Tales from the Sodden Reach – Session II

A belated posting of last week’s session. I’m very happy with the way things are going so far, in terms of how the world-generation tools work during prep and how the rules have been working in play. On the playbook front we discovered a significant problem in the wording of the cleric’s Invoke move:

INVOKE
When you call upon your deity to manifest their power, say what you want to have happen and how it falls within at least one of your deity’s domains. The Judge will assign your request hubris from 0 (insignificant) to 6 (miraculous). Then, roll -hubris, +1 if you bear your holy symbol, and +1 if you occupy a place sacred to your faith: on a 10+, your request is granted with duration 3, and may be made permanent if you perma-burn 1 ability point of your choice per point of hubris; on a 7-9, your request is granted with duration 1, but your deity demands proof of devotion—the Judge chooses 1 from the list below; on a 6-, mark XP, and the Judge makes a move.

Safira the Cleric led a ritual that called for the ingestion of psychoactive lichen, calling upon the snail-god Caracol to grant the participants the ability to safely climb a steep incline. Sophie, Safira’s player, rolled a 10+ to Invoke and took advantage of the clause that allowed her to make the invocation permanent by perma-burning ability points.

In the half-dozen campaigns of Freebooters that I’ve run to date, no one had ever done this! It was one of those rules bits to which zero attention had been paid since I first wrote it down. As we applied the effects, I saw immediately that it was overpowered — a level 1 Cleric had just granted herself and two companions the permanent ability to make difficult climbs without risk. Granted, creating this sort of game-changing effect is the kind of thing I hoped to see happen with the Invoke move, and the recipients have to climb slowly since it’s a blessing of the snail-god, but it felt like too much too soon, or at too little cost.

Part of the problem was that I went too easy on the Judge side, assigning the invocation hubris 0 when 2 or 3 would have been more appropriate. That’s just a matter of getting used to how hubris feels in play, and I’ll need to include more guidelines for that in the full rules. The bigger issue was that, as written, a 0-hubris invocation can be made permanent at no cost to the cleric. So I need to either rewrite that clause (to something like, “…and may be made permanent by perma-burning a number of ability points of your choice equal to hubris +3”), or extract it into an advanced move on its own. If I go the former route, I’m also considering adding a condition under which a permanent invocation can be cancelled or revoked.

Despite this snafu, I really enjoyed how Sophie made use of Invoke. It’s a perfect illustration of how I want the cleric’s powers to feel in the game — flexible, but constrained by the domains of their deity. I am looking forward to seeing if and how the other clerics of Caracol will follow Safira’s lead in asking for otherworldly aid.

We’re deep in the wilderness now. They’ve taken some minor hits to ability points and gear, but haven’t encountered anything too dangerous yet. We’ll see if their luck holds out as they try to locate the entrance to the Cave of Bright Crystal.

Tales from the Sodden Reach – Session I

Five brave (or perhaps foolhardy) souls ventured forth into the unknown last night. You can observe their exploits here:

After our session zero a couple of weeks back, my homework as Judge was to flesh out some of the details that the players created or rolled up. I really enjoy prepping a game setting, especially from a player-generated foundation, because filling in the gaps and finding connections to span the “fruitful void” circumscribed by a handful of details really sparks my creativity energy. Prep is exciting and fun for me, but life is short, so I try to focus on stuff that is directly relevant to the PCs and whatever course of action they might choose to take. Last session they made a plan to try to search for the Cave of Bright Crystal , so I focused my prep on the areas between the city of Penascolta (the party’s base of operations) and the Cave.

Since Freebooters is all about exploration, I like to have nice maps of the places that are likely to be most well-traveled. These of course don’t have to be fancy, but since one of the hats I wear is that of cartoonist, I tend to go all-in on this aspect. So my first priority was to take the rough map the players had put together in session zero (using a blank map from Mad Vandel’s Map Pack) and turn it into something that would provide a good basis for play. Here’s the draft they produced:

And here’s how I ended up interpreting it:

I was drawing this alongside making notes about the starting city. Through a combination of player input and rolls on the city generation tables in the current draft of the game rules, we had determined that the city was defensible due to its position atop some high cliffs, and that it was known for ancient ruins within its boundaries; its other tags were unsafe, chaotic, lawless, unrest, disease, and shortage (iron, salt). This was a lot to work with!

