Sunday, April 18, 2021

Sorcery! 2 - Magical Murder Mansion Part I

A rogues' gallery

As our campaign begins, our gallery of rouges are assembled in The Hanged Man, a tavern on the seedier side of Arkleton, Analand's capital.

As they waited for their prospective employer to arrive, our villains took to boasting about their latest exploits to each other.

Gearfrid, a merchant formerly from Ruddlestone, told of how he was framed by a noble and thrown into prison, but through his skills at manipulation managed to convince the guards to smuggle in some weapons for him. He armed a fellow prisoner by the name of Silent, who was then able to cut them their way out of the prison, leaving behind fifty dead prison guards.

Zul and Penn, halfling highwaymen, boasted about the rich haul they got from waylaying another noble's caravan.

Zhora, an elven necromancer, spoke of how she and her dwarven bodyguard Zamm were hired by a baron to slay a rival, whom she then animated as an undead and made march back to her employer to collect her pay.

(At this point I was worried that Analand was running out of barons and the letter Z.)

Malus the minstrel then spoke of how he sowed discord and plague among the inhabitants of a city, causing strife and countless deaths, not for silver, but for his pleasure. His companion, the quiet druid named Horovar, merely grunted.

Then just as the sun was setting, a hooded man, calling himself only 'V', came to their table, and told them that the Grand Wizard Goncol had died in "an accident", and that he wished them to retrieve a scroll from the vault in his mansion, before the place would be occupied by the king's men.

V offered each pair of our villains 150 gold pieces for retrieving the scroll, and an offer for two other jobs afterwards if they succeeded, promising a total of 500 gold pieces for each duo upon completion of all three jobs.

Our villains took the contract, and set off to gather information on their target.

By speaking to former students of Goncol's school, suppliers of his food and magical components, and dwarven masons who built his tower, they were able to ascertain the layout of the mansion, the adjoining tower and its vault, and that Goncol most likely lived alone, and had in the past procured various alchemical supplies, as well as clockwork mechanisms.

Armed with this information, Silent, Penn, Zhora, and Horovar set off for the mansion, arriving a little after midnight.

Here they found that the compound was divided into two parts: a mansion to the front, and a tower in the rear, the latter surrounded by a hedge maze.

The party attempted to enter the tower through the hedges, but Horovar reported that the hedges were strangling vines from the Forest of Snatta, and that hacking through them would be too dangerous.

The party then entered the compound by the front gate, and found a plaque upon the door of the mansion with the following lines:

If you seek to enter my tower, first find ye two keys of power.

One lies behind my greatest treasure, source of my pride, my joy, my pleasure.

The other lies in plain sight, unhidden; but woe to he who takes it unbidden.

If you wish to enter my vault, two more keys you will need by default.

Where the first is, is crystal clear, but reach for it, and it will cost you dear.

The other is not found upon this Earth, to find it you must return to my birth.

Venture into the mansion of Goncol, and you will find out I am quite the 

Wary of entering through the front doors, the party pried open a pane of glass on the window to the dining hall, and Penn the halfling climbed through, and opened the door from inside. In the main lobby they found four bronze statues depicting Goncol himself, the Arch-sorcereress Morgana, a warrior named Valerian, and an elven warrior named Glowulf. When they wondered aloud whether the statues would animate and attack them, the statues started to speak, denying that they would do so; and true to their words, they did not. The party questioned the statues, but they could provide little information.

The party then searched through the rooms in the mansion, encountering a few magical traps, but no opposition, and found various minor magical items, such as an egg-cup that cooked eggs to perfection, a wand of fruit transmutation, a salt cellar that held ten times its volume in salt, a glow globe, a couple of magical pillows, and a couple of clockwork artifacts: a musical box in the shape of a nightingale, and an alarm clock in the shape of a rooster.

Inside Goncol's bedroom, they found the Grand Wizard lying in his bed. Horovar struck at the form with his sword, only to find that it was an illusion. They searched the room, and Silent found the first key, a small golden one, in an alcove hidden behind a nude portrait of Goncol himself.

The party descended to the cellar, and found a hidden door to an underground prison. Within one of the cells was a man who looked like the statue named Valerian. The man claimed to have lost his memory from the tortures inflicted upon him by Goncol, and begged the party to release him. After some deliberation, our villains decided to do so, gave him some of the loot they had taken so far to carry, and took him outside the mansion... whereupon he bolted for the front gate. Penn reacted swiftly and put two arrows into the man's back before he could reach the gate. As he fell to the ground, dying, his form changed to that of a hideous, tentacled humanoid. Horovar moved to where he fell, but could not bring himself to deliver a killing blow - but the creature expired soon after.

