Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Gaming with Kids: an Introduction

 This is the first part of a series on playing tabletop roleplaying games with children. We'll cover the why's and how's, followed by specific instructions on making and running an OSR campaign for kids between the ages of 7 and 12.

Gaming with children is a unique experience for many reasons. Kids are naturally creative, their minds are unrestricted by the hard boundaries of adult rationality, and pretending imaginary worlds comes naturally to them. At the same time, as an adult, any interaction you have with a child will also be instructive. They see into you, and imitate you. It's not that they think 'I want to be like this person' and purposefully add your actions to their repertoire. It's that they naturally absorb the mannerisms and ways of being of those around them because it's how they learn.

 Children are impressionable. This is fact. They thirst to learn about the world and everything they do, from playing pretend house, to knocking over lamps, to burning an egg on the stove before you even wake up, is about learning how to be in this world. They're practicing being adults.

This is important to bear in mind when we give them media to take in. The media becomes their reality. If this media is violent, neurotic, and non-nonsensical, they will absorb this into themselves. Whatever they see is what they learn about the world, and they integrate it in a deep way that becomes the shadow-self or unconscious, that they will carry for the rest of their lives.

That is why we, as adults and caretakers, have the responsibility of screening the types of media children are allowed to consume. They don't have this ability themselves. They absorb everything they come into contact with and make it part of themselves, like sponges. If we show them a world crazed and dangerous, they come to believe, unconsciously, that the world is crazed and dangerous. If we show them a world that is gentle, and loving, and full of magic, they integrate this. Likely, through our own incompetence and oversight, they will integrate something in between.

The hope is that we give them a foundation which will raise them above the haphazard rearing we were given, so that they can carry the next generation in a better direction, and make the world better too.

It is not our jobs to teach children under the age of 12 about the dangers of the world. Children do not need to know about cruelty, irony, sarcasm, war, bitterness, and loss. These are lessons to be learned later. At a young age they are busy integrating the foundation for their psyche. They need stories that will uplift them, give them hope, give them something to model their own behavior on, and allow them to see beauty and wonder in the world.

Fairy tales, animal fables, and folklore are appropriate stories for children. They have action and adventure, but presented a way which is whole. That is to say that the verisimilitude of these self-contained stories shows a world which is self-contained, a mirror of our own, and can teach us what the world is like with the use of archetypes. These archetypes, like the hero who leaves home, the beautiful princess, the wicked step-mother, the wily fox, the ugly duckling, are fragments of the self we carry within, and when children learn these stories it helps them to unfold a part of themselves, together, with a caring adult, into thoughtful, caring adults themselves.

  Some carefully selected movies and TV shows can be appropriate in certain settings (we allow our oldest daughter to watch most Miyazaki films, and Avatar the Last Airbender, but only together with us as a family). We don't allow unrestricted, unmonitored screen time, and as a family use screens as little as we can get away with. Obviously, I'm writing this on a computer. There are simply some tasks that computers are better at. Raising your kids for you is not one of them.

Playing pretend allows children to act out the things they've witness. It gives them an opportunity to comprehend it by integrating it into their bodies. By acting out daily life in the form of pretend games, alone or with other children, they make the lessons complete and real. All pretend games children play have this instructive quality. It is their way of making sense of the world. 

Children who witness violent or confusing media without an adult present to turn to for stability frequently get stuck reliving these images, as their minds, as-of-yet unable to comprehend what they've seen, cannot integrate it. They have no basis for understanding such things, as they're still in the process of developing their worldview. Thus these confusing imagine become part of their worldview, and they spend the rest of their lives trying to understand it. Don't believe me? Go talk to anyone under the age of forty and ask what their childhood was like, and how it affected them. Go ahead, I'll wait.

On the same token, as important as it is for children to play pretend and to receive affirm, instructive stories from adults, I think it's inappropriate for adults to 'get down on their level' and play pretend games with children. Adults do not have the free imagination to do this successfully, the way children do. We are stuck in our ways, inflexible, and self-conscious, unable to truly let go and get lost in another world. Children can't help but do this. They don't need verisimilitude. They enter and live in imaginary worlds like a fish does to water.

