Tuesday, February 9, 2016

How to Tackle a Dungeon I - First Steps

If you've bought a module from a gaming store lately, you know how much those things can run.  The jumpstart proposal I've made offers the reader a module for only $10 - with 18 pages (about half the number of words of one of my smaller books) of description, discussion and ideas for your campaign.  There's more than a description of rooms and contents - I talk about options to monsters and treasure the reader might apply to different parts of the adventure.  It's meant to inspire as well as describe.

This is the beginning of a series I mean to last three posts (if I get new ideas, it will go longer).  If I had thought of this before writing the Dungeon's Front Door I would have included the content there - but then, we're always thinking of new things.

In scope, it supposes that the dungeon to be tackled is somewhat traditional: a hole in a mountain wall, leading into a series of rooms and levels that go down and down, with monster lair after monster lair to be destroyed and the treasure grabbed.  The suggestions presented in this series would in fact work better for a megadungeon than any other type, because of the ways megadungeons work.
It is also supposed that the players have located the dungeon by chance and have time to investigate it, perhaps learning of it from a local bartender or through some other rumor, perhaps stumbling upon it in the wilderness.  If time is a factor in the campaign, some of the suggestions below may not work.  It would depend how much time the Players' have.  It should be noted, however, that if it is expected that the players would return to town several times in plundering the dungeon and searching for the McGuffin, the following would probably save time.

Finally, this probably won't work for the player's first dungeon.  What's asked for is a little capital to start.  Players in the middle campaign often already have a lot of coin and are off to plunder their next dungeon not for the money but for the adventure.  These players will have the wherewithal to act as I suggest.

The content here is intended for Players, not DMs.  These posts are written to suggest a tactical approach to plundering a dungeon, working in ways that are historically time-tested but which do not ordinarily occur to players.  In more than 30 years of running different sorts of dungeons, I have never had a group of players act in the ways I am about to suggest.

Some DMs will not like these tactics.

Most dungeons begin with the players having an opportunity to equip themselves and prepare.  This usually means buying food, ensuring a good supply of oil, holy water, weapons, extra tools, enough iron spikes, rope and torches . . . all the usual things.  Many parties will consider hiring a few men at arms to hold lanterns, carry booty or manage the horses while the party handles the dungeon proper.

Let's accept that these are all good things, along with whatever else you might bring along to deal with all the obstacles we've met before and that we're bound to meet again.  But I propose that it's not enough.

Suppose we start by gearing up light and heading out just to find where the dungeon is.  We'll say it's in a group of uninhabited mountains, probably near a river (dungeons often have underground rivers that must emerge somewhere and most monsters do need water to live), far from anywhere.  An environment something like this:

Middle of Nowhere
A party can spend a long time hiking over what's shown on the map trying to find a little hole that's only five feet wide, particularly when something like the above is surrounded by plenty of other rivers flowing from out between plenty of other mountains that all look fairly alike.  Months, even.  But DMs usually ache to let us know where the dungeons are so there will probably be clues that let us find the dungeon entrance with a day trip.  So let's say we hike out, find a few pre-made orc trails and learn that the dungeon is here:

That dark patch, a few hundred feet above the river.

So while the DM is pulling out maps and books and organizing dice and getting ready for the first encounter, we say, "Um, we'd like to explore the next valley over."  This valley:

In the ballpark, as it were.

DM:  "Wha -?"

Us:  "We'd like to explore a valley that's nearby, separated from the dungeon by a mountain spur, downstream, about half a mile up from the main river but next to a good stream, on a flat place that has a good supply of trees and brush and is fairly defensible.  A place that's hard to get to from above and from which the access to the river below is narrow.  These are mountains.  Shouldn't be too hard a place to find."

As the DM works this out head-wise we can further outline things we'd like to know.  Are there fish, is there local game, has the dungeon denuded the countryside of these things?  Are there places where the denizens of the dungeon have deforested the area, telling us where they like to go for supplies when not actually in the dungeon?  We'd like to explore a valley that the dungeon inhabitants have left largely untouched.  If there are hatch marks on the trees, it would be nice if these were several months or perhaps a year old.

The DM is bound to hem and haw about these things, attempting to claim there are no such areas near the dungeon.  To this sort of thing we shouldn't even offer an argument.  We should just sit and stare at the DM, together, wordlessly, our eyes conveying our awareness that the DM is being a total dick and that the position is not fooling anyone.  If the DM continues with this sort of reasoning, we should quietly begin packing up our books (not rushing, now), making it perfectly clear that we're not going to let ourselves get pushed around just because the DM doesn't like our perfectly reasonable approach to preparing ourselves for the future.  If we do this very slowly and make no attempt to offer any argument, and the DM does not stop us and recant before we reach the door, then fuck, why are we running in that world anyway?

To move forward, let's assume the DM has ever been in the mountains before and realizes that such places are bound to exist, even if it means exploring three or four valleys to find one.

Very well, let's go back to town.

Yep, that's right.  We will not be taking the dungeon today.

Having settled on the location, let's start gathering the materials to make a base camp.

Everyone does this!  In modern times, big mountains like K2 and Everest have several base camps and rally drivers in various long distance races (the Paris-Dakar, for example, which has moved to South America) establish depot points where supplies of gas and other supplies are bound to be needed.  In the recent past, explorers like Elisha Kent Kane (explored northern Canada and Greenland), Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen and others all set up food and supply dumps that they expected to fall back on in times of need.  Why should we, as dungeon explorers, head all the way back to town for rest and resupply when we can establish a base camp a mile or so away, that we can retreat to or send a runner towards if we need something critical as soon as possible.  It's just smart.

