Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Beneath the Sea of Krhuün

 I played another game of How To Host A Dungeon in bits and pieces of free time this past week. As is the intent behind How To Host A Dungeon, the game creates enough backstory and complexity to a map that you could base an entire RPG campaign around it. This map has a single entrance to the underdark, with a pretty nasty gatekeeper. Once you get past it, you’re entering one of those Gygaxian murder complexes full of evil cults, horrible undead, and befuddling traps.

Here’s the final post-game map (click on it for a larger version), followed by some explanation of everything that happened on it:

The speckled dark brown in the background is dirt and rock (that much is probably obvious), and the squiggly paths of lighter brown and pale tan are rough tunnels through the earth. For most of the map, the lightest tunnels are the most traveled routes, and the darker tunnels are ancient paths now choked with debris. If you were using this map for an RPG, those darker tunnels would be slower-going, but less likely to be patrolled. Most of those old tunnels were hewn by a great demonic worm in a long-forgotten age, so they may have interesting physical features, such as tooth marks on rocks, or fossilized demon-spoor.

The one area where the meaning of the tunnel coloration doesn’t hold true is the great labyrinth of Vrenokrygia. This particularly long-lived Minotaur has dug multiple mazes on top of one another, and the photoshop transparency layers may have camouflaged that a little.

The more colorful (and generally more straight-edged and linear) portions of the map are constructions, with the color being coded to whichever civilization built them.

The history and regions of the map will be explained below, with a few snapshots of the map in its earlier sketcher stages during the game.



At the dawn of time, this part of the world was inhabited by a handful of races. Their civilizations all collapsed, but there may be remnants and descendants in the darker corners of the map.
Most numerous were the murderous demons and their barely-controlled tunnel-worm pet, but they wiped themselves out with bitter infighting.
From the dawn of time there slumbered here a dragon named Archovoraxis, who died repeatedly and was reborn many times over the millenia.
Lost also to the mists of time were three tribes of sneaky humanoid mongrels that would eventually evolve into hobgoblins.  


Long ago, this surface was populated by a loose coalition of humanoids known as The Red Hand. One of their old port fortresses remains, having been adopted as a landmark and variously maintained and explored by the current human government.


The surface is now dominated by The Golden Ward, a wealthy and benevolent human nation with a long tradition and great reach. Back when the world was a wilder place, they built a Great Wall to keep the barbarians at bay. Since then, they have expanded across the sea. The capital of the Golden Ward is far to the West, behind the Great Wall. They have extensive trade routes across the Sea of Kruün, and have built stilt-villages over the murky shallows along the coast.

Beneath the stockade was a winding tunnel to the ur-Hobgoblins with which The Red Hand intermingled. The first time The Golden Ward sent an excursion into this tunnel, it was ambushed by these primitive Monolith-worshipping Hobgoblins. The sunken fleet of The Red Hand lies beneath the bay near the fort, amidst the stilts of a Golden Ward coastal village.

To the East lies the tower of a greedy and powerful Geomancer. While a law-abiding member of the Golden Ward, he keeps secret to himself the knowledge that much of the Eastern colony lies upon an untapped Mithril deposit. Untold riches and opportunities are kept from his countrymen by his insistence on secrecy.

(As you can see in this map from much later in the game,) Mineral wealth abounds in this region. There’s another Mithril deposit further down, and known only to the Deep Dwarves. A huge coal vein runs through the middle of the map, with parts of it having been mined by Dark Elves, Deep Dwarves, and far more unusual things, such as the Fungaliths and the Infernal Automatons.

The Fungaliths were a race of silicon-based people who reproduced by spores. Combining the strength of rock, fecundity of mushrooms, and the intelligence of man, they had great potential. However, they were slow to grow, and slower still to adapt to new circumstances. Eventually they were defeated by their more violent neighbors, but their spores linger on in the cracks and recesses, and may one day flourish anew.

The Demons of the ancient world were brutal and domineering, but also cunning and inventive. They slew the dragon Archovoraxis and made a monument of his bones, a trophy of his hide. They mined coal to power great Infernal Engines, into which they bound their brothers. These sentient Demon-Machines had millenia to grind and burn until their spite was as hard as a diamond. Then, in the throes of bitter rage, the Diamond Spite broke free, forming a new body from its’ own embodied anger and the gears of the Engines. Thus was born the first of the Infernal Automatons, demon-possessed mechanical constructs.

The Dark Elves arrived in the region via a tunnel from the deepest levels of the underdark, fleeing a war with a powerful race of Sphinxes. They stumbled upon the great Demon Pits from the olden days, and though the plague it housed nearly killed them off, the treasures and knowledge of the Demons made the Dark Elves stronger. Those who survived became carriers of the plague, and they built a huge Death Palace, with a sacrificial pit to the depths of a great chasm. (I’m picturing something along the lines of the “Moon Door” in the Game of Thrones TV series.)

Though the Dark Elves were themselves refugees, they had no sympathy for those who came after them fleeing the same foe. A race of goodly Gnomes arrived on the tunnel, begging the Elves for refuge and assistance against their common enemy. The Elves showed them no mercy, slaughtering and enslaving and infecting until all that remained of the Gnomes was their magical Steamquartz, a powerful scrying stone which the Elves forced the last of the Gnomes to install in a high Observatory overlooking the Death Palace and the Demon Plague Pits.

The old foe did twice track the Elves down, in two different generations. Huge Sphinxes with great magic pushed their way past the Elven defenses, and slew dozens before being driven off into the Plague Pits. There they became sick and died. Eventually their corpses were looted by Elves who were immune to the disease. From the first Sphinx’s body, they brought back The Morbid Scroll, a wizardly tract on the power of life and death. Years later a second sphinx came from the same tunnel, attacked and was driven off to die of the plague. They found it’s body next to that of its predecessor, and clutched in it’s giant paw was The Crook of Revelations. It had used the Crook to etch three powerfully damning curses into the walls of the room.

That is to say, in two non-consecutive turns of the game, I rolled the arrival of the exact same monster type, at the exact same starting location, and both times it failed to defeat the Elves and “bounced” in the exact same direction to die of plague in the exact same room. That was some heavy deja vu. In fact, that starting location roll ended up happening again and again in the early turns of the Age of Monsters. In the first 5 turns of that era, Dark Elves, Gnomes and two Sphinxes all spawned in the same room, and each time the Dark Elves either won or tied the resulting conflict rolls.

The Dark Elves became increasingly obsessed with death and fate. They ruminated on these topics and dissected The Morbid Scroll. Their forges ran round the clock producing armaments and armors for prophecied wars. At times hermits or entire cults would wander off into the demon-carved tunnels of the world to seek the hidden truths. Most were never seen again, but the child of hermit returned to them one day.



Meanwhile, a powerful Minotaur had made it’s lair in the upper reaches of the tunnel system. Vrenokrygia, or Murderhoof as she is more commonly known on the surface, is powerful, industrious, and clever. She’s built many interweaving mazes as a base of operations. She frequently raids the Dark Elves, the Hobgoblins, and even the villages of The Golden Ward. Anyone seeking to enter or leave the Underdark must pass through her labyrinth. Though she cannot feast upon the Infernal Automatons, she enjoys taking them apart and using their scraps to decorate her mazes.

Pinched between the Dark Elves and Murderhoof, the Infernal Automatons turned to their mechanical insights for survival. They built a series of traps, including high-pressure flames, chutes and pits, and a diabolical Gemstone Trap in the image of their firstborn, The Diamond Spite. That portion of the underdark became a living death trap, with fragmented demons bound into ever gear and stone. They even made a giant mouth, through whose bellows the Engines could speak.


About this time, a child visited the Automatons. It was half-Elven, half-Demon, and very persuasive. It spoke of a great Temple to the Ancient Evil, which had been built by it’s parents deep in the dark bowels of the earth. It led The Diamond Spite to the temple, and convinced him to spread this new worship throughout his mechanical people. They were, after all, both the spawn of a Demon and something else. Flesh or metal, the Demon-half was what they had in common. The Diamond Spite ordered a Shrine of the new faith be built by his machines.

