Sunday, March 27, 2022

Senryu Backstories

How much backstory is too much backstory?  Especially in OSR games, where characters are likely to die at low levels?

I had been kicking around a proposal like "six words per level of experience", but an amusing idea occurred to me this morning.

Senryu is a form of Japanese poetry with three lines of five, seven, and five syllables (er...  technically morae, but trying to write english within mora counts that tight is not practical), typically about people and their vices (vs haiku, which are about nature and must include a season-word and a cutting-word).  They're pretty easy to put together and give you enough room to tell a little story that explains why you're adventuring without going into too much detail:

Orcs killed my parents
Shoulders that once pulled a plow
now carry plate mail

Chased too much elf tail
Washed out of wizard college
Student loans comes due

On long pilgrimage
Red-nosed cleric lost his way
Time to pay the tab

Won fast ship at cards
Dumped hot goods, now owe crime lord
When in doubt, shoot first

Rightful king of dwarves
Dragon haunts my father's halls
I will get what's mine.

Our lands disputed,
King turned 'gainst us, brother slain,
I sailed for far shores

One nice property of these, I think, is that it would get really hard to fit proper nouns with relations into them.  If you take a backstory senryu as canon, it might tell you that somewhere in the setting there are marauding orcs, a wizard college, a crime lord, or a dragon under the mountain, but it doesn't try to shove them into any particular place.  As a DM, it would be easy to link these up to any particular band of orcs, wizard college, crime lord, or fallen hold that you might already have planned.

And they're quick and fun to come up with, which makes them a relatively good fit for characters who might be short-lived.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Grim Dawn's Dungeon Blockers and Ye Olde Evil Doors

Grim Dawn does a couple of things in its dungeon that are sometimes annoying but fundamentally clever.  There are no randomly-generated maps in Grim Dawn.  The closest thing is a randomly-generated infinite dungeon, but each level is drawn from a pool of fixed level maps.  Given that a typical character runs through all of the campaign content in the game several times, in the traditional Diablo model, one would expect players to develop highly-efficient routes through the campaign area maps.

In order to prevent these repeatedly-traversed campaign zones from becoming stale without having to resort to random generation (with the difficulties that that would entail, like nonsensical outputs), the Grim Dawn devs have put places on some maps (mostly dungeons and towns, but a few wilderness areas) where random blockers can appear.  Piled of burning garbage, doorways that are full of rocks, that sort of thing.  They have the potential to appear in a fairly small number of carefully-selected spots in each dungeon, they're re-randomized per session (save and reload, basically, which also returns you to town), and generally you can't see them until you get fairly close to the spot they're blocking.  What all this means is that you can't consistently run optimal routes that you plan out before entering the dungeon.  There's a good chance that any such planned route will be blocked and you'll have to detour off it and then find a way back onto it, and your detour might also be blocked!  This means that finding paths remains gameplay even with hundreds of hours in the game and tens of runs through each area.  There are real choices and problem-solving in path-selection even when you have perfect knowledge of the unrandomized parts of the underlying level.  So despite having a constant underlying structure, navigating these areas remains engaging.

This seems like something which, obviously, could be adapted to OSR dungeons.  As DMs, we're under the same pressures to reuse content that Grim Dawn's devs were, and fully-procedural dungeons carry similar difficulties.  And it would be consistent with the No Homework ethos - no homework'd plan to traverse known parts of the dungeon will necessarily survive.  Reducing the rewards for homework is likely to reduce the amount of homework done.

Another clever, engaging thing that Grim Dawn does in its dungeons is find any excuse to have enemies "appear" in close proximity or behind you while you've engaged enemies in front of you.  Zombies, skeletons, and giant insects burrow out of the ground behind or around you.  Spiders drop from the ceiling.  Wraiths and outsiders materialize out of thin air.  Often these animations take long enough that if you're in motion, you can leave these appearing monsters in the dust and never have to deal with them.  This works great if you're running a nice planned path...  but when you run into a blocker and have to backtrack, or run into stern opposition, these guys can really catch up with you.  So blowing past them is a gamble, and they serve as a sort of potential energy mechanic.

But obviously, it would be silly to have goblins just appear out of nowhere near and behind you.  Unless...

Enter the much maligned stuck/evil door.  Obviously, goblins can come out of it on short notice!  And where better to place planned-path-breaking blockers than in doorways?  You could place your careful cut-points in hallways, but your dungeon already has all these doorways!  But it's not quite the same, because they're not blocked per-expedition, and a party can retry opening them.  Right?