We want a crew of hirelings and soldiers, explaining that they'll be paid well, we don't expect them to have to fight at all and that they're there to establish a solid fortification in the wild in case we're attacked by a raiding party of orcs or other creatures that want our supplies.  It's cutting trees and clearing land, building palisades and brush fortifications, collecting water, fixing strong-points and being on guard in dangerous country.  If someone comes, we'll be ready for them.

Later on, there will be other work to be done, but just now we need about forty or fifty woodsmen, fighters, perhaps a prospector (in case there's something valuable in the valley), a cleric for the men's morale and for healing and maybe a bard as well.  We want the camp to be a friendly, pleasant retreat for ourselves as well as for the men, so long as things don't get raucous - unlikely, if we ensure that a strong Boss is running the camp in a no-nonsense fashion.  In any case, we've chosen the next valley over because the mountain spur and the distance will mask our presence - sound won't carry up and over that mountain no matter how goddamn loud we are.  We could be blasting and the dungeon wouldn't hear us, even if they were sitting on their front porch (which they won't be, because its a gawddamned dungeon).

When the camp is fixed up and properly garrisoned, when the men have had a month in the bush to settle in and get comfortable, when we've sent exploring parties all over every valley within five miles and made maps, then we'll be ready for the DM and the dungeon.

Until then, the DM can wait.




Monday, February 8, 2016

How to Start a Trading Town VII - Dreambuilding

I don't want to draw attention away from yesterday's crowdfunding proposal.  I encourage readers to have a good look at it and to join in.  I've had some great conversations today with some all-in contributors about book characters and whose name might fit best and I've had some first-rate praise for the module: "Shadows?  You gave the furniture shadows?"  It is great stuff.  The reader shouldn't miss out!

At the same time I want to ensure the reader that I am still thinking about the blog.  Do remember that I love to write, it is my most endearing skill.  Where it is lighthearted and conversational, such as on a blog, it's a lot of fun!  So let's finish off the trading town series - but do not worry, I have another series I'm going to start soon that I think players will like very much and DMs, well . . . depends.

We're down to the last question - why go through all this business of making a trading post, despite the adventuring it might bring and the different way it would have of looking at role-playing.  In the end, what has my character won?

Like everything in the game, this depends on how both player and DM sees the final result.  Be sure that some DMs will resent it.  An ongoing trading town takes preparation investment, number crunching, a different way of looking at the game and the need to introduce characters on a regular basis that are much more cosmopolitan and interesting than Zeke the second-rate trapper.  The bigger the town gets, the more employees or sycophants the players are going to collect - carpenters, rat catchers, farmers, bartenders, bounty hunters, wardens, reeves, lackeys, bootlicks, heralds, rent collectors and so on.  Something like this balloons into a large bookkeeping hassle for both DM and player if someone on both sides isn't ready to sail into the job and find shortcuts.

And most DMs will quickly see a very easy alternative to that . . .

When I was a boy and about 40-inches tall, I owned several sets of a sort of girder and panel building set.  Wait, I'll find a picture:



My friends owned legos but I grew up on these.  It's not mechano - these were light plastic sticks that locked together to make cubes that could be built one upon the other.  Like the image in the picture, we built them high; a story of pegs and girders would be about 3 inches high and we built these things up to sixteen stories - taller than we were.

My friends and I would spend all afternoon putting together cities with hot wheel tracks for roads and various other toys and building things.  We were diligent little engineers and we worked like dogs to get those cities built.

Then it would get past four and my mom would shout down the stairs that it was almost time for everyone to go home.  We knew what that meant: it was destroyin' time.

Destroyin' time meant sharing out about a dozen tennis balls and obliterating the hell out of our city.  This was done in a period of mayhem that lasted five minutes and was great fun.  What the hell, we were eight.

Then we'd pick up the shattered remains of our city, pushing it into a pile and loading the sticks and toys into the big trunk where my toys were kept.

It is fun to destroy things.

It is almost as much fun to destroy things as it is to build them - and for some people, if they could just have someone else build the thing, they'd be happy to handle the rest.  These are the people who, when they get older, get a kick out of smashing up the snowmen in front of someone's house.

If we get our trade town built, if we get the buyers in from across the sea and set up the tavern where we'll come home after a hard day's adventuring and kick off our high hard boots and have the bartender call us "Sir," we'll still have to contend with the DM whose imagination will go directly towards the most obvious 'adventure': having someone come along to tear it all down.

Pirates from across the sea, a horde of orcs, angry townspeople from the nearby city who have decided our trading center threatens their livelihood, the Lord's guard who just wants to take it over, whomever.  For most DMs, seeing that pretty map form and take shape, growing into civic buildings, docks, roads and warehouses, it's just too tempting to march an army over it.  It's so easy for a DM to think, "The players will get a great kick out of that!  Defending their homes against savages, that drips adventure!"

Perhaps it might, but it's the sort of adventure players will enjoy on the level of, "Hey, what if a plague attacked the trade town!  That would be great!  The players wouldn't know who was going to die and who wasn't . . . drama!"

We have to be careful going to this particular bag:  if the players bring it down upon themselves, that will tend to play fairly well.  My players once left their territory for 16 months in order to save the life of a friend and associate; when they came back, they found that a passel of goblins and orcs had been built on their doorstep.  Not in their actual keep, mind, but near enough that the players felt they had to go out and destroy the nest before it got any bigger.  The time spent away justified the change and the players were able to prepare for the battle rather than having it forced upon them.

If they had come back to find their home burnt and the goblins living on the site, they probably would have destroyed the goblins, sure enough - and then left.  The imagined idea of "We'll build it up again, better than ever," is probably not the mind-set the DM would get.  More like, "Why bother?"

