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.

Wednesday 25 September 2013

WFRP Empire Campaign: Session 14

Dungeon Delving

Following up on last session, the party managed to open the door in the floor to the 3rd level of the dungeon(South of Castle Reikgard). Sigyn and the two elves were lowered down(by the Dwarves and Seigwart) and were immediately ambushed by a host of ghouls, who were duly slaughtered by the party, despite being at half-strength.

DM: "OK, I know what I'm going to do next time so the monsters put up more of a fight"
Player: "You said that last time!"

Anyway, the party found the musty remains of an impressive library, including some spells for the magic-user in training, as well as some information that may lead us to another 300-year-old meteor hit.

Stocking Up

The party continued South and docked their riverboat at the elevated city of Kemperbad.  They heard a few rumours while hanging around town.  They left with a few bombs, and a new stone-thrower installed on their boat. (Yes, Sigyn finally has enough XP to make the career change to Artillerist, as per her training a few sessions ago.

Drunk on My Power

So...funny thing about getting a small siege engine installed on your boat. It has a silly little way of changing your perspective on things. You suddenly find yourself, at every junction, asking:
Can my siege engine solve this problem?
And in the case of a negative response, the questions becomes:
OK, but can my siege engine improve the situation?  
Which devolves further, with terrifying speed, to:
How much trouble will I get in if I fire my siege engine at that thing?
 So, upon finding a surgically altered mutant corpse floating in the water and then passing the very disreputable Castle Wittgenstein, Sigyn convinced the party that we should check the place out discreetly. It was a tough sell, but the others eventually came around. At which point she started taking pot shots at the rather ill-maintained battlements, as the rest of the party, and the guards at Castle Wittgenstein, looked on in astonishment.

The party decided it might be time to move on, when the castle guard woke up and began returning fire with huge pieces of masonry.

I Vant to Suck Your Blood

The party was flagged down by another riverboat that came limping down the river. After Sigyn was persuaded to hold fire for the moment, the party parleyed with the captain. They had a couple sick crew-members and "Drugs" the party's doctor was sent on-board the other ship. The diagnosis was "vampires" and the ship's cargo was checked, the vampire incapacitated, and the ship towed and delivered to the Temple of Mor in Grissenwald. We may try to follow-up on where the vampire came from at a later session.

Sunday 15 September 2013

Cyberpunk Death & Dismemberment Table

Well, I've been making slow but steady progress on Kill, Cyborgs! Kill!  I was originally going to make it for Cyberpunk 2020, but then I decided to make it DnD-like, albeit with a Cyberpunk-twist. The reason for this choice was twofold:

  1. To emphasize the Horror element, I wanted to tone-down the high degree of tactics you get in CP2020
  2. Really you can adapt it fairly easily to CP2020, so I'd rather write it up with a system that more people are familiar with

In any case, as a Cyberpunk game, it needs to have limb-loss(so they can be replaced with cyberlimbs) and a somewhat more modern look at medicine.  So I believe this calls for yet another custom Death and Dismemberment table:

The Table

Upon taking damage which leaves a character with 0 or fewer HP, roll a d10 + the number of negative hitpoints the character has.

  • 1-2 A Flesh Wound: No major damage, but you now have a bitchin' scar: changes your CHA by 1d3-2(within range of 3-18)
  • 3-4 Stunned: character is not killed, but is useless for the rest of the combat
  • 5-6 Hit an Artery: Unconscious. Lose 1 HP per rounds until first aid is applied. Dies if bleeding brings HP to -10
  • 7-9 Internal Bleeding: Unconscious. At the end of each turn make a Fortitude Save or die, until emergency surgery is performed
  • 10-12 Maiming Locational Hit: see sub-table
  • 13-14 Killed Instantly
  • 15+ Horrific Demise: somebody get a mop

Maiming Locational Hit Sub-Table

Roll to see which limb is destroyed/paralysed/severed/napalmed etc.

