Wednesday, June 24, 2020

XP for GP and Retro-Gaming: What are the Alternatives?

In three recent "theory" posts, I've been describing retro-game (OSR) play style. At several points, I've emphasized how the 1 XP per 1 GP rule sustains the pleasures of retro-gaming play. But the truth is that the rule limits and directs play in various ways we might want to avoid, and suffers from problems when it's lifted from the original context for which it was fashioned. So I think it's worth our time to understand as clearly as possible what it does for retro-gaming play, so that we can see what alternatives there are that might do the same work. In other words, I want to understand the role of 1 XP per 1 GP in order to think about what alternatives to that rule that might enable and sustain retro-gaming play.

Here are some positive things 1 XP per 1 GP does in retro-games. First of all, it sets an objective success condition, thus enabling the pleasure of overcoming challenges. You succeed if you get a big treasure haul out of the dungeon; you fail if you come up empty handed. While players will pursue many other goals in open world gaming, setting their own additional success conditions, this dimension of objective success and failure is crucial for maintaining the pleasures of overcoming challenges. It gives you success as something that is not settled by DM fiat ("milestones" or "good play" rewards), or negotiated between players and DMs, allows the DM to occupy the role of a neutral referee or judge. The world is set up, the challenges are placed, and the players do what they want, with the DM refereeing the consequences of their actions.

Another reason 1 XP per GP works is that it incentivizes exploration and discovery, thus enabling the pleasures of exploration. Treasure is placed in the forgotten corners of the world, or in the ruins of the great Empire that Was, in the cracked ancient domes of the serpent people, etc. By placing the lure of wealth (and so success) in the places that must be explored and understood in order to overcome the relevant challenges, you regularly entice the players to break new ground, and uncover the mysteries of the setting as a condition for success.

It also de-emphasizes combat as the sole or main way to gain experience. Instead of telling you to always rely on your sword arm, it encourages out-of-the-box thinking, and opens up the possibilities of faction-based play. You do not need mindless monsters to slay for "grinding experience", but can rather have most "monsters" attached in one way or another to factions with their own goals and complexities. It leads to a more creative and tactical, less reductive style of play (in this respect), lending itself better to the pleasure of emergent stories and open-world play.

Here's a point I owe to conversations with Nick Kunzt. Something that I haven't emphasized previously, but that is implicit in the system of downtime activities I've been developing. In his account of money, Marx emphasizes that money is the universal commodity. It is like the philosopher's stone in allowing one to transmute any object (that one sells) into any other object (that one buys). His droll example involves the religious farmer who grows wheat, and sells it, in order to buy a bible...from a bible salesman who uses the farmer's money to buy whiskey and print atheist tracts.

Of course, there are some things money can't buy, like love and solidarity, but it buys an awful lot: a wild night on the town, orphanages, arms for a peasant's revolution, books, a wizard's tower, improvements to an inn, a really special sword, etc. The point is that by tying advancement to the possession of a universal commodity that player characters can spend to pursue their own idiosyncratic goals, it encourages interaction of player characters with the setting from the start. They are encouraged to build something so to speak, and to leave their mark on the world one way or another. Again, this kind of dynamic investment in the setting is one of the great pleasures of open-world, sandbox gaming.

Some Problems and Limitation with XP for $$$

What follows are my thoughts about some problems and limitations with this rule. I want to emphasize that I myself am currently using the rule, and have done so for the last 4 years of play. I'm not trying to talk anyone out of using it. But here are some ways that I have found it to be problematic or limiting.

The Rule Valorizes Bad Values

Something that people worry about with this rule is that it involves bad values and politics. For example, that it valorizes capitalistic greed and colonial plundering. This sentiment is frequently expressed on gaming twitter. I think there's something to this worry, although not as much as people think. There's so much to say about this that I'll only be able to scratch the surface.

First, a clarification. This worry does not depend on the thought that playing D&D causes us to have the relevant values as people sometimes claim that children who play violent video games are more likely to grow up to be violent adults. (These are claims that could be investigated with social science to test for the causal links.) Instead the worry is that this rule in retro-gaming invites us to express a certain value, to casually treating something bad as if it were good to do, so that we can have fun doing it. Such an expressive attitude is insulting to the people who actually suffered these things (exploitation and colonization) and would appear to endorse, even if only in imaginative play, the thought that what they underwent was not really an injustice, or one not worth taking seriously.

Let's start with capitalist greed. One problem with this objection, when it's stated nakedly, is that one can play at things without valorizing them. One can enjoy playing diplomacy, while opposing imperialism, militarism, and great power politics, or monopoly with little sympathy or affection for real-estate moguls. Those games do not involve much imaginative investment, but even where we are more richly invested in imaginative play, being earnest is not the only mode of play available. I often play retro-games with groups that are largely composed of socialists, anarchists, and leftists of various stripes. We often enjoy playing sometimes self-serving individuals who enrich themselves by extracting treasure from dungeons while engaging in a Vancian comedy of manners with a wide range of factions, including friends, enemies, and best of all, frenemies. Our games are not unified in this aesthetic, because we're not emulating a genre (that's not how retro-games work), but it's definitely part of what's going on. In other words, we enjoy a certain swath of the game because it is pleasing satire of self-advancement or competitive greed. It's true that it's enjoyable in a sort of touch-in-cheek satirical mode only because we are drawing on our real world experience of things that aren't great. But that's what satire is for.

Another problem is that players characters in games with 1 XP per GP are often not very greedy when they get ahold of treasure, at least in the sense of looking to accumulate wealth. First off, in my experience player characters often end up throwing their lot in with oppressed underdogs in the setting, and end up spending their wealth to help people or pursue spiritual or political goals. It helps that the rule is not that you get experience points through returns on business investments (normally, money you get without adventuring doesn't count), and often there is an emphasis on spending down any wealth you get (often you only get XP if you spend the gold). So it's definitely not about setting up enterprises to efficiently exploit workers, or even about becoming rich. The worry that it's a game about capitalism, or even greed in the sense of ambition for material advantage, status, and luxury, doesn't fit very well with my experience of play since I started using the 1 XP per GP rule. I'm not saying you can't go there with this rule, obviously you could, I'm just saying that it's easy not to go there if you don't want to.

A bigger worry, I think, is about colonialism. "Plunder" and "exploration" and "taming" of already inhabited "wilderness" certainly is a big part of the heritage of D&D. When extracting loot is used to motivate exploration of lands already inhabited by intelligent beings this seems to be an issue. But there are ways of handling XP for GP that do not valorize colonialism, either in the mode of "exploration" or "settlement", or in the mode of "resource extraction". One way this gets handled in a lot of retro-gaming settings is to place the exploration and looting of cultural sites in a post-apocalyptic space. What one loots are the splendors of the ancients, past great empires, and the like. In a certain sense, this is counter-colonial, since the ancients were more likely to be the colonizers or the imperial forces, and one lives in a destitute present of the post-colonized. Similarly, geographical exploration is not about spreading the reach of some supposedly superior civilization as in settler colonialism, but rather about uncovering eldritch sorceries and ancient ruins of (more) advanced civilizations under a dying sun. So one is looting, yes, and plundering cultural artifacts, certainly, and exploring geography that may already be inhabited, most definitely, but it really matters who is getting plundered by whom, and who is doing all that exploring in the service of what projects. Colonialism is not just any kind of exploration or plundering.

Now this point is a little bit delicate, because there is a nugget of truth to the idea that people who were raised in colonizing or settler colonial nations can only get so far from real world horrors when drawing imaginaries shaped by this historical milieu. I can recognize that the politics of Raiders of the Lost Ark were atrocious (not fighting Nazis, that was great), and I can make sure that my D&D game is not about stealing golden idols from savage "natives" to return to safekeeping in the setting's version of the Oriental Institute or to private collectors. But that childhood experience of watching Indie switch the bag of sand for the golden idol are certainly part of the subterranean fuel that feeds my dungeon imagination. Similarly, when Luka Rejec writes in Ultraviolet Grasslands, my current favorite retro-gaming product, that one of the main influence was playing the Oregon Trail video game, it's pretty clear that he's drawing from an imaginary that is shaped by the exploration of inhabited lands by settler colonialists. But if you read UVG, although you are certainly encouraged to "go west young man" by the long map that begins with your home base in the East, the resemblance stops there. You start in a city that is controlled by cats with human pets, and travel across post-apocalyptic trackless wastes to places ruled by technologically superior AIs with multiple porcelain bodies. The psychedelic acid metal vibe really has little to do with the aesthetics or value system of The Last of the Mohicans, much less Gunga Din. In short, UVG draws on cultural sources (e.g. the Oregon Trail video game) that are part of the historical inheritance of settler colonialism, but it does so in sophisticated and highly mediated ways that do not reproduce or valorize colonialist value systems.

