13 August 2022

Gygax 75: The Town (Week 4)

In the boles of four massive trees linked by bridges is found the town of Rendezvous. Dwellings and businesses are built along the centre of the great tree limbs, with walkways running vertiginously along the outer edges of the branches. The nicer neighbourhoods have hand rails or at least nets below. Bridges span between the limbs with businesses being in the busier sections closer to the trunk and dwellings being further out along the limbs. The dwellings tend to have most of their living space outside on broad verandas with smaller weather-protected cores. Lots of things are stored suspended beneath dwellings.

City plan w/ branches & bridges

Notable sites about town:
Armourer - Berts - sells armour made from treated wood and chitin
Weaponsmith - Short Rons - sells weapons with blades of laminated chitin
Apothecary - House of Dreams - mostly serves the hallucinogenic and relaxing herbs the locals favour but can provide medicines and components
Magical services are provided by the Guild of Wings
Candlemaker - Long Rons - always pays decent prices for wax
- Largest, most central - Skymother - multi-denominational, Lady of Gentle Air
- Rigid - Stormfather - frequented by those who seek more structure than the laissez-faire Skymother cult
- The Balancer - a Janus offshoot - uneasily tolerated within the town though attendance raises eyebrows
The Skymothers Bower - the largest inn and eatery
The Brimming Chalice - the worst tavern down by the sky-docks
Household Gods & Goods - makes homeware and idols for house shrines
Amther Rope & Ship-fittings - the only ship-fitters, also runs the drydocks and has a lock on all ship-tied work in town.

City-building prompts from the zine:
Political faction - uplift faction, druids, dedicated themselves to educating the dragonflies, to make this place more hospitable, interesting. Rivalled by paladins who think fighting the thicket is their duty
Loose your money in the Lotus House - blossom, insect based intoxication combined with nautical high stakes gambling
Speakers Hollow - where people go for news, the tree bole with decent acoustics
Secretive guild - the splendid wings, make spelljamming kit, hide their secrets; known for the quality of their craft and insufferable arrogance in their purple robes
Hot meal & clean bed - Skymothers Bower - Inn beside the Skymother temple, pilgrims and solid townsfolk
Bad meal & flea-filled bed - The brimming Chalice - cheapest place by the docks, view of the docks, sailors out of cash
Religious centre - skymothers - prayer offerings most days, occassional service, read scripture, be thankful, goss and socially mingle

Significant NPCs using the DNA (Distinguishing Trait, Needs, Agenda) method:
Amther Anfi the docks master, a short-haired air-genasi of indeterminate gender dressed in utilitarian gear, who runs the dockyards in a flurry of activity. Fourth generation dock-master and desperate for the resources needed to keep the Spelljammers in the air, they is constantly hustling to get them and not above brutal arm-twisting for the good of the community.

Mother Mottles - a rotund, jolly halfing with elaborate hair who operates the Skymothers Bower and ensures that everything goes smoothly there. She can find anything a reasonable guest might want and is a silver-tongued calmer of tempers and keeper of the peace. She steadfastly shuts the world out of her inn, though most of the town comes to her instead.

Bexley the keeper of the Brimming Chalice, an elf whos miserable demeanour blends perfectly with the ragged skyshipmen who frequent his establishment. An inveterate gambler, he won the Chalice in a dice game and since then nothing has gone right for him, a curse keeps him trapped in the building and he has not figured out how to give away or lose the bar to free himself.

Amzel Terumi priest of the balance. An intense air-genasi with a prominent tattoo of a scales across his chest. Amzel is the one who takes on the 'unbalanced' situations that petitioners bring to the temple where they seek a blade or a vial to make a difficult situation go away. Amzel knows how good he is and charges accordingly though he would take on most of the jobs for the thrill.

Amtrel Keslit a wiry old air-genasi, weather-beaten through her time outdoors and cheerfully open to strangers. A natural teacher, she can most often be find organising expeditions to educate and uplift more of the dragonfly natives. She will tell anyone interested all about her plans to ensure the dragonflys know as much as any of the new-comers, enough to keep control of their own destiny.

