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)

Thulian Echoes by Zzarchov Kowolski

Thulian Echoes by Zzarchov Kowolski

Thulian Echoes by Zzarchov Kowolski

Disclaimer: I solicited Lamentations of the Flame Princess for a free copy of the Thulian Echoes PDF with the intent of writing up a review.

From RPGNow’s description:

Thulian Echoes is two adventures in one! In the first phase, players take the role of pregen characters exploring the dungeon long ago… their actions recorded, so that the players’ actual characters can then follow in the footsteps of the previous characters and gain all the riches and magical secrets to be found!

Of my previous three reviews…

…two were for adventures by Zzarchov Kowolski. This review makes the count three out of four.

I will now do my best to avoid spoilers. Instead focusing on what I find fascinating about this adventure.

Zzarchov is crafting adventures that are more than backstory, set encounters, and random encounters. In Scennic Dunnsmouth, Zzarchov wrote procedures to transfer the knowledge components of the adventure framework to the GM.

In Thulian Echoes, Zzarchov focuses on the knowledge transfer of in-game information to the characters by way of the players playing different characters. From the introduction

…the journal of another band of adventures from over a thousand years ago who went to explore a location based adventure. The players are then handed a batch of pre-generated characters and get to play through the events in the journal.

Brilliant! Instead of spending time crafting numerous journal entries with hints and fluff, Zzarchov embraces the “show don’t tell” adage.

The trigger is when the characters study the journal. Not when they commit to the adventure. Yes, it is a bait and switch.

Rehearsal

The first pass through the adventure is brutal. Disposable characters will die. And that is the purpose. However Thulian Echoes is not without sympathy.

Zzarchov recommends, for the first pass through, to provide a luck pool for the players. When a pre-generated character dies, the player can spend from the luck pool to avoid death. When the luck pool runs out…the journal ends.

This mechanism facilitates players paying attention and participating during practice. The mechanism is not used for the “real” run of the adventure. Players have hirelings and henchman to replace a deceased character.

While the players are exploring the adventure site, the GM is taking notes. Both action and inaction will impact the future state of the adventure site. And there is interplay with the alterations.

Once More with Feeling

Once the rehearsal draws to a close, the GM has a bit of work to do. There is a bit of dice rolling and review of the various impacts. It is best to do in between sessions, but could be wrapped up in 20 minutes.

The stage is then rebuilt.

For the second time around with the players’ actual characters, things have changed. A millennium has passed. The players can now witness any potential butterfly effect.

Other Curiosities

Competitiveness

The first pass of the adventure is challenging. But nothing about the adventure forces the players to send their real characters through it. Through social engineering – attempting to succeed after previous failure – most players that I know would attempt to do it again.

The Journey

There is an adventure segment that provides a procedure for dealing with extensive wilderness travel. In doing so Thulian Echoes avoids detailing an extensive set of wilderness encounters.

It is instead there is a distance tracking mechanism and a table for random encounters. The random table has the same structure as The Gnomes of Levnec random table:

  • Roll a d8, d6, d4
  • Consult each entry
  • On doubles, triples, or max value there is a kicker

These tables encode enough information to make the wilderness travel interesting without chewing up too much time.

The Map

Jason Thompson created a gorgeous walkthrough isomorphic map for Thulian Echoes. Jason also drew the walkthrough maps of “Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth”, “Slave Pits of the Undercity”, and the “Isle of Dread”.

Summary

I found the adventure inspiring and interesting. I both want to run the adventure and take the procedures and work on my own. So for my purposes, Thulian Echoes is a resounding “must have”.

To Buy or Not to Buy?

