Friday, March 13, 2015

The Find

Let's continue from where we left off with The Search.

First and foremost, I should make it clear that my purpose here is not to write an adventure.  I do have explanations for the various elements that I lightly described in the previous point, but the subject at hand is not the story behind these things.  Any experienced DM ought to be able to create their own 'clues' and the stories behind those clues without needing help from me.  In fact, that is a good exercise - one that I hope some of you have been attempting this past week.

There was a bit of muddy thinking in the comments since Monday.  For example, at no time did I indicate the bubbles rising were anything but ordinary air - of course air is a gas, but when seeing bubbles rising from beneath the surface of a sea, is it at all probable that these bubbles would 'flammable'?  That is wishful thinking in the extreme.

Obviously the metallic taste in the well water is harmless.  A windlass has been built over the well and kept in working condition - one of the points I made earlier indicated that at least one sailor here knows the windlass well enough to know it's temperamental.  Therefore, we know that the well has been used before and probably often.  The taste of metal in water is common throughout the world - the tiniest part per billion will produce a this taste.  Though I would imagine that landlubbers would rush to warn sailors about harmless things all the time - it is what makes landlubbers look so silly.

I see a fairly ordinary approach in playing and campaign running when someone says "I rappel down from above to get a good look" as though this is the simplest thing in the world.  That is because we live in a world where there is always a convenient stone or tree to tie ropes to, or the edges of cliffs above a drop are smooth and polished and in no way likely to cause a rope to fray and break.  I don't blame Shelby for this, the fellow who made the comment - the assumption is always that rappelling down is as easy as pie.  The question is never asked, "Is it possible to rappel down?" because the answer is usually, "Why, of course.  Why wouldn't it be?"

Asking the sailors is a semi-good answer - but there are a number of things they just won't know (as shown below).  Still, it never hurts to try.

I'll forego answering a lot of little questions like, "Can we see the source of the bubbles?" (no) or "What type of tools seem to have been used to work the stone?" (metal ones).  I'll get right to the point and give the backstories to these things, to get them out of the way.  The metal in the well water is a little placer copper that can be found in the bottom, suggesting a mine on the island might be feasible.  The twinkling stones are mother-of-pearl, also a pretty penny if they can be dredged.  The seven-foot humanoid is a triton, a warning to above water persons that the hole in the island below is a burial cave.  The birds get spooked because a giant sea snake swims round the island, below the surface where it can't be seen.  The snake is also the cause of the bubbles.  The moss on the pillars is exactly what Preston guessed - a peculiar species that might have magical application.  The black shape on the islet is a dead giant seahorse, washed ashore and decaying.  The work on the spit was done a generation ago and abandoned because the fellow who wished to settle on the island and make it a going concern was murdered by his wife when she discovered he was running away with his Mistress (a sailor knows the story).  The feeling of unease caused by the natural bridge between the two parts of the island is caused by small tremors that take place regularly in this part of the sea.  The sand in the lagoon is sometimes flat and sometimes rippled because there is a giant crab sleeping in it.

The point here is that the island IS the dungeon.  We have two big monsters, a potential for a number of little ones (there's a boar here, maybe, if the party is low level?), places to walk and explore and get out to.  It's important to emphasize difficulty.  Like the fellow who does try to rappel - we want to point out the lack of a convenient rock or tree and the danger of the sharp cliff face cutting the rope (not just at the top, but at any point where the layers of stone have chipped off) to get down to where the stone has been beaten and polished enough to allow an image to be made.  Only when this is overcome do we want to point out that it's an image of a triton - which can be vaguely determined close up, where the poorly scratched head's shape can be felt, not seen.  Sorry, a glass isn't going to work.  THEN, we need to say to the character, "You have no idea who or what would carve a triton into this stone, here, above the waterline."  Because it is probably the character simply couldn't know . . . not without going to a nearby port town with scholars and asking them about the image on the side of the cliff on the island.

Why would we assume that the characters have any special knowledge of cultural images inscribed on rocks?  Because in the movies, they always do!

My sage tables are designed to solve that problem.  But naturally, we still live in a game world where the first thing is an action (I climb down) and not a thought (do I actually know anything about rock carvings?)

Some mysteries are going to be excessively deeper than others.  Eventually, the party might go and find from an expert about the meaning of the symbol and then decide whether or not to ignore it.  Meanwhile, a totally different party has already tied a rope around a thief's waist (one who can swim) to have him swim down to the bottom of the pool and then follow the tide out along the bottom of the passage with a bucket, finding out there's a whole lot of valuable mother-of-pearl chunks there.

Like any dungeon, a good party investigates everything.

Are there deeper adventures to be found here?  Oh, of course.  After the crab is dead and the sea snake has been either killed or scared off (it would have in excess of 200 hp in my world and would flee once it was reduced to 25% of those - which is fine, as my experience system gives x.p. for damage done and taken, not for kills), there's always the cave where the sea snake lived or the eventual triton raid on the island to 'get rid of the humans' once the party begins mining for copper and dredging up gems.  There are trips to that learned port to gain knowledge about the moss and the triton burial hole and the possible occurrence of a strong earthquake.  Not to mention the arrival of giant birds, pirates, other sea beasts and so on.  We could easily keep a party busy here for months.

That is, assuming we don't make everything easy.  The thief has to nearly drown getting his bucket full of mud and gems; the party has to examine the bucket carefully not to miss the gems; it has to be a point of order if the thief wants to go again, having nearly died the first time.  The party has to think and struggle with each element of the island - while the DM views each feature from at least one more angle than the party does . . . adding more and more features as we go forward.

