måndag 3 september 2018

Adventure: Vale of Oblivion

 I took the key elements of The Buried Giant and made them into encounters. To turn them into an adventure, just place the numbers 1 though 16 in any region on your campaign map or use them for a quest. The original setting is mythic Britain, but you can easily reskin it to fit your world.

Encounters 1-16

1. In a shallow pit lives the she-dragon Querig, breathing a pacifying mist that seeps out into the entire region. Her hoard of roman gold is small by dragon standards, yet sizeable for this meagre land. Save or be unable to attack it. Once bloodied, the dragon will gasp for air and suddenly memories of old wrongdoings and suppressed animosities will flood the minds of all nearby characters. If killed, the denizens of the valley will be overcome with murderous rage for seven days and seven nights.

2. The legendary knight Gwain, well past his prime, traveling on the mandate of a long-dead king. The knight is on a perpetual quest to rid the region of monsters, but age has rendered him forgetful, clumsy and lacking in resolve. He is seldom in the right place at the right time, yet he keeps patrolling the roads like he has done for as long as anyone can remember and occasionally kills a beast. Together with a good mood and a genuinely helpful nature this still makes him well liked by the locals.
(The absent-mindedness and clumsiness is an act: the knight's true mission is to protect the dragon).

3. Four orphaned children living in the cottage of their dead parents, herding goats. Each day, the younger siblings bring all gray goats to graze, while the white ones stay behind to be fed poison by the older siblings. The children plan to use the poison-fed goats to kill the dragon and claim its hoard, to revenge the parents that it ate.

4. Reed-elves. They drain life for sustenance and want the weakest member of the party; if s/he is extradited, the rest are free to leave unmolested.

5. A small pond with refreshing water. Skeletons of massacred children litter the shores, barely covered by heather and soil.

6. A Ferryman. For a few pieces of Tin, he offers to row to an enchanted island just of the coast. All passengers must answer three questions truthfully and they must travel in separate boats - the sea is too rough. The ferryman makes no guarantees that passengers will arrive at the same location - considerations of weather and of tide - but surely capable and loving companions can find a way to reunite?

7. A mountain monastery, swarming with birds of prey. Many pilgrims come there to seek advice from the sage Jonus, widely considered the wisest man in the region. The monks keep a monster in the cellar, feeding it dissidents. To absolve themselves from this terrible sin, the monks chain themselves to a grate and offer their naked bodies for the birds to claw and peck.

8-9. Soldiers serving Lord Brennus, standing guard by a bridge [9. crossroads]. A warlike stranger has made a hidden camp nearby; if spotted, he asks the PCs to smuggle him across the bridge. He has nothing to hide, he claims, but prefer not to disturb the Lord's peace or be caught up in the bureaucracies of passing a guard post while being an armed stranger.

10. A cockatrice
. It petrifies any humans it encounter with its stare to injects them with poison, after which it crawls away. A petrified victim recovers in 1d6 hours, but any unwed man bitten by the beast must save. On a miss, he becomes obsessed with finding the dragon and live as its guardian and lover; on a hit, it is just a vague yearning.

11. An old crone
, bitterly following a man with old-fashioned clothes who has made camp in a ruined villa. She complains that the man tricked her husband into his boat and that now she cannot find him. The crone wails and curses and tries to harass the ferryman into leading her to her husband; but the man maintains his innocence, for he only carries consenting passengers in his boat.

12. Trolls.

13. Two ogres.

14. An elderly couple, slowly traveling form their home in burrow-town to the monastery (7) to seek counsel about a son they haven't seen in years. They have poor eyesight and suffer from mild dementia, but something in their stride suggests a prouder past.

15-16. Two villages: one in burrows (15) dug under a hill, the other built from planks and shielded by a palisade (16). Once, the villages waged war on another but hostilities are now a thing of the past.

torsdag 14 juni 2018

1d6 towers

I've always preferred longer entries in encounter tables, like hex descriptions. An excellent format is "X, but Y" or a description with a twist, because it focuses on how this encounter is different from your first guess.

A very good example of this is the situation-type encounters of Hidden Kingdom. They outline a situation - like a damsel riding her Palfrey at great speed - and then presents a d6 table of further details if the players interact with her. Only then is it determined if she is enjoying the lands that belong to her, a bandit who has teamed up with a Black Knight, an elf, fleeing from a cruel Powerlord or rushing to aid a lover in distress. I like this a lot because it fills the situation with potential: for a second, the Damsel is all those things. And in fact, you could easily decide that all options are true if you want a richer encounter, instead letting the PCs decide which facet of her personality they want to act on. Punish her for her misdeeds with the Black Knight? Reasonable, but maybe the pursuing Powerlord is a more pressing concern? Or maybe Love is the highest virtue, and all trespasses can be justified if she reaches her lover in time to save his life?