Introduce a group of pirates come to destroy the player's homes "just cause" and you might as well be throwing meteor tennis balls at the player's work.  When we were kids we destroyed our own buildings - we knew we were building them up to destroy them because we knew everything had to go back into the box anyway when it was time to go home.  It wasn't like my mother was going to let us leave our city up in the rumpus room until the following Saturday.

We don't play by the destroy rules any more.  We can leave the thing up - period.  We can make beautiful renderings of the town we built, make it into posters and keep it in cherished folders or even post them in some out of the way, semi-private part of our man-cave.  We can pull out the sheets ten years from now (I have some I can say are literally 33 years old) and marvel at them, point to things that our friends made and about which we can still remember the friendly banter.

Why dump on that?  Why not, instead, use such an arrangement to build up better adventures?  Sure, it's paperwork, but I think that a DM will find that after the initial pleasure, breaking things down into coins and labor earned per month will satisfy the players.  They don't really want to be accountants.  They just want to feel that the thing is growing, getting better, bringing in people from far away (with plot hooks), bearing books for the library the players are building (books full of plot hooks), enabling the characters to get involved in the local tribulations of administrators (who have plot hooks to offer) or in local wars where strong, able adventurers are needed for the PHSS (plot-hook special services).

Destruction is fun but it lasts such a brief, brief time.  I think that as kids, if we could have had a room in the basement where we could have built and left it in place, we wouldn't have had to build so many versions of the same city every week.  We would have made amazing places that even our parents might have - someday - appreciated.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Jumpstart Proposal

I have a proposition.

At present, I am moving forward on a second draft of my new novel, The Fifth Man.  I have completed the first draft, which is at the moment about 80,000 words.  In addition to rewriting the early middle part of it, I am also working on the early chapters in order to make it available to my editor, who corrects my continuity errors and ensures a good quality product.  This is the same editor I employed for my works How to Run, How to Play a Character and the Dungeon's Front Door.

The novel is a fantasy tale that takes place in an imaginary world called Fallow.  A young man, Herzog, discovers that his father may, or may not, be acting as a traitor against the King of Fallow. 

Throughout the novel, the protagonist is compelled to defend his father, never quite knowing if his father is a traitor or not.  As the plot unfolds, his father seems uncomfortably involved in sedition, espionage, conspiracy and assassination.  As Herzog gets in deeper, he finds himself taking a part in these doings, pressing him to evaluate what sort of man he is becoming.  Not only does the book question whether Herzog’s father is a good man, but whether Herzog is himself. 

Most of my readers know well my skills at piecing together complex ideas in an easily understood and opinion-altering fashion. I have written strong books on role-playing, game design and the art of presentation.  I have put together an ongoing project filled with images and intriguing concepts in the form of a gaming wiki for D&D.  I have written a prolific and community respected blog that will soon be moving into its 9th year. I don’t think anyone who has read my blog, Tao of D&D, believes that I can’t write or create imaginative, believable characters.
It is only that, at the present, I find myself in a position of financial difficulty, making it hard to complete this book I have planned. Therefore, back against the wall, I am turning to my readers to help me get over this troubling time.

In return, I intend to offer rewards to those who would be willing to support me, to motivate readers to back my project. I have given this much consideration and have been careful to choose rewards that will give a personal touch.  These rewards should contribute to the quality of games run by my readers, while not distracting me from the work my novel requires.

My goal is to raise enough money upon which I can live and focus for a three-month period: $6,200. The rewards I’m offering for donations from my readers are as follows (all prices in Canadian Dollars):

  • For $10, I will provide an online copy of my latest gaming adventure, Ternketh Keep.
  • For $15, Added to the above, I will also provide plans to the Airship I've created.
  • For $25, Added to the above, I will also give as a bonus an 80-page preview to my book, no less than two weeks prior to the official publishing date of the novel.
  • For $50, Added to the above, I will handle the purchasing and sending of the book as soon as the book is published.
  • For $75, Added to the above, the copy received by the reader will be personally signed by me, along with a gamer girl t-shirt (as long as supplies and sizes last).
  • For $100, Added to the above, I am prepared to work the reader's name into the novel, promising at least one story significant line (as long as unused characters remain).

I would ask that all donations be made through the donate button found on my blog's sidebar.

Please allow me to share a piece of my project with my community, enabling you to take part in a great experience that will enable me to produce the best of all possible creative works.

See comments below for further details regarding the rewards offered.

Friday, February 5, 2016

One Step Closer

I am steadily outlining the interior of Ternketh, the harpy keep, as a proper module.  I will be making this project available in a short time.

UPDATE:

As promised, I've taken down the teaser that was in this space.  I will be making the announcement on the blog in the afternoon.  I am tidying up details.  I will keep the reader posted.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Greyness

Something a little lighter than yesterday, hm?

I dug through some of my old books yesterday, finding my much abused and long-possessed copy of Keep on the Borderlands.  Reading the opening paragraphs of the introduction, I found the following passage under "Notes for the Dungeon Master."  I presume my readers will be interested:

"The DM should be careful to give the player characters a reasonable chance to survive.  If your players tend to be rash and unthinking, it might be better to allow them to have a few men-at-arms accompany them even if the party is large, and they don't attempt to hire such mercenaries.  Hopefully, they will quickly learn that the monsters here will work together and attack intelligently, if able.  If this lesson is not learned, all that can be done is to allow the chips to fall where they may.  Dead characters cannot be brought to life here!"

Of course they can be according to the AD&D Player's Handbook, but my first run copy of the module does make it clear that the scenario was designed for the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set.

