Sunday, September 8, 2019

Splendid Items

In my last post I discussed my rules for non-magical research. I also mentioned that the rules would work best if there were tradeoffs with other downtime activities in a kind of system. So I thought I would take a crack at assembling and expanding what house rules I have into something resembling a system. So this will be an ongoing series. Let's start with preliminaries.

Downtime: the Very Idea

In the sense that this post is concerned with, downtime is time between adventures, when characters are still acting but not on an adventure. This immediately raises the question what it means "to be on an adventure".

This concept is clear in games that have rules about where the adventure is. For example, in a West Marches style game, the adventure always begins when the party leaves town. Downtime, in a West Marches game, is time in town. Similarly, in the brief phase when every session of my game involved a new trip through Ultan's door, beginning and ending in the waking world, downtime was simply time spent in the waking world.

Adventures are not to be had here.

In some games, instead of events that happen in certain a place, all adventures are a certain sort of activity. For example, in Blades in the Dark, adventures are always (criminal) scores, so downtime is what happens between scores.

Things are more complicated when adventure is to be had, potentially, in any locale, and in a variety of different kinds of activity. Which is how I assume most of us play most of the time. For games like this, we need to move to a less rigid conception of an adventure.

Adventuring here means something looser like entering interesting situations of hazard and peril where small scale decision-making and roleplaying are important. Downtime occurs when the characters are in a safe place for an extended period of time, say, one week or more. During this time they're live whatever passes for ordinary life amongst adventuring types, or engaging in sorts of activity that we're happy to abstract.

The Rules

If the characters are in a safe place for an extended period of time then they may perform one downtime action. The length of time required for downtime protocols to be triggered depends on the rhythm of your game. The whole thrust of "downtime actions" is to abstract calendar keeping and turn it into a mini-game. So it rejects Gary's (in)famous injunction that the foundation of any campaign is the keeping of proper time records. Instead we think in terms of abstract downtime actions.

Characters are not limited to downtime actions. They may choose to perform no downtime actions. They may also choose to perform any other actions they wish, provided the DM rules that they have the time and opportunity to do so. But they may perform at most one downtime action from the following list each downtime. Last time I discussed non-magical Research. This time I want to talk about commissioning the production of splendid items.

Splendid Items

A splendid item is not just an expensive or fancy version of the item: it is a thing of rare wonder. To have a splendid item made for you, you must first find a master artisan who is willing to make it for youTo this artisan, you must bring remarkable materials to be incorporated into the item. You must also pay the artisan a fee whichever is higher: 1000 GP or 200 times the normal cost of the item.

Locating a master artisan can be a campaign goal in itself. It's an opportunity for the DM to introduce a memorable NPC for the players to interact with. The point here is to simultaneously world-build and invest the players in the setting of a dynamic sandbox by tying it to things that players are likely to want.

It might involve traveling to a remote location, or convincing a Hattori Hanzo figure to break his vow and come out of retirement, or rescuing a former master artisan from the depths of squalor and criminal entanglements. Or perhaps the artisan will only perform services from those who somehow prove themselves worthy of receiving the products of their rare talents. "What master artisans are there in a your setting and under what conditions will they work?" Is a good candidate for inclusion of Jeff Rients' 10 questions about your setting.

The requirement for remarkable materials ties the splendid item to the memorable achievements of the party. Some examples of remarkable materials might be a star opal pried from a mummy's crown to set into the pommel of a dagger, or dragon scales to make armor, or bolts of cloud silk from the floating manse of a spirit of the air for the purposes of making glorious evening wear. Each of these items is a part of their history and is imbued with the relish of their exploits.

As for the process of fashioning the splendid itemit must be made to suite the personality of the owner, and so they must be intimately involved in its production. (Hence the use of an entire downtime action.) Upon completion, the player must describe the item to the group and name it. Others will notice the item and speak about it. It will become an object of envy, desire, and respect. Strangers may recognize the artisan's work.

Any splendid item must be cared for each downtime following an adventure in which it is used for 1/10 its cost in order to keep its advantage. The stewardship of such an item is a heavy burden.

Although it has special properties, a splendid item is not magical. However, only such an item may receive further enchantments, so all magical items are also splendid items. (In a later post I will present a system for turning splendid items into magical items that ties them still further to the exploits of the party.)

Here are some advantages a splendid item might accrue, although the DM can be open to other suggestions. (Be careful not to break the game here.)
  • Splendid melee or thrown weapons either are plus one to hit or plus one to damage
  • Splendid missile weapons are either plus one to hit or add 20% to each range category
  • Splendid armor is either one better AC or one class lighter
  • Splendid shields are one AC lower or incorporate another item such as a lantern or flintlock pistol
  • 2000 GP worth of splendid clothes increase the CHA of the wearer by 1 point
  • Splendid holy symbols increase the HD of undead one can turn by 1
  • Splendid thieves tools grant +10% to lock picking and find/remove traps
  • Splendid assassin's disguises grant +10% to rolls or allow one to pull off implausible disguises
  • Other splendid items will have a special advantage agreed upon by the player and DM before purchase. Try not to get silly with this: there are no splendid wineskins or flints, but there certainly could be splendid lanterns, or books, etc. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Downtime Activities: Non-magical Research

I came up with a system I like for non-magical research in OSR-type games and I want to share it with you.

One of the player characters in my dreamlands game has a longstanding interest in the Treaty of the Farthest Shore, an ancient contract between the spirits (demons) of the Endless Azur Sea (i.e. the sky) and the Sky Singers, the ancient mariners who founded the monarchy of Zyan. Her interest was peaked by two things: having read the passages about the making of the treaty in the classic history of Zyan by "the utmost chronicler" Medes, and having perused a considerably less reputable diatribe titled, Secrets of the Treaty of the Farthest Shore Revealed, That All May Learn of The Treachery of The Demons of The Air, and Power May Be Gained to Overcome Our Present Troubles! by the wide-eyed Zamore Zuft. These texts suggested to the player that this treaty could, theoretically, in some way, be weaponized in the party's long struggle against the Hidden King of Zyan.

