About takeonrules

I'm an avid face to face gamer (RPGs, Boardgames, and Card games), though I'm contemplating using hangouts for gaming. I work for the Univeristy of Notre Dame. Sometimes I blog about work more often I blog about games. I have three children, a step-daughter, and a loving & lovely wife.

Randomizing My Way Through Tomb of Annihilation

The past month, I’ve been running Tomb of Annihilation, in 5E D&D, for two different groups. The first group includes my daughter, step-daughter, and their friends. The second group includes friends from high school and college. I also have a 3rd campaign in the mix as well; A Labyrinth Lord game for my step-daughter and her 6 to 9 other theater friends (and not Tomb of Annihilation).

Tonight, my daughter and step-daughter’s group left Port Nyanzaru. This coming Thursday, I assume the other group will also leave Port Nyanzaru.

With my daughter and step-daughter’s group, I used the recommended hooks for character backgrounds to steer them to Chult. For my friend’s group, they all decided that they were a musical band benefiting from the patronage of Syndra Silvane.

While in Port Nyanzaru, each group learned different information (via a rumor table). They received guidance from different people (via random side quests). They have three things in common:

  1. They both went to Watangu and got the same quest (one gets a spellbook the other a bag of holding). Oddly, they both attempted to persuade him and each group rolled a 1.
  2. They both opted to stay at the Thunderous Lizard, each getting a free night stay (one through a swindle, the other through a rocking performance).
  3. Chaos is the predominate alignment; The high school group is all chaotic, the other group is all chaotic except the roadie and the band manager.

As they journey into the jungle, I’m sure the random encounters will push further divergence. Already the high school group encountered two formative random encounters; a tabaxi hunter and a red wizardess. In the book, these encounters are rather sparse. However, with some role-playing and an odd bargain, the tabaxi joined the group to help them navigate the jungle.

The odd bargain emerged from rolling a random Tabaxi Quirks and Motivations from Volo’s Guide to Monsters. String of Yarn, the tabaxi hunter, sought to find lost civilizations. And never wore the same clothing more than once. With a bit of back and forth, String of Yarn will wear the characters clothes (and costumes) as they travel. In return, he’ll help them navigate through the jungle.

And the party wouldn’t have learned about the tabaxi hunter had they not had a random encounter with flying monkeys. The party did not escalate to violence and instead the bard cast speak with animals learning that they were being followed.

Random encounters are the lifeblood of any and all adventures that I now run. In Tomb of Annihilation, each group will experience a similar game, but the details will vary. And in that variation, we’ll find surprises to which we must all react.

Celebrating 17 Years of the Open Gaming License

The Open Game License (OGL) fascinates me. It is something I very much appreciate. I have released content on my blog as open game content.

There are several moving aspects of the open gaming license over these last 17 years of open gaming. These are un-cited opinions based on observations and intuition.

First, it opened the 3rd edition rules of Dungeons and Dragons to legal and safe tinkering, derivation, and expansion. An industry sprung up to create supplements for 3E. It also empowered people to create gaming content that was shareable; In a legal manner as well as in proximity or alignment to existing rules systems.

Second, it provided the framework to legally rebuild older variants of Dungeons and Dragons. First in the form of OSRIC, then the ensuing explosion of clones, modern simulacra (in no particular order), and adjacent games:

  • Labyrinth Lord
  • Basic Fantasy
  • Sword & Wizardry
  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess
  • Blueholme
  • Mazes & Perils
  • Castles & Crusades
  • Whitehack
  • Delving Deeper
  • Adventurer Conquerer King
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics
  • The Hero’s Journey
  • The Black Hack
  • Microlite ’74
  • Beyond the Wall
  • And I’m sure more

Third, it was through the OGL that Pathfinder came into existence. Pathfinder is the spiritual and mechanical descendant of the most popular modern rules of D&D at the time. The rules and community had of the very popular rules had a safe harbour as D&D 4E experimented with a new paradigm and a non-OGL license.

