Don't Forget Your Boots

Meandering aimlessly around the GURPS landscape

Tag: behind-the-scenes

Flash Cards and Callbacks

After my recent grumbling about how hard it can be to keep track of all the little details of the hundreds of spells in GURPS Magic, the players delivered. The Player of The Knight of the Blood Oath (henceforth to be known as TPoTKotBO, for the sheer joy of useless acronyms and CamelCase) suggested the idea of flash cards with spell summaries, and Jed’s player (sadly, “TPoMJW” just doesn’t have that necessary flow, so for no particular reason, we shall dub him “The Rt Revd”, in the Anglican style…) broke out the office supplies and did ’em up.  I’ve seen blurry pictures of color-coded index cards, so far, but I’m looking forward to checking out the actual cards in the flesh.

I’m assured that the six-pound limit from the Body of Air is marked on the card for the spell.

Now, here’s where I risk the wrath of “The Rt Revd”.  After the fact, I got to thinkin’…

I’ve heard a variety of complaints about GURPS. One that seems to have some amount of objective substance is the one about the callbacks. The Body of Air spell is an example.  You see the spell on the character sheet, and you can tell from the name what it’s supposed to do, more-or-less, but there’s some little question about the effects. In our case, the question was “How fast can Alric fly when he’s a cloud?” So, you pull out the PDF, or the physical volume, of GURPS Magic, and you look up the spell.

… which directs you to B262, where the Body of Air meta-trait is defined. And even then, to get our answer, we would have had to go back to B56, under the Flight advantage, where we find the “Basic Speed x 2” formula.

(In actual fact, during play, I waved my hand and said “Yeah, a guy made of air can fly; yeah, a flying guy moves at double speed; yeah, no trouble catching up to and keeping pace with the halfling”.  One of the players made the page-turning trip, for unknown reasons, a few minutes later, and confirmed my memory.  Luckily, I got that’n right. If there had been a serious wind, though, I wouldn’t have correctly remembered the effects of Lighter-Than-Air… or that it’s even included in the meta-trait’s Flight.)

To be clear, when it comes to the books, I entirely support the callback model. If it weren’t for that reference chain, the Body of Air spell would have to include the text of the Body of Air meta-trait, and the meta-trait would have to include the bit about Flight (and Lighter-Than-Air). The spell would double or triple in size. Since you’d expect the same thing to happen to all the spells, the book itself doubles or triples in size, which really means it never would have been printed in the first place. Anyway, at that point, every spell would look like it had its own unique set of rules, and the system would devolve into chaos. I’m a lot happier with the current method of organization, which lets me wave my hand and say “Flying is generally double ground movement, so we’ll go with that and press on”.

That’s how we do it in the world of software, too, so I’m likely biased. 🙂  Write it once, then refer back to that one instance.

Thing is, the callbacks only need to exist in the source material.  When it comes to actual play, with actual characters, I think there’s usefulness to be had by…. well…. “compiling” the character sheets (or spell lists, or whatever).

For instance, let’s take the flash cards. They’re a first step at compiling the general rules from the books into the specific list of supernatural things that Jed can use on short notice. If need be, like if he picks up Wild Talent and starts pulling new spells out of the thin air, we can always go back to the books, but the majority of cases are pulled out into the short list.

Just in case you think the melee guys are getting off without any homework:  fighter types can do the same kind of thing. I’ve long advocated that the players write down their favorite moves in combat, with all the modifiers and effects worked out and added up. Then, in the heat of combat, they’re not looking at the entire list of options, most of which aren’t useful for the character in question. If Needles ever finds himself in a situation where he wants to do a Beat, either he’s torturing small woodland creatures and we can safely go to narrative-style, rather than bothering with dice and one-second turns, or he’s in such dire straits that there’s no help to be had. Alric isn’t going to care about the penalties for parrying flails, but TKotBO needs to make a note of it — and mention it to me each and every time, lest I overlook it, honestly. Gabby would likely benefit from a list of options like “Stab three guys in their throats” and “Stab one guy in his throat three times”.

Furthermore, I would say it’s a good idea to chase all the page references down. Going back to the flash cards for Jed’s spells, I would think it would be worthwhile to mention how to calculate the speed of flight, and at least a mention of wind affecting Lighter Than Air fliers’ movement rates. Whenever a question comes up in play, whenever some fine point has to be looked up, the answer to that question should be a candidate for adding to the character’s notes.

You can see something along these lines in the monster stats in DF. They won’t direct you to the Affliction advantage, but they’ll tell you that failure by 5 inflicts this additional effect. They’ll tell you this attack hits on a 12 and gives a -3 to active defenses, rather than stating the 18 skill and a preference for Deceptive Attacks.

