Sunday, December 31, 2023

Toadman Champion Names

Hypothetically, if one were building a dungeon level full of vicious toadmen, one would need names for the champions of their gangs (the ones who speak Common).  Many of these are combinable into compound names. 


  1. Ribbert
  2. Hroat
  3. Hreeen
  4. Brep
  5. Hrerm
  6. Hrup
  7. Peep
  8. Hreet
  9. Chup
  10. Kermax the Eviscerator

Friday, December 29, 2023

Soulflayer Canyon and One-Way Doors

I picked up Dragon's Dogma on the steam holiday sale and it's been a refreshing reminder of something one of my old bosses told me - "You can innovate on the technology, or you can innovate on the business model, but as a small company you probably don't have the resources to do both."  Dragon's Dogma declines to innovate in its setting.  The enemy roster is pretty much all classic D&D monsters played straight - they even have a beholder with the serial numbers filed off.  There's a quest where you rescue a princess from imprisonment in a tower and literally carry her across bridges and over gaps.  There are plot holes large enough to ride a griffon through and plot-agency is pretty negligible (why am I working for this asshole duke anyway?).

But the core combat gameplay!  Maybe for Capcom the combat gameplay isn't really innovative.  But taking the language of fighting games, of grabs and throws and parries and knockdowns, and applying them to giant fantasy monsters, played totally straight rather than FromSoft-style "everything is corrupted and weird", is just...  a lot of fun to fiddle with.  To say nothing of the pawns.

But I'm really here to talk about the design of one particular dungeon in Dragon's Dogma - Soulflayer Canyon.  It's a real piece of work.  "Criminally vicious", as the Tucker's Kobolds guy would say.

Spoilers beyond this point.

Soulflayer Canyon has a number of pretty vicious encounters - a cockatrice, ghosts who possess your henchmen (backed up by camouflaged lizardmen), a cyclops on a narrow bridge whose club will absolutely fling you and your hirelings down a long fall to your deaths, harpies who try to grab you and pull you off ledges...  But the thing that makes it really nasty is that it's full of one-way waterslides, rock slopes with water running down them that you can descend but not ascend, where you can't see what's at the bottom until you go for it.  Topologically, the dungeon is mostly a loop of one-way slides (with ladders in between to make up the height losses) with a couple of branches (one is to the treasure, another is to an exit from the dungeon).  I'm not sure it's possible to exit the dungeon by the door I came in through once you've entered the main loop.

There came a point where I'd basically cleared the dungeon and was faced with a choice between three slides.  One went to the treasure, one back into the loop, and one I think to a terminal fall.  I chose the loop and had to re-run the dungeon, some of which had restocked.  Dragon's Dogma has enough mundane resource management of healing items and lantern oil for this to be a really worrying twist if you were already running low.  The cockatrice's lair is also at the bottom of a one-way slide, and while there is a climbable rock wall that you can use to get back out, you probably have to go through the cockatrice to get to the exit.

So anyway, it's a wild dungeon.  The other dungeons in the game aren't like this (mostly).  It's like they took all their most vicious ideas and put them into this one zone that only sidequests point you to.

I had been thinking about using one-way doors in gauntlet dungeons, so it's been interesting to see them in action here.  One thing I like about these waterslides is that they're pretty telegraphed.  They're not a literal door that closes behind you but is indistinguishable from a two-way door until crossed.  It's probably worth thinking up more types of clearly-one-way "doors".  It was also interesting to see a dungeon with a single main loop composed primarily of one-way doors; I had been thinking about one-way doors used sparingly in the context of dungeons composed of multiple intersecting loops, where there are almost always multiple paths to any point.  But Soulflayer Canyon goes all-in on them and it certainly makes for a memorable "level".

Monday, December 18, 2023

Classic Traveller Jump Tech Levels

Omer of Stellagama made an interesting remark about Classic Traveller on discord the other day:

Ship hulls, computers, and drives interacted very differently with tech levels. Most Traveller players know the Book 5 (High Guard) jump tech levels, which are rigid (Jump 1 at TL9-10, Jump 2 at TL11, etc.) but permit big and fast ships even on low TLs. Book 2, on the other hand, has drives gradually appearing as technology progresses, so that lower-tech ships must be smaller and slower. On the other hand, its computer and jump rules permit Jump 3 at TL9. So that big ships, especially fast big ships with far jump drives, are locked behind higher TL, all while permitting longer-range jumps for smaller ships at lower TLs. This is conducive to adventures, as even lower-tech worlds can manufacture player-size ships capable of traversing longer interstellar gulfs, and as smaller ships make mass planetary invasions a very costly affair - making diplomacy, guile, and subterfuge much more important than simply bringing in your 100,000 ton battlecruiser with a Spinal Mount that can shatter moons and threatening everyone, all while your whole Marine armies land from a few 50,000 ton troop carriers.

I hadn't made particular note of when different jump techs became available in CT (and I haven't read CT's High Guard), so I went and did a bit of digging into the details.

CT Book 3's tech level table on page 15 notes that TL 9 can manufacture drives A-D and jump drives, as well as computers up to level 3.  In Book 2 on page 58, class C jump drives and powerplants are enough to give a 100-ton ship jump 6, while class D drives give 200 tons jump 4, 400 tons jump 2, and up to 800 tons jump 1.  The limitation to jump 3 actually emerges from computers, not powerplants or jump drives, since a computer/3 can only navigate/perform/drive 3-parsec jumps.

At TL 10, jump-capable 1000-ton ships become possible; at TL 11 2000-ton starships.  3000-ton starships don't arrive until TL 13, skipping 12, and 4000- and 5000-ton ships are at TL 15.

Looking at 400-ton ships, at TL 10 they go from max jump 2 to 4; at TL 11, jump 5, and at TL 12, jump 6.  800-tonners get jump 2 at TL 10, jump 3 at TL 12, jump 4 at TL 14.  So an 800-ton jump-3 mercenary cruiser is TL 12 just off of the drives (and TL 11 for the computer/5).  The patrol cruiser looks doable at TL 10.

I was curious to see what Mongoose Traveller 1e had to say on jump drives and tech levels, but the MgT 1e core book didn't really say anything about the tech levels at which different ratings of fusion plant and jump drive become available.  There are some subtle differences at the top end of the powerplant table, and the more relevant difference is in the computers table, with computers of each model available about two TLs later than in CT Book 3.  They are also, however, much less expensive.  So MgT is closer to the Book 5 paradigm, of higher jump numbers arriving across all ship sizes as a given TL.

I was curious just how common worlds of various TLs were under Classic Traveller's world generation assumptions, so I scripted it up, generated 100,000 worlds, and counted.  The numbers below assume an 80-hex subsector with a typical density of 0.5 stars per hex for 40 inhabited systems.

  • TL <9: 66446 (66.4%) - about 2 in 3, 26.5 per subsector
  • TL 9: 10,364 (10.4%) - about 1 in 10, 4 per subsector
  • TL 10: 8,244 (8.2%) - about 1 in 12, ~3.3 per subsector
  • TL 11: 6,075 (6.1%) - about 1 in 16, ~2.5 per subsector
  • TL 12: 4078 (4.1%) - about 1 in 25, ~1.5 per subsector
  • TL 13: 2463 (2.5%) - about 1 in 40, 1 per subsector
  • TL 14: 1371 (1.4%) - about 1 in 70, ~0.5 per subsector
  • TL 15: 632 (0.6%) - about 1 in 170, ~0.25 per subsector
  • TL >15: 327 (0.3%) - about 1 in 300, ~0.12 per subsector 

The highest TL code I saw was a single J, which is...  TL 19?

A-100A56-J    R I  Hi Ht In Na Va

Surprisingly mellow government and law level for that population...

So what does this mean under CT Book 3's rules for powerplants and jump drives by TL?

2/3 of planets basically can't manufacture starship parts at all.  However, model 1 computers are available at TL 5.  45.6% of worlds are in that TL5-8 range and can plausibly provide replacement computer parts, which is nice I guess.

Depending on how you feel about the Industrial trade code, it might not even be possible to build ships at scale at most of these TL 9+ planets.  They can probably nanolathe you a replacement flux combobulator for your drives, but building ships there is a harder sell.  I count 1797 worlds of TL9+ with the Industrial trade code, or 1.8%, 1 in 55, about 0.73 per subsector.  A quarter of typical subsectors can't meaningfully manufacture starships in quantity (to say nothing of low-density subsectors with fewer planets).  There were 563 TL 12+ industrial worlds, 0.6%, 1 in 160, about one per four subsectors.  If you want to have a mercenary cruiser built, it's going to take weeks for an X-boat to even deliver the order to a major TL 12 shipyard.

(TL 7 Industrial worlds may be required to mass-produce non-starship spacecraft; only about 1000 of the 66000 TL <9 worlds are also Industrial.  So probably system defense boats are also mostly imported, under the math I did here about how heavily-defended small worlds in Traveller are?)

