29 November 2020

7-step session prep in action

Have deliberately left using my '7-step single page prep' late to drive urgency:

Step 0 - open the toolkit - Excel sheet with all my tables and models, powerpoint with realm maps, powerpoint with the palace layout. Sources for all reference I will go into anon. Set out the papers - session sheets, blank, reference stack.

Step 1 - set the time - no problem; work out weather for the next day since we are starting in the evening. If in doubt I use the random weather generator here.

Step 2 - copy over all the events. While doing this a number of events will compress to just tags back to detailed notes on previous sheet. Any obvious extra ones in mind will be added now. Next is to review what happened in the part 5 & 6 of previous week - what happened and where the PCs plan to go. Each of these gets either a tag back to the relevant source or will be expanded on now, envisioning that the PCs will get to them. What did the players flag as the things they would likely go do this week. As I spot these gaps I do a quick fill out into block 4.

Step 3 - Look at the timeline and think how things may play out. What if the party zips through or skips certain activities; what is the next thing they are likely to end up at? In this case the curtain goes up on the immediate aftermath of a tournament where the players did well - lots of glory but zeroed out on resources.

Step 4 - in this case I ended up with some of the scantest notes I have done in a while - a list of additional guests at the feast, some thought in how to do the mechanics for a big tournament event, and a 'what everyone thought' of the main events from the last session. 45mins all told. Tools I actually used: my trusty family tree for the noble house we are playing ( a big excel table ), my calendar to check the names of days, Google (for names in relevant culture) and Ulraunts Guide to Acheron to fluff out a hook that did not get used. That was it, feel like I got away lightly.

Step 5 - Of 13 hooks that were on the list to start the game, 4 got used in a 4.5 hour session; 2 major sections were ad-libbed where the players pulled on hooks from major NPCs, 1 light combat encounter where a clutch 'calm emotions' from the bart pretty much won the day.

Step 6 - "at table" - after we called the end of session but still on the call we booked the next session and I got 7 things the players were planning to go after next. At this point I will also round out the notes I took at table; expanding the 'aide memoire' scribbles; adding names, noting down things I made up on the fly.

Step 7 - I will not try to work up implications immediately; usually I try to down tools for a while after a session. If I do not get the chance to do it until next sessions prep starts then this is the first things to do. Perhaps it ought to be step zero?

26 November 2020

Swamping the DM-ing apprenticeship model with players

There was a twitter thread mentioning the passing of tribal knowledge within D&D players. The key point was that many assumptions are not made explicit in the guides as it is assumed that the players are embedded within play groups, learning to DM from other DMs with very few DMs starting from the books alone. This can no longer be sustained as the high growth following the release of D&D 5e has changed the paradigm.

From previous post on the rate of new joiners I thought to try and estimate how many new joiners might have been expected to join based on the long run trajectory from the past 30 years.

If the trend of the present day OSR players can be taken as broadly representative of the long-run trend extending through to today then we can make an estimate of what players would have joined if the long run trends had been sustained - approx 20% of the current population.

This suggests that the need to transmit the craft of dungeon mastering must be transmitted through different channels than the apprenticeship model. The original thread suggested this needs to be better DMs guides but I suspect we may see a more multi-channel approach such as watching actual plays such as Dimension 20 and Critical Role, DM guides such as Matt Colvilles Running the Game series or finding assistance in peer communities on Discord or forums such as Reddit or in wise writings on blogs.

I think calls for 'DMs to do more work' and accept more people to their tables are misplaced - DMs cannot do the work required even if they turned their tables into factory farms. Not every player wants to DM, not everone will be local to someone who could teach them even if they wanted. Far better if the conditions are created to allow tables to spontaneously generate. Let a thousand flowers bloom. It worked for me.

Sources are:
OSR Gateway Survey (2019, N=2764)
R/DnDNext 5e Survey (2019, N=745)
NB: link to PDF
Dungeons and Dragons and Data: The Demographics of Players and Their Impact on Character Creation and Game Play (2019, N=1130)

24 November 2020

Conceptual density or why I had favorite RPG books

I have been buying RPG products for 30 years now. A friend called me out recently by identifying me as a big-spender among what I had thought was a pretty hard core group. I felt very seen, so time to look at what all this has taught me (if anything).

In common with a few things about gaming recently, Against the Wicked City in the OSR articulated the phrase that nailed what I had been feeling and the scales fell from my eyes - "conceptual density" - that an RPG product "contents need to be something better than you could come up with, unaided, simply by following cliches and/or random madlibbing". The blog post uses the exemplary Hill Cantons as an example which I would agree with but also take it a level further - in that Hill Cantons was inspired by Slavic warbear art; why not go direct to the source?