 As adults we've already developed our inner-world, thus when we play pretend we are merely reenacting what is already integrated into us, rather than integrating something new. It is impossible for us to truly 'get down' on their level, because we are as different by nature as avocados and potatoes. We may have the same general shape, but inside and out we are not the same.

There are, however, some games which are appropriate to play with children. Adults who play pretend games with children force the children into their own adult rules-bound world. Gentle rough-hosing, peekaboo, and hide-and-seek are all games which have rules and put all players on the same footing, no matter age, ability, or cognitive preparedness. Board game, as long as they aren't the overly complicated multi-hour affair, can meet this criteria.

Likewise, I've found that Dungeons & Dragons is another type of game which can be successfully be played between adults and children. It allows the adult to enter the role of rule-holder; the Dungeon Master, who creates a sensible world governed by it's own internal logic, which is what the integrated adult mind is good at. Then, the child/children can enter as players, free to make their own choices and dream up solutions to problems, which is what young minds are good at. We can enter the game playing to each other's strengths, and imagine a world together which is creative and new, without impinging on each other's abilities. The great thing about D&D is that, unlike adults, children generally need no instruction on how to play.

When we play D&D with kids it's important that we give them scenarios that they are ready for. Overt violence, dismemberment, human sacrifice, cruelty, and the downfall of mankind are not scenarios for children. Violence can play a role if it is presented as mystical transformation, or as humans overcoming uncertainty, or as the establishment of an ordered world over a chaotic one. We don't need to reenact realistic medieval society, we need to give symbols and archetypes which can be integrated easily.

Thus D&D games based in a fairy tale-type setting are perfect. They come ready-made. We can simply drop in fairy-tale monsters, happenings, and magic and go from there.

The next post in this series will be about this.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Small Gods

Also: D&Deities

I prefer my gods to be small, petty, morose, malignant, and self-important. They aren’t all-knowing or all-powerful, although they may pretend to be. They aren’t wise, although they are crafty. They’re more like Greco-Roman gods; they’re overly theatrical, appearing in claps of thunder, or a million writhing insects form into their body, or a burning white stag with nine arrows in it leaps over a waterfall, and with a booming voice announces their name and demands for obsequience. If they don’t get it they’re liable to throw around polymorphs or strike blindness or worse. They make henchmen quail and drop to their knees, and they like it if they can make player characters draw back in fear.

Gods are often made by mortals ascending to godhood, either via their own might, or by bathing in cosmic energies, or being raised by a their patron diety, or killing another god, or attaining enlightenment. These gods are the most self-serving type, as some small part of them remembers what it’s like to have absolutely no power, and they still derive ugly pleasure from punching down on those weaker than them. Think Buddha or Jesus, but with a chip on his shoulder.

Another type of god is created by the faith of their followers. Cultists dream up some deity, say Nartsag the Defiler. He’s a huge maggot, the size of two school buses, with a heavy-eyed human face, and he’s come to eat the dead flesh of the world and restore it to purity. Gods love purity, but they all have different ideas about what that means. This guy wants to restore the world to its primal state, a genetic soup of goo, and flies, and water. So these Cultists of Nartsag gather in town squares, collecting money, preaching, gathering in defiled ground, subjecting themselves to weird flagellation and purposefully contracting pestilences. They run sick houses in major cities where they collect all the infirm, ill, and mutated, and they treat them with ineffectual ablutions. Ostensibly, this is to help ease their suffering, but really they’re collecting the sick water in tanks in underground temples where they make an ocean of putrid filth to one day raise Nartsag from Oblivion.


How to Make a God

This is the important part: gods like this are very real to the cultists, but not to anybody else. They have to be brought into this world by rituals that player characters might have a chance to stop. Sometimes a high priest has to throw themselves into the fire at the end to grand the blood-payment to open the gate. Or they may believe that this deity is in another realm or universe, and they need help getting into this one. Either way it’s the Cult’s force of belief, their faith, that eventually coalesces into a godhead taking shape on this plane.

Gods love to be worshiped. It’s why they’re here. What did they do that’s so special, to be worthy of worship? Go ahead and ask one and find out, they’ll tell you. They’re the epitome of the cackling evil overlord, squawking on and on about their plans, about their greatness, about their triumphs, showing you all the special golden trophies they’ve been collecting since they were the squirt of a bigoted thought in a backwater sycophant’s head.

