Saturday, January 14, 2017

Running a Sandbox Campaign: Why a Random Event Isn't Random

By its very nature, a sandbox campaign has a lot of randomness. For me, this is one of its charms. Not only do I get to be surprised as a Referee by what happens in the world, but I am challenged every time I allow a random table to determine what happens next. One of the key principles that I adhere to when running a sandbox campaign is that nothing is random despite my wide and varied use of random tables and events.

This may sound like a contradiction (or a statement of faith) but it actually isn’t. Though the origin of an event or an encounter or a treasure might be a random result, its actual existence in the world must have a rational explanation. In other words, I am always asking the question ‘Why?’ Why are there lizardmen in this part of the jungle? Why is there a dragon here when before there wasn’t? Why are neanderthals exploring a lost temple that never belonged to them?

By continuously asking the question ‘Why?’ I am forcing myself to accept the un-randomness of random events and seeing these things not as something that a die-roll told me, but as part of the larger story and framework of my campaign world.

This is why, in my prepping for a sandbox campaign, I use broad strokes and various nebulous factions and background noise: they all give me a framework in which to fill in details with my questions of ‘Why?’

For example: as I mentioned in my last post, a die roll led to the adventure seed of a portal suddenly showing up in Akhmed’s house when he rolled a ‘6’ on a d6. After such a long time, why wasn’t his house done? Something catastrophic must have happened. What event in the campaign world could have caused this? The players had just recently travelled to a major Illithid city where they managed to wreck havoc and shatter a giant machine which let them dial in various portals to various worlds. This, then, could result in various rips in time and space around my Lost Colonies map. Why not in Akhmed’s house?

This places what was a silly random event into a much larger story arc that affects the entire campaign world. Should players start exploring this rip in time and space, various hints and clues could then allow them to figure out that the origin of this rip was, in fact, there own doing. Unfortunately, that never happened with the players in question, but I do have a solid background for why this portal exists in the first place.

It also opens up a framework from which I can start explaining the un-randmoness of other random events in my campaign. Various factions in my Lost Colonies campaign are aware of these rips in time and space. Each has had a different reaction to them. As a consequence, I can start explaining the existence of certain random encounters as consequences of these factions interacting with portals. Again, this ties everything together and leads players to gain more information about this major event in the campaign world and all of its consequences.

Thus, random events actually make my sandbox campaigns better, because I am forced to ask a series of questions which seek to understand exactly why a random event isn’t random.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Running a Sandbox Campaign: Player Expectation

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of posts about Prepping a Sandbox Campaign. I have also mentioned that I am currently running a 5e campaign ostensibly set in my Lost Colonies campaign world; however, due to the various choices by the players, the bulk of the campaign is actually taking place on a brand new map that I have never run before. The experience has reminded me of some of the fundamental assumptions that I make when running a sandbox campaign and I thought I’d write some of these down and share them.

Player Expectation

As you may have noted in my series on Prepping a Sandbox Campaign, I don’t do a whole lot of detail. Most of the things I prepare are broad brush strokes so that I have enough information that I can wing it if necessary, but not so much that I have wasted a whole bunch of time on something my players have no interest in. This gives me a lot of freedom to shape the campaign to fit my players.

This reality and point of view became very important when I started my most recent campaign. My players are all young and have little or no experience with pencil & paper RPGs. If I imposed a bunch of my own expectations for how this campaign was going to be, I wasn’t likely to succeed in showing my players just how cool RPGs can be.

Therefore, I carefully listened to them when we created characters. I made sure I had an idea of what each person expected their characters to able to do. Some of these are far-off goals for when their characters are much higher level. As a consequence, I knew that some of these expectations were not going to be fulfilled in the short-term; however, I could tease them so that they knew that what they wanted was possible in the long run. Listening to my players and their expectations don’t stop at character creation, though.

