Friday, December 28, 2012

Empty dungeons - all except the fun parts?

 As some of you might know, there's work going on to produce a 8th edition of Tunnels & Trolls. Naturally, it makes me ponder the qualities T&T have, it's quirks and sparkling facets. I remember how the Trollgod, Ken St Andre, wrote in the former editions about how to approach the game, and how it came to be. One thing I remember from older editions of the game is the suggestion, when designing dungeons, to put a lot of stuff in there. Nobody wants to mess around in a boring dungeon, was the thinking. It ties in to the great debate earlier this autumn about the empty dungeon and the pile of "worthless" treasure.I have talked about it before, and might do it again. Now I have some observations to share of what's boring or fun.

Writing a tent pole dungeon, or a megadungeon, it might make a lot of sense to have sections of the dungeon be quite empty, some to be the highways and some to be Saturday Night Specials. Looking at the Wilderlands, the setting published by Judges Guild, it makes sense. It is basically a big empty dungeon, is it not? Now imagine it all being a vast castle, or a big underground mine and it will look kind of the same. I mean, it's a world in of itself. But, let's for a moment limit the vision to something smaller, which is just one adventure, and not a whole world.

You know what Adventure is, right? Adventure is like real world, except the boring parts are cut out. At least that is a way to describe it I find funny. Approaching it a bit more serious, I find the dungeon design advice which suggest you cram in more stuff there, since nobody want to fool around in an empty dungeon probably belong to that school.

So, then the problem is to identify the "boring parts". I know that for many of us playing these games of adventure, we like to be something bigger and greater than we usually are. But, for some others it's not so focused on the bigger, better and greater part. I have found that for those people it's often a question of exploring a secondary world, that is interesting in itself, as a living real place. Personally I like that aspect. Once I played in a game with a very tantalizing setting, with lot of mysteries and it failed for me. I knew at once when my interest started to wane, because we focused on interpersonal conflicts, and I was more interested in the world we never got to explore.

My hypothesis is that this is related to some sense of "realism". Not in the meaning working like the real world, but working in a consistent way within that world. You hear of a mystery, and you know it's not just some random "oddballness", but there's a rhyme and reason for the thing to exist, and you can find it out.

Then, the boring parts are when you explore a fully realized secondary world, and there's nothing there! You expect there to be rich cultures which behave like they do because of their history. You expect to find artifacts which can be better understood by exploring the ancient history of the fallen empire in the world you are exploring. Empty dungeon rooms can then be something of a let down.

Now imagine someone who does not care much for the secondary world, but cares a lot about for a Saturday night feeling great as the greatest ranger of the North, or the mighty slayer of dragons. Empty dungeon rooms can be something of a let down, reminding you a little bit too much of the cubicle or office space you sat in hours before.

I know, of course, of the argument that proper old school play is as much about resource management as anything else. That being said, I don't think it's the only lesson to be learned from the "old ways" of doing things, and if my "boring parts" are your "fun parts" I actually think that aspect of roleplaying games can be brought forth in other areas, not necessarily related to moving about in space. But, that's a subject for some other day. Today I focused on the psychology of empty rooms, which I don't think was covered during the big brouhaha earlier this year.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

How to make time mean something in your campaign

What does it mean you have to hole up for two weeks to wait for natural healing, or wait two weeks for that magic item you ordered to be made? Some games actually make time mean something, and not something to be glossed over. Recently I listened to an episode of Ken and Robin talks about stuff where they talked about time in games. It made me think of my old 3rd ed campaign. In that campaign I had the opportunity to see time as an obstacle being circumvented in a not so cool way.

The deal was that with the Craft skill, you can produce items. In this case it was items which should be enchanted, and thus they had to be of Masterwork quality. Unless I remember totally wrong, it wasn't that much harder to do them, or even something you needed a certain level of skill for, but you paid in time. Now, if you delve in the dungeon and the time in between is just that, time in between, then it means nothing. It doesn't matter if it takes one hour or two week if you let it go with "and when it's done you get back to the dungeon". It reminds me of how some spells in older editions of D&D used to age the caster. As far as I remember, that didn't make it into 3rd ed. but item creation rules still had a "time cost".

Can we say something about how time was used to be handled in the olden days, and how time is handled in newer games? I think it's pretty clear that all the talk of the 15 minute game game day, and then back to town for healing and re-memorization of spells signifies something.

Let's think back to the Blackmoor campaign. We know that the players there were in command of armies, and that Arneson in the FFC mention things like yearly events. Clearly time were advancing at a decent pace if it made sense to have random annual events for the kingdom.