I can live with that. But I get it if you think the mere resonance with cultural inheritances shaped by colonial tropes is too much, even if it is handled well and doesn't involve literal colonialism in the game. In that case, I can see a reason to decouple acquiring loot and exploration, and so a reason to ditch the XP for GP rule.

But there is still a part of me that wants to reply to this objection that perhaps rather than having white people in settler-colonial societies try to excise every cultural reference to an ever-present colonial past from the imaginative influences on their games, a better solution would be to broaden the pool of people imagining retro-gaming settings to include the contributions of creators in formerly colonized nations of the global south. Can I take a moment to emphasize just how great Zedeck Siew and Mun Kao's Thousand Thousand Isles setting is?

Art by Mun Kao!!!

The Rule Produces Predictable and Limiting Genre Effects 

But this brings us to a second problem. One limitation of the rule is that it steers the game towards producing stories that fit certain genres, and steers the game away from stories that fit certain other genres. For example, it steers the game towards Vancian satirical picaresque, or pulp swords and sorcery, or towards gritty tales, and decidedly away from high fantasy like Lord of the Rings or coming of age tales like A Wizard of Earthsea or Chronicles of Prydain, or a million other genres. Now retro-gaming is not about reproducing a genre experience, so you might think this isn't a problem. But without treating genre emulation as the goal, we can still recognize that there are predictable effects of operating with a certain systems of rewards. Since we take pleasure in the stories that emerge spontaneously from play, we are not indifferent to the flavor of those stories.

It's awkward to run a game with a high fantasy vibe with this as the main rule for advancement, and it would also be a strange fit for a game with a romantic vibe that was about developing relationships. If you are happy with Vancian picaresque or Lieber-style pulp fantasy, then the rule works fine. But if you want a game that has less shady characters who are on the make, then this rule is pretty constraining. What we incentivize matters for the flavor of the stories that results, even when play doesn't consist of trying to tell a story that fits a certain genre. 1 XP per 1 GP can flavor the stories that emerge from open-world play. When this taste grows stale, we might want to prepare the ground for stories with a different flavor.

The Rule Doesn't Work Over the Arc of a Campaign

Currently, my biggest gripe with this rule is that it doesn't really work over the arc of a campaign in a sandbox setting. My eyes were really opened to this fact by playing in Nick Kuntz's megadungeon game during the quarantine. The original games of D&D, for which the experience system was developed, were megadungeons, where all play centered on exploring a vast mythic underworld location, for example, Gary Gygax's legendary Castle Greyhawk. Nick has been running a wonderful game like that set around a mysterious underground area called the Complex. Nick is using B/X with modern retro-gaming tools and sensibilities. It is immediately apparent to me that the advancement system of XP for GP will work perfectly throughout the entire arc of this campaign, focused as it is on dungeon delving for treasure in what is an epic dungeon that can sustain a whole campaign.

But in an open-world sandbox, where things are not tethered to a single dungeon location, I have found that the rule tends to fade in significance around 5th level, when the players become really invested in the setting. At first they adventure for gold, lured by their initial destitution and powerlessness to the treasures placed throughout the sandbox. But then, as they come in to their own, develop connections to NPCs and factions, and have travelled extensively and have affected the world through their actions, they no longer choose where to go or what to do based on how much treasure they are likely to get.  And that's a good thing, since it shows that they have become really invested in the setting and world, and are doing just exactly what as a DM I hope players will end up doing.

I find that, as a DM, when confronted with this, I start to place treasure where the players are likely to go, rather than luring them to go certain places by placing treasure. Since they're becoming heroes and risking more dangerous things, I have a pretext to put richer (sometimes absurdly rich) treasure there that keeps them advancing to higher levels with their exorbitant XP requirements. But it feels, on my end, like a charade, since the campaign has evolved beyond a point where gold is actually motivating their choices. To be clear, they still do things to overcome challenges--but the challenges are not mainly overcome in order to acquire treasure.

There's nothing terrible about this, but it does seem like a failure of game design, insofar as the core mechanic of advancement works the way it is designed only at low levels. One would like an advancement mechanic that either shifted gears along with the phases of the campaign, or worked uniformly throughout the arc of a campaign.

Alternatives to XP for GP

To recap, XP for GP does a lot for retro-gaming play: it sets objective success conditions, motivates exploration, encourages tactical play rather than combat, and ties advancement to the ability to effect the campaign world in player-driven ways. But it also comes with a set of limitations, possibly encouraging self-seeking PCs, flirting with colonialist imaginaries, skewing the sorts of stories that emerge from play towards the gritty, picaresque, or pulp, and functioning unevenly over the course of a campaign. In light of these problems, it's worth looking at some alternatives. What we want are incentives to adventuring that do the same or similar work for enabling retro-gaming play, while increasing our options and avoiding some of these problems.

Having read a fair bit of contemporary retro-gaming materials, as well as early hobby games, I can think of four alternate approaches. These approaches are not exclusive and can be combined with one another, or even with the XP for GP rule.

Luka Rejec from Ultraviolet Grasslands

Directly Award Experience Points for Retro-Game Activities

Perhaps the simplest alternative is to simply award experience points directly for engaging in retro-game activities. For this to preserve the challenge oriented nature of the game and the neutral role of the DM as referee, it's important that this not take the form of the DM (or other players) "rewarding" good retro-game play by doling out experience awards, but rather takes the form of getting experience points for achieving objective success conditions that are known in advance. 

A classic approach in a hexcrawl is to award a set amount of experience for exploring a new hex, with another set amount for uncovering a new adventure site. I use this in my dreamlands games for the exploration of the White Jungle, awarding 50 XP to each player for each new hex uncovered. (This is a large amount of XP for mere exploration, but the White Jungle is deadly.) You can also award known amounts of XP for visiting certain amazing locations or being the first to find them, as Jeff Reints discussed brilliantly in this post

This will work best if the players know about rewards for finding and visiting these legendary places of adventure. If you're interested in awrding XP directly for exploration, probably the sleekest and most developed version can be found in Luka Rejec's Ultraviolet Grasslands, which is about long distance travel on a pointcrawl rather than a hexcrawl. UVG gives XP for how far the PCs travel on the westward pointcrawl, as well as for discovering locations, identifying and studying new flora and fauna, investigating (and perhaps triggering) anomalies, and surveying and mapping interesting sites. One can also directly reward other retro-game activites, such as faction-based play. Humza Kazmi has discussed on twitter and elsewhere the idea of rewarding XP for improving the reaction roll modifier that different factions have towards the PCs or the PCs settlement. While I haven't seen a system like this worked out in any detail, it's not hard to imagine how it could work well in fostering socially oriented faction-based play in an open world sandbox. I look forward to seeing it developed.

Use Sandbox Advancement

Another approach is to tie character advancement directly to visiting certain locations in the sandbox without the medium of experience points. For example, in Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa there are two classes, warrior and sorcerer. Sorcerers are warriors who can also learn to cast rituals. The way sorcerers do this is by finding and visiting secret locations on the map, for example, where they can read the markings on the ancient red obelisk or listen to the whispers of the blind oracle and learn such and such an eldritch ritual. Similarly, certain rituals can be cast only in certain locations, or depend on components that are found only in one place on the map. This brilliantly tied magic directly to sandbox exploration by (literally) putting spells on the map.

Traveller has an element like this as well. In the original 3 little black books, there's a whole part of the game that has to do with acquiring psychic powers. No one can start with psychic powers. The only way to find out if a player character has psychic potential and the only way to unlock that potential is by locating and visiting the Institute. But to protect itself from persecution, the Institute is hidden on some backwater in the vast reaches of space. The book introduce a whole minigame for tracking it down over the course of a campaign via whispers and rumors. 

This is even there in D&D in vestigial form from the beginning, in that one of the class powers of fighters in OD&D is that they are the only class able to use magical swords. So finding one of the magic swords placed in the sandbox is necessary to unlock one of the main powers of fighters. Similarly in Electric Bastionland, advancement is largely by finding oddities, old tech, scattered about the sandbox.

