Category Archives: Campaign Management

On a Red World Alone: Active & Reactive Worlds, and Keeping a Mature Campaign Alive

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Around the time the first year of ORWA was wrapping up, I wrote a bunch of tools for myself. Stuff that would help me run the game more easily, like tables of encounters, tables of locations locations, a timeline of big events, etc. By then the tone and content of the campaign were firmly established in my mind. Enough so that by using these tools, I’ve been able to run the game for a little over a year with remarkably little week-to-week prep work. A map here, an encounter there, simple stuff.

Now the game is over two years old. It doesn’t seem set to end anytime soon, but it has started to feel a bit stale. It’s time to evaluate, update, and rewrite my tools. One of my goals in this process is to make the world feel more active, rather than reactive.

At low levels, it’s easy to have an active world. The players are weak and poor, the world is dangerous, and they’ve got to do whatever they can to get by. That experience of being the underdog is a big part of why low levels are so popular, and why so many campaigns start to falter once the player characters are more well established.

When the party reaches mid-levels, there is novelty in being the ones directing the action. They’ve been living in the shadow of big scary monsters for so long, it’s edifying to be a bit of a monster themselves. Plus, you can never be so high level that a savvy referee can’t scare you.

But as the players reach higher levels, the world gets less and less scary, and the novelty of being scary themselves starts to wear off. If a level 15 characters wants to do something, there’s not much that can stop them. The world bends to their will and, as a consequence, the world reacts to the players, rather than the players reacting to the world.

Part of the solution is a shallower power scale, which is what I’m already doing with Fuck the King of Space. But it’s too late to change ORWA in such a fundamental way, even if I wanted to.

Another part of the solution is the “always a bigger fish” school of thought. Your party may be level 15, but the level 30 wizard who lives up on the hill is not impressed. This is a valid tactic, and I employ it myself, but alone it’s insufficient. This isn’t just about creating a challenge for the players. That’s easy. This is about making the world feel alive, the way it did when any mook the party met on the street could potentially be a real danger to them.

And to be clear, this isn’t about fixing something that is broken, it’s about adapting to an altered circumstance. There’s a lot of potential fun in having the players be hyper-capable relative to the rest of the world, and they’ve earned the chance to explore that. We just need to find some new ways for the world to push back. Before each new adventure, roll a d6 on the table below, and use the result to develop a suitable event. Once you’ve determined your event you should also deduce some reasonable consequence that might be avoided by player intervention.

Exactly what the consequence will be should usually follow pretty obviously from the details of the event. For example, if a PC’s favorite hireling has been kidnapped, failing to rescue said hireling will result in them being hurt or killed. The important thing is that the consequence exists, and will definitely occur without player intervention.

Players are free to attempt to resolve, or to ignore these events as they see fit. Many will not be quite so pressing as a kidnapped hireling. Likewise, events will vary in terms of the time investment they require to resolve. Some may be sessions-long adventures, while others might be small detours that only take part of a single session, and still others may require no time at all. Perhaps the players can resolve some events merely by throwing part of their vast fortunes at it.

In a way, it doesn’t matter how much of an impact the events have on gameplay. The important thing is that they percieve the world as being less passive, less predictable, less under their control.

Roll 1d6

1. An Agent Becomes Active

I’ve discussed before how I record interesting NPCs my players meet onto a table; and that anytime they roll a 7 while determining the result of an encounter, they bump in to one of these “Recurring Characters.” It’s one of my better ideas. But, after playing with it for 18 months, I’ve got too many characters, and not enough 7s to go around.

From here on, recurring characters will be divided into two lists. The first, “Encounter Characters” will be treated the same as they always have been. When the players roll a 7, I’ll randomly determine one of these for them to bump into while out and about in the world.

More ambitious characters, on the other hand, will be added to the list of Agents. These are the NPCs with distinct long-term goals. People who want to take vengeance on the party, or fellow adventurers who view the party as friends. In other words: people who might actively seek the party out at some point in the future.

Anytime this result is rolled, the referee should randomly select one of the game’s active Agents. The time has come for the PCs to become relevant in that agent’s plans.

2. A Questgiver has Work for the PCs

Anyone can offer the players a quest. In most games, though, there are one or two NPCs who make a regular habit of it. It’s all-around helpful for everyone when the players attach themselves to someone who can reliably give them paying work. It gives the referee a simple way of introducing adventures, and it gives the party a simple way of getting paid.

As the game develops, questgivers usually become less relevant. But it never hurts to keep them around, so they can toss a little straightforward adventuring in the player’s direction now and again.

If your players are so inclined, this result could also include petitioners. People who have heard of the party’s mighty deeds, and have come to plead for aid.

3. Conspiracy Event

Very recently, I wrote about how every game I run has conspiracies going on in the background. Secret goals pursued by hidden persons, which the players may or may not uncover before the conspiracy reaches its ultimate culmination.

When this is rolled, the referee should randomly determine one of game’s conspiracies (assuming there are more than one). Something happens that is relevant both to it, and to the players. Perhaps the plot takes a big step forward, with some public consequence that seems simple at first, but might reveal more upon careful investigation. Alternately, some small corner of the conspiracy could be uncovered, becoming public knowledge.

It is less important for these to have a direct consequence, since they are building towards a large consequence later down the line.

4. Something Happens to a Player’s Resources

Randomly determine a player. No doubt, that player has accrued some resources over time: they have a hireling, a personal citadel, a magic laboratory, a vault of treasures, and a sterling reputation.

When this is rolled, the player’s friends are assaulted, their possessions burgled, their fortresses attacked, or their good names slandered. Some resource of theirs is diminished.

