Monday, April 30, 2012

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

Looking back, I am coming more and more to admire Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and I am grateful for having a nearly compete collection of the second edition. I came a little too late in the game to get into the first edition (although I do own it, and the major campaign arc The Enemy Within), but I found the second edition to be an excellent game. I think that version was incredibly conscious of the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which was admittedly the three hundred pound gorilla in the 10'x10' room in 2005. The result is a game that parallels the competition in clarity and internal symmetry, but one that takes an entirely different path in terms of player power and goals. Sure, WFRP characters do become more powerful, but not particularly offensively (as D&D characters might), but rather defensively. WFRP characters become more scarred, thick-skinned and tougher through their travails. The goal of a WFRP character is not power. It is that faint glimmer of hope: that drive to survive the short and brutal affair that is medieval life in the Old World. It is a seemingly small difference, but it makes a fantastic contrast from the Dungeons & Dragons experience.

And, for your entertainment, here is an illustrative example of the same scenario being played out in each game:

Dungeons & Dragons
The players hear of an old barrow tomb in the mountains above town. They trek up to it the next day, disarm their way past traps, fight through rooms of skeletons and ghouls and pry open the sarcophagus. They grab the coins, treasure and magic sword inside, but not before the remains rise to attack them as a lich. They lose a henchmen in the fight and go back to town victorious, throwing a party with the villagers.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
The players hear of an old barrow tomb in the mountains above town. They trek up to it the next day and find the old tomb half-buried in earth and vines. They find the chamber sad and empty, and pry open the lid to reveal the remains of an ancient barbarian queen and her child. Overcoming any moral qualms, they grab the only item of apparent value (a deteriorated ancient necklace) and shuffle back to town. Unable to find an interested buyer, and worried the jewelry might be cursed, the players toss the necklace into the town well and go back to the inn. That night, a banshee appears in town and leaves a wake of murdered children. The locals gather into an uncontrolled mob to find the culprit, but accidentally chance upon the midnight rituals of a local cabal of cultists (including the mayor's secretary and the local baker—come to think of it, his Monday meat pies did taste a little strange...). The mob breaks out into a full scale riot, half the town burns down and the players are rounded up the next day, tried as witches and hanged.

Friday, April 27, 2012

My Variant of Searchers of the Unknown

Like the regular Searchers of the Unknown, but faster paced, so that you can start the first session in Quasqueton and be in Erelhei-Cinlu by the fifth!

Build PCs
Roll 1d3. Create that many PCs.

1) Choose an armour
No Armour (AC 9)
Leather armour (AC7)
Chainmail (AC5)

Plate mail (AC 3)
(Shields reduce AC further by -1)

2) Roll for hit points
1d8 per level (HD). So, 1d8 for a PC starting at level 1.

3) Choose three weapons, or two weapons and a shield
Small weapon (d4 damage, dagger or sling)
Ranged weapon (d6, bow or crossbow)
Melee weapon (d8, mace or sword)
2-handed weapon (d10, greatsword or polearm)

4) Choose a name and a description
Choose a race, like human, dwarf, hobbit or elf (it has no rules effect, but it adds to the fun in the game). Imagine what he was before becoming an adventurer. Your PC is ready.

Example of a character sheet: Eustace the Useless (AC 5, HD 3, hp 14, Dmg 1d10 with voulge).

1) Initiative: Each one rolls 1d10+his AC. The best score has initiative, then each one attack in descending order. So a lighter fighter has better chances to strike first.

2) Movement: Your movement rate equals your AC in tens of feet (indoors) and tens of yards (outdoors).

3) Attack: roll 2d6. If the score is under your opponent AC + your own level, it's a hit. If the score is equal to or less than your level, you may attack again.

4) Damage: When you hit an opponent, roll the damage (Dmg) dice. Deduces the result from your opponents hit points (hp). At or below 0, monsters are dead, and PC's are knocked out. Monsters could kill them easily, but they won't. Instead, they keep them as prisoners. This is just more pulp-like.

5) Rest and bandages: After that, all hit points (hp) are restored back their initial score. After all, hit points reflect the capacity to escape or stand hits. If a PC has been sent below 0hp, he may needs a longer rest, or even healing magic like a potion of healing), because he’s wounded.

PC's gain 1 experience point for amusing the referee. After defeating monsters, each PC gains experience points equal to the highest single monster's HD minus their own level. A new level is gained when they accumulate experience points equal to the square of the next level (4xp for Level 2, 9xp for Level 3 etc).

