Monday, September 27, 2021

More Cheap Tricks

I once wrote a list of ten quick, cheap tricks a DM can use in their games. Here's 20 more. Please please please turn this into a trend and write some cheap tricks, publish them on your blog, and send them to me. I will link them at the bottom.

Tip 21: subscribe to r/artefactporn

  1. Old modules used to have treasure maps as common loot, and this is a great idea. Remember to do this every time. Put it on your checklist.
  2. Players are engaged by puzzles, even really simple ones. If you put your treasure map on nine tablets and make the easiest possible jigsaw puzzle, the five seconds spent realizing that they need to arrange the map so the features line up will with time spent happily.
  3. Put things under stairs. It makes sense, it's memorable, and players will stop thinking of stairs as warp pads to the next map.
  4. Color-code things. Brass key? Goes in the brass lock. Goes back to point 2.
  5. Ask players spooky questions in combat. When they fight a giant snake, ask if they're looking in its eyes. They'll be all "oh damn, I guess not."
  6. Small tweaks to the monsters of an area can do a lot for mood. Got a dungeon full of undead? Drape them in plants. Got a dungeon full of goblins? Give them birds or copper armor or woodworking talent or or or
  7. Put noncombatant camp followers in the dungeon. Gives the PCs someone to talk to, technically aligned against them but full of useful information and possible persuadable.
  8. Everybody has a family. Give NPCs filial connections to each other. Have widows of dungeon massacres put bounties on the party. Have the family of dead party members assist their old friends.
  9. Trick players into doing your work for you. Give them dungeons to defend. Let them make up NPCs. When you don't know how to make a ruling, ask them to do it for you, and use it.
  10. Put a lever in your dungeon somewhere. A PC will probably pull it, and then you can have something wild happen.
  11. When designing traps and mechanisms, rely on the simplest possible engineering. It will be easier for you to describe and for the players to visualize.
  12. Sometimes, the biggest possible animal is scarier than a supernaturally giant animal.
  13. Sometimes, a lot of small animals are scarier than a really big animal.
  14. Tell the players to be reckless, in a light and challenging way. Tell them to pull that lever. 
  15. Flags, symbols, and badges are cool. Give your bad guy a badge.
  16. Something with multiple names is cool. Give important people and places epithets, nicknames, courtesy names, and true names.
  17. Marriage is a great reward for completing an adventure. "Thanks for returning the Orb of Auremis, would you like to have me as an ally and my handsome son as a cool minion/spouse you buy gifts for and all sorts of plot hooks?"
  18. Think of all the cool stuff we have now that we didn't have five hundred years ago, like eCigs and motorcycles, and find ways to translate them to your game's milieu. Maintain the cool factor.
  19. Make up plausible vocabulary and never acknowledge it.
  20. People like poring over long lists of equipment with the costs attached. Make one of those up or steal them from somewhere, not because its functional but because people like it.
Again, please give me your cheap tricks. I want to read them!
SunderedWorldDM has 30 tips!
Chloe has 10!
CosmicOrrery has 35!
evilscientist has 10!

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Session Report: the Haunted Hidalgo Mine

 This last week, I ran my first B/X game (OSE) for my spouse and their parents, neither of whom had ever played a roleplaying game before. The experience was a great learning opportunity for me, and at the encouragement of a couple folks on my GLoG server I've decided to try to write the night up. Generally, I don't care for session reports, so I'll try to keep things lively.

To ground the setting in tropes the players are all basically familiar with, I set the scenario in the Wild West to avoid the difficulty of generating characters, I took the liberty of rolling up three character and allowing the players to choose between them. We've got:

  • Magic-User 2: Mother-in-law's character. She spent a long time researching the name of contemporary clairvoyants before deciding on the name C.C. Showers. Knows the spells Charm Person and Protection from Evil, which I related in natural speech on her character sheet. By happenstance, has the most HP in the party.
  • Dwarf 2: Father-in-law's character. After I described a miner-surveyor available, he snapped it up and declared his name was Dirk Pitt, apparently named for the protagonist of a certain book series. In off-time, the player would find pictures on google to go with his equipment. Demanded to own a lodestone. Tried to bully me into giving him extra bullets.
  • Ranger 2: Spouse's character, James. A veteran scout of the Civil War. Surprised me by deciding to have fought for the Confederacy. My spouses' relative experience played well with the character's role as hired muscle and guide.
The party starts in Arneson's Claim, the nearest town to a mine that C.C. acquired in an estate sale. They are introduced to such ideas as "now is when you can talk in-character and decide what you do" and "this is how you speak to the NPC shopkeeper as you buy your beans, bacon, whiskey, and lard." These establishing scenes turned out to be important to getting the in-laws their sea-legs. They were happy to have me tell them when to roll dice and what numbers were good, but the structure of a roleplaying scene was harder to grasp for them. When she got the hang of it, my mother-in-law would always smile to me when she transitioned the scene, pump her arms as though speed-walking, and go "yes, and now we're going to this thing--" It's quite charming.