Fourth, I look to WotC’s releasing 5E D&D under the OGL as a sign that the OGL is all-around better for them than not. Wizards of the Coast took this a step further and through the DM’s Guild have released their flag-ship RPG campaign world, the Forgotten Realms, for experimentation.

In the middle of these four points we see great developments. Old D&D adventures, long out of print, available again in PDF. You can use a simulacrum or the original rules to play these adventures.

We are also seeing old adventures (B1 – In Search of the Unknown and B2 – Keep on the Borderlands) being re-released by Goodman Games under both 1E and 5E rules in a single volume.

The open game license appears to have created a framework for iteration and experimentation all while ensuring that gaming and the DIY nature of gaming remains viable.

The Known World Thusfar

Today, I broke down and bought Cecil Howe’s Hex Kit. I already had the base tiles, and wanted something to make my campaign map.

I started with the following hand-drawn map (with some later modifications)

A hex grid with five filled hexes mapping a small region.

The Known World as of Session 4

And with a few hours of campaign planning, I created the following with Fog of War style obfuscation:

A hex map

The Known World thus Far

Blades in the Dark by John Harper

Last Thursday I ran a session of John Harper‘s Blades in the Dark for seven other players. Beforehand, I read the rules, printed the handouts, and assembled my GM screen.

John Harper crafts an evocative setting into the rules – ghosts, soot, capitalist feudalism surround the aspiring crew of miscreants.

Hooded man in shadows with blades drawn

Blades in the Dark by John Harper

What I Love

Structure

At present, I’m running a drop-in style game at my FLGS. From week to week the cast of characters varies. I’m well aware of the challenges of campaign cohesion as the characters move through different regions of the campaign world; and no two sessions have the same group playing.

Blades in the Dark offers several elements to ease the challenges of a rotating cast – the crew, turf, and game phases.

The players create a shared “character”, the crew, and develop it through their exploits. Blades in the Dark provides 6 base crews: assassins, bravos, cult, hawkers, shadows, and smugglers. These crew types suggest how the player characters will approach solutions. The crew also modifies aspects of the characters.

Crews control turf. The more they expand that turf, the greater power and options they get. This encourages play to remain close to a home-base.

The game phases provide a strong structure of play. We have free-play – a time for reconnaissance, information gathering, and general role-playing. And we have the score – a time for an illicit endeavor that will bolster the wealth and reputation of the crew. Downtime immediately follows the score.

During downtime the GM gives the payout in coin and reputation, determines the heat and entanglement. Then the characters perform their activities: acquire an asset, work on a long-term project, recover, reduce heat, train, or indulge a vice.

Downtime runs different than the other parts of the game. Downtime focuses on feeding the campaign at a higher level than the moment by moment of information gathering, conflict, or social engagement. I see analogues to Blades in the Dark’s downtime in:

I appreciate that the Downtime phase of Blades in the Dark helps me close out sessions so that I can easily account for character changes in the next session. The structure of the crew creates a continuity to a changing cast of players. And the entanglements and turf ensure the dynamism of the city of Duskwall.

Procedures

I love the procedures of a system. They explain in clear steps the transition from one moment of play to another.

Blades in the Dark has two important in-session procedures:

  • Planning & Engagement
  • Downtime

These procedures transition the game from free-form into and out of an action. The Downtime procedure moves the game from the Score back to free-form play. And as I said above, it feeds the campaign.

Planning & Engagement

The Planning & Engagement procedure moves the game from free-play to a Score. Crews gain vital wealth and reputation from each Score.

Once the characters determine a potential score, Blades advocates that they identify a missing detail for the type of score. For an assault, the crew details the point of attack.

At this point, the GM moves into the Planning & Engagement procedure. Each character determines their load; How much gear they have (not the specific gear just how many slots of gear).