Unable to locate a second key, the party decided to go into the hedge maze instead. Entering the garden that led to the maze, they found a fountain, and lying within it was a second golden key. Horovar used his sword to gently fish the key out, but as the key broke the surface of the water, the water began to move and take a humanoid form...

Prepping and Running the Game

The basis for this session is Magical Murder Mansion by Skerples.

I had originally envisioned the campaign to be three assassination missions, each of which would take place in a different environment. I thought that Morgana would be encountered in her Sorceress' Tower, and Goncol in his mansion, and so I searched for modules set in mansions, and came upon this module. In the module the occupant of the titular mansion was dead, and I thought I could work that into my storyline too.

The actual mansion in the module is much larger and had more parts to it, but I wanted a much shorter session and thus had to cut the number of rooms down. I went through the module, noted the encounters which I thought were funny or interesting, and then placed them into the rooms in the Heroic Maps mansion map which I bought a while back.

I then added minor magical items from a table in Knock #1 to locations which they would fit in. This encouraged the players to search the place, and also placed some pressure on them, as we tracked encumbrance for this game.

Then, in the finest tradition of madhouse dungeons, I composed a poem to let give the players know that they had to find keys to complete the mission, and also clues as to where they might be found.

The players were rather cautious in the first part of the game, no doubt due to their experience in our last campaign, where every room was either guarded by undead or animated statues or golems, or trapped. The four statues were of course for comic relief, but also played an important role for the whole campaign as they would allow our characters to recognise the four members of the party from the previous campaign.

They also spent time searching for loot, and trying to figure out what each magical item did. There was no real combat this session - the only time we drew cards for initiative was when the creature tried to run away, and Penn shot it... because he was carrying some of their loot. Ironically, when Horovar moved in to try to crush the creature's head with the bear trap he had, the player rolled 3 successes on him empathy check on 3 dice - you have to *fail* an empathy check to deliver a coup de grace.

The party had spent a lot of in-game time just acquiring one key, leaving them 2 or 3 hours to enter the vault and find the scroll before daybreak and the king's men would move in. There will be a couple of combats in the next game, so we will find out how fast and interesting the combat system in Forbidden Lands is.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Musings on Gaming #6.1 - Power

When the newbie GM picks up his d20 for the first time

Last week I got into a discussion on an RPG forum on the topic of Game Balance. The thread ran to more than two hundred posts, due mainly to people arguing about definitions, and people chiming in to agree with one point of view or another.

The points of view ranged from "balance is impossible and unnecessary in RPGs" from one end, to "balance is possible and desirable for an enjoyable game for everyone" on the other.

When we talk about balance in an RPG, we are usually talking about two separate things: power balance between player characters/classes, and balancing encounters.

Here it is probably worthwhile noting that the concept of balance is one that is inherited from RPGs' predecessor wargaming. Modern commercial wargames almost all have army lists and points system aimed at providing a "balanced" or fair fight between opponents. Within an army list, the troop types are supposed to be costed according to how well they can perform in a battle, taking into account their speed, their ability to deal damage at a distance and in melee, as well as how long they can be expected to survive in the game. Between army lists, a unit costing 10 points is supposed to be worth as much as a unit costing 10 points from the other list.

Of course we all know that points systems are imperfect, and how useful a unit is is greatly dependent on the tactical situation: a missile unit is likely to be less useful if there are lots of line-of-sight blocking terrain, and a fast-moving unit is less useful when there are lots of bad-going terrain, and so on.

Now when we port this idea of points and balance over to RPG, the situation becomes more complicated.

While wargames deal with the limited aspect of combat, characters in an RPG deal with more types of situation, typically exploration and social interaction. How important each of those aspects are depends greatly on what type of game the characters are in: in a combat-heavy game they may matter little, while in a mystery-solving type of game they become crucial. For this reason, balancing the abilities and capabilities of player characters/classes become more difficult, as a lot depends on the context.

That said, it does not mean that the rules cannot try to achieve some sort of "balance". And the way to do this, ironically, is not to make all player classes "balanced" in that they can all do everything equally well, but to make them "imbalanced", in that some classes are better at some things, while others are better at other. In other words, we need "niche protection".

