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Friday, December 2, 2016

D&D is Murder...(Crime and Punishment Edition.)

My applogies for the reduced posting frequency . It will likely pick up again after the  US holidays.

Rather this is about the idea of Murder in D&D.
Murder most foul.

The players in our group kill all the time. I mean it's kind of their thing. Still it has been a rare occurrence when they outright murder someone.
in one of our recent games Limura a ranger dropped two sailors in broad daylight. Mind you the sailors were working for "the bad guys" and Limura was covering the back of a fellow party member .. still.
Murder in the streets.

Naturally people screamed women fainted, guards were called. In the end the party had to flee the city as attempts to arrest them intensified. Having a boat that flies helped them greatly in that escape. On the other side of that messengers will have been sent out letting it be known that the persons involved are wanted in the city of Torin, for Murder.  That's an albatross hanging around their necks that will be difficult to cut loose.

Now Murder in D&D is nothing new. A "cult of the Murder-Hobo" has sort of grown up around the hobby. There are plenty of  memes and jokes littered across the internet which illustrate the concept.

What happens to these murderers?
As usual, the  acts of the players in our game  have made me run to the internet and embark on researching another subject I might have never thought to read much about. While I'm no expert in the study of crime and punishment throughout history I have come up with some gamerly ideas. As a point, I'm going to try to focus only on the  parts of this vast subject that are particularly of use in game.

Primary are two concepts.

  1. Ancient Prisons were by in large horrible places.
    1. Unsurprisingly, in many cultures there were (are) stark differences between the conditions a rich  citizen might encounter in a prison, compared to the fate of a more common criminal
  2. Prison itself was not the punishment. Offenders were only held there until some physical punishment could be meted out.
Looking at part 1, The Prisons: 

Accurately covering all of  incarceration's history in a blog is impossible. Some details may make for interesting gaming.

  1. In ancient Greece and latter Rome prison officials were known to turn a blind eye towards a prisoner's escape. Generally an escape of this sort would be into exile.  "I have found my way out of prison but may never set eyes on beautiful Eretria again."
    Often such an escape may involve bribes. Buying one's way out of prison even if  awaiting a death sentence was not that uncommon. 
  2. With the exception of  instances where cash is involved. Prisoners would have little chance convincing the guards of anything.  By the time the  players get dumped in prison  the guards have heard it all. They have been told every sob story, every tall tale, every beggars trick. They have been bribed, threatened, cried to and yelled at. They have been offered every type of promissory bargain, sexual favor, and future payment imaginable. In short the players yammering on to the  guards bout how they "had been framed," is going to mean nothing to a guard.
    And why would a guard help a prisoner? A guard who has a JOB, a paying job for their king or country, that provides food and shelter in a time when perhaps those things are not so easy to come by. A living that likely supports the guards whole family and does not involve the guard dying in a tin mine somewhere. Why would that guard help just another  nameless prisoner?
    Yet it happens.
    My thought would be to give the player -6, "Disadvantage,"  or some other steep penalties (depending on your game of choice) on any  social skill check made involving a guard.
    I would also allow that the player could reduce the penalties if they continually engaged the same guard in an effort to befriend the guard.
    Something like one check per month of incarceration for each successful check the roll penalties are reduced. OR after three successes the prisoner has developed a rapport with the guard. The effort would have to be specific and  focused on winning the ear of a particular guard. Keep in mind it was common practice to move guards around just so long term prisoners don't have a chance to get to know their captors and vice versa. Imagine the frustration of a prisoner that has just gotten the ear of guard, when the guard is rotated to another assignment..
  3. Prisons just like today were expensive to run. If a society is using  incarceration as a punitive measure and not just holding some poor sod until he gets stoned to death, then there has to be a prison. The  expense of  building a secure building, staffing it with wardens, guards, officers, carpenters, clerical staff, grave diggers, and all the rest would be  massive. Not only massive but most likely coming from the coffers of the state, or king, or who ever is making the rules that generate criminals in the first place. With that said it can be assumed that not every town or even small city would have the means to create an actual prison. Smaller towns might have a cell or two, a cellar below the church, a root cellar or ice house, or a tower in the local fort dedicated to holding trouble makers. These buildings would likely be much less secure and not as well manned as a true prison.
  4. Overcrowding / disease: Jails and prisons: Still true today, but especially true in times when medical science had not yet caught onto how illness spreads, prisons are perfect breeding grounds for disease.
    Overcrowding, no understanding of hygiene, no waste removal, vermin, lack of bedding, all compound issue of  disease in an ancient prison. The young and the old are particularly susceptible to disease. In game terms this can be thought of as younger and older characters having a lower "constitution" or your game's equivalent. But even a hail and healthy character would likely get sick if a truly nasty illness should crop up. Disentairy kills and spreads easily in overcrowded unsanitary conditions. Pneumonia is a killer, Diphtheria, a myriad of respiratory infections, stagnant water can lead to Legionnaires disease, the list is endless.
    In Game terms the fetid conditions should start to wear on a character's constitution.
    I Suggest weekly checks that get harder as time goes on. Once the character fails the check have them begin to suffer constitution (or what have you) Loss. Many games have rules for disease and I would enforce them to their  harshest if an affliction is picked up in a prison.
  5. I have a strong opinion, that long term incarceration is not the best way for a character to end their days. The heroic warrior Biff Stonehips Dying of Phenomena and gangrene in some fetid oubliette goes against everything I enjoy in gaming. Your mileage may vary, I mean ole Biff might deserve it.
Part 2: The punishments:
For most of history the above atrocities are avoidable. Most of history no one thought of prison as the punishment, rather prison was simply where a criminal was held until the real punishments could be delivered. This may have sometime to due whit many cultures not seeing any  corrective value in  incarceration. I have a hunch a lot of it also had to do with many cultures did not have the resources or space to hold criminals indefinitely. Likely it was a bit of both. Regardless it was much cheaper to simply kill a prisoner, or punish them physically in hopes that pain will convince them never to commit the same infraction again. Better still for some cultures a prisoner could be sold into slavery at a profit. This option while rightly viewed as an atrocity in the view of  today's culture gets rid of the criminal and makes the municipality some coin at the same time.

Punishments varied wildly deepening on the society and culture in question. A GM will have to make their own calls about what fits their setting.

Again like where a criminal might be held social standing  will play a huge part in punishment. For example Slaves may be  beaten severely, branded, put to labor in a work house, and marked in some way but as property with value they were rarely put to death unless their transgression was particularly severe.

For the rich Exile was a popular choice. In both Greece and Rome, stripping a criminal of citizenship and casting them out of civilization could be a worse sentence than death.  Debtors might be branded, or their worldly processions stripped from them.
Player characters who have been arrested would likely fall into this category of  rich prisoner. They very well might be viewed as income opportunities by and judge or  municipality that has them in custody. If the  parties fighter has been arrested for  some infraction, and the  city knows there  are four other people traveling with her. The law enforcement of the city would likely know that the party came to town carrying  exotic weapons and wearing fine armor. They might know about magical possessions, and  perhaps even have heard that they had been buying out the inn every night. It would make sense that some sort of ransom could be negotiated. Leniency for your companion if you do this for us, or pay us this amount of gold. This situation could be an excellent adventurer hook opportunity, particularly if one play has a scheduled conflict and is going to have to miss a game or two.

The  opportunity to exile a whole adventuring party  might be a fun option for the GM , having them shipped to some  exotic coast and just dropped off with no equipment or supplies. This sort of thing could change the face of a campaign from the typical, "Lets go get that McGuffin!" to "how the hell do we survive?"

Having the  Prisoner Player characters sold off to a slave trader is an interesting option from a gaming perspective. The escape, return, and revenge opportunities could make for a campaign all by themselves.

After reading articles around the internet I quickly realized there are as many ways throughout history to torture or kill a prisoner than there were crimes to be tortured over. Again unless Your parties fighter is named Will Wallace I'm not saying torturing a player characters to death is a great way to end a campaign. The links above have some  pretty  good descriptions of ancient punishments tortures and  executions that may serve as threats or sentences that the  characters might endure or avoid. A character that is tortured as a punishment for a crime should  suffer some kind of permanent attribute loss. Charisma loss makes sense for things that mark the character obviously , such as loosing an ear, or being branded. The Charisma penalty should be particularly severe while the character is  active in the  culture where the punishment occurred. A character forever marked as a criminal will affect the characters ability to do business in normal society.