One of the adventure locations that I had in place for my new campaign was Akhmed’s old house. For those who don’t know, Akhmed was a long-time PC in my last Lost Colonies campaign who played a central role in developing several key characteristics of the world: Bane Weapons, Lithic Elves and the fact that dwarves are neither male nor female.

At one point during the campaign, Akhmed had hired some Bronze Dwarves to build him an underground home in Headwaters. It was my standard practice to have long-term projects like this take one or more sessions. When a players asked, I would have them roll a d6. On a ‘1’ the project was finished. Each time a player rolled (each session that went by) I would subtract one or more from the roll (depending on the scale of the project). Akhmed had been rolling for several weeks on his project, but never seeing the end. When it was time for the project to be finished, I had him roll and it came out a ‘6.’ On a whim, I informed him that the dwarves had found something that scared them and they boarded up the house and refused to work anymore. It was an adventure seed, because it gave me the ability to place a rip it time and space in his almost completed home that could potentially be something the party explored. For a variety of reasons, that seed never played out in my last campaign. In this campaign, however, it has been the center of my player’s attention.

When I first conceived of the idea of a portal, I had in mind the Portals of Torsh by Rudy Kraft and published by Judges Guild. I had taken part of the provided map, and hashed out some of the broader ideas in much the same way I did in my series on Prepping a Sandbox Campaign. It didn’t go much farther than that, even when my players started poking around (literally).

When my players discovered the portal, I described that it looked like the Aurora Borealis. I also described that it changed color, doing so to let my players know that times was passing as they argued with each other about what to do next. The color change, however, caught their imaginations. They started poking the phenomena. So, I went with it and had the thing change color any time it was poked.

As the campaign progressed, the players started hypothesizing that each color represented a different destination. Since I wasn’t married to the idea that the portal led only to one place, I decided to go with it and began making up different end-points for each color. The players then decided to see if they could get more colors by poking more at the thing. I indulged the idea, and began rolling dice to see if they would get any other result. The dice said yes, and the number of colors and destinations went from one to three to five. Subsequently, this portal to many places has become a key factor in aiding the party on the quest they have all decided to undertake. In other words, I allowed their expectations for my campaign world to shape the world and the campaign itself.

One could quibble with how I allowed player expectation to enter into the game, but I believe it is important for two reasons:

  1. It subtly invests the players in the campaign world and can give a sense of accomplishment even in the face of failure. Even if the party is driven away by a superior force of monsters, the object/place is out of reach, there is no treasure or a character dies, the players can still walk away knowing that their hypothesis was at least partially correct. Such success invites the players to make further guesses at how the world works and what is in it. When such guesses start to be at least partially correct more often than not, it encourages further exploration and further guesses. The players begin to talk about the game outside the game and the campaign begins to have a life of its own.
  2. It provides a certain amount of surprise for me. One of the things I love most about a sandbox style of campaign is that it provides me with the unexpected. I never know which direction my players are going to go or what puzzle they become determined to solve or how they are going to go about doing just about anything. If I also allow player expectations to color how I respond to such choices, it forces me to be surprised by my own world. For example, I never expected the portal to go anywhere but to a lost temple on another world. I never expected it to be a key locale in a strategy to imprison an ancient dragon. Such are the wonders of allowing player expectation to color a campaign.

I would argue that the sandbox campaign is uniquely able to accomplish fulfilling player expectation because by its very nature it must be flexible and flexibility is key in allowing player expectation to shape a campaign.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Meditating on Vancian Magic

The tomes which held Turjan’s sorcery lay on the long table of black steel or were thrust helter-skelter into shelves. These were volumes compiled by many wizards of the past, untidy folios collected by the Sage, leather-bound librams setting forth the syllables of a hundred powerful spells, so cogent that Turjan’s brain could know but four at a time.

Turjan found a musty portfolio, turned the heavy pages to the spell the Sage had shown him, the Call to the Violent Cloud. He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the page as if frantic to leave the dark solitude of the book.

Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion. He robed himself with a short cape, tucked a blade into his belt, fitted the amulet holding Laccodel’s Rune to his wrist. Then he sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandal’s Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.

