Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Story/Game Sweet Spot

I started my first ongoing campaign in something like 10 years a week and a half ago, and we're meeting again tomorrow. After lurking on G+ and OSR blogs, I was kinda ready for charge-in-and-get-ourselves-killed gaming - that's what I've mostly experienced before. I haven't gamed with these players before, though, and most of them haven't gamed for years. Of course, they surprised me completely.
It became clear during our first session that this group plays their characters as if life is precious. They are careful, and none of them are fighter types (A C&C Thief who is more of a spy, a C&C 0-level magic user, and a 0-level Mountebank jacked from the writeup here initially but will be cut to fit), and all are interested in a level of roleplaying I haven't gotten the chance to do in awhile.  It's going to be an investigator/spy/discover the big conspiracy type of game, but a kill-stuff-and-take-it's-stuff type game.
I couldn't be more pleased! However, I realize that I haven't played in a game like this in awhile that I felt came off successfully. When you take frequent combat off the table, you take out what constitutes the 'game' portion for a lot of people. My concern becomes: how to hit the right combination of 'game' and story.
What I mean is, I and my players prefer to play out things like skill use (there aren't really skills per se as it's Castles and Crusades, but I'm talking about situations that would be skill checks in 3.x and 4.x D&D). I like there to be some mathematical randomness of outcome, and don't want my judgement to be the sole arbiter of success or failure. What, then, are some good strategies for incorporating the more 'game' elements, so it doesn't become amateur theater hour?
What are some good situations that can hit that mix of dice and roleplaying that aren't combats? What are the best ways to balance those?
I have some ideas, of course, and am looking at the story-games forums and various DMGs, but I thought I'd throw it out to see what advice people have.

Monday, May 28, 2012

6 Random Encounters, 6 Plot Hooks

Memorial Day Bonus! These tables can be used in parallel (IE you roll once and take the same number for both tables) or randomly (Roll twice). Or whatever you want.

6 Random Encounters:

1. Ambush by diseased Gnoll bandits! Usually this many would defeat the PCs, but they are sick. Do the PCs catch the illness?
2. Roving band of rascally kobold children. Not evil, but hungry, poor, and mischievous.
3. A dapper young man in odd fashion who is trying to make sense of a map of the area. He has one or many clearly magical devices.
4. A group of snobby elephant-headed warriors who are willing to take the PCs as squires.
5. Hundreds of stray cats sitting calmly, listening to one cat meow. Will go on for 30 minutes +
6. A light-tight wagon being driven by Unseen Servant with seven frightened, battle-ravaged vampires inside.

6 Plot Hooks:

1. If left alive long enough to question, they will point the PCs to the lair of an evil wizard who experimented on them.
2. If not helped, or attacked and some escape, they return later as bandits and the local town blames PCs.
3. If helped and befriended, will give the PCs transport in a strange device to anywhere they want.
4. On a secret spy mission and trying to get the PCs involved without telling them.
5. If disturbed or attacked, will put the PCs to sleep on a failed save (before scattering). Affected PCs have strange dreams and wake up somewhere far away.
6. Just looking for some way to peacefully co-exist, but if convinced that it is futile, will suicidally attack PCs.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Encounter Type and Nine-headed Monster Tables

Roll 1d4 to determine encounter type or do whatever you want:

1. The thing is enraged/a mindless killer, all heads attack no matter what.
2. The thing is wary of intruders and attacks them based upon triggers (PCs getting near eggs, treasure, mate; PCs mentioning a certain person or concept, etc).
3. Diplomatic encounter; the thing has knowledge or influence the PCs need, but the heads' different personalities fight over whether it should help them; different methods will persuade different heads, some conflicting. (method that convinces one head may anger another)
4. The thing needs something the PCs have (item, knowledge, influence) but looks like something the PCs need to kill; it will defend itself, but stop attacking if the PCs let up. Killing it is Evil and will enrage townsfolk/powerful wizard/the PCs' God.

CHAOS HYDRA - Nine heads - roll** nine times to start, (optionally: twice whenever a head is severed and two grow in place):

