Friday, April 29, 2011

Untested Collapsible Encounter Method

Here's a dungeon generator. It's fast-ish and requires less prep than a real dungeon but still requires some, but the main advantages are it's very reusable and will tend to produce dungeons that make some sense, with the danger and reward increasing as the PCs move further in...

You'll need to think of 8 monsters, put them in line from least scary to most scary (scariest is 8, wimpiest is 1), or in a rough hierarchical order from boss down through lieutenants, soldiers and finishing with vermin (at 1).

Optional step: Think up 8 traps and put them in order from least to most scary. If you can't think of any or don't have time, use the standard array (poison gas, needle trap, pit trap) and just arrange them so that Trap 8 does the most damage and Trap 1 does the least (you could go: d4, d6, blind, d8, d10, d12, d20, save or die, for example).

Optional step: Think of 8 treasures and do the same. If you don't have time to do this step, just go from like 10 gp to 800 gp or whatever is scaled appropriately.

Optional: Think of 8 locks and do the same. If you don't have time, assume lock 8 just takes the longest and makes the most noise and lock 1 is the easiest.

Now take a look at the graph (I have filled in some sample monsters and treasures on the right of the graph and have left traps and locks off).(click to enlarge all these)
This will all be explained, so hold on.

First: It works like this: the farther the PCs get from the entrance to the dungeon (in rooms or levels, but most of the time it'll be in rooms) the (usually) fiercer the opposition and (usually) greater the reward.

(This makes sense: this is the point of buildings, from a fortification standpoint--the boss hides away with his loot and puts layers of underlings between himself/herself and any entrances, or the fearsome beast keeps its pile of bloody bones in a cave far from hunters and other predators and the other animals lurk at a respectful distance to scavenge leftovers. Also, the further the PCs go from the entrance, the more likely they are to go where no looters have gone before.)

(Note also there are spikes in the graph making it so that the "front door" is likely to be defended as are the sort of mid-zone "living areas".)

When DMing any room, you look along the bottom for however many rooms you are from the entrance to the dungeon. (Let's say you're 3 rooms away. Keep in mind PCs may not know all the entrances to the dungeon.) Follow the vertical line up from there and you'll see that it intersects a green line representing monsters, a blue one representing locks, a red one representing treasure, and a pink one representing traps. When you intersect, look left (the numbers 1-8 down the right are just for reference later.)

For each room, roll 4d4--one die for each element. (For maximum speed use 4 different colors matching the graph colors but whatever.) (oh, hold on, ignore any line that's waaaay at the bottom below -3, that means you don't have to roll a d4 for that thing cause there's no chance of getting it) and add the modifier indicated for that element on the left. For example, in room 3, the trap modifier (pink) is minus one.

Then you get a number. If it's zero or below, that thing is not present in the room. If it's a positive number, then the room contains a thing of that type and level of awesomeness/toughness/scariness etc. Like if you rolled a 3 for traps and the mod was -1, then you'd have a 2 which means this room contains Trap 2, your second wimpiest trap.

Here's a bigger one for a bigger dungeon using a d10 instead of a d4--meaning you have to think up 20 monsters instead of just 8.
This method might be a tad cumbersome (4d4 for every room), like I said, I haven't tried it--however, I see advantages:

-It produces dungeons that make sense and does so relatively quickly.

-It is re-usable. If you're running a sandbox campaign, there is always the chance the PCs will run off to loot some theoretically-fortified locale or obscure ruin that you haven't written yet. If you can think of 8 types of inhabitants that might be in such a place, you've got a dungeon.

(obviously this method doesn't generate layout, I generally go by the "assume the room's square and has d4 exits" method if I have to pull a dungeon out of my ass)

-The only other way to produce results like this would be to write percentage charts for each room--i.e. room 8 has a 30% chance of monsters, a 60% chance of traps--PLUS have a second chart making it so you'd roll on a slightly different encounter chart the further you get from the entrance. i.e. in this method, the array of possible monsters near the ends is different than the array in the middle and it's all done on one chart.

-This does not have to produce linear dungeons--no matter which way the PCs go, as long as they're getting far away from their lines of escape they are going to get to something. If you do this long enough and re-write your encounter chart at intervals, you might end up with an interesting factional dungeon.

-This "graph" method can also be used for other kinds of encounters in a slightly different way.

Look at the graph again.: Assume the 4 colored lines all represent different kinds of wilderness encounters (green is a regular monster, pink is npcs, red is some inert, found locale, and blue is weather, f'rinstance) the numbers along the bottom represent "days from nearest settlement".

Now on each day you have a different chance of meeting different things and the further you get from civilization the greater the hidden rewards, the fiercer the beasts, etc. (Though you could alter the graph to make NPC encounters less common as you get further from civilization and make the weather curve less steep--after all, bad weather is often more likely near settlements since they are often closest to the water.)

Likewise imagine the colors represent different kinds of urban encounters (thieves, soldiers, animals, etc.) and the numbers along the bottom represent the median income of the neighborhood. Rather than a series of encounter charts where beggars are rife in Cheapside by unheard of in Thistlewood Lane (seriously ever notice it takes half an hour to figure out who you're encountering in the City State of the Invincible Overlord?), you can just write one table 1-20 and put beggars at the bottom of it.

So, all you need to make your own is 4 pens and a piece of graph paper. That's good, right?

Or, if you're a computer programmer: there you go. This is probably how some computer games work already.

Now I personally have a list of groups or types of baddies in my campaign, with notes like this:

Villain(s): Hex king
Lieutenants: Eyes of fear & flame
Grunts: Caryatids, skeleton
Around: gloomwing moths
Trap regime: Creepy black fairy-tale like a music box that prevents magic so long as it plays
Treasure: Old magic and art
Schemes: Some kind of pact with Nephilidia

Villain(s): Insect gods (En-Gorath, Hammurabi, etc.) Chasme
Grunts: Githyanki, Jackalmen
Tough guys: Giant bugs, CIFALgangers
Trap regime: Ancient Egyptian-style curses & mechanical traps
Treasure: Gold, insect magic, blood gems
Schemes: Destroy Slaads

I have 20-some of these: groups of monsters that are on the same "team". If the PCs unexpectedly burst into a stronghold I can randomly pick a faction (or maybe I know from context whose it is), plug the notes into the graph and hey, that's enough dungeon until the PCs have left or the session ends and I have time to figure out what's really going on down there.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

100 Dungeon Encounters And Why They're Happening

(help finish this table and contribute to the just-get-me-through-that-first-room random dungeon generator explained yesterday)

