Monday, October 29, 2012

Session 56: Visiting Grumbledook and Boating into Blint

"We're at war with the legions of hell!" -- Dak the Younger 

Date: 4/22/2012
PCs: Innominus (Clr. 7), Dak (Dwf. 6), Yor (Dwf. 6), Uncle Junkal (Rodian Bard 5), Vivuli (Assassin 5 / MU 5)
NPCs: Nic Cage (Ftr. 2, follows Yor), Claude (Ranger 3, follows Uncle Junkal), and Rodrick (Thf. 4, follows Viv). Brother Lawrence of the Brothers of Carcoon (Clr. 3) was also along as an observer.

This session started in the wee hours of morning on Day 179 of the party's Arandish adventures; the PCs were standing over the slain body of their longtime associate Gorgo, who perished in an unexpected hill giant attack the night before. After displaying the giants' heads on poles in a circle around the headless corpse of the red dragon they also recently slew, they set off to locate the latter's lair, which they surmised (a) must be nearby, and (b) must contain shitloads of treasure.

Both Greystone Mountain and the village of Wellspring lie in hex 1816.

Since the village of Wellspring lay less than a day's travel to the north, the group decided to head there first to see if any of the locals knew of the red dragon's dwelling place. They trudged for a few hours through very light snowfall, descending Greystone Mountain, crossing the icy but not yet frozen-over River Farn, and entering the village from the south. They visited the village's main lodging-house, the Inn of the Snow Leopard, met its proprietor, Bob, and partook of some excellent mutton stew. Bob told them of a local wise man named Grumbledook who lived in the woods at the eastern edge of the village -- he suggested that Grumbledook would know much more about the comings and goings of local monsters than anyone else in the area. He also told the party that the council of village elders would be honored to throw a feast on behalf of Yor, the new Baron of Rogaland, that evening. Yor and company graciously accepted this offer.

The party left the Inn and headed to the northwest corner of the village to the Church of Rogaland. There, Innominus requested that Gorgo's body be placed on ice, to preserve it until such time that it could be raised from the dead. The local clergymen complied.

Then the group headed eastward out of the village, to the wooded copse where the reclusive Grumbledook was known to dwell. A rabbit guided them back to a clearing deep in the snowy woods, where sat a huge bearded fellow wearing layers of furs and a dirty brown cloak. This was Grumbledook.

Grumbledook looks a lot like Brian Blessed.

Grumbledook led the party to a smallish hut deep in the copse, and bid them enter. The place was much larger-seeming on the inside than it had appeared to be on the outside. 

After lighting a fire, Grumbledook told the party that the female red dragon they killed was Harak, known to most locals as "Zelda." Her mate was an ancient red named Boris, who dwelt atop a craggy mountain far southwest of here, on the Blintian frontier [in hex 1617].

Grumbledook also carried on his own private conversation (in a tongue no PC could comprehend) with Beastarr the Bobcat, telling Innominus afterward that the feline familiar would become an important player in regional events yet to come.

The PCs returned to the village proper and reclaimed their riverboat, the Queen's Pride, from the boathouse in which they left it five weeks earlier (at the end of Session 38). The group spent the afternoon readying the boat and acquiring new oars and poles. 

That night, a feast in their honor. Yor, Baron of Rogaland, told the village elders to prepare an evacuation plan for the village in case of imminent balrog attack. The group spent the night in the Inn of the Snow Leopard, though they did not pay a fee for their lodging given Yor's status as Baron. 

The next morning, Day 180 of the party's Arandish adventures, the group loaded up the Queen's Pride and, leaving two archers and all their horses behind in Wellspring, set off downriver to the west under moderate snowfall. They anticipated a three day journey to the Blintian town of Marshton [hex 1517], where they would re-supply and prepare to approach Slag Mountain, home of Boris the Red Dragon.

Marshton is actually in hex 1517, north of the Blintsflow River; the city erroneously listed as "Marshton" on the above map is Blintsport.

After their first day on the river, the group decided to travel by night as well, having the dwarves keep watch with their infravision.  Thus, by midday on Day 181, the group had reached the confluence of the Rivers Farn and Kaladar into the Blintsflow [hex 1616]. Shortly after passing this fork, the party was attacked by a vicious band of six hill giants, who approached from the south and waded into the icy river to attack the party with clubs and spears. The party eventually vanquished these foes, but not before significant damage was inflicted to their boat. They held up and camped and repaired the Queen's Pride using parts from the War Wagon, which they had been towing behind them since Wellspring. After this brief hiatus, they set off downriver for Marshton on the morning of Day 182. 

