Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Plying the Seas for (Some) Adventure and (Mostly) Profit

"Hey kid, wanna buy some sheep?"
So I have a player in one of my Ánemos games that worships Oros, god of trade and mercantilism. Literally ever time they are in a port or meeting a random guy on the ocean he trys to make a business deal, its great. I didn't really have a good way to handle this at first, so I wrote up a random goods table, assigned each good a value per ton and a rarity and have been using it ever since. And since I wrote it I guess I could share it here, I even mentioned it in a post from months ago!

I use these by rolling on the d100 table when the party encounters a merchant ship (most of these are either common galleys (150 tons of cargo space) or trading cogs (300 tons of cargo space)) (ship stats here) to figure out what goods they have aboard. If you want to really systematize this you could roll a d100% to determine how full the trader's cargo hold is and roll on the goods table and the quantity per rarity table to fill up their hold to their current level, but I have found that that level of detail is often not super important.

I have found this table to be pretty useful for determining the primary industries of islands or even the domains that Gods and Spirits are interested in. So that's cool.

Random Good Table:
Livestock Head to Ton Conversion Rates
Quantity Per Rarity Rates
I also wrote a little calculator using Excel's random number generator to simulate a variable price when selling goods in market. The math is pretty simple, and it seems to work well:
Selling Price= Common Price*(1+x)
Where: x=(random value between -25% and +25%)/y
Where: y=1(if very rare), 2(if rare), 3(if uncommon), 4(if common) 
[I especially like that the rarity controls how big the price variation is. Common goods are only ever -6.25% to +6.25% above or below the common market price, they are more stable good because they are common. Rarer goods can have bigger swings in price, like in real life! Economics simulation tirade over]

Or you can just say fuck it, Connor you wrote a god damned math for D&D what the fuck, give me the math in a little calculator for fucks sake. Okay.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Some Thoughts On: Story Telling, the Novel and the Epic, Oral Traditions, and their Roles in TTRPGs

A Brief History of the Novel and Storytelling

Novels are a relatively modern form of storytelling. Since the inception of language stories had been told orally, then suddenly the story became fixed in written word by an author with a very small audience who was assumed to be reading it individually or listening to it being read. This presupposed audiences that could read, means of producing copies of a text, and the cultural onus to create them. The novel appears in a few different places and times: in 17th century Europe with the publishing of Don Quixote, in 11th century Japan with the writing of The Tale of Genji, and even some Greek and Roman prose narratives being called precursors to novels.

Don Quixote, by Scott Gustafson

This contrasts with the oral traditions that is inherently mutable from Teller to Listener, and between tellings from the same Teller. It was this tradition that gave us the Poetic and Prose Eddas, to the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (though each of these works are of course know through the written incarnations, not an intact oral history). Works of similar tone or content or form where also composed as a piece of written narrative poetry, a good example is Dante's Divine Comedy (perhaps the first great trilogy). Many of these classic epics come in the form of verse, with the Prose Edda being the glaring exception.

Illustrations to The Elder Edda by Boris Zaborikhin

I listen to a podcast, Myths and Legends, and the host Jason Weiser made an interesting point in a recent episode about Paul Bunyan. He retells myths and legends (duh), but in his retelling he edits for clarity and elaborates as he sees fit. He asserts, rightly so I think, that this is very much a part of the traditions that these stories were forged in. The epics listed above would be very strange to the audience they were originally told to, sometimes written hundreds of years after they where being told and often with heavily editorializing by the transcriber to make them a cohesive narrative (for example the Iliad) or to sanitize and Christianize them ( for example the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda). These are bizarre static stories of a time and place far removed at the time of writing, not composed works like a novel.

Aren't we as roleplayers participating in a modern oral tradition through roleplaying? Right now I am running a two groups in the same setting with no over lap in players, and in the retelling of the aspects there is drift/editorial adjustment between the groups as the encounter similar situations/locations/challenges. These are exactly the kind of adjustments that a story teller would make to improve each retelling and to tailor it to their audiences.