We had settled on Portuguese as the linguistic foundation for the human culture that dominates the “cilvilized” areas, so armed with a Portuguese name generator, Google Translate, and the various Freebooters tables, I started to develop the city in broad strokes. The first step was to name it; given its position in the terrain I ran”high cliff” through Google Translate and got penhasco alto, which I shortened to Penascalto. The PCs would not be spending much time in Penascalto since they were planning to set out for the Cave of Bright Crystal right away, so I tried to avoid getting bogged down in the details. This process may be worth a post of it’s own, so I won’t go into it’s history and current situation here beyond saying that while Penascalto is ruled by various rival criminal factions, the Wardens of Rainhala (goddess of life and water) are well-respected by everyone due to their caring for the needy and work to assuage the suffering of those afflicted by the White Rot (a terrible plague that first appeared six years ago).

I wanted to players to feel excited about this lawless frontier city, so I put some time into drawing it. I Googled “cliff city,” found some great real-world images, settled on Ronda, Spain as the model, and used this Google Earth view as a starting point:

From that and my notes about different districts in the city, plus the fact that one of the players had suggested that it was accessible via land bridge, I came up with this:

Obviously, my particular skillset is helpful here, but it’s easy enough to find an online image that will give your players an idea of how a place might look.

After those two big items, I switched over to writing up encounter tables for each of the regions through which the PCs were likely to travel. In the current draft of the rules, five categories of encounter can occur: mishaps, creatures, discoveries, hazards, and obstacles. Mishaps are minor occurrences within the party, such as failing equipment, minor injuries, or arguments between PCs—easy enough to improvise.

Creatures, discoveries, hazards, and obstacles can certainly be rolled up on the fly, but in order to minimize time spent rolling and coming up with ideas, I decided to create a simple d6 table for each of these categories. To create entries, I used the same process I would use during play, but had the extra time to consider the context and drill down into areas that could use more up-front attention, such as creature generation.

Here’s what my regional encounter tables ended up looking like:

If you watch the session, you’ll notice that, all told, the party had 4 random incidents: the washed-out bridge, Evaristo twisting his ankle, the “death barrel” plants, and the final scene where weasel-monkeys show up at camp to steal the jeweled staff. The scene where the six-legged lizards chase a group of weasel-monkeys out of the woods was me making a Judge move in response to Teo’s failed Wisdom saving throw; I decided it was wandering monster time and had him roll on the Windshaws creature table to see what would show up.

Among the benefits of creating these encounter tables ahead of time is that, by generating a bunch of entries for each region, I start to get a sense of that region’s character—the kinds of creatures that live there, what discoveries await, and what sorts of rumors might be passed around about them in civilized settlements. For instance, one creature encounter I generated for the Broken Fells creature table is Lúcia Baretto, a halfling farmer from Cidario who set off into the wild on an adventure of her own. So when the PCs talk up the apothecary in Cidario, he mentions that Lúcia went off the same way they’re headed. Maybe they’ll run into her, maybe they won’t, but I know she’s out there, and that encourages the feeling that things are playing out in a living world.

Thanks to not being well-rested and having to fiddle too much with the image-sharing aspect of Hangouts, I felt wobbly going into this session, but thanks to the engagement of the players I found my groove about halfway through. At the end I was left with that delicious feeling that comes from the kind of open-world play toward which I’m designing: what’s going to happen next?

