Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Dragon of Crab Key

The first James Bond film - Dr. No - features a Dragon. The Dragon of Crab Key. It's a legendary creature protecting the remote island known as Crab Key, making visits very dangerous. In the movie, Mr. Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate the death of a fellow agent. During his investigations, Bond manages to uncover a secret organization (SPECTRE) lead by an evil mastermind, foiling the organization's plans in Crab Key.

(Source: Wikipedia)
During the movie, the character of James Bond is portrayed as a man of many skills. The stylish secret agent is an excellent marksman with great unarmed combat skills - as expected from a field agent who sleeps with danger (literally) - but he is also a very keen observer, capable of getting to the bottom of things without bloodshed.

I'll bet the action scenes kept the 1962 audience at the edge of their seats (watching the movie more than 50 years later, the movie still has an edge), but even the non-combat scenes had an edge. In the secret-agent genre, even going to bed alone after a hard day can be dangerous - the scene in which a Tarantula was placed in Bond's bed to take care of the 'pesky' agent was very well done. And if Mr. Bond takes a lady to bed, chances are that he was better off with the Tarantula...

In D&D, the characters have many abilities they can use during combat and non-combat encounters. During combat, things get more codified, with specific actions yielding specific results. While smart players can think out of the box and do cool stuff during combat (take any swordplay scene from the Pirates of the Caribbean's movies) it mostly comes down to attacks and hits, even if they are very descriptive and engaging.

During non-combat scenes (or encounters), players rely more on roleplaying and class / character features that are less codified. For example, let's say that the players are planning to sneak into a noble's mansion as part of their mission to find evidence of the noble's foul dealings with orcs.

Knowing my players, one will suggest to sit in a street corner and watch the mansion for a while, to see how many guards are there and what is their schedule. Another might offer to hit the local bars for rumors concerning that noble. A third player might offer to go to the local masons guild, to see if the plans for the mansion still exist. Or maybe the'll just go straight to the door and knock, winging it as the situation evolves.

In any case, they have way more options than in combat. Any of the above options (setting a lookout, hit the bars for rumors, locating the building's plans and knocking on the door) can be resolved using a little roleplaying, by just describing what the characters do. But we want to make things interesting. Crab Key wasn't interesting because the villain's lair was supposedly located there. It was interesting because a "dragon" was known to live there. There was an edge. Something to make an already exotic place more so.

Sneaking into a noble's mansion is interesting as it is - as the DM, I want the players to be able to do it and get the information they need (it might be even crucial to the adventure) - but I don't want to throw a red carpet under their feet on their way in. I want them excited about what they are about to do, getting them to the "edge of their seat" as they plan their way in, making the actual sneaking-in a climax on its own.

In one line - I want to make a non-combat encounter as exciting as a combat encounter, or at least get very close to it.

How? Read on.

Right now, I am using Chris Perkins's Three Act Structure to outline the entire session, detailing scenes in several sentences. I found that running session out of pages packed with information is counter productive - I prefer to look at the players than at my laptop screen (or notes) - so I settled for a few sentences per scene.

For a combat encounter (scene), all I need is a bunch of bad-guys and a location. The system usually provides the details. Monster stat block give almost everything a DM needs, and in systems such as 4e, even the surrounding can have hazards and dynamic elements that have stat blocks of themselves, while not being "creatures" per se. I have lots of details off my notes, and the "win or lose" situation is built into the encounter. Five sentences to describe the scene are usually more than enough. For example:

Event 4 - An Unholy Man: The heroes come face to face with Lord Seylas, who is frothing over the destruction of his ship. If the heroes did not accept Abector Levatra’s protection, he summons some monsters to fight them and leaves. If they do enjoy her protection, he leaves, telling the heroes to watch their backs.

In the above scene, the location can be whatever I want it to be (depending on where the adventurers are), and the bad guys are probably whatever monsters Lord Seylas summons. The heroes "win" by defeating the monsters (and maybe saving innocent bystanders, if the encounter takes place in a public location such as an inn). So the excitement comes from the action and the question: "will our hereos survive?"

But five sentences are rarely enough for non-combat encounters. There are so many courses of action and so many things the players can try, its nearly impossible summarize everything that might happen, and its even harder to quantify everything into DCs and if-else statements. For example:

Event 3. A Holy Woman: Abector Levatra greets the heroes. They immediately see that she is blind. She explains that her order is waging war against the abominations lurking behind the Veil and the Dragovar Empire - the two main threats to the Lhazaar. Together with Ryger’s forces, her order works to undermine the Dragovar and learn whatever can be learned about the Veil. The PARANTAA are creatures of the Veil, spreading disease if touched by humans. They only learned of the ship’s cargo when it was too late, and so she gave the order to sink it. Using scrying, she saw the whole assault. She was impressed with the heroes deeds during the assault, but so was Lord Seylas - a powerful sorcerer and the Wavecrusher owner. She offers to protect the heroes from the sorcerer’s wrath if they will help her uncover the mystery of the PARANTAA.