Be very cautious in how this particular result is applied. It is not interesting for players to describe in detail the many security precautions they take to avoid being robbed. It is best, I think, to stick to attacking resources which might reasonably be outside the player’s ability to control.

“All your gold is stolen from your private vault!” is going to cause a lot of frustration, and probably lead the players to bore you with endless descriptions of the many traps and spells they use to protect their coin.

“One of your servants was mugged, and the entire month’s food budget stolen!” is a much more reasonable option.

 

5. Something Happens with a Player’s Goals

Randomly determine a player. Most likely, that player has expressed some kind of personal goal they want their character to pursue. A religion they want to discredit, a territory they want to establish, a device they want to build, etc.

Pick one thing that you know the player wants, then flip a coin. There is a 50/50 chance that this event is a setback, or an opportunity.

Setbacks are a threat to the player’s ability to accomplish their goal. If they want to discredit a religion, perhaps a miracle occurs which draws in hordes of new converts. If they want to establish a territory, perhaps the land they were looking at is seized by someone else. If they want to build a device, perhaps the government bans such devices.

Opportunities  are a chance for the player to advance their goal more rapidly than they would normally be able. Using the same examples as above, this might be a religious sex scandal, a group of settlers asking the PC to help them find a new home, or some useful materials falling off the back of a truck.

6. World Event

World events are not directly related the the players. However, their results have enough impact on the environment that the players should be interested none the less. When a world event occurs, roll on the following table:

  1. A natural disaster strikes. Randomly determine, or choose a disaster as appropriate: Fire, Earthquake, Tornado, Flood, Landslide, Sinkhole, Volcano, Blizzard, Tsunami, Hurricane, Meteor.
  2. A famine or drought begins. Food becomes very scarce, and people begin to starve. Each haven turn, roll a d6. The condition persists until a 1 is rolled.
  3. A plague breaks out, the particulars of which are left to the referee. Each haven turn, roll a d6. The condition persists until a 1 is rolled.
  4. A major figure in the Dome, such as a faction leader, is assassinated.
  5. War breaks out between a faction, and one of its neighbors. Each month until an alleviation is rolled, both sides roll a d6. Whichever side rolls higher took some of their neighbor’s territory, commensurate with the difference in the size of the rolls. (So if a 1 and a 6 are rolled, the gains would be large. If a 1 and a 2 are rolled, the gains would be small).
  6. An insurrection erupts, making a territory unstable, and threatening to overthrow the existing power structure. Each haven turn, roll a d6. The condition persists until a 1 is rolled. If it is not rolled within 7 months, the insurrection will be successful.
  7. Two factions announce an alliance with one another.
  8. News of a major scandal breaks.
  9. A major religious event occurs for a randomly determined religion.
  10. A new faction emerges, and carves out a small space for itself on the map. It may be a group the players have interacted with before, something entirely new, or even something which has technically existed for awhile but which was secret up until now.
  11. A major discovery is made, and becomes widely known: perhaps a new technology is developed, perhaps a new race is encountered.
  12. A prophecy begins making its way around around. Nobody is quite sure how to interpret it, but everyone is certain that it’s important.

The Haven Turn

You may have noticed that there’s a lot of overlap between the system outlined above, and Haven Turn complications. Most notably, the list of World Events are literally copy/pasted from that post, and edited to reflect some differences in the rules.

Complications have become my favorite part of the game, and I want to bring them more to the fore. In my game, this system will replace the standard Haven Turn encounter check. But even if you don’t use the Haven Turn system, I think this method could be helpful to others running high level games.

Fuck the King of Space: Player’s Guide

Fuck the King of SpaceHave I ever mentioned that I wrote a miniature RPG book to help me run On a Red World Alone? It’s not the prettiest thing in the world, but it’s a good 25 pages of setting information and rules that I’ve slowly patched together over the two years that I’ve been running the campaign. I’ve kept it private, because it was never meant to be anything other than a personal reference document. Who would be interested in that?

Well, based on the number of people who read ORWA’s play reports, far more people are interested than I might have suspected. And now that I’m starting up a new campaign, it seems like a good time to also start being more open about some of this behind-the-scenes stuff.

So, if you’re interested, here is the 21 page player’s guide for Fuck the King of Space. I’m taking this new campaign as an opportunity to implement a lot of shit I’ve been thinking about, much of which I’ve talked about on the blog before. The document is less interesting for its novelty than it is for taking a lot of my ideas, and putting them together into a (hopefully) coherent whole. Though, there is some new stuff in there, and almost all of the old stuff has been streamlined or revised.

There’s also a lot missing, and that’s another reason I never shared the ORWA Player’s Guide. These are living documents, updated and changed as the game evolves. If this sparks any interest at all, I’ll be sure to keep the blog updated with newer versions as I write them. (Though, future updates will be announced as bonus posts, instead of serving as the main weekly post.)

Enjoy!

Fuck The King of Space Player’s Guide v0.1

 

The Value of Conspiracy

When I was first coming into my own as a Game Master (back when I called it that), I developed a lot of bad habits. I made plans about how my game would develop, and was frustrated when my players didn’t fall in line. I was obsessed with over-preparing, and frustrated with myself when I couldn’t produce a polished adventure module every month. I knew which encounters I wanted my players to succeed at, and which I wanted them to fail at. I fudged dice, and hit points, and the fabric of the shared reality itself in order to bring about my desired results. Consequently, I didn’t have any groups that lasted for very long.