I think my players have seen great benefit from the two-page combat summaries we’ve got laying around.  (Originally downloaded from The Mook, now tattered and torn and badly in need of having a new set printed and laminated.) I think they would get even more benefit, if we boiled those two pages down into the half-dozen moves that they’re most likely to use.


The Dilemma of the Invisible Halfling

My favorite kind of retcons are the ones that rearrange things behind the scenes. If a player wants to move points around on a character sheet after the game has begun, if it’s something that hasn’t yet appeared “on screen”, I allow a free hand. In most games, if somebody wants to spend points to pick up a skill or some such, I’ll accept the rationale of “I’ve had it all along” (or “You never asked“), though in this game, in the interests of simulating the dungeon circa 1984, I’ve been charging training costs.

Likewise, I’ll happily re-arrange the furniture of the room the PCs haven’t seen yet. I’ve often thought it would be possible to run a murder mystery in the tradition of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, by throwing out some inconclusive clues and just accepting that, say, the third good accusation from a PC would uncover the “true” villain. Until a PC opens the box, the cat might be alive or dead, according to the demands of plot and quantum mechanics.

This time around, though, for the Dungeon Fantasy game, I’ve sworn that I’m playing with my cards face-up. In fact, if we can get meta for a moment, that’s the whole reason this blog exists in the first place, and that it’s more than just a monthly play report. The things that I post between games are partly a way of showing off what goes on “behind the camera”. Demonstrating the infrastructure, I guess you might say. Given that, I feel like I shouldn’t let it go unremarked when making such a behind-the-scenes change.

So, to the case at hand:  In the last session, I made a bad call about the way the Invisibility spell works. I remembered the baseline GURPS Magic version, which is not ended by hostile action, and forgot that GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 1: Adventurers, page 20, changes that. At first, I was inclined to stand by the ruling, but since then, I’ve been persuaded that there are unseen dangers ahead on that course. If nothing else, it goes against the grain of the “circa 1984” goal.

The problem is, the PCs have seen (well, kinda…) the halfling attacking people while invisible. The easier thing to do would be to wave it off and say it never happened. If any of the players objected, I could just throw shiny goodies at ’em.  “Forget about the spell, and you can find the bag of coins he had concealed in his loincloth. Did I not mention the drawer full of healing potions?”  Trouble is, sometimes I just can’t bring myself to follow the path of least resistance… so I’ve been worrying at it. Now, I think I’ve found a solution that preserves events as they happened.

Originally, my thinking was that the halfling was invisible thanks to a spell. (Ok, the whole story is a wee bit more complicated than that, but it’ll serve.) Now, I’m thinking it was actually a special power that the halfling has access to.

From the chatter I’m hearing, I’m thinking that the first ten minutes of the next session are going to be some sort of medieval interrogation scene. Answers are going to be had, by gum!  The last question I was asked went something like “If we put a bar of soap in a towel, then soak the towel in a healing potion…” so I’m pretty sure the prisoners are going to talk, in the long run, if not the short.  Therefore, I don’t feel that I’m giving anything away here. It’ll all come up in the upcoming conversation.

What’s going to come out is, the halfling has been living in the dwarven ruins for some time, sneaking around the edges of things and stealing what comfort he could. Some time back, he stumbled on to a room deep within the dungeon and found… something. He’ll be light on the details — have to leave some grey areas for the PCs to ask pointed questions about, after all — but he’ll claim that the point is, it granted him a Wish.

(cue dramatic orchestral sting here: da DA DAAAAH!)

A Wish! The most coveted of all treasures, more valuable than gold and jewels, rarer than dragons!

He used his to enhance his stealth. It gave him the Advantage of Invisibility, not the spell, with a series of enhancements and limitations. This, in turn, helped him escape the depths of the dwarven ruins. Since that day, it has helped him make a life for himself with some amount of comfort. Not so long ago, it allowed him to see what happened to Jim Kadabra in front of the giant stone head…

* * *

Final tally. The Invisibility spell again conforms with DF standards, and no longer threatens to become a “must have” buff. The recorded history of the game needs no tweaking. The power displayed by the NPC is hypothetically available to the PCs, if they want to go questing for the source of that power… and if they want to use a Wish to get that power, rather than some other desire. I get to toss out another compelling reason to go deeper into the dungeon. If they do manage to get to the end of the quest, I’ll get a chance to hand out wishes, which is something I’ve never had an occasion to do.