Not all of the Automatons accepted the new master. A small group split off and relocated to the Charnel Shrine built by their Demonic forbears. These fundamentalists felt the only good organic was a dead one. They drafted a plan to sneak up on the new Temple from an ancient disused tunnel, to slaughter the half-demon in his stupid organic sleep.


The child prophet did not rest, however. He went to his other people, the Dark Elves, and showed them the power that could be theirs if they just sold their souls a little. It was an easy victory, there was little distance left for the Dark Elves to fall. They adopted the new religion overnight, and built a Shrine that could only be accessed by crossing through the old Demon Pits. (The walkway also has a lovely view as the “moon-door” executions plummet by.)

However, the Dark Elves weren’t much for this “united in demonhood” nonsense. They were still petty, greedy, and violent. They marched on the Demon Engines, ripped The Diamond Spite apart, and stole the soulstone from which he drew his name. A war had begun.

Much as the coming of the Temple had splintered the Automatons, it now caused a schism in the Dark Elves. There were many schools of thought - the new Demon Shrine, the intellectual society organized around study of the Morbid Scroll, a different group of visionaries who focused on the Steamquartz, and the party of militants who ran the forges. Their political situation grew unstable, despite the economic prosperity.

Hetar Bacris, an Elven nobleman and scholar, led a portion of his people (and much of their treasure) on a pilgrimage deep into the ancient tunnels. He invested the wealth in a laboratory and a menagerie, and a magnificent tomb he said would survive the end of the world. There he murdered his own people with foul magic. Before their bodies grew cold, he committed suicide himself, and arose as a powerful Liche. Those who had followed him were animated as Undead Legions, for Hetar Bacris sought nothing less than absolute rule of all the world. He turned his attention away from his fleshy concerns, and let the menagerie become overgrown with pestilent Green Slime.

About that time, a small mining colony of Deep Dwarves arrived in the area, having been attracted by the sensation of activated Mithril (you can thank that Geomancer up on the surface). They would eventually mine out much of the Eastern edge of the map, but at this point they were barely noteworthy.

By this point, the Infernal Automatons had been destroyed. A few machines had mothballed themselves in dark corners, or hiddeen under a layer of Green Slime in the caves beneath the menagerie, but their society was shattered. Betrayed by the very Child that had converted them, they were slaughtered by an army of Dark Elves led by the Priest of the Temple. Only the great many traps they had littered their caves with kept the Demon Engines intact and unlooted.

Despite no longer having a (beating) heart, Hetar Bacris proved a powerful diplomat and politician. He pledged himself to the Temple of Evil, and won the support of both the Elves of his birth and the Temple’s demon-mixed hierarchy. His Legions grew, and undead slaves built great works of architecture with tools made from Automaton scrap. Everything was going perfectly according to plan. Even the dwarves seemed willing to be peaceful neighbors behind strong walls.

Unfortunately, there was a wildcard far above them. Vrenokrygia had developed a taste for man-flesh, and her increasingly-brazen raids wiped out two entire villages. The Golden Ward sent a battalion into her maze, and she slaughtered them single-handedly. This sort of danger could only be answered by Adventurers!

You might just stop there (at the map labeled Age of Villainy, Turn 3, Pre-Adventuring). If it’s a game-able map you’re looking for, to use with your favorite RPG, you can assume the PCs are the Adventurers who answer that call. They’ll start with a minotaur, and level-up into facing the complex confluence of several evil civilizations living in and below a demon-haunted death-trap.

Here’s an index of the named treasures that appear on some of the maps (along with their origins as sometimes that's not obvious).
T1 = Egg of Oblivion (Archovoraxis)
T2 = Mithril-flecked Dragonhide (Archovoraxis)
T3 = The Diamond Spite (Demon Engine)
T4 = Soul Oil (Demon Engine)
T5 = Steamquartz (Gnomish Lens) 
T6 = The Morbid Scroll (Sphinx Book of the Dead)
T7 = Spear of Doom (Adventuring Party)
T8 = Crook of Revelations (Sphinx Cursed Item)
T9 = Ioun Stone (Adventuring Party)
T10 = Flute of Domination (Adventuring Party)
T11 = Mask of the Glowing Wind (Adventuring Party)
T12 = Bill-Guisarme of Grace (Adventuring Party)
T13 = Staff of Adroitness (Adventuring Party)

For the majority of you who are _not_ going to run this as an RPG, here’s a few more paragraphs on how my game of How To Host A Dungeon came to its satisfying end:



Over the next few years, increasingly larger Adventuring Parties braved Murderhoof’s lair,  and the tunnels below it. Not a single one returned alive. They say someone killed the Minotaur, and the Adventurer’s would press below her maze. Many fell victim to the Infernal traps, but a few pushed onward to deal debilitating blows to the Dark Elves and the Temple Clergy.

In the end, the Adventurers would always die on the spears of the Undead Legions. These invasions of do-gooders happened with the changing of the seasons for 6 straight years.

Hetar Bacris was inundated with treasures and dismembered bodies, but his mortal supporters were gone.  The Temple had fallen before it’s missionaries could completely corrupt the Dwarves. They’d grown fractuous and chaotic, but were not yet fully controlled. Greedy and self-centered, and now distrustful of strangers. The Liche-King could not twist them to his will.

Too many corpses, not enough time or energy to animate them all. When the next wave of Adventurers came through in the 4th year, they slaughtered Hetar Bacris and his armies.

The Adventurers gathered up all of the treasure, their bags overflowing with the best plunder of four civilizations. They were tired and ragged when they met the Dwarves in their halls. Good ol’ trust-worthy dwarves. It seemed like as good a place as any to resupply, spend a little ill-gained coinage, and rest for the night. The Adventurers were never heard from again.




Friday, November 14, 2014

Blink, and the Age of Villainy is gone

Continuing the tale of my second game ever of How To Host A Dungeon.  In part one, the Dark Elf cities of Kharsoum and Leyban (and the Colony of Silla) burned themselves out in a hurry, and then a huge earthquake shattered the rock around them. In the second act, various monsters moved in to the ruins, and were hunted mercilessly by parties of roving adventurers. In this chapter, a new villain arises, shakes up the dungeon a bit, and then meets a quick demise. In the end, though, I've got a pretty cool map that I could use for D&D as the basis of a old-school dungeon with a rich history. So that's cool.

Link to First Post. Link to Second Post.

Here's the map as we last saw it:

Picking A Good Villain:

There’s four Villain options in the rules: the Thought Lord Cult, the Liche King, the Alpha Villain, and the Dungeon Master. You can either roll randomly, or pick the one that seems best suited to your map.

Our map is a little tricky. On average, we would have expected to see 1.3 adventuring parties in the first 8 turns of the Age of Monsters. Instead, we rolled up 3 parties, the last of whom wiped out most of the monsters on the map, and hoovered up most of the treasure. Whatever Villain we add is going to be facing serious resource shortages, and not have much of a buffer between them and any further do-gooder adventuring parties.

There aren’t enough monsters to fuel the Thought Cult’s sacrifices. It would die off very quickly.

The starting position (largest empty room) for the Dungeon Master is too close to the surface, and likely to result in a long unproductive battle of attrition with the Count that eats up all the resources and leaves the DM too vulnerable. The very first of the mandatory yearly Adventuring Parties of the Age of Villainy would almost certainly wipe the DM out.

I could make Count Laventhorpe an Alpha Villain, but there’s some potential issues with the way his “Zone of Control” would bounce around whenever Adventurers tried to kill him, thanks to the rules that I made up for him when a rolled a “12: Create your own” on the Alpha Predator chart. As a Minion of the Liche King his powers would still be interesting, but not likely to break the game the way they would if I made my unkillable Count into the big bad.


A Liche-King could work, with either Count Laventhorpe or the Magma Spirits as the Liche King’s primary Minion. It would be a slow start, due to the dungeon being cash-poor, and having very few tombs (one in Leyban, and if you’re generous the vampire’s coffin could count as a tomb - in fact, the version I put up on the How To Host A Dungeon Wiki specifically labels those escape rooms as Tombs). It's probably the best official option, but boy is it likely to make for long slow burn that takes forever to get anywhere. I'd rather save the Liche-King for use in some future tomb-ier map.


