Monday 16 December 2013

RPG Software and Semi-Structured Data

My work has me dealing with a lot of data. Customers send us data and we use our software systems to help us analyse it. Now there are two types of data customers send us: Structured Data which is easy to input into our software systems, and Semi-Structured Data, which requires some messy work on our part to convert it to Structured Data.

Now 90% of the data that comes in is semi-structured, which means that it's harder for us to plug it in to our software. Why is that?

Because computers only know how to work with structured data, while people can just as easily work with semi-structured data. Not only that, but keeping your data fully structured takes a good deal of effort, so most people don't take the trouble until they are forced to.

RPG Management Software

So what does this have to do with Roleplaying Games? Because there are all these Virtual Tabletop and Campaign Manager computer programs out there. They can help you manage your game, but on the other hand, they often force you to move your game material from semi-structured to structured. When they do that, they are incurring a cost on you in order to get the benefit the software provides. And sometimes the cost exceeds the benefit.

Just look at your character sheet. In most cases, you don't even need a printed character sheet. You can just write down your character on a cocktail napkin and play just fine. But then, when you need to put your character into the Virtual Tabletop, suddenly it complains that you didn't fill in your saving throws or some other field. Or you are playing a homebrew class that isn't supported. Or you have an item that doesn't appear in the master list of items.

I'm not saying that you can't write the software in a way to allow semi-structured data. But it's not the most natural choice and anyway many of the features you will want to implement may require you to impose structure.

So, next time you're writing or considering using RPG software, keep this trade-off in mind. One of the great things about Pen & Paper Roleplaying Games is that they can be run quickly and easily with semi-structured data. So when your software imposes structure, you need to ask yourself "Is it worth it?"

Well? Is it, punk?

WFRP Empire Campaign Session 17: Halfling Boudoir Busters

Picking-up from last session, the party decided to send a few members up to the door of the reputed necromancer Italka's stronghold to request a parley.

Said door happened to be unlocked with two Goblin guards sleeping on the floor. The party first attempted to strong-arm them into taking us straight to Italka. But one of our Dwarves lost his cool and the cheeky bastards sounded the alarm before dying horribly.

The party decided to make their stand in the adjoining room, rather than in the hallway. We barricaded the doors with the room's tiny furniture, but when Seigwart smashed his way into the closet full of tiny ladies' frilly things, they heard a squeak from under the bed. A female halfling was hiding there, but much too terrified to converse. She indicated that Italka is away.

A wild melee ensued with goblins smashing down the barricaded door and pouring through the other. Well, things really heated-up when a fully armoured Chaos Warrior came running in. He and Sigyn took one look at each other and both went berserk(Sigyn as a result of her magic sword which is dedicated to some other Chaos god). Well, the party took some hits(especially my PCs) but made it through.

When the Chaos Warrior finally fell, Siegwart asked Sigyn if she was OK. She replied in a spooky voice "There is no Sigyn, there is only Midgar├░sormr", continuing to insist on the new name even after the berserker rage has left her.

Sunday 15 December 2013

DnD Next: Joseph and the Technicolor Broadsword

So D ran a mini-session for us with DnD Next which will likely become a longer campaign. The PC roster was:

  • Sir Manly of the Divine Turnip(my character)
    • Halfling Paladin
    • Born to a noble family
    • After a local farmer found a turnip in the shape of a popular Halfling saint, Manly pledged himself to the service of the relic, carrying it as his oracle and holy symbol
  • A Half-Ogre Smith
    • Captured and enslaved by Dwarves at a young age
    • They eventually let him go as he seemed relatively harmless and was getting too big for working in the tunnels
  • A Drow Ranger
    • Lawful Neutral and good with a bow

The party headed South with a caravan of wagons from Icewind Dale on a diplomatic mission to Hetman Nixon, Lord of Watergate. Their goal: to convince the lord to send food relief to the Northern realm so that the Northern border may be maintained against ice demons.

Sir Manly offered to use the power of the Divine Turnip to interpret Hetman Nixon's dreams. A skill-check later, the Paladin received divine inspiration and gave the interpretation. Nixon was partially convinced, but insisted that, as payment, the party return after the grain was delivered and serve a year in the Watergate militia.

On the return journey, the caravan was ambushed by Yetis. The Half-Ogre smashed them all to bits, with an arrow or two to help from the Drow Ranger.

Thursday 12 December 2013

Cyber-Mods for Kill, Cyborgs! Kill!

 Oh, boy. You know when you've put a lot of time into a project and you just need like a few good hours of no distractions to go over everything and you'll have a completed first draft? And those few good hours just aren't happening? (I haven't had time to blog lately, much less edit/complete an adventure module)

Anyway, that's sort of where I'm at with KCK. But I still haven't stat-ed up the PC cybermods, so let's make it happen. The system, is old school DnD, with slight modifications for a Cyberpunk setting.

Note that this is a first draft, so ideas are welcome.