This is a nifty way of motiving exploration, since it ties character advancement directly to exploration and interacting with the game world, without the use of an abstract currency like experience or treasure, and so without the general need to acquire piles of loot. Furthermore, it does so by setting up objective success conditions: find the Institute, learn the delirious incantation to summon the dreaded blue maw from beyond space and time, unearth a Glamdring or Sting from a mouldering barrow.  

Start the PCs in Debt

Another alternative is to keep money as the incentive for adventuring, but use an alternate frame introduced originally by Traveller (1977). In classic traveller, the default assumption is that you start off with an old spaceship that you bought with a massive loan from the bank. Fuel and repairs are expensive, and interest payments are due every month. If you can't pay, the bank takes your ship. You're motivated to take shady jobs to keep the jalopy running and pay off the rapacious bankers nipping at your heel . Chris McDowell's recent Electric Bastionland, another triumph of retro-game design, uses this collective debt frame as well. McDowell also adds a mechanic that increases your debt when players die, adding another incentive to avoid character death.

This is an interesting mechanic in that it leaves treasure as the incentive, but decouples it from mechanical character advancement. In Traveller and Electric Bastionland, there are no systems for mechanically improving your adventurer, although to a certain extent character advancement is replaced by ship advancement in Traveller, since more money means that you can make improvements on your ship. In Electric Bastionland too, character improvement is almost solely about what gear you have. But you could couple the debt frame with another system of character advancement. The point is that with the debt frame you are still incentivized to explore and adventure, and in doing so you still get a universal commodity that allows you to interact with the setting in multiform ways.

One advantage of this approach is that it builds in a sunset to wealth acquisition as a mechanic, and so overcomes the problem about the uneven functioning of this rule over the arc of a campaign. In the early stages, you're trying to get out from under a crushing debt. You reach a real transition point when you've paid of your loan and the ship is finally yours. By that point, you're invested enough in the setting to be a self-starter when it comes to adventuring and exploration.

Another advantage of this approach is that it puts you in the business of getting treasure by starting you off in the situation of someone who is oppressed by the system, in a kind of debt-bondage to a patron or the lords of finance. This puts a different political spin on scoring treasure, so it also deals with the "values" problem in a different way.

Art by the unforgettable Miles Teves.

Replace Getting Gold with Achieving a Desirable Social Status

Similar to the debt frame, but without the use of money, is a set of motives for adventuring and exploration that involve achieving some desirable social status. For example, in Skyrealms of Jorune, one begins as a tauther, a subject of the realm who is undergoing the period of challenge and service to become a citizen (drenn). One becomes a drenn by getting other important drenn (NPCs) to vouch for one, by marking one's chalisk (disk) or making the pilgrimage to the capital to testify on one's behalf. In short, one adventures in order to build relationships with NPCs and factions so that they will help one become a citizen. Again, getting NPCs to vouch for you is an objective success condition tallied by the literal number of marks on your chalisk. And like the debt frame, it has a sunset condition built in. Once one has enough marks to become a drenn, this reason for adventuring no longer applies. But by then the PCs will be neck deep in the setting with plenty of goals of their own.

Similarly, in the original Empire of the Petal Throne, one begins as a foreigner, fresh off the boat in the foreigner's quarter. One works over time to be accepted socially in Tsolyani society, perhaps becoming a citizen and being accepted into a clan. While less clear cut and mechanically codified than in Skyrealms of Jorune, this kind of  play that involves advancing by developing social relationships is at the heart of gaming in Tekumel. It's probably the single main thing that sets Empire of the Petal Throne apart from D&D in its various incarnations.

As you can probably tell, these approaches are not unlike the idea that Humza floated of using experience point rewards for improving social relations, but they do it by attaching the award to a desirable in game social status rather than through the medium of an abstract currency. This is more immersive and less gamified approach, but requires a setting of a very particular kind to work.

So What are Your Ideas?

I'd love to learn about more approaches, so please don't hesitate to drop your ideas in the comments.  Remember that we want are incentives to adventuring that help to sustain the distinctive pleasures of retro-gaming in exploration and discovery, in emergent stories and open worlds, and in overcoming challenges. So mechanics that award PCs for just showing up, or for meeting preset story goals, or for instructive failure, or for having used a skill in game, or for acting the part of their character according to genre expectations, are not the kind of thing we're looking for. Not that those things are bad, they just don't work to sustain retro-game play style. What are your ideas?

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Pleasures of the OSR: Overcoming Challenges

This is the third, and perhaps final, post in my series on the theory of retro-gaming play. (You can see the prior installments here and here.) I've been coming at this by discussing distinctive pleasures that the retro-game (OSR) play-style enables. This time the pleasure in question is the satisfaction in overcoming challenges. I should say that even more than in the past two posts, here I'm mainly channeling things other people have said many times over the years. Probably the single best recent thing you could read on this topic is Arnold K's advice on how to run his new starter dungeon module, Lair of the Lamb. It's pure gold and gets at in a terse and practical way the things I'll be talking here in a more prolix and theoretical mode. This recent thread between @Genesisoflegend and @DistemperedGus on twitter gets at important points that influence what I'm saying too.

What Pleasure?

To identify the pleasure in question, the first thing we need to distinguish is a character overcoming a challenge in the fiction of the game, and a player of that character overcoming a challenge. The pleasure under discussion is of the latter rather than the former sort. Something might be very challenging for your character to do, but easy for the player. For example it might be hard for your character to stand up to their overbearing mother, or to lift a heavy gate, but very easy as a player to have your character do either of those things. For example, it might be as easy for the player as uttering the following sentences, "I screw up my courage and say in a faltering voice, 'Mom that's enough," or, "My character tries to lift the gate". The distinctive pleasure I'm talking about is one that arises from doing things that are hard to do as a player, besting challenges through the player's skill, ingenuity, insight, caution, daring, dumb luck, and so on.

Now, almost every sort of game--not only roleplaying games!--involves players overcoming challenges by exercising some skill or ingenuity. (A counter example might be very primitive children's games of chance, like war or candyland.) Naturally, roleplaying games involve players overcoming challenges of distinctive sorts, different than the challenges in athletic games like basketball, or boardgames like clue. And not surprisingly, different kinds of roleplaying games involve players overcoming different kinds of challenges. Let's take two examples of roleplaying games that involve challenges to player skill that differ from retro-gaming play-style.

For our first example, take the game Trophy Dark by Jesse Ross, a game that bills itself as a "collaborative storytelling game of psychological horror". (I backed the very successful kickstarter, and it looks to be a very fun game indeed.) In Trophy Dark, the players play doomed treasure hunters who penetrate an ancient forest of horrors in search of treasure. The ethos of the game is that the players are supposed to "play to lose". That is, it is a foregone conclusion that their characters are doomed, and the fun comes in seeing how they meet their memorable end by collaboratively crafting a story within a set genre of psychological horror. This is very challenging to do for all the reasons that collaboratively storytelling is hard. You have to be creative on your feet; you need to be able to stick with the vibe of psychological horror; you need to be "yes and"; you need to surprise other people by introducing bleak and chilling elements into the fiction; and so on. Those are all big challenges that it is satisfying to overcome in play.

For our second example, take a game that is heavy on rules-mastery, character building, and tactical combat. Say, Pathfinder, or 3.5 D&D played in a way suggested by fat rulebooks swollen with feats, skills, and class powers. Here part of the challenge involves mastering the rules to build a character that will be able to do cool and effective things in combat. One is encouraged to pore over the books and design the character's path from the beginning of the game. In combat, one is supposed to look at the battle mat and use ones feats and class powers to maximum advantage to overcome interestingly varied enemies in shifting tactical environments. Again, this is all very challenging to do, and fun to succeed at. But notice that the challenges to be overcome are completely different than the challenges that Trophy Dark throws up for its players.

In retro-gaming play, the challenges to be overcome are different still. Retro-gaming play-style does not involve collaborative storytelling because it does not involve aiming to construct a narrative with pleasing properties. So the challenge is not the one that the players of Trophy Dark tackle. Furthermore, retro-games are usually rules-lite. An illuminating retro-gaming mantra is "the answer you are looking for is not to be found on your character sheet". What this means is that the challenges in question are not challenges of rules mastery that involve careful selection and the use of elaborate powers. There are no complex character builds. "Min-maxing" is not generally possible, and if you have somehow discovered a way to do that, you are playing in a spirit contrary to the play-style I am discussing and chasing different pleasures.