However, a huge snowstorm rolled in that day, and within a couple of hours, the Blintsflow had completely iced over and the party was completely buried in snow. They decided to build a shelter using the sail of the Queen's Pride and yet more parts from the War Wagon, and ended the session at the bend in the river in hex 1517, mere hours away from Marshton but unable to get there.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Non-Linear Dungeon Design Resources

While I am not actively working on a megadungeon project at present, I am still a big fan of dungeon design theory, and have been reading some great posts on the subject of late. Here are just a few of the great resources I've been enjoying:

Was Module B1 a Good Design? This is a post that Spawn of Endra mentioned to me during a recent conversation, then I backtracked and found it on Delta's D&D Hotspot. I think many of Delta's basic assumptions are spot-on, and I would also urge folks to read the comments to the post, especially this one by Justin Alexander, in which he provocatively suggests a new approach to "old-school," minimalistic dungeon location descriptions, saying that:

Minimal keys are great. Minimal keys that primarily focus on creatures and treasure? IMO, you're doing it wrong. [. . .]

I don't think DMs should prep the multi-paragraph litanies of B1, but I'd much rather have a key that said: 

27. A floor of smooth slate and two thrones of white marble. Purple and yellow draperies on the wall.


127. ORC SERGEANT. The leader of the outpost (8 h.p.) with longsword and heavy crossbow.

What an interesting idea! I don't know how extensively I agree with it, but it has me thinking.

Of course, Mr. Alexander has a great deal of credibility, in large part because he is the author of another classic dungeon design post. . .

(Image from Melan's dungeon mapping post.)

Jaquaying the Dungeon. I actually must again thank Delta for reminding me of this great series of posts, though I am a fan of The Alexandrian and have read them before. In them, JA discusses how to "open up" a dungeon (and increase it re-playability value) by providing multiple entrances and exits from each level and locale. An excerpt:

In a jaquayed dungeon, the choices the PCs make will have a meaningful impact on how the adventure plays out, but the actual running of the adventure isn’t more complex as a result. 

On the other hand, the railroad-like quality of the linear dungeon is not its only flaw. It eliminates true exploration (for the same reason that Lewis and Clark were explorers; whereas when I head down I-94 I am merely a driver). It can significantly inhibit the players’ ability to make meaningful strategic choices. It is, frankly speaking, less interesting and less fun.

I always follow these principles when designing modules and highly recommend these posts.

Node-Based Megadungeon Design. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the blogosphere, I bumped into Keith Davies' fascinating posts about Node-based dungeon design, which he may well carry out to a level of complexity beyond my own interests, yet I confess I find the basic idea of Nodes as a dungeon-design starting point compelling. (I also plan to look further into Keith's broader series on Campaign and Scenario Design).

And lastly, it so happens that Justin Alexander has his own series on the Node-based design topic, which I have yet to read. . . .

Please leave a note in the comments if you have other recommendations for good reading on this or related subjects.

"Don't Prep Plots, Prep Situations" -- Justin Alexander

Monday, October 22, 2012

Admission of Minor Weak Sauce with DUNGEON! Review

Qualifieth and clarifieth doth thine Spawn doeth:
We have as an editorial policy here -- unspoken, unwritten, unresolved, unrequested, unrequited, unrealized (up to the present moment, perchance) -- that we each must be able to call ourselves on our own bullshit.

We are never full-on bullshit, but even so we strive towards a lessening of our own bullshit and the general bullshit we all take part in.

Right. So anyway, I never read the Setup pages of the DUNGEON! rules closely before running the last post. Seemed like a waste of time. THERE is where the equations of race and class are made. I missed this. Here we go:

Rogue (Halfling)

Cleric (Dwarf)

Fighter (Human)

Wizard (Elf)

Race as Class turns to orthogonal Race or Class. More Agency with the latter. Not.

Weird. No. Dumb. Plain old dumb.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

WotC's DUNGEON! is Flattest Non-Euclidean Game Ever

Revieweth thine Spawn:

I picked up the new revised DUNGEON! board game the other day. Back in early 80s me and my sister and a bunch of neighborhood kids played it for hours when the Fresno summers made sitting in air conditioned homes more fun than running around outside. I figured maybe this would be a cool Xmas present for my niece and nephew, but I wanted to make sure WotC hadn't altered it so much as to irk me so I checked it out first. This is the only WotC purchase I've made aside from a pack of Magic cards I bought back in 1994. Not that I hate them, I just didn't buy their stuff.  And I assumed whatever cosmetic changes they made, I'd be able to see past them and have a good time. After laying out the board with its sort-of-isometric perspective, the whole thing started to shift around like a big old Necker illusion and now I can't see it right anymore. I'm serious.

All of the passages look like narrow bridges of blocks above a blue-black pool, and the rooms all look like Jell-O shots whose contents are subject to oblique gravity. Some doors look like they're in the side of the block pathway I'm walking on top of, and others seem to go directly into a floating Jell-O shot.