Thinking outside the box, another option would be to assume that last Adventuring Party was corrupted by the Great Flail of Melancholy they found in the Temple to Dame Chaos, and that one of them became the new Dungeon Master. This would start the DM with a lot of extra treasure, since they'd picked up 6 treasures via questing and pillaging. I would have to break the rules of placement as well, putting the DM’s HQ in old Kharsoum instead of the larger room abandoned by the vampire. While this is stretching the rules quite a bit to the benefit of the Villain, they’d also be facing a high difficulty due to how well-developed the surface kingdom is. (If the DM miraculously met his army size trigger on turn one, he’d still lose the war. He has to weaken the humans before facing them in the final confrontation if he wants to win.) I think this is the most interesting option. We want the game to be exciting, and this will do it. Thankfully, the game encourages you to ignore the dice if a more interesting choice is calling to you.


Age of Villainy, Year 1: 

I named the villain Elzulgur Melanquish, Master of Dungeons. I rolled up his name from a mishmash of charts in Gary Gygax’s Extraordinary Book of Names. Elzulgur was the fighter of the adventuring party that just smashed it's way through the underworld. Only he and the party's wizard had survived, and they were both a little shadier than their companions. He was corrupted by the Great Flail. Hearing the voice of Dame Chaos herself, he returned to the ruins of Kharsoum, intent on restoring them to their former greatness.  Perhaps it should have been the Great Flail of Nostalgia, not Melancholy.

As Dungeon Master, he renovates old Kharsoum into a spiffy new HQ. He spends some money hiring human mercenaries (other adventurers he’s worked with before).  Renovates the Old Elf Road going west. The DM enslaves the Earthmen. Since this only used half his allowed expansion for the turn, the DM also constructs a new tunnel to the lower section of the Abandoned Merfolk Mines, and drains a room. The digging goal is to connect his new HQ to the Temple of Dame Chaos that changed his life. He also spends 1 treasure building a Laboratory for the Wizard from his old party.

Meanwhile, the Surface Humans get the fifth person in the castle, and send him out to make another farm. As mentioned in a previous post, I now suspect the rules actually intend you to create new peasants to run the farms, but I’d already run 6 or 7 turns the wrong and slower way, so I’ve decided to stand by it. I can see what the difference is like on my next play. This is not the sort of game where you stress yourself out trying to do everything just right. Tweaking and experimenting is much of the fun.

The Earthmen increase in number instead of taking a normal turn. They have been dominated by Elzulgur Melanquish, but he has not yet begun conscripting them for his army.

The tunnels between Count Laventhorpe and everyone else are longer than his hunting range. However, the way I wrote up the Earthmeld special ability for him allows him to encounter either the new human farm or the earthmen by melding through the dirt. (In hindsight, this may be over-powered and have some odd corner cases. The version I put up on the How To Host A Dungeon wiki yesterday left that part out to compensate. I’m gonna stick to my guns for what's left of this game, and see how it plays.) I could decide his target with a die roll, but I figure he probably hungers for human blood more than Earthmen dirt. Though there are a ton of humans on the surface, each construction has it’s own strength. So the farms are relatively vulnerable (+1 to the roll) whereas the castle and city are much stronger (currently +4 or +2 on their defense rolls). The minor lordling who was just recently awarded a small fief is devoured in the night.

The Magma Spirits continue to make their way up towards the Mithril ore. This “should” have been a random tunnel exploration, which could have sent them in any one of 9 (or more) directions. They were just so close, and given that they are fire-based mining creatures, it seemed hard to justify them choosing to go somewhere other than the direction that had an eternal flame and ore worth mining. It wasn’t in their zone of control at the start of the turn, so they can’t start mining it just yet, but it’s there for next time. While I was at it, I added some stairs to the shafts they’d dug. If they’re capable of mining, the "spirits" must have physical forms and thus probably legs. Plus, I think it just looks better with stairs.


Adventurers!


At the end of every year in the Age of Villainy, an Adventuring Party shows up to seek out the big bad. Right off the bat I roll up a party of 6, which is quite possibly enough to end the game this turn if they go down the right tunnels. There was some temptation to ditch that roll, but no matter what happened, I knew this map was going to be hard on the Villain.
I decide to let random luck play it’s part, and the dice send them toward good ol’ Count Laventhorpe first. Perhaps on their way to the dungeon they passed by the bloody massacre at the farm house. They defeat him handily and take his treasure, but the Count escapes with his unlife once again by melding with the earth.
With everything cleared on the first level, I move the Adventurers to the waterfalls chokepoint, and roll to see which of many passages down they take after that. They go down the old Dark Elf exploratory shaft above Leyban and from there into the abandoned Merfolk canals, much like the previous party that ended up corrupted by Dame Chaos.
That leads down into the merfolk city that was built on the ruins of the Dark Elf Slave Pits, all of which the Villain just recently tunneled into, drained, and remodeled.
The adventurers push their way into the Dungeon Master’s Headquarters. They shatter his mercenary army in the first battle. Then they hunt down the DM himself, and take him out in a climactic confrontation. The Age of Villainy didn’t last very long at all. That's what he gets for building a crummy laboratory and expanding tunnels instead of focusing all his efforts on traps. Poor dumb DM.

There’s still a few monsters on the map, but they’re all lawfully-aligned, and very weak compared to the adventurers, so there doesn’t seem to be much point in playing out whatever clean-up might happen. Either the magma spirits hire the adventurers to kill the earthmen, or the earthmen hire the adventurers to kill the Count, whom they can’t reach. There’s at best a 1 in 12 chance the adventurers will lose to the strongest of the monster groups at this stage, and even if they do the game is basically over.


I mean, umm... hooray! Good triumphed, and the villains were vanquished! No questions about where my sympathies lay. No, sir-ee. Just another good guy here. No need to cast Detect Alignment when I'm around.



Post-Mortem Report:

Fun game. Cool map. Documenting it for the web was a bit of work, but enjoyable.

The game worked best when it was inspiring me. Sometimes the random charts were perfect and provided unexpected results that really shook things up. Other times, I was better off over-ruling the charts and making my own calls. To the game designer’s credit, the rules encourage you to do just that.

Relying too much on the charts, or the strictest interpretations of the instructions didn’t always pay off. The Plague and Fate caves went unused the entire time, because with all those interconnected tunnels there was little reason for anyone to dig. I could have fudged the earthquake rolls, or taken more liberties in early turns to direct various groups into those hazards. Next time that sort of situation comes up, I probably will. Since this was only my second time playing the game, I wanted to see if any of the random rolls would actually hit those hazards, but I can see now that with certain layouts that just won’t be likely. I also might draw those caves larger, as being just 1 or 2 beads in size makes them not much more than a needle in a haystack.

Delver Groups in particular were an area that was a little disappointing as written. That last bit of mithril sat out there forever, and when I finally “cheated” to send the magma spirits at it it was too late to matter. This may be just a function of the earthquake creating so many tunnels for them to randomly explore, but that basic scenario seems likely to happen in many games. I'm not sure I'm quite capturing the layering effect of the tracing paper the core rules assume you'll be using instead of a computer. If I was to fade out or partially clog the caverns when new Ages start, there'd be more need for the Delving monsters to tunnel, and that might shake up the map some more. What few complaints I have could also probably be resolved by either fudging rolls more often, or at least weighting my random rolls a bit more. Simply doubling the odds that Delvers will explore any tunnel that leads to ore might well fix it. (I also went to the How To Host A Dungeon Wiki and added a homebrew Delver option that would be a little more aggressive about treasure-hunting.) It's easily fixed by any number of possible house-rules, and it's certainly not particularly broken if you don't house-rule. Some maps may even solve this problem on their own by virtue of random luck. Don't let this minor gripe discourage you from giving the excellent game a try.