  1. Toe
  2. Foot-Also see Hit an Artery 
  3. Leg-Also see Hit an Artery
  4. Finger
  5. Hand-Also see Hit an Artery
  6. Arm-Also see Hit an Artery
  7. Nose-Also see Stunned
  8. Ear-Also see Stunned
  9. Eye-Also see Stunned
  10. Both Eyes-Also see Stunned

Tuesday 3 September 2013

The Relative Popularity of Various Classic DnD Clones in the OSR

Following-up on a recent post about the Google+ followings of various DnD Clones, I put together a little survey which I posted on Google+ in communities popular with OSR adherents.  One of the problems with simply counting the number of Community Members to determine popularity is that membership doesn't necessarily mean that you play the game, or even that you have ever played it.

So to restate the question:

Which Retro Clones of DnD are being actively used by the most people to play games?
And let's define Retro Clones for the present as being recent RPGs based heavily on DnD 2nd Edition or earlier.

Survey Results

As for the survey, I asked:
In the last calendar year, what Flavours of DnD have you actually played/run?
People could select multiple answers, so the numbers add up to more than 100%.  The answers I got were:
  • Swords & Wizardry 28%
  • Labyrinth Lord 31%
  • OSRIC 8%
  • DCC RPG 32%
  • LotFP 24%
  • ACKS 10%
  • Some TSR(OD&D until 2e) 46%
  • Some WotC 14%
  • Pathfinder 24%
  • Other 33%

Note that percentage here is % of answers, not of respondents

So in answer to the question about the most-played DnD Retro Clones in the OSR, let's filter out all the brand name DnD, as well as anything based on later iterations of the game:

  1. DCC RPG 32%
  2. Labyrinth Lord 31%
  3. Swords and Wizardry 28%
  4. LotFP 24%
  5. ACKS 10%
  6. OSRIC 8%

So DCC, LL, S&W, and LotFP seem to be the Big 4, but with a lot of other systems out there getting use, especially considering that 33% of respondents checked the "Other" box.

Some Other Observations

I was surprised and impressed that the largest response(46%) was people who played in original TSR versions of the game.  Also, Pathfinder and WotC made very respectable showings.

The second most common answer was "Other" with 33% of people checking it.  There are A TON of DnD-based games out there, but I wonder if any are overwhelmingly dominant.  I should probably have added Basic Fantasy, Castles & Crusades, and Stars Without Number to the poll to see if that reduced the number of "Other" responses significantly.

Also, note that the average number of boxes respondents checked was 2.5.  So that would seem to indicate that your typical OSR guy or gal uses more than one system on a regular basis.

Comparison with Google Group Size

So how do those results compare with the Google+ Community Size numbers?

  1. Swords &Wizardry 826
  2. DCCRPG 776
  3. Lamentations of the Flame Princess 498
  4. Labyrinth Lord 382
  5. Adventurer Conquerer King 347
  6. OSRIC 110

            Actually, fairly similar, considering.  Most significantly, the survey showed that Labyrinth Lord is much more popular than it's Google+ following would seem to indicate.

            I wanted to look at the Correlation between the two metrics.  There does seem to be a loose relationship.  Too few data points to say if it's linear or what.  Assuming that it is linear, then Pearson comes out to about 0.76, which by the rule of thumb is probably not significant, so I can't say anything definitive with such a small data set except that there seems to be a relationship, which makes sense intuitively.

            Survey Methodology Notes

            Just a few notes on the methodology of the survey, so that others can criticize/improve-upon it.

            The list of Google+ Communities I posted the survey on is:
            • Swords & Wizardry Discussion
            • OSRIC
            • Labyrinth Lord
            • Lamentations of the Flame Princess(Deleted by Moderator)
            • DCCRPG(Deleted by Moderator)
            • FLAILSNAILS
            • Vintage Role Playing Games
            • B/X D&D
            • AD&D
            • Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition(Deleted by Moderator)
            • Adventurer Conquerer King

            I added ACKS to the list of answers late, after maybe 20 respondents had answered, so it's possible that their number should be slightly higher and Other should be slightly lower.

            Also, the survey got 147 answers.  The site I used,, would only allow me to see the first 100.  To see the other 47 they want a membership fee that comes out to about 50 cents per answer. It's not a huge difference, in terms of sample size, but I'd like to have the rest of the data, so I wrote the to ask if they would make an exception.  We'll see.  I guess it's worth reading the fine print on these "free" survey sites.