Other tortures could sap strength or dexterity. Horors such as being broken on a wrack or wheel. Intelligence and wisdom could also be affected if the torture is something like solitary confinement, prolonged pain or other psychological cruelty.
I would suggest steep attribute penalties. For D&D style games allowing the character a save after which if successful they loose 1d4, and if they fail the would loose 1d6 of whatever attribute is being targeted.  This sounds steep but remember we are talking about cruelty designed with all of humanities cruel inventiveness to break the target.  This would scar a character for life, and might change the direction of their carer.
Imagine the party fighter accused of murdering some poor innkeeper, convicted in a kangaroo court, and sentenced to torture. The party tried but fails to get the conviction overturned and  even fails at breaking their friend out of jail. The warrior is tortured and next time the party sees him  he' is a shadow of  the  man he once was. Where does the story go next? Perhaps the fighter retires? Perhaps the  player sees magical healing to regain his strength. Perhaps the Fighter found god on the rack and multi-classes to priest form then on? Perhaps the party  seeks revenge perhaps not?
It is a bit of very  heavy handed GMing but  in the right situation this sort of thing could open up many  story telling avenues.

So for now that's all I have on the subject of crime and punishment in D&D.
I suppose the moral of the story is that Player characters committing all sorts of crimes should at some point be threatened with the horrors of ancient punitive measures. Not only will it make the players think twice before they stab some innocent NPC in the face. Having some systems of law enforcement in place creates opportunities for adventures that players will be invested in from the get go. Jail breaks and escapes are a classic adventure trope, exile can lead to adventure, unfair trials and  even harsher punishments create enemies for the  player characters that can last for a whole campaign.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes.
Thanks for reading

A 2D20 list of  execution methods, jazzed up a tiny bit for D&D
(Taken wholly from this Wikipedia source, credit to them.)

2: Crushing by elephant. or other heavy beast such as ogre, War Horse, or Golem 
3: Devouring by animals, as in damnatio ad bestias (i.e., as in the cliché, "being thrown to the lions"), as well as by alligators, crocodiles, piranha and sharks.
4: Stings from scorpions and bites by snakes, spiders, 
5: Tearing apart by horses (e.g., in medieval Europe and Imperial China, with four horses; or "quartering", with four horses, as in The Song of Roland and Child Owlet).
6: Trampling by horses (example: Al-Musta'sim, the last Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad).
7: Back-breaking A Mongolian method of execution that avoided the spilling of blood on the ground
8: Blowing from a gun Tied to the mouth of a cannon, which is then fired. Seems legit.
9: Blood Eagle Cutting the skin of the victim by the spine, breaking the ribs so they resembled blood-stained wings, and pulling the lungs out through the wounds in the victim's back. Used by the Vikings.
10: Boiling to death, This penalty was carried out using a large cauldron filled with water, oil, tar, tallow, or even molten lead.
11: Breaking wheel Also known as the Catherine wheel, after a saint who was allegedly sentenced to be executed by this method.
12: Buried alive Traditional punishment for Vestal virgins who had broken their vows.
14: Burning Most infamous as a method of execution for heretics and witches. A slower method of applying single pieces of burning wood was used by Native Americans in torturing their captives to death.
15: Cooking, Example Brazen Bull A bull made of brass that the prisoner could be stuffed into, a fire is then lit below the  bull. It could be anything however, a large stew pot stirred by Baba Yaga for example. A huge oven?
16: Crucifixion Roping or nailing to a wooden cross or similar apparatus (such as a tree) and allowing to perish.
17: Crushing By a weight, abruptly or as a slow ordeal.
18: Decapitation Also known as beheading. Has been used at various points in history in many countries in Eurasia. One of the most famous execution methods is execution by guillotine.
19: Disembowelment Often employed as a preliminary stage to the actual execution, e.g. by 20: beheading; an integral part of seppuku (harakiri), which was sometimes used as a form of capital punishment.
21: Drawing and quartering English method of executing those found guilty of high treason.
22: A magical electric chair could be  rigged up in some campaigns... It's gruesome but it could fit a particular game.
23: Falling The victim is thrown off a height or into a hollow
24: Flaying The skin is removed from the body.
25: Garrote Used most commonly in Spain and in former Spanish colonies (e.g. the Philippines), used to strangle or choke someone.
26: Gas Death by asphyxiation or poison gas in a sealed chamber. Again in D&D this could be achieved via alchemy or  magical spells.
27: Gibbeting The act of gibbeting refers to the use of a gallows-type structure from which the victim was usually placed within a cage which is then hung in a public location and the victim left to die to deter other existing or potential criminals.
28: Hanging One of the most common methods of execution, still in use in a number of countries.
29: Immurement The confinement of a person by walling off any exits; since they were usually kept alive through an opening, this was more a form of imprisonment for life than of capital punishment 
30: Impalement
31: Keelhauling European maritime punishment. Tied to the keep of a boat while it is moving through the water.
32: Poisoning Lethal injection. Before modern times, the method of capital punishment of nobles.
33: Pendulum A type of machine with an axe head for a weight that slices closer to the victim's torso over time. (Of disputed historicity. Great for D&D though ...)
34: Scaphism An Ancient Persian method of execution in which the condemned was placed in between two boats, force fed a mixture of honey and milk, and left floating in a stagnant pond. The victim would then suffer from severe diarrhea, which would attract insects that would burrow, nest, and feed on the unfortunate victim. The unfortunate victim would eventually die from septic shock. I mean  honestly WTF?
35: Shooting (with bows in most games, but also slings, cannon, whatever fits your setting)
36: By a single shot (such as the neck shot, often performed on a kneeling prisoner, as in China).
37: Smothering (Asphyxia) Suffocation in ash, or  Clay, or even in snow.. Horrible way to die.
38: Starvation / Dehydration Immurement
39: Stoning The condemned is pummeled by stones thrown by a group of people with the totality of the injuries suffered leading to eventual death.
40: Suffocation

Sources: Some things I read while writing this post.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Thought Experiment Part 1

Part 1:
When I work on a project be it a whole game,  a setting, or even an adventure I like to have images around for inspiration.
About a month ago I started a folder on my computer I just called "cool images." Into this folder I would save images from the net that I thought were interesting or evocative. I follow a lot of art collections and groups on G+. I have a slight obsession with  large scale street art for it's scope, and small scale street art for it's energy and immediacy. I also have  strange love for  70's pulp novel covers and science fiction illustrations. I soon found  my folder filling up with  images from those influences among others.

I also noticed that while thinking about my games I browsed and saved some interesting pictures.

Here is the  premise I have been going with for the  past few weeks.

While I'm thinking about working on a game I will  occasionally which is my habit anyway  pour through google image search for inspiration, The  pictures that really catch my eye will go into the folder.

At the end of the  week I'll go through each picture and write down details that I like. One world  details like "spacesuit", "nebula", "mecha", and so on.

The visual elements which keep recurring im going to try and work them into a game.
There might be some useful software around that uses user generated meta tags to sort and order images, I'll have to go looking.

Here's my dilemma, now that I have thought of this whole thing when I look at an image my brain is going to say  "I want that in a game!" and I'll drop that image in the folder. That's not what I want. I want to look at an image and think "whow that's evocative and  interesting," on the images own merit. I don't want to pick  images that simply confirm my gaming prejudices.

The only way I can think of combatting this self inflicted confirmation bias is time. If I do this over a long enough period my sample size will eventually level itself. I don't always think about games after all. (surprise.) and given enough time I will be browsing pictures without gaming in my head.

Be on the lookout for part 2 of this experiment sometime early in the new year.

Yup that's the stuff.
Al Williamson

Monday, November 7, 2016

Twelve ways AAIE is different from D&D. Playtest feedback.

I wrote a game called AAIE. It was recently run at a Con by one of my friends and one piece of feedback he received was, "I think it should be more like D&D."
I Believe in all feedback is good feedback, but that was just a bit errr .... vague. In the name of transparency and good faith I give you, this post.