1-No encounter per-se but the entrance the PCs came in through becomes unusable. Because the inhabitant is a crazy sadist.
2-No encounter per-se but the entrance the PCs came in through becomes unusable. Because of natural cave-in or decay.
3-No encounter per-se but the entrance the PCs came in through becomes unusable. Because ____
4-No encounter per-se but the entrance the PCs came in through becomes unusable. Because_____
5-No encounter per-se but the entrance the PCs came in through becomes unusable. Because________
6-A complex device (not necessarily dangerous). Because this is where they store it.
7-A complex device (not necessarily dangerous). Because it is important to the workings of the dungeon.
8-A complex device (not necessarily dangerous). Because this room has been forgotten.
9-A complex device (not necessarily dangerous). Because_____
10-d4 soldier-type monsters. Because they're performing a routine security sweep of this room.
11-d4 soldier-type monsters. Because they're undead and you've awakened them by entering this place.
12-d4 soldier-type monsters. Because ______
13-d4 soldier-type monsters. Because _____
14-d4 soldier-type monsters. Because _______
15-d4+1 soldier-type monsters. Because they're guarding what's past this room.
16-d4+1 soldier-type monsters. Because ____
17-d4+1 soldier-type monsters. Because _______
18-d4+1 soldier-type monsters. Because ________
19-3d6 soldier-type monsters. Because they live in this room.
20-3d6 soldier-type monsters. Because ________
21-A brute-type monster. Because it wandered in here looking for food.
22-A brute-type monster. Because the inhabitants keep it here as a "guard dog".
23-A brute-type monster. Because_____
24-A brute-type monster. Because _____
25-A brute-type monster. Because_____
26-A brute-type monster. Because_____
27-A brute-type monster. Because _______
28-A brute-type monster. Because ______
29-A brute-type monster. Because______
30-A brute-type monster. Because ________
31-A schemer-type monster. Because it heard the PCs come in and is investigating.
32-A schemer-type monster. Because it has an offer for the PCs.
33-A schemer-type monster. Because ______
34-A schemer-type monster. Because ______
35-A schemer-type monster. Because _______
36-A schemer-type monster. Because ______
37-A wizard. Because s/he's lost.
38-A wizard. Because of a magical accident.
39-A wizard. Because she wants to steal something from the PCs an use it as a spell component.
40-A wizard. Because _________
41-A wizard. Because ________
42-d6 vermin-type monsters (or a swarm). Because this area is gross and forgotten.
43-d6 vermin-type monsters (or a swarm). Because this area is a garbage dump.
44-d6 vermin-type monsters (or a swarm). Because this is a high-traffic area but the inhabitants aren't very clean.
45-d6 vermin-type monsters (or a swarm). Because ________
46-d6 vermin-type monsters (or a swarm). Because ________
47-d6 vermin-type monsters (or a swarm). Because _______
48-d6 vermin-type monsters (or a swarm). Because_________
49-d6 vermin-type monsters (or a swarm). Because _______
50-d6 vermin-type monsters (or a swarm). Because ______
51-d6 vermin-type monsters (or a swarm). Because ______
52-A weird-type monster. Because the inhabitants keep it here as a guard.
53-A weird-type monster. Because it smells food.
54-A weird-type monster. Because it was accidentally summoned and escaped.
55-A weird-type monster. Because ______
56-A weird-type monster. Because _______
57-A weird-type monster. Because ______
58-A weird-type monster. Because _______
59-A weird-type monster. Because ________
60-d4 automatic guardian-type monsters. Because there is something of value here.
61-d4 automatic guardian-type monsters. Because there was once something of value here.
62-d4 automatic guardian-type monsters. Because _______
63-d4 automatic guardian-type monsters. Because ________
64-A party not unlike the PCs. Because they are trying to loot this dungeon.
65-A party not unlike the PCs. Because they were prisoners and are escaping.
66-A party not unlike the PCs. Because ________
67-A party not unlike the PCs. Because _______
68-A party not unlike the PCs. Because _________
69-An apparently harmless NPC. Because s/he's lost.
70-An apparently harmless NPC. Because s/he is secretly a dangerous doppleganger/thief/demon.
71-An apparently harmless NPC. Because __________
72-An apparently harmless NPC. Because ________
73-An apparently harmless NPC. Because ______
*74-An injured creature. Because one of the nearby traps hurt it.
*75-An injured creature. Because it was just in a fight with something fearsome in a nearby room.
*76-An injured creature. Because _________
*77-An injured creature. Because ________
*78-An injured creature. Because _________
79-The whole room is a trap. Because the architect was a crazy sadist.
80-The whole room is a trap. Because the inhabitant is a crazy sadist.
81-The whole room is a trap. Because it was the only way the inhabitants could think of to guard against large numbers of foes invading simultaneously.
82-The whole room is a trap. Because _________
83-The whole room is a trap. Because ________
84-The whole room is a puzzle. Because the architects were trying to allow only certain kinds of people/creatures in.
85-The whole room is a puzzle. Because the architects were, by human standards, insane.
86-The whole room is a puzzle. Because the the behavior of the room play some role in a bizarre religious ritual.
87-The whole room is a puzzle. Because _________
88-The whole room is a puzzle. Because _________
*89-A confrontation between two creatures or kinds of creatures. Because there is a war going on down here.
*90-A confrontation between two creatures or kinds of creatures. Because one party was trying to steal from the other.
*91-A confrontation between two creatures or kinds of creatures. Because these two factions both live down here and their truce is uneasy.
*92-A confrontation between two creatures or kinds of creatures. Because _______
*93-A confrontation between two creatures or kinds of creatures. Because _______
*94-Creature(s) in a room which has a bizarre physical layout. Because of a recent natural or magical disaster.
*95-Creature(s) in a room which has a bizarre physical layout. Because the inhabitants here are weird and like it that way.
*96-Creature(s) in a room which has a bizarre physical layout. Because the architect was possessed of an intelligence unimaginable to humans.
*97-Creature(s) in a room which has a bizarre physical layout. Because________
*98-Creature(s) in a room which has a bizarre physical layout. Because______
*99-Creature(s) in a room which has a bizarre physical layout. Because______
*00-Creature(s) in a room which has a bizarre physical layout. Because________

*For these results, roll a result from 10-69 on this table to determine creature type: 1d6 for the first digit, 1d10 for the second digit.

In the end, there will, of course, be separate tables for "random brute type monsters", "random weird-type monsters" "random puzzle rooms" etc. supplementing this table.

The rest of this table is to be filled in by Gygaxian democracy. Please do chip in and leave a comment with a rationale for an encounter or two or three in the comments.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

100 Dungeon Doors And Why They're There

(Preamble you can skip)

You're DMing. The PCs go down into a dungeon. But you don't have one...

So...Random dungeon generators. Some basic principles (using the categories I made up here):

Fast, easy-to-use, complete random dungeon generators do exist. Mostly on-line. However: these dungeons are either totally random (Room 1: Gnolls! Room 2: Ghosts!) or have elements taken from a list of thematically similar elements (Room 1: Ghosts! Room 2: Spectres!).

Fast, easy-to-use, complete random dungeon generators for dungeons that make some sense and are kinda original do not.

(Randomly picking from a list of pre-existing dungeons is not usually an acceptable solution because:
1-it takes just as long to prep a pre-existing scenario as think up one, and
2-if you liked a module enough to have prepped it, you'd probably have put it somewhere on the map by now)

Slow, easy-to-use, incomplete/inspirational random dungeon generators do exist. These are essential DM-prep aids and are not designed to be reliably and repeatedly used to improvise during a game.

Fast, easy-to-use, complete random dungeon generators for dungeons that make sense and are kinda original (that is: fast breeding generators for dungeons) are probably, in the abstract, impossible to make, since making a whole dungeon fast would require a computer, doing it so it makes sense would require literary creativity beyond the power of a computer, and doing it with random rationales instead of derived ones would essentially make it incomplete since the DM would still have to make the pegs fit the holes and figure out how A led to B in order to make the dungeon make sense.


The best we can probably do, to give the DM a during-the-game random dungeon generator for dungeons that make some sense is a sort of half-measure.

Here's my idea for such a half-measure:

A dungeon generator that functions as a simple, complete generator for all the elements of a single dungeon room (the first one the party enters) but also gives reasons for everything in that room being the way it is. These different reasons can then be used by the DM to understand what's going on in the rest of the dungeon and populate its rooms accordingly, at least until the session's over and the DM has time to prep again.

The principle here is that giving a DM an incomplete generator for a whole dungeon in the middle of a session doesn't help, but sort of giving him/her a "Drip-feed" of information one piece at a time,w hen needed, will help him/her slowly improvise a dungeon.

The generators do not have to cover all possibilities for what could happen in a dungeon room, just a wide enough range for that first room. Assume the real creative heavy-lifting will still have to be done by the DM some point down the line. This generator is just that first dose of morning caffeine.

If this seems a little vague, hod on, because I get real specific soon...

There are basically four parts to a dungeon room:

-Encounter: The major thing that is in the room. A monster, a puzzle, a device, whatever. Some rooms don't have these, obviously.