Useful playtesting takeaways:

  • In the course of generating lots of creatures and treasure for my custom encounter tables, I saw ways to reorganize and improve those procedures, so I’ll be making another pass on those soon.
  • In the interest of streamlining the creature, discovery, and booty generation process, I’m going to experiment with a one-roll table set along the lines of what Kevin Crawford does in his games (most recently Stars Without Number): roll a d12, d10, d8, d6, and d4 all at once, then read them from largest die size to smallest. I tried this in the past and was unhappy with the results, but I’m going to give it another go. Booty generation in particular needs to be rewritten,and I love the idea and feel of rolling a handful of different polyhedrals.
  • Among the discoveries I generated for my custom tables were 4 different dungeons! This is great, because I want the PCs to stumble across things like that unexpectedly, but in the course of using my dungeon generation procedure I found some confusing spots. I also felt that not enough interesting stuff is baked in, so I will be making another pass on that procedure.
  • I thought Donna did a great job of roleplaying Claudio as a neutral-aligned character, but even so she did not hit his alignment goal as-written. I gave her the XP because it felt right,but It made me want to tweak the wording of alignment goals further. The killer is needing to make them as succinct as possible.

Tales from the Sodden Reach – Session Zero

On Thursday I ran “session zero” of a new Freebooters on the Frontier campaign. We’re creating the world from scratch and hoping to play every two weeks, for fun and for playtesting. I’ve run four or five Freebooters campaigns in the past, but this will be the first one using the 2nd edition rules.

Useful takeaways from a playtesting perspective:

  • The incorporation of “campaign features” into the world-building procedure worked well. Last week I solicited a bunch of ideas from the Lampblack & Brimstone community on G+ and got lots of great suggestions, which I edited down to a list of 50 different features. Big-picture things like, “magical portals connect the great cities of the world,” or—in our case for this session—”a terrible plague sweeps the land, decimating centers of population” and “a dominant religion persecutes sages and philosophers as enemies of the church.” I wanted some background ideas that would influence thinking about the setting in a bigger, broader way than most of the prompts in the rules, which mostly relate to the proximate situation. This is a keeper.
  • I ended up going off-procedure during the creation of the starting settlement and surroundings, because I was adapting to the flow of the conversation. I want campaign setup to follow some clear steps that will deliver the goods, but me sidestepping reminded me that a Judge/GM sometimes needs to adapt. I can just make sure to include a general guideline to that effect, but I will probably take another pass at the order of the steps to see if I can improve them.
  • We ended up with a party of two fighters and three clerics. Which is awesome! The clerics decided they all follow the same deity, but are from different sects. The deity is neutral, but the cleric alignments are good, neutral, and chaotic. The cleric playbook right now states, “Your deity has the same alignment as you,” and this experience is tempting me to change that. I don’t want every little bit of Judge fiat to result in a rules tweak, but I really like the idea that varying alignments of different characters within a faith might distinguish their relationship to and interpretation of religious doctrine. I’ll need to think a bit more about this one.
  • The starting settlement ended up being a city, which I did not expect. I’m really happy with the way it turned out, but the process of rolling it up led me to reduce the base number of features and problems listed in the rules for both cities and towns. It’s all part of finding that sweet spot where you generate just enough information to get the juices flowing. A city is a complex, rich place with lots of stuff going on, but the key to building a strong mental image is choosing the right number of details; too many and the image breaks down before it has a chance to form.

When we finished this episode I was super-excited to start fleshing out all of the stuff we came up with, and stayed up another hour to scribble down a bunch of notes. That excitement reminded me that the #1 thing that gives me the greatest creative pleasure these days is taking these sorts of prompts—generated or invented mostly by other people—and expanding upon them to create a coherent fictional world. One of my favorite parts of playing an RPG is that back-and-forth where the players improvise material during play, and then it’s my job to build upon and integrate that material, on the spot and between sessions. Playing is a blast, and the “lonely fun” of prep between sessions is satisfying, but the collaborative interplay between those things is compelling feedback loop.

I’m eager to see what awaits these green adventurers.

Freebooters on the Frontier 2e playtest update

This past week I completed another edit of the basic rules for the 2nd edition of Freebooters on the Frontier, my attempt to recreate my personal experience of playing OD&D in 1978 with new-school mechanics. Along with this revision, I made a pass at the culture and settlement generation process which I’ve been envisioning for a while, which I will discuss at greater length below. The page design on these parts feels close to final, and over the next few weeks I’ll be updating the other playtest files (Beasts & Booty, Plumb the Depths, playbooks, etc.) to match. If you want to check any of this stuff out, feel free to download and take the game for a spin yourself. Here are the current playtest files. Be warned that these are just the essential rules, with no explanation;  you’ll need to know how Dungeon World or other PbtA games work in order to make sense of it all. I’d love to hear what you think.

