Saturday, April 27, 2013

Narrative Structure vs. the Sandbox

I'm thinking about sandboxing lately. Mostly I'm trying to find out how deep I could bury those bones, but that's for another post or two. This is about something else.

Having a sandboxy game is not as easy as reading blogs makes one want to believe. In reality, without reading blogs and working on the game in one way or another, it is hard for a player to "get" the OSR and the ideas (or philosophies, if you like) that keep evolving in our little neck of the woods. Today I want to write about some things that occured to me during our last two sessions.

Railroading is appreciated... (?)

Yes, really, I've been told so by one of my players. He said something like: "Just point us in the right direction and we'll do what needs to be done!" How did that happen, one might ask. Well, I gave them a sandbox, enough hints about the dangers and some rumours to complete the package. They were free to do whatever they wanted and go wherever they wanted. I was content with the results. And I was eager to give this way of playing the game a shot. Their desperate need for quests (or better yet, a script) was the reason for this not to work. They were intimidated by the possibilities.

It reminded me of a story (urban legend? quote? could have been a joke...) I'd heard somewhere some time ago. It was about someone commenting the fall of communism with: "Do we have to do now what we want?!"

Anyway. This shouldn't be a surprise in our consumption oriented society, but I really believed they wanted to have all those possibilities. No dice. They wanted to be entertained. At least some of them want to know the direction and the possible outcome (that is: who's the enemy and how much xp could be gathered).

It's no ones fault, to be honest. All of them have jobs and lifes to take care of and if you only play once a month, it's hard to connect with a game. Railroading is an efficient way to enjoy the tropes and fun the game offers, without the need to invest too much. And as a DM it's sometimes hard to understand the effort needed to get involved in a game.

We'll try now to play for 2 to 3 hours a week via g+ or skype between games. Hopefully it will close the gap between sessions and help the game. The way we play right now, giving the game a very strict narrative structure (that is: a railroad) seems to be the only solution.

You have to improvise eventually

What is a sandbox able to accomplish? Ideally it produces a world engine that substitutes arbitrary DM decisions with a randomized resolution system and generates a story without, in theory, needing a narrative structure per se. But is that true? I believe it is to some extend. It makes sense to use reaction tables or  setting-specific random encounters. And having a complete and reactive setting at hand is one of the nicest tools a DM could have.

There is a point, though, where a DM has to be more precise than that. It is possible to create a totally random encounter, up to gender, race, age and adventure seed. But a DM connects the dots and the narrative structure becomes important at some point. Essentially, it is always the exact point when he starts talking to his players.

That's not railroading, it's just the need in every kind of communication to create a coherent narrative. A DM decides where he starts to tell the story, but sandbox or not, he needs to frame what is happening to make it a consistent experience for the players. I read somewhere that playing it sandbox-style results in a picaresque narrative, but I'd argue that this is true for playing roleplaying games anyway (just going by the definition of the term picaresque novel and the nature of roleplaying games in general).

Truth is always a matter of perspective

In the end I came to believe that sandbox is an artificial construct and not very helpful at that. The same goes for the infamous railroad. I'd have to call disbelieve on both, as far as playing the game is concerned. They are legit when discussing how a DM prepares his game/setting/etc. (because it needs terms to describe different methods and all that), but when playing the game, narrative structure is always imperative. How to get to the point where the people start talking to each other in the game is either unimportant (in the game) or, in a worst case scenario, distracting.

There is no true railroad, because every DM needs to improvise just by using a language and interpreting the rules. There is no true sandbox, because a narrative structure will evolve from every game. Funny thing is, in a players perception there might not even be a difference.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Describing the White Whale further (another Example and a Summary)

Yesterday I tried to frame the boardgame aspect for Noircana. Here is a short example (and a summary of what is established so far) to illustrate how it should play out:

Say a region has a high STR and an encounter harvesting it. The encounter has a strength of 3 (-3 harvesting rate). It's dwarves mining the area. The region allows it and gives 3 of it's strength in the first round. Next round those dwarves have a 6 (-2 harvesting rate) and are level 2. Two rounds later the dwarves have harvested 6 points, are level 4 and with a 9 at a +/-0 harvesting rate, so they are dormant. They established in the region (this is where the end of world die comes in, catastrophes targeting ability scores, like a heavy earthquake for the dwarves, may effect the growth or even destroy the harvesting agent). A region may now decide to nurture the dwarves further. As soon as this produces bonuses, the dwarves create features like items and exceptional structures.

