Wednesday, June 30, 2010
From a DM's perspective, this is an awesome development.
At its basic level, it shows the players (not just the characters) have investment in the game and were willing to spend an adventure session building infrastructure. For a DM this is a most desirable piece of feedback from the players – they are interested enough to start making the place comfortable and convenient. Second, it allows me to start having the locals actually take notice of the adventurers. This opens up the door to several role-playing opportunities that would have been more forced while the PCs were just foot-loose vagabonds.
The earliest versions of the D&D rules assumed that as the PCs gained levels, they grew in importance and influence. They had mechanical methods of establishing this – at 10th level characters gained access to a stronghold of some sort and followers. There was no direct linkage to what the PCs had been doing, just that they reached a certain level and "bing!" they got the accoutrements of power. This disappeared in later editions (I can't remember if it was 2nd or 3rd edition where this disappeared, but I'm inclined to believe it was 3.0 that did away with it) and I never really missed it as it seemed too metagame for my taste.
With the PCs in the Southern Reaches actually making improvements to the area and establishing a place that is definitely theirs, I now have an in-game mechanism to support the meta-game mechanism. Agents of the Duke will be making contact with the PCs in the not so distant future, asking about their intentions. Plus, I've had some ideas about the PCs being agents of change for the area, leading other groups to start establishing themselves outside of the Keep through example. Some of these groups may even be benign. Heh.
Monday, June 28, 2010
Short group this week, but San Ti and Sinn will join us again when their schedule clears up. It's vacation season and Sinn's player cannot get Friday's off for a bit as she fills in for her co-workers. Once that's over, they will be a very welcome addition to the group.
Sal Ty (elf wizard)
Mog the Doomed (half-orc barbarian)
Agnes Sunbeard (dwarven rogue/barbarian)
Tycho von Helmont (elven alchemist)
With a "small" group available, the adventurers decided to do some serious exploring and trail cutting in the Edgewood. Starting from the Woodcutter's Camp, they cleared the Gravemarker Road as a trail. They cleared out a shambling mound and dealt with a giant scorpion and an assassin vine (which nearly killed Sal before being put down).
On the third day they made it to Jericho's Cairn on the seaside plains on the north edge of the Edgewood and pushed back into forest, aiming towards the Nameless Cairn. While on watch that night, Mog was jumped by a tiger. After wrestling with it (and getting severely mauled in the process), Mog broke free and the group fled, leaving a pile of rations behind to distract the tiger. [They used a resolve token to break away from the encounter after Mog broke out of the grapple.] Later, Tycho spent many of his healing elixirs curing Mog's injuries.
The following day, the adventurers successfully explored to the Nameless Cairn before pushing on to Drop-Off Tower. They wanted to reach a safer location to camp and the Tower was just within reach. When they arrived, however, they found the front doors knocked in – not closed like they left them. Agnes carefully approached the Tower, trying to scout it out, but she was so distracted that she did not notice the three giant stag beetles until they moved out of the Tower to attack. The giant stag beetles were tough, but Mog made quick work of them after quaffing an enlarge potion. That night, the adventurers saw giant ants arrive and carry off most of the beetle carcasses, heading in a southwesterly direction. Tycho made note of that, having a future plan involving the giant ants.
The next day the adventurers completed the trail, clearing the path from Drop-Off Tower to the Nameless Cairn. They then returned to the Tower to camp for the night. Sal put his engineering skills to use surveying the places the group wanted to install proper doors with good locks, allowing them to use the Tower as a secure base of operations. In the morning the group followed their new trail back to the Iron Keep, arriving in a single day of travel without getting lost once. The time spent clearing the trail had paid off.
At the Iron Keep the adventurers placed order for solid, iron-bound wooden doors. They spent the week they needed to wait hanging out in Spider's Bar to avoid getting roped into working in the mines. Sal nosed around the Keep looking for what arcane knowledge he could find and succeeded in locating a copy of the rope trick spell. After a short negotiation, he was able to copy the spell into his personal spell book, acquiring a more secure way to camp in the wilderness – one where he would not be as vulnerable to passing assassin vines.