The GM runs through a litany to build a dice pool for the engagement roll:

  • Start with 1d (for sheer luck)
  • Is this operation particularly bold or daring? If yes, +1d.
  • Is this operation overly complex or contingent on many factors? If yes, -1d.
  • Does the plan’s detail expose a vulnerability or strike at a weakness? If yes, +1d.
  • Does the plan strike at a strength or special preparation? If yes, -1d.
  • Can any of your friends or contacts help? If yes, +1d.
  • Are any enemies or rivals interfering in the operation? If yes, -1d.
  • Is the target of a lower tier? If yes, +1d.
  • Is the target of a higher tier? If yes, -1d.

With the dice pool assembled, someone rolls and determines to determine the initial position – what the opening scene of the score looks like.

The engagement roll sets aside the potentially game paralyzing planning and pushes the game into the action. Players do have access to Flashbacks for planning and resources.

As a caveat, if your group enjoys planning, preparation, and pre-determined equipment; the Load Out, Engagement, and Flashbacks may not be for you. You may want to require players choose their individual items for the score, create any assets (eg. bribed guards), and layout the details of their plan. I still believe the engagement roll provides a valuable tool for transitioning from planning to action.

Lead a Group Action

If you have ever had a group of 6 PCs each attempt to sneak around a location, you know that in most systems it will inevitably fail…and likely devolve into combat (e.g. can’t sneak around it, better bash in the door and kill everything).

Blades adds a fantastic mechanism in which someone can lead a group action. The leader need not have the best action rating. Everyone rolls for that action and the highest result determines the success of the group action. However, each individual failure for the group action inflicts one point of stress on the leader of the group action.

In other words, you’ll have a competent group but at a potential cost. From a meta-standpoint, this mechanic also helps keep the characters together (and thus keeps the fictional state more manageable for the GM).

Countdown Clocks

I first saw countdown clocks in Apocalypse World, but prefer the direction Blades takes in leveraging clocks. The countdown encodes events that might happen or obstacles to overcome. A quick note-taking tool that a GM can share with players to provide visual clues for the state of the game.

Clocks also behave a bit like hit points. Characters succeeding on actions can chip away at a countdown clock’s pie pieces, nudging them to actualization.

Other Things

I love success with complications. Blades offers guidance on different complications based on fictional positioning (e.g. controlled, risky, or desperate). However, as with all success with complications, beware of not turning the complication into something far worse than would have happened for outright failure.

Blades encourages (perhaps mandates) the GM to broadcast the position and effect of a given action. “You are skirmishing with a street thug, that’s certainly a risky position with standard effect.” This helps players understand the rubric through which the GM runs the game. It clarifies what players can expect. It also creates a point where players can shift the GMs rubric (for better or worse).

Teamwork extends beyond Leading a Group Action. One character can help another character, protect them, or set them up through an action of their own. These are echoes of Burning Wheel’s Linked Test and Helping Dice. Plenty of tech to reinforce the idea that characters belong to a crew and have each others back.

Blades has a handful of random tables to assist the GM in fleshing out Duskwall; Enough to help craft people, buildings, streets, demons, and forgotten gods. Echoes of a Sine Nomine product.

Blades’s resistance mechanic gives players tools for tempering the consequences that a GM inflicts. Resistance comes at a cost: increased stress. Stress is analogue to character hit points, but is more akin to Fate‘s stress tracks. Characters can manage stress by indulging in a vice (which also has a neat little procedure).

Calibration

Not exactly something I love, but something that everyone should know. Blades in the Dark requires calibration:

  • What constitutes a controlled, risky, or desperate position?
  • What constitutes a great, standard, or limited effect?
  • How many pie pieces go into that count down clock?
  • What does success with consequence mean?
  • How hard do you hit with failure?

How the GM and table answers these questions determines the tone of the game.

Channeling years of experience GM-ing several different systems, I found the calibration liberating. I started out more forgiving. However, when the Leech failed wrecking a door using their explosives kit (their self-described wrecking kit) in a burning building, I hit hard with 4 Harm (eg. lethal Harm). Through resistance and armor they mitigated the worst of it. If we continue, that 2 Harm will linger and complicate situations.

The campaign should strive to ensure a consistent calibration level based on precedence; Ease into any deviation from that precedence.

