ARPG-Con DCC Session Report (Pt. 2, Evening)

The second DCC session I was in on Saturday at ARPG Con was a run through the level 0 module The Arwich Grinder.

Unlike other DCC modules I’ve played, this one was rather story and role-play heavy, but that wasn’t a bad thing at all!

We had three players and were allowed 6 characters.

The Arwich Grinder is a bit of a fun-house module that is bigger on building atmosphere than instant kill traps. A local family is your typical Lovecraft villain family: reclusive and prolifically inbred with a penchant for the occult. But they’ve got some good will in the town because during a famine they provided everyone in the town with foodstuffs. Well, it turns out they were breeding meat-men; a couple meat-men got out, including one who had the bonnet of “Bessie”(the one young pretty member of the family) in its hand before collapsing dead in the middle of the tavern.

There were a few things that were odd about this session:

  • We were playing as about 10% of the town’s populace, going to check in on the Curwen family to see if everything was all right, in turn-of-the-century America, but none of us had any fire-arms with us. This made it a bit hard to suspend disbelief.
  • It was always a strong point of discussion among the players about meta-gaming vs. roleplaying. While we always opted for the latter, it was funny, because we were all “The obvious solution would be to burn their house down, but we’re here to check on our neighbors and we’re convinced that they need to be rescued from something”.
  • While we “Lost Characters”, they didn’t die—in wargamer parlance, they “successfully exited the map”.

Even for DCC, we had pretty impressive manpower, but we used our resources wisely, treating our characters as the normal townfolk that they were trying to do a normal townfolk thing in the face of otherworldly horror.

  • The meat-man eating pig-slop and brandishing a human rib-cage? The poor retarded lad had to be put down, he was a danger to the community and our neighbors the Curwens!
  • The crazy lady locked in the upstairs? When she came running and shrieking at us, we subdued her, talked her down, put her on a cart and had a few characters drag her back to town for medical treatment.
  • The giant invisible baby in the attic? The characters who saw it were convinced it was a ghost, those who didn’t didn’t believe them or decided it was best not to muck with; we were there to save the Curwens!
  • The crazy old man downstairs? He’s hungry and senile and not a problem; we gave him some food and were all “We’ll come back for you.”
  • In the under-area we run into one of the Curwen couples. “Horrible stuff’s been goin’ on! We’re here to rescue you!” Husband attacks, gets killed because there are still a dozen of us after a few folks went back with the crazy lady. We subdue the wife, because it’s not gentlemanly to kill one of the ladies you’re trying to save. She tells us what’s going on, that the chanting we hear is the patriarch with Bessie and “he’s gonna fix it”. A few characters escort the wife into a room where she’ll be locked up for a minute; we’ll come back for her once we know Bessie’s safe.
  • Patriarch is gonna sacrifice Bessie, tossing her into a pit of boiling mud; a couple folks grab Bessie while we D’Onofrio the Patriarch.
  • Another Curwen couple shows up; we knock out the husband but were unable to apprehend the wife and toddler.
  • We continue sending Curwens back to town in waves, having “rescued” them. Our best characters stay to mop up and look for survivors. Characters going “off-the-map” run into the Constable and tell him they need to send a rider or telegraph to the city, get out the state militia, somebody who actually has guns.
  • We kill a couple of out-of-town cousins who didn’t believe that we’d solved the problem by not letting them summon a tentacle monster and calling up the militia.
  • While we’re unable to find the one woman who escaped or her child, we consider it a job well done that we saved most everybody, our neighborly duty was fulfilled, and G-Men could handle the rest. Also, it seemed like a good time to pack up and move out of New England.

Maybe this was an “easy” module? Or maybe we just “did it right”? The GM was impressed with our run, saying she’d never seen anyone play it the way we had; usually folks would either burn down the house, kill everybody inside, or mess with the giant invisible baby and get killed. I liked it, though, because even though it wasn’t hack & slash, the story emerged from the setting and things we could interact with; nothing felt forced. The GM rolled with our ideas of sending “rescued survivors” back with PCs for medical attention or to jail. The module had a story, but it was non-linear and could’ve played out any number of ways. For us, it played out with no PC casualties, minimal NPC death, and no eldritch horror “fixing” the problem. Ironically, had we NOT investigated, other than at the cost of Bessie’s life, the problem would’ve fixed itself.

It was a great Halloween horror module, even if it wasn’t a particularly good “Funnel”. I don’t think any of our characters would become Level 1 Adventurers following the escapade, but given that no one died, it’s probably the closest you could get to a “flawless victory” in a level 0 module.

Still, I’d like to see this with guns. “Giant nekkid deaf-mutes are shamblin’ into town? A bonnie lass may be in danger? Let me fetch the match-lock from me mantle…”

DCC’s Sailors on the Starless Sea

DCC’s Sailors on the Starless Sea went from “This is way too easy for a funnel” to “How the hell’d they expect 0-lvl characters to finish?”*

“Uh… Agatha Agartha, my chaotic alchemist wearing the chaos robe and chaos torc kneels in obeisance and hopes for the best… She uh.. was clearly drawn here to serve the chaos lord–it’s her destiny. Also, she pushes Varra, my elven falconer, into the lava.”

With 30 beastmen, a beastman shaman, a chaos avatar, and no win-state in sight, we settled for a non-standard game-over cutscene. Thing is, if we’d had a standard group of level 1 or 2 PCs, I think we could’ve wiped the floor with them.

 So, I’d say that Sailors may be a good 1st or 2nd level module, but was NOT a very good funnel…

I’d like to take a look at the module myself and see just how bad we screwed up, going from unscathed to unconditional surrender.  Ironically, just as predicted, Stinky Pete the Cheesemaker, my -5 character, was the only PC to survive by virtue surrendering to the tax collectors and not hopping on board the stupid dragon boat. As a local, they assumed he’d been captured by the rest of the party, who they’d believed were chaos cultist due to us wearing chaos robes and, in our cockiness, attacking the search party.