I don't actually have any issues with the argument that we should give the players a reasonable chance, though this varies widely from DM to DM.  Men-at-arms is a good idea, but rather than "give them" I would rather suggest to the party when in town that they might consider it.  Then it is a choice, not the DM deciding that these men-at-arms are going to go along, period.  Nor do I have any problem with the reality that the party may die if they can't learn to work together, as we absolutely expect the monsters will.  So this isn't going to be a rant against Gygax - more's the pity.

What's interesting is the historical perspective here.  We've all followed the so-called Old School Renaissance and that 5e hearkens back to the original game - but in fact many of the sentiments that were inherent in the game have died away.  For many systems, it is so hard to kill the characters that the DM hardly need be concerned with giving reasonable chances.  The balance is nearly always in the characters favour.  It is also far more likely that the DM would give out magic items rather than followers, as these are more reliable and effective.  And certainly the idea of punishing players for bad play has become passe.

The reference here to "rash and unthinking" players relates to players who rush forward into traps or combat, getting themselves into trouble and thus getting killed.  Today, however, "rash and unthinking" is more likely to be applied to characters acting out in a childish manner, killing important characters in the DM's campaign for shits and giggles, lighting towns on fire for fun or otherwise acting like morons.  I rarely see anything about characters who take too many chances in combats since the rules have been redesigned to ensure that if a player rushes his character stupidly into battle, there are plenty of hit points and healing to be had, ensuring the character won't die.  There's no need to warn about that because - except in rare cases - the problem has gone away.

For me, the most interesting part is the assumption that the monsters will act rationally.  Each time in the past few years that I've been able to witness a combat - or see something presented online - the monsters rush in just like the players, so that everyone stands toe-to-toe until attrition finally wins the day (usually, whichever side has the most healing).  Strategy?  Never heard of it.  By transforming magic into a series of blows that work like ranged fighter attacks, all the characters are so similar in combat that there simply isn't enough variation in the participants to make tactical design worthwhile.

This heterogeneity in attack forms is the deepest problem in the present game, as near as I can tell.  Without weakened, nearly dead characters to protect, with missile combat being almost exactly as effective as hand-to-hand, with spells working like fighter blows round after round, the melee found in most games more closely resembles the sort of trench warfare found in World War one than it does the wild free-for-all of former adventurers fighting.  The result seems a degenerative banality.

From what I understand, it would be horribly impractical to add more men-at-arms to the party anyway.  Combat takes so long to resolve that the addition of five or six more figures would grind the momentum into cement sand.  Perhaps this is a reason more magic became standard.

I think we've definitely lost something.  Those old words by Gygax are quaint by today's standards but they reflect a change in attitude that has greatly reduced the threat the game once imposed.

I would suggest for many DMs that they should take steps to greatly minimize the amount of healing available to players, along with cutting down the damage done by missiles and magic, on the argument that characters who aren't risking getting hit shouldn't be able to carry the weight of the combat.  These changes will greatly press the forward troops, making combat more fearful, while reducing the power of those backing up the play.  I would suggest that even if this doesn't seem fruitful, that a test of some kind should be tried.  Seeing the players react to the changes (even if they know they aren't permanent) may tell you a great deal about why your game seems so grey.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Fundamental Needs

This is going to step on my last trading town post.  Therefore, the reader should know that for a bit I'm not going to write about D&D.  If that's not to your taste, go read that other post: it is much more traditional.

Winston Rowntree, Subnormality, Imagine Accepting the Truth


I've been pulling apart the passage above for a couple of days now and I want to talk about it.

I like Rowntree.  He takes a long time between posting his 'comix' and that's fine, because when it comes around it is like publishing a book.  The link to his latest will take a long time to read, I swear it covers about ten thousand words.  It is three interwoven stories and if you're not the sort who can patiently examine why a particular dialogue needs time to develop and get to the point, it really isn't going to be your thing.  It is my thing, however.  When someone tells me on this blog that they read my stuff and they find themselves wanting, this is how I feel about Winston Rowntree.

Even as I'm writing this, I am not certain just now what I want to say about the above.  It is a tiny piece out of the whole text and in some ways it doesn't stand on its own - yet it is also clearly the writer shuffling off the coil of detachment and letting his blood boil.  Some people dislike this.  I love it.  For me, there is no unforgivable or unacceptable way to express a viewpoint, whatever the format.  Those who like to say the author shouldn't "preach" or break the fourth wall are simply pretentious gits who dislike having to hear anyone's voice but their own.  That is why the "special people who all know each other and talk in waves of in-jokes," what I like to call a group of incestuous butt-fuck government grant dependents, have invented the argument that "It isn't what the author is trying to say, it is what I am trying to hear."

That is a big crock of shit.  I've never gotten along with such people.

Writing this post is a way of thinking through the rant.  I often begin on a subject and find my fingers leading me to a thought process that pops into reality out of the blue.  I often rely on this when starting a post.  At least three fifths of the time I have only a vague idea of what I want to write about, feeling sure somehow that the point will crystallize about halfway through - and it almost always does.  Now and then, it doesn't.  Now and then, I don't publish the post.  Sometimes I do anyway.

It's a subconscious-id-muse thing and I'm certain there are good reasons for it happening - like learning to see things in our peripheral vision without looking directly at them.  The brain is such a nifty tool it works on levels we don't directly use or often understand.  Writing for me is a way of tapping into those levels.

This brings me to confidence, in myself and my skillset, something that is central to Rowntree's full story (see, I just had one of those crystallizations, even as I was writing out the sentence).  The rant is delivered to a young woman who is thinking of doing stand-up but hasn't the nerve to try it, delivered by a musician who is struggling with his own art against various obstacles, including his own band's apathy and his acute sense of carrying on a pretense or charade in order to write and produce the music that meets his emotional/intellectual minimum.  Inherent in the rant is a sense of frustration coupled with the outside perception of people that "artists" are this or that, a definition he cannot accept as remotely descriptive of him.  Throughout the story, he's feeling a sense of gentle worship for him and at the same time he's faced with the stark comprehension of being greatly appreciated and admired despite his not being able to transform that honest emotion into the personal need he has to prosper.  He's a bum.  A bum with immense talent and respect from outside, but a bum.