This distribution of TLs is all roughly true in Mongoose too (there is one small point of divergence, where in MgT balkanized governments get +2 TL?), but being computer-constrained opens up an interesting angle.  Computers are small but complicated and value-dense.  Since the technical details are under-specified, upgrading a computer/3 to a computer/4 on a TL10 world might not require a heavy industrial base; maybe just a few high-TL pieces that can be manufactured in small batches to glue a bunch of lower-TL hardware together.  Adding one more dTon of computers is like, one extra server rack.  That seems less daunting to retrofit than adding 8+ dTons of fusion reactors and technobabble jump drive bits (sadly it's not quite that simple for either the scout ship or the free trader, whose jump numbers are constrained by their drives as well as their computers.  Still, it's possible to build over-reactored low-TL ships and then just need a higher-TL computer upgrade).

(This does also raise the possibility of extended supply chains for starship construction - if you have a TL 9 industrial world and a TL 12 non-industrial world, maybe getting a hand-crafted TL 12 computer in your starship is an optional upgrade package that the shipyard offers.  Maybe they need high-value computers delivered from across the subsector and it would be a shame if such a shipment were waylaid...)

The same value-density also makes upgraded computers great treasure / salvage.  If you find a high-TL derelict, you're probably not taking the whole engineering section.  But recovering the computer sounds pretty doable and could be a big increase in your capabilities.  And starship programs are also super value-dense (also, you need different jump control programs to jump different distances - you can recover a big computer from an old ship but if they were using it mainly for combat programs and didn't have that big a jump drive, like the Mercenary Cruiser, it may not help you immediately).  I could see collecting starship programs in Classic Traveller almost being like collecting spells as an MU in D&D.

Anyway.  The implied industrial base for shipbuilding in Traveller is much smaller than I thought.  It's not quite Stars Without Number level but it's kinda borderline; there might be extended supply chains and it could be brittle and prone to disruption.  And having jump on small ships at typically-available tech levels be computer-constrained rather than reactor-constrained does seem like it would open up some gameplay in addition to Omer's points about creating space for player-party size groups.

To a certain extent this also addresses the bulk cargo problem Traveller has had, where it's hard to justify tramp freighters making a living when you could just build enormous heavy freighters.  MgT 1e has a 1000 dTon bulk freighter design with Jump 2; it would be TL 11 under CT Book 3 rules, vs TL 9 in Mongoose, which more than halves the number of Industrial worlds where they can be built.  550 tons of cargo is about 7x the cargo volume of a free trader; enough to disrupt a route maybe, but not orders of magnitude more.  Its description notes, "this thousand-ton vessel is still tiny compared to the mammoth corporate vessels that also ply the trade routes", but under CT Book 3, a 4000-5000 ton vessel isn't jump capable at all until TL 15, and jump 2 at 5000 tons and jump 3 at 4000 tons are just barely achievable.  TL 15+ Industrial worlds to build these enormous type Z powerplants and drives are exceedingly rare - 80 in 100,000 worlds, or 0.08%.  A full sector of 16 subsectors has a 50% chance of having such a world.  And then you need jump-2 routes connected to that TL 15 Industrial world for them to actually get where they're going!  So there are going to be places these big ships just can't go that smaller ships locally-build ships can get to, or places where smaller high-jump-number craft can get to much more quickly.  And 5000 tons is certainly not small, but it's a far cry from the 100,000 dTon superfreighter in MgT High Guard with 50k dTons of cargo capacity.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Curated Outdoor Spaces

I visited the Chicago Botanical Gardens the other week and had a sort of a weird experience.

I'm used to parks and gardens which strive for a veneer of plausible wildness, if you will - sure, there's a paved trail cutting through it, and yes, they're a bit organized, with a grove of cherry trees (in a variety of labeled types) here and a grove of a variety of magnolias there, but there's still a fair bit of undergrowth and the groupings of plants could have occurred naturally, and you stay on the trail mostly because you don't want to get into the weeds (and the "beware of hornets' nest" signs).  Obviously these environments wouldn't fool an experienced outdoorsman used to bushwhacking, but I don't think they're intended to.  Maybe a better description of what they're aiming for is idealized, Edenic - the woods you used to play in as a kid, where your parents told you the names of the trees and where the hornets' nest was.  Not wild wild, but an environment kinda doing its own thing with limited human intervention to make it suitable for human enjoyment.

The Chicago gardens weren't like that - there were lots of "stay on the trail" signs and art pieces in among the plants.  Parts of it (like the aquatic plants exhibit) reminded me of The Witness - I kept expecting to find puzzles to block my progress rather than just art objects.  There was no escaping the artificiality; a veneer of nature was not a design goal.  Chicago's garden felt like a heavy-handed exercise in power, in control, in making appearances just so.  The outdoor environment as a canvas, something to be written to before it is read from.  When this succeeds, as in their Japanese-style garden exhibit or the desert greenhouse full of crazy cacti, it can be quite beautiful.  But parts definitely fell flat or felt forced.

I think there are a couple of points of relation to D&D and the design of artificial environments.

I don't think I've ever attempted to design an outdoor adventure site that was heavily-modified by its inhabitants (beyond, say, fortresses), but Gardens of the Elf King does sound like a TSR module title.

I think on the other end, it's probably worth distinguishing between attempts to provide a simulated wilderness as it would actually be in a fantasy setting (with eg simulated migration of monsters) and aiming for an idealized wilderness of myth and fiction, full of dragons and treasure and talking birds.  The latter is more compatible with the Tiki Style of Early D&D - the players are tourists into this mysterious place and we don't need to have everything that happens in the "backstage" worked out because it's more important that it feel right than that it be right.

Maybe part of my interest in the wilderness game has been that wilderness is almost by definition unmanaged - it does not require simulating minds/agents to build a plausible wilderness, whereas a dungeon wants for explanation and justification for its construction.  And then the gauntlet funhouse dungeon appeals to me in part because it is a rejection of in-world explanation, design, purpose.  Rather than making a dungeon of the wilderness, it makes a wilderness of the dungeon.

Saturday, December 2, 2023

Starship Geomorphs

I was poking through GDW's Classic Traveller catalog in DriveThru the other day and made a remarkable discovery: this Starship Geomorphs listing.  It's a free pdf of about 200 pages of deckplan geomorphs for building large starships, space stations, and just general sci-fi environments out of.  Most of the geomorphs are 20x20 5' squares, or 200 dtons.  There are a couple of sample ship deckplans demonstrating how some geomorphs might be put together and they're in the 700-1000 dton range.

It seems like it would be really useful for HOSTILE, since HOSTILE has a focus on really big, industrial ships and stations, and they're often adventure sites when something gets loose (so you might want a high-fidelity map).  And the price is certainly right...

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Mythic Underworld Dungeon Delving Motivations

Given a mythic underworld dungeon that is actually The Underworld, why the heck would PCs want to go there?

The Debtor - Rent, bar tab, wizard college student loans, and/or child support are almost due, and you're allergic to "real work".

The Mad Lad - You're a literal psychopath who knows no fear and thinks exploring the underworld sounds like fun

The Smuggler - You "lost" a shipment of top-quality pipeweed belonging to Don Jobbo the Halfling Godfather.  Surely even his well-dressed goons wouldn't be crazy enough to look for you here.  Roll again for your cover story.

The Merchant - You're looking for new markets to trade with and new goods to import from the overworld.  May or may not ultimately be in the employ of Don Jobbo.

The Gambler - You took a really bad bet and lost, and now there's something in the underworld you need to go find to make good on your end.  Roll again to find out who you lost the bet to.

The Pretender - Aspirant to the throne of the Old High King, you need the royal regalia lost in the underworld to assert your rightful claim.

The Rescuer - You seek to recover the soul of a deceased loved one from the underworld.  Harp optional.

The Lost Soul - Cursed by a wicked sorcerer, your body lives but your soul has been banished to the underworld!  Or so the sorcerer claimed.  You seek to recover your own soul.

The Cultist - You seek to free the Old Ones from their imprisonment in the underworld and bring an end to the rein of the gods of law.  You might want to roll again for a cover story.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice - You seek the lore and relics of the Usurper, an archmage who challenged the gods, met a bad end, and had his personal effects and/or body parts scattered through the underworld in retribution.

The Paladin in Hell - You're on a crusade to slay as many servants of chaos as possible, and where better to do it than in the underworld itself?  Smite and cleave, until it is done.

AD&D 1e PHB, page 23

The Inquisitor - You seek to prevent the release of the Old Ones by thwarting the schemes of their cultists, who surely have an interest in the Underworld where their masters are imprisoned.  You may not actually have any authority but you're not going to let that stop you from doing whatever you deem necessary.

The Dead Man - You have suffered a terrible shame, and are now compelled to go on a quest to die well in atonement, so as to erase the shame from your family name.  How better to die well than boldly facing the terrors of the underworld?