They are very powerful, but they aren’t omnipotent. They have certain powers, certain domains. They are immortal but they aren’t invincible. They can be killed, but they would never admit this, even to themselves. They might have armor that protects them from all wounds, or the ability to kill with a look, or regenerate 50 hp per round, or to teleport to the moon and live without air, but they aren’t invincible. Technically. They’re more like super-heroes. If Superman lived in my universe some idiot gong farmers would probably have started worshiping him and eventually it would have gone to his head. 


Introducing: The Lord of the Underworld!

All this makes the deities way more interesting. It gives them human foibles, makes them accessible. You can touch this thing, maybe not directly, but it’s another level of NPC above the kings and sorcerers. Also, players tend to feel a certain reverence for deities as long as you don’t surprise them with it.

I remember I had some players go and investigate a cairn I mentioned in the description for something else. I had to think up something quick, so in 30-seconds I sketched up a couple rooms, threw in a super obvious spear trap, a stupid key-and-door puzzle and some runes and skeletons and stuff.

They get through the key-and-door puzzle before I figure everything out so I start adlibbing some murals about a goddess of the earth and animals or something, there’s this god-goddess pair. They feel her presence and it’s all motherly, and she asks them to bring back her husband. Then they go and clear the spear-trap room.

I knew there had to be some big pay-off and treasure, then I remembered that part in Sailors on the Starless Sea, where the player characters sail...on a starless sea...and then there’s some big evil god they fight and everybody’s like woah holy shit we’re playing cool fantasy stuff. So I just do that, there’s a ship, and a giant squid attacks, and they end up at the bottom of an underground ocean with an alter to a god. There’s a silver bowl and a ceremonial knife, so obviously my players cut their hands and put their blood in.

I already primed them with the goddess stuff. She’s got qualities they like, earth and animals and motherly love, so they’re all down. Her husband turns out to be this bleak woeful god of war, kind of like Odin. He asks them to bring back their religion, to help them enter back into this world so they can set it to rights. The players agree. He gives them silver stuff and blessings they get to write on their character sheet (single use: negate a successful attack) and send them on their way. So now my players are totally inducted into the cult of whoever these guys are, and they’re totally on board with proclaiming these gods to the world. They bringing up the gods to NPCs every chance they get.

That’s way more fun than your player looking in some stupid book and going “I dunno, I worship the god of the sun… and beer!”  


Making Demands

So Now you have your petty god, and some powers, and you’ve introduced them to your players. But what do gods actually do? First, they’re perpetually at war with each other. They each want to re-shape the world, and they all want to be the only god. They have enemies, truces (never allies), colors, elements, favorite flowers, fashion sense, interior decorating choices, favorite board games, favorite foods, all that shit, and they hate anybody that doesn’t fawn over their taste. Including other gods. They’re jealous, vindictive, small-minded and incredibly fucking strong. Imagine a bunch of catty drunk girls at a bar, but they can all fly, have skin made from steel, can lift a truck, and secrete mind-control pheromones. Also they can grant wishes.

That brings me to my next point: Gods love to dangle carrots in your face if you do their dirty work. Gods want to do the least they can possibly get away with, while taking all the credit and all the power. Kind of like the CEO of a big evil company, but with heat vision. Their self-improvement program is a huge pyramid scheme, where the more followers you induct the higher in the power-ladder you get to grow. You dump money and time and energy into it and they dish out magic weapons, and spell powers, and give you extra henchmen when you please them. If you fail them they rip it all away and leave you hanging, just to remind you who’s in charge. Your magic sword turns into a dove, your healing spell summons a bunch of locusts, your hands turn into wheels. And your patron diety just laughs and laughs until you apologize and make a big show of sacrificing bulls/maidens/jewelry at their nearest shrine.

Thus you need to have the gods interacting with the world somehow. Gods are lazy, they don’t show up in person unless they have to. Instead, they prefer to send stand-ins or omens, the vaguer the better. Thus, shrines and temples and priests. Need some sage advice? Go to Pithion Lord of the Dark Water’s temple, burn some incense, toss a few coins in the slot, and the high-priestess does a little dance and dispenses wisdom. What does this have to do with Pithion? Who cares? Now we know where to go to get the Crystal of Blhabla.