Well...  not necessarily.  Looking at OD&D and the 1e DMG, it really isn't clear how long it takes to open a stuck/evil door, and doesn't explicitly say that it can be retried.  Not being able to retry forcing would give you a good reason to bring out the axes and exercise the door-breaking mechanic, so in a certain light the door-breaking mechanic's existence might be circumstantial evidence for rejecting retries on forcing doors.  And indeed there are apparently folks who play without permitting retries to open stuck doors - this post from Knight at the Opera, down in the "Dense Megadungeons" section, takes this position, and examines the effects on potential paths through the dungeon.  A door which the party failed to open on the first d6 roll was stuck closed to them for the rest of that expedition into the dungeon.  Knight at the Opera mapped out the paths that four expeditions had taken as a result of doors that they couldn't open.  Their patterns of exploration ended up deeper and more linear in structure than the patterns of dungeon exploration I'm used to seeing, because if they found a room with three doors, probably only one of them would open, so they explored where they were able, subject to door luck.  And obviously a door amenable to being opened by the party could then also be reopened within the same expedition (though it might require a roll that could be retried).

It's still not quite the same as Grim Dawn's dungeon blockers, but if you change the probabilities to something like 1 in 6 doors stuck (for the party) in any given expedition, I think you'd end up with a similar disruption of planned paths through explored areas and a similar excuse to have monsters sneak in behind parties, without wildly altering the pattern of exploration.  One complication is that you may want to leave all areas accessible during any given expedition, which could require sometimes rejecting a roll's result (if a stuck result would block the last path to an area).  But that's a rather principled sort of rejection of a random result, and one with good gameplay consequences (probably?).

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Productively Repressed Novelists

Executive summary: Write stories about things that have already happened in your world prior to the PCs' involvement.  Cut those stories into bite-sized chunks and scatter them around adventure sites for PCs to find.

I've been playing a lot of Grim Dawn recently.  Possibly an unreasonable amount.  It's an ARPG in a "Victorian+magic" setting that has recently had an apocalypse.  Grim Dawn's main story is...  thin.  It's kind of a checklist of "oh no we've discovered a new threat to the surviving humans", with occasional choices in how to handle humans you meet on the road.  Most of these choices are reducible with experience to their mechanical outcomes.  In practice it's an excuse to go interesting places, vaporize monsters, and take their stuff.  This is fine by me - never let a narrative get in the way of gameplay.

Where Grim Dawn succeeds at storytelling is in its lore notes.  You find them scattered around the world and they give you many more perspectives on that world.  The baddies plotting, your NPC allies realizing apocalypse is coming, refugees fleeing the capital, regular folks turning to dark powers to survive, stubborn farmers refusing to leave their land, a civilization collapsing to a previous apocalypse, all of this stuff that happened before the game starts is delivered to the player in written notes.  It's the polar opposite of the exposition-dump; rather than getting a single long, boring account of the world from a third-person narrator, it's delivered in bits and pieces by a multitude of (sometimes unreliable and conflicting) in-world sources.

Grim Dawn does a couple things here that might be worth noting and stealing for tabletop RPGs.  The first is that notes are short and often serialized.  Rather than dropping a 12-paragraph story on you, they'll cut it up into four notes each of three paragraphs and scatter them around an area.  When you find part three first and read it, and realize there's no closure, you know that there must be more before and after.  It encourages you to explore the world to find the rest of the series of notes.  It leaves gaps for you to speculate into - to imagine into.  You wouldn't just show them the map - don't just show them the full lore!  (Does it strain disbelief to have pages of a diary scattered over a half-acre?  Maybe.  Is it worth it?  Probably, I think)

Reading lore notes in Grim Dawn also gives you XP.  I don't know that this is quite the right thing for a game like D&D, but selling lore notes to an historian for GP, by which you earn XP?  Hell yeah.  Some players may be excited about finding lore for its own sake, some may need a more concrete reward, but as long as the table as a whole's reaction to finding a lore note is "score!" you're headed in the right direction.  Make finding them gameplay, and reward that gameplay.

Finally, Grim Dawn is never pushy with the lore notes.  When you mechanically "read" a lore note and get the XP, it gets copied into your quest log and remains available there.  Maybe you only have an hour to play tonight and you need to grab that next portal, so you're not doing any reading.  No worries, it'll be there next time when you've beaten the boss and are taking a breather in town to rebalance your gear.  This is kind of a confident move on Grim Dawn's part; when a game makes you sit through cutscenes and exposition, it is because they're worried about what will happen if you miss something.  Grim Dawn says "whatever man, if you miss a lore note or never get around to reading all the ones you do find, it's fine.  My core gameplay is strong enough to bear it."  Just so - don't read lore notes to your players like boxed text!  Pass them a paper copy and make the page on the campaign wiki visible to them.  If they want one guy to skim and summarize, fine!  If they want to read it aloud, fine!  If they just want to pass it to the one guy who cares about lore (who becomes the party archivist), fine!

Taken all together, Grim Dawn's approach to lore notes strikes me as an eminently appropriate attitude for lore-delivery in tabletop games, especially OSR games.  In exploration-driven games, it is a given that players will miss stuff - you have to be OK with that anyway.  In a game that keeps AD&D's apocalypse, having surviving lore in the written word rather than being able to ask people questions about the world makes sense.  And stories about the past of the world don't step on the toes of player agency; you can have your well-structured narratives and character development, just separated from your emergent narrative by time.

In conclusion: if you must novelize, OSR DMs, serial-novelize the history leading up to the PCs, not their current actions, and scatter your serial in adventure sites.