I relate to this character.

This blog is a microphone in front of something I feel strongly about.

I do think this is the greatest job in the world.

I think about my identity a lot, most of all recently.  Step by step, this past year, my back has been pressed up against a wall and more and more this year my identity has been challenged and put in danger of compromise.  I am like that fellow sitting on his bed, the side table drawer open, gun sitting on top of his socks and skivvies, wedged between the change-box and the electric razor he never uses, staring.  Staring and wondering if he would get caught robbing the Kwik-e-Mart if he drove four hundred miles to Louisville in a car he borrowed from a not-that-close a friend from work.  He knows he can't do it, he knows he doesn't have bullets for the gun, he knows in a few minutes he's going to close the drawer and stop having these thoughts and go into his daughter's bedroom and kiss her forehead and not risk ever putting himself in prison, even if it does mean losing the house and moving into his parents' basement with his whole family.  But he keeps staring at the gun because, well, the gun is there and the thoughts are there and they won't go just because he bids them go.

Now, I don't own a gun.  I don't own a car.  I don't live anywhere near Louisville and my side table is a filing cabinet full of old gaming stuff and books.  This is a metaphor.  It is about compromising principles - and how we think about it and how far we'll go in that compromisation, if things don't get better.  It is about shame and what we'll do that breaks our pride, balanced against what we think we deserve and what we'd do to special and rewarded.  By degrees we're all pushed to eat our allotted portion of shit, one spoonful at a time at the behest of those who have power over us.  By degrees we all lower our sense of deserving and our expectation of reward in the face of that.  This is how it goes.

I do recall wanting a clubhouse and I did get that from time to time.  Turning to the theater as an activity would have appealed to my much younger self as a means of being accepted and finding that source of artists and fans engaged in shop talk.  There were moments when that happened, even periods where it was sustained for a while, because I met and associated a group of people who happened to feel similar to me about what drama was about and how hard we were driven to work on it.  None of those things lasted, however, because I'm me and sooner or later the microphone in front of my mouth, expressing my ideas, was going to fuck the people who just wanted to be in a clubhouse sideways.  Even when I was on the inside as an artist I never did embrace the clubhouse because I always, fucking always, got wrapped up in the possibility and the process and the message-making and how hardcore I wanted to make that message happen.  Over and over, every clubhouse I ever belonged to would drive me out for such ideas and that would drive me ever more towards writing, the art I do myself for myself by myself in this room on this keyboard in a silence broken only by the sound of keys.

This intransigence is my identity and it is the thing that makes me worthy of any notice.  It is also the thing that can be compromised, that is being compromised, that can't help feeling the bricks of the wall starting to grind its spine.

Here I am, near the end of this post, mostly on message.  Without a doubt, I am long past the point where I need anyone's licence to express my thoughts; but there is no time in anyone's life where we're certain our thoughts matter.  "Mattering" is key and it's what none of us have control over.  My deepest error in youth - not unique to me - was thinking that I knew what mattered.  An error I am still making.  But hell, all I can do is guess and keep guessing and eventually count on surviving long enough to find the right answer.

If that means making another compromise and surviving a little longer, counting on the next message or the one after that, or the one after that, to hit its mark and so matter, then that is what it means.  It is, as Rowntree says, my fundamental need.

How to Start a Trading Town VI - Where's the Adventure?

There will be some who look at these posts with a doubtful eye, wondering what could possibly be the value in spending all this time accounting for people, money spent, amount of money coming in, keeping track of friends and associates, etcetera.  These have a very good reason to doubt the concept, as I have spoken about it so far.  However, it is always important to remember that in role-playing, 'fantasy' means that we can make the situation whatever we want.

I'm going to write as a DM for a moment, from the viewpoint of what would I do with players if they began setting up a trading town as described.

To begin with, the hinterlands bordering on this trade town are very important.  When the party describes the sort of location they want (empty, with access to other trading towns, on the right sort of coast, at the base of a mountain pass or as a transshipment point on a navigable river), I want to 'sell' them a location the same way a real estate developer would.  Yes, things like the movement of goods, production and the political situation are important - but like telling prospective buyers about schools, I always want to throw in that there are nearby hills or mountains, a virgin forest, nearby zone of absolutely no settlement at all and a nearby village where the leadership is corrupt or desperately needed.  "Oh yes, great location, lots of nearby borderlands and tribal conflict nearby, good places for finding dungeons and monster lairs, easy access to ruined castles, swamps and abandoned temples.  Just the sort of thing for a young party starting out in life!"

If I know my party, I can inveigle them with such enticements, so that while setting up the trading town there are opportunities for a quick jaunt out to the Back Porch of the Flail Snail King before they come back and begin building the tobacco smokehouse.  This allows for plenty of distraction amidst the accounting - so that while in their new settlement, they are thinking of the next adventure and while on adventure they are thinking about how long it will take to get the settlement's tavern up and running.  As the money runs out, they're thinking of adventuring to get a bit more, and as they find the big pile of gold in the Misplaced Tomb of the Barely Remembered Civil Servant, they're thinking of how this is going to pay for the marble stone floor of their new church floor.

