Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Gods Must Be Crazy

Last Gasp Grimoire's Mystic Rules are just amazing and I can't say enough nice things about them. I love the idea of a distant god with a dim understand of human physiology trying desperately to help make the world a better place with MORE SNAKES. Also on the list of things I like are Paper and Pencil's Magic Words. I like the idea of mixing and matching words of cosmic power for both whimsy and mechanical advantage. It's just neat.

ANOTHER thing I like is having cleric types (and all spell-users, for that matter) feel notably different from each other. I wish that, as a cleric of dwarven ancestors, all of my powers revolved around dwarf shit like falling rocks and opening tunnels and reforging swords, but half the time I feel pretty compelled by the mechanical efficiency of moon beam and wall of fire or whatever. There's nobody saying I can't take those spells (prayers?), and though I try my hardest to stick to a theme I'm encouraged mechanically to use the tools at my disposal.

I had an idea this morning while I was waking up and my cat was mercilessly and relentlessly clawing me, so bear with me, this might be shit. I'm finding out as I type it.

When a cleric and a GM talk about what deity the cleric will worship, they come up with a list of canonical spells. These are the miracles that it is known that the god grants. In D&D, this might be a cleric's Domain Spells. Or maybe this list only consists of one or two spells--the GM might choose one and the player might choose one. These are spells that the cleric always has access to because it's inherently the god's shtick.

The cleric then populates a list of dX other spells, probably a d6 or a d8. These are the secret revelations. 

Each god has a one or two word theme. They also have three sub-themes.
So Thor's theme is Thunder and lightning. He also has a theme of Wrestlin', Hammerin', and Drinkin'.
Odin's theme is Wisdom. He also has a theme of Undeath, Poetry, and Frenzy.

When a cleric is in a bind and one of the canonical spells isn't appropriate, he may pray to his deity. His deity, hearing the prayer of her faithful, stretches down her divine will and manifests aid through a secret revelation.

The cleric rolls on the revelation table. If he accepts the rolled spell, he swaps out any one word in the spell's title with any of the god's themes or sub-themes. He can instead call on either of the adjacent spells on the table (one above or one below), but in that case he can only rename the spell with the god's main theme.

So, for instance, a Wall of Force on the spell list might become a Wall of Lightning, if cast by a cleric of Thor. It might become a Wall of Undeath if cast by a cleric of Odin. Similarly, a Summon Monster might be a Summon Hammer if cast by Thor, or a Summon Frenzy if cast by Odin.

The effects of a thematically changed spell ultimately lie with the GM, but they can be modeled after the spell in question. If Wall of Fire does 5d6 damage when you pass through it, Wall of Lightning probably does too, just change the damage type. But "Wall of Undeath" might be meaningfully different. Maybe it gives you a disease? Maybe it grapples you? The GM will have to adjudicate this on the fly, using the core spell as a baseline.

Here's an example spell list for the Goddess of Rats:
I imagine the goddess of rats looks like Yolandi
Goddess of Rats
Theme: Rats
Sub-Themes: Secrets, Disease, Sewers

Canonical Spells: Speak With Animals (Rats Especially), Spider Climb
Secret Revelations (d8)
1 - Animal Friendship (Rat Friendship, Disease Friendship, Animal Disease, Animal Secrets)
2 - Cure Disease (Cure Rats, Cure Secrets, Secret Disease, Sewer Disease)
3 - Animal Growth (Rat Growth, Animal Disease, Sewer Growth)
4 - Hold Animal (Hold Sewers? Hold Secrets? IDK)
5 - Rope Trick (Rat Trick, Sewer Trick, Secret Trick)
6 - Stinking Cloud (Rat Cloud, Stinking Secret, Disease Cloud)
7 - Dispel Magic (Dispel Secret, Dispel Disease, Dispel Sewer)
8 - Find Familiar (Find Rat, Find Secret, Find Sewer, Rat Familiar, Sewer Familiar)

Practically speaking, I have no idea if this would really work in play, but it sounds like it could be...fun...somehow?