  • Reflex Boost
    • Dex is increased by 1d6+3 points for 5 minutes. Cannot be used again until character has rested for at least 1 hour.
    • Side Effect: whenever characters smells a strong smell they make a willpower save. Failure means that they will do their best to ingest the source of the smell as fast as possible(gaining the Dex bonus until it is ingested). If they are restrained and cannot ingest the object, they will fall into a severe lethargy, being unable to do anything for 4d6 hours.
  • Neural Augmentation
    • Int is increased by 1d6+3 points, permanently.
    • Side Effect: character has difficulty relating to people. Cha is reduced by the same amount.
  • Pain Editor
    • Cannot feel pain at all. If incapacitated, due to injury, make an additional Fortitude save. Success means character is not incapacitated.
  • Olfactory Boost
    • Character has an excellent sense of smell and gets a +2 bonus to not be surprised, as well as a bonus to tracking and other relevant skill checks.
    • Powerful smells require a fortitude save to prevent dizziness, vomiting, difficulty breathing, etc.
  • Microwaver Implant
    • Short range ray mounted in chest.
    • 1d6 burn damage. Roll 1d6 for each piecor of electronic equipment(including cyberware) to see how it malfunctions
      • 1-3 no effect
      • 4- don't work for 1d10 rounds
      • 5- activates erratically
      • 6- completely fried
  • Micro Missile Launcher
    • Mounted in shoulder. Cavity opens and a missile missile protrudes and fires, guided by eye movement tracking.
    • Holds a single missile. +4 to hit. 1d8 damage per HD of target.
    • Reloaded manually
  • Backscatter X-Ray Eye
    • 10m range. Spot hidden weapons, cyber-mods, etc. See what's on the other side of thing walls.
    • +4 Bonus to search for hidden objects.
    • -1 to initiative due to tendency for eyes to wander
  • DataTerm Link
    • Port in back of neck. Neural computer interface.
    • +4 to hacking checks and other complex computer interactions.
    • Internal disk for storing downloaded data.
  • Sub-Dermal Micro-Recorder
    • Audio recorder implant.
    • Electromagnetic cloaking fools metal detectors.
  • Contraceptive Implant
    • Activated/Deactivated via voice recognition of pre-programmed keywords(have fun choosing your own!)
  • Storage Space
    • A small compartment, opened and closed via voice recognition of the pass-code. What does it contain?

Sunday 17 November 2013

Undead Stats for Death Frost Doom

Here are the undead stats I used for Death Frost Doom, although only the first two made it to actual play. I was going for something a little more horror-movie like and a little further from standard DnD undead.

Revenant(slow moving corpse)

Move: 30
2d8HP(1d8 for child)
FDM: 1
AC 5
Attack: bite +1 1d4+1(+0, 1d4 child)
Contagious bite

Ghul(hungry flesh-eating corpse)

Move: 120
FDM: 1
AC 12
Attack: bite +4 1d6+2

Wiht(long haired, pale, silent warrior)

Move: 120
FDM: 3
AC 15
Attack: mace +8 1d6+3+drain
Only hurt by silver/magic


Move: 120(240 flying)
FDM: 9
AC 13
Attack: claws +13 1d4+3, 1d4+3 or by weapon
Only hurt by silver/magic
Repelled by Garlic
Turn to gaseous cloud...

Death Frost Doom: Post-Session Retrospective

Map by Claytonian
So, I wanted to take a look at what worked and what didn't in the recent session where I ran Death Frost Doom for our group. This is my first time running a horror game, as well as my first time running a published module(as opposed to creating my own sandbox), so this was definitely a learning experience for me. Oh, and once again: spoiler warning!

Didn't Work: Pacing

I think this was the biggest issue with the session. We jumped right in and were at Pepe's(Zeke's) place within 5 minutes after character creation. But, despite the quick start, there was a lot of material before things heated up with the undead outbreak: Zeke, the hanging tree, dead body, the well, the weird stuff in the cabin, and exploring the dungeon underneath and I sensed the players were getting bored. So how could I have improved this?

  • Start out with a bang: maybe start-out the trip with a bear attack or some-such event, since I know there won't be any more combat till the end
  • Cut out some material: each of the elements of the module are great, but when your players are intent on exploring everything methodically, it can get a bit slow. I would maybe cut it down to Zeke, the body outside the cabin, and the magic picture inside the cabin. Also, perhaps provide a more direct path to the plant-monster.
  • Emphasize more which direction the susurrus seems to be coming from so the players see a clear alternative to covering every single room of the place
  • Ideally I would shoot for about 1/2 hour of build-up before they hit the zombies. And maybe re-arrange the place so the party can barricade themselves into a dead end and have more of the Duvan'Ku material there, before they make a break for it, rather than loading it all at the beginning of the module.

Worked: Swashbucklers & Seamonsters Firearms Rules

The S&S Firearms rules worked well. Firearms were a bit more deadly than other weapons, but the reload time meant that mid-combat reloading wasn't really an option.

Didn't Work: Reading Screw-Ups

The module(or at least the first edition of it) doesn't separate at all between player text and DM text. Now, I tried to prepare so as to minimize reading during actual gameplay, but DFD has enough tricks and complex set-ups that it just isn't always an option. So passages like this screwed me up a couple times:

The altar itself is waist-high on a human, with inscriptions inlaid with gold along the base reading (in the language of Duvan’Ku), “We hail the Lords of Death and Give Offerings to the Masters of Chaos.” Write this down and hand the note to the player who reads the inscription. If he reads it out loud, word-for-word, to the others, then everyone within earshot must make a saving throw versus spells. Go around the table,
starting at the reading player’s right. If that PC made their save, continue on until somebody fails a save. The first character to fail the save immediately intends to sacrifice one of the other people there on the altar.

I read the first part, started reading it to the players and then was like, "oh wait, I'm supposed to write this down for you", at which point no one was falling for it. It would be better to just have a small handout to cut-out and give to the players. This screw-up on my part was probably the only thing that kept them from making it to the Greater Tombs.

Friday 15 November 2013

Horror in the Hills of Basque Country a.k.a Death Frost Doom

So I finally got to run this for our group. Basically Death Frost Doom re-skinned for a trio of Basque Pirates starting an extended shore leave. The system is Labyrinth Lord, borrowing simplified saving throws and ascending AC from DCC RPG, and equipment/occupations/Death & Dismemberment from Swashbucklers & Seamonsters. There are many DFD spoilers ahead, in case you plan on playing it any time soon.

Los Desgraciados

The party consisted of three natives of Esquiule:

  • Agurtzane- the lovely Ship's Doctor, wielding dual blunderbuss pistols--a regular Pirate foil to Dr. McNinja
  • Franzisko- Pearl Diver with a crowbar for opening giant oysters and a diver's helm with a hand pump to supply air from above
  • Eder- the ship's quartermaster, sporting a cutlass, dual pistols, and a keg of good rum

The Diver's Helm proved the most useful item, being used for well-diving, poison spore disposal, and even saving him from a ghul that leapt on him when he peeked out of a hole in the ground.