Roleplaying Games as Story Telling

When describing D&D to people I usually fall back onto the analogy of a novel. The players are the main characters in the story, the DM/GM/Referee is everyone and everything else. "You get to play Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring!" I tell them.  Yes there are dice. Yes, some people use a board and little figurines. But those things aren't the point (not necessarily, there are beautiful and deep sub-hobbies around the crafting and enjoyment of gaming artifacts; just look at all of the gaming table or dice tower designs on the web, miniature painting, or novelty chocolate dice). The point is to get together with your friends and collaboratively tell a story.

***Thats at least what I tell people. I have seen mummers of contention about this explanation, though only second hand, that we can't play out stories, its only a story if we tell people about it after! I've never seen a convincing argument for this, so if you have some counter points I'd love to see see them.***

It seems to me that pretty damn near EVERY TTRPG game I have played or that I can think of the essential elements of the story. So I'll use some classic examples of D&D modules and other games to demonstrate:
  • Characters: Duh, we literally call them that most of the time. Whether they are Player Characters or Non-Player Characters, they are still characters. No example needed really, characters are ubiquitous
  • Setting: The place where the events of the game happen. People produce setting documents for their players to orient them to how weird their version of fantasy medieval Europe is. This can be exhaustive (I'm looking at you Greyhawk) or sparse (I'm looking at you Keep on the Borderlands). 
  • Plot: This is the arc of the narrative, with the beginning (Adventuring around the small hamlet of Hommlet) the middle (Delving into the Temple of Elemental Evil) and end (Visiting the Elemental Nodes to get the key to defeating Zuggtmoy). There is progression and escalating tensions
  • Conflict: The reason the characters are involved at all, the tension to be resolved (Delving into the Tomb of Horrors to destroy the demi-lich Acererak) (to stop the horde of Hobgoblins bearing the Red Hand of Doom). 
  • Resolution: Through playing resolution is achieved, even if that results in character death or unexpected outcomes, at least the game went somewhere.

To the Matter at Hand

So my question is this: do the stories generated through table top role playing games really most closely resemble novels? Can we play out other forms of narrative, like an epic poem? I've seen some very good arguments that the OSR school of thought encourages a more picaresque style of narrative with roguish motivations, so other genres and scales of narrative interest are obviously viable.

I suppose what I want to get at is this: can we explore wider genres with broader scopes of ambition than the novel? Can we play the heroes and gods of Myth and not just characters of Mythic Fantasy? Can we use these games as a vehicle for a modern oral tradition? Is D&D and its many children the system we want? Or is a more narrative focused system like Hillfolk or Skulduggery (both of which are well described here) better suited?

I don't know, but I sure think we should try. Let us set our sites on the horizons and venture into realms that we haven't been to yet. Let is push the limits. Let us engage in an ancient tradition and tell our own epics. D&D may not be the vehicle, though this does seem the realm of epic level play (something I have never seen done well). Let us look for an alternative because old stories deserve to be told, not just read and new stories deserve to be explored, not just dreamed.

Saturn by Peter Paul Rubens; don't you want to play in a game where you can eat your divine spawn to keep them from over throwing you?
Source, lets play more games with the Morrigan as a character!
Source, or Morgoth!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Bard Colleges

This is the second of my follow up posts to this project, today's class is the Bard. The goal of this project is to create a "minigame" of sorts for each sub-class for D&D 5e that allows the character to grow in ways not directly tied to their level progression and that makes each sub-class feel unique and interesting.

College of Lore:

Original Idea: "Your mind is a well from which you can draw history and knowledge from the depths of the past. Your long study has given you an unrivaled grasp of Lore. For every lost secret that you unearth your knowledge deepens."

So the idea with this sub class is to be an searcher for Secrets, the better the Secret the more revelatory the discovery. Perhaps this is a more story/adventure based advancement than the other sub-classes, but I think its a fun way to make an investigative and lore driven bard. These are the kind of characters that want to delve deep into ruins of ancient civilizations so they can learn more about their plumbing. Not all Secrets are arcane and world shattering...