Other games require calibration, Blades puts it forward as a first class consideration.

What I Struggled With

We had one combat. I opted for a teamwork Skirmish. While the conflict felt fast and cinematic, in hindsight I would’ve opted for individuals actions. And there-in lies a tension in the game. Teamwork for combat? Helping? Individual rolls? Each can work.

But which makes the most sense for the group? Do I ask the players what they prefer (in that moment)? The varied approaches to conflict and action resolution may feel off-putting – They did introduce a bit of doubt and personal dissonance during the game.

Conclusion

I enjoyed running Blades in the Dark. The game structure works well for open-table gaming – make sure to end your session with downtime activities.

The entanglements applies pressure and ensures a dynamic world that moves through and against the characters. I look forward to both the stretch goal hacks and the inevitable community hacks. I know that Victorian Ghost-Punk may not appeal to everyone, but the underlying system resonates with my GM-ing style.

Blades provides ample advice and guidance, but if you need exacting precision, you won’t find it. Blades gives GMs guidance and a framework to run their game for theirtable. As with any RPG, Blades lives and dies on the trust between GM and players.

I love the interlocking systems of Blades in the Dark. It is a solid framework for running many of the games I like to run. When running the game I never had the “Well, lets just Math this thing” feeling that I get when I ran or played Fate. I felt as though the table mentally remained in the fiction instead of scrounging around the table looking for aspects to invoke.

If you’d prefer a different setting take a look at Scum & Villainy; A space hack of Blades in the Dark with Star Wars and Firefly touchstones.

Blades in the Dark Probabilities

I received my copy of Blades in the Dark. Curious about the probabilities, I wrote up a ruby script to generate the dice pool results from 0 dice to 6d6.

I’ve tabularized the output for easier reading.

Pool Size Critical Success Compromised Failure
0 0% 3% 22% 75%
1 0% 17% 33% 50%
2 3% 28% 44% 25%
3 7% 35% 45% 13%
4 13% 39% 42% 6%
5 20% 40% 37% 3%
6 26% 40% 32% 2%

For those that prefer a graphical representation:Graphical representation of the above table

Or if you prefer a FASERIP style chart

Graphical representation of the above table

0 Dice

1 Die

2 Dice

3 Dice

4 Dice

5 Dice

6 Dice

Ruins of the Dwarven Delve [Session #9]

The previous session

Preamble

This session, we playtested a DCC conversion of Purple Duck Games Purple Mountain II – Ruins of the Dwarven Delve. As a patron of Purple Duck Games, I responded to the call for play testing the conversion; An abandoned dwarven mine lined up with the adventurers current locale.

I reiterated last session’s rumors:

  • “Last month, one of the caves had an explosion. To this day, you can hear the howls of the dead.”
  • “The other night, I was drinking and this elf came in. Someone had mugged him, his ears clipped and bleeding.”
  • “I heard that the Guild Elders are forcing the old Master Guilder, Gentle Steve, to step aside. He may still lead the Guardians Guild.”
  • “Yesterday, or the day before, I heard a guy talking about finding a cache of old silver coins in the cliffs.”
  • “I heard that someone to the west found treasures from a buried king.”

I advanced the timeline 8 days – from the 18th of Spring’s Laugh to the 4th of Spring’s End.

I followed my session start procedures, asking the luckiest and unluckiest characters (who had sleighted Sir Calcidius) to make a Luck check. Quinlynn the Unlucky failed his. Ungo the Beggar made his.