Our unfortunate heroes left town quietly in the early morning, when most of the inhabitants were still hung-over on garlic-flavoured ale. They headed up the taboo mountain and towards the end of the first day met Pepe, a strange old mountain man who they suspect is a serial killer. While Eder munched on the mystery meat he gave them(the others refused to ingest it), he told them about the cursed tower and that they should stay away from it. He told them that he spends much of his time carving grave-markers for the poor souls who died there without a proper burial--the party wasn't sure to believe him, thinking perhaps the grave markers are for his victims.

As it grew late in the day, they politely rejected his offers to board them for the night. Instead, they started back down the mountain, doubled back and continued a little ways up, camping in a secluded spot.

The Tower

After a short hike the next morning they crosses a ridge and saw ahead of them the remains of the tower and a graveyard. They messily bled a tree, burned a frozen corpse, went down a well of freezing water, and then made their way to the tower. After getting sent 7 hours into the future, one at a time, the party found the dead man's equipment and started feeling a bit positive about the expedition, despite the many ominous signs.

Sourcing the Susurrus

The party made their way down into the cult-area. Eder almost died from poison spores when he decided to start smashing things, but the helmeted Franzisko dragged him out of the spore-cloud and Agurtzane performed a successful tracheotomy to bypass his swollen air passage. Franzisko and Eder acquired cursed items.

The party found various creepy things, looted quite a few crypts and eventually fought the plant producing the susurrus. They then spent time clearing out the hole in the ceiling, which is when a Ghul jumped on Franzisko's head, but ended up falling past down him down into the unknown. They then baited a couple other Ghuls to follow it.

Things Heat Up

The party quickly found they were trapped, with an unlimited supply of zombies(they killed 5) approaching below and Ghuls up above. They declined sacrificing a party member, instead hoping to outrun the Ghuls by pure speed. They quickly found themselves with about 300 ghuls chasing them down the mountainside!

The good Doctor was first to fail her stamina test, but she managed to hide while the other two led the ghuls further.

Eder was second to tire, but he didn't manage to hide from the ghuls in the relatively open ground. He was torn apart horribly, but his meaty bits distracted most of the Ghuls, leaving a mere 70 Ghuls chasing Franzisko.

Franzisko made it to Pepe's place and started a forest-fire and the two were soon fleeing side-by-side through the forest. Franzisko eventually managed to outrun the Ghuls and hide in a tree. Later that night 3 ghuls started climbing his tree, but he jumped to a different tree and outran them.

Dealing with the Outbreak

Franzisko got back to town in the morning, telling everyone they must leave, but not detailing why. The next day Agurtzane arrived, having walked halfway around the mountain. They convinced their families to leave, but the rest of the town was slower to listen.

They made their way to the big city, sold their treasures. Franzisko survived surgery to cut-off the areas effected by zombie bites. While there, they heard rumours of Equiule, that it burned down in a forest fire and that the survivors were apparently driven half-mad with hunger and are attacking travellers in that area.

Taking Stock

The party did pretty well, considering. The undead hordes were released but without a general to lead them in an organized conquest. Their hometown was destroyed, along with all their childhood friends, but they escaped with their families. They achieved their goal of finding riches, with only one party member killed and another cursed.

Monday 11 November 2013

Coverage-Based Playtesting

OK, following up from last post, here's another approach to playtesting that borrows from software testing.

Coverage-Based Software Testing

In Software Engineering, Coverage-Based testing means running your tests and then, usually with a specialized tool, seeing what parts of your program the tests "covered" and which were left-out of the test. It's not a perfect technique: you might "cover" a piece of code and still miss the bug that is there. However, if you didn't cover a piece of code, then you definitely won't find the bug there. So it's one of the quicker methods to find holes in your testing, albeit an imperfect one.

Coverage-Based Playtesting

Get a game together and run a playtest on your game artefact, be it a game system or module. Now, when the playtest is over, ask yourself what parts of the game did your playtest "cover". The simplest way to do this is to skim through the text and circle any rooms, monsters, magic items, etc. that didn't get used.

Okay, so you've got your list of "holes". What do you do with them?

The Brute Force Approach

The ideal option is to continue running playtest after playtest until most or all of the holes are covered. But that can take a lot of time, especially since, along with the holes, you will no doubt be re-hashing a lot of the same covered material as in previous games.


For one, you can decide which holes are really a problem and which aren't.  Empty rooms might not be so important to playtest, for instance. You might also filter them based on what concerns you have for this artefact.

The Parallel Universe Approach

Now that your group finished their playtest tell them "OK, now let's go back in time to when you went right at that passage and instead say you decided to go left". Continue to reset them to past locations until most or all of the holes are covered.

The Proofreading Approach

You're not going to get around to covering everything via actual play. Instead, give the holes an extra round of proofreading, to make up for them not being covered in the playtest.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Concern-Based Playtesting

Playtesting. It's an important part of developing a game system or module. Until you playtest, everything is a priori--all your assumptions about how the game will play-out in practice are just that--assumptions. So fine, to playtest you run the game and make observations.

But playtesting effectively takes a lot of time. Getting a group together and then playing for several hours takes a lot of effort, and you're going to have to arrange quite a few of these to cover every part of your module and sufficiently playtest every mechanic. So unless you are a company with a full-time playtesting staff, you probably aren't going to be able to set up enough playtest games.

Concern-Based Testing

In the world of Software Quality, one of the techniques for dealing with the "too much material to test" problem is Concern-Based testing. The idea is that we identify the areas that are the most error-prone and focus a dis-proportionate amount of our testing resources there.

