March 29, 2009

Wilderness Encounters in D&D4 - 1d6 elves

I've already written about dungeon encounters, but that only solves the problem of random encounters when you are in an environment that already has prepared encounters. In the wilderness, we are back to the problem of 1d3 orcs charging out of the woods. Or are we?

The key to interesting wilderness encounters is the same as that to interesting dungeon encounters - involve them in the plot or at least the setting. Use them to drop clues and hooks to your adventures. Or what i did with this table of random encounters around the town of Fallcrest - terrain suitable for heroes of level 1-3 - make up reasons for encounters and base hypothetical larger adventures on them:

Every day of wilderness travel, the adventurers have a 50% chance of a random wilderness encounter. If it happens, roll 1d10 and consult the table.
  • 1: 4 Kobold Minions, 2 Dire Rats and 2 Kobold Skirmishers. These can be persuaded to tell the PC:s about the nearby kobold warren - cue Kobold Hall or some homecooked kobold-rich module.
  • 2: 4 Decrepit Skeletons, 2 Zombies and 1 Corruption Corpse. These are wandering undead roaming the area around the graveyard (wisely placed outside the city walls in this setting where the dead can rise). Who or what is raising them?
  • 3: 2 Halfling Slingers, 2 Human Guards and 1 Halfling Thief. Bandits! If one escapes, he can be tracked back to the bandit lair, otherwise some exploration is in order.
  • 4: 4 Elf Scouts and 1 Elf Archer. What crawled up the elves' collective behind and died this time? Investigate.
  • 5: 4 Hobgoblin Grunts, 2 Hobgoblin Soldiers, 1 Hobgoblin Archer and 1 Hobgoblin Warcaster. Are the goblinoids on the march again? Villagers can tell the PC:s about the nearby abandoned fort called the Moathouse.
  • 6: 5 Imps. Find out who (or what, again) is summoning devils!
  • 7: 2 Dwarf Bolters, 2 Human Berserkers and 1 Human Mage. More bandits! And better trained! Either these guys, or clues found in the bandit lair that encounter #2 leads to, can lead the party to a major bandit fortress.
  • 8: 2 Magma Hurlers and 3 Magma Claws. What is driving these creatures away from their natural habitat in the nearby volcano? (Hint: A Young Red Dragon is a challenging encounter by the time these are a normal one.)
  • 9: 3 Hippogriff Dreadmounts and 2 Dragonborn Soldiers. These are wearing the insignia of a nearby kingdom. Why is it sending scouts into the Fallcrest area?
  • 10: 1 Young Green Dragon. The dragon Bilefang lives in the Deepwood forest to the west. It is rumored to have a large hoard of treasure.

If a rolled encounter is connected to a "solved" adventures, it does not occur. In this case, reroll once. If the second roll also indicates a "dead" encounter, no encounter happnens. In this way, the wilderness becomes safer as the heroes finish quests.

(Generally, the level of an encounter is half it's number, rounded up.)

There you go - ten adventure seeds. Of course, stopping the potential war between whatever kingdom Fallcrest belongs to and it's neighbour (enc. 9) could be a mission stretching over the entire heroic tier.

March 22, 2009

Random Encounters in D&D4 - not quite 1d3 orcs

One difference I've noticed while reading older adventure modules is the ever-present random encounter table. If you dawdled around in a room searching every nook and cranny for treasure instead of just looking in the logical places and then moving, you would likely meet wandering monsters - the DM would roll a d6 every "turn" (10 minutes) and you'd roll on the monster table on a roll of 1 (with a chance of "you hear weird noises"). And Gary Gygax's definition of a "logical place" to hide treasure didn't necessarily coincide with anyone else's. Nasty.

But as editions passed, combat took longer. If you are to trust the grognards, dispatching 1d4 goblins in OD&D was a matter of ten minutes and subtracting some HP. In the 4:th edition, even kobolds would take half an hour to put down unless you use kobold minions. Or unless you are 5:th level, but then the kobolds are just as meaningless as the minions.