The adventure is thus both a relief and a contribution to the building process.  I have found that if I tell a party, "We're going to have an accounting session" every five or six runnings, players are happy to buy goods, discuss plans for something they want to build, ask questions, fill in the blanks on their characters, obtain hirelings, make quick visits to talk to people in town, sketch out future ideas they have with other players and so on.  With everyone talking and addressing these issues, four hours can go by every bit as fast as fighting a host of zombies or harpies.  Admittedly, I have the kind of players who like to talk about the documentaries they've seen since our last running, rather that what the likely results of the SuperBowl are going to be, but I do feel that players will get invested in things they're making the same way I will get invested in a map or some other design I'm working on.

Where I've left off, the next development of the trading town will be to build interest in what we're doing with peoples farther away than the nearby city.  In effect, we've started to build our settlement in the shadow of nearby Athens . . . it's time to do a little exploration into what we might ship in from the islands of the Aegean, the coast of Libya, Italy or the Holy Land.  Suppose we've discovered a small silver mine, so we can be sure of having at least one product that will sell overseas - that will let us go out on another adventure, visiting five or six trading towns in Cyprus, Cilicia, Palestine and perhaps even Egypt.  All this ship travel will need a ship - so that's going to cost, along with the crew - but it's necessary if we're going to buy things out there that will sell well at home.  It will probably be small compared with the immense merchanters we'll encounter.



In the meantime, of course, the ship will get attacked by pirates or sea monsters, there's bound to be some remote island with a good adventure on it, we could get asked to take part in some sort of battle or we could discover a city under seige.

Everywhere we go, we want to be sure to set up an agent who will promote our little settlement, perhaps buy some goods for another journey we could take later (or send a hired captain to obtain for us) and in general spread our names about.  It is going to be a great day when a completely strange ship appears next to our trading town, wanting to investigate us and find out how much they can purchase from us!

We've got to be ready for that day.  That means being goods-poor for a time, steadily piling up more than just bars of silver or the best timber (spars for ships, perhaps, or some unusual wood for furniture/instrument making abroad) that will sit and sit and sit, waiting for the day when that buyer shows up.  All that wealth is bound to encourage someone to try to plunder it - so that's an adventure too, as we test out the quality of our own defenses against an incursion by raiders from land or sea.

There are many opportunities for the players to still make experience and go up levels.  We shouldn't overlook that.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

How to Start a Trading Town V - Transforming Capital

By now in our trade town, we should be running out of capital.  If we're not, we've done something wrong.  We've bought up a lot of land, we've given free beer and food to as many people as we can induce into our settlement, we've been buying up whatever goods they're prepared to give us, we've got projects going like stables, corrals and a road inland, and we need to build a trading post, a chapel and probably some private residences for the party.  For the construction, we've been paying wages - high wages, as we want people to like our settlement and to stay.

If we've still got money at this point, then we're not building enough, we're not acquiring enough land and we're totally failing where it comes to getting the locals to bring us things to buy.  We need to step those things up.  Basically, we need to convert our gold into hard goods, land and people.

It will take time, but we then have to squeeze these things into making us gold again.  We have to get our wage earners onto parcels of land that they will then farm without us having to tell them.  Heck, they will want to farm, particularly if they have families to feel.  Families are our greatest resource!  People with families are stable, they won't rely on risky actions like theft or beggary and they will help defend the settlement if something goes awry.  That's why - even if this sticks a bit in our craw - when the families ask for things like a cleaner town and better governance, we have to give in.

But that's the point.  We've been giving out all this free stuff, being very generous with our money, but now that it's running out we need an excuse to start charging for stuff.  Morality is that excuse.  It's not us, it's the pressure from the upstanding members of the community.  We have to start closing the tavern, we have to start charging a toll on our road, we have to start charging rent on people who don't own property (i.e., those who were too lazy to accept a parcel of land from us).  It is time to take out the trash.  What we want left are those people who work hard, who want land, who see a future and who will take up whatever activity will make us money.

The most practical industrial operations are mining, stock rearing, farming, timber, fishing and simple foodstuffs:  brewing, cheese, salted meat, dried fish, flour and - if we're in the right part of the world - dried tobacco.  We need to settle with the DM what can be grown here and when it should be planted.  Whatever the time line, it's a good time to start earning money.

I came across this on Eloquent, Just and Mighty Death, something to wave in front of the DM's face.
Whatever the time of year, we can start working.

If people all around us are going to start sowing in a month or two, we need to buy as much seed as we can collect.  If it is spring and the lambs are going to be slaughtered, we need to be on the spot to buy that meat at a better price than in town, so that we can butcher it and sell it dear somewhere else.  If it is pruning and weeding season, we want to be using our magic to clear off some prime fields, make some friends, and then spend more time helping out wherever we can (when the magic runs out).  When shearing begins, we want to buy that wool (hopefully, we will have bought our own sheep if shearing will start in a few months).  By the time the harvest comes in, we need that mill and granary built - and then a bakery so we can transform that raw material into something that will bring in a better price.  Whatever the time of year, we have to find a way to make money from it - while planning for the next year, when our own crops will come in, when our own livestock will give birth to lambs, when our own fields will need the birds obliterated.

So the plan is to take advantage of whatever industry others are taking part in today while planning to be part of that process next year.  We always need to keep an eye on the future, stock up what we have and find ways to turn that collection of materials into better materials and ultimately cash.  That's our goal.  Real trade starts when we ourselves are manufacturing and moving the product out, not to the locals but to others far afield.  We need more capital than we've ever dreamed of having because eventually, those people far out there, across the water, across the mountains, are going to start showing up with caravans full of stuff for us to buy from them.  When we can channel that distant produce through our pockets, well, then we're set.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Ternketh VI: The Mess

This post will wrap up the events from Saturday night's running.  The remaining characters below ground have opened the door the harpy is certain to have gone through, and discovered more zombies:

Only three characters: Demifee, Holly & Sharper.