So how can I do this for my Game Artifact?

Well, in addition to running a single game with the Artifact, you can devise a number of much smaller, more focussed playtests, each addressing whatever concerns you identify in your Artifact. Here are some sample concerns with examples of how to playtest them:

Concern 1: Player Skill

Sections of the game that require Player Skill are always problematic. These include solving riddles and solving mysteries. The problem is that one groups will solve the problem in a minute, while another group will get hopelessly stuck and the DM will have to bail them out. And nobody likes it when the DM has to fudge and bail you out.

So for this concern, identify sections of your game which require player skill and try-out the riddle/mystery on a number of your friends. If too many people are getting stuck, you may want to make it easier or make sure there is an alternate route, albeit one that may require more time/combat.

Concern 2: Branches

Some parts of your game have too many "branches" to be properly covered by a single playtest game. These could be random tables, with many options that will not be rolled in a single game. It could be a complex map, which the party will pass through, most likely without stopping in every room.

So how do we playtest these? It may be an issue of proof-reading the table extra carefully, since you know it won't be covered by the playtest. It might be an issue of describing each and every room of the dungeon(or at least the more interesting ones) to some "players" and seeing how they react, without all the character generation and die rolls.

Concern 3: Balance

It's happened to me and to other DM's I know that you set-up this big difficult battle and then, much to your surprise, the PCs breeze right through it. And it's not because they came-up with some ingenious trick. It's simply that you mis-calculated(the conclusion of Shadows Over Bogenhaffen is a well-known example of this). The point is that, while I'm not for balancing every single battle, some of your battles you want to at least provide a challenge, and that can be hard to estimate without playtesting.

So, if there are any of those battles that you didn't reach in your playtest game, make sure and playtest them independently.

Concern 4: Novelty

So you don't have to playtest every single encounter and trap in your game module. Assuming that you are using a tried and true game-system, you can generally rely that things are going to just "work". That isn't the case when you create some new mechanic. Maybe the king of the goblins challenges the PCs to a drinking contest which uses your own novel mechanic, or the PCs have to wrestle a bear in the arena to impress the Hetman's daughter, using your custom mechanics. The point is, that a single play-through is not going to properly test some new mechanic. It's worth running a number of drinking contests or bear fights to make sure that everything plays-out well.

Anyway, these are all just ideas. Next time you are playtesting your module, think about what concerns your playtest game doesn't address and make sure and playtest them separately.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

The Weird Classics

Reading through Machen's "The White People and Other Weird Stories", I can't help thinking about how different contemporary fiction is from classic Weird Fiction. The major Weird authors had strong beliefs about the world, which look anachronistic by today's standards. And yet, those beliefs give their fiction an power and an energy that most current fiction lacks. Let's take a look at a few examples of Weird Authors and their major messages:

Arthur Machen

A Christian mystic, Machen viewed the growing materialism of the Modern era with great unease. His works reveal the hidden realms of the holy and the profane hiding behind the facade of everyday life--realms in which Machen really believed. His novella A Fragment of Life is a particularly subtle yet effective example of this.

Another of Machen's themes is distrust of Science and it's Irreverent outlook on sanctity and morality. From this mindset grew his most well-known horror story, The Great God Pan.

Robern E. Howard

Howard, like Machen, was also unhappy with Modernization, but for entirely different reasons. Growing-up in various towns in the State of Texas, Howard saw a growing contrast between the previous generation's tales of the Texas Frontier and the increasingly urbanized existence spreading across the continent. This feeling of being closed-in and confined by Urbanization gives Howard's stories their unmatched energy. Writing was this author's escape, and he approaches it with all the gusto of an inmate fleeing his prison. In Howard's writing, everything is larger than life, but written with the complete conviction that this is how real life is meant to be.

H. P. Lovecraft

Ah, Lovecraft. There's a lot to say about Lovecraft, but one of his major themes is that the universe we live in is ambivalent, if not hostile to Human life. The idea that, if we're unfortunate enough to encounter some of the strange forces or denizens out there in the Cosmos, then Humanity's short history will come to an abrupt end.

Another of Lovecraft's themes is building horror on the back of our xenophobia. People have a fear of The Stranger which borders on the instinctual. From what I understand, Lovecraft expresses a fear of the influx of immigrants into his native New England in some of his correspondences. I would suggest that it is this very bias that injects such strangeness and repulsion into his descriptions of the denizens of Innsmouth and the "mixed-blood" sailors in "Call of Cthulhu".

This is Why We Can't Have NiceWeird Things

Now, you might rightly accuse me of being a post-modernist windbag, describing these excellent authors as the mere sum of their individual beliefs and biases. Could be.

At the same time, I think there is something here. You don't hear so many authors in our age giving such succinct theories of the world around them. There was something about the turn of last century, a certain confidence in our ability to sum-up the world with one well-thought-out theory, that doesn't exist today.

Society was reaping the economic rewards of modernism and industrialization, science fiction was turning out hyper-optimistic prophecies of rationalist utopias, and political theory was inventing systems, like Communism and Fascism, to create just such utopias. The world seemed so much more black and white back then, and the classic weird authors, products of their time, had their own well-crafted theories about what was wrong with the world. Their outlooks, in today's context, come-off as naive at best or chauvinistic/racist at worst. That said, their world-views gave their writings a power that remains unmatched till this day.

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Setup for a 1-Shot Horror Game(take 2)

Well, I still haven't had the chance to run this, but I hopefully should soon. In the mean-time, I decided to run it with Swashbucklers & Seamonsters, so I've re-skinned it as appropriate.


The mountain broods darkly over the little village 
You are Basque pirates, on leave for the Winter, visiting the village of Esquiule in Basque Country during the Semana de la Blusa garlic festival.

When was the last time we were all together? And in our home town of Esquiule, with all our friends and loved ones, and all the ale we could drink?