Now I just need to install that dragon…

Real Life Eats Game, Playfully Mauls GM

Yeah, no play synopsis this month. Sadly, real life came along and rolled right over the regularly-scheduled game. To make a long story short, our usual play venue had a plumbing-related malfunction at a really bad time. The situation is contained and corrected, at this point, but the game had to be cancelled. What with one thing and another, I’ve been too short on time to post… then I had time, but no energy… then I had time and energy, but no opportunity… and, now, finally, we’re back to something like normal life on something resembling a normal schedule.

Some of the gang came to visit and give me a hand when I really needed it. In appreciation, I think I’ll give ’em the choice of a special GM-awarded character point, or a free rumor. Least I can do, really, since everybody’s character missed out on the monthly infusion of experience points.

I’ve requested a “to do” list from the players:  a list of things that the party needs to do, places it needs to go, rumors they want to follow up on, and that sort of thing. By now, they’ve started to get oriented and make plans. If I know what direction they’re heading in, I can make sure there’s something more interesting than a blank map edge waiting for them there. So far, a couple of ideas have come up.

Jed feels like he should follow up on Kadabra’s illusionary plea for rescue from the flame lords, but he’s uncertain. The first illusion called him by name, which makes him think it was for real. On the other hand, the second illusion, the one with the fairy talking up the wealth to be had if one were to take out the flame lords, makes him wonder if something more is going on. Either way, his plan is to use his alchemical skills to brew up a few cold-based potions to use as anti-fire grenades, when they finally do decide to move against the flame lords. It’s an expensive solution, he admits, but after all, there’s only two of them. The total price shouldn’t be prohibitive.

On the other hand, TKotBO wants to explore. He points out that there’s a whole big chunk of map that needs filling in, if one were to go left at the second big stone head, rather than taking the right, as they have been. There’s lots of doors they haven’t opened, yet.

I’m looking forward to hearing what other ideas come up. The players never have the same perception of the world as what I expect. Getting a look at their plans is one of the best ways I know to get inside their heads.



So Why Ain’t They Dead?

I would have figured on the big fight last session against the orcs to be more difficult than it was.  I think a little damage was taken, but nobody had to make any death checks or anything. During my copious spare time I’ve been thinking about how they managed it, as part of my ongoing quest to provide more of a challenge to these guys.

One mistake I made was not being vigilant enough about tracking time and enforcing Fatigue costs. I don’t think anybody got away with anything. Everybody left the dungeon tired but not exhausted, as far as I can tell.  Still, I think it might have influence some decision-making if I had stomped on it a little harder. Watching the number dwindle might have affected morale.

It’s funny:  I used to think of Fatigue as a way to keep a cap on the wizards, but it ain’t necessarily so. My players are starting to seriously explore the benefits of extra effort, so the fighter-types are spending more Fatigue in combat. This means they’re running out of it quicker, just as they’re starting to value each point more.

Another point that intersects with Fatigue management is the appearance of wandering monsters. If you can pick and choose which fights you’re going to get in, why not leave it all on the field, as they say? The answer is, because you might run into something evil, mean, and nasty on the way out. Exhausted people are easy prey. Towards the end, there, I let the party off easy. When they left the dungeon, they hustled back to Dobby and the mounts. That should have increased the chances of a random encounter substantially, but as I recall, I just used the base chance.

On the one hand, the party can go slow and sure, checking for traps, probing the ground in front of them, trying to keep the noise down, and practicing light discipline as best they can. This keeps the chance of encounters low, but it’s slow in the extreme. On the other hand, they can move fast, but then they’re rattling and clanking, holding torches high, maybe even calling directions to each other. A shorter period of time means fewer rolls, but those rolls should come up more often.

That said, we are talking about passing through a well-mapped path on what would be considered “Level One”. Even when they have run into wandering monsters, those monsters haven’t been all that much of a challenge. (I’d like to note, though, that this makes the 4th week in a row that they’ve gone straight from the main entrance to the second stone head, the 3rd week in a row that they’ve gone from the stone head past the goblin kitchen, and the 2nd week in a row that they’ve gone from there to the bridge. One might think they’re starting to get a trifle predictable…)

I just completely forgot about the wolves. :/

Of course, they made a lot of their own luck, too. They took out the leadership and the biggest, baddest fighter before most of the orcs even knew a fight had started. Their lack of planning actually helped them. Since nobody knew beforehand that they were going to pick a fight, nobody had to make any Acting rolls to conceal their motives…


Pregame, 3 May 2014

Going through the pregame prep for today’s session. Starting earlier than usual, in hopes of getting in more gaming hours before the weaker members of the herd start to drop from fatigue. 😉

Word is, we’re going to be down one Needles. Player has family responsibilities. Luckily, it’s no stretch at all for Needles to disappear into the shadows. He does that all the time.