Placeholder cover

Even as I recognize that the culture and settlement generation stuff takes Freebooters a big step away from its previous, minimalist iteration, I’m excited by the possibilities, both for creating interesting content on the fly and for facilitating prep between sessions.

Applying the “nested” approach to regional notation and organization that I introduced in The Perilous Wilds to cultures, settlements, factions, and NPCs may seem like an obvious move, but it took me a while to get there. The big shift in this case is how the alignment and values of a prevailing culture may affect its subordinate parts, and the way in which those parts interact to generate hooks and dramatic possibilities all on their own. The best way to illustrate what I mean is to create a culture, settlement, faction, and NPCs here from scratch. You can follow along using the current draft.

First, I choose Albanian as the linguistic basis for naming things in this incipient culture, and because I want it to be one of the main human cultures in my campaign I don’t roll for a random originating species.

A roll of 6 on the Cultural Alignment table gives me neutral—this means that any settlement, faction, or individual who represents the culture’s ruling authority will also be neutral, and skews the alignment of non-authority entities toward neutral. While reducing a vast spectrum of worldviews to the 5 alignments seems simplistic, the interaction between those various entities creates a lot of nuance and unexpected texture. Alignment serves as a quick and broad summary of a worldview, but a given entity (culture, settlement, faction, or individual NPC) becomes complex and interesting thanks to its context and constituent parts. Coupled with the fact that in the latest update to the basic rules a PC can shift alignment at the end of a game session, the 5-alignment system has become much more flexible than it would at first appear.

Two rolls on the neutral column of the Values table give me a 3“balance” and a 12“roll 1d10 on chaotic.” Rolling 1d10 on the chaotic column gives me “celebration.” Noting balance and celebration as the culture’s core values, I move on to Cultural Profile and roll 8, 6, 5, 7: its sizable (possessing 3 features), enjoys a comfortable economy, has a capable military, and a resigned overall populace. For the 3 Cultural Features I get “renowned terrain (woodland/jungle),” “renowned faction (revolutionary/subversive),” and “signature tradition (public space).”

Time to take a moment to step back and look for connections. The picture comes together pretty quickly: this culture developed in a jungle environment, and although it may cover several regions of varying terrain, the primary terrain is jungle. What is it about the jungle that makes it such a well-known aspect of the place? I’m going to say that its incredibly lush, often shrouded in mist due to the humidity, and in possession of some truly gigantic trees.

Considering “balance” and “celebration” in relation to the signature tradition involving “public space,” I decide that every settlement of size is built in a ring around a central greenspace or commons where jungle flora is allowed to thrive. These common areas are considered vital to the balance between civilization and the wilderness, and serve as sites for ritual celebrations of this balance. I want a name for these spaces, and look up how “green heart” translates into Albanian: zemra jeshile. Let’s shorten that to “heart:” zemër.

The last thing to consider is that this land is also renowned for a revolutionary or subversive faction. Perhaps the society-wide emphasis on balance has created an economic system where material wealth is redistributed according to the individual needs of the citizens, but a revolutionary faction has arisen with the goal of concentrating wealth in the hands of the most “worthy.” Although their long-term goal might be to overthrow the government, in the near term they are simply seizing wealth by force; a growing army of bandits with political aspirations. Let’s call them the Golden Hands.

Great, I have a loose overall idea of how this culture operates. I can embellish and expand upon it as I wish as the campaign progresses, but right now the idea of a jungle civilization with ring-shaped settlements and a revolutionary army of gold-hungry guerillas is a good visual to work with. Time to give this kingdom a name. How does “Land of Balance” translate? Tokë e bilancit. Too long. I shorten it to Bilancit.

