Text-based RPG campaign ideas

I have difficulty finding time to play RPGs lately due to other obligations (family, work, etc.) While I like solo play, that provides a different sort of experience altogether. Roll20 presents an interesting alternative, but most folks want to play with voice chat, and that creates more real-life conflicts because my house is generally noisy except when we’re all asleep.

Because of that, I have started trying to get into play-by-post games. Currently, that only includes a Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign using Sine Nomine’s Red Tide setting. This might point the way to a better method for me, albeit one that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to every type of campaign. “Urban” campaigns, focused on intrigue, diplomacy, and espionage seem to lend themselves more naturally to this format, because they focus more on character interactions and less on crunchy mechanics (at least in my experience).

Dungeon exploration, however, seems less interesting to me in a forum-based campaign, although in a “live text” game via instant-messaging or IRC or similar that would probably go very well. My recently-acquired copy of Castle Gargantua (review pending!) in particular should support that type of campaign. I’d like to run a traditional megadungeon at some point, such as Rappan Athuk or Stonehell, but my life right now doesn’t support that so easily. When it does, I will probably do so via some sort of open table campaign since that also tends to work better for adults.

So right now I am leaning towards one or both of the following types of campaigns:

  1. Urban intrigue via play-by-post, using either Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition or A Song of Ice and Fire. The latter lends itself much more closely to this type of campaign, but I feel like it will be harder to find participants due to the smaller player base. The new season of Game of Thrones might grab some players’ attention, but that seems like a long shot. 5e has enough social mechanics that I could use it for this (and the DMG has some explicit advice in this regard).
  2. Dungeon exploration via text chat, probably with Castle Gargantua the first time around. This might actually be a good candidate for continuing to use Roll20, where I have a Pro membership. The updated LotFP character sheet and support for maps (CG only uses them in a few places) would help here.

That said, I probably won’t start either of these until later in the spring as I have some other (non-RPG) projects that require my attention first.

Musing on the implications of the D&D 5e SRD

Little Dorrit, Musing and dreaming, by PhizThe main reason I stopped playing D&D Fifth Edition was that it read too much like a set of software requirements (use cases). 5e writes everything out in expansive detail, rather than in a concise “Strunk & White-esque” manner.

This drove me back to simpler rule sets like Swords & Wizardry and even Microlite20 or Searchers of the Unknown. For some purposes (e.g. playing with my kids), those still make the most sense. I need the ability to riff on what my players do as quickly as they  do it. Otherwise, their interest starts to wane and they want to go watch anime or play Minecraft or something.

But the release of the Systems Reference Document and Open Gaming License for 5e might change things a little. +Stan Shinn already has a project titled Dungeonesque: Red Box RPG that will provide a streamlined version of the 5e rules based on the SRD. I expect a number of similar projects to come out soon as well. While the so-called “O5R” movement may not have gathered much steam, this sort of approach might do enough to make it worthwhile for me. In fact, incorporating the best parts of other games (e.g. the encumbrance rules from Lamentations of the Flame Princess and the domain level play from Adventurer Conqueror King System) just became a lot more viable.

Related to this, I have trouble playing via Roll20 in part because data entry for the monsters takes so much time. (Voice chat has become less workable for me due to my home environment as well.) I expect we’ll see the monsters from the SRD available on Roll20 soon based on comments from the developers there, however.  They can’t afford to miss the opportunity to streamline play for the most popular game on their platform.

I’d like to come back to 5e for something other than dungeon crawling. Perhaps a game of urban intrigue and espionage using text chat on Roll20 would work better, as it involves a lot less crunch and a lot more roleplaying. (The reason for sticking with 5e comes down to the interest level from players.) I also like designing monsters and such using the 5e crunch, ironically enough, so I might stat up a few things from my Roll For Initiative collection and put them out on the Dungeon Master’s Guild for people to use.

Certainly this started me thinking about 5e again in a way I haven’t in quite a while. Good job, WotC.

D&D with kids: Goblin Gully

Last night, I played D&D for the first time in months – probably the first time in 2015 – and I did so with my kids. TL;DR: structured make-believe with my kids is the best pastime.