Today, the Delving Band With No Name is going to have it out with the orcs at the Great Bridge. I’m pleased to say, they’ve already been working on a contingency plan, in case they need to retreat.

Breaking Out The Thief Niche

About a year ago, a conversation about the Thief template in Dungeon Fantasy was passed around here, here, and here, probably elsewhere as well. The word seemed to be that the Thief as written was in danger of having its thunder stolen. Its strengths are in mundane skills that others can pick up, as well, or that can be replaced by magic or a Barbarian with good healing support and a thick skin. When I was getting (semi-)organized to start my own game, I did my research, so I had seen these discussions. Accordingly, when one of my players started rolling up Needles, I had him make some of the recommended modifications to the template. Furthermore, I mentioned that he might feel overshadowed in combat as a plain-vanilla Thief, so Needles came out a multi-class Thief-Swashbuckler.

I feel like I give the worst advice when it comes to making characters. That same day, I mentioned that I suspected Bards and Druids wouldn’t fare well in the dungeon. Days later, I finally realized that I had been overlooking the strengths of the Bard in town. Still later, I realized that I had underestimated the potential of diplomacy, when backed by the Bard’s abilities. Now, we’ve got a Bard, and he seems to be doing fine, just fine.

In previous sessions, we’ve seen a bit of a rivalry developing between Needles and Gabby. Not surprising, really, since they both share the Swashbuckler DNA. They’ve each got their own approach, but there’s still a lot of ground shared between them. So, I’ve been fretting, on and off, about niche protection and so forth. Not that anybody’s said anything, or anything; this is all just me picking things over.

Meanwhile, I’m digging in to the new PDFs. One of them is Pyramid #3-50, which includes “Power-Ups For Assassins”. Now, this gets me thinking about Assassins and Ninja, both from DF12: Ninja. I’m not sure my campaign could support either one. The Ninja, maybe, since they’ve got the gadgets and the mystic kung fu stuff going for them.

But the Assassin… I just don’t know if there’s enough distance between “kill things and maybe take their stuff, sneakily” versus “maybe kills things and take their stuff, sneakily”, if you get what I’m saying. I don’t have enough urban intrigue to support them.

So, with all of this in mind, I’m thinking about rolling the role of poisoner in with the Thief’s other duties, and allowing the Thief access to all the Assassin’s suggested power-ups. What with overlap, this pretty much means the new Perks and the ability to move a Weapon Bond to a new weapon. I think the Bane Brewer, Combat Poisoner, Poison Mixer, and Practical Poisoner Perks are all likely to be useful for any backstabber. Poison seems a natural mix with the Thief’s ability to set traps, not to mention the criminal mind in general.

I think that might put a little space between the Thief and the other templates, without overshadowing others or intruding on anybody’s chosen niche.


Busy reading.

If you haven’t heard, they’re having a sale at Warehouse 23. As a direct consequence, I’m now immersed in reading many PDFs. I’ve already found a couple of Pyramid articles that might have an impact on the game. One, at least, certainly will, though I haven’t figured out exactly where and how to slot it in.

Oh, and prep for the next session. The nature of the prep is evolving. I’ve stocked the dungeon for quite some distance beyond what the party has seen, so now I’m starting to go back and refine what’s already there.

That’s the plan, anyway… just as soon as I’m done with my reading…

Monster? Trap? Treasure? Special? Not a man among us can say…

Random stocking rolls tell you if you’re dealing with an empty room, a monster, a trap, or a “special”. For the first three, you may (or may not) also have treasure. What I’ve been noticing is, those designations are most useful when going forward. Once those vague categories get filled in with specifics, it can be hard to tell what the original roll said.

For example, let’s say the party finds a horde of rats, penned up in a closet and struggling to break free, held back only by a door held shut by a propped-up board. Was this a “monster”, in that it’s a room full of “Swarm, Rat”, in their lair?  Or was it a “trap”, in that the party might accidentally knock the board down and unleash a stampede of rats? Or was it a “special”, meant to be a source of dungeon rations, where the local goblins take their harvest by opening the door a bit and letting a few rats run into a sack?

Many things that would be monsters in D&D are best built as traps in DF. Goodness knows, I love the piercer, but it is not a creditable monster. The piercer is a creature like a snail, with a shell that looks like a stalactite. It clings to the ceilings of underground caverns, waiting for something to walk underneath, so it can drop and impale the poor creature. If it misses, it tries to crawl away, slowly, to its original perch, so it can try again some time later… unless, of course, its target was an adventurer. In that case, if it misses its target, it gets speared and likely broiled in its shell as an impromptu lunch. (“Hey, Alric, pass the garlic butter?”) It’s a trap with a chance of resetting itself.