Eventually, I got better at running games within this fundamentally flawed style.I learned how to develop a Big Bad Evil Guy, how to create invisible walls that weren’t very obvious to my players, how to weave a narrative into a game while still giving the players enough freedom that they didn’t feel like they were being railroaded too much, even when they were. I was good enough to have run several long, enjoyable campaigns before meeting Courtney Campbell, and being shamed into developing some better habits.

Even as far as I’ve come, though; despite all my pretty talk of ‘agency,’ and the fact that I now use the correct term “referee,” I still secretly hold to one of the worst habits imaginable. My campaigns still have a BBEG, and I still keep an idea in my head of what the player’s eventual final encounter with that BBEG will be like.

Already I can hear people banging on my door, and it sounds like they have pitchforks. I suppose I’d better qualify that statement before I get kicked out of the OSR. Without a saving throw, if you know what I mean.

When I say my campaigns still have a BBEG, what I mean is that I usually have an NPC who is very powerful, and has a goal which the players will probably oppose. And when I say I keep an idea in my head of what the final encounter will be like, what I mean is that once the players have caught the attention of this powerful NPC, that NPC will begin to make plans for some eventual confrontation.

So, that’s not so bad, yeah? Can ya’ll take this noose off from around my neck now, and let my climb down off of this horse? Please?

I’ve taken to calling this element of my games “The Conspiracy.” An inscrutable plot, controlled by hidden actors, in the pursuit of unknown goals. It’s something that exists more for my amusement than for any practical reason, but they do serve a useful role in pushing the game forward, and giving disassociated game elements something to cohere around.

For example, I’ll use the conspiracy from my long-defunct ToKiMo campaign. From the player’s perspective, the world was in crisis because an ancient evil dragon had awakened, and was flying around causing havoc wherever it went. In truth, the dragon was a pawn. It had been enchanted by the kingdom’s princess, who also happened to be a naturally talented sorceress.

Her father, the King, had 20 years of life left in him. And even when he did die, male primogeniture meant one of her younger brothers would inherit the crown. She wanted to be rid of anyone with a clear claim ahead of hers, and to become so revered and powerful that convention would be forgotten in favor of her rule. Step one of that plan was putting the nation into a crisis that established power structures couldn’t handle, thus, the dragon. Step two was something about tricking a general into thinking that he was the one plotting a coup, I dunno, I’ve mostly forgotten the details. It was 6+ years ago.

Now, let’s assume I want to send the players into a dungeon to get a weird object. A wizard offers to pay them 500 silver coins if they retrieve a sack of Razorsilk from the great worms beneath The Forgotten Keep. Simple, timeless, classic adventure hook. It doesn’t need any further explanation, because Wizards be Wizards, ya’ll. But in my head, I connect it to the conspiracy. In my head, I know the Wizard wants these silks, because an agent of the Princess has hired them to perform a particular ritual.

More than likely, this will not come up in play. But, if the players get curious, I have the conspiracy to fall back on as a reason for just about anything that anybody wants. I can even drop a few clues if I feel like it. When the wizard receives the Razorsilk, they mutter something about how “this’ll finally get that pushy cigarette smoking man off my back.” The kind of thing that will be taken as fluff dialogue, and probably ignored. 10 sessions later, when another NPC mentions the cigarette smoking man, maybe they’ll connect the dots, or maybe they won’t.

In another example, let’s say the players have slain one of the big dragon’s children, and they’re looting its lair. They come across a luxurious suite of rooms meant to accommodate humans. It’s a weird detail. Maybe they investigate it, or maybe they don’t. The truth is that I never expected them to kill this dragon. I threw the lair together in 10 minutes while I was pretending to be pooping. Having this weird background detail of the conspiracy gave me something to riff of of: maybe the princess visits this dragon sometimes? And if she does, part of the lair would be suited for her comfort.

I think I’d be lying, though, if I claimed my conspiracies exist because they serve as a convenient backdrop to the campaign. They exist because I enjoy concocting evil plots, and imagining climactic showdowns that never come to pass. I get giddy when I think about how shocked the players will be when all is revealed.

But, of course, agency must be preserved. So, I drop hints, which is perhaps the most thrilling part of all. It’s like playing a game of chicken. How far can I go before everything is obvious? Was the thing that NPC said, or the title I gave that session report too obvious of a clue? Is everything about to unravel, and if it does, what exciting new developments will that mean for the campaign?

Players may never catch on to the conspiracy. My players never really pursued the dragon thing very much at all, preferring to push out into the wilderness. Nobody ever realized that The Motherless Warlock had created Dungeon Moon so he could watch over it like a mix between God, and Reality Television. The Ascendant Crusade group never knew that their favorite NPC was evil.

And what happens if they do figure it out? That has only ever happened to me once, when some first level scrubs decided they wanted to know why anyone in a post apocalypse would want a computer chip. When it did happen, I did my best to roll with the punches, and it wound up spawning the most successful campaign I’ve ever run in my life. (Complete with a second conspiracy layered on top, to replace the first one).

I’m curious to know if this is a common thing for referees to do. I suppose, if it is, they probably never mention it. Shit, am I revealing secrets?

What’s that pounding on my door?

 

The Haven Turn

Romans relaxing during their haven turnI don’t really follow D&D anymore.

I don’t see the point. “Dungeons & Dragons” is just a name. Intellectual property owned by Hasbro Incorporated. Fifth edition seems to have come out mostly fine, but why would I ever settle for ‘mostly fine’ when the OSR is putting out phenomenal work faster than I can keep up with?

As such, everything I know about D&D’s recently released downtime rules is from reading what Courtney wrote about them. And not even all of that. Some of the options are so boring that I couldn’t even read through a description of them written by an interesting writer. Why would anybody even bother writing something if it wasn’t going to be interesting to play?