Buy Thulian Echoes if you:

  • Want an example of unique adventure construction
  • Want a dangerous dungeon delve
  • Are looking for your characters to explore a remote island
  • Want an adventure you can run more than once – twice in fact!
  • Think your players would like a second crack at something

Do not buy Thulian Echoes if you:

  • Are looking for an urban adventure
  • Are not willing to yank your player’s chains
  • Know your players won’t be on board for playing different characters
  • Don’t want to deal with timey wimey things

Scenic Dunnsmouth by Zzarchov Kowolski

I believe the complete list of adventures I have run closely from a book are:

  • The Red Hand of Doom (D&D 3E)
  • The Night Below (AD&D 2E)
  • The Dramune Run (Star Frontiers)
  • Under the House of the Three Squires (Torchbearer)
  • Breakout (Marvel Heroic)
  • Bloodstone (D&D 3E, Burning Wheel)
  • The Trouble in Hochen (Burning Wheel)

Yet I own lots of adventures. And keep buying more. Because I like smashing the ideas of the adventures into my brain for later reference.

Screencapture of the PDF cover of Scenic Dunnsmouth by Zzarchov Kowolski

Zzarchov Kowolski‘s “Scenic Dunnsmouth” piqued my curiosity after I read the following back cover text:

Scenic Dunnsmouth features an innovative village generation system using dice and playing cards to ensure that every expedition to Dunnsmouth is unique.

It delivers on that promise.

What Do We Have Here

Most adventures I’ve read provide a “fully formed” adventure. A living creature with skin, guts, skeleton, and sinew.

A fully formed adventure may work for an adventure with a simple relationship graph (i.e. Dungeon Crawl) but for a mystery, attempting to hold the concepts and pieces of the adventure in my mind is challenging.

Scenic Dunnsmouth takes an interesting and divergent approach from a standard adventure. It provides you with:

  • the guts – the core mystery
  • some disassembled mixbag of bones – d4, d6, d8, and d12 kind of bones
  • a bolt of mottled skin – the look, feel, and tone of the writing
  • some connective tissues – Families, relationships, and even possible feuds
  • a toolkit for assembling the adventure

And there lies its genius.

Some Assembly Required

Yes there is a core mystery and evil. But Zzarchov provides a procedure for assembling your Frankenstein’s monster of an adventure.

With a fistful of dice you determine:

  • The locations of the town
  • The weirdness level
  • Where to position a few of the stock characters

Then, you shuffle up some cards and determine the town’s inhabitants. And that is it.

If someone or somewhere doesn’t show up in your town construction, it does not exist in this incarnation of Dunnsmouth.

Taking Notes to Help Remember

When I am reading, I’m a terrible note taker. I don’t mark in my books. The exercise of finalizing Dunnsmouth was the best note taking session for any of my adventure preparation.

The final result of the procedure was a map with numerous locations keyed by:

  • dice size
  • rolled value
  • card suit
  • card value

With those four bits of information, I can get a general sense for the tone of Dunnsmouth. I can also lookup in the character index more information about the inhabitants and locations.

Not bad for 30 minutes of adventure preparation!

To Buy or Not to Buy?

Buy Scenic Dunnsmouth if you are:

  • Interested in unique procedures for adventure creation
  • Looking for weird fantasy
  • Looking for an interrogation/observation-based mystery

Don’t buy it if you are:

  • Looking for a dungeon crawl
  • Interested in lots of action (ie Combat!)

Other Reviews

A Handful of other reviews of Scenic Dunnsmouth.

Fascination with the Flame Princess

Last week, I found myself once again in Chicago. I had plans to meetup with Nathan, and we agreed to connect at our usual rendezvous – The Wanderer’s Refuge. While waiting for Nathan, I stumbled upon a few copies of Better than Any Man, a product that I had kickstarted for Lamentations of the Flame Princess’s 2013 Free RPG Day drive.

Recent Lamentations of the Flame Princess Arrivals

Recent Lamentations of the Flame Princess Arrivals

I had been unable to get a physical copy – what with it being released while I was neck deep in RPGs at Origins last year. So I quickly snagged a copy of this gorgeous adventure. I asked the store owner the cost, and he said “It was part of Free RPG Day, so its free!”

Later, I had an afternoon to kill and found myself again at Games Plus in Mount Prospect, IL. My first visit there, I had bought The God that Crawls and The Monolith from beyond Space and Time.

This visit, they had 4 copies LotFP Rules & Magic. But I already had my copy from a previous order. Though I stood over those books and admired their quality.