Decline should be more than likely (at least as soon as the cataclysm hits them, but even before that it's possible, because new encounters could threaten them), leaving weakened and thinking about their former glory or even annihilated. If the dwarves are out of the picture, what they build may become dormant again or it could start harvesting again (populating the dungeon, so to say).

Describing and locating encounters like that will not only produce a history, it also leaves room for roleplaying, because how the results are interpreted is, like in D&D, totally within the rules. What happens is random, how it manifests is up to those creating the setting.

Short summary of the setup

  • Regions are 4d6 per ability score.
  • Reroll sixes and doubles. Triples produce two rerolls, quadruples produce three.
  • Keep rerolling sixes.
  • Results of the rerolls fixate bonuses/penalties and are described by Porky's d6-table*. They formulate a first line of defence. Combining those results is possible.
  • Three fixated bonuses equals one level (so a region with 3 fixated bonuses is level 2, etc.) if they are activated (see below). Until then they are dormant.
  • A region with only dormant Source Effects has an AC of 9.
  • Add all for final ability score and apply bonuses and penalties***.
  • INT produces the Mana of the region**.
  • The highest ability score produces the Chi of a region (use same formula as for Mana).
  • Interpret result to form the region.

Gameplay and loose ends

  • Duration of a cycle is 10+1d10 rounds.
  • Game starts after a cataclysm (Source Effects* describe at the beginning the remains of the former cycle) and ends with a cataclysm (work in progress).
  • A round simulates 100 years (making a cycle 1000 to 2000 years).
  • 1d4 encounters per region and per round.
  • An encounter is 1d6 (bonuses and penalties see below***) and targets an ability score (random 1d6).
  • How much Chi is bound to protect against catastrophes is decided after the roll for the number of encounters and before they manifest. Mana may be added, but with a 2 to 1 rate. It results in a die**** that becomes relevant at the end of a round (low dice are bad, high dice good, should cover floods, droughts, earthquakes, immortals or leaders - the dangers are to loose dormant features, making active features dormant again or reduce an ability score).
  • Actions cost either Mana or Chi.

Actions are (so far, see example above):

  • Activate class**** . In the above example, dormant dwarves could be activated for a round to defend STR. The region would be a dwarf for a round...
  • Send encounter away.
  • Allow encounter to harvest ability score.
  • Nurture encounter (nurtured encounters that produce bonuses are attacked before the ability score they are connected to).
  • Combine Encounters (a CON harvesting encounter could be added to the dwarves and, if a player decides to, could manifest in the dwaves riding mammuths into battle, as soon as as the encounter produces bonuses...).
  • Fixate (or better yet, naming?) existing or new bonuses (roll for Source Effect, formulate result).

All this will have costs (Chi and/or Mana). Playtesting will show what is what and I'll edit this post with changes that arise from giving this a spin.

Fighting will be resolved as per usual. I might give classes a base damage (like I did here)******. Damage will be either on the regions ability scores or at the defending features. Playing this out could bring interesting results in the interpretation and evolution of regions.


Now we have history, features, structures and items connected to a fixed timeline and individual regions. With the individual Chi and Mana per region, we also have signatures. If this plays out the way I hope it plays out, it will not only produce a sandbox with a rich and deep recorded history, but also connects everything found in that sandbox. You'll know where a magic sword or a spell originates.

Making this a group effort will make the sandbox so much more accessible for those involved, without giving too much away. The players will know the land and the legends. They'll not only know all the gods, but also where they ascended and legends what marks they left on the land (and gods will have signatures, too.!). But to navigate the setting with characters will be a totally different experience, because of the new level of detail needed and the changes after the last cataclysm.

Next up is a region sheet and an effort to collect all those ideas in one place.