Once the doors were done and a donkey and cart were secured, the adventurers returned to Drop-Off Tower. There they installed the new front doors before camping for the night in the Tower. The next day they installed a door securing the stairs down from the first floor (leading to the Moldy Halls) and a door securing the stairs up from the second floor (leading to the less secure third and fourth floors). This secured the first two floors of the Tower. The adventurers then returned to the Iron Keep to plan their next steps…
Thursday, June 24, 2010
Now there are two ways to handle mapping a wilderness – rough sketch maps or something on a grid (either square or hexagon based). This goes for the DM’s map as well as the player map, although the DM map is, almost by definition, the more accurate of the two. I’m a poor artist, so I prefer using a grid of some sort, if nothing else to provide a consistent scale.
As the main conceit with the player map in a West Marches style game is that the map is carved on a table back at whatever the PCs are using as a base (or at least it is in my game), a sketch map would seem to be the better representation of what the PCs would have. On the other hand, it is much easier to adjudicate movement across the wilderness on something with a grid. Plus, as mentioned earlier, I'm not a very good artist.
My original map was drawn on a 24x36” Chessex vinyl hex mat and I liked it very much. Up until the first session, where I was explaining the concepts behind the campaign and I realized I had filled the mat and had no way to add more territory. I reviewed Mike Krahulik’s material on line (one of my idea sources for the campaign) and realized two things: he was using a much bigger mat than I was and started out with much, much less on the map.
On The Tao of D&D, Alexis outlined the process he was using to map the Earth as the basis for his campaign map (yes, you read that right - he's mapping the Earth on a hex grid) and I decided to give it a try. Using MS Publisher, I created a 11x17 page of hexes (with ~2 inches at the bottom for a key) and started recreating my vinyl mat electronically. I didn’t think to mark out on the mat where the pages would fall, plus there was a 60 degree rotation in orientation due to how I created the hex grid electronically (point up instead of flat side up). I ended up with larger than anticipated overlaps and some gaps on the edges. It was not pretty, but it was functional and I could add more grid to the edges. Sort of. If I cut them to march the existing pages. Plus, my electronic maps were still incomplete.
This week finally I sat down and spent time recreating my electronic maps. I marked up the old paper map to show where the new pages would fall and where the overlapping hexes would be (to enable easy lining up of the new pages). I also drew in the larger-scale 15 mile hexes to verify the accuracy of my large-scale map. (I discovered that the Eastern Edgewood was larger than the large-scale showed and corrected the large-scale map.) Then I recreated the Table Map in a series of six 11x17 pages with minimal overlap and showing everything that appeared on the original vinyl map (except some stuff in the west I choose to leave off). After printing out the pages, trimming the edges, and taping it all together, I now have a roughly 30”x30” square Table Map that can be added to in a consistent (and easy) manner. I also darkened the hex grid so the hexes could be seen against the light color of the plains, which had been an issue with the first paper map.
After that, I was in the mood to add to the map, expanding the detailed mapping in preparation for the players “going past the edge”. But it struck me that from this point on, I needed to keep two different maps: the DM’s Map which would be complete and the Player Map, which would maintain the large stretches of empty hexes. Plus, I needed a much smaller version of the map that was easy to keep out of the player’s sight during the game. Also, I needed to be able to write on it, showing the PCs true path, especially when they get lost.
I have two potential solutions, but need to try them out to see which is better. The first is to export the full scale maps to Illustrator and resize them there (an easy process I learned to do while working on a project in my DayJob). I’m not certain how the text will look once printed or how much the map detail will degrade as part of the exporting process, so I’ll have to experiment. The other option is to recreate the map manually with smaller hexes, so more will fit on a page. I can do this in Publisher or Paint. In Paint I already have a grid done (from mapping an earlier campaign), but the map colors will not all match. In Publisher I’d need to create a new hex page, which is tedious, but the color coding will match the original. I’m inclined to use Publisher, but it depends on how much time I’ll have/make to do it.
Monday, June 21, 2010
This session happened Friday, June 18, 2010, and was the only session I ran this past weekend.
I had two new players join the group this week, raising the number of players in the pool to eight. Due to character creation and the real weather making folks late, we did not get as much in, but some significant things were learned by the player characters.