Disputations of the Squamous Jurists. Or is it the Talmud? You be the judge

In a remarkable turn of events, the party recently slew the Prince of the South Wind, a potentate of the spirits of the air, and looted his library, where they were finally able to attain a complete 20 volume set of The Disputations of the Squamous Jurists. This text contains the treaty of the farthest shore as well as copious surrounding commentary from the titular Squamous Jurists, the greatest antique legal scholars of the spirits of the air.

I was now confronted with what appeared to be a nightmarish problem of explaining what was in this impossibly dense and alien legal treatise. Since the player, Nick, was clearly intending to go all the way down this rabbit hole, I needed a way to handle this.

Studying this vast, alien legal text was going to be difficult. So I didn't want to hand out information so easily. But nor could I even if I had wanted to, since the 20 volume commentary of the Squamous Jurists so far outstripped anything I could possibly know. This situation militated against my simply answering at length whatever questions the players posed about the contents of the book: it would be too easy for them and too hard for me. It also would be the mother of all information dumps, which would turn the fun of discovery into a kind of setting homework for both me (to produce) and them (to read). Uggghhh.

But, luckily for me, I had been recently reading Meguey and Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World, and it's roguish stepchild, John Harper's Blades in the Dark, both justly famous story games. Among many other innovations, Apocalypse World introduced us to "Clocks". The idea of a clock is that you have something that will happen: an objective, or a condition, or a looming event. And there's a certain amount of "progress" that has to occur before the objective is reached or the event occurs. This progress is abstracted into "ticks" of the clock. So if something requires quite a lot of progress before occurring, we might set the clock with eight ticks; if less, four ticks, and so on. In Apocalypse World, clocks are used for approaching hazards.

Some of John B.'s clocks 

Blades in the Dark turned clocks into a versatile mechanic for all situations. Suppose the PCs are involved in a heist, looting a well-guarded mansion. The DM might say, "I'm setting a clock for you alerting the guards. It has four ticks." Then if the PCs make a loud noise, or in some other way draw attention to themselves, the DM will advance the clock one (or more) ticks. When the clock is filled, the guards show up. Blades in the Dark uses this mechanic almost everywhere, for combat with an especially tough foe, with the relation between gangs, etc.

So I decided to use clocks to solve my problem, but I took it an OSR-ish direction. Here's a slightly more systematic and developed version of the clocks-based solution of I've been using in play.


To research a topic in downtime, the player character must have access to a trove of information. In the most straightforward case, this will be a library, or a difficult grimoire, or an archive of some sort. But the trove could actually be any source of information (e.g. contacts in the criminal world, a method of divination, etc.). The trove always has a subject matter (it can have more than one). The player formulates a question they would like to investigate that falls within the subject matter of the trove. This is called opening a question.

The DM then writes up a clock for that question in advance. This clock is kept secret, since it represents the revelation of information through the progress of the investigation. The clock works like this: each tick is an entry that reveals progressively deeper information in answer to the question. The final tick for the question is the deepest layer of information that investigation will reveal. Once all the segments of the clock have been ticked, the question is closed.

For any open question, a PC can spend a downtime action investigating the topic to see if they can make progress on it. Ideally this will be a cost that would involve forgoing other downtime actions. (For full use this would require a system of downtime actions--a kind of resource mini-game happening in the deadtime between sessions.) To see whether they make progress, I am using the "reaction roll" mechanic that Apocalypse World lifts from early D&D. You roll 2d6 and add your intelligence modifier. The results are the following:

2-6 No progress
7-9 Shaky progress: the DM reserves the option to introduce a falsehood along with the truths uncovered, or to slightly distort the truths, or make things a little ambiguous. Note that the DM doesn't have to do this, but they can if they want to. Don't do this so much, or in a way that nerfs and discourages research.
10+ Progress

For the purposes of this system the DM keeps the size of the clock secret. The players don't know if this is a shallow topic, quickly exhausted, or whether it leads to hidden vistas. But the DM does NOT conceal whether the question is closed or open. If the question is closed after completing a tick, the DM tells the player "You have exhausted this question." If the question is still open after a tick has been completed, the DM tells them "You feel that there are further depths to plumb here."

For this mini-game to work, the ticks need to be interesting, enticing, and promise at least perhaps some actionable intelligence. If the answer to the question is quotidian or irrelevant to their interests, then the DM should make it a 1-tick clock and give them the full answer to the question they are investigating with a single 7+. Save the multi-tick, real deal clocks, for things it's fun to reveal in bite-sized bits.

When done right, my limited playtesting suggests that this turns a homework assignment into a tantalizing, tension building, slow burning reveal. Along the way, the players will form theories and speculations that race ahead of what they have revealed. The urgency of investigation will increase. And maybe, just maybe, something big will come of it in the end.

There are some nice twists you can put on this.

For example, you can have branching clocks, where a tick of one question opens another question for the party with its own clock. (Players will also do this organically as further information suggests other lines of inquiry that they might initiate by spending a downtime action to open a new question.)

You can also set up walls that require the players to acquire new sources of information in order to make further progress. For example, the text being consulted might refer to another text, and the DM might declare that to make further progress (check the next tick) on the question, the party will have to consult this other text. Or the wall might be one that can be circumnavigated by locating and consulting with a known expert. Or, perhaps, the only way to surmount the wall is having undergone a certain experience, as one might have the meaning of a certain religious mystery revealed to one only if one has been initiated, or has taken the right drugs, or communed with the strange writings on the black obelisks in hex 04125, or whatever. For this to work, the DM should simply tell the players what their research reveals they have to do if they want to make further progress on a question.

Another possibility, is to modify the roll based on a set of conditions. For example, you could apply a penalty for anyone who hasn't consulted a certain other text, or give a bonus for those who had. No doubt further variations exist.

An example will help to illustrate the method. Unfortunately I can't use the real example from my game, since all the questions they are investigating are still open.