*Source Effect (1d6):
1 Decay 2 Reversion 3 Transformation 4 Enhancement 5 Enlightenment 6 Ascendance

Int 8 or lower - (INT times Level divided by 4) Mana
Int 9-12 - (INT times Level divided by 3) Mana
Int 13 or more - (INT times Level divided by 2) Mana

1-2 -4
3-4 -3
4-6 -2
7-8 -1
12-13 +1
14-15 +2
16-17 +3
18-19 +4
20-... etc.

****End of World Die:
d4 (5 Chi) d6 (10 Chi) d8 (15 Chi) d10 (20 Chi) d12 (25 Chi) d20 (50 Chi)

*****Lowers AC according to class, number of features associated with base ability scores of the chosen class is the number of defences, others need to be formulated. Porky's spell sextet here could fit, stealing features from other regions could be an example for what a thief could do, etc.

******Base Damage (one more die every 3 Levels):
Magic User = 1d4 per level of mastery
Thief = 1d6 per level of mastery
Cleric = 1d8 per level of mastery
Fighter = 1d10 per level of mastery
Halfling = 1d6 per level of mastery
Elf = 1d8 per level of mastery
Dwarf = 1d10 per level of mastery

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The White Whale and the Sickness (Noircana and lack of posting)

Long story short, got the flu from my nephews and wasn't able to post or read anything the last few days. But I will be back very soon....

Noircana could very well be my White Whale. I had time to think about it and it really is a lot to digest. But...

This being a crazy pet project, I still think it can be done (love Porky's enthusiasm and ideas, too, so there is that). And just when I was out on the balcony smoking a cigarette, thinking about Moby Dick and how this could be the perfect excuse, I had an idea how to frame the boardgame aspect. Life stays interesting that way.

So I'm giving this some air now to let it breathe and will be back with an example as soon as I have whipped it up (hoping for suggestions on the way...).

Noircana Boardgame Aspect (pitch)

Giving a region ability scores works. Class is a bit more difficult, mainly because harvesting and nurturing them will alter the stats of a region.

Anyway, I was thinking about this the wrong way. Or at least I was intimidated by the sheer amount of the necessary results to make this work. It should simulate some kind of evolution, after all.

Now for the frame (need to flesh this out more):
  • One round covers 100 years development in a region.
  • 10+1d10 rounds constitute  a turn and that's the time between cataclysms (a tabula rasa with left overs, basically).
  • INT (for Mana) and WIS (for Chi) give a region Action Points to handle the opposition. They regenerate every round.
  • At the beginning of every round, a region may invest in several things to "gear up" for the opposition (Class could be one of those things, but also nurturing aspects, etc.). Initiative might be a good idea here, too.
  • One of the things that have to be bought, is a "die against the universe". It's the bet a region has to make. A low die (d4) would be cheap (and would leave more room to handle existing threats or create sentient beings in harmony with the region), but dangerous (could cause new opposition or catastrophes).
  • Before every round, every region gets 1d4-1 opposition dice (the cataclysms before should leave some opposition before the game starts, too, I guess).
  • Every opposition will have a d6 score (rolled just like for the regions, reroll 6s and doubles, triples produce 2 rerolls), targeting one of the regions ability scores (random, 1d6 decides). Apply bonuses (this will result in penalties for low oppositions and I think it could be the harvesting-rate), define by the nature of the ability score attacked (WIS could be climate or earthquakes, CON biomass, etc.).
  • More than one ability score as opposition could mean several "weak" entities or just one strong (DM decides/sees what fits).
  • This being about ressource management, the decisions how many points are used for the "die against the universe" and how the rest is distributed (in connection with initiative and, maybe, level) will make the game. Describing how the effects manifest will describe the world (Mana will have a magic related effect, Chi will have natural consequences).
  • Now the fighting begins, with the ability scores being the targets. This is another tricky part. My core idea so far is to make a die drop chart to use with all the "bought" dice, using the interrelations between the dice to interpret the results (with higher results being more favourable, and the decisions made before minimizing the risk).
  • Cooperation between regions and Adaptation (I'm thinking, giving a region the Thief Class could allow some "stealing", for example) will be part of this (same could go for the opposition, cataclysm could be unifying factors for that, like spawning leaders and/or immortals).
  • Final thoughts: Opposition might be turned (a MU living in harmony with the region, for example) or destroyed, but it might also establish itself (a city could be an example for that). The summ of the abillity scores could be the size of a region (maybe creating 2 miles hexes per point), harvested regions could be (dependig on the nature of the harvesting, that is: the decreased ability score) settlements, badlands, monsters, dead woods, dungeons, etc., so the region evolves automatically and will have "traces" of the past. Catastrophes will harm land AND opposition, so so forcing them will be a gambit, but could help a region (wars, earthquakes, etc.).