In my games, players lust after their next opportunity to take downtime actions. I would even venture to say that time has become the most coveted reward in ORWA, more than money or magic items. So lets talk about the Haven Turn.

If you’re a regular reader of Papers & Pencils, the term should be familiar to you. I mention it pretty frequently, but have never actually taken the time to discuss the concept in depth. After all, it’s not really my idea. Most of my experience with it comes from being a player in Courtney Campbell‘s and John Bell‘s games, and the term was originated by Brendan Strejcek. But, as with many things, after using it for years I’ve tinkered with it to the point that seems worth expressing the idea in my own terms.

Haven turns are part of the action economy. There are:

  • 6 second Rounds for combat.
  • 10 minute Turns for exploration
  • 2 hour Watches for wilderness travel
  • 1 month Haven Turns for downtime actions.

Haven turns occur anytime the players return to some secure home-base after an adventure, usually a town, or player-owned citadel. The turns don’t actually last one month, they just sorta “round out” the month to some unspecified degree. So, if the players adventure in May, then return home for a haven turn, their next game will take place in June, regardless of whether the previous adventure lasted an hour, or a week.

Sometimes, if an adventure runs long, players may be able to take more than one haven turn at a time. Particularly trying expeditions, after all, will require more than the average amount of rest to recover from. For every 2 sessions that an adventure lasts, (rounded up), the players may take 1 haven turn without adverse consequences.

So, if the party takes 1 or 2 sessions to complete an adventure, they only get 1 haven turn–and that’s the median I usually aim for. But, if it takes 3 or 4 sessions, they get 2 haven turns. If it takes 5 or 6 they get 3, and so on. This allows me to occasionally throw big, epic, 10-session adventures at my players, without making them feel frustrated about all their delayed haven-turn plans.

Generally speaking, I’d prefer if players didn’t take more than the prescribed number of Haven Turns. After all, downtime action may be fun, but it’s not really the point of the game.

That being said, my players have agency. If they want to do a thing, they can do it, and as far as I’m concerned I have no right to try and stop them. However, taking more than the prescribed number of haven turns means that person is stepping back from the world for a bit. They’re focusing on their own stuff, and letting events pass them by. The world is going to move on without them.

If players take more than the prescribed number of haven turns, then when they get back, they’re going to discover that things have changed to their detriment. The referee has free reign in this, but the situation should be more severe the longer the players have been absent.

Perhaps some of the player’s contacts have died, or moved away. Maybe the players will discover that something they wanted to do has been done by someone else. In more severe cases, the whole campaign could be upset, with the player’s ultimate goals having become more difficult, or even impossible to achieve.

So that’s when haven turns happen, but what can you do with them? What is their purpose?

Like most other units of time in the action economy, two things happen each haven turn. First, the players choose how they want to use the time. Second, an encounter die is rolled.

Haven Turn Actions

Like any combat round, exploration turn, or watch, players can choose to do anything they want with a haven turn, and I will try to resolve it to the best of my ability. My players have used their haven turns to do things like build up their relationships with NPCs, or investigate mysteries they’re curious about.

In these cases, we assume the player spends the whole haven turn pursuing that goal. While planning for the next session, I come up with some appropriate results for their effort. When we meet to play again, I’ll tell the player what happened, and perhaps ask them to make any decisions or rolls I deemed appropriate. This is a helpful time for players to pursue any deeply personal goals that the rest of the party doesn’t want to deal with.

But, also similar to the other denominations of the action economy, there are codified actions which require a haven turn to complete. The most notable of these is Training, which by itself makes the haven turn one of the more beloved parts of my game. I’ve written a whole post on the concept, but I cannot overemphasize how useful training is.

It gives the players two disassociated tracks for advancement. On the one hand they have their class; a simple niche that they lock themselves into at first level. Class advances at a slow, steady pace, and requires a minimal amount of decision making, while also providing the lion’s share of the player’s options in play.

On the other hand, there’s training, a completely optional second track. Training has to be weighed against other uses of your money and your time. When players do pursue training, they make short term commitments in exchange for a little something extra, that their class might not normally get.

You’ve got the fun of character customization, and the satisfaction of earning something. But you free the player from a single advancement track, and in the process, avoid the nightmare of the over-complicated level up procedure. Plus, the choices to train is more interesting this way, because it is incomparable. You’re not choosing which skills to put skill points into; you’re choosing between raising a skill, raising an ability score, or saving that money for the next curio shop you randomly encounter.

Other codified haven turn actions include:

  • Carousing, where players can earn extra experience points by throwing their money down the drain.
  • Magic Users can create a new spell, or discovering a new magic word, using the Magic Words system.
  • Magic Users can seek out a new magic wand.
  • Clerics can pray for a new spell using the Glory from God system.
  • Fighters can spend time drilling with their armies.
  • Characters with the Alchemy skill can make potions.
  • Characters with the Technology skill can repair broken tech.
  • Characters with the Engineering skill can construct vehicles, siege equipment, etc,
  • Players can recover from debilitating injuries such as broken legs. (I always have players return to max HP over a Haven Turn, but if they had a particularly severe injury, like a broken leg, they must spend their whole turn convalescing.)
  • Come back from the dead as a cyborg.

Basically, haven turns are where the players can do anything they should be able to do, but which I don’t want them to do mid-session.

Haven Turn Encounters

As I’ve said before, D&D is a game about limited resources, and how the players choose to use them. Time is probably the single most important resource. Players must understand that whenever they use a unit of time, it’s possible for something bad to happen. And so, they will not become frivolous with the actions they choose to take.