Art books and illustrated fables are almost as good as a dedicated RPG product - examples that I realise are sunk deep into my mind are:
- The Book of Conquests by Jim Fitzpatrick - based on the early mythological cycle of Irish stories. Epic, gorgeous, full stop.
- Wherever you can find Arthur Rackhams illustrations - I think I know him from Oscar Wildes fairy tales?

Lizardman Diaries brings the concept into play well with 'visual quirk generators' - an example of this is the Transient Bazaar - putting a grid over suitably evocative images to randomly find on-theme inspiration.

The key point here is that all of this more or less abandons crunch. No new rules, nor classes nor anything, this is purely about inspiration. I have shelves upon shelves of rules and I realised I have jettisoned or never activated most of them. In another piece of insight that helped me clarify what I had felt as a hunch - I do not need more mechanics because basically everything can be a bear.

Even in Planescape which I ran a lot, even during a relatively crunchy phase, the fiddly rules about magic items power waning and waxing across different locations, spells requiring keys and clerics being hamstrung by distance from their deity got mostly left at the door. What I did use, and all the time, were the lore descriptions, what the monsters were *like*, where they lived, what conditions on the planes were, in what nooks and crevasses could someone survive on, say, Pandemonium or Gehenna. There were some mechanical rules but if you were contesting the environment regularly, you were going to lose eventually.

I realise what I will buy a product for has evolved now that I know what I like. Of old I loved the Planescape Monstrous Compendiums; simply looking at entries in the monstrous compendiums and thinking about what those critters would do in the wild. I bought Midnight, Ptolus, and a bunch of other weighty books and found myself never using them. I now realise because I could not find art within that drove me. Ptolus because everything was already detailed out, cross referenced and pinned out like a conspiracy room. Great for what it is - not what I love. What I need are ideas to make it feel different, an element of randomness to kick me out of the rut of my own habits that I would drift towards without guidance.

Of supplements I own, going by what looks most raggedy, the most use I got of old was from:
The Planewalker's Handbook
Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix
Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix II
Planes of Chaos

Maybe I should have just bought DiTerlizzi artbooks.

22 November 2020

"I was raised on the Lower Planes" - on running Planescape

I have been thinking about the difference between Spelljammer and Planescape and to me Spelljammer is about having a mobile base for your road adventures while in Planescape you have a static one or none at all such as being a caravan. Here we are going to go a little deeper into my experiences running Planescape.

I got my hands on my copy of Planescape on a summer holiday and all my games after that were Planescape. Sometimes they might have started on or crossed the Prime, but anything I ran there were two guarantees - there would be planeswalking and somewhere a dragon was involved.

I ran three signature Planescape campaigns - one that started on the prime and then headed to the planes, two that were planar from the get go.

First was the Katharsis campaign - classic AD&D - running about a kingdom, fighting a goblin crusade, finding the portal that the demon-prophet had been trying to capture... then ripping it open and bailing offworld to dodge the coming demon invasion. From there it turned into a caravan across the planes, slowly losing hangers-on and gear, turning into a pure monster-of-the-week almost 'Sliders' style "what can we do here before we leave by the next portal". This was a mid-teens game, with a 3 core players and a rotating cast of others in a quasi-west marches style. Plane-hopping let me fold in whatever interesting turned up through Dragon magazine or whatever other inspirations crossed my radar at short notice.

The big 'Planescape signatures' I would tag here was the rapid switching between terrains, the continuous 'a stranger walks into town' effect and the chance to do some crazily epic things like hike up Mount Olympus to meet Ares (patron of two of the party).

The second campaign I ran - Kraken Mesa, a.k.a. Babylon 666 - was hung on the idea of the party getting abducted from their village on the Prime by a bunch of yugoloths on Gehenna who tasked them with clearing out and gaining control of an illithid fortress they had dragged to Avalas (first layer of Gehenna). This was supposed to be faction juggling, clearing out wierd aspects of their fortress, and trying to glean clues from what was going on around them. This was a college era game, initially 6 players, then 5 for the second year.

The big 'Planescape signatures' was being present on Gehenna, dealing with demons and devils on a regular basis who were too powerful to straight up fight, interacting with lots of the odder features of Planescape as parties interested in profitting off the Blood War made their way to their door. My players would probably recall the ridiculously over-engineered props I made up including a hand drawn cloth map of Avalas that was kept in a bag of soot for the authentic smell and filth.

The third campaign - JCQ - was entirely over AIM chat circa 2005. This had the player as fixers for an interplanar trading combine that had just gotten hit by some foes big play and they players made travelled the planes rescuing their colleagues, murdering their foes and trying to figure out who the enemy was.

This campaign was very dear to my heart because all the players were veterans of Kraken Mesa and as one would later say as in our title "I feel I was raised on the Lower planes" - and so I could push subtle lore stuff to them which would be picked up. "These brigands had green steel coin in their purses - Ba'atezu paid them, whats their angle here..."

