Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Prison of the Hated Pretender [Review]

 


Prison of the Hated Pretender is a module published by Hydra Cooperate and written by Gus L. It is available here on DriveThruRPG for the low price of PWYW. It is designed as a first level starter adventure, intended to introduce new players and DMs to exploration based play. Obviously this review contains spoilers, so if you might play in the Prison of the Hated Pretender, you should probably stop now. Also full disclosure: I collaborate with Gus on Through Ultan's Door. (Although if you want to know why, this review explains it.)

Although it does present a starter homebase (a miserable little village called "Broken Huts"), the bulk of the module is taken up with the titular prison. The dungeon is designed to showcase and teach exploration-based play. Gus has an imagination for locations that I sorely envy as a DM and author. With him nothing is boring straight corridors and square rooms, or featureless caverns. In this case the prison is a ten room, four floor (including basement and roof) affair carved out of rock to look like the crowned head of the hated pretender. 


As they approach the dungeon, right away the players are presented with a meaningful choice, for they can simply walk in the front door, or they can climb a tree up to the eyehole windows on the second floor, or even scramble over the top of the head to a roof that is surrounded by the stone crowned pate of the head. The natural entrance to start with on the ground floor immediately introduces danger and adventure, since the first thing the PCs see is a sigil holding back strange entities within. 

The two opposed factions of the dungeon are interesting and evocative. No skeletons or orcs here! First, the Phantasms of Vengeance, celestial monstrosities that are drawn from the Celestial Thrones to our reality by the sanctified bones (and twice sacrificed souls) of the righteous victims of the Hated Pretender. The Phantasms take diverse otherworldly forms like animate stained glass, tangles of silver wings, or orbs of celestial light. While not very powerful individually, there are many of them, and they reform later if slain. Second, there is the hated pretender, a pitiful if dangerous revenant. Scatterbrained wreck of his former tyrannical self, his desires are pitifully simple: treasure, mortal food, and escape from the torment of the Phantasms of Vengeance. He too is recreated each night if slain. 


One feature of exploration based play the dungeon is designed to highlight is that combat is not its own reward, but something to be avoided where possible, and risked where worthwhile. Fighting through the Phantasms is a deadly fool's errand. While the Phantasms cannot be reasoned with, the Pretender can be spoken with and has interests and desires that allow for negotiation and a source of information about the environment. (The way he's described and drawn I think it would be easy to DM him, and the interactions would be memorable.) In neither case does effective resolution come mainly through combat. 

The whole dungeon is constructed like a puzzle, the solution to which hinges on piecing together the relation of the two different factions to one another and the prison. The key is the day/night cycle, since the Phantasms of Vengeance can only go where there is light, and as a result, the Hated Pretender sticks to darkness. There are campaign altering possibilities here, since the PCs can put the Pretender and Phantasms to rest if they figure out what's going on, or inadvertently free them if they blunder, with large effects on the setting. They can also an artifact to receive prophetic visions of the future with large ramifications, and there is rich (if hard to access) treasure in the dungeon too.   

I am hard pressed to think of a better, more immediately evocative and interesting introduction to exploration based retro-game play. The dungeon is a perfectly constructed little jewel-box of retro-game play. In fact, it's a kind of master class in how to design a dungeon in a way that builds the relation of factions and mysteries to be unravelled in at the ground floor. What's miraculous is that Gus does all this...with a ten room dungeon. 

The idea of the module as a kind of "class" is thematized by the inclusion of side bars that explain in plain terms what style of play is presupposed in the design of the dungeons. Gus the teach' explains why the factions are not "good guys" and "bad guys", why there is no presupposed way the PCs are expected to interact with the environment, and why combat is not a preordained outcome. There is also a conversion to 5E at the end, along with a couple more notes from the teach' on how to run this style of adventure in 5E. It's clearly intended as a bridge to retro-game play, offered in a friendly spirit to 5E. I don't know if it will find its way into their digital hands, but I hope it does. 


The cartography of the module is good, aesthetically pleasing but simple with most of the major features drawn clearly on the map. (Gus' cartography is always good.) The module also has handy extra maps, including one version that is blank (for screensharing) and one with a helpful cheat sheet on it. Gus has also developed a special notation that is meant to help synthesize information at the table, with light sources and traps mentioned up top, notable features bolded in the room's description, treasures italicized, and threats underlined. It's a system of information that I find is helpful at the table, except for large informationally dense rooms where my eyes cross, and I can't parse the different fonts and keep track of their meaning.  

