On Clarity of Consequence

What is it that is forgotten in giving players agency?

Drance over at Once More Unto the Breach! has raised the question, what about consequences?

Well, I'll tell you what about consequences!

I'll avoid the trite and trival comments like 'stories and games need conflict to produce drama' blahblah blah. Real first semester stuff.

It's this very idea that is the essence behind 'five minute adventuring day' 'overpowered wizards' and 'class balance' et. al. All these things simply spring from a desire for the game to retain conflict.

Unsurprisingly they are a bad solution, because they are addressing the symptoms and not the cause. Addressing them in game design makes running a game easier, because it removes the tools the players have for resolving problems.

This seems positive, until you realize that it reduces every problem to one that they have to use combat to resolve or forces them to resolve problems outside the context of gameplay.

Here are my maxims:
  • It is impossible to take action without causing consequence. 
  • Many options for adventure should be provided to the players.
  • The choice to pursue one option causes others unaddressed to continue to evolve on their own. 
  • There is always fallout and change from the actions taken to address adventure options.

Simple, eh?

The challenge comes in maintaining agency. You want your players to play the game and have consequences for failure. You want them to be able to make poor choices. But you also want everyone to enjoy themselves and feel that they are engaged in a fundamentally fair activity, no "Rocks fall, everyone dies! HA!"

This is a sticky wicket. A challenge even for the best Dungeon Masters.

My guiding principles for this activity is making sure the players understand the context of the decision. It is not necessary to tell them what to do. It is necessary to clearly frame the game in such a way that allows them to know what they have to do and what tools they have to do with it.

Read on for some real-play examples on how to handle this.

Two examples

Failure: In a previous game, the campaign was framed as creating and helping a new colony survive in a hostile land. Upon landing the first thing that happened was they discovered that the previous colony was destroyed. No one knew anything about why or how this happened. They were told by the locals that it was foolish to build a colony on the coast because sea demons would destroy it. Eight months into the game they visited the destroyed colony, found some iridescent scales, wanton destruction, and no signs of life. 

That was enough for them, back to the dungeon!

Of course with the anger and bitterness when the new colony was destroyed! It wasn't fair! Wailing! Gnashing of teeth!

This was a consequence of their choice. They showed up every week and dicked around in dungeons. When I pointed this out, they said "How could we have done anything to stop this?!"

I said in response, "Cleric divination spells, presenting the evidence found to any NPC either of native cultures or in town, asking me directly 'how can we find out more information', consulting a sage."

They choose not to make it a priority because they were more interested in doing other things. So they experienced the consequences for that failure. (Previously discussed here.)

Uncertain Future: This same situation is happening again in my current game! When starting this game, I asked my players "What type of campaign would you like to play?" The response was that they would like to play a game with some measure of domain management and they wanted it to have titans.

So to summarize, they have the ability to manage the domain. They take actions which draw aggression towards their domain. And when they show up decisions are made based not on what are the consequences of my domain management, but on what they want to explore this week.

I wondered to myself, "Should I continue to let them not address these issues? Or should I point out the eventual consequences of their choices?" In the end, I decided it was important that they be making an informed choice. I contextualized their slaughter of the representative of the titan and the likely consequences thereof. I also clarified the fact that if something is going to be done or accomplished, that it needs to happen at the table on game day -- that email and our obsidian portal are for discussion and planning and the resolution of off-camera side activities. I again informed them of their in and out game resources for gathering information about the consequences of various options and suggested that discussion about the likely value of each action be an informed one using those resources rather then just making the decision in the dark.

In Summary
Players tend to prefer to go off their perception of events instead of engaging in a dialogue either in or out of game discussing the actual consequences of events.

It is important as a DM that you contextualize these events proactively and remind the players of the many options they have to acquire information about the actual consequences possible from various choices.

On Interesting Treasure, The Golden Letter Opener

This small blade is similar to the types used to open letters. It is well made and feels cool in the hand.

The rumors mysterious deaths of the authors of those letters sent when this is used to open them are just nonsense and rumors.

The golden engraved blade is quite valuable and will fetch 1200 gold at market, more to a collector.

On How We Have FAILED!

What is the singular most important lesson fantasy fiction teaches us?

Warriors are 'fskin METAL!

Wizards are degenerate reprobates. [Tweet this]

And what, exactly, does nearly every iteration of fantasy role playing teach you?

That wizards are the source of ultimate power.

And warriors cease to be relevant soon after creation.

