Tuesday, March 23, 2021

On the Benefits of Randomisation

In recent games I've been trying to run things a little more sandbox-style, going off-the cuff moreso than relying on pre-planned adventures.  It's resulted in some more dynamic and surprising games, and also in some that have kind of petered out without much of a sense of a climax, but I'm liking the results so far.  Events in the game are flowing more organically and naturally, based much more on what the PCs want and how the various NPCs are reacting to their actions.

That said, I am a planner by nature (not so much in real life, but definitely where D&D is concerned). I like to plan ahead, especially if I know where the game is likely to go in the next session.  One of my recent games involved a week-long wilderness journey where the PCs had to take the inert body of my setting's god of light to a rendezvous point, and hand it over for safekeeping.  They had members of the local resistance movement with them to act as guides, so I was about as certain as a DM can ever be about where the game was going.

With that knowledge, I set about figuring out what would happen along the journey.  Normally I'd have placed set encounters that fit the adventure and tried to lead it along a certain plot path, but right now I'm trying to take the "plot" out of D&D as much as I can while still planning ahead. So rather than pick the encounters myself, I decided to do the whole thing using random charts.  Below I'll detail how I put the adventure together, and how I also drew quite a bit of setting inspiration from the results I rolled up randomly.

The first step was to work out how long the journey would take at the party's optimal speed. They were travelling light (aside from the big old crystalline god torso they're lugging about), and the journey to the rendezvous point and back to the city of Port Bracken came to about five days.

Next, I started rolling for random encounters using the tables I'd made when I drafted up my maps.  (I really should put up an image of the wilderness region, but I only have it as a hand-drawn map. I need to scan it at some point.)  The 3rd edition rules call for a random encounter check for every hour of travel, but that's way too often.  I can't be rolling twenty-four dice per game day, especially on the fly.  Instead, I've split the day into four time periods: morning (6am to 12pm), afternoon (12pm to 6pm), early night (6pm to 12am) and late night (12am to 6am).  I make one check for each of those periods, then roll a d6 to determine the hour in which the encounter happens.

Another wrinkle I've added to random encounters is the idea that sometimes you'll see signs of a creature rather than the creature itself (the howling of wolves, an old campsite, an animal that's been killed by the creature, etc.).  Whenever an encounter is indicated, I give it a 1-in-4 chance that the encounter will be signs of a creature.  The next time an encounter comes up, there's a 3-in-4 chance that the encounter will be with the creature indicated.  This allows a little more foreshadowing to be added to random encounters, and gives the PCs more of a chance to plan ahead.

For the journey I rolled the following:
  • Seven dwarves around midday on the first day
  • Signs of wights at the end of the second day
  • A wight encounter on the morning of the fourth day
  • An encounter with bombardier beetles around midnight of the fourth day
  • An encounter with an escaped refugee on the final day
  • A mixed encounter a few hours later, with Priests of Malak (the god of darkness) and hippogriffs
The dwarf encounter was easy to figure out (although I had to resist the urge to do a Snow White riff).  The timing had it happening at a bridge, so I set them up as cutthroat bandits making travellers pay them to use the crossing.  I threw in a little bit of background about them being a troupe of jesters who've had trouble finding work, and also made a note that they'd be extra-curious about the body of the light god if they caught a glimpse of it.

For the wights, I figured a destroyed camp would be the best way to foreshadow them; I didn't want anything too immediate, because there was going to be a pretty big gap between the sign and the encounter.  So I placed a camp with some abandoned tents and bedrolls, along with the corpses of some dogs that had suffered an energy draining.

The wight encounter I just placed as a simple ambush/attack, noting that the head wight was being served by lesser wights who were the former inhabitants of the ruined camp.

