Jan 3, 2016

Handling Min-Maxing

Min-maxing player characters in adventure games where that's a viable strategy tends to be unpopular. I suspect the reason for this is that the burden for making encounters challenging to a group of min-maxed PCs falls entirely on the referee. Whereas players have to only min-max one entity (their characters) to get the full benefits, referees have to repeatedly min-max entire groups of enemies, and may even have to create several such groups for a single session. In systems with leveled power progressions, players also have time to incrementally develop their knowledge of how to build and play the character, whereas the referee is usually going in without the chance to playtest an encounter beforehand.

Therefore, I would like to suggest the following non-exhaustive list of strategies for handling min-maxing in games.

Copy Characters

Hold onto character sheets from old campaigns (or ones who have died in the campaign) and reuse them, but this time as NPCs or even reskinned as monsters. Since the PCs usually don't see the stats for monsters, they won't often spot that a monster is actually a reskinned former PC, though they might notice that it uses a similar set of tricks to one.This usually isn't a problem, but rather leads to interesting problem-solving, since the players know how the power interactions work, they can work to neutralise them by interrupting the interaction. You can even split up a character sheet for a suitably high-level PC and create several monsters out of it, especially if they have more than one combination of powers they use frequently.

Most groups in my experience have one person who likes to play lots of different characters, and is constantly drawn to new rules material when it comes out, and tries to create some version of whatever they think the hottest, newest thing is. It can be extremely useful to channel this person's interest in trying out the material by having them build new potential characters, even if they don't want to play them right this second. You can either use the old characters, or the new characters, whichever ones they're not using at the moment. By reskinning them as new NPCs or new monsters, you can do this without "giving away" which particular set of stats and powers is being used.

Monster Colosseum

Every three or four months in one group I was in years ago, we would skip our regular session and instead play "monster colosseum". Everyone got a CR budget (this was in the D&D 3.5 days) and picked monsters out of the Monster Manual until they reached that budget. Occasionally, to mix things up, we would roll on the premade encounter tables organised by CR in the back. Two people (of four or five, depending on who showed up) would draw the map on whiteboard, we would each place our monster teams, and then we'd have a giant battle to see who's monster team would be the last standing.

This had the effect of basically show-casing monsters (especially weird ones we might not otherwise use), and highlighting how to use them most effectively and imaginatively. e.g. one guy once got a bunch of giant wasps and used teamwork between them to pick up the enemy monsters and drop them to do tons more  damage than the wasp sting alone. The referee gets to see how different monsters and different combinations of monsters work with other people doing the bulk of the work figuring that out.

Keep Records

If you have an encounter that works particularly well or particularly poorly, it's worth writing a short note to yourself about it after the game, and storing these notes over time. e.g. "Skeleton archers on hill that's tough to climb, too easy b/c of flight powers" or "Giant wasps can't injure PCs b/c they can only be hit by magical weapons" is about as long as they need to be. If you play using player roles, you can assign this to whoever keeps the notes for the party, and have them turn the notes over at the end of the session. When you're next planning an encounter, you know what to change or preserve right away, rather than having to puzzle out what went wrong based on faulty memories of previous sessions.

Similarly, referees should recycle rules material they know well. For example, I recommend drawing up a couple of spell lists at the start of a campaign and reusing them frequently. You can describe the spells differently each time to change things up, and you can gradually focus on increasing the number of spells you understand extremely well, but having a few spells you know like the back of your hand means less page-flipping, a smaller burden on your memory, and more time spent figuring out how to use the spells in imaginative and interesting ways. I recommend something similar with monsters - learn a few monsters and their powers extremely well, reuse them extensively, and then make minor variations on them as needed.

Lastly, if you notice something works extremely well against the PCs, make a note and figure out how you can exploit it in different ways. This might be a low saving throw, a lack of a particular ability, dependence on a resource that depletes, etc. Write these out on a sheet with each PC's name and particular weaknesses underneath it. If you have space, you might want to list their strengths as well. That'll give you an idea of what powers to look for when you're putting together encounters. Do the PCs have crappy willpower stats? Then maybe mind control monsters that attack those stats would be effective. Rather than having to evaluate a ton of rules material and generate off-the-cuff optimal strategies, you can simply hunt through the available material for the bits that seem directly relevant to dealing with those weaknesses and strengths. Especially combined with the method of encounter recording that I mentioned above, you should be able to winnow through rules material much more quickly, or design off-the-cuff powers that directly exploit those weaknesses.