Now, this is the back of the White Whale in the distance. I'll be off, trying to get a better look and - hopefully - slay the beast some day in the future*.

*This means some more digesting and playtesting, I guess.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

More Ideas for Noircana and an Example (Contribution 3)

Here is a short example, visiualizing some ideas we had about Noircana (got to start somewhere...).

I rolled up a region to see what happens and came up with:

STR 8   (-1)
DEX 34  (+11)  Reversion, Enhancement, Ascendance, Enlightenment
CON 12  (+1)  Transformation
INT 16  (+3)  Decay, Enlightenment
WIS 7  (-1)
CHA 16  (+3)  Transformation

Interpretations and additions

Now there is a lot to chew on. But interpretation and inspiration is what this is about. So:

STR - This region is a little below sea level (thoughts: a negative result for bonuses gives indications how much land is covered by water, positive bonuses show how much is covered mountains, bordering regions could go up again, maybe 120 miles per hex is to much?).

DEX & CON - A freak accident (I rolled 6, 6, 5, (2, 4, 6, 5)) and very harsh living conditions. The region is fertile (thoughts: bonus on CON could mean the highest number of HD for creatures living in a region, penalties could be a direct and constant influence on the inhabitants CON. Fertile and harsh could mean it's a swamp (with some lakes because of STR). The bonus on DEX could be the number of hazards. I'd make one of those to giant (for Transformation) 1 HD primeval (Reversion) insects, another +1 could make them poisonous. Others could be strange plants (maybe related to Enhancement and/or Ascendance, so the region has some ability altering, dangerous, maybe even psychedelic plants), gas, etc.. Enlightenment could be a possibility for immortals influencing the region.).

INT - Also high, 3 positives effects of the magic (thoughts: Positive decay could mean the region is "digesting" something bad, a dead dragon maybe? Studying the dead body could lead to Enlightenment... Need to think about Mana here.).

WIS - Something is unholy here (thoughts: Not much here. Could indicate a cursed location...).

CHA - This is a beautiful region (thoughts: Transformation could mean some cyclic blossoming flowers. That and two other nice features...).

This is just a first impression to see how the basic asumptions work out. So Porky's d6 table helps defining the features of a region, Penalties and bonuses give locations or creatures. Add some names and it could work already...

Next up is class and the opposition. This one needs some work and I'll have to alter some of the tables here to get there.

Mr. K.'s Edit

Talked this through with a friend and he helped forming several ideas:

- Opponents are Humanoids, Weather and Ascendants.

- Mana helps fighting Humanoids and Ascendants (how much Mana per region might be gathered from here).

- Chi is a WIS derived pool and works against weather (calculation like with Mana above).

- Treating this like a turn-based game, Chi and Mana would be something like Action Points for a region. Those struggles would produce xp.

- Not related to Mana and Chi, but regional features (Porky's d6 table) could be harvested, draining effectively the land (reducing ability scores...).

Monday, April 8, 2013

"You don't choose the Soy Sauce,...

... the Soy Sauce chooses you!"

This is a movie recommendation. If you haven't seen John Dies at the End, please do so. It's like Kevin Smith's Dogma had a love child with Philip K. Dick's brain (while watching Supernatural*).
Found here!

- It has a ghost door (with a lovely idea to open it...).

- It has Cthulhu references!