I personally believe that when people complain about imbalance between the character classes, they are not so much complaining about how certain classes cannot put out the same amount of hit point damage per round at the same level at another class as they are complaining about feeling that their character isn't contributing to the success of the party as much as they wished. A typical rouge character is not going to be able to put out as much damage as a fighter of the same level in a stand-up fight, so it is no wonder that a rouge player often wants his character to go off on his own to 'scout ahead' or flank the enemy forces, even if it means splitting the party.

We all play RPGs because we want to see our characters do what we expect them to do, whether it is a fighter putting out lots of hurt on bad guys, a ranger tracking enemies down, a rouge executing a perfect backstab, a wizard casting fireball, or a bard being just plain annoying.

If a particular class is better at doing all these things, like the dreaded DMPC, then there is no reason for players to play any of the other classes. Likewise, if all classes are equally good at everything, then it doesn't make a difference which class the players choose to play. At the end of the day, RPGs are games, and games require making choices that lead to meaningful differences in outcomes, and for the choice on what class to play to be meaningful, we need to have niche protection.

Of course, having niche protection alone is not enough; if a game is heavy on investigation and diplomacy and light on combat, then players who are playing the martial classes will feel like they have little to contribute. It is therefore up to the GM to plan or create encounters where all players can contribute to the progress of the party. Now it may be difficult to do so for every scenario or session, but over the course of a campaign, we can hopefully let each and every player have the chance to make his character shine and create memorable moments.

In the second part of this post I will talk about the other aspect of balance: balancing encounters.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Sorcery! 2 - The Sequel Campaign


This week, my players and I started a new campaign which is a spin-off/sequel to the Sorcery! campaign we played two years ago.

The seed for this campaign was planted at the very session of the finale of the previous campaign, after we briefly described what happened to each of the characters, and a player suggested an "evil" campaign where they play, well, evil characters. We liked the idea so much we decided to plan a slot for this campaign, but due to COVID, we had to wait until now to put it into action.

While the basic plot for the campaign came to me that very night, it took a while before I decided on what rules to use. The Advanced Fighting Fantasy rules we used for the first campaign was too simplistic for me. I wanted something with a little more crunch.

Eventually I settled on the Forbidden Lands rules, which FG had backed in one of their later kickstarters. While I think the fluff for FL is silly, their combat rules are rather interesting, and the mechanic for "pushing a roll" gives that risky, desperado feel that I think fits an evil campaign.

With that, I present you the prologue to our second Sorcery! campaign:

It is twenty years since the Crown of Kings left passed from Analand to Ruddlestone. Few know the secret that while in Analand's care, the crown was stolen by the Archmage of Mampang, and it was only through the efforts of a small band of heroes that it was retrieved before its loss was known - something which would have brought disgrace to the royal house.

In those two decades, Analand has changed, as had our heroes. 

A new king now sits upon the throne, young, and yet untried. Since the crown left, the fortunes of the kingdom has declined. Corrupt officials now sit in high offices. Criminals terrorise the countryside, and the streets of the cities, even of Arkleton, the capital, are no longer safe after sunset.

Goncol, the thief from Khare, having gained a mansion as his reward for his part in recovering the crown, opened up a school of wizardry. After an initial period of success, the school became plagued with scandals, and soon had to close down. It was said that Goncol conducted unholy experiments in the dungeons of his mansion, and one of his subject was Valerian, the former captain of the Royal Guard sent on the same mission with him, but who turned against his king and swore fealty to the Archmage of Mampang instead. Rumour has it that Valerian, broken by the horrendous experiments done on him, eventually managed to escape from the dungeon. It is not known if he had help from the staff in the mansion, but Goncol became paranoid, and gradually dismissed all of them, choosing instead magical servants, and putting his trust in traps and magical guardians to keep himself safe from any revenge by Valerian.

Morgana the Sorceress received for her service a tower in the hills, which she fortified with many magical wards and a small army of loyal guards. She rose in the hierarchy of the College of Sorcerers in Arkelton, eventually becoming the Arch-Sorceress. But once she had attained that title, she took little interest in that job, leaving most of the duties of the position to the deans of the college, and spending most of her time in her fortress.

Little is known of what happened to the last member of the party, the Black Elf Glowulf, who was said to have asked for a modest reward, and thereafter returned to his village and became a simple fisherman.

Now, the people of Analand wait anxiously for the return of the crown of kings to the land, hoping that it will bring a new golden age to the kingdom.

In a dark tavern in Arkleton, the new heroes - nay, villains - of our tale also wait for their contact, for it seems that someone had brought together the most notorious criminals of the city, for some nefarious purpose...