Things in AAIE that are not like D&D which I don't plan to fix.
(Everything else is totally up for debate.)
(If ever asked "how is AAIE different from D&D?" 
ROLL D12 on the chart below)

  1. If D&D lets you play Erol Flynn in "The adventures of Robin Hood" then AAIE lets you play Lou Costello from "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein."
  2. The Magic system in AAIE is not based on pre written spells as it is in D&D. There is also a chance your character will grow a third useless arm out of his or her back or go insane if they cast too much. So there's that.
  3. Most times you expect your character in D&D to survive more than one encounter, in AAIE that's not a given. It's natural suggestion, just ask Darwin the Dwarf. (Hint: He's dead)
  4. AAIE is written for one shots. D&D is generally written to be episodic, or campaign based. Now I have written on this very blog how I think one shots are the worst way to play RPG's. I took some shots for that at the time. So Why did I write a game that is basically designed for  one shots? I don't know, I'm still a bit confused about that myself.
  5. Related to the above, the  town  survives beyond the one shot. The town grows and improves while the graveyard fills with fallen heroes. So the game isn't just a one shot if the group is always building the setting through the town.... Or is it.. or .. Oh never mind.
  6. Only crazy people roll 3d6 right down the line for their D&D characters. (Guffaw, Guffaw, Harumph curmudgeon ...... grognard, I say Harumph and no more!) In AAIE every bit of the characters is randomly generated, from stats, to race, their class, their skills, weapons, right down to the reasons they adventure. The only things left up to the  player is the  character's sex and name. So make the best you can out of what you get.
  7. When you run out of resolve your character can either fall down in a quivering heap unwilling to carry on or just die. They usually just die, because getting gnawed to death by a swarm of hungry rats will do that to you. In D&D you get death saves and stuff, I mean depending on what edition is being played it's easier kill Bruce Willis in "Die Hard" than it is to off a D&D character.
  8. In D&D critical failures are bad, Critical fails are cause for some alarm, or at least a bit of humor. In AAIE critical failures are usually deadly. Sometimes instant death type deadly. Thank goodness they are rare.
  9. In D&D players add bonuses to their attacks and roll against a difficulty set by the DM. In AAIE  the GM subtracts the  character attribute from a standard difficulty to create the target number. I don't know, strange distinction right? 
  10. D&D has a book called the "Monster Manual" where you find all the creepies. AAIE has a random monster generator which helps the GM come up with their own creepies.
  11. D&D is concerned with sweeping tales of high fantasy heroics. AAIE is concerned with whether or not a character can  kill a three headed fungal leech with a rolling pin, or perhaps a dead chicken.
  12. In D&D you roll 1d20 to resolve most tasks. In AAIE you roll 3d20 and generally resolve nothing.

There you have it. Now the reader has all the information he or she will ever need if  cornered and coerced into a conversation about a game very few people have ever heard of. I suggest the bookmarking of this page for easy access in case of emergency.


Thursday, October 27, 2016

Things I Do and Don't do when I GM / DM

Sorry for not posting all that much this month. It has been a busy  period for me outside the confines of gaming.

This might be of use to someone. It might not.
What will follow is just a raw list of  things I do  and don't when running games. The list will be in no particular order I'll just list things as I think of them.  This post in no way represents what I think the reader should be doing. This is a collection of things that work for me. there are no miracle "tips or tricks" in the post below, just seeds for thought or discussion.
  • I try to avoid the cliches as much as possible, while still skirting them. 
  • If I do drift into the  land of cliches I try to always use "this ..and" to make things more interesting.  The person the party just rescued turning out to be a prince is a cliche. That same person being a prince and also the master of thieves guild, is more interesting. (If still a bit cliche.)
  • Live at the table I don't use a GM's screen. I like to roll in the open that way the players know that I'm not fickle, dice are fickle. This carries over to Roll 20. I can hide my rolls on roll20, I just don't.
  • On a related Note many times I will roll randomly to determine who in the party a monster attacks.
  • Oldest advice in the book: If a rules dispute comes up I solve it  right then and there with an agreement lookup the correct "by the word of the rules" answer after the game. Once the game is over and the  question can be sorted out the group can decide how  the situation  will be handled moving forward. I try not to waste valuable game time arguing the finer points. 
  • I Ask everyone to know their spells, have spell cards, or some other way of referencing their spells. I just hate stopping to look up spells. I have found the D&D wiki's out there on the web are handy for  quickly  looking up a spell while playing online. I keep one open  in a tab while playing on Roll20. Roll20 also offers features that integrate 5th edition and  a ton of 5th edition reference pages right on their sight.
  • I try to be clear about the tone of the game I want to run from the very start. Sometimes this  works better than other times.
  • I don't use maps unless the situation calls for tactical level thinking and character positioning. Maps slow things down. In fact other than campaign level, topographic maps I have developed a strong aversion to the classic dungeon crawl style maps. Not very "old school" of me but there it is.
  • When a player passes an ability check I often ask "how did you do it?" What the player says next gives me a ton of  material to work with.
  • If I'm playing  5th edition I rarely use the passive investigation and passive perception rules as written. If an enemy is trailing the  party I will have that enemy roll against the highest passive perception in the group.  The same goes for traps and hidden objects. The players will often  go places I don't expect so I will roll a difficulty to detect an item on the spot. I usually use (10+ 1d10 and a reasonable modifier) based on the environment the characters are in  players are in. For example the traps in a thieves guild warehouse might be  10 + (1d10 +5) difficulty to  detect. While the coin purse hidden in casually in a farmer's kitchen might be a flat 10 + 1d10 to  accidentally notice. Why? Because I rarely have a solid number for "stealth" for every encounter. I also don't want to look up or keep a list of base difficulties to detect and or notice things. Again it's about spending the time engaging the players, not the rules.
  • Yes. I try to engage the players more than the rules.. I think I just typed that, but it bears saying again. In fact I could have saved us all some time by using that as the title of the post. I think it's what put me off to 4th edition as a player. I always felt like I was engaging the rule book more than the DM. Not crapping on 4thEd, there's a lot of good design in that game, just not for my style of game.
  • If a player lands the killing blow, I usually say, "ok how do you kill it?" Many great moments have come from that question.
  • I feel combat should be quick. To this end I have steadily reduced the hit points of my more common monsters over the years so that one critical strike, two good hits, or three average hits will do in the vast majority of them. When the party runs up on an enemy that has a sizable  pool of hit points it should feel special. The main bodyguard they fought in a thieves guild recently was obviously a totally different beast than the thugs they had dispatched earlier. The  party knew it right away and started to get worried when he didn't go down quickly.
  • I don't adjust the monsters for  party level. I pretty much know what lives where. If the party fought orcs in the frozen mountains at level four, when they return at level fifteen there will still be orcs in those mountains. The orcs will not have mysteriously morphed into stone giants and  ogres just to reach an arbitrary challenge rating. *
  • I love random elements ( Just look at this blog), I often use random elements to help stoke my ideas during prep. I almost never use random charts during play. (Barring the occasional random encounter chart)
  • I try to use as much from last game as I can in the next game. Meaning I like to  repeat as many small details as I can, so that the world feels persistent.
  • I like to name NPC's.. lots of them. It has become a joke at the table honestly.. "The sloop has a crew? Oh now Mark needs to think of twentyfive names." Random fantasy name generators are my friend. Once an NPC has a name a personality follows and the  world seems richer for the small effort.
  • I keep notes on player NPC interactions. That ship's crew above, if a player is rude to the crew you bet I will write it down and remember it the next time that player is trying to give orders during a stormy gale.
  • I have a reputation for never giving out magic items. It's part of the story, but honestly the reputation is well earned.
  • Part of the above. I loath magic items that have no part in the story. The A-typical ring of protection +1 still represents a wizard working to create an item that makes the wearer either directly harder to hit due to magical intervention, or grants the ability to ignore glancing strikes during battle. (Those hits that would have beat the AC if it were not for the +1.) Further more that effect is constant and permanent. Any item that takes that much energy to create should have a story behind it.
  • I like to add story hooks, and opportunities that have nothing to do with the present story arc. For example, the players took a job last game delivering a wagon load of furs. 
  • I don't ask players to buy any source material for games. If they want to get player's handbooks and all that jazz it's up to them. Those books are expensive.
  • This goes against all logic, but here it goes. I have no issue porting my game into other systems. If the players want to try something new I have no problem with it. While bouncing around systems is not my first or best choise, in the end though I would rather learn some new dice rules over re-building a world I have been running for years. 
  • I don't do crap with encumbrance. I use the sniff test, if it smells like too much stuff to carry then I say something.
  • Sometimes I skip initiative in favor of tell players the order based on the situation. Sometimes logic just dictates that one group has the drop on the other, Han shot first, and sneak attacks happen. 
  • If there is a powerful monster around I like to leave bread crumbs around for the  players so that they don't just stumble on it and die. I can't imagine something like an owlbear could live in an area for very long without leaving some signs of it's presence.
  • I forget attacks of opportunity all the time. My bad, I cut my teeth playing AD&D there were no AoO. The players kindly remind me when they are due one.
  • I  try not to direct players towards thier goals. I don't spoon feed the players , here is where you should go next kind of things. Though the players I game with right now are extremely good at picking a task and sticking to it. They are free to run off and do whatever, and if they don't investigate the path to the resolution of thier goals, those goals simply wait.
  • On the point of waiting, I hope nobody thinks that while those goals wit the bad guys are just sitting on thier thumbs.. no way.. I always have an arc of plans for the bad guys. I think it might be what I spend the most time planning  for my games. Those bad guys are always putting things in motion while the players aren't looking. Those plans bear fruit, or fail or change  in the background until the players actually bump up against them.
  • I don't conform treasure to the characters. This One time **, a dwarf with a missing hand found a magical 2 handed sword... just say'n.
  • I have been running my games in this same world for a long time. I try to tie as much of what's going on in the game now back to  what happened back then as I can. I think (hope) it injects the game with a certain feeling of history. Like when strider saves the hobbits at round top. Ole JRR knew what round top was before it was a ruined circle of stone on a hilltop, and he alludes to it. I hope to project that same feeling when for example the players explore a ruined city that a party of players years before them was around to witness become a ruin. I don't think it always works, but when it does, it's good.
  • I always let natural 20's count for double damage on attacks. All those extra "threat rolls" seem extraneous to me.
  • When I remember to I write down the  players saves and armor classes so I don't have to keep asking.
  • I don't drink more than one beer (give or take) when I GM. Sounds like sound logic right? I have messed that one up a couple of times over the years and the game suffers greatly.
  • When I run a game if the players find something they can't read the only option they have is  finding someone who can read it  or getting to a library and making a check to see if they can translate it. Naturally if the players have a spell that helps with the translation, all the better.
  • In fact I give many bonuses for  investigations done in libraries in my game. In turn  Libraries are rare and only the largest cities have them. I like to  imagine the cultural impact a place like the Royal Library of Alexandria might have had on a city, a kingdom, or a people.***
  • I have tried to break the bad habit of keeping track of how many hit points characters have. I shouldn't care. It's like a referee asking the  scorekeeper how many fouls Lebron James has before making a call. I still goof this up sometimes.
  • I encourage players to have clearly defined end games for thier characters. As in  they should know what it would take to get eh characters to stop adventuring. Lets face it, adventuring is a tough way to make a living.
  • I make resurection very hard to get. I think resurrection spells and the like are game breakers. I could write a whole blog post on that.
  • Some of the old school monsters, like rot grubs and some other quick death, insta kill kind of creeps are just not that much fun at all. I don't use them. Unpopular decision I know.
  • My game features mostly humans. I like the other races to stand out more. 
  • Sometimes when a player rolls a 1 on dammage I let them re-roll, Just because rolling  1's stinks.
  • When a player has had a streak of bad rolls I like to go back to them, get them rolling again. I look at it like a good  shooter in the NBA. Statistically if they have missed a few they are bound to make one (ok, not always). I love when a player has had a few bad rolls then nails  roll during a big moment..
Ok I think that's it for now. I will think of other things and perhaps revisit this post idea one day.
As usual I hope there is something that passes as useful in this pile. If there is not please accept my apology.


