Sunday, September 23, 2012

Open air dungeons

My wife is not fond of adventures based in caves or underground labyrinths.  "Not another cave.  Can we do something that's not in a cave?"  While I love a good dungeon crawl, I feel her pain.  The traditional dark, subterranean dungeon does get old after a while.

There are, however, very good reasons why the dungeon crawl is such a popular form of adventure.  The rooms-and-corridors format of the typical dungeon keeps the choices of what to do next to a manageable level, and the fairly small scale - both spatially and temporally - allows for attention to detail.  It takes only a few moments to describe the salient features of a room without leaving out anything important, so there's a sense of carefully exploring rather than glossing over large tracts of territory.  What happens to them and what they find depends on their choices much more than on randomness.  In the standard overland hex crawl, you can't possibly detail everything in every hex.  Thus, either encounters are purely random, or else there's some keyed encounter somewhere in that vast hex, and the party experiences it simply by entering or passing through the hex, which smacks of DM fiat a lot more than it does of player agency.  I know it's possible to have agency in a hex crawl, but it's always been a much trickier thing to me than allowing for agency in a dungeon crawl.

So, I'm planning something a little different, with a little more freedom of movement than an ordinary dungeon and the flavor of an outdoor adventure without the massive scale of a hex crawl: an outdoor "dungeon," if you will.  I know this isn't new or original.  It's been done before, but I don't know that it's ever really been looked at as its own thing.

Just as a traditional dungeon can take many forms - a cave, a ruined keep, a tomb, an abandoned mine, a tower - there are many possibilities for an outdoor dungeon too.  The "dungeon" could be wooded valley with dense stands of trees and brush as "walls," game trails for "corridors" and clearings for "rooms."  It could be a hedge maze, or a network of ravines and gullies.  It could be a vast, sprawling garden, with well-tended paths and man-made brick or stone walls.  It could be an abandoned town, with streets and alleys for corridors.

A major difference between the outdoor and the traditional dungeon is that explorers of the outdoor dungeon are much less bound to follow the designated floor plan.  Climbing, flying, or levitating over the walls, and in some cases struggling or cutting a way through them, are possible.  That's a feature, by the way, not a bug.  That doesn't mean that such actions should be permitted without any cost or inconvenience, only that they shouldn't be outright barred.

It's entirely reasonable to say that a character hacking his way through the underbrush instead of sticking to the path is slowed to 1/3 normal movement and has double the normal chance of attracting wandering monsters. It's still an option that's open to him, one that he doesn't have at all in the traditional dungeon, and he can choose for himself whether or not the price is worth it.  The air space over a hedge maze surrounding a wizard's tower might be patrolled by gargoyles or other flying monsters, and the party must weigh the convenience of flying over the maze against the hazard.  A character levitating or climbing for a bird's-eye view of what lies ahead might reveal herself to monsters nearby, or even make herself a target for missile or flying attacks.  Some parts of the "dungeon" might be obscured by forest foliage, mist, or other obstructions.

The outdoor dungeon might be a level of a larger dungeon which also includes traditional dungeon levels.  A wooded valley (level 1) might lead to a cave (level 2-4) which in turn leads to the sprawling ruins of an open-air temple on a plateau above (level 5.)

In fact, I have such a hybrid dungeon in mind, which I hope to be drawing up and stocking over the next few weeks.  (Well, knowing how I operate, it may take longer than that, but if it turns out really well, I might just slap it in a PDF and put it up for download.)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Play report: Of fungus and slime

After a few adventures rooting out some of the lesser beasties in the Caves of Chaos, the party picked up a couple of new leads at the Keep.  The talk of the tavern was the new cave that had been discovered, reputed to be the lost hideout of a couple of famous adventurers of three decades past (B1, In Search of the Unknown, which I've placed in the location of the Cave of the Unknown on the B2 map.)  They opted instead to pursue a reward offered for locating a missing man, a brother of the mayor of the last village at the civilized edge of the Borderlands.  The man was reported to be seeking a magical portal to the faerie realms in another nearby cave, an endeavor the locals clearly thought was lunacy, but one of the serving wenches testified that he had shown her his map before he departed, and she was able to point out the location on the party's map.