Cast of Villains

Zhora, Elven Death Sorcerer. Once an orphan who lived on the streets of Arkleton, her destiny changed when she found a strange skull staff that awakened her magical talents. Her companion is Zamm, a dwarven warrior, trained to be a bodyguard to a noble, but now protects the necromancer.

Gearfried, a trader from Ruddlestone, ran a successful business in Analand, until he was framed by a nobleman and thrown into prison. Here, he befriended Silent, the assassin, and together they escaped and started their life of crime.

Malus, the flamboyant minstrel, a homicidal psychopath, who travels with Horovar, a Druid from foreign lands who had come to Analand for his own unknown goal.

Zul the Sorcerer, and Penn the Hunter, a pair of halfling highwaymen.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Musings on Gaming #5 - Mind

Photo of a GM removing agency from a player, 2019 (colourised)

As I mentioned in the last post in this series, I had a couple of realisations that changed the way I look at GMing around 2008. One of them came from the Dragon Age RPG, which had a section on character motivations and goals.

Now I always knew that players had motivations and goals: they wanted to gain experience, gold, cool magical items, and occasionally they wanted a custom-made character class, and they would come to me with these requests, and we would work something out. They may have different reasons for joining my game, but they all wanted to play and have fun, which was good.

What we didn't really pay a lot of attention to, however, was the motivation for their characters. Once in a while in a longer campaign a player would say: since my character is a noble/knight, I think he would like to go on a quest to win a tourney/slay a dragon. This was something which evolved in playing, and not something which we consciously tried to impose. The lack of motivation wasn't a problem when we were younger - we all had a lot of free time and we weren't really expecting the games to be anything other than a platform where we would live out our power fantasy, kill monsters and take their stuff, and just hang around and crack jokes. But as I got older and they way I viewed the world changed, I began to find that less satisfying.

As I mentioned in the first post in this series, I like my game worlds to be real, and people in the real world have goals and motivations, so why shouldn't the PCs?

I now ask my players to think about their characters' short- and long-term goals when they create their characters. This not only makes them think about their characters and how they will interact with the central tension of the game world, but also allows me to plan the campaign in such a way that most if not all the characters will have a chance to fulfill both their short- and long-term goals.

Goals and motivations also of course apply to NPCs, from the throw-away peasant the PCs meet the road, to the main villain of the campaign, and every monster and minion in between. And here is where the difference between motivation and goals become important: motivation is what drives us, it is, ironically, the end; goals, on the other hand, are what we think will help us achieve the end, it is, again ironically, the means.

Goals are as varied as they come: the big bad wants to get his hands on the magical artifact so he can rule the world; the evil corporation wants to steal the data from their competitor so they can make big bucks; the cultists want to summon Cthulhu because... er...

And this is where I find the motivations of many classic villains as being unrealistic. What, for example, is Sauron's motivation? Or Emperor Palpatine's? It is perhaps OK for the villain of a fantasy novel or a sci-fi movie to have no other motivation other than being evil and wanting to rule the world, but in our own world, no villain works that way. No, not even real-life evil dictators who waged wars and murdered civilians. They may claim to do so based on some ideology or world view, but it is no coincidence that these villains also happened to live in luxury, protected by elite soldiers.

If watching The Godfather trilogy has taught me anything, it is that we all want the same things, but it is in how we try to achieve those things that make us good or evil.

Related to this is the idea of "evil races".

I can't remember when I stopped using the trope, but I did not stop because I believed that evil races in D&D represented real world races - I don't; rather, it was the realisation that any sentient race cannot be all good or evil. If they cannot choose between good or evil acts, then they cannot be considered truly sentient; and any creature that displays the level of intelligence demonstrated by the "demi-humans" in D&D must possess self-awareness and sentience.

Evil must be a choice, or else it has no meaning.

Certainly certain cultures may find certain practices acceptable which our own do not, but oftentimes whether we find something evil or not has more to do with how different they are from we do, and whether it hurts our interests. Some "villains" in my campaigns are not fully sentient beings, but forces of nature or manifestation/personification of the principle of destruction, like the Grens (*not-aliens*) in our sci-fi campaign, or the Darkspawn in the Dragon Age setting. Such beings may make it easier for players and GMs because they serve as a non-sentient enemy which is unambiguously a threat to our own existence, and can therefore be destroyed without qualms; but it is worth noting that in both the Alien/s franchise and the original Dragon Age computer game, while the "monsters" of the stories cause fear, it is the willingness of people to sacrifice others to these monsters for their own gains that causes revulsion in the viewers.