Need a different thing? You gotta do a quest, just like any other NPC. If you want this thing I have, you gotta do a thing. Also you have to dedicate your eternal soul to my whims or I’LL GET ANGRY.

Get healing, get quests, get spells. Players love this stuff. Last but not least: Clerics.


Meet my old class: Pilgrims

My favorite class in Morrowind is the Pilgrim. It’s a stealth-based class, specializing in speechcraft and healing, with minors in illusion magic and alchemy. The idea is these free-booters traipse about, talking their way in to trouble, and when they get there they use magic and running the fuck away to get out of it.

It makes me think of pilgrimages in Medieval Europe. Basically, making pilgrimages was a big deal, everybody was doing it for all kinds of reasons. Healing, fertility, boredom, for showing off to your friends how devote you are. Humans haven’t changed at all in ten-thousand years. A whole class of lazy asshole grew up around making pilgrimages, where these guys would wander around, avoiding work, going from holy site to holy site, collecting all the badges, and along the way they would hawk fake holy relics to idiots, shmooze their ways into monasteries so they could drink up all the beer and drool on the tabernacle, dawdle up to peasant farmers and demand room and board on account of their holy rigor, eat all the food then sleep until 11:15, then go off to the next place, all that jazz.

That’s what I want my clerics to be! No more being some ‘holy warrior’ for the church but oh yeah sorry, we can’t afford anything so go meet up with some cut-throats and hedge-wizards and figure it out yeah? Mitra will be pleased. Traditional clerics make no fucking sense outside of the original Blackmoor campaign.

We live in a world with dozens of gods, covering dozens of different realms of power, from oceans, to rot, to love, and animal-husbandry, etc, and they all grant the same twenty spells? They all give their followers power to rebuke undead? They all send their holymen on crusades to…. Go beat up goblins and take their stuff?

Instead, what I want is a conman or a ne’er-do-well who’s going off on adventures for personal gain and, yeh, if they can pitch some coin Patron Deity’s way, or beat up some Holy Foes great.

So let’s do it like this.

Everything's the same as Cleric except:

They can use their deity’s favorite weapon, which they carry as a symbol of their faith, and also the same kinds magic-users use. Optionally, just let them use all weapons because fuck it.

Instead of Rebuke Undead they can cast Protection from Evil as a spell-like ability, whereas “evil” is whoever is trying to kill the pilgrim, or is the enemy of the god they’re calling upon for help. The god gets to decide whether this is an appropriate use of their name. If they demand it too many time maybe it fizzles out, or the god doesn’t hear them, or afterwards the god demands some quest or penitence for bugging them too much.

At first level it’s only a couple feet wide, centered on the Cleric, let’s say enough room for one other person if they’re hugging onto the Cleric. The way I think of this spell is that it kind of pushes back monsters and they have to work really hard to step into the light and try to hit the caster. It’s kind of the like old way Rebuke Undead was adjudicated. At fourth level if becomes 10’ wide, they can block up a whole corridor with it.

 Undead are supposed to be horrible, unstoppable monstrocities. Isn't lame if the cleric can just roll dice to see if he can scare them away? And then, when it doesn't work? 

"I try to turn the zombies" *clatter*
"Oh sorry, St. James is helping a kitten right now call back later"

Alternatively make them spend 10 minutes transcribing a sigil of power from the god on the floor, with chalk or salt or silver dust. It lasts for an hour and keeps out all bad stuff, but you can't move it.

As for their spells, they don’t just automatically get all those spells/miracles/prayers. They have to travel to holy sites and preform duties for their patron to be granted those spells as spell-like abilities, just like how a Magic-User has to search for their spells, be taught them, or gain them from spellbooks. They can have as many as their normal spell list, which they transcribe all those spells into a prayerbook (see where I’m going with this?)