— Turjan of Miir, Jack Vance

I have always really liked the idea of Vancian magic, but have never been sold on how D&D handles it. Don’t get me wrong, from a purely mechanical point of view, D&D does a good job of simulating the way Jack Vance describes how Turian of Miir uses magic. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the feel. If someone had never read Jack Vance and had no idea of how he describes the spell as an almost living thing that frantically tries to leap off the page of a spell book, there is nothing in D&D that shows players that this is what the mechanic of memorizing spells is supposed to represent.

My other issue with spell casters in D&D is that I am someone who much prefers the utility spell over the combat spell; however, D&D almost dictates that a magic-user will always take Sleep over Read Languages. On an average dungeon delve, a player can almost be guaranteed to be able to use a combat spell, but that utility spell may or may not ever be useful. I find this boring, in a way.

To be honest, when I play a spell caster, it is almost always a cleric or a bard because I can get away with having utility spells more often because these classes can pull their weight in a fight sans spells. I have only ever played a straight-up magic-user once and a straight-up illusionist once. I much preferred the latter experience because of the sheer frustration about having spells like Enlarge in my spell book and having really good ways to use it, but having to go through the whole “I gotta rest, re-memorize spells and come back tomorrow” only to have the party try some other way to solve the problem. At least with the Illusionist, the very nature of illusion magic requires creativity and problem solving skills with every spell cast. I found it much more satisfying to take out a pack of gnolls with Phantasmal Force by “moving” a pit and getting them to fall in than I ever was shooting lightning bolts or fire balls.

When I got into the nitty-gritty of the classes in 5e, I really got excited bout the potential of the the Warlock as a utility/problem solving kind of spell caster. They have enough combat punch with Eldritch Blast to justify using utility spells. Couple that with the Pact Boon Book of Shadows and the ability to learn some Cantrips off any spell list and the potential to collect and use ritual spells from any spell list and you’ve got a spell caster I’d love to try and play some day.

Unfortunately, whereas the Warlock does a good job of making utility spells justifiable and does a good job of making magic feel dangerous, it largely abandons the Vancian model of magic. Therefore, in terms of trying to make a BX magic-user class that does Vancian magic “right,” the Warlock is inspirational, but not exactly what I am looking for.

I recently managed to get my hands on a second edition copy of Runequest. I have always wanted to love Runequest, but my experience of it was always tainted by the Avalon Hill edition, which is just badly written. I could never get my head around that magic system. The second edition, though, is a transitional version that bridges its OD&D roots and the Chaosium BRP system it would become. Here is a version of Runequest I finally get and its magic system is something I finally understand. Unfortunately, it, too, turns away from the Vancian model; however, it presents with a mechanic that makes magic feel really dangerous and could be coupled with a Vancian model. Certain types of spell casters capture spirits and bind them into items in order to help them cast spells. The danger is in the combat to capture the spirit: if the spirit wins, the caster is possessed and the PC becomes an NPC.

This got me thinking about how to incorporate this level of danger into a magic-user class while maintaining a Vancian model and allowing players fuller access to the utility spells that litter the spell lists. Normally, the limiting factors of spell use in FRPGs are one or more of the following:

  • memorization
  • number of spells known
  • power/mana points
  • class level

Of these, the only one that is expressly Vancian is memorization. Therefore, if I am to move towards a magic user that satisfies my desires for an arcane spell caster like the Warlock does but remain true to the idea of Vancian magic, there needs to be a different limiting factor than one presented.

If one assumes that arcane spells are more of a living thing — a kind of semi-sentient energy being — and that spell books and arcane magic are a way of coaxing these beings to do what a spell caster wants, then there is a limiting factor available that is already suggested by the game: money.

The idea here is similar to the way scrolls work: the magic-user spends gold and time on getting the materials necessary to have a spell “in waiting” ready to cast without having to memorize it. Normally, this is relatively expensive (100gp and a day per spell level, for example) and, with some exceptions like Holmes, not an option for 1st level characters.