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Out of Character Challenge

This is apparently a contentious topic, and I don't quiteeeee understand why. I mean, I do, but I also don't (more on that in a bit). 
There are apparently two camps on the subject of out of character challenges. One camp says, "Riddles are fun! Puzzles are fun! Where are my riddles and puzzles at?"
The other says, "Pffff, plebians. Do you require your fighter to lift physical stones in your living room every time they try to make a Strength check? Riddles are IN-CHARACTER PROBLEMS, and should be solved with in-character methods. Just make it an Intelligence check or something and move on."
I've always stuck near the first camp, thinking blithely that riddles and puzzles were simply fun. I couldn't articulate why I disagreed with Camp 2, but I intuited that their argument failed somewhere. I thought: Couldn't you abstract everything into just a series of rolls? "Okay, I try to convince the king to give me a prize. My character is charismatic. Do I win? Okay, I get the prize. Now I go to the dungeon. I have a +12 in Dungeoneering. Okay, I beat it."
This isn't meant to be a strawman, but it is supposed to be reductionist in the absurd. Many people agree that lifting a boulder that's trapping your friend can be done with one dice roll, and that this dice roll should have narrative weight. Some people think that convincing an NPC of something can be reduced to a single dice roll, and that that dice roll should have narrative weight. Nobody seems to think that an entire adventure or quest can be reduced to a single dice roll. 
Where's the line drawn?
Goblinpunch has two posts here and here that touch on this question a little bit. You should go read them. I'll wait. They essentially ask "What is being tested in your game?" Is it player knowledge? Character builds/system mastery? Real world knowledge? Luck? Acting ability? He eventually breaks down what he, as a GM, tests in his adventures as a percentage (giving about equal footing to mechanical analysis, creativity, and social skills) and asks other GMs to do the same. 
In my style and tone of games, I see the character as an avatar in a fictional world. The character is a player's eyes and ears, hand and foot. If I talk to an NPC, I might need to rely on my character's intuition to see if that NPC is lying. I might need to rely on my character's eyes to find a hidden door in the stone wall. I might need to rely on my character's memory to know the specific weaknesses or defenses of an eldritch vampire. And, as the classic example goes, I'll need to rely on my character's strength to lift a gate or bend a bar.
But I still rely on my own thoughtfulness to know which gates to lift. The GM can put in challenges wherein a gate in a dungeon is a choice. That gate is holding back the minotaur, but beyond the gate there's also the minotaur's treasure. It's my choice - and not my character's intelligence - to lift or not to lift. Yes, it's my character's hands, because they're my only way to interact with that world, but my choices are paramount.
And when there's a puzzle, it's my own reasoning that can make or break the encounter. Yes, I might need to rely on my character's powers: his ability to spot the hidden clue, his memory of rhymes and riddles of his homeland to provide hints, his hands to turn the cranks - but it's my ability to choose that makes the game fun, and not just a series of tests and dice rolls.
The difference is: What can I (as the player) affect with my own self (skill, intelligence, hand-eye coordination, charisma, articulation, presence, thoughtfulness, memory) and what can't I affect? If I can affect it, I want it to be me - the player - to make the choice, through the avatar of my character.
Some of this question, I think, comes from assumptions about the game being played. This argument is often made in D&D circles, and understandably. Half of your attributes are mental attributes, and seem to encapsulate as much narrative weight as your Strength score. But would these same arguments hold up if your attributes were the Apocalypse World spread? Or Fate Accelerated? Or Everybody's John? 
Like most things in RPG, the answer of "what is fun" is subjective.  For some players, in-character acting is fun, and they want to play games that prioritize those sorts of interactions. For some players, logical thinking (ala riddles/puzzles) is fun and want to play games that prioritize those sorts of interactions. GMs and players need to have some consensus on the "what is fun" question when they embark on a game together. 