Additionally, they get spells from this pilgrimages from their deity which are within the realm of the deity to grant. So Gods of Shadows and Sneaking grant Invisibility and Darkness, Gods of Fire grant Burning Hands, Light, only Gods of Healing Grant Healing. Maybe Gods that have particular foes, like Undead, or Devils, or Unicorns can grant turning against those foes.

Maybe a Pilgrim can have like two or three favorite deities, as long as they don’t clash with each other. Gods are selfish and petty but also they’re kind of dumb and I dunno. It’s probably fine. Or whatever. Dance monkey, dance!

 What does this fix? It makes the Cleric more dependent on deity interaction. It takes out the stupid Judeo-Christian stuff. It gives more variety in spells, and differentiates between clerics (they haven't all been personally granted specific spells). It puts the cleric reason for adventuring in-line with the other adventurers, while still giving him excuse for building a temple.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Science Fantasy Races

 You could use these racial classes to spice up your Science-Fantasy RPG instead of ye olde elfs n dorfs. Light reskins with a few extra abilities. Probably don't have much longevity.

a society of brass automata philosopher-monks that keep the general peace in Jal’um-jaal, each housing a neuron of the essence of Neutral-Good. Their weapon is the quarter staff and symbol the gray cloak they wear. Since Jal’um-jaal has no governing body the Yargot do not keep laws but rather act from a sense of naive altruism. Yargot monks see the good in every living thing.

XP and HD as cleric. Use only quarterstaves and cudgels.
Armor Class bonus equal to half of HD, plus Dex bonus.
Yargot can spend a HD to heal the HD of another creature using built-in medical nanotechnology.

Detect Magic: can see magic once per day
Repel Human: push a human being away either a. with a blast of force, b. with gentle pressure
Calm Being: emit subsonic noise which gives you a second chance at a failed reaction roll at +2 bonus

Primitive wildmen covered in thick hair. Eschew clothes. Barbarous warriors capable of climbing, tracking, jumping, and running with inhuman ability, capable of hiding in wilderness settings.

XP and HD as fighters
Saves start at Fourth level
Brute Strength: +1 damage every 3 levels, can perform feats of strength easier
Tough skin: shake off one hit per day.
Wildwalk: +4 to hide in chosen biome, gain a new biome every three levels
Know the way: proficient at tracking and wilderness survival in chosen biome, gain new biome every three levels.

Techno-mancing hyper-vampires. Pale white skin, huge eyes, sharp teeth. Can speak to machines, use body as battery by plugging wires into self. Needs to restore bodily energy by consuming brains. 

XP and HD as magic-users
Obscurement: transform into a shadow and glide through the air quietly. If light falls on you immediately turn back. You can't inflict any harm in this form.
Ocupod Form: Transform into a big glowing eyeball with a bunch of angry tentacles. Constantly makes a loud screaming noise. AC 2, two attacks per turn, two saves Vs magic, fly.
Command Androids up to HD broken androids raise, follow simple commands.

Decrepit bird people, like octogenerian vultures. Bleary eyes, shakey clawed hands, infinitely old culture. Can fly and speak extra languages. Use these guys instead of elves except they can't use armor.

XP and HD as magic-users
Command: the ancient race of Questrons allow them to make demands.
Ethereal Jaunt: as spell, once per day.
Darkness: as spell, once per day.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Action Rolls

 It's well known in the OSR that skills are dangerous in that they tend to cause power creep and a drop in player agency. There's a slippery slope from thieves to spot-check rolls and many people choose not to have thieves in their games for this reason at all.

Thieves are one of my favorite character types, so I can't just let them go. Instead, I choose to change how I handle player actions.

Instead of having skill rolls or ability checks you have action rolls. The base level of action rolls is 1-in-6. If the player wants to do a thing and we're not really sure let's throw for 1-in-6, which is roughly 15%.

If we think there's a good chance then 2-in-6, if it's 50/50 we'll do 3-in-6. Above that I don't see much of a point in rolling. If the players have done enough work of convincing me they have a 4- or 5-in-6 chance of succeeding I'll generally just give it to them, unless they seem like they really wanna throw some dice about it. Sometimes in these cases it's better to just have the affected party roll a save to see if they avoid negative effects.