The encounter with the beetles was a trickier one, as I was struggling with ways to make it interesting.  It was set to happen around midnight, and I find encounters can be a little trickier to realistically set up when the PCs are camped, especially when the monsters aren't all that intelligent or mobile. I resigned myself to making it a straight-up predatory ambush, but I was saved when I got around to rolling for random weather.  A thunderstorm came up at pretty much the exact time the PCs were set to encounter the beetles, so what was going to be a boring slugfest became much more potentially interesting, as the beetles would be stirred out of their nest by the lightning and thunder and stampede into the PC camp.  (Well, I thought it was going to be awesome, but the PCs ran away from the wights and turned that encounter into an overland chase. They ended up a few miles away from where the beetle encounter was set to happen, and I didn't want to railroad them back into it, so I shrugged my shoulders and let it go. I still think it would have ruled, though.)

The refugee encounter and the one with the priests of Malak and the hippogriffs were set to happen within an hour of each other, so it made sense to connect them. After all, the priests are pretty much in charge of Port Bracken, and they're definitely the sort of folks that someone would be trying to escape from.  So I made this refugee a member of the Resistance, and gave him a minor connection to one of the NPCs the party was travelling with. (As an added call-back, I made him a member of the Hucrele family from The Sunless Citadel, which I'd run very early on in this campaign.)  The priests of Malak would be in pursuit, and would no doubt stop to question the PCs, who would have to decide whether to risk their necks for someone they hardly knew.

That just left the question of the hippogriffs.  One thing I've done to spice up my random encounter tables is include a result that calls for rolling on the table twice, with both groups being encountered simultaneously.  The idea was that it would be up to me to make sense of the combination, and that the results would make for some more dynamic encounters.  The evil priests of Malak being combined with generally good or neutral hippogriffs seemed on the face of it like the PCs should stumble into a fight between the two groups, but with this encounter being so close to Port Bracken it didn't feel quite right.  Hippogriffs are often used as mounts, and with the priests being a hunting party it made sense to go that way.  I tweaked it a little by making the hippogriffs into zombies, as use of undead slaves is a big part of how the priests of Malak operate.  Yeah, I'm not sure zombie hippogriffs would be able to fly either, but the 3rd edition rules say they can, so I went with it.

That final encounter added a lot of detail to my setting: a new NPC, more information about the Resistance and the NPCs travelling with the party, a mention of the "labyrinth cells" below the Temple of Malak, and the idea that the temple's hunting parties use zombie hippogriffs as steeds. None of this existed before I rolled on the random tables.

Because I had some extra time to plan, I decided to roll up a different set of random encounters just in case the PCs happened to make the journey while slowed due to encumbrance.  I don't remember the results as well, because they weren't used in the game, but what was effectively pointless busywork still gave me some setting details.  After the thunderstorm (because I was still using the same weather results), I rolled for an encounter with giant centipedes.  Then, I rolled for an encounter with dire wolves and giant centipedes together. Then, I rolled for an encounter with ogres and dire wolves together.

The giant centipedes coming out after the storm was a really nice bit of serendipity that mimics how certain creepy-crawlies pop out after the rain in the real world.  The dire wolf/centipede combination was an odd one, but the subsequent ogres/dire wolves combo made sense of it all.  Obviously, these ogres prize like to eat giant centipedes, and they're out hunting after the thunderstorm using their pet dire wolves to track them.  This is the kind of thing I'd probably never come up with on my own, but came to me almost right away when I was forced to make sense of the whole thing.

So at the moment I'm enjoying this way of creating adventures, with my own design biases being guided by random tables moreso than by my own whims.  It's forcing me to think outside of my usual box, and I'm liking the results.  No doubt it will be harder to do effectively when I have to roll these things on the fly, but hell, everything in D&D is harder when you have to do it on the fly. Practice will hopefully make these things come more naturally. 

Friday, March 12, 2021

Returns & Resets

Well, it's been a while. Looking at the blog I see that I haven't posted since August. I haven't had any particular health problems, and no mental issues aside from the usual amount of pervading existential despair, but I have had a bunch of other stuff going on and a very odd family situation that's recently resolved itself (I hope).  So I'm ready to return to blogging, even though I'm not entirely sure what I'm going to blog about in regards to D&D.