Rumours - these generated themselves while working through the rest of the workflow:
- Brimming Chalice (dive tavern) is a front for some shady business, how else is it still in operations with the swill it serves?
- Some card and dice games in town have stakes up to and including your soul
- Some sporeballs from the Thicket have been stashed in town for political leverage
- The Balancers will do anything for a sufficient price
- The deep-system rangers are hunting the creature they claim to protect and acting as pirates and getting rich at all our expense
- Stormfathers cult is going to force a takeover of the town
- Long Ron will sell you bad candles
- The dragonflies are keeping secrets, where the best hunting and resources are, and steer outsiders away from those parts of the forest
- The dragonflies are up to something, beyond just building their city. Why do they need a city anyway?

Available Hirelings also using DNA:
Chennukar - awakened giant-dragonfly scout - the oldest known dragonfly on the planet, every day he pushes up the understood ceiling for how long they can live. Incredibly knowledgeable about his world, legend among his people, he wants to be paid in knowledge quid-pro-quo for his work. While he agrees with Amtrel Keslit that the dragonflies must learn fast if they are to control their own destiny, he thinks they ought not wait for the air-genasi to teach them but must learn on their own, for example by guiding strangers and questioning them.

Amgreth Inulmar - serious air-genasi, atypically big, brawny and serious. Hates the laissez-faire attitudes of most of his kin. Stalwart devotee of the Stormfather, will only hire on with groups that guarantee him the chance to get in serious fights and work off his rage at his feckless people.

Amswit Penchel - missionary air-genasi - will bring strangers willing to help them move and guard supplies along as they tour the outlying missions at no cost. Constantly twitchy about what they need to get done with no coin or time.

Joreth de Colomville - flying carpet operator - an eager young elf with one of the few means of magical flight that the Guild of Wings does not control. Constantly fending off the guild and desperate for cash, they will transport anyone for reasonable fees.

Chaffetar - head-porter dragonfly - a non-descript dragonfly, except that his speech appears self taught with more dockside vernacular than the usual mission school grammar. A natural leader among dragonflies he can get anything organised, found or moved for the right coin. Convinced that coin, not knowledge, is the key to freedom Chaffetar and his crews are not beyond renegotiating rates and shares of plunder at moments when they have leverage.

I was really impressed at how the prompts helped un-stick this part of campaign building. I came to this with almost no momentum, I did not know how this city air-genasi twice refugees was going to have enough going on to contain adventure. By the time we ran through all this process we had identified lots of other elements that complemented the city core concept and the place had sprung to life in a very unexpected way. I have a lot more time for this process that set a living fly-wheel running, one that will through off adventures over time, compared to the building of a dungeon that is a more static thing.

10 August 2022

How Much Flying Ship Combat System Is Enough?

This entire post got overtaken by events - it was written prior to the Spelljammer 5e review copies getting all over the internet, before we knew what the ship combat system was - I am going to keep it as my hopes preserved in amber from before we saw what we were actually going to get. The sentiment remains the same.

Looking at the latest info on Spelljammer coming out through an interview with Lead Designer Chris Perkins it appears that we will not be getting much, if any ship combat rules at all.

"For ship engagements in this setting, we're basically using the core rules of the game. [...] ship-to-ship engagements is, in Fifth Edition—which is more a theater of the mind — there aren't things like Facing or Turning or anything like that. We're not trying to create a game-within-a-game where suddenly you're no longer role-playing, you're engaged in some tactical, "Where's my ship exactly in space" kind of game.

It's kind of like two groups on two small islands, separated by shooting arrows at one another. A ship becomes a platform on which the encounter takes place, like a dungeon room a room in a castle. You can attack the ship, of course, and the ship can take damage, but for the most part, ship-to-ship engagements really have to do with the crews on board. And, despite the fact that your ship may have a catapult and ballistae and whatnot on board, it's still pretty hard to trump a Fireball spell or a Lightning Bolt spell. The characters have so many other options at their disposal for disposing of shipboard enemies. We stay very much in the theatre of the mind with this product for the sake of keeping encounters fluid and fast."

This puzzles me in two respects - first, what is the existing combat system except 'where is my PC exactly' and second, why on earth am I shelling out $65 a pop for the boxes of ship minis for if they don't do anything?

I think there is a core point I agree with in that people sat to the table to play D&D Spelljammer, not some tactical space combat game, sure. However, I think giving people a frame to understand how to stage awesome ship-on-ship combat, when that can be 3D, when it can be two ships flying upside-down over one-another, when it can include ramming from weird angles, all the wrinkles and weirdness - that would be fun.