Example: The Puzzle Scrolls

Suppose the party has liberated an artifact known as "the Fourth Puzzle Scroll" from the manse of Vermagin Eleazar, leader of the Withered Nightingales. It is written in an inimical eldritch code, and it seems both dangerous and powerful. The party suspects that to unlock the full power of the Fourth Puzzle Scroll, they will have to acquire a full set. Luckily, the PCs have access to a trove of information on magical subjects, since the party has access to the library of a certain obsessive collector of arcane wonders having added to certain delicious and irreplaceable items to his inventory in the past. The party's magician decides to use this trove to inaugurate a line of investigation by opening the question: "Where can the other puzzle scrolls be found?" Since this is a major artifact with a long history, I decide that the it will be a five tick clock.

"Where can the other puzzle scrolls be found?" five ticks

Tick 1: Most references to the puzzles scrolls are offhanded and obscure. But in certain very old texts you find some useful information. There were seven puzzle scrolls in total. As to their location, a chain of textual references lead you eventually to the section of the Testimony of the Senses that discusses the wonders seen by Balzabo the Theoricus in the legendary Library of Worms at the Monastery of Larsa. He describes in detail a complete set of the Puzzle Scrolls, unfortunately dwelling more on aesthetics than substance. So it seems that a complete set existed at the Monastery of Larsa two centuries ago.

The Ignotaur
Tick 2: Your researches inform you that a century ago, the Monastery of Larsa was looted by the People of Ash, fire worshipping minotaur berserkers. It is said that in those flames were consumed the knowledge of a thousand thousand generations, and that the oily smoke of the slaughtered tomes was a pleasing sacrifice to their burnt gods. However, Captivity Amongst the Savage Bulls, an account of Umut, a librarian who served for 10 years under their harsh dominion, testifies that certain treasures were rescued from the fires by the Ash Scholars, including all the puzzle scrolls but one.

Tick 3: Later, some say under a curse, others from paranoia, the Ignotaur turned the power of his nomadic empire to building the Labyrinthine Ziggurat, a maze of dizzying volcanic glass hidden in the Desert of Shifting Sands, near the ancient city of Qaz. The Ziggurat is said by Nabi, the court poet of the Ignatur, in his Songs of the Zigguratto be guarded by the ghosts of fallen minotaur warriors, and the crimson demons of his flaming deity. According to the poem, the Ignatur hid all his greatest treasures here, safe from his enemies. As it happens, the Withered Nightingales were rumored to have recently returned from an expedition to the region where the ruins of Qaz are said to lie. Perhaps if you consult your underworld contacts, you could open a question on what happened on the Withered Nightingales' Recent Expedition to Qaz. (Branching clock.)

Tick 4: You strike gold: a lead on the puzzle scroll that did not make it into the Ignotaur's collection. The missing scroll was not burned! Twenty years before the burning of the Library of Worms, the wizard Alangstrum, Piercer of Veils, quietly removed the fifth puzzle scroll from the library. Some say that he did it in the conviction that the world was not ready for the terrible hidden wisdom of the fifth scroll, others that he wished to seize its powers for himself. But here the trail runs cold. Several of the texts you have been consulting refer you to Alangstrum's introduction to Priaducts and Other Ways Hither and Yon, a book sadly not found in the collector's libraryPerhaps you could make further progress if you could locate a copy of this exceedingly rare text. (Wall)

Tick 5: In the introduction to Priaducts and Other Ways Hither and Yon, Alangstrum obliquely suggests that he opened a priaduct to Wishery, the dreamlands. There he placed the fifth puzzle scroll in a shaded grotto on the Hooded Isle in the Sea of Palimpsests, where the veil of reality wears thin, and four worlds flicker through like flames behind a thin parchment.

As you can see from this clock, a mix of history, possible adventure locales, the names of tomes, and so on are all introduced slowly over an extended period of time, perhaps mixed with the occasional rabbit hole or canard on a shaky roll. I think this is a player driven way to make a fun, sandbox oriented downtown minigame out of lore in your setting.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

How are Issues 1 & 2 of Through Ultan's Door Connected? And other news

First, some news: 

1. DriveThruRPG has finally approved the PDF of Issue 2 of Through Ultan's Door. You can now purchase electronic copies of the zine here.

2. I have heard the voice of the people, and chosen to add shipping directly from my Big Cartel store to Canada. Note: it is not really any less expensive than buying it from the Melsonian Arts Council, and I'm not sure how much faster it'll get there. But should you want the option to buy it closer to home, you can now do so. Everyone else outside the U.S. should go to The Melsonian Arts Council.

But now, on to the main topic. I've received some questions about the Catacombs of the Fleischguild featured in issue 2 relates to the Ruins of the Inquisitor's Theater in Issue 1. The short answer is that the Catacombs are down river from the Ruins of the Inquisitor's Theater. If you just hop in that ornate green canoe at area 25 of the Inquisitor's Theater, and paddle with the current downstream, in 15 minutes you will find yourself at the entrance to the Catacombs of the Fleischguild.

Originally, I had been planning on including a map of the sewer river with issue 2. But it's a point crawl map, which necessitates descriptions of quite a few nodes, and a big old encounter table. It proved to be too much material to include in issue 2, and I decided to bump to issue 3. I was also encouraged to do this because Gus drew a crazy great map of the sewer river that really fired my imagination. So this made me want to give it the space to breath in an entire issue. This has produced the awkward situation that I'm giving you a second dungeon on a pointcrawl map without giving you the map or rules for transit between destinations. C'est la vie.

A Teaser of one part of Gus' deliciously crazy sewer map

I will try to rectify this by making some more material about the sewer river available here in advance of issue 3, which is, naturally, still a long way off. But it's worth saying this too:

The Ruins of the Inquisitor's Theater is intended as a slow burning entree into the strange world of Wishery that lies on the other side of Ultan's Door. The Catacombs of the Fleischguild is different. While it "lifts the curtain" on further mysteries of Zyan, it is much more of a self-contained "jewel box" of a dungeon. For all its implied Zyanese theology and culture, it is more amenable to being dropped in to existing campaigns without the aid of Ultan's door to the dreamlands. Of course, for me, it is and always will be part of Wishery. But the waking world is full of echoes of Wishery (or is the other way around?), so perhaps this dungeon can find its way directly into your Living Greyhawk or Duskvol or City State of the Invincible Overlord. I would be the last to imagine that I could contain such phantasms by placing them on a map.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Through Ultan's Door Issue 2 is Finally Here!

