Saturday, May 30, 2020

How To Host The Magician's Dungeon

Some photos from my second game of How To Host A Dungeon 2nd Edition. I'm not planning a full turn-by-turn breakdown this time, because that makes the game take a lot longer.  (Click here for Index of all my How To Host A Dungeon articles.)

 Image number 1 is from the end of the Primordial Age. The "Sky Gems" was from the Geographical Inspiration table suggesting that some of the gems on my map were meteorites. My Nexus is Leylines, which I drew real large in hopes that it will provide many Bonus Stars to groups in the Age of Monsters.

 Image number 2 is from the Age of Civilization. This was my first time playing the new Magician's Civilization. There were a few parts in the write-up for this Civ that were kind of vague. So be prepared for that, you'll have to make a few judgment calls with the Magician Civ. The vague areas were: Am I meant to have 1 or 2 Magicians at the end of the first turn? If I Build a construction that doesn't use/require a Jinn, should I also build a Vault, or just accept that I may have more than one Jinn at the Standing Stone at various points in this Age? Does the Omphalos prevent me from building an Orrery in a later turn? Will the Omphalos be meaningful (or even be a thing at all) later in the game? None of this vagueness here really breaks the game, but it is confusing and murky, and requires you to rule on how it all works mid-game.

Image number 3 is from the end of the Age of Civilization, after the Diaspora, with the three Epic Treasure Tokens hidden, and the location labels unhidden, to make the map more legible.

The Magician's Civilization was pretty fun. It resulted in a sprawling construction all over the left side of the map.  I could have easily run it over the right, or the top half, or even the bottom of the map. The player has a lot of impact on how this Civ develops, it's not the mostly automated script of the first edition. Part of that is because the Build list has twice as many constructions on it as you'll ever get to use on a single map, and part of it is because 2nd Ed maps have a lot more resources on them. (And a small part of it is because I included more Strata on my map than the rules-as-written would suggest. Strata #7 on this map set-up seemed way too huge, so I split it up into 3 substrata. When I get to the Age of Monsters, I'm also going to us the left- and right- halves of the surface as different Strata, so that when a Surface Dweller spawns, I'll have a system in place that randomly tells me where they start.)

Aside from being kind of vague and unclear at parts, I was also disappointed with one tiny aspect of the Magician Civilization. There are two ways it can end: in Diaspora or in Vengeance. Diaspora has zero instruction, and basically just leaves everything empty on your map. Vengeance does this cool thing where a new layer of dust and debris buries part of your map. That sounds awesome! But as written, this will almost never happen. There are 13 constructions on the Build list for this Civ, and you'll only get to pick 6 or 7 of them on a typical map. The Vengeance only happens if you choose 1 specific combo of 7 specific Buildings with no variation from that path. If you pick any one of the other 6 Buildings at any point during this Civilization, then you'll trigger the Diaspora at least 1 turn before you could possibly trigger the Vengeance. There's a little bit of wiggle room if your Nexus or some other result on the map from the Primordial Era has the ability to kill Magicians, but the game tends to skip over death during the Civ phase, and it's kind of annoying and can be quite limiting to carefully set things up to make that work. In the rules, this Civ seems amazing, but in practice it plays out as "merely" very good, but not quite as amazing as the potential implied. Like I said, it's a minor gripe about what is mostly a tiny thing, and it wouldn't have broken the game if I had decided to just dump that layer of dust on the map like I was tempted to do.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Deals With Devils

The theme of my RPG GMing in recent weeks has been "deals with the devil".

In my Savage Worlds / DramaSystem / Deadlands / Brimstone campaign, the PCs have been interacting a lot with a literal snakeoil salesman. Mr Melchizedek's Traveling Emporium of Miracle Cures, Mystic Artifacts, and Scratch-Built Devices. They met him at a crossroads, and the character wasn't on the screen for more than a minute before the players started making "Something Wicked This Way Comes" references, and trying to get him to take off his hat to check for horns. One of the PCs had an in-character reason to want to learn French, and voiced this in front of him. The next morning, when that PC woke up, he spoke perfect French, but no longer understood English.