-Exits: usually doors or doorways, these are things you have to deal with to get in or out of the room.

-Decor: What it looks like and incidental furnishings, including light sources, etc.

-Layout: Physical size and shape of the room.

I am gonna assume that if we can generate Encounters and Exits and reasons for them, then the Decor and Layout have a good chance of being strongly implied by one of the reasons we got for the Encounters and Exits. (Like: if we figure out the room has a cursed altar, then we know we've probably got candles and maybe pews, etc. and the room's kinda big.)

So: Encounters, Exits, and reasons for them and nothing else. To make things easier we're going to assume this first room:

1) Has an encounter (it'll give the DM time and fuel to start imagining the rest of the dungeon)


2) Has exits in the form of doors (i.e. this first room will not be one of those "apparent dead ends but actually the exit is through the yellowish puddle on the floor" rooms)

Exits are easier so we'll do that first, we'll do encounters another day:

In the rationales for these results, I'm going to use the following terms...

Architects: whatever culture or individual built the place in the first place
Inhabitants: whatever cultures or individuals live there now
Intruders: individuals (like the PCs) who just came down into the dungeon recently to loot it or whatever

Assume each room has whatever portal the PCs came in through plus d4 others. Since this is just the first dungeon room, I'm going to assume the exits are all just doors (i.e. the possibility of a dead end). Roll once for each door or once, period, and apply the result to all the doors.

So, 100 Dungeon Doors And Why They're There:

1-Trap, primitive/simple. Because intruders are looking for something in here and rigged it up because they don't want to be disturbed.
2-Trap, primitive/simple. Because the inhabitant culture is primitive/simple.
3-Trap, primitive/simple. Because the mechanism is old and no longer works as well as it used to.
4-Trap, primitive/simple. Because ____________
5-Trap, primitive/simple. Because____________
6-Trap, primitive but magical. Because intruders who have a magic-user with them are in here and don't want to be disturbed.
7-Trap, primitive but magical. Because the inhabitant culture is primitive but has shamen/priests.
8-Trap, primitive but magical. Because it was designed to keep out vermin or children, not tough guys like the PCs.
9-Trap, primitive but magical. Because _________
10-Trap, primitive but magical. Because_________
11-Trap, sophisticated (mechanical). Because the architect culture was sophisticated and was protecting something of value.
12-Trap, sophisticated (mechanical). Because the architect culture was of a species that would not need to use the door the way a human would.
13-Trap, sophisticated (mechanical). Because the inhabitants hide something of value behind the door.
14-Trap, sophisticated (mechanical). Because ________
15-Trap, sophisticated (mechanical). Because __________
16-Trap, sophisticated and magical. Because the architect culture was protecting something of value.
17-Trap, sophisticated and magical. Because an inhabitant is a crazy wizard.
18-Trap, sophisticated and magical. Because the architecture is alive.
19-Trap, sophisticated and magical. Because __________
20-Trap, sophisticated and magical. Because _________
21-Locked, ordinary lock. Because the inhabitants didn't think anyone would ever come down here.
22-Locked, ordinary lock. Because the inhabitants are too primitive to do any better.
23-Locked, ordinary lock. Because, to the inhabitants, this is an ordinary place with nothing terribly valuable in it.
24-Locked, ordinary lock. Because the real heavy locks are later down the line.
25-Locked, ordinary lock. Because__________________
26-Locked, serious lock. Because the inhabitants are protecting something of value.
27-Locked, serious lock. Because the inhabitants are xenophobes and this place is forbidden to outsiders
28-Locked, serious lock. Because the inhabitants are sophisticated and this is just normal for them.
29-Locked, serious lock. Because ___________
30-Locked, serious lock. Because ___________
31-Locked, magically. Because the inhabitant includes a wizard.
32-Locked, magically. Because this room contains something of special value.
33-Locked, magically. Because a recent emergency int he dungeon has caused an inhabitant to go around and magically lock as many doors as possible.
34-Locked, magically. Because _______
35-Locked, magically. Because _______
36-Locked, puzzle lock. Because the architects designed this place only to admit certain types of individuals.
37-Locked, puzzle lock. Because one inhabitant is crazy.
38-Locked, puzzle lock. Because it wasn't designed as a puzzle lock but the original mechanism
has sort of fallen apart over the years and now is tricky to deal with.
39-Locked, puzzle lock. Because_____
40-Locked, puzzle lock. Because ____
41-False door. Because the architect(s) was(were) eccentric.
42-False door. Because the inhabitants have some ritual reason for needing them
43-False door. Because a spell was recently unleashed in the dungeon that multiplies the facades of things.
44-False door. Because ______
45-False door. Because ______
46-Doorless archway. Because there used to be a door here but it rotted away.
47-Doorless archway. Because this was a residence.
48-Doorless archway. Because the inhabitants removed the door in order to make it into a residence.
49-Doorless archway. Because this was designed as a temple.
50-Doorless archway. Because ____
51-Ornate but unprotected. Because this used to be a temple.
52-Ornate but unprotected. Because this area is dangerous and has been abandoned by most of the inhabitants.
53-Ornate but unprotected. Because ______
54-Ornate but unprotected. Because _____
55-Ornate but unprotected. Because_______
56-Ordinary unlocked door. Because to the inhabitants, this is an ordinary place.
57-Ordinary unlocked door. Because the lock has been broken by recent intruders.
58-Ordinary unlocked door. Because inhabitants have abandoned this place.
59-Ordinary unlocked door. Because the front entrance was someplace the PCs already somehow passed and nobody expected intruders to get this far.
60-Ordinary unlocked door. Because __________
61-Secret door, mechanically hidden. Because the architects hid something of value here.
62-Secret door, mechanically hidden. Because the inhabitants hid something of value here.
63-Secret door, mechanically hidden. Because this room was a prison.
64-Secret door, mechanically hidden. Because _______
65-Secret door, mechanically hidden. Because ______
66-Secret door, magically hidden. Because the architects were magical and hid something behind it.
67-Secret door, magically hidden. Because the inhabitants hid something behind it.
68-Secret door, magically hidden. Because an intruder has magical abilities and is behind it somewhere and does not want to be disturbed.
69-Secret door, magically hidden. Because _______
70-Secret door, magically hidden. Because _____
71-Door concealed behind stuff. Because intruders are behind it and don't want to be disturbed/discovered.
72-Door concealed behind stuff. Because inhabitants forgot about the room and have piled stuff up in this room in front of the door.
73-Door concealed behind stuff. Because this room is semi-abandoned and full of crap.
74-Door concealed behind stuff. Because _____
75-Door concealed behind stuff. Because _____
76-Accidentally/organically "trapped"--the architecture falls apart in a dangerous way when you attempt to open this door. Because it's old.
77-Accidentally/organically "trapped"--the architecture falls apart in a dangerous way when you attempt to open this door. Because the inhabitants know never to use this door and so use it as a sort of intruder alarm.
78-Accidentally/organically "trapped"--the architecture falls apart in a dangerous way when you attempt to open this door. Because recent fighting int he complex has fucked it up.
79-Accidentally/organically "trapped"--the architecture falls apart in a dangerous way when you attempt to open this door. Because __________
80-Accidentally/organically "trapped"--the architecture falls apart in a dangerous way when you attempt to open this door. Because ______
81-Locked but key is in this room. Because the next room is a prison cell.
82-Locked but key is in this room. Because an inhabitant dropped it.
83-Locked but key is in this room. Because only an intruder would be dumb enough to enter the next room and it's a sort of trap.
84-Locked but key is in this room. Because___________
85-Locked but key is in this room. Because_________
86-Door is alarmed or alerts nearby inhabitants/intruders. Because they are tough but not great at making locks and traps.
87-Door is alarmed or alerts nearby inhabitants/intruders. Because it was hastily thrown together by intruders.
88-Door is alarmed or alerts nearby inhabitants/intruders. Because intruders want to shadow the PCs and take their stuff.
89-Door is alarmed or alerts nearby inhabitants/intruders. Because the inhabitants want intruder to come in for some reason,but also want to know when they're in here.
90-Door is alarmed or alerts nearby inhabitants/intruders. Because_________
91-Door has a broken trap. Because it's old.
92-Door has a broken trap. Because it was poorly made by primitive inhabitants.
93-Door has a broken trap. Because it was recently sprung by intruders.
94-Door has a broken trap. Because ________
95-Door has a broken trap. Because ________
96-Door has a broken lock. Because the architects once kept something of value here but the inhabitants took it long ago.
97-Door has a broken lock. Because intruders just picked it.
98-Door has a broken lock. Because a beast just destroyed it.
99-Door has a broken lock. Because the inhabitants are primitive and suck at making locks.
00-Door has a broken lock. Because _________

I leave the remaining results up to Gygaxian Democracy. Write the number of your rationale in the comments and I will add it to the final table.