Objective Success and Failure

Although in an open-world sandbox, the challenges that players overcome are often ones the players pose for themselves and so want to overcome purely for fictional reasons (i.e. "revenge", "help the slave revolt", "unravel the mystery", etc.), it is important to retro-gaming play-style that mechanics exist that regularly impose objective "success" and "failure" conditions. For example, the simplest and most widespread success mechanic is 1 XP for 1 GP. You succeed if you get a big haul of gold. You fail if you come out of the dungeon empty handed. (In my next post I will be discussing alternatives that do the same kind of work in ways that are less reductive and materialistic.)

The other big objective success condition is survival. You succeed if you live to play another session. You fail if your character dies. This is one reason why retro-games tend to have a "no homework" principle, and why they encourage you jump in with a PC who is more or less a blank slate whom you will flesh out through play. The idea is that if you can jump this makes it easier to accept PC death, which happens more frequently at low levels.

To be clear, failure can and should be fun if approached in the right spirit, just like losing a match of basketball can and should be fun. But you know what's more fun than failing? Succeeding. And you know what makes success more fun? When it's hard and failure is a real possibility. That is why the deadliness of retro-games is part of the fun. There's a thrill that comes from hazarding the life of your character, and a real satisfaction that comes from keeping them alive. But you can only have that satisfaction if everyone accepts that character death is a possible outcome. Similarly, you can only be pleased with a big treasure haul--as having successfully overcome real challenges--if it is possible to come up empty handed. The frustration of failing to get treasure is a condition of the possibility of the pleasure of success. Having the pleasure of success in this sense presupposes that one will sometimes have disappointing sessions. Hearts will be broken. If they never are, then this kind of fun can't be had.

Open-Ended Tactical Challenges

But let us be more specific. Typically, the challenges in retro-gaming play style are also open-ended, admitting of no pre-given solution, and often not even an obvious path of least resistance--at least not one promising a reasonable chance of success. In fact, one good way to design a retro-gaming dungeon or location is to place challenges in it that you have no particular idea how the players will overcome. Since the games are rules-lite, and "the answer is not to be found on your character sheet", generally the challenges are to be overcome through creative planning, outside the box thinking, and situational tactics. Success is often the fruit of what a certain stripe of storygamers call "fictional positioning". You are trying to think creatively to get your characters into a position in the fiction where they will have the resources and advantages to overcome the fictional obstacle, even if it is beyond their pay grade without the upper hand provided by a good plan or fortuitous opportunity.

These points apply to combat as well. Many foes belong to factions, which are groups with interests and goals of their own, who can be approached any number of ways. Tangling with a faction is usually beyond the player's pay grade if approached in crass and linear way. The same goes for many more straightforward monsters.

You see Smaug. I see an open-ended tactical challenge.

This is one reason why the idea of balancing combat encounters with challenge ratings is incompatible with retro-gaming play-style. If you are playing well you will avoid combat when the balance goes against you, and if you do fight, you will usually be trying to tip things your way first. A fair fight is certainly not something to be celebrated (even chances of death, yay)! The other reason that balanced combats do not work in retro-games is that they are incompatible with a sandbox and open world, without some serious contrivance, e.g. locking regions or locations until a certain level is reached, as a video game might. The way retro-games handle balancing encounters is instead to make information available to players about what they will be getting themselves into if they tackle various locations. As long as their choice is informed, who are you to declare that the challenge rating is too high for them to succeed?

If you balance your encounters, instead of Smaug you get this. 

In this neighborhood we find the small degree of truth in the maxim that sometimes gets bandied around that "combat is a fail state" in retro-games. What is true is that combat is often a gamble with no intrinsic reward attached to it (if there is no or little XP for killing monsters), and that unless you have stacked the dice in your favor it is foolish to gamble with your life. Especially if other means are available to you. Of course, combat is often unavoidable, and often a perfectly acceptable risk. This is the sense in which the maxim is an overstatement.

As long as we're speaking of mantras, let's return for a moment to "the answer is not to be found on your character sheet", and talk a little bit more about what is on the character sheet. In many OSR games, like the many B/X derived games, player character abilities and magic items tend to be more like multi-purpose tools and less like optimizable advantages. The magic-user doesn't become a slightly better gun turret each level, but rather acquires weird one-off powers that are situationally very effective if used creatively, like spider climb, phantasmal force, or unseen servant. Thief skills too, like hide in shadows, pick locks, pick pockets, or backstab, are more like having a weird set of skeleton keys than having an optimized routine of combat feats. Similarly, magic items in retro-games tend to be strange all-purpose tools. In my dreamlands game, the original party has a flute that commands living statues, and jeweled grapes that reduce gravity. My own character in Nick Kuntz's game has a candle that casts light only his own party can see. How are the players going to use items like these? A DM could never predict it, and that's part of the fun. Instead of a +1 sword, give your players open-ended tools the use of which you have no way of predicting.

Rolling Dice as Gambling

Let's talk now about rolling dice. There are many reasons dice are rolled at the table, but there is a certain flavor to dice rolling in retro-gaming. The flavor is that of a skilled gambler who knows the odds and chooses to make certain gambles, some low stakes and some high. There is a drama of the clatter of the dice (real or virtual), and the baiting of breath. This is part of the reason that almost all mechanics, reactions rolls aside, in retro-games are binary: either success or failure. The games are not, in the main, driven forward by partial successes with complications. They are rather dotted with well picked opportunities to make a wager that will either succeed or fail. Calculate the odds and take your gamble. When you don't want to gamble, try to avoid rolling dice. Play often (usually) moves forward without the need for rolls.

Resource Management

This is the background that helps make sense of the focus one often finds in OSR games on resource management. Light. Rations. Encumbrance. Wandering monster checks. The idea is to design the adventuring locales in such a way that there are known and (to some extent) predictable and objective challenges that must be navigated as a way of increasing the difficulty, giving many opportunities for making those gambler's wagers. Want to search the room for a secret door? Great, you'll have to take a wandering monster check. If the wager is pleasing, clatter go the dice.  

The GM as Judge or Referee

All of this entails a different role for the GM in OSR games than in a game like Trophy Dark. In Trophy Dark, if a player is struggling to contribute satisfyingly to the collaborative storytelling, the GM all will endeavor to help out in any way possible: to give helpful prompts, to "yes and", to give suggestions that the player can elaborate on, and so on. Since everyone is trying to tell a story together, they all try to help each other overcome the challenge of creating a satisfying collective story of psychological horror. The GM in this sense acts like the players, although fulfilling a different role.

In an OSR type game, by contrast, while the GM can and should root for the players, it is important that the GM be an objective arbiter of success and failure. This is why, in early D&D, an apt metaphor for a GM could be a judge, as in Judge's Guild, or a referee, both ideally neutral arbiters. This is why there is an ethos in OSR play of laying out the risks clearly when a player says they want to do something, especially if it requires one of those high-stakes gambling roll, so they can cleanly know and accept the consequences of what they're choosing to risk. This is why there is a practice of rolling the dice out in the open and not fudging any dice rolls, or modifying encounters to fit player ability, and so on. To bend things towards player success is to remove the conditions of the possibility of taking pleasure in overcoming challenges. But, even more importantly, if player death and failure are on the table, then if you bend things towards success sometimes, it will call into doubt the times when you don't. The death of players will then seem arbitrary and unfair. What we strive for instead is a situation where everyone can cleanly accept the outcomes without worrying that something unfair has happened to them.

People sometimes express disbelief that this can be a fun way of playing, but I've got to tell you that it can be immensely fun and rewarding. I want to be clear that I am not somehow imposing this as a universal norm. As I hope I've made clear in this series, there are lots of ways of doing things, and one can chase different pleasures to different degrees, by making various compromises.

Monday, May 18, 2020

What's Happening with Through Ultan's Door 3?

This a long overdue update on issue 3 of my zine, Through Ultan's Door. I want to tell you what's in the zine, why it has been delayed, and what my plans are for the future. Let's start with the fun part.

