Monday, January 20, 2020

Gods, Clerics, and The Game

What qualifies as a God?

Imagine playing N-dimensional chess on a board as big as the solar system. Gazillions of cells. Your adversaries as numerous as sand grains on a beach, each with their own unique winning condition. The Game advances at snail pace, but is constantly moving.

A mortal soul is a mere piece on the board. A speck of dust in the Universe. Insignificant to you and the other players. Yet, you need to beckon the attention of souls, since as an instrumental part of The Game, their cooperation (or consumption) is needed to come further ahead in it. And advance it to your advantage. Without pieces, there's no game.

Winning is a gargantuan task in such a complex play; out of the question. Just advancing The Game in the next favorable move in the foreseeable horizon is enough for any player like you. And remember, time is just another dimension of the board, so The game is NOT linear in that sense. Nobody even remembers what the winning price was. But you bet it must be HUGE. Or the best joke ever perpetrated: a game to keep everyone busy without any cause, effect, or end. Nihilism at its best.

That's it. A God is simply an alien creature playing a game of power against other such entities. The Game. Mortal souls are just oil for the engine, wood for the fire. An Avatar is just a manifestation of a God made simple enough so that a mortal soul can comprehend and interact with it, without having their brains immediately exploding.

Some players (Gods) prefer to keep more active and engaged. Others are more distant. Some are direct on how they interact with the souls. Others act in whispers and shadows. The chances of a playing Avatar/God to pay any mind to a mortal soul is directly proportional to how much they think acting will bring them further in The Game.

Weirdo Gods, Tim Molloy

A mortal soul may ask: how do I become a God? How do I get to take decisions in The Game, and stop being a coin to trade, a resource to burn and consume by the decision-makers? See, unfortunately despite its quasi-infinite vastness, the number of player agents is decisively finite. Quasi, remember?

Not only that, but the number of players has to remain constant. Any perished Avatar/God has to be immediately replaced by an eager side-liner. Failing to do so hastily breaks an essential equilibrium, and such a blasphemy echoes through existence, past present and future. That's why, despite insane competition in The Game, everyone is happy to see a new face replace the old one. A God has to be completely forgotten to die. Its pieces on the board completely removed, passages on tomes and writings fully erased. It takes eons for such a happenstance. But as just an additional dimension, time is an afterthought in this whole business. So a God dying does comes up.

The Cleric

There are priests, proselytizers, lecturers, moralists, atheists, and a full plethora or other individuals devoting a considerable amount of effort studying The Game, its implications, and how mortal souls interact with it (hint: as victims). Then, you have Clerics. They GROK exactly the irony of their position. Collecting thought, praise, and worship to a God that sees its devout and pious zealots as ants it ultimately has to consume (fuel-providing ants, then).

But an Avatar/God does need the work of a Cleric. Or at the very least it facilitates their position on The Game considerably. A conduit of mortal souls, a Cleric's work is greatly appreciated. Their worth unquestionable. Hence the concession of occasional Prayers to lure those juicy souls like mosquitoes in a swamp going after the lamp.

Inter-cosmic symbiosis with abysmal unbalanced power dynamics. But at least both agreed to play.

Good luck, pal! A. Shipwright

The Magic User?

Magic-Users (wizards, mages, sorcerers). Joke is on them. Their magic and powers come from the exact same source as for Clerics. The Game. And its players. A MU just ignores being part of play. Denies the possibility by principle and philosophy. Approaching everything like a black box. Taking short-cuts, trying to bend the rules of The Game. Poke it, and see what works, without fully rationalizing or understanding.

Whenever a summoning circle is laid out, pentagrams and candles on the floor, a MU is doing the exact same work as a Cleric would do. They just don't understand the consequences and price of what they're asking for. Gods will chuckle at their board, seeing that speck of dust sparkle for a second. Bless the ignorant fouls.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

OSR: Running Maienstein / Stonehell

Why Stonehell?