1. Bear head in clown makeup; bite attacks as bear & fear effect
2. Mummy head; berates PCs for modern dress/language/behavior while casting spells at them; smells bad
3. Baby dragon head; bite/breath attacks as baby dragon; wants to know where mommy is
4. Adult dragon head; bite/breath as appropriate; wants treasure
5. Sleazy Adult dragon head; wants to gamble with PCs; cheats magically
6. Old Dragon head; wants other heads to shut up so it can sleep
7. Orc chieftain head; just wants respect
8. Snake head; always lies; bite/poison attack
9. Dumb bearded guy; always tell truth, accidentally; one strong arm grows next to this head holding a club weapon
10. Giant fist that punches PCs forever
11. Lion head; will be appeased if PCs convince him he is their leader; roar/bite attacks
12. Wolf head; just wants to be fed -"I don't think you head me correctly. What you heard was: 'Give me A LOT of your food'; what I said was 'Give me ALL of your food.'"
13. Mind-flayer head
14. Neck-Beard; wants to teach PCs new games and play them; all heads will be placated while PCs are playing games with him, but immediately attack if PCs express boredom, try to leave, or try another tactic
15. *Blonde animal or human head with ridiculous pompadour and underbite; Says, "heh heh, heh hehe," a lot and wants to be shown cool stuff like fire; if unimpressed, PCs being eaten by other heads is cool stuff; if fed and shown something REALLY cool, cowl will drop over head and frenzied sounds emerge as this head attacks other heads while creature runs in random pattern
16. Portable hole/vacuum; PC are sucked in 1/rd if fail STR check; stored until end of battle or quest completed inside. Inside is an alternate dimension that is either a tricky trap maze with Cenobite-type demons or a creepy alternate version of the PCs' home town OR BOTH
17. Deer head; antler attack; plant foods makes it happy
18. Demon head; wants to be freed from rest of creature and returned to hell
19. Entire baby with god-like strength and ego
20. Human head with decaying mask and crazy eyes; invokes power of maddening dark forces from beyond understanding that generally put the PCs to sleep

*ALT for 15 or any entries not appropriate to game/setting: head of dead former companion or family member that attempts to convince PCs that they were the ones who should have died; is magically persuasive and induces PCs to suicide

**DOUBLE ALTS to replace any human heads above for extra monsterness or whole table above for simplicity:
1. Cockatrice head - beak strike turns PC to stone
2. Crocodile head
3. Medusa head
4. Frog head with tongue attack
5. Insect head with acid vomit attack
6. Giant snake head; speaks common and wants to be told how pretty it is; bite/poison attacks

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Which games fit these SF movies?

I'm trying to figure out where to focus my SF game research, as I played mostly fantasy games growing up - but watched and read mostly sf & horror movies and books. I'm probably picking up Thousand Suns next paycheck, but I know there's a vast array of SF games out there.
What games would the following movies most easily fit into? (This is less "would the movie fit into the default setting" and more "what game's mechanics do the actions of the characters / logic of the narrative / feeling of the movie's world fit most elegantly into.") Answering even one of these is helpful, so thanks!

-Blade Runner
-Total Recall (1990)
-Alien 3
-Star Wars
-Fifth Element
-District 9

and which best fit the following TV shows:

-Cowboy Bebop
-Lain (anime)
-Ghost in the Shell
-Red Dwarf
-Battlestar Galactica (2000s)
-Falling Skies

And lastly, what game would the comic Battle Angel Alita fit into best?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

What's your relationship to the battlemat & minis?

In a few mere hours, I begin DMing my first homebrewed campaign in many years. It's got me re-evaluating some of my basic assumptions about how to run and play, and I'm curious what other people think. At the moment, I'm wondering about the battlemat and minis.

Playing 2E in the Dallas area in the 90s, I played with a large community that used the battlemat in a specific way. Pickup games (at cons etc) used it the same way, if I recall correctly. From what I've read on some OSR blogs, groups in other areas didn't use battlemats or minis at all until 3.0.

When first sitting down to play, the battlemat would usually already be down, totally blank. Players tended to put their minis in front of them at the table. Everyone usually had a painstakingly painted mini. During setup and initial RPing, the DM might draw something out to help players visualize it occasionally, usually not to scale. The mat would be largely blank and minis unused until things turned hostile. All parts of the game before the first fight did not use minis at all unless a fight was likely.

When we had got to the first fight, or an RPing situation turned hostile, the DM would draw the area out on the mat and would dictate or negotiate where each character's mini was at the start of the conflict. Then movement, weapon/spell range, etc would come into play, and the mat/minis would be used. After the last creature was defeated, trap disarmed, or chest searched, the mat and minis would be largely ignored until the next conflict. 

So, even trap disarming or searching weren't mapped unless related to a fight. Occasionally, it would be used in a situation that was only likely to cause a fight - sneaking past the Orc camp, for instance. Once in a while it would be used for long wilderness travel, to show the players the general area and track progress between random encounters. Of course, there were exceptions for situations where position was vital, but they were rare.

This method caused some interesting metagame tension. If the map came out, or if the DM drew an area to scale and had players place minis, you knew a situation was likely to turn hostile or a monster was around the corner. Players tried not to overtly let this metagame knowledge affect their character, but some would suddenly be more cautious or ask, "Do we hear anything?" 