So as the Lore Searcher finds secrets they act like subtle Wish spells. The Bard discovers something in the dungeon they are delving in and the player gets to decide what exactly they discovered! I want the onus of this to fall on the player, not the DM, so its up to the player to declare when they are discovering a Secret, the DM just lets them know when they have delved and studied enough to merit a new Secret discovery. Below is an example, but this should be super fungible.

DM, ConBon: CWilly, as you are lowered down the shaft you start making out some inscriptions in the stone, you flickering lantern dimly illuminating them...

Player, CWilly: I holler up to the Barbarian, "STOP!!! This could be what I've been looking for! These look to be diagrams to the Ancient Yuan-Ti super weapons..."

ConBon: No they aren't dude, its just like a shaft leading down to the next level... Why would they put super weapon plans here?

CWilly: Okay, okay. Then they are graffiti from the Yuan-Ti's slaves, it says the name of their God-Ruler and that he was afraid of fire.

ConBon: Alright, that sounds good, but it'll be a while till you get another Secret, okay? The name of the God-Ruler was Issak the Cruel, and he was deathly afraid of fire...

In the example above the DM lets the player  have a say in defining the final boss of the Dungeon, giving him a weakness to fire. There is some negotiation involved, as there should be.

Not a wizard! A bard!

College of Valor:

Original Idea: "You thrill in the heat of battle, pounding a martial beat as you urge your allies on. You have taken to the sword as a duck to a pond. Keep track of every bardic inspiration die that is the difference between life and death for an ally or foe."

You've chosen a path of empowerment, a martial archetype for a musical/performance based class. There is a rich tradition of these kind of characters across cultures: the skald (warriors and storytellers), the samurai (meant to be masters of martial and sensitive arts), the knight (the chivliric ideal has knights that write poetry), etc.

The original idea was a little boring I think, and I have been playing a loosely Redwall based game recently, we sing a lot of songs, shout a lot of battle cries, and describe feasts often; its all been really fun. So the Bard under the tutelage of the College of Valor seeks out greater and greater conflicts to participate in so that they can write sagas about their exploits. Think of it like you get to play Homer writing the Odessy while its happening!

The Bard gets to write a new bad-ass song for each new scale of conflict they are embroiled in. A computational way to represent this would be CR (Challenge Rating), the metric that describes how much XP should be awarded for a combat encounter. There is all sorts of arcane maths behind this computation, so the leg work is done for us, we just get assign rewards for writing poems.

Of course to use these the player actually has to tell a story/sing a song/recite a poem! For example the Heroic Ode should be written for each party member you want to use it on, "Oh Scar-Faced Johnny, Slayer of Naga Queens and Terror of the Eastern Wastes, you story cannot end here...!", therefore each party member has to have done something Ode worthy for this to work. The format doesn't have to be these forms of course, this isn't some stupid creative writing class, let the player have some fun with it.

CRSaga Unlocked
0-4 (Amateur hour bub)Campfire Story
5-8 (Wow! You sound like some kind of hero!)Folk Song
9-12 (Hear anew the voice! O hear and listen!)Heroic Ode
13-16 (And so Hercules slayed the hydra...)Legendary Story
17-20 (Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many devices...)Epic Poem

Campfire Story: You can tell a Campfire Story of one of your Party's exploits while taking a long or short rest, this allows your allies to re-roll all 1's on their HD rolls when regaining health.

Folk Song: When you sing your Folk Song in public you get advantage on preform checks when trying to make money in down time

Heroic Ode: When an ally is making death saving throws you can take a full round action to recite their Heroic Ode to instantly stabilize them at 0 HP as long as you are within 30ft of them.

Legendary Story: During combat you can make begin to tell your Story, for every round that you recite your allies get +1 on attack/damage/saving throws (each party member chooses which one they want for the duration) for every round that you continuously tell the story, as a concentration spell up to 1 minute (can use Battle Magic while doing this), usable 1/week

Epic Poem: This is effectively a ritual spell (takes 10 minutes to cast) that can be used to cast any spell on any class's spell list lower than 6th level, and the epic poem must some how relate to the spell being cast. For example a Create Undead spell could go like this:
Facing to the northern clime,
Thrice he traced the Runic rhyme;
Thrice pronounced, in accents dread,
The thrilling verse that wakes the dead,
Till from out the hollow ground
Slowly breathed a sullen sound.