The tax-collectors probably weren’t in the module; I think they were there to keep from whittling away slowly and going back to town. The logic was that a) the Barron doesn’t like people messing around the castle, and b) there was some missing tax money, so we had to leave town or get blamed; the tax collectors would eventually look around the keep for the missing money (which was actually either stolen by beastmen or stolen by villagers/thieves who were turned into beastmen, or the thieves who stole it were captured by beastmen). Otherwise we were all “Well, we’ve solved the mystery of the missing new pairs of boots; your sons are dead, Hiram the Blacksmith. Good job, everyone!”

I think that the problem with a lot of funnels may be the lack of incentive for 0-level characters to risk life and limb. Best Funnel I was ever in, we started as prisoners and conscripts of a sewer militia that was a front for cultists. A quick intro, a tough fight with environmental stuff to take advantage of, and a spooky fungus-filled sewer to avoid the stuff in while escaping. One session and we had our 1st level characters.

Someone has recommended to me that it’s a good idea to intentionally kill subpar characters at the first available opportunity, in part because if they do survive, they’ll wreck your campaign experience, but that’s definitely not something I could subscribe to.

I love my crappy sub-par characters! First game, my crappy thief ended up the longest lived and genuinely scariest party member. By the time we ended that game, she’d made it to level 4, had 9 hit points and a collection of faces she’d cured and turned into masks. Plus, with the way the Thief skill tables work, they can be pretty good at doing their jobs regardless of stats. It’s a great class to dump mediocre characters who survive the Funnel into.

But when it comes to funnels, the downside of killing sub-par characters intentionally is that it reduces your economy of action.

Still, as much as I want to like DCC and still want to play more of it, there’s something about it that leaves me feeling a little let down. I like a lot of DCC’s concepts, but every time we put them into practice, we’re all “Gee, I can’t imagine why we ever stopped playing this system D:<” Clerics suck, the magic system is clunky as hell, the crit tables are dumb and don’t work… Really the concept of the Funnel is the one part that my group actually finds appealing (which is why we ultimately rebuilt WHRPG around the concept of a perpetual Funnel).


*:Ranged characters. If we’d all picked ranged weapons and not lost a few party members to the tax collectors, we probably could’ve taken the hordes with slings and javelins. Also, given the module’s name, I would’ve expected a more nautical theme, not just the train ride to the boss-fight involving a boat.

A Case For Perpetual Low-Level Adventuring

I’m a fan of the knife’s edge of low-level adventuring. I even dummied up an OSR system called HALLS (High Adventures for Low Levels System) based on the premise of a B/X-like system that caps out at level 4 but allows for a handful of XP sinks. I don’t think what I was doing scales well, however, and the vast amounts of XP required to level up in HALLS put a bit of a drag on that play-reward feedback loop that makes levelling such a focus of gaming.

I really think that the system my friend has cobbled together, loosely based on Warhammer Fantasy RPG, really manages to capture what I was unable to with the D&D based HALLS – a system that allows for constant and continual character development/improvement while maintaining that rain-slicked precipice feeling of the first few levels. Almost every session, we’ve been able to gain enough XP to put a point in something, but every adventure has a substantial amount of risk that doesn’t require massive scaling of monsters, NPCs and treasure hoards. Even my character, with whom I’d only missed a couple sessions over the course of maybe 20 now, while incredibly good at doing what they did (throw knives, steal things, do massive damage, and plan really great parties) I always had to stay cautious, because two solid hits would kill me; when I stopped being cautious, two hits killed me. It’s a system where you can’t afford to get cocky.

The new character I rolled up, though substantially weaker in many regards, was not so much weaker than the rest of the party that I was a load; on the contrary, my new character held his own and killed a cultist or two before fleeing to the back ranks after taking a crossbow bolt to the shoulder.

The way the system calculate character HP (grit), 1d4+3 + CON mod (max 3) + Profession mod (max 2), you’re never going to get a character who take a lot of solid hits. Weapon damage is all d6 based with modifiers (usually -1, occasionally -2, sometimes +1, very rarely +2). Armor reduces damage rather than detracts from to-hit rolls (allowing for a minimum of 1 ‘ping’ damage). You end up with combats where most characters can take at least 2 hits, 3 or 4 if a few are glancing, but you don’t have those long, drawn out mid-to-high level combats where everyone is slowly whittling away at dozens of HP in 1d8 increments.

The relatively low HP means you can throw weak-to-average monsters or opponents at the players, and it will ALWAYS feel like a challenge. Foe creation is incredibly quick. A monster statblock would consist simply of Grit, Movement, Melee, Ranged, Init, and a base save.

A human mook would be something like this:

Grit: 6, Move: 5, Melee: 10, Ranged: 6, Init: 0, Save 10

Let’s keep him simple by giving him a sword that does a flat 1d6 damage.

  • The mook could take 6 damage; any damage putting him below 0 would force a roll on the dismemberment table (for mooks, it’s easier to go with ‘not killed by the wound’/’killed by the wound’).
  • The movement of 5 translates to whatever scale you’re using. 5′, 10′ squares, 5 yard, 10 yard hexes, whatever – he moves five of them.
  • To hit in melee, he’d have to roll equal to or under 10. To hit with ranged, he has to roll equal to or under 6.
  • No mods to initiative, and if a situation forces a saving throw, he has a 50/50 chance to save.

