different tables most weeks.

I’m considering running that second game. The primary consideration is to run the Dwimmermount campaign using the Labyrinth Lord rules.

With unpredictable attendance, the following artificial constraint may be helpful:

By the end of the session the characters must be back in the city

This was mentioned in Dreams in the Lich House.

World of Steve – Session 2

This is a post that I dug up from the drafts. Its incomplete, but has a bit of value.

In September of 2013, I ran a Dungeon World session and today we picked up from that session – its not often that you run a singular session then 6 months later run the follow-up. Tragically, I forgot that I had written up elaborate notes for that session, so there was a bit of discontinuity.

Starting from Memory or What Was Different

Cyne was able to track the shape changer. Though this turned out to be false.

Collectively, we had forgotten the contact, so we renamed to Black Jack.

Diving Right In

Confrontation in the Courtyard

Kind Steve was captured and his player, Jaron, quickly created Mutton Steve, a barbarian priest of the church of Steve.

Using the secret passageway into the garage, they found a warehouse room with several hundred crates. They were marked with a sigil that Skinny Jake remembered seeing 6 months ago on a ship back in Bluefall. Inside each of the open 10 or so opened crates was a single large obsidian shape, each different and perhaps part of a large puzzle.

In the quartermaster’s office, a high stakes skirmish erupted as Skinny Jake, Cyne, Mutton Steve, and Jasper attempted to secure the room from 4 littlings without alerting the hoard of littlings outside the door.

A particularly tense moment was when Cyne over extended his attack, and two littlings rushed up his spear. One dove for the door knob while the other jumped in Cyne’s pack. With the help of the table, Cyne needed to defy danger to both stop a littling from opening the door while  also stopping a littling that jumped in his pack from chewing off his ear. He succeeded keeping his ear and the door from opening.

What We Learned

Clergy of the Church of Steve can change their name, under two circumstances: promotion or atonement. The name change is performed by four other priests.

The horned faced creature in Kind Steve’s fevered dreams is named Ixit.

Hirelings and Help

  • Mutton Steve – A barbarian priest of Steve, adorned in ram skins and a horned helmet, wielding a ferocious two-handed sword. Cost: Debauchery;Skills: Priest 1, Protector 1, Warrior 3, Loyalty 0.
  • Veldrin – An elf ranger, and travelling companion of the heroes (former PC). Cost: Uncovered Knowledge; Skills: Tracker 2, Warrior 1, Loyalty 2.
  • Lem – A tower guard for Ramsford. He’s the one that knew about the secret passage into Ramsford. Cost: Money; Skills: Warrior 2, Loyalty 1.
  • Jasper – A tower guard for Ramsford. He’s the one that Skinny Jake first woke up. Cost: Good Accomplished; Skills: Warrior 2, Loyalty 2.

Exhuming My Dungeons & Dragons

Building on my previous post for “Adding More Mortar to the Three Pillars”, I’m in the process of compiling my preferred house rules for my “Dungeons and Dragons” game. I’ve spent years playing 2E, 3E, 4E, and 5E.

The Current Incarnation

I’ve played a few games of D&D 5E, and find it an improvement over 4E and 3.x. However it does not sit well with me. My concerns are:

  • Stat bonuses are too large
  • Massive per round combat efficacy
  • Saving throw system that leaves you very vulnerable at higher levels
  • Good combat procedures, but lacking in other procedures
  • Resource management in relation to time is arbitrary
  • Lack of non-combat procedures

These concerns are evident in 3E and 4E as well.

Rudimentary System Checklist

I’m taking these “grievances” and attempting to find and compose my preferred system.

  • Random ability scores
  • Smaller distribution of attribute bonuses (-2 to +2 or even -1 to +1)
  • Procedures for exploration, encounters, and combat
  • Improving saving throws
  • Acknowledging that balance is a questing beast; The game is a group effort
  • Combat is dangerous and lethal
  • Hirelings and retainers are a natural part of the game ecosystem
  • Reward risk taking
  • Not everything is a fight to the death
  • Scripted combat would be nice to have
  • Resource management is a downplayed element
  • Randomization is an important tool for a referee
  • Shift XP to a more “Treasure for XP” model in which monster XP is about 20% or less of the expected experience
  • Skill systems are not required; Focus on player skills and engagement

The Archaeological Map

I’ve been digging through various OSR clones, simulacra, adaptations, and hacks. Reading for differences, of which there are many. They are themselves a reflection of the differences in the original materials.

Beyond the Rules

I’m also looking at how to best setup a regular game; Accept that people will come and go from session to session. Also acknowledge that character death should not end the player’s participation for that session (e.g. just grab one of the hirelings and take over).

So I’m thinking of leveraging a mega-dungeon as the primary focus of the first sessions. Provide a location for the characters to explore and plunder. And with their plunder, they engage and shape the larger world.

The megadungeon is a shift for me. Most of my games have been political and social games with human adversaries with little use of modules and random content.

I ran Out of the Abyss and found the procedures of the evading pursuit, travel, and random encounters to be my favorite aspect. But those procedures were leveraged in a prison escape scenario with minimal player character guidance. They were adrift in an opaque setting, not exploring the world, but traveling blind to various set pieces.

Proposal

The current front runner is Labyrinth Lord; Though Sword & Wizardry’s unified saving throw is appealing. In part because there are free options for both.

Ability Scores

Ability Score Modifier
3 -2
4-8 -1
9-12 0
13-17 +1
18 +2

Initiative System

I’m also considering a scripted initiative system:

  1. Declare Actions
    1. Players may declare actions; Gain +1 bonus to initiative
    2. Referee declares actions
    3. Remaining players declare actions, Take -1 penalty to initiative
  2. Each Player Rolls Initiative (1d6)

Or leverage a modified version of Philotomy’s Musings for initiative; Group initiative one side acts then another.

Additional House Rules

Lift a few ideas from Bill Webb’s “Book of Dirty Tricks”. In particular consider using:

  • Static to hit bonus (e.g. Fighters & Monsters need 17+ to hit AC 0; All others need 18+)
  • Simplified weapon damage
  • Critical hits do +1 damage