Here's 10 ways to fix the problem!
  1. Give wizards mutations for using spells!
  2. Force wizards to roll to successfully cast spells!
  3. Awesome up your fighter! (.pdf courtesy of Jeremy Deram)
  4. Allow wizards to learn only one spell a level!
  5. Strictly enforce time and money constraints associated with spellcasting!
  6. Spell failure, and 10,000 interesting consequences thereof! (x2)!!!
  7. Magic dead zones, ley lines, and w-w-w-wild SURGES!!!
  8. Make sure your fighter gets his army at level 9. 
  9. Metal burrrrns the magic-user! It burrns him!
  10. Finally, everybody really hates you, because although magic is awesome, you keep kidnapping townspeople to fuel your dark magics!

Still not to late to vote on what I'm going to devote my time to next!  Suggest more ways to awesome up magic in the comments below.

On the Thursday Trick, Doors & Chests

Doors & Chests (Category: Varies)

Trigger: Mechanical: Latch or Switch
Mechanical: Interaction
Other: Player Greed
Effects: Varies
Save: VariesDuration: Varies
Resets:  ManualBypass: Disarm

Description: Doors and chests!

I talk a lot about agency in traps, about having signs of the traps be obvious but subtle, about distracting from what the real clues are and about how to make them interesting.

All this gets tossed out the window for doors and chests. Why?  Because they are common and commonly trapped. In most cases the trapping mechanism is subtle and hard to detect. And the procedure for checking them using player skill would rapidly reach the point where it was comprehensive and going through that process would be boring and repetitive.

It is an actual example where character skill trumps player skill. I can explain how to crack a safe or pick a lock, but it is practice and exposure to different safes and locks that really determines your ability.

So, for traditional, classic, door and chest traps, I don't bother describing the mechanism of the trap. [Tweet this]
This is reliant upon the relevant thief skill.  It is the thief's equivalent to fighting or casting spells. I do certainly think it is reasonable to create a unique game or subsystem for opening locks or detecting traps (Such as pulling Jenga blocks, winning hands of war, etc.)

Detection/Disarming: Here are some lists of common door and chest traps!

  • Poison
    • Contact poison on treasure
    • Contact poison on container
    • Poison needle in lock or handle
    • Poison darts in front, top, inside lid, or bottom.
    • Poison Gas (in chest, in door handle)
  • Scything blade, cutting, up, down, etc.
  • Contains deadly vermin
  • Triggers another nearby trap, trap door, crushing stone block, etc. (Note that this trap can have plenty of agency)
  • Triggers a Magic Spell
  • Mimic
  • Acid spray
  • Explosive
How to deal with overactive door kickers?
  • Dropping blades
  • Weighted line that releases a metal spear shaft from the ceiling behind the kicker
  • Weakened doors that break eaisly to allow blades to amputate the limbs
  • Snares in the door
  • Spring loaded blades in doors
  • Shooting blades that fling out
  • Portcullises that drop when the door is opened (to prevent the peek and flee)
  • Spiked clamps triggered around the surrounding ceiling, floor, or walls
  • Door contains deadly substance
  • Doors that spring out, slamming targets into the walls, floor or ceiling
  • Things perched on the tops of doors
  • Doors covered in sticky, toxic, or dangerous substances
Still time to vote! Yes, I know this post is up on Wednesday.

On How Clerics Really Work

Aleena, R.I.P.
How different is the world with a cleric?

In a campaign without a cleric, the simplest wound takes days to heal. Much like the real world, you might be laid up in bed for a week or more.

But in the world with a cleric, behold! The very next day it is time to descend again into the depths.

Perhaps a very subtle thing was missed.

In Men and Magic it states:
"The number in each column opposite each applicable character indicates the number of spells of each level that can be used (remembered during any single adventure) by that character."

What if it meant exactly what the meanings of the words implied it means? (What are the chances, right?)

What if spells can only be used during any single adventure.

The cleric gains her spells because she is seeking out danger for her deity. If she stays home, she is granted no spells. Only when she leaves home to defeat evil does she have access to her magic. [Tweet this]

How different would the world be then. Wounds, and the choice to take a healing spell, would actually mean something then. Players would be forced to heal at natural rates. You no longer have to account for a world where every wound and disease is healed.

After all, the cleric can both fight and cast spells. Were they not the original fighter/wizard, Gish in modern parlance?

Still 10 days left to vote on new projects!

On a Special Request of You

Who knows what the future holds?

What power you have to guide it! I ask for your help.

