Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Don't Be A Control Freak

"During most of a D&D game, the Dungeon Master leaves the decisions to the players. The DM presents the setting—describing what the characters see, offering choices of actions, and so forth. But the course of the game is determined by the actions of the party as decided by the players." —Dungeons & Dragons Dungeons Masters Rulebook, Revised by Frank Mentzer

As I prepared this week for a nostalgic run through a classic Labyrinth Lord megadungeon, I thought it would be a good Idea to brush up on the classic rules. I not only brought out the Labyrinth Lord rules, but also dug deep in to my Moldvay and Mentzer basic rulebooks. When I got to page 3 of +Frank Mentzer's Dungeons & Dragons Dungeons Masters Rulebook, I was not expecting to find such a great nugget of advice. I must have read it several times 30+ years ago but it didn't have any real meaning until today—present a setting and offer choices; could it be that simple? 

As a DM I'm a bit burned out on adventures that take 3-6 sessions to complete, all the while trying to steer a hapless group of would-be heroes to what has already been determined as the final destination. That is just hard work because players never do what they are "supposed to." Why be such a control freak? Why spend time writing about things that the PCs may never see? +Harley Stroh gave me this advice when I asked how much information is too much and how much is not enough?
A lot of the OSR releases go very loose: no box text, just the details that are necessary to run the encounter area. The extreme example of this are the brilliant one-page dungeons. If you did it right, you could design your sandbox with a dozen one-page "episodes." (Which sounds pretty cool when I think about it.)  
For my part, I am trying to get the judge to fall in love with the adventure. I want him or her to be insanely stoked about unleashing this world upon their players; the more excited the judge is, the better game he or she will run. So I err on the side of a little more information - some back story if the details are cool, more description if the setting calls for it.  
BUT, and this is key, NEVER include information that doesn't impact the PCs. The focus always needs to be on the PCs, never the brilliantly constructed NPCs or villains. As long as the detail is something that the PCs can interact with in a meaningful way, it's not a waste of space. But if the PCs will never discover it, and it has no measurable relation to the dungeon they are exploring, excise the fat. 

"...a dozen one-page 'episodes'" I like that. 

If I take Frank and Harley's advice to heart I have to start looking at adventure design that focuses on the setting and offer choices that impact the PCs. For me the fun is in discovering the story both as a GM and as a player, so perhaps adventures could be like a character that the DM rolls up and plays? 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Getting In Touch With My "Feelies"

Way back in 1980 (showing a bit of age here) a computer game company named Infocom published what I would consider one of the first Computer RPGs—Zork. And I, being a young geek in the 80's, spent many hours typing my way through the "Great Underground Empire." Throughout the 80's Infocom continued to publish 35 other interactive fiction titles such as Zork II, Zork IIIWishbringer, and The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy to name a few. One of my favorite parts of these games were the "feelies," the extra content included with the boxed versions of their games. 

For  example, Wishbringer came with a "Magick glowing stone, a book, The Legend of Wishbringer, that explains how the magic stone came to be, and an envelope and letter to be delivered to Ye Olde Magick Shoppe; 

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy came with, a button with "Don't Panic!" printed in large, friendly letters, Pocket Fluff, an Order for destruction of Arthur Dent's house, an Order for destruction of Earth, a Microscopic Space Fleet (an empty plastic bag), "Peril Sensitive Sunglasses" ("glasses" made of opaque black cardboard), and the game also indicates that it comes with "no tea," a key joke and puzzle in the game. The feelies really added a sense of immersion to these games for me and I would often use feelies in my own tabletop RPGs. 