It's tough to assemble a game. My aim is to prepare one where the goal is clear, the rules are light and streamlined, and there's a big enough player base interested in playing games. This will be my first megadungeon run, and I choose Stonehell. Here's why:
  • It's dirt cheap. ~6$ for a 138 page megadungeon PDF. ~13$ for the softcover version (the first half of Stonehell, that is). I got both. Good and to-the-point writing. And if we get through that? There's a second tome detailing lower levels with the second part of the dungeon.
  • Layout is praised. And I can see why. It follows the one-page dungeon format. Seems like it would be fairly easy to run out of the book, with minimal page-flipping or rewriting.
  • Familiarity and gradual descent to strangeness. It covers the "trope" monsters and challenges one expects from a D&D game. This is good to introduce new players to the hobby. But it also gets weirder the deeper we get into the megadungeon. I like this design choice to not go full gonzo from the beginning.
  • It's got decent coverage on reddit/blogs/discords to the point that I can seek advice and guidance from the great minds on the internet.
I started running two tables of low frequency play-by-post through Discord.
This thing contains spoilers (duh..) to the Stonehell module. If you're sensitive to them, stop reading and go do something else.


Backdrop Setting

The premise for the game will be that player's are in an outpost town (let's call it Priebe), a good 2 days travel away from the biggest city, Maienstein. Region is full of dwarves, Maienstein being originally ruled by them. The city has contracted the Gold Griffon Curio Corporation to recover treasure from Stonehell, to finance their upcoming war against the rival port city of Seciras.

This gives me the chance to introduce an alternative for players bored of the megadungeon, and reaching a high level to go off rails. Joining a mercenary company in the upcoming war, abandoning Stonehell altogether, going into the politics of Seciras. And more importantly, a strong motivation of why the dwarves of Maienstein don't take care of plundering the riches of Stonehell themselves.

I will keep the distance from Priebe to Stonehell at 1/2 a day, and have a random encounter check to get there and back (x-in-y chance). This should be a mutating random table reflecting interesting humanoids, bandits, beasts or simple travelers, that spice up the game. Objective is not to keep the game out of Stonehell (that would be an error), but paint a picture of the setting (without front loading!) and that traveling is dangerous.

Minor Change

Level 1 of Stonehell features Kobolds and other staples of low-level adventuring. I'm fine with that focus on tropes, and will embrace it. But I will replace Kobolds with Molekin, and make them a deal more organized and unique. I dislike the 5e kobolds as little dragonkin. And it's a way to imprint the Ancestries I decided for Maienstein. Why kobolds? Choose the cute disgusting little buggers instead.

Molekin evolution, by Manuel Castañón


For ease of entry, rules will be my Knave hack, Knave++.

Keeping a reference document  available online at all times for the players is extremely important. With the rules, table etiquette, tone, and expectations too. This can be referenced during game (price lists, rules), used for character creation, etc.

There's no better advice than to eat your own dog food. At least 2-3 mechanics I want to tweak already. Inconsistencies can be ironed out. Players and friends can give excellent advice. I'm glad and blessed we can work on the game as we go.

I'm also putting together a Referee's Guide for Knave++. Which is nothing else than a compilation of my favorite mechanics and practical advice on how to run a game. Overloaded encounter die, mechanics, etc.

In this discussion we get some advice on tracking turns for depleting resources and random encounter checks when exploring a dungeon complex. Food rations, water, torches, lamp oil, etc. This is very important for this type of game. Luckily, Stonehell already has encounter tables for each section of the dungeon, and I will be using the overloaded encounter die mechanic.

Learning to Megadungeon

... one level at a time

Cohesiveness is important, and frankly seems to be the selling point for such a campaign. Especially when comparing to a fun-house dungeon or a smaller dungeon. Levels should have themes, in its inhabitants, architecture, and current state.

Restocking tables, to keep things fresh. If the PCs explore and clean of monsters an area, it should remain alive. Don't want to keep the PCs "cleaning" the same level over and over again, but the environment changes and mutates.
Pg 9 of Stonehell has some basic guidelines on how to restock the dungeon, and remain it an ever-changing environ.
Each level can have its own theme, but there should be a cross-section. Short cuts. Loops. Vertical connectors.

