Dungeon Born: Spooky Dagger

Chapter Nineteen

An assassin (well, a thief who decides to get into the assassination business when his mark walks in on him stealing stuff) shows up to try and kill Dale. He fends off the assailant by ordering him to leave, which he is magically compelled to do. So in addition to rendering all organizational management problems – which are really just interpersonal problems with money involved, and therefore perfectly good fodder for drama – completely moot, this special law magic is also reducing assassination attempts to “assassin, plz go.”

Really, here’s the complete fight scene:

His reactions trained from months of battle, Dale jumped to the side, barely avoiding a slash at his throat. His mind whirled with options, but he was without weapons or armor so he froze up, earning a brutal kick to his knee. Knocking Dale to the ground, the masked man raised his dagger to deliver a coup de grâce, ending his existence. Panicking, Dale screamed the first thing that came to mind.

“Get off my mountain!” Dale ordered with a frantic squeal. Mid-swing, the man turned and started jerkily walking away, his dagger flying from his hand at the unexpected and unwanted movement.

Emphasis is mine, I’ve bolded all the extraneous words (and in one case an adverb that could stand to be replaced with something less awkward). I stand by my position that audiences don’t care about line-by-line craft nearly as much as writers and editors, but since I’m a writer, I’m still going to complain about all this cruft in what should be a fast-paced fight scene. Particularly since there’s not even any new maneuvers or weapons or tricks in this fight scene, which is the usual hang-up of slow fights. You want to show off your main character doing something awesome, which means you have to slow down and describe them doing it, because it’s a unique and cool-looking stunt. Having those is certainly way better than turning every fight into a narration of a PS1-era Final Fantasy fight where everyone is just lined up and slashing at each other until one side is out of people, but you need to set up the existence of these cool stunts in advance so that your reader has already seen them described once and you can refer to them quickly in a fight. Alternatively, figure out how to get a description of the trick down to a dozen words or less.

Continue reading “Dungeon Born: Spooky Dagger”

Champions of the Spheres

I spent all day today (Sunday) preparing a game for tonight, and it still wasn’t really completely ready, but it was good enough for government work and I can smooth off the rough edges in time for next week (it’s a big ‘ol dungeon that the party has only explored, like, 1/6th of, partly because they seem to have forgotten that this game is starting at level 6 and ankhegs are not really a big deal).

Since I’m short on time, though, here’s what we’re gonna do: I’m gonna write a quick article about my first impressions of the Champions of the Spheres system the party is using, and then on Tuesday I’ll publish the Dungeon Born update that normally would’ve gone on Monday.

Champions of the Spheres is a rules supplement for Pathfinder that completely replaces all classes with three sets of spheres, magic, martial, and mixed, along with a few classes whose primary abilities is that they get to pick a number of talents from these spheres. Skills and feats are still a thing, but spells have been completely replaced by these spheres. This gives a ton of flexibility in creating characters, but I can also see why the group wanted to start at level 6: Low levels are even more punishing than normal Pathfinder here. When making NPC mooks with a couple of class levels to help familiarize myself with the new system, I found that my level 3 guys were consistently unable to pull enough talents together to get a respectable tactical doctrine nailed down (except for the hobgoblins using the Conscript class, which gets a plethora of bonus talents). That’s fine for NPC mooks, who can rely on unit diversity to form an interesting encounter overall even if they’re little more than a sack of HP with one interesting trick up their sleeve on their own, but as a player you do not want your only trick to be knocking someone one square back so that they have to provoke an AoO from your buddy with the reach weapon to get to you again.

Casters run on spell points, which can be expended to maintain an effect without concentrating on it, so when casters run dry they become more limited by being able to only concentrate on one thing at a time but they can still do something level appropriate. The vastly more limited spell libraries (generally speaking, one caster talent gets you what would’ve been one spell in regular PF) reign in casters a lot, although I haven’t taken a close look at caster abilities much, as the dungeon I built focused mainly on martials since I felt I needed to limit my scope in order to have any hope of finishing on time (and I was cutting it close as it was, so that was definitely the right call), but from the one caster I did build (three casters if you count the lower level gimped mook versions, but really, they’re just the same guy but at levels 3, 5, and 7 – level 3 guys to show up frequently as trash mooks, level 5 versions to pose a threat but only a bit, and the level 7 version who could be serious trouble, especially when encountered with level 5 versions of the heavy infantry and ranger builds) it seems like casters are mostly reigned in but still noticeably cooler than martials. Casters get to make illusions and throw people around with their mind and dish out tons of healing, martials get to bull rush without provoking and can allow enemies to auto-hit in exchange for getting an attack of opportunity on them when they do.