*This one sounded "preachy" that was not my intention. I have always been puzzed by where were all these dragons and  giants hiding when the players were lower level?
** At bard Camp..
*** With all that said one of my players burnt a library to the ground ...........................

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Adventures in the Canopy (System Neutral)

Known as the mega forests of  Cul Tur in my game world. Just East of the second dwarven  stronghold, nestled between the  mountains and the coast. Once home to loosely united Rakasta tribes, now just shadowy jungles left unexplored. No one has ever gone there in game, I doubt anyone will.

I guess it's safe to blog about my thoughts on one of the least talked about biomes in fantasy RPG's.

Lets Jungle....

The Forest Canopy:
When it comes to  real life biodiversity  the Jungle canopies are some of the most biodiverse places on earth. Keeping this in mind, it's easy to extrapolate that in a magical fantasy setting the canopy perched high above the floor of a jungle could be home to just about anything.

Native vs Non-Naitve:
One recurring theme in this blog will be that of native Jungle dwellers Vs visiting  travelers. The Native populations will have EVERY ADVANTAGE in this territory with the possible exception of technology. Most native societies in jungle terrain subsist via hunting and gathering. Everything they need the jungle provides. The technologies that helps other societies produce more things with fewer resources are just not necessary.
It would be easy for a party to think native people are somehow not as intelligent or capable as they are. That would be a fatal mistake.  The  Native populations in jungles are masters of their environment, they have to be. As such they do not suffer most if any of the penalties listed in this document. They hear better in the jungle, move faster, and see farther than visitors. They know what to eat and how. They know what's poison and what's not. A native population will use all of these advantages to help or hinder a party based on how the party interacts with them. It would be wise for a party to  approach the people living in the jungle with respect and  as possible allies. Anything else should be taken by the GM as a good reason to make the characters time in the jungle that much more difficult.

Native weapons:
Like I said the forest provides. Natives will used the  things they have learned living in the forest to their advantage when crafting weapons.

  • Blow guns are fast to aim and when treated with  poison from native creatures (famously poison dart frogs) lethal.  An effective range of 30 to 40 yards is a good place to start if you game does not have rules for blowguns.
  • Spears: Used to spear fish, sometimes poisoned for monkey hunting, rarely thrown.
  • Short Bows: Some tribes use very  compact bows made from wood, vines, and hide. These small bows are perfect for maneuvering in the clutter of a rain forest and in the hands of an expert are not hindered by the foliage in any way.   These bows can be treated as normal short bows for game purposes. Arrows are often light and poisoned.
  • Cudgels knives and clubs. Most simple weapons are well within the  capabilities of Jungle native, usually created from wood, or other natural materials. Some are ceremonial while some are reserved for wars with other tribes. Often good fighting weapons are not great hunting weapons.
  • Armor: Natives in a rainforest will rarely wear armor. Instead relying on their deep knowledge of the  terrain, surprise and mobility to protect them.
  • The use of poison is part of  jungle hunting culture. An art passed down  through generations. The climate of the jungle makes lighter ranged weapons advantageous Poison is a part of hunting  that ensures game kills by compensating for lighter ammunition. There is no morality about using poison in the jungle. Poison is how food is attained while expending the least amount of resources. Native warriors will not have any inclination to not use poison on an aggressor. Players beware.

Just some quick hitters here: The average temperature of a rain forest is about 77° Fahrenheit but can
range up to 100 degrees during the day and drop back down to 50 Degrees at night. The annual precipitation of a rain forest is greater than 50 to 260 inches per year. During the rainy season as much as 4 inches can fall in a day of steady  unrelenting rain. Furthermore even more precipitation comes from the forest's own evaporation. The heat, daily rain, and condensation makes the rain-forest extremely wet and oppressively humid.

What does this mean for a party of adventurers? Trying to traverse this terrain in full armor of any beyond studded leather is pretty much suicidal. Metal items such as weapons and armor will suffer and need to be meticulously maintained. Chain mail and plate mail will stiffen quickly, within days of entering a rain forest. Blades will dull, over time even leather will begin to rot right off a character.
Armor and weapons can be protected vial oiling to keep away the moisture. This will have to be done daily.  Magical means of preservation are also a good choice if your game allows for it.
Magical weapons and armor should be allowed more time before any degradation occurs. If the DM wants to have the climate effect enchanted weapons I think saves vs the elements that get progressively more difficult as time goes on are a good way to go. Nature will have it's way even with enchanted items if given enough time.

Storms when they strike can be sudden and violent. Lighting strikes and falling limbs make it very wise for characters to find shelter as soon as they can.
If the GM determines a severe storm blows in. Any characters caught in the trees or outside on the forest floor must check each turn  to see if they are hit or at least threatened by blowing or falling debris. As a reminder heavy branches will and do fall, and from great heights. I feel these checks should  be cumulative, meaning the longer the character is exposed the better a chance something will fall on them.

Use the chart below to determine things that befall the characters when left exposed to a bad storm.

  • 1- 25 Loose debris, the character must spend a round dealing with getting the wind blow debris off of them.
  • 26 - 50 Small branch, the character must make a low difficulty check to keep their footing. 
  • 51 -65 Branch, the character gets whacked by a falling or blowing branch taking light damage.
  • 66 -73 Bigger branch: The character gets hit doing moderate damage and  losing their footing. there is a 15% chance the branch pins the character.
  • 74 -84 Vine fall: A group of vines have fallen on the character or party, they are effectively entangled. the  group might sustained light damage , if the  vines or  from high enough up.
  • 85-93 large branch: This falls at the character, give them a roll to avoid it for half damage otherwise they should take heavy damage, have a 40% chance to be pinned.
  • 94 - 97 Tree fall: A large tree uproots and falls. Hopefully not the one you are standing in. This is a big deal basically encompassing the whole chart in one roll. All hell breaks loose. Characters should save for half damage or  take a huge hit. Characters will be caught up and entangled 90% o f the time by the  mass of branches and vines that come down with the tree.
  • 98-100 Lightning strike: Lightning strikes a tree near the characters. They take electrical damage based on the system being used. There is a 10% chance a fire starts on the ground among the forest floor litter.
Small rain storms, and even longer soaking rains happen daily in a rain forest. Not every storm has to be violent. The Gm should mention rain at least once a day to remind player exactly how wet and oppressively humid their surroundings are.