For each Haven Turn, roll 1d6:

  1. Complication
  2. Complication & Petitioner
  3. Petitioner
  4. Alleviation
  5. Gun Auction
  6. Gun Auction

Gun Auctions are something for my ORWA game. Rolling this indicates that someone has put up a gun for sale, and the players have a chance to buy it. If they don’t, then it’ll be purchased by someone else, and probably be lost to them forever.

I’ve got a little table of gun ideas that I roll on whenever this comes up. Then I write up stats for the new gun, and present it (along with a price) at the start of the next game session.

Alleviation: Some complications are ongoing issues, which only end when an Alleviation is rolled.

If there are multiple issues requiring Alleviation, only one can be resolved at a time. Which one is taken care of should be randomly determined.

Of course, anything which calls for an Alleviation can also be ended by direct player action, if the players choose to pursue it.

Petitioners are something I recently added, since my players have established themselves as a regional power. It makes sense that people are going to start showing up to ask for help.

For each petitioner, I roll on a weighted table that determines which faction they’re from. Then I roll on the table below to get a general idea of why they approached the players. From there, I use my referee powers to whip up an NPC with more specific needs.

  1. An individual, seeking sanctuary from a bad situation.
  2. An individual, seeking aide in overcoming a bad situation.
  3. An individual, bringing the party information in hopes of a reward.
  4. An official of some small group, seeking sanctuary.
  5. An official of some small group, seeking the aide in overcoming a bad situation.
  6. An official of some large group, looking to hire the party

The petitioner will appear at the start of the next session, and the party is free to respond however they choose. Many times the issue can be solved trivially: “sure, you can live here.” In other cases, the petitioner may spark the party’s interest, and they may become deeply involved.

Complications are shifts in the world around the players, and may include threats to the player’s holdings or interests.

The first 10 of these are all localized issues. For each, I would roll on my weighted table of factions to determine where the issue occurred.

The specifics of each complication are left intentionally vague. A natural disaster may be a minor thing, or it may be a cataclysmic event. It all depends on what the referee thinks would be interesting.

  1. A natural disaster strikes. Randomly determine, or choose a disaster as appropriate: Fire, Earthquake, Tornado, Flood, Landslide, Sinkhole, Volcano, Blizzard, Tsunami, Hurricane, Meteor.
  2. A famine or drought begins. It lasts until an alleviation is rolled.
  3. A plague breaks out, the particulars of which are left to the referee. It lasts until an alleviation is rolled.
  4. A major figure is assassinated.
  5. A whole series of murders take place. They last until an alleviation is rolled.
  6. War breaks out between a faction, and one of its neighbors. Each month until an alleviation is rolled, both sides roll a d6. Whichever side rolls higher took some of their neighbor’s territory, commensurate with the difference in the size of the rolls. (So if a 1 and a 6 are rolled, the gains would be large. If a 1 and a 2 are rolled, the gains would be small).
  7. An insurrection erupts, making a territory unstable, and threatening to overthrow the existing power structure. This lasts until an alleviation is rolled. If it is not alleviated within 1 year, the insurrection will be successful.
  8. A monster begins to terrorize the area, and cannot be stopped. This lasts until an alleviation is rolled.
  9. Two factions announce an alliance with one another.
  10. News of a major scandal breaks.
  11. Reroll, using a d10. That complication is so widespread, it affects every territory in the dome.
  12. A major religious event occurs for a randomly determined religion.
  13. A new faction emerges, and carves out a small space for itself on the map. It may be a group the players have interacted with before, something entirely new, or even something which has technically existed for awhile but which was secret up until now.
  14. A major discovery is made, and becomes widely known: perhaps a new technology is developed, perhaps a new race is encountered, or a conspiracy is uncovered.
  15. A prophecy begins making its way around around. Nobody is quite sure how to interpret it, but everyone is certain that it’s important.
  16. Reroll, using a d10. That complication occurs within the player’s own domain. (Which is too small to be included on the general list)
  17. Randomly determine one of the player’s investments. It suffers a major setback, requiring it either to be abandoned, or rescued with an influx of funds.
  18. Legal claims are brought against the player characters.
  19. The player characters are publicly slandered.
  20. An ally of player characters dies.

Was that totally the best post about D&D you’ve ever read? Probably. If so, maybe you should drop a dollar in my Patreon box! That would be an appropriate way to pay me deference for _totally blowing your mind_ the way I just did.

Encumbrance in Online Games

Metal Gear EncumbranceEncumbrance is a pain in the ass.

Tracking it requires a referee-level attention to detail, from a player.

Which isn’t a slam against players; it’s just the reality of how I expect those two roles to be approached. When I sit down to referee, I know that I need to keep a ton of information straight in my head. But when I sit down to play, I’m looking for a more casual experience. Tracking encumbrance requires more effort than I want to invest.

Encumbrance is also necessary.

In many ways, D&D is a game about limited resources and how the players choose to spend them. Hit points are a resource that determines how much combat the players can endure. Time is a resource that requires players to be selective about their actions. And in a game about dungeon crawling, encumbrance determines both how much equipment you can take into the dungeon (which serve as a kind of arsenal of potential solutions to problems), and it determines how much treasure you can carry out of the dungeon.