Sometimes bonuses are given for action rolls. Elves have a naturaly 3-in-6 (or +2 bonus) to searching for secret doors. Maybe if you can convince me your background helps you at an action roll we'll add a a bonus and raise it to 2- or 3-in-6.

Unlike skills players don't generally get better at their action rolls. Any bonuses are determined by character type and they're mostly set in stone. Maybe this changes, if the Fighter is taken in and trained in woodland survival by the League of Rangers or whatever, but this isn't common and is more of a treasure (character sheet adjustment) than a skill path.

These work pretty well, too, in place of ability checks. Add your ability modifier. Instead of a 1-in-6 your +2 Wisdom lets you roll for 3-in-6. Good odds! 

Though often I tend to lean towards the Apocalypse World thing w/ 2d6+mod because it gives you a nice curve and a gradient of possibilities, instead of a binary success/fail. Maybe you succeed your dive off the balcony, but you miss the rope and end up dangling from a chandelier.

Anyway, I don't like to rely on too many different kinds of rolls because I want my players to get a feel for what kind of odds their actions have. If they're fairly confident they can guess what I'll ask them to roll they get a better feel for being 'in' the world.

Plus, the less mechanisms I have to explain the better!

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Differentiate races

This is a game about the end of the fourth age. Humanity is in it's twilight. Demi-humans represent the split species of hyper-specialized humans. This is after the end of the age of space travel.

The game is about humans. Placing limits disincentivizes demihuman PCs and forces them into a support, foil, or side-kick role of human characters. We can learn more about the human condition by having a few inhuman characters but not too many that they lose their otherness.

 You need to meet the attribute requirements to quality to be a demihuman. This is also their prime requisite. Each race also has a number of special abilities.

Demi-humans max out at level 6. If they meet Prime Requisite limit is boosted to 8.


The Fiia- Cha 9

Class as Fighters. Saves start at 4th level.

A secluded race of cheerful pigmies who make their homes in sunny valleys. Halflings abhor violence and discomfort. Most other races view them kindly and enjoy their songs and earnest disposition.

Luck: call for re-roll on any dice roll once per game. (Zoldag casts Fireball, the spell fizzes causing only 9 damage. Mikeal the Small uses his Luck ability to let Zoldag re-roll for damage. 6d6 = 28 damage!)

Blending in: halflings gain +3 on action rolls to hide in woodland settings, and +2 to hide indoors. 

Archer: Fiia gain +1 to-hit bonus on missile attacks

Tiny: halflings gain +2 AC vs Giant-size or greater opponents.

Homeward - as long as they're on the same plane, Fiia always know the direction of home.

Soulbond - a special bond may form between a Fiia and another being, allowing them empathic connection over any distance. If a soulbond is broken both partners die.

Clayfolk - Con 9

Class as Fighters. Saves start at 4th level.

Clayfolk are rugged, dire people who carve their hidden lairs into the stoney cliffs of the silver desert. Tribal merchants, hunters, and animal handlets par excellence, clayfolk caravans are a common sight.

Tireless: clayfolk can go a week without food or water before taking strain damage.

Animal friend: clayfolk gain a +3 action bonus when wrangling, taming, calming, or riding animals.

Giant killer: due to cultural rituals involving purple worms, clayfolk gain +2 AC vs Giant-size or greater opponents.

Stone tongue: clayfolk may converse with nearby stones, though they may be slow to answer and lack knowledge of anything outside their realm.

Aeleph - Wis 9

Class as Fighter/Magic-Users, combining best attributes & total XP values of each.

Aeleph are strange off-world beings descended from space faring folk, often known as witch-men. They tend to be more technologically inclined than others. Their cities are cloaked deep within swamps and forests.

Keen eyes: can project their consciousness in any direction up to one mile, can hear as well as see. Lasts 1 minute.

Firstborn: elves gain +2 action bonus when searching for hidden things and when attempting to comprehend ancient technology.

Combat training - Aeleph keep a strict warrior code known as Bushindin. They fight with a pair of specially made longswords, rolling with advantage on attacks. Additionally, they wear no armor, instead practicing dextrous dances to evade attacks. Aeleph lower their AC by one point every other level.