Visibility and Senses:
Leaves, massive tree trunks, branches, vines, all make it easier to hide. Furthermore there is a lot of background noise in a jungle setting. Checks to perceive threats are far more difficult for non native characters. Once above the ground in the canopy a character is lucky to see beyond their own tree and into the next 30 to  50 foot visibility at best. If the characters go higher to get above the canopy they will only see a sea of green below them stretching for miles. Good to see a tower or massive tree the party is looking for but not so good for finding that monkey that just stole their scroll case.

Ranged attacks again for non native shooters, should be heavily modified to account for the clutter of limbs and leaves the  character is trying to shoot through.
A smart party might offset some of these problems by gaining a height advantage on an opponent. There are ample opportunities to go upward when the  situation calls for it. Shooting down on your target will offset some of the negative modifiers.

 The ground level  will be surprisingly devoid of apparent food, dark, punishingly humid and eerily quiet. For the  most part the  massive trees catch 90% of the sun, most of the rain, and keep the forest floor covered in a constant litter of  sound dampening leaves. The thick undergrowth of vines and stalk plants make ground travel difficult and slow.
Traveling on the forest floor at least keeps the party safe from falling out of a tree but it's best to  bring plenty of rations you can trust, or at least a knowledgeable guide.

  • A ranger Could make a moderately difficult check to know that this kind of forest will not offer good good chances to hunt large game. A guide or ranger can keep you alive via forage.
  • Foraging is at a disadvantage and or a high difficulty for those attempting it. Things are strange here, there are many dangerous plants and animals not found anywhere else.
  • Any fruit or plant eaten will have a chance to be poisonous. In the jungle everything gets eaten by something. Plants and animals have evolved unique, varied, and surprising natural defenses. In short everything is trying to kill you before you have the chance to eat it.
  • A knowledge check by a ranger or Druid can locate small sources of potable freshwater. Pitcher plants, wet moss, the undersides of large leaves, hollow stalks and some wet root balls are all options for fresh water. This check is to find safe fresh water, not just any old water.
  • Larger sources of water such as pools and streams, even rivers are also plentiful, and obvious. These also draw other animals, and are known by locals.  
  • Party members would be wise to  be wary of  water in the open, as it is likely to carry parasites. In this environment stick to boiling everything. ("purify food and water" can save a D&D style party!)
  • Making headway will be slow as the group will often have to chop their way through the underbrush. If characters are using their normal weapons to do this the GM should apply penalties to any character who does not  take time to maintain their weapons at the end of a day. (this compounds the damage the wet environment will do.)
  • A Druids magical abilities would be very useful in this environment.
Strenuous work, such as combat, hauling heavy loads, and even just walking if armored can cause great fatigue in the humid and wet conditions.

(One version of D&D lists Fatigue as: A fatigued character can neither run nor charge and takes a "-2 penalty to Strength and Dexterity. Doing anything that would normally cause fatigue causes the fatigued character to become exhausted"
and Exhausted as:
"An exhausted character moves at half speed and takes a –6 penalty to Strength and Dexterity. After 1 hour of complete rest, an exhausted character becomes fatigued.")
I don't think this way of handling things is all that bad.

 After every hour of  working in the  heat and humidity of the jungle have players make a check for their character with penalties applied for medium or heavy armor. If the check fails the character becomes fatigued. On the next check a fatigued player becomes exhausted, and if an exhausted character fails the check the character passes out cold.
Resting for an hour will bring a character from exhausted to fatigued and a fatigue character back to  normal.

If on a march in normal terrain the characters could cover 25 miles along a good road on a good day. In the  rain forest the same party might (Might) make 12 miles in the same day.  Bushwhacking is hard work and the  characters will have to take frequent rests. (see above)
Unless there are trails cut for the party horses are useless, mules are better but not by much.
considering we are talking about fantasy games there may be some magical native species that can act as beasts of burden. Examples might be giant lizards which can climb the trees, large bats, or whatever the GM can dream up.

Moving in the trees is another matter.
I wrote a post about falling a while back:
Things get more interesting in the  canopy high above the forest floor. The understory layer up through the canopy are worlds of damp  mists, foliage and predation. 

The  continuous layer of  dense foliage formed by adjacent tree tops is known as the canopy. This area  starts around 100 ft up and runs as high as 150 ft or for our uses 200 ft into the air. What makes the  canopy  interesting  for  adventuring parties is the overwhelming biodiversity of the place. Animals and plants adapted to living in the trees and nowhere else make the canopy a treasure trove of rare spell components and medicinal resources. 
Travel in the canopy is  dangerous. First things first, the characters are high above the ground. Add to that the unsteadiness of branches, the  inability to see, and an ever changing surface underfoot, falling becomes a very real threat.

Moving within a tree is one thing. If a character climbs a tree and is reasonably careful while in the tree a game master may not need to ask for any checks. For example a character who  ropes off once he or she is in the trees and  states that they are taking  care when moving about should get the benefit of the doubt from the GM. The player who says "I'm gonna climb the tree and grab the orange fruit," without any expressed thought about safety should be asked to make checks.
Moving from tree to tree should always require checks. Running, jumping, or otherwise moving with haste or recklessness should be rewarded with harder checks.

When a Character is moving through  the canopy tree to tree.
  • Make a Check to see if the characters moved from  tree to tree successfully, apply modifiers for care  or  recklessness shown by the  character.
    • Passed: Good! The character has jumped to the next tree!. 
    • Failed:  Opps.. Roll 1d10.
      • 1-5 the character stumbles and falls to the next tree taking a small amount of damage. If the player chooses to continue moving without taking a moment (round turn however your game measures time) to gather themselves then they will take a negative penalty on their next movement roll. These negative penalties are cumulative each time a player fails a roll and decides the character should keep moving. The penalties are reset if the character does nothing but gather themselves for one round or turn.
      • 5-8 Minor fall: The character falls and lands on a lower branch! He or she takes moderate damage. and receives a penalty to any further movement unless the character stops to gather themselves.
      • 9-10 Full fall!: The character plummets to the forest floor taking full falling damage. This stops movement and just may stop any other biological functions the  character might have been trying to maintain.
Using D&D as an example Spells like   "Freedom of Movement", "Long Strider", "Find the Path", Transport Via Plants", and  definitely the druids "Tree Stride" are very valuable in this terrain. (Or whatever the equivalent spells would be in your system of choice)

Using a small rope and a crossbow to fire a small leed line into a tree, then using that leed line to pull up the parties studier climbing ropes is one of the best non-magical methods for getting ropes in trees. However it's not as easy as it sounds, the shot will be difficult and the character might need to make a few attempts before success.  Once the characters have a rope getting into the trees is a matter of brute strength. Most games represent a period before harnesses and  ratcheted foot ascenders climbing gear. Characters will be  pulling themselves up a rope and slipping it around their feet for support, not easy. If they are lucky the characters might know how to make a Prusik knot to assist in the climb (perhaps a ranger? or a survival skill check  depending on your system.)
Climbing could be a series of tests up to one per 10 feet as decided by the GM considering  situation and conditions.  With each failed check having a worse result for the character. A bit like the  D&D5th-Ed Death saves. 
  • First check failed the  character is tired, and slows down. 
  • Second failed check the character starts to slip back, losing grip and stability.
  • Third failed check the character falls from whatever height they had achieved.
The first two failures are an invitation to slow down and rest. A character could grab a limb and sit, put a spike in the tree and stand or otherwise figure a way to rest. resting  resets the failed checks, but also invites the GM to roll on a random encounter chart, or have the bad guys catch up. Time is a resource after all.
Hastily made harnesses and ropes tied off to limbs will mitigate falling damage. Though  falling, crashing through tree limbs and swinging like a screaming pendulum into a  nine foot thick tree trunk should not be without it's consequences.
Not to sound like a broken record but all this climbing business is old hat to the natives living in the jungle. They  will be just plain better at it even if a character hits their skill checks and has some form of training (Athletics, Acrobatics, so on.)
Medium or heavy armors are major hindrance when climbing. The extra weight is just not desirable when hoisting ones self into the air. A GM could ask for more checks from armored climbers or make their checks more difficult.

Free Climbing is the act of climbing  a tall tree without the  benefit of ropes. This works the same as rope climbing only the character does not get a chance to rest unless they find a feature in the tree which can support their weight. Free climbing is very dangerous and over armored or over encumbered characters shouldn't even think of trying it.