The common factor among all these campaigns is the great freedom to throw anything you like at the party - next portal can lead to a dessicated sea where they face a mummified kraken, or to a jungle glade with a silent temple where a god sleeps, or through a hive of psychic wasps. Nothing was too strange because strange was to be expected. Planescape frees you from certain limits of versimilitude because Anything Goes on the planes, they are infinite. You just have to never flinch, keep your foot down on the accelerator and leave the players with the sense that they got away with something daring just by skipping through this place and surviving. Planescape should be plots in the shadows with angels and demons and sprints across the open to seize an opportunity before something of god-like power notices you.

To that note, for any DM thinking of running Planescape I would suggest spot the bits that really appeal to you and just do those bits. Some of what is out there will not appeal but there is so much good stuff and the to-ing and fro-ing of the infinite planes will generate so much material as you go that you will have a long, long campaign working through all the bits you really wanted to do.

21 November 2020

Comparing polls on game session length (2014-2020)

tl,dr: typical session length remains stable at ~ 4-5 hours in polls over time.

Attempting a wisom of crowds, crude longitudinal survey I compiled a bunch of different player surveys over time. First off thanks to all those out there who leave clear, findable records of their surveys. Kudos.

Second - the major problem with this kind of survey is that people bucket their time ranges very differently from coarse "1-2, 3-4, 4+" style to 'enter a number' clear space which leads sometimes to mini-essays that are difficult to parse (what was one supposed to make of "currently X but had a lot of Y"?). Hence the cumulative population curves to try and squeeze an apples to apples comparison out of all this.

Overall the story appears to be that most of the player population is getting in 2-6 hour sessions, with 2.5-5 hours covering about half of all players. This gels with what we typically see on the front of Adventurers league modules and what we used to run for a convention slot at Leprecon.

However, this then tells me my 'normal' gaming experience is pretty atypical. The yellow curve on the graphs is a slightly different question from the 2014 survey asking 'how much gaming per week' and the lows and highs indicate that a) some people are not getting in any gaming (~15% of respondents at the time) and some portion of the population is getting in a hell of a lot of gaming ~30% getting in 2 typical sessions and ~5% playing very long haul sessions.

Taking the 4 examples from my own experiences
- my local Adventurers Leauge Friday night meetup gang used to meet at 7pm and run regularly to past midnight on what were supposed to be 2-3 hour modules.
- my current home game started as a 4.5 hour evening slot - 7pm to midnight by design, aiming for every second week and had crept up towards weekly 6+ slots. This may be pandemic driven of course.
- I played a friends L5R campaign that was a weekly after work 7pm to 11:30 (4.5 on the nose).
- years ago we ran Living Arcanis modules which were similar 7pm to midnight 5hr sessions.

I wish I had data enough to cross check against ages - I bet there is a frequency drop, length up-tick that corresponds to people hitting 'serious job + family' - and therefore the logistical trouble to get a table together drives a preference for longer games.

Name Year Size Type
Elderbrain 2020 2044 Survey
Facebook D&D 5e 2020 1131 Survey
Sly Flourish DMs 2016 6600 Survey
Reddit D&D 2014 1734 Survey

19 November 2020

Review: Veins of the Earth by Patrick Stuart & Scrap Princess

tl:dr; awesome stuff, go get it.

I had the great good fortune in a recent break between local lockdowns here in Vienna to walk into my Friendly Local Games Store and spot Veins of the Earth sitting in the midst of their RPG shelves. One of the easier purchasing decisions I have ever made - I have heard of this book spoken in legend, I even considered buying it online but the shipping scared me off until here it was.

And looking at it, I see why shipping was an issue.

So beautiful, an artefact of a book like few others I have handled recently. Reading through its tales of eldritch underground horrors and leaping subterranean predators has been just the palate-cleansing pick-me-up I have needed from the news during this hell-scape of a year.

The first half is a bestiary with such wonderful entries on creatures and cultures that I have been bugging my SO by reading the best bits out to them. The second half is on running a campaign in the Veins; modifying rules and giving a toolkit to create your own exploration set.

The art by Scrap Princess is magnificent throughout to give the aesthetic, similar to DiTerlizzi for Planescape or Brom for Dark Sun.

What I love most about this, is the voice. From the initial statement of logic about why the book came to be - because we know more about caves now and we know they should be tougher and weirder than walkable caverns of yore - there way that Patrick Stuart lays things out is great to my mind. He tells you the why, and the intended feel, or look, or atmosphere. I like this principle driven way of doing a setting a lot - here is why we are changing this thing, encumbrance, light, climbing - there is detail here, because it is important for the feel for these reasons.

I know I am very late to the table on this - I have seen people rave about Veins of the Earth on the OSR blogs for years, but now having read it all I can say is the hype isn't wrong. This is one of those things that I just cannot explain, you have to pick this book up for yourself. I have held a few beautiful artefact books this year, but this is the honored ancestor. Go see for yourself.