Still, overall this is a system that preserves the biggest appeal of Pathfinder – a million little options that allow you to build a character unique to you, whereas in 5e every Oath of the Ancients Paladin tends to feel like the other, regardless of race or feat selection – while still helping fix the most egregious of the system’s balance problems. Tiers do appear to still exist, but they are not nearly as severe as in vanilla Pathfinder.

GM’s Guide 5: Stealth Encounters

The video GM’s guide continues, this time without an accompanying Iron Fang Invasion video. My grandmother’s funeral landed direct on the day we usually record that, which means there isn’t one from that week. It turns out there are some occasions that can interrupt my usually impeccable schedule. Anyway, today in the GM’s guide we’re talking about stealth encounters, something which really would’ve benefited from actually relevant video footage, which I did not have time to record and do not happen to have lying around from my regular games.

Dungeon Born: Stumbling Forward

Chapter Seventeen

The Team emerges from Cal’s dungeon and turns the bodies of the elemental rabbits over to a clerk for inspection, where he also makes a decision that the lower level is too dangerous for lower-ranked adventurers:

As a magically bound document, this would forcibly ensure that members of the Guild below D-rank could not enter the second floor, forcing them to have a C or higher ranked person with them who would have to give them special permission to enter.

This whole “magic document binds people to follow its rules” thing solves all kinds of what might otherwise have been interesting organizational problems. How does the Guild enforce their level gating? Do people ever ignore it? What’s the consequence if they do? You could have people subverting guild authority by going deeper into the dungeon despite standing orders, and others trying to catch them and put a stop to it before the trend catches on and casualties skyrocket. Instead, you sign a piece of paper with a magic wand and it’s impossible for people who don’t meet certain requisites to get down there.

Continue reading “Dungeon Born: Stumbling Forward”

Translating Diablo Loot to Tabletop

I like ARPGs. Y’know, “Action” RPGs that are now totally misnamed because most RPGs have at least as much real time action as they do, and which are instead defined by the dungeon structure, ability trees, and especially loot system introduced by Diablo. As an alternative to gushing about XCOM even more, I’m instead going to tackle the question of how to translate Diablo loot to the tabletop.

Before getting into that, the concern of whether or not this is even a good idea should be addressed. Because making a direct and obvious translation of Diablo looting to the tabletop is a terrible idea. You kill a rat and a treasure chest pops out, you pop that open and you find gauntlets of ogre strength and 27 gold. That’s literally a joke. It works in ARPGs because we all get that verisimilitude isn’t high on their list of priorities, and that the looting is mostly abstract in the context of whatever the greater story is (which is itself better off being just present enough to provide necessary context and stakes – Diablo 3 suffered for too strong an emphasis on a story that wasn’t very good). In a tabletop RPG, you actually have to narrate out that the ghoul was apparently carrying a vorpal sword that it didn’t feel the need to use over the rusty scimitar it’d been attacking the party with while still animate.

Not only that, but Diablo looting operates on having tons of fiddly little numerical increases in different stats. Damage. Accuracy. Rate of attack. Elemental damage. Even in a TTRPG designed to include all of these things (i.e. attacks per turn is a function of weapon, not character class and level, weapons provide significant accuracy bonuses or penalties, and so on), these just can’t have the same diversity as Diablo gives them because the numbers have to be smaller because the game isn’t run by a computer. Number inflation is already a problem in RPGs (especially with regards to hit points), and that’s with the numbers within any given level generally being pretty reasonable (i.e. the difference in to-hit bonuses for level 5 characters and their level appropriate opponents tends to be within maybe ten points from one end to the other). In Diablo, a key part of the system is that it’s possible for this weapon to be 7% more accurate but deal five fewer points of damage and attack only 95% as often. And at the end of the next encounter, you’ll have found another weapon with equally tiny fiddly bonuses. Players cannot be reasonably expected to update their character sheets that often.

So why, then, do we want to make some means of making it work anyway? What’s the benefit we’re trying to salvage? The Diablo loot lottery triggers the same reward centers as an actual, legit lottery, scratch card, or slot machine, but it does so without pumping anyone for money. It’s all the thrill of gambling without the cruel exploitation of the hopeless and/or mathematically illiterate. Most drops are trash that can be rendered down into gold as a consolation prize. Every now and again you get a solid upgrade that will keep you on track for level appropriate foes. A very rare few will be powerful weapons that give you a significant edge over the opposition. The chance that you might get that awesome weapon makes each drop exciting, even though most of them are going to be rendered down into gold and used to buy healing and portals.