The more work that's done to shift time away from poring through rulebooks and trying to figure out the rules side of things, the more time can be spent making encounters interesting and memorable. Similarly, the more familiar the referee becomes with the rules, the greater the set of affordances they offer to the imagination. For these reasons, I therefore suggest you do whatever possible to lighten the cognitive burden of optimising encounters.

Dec 12, 2015

Organising Referee Screens

I don't find the information printed on referee / DM screens particularly useful. I use one, but to organise information vertically as well as horizontally. Here's some notes about the way I use them:

1) I use gator clips and paperclips to attach paper and index cards to the panels of the referee screen. I attach information to both the inside and outside of the screen. The outside of the screen is extremely useful as a way of presenting information the players collectively need, though remember to print in a large enough font, or write it large enough, that it can be read from across the table.

2) I use a five-panel screen. On the inside, from left to right, I attach:

a) Random encounter tables, terrain tables or generators, and any overland travel rules I need.
b) Maps in the order I expect to use them.
c) Monster stats, clustered by encounter and then each cluster sorted by the order I expect them to occur.
d) A list of random names. I cross names off as I use them. Behind that, list of major or important NPCs, a calendar / timeline and a relationship map.
e) A list of PC stats that I can consult without telling them (i.e. perception scores, marching order). Behind that. I keep a list of treasure items and information that I expect to use in the upcoming session.

Most of these are sheets of paper. I take them down off the panels as necessary, or else I'll spread them out if I have a minute or two (i.e. grabbing all the monster stats and clipping them to separate panels temporarily so I can track the combat)

3) On the outside, from left to right, I'll attach:

a) Any procedures the party follows as a whole (e.g. overland exploration).
b) The guard's random encounter table unless their filling it out.
c) A copy of any map they have that's relevant to the situation.
d) A list of NPCs, places, etc. they've met who they should remember.
e) A list of any gear, retainers, etc. that the party as a whole has.

Players are free to take stuff off the screen at any time to either look at more closely, to update them, etc., but I try to make sure they put them back up on there before we go onto anything else, otherwise they tend to vanish. The PCs are welcome to attach any other documentation they want to the outside. I use player roles so people know which documents they're responsible for, and which are someone else's problem.

4) I use cue cards / index cards to track information I need at a glance. I tend to generate index cards during play, instead of beforehand, using a sharpie. Remember, you can clip index cards along both the top edge and the side edges of the screen.

Specifically, I write the NPC's name, what they want, and any critical stuff (e.g. "Offers quest to slay goblins - 500gp") on a cue card in black sharpie and attach it to a panel facing towards me when I'm running them. If you get caught up in an interaction or distracted and lose track of what's going on, I find this is most of the information you need to get things back on track. The other thing I commonly do is write triggers for traps, or ongoing environmental conditions on cue cards and clip them facing me so I don't forget them as we go on. If the PCs have weird powers like seeing invisible enemies, I'll also note them on an index card so I remember the invisible enemy or whatever can't sneak up on them.

On the exterior of the screen, I clip index cards with the names and 1-3 word descriptions of any important NPCs they're interacting with. If they're in a distinct location I'll add that too. I'll also clip index cards covering any ongoing environmental conditions the PCs are aware of, along with the mechanics and effects. e.g. "Dark -2 to hit". I usually use one of the side edges to handle marching order for the PCs. Lastly, I'll sometimes clip index cards with any resolutions or goals the PCs made earlier that are shaping their decisions (or any quests they picked up that they might've forgotten about). You'd be surprised at how often players forget these things, so having them written down helps.

I have the players write player-facing cards, rather than taking up my time to do it, except for ongoing environmental conditions. Usually you can dish out some markers and sharpies and handle most of the card writing you'll need in a given encounter in a minute or two if it's distributed around the table. When in doubt, it's the rules coordinator's job to update cards with environmental effects and the caller's responsible for keeping the marching order and the quests / resolutions correct.

