Posts Tagged ‘gnome stew’

Each month the folks from the RPG Blogger Network organize an RPG Blogger Carnival, where a bunch of bloggers all tackle the same question or topic.  This month Game Knight Review is hosting, and the question is “what’s in your backpack?”  The Gassy Gnoll kept the question pretty open — your real world backpack, you’re in-game backpack, whatever — so since this blog is supposed to be about GM tools and game structures I thought I might whip something up about what’s in my “backpack” for running a campaign.

I strongly feel like the most important piece of gear is a hex-map; this may be less true if you’re running a game that takes place entirely inside a megadungeon, or if overland travel is specifically unimportant and hand-waved (as might be the case in any reasonably-civilized setting), but hex maps seem to have been a key component of the game originally and it’s the biggest “missing piece” in modern games if you ask me.  Lots of people have lots of ideas about what makes a good hex map, but I’m going to go ahead and say that it should consist of 6-mile hexes (this makes some of the math a bit easier) and have a moderate-to-high amount of keyed locations (something between 80% and 100% coverage).  These keyed locations can be used to mark settlements, monster lairs, dungeons, etc and can be used to inform “random encounters.” (The Alexandrian has a long-running series discussing his complete hex-crawl system.)

The second bit of gear should be a random encounter mechanism, and you should have one whether the party is in a dungeon, in the wilderness, or even in a city (though that last might be a bit of a stretch). Random encounters give your world a sense of being “alive” and functioning even when the PCs aren’t around.  There are lots of ways to do this; I haven’t had time to use them to great extent, but my favorites are probably the one-page encounters method or more standard, region-based tables.  I think it’s important to note that these don’t all have to be combat encounters (I’d argue they shouldn’t all be combat) but one of the tings that random encounters ward against is the 15-minute work day (because going nova on an early encounter leaves you vulnerable to a random encounter later, and being vulnerable could mean death).

The last piece that I think is essential (and Gygax agrees with me, apparently) is a solid notion of time. Modern games still keep time during combat, and in general people keep track of days (at least in vague terms of night and day), but without the right granularity of time it becomes difficult to keep track of what might be going on “off-screen” and how long it takes your players to accomplish certain tasks — it’s possible that you can get by without a solid notion of time, just as characters can probably get by without flint and tinder, but I think you’re making it harder on yourself.  For me, I use the following:

1 Combat Round = 6 Seconds
10 Combat Rounds = 1 minute
1 simple non-combat action = 1 minute
10 minutes = 1 turn
6 turns = 1 hour
4 hours = 1 watch
6 watches = 1 day
7 days = 1 week
4 weeks = 1 month
13 months = 1 year

Most other tools I’ve found to be essential so far tend to come standard with modern games: things like a combat system, a notion of healing and damage, systems for skill-based action resolution.  A mechanism for adding or tracking weather in your world can add flavor, too; Gnome Stew has a system based on a Dragon article that’s “good enough for fantasy.” I’d recommend finding a system for NPC morale, but I haven’t gotten around to finding a good one yet. And I think there’s a lot to be said in favor of published modules, especially encapsulated ones that can be plopped into any campaign, either for filling out your hex key or presenting to your players when you’ve had a bad week for prep.

What do you think?  Anything I’m still missing from my pack?

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Dr. Gentleman has a series of posts about Combat that I’m trying (and mostly failing) to read.  This post isn’t really about anything I’ve read there, but it has Combat on my mind, and Gnome Stew just posted a little trick about color-coding your dice that I thought was neat, and all that reminded me of a trick of my own that I’d been meaning to mention.

People complain about the speed of combat a lot — roll d20 to hit, what did you get?, that hits now roll damage, what did you get?, describe results of the attack, next action.  With even a handful of players it gets bogged down quickly, especially if there are NPCs (enemies and/or allies) involved.  But it doesn’t have to be this way, really.