The Sworn Brother - You owe your life to another PC and fully intend to follow them into hell and back.

The Clerk - You have been tasked by the Celestial Bureaucracy with serving legal paperwork to an entity residing in the Underworld (possibly one of the deceased, possibly a demon lord).

The Stranger - You're from a distant time and place and heard there might be a way home through the underworld.  You're still just a 1st-level fighter though, be ye astronaut, caveman, cowboy, or samurai.

The Family Businessman - Your father made his fortune with one big score from the underworld, as did his father before him.  Plumbing the underworld is just the done thing.  You have lots of siblings and cousins, and you had lots of uncles before they all tried their hand at "the done thing"...

The Gentleman Adventurer - Her Majesty's archives regarding the underworld are woefully incomplete; perhaps bringing back extensive notes will finally earn you that knighthood.  Sadly it's been a very long trek full of misfortunes and you find yourself bereft of funds...

The Unforgiving - Someone pissed you off so bad that killing 'em once wasn't enough; you have resolved to scour the underworld to find them and inflict further suffering on them in the afterlife.

The Gourmand - Having grown bored of the delicacies of the overworld, you have come to the underworld to sample its exotic and forbidden foodstuffs, however ill-advised this might be.  I hear the pomegranates are great this time of year.

The Simp - You read too many salacious scrolls and now you got the thirst for that succubussy.  Surely the underworld is the right place to seek them?  Accept no substitutes.

The Supplicant - You've done some bad things and you're pretty sure you're not gonna have a good afterlife.  You have come to meet lower powers and see if you can do them some favors now in return for some favors later.

The Evangelist - Your mission is to bring posthumous salvation to the dead by converting them to the true faith.  Your sect is heterodox and there's much debate over which rites are required for posthumous salvation and whether it's possible at all, but you're not about to let some theorizing scholastics stop you.

The Would-Beast - You despise your human frailty and seek to drink deep of the Well of Chaos to "transcend" it through mutation.

Tables by alignment:


  1. The Pretender
  2. The Rescuer
  3. The Paladin in Hell
  4. The Inquisitor
  5. The Evangelist
  6. The Clerk
  7. The Sworn Brother
  8. The Dead Man


  1. The Debtor
  2. The Mad Lad
  3. The Smuggler
  4. The Merchant
  5. The Gambler
  6. The Lost Soul
  7. The Stranger
  8. The Family Businessman
  9. The Gentleman Adventurer
  10. The Gourmand


  1. The Cultist
  2. The Sorcerer's Apprentice
  3. The Unforgiving
  4. The Simp
  5. The Supplicant
  6. The Would-Beast

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Quantity Begets Quality - 15 Room Dungeons?

Last post's discussion of quantity begetting quality and Dungeon23 got me thinking about dungeon levels.  I've been noodling around with the theory of gauntlet dungeons for checks calendar almost three years (2021 - map generation and wandering lairs.  2022 - disruptive+fodder encounter design.  2023 - thinking about blockers), and I still haven't overcome inertia, because I want what I make to be good.  But this "quantity begets quality" argument suggests that this may be entirely the wrong approach - I should try making lots of potentially-crappy dungeon levels that challenge things and see what sticks.

If one were to approach challenge dungeon construction through the lens of continuous habit, the question becomes "what's a reasonable self-contained minimal unit that I could make a habit of producing, such that I could produce them in quantity?"

I think for a challenge dungeon, it's probably small dungeon levels, not just individual rooms.  A while back I picked up the Mausolean Maze of Mondulac the Mad.  It's an interesting product but I never reviewed it properly.  It's a collection of stocked, tileable geomorphs with a "hedge maze full of undead" theme.  I like its statement of "good vanilla" as an ideal for published products.  I think it has a couple problems though.  The author adopted the constraint that the level map and key much fit on a single pair of facing pages, which forces small maps and short keys.  The most keyed items in any single geomorph is 10, and there are very few (if any) empty rooms.  It just feels very dense, and there are only a couple of 'morphs that support 1st-level characters.  If you stumble in at 1st and actually do random selection when you move from one to the next as suggested, it's going to be a very rough time.

Tileable / composable small levels as a minimum unit is a pretty promising idea.  And in "challenge dungeon" philosophy, each one can challenge one or two tactics.  For a "dungeon dimensions" or "mad wizard did it" funhouse dungeon, tiling in euclidean space is also not required for composability.  Portals and teleporters solve many problems.

So what is the right size?  I think it might be about 15 rooms.  Using B/X's or ACKS' stocking tables, this gets you something like 5 empty rooms (one with treasure), 5 monster rooms (likely one lair), 2-3 traps (one with treasure), and 2-3 specials.  This seems like about the minimum amount of stuff to get a proper stand-alone "OSR dungeoneering experience".  It's enough rooms that it could conceivably be jayquayed, there's enough monsters to maybe pick up some allies against the lair (light faction play), there's likely to be nonzero treasure from the number of empties and traps and maybe the lair.  Sufficient empty rooms to rest in, route through, or mistakenly search for traps.  If you're tiling these, they could easily each be "a lair and its sphere of influence / territory".  Obviously these ratios are a starting point and all parameters are subject to mutation and selection, but it seems about right.

I wonder if such a format is an answer to the Five Room Dungeon meme, which is too small for much jayquaying and usually run very railroady, often quantum-ogre-y, with little interest in player agency...

As for the cadence...  I could definitely see doing a 15-room dungeon level per week.  Spend a night on the concept and encounter table, a night on the map.  The 5 empty rooms are easy, just need a little dressing.  That leaves you with 10 rooms to stock in 5 days, so about two rooms a night, some of which are likely to be pretty trivial.  And if you actually managed a tiny dungeon per week minus sickness/vacation, you're looking at 50 levels a year.  If you take the best 10 of them and glue them together, you've got a 150-room "kilodungeon".  And if your players decide to hare off in some other direction, you've got plenty of "b-sides" material ready to go...

One interesting question that perhaps my old prep logs would answer is - if you're running a game concurrently with trying to do this, would one level a week be enough that you could actually "throw away" a good percentage of it?  If your players burn through 15 rooms a week, and you prep 15 rooms a week, you aren't accumulating any slack for bad experiments.  Maybe this is where the megadungeon comes into play; restocking old areas that players retread frequently might be less work than coming up with new ideas, and the pace of exploration of new areas slows as distances from the entrance increase, so your ability to accumulate a buffer increases over time?

From the logs, it looks like the most new rooms they explored in one session was eight  during the first session, and that tapered down a bit for a while as they went back and forth with a lair, and then picked up again and stabilized around five new rooms per session.  So maybe 15 rooms per week is actually enough to build up a decent lead.  On the other hand, the Dungeon23 approach of one room a day would barely have kept ahead of my old players, provided that the rate of exploration didn't drop off again.

As for actual size of a tile...  I think 16x16 is probably plenty.  Given 15 rooms or so, if the typical size is 30x30, that uses 135 of the 256 squares in a 16x16 block.  So that leaves us with plenty of space for big rooms, long hallways, secrets, etc.  And room to deviate up from 15 rooms, I suppose.  12x12 would be adequate if we were willing to commit to minimal space between rooms.  14x14 might be ideal but it's just such a weird gross number, whereas 256 is pleasingly round.  If I decide I have the wrong tilesize, oh well.  Putting little shim-zones with boring hallways in between tiles seems pretty viable.

I don't know if I want to commit to creating dungeon levels on a cadence, but at the very least embracing the ethos of "don't wait pontificating for perfection, just make stuff and some of it will be good" and fiddling with making levels is probably something I should start doing.

Saturday, September 30, 2023

Poem a Day, Quantity Begets Quality

I read a (pdf warning) really interesting paper recently about writing a poem a day.  It got me thinking about quantity and quality in a lot of things in life besides just writing poems (though I did have a haiku-a-day habit for a while during the pandemic; it helped me mark the passage of seasonal time while basically locked in solitary confinement in an apartment).  One interesting passage:

In the book Art & Fear, they tell a story—which may be true, maybe not—of a university pottery class broken into two halves. One half was told their grades depended on the quality of the one pot they each handed in, and other was told their grades depended on the total weight of all their semester’s pieces. That is, each person in the first group would work however they wanted, but that person’s grade was determined by the quality of a single piece; each person in the second group would work all semester, and at the end each person would put all their pieces on a gigantic scale: 50 lbs and up was an A, 40–50 lbs was a B, etc. The best pieces of course all came from the group going for weight. The reasons are probably that the second group had no reason to fear the artistic process while they were learning craft techniques, and that they were practicing and experimenting through repetition.

But I think one of the most important reasons for their having the best work was that they could select the best piece rather than shepherd it along. You see, the first group could have worked this way too, but they all decided to just focus on making one perfect pot. Which is what we do as poets often.