If you want a more detailed breakdown of the content plus some actual play see the Luminescent Lich if you want to read or Questing Beast if you want a video.

18 November 2020

On childrens story gaming and later play style

Long, long ago (fado, fado in Eireann) myself and 3 of my primary school buddies cooked up our own story game and I wanted to talk about this as I think it roots my play style since.

Broadly speaking, there was a disc-shaped world (guess what we had been reading) held up by wasps on the back of a giant dolphin. Not sure it would get us around IP infringement today but it served for then. Each of us had a continent on this world of Ping - Pong, Zip, Stink and Kongk - that filled out a copy-book, each of us appeared as a character in the others continent.

Our characters ran about on each others continents doing stuff, mostly putting odd plans in motion, chasing after story hooks and resolving conflicts through argument or essentially a loudly contested GM-fiat system. The fact that each of us ran and played simulutaneously kept things fairly on the level though not without some lumps and bumps.

This would have been ~1990 and at the time we were reading Fighting Fantasy books and White Dwarf and playing Heroquest and Space Crusade. We were way out in the west of Ireland, very little made its way out that far (our original White Dwarf was snatched off a shelf by one of us on a trip to the North), so all of this developed more or less in isolation from any other live gaming inputs. Having figured out there were things out there, we got subscriptions to White Dwarf (1991) then Dragon Magazine (1993). We more or less simultaneously got our hands on some Advanced Fighting Fantasy material and Black Box D&D which told us there were ways to do what we had been doing, but with systems! Dice rolling! Wierd dice! This found an easy welcome.

From there, there was an attempted launch of a AFF game that did not take off. A year or two later I ran a first D&D game which ran for a fair few sessions. At this point there were groups of friends (all boys) who had more or less moved from boardgames onto RPGs, which then got super-charged when Magic: the gathering hit town. The local book store held Friday open table sessions, this allowed like-minded folk to congregate and from there a whole bunch of different games took off - AD&D, World of Darkness, Conspiracy X, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

I think the early system-less experiences drilled in a sense of the activity being seperate from the particular system which made the statement 'for a specific setting, use system X' non-controversial for me. Always we had a DM who owned those books, knew the given system and the rest of us sat to table and played.

All this is sparked from a twitter thread I saw saying kids today find the demands of a game having a big-S story, as they have learned from watching streamed games, intimidating and a barrier to entry. While I agree with that specific point, I think the broad point of 'come for the story' refreshing as it implies there is hope that a broad ecosystem of games can flourish, each supporting different styles.

Seperately a lot of the responses to that thread saying 'story driven is bad' I think miss a distinction where people equate 'story driven' with 'rail-road' which is to chop a pretty subtle continuum into just two chunks. I fully agree with the point that if you have a story to tell and you do not want the players to interfere probably you should go write a book instead. If you have some big story hooks to drop and then you are willing to run with what the table does with those hooks - that is going to be a game. Maybe it will be a simple 'players flee the consequence of their actions' monster of the week type thing - thats fine, so long as it all makes sense.

To sum up - we got years of fun out of system-less rule-of-cool and I think that grounding in 'we come together to tell some sort of story' makes for a good foundation to then pick up a variety of systems and settings and enjoy the best of what is out there.

17 November 2020

'What I wish I had known' as a starting DM

Some thoughts I pulled together on a private discord:

1. Recognise what elements of world-building actually give you bang for buck. My first game I have designs for the coins of the realm - relevant? Never came up. I detailed whole towns that the players blasted through, talking to 2 people before heading on. So, while it can be lots of fun to work up your world and that can be fun for you outside of the table, my single greatest learning was doing most work on the things players would likely interact with, have a few contingencies, and then a just a list of names to ad-lib anything else they decided to do

2. Mediocre artists borrow, great artists steal. All your favourite things, wherever they came from? You can use all of those for inspiration. Everything goes in the pot, there is no 'legitimate' source of inspiration. Just repaint it enough not to be immediately obvious and you will probably get away with it

3. Session Zero is your friend or Check what your players enjoy and make sure they get a chance to do that. Both a pre-campaign session and a brief post game 'where do you think you'll go after next session' gives you a heads up on where they are likely to go and what type of thing they want to do - tomb-diving, politics, exploring etc. - and makes sure you are preparing hooks they will probably go for.

Note - there is a lot of fun to be had world building things your players will never see - as long as you are clear that this is you noodling about in your world for your own entertainment and you will not feel too sore if it is never interacted with.

For further reading on the topic here are some blogs of wisdom:
Harbinger Games DM tips.
Sly Flourish DM tips.
Advice for OSR DMs from Goblinpunch.
The Ultimate D&D SESSION 0 Checklist has a lot of distilled wisdom in it.