This is usable 1/week.

Cult: You have accumulated enough of a cultural impact that you now have a whole cult devoted to the contemplation of of your art and the mysteries contained within. When ever you come into a settlement that is a town or larger roll to see how big your following is here, using your Preform skill. Depending on the success of the role, your Cult could be very developed in a way to aid you. At the least you get a fan club most places you go.


I think the Secrets mechanic is especially interesting, giving the PC a way to color and change the world in creative ways. It gives some of the DM's agency to the player, which is fun. I haven't thought of a good way to standardize it, though I am not too worried.

I'm not totally satisfied with how tied to level advancement the Sagas mechanic is, but I think it makes some sense. That they have to recite their work makes it fun, hopefully. Perhaps encourages players to do some riskier things than they normally might, all because it would make a great story. And that is awesome.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Thoughts on Megafauna

Megafauna are large animals. Examples include loins and tigers and bears (oh my), and for the most part in the modern day they are pretty severely limited to the African continent. There are still megafauna found elsewhere in the world, just simply not the levels that the fossil record indicates we should could seeing (for example most deer count as megafauna, kangaroos count, bison count, cows count,  cassowary count, etc). Megafauna are not only cool things to hunt and see on safari, but they also do some very import ecological work. There is super interesting ecological restoration work going on trying to reintroduce megafauna to areas they have gone extinct in to restore some semblance of a healthy (according to a historic standard) ecosystem.

There is an interestingly high levels of representation of dinosaurs in D&D. The AD&D Monstrous Manual has 28 entries, the 3.5 edition Monster Manual has 5 entries (but many many more in the next 4 Monster Manuals), 4th edition has none (weird...), and 5th edition has 6 entries. All of them that have dinosaurs have the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Triceratops listed, which doesn't surprised me as they seem to be the most commonly recognized dinosaurs out there.

See? They are classics! (Source)

While having the stats for your favorite dinosaur is great if you want to run a anachronistic primal game what I would like to argue for is a more geologically recent cast of beasts. Ones that our lizard brains  (no pun intended...) remember hunting or hiding from. There is an uncanny familiarity of the megafauna of the last geological epoch, because humans actually co-existed (and hunted and ate and ran from and...) with all of these animals, unlike dinosaurs. There is of course the classic wooly mammoth, or the saber toothed tiger, or the giant ground sloth. But there is a huge diversity of other fauna to tap into and explore.

Cave paintings found in the Lascaux Caves of France depicting megafauna from ~17,000 years ago 

There was an attempt, at least to my eyes, to introduce the concept of megafauna into D&D terms with the advent of "dire" animals. Don't get me wrong, I love dire animals in D&D, but I think that just taking a currently living animal and making it bigger just doesn't take that much imagination. For example I suspect the whole trend was started by the real life dire wolf, a larger and more muscled close relative of the wolf (Canis lupus). But even this prehistoric example is way cooler! They are like giant crosses between hyenas and wolves, not just big wolves that have spikes growing out of them... or something.

Dire wolf, Canis dirus

WHY DOES IT HAVE SPIKES??? (to be fair it would be cool if we explored Dire Animals as having messed up metabolisms that leave calcium deposits all over the body that look like armor plates/spikes/tusks/etc and other weird metabolic relics, but no, we just get spiky wolves)

So for your gaming pleasure here is an (seriously incomplete) list of Pleistocene megafauna and some recommended stat blocks to borrow (most of them don't need their own), as well as some interpretations of their ecology for making them more interesting:

Arctodus simus, Short Faced Bear
Stats as: 8HD Polar Bear, 5eMM pg 334 (60ft movement, no swim speed)
Ecology and Quirks: With its long legs and sharp teeth the Short Faced Bear is a fast and brutal carnivore, they run down large herbivores and frightening off smaller predators (this is the original interpretation of their fossils, more modern studies conclude they are opportunistic omnivores, but that's boring).  Unlike their small cousins Short Faced Bears are very poor climbers and can often be foiled by climbing a tree.