The long wait is over! I am now releasing into the wild issue 2 of Through Ultan's Door.

Go through Ultan's door in this second issue into the Catacombs of the Fleischguild, replete with fiendish butcher traps, blood demons, flayed heretics, and much more! It is a 31 room dungeon for a party of 3-5 characters of 2nd-3rd level, written for Advanced Labyrinth Lord, but broadly compatible with any older version of D&D or their retro clones.

This 36 page zine also has house rules for playing in the dreamlands, a treatise on the undead of Wishery, and new spells and magic items. It is brought to life with a gorgeous cartography by Gus L and lavish illustrations by Huargo, Jeremy Duncan, Orphicss, and Matt Hildebrand. Like issue 1, it comes with a detachable cover with a map and a separate encounter card so that you can sit right down and play! I have also reprinted issue 1, so you can finally purchase physical copies of that as well.

At the moment, where you should go to buy the zine depends on whether you wish to buy a print + PDF, or PDF only. you can purchase the zine.

For customers wishing to purchase print + PDF copies, please visit my Big Cartel webstore here: International shipping can be pricey, and although I've discounted it to the extent I've been able to, it's still much higher than I would like it to be.

For this reason I've also distributed some copies to The Melsonian Arts Council which ships from the UK here:

For customers anywhere wishing to purchase a PDF only of the zine, please visit DriveThruRPG here: (at present I'm still waiting for the PDF to be approval, I'll update here when it's available)

In the U.S. and Canada I have provided people the option to have their single zines shipped bagged and in a box for a small extra fee ($2). Orders of multiple zines will automatically be shipped in a box. Unfortunately, I do not have the capacity to honor other shipping requests: for a single zine it's either in a simple envelope, or bagged in a box; for multiple zines they will be sent in a box. Please keep in mind that if you order the print version in the U.S., I will be manually emailing you the PDF, and I may need up to 24 hours to get the digital copy into your inbox.

If you are stumbling upon the zine for the first time, and are curious, there were many reviews of issue 1. Here are just two:

The first, by Patrick Stuart, of False Machine can be viewed here.

The second, by Byrce Lynch, of Ten Foot Pole can be viewed here.

If you want to see a preview of the contents of issue 2 before purchasing the zine, you can head over to the DriveThruRPG link above, where the preview includes a hefty chunk of the dungeon. If you wish to receive email updates about future releases, send an email to

See you in Slumberland!

Friday, June 14, 2019

Through Ultan's Door Issue 2: Nearly There

It's been a long time in the making, but Issue 2 of Through Ultan's Door finally made it to the printers! I wanted to talk lift the curtain on the process and give you a glimpse of the finished product.

I tried a new, more rational method for printing issue 2. With issue 1, I edited the manuscript, had layout done, and commissioned art, all simultaneously. This was good for speed, since the delays in these different areas were simultaneous, but it was also the source of the considerable problems I ran into, problems that produced more stress than I could handle. (I talked about some of the problems here.) This time I told myself I would be more patient. My basic principle is to move to the next stage of the process only once I had finished the previous stage.

With issue 1 there were a ton of errors in the text that we only caught slowly after production had begun. This time, once I finished a rough draft of the text, I sent it to Fiona Maeve Geist for editing. I was a little worried, since I have intentionally adopted a pretentious, purple-prose style for this zine (and my blog), and I knew she was a fan of more muscular and direct writing. But she is a subtle wordsmith. She performed the remarkable feat of suggesting substantial changes to almost every paragraph that preserved my style 100% while simultaneously making objective improvements everywhere, giving verve to what Patrick Stuart rightly characterized as my overly professorial voice. (Of course, she also caught a bazillion errors.) Everyone should employ Fiona.

Once I had the edited draft in hand, I sent it to Matt Hildebrandt who did a preliminary layout including the spaces and dimensions for all artwork. Matt is amazing talented at layout; he's another gem whom game companies should absolutely employ. (I was astounded to find that he is also a wonderful illustrator, since at the very end he threw a couple of his own gorgeous pieces in the zine when a last minute layout changed opened up extra space.) Once we had the layout done, I only then commissioned artwork.

This piece is by Orphicss.
The artwork took a while, as artwork does. After receiving the artwork, Matt finalized the PDF. I then took it yesterday to the printer, hauling box after box of French Paper Co paper. The printer and I had already come to an understanding with issue 1. What he is able to print for me is much higher quality than what I can manage myself on a home printer, without any of the heartbreak. I am giving him huge orders (about 13,000 sides this time around!), and so he's happy to give me a very fair price on the volume. For anyone in Chicago, the printshop I use is Indigo Printing. It's a locally owned small business. The owner is an extraordinarily careful professional.

Now that the printing is finished I am folding and assembling all my zines by hand, before I begin selling them. This saves me the mad crunch as my stock dwindles and life presses in, and somehow I have to find time to fold, staple, press and cut 30 or 40 zines. It's been wonderful to get the gear and tackle and trim on the table and to discover that I still have the hang of using it.

The only anarchic element--anarchic in the best possible sense--was Gus L's contributions, since he contributed so much for free in a spirit of brotherhood, from substantive revisions to the text, to a not one but two amazing maps, and a couple of unsolicited delicious interior illustrations. In fact, his map of the sewer river was so evocative that it fired my imagination, leading me to decide that I needed to give the pointcrawl of the sewer river its own separate issue of the zine. So that's going to be issue 3 now. Issue 2 is squarely focused on the Catacombs of the Fleishguild. I'm not going to show you the sewer river map yet, but here's a glimpse of his map for the catacombs in issue 2.

Hot damn look at that thing

One consequence of employing this more rational approach is that delays in the process, instead of running simultaneously, stacked one after the other. What was a week here and week there for issue 1, accumulated into a few months of delay in Issue 2. I think it is worth it, since I have not yet been stressed out (!), and I am convinced that issue 2 is better than issue 1. But I'll let you be the judge of the question about quality. By the way reprinted issue 1 as well, as promised. Here they are together.