Ergo, if random encounters are to work well without wasting everyone's time with non-plot forwarding combats, a new approach to random encounters is needed. Which brings me to my second point: The weird siloing of monsters that existed in old modules.

See, killing wandering monsters explicitly doesn't deplete monsters from encounters. You have your random monster table with 1d3 goblins, or a gray ooze, or whatnot, and then you have the planned encounters with battlemats, monster strategies, intrigue and whatnot. Now go look at the maps for White Plume Mountain at the top of this page and wonder where in the straight corridors all those monsters lived until they were rolled up on the random monster table. (Grab the 3.5 conversion and the art (maps) while you're at it!)

A different approach that may work better for 4E would be to grab random encounters from the pool of nonrandom encounters. Let me exemplify with a basic routine:
1) Roll a d6 every ten minutes the PC:s spend in the dungeon. (This means a short rest takes you halfway to a new roll for random encounters.)
2) On a roll of 1, roll on table G3 - planned encounters eligible for meeting the PC:s randomly. If the PC:s were taking an extended rest in dangerous territory, you might as well roll on the table too.
3) Table G3 (or whatever) lists the encounters that could realistically be "wandering" about the dungeon. The Goblin King and his closest bodyguards don't appear on this table, but the team of goblins that were supposed to make up the "Kitchen" encounter are. And once you've beaten the Fearsome Kitchen Goblins, there's obviously noone in the kitchen once the PC:s get there.
3b) If you roll an encounter that's already "spent", no encounter happens.

(Mike Mearls has alternative approach - a flat 10% chance of random encounters during short rests. Not a bad idea either, and follows the KISS principle, but it retains the problem of non-plot-relevant encounters.)

March 20, 2009

This Years 7DRL:s are done.

What? Well, every year there is a competition for roguelike programmers to create a roguelike in one week. This years creations are here.

I haven't tried any other than Excitable Digger (which was cute) but some guy is reviewing all of them here. Stay tuned in to that blog.

Edit: And those reviews are done now.

March 15, 2009

On Missing Players - Wisdom From Two Mikes

Mike Mearls has a simple solution to the problem with missing players. Run a flashback with the characters of the present players, but at lower level. You might even hand out XP as normal - it's for lower level encounters, so the gap between them and the absent players don't become as wide. And you can provide clues for "current" adventures that are fresh in the players' memories when it becomes relevant, while the clue and the puzzle it solves are spaced far apart in game-time.

In the comments, another Mike provides an alternative - run a bit of the gameworld's history with the players playing important NPC:s. Now you can even kill some characters without weird temporal paradoxes (which you'd get if a character died in a flashback).

And what is it with all these Mikes and Steves in the RPG hobby?

Social Intrigue part II - Inciting And Stopping Wars

(This post is a part of the RPG Blog Carnival.)

War. War never changes, but maybe it's possible to change who it is waged between.

Last week, I wrote about applying game rules to internal intrigue within a court, nation, or similar subtext. In this post, I'd like to talk about external intrigue - namely affecting who the populations of other nations want to go to war with and who they will ally with.

A post on the Swedish forum suggested that groups would have a priority list of who they would ally with. As long as a group is at war with some civilization on the list, they will ally with anyone that's lower ranked than the enemy and focus on the highest ranking enemy. Anything not on the list is not a potential ally and effectively occupies the highest spot on the list. (This usually refers to undead fractions, or creatures from Beyond.)

For example, the Bloodsucker tribe of goblins have this list: Bloodsucker tribe - all goblins - all goblinoids (goblins, hobgoblins and bugbears) - evil humanoids - all humanoids. What this means is that:
  • If an empire of good humanoids (counts among "all humanoids") declares a war on the Bloodsuckers, they are willing to ally with any evil humanoids until the war is over - concentrated efforts at extermination is met with concentrated efforts at defense.
  • The good humans would do better by inciting violence between goblins and orcs, which would make them weaken each other without any casualties among good humanoids.
  • If some crafty sorcerer were to summon something not on the list - an undead horde, or a psychic Lovecraftian horror - to attack the goblinoids, this would drive them to ally with the good humanoids, bringing everlasting peace as long as the outside threat remains in living memory. Consider the average goblinoid lifespan, though.

