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.
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'.

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