Right now, here are my priorities:

  1. Fold enough zines to send a shipment to Daniel Sell at the Melsonian Arts Council, who will be distributing them for me to locations outside the U.S. at better shipping prices than I can manage.
  2. Test shipping costs under various permutations. This time I won't be shipping media mail (the zine doesn't actually qualify), and I'll also be offering a more deluxe priority mail option for those who want their zines bagged and shipped in a sturdy box. Both will be more expensive than shipping was last time, but for the cheaper option, not too much more expensive I hope. 
  3. Finish folding all the zines I have (400 of issue 2, 200 of issue 1). 
  4. Put the zine on sale for U.S. customers through my Big Cartel store. 
I hope to have this all done by the last week of June, and be shipping zines from then through September. After that I'll probably put things on hiatus again for a while. I hope this summer I can also get some work done on Issue 3, maybe finish at least a draft of the text. We'll see. For now, full speed ahead!

For the curious, in closing, here is a list of the table of contents for Issue 2:

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The City of Hex: The Late Baroque CSIO

If you read and enjoyed my post on the City State of the Invincible Overlord, you all need to go read this post right now by Jonathan Newell on the Bearded Devil blog. It talks about his method for preparing and running his gorgeously mapped city of Hex.

Bearded Devil, you are bringing into reality what I glimpsed as a possibility only gestured at by the City State of the Invincible Overlord. There's a lot to learn from Jonathan's experiment with Hex. For comparison's purpose, let's start with the City State of the Invincible Overlord. The CSIO has a gorgeous and detailed map, full of cramped shops, narrow alleys, and open plazas.

It uses this street map as the template for play, since it is designed to run at the level of micro-geography of the city. In fact, the map doesn't even divide the city into neighborhoods--as though such distinctions are too large scale to be useful in play. About a third of the buildings are keyed, and every shop, tavern, and temple is filled with leveled NPCs (some colorful) and abounds with rumors and opportunities for adventures. Different streets have their own random encounters mechanic built in giving a sense of the character of the city at the level of streets.

I think this approach was born out of the best kind of creative thinking, extrapolating from early dungeon play, and essentially imagining a sword & sorcery city at dungeon scale, except instead of fighting monsters you get up to capers, heists, arena fighting, bar fights, and general hijinks, a version of what (to paraphrase Jeff Rients) Conan and Lando Calrissian might get up to if they found themselves bored on a hot afternoon in Lankhmar.

The possibility that I glimpsed in the CSIO is of an entire campaign plumbing the depths of an inexhaustible wealth of delicious, imaginative, city material. Where, in some sense, the subject of the game is the city itself, and the goal is a sort of carnal knowledge of the overwhelming built environment, where the players come to literally know the texture of its streets, the little nooks and crannies, and dozens, perhaps hundreds of its myriad secrets. Where the player would know exactly what it looked like to gaze across the Plaza of Profuse Pleasures into the Park of Obscene Statues, or that beneath Boot & Strap on Barter Street, the shop of notorious bootmaker Karugy One-Eye, they might exchange news with bandits and blackguards over a cup of ale and roast pig, provided they weren't elves(!), before coming out in such and such a spot in the undercity.

In the perhaps imperfect language I have recently developed for trying to talk about what's fun about this sort of thing, we can say the CSIO was created with the idea that city exploration might provide the pleasures of secrecy & discovery in a sense modeled on exploring a megadungeon. Since my own infatuation with city exploration IRL is premised on a romantic but absolutely true idea that cities are repositories of endless secrets and anarchic human-wrought wonders, this idea really gripped me. How could it not?

But one deep feature of the CSIO is that it is designed for low prep gaming. It uses an absurdly fiddly, but extraordinarily flexible (once you grasp it) system of generic random encounters (the system is also in the Ready Ref Sheets). This system is intended to combine with the immense system of loosey-goosey location-based rumors and detailed keyed locations to generate endless possibilities for adventure in an improvisational mode. It invites the kind of play I've been using it for with my son and his cousins. Did I mention that in the last session they fast talked their way into Liar Mukang's Pleasure Dome, escaping by a hair's breadth laden with his riches on the back of a gold dragon? And that I did zero prep for that session? I can report that the CSIO works as intended, at least with the 10-13 crowd. [Note: Liar Mukang and his pleasure dome is hell-of-racist. It was a nice teaching moment with the kids. We got to have the fun of the adventure AND talk about orientalism afterwards.]

It is striking that the improvisational style of CSIO is in some tension with the ideal being gestured towards by the detailed micro-geographical approach. There's something hilariously incongruous about juxtaposing the detailed geographical detail and the generic nature of the encounter tables: we go from the notorious bootmaker Karugy One-Eye with 3 levels in fighter and his bigoted ogre wife, complete with the rumor that two drunken rogues are slumped over a staff of power at a horse tie, to this encounter you might roll: a noble wants to hire you. It works perfectly well as a package, with the detailed geography and entries providing a structure that works as a skeleton on which to hang the maximally swingy improvisational encounters and adventures. But one way to look at this combination is as a possible fault line in the CSIO. We can then think of approaches breaking one way or the other.

Vornheim (I know, I know) ditched the micro-geography and keyed locations for a vastly more flavorful set of systems of procedural generation of the physical city itself, underwriting zero prep improvisational play to a higher degree. Logan Knight's Corpathium followed in this direction still further, supplemented with flavorful neighborhood based random encounter tables that moved the unit of the city from the street to the district. The experiment was to see whether we could replace the obsessive micro-geographical detail of the CSIO and its less successful progeny with methods of procedural generation to create the open sense of a truly vast city. Although those attempts succeeded at doing what they were trying to do, and so were a genuine advance, I think they missed the charm of the CSIO, conflating its approach with the boring enumeration of useless information that characterized later city products.

Hex breaks the other way, opting to dial up to 11 the intense, loving pre-generation of physical city as a boundless source of adventure. The game is run as a reverse West Marches campaign, with a shifting cast of players who set their own agendas in a sandbox consisting (almost) exclusively of the city itself for each session by voting in two polls, one to schedule a game and the other to set the agenda for the session (which they can edit to introduce whatever options they want). Jonathan then preps different areas and NPCs in the city as much as he can in advance, as in a West Marches game the DM would prep the portions of the hex map and adventure locations the players planned to visit. This approach of incremental city creation, with the prep racing ahead of the players via polling is an interesting approach. Over time, the city has taken on a life of its own and now is sufficiently developed that Jonathan says he has a pretty good idea what's going on in every neighborhood, and often at the street level. Which is nuts in the best kind of way.