While discussing this issue with the erudite Frotz Self the other day, he struck upon a solution: we should just use a Google Docs spreadsheet. It seemed like such an elegant idea that I immediately set one up for my ORWA campaign. We’ve been using it for a few weeks now, and I’m pleased to report that it’s working phenomenally.  Here’s what ours looks like:Before moving on, I should explain what you’re seeing a bit. ORWA’s got an odd encumbrance system, which is currently undergoing some tinkering. At the core, we’re using LotFP encumbrance, where each item goes on a line, and each group of lines makes up one “encumbrance point.” We’re also using the LotFP playtest variant where each character’s Strength score determines how many lines make up one group. Furthermore, I’m experimenting with an armor system where players can wear up to 3 pieces of armor, with each one being only a single encumbering item.

Also, Lugud’s encumbrance looks weird because he recently died, and the players took all his good stuff.

Like I said, my system is a little disorganized at the moment. But, the shared spreadsheet method has helped clear things up immensely, and should work regardless of what specific rules you’re using.

Previously, the encumbrance system was a set of abstract rules that the players had to understand and apply themselves. Here, I’ve basically done all the heavy rules lifting for them, and all they have to do is plug their items into the slots provided.

You could say that a character sheet would accomplish the same thing, but in an online game, character sheets can be a real hassle. Not every player will have easy access to a printer, and even if they do, a printed sheet can only be used by them. If they have a question, they can’t show the referee what they’re looking at unless they’ve got a fairly high quality webcam. Plus, even in meatspace games, the constant need to write & erase every time an item is picked up or consumed can be frustrating in the extreme.

Allowing a character’s current inventory to be easily shared is another huge benefit of this method. It helps not only me, but every member of the party.

I hadn’t anticipated this, but since we started using this system players are much more likely to ask me questions. It makes sense though, right? When I’m a player, and I’m wondering “is each torch encumbering, or should I bundle them? How big is a bundle?” I may feel like it would be an imposition on the game for me to ask about such a trivial thing. Often, I’ll just make a judgement call as a player, and go with that.

But, if we’re all looking at the same document, there’s more pressure to be accurate and consistent. The first session we used this method, there was a good 30 minute discussion about basic encumbrance stuff that hasn’t changed since we first started playing. Obviously it wasn’t the most riveting 30 minutes of play we’ve ever had, but once we did that, everyone was on the same page, and we were able to move forward with, I think, a more meaningful campaign.

It also helps the rest of the party, because now everyone knows what equipment is ‘in play.’ If player X comes up with an idea that would require a certain tool they don’t have, they can just look at the sheet to see if player Y has the tool. My players have started coordinating their inventories because of this, which has cut down on pointless redundancies (“We don’t need 3 crowbars!”).

The spreadsheet also makes the task of separating a character’s inventory from their possessions feel like less of a nuisance. If a player has collected 30 different potions, which are all written down on a list, it may seem kinda bothersome to re-write a smaller list which contains only the potions currently being carried. Yeah it’s cheating, but it’s cheating out of boredom, rather than cheating out of an attempt to gain advantage.

Using a shared spreadsheet forces players to put in that ounce of extra effort that all of us are guilty of avoiding from time to time.

Lastly, now that encumbrance is running so smoothly, I’m excited to introduce some new complexities.

Which may sound counter-intuitive: I just succeeded in making something simple, why would I want to mess that up? Well, the issue with encumbrance before was that it was unpleasant to interact with it. I had my players track it to the best of their ability, but I knew it wasn’t really working properly, so I avoided poking at it.

But now, I can poke to my heart’s content. I could attack the players with monsters that steal a random item, or introduce a vendor who sells expensive backpacks that allow characters to carry more than they normally could. The more firmly established structure that the spreadsheet provides makes it easier, and even fun, to tinker.

Honestly, my only problem at this point is that I don’t have a method of running encumbrance this effectively around a real table.

Was this helpful to you? Then you should probably put a dollar in my Patreon before I starve to death and die and can’t write useful things for you anymore. =D

Investments, Citadels, and Domains

As players level up, the play of the game starts to shift, allowing them to engage with the world on a higher level. They start as peons at the mercy of their environment, but through the acquisition of wealth, social connections, and personal power, they become the sharpers of that environment

I like this part of the game. What I don’t like is when players are expected to micromanage their world-shaping endeavors to the point that it completely consumes normal play. I sincerely do not care what color the rugs in the party’s castle are, or at what rate they’re taxing their peasants. I want to keep things simple and abstracted, so that the game can continue more or less unobstructed by spreadsheets.

Part of my preference for abstraction is a distaste for periodic money, no matter which way it’s flowing. I don’t like forcing my players to pay some set amount on a regular schedule to represent their lifestyle, or their investments. I’ve been a player. I find that shit boring, and difficult to keep track of. In the same vein, I don’t like my players to have a regular income, from something like taxes on their own lands. I prefer to maintain more control over the inflow of cash to my game’s economy.

With all that in mind, I’ve broken the endeavors of high level play down into 3 subsystems: Investment, Construction, and Domains.

Investments

If a player wishes to create an institution or business, they just need to describe it to the referee. Then, based on that description, the referee will determine some boons which may result from getting this venture off the ground. Each business has 3 potential boons, tied to different levels of funding.

The three levels cost 4,000, 10,000, and 25,000, using whatever the base currency is in your game. (For the purposes of this system, every venture costs the same). Those prices may seem high, but they are meant to include both the costs of initially establishing & furnishing the business, as well as the monthly operating costs for as long as it takes the project to become self-sustaining.

The boons can be anything that makes sense based on the type of business. Alex Chalk, who originated this idea, suggested that investing in an Inn might allow players to create new characters above 1st level. Putting money into a wizard’s tower might increase the efficacy of the potions she sells. Investing in a silver mine could allow characters to get their weapons silvered and re-silvered for free. And so on, and so forth.