            Monday 2 September 2013

            How Cyberpunk Broke my Scifi Dreams

            I just read my way through Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, a 1986 collection of short stories put together by Bruce Sterling.  There are a number of good stories in this collection, but the two William Gibson selections struck me as interesting, because they are two of that author's more explicit "Meta-Commentaries" about the Scifi Genre itself.

            The Gernsback Continum

            "Gernsback" gives us a look at a photographer, working on an assignment for a book on old Retro-Futuristic architecture. The project, and an amphetamine habit, gives him visions of "a kind of alternate America: a 1980's that never happened."

            The message of the story is that the old type of Scifi, that of Gernsback's "Wonder Stories", is dead.  The idea that science will bring us Utopian Societies and fulfil all of our Human needs no longer seems plausible.  We've seen technology integrated into our lives, and all the same old problems have remained, just in flashier chromed-out clothes. Gibson is pointing out that that this is the epiphany from which the Cyberpunk genre was born.

            Red Star, Winter Orbit

            This collaboration between Gibson and Sterling is one of my favourites due to it's tone of fallen majesty.  It's message, delivered through strong symbolism, is largely the same as "Gernsback", though the negative tone of the conclusion has been replaced with a more upbeat one.

            The story starts out with Colonel Korolev's Burroughs-esque vision of Mars.  These dreams are interrupted by the unromantic realities of living on a Soviet space station: petty adulteries, smuggling, KGB intrigues, and Labor struggles, mirroring events below on earth, just on a smaller, less significant scale. By the end of the story, the station's mandate is revoked, and the crew abandons ship, leaving Korolev, whose ailing health prevents him from leaving, alone to die on the station with it's deteriorating orbit. In a surprise twist, however, a new generation of space explorers arrives and reclaims the derelict station.  Not government employees, but young privateers with tattoos and "eyes brimming over with a wonderful lunacy".

            As for the symbolism: Korolev, an ageing Cosmonaut who bunks in room known sarcastically as the "Museum of the Soviet Triumph in Space" represents the old guard, Classic Scifi Literature.  The new privateers are, or course, the Cyberpunk Authors, here to inject the Scifi genre with new life.  As they say in the story: "We made that jump, and we're here to stay!"

            On a More Personal Note...

            Today, in the 2010's, the message of "Gernsback" really hits home for me. Science and Technology have brought us significant economic benefits in terms of productivity, as well as all sorts of toys, and...that's sort of it.  Even Pure Science has, to a large degree, reaped all of the low hanging fruits, making real breakthroughs in understanding few and far-between.  Technology is advancing.  In a few years, we'll have medical systems answering questions better than any Human doctor could.  These systems won't be based on any ground-breaking fundamental Medical research, but on better algorithms for search, expert systems, and the efficient operation of the Bioinformatics machine. Certainly those are incredible technologies that will change the world, but isn't there something terribly tragic about a Science that has abandoned the path to greater Human understanding in exchange for fancier tech? Indeed, it seems that the hope that classic Scifi put in Science, in it's ability to elevate and Enlighten Human society, was misplaced.  Where that hope will go, either returning to it's former abode in the Humanities and Religion, or simply dissipating into cynicism and despair, remains to be seen.

            Rules vs. Content: A Question of Emphasis

            OK, so here's the thing.  I used to be really into the question of "What rules to use?"

            You know: "What system to use?", "What houserules to use?"

            And I still am pretty opinionated on the topic(probably a bit more that I should be).  But it hit me recently, that, while rules may be important, there is something more important: Content. What you run and how you run it.

            Because rules can RUIN a game, creating a distraction, taking the focus away from the actual role playing experience.  But it's rare that the rules make a game session GREAT.  That's more of a question of the adventure you're running and the art of how you're running it.

            And it's an easy mistake to make, focussing too much on the rules, at the expense of content. The rules are static, mathematical, open to easy analysis, relevant from session to session.  This, as opposed to the adventure you run, which is always changing, or how you're running it, which is a dynamic, inconsistent process, for which there is no definitive guide.

            I look at the incredible bounty of Rule Systems our hobby has created: there are so many RPG systems and variants out there. There may well be more systems and variants than there are adventures/modules. It makes me think that I'm not the only one who has made the mistake of over-emphasizing rules when I should have been focusing my best efforts on Content...