But, I am also pretty sure I have read enough of old school campaigns where the only time that mattered was in the dungeon, and I find it significant that in the Mentzer edition of D&D there are no healing rules. You go back to town and when you start the next adventure you are healed. Some time have passed, I guess.

Clearly there are different ways of handling time at work here. There are more examples, and they are not all clearly and easily align chronologically. Maybe someone have done some research in this area. There are some excellent scholars of old school gaming styles, so it would not surprise me. For me it's a stepping stone for ideas on how to play.

Let's say you would like to have time matter. Without keeping those famous records of time, you probably can make the "time tax" useful. Let's take a look at two games where time matters. In Ars Magica and Pendragon time is of importance. Maybe they can teach us something?                                                                                                                        
In the latter game, you often only play one of two adventures each year, and then it's the "winter phase" where you do macro management of your character, talking care of manor economics, childbirth and marriage. Step by step your character age, and later on you probably get to retire your character and play with his heir.                                                                     
In Ars Magica, you play multiple characters and the mage will probably do research that take years to finalize. Since you will be able to play another character while that happens, it's no impediment to being engaged in the game, but it will still matter that your mage is doing research and not out on adventure.                                                                                
How can we use this?                                                                                                                                                                                
Would it be useful to have a limit year year on how many adventures you can participate in? One way would be to have three delves a year, and if you are injured you have to make a save or loose one of those three opportunities being holed up for healing. I think that would be a cool mechanic.                                                                                                    

Let's then take a gander at long term projects, like crafting items and researching magic. If magic of any complexity takes time, then it makes sense to combine that with the idea of a set amount of adventures per year. If a project takes more than a month, one of the yearly adventures is forfeit.

If we in addition to this takes a a cue from Ars Magica and let all players have a "stable" or adventurers we can have our cookie, and eat it too. A stable of characters is a phenomenon I first heard of in 5th edition of T&T. So even if it's a way to hand a player a cookie when her other character is busy doing magic research or crafting, it actually is as old school as it gets. :)

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Upper Echelon gaming - Rebellion Era Traveller & Endgame D&D

Thinking back a bit upon my notes and impressions of Out of the Darkness, I realize that the issue I have with time lines for game settings might be one of perspective. Who are those written for? Who could make us of them, and how?

So, for me as a GM, when I start a game I do it in a local, clearly delineated, area according to the principle of starting small. But, that usually means the player characters are going to be local and small. Nothing wrong with that, especially if it's a rich world with a lot of detail. But, If you do that, those earth shattering events in the time line will go unnoticed, and more importantly, the players wont ever get involved.

Apparently, in order to make those events useful for your game, you need to get the players involved in those earth shattering events that shape your campaign. If we take the example of the Rebellion in the Traveller universe, most of the details we get in the official source books talk about the figure heads of the factions, and things like strategic evens like which worlds to defend when that other throne pretender comes knocking on the door.

How often do your players get to take those kinds of decisions?

As often as that, eh?

It seems like what you need to do is not to start small, as in that small farming community in the wilderlands, but big. Since it still makes sense not to overwhelm your players with information, I gather we here have a potential for trouble. How to do big in a small way?

The thing here, I think, is to thrust the players into the upper echelons of society. They need to be where it happens. If they are not the ones with a hand on the wheel when the flagship engages the enemy they at least needs to be able to look over the shoulder of the guy who has. Naturally, it could mean NPC doing cool stuff while the players look on, so care needs to be taken. Also, I'm not sure how to combine this with the free wheeling sandbox play held so high in some circles. Actually, I'd love to hear how people running those kinds of games handle these kind of problems.

What's my suggestion then?

For a campaign like the Rebellion in Traveller this is what I'd do.

  1. Make all characters nobles. Set SOC at 10+1d4
  2. Have a family and sibling generation system, to make sure inheritance and dynastic issues will crop up
  3. Everyone should have a personal patron, so there are multiple and conflicting loyalties
  4. Generate contacts during character generation. This I actually did when I last tried running Traveller
  5. Don't mess around with starship economics, just give the characters a starship, ok?
I'n a fantasy campaign, this is the equivalence to the so called "D&D endgame". I think some of these points might be valid there to.

If you start it like that, then you have the pieces put in place to have the actions of the characters matter on a grand scale, and also social entanglement are bound to happen.

Next time I'll try to do it like that. Maybe it even works...

Game giveaway

Do you want a copy of the innovative, and mind bending Robin D Laws design Hero Wars? The game is horribly broken as written, but the ideas within are mind shatteringly cool. It's a shame it was published
in the shape it was, since it deserved a better presentation. But, it has changed the way I see some things, as Robin's designs usually does.

I have the Narrator book and the Hero book, decent shape both. Send me your address, and pay for shipping and it's yours.

Stay tuned for some post soon with real content.
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