I should probably start by mentioning that I've been running games again.  Over the last few months I found myself living with a couple of my players, so we decided to make Saturday nights the time to revive my 3rd edition campaign.  That campaign started way back circa 2002, and has been going on and off since then (mostly off since my son was born in 2008).  The initial portion was set in a lone fort in a savage wilderness, and culminated in the fort being besieged by an army of barbaric orcs.  That wrapped up pretty satisfyingly (I wrote it up here if you feel like reading about it), and I was fairly happy to end it at that. The main thrust of the campaign was done and the major plot threads had been dealt with, and my playing group were all getting married and having children, which was making things harder to schedule. I was just glad we'd gotten to go out on a climactic high note.

I have one player, though, who pretty vocally wanted to continue. The thing with this campaign is that it's a continuation of a 2nd edition campaign I ran in the late 90s. I set up a lot of threads in that game that never got resolved due to an unfortunate TPK. Most of threads involved the main four PCs being heroes of prophecy, which is a dumb idea when you're playing a game that can turn on a die roll.  What can I say, I'm wiser about that now.  So when I was designing my 3e campaign, I just said screw it, why throw away the work I've already done? The set-up was that a few centuries passed, and the forces of evil won because the heroes of prophecy failed. I didn't make that clear at the campaign's beginning, but the player I mentioned earlier figured out pretty quickly that this was the same world.

This player is still dead keen to find out the answers to plot threads I set up over two decades ago, and it didn't take me much convincing to start running again. My intention was to bring in a completely different style though. Whereas before I've been running discrete adventures set up with obvious plot hooks, this time I was planning on running more of a player-driven sandbox. And since the 3e adventures before that had been in a fort surrounded by hostile wilderness, I wanted the game to transition to more of a city-based game.

To set up the sandbox, I had to do some heavy rail-roading. It's a contradiction, but I wanted the campaign to move to a new area and I politely asked my players to go along with it. I would have preferred to do it a bit more organically, but the plan was that once I'd gotten done with that transition adventure I'd let the players drive things  completely.

It hasn't exactly worked out that way, due to events set up earlier in the campaign. As I've mentioned in earlier posts on the campaign, I went a little buck-wild with magic items, and among the things the PCs brought with them were the torso and left hand of the god of light, who had been dismembered by the god of darkness a few hundred years ago. Given that the PCs have entered a city ostensibly run by the priests of that god of darkness, with a resistance operating from the catacombs, things had to unfold in certain ways so they wouldn't end up thrown in a dungeon or killed on a sacrificial altar. I've given the players complete freedom to act within that framework and take charge as much as possible, but they've been led around by NPCs a lot more than I'd have liked. That scenario's been dealt with for now, with the god's body parts having been taken away to a safe place by the resistance, and I think things are finally ready to open up into a truly player-driven game.

What has worked really well is the transition to a city-based game. The fortress they'd previously lived in didn't provide a lot of opportunities, but the city of Port Bracken really opens things up: major cities give the players a lot more things to do and a lot more tactical options (as well as more ways to get themselves into trouble).  The game's shifted into one with a lot more factions and intrigue, and it's a positive change.  When the first session back culminated in the players ambushing a pirate captain outside of a brothel, I knew that the tone of the game had shifted considerably.

So I'm in new territory for the blog, which has mostly been me ruminating about a game that I've barely played since 2008.  I made a conscious decision a while ago to shift my D&D efforts to focus more on actively playing, which is part of why my Recaps & Roundups series stalled out back in August.  As such, I'm not exactly sure what I'm going to be doing here.  I'll definitely post about my current gaming activities, and any observations I have about running that campaign.  I'll try to make those posts general, but given that I'm running 3e it's going to a bit more new-school than the blog's focus has been so far.  As for what else I'll be doing, I don't know.  The Ultimate Sandbox has always been more of a pie-in-the-sky mental exercise, although I'd like to make it my standard game after I finish with the current campaign.  Recaps & Roundups will probably return, because I do enjoy that sort of historical/chronological analysis. For now though, I'm just going to ease myself back in, and post on whatever D&D-related stuff takes my fancy.