Monday, October 12, 2020

State of the World

 It's been hard to get a game going reliably lately. I refuse to play games over voice chat. That defeats the whole purpose of having a game; to make bonds between people in my life. I don't consider the internet 'my life,' in fact I do close to zero percent of my social interaction online.

In the meat zone needs of the family tend to take precedence over gaming. I find it interesting that the OSR is mostly childless 20 somethings or pushing the 60s without much between. Seems all the childed folks tend to take multi-year breaks or disappear after a short burst of activity. I wonder what drives these folks. I know what drives me: the need for a creative outlet. 

My original intent was to marry my family life with my need for artistic creation while simultaneously creating a fun thing to do as a group.

It staggers around the sidelines and slowly survives. I've got a new baby in the works. That typically kills "outside activities"; d&d has become my poker night. A disruputable activity to my wife, but a needed outlet and opportunity for socialization

Yes, even a total morlock like me needs friends. 

Friday, October 9, 2020

Psychedelic Fantasties #1: Beneath the Ruins Play Report

 I ran Beneath the Ruins for my players and here's how it went.

We have a little hex-crawl sandbox going. I needed some science-fantasy dungeon for the ruins they were going to explore--reports of mutants raiding caravans. Needed something good. After stagnating on my own dungeon for two weeks I just bought this off DriveThru for $1.77, which is about as much as I feel I can spend on a dungeon without feeling buyer's remorse if it sucks.

I needed a main entrance with mutants and a secret entrance the players could find by investigating. This dungeon has neither. Instead it's an entrance to a 'mythical underworld' type mega-dungeon complete with stygian boatman demanding single GPs in payment.

What it does have, though, is science-fantasy stuff, laser guns, mystery cults, and mutants, which is what I wanted.

At the start of session 2 players knew there was a secret entrance, but they hadn't found it yet. On the way back to the ruins they met a bunch of goblins holding a meeting in an abandoned building and after some tense negotiations discovered the goblins had a plan to raid the ruins themselves. Decided on the plan that the goblins would lead a frontal assault as a distraction, allowing the party to sneak in and try to nab some of that sweet-sweet high tech loot everybody wants (in this world magical items are technology of a past high culture a la Mutant Future). That's the set-up.

 Now, the secret entrance led to the underground lake with the boatman. If the players had gone in the main entrance I would've contrived a staircase down into the Luminite's base.

Players were pretty sketched out by the boatman and considered going back. But eventually let him take them across.

They get into party formation and start exploring. They get to the rubble trap room and at first just the thief is going to check it out (yesss) but last minute the whole party decides to pile in (fuuuucck). They set off the trap and half the team is killed even though I telegraphed it with loose rubble and timbers holding up a wall, and they had seen a cave-in earlier in the dungeon.

Note here that the module describes the trap as 'camouflaged'. This isn't the last time I had to refuse to take the module's advice.

They dig their 10' pole out of the rubble and decide to make judicious use of it from here. They manage to find the secret door and go down the stairs and we have fun roleplaying medieval fantasy characters figuring out sci-fi doors with hand scanners. They fumble around for a while and open a door on Luminites lifting weights, then they run awaaaay. Luminites think that's suspicious as hell and give chase. Players surrender and beg for their lives, Luminites give em a bomb and tell em to blow up the mutants to prove they're really just there for mutant treasure and not, in fact, with the goblins that attacked them on the surface.

Players get lost in the spooky area with the slithering devil after coming thiissss close to incurring its wrath which would've ended in a TPK because the thing is described as super fast and super evil. They find the spooky door bulging with evil energies, argue about using the bomb on it, and turn back missing out on the only area of the dungeon that has any treasure worth getting killed over. Headed north into the caverns they spend a fat portion of the game going from room to room, lost in caverns, with nothing to interact with. Random encounter happens with a slow moving enemy, they run away. Investigate a bit more, another surprise enemy, they run away. Oh look this room makes loud noise better leave. Oh look this room has yellow grass that doesn't like light better swim in a hole then leave.