Naturally, the final generator will also include separate tables for "12 sophisticated mechanical traps", "12 puzzle locks", etc. etc. as well as some examples of possible "architect cultures" and "inhabitants" etc.

The final version of these tables should probably be done as cards or Vornheim-style drop-die charts so that you can get several results fast.

Crawlier Carbuncle, Creepier Crypt Thing, and Everything In-Between

Still scraping the paint and patching the holes on the Fiend Folio.

The Carbuncle is like a Conan-comic-short-story-type monster that has a valuable gem in its head and it can be persuaded to give up the gem but can't be made to give it up by force and it also has psionic powers that it uses to subtly sow dissent and bad trouble among the PCs. Look, it's complicated. I like the carbuncle just fine, though I redrew it as a 3' bug with gem eyes instead of a cute armadillo with a gemmy forehead because, hey, it's Tuesday. You can click to enlarge all these pictures but the sketchy carbuncle is actual size.

Likewise entirely unobjectionable is the Caryatid Column which is not only a fine monster and far more exciting than the doric, ionic and corinthian columns but is also a good example of how reading D&D stuff makes art history classes easier.

The Caterwaul, on the other hand is a lame and underconceived 4 hit die time-waster whose schtick is it has a keening screech which--how inventive--inflicts damage and also is real fast. I have decided that actually a Caterwaul is the result of a specific kind of curse cast on a witch by sister-witches which ("sister-witches which"? Strunk, White, a little help here?) results in the distaff sibling being melded with her own familiar--the resulting abomination is often kept around as a pet, as a slave, or for simple amusement, though the caterwaul occasionally comes out smart enough to resist its own subjection and sow inter-witch mischief. Cat caterwauls are the most common, though a caterwaul curse will meld a witch with whatever familiar she has. The screech can stay, though I think it needs some dizzy-making or hallucinating effects added.

I've already done
the CIFAL--but anyway here's a picture of the Cifalganger...The Clubnek is probably a product of whatever exceptionally annoying form of ornithomaniacal brain-damage produced the Achaierai, Axebeak, and Aarakocra. A 1 hit-die giant ostrich. Anyway fuck that. It's not a Clubnek, it's a Neckfork and it's not a monster, it's a weapon/eating utensil. It consists of the withered, hardened neck and open beak of an ostrich-like creature which goblins, demons, or otherwise Hieronymous Boschean monsters in your campaign use to poke people through the bars of bone-cages while giggling like bastards.

The Coffer Corpse is an undead creature with a totally fucking metal Russ Nicholson picture(top row, 2nd from the left) and largely uninspiring mechanics which make it pretty much another zombie except its thing is it pretends to be dead for a bit then comes back a la monsters in all horror movies ever.

I love watching Russ Nicholson draw skeletons, but in a game of describing and imagining, if it looks like a skeleton, the players will think of a(nother) skeleton. So, going off the information that:

1) they have--according to Russ Nicholson--hair, and
2) they are often found in "stranded funeral barges"

I'm going to say the Coffer Corpse is actually not a full-on skeleton nor a just-dead zombie but a bog corpse. Withered, with limbs missing, reeking of gasses-with-unfortunate-effects-on-our PCs. Also, since the burial went awry, I am going to say that the Coffer Corpse, despite being extremely ugly, still has an intact soul and may indeed be a very nice guy underneath the leathery eyes and milennia of torturous unlife.

I have precisely the opposite problem with Crabmen--perfectly usable idea, stupid, stupid picture. So here is another picture. Things to be aware of when including crabmen in adventures:
1-They're blue-and white (caste system markings, you know the deal), not red
3-Nova Express by William S. Burroughs

Good things about the Crypt Thing:

-Its name
-It is a hooded skeleton
-It has a unique mechanic attached to it (instantly teleports everyone in the party to different places all over the dungeon)

Bad things about the Crypt Thing:

-There are a lot of skeletons in this game already
-The insta-teleportation mechanic seems a little lively and sci-fi-ish and supervillainy for a guy who is supposed to be all stoic and immobile and dead
-Once you get past the teleportation it just claws you, which seems rather undignified for a fifth-level unmoving undead in a robe that only attacks if attacked.

Here is my new Crypt Thing.It is the spirit of someone mummified before they were old enough to understand the concept of death. The crypt thing does not understand that it is dead but is too weak to push its way out of its tomb and so wails and moans terrible undead wailings. This song disorients all who hear it (minus something obnoxious to saving throw) and forces all who hear it to wander off in a random direction for a half hour, all the while experiencing a dreamlike jumble of images from the crypt thing's short life.

Generally the victim(s) will wake up spread out all over the dungeon, and may or may not remember their encounter with the crypt thing (so it's a good way to start a "ok, you wake up in a dungeon" adventure).

Subsequent meetings with the crypt thing allow the victims some bonus to their saving throw. If touched it bites, which is ok because its gross because its a dead baby. The only way to shut it up is to kill it or expose it to sunlight, which will turn it to dust.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Efficiency Is Beautiful Efficiency Is Art


My design goal with Vornheim was to have a handful of pages describing the setting, a few complete locations which exemplified the Vornheim style described with maximum efficiency and clarity and then to have the remaining 30-odd pages be basically just one big GM screen for city adventures. Everything you need right there.

So: the 30-page GM screen.

I feel like there are really only 3 honest models for an RPG book:

1-The Weighty Game Tome--(hinted at in the AD&D DMG and Monster Manual, perfected by Games Workshop in their original Realms of Chaos supplements, and much imitated today by everything from DC Adventures to Mouse Guard)--an eldritch encyclopedia of absorbing madness that takes you completely out of the world and mundane understanding and immerses you entirely in the game's mythology.

2-The overfed GM screen--(almost achieved in early TSR but mostly abandoned afterward except by a few clever pdf merchants) which has what you need and makes it easy to find and does nothing else that would interfere with that.

3-The "For Dummies" model, where you explain the game as if to someone who has never played an RPG and has to be persuaded it will be easy.

(There are many dishonest models and most more-or-less involve either packaging the RPG product as an advertisement for itself or simple laziness.)

Model 2 is of special interest to DIY D&D because:

1-DIY D&D, by definition, rarely has enough money to publish Weighty Game Tomes, and

2-It's mostly the province of busy adults who were sucked in by Led Zeppelin-length Weighty Tomes rife with mythology long ago and need not be sucked again.

So here's my question:

Vornheim has, I hope, a decent 30-page DM screen for city adventures, Kellri's CCD pdfs provide a model for efficient coverage of monsters and spells, The One Page Dungeon Contest
is a master class in usable cartography for individual locations.

The gaps I see are:

-a "30-page-DM-screen" book for dungeons, and
-a "30-page-DM-screen" book for wilderness adventures.