Thus informed, the party set off to the east, reached the general area of the missing man's last presumed location, and opted to stick together to search for the cave rather than split up.  They discovered a sinkhole which was the cave mouth, dealt with the mountain lion that laired just inside with a barrage of sling stones, and the exploration was on.  A random encounter with goblins led to a brief accord, but when one of the party's fighters fell victim to a pit trap as they moved to depart peacefully, the goblins broke into raucous laughter, an insult that was not to be borne.  The party angrily tore into them, making quick work of the foolish monsters.

From there, my older niece, in the role of Alex the thief, boldly decided to scout ahead down a side passage that ended in a dead end chamber.  Enticed by the glint of gold on the far side, her caution nonetheless prevailed, and she paused just before stepping into the room to examine the area ahead.  This revealed droplets of glistening green goo on the floor.  "I look up," she replied, and thus spotted the green slime lurking on the ceiling.  Despite having no knowledge at all of green slime, she shrewdly elected to throw her torch at it (my wife's magic-user was carrying a lantern, so there was no danger of a total blackout.)  Slime was dispatched soon thereafter.

A short while later, after a quick battle with a couple giant toads in a large, partially flooded cavern, my sister-in-law's fighter, Camilla the warrior maiden, discovered a passage behind an anomalous boulder leaning against the cavern wall.  (I'm so over rolling for secret doors!  It's much more fun to give the description and let the players deduce that there might be more than meets the eye.  They didn't examine the stalagmites on the other side of the room, and so failed to find the other "secret door" in the form of a hollow rock formation that led to a chamber directly below.)  The passage behind the boulder led down a gentle incline to another cavern, and the party was horrified and alarmed when their torchlight fell upon the walls, revealing them to be lined with dozens of witch's spy fungi, strongly resembling human eyes.  Nobody wanted anything to do with the eyes, except for my younger niece, whose character Jessica the druidess gleefully rushed up and stuck one of them with her dagger, and so discovered that they were not really eyeballs after all.  The rest of the party was much relieved when her rash action failed to bring infernal wrath down upon their heads.

Another fungal encounter, this time with ratbane fungus, was more annoying than frightening, with Camilla falling face first in a patch of the sticky stuff.  Her fall alerted a pair of troglodytes in the next chamber, who slipped into a murky pool and hid until the party passed, and shadowed them for the rest of the adventure.  Badly outnumbered and finding no advantageous opportunity for attack, the trogs wisely decided to leave the party alone for the time being, and so the PCs are still unaware of their existence in the cave.

From there, the party quite inadvertently and unwittingly circumvented a series of tripwire/dart traps, and discovered a long passage leading to a room with a very large puddle of green slime on the floor.  They knew exactly how to deal with it, and Brenna the magic-user made good use of her flame cantrip to quickly light torches for the rest of the party.  After absorbing the party's fire damage for a few rounds, the slime finally scored a hit against the party's cleric, Fergus McTaggert, normally played by my brother but tonight under the control of a young friend of my nieces who happened to be visiting.  Her inspired portrayal of the poor cleric as the slime dissolved his armor was the highlight of the evening.  "Help!  Oh, help me!  Get it off!"  While the rest of the PCs stood around gobsmacked by this disturbing development, one of their hired mercenaries made his Intelligence check, seized the cleric's torch, and burned away the slime's last hit point, saving his employer's life, though not his armor.  I really hope my brother will play up this new-found and highly entertaining phobia of slime and ooze when he steps back into the role.

A quick examination of the detritus remaining after the battle turned up an unscathed ring amid the goo, which matched the description of a ring the missing man had worn.  Realizing his fate, the party returned to the Keep with the ring, where they were informed that it was magical, and they could either keep it as part of their reward or the mayor would purchase it from them for 100 gold.  A read magic spell from Brenna deciphered the inscription on the inside of the band, and so she learned that it was a ring of water walking, which they opted to keep.