Using this Map elsewhere:

Here is a version of the map without tokens, in case anyone wants to use it as a basis for their D&D game or something.
The layout during that last turn seems like it has potential in that way. The vampire so close to the surface doesn’t exactly fit the “the deeper you go, the tougher the fights” paradigm of D&D, but other than that it’s set up to fit the laws of drama and provide some meaningful choices to the players. The Magma Spirits will need some fleshing out for an RPG, but the place has tons of history you can draw on. The dungeon is loosely organized into different regions, each with their own theme and flavor. There’s a couple of Dark Elf treasures waiting to be discovered, as well as little Timmy’s tragic remains. Few actual PC parties will be willing to take the underwater routes that my adventuring parties in the HTHAD game loved to access, but it’s there if they think outside the box (and comes complete with the body to loot if they make their spot checks while down there). You could bend the history a little bit to justify leaving a few merfolk, dark elves, trolls, etc (and as whatever species the feral slave beast were) on the map. The rough caverns and waterfalls are probably worth breaking out the hardcore dungeoneering rules for your system of choice, if such things exist. Or you could hand-wave that difficulty by saying the adventurers who came before you left ropes or ladders in place (like the little one I drew in the Misty Vale).

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Age Of Adventurers

Last week I started a digital game of How To Host A Dungeon, and posted the first few eras on this blog. Today, I'll continue that through the Age of Monsters.

Link to previous post.
Here's how the map looked after the Great Disaster that ended the Dark Elf Civilization of Kharsoum Leyban:

Everything is focused on the lower right of the map, and the Dark Elf palaces of Leyban, Kharsoum, and Silla are in a terrible shambles.

Now we start the Age of Monsters.

We had a few Monster Groups already on the map.

Descendents of the Rebel Elves: Officially these were Wandering Monsters, but I decided to fudge the rules a bit and make them Chaotic / Breeders. This seemed a good compromise to making them interesting and competitive without causing them to just repeat the mistakes of their kind. (If I’d made them Delvers like I proposed last week, they would have abandoned the colony at the end of the turn for lack of resources.)

Feral Slave Beasts: Straight-up Wandering Monsters. Nothing special about them, and I'm not entirely certain what sort of beasts they were.

The treasures on the map are mostly just random trinkets left over from the Dark Elf colonies, but T1 is a magic item named The Great Flail of Melancholy, and T2 is The Mithril Veil that adorns the statue of Dame Chaos in her Shrine in the ruins of Silla.

As we explore the timeline and maps of the Age of Monsters, we'll see that it's really the NPC Adventuring Parties that truly shape this Age.


Age of Monsters, Year 1

A variety of Monster Groups arrive and make their initial lairs. At this point, the turns start to get complicated.

The first to arrive is the Surface Kingdoms of man. They build a Keep atop the cliff, and name it Castle Laventhorpe.

Monsters appear at random starting locations, and as it turns out I rolled up one of the flooded chambers in the middle of the map, from when the river got redirected. When something like that happens you've got a couple options. You can reroll, you can assume they build a bridge or drain the room, or you can consult the optional water and magma monster chart.

I did the later, and got Merfolk. They count as Delving monsters, and will rework the natural caverns around them into architectural marvels... which I'll probably turn into simple bubble-shaped chambers to keep things quick(ish) and easy. Merfolk may leave the water, but they always flood the rooms they choose to live in.


Next up are Earthmen in the lower left corner. Not "bring us to your leaders, earthman", but presumably some sort of elemental creature. The rules are pretty short, and don't waste words on detailed descriptions of the races, but I picture them as little clay people with heads not unlike diminutive Easter Island statues. These ones are Lawful in alignment. They count as Breeders, but I've decided to have them smooth the natural rock where-ever they go. When I drew in the earthquake caverns I made it very jagged, and I'd like the Earthmen to use their supernatural powers to wear it down a bit.

Lastly, there's a Vampire in the old dry riverbed. I was rolling for an Alpha Predator, and got a 12, which is 'create your own'. So I had to make up some minor rules for him. His alignment is "Hungry" and works for the most part like any other Alpha. However, he cannot cros running water in the same tunnel or room that he's in. If he ends his turn on the surface (which is unlikely) he'll die from sun exposure. He has typical D&D vampire powers to turn into a cloud of gas or various rodents, or to meld with the earth, and regenerate. So if anything would kill him, he instead moves straight down until the next empty room, or makes his own chamber after a 1/2 finger's length of earth-melding. He only really dies if this puts them in water, magma, or off the bottom of the map. Vampires can pass freely through raw earth and rock, encountering targets within range regardless of the walls between them. Those targets cannot choose to encounter him on their turns unless they have a path to his current lair.

I could have made a case for taking full turns with the Rebel Elves and the Slave Beasts, but their turns would be pretty minor in this set up, so I let it go for now.

I did however add some minor cosmetic details to the map, like white foam on the waterfalls.


Age of Monsters, Year 2: 

The yearly event charts tell me a statue is discovered! I decide it's a Statue of the Earth God whose earthquake destroyed the Dark Elves. A huge Easter-Island-style rock head falls from the ceiling where it had watched them with contempt.
Each turn you roll on an event chart. Usually it generates some sort of monster group entering the map, but sometimes it does something else colorful, like reveal a previously unknown statue.
The Humans build a farm.
  The Elven Rebels accomplish very little. They breed, but then suffer losses to starvation. They expand their territory just a little, just past the edges of old Kharsoum.
  Slave Beasts from wander through the old Silla mines to the waterfall.
  Merfolk mine into the old mithril deposit, in an organized grid. They also smooth out their chambers and smooth/flood the areas on their doorstep. While this area had been previously mined, I figured having lava pour through it probably made the ore liquify and relocate. Getting one more ore out of deposit seems fine, but I probably won’t let them remine the other two parts. Let’s call this vein played out.
  Earthmen have no exits, so they get motivated and head towards the Statue of their Creator god at a rapid pace. They smooth all the rough stone they pass. They are skilled enough to mine past the waterfall without flooding the tunnels they connect to. They also technically breed and starve for net zero population growth.
  The Vampire hunts unsuccessfully, and relocates his lair to different cave in hopes of finding prey.
  The Elves and Earthmen seem destined for conflict, but it could be several turns off. The Merfolk are probably in the strongest position at the end of the year, despite their initial mine having dried up.


Age of Monsters, Year 3:

This year sees the arrival of Human Miners near the middle of the surface layer. They are separate from surface kingdoms, but I’m interpreting the intent that they are allied or at least at peace with the castle. The rules could probably be clearer there, but the games light enough I can just rule as I see fit.

Surface Kingdoms build a second farm.
   Rebels breed and starve.    Slave Beasts stay put.
   Merfolk create a series of locks and fishladders downriver from the city. 
   Earthmen slowly expand their territory, zero population growth.
   The Vampire, so hungry, returns to his original lair. The miners are not yet close enough for him to Earthmeld to them, but they will soon.
   Human miners dig down, unaware of the danger below them.


Age of Monsters, Year 4: 

Arrival of Trolls. Two immediately team up in the old dry river (their random placement put them adjacent to each other). The third shows up in deep caverns, and encounters Rebel Elves. The lone troll invader is immediately driven off, at the cost of half the elven numbers.
Humans build a third farm.
   Rebel Elves breed, and claim the Troll treasure. Bolstered by the captured resources, they restore their numbers and extend their perimeter closer to the Trolls they just chased out.
   Slave Beasts stay put.
   Merfolk extend east of their mines. They suffer some losses to slave beasts, but seal off and flood more chambers to expand their territory.
    Earthmen extend slowly. As breeders, they move fastest when there's only one direction to go, and spread more slowly when they border a lot of rooms or tunnels.
    Vampire was going to eat the miners, but since there’s now Trolls available, that’s a tastier snack. The trolls can’t hurt it. Literally half the trolls retreat, and then grow back their other halves.
    Human Miners break into tunnels, and encounter the Vampire. They recognize him to be Count Laventhorpe, the great grandfather of the man who built the castle. He eats one of them.
   Dumbstruck and still regenerating from the recent Vampire attack, the two trolls in the west do nothing. The troll in the east heads further away from the elven rebels.