Now, let’s try something more interesting; a spitting spider dog:

Grit: 6, Move: 5, Melee: 12, Ranged: 10, Init: 1, Save: 10

On the surface, it’s not much different. And that’s good! Because it means it’s easy to create new, weird things. But players will be terrified of it, because it’s a spitting spider dog. Instead of biting, the spitting spider dog might use a ranged attack that will incapacitate a victim with saliva. The target would get to make strength check at disadvantage when their initiative came up to break free. I just came up with that monster completely on the fly; took me 2 minutes thinking of something weird and gross that we’d probably run into in the setting. We’d probably fight half a dozen of them; if we got lucky, we’d get away with some scrapes, bruises and one or two broken limbs.

To give you a bit of comparison for what a PC looks like, my character who died looked something like this:

STR: 7, Con: 11, Dex: 18, Int:11, Cha:11, Luc:11

Grit: 7, Move: 4, Melee: 6, Ranged: 17, Init: 5

That 17 in range meant that I was good enough at throwing knives that I could attack at disadvantage every time to ‘buy’ an additional d6 damage (for 1d6-2 + 1d6), and the Init 5 meant I could make that attack twice per round whenever I rolled a 3 or higher on a d6 for initiative (0-7, where 8 or higher gets a second attack on the modified initiative roll -8; so, if I’d rolled a 4, I’d attack on 9, then again on 1). Now, I was a bit of a fluke, because I a)had a 17 natural dex that I bought to 18, and poured all of my XP into maxing out my ranged skill profession mod (combat skills can’t be modded higher than +8, and you have to have the advanced profession that allows you to reach those caps). But that’s what a character with nearly 1200 XP looks like (session XP was usually in the neighborhood of 70). Yes, I’d point-by-point built a killer who could put a knife through someone’s throat and skip off into the crowd before the guards showed up, but certainly wasn’t going to be able to take more than a couple blows. In a previous fight, she took a crossbow bolt to the arm; like most folks who take a crossbow bolt to the arm, she was done – time to hide behind the wall and hope her friends could finish the fight without her. The most I could’ve ever got my grit up to was 10, which would’ve taken a classes that would let me raise my Con by 2 and my Grit by 2 (possibly requiring anywhere between 400 and 800 XP depending on how I ultimately went about it). But that could’ve been the difference between suffering broken ribs and the disemboweling she ultimately succumbed to.

Every fight was life-or-death. It was exhilarating!

My DM is working on codifying his core rules into a consultable player’s guide. I’m hoping to convince him that this will be a worthwhile marketable system and offered to help him put together something if he were ever interested in commercially publishing it. I’ll admit, I had a few issues getting used to it at first, but I have a hard time imagining enjoying another system as much.

Free RPG Day Follow Up

Despite the relatively slim pickings for Free RPG Day, I had a hell of a time on Saturday.

I only picked up a couple of the Free RPG products, as there was very little that caught my eye.  The one offering I could muster any real excitement for was the new DCC Lankhmar product, which I hope I can convince my DM to run for our DCC characters.  I grabbed “The Dark Eye” because the art was pretty, but I haven’t had a chance to really read it.  I also grabbed a copy of “Faith”: a comic is a bad way to try to present quick-start rules, especially if you’re going to leave out character creation – somehow Burning Games released a rules-lite RPG in a format that took up around 20 pages and didn’t have enough rules or present them well enough to pick up and play; great job, there.  The art was neat, though.  Notably, there were no copies of Slugs out, so either everyone snatched them all up before I got there (which seems unlikely, considering how many copies of everything else they had) or my FLGS doesn’t put out any Lamentations of the Flame Princess material.  One of the other disappointments regarding Free RPG Day and its offerings was that there were no groups devoted to actually running any of it or even the products they were promoting; I would’ve loved to show up and get to actually play the Lankhmar game, but this year the FLGS had not even organized any games with signup sheets as they had last year, much less actively tried to promote the FRPGD games.  Luckily, there was a gargantuan game (18 players and 3 DMs) being run and I managed to make the sign-up and get in on it.

Saturday was my second time playing 5e, and I still remain unimpressed and thoroughly convinced that everyone who proclaims that it recaptures an oldschool feel and style of play is either lying or doesn’t know what the hell they’re talking about.  Because we live in bizarro universe, someone actually thought that my issue with the system might have been that it didn’t have enough crunch and complexity!

-I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – 5e feels like a Supers game. Everyone does ridiculously high damage (by most D&D standards), but everything has obscenely high HP; 5e is for people who like rolling lots of dice and seeing big numbers come up; it feels inflationary.  Like, Superman crits an alien monster and throws him through 3 sky scrapers; the alien brushes off the rubble and renews the attack because he’s only down 20%.
-It’s not the Thief’s (the player’s) fault, and I know he was just playing how you’re supposed to play Thieves, but I kind of wanted to punch him; it was all, ‘I try to sneak, I try to hide in shadows, I run up, I attack, I use (some thing that lets him not take an attack of opportunity), I run away’ every freaking round.  It’s like “Dude, we’re in a well lit 15’ x 45’ room with nothing in it; what the hell are you trying to hide behind!?”  Even the DM was eventually like “Look, there are no shadows for you to hide behind.”  This was exactly like the Thief played in the other 5e game I was in; it was like bringing all the unfun tedium of cover-based shooters to your game table. This is also why B/X’s melee rules are important and good; if a monster is engaged with a fighter, the thief doesn’t have to go through the motions of half a dozen idiotic mechanics to attack without worrying about being hit.
-Rounds took a really long time for those of us playing non-fighty man characters, as everyone had to describe a lengthy sequence of movements spells, abilities, and actions every time their initiative came up.  I’m glad that there was still a Barbarian pre-gen left for me to use at the table I was seated at; my turn was usually “I am still raging; here are my 3 attacks ::rolls::; 15 damage, miss, 12 damage.”
-The bard class is frustratingly stupid.  How a musical taunt can damage undead is beyond me.  I’m glad that our bard was just some guy who got stuck with it because it was the last pre-gen and not someone who really likes bards; I don’t think I could’ve dealt with that.