Setup and character creation

They’d asked me to play, and I hadn’t been happy with 5e for various reasons. Mostly, I just find it still too rules-heavy for me. Related to that, character creation takes too long and requires too much understanding. So I went with old-school D&D, in the form of Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Roleplaying (because I like its straightforward implementation of the B/X ruleset). I don’t really plan to use much of the LotFP-branded adventures with them purely due to age considerations, although there are some things I can lift from a few of them.

My 8-year-old son, who’s never played before, rolled up a fighter named “Oduyx” (pronounced differently every time he said it). We went with 3d6, arrange to taste, and he chose to go with a sword & shield. Equipment selection took longer than I’d have liked, although they both chose to get dogs. (These probably have the most utility per silver piece of almost anything you can get). I told him to think about what his character looks like and maybe a little bit of background while I helped his sister with her character.

My 11yo is becoming less of a tomboy. This is her notebook, character sheet, and dice bag.

My 11yo is becoming less of a tomboy. This is her notebook, character sheet, and dice bag.

As previously noted on this site, my 11-year-old daughter has played before in the guise of 5e as well as Microlite20. She immediately wanted to play a shapeshifter of some sort (e.g. a lycanthrope), so I explained that I would be happy to run an adventure in which her character acquires that characteristic in some fashion. After she thought it over for a few seconds, she decided to play an elf so that she’d have immediate fighting capabilities but the ability to learn magic. She named him “Lloyd” as her first male RPG character. (I think of elves as not really fitting a gender binary, anyway, and she liked that but kept the “he/him/his” pronouns.)

The two kids went off and consulted on their backstory just enough to figure out why they were working together. I made sure they understood that this game involves a lot of teamwork. Their characters will need to cooperate and support each other, because I will obviously be using this as a little bit of a parenting exercise. (Almost everything we do together has to be that, just by necessity.) The two of them didn’t really overthink it, but instead envisioned sort of a non-romantic “meet cute” at the inn where Lloyd worked and they just decided to become friends in the way that kids do. This made my life way easier, if for no other reason than that they understood that the real idea is to get to the adventure quickly.

Play session

I decided to use Goblin Gully from +Dyson Logos for their initial foray, although I used the version from Dyson’s Delves II because it had monster stats already included. This includes some obvious tropes – goblins, kids doing dumb things, the sheer evil of elves, hidden treasures – in a small package for brief attention spans. Since I’ve been supporting the Patreon there for a long time and own a couple of the related products, this felt right.

As they approached the old tree over the cave, a couple of goblins let loose with arrows at them. After siccing the dogs on the goblins (to keep them up in the tree), Oduyx tried to protect Lloyd with his shield while the elf let loose with rocks from his sling. Two natural 20s took care of the monsters and it was time for the real threat: arguing about which character would get to go first into the cave…

Already thinking like adventurers, they tossed pebbles down stairways to get an idea of how far down they went. It also eliminated any chance of surprise but I didn’t feel the need to tell them that. I added some flavor text in the first antechamber (“there are faded rectangles spaced evenly on the walls, such as you’d see if there had been paintings or other decorations for a long time that were later removed”). The ambush in the great hall was fun and they were suitably freaked out by the arrows spewing from the mouth of the monster face carving in the far wall. After eliminating all the goblins but one, they took it prisoner and then argued about which order they’d use to cross the suspension bridge. This led to a lot of fun roleplay with the goblin prisoner, whose suspicious manner clearly indicated he was just cooperating out of fear and would betray them at the first opportunity.

Once they crossed the bridge, they had a choice to make: descend the spiral staircase or climb the rope dangling from the shaft in the ceiling. Lloyd took the bait and climbed the rope while Oduyx waited with the dogs. I loved the look on my daughter’s face when I told her that “he reaches the top, grasps the edge, starts to pull himself up – and sees five goblins grinning back at him, waiting”. They cut the rope before he could get back down and the resulting fall brought the already-injured elf to exactly 0 HP (unconscious but alive).

Their goblin prisoner took this distraction as an opportunity to break for the staircase, yelling for help. Oduyx chased after him, only to run into several goblins in their stinky little hole (“it smells of wet dog and onions everywhere”). Thinking quickly, he realized that the kerosene lamp in his hands could be an improvised weapon and smashed it at their feet before running back upstairs. Almost all the goblins failed their saving throws, so he got away.