You are all childhood friends, who are on the high seas during the warmer months, seeking your fortunes in the wide world. Now, after a particularly difficult season, you are all back, starting your Winter-leave early to make the week-long Semana de la Blusa festival, held once every 8 years at the end of Summer.

Plan Drunk, Adventure Sober

Well, you were all out drinking together, dodging the throngs of garlic-string-wearing visitors, enjoying your 4th or 5th jug of local wine, when the conversation turned to less festive matters. While all of you have been moderately successful since leaving your home-town  none of you really met with the fame and fortune you had been hoping for.

After much lamenting over broken dreams and failed aspirations, an idea emerges. A plan whose persistence will not fade with the morning's hangover. Of course the local Yokels mustn't hear of it--you grew-up here, you know how superstitious people can get out here in Basque Country. You chaps, on the other hand, are much too worldly to allow such folk tales to deter you. If you can just quietly gather some of the more open-minded youths then your little expedition can slip-out unnoticed during the revelry and re-appear before the end of the festival with riches in tow...

End Condition

The adventure ends when one of the following has occurred:

  1. The expedition is declared a success and the members now have the wealth needed to pursue their dreams
  2. The party abandons the expedition or the festival ends, resigning themselves to the path of mediocrity to which they seem destined
  3. The party is unable to continue, their minds and bodies shattered by the horrors they have seen and done

Character Creation

Each Player creates 1 PC:

  • Labyrinth Lord, 3d6 in-order, roll HD, simplified saving throws, can have leather armor in place of either your Missile Weapon or your Melee Weapon
  • L3 Fighting Man
  • Give them Swashbucklers & Seamonsters Occupations, Equipment
  • All PCs should be from Esquiule
  • Character Sheets
  • Swashbucklers & Seamonsters Rules
  • Basque Names

Friday 25 October 2013

WFRP Empire Campaign: Sessions 15, 16

Continuing our journey to Nuln in hope of tracking down a not-so-wholesome sorceress by the name of Italka, the party followed-up on a lead that she has relocated to an abandoned Coal mine in the hills.

We ended up at some small-time village on the outskirts of Nuln, inundated with drunk/depressed Dwarves and townsfolk who are fed-up with them. Long story short, we ended up on a mission to save the local homesteads from the deadly raids that have been plaguing them because angry peasants+drunk dwarves+creepy necromancer = PROFIT or something like that. Basically an opportunity to murder things and not get in trouble...

Fresh Blood

I should mention, we have a new player, who has fielded a reasonably capable Cleric-type. He made some very creative use of his "create sound" spell, and should be even more effective once he has a bit more XP and can do battle magic.

Kobold Essen!

Anyway, we took the huge intellectual leap of staking-out the homestead closest to Italka's stronghold. This paid off in the form of a large force of about 60 goblins and 20 wargs attacking the place. The battle took the better part of two sessions, and when the smoke had cleared there was a bit of structural damage and one of the dwarves was a bit injured, but besides that, it didn't go too well for the goblins.

The first few waves were shot or chopped-down fairly quickly such that the real melee didn't start until the the third and largest wave. The goblins made their attack from 5 different locations and attempted to swarm the party and grapple them. Siegwart had to use a couple bombs, and our archer made a killing from the roof, and the other 5 PCs were running around trying not to get overwhelmed.

Anyway, another good session, and now the party is trying to decide whether to assault Italka's stronghold or attempt to parley.

Wednesday 23 October 2013

A Wargaming Education

So I've had a lot of secondary exposure to Wargaming. When I was a kid, an older friend created a WWII boardgame for mass battles. In our current WFRP game, I've had to look-up rules in the WFB rulebook. And in general, you hear occasional wargame discussions in RPG sites.

But when I watched this video of a WFB game the other day, I was surprised by how relatively smoothly this big 100-troop battle ran.

1. No Grid

I remember hearing that ODnD movement is in inches like a wargame, but I didn't really get what that meant until I saw this video. They actually each have a tape-measure and you can move your troops along any diagonal axis you want. That's pretty cool!  And quicker than counting a ton of grid-squares.

2. Group Movement

The movement are per group, rather than per individual unit. That's a really good way of managing a ton of troops in a lightweight fashion. There's even a little rectangle underneath each group so you can move them together easily. I have to remember to do the movement by group next time I'm DMing and I run a big battle. Maybe that way it won't take all session.

3. Group Attacks

Attacks are also a lot quicker because they roll a handful of dice for each unit's attack. For WFRP, where it's a percentage, this might be a little unwieldy, but for d20 based systems it seems very do-able.  Like when the archers fire, you can just roll a handful of d20's and then divide them up between the PCs. Or if a group charges the party's front line, then you can roll a handful of d20's and divide them up between the PCs in the front line.

So in conclusion, I think there is what to learn from wargames about running big RPG battles smoothly, and I'm excited to try this out next time I DM a fairly big action.

Monday 21 October 2013

The Journey

Here's a great little DnD-inspired video with a message.

Two scabs get hold of a map, dropped by some shiny, incredible adventurer.  They wander through wonders, and dangers, defeating monsters, and just being general murder-hobos about everything.

Finally, the passage of time shown in their long beards and heroic bearing, they come to the end of the trail.  A huge X in an empty room, and they don't get it, where's the treasure?!  Then they see it: a mirrored wall showing...their own reflections!  The journey was what was important, was what transformed them into the men they are now.

I think this video is a good metaphor for the player's experience in RPGs. The point isn't the amassed imaginary treasure or experience. The point is the journey: getting to spend a few short hours trekking across lush fantasy worlds or exploring lost planetoids or escaping dank caves full of misshapen terrors.

Thursday 10 October 2013

I Want to Run a Lovecraftian Horror Game Like This

Wow. Samsara Room is a weird game. Weird rituals, resulting in bizarre dimensional journeys with freakish self-transformations. My favourite is when you become a worm-man so that you can climb inside the guys corpse.