My thinking here is to couple the gold/time with spells known (as per INT in Holmes) as the primary limiting factor for magic-users. If they would be allowed to bind spells to disposable objects (like runes) for a relatively low price, then they could go into an adventure stocked up with all manner of spells. It would also incentivize adventuring as a primary occupation of magic-users. Right now, I am positing 10gp and about an hour for a 1st level spell. This cost would go up exponentially with spell levels, adding a zero for each level.Thus, a 6th level spell would require 1,000,000 gp worth of materials to bind.

There would also be an option for binding spells permanently to a magic-user. It would work like this: make a saving throw vs. magic and add the magic-user’s CHA bonus and subtract the spell level. If successful, the spell can be cast at-will by the magic-user. Failure, however, means that the magic-user has been possessed by the spell itself and is now a Chaotic spell-casting monster that will be hunted down and killed by Civilization.

The risk involved in binding spells this way could be mitigated by having other magic-users aid in the binding: they get to add their CHA bonuses to the roll. This, then, places a kind of cultural limiting factor on the practice. Whereas a Wizard’s Guild would have little issue binding a Detect Magic spell to a fellow magic-user, they might have something to say about a magic-user who was interested in binding a Lightning Bolt spell. This also implies that there would be magic-users out there that would seek alternative ways to mitigate these bindings in order to gain power. The whole idea of a magic-user just got a whole lot more dangerous: imagine an adventure hook where the Wizard’s Guild has put a bounty on the head of that magic-user who successfully bound his Lightning Bolt spell…

This way, I get my Warlock (bound utility spells) and my Vancian magic (prepared “burn” spells) all in the same class. Thoughts?

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Sorcerer Class for BX/LL

This is a class I created for BX/LL using the Custom Class rules from the ACKS Player’s Companion (which is one of my top five OSR purchases ever). I don’t have any intention of using it in any of my campaigns, although I do like the idea of the class. Rather, this was created in order to give me a reference point for re-imagining Vancian magic and the mechanics behind a BX/LL magic-user, which will be a later post. The Sorcerer works more as a utility spell caster than a combat spell caster.


Requirements: None
Prime Requisite: CHA
Hit Dice: 1d4
Max Level: 14
Armor Allowed: any; no shields
Weapons Allowed: bows, crossbows, daggers, pole arms, quarterstaff

Sorcerers are natural spell casters who do not memorize spells in the way that magic-users do. Rather, they have a limited number of spells that they can cast with rituals. These rituals take 1 turn and may be used at various intervals depending upon the level of the spell:

  • 1st: at will
  • 2nd: 1/hour
  • 3rd: once per 8 hours
  • 4th: 1/day
  • 5th: 1/week
  • 6th: 1/month

Sorcerers know only a limited number of spells, as shown on the following table:
Level…Spells Known per Spell Level
These spells may be chosen by the player, but once chosen they cannot be changed.
Level Progression
Sorcerers fight and save as Thieves.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Why I Don't Like Most Modern Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Or, Why D&D Rocks

So, my last post generated quite a bit of dialogue, all of which I found really interesting and it got me thinking. I don’t watch a lot of American-made TV shows and I have been to see a movie in a movie theater maybe three times in the last decade and barley remember the last time I either wasn’t disappointed or wanted to go back and see the movie I had just seen again. Part of it is that much of the entertainment business in the U.S. (and the English-speaking world) holds me in contempt for my religious views and that contempt is shoved in my face frequently enough that I don’t readily commit a lot of my entertainment dollar or time to their product.

However, I also think that the entire industry suffers from the very same problem that the show The Magicians does: at its core is a postmodern, post-Christian and post-religious world-view. As long as our story-tellers are dedicated to this view of life, the universe and everything then they are incapable of telling good stories.