With his comrade unconscious and not waking up (I let my daughter try some saving throws but the dice were not cooperating), Oduyx had to decide whether to grab Lloyd’s stuff and run or try to drag him away quickly before the goblins above could descend upon them. That led to some heated OOC discussions between the kids, but finally my son decided to do the honorable thing and try to get his sister’s character out of there. They made a fighting retreat across the bridge, then cut the supports so that the goblins would be trapped on their side of the gully and finally could make it back to town.

Aftermath and lessons learned

The characters didn’t get much XP in this session since they literally recovered no treasure. I awarded them 200 XP, though, for defeating quite a few goblins and confirming the presence of the raiders for the local law enforcement. They immediately went to work fleshing out backstory a little more and begged to play again, so in general it was a success.

As the GM, I learned (or relearned) a few things:

  • Optional prepackaged equipment is really important, especially with newer players.
  • Making funny voices is the best part of this job.
  • Kids really like “artifacts” of some sort, whether homemade LEGO swords to wave around during roleplay or towels tied around their neck for cloaks.
  • I didn’t understand the rules around hit points and unconsciousness / death well enough. But it turned out that I followed them anyway just by winging it according to what I’ve done in other games.

The kids provided some good feedback too:

  • Some combat is fun, but exploration and puzzles are better. More of that next time.
  • They’d like to play in a city-type environment, or at least start out with one.
  • It was cool not knowing exactly where the treasure was.

My work is cut out for me, as I hope to play with them late this week or maybe this weekend. That will take some prep, but I can’t wait!

Revisiting Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Plate 8 of 22 for the Macklin Bible after Loutherbourg.Since posting about various retroclone games, I’ve re-examined my opinions a bit. Thus, I decided to revisit Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Something about the design kept calling me back. In part, the layout looks gorgeous, even in the free no-art version. Also, largely inspired by LotFP, I watched the 2009 movie Solomon Kane. I wanted to get a sense of that early-modern dark fantasy, even if it has more than a few plot holes. For an evening’s viewing with popcorn and whiskey, it entertained me quite well.

The simplification of some things like skills and the silver standard also appeals to me, even if I find six-sided dice a bit ho-hum. My only previous complaint about the game itself had to do with saving throws. It takes the standard approach found in the editions of D&D it emulates. Whereas I earlier stated a preference for the approach of 5e, matching saves to abilities, that has started to feel stale to me. That makes saving throws just another form of ability checks. But they don’t reflect, say, the innate resistance to magic of classic dwarves. I haven’t given the older approach a fair shake.

So what does LotFP do better than many other games?

  • Simplified encumbrance rules that take out most of the bookkeeping but retain the resource management.
  • “Maritime Adventures” get an entire chapter
  • “Property and Finance” for those who get into domains and strongholds
  • Magic remains somewhat unpredictable, especially when researching new spells or summoning monsters. Especially when summoning monsters. More on this below.
  • Skills exist, but with a straightforward “n out of 6” system. Only one class, the Specialist (previously known to many of us as “Thief”) gets to improve these skills as they increase in level.

However, I’d like to see some things improved. Hopefully the upcoming referee book includes guidance on monster creation. The philosophy of the game seems to imply fewer but weirder monsters, which makes sense for a number of play styles. But a few tips would go a long way.

Alternatives to the classic pseudo-Vancian system would work very well in this game. In particular, a vitality-based system (similar to what Microlite20 uses) would fit the “weird roleplaying” motif. Casting spells cost hit points, and only rest, not magic, can heal that “damage”. You could potentially reduce max HP until a full night’s rest for a similar effect.

I should not have written the game off so quickly. The next time I run a new game, I will likely give it a try.

Hiring and followers in Fifth Edition

Gishi Shozo Sanshi (Annotated Portraits of Loyal Retainers)In my last play session, we noted that the players probably need to hire torchbearers or similar companions. I took a look at the rules in 5e and some other games before deciding what to do, and ended up merging them into a simple system that I hope will work for us.

D&D Fifth Edition

The hiring rules[0] in 5e left me feeling really underwhelmed. And after I compared them with the rules in a number of other games, I felt even more underwhelmed. “Skilled” cost 2 gold pieces per day, and “unskilled” cost 2 silver pieces per day. I’d increase that significantly for NPCs asked to go into harm’s way, like torchbearers in a dungeon. Note that this only means hired workers, not “retainers” or “low-level followers”. In those cases, they get a share of treasure and experience points. They make good replacement characters when a regular player character dies, too.