A clever DM would use it to their advantage - even if no fight was planned. If the players or characters were getting unfocused, bored, fighting with each other, or feeling directionless, it was a tool to bring focus back to the game. It said, this next part is important. This only worked if the majority of times there actually was a fight coming (or narrowly avoided), but when used judiciously, the players never knew. A DM could use it to create tension, and players would feel impossibly clever for having avoided a fight/explosion. (...or players spoiling for a fight would rush back in, banging pots together to attract the fight you thought you had avoided!)

In the 4E games I played after coming back into the hobby (and before discovering the OSR), the mat was used for everything. If something happened in-game at all, the battlemat was used. Peaceful interactions? On the mat. character intros? On the mat. I know this is likely unique to the groups I played with, as is the method above, but I found it very video-gamey - the mat was the virtual world, and everything happening to one's "avatar" had to happen on it, not in your imagination. (not edition warring here, relating my subjective unique butterfly feelings about a specific group. I know 4e can be used differently, and with the method above.)

So how did/do you use the minis, and battlemat?  

Saturday, May 19, 2012

"Blood-Tree Tunnels of the Swamp Witch"

First post! I'm excited to begin my gaming blog with collaboration! 

In a fit of wonderful birthday insanity Monster Johnson made the map below in inimitable DIYpunk fashion, based on the suggested titles from Jack (Caves of the Swamp Wives) and myself (Blood-tree Tunnels of the Swamp Witch). 


My Key for the Blood-Tree Tunnels side:

* = optional flavor text in footnotes

The Tunnels are made from living ROOTS of Blood-trees guided into their current shape. Upon touching the wall, there is a 2 in 3 chance any creature painlessly loses 1 hp per round as the roots absorb blood. On the 3rd consecutive round touching the same spot, the roots will ensnare the creature, requiring significant force to break free. On the 4th consecutive round touching the same spot, the creature loses 1 CON point per round until freed from the roots. At 3 CON the creature is released under the roots' control, with its only desire to put other creatures in the roots. CON points and sanity are regained with food and sleep.

10. This humid, dank cavern is dominated by PUFFBALL MUSHROOMS covered in tiny spines. Interspersed are dead, naked bodies. If disturbed, the mushrooms release a 5 ft cloud of spores in the area (save fails: blindness for 1d4+1 rounds / passes: 1 round of coughing.) There is no path through the mushrooms, but profuse vines hang from the ceiling. The vines break 1 in 6 times they are grabbed, but are otherwise useable for swinging across the mushrooms without disturbing them. Some of these vines may be blood-tree roots. Swinging over the mushrooms takes 3-6 vine swings. If all the mushrooms are destroyed in the left half, a secret path to area 11 can be found. 

11.This room is piled high with mouldering clothing of all types. 3-6 Immature Mothmen use areas 10 and 11 and are immune to both mushroom spores and blood-tree roots. The Mothmen swoop from the ceiling and gain surprise, immediately attacking anyone entering area 11. They will place any creature affected by their Hypnotic Wings against the wall for the roots to feed on. They have coincidentally never encountered the Swamp Witch.
One beautiful JELLY MUSHROOM grows here, which if eaten negates the effects of roots, puffballs, or Hypnotic Wings. *

IMMATURE MOTHMEN: AC 9 or 11; MV (as human, same flying); HD 1 to 4; AL N; ATTACKS: normal spear or: HYPNOTIC WINGS - save or be immobilized, staring at wings. New save when damage is taken, every 3 rounds if damage by ROOTS.

12. A few more Jelly Mushrooms grow here. The northern wall is dominated by a huge, floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. The books are histories, novels, and plays from long-dead societies and folio collections of rare art prints. 1 in 10 chance any book checked is hollowed out, actually containing a tragic gothic romance. There are also several children's books with strong female heroines. There is one comfortable chair, cracked and dirty. Anyone picking up one of the SKULLS interspersed as book-ends is attacked by it; see area 17.

If more than 2 creatures walk between areas 12 and 13 at the same time, the whole floor collapses and everyone on it falls into area 17. This is detectable as a pit trap by trap-detecting types. 6 people can fit, single file, before it collapses. If collapsed, the only passage is by holding onto Blood-tree roots.

13. A boiling kettle of shiny black liquid bubbles over a fire. Any creature looking into, touching, or eating it spends the next hour moping vocally about their choices in life. Affected creatures just want to lean against the wall and cry. A save is allowed for every round they are slapped by another person, with cumulative +1s per round slapped. The effect takes place even on characters who have previously saved. 
 A SHAGGY INK MUSHROOM grows from the wall. Disappearing ink can be milked from it while it is alive or the first round after it is picked.