As with the CSIO, Hex has a detailed map, allowing for play that is focused on the texture and microgeography of the city. If the CSIO map is pretty, the one for Hex is drop dead gorgeous. I mean take a look at this map fragment:

The Cultist Quarter & Enigma Heap
Jonathan runs the game with a huge version of the map rolled out on the table, which is how I run CSIO too (albeit with a smaller map). This emphasizes the freedom of movement for the players, and the city as a space to be moved through and explored. Unlike in the CSIO, where a lot of the game is about getting from point A to point B via the streets, Jonathan abstracts from movement between quadrants of the city, zooming at the level of the destination neighborhood. Using the polls to give him advance notice, he preps the descriptions for the streets and keys for the buildings and NPCs. Given how detailed his map is, he is able to print blown up versions of individual neighborhoods. Like so:

He also draws a lot of the crazy neighborhood blocks of clustered buildings that the players are likely to visit. Here are a couple of his drawings. How could you not be curious about each and every store, resident, floor and so on?

I find this aspect of his city especially remarkable. By employing his formidable artistic skills, as well as the aesthetic of a city of visually striking, quirky, simultaneously organic and jury-rigged clusters of buildings into blocks, he is able to give a rich texture to individual city blocks. I've never seen anything like this, but it sure would render memorable all sorts of locations in the city! He can literally just say to his players: this is what it looks like. This is what the prep of an adventure location might look like:

Obviously the city is extraordinarily flavorful, a place abounding in wonders, a sort of Dickensian, fey touched, demon infested, New Crobuzon. I think it would be a total blast to play there. Given my dispositions, imaginative burn out, and lack of mapping and artistic skills, it's clear that I will never be able to accomplish anything like this. Which is why I find this so fascinating. I can't wait to read more about how you run this game Jonathan. Perhaps one day Zyan Above can be a fraction of what you are making here.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Pleasures of the OSR: Emergent Story and Open Worlds

This is the second post in a series where I explore the OSR play style by considering the different pleasures it makes available. As in my first post, I'm taking as one of my reference points the contrast between OSR and story games. This time though I'm going to talk about the way each of them reacts to what we might think of as a depressing tendency in "trad", "mainstream", or "corporate" play style. OSR and story games each try to secure different pleasures that this depressing tendency threatens. The difference in what we're after is easy to miss, because we talk the same talk when we criticize the tendency we both find oppressive.

What both OSR and story gamers are against is railroading. Here's a rough explanation of the metaphor of railroading. Trains can only run along certain tracks, stopping at a predetermined set of stations that lie along a straight line. Perhaps there are one or two choice points, but those choice points just lead to more straight rails with their own fixed sequence of destinations. One finds something similarly constraining in TTRPGs when the dungeon master comes to the table with a pre-planned story following a certain sequence to a fixed conclusion. The role of the players is to move through a series of scenes or encounters exercising a very constrained agency, to tell the story that the DM wants to tell in more or less the way he wants to tell it. This style of play has deep roots in the history of D&D, going back to some tournament style modules (I'm looking at you Tracy Hickman) that want to walk the players through a more or less fixed sequence of events and challenges towards a final confrontation with a big boss. One finds it still in Pathfinder style "adventure paths". What if someone gets off the path? Wouldn't it be more interesting to do just that? 

Both story and OSR gamers find this dreadful. They both reject it using the same form of words. When I first read Vincent and Meguey Baker in Apocalypse World saying, "We play to see what happens," I recognized immediately a formulation that everyone in the OSR would enthusiastically affirm. Ditch the rails and the preplanned series of events! If we've done our job right then we know that we can only see what happens by playing the game. Similarly, both OSR and story gamers regularly say that they value "emergent stories". The idea is that the stories are not pre-written, rather they emerge from play. So it seems like we're on the same page. But I'm convinced that this is, in large part, an illusion.

Story gamers see the problem as lying with the fact that the DM is doing all the narrating. He has already written the fiction, and the players are present as his props, or as actors who follow his pre-written script in a play that he is also directing. From this perspective, railroading is awful because it reserves the pleasurable activity of creating fiction for the DM and denies it to the players. It also makes the creation of fiction a kind of controlling exercise in moving people about as thought they were extensions of your will. The attractive ideal they present as an alternative is to let the players in on the act of creation. What they are after is an improvisational, collaborative, story telling, where players and GMs can explore fiction together, creating interesting stories in a certain genre by throwing characters into provocative situations so as to see what happens.

Given that this is the kind of distinctive pleasure (really a whole family of pleasures) they are trying to secure, their rules and practices allow players to take control of the fiction in various ways. For example, a "move" in Apocalypse World is an action type that triggers dice rolling. One of the general moves available to all classes ("playbooks") is "Read a Sitch". This is a move that allows the character to understand a charged situation by reading the intentions, vulnerabilities, and so on of the people in it. One can only use this move in a situation that is charged, i.e. tense. In explaining how this works, the Bakers imagines a player saying "I want to read the situation," and the GM ("MC") responding, "Oh yeah? How is this situation charged?" This invites the player to take over the fiction and elaborate on the situation. The player might say something like, "It's charged now! I've had a grudge against Bad Maw since he burned Locust Village." Or, he might say something like, "I've been hooking up with Sister Kate, and Bad Maw doesn't like it." Similarly, in John Harper's Blades Against the Dark, players can always trade resources ("stress") to change the fiction when something bad happens to them. They can also suggest to one another "Devil's Bargains", inserting faustian choices into the game, in order to give each other bonuses on rolls. For example, if someone is trying to intimidate their gang of hirelings into not torturing a captive, another player might say, "Maybe you go too far, and there's simmering resentment building up that might boil over later." And these are just tiny examples of what is a thoroughgoing tendency to enable the contributions of players to the fiction being collectively produced. Stories emerge from these rule-supported collaboration in story telling.