I suspect that some DMs are tempted to do the same, trying to make one really good dungeon instead of ten dungeons, one of which is actually good.

It's interesting that he doesn't really couch it in the language of habit, though I suspect that once it does become habit the barrier to beginning on any given day is very low.  I kind of wonder if this is how eg Dyson works.  Dyson is incredibly prolific and it has to be a habit.  It also makes me wonder how Dyson picks which maps will get published where and what fraction he considers to be experiments that turned out mediocre / not worth publishing.

To a certain extent this is also the Dungeon23 approach, of making a habit of producing a little bit of a dungeon every day.  Dungeon23, though, seems to not really want to select / discard down to just the good bits at the end, instead throwing them all into a big megadungeon.

I am also reminded of evolutionary algorithms / reproduce-and-select, fuzzing, and distillation.  These are all kinda the same processes; produce lots of stuff, most of which isn't what you want, and then pick out the good bits and work from there.  Stupid generation processes that you do a lot of will still generate good stuff from time to time and it's just a question of separating it out.  And a human producing things will tend to increase quality of the mash over time, in a way that a pot still won't.

It's probably also true of sessions.  If you want to have great games, run lots of games, don't sit there prepping for the perfect game.  If you want to run great sessions, run lots of sessions - many will be mediocre but some will be great.  These are harder because you can't really throw away the bad ones; they still get inflicted on your players.

Possibly also of games/procedures/systems too.  Maybe this is an advantage of the rules-light / approach that I hadn't considered.  When you make lots of very small games, you get to iterate quickly, highlight the stuff that you think is the best, and sort of bury the stuff that turned out mediocre.  Arguably that's kind of how I blog!  Publish first, then link people to the ones that turn out to be relevant or that keep returning to mind, and the ones that nobody cares about just sit there doing very little harm.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Randomized Starting XP

I was thinking the other day - I kind of want to start a game around the 2nd level range.  But I was having trouble settling on the precise XP number.  If you start at 2000 to get fighters to 2nd, MUs are only 1st.  If you start at 2500 to get MUs to 2nd, thieves are already 3rd.  So picking a single ideal numerical solution is hard.

It is also a little weird when all the PCs start with exactly the same amount of experience.  We already admit significant variation between PCs in terms of ability and starting gold - why not XP?  Particularly in an open-table situation, where it's expected that character level will vary within a party.

3d6 * 200 starting XP seems like a promising amount, averaging just over 2000, and never high enough for a fighter or MU to hit 3rd.  The interesting question is whether you roll it before or after committing to a class.  If you let it inform class choice, then you might get some interesting choices, where a stat line which is otherwise mediocre for a particular class gets played as that class because the XP roll is good for it (like low int, high XP to MU) or even worse otherwise (like a low XP roll where you can get 2nd with thief or cleric but nothing else).  I suspect that taking a high XP roll and using it for thief 3 instead of MU 2 or fighter 2 would probably not be a frequently-chosen option.  So this might be a great way to get a pretty consistently 2nd-level starting party, outside of very low rolls that don't even crack 1200.

On the other hand, a simulationist argument in favor of rolling XP after choosing class might be that it would be weird if nobody ever started a 1st-level MU.  Although maybe if you roll less than 1200 XP, where you're at 1st regardless, maybe MU becomes a real option again.  One sleep per day is one sleep per day...

(And then once we're rolling starting XP, clearly we need some rules for risking terrible injuries in chargen in order to potentially gain more starting XP...)

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Mapping and Measuring - Paces

I recently picked up an old used copy of Sleightholme's Better Boat Handling.  I had some trouble with docking this summer and it seemed like it might be a worthwhile read over the winter to build up a set of drills to run in the spring.  I haven't sat down and read it yet but I flipped through and looked at some exercises.  On page 22 it suggested:

Exercise 3: Distance judging

Whenever you are out walking and the opportunity occurs, note objects ahead such as typical two-story buildings, people, cars, gates, etc.  Guess their distance and then count your paces.  It is not merely size of distant objects but detail that gives the clue to distance.  A window, for instance, loses its bars as distance increases, then its rectangular form, and then finally it becomes a dot.

Lack of intuition about distances is a serious problem I have had - many canonical-ish instructions in docking or man-overboard drills measure distances in boat-lengths.  I know how long the boat is in feet, but projecting that out multiple times across the water is more difficult.  So I took note of this exercise and have started playing with it; I can do it even if I can't put a crew together for a given day, or the weather's bad, or whatever.  It seems like it would also be useful for anyone running wilderness encounters.  How much detail can you make out about a group of people and/or orcs at, say, 50 yards with the naked eye? (see also this old post)

The mention of measuring distances in paces also got me thinking about the dungeon game.  If I tell the players that the room is 30' by 40', how did they determine that?  I have never stopped the game to ask my players how they want to measure a room.  The default dungeon exploration speed is low enough that I could definitely see pacing the length and width of the room being viable for getting pretty accurate measurements within the allotted time.  But doing this would also expose you to danger from traps or enemies in the room.  So now I'm wondering whether I just want to give descriptions like "big, longer away from you than it is wide" and "small room" up until they have paced it.  Or give them estimated distances in tens of feet, but with a roll for error, and then if they pace it they can get accurate distances?  idk.

I also think it would be fun to give room sizes and distances in paces instead of feet.  Just like using stone for encumbrance, it's a quaint and evocative unit with a little bit of slop.

As usual, this led down a shallow wikipedia rabbithole, with a couple of interesting findings:

  • Alexander the Great brought specialist pace-counters along with his army to measure distances, and their accuracy was so good that some now think they must have had an odometer.  How much does a specialist bematist demand in monthly wages, I wonder?
  • You know those wheels surveyors use to measure distances?  Another name for them is a "waywiser".  I love it - it's alliterative and very Olde English.  If you put them on your equipment table, definitely use that name.
  • Apparently pace-counting is still used by the military and they use beads on a string to help keep track of large counts.  I did find myself wondering if I were occasionally slipping up with counts up towards a hundred while I was walking my block this morning; these make total sense.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

1e DMG: Further Precedent for Player-Controlled XP Allocation?

I was poking around in the 1e DMG's section on experience points due to a discussion on /r/osr and stumbled across this on page 85:

Division of Experience Points:
How treasure is divided is actually in the realm of player decision. Experience points (x.p.) for slain monsters, however, is strictly your prerogative. It is suggested that you decide division of x.p. as follows:...

Italics mine.  And then the procedure for dividing XP only discusses XP from monsters. Further down on that page there's a discussion of XP from treasure but it discusses only things like lowering the ratio for XP from GP if the party was stronger than the monsters it took the treasure from, the value of magic items, and when XP for treasure is awarded - nothing about how XP from treasure is divided.

I think this could be interpreted in support of my old speculative post about players controlling how XP from treasure is divided through their choice of who to allocate treasure to.  The heading where this note about treasure being divided by players is explicitly about XP allocation.  The existing division procedure only covers XP from monsters, and no procedure for dividing XP from treasure is provided.  I wouldn't say it's clearly Gygax's intent that XP from treasure should be divided as the players choose, but I think it's the most reasonable interpretation of the gaps here.

Tangentially, the other thing that surprised me in the 1e DMG's section on awarding XP was:

If your campaign is particularly dangerous, with a low life expectancy for
starting player characters, or if it is a well-established one where most players are of medium or above level, and new participants have difficulty surviving because of this, the following Special Bonus Award is suggested:

Any character killed and subsequently restored to life by means of a spell or device, other than a ring of regeneration, will earn an experience point bonus award of 1,000 points. This will materially aid characters of lower levels of experience, while it will not unduly affect earned experience for those of higher level. As only you can bestow this award, you may also feel free to decline to give it to player characters who were particularly foolish or stupid in their actions which immediately preceded death, particularly if such characters are not “sadder but wiser” for the happening.

 Gaining XP for dying, rather than losing it!  Wild!

Monday, August 28, 2023

Rival Parties and Replacement Characters

Every now and then there's a discussion about bringing in replacement characters in OSR games.  There was one recently on the reddits that brought this back to mind.  The consensus is that you should find excuses to get new PCs into the game.  But the poster points out that this distorts the resource game, and then people amend their position so that obviously you should have replacement PCs come in with partly-depleted resources.

As for me...  I'm thinking this sounds like an awful lot of DM fiat.  I eagerly await the "rulings, not rules!" in the comments.  But seriously, there are a lot of things that I don't like about the...  3rd?  4th? wave OSR but one thing I do like is the focus on little rules subsystems, "procedures".  See also Arbiter of Worlds' discussion on rulings establishing precedent and evolving into rules.

Anyway.  What would a system for adjudicating the arrival of new PCs look like?