Age of Monsters, Year 5:

A Party of Adventurers, three in number, enter the mines in search of loot and experience! They head down the mines, and “kill” Count Laventhorpe. The Count kills one of their party before going down. His Earthmeld power saves him. Per the rules I wrote up for it when I rolled the “12” that created him, he melds down a half-finger from his previous position, creating a new cavern there. This must be where his coffin was hidden. His zone of control is reset to the smaller cave.

The continue on to the Trolls, whom they dispatch and burn out. I roll on the Minor Features table, and discover the room where they built the bonfire for all the troll bits is forever after known as The Forsaken Chamber.

The fight leaves just a single Adventurer alive, so he gathers up the available treasure and leaves. He probably retires and becomes an innkeeper in some module somewhere.

The Rebel Elves actually increase their numbers, fueled by tasty Troll-flesh.
   Slave Beasts remain entranced by the waterfall.
   Merfolk expand their lock system further West.
   Earthmen expand in four directions, smoothing and expanding the tunnels as they go. They run into the Elves. After a brief hit and run skirmish, they steal the troll-goods from the Rebels.
   Count Laventhorpe melds through the earth in the shortest distance, and attacks the miners. It doesn’t go so well for the Count, who is driven off further down the halls. The area around his coffin is too dangerous, so he camps out in the smoke-stained Forsaken Chamber.
   Human miners dig out the large cavern that had been the Count’s previous rooms. They do not find his coffin.



Age of Monsters, Year 6:

Arrival of the Magma Spirits. They burrow up from deep below the ruins of Leyban, and create a new Magma Pool at their start point.

Humans build a fourth farm, and I put this one at the base of the cliffs near the old earthquake cracks. Then I noticed the use of “place” versus “move” in the paragraphs for the surface kingdoms. That subtle wording suggests that the process is different when creating a new farm instead of merely populating one that had been raided by monsters (which hasn't happened this game). I decide to keep going with the rules as I had been doing, but resolve to handle things the other (faster) way in my next game. For now, this means the knights still aren’t ready to raid the underdark.

Rebel Elves are feeling penned in by the Earthmen and Trolls, so they attempt to dig an escape route to the old ruins of Leyban. They are surprised to discover Leyban’s flooded status. The river briefly diverts into old Kharsoum, and down the Old Elven Road. In the Chaos, the Elves steal about 1/3 of the wealth of the Merfolk when it washes into them. They lose a lot of territory to flooding.
   The Merfolk go to war with the Elves, and recover their treasure. Meanwhile the Merfolk engineers build a dam and a reservoir system to bring the river and the flooding back under control.
   Earthmen raid the Elves, but find they no longer have anything worth taking.
   The Trolls are washed down the Old Elf Road by the flooding.
   Count Laventhorpe attacks the Miners, who abandon much of their tools and wealth to escape.
   Miners expand away from the Vampire for a while, but when that fails to turn up any ore or  gems, they eventually work up the courage to try to hunt the old Count down. It goes poorly for them, and many miners die or quit and move away.
   Magma Spirits expand up from their starting pool, and create a large temple to house the Earth God Statue.


Age of Monsters, Year 7:

I roll another Adventuring Party, but it's of minimum size (1 adventurer). A brave young soul from the farming village at the base of the cliff braves the caves near his home. Young Timothy falls down the well. Lassie the Feral Slave Beast runs off to get help. Or rather, as he is an Adventuring Party with only 1 member, and the Beast is a Wandering Monster, they destroy each other.
Any time the last of a monster group is wiped off the map, you can optionally roll on the Minor Features table to see what legacy they leave behind on the map. I rolled the Ever-Burning Flame, which I may place anywhere in the Feral Beasts former zone of control. Little Timmy must have brought a torch with him for light, and it probably sparked a natural gas explosion that killed the Feral Beasts. There’s some crack through which gas continues to flow and burn. That this is so close to the waterfall is unexpected, but not impossible (especially in a fantasy world).
A Treasure is left behind by the Adventuring Party. It’s some identifying keepsake, such as a locket with a picture of Timothy’s mother. I mark it on the map as Treasure T3.
 
The Humans at the castle organize a rescue party for poor little lost Timothy. This is, after all, the turn where they finally are supported and have 4 knights available. They head down the chasm at the base of the cliff and wander about for a while. The Excursion doesn’t find Timmy, or his locket, but they do find some decadent Dark Elf arts and crafts in the ruins of one of the old Silla palaces. They call this a rousing success, and the exciting rumors of buried treasure attracts more humans. The city of Drowfalls is founded before the end of the year. The local well, and city hall’s dungeon, both open into the underground river.


It's a year of war and daring raids. Rebel Elves retake a tiny bit of territory lost to the flooding, and then turn their attention to the Earthmen. Their raids recover the troll-wealth. The Merfolk push west, extending their locks right down to the Earthmen habitat. The resulting border dispute has high casualties. Earthmen then attack the Rebel Elves, and the battles are quite bloody. Both of these civilizations are getting very small, and the merfolk aren't that far behind them.

Count Laventhorpe eats the last miner. (As this is the last of the miner group, I again roll on the Minor Features chart.) The place where he died is forever after supernaturally cold.
Troll stays put and do nothing. Stupid troll.
Magma Spirits head up the hall towards the Mithral.



Age of Monsters, Year 8:

   Yet another adventuring party comes to the dungeon. (This is the third time I’ve rolled a “6” on the yearly event chart, having done so on turns 5, 7 and now 8.  Our dungeon is running a little low on monsters and treasures at this point. This is very different from the game I played on paper.) This adventuring party has 4 members.
   The Adventuring Party travels from Drowfalls Dungeon through the underground river to the old Dark Elf Exploratory Shaft (instead of the waterfalls) down to the river again, and then over to the Merfolk dam. The Merfolk are Lawful, so they give the party a Quest instead of fighting them. The adventurers are guided through the flooded tunnels to battle the Elvish Rebels in the ruins of old Kharsoum. The Adventurers slaughter the remaining Dark Elves, and take their Troll-Goods. The return for the quest rewards, so the Merfolk pay them a Treasure.
   Setting out again, the adventuring party follows the Old Elf Road toward Leyban. The Troll on the route kills one of them before they destroy it.
   The Troll had been holding up in a place called the Misty Vale. It’s apparently a cavern that had eroded when the area had flooded in Year 6, rendered steamy by the magma pool just below it. (This was created by the Minor Features Chart).
   So then I remember that I needed to roll a Minor Feature for the Elvish Rebels, too. The roll produces a “Bed Chamber”. How very Dark-Elven. No wonder the rebels failed to spread their culture or do much of anything but breed. They converted one of the ancient houses of Kharsoum into a giant orgy pad. I expand the size of the room a bit, and give it a vaulted ceiling.
   The adventurers head over to the Magma Spirits, who are surprisingly lawful, and so they give the Adventurers a Quest, too. They are sent to attack the Merfolk, whom they’d previously done quest-work for. That’s player characters for you. Killing every NPC they meet. The adventurers commit mer-genocide, and loot the fishtanks. They do lose one of their own in the process, reducing their group down to 2 adventurers. The Magma Spirits fork over some treasure in payment.
    The two quests, and all the back and forth involved, has resulted in the Adventuring Party traveling through the narrow, rough tunnel connecting the Merfolk and Rebel Elves areas a minimum of five times.
    I roll on the Minor Features chart for the third time this turn, and end up with a the result “A Cask of Amontillado”. This classic Poe reference is not actually on the default chart, but was added as a consequence of a previous play session. Every time you roll on this particular chart, you’re encouraged to cross out the entry you use and replace it with an entry of your own devising. I’d seeded this one onto the chart during my first play of the game on paper last week, and am surprised to have it show up again so soon. So I cross it off, and add it to the map. The merfolk managed to seal an adventurer in a trap room and flood it. I place this just off the narrow flooded passage they went through so many times. It seems like a good place for an ambush or trap.
   Next (and finally) the adventurers head though the Torture Pit into the old Temple to Dame Chaos in what’s left of the ruins of Leyban. They get their hands on the Great Flail of Melancholy. This is pivotal. They’ve now gained six treasures in the course of this adventure, which is enough to trigger the transition to the Age of Villainy. I’m thinking they probably get corrupted by the horrible things they’ve seen and done. We’ll deal with that in the next installment.