Next, just for fun, I’ll create a settlement within this culture. On the Settlement Size table I roll a hamlet, and using the column for Bilancit’s prevailing alignment of neutral on the Settlement Alignment table, I roll a 3: lawful. So this small community differs from the overall culture by placing more emphasis on law and order. Rolling 1 feature and 1 problem on the Hamlet tables, I get “noted landmark (statue/shrine/menhir)” and “shortage (water).” I don’t even have a map on which to place Bilancit yet, but these rolls make me decide that some part of the kingdom is desert, and this community resides there. Perhaps it grew up next to an oasis, the water supply of which has diminished in recent times and limited the settlement’s growth. The landmark is a shrine to a lawful god in the Bilancit pantheon, to whom the locals pay homage in hopes that the water will flow freely once again. This place needs a name, maybe “Law-Water,” or “Oasis,” or “Dry Spring.” Ligji i Ujit, Oazë, or Pranverë të Thatë. I like the first one, but choose to compress it to “Ligujit.”

I want to know more about the people of Ligujit. Who are they? What is their relation to the Bilancit values of balance and celebration? A hamlet is comprised of just a handful of dwellings, so I decide that all of its residents together comprise a faction, and they look to a single leader. The rules state that the lead authority of a settlement shares the settlement’s alignment, so I know this person is lawful. Starting with this leader, I roll up the four most prominent inhabitants of Ligujit. Rolling NPCs is straightforward except when it comes to alignmentin this case, I’ll roll everyone’s alignment (except the leader) on the lawful column of the NPC Alignment table. I generate all of their names using the Albanian name generator at the amazing Fantasy Name Generators site, and interpret occupation rolls according to the context (e.g., the result “innkeeper/tavernkeeper becomes “cantina proprietor”).

FACTION: Hamlet of Ligujit (lawful)

Miror Ciftja (cantina proprietor; lawful (loyalty); leader; disciplined, courteous, reckless; notable chin, ponderous, charismatic, paranoid)

Tonja Hamiti (desert guide; evil (fear); aggressive, antagonistic, wrathful; squints, notable clothing, traumatized, rebel)

Nanda Mujushi (religious zealot; chaotic (disruption); fair, antagonistic, obsessive; doughy, imposing, taciturn, cultist)

Enid Aliu (cartographer; neutral (luck); bold, wasteful; missing teeth, tall, reclusive, fugitive).

And from these four I can spin the drama of the desert hamlet of Ligujit. Poor Miror must be barely holding the place together, given that two of the three next most prominent residents are an evil rebel and a chaotic cultist. No wonder he’s paranoid! Tonja is fed up with having to share the money she earns for her guide work with the rest of Ligujit and yearns to join the Golden Hands, but she’s going to try to scare the locals out of their valuables before cutting out. The sleepy-looking, apparently harmless Nanda secretly worships one of the Bilancit gods of chaos, and is plotting to destroy the shrine that stands at the edge of the oasis pool. Enid the mapmaker is the only person of note Miror might be able to call upon if the situation worsens, and even then he might take some convincing.

Out of a series of random rolls,  I’ve easily worked up a portrait of Ligujit. When the PCs pass through, they might just camp out for a night before moving on. But if they need the services of a guide and/or mapmaker as they search for ruins in the sands, they may end up learning more about this place. And if they wake up one day to find the shrine toppled and the freshwater spring reduced to a trickle, they’ll have a special kind of problem on their hands.

So that’s an example of how generating the various nested components of a culture can result in a matrix rich with possibility. I’m pretty happy with the basic procedure and the way the various parts relate; I just need to add a few sections (pantheon generation!) and refine the contents of some of these tables.

Sense of Place

I’ve always loved dramatic narratives that unfold in a mundane context, because of the way the believable little details of a familiar place make it all seem so much more possible. The suburban development still under construction in E.T.; the motels, diners, and gas stations that populate the second season of Fargo; the Pacific Northwest as depicted in My Own Private Idaho. Many of the more memorable one-shots I’ve run were set in real-world locales, where specific aspects of an actual place and time give everything a certain verisimilitude. Among those were a session of Bootleggers that played out over the smuggling corridor between Quebec and Providence, RI during Prohibition, and a game of Spirit of ’77 set in Atlantic City during the age of disco.