Based off of Nicolas Dessaux's Searchers of the Unknown.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Dungeon Mono-Tables

Inspired by Jeff's vertical geomorph Castle Dundagel (an idea I have also been thinking of lately) and the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, I have sketched out some mono-tables for random dungeon encounters. Similar to the critical hit charts in DCC, simply roll on the encounter table with a die type determined by the dungeon level being explored. These levels are as follows:

Wilderness ~ Roll 1d6. The wilderness is 83% empty.
Environs ~ Roll 1d7. The environs are ruled by bandits, 71% empty.
Ruins ~ Roll 1d8. The ruins are contended ground, 62% empty.
Level I ~ Roll 1d10. Level I is contended ground, 10% treasure, 10% traps, 50% empty.
Level II ~ Roll 1d12. Level II is ruled by humanoids, 8.3% treasure, 8.3% traps, 41% empty.
Level III ~ Roll 1d14. Level III is ruled by the undead, 14% treasure, 7% traps, 33% empty.
Level IV ~ Roll 1d16. Level IV is ruled by the undead, 12% treasure, 12% traps, 31% empty.
Level V ~ Roll 1d20. Level V is ruled by the giants, 15% treasure, 10% traps, 30% empty.
Level VI ~ Roll 1d24. Level VI is ruled by the dragon, 16% treasure, 13% traps, 29% empty.
Level VII ~ Roll 1d30. Level VII is ruled by demons, 16% treasure and 13% traps, 23% empty.

Encounter Table
1-5 No Encounter
6 Monster
7 Bandits
8 Humanoids + Roll Again
9 Treasure + Roll Again
10 Trap
11 Humanoids
12 Monster
13 Undead
14 Treasure + Roll Again
15 Undead
16 Trap
17 No Encounter
18 Treasure + Roll Again
19-20 Humanoids + Roll Again
21 No Encounter
22 Treasure
23 Trap + Roll Again
24 Dragon
25 Undead
26 Trap
27 Treasure + Roll Again
28 Demon + Roll Again
29+ Demon

When an encounter is indicated, simply roll the same level die on the specific encounter table. I've left the tables for Treasures, Bandits and Demons open for the judge to design. Unlike the other tables, they should be unique, with entries crossed off after they are rolled, signaling the party's progress through the dungeon. The dragon doesn't have a table, as there is only one dragon (although an extra table might indicate if he is sleeping or not).

1 Alarm (roll on humanoid)
2 Net Trap
3 Bear Trap
4-5 Spear Trap
6 Collapsing Ceiling
7-9 Pit Trap
10 Laughing Gas
11-12 Arrow Trap
13 Crushing Walls
14 Sleep Gas
15 Pit Trap full of (roll on undead)
16-17 Poisoned Darts
18-19 Pit Trap full of water
20-23 Spiked Pit Trap
24-25 Poison Gas
26-27 Spiked Crushing Walls
28-29 Cave-in
30 Dimensional Door

1-3 Kobolds
4-5 Goblins
6 Gnoles
7 Bugbears
8-10 Orcs
11 Orcs + Roll Again
12 Half-Ogres
13 Cavemen
14-15 Ogres
16 Ogre Magi + Roll Again
17-19 Cave Giants
20 Giant King + Roll Again
21-24 Trolls
25-26 Duergar
27 Drow
28 Cyclops
29 Roll twice more, first roll are slaves of second roll
30 Ancient Alien

1 Giant Boar
2 Wolves
3 Bear
4-5 Rat swarms
6 Giant centipedes
7 Giant rats
8 The Owlbear
9 Stirges
10 Green Slime
11-12 Stirges
13 Gelatinous Cube
14 Yellow mold
15 Giant Centipedes
16 Insect Swarm
17-18 Giant Spiders
19 Cave Bears
20 Giant Lizards
21 Giant Lizards driven by (roll on humanoid)
23 Beholder
24-25 Basilisk
26 Deep Horror eating (roll again)
27 Hydra
28 Black Pudding
29 Giant Cobra
30 Titanic Worm

1-3 Ghouls
4-8 Zombies
9-12 Skeletons
13 Carrion Crawler
14-15 Wights
16 Lich
17 Wights
18 Plague Zombies
19-21 Zombified... (roll on humanoid)
22 Ghost
23 Vampire
24-25 Wraith
26 Banshee
27 Zombified... (roll on humanoid)
29 Undead Wyvern
30 Giant Skeleton