In short, this a perfect low-level module to kick off a new campaign, or introduce players to retro-game play. Even us old hands can learn a thing or two about dungeon design from it. Oh yeah, and while you're on his DTRPG page, be sure to pick up his one page dungeon Star Spire too. It's a real pretty 1 page dungeon usable with any older edition of D&D or their retro-clones. It's a groovy little number that would fit right into a UVG campaign, for example. 



Sunday, December 6, 2020

Barker's Rolodex: Record Keeping for a Long Campaign


I've been listening to the Hall of Blue Illumination, a wonderful podcast where Victor Raymond of the Tekumel Foundation, James Maliszewski of Grognardia and author of The Excellent Traveling Volume, and Scott Kellog talk about M.A.R. Barker's world of Tekumel. The best episodes, to my mind, are interviews with the original players from Barker's campaign, especially from his Tuesday night group. When I hear the players speak about the profound experiences they had, and what the game meant to them, I find it hard not to be moved. 

Barker's players regularly remark on the rolodex of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of NPCs that he kept on note cards. I call them NPCs, but one of Barker's mantras was that "There are no NPCs in Tekumel". Listening to the podcast, it seems like he met at least two things by this. One was that when a new player sat down at the table, Barker would reach in his rolodex, pull out a notecard, and fling it across the table to the new player. But a deeper meaning clearly had to do with the way Barker invested his imagination in what I will stubbornly insist on continuing to call NPCs. 

One guest describes how their character bumped into an NPC that they had gotten to know a little on a memorable adventure, years ago in both real life and game time. Barker knew exactly what the NPC had been doing in the intervening time. What made the hair rise on the arms of the players is that what the NPC would say had the same texture and reality that the life of player characters have had, and indeed was perhaps more textured and plausible. It would fit together with the other things the players knew about the world, current events, temple politics, and the like. It seemed like these were real people, leading real (if fantastical) lives in a coherent world. 



I am no M.A.R. Barker. DMing a long campaign places a cognitive load on me that I find it hard to carry. For one thing, my middle-age memory is not nearly what his was, and even at its youthful best my memory was pretty hazy around the edges. I have trouble remembering NPCs that appeared years earlier, or even what the players were doing then. The problem is the worst when it's something I improvised, because then I usually have no notes to consult, even in my jungle of a campaign dropbox folder. This fallibility of memory was greatly exacerbated by the fact that I used to drink while DMing, something that I've recently cut out. This has helped some, but only at the margins. 

This is also a problem if you want to recruit new players. I've had maybe 40 players in total between my two dreamlands games, and I have 13 active players at present, including 2 I recruited just a couple of weeks ago. I've kept the two games going by frequently bringing in new players. Even recently with my long running original group, fatigue was starting to set in, and although people were happy to play, we needed some fresh faces and new energy. 

But these new players need some kind of synoptic overview of the game when they enter. They also needs ways to dig deeper into the game's past when it is relevant to the present, so they're not at a disadvantage and can engage as fully as someone who has been playing for 3 years. This is a challenge to which I have never adequately risen. I have no system for it, try to handle it on an ad hoc basis, and it just seems too hard.   

This all raises the problems of memory in games. I am fascinated by the simple technology of Barker's rolodex. So elegant a solution to put all the personalities together in one box. I wonder about how it worked. Were they alphabetized? Did Barker put notes on the cards at the end of a session when they were in play? Was it also a system of record keeping? Did he flip through the cards at the table for random encounters with colorful personalities? Did he use the cards for prep? Or just pull them out from his rolodex from time to time, and imagine what different characters were getting up to since the players saw them last? So many possible uses for such a simple tool. 

It makes you wonder, what other elegant techniques of memory might we use solve our problems?  


DM Session Write-Ups


The main technology of memory I have used is the session write-up. Session write-ups are nice because they tell players who missed the session what happened, or allow a deeper dive for players who are new to the game and want to get some background on something. My players have also reported in the past that when they're written with a tiny bit of flare, the write-ups also gel what happened in a way that's easier to hold on to and feels more meaningful. Looking back, you can more easily say, "Here's the story that emerged from our anarchic play." 



I've usually bundled session reports with XP and treasure as well, so they also serve a book-keeping function in my game. Players update their character sheets, follow up to identify magical objects, or inquire further about mysterious finds. Often I post the current version of the map in the recap as well, sometimes a labelled version that my players can refer to refresh their memory before our next session. 

But I've come to the conclusion that session write-ups are a bad technology of memory, at least for me. The problem is that session write-ups, if they are going to serve as repositories of memory have to be reasonably detailed. And they take a while to write. The same goes for providing public, labelled maps, or separate treasure and XP posts. That's precious time that I, as the DM, could be using to imaginatively invest in the world, or even just stay one step ahead of my players in terms of dungeon and hexmap stocking, and other minor but important session prep. 