- It has gore, nudity (well, a little, but it counts nonetheless) and a huge amount of zen-crazy!

- It has Soy Sauce!

-It has Paul Giamatti (and that counts for something).

- And it has Highlanders Nemesis, but enlightened and with Kung Fu!

I have to check out the books by David Wong. If there is more of this... ah, damn, I'm in love.

Please report of your experience!

*And after watching Buckaroo Banzai...

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Drafts, Ideas, Noircana (Contribution 2)

I don't know if the general populace sees value in this, but Porky, Garrisonjames and me are having a great deal of fun finding out where the magic comes from, how it influences it's surroundings (be it regarding settlements, history, producing artefacts, etc.) and what signature a magic user might have (Porky's take on it  is here). Garrisonjames gave some stimuli regarding Geomancy and the great movie Excalibur (among other ideas...) and I hope he will dust off this thingy he was working on! The whole story is here and some more here at Porky's Expanse!

Noircana - Fantasy Roleplaying Geomancy Toolkit (0.2)

We have no exact definition what Noircana will come to be (but I love that word). What we know is what a subsystem like this should have as a result: the origin of any magic item (invented or "official"), the background noise for the impact of magic in a D&D-mounted setting.

This is the first part of my contribution. I'll try and structure some of the ideas in a way easy to process for me. So let's connect some dots...

CSI: D&D ( you know you want it...)

This should be one possible tool for a DM to construct a setting in a way that allows him to a) randomly assign Ley Lines and Holy Sites b) have an easy reference to where a random magic item may come from c) create setting appropriate magic items (with flavour and history) d) use the result as a world engine (balance versus chaos, the eternal struggle) and e) include connectors for the characters that allow a more investigation oriented game (which is really just an expansion of the exploration-oriented game we all like to call our hobby). Something like:

Fantasy Noir...
...or Hardboilded Fantasy?

Individual signatures for everyone using magic are just the next logical step. But as mentioned before, it's only the background noise for a setting. An attempt to give the arbitrary assumptions delivered by the rules some structure and make it that much more accessible for an investigation-oriented variant of D&D (I love the fact that D&D delivers so much room for tinkering...). I'm not saying it's easy or even possible, but sometimes the road taken is more important than the destination.

Ideas, Drafts, Shenanigans

Some basics first. Years ago (no worries, I won't start telling long stories...) we started to use Mana for spells (see here). Using a fanned out approach like this, showed me one thing: there is creative leeway between a wizards brain (INT) and a spell (INT + subsystem = same amount of magic and still compatible).

So INT is a connecting factor that is already established in the rules. My first idea would be to use the character creation process as a template for regions (I'd say hexagons with 120 miles per region is big enough, isn't it?). Every ability score could be interpreted as a regional feature (with 10 being the axis):

STR - Structure of the land, 10 is the sea level here.
DEX - Is an indicator for defences, could mean creatures, could
      mean lay of the land
CON - Fatness of the land, the axis is of obvious importance
INT - Centers of the Ley Lines, weak or strong
WIS - Holy significance
CHA - Beauty of the land

Old School = 3d6 in a row, please!

Now, rolling for ability scores generates a picture of a region. But there is more. Every time you roll a 6, a pair or a tripling, roll an additional d6, add the value and check Porky's d6 table (2d6 for triplets, keep rerolling 6):
Source Effect (1d6):
1 Decay
2 Reversion
3 Transformation
4 Enhancement
5 Enlightenment
6 Ascendance
The already known bonuses apply, but should be open:
Bonuses and Penalties
for Ability Scores:

1-2 -4
3-4 -3
4-6 -2
7-8 -1
12-13 +1
14-15 +2
16-17 +3
18-19 +4
20-... etc.
Alignment, Level and Class (only ideas so far)

Alignment could easiely be climate, with chaotic being equatorial, neutral being extreme (polar) and lawful being moderate. This is of course subjective and will change as soon as history is added, but it works in between the system (for now?).