If players wish, they may upgrade to a higher level of investment at any time by paying the difference between the level they’re at, and the one they wish to reach.

Some Haven Turn complications may require players to take action in order to maintain their businesses. Perhaps there was a fire, or other disaster which requires the business be rebuilt. Perhaps some dastardly NPC is attempting a hostile takeover of the business using some legal trickery. Most such problems can be taken care of by immediately paying 1/2 of the value of your current investment level.

Note that while the default assumption of the system is that the players propose new ventures to the referee, there’s no reason why the referee can’t make proposals of their own. If the players have a reputation for being wealthy, NPC businessmen looking to kickstart their own projects might show up to make a pitch now and then.

Note also that I allow players to use the traditional LotFP investment rules if they wish. (Page 52 & 53 of Rules & Magic). However, funds invested that way do not provide any boons, just as funds invested for boons do not accrue interest.

Here are some sample investments, taken from my ORWA campaign:

Don Harper’s Mutant Hospital
A free clinic which specializes in treating the many peculiar discomforts and maladies that afflict mutants. They cannot cure mutation, but if you’ve got stubby arms, they’ll help you with a prosthetic. And if you’ve got a swollen gland, they’ll schedule regular drainings for it.

  • Level 1: Mutants who use the hospital have a +1 reaction to the party. Mutants encountered in the wild have a 20% chance of having used it.
  • Level 2: PC and Hireling mutants get the best treatment available. They add +1 to their maximum hit points for each level.  Also, mutants encountered in the wild have a 30% chance of having used the hospital.
  • Level 3: The Hospital’s surgeons can reverse One mutation, per mutant, per lifetime. Also, mutants encountered in the wild have a 40% chance of having used the hospital.

Nrrk’s Writing and Propaganda
A writer who chronicles the party’s many adventures, always presenting them in the most flattering light possible. These leaflets are then distributed as a free periodical throughout the Dome.

  • Level 1: The party has a reputation for getting their jobs done, and doing them with style. If they mention their quasi-celebrity status while negotiating pay for a job, they can get an automatic 10% increase in the amount they would be paid.
  • Level 2: If the party does something they are worried will reflect poorly on them, they can cover it up. This only allows them to obfuscate a single action per session, but will not throw off any determined investigation. Instead, using this option will confuse the general public. Nobody will be quite sure what the facts are, and thus no united effort against the party will be able to form.
  • Level 3: The party gets a +1 to their initial reaction roll with anyone who lives on the surface, is literate, and doesn’t have some reason to hate them. For each individual, there is a 50% chance that they’re literate.

Don Harper’s Fun Zone – Front of House
A place full of pinball, arcade machines, and other fun distractions. Also has an adult section with exotic dancer and drugs.

  • Uses the RAW LotFP investment rules.
  • Investment level is RISKY
  • Current Investment amount is 20,000cc
  • Investment was started in February 2517.

Don Harper’s Fun Zone – Back of House
The fun and games of the front-of-house is all just a lure, to get people in the door. Once they’re there, the Cult of Akiovasha will attempt to recruit anyone who seems like they might be dissatisfied with life. In the words of Don Harper “Kinda like the Foot Clan hangout in the TMNT movie.”

  • Level 1: Each Haven Turn, there’s a 3-in-6 chance that the growth of the Cult of Akiovasha is improved by 1.
  • Level 2: The potential extra growth increases to 2.
  • Level 3: The potential extra growth increases to 3.

Citadels

When players are managing investments or domains, it can be assumed that part of their funds are used to finance buildings. Obviously, businesses need a space to operate out of, and a populace will need houses to live in. Buildings exist, but the specifics are neither important, nor interesting. It’s enough simply to know that there are buildings.

If the players wish to construct a personal stronghold, however, they’ll likely be much more interested in managing the details. And so, a more granular system is required.

The first thing that is needed is a place to build. How the players acquire this will depend on the sort of game the referee is running, and where they want to build. If they’re building in a city, or a civilized land, they may need to purchase a deed, or earn a grant of land from a king. If they’re building out in a wilderness, they’ll need to make some effort to claim the area by clearing out any undesirables who would get in their way. However a territory is claimed, it should be handled through play.

The base cost of construction is 50 money. On the ground floor, each 10′ cube of space costs the base amount. For each floor above or below ground level, the cost of a 10′ cube increases by the base amount.

So, a 10′ cube on the second story (or on sublevel 1) would cost 100 money. A 10′ cube on the third story (or on sublevel 2) would cost 150 money, and so on, and so forth. Players are responsible for drawing out a map of what they would like to build, and calculating its costs.

The cost of construction includes basic furnishings. So the living spaces will have tables and chairs, the kitchens will have pots and pans, the bedrooms will have beds, etc. If the players wish for their furnishings to be of impressive quiality, they may pay the cost for their space as if it were one level higher (or lower) than it is. So a well-furnished ground level would cost 100 money per 10′ cube, and so on.

It should be noted that construction costs do not include the cost of labor. Hiring craftspeople to put everything together for you should be handled by whatever method of managing hirelings the referee uses. Each laborer can perform 250 money worth of construction in a month. So if you’re constructing a 20′ by 20′ ground-level building (four 10′ cubes, costing 200 money), a single worker can have it ready for you in a month. But, if you’re constructing a 30′ by 30′ ground-level building (nine 10′ cubes, costing 450 money), you’ll need 2 laborers if you want it done within a single month.

If the players want to place anything in the structure which requires special craftsmanship, that’s a flat 1000 money fee. That includes traps, secret doors, statues, or any particularly ornate bit of decorating. Anything too large to fit within a 10′ cube may cost more, as determined by the referee.