Before designing one, it's worth checking whether we already have such a system in place but have failed to recognize it.  And I think Wandering Monster tables that are heavy on demihumans and "rival" adventuring parties could easily serve this purpose.  I have never had a good explanation of the point of having 30% of B/X's dungeon level one encounter table be demihumans and humans.  But maybe these encounters are intended to be a source of replacement PCs.  Then the deeper you go, the less frequent these encounters become and the harder it becomes to replace your losses in the dungeon.  Using the first level's friendly table to gather reinforcements pairs interestingly with using it as a safe haven to rest in for expeditions down to the second level.  The sharp drop off in potentially-friendly results on the encounter table as you level is interesting - maybe by the time you're going into the third dungeon level, you're expected to have hirelings rather than "living off the land" for replacement characters.  And then again, in the wilderness you have the Men table, but usefully-leveled results vary in frequency by terrain type.

So what's the procedure here?  Roll a random encounter with demihumans or adventurers, get a reaction roll better than Hostile, and then you can smuggle your replacement PC into that game that way?  And maybe they come in with fairly complete resources, but you had to take a significant risk (an encounter roll) to get them.  And if you're a party with multiple members down, maybe you make a bunch of noise to provoke encounter rolls in the hope of friendlies rather than the conventional wisdom of quietly trying to escape.  It's a high-risk double-or-nothing play but...  having that choice, between the quiet approach and the loud approach seems like it could make for some interesting gameplay.

The wildly-diegetic angle here would be to roll NPC parties completely straight, and then if they're not hostile on the reaction roll, allow players to pick an NPC to start playing.  Might be exploitable if you go on "recruiting" expeditions in high-level areas though.

I guess I'm not convinced that some delay on the arrival of replacement PCs is an ultimate evil, particularly if you let players who are out of characters continue to contribute to the party's problem-solving discussions (voicing someone else's henchmen, perhaps).  Particularly if a caller is being used, where people aren't acting out on their own behalf.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Wind in the Dungeon

It has been windy here lately.  I don't really have air conditioning, but I do have windows on both the east and west sides of my apartment.  When the wind is out of the east or west, I can get great cooling by opening both sides.  When the wind is out of the north or south, cooling my apartment becomes very difficult.

It has got me thinking about the old dungeon winds that would extinguish torches, and were good reasons for a protected lantern.  I've been wondering - were the old dungeon winds random?  Or did they arise from features that players might predict from the presence of airflow?  If one wanted to explain dungeon winds (or just moving air at all), how might one do it?

An opening near the surface might admit a draft of fresh air.  A pair of dungeon entrances at different elevations could produce a regular flow with both an influx and and outflux, like prairie dog burrows do.  A big persistent fire in the dungeon might have an in-draft and an outflow.  A tidal dungeon, where sections fill or empty of water, would have air flows associated with that.  The breathing of an enormous beast could produce regular periodic air flows.  A deep, cold underworld might have inflows where air in the upper levels cools and sinks.  You might be able to tell which doors are open or closed based on air flows; you can sure tell whether my windows are open or closed based on them.  Monsters might also be able to tell by the direction of drafts where things have changed in their environment...

(There are, of course, plenty of other interesting features to air besides motion - temperature, humidity, smell, composition...  and all of these could signal features too)

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Getting Started with Gauntlets

I keep putting off actually building gauntlet dungeons.  I've been thinking a little about why that is.  What are the hard problems here that I've quietly, subconsciously hemming and hawing over for like two years now?

One troublesome thing is that I feel like if I'm going to build levels that test the presence and effective use of certain classes, I should keep those levels sort of "balanced" between each other, so that certain classes don't feel like they're useless.  This almost implies a horizontal dungeon structure - if class-check levels are in series with descending dungeon level, then some class is still going to feel shafted or "dependent" on another class to get them down to where they shine.  And this also dilutes the viability of weird party comps which I was hoping for from class-focused levels.

I'm not really sure how I feel about building "wide" dungeon levels with sublevels testing individual classes.  Maybe this is an overreaction to being burnt on Rathell, the widest single level I've ever run.  I'm not sure how much patience / tolerance players will have for a single level of difficulty, even if it presents somewhat varied challenges.  On the other hand, it might make finding a path down more special (or more intimidating).

One solution to these two concerns / conflicting requirements is thinking more finely-grained about class-check levels and mixing class checks within single, smaller levels.  Rather than making a level (for example) a thief check or a cleric check, throw in individual elements that are cleric or thief checks.  A level might have a bunch of locks and a bunch of shriekers, testing thief for open locks and cleric for silence, or it might have a bunch of traps and undead, checking thief for trapfinding and cleric for turning (or cleric for find traps...).  So thinking about classes as bundles of features that are individually tested, and making testing multiple classes within a single level the standard.

This sounds pretty easy for thief, MU, and cleric - thief has a bunch of skills (which "come online" at varying rates), and MU and cleric have huge banks of spells to test individually.  Fighter is the tough one.  Clerics can pass AC checks just as well as the fighter, thieves can pass magic sword checks just as well as the fighter.  Cleaving checks (if one's game even has cleaves) are often passable by MUs with sleep, fireball, etc.  Max HP is a strange thing to test; I guess you could kinda do the 5e death spell thing, conditioning effects on max HP?  Rejigger sleep and cloudkill to work off of max HP rather than HD?  That's actually a really funny thought.  Conditioning effects on a 4e-style "bloodied" status when people are at half, so having bigger HP pools changes when those effects kick in?

I suppose one thing fighters are likely to have that most other characters will neglect (or at least not be raising through ability score tradeoffs) is just brute Strength.  Bring out the stuck doors, the portcullises that need lifted, the columns that need toppled, the stones that need carried, the chains that need pulled or broken.  This idea is growing on me - what sort of funhouse dungeon is complete without some strongman competition events?  So your MU has ogre power, fine, it's only three turns, Fafhrd here can flex those thews all day long.

Another angle on classes, if one were to build multiple smaller (say) 3-level dungeons, would be to tightly-class-theme individual dungeons.  Then you're not blocked on getting to the Thief Level by having to pass the Cleric Level.  And it's a pleasing idea from the in-world perspective; the legendary thief is gonna build a three-level gauntlet of traps and locks and sheer walls to make sure that whoever gets his gold is a worthy successor, you know?  The ruined temple of the Krolm is a gauntlet of strength and hit points and cleaving, it will take a lot of lore and prep to get into the sanctum of the Old Archmagos, etc.  The undead angle on clerics is a bit odd; maybe it's what is being kept in rather than out.  Or holy places with features intended to keep the unfaithful out have fallen to darkness.

Returning to "test multiple class features within a single megadungeon level", though, the other difficulty I have is in the very first level of a gauntlet megadungeon, for completely new players.  You just know their party composition is going to get messed up by casualties and you might not want them to rely on hirelings to patch it up.  I would almost be tempted to put "big scores" behind checks on individual class "core feature" like sleep and turning - getting a cleric or MU to the right place and recognizing that that's the right time (eg, to not have blown your sleep on a piddly random encounter) is a good start and a behavior we want to reinforce.  Other than that, maybe fundamentals of practice are the thing to focus on, like basic mapping?  A caller check, around "can the caller successfully interrupt impulsive players about to do something stupid?"  Maybe checks on mundane gear are also a good theme; most of that stuff is well within the purchasing power of first-level characters and mundane gear checks aren't dependent on having any particular class still alive.

Maybe that's an interesting solution to the first-level problem.  For seasoned veterans, a dungeon level with few monsters focused on mundane gear "puzzles" could be a bit dull.  But for people who have never played before, just successfully executing on the basics of dungeon exploration and random encounters could be a stimulating challenge even without having to worry about tackling serious (eg humanoid) lairs.

So then maybe the second level introduces humanoid faction play and gets more serious about mapping, logistics, traps...  What would be a good "capstone" for a three-level 'tutorial' gauntlet dungeon, I wonder?

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Traveller and Cruising

It's possible I've been thinking about Traveller all wrong.  Maybe this is obvious to everyone else but here goes.

I've been reading some books about maritime cruising.  "Living for extended time on a vessel (yacht) while traveling from place to place for pleasure. Cruising generally refers to trips of a few days or more, and can extend to round-the-world voyages." There's a lot of discussion about how to do your own maintenance (one, because stuff breaks at sea, and two because hiring professionals to do it in port is really expensive) and how to do odd jobs to make some money on the side since you probably aren't regularly employed.  Some of those odd jobs and cruising stories sounded like the sort of things Traveller patrons would ask for, and here we are.

This lens makes a lot more sense for Traveller than "space trucking".  You don't have to explain the economics of small-scale shipping, because that's not really what is happening here.  Sure you might make a windfall on cargo every now and then (and cruisers attempt this too, with mixed success - "We were told that people in the Marquesas desperately needed reading glasses.  I bought 50 pairs in Mexico and still have all of them [because we were misinformed].") but that's not why you're traveling.  You're traveling for its own sake, and money is a means to the end of continuing to travel.  You're not out to get rich - just to keep funding the midlife crisis and not have to go back to a day job with a boss and a commute. This is why your "career" ends at the end of chargen.