By contrast, OSR gamers see the problem with railroading as the fact that the DM is trying to tell a story. They regularly say things like, "Well, if that's what he wants to do, he should go write a fantasy novel then." Here's something they never say, "We should change things so that we all write a fantasy novel together in an improvisational and collaborative mode." The OSR idea is to ditch the pretension to storytelling altogether. Liberation is from the idea that we're trying to tell a story. In OSR games, people don't think in terms of creating fiction. They go about pursuing aims, overcoming challenges (hint: this is the pleasure for the next post in the series), accomplishing goals, enjoying the pleasures of discovery, and so on. They do act on reasons like, "This would be a cool place to go and check out," (pleasure of discovery). But they don't act on reasons like, "It would be cool for the story if we went here" (pleasure of storytelling). On the OSR approach to play, we're certainly engaging in collective make believe, since we pretend to be characters inhabiting a world together, but this collective make believe is not improvisational storytelling.

If we don't see ourselves as storytelling, then in what sense do we take pleasure in "emergent stories"? When we say we're into "stories that emerge from play", we mean precisely stories that no one aimed to produce. Like in ordinary life, where we do various things not intending to produce a story, but nonetheless through the interaction of chance, the dubiousness of colorful characters, and our boldness in the moment, a memorable story emerges. This is, obviously, a different pleasure than the pleasure in contributing to, exploring, and collaboratively crafting a satisfying story. Mainly in the OSR we don't get that pleasure. Since our games don't aim at collaboratively producing satisfying fiction, often our play doesn't coalesce into memorable or satisfying narrative, which can be disappointing to people who come wanting to tell stories together. (Confession: sometimes I feel that disappointment.)

But there's something we get that story games can't as easily deliver. A story that is incredible in real life is not very impressive where we are aiming to produce incredible stories. You're the one writing the story? Then of course that thing that makes for a cool story is what happened. How much more awesome is that same story when it happens in real life, where no one was trying to make an awesome story? That's the kind of emergent stories that OSR gamers take pleasure in. When we trade stories, we aren't trading fiction we collaboratively improvised: we're swapping war stories.

Another thing that getting off the railroad means in OSR play is getting into an open world. I can best convey the pleasure of this by example. My son wanted me to introduce D&D to his two cousins over Thanksgiving. The older of the pair is a surly tween. I had some capital to spend, since she definitely thinks of me as "the fun uncle", but I was expecting resistance. I had no time to prep (also, I don't prep for kids), so I quickly sat down and scrawled a hackneyed dungeon in 10 minutes. A princess' bed had been turned into a portal. She had been dragged into some ice caves beneath, where an ice witch was holding her captive. The king had sent in a dopy suitor and knights who had promptly gotten captured by some yetis. They went a ways into the dungeon and messed around with some stuff. At first the tween was rolling her eyes and making sarcastic remarks. But then my son said something offhand about what they would do when they got out of there. She stopped the game and said, "Wait, we can do ANYTHING we want in this game?" And I said, "Yes, that's the WHOLE IDEA of D&D." Her eyes got wide like saucers and she burst into a shit-eating grin. They promptly hatched a plan to come out of the bed and rob the king, fleeing to the big city with the king's wizard in ho5 pursuit. They took the princess' bed with them, and so they have had a portable dungeon with them ever since. The game consists now of one scam and heist after another in the City State of the Invincible Overlord, Judge's Guild sword and sorcery wonderland of a city. The thrill that my niece experienced, that feeling of total, delicious, delirious openness: that's the pleasure I'm talking about. It's the same pleasure that group has every time they begin a session by discussing all the irons they have in the fire, and settle on whatever strikes their fancy as the best and most interesting thing to do.

I f you read my last post, I bet you're thinking: but the kid's game you're describing is all improvisation. Part of the reason why people in the OSR sometimes push low prep styles is to prevent a DM from laying down the rails in the first place. The idea is that if we don't prepare too much then we can't prepare in such a way as to forestall openness. This is why story games with their improvisational, player-driven collaboration immediately destroy the railroad. So some may be scenting a tension between the pleasure I'm articulating here and the pleasure of discovery that depends on the presence of an already existing world. But how do you prep for an open game that's not collaborative storytelling? Through the exercise of our collective intelligence we've solved this problem. In OSR design and play culture we make the rails impossible through the way we prep and play games.

For example, when prepping "an adventure" we don't prepare it as a series of scenes or encounters. Instead we prepare location-based adventures. We imagine a place that could be interacted with in numerous ways. This affects something as concrete as how we design maps and layout. We learned early that there should be numerous ways into and out of a place, interesting inter-level connections, looping passages, map features that can be interacted with and used in any number of ways. This single concrete point has a huge psychological effect, since it makes it literally impossible for a DM to imagine in advance the sequence of events as players move through a space (those stations on a straight rail).

Similarly, instead of designing NPCs around dramatic encounters that push in a single direction, we  design jostling factions that can be interacted with any number of ways. They have their schemes and complex motivations and are in conflict with one another. Players enter into this social terrain interacting in whatever way they want with this dynamic and unstable environment. The single best piece of writing on this is Gus L.'s forthcoming Pyre Coast. Gus is a master of faction play, both as a DM and a player. (Whenever he shows up in my game I think of the legendary reports of Dave Arneson showing up as Captain Harchar in M.A.R. Barker's Tekumel games.) Gus has excellent advice on how to fold factions into the design of every locale, and also into random encounter tables. The Pyre Coast is a kind of master class in viewing a dungeon and wilderness encounter table through the lens of faction play. Cole Long has interesting thoughts about this coming from his Swords of the Inner Sea Campaign, a hidden gem of OSR play. I'll talk about that in the third of my Google mix tapes series. (From someone who never has much of a queue on this blog, since the demise of G+ I've had about a dozen posts on my workbench.)

