Saturday, February 6, 2016

Zoomed-Out Abstract Dungeon Mapping

The game I'm currently playing with Brie (my wife), involves hand-drawn mapping of the dungeon during play. For me, this now feels "clunky" since I'm so spoiled by years of playing online with the fog-of-war function on a virtual tabletop. Add to that the fact that our sessions involve a much more narrative style of combat without requiring a grid to regulate things, and that got me thinking about ways to abstract the map and simplify the process of navigation, since we don't really need a large-scale detail map anyway.

So here is what I've come up with – a small-scale grid where one square abstractly represents the amount of distance a party can cover per turn of exploration or one round of flight/pursuit. So instead of a traditional scale of one (quarter-inch) square equals ten feet, this gives a smaller scale of one (one-inch) square equals roughly 90 feet.

The small white circles are doors, the up-arrows are stairways up and the down-arrows are stairways down. All other details about the room would be noted in the key, including precise dimensions (e.g. 20' x 50', 30' x 30', whatever). In other words just because the rooms appear the same size on the abstracted map doesn't mean they are.

There are several benefits I can see with this:

  1. It's easier for me to make than a detailed large-scale grid map (I'm really bad at that). 
  2. It's easier for FTF in-play draw-by-hand mapping for the player(s) – especially with every square being labeled, and without the need to draw the rooms in detail.
  3. The fact that every square is labeled means I can key everything easily, and re-key as things change without having to erase/add in things on the map.
  4. It should be easier to ensure that things like stairways line up from level to level. 
  5. Counting turns spent exploring might be easier (one square equals one turn -- I'm thinking I might actually put tick marks in the squares themselves, including multiple tick marks if PCs spend time looking about a given room).
  6. I think it will pair well with my abstract battle board adaptation

Now I just have to take it out for a spin. Definitely with Brie, and maybe with +Ken H and +Tim Shorts on Wednesdays, since we're no strangers to "theater-of-the-mind" play there either.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Monster Encounter Advice for Players New to the OSR

My wife is the first completely new player I've ever gamed with. She previously had a decent amount of experience with computer RPGs and MMOs. Since she started playing an old-school D&D game with me, I've been thinking about certain assumptions that new players, many of whom may be coming to old-school gaming from a similar type of background, might need to overcome in order to successfully deal with monster encounters. She and I have talked about this a lot, so I thought I'd put down some of the thoughts that came out of those tutorial discussions.

Before giving my own detailed, bullet-point advice, I want to begin with what I see as the most important general advice on adventuring ever written.* It comes directly from Gary Gygax in the first edition AD&D Player's Handbook, under the section title "Successful Adventures:"

"[S]et an objective for the adventure. Whether the purpose is so simple as to discover a flight of stairs to the next lowest unexplored level or so difficult as to find and destroy an altar to an alien god, some firm objective should be established and then adhered to as strongly as possible. [...] Do not be sidetracked. A good referee will have many ways to distract an expedition, many things to draw attention, but ignore them if at all possible. [You should] note all such things, and another expedition may be in order another day to investigate [...] but always stay with what was planned if at all possible and wait for another day to handle the other matters." (109)

The flip side of this, however, is that:

"[T]here are times when objectives must be abandoned. If the party becomes lost, the objective must immediately be changed to discovery of a way out. If the group becomes low on vital equipment or spells, it should turn back. The same is true if wounds and dead members have seriously weakened the group's strength." (109)

In short, stick doggedly to your original objective as long as it remains viable. Once it is not, retreat as fast as you can to safety. In either case, do not give in to distraction.

With this in mind, here are some specific tips for dealing with encounters for those new to OSR games. A non-OSR background may leave you tempted to try and fight your way through every single challenge. Resist this thought. The fights in computer RPGs, MMOs and many modern table top games often emphasize balanced, fair encounters. OSR games often don't give a fig about balance, and many fights deplete resources and involve high – even deadly – risk without offering any reward in return.

Consequently you should, as a general rule, make fighting your last resort whenever you can. Here are some other options when you encounter a monster:

  • Go around the monster. Provided it's not sitting on top of something essential to your objective, and provided it doesn't represent an inordinate threat if you bypass it, don't mess with it.
  • Talk to the monster. If it's intelligent enough to speak, try to bargain, negotiate, inquire, threaten, bribe, etc. in order to get safe passage through its territory or to get information that will help you reach your objective.
  • Trick or distract the monster. Drop food, drop gold, make noise or smoke to draw its attention away from you and/or from where you want to go, etc. This can help you go around it more easily and continue on to your objective, or possibly gain an advantage if you feel you must fight. 
  • Fight the monster. Sometimes it's unavoidable, and other times there really is something to be gained by it – a major treasure, for example, and or something that brings you closer to achieving your objective. But remember that most monsters you encounter do not have treasure and are not part of your objective – their sole reason for existence is to deplete your resources before you get to your objective. 

You'll probably notice that all these bullet points on encounter options relate in some way to the idea of objectives.