(Note that groups further up on the list includes everything below them.)

Now that we can stop wars, how do we incite them? And who do the Bloodsucker tribe bicker with when not in outright war with anyone? After all, without (real or imagined) reasons to start wars, the world would be a very nice and peaceful place.

The answer is to decide on a "natural" level on the list, which the group allies with in peacetime. For the Bloodsuckers, it's "all goblinoids" - they will ally with the hobgoblins and bugbears, and send raids to anything that does not count as "goblinoids". These raids are nothing like the war parties they will muster in an actual war, but worse than what they could muster after a successful campaign of extermination (which gives petty human leaders a reason to want them gone).

This level can be lowered by sowing Paranoia (capitalized because it's a game term). speaking to the goblins about how the Bugbears eat their old, and how the hobgoblins use them as cannon fodder, would make the goblins paranoid and lower the "natural" level to "all goblins". Further incitement could make the Bloodsuckers so paranoid that their natural level becomes "Bloodsucker tribe" - they trust no-one but themselves. Now they're raiding other goblinoids, which takes some heat off the elves, humans and dwarfs. (Or whatever counts as good humanoids in your setting.)

Just remember - an outside threat trumps internal bickering. The "natural state" is irrelevant in wartime.

March 08, 2009

Social Intrigue - I Owe You One!

This RPGnet thread got me thinking about social intrigue and political maneuvering in RPG:s. Could one cook up a game only about manipulating others? Probably, but there are some popular tropes about politics that need to be handled.

The main one is "You owe me one!", which is the subject of the thread I linked above. A recurring theme in that thread is that existing games either make you pay back favors or present loss of "honor" if you don't. The key is to make favors a hard currency - it's as important as a character's hit points, gold or magical powers.

The easy way would be to track favors owed. Earning favors would be done by aiding others, but it would only count for favors owed if they asked for it, or if their lives were saved. Once someone owes you a favor, you can cash it in at any time in exchange for... a favor that that person can grant. If he refuses, he loses social standing - in the terms of this system, all favors owed to that person are voided, since everyone knows he is not trustworthy, and thus no-one is expected to honor deals made with him.

One would have to perform some form of atonement to get back into people's favor - in most pseudo-fantasy settings, this might require a substantial donation to the church, or doing a quest for them in case you're poor.

Example: Rethgif the PC rescued King Gnik's daughter in a recent adventure. The king now owes Rethgif a favor. (The other PC:s got paid and thus aren't owed.) Rethgif can ask the king for one (non-suicidal) favor that the king can reasonably grant and the king has to comply or be branded as an untrustworthy person, losing any favors that are owed to him (probably plenty). Kings don't particularly want to owe people favors - because they are owed lots of favors that they can lose - but sometimes have no choice.

Of course, player characters can owe favors too. Great way to pull them into adventures as long as they care about their carefully spun web of favors owed to them. (Emergent behavior: The more embroiled someone is in the politics of a nation, the more they have to lose from stepping outside the social norms of that nation.)

Finally, I want to reiterate something - the key to making this work is to let the players know that favors are a hard currency. Being owed a favor by the king is huge. And somehow, even favors owed by the thieves' guildmaster are known about by the relevant people, so he can't cheat this system.

March 07, 2009

Riding A Bandwagon Around The Sandbox

So it started with Dungeon A Day by Monte Cook. He's writing up a megadungeon for D&D 3.5, with one bit of encounter a day. Nifty, but wrong system and price tag (7$ a month) for me. Not that I doubt Cook will get subscribers, because he's Monte effing Cook.

Then the blogosphere exploded with counter-offers. James Maliszewski is starting up a collaborative megadungeon project (with himself as benevolent dictator), probably for OD&D. Chatty DM is musing about a similar project for 4E. I'll be watching both.