I've just finished a major project (Alchemy, a comprehensive libram useful for all editions and clones of that game you know) and have fixed several major bugs in the Victorian/Pulp/Steampunk roguelike project I maintain (Steamband)

I have many things I would like to do next. I want to do them all! But what do you want? Which of these gets you the most excited! So excited you pull out your wallet and throw your credit card at the screen!

- Deathless Gods, an episodic graphic work telling the tale of the Titan's rule eternal. Amaranthine titans that stride endlessly upon the earth, for they do not die.  Damaged men and women, of strange power and twisted fate, seek aid from long absent gods hoping soon that even the deathless will die. Done in the style of Snarfquest and other classic fantasy works, but leveraging future ideas covered in Scott McClouds "Reinventing Comics".

-Numenhalla, modular sections from my megadungeon. These sections can be used as independent adventure sites or when together. Keyed using my classic set design formula and lots of illustrations. This includes unique monsters, deep dungeon ecosystems, and design from the principles espoused in my adventure design series.

-Dungeon Design Compilation, a collection of my Tricks, Empty Rooms, and Basic Trap Design document, plus my Interesting Treasure document, including all the tricks, traps, interesting treasure and more from my blog. This will be reorganized to make it much more useful, using techniques honed over years of use at my table, and give deep practical information on giving players agency.

-Dungeons & Discourse, A retro-clone designed around enabling player agency. Unlike other games that include lists of powers, this instead gives you just as much customization without all the verbiage and the rules. You already have all those different games, why not use them all as a resource?! A treatise on agency for both the DM & the players, leading to really experience the feeling of wonder and adventure on the table.

-A Magic Codex, Sure their have been spell systems and supplements written before, but a book that gives you the guidelines to creating your own unifying theory of magic? Serious realistic options for restructuring magic in any game, using the countless resources you already have! Extensive guidelines for Demonology, Rune Magic, and covering over 100 different types of caster.

On the Non-Standard Phase

Deathless Gods is a slightly non-standard game.

It has phases, as most games, but due to player request are organized in a different order then traditional. The first phase is identical to most games, made of site exploration. The purpose is not to work towards area exploration, but instead directly towards civilization management at level 5.

And indeed, the town was secured at level 5. This examination is about the contents of my Deathless Gods folder at the end of the first phase.

This first picture is the campaign map in the left hand pocket of the folder. It is the six mile hex the campaign began in. Behind this map is a sheet with a drawing of each major NPC located in Seamoor.

This is the first page in the folder, in the first section. It contains the random reward table. The players get one roll on the table for every action or entry they make on the campaign wiki.

A variety of rewards are available, including magic items and even statistic increases.

This is the random encounter table for the hex. It uses a bell curve to represent encounters that are a statistically accurate representation of creatures discovered in the local terrain.

It also contains several unique encounters (Hydra, Dragon). They have not occurred, but the players did finally decide to hunt the hydra to make things safer. It did not go well. Only two people died, so it wasn't a total loss.

Encounters are rolled based on areas of high traffic, hour of day, and terrain.

This is an example of an area map. This was for an unidentified submersible craft that the player's cargo ship encountered randomly.

Important areas are keyed, and if there is enough time or if the location is frequently visited the map is inked for higher contrast for use during play.

Following the random encounter table, there are a series of these maps, followed by their descriptions for every site location in the hex.

And here is an example of a location key.

This is a first draft of a location key, using the principles of Set Design.

Finally, Some blank pages:

Both blank lined sheets and blank hex paper, taken from .pdf's on incompatech and images from printable paper.

Finally, we have the most interesting thing - the Calendar! There is no link for this calendar, because the blank sheets were found in a pile of gaming materials from the late 1970's and early 1980's in his campaign. I found the cleanest original sheet and made good copies, and we are currently using it as the calendar for our game. I named all the months with the players, and randomly determined the weather months ahead of time.

Finally, at the rear of the first section, I keep the previous DM records. These record information such as the players, the armor classes, criticals taken, monster damage, notes on charges used, magic items, and various other ephemera that must be recorded during the game. This combined with the recordings of each session, provide a solid permanent record useful for campaign plotting and twitter quotes.

On Short Communication

For the edification of my readers, I have created 2 twitter accounts.

@nexusphere is a broadcast only twitter account containing quotes from the gaming table. They are listed over on the right side of the web page, and is a follower only account.

@Hackslashmaster is a conversational twitter account associated with this blog. Feel free to follow if you want twitter updates on blog posts, design and gaming discussion and other entertaining interaction.

We now return to our regularly scheduled blog.