VoilĂ , one complete dungeon! Let me know what you roll up.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Summoning All Readers

So! I've been thinking again of changing the format of this blog. Life, inexorable creature that it is, has once again imposed its will upon me, and I won't have all the free time to write long articles as I previously had. My original goal with this blog was an online repository of articles from my own, developing thinking on game theory and design. I meant for every article to be excellent, or at least useful, and to be written entirely at my own pace. The layout of the website was meant to have minimal distraction to focus the reader on the text. To be honest, I never really expected to have a readership, and thus I never really wrote my articles with the reader in mind.

Now then, dear reader,what do you think? I am considering switching to a more stream-of-conscious approach (closer to the Gameblog than Grognardia). Shorter articles, more to the point, more comfortable style. I also may end up starting a new blog, so as to preserve this one. Please do provide your feedback and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Dwimmermount is a classic dungeon in every sense. The preview for backers of the Kickstarter has a first level that feels both formal and archetypal, yet also lavishly rich in atmosphere. There is a strange mixture of James' staid writing style and the moody ambience that quickly coalesces around the dungeon environs. His writing is effective, and creates a gloomy picture of a ruined hall, with walls and floors now too inert and mute to tell all of their stories.

As James' promises elsewhere, these rather mournful early hallways and chambers will eventually give way to something much stranger. From that discussion, and James' interest in planetary fiction, deeper levels will seemingly take a dip towards period science fiction with Burroughs et al. While it may be judging a book by its cover, from the early drafts I expect the resulting product wil be a well-woven and meticulous classical dungeon, full of ambience and character, with a few twists and turns towards the finale.

In that same discussion, James has expressed interest in using Dungeon Crawl Classics with Dwimmermount. While this is also my current game of choice, the more I read it, the less I am convinced that DCC is well suited by a megadungeon. One of the early design goals was that DCC was not D&D, and would not follow the same path that D&D took. DCC cleaves closer to pulp 1970's science fantasy literature, whereas Dungeons & Dragons became beholden to its wargaming roots. The dungeon is well designed for the later style of play, with gritty room-to-room warfare and strategic exploration and conquest of different zones.

In contrast, Dungeon Crawl Classics seems (perhaps ironically, given its name) better suited for episodic play typical of pulp novellas and the short stories found in the back of cheap science fantasy rags. DCC personas do not fight for every inch of ground with an army of henchmen, but rather they go on flashy capers, discover horrible secrets and fight gross-out final bosses.

This style is well supported by the panopoly of modules Goodman Games has lined up, but I am wondering how it would look for novice judges trying to prepare their own material. The approach I have been taking lately is similar to the method I used in an unpublished homespun roleplaying game a while back. I would build a somewhat self-contained locale (called a "setting") and come up with 2 to 6 major spots in the location (called "scenes"). Scenes were evocative locations where significant story encounters would occur (thus, extraordinary events would never happen in ordinary places, and vice versa). Different settings would be connected in a web geography according to how the narrator expected the plot to unfold (and later, redrawn according to how the plot would actually unfold). Settings themselves would be given brief and colourful descriptions, which would help the narrator improvise.

Thus, the city of Swampgut (setting) could be connected to Cairnlands (setting), which would be connected to Blagga's Hold (a setting, with the descriptors: "crumbling for centuries," "dry mud-walls," "red qwartz canyons," "ant-hole hallways" and "dry creekbed"). Once the characters beat a certain number of the scenes in Cairnlands, they could cross from Swampgut, through Cairnlands and to Blagga's Hold. The latter might have four scenes, including "last standing guard tower" (bird's eye view, crumbling steps, massive bonfire, Blagga's spy-falcons), "Blagga's Harem" (deep in the bowels of the fortress, eunuch guards, debauchery, brazen idol, Blagga's platform, poor acoustics), "black pit" (thousands of feet down, lightless warrens, lurking minotaur, sandy arena) and "master kitchen" (hundred cooks, strange meats, massive hearth, hanging pots and pans, chaos and clamor).