Su Bel (human cleric)
Sal Ty (elf wizard)
San Ti (dwarf monk)
Sinn (gnome bard)
Mog the Doomed (half-orc barbarian)
Agnes Sunbeard (dwarven rogue/barbarian)
Tycho von Helmont (elven alchemist)
The rainy season arrived, pinning the adventurers in the Iron Keep as the plains turned swampy and difficult to move through. During this time, another supply ship arrived from the mainland. In addition to the supplies necessary to keep the Keep running, two new adventurers arrived, San Ti, a dwarven monk, and Sinnseyeceeingthis (this is usually as much of her name as she gets out before it is immediately shortened to "Sinn"), a gnome bard.
With an unusually large number of adventurers available, the group decided to make another attempt at the Terrace of Fallen Horses, hoping to defeat the air elemental that drove them off last time. When the rains let up, the group headed west.
It took them two days to make it to the Ruined Hills, during which dime they defeated a dire lion, a giant scorpion, and a cockatrice while avoiding a ghost roaming the hills (they distracted it by moving past a small herd of goats). The morning of the third day they discovered they were lost in the Ruined Hills. It took half the day to work out exactly where they were and how to get to the place they wanted to be. The second tomb was once again resealed.
While being shown around the site, Sinn recalled a bit of knowledge that she once heard about a plains civilization that strongly associated with horses. She remembered that they marked the burial sites of their leaders with life-sized horse statues, so each broken horse statue on the lower terrace once marked a tomb. Sal spent some time with his mend spell partially assembling the broken statues to get an idea of how many tombs there are. He was able to assemble the statues enough to verify there were 16 statues. Yet the adventurers had only located 8 possible tombs. This meant there were eight other tombs to be located! Valuable information indeed.
After casting several spells to prep for facing the air elemental, including Mog drinking a potion of growth, Mog moved the stone slab sealing the tomb and entered it. Peeking into the Queen's Tomb, Mog spotted two re-formed skeletal champions who attacked him. Mog lured them back out of the tomb and the group quickly dispatched them. Mog then returned to the Queen's Tomb and opened the queen's sarcophagus, summoning the air elemental.
Mog was able to overpower the elemental's DR, nearly destroying it himself. However, if Su Bel had not been there to heal Mog several times during the fight, he would not have survived the fight or defeated the elemental. In addition to the treasure in the Queen's Tomb, the adventurers found a map to a magical treasure inscribed on a dragon scale. They carefully wrapped up the treasures and placed them in the bag of holding. Then they made camp for the night in the King's Tomb (which was fairly defensible).
The adventurers decided to return with their treasure and so they could consult the Table Map to determine where the Dragon Scale Map leads to. On the way they had to avoid a pride of dire lions but little else. They returned to the Iron Keep on the fifth day of adventuring. After converting the treasures they found to coin, they split the fairly large sum evenly amongst themselves. Everyone was very happy.
Friday, June 18, 2010
Not just a game, but a game with EIGHT players!
I play in a 4E group and some of the players there were curious about how Pathfinder plays, so I invited them to join the game and they accepted. They are mostly MMO players and have been getting into table top games, but they've been very fun to role play with and I think they'll get along well with my regular players. But it has got me to thinking about the campaign design assumptions as I’ll need to explain them to the new players.
One of the initial design assumptions was that the PCs are the only adventurers. This puts the focus squarely on the PCs. To meet this goal, I put the campaign starting point on the edge of an area unexplored by current cultures. This does not mean that there have never been people here, just that the current culture “back over the ocean” has never been here and has no records of the previous civilizations that were once here. The downside to this is that there has been little interaction between the PCs and NPCs, mostly limited to “there’s a monster – kill it!”
In a West Marches-style game, there is also the assumption that there will be many, many players involved, possibly running competing groups (and by “competing” I mean “racing to discover all the good stuff first” not “let’s eliminate the competition by ambushing them”). I’m not happy about how this manifested earlier for several reasons. I think this is something that might work better with many more players than I have and if I was able to devote much more time. It would have been awesome back in my college days when I had ready access to a pool of 30 or more players and tons of free time. So for the time being I’m sticking with a more cooperative style game.
The third major design assumption was that there was a wide area to explore with adventure locales scattered throughout. The starting Table Map worked. The game is getting to a point where I need to expand on that and that is a work in progress. I have a large scale map of the area. Next steps are to create the Table Map-scale maps of all that terrain and seed it with adventure locales.