I guess somewhere through the evolution of the editions, they replaced the pitiful ol’ piercer with the more creditable “darkmantle”. Its not so much a snail, as an octopus. If it misses, it jumps up and tries again. On the other hand, it just tries to wrap its tentacles around its target’s head, not run them through. I’ll probably use both, truth be told. You can never have too many things lurking on the ceiling. (Like the lurker! Yet another thing to keep you looking up so you don’t see the pit trap!)

But I digress.

Even in the original rules, a creature might be a trap. A cobra coiled around the golden idol, or a spider nesting inside the chest, are both reasonable alternatives to the ubiquitous poisoned needle. It’s not like you’re going to get into an extended combat with a poisonous snake; it’ll strike, hit or miss, and then it’ll be chopped in two by a single blow.

One of the classic “specials” is the enchanted fountain, that causes different magical effects, for good or ill, when folks drink the water or dip stuff in them. But a poisoned well could be considered a trap, as well.

Even an “empty” result doesn’t mean that the room is actually, really empty. It just means no monster, no trap, no “special”. There’s still room for debris, furniture, and dungeon dressing of all kinds. If nothing else, this gives cover to the “empty with treasure” results, forcing the party to search, taking time, or risk passing by easy money.

Wandering monster rolls aren’t always obvious, either. The other day, one of the players was talking about the importance of choosing a target for the delve and then moving relentlessly towards that goal, without distraction by side quests and shiny objects. I agreed, pointing out that loitering in the halls arguing over which direction to take was an excellent way to draw wandering monsters. He gave me a half-surprised look, and asked if I had been rolling for them. I answered, yes, not only had I been rolling them, but they had encountered them. In fact, that’s where the ogre came from. They raised a ruckus in the main entrance hall, which drew a wandering monster roll, which came up indicating “inhabitant of nearby lair comes to investigate”.

Of course, the whole point of the exercise is that the rolls and the randomness should be transparent. In the end, you want to give the players the illusion of a (possibly literally) living, breathing dungeon.

Every PC Is Expendable, or, Why We Template

My ruling is, every PC needs to stick to the template, mostly. I’m biased towards the original set of “classes” from GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 1, but I’m open to anything from any Dungeon Fantasy supplement or issue of Pyramid. (One exception: I’m not allowing the profusion of specialist clerics from GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 7. Clerics can either be holy or unholy, or they can be “neutral” and actually be a Druid.)

I’m OK with a bit of deviation within the template, like moving discretionary points from one category to another. If, say, you’re making a Barbarian, and you’ve got 28 points in Advantages and want to spend the other 2 in Skills, go right ahead. I’ll also allow things to be swapped in to the template, if we discuss it beforehand; this is how we got a Holy Warrior with One Eye, when that Disadvantage does not appear on the Holy Warrior template. (It’s worthwhile to note that One Eye does appear in the list of suitable Disadvantages in the second chapter of DF1.)

If you want to buy things from the lists from Power-Ups and The Next Level, that’s fine, too. Each character has access to the list for their template. Anyone who takes a “multi-class” lens can choose from the items available to either “class”, once they’ve paid for the entire lens.  If the character is a Knight with 10 points invested in becoming a Knight-Bard, that character can choose anything from the Knight lists, or the remaining items from the Knight-Bard lens. Once the lens is paid off, that character can advance as either a Knight or a Bard, and take items from the list of either class.

Perks and Quirks are such a personalized thing, I’ll allow a lot of latitude there. Just follow all the usual rules about the limits on Perks based on points invested in combat abilities and so forth.  (To be honest, I usually apply those rules by guesstimation. If you’ve got three or fewer, I’m likely to call it good. If you’ve got six, I’ll start adding up totals.)

Compared to the usual “anything goes” style of characters in previous games, this is restrictive. Here, I aim to explain why.

First, the minor point:  “Why no specialist clerics?”

Because I’m aiming for a feeling that’s half the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon and half 1st edition AD&D. As I recall, we didn’t get specialists until 2nd edition. (Am I wrong on that? It’s been so long…)

Because, in my experience, when you start splitting religion too fine in a setting, you end up with religious wars between factions. I want to keep the focus on the good-versus-evil conflict, there, not the political maneuverings of the Church of Thor to undermine the support for the Temple of Athena.