Furthermore, I've come to the conclusion that in order to run a really immersive game, where the players leave their indelible mark on the setting, in a truly open sandbox kind of way, and where the world reacts to their endeavors, serious downtime work is crucial. Hence my system of downtime activities, where players can cultivate relationships, start institutions, engage in spiritual odysseys, research lore, fashion splendid artifacts, and so on. This is an intensive system since it frequently requires the DM to reply to the players individually, produce lore, etc, etc. 

My point is that if I were to list the things that a DM should spend their time on, public recording keeping would be very low on the list. To really run an immersive sandbox game in a richly imagined setting is a heavy load, especially with a large player base, and so scarce resources of time and creative energy need to be directed to the present and future of the game, not its past. 

So the problem is unsolved by this technology of memory. It doesn't take seriously enough the scarcity of time and imaginative energy for the DM.


Necropraxis' "No Homework Principle"


One must only formulate the problem for the solution to present itself. If the problem is that record keeping doesn't take seriously the limits on time and cognitive powers of the DM, a different division of labor suggests itself, with the players taking a more active role in the preservation of collective memory. 

But this runs into another problem. In retro-game play culture there is what Necropraxis has helpfully called a the No Homework Principle for players. Necropraxis is thinking about the aversion to lovingly building a complex character and writing a backstory before you ever sit down at the table in retro-game play culture. 



The idea behind the No Homework Principle (NHP) is that all the important things happen in the context of collective exploration at the table: that is the focus of play. You shouldn't need to do private homework to engage effectively (no character builds) or to invest in the world (no reading walls of lore or developing your own precious backstory). The entire investment arises out of collaborative exploration in an open world.   

Perhaps, we might, extending Necropraxis' metaphor of homework slightly, say that homework is any assignment you have to do at home. Players shouldn't have to do homework between sessions any more than they have to do it before sitting down at the table for the first time. So one might naturally extend the NHP to issues of record keeping and memorialization.  If players want to do more than just show up and play, if they want to invest in the world and its collective memorialization, and do so spontaneously, that's a beautiful thing. But it should not come as homework, i.e. through the fulfillment of responsibilities as part of a social contract (if you like).  

Now, the truth is that I think the NHP is in tension with my system of downtime activities anyway, which happen away from the table, although they aren't quite private, but rather a dialogue with the DM and sometimes between subsets of players. So for my preferred retro-game play style, I think the NHP should be qualified. 

But nonetheless, I think there's something to it, and I'd like to take it as a constraint on a solution and see where it leads, not least because record-keeping homework threatens to be a drag. Even if some things that happen away from the table (like downtime) are fun, this doesn't seem like one of them--at least not without some tweaking. In this context, no homework is good. 

For all the value put on low-prep gaming (full confession: that's never been my jam) in retro-game play culture, the DM is in the end supposed to shoulder the Sisyphean homework burden alone. In a long campaign, we might think, someone has to do the homework after all, and if we affirm the NHP for players, then there's only one person left in the room.  

So it looks like we have a problem here. 


Incentivizing Voluntary Player Memorialization



In Nick K 's campaign, I've recently been playing Phasmo, a lens grinding, prism obsessed, unbearably confident wizard. Nick gives an XP reward for player-produced artifacts between sessions, including drawings, but also maps, and session reports. He then posts these things to his campaign blog. When a player opts to do a session report, he simply uses that instead of writing one up himself. 

This works brilliantly--when players actually do it. Even with the hefty XP reward, more often than not players do not avail themselves of this option. And when they do, it is often through a drawing, or other contribution, and not through a session report. Furthermore, the hand drawn maps that sometimes get posted in this fashion hardly satisfy the need for Nick to make publicly available versions of his map that the groups exploration has revealed. 

So, in truth, while I love this technique, and it does produce some good material, it's clearly not solving the workload problem for Nick. Extra credit assignments may not quite be homework, especially when they're done out of love, but they're not regular enough to get the job done. 


Memorialization at the Table


One of the less known amazing games of the twilight of Google+ was Cole Long's Swords of the Inner Sea. I interviewed Cole and his players, and combed through the google community for that game as part of my Google Plus Mixtapes series where I was trying to memorialize some of the play culture of google plus in its final hours. Speaking of doing my part to preserve collective memory, I will get my act together and share that amazing material with you soon. But I digress. 