This is admittedly worse towards the edges of the board than the center, but my brain doesn't really sort that out. The oddest chamber is The Hole, which looks like a cylindrical ring with a bottomless pit ... going down at a 45 degree angle ... that's not the most bottomless thing I can imagine, but of course I'm not feeling the oblique gravity vectors

The least awkward section is in Level 5. Here it mostly looks like a set of chambers and passages sunk into a blue-black surface.

The overall effect when you look at the whole board is that the elevated walkway surfaces appear to be curving up at the edges, as if the blocks are stuck to the inside of a large bowl. Weird. I'm ambivalent about this art design. It's technically executed well, with neat details, etc, but there's something wrong with all the drop-shadow effects and the visually conflicting textures.

To the game itself, for now I'll just point out that they changed around the characters -- Heros -- you can be. Now it's Rogue, Cleric, Fighter and Magic-user (Elf). Elf is in parentheses because that's how it is in the rules, and their little markers below look like elves. The Rogue and Fighter are more or less self-explanatory, but the Cleric? Described as "Holy Warriors", they can't use spells but can use magic swords. Not very Clericky. They are in the photo below in blue, take a look at them. 
Tell me those two aren't dwarves. Yeah, no beard on the female, but compare her to the other characters. They're dwarves. Why not have dwarves instead of clerics since there's no clericness to be had in the game?

Dumb. But whatever, I can just call them dwarves if I want. I'm a grown up. Not sure if I'll buy another copy for my niece and nephew yet, but I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Spawn Launches Food Blog

As regular readers know, when he's not doing radiocarbon measurement or kicking ass in Ara, Spawn of Endra is quite the food aficionado -- see his culinary arts-related posts here, here, and here, including this review. In this same vein, he has now launched a new food blog utterly dedicated to his culinary pursuits! The blog is called Coup de Gras and is worth checking out!

From Spawn of Endra's discussion of Gravy.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

2000 cp? Lazy Stupid Jerk! Radiocarbon will Make You Less Lazy and Stupid!

From Spawn at Lunch:

I read a bunch of important stuff over on RPGNet about how 2000cp is anti-imagination and the sign of a lazy DM and it stole your grandma's car and crashed it into a pet store killing dozens of fuzzy little kittens and bunnies. God Damn that 2000cp! A couple of folks mentioned that in fact, you might use 2000cp in a module as a guideline for determining the treasure, in which case you might roll dice to figure a specific and random amount. I was really thrown for a loop by that idea -- so mind-shattering was it -- but I gradually recovered. Basically you're using 2000 as a mean of the distribution and you figure out some die combo to vary it around the mean (or assume the 2000 is the product of a similar operation, e.g., d4x1000, and then add some other probability distribution to that). Now obviously this is just as lazy, but more sinister because it cloaks its laziness in action and "randomness". Ideally you'd want to trace the history of each copper piece from when it was minted to when it arrived in the ratshit pile to explain why there are exactly 598cp in the pile. Of course we all want this from D&D, but we won't get it, not from JMal and not from nobody.

(There should be a Kickstarter for a supplement that describes the unique history of each one of 598cp in a box. Volume 2: The Saga of 3912ep in a Sack. Written by George R.R. Martin.)

The problem with the randomizing business is that the mechanic behind it can often be guessed at because of certain a priori knowledge: the 6 standard dice have discrete known ranges, typically are not mixed, and have symmetrical distributions (if not Gaussian ones). As more and more piles of treasure are found, eventually the shape of the overall distribution will emerge, showing the DM's random mechanic, and then everyone will see what a lazy sack of shit he or she is. This is essentially a form of Monte Carlo sampling that the players are doing. In fact players use a version of this during, e.g., combat to figure out a monster's HD, damage die for unconventional attacks, and so forth.

What you want is to draw the underlying distribution from a non-normal, non-symmetrical set of probabilities so that no matter how long they spend in your megadungeon, players will never be able to intuit the underlying random mechanics for laying copper pieces around. "How do I do that?", you ask? Fuck, you Lazy Stupid DM! Do I have to explain everything to you? Ugh!

A relatively easy way is to treat your value like a radiocarbon measurement (conventional age, BP), assign some sort of uncertainty to it (+/- 40 is common, but whatever), and then calibrate it against the atmospheric 14C curve (IntCal09, for example). The relationship of actual years to radiocarbon years is not one-to-one, so the measurement is transformed by the curve into a typically non-normal distribution. Here's an example using OxCal:

Now taking the weighted mean of that distribution following Telford et al. 2004 (always a dangerous shorthand) we can now say there are 1953 ratshit befouled copper pieces in the room, and everyone's lovin' your megadungeon all of a sudden. Of course, this only gets you so far, since the curve transforms the data the same way each time.