It's interesting to compare with the similarly non-accumulative style of Appendix N, where the heroes adventure to get rich, only to spend it all and then need to adventure again.  Here too it's adventuring for money in order to maintain an unconventional, expensive but unencumbered lifestyle.

I think this view is consistent with the belief that money is supposed to be important in Traveller, but it also admits the Classic Traveller style where PCs having a ship is somewhat rare.  A Traveller without a ship can still work odd jobs in / for the "cruising" community and get working passage to wherever. Losing the money game doesn't end the campaign; it just changes it temporarily.  So the money pressure maybe shouldn't be as overwhelming as it might traditionally be with the starship loan (or you do what many budget cruisers do and get a really old vessel).  It's there to keep things interesting, to add a creeping danger that you can't just run from, not to be the focus of play.

This cruising lens also answers the question of "why do we have a baronet or an ex-admiral on this grungy little vessel?"  They're not loading cargo - they're just drifting.  Plenty of nobles are into sailing ("It seems that of any activity in the world, singlehanded sailors have the best odds of being knighted.") and the admiral retired and decided he just wanted to kick back in the tropics in a low-stress environment but can't help but get himself into trouble.

Some possible implications for DMing Traveller - NPCs from the cruising community.  Lots of cruising vessels have "buddy boats" or form regattas headed to the same place at the same time.  This is good for when something goes wrong.  The vessel at the next berth over in port isn't a rival small trader; they're drifting hippies with a hydroponic weed operation onboard, or a very trad religious husband who used to sell insurance with wife and four kids and a dog aboard, or a reclusive ex-programmer with a bunch of ship systems automated, or a husband/wife pair where the husband is a professional hunter and the wife is a xenobiologist (who is actually the better shot of the two), or...  There's just a ton of room for recurring, charmingly-eccentric NPCs here, who might fill the patron role when things are going well for them, or who might need rescued when something goes wrong.

Another implication for DMing Traveller regards building sandboxes.  When the players are out to do the "space trucking" thing, you have to be really careful to not set up Golden Pairs of planets with complementary economic tags where you can just go back and forth indefinitely and make tons of money.  But if the players are on board with the game being about drifting, you might be able to be less careful with this; it becomes a "sometimes food", because anything that resembles routine work is anathema.  It seems like a way of thinking about the game that would really encourage building a sandbox with lots of wild, interesting bits for your tourists to go see and mess with.  It could be much mellower than the highly-incentivized OD&D sandbox of "where do we go to make a ton of money, hence XP, as quickly and safely as possible?" which so often causes analysis paralysis for optimizers (as does the Space Trucker optimizing his routes).  But cruising Traveller admits satisficing; "sure that sounds like an interesting place to go, uhhh I wonder if they need any eyeglasses, maybe we can make a buck.  Any passengers headed that way to defray our costs?"

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Coastal Sailcrawling?

Part of the reason things have been quiet here lately is that I was taking a course on navigating vessels under sail in coastal waters, which pretty well ate my weeknights.  At the beginning I was looking at doing a "Notes from a $TOPIC course" series like I've done previously with some courses [1][2] but it got away from me.  So, having arrived, now reflecting.

One conclusion from spending a lot of time staring at charts and plotting courses with pencil, compass, and protractor is that there is definitely room for procedure and gameplay in modeling this.

I think the distinction between coastal and open-water navigation is probably under-appreciated in Trad D&D's "waterborne adventuring" rules.  I don't know much about long-distance open-water passagemaking yet but reading accounts from eg Slocum it doesn't seem crazy to abstract down to "n days pass, have a couple random encounter rolls, you arrive more-or-less where you were planning to" given reasonably-intelligent play like using the trade winds and celestial navigation.  You can definitely get screwed and capsized by a big storm in the open sea, but there aren't many things to run into.  The coast, on the other hand, is by definition something you can run into.  To paraphrase one old salt, "the sea is pretty safe; it's the land that will get you".  Coastal vs offshore is probably also a useful line for ACKS' rule about continuing to sail through the night with a navigator - at night in open sea, by all means, get out your sextant, take some bearings on some stars, and sail on.  At night in unfamiliar, medieval coastal waters without lighted buoys, an accurate chart, or a full moon...  probably wiser to drop anchor and wait for dawn.

On a 1:80000 scale coastal chart like Chart 1210TR, one inch is about one nautical mile (some nuances apply due to Mercator projection but good enough for gaming work).  A small vessel under sail typically makes about 6 knots.  So if you do 1-inch, 1-nautical-mi hexes, you get a 10-minute turn to move one hex.  Or you go up to one-hour turns with 6 hexes per turn.  Either way, you also probably want to apply current smeared across the hour; if sailing in a 3kt current, you get pushed one hex current-ward every 20 minutes.  Since we're stealing a real-world chart, we can go dig up published tidal current tables.

Putting it on hexes is also kinda reasonable for dealing with wind direction and tacking; pick (or roll) one of the six hex directions for the wind to be coming from, and moving directly in that direction costs double (assuming you're making multiple short tacks within a single hex).  A modern sloop-rigged boat usually wants to sail at least 45 degrees off the wind, and then there's some leeway so you're going to do a bit worse than 45, often more like 50-55 in significant winds, sometimes much worse in big winds.  60 degrees off the wind is probably quite optimistic for medieval sailing vessels but if you're running a post-apocalyptic setting where not everything has been forgotten, primitive sloops sailing 60 degrees off the wind seems workable and simple.  Roll again every hour to see if the wind has shifted direction or remains from the same direction (or if it dies entirely, leaving them at the mercy of current - which is how many boats without motors end up on the rocks).

The other side of tide from current is depth.  A 1-mile hex probably admits multiple depth soundings.  If the party is sailing in a hex where there are spots with a depth less than their draft, there's a chance they run aground.  This seems basically like the "roll a d6 to see if the trap fires".  Use your judgement of what fraction of the hex is very shallow to determine the probability they end up in it.

If shoals are traps, tidal straits (also called tidal gates) are doors.  These are narrow channels through which tidal currents are very strong.  Examples include the Golden Gate in San Francisco, Hell Gate in New York, and Deception Pass in Puget Sound.  If you try to pass the wrong way through one of these at the wrong time, currents can be more than four knots and you make very little progress.  So they're like doors that only open at certain times.

Finally, how do players actually navigate a coastal sailbox?  They don't have a chart, and there are probably not lighted buoys in your setting.  There might be lighthouses, and if they have a hand-compass you can give them a rough bearing.  The various tall points of reference typically on coastal charts, like radio towers, water towers, and church steeples could be readily translated into towering keeps, wizards' towers, and hilltop monasteries for your players to go Full Lindesfarne on.  Chart 1210TR includes "monument" and "Chilmark Spire" points of reference - I'm not exactly sure what the Chilmark Spire actually is but it's rather evocative, no?  Again, in a post-apocalyptic setting, city areas could be readily translated into ruins.  Headlands, steep coastal bluffs, and the edges of particular islands also seem like commonly-used points of reference for inshore work.  We have, in the language and reference points of actual navigators, pieces for a language of wilderness play.

One may readily ask - why bother / will there be interesting gameplay here?  I think so.  Looking at the structure of river deltas, barrier islands, and sounds, there are lots of tiny islands and the structure of the water-network comes highly-Jayquayed by default.  A small island is kind of like a room; it is self-contained and you can stock it as a unit and the party can anchor the boat and row ashore and explore it and interact with the stocked thing.  And then your waterways are sort of like treacherous hallways, and your sheltered bays are places to rest at anchor. 

Just look at all those islands

In conclusion, perhaps deltas and barrier island chains may be thought of and played as dungeons, open sea as wilderness.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Solving First Level - Resting in the Dungeon?

The natural product of two recent lines of thinking - figuring out how first level is "meant" to be played, and monsters that counter resting in the dungeon.

Notably, in Moldvay there really aren't any monsters on the first dungeon level's wandering monster table who hard-counter resting in a room where you've secured the door.  This means a first level party with only one sleep a day actually has a lot of leeway to recover that critical spell.  Traverse the dungeon to the stairs to the second level, hole up and recover the sleep if you had to use it to get there, go down to the second level and look for unguarded treasure, pop back up when you've spent the sleep and recover it safely near the top of the stairs...

Your ability to take out a lair is still quite limited, since your max sleeps per day is still only one, but your ability to survive wandering monsters is much improved.  And then rations and water become a limiting factor on the duration of your dungeoneering expeditions - though camping in pitch blackness in a sealed room in a haunted underworld certainly sounds...  demoralizing.  Not that torch smoke in an enclosed space sounds much better.  You start out with torches and fresh rations and then upgrade into lanterns and iron rations as you get the money for them...