In early December of 2018 I ran a session of PSI*RUN, Meguey Baker’s excellent game about renegade psychics, and—hoping to conjure that sense of drama juxtaposed against the mundane—employed a method I’ve used a couple of times now. PSI*RUN always starts with a crash, where the vehicle transporting the imprisoned, amnesiac PCs takes a spill from which the PCs can escape, thus beginning their adventure.

While everyone was thinking about their characters during setup, I opened Google Earth on my laptop and zoomed in to a random spot in Montana. I chose Montana because I grew up there, and I wanted some of that wide-open highway feel you get in the eastern part of the state. I quickly found a stretch of US-12 that fit the bill, and used that as a starting point. Sometimes, if I find a specific image or detail that captures the vibe of a place, I’ll show it to the players, but usually I describe what I see and let them build the scene in their minds. In this case, I had decided it was the middle of winter, so I kept the image to myself and described the snowy landscape and blizzard conditions as they climbed out of the burning wreckage of the prison van.

The first scene ended with one of the PCs taking over the consciousness of a passerby and driving everyone to the nearest small town in her commandeered Honda Civic. I followed US-12 south to Interstate 94, then east until I hit the next small town: Rosebud, Montana. I zoomed in for a closer look:

Rosebud, Montana.

The PC who had possessed the 19-year-old driver had all of her memories and knowledge, and decided that she lived in Rosebud, so the group sought shelter at her parents’ house. In Google Earth, I dropped the little orange person onto the map and spent a few seconds looking around from the street-level view until I found a likely home:

From there, the middle and final acts of the game played out, with me using the Google Earth street view to describe details and aspects of the physical environment that either added color to the proceedings or directly impacted their tactical decision-making as their pursuers closed in. It was a fun game, made all the more memorable by using real-world reference points.

During the Steam Winter Sale last week I picked up Far Cry 5, because I enjoy open-world exploration in video games and have become increasingly impressed by the ability of developers like Ubisoft to create rich environments. For triple-A titles like Far Cry, dozens of people work together to craft the assets and design the maps, refining every corner of vast virtual spaces down to the placement of an oil can on a workbench. Most impressive from this perspective to me so far have been the worlds of Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. which attempt to recreate the worlds of ancient Egypt and Greece, respectively. There’s a lot for tabletop GMs to learn from the way those two games depict landscape and human settlements in particular, but that’s a subject for another post.

After playing Far Cry 5 for a while, I noticed the “arcade” option that allows you to play on maps created by other users, and spent a few hours dabbling with those, appreciating the enormous range of contributions from seasoned level designers to what I can only presume to be 11-year-old psychopaths (or average American boys, take your pick) who cover their maps with impaled corpses and lakes of blood. And then I made the mistake of opening the map editor myself.

I’m a die-hard worldbuilder. Since I first played D&D in 1978, I’ve left a wake of fantasy geographies, half-baked fictional pantheons, and unfinished treatises on imaginary cultures. I can’t resist the pull of a blank map. So when I opened up the Fary Cry 5 editor, I fell right into it. The game happens to be set in Montana, where I lived until the age of 10, so without even thinking I started to recreate Rosebud.

For someone who spent 22 years of his life trying to imagine what Weimar Berlin was like, it’s been a fascinating exercise. I’m always telling my students at the Center for Cartoon Studies that drawing from life is a way of understanding the world, and in this virtual space I’m engaged in the same activity—paying attention to the way a utility pole leans to one side, how many derelict automobiles a person can cram into a side yard, the shape of a mud puddle. I find these mundane details, juxtaposed by design and happenstance, endlessly fascinating.

In my experience, if you—as a writer, artist, or GM—can create a believable environment, any moment of incidental action or high drama that unfolds in that space has a greater resonance. Details arranged properly can make an imaginary place feel right in the experience of the reader, observer, or player, helping them to inhabit and remember that place, however briefly. In a 3D virtual space like Far Cry, a a lot of time and effort needs to go into creating those details, but in a tabletop RPG you can create the effect with a few well-chosen words. I’ll post more about how I try to do that in the future.

FREE STUFF: Here are some play sheets I made for the session of PSI*RUN described above. The pdf may look messed up if you open it in a web browser, but should look fine if you download it and open it manually.