 The players are having fun through all this because they don't know any better. They just dumb players. It's me who is trying to figure out what I can do to make any of this interesting and cohesive for myself. The module is constantly getting in the way of this. I could've done more if the rooms were keyed less because I'm an imaginative human. There is seriously not much to work with here. The enemies are either 3' worms or 3' crickets or friendly. Friendly people like to have conversations and conversations are only interesting if one side can help the other, but what can a 3' carnivorous cricket do? The crickets are described as 'monstrosities' and murderous, but also they won't attack right away? and can understand language? Why is everything friendly? Why are there no treasures?

 And the yeast-grass place where the mutants grow their food. The designer offers for you to use sanity checks when the players see it. Why? undulating smelly yellow grass isn't that weird. It's not even the weirdest thing in the dungeon.

I've seen other reviewers praise this module for its clean design and usability at the table. I disagree. I read the thing twice and went through with a highlighter and took notes for three days before the game and none of that really helped me. I ran the thing mostly from memory because I kept flipping pages trying to figure out what the enemies did, where there were sights and smells to be had, if there was something interesting buried under the lines of text and harmless encounters, and if one room had some connection to another. I was grasping at straws and could've done more stuff if I had thrown the module away and just made up everything.

There is a ton of rooms dedicated to the factions, which are the center of this module. The Luminites have the largest holding and are almost guaranteed to be the first ones the players run into. There's no clear reason in the module as to why these groups hate each other, as they're both described as being friendly and welcoming to outsiders. I decided that their mutual-hatred was over ideological differences, the Luminites are miniature Elon Musks that worship Science! and the mutants are superstitious. 

That's fine, factions are fun, but there's not much dungeon in between the factions. Most of the wandering monster encounters take place in zones controlled by factions, which doesn't make sense, even if it's a 'mythical underworld'. 

Another portion of the dungeon is super dangerous and has spooky ghosts and no random encounters. This is where the bulk of the treasure is but the dangers were too much for my players and they noped out of here.

In the end they were captured by the mutants and were being taken to their lair when they arrived at the sinkhole which is described as being easy to climb for the mutants but a death trap for the players. Now we're at an impasse. The mutants want to take the players to see the Shaman, who the players are charged with blowing up, but if I make the players climb down this hole they'll probably slip and die. The players start taking off their platemail and to my surprise the one carrying the bomb (a gift for your shaman!) pulls the pin and kicks it into the pit "Oh no! Oops! Dang! I'm sorry about that!"

The mutants are confused. I'm confused. Even the players are themselves confused. I have the mutants decide these idiots aren't worth their time and tell them to leave or else. The players flee from the caverns, getting lost and chased by crickets on the way, and eventually back to the Luminites.

The Luminites give them a laser pistol and the players decide they've had enough of this place. They leave.

On the way out they're attacked by wandering face huggers and we have the only fun combat of the game that ends with the players running away and waiting for the face huggers to leave. I reason that since the face huggers are ambush predators (like most the enemies here) they don't bother chasing enemies once they're gone.

To delineate, my problems with this module are thus:

  • Factions don't make sense, don't have interesting motives.
  • Enemies are boring and don't have interesting moves. 
  • Rooms try to be weird but mostly end up being boring.
  • No breadcrumb treasures to encourage exploration.
  • No fun things to experiment with or utilize
  • No fun scenery to roll, throw, tip over, set on fire, or jump off of.
  • Too many choke points with nothing going on. "Okay guys, left or right? Uhh"
  • Text dense, needs some judicious usage of bold italics line spaces, text boxes, and bullet points. Any kind of formatting.

Things the module did right:

  • Trying to do something different
  • Loops?
  • Being excited about itself.
  • Not wasting too much of my time with backstory.

You can't just not bother to have cohesion, ignore verisimilitude, and call it 'mythical underworld'. Especially if you make a dungeon that is ostensibly about faction play and area control. The Luminites worship technology and collect it, but where are they getting the technology from? The module doesn't say. The Luminites are described as 'not believing the world outside exists', so where the fuck does the technology come from? This isn't an interesting question that's answered in play, it's a roadblock to coming up with a reason for the Luminites to exist at all. You could just take them out and replace their entire area with random monster encounters and pit traps and probably have a great time.

Final comment: Aside from all this bitching, my players did in fact have a good time. They were mostly unaware of my struggles as a DM. I have an inkling that a more experienced DM could probably have pulled something more cohesive out of this.