Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Random Dungeons

I left my last post on a note about randomly-generated dungeons.
Now, random dungeons have a tendency to be incoherent; dungeons for their own sake without much internal logic. But the upside is that they (theoretically) don't require a lot of investment of time or creative energy.
As much as I would like to be running a serious campaign and developing my own setting, the truth is that it is difficult to get a handful of busy 20-somethings to meet on a regular basis.
So suddenly, running one-shots and short adventures with B/X rules and random dungeons has a certain appeal.

My previous experience with random mapping involved using the random tables in the AD&D DMG. Except the book doesn't make explicitly clear how the tables work, and it takes a fair bit of designer discretion to make them work.

Incidentally, the AD&D DMG is my favorite D&D book. Loaded with evocative details and rather little clear direction on how to use them.

So I went looking online for tools to produce random dungeons. Shout out to Dungeoneering Dad for doing a lot of the legwork.

These tools draw a dungeon map and populate them with monsters, treasure and traps:

I ran a game for myself to test these dungeons out. Also, to teach myself how to run B/X smoothly.
I admit that even I felt a little weird sitting down to play D&D with myself. And yet, it helped to smooth out the kinks in how I run Basic before inflicting it on my players.

What I found was that even randomly generated dungeons take some tuning and preparation to run well.
Donjon produces dungeons for the later editions, and also for AD&D, which is closest in overall balance to Basic. I like what Donjon does. But:

A lot of the traps are sure to kill low level adventurers. In playtest, they killed much more often than monsters. They'll have you going through thieves like potato chips and Mountain Dew. I could tolerate an occasional trap of certain doom, but I think Donjon overdoes it.
If I were to play it as generated, I would atleast devise a means to grant XP for traps. Like if a party inentionally avoids or succesfully disarms a trap, they get XP as if the trap were a monster of the HD that the trap would kill with an average damage roll.
For example a falling block that does 6d6 damage does an average 21 damage, which would equate to the average HP of a 4 HD monster. So noticing and circumventing the trap grants XP as a defeating a 4HD monster.  I will try it this way in further playtest.

Donjon also gives a lot of details- from dungeon dressing to a wandering monster table. But it behooves the DM to look through these details and determine what they actually mean before you have to describe them to the players!
For instance; if one of the wandering monsters is a six dwarves wandering senselessly, the DM suddenly has to invent a backstory for this dwarf. Or if a room has an X marked on the west wall, the DM will have to note why somebody made the mark in anticipation of when the players choose to obsess over what is actually a random bit of dungeon dressing. Some traps are listed without describing what exactly the trigger is or where the danger-zone is. Some bits of dressing like large Idols with ruby eyes will certainly be construed as treasure, so it's better to determine what they are worth and how hard it will be to pry them out before the players ask about it.

Also, the monsters listed in B/X are pretty basic. Most generators will pull out monsters which aren't listed and will need either adaptation or replacement.

Moving on to mythweavers. Mythweavers makes dungeons for 3rd edition and will require conversion. You'll need the 3rd ed. DMG and MM for this. This one is kinder with the traps. It also pays out much larger sums of gold and even magic items. So characters in a mythweaver dungeon will go up much faster.
Mythweaver lacks a few of the nice feature which donjon has; like  a wandering monster table or showing the dungeon entrance or offering various file formats to save the dungeon in.  It just createsa a little more work
Mythweaver is also very weird about its dungeon dressing, offering a list of unrelated items if any. It seems to me that it would generally be more useful just to know the function of a room and some reference to its state of repair, along with any natural or geomorphic features.
All in all, donjon is to be preferred for Basic D&D adventures.

There are also a lot of map generators, which draw dungeons, but do not stock them. All in all it seems like preparing and tuning a stocked random dungeon isn't much less work than stocking it yourself, If you stock you own dungeon,I think you are more likely to be fluent in int when it comes time to run.
Here is a map generator- it also does nice looking caves

But these are particularly cool. I used this and randomly populated it using the guidelines in the Basic book, with some help from Tricks, Empty Rooms, & Basic Trap Design by Courtney Campbell
It took a while because the geomorphs are so complex. I am a little concerned that it will be difficult to describe the cogent information about the shape and layout of some of the spaces- difficulties which you would not have in the series-of-disjointed-rectangular-room style of dungeon.
based on:  https://rpgcharacters.wordpress.com/maps/geomorph-mapping-project/

I hope it works out. Now If only I can manage to get some people together.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

exploring Basic D&D

A lot of my sensibilities as a D&D player are influenced by the OSR. Most of my favorite writers and thinkers about rpgs are somehow connected to the old school rennaisance.