The Dungeon Alphabet (which I own, operate and enjoy) comes close but that book is more about pregame inspiration than during-the-game-nitty-gritty. And there is a lot of space given up to pictures.

So, kids:

1. What tables or other stuff would you want to see in your "30-page-DM-Screen" for dungeon adventures?
2. What would you like to see in your "30-page-DM-screen" for wilderness adventures?

Who will be making these projects? Don't know, don't care, but the R&D needs to get done, so let's do it...

*Clutch quote, Ramones picture--confusing, I know. It'll be ok.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Babbler Thru Bunyip Redone

Still renovating the Fiend Folio. Let's start on a high note: the Babbler.

Original babbler:One of the ubiquitous-in-the-folio 3rd level low-HD dinosaur-variants.
Good things about the Babbler:
1) It babbles: in a "quasi lingual" tongue which defies analysis.
2) It crawls up behind you on its loathsome belly and strikes its foes like a 4th-level thief.
3) The drawing has a crazy manic energy which makes it look like it goes "rawRRawRRAWR RARA!"

Questionable things:
1) It's basically, statwise, a wimpy dinosaur.
2) The babbling, while charming, is basically just window-dressing and has nothing to do with fighting/dealing with the beast.
3) Because the description says the babbler looks just like a gorgosaurus, it is hard to tell whether the distortions in the Russ Nicholson drawing are supposed to represent how the thing actually looks or whether it's just sort of expressionistic artistic license.

I have attempted to clarify point 3 in my picture (and end up with kinda a Russ Nicholson homage), which should make it obvious that Babblers look all fucked and go RawRawrarrrRARA all the time. I feel there are many solutions to problems 1 and 2 and that they probably involve tying the two together.
(click to enlarge all these pictures.)
Not as exciting, but not at all a thing to sneeze at is the Bat, Giant. Kinda surprising it wasn't taken care of in the Monster Manual. I have no bitching to do about this perennial classic, aside from saying that adding a dizzying sonic attack might spice up the mechanics a bit. However, I drew it anyway on account of it's fun to draw bats...
The Berbalang is an uninspired take on a kind of Phillippino vampire, and the folio description of its habits and tactics lines up surprisingly well with the description given by whatever member of the pith helmet brigade wrote the moustachey explorer description of the berbalang that Wikipedia quotes in its berbalang article, right down to the astral travel. I have redrawn the berbalang, but since Mandy wants to use it in her Arabian Nights game I have left the stats up to her...
And now, the Blindheim. The original is a kinda funstupid bipedal frog-midget that shoots eyebeams. Mine is more just a regular frog that's so fucked-looking you go blind. Also it can sing like a little girl. They also come in elephant-size....and it is all downhil from here: B in the Fiend Folio is for boring. No, worse than boring, B is for Bottom of the Beast Barrel. Many of these are not simply dull but downright bad monsters.

So: Blood Hawk. Not a crappy Christian metal band or a Thundercats villain, but just a slightly-more-optimistic-about-what-constitutes-prey version of a hawk. Problem with hawks as villains is anything a hawk can do as a villain, a crow or a stirge can do better. The other problem here is "bloodhawk" is a stupid stupid name. I decided "Blood Hawk" is what goblins call it when they stuff a hawk full of black powder and disease and send it winging its way after some distant foe. The hawk then explodes and gets infected blood all over the enemy. Problems solved.More adventures in half-assery: Bloodworm, giant. In case you didn't have enough giant worms already.

My take is that the giant bloodworm is the smart one. It is like possessed of a supreme but inhuman intelligence like the martians in Stranger in a Strange Land. It drinks the blood of gods. The polar worm, purple worm (though not the purple wyrm), remorhaz, etc., these are the mutant slave races descended from the wise old worms.The bonesnapper is another level 3 low-HD dinosaur. Where do all these come from? I decided "babbler" and "bonesnapper" are just colloquial names some cult or alchemist or tribe has for the products of their experimental mini-dinosaur breeding program. My picture is based on a rejected first draft of the babbler. The bonesnapper is your classic ride-on-able mini T Rex.Next one: totally hopeless synonym-for-fairy called a Booka. Even the name is stupid. I am hereby replacing it with the "Mahone": an equally annoying but much more drunk brand of fey.Next up is Bullywugs, which likewise partake much in suck. A world with Slaads and Blindheims does not need a weaker and more generic kind of frog-guy. The only interesting thing about them is they have natural camoflage powers so I am replacing them with Chameleon Men, which is more fun to say than "Bullywug". Isn't Dwellers of the Forbidden City like 10 times more exotic and Petalthroney now? Yes it is. Chameleon men are slow and cryptic and know the secrets of the Yellow Star. They communicate only through coded patterns on their skin. They think Lizard Men are unspeakably vulgar.
The Bunyip is a fucked thing. Basically if you research the word it's an Australian folk monster from the swamps which looks like...well, none of the descriptions agree. Some say alligator, some dog, some say starfish--the Folio went with seal, which seems like a transcendent miracle of underachievement and bad taste.

I decided the point of the Bunyip is it is indescribable but looks like different things to different people and its true form is just all screwy and it sits there in the center of the swamp being immobile and bizarre and waiting for like John Constantine to show up and ask where the Key To The Eighth Gate of Migraines is or whatever. Also, that name has to go. "Bunyip" may sound good in the antipodes, but here in forwardsland people eat hamburgers not the other way around. So I dub it the Unminion.
Next time: What's a Clubneck and how could it possibly be cool? I don't know either but we'll find out...

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Renovating The Fiend Folio: A

Modern players general hold one of two opinions on AD&D's second monster book, the Fiend Folio:
1) It's totally fucked, or
2) Its totally fucked and that's awesome.
Though naturally I'm a lot closer to the second camp, even I will admit that I have no idea what to do with, say, a flind. I don't even know what to do with the word "flind". Jesus that's a terrible word. And gorilla-bear? Hey, Gonzo was my favorite Muppet, but, in the words of this guy:
"Look, either you need a gorilla, or you need a bear. You are never going to need a gorilla bear." (Yes, Jeff, I see you in the back raising your hand. Yes, we know you need a Gorilla Bear. Over at the Armored Gopher. Next to your Spleen Ape and Lava Weasel. Yes. Ok. Anyway...)

(Interlude: I go get takeout sushi for Mandy, then 2 giggling assholes come by on bicycles, one tries to take Mandy's sushi, he fails. I knock him off his bike and punch him a lot and scream extremely loudly and he and his friend are freaked out. They run away. I hate people. Anyway, where was I? Oh, the Fiend Folio, right...)

..Or do I need a gorilla bear? Or something like it. My theory here is every soul can be saved. Every monster soul anyway.

So I'm testing it. My plan is to to find a way to use every single monster in the Folio--to make them useful for me in my game. To accomplish this, I will, if necessary, re-conceptualize and, necessary or otherwise, re-draw every monster in the book. Alright, let's go.

A is for all these guys, click to enlarge them....

So the Aarakocra are like boring intelligent bird-men. They live in the mountains and have flags. I suppose you could make a case for them that they're kinda China Mieville, but China Mieville is kinda Fiend Folio, frankly, and that bird guy in his book was about the least interesting thing in it. Anyway I decided that they were like marsh cranes instead of mountaintop vultures and had sort of numchuk-morningstars and an extra arm/leg and drew that:
Though I think the weapon looks good in the picture, mentally picturing it moving around and flying and swinging that thing around makes it seem silly. So I'm gonna say their schtick is actually they mostly use short swords. This guy's clearly some young avante garde upstart (thus the haircut and leg jewelry). Mostly what they do is stand eerily staring with their apathetic eyes at you in huge numbers among their marsh flags and then they move with terrifying speed when anybody comes near their swampy home and claw and peck them to death with horrible keening cries.Here's a first draft, trying to stay closer to the original concept before I decided vanilla bird people suck and going vulture just runs you smack into Warhammer's Lord of Change, so I just said fuck it.