Because, there aren’t seven different kinds of Knight and twelve different flavors of Bard, so why put that much emphasis on just the Cleric? When it comes to fluff and background, the characters can claim whatever god or gods they want, with whatever traditions. There are many orders within The Church. But, at the end of the day, it’s the Good Church against the Demon Worshipers, and the mechanics support that.

Now, the main point:  “Why lean so hard on the templates?  If I want to play a dwarf with Dwarfism who traveled back in time with TL 6 equipment riding a genetically-engineered psionic dinosaur, what’s to stop me?  GURPS can handle it! Freedom!”  (You’ve got to read that last bit the way they did it in Braveheart, donchaknow.)

Well, sure, GURPS can handle it, but I don’t know if I can. Here’s why.

First, the templates are really well-made. I mean, seriously, kudos to Dr Kromm (Sean Punch) and everybody who worked on them. You can tell some deep thought went into them. When it comes to poking around in the dungeon – the problem space we’re talking about – they’re really well-optimized. Everybody has a niche, and it’s easy to avoid stealing each other’s thunder. Personally, I have my doubts that my players and I could do better. I figure, if we start tinkering, we’re likely to break something, and if we go out on our own, template-less, we’ll end up overlooking something important. Maybe the character will be missing some vital component (like boots!) or maybe it will overlap with somebody else’s job, but it’ll end up inferior. (Yeah, I’m a pessimist.)

Second, if everybody is following the templates pretty closely, I don’t have to closely examine every character sheet. I’m going to reminisce a bit about the Supers 1200 game, since we’re done with the retelling. Back when we were making those characters, I had to double-check, over and over, to make sure they wouldn’t just explode into red mist in the first combat. Even though the game was consciously anything-goes, I also had to make sure that nobody was trying to slip through anything too outrageous. As I recall, we had to go through several iterations as I built up the checklist. I don’t want to spend that much time and effort on a character for a dungeon delve. Supers live forever.  Life is cheap in the dungeon.

It’s not just that I’m lazy, either. (Though, I won’t fight against the accusation…)  It’s a matter of priorities.  I’ve only got so much time in the day, being mortal and lacking time travel technology. I’ve got to split my time and energy a lot of different ways. I’ve got something that resembles a real life: work, kids, a significant other who deserves attention, a mortgage to pay, exercise to be taken…  I want to extract the maximum bang for my gaming buck, here. That’s among the main reasons why we shifted from story-driven games to the dungeon delve: because it offered a greater return on investment.

I’ve got a choice. I can spend an hour on stocking the dungeon, extending the maps, coming up with better set-piece battles, writing up monsters than I can re-use, filling chests with interesting treasure, generating clues and maps and traps and tricks… and that time goes towards more fun for the entire group.

Or, I can spend an hour on Bob’s unique, special snowflake of a character, who will be a perfect expression of Bob’s artistic aspirations… and who will, within the first 15 minutes of play, likely as not, grab a doorknob, fail a HT roll, die of poison, and be looted by the other PCs.

(cue sad trombone music)

And the trouble doesn’t end there, because now, Bob is sitting there without a character. (Unless we spent a lot of time writing up a lot of special, unique characters who might never actually see the light of play.) Now, I can either tell Bob that his gaming day is over, or I can tell all the other players to take a break while Bob and I work out a replacement character.

I would much rather stick to the templates, and use my time for the benefit of the entire group. Then, when Bob’s not-quite-perfect-but-close-enough-for-our-purposes character dies, Bob can go off alone and bust out a character in minutes. By the time the party has looted the dead guy, the new guy can be ready to be dropped in. Play continues for all. PC death is a speed-bump, not a show-stopper.

Templates also help to organize intent. I remember several times, introducing GURPS to folks for the first time, back in the day, when they would ask “What kind of character can I make?” and I would answer, “Anything! Anything at all!”  The deer-the-headlights looks were terrible… So, over time, I’ve developed my “Just say no – to everything!” philosophy. If you can do anything, you’ll be overwhelmed by choices, but if the options are cut down to just a few, you can move forward.

If everybody’s working off the same short list of templates, the PCs will become distinctive in their personalities and their roleplay, rather than their stats. For example, when setting up for the Space Cowboys game, I had a list of things I gave a hearty “NO!” to, before character creation even began: no aliens, no super-science, no magic, no cinematic skills… and we ended up with a group of characters with personalities, instead.