Continue reading “Translating Diablo Loot to Tabletop”

Dungeon Born: Dungeon Renovations

Chapter Fifteen

While Cal has been sealed away working on his new mooks, the adventurers out front have noticed the dungeon is sealed up. Dale and his party are assigned to find a “seeker,” some kind of detection specialist mage, and get them to look at the door. You might assume this entails some kind of side quest, but no, apparently this mage needs an escort from one end of the camp to the other, and then for some reason needs to have their report back to the guild master relayed through Dale’s party instead of just going to talk to the guild master themselves.

We also get our first full look at Dale’s party:

They stopped and the other men in his group, Hans, the near silent Josh, and the ranger Steve, now looked upset at Craig’s words.

I can’t even remember which of Hans and Craig is the monk, and it’s still not clear what class Josh is supposed to be. Rogue, maybe? ‘Cause he’s quiet? Or maybe another Fighter, and he just doesn’t talk much.

In any case, without any dungeons to delve, Craig starts teaching Dale how to manipulate his chi more better. Which kind of mirrors what Cal is doing in his dungeon right now (remember that he spent a lot of time chi refining before he expanded his layout and experimented with the elemental bunnies), but I’m not sure what the parallel is supposed to indicate other than “both of these guys are protagonists of this book.”

Continue reading “Dungeon Born: Dungeon Renovations”

Dungeon Born: Elemental Bunnies

Chapter 14 (cont.)

I’m going to try to stick to a lot more summary here, just because by my estimate I’m quoting about half of the content of this book, which means I’m going to be running up against the highlight limits soon-ish if I don’t start exercising a bit more caution. The next several pages aren’t particularly interesting anyway, since it’s just Cal rearranging the furniture and refining his chi spiral in a manner that is moderately interesting in terms of arcanobabble but has basically no impact on the story one way or another. I do appreciate that there is some effort put into making the magic system follow some rules rather than having it work totally arbitrarily. On the other hand, it’s not really clear how these rules can be exploited. This isn’t a Brandon Sanderson-style magic system where a few super powers are defined and then can interact the world in a variety of interesting ways. It’s more like the arcanobabble that I developed a while back, where sure, there’s an explanation for everything, but you can’t actually do anything with that explanation, the mystical mumbo-jumbo just goes an extra layer deep.

During Cal’s expansion of the dungeon, we see him being weirdly dungeon master-y about things. Not in the sense of “is literally the master of a dungeon” but in the D&D sense of “bizarrely concerned with fair play.”

Everything I made was of course an attempt to gain as much Essence as possible, but I liked to reward intelligence and ingenuity, so I always added ways for these traps to be deactivated.

I’m reminded of that reporter girl from Sherlock who intentionally pressed her thumb into printing ink to give Sherlock a clue to spot that she wasn’t just a fan girl, but rather a journalist, and then Sherlock also picks out like four different clues that were already there that she didn’t even realize were there. The flaws with that show aside (especially as time wore on), that one scene certainly has a good point: If someone is really super good at something, you don’t need to design a solution for them. You can go ahead and design traps that are as inescapable as possible given the resources available to your dungeon inhabitants. As a game master, you have to ask yourself if you really want to demand that level of focus from your players, and to punish failures as harshly and irrevocably as the kobolds running the dungeon would like. Your players are here to have fun, and maybe they don’t particularly want to approach this dungeon with Tomb of Horrors-grade paranoia.

Cal, though? Cal’s goal is to kill a decent chunk of the people who come down here. Not all of the people, as he explains:

I wanted people to continue coming down here, after all, and with a reputation as a place where the smartest and strongest could almost always prevail, people would always assume they were among the ranks of the ‘certain survivors’.

But still, he wants to kill a decent chunk of the dungeon raiders. Designing a trap that will kill everyone who enters it is actually quite difficult (unless you’ve got access to things like utterly impenetrable yet very lightweight materials and flawless triggers that cannot be disabled and so on), because for all that players can murder-hobo their way into all kinds of sticky situations through pure obliviousness to potential consequences to their actions, once their necks are actually on the chopping block they tend to start paying attention and get pretty clever about finding a way out with most of their extremities intact. When it comes to traps, provided you respect the limited resources and energy investment that most monsters are willing to put into them, you can do your level best to murder your players and most of the time you will fail anyway.

Continue reading “Dungeon Born: Elemental Bunnies”

Everything’s Cool

Seeing as how the last thing I posted before going dark for two days was broody and sad, people might be worried about me. No worries, I’m doing perfectly alright, funerals just take up more time than I’d anticipated and I was unable to get any blogging done. I might’ve been able to squeeze out the usual Sunday YouTube posts since the real work of running and recording a game session was done in advance, except that this week’s Iron Fang Invasion requires some editing before posting, so I’m doing that on Monday (should go up just a few hours after this post), I’ll figure out an article for Tuesday, and we’ll be back to Dungeon Born on Wednesday.