(Yes, the Dragovar is a total ripoff from Iomandra. I know.)

Much more than five sentences, and I probably could have written a dozen more. But note that there are no numbers involved. No DCs (if a PC tries to use a skill) or descriptions of spells she have active. No writeup of the surrounding (they met her in her temple), rooms, traps, NPCs etc. No if-else sequences (if a player does X, she says Y). If the players try something that requires actual mechanics, I'm improvising.

It makes a nice roleplaying scene, but where's the excitement? They enter a room, meet an NPC, talk to her, maybe accept her offer. What's new?

Well, I'm thinking of a way to turn this five sentence scene writeup into something more interesting. Here are my thoughts:

  • Some non-combat encounters should be as exciting as combat encounters.
  • Things get exciting when there's a chance of winning and a chance of losing.
  • When you ask a player to roll a dice in a non-combat encounter, you actually say: "lets see if you can pull this off", making "winning" and "losing" very visible.
  • "Losing" should still be fun.

With the above in mind, here a writeup of the above scene. What do you think?

Event 3. A Holy Woman: Abector Levatra greets the heroes. They immediately see that she is blind. She tries to persuade them to accept her protection from Lord Seylas in return for embarking on a mission to uncover the mystery of the PARANTAA (the creatures of the veil).

Blindness [Spot] - Her condition was self inflicted. Disturbing visions were somehow involved. A medallion (silver eye) on her neck allows her to see using magical means. Fail: she asks the player if her medallion interests him. Some tried to take it from her - none survived.

Lord Seylas [Recall Lore, Persuade] - The lord and the abector were once lovers. He will not act openly against her, as he still loves her. Fail: she coldly says that her personal affairs are to remain that way. She warns them to keep their distance from the lord even if they don't accept her offer.

The PARANTAA [Sense Motive, Persuade] - It seems the abector knows more about these creatures than she reveals. Maybe she already have most of the answers. Fail: one of the temple guards snaps at the heroes, hand on hilt, telling them that their questions show disrespect. The abector coldly states she told them all that she knows.

By moving the NPC goals out of the scene description (and into a section dedicated to NPCs not shown here), I made some room to specific "win/lose" situations utilizing skills. I specified what the players learn when applying their skills, and what happens when they "fail", with "failure" meaning a minor change in the NPC attitude, a subtle threat or a tense moment.

So instead of a bulk of text describing boring goals, details and descriptions, I have a short scene description and a focused list of win/lose moments requiring dice rolls from the players, with obvious results (more valuable info when "winning", or some tense moments when "losing"). As I said - interesting, exciting, with hooks everywhere. Maybe even better than combat, don't you think?

Dr. No had one scene that caught my attention. Four sentences that are full of cloak-and-dagger feel, danger  and uncertainty, all in a simple conversation between two would-be allies.

Bond: Your name Quarrel?
Quarrel: Maybe.
Bond: I am a friend of Commander Strangways.
Quarrel: I like people who are friends of people.

I'll try this new approach in my next couple of sessions, and will update on the results.


Monday, July 22, 2013

Adventure Seeds - "Slippery Mind"

Here is something new. Every now and then I will publish a "three-act adventure seed" that can be fleshed out into a complete adventure, used as a hook for bored adventurers or as a rescue plan in case the DM's plans go out of the window and a new adventure must be conjured up in minutes.

The idea is to set the stage in ACT I, provide a complication in ACT II and close things up at ACT III. I'll try to make this system and setting agnostic.

You'll note that I assume a specific course of action taken by the players, but that doesn't mean things will go that way. The idea is to give something with a beginning, a middle and an end. If the players go another way - improvise. Some of the best sessions I had were improvised from middle to end  - I usually get the beginnings right :-)

The adventurers are approached by a wide-eyed servant. He found his master - a young noble - slumped unconscious on an ancient book of some sort. He begs the adventurers for help, as he fears his master's interest in the arcane backfired seriously this time.

Finding the noble on his workshop's floor, the adventurers revive him. He babbles something incoherent about a 'portal' opening after he opened the book, and that they must destroy the book. The noble can barely speak, slurring his words, saliva dropping from his mouth. Whatever slipped through that portal must have infected the noble with a mental illness. The adventurers burn the book, and set out to find the slay the creature, later found to be hiding in the wine-cellar, digesting after feeding on the noble's intellect. A shout is then heard. It seems that the portal is still open, and something just slipped through it and out of the mansion. The noble promises half of everything he owns if the adventures make this nightmare go away quietly, without the authorities noticing.