Rappelling is no easier:
Rappelling should work very much like climbing only  a characters dexterity or equivalent should be used rather than strength. A character can  mitigate some of the  risk by preparing to rappel properly.
If the player takes the time to  declare his or her character is finding a good tree to rope off to and can make a skill roll to set up an effective rappelling system. A ranger or guide would know how to set up for rappelling and  have a fair shot at doing it correctly.  If a character tries to set up a rappelling rig very quickly or thoughtlessly the GM can  give them negative modifiers to the characters checks on the way down.
Failed rappelling rolls Roll below 1d6
  1. Item of clothing stuck in the rig, the character is stuck swinging in the breeze some  distance from the ground. Make a check to repair.
  2. Rope slips! character drops  a bit but is otherwise OK. IF the character gets this result again re-roll.
  3. Frayed rope! The rope is starting to fray here ever it is tied off. If this is rolled a second time roll again.
  4. Rope snagged: All progress halts, the rope will need to be cleared. Make a check to repair.
  5. Rope breaks! the character falls unless they are roped off or have figured out another safety method.
  6. Rope really slips! Character falls quite a ways and the rig gets tangled. Character on the rig is stuck the rig is to far gone to repair from mid rappel.
Bridges and structures:
Native peoples may have built structures in the canopy. Bridges, rope swings, zip lines are all possibilities.
These structures are difficult to build, dangerous to maintain and take up a great deal of time that a jungle dwelling  person might  better spend gathering food, or hunting. As such these structures are never over built.

A well equipped party traipsing over a wicker bridge may make a GM want to  roll checks for the  integrity of the structure.

Thief and rogue types can  go ahead of a party checking the structure. Use normal find traps protocols for a  Thief looking for structurally weak areas. If the  party has a dwarf that is skilled in building, more the better.
Breaks in canopy bridge should have some fore warning. Cracking noise, shaking of the structure, and planks plummeting to the ground. Those kind of tips might let a wise party know to  slow down or to travel one at a time.
Naturally when a party is taking it safe and are strung out one at a time over a long bridge 200 feet in the air, that's the perfect time to attack them.

Fighting in the canopy:
Each game system is going to apply its own penalties for  fighting in strange environments. For fighting high in the canopy I would use your systems  penalties for unsteady footing, and limited vision just to start. Keep in mind that  any creature or person native to the  rainforest is going to understand verticality, and take advantage of higher ground whenever possible. Imagine if you will a paladin cowering under her shield as enraged apes rain coconuts down on her form 150 feet up.

Ranged weapons while limited due to cover, can be superior in a canopy fight due to the difficulties involved in closing with and engaging  enemies physically. Again, native creatures will be able to disengage and retreat more effectively than non native warriors will be able to advance through the  canopy. Wise players will try to force or lure enemies to the  ground where the  fight is more on the  characters terms. This may or may not be easy to do, as rappelling from trees is as dangerous as climbing them.

The mosquitoes are inescapable, and some fo them carry disease.
While I think it would be harsh to give a player character Malaria, I do think it could make a nice story hook to have to find a cure for some NPC's horrid case of Dengue fever.
It would be fair to make a character make a check once every three days to avoid a tropical fever or a mild disentairy. I am not suggesting that Fair Fillred the Paladin should shit himself to death in some god forsaken jungle, that's a terrible way to loose a character.
What I will suggest is that any  character who fails the check should pick up the  "Fatigued" state until they are cured or can rest for  three days. Making them fatigued will make them get exhausted quicker, and will generally be  a pain in the player's ass.
I also suggest that for every player that gets ill due to a failed check , an NPC or retainer should get severely ill, or even die. Just so the player realize disease is serious business.

Another consideration for any character wearing boots, or god forbid armor all the time is "Trench foot" or Immersion foot. Caused by wet foot conditions and bad hygiene, this little marvel can cause gangrene and  loss of a foot if let go.

I would  say that when the  players have a rest and  start a camp fire the GM  should ask if they are  taking off boots and Armour. If they constantly say no, then each day they have 10% +2 percent chance of developing Immersion foot and or a horrid fungal infection of the feet. This will half their daily movement, and if let go will start to drain "Health" at a slow rate each day. (based on your  chosen game)
The Idea here is that players should be aware of their environment and after a few hints be willing to shed armor and dry off tier covered parts. It's not to punish the players but to drive home that the jungle is not  their normal stomping grounds. Helpful natives will offer sandals, or even directly tell the characters of the danger of never taking off their clothing in the jungle.
Again magical healing and good guides will help tremendously.

As always  If your game of choice has good rules for disease, use them.

One major reason a party might enter a rain forest is gather and locate materials for spells and potions. The  Rain forests have been called earths pharmacy  for their diversity of mostly undiscovered medicinal plants. A wizard or apothecary might pay premium rates for  plants gathered from such a hostile locale. For example the Cinchona Tree is used to make quinine, a cure for malaria, treating stomach problems, stimulating the appetite as well as treating blood disorders, leg cramps, and varicose veins. This is just one such example out of Thousands of real life examples. As a Gm build off what's real and extrapolate it.
The oils of the  Annatto Tree can be used to make a natural sunscreen, but in the hands of  Blodot the wizard it can be used to make a potion which renders an individual invisible while in the sunlight, and incorporeal in the moonlight.

Simple exploration: The party is hired to explore this new land "discovered" by a local sovereign. An expedition must be organized and executed.

Finding the explorers: Remember that expedition from before... Well they never came back.. so go track them down.

Lost city found: Anything can remain hidden for a long time in the jungle, a lost city has been found and your group thinks it is a great idea to  try to gt to it before any one else. Unfortunately there is a rival group of explorers with the same idea!

Encounter ideas:
I don't  use "giant" insects all that often in my game however, the hot humid oxygen rich environment of the canopy is exactly where I would start dropping them, and in  great numbers. The canopy being one of the very few in game areas I think would provide both the food and conditions suitable for large insects colonies.

Some  Plants and insects have developed symbiotic relationships, where as a species of  beetle or bee is the only species that pollinates a particular tree, or distributes a tree's seeds. In return the insect benefits from the tree as a source of shelter, protection, or nourishment.
Play this up as a GM.
For example:
  • There are large thousand year old, 70–80 meter tall emergent trees that tower over even the  general canopy. Some specimens are as big around as a small house with  circumferences topping 90 feet. These trees have an upper canopy  made of  thick broad leaves.
  • These trees are a form of beech nut tree. The seeds of these trees is prised by apothecaries, native people, and magicians as a medicine and a spell component. 
  • Unfortunately the seeds are locked away in large highly poisonous fruit high in the trees upper branches. Eating the fruit can be deadly, causing  pain, blistering, swelling of the esophagus and eventual asphyxiation. Just don't.
  • The  primary transporter of these seeds are giant leafcutting beetles
  • These insects can be as as large as a goat. The maintain nests made of cut leaves high in the  trees foliage. The insects feed on the highly poisonous fruit pulp of the trees and leave behind the hard seeds. 
  • The fruit of the tree is poisonous, and because it's the only thing the insects eat they have in turn become poisonous. their mandibles can inflict a poison bite that is difficult to resist and causes blistering and discomfort along with some damage..
Having a 60 foot around 45 meter tall tree tip over is another good use of the large canopy producing trees. Such a tree could be hollowed out by any manner of creature. Used as a shelter by native humans, carved out by giant termites, home to  a large trap door spider, or a colony of smaller dangerous insects. One thing is for certain in the damp gloomy forest floor region even a large stump would be temporary given the variety of fungi and molds that can develop. No matter what the size of the tree it would rot and be reclaimed by the forest relatively quickly.

  • A very large tree has fallen opening up a small swath of the forest to sunlight. 
  • The  downed tree is now covered in a veritable botanical garden of  hollow grasses, vines, flowering plants, and young trees taking advantage of the available sunlight. If you didn't know what the  fallen tree was you might miss it all together.
  • Inside the stump and the remains of the tree termites and burrowing beetles have been hard at work hollowing out the vast fallen tree.
  • The interior of the tree is now a series of hollow chambers. 
  • These chambers have become home to  several  budding green slimes.
  • The locals have cut a hole into the  hollow stump and covered its gaping roof with animal hides. They have used fire to harden the interior of the stump and are excavating the  dead trees vast root system. They are looking for a rare fungal deposits which are used by their shaman to make a hallucinogenic ritual beverage. The roots and the digging have formed a complex multi level cavern.

The  Understory or layer of  foliage from the ground up to the canopy proper is home to a myriad of predators. Not least of which are the great cats. Large cats in a heavily wooded area create their own set of issues for a party.