I'd like to run an RPG that has this sort of weirdness. Except that I think Samsara Room didn't take it far enough, ending with mere discomfort rather than cosmic horror. I'd like to see that weirdness grow into a brooding horror. Something along the lines of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, The Dreams in the Witch House, and the Silver Key stories when taken as a whole. There's something very powerful about this sort of story, the Curiosity Killed the Cat horror story. First the reader's curiosity is piqued, along with that of the protagonist with bizarre yet wonderful discoveries. Yet as the protagonist journeys deeper into the unknown, the feeling grows of a moth drawn towards the flame, until the bizarre and inhuman horrors ultimately reveal themselves.  Machen's The White People is a great example of this, with an innocent young girl whose supernatural journeys ultimately lead her to take her own life to avoid an even more horrendous fate.

This would take some good game design/DMing, so that the players' curiosity ultimately makes them want to continue further, rather than returning to their safe yet mediocre lives. I'm OK with the players chickening out, but it should be a hard decision to make. Or, if that sounds too hard, you can go the "Through the Gates of the Silver Key" approach, where the PCs are trapped and retreat is not an option.

Tuesday 8 October 2013

In Memorium: Angus McBride

For a while I've wanted to make a post of Angus McBride's artwork. McBride was a very prolific illustrator with passion for ancient military costume. Perhaps his specialty was Celtic costume, but his work has a wide range of different cultures and periods. Anyway, next time I run a D&D campaign, I definitely want to make use of his work to illustrate various tribes and peoples the party will be facing. Below I attacked a few of his works.  I think my favourite is the Persian Heavy Cavalry vs. Roman Legionaries, though the Highland Mercenaries also look very gameable...

Monday 7 October 2013

Dragon's Lair Trap & Trick Generator

Wow, Dragon's Lair--that was a nasty, unforgiving game. But it has so many trap ideas(despite all the sections repeated in reverse)! Funny how the sequel(8 years later in 1991) was less trap-based. I wonder if this represented a change in how people thought of dungeons i.e. more combat based, rather than trap-based.

Anyway, when the party enters a room, roll 1d38:
  1. Rickety wooden floor breaks, tentacle monster awaits to surprise attack
  2. Twin Portcullises slam behind you
  3. Pressure plate in floor causes room collapse
  4. Tentacle monster attacks from multiple directions(get's flanking/backstab bonus)
  5. Door Slams. Each round a Giant snake pop through hole in ceiling/walls, attacks, returns.  Pull the cord and a rope drops down for you to climb out
  6. Door slams behind you.  Fiery pit to cross, with ropes to swing on. Floor is slowly withdrawing
  7. Room full of pressure plates causing floor collapse/arrow traps. If you jump into the central pool to avoid the plates, it's full of tentacle monsters ready to surprise attack
  8. Giant Spider climbs out of recess to surprise attack
  9. Plate by door triggers quickly closing blocks-leave immediately or get trapped inside
  10. Bubbling cauldron. Explodes with hot liquid if approached
  11. Shelf of potions: one of them contains a malvolent slime which will surprise attack
  12. As you climb up through trapdoor, a goblin comes-up behind you in your blind spot, surprising you
  13. As you climb up the stairs, goblins come out of hiding and attack from both sides
  14. Room with descending stairs, pit, ascending stairs. Stairs turn into ramp except on far edge. Tentacle monster rises out of pit to surprise attack
  15. Smithy with weapons rising to attack of their own accord
  16. Magical fire. If tampered with, statue comes to life and attacks. Usually it is behind the tamperer and gets surprise
  17. Cross narrow bridge over chasm with swinging sacks which must be passed with precise timing
  18. Briars come to life and surprise attack
  19. Opening door triggers magical wind, blowing furniture and PC along hazardous tunnel--good change of getting pummelled badly
  20. Magical wall begins to form before exit. Must jump through without getting caught in it to proceed
  21. Bench covers a low crawl-space. Magical lighting begins setting room's contents on fire, preventing access to doors. PCs will die of fire/smoke if they don't move the bench and crawl out.
  22. Suit of horse barding. If mounted, it goes shooting off and you'll have to steer it to avoid crashing, riding through magical fires.
  23. Opening door sends small, magical fireball at your back
  24. Door slams shut. Magical entity at other end of room sends energy bursts at you through the floor
  25. Walking through hallway with many open doorways, crypt with coffins on either side. Swarmed by animated bones.
  26. Wooden walkway breaks away as you walk on it. At the same time, you are swarmed by vampire bats
  27. Floor detaches from walls and begins to free-fall, magically stopping for a second at each dungeon level
  28. Magical cauldron full of gold pulls all weapons to it, flies down the hall, while a giant mace-wielding Lizardman, dressed like a king, chases you. At the end, it stays in a room but continues it's attempts to evade you
  29. Table with potion and "drink me" sign is at far end of room. Pressure plate in floor triggers fireball trap. Potion is poison.
  30. Narrow passage with see-saw floor with parts that magically break away over a long drop
  31. Throne room with crystal ball on pedestal in middle. Magically pulls your weapon to it. Then floor begins to drop away till only the throne is left. As soon as throne is sat in, weapon is shot blade-first from crystal ball to head-level of throne
  32. Electric charge chases you down hallway
  33. Floor collapses, dumping you in sewer.  If you're lucky, you'll manage to get in the boat waiting there before you're swept away by the current. Must steer boat through boulders, rapids, whirlpools. Grab the chain hanging from the ceiling or be swept into the final whirlpool
  34. Boiling pools of mud and water spout out earth elementals and geysers
  35. Magic cavalry spectres charge and slice at you
  36. Trippy halfpipe with giant marbles rolling back and forth. Once you enter, a giant marble starts rolling behind you to encourage you to run through fast
  37. Magic electricity in walls/floor chases you through chomping door. Better time it right! Same for jumping over broken bridge with lava geyser in the middle.
  38. Room full of treasure. If you knock of the highly-unstable treasure over, you'll wake the dragon! You'll need the key around it's neck.  The sword of dragon slaying in the stone might help!