Through Ultan's Door issue 3 takes you down the Great Sewer River that winds through the undercity of Zyan. The issue is big. In fact, it's big enough that I had to split it into two zines. So issue 3 will be a double issue, each with its own separate detachable cover with a map on the interior. The covers, each featuring one of a pair of rival NPC potentates, have already been completed. Huargo, who also did the cover of issue 1, is back again with a stunning depiction of the Sewer Wyrm Cephaia, Prophetess of the Muddled Waters. Orphicss, who did a gorgeous illustration in the interior of issue 2 is back with an illustration of Cephaia's rival the Cranemay, a fey sewer witch. (The illustration at the top of this post is a clipping from Orphicss cover.) Here's what the double issue contains:

  • A lovely sewer pointcrawl map by Gus L
  • Rules for pointcrawling the river
  • A huge and lavishly illustrated sewer encounter table
  • A light treatment of four points on the pointcrawl, two of which were features in past issues (The Ruins of the Inquisitor's Theater, Catacombs of the Fleischguild), and two of which are brand new (The Churning Gate, the Harbor).
  • Three separate hidden locations on the Sewer River each of which introduces a major faction or NPC: the Ruins of the Verdant Purveyor, a wreck that serves as the base for the Black sewer pirates; the Fen of the Cranemay from the cover; and the lair of the Cranemay's rival, Cephaia, from the other cover. 
  • A full treatment of the Dam of the Lurid Toads, ominously polite parasites who have established an infestation and blocked the sewer river with their slime, demanding payments in fresh meat. 
  • A full treatment of the Sanitarium of the Benefactors, an entire disturbing settlement on the river with the possibility to transform a campaign. It has its own keyed map by Gus, three opposing factions, numerous NPCs, encounter tables, and so on.  
  • An article with houses rules by Gus L for playing opium dreaming wizards.
  • An article on the maladies and afflictions of Zyan, describing some diseases and conditions of this city of the dreamlands, including Furniture Pox, Floral Buboes, Shadow Blight, and more!
As if that weren't enough, Gus L has also written an entire delightful companion adventure, Beneath the Moss Courts, that expands the wreck of the Verdant Purveyor into a full adventure location and the Black Hand pirates into a major faction. The adventure also reaches up into the law of offices of a corrupt Fee Inquisitors in Zyan Above. (This will thus be the first published glimpse of the city.) Gus played in my original dreamlands game. He has been a collaborator on each issue of the zine, volunteering valuable feedback on the manuscripts, supplying art, and drawing delicious maps. He helped me launch the zine, he gets Zyan, and he is also one of my favorite retro-gaming authors. This issue raises the level of collaboration between us to bring you a fragment of Gus' vision of the dreamlands. 

Gus's illustration of the pirate captain

This companion adventure will be available as a free PDF on DTRPG and, but it will also be available for purchase as a zine in the same house style as Through Ultan's Door. In other words, instead of a single zine, I will be releasing three separate zines simultaneously: Issue 3 of Through Ultan's Door parts I & II, and Gus' Beneath the Moss Courts. And yes, I will also be reprinting Issues 1 & 2 of Through Ultan's Door as well. So actually that's five things all together.

Realistically, with just issues 1-3 and Gus' companion adventure in your hands, it's probably enough to sustain roughly 30 sessions of play beyond the veil of sleep. It's enough to launch a full campaign in the dreamlands.


I have run into a series of delays bringing these five things to you. The first was caused by the size of issue 3. At first I clung stubbornly to the idea it would all be in a single issue. When that didn't work I started carving off parts to put in issue 4. Finally, in consultation with Matt Hildebrand, I hit on the idea of a double issue. Then I had to reorganize the material into that format. All of this delayed the zine quite a bit.

The second delay was caused by the fact that I have to change my printing process this time around. Thus far, I've been digitally printing the zine and hand assembling it. I realized that with five items coming out at once, there was no way I could handle the assembly of the physical products. I also realized by consulting with other people and shopping around that I was overpaying for my printing. I really would love to do offset printing for the next run, and have the print shop fold and staple the interior of the zines. (I think I probably still have to do the covers myself.) It took me a long time to get a series of quotes from a few places. The long and the short of it is that I still don't have this settled. I can get my zine digitally printed and assembled for the price I was paying just for the unassembled zine, so that's an improvement. To do offset printing I have to shoulder some significant costs to do a higher print run, which I might well do. But it's a commitment and I'm not sure.

The third delay was caused by the fact that Matt Hildebrand, who did the layout for Issues 1 & 2  had too much work on his plate, and had to put Through Ultan's Door on the back-burner. I couldn't have launched the zine without Matt, who designed the entire house style of the zine, and worked closely and quickly with me to put issues 1 & 2 together with great skill. It's a good thing, because it means his work is rightly in demand, but Matt has too much on his plate to handle the zine right now. This took a while to figure out. Then I had to find another layout person. Luckily, Lester Smolenski who was an original player and a playtester on all issues of the zine has agreed to do it. He's a wonderful graphic designer.

Then came the fourth delay: the quarantine. I suddenly had two weeks to redesign two lectures courses in an online format. Since then I have been churning out lecture videos at a sickening pace, while simultaneously providing full time childcare. Unfortunately, we're on the quarter system, so I am having to teach two entire 10 week courses under quarantine. I put my two games on hold and set aside working on the zine as well. I needed to take a break from any "deadline" stress in D&D to focus on crisis management. During the quarantine I've enjoyed playing in Nick K's megadungeon campaign, The Twilight Age, which has been a blast. (More on that another time.) I've also been able to do a little more blogging, and tinker with other projects, like thinking about a possible future sword and planet campaign. But I'll be done teaching in 3 weeks, and I'm gearing up to get back to the zine. I'm excited to finally pull it all together.

There is a fifth thing, but I hope it won't be a delay. I need to work out a better system for printing labels and pre-paying postage. With so many products, I can't handle hand labelling everything and getting exactly the right postage on each piece of mail. I need to pay a service that will allow me to print postage and labels. This especially true because I've decided to handle my own international shipping at present. Since this involves filling out customs forms, I need to do everything I possibly can to economize on the time I spend on shipping. I'll still make the boxes pretty, but I need to pick up the speed with more efficient systems.

Future Schemes

This brings me to a report of my plans for the future. I have commissioned a poster from Huargo, who has done the most artwork for Zyan. He has immersed himself in the setting. He understands the vibe well and I find the art that he does for the zine immensely evocative. The sketches he provided at the start of the quarantine were brilliant. We'll see where it goes. When it's available I hope to have it for sale through my Big Cartel store.

I have a pretty good idea where Issue 4 will take us. I think it's going to focus on the religions of Zyan. There will be a writeup on each of the Unrelenting Archons. It will also contain the Temple of the Archons found at the back of the flooded caves occupied by the Lurid Toads. It's a dungeon of portals that takes you to the interplanar precincts holy to several of these alien deities.

Issue 5 is likely to be another double issue. It will contain a second pointcrawl, through the Apartments of the Guildless to the south of the Ruins of the Inquisitor's Theater from issue 1. I have plans for future collaborations with other authors, including an exciting companion adventure that I hope will be released with issue 5. I like this format of modular companion adventures that thematically fit with Zyan, but also give glimpses of Zyan from the fever dreams of other authors. It lets me keep my authorial voice while expanding the circle. Let a 1000 Zyans bloom!

Issues 6-10 will likely take you into to the white jungle, a 3-D hexcrawl through an inverted alien jungles of the dreamland! I'm very excited to share this material with you, which is, I think, my best material.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Strange Games

I've been thinking about it recently, and all my early experiences in D&D were *super* weird. Some were great, others not so much. But all were very strange, and adversarial in surprising ways.

My first game ever was with Sebastian in 5th grade. It was a competitive, diceless game set in the dreamlands. The lord of the dreamlands came to each player character separately and offered each of us the object of our heart's desire if only we could be the first to best him in his realm of dreams. Sebastian ran the game one on one with freeform rules in merciless style, with players competing against one another. I wrote about it at greater length here. Definitely an auspicious weird start to gaming.

But it was the summer of my 6th grade that I fell head over heels in love with D&D. I did it with a kid named Natty. He was an unlikely partner. In retrospect, he reminds me a little of Tom Sawyer. There was an air of mischief about him, and something fickle and a little cruel. He was very athletic; I remember how into the government-required physical tests they put us through in public school he was: he trained constantly in regimens of push-ups and sit-ups to outperform the rest of us. Although his parents were bohemian types who lived in a dilapidated loft apartment on the edge of Tribeca, he was not a nerdy highbrow type.

Like me, Natty had been bitten by the bug. His older cousin in rural Pennsylvania, a senior in High School, let him play with his group of older friends when he visited them on family vacations. His first edition of D&D, which I remember vividly, was a hand-me-down old beat up blue Holmes book. From this legendary teenage DM, Natty picked up many old school habits, particularly location based adventures in a sandbox setting, and a general ethos of challenging the skill of the players. He even had inherited a single sheet of hex paper which we photocopied endlessly.

I was the person he found who had the same yearning for fantasy worlds. So that summer I slept over at his house as often as we could get away with it, usually twice a week, sometimes three times. We would stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning by dousing our faces with ice cold water and then holding them over the air conditioner. In retrospect, most of it involved mapping a homebrew world that we mostly wouldn't use and writing a set of Fantasy Heartbreaker rules rather than actually playing. But it was still glorious. And when we did play, it was pure magic.