  • The great cats are stealthy, ambush predators who use the short lines of sight lines the jungle to their advantage.
  • In a fantasy game the great cats will go for surprise every time.
  • Ocelots: Small fast hunters, not likely to attack a human, but  perhaps. An Ocelot might  hit a small character (half-ling, Gnome, Elf) then take off, being able to easily outpace most characters.
  • Panther: Medium sized, Hunts in the trees. Think about that, IN THE TREES. The characters think they are all safe camping up in the  tree limbs.. guess what.... Panther.
  • Tigers: Huge, Nocturnal hunters , almost silent when they stalk prey, can easily kill a man. 
  • Jaguars: The Swiss army knife cat, stealthy, fast and  powerful. Attacks first with a massive bite aimed for it's preys neck. Deadly if a character does not see it coming.
  • As a GM I would give a great cats the equivalent of your games snake attack bonus on their first strike.
  • The pelts and sometimes the teeth of great cats can often fetch a party high prices outside of the jungle.
  • Some tribes may worship great cats, perhaps even one exceptionally large and strong individual cat.
  • Dire versions of  great cats and Saber toothed cats are listed in many games standard monster lists.
Monkeys and Apes:
I made a random monkey generator a while ago.
The  Disoriented Ranger wrote about Apes and a module called Monkey Business not log ago.
Apes and Monkeys move about the canopy with a grace and speed that would make any adventurer jealous if it weren't so scary. Apes and monkeys are naturally smart, add to that the  trappings of a fantasy  game and the  characters could have their most fearsome opposition.

  • Apes will always have advantage in combat while in the trees. They can hang upside down, run up trees, throw things, and jump great distances. Fighting a pack of monkeys in the  canopy is a bad decision for the party.
  • Gibbons: Small fast, travel in packs. They steal stuff and run away.  Mostly harmless unless fought in a pack. In this case use your games swarm rules.
  • Chimpanzees; Strong and agile. They use advanced pack tactics to confuse and isolate characters. Individuals will flank and go for sneak attacks. They are smart enough to target the face , eyes and throats of  characters. Each individual can get multiple attacks per round. Will eat meat.... Will eat characters.
  • Gorillas: Usually peaceful gentile giants, They live in troops of females generally lead by one
    large male. Sometimes younger males will be present in the troop. Troop leaders will defend their territory. Massively strong, they will throw heavy objects, Charge, grapple, swing limbs, had out massive bites with their huge canine teeth and  basically wreak house. They don't attack in and organized way, but their individual bulk and power make them deadly even to mid or high level characters. 
  • Give Gorilla's Fighter or warrior levels. 
  • Unlike monkeys, Gorillas tend to build nests on the ground.
  • Orangutan: the most solitary of the great apes. These long armed apes are more likely to run from adventures than anything else. These can be the wise old men of the forests. If I were going to  create a hedge wizard ape it would be an Orangutan.
  • There are hundreds of small monkey species, most are just an omni-present nuisance in the jungle.
  • Dire, Giant, and primitive variations of apes are possible. Extra intelligent Apes are a great idea.
The preceding blog post represents just the tip of the ice-burg for jungle adventures.
Giant spiders, Cayman, Naga, lizard-men in the rivers, Troglodytes in massive moss caves, Giant snakes, and so many other  creatures could make an appearance.
Though for my money it is the terrain and the environment that provides the greatest challenge. How will your adventures navigate such a foreign dangerous place?

Thank  you for reading...

Here's some stuff I looked at while prepare this piece. There are more ideas lurking there than I used.

Pathfiner info
Medicinal Plants
Climbing the  tallest trees.
Account sort of our history is not grand folks.
Biome info, and here
Six things to know before you hit the rainforest.
disease info
Tropical disease
Blowgun arguments
D&D wiki
cats Run the internet.

Monday, September 19, 2016

A thought about "Invisible Sun" by Monte Cook Games.

Here's the  kickstarter page, for record.
if you are into games (and you must be if you landed in this tiny blog backwater) or if you are into
what can be done in the world of  game publishing at its upper limits, check out this kickstarter.
"1,846 backers pledged $664,274 to help bring this project to life."
I wrote thsi a few weeks ago and let it sit in my drafts folder. I waited to post this until the kickstarter campaign was over. Not that this wee little blog in the  corner of the  internet would be able to slow that supporter train down. Regardless I didn't want to confuse anyone into thinking that I was trying to slow that train down.

Now my disclaimer:
I like Monte Cook Games and their products very much. I feel they are an upstanding group  running an outstanding company. The quality of their products, and the obvious time and attention they give each project has been impressive. I own the Numenera book. It ranks among my top gamebooks when it comes to the quality of the physical thing and the overall presentation.
I think their latest project "Invisible Sun" looks amazing. I know it will be a success, the  kickstarter is funded, and as a company they have a great reputation for  fulfilling kickstarters above and beyond backer expectations.

Now my point:

It's a deluxe product to be sure.  There is A ton of cool stuff in that black box.
From the  kickstarter page:  Inside the specially designed cube you will find four books, a folding game board, a resin monolith, a metal medallion, four special dice, player handouts, tokens, and hundreds of cards to enhance your gameplay.

Even with all the above blandishments in mind when I look at the  Kickstarter, I know it's not a game I could play.
Again from the  kickstarterLet’s be upfront, though. Invisible Sun is not a game for everyone. Not because it’s difficult, but because it’s involved. It’s not really designed for casual, fire-and-forget sorts of play. It is character-focused the way a good novel or television series is character-focused, with individual story arcs, deep development, complex motivations, nonlinear narratives, and asymmetrical play. If you’re the kind of player who enjoys musing over your character between sessions, thinking deeply about the setting and events in the game, and making interesting choices, then Invisible Sun is the game you’ve been waiting for all this time.
I would love that kinds of game. I might have been able to play that kind of game 20 years ago. I just know it's not going to happen with everyone's current schedules and our attention spans. Our game hours are constantly being cut short by our real life concerns. On the surface it sounds almost too ambitious for a group of 40 (plus the double buffalo) something gamers to even think about tackling something as ambitious as The Invisible Sun.

We break out less stuff than is included in the black cube for most of the board games we play. It's an RPG, and I'm going to assume, (perhaps incorrectly) that not everything in the cube is necessary to play. I had the same feeling with Fantasy Flight's war-hammer RPG when it came out. I saw that war-hammer came with 30 custom dice and 300 cards, it just kind of left me cold to the whole thing.
Even if our group went in on the game together and all committed to playing. I'm not sure we could ever give this deluxe product the treatment it richly deserves.

The  kickstarter does address these concerns, though I would have to  see it all in action  to know  exactly what would work for the group I game with and what wouldn't.

Again from the kickstarter found here: We live in the modern world. We know what it’s like to try to get a group together on a regular basis—work, family, schedules, and other aspects of that nasty thing we call real life always get in the way. Invisible Sun, at its very core, is designed around overcoming that with gameplay options that deal with missing players, solo play integrated with group play, playing online, and more. 
Invisible Sun is a game that encourages players to think about the game away from the table—and rewards them for doing so. Not just on game night. This is a game for people who enjoy real investment in character and story. It’s not just a hack-and-slash, bash the bad guy sort of thing. Those kinds of games are fun, but this is something different.
Players (individually or in groups) can devise and stage side scenes or even flashback scenes to accomplish their goals. The rules of the game address these in a way that is separate from but compatible with the main narrative. In addition to the flexibility this gives in group storytelling, it means that there are many opportunities to play the game and advance the characters and the narrative even when the whole group can’t meet.

Here is where I am treading  a line, I don't want to write anything negative about a company and people who I feel are completely awesome. I respect the project, agree with the price point , and I know MCG will fulfill every darn thing shown on that page to every backer.

The  best way I can put my  thoughts is this kickstarter feels like a game designed by and for game designers or people who  have the luxury of playing games for a living. I'm not sure the average  table of gamers could ever really interact with this game the way it is intended to be interacted with. It almost has a feeling of,  "designed be cause we can," or "design because we are one of the only companies that could." It's like the Foie gras terrine of RPG's. Design for design's sake. Perhaps it's game design as art? which would leave the game itself up for interpretation. I don't think this means there is any lack of  integrity or lack of love  going into the game. to the contrary the designers are clearly putting tons of energy and love they have into the project. The question is what audience are they directing all that energy and love?

I don't know. I wonder if this is the  direction new RPG's are going to take for a while. Success breeds imitation, an I can image that after a kick starter raises more than 600k, there are bound to be some other companies that want to give the  "delux RPG" treatment a try.