Anyway, I had a similar idea, inspired by West Marches. Someday, I'll cook up an "adventure setting" for D&D 4's Heroic Tier (level 1-10). It'll have regions (similar to the levels of a dungeon) balanced for a three-level spread (so the relatively safe lands around Hommlet might be for levels 1-3, with threats in the 1-5 level range). In each region, there would be some short dungeons like the three-encounter delves in Dungeon Delve and some longer ones depending on what makes sense for each.

Oh, and I'd add a lot more than needed to level up a group to 10:th level. That makes PC:s prioritize and gives the players freedom to choose what they really want to do.

All this is subject to change, of course. I'm easily distracted.

March 01, 2009

Emergent Puzzle Solutions

My post about procedurally generated text adventures prompted Richard Tew to tell me about a discussion about object properties. That, in turn, linked me to a post by Emily Short about emergent puzzle solutions that... er, emerge from such systems.

They both bring up this gem:
Talk of current IF development drifted on to whether it's possible to create a game in which the player is not really constrained by the author's intentions. Michael noted that Magnetic Scrolls games were kind of like this-for example, if an object had the "sharp shards" bit set, dropping or throwing the object would cause it to shatter into many sharp shards. In total, 128 bits were used to describe a more or less working universe that the player could interact with in ways that hadn't been anticipated. As an example, Michael described an unintentional situation in which one could put a rat in some liquid nitrogen, snap off its tail and, for a few turns, use the tail to puncture feed sacks and obtain food.

Anyway, Short made a behemoth of a post and then the first comment started with:

This sounds like the convergence of IF with Roguelikes.

Well yes. Combne it with the idea in my other post and you have what looks a lot like a text-entry roguelike.

My Favourite Monsters

James Maliszewski, noisms, Chatty DM and half the rest of the D&D blogosphere have all posted their favourite ten D&D Monsters. So here's my list (limited to 3E and 4E core), in no particular order:

  • Berbalang (4E) - it eats dead bodies and absorbs their memories. There are approximately a hundred potential plot hooks in there. The Berbalang writeup in the 4E Monster Manual is what all the writeups should have been.
  • Bugbear (4E) - big goblins: Big, tough, still sneaky. 4E also has the Bugbear Strangler, which is one of the most hilarious monsters in the MM - it grabs a character and then uses her as a living shield while she's grabbed. I might cook up a nasty bugbear adventure in the future.
  • Centaur (3E) - possibly because they're such horrors in both my favourite roguelikes (Nethack and Crawl). But really, literal horsemen are cool. If you want them as drunken meanies and play 4E, you should take a peek at Satyrs.
  • Cockatrice - another roguelike reference. A rooster that turns you to stone. Hilariously, the only statted cockatrice in 4E lets you revert from the stoning effect with a successful save. I'm envisioning parties keeping a cockatrice in a bag for stoning themselves when things go bad (for the damage reduction granted by being made of stone).
  • Dinosaur (any) - no further comments.
  • Earth elemental (3E) - earth elementals in 3E get the Earth Glide ability which let them move freely through rock. If you can't come up with a long list of uses for that - both for a summoner and for themselves in a cool battle - you suck.
  • Ghoul (3E) - intelligent (Int 13), but still low enough level to have class levels added to them and become respectable foes throughout a campaign. That paralysis ability should work well with a rogue's Sneak Attack. Piratecat on EnWorld ran an entire arc of his campaign based around a ghoul civilization in the Underdark.
  • Mimic (3E) - there are petty screw-job monsters like ear seekers and trappers, and then there are mimics. I want to use a door mimic some time.
  • Oni (4E) - The Oni Night Haunter and Oni Mage killed the Ogre Mage and took its stuff. Both can disguise themselves as regular people, which should set them up as nasty monsters for a mystery adventure.
  • Wererat - I just have a thing for rat-people. (I like Skaven too.)