A minor goal was to have adventure locales point or hint at other locales further out. This is turning out to be a bit more difficult than expected, partly as I am doing more DMing off the cuff than anticipated. That’s happening due to a lack of directed writing on my part. I need to spend more time actually writing down stuff rather than forming a general idea off the map and then running with it. It is something I’m working on as a DM.
Having run this now for a little over two months of weekly games, I’m starting to see some of the weaknesses of my setting and I’m taking steps to correct them. As discussed in my Bandits and Humanoids post, I’m seeding groups into the setting. This will start bringing the Southern Reaches more alive as what’s happening in locations changes over time, plus there will be more opportunities for role-playing. I’m also doing more work linking sites through the treasure found. There will be more about this in a later blog posting, once the players find more of these links.
I’m also introducing weather as a way of indicating the passage of large(r) scale time. It is now the rainy season on the plains, which will slow movement a bit and hopefully bring a little more verisimilitude to the world. In three months in-game, the auroch herds will start showing up in number, causing a shift in the random encounter tables as bigger predators start showing up due to the increased food supply. Plus, more auroch paddies for the PCs to avoid.
Monday, June 14, 2010
Today I’m talking about adventure locales and methods for creating them. At a very basic level there are two paths for development: deciding what the site is and then naming it to match or deciding the name first and then building a site to match the name. Neither method is superior to the other – you should use which ever method meets your current needs.
For my Southern Reaches game I’ve used both. When I drew the initial Table Map, I decided where I wanted to place my initial adventure locales and then labeled them loosely on the map. Next, I started working out what I wanted to be at each site. In a small group of hills deep in the plains to the west of Iron Keep is a spot labeled simply “Ruins”. Clearly I wanted some ruins here, but I had not decided what kind. It could have been a settlement, a temple, a tower, or something else. I had no predispositions, so I looked at a list of place names I culled from a random generator on Seventh Sanctum (a site hosting many different random generators).
Looking over the list I settled on “Terrace of Fallen Horses”. I liked the name and the images it evoked. So I needed a terrace (or two) with horses fallen on it or as part of the decorative sculptures. My encounter table for the surrounding plains listed horses and the hills would be defensible, so I decided that there was an old horse-themed culture in the plains long ago. As horses were vitally important to the culture, it is likely they would use statues of horses to mark important sites. “Fallen Horses” implied to me many statues that had fallen (or been pushed) over, littering the terraces. And as we’re talking about “Terrace” and not “City” or “Ruins”, I decided on tombs.
Next I sketched out what the site would look like after many centuries of abandonment. I went with two terraces – one a man-made platform ten feet high and made of large stones fitted perfectly together and the other a cut into the hill side 20 ft above the first. A large number of fallen horse statues are piled on the lower terrace, generating the site name. I wanted the first PCs to arrive to get the idea of what the site was, so one of the tombs was left open from being looted long, long ago.
As part of my research I ran across the Wikipedia definition of cairns and the cists (small, square, stone-lined hollows buried under them as opposed to the yucky biological "cyst") and decided these hills had been used as burial sites for several civilizations and scattered them through the hills, even listing them on the random encounter table, which I was also creating at the time. With all these burials, clearly there will be undead about, so the encounter table has those as well. This pretty much wound up the general design of the area, starting from a name and then developing from that. [There’s actually more, but some of the players read this and I don’t want to spoil the stuff they haven’t found yet.]
The players have started to explore the Terrace of Fallen Horses, but keep running into things tougher than the small groups can handle. I think next time they have a full group of six (with a wizard) they’ll take another crack at the location.
As a counter example, I have The Cave. It is on the map in a different cluster of hills about a day and a half south of Iron Keep on the Table Map and isn’t even named – it’s just a map symbol. I was originally thinking of a large set of natural caverns (something very old school), but while doing research I came across something cooler: North American cliff dwellings.
This would be the location a people settled and developed for defensive purposes. As this is for a fantasy RPG, they would also need to worry about potential hostilities from underground. I had recently found the very nice geomorphs on A Character for Every Game (he’s up to set 14 and they are awesome – go check them out). One set included fortified underground walls, which led me to naming the underground parts of this adventure locale The Underfortress. [No, it’s not Shakespeare. Get over it.] Next was designing something to match that name.