Page 93 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide provides a nice loyalty system tied to the Charisma score of the party. The NPC’s Loyalty score starts at half of the highest Charisma in the party, with that Charisma being the maximum. When you help them achieve a bond or do something really nice for them, the loyalty increases by 1d4. A corresponding decrease of 1d4 occurs when the party members do something that runs against the NPC’s alignment or bond, or 2d4 if they’re mistreated for selfish reasons. When the loyalty score reaches 0, the disloyal NPC either leaves or undermines the party. If it reaches 10, they will risk their lives for the party members.

Other games

Basic Fantasy RPG lists three types of companions. It provides “retainers”, who go into dungeons, participate, and get a share of the rewards. “Specialists” don’t go on adventures but perform other sorts of services (like a sage doing research or a sailors on a character-owned ship). Finally, “mercenaries” typically get hired as units and might provide security at a stronghold or similar. Labyrinth Lord has almost the same setup.

Swords & Wizardry does not have the concept of “retainers”. It has one page for hiring followers of various types, including “Man-at-Arms (Soldiers)” and “Man-at-Arms (Adventuring)”. The latter category probably comes closest to retainers. Another category covers “Torchbearer (or Other Adventuring Non-combatant)”. In this regard, it looks a lot like 5e.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess handles this with its characteristic balance between simplicity in exposition and detail in requirement. In fact, it seems to envision that adventuring parties become “expeditions” with all sorts of followers. For example, once characters acquire strongholds, accountants and similar become really important. For my purposes, the most relevant types include “Guides” who help the party avoid becoming lost, “Henchmen” (retainers), and “Laborers” & “Linkboys” (treasure carriers and torchbearers). All followers also earn a death benefit payable to family or a magistrate if they die during the course of the adventure.

My system

We will have three classes of NPCs for adventuring. Note that I don’t have any campaigns with players ready to run a stronghold or similar, so I don’t have to think about that yet.

  1. Followers. These correspond to “retainers” in most systems: classed, lower-level characters that get a share of the rewards. Players can create and run them during an adventure if they desire to use them as potential replacement characters if their main characters die. A character needs to reach fifth level before finding a follower, though.
  2. Mercenaries. These don’t get a share of rewards but only fill specific roles (e.g. they can apply healing kits or other special expertise). The DM runs them but they should never take the spotlight for fear of becoming “DMPCs“. If the PCs want the mercenaries to accompany them into a dungeon or into some other type of battle, they earn 10 gp/day. Otherwise they cost 2 gp/day as for skilled workers in the PHB.
  3. Attendants. Torchbearers, animal handlers, and so forth earn 2 sp/day just to accompany the party. But if they have to go into a dungeon, they earn a full gold piece per day.

Mercenaries and attendants earn a death benefit payable to their families or the guild. This comes to 100 days of hazard pay, so 1000 gp for mercenaries and 200 gp for attendants. I want the players to view these NPCs as actual characters, not furniture.

Further, the 5e loyalty system applies, but I want to import the morale system from the Mentzer Basic Dungeon Masters Rulebook. When appropriate, the NPC rolls 2d6 against their loyalty score. If the result exceeds their loyalty score, they flee or otherwise stop helping. If the loyalty score reaches 12, then the NPC doesn’t have to roll. But in all cases, if the NPC feels abused, Bad Things may happen.

[0]: I hate the word “hirelings” with a burning passion even more than I hate the term “human resources”.

Losing ruleset weight: evaluating older RPG games

D&D 5e has started to frustrate me. I feel like I spend way too much time looking stuff up when running a game. Some of that comes from poor information organization in the core books. This leads to too much time looking up spells and so forth. Another large chunk results directly from the amount of rules: conditions, cover, grappling, etc. Wizards of the Coast has made the business decision not to provide us with electronic materials. As a result, we have to depend on books, player-generated material that lawyers don’t take down, or our own preparation efforts. The amount of time taken by data entry in various applications and private documents doesn’t help.

As the DM, I can decide to change the rules, of course. But I want to take care when doing so. DM fiat shouldn’t frustrate players more than absolutely necessary. That doesn’t even include the optional rules I’ve chosen to exclude, like multiclassing and feats. Some of the things that take more time than I’d like actually include some of the most fun bits, like the different monster abilities and features.