The adventurers jolt out of the mansion, chasing the creature in the city's streets and alleys. They are then ambushed by severals thugs. After taking them down, the adventurers learn that a local wizard paid them to make sure 'no one gets out of the mansion alive'. The adventurers track the creature to the wizard's mansion. Confronting the evil man, they learn that the book was a trap - a way to get rid of a competitor. The adventurers force the wizard to close the portal and revet the creature's effect on the noble.

(Source: Wizards of the Coast)


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Past Perfect

As it turns out, I own almost every D&D core rulebook out there. Basic, AD&D, D&D 3.0e, 3.5e, 4th and Next - they all site on a neat shelf (or in the case of Next, a neat virtual shelf on my Google Drive).

(Source: Wikipedia)
On top of that, in the last couple of years, I've had the pleasure of running D&D campaigns using Basic (to my kids) along with 3.5e, 4th and Next to my regular gaming groups.

Guess what - I really can't say which edition is my favorite. Each has its own pros and cons, each shine in certain aspects and performs rather poorly in other. I mean, you could run a great role-playing campaign in whatever version, but the rules, the setting and the story won't "synergize"- they won't combine into a whole experience that is both complete and sound (Godel must be turning in his grave now).  
  1. Basic - simple but shallow.
  2. AD&D - definitely a step up, but most of its mechanics are awkward.
  3. D&D 3.x - Modern (compared to its predecessor), flexible, very detailed. Can easily be abused.
  4. D&D 4th - Cookie cutter MMORPG, but balanced and very easy on the DM.
  5. Next - Simple to run as Basic, with a meshup of features taken from 3rd and 4th.

Now paste your favorite setting (be it Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Eberron, Mystara, Darksun or whatever) over any of these system and things start to get shaky. Some are fairy compatible (AD&D and Forgotten Realms, D&D 3.5e and Eberron) but some can't be used together unless vigorous modifications are performed on either system or setting (Darksun and 4th, for example).

Which brings me to think that maybe - when deciding upon a new campaign - one should think about choosing a setting, and then choosing the system that bests describes it (maybe that's the reason that some many great settings come with a system baked right in - Eclipse Phase, Dark Heresy, Shadow World comes to mind).

But that leaves us with AD&D as a system - as most of TSR's campaign settings were designed using it (I'm assuming you're not building your own setting - a monumental task that really should be left to professionals IMHO). Let's face it - Basic had Mystara (which wasn't that bad, but wasn't that great either), 3.5e brought Eberron, 4th brought nothing (unless you consider Nenthir Vale as a campaign setting - and you shouldn't) and Next doesn't seem to grow from a specific setting.

So it seems to me that if you want that wonderful cohesion between system and setting, you need to choose the setting, and then choose the system that made it possible.

Here is a great quote by Monte Cook, which really encapsulate what's I'm aiming for. He wrote it about his home campaign setting - Ptolus - which was made possible by D&D 3.0:

The Ptolus Campaign is the d20 rules with the volume turned all the way up. I created this world with the game rules in mind. The conceits of the game were the conceits of the setting. The feel of the rules was the feel of the city. If the rules suggested that something might happen a lot, then in Ptolus, it happened a lot. The effects of 1st-level spells come as a surprise to no one here. Tanglefoot bags, rings of protection, and a druid’s animal companions are taken for granted.

I loved it when one day a player of mine said, “I polymorph myself into a troll and run out into the street after the thief.” 

Another player said, “Dude, you can’t go out there like that!”

And the first player replied, “Don’t worry about it! This is Ptolus—they see this stuff all the time.” I knew then that the first player really got Ptolus.

Reading his monumental Ptolus Campaign Setting, I now realize what a good setting/system synergy is. Take a look at Eberron and 3.5e, or AD&D and Forgotten Realms. Maybe this is the reason these systems (and settings) were so successful - they were whole, and they provided a complete experience, with the setting build with the system in mind.

It makes me think what Wizards are planning for D&D Next. Provide books that tell you how to adjust your favorite setting for use with the new rules? It didn't work with 4th - it took them some time to release Darksun, which was made possible only by bending 4th just so.

So I really hope that they will provide flavors of D&D Next that will match the feel of the specific setting. Wanna play Forgotten Realms? Here's what you should add/remove from Next to support it. Wanna play Eberron? Here's how to decompose Next to fit that setting, etc.

Or they might surprise us with a new setting, one built with Next in mind...