The transition ends the Age of Monsters before the turn is finished, so the Earthmen, Vampire, and Magma Spirits all lose their turns for this year.

Monday, November 10, 2014

I haven't posted more Shadows of Brimstone cards

 WARNING: In the body of this post I assume some dark motives on the part of a fellow gamer that likely didn't exist. Copyright law is a nasty tangled mess, and involves a lot of weird grey areas and few clear-cut solutions.  I misread the situation, and came off sounding like a sanctimonious prick. I still think it was the right thing for me to pull the cards in question off the internet, but I probably didn't need to be quite so "high horse" about it. I'm leaving this post intact, so that if anyone asks me what happened to those files, I can just direct them here rather than start this fight all over again.


Several weeks back, I made some cards for use with my favorite game of 2014, Shadows of Brimstone.  I posted one group of those cards to this blog, and announced I'd be making more. While I did make several more, and have played a ton of the game in these past months, I never got around to posting any other Town Item cards here. I just used them in my home.

Since then:

Some other fans have produced similar cards for their own use. Many of those were posted to the various corners of the web. This made my efforts less necessary. I slowed down my work a lot, and didn't feel very motivated to go to the trouble of posting the cards I did make. Why go to the trouble when there were so many alternatives.

At least one of those other fans made his files available via a "lightning press"-style company, where you could click a button, and pay money to have the deck printed commercially and shipped to you. The person who did this set this up so they'd get a commission from the printer, and the printer would make money, but FFP, the makers of Shadows of Brimstone would get zero money for it.

FFP, publishers of Shadows of Brimstone, asked that person to cease and desist. This was a completely reasonable request. As much as I support remix culture, copyleft, creative and artistic freedom and fan-created expansions, I can understand that Flying Frog Productions has a need to protect their Intellectual Property rights. The fan in question was profiting on these cards, which included significant amounts of text stolen straight out of FFP's rulebooks and charts. That's not cool, and FFP was in the right for asking them to stop it.

Today, that so-called fan tried to start a nasty rumor about FFP*. I'm not going to repeat it, or link to it because I don't want to give it any support. (Nor am I naming that person, nor linking to the printing company he'd partnered with, because I don't want this nastiness to drive any business or internet traffic to them.) From my perspective, it seems like that person is childishly lashing out in retaliation. I can only guess at their motives, but given the context the guesses that pop into my head are all pretty damning. That so-called fan's actions were reprehensible.

So, I'm taking the high road here, and am going to remove my versions of the Town Item cards from my previous post. FFP hasn't asked me to do anything of the sort. They probably don't even know my site exists or that I made such cards. But they've made their wishes clearly known in the more severe case of someone else making money by plagiarism and piracy, and I don't want to be (anything like) that guy.

*: Speaking of That Guy: He's responded at the original place and says it wasn't meant as a rumor, just a joke.  Feels like he's just backpedal-ing once I called him on it, but I don't know the guy, so I can't really say what's going through his head. If it was a joke, it was ill-considered. Either way, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
I guess I should give the guy the benefit of the doubt and assume he was so innocent regarding this that he had no idea anyone could misinterpret his words and motive the way I did. The alternative would be to pick further fights over the internet, and that's never a worthwhile use of time or energy.

(Also, FFP had previously announced they'd be releasing an "Expanded Frontier Town" supplement, which I assumed was new material, but I now realize may actually just be the sorts of Town Item cards that fans were making. I don't want my little fan project to make the original designer's previously announced expansion unprofitable. That would suck.)

I've been brainstorming entirely new cards for when my Brimstone encounter decks run low, and I'll probably still post those whenever I complete them. They'll be entirely new cards for use with the official Shadows of Brimstone blanks, not merely plagiarized or infringing text, and if I make them available, they'll be available for free.







Wednesday, November 5, 2014

How To Host A Societal Collapse

I spent most of yesterday playing a game called How To Host A Dungeon. It's part board game, part drawing experiment, and part tool for designing a D&D dungeon or campaign.

It's made by a local game designer here in Seattle, but you can pick up the PDF right now via the Bundle of Holding for a cheap price along with several other GM-ing goodies.

To play How To Host A Dungeon, you roll on a series of charts that give you loose instructions on what to draw. Following that guidance creates a map, or more accurately a series of maps, of successive layers of civilization and tunneling in a fantasy kingdom. Empires rise and fall, wandering monsters move in, and in the end either an intrepid band of heroes braves the dungeon to slay the big bad, or some horrible monster conquers the world. It's pretty cool pass-time, essentially a pen-and-paper analog to Dwarf Fortress. Sort of Dungeon Designer meets Blank White Cards.

Rather than just post my rather cluttered map from yesterday (rife with beginner's mistakes), I figured I'd actually take a few hours to generate a spiffy new map using Pixlr, a free online photoshop-like drawing toolset. Putting it in layers allows me to save my progress at many stages, and simplifies the process for when one in-game civilization collapses and a new one builds over their ruins.

Getting The Lay Of The Ground: 

For the initial rolls of Primordial Pre-History, I rolled up an Underground River with several caves (I kept rolling the same entry), plus some Mithral veins on the far right of the map, and a series of dangerous natural caverns bearing plague, magma, and a mysterious prophecy of societal collapse. This map has some serious potential.
http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-MlOFX-YTzRQ/VFqoDavAhoI/AAAAAAAABhs/iO2LSk7cYLQ/s1600/DE1%2B-%2BPrimordial.jpg
Legend: Brown is dirt or rock. Blue is sky or underground river, depending on placement. Pale orange is the interior space of a cavern. Everything else is labeled if you zoom in. It's not much to look at yet.

I'm a little worried about the tight clustering of the Mithral to one side of the map. In my other game I found all the action for the first three Ages happened right around the minerals, making it very crowded while the other half the map was left empty. This was problematic when working on a single page paper map, but I think it's not an issue if using pixlr layering (or the tracing paper approach supported by the rules). 


HTHAD - Year Zero
The pink circles are groups of Dark Elf Nobles and Slaves.
I name the starting civilization The Three Houses of Kharsoum, not realizing how quickly that number will be rendered inaccurate. The only other time I played I began with Dwarves, and they ran a great many turns with a significant dynasty. This time, I'm starting with Dark Elves, who seem a bit a less stable. (Just for fanboy fun, I've chosen to render all their constructions and tokens in a purple and pink motif marginally reminiscent of Games Workshop's Dark Elves.)



History of The Three Houses of Kharsoum The Great City of Leyban:




Year One – The City of Kharsoum founds the Colony of Leyban, which prospers and tortures. This is a straight forward (but ill-considered) start, where the overpopulated and under-supplied City flails about trying to establish itself. 

The purple line across the bottom of the screen is the underground road that the Dark Elves use to travel to more distant places.


Year Two – Kharsoum founds the Colony of Silaa. This leaves too an unstable slaves to nobles ratio, and the city falls to Revolt. (As a side note, this is destined to happen to any Dark Elf starting city that isn't directly attached to a mineral vein. Even if it is, you'd have to interpret the Colony rules as applying to the City in order to avoid an early Revolt. I'd be willing to do so, but I didn't realize how badly the first city gets screwed by not being attached directly to a mineral vein. Dark Elves neither plan for the future nor play well with others.)

Leyban assumes the mantle of the capitol (though technically this should have happened later in the turn, and I accidentally jumped the gun), and builds a great memorial tomb for what bodies are recovered. Temples and Shrines are constructed in Leyban and Silaa in attempts to appease "Dame Chaos", their fickle goddess. 