I made a point of not expressing dissatisfaction with the system beyond my initial moment of deflation when I learned that 5e was the only thing that would be at the table on Saturday, and even though I still hate the system and would rather be playing dang near anything else (even 3e is less fiddly in the parts where you’re not twinking your character), I had a great time and was glad I played.

As much as I’m prepared to slag on 5e as a system, I would not dare insult what these guys pulled off.

The setup was a pretty basic one-off situation; evil necromancer has created a plague, turning people into corrupted undead, each of the three races (humans, elves, dwarves), and we were the champions of each race who’d been sent to his trans-dimensional magic fortress to kill him, find the macguffins and stop the plague.

Each table was running simultaneously in one dimensional layer of the dungeon.  Certain checkpoints would result in a dimensional shift of one of the characters (a player would be dumped into another party and switch tables).  This first part had some hack and slash and was mostly to find clues as to what the end-game would entail; the human party didn’t spend any time doing thorough searching and just made a bee-line for the heart of the dungeon.  Luckily, our players who had been in the elf and dwarf parties told us all of the stuff we missed.

The session ended in a HUGE battle – each of the three parties was squared up against an undead squadron, with two reserve undead squadrons raining arrows on us, and as the battle progressed, three more squadrons, an undead war mammoth and a 150 HP necromancer showed up.  For the first few rounds, each table would run through the round, fighting the squadron they were facing; dead were marked off the giant white-board, troop positions were updated, and the master DM called out who was being hit by ranged fire.  After a few rounds and a few undead squadrons routed, things were getting too mixed up to do it by table (and by this time, the first two waves of undead reinforcements had shown up), so we ended up all gathering around the big table and did stuff war-game style, running through all 18 players and all hostile NPCs.

It’s the sort of tabletop experience that one doesn’t get a chance to have very often, in no small part because it takes a lot of people to pull it off and make the execution work.  I can’t imagine running a battle this size with this many people without multiple DMs, so the organization and time-commitment required to do something like this is tremendous.  Even using a clunker of a system like 5e, I’d leap at the chance to participate in anything like this again.

Later, I will maybe try to muster the courage to talk about Black God’s Kiss.  I need to write up my impressions of Panzer Leader, post pictures of issue 2 with Jabari Weathers’ cover, rattle the coins in my change jar to remind folks that the Kickstarter is half over, and if I am not completely drained write an article for an SFF magazine from scratch because my initial premise was rejected. Geez, I almost forgot that I need to talk about how prophetic The Zanti Misfits was (alien criminals dumped into the US with a complicit Federal government acquiescing to threats of “do what we ask or suffer the consequences”)!

Good work is being done by Misha Burnett and the other writers in his Eldritch Earth Society group.  If you think you can write a good Burroughsian adventure story in a pre-historic Lovecraftian setting without resorting to Cthululz, you should ask to join and maybe you’ll end up in issue 5 of Cirsova.


Thiefy Stuff

Playing DCC, thieves have become one of my favorite classes, particularly since DCC’s weird, wild and woolly system of magic kind of puts me off of playing any caster classes.  Though DCC works on the d8 Hit Die rather than the d6 Hit Die, meaning Thieves are d6, my character – with all of my really lousy HD rolls and negative modifier to Stamina/Constitution – feels like a d4 Thief!

Naturally, the thing that makes Thieves fun to play is the opportunity to do Thiefy stuff.  The problem is, for both players of Thieves, DMs and the rest of the group, that Thiefy stuff is typically best done without half a dozen guys with swords, chainmail and magic wands derping around and making noise.  Sometimes dungeons provide opportunities to flex those Thief muscles, disarming traps, opening locks and chest, but what you really want to do sometimes as the Thief is some truly daring late-night breaking and entering back in town.  Who hasn’t wanted to relive the thrill of Bafford Manor heist in their D&D game?

The problem is multipart: the Thief usually wants to run this sort of job solo – no sense in having half a dozen guys banging clanking and wisecracking while you’re trying to sneak through a temple or a mansion – which means that most players will have nothing to do while the Thief does his thing.  At most, some members of the party may be wrangled into being look-outs.  The best time to do Thiefy stuff is when only a small group has shown up, if you can’t wrangle your DM into some solo time.  The other issue is that the DM is now obliged to actually map whatever temple or manor you’re hoping to rob.

Where am I going with this?  You’ll find out tomorrow when I post my review of Castles of Mad King Ludwig!

Index Card D&D

I feel as though I’ve been somewhat remiss lately in keeping up with the gaming portion of content on what is nominally a gaming blog.  Hopefully that will change soon, and if it does, let this be the turning point!

I can’t take any credit for this, but I wanted to share.  A couple weeks ago, my DCC DM had asked a couple of us over to try out something he’d been working on.  His own write-up of it can be found here.

The basic conceit is a player-generated DMless Dungeons & Dragons game that can be created from scratch in a few minutes and played for several hours.  Or days, if you want to build up giant decks over the course of several meetups.

We each were given a handful of index cards and were told to write up a basic class, a piece of starting equipment, a monster, a trap, a spell, a piece of treasure and a dungeon geomorph with numbers indicating how many things were in each room.  After about 5 minutes, we each had characters, a microdungeon and a handful of things that filled it.

Monsters/traps/treasures/spells go into the junk deck and geomorphs go into the dungeon deck.  As you go from room to room, flip the top dungeon card and put the indicated number junk deck items face down.  We put “X” on the back of monsters, since you’re going to have to deal with those first in any room.  Or not.  We talked about other options, such as ONLY wandering monsters.