Let me explain: as did the ancient Greeks, I categorize every story as either a comedy or a tragedy. In other words, the hero succeeds or the hero fails. Comedy or tragedy alone, however, do not make a good, compelling story because comedy and tragedy are simply about how the hero succeeds or fails, not why. The best heroes and villains are broken. Their journey towards success or failure depends upon why they are able to transcend that brokenness or why they cannot.

For example, one of the best movie trilogies to come out in the last decade or so, as far as I am concerned, is the Kung-fu Panda series. In each movie we are presented with a flawed hero (Po) who is a clumsy, nerdy, out-of-shape orphan who does not know who he is. The trilogy is his journey of overcoming his flaws, his preconceptions and his circumstance to become the Dragon Warrior. The why in all of this has to do with love, sacrifice, humility and the ability to understand that each of us does, in fact, have a role larger than ourselves.

The trilogy also presents us with three flawed villains who are the hero of their own story. Each of them has a reason for their villainy, a reason that is relatable and understandable. Should the audience find themselves in the villain’s shoes, they could easily make the same choices.

At the climax of each movie, Po tells each villain how to win. In each case, their own ego and burning desire for revenge prevent them from seeing the truth about who they are and the victory that is within reach.

At the heart of all of this is a world-view where the divine exists. Po overcomes his shortcomings because there is something greater in the world that he can tap into and be transformed by. The villains all fail because they do not have the humility to see the divine in themselves to be transformed. It is their very insistence on doing everything on their own without the divine that spells their doom.

In a world without the divine, Po cannot transcend his flaws. He is doomed to be a clumsy, nerdy, out-of-shape orphan that has no chance of defeating the villains. Without the transformative force of the divine, Po makes a completely unbelievable hero. If Po is to succeed in a world without the divine, he must simply be bigger, badder and better than the villains he faces. There is no transformation. There is no real why. The hero simply succeeds because that is what heroes do.

For an example of this, look no further than Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. Rey has no flaws. She does not grow. She has no need to transform in order to overcome the challenges and villainy that are placed before her. Before anyone starts complaining that the Force is a type of divinity and she uses the Force in the movie, compare the hero’s journey of Luke Skywalker to Rey. Skywalker was a loser at the beginning of the movie who had to learn about the Force and how to trust in it and allow the Force to flow through him. When he tries to do things on his own, he fails. When he finally internalizes his trust in the Force, he succeeds. Rey never has to do any of that. No one teaches her anything. She just knows. The Force is reduced to being part of why she is bigger, badder and better than the villains she gets to overpower.

There are various ways that post-modern story tellers try to overcome this inherent flaw. They construct these massive mysteries as distractions (who are Rey’s parents? why did Luke run away? what happened to the republic and the empire? who are the First Order? etc.) or make use of cliffhangers or surprises (which character won’t survive this week/this movie?). I won’t deny that these devices can be entertaining; however, once the surprise wears off and the mystery becomes less mysterious there really is no meat or heart to the story.

The timeless stories we tell are timeless because they are transformative. They show us that we can be the hero of our story and that we can be transformed and overcome our own flaws. As a kid who was a loser and a nerd I can totally identify with Po and Luke. I can be like them. I can trust in the divine and through learning about myself and my place in the larger world I can be transformed into something beyond my own expectations and hopes. In contrast, I can’t identify with Rey at all, nor can I ever be like her. She’s a superwoman who can do no wrong. There is no mechanism by which I can be like her.

This is why I love RPGs, especially D&D in all its various iterations. By its very nature, D&D defies a postmodern, post-Christian and post-religious world-view. Not only is the divine assumed because of divine magic and clerics, but every character begins as a loser who must learn to cooperate with others using their own special skills and abilities in order to find out their place in the larger story of the world. The better they get at this, the more they are transformed. They get to go from being 1st level nobodies who are one goblin hit away from being worm food to being 9th level Lords who cleanse the Wilderness of monsters and now protect the land from a stronghold they built.

This is also why I think D&D became so popular and has survived so long. It taps into the transformative, timeless tales human beings have told since the beginning of time. It allows us to be that hero and to find out why we succeed or fail.