On the Midday Sun

Deathless Gods Campaign Folder
It has become very clear to me that campaigns change over their course.

This is not an original observation.

There has been some discussion over the different phases of a game. Traditionally these phases have an order. However this traditional order is not the only way they can be presented.

I am less interested in the straightforward differences between the phases then I am interested in what materials allow Dungeon Masters to run the different kinds of games.

Each of these categories is a literal game within itself.

We will begin with defining each phase of the game for the sake of discussion, and then examining certain specific resources that can be added to an online folder or campaign notebook for each phase.

Because we are looking for a broad campaign, we will be studying my notebook for my Deathless Gods campaign, as opposed to more specific game like Numenhalla, my megadungeon. The Megadungeon itself is focused on certain specific phases and resists being moved outside of those phases, which is as it should be for a megadungeon. These phases listed below are constructed using the four styles of adventure design, Line, Space, Time, and Power.

The Phases:
Site Exploration: A space or line structure explored by the party. Characterized by it's limited scope and often paired with a time structure to introduce dynamism. (The Moathouse)
Area Exploration: A much larger space structure explored by the party. Characterized by the influence of various power structures. (The Caves of Chaos)
Civilization Management: A power structure that must be managed by having the needs met of various parties under the influence of a time structure. (Running a Domain)
Military Campaign: A space structure systematically dominated by the party. Often with large elements of power and time structures. (Battlesystem)
Picaresque Adventure: A line structure followed by the party. (Dying Earth, Module series or Adventure Path, The Sunless Citidel)
Political Intrigue: A power structured manipulated by the party. (Vampire: The Masquerade)
Mystery: A combination structure: Line framework, Space scene, Time triggers, and hidden Power structures, discovered by the players. (Call of Cuthulu Adventures)
and, Mission Based Structure: A line structure where each space is explored by the players to accomplish a specific goal. (Shadowruns)

On Hidden Resources, Hackmaster

Well, here's an interesting development. To presumably drive Hackmaster Advanced sales, The inestimable team over at Kenzer and Company have released Hackmaster Basic for Free!

Also, if you somehow missed the last post in this series, be sure to check out dozens of free cults, at Phonomicon ex cultis.

On Interesting Treasure, The Snake Ring

Legend tells of a snake ring. This ring when worn can answer many questions about ancient and forgotten lore. It can learn nearly everything about a person with a quick touch and answer questions with a quick squeeze or two for yes or no.

Sometimes these rings are even said to come alive and scout for the user, carrying a bite that can incapacitate a large man.

Sadly, this ring appears to be simple jade and carries no magical properties.

That you can tell.

Gold value: 300 gp

On the Thursday Trick, Limb Snares

Limb Snares (Category: Restraints/Hazards)

Trigger:Mechanical: LidEffects:Never Miss
Save: DexterityDuration:Varies
Resets: AutomaticBypass: None (Avoid)

Description: These traps are very simple. Beyond a place where your limb is put lies a crevice. This is covered by a lid, which gives way when pressure is applied. The limb slides forward freely and no negative effects are felt, for the barbs and spikes are all pointing the same way as the limb.

Attempting to remove the limb works much like a Chinese fingertrap but with knives. Attempts to pull or remove the limb cause it to become impaled on blades, barbs and spikes, shredding armor, clothing, skin, and flesh. Consider 2d6-4d6 damage appropriate, along with loss of the use of the limb until healed.

Detection/Disarming: The easiest way to detect this is to test the surface. After there should be little to no resistance to the lid, it is designed to allow limbs to enter. The seam is also visible, and their may be odd shaped stains or even bloody flesh nearby. Some variations.

  • Underneath a stair, for feet
  • A whole body version
  • A keyhole is at the rear of the crevice
  • There is no cover, but their are many holes and no way forward
  • There is no cover, but something gleams at the far end 
  • Instead of passage forward, the crevice contains something that disarms a trap or releases a treasure.

On the Monster, Random, Wandering or Otherwise

There is so much of our hobby that is obfuscated. It is given, in the rulebook, no explanation, no reasoning, and we are to take it and figure out how it works.

What use are "Random Encounters?" What is the difference between a Random Monster and a Wandering Monster? What is the logistical process of using them in play? How do random and wandering encounters work?

Encounters not keyed to a location exist for several clear and important purposes.