Seriously, though, I don’t think it’s all that restrictive. Remember, I’m trying to re-create the games I played in junior high. That means 1st edition AD&D. Back then, you got to roll some dice, arrange the scores if the Dungeon Master was feeling magnanimous, pick one from the “race” column and one from the “class” column. That was it, unless you made a spell caster and needed to pick spells, and even that wasn’t much in the way of customization; I seem to recall a lot of random rolls being involved in the spell-choosing process. (“Chance to know”, right?) Compared to that, or the amount of options available when making a character for Diablo or Final Fantasy or World of Warcraft, I’d say the DF templates give a fair amount of room for customization. I know I’m not worried about having two Swashbucklers in the party, since there’s plenty of room for them to distinguish themselves.

In the end, the templates are all in service to the driving goals of the DF game:  Streamlined. Efficient. With laser-like focus on the action, in the dungeon.

Everything that doesn’t serve that goal gets pitched overboard.


How I Stock My Dungeon

I recently found myself rolling for a couple hundred rooms, so I thought it might be worthwhile to note my dungeon stocking strategy. The long and the short of it is, I use the suggestions from the  D&D Rules Cyclopedia: 1/3 empty, 1/3 monsters, 1/6 traps, and 1/6 vaguely-defined “special”. I’m no expert on the history of the hobby, but I gather those are the Moldvay rules.  Here’s how I apply those rules.

First, I’ll get the map together. The first bit of the dungeon, including the part that the party has explored thus far, I mapped by hand, on five-to-the-inch blue-lined graph paper, in a fit of middle-school nostalgia. When the mapping techniques of the 1980’s encountered the digital technology of the 2010’s, when I scanned those hand-drawn originals, I concluded that the old ways were overrated. Since then, I’ve drawn my maps directly on the computer. I use The Gimp for the maps, making heavy use of layers. As I gain experience mapping this way, I’m accumulating brushes and macros and such to improve the process.

For the most part, there’s not much difference between my Gimp-made maps and my hand drawn, once I’ve straightened out the crooked lines. One thing I haven’t done enough of, as yet, is including extra information directly on the map, like icons for monster lairs or treasure caches.

Once I’ve got the general outline drawn, I import it into SketchUp and do a rough, dirty 3D view, just to make sure the place still fits together. A couple of times, now, this extra step has saved me from having hallways come out unexpectedly halfway up walls on other levels. There’s a lot that I could take advantage of, during this step, that I don’t, simply due to time constraints. (Yes, yes, and my built-in laziness. Entirely admitted. Now, go ‘way, kid, ya bother me.) I’ve tried more than once to set up areas with complex vertical aspects, like balconies overlooking balconies overlooking galleries, usually inspired by one of the subterranean settings in the Lord of the Rings movies, using SketchUp to produce the original and then extracting the flat map from that, with limited success. The problem I’ve run into is communicating the structure to the players well enough that the complex map becomes a feature, rather than a hindrance.

I’ve fiddled with this sort of three-dimensional mapping before.  Long ago, I mapped out a partially-constructed skyscraper for a three-way battle using the HERO System rules, using a big vinyl mat and floor-by-floor maps. That fight is still talked about today. Half the combatants could fly, the rules encouraged comics-style knockback, and the groups approached from several directions, so the fight sprawled over the entire map by the time it was done. I think the key factor to this success was the relatively-simple environment: being only partially-constructed, the building was a framework with floors. More a series of stacked boxes than anything else.

Later, for the Space Cowboy game, I used SketchUp to build a model for the PC’s spaceship. Since the campaign setting had no gravity-manipulating technology, the ship had to spin for artificial gravity. I couldn’t find any pictures that I could use for a cargo-hauling slower-than-light interplanetary spacecraft, so I set out to make my own. By the time it was done, I had mapped the entire ship. I used the model to render a books’ worth of views, so the players could see what the characters were looking at. This whole process was consciously aping the way the TV show “Firefly” was filmed, in an effort to make the Cabra as much a part of the party as Serenity was a part of that show’s cast.

It worked really well, largely because the characters spent a lot of time on the Cabra. First, when I put the thing together, I had to get the relationships of the rooms straight in my own head, which helped me immensely when it came time to adjudicate movement around the ship. It also gave me a weird case of vertigo, for a while, where I would look at a room and envision it rolling ninety degrees to one side. That sense of location came in handy in many unexpected ways. Once, someone set up an ambush by taking advantage of the weird blind spots and angles made possible by the ship’s layout. Lots of “day in the life” role-play grew out of the description of what happens inside the chicken coop when the ship goes from “under thrust” to “zero gravity” to “spin gravity”, where “down” moves from the floor to a wall. (Osolo liked to watch the new chicks, the first time they experienced it.)

