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

Adding More Mortar to the Three Pillars

The Three Pillars of Adventure

Adventurers can try to do anything their players can imagine, but it can be helpful to talk about their activities in three broad categories: exploration, social interaction, and combat.

From the “D&D Basic Rules: Player’s Basic Rules”

I want to look at a few subsystems of previous versions that are not part of the core rules of 5E. Rules and guidance for these subsystems can be found in the current Dungeon Master’s Guide. But they are not a first class citizen in the rules.

These systems are:

  • Hirelings, retainers, and specialists – additional hired support that can bolster the parties ranks or provide specialized services
  • Random encounters – a procedure to determine if the party encounters random creatures/events outside of the set pieces of the adventure
  • Reaction checks – a procedure to determine non-player characters initial reaction (friendly, indifferent, hostile, etc.) to the party
  • Morale checks – a procedure for seeing if non-player characters and creatures surrender, flee, or fight on

Exploration

Hirelings provide additional options for exploration: a translator, a torchbearer, a rear guard, a camp guard, etc.

Random encounters breath life into a location; Instead of a series of disparate locations the random encounters highlight that the location is dangerous and dynamic.

In editions prior to 3E, random encounters put pressure on the characters to not delay. The majority of experience was from treasure and not combat and a random encounter was a high risk, low reward ordeal.

Reaction checks codify that not every encounter will escalate into combat. It provides a chance for factions and agendas to be discovered and exploited.

Morale checks primary purpose is to ensure that not everything is a fight to the death. In exploration, this means that players may be aware that any opposition is falling back to bolster defenses.

Combat

In older editions, one role of hirelings was to diffuse the lethality of combat. They are both support and built in back-up player characters. They also provide a logical means to for a guest player to join for a single session or so.

Random encounters provide a steady source of potential combat. In older editions, its ill-advised to escalate every encounter (i.e. high risk, low reward). However, for players seeking combat, random encounters are sure to please.

Reaction checks are there to make sure that not everything needs to be combat. It can steer an encounter into a social interaction instead. It adds a bit of unpredictability.

Morale provides a clear mechanism so that not every combat is fought to the bloody end. This is something that a GM could adjudicate on their own, but having procedures in place allows the GM to fall back on the beauty of randomization. No one knows when a combat starts if it will be to the death; But the rules can be leveraged to provide an unbiased decision.

Since morale checks also apply to all non-player characters, it raises the stakes of combat; Will your still loyal torchbearer turn tail at the sight of skeletons? Will your seasoned veteran continue to fight even if their employer has fallen? A story emerges from the dice rolls.

Social Interaction

And this is where the four subsystems shine.

Hirelings may have their own agenda. They may leave on good terms and help the party in the future. Or a mistreated hireling might betray or openly oppose the future endeavors of the party. They provide another known social interaction point in the campaign; No need to create something new, reuse a hireling.

By leveraging reaction checks, it is not immediately obvious if each encounter is meant for combat or social interaction. This ambiguity provides a crease in the game that allows players to flex their ambitions.

And then there is morale; Does the hireling turns tail and runs at a critical moment? Or do they double down with steely resolve? How do the players respond? Do they dismiss them outright? Do they seek to rally, comfort, or console? At a minimum, there is now an in game moment with one of the hirelings that changed the state of the fiction.

And morale for possible opposition enforces that not everything is a fight to the death. Will the players spare the creature? Will they gain an ally? Or will they be betrayed? Can they hire their opponent? It keeps the questions open.

And in all of this, the random encounter is yet another source of fuel for social interactions and combat.

Conclusion

In my survey of numerous OSR games and D&D editions, I have found several implementations of these subsystems.

For Hirelings I’m fond of:

For Morale my preference is:

For Reaction checks:

For Random Encounters:

There are differences between each, but the key components that I look for are as follows:

  • Randomize the hiring process; Some should slander would be employers
  • Codify when morale checks should be made
  • Codify what random encounters are possible and how often
  • Reaction checks should happen at the beginning of the encounter (I prefer that Charisma not come into play unless the characters interact with the creatures)

Features of Burning Wheel That I Enjoy(ed?)

  1. Scripted conflict resolution
  2. Helping & FoRKs
  3. Circles
  4. Character burning
  5. Character advancement

Scripted Conflict

For scripted conflict resolution (Duel of Wits, Range & Cover, and Fight!) there are more streamlined options (i.e. AD&D 2E we would declare actions, roll initiative, and see how things fell apart).

The difference is BW locks in three actions and resolves them. So when something unexpected/unplanned happens, there’s more in game segments that pass before any course correction is possible. Hence my gaming group’s love of RoboRally.

Helping & FoRKs

The chances in Burning Wheel of success without assistance are slim. The game encourages you to look around the table and solicit help. It also encourages you to provide help (and thus advance). It is clear that helping someone on a test binds your fate to the test as well (this is a logical thing that I apply to any help provider regardless of system; But BW is clear that this is expected).

In practice, there was a lot more negotiation at the table; Akin to the problem of Fate where players spend excessive game time attempting to leverage every aspect on the table. (Unlike Fate, in BW success is not guaranteed due to the probability curve).

I have found D&D 5E’s Aid Another rule to solve this rather straightforward. And as such, am hesitant to want my RPG experience to include the Helping & FoRKs negotiation (unless I am again playing with my cooperative board game loving group).