This article is a good write-up with advice on how to run these kind of games. Key takeaways are:
  1. Decide on grid vs loose mapping (and more importantly, who is doing that, the players, the referee?).
    This point is the one that's biting my ass at the moment. The game will be fully online, using Discord as the platform of choice.
    It would be fairly easy for me to clean the dungeon maps from the PDF, remove room keys, and use fog of war or similar.
    But that might be too forgiving for the players.
    So if we want to draw a map (and account for a PC or hireling doing so!), what best? I doodle the map? Should the players draw my painstaking descriptions? I have no answer.
  2. Make sure there are enough loops, and branches present informed choices for the players.
    Stonehell design leans to this structure already.
    During the game, I have to remind myself to present choices to the players.
    An interesting trick is to provide maps/rumors, and the mole market of level 1 could be excellent for that.
  3. Random encounters should be more interesting than "2d6 kobolds molekin".
    Maybe tying them to factions in the megadungeon?
    Additional roll for flavor/situation and lookup on separate table?
    How much content can I generate on the fly without over-saturating?
  4. Traps should be interesting enough to encourage interaction, but safe enough to avoid skipping them be the default behavior.
    This link provides additional traps for the megadungeon.
    • ... on a similar note, secret doors should be explained in the environment, and another opportunity for interaction with the environment. 
    • ... there should be an obvious benefit for trying to interact/overcome the trap.
      Be it treasure, a door, a key. Show 'em the carrot!

    Certainly there's a lot more to learn about the fine art of running a megadungeon like a boss.
    But baby steps, these 4 pointers (+ tracking of player resources via turns) seem like an ambitious but logical first goal.

    Given the price of the softcover, I will use it as a workbook, and just go all crazy on it. Color-mark entries (monsters=yellow, traps=green, treasure=blue) on each dungeon section page. And add post-its for each major section. This will help me reference the material when running, and spotting rooms quickly.

    Take them markers out, pal!


    Justin Alexander has a series of great articles about running an open table.
    They provide a great framework for me to phrase and write down the logistics to this campaign.
    • Quick Character Creation & Easy Access Systems: Knave is perfect for this! Sprinkling a couple extra random tables (Ancestry for instance) to bring forward even more OSR
    • Open Group Formation: not really the case here. But megadungeons are great it a player decides to drop off the game. Knave characters are mostly defined by their equipment (and in our case, an Ancestry and couple Knacks). So no big issue if the thief is sitting out this delve, just purchase the right equipment and cover for them.
    • Default Goal & Default Action: get treasure. Get it from Stonehell. Spend it for XP. Simple. Clean.
    • Regenerative / Extensible Content: Stonehell comprises two books, at about 280ish pages of megadungeon to explore. Pg. 10 mentions there are several opportunities to add extra custom levels/rooms (which I could do if I wanted). Restocking too. Frankly, there's plenty of game in here. Running out of content is not within my worries.
    We are doing most of the game on Discord, with rolls done with a bot, and we have a game wiki to store the character sheets and most important information.

    The biggest pain I have at the moment is with regards to mapping. Roll20 is nice as it lets me share a full blown grid map, but is very overblown for the task, and not mobile friendly (and a lot of times players post on their phones). For now I'm using google drawings, and looking for better alternatives. 

    Campaign Time Management and upkeep costs during downtime will be winged, assuming PCs have a place to stay and basic food at Priebe. A 300 day calendar (10 30-day months) seems sensible, and is easy to remember. In-game time during a megadungeon should stay fairly low, so I'm not too worried about continuity. Characters returning to Priebe will be enforced to cash in loot for XP, although I could allow an outpost if the players are really clever and resourceful about it.

    Unsorted To Do List

    Games are pretty much started, but in early stages. Very early ones. The we-are-exploring-the-canyon stage. But I'm having a blast so far. And the PbP is very suited for this sort of megadungeon play. Content will be added and fleshed out pretty much as we go. So here is a short list of things that should get done (I will link in case any develop to their own post):
    • Finalize the Referee's Guide to Knave++.
    • Find a bloody mapping solution! For Discord and mobile play.
    • Regional hexmap of the Stonehell area in the Maienstein area. Good excuse to finally use HexKit.