First, I needed the maps for the area and then the details on what each area was for. The geomorphs were perfect for the underground portion and went through the collection I had, fitting together something that could be called a fortress underground. Then I tweaked that map to become my final map, closing off some side entrances and blanking out a few unused areas on the fringe. I hand drew the cliff-side buildings (with a rough isometric view to boot). Next was some brainstorming and writing to back up the concept and the map and I was good to go.
Since then, the players have explored most of the cliff-side buildings (which were picked empty over the centuries) and next time can finish that off and/or make a start on the Underfortress. I’ve already planted hints as to what they might expect underground in the skull collection of the gargoyle.
That’s it for now. Next time I think I’ll talk some about using found maps for your dungeons, including “complete” maps and geomorphs.
Friday, June 11, 2010
I will instead do some more development work for Underfortress (the dungeon behind/below the pueblo cave) and develop the adventure sites I've marked on the large scale map (there are quite a large number of them). Plus, I will make a start on my huge stack of a reading list. Right now Wild Swans (a three generation chinese autobiography) tops it as the book club meets on Wednesday to discuss it and I haven't started it yet. Eek!
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
First, let’s start with bandits.
Bandits are groups of rough criminals who prey upon travelling merchants or out-lying settlements or trade posts. In a West Marches-style game, there is certainly room for bandits to operate and places for them to hide. However, there is, almost by definition, no merchants for them to steal from and the only outposts are heavily defended against monsters. So with nothing to steal why would there be bandits at all?
The answer I’ve worked up starts with “there aren’t any.” From an adventuring point of view, this is not very satisfactory, neither as a player nor as a DM. So I needed to expand on my preliminary answer by adding “yet.” As the PCs adventure, folks in town should notice they are brining back treasure, sometimes a lot of it, and often after getting beat up to get said treasure. Additionally, others will notice that it is possible for a group to go out into the wilderness and survive.
This leads to two potential groups moving out into the wilderness. The first (and probably smallest) are individuals who see an opportunity to relieve adventurers of their fiscal burdens on the way back to town. If they can track which way the adventurers head out, they can set an ambush on their most likely route back and ambush the adventurers, stealing their loot with significantly less danger than going out and getting their own. Theoretically, at least.
The other group that will move out into the wilderness are those fed up with living under the thumb of the Duke. Yes, working in the mines pays your room and board with some left over for drinking, but no one is getting rich but the Duke. Leaving by ship takes money, money most don’t have. People stay in the Iron Keep because “it’s too dangerous to live outside the walls.” Once they start seeing that this is not true, groups will scrape together money and supplies and strike out to found their own little places. Many of these groups will fail for one or more of many reasons and become desperate, especially if they are determined to NOT return to the Iron Keep. They will start raiding the supply caravans going to the mines and travelling adventurers who appear affluent (or at least more affluent than the desperate people doing the raiding).
So that sets up small groups of raiders, most of whom are going to want whatever the PCs find, no matter how small that is. The desperate raiders might try and barter services or a safe place to stay for goods and/or cash that can be used to purchase goods bask at the keep, but not the out-and-out bandits. They’ll take everything you have, thank-you-very-much.
Humanoid tribes present a slightly different set of issues. They can obviously survive here – it’s their home. The real issue would seem to be, why haven’t they been interacting with the people from town? (In the Southern Reaches this would be the Iron Keep.) There are two possible answers: A) they did, that’s why the Keep has those huge walls, or B) because they live a long way away.
For the Southern Reaches, I’m going to use a combination of the two. In the past, the original settlement was attacked by local humanoids. Eventually they were defeated (or driven off) after the Duke brought in troops and build the current defenses. The currently living humanoids are all far enough away that they do not have any regular contact with the Keep.
Until the adventurers show up, of course.
I’ve got four zones sketched out where the humanoids are now: the western mountains, the eastern swamp, the southeastern jungle, and travelling with the auroch herds. The humanoids in the mountains, the swamp, and the jungle won’t be encountered until the PCs go to those locations. The humanoids following the auroch herds are another matter and will show up when autumn comes around and the herds move north to their winter pastures. This should be an exciting time for many folks, possibly even the PCs, as thousands of aurochs migrate into the area and start drawing large predators into the area the PCs have to travel through.
[Note: The continent is south of the equator, but I haven’t changed the months to reflect the change of latitude. It is late May in-game, even though it should probably be November. Meh. I want something the players can remember and I already have a home-brew calendar in my other campaign to confuse them with.]