Ready to head out, the party loaded up their mule (tended by C.C.'s hireling Juan-Carlos), and I rolled for a couple random encounters. Fortunately for the party, they avoided the more dangerous encounters like "2d6 wild dogs, see page 39". Instead, they encountered a high-level cleric and his assistants, the Hopi elder Nakwaiyamtewa, who mentioned that the mine they were heading to was haunted by ghosts. This encounter is another piece of good practice for roleplaying, and they purchase a poultice from him. C.C. continues an earlier practice of vague suspicion. Her player operated under the suspicion that any encounter must have some story significance, and took detailed notes throughout the journey.

They then encountered a high-level fighter, Deadeye Davis, and his entourage, who mentioned that the mine they were heading to was haunted by ghosts. I note that wilderness encounter tables in OSE have a lot of high-level NPCs with character levels, and that they generally are not restricted by expected level at all. Davis shoots a commemorative medallion for them that is inscribed with the phrase "Deadeye Davis shot this on the first try" on the first try. Rather than buy it, as Davis suggested, Dirk Pitt traded some beans and whiskey.
Cowboys, by Paul Canava
Finally, they arrived at the mine, as well as a cracked adobe house close by. Juan Carlos began to set up camp (not entering the house for whatever reason) as the party approached the mine. They sent Dirk Pitt into the darkness, trusting to his miner's darkvision. Entering the first branch he sees, he finds a sleeping, sweaty fellow taking a break from digging a hole with a chest close by. Pitt wakes him with a revolver in his face, and commands him to jump into the pit. The man, Terrence, begins to babble about how he's got a wife who would miss him and many orphan wards. This generally amuses the party. 

Pitt calls back to the party to come help him, also alerting a trio of bandits in another branch of the mine, unbeknownst to them. This leads to a great show-down with Dirk and James clutching the only light source, standing over Terrence, as three bandits in the dark threaten them with their firearms as C.C. quietly approached from the mine's entrance. She attempts to cast Charm Person on the apparent source of the threats, but the bandit leader succeeds on his save. When the party lets slip that she is the deed-holder for the mine, the bandits attack, but have a hard time locating her in the dark. As she flees, Dirk extinguishes the lantern so only he can see, and with James firing blindly into the corridor they manage to kill two of the bandits. The other has already fled to the surface, chasing after C.C., and when they are in the light of day he fires a shot through her shoulder. I told my mother-in-law she would need to make a save vs. wands or be incapacitated by the gunshot, but with luck she succeeded. Juan-Carlos was able to subdue the bandit with a frying pan, concluding the encounter.

The party ended with one gunshot wound, two captives, and a chest. As James checked out the house alone, Dirk twisted open the chest latch, causing a golden snake-carving to shoot forward from within and jab him with a poisoned needle. Luckily, he passed his SAVE VS DEATH, and his hand merely swelled up painfully. Within were hundreds of gold coins and nuggets, recovered from the mine after it shut down under spooky circumstances.

In the courtyard of the house, James found a set of key-chimes, which he carefully dismantled in case someone heard it. (DM's note: seems like a bad idea, like the presence of a set of chimes would not be suspicious to anyone in the house and its absence could be, but whatever.) After clearing the house, the party set up camp there, and C.C. suggested sleeping in shifts to keep an eye out for trouble. I was quite pleased to inform the player that this is standard operating procedure for many groups, and that she should be proud of herself.
In the second shift, Juan-Carlos was on watch. His scream woke the rest of the party, at which point he warned that a ghost had arrived and told them to get out. They loitered until they saw this ghost, a fellow speaking English in a silver conquistador costume. James shot this ghost, causing the man to fall to the ground blubbering about how the other bandits had forced him to impersonate a ghost to scare away scrutiny.  He was tied up with the other prisoners.