Today we call them hand outs, and like in the 80's, most, if not all immersive handouts are handcrafted by the Game Master. We like these little bits of tangible fantasy in our games; anyone who searches for the perfect themed "Benny" for their Savage Worlds game or uses themed "radioactive" dice for their Mutant Crawl Classics game, or spends hours crafting an aged letter or ancient looking dagger can attest to that! So why don't more RPG publishers and companies include feelies with their products? Sounds like a great stretch goal for a boxed set Kickstarter.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Back To The Basic

Moving along with dungeon design, I have been looking at the structure of the megadungeon. I have been playing in megadungeons since my first game where e explored the East Tower of the Haunted Keep back in 1982. In those early years though dungeon design was random and weird—just the way we liked it. Classic dungeon design was tiered so that the "easier" encounters were on the upper levels and progressively got harder as you descended into the depths of the unknown. I am exploring a similar principle in my overall design for the Serial Adventure Project, but slightly modified. In an interview with +Greg Gillespie on the Save Or Die Podcast, Greg talks about his design of the classic megadungeon Barrowmaze. There were two ideas that stood out in this interview that work well with the goals of the serial adventure project; first, the players always returned to the town that they started in and second Barrowmaze is a "flat" dungeon that sprawls out on a single plane.

By having the players always return to town he avoided the challenge of what to do if a party member was absent from one week to the next and how to add new players or "write out" a player who leaves the group. This may be a little "railroady" to do outside of the traditional dungeon where it would be deadly to camp out over-night, but I may have a good way to deal with that. Always returning to an "A" point in the story is a common device used in Televison and Film serials. I will try hard to use the mission or mystery of the week format, but I will need a unique starting point or starting points that would be the "A" position for the party.

Pretty straightforward:
1. Draw a map of the dungeon
2. Stock the dungeon
Greg also didn't use a typical dungeon level structure where as you go down the difficulty went up. Barrowmaze is essentially a single plane dungeon and the difficulty varies from room to room. I think this is a good good idea when creating a node based dungeon, but in the case of the serial adventure project each node could potentially be located several miles from another which could make for a disastrous couple of hours of game play if a low level party decides to explore a node that is far too high for them and meets with an instant TPK. To help keep some structure of level appropriateness (is that a word?)  I plan to pick a couple of central ground zero points and as the players move up, down or away from them the difficulty of the encounters will rise. Since it will always be the player's choice of where to go, each situation will have a point of invitation, the hook, and at least one point of quick egress.

The megadungeon is perhaps the oldest style of dungeon in RPGs so why not look back to the original works for some inspirational how-to?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Now with 30% more pulp!

Recently I had the opportunity to ask Harley Stroh of Goodman Games some questions about adventure creation and since I respect his time in answering those questions, I wanted to see how I could best use his advice; one piece at a time.

Frank: Hello Harley, Again thank you for agreeing to help me with this project. 
Harley: Awesome. Thanks for inviting me to help. I really think you are on to something with the episodic adventure.
Frank: My First Question is, Where do YOU start when writing an adventure? 
Harley: Usually with an image or scene that I want to create. I'll read something in a historical reference, or comic book, or just see a work of art that fires up my imagination, and then layer on the adventure from there.

Definitely on my must read list!
Ok Step 1: What fires up my imagination? Since I am looking for a very pulp feel reminiscent of Appendix N and 30's film serials, I have built my world around the idea of Vikings living in an inter-dimensional pocket world once ruled by aliens that occasionally "bumps into" other worlds.

I will be using  a Node-Based Megadungeon approach where each node will be a 5 Room Dungeon. I have started to list out some possible nodes and began "layering" the dungeons. So, in my description of the world I have already started a list of node inspiration: Vikings, Aliens, and Other stuff.

I took a few minutes to list out a few possible nodes— as I begin to add more detail I expect changes and additions:

Viking Village of Stonegate: A Possible home base for a party of zero level adventurers.
Alien Crypt: A long lost and forgotten cryo-freeze stasis chamber containing the body of an alien warrior who once lived in this world.
Nazi U-Boat: a Nazi U-Boat from an alternate earth that has been transported to this world when it "bumped into it."
Church of the Unknown Saint: home to a crazy missionary priest who is making it all up as he goes, but has somehow managed to gather a small flock
The Abandoned Wizard's Tower: An ancient tower on the outskirts of the village. The wizard doesn't live in the tower he lives in the hut next to the tower.
Dodd's Inn: An inn on the road to Dodd's Crossing
Dodd's Crossing: A small village at the edge of the river built on the site of a legendary battle from ages past.
The Beyond: A dark and foreboding forest where all sorts of nasties live—every adventure story has one. You don't want to go in there.

rough mind-map of the starting area