Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Borderlands Style Adventures

I am a terrible blogger. I intended to post here three times per week, but a number of factors combined to undermine that plan almost from the start. I'd say "I promise to post more often," but I'm not sure that's going to hold up.

Tonight is one of those nights where I'm too tired to paint a miniature or read, but I'm too keyed up to slip into a TV assisted, vegetative state. There's also a funny tension in this blog. I've recently been made the lead designer for D&D, so there's less incentive for me to post new rules here. I can use those at work!

Instead, let me ramble a bit about adventure design.

The last session of the Forgotten Realms campaign I play in reminded that, while I love my twice a week, lunch time Greyhawk campaign, there's a lot to be said for a nice, juicy four hour game session. In particular, long sessions are great for what I think of as Borderlands style adventures, adventures that give the PCs a long list of shallow options.

Melan's excellent post on megadungeon mapping has been kicking around in my head since I first read it. In particular, his analysis of Keep on the Borderlands stuck in my head for a while. I really like the idea of an adventure that gives you a lot of places to go, even if those specific places are simple and even linear. In particular, I think such a design shines if those simple, straightforward spots have some level of interconnectivity, again, even if the connections are simple. Those could range from the physical (the ogre's den has a secret door leading to the orc lord's throne room) to the social (the orcs hate the gnolls and are looking for allies against them).

The appeal, IMO, lies in the raw possibilities of bouncing around the map, delving here, allying there, looting here. I think there's some element of sandbox gaming at play, but on a smaller, more focused level. Rather than the world as a sandbox, this style of design focuses instead on a single city or adventure site, with the connections I mentioned above a critical part of the design. The adventure is like a pool table cluttered with balls, with the PCs a cue ball careening across the field, knocking some balls into pockets, slamming others into each other. The key is that with every action by the PCs, the "board" changes.

By keeping the individual components simple, it's much easier to manage the scope of changes and reactions across the entire adventure set up. It's easy to manage changes within the individual caves in KotB because each one is so simple, basic layouts of rooms wedded to rosters of (mostly) homogenous tribes.

The complexity of this design rests in the relationships and interactions between the individual, simple nodes. In addition, particularly in 4e, you need the flexibility to keep each node at least somewhat challenging for the PCs. Given that the characters gain about 1 level for every 10 encounters, you have to balance the number of nodes in the adventure with the PCs' level progression. It'd be great to offer the PCs 5 or 6 places to investigate, but you need to limit each node to 3 or 4 encounters to keep those nodes in a 3 level band.

While the Keep on the Borderlands is the best known example of this design style, I think the approach would shine for urban adventures. The connections between locations can cover a broad range of social, political, and military alliances, both including and forming against the PCs.

It's interesting to me that KotB-style design is relatively rare. Most published adventures rely on a plot with a clear beginning, middle and end, or individual dungeons. A borderlands-style design has the cosmetic flaw of appearing simple, since the individual pieces are simple. The value of the design rests in its emergent properties. It plays, rather than reads, well.

So, that's my rambling for tonight.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Roll for Initiative! Wait, No, Don't Roll!

Over at The Art of the Near TPK, Gregor talks about his take on 4e initiative. The post reminded me of an initiative variant I've thought about using.

There's no more rolling for initiative. The characters all take their turns in whatever order, then the monsters. You can ready actions and what not, but that has no effect on when you take your next turn. There's no delaying, since both groups go in whatever order they want. There's a clean up phase for the party as a whole after the party's turn, and one for the monsters. Durations key off those end points.

The nifty thing is that it takes care of any weird complexity with delaying and durations. Let's say an NPC monk dazes the paladin, and the daze lasts until the monsters' next clean-up phase. It's clear that the paladin is going to lose his next turn. He can't delay to avoid it (not that you can in 4e, but we had to put in some semi-convoluted rules to make sure that worked out).

OTOH, if the cleric has a spell that can end the daze, you don't need to deal with the complexity of delaying to make that happen. On the party's turn, the cleric just goes before the paladin.

As Gregor points out in his post, that allows for a lot more teamwork and coordination on both sides of the screen.

Anyway, rolling for initiative was too popular for me to get this, or any of the other, changes I had in mind for 4e.

Giant Ticks!

Inspired by a post on Jeff's blog, here's my 4e take on the giant tick. In this case, I'm tackling it as a hazard rather than as a monster, so I guess that makes it more the "noticeable larger than normal but perhaps not truly giant" tick. I'd peg it as about six inches long, not huge by any means, but pretty scary when you think about it.

Barrow Tick, Level 6 Hazard
A barrow tick is a common dungeon predator, particularly in areas where ogres, trolls, and giants dwell. The tick attacks the first creature that moves within 10 feet of its position. It leaps out in a blur of movement and attacks with a poison that deadens the victim's sense of touch, making it possible for the tick to feast undetected.
One the tick attacks, it slowly drains the victim's blood. Unless the tick is removed or killed within a minute of its initial attack, the victim loses 2d10+8 hit points. Each time the victim takes a short rest while the tick is still present, he loses another 2d10+8 hit points. If the victim is unlucky enough to take a long rest without noticing the tick, the poor sod loses all his healing surges and is at 1 hit point when the rest ends. The tick, for its part, departs after such a feast.
The tick makes Stealth checks to remain hidden from view, but any close examination of the victim reveals its presecence. The next time the victim takes damage, he also realizes that he has lost blood (the DM should inform him of his new hit points total) and may make Perception checks to notice the tick on him. The tick is general clever enough to attack itself to the victim's back or some other spot that makes it hard to notice.