Saturday, April 03, 2021

Five Torches Deep in Barrowmaze - a retrospective

This is not a review of the Five Torches Deep rules, or the Barrowmaze module, but more my reflection on running a megadungeon using an OSR set of rules.

Barrowmaze was the first true megadungeon I ran. I have previously runned large dungeons that took three or four sessions to play through, but these were always completed in single in-game days. Barrowmaze, however, is such a huge dungeon, with so many locations, that it is impossible for a party to explore all of it in a single day; the version of the dungeon which I ran is already a cut-down version of the original, with many monsters and treasures removed, plus I simplified the process for searching and looting the tombs, and it still took 17 sessions for my players to explore most of it.

While the first few sessions felt novel and different to my players - I am usually a GM who cares little about encumbrance and supplies like food and lamp oil - once they had to develop a system to investigate and loot tombs, things became more routine and mechanical later on in the campaign, and especially when the PCs gained more hit points and did not need to be as cautious as they did at levels 1 or 2. While this may seem rewarding to the players, from the point of view as the GM it was less interesting, as each encounter, while existing in the larger framework of a dungeon with a theme and a history, was essentially independent and isolated from the other encounters.

Also, with Five Torches Deep's system of "Schroedinger's supplies", bringing the exact supplies that you need in the exact quantities became less, well, exacting, and once the PCs have made enough gold this part of the gameplay was mostly auto-piloted. In practice, in-game passage of time and the availability of healing magic became the only determinants of how long the PCs could stay in the dungeon.

From a tactical point of a view, a megadungeon with a theme was fun. The players had to deal with traps which they knew had to be there, but the exact mechanism of which they did not know. The same was also true of monsters: they knew the dead would rise and attack them if they opened the sarcophagus or tried to remove grave goods from the burial niches, but they had to do those things if they wanted to get paid. However, these encounters mostly did not contribute to the narrative of the campaign. This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially in an open-table system common in OSR and which we employed for my campaign, as it allows players to miss sessions and not feel like they cannot keep up with the storyline. But for me, at times it felt a little grind-y.

That is not to say that the Barrowmaze module did not encourage incorporating plotlines into the dungeon-delve. There are two major NPC factions operating in the dungeon, a few more "native" factions (which I ended up omitting), plus several NPC adventuring parties whom the PCs could have allied themselves with or competed against. In addition, several artefacts which were important either in opening certain doors or destroying the MacGuffin were littered throughout the module. The presence of these various parties, and the fact that the two main NPC parties had agendas which they were actively working towards meant that this was a megadungeon with a expiry date: eventually one of the factions will find the MacGuffin, and then things will get really bad for everyone else. This to me is a strong point for the design of the module, but it does require wisdom on the part of the GM on information management: let the players learn about the true purpose of the NPC factions too early, and they may become too focused on stopping them at the expense of exploring the dungeon; let them know too late, and things will just become a big showdown. In retrospect I should have given my players more information about the two NPC factions and perhaps having the PCs run into the NPCs more often, giving them more a sense that there is some constant scrabble for territory.

Over all I think the concept of Barrowmaze - a megadungeon with a reason for being what it is, populated by monsters with a reason for being inside, and being explored by several factions with competing interests - is a very good one. To fully exploit the potential of the set-up, however, requires a GM who knows what he wants out of the module, and how to achieve it.

The dungeon being as big as it is, PCs are expected to level up several times as they explore more and more of it, and this is something that I did not account for. In my other campaigns, I usually ask that my players keep track of things like gold and equipment earlier in the campaign, but when the PCs before richer and more experienced in adventuring, I tend to hand-wave these aspects. Usually, the scope of the adventure also shift from more low-level play like robbing tombs and fighting goblins, to higher-level missions like thwarting villains with devious plans and powerful henchmen. This becomes harder to implement in a megadungeon setting, or at least I feel I did not manage to make this transition.

So will I run another megadungeon again? Well, it was fun, but I will almost certainly not do so with this same group of players. The experience of starting as a level 1 tomb-robber and slowly working your way up to an experienced adventurer with lots of cool items is classic D&D, but I am not sure is one that players will enjoy going through again. Nevertheless, I don't rule out the possibility that I may run the module again for another group of players.

As for Five Torches Deep, there are many elements of the rules which I like and will incorporate into my standard, baseline 5E play, but I feel that the spell list is too limited and resulted magic-using PCs having the same repertoire of spells.

Overall it has been a learning experience for me as a GM, and if you are looking for a megadungeon to run, Barrowmaze is certainly worth looking at.