How the players interract with such a setting is freeform, and the judge is encouraged to briefly describe otherwise uninteresting travel. The characters could sneak around the creekbed, find a secret entrance in the wall, and creep through winding warren-like halways until they find a peephole that spies into the harem (ahem, to overhear the infamous Blagga's plans, of course). Once the players goals were sufficiently achieved (or failed), the setting would be expended and the story would advance. For settings that are pure obstacles (like the aformentioned Cairnlands), the narrator may require a certain number of scenes to be beaten to open up further settings.

This is a quick way to sketch out a basic map of the story, but it is still flexible to be modified on the fly. By focusing on dramatic moments and places, such a campaign would feel more pulpy and narrative, which can be scaled back according to the tone the judge would like to set. This approach de-emphasizes mapping, tracking of time and supplies, and the general inertia of traditional exploration. This does not provide an actual plot, however, and I hope to touch on a few tips for adventure design in the near future.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Player-Facing Initiative

There is a nice effect that goes along with keeping monsters mechanically freeform. From planning to implementation in the campaign, such enemies remain open-ended in the minds of both the judge and the players. The unknown shifts from simply "what the players cannot see behind the judge's screen" to the unknowable, as it draws from the vague and unthought potential of the judge's ongoing process of imagination and reimagining. Such monsters are free to continually evolve with the world as it is explored by the players, and are infinitely malleable to the twists and turns of plot that are inspired during play.

Dungeon Crawl Classics supports this, and goes so far as to say that monsters and players are not equivalent, and that they do not play by the same rules. This is a refreshing break from other games that try to "stat-out" monsters in terms of player-centric mechanics (giving them levels, classes, feats, skills and so on). Instead of these constraints, monsters are completely unfettered by design limitations, and are freeform enough to allow the judge to continually present them in new and unexpected ways (this is also encouraged by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, I have heard).

Even on a small scale, it is nice to break the symmetry between players and monsters. In the spirit of Robin Law's innovative GUMSHOE system, I have been thinking of using more player-facing mechanics with my world. This sets up monsters and players not as equivalent pawns in a wargame, but rather monsters are just part of a rich environment that players must struggle against. By leaving monster ability and behavious nearly completely undefined, the game simply feels more narratively oriented.

As a concrete example of this, I am strongly considering dropping traditional initiative rolls in combat. The systems that we have come to recognize (group initiative or individual initiative, rolled at the beginning of combat or each new round) are simply not tied to the narrative of the battle at all. For the most part, they are highly random, disconnected from the actions of the combatants and (perhaps with the exception of group initiative) discouraging of cooperative actions. Instead, I am proposing that all combatants describe their actions at the beginning of the round and, if any actions conflict, the player must dice their initiative against a (10 + Monster's Init. Modifier) DC in order to get his action off first. If the sequence of actions is obvious (i.e. ranged attack versus melee attack), no dice are needed.

For example, if a second level warrior (Agility 11) was going to hack an Android (Init. -2) in the Denethix sewers, and the Android was going to toss the damsel he is carrying over his head into the incinerator, the warrior dices 1d20+2 versus DC 8 to see if he makes it in time. The same would go if the Android was going to attack the warrior (to see who gets to roll their attack first).

This nicely mirrors Robert Fisher's advice, and keeps the actions of opponents fairly inscrutible. Monsters fall into the greater narrative backdrop, and are struggled against for narrative goals. Such player-facing mechanics ultimately make opponents less like discrete actors, and more part of the rich environment.

Saturday, April 14, 2012


Dungeon Crawl Classics has got me thinking about monsters lately. Like the Random Esoteric Creature Generator, the maxim of DCC is that no encounter with an enemy should be the same. Monsters are aliens, outsiders, and the demons of folk lore. They do not play by the rules of nature that bind men and earthly creatures, nor do they come in the familiar forms and images that mortals are accustomed to witnessing. There is a revulsion and fear of the monstrous that goes beyond pointy teeth and sharp claws to something deeper—something automatically rejected by the human psyche.

J. E. Holmes' version of Basic Dungeons & Dragons came the closest to representing this in play. That humble booklet had a dizzying four score monsters, only the first third of which would even make for a fair fight against beginning characters. As has been discussed elsewhere, the peculiarities of the Holmes edition imply an entirely different style of play than later versions of the game, where heroes approach the unknown with far more caution than bravado.