Barrow Tick: +8 attack vs. Reflex, Stealth +14, speed 5, AC 18, Fortitude 16, Reflex 15, Will 13, the tick suffers a -4 penalty to all defenses while it is attached to a victim, hit points 1, though the barrow tick never takes damage from an attack that misses; 2d10+8 damage on initial exposure, another 2d10+8 after each short rest.

Edit: Changed damage from 25% of max to a normal damage expression. Since this is a level 6 hazard, I aimed it to do about 25% of a 6th level PC's hit points. That makes it scale easier. I can just adjust the damage upward or downward for different levels.

Monday, September 1, 2008

RPG Carnival: Homebrew Alignments

Donny_the_DM has decreed that the theme of this month's RPG Carnvial is homebrewing. So, let's talk alignments.

4e has breaks alignment down into lawful good, good, unaligned, evil, and chaotic evil. Prior to that, D&D used an axis of good - evil and law - chaos. I saw BAH! to both. Alignment is pretty much ripped screaming from Moorcock's Eternal Champion stories, particularly the saga of Elric of Melbinoné. The awesome thing about Elric, IMO, is that he can and did directly interact with the great powers of Law and Chaos, the very beings that formed the basis of the Multiversal struggle that Elric and the other eternal champions were caught up in.

What's this mean for your campaign? Well, here's how I'm handling it.

Rather than use alignment to describe good or evil, it instead describes the power source that your character sees as the most important piece of the cosmic pie. If push came to shove and only one power source could rule, which one would your character pick?

Of course, that means that the power sources have to stand for something. Well, here's my stab at it:

Divine (Deity-centered)
A character who embraces the divine alignment places the gods above all else. Divine characters typically worship a single god. They place their god's teachings and dictates above all other concerns, and actively battle members of rival faiths.

An adventurer with the divine alignment tithes to his church, seeks out enemies of the faith to slay, and relies on the church hierarchy for guidance.

A commoner with the divine alignment attends church services, prays regularly, tithes to the church, and obeys the church above the rule of law (unless his church is the law).

If the world ended in a final battle, those of the divine alignment would stand by their gods and fight for them.

Arcane (Self-centered)
The arcane alignment places its faith in its own adherents. Magic is power, and those who can master it are a cut above the rest. The other power sources can be explained and understood just like magic, with sufficient study and research. There's no reason to worship a source of power. Instead, such well springs of might exist to be studied and used. This attitude extends to everything else. The world is full of useful tools, and those who can master them deserve to do as they wish, without interference from others.

An adventurer with the arcane alignment is in it for himself. He seeks knowledge and power, primarily to improve himself and his skill. If he has to choose between helping himself and helping his companions, he is at least tempted to take the selfish path.

The commoner with the arcane alignment is probably a hedge mage or a would-be arcane apprentice. He sees the mastery of the arcane arts as the key to power, power that he wants.

If the world ended in a final battle, those of the arcane alignment would rely on their own power to survive. They'd try to leave the other factions to destroy each other, either to continue their studies in peace or to make a bid for cosmic domination that only one being can win.

Martial (Mortal-centered)
The martial alignment eschews external sources of power. Training, focus, and drive are all that these characters need to achieve whatever they want, and whatever they might want is a diverse list indeed. Most martial characters pick a mortal cause to embrace, whether that is the concept of democracy, their own personal drive for tyranny, or the freedom and peace of their home village. Martial characters fight for something rooted in the mortal world of men. They tend to view those of different alignments with suspicion, as they can never understand the impulse to rely on talents and power that comes from an outside source.

An adventurer who follows the martial alignment is a crusader for some cause, though that cause could be his own coin purse. He gets into dangerous situations because he is driven to by some overarching goal. It is the fate of martial characters that, when they resolve one cause or quest, their drive and ambition pushes them to find a new, grander and more epic one.

A commoner who follows the martial alignment similarly fights for a cause, and if given a good reason could very well become an adventurer. The farmer who volunteers in the local militia, the street urchin who picks the pockets of a merchant, and the peasants who hide their wounded king from a band of assassins all follow the martial power source.

If the world ended in a final battle, those of the martial alignment would rally to their causes. A great swordsman might stand watch over the vale he was born in, sworn to slay any god or archlich who dares enter it, while the queen's elite knights rally around her banner to ensure the realm's survival.

While the alignments map to the power sources, that doesn't mean a PC's power source is his alignment. A warrior who considers himself the greatest swordsman in the world might wander in search of skilled warriors to slay in battle, thus proving his skill. While such a character might use the martial power source, his alignment is arcane. He studies his craft, improves it, and thinks of himself and his skills first and foremost. A wizard might be an ardent worshipper of the sun god, using his spells to blast the priests of the god of devouring darkness, while a cleric might pray to Thor, but she studies divine magic to heal and protect the people of her home city.

There's room for the other power sources, and perhaps factions such as the Abyss, the devils of Hell, and the Far Realm.