This is the trick - the feature adding.  The elimination of the 'empty room.'  The recognition that there may yet be one more thing on the island worth finding that hasn't already been noticed.

Supposing, for example, that after the sea snake is gone and the bubbles with it, that now it IS possible to see something down there.  Some kind of . . . is that the wreck of a ship?  With our next post we'll see that it is - and learn where that takes us.


  1. I like your point about the thought following the action rather than the logical pattern of thought first, then action. Sometimes, even getting the action from the players is difficult: when I started DMing they would often roll as they stated what they wanted to do, which I have since stopped (how do you even know you need to roll, hmm?)

    I'm still very curious to see how your sage tables turn out: while D&D can represent the physical actions we take in a fairly straightforward manner - attacking and moving have special considerations; other actions require power (strength), finesse (dexterity) or stamina (constitution) - mental actions can be so tricky since it can feel weird to divorce the player's understanding of the world from their character's, e.g. the player is genre-savvy enough to know something is wrong with the weird idol, but their character failed their wisdom roll and is dancing around with the thing. Another big one is the player wanting to speak one way and their character speaking another (you failed your charisma check, so your rousing speech was interrupted by an uncontrollable moan as your belly rumbles).

    I worry as to how much an action can be determined by a single roll like that, especially given
    a. how knowledge is acquired in real life (every experience yields something new, so maybe characters should instead have an exhaustive list of "Things I Know"?)
    b. how much interaction there is in real life when gaining knowledge or engaging in a dialogue (a teacher can tell you that a statistical distribution has a mean of this value, but if you don't believe them they can derive it, helping your brain along the process of understanding; a person tells you an incredible story and you remain skeptical).

    It seems like there are many degrees to knowledge and decisions in the real world which a die roll cannot fully represent (unless you had multiple rolls?). I've considered various ideas for making this feel less stilted, and I'd be curious to see what you've done in that regard (the Conflict cards seemed like a very fun idea, even if you ultimately didn't end up going with them).

    P.S. Picked up my copy of DFD today! Can't wait to start; I'll leave a review when I'm done.

  2. Tim, a quote from your post:

    "but their character failed their wisdom roll and is dancing around with the thing."

    I assume you meant this facetiously, but I think one of the reasons people are so often distrusting of ability checks, knowledge systems - or the game as a whole, really - is because childish DMs say "oh you failed your roll? Well now you're doing (some absurd thing)."

    I sadly can't think of a single game I've played in where this wasn't considered acceptable practice*. This fucks everything up, because simple player input ("I touch the statue") is translated into bizarre output ("You got a 1 on your Wisdom to know that you shouldn't; you are now dancing with the statue.")

    Often the same thing applies to rolls of 20 but w/ good effects ("You got natural 20 on your Dancing roll and now this guy is your follower" and so on).

    Such shit. I can't abide man-children and this is one of their most annoying conventions. 5% chance of bizarre shit happening is only interesting if you aren't trying to build something larger i.e. a coherent world. But they aren't, are they? 1 is literally "bad luck," not "transform into blithering incompetent."

    *save the games I've run - but I am guilty of not having run for a while, airtight excuses be damned, so I suppose I'm a shit-lord by default for not providing an alternative to the manchildren's games.

  3. Maxwell,

    You may rest assured that I do not apply that convention either - EVER. Say you'll attempt something and fail the roll, the only thing I will say is that you failed. What your character does after not succeeding is NONE OF MY BUSINESS.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly, Maxwell.

    You're not supposed to feel like a game piece when you play; you're supposed to feel like a person. Natural 20s or 1s should never be an occasion to throw that all away and pull some ridiculous game crap.

    The most annoying part is the fact that the player knows very well that you've just made their character an idiot. If there was any suspense before they rolled (say a giant spider is hunting them), and they fail spectacularly, then they don't trust whatever the DM says because the character has been arbitrarily made stupid.

    That said, I did let this form of play go on in my early games, and it was the players' distrust of their natural 1s which provided a healthy epiphany that "make up something crazy" 5% of the time is neither realistic nor fun.

  5. Oh really? Next you'll tell me you've got some crackpot idea to change equipment prices based on the relative local availability of goods and services. It'll never fly, man!

  6. Since we are mentioning fumbles . . .

    If the result is always the same for a given failure - and the players know this in advance and it is not being made up on the spot, then more dice are there to determine the 'embarrasing' result.

    If you roll a '1' on a to hit die in my world, you drop your weapon. You roll another die to determine if the weapon breaks. If it does, it does. That break may have to be explained in different ways (the weapon is lodged between stones and snapped off, the blade turns out to have been badly forged, the weapon has just fallen into the chasm where it is lost forever, etcetera), but the result is the same: the character loses the weapon. Magic weapons have better random chances to survive, but anything can go.

    Then I have the player roll a d8 to see where the weapon falls: 1-2, in the player's own hex, where it can be scooped up again; 3-8, in one of the six surrounding hexes. If the character is aboard ship, and hex number 7 is the sea, well, bye bye weapon.

    It is always, always, always SHIT when the DM makes up anything on the spur of the moment without there being a precedent. What is the number one thing I want to be rid of in the game, forever? DM fiat. DM fiat, DM fiat, DM fiat.

    It's an abuse of power, plain and simple.


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