Later, maybe in the summer of 7th grade (1988), he was going to run Top Secret for me and a few other kids--he was a great DM, really world class. But he was in a foul mood that day and didn't want to, and so he declared I had to DM instead. So I ran a zero prep game of AD&D, which I had never done before (zero prep is still not my bag). It was pretty intimidating. To make things worse, Natty tried to ruin the game for the rest of us by making a chaotic evil megalomaniacal halfling thief based on the one-eyed little person rapper Bushwick Bill. Obviously, OBVIOUSLY, this was not enlightened politics, but it was a formative experience.

Bushwick Bill, apparently comparing himself to Chucky.

Despite--actually because of--Natty's best efforts to throw every possible monkey wrench into the game, it turned out to be the most fun session we'd ever played. By a lot. After an entirely gratuitous criminal spree, the party was on the run from the law, chasing some cursed treasure in a scenario I stole from the Temple of Terror Fighting Fantasy book. The adventure they were on proved perilous. So after the first session the players said: look this is so much goddamn fun, we're not going to get killed on this stupid adventure, so we're quitting that quest, and are going to do something else that better suits our fancy and has a lower probability of fatality.

This was the start of an amazing, player-driven, open campaign, played infrequently but over many years. The motives were always revenge, self-aggrandizement, and early domain play. As I remember, all the hooks involved various powers and potentates brushing up against them and casually insulting them and lording it over them as though they were nothings. This would enrage the halfling's amour-propre and the party would begin plotting revenge. It was all heists, and stealing noble titles, and murders, and being bandits who were trying to claw their way into being respectable lords and ladies. One of my favorite things about playing with this group was that they always made me, the DM, leave the room while they schemed and hatched their plans. They never wanted me to know what they were going to do in advance. They were in essence springing their plans on me. I took great pleasure in seeing how their many plots unfolded, often in the dark about what they were up to until the last minute. When they pulled it off, with some unanticipated twist, I burst out grinning. Anyone who tells you evil campaigns can't be fun is wrong: this one sure was.

But let's continue. A really weird game I ran for too long as a kind of self-punishment started in 8th grade. My friend George had heard I played D&D. He wanted me to run D&D for him and a couple other friends from Junior High. George was an odd bird, with a racist, megalomaniacal father, who had made a small fortune in Taiwan working with the Moonies, exploiting their cult labor in his export business. George was, predictably, a little cracked, although wonderful in his brand of ostentatious madcap antics. But the long and the short of it was that I wasn't that into the idea of playing with him. When I accidentally double-booked our game, I just ghosted on the group, which had a number of other mutual friends in it.

George decided, as a kind of punishment for me (he was vengeful like that), that he would DM the game and have the party fight and kill an ancient red dragon. He somehow missed the rule that you can only get 1 level of experience from a single adventure, so the characters were all high-level as a result of the treasure haul, and he gave each of them precisely that combination of magical items from the 1E Dungeon Master's Guide that would make them nigh invincible, rings of wishes, and all the rest. This started a super-weird campaign, which I played partly out of guilt for my original sin, although there were admittedly some great people involved, including George. My challenge was to set up adventures and foes who might actually beat them. In a sense, I was trying to kill them in ways that were at least semi-fair, and I just kept failing because George was incredibly good at power-gaming. Much better than me, as it turned out.

I came closest to killing him once with the help of Peter, one of the other players. Peter had decided that George's power-tripping evil character (the group was evil again) was a frightening (and, more to the point, irritating) tyrant, and decided to kill him. He told me just how he wanted to do it in advance, planning it meticulously.  I set up the scene, making sure not to tip his hand in advance so that George wouldn't be clued in through my misstep. The look on George's face when this carefully planned treachery was revealed was incredible in an awful way; it went from disbelief to shock to lethal hilarity in about the span of a minute. It all came down to a SINGLE die roll. Peter's traitorous player character was a fighter, and really only had to hit George's magic-user once with his super special magical sword (maybe a sword of sharpness?), which required a roll of a 5 or higher on a d20. BUT HE MISSED. George's character killed him. Peter left and didn't come back, and this strangely antagonistic game went on without him.

At some point, we wrapped up the game and started playing an ordinary game of Dark Sun with 1st level characters. It was fun, partly because I loved Dark Sun, which I mashed up with a Ray Harryhausen, Golden Voyage of Sinbad thing. My heart wasn't quite in it, and as much as I enjoyed the setting, my DMing felt formulaic at times. (A lot of guarding caravans across the desert.) But it was how I got to know @flatvurm (Rob Abrazado), whom I've reconnected with through the Gauntlet recently, which was cool.

Before our group broke up, we all worked together one summer for George's father, alongside exploited Taiwanese immigrant labor and a gaggle of Moonies, during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. George's father was selling Olympic lapel pins that his factory in China produced.

That blue slug, with lightning bolts for eyebrows, was called "Izzy", which was short--I kid you not--for "What [the hell] is it?" It was the first digitally drawn mascot, unveiled to universal disbelief. As the olympic mascot, it was featured on every one of those lapel pins, reproduced for each different event, with a fencing foil, diving into a swimming pool, wrestling, etc. So the extended story of this self-flagellating campaign of frenemies ends with my players and I slaving alongside Moonies to feed the appetites of olympic lapel-pin collectors for a universally reviled blue slug mascot. Really, looking back at it, how else could it have ended? That trip to Atlanta was fated from the moment Peter failed his attack roll.

But there's an epilogue to that epilogue. In an even stranger twist of fate, Peter was a very serious foil fencer in real life. At that time, the US was not as strong at fencing as it is now, and the rule then was that the host nation automatically qualified in every team event. So this Atlanta Summer Olympics was a once in a lifetime opportunity for US fencers to compete in the Olympics. Peter took the year off college to train. He shot up in rank and managed to qualify for the US Olympic team when through some miracle he beat the Russian powerhouse Dmitry Chevtchenko at an international competition. (Chevtchenko went on to win the gold medal in men's foil that summer.) Having missed his fateful touch against George's character in the game, in real life George and I watched Peter duel with the world's greatest swordsmen at the Olympics. In the match we watched, Peter was up by a monumental five touches against a Chinese fencer (first to 15 touches wins). He only needed to roll a 5 or more to seal the deal and advance to the next round. What do you think happened?

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Using Multiple Downtime Actions for an Adventure Hiatus

People enjoy snickering at Gary Gygax's infamous pronouncement that a campaign without strict time records is meaningless. But he had a point for AD&D rules as written, which do require information on the passage of time for all kinds of things which have to do with downtime: cost of living expenses, training to raise a level, learning and creating spells or scrolls, creating magical items, reading magical tomes, building castles, and so on. The passage of time was built into the structure of downtime in AD&D 1E, so that to use the numerous downtime systems of that ruleset you actually do need to keep strict calendar time. So one way to read Gary's remark about calendar keeping is as emphasizing the importance of downtime activities for longterm campaign play, along with the point that in AD&D 1E they work through the keeping of time records.

In a way, my system of downtime activities introduces an alternative, more free-firm, gamified version of the passage of time, with abstract units of downtime. For me this is less fiddly and more fun, but no less rigorous in its way. The rule is that you get one downtime activity between ordinary adventures. (And can do whatever else you want to do that's not a downtime action and makes sense fictionally--do I really need to say that?) This abstract unit represents the passage of time through the allotment of the opportunity to undertake activities. Should one need to convert from downtime actions to calendar time for some reason, one can lay a rough metric on it with a downtime being one week, or two weeks, or a day, as makes sense given the implied rhythm in your game. But, when it doesn't come up for some fictional reason, the system encourages you not to think about it too much.

This post is about another way you can use downtime actions to mark the passage of time. You can use the assignment of multiple downtime actions to represent a longer than usual period of time between adventures. Given a natural rhythm to your campaign, a hiatus from adventuring may be pleasing to the party and make good fictional sense. Suppose the party began in the City State of the Invincible Overlord, reaching 3rd level through local adventuring, and then went an Odysseus style nautical excursion around the Wilderlands, visiting the Silver Skein islands and everywhere else for many sessions. Suppose in their travels they have amassed a great deal of treasure, and risen to 5th or 6th level when they return to their original home base of the City State of the Invincible Overlord. Maybe it makes sense, returning as heroes and seasoned adventurers, with money to spend, and no immediate pressing business, that at this point that the party would take a break from the adventuring life to focus on other pursuits. You can use downtime actions to represent getting on with life and advancing other projects. Here's a rough guide:

Short Hiatus:                             3 downtime actions.
Medium Hiatus:                        6 downtime actions.
Long Hiatus:                             9 downtime actions.
Very Long Hiatus:                    12 downtime actions.