Should you prefer videos then here is a selection of DMs - give them a watch to see who are your favourites to listen to. In my experience all these people speak the truth, the question is which do you find easiest on your ear.
Running the game with Matt Colville.
What Should You Have in a DM Binder? by Dael Kingsmill.
Building Your Own Campaign Setting with Matt Mercer & Brennan Lee Mulligan.

If what you want are podcasts; check out our friends at The Adventuring Party.

14 November 2020

Updated class preferences, incl. Twitter, Facebook

Following up on class preferences in D&D 5e players with a few new data sources, it underlines that all online fora seem to respond in a similar manner - Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, down to smaller dedicated forums like Giant in the Playgrounds.

The numbers coming out of the latest poll in the Facebook D&D 5e group show the same pattern. This added to Elderbrain and ThinkDMs twitter polls broadens the catchment outside dedicated forums like Reddit channels or RPGnet.

There is a particularly strong response in favour of clerics and warlocks, a little more favour for fighters and rogues, but the pattern is the same.

The orange line, the numbers from D&D beyond, can be taken as the baseline population and while some forums - as seen here - show some preference for fighter and rogues that is not the strict 'we hate non-spellcaster' archetype, the break below the general population response for Barbarian and Rangers and heightened preference for Warlocks show that surveys are getting responses from a particular sub-group of players.

Noisy version below with all collected surveys - Fighter, Rogue, Wizard can get noisy but always for D&D Beyond or Apps (orange) Barbarians and Rangers have some fans and in every forum they are disfavoured.

City building: Reasons strangers come to Sholtipec

Strangers come to Sholtipec to seek many things. The abandoned parts of the city have been un-evenly gleaned and the active core still produces crafts and answers that can be found nowhere else. Still an administrative centre within the Scaledlands, the ways lead from the dragon cult-cities back to Threshold and the deep homelands.

I built this table to have a skew by using d6+d12 in place of 3d6. This makes the 6-12 block equally probable among themselves to allow equal weight to the main activities of the city. The tails on either side are then reflecting the stranger aspects of the city.
d6+d12Things to seek in Sholtipec
2Answers from the Great Library
3Military assistance (official or mercenary)
5Decisions and warrants from the Temples
6New intoxicants from the Hives (dusts, honeys or bugs)
7Eel delicacies from Crystal Ponds
8Cult affirmation for deeds or sacrifices
9Sage suppositions from Drumspires
10Space for dwelling/activities
11Fuel, heat
12Fashion, garments
13Exoteric equipment
14Reagents & ingredients
15Information or intelligence
16Art, culture or performers
17Vengeance, assassins
18Magic crafts (made in Drumspires or dug from Rooftops)

The purpose of this table serves both as a motivator for anyone encountered on the street - either as a stranger, this is why they have come, or as a local this is the aspect of the city they are involved in. Similarly for buildings, it can give a tag to the activity within; though for an out-of-district result, this can be assumed to mean that some non-normal activites are dominant at this place just now.

13 November 2020

Food in world building

Following up on this post on food in settings on Reddit I thought to go deeper on some of my thoughts.

Mealtimes plays a big part of the current campaign with quite a few memorable meals and the idea of having to stay away from base and miss the dinner hour as a tangible sacrifice. The beats through out day are more or less 'major meal' and 'time between after meal'.

I try to make meals a daily opportunity to gather info, so continually positively reinforce that. I also flag 'its cold, you are burning energy and getting hungry' as a soft timer to drive pace during activities. Lore to the setting is that spell slinging makes you hungry, so the sorcerer is always concious of when the next meal is.

The specific foods that have turned up are ways to showcase one of the fairy tale races of the setting. The atmosphere is Ankh-morpork crossed with the fairy-tale aspects of Arthur Rackhams work and food is a great way to drive that things are not quite the same.
The Hare and the Tortoise by Arthur Rackham, 1912.

Examples of food preferences becoming tags within the world have been:
Super large mushrooms served whole with baked topping being one for the mountain and cave folk with intact transport being tricky and a safe arrival being cause for a celebration.
Large juicy breadbugs for breakfast, lunch and dinner marked a winter festival being one for the animal-lings.
Pungent stews are a favourite for the weasel-lings and have become a marker for their presence.

When I working food into world-building, I usually derive it from other parts first; if the city generation indicates a couple of obvious food types and sources then those will feature prominently.
Thenya is a city in the interior, on a river but mostly fed by field and mountains nearby. The sea is too far away. So as a first pass, classic medieval fare is a good model.
Sholtipec is a city on a river but with extensive eel farming, large hives and a large part of the city being reclaimed by jungles. Much hotter and with lots of available food in the forest and a significantly higher proportion of insects in the diet as the population is largely reptilian.

Once the general ideas were in place, I pre-generated a couple of food carts using the Dungeonspoon tables from Famous Hippopotamus and also rolled up the stall holders using the appropriate city dweller tables (e.g. these for Sholtipec.)