Circles

I love articulated rules for finding specific or general people. Burning Wheel’s Circle system works quite well for this.

Character Burning

Character Burning is a personal activity. I look at it as akin to building a Magic the Gathering deck. The various character stocks (Elf, Dwarf, Human, and Orc) have a very different feel. And same “level” characters are so very different in their capabilities.

The resulting characters inform the GM what kind of game the players are hoping to see; Its more detailed than I have a Thief with Perform skill. (I have an Auger with Butchering and Astrology).

Character Advancement

Its all about incremental improvements. Eek out small advances that build over time. I enjoy looking ahead to character class features. In Burning Wheel, if I want to improve those features, I need to challenge them. In other games, advancement often doesn’t relate to skill usage. (D&D 5E, I can get better at Stealth even if my whole level was spent fighting).

The observation I’ve had about D&D 3E-5E is that many players at the table are focusing on what they might be getting at the next level. Interested in unlocking those features. And that happens, to some extent, regardless of what they are doing in game to get there.

In Burning Wheel, the players had some incentive to better guide the story. After all, if they want to advance a skill, they need to use it.

Further Observations

In each of the above cases, there are less baroque analogues that are quite adequate for most game play.

Scripted Combat: AD&D 2E combat that we used; Declare actions, roll initiative, resolve actions

Helping & FoRKs: D&D 5E Aid Another, Inspiration, Advantage

Circles: A Charisma check (though some guidelines or a table could help for any given game table)

Character Burning: D&D 5E Backgrounds, Whitehack’s Slots and Groups

Burning Wheel requires a tremendous amount of concentration compared to other RPGs that I’ve played. If the table is prepared for that concentration commitment, then it can shine. The game is tightly integrated with its constituent parts.

It is also a game that I have found resonates with people who enjoy the more involved board games (i.e. Advanced Civilization comes to mind). I also look to Burning Wheel and say “I’d never want to play just a session of it. This is a game that demands campaign play.”

So, when I survey the games that are in my personal library, Burning Wheel has become my white whale. Its not that I want to play Burning Wheel, but that Burning Wheel hints at the type of game I want to play.

A game where the players come with a powerful agenda for their characters. They have the tools to actualize that agenda. They dig deep to work together against long odds. There is a vast tapestry of NPCs that the characters have sought out; Some are friends, some enemies, and others waiting to turn. I want the game to have unpredictable moments, when a plan falls horribly apart and the characters must deal with a major set back.

But my reality is quite different. I struggle to get a regular game together (parenting, growing our personal business, and work are my priority). If my kids are with me, I’m not going to be running a game for my other friends. So my schedule is limited. This means concentration is an uncertainty, and thus Burning Wheel, while tempting, is a bad idea for me to run.

Campaign Random Encounter: Library of Ancients and Surrounding Village

After wrapping up the 5E 0th level character funnel adventure, I did a bit of preparation. The characters were going to travel to the Library of Ancients to research about the Shadow Wars, the shadow creature, and the failing wards that kept it bound.

I didn’t write up much about the Library of Ancients, and its adjoining village Codex, except for the following random table. In making the table, I became aware of what could be in motion at Library of Ancients and Codex.

In these 12 rumors and events, I found far more than enough to run a satisfying delve in the Library of Ancients. I now forget how I resolved the research aspect of the Library, but I was generous in the information I gave.

Rumors and Events

1d12 Event or Happenstance
1 A contingent of viziers arrived 1d4 days ago. They will soon broker a treaty (1 – 3) or launch a treasonous initiative (4-6).
2 Yesterday, one of the towers collapsed killing Tanja, a visiting researcher, and Raiko, a librarian. Workers are clearing the rubble and assessing the damage. Soon the library and Codex will know that the Raiko stabbed and killed Tanja.
3 Dalia, a visiting scholar, is waiting at the entrance to the library. She has found what could be a capstone to her life’s work. She’s looking to hire some muscle to go get it. Soon her insanity will be revealed as she drives ever onward towards her goal.
4 The Library and Codex, the neighboring village, fended off an attack 1d6 days ago. Hanging from the fortified walls are the tarred corpses of 1d10 assailants. From the mouth of one of the corpses an orchid will grow.
5 The staff and faculty are excited about the recent acquisition of the collection of Lapernum, a planar scholar. One will soon bear witness to an apocalyptic vision.
6 Codex elected Orithia a new mayor 2d6 days ago. She replaces the previous mayor, Bale; He went insane. She will soon face a challenge to her authority.
7 Grigor a wealthy merchant left not more than a few hours ago; He hired several guards for what is normally a safe trip. He will be betrayed soon.
8 Jelenneth, a young woman from Codex, has been missing since a raid on the library. Her parents are distraught and seek help. She will soon enter the realm of fairy to be with her lover.
9 Reeve Vander has just found that the winter stores of Codex spoiled over the last three days. A diabolist will soon reveal a nefarious scheme.
10 In the next month the Duchess of Ariana will be visiting. The librarians are busy preparing for a visit. Head librarian Gidian is seeking a ducal endowment.
11 Salindra and her acting troupe (6 others) arrived yesterday; They are here to perform a play and write and research their next play. The play will be outlawed in the months to come as it foments open.
12 Filip has been dragged back in chains; He has stolen from the library. He will be abused a lose a hand at the end of the week.