In our first foray, we apparently ended up in a temple of crap (how very DCC!); the entrance (first dungeon card played) had no obvious exits but did have a privy pit that we decided connected to the next card, which happened to be the storage annex of a temple.  I think only one of us escaped our first run, because we’d made pretty mean monsters because no one wanted to be the guy who made a weaksauce monster.

After a few more plays, adding new cards to the decks each time, we had a more balanced experience; if things were too tough, we’d add in some weaker monsters, or if they’d gotten too easy, we’d add in harder ones.  The self-correcting element worked out really well and, by the end of the night, we decided to do one last run after adding “boss monsters”.

We didn’t get around to testing the magic mechanics, as after the first fatal run we came up with more fighter driven classes (an Edgeman, a Lizardman Looter, and some sort of Saw-Blade wielding Ripper), but it was a lot of fun!

It’s very rules-lite in a sense that you basically ‘do this thing and play D&D with it’, with D&D being stripped down to its most abstract ‘things have HD’ and ‘roll d20 to attack AC’, so you adapt it to whichever version you prefer.  In practice, the play experience is a lot like I would imagine something like this to be.  Which is to say awesome.  Your dungeons will end up being as weird and woolly as whatever you could imagine.  We had everything from a hall of mirrors that you could get lost in or smash your way out of to a doctor’s office with a snakes & ladders waiting room.

At some point, I’d like to come up with a slightly more codified explanation of play, but I think this and my DM’s post should be more than enough to get you started.

Busy busy busy!

I will be sticking ads in the magazine next week as I get them.

I have a review up for The Red Witch of Mercury, and just got finished working on a super exciting project that I’ll probably tell you about next week when I get a minute.

Started playing SPI’s Musket & Pike with Dad last night.  Man, now there is a great game!  Look for some analysis on that at Castalia House sometime next month.

Also, on Tuesday, some friends and I took another look at The Challenge, this time with a serious look at ways to tweak and improve the game for a potential updated 2nd edition.  Dunno if I’ll be blathering our design ideas here, but it’s a project we’re toying with.  Our conclusion: it’s actually a pretty good, fun game that simply needs clarification on existing rules more than anything else to make it potentially a go-to party game.

Lastly, here’s some belated gaming cheese, an in-game ballad in tribute to the fighter who thought it would be good to split the party and got torn apart by half a dozen ghouls while everyone else scrambled:

In a fort hid by the trees

‘long the coast of the seas

Ended the life of Blax Jax


There were bandits and paynim

But the warrior had slain them

The brave and cunning Blax Jax


The pirates died by his hand

and ‘pon his command

the warriors took to their post

No more trouble were they

For Jax’d won the day

Leading the victorious host


But down below in the stones

Was a murmuring groan

That called the attention of Blax Jax


With his friends by his side

He the darkness defied,

The strong and puissant Blax Jax


“You to the right,

and I to the left,”

He said to his friends at his back

“If trouble there be

‘neath this fort by the sea,

I will hold off their attack”


The dead rose from the tomb

meant surely the doom

of all of the friends of Blax Jax


An hundred he’d slain

Yet an hundred remained

To end the life of Blax Jax


“Get out while you can,

Am I not a man

‘pon whom you can count your life?”

Said he the brave knight

and his allies took flight,

Leaving him like a faithless young wife.


Oh, Hero – your name,

All others mere shame,

Blax Jax we must never forget

Your deeds with your fists

For Zyg in his pits

And the friends you’d not live to regret.

Random Encounters for a Dynamic World and Emergent Sandbox Narrative

One thing about sandbox games, you never know what your players will latch onto.  You may have created a ton of content around the fringes of your civilization, even plan for players to go off in totally different directions than they end up going. All of that preparation only to have players latch onto a single nugget and invest all of their time and effort concentrating on a single region!

That’s what we’ve done in our DCC game; after finding that abandoned sugarcane plantation, all plans for exploration went out the window, and the focus of our game has shifted to restoring and securing the farm.

This game has really brought to the forefront the importance of book-keeping, time-keeping and random encounters to maintaining an immersive experience.  It also allows for a truly dynamic game world that includes the four adventure plot classifications.

Our last session was filled with a number of skirmishes around our farm that led us to declaring all-out war against a neighboring smuggler-fort.  Chance and an unpredictable enemy strategic AI (determined by random encounter rolls, natch) meant that a lot of our previous plans for establishing peaceful mercantile relations went out the window.  I’ve attached the in-world session report below for those who are interested, but I’d like to share the nuts and bolts of what happened.

Not only has our DM been rolling for encounters for the travelling party, he has been rolling for the farm as well; this would force us to keep investing our time and resources in the project because leaving it to its own devices could mean disaster should it come under attack.  We’d posted guards, but casualties can mount if the farm suffered a particularly bad week or two.

Times when we were en route to the farm, the farm suffered a couple random encounters of its own; the golden bear we’d been hunting struck, but that was a predictable annoyance.  What really messed up of our player-scheming was an encounter that the DM rolled for in which a couple of the Pirate hunters stumbled on the farm at night.  Our mercs earned their pay by shooting at intruders; the Pirates didn’t know what hit them, but it meant that diplomatic relations would be rocky at best if we could establish them.  We decided that we needed to bring up reinforcements, so we went back to town to hire more mercs.  Right as we arrived with reinforcements, the town was in the midst of another random encounter of its own.  The Pirates were reconning in force, but did not expect a small army of 20+ soldiers and a pack of hunting dogs to show up in the middle of their foray.

A combination of random encounters and fortuitous timing led to our decimating the local organized threat to our little outpost.  Now we just need to get the palisade and guard towers up so the farm can better defend itself from white apes.

The plantation may thrive someday, but it shall be born in blood.    Pashi met a disgraced treasurer from west over the seas named Cirra who volunteered his blade to our cause.  Helene bought a coon dog named Shiloh, and Elyse bought a pony named pony.  Our motley crew set forth to the northern guard tower where we left the guards a map of where they could find our plantation and make their weekly patrols.