Speaking of sucky bird monsters. Really really the next monster was a challenge. The Achaierai is a giant spherical budgie with four super-long legs that "emits" poison gas and is in no way not ridiculous. Seriously look at this:Oh, the furled eyebrow! How arch, achaierai!

So two monsters in and I'm thinking I'm thinking the Fiend Folio has completely defeated me. The point is it's a giant bird so tall you can't get to its body and have to attack the legs and I've already used the only bird (crane) that manages to pull of this long-leg-bird concept non-ridiculously.

So I started drawing and praying and came up with this guy:

I still think the "so tall you can only hit its legs" thing isn't gonna fly (yeah yeah, pun, I see it) but I feel like it does fit the part of the entry where it's called a "loathsome bird summoned from the infernal regions" and, considering what I had to start with, I'm considering that a victory. About nine feet tall I'd say.

Next trainwreck: The Adherer. His underwhelming schtick is he looks like a mummy but is actually just a really sticky guy! I can see some late night 50s horror host with a comb-over and a thick Queens accent saying that "Hey kids! It looks like a mummy, but it's actually a real sticky guy! How are Abbot and Costello gonna get out of this one?" This is one of the worst examples of monsters just made entirely in a DM-vacuum by a guy whose players have no sense of wonder or mystery left and just see a mummy and think "Ooh, a mummy, those are hard to turn!" and so is just trying to surprise them. You know the type: Gas-spore, pseudo-undead, ear-seeker, surprisingly-tough-kobold. Meaningless unless you're playing the boringest level-grindiest vanilla D&D.

Plus, the teratological niche is filled: the Lodestone Golem--which I don't know if D&D ever got around to but that Google shows me Magic:TG has, does basically the same thing with less lame. As does the Man of Wounds. Speaking of him, my first draft of reworking the adherer just looked like a dumb Clive-Barkerified version of the Man of Wounds. So I gave that one up.

I decided instead to go with the idea that the Adherer walked on walls and was made of tar.
The fact that he's pointing all J'accuse! made me think maybe the adherer is really morally upright or something. Which made me think of maybe he's not just an Adherer but an Adherent as in a subscriber to some faith or moral code. However, since I got too much work cut out for me turning other people's stupid ideas into good ones, I am too tired today to gratuitously pile on my own stupid ideas, too. Let's just say that this Adherer is a more politically correct name for what might once have been naively dubbed a "tar baby" and leave it at that.

Now the Aleax: it's sent by your god/DM when you're not following your religion/alignment properly. It looks exactly like you only sparkly. It fights you and has your abilities (and a couple mechanical speedbumps, like it regenerates). If you are defeated by your shiny double you get knocked down to half xp and if you win you get whisked out of the campaign to serve your god for a year and a day. In either case, your campaign sucks.

Instead: let's steal from Thor and Wonder Woman comics and say the Aleax doesn't just show up and try to punch you but actually tries to replace you. It will compete with you in your next epic adventure: it will try to find the Crown of Barskorgenstein first or it will try to defeat the Dread Gorfingel before you do. If it succeeds, bad things happen, if it fails, good things happen.

Since Twilight has ruined "shiny" for at least a decade, we'll say it looks exactly like you except for a certain shiftiness in its eyes. Friends and acquaintances could easily confuse the Aleax for the genuine article. Its conversation is dull, however, and it will only speak and act like a tediously pious and platonic representation of your faith and/or alignment. It takes this "trying to replace you" business seriously and will attempt to supplant and stymie you at every turn.Next up is the Algoid which, just below the surface is a decent monster: a hyperinteligent algae collective that can use psionics (naturally) and control local flora like a treant. The only big problem with the Algoid is the picture, where the normally-pretty-good Russ Nicholson has depicted it as looking like a sort of generic Kirby Parademon, which makes no sense with the concept. Plus, if a self-aware collective of tiny stuff is going to assume Kirbyfied form then Annihilus has already got the algoid beat.

My first try (an abandoned draft of which turned into the Adherer) was too sci-fi for my D&D game, though I include it here in case anybody wants to use it on Planet Algol...

In my second draft I decided the whole vegetal-mastermind thing was creepier if it wasn't even remotely human. This weird gooey thing just sits on a Faulknerian branch somewhere and makes life miserable for you. I figure it controls trees by means of coating them in its own algae-slime which is a sort of continuous body sheath that places whatever it coats under the algoid's control.So far so good, I'm thinking. But that was all tiddlywinks compared to the next and truest test:

The Al-Mi'Raj. A bunny with a unicorn horn. I figure if I can pull this one off the whole rest of the Fiend Folio is cake. Garbug? No problem! Bunyip? Bring it on!

So I wasted a lot of time googling Watership Down and Svankmajer's Alice and Rats of NIMH and came up with this:Mandy insisted on the red eyes.

Is it not-dumb yet? At my table I figure I can pull it off--it needs a low raspy voice and it's full of hard-won animal-wisdom and twitchy bitter-little-prey-animal head movements. I think it will work. The black nightingales will speak of it in low whispers: "Consult the Al-Mi'Raj, human..."

Or maybe it's still just a bunny. Viv thinks it's adorable, but her taste is suspect. Test drive soon and I'll let you know.

Next up: Oh joy, another mechanical and lexicographic variation on a ghost--the Apparition. It attacks for no reason and you save twice or die. Surprise! Who thought that up? That's barely a game. And the worst part is the original Russ Nicholson illustration is great. As are all of his skeletal undead. (The apparition is the upper left there). So I've got nothing to work with, really.

Alright. I'd say, psychoetymologically, the apparition is distinguished from the garden-variety ghost by its laziness. The apparition's main thing is it appears. It's main disturbing thing is showing up. This is the intimations-of-psychosis-is-that-guy-really?-there ghost, not the rattling-chains-magic-weapon-to-hit ghost. This is like Hamlet's father. The apparition just shows up, does almost nothing, and makes spooky demands on the living.

Also, you won't know the ghost is a ghost, necessarily. It looks just like a creepy living person. Then a few hours later you go--wait, didn't that guy die already? Ok, honestly this is more a plot device or puzzle-initiator than a monster, but that's what ghosts usually are, so I'm cool with that.

Mandy says I should've drawn him wispier, but I drew wispy things for like 3 years in the Zeros and I'm over it.
And now: ASSASSIN BUG!!!! AAAAAH!!!!The original Bug isn't too bad, actually: "giant bug" is a fine concept and Russ did an alright picture, but the mechanics are kinda dull: male paralyzes you, female injects you with eggs, you die. Even that's not so bad on second thought: you have to defend your unmoving friend from the second attack.

Anyway I added this bit since I actually drew the picture here (with a guy's head in the bug's mouth if you look carefully) while GMing the following Call of Cthulhu scenario: the bug is a servant of followers of the Insect God En-Gorath. The device that brings the bug into our world can be any object. The object is typically disassembled or in fragments (a house, a sculpture, a painting, a lamp, etc.). When it's reassembled, the Assassin Bug will crawl out of the thing and slay whoever completed it. So the typical tactic is to use some object that the cult knows the recipient will want to assemble (they will feel a strange compulsion to assemble it, thought the pieces may be widely scattered).

Last and least in the A's is the unbearably dull Astral Searcher. This 2HD-attacks-the-nearest-creature-for-no-reason-and-if-it-kills-you-it-possesses-you bundle of stats is so dull it doesn't even have a picture. The only interesting detail is they're secretly formed by traumatic events or spells being cast on the astral plane.

So naturally what you'd wanna do is tell anybody going to the Astral Plane that mucking around too much up there could cause the formation of an astral searcher, then make a table for that with some percentages and modifiers that you roll on whenever they do anything and make your PCs all scared about it and be all "Holy fuck, if we do that, it might create an astral searcher!" in high-magic or high-drama situations and then be a clever improvisey DM and give each individual searcher powers ironically derived from the trauma that created the beast in the first place. Like: if it was caused by a Chain Lightning spell then the thing has the ability to deaden electrical signals (like nerve impulses, f'rinstance) in some sort of contagious chain-lightning-esque way.