In the morning they returned to the mine. C.C.'s player was simultaneously hopeful to recover HP and surprised by how little her gunshot seemed to impede her. Scouting about, they found the bandits' camp, but despite some light searching did not find a treasure (bonds and confederate money) hidden under a pile of rocks. Continuing on, they encountered the true ghost of Paulos Hidalgo, the original owner of the mine. They could tell he was a real ghost because he spoke Spanish and was see-through. He cursed them as English swine and told them to get out. After offering to help him if he would help them, he staggered forward, holding out a ghastly limb. Dirk.... hugged the ghost. He took 3 constitution damage, complaining that he was being punished for trying to be nice to an NPC, as I rerolled the reaction roll of the ghost in light of this tact. Sure enough, this mollified the ghost somewhat, and he told them to look behind "the sign of God" before sinking into the floor.

They decided to continue on, where they saw ghosts of long-dead workers tearing at each others' flesh with mattocks and shovels. James and Dirk, failing their saves, fled screaming from the mine, leaving C.C. to walk after them. On the way back, she noticed a small cross carved into the wall. When the party regrouped, they returned to that cross, and Dirk noticed that the wall in this spot had been added, not simply carved through. This was the result of his inspection despite a failed 2-in-6 roll, and in retrospect calling for a roll was a mistake on my part.

Pulling the false wall aside with a crowbar, they found a skeleton and a locked chest. Retrieving both, they buried the body and James gave his best attempt at a Christian eulogy, propitiating the spirit and allowing Hidalgo to rest. They attempted to pry the chest open but failed, but after searching the key-chime found earlier Dirk used a silver key to unlock it, this time opening it with a crowbar to avoid any traps. Within were thousands of Spanish gold coins, pieces of polished turquoise, and jewelry of various descriptions. Truly, enough wealth to last one person their whole life long. Though I subtly hinted they could turn on each other to take the treasure for themselves, no one was close to biting, and they returned to town with wealth and prisoners. The party was wildly successful in their journey to the Hidaldo Mine.

Lessons Learned
  • It pays to ground your game in tropes the players will be familiar with.
  • Explain more than you need to as succintly as possible. My mother-in-law asked what THAC0 was, and I should have started by saying something like "it is a measure of your character's ability to hit someone in combat" rather than trying to define the acronym or talk about the table.
  • In B/X, infravision is great.
  • In B/X, bandit lairs have a heck-ton of treasure. Even halving the amount of treasure for slightly below-average number of bandits, each player would have enough XP to level up twice, to 4th level.
  • That said, dangers truly are deadly. Two different players made saves that, if failed, would have killed them. Luck and skill made the adventure survivable, and common sense rather than system mastery was a big part of that.
  • Setting B/X in the Old West is easy and feels right, if you're willing to miss out on most magic and monsters.
  • No one wore armor and it all worked out okay.
  • Everyone wants to use dynamite.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Interview: Patrick Stuart of False Machine

Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess, auteurs of the independent RPG scene, are kickstarting their latest adventure module, Demon-Bone Sarcophagus. Check it out! Only nine days to go. To promote this endeavor, Stuart has agreed to answer some questions I had about his process, as well as about the variety of strange and prepossessing topics he covers on his blog, False Machine.

Picture: me approaching an interview with an indie gaming luminary

 -Regarding Gawain and the Green Knight, what are your thoughts on Tolkien’s translation, and what was different in how you approached it? [Editor's note: Tolkien's is a very commonly used translation of that particular poem. I was being presumptuous in assuming Stuart, who translated the same poem, had studied it, but not aggressively so.]

Ah I haven't actually read Tolkien's translation so can't compare. I would assume that his is a 'real' translation and that he had a complete knowledge of the old-english/early modern dialect it was written in before he started and so he could do the whole thing in his head. In my case it was more a transliteration where I had a facing text version with modern english on one side and the original on the other. I would assume that Tolkien and I had a very different tone, I mean a cathlic tory academic from the mid 20th century and a ruined Gen-X/Millenial from the late 20th century will have veeeeery different outlooks and cultural referents

-How do the gaming products you publish differ from the sorts of games you like to run?

I almost never run games any more. For me it takes nearly as much energy to run a game as to write something and most of the communities I was a part of where I would find players I have since drifted away from.

I had a problem when I was running with depth and complexity. I wanted everything to have as many meaningful, real options as possible and for places to have as much texture as possible but the sheer amount of invention and especially bookkeeping and trying to keep up with everything that had happened ultimately lead to me flaming out after 10 or 20 sessions. I feel like I am not that great a long-term dungeon master.

What I play in is generally whatever people I know and like want to run, assuming they are on a UK/Europe time schedule as I am too old to be hoisting myself out of bed at strange hours.

When I was running I think the games were meant to be either experiments, or they headed towards attempts at the depth, complexity and attempted originality of what I *try* to create. Maybe its that that made them unworkable for me! Its hard to invent, sustain AND run that shit at the same time.