On the way to farm, we saw a deer in the tree that had been eaten on by something.  We found disaster had struck when we’d arrived at the workers’ camp.  The golden bear had attacked the night before, and though it was driven off, three workers had been killed.  The following night was equally filled with danger; on the first watch, pirate scouts stumbled on the camp and one was shot dead by our mercenaries.  Second watch, a panther showed up and was not driven off before it had torn Shiloh in two.

On the dawn of the third day, we debated what to do: Namia said the golden bear only showed up to drink at the stream about once a month; the more pressing situation was what to do about the pirates.  We’d speculated for some time that they had been bandits or smugglers, though the possibility had remained open that they were simply woodsmen or libertarian survivalists.  The previous night’s incident threw a bit of a wrench in our plans to approach them peacefully as business partners.  We ultimately decided that we should return the body of slain pirate under a flag of truce to the pirate fort.  No talk, no negotiation, just a simple message that we were returning something that belonged to them.  We left the body outside the fort and returned to the plantation.

With multiple apex predators in the forest about the farm and possibly a hostile pirate enclave nearby, we determined that we would need more soldiers and more workers.  We left with the promise to return with more men and supplies and asked Leah Hawkeye to hold on as best she could until we returned.

Back in town, we spent day 5 buying 6 dogs (one to replace Shiloh and five to leave with the mercenaries and workers to help in a pinch and raise an alarum when danger was near.  With the plan to sell rum to the pirates out the window, we made inquiries in town and found that there was no domestic producer of rum in the region; this gave us leverage to seek investment capital from a local tavern keeper.  We secured an investment of 250 gold which we used to hire more workers and levy additional troops: 6 archers, 6 heavy footmen and a Sergeant, Heinrich the Vast.

Before leaving we made inquiries about the new dungeon that had sprung up in the middle of the bay a week or so before.  Though we had pressing issues, we thought to at least make inquiries about it.  Elyse suggested finding a cleric who could perform an auger for us.  The best we could find was Balia Valra, a priestess of the Serpent, who looked at the entrails and told us it wouldn’t sink and drown us all for at least three days.  While Pashi flirted with Balia, Elyse cased the small temple.

Keeping the farm from being destroyed by bandits and wild animals sounded more important than drowning in the bay, so we marched off toward the guard tower.  From the tower, we set out for the farm, offering to show the seven guardsmen the way on their new patrol route.  Our small army of 3 party members, a henchmen, 6 dogs, 20 soldiers, 4 workers, two mules and a pony arrived to find the pirates were attempting to recon in force; Leah Hawkeye had holed up with her troops and the workers in the old house and the pirates had not expected to meet so much resistance.  The pirates were massacred; save for the two we captured, those who tried to flee were torn apart by dogs or ridden down.

Elyse interrogated the survivors; while we got mixed intel on the pirates, we learned that they had a poorly guarded ship that they sometimes used to harass merchants and get supplies with.

We determined that the we had to deal with the pirates before any further work could be done safely on restoring the plantation.  We spent the night with heavy watches, as we had over 30 souls gathered about the temporary housing.  The watch that Helene was on heard the horrid cries of the fearsome white apes of the north.  A couple of the monstrous beasts appeared at the edge of the clearing, but quickly ran when they were showered with a volley of arrows.

In light of the diverse range of apex predators roaming tthe woods, we decided that the best bet was to send the workers back to the guard tower until we returned.  The seven guard patrolmen escorted the workers and the two prisoners back to the tower while the 22 mercenaries and hunting dogs accompanied us off toward the cove where the Pirates kept their ship.

At night, we stole their long-boat, and while the mercenaries provided a noisy distraction on the bluffs above, we rowed up to the pirate ship.  The pirates got a few arrows off at us, and killed one of the archers who had joined us on the boat, but we quickly overwhelmed the few defenders.  We took the prize ship and its cargo back to town to sell off.  The plan now will be to hire more guards and more workers; hopefully when Valora has the time, she’ll be able to nuke to pirate fort so we don’t have to set in for a long siege.  On the plus side, the pirates now will have no access to food or supplies in their fort; we can wage a war of attrition if need be, but we’re now a major force in the region.

Attached is a map of our plantation; most of the structures present besides the Old House, a shed, and one long-house are just part of the foreman’s plans for future construction.  As you can see, given enough time, we’ll have quite the stronghold and, once the rum starts flowing, revenue stream.

Helene hit level 2 and, with a sizable loan from Helene, Elyse reached level 4 by having commissioned an impressive silver wasp statue dedicated to Vespia; she hasn’t been attacked by wasps since she became a worshiper, so as far as she knows, something’s working.


Plotting a Plantation

Thought this was neat and you might enjoy if I shared it.  The scan didn’t pick up the graph paper’s details very well, so I added a few labels in paint.


I volunteered to be party foreman for the restoration of the abandoned sugar cane plantation we’re rebuilding.  Anyone who actually knows a thing or two about planning farms could probably point out why this is terribad, but it’s probably good enough for D&D.

Phase 1: Set up temp barracks (10 x 20), warehouse (40 x 40), tool shed (10×10), and 4 temporary long houses (20 x 30 each).

Phase 2: construct three 10×10 wooden guard towers (fairly simple ones, covered platforms 12′ off the ground).

Phase 3: Repair the Old House

Phase 4: Distillery (40 x 30), 2 small warehouses (30 x 30), small stable (30 x 30)

Phase 5: Introduce farm workers to begin working fields. Build two small cart bridges over the spring stream. (20’ x 10)

Phase 6: Begin work on palisade; Palisade Phase 1: 2070’ of walls.  two 20’ gates.  Six 30×30 guard towers. Four 10 x 10 gate towers.