5) I have my PCs handle initiative rather than tracking it myself, but if you haven't started doing this yet, you might want to attach it to an inner panel.

6) This sounds like a lot of work, but most of its front-loaded, and there's several ways to save time. In play, it tends to save a lot of time you'd spend wracking your brain for relevant information or reminding people of the same unchanging facts over and over again, etc. and allows you to ensure you have all the information you need right at hand. Here are some time-saving measures:

a) Use print-outs whenever possible. I print off monster stats straight from the book's pdf and write things like HP totals directly on the sheet. I grab images from the internet and print them off for maps etc. I'll print off the page the treasure item's description is on and then just use a highlighter to outline it so I know what's the right thing.
b) Appoint one of the PCs (usually the caller or note-taker) to store any cards they aren't using, and to be responsible for retrieving them when they're needed.
c) Assign a player (the rules coordinator) to produce the document with all the relevant stats you need (perception scores, stealth scores, saving throws, etc.). If they don't produce a new one, you'll go with whatever the old one says, even if it's worse.
d) If possible, seat people so they can reach out and handle the screen carefully to remove and add documentation as necessary. If not, sit someone responsible next to you and anyone who needs to change stuff has to go through them.

7) You can swap out cue cards for post-its if you find it easier. It tends to be harder to reuse post-its, so the more static something is, the better they are. If you only need something once and will never need it again, they're great. If something will come into and out of play repeatedly, index cards tend to stand up to repeated use a little better.

Dec 9, 2015

The Dawnlands are Back / Dooms

I'm going to be converting the Dawnlands over to Runequest 6 from Openquest. My plan is to run a third complete (fourth total) campaign set in the Dawnlands sometime in the next year or so. I've been playing in Lawrence Whitaker's Mythic Britain campaign now for a little over a year and Legend / RQ6 has always been one of my favourite systems, with only the challenge of teaching it to new players holding me back from doing more with it. Here's a bit about cursing the people who killed you using the passion system from Runequest 6.


Anyone with a passion rated higher than 100% may, upon dying, choose to utter a doom - a curse or prophecy on or about the subject of their passion. The doom must be made in the round the person expires, and must consist of a few short sentences, with a total length in words of 10% of the passion's rating (so a 100% passion allows 10 or fewer words). The character must be able to speak aloud.

Upon making the doom, the character checks against their passion. On a critical failure, the doom is realised only as a cruel joke of fate on the curse-giver. On a failure, the doom has no effect. On a success, the doom takes effect until the next dusk or dawn, whichever comes first. On a critical success, the doom becomes permanent until the character's body is buried or cremated with suitable ceremonial pomp to appease their spirit (requiring either Customs or Exhort), or a shrine, idol, totem or other marker is erected to honour them (such a marker must be Consecrated as per the spell by a priest of the same religion as the character). Dooms come into effect immediately.

Dooms make all skill rolls directly related to avoiding them one step harder, while all skill rolls directly related to bringing them to fruition are made one step easier. If the dooming character includes an end-condition to the curse, all skill rolls are either two steps harder or easier, as appropriate. Characters are not automatically aware of dooms.

e.g. Torun Half-Nose is stabbed to death by Hafek the Unwise. As he gargles out his last breath, he curses "My children will avenge me!", rolls his passion [Love (Children) 115%)] and gets a critical success. Torun's children will then find all skill rolls related to avenging their father to be one step easier, while Hafek finds any rolls to resist them will be one step harder.

e.g. Bjan the Wolf-Eater returns from campaigning to find a Kaddish warband (the Locusts) has destroyed his kraal, slain his family and friends, and plundered his village. He commits ritual suicide out of shame, cursing the destroyers of his line "Kaddish will bleed until the mountains are ground to dust" and rolls his Hate (Kaddish) 130% passion. Bjan critically fumbles, and so a Kaddish herbalist investigating the healing properties of a rare clay in the northern mountains suddenly finds it makes the perfect addition to bandages to encourage clotting (or at least her Lore roll to identify this property is two steps easier).