For my games, lots of useful business has gotten done standing around food carts or sitting to high tables; why not let the food served also drive the atmosphere?

Edit to add: Box Full of Boxes has a great Local Cuisine Generator along the same general concept.

12 November 2020

City building: aspects of Sholtipec

Building the centre-piece city of my last campaign, I tried to spend time prepping the toolkit instead of creating specific detail; for instance in the first post on the city we saw what the population make up was. Now we will look at building generation tools.

A lot of this was seeded by the Infinigrad suburb generation tools on Lizardman Diaries but I felt I needed to cook up a few more specific tables to help specific more closely what I wanted.

For background the city, Sholtipec, is old; first growing up around the Great Library, then becoming a bastion of the Lizards Empire after they crushed the Gray invasion force nearby. Buildings and populations reflect all those epochs through to the current long, slow depopulation and retrenchment. So while the generalised chaos and atmosphere of the city can use the Infinigrad generators, beneath that I wanted an original epoch of the building.

So a given building in the city would roll a d10:
d10EpochBuilding Aspect
1AncientEldritch carvings, non-euclidian spaces, illithid-inspired
2ElderStilted, tree-dwellings, organically grown, magically mutated
3-4High LizardFortifications, neuva-aztec; insulated buildings
5-7Dragon EraMulti-racial build-outs; different sizes; big dragon-sized
8-10Late Repurposed buildings

This would give me a start point for who built the building, replacing the 'raceoid' originators from Infinigrad and then allowing me to use the rest of those generators more or less as is.

11 November 2020

The 3 pillars of gameplay beyond D&D

A new survey from D&D Research Wizards (NYU team) is ongoing and they have published some preliminary results. This one is open to all TTRPG players and it is interesting to see it plotted against D&D focused surveys.

The increased importance of role-playing makes some sense as broadening the apeture from D&D to include everything will bring in many games where the classic modes of finding abandoned ruins and searching them for treasure while fighting off beasties are not their primary operating modes. Taking Call of Cthulu as an example - for almost all the games of that I have played, combat was lethal and to be avoided by the squishy humans - the fun was in the investigations (exploration) and the roleplay.

Similarly for World of Darkness - games I have played of that were less exploration focused and more roleplay and combat (fistfuls of d10s!) focused. Investigations and problems solving were usually rapidly brushed over by the application of high level gifts.

The survey is still open, looking for information from all Tabletop RPG players. There is also a raffle with participation prizes which is nice.

Other sources are:
Sven Writes twitter poll (2020)
D&D reddit survey (2014)
Sly Flourish facebook poll (2018)

10 November 2020

d20 tricks for a villainous escape, boosted by neural network tools

A few ideas thrown together to challenge high-level PCs. The core assumption being that once the villain is in the clutches of the party, they will be torn down pretty quickly so the theme here is how to prolong the fight.

This is generic as much as possible to allow tailoring to the specific terrains you want.
1. Traversible but difficult terrain between the PC and foe; presents the puzzle of just slogging across (a known factor) vs spending resources to rapidly come to grips.
2. Terrain the foe can trigger - e.g. hiding on the far side of a tarpit or oil slick that sucks up movement to cross, that the foe can then ignite while the players are traversing
3. Multi-level close quarters - allowing crossing of paths without opponents blocking; e.g. running around on top of shelves in a library or facing something that can swim under the ice of a shallow lake
4. Highly visible, obvious traps - snares, pitfalls, things that won't kill but will delay individuals either de-activating or extricating themselves from - all action soaks while allowing the foe freedom to attack or flee
5. Living terrain - the foes are in a howdah of a large beast or fleeing past a sleeping dragon - both cases where slips or wild attacks risk bringing a new foe into the fight
6. Collateral innocents - fight happens atop a creature or with the foes holding a hostage - PCs need to defeat them with precision
7. A time limit for action - the foes have escaped into a mine with an avalanche descending or into a passenger pod on a giant turtle about to dive - the PCs must address the environmental challenge before their access is cut off.
8. For truly advanced challenge, crack out the non-eucidean architecture (part 1, and part 2) starting with part 3; wierd gravity.
9. Avoiding multiple objects in one spot - e.g. having to worry about multiple objects being piled up against a wall to allow foe to climb and escape; or bones tumbling from opening tombs that will rise to fight once enough falls in to allow skeletons to form
10. Avoid being surrounded by obstacles - foe tries to keep you in a place because they know they will be able to escape but not you - e.g. water rising toward a drain chute or other exit path that they will be able to slip away down, spiders building webs that will trap the PCs but the foe can slip through
11. Random encounters - The enemy won't just randomly drop on the map when they die e.g. they need to be brought to a place where they can be pinned to finish them off or else will likely escape - e.g. a planar being or vampire will reform elsewhere if killed
12. Endless encounters - prolonged or loud clashes are likely to bring reinforcements or generally worsen the situation - e.g. both parties are thieves/assassins where an alert will rouse the guards
13. Unwanted enemies - crushing the known foes at current location will turn current friendlies against the party - mistakenly assuming you are attacking innocents or breaking hospitality rules or some such
14. Moving on to the next phase - roll twice on this table and combine; success in the first phase shifts the fight to the second so more tactics need to be employed e.g. front-running an avalanche then having to negotiate traps in the cavern everyone is sheltered in
15. Raining - a thunderstorm on icy or rocky surfaces, making them first slick, then flooding, bringing a risk of lightning strikes to those near tall things and making communications and sight difficult as flashes disrupt vision
16. Water - a large area may have pools, rivers, bogs, lakes, swamps, rivers, ponds, deep waters, rivers in tributaries or even entire lakes making pursuit difficult for heavily armoured adventurers
17. Fences - some fortifications with solid walls or fences or trenches that regularly block line of sight and provide lots of close cover
18. Ropes - an area is a maze of spikes that requires pursuit by swinging on ropes- e.g. a huge cave with a lot of spikes or large pits within tunnels
19. Crumbling - an ancient stone floor is crumbling and pursuit paths must be judged by the weight of the pursuer
20. Narrows - the path to the foe requires that players can engage only piecemeal - some must power a lift or hold a rope bridge while others cross - requiring careful choice on who gets to grips in what order