There are probably amusing tradeoffs in waste management too - a 12-person party produces a fair bit of excrement per day.  If you leave it lying around it might attract vermin and molds.  If you pack it out with you then it costs encumbrance and might attract monsters with strong senses of smell.  Dare you use the dreaded dungeon bathroom, based on real FLGS bathrooms?

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Oozes and Other Bunker-Buster Monsters

There was a discussion on the osr subreddit the other day about players resting in the dungeon, and it occurred to me that if you iron spike or bar a door shut so you can rest but roll an ooze on the wandering monster table while resting, it might just be able to get through under/around the door and disrupt your sleep.

Thinking about whether there were other types of monsters that could do something similar, incorporeal undead and swarms also spring to mind.  Maybe vampires if you let them go gaseous voluntarily.  Any of your burrowing enemies like ankhegs, grey worms, purple worms, thoqqas, and xorns, though those will mostly be loud and noticeable.

There's an interesting parallel with Deep Rock Galactic here, where they introduced several enemies (the bulk detonator and the oppressor) explicitly to counter the strategy of building bunkers.  These enemies can "force the door" by digging and are either difficult to damage from the front or explode massively.  It kinda makes me wonder whether some of these classic D&D monsters that might plausibly pass through doors were originally developed as counters for resting in dungeons.

I think this has interesting implications for how you build random encounter tables for dungeon levels.  If there's a "bunker buster" monster on your table, then the party is at risk of having their sleep disrupted if they barricade-and-rest on that level.  I went looking for AD&D 1e's tables but still haven't found them.  In OD&D Book 3, there's only the Ochre Jelly on the 3rd level table (though there sure are a lot of MUs who might be able to knock in a door).  Moldvay / OSE is much more interesting through this lens, with the following levels container the following potential bunker-buster monsters:

  1. Nothing really (green slime isn't motile so doesn't count)
  2. Grey Ooze.  Pixies hiding in the room you're bunkering in to prank you in your sleep would be pretty funny but I'm not sure it really counts.
  3. Ochre Jelly and Shadows (Gelatinous Cube too but it probably can't fit under doors?), Basic Adventurers potentially
  4. Grey Ooze, Ochre Jelly, and Wraiths.  Rust monsters too, depending on how exactly you do your spiking.  Expert Adventurers also possibly.
  5. Black Pudding, Ochre Jelly, Spectres, Expert Adventurers, possibly White Dragon
  6. Black Pudding, Purple Worm, Vampire, Expert Adventurers, possibly Red Dragon.

By the end there a solid quarter of possible wandering monsters are possible bunker-busters.  But holing up in the top levels of the dungeon is probably pretty safe!

If players quietly rest 8 hours in the dungeon, they'll get 3 wandering monster rolls per hour, or 24 total rolls.  Since the probability of a monster on each roll is 1 in 6, you expect four wandering monsters.  So if a quarter of your table for a given level is bunker-busters, then resting will usually fail.

ACKS has heuristics for building dungeon wandering monster tables, with one-third beastmen, one-third mindless/animals, and one-third "men and monsters".  It would be interesting to add a heuristic around bunker-busting enemies as well.  If you have one on a 1d12 table, then it won't come up in 70% of rests (assuming 4 wandering monsters are rolled; there's a long tail of bad luck in the wandering monster checks).  Two out of 12 means something gets through the door in 52% of rests.  At three out of 12, the door only holds in 32% of rests.  I think I kinda like 2 in 12 - you can do one ooze and one incorporeal undead, swarm, or burrower, so there's some variety, and rests are pretty close to a fair 50/50 shot.  Or if you count Rival Adventuring Party, then the interruption isn't necessarily unfriendly, but it might still be an interruption.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Surviving Fifth Level: The Heist Hypothesis

In another instance of recording bright things people have said in the ACKS discord, Arbrethil had some thoughts in response to Surviving First Level: The Heist Hypothesis and since he still hasn't started a blog (hint hint), I guess I'll record it here.

My players often break your assumptions (hiring lots of henchmen) [ed:to be fair, this is Moldvay's position and I'm just trying to solve it], but I've also definitely seen heist type play happen.  And I think when it does, it's often in the wilderness, where treasure hauls are bigger and random encounters are checked less often.  Certainly the odds of winning a wilderness fight are worse, but evasion lets you get away most of the time if it's not a fight you want.  And if you can find a good lair - stupid ogres that you can distract and bamboozle, or a lone dragon that can't both pursue pesky adventurers and guard its lair - that can be enough to level the thief on its own.  The other piece of the puzzle that stands out to me is the utility of a massed spear charge. Even if only three of your five characters can make a spear charge, if you win initiative you've got solid odds of cleaving through a dungeon-sized band of beastmen.  Once you can hire a few additional characters, a high AC PC-led dungeon phalanx trumps most any random-encounter sized band of beastmen on dungeon levels 1-2 even without magic support.
So I think your analysis of them going down to 2nd level pretty much checks out, and wilderness heists are like that but in every way moreso.
Emphasis mine.  I think the points about spear charges and high-AC phalanxes are good ones in ACKS specifically, though spear-charges can also work against the players if they encounter organized and appropriately-armed opponents.  The really interesting point (and one which cuts across both ACKS and OSE/B/X) is that that low-wilderness-level play is often very heist-like.  My Bjornaborg game was very treasure-map-centric once it got into the wilderness levels; get to the treasure, kill whatever's guarding it (if anything), and get back to town with it, avoiding encounters whenever possible.  And intuitively, it seems like there should be some parallels between low-dungeoneering-level and low-wilderness-level play, in that you don't have all the tools for either yet, under a theory of spell/class design where new abilities tend to be appropriate for the phase of the game where they become available.  To gather intel, you don't have Invisibility at 1st, and you don't have Wizard Eye at 5th.  To slow pursuit, you don't have Web at 1st, and you don't have Wall of Fire at 5th.  So it sort of makes sense that a style of play appropriate to the early-dungeon phase might re-appear in the early-wilderness phase, because you're in a similar lacking-tools situation.

This might also have something to do with my players' frustration with low-wilderness play.  I have never run 1st level before.  They've never played 1st-level OSR games before.  So we've never had to "solve" 1st level.  Hence, having to learn 1st level's lessons at 5th level instead.  But by 5th, you're more invested and the stakes are much higher; if you're learning heist play at 1st and you mess up, oh well, new characters are easy.

I wonder if this is the whole root of the problems I've been having with running wilderness game for literally a decade at this point.  It would be pretty funny if for all my theorizing about wilderness as dungeons and hiding maps and resource models and microsandboxes, the real answer was "make sure your players have had to survive 1st level."  A simple, practical, culture-of-play thing with unexpected consequences being the answer would be so perfectly on-brand for the OSR that I wouldn't even be mad.

But since, we're here and theorizing - there are some important differences in the resource model between 1st in the dungeon and 5th in the wilderness.  Fireball is pretty analogous to sleep - except that often in the wilderness you can regain fireball most days.  So that's a tremendous difference in your ability to deal with repeated encounters in a single expedition.  On the other hand, there's still some similarity in tackling lairs; one fireball isn't going to win a wilderness humanoid lair fight any more than a single sleep is going to win a dungeon lair fight.  And this is what drives the back to the heist dynamic - it's really about inability to take lairs head-on, since that's where the treasure (hence XP) is.  On the other hand, the ability to replenish fireballs daily opens up Fabian options for gradual lair reduction during a single expedition not available in the dungeon at 1st level.

The mercenaries-and-hirelings situation also bears examination through this lens.  Mercenary troops in the low wilderness levels probably serve about the same function are hirelings at 1st level; you're not going to be able to acquire and finance enough of them of high quality to rely on them alone to take out humanoid lairs, but they can even your odds against humanoid encounters, and at least help hold the line, pin the humanoids, and help prevent you from being overrun.  I'm really curious whether Moldvay would push against the use of mercenaries in the low wilderness levels in the same way he pushes against hirelings right out of the gate, so that players learn to do without them rather than using them as a crutch.  It seems worth considering to me; we certainly had fights in low-wilderness that my players "cheesed" with massed troops and then I got butthurt and wrote a long post about it.  I guess maybe I should go read Expert and see if Moldvay expresses an opinion on this.

In any case - thanks again Arb for pointing this parallel out!

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Snakebites and Magic Rocks

Or, I spent 15 hours reading wikipedia pages on venomous snakes so I guess I may as well make a post out of it.

I am not a herpetologist.  I am not your herpetologist.  Nothing in this post should be construed to be medical advice, nor expected to be perfectly accurate.  Everything here is gross generalizations for the purposes of gaming.