The first might represent a restful month. The second, perhaps a period of some months. The third, perhaps a year. And the fourth, several years, or even a decade.


Now, there are some issues with this use of downtime. There's the boring one that players might try to abuse this system by "advancing the clock" to gain power in the campaign. I say this is boring, both because as a grownup you can negotiate this interpersonally if it does come up, and also because I think the problem is actually the opposite: in dynamic games there are enough high-stakes balls in the air at any given time that the very last thing the players will want is to step back and let things just play out.

Another, more serious, problem is that several downtime actions have dynamic complications that need to be resolved through play. Building an institution, cultivating (some) relationships, and spiritual exercises all have dynamic mixed results that require player intervention. There are several ways you might handle a mixed result. One way is by narrative fiat, say in a play by post mode. The player rolls a complication on a downtime action. The DM then describes the challenge that arises. The player then says how they overcome it. The DM rules whether this makes sense, keeping notes with a view to introducing consequences down the line. Or, instead of fiat, the DM might develop a mini-game with further rolls to see if an attempt at overcoming a complication succeeds, perhaps at the cost of further complications and spiraling downtime actions on a failure. (Note that this would penalize rolls that hazard mixed results, and discourage players from pursuing them.)

Another way to handle it, which could be a lot of fun I think, is to have an "interlude" or "palette cleanser adventure". The idea is that you run a single lower stakes session (or multi-session) adventure focused entirely on the problems that result from the downtime roll. Only players involved in the action play in the session. This is an opportunity to let a player character that maybe hasn't had the spotlight as much get a chance to shine and develop their character. It would be the equivalent of an issue of X-Men that focuses solely on one team member, or the D&D equivalent of a mini-series (if multiple session). This also gives you the chance to switch genres a little bit. For example, we might see some adventures involving a thief pulling a low-stakes con job to handle a complication that's arisen with building an institution. Or you might see more low-stakes socializing, or something akin to an Agatha Christie style murder mystery to overcome the fact that a PC has been framed for a murder by a rival for the affection of an NPC with whom the PC is cultivating a relationship.

Getting the Band Back Together

However you handle the complications that arise during downtime, at the start of the first session where the group gets back together, you should mark the occasion. Linger on it. Have them set the scene about where they get the gang back together again. What's the place they meet? What kind of night is it? How do they each make their appearance? Especially if it's been a while, have everyone describe how their character looks different as the result of the time that's passed and what they've been up to. Give them a chance to tell the other players about their accomplishments and hijinks. (This will work especially if you communicate about the downtime rolls separately with each player.) It will be a nice segue back into the bloody work of adventuring.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Downtime Activities: Magical Research

The great fun of playing wizards is learning ancient sorceries, concocting abstruse theories, uncovering forgotten tomes, apprenticing yourself to eccentric maniacs, and, of course, putting your mark on a campaign world by contributing spells, quite possibly with your own name in the title. If given the choice, I always prefer to play a wizard, which goes to show that as an academic I don't really play D&D to compensate for what I lack, but to pursue things I already love in new and fantastical forms.

This is a system for doing all of that, for learning spells from other practitioners, concocting new spells, writing scrolls, and authoring terrible grimoires.  It is the latest contribution to my now quite extensive system of downtime activities, which is nearing provisional completion.

The baseline I consulted was the Lamentations of the Flame Princess rules on magical research, which are the best retro-gaming rules on these matters I know. Part of the reason I like them is that they encourage "early domain play" with magic-users who can create spells from first level, and who are encouraged to build laboratories and hoard tomes in private libraries. This fits with the general thrust of downtime activities, which, from one point of view, could be seen as introducing "haven" or "domain" turns into early and midlevel play. However, I departed from the LotFP rules in many ways, employing the same system of trackers (Apocalypse World "clocks") as the other downtime systems I have been presenting, and putting my own more resolutely Vancian spin on spell books. While I give credit where credit is due, the plus side is that if you're tired of LotFP for real life reasons, and want to move on, you can use this instead. Just throw the ladder away.

There are no rules here for creating magical items, because magical items are born not made. This post also doesn't cover alchemy, making potions, or growing Mazirian's garden, which seemed like their own topics worthy of a separate treatment. Finally, I have left out clerical and druidic magic for a second post, because this one was long enough.

Writing a Scroll

An ordinary written sentence is a potential meaning that is only actualized through reading, when it is grasped in thought or speech by the reader. But spells share something of the nature of God's mind: for them the distinction between capacity and act, potentiality and actuality, breaks down. For a spell to exist in any form it must already be working magic. We might say that spells are virulent potentialities. Like a coiled spring they may only be contained by countervailing forces. Only years of training enables a mage to hold them within his memory. To embody them temporarily in a worldly substance is no simple task. Not just any materials may house them, but only those of special arcane qualities.

A character may only create a scroll for a spell they are able to cast. In order to scribe a scroll, the caster must spend the gold pieces necessary to procure the materials to be used in the downtime action. This costs 300 GP per downtime roll. The DM will set a tracker for the creation of the scroll with one step per spell level. In order to advance the tracker one step, the player must roll 7+ on 2d6. The player receives a bonus on the roll equal to the difference between the maximum level of spell they can cast and the level of the spell they are transcribing. For example, if a magic-user is able to cast 2nd level spells, then they would receive +1 to rolls to transcribe magic missile (a 1st level spell) onto a scroll. Note that snake eyes is always a failure.

Copying a Scroll

You can't do it. They're too unstable. For magic-users, finding a scroll is not a way of acquiring a new spell to be memorized. 

Learning Spells

To learn a new spell you must have the spell in a book, and the spell must be of a level that you can cast. When the player declares they are learning the spell, they open a tracker with a number of steps equal to the spell's level. For each downtime action spent learning the spell, the player rolls 2d6. On a 7+ the tracker advances one step. The player receives a bonus on the roll equal to the difference between the maximum level of spell they can cast and the level of the spell they are learning. They may also receive an additional bonus if they are instructed by a teacher who already knows the spell, adding to their roll the difference between the spell level their teacher can cast and the one they are trying to learn, up to a maximum of +3. If they roll a snake eyes at any point in the process, they are defeated in their attempt and lose all progress on the tracker. They may not try to learn the spell again until they advance a level.

For example, if a magic-user is able to cast 2nd level spells, then they would receive +1 to rolls to learn shield (a 1st level spell) alone from a book. But suppose they also have a teacher, who both knows shield and is able to cast third level spells, to help them learn from the book. In that case they will receive an additional +2, for a total of +3 (the max). Note that such assistance also counts as a downtime action for the instructing wizard.

When a magic-user gains a level, they may learn a single spell they already have in a book for each new spell slot they receive in a single downtime action (no roll required). This represents a breakthrough in their previous attempts to advance, as their mind transforms, suddenly acquiring new infolding spaces to contain a spell with which they have struggled previously in their quiet moments. If they do not possess a spell of the requisite level, then as soon as they acquire one they may learn it in a single downtime action without a roll.

Spell Books

I'm just gonna say it: spell books in AD&D are gross. They have all the charm of little black address books, as though magicians were like: "Hey, gimme a minute I'm just gonna jot this magic phone number down, I might want to call it later." As much as I love Gygax (and I do), there was something taxonomic and utilitarian about the direction his imagination took him at certain points. Here's a Vancian alternative to go with this system that is more flavorful. I was inspired originally, way back when, when I read this post from the glorious Planet Alog blog.

As virulent potencies, spells can't just be written down in a book, they must be permanently arrested like a flash of lightning held in a temporal stasis field. The vessel of their containment must be suitably wondrous, a splendid items in its own right with a bit of magic about it. Within its pages, the spells must be surrounded by a prison architecture worthy of Piranesi, whether they are embedded deep in abstruse theoretical discussions, or sung by the heroes in an epic poem at the consummation of battle, or surrounded by shackles of illumination and incredible artistry. Once brought into the world, such books can be copied by those of lesser skill.