A mightier list of terrain features can be found here to flesh out and modify the high level concepts described above.

Items 1-8 above were standard off the cuff responses to a prompt but from 9 onwards are slightly cleaned up outputs from the GPT-2 network at Bellard.org. I found this through Eldritch Fields. I fed it sub-sets of the 8 prompts I had created, chopping and changing to get more responses. A neat tool for beefing up some content that may be a bit scant.

Note 11 was originally "the map is randomly generated each time you start a new playthrough"
12 was "enemies can be friendly (for instance you can see where they are coming from or they can"
20 was "Tidal wave - a time warp from earlier phases of the fight - either the foes are still trapped deep into the cavern or they are under attack or drowning and need to escape quickly" - too similar to 7

08 November 2020

d10 Ways the local thieves guild is going to get back at you

So you, the local thieves guild master have some troublesome adventurers that you cannot go after directly for whatever reason; what are your options to make their lives unpleasant?

1. To just cause trouble for them while you snickers into their pints far away - spread rumours that they are carrying lots of treasure after a successful dungeon run and wait for the random muggers and sneak thieves to have a go.
2. Put the word about that one of them is a minor noble scion and potentially valuable hostage and
3. Spread rumours they have committed heinous deeds against some group likely to take violent reprisal - burned down a shrine, killed a respected elder, etc.
4. If the guild is willing to put in a little legwork then connect with them through a false front, find out what they want, then go about getting it for them with massive collateral damage. When consequences start coming down the trail will lead to them and they genuinely wanted the thing so noone will believe it wasn't their fault
5. Put around rumours they are cultists, blood war mercenaries or other vile souls who bring ruin in their wake - then make sure ruin follows in their wake.
6. Set out bounty notices for some local notables, payment to be collected on delivery of their heads to the party. Even if no-one takes it up, the local guards will be down on them like a landslide. If someone does take it up, better and better
7. Spy on them, infiltrate their residences, blackmail their henchlings and servants to get their plans - then tip off their foes that they are coming.
8. Make some extra coin by selling a foe a full description of what they can do and any known weaknesses
9. Find our their secrets and vices and spread them all over town - best part is that every word will be true
10. Meet some group of up and coming troublemakers and offer them a bounty for every flashy wicked deed they do in the partys name

07 November 2020

Notes on 1-page session prep

tl:dr; a walk through of a single-page set up for running sessions with numerous plot lines

For background; I played lots and lots of D&D 2e, 3.5e from early teens up to end of college then sporadically after that for a decade and have now come back to it. In the interim the OSR happened, 5e launched and the myriad of resources available online has exploded. In particular I notice the focus has shifted from 'this is how one must do it, if you are good/serious' to 'the DM is a player too / here is how to make life easier for yourself'. In the spirit of the latter I want to share the way I prep my sessions that I have refined over the past years and two campaigns.

Each prep session, I start with two sheets - the last session and a blank. Current flow for preparation goes:
1. starts with the 'when' layout and weather, including countdown to major events and recurring things happening
2. List outstanding hooks that can be used for the session; this looks scant because most are a tag back to a place where the encounter, plot hook, etc is detailed
3. Blocked out timeline for session - has evolved into Breakfast, morning, lunch, afternoon, dinner, evening, night as the 'action beats' through a day.
4. Detail onto any hook not yet fleshed out if it is small. Larger hooks might get their own page if I expect to reference back to it over multiple sessions
This is all the pre-session prep I will do from here it is during and after.
5. Log of actual play out of the session, with half-hour blocks as the finest level of detail
6. Immediate post session (players still at the table) expected actions for next session, leads on their mind, where they think they are going
7. Post session implications where I work out consequences of player actions, move the timeline along on anything happening in the background that may not have featured at the table.