Looking at the rules as much as has been deciphered from the images of the Spelljammer DM screen, we could read it as pointing to a 'range bands' approach to distance (ships can appear 250, 500 or 1000 ft away at the start of an encounter) or just thats how far out the foe appears, take it from there.

The stat-blocks as they appear in the Spelljammer Academy adventure on D&DBeyond strongly resemble what we have seen in Ghosts of Saltmarsh - AC, Hit points in the 100's (not hull points in the 10's), a damage threshold, speed in feet, cargo capacity, crew and keel/beam dimensions. Key is the fact that the siege weapons just need crew and can fire every round with them. From testing ship combat rules before, this was the major 'speed bump' in AD&D Spelljammer.

Ship schematics and stat blocks from Spelljammer Academy on D&DBeyond

Do these stats imply a really slow, boring combat? How long would it take these ships to fight one another to destruction?

Doing a quick bit of math using the stats appearing in Spelljammer Academy Chapter 3 - if a foe Squidship appears 250 ft out, has a speed of 30 ft, lets say for argument I am another Squidship dead in space but undamaged with 300 hit points. They have 8 rounds to close, they will ram/board as they please on the 9th. They have a Mangonel on the front - +5 to hit against my AC 15, average damage 27 which exceeds my threshold on 15 so if they hit me, it penetrates. Assume 50% hits; 4 lots of damage for 108 as they close then they ram for another 88 damage - 196 of my ships hit points are gone, now we are in a hand-to-hand boarding action.

Change it up a bit, say they circle a little, bring their ballistae to bear in a broadside and take 4 extra rounds to close - 2 more mangonel hits, and 2 ballistae hits at 16 damage each - total 27 x 2 + 16 x 2 for 86. Do that again (another 86, leaving me with 20 hit points) and then they can ram and smash my ship to splinters. My point here is, this is not dull, this is mortal peril. Ship-borne weapons are throwing out damage sufficient to break up similar ships in pretty short order.

Do similar with a Hammerhead from Chapter 2 and it looks the same - a faster ship, it can close in just 8 rounds but has 2 forward facing Mangonels for 7 hits, 189 damage dealt on the run in. Follow that with a ram and a Squidship is down to ~40 hitpoints, or circle and just smash them at range. Ships are a *threat* with these stats. The core stats to have a good space combat system *are here*.

Spelljammer ship-combat should be the best of both old naval combat (ships are slow enough that people have time to react, hulls colliding is not an auto-kill event like it would be in harder sci-fi) and early aerial combat (ships could pull off fancy dog-fight maneuvers) - with the odd configurations of weapon pits, things like flying inverted over your foe are things you want to pull off, bringing all your weapons to bear.

To play back the references in the article, we are throwing away the core insight of the Wrath of Khan; even a splash of 3D in your ship combat is a lot of fun. As an old Homeworld player, using the third dimension to out-flank opponents was a joy. Now, I am not looking for AD&D Spelljammers hexagon/octagon rules like in the War Captains Companion, but I think one of the core components of this set should be a block of advice on how to make 3D space combat awesome - from people who have had the time to put serious thought into it.

I have heard that Roll20 is pushing Nautiloid ship maps to premium subscribers - and sure, fighting your way through a ship is a nice change of pace - but I think hand-waving that point of getting to contact does people a disservice. We throw away fun like a light ship having to outmaneuver a heavy ship by keeping out of their weapon-arcs until they can close and land a boarding party. Sure, that could be done as a skill challenge or something - and fine if that is included in the box but I would be dissappointed for Spelljammer to skip the fun of skyship combat completely.

Looking at the range of effects that can be achieved with the systems out there, while recognising that fully theater of the mind is *an* approach, it feels disappointing that this is it. If we look at the 'feel' we get from other D&D systems we can see what can be achieved with lighter or heavier systems:
5e - Aces High from Arcadia magazine - very light, very fast, no actual grid just 'altitude' - stripped down, high energy rules set, built for flyers and people on flying mounts. Here's a system that adds very little book-keeping weight, something like this properly adapted to ships instead of flying mounts would be the minimum effort solution I think. I use Aces High at my own table - since we are mostly working with monsters and very small flying vessels.