So that’s it for now. The next Southern Reaches game should be happening this weekend (schedules permitting), so expect an adventure log entry on Monday. Later!
Monday, June 7, 2010
This posting discusses the difference between travelling through the Wilderness and actually exploring it.
The map I use when the players go exploring (a.k.a. the Table Map) is scaled to 1 hex equals 3 miles, which is about one hours travel to cross and requires the expenditure of a resolve token to enter. This does not mean that the adventurers see everything that is in the hex. Hex that is three miles across contains approximately 8 square miles of terrain, most of which is covered with some sort of vegetation. Add in the fact that terrain is rarely completely flat and you begin to understand why simply marching across a hex leaves much unseen.
Exploring a hex takes about twice as long as simply marching across it in easy terrains (plains and light forests). Terrain with dense vegetation or difficult terrain (heavy forest/jungle or foot hills) will take twice as long while very difficult terrain (mountains and swamps) will take three times as long to fully explore.
So what do you get for the time? Several things. If there is an adventure site in that hex, you’ll find it, which you won’t if you’re simply passing through. This includes lairs for significant monsters, ruins, cave entrances, and so forth. You’ll also have a good lay of the land for a detailed map, which is important if you are thinking about building anything in the area, like your own wizard’s tower, cloister, monastery, or keep.
In my Southern Reaches game, so far the PCs have only travelled through hexes, never explored. The closest they’ve come to exploring is finding a site on the Table Map once they are in the area (which I need to remember to charge them a resolve token or two for doing). I have one hidden area on my master map already and have some ideas for where I’m going to put others, but I need to sit down and do that. This has been one of my primary motivators for creating my larger scale map and then updating the Table Map. Adventure locations should appear at least every other hex on the larger scale map (1 hex = 15 miles). Once I have them on that map, I can place them in a specific hex on the master Table Map and detail them out.
There is also the possibility of hidden adventure areas – locations that you have to have clues to find while exploring a hex. These would be hidden caves, ruins in a particularly treacherous stretch of swamp, or a site with a magically hidden entrance needing a “key” to enter (either a physical item, a phrase spoken aloud, or just being in the right place at the right time). Players should never find these locations without searching for them specifically.
That’s it for now. Next posting will discuss issues with bandits and other humanoids.
Friday, June 4, 2010
Now where they differ is in mood. Jungles are tense because of the threat of nature triumphant. Swamps are tense because of the threat of decay triumphant. While in a jungle you expect savage tribes and the ruins of lost civilizations, in swamps you expect the degenerate remains of ancient civilizations and things best forgotten, and that’s creepy.
What I expect in a jungle looks a lot like Iskandria – abandoned temples full of gold, lost cities (possibly still inhabited), hostile tribes of monkey-goblins, maybe even dinosaurs, and enough heat and humidity enough to slow broil the PCs in their armor. The dominant colors are green, dark green, and emerald green with bright highlights of crimson. Jungles should be overflowing with life, much of it hostile or hostile if cornered. There will be streams, waterfalls, and clear pools of water.
Swamps should be oppressive for their silence, broken only by occasional the eerie calls of monsters and animals. In swamps, the ground itself should be hostile with quicksand, bogs, and hummocks being common. Water should dominate, water brown with tannic acids leached from plant debris that has fallen into it. Leeches should be a serious concern, along with alligators and carnivorous fish. Frog-men and degenerate demi-humans will be found living deep in the swamp, either the remains of cursed civilizations or worshippers of dark, forgotten deities. The humidity should be a wet heavy blanket that is always pressing down on the PCs. The possibility of the undead is always strong.
Now why would adventurers go into either of these two hostile environments? Several reasons. Both likely contain lost temples and any adventurer worth his salt knows that lost temples contain gold and magic items (the fact that there may be monstrous guardians as well usually slips their minds). There is also the possibility of lost expeditions to rescue (or verify their death), kidnapped locals, and, especially in swamps, foul cults to put down.
I’ve put both types of terrain on my large scale map. Now I just need to add interesting places in these locations and then weave clues to their locations in places the PCs already know about.
Which brings up another topic I’ll discuss next week – the difference between travelling through the wilderness and actually exploring it.