The Dungeon Crawl Classics book calls to the reader from the same mythos, and provides potent support for making an encounter with the monstrous truly weird (including custom charts and tables for humanoids and undead, and random generators for dragons and demons). Lately, however, I have been thinking, "why not go one step further?" What if one were to drop humanoids entirely? What would a world look like, if the only enemies were humans, the undead or the truly hideous and solitary things dreamt up by the Random Esoteric Creature Generator. Heroes would no longer be paired up against equal numbers of opponents, as if combat were merely sport, but would be truly afraid at the discovery of a new fiendish, unknown and threatening being. I want to be there at the table when a new player asks, "Why is this forest crossed off on the map?", only to receive the answer, "The eyeball beast is there. We don't go there anymore."

This attitude towards play is nicely reinforced by DCC's experience point system as well. Interestingly, monsters are not given any challenge rating or experience point total. In fact, there is absolutely no way for a novice judge to estimate the danger a monster poses to the party ahead of actually throwing it at the players. Experience reward is only determined retroactively (one, two, or up to four points), according to how much the players struggled with the encounter. While narrow-minded referees may balk at this innovation, it is actually an incredibly elegant system which breaks the bad habit of thinking of monsters as having some intrinsic point value. The result is far less bookkeeping, more accurate rewards and monsters that are free to be, well, monstrous. After all, if all encounters are scaled to player power and monsters are not allowed to run amok and put the party to flight fully half the time, the literary concept of monster sort of loses its purchase and the game descends into boredom. Humanoids are just one branch of this problem, as they tend to be narratively predictable and mechanically equivalent to the player characters. A world without them is a world of the unknown, something that players can truly be afraid of.

Appendix M: Extra Monsters
Ghost — Nine foot tall, bipedal outsider. Seen indistinctly from the corner of the eye, and invisible, immobile and incorporeal if looked at directly. The Ghost appears to not have a side or back, but is always facing its prey. A silicon based entity, coated with long, dark brown quills. Believed to have only two arms, each ending in 13 to 17 claws. Complexion is a shadowy void marked by two sparkling ochre eyes. Special powers: Transfixing gaze (only when seen in from a reflecting surface), perfect silence, regeneration (with consumption of bloody flesh).

Small, young dragon (13 years). HD 5 (10 HP), Spd 40', poison breath (Fort vs 15, save or die, 1/day), AC 16, 2d20+8 (claw/bite). Ventriloquism (cast at 1d20+2), Hypnotic stare (Will vs 15), Clear passage through vegetation, copper-coloured, chaotic. (Randomly generated from the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game.)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Admiring the DCC Warrior

So it has been a few days since the pre-order electronic copies of the Dungeon Crawl Classic Roleplaying Game went out. With some time to really let the game sink in, I have been coming more and more to admire the Warrior class. For those who were not fortunate enough to preorder, DCC has seven roles to select from: Cleric, Thief, Warrior, Wizard, Dwarf, Elf and Halfling. The Warrior is DCC's answer to the swordsmen and champions of fantasy literature previously described by the Fighter of Advanced Dungeon & Dragons.

Of course, that class was always rather lumpy and assymetrical in power and ability at different levels—something which you either loved or hated. This created a marked difference in the feel of low-level play (characterized by extreme lethality) and high-level play. With mundane armaments, a first level fighter would likely die upon his first wound. By ninth level, the same fighter would withstand nine or more wounds from an equal opponent. While toughness progressed linearly, the ability to inflict harm did not. The attempt to bridge this gulf in low and high-level play came to one extreme in Dungeon & Dragons 4th Edition, which made the relative deadliness of combat scale perfectly over all 30 (!) levels. Without a doubt, this was even less satisfying than the gap of previous editions, as now nothing changed at all as characters gained experience and supposedly progressed.

I was curious if the new Warrior of Dungeon Crawl Classics had addressed this issue, so I decided to crunch the numbers and find out. One thing that stood out immediately is that the scale of characters in DCC is very different. There are only 10 levels, but each level means a lot more than in any edition of D&D. The result is that low level DCC characters are noticeably more resilient in comparison. While a zero level DCC character is weaker than even the humble Fighter of AD&D, by the time that DCC Warrior reaches Level 1, he is more powerful than his peer, taking an average 3 sword strikes to bring down (a nice, well rounded number in my opinion).