I decide to use the Named Treasures optional rule because it's flavorful and fun. Silaa, still being prosperous and rather distant from the troubles at Kharsoum, produces an exquisite Mithril Veil for the goddess statue in their shrine. Leyban is a little moodier and worried about slave revolt, so they commission their best artisan to craft the The Great Flail of Melancholy.

An exploratory shaft is dug from Leyban towards the surface. With the “Fate” cave and the magma chamber hanging over their heads, I decided to choose a random room to start the exploratory tunnel from. They had about a 50% chance of it leading directly to death, but a lucky roll bought them another turn and dig up towards the river instead of somewhere more dire. The tunnel couldn't quite reach the river this turn, so I made it curve, because I liked the idea that the Fate cave would be subtly influencing them as they dug.


Year Three – I forgot to have the City raid the Rebels and convert one of them back into Slaves at the end of the previous turn. Adding that, plus the Nobles and Slaves from the “summer” part of the turn pushed Leyban over the critical population limit. With this trigger in place, their decadence and depravity causes the collapse of their civilization before they could build the late-stage specialized buildings (Arenas, Breeding Pits, or Re-Animation Tanks). The may have dodged the “Fate” cave, but they were still doomed from the start.

Last time I played, my Dwarves stuck around for seemingly forever, covering the map. The Dark Elves were fecund and prolific, but they burned themselves out in less than 3 turns. Good note that the game players very differently in subsequent sessions with different starting civs. 

(Minor tangential gripe  – the game calls these civilization turns' “years”, but I think they'd work better conceptually as “generations”. As neat as the turn-of-the-seasons mechanics is, it only took 3 years to increase the population 5-fold and make the entire journey from founding to collapse into decadence. That's a bit fast, even for Dark Elves.)


Where did all the Elves go?
Dark Elves are sloppy housekeepers. When their civilization dies, they leave behind the named treasures from the Temples, plus 1 extra generic supplies/treasure token per city or colony. They also leave behind a bunch of Feral Slave Beasts in the slave pens. I'm pretty sure these are supposed to be monsters and draft animals, not desperate victims of slavery, so I made a different token for them to distinguish them from the rebel slaves (who were, for the record, in no way inconvenienced by the collapse of the civilization that had previously held them in bondage).

The Great Disaster:

Oopsie! Dame Chaos must have broke something.
When the first civilization collapse happens, time passes and you roll on The Great Disaster table. I rolled up an Earthquake. The earthquake made a series of natural caves and tunnels that are mostly random. The player has some control over them – the two main lines are randomly generated, but you have more control over the little spurs that branch off of them, and just how jagged or straight you want the lines to be. But given the rolls, there was no way the earthquake wasn't going to breach both the magma and the river tunnels. So then you have to make decisions about how (and if) the lava flows and the river is diverted. I chose to not kill or destroy anything left on the map, because at this stage you want lots of plot threads and contenders.

While I was at it, I adjusted the horizon line to go with the Earthquake. Any excuse to make it not just a boring old horizontal horizon is a good one. (The rules provide random horizons, but I rolled up the most minimal one at the start of this session.)

At this point, I'm about ready for the arrival of the Surface Kingdoms and the start of the Age of Monsters. It should be an interesting run going forward, as there's few good treasures clustered on one side, at least one mining site that's still accessible for Delvers (the rules are a little iffy about whether or not the others can be mined again by new races), and some significant peril in the form of wandering monsters and those still unopened death caves. I've run out of free time for the day, though, so it'll have to wait (probably until next week).  Link to second play session post.

Digging In and Getting Invested

It's a little tempting to reclassify the Elven Rebels a "Delver Group" so they'll have a shot at prospering in the next Age. Officially, they're just Wandering Monsters, and as such are unlikely to survive for long. I may fudge their status when I get back to it, depending on which parts of the map generate random monsters in the next phase and just how crowded it gets. Gotta support the underdogs. Honestly, the game is better if “you've got a dog in this fight” and are invested in what happens. It stings a little to watch your favorite civilization meet its fate, but that's kinda what the game is all about, and you could always fudge die rolls if it bothered you.

In my game yesterday, a come-from-behind Lawful Sphinx defeated a hobgoblin tribe, two extraplanar invasions, a very stubborn owlbear, a voracious ancient wurm, and series of adventuring parties to eventually conquer the realm. There were at least a dozen die rolls that could have killed her off, and probably should have, but she won out against all odds.

The Bundle of Holding with How To Host A Dungeon (and other cool RPG-related stuff, all dirt cheap) is only available for the next 5 days, so don't delay if this sort of thought/map experiment sounds like fun to you.  Just sayin'.

Friday, September 26, 2014

High Degree of Randomness

I've played Shadows of Brimstone 5 times now: twice at demos with the publishers, and three times at home.

I'm enjoying the game significantly. The randomness is high, but it provides a good variety of play experience. You never know what you're going to get.

We completed our mission at both of the demos with FFP really easily, so much so that I was mildly worried the game was too easy...

Since getting it home, we've lost three missions in a row. So, "too easy" is not such a concern now.


Cross-Posted at BGG 
If this is sounding familiar, it's probably because I adapted this from something I wrote on the forums at Board Game Geek. This version is longer, and includes some analysis I hadn't done there, but it also skips a bunch of TPK detail that here I could just replace with a link to a blog post from a couple days ago. This is the better version of the post, but if you've already read the BGG version recently, you may find this to be mostly redundant.

Two of our three losses were TPKs caused by chains of Threat cards. I gave a thorough example in a previous post. The other TPK wasn't quite as ridiculous as it was only a 2-player game, but similar in theme.

The third mission was lost by Darkness meter and the villain escaping. The corridors and exploration tokens pwned us. Despite thorough shuffling, we got 8 corridors in our first 10 map cards. (Each boxed set comes with 6, so a total of 12 of the 48 mine cards are corridors. 8 in a row wasn't even possible if playing from a single boxed set, and the odds of it with 2 boxed sets aren't exactly high.) This pushed us to the deep end of the track where Holding Back the Darkness is really hard. We continued on, but now the Exploration tokens conspired against us, and delivered all 7 of the tokens that don't have Clues before we could get the third (of 5) clued token. Game ended with villain escape despite us having handled all the fights really well and done everything "right". We wasted no time, but still lost on the timer.

These losses were of course all flukes, and won't be indicative of overall play experience across dozens of games... but it's still kind of awesome (or frustrating, if that's how you choose to look at it) to know that such losses are lurking in the cards. Even a well-equipped high-level party will still lose to the Darkness meter from time to time.

Despite the shocking upsets, I still feel that the randomness is a benefit. It's surprisingly fun to get curb-stomped by a cooperative game when you thought you'd won.

Contrasting with Myth:
We took a break from Myth because it was getting too repetitive, and just too easy. There were only two or three monster types that you'd see again and again, and our characters had earned titles and got good gear. Brimstone seems likely to avoid those problems because it has more encounter variety and built-in methods to upgrade the badguys and challenges as you level up. Also, there's more PCs to choose from in Brimstone (assuming you have both boxed sets), and each PC has more customization options out of the gate. If Brimstone starts to grow stale, swapping characters should actually freshen it up again.
In theory, Myth is finally actually shipping wave 2 to the US now, which may even it out until Shadows' second wave many months from now. If I can tear myself away from Brimstone long enough to find out, I'll post my observations here.
My expectation, though, is that the clarity of the rules and card phrasing in Brimstone will push it over the top in any comparison to Myth. There are parts of Myth I do like better (the action decks are fun but clunky, the monster AI is more varied, and the two-stage bosses are cool nod to videogaming), but Brimstone's far gentler learning curve, and dramatically fewer rules-holes is thus-far making it feel like the superior game. 

Little Annoyances:


Which is not to say that Shadows of Brimstone is without flaw entirely.

I do find it a little annoying to track XP during combat in Brimstone. I would have been happier if the xp per hit and per wound on the big guys had been more standardized and tracked with tokens or something that would have sped it up during the most complex of the combat rounds. It's not bad, but it could have been better. It's also not as bad as it had been, because in earlier drafts the XP per wound on large monsters was variable by monster type.