Late last year, during one of James Raggi’s crazy “Things are On Sale” days, I purchased a physical copy LotFP Rules & Magic as well as Geoffrey McKinney’s Isle of the Unknown and Carcosa – having read and reviewed the PDF a few years prior.

I kickstarted indigogoed Vincent Backer’s The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions during James’s crazy indigogo blitz – 19 concurrent indigogo campaigns many of which did not fully fund. I wanted to see Vincent’s take on the more OSR related things.

Last month, when James was asking for volunteers to test out a payment processing system, I jumped at the chance to both help out and get a discount. I ordered Kelving Green’s Forgive Us, Zzarchov Kowlolski’s Scenic Dunnsmouth, and Kenneth Hite’s Qelong.

I also have the Grindhouse Edition of the LotFP rules and Zak S’s fantastic Vornheim. The Grindhouse Edition rules provide a digestible introduction to a game that just isn’t quite like the games that I remember from years past. Things are more fragile and mysterious.

Vornheim is amongst my favorite supplements. It is not an exhaustive description of the city, but instead provides tools, guideposts, brief “essays” each for bringing Vornheim to life.

So confident am I that I will love everything Lamentations of the Flame Princess, I joined the Pembrooktonshire Gardening Society. And my card arrived today.

But here is the dirty secret…

I’ve never once played a Lamentations of the Flame Princess game. But they are amongst my most favorite role-playing books.

First, they are gorgeously produced – from the evocative cover art to the decadent paper stock. Just handling them is enough to drive the bibliophile wild.

Second, they are different. They are weird – in comparison to much of what is out there. In some ways reading each of the books transports me. As I crack open one of these books, it is as though I am given another chance at being introduced to RPGs.

So cheers to you James, for all of your crazy endeavors! You are taking risks in what you publish – acknowledging as much in The Monolith from beyond Space and Time – and I’m enjoying seeing the end results. Especially in their high quality printed form.

 

Why the Fantasy Genre

I have a rather extensive RPG collection. And I’ve read most of them. But it is Burning Wheel (et al), Vornheim, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and Dungeon World that I keep turning to.

My collection runs the gamut of genres and topics, but there is something about games in the fantasy genre that keep drawing me in.

Burning Wheel (et. al) is heavy on procedure and is so very nuanced. I feel as though the author(s) are doing their best to have a very detailed and exhaustive conversation with me. They manage to speak up to me, instead of down. And they are always challenging me as a GM, player, reader, etc.

Dungeon World simply asks you to ask questions…lots of them…targeted and biased, working to solicit narrative movement from your players.

Vornheim is an distillation concentration of the most inceptive reduction sauce ever. So much is accomplished in so few pages…and it sticks with me. Not the details, but the essence.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is both comfortable and so very different. As if there is an alternate dimension in which I have played the game from its beginning and it resonates across time and space.

There are certainly others outside the bounds of Fantasy, but I have found it is the “common vocabulary” of Fantasy (thank you Gary and Dave) that makes Fantasy the perfect genre to create these fantastic works that acknowledge their foundation but say “Hey, watch this!”

Nostalgically Wishing I Would’ve Been Part of the Old School

There is a bumper crop of Old School games available.  Some are rebuilding the 1E / 0E rules based on the OGL.  Others are re-imaginings.  And others sit somewhere in between.  This list includes, but is certainly not limited to: Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Champions of Zed, Barbarians of Lemuria, World of Dungeons and certainly many more.  Even the D&D Next, by other people’s accounts, is harkening back to the days of yore.

I never played D&D 1E, having started on Star Frontiers, Rolemaster, and D&D 2E. I never had a character who had a cadre of henchman and followers. And none of my characters have made use of the ubiquitous 10 foot pole.

And from the outside looking in, this runs counter to what I believe to have been the Old School game.  Characters were disposable “back in the olden days.” They were fragile. You needed meat shields to protect your characters. Yet, even then, a character was a fragile thing. The hyper capable heroes came along later.