Switching to another simpler game could certainly work. I don’t care one way or the other about labels like “OSR” (including whatever the abbreviation actually means to someone). But I do like the balance between crunch and freeform play in older games and “retroclones“, which I lump together here for this purpose.

Game analyses

A sorcerer comes to a peasant wedding. I’ve been re-reading various versions of a number of games. As much as I like Microlite20 and Microlite74, they just don’t seem to have much traction in terms of finding groups. For players, this choice might look like a distinction without a difference. None of the systems differ in large ways. Find a group you like on Roll20 and use what they use, since the DM will probably have tons of house rules anyway. But as a DM myself, I need to choose a place to begin. All three of these systems have tremendous community support. In addition, they are cross-compatible with each other and lots of other older games or clones (which is largely the point).

Dungeons & Dragons

OGL-based games constantly refer to “the Original Fantasy Roleplaying Game”, or  they use some other euphemism for actual Dungeons & Dragons. Wizards of the Coast has made available legitimate (non-infringing) electronic copies of older editions. This includes 3.5e and 4e, editions I prefer not to play, but also B/X and AD&D. A little time and effort can find actual books for sale on Amazon, eBay, and other places like that. Used bookstores and local gaming stores also carry them at times. The organization and lack of clarity in some of these editions has left me a bit cold, though I have some of this material for reference as needed.

In the meantime, my campaign in 5e will continue. I still plan to finish running Dyson’s Delve with the Relic Hunters Guild if the players keep going. I also play in a meatspace 5e game and find the new Dungeon Master’s Guide useful for everything, not to mention that gorgeous Monster Manual.

Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game

Basic Fantasy has something of an “Acme Industries” vibe to it. It focuses on doing what it does very well, including mechanics as well as production value, without embellishment to the point of distraction. BF uses ascending armor class, which I like, but it also has the older-style saving throws (“Dragon Breath”? “Wands”?). These never made much sense to me. It also uses the modern separation of race and class. I’ve never used the older approach of race-as-class and would like to experiment a bit, but I don’t know how players typically feel about that.

Labyrinth Lord

Labyrinth 28, etching, aquatint, soft-ground etching, mm.180x330, Engraved and designed by Toni Pecoraro 2007.Labyrinth Lord supports race-as-class directly in the core book. It seems closest to the older edition it seeks to emulate, including descending AC and all the old saving throws. This system has a bit more heft to it, though in this case that means “completeness” rather than rules-heaviness. I’ve joined a campaign using LL rules on Roll20 that will start in the new year, but this time I’ll get to participate as a player rather than DM. We will play in a really unusual campaign setting: the Anomalous Subsurface Environment. I have high hopes for that!

Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Lamentations of the Flame Princess has a beautiful approach in terms of its simplicity (e.g. the silver standard) and just enough “weirdness” to make it stand out. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed reading an adventure as much as I did Death Frost Doom. It uses race-as-class & ascending armor class and has extensive domain management rules. The old-style saving throws are a turn-off, as is the fact that, for reasons I do not understand at all, James Raggi has blocked me personally on Google+. I’ve never had any interaction with him that I recall, so it strikes me as somewhat odd.

Swords & Wizardry

Swords & Wizardry seems the most hackable. It supports both ascending and descending armor class. Since I prefer ascending, this helps a lot. A single number for saving throws might go too far in the other direction from the original game. In fact, D&D 5e probably does this in the way that makes the most sense to me, tying saving throws to ability scores. SW does modify certain types of saves based on character class, though, which helps. And it has both “race-as-class” and the more modern approach available depending on which edition you use.

What’s next?

For now I will start from S&W, though I have much love for all the systems above in their own ways. This will immediately require a few small tweaks, such as bringing in Advantage/Disadvantage. I also have taken some cues from Microlite74 OSS and some rules variants in 5e regarding skills. Characters who specify a particular skill or background at creation time will get advantage on relevant attempts. I will also use some of the material in Lamentations of the Flame Princess, like the extensive support for strongholds and hirelings.

In reality, no two RPG campaigns truly use the same system once you include house rules and such. Systems like these, all based on more or less the same game, just provide a framework from which we can begin.

Time to do work.