In my Gumshoe / Night's Black Agents / Dracula Dossier campaign, one of the PCs has recently learned Goetia, the demon-summoning magic (from the Gumshoe Zoom supplement). The PCs did a mini-op to steel the Munich Manual of Demonology from the state library archives, so he can eventually do a deeper-dive into the demony fringes of the occult. Meanwhile, the PCs have also infiltrated one Vampire's web of conspiracies, and (going undercover) have begun taking missions from that Vampire against Edom and other Vampires. So there's a supernatural war going on, and the PCs are helping one particular Evil get one up on other Evils. They seemed a little too eager to get in bed with this particular darkness, so I've taken every opportunity to remind them that he's just the worst. First there was that whole blood sorcery ritual he involved them in with only the faintest nod towards concent. Then the first mission he gave them was a straight-up assassination. When the PCs asked about pay, he produced actual bars of Nazi gold... which, I should mention, he apparently magically summoned to the negotiation by butchering rats in front of the PCs. There's just nothing good about this situation... but, being PCs, they went ahead and did it anyway.

Man, I just realized that "Deals With Devils" would be a great name for an Everway character.

Monday, May 25, 2020

The Noisy Season

Got together tonight on Roll20 with an old friend from half a continent away. After catching up (we hadn't seen each other since GenCon) we played 1/3 to 1/2 a game of The Quiet Year. If you haven't heard of it, The Quiet Year is a collaborative map-making game. We're building a community in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It's a lot of fun. Here's our map as it stands at the moment:
I like The Quiet Year quite a bit. Enough to buy it on Roll20, despite owning a hardcopy that I suppose I could have just scanned in, or played by drawing cards in meatspace and just reading them into the video chat. It was enjoyable enough we're going to get together next week for the second half. (There's more than half a game left to do, but we spent the first hour mostly gabbing and catching up tonight, so it will probably zip by fast next time.)

The Roll20 implementation is pretty minimalist. It has all the pages of the rulebook as individual handouts, which is great for searching up individual rules, or for splitting up the reading of the rulebook between players. I wasn't completely convinced that Roll20's drawing tools were up to the task, and as you can see our drawings are pretty rough. I gotta say though, it worked well enough and was every bit as fun as in-person play. The Roll20 interface actually sped the game up, because if you had something a little more involved to draw you could fill in details while the other player took their turn. That's not normally a thing you can do when passing one sheet of paper back and forth in the physical game. So in some ways the Roll20 version is better than in-person (speed of play, and being able to play long-distance despite quarantine), and in other ways it is inferior to tabletop (mostly because the drawing tools on Roll20 aren't as easy to use as a box of colored pencils is).

I have always wanted to use The Quiet Year to create a map and history together with a playgroup, and then later set an RPG for the same group in that world we'd created together. It occurs to me that the Roll20 implementation would make it really easy to do that, as well as much easier to tweak that map (or upgrade it with a fancy version) after the start of the campaign. You would, however, then have a few dozen redundant rules-handouts jamming up your journal that you would want to delete or archive.  Even so, that is really cool, and now I really want to try that sometime.

One thing that did disappoint me a little about the Roll20 implementation is the lack of bells and whistles. I had to add the tiny dice as rollable table tokens. For the Contempt Tokens, I had to steal a chip from an old WH40K RPG campaign I ran back in the day. The yellowed paper background was on a single pregenerated page that took a little bit of ingenuity to duplicate to other pages for a second game.
(Addendum: It occured to me a few weeks later that they probably set it up that way intending for you to launch the module as a new campaign each time you want to play, so having multiple pages per campaign wasn't even a thing they considered. I think I prefer to have all the maps from every game of The Quiet Year that I've ever done online all be accessible in the same campaign framework, for ease of reference, and so I can show off old maps when teaching the game to new players. I suppose that preference might change if I do ever get around to starting an RPG campaign with a round of The Quiet Year to make the map for the campaign. You might not want a dozen other maps clogging up your campaign in that situation.) 
All told, it was less than half an hour of work to set up a reusable online version of the game, but if I had just bought it and thought I could start play right away I would have been surprised that I needed to take those extra steps the first time. I don't really know the first thing about how hard it is to build a sellable product on the Roll20 Marketplace, but it seems like it wouldn't be too much to ask for the game to come with a few assets that were selectable from the art library of the marketplace item, such as a set of tiny dice icons (or better yet, a prebuilt rollable token), a themed graphic for Contempt, and the yellow parchment background that you could then drag and drop to start a new page (bonus points if you could use it in other games/campaigns). I wonder if that's possible?

Along those lines, I'm really surprised that the Roll20 interface doesn't really include any generic "glass bead" -style tokens. Maybe they worry that would cut into sales of art assets? It sure seems like it would be useful for any number of gaming applications, but not so cool that people would be willing to pay much for it. But it also doesn't seem like it would take much work for Roll20's staff to make a set of half a dozen colored bead tokens available as a freebie (Edit: Or just one, which the GM could color via the existing token Tint feature), since they already give away for free several dozen virtual miniatures that are way more detailed.