Phase 6: Build additional housing (five more 20 x 30 long houses) and 30 x 40 for special personnel; SW old Guard Tower dismantled; E Guard tower moved to center of east palisade wall.

Phase 7: Expand warehouses (40 x 40 to 100 x 40, 30 x 30s to 40 x 50 and 50 x 60)

Phase 8: Expand distillery to 40’ x 80’, expand stable to 30’ x 60’.  Build 90’ privacy fence between old house and distillery for Namia.

Phase 9: Extend palisade north and east to free up more arable land.

Phase 10: clear and cultivate additional acreage.

Our DM will be tallying up construction expenses.  We’re going to have our work cut out for us looking for a way to pay for all of this.

Update: here’s a better quality scan.


An Example of Emergent Narrative

One school of thought looks at the DM as a Storyteller with a narrative he wants to get across.  The players fill the rolls of actors in this story whose primary purpose is to help move the DM’s story along through all of its beats.  In this case, the characters often become critical to the fulfillment of the narrative, so player absence and character death can be crippling to the DM’s plans for completing his story.  While the latter is avoided by fudging in favor of characters in an effort to avoid ‘ruining the story’, the former cannot be mitigated and can lead to arc and even game collapse.

The other school of thought looks at the DM as a referee and curator of a playground.  The players fill the role of both storytellers and actors in a fully improvised narrative.  Story emerges naturally from play, oftentimes in unexpected and exciting ways which could not be foreseen.

To show an example of this latter school of thought in practice, I’d like to share the last player session report of the DCC game I’m in, written by James “JamesOfJames” Shepherd.

First a few points of context:

Though we started out in a megadungeon city, game is purely hex crawl sandbox right now.  We have over a dozen characters spread out among almost as many players.  No one is a “plot essential” character, nor is there any “plot” other than what happens in the sessions.  We only had a few of us there for this session (Blaxjax, a fighter; Pashi, James’ cleric; and Elyse, my thief), but an incredible amount of stuff happened.

It was a busy two weeks for Blaxjax, Elyse, and Pashi.  (Pretend names are spelled correctly.)  We watched Blaxjax get absolutely pummeled in the fighting pits of Zig’s cult, but Pashi made out on her side bets against him and Elyse picked some pockets (which will become relevant later.)  His opponent – a lightning-fast fighter named Jadi (rhymes with ‘body’) Amar – thanked him for the chance to go up against the renowned Blaxjax and asked to join the party and lead a life of adventure.  A newly-heard rumor gave us our direction – apparently, some days’ travel north-east of town, in a saddle in the hills, there are crystals which have healing properties, though they require some blood to be shed to work.  Since Pashi’d been working on healing the crippled and needy and starting a rough hospital in town, she suggested they check out the rumors, and swing by where the party of hunters/bandits was last seen on the way.

Jadi, who apparently missed his calling as a folklorist of the region, was somewhat unnerved by the forest to the north (which Elyse dubbed the Watcher’s Wood.)  He told of bandits in the region who ate their victims.  In the woods, we shot a warning arrow above some deer – since Crusher and Vixen were well-provisioned already – and they bolted, as less-creepy deer would be expected to do.  After arriving at the meeting point, we followed the hunter’s trail north and west.  The small band spotted an old fort on a peninsula, still mostly intact, housing around fifteen persons.  Grossly outnumbered, we turned back the way we came, and met another hunting party carrying deer back toward the fort.  They were surprised to see us, and seemed about to draw weapons – luckily, Pashi mentioned that she was a priestess of the sea-god Owscheith, and the hunters responded favorably.  They claimed to be sailors, who compete for business (what business was unspecified) with merchants in town.  We parted peaceably, even on some good terms, though there was some lingering distrust – several of their number still seemed to be sizing us up as we left.

Wary after coming upon so many well-armed and dubious folk, we posted an extra watch and tried to leave a false trail to a cold camp.  A bear wandered in while Pashi was taking her turn at rest, but the three on watch successfully scared it away with little trouble.  Jadi had a nightmare of dark wings and dark clouds, though he didn’t want to discuss it, and the next morning, Elyse opined that the forest felt cursed to her.  As the forest thinned to the northeast of where the hunters were first encountered, we came upon a boar (which we avoided) and then to what seemed to be an abandoned sugar cane plantation, left to run wild.  We could see little but the two story house with its caved-in roof and a large cistern on the back side – Jadi warned of a place where a well-to-do family used to eat passerby in the region.  After Elyse heard singing on her stealthy approach, Pashi cautiously approached, the rest of the party under orders to do what was needful, including paralyze her with poison, if things seemed amiss.  Approaching openly, the singing stopped, and a figure with green hair emerged from the water.  She gave her name as Namia, and asked if we had any rum to drink.

Taking the excuse to consult with the party, Elyse offered that she’d heard of creatures like this before – it was probably a nymph, and was unlikely to harm us, if not necessarily trustworthy.  We shared our libations and talked through the rest of that third day of travel – Namia told us of the curse placed upon the Watcher’s Wood.  Long ago, to make a long story short, there was much bloodshed and atrocity committed, and the land was cursed.  She advised against committing any barbarous acts in the wood, though she said if we hunted what we needed, we should come to no harm.  We talked at some length that day and the next, resting and hearing a great deal said and sung about Namia’s favorite subject, the creations of man and their fall into ruin.  The songs had a sweet sorrow to them.  We broached the idea of re-settling the plantation, which pleased Namia greatly, especially if it meant more rum for her to drink.  After the second night, we headed to the east, where Namia thought there were hills which could fit the rumors heard in town.