AD&D Spelljammer - the original - ships are very tough to kill, it all serves as a platform for adventurers to sling spells, fight boarding actions - 'fights to the death' take a lot longer in this as weapons fire every 2, 3 or 4 rounds. The new approach sounds like it keeps a lot of the feel of tough ships being platforms for fighting but even so,just weapon arcs and maneuver adds a layer of cunning for players to collectively work with.

OD&D (updated) - Calidar, available on Bruce Heards blog in sections, most complex because it has wind influencing movement and damage is not just hull points, you can knock out masts, weapons, kill crew and so on. Feels really age of sail in that direction matters, ships are big & tough. Also accommodates flying creatures as written. Written with OD&D in mind but with guidance on how to adapt it to whatever system you are using (3.5e, 5e). This is probably more crunch than most would want but it *feels* substantial, the navigation decisions feel meaty.

3.5e - Shadow of the Spider Moon from Polygon #151 - 3e update of Spelljammer, chunky, tactical action, about the middle between Calidar and Aces High for crunch.

I think stripping out a ship combat system entirely robs players of some fun agency; succeed or fail, that thrilling bit in Age of Sail and Pirate movies of jockeying for advantage as the distance closes to weapons range and then boarding. Maybe there will be some amazing guidance on how to capture the fun of ship duels in Theater of the Mind but that 'two islands shooting arrows' comment does not fill me with hope.

Being very generous in interpretation, I think there is a correct point in that ship-to-ship action needs to be at least as much fun as the players just running their own characters but I do not think it is correct to say ship to ship should never be attempted because people want to only run their characters. I have gotten great mileage with ship-to-ship as a change of pace - something that breaks players out of their standard, polished tactics and gives them a new challenge.

(Update 1: While this sat in draft, the tables of contents from review copies got posted with one (1) page worth of how to do ship-to-ship combat noted. I wait to see exactly what appears on the second page of all the 2-page ship descriptions - one will be deck plans, the other - like Saltmarsh? All the actions of the various parts of the ship? If so, and those include the weapons, then I will be interested to see how lighter ships - Wasps, Dragonflies - fare against mediums and heavies like Hammerships and Nautiloids. If the small ships cannot duck and weave through fire arcs somehow then they will get smashed coming anywhere near a heavier ship. Maybe it will all be done with contested piloting rolls? To be seen...)

(Update 2: Some thorough soul went and paused the video of someone flipping through the book and transcribed the ship rules - I have not yet read them as this is posted but I think when I do it will be with red pen clutched firmly in hand and the attitude of "what am I going to have to kludge on to get the feel that I want.")

08 August 2022

Shiny TTRPG links #80

Welcome to this, the 80th weekly link set - find below the nuggets of TTRPG gold from about the net. More can be found on the previous list found here. The original inspiration for all of this - weaver.skepti.ch End of Week links. You can find even more links on the weekly blogroll on r/OSR or a roundup of non-blog news on Third Kingdom Games roundup.

Blue Bard playtests AD&D Illusions in Sell Them a Bee, Deliver a Butterfly

Familiar Waves writes some useful thoughts in The Tyranny of Time

Throne of Salt writes meaty thoughts on getting hard-ish sci-fi right in Fixing Eclipse Phase

Axian Spice recommends some ZineQuest 4: The Old-School Essentials Projects!

D&D Historical Sales Data tabulated on The Mystical Trash Heap. Crunchy goodness.

Leicester's Ramble wraps up OPD 2022, Just a little randomness...

Alone in the Labyrinth is making Atop the Wailing Dunes: A PARIAH adventure for Zine Quest 4

Fireside Friday, August 5, 2022 by A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry ponders post-apocalyptic warfare and how it could play out.

06 August 2022

Gygax 75: The Dungeon (Week 3)

For the challenge, the dungeon is supposed to be the place where real adventure begins. The prompts reflect a quite specific vision for setting things up but are helpful to get things started, then it runs itself.

For our dungeon, we delve into a Temple of the Boring Beetles - our dwarf analogue on this world. The whole dungeon is carved into the trunk of one of the giant trees. The entrance is carved elaborately, an optical illusion that distracts from the chute within. Going with archetypes for dwarves, this is both a functional place the beetles used and a death-trap for strangers. Their optical-illusion carvings will be a feature.