High level characters also seem tougher than their AD&D compatriots, at least at first glance. The average 10th level Warrior has 68 hit points (compared to the Fighter's 53), while weapons cause the same damage in both games (1-8 points for a longsword, for example). However, high level DCC Warriors can really dish it out using the simple "Mighty Deeds" mechanic. To give you an idea, a 10th level Warror will make three attacks a turn, each one hitting as hard as three sword strikes on average, and each attack having a 20% of achieving a truly nasty critical hit (the average critical at that level is +3d12 damage with a free follow up attack if the attack drops the victim, but instant death results are common). It gets even more ugly for a dual-wielding warrior.

The end result is that, armed with mundane weaponry, a fight between identical high level Warriors will be over in about three to four rounds. Again, there is the nice symmetry with the number 3, yet the perfect scaling of Dungeon & Dragons 4th Edition is avoided. High level fights are very different than low level fights, as they should be, with multiple attacks, tactical Mighty Deeds, critical strikes and so on. Such duels are much more flashy, fast moving and narratively surprising, while low level fights are more nail-biting, gritty and personal. Interestingly, this is attained without giving the Warrior a single new ability (in fact, the Warrior does not gain any new abilities as he levels).

On a related note, while their are no rules for resurrecting the dead (unless you count the gruesome and temporary "Replication" spell), there is a chance for your character to survive a lethal encounter. A fallen character will take time to bleed out. If he is not rescued and does bleed out, the party could recover the body within an hour and might find that he's actually still alive. Life is neither cheap, nor death completely avoidable, which gives just the right feel for pulp fantasy.

Fighters have always been my favorite class to play, and I am happy to see that they get a good treatment in DCC. Often their chance in the spotlight it stolen by Magic-Users and other more specialized classes, especially at higher levels, but the simple addition of rules like Mighty Deeds and specialized critical hit charts mean that Warriors will continue to be the central characters right up to the end of the game. Furthermore, the careful attention to pacing at each level implies that there was an impressive amount of care, concern and playtesting put into Dungeon Crawl Classics, which bodes very well for potentially running long term campaigns with this game.

Appendix S: Extra Swords for your Warriors
Dagger: Lawful, +1, Int 8, urges to enforce the law, death dealer to warriors (Fort save DC 1d20+10 or instant death), light at will (20').
An unnamed dagger used to overthrow a tyrant long ago.

Longsword: Chaotic, +1, Int 7, urges to punish interlopers and those who interfere and to slay lawful dragons. +1d4 dmg vs lawful creatures, 20' darkness, strength +4.
Barbspite: A sword forged by the hags of Drearmore to aid a fanatical and corrupted hero in his self-destructive quest.

Longsword: Neutral, +1, Int 5, urges to live alone as a warrior hermit, +1 critical range vs clerics, speak thieves (druid) cant.
Sword of the old ways: Hammered by druids to resist the new faiths, the sword of the old ways drives the wielder to withdraw deeper into the wilds to avoid the encroach of foreign civilization.

Dagger: Lawful, +2, 12 Int, Empathical drives wielder to punish murderers and slay chaotic creatures. Unerring throw vs Serpents, +1 dmg vs men, detect magic (1/day), detect water (1d8x10'), Thunder Blade, Supreme willpower.
Blade of Sph't: Created by the underground dwellers of Shokassam to mercilessly hunt down the cult of snakemen that was hiding in the desert and raiding, torturing and sacrificing their people. The hero used the thunderous booming of the dagger to draw out their avatar - an enormous cobra.

Going Mapless

I have been thinking about this for a long time, and recently the excellent judge's advice in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game has inspired me finally to give it a try. Amongst the excellent essays in that manuscript is a treatment on campaign geography, which suggests, in part, to "think locally" in terms of player knowledge. In particular, the section on "The Known World" argues to "make your world mysterious by making it small–very small. What lies past the next valley? None can be sure. When a five-mile journey becomes an adventure, you'll have succeeded in bringing life to your world."

This idea has been consonent with my own thinking for a while now, although I have come at the problem from a different direction. A while back, I was having trouble gearing up for the next campaign. I would sketch out an exciting story, only to fail to see the magic in it the next day. I would draw up a great world map, and find it unremarkable afterwards. I realized that painting with these broad strokes and planning an itinery for the players was actually incredibly constraining, not inspiring, to my thinking. By setting my creativity to paper, and clearly defining it, it had lost that spark of imagination, and therefore my interest. I was experiencing referee burnout before the campaign even began.