They learned that Sir Calcidius (from the Tower of the Stargazer)

  • gained his freedom (by a meteor strike on the tower)
  • aligned with Iraco (from Hirot)
  • knew they went to Steelhart

The Cast

Character Class (Profession) Level Luck Alignment Player
Ahm-al the Witness of Cthulhu Cleric (Guild Beggar) 1 12 Neutral Joan
Ungo the Beggar Thief (?) 1 13 Neutral Joan
Obexo the Agent Dwarf (Stonemason) 2 13 Lawful Aidan
Strove Warrior (Rutabega farmer) 1 13 Neutral Aidan
Pickling (Watchman) 0 12 Lawful Ben
Faudur (Roadwarden) 0 6 Neutral Ben
Wilberton (Minstrel) 0 8 Neutral Ben
Puggi (Dwarf Merchant) 0 16 Chaotic Ben
Oliver (Orphan) 0 12 Lawful Jacob
Aeris (Elf Refugee) 0 15 Neutral Jacob
Dan (Agitator) 0 3 Chaos Jacob
Belar (Rake) 0 10 Neutral Jacob
Ralph Quickfingers Halfling (Haberdasher) 2 11 Neutral Erich
Quinlynn the Unlucky Elf (Sage) 1 8 Neutral Erich

None of the characters starting out this session had went to the safe-house from the previous session. Aidan, playing Obexo, arrived as they left the altar room for the first time.

Carousing

I again brought out the carousing table for some quick XP.

  • Quinlynn upset the Church of Tses; Waking up naked and hungover in the temple of Tses upset the priests. Adding yet another anecdote for the city’s growing disdain of elves.
  • Faudur and Aeris, bank rolled by Quinlynn, ended up owing a favor to the King of Elfland. The King charged them with finding a dwarven ledger from an abandoned dwarf mine up in the hills.

Getting There

Miners travel each day from Steelhart to the mines. As non-miner’s guild members, they each paid the 5sp toll to take a gondola up to the cliff top. From there, they traveled to the mine. With some rope they descended into the “Ruins of the Dwarven Delve.”

Mild Spoilers Ahead…

Entrance

In the first room they found several piles of refuse. They spent a bit of time searching through the mounds finding broken or discarded gear.

In one pile, Quinlynn stumbled upon a three legged tentacle monster that flailed but missed. The adventurers responded with ferocity, inflicting many wounds. Quinlynn followed up with a powerful sleep spell, and the adventurers hacked the monster dead.

Noting the water pipes up high, they opted to check out the door with the water pipe running above it. Ungo looking for traps, found none. They opened the door

Next Room

In this room they noted two doors. One blocked by iron slag, another open. Ungo, as per standard operating procedures, checked the unblocked door. Finding it safe, they opened the door and went into an altar room.

Altar Room

Entering this room they noted an altar and three other doors. A general sense of “rightness” filled the hearts of Pickling and Oliver.

They continued to follow the water pipes to one of the doors. At the door they heard some snickering. Ungo followed his standard operating procedure, and they entered the room.

Smith Room

Here the adventurers encountered two diminutive creatures with spindly limbs and functional wings sprouting from near their ears – gremlins.

As a Judge, I love role-playing mischievous and chaotic creatures. I keep the verbal sparing quick and to a minimum before pushing the players to action. The gremlins goaded the players into the water room. Or did the player’s decided to go there and the gremlins pleaded them to go elsewhere.

Water Works Room

Again, Ungo checked and opened the door. Dan took a few steps in and sprung a trap. Jets of steam blasted Dan, slamming him into the wall, killing him outright. Snickers erupted. Faudur triggered another steam trap, slamming dead into the wall. Even more snickers.

A gremlin, with a large cantaloupe belly, along with five other gremlins launched into an attack. The cantaloupe bellied gremlin fired a blast of thistles, knocking Quinlynn to 0 hit points. The other gremlins charged the adventures.

Ralph came barreling to Quinlynn’s aid, stabilizing him. The others fought the Gremlins. A few tense rounds, and the adventurers won out. Through the power of Cthulhu, Ahm-al healed Quinlynn.

Searching the room they found three nests. Each nest had a small box. Ungo checked the boxes and found a small spring. Ungo disabled each of the boxes.

Inside each box he found a single silver coin and a fragile tube of liquid. One side of the coin had an etching of a snickering gremlin, the other side had the words “Ha!”. The fragile tube rested by a small spring loaded hammer.