I’m sure that level of detail would be wasted, in the dungeon. A balcony, sure. Ledges in a cave, great. A giant doughnut spinning so that you stand with your head pointing towards the doughnut hole and your feet aiming away from the center, such that if you start running in on direction, it feels uphill the whole way, yet you still return to where you started? Nah, that sounds like overkill.

(Digression, much?)

So, one way or another, I’ve got a map. While drawing it up, I’ll be thinking about how to use it. I might think, “Hey, it would be cool to use a cave fisher”, and so I would include some caves and some places for a cave fisher to lurk. Or I might look at the map as I’m drawing it, and think “This looks like a good spot for an ambush” or “If I lived over here, I would want a lookout over there”. I don’t usually get to much detail, yet. Moldvay recommends filling in those set pieces now, but I just make a couple of notes, often with lots of question marks.

Then, I roll. I use a dice-roller app, so all I have to do is poke a button and interpret the result. I keep a shorthand tally, just a couple of characters, on my map key. As others have noted, once you’ve rolled a few dozen rooms, you memorize the table and things really speed up. This gives me a long list of “empty”, “trap”, “monster”, and “special”, with or without “treasure”.

The next challenge is to figure out the specifics. I can work on fleshing out a specific area within the dungeon, based on the rolls. If the random results conflict with my ideas from the mapping stage, I’ll often move the results around, rather than simply overrule them. For instance, if the dice say “empty, with treasure” where I thought to put a guard-post, I’ll find some nearby area where the dice call for a monster, and I’ll swap the two random results. My thinking is that this will keep the distribution of results close to the random results.

On very rare occasion, I’ll skip the random roll entirely. I can think of one good-sized area where I knew what I wanted. In that case, the number of monsters is closer to 1/1 than 1/3…

My original plan was to use the random monster tables from the Cyclopedia, but replace the originals with their Dungeon Fantasy equivalents. A goblin is a goblin, a dragon is a dragon, and a blink dog is an enigma.* In the end, though, that started to look like a job of work, without satisfying results. It would be too easy for the dice to have the lion lie down with the lamb. Any random-roll system with enough complexity and nuance to give the orc overlords a bunch of goblin slaves to push around would also be a pain to use, especially over several hundred rooms.

So, I fake it and just write down whatever seems sensible. By this point, I’ve got a pretty good idea of whose turf I’m working on, what sort of creatures I want to use, and how they’re likely to see the area. I’ll use the random rolls to lay down the final details. For example, let’s say the dice indicate that there are monsters with treasure in this room, and this room’s only access to the outside world is through a room where the dice placed monsters without treasure. Perhaps this displays a master/slave relationship between the two groups? The area I’m working on is dominated by kobolds; perhaps these two rooms are a group of kobolds and their giant rat watchdogs. Or maybe it’s the biggest, baddest kobold with the tribe’s treasury with his kobolds-at-arms sleeping out front.

There’s enough detail given by the dice to act as a springboard, while leaving enough wriggle-room to keep things more-or-less logical. A trap can be a booby trap left by other adventurers, a tomb protection measure left over by the original builders, or a pair of magical boots with a scorpion hiding inside, ready to sting the unwary. A monster might be the Lich King of the whole level, a nest of giant spiders, a tribe of hostile humanoids, a rust monster, or a lost party of adventurers. If I want to give them impression of limitless, abandoned, dust-covered rooms, I emphasize the vermin, clouds of bad air, and opportunities for cave-ins. If I want to depict a bustling city of shadow elves, I have a lot more strongboxes with poisoned needles, guards on duty, and evil wizards conferring with demons. The underlying dice rolls remain the same.

The “empty” and “special” results can be tricky. If pressed, I would say that my interpretation is that a “special” is anything that isn’t a monster, trap, or treasure, while still being persistent — it can’t be carried off or cleaned up. It might even be a source of monsters, like a portal that lets in demons, or treasure, like a vein of ore. (Or traps, I suppose, though I can’t think of a ready example.) The big stone heads that the group keeps finding are specials. On the other end, just because the dice say the room is empty, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any contents; it’s just empty of monsters, traps, or treasure. I’ll throw around dungeon dressing as appropriate in otherwise-empty rooms. The room with the broken-down dresser, where the party spent some time scratching their heads and casting See Secrets, was an “empty”.

But it could have just as easily been an “empty with treasure”, with a fearsome Search penalty. Or maybe it was a “monster, no treasure”, and the party has ever since been trailed by an invisible stalker. Gotta keep ’em guessing.

* I’ve wondered for decades what those blink dogs are doing on the 2nd level of the dungeon. I just cannot wrap my head around a group of a Lawful, teleporting dogs that hang out underground. It’s a failing, I know.

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