Castoroides ohioensis, Giant Beaver
Stats as: Giant Boar, 5eMM pg 323 (20ft walking speed, 50ft swim speed no charge, tusk is bite attack, gets tail slap: +5 to hit 10ftx5ft area, 3d6+3 bludgeoning and knocks foes prone (Str/Dex Save DC14))
Ecology and Quirks: Stupid and huge compared to their smaller relatives, the Giant Beaver is an excellent swimmer and grazes the rivers banks and wetlands like bison graze the prairie. Their migratory patterns are erratic and they will descend upon settlements in droves in the winter months eating away at wooden buildings and crops alike. Their pelts are highly prized.

Aiolornis incredibilis, Giant Condor
Stats as: Giant Eagle. 5eMM pg 324 (on a successful talon attack the foe is grappled, DC 14 Str/Dex to break free, half fly speed while grappling, can grapple medium and smaller)
Ecology and Quirks: A lord of carrion birds, the Giant Condor is the largest flying bird known. With a massive beak and weighing more than 60lbs they could easily fight off most other scavengers and smaller predators.  Their favorite tactic is to swoop down and carry away foes, then drop them from a great height.

Aepyornis maximus, Elephant Bird
Stats as: Allosaurus, 5eMM pg 79 (60ft move speed, no pounce, gets an claw attack against any creature in its path if it runs in a straight line for more than 40ft)
Ecology and Quirks: The largest bird to ever live, the Elephant Bird is tall, fast, and has a wicked beak. Its favorite tactic is to do a series of charges at any foes and closing in to finish them with its beak when they are weak. Its eggs are highly prized, one could feed a whole adventuring party for a day or two. If they think their nests are being threatened they will flee straight to them, ignoring all dangers... and pit traps.

Megaloceros giganteus, Irish Elk
Stats as: Giant Elk, 5eMM pg325
Ecology and Quirks: The male Irish Elk are the only ones that will fight you. The females are huge, sure, but the males are over sexed, their huge antlers are for two things: impressing the cows, and fucking up anyone that gets in their way. There is of course an easy way to deal with them, simply rush into the nearest thicket of willow and the low and dense branches will keep them from following.

Paraceratherium transouralicum, The Near Horn Beast
Stats as: Elephant, 5eMM pg322 (12HD)
Ecology and Quirks: A lumbering hulk, the Near Horn Beast wanders the world is search of the ultimate: the next yummy leaf. No tree too tall, no shrub too low, no grass too bitter, and no predator big enough. The Near Horn Beast wanders on. They could perhaps be tamed, taught to be ridden, but the amount of forage an individual would need it a serious logistic challenge. Due to their massive size their legs are fragile, and even a small jump and stumble might fracture their bones.

(Also check out the Siberian Unicorn!)

As I note above, many of these don't need their own stat block, but that doesn't mean they should just be interchangeable big beasties! This is why included some notes on their ecology and quirks, make them falvorful and interesting damn it. You might consider thinking about them this way.

Oh familiar old friend,
embraced in the dark of night,
fighting tooth and claw
Primordial enemy,
Now just dust and memory.
There is no treachery 
Only blood thundering in the dark.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Grey Devil of the Desert

A few months ago I heard about this press release from the US Department of Agriculture while listening to This American Life. It describes in detail the epic 1921 hunt for "the World's Greatest Animal Criminal", the Custer wolf, a wolf from South Dakota who's "cruelty [was] only surpassed by his cunning." Below are some clips from the episode with a voice actor reading the release in a wonderful gravely monotone, sure to make any cowpoke shiver.





It seems that the trick to making your dread and hated beast a folk legend is to anthropomorphize it, to make it more man than beast in its intent. The Custer Wolf isn't horrible because its a predator that eats cattle, its horrible because it breaks their legs with wanton blood lust. Blood lust is a human emotion, the Wolf is just the canvas we are throwing the paint on.