Under this system, accomplished magic-users do not have a spell book, they have many tomes, each a memorable grimoire likely containing a few spells. Wizards worth their salt will know the names of most of the major texts containing spells, and are jealous hunters for tomes possessing spells they lack; some spells exist in many tomes, others in only a few, but the sad truth is that most are lost entirely to this dying earth. It is true that this system makes traveling for magic-users more of an ordeal, and the choices about texts to bring more draconian. But you know what: by the time they are able to cast huge numbers of spells, magic-users are like fragile gods themselves. Trust me, with their floating Ioun Stones, invisible servants, teleportations, and all the rest, they can handle the logistics of mundane book transportation.

Making a New Spell Book

To create a new spell book, containing newly researched spells or those copied from multiple sources, is difficult. The magic-user must commission a master artisan to create a grimoire, which is a splendid artifact. A 1000 GP book may contain 4 spell levels; a 2500 GP book 7 spell levels; and a 5000 GP book 9 spell levels. Upon launching on the project the player must name the book, and describe its wondrous physical form, drawing as usual on the remarkable materials provided, the character of the book's artisan, and the nature of the book itself. The player must describe the theme and nature of the book, including the surrounding material that contains the spells and binds them together. The book's theme must explain how all the spells included fit together in one text; you cannot just slap any old spell alongside any other spell and connect them with some text--such ramshackle bonds could never hold potent sorceries together in one volume. Once completed, the book will become a known item in the campaign world, attracting the interest and envy of other wizards. To make such a book is to leave ones mark on the campaign world forever.

The starting cost is for the production of the book and the surrounding material, but the insertion of spells can only be accomplished by one who has mastered them. As with scrolls, the player opens a tracker for each spell to be included with as many steps as the level of the spell. The magic-user must pay 300 GP in materials and preparation to roll 2d6 as a downtime action. On a 7+ they may advance the tracker for any spell one step, taking as a bonus or penalty the difference between the spell level they can cast and the highest level of spell they are including. Note that the book can be used in an unfinished form as soon as the trackers of some spells have been completed.

Copying a Spell Book

To copy an existing spell book, the magic-user must commission the copy, but they have the option of only paying half as much for a product that it is not a splendid item, and need not be made by a master artisan. The player must describe how the appearance of the book differs from the original, and what (minor) and stylistic alterations set the book apart from its predecessor--if it is not a splendid item, then it must appear as a pale echo of the original. As with the creation of a new spell book, the artisan creates the surrounding matter, but the magic-user must scribe the spells into the book paying 300 GP for each downtime roll. Note that copied spell books cannot contain spells of 7th level or higher. Such potent sorceries are found only in unique and remarkable tomes which are known by name to all powerful wizards.

Researching a New Magic-User Spell

Magicians of any ambition hunger to pull from the depths of secret knowledge unknown sorceries. Some few dispassionate seekers of knowledge simply thrill at discovery; most intermingle this elevated aspiration with a desire to be recognized as great wizards who leave a legacy for posterity; others are drawn by the lure of power and fear, for those daring enough to bring new sorceries into the world are rightly to be feared.

To research a new spell, the sorcerer must first commission a new spell book to house it. The player must write up a spell description in the style of the rules employed in the campaign. The DM will decide if the spell is over (or under) powered for its level, and will suggest emendations required to make the spell viable. Note that a character cannot create a spell they would not be able to cast. The player will then open a tracker on the spell qual to 2 plus the spell level. 

The magic-user may thenceforward pay 300 GP for a downtime roll on research. The player may take as a bonus the difference between the maximum level of spell they can cast and the level of spell they are researching. The tracker advances on a 7+. Once the tracker is complete, the creator of the spell counts as having learned the spell, and it is inscribed with no further cost or downtime rolls in the spell book that houses it. It  may henceforth be memorized. But such research comes with significant peril, for should the player roll snake eyes, then a magical  disaster occurs. They must roll on the table below adding the level of the spell to the roll. At this point all progress on the tracker is lost, and the player, if they survive, must begin again.

Note that the table that follows would be more flavorful if it was more specific. I recommend coming up with a different table for each different school of spell that exists in your game. Or simply lift any of the many DCC corruption tables, or magical catastrophe random tables floating around on the internet, for this purpose.

Magical Disaster (1d8 + Spell level)

  1. ---------. 
  2. The spell in its current incarnation proves too unstable to capture. You know in your heart that you have failed. Luckily, your notes can be salvaged as a one time scroll of the spell being researched. 
  3. You are stymied working one night on the spell and weep in rage. Overtaken by a black sleep, you dream that you have--at long last--finished the spell! When your eyes open at the touch of the honeyed fingers of dawn you are filled with a profound peace at the memory of your dreamed success. You return to your notes with renewed confidence, only to discover that they are blank and the spell now exists only in your memory as a one time memorized spell. Start the next session with the spell memorized.
  4. As you try to inscribe some part of the spell onto parchment, the magic vanishes from all your notes with a sizzle. Back to the drawing board!
  5. You have a near catastrophe as the spell inflicts a wound on the skin of reality, and like thick black blood welling welling up, the unwelcome waves of the vibrating orbs press forward urgently through the cracked flesh. You are able to contain the disaster, beating back the waves long enough to cauterize the wound--but only by exhausting your mind. Until the next downtime, you lose one spell slot of your highest level.
  6. Something is wrong. You feel the heavy presence of the spell in your mind, but you cannot get at it. It has taken on a life as a parasite, reaching its feathered tendrils deep into the recesses of your mind, making itself very comfortable. It is uncastable but occupies a spell slots of the relevant level. Perhaps some kind of thaumaturgical chirurgy could help?
  7. Your thoughts dwell more and more obsessively on the spell. By the time you realize something has gone wrong it's too late. The spell has colonized your mind. It is now the only spell you are able to memorize! (You may memorize it multiple times, but spell slots of other levels must go unfilled.) The only way for you to free yourself from this obsession is by completing research for this spell and inscribing it in a book. 
  8. The spell leaps from the pages of your notes to hang in the air as a disorganized luminous sigil for one beautiful moment before it is cast on you with inimical intent (if applicable)!
  9. As 7, but if the effect of the spell is a negative effect with a duration (e.g. sleep, charm, light, etc), its effect is permanent until remove curse is cast by a cleric of higher level than than you. If the spell does damage, triple it. 
  10. Working on the spell, visions flood your mind in a revelation of shapes and forms like abstract art for hours on end. Rightly or wrongly, you believe with a strange confidence that the visions have come from a cosmic entity. Once per session for the next 1d10 sessions, you are subject to an illusory vision at inopportune times. These visions seem like they are trying to communicate something of vital importance.
  11. Your ministrations produce an unwelcome vibration in the fourth sphere. The harmonics are too much for your vulgar material to contain. Roll on this table now as your flesh is changed forever
  12. Your research tears open a rent in reality in your study that leads elsewhere. To see where and what might come through, roll here. This portal opening remains for 3d6 days, allowing entities during this time to travel freely either way.
  13. The spell has invoked chaos upsetting the ecology of some distant world. You have earned the enmity of beings from that distant orb. Terrible huntsmen now pursue you, crossing through the astral plane to your world. The DM should prepare a rival adventuring party of slayers. At the start of each session, the DM should roll 1d20. The huntsmen will find the magic user during this session at the most dramatic possible moment on a 1.  
  14. Unquenchable black flames pour forth from the faulty broken sigils you have crafted. Silent and stuttering they cover your body and spread in a strange conflagration to your workspace, and then beyond in a half mile radius, withering and aging everything they touch. Anyone touched must save vs death. If they survive, they permanently age 10d6 years from the temporal flames. Inanimate objects are likewise aged.
  15. It starts with little things. When you speak there is an echo of the words in reverse. Your milk curdles and the wine is vinegar when it touches your lips. You can glimpse him in the mirror, behind you, the visage of your father (or mother, younger brother...), but decrepit and lascivious. Your ruined spell has served as conduit for a demon who will torment you until you agree to do its bidding. If you refuse it will take what you love most and deliver it to your most hated enemy. 
  16. The disaster happens swiftly. You think you have it under control. But you are wrong. Soon it is standing before you: a terrible reflection of you that you cast like a shadow (or does it cast you?) in another dimension. It looks identical to you, and has all of your powers. It can do everything you can do, and if you do not slay it this instant, this inimical entity will escape and sew endless havoc in your form, trying to undermine and usurp your station. 
  17. For your terrible transgression, tampering with the deepest layers of reality, the original guardians--chthonic angels who dwell in the foundations--have snatched from the face of the earth, casting you into the Emerald Fane beyond space and time. All wizards of 5th level or higher know in an instant with dread what has happened to you. Even to utter your name is dangerous now.