If the structure is being built by a Magic User, they will no doubt want to make it a magical place. They are free to create any purely cosmetic effects they wish, so long as those effects flow somewhat naturally from the spells the Magic User knows. So, if a Magic User knows any fire spells, they can cause their dragon statue to puff out bits of flame periodically. So long as it’s cosmetic, there is no cost.

However, if the Magic User wishes to imbue their home with any more substantive magics, such as a Cone of Cold trap, they’ll need to make some appropriate payment. In my game, I’ve been allowing players to turn their spells into permanent traps (with 24 hour resets) by performing a ritual that costs 1d4 * 100 experience points.

Most exterior constructions can be handled the same way. Moats, walls, and bridges can all be charged according to the base cost per 10′ cube rule. Roads, however, are a bit of a special case, since by their nature they are a simple construction meant to cover a vast space.

When players want to build a road, I charge them a flat 1000 money per mile.

Domains

Managing a Domain

First level characters have been pushed to the edge of society. That’s why they’re willing to to risk their lives delving into dungeons to search for treasure. Then, once they have treasure, they decide to make their OWN societies, in turn pushing a whole new generation of people to the edge, and perpetuating the vicious cycle that has allowed Dungeons & Dragons to persist through the ages.

The initial establishment of a domain is done through play. Usually it starts with the player’s citadel: they obtain some land, build a home, and gradually they invite people to live there. At some point, it stops being a single large household, and becomes a town.

Of course, players may also establish their domains intentionally by gathering together a group of settlers, and finding a space for them to live. This functions the same as acquiring a place to build a citadel. They need a tract of land, which they can reasonably claim to own, and which isn’t full of monsters who want to kill everyone. As above, this should be handled through play.

Once established, a player domain functions much like any other territory. It’ll have notable NPCs, shops, laws, etc. The difference is that the players can directly influence the shape and character of their domain. If they wish, they can write a code of laws. They can find NPCs they like out in the world, and offer them positions of authority. They can found industries, to ensure that certain goods or services are always available.

The possibilities inherent to running a domain are too infinite to be covered in 1/3rd of a blog post. A lot of it will need to be handled just by negotiation between the players and the referee. If the players decide to establish a universal basic income, the referee should figure out the upsides and downsides of doing so. If the players decide that all attractive residents of their domain must report to the castle for harem duty, that likewise should come with some consequences.

As a matter of basic structure, players can grow their domain by investing money into it. The more money a domain has, the higher level the domain becomes. The higher level a domain is, the more resources it will have access to.

The cost of leveling a domain is very high, but it is assumed that multiple high level characters are investing.

It should also be noted that the maximum extent of any domain is 1 hex. Once a domain reaches level 10, that hex contains a sprawling megalopolis, surrounded by well cultivated farmland. It has grown to its maximum extent, and if the players wish to continue improving their domain, they must expand by establishing a “new” domain in an adjacent hex, which will start at level 1.

Level Cost to Reach Result
1 0 Automatically achieved when a territory is cleared for settlement.
2 10,000 Has a 1-in-6 chance to be able to provide any item or service which is mundane to the game world.
3 20,000 Able to produce an army of 1d4 * 50
4 40,000 Has a 2-in-6 chance to be able to provide any item or service which is mundane to the game world.
5 80,000 Able to produce an army of 2d4 * 100
6 160,000 Has a 3-in-6 chance to be able to provide any item or service which is mundane to the game world.
7 320,000 Able to produce an army of 2d4 * 500
8 640,000 Has a 4-in-6 chance to be able to provide any item or service which is mundane to the game world.
9 1,280,000 Able to produce an army of 2d4 * 2000
10 2,560,000 Has a 5-in-6 chance to be able to provide any item or service which is mundane to the game world.

Armies will function much as Fighter’s Armies do. However, they are not career warriors as those are. Domain armies are made up of farmers who will take up weapons in the name of their homeland, but can’t really be leveled up as fighters, and can’t be expected to stay away from home too long.

A domain army can be kept in the field for a number of months equal to the domain’s level, plus 2. After that, they’ll expect to be able to go home so they can be with their families, and tend to their own affairs.

Mundane Items & Services: If the players want something, this is the chance that their domain can provide it to them. This chance doesn’t include the most basic of items and services. There are some things that every domain will need to have in order to survive. So, if the players want food, or some simple blacksmithing, then that can be assumed.

However, if the players want their domain to provide them with access to siege equipment, casks of fine wine, or a warehouse of plate armor, that is going to require a roll.

Any time a roll is made, the result should be recorded. If a roll is successful, then the domain will always be able to provide that item or service. If it is unsuccessful, then the domain will not be able to provide that item or service until something changes.

The players can move something from the “unavailable” list to the “available” list in one of two ways:

  1. Each time the domain levels up, one item can be moved from one list to the other.
  2. The players may take direct action to to add new resources to the available list. For example, if they go to another land, find a skilled armorsmith, and convince them to set up shop in their domain, then full plate armor would become available.

Acknowledgement as a Person of Importance: As rulers, the players will be able to present themselves as visiting dignitaries in any land where their domains are known and respected.

To determine how far away from their territory the players can travel before they become nobodies again, add together the levels of all the player’s domains. Multiply that number by 5. The result is the number of hexes that a player can travel, and still assert their right to be treated as a visiting dignitary.

That’s all I’ve got to say about Domains for now. I’ve only just started having my players tinker with them, so I imagine I’ll have more to say once problems start cropping up. For now, though, I think this is a pretty solid basis for running a game.

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