When you are playing your Pathfinder Western game, or your D20 Modern Archaic game, or your Dealands game, or... what ever you are playing, think small when you are dreaming up monsters (at least at first). If this shows us anything its that even a normal grey wolf (it was even smaller than an average male) can scare a few states worth of ranchers out of their boots.

He even got a book! "The Custer Wolf, Biography of an American Renegade" by Roger Caras 

To further the point, some more choice quotes from the press release:
"Credulous people said he was a charmed thing. Others attributed his immunity to a wisdom greater than beast ever possessed. Still others said he escaped by plain luck-- the mysterious thing that adheres to some animals as to some men..."
 "This thin, they said, was a not a wolf -- not merely a wolf. They believed that nature had perpetrated a monstrosity, half wolf and half mountain lion, possessing the craftiness of both and the cruelty of hell. In public opinion he had all the qualities of the Were wolf of Old World legends..."
That any of this was ever published about a real animal by a real agency of the United States tickles my fancy something ferocious. The podcast implies that the reason for the dramatic press release was to show the hardworking American taxpayer that the Federal Government was working hard to tame the heathen and dangerous West.

Also, how amazingly terrifying would a half wolf/half mountain lion be? It would have to have a good name to stick in the American folklore of course, perhaps the Mountawolf (a la Jackalope), or perhaps the press release already gave us the best possible name: The Grey Devil of the Desert.


Just a quick post that explores some ideas from real life about how to build up a monster hunt, something I don't think D&D as a medium especially lends itself to.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Game Ideas from Poetry: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

I love this poem by Robert Frost, its simple and clean and evocative. Its been snowing here a lot this winter and I have been going on some hikes through the woods while it comes down. Its very peaceful, and Robert captures that solitary longing to watch this little sliver of the world. So when life gives you poems, make D&D.

Let us ask the question, what if the narrator gives in to the lovely, dark and deep woods? He hops off of his cart into the snow, and he trudges into the forest on the darkest night of the year.

This makes for a great set up to be captured/seduced by the servants of the Queen of Winter and be forced/enticed to celebrate with her and her court as her reign begins for the season. Perhaps he is thus cursed to return to her Court every Winter Solstice and dance with the holly men and the evergreen women, to drink the blood of the feast swine, breath the smoke of the cedar offerings, and wear the wreath.

That's the one night a year he feels alive. And every other night he lays awake, thinking of the smokey hall lit by ruddy flames, his body writhing with half remembered pleasure and tormented by cultural inhibitions. He returns to the dark woods. Year after year.

I would want it to be an adventure like "Over the Garden Wall", an excellent single season TV show from Cartoon Network. Check it out:

What I think "Over the Garden Wall" did well was a sense of dissociation and familiarity at the same time. But instead of kids wandering a weird Victorian era forest land, you are a group on late 19th century New Englanders haunted by the chains of your Protestant upbringings and the pagan blood memories of the Yule Tide. Every session is the night of the Winter Solstice, in between each session a year passes and the bacchanalian revelers age and grow weaker and more tortured. Kind of like a fucked up pagan Narnia.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Bon Appetite: The Dungeon

Okay, here me out:

So you are playing what seems to be a classic dungeon crawl.

There are stone rooms. Some doors. Some of the doors are trapped. There are some things that want to kill your characters. There are some quirky NPCs. Everyone is having a jolly time.

But something is off...

It all seems too easy. Almost as if... someone wanted you to do all of this.

Those goblins from level 1? Wasn't it too easy to push them into their own spinning blade trap?

That psychic fungus on level 3? Didn't it seem too obvious that fire would destroy it? That the journal in the room over would tell you all about how much those weird fungus guys hate fire?

Those demon cultists from level 8? Weren't they too easy to throw into that huge cauldron they were working over?

And as you enter the final room, it all becomes clear.

You played right into its hand.

All along, you were preparing the dungeon for this. All the ingredients are here. The diced goblin, the charred psychic mushrooms, the melted cultists...

The dungeon was a recipe, waiting for a group of capable chefs to work through it. And now your host is ready for its meal, its delicate palate waiting for the feast of the century, and you the chefs must finish what you started...



[Just an idea I had for a dungeon as recipe with the adventures as unwitting chefs.]