Back to the Altar Room and to the Crypt

Back in the altar room, they opened the door behind the altar to a crypt. Inside they found an anvil and dwarven statue lying in repose; with a rune etched shield overlaying a fine hammer. A riddle. Ben quickly answered the riddle and they resolved the puzzle. The shield moved, freeing the adamantine hammer.

Obexo took the hammer and smiled.

Calling It A Night

The adventure took a lot out of me. Each room had nice and brief read aloud text. For the Judge there was also large chunks of text; mixing exposition, situational, and encounter information.

At 9pm I closed up the adventure. I hand-waved finding the dwarven ledger.

Quinlynn invoked the King of Elfland to present the dwarven ledger. He bound Wilberton to the King of Elfland. The King of Elfland, however, said that Aeris was not worthy.

We spent the next 30 minutes leveling up characters; Three characters went from 0th to 1st level.

In Memoriam

To Faudur and Dan, blasted by steam.

Resources Used

Aside from the Dungeon Crawl Classic core book

Observations

I sent my playtest observations back to Purple Duck Games.

Writing adventures demands different levels of consideration. The author must first win over the Judge. And once won over, the author should get out of the Judge’s way by making the material as convenient and easy as possible to use.

At the beginning of the dungeon delve, I drew a turn tracker on the map. I explained that every 6 turns I would check for wandering monsters. In older D&D wandering monsters sucked resources for little XP gain. That is not the case in DCC as written.

Facilitating better RPG combats

The best sessions I’ve ever played involved player characters bringing an agenda and reaching for it. They take their situation, charge forward, and set events in motion.

Characters often achieve their goals through conflict. In most games, that means combat. Characters will also quest for relics, knowledge, boons, etc. Or through subterfuge, try to avoid overt conflict.

For now I’m focusing on combat.

Combat

The best combats have had one or both of the following:

  • A goal other than “destroy the enemy.”
  • Multiple paths of engagement

If the characters want a physical object, assume they will execute a “smash and grab” plan. They must bypass the opposition. Let the players choose and plan how they do that.

Provide multiple paths to engage in the combat – a main entrance and a side entrance if you will. I personally enjoy when characters agree to attack a common point, but one group goes this way and the other goes that way. The players can make meaningful choices and plans; And they will discuss this in front of you. Listen to what they say. Build on that in the future.

You’ll also want to consider the following procedures:

  • Morale – in meeting heavy resistance, do we want to continue?
  • Chase – with the opposition routed, do we want to give pursuit?

Morale Procedure

Adding Morale checks into combat helps show that outcomes can vary. Morale checks also telegraph information to the players:

  • We can back down from a fight
  • Our opposition has yet to crack, perhaps we should reconsider our approach

Morale provides another strategy the players can use: strike hard and gamble on triggering a morale check. Surprise and planning become very important.

I find morale harder to remember when I use a set initiative for a combat. I have adopted either group initiative or re-rolling initiative each round. This creates another natural point to check morale.

I also enjoyed the “bloodied” mechanic of 4E; a clear indicator of the toughness of the opposition.

Chase Procedure

The chase procedure facilitates transitioning out of combat-mode and back to exploration or role-playing mode. Without a chase procedure, you either hand-wave the retreat or remain in initiative order, with characters moving tens of feet at a time.

By staying in initiative order you remain longer in the combat-mode – a more “precise” blow-by-blow mode that requires more time to play out. Combat-mode also reinforces slaying the opposition as the primary goal.

The 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide has procedures for chases. As does Labyrinth Lord. They have different approaches, but are useful in considering how you think about chases.

At present my procedures for chases are ad hoc. If the PCs choose to flee, I let them get away. But I want to tighten that up.

Update: Take a look at David Black‘s “Snakes & Swords” chase procedures. I’m adopting this!

Conclusion

In a future post, I’ll expand from the conflict to the character agenda.

Meanwhile, I encourage you to take a look at Burning Wheel’s “Range and Cover” subsystem. It has group initiative, morale, and chase all baked into a dangerous skirmish-style subsystem.