Anyhow, The Quiet Year is elegant, goofy fun, and I highly recommend it, whether in dead-tree or Roll20 version. It's not perfect, but it's definitely worth the modest asking price in either format.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

HtHaD2E: This Close To World Domination

This post covers the last 5 turns of my recent game of How To Host A Dungeon 2nd Edition. In the previous posts, we followed the rise and fall of a Dwarven City, and then a series of dungeon expansions in and around those ruins by successive waves or generations of monsters. Eventually, this culminated in an insectoid species -- known as "Antlings" -- accumulating enough Treasure to trigger the Age of Villainy. (Click here for Index of all my How To Host A Dungeon articles.)

Here is the map as it was when we left off:

Other groups on the map at this point include:
  • A giant Pike that swallowed an Owlbear whole.
  • A small Reclamation Colony of Dwarves, who have built an armory, reignited the old smelters and unearthed an Epic Magical Treasure.
  • A high-level adventurer and his Ork henchman have set up camp in an old Dwarven drinking hall.
  • An ork tribe that was once prosperous and powerful but is now stretched too thin.
  • A warren of sneaky kobold thieves.

Per the rules as written, the Antlings had qualified to start The Empire, which is one of the two main forms of Villainy. Empires Ally and Annex other groups, and build Monuments and Universities. The Antlings are Mindless, so that's not a good match thematically.

Instead, I'll be using the other main form of Villain, which is The Horde. It's a perfect match for a colony of giant ants. (Alternately, I could have just narrated that the Antlings had evolved sentience, possibly a result of the weird fungus they were farming.)

As a Horde Villain, the Antlings will gain some new Actions each turn. Previously, they would Breed and Prepare every turn, and Harvest their Fungus Farm nearly every turn. On turns when they didn't Harvest, they could Explore or Fight. Now they always Scout new territory each turn, in addition to Breeding and Preparing. On turns when they don't Harvest or Explore or Fight, they can now alternately Rout tougher monsters, or sacrifice some of their own to Exterminate groups they outnumber. They always at first at the start of each Round, but at the end of the Round they get a Finishing move of Corrupting the Strata they are in if there's no one there to resist them. If they Corrupt all 7 underground Strata, they conquer the world and win the game.

Age of Villainy Set-Up:
We corrupt the Strata where the majority of the Antling tokens are. Visually, I went for a reddish mycelium growth, as if the Fungus Farm were spreading out of control through the rock.

What follows is mostly a stream-of-consciousness step-by-step playthrough of all 5 turns of the Age of Villainy in my recent game. I will put a summarized list of observations and proposed house-rules in another post later.

Age of Villainy - Turn 1: Antlings Horde, The Experts, Giant Pike, Dwarves, Kobolds, Orkz +Gnolls

Antlings Horde: Breed. Scout action expands their space by roughly 1 room in each direction, which means they fill some but not all of the rooms previously inhabited by the Owlbear, but will not reach the water until next turn. Prepare. Explore the rest of their main corrupted stratum by digging a tunnel towards the Demigod structures.

The Experts: Their monster card compels them to pick a Fight with one of the nearby Denizen groups. They attack the Dwarves, and their Ork henchman dies. So then they Recruit a new henchman from the Orkz, and that's enough of a drain on the Orkz population to eliminate the Orkz.

Giant Pike: Can't leave the water, and the Antlings didn't reach the water, so it just relocates to explore the other part of the subterranean ocean. I mark his original territory with "spawning bed" because I suspect he swims upstream in later turns.

Dwarves: Dwarves are playing a dangerous game. They Exploit the only remaining Ore on the map, which involves reopening passageways very close to the Adventuring Party. So it's in their best interests to Fight the interlopers, which they do, killing the new Ork henchman and leaving just the 1 Adventurer holding the old Drinking Hall.

Kobolds: They are pretty much doomed by their Explore requirement, sweet tooth for treasure, and the extinction of the Orkz. With all those factors, there's no way their mess of tunnels isn't going to hit that Fate Nexus booby trap that's been sitting there since the Primordial Era. Having found their Fate, the Kobolds are wiped out.

Orkz: Were eliminated before they could take their turn.

Gnolls: In the Age of Villainy, new Monsters spawn less frequently. Instead of being automatic each turn, it's based on whether or not any Monster groups were eliminated in the previous turn. Looking at my notes from the last play session, I see that the Owlbear was eaten by the Giant Pike in the previous turn, so I do spawn monsters this turn. It's Gnolls, and they rolled the ocean strata, so I figure the Giant Pike's migration has exposed their seaside home. They fight the Antlings and win, and then they Steal from the Pike. I draw a tunnel to the old Owlbear caves to be the route they use for both Actions. To give the Gnolls just a tiny bit of visual character, I decide all their rooms will have two support columns.