Frustrated, I turned to some alternate forms of inspiration for a while and left roleplaying behind. I found myself playing old video games again and Zork, in particular. I had grown up on these (and grown out of them, I had thought), but games like the excellent Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom pulled me back in for a while. I rediscovered that these old text-based adventures were actually immensely satisfying and inspiring. Confined to individual "rooms," exploring the locales of the Great Underground Empire or the Slaver's Kingdom turned reflectively inward, becoming more detailed, immediate, graspable and relevant to the player. If there was a "greater" world that was, by definition, beyond the player, it was well out of sight.

This changed my view of tabletop roleplaying as well, and I returned to my next campaign with a new attitude towards refereeing. I redrew maps as information webs, horizontal cut-aways, brainstormed flowcharts and in many other previously unrecognizable forms. I avoided top-down maps and left distance scales out entirely. The result was an enormously fun and successful Castle Zagyg campaign.

While DCC does not suggest dropping maps entirely, my thinking lately has been pushing more and more towards this end. Increasingly, I am writing down the scenes for my next campaign in list form, or as quickly-jotted notes randomly arrayed on unlined paper. Sometimes I draw lines between them to connect thoughts, but for the most part I leave this decision making until I am actually running the session. Importantly, I no longer feel compelled to explain any coherent logic in the storyline, as my players do a fantastic job trying to make sense of it with me. It requires a little give and take, and the players may or may not be consciously aware that they are shaping this story with me.

The play is more local, and relevant to the players, but the events of the world around them are not completely under their control. I throw the scenes at them which I had dreamed up earlier, and some stick more than others. Players pursue unexpected avenues (which they are wont to do) and play evolves in a living way. This keeps me interested each week, allows me to update the feel of the game according my current inspirations, and avoids the double pitfalls of storytelling that is too much or too little in the hands of the players. So far, I cannot recommend this approach enough.

Appendix S: Extra Scenes

Fight the minotaur prison warden of the black oubliette!

Chase the thief over the red-tiled rooves of Bloodhaven!

Fight extradimensional analogues in the crystal mirror room!

Scale the barren, sheer mountain face to the ominous stone mouth-door (the doorbell/handle is just a black hand-sized hole in the door...)

Query the three hags of the sump (for every question you ask, they ask another in return, but be warned: any topics you reveal will turn out disastrously later!)

That's no golden idol, it's a golden battle-bot! (any damage you do will descrease its value as treasure!)

What did you come up with?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Classic Experience

As I mentioned previously, Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game is posed to be the game of the OSR thus far. But this a tall claim, isn't it? Aren't rules, after all, just rules? Indeed, from first glance, DCC shares all the major tropes found in early editions of the Dungeons & Dragons game. What makes DCC so significant?

While the rules take up the least space in the book, and appear to be broadly descended from traditional Dungeons & Dragons, the differences are subtle and nuanced. Importantly, these new rules require an open mind, as DCC is not merely a distillation of the games that have preceeded it. It is not the perfection of past attempts, or a fine-tuning of a well-worn concept. There is a new theory behind this game which takes us back to the moment we first cracked open the Basic Dungeons & Dragons box as kids and peered in with wonder.

Of course, as we know, D&D developed on a course predestined by its wargaming roots. Chainmail was a set of medieval warfare rules, and the later iterations of D&D that it inspired focused increasingly on characters, combat roles and abilities. In a way, this even sort of made sense; the most memorable aspect of fantasy literature remained the characters, who then became more and more the sole focus of fantasy games. But there is another moment, a spark, that this timeline has long since left behind. This spark lies at the heart of our first roleplaying experience, when we still did not understand D&D fully, and the oceans of our imagination, buoyed by a ravenous diet of novels and art, met with the first shores of a gaming system. There was a tremendous amount of promise in that moment, precisely when we rolled our first strangely-shaped polyhedral, craned over to see the result and thought, "well, what does THAT mean for my character?"

And this moment is precisely where the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game departs from Dungeons & Dragons. While the later focused increasingly on providing easy and clear answers to dice results, DCC harnesses the interpretive moment of the die roll for asking more questions and creating more difficult situations. The use of dice throughout the game creates dots, which players are then inspired to connect according to their experiences. The die roll is always a negotiation, never a prescription, and demands engagement.

A great example of this can be seen in DCC's rules for Mighty Deeds. Warriors lack an attack bonus, and instead get an ascending bonus die that adds to attack and damage. Additionally, warriors are encouraged to describe their maneuvers, tactics and tricks with each attack. The result of the bonus die determines how successful this feat was, challenging the players to rethink how they can best defeat a powerful enemy.