The games I have played however, have mostly been 3rd edition, with a healthy smattering of the White Wolf  World of Darkness system. My only real experience playing an "Old school" style game was a brief flirtation with Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

I had some problems with LotFP though. Characters seemed to die too easily. Players didn't have time to get used to their characters. Those who had invented detailed backstories for these ill-fated characters found themselves shortchanged on their efforts. As a DM, I had been hoping for a certain threat of lethality, and the tension that comes from it. But the lethality lent more of a slasher-flick absurdity than actual drama. And whats worse, I found that the constant character deaths were holding up  the campaign. Characters were simply not living long enough to witness the wonders I had invented.

Part of the the problem was that I had designed the adventure with 3E sensibilities, with the power creep of 3E in mind. Flame Princess appears to run on a d20-like system as far as combat is concerned, so it seemed like an easy transfer. But rather than adjusting my style to the new system, I just changed the campaign back to 3rd. The increases survivability allowed us to play in the manner to which we had become accustomed.

I had basically given up on Basic D&D. But I still read OSR blogs. Including Monster&Manuals, which is where I found this:


These are play reports and commentary of a few trial B/X games, and then an extended campaign where some of the characters get as high as Second Level.
The odd thing is how genuinely interesting these reports are. They are exciting to read, and that's about the last thing you would expect.

I had been made to understand throughout my roleplaying career that Old School D&D didn't really allow for roleplaying. Supposedly, back in the day, D&D was basically played like a board game, and only later more nuanced systems really had the potential for drama and characterization.

Yet in these play logs, there are well-defined characters, ethical conundrums, drama, and lots of tension. It shows the value and potential of Old School play, and it is pretty inspiring.
The rules used were the Basic/Expert rules with very minimal houseruling. These rules were edited by Tom Moldvay and David Cook, and published in 1981. There are two books in the set, Basic and Expert. Basic has rules and tables for characters up through the third lever. Higher levels are described in the blue-covered Expert book. These are the rules usually taken as the basis of the OSR and the various "retro-clones" such as Lamentations.


Some of the key factors I noticed that are different from most D&D games I've played:

>Play began at the threshold of the dungeon. It is understood that the party members already know eachother and are going to cooperate. This saves a lot of bullshit. Shopping and resting are not played out, but simply announced.

>Overland travel was simply announced as a given. But B/X does have rules for it: It amounts to a possibility of a random encounter while moving from one hex to another. This basically extends the length of the gauntlet the party must run.

>Play moves very quickly. The group seems to get through a lot of encounters in a short amount of play time.

>XP is based on treasure acquired: counted when it leaves the dungeon. Monsters are also worth XP, but the risk of combat is not necessarily worth the meager reward.

>A single good hit from an enemy or a trap can mean certain death - especially at low levels. Teamwork and caution are a necessity. This DM gave experience not only for defeating enemies, but also for causing the enemy to flee or talking their way out of a fight.

> Morale and reaction checks are absent in recent editions. But they are key to encounters in basic.

>Resources are very limited. HP and spells evaporate quickly, and there's no telling what's in the next room. The party has to decide just how far to push their luck.

>Dungeons are not cleared; they are raided. The idea is to grab treasure and get out without anybody dying.

>This DM used dungeons made by an online random generators. One called Wizardawn, which seems to be defunct, and another called donjon. There are several tool like this online. While I am usually of the mind that a dungeon should have an underlying logic to it, the upshot of using randomly generated dungeons is that the DM doesn't have to worry about his creativity or ego being on the line and can simply focus on running game.

>There's no (intended) continuity or narrative at stake, so the campaign can be as log or as short as is convenient.

Consider my interest in Old School D&D rekindled. It comes at the right time, and the exploration offers plenty of fodder for armchair demiurge. more to come.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Wuts an Ar Pee Gee?

Long due salutations. I am keenly aware that Armchair Demiurge has not been nearly as active as it one was.
But recently, I've been in the middle of buying a home, moving, quitting my job and searching for new employment. It doesn't take many words to say all that, but it has been an ordeal. As a result, I haven't had much time to spare for gaming. Hopefully, this entry will signal a return to form.

Game books seem to be obliged to have some blurb at at the beginning which explain what a roleplaying game is. This is strange. Monopoly doesn't bother to explain what a board game is. Yet as fundamental as roleplaying is, we feel some need to explain ourselves.

Anyways, If I were to create my own system (which is the ultimate purpose of this blog) and write a book for it, this is how I would explain roleplaying games and how they are different:

Most people who pick up this book will already be familiar with traditional "pen and paper" roleplaying games and how they work. However, authors are nonetheless obligated to explain roleplaying games, on the off chance that a reader is unfamilar with the concept, or perhaps learning about traditional roleplaying for the first time.