Here are 1d6 towers.

You spot a small tower in the distance. Clinging to a rock it rises over the surrounding foliage like the head of a drowning man, easy to lose sight of forever. Overgrown with vines and in bad repair the tower seems deserted at first, but a sudden shadow or instinct gives you doubt

If the tower is approached, roll 1d6:

1. Only the sturdy walls remain of the tower; into this stone cylinder a spindly troll has climbed, making itself a home. The troll hides from sight and hurls child-sized rocks fallen from the structure to protect its nest. The projectiles deals 3d6 damage on impact and continues skidding and bouncing for another 1d6", dealing half damage to those in its path. Armor has no effect.

The troll has a golden ring in its nest.

2. Built by monks to house them in times of strife, the tower has a plethora of narrow windows and a door that only the tallest ladder can reach. Anticipating their doom the monks burned their sacred texts and drank poison to protect their sacred knowledge, but due to cowardice, fate or divine will one of their lot survived. Ancient and bewildered, he now spends his time recreating the scrolls from faltering memory or contemplating the vial of poison that failed to kill him.

In the library are two scrolls that functions as cleric's spells, but if stained or ever touching the ground, they burst into flame in 1d4 rounds.

3. In the tower lives a band of robbers under the command of Radferd of Suddane. They have few treasures and only a little food, but are well equipped and motivated fighters.

4. A flock of harpies stay in this tower. Dread black against the pale twigs and bones that make up their nests, the harpies come here during spring to collect child-slaves to mine their native mountains. Haughty and prone to opportunistic cruelty, they are formidable fighters but reluctant to fight since any damage can lose them their place in the hierarchy of the flock. If nothing can be gained from combat, they curse or coo at interlopers, drop rocks and feces from above, or circle tirelessly around them to spoil their sleep and alert predators and miscreants to their presence.

2d4-2 children are kept in the tower, hungry and maltreated but eerily well-kempt and clean.

5. Locked inside the tower is a wounded knight. Delirious with fever and weak from loss of blood, he was trapped here by two outlaws who hope to secure a ransom for his life. The outlaws will return in 1d6 days, but the smell of blood will attract local monsters within 1d4 days unless the knight's wounds are treated.

6. A band of goblins led by Gultooth Tuck have made this dank tower their home. The hill and surrounding forest is littered with traps, and while many of them are poorly made their rusty teeth and grime-covered spikes make a powerful deterrent for would-be attackers while also providing the outpost with the occasional animal. The goblins are armed javelins and bows, the arrows of which they demonstratively spit on to further dissuade intruders.

The goblins have been fairly successful in their raids, and among their loot is a enchanted sword.

fredag 20 april 2018

2p adventure: The Barbican Keep

This keep is part of a great wall, and watches over the only (known) passage to the other side. The idea is that the player-characters enter at one side and try to get out at the opposite side without being killed. I've added stuff and removed stuff back and forth to strike a compromise between showcasing different aspects of the setting (the Dryads, the doomed house Gerait, the Sisters of Solace, etc) and presenting the desolate mood I want for the campaign. I still don't know if the balance is perfect, but I think it helps to imagine the keep as vastly oversized.

Anyway, here's the adventure location.

onsdag 18 april 2018

2p adventure: Black Knight Keep

After a delay, here's another keep. True to the idea of patterns (and also laziness) its based on reused components from previous designs. Hopefully, this will give a sense of familiarity and enable the accumulation of knowledge through play. That said, I am already having some issues with this constraint - as seen in the non-intuitive separation between walls and edges. I'll have to think more about that for future adventure sites.

The basic premise for the adventure is that there lives a black knight in a keep, and - as black knights do - he compulsively jousts anyone trespassing on his Lady's domain. The keep is said to hold tremendous wealth from all the ransoms thus produced, including a relic known as the Arm of the Bleeder.

Here's the adventure.

onsdag 21 februari 2018

Types of patterns

The other day, I proposed that the solution to making a setting mysterious is to develop in on and around some form of pattern.

From this, I offer that there are at least three levels of patterns: recurring, predictive, and systemic.

A recurring pattern means that similar things happens several times. This is the lowest level of a pattern, since if offers very little information to the player-characters except the realization that they have had similar experiences before. Basically, a recurring pattern is what happens if you never say "orc" and the player-characters figure out that it is in fact an orc they are encountering. This allows them to rely on proven tactics, thus making them more expert at survival. To have this type of pattern, all you need to do is to make sure that not everything in the setting is unique.

The recurring pattern only involves the PCs through reaction: they encounter the orc, they realize that it is an orc, and then they can apply their knowledge to overcome the obstacle. What I call a predictive pattern instead allows proactivity. It means that the player-characters can use their understanding of the setting to extrapolate results. They might figure out that the encounter table is weighted so that their next encounter will probably be an orc, or that the attack pattern of the dragon means it will use its its breath weapon in two rounds. Or, as in Isle, they might figure out where the next magic-user lives and who they are.