  • Most importantly, they act as a COST for wasteful player behavior. They are the reason players don't just search the room for a fine-tooth comb or just hammer down through any door they can't unlock. 
  • They also Encourage Resource Management, because you have to be able to make it back to town after the adventure. If you go out and cast every spell, just to return to town, you have the wandering monsters on the way back to town and on the way back out. They literally address the five-minute workday problem.
  • They create a Dynamic environment.  The world doesn't sit still and wait for the characters to interact with it; they act as a time structure for adventures.
So, how do random encounters work?

There are Three types of unplanned encounters. Wandering Monsters, Random Monsters, and events.

  1. Wandering monsters are monsters who exist in keyed areas. They monsters are discovered in an encounter, outside of their keyed area. If they are killed, they are likewise removed from the area where they are keyed in the module or adventure.*
  2. Random monsters are just that -- Random. They are monsters from the local terrain, rolled for on the area encounter chart. They have found their way into the dungeon from outside, just like players.
  3. Events are dynamic set-pieces. Think of them as room contents not keyed to any room. They can be any one of a Special Event, Trick, Treasure, Trap, or Interesting Empty Room. My guide for creating these is on the sidebar.
These should be checked for at different intervals. Wandering monsters are traditionally checked for every turn (A segment of time equal to the characters able to move their whole movement safely, usually considered about 10 minutes), but they may be checked for as infrequently as ever three turns. Even more rarely they may be checked once every six turns. Events may be an entry on the wandering monster table.

Random monsters are checked more infrequently. Once every three or six turns is traditional. It is important that there be a check hourly or at some interval that will occur three or four times a session where both wandering and random monsters are checked for. This gives the players to encounter another incursion into the same space they have decided to invade.

Chance for an encounter are traditionally 1 in 6, but may be either more or less frequent. An adventuring party that is efficient and goal directed, in my experience, usually spends between 18 and 24 turns exploring a setting over a 4 hour gaming session. This means that 1 in 6 chance will result in an average of 3 or 4 encounters. Change the die accordingly. A 1 in 8 chance will average 2.5-3 encounters, a 1 in 12 will have 1 or 2.  The type of environment or even the area within the dungeon should affect this choice. Areas of higher traffic should have more frequent encounters.

Allow player action to affect this chance. If my players attempt to destroy a sturdy dungeon door, I usually require between 2 and 3 turns to do so, and roll 3 encounter checks each turn, with encounters on a 1-3. I also usually have the reactions of the monsters encountered trend toward hostile. You are welcome to play your stereo very loudly in an apartment complex at 2 A.M. for an example of the attitudes of people whom you might encounter.

When an encounter occurs, the first action is to roll for distance, then surprise, and then consider line of sight. It is common that players or the monsters might never notice each other and bypass each other completely. Then, when they engage, do not forget to roll for the reaction of the opponents. It is very rarely immediately hostile.

Do not be afraid to take a second to prepare and make the encounter interesting. Not every encounter need be related to the player's quest, but meeting someone with an agenda, speech impediment, or unusual hobby can provide gaming fodder for many sessions.  I suggested Monster Business by Sham's Grog and Blog, and Combat Commentary by Telecanter for starters

* Note that wandering monsters do not explicitly need to be from a specific room -- dungeon patrols and natural denizens who live en masse can be on the table without any additional explanation. In addition to any entries such as the troll from room 34b and "Monsters from the nearest room."

On the Thursday Trick, Springboard

Springboard (Restraints/Hazards)

Trigger: Mechanical: Pressure PlateEffects:Never Miss
Multiple Targets
Save:Armor Class
Duration: Instant
Resets: Manual

Description: Players are always looking down, aren't they?

This trap is simple. A pressure plate covers a tightly coiled spring. One step and there (like all pit traps) is a 3 in 6 chance that the player will be blasted up, up and away!

Options for the ceiling include:
Ceiling: Does 3d6 damage (2d6 from spring momentum and 1d6 "falling" damage)
Spikes: As above, 1-6 spikes make attacks at ThAC0 8 (+12) and do double damage.
Poison Spikes: And save or die.
Fake ceiling: The climb up doesn't do you in, it's the fall back down.
Blades: Shoots up up about 30' in the air. Up into that tunnel. The one that's lined with knives. say 6d6 damage per 10' (per Blade Barrier)
Psyche out: Sends you up up and away, and then falls to the side, opening up the pit down beneath.

Detection/Disarming: All of these are highly entertaining. You may provide agency in several ways.
The pressure plate is under pressure and tension and so may be ever so slightly higher then the surrounding tiles.

The primary way this trap may be noticed is the ceiling itself. It will be bloodstained, have spikes, or effects from the various options listed above.
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