No problem. Instead of using the R_Date command (for a radiocarbon date), use R _Simulate. This is an interesting exercise in both phenomenology and probability. You have it simulate a radiocarbon age for a sample of calendar age X (which will be your number of copper pieces) assuming a certain measurement error (again, we'll say 40) depending on what type of AMS device you've got. This then incorporates both the gaussian measurement error and the weirdness of the curve, and does it differently every time you run it. Your laziness, stupidity, lack of imagination, and absence of any reason to live are all now well shrouded in the swirling mists of the carbon cycle:

There you go. Now you'll have who-knows-how-many unique piles of coins: 2038cp, 2080cp, 2042cp... the possibilities are endless. If you change the measurement error, a new world of treasure opens up. Try the Marine curve or the Southern Hemisphere curve! Rejoice, for you have now added real flavor and texture to your megadungeon. Next time we'll sample from deeper within the mass of data to ensure the DM's logic is so far abstracted from the shitpile as to be impossible to guess at.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

OSRCon 2012 - Why I Love This Photo

At the end of last year's OSRCon, I wrote a post about a specific photo that really summed up for me all the wonder, adventure, and camaraderie I felt during my first OSRCon experience. I would like to continue the tradition by sharing my single favorite photo from this year's Con and telling you the story behind why I love it so.

Here's the photo:

Chris and me at OSRCon 2012. (Photo by Garfield Noyahr.)

For one, look at the smiles on those two guys' faces. They are having a great time. The guy on the left is named Chris and the guy on the right is me. The shot was taken right at the end of the last session of the Con, mere minutes before we would all disperse and say farewell for another year. Chris and I are sitting at Ken St. Andre's game table, having just played a rollickingly good session of Tunnels and Trolls with the Trollgod himself, and are proudly displaying our T&T 5.5 rulebooks for the camera. Minutes after this photo was snapped, I would ask Ken to sign my copy. He did.

Ken St. Andre with the other Chris - Chris Cunnington, OSRCon coordinator. (Photo by Garfield Noyahr.)

So that's number two: I met Ken St. Andre this year. In addition to playing two different T&T sessions with him, I also got to hang around with him after the Con activities were through -- in fact, we breakfasted together the morning after this shot was taken, and then Spawn and I had the pleasure of driving him back to the airport on our way out of town. Ken is a witty, warm, interesting man and it was a true delight to get to pal around with him for the weekend. Back when I started playing T&T in the early eighties, I would never have believed that now, thirty some-odd years later, I would be gaming and eating breakfast with the game's creator. My weekend with Ken at OSRCon 2012 will always stand as a major highlight of my entire RPG'ing career. 

Thirdly and finally, while this photo at least partially captures these two lads' glee at playing T&T with the Trollgod, it does not fully explain why Chris and I were so enthused. You see, during the session, Chris played an orc who got involved in a shipboard rivalry with another orcish crew member on the riverboat we worked aboard. At one point, Chris decided to teach the other orc a lesson by "accidentally" shoving him overboard and drowning him, and he asked my character -- a human warrior named Hobart the Brave -- to back him up in case he got into trouble. (As I recall, the target of Chris's orc's vengeance had a big orc brother who swore to avenge any foul play visited upon his sibling.) While a bit dubious of Chris' character's motives, Hobart agreed to help his fellow party member, and, when the orc PC's attempt to knock his rival into the river failed -- Chris' character plunged into the water instead -- Hobart leaped into action, faking a stumble and knocking the NPC orc into the river to be killed by Chris' PC. It was awesome, if a little immoral; Chris and I conspired to do something "naughty," i.e., murder an NPC ally, and through teamwork (plus some insanely good die rolling on my part -- best of the session for me) we pulled it off. We laughed quite gleefully after the deed of vengeance was done. I think Ken thought we were bad people after that, but we sure as hell had a great time together.

And that, for me, is what OSRCon is all about: making new allies at the game table with whom to commit somewhat unnecessary acts of violent revenge. Who could ask for more? THANKS CHRIS AND THANKS KEN!

 T&T 7.5 boxed set. (Photo by Chris Cunnington.)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

PK Dick's Indictment of D&D

Does Transcribe the Spawn:

From The Divine Invasion (1981) we have the following for DMs to ponder --

What will become of them now? he asked himself. The people whom he wished to be free. What kind of prison will Belial contrive for them with his endless ability to contrive prisons? Subtle ones and gross ones, prisons within prisons; prisons for the body, and, worse by far, prisons for the mind.

The Cave of Treasures under the Garden: dark and small, without air and without light, without real time and real space -- walls that shrink and, caught tight, minds that shrink. And we have allowed this, Zina and I; we have colluded with the goat-thing to bring this about.

Its release is their constraint, he realized. A paradox; we have given freedom to the builder of dungeons. In our desire to emancipate we have crushed the souls of all the living.

Philip K. Dick