As for the picture, hey, I can do whatever I want. There's an astral searcher:

Please feel free to tell us what you did with these guys in your game in the comments. One of the best parts of the Alphabetical Monster Thing I did a while back was hearing the readers' take on all these guys.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Characters My Players Would Totally Want To Play Round Up...

I don't know anything about Magic (the game) but I always appreciate it when people post pictures from games I don't play so I can see the art.

Here are some characters from WOTC's first baby that the girls would be all over...

A sphinx in a bustier. That's innovation. And it's amazing how the weirdness and stylishness of the picture is actually more powerful than its cheesiness.
My least favorite--the technique's a little rough and the blatant ass-cleavage-in-moonlight could've been better served by something other than a lazily-rendered brown cloth that's seemingly immune to wind. However, the killer stare and the shading on the lower chin guarantees the girls will totally want to play this chick.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Child of En-Gorath, or CIFALganger

Wikipedia: "A doppelgänger is a tangible double of a living person in fiction, folklore, and popular culture that typically represents evil."

Fiend Folio: "The CIFAL--the name is acronymic of 'colonial insect-formed artificial life'--is an agglomeration of several swarms of insects...which come together to form a single amorphous creature about man-sized.

Wikipedia again: "Aggressive mimicry is a form of mimicry where predators, parasites or parasitoids share similar signals with a harmless model, allowing them to avoid being correctly identified by their prey or host."

I feel like you can probably figure it out from there, right folks? We're all DMs here. She's not your auntie, she's bugs. The first hint is usually subtle, a fly emerging from the left nostril as someone lights a cigarette, etc.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Gygaxian Democracy #12: Starship Crash

Ok, so you just crash-landed on the probably-hostile planetoid.

You are going to have to roll on the table below.

Let's assume:
  • your craft is definitely damaged and will require at least one mcguffin, um, I mean, spare part in order to get off this planet again
  • your craft may or may not be armed so any results talking about weapons will also have to include a non-weapon result
  • damage to people is classic D&D-scaled. i.e. d4 isn't a lot, 3d6 is.
  • this table will be used if the upcoming Warhammer 40k: Dark Heresy Starcrawl Mandy wants to play this week actually happens and if those involved fail to remember what happened in pilot school. We have characters rolled up and everything. However this table should be made usable for any sci fi game.
  • To keep this table flexible, don't tell the GM stuff about what planet this is. It's their game--don't tell them: "Oh, you landed on a planet full of green cheese". Just tell them what the crash did and, if necessary, throw in some local color about what was crashed into.
1-Rummmmble....thupthupthup whoa, you all get thrown around but not too bad--take d4 damage and make a con roll to not throw up

2-As 1 plus you lost a tailfin. Minus 10% to all control rolls.

3...(Your turn...)

Note On Using Playing Cards Instead of Dice Tables As Random Generators

Let's say you need 4 random elements fast. (What will be the 5 main monsters in this dungeon? Who are the most important NPCs in the town? etc.) You're either prepping fast or are trying to do this during play.

You could roll 4 times, or draw 4 standard-deck playing cards with things you wrote on them in sharpie.

-Here's an advantage to using the cards instead of a die roll:

Since there are suits and numbers, if you use them, cards not only can give you results, they can automatically create relationships or connections between the results.

For example: You can assume any 2 cards with matching suits are on the same "side"--part of the same faction or the same race, etc. and any 2 cards with matching numbers are on opposite sides--enemies, vying for the same goal, etc.

This also makes it easy to draw additional cards and add them to whatever's already going on--any new card has a chance of being related, but not an overwhelming one.

-Here's another advantage: The relative numerical values on the cards you pick can be used to establish things like which monster the PCs meet first, or the status or power levels of a handful of NPCs relative to each other. Like if you get ace 4 7 king you know the Ace is the mook, the king is the boss, and the 4 shows up before the 7.

(Note this isn't as true with tarot cards--unless you know the tarot well, the various major arcana--half the deck--have no obvious connections between them.)

Drawback: This method will only create connections that were waiting there when you wrote the cards to begin with. i.e. the 10 of clubs and the 9 of diamonds will never be automatically connected using this method. Obviously you could create your own connection, but this is the kind of random generator (Simple, Complete) where the point is it does all the work itself.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

5 Kinds of Random Generators & What Makes Them Not Suck

Ok, so I've been (shockingly, I know) thinking about random generators. Specifically: which ones are fun, which ones aren't, which work, which don't, and all that. I feel like I've boiled generators down to a few basic types. I kinda feel like: just how Gygax included a little info on dice curves at the beginning of the DMG, he should've explained a little about different generators up there, too...

PLAYER RANDOMNESS ANXIETY PRINCIPLE or PRAP: Before I go into these kinds of generators, though, I should point out there's a separate principle at work which overrides everything below: Nearly any random generator can be fun and good if the players know it is being rolled on, they have some idea of what the possible outcomes could be, and this produces anxiety.

Like for example here's a crappy generator:

What's That Over There? (roll d6)
1-3 Bear
4-6 2 Bears

If the players know what's on this table, or have rolled on it before, or if you just say "ok, we're going to see how many bears there are" then even this table is worth more than zero so long as the PCs are afraid of bears (and if they're not, you need to work on your growly noises and read "New Mutants: The Demon Bear Saga.) Some people don't like talking a lot about the random tables to the players since they feel it breaks immersion and if that's your life then hey, live how you wanna, but anyway my point here is simply that the categories below only address how good different kinds of tables are in situations other than ones where the players know kinda what's on them and know you're rolling on them--or in addition to them.


Simple, Complete Option Generators

These are tables and methods that parse through basic, familiar choices, basically just a list with numbers in front, like:

What kind of trap is that?
1-Pit trap
2-Poison gas
3-Poison needles
4-gates crash down, locking PCs in

or like the random building table here.

The items in the generator are not clever or creative, they are just the array that you'd expect in the genre/situation you're playing in.

These are good if:

  • There are a lot of options to parse through (more than you can keep in your head easily--say more than 12), or...
  • You've got a computer program, deck of cards, chart, or other mechanism that generates lots and lots of choices from these simple options in one go. Like for example an 8-option wind direction table (north, northwest, south, southeast, etc.) is pointless but a program that independently generated wind directions for each hex of an 800-hex ocean might be useful and save you some time.

These are not good if:

  • It takes as long to consult the generator as it would to just make something up and there are so few options that you could easily have come up with anything in the generator. Most "types of traps" generators are like this: they are fun in a PRAP situation, but if you just need 5 traps because you're making a dungeon, sitting and rolling 5 times on a d8 table can easily be more trouble than it's worth. Yeah yeah, I know you like rolling on tables--but in this situation, even if you don't want to make up your own dungeon, wouldn't you at least rather be rolling on a d100 table?

Simulational Generators

These are just like Simple, Complete Option Generators only the numbers are weighted more-or-less carefully to match the probability of things happening in real life or in the genre of story you're simulating. Most tables in the AD&D DMG work this way. Here's a simple one:

What's Wrong With This Guy On Fox News? (d100)
1-98 Gay and doesn't want to admit it to himself
99-00 Something else

Another example of this kind of generator would be basing your campaign map on the map of some random real place you found. Character generation using 3d6 or 4d6-pick-the-highest or other common variants is simulational since handfuls of dice always tend toward the median result.