-When making dungeons and writing adventures, what most commonly changes through editing and playtesting?

Presentation and complexity, re-statement and making things that seemed obvious to me much more explicit. When making something so many of its tricks and interrelationships seem utterly obvious to me and then when readers and playtesters get a hold of it they are utterly confused, and then I am shocked and confused in turn. Generally page count rises as I need to make more space to make more ideas more explicit and to explain things more directly to the reader and DM. You could technically run an adventure from one of my early draughts but I think most people would have trouble with it and there is deep context which most people could only work out from a very deep reading.

Other than that, whenever I have worked with other people, from Scrap to other collaborators, they have had a meaningful effect on elements of the finished product of course but since those are all different interactions, more personal and often remembered poorly by me I don't think I can comment too much.

-Reading your recent blog posts about the long-running Horus Heresy series, I can’t help but think about your current undertaking to write a cycle of modules themed around the elements. This is a project that you have already dedicated years to. What do you think is gained in writing a trilogy of adventures, rather than three separate adventures?

Well the element cycle will be a quadrilogy because there are generally four elements (depending on how you count them). Broken Fire Regime will be three books because that's how many it will take to do the whole thing! (Even then there is the possibility that we may need to break down the central book into two parts). The 'trilogy' aspect was simply a matter of practicality and keeping myself sane. Producing the whole thing as one huge book or even as one huge project .. well it did lead to breakdowns and meltdowns, failures and delays, I was looking for a publisher for this for AGES and several fell through. Eventually I hit upon the idea of doing it myself (ourselves) and breaking it down into three parts so that each block of work, design and playtesting was manageable. I knew we had some DCO remastered and could handle that so doing something of the same volume of work, *again* was possible.

That's really the main reason, simple practicality and producibility of the work we had already done.

I think that's perhaps not the original intent of your question - let me think about it...

Well in very long 'epic' *stories* we get to find out a lot about people as they are embedded in a world and about the long complex evolutions of a character and personality, as well as getting a glimpse into the deeper social and historical structures of that world.

I suppose with very long adventure sequences then something similar might happen with players interacting with deeper structures which might be invisible in shorter play? Like the difference between going on holiday in a greek village and living in a greek village for 30 years and the change in the way you might think of the people and systems around you. From "wow this is a nice tavern" to "Stavros hasn't been the same since his son didn't come home from University and moved away, but it was always his dream for his children to do better than him, now the kid is moving back he must feel like a failure but the economy is going badly for everyone.."

-You’ve posted “challenges” like the Crypt of the OSR, where you encourage people to unearth old OSR blogs, or the Dungeon Poem challenge, where you asked people to try their hand at making an “artpunk” dungeon with a particular map. Both of these have had enthusiastic responses. What do you hope comes out of these challenges? What do you hope to do with these community-facing calls to action?

I think there have been a few 'challenges' that no-one really cared about but those are forgotten now...

Well there is a tag on my blog called 'do my work for me' - 'community' posts, especially posts where the community is asked to talk about the community, often have a big response *if they catch on*, people just really like talking about stuff they know and arguing about social networks etc, plus general cultural conversations are accessible to anyone.

I think in part I was calling back to the glory days of G+ where there would be huge thread challenges and entire hex maps created by 'gygaxian democracy'. The Fallen titan was also good at this during the heyday of the blogosphere, there were big epic arguments, conversations and mutual challenges about a whole range of things.

The nice or pro-social side of it is that people get introduced to each other, creators encounter each other, some might get a boost in interest, people who might be into those creators of aesthetics get to discover them and.. well everyone just generally feels a little bit better about life? Its social contact and I suppose that's what it does.

-Finally, a selfish question: can we expect you to write about LichJammer again at any point in the future?

I am very sorry but probably no. If things go ok you can expect a few years with a lot of releases as stuff I have been working on for ages finally flowers. Once Broken Fire Regime is done I will probably take a brief break from the elements and research the next one. I have a range of one-book-projects and possibilities but Lichejammer isn't one of them.

UNLESS you can somehow persuade a shitload of people to nag me about LicheJammer and how amazing it is and how everyone wants to buy it in which case I will resent you but it might actually move it into the 'possible future projects' list. [Editor's note: everyone please help alienate me in the eyes of Patrick Stuart]


Much thanks to Patrick Stuart for entertaining my questions, especially the tenuous or odd ones. Again, you can find the kickstarter for Demon-Bone Sarcophagus here. I think it's well worth checking out.

(Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Stuart or any part of this kickstarter in any way. I am not being paid to promote his products. I have sometimes interacted with his blog in minor ways.)