I'm sorry I didn't get a screen shot of this before the fighting began.  This is just two rounds into the combat.  Sharper opened the door on the top right, surprised the zombies (the third time in a row I rolled a two or less for surprise!) and rushed in.  It took a round for them to get into position.  Demifee leapt on the table (easy, as she had the bench to step on) and hit the one zombie for three damage.  Holly then hit the other for six and Sharper ran along the benches and missed.  The zombies attacked back, hitting Holly for not enough to stun and two of them smacking Demifee around for 10 damage - enough to stun her.  This is where the running finally ended (this was the last combat round I ran).

I want to remark on how my bad luck will seriously affect the party's game.  I can set up really cruel and miserable monsters, but if the party comes into the room and I consistently roll that the monsters are surprised, then lose initiative to the party after that, I'm giving two free attacks to the party every damn time.  This gives them enough starting hits to cause the enemy to be more easily stunned, letting the party walk through tough monsters even though they do have heavy hit points.

I don't mind.  As I always say, I'm not invested - if the party gets lucky, good!  The risk going in was the same - it isn't the party's fault if I have a pair of threes when they pull a full house.  I know that there are DMs who will shift and re-balance the adventure as their luck proves to be bad, but I think this is wrong.  The party ought to be rewarded for good luck just the same as if their luck is bad and mine is good.

This is a full dungeon and there are plenty of opportunities for my luck to change.  I don't believe in empty dungeon room after empty dungeon room; thus I build my monsters so that I can attack the party again and again with something, even if that something is so minor it's only good for attrition.  Attrition counts!  When the party comes to the end of the combat, having already expended their healing powers (oh my gawd, I'm not talking about the ridiculous pathfinder/4e healing bullshit here), all I want is for them to pause before finally being faced with the big bad.  Attrition throughout the adventure will make a big, big difference when the end game comes around.

I'm surprised that many DMs don't seem to get this.  Minimalizing healing is a huge part of the game.  How can the players possibly give a crap about characters who more closely fit the Wile E. Coyote stereotype (can take damage endlessly with no effect) and not John McClane?  When they get to the end, we want their characters bleeding, limping, sore, broken and tired; not with every hair in place, strolling in without a care.  How is it that the same fanboys who bitch endlessly about a scar that was obtained in scene 23 is now missing in scene 24 want to run characters who do the equivalent of rushing off to the make-up trailer before having to fight the big bad?

Anyway, the benches in the above image are all original work - and like everything else in the dungeon, they're interactive.  Some might have noticed in this series that several of the chairs have been moved around as necessary, for characters to get past.

Here's a shot of all the underground in one picture, showing how much was explored and where the characters are now in relation to each other:

As of Saturday, Jan 30, 2016

If anyone wants to see any of these features close up, let me know and I'll post them on the blog on on twitter, whichever is easier.  For those who don't know, my twitter is @Tao_of_DnD.  For example, here's a look at the crossbowman Fehim who is up in the keep's yard:

I really, really like how sharp I've made the crossbow.


Ternketh V: Zombies Below

The party down below has lost track of the harpy.  Olie, the thief who was charmed, has gained control over himself again and chosen to open the door across from that the harpy left (but through which the harpy definitely did not exit).

This has revealed two more of the same zombies (again, surprised).  The party has rushed into the room to kill them. The room has small pieces of broken glass and cups, suggesting it was a sort of 'tavern' - but the zombies shuffling through the room have shoved these things to the corners and out of the way.  Incidentally, there's not much dust in the keep, either - the zombies make good housekeepers.

The back party has gotten jammed in the small room, where Holly, Sharper, Demifee, Taver and Mazonn (a non-level man-at-arms) are bottled up.  Sven, at the bottom, is breaking open the chests to see what's in them.

The two zombies are basically just a distraction.  There's a certain logic for their being here - the harpies are forever opening doors and now and then a zombie leaks in.  They're not much of a threat to the harpies, who can just rush past them fast enough not to be attacked (and a harpy can generally make quick business of a zombie, if necessary).  For the adventure's purpose, two zombies serve as both an opportunity for me to sap a few hit points and to keep the momentum going.  A few x.p. for the characters doesn't hurt either, though with these higher level characters it doesn't mean much.

Rooms like these are easy to create - I already have a table and chairs, so I can make as many rooms as I need by just duplicating previously created items.

Anyway, the party did destroy the first zombie quickly.  On the left, Maze the 1st level cleric has already hit the other one.

They can't quite see around the hallway's corner, so that has been left blacked out on the map.

Again, this represents the furthest these characters reached with this running.  The players do seem to be happy, however, even with this slow movement.  They have a lot of questions about what they're seeing - and yes, they are being cautious.  It has taken a little more than three years of real time for Olie to reach 8th level as a thief.  He definitely doesn't want to lose that, nor the henchmen he wouldn't be allowed to keep.

It's worth noting that not everyone chose to come after these zombies.  The party has split again - and I'll deal with the rest of them on another post.




Ternketh IV: Zombies in the Yard

Vlad opens the door:


Upon seeing a greenish-yellow zombie, Vlad the ranger rolled a 1 for his own surprise and was thus unable to close the door again.  Thankfully, the zombies were surprised also, so after a one-round lull the battle resumed in the doorway.  These zombies are not undead (but the party, surprisingly, hasn't figured out yet what they are, so no giving it away!).

It was something of a surprise.  The party was expecting harpies, of course - but I figure, the keep has been abandoned for about three years and the harpies have been fouling the place up.  There's bound to be some kind of toxic growths in the place, giving plenty of opportunity for other monsters than harpies (it's always good to change up a dungeon, not just give the same monster over and over).  I have other surprises laying in wait for the party.