Sunday 6 October 2013


There's nothing quite like a horror story creeping you the hell out. There's something about it... It's like the feeling you get when you're all alone in a big empty house, except amped-up to 11 and since it's a horror story, you know something terrible is going to happen, but you're not sure what or when.

Machen's Folklore

I've been reading through Arthur Machen's "The White People and Other Weird Stories" with it's criminally misleading cover art, and he is truly a master of Creepy.  Lovecraft says of his work
the elements of hidden horror and brooding fright attain an almost incomparable substance and realistic acuteness(Supernatural Horror in Literature)

His story "The White People" has some of the the creepiest faux-folklore I've ever read. We're reading the diary of a young girl whose nanny has been secretly indoctrinating her to occult practices.  Along the way she tells us some of the tales nanny told her, hinting at what's to come...

  • The tale of the Hollow Pit
  • The tale of the White Stag
  • The story of Lady Avelin 

One of the reasons I found these tales within a tale(within yet another tale) so creepy is that their meaning is so ambiguous, and yet you know it's something terrible. What is in the pit? Who is the lady who dwells in the heart of the woods? Did Lady Avelin meet a horrible end, or was she the lucky one?


I'd really like to introduce more creepiness into the games I run. One option is to give a handout with a creepy tale in it, but I'm not sure my literary skills are up-to-par and long handouts in the middle of a session tend to be skimmed and then forgotten.

Perhaps if the characters find the remains, or hear the tale of some utterly strange ritual or experiment? Or if they hear strange tales about the place they are going, and then when they are there, the rules of nature seem to begin to break down...

Friday 4 October 2013

Reading the Hobbit with Your Kids

So, I'm reading The Hobbit to my 5 year old and she LOVES it.  OK, let's back-up a step...

The other day, my wife left one of the Harry Potter books lying on the table because she's loaning it to a friend. Anyway, my daughter was flipping through it and I was like "Hey, you like Harry Potter? Should I read it to you?" and I was surprised at the very enthusiastic YEAH! Please please please!

Then I was like "Wait, isn't that book full of high-school crushes and flirting, maybe when she's older" so I was like "How about I read you The Hobbit?" my mother read it to me when I was a kid.

The Hobbit as a Kid's Book

I remember a lecture at The Tolkien Professor where he was explaining how The Hobbit is written to entertain kids, specifically Tolkien's kids, more than to be a realistic story. The example he gave was how the Dwarves all suddenly pull out impractically large instruments, including "violes as big as themselves", and then these instruments are never heard from again.

As for my daughter, she was REALLY excited that the protagonist is an adult who is nonetheless about her height(being a hobbit). The same can be said for the Dwarves, and also she was excited about them because she just watched Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. And the fact that there's a magician.

In any case, that really struck me, that she's excited about Bilbo because she identifies with him. She even got mixed up and told me excitedly one night "he's my age!" In that light, the story can be seen as an adult(Gandalf) who sends a kid(Bilbo) off on an exciting and important task, with minimal adult supervision, and he ultimately rises to the task.

Anyway, I'm sure we won't make it too far into the book this time around. The vocabulary is really too difficult for a 5-year-old, and you can only go so far on enthusiasm alone. Maybe I'll look for the animated movie from the 70's, although I remember finding it a little too trippy and confusing as a kid, too...

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Simple Cyberpunk Skills

So, after deciding to make the Cyberpunk adventure I'm writing DnD-compatible, I started thinking about how to do the skill system. PCs will probably want investigative skills, technological skills, etc. One option is to adapt the Stars Without Number skill system, but I'm not entirely happy with it and anyway I would have to adapt it a bit. So here's a draft of a simple, flexible, skill system for DnD-based Cyberpunk adventures.


Rather than giving a complete list of skills, I've decided to just give examples, loosely categorized. It seems to me that this gives the skills a more organic feel and greater flexibility.  In fact, there is certainly overlap between the tasks that a skill covers. There are no skill descriptions. Rather the DM should rule whether a skill applies to a specific situation.  Skills are distributed on a scale of 0-10:

  • Language Skills
    • English, Japanese...
  • Academic Skills(learned in University, private Corporate academy, etc...)
    • Architecture, Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Literature, Medical Doctor, Nano-Tech, Nursing, Theology...
  • Career Skills(learned on the job)
    • Infantry Soldier, Jewellery Thief, Naval Mechanic, Police Detective...
  • Technical Skills(learned in practice)
    • Drive Automobile, Guitar, Gunsmith, Hacker, Pilot Fixed-Wing...
  • Physical Skills
    • Acrobatics, Distance Running, Swimming...
  • Martial Skills
    • Fencing, Handgun, Karate, Filipino Knife Fighting, Rifle, SMG…
  • Other Skills
    • Etiquette, Fashionable Dress, Gambling, Oratory, Interrogate, Resist Torture...

Using Skills

Skill checks are d20 based, modified by the relevant ability score bonus and and the relevant skill level. The DM should rule what ability score/skills are relevant for a given task. The roll is made vs. a target value. Rolls less than or equal to the target values are considered successful, with natural 20’s always denoting success and natural 1’s always denoting failure . Target values are generally:

  • 5 easy task.  Generally doesn't require a roll
  • 10 somewhat challenging task
  • 15 moderately challenging task
  • 20 moderately challenging skilled task
  • 25 difficult skilled task
  • 30 nearly impossible task

Example: Detective Hobbs uses is searching a crime scene for clues. The Target Value for him to find the 3 hairs under the recliner is 15. So he will need to roll 15 or more on 1d20+INT bonus+his Police Detective skill.