When we move up from adventure sites and factions to the level of wilderness and the campaign map, we prep to foster openness by preparing sandboxes. The idea is to populate a map with interesting features, settlements, lairs, adventure locales and so on. One has no predetermined sense of where the players will go or what they will do: it's their sandbox to play in. One variety of sandbox play is the hex crawl. The term comes from the hexagonal shaped wilderness maps popular from the war games influenced days of the early hobby. The West Marches campaign was an inspiring experiment run by Ben Robbins in the early 2000's. It was a completely open game of wilderness hex crawling. Ben had prepared an unexplored wilderness hexmap, the West Marches, stocking it with adventure sites, lairs, landmarks, and so on. There was no fixed group of players or regularly scheduled games. Instead the players recruited teams, and scheduled sessions, to go to locations of their choosing. Together, this huge assortment of different players kept a collective map, which in turn spurred further exploration (e.g. when another group uncovered a new adventure site or pushed further into the unknown then people scrambled to put together a new expedition). The game was restrictive in that all adventuring began and ended in a settlement, and all adventures happened out there in the wilderness of the West Marches. But it did give a template for maximum openness in player choice in the context of wilderness exploration and dungeon crawling that could be realized in less restrictive forms.

But still, one might think, such openness, even if it doesn't stand in tension with prep as such, does stand in tension with evocative snowflake worlds of the imagination. For surely the only way to develop the lore, the history, the metaphysics, and so on of a world is through some kind of meta-plot and story arcs. Or, at the very least, one might think that such world building minutiae could never be relevant to the nuts and bolts of an open, player-driven game. Since one of the hallmarks of the OSR is the creation of precisely such implausible jewels of settings this would be a major tension in our culture. But we've cracked this nut too.

I have run an entirely open world in my maximally pretentious and wildly baroque dreamlands game. The basic trick is to introduce setting lore, metaphysics, religion, and culture in connection with elements of the sandbox. For example, I explored the Numinous Game played by the Unrelenting Archons, the alien deities of religion of Zyan by putting a Forgotten Temple of the Archons on my map as an adventure site that the players could visit. When theology and metaphysics are wrapped up in the mystery of an adventure locale, then metaphysics becomes key to unravelling the mystery of dungeon. Similarly, one can introduce a lot of this through jostling factions who have their own cultures, histories and so on. Do you want to befriend the Guildless pariahs in Zyan? It may help to understand that they are mute exiles who worship Golumex, the pariah Archon of ruin and lost hope. When setting lore is part of the sandbox, your snowflake of a world is the solution for getting off the rails rather than the problem.

This John Blanche picture from Sorcery! was the inspiration for the Guildless

I talked about how I develop a setting through a sandbox in my own campaign here.  Over the years, Chris Kutalik has written a series of illuminating posts about related on the Hill Cantons blog, which I'll talk more about in the Google Plus Mixtape Track 02. Here's one where he talks about "setting info" as a treasure type and how he connects lore to every dungeon he designs. Here are two different posts (Post I and Post II) where he explains his index card method that ties setting mysteries into his sleek system of campaign events, rumors, and adventure locales. (Confession: when I wrote the post on world building I linked to above, I forgot that I had read Chris writing about it. I was clearly channeling him, especially in the defense of the "snowflake setting". Sorry Chris! One small way I would push back on Chris' perspective on all this is that I don't see why "top down" setting construction is opposed to openness. I see why it has various practical problems, but I don't see the connection between it and "thinking in terms of a five-act play", at least if what you're top-down designing is a sandbox.)

One crucial rule used in almost all OSR games that makes this possible is a mechanic that links treasure with gaining experience. The classic rule is 1 XP per GP. What this rule does is link advancement of a character to engagement with locations in a sandbox. It presents a constant incentive for players to uncover adventure locales and brave them. There is thus never a question about why they would want to press forward into the unknown. In my experience, at the beginning of a campaign that uses this rule, the game is mainly about recovering loot. But as the players get involved in the world, it shifts into a set of campaign goals involving the relationships to various NPCs and factions, and interaction with larger elements of the setting, and so on. At mid-level play, one will regularly have strings of sessions without any XP whatsoever, as the group pursues solely self-selected campaign goals. (In classic D&D, at a high-level a campaign was supposed to shift into "domain play", when the PCs became big players in the world. I've never done that, I'm talking about an organic growth in player driven goals.) But the lure of treasure will always be there, meaning that as soon as they get they itch the group can always return to the baseline activity of exploration and adventuring.

To story game ways of thinking this is an incredibly reductive mechanic that at best forces all games of D&D into telling stories from a small range of genres, say the swords & sorcery picaresque. It's all Cugel the Clever, or Conan, or Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser. This is basically true: the stories that emerge from play do tend to have this flavor. Since in OSR games we're not thinking about intentionally producing fiction, this bothers us less. (It probably also helps that the genres of fiction involved are well-loved in the OSR.) If this is too constraining for you, I recommend looking at The Nightmares Underneath by Johnstone Metzger for a creative re-interpretation of the rule that ties it into setting specific flavor. In my next campaign, I'm going to follow Metzger's lead and tie the recovery of treasure to a setting specific themes to produce emergent stories that break with the swrod and sorcery picaresque. But more on that another time.

There are also ways of widening the incentives a bit. Jason Hobbs, in his West Marches style Kalmatta game, adds to this a rule that incentivizes exploring, giving 10 XP for each hex on the map visited, and 150 XP for uncovering adventure sites. Jeff Rients wrote a fabulous post a long time ago about giving XP for visiting a small number of wondrous locations in your sandbox. The crucial thing is just that character advancement be tied to the uncovering and braving of adventure locales. Other possibilities exist as well, for example, in a different system adventure locales might contain means for players to advance without a mechanic like XP, for example, by undergoing trials of the spirit or some kind of transformation (again: this will be in my next campaign). But the crucial thing is that exploration and overcoming challenges in adventure locales be directly incentivized. Further goals emerge and are built on top of that foundational activity.

I have trouble envisioning an open game in the OSR sense without some incentive structure like that. Otherwise one has to invest in story elements from the get-go, thinking from session 1 about your PC's motivations, and perhaps making choices about what kind of story you want to tell with this character. After all, someone is going to have determine the motivations for playing in the sandbox along certain vectors, whether it's the DM or the players, or some collaboration between all-of-the-above. The kind of openness in OSR games involves not doing that, and so requires some impersonal mechanic that incentivizes playing in the sandbox, for example, by linking it to "success" and player advancement. While we can certainly imagine more flexible variations on this theme, some mechanic along these lines will be essential.