Cole's DM technique involved constantly introducing a huge number of NPCs, with new patrons appearing every session, hirelings, and improvised characters the party bumped into. Furthermore, these NPCs had complicated relations to one another and simmering schemes. Cole had a shared google sheet he made available to his group. And whenever the players met a NPC for the first time, Cole would say, "Somebody drop this guy on the spreadsheet." A player would open the sheet and enter a new entry, typing the NPCs one line description, and (maybe) taking notes on what the party's interaction with them was. Cole told me that he had a second DM-facing spreadsheet, where he copied the names over and added DM notes to them between sessions. 

One thing I like about this whole set-up is that the memorialization is built into the fabric of play. It's not homework, because it happens at the table. It's just a bit of record-keeping in the course of collaborative exploration. 


Player Roles as Solution


Dyson, obviously Dyson. He actually is the mapper for his groups.

This is not the only player-curated documents that arise in the course of play. Another classic model, which admittedly is hard to make work with online gaming, is the player-drawn map. Classically one player would be designated the mapper for the session. The person who accepted would be responsible for drawing the dungeon map or filling in the hexmap from the DMs descriptions. In the original megadungeons, like Castle Greyhawk, these player maps were a big deal, since they represented precious knowledge about different parts of the dungeon. 

One interesting thing about this is that classically there was a blurring between player roles and character roles, since it was assumed that the character of the mapping player was also mapping with charcoal and parchment, and so had to have their hands free of weapons and torches. I'll come back to this.

In addition to the mapper, you had something called "the caller". The caller would communicated between the players and the dungeon master, communicating their collective decisions. (Admittedly, in Gygax's example in the DMG it seems like the caller is calling all the shots, but a better version would remove this suggestion, which dramatically restricts player agency.) It would be natural to blur the roles and imagine the character of this player as a sort of group leader or mediator. I bet this is how it worked in play.

Another fascinating contemporary case is Dungeon World. During wilderness travel, there are three fixed roles that different PCs occupy: the quartermaster, who's responsible for making camp and handling supplies, the trailblazer, who's guiding the party, and the scout, who ranges ahead to spot dangers can be avoided. While I don't see the interesting blurring between player and character here, the idea of stylized roles is built into the fabric of wilderness travel.

I wonder if we might expand this idea of fixed character/player roles into a full blown technology of memory and book keeping that would solve some of our problems. Here's what I've come up with for Jorune: Evolutions.


The Four Player/Character Roles in Jorune: Evolutions


The Drenn Wall, where Chalisks of those who complete the Drenn tsest hang. By Ola Holmdahl.

In Jorune: Evolutions the PCs are a cohort undergoing tothis, the time of service to the realm of Burdoth in pursuit of drennship (citizenship). As tauther, they have undergone training together in literacy, civics, as well as very basic military training (although they are not military). Most importantly, they rise or fall in tothis together. Their process will culminate in test in the Hall of Drenn, where they must present their chalisk (amulet), on which the drenn they have impressed mark their signature with a lasertorch, supporting the cohort's application. 

For the Drenn Test, they must also present a narrative of all their accomplishment during the time of tothis. Those who have made the journey to appear at the test may speak either on behalf of the cohort or against them, giving testimony to support or undermine their case. The council then interrogates them about the events listed in the narrative, zeroing in on anything controversial, and provides them the opportunity to answer to those who have spoken against them. On this basis, they determine the fate of the cohort, whether to make them drenn, or declare their tothis a failure.

This provides a natural narrative frame for the idea of memorialization, since the cohort must produce a report of their deeds during tothis to win citizenship. This gives us a way to blur players and characters, for perhaps the players must record their deeds as their character do so. Furthermore, the strong bonding and shared training give natural narrative sense to the idea of defined roles for player/characters. 


Mission Rules


An individual session in Jorune: Evolution is called a mission. Every mission must have a quorum of four players, one to fill each of the following roles. If quorum is not met, the players and DM may attempt to recruit more members to fill the roles, but if any role remains unfilled, the mission is cancelled. 

The players will work out together at the start of each session who will play each role. It is assumed that these roles will shift session to session. Ideally, all of these responsibilities will be filled during the session itself, with no leftover homework for between sessions, and nothing falling through the cracks. Many of these responsibilities make use of shared google sheets or docs. The roles are the following. 


Mission Leader

This PC is responsible for leading the expedition. The cohort is a loosely democratically organized group, so leaders does not lead by command, but rather by coordinating deliberation. They also make snap judgments under high pressure situations and settle high-stakes but tedious logistical issues. The player whose PC is mission leader has the following responsibilities.   

  • Determine marching order of the party when relevant.
  • Set watches for the night.
  • In combat, conveys the decisions of the group to the DM about what they will be doing each round of combat. Each player decides what their character will be doing during a conversation between the players, where they come up with a plan of action. The mission leader conveys that combat plan to the DM--a player may always clarify or change what they are doing at any point, since they control their own character.
 