Example: Hacker Damien is trying to hack into a Megacorp's top secret accounts. There's tons of security, so he'll need to roll a 30 on a 1d20+INT bonus+his Hacker skill--not very likely! If he rolls a 25, then he'll get the data, but be detected. He kidnapped a corporate officer and has his passwords, so the GM ruled that this reduces the target value by 5. If he breaks-in and tries from the man's office then this will reduce them by an additional 10.

Opposed Skill Checks

Some skill checks are against another character’s skill. As such, the target value is whatever that character’s skill roll is.

Example: upon questioning a junkie who was at the scene of the crime, the man flicks out a switchblade and attempts to stab Detective Hobbs. The junkie rolls 1d20+DEX Modifier+ Knife Fighting skill vs. Hobbs’ 1d20+DEX Modifier+Karate skill(Karate being a martial art which practices weapon defence.)

Example: Detective Hobbs is interrogating the junkie he brought in for useful information. The junkie has no skill to resist interrogation, so Hobbs will roll 1d20+CHA bonus+Police Detective skill vs. the Junkie’s 1d20+CHA bonus.

Missile Attacks

Missile weapons are made against a character’s AC(using ascending AC). Note that the DEX bonus doesn't apply if a character is just standing there, unaware they are being targeted. Also note that the degree to which the character is concealed can raise AC by between 1 and 4 points.

Example: As a suspect charges him with a Monokatana, Detective Hobbs draws and fires his sidearm. He rolls 1d20+DEX bonus+Pistol skill vs AC 10+DEX bonus.

Monday 30 September 2013

Setting-Up the Chase in Horror Gaming

The Chase is a stable of the Horror genre, where the protagonists flee from the monster/killer etc. I've written before about how to build-up to The Chase, but now I'd like to talk about the problem with implementing it in RPGs.

Consider this chilling chase sequence from the trailer to Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

The Chase is set-up expertly, with terrifying sounds heard in the distance, and a claustrophobic map, where a monster might be hiding behind any door: very tense build-up. And once the monster is encountered, the player flees frantically to the nearest hiding spot--really good Horror.

The Problem in RPGs

So why doesn't this work for most RPGs?  Well, because your typical party is an armed band of seasoned adventurers, and their first reaction to a monster is typically going to be, to shoot first, ask questions later. Which is totally valid. But if you're trying to run a horror scenario, you want the players to at least consider flight, or be scared of engaging the monster. Amnesia overcomes this by just not giving you weapons or any means of attack, but that's hardly a general solution for adding horror to your RPG.

For some players, a really good build-up to the monster may be enough to send them running, but many will just assume their DM is being dramatic, so you'll need to take stronger measures if you want to send them running.

Death Frost Doom's Solution

Running James Raggi's "Death Frost Doom" will generally result in a Chase. Once the thousands of undead are awakened, the adventure assumes that the PCs will figure out pretty quickly that they can't stand and fight them all. This assumption relies on a couple points:
  • The DM's description of hordes of undead coming after them should clue the PCs in that there are too many for them to handle
  • Even if they do stand and fight in the narrow crypts, the game assumes that they won't be immediately killed in one round. Thus, the module requires levels 2 or higher, or a large funnel group for The Chase to work.  Otherwise, it will likely end like my ill-fated Night's Dark Terror 1-shot.
So that's one option.  Let the party engage the monster and see that it's too powerful for them. But this limits you to monsters who do relatively small amounts of damage each round and will win by attrition(like a horde of zombies in a narrow space.) What if I want to put something big and nasty that can TPK them more quickly?  How do I get the PC's to flee before it's too late?

The Aurebach Golem Solution

I still remember the great chase in noism's WFRP PBP game. We had just survived a really nasty Scaven ambush, when suddenly the whole place begins to shake and there's the sound of the roof caving-in down the corridor, as this Golem is taking out solid rock walls to reach us. It immediately became a game of "Who can reach the rope leading out of the dungeon faster?"  I learned two principles out of this situation:

1 Demonstrate the Creature's Power

When this Golem started re-mapping the dungeon, we knew we didn't want to mess with it. You can also do this by having your monster take-out a tough group of NPCs in view of the party.

2 Get Them While They're Feeling Vulnerable

If our party had been fresh and feeling confident, we might have tried to hit-and-run the golem, see if we could find a weak spot, etc. But the fact that we were already quite damaged meant that we just didn't want to get smashed. This is really key, either creating the feeling of vulnerability, or waiting for it to happen in the course of the game.

Sunday 29 September 2013

My Wars

An excellent post about putting wars in your campaign left me asking what wars I've inserted in my sandbox campaigns in the past. Much to my surprise, they have all have had wars.  Why is that?  I guess it's because, indeed, having big political events going on in the background, or foreground, provides a lot of adventure hooks and makes the setting a lot more interesting.  Plus, as part of the world-building, I love coming up with the conflicts the various factions might be having. So here's a quick review of my wars:

Warren's Deep

Ah, my first sandbox campaign, run as play-by-post. The setting was a rather far-flung province of the empire, given a good degree of independence. I had a whole plan for an army to come out of the Desert, North of Flal, led by some Sorcerer-King with a dimentional-portal. They would conquer the fortified city of Flal, and then work their way West towards the PCs. By the time the Empire got their troops mustered and moved, they would have a heck of a time against the well-fortified magical minions. Unless the PCs could come up with some way to interfere with the Sorcerer's plans.  Unfortunately, PBP is so slow, none of this ever happened in-game.

Polish Resistance

OK, sort of a no-brainer, since it's set in WWII.  Anyway, the PCs did resistance-type activities, basically espionage, guerilla tactics, and salvaging war materials for the cause, all on their own initiative.

New Tilia

Well, New Tilia, and Neualtdorf are technically at war, though they are mostly small skirmishes and assassinations. The Baron offered the party some jobs along those lines as privateers, but they were more interested in dungeon-delving than political intrigues.