Note that this is not the specialized knowledge of rumors or similar information, but has much more to do with the general accumulation of information through experience. To include this type of pattern, you need to make sure that not everything in the setting is unique, and that there's some - any - logic to where and when things happen.

The third level of patterns are systemic. By this I mean that they enable the player-characters to form predictions not only about what will happen, but why. In other words, they sense the underlying logic of how and were systems are applied. It occurs to me that this is a large part of the appeal of the appeal with builds and combat-as-sport: you might become so intimately familiar with the system that you know with confidence that the party can push through an additional four encounters - any encounters - without any real risk. So the kick comes not from threat to the character or exploring the unknown,  but from seeing whether your estimates were correct. Like a mars landing: did the feet-to-meter conversion check out? If not, were the backup systems robust enough to still ensure victory? Point is: in these types of games, you can and is rewarded for cracking the system. In an OSR context, this is generally not something desirable. So if we want this kind of pattern, it has to be part of the setting. But if I'm correct, the consequence is that one cannot start the campaign with a city, two dungeons and a random encounter chart. Instead, the pattern must come first.

I don't really have a solution to how to do this. But my gut feeling is that you do it by revealing the setting through random encounter tables, connected items, landmarks and other things that are experienced in play and not in a "the story so far"-chapter. Or more generally: by presenting the consequences of your ideas, rather than the ideas themselves. At least, that's how I'll try to approach it for my next campaign.

söndag 18 februari 2018

Patterns, or Lessons from Isle of the Unknown

In many ways, Isle of the Unknown is a mediocre module at best. Its descriptions do little more than state that something is there, and content is repetitive and highly formulaic, as if procedurally generated from a limited set of items. And unlike Carcosa which benefits from a novel setting, Isle of the Unknown is essentially a French medieval island. Thus, it would be tempting to write it off as a dud existing only to meet a hexcrawl quota. But to me, the module is remarkable in how it presents you with the illusion of depth and meaning. I would argue that the formulaic elements conjure up a specific setting that the player-characters gradually learn to anticipate and understand. This is especially true for the magic-users that scatter the island. In Isle, it is fully possible (albeit improbable) to figure out both the location and overall theme of the not-yet encountered magicians once a few of them have been found.This alone makes Isle rather unique. But furthermore, the player-characters might even happen upon an encounter that explains the existence of some of the formulaic elements, thus enabling them to intuit some form of history for the setting itself. Now granted, the revelation is far from mind-boggling. But there is a "there" there, build into the adventure at a structural level and reflected in construction of the book. This makes Isle - flaws and all - one of the landmark modules of the OSR. It is designed to contain something more than what meets the eye.

A mystery.

One of the ideas that spoke most to me in the early OSR was that fantasy games had lost track of the fantastical. The more we play, the less is left unexplained. We have already fought a vampire, we know the HD of a goblin, and so on, and we are worse for it. Hence, the call to arms was to reintroduce mystery and a sense of wonder! And as soon as the problem had been outlined, so were its solutions, such as

- Don't speak in game terms.
- Use unique monsters, or at least pretend that they are unique by describing them instead of naming them.
- Go for weird instead of vanilla.
- Use pulp as inspiration, not Tolkien. And so on.

These are all good to very-good advice. But to me, they miss something fundamental. Neither of the standard solutions create MYSTERY. What they do is create uncertainty. Their idea is to replace some of the known with something unknown, or to recast the familiar as something unfamiliar. But at least to me, mystery is something completely different.

Mystery, I'd say, is the recognition of a logic that you cannot (yet) understand. It's a secret you can uncover, engaging a system that just might be there. A pattern. If this is true, then uniqueness and weirdness might, in themselves, actually be counterproductive. If the setting is systematically strange, it stops being unknown and becomes unknowable.

Following the cue of Isle, I'd argue that the solution to making a setting mysterious is not just to replace the ordinary with the extra-ordinary but to provide the extra-ordinary with its own pattern.

måndag 12 februari 2018

1 page adventure: Gerait Demon Keep

There's a ton of good adventures for D&D and other fantasy games. However, most of them are set underground. This is a problem for me, since I'm easily bored with the dungeon as an environment, and consequently planning a campaign mostly set above ground. But then it occurred to me that perhaps other people feel the same way, or at least feel that dungeon-style adventures set above ground could be a nice complement to the regular dungeons.

Thus, I present Gerait Demon Keep. Like with Luthria convent, the idea is to
keep it short,
include some measure of loot,
hint on a setting; and
provide a clue for further adventures (here, in the form of books and a map that could lead to a new adventure site).