A few game details.  One thing I really like about using publisher to run my combats is that I can put notes right on the map as the combat is going on.  This zombie has been hit for six points but not killed (they have a random 2d8 for hit dice).  The party can look at it during the combat, see which zombie was hit and for how much, allowing them to plan their round-to-round tactics.  The red circle is for me, to remind myself that this zombie was stunned in the previous round and therefore won't be doing anything this round.  The other zombies will move around it accordingly - and when the zombie round is over, I will remove the symbol.

This is marvelous for keeping track of twenty or thirty enemies that have all taken damage.  For the most part, I don't write down how many hit points any of the monsters have, even after I roll their hit points out.  If there aren't many monsters, I memorize the total hit points, subtract in my head and if stunning occurs.  I remember clearly that this zombie had 8 total hit points (it was killed soon after).

If I'm dealing with a LOT of monsters, for sometimes I have combats with up to forty or fifty opponents, and I forget the number of hit points a given monster has, then I can use the number on the map as a guideline.  For example, since this zombie wasn't killed by 6 damage, it must have somewhere between 7 and 16 total hit points.  I can simply roll 2d8 again, more than once if necessary, producing a new hit point total for the next damage taken to be measured against.  Most likely, the zombie will be killed by another blow or at least stunned again (since stunning is based against the zombie's present hit points, not their original total).

Not having to address something written down on paper helps clear my desk, eliminates any need for a screen to keep back info from the players and as I say, the number on the actual game map improves the player's awareness of what's happened and what they've done.  They can then attack injured creatures to get rid of them, rather than wasting their attacks on fresh targets.

In the images above, and below, the circular staircase and the zombies are my own work.  I couldn't find any good example of the sort of zombies I wanted, so I had to make my own.  They are fashioned from several mixed color layers and then a shadow is added (nicely scary, I think).

The party fought back the zombies in short order (I rolled low hit points for these creatures and they're not very powerful, even for low level characters):


In fact, the party had a series of beautiful hits and no misses, killing four zombies in one round.  This drove the zombies right back to the stairs, until Roma (in the front) dropped his spear.  That's represented as an arrow on the ground to his left.

The small blue symbol next to Sunsky indicates that his bow is loaded - he didn't have a chance to fire it, however, as the party destroyed the zombies.  Again, such little symbols help keep track of things.  For casting spells, which in my world can take a round or more, I use a little green circle.  If a crossbow is being loaded, I will use a small blue circle for each round - thus a heavy crossbow can be fired after three circles have been added to the character's hex.  The same with spells, as the higher level spells can take two or more combat rounds to load in my world.  This system helps limit a wizard's power.

There are yet zombies filling the stairs down, so this combat isn't over.  As far as the game on Saturday is concerned, however, this is as far as the party in the yard got.  It was 11 p.m. and we called it.

Four and a half hours goes by so fast.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Ternketh Part III: Trying Doors

While part of the party is exploring the guards' quarters, Vlad, the 1st level ranger and new guy in the party, decided that he would take the lead with that party still in the keep's yard.  First, he tried the door on the left side of the gate (the guards' quarters were found by going through the right side door).  It is possible to see both doors in the image I posted up front on this post.

The left door also led to stairs, and these into an armory:


Except for the walls, the doors and the floor, the tables and stands are definitely dundjinni - weapons.  It was easy to grab them and I really didn't feel like spending an hour making images like these for a room that was empty (no monsters, note).  If I hadn't had the pirated images, I probably would have gone with some self-designed tables and racks, empty, then relying on my saying "the tables are full of stuff" to carry through the imagery.

Still, I suppose that the images here worked, because Vlad becomes apprehensive about the room and it's five doors (though he probably couldn't actually see the one on the bottom right from the stairs) and he backed off.  He could have pulled down about nine people to help him out but he didn't.  Instead, he reclimbed the stairs and decided to go across the yard, to try the door connected to the central 30 foot wide cross-shaped tower in the middle of the keep:

Player characters include Vlad; Woodsoul, 4th level druid;
and Sunsky, 1st level fighter.  Followers include Marcus, Attaman, Fehim &
Calim, all 1st/2nd level fighers; and Jonida, a 17-year-old combat trained friend.
Minka, Nasee, Roma and Jafar are all non-level men-at-arms.

Note that Vlad closed the door to the armory but the door to the guards'
quarters is still open.
From the list of participants, it's easy to see there are a lot of people, but not much power.  For some reason, the party (despite a lot of chatter) never did logically sort themselves out into well-divided groups.  Basically, the higher levels rushed down into the guards' quarters and the back pile sort of got bored and decided to see what they could do while waiting to follow.  The above image is just before Vlad reaches forward to open the door and find out what's there.

I did mean to make a point about doors.  Here's a close up shot of the two kinds of doors I designed for the keep:

one hex = 5 feet

The heavier door with the larger handle is the reinforced door; the other is just an ordinary door, the kind that can be easily kicked in.  Neither door has a latch.  Not depicted would be the brace that could be used to keep the reinforced door closed (slips into the wall).  Both these doors were easy to make, but took me a lot of experimenting over several years to see how to do it easily.

When I first decided I was going to start drawing my own stuff, I was totally shit at it.  But I kept at it, knowing that having the visuals was going to make a big difference to the party's immersion.  So I kept trying new things, kept playing around, learned more about textures and how the publisher program works and took lots and lots of ribbing from players as they described my bears as bats or my chairs as bugs.  Art, like all things, takes time.  It is worth the time.  After all, a company like dundjinni can only provide so many things and they can't make something that's precisely what I need for a given scene.