The guide instructs us to make some rolls to find the number of themes we are dealing with. There was a little discussion and iteration but the themes we finally settled on were:
Theme 1 - the abandoned outer halls (intruders, things that settled in a ruin)
Theme 2 - the last stand of the boring beetle cult (cultists)
Theme 3 - the corrupted sanctum (spiders, undead)

The treasure hoard at the bottom of this is mostly fine crafted wooden objet d'art and the library. The spider-vampire now in residence hoards knowledge, gathered some themselves and then invaded and took over the lower levels to secure the temples library.

03 August 2022

Review: Brancalonia

tl:dr; a great fun, evocative sphaghetti fantasy D&D setting with some neat mechanics to capture the rollicking band of knaves style of play.

I picked up Brancalonia in another of my 'darn I missed this first time round' instances - backing the Empire Whacks Back kickstarter, I got the original books as an add-on. Brancalonia - "sphaghetti fantasy" - is a campaign setting for D&D 5e "based on Italian tradition, folklore, history, landscapes, literature and pop culture" - but more than a setting for the game, this is another mod. The classes and background mesh with a collection of new setting rules (and guidance to pick optional rules within the core set) that aims to deliver the experience of being a band of roistering Knaves and ne'er do wells out for their latest job.

The art throughout is great - the book looks like old paper with wine stains on it, stains explained in a chastising front note. Top marks for beautiful, consistent, evocative art - this is a really pretty book. The layout in general is top notch, a nice, clear, easy read with good boxes and sidebars and tables are where you would expect to find them from their mentions in the text.

Opening the book we get a nice Appendix N, and the intro 'this is a world of heroism and heroes - and you are not one of them. You are the ones who step in when things go wrong, dabblers, swindlers, scoundrels and greedy Knaves.' This is a game about being the scoundrels and chancers at the bottom of the heap, where the stakes are a purse full of coins, a good meal and another few days ahead of the law.

What is really interesting here is that this is an E6 game - you run up to 6th level, then whenever you would advance a level after that, instead you get a feat. It means both the rules, the world and the challenges in it are all tailored to a much tighter range than the usual 1-20 level spread which is something quite refreshing.

01 August 2022

Shiny TTRPG links #79

Links from about the slow summer internet. More can be found on the previous list found here. The original inspiration for all of this - weaver.skepti.ch End of Week links. You can find even more links on the weekly blogroll on r/OSR or a roundup of non-blog news on Third Kingdom Games roundup.

Blog of Holding gives us Dungeon Delver’s Guide: The NODES System

Slight Adjustments gives us Nameless Legends of GLOG

A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry writes on Logistics, How Did They Do It, Part II: Foraging - great stuff for a war-based campaign

Thompson Motif Index Generator on Whose Measure God Could Not Take

The Lizard Man Diaries write up of Empyrean Dynasty Game 1, Turn 6, 100 years of Post Earth History! Things going quite grimly...

Nothing and Happy by Weaver.skepti.ch

Grumpy Wizard gives us What Makes an OSR Game an OSR game?

30 July 2022

Gygax 75: The Map Around the Dungeon (Week 2)

In principle, this is to set up the area around the dungeon that is to be the campaign start point. In our particular run through of the exercise, first we must choose a world. We decided to go with a site on world 3 - tropical air world and have it be part of the great tree bank. This is a huge, floating forest, canopy towards the sun, roots pointed outsystem in the air disc-world. We are running with an 'early phase sphere' theme so we are going to see how far we can get with just insects, plants and funghi on our starting world; no reptiles, dinosaurs, mammals yet. Insects dominate life here.

I searched up and printed off a hex-grid and together with the in-house testing team marked out where the elements identified in the challenge guide needed to be. This is the working version, the full-colour fancy version is below.

This is a place of difficult terrain - a labyrinth of broad tree branches that interconnect indirectly and lead to lots of switch-backing on a journey from place to place or courageous leaps or aerial steeds. The hex-scales are 1 mile but travel times will be longer but a given hex will also be 'deeper' with more stuff per hex being theoretically possible. Things could also be closer together than crow-flies distance might allow since direct paths may not be possible.