Some Extant Dooms in the Dawnlands

"The Kaddish will never know peace" - made by the (now) Lich-King of Dlak upon his death during the destruction of Dlak (Affects all rolls to directly drag the Orthocracy into a war, or to start a riot in Kaddish)

"I will be slain three times, and three times resurrected" - Tegon, the Maimed Lord, vampire near-god (Directly affects all rolls to ritually resurrect him or to prevent this from happening)

"My children will feast on the graves of the optimates" - Mainos, halfling Broken Chain martyr (Affects all rolls to prevent revolutionary sentiment from growing amongst the Dwer helots and slaves)

Aug 29, 2015

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Blackwater But Were Afraid to Ask

Here's the concise summary of everything your average adventurer needs to know about the Kingdom of Blackwater in 723AS:

They use a silver standard for coinage. Their main exports of interest to anyone else are cattle, horses, linen, dragonbone, magical toxic waste, ancient relics, gold, and murder hobos. You mainly want to steal the gold, relics, dragonbone and magical toxic waste. They speak Wyvish, as do the hippies (Upper Wyvs), weirdos (Lower Wyvs), conans (Ulthendish) and the folks in the factory city to the east (Marlechers) but they all sound silly when they do. Their government has nobles and stuff, but mainly exists to extract taxes. There`s two kings, one`s a lich, and they hate one another and are gearing up for a big war. They have good scientists, wizards and engineers, but they all leave to go get rich elsewhere, unless they`re evil and want the magical toxic waste for themselves. Everything's poor as hell and most people look like refugees from some Byzantine province (Armenia or Pontus or Trebizond). Summers are cool and dry, as are winters. Blackwater used to be run by the hippies and weirdos hundreds of years ago, until they summoned too many demons or something and went back to their island to be crazy by themselves.

Aug 27, 2015

The Treetombs Region and Map

This'll be the starting region for the campaign, near the town of Treetombs at the edge of the Deadwood Basin in the kingdom of Blackwater.

Alderspring (Pop. 1,250)
Points of Interest: Blood Keep (castle), Deepwater (village), Rightblood Ranch (ranch), Scrubthorn (village), the Sunstone (lighthouse)

Alderspring is cattle country. The sacred bulls slaughtered in temples across the Wolf Sea are calved in the great herds of red and silver-coated cattle in the uplands. Fuligin-robed Deadwalkers of the Dismal Land, wolf-robed Krovi tribunes and the sorcerer-overseers of the Low Wyvs can all be found lodged in Deepwater, despite direct orders from the New King forbidding Baron Alderspring to do commerce with them. The baron sells the cattle for cash in hand, and uses the money to pay mercenaries to keep the New King's men out of his business. He sells sacred cattle on the sly to the Old King to placate his undead warriors, though it's an open secret and only a matter of time before he's caught. He is plagued by cattle-rustlers and an unusually large number of wolves, both of which he blames on the baroness of Redcrossing. Rumours abound that the Low Wyvs are building a gate in the hills to directly transport the bulls home without the need of ships, though where they would get a sufficiently large supply of human bone to do so is anyone's guess.

The Cinder
Points of Interest: Baroness Redcrossing's Schola (shrine), the Boiling Sands (lair), the Bone Gate (landmark), the Cinder (Crater), the Corundrum Gate (landmark), the Hecatomb (lair), the Onyx Gate (landmark), the Reclusium of Arvil (tower), the Tomb of Justin IV (shrine/graveyard), the Weeping Tree Labyrinth (dungeon)

The site of the Catastrophe, where the Old King's attempt to attain divinity as an immortal lich released the Grey Death across what was once "Greenwood Basin". The air is pungent with befouled geomancy. Somewhere in the stone flats lays the circle of thirteen petrified sorcerers standing around the great crater. The Cinder has great nodes of the precious black serpentine created during the Catastrophe, and sorcerers are constantly hiring foolish adventurers to recover even a mere handful for use in their experiments. The Grey Death has mostly dissipated, but a few smoldering cracks still release gusts of it now and then. A few necromancers and witches linger in the area personally, as do various beasts twisted by the Grey Death into vicious monsters.