I also think that the high-Initiative characters are going to pull ahead in the XP long haul, and that might prove problematic. In yesterday's game the Saloon Girl asked me to give her my last dynamite so she could throw it before the monsters got to act, and it kinda sucked to be giving her a 100 xp worth of potential kills when she was already the only person to level up that session.  If your group includes anyone prone to jealousy or being a sore loser, I'd recommend rotating out characters frequently (so that you get a different party mix and can share the spotlight moments around the table from game to game), or splitting XP evenly (but that will increase the amount of math during fights, and as I mentioned above, I already find the XP tracking a little tedious). I haven't played enough, or leveled-up enough, to know if this problem self-corrects or not.

I do know that this problem is less pronounced than it was at the time of that first demo many months ago. At the time I complained to Jason Hill that I felt my character (the Gunslinger) was too good, because of the way Quickdraw interacted with Dual-Wielding and his high Initiative. Since that time, the Dual-Wield penalty has been rewritten to be more severe (it used to apply to only your off-hand shots, not all of them), the Quickdraw card gained a restriction that it can't be used when Dual-Wielding, and the XP numbers were tweaked in a way that rewards hits instead of wounds (so you can still get a decent amount of XP if you are shooting at a monster that only has 1 wound left).

On a related note, I don't quite understand why low-Initiative characters lose their activation if the last monster dies before they move. Restarting at the top of the round only makes it more likely that the high-Initiative PCs will get the scavenge rewards. This seems an unnecessary bit of insult-to-injury, even if they do get some manner of compensation during the Catch Your Breath step.


Things I Love


The combat system is solid, and the handfulls of dice are fun. The components are beautiful, and the tile system rocks. Variety of play experience is high, thanks to 18 missions, tons of cards, customized PCs, and lots of random events. As mentioned above, the game can turn difficult with a single bad roll or draw, which is a good thing in a cooperative game. The XP system solves the problem of being the party healer - you score a lot of experience patching up the other characters.

I really appreciate the Traveling and Frontier Town portion(s) of the game. While some folks are probably going to complain that the game inserts random rolls into everything, I find that the risk of events really spices up what would otherwise be another boring min-max shopping trip. I _hate_ those "stop and ponder the equipment list" moments in traditional RPGs, but in Brimstone shopping is actually fun.
House rule caveat: 
When we play, we don't let you buy things for other people. Doing so (there's no clear official rule against it, but the rules seem to vaguely imply you can't) would allow a 6-player posse to hit every location on the first day, and that's just not as much fun as pushing your luck on multi-day town stays. 
And really: Outlaws, Bandidos, Saloon Girls and Gunslingers probably shouldn't be trusting one another with their wallets.

The level-up system is kinda fun, too. You get one random (rolled on a chart) stat boost each level, and then you get to pick a cool power to go with it. This gives you control of the important parts of your character (choosing your new trick) but the random chart makes it harder to min-max. In most level-up systems, the players who've mastered the system (at least to the extent of having identified dump stats and exploitable interactions) have a huge advantage over casual players that haven't done as much analysis. In theory the random stat boost should even this out a bit. It won't perfectly balance things if one person is making poor choices while the other carefully weighs the options, but it should at least reduce the gap. I'm excited to see to what extent that holds true over the long haul, as we've had such bad luck that only 2 characters have leveled up in 5 games (though to be fair, that's also because I've played a different character in each game to get a taste of everything). Worst case scenario: the casual player gets unlucky rolls for stats with no synergy, and the min-maxer rolls exactly what they wanted. While that sounds bad, it's actually basically the default assumption/starting point of most other games.  Worst case is essentially breaking even, and it's still providing at least a small extra hurdle for the shameless min-maxer to have to work around. I feel like that's a step in the right direction.





Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Doc's Office Cards

EDIT: I've removed the images for the cards that were in this post. Here's why I got rid of them. I felt like I had to take a stand, and not be that guy.

I'm preserving the text below, but it's probably confusing without the pictures. Not much point in reading this one. I've got better posts elsewhere.



Shadows of Brimstone has a very interesting campaign mode. After each adventure in the mines, you head back to town. This involves a handful of die rolls to generate encounters in the frontier town, so that even the act of stocking up for the next mission remains engaging and mildly dangerous. I'm really enjoying the system.

The equipment and effects that you can get in town are recorded on a handful of 8.5 x 11 sheets. You can copy the relevant details down on your character sheet, but after just one or two adventures your sheet becomes a mess of handwritten notes, abbreviations and eraser marks. Which is silly, since the rest of the game goes the route of having cards for everything. I get a card for my starting pistol, and if I find an awesome alien beam weapon on the other side of a dimensional portal it'll be a card too, but the game doesn't have a card for the modestly upgraded gun I bought in town between my first session and getting that lucky artifact draw. Strange, huh? Clearly just a cost-saving measure because the game was already loaded down with ubercool components.

You know where I'm going with this. I sat down and started making spiffy cards of all the entries on the chart. Without further ado, here's everything you can buy at the Doctor's Office that isn't available as a sidebag token. (I started with the Doc's Office, because our first session went so painfully that our total purchases were just Bandage Tokens and a single Specimen Jar.)

Doc's Office Items:


CARDS DELETED.

Bone Saw, Field-Surgeon's Apron, and Tools of Science are straight from the Doc's Office chart. No functional changes at all (unless you count rounding down to the nearest dollar on the apron, but what else could I do?). Note that, like Gear cards, the listed values are the sale value of the item, which is 1/2 it's purchase price (hence my rounding). So don't try buying them for what's listed there. You make purchases according to the big Doc's Office sheet (usually double what's on the card), and only then acquire cards to represent them.

Which brings up a good point: there are no intentional changes to the functionality on any of these cards. I did have to alter some wording for various reasons, but my stated intent is to make them work identically to what comes in the Shadows of Brimstone box. For example, the Specimen Jar (below) may seem a little odd at first glance since it's now two cards, but if you read them both and think it through all the way, you'll see it works exactly the same way as the item on the Doc's Office chart. I just made it two cards so we could easily track from session to session whether the Jar you're carrying has been taken to Another World yet or not. If a failed mission or town event destroys a Doc's Office or two, you no longer have to try to remember whether or not you sacrificed your Move for a turn in that game session two weeks ago. Plus, y'know, cool monster in a jar art.


CARDS DELETED.





As you've no doubt noticed by now, all these cards have a little "Doc's Office" label on them, so you know where they come from and can quickly look them up on the official chart if anything here is unclear.

Doc's Office Injections:

Injections aren't technically items, so I wanted to make them obviously different so no one would get them confused and try to discard them if an Encounter card (etc) stole or ruined an item, and you wouldn't try trading them with adjacent PCs like an item, etc. I made them half-sized and distinctively colored, so it should be hard to mistake them.


CARDS DELETED.


Again, these are intended to work exactly as the official chart describes, and are merely meant to be reminder cards that you'd stick in whatever ziplock, box, or envelope you're using to keep all your character's cards together for next session. So, for example, the two injections that cause a Corruption Hit when first administered make no mention of that effect here. I'm assuming that you'll read that on the chart, resolve it as per the rules, and only use this card to remind you of your bonuses during the next adventure.

Doc's Office Miscellaneous:

The Sycorath Injection can cause "Temporary Withdrawls", so I figured that might need a reminder card as well, just to be thorough. Then I noticed that the Plague Tent entry on the Doc's event chart can cause a one-session penalty as well, so, I figured what the heck I might as well make that, too. Apparently I'm using little green cards to mean any non-item modifier that you pick up in town and discard at the end of your next adventure.




CARDS DELETED.

I plan on doing the same sort of cards for all the other Frontier Town charts... and then I will probably have to redo them all when the Expanded Frontier Town releases a year from now. :) Unless it uses cards, in which case I'll need to just pull these down.

In case it wasn't abundantly clear from the rest of the text: Everything in this post is derived from work by Flying Frog Productions. No challenge to copyright is intended. Mostly I just engaged in cut and paste with their art and text. The whole point of this project is to make it easier to play the awesome game that is Shadows of Brimstone.