Overall, a very good outing for the party, as they came through mostly unscathed thanks to some caution, the exploding damage dice playing strongly in their favor, and some very fortunate guesses about which passages to take.  They also missed several hidden surprises, due entirely to their choices rather than dice rolls, and there's still a lot more cave left to explore should they decide to return.  Yes, this player agency business is pure gold.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


As I've already noted a few times, I'm pretty well soured on the idea of skill systems in D&D.  I won't recapitulate my case against skills here; if you want to see that, go here.

But there are still a couple of cases where I would like characters to be able to do certain things, which don't directly pertain to fighting, magic use, stealth and guile, or religion.  Things that are frequently useful in an adventuring career, that aren't so universal or easily learned as to work well as things that everybody knows, and that can't be modeled at the table through role playing or player/DM dialogue.

The first one that comes to mind, that inspired this post in the first place, is tracking.  Any fool can look at tracks in the mud, but reading subtle signs to determine whether something passed through, what it was, how recently, its physical condition, its speed, etc. requires some uncommon expertise.  Some editions add an entire character class (the ranger) to provide for tracking, but the class comes with an additional suite of abilities and restrictions.

Healing/herbalism is another.  Probably almost everybody in a medieval setting knows at least a little about how to bind a wound, but to do it well, and to treat diseases, poisons, and severe injuries requires more specialized knowledge and experience.  Again, D&D foists almost the entire responsibility for this important role onto a single class, the cleric.

I don't see any good reason why tracking should be limited to a particular fighter sub-class, nor why healing should be the sole province of the religious.  I also don't like the idea of giving those abilities to everybody.

A possible fix:  Meta-classes that bolt on to any standard class, adding the relevant abilities and a premium to XP progression - say, 500 XP added to the base XP required for level advancement.  Taking a meta-class might require the player to justify his or her character concept to the DM, but otherwise they could be combined with any of the standard adventuring classes.  Fighters who are battlefield medics and witch-hunting clerics who are expert trackers are possible this way.

This way, a character actually has to pay a price to obtain those abilities.  There's a genuine trade-off, and it's an ongoing one, instead of a one-off cost for a permanent benefit.  A thief who chooses to be a tracker too is going to be less effective as a thief than a "pure" thief with the same XP total.

Since the cost is ongoing, and since I'm putting these abilities in the context of class advancement, they should scale with level, starting out very limited and increasing in usefulness and reliability.  That means some objective mechanic for resolving those abilities.  I'm thinking of a 2d6 roll, similar to a cleric's turn undead ability.  How exactly that might be structured is a little beyond the scope of these musings, but I'll be giving it some thought to see if I can cobble together a workable system.  (If anybody else wants to tackle it, feel free to beat me to the punch.)

I suppose in theory you could have characters who were ONLY trackers or healers, but meta-classes don't provide for advancements in hit dice, attack rolls, saving throws, etc., so in all respects but the special ability of the meta-class that character would be a 0-level normal man or woman.  Come to think of it, that might actually be desirable in NPCs.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Save vs. ginormous attack!

I've been thinking lately about the fundamental differences between types of attacks.  Specifically about the differences between attacks by opponents of similar size, and those by massively larger ones.  Armor certainly protects against the former, but how much does plate armor really matter when a frost giant swings a giant-sized axe at you, or when a chunk of catapult shot the size of a small keg comes hurtling your way?  In other words, is a standard attack roll against the target's AC really the right way to resolve such an attack?

I'm thinking that a saving throw might model the situation better in those cases.  Attacks of such awesome magnitude are going to smash through armor like it was tinfoil; the target's only hope is getting the hell out of the way before it crunches him.  That feels like the province of saving throws to me.

Many really big attacks are actually more like area attacks than standard melee maneuvers.  A giant doesn't just swing at one man-size target, he sweeps with his weapon, battering aside multiple foes.  All you PCs standing in a line in front of him?  Save vs. breath weapon!  Nope, I don't care how much metal you've wrapped yourself in.  Miss your save, and you take the damage listed for the monster's attack.