Quartermaster

The quartermaster is responsible for handing the supplies for the expedition. They will keep track of where the shared items are carried and distribute them where necessary between individual group members. The player whose PC is quartermaster has the following responsibilities.
  • At the start of the session, distributes any group items that may be lent out for the purpose of the mission to individual party members.
  • Keeps track of food and water, tents and bedrolls, or other camping or dungeon gear, making sure party members or pack animals, e.g. thombos, are carrying them. 
  • Distributes treasure and other gear found during the mission that needs to be carried during play.
  • At the end of the session, does the treasure haul before the other players depart. Converts easily saleable items instantly into gemlinks, giving mission members 1/2 the total and putting 1/2 the total into the group funds. For the remaining items, they decide which of four categories to place them in on a shared google sheet called "Inventory": 
    1. Individual Items: to be distributed to individual group members (mission or otherwise)
    2. Group Items: things to be put in the collective equipment pool without need for any further action, to be lent out to players in later missions.
    3. To Be Sold: Items where a buyer needs to be found during downtime or a session in city
    4. To be Identified: technological or arcane items that need to be identified during downtime. 


Cartographer

The cartographer is responsible for maintaining the collective map and information about it. This applies to both dungeon and wilderness hexmaps. The player whose PC is the cartographer has the following responsibilities:
  • In real life, this can be literally mapping.
  • But online, where there is a shared map with fog of war, this player takes very brief notes on the contents of different hexes on the hexmap and rooms in the dungeon. Those notes exist in a google doc with the title of the relevant map that includes a JPEG of the current map that is being keyed. The DM will upload the new JPEG at the end of the session. All hexes and rooms on the map used in play will be visibly numbered, so that the player can easily write keyed notes in session.

Chronicler

The chronicler builds the narrative that both keeps the other players apprised of what happened on missions they did not participate in, and which will ultimately be edited and incorporated in the final narrative of the cohort's tothis. The player whose player is a chronicler:
  • Enters new NPCs encountered on the NPC rolodex. This is a shared google sheet called "NPC Rolodex".
  • Takes very brief notes summarizing events that happens in the game as they happen, e.g. two sentence summaries of interactions with different factions or events that occur while traveling through the wilderness. It should be just enough so that people who weren't on the mission can find out what has happened by reading them, and so that the session reports can be incorporated in the final narrative of cohort accomplishments for the citizen test at the end of tothis (see below). All this happens in a shared google doc called "Mission Reports" with a heading of the session number.



Campaign Phase Writeups


Every 10th session will be a visit to Ardoth or another city to resupply, sell goods, connect with contacts, and have a session of city crawling. This gives the campaign a rhythm of 10 session units. In preparation for the 10th session, the players will write a one paragraph campaign phase summary for new players. These will be housed in a shared google doc called "Campaign Phases", and be labelled "Campaign Phase 1", etc.

New players will read all the campaign phase write-ups before beginning play. Even for 100 sessions, this will only be 10 paragraphs (maybe 3 pages) total a new player needs to read in order to be totally caught up on the campaign thus far. Players can also draw on these campaign phase write-ups in constructing their narrative document.   


Narrative Document



When the party decides they are ready to undergo their drenn test, they must collectively prepare their official report, the narrative of their cohort's experience and accomplishments during tothis. To do this, players will edit the session reports and campaign phase write-ups into a single narrative of the cohort's accomplishments during tothis. 

They will omit anything they would rather keep private, "frame" (i.e. spin) events as they wish, keeping in mind that they will be questioned and that certain people will provide written reports or testify for or against in them in person. The document can also include player drawn illustrations, ephemera, annotated maps, and so on. Whatever people are willing to contribute to pull it together.

This collectively produced artifact, perhaps summing up 100 sessions of play, will serve as the basis for the cohort's drenn test, which will be played as its own special session, with all active players playing simultaneously. Although the adventure will continue afterwards, the document will also serve as an artifact commemorating the campaign and years of collective play together, and should the cohort be successful in their test, it will provide closure for one stage of the campaign. (As I write this, I have this episode of Daydreaming About Dragons in mind about artifacts of play and closure.)

Speaking of gaming Artifacts, Check out this artifact here.


How about You?


OK, you've seen what I've done in the past, and what i'm planning to do in the future. Now I want to hear from you. What systems of record keeping and memorialization do you use in your campaigns? What are your tech platforms? What are your procedures? Do you require your players to do anything? If so what? Please post in the comments below.