Note, this is possible because my writing is small and I am happy with tiny script; your mileage may vary.

As noted above starting for a session I will note what parts of section 2 were not covered and port them forward to the new section 2. Where a hook was detailed out in a section 3, I will note which sheet (episode number) has the detail. Next, I go through 5-7 to cook up some new hooks and add them to the new section 2.

Other than this the main sheets kept are locations (dungeon complex, city districts) which are revisited time and again, a heirarchy of local power structures, a sheet of NPCs encountered and 'conspiracy pages' where the active factions are detailed out.

At the table this is then - stack of episode sheets with live hooks to one side, stack of lore sheets to the other side for deeper detail and the live episode sheet in front of me.

Anyone looking for more thinking on this I suggest to check out Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master by Sly Flourish where I pinched the idea of slimming down and simplifying my prep in the first place or there is now another post of this system in action.

04 November 2020

Comparison of popularity of gaming in top 20 European countries

I pulled the numbers of members of groups tagged with tabletop gaming tags and spotted 'ttrpg' as the highest level tag. D&D, RPG, and multiple other related tags identify smaller numbers so TTRPG is taken as the max possible indicator.

Social media penetration is similar (~95-97%) across Europe so taking the number of meetup members per million population gives a rough estimate of gamer prevalence.

The stand out difference is that the UK/Ireland have much higher rates that other European countries.

A first question is whether activity levels are in reality similar but are happening off Meetup.com and on other, language localised sites. The similarly flat rates across German, French, Spanish, Dutch and Swedish speaking countries suggests not - it would not be expected to have equally popular local sites in all these different languages.

A second question is whether, as anecdotes suggest, continental board gaming culture does not cross-over to RPGs in the same way as in the UK/Ireland (or indeed America). Discussions with locals in French and German speaking groups suggest that free time is more likely to be spent playing board games as it is easier to round up a group (different family generations playing together was a frequent point) and less prep time is needed compared to RPGs. This is anec-data and thus no stronger than an indicator of what may be going on.

Investigations to continue.

03 November 2020

d10 Things the lizardfolk aristocrats are in a twist about

d10 Things the Lizard Aristos are in a twist about this week

1. That someone has bred bees to produce something indistinguishable from moon bee imperial jelly! But the rituals!
2. The dragon gods are thirsty and someone drank the holy offering beer!
3. The war in the East has disrupted trade and the price of scale wax has skyrocketed
4. Cold snap. Everyone slow and grumpy.
5. Imitation gold scale paint now indistinguishable from the real thing. Poor people are wearing it! Existing artful designs now worthless for flaunting.
6. Heirs of two rival castes discovered sharing a sunning stone. Scandalous!
7. The flies taste different since Tuesday. Not bad, per se. But different. And different is bad.
8. Those damned humans left corpses in the swamp. Again. The value of the swampedge property is plummeting.
9. Lady Ysscale is holding a party, but failed to provide adequate frog legs. Some of the guests left hungry.
10. How is green this season's colour? The common lizards are green. It is all because Lord Twiss married that jumped-up serving lizard, and no everyone is slumming it with green scalepaint.

With thanks to: ArkosDawn, Thriftomancer, Vance, Spekkio, stm, MerlynZero, mtb-za

02 November 2020

What vengeance is the fey court taking on your town? (d8)

My contributions to a gygaxian democracy effort on a walled garden discord on 'd8 things the party find as they approach the town that has angered the fey lord?'

1 The proper sidhe of legend did their worst tricks were with time - time speeds up towards the centre of the city (cab play out like Inception or Interstellar)
2.'Nothing is what it seems'; manifesting lots of glamours, illusions with the aim of having people coming to harm by walking up stairs that lead to nowhere, falling into pits, walking into fires
3. Children gone for a night, returned as old, old people with mass confusion among the townsfolk
4. People are spirited away; fed fey food, now cannot eat food of the prime - they waste away, starving to death for fey foods at tables laden with their own cooking
5. The fey prince who wants a monument to the folly of those who cross him turns the townsfolk to trees and roots them along all approaches to the city, there to cry warning to any who would come to the city (this stolen from Richard K Morgans 'A land fit for heroes' series)
6. The wyld hunt is a classic, with the twist of turning all the townsfolk into animals for the hunt
7. Animated terrain - a walking clock tower or town gate stomping about seeking folk to squash. This from the legend of the split rock - cross through it three times and it will close on you
8. Noone in the city can recognise beauty that is not the fey, they cannot stand the sight of other humans now and flee in horror from each other