Antling Horde Finishing Move: They haven't yet spread far enough to trigger their finishing move, mostly because I chose to have them tunnel to the Demigod Hall with their Explore action. Next Turn, they'll most likely start corrupting the layers beneath them.

Age of Villainy - Turn 2: Antling Horde, Gnolls, Experts, Giant Pike, +Medusa

Antlings Horde: Breed. Scout in all directions, and drag the treasure they find in the Hall of the Demigod deeper into their nest. It's probably ambrosia or golden apples or something of the sort. They explore further down, penetrating pretty far since the Old Dwarven Loway is open and un-owned.

Gnolls: Fight the Antlings and kill one, cutting off their access to the sea. Breed, since they fought the Antlings last turn. Scout and expand their territory.

Experts: Fight the Dwarves, and with a lucky roll kill them despite the Armory bonus. Then, since it worked with the Orkz, they try to Recruit the survivors. This time it doesn't work, and they just end up giving their last treasure to the Dwarves for no gain.

Dwarves: There's no Ore left anywhere on the map, so they can neither Exploit nor Relocate to better lands. So they pick a Fight. The best odds are against the Antlings, so that's the risk they take, and they win!

Giant Pike: Hunts a Gnoll. Explores a deeper section of the water than was previously obvious.

Medusa: Spawns way down on Stratum 8 where there's no one to Hunt. Prepares. Scouts.

Antling Horde Finishing Move: They corrupt the Stratum directly below the hive, so the Antlings are 2/7ths of the way to world domination.

Age of Villainy: Turn 3 - Antling Horde, Experts, Gnolls, Medusa, Dwarves, Giant Pike,

Antling Horde: Breed. Prepare. Scout. Then they use the Horde-specific Exterminate Action to wipe out the Dwarves. It may seem wasteful or overkill, but the math of it makes sense. That single Dwarf, with his +1 on Fight, had about a 72% chance each turn to kill an Antling. Exterminate is a can't-fail Action that gets to ignore the Dwarves Fortification bonuses.  By wiping him out, the Antlings gain a Fortification of their own, making them much better at dealing with incursions from the Gnolls. Plus, by not Fighting the Gnolls this turn, they prevent the Giant Pike from Hunting them just a little bit longer. This isn't without some peril, as it drops the Antling Population briefly down to 2, before the second half of Exterminate bumps them back up to 3. Their numbers are dwindling, but they've gained a large portion of the map. They are at their most vulnerable for the rest of this turn, but it seems a worthwhile gamble.

The Experts: Fight the Antlings, and almost beat them. The Antlings have to spend their Special Bonus Star (from Preparing) in order to win. They do so, and that's the end of The so-called Experts.

Gnolls: Fight the Antlings, and lose thanks to the Fortification the Antlings have in their territory now. As they also fought last turn, they get to Breed and replace the population they just lost. Scout a little.

Medusa: No one to Hunt. Prepares. Scouts a little bit further up, and reorganizes into the area she scouted.

Dwarves: Dead before their turn comes up.

Giant Pike: Hunt a Gnoll. The Gnolls are in trouble now. If the Pike beats their Initiative next turn, they'll be wiped out.

Troglodytes: Enter in Strata 4. Start exploring a route up towards water. For some reason, I made their tunnels huge and their rooms small. Not sure what I was thinking. I'm pretty I did this part of the turn after midnight sometime last week, so exhaustion or insomnia-dellerium may have been to blame. If I use this map for an RPG adventure, I'll probably claim they worship some giant serpent-god, and this huge winding tunnel is carved in his honor.

Antlings Horde: Finishing Move: Corrupt strata 5 and 6. Now 4/7ths of the way to victory.

Age of Villainy Turn 4: Antlings, Giant Pike, Gnolls, Medusa, Troglodytes, +Starhelm ++Demonic Hordes

Antlings Horde: Breed. Prepare. Scout in all directions, making significant progress in directions where they don't have to tunnel and can just follow existing pathways. They are now approaching the Fate cave from two directions. Before they get there, they Fight the Troglodytes and kill some of them.

Giant Pike: Eats the last Gnoll, and has some Ants for desert.

Gnolls: Have been wiped out before their turn.

Medusa: Kills some Antlings. Then tries to Exploit Nexus, because it's a cool-sounding Action that I do believe is unique to the Medusa. Unfortunately, the Nexus on this map is the very lethal Fate Cave. Exploit uses the exploited resource to create a treasure. The Fate cave must have some reflective surfaces. Perhaps its a crystalline geode cave. She sees her own reflection, and Exploits herself into a statue-shaped treasure.