Deadwood Basin
Points of Interest: the Bastion of the Keen Ones (tower), the Burning Place (graveyard),  the Lair of Many-Headed Hythax (lair), the Mother's Tear (shrine), Hammerdell Keep (ruin), Lonely Keep (ruin), Oakbend (ruin), the Sleeping Hill (dungeon), Splitstone (ruin), the Trembling Ground (lair), Woodweir (ruin), the Wyvish Locus (landmark)

Deadwood Basin was once the country's breadbasket, densely populated with small villages and keeps. Since the Grey Death came nearly a century ago, the region has been unpopulated and almost nothing will grow there. The area is spotted with ruins from prior epochs - geomantic locuses from the Wyvish Synod, ruined keeps from the Weaver Kings, and buried remnants of the Dragontime. A few tribes of Bonewarped have come down off of Dead Dragon Mountain over the years, and survive by unknown means amongst the ruins. The Old King's hordes are mostly deployed holding ruins across Deadwood, though why he is focused on this instead of reconquering his kingdom is unclear to the living.

God's Eye (Pop. 1,000)
Points of Interest: Gib Hill (village), God's Eye Observatory (shrine), Marro's Grave (village), Tenbarrows (village)

The God's Eye Observatory will soon be the newest temple to the Divine Architect. Most of the villages and farms have sprung up in the past ten years from the construction, and the priests have purified the soil to the best of their abilities. The merchants in Treetombs have expressed an interest in the priests repeating the process in the barrens surrounding Treetombs, but the priests have refused to do so until they finish their temple. Controversially, the temple was built using black serpentine blocks for its foundation, making it a powerful geomantic node, but one that could easily become tainted without careful maintenance. The New King is a patron of the cult of the Divine Architect, and the new bishop has had to divert workers from finishing the temple to throwing up palisades and fortifications in case the Old King turns his attention from Deadwood Basin back to the coastal settlements.

Old Kingshall (Pop. 500)
Points of Interest: Beggar's Hill (village), Cattle Market (city ruin), the Eternal Keep (lair), the Fleeing Village (ruin), the Garden of Statues (lair), the Grain Market (city ruin), the Grey Palace (dungeon), Fatcoin Alley (city ruin) Kingshall College (city ruin), King's Lake (lake), the Late Seer's Village (ruin), Lord's Lane (city ruin), the Lost Man's Square (city ruin), the Man-Eater's Rest (lair), Old Markill (ruin), One-Girl Village (ruin), the Poor Quarter (city ruin), the Praying Village (ruin), the Sleepless Tree (lair), Smiths' Lane (city ruin), Stove's Waystation (village), the Tablet of the Grey Death (landmark), the Tomb of Theophora II (graveyard), the Vile Guard (tower), the Wailing Village (ruin), the Watchful Mother (shrine)

Once the capital of the kingdom of Blackwater, Kingshall is now a collection of petrified ruins haunted by the livind dead. The Old King attempted to ascend to lichdom a century ago, but the ritual went awry and released a magical force known as the "Grey Death" which spread across much of Deadwood Basin. It petrified thousands, killed thousands more, and created a vast wave of refugees whose settlement still determines the population distribution of Blackwater. Lingering traces of it in the earth have prevented the resettlement of Deadwood Basin. The Old King was thought dead, killed in the ritual, and a nephew ascended to the throne to rebuild Blackwater.

Two years ago, black-cloaked envoys went out across Deadwood Basin, announcing that the Old King's ritual had succeeded, and that he intended to return to his throne in Kingshall. His armies of wights and skeletons have mostly spent their time occupying the ruins across Deadwood Basin, and the nobility is split over whether to back him or the descendant of his nephew (now known as the "New King"). The coastal communities have yet to bear the brunt of his armies yet, but most expect it's only a matter of time.