When it is time to fight, one thing to remember is that fights are not necessarily going to be fair or balanced relative to the strength of the adventurers. You may often be outmatched. So if you must fight: 

  • Try to do so under the most favorable conditions you can (e.g. ambush the enemy, distract him, draw him into terrain that benefits you more than him, etc.).
  • Try to converge your attacks as much as you can (i.e. focus as many of your own side's attacks as possible against the smallest possible number of enemy targets). It is far better to gang up and do a bucket-load of damage to one single enemy, killing him dead in one round, than to deal a little damage to every enemy each round. Each enemy knocked completely out of the fight means one attack fewer the adventurers have to suffer in every subsequent round.
  • Run away when things turn sour. Dropping distractions or deterrents (loot, food, burning oil) or spiking doors shut behind you can be useful tools for getting away. When things go south – and believe me they will – you should change your objective to: "get out of the dungeon alive." 

Here is an example of successful (and quickly-learned) objective-hunting-combat-avoidance in action: My wife's character, Olivia (an elf), and her henchmen were exploring the basement beneath a warehouse where evidence of the owner's malfeasance was rumored to be located. So her objective was "find the evidence." During her exploration she peeked through a doorway and spotted a guard at the top of a stairway leading down. At first she tried to trick him, calling to him from beyond the door, pretending to be another guard, in order to lure him outside the room into an ambush. The guard didn't seem to be buying it, but was somewhat uncertain, so she and her henchmen burst into the room, taking advantage of his uncertainty, and pointed all their weapons at him, ordering him to surrender. He did. Prisoner taken, no damage to the party, no spells or arrows used. She then interrogated him and got information that may** help her to find the evidence she was seeking. In one fell swoop, she avoided combat (one trickery attempt, one bullying attempt), and got potentially** one step closer to her objective, without depleting party resources at all.  


*Yep, I see Gygax's advice on objectives as even more important than the adage "don't split the party" – though I put a lot of stock in the latter as well.

**It's not yet certain whether the information will actually bring her to her objective sooner. But the information was actionable, and it did give her a means of narrowing down her activity to something more specific than "search the whole dungeon room by room" in order to achieve the objective.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Introducing "Campaign Chronicle," and Some Catching Up

"Campaign Chronicle"

I've had a long think and have finally come to a conclusion.  Running multiple blogs – one for medieval/fantasy, one for the musket era, one for WWII, not to mention a few others that were extremely short-lived – isn't the most efficient way to handle my blogging. Whenever I'm focused on one area of my hobby, the other blogs lie fallow for months. That lengthy inactivity bothers me. So after a bit of hesitation, I've decided to just do all my blogging here. With an appropriate change to the blog's title and header of course. "Campaign Chronicle" fits just about every hobby-related thing I do.

Catching Up

A lot of work and personal stuff has severely dented my blogging of late, but that doesn't mean I haven't been gaming. So here's what I've been up to.

Wednesday Night Pits & Perils

+Tim Shorts, +Ken H  and I have formed a small group to run a shared world taking it in turns to be GM. I like the way this is going. One GM and two players is a good size for this. Everybody gets to take a turn GMing without either burning out or having to wait too long to get a shot to run something. With only two PCs (but with plenty of retainers in play) no player is ever out of the spotlight for too long – there's always plenty for both players to do at every moment in the game. And we haven't bothered to sketch out the world prior to play, except in the broadest, vaguest terms. The game world is just growing and fleshing out gradually as we play. We've been doing for this a few months now, and so far it's working brilliantly.

Playing Moldvay D&D Basic with My Wife

Wha-what??  That's right. For years, I've been gradually pulling my wife over to the geek side of the force. It started small with watching various Star Trek series and Dr. Who, then moved to fantasy board games like Dungeon! and Talisman, then MMOs. But she always said she wasn't interested in playing D&D and probably never would be. Too complicated, too time consuming, etc. Then out of the blue several weeks ago, she said: "Okay, entertain me. Make me a character and write me up an adventure." And so it began. We've played something like five or six short sessions. She's survived two adventures and is in the middle of her third, and is learning the value of retainers.

One-Hour Wargames: WWII

I played another solo game of Neil Thomas' One-Hour Wargames, this time using the WWII rules. Americans vs. Germans, river-crossing scenario.

Two crossings, both sides have been ordered to control them. Americans aimed for the bridge while the Germans aimed for the ford. The Americans got the better of it – their infantry posted in the woods, with a little tank support, gunned down the German infantry assault at the ford, while the German armor on the hill overlooking the bridge was surprisingly ineffective. The Americans largely survived their crossing over the bridge, flanked the German positions, and mopped them up in detail. Fun little game, over very quickly.

Franco-Prussian War Toy-Soldier Style Minis

I've been futzing about with more toy-soldier style (54mm, super-simple block paint jobs with high-gloss finish) models. I've got enough now for a decent-sized skirmish, and I just ran one using a modified version of the One-Hour Wargames scenario above and a rules set called...

French Zouaves

Prussian Infantry

OMOG – One Man, One Gun

This a actually a collection of several sets of dead simple skirmish rules, with one set of rules for each of a variety of eras – medieval, musket era, late 19th-century rifle-era, and modern. You can get them for free at the Milihistriot Free Downloads Page.

I used it to run another man-to-man skirmish scale river crossing game. This time the French Zouaves tried to rush across the bridge ...

but the stone wall on the opposite side (and the dice) gave the Prussians the upper hand fairly quickly.

When the dust had settled, the Prussians had wiped out the French Zouaves, having lost about 50% of their own.

And that's all the news there is to report.