14. A cluttered laboratory, jammed with shelves piled high with ponderous tomes of magical research, jars and flasks full of noxious powders and liquids, bizarre apparatuses, open flames, and tiny caged humanoids, living and (un)dead, about the size of a thumb. If too much of the equipment is disturbed, disembodied hands attacks from the clutter. The shelf blocking the tunnel at the back cannot be moved without at least 6 rounds of contact with blood-tree roots and at least two creatures of exceptional strength. If the liquids or powders are consumed, they produce random potion effects, or make you feel bloated. Alternatively, any potion consumed causes one to switch places and sizes with a tiny, caged humanoid.

15. LAIR OF THE SWAMP WITCH. One side of this cavern has a four-poster bed, a large, comfy chair, and a dirty, scarred table littered with books and candles. The other side is a mushroom garden, full of yellowish, normal-looking mushrooms. There is a 3 in 4 chance the SWAMP WITCH Albixa (Dusk Hag Revenant) is here. She is lonely, and wishes to engage newcomers in conversation as long as possible. Coincidentally, she is completely unaware of the Mothmen using areas 10 and 11.
If attacked, she will activate EMETIC MUSHROOMS which float over intruders' head on clouds of noxious methane and pour acidic blood on them. *

16. Jelly mushrooms (see area 11) and Puffballs (see area 1)grow here. There is a case full of decaying scrolls and trinkets that falls over toward the Puffballs when first touched. It's door is extremely creaky. There is a pristine magical ring with a red ruby that contains the essence of an evil chaos sorcerer; he cannot cast spells, but can communicate telepathically and will try to convince anyone he contacts that there are vast riches in area 17. He just wants to watch things die. The ring magically returns to the case in 2 hours if removed.
If the case is not in it's original position when the tunnel between 16 and 18 is entered, the tunnel collapses and anyone on it falls into the water in area 18. If more than 10 minutes is spent here, Blood-tree Zombies are released from the walls (see 17)

17. Emetic Mushrooms float up and vomit acidic blood (digested from the roots) on anyone who ventures here, with increasing frequency toward the back tunnel. The ground is littered with old bones, weapons and armor eaten away by acid, and gold pieces. Two hungry kobolds named Bon are trapped in a raised niche in the wall, and will give a magic knife and bracelet to anyone freeing them. They might know where a treasure horde is buried in the swamp above. The floor here is littered with Skeleton Heads, and there are a few Blood-Tree Zombies that want to push people to the walls.


18. This chamber is flooded with greenish liquid that smells of the acid vomited by the Emetic Mushrooms. Vines hang from the ceiling; they can be used to swing across, but break 2 in 6 times. There is a 50% chance any vine grabbed is a Blood Tree Root. In the water is a Mummified Giant Salamander. He attacks anyone making noise or near the water. He will not attack anyone paralyzed by fear at seeing him, but nudge them toward the root-wall with one of his attacks.

MUMMIFIED GIANT SALAMANDER:  AC 6 or 14; HD 8-16; ATTACKS 3: BITE 1D8 CLAWS 1D4; anyone seeing SAVE VS FEAR (FAIL: paralyzed for 1-4 rounds)

*11. If a party does not attack for a full round and is not interested in their "treasure", the Mothmen immediately stop attacking and attempt to have a pleasant conversation; they are desperately lonely. They will explain that they were sent by their tribe as sacrificial husbands for some Swamp Brides, but lost their map to the Swamp Brides' caves and found these tunnels instead. Their "treasure" is clothing gathered from dead bodies in the swamp and tunnels. This clothing is their food.

*15. She is not hostile, but will be towards anyone who damages her laboratory or garden. She has many items infused with magic power from her experiments. She only cares about areas 12, 14 and 15.
If engaged in conversation, her topics are: her dreams of the future that she misinterprets as ancient history, history she has read about or experienced, her hated sisters who she "exiled" long ago, her beloved salamander, and the herbal medicinal needs of the local town, who consult her on a regular basis. If she is pleased with someone, she will grant them "dreams of wondrous history" - prophetic dreams for 1d6 nights.

*16. There are several empty slots, with a note saying "Borrowed from down the corridor, will return soon." The note is so old it crumbles after being read. If the salamander is mentioned, the ring sorcerer will claim Albixa stole it from him. If the ring is mentioned to Albixa, she will just exclaim, "What a mistake HE was!"

I think this works best if the PCs need information only Albixa can tell them, or an item in 17.

Let me know what you think!

(edited to put flavor at bottom, breaking up chunks of text)