I'm leaning toward a save vs. breath weapon because it's similar in that it's a save against something hurtling rapidly at you, and because it's a fairly difficult save, with fighters being best at it (out of the human classes, at least.)  Cover might provide a bonus to the saving throw, just as it penalizes the attack rolls for missile fire.  Dexterity bonuses or penalties might also be applied.

Some other attacks that might be in the "save vs." category rather than roll-against-AC are hurled boulders, huge bite attacks like dragons and purple worms, and the trampling attacks of large creatures like elephants and rhinos.  Not every attack from a huge creature fits this model; things like dragon claws or the stings of wyverns and purple worms are more precisely targeted, and should probably be made in the standard fashion.

From a game mechanics standpoint, some of the effects are:

Making armor irrelevant in these cases, and thus making other factors such as mobility relatively more important.
Making the outcome of an attack hinge on the skill of the target character rather than the Hit Dice of the attacker.
Allowing certain large or huge attacks to strike multiple targets under certain circumstances, making tactical movement and placement important.

I haven't crunched the numbers yet, so I don't know how great the impact would really be, but it has a decidedly different feel to me.  Is this a good idea, a bad idea, or simply a pointless change merely for the sake of changing something?  If you have any thoughts, feel free to weigh in.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Re-thinking movement rates

It's been remarked often that the movement rates in D&D are ridiculously slow in real world terms.  I had never quite grokked just how slow, though, until a comment from Charles Taylor of Spells and Steel on my post about lightly armored adventurers spelled it out in clear, real world units of measure.

A movement rate of 120' per turn equals an unbelievably sluggish 0.136 miles per hour!  (About 0.219 kph, for my metric readers.)  The official rationale for this is that the party is moving cautiously, in poor lighting, while mapping and keeping an eye out for traps and hazards.  Now, it's perfectly reasonable to expect that a party exploring dark and dangerous places might move a bit more slowly than the average human walking speed of 3 mph (4.8 kph), but a mere 1/20th of that?  It seems clear to me that Gygax and Co. did not start out by asking themselves, "What's a realistic speed for people carefully exploring a cave?"  Instead, they seemed to be interested first and foremost in a movement rate that did not allow a party to zip through a moderately sized labyrinth in under half an hour, and concocted the cautious movement rationale as a post hoc justification.

Realistically, a movement rate of 1 to 1.5 mph (1.6 to 2.4 kph) should amply account for caution and poor lighting.  That translates to 880 to 1320 feet per turn.  Charles Taylor's suggestion of 1200' per turn falls within this range, and has the additional benefit of modifying the original movement rate by a tidy factor of 10.  That's about 1.36 mph, for those keeping track of all the numbers.

This has a pretty major implication as far as movement in the dungeon:  You really don't need to track time spent moving.  Yes, that's right:  No more counting off squares on a map as the party wends its way down dark corridors to see how far they get in a turn.  Advancing 60 feet down a hallway takes all of 30 seconds - not even worth the effort of bookkeeping.  Instead, moves will end at natural stopping points (typically keyed locations or other points of interest on the map), regardless of distance.  Time is tracked not for the movement between points of interest but for the actions taken at those points.  The  heightened caution aspect of timekeeping comes into play when the party chooses to stop and search an area for hazards or listen for signs of trouble farther on, not during normal movement.  Carefully searching a room for traps and treasure takes time, as per the rules as written.  Fighting, loading treasure into packs, and other activities are assumed to take about one turn.  Tallying up all those items should serve perfectly well to make sure a dungeon expedition doesn't turn into a mad dash from one end of the dungeon to the next in five minutes flat, without the need for a ridiculously slow standard movement rate.

Encounter speed is also slow, though not nearly in such absurd proportions.  A 40' per round encounter movement rate equates to a bit over 2.7 mph (4.3 kph), which is slightly slower than average walking speed. Why don't you and the goblins take a nice leisurely stroll toward one another before you try to beat the crap out of each other?