Troglodytes: There's no ore left on the map to Exploit, and they have a treasure to defend so they don't Relocate. They retaliate with their "Fight a monster that attacked us last turn" against the Antlings, and lose.

Starhelm: Monster groups were wiped out, so I draw a new card to replace them. I get Starhelm, which is a traveling order of Knights who specialize in hunting undead. They spawn in strata four. It's near the end of the game, so I just grab my old Adventurer tokens for them. They're actually more interesting than the other Adventurer groups, and if I wasn't obviously about 1 turn away from the end of the game, I would bother to treat them like a bigger deal. I figure they're too late to really trigger any of the cool things that make Starhelm unique, and it's just easier to use tokens I already have. They will, however, get to trigger their "When spawning" power. They need a foe to defeat, so I have to draw the first Undead monster in the deck and add it to the map. They can't Hunt Undead from their starting location, so they Relocate. They go to the Hall of the Demigod, and Build a Tomb for the fallen Godling. Well, maybe they can actually do a few of their cool Starhelm-exclusive tricks after all. These guys are already way more interesting than The (so-called) Experts.

Demonic Hordes: I was a little surprised to see the "Undead" Keyword on the Demonic Hordes, but in the context of placing an unholy enemy for Starhelm to hunt, it works. I rolled Strata 5, so they burst up from a volcanic rift to another plane. They then immediately relocate to a resource they can Exploit up in the old Gnoll area, blasting lightning-shaped tunnels to get there. In hindsight, maybe they should have gone to the Exploitable water around the Ancient Dwarven Statue, as it's much closer, could be reached mostly by existing tunnels, would slow down the Antling progress, and not run them through such hotly contested territory. However, I didn't think of that until after I'd already carved out the zig-zag tunnels they'd blasted into the landscape, and it was going to be too much work to undo that.

Antlings Horde: Finishing Move: Corrupt strata 7 and 8. Now 6/7ths of the way to victory. In order to extend it into both of the strata, they needed to relocate both of their remaining Population tokens to the frontiers of their expansion. Which is fine and legal, there was nothing requiring them to have a Queen chamber, or keep a Population there. If we want a story justification, perhaps the Queen has a sense that her fate awaits here in stratum 7.

My Villains are now down to just 2 Population, within Scouting range of Fate, and have just one Stratum between them and global domination. One way or another, the game is going to end next turn.

Age of Villainy: Turn 5: Antlings, Giant Pike, Demonic Horde, Troglodytes, Starhelm

Antlings Horde: Breed. Scout into Fate, and meet their doom. They came so close to winning it all, only to doom themselves.

Giant Pike: Eats a Demonic Horde. Explores and discovers a thin river where a surface creek feeds the underground seas.

Demonic Horde: Exploit the water. Breed. Explore - This is taking some minor liberty with the system, but as a sort of combination of their Exploit and Explore, I had them build a big pier or bridge out over the water.

Troglodytes: Just Breed.

Starhelm: Hunt 1 of the Demonic Horde automatically. Then Fight the remaining Demonic Horde and win! The Demonic Horde are wiped out! Which means the Order of Starhelm disbands and leaves the map for quests elsewhere.

Arguably, I should maybe spawn another Monster since there were eliminations this turn, but the game ends at the end of the turn, so it didn't seem worth it.

Antlings Horde Villain: Have been wiped out, so they don't get their Finishing Move... but I just couldn't resist firing off the mycelium corruption affect one more time, at a large scale, centered on the Fate cave.

At that stage, it doesn't look like a very usable map for an RPG, what with all that visual clutter, hardly any monsters, and treasures just piled up everywhere. Surprisingly, it took very little clean-up to get it in a usable state for D&D (or whatever other purpose you might need it for, like the setting of a novel). Once you've cleared the tokens out, all those labels of what used to be in areas become a legend of what is currently there at the start of your D&D campaign. Tweaking the transparency of a few layers, and shifting some a little further down the layer list only took a couple minutes, and let me shift the map into usable territory.

I'm actually really pleased with how this one turned out, there were a few points where I thought I'd ruined it, but layering all those extra greebly details transformed my crappy quick pixel sketches into more than the sum of the parts. Even the crazy coloring I used to designate areas ended up being less garish and awful in the final product that I thought it would.

Sometime soon I will put together a new post with a big summary of all the things that I'd like to house-rule or do differently next time I play. The game was a lot of fun, but the second edition has a few rough edges.