These are good if:
  • You use them over and over and over again and do not fuck with the results very often. They will reinforce the internal logic and style of whatever structure the generator is creating. They will, in effect, become "rules" of your world ("goblins usually use slime traps") just like the fact that PCs rarely have a 3 or 18 strength is a "rule".
  • Creating a single structure/creature/place/adventure element requires rolling on them so much that you will probably get an unlikely result that you can build into an adventure hook and there is some computerized/card-based/graphic-based mechanism that can do all this rolling for you faster than you could think up your own hook. Like you create a weighted castle generator and most of the results are typical but all that rolling eventually gives you the result that the third courtier from the left is a werewolf. Well then you've got your adventure right there, plus a believable place to have it.

These tables can be a drag if:
  • You rely on them to give you adventure ideas and--however you're using them--they don't regularly produce them. When you get an unusual result, they'll help, but the whole point of the table is that unusual results will be rare so by the time you get one you may have already thought of some. Or you've gazed longingly at the unusual results for so long you already have a favorite you want to use.
  • You do use them over and over and over again but the internal consistency you create by having these weighted results isn't having any effect on anything anybody notices while playing. Like if javelin traps are 5% more likely than dart traps who cares? Is this some important genre convention the rest of us don't know about?
  • You don't get to use them enough that the weight of the probabilities is felt. Like I've used the DMG random treasure table like twice, ever. One of those times I got the Book Of Vile Darkness. The (extensive) simulational aspects of that table counted for nothing in terms of impact on the game. I had a Random Goblin Witch Curse table--I used it once in a PRAP situation--it wouldn't have made sense to make this a weighted, simulational table.

Complete Creative Result Generators

These are kind of the opposite of simulational generators. The effort hasn't gone into weighing the probabilities--most or all of the options are somewhat improbable. This is basically a bunch of allegedly-interesting maybe semi-unique ideas someone has thought up that are put into a generator.

Here's the classic and it rules.

These kinds of results can be added to Simple, Complete Option Generators or Simulational Generators if there are a lot of results in the generator, but if there aren't then the Creative options will appear over and over and become a cliche. If a generator is all Creative Results then it should have a lot of options--for the same reason.

A good random mutation table is usually a combo of Simulational and Creative results so if you roll up a lot of mutants you get nine with tentacles and bulging eyes and like one with snails instead of teeth. (Interesting philosophical question: the Warhammer mutation tables are weighted so you can produce armies with common mutations and outliers, however you're supposed to use the same tables when rolling up a personal mutation for your Chaos Champion PC if playing an RPG. So your chaos champion is more likely to end up with a common mutation, not a crazy creative one. Is that good or bad? Oh god I can hear the GNS theorists in the comments already, forget I said anything. )

Another thing about these is they often work best on the "after you've used this result, cross it out and write your own" model.

Often these are best in extremely specific situations, so it can be kinda tough to decide which one to make: the more creative you can get with your generator, the less broadly applicable it's likely to be. I have gotten to use the 999 table like three times, ever. Such is life.

These are good if:

  • You want something interesting to happen and are sure you can handle the curveball it'll throw into your adventure.
  • You have a list of good ideas you want to use but don't have room to cram them all into the next adventure you write so you're kind of putting them "on ice" for later.

These are a drag if:
  • You use these all the time and so the PCs just get the feeling no choice they make matters because no matter what they do something completely weird the DM rolled up will happen. i.e. the world becomes so non-simulational it has no internal logic at all. Without some internal logic the DM has all the power and the PCs have none. (Jeff's Party Like It's 999 table avoids this by being a table the players decide to roll on, and by only coming into effect if the carousing goes wrong.)
  • You really don't want these results in a generator, you just want to use all the ones you like whenever you like, so it'd be better to just have a list, actually.
  • (related) The results are so specific and there are so few results that if you get a result more than once (assuming that's likely) it starts to be lame.
  • The person who wrote the stuff in the generator was creative in a direction that isn't really your bag.

Incomplete/Inspirational Generators

These are generators which, unlike the previous two, don't tell you exactly what's going on--they give you imagination fuel and require you to fill in the gaps. This is one of them, as is this, as is Jeff's idea of picking up a random issue of Dragon and making a campaign out of it. (Yeah, I'm using a lot of Jeff examples, what can I say, the man loves generators.)

This generator is a hybrid--it has some Simple, Complete Option tables and some Incomplete tables. It's a good case study--I don't like it and only used it once because:

-it was technically more cumbersome in many ways than it needed to be--all the possibilities for the first 2 tables--for instance--could have fit easily in one table.

-it took as long to generate an area and think up a unifying idea as it would've taken just to think up an interesting thing for the place without the generator.

This one
works a little better, but I've still only used it once, since it has the same problem: it takes just as long to make results that fit as it does to just think up a dungeon. (Though I get mail that other people like it and use it, so whatever.)

Yesterday's city generator post was a better hybrid, I think: 67 of the 78 results told you exactly what was where instantly (they were Simple, Complete Generators) and the last eleven (Incomplete) results gave you hints you could use or just discard and stick with the insta-results.

...which points up the thing about Incomplete Generators:

These are good if:

  • You think the self-imposed challenge of thinking up ideas within constraints is fun and you have time to do it. (Which must be at least a little true for you sometimes or else you wouldn't be GMing.)
These can be pointless if:
  • It takes so long to use them you could've just made up your own thing or you're in the middle of a session and you would rather just know what's in the dead guy's pockets now please, thank you.
  • The hints are incomplete but not terribly creative. Like if you roll on the random evil-wizard-dungeon table and the extent of what you get is: 67-80 "A monster" and that's all you get, well, hey, that didn't get me too much farther than I was before I picked up the generator.
  • The generator spits out tons and tons of incomplete results so that filling in the blanks is less inspirational and more just like the generator made you do more work than you would've if you'd just designed your own thing from scratch. In other words, these kind of generators are mainly useful because they are fun--so you actually sit down and do the prep--if they're not fun, they fail in their main task.
Breeding Generators

These are made up of elements which are, in themselves, incomplete, but which are combined with other incomplete elements to create a complete result. One example is Stephen Poag's Exquisite Corpses.

Here's a simple one:

What's your transmutational superpower?

You can absorb (roll once on this table) and turn it into (roll again this table)

1- sound
4-gamma radiation
5-kinetic energy/vibrations

The nice thing here is we get all kinds of emergent things we hadn't thought of when we threw the table together--"absorbs light and turns it into kinetic energy"--that's interesting: roaming around in miasma of darkness causing tremors all day.

The hard part about making one is there's so many possibilities it's hard to make sure all the results are going to make sense, especially when the list of variables gets long--like: "turns electricity into light" is that really all that great? You're a table lamp. Well we could change "light" to "lasers"--but then if you rolled "lasers" first your power is to turn "lasers" into something and that seems not terribly useful most of the time unless you live on the Death Star and plus if you can turn lasers into electricity, well, I mean it's cool to shoot people with electricity but why not just leave them as lasers?...

Obviously this can be ironed out, but the point is making a good Breeder isn't easy.

Also note that a Breeder is different than just stacked Complete Generators like one where you roll race randomly and then class randomly--that just gives you a combination of existing options--which is basically two Simple, Complete Option generators stuck together. Those produce combinations of known quantities--which is what most things in games are. The Breeder is also different than something like this which has a similar mechanism but is really an incomplete generator--you have to finish it yourself. Breeders create new "building blocks"--and each block is finished when it comes out.

Functioning breeders are really the bee's knees when it comes to random tables--a whole greater than the sum of its parts. There isn't much of a downside to using them, it's just hard to make one that works and that's on a subject that's generally useful. Like when LOTFP announced they were doing a book of Exquisite Corpses, the first comments were Awesome, now do one for adventures, one for dungeons, one for wilderness maps...

And that ain't easy because you can say head of a...body of a...legs of a... and you've got a complete monster that is pretty much ready to play with. Doing that with a dungeon or adventure or outdoor map would probably just give you an Incomplete Generator unless you're super clever about it.

Ok, so, there you go with that, kids.