If we assume a 6-second combat round instead of 10 seconds, though, that bumps our speed up to a healthy  4.5 mph (7.2 kph) - a brisk trot.  A running speed of triple that is 120' per round, or about 13.6 mph, which is a pretty good sprint for the average human, and really a pretty desperate and reckless thing to do in the dark twisting corridors of a dungeon.

Outdoor movement, according to the rules, is calculated in yards rather than feet.  A movement rate per turn of 1200 yards works out to just over 4 mph.  Not bad.  (Not that there are a lot of situations that call for a per-turn movement rate outdoors, but hey, it's nice that the math works out.)  An outdoor encounter speed of 40 yards per 6-second combat round equals about 13.6 mph.  That's about how fast the average person sprints in a 100-yard dash.  Good for running speed, but way too fast for a standard encounter rate.  Half that would be a brisk jog, which sounds about right.

Large scale, overland movement doesn't need much adjusting.  Just divide the base movement rate by 50 instead of 5 as in the normal rules.

So, to recap:

Dungeon exploration rate would be 1200' per turn, standard encounter speed 40' per round, and up to 120' per round sprinting.

Outdoor exploration rate would be 1200 yards per turn, standard encounter speed 20 yards per round, and up to 40 yards per round running.

Overland movement rates would be equivalent to the base movement divided by 50; e.g. 24 miles per day for a base movement of 1200 per turn.

A few thoughts on encumbrance

The standard rules have all movement rates scaled by encumbrance; e.g. if you're lightly encumbered, all of your movement rates are reduced by 25%.  Exploration speed in the dungeon drops from 120' to 90' per turn, wilderness exploration speed drops from 120 yards to 90 yards per turn, etc.

When you think about it, this is more than a little absurd.  If moving along at 1.3 mph instead of 3 mph is cautious, then it's cautious.  You don't need to slow down even more just because you're wearing plate and carrying a sack of loot.

My tentative impression is that encumbrance should set a cap on a character's absolute maximum movement rate, not take proportional bites out of every situational movement rate.  A character carrying a light load might be able to run at only 3/4 speed, or 90' per round, but should be capable of any lesser speed, including normal exploration and encounter speeds.

It also seems logical to apply some kind of fatigue effect, though, which would accrue more quickly the more weight a character carries, and require rest to recover.  A character in plate and carrying five weeks of rations and 1,000 gold pieces should tire more quickly than one with just the clothes on his back.  I'm not sure how that would best be accomplished mechanically without bogging down the flow of the game, but it's worth pondering...

Lines in the water

I'm a little late getting back to it, but...continuing the musings on consequences in the sandbox...

Enough about the theoretical reasons why consequences are important.  On to the practical aspects.  How do I juggle multiple campaign world plot threads and determine and apply consequences?  It seems to me that consequences for player action are a lot more straightforward than consequences of player inaction, so I'm going to focus on the latter here.

The first thing I like to do is to make a running list of the open adventure hooks I've presented to the players. How many should be active at a time?  It's entirely subjective, but the optimal number of these, to me, is 3-4.  I don't have any particularly scientific reasoning to support this; it just seems like enough to give the players some options without having to keep track of too much going on off-screen.  Yes, there's a near-infinite number of potential adventure hooks in any given sandbox campaign setting.  Only a few need to be "in the spotlight" at any given moment, though, and anything that you haven't drawn attention to or otherwise made known or necessary in the setting need not be tracked.  Until it, or some effect of it, has been observed by the players, it effectively does not exist.

Probably the first hooks, the ones that start the campaign, will be dangled by the referee, but once the players get into the flow, they'll likely start pursuing their own goals and trying to unearth some of the "hidden" opportunities that better suit their own goals and tastes.  Choosing which of the innumerable "quantum" hooks to shine the spotlight on becomes a collaborative endeavor between referee and players.  Players reveal, through their actions and interactions with the places and creatures and NPCs of the setting, what they want to look for - legendary ruins to explore, injustices to set right, good deeds to do for the common folk, current political intrigues, quests for crown and church, or whatever - and the DM determines what's there for them to see.