The game, judging by the kick starter is already a success. MCG will fulfill the kick-starter and the product will be awesome. I sincerely wish them the best of luck.  I'm just not sure I can appreciate a deluxe RPG product in the manner of Invisible Sun. Perhaps that will change if I ever get a chance to play it and really see what it's all about underneath all the deluxe trappings.

Thanks for reading

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Death, Dying , and Characters in RPGs

This post was inspired by  two  sources. 
Primarily my friend Neal putting my brain to work about a game I wrote which he has played with  other people that I will likely never meet. So naturally he asks a lot of good interesting and useful questions about the game.
Secondly This Post from the Pits Perilous blog served to further my thinking.

I'm going to write a bit about  character death and just some of my thoughts on the subject. I will directly relate some of those thoughts back to a game I wrote. Other points will be more general. I'm afraid this  post will likely be a meandering mess, please forgive me.

I have a game, It's called Amazing Adventures and Incredible Exploits. Check out the labels on this post to read more about it. The facts are the game started as a joke among the people I game with and myself, and it has grown a bit like an unpredictable weed.

The  premise being  that for every successful character in D&D,  Swords and Wizardry, dungeon world, or whatever your game of choice is  there are many more wanna-be adventurers out there. Some of these folks shouldn't be pushing their luck in cavernous ruins and  ruinous caves. Some folks are better off staying on the  farm. Those second class adventurers are who you get to pay in AAIE.
With that premise in mind, every character is rolled up completely randomly so some  characters end up truly ill equipped for their adventures, the game is deadly.

How deadly?

  • Darwin the dwarf got offed in one shot. I would argue that charging at the big bad monster was not the best tactic, but he was a warrior and a dwarf. Now he's dead. 
  • Unchecked doors with traps have  killed at least one NPC and one character that I can think of.
  • Recently two died while hiding under a rock outcropping. Roasted via lightning bolt.
  • Vud the Minotaur met his end after a round of combat, only to be upcycled as beef rations.
Some of the characters mentioned above were simply the victims of the random character generation. If you end up with 5 health, wicker armor, and wielding a dead chicken things are going to be difficult. I have seen players run such characters then wisely retire them after the first game. Those characters having gotten one taste of adventure realized, "This shit is dangerous!"

On the  other side of the  coin there have been the occasional, "Fletch the Minotaur warrior" type. Fletch is the  poster child for the random character generation dropping a gem.

To understand Fletch, please read the  following italicized bits in the voice of "Happy" Draymond Green.
"Minotaur? yup."
"Strong as can be, Yeah"
"warrior? Yup"
"Tons of health and armor? All-right"
"Weapons? Yop"
"combat? We run dis."

So anyway ... Fletch was a randomly  generated beast. Just the right mix of  attributes, abilities and equipment. I  mean  the  player was describing Fletch throwing axes into the backs of enemies then punching through them to retrieve the weapon. In context it made perfect sense. I don't think I could have killed Fletch with the monsters I rolled up for that adventure if I tried too. Fletch was an adventurer. He could make it to the big time. ***

When the game got into the wild (as in Neal ran it for strangers) the initial report was, "The  game is too deadly. Armor classes are too low and the monsters potentially* do too much damage." I am safe to assume no one  rolled up a "Fletch."

Which leads me to  the post from "Pits Perilous" and a quote from Neal.
"Nobody likes it when their character gets killed during the first combat."

While I can go back to the second paragraph of this post and outline again how such a sudden, violent death fits the game's initial design concept. That same sudden death breaks all the rules of "fun." It especially breaks the rules of fun when the  group playing the game were not there for the ideas genesis, and are not steeped in the inside humor that the game came from**.

Feedback being the golden liquor that we all run on, I feel I should honor it and address any issues brought up. I have adjusted a few things, such as scaling the monster damage, and more clearly illustrating the amount of freedom the GM has to modify the random enemies. 

All this is to say popular opinion is correct. It's NO fun to die early and often in an RPG.

The  base concept of  AAIE is that the failures of past characters will make it that much sweeter when a great character falls into your lap. A bit like the DCC funnel. The survivors of the attrition will endear themselves to the players.  If  it's a lucky character build like Fletch, or just some plucky human shlub who manages to survive a few games. The survivors should in theory grow on the players. Unfortunately it has not always worked out that way.  My game doesn't have the advantage of DCC's funnel in that players don't run a group of  under equipped victims. Each player runs one character and so it's almost impossible to see that character as just fodder. The length of character generation **** makes it sting a bit when the character dies. The random characters mean that every character is not a player's own special snowflake. After a few fast deaths it could become a game of, "I'll play characters until I get a good one." Which is not how the game was intended.The intention was players creating their random characters and trying to make the best of what they get. Again, bad design means it doesn't always work out that way.

Those are weaknesses in  my own game design.

Now for a blind defense of death.
Old school D&D has a great deal of death. I remember rolling up a level one magic user "Simlin" in Advanced dungeons and dragons. Simlin having a 9 AC and 4 hit points.  I knew before the ink was dry that I would have a hard time playing that sort of character simply because I'm not careful enough. I played the character and he eventually did die at the hands (or rather the  pole ax) of a gnoll. I was not careful (I got too close), the party did not scout well enough, and the initiative went the other way. He died. The character however lived on, because we joked about that sorry bastard for quite a while afterwards. Our next magic user was told in serious tones, "be careful.. or you'll get Simlin'd." The character became part of  the game in death when he honestly had zero impact while alive.
At low levels in old D&D (pre 3rd ed) there is no chance of rolling up a fletch, and not enough options as a player to  use your knowledge of the game system to make your character more viable. IN old D&D all first level characters are squishy. Simlin was not a bad character, he was just a low level character, played badly. This is where the  idea of player skill starts to seep into our discussion of death in RPG's. I think Player skill is a subject better left at the least to another post. More wisely it is a subject that should be left to writers smarter than I am. It serves my purpose to say that I believe player skill  is a real thing in RPG's and a bit of skill can help even weak characters avoid death. That's unless we're playing blood bowl, in which case it's the Ef'n dice... every damn time.....

Dramatic death is important to  RPG's but also limiting. If a player has played a character for a few years and meticulously leveled them up to a heroic level. That character's death if it happens at all should be a story changing plot defining moment. It should be important to the  overall narrative. It shouldn't be, "Well Frank's dead, take his stuff.. dibs on the mace. Anyone know where can we find another 15th level  priest to fill his  sandals?"

In just our last game I had a player trip a trap with an eighth level character who has been a big part of the  campaign's current story arc. The trap which may not have been initially deadly, hurt that character enough that encounters latter in on the game were much more dangerous. Imagine for a second if I had rolled max damage on that trap and  killed him out-right?
The story arc he was in would have been over in a non climatic fashion, that game sessions direction blunted.  In fact the last blog post I wrote about the majestic end of Wilhelm would have never happened. His burnt corpse would have been laying in some god-forsaken underground tunnel below the city of Torin. Yet in many classic RPGs and their clones the possibility of an ignominious death is always there, even at higher levels.
What does a GM do? Protect the character make sure he at least makes it to the  final battle, then let the dice fall where they may? Nerf the opposition to the point where they are no longer opposition but only window dressing?  None of that feels right.

Most GM's, myself included skin crawl at the idea of  fudging rolls to save characters. One of the defining aspects of paper and pencil RPGs is the need for players and GM's alike to roll with the punches when it comes to random results. The possibility of emergent situations and emergent play are what set live RPG's apart form just about everything else. Character death is part of that emergent game-play. And while I agree with  both  the players from Neal's AAIE game and the Pits Perilous blog, that it's no fun to get wiped out in the first combat of a game. I also think that sudden death and high mortality at low levels has been part of RPGs from the very beginning and likely will always be an issue with games designed with an old school aesthetic.

Thanks for reading that meandering pile of shit I passed off as a post.

* The monsters are rolled up randomly as well, once the stats and name are generated how it all comes together is left wholly to the  GM.
** AAIE was never initially meant to be played beyond our group, but it caught on and we played it quite a bit. Neal decided to play it with some other folks and  It's a great example of "designing with blinders on." The game hits the right notes for our group as it was intended to.  Outside of that group rough edges will start to show and  bad design decisions will fall apart. There is a long story about AAIE and ho it effected the  other thing I was  trying to put together, but I will save that for a rainy day.
*** the big time being defined as being an adventurer in a real RPG. Like  D&D or any of the other thousands of published fantasy RPG's out there. Someday I will write AAIE to 5th ed conversion rules, but that will be a lot of fiddly  work not yet worth doing.
**** Neal solved much of this problem by creating a "character generating program" which is an ongoing project. I still think generating the characters at the beginning of the game round robin style is a fun and important part of the game. But if  Shmoe the human fighter dies mid game... Neal's generator is 100% the best way to get back in the game.