The Old School games are about exploration…cautiously advancing through a dungeon. In fact, as I was reading my 0E copy, I found that turns (10 minute increments) were marked off based on the distance moved within a dungeon. And if memory serves 10 minutes passed after the party moved 120 feet. And strangely, that rule blew my mind. I don’t know if that rule is in the 2E DMG or not, but I never discovered it when I first started out.

It seems so obvious to track time by distance moved, but it isn’t quite as obvious saying that you would move so slowly in 10 minutes. Unless of course you were exploring your surroundings.

These days, I’m looking for a good story to emerge from play. Exploration is clearly one of the means to emergent narratives. To explore requires questions and answers, a constant back and forth for clarity. Each side of the screen engaging each other.

I remember scoffing at the idea that XP was derived from gold pieces earned. In our 2E days, I used to award XP for being on time, killing monsters, and role-playing. It only occurred to me much more recently how elegant a reward system the XP for GP really was.

There is an intrinsic reward in role-playing, defeating monsters, and arriving on time. But by tying advancement to gold, players are rewarded by exploring…by thinking up ways to avoid fighting monsters, which in the Old School are outright lethal, especially if you attempt to fight each room full of monsters.

So I’ve never played in an Old School game, though several of them sit on my shelf. I’m fascinated by the style of play and the reward mechanism.

Post Script

Old School games don’t have the implicit tyranny of the Tolkien inspired campaign – You know where you start out small and follow this plot arc that culminates in sneaking across the continent and casting the artifact of power into the volcano. That campaign where the GM plans everything in advance and ensures that you play with blinders on.

Because, let’s face it, how many of those campaigns have you started? And how many of those have you finished?

The Old School is about getting together for an evening of adventure. One that is self-contained and doesn’t require every one to be there. And if your cleric is missing? Find a hireling or two to fill the void for that evenings foray into adventure.

RPG Bucket List Or Gaming Resolution for 2012

Recently, I subscribed to the Evil Machinations blog and read through Jade’s RPG Bucket List.  The idea is to list the RPGs that I would like to play or run. Below is a list of RPGs that I have not played. There are others that I’ve only played once or twice and would love to play again (Fiasco and Do for example).

  1. Technoir – A gorgeous presentation with the awesome Transmission concept.  I’m still working my way through this book, but it’s at the top of the list, especially given it’s high marks.
  2. BattleTech – This is certainly influenced by Fear the Boot‘s rabid fanaticism, but I’ve always had a soft spot for miniatures combat.  Throw in a feudal society and I’m seriously interested.
  3. Burning Empires – I love Burning Wheel and am fascinated by the concept of a truly adversarial game master and rules to enforce it.
  4. Lacuna Part I –  Role-playing agents who delve into the shared “dream world” and unraveling what it means.  The dungeon is the waking world? Or is it the dream world?
  5. Apocalypse World – 2011 Golden Geek winner for best RPG, the systemic layering of moves is fantastic.  I’ve played Dungeon World and really enjoyed it.
  6. Dogs in the Vineyard – The conflict escalation pressure cooker is very intriguing.
  7. Lamentations of the Flame Princess – D&D stripped to what I consider to be it’s core. Many of the obscenely powerful spells have been stripped away.
  8. Microscope – Collaborative world/epoch building engine.
  9. Reign Enchiridion – I love Birthright and the idea of having agency at the macro-level.  Reign appears to handle this quite well.
  10. Inspectres – A Ghostbusters type RPG with the confessional couch.

I should probably lay out a plan for making this happen, but knowing is half the battle.  Of the above Microscope, Inspectres, and Lacuna Part I appear to be the easiest to bring to the table.  Followed by Technoir, Dogs in the Vineyard, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and Apocalypse World.  Then Reign Enchiridion, with it’s unique mechanics. And finally BattleTech (no minis, no rulebook) and Burning Empires.

And herein lies the challenge.  I want to play in long running campaigns (8+ sessions) that see characters develop and events unfold.  I also want to experience via play the different game systems.  All of this is in tension with finite time for my hobby.

So my New Years Resolution for 2012 is to play two of the above games face to face with my friends.