The two big families of venomous snakes dangerous to man are the elapids and the vipers (there are some dangerous ones in other families like the colubrid boomslang though)

  • Elapids
    • Include cobras, taipans, sea snakes, coral snakes, kraits, mambas, pretty much all of the various intensely venomous Australian snakes with unassuming names like the Western Brown Snake...
    • Often relatively long and thin body form 
    • Mostly have round pupils
    • Mostly lay eggs
    • Have relatively short, non-folding fangs at the front of the mouth
    • Venom is often primarily neurotoxic and kills by stopping respiration
    • In some cases, venom is almost entirely neurotoxic in action and causes no pain or swelling at the bite site, making it hard or impossible to tell if a bite was "dry" until onset of symptoms
    • The combination of short fangs and quick-acting venoms often lead to an attack pattern against their primary prey of wrapping around and biting multiple times to guarantee some good deep killing envenomations
    • Hunting pattern is often active - seeking out prey, going into burrows
    • In humans, time to kill from a wet bite is often 30 minutes to six hours
  • Vipers
    • Include rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths, adders, pit vipers, bushmasters, fer-de-lance, ...
      • Pit vipers are called this because they have a pit on each side of their head between the eye and the nostril which can sense infrared, not because they live in pits.  It's actually a pretty big category and includes most (all?) New World vipers
    • Often relatively stocky/girthy/thicc body form 
    • Many have slit-pupils like cats
    • Mostly give birth to live young
    • Have long, thin fangs that fold up against the roof of the mouth when not in use, and lower jaws that hinge out past 150 degrees to let them strike with the long fangs
    • Venom is often primarily toxic to blood and muscle tissue, causing clotting, hemorrhage, blistering, necrosis, kidney failure from rhabdomyolysis.  May require amputation of the bitten limb even if it doesn't kill you.
      • I have now seen some pictures of necrotized viper bites that I cannot unsee
    • Wet bites are typically very painful and swell up
    • Between the fragile but long-reach and deep-injecting fangs and the slow venoms, attack pattern against primary prey is often a single lunging bite and then backing off and waiting for the prey to die.
      • Some can track bitten prey by the smell of some components of the venom acting on the prey's blood
      • Often a passive hunting style, waiting in ambush for passing prey to tag
    • In humans, time to kill from a wet bite is often 10+ hours (overnight or the next day) unless the bite was onto a vein  

On reflection, it seems like regular-sized mundane venomous snakes are really more like traps than they are combat encounters.  You didn't poke the pile of leaves with a 10' pole before you stepped in it, save vs poison, and unless you roll a 1 you still have at least half an hour to get a Delay Poison or Neutralize Poison in before you keel over.  The necrosis angle on viper bites could be somewhat interesting, might play out a bit like ACKS' Dismember spell on a failed save.  2HD for a 5' pit viper that probably weighs 5 pounds seems really high.

Where you'd expect to see save-or-die poison with a pretty quick time to kill would be in snakes for whom humans are a common prey species.  I recall reading somewhere that most predators hunt prey that is something like a 10th of their own mass to minimize the risk of being injured by the prey.  I don't know how true this is but it sort of passes the smell-check; a mouse is much smaller than a cat, a mosquito is much smaller than a bat or sparrow, a seal is much smaller than a great white shark.  I would expect pack hunting, ambush, and venom to all shift those closer to 1:1, since these strategies reduce the risk of injury to the predator.

The Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake is typically about 6 feet long and weighs about 5 pounds.  It commonly preys on cottontail and marsh rabbits, which weigh about 2-3 pounds.  Scaling up mass with the cube of any single dimension, we'd expect a 12 foot rattlesnake built to the Eastern Diamondback's proportions to weight about 40lbs, and a 24-foot rattlesnake to weigh about 320.  That seems a size at which hunting adult humans as a primary prey sounds plausible.  Incidentally, this is also about the size of a large reticulated python, which have been known from time to time to prey on humans, including adult male humans.  I think this length and mass would be a better match for the 4HD giant rattler stats than the 10' in its description.

Anyway, a few other fun snake "facts":

  • King cobras have a really low-pitched growly hiss apparently
  • The yellow-bellied sea snake can get about 33% of its oxygen needs by absorbing oxygen from the water through its skin
  • We're pretty sure sea snakes don't drink seawater, but nobody is really sure where they get fresh/brackish water.  It's theorized that they might drink the layer of brackish water at the top of the water column during heavy rains
  • The small-scaled burrowing asp can rotate its fangs sideways out of its mouth and uses this in confined spaces where it doesn't have room to bite.  It has also been observed to sting each rodent in a burrow containing multiple before stopping to eat any of them.  Next time your players meet a snake and complain that trying to bite each PC in turn was too smart, show them this.
  • Some venomous snakes which hunt by ambush use "caudal lures", where the tip of their tail look like a tasty worm or grub.  A dungeon-snake whose tail looks like some sort of unattended treasure would be pretty funny.

I also wandered into some articles on treating snakebite.  Antivenin is made by injecting large mammals like horses with small doses of venom and then harvesting their antibodies.  Antivenom can have some pretty significant side effects, called "serum sickness", from reactions to horse proteins.  These can take up to two weeks to appear and in rare cases can kill you.  In folk medicine, there's a whole genre of magic healing stones, some of which nominally work on snakebites (bezoar stones from inside of toads and snake-stones or black-stones often made from burnt animal bones) and some of which might be made by snakes (adder stones).  There were also madstones, which might not have been stones at all but body parts of albino deer used to try to treat rabies?  In conclusion I feel OK about having some non-magical treatments for snakebite that give you a second save but also entail bed rest afterwards.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

1e's Time in the Dungeon

The introduction to the AD&D 1e DMG mentioned that it's reasonable to omit random encounter wandering monster rolls if you understand the purpose of random encounters and it doesn't apply.  It doesn't tell you what that function is, though.  So I went looking for it and sadly didn't find it.

Instead, I found the table of how long various actions in dungeon exploration take.  It's split across a page boundary (pages 96 and 97) so I have reproduced it in text here rather than as a screenshot:

  • DOOR - search for traps: 1 round
  • DOOR - listening for noise: 1 round
  • ROOM - mapping, and casually examining a 20'x20' area: 1 turn
  • ROOM - thoroughly searching after initial examination: 1 turn
  • SECRET DOOR - checking for by simple tapping of floor or wall, by 10'x10' area: 1 round
  • SECRET DOOR - thorough examination for means to open, by 10'x10' area: 1 turn

I was very surprised to see the time-costs of some of these actions listed in rounds (which in 1e are minutes, 10 per turn, not 6-10 seconds) rather than turns.  I went back and checked and B/X (well, OSE) simply doesn't have times listed for any of the interactions with doors, and doesn't distinguish between types of searching - it just says that searching a 10'x10' area takes a turn.  I think I had been running listening at doors, searching them for traps, and searching for secret doors as taking a turn each.  I'm not sure how I feel about breaking the atomicity of the exploration turn and allowing it to be subdivided further into rounds.  I also find it very amusing that on page 97 shortly after this table of suggested times to perform these actions, Gygax complains about players who search everything and listen at every door.

Assume that your players are continually wasting time (thus making the so-called adventure drag out into a boring session of dice rolling and delay) if they are checking endlessly for traps and listening at every door. If this persists despite the obvious displeasure you express, the requirement that helmets be doffed and mail coifs removed to listen at a door, and then be carefully replaced, the warnings about ear seekers, and frequent checking for wandering monsters (q.v.), then you will have to take more direct part in things. Mocking their over-cautious behavior as near cowardice, rolling huge handfuls of dice and then telling them the results are negative, and statements to the effect that: “You detect nothing, and nothing has detected YOU so far —“, might suffice. If the problem should continue, then rooms full with silent monsters will turn the tide, but that is the stuff of later adventures.

But...  my brother in dice, you set the time cost to perform these actions so low that players would be stupid not to search for traps and listen at every door.

Maybe it's stupid to require a turn to listen at a door - but it works well and it's an actual choice!  And if it takes a turn to listen at a door, search it for traps, or try to pick a lock, then maybe you really don't need the no-retry clauses.

This does force me to consider that maybe I should give the party "free" attempts at finding secret doors in passing, assuming that they're tapping as they go because it's quick, and then make a successful turn-length search primarily for finding the mechanism of action / trigger.

There is also an interesting bit in here:

A gnome, for instance, must remain relatively quiet and concentrate for a turn to detect facts about an underground setting. Likewise, a dwarf must work at it. An elf doesn’t detect secret doors 162/3% of the time by merely passing them unless he or she is actually concentrating on the act. A character with a sword must have it out and be thinking about its power in order for the weapon to communicate anything to him or her. To sum it all up, DON’T GIVE PLAYERS A FREE LUNCH! Tell them what they “see”, allow them to draw their own conclusions and initiate whatever activity they desire.

Emphasis mine.  I think grouping in the use of magic sword detection abilities with these inherent racial abilities is telling about the expected frequency and ease-of-use of sentient swords.  There are no swords with detection abilities on table III.G. Swords on page 124 - swords with detection abilities only arise from the Sword Primary Abilities table for "unusual" (sentient) swords on page 167.  In conclusion, further evidence that the sentient sword rules are significant and have a purpose.