Level is the history of the land and the challenges it had to survive. This is still a sketch, but I think with merits. If you start to develop a setting from the very beginning (like I'm assuming here), your starting point defines the "Level" (that is: the stages of change). A hyperborian setting would have a pretty low starting point (1d10 per region, maybe), high fantasy would be pretty high (1d100 or even more?) with cataclysms every 10+1d10 levels (cataclym will affect all regions).

Class should be like used in the game. This is a rather abstract approach, but it translates nicely into the system. This is important because of:


A D&D group should have a balanced mix of characters. GJ mentioning Geomancy made me check Wikipedia (here) and I'll quote the passage that helped me get the concept:
"If the sum of the chart is 96, then the resolution of the query will be "swift, and neither slow nor doubtful;" in other words, that all things that could be acted upon in the situation described by the query would resolve without delay nor ahead of schedule. If the sum is less than 96, then it will resolve quickly, and in a degree proportional to the difference between 96 and the total. Conversely, if the sum is more than 96, then it will resolve slowly."
So if a region is in disorder, "balancing" the problems out helps dissolving the problem. Take the Arthurian legends, for example. The land (highly magical) is in chaos and the king and his knights (all fighters) balance this out. To make this possible, the land spawns a magical sword and quests...

Giving a region a class would then result in legends, specific magic items and folklore. And this is what we wanted to happen, right?

Ley Lines, Holy Sites (and finishing thoughts)

To assign the centers of the Ley Lines (or Holy Sites), the raw result of the 3d6 for INT (or WIS) could be used as coordinates in the hex field. It would look something like that (Sorry, I just had paper, a pencil and a glass... ah, well):
Something like this could be part of a Region Sheet.

To make this work, the results need to be alternating. Another roll on 1d8 should to the trick (1D8 for positive or negative coordinates: 1 x, y, z = +; 2 x, y = +, z = -; 3 x, z = +, y = -; 4 y, z = +, x = -; 5 x, y, z = -; 6 x, y = -, z = +; 7 x, z = -, y = +; 8 y, z = -, x = +).

This could work for STR, too. As soon as regions are connected, this could be a tool to create elavations like mountains randomly...

Next up will be a regions sheet.
This is not finished, but maybe it's mapping out what needs to be done to get there and where the connections between all those nice ideas are... 

Some stray thoughts:
- Big Cities could be regions on their own (with a destructive effect on the region).
- I want floating islands (lawful region turned chaotic with high INT and DEX and maybe Fighter as a class)
- Porky's signatures could work with region level.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Personal Magic Weapons

This is a little something I really liked while we played the German Midgard RPG back in the day. Everytime a character's main weapon dealt a critical hit the player had, at the end of the session, the chance to give  a small part of his soul into the weapon (and make it a personalized magic weapon). To that end the player had to roll a d100 on a table similar to this one (I changed it a bit for D&D):
d100      Effect
1-93      no effect
94-95     +1 to hit against enemy slain*
96-97     +1 to hit
98-99     +1 to damage
100       personal effect related to the incident and a re-roll** 
*Happens just the one time and against the enemy the weapon was used against when the critical hit occured. It stays fixed on that type of enemy and may only increase if a another critical hit against that type of enemy is cast (and the d100 comes up with 94 or 95).  
**The second time this happens, it increases the first effect, the third time the weapon will get a name and there is a 40% chance (minus CON) that the weapon takes a great part of the character's soul after the owners death (the effects do not vanish in that case). This chance will increase by 5% every time this comes up again.
The results stack, of course. And the magic works only if the owner is wielding it. If the owner dies and the weapon has no name yet, all powers it had are gone. If the bonuses stack to a +5 all in all, there is a 5% chance for every +1 to remain in the weapon (now usable by everyone wielding it).

I like to let the players make the roll (it's something they are looking forward to). But if you roll it as a DM, it might have some positive aspects, too (just from a narrative perspective, I guess).

It might be a good idea to involve clerics in this a bit, like encouraging some rituals or weapons cults to increase the chance to "load" the weapon with pieces of the owners soul (character smites foe with mighty 20 + cleric makes a fuss about it = +1 to +5 on d100).

It's not much, but the players liked it quite a bit. And in the long run, they might have a very personal magic weapon they can call their own. With a history and all that.