A simple trick that I’ve used, and that I’m surprised doesn’t get used more, is to chuck a handful of dice.  Instead of making each piece of the attack sequence a separate roll, grab a d20 and whatever damage dice you use and toss it in one throw.  If the d20 hits the AC damage is already on the table, and you haven’t wasted any real effort if you miss.  I’ve considered adding a Crit/Fumble die to the mix so that crits are confirmed in the same throw as well.  With a little color-coding, you can quickly see hit-die, damage-dice, backstab-dice, crit-die and so on.  It becomes a lot more roll-and-go, especially if DMs aren’t coy about monster ACs (which I don’t think they should be, in general). If people start thinking about their next action before it’s their turn (something my players need practise doing), it gets even smoother.

I’ve been mulling over this post for a little bit now, but John Arcadian at Gnome Stew just made a post about running a no-character-advancement game which has spurred me to actually put pen to paper and say what I think.

The Gnome Stew post talks about the idea of playing a campaign where characters do not advance in level, or alternatively only advance during downtime between story arcs.  It lists a number of benefits to this approach, not the least of which, in my opinion, is eliminating the sense of “my character will be awesome at Level 5.”  Your character is awesome now.  John makes a few other good points and it’s worth a quick read; this post is more about the assumptions and expectations of rewards in D&D.

One of the trends that bothers me about D&D rewards is that it seems like the expected reward, from both players and DMs, is experience points.  When characters complete some goal — rescue the princess, kill the goblins, solve the puzzle — they might get some treasure, they may get some in-game renown, they could open up previously-inaccessible areas.  But across the board it’s expected that they’ll get Experience points.  The concern and the danger is that the difference in power from one level to the next is a bit more than most people expect, and the assumption of Experience-as-default-reward will tend to move you quickly up that scale.  If “regular people” are 1st or 2nd Level and “historical legends” are 4th and 5th Level, an assumption that has characters advancing to Herculean-tier power in a handful of adventures is problematic.

Because of this, I think that reigning in experience rewards in favor of gold, magic items, renown, and influence over the game world can lead to a richer (heh) gaming experience.  I almost always run my games with Pathfinder’s “slow progression” XP scale, which is about 150% of the standard scale, but even before reading the Gnome Stew post I’d considered removing XP rewards entirely and tying Level Advancement directly to story-arc milestones and accomplishments.  If going up in level means developing skills beyond a character’s professional peers, or at the mid- and high-end of the scale becoming more than human or even godlike, it makes sense to tether that to a pivotal moment when the character accomplishes some feat or destroys the Big Bad.  Hitting 4th Level because you killed your 47th Goblin just feels wrong.

Of course, I’m not sure I care for a game with no character advancement, but that’s something that should be seasoned to taste.  As John says, if you start in the sweet spot, when your character is awesome and the situations you face and interesting and challenging, who needs character advancement?

So I’ve been trying (and mostly failing) to prepare for a quick little hex-crawl game to run with my wife.  A big problem for me is, apparently, “information architecture” or “how do I know what I know?”  I thought I’d use some space here to talk about what my plans are, structurally.

I’m planning on using a six mile hex as the basis of my map, and I’ll plot geography based on Welsh Piper’s guidelines (though it’s a bit of a kludge since I’m not using their Atlas Hex, template for now).  The bulk of my hexcrawl system I’m going to be taking from The Alexandrian (though it seems to have stalled after the 7th entry); I’m planning on keeping the hex structure invisible to my players, and Justin has a good system for tracking progress over the grid, getting lost and getting found, sight lines, encounters and encounter distance, and so on.  I’ll be keying each hex to a ‘default location,’ and then building up encounter tables. (Of course, on a 180mi by 180mi map, that’s 800 to 900 unique locations to key…)    Justin hasn’t given us an example of his tables yet, and I may use some combination of the one-page encounters, multi-table encounters, and hand-keyed encounters I’ve mentioned before.

I’m using the time structure I mentioned before (with simple actions taking a minute and longer actions taking a turn, when it matters to track them). I’m going to have 4-week month (aligned with the cycle of the moon), 13 months in a year (for 364 days total).

I’m putting together a year of weather per Gnome Stew’s suggestion, and may be incorporating other systems from Dragon 137 and the Wilderness Survival Guide (both of which I’ve recently purchased).  I’ll probably use a tracking sheet not unlike the one that inspired Gnome Stew.

I feel like I’m still missing some structures that I need to account for, and this doesn’t get into the real meat of the setting (ie, the city-states and societies that will be the focus of the crawl).