Traditional roleplaying games have an ancestor in miniatures-wargaming. Their most prominent descendents are certain genres of videogames which emphasize adventures, tactical combat or narrative. These electronic derivatives are also called RPGs.  Yet traditional RPGs have a potential and an appeal which war-gaming and videogames cannot really duplicate. The appeal of traditional RPGs can perhaps be explained by telling how they developed.

Before electronic gaming, people played tactical war games with tin soldiers and rules for how to move the miniature troops and resolve combat between opposing forces. In the late 1960s in Wisconsin, a few men created rules for medieval-fantasy wargames so that they could play out battles in the style of the fantasy authors who they admired. A few years later, in the early 1970s, the same group of men had the idea that instead of controlling whole armies and large groups of soldiers, they would control only one or two or three combatants.

When they made this switch, the war-game took a strange turn. They played a scenario where their combatants were to storm a fictional castle which had been invented and mapped out soley for the game. The players found they could be very specific and creative about what they wanted their characters to "do" in the scenario. The tin soldiers took on aspects of character. The players named them. The players described what the characters would say, and they spoke as their characters. They used funny voices and it was loads of fun. The lives of these fictional characters were short and violent. Allies and enemies appeared and reappeared. There was a sense of drama and narrative about these small-scale wargames which had not previously been a factor.  The game had become about playing the role of a character and spontaneously creating a narrative with the cooperation of the other players.

They had invented a new kind of game and published the rules for it. But oddly, the term "roleplaying game" would not be invented for another few years yet to come. The concept proliferated. The game which the gentlemen in Wisconsin published emphasized roleplaying in medieval fantasy settings. But people quickly developed games which featured all sorts of milieus; from futuristic science fiction to gritty pulp and horror and contemporary settings. The medium of roleplaying begged to be tweaked to suit the fancies of the players. The open-endedness of the medium was the main source of its appeal.

As home computers became more powerful in the late 1970s and 1980s and the video-game was invented, game makers set to imitating pen-and-paper RPGs in a digital format. The numerically-based rules of the standard RPG were easily translated into digital programs. These games still bear the marks of their ancestry. Any electronic game which utilizes notions of hit-points, character class, character level, or uses numerical values to describe the power of a character or object is showing its roots. The electronic RPGs allowed the users to play roles within a fictional scenario and to explore and interact with a game-world. They were very successful at this. Yet electronic games are limited by their programming: They lacked the true open-ended freedom of analog RPGs. Videogames are limited by their programming. A player in an electronic RPG can only interact with the game world in the ways which the game designer has anticipated and allowed for: Certain characters are unkillable because they will be important later. Some objects are visible, but are merely part of the background and cannot be interacted with. Mountains are visible in the distance, but cannot be visited. There are dialog options, but only a limited selection. Videogames are largely judged by the extent to which they offer broad or interesting new options in their gameplay. But ultimately they can offer only so much freedom and room for creativity. Certainly in the future, as programming and atifical intelligence become more advanced and video games will be able to offer truly open-ended scenarios. Until then, only traditional RPGs have a mechanism which makes them truly open-ended.

Traditional roleplaying games are played by groups of people, usually sitting at a table or possibly chatting over an internet connection. Typically, most of the players in the group control a character in the scenario. But one player will be responsible for describing the world and all the people and things in the scenario. This player is usually called a Game Master, referee, or story teller. This special player serves as the eyes and ears for the characters which the other players control. The other players ask questions and tell the Game Master what they wish their characters to do. The Game Master then describes the consequences of the players actions. This process continues and the game progresses. If a player wants their character to do something unexpected, like put an innocuous object to some ingenious use, turn against an important quest-giver, or write and deliver an impromptu speech in hope of rallying the local populous, then it is the Game Master's responsibility to invent some reasonable means of determining whether the character succeeded, and what the results of their actions will be.

At first glance it may seem that the Game Master has too much control over the game. But it is important to note that the Game Master is not the opponent of the other players. The Game Master's responsibility is to present interesting, reasonable challenges and to serve as a sort of referee; ensuring that the rules of the game are practiced consistently and fairly. A good Game Master knows that there is no game at all if the rest of the players cannot trust the Game Master.  This is the mechanism by which traditional RPGs allow for novelty and creativity within the game.

btw, when I find myself having to explain traditional rpgs to people in person, I use a much shorter and more informal version of this speech. Usually, I gauge whether the other person is more likely to know about tin-soldier wargames or be familiar with videogames, and I use a similar explanation-from-historical-context from whichever side the subject is more familiar with. I am generally satisfied with the results as it doesn't take more than a few sentences to describe and heads off any social awkwardness. But I haven't had any enthusiastic questioning and interest either.