Pashi took Jadi aside on the way and got him to open up privately about his nightmare.  He talked about a black cloud with glowing red eyes and dark wings chasing him, toying with him, always faster than him.  Comforting him, Pashi said she could understand how such an uncanny out-maneuvering the lightning-quick fighter could be unnerving indeed.  The party chanced upon some giant beetles, which seemed to focus on Pashi at first.  As Elyse withdrew to safety, leading Crusher at a run, she goaded Vixen into the fight, who charged into one of the three beetles surrounding Pashi.  Blaxjax and Jadi joined the fray and made short work of the beetles.  While healing wounds after the fight (and harvesting the beetles’ glowing glands,) Pashi was stricken with shame at the abysmal account she gave of herself in the fight and remained humiliated the rest of the day.  Continuing roughly east, we came across a large sinkhole late in the day, roughly 100′ across and some 25′ deep.  Getting well away from the unstable terrain, we set up camp.  Continuing southeast into the nearest hills, we came upon a shack in front of what seemed to be a cave or mine.  Blaxjax kicked in the door, finding four barrels of silver ore in what amounted to a tool shed.

Realizing the value of the find, we immediately loaded two barrels to each mule and left behind an assortment of rations and inexpensive starting gear, allowing the mules to move at half-speed back toward town.  As we finished redistributing the loads around noon this sixth day, lightning without an apparent storm erupted – noted folklorist Jadi Amar told us that this was rumored to be a portent of the cannibals he feared in the area.  Heading back through the forest as directly as possible, we pushed through the night to make it to the northern watchtower in short order, and then on toward town.

Back in Greyhold, we bought four tents and eight bedrolls, as we decided we’d had more than enough of sleeping on the ground.  We also hired on nine carpenters and a nine mercenaries led by [Leah?] Hawkeye, an expert markswoman.  Stopping by the guard tower the next night, we explained our plan to resettle the plantation a day’s travel through the Watcher’s Wood to the guards posted there, and requested that they make weekly patrols.  The seven guards demurred, since they were undermanned at their post.  After arriving back at Namia’s plantation, we filled in the carpenters’ foreman and sergeant Hawkeye about the dangers in the area; the cannibal-bandits and the fort to the west in particular.  They weren’t especially pleased, but that’s why they got hazard pay.  We promised we wouldn’t leave them at risk for too long, and promised to take care of any threat the fort may pose shortly.

Returning to town, we lobbied the town’s government to increase the patrol at the northern watchtower, which they did for a small bribe.  There should be weekly patrols between the tower and our farmstead and the garrison should be doubled to fourteen guards.  Discussing what should be done about the fort, Pashi volunteered to scout the fort, since we suspect the sailors are the same group as the fort’s inhabitants, and they reacted well enough to her at first.  (She is willing to come up with some manner of subterfuge if need be – plans laid to signal when she might open the gate from inside, or perhaps poison the garrison with some of the near-ridiculous amounts of toxic and deadly substances we’ve been amassing.)  The plan was agreed upon as a general strategy, since we have no solid evidence that the fort is a threat, and there’s little to do but pick off hunting parties failing solid intelligence on the fort’s defensive situation.

A freak storm blew up, and Pashi threw caution to the wind, heading toward the shore to ride out the storm in honor of Owscheith.  Little seems to have come of that, though sailors newly-arrived in port report of a previously-unseen island in the approach to the town’s harbor.  Blaxjax tried his luck once more in the fighting pits of Zig and won, losing Pashi some gold but gaining the favor of the warrior god.  Back at the Happy Harpy after the bout, Pashi tried to talk Jadi into being the face of the party’s rum brand, when the time came, but he declined – Blaxjax is by far the superior fighter, in his mind.  Elyse offered some true-to-life drawings she picked out of a mark’s bag during the first bouts some two weeks ago (I told you this would come up again.)  The lewd drawings are recognizably of a noble’s young (not *that* young) daughter apparently engaged in some tryst; Elyse suggested that we use these ‘artworks’ as our label.  Pashi approved of the plan – a small release at a selected gathering of the town’s upper crust seemed destined to bring interested parties forward to pay sizable sums to have the label changed.

tl;dr – we found a fort, then an old sugar cane farm inhabited by a lush water spirit, then a bunch of silver in a mine to the northeast.  we plowed the money into restarting the farm, but didn’t find the healing crystals we set out to find in the northeast, and have promised our hirelings to clear the area of bandits soon to make the farmstead safer.

In more rote fantasy arcs, characters get strongholds, castles and kingdoms, because that is the natural progression of things.  In free-form open world games with emergent stories, they can build plantations, plan distilleries and aim to corner to local rum markets by playing factions off against each other.  This wasn’t some grand planned out design by our DM; he just put the tools at our disposal – a hex with a bandit fort, a hex with an abandoned sugar cane farm, a few hexes of creepy cursed woods, rumors and some stuff from random tables – and let us run with it.  Even the supply puzzle aspect with our mules became a fun element when questions arose like “If we had to ride a mule to escape something, how much equipment will we have to dump?” and “How much vendor trash, spare equipment and rations do we cut loose so we can strap on all of this silver and get out of the wilderness at half-speed before something kills us?”

The best worldbuilding emerges on the micro, rather than the macro, level.  No one is going to remember the names of the races or lost cultures or the extensive history of your locations.  They may not even remember the names of the various gods, except for the ones who are immediately affecting the party by way of their clerics and cultists.  It’s the ruined farms, the dolmens, the weird statues, abandoned cairns and forest outposts that will stick with players.  They won’t remember the ancient king’s name, but they’ll remember that the woods to the north is full of bears.  They won’t care about the fall of some kingdom on a distant shore, but you’d better believe that when a vendor is selling “snake proof boots”, everyone at the table will be all “aww, man! Snakes!” and be on the look-out for caves filled with slithering serpents.

Thanks again, James, for letting me share this, and a big thanks to our DM for running this kind of game for us!