Between sessions is the time to give some thought to how each of your open hooks is changing and developing.  Depending on the nature of a particular hook, the situation may be very slow to change, or it may be constantly evolving.  Either way, it doesn't have to be a huge struggle or eat up large amounts of your precious prep time to keep things moving forward.

Figuring out what happens to open hooks and plot threads is much more of an open-ended storytelling function than one of game mechanics, but if you'd rather not rely on pure DM fiat, there's a pretty simple way to inject a little randomness.  Look at each hook, and decide how rapidly the situation is likely to change and evolve.  For something like an old legend of a magical sword hidden deep in a labyrinth of ruins, the situation may be pretty stable, and the status quo may last years or decades.  After all, it already has.  On the other hand, if the bandits who have long been a petty nuisance get a new and ruthless leader driving them to audacious new levels of crime, things might develop very quickly.

Decide where on the scale each hook lies, and choose a die - a larger one like a d20 or d100 for glacially slow ones, and a small one like a d6 or d4 for those touch-and-go scenarios.  On a roll of 1, the situation changes dramatically for the worse.  A roll of 2 means a change for the worse, but not extreme or severe.  Rolling the maximum possible result on the die signifies a dramatic improvement, perhaps even a resolution, while a roll of 1 less than maximum is a lesser improvement.  Any result in between means that the status quo holds for another period.  You might also make notes about the scenario's momentum, and add a +1 to the roll if things have changed for the better for two consecutive intervals (or a single dramatic improvement,) or -1 if they've gone downhill twice in a row (or a single dramatic deterioration.)

(I should point out that a d4 used in this fashion allows only for positive or negative change, no stable holding pattern possible, which might be appropriate to especially volatile situations.)

For example, let's take the legendary lost sword.  It's been lost for generations, and everybody the PCs ask knows the story, so the status quo has held for as long as anyone can remember.  It's not likely to change, but it still could.  Using a d100 roll, a 100 might mean that a virtuous knight has succeeded in recovering the sword.  A 99 might mean that some new information about the sword's whereabouts has surfaced.  On a 2, a villain takes up the search.  On a 1, he finds it.  Anything else, and the sword remains lost and shrouded in mystery.

The bandit scenario is much more dynamic, so we'll use a d8.  On a 1, the bandits might kidnap an entire caravan, including the wife and son of a local lord, whom they hold for ransom.  On a 2, the gang attracts new members, and its numbers swell.  A 7 might mean that local village militias enjoy some success, a setback for the gang's reign of terror.  With an 8, a high-ranking member of the gang who knows of the leader's long-term plans could be captured. On a 3-6, the bandits continue their depredations, with no appreciable change in the balance of power.

Note that it isn't necessary to determine a list of specific results before rolling the die.  The dice are simply a tool to suggest a direction, not to choose an outcome.  I'd also suggest only rolling when there's some uncertainty to how events will or should progress.  If there's a logical sequence that just makes sense, why muddy the waters with dice?

Most of the time, just writing down a sentence or two about how the scenario develops is sufficient.  If there's a development that you're fairly confident your players will jump on as soon as they hear of it, abandoning their stated plans from the end of last session, write it up a little more.  Provide news and rumors of recent developments during the session, if and when it's appropriate.  Recap them at the end, when it's time for players to choose the direction for next session's adventure, so all the latest news that their characters are aware of is fresh in their minds.

Look for ways that open hooks and plot threads might affect one another.  Does the villain who recovers the legendary sword go looking to challenge the bandit chieftain for control of the gang?  Or was that villain actually the bandit chieftain in the first place?

Resolve and phase out hooks in which the players persistently show no interest, so you can cross them off your list.  They don't have to turn out well - if you decide, with or without the guidance of dice, that the bandits succeed in taking control of an important trade route and charging exorbitant fees for safe passage, then let that become the new status quo until such time as the players decide to do something about it.  Assume that the situation has reached some sort of viable long term equilibrium, and don't worry about updating it any more.  Keep your number of "live" hooks manageable by retiring stale ones in a plausible manner whenever necessary.