At the same time, the use of dice in DCC tends to create, rather than resolve, conflicts. Wizards must bargain with their patron daemons, and choices always suggest future challenges. On the Goodman Games fora, there has already been at least one story of the dice being read as transforming a character into a greater daemon.

The end result is a little game that packs a lot of punch, with dice rolls that bring up questions instead of providing answers. The kinds of questions that come up in a regular game feed directly from the inspirational literature of Appendix N, giving Dungeon Crawl Classics consistent atmosphere that any swords and sorcery fan can enjoy. Armed with Vornheim, The Random Esoteric Creature Generator and Dungeon Crawl Classics, a referee might feel young again.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Crawling Back

After a brief personal hiatus into none of your beeswax, Joseph Goodman's stunning Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game has pulled me kicking, screaming and crawling back into the collective imaginings of pulp science-fantasy tales. While the paper edition of this significant work is enough to earn it a worthy place in every bookshelf and collection, with gorgeous art and design from the maker's of The Dungeon Alphabet, the real contribution of this manual to the "Old School Renaissance" is much more fundamental.

We have already seen revolutionary additions to the literature of this reborn hobby. Not only the aforementioned Dungeon Alphabet, but The Random Esoteric Creature Generator and Vornheim have been billed as new ways to imagine a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Instead of providing new variants to an old paradigm, these publications emerged from the fog of our expectations like strange, inexplicable time travelers from another dimension. They were built upon entirely different theory, as if the original game had never been the illegitimate child of generic, colourless wargaming rules and colourful but unruly fantasy literature. They naturally and effortlessly wove story and system, form and function. But these were always partial additions, covering not the basics of play, but only peripheral subjects. There was no foundational text yet.

Of course, it was only natural that the majority of the OSR would follow a much more conservative trajectory. Just like the historical Renaissance in Europe, the movement began as a return to classical form and style. Considering the timeline, the early OSR began merely with an attempt to emulate generic, vanilla fantasy D&D, with HackMaster (2001), Castles & Crusades (2004), OSRIC (2006), Basic Fantasy RPG (2006), Labyrinth Lord (2007) and Swords & Wizardry (2008).

After 4e was released in 2008, the direction of new OSR games and supplements shifted dramatically, and the community really began to focus on alternate directions that D&D could have taken (both thematically and mechanically). There was a strong urge to go back to the literature genres that inspired the original game (particularly Lovecraft and Howard). Just take a look at the slew of Cthulhu & Conan games after 2008: Barbarians of Lemuria (2008), Supplement V: Carcosa (2008), Lamentations of the Flame Princess (2010), Realms of Crawling Chaos (2011), Crypts & Things (2011), Adventurer, Conqueror, King (2012) and Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea (2012?).

Joseph Goodman's Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game builds on these, but significantly is not based on them. Although the drive to discover "the D&D that never was" after the advent of 4e is not unique, the vision of DCC is not a new, even alternative, edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game. It is not the next version of D&D; if anything it is Arduin, it is Encounter Critical in comparison. It is a fundamental and core shift in our understanding of the horizons of collective fantasy storytelling, which weaves dark, trippy and weird tales natively with supporting game mechanics that actually suggest the play promised by the famed "Appendix N". Like the historical Renaissance, this unlikely and unpredicted development is the product of the renaissance coming to full term and finally bearing forth a truly originary work.

Will everyone "get" Dungeon Crawl Classics? Certainly no more than those who saw the value of The Dungeon Alphabet and similar publications. Nevertheless, DCC is significant in that it is the first offering of a core rules that is based on a new theory of the relationship between story and system. While this game is really at its best when producing pure Appendix N action, some will inevitably miss out and simply use it to play the same type of game they have been running for decades. They may even wonder why their Wizard has to make tough choices and dangerous allies, or why their Cleric has to sacrifice to his idol deity or fear the machinations of the gods, or why their Fighter has to actually think carefully and cleverly about how to engage an enemy, or how their Thief seems to have the knack to miraculously pull off any feat at the last moment.

Is DCC really that good? For the casual gamer, it is a wealth of inspiration and ideas that will not disappoint. For those that learn to play it on its own terms, and to let the inspirational fantasy literature and music of that era take the imagination away, the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game is nothing less than the game of the OSR thus far.


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