Megadungeons - The Five Room Dungeon Method

I'm sure many of you are familiar with the excellent Five Room Dungeon. If you haven't read it, I'll summarize it quickly for the purposes of this post. A basic dungeon need only contain five rooms/elements. They are:
  • Entrance and Guardian
  • Puzzle/Roleplaying Challenge
  • Trick or Setback
  • Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict
  • Reward, Revelation or Twist
Codifying a dungeon in this way has allowed me to be more improvisational and agile as a GM. The PCs suddenly want to go raid the bookbinders guild? No problem - probably has a guardian, a roleplaying challenge, a trick, a big battle and then a twist. The PCs want to sneak into the lair of Quick John the Thief? No problem - probably has a guardian, a puzzle, a setback, a climax, and the reward.
But if you, like me, are a fan of classic dungeon crawls through sprawling, dark, treacherous terrains pieced together with Plot Glue and Liches, then you might feel that the Five Room Dungeon lacks some...size. Some...grandeur.
I recently sat down and put together a homage to the megadungeon for my PCs. As I was writing, I deliberately tried to incorporate some good ideas from The Alexandrian.
As I moved through the process, though, I saw the Five Room Dungeon creeping into my megadungeon. I then realized - perhaps later than everyone else - that the megadungeon can really just be a series of Five Room Dungeons linked together. To help try and clarify this process, I wrote up the following. 
A disadvantage of the Five Room Dungeon is its linear nature. You go through Room 1 (Guardian) through Room 5 (Twist) with little room for deviation. Five Room Megadungeons allow PCs to make meaningful choices on how they'll approach the megadungeon because each dungeon "level" can be accessed independently.
To ensure that the choices are meaningful, put in plenty of information (whether true or hints of truth) about what each level holds.
Even if you need to progress through each dungeon somewhat linearly, put lots of links between the dungeons. Room 4 or Dungeon 3 also links to Room 2 or Dungeon 5. Room 3 of Dungeon 5 also links to Room 5 of Dungeon 1.
  • A Five Room Megadungeon is a series of linked Five Room Dungeons.
  • Dungeon 1 is the Entrance. The Entrance provides context for the rest of the megadungeon.
  • Dungeon 1 needs to provide hints, clues, tantalizing half-truths and lore about how the dungeon was made, what the other levels contain, what dangers you'll be facing, etc. Put in scouts from the Main Bad Guys. Put in ancient pictographs detailing the dungeon's creation. Put in a ghost of the wizard who made the dungeon. Put in graffiti by adventurers who have passed this way before.
  • Dungeon 2 provides a role-playing challenge. The best reward to insert here is a "safe zone." If the PCs set up camp here, after the RP challenge is complete, they can sleep somewhat soundly.
  • Perhaps Dungeon 2 is a shanty town of dispossessed hirelings looking for work after their contracts died deeper in. Maybe it's home to semi-sentient mushroom folk. Maybe it's home to the ghosts of those who once lived there, who are willing to leave the PC's unmolested in exchange for justice or burial.
  • A great RP challenge - and a good meaningful choice - is a dungeon divided by factions. The Warrior Maids hate the Justiciars hate the Magi, but they all have to dwell together in a small space. Have the PCs support one faction or the other and help them advance their objectives throughout the rest of the megadungeon.
  • A possible feature of Dungeon 2 is its extreme non-linear nature. Perhaps it has a central hub and you can move to each of the five "districts" and RP with the factions that dwell there.
  • Dungeon 3 is a Hidden Objective. Clues from other dungeons should tell of its existence and provide hints on how to access it.
  • Dungeon 3 can be skipped. It provides dangers and treasures, but is not necessary to the PC's main objectives. This allows them to weigh the risks/rewards and make a meaningful choice.
  • Dungeon 4 is the Main Objective.
  • If PCs came to the dungeon to find a MacGuffin, to rescue a princess, to slay a lich - those things wait for them in Dungeon 4.
  • Dungeon 5 is the Twist. This dungeon is tied to the PC's quest and dungeon 4.
  • If the PCs successfully find the MacGuffin, they find out that they have no idea how to use it and the only tome that explains its purpose rests in the vaults below. If the PCs rescue the princess, they find out that her royal seal was stolen by a blackguard who fled into the catacombs. If they defeat the lich, they find out that his dark god has begun to stir and they need to travel to the demiplane of Shadow to stop the cataclysm the lich set in motion.
Obviously, you can keep adding dungeon sections or factions as you see fit; especially as the PCs' ingenuity gets the better of you. The PCs are always coming up with left turns, and the Five Room Dungeon is great for improvising those. But as you sketch out your megadungeon, you can think about it as a macroscale of a more humble adventure.