Redcrossing (Pop. 2,000)
Points of Interest: Crowshine (lighthouse), Dunhill (village), Drybridge Keep (castle), Lair of the Lying Wolf (lair), Northcut (village), Redcrossing Ranch (ranch), Southcut (village)

Redcrossing mainly survives off selling produce and sheep to Treetombs. Drybridge Keep was built before the Catastrophe, but the barony is the result of a landgrab by the baroness' ancestors in the chaos immediately afterwards. The baroness of Redcrossing is a powerful sorceress of the Red and Bone Learning who keeps a schola with a handful of apprentices out closer to the Cinder. She pays handsomely for samples of black serpentine. Baron Alderspring blames her for the wolves that plague his herds, though no one knows what her motive might be. Redcrossing is the home base for the High Bailiff of the Stone Coast and his officials and mercenaries, and has become a strategically important site almost accidentally after the Old King declared his intentions. Redcrossing is nominally loyal to the New King due to the official presence, but sympathies amongst the peasantry are strongly in favour of the Old King.

Sharpwater (Pop. 3,000)
Points of Interest: Alderson's Ranch (ranch), Blade Valley (village), Burnt Barrows (ruin), David's Grave (village), Grass Hill (village), Kingshead (village), Pinebridge (village), Poplar Hill (village), Riverwatch (castle), Saltcliff (village), Storm's Sigh (shrine), West Reach (village), Whitebend (village), Wyvman's Rest (landmark)

Sharpwater is the most important barony in the area, both economically and militarily, but it hasn't yet declared for either king. Baron Sharpwater and the merchants of the port of Saltcliff were important local patrons of the God's Eye. He wouldn't want to see the temple razed, but his family was much more prominent in the days of the Old King, and the lich's envoys have promised him a return to greatness if he bends the knee. Popular sympathy is firmly with the New King, and he risks a revolt if he backs the wrong side. Sharpwater is home to the most prominent local shrine to the Unknowable Sea, and has two good ports, making it an important shortcut for merchants trying to avoid tolls on the Great Road and captains who want to avoid trouble at sea. The merchants of Saltcliff are the main rivals of the cartel that runs Treetombs, and they are always looking for ways to further impoverish the town.

Treetombs (Pop. 5,250)
Points of Interest: Blackstone (village), the Dragon's Stairs (landmark), Hulthar's Folly (ruin), the Oak Synod (graveyard), Treetombs (town)

Treetombs is still the economic hub of the region, despite its decline from the days before the Catastrophe, when it was a major city connecting Kingshall to its ports on the Stone Coast. The land surrounding the town is poisoned by the Grey Death, making farming difficult. Still, it survives partially due to its market charter, which negates the tolls and excises of anyone traveling to Treetombs along the Great Road. The town is run by a cartel of free merchants who unite only to crush opposition to their rule. They have bent the knee to the Old King, though he hasn't actually done more than send a small squadron of skeletal warriors into the hills around the town. Treetombs has small shrines to the Great Mother and Divine Architect, and most of the region's professionals and specialists call it home. It's also a popular place for exiles, bandits, mercenaries and ne'er-do-wells to lay low in, as the High Bailiff rarely comes to town. The town gets its name from the nearby (now petrified) Oak Synod, a graveyard from the days of the Wyvs, who entombed their magnates within the hollows of great oaks. The Old King's soldiers have recently begun cutting down the oaks to revive the bodies within, to great outcry from the residents of Treetombs.

Aug 22, 2015

The Wolf Sea Divine Cult Spell List

The list of spells available to each major cult in the Wolf Sea area. Each cult can teach members spells from the Common list, and then has six specialty spells + and an appropriate Otherworld Journey spell.

Full write-ups of the cults will follow at a later date.

Aug 21, 2015

Sorcery Spell Lists in the Wolf Sea

Here's a list of spells that the four sorcery schools in the Wolf Sea teach. The list of spells marked "Common" can be learnt by a wizard in any tradition. Barons of Hell are demons, Drowned Legions are masses of undead warriors and sailors who drowned, Undead Wyrms are self-explanatory, and Tulpa-Shoggoths are creatures made of protoplasmic dream-stuff.

You can also get a sense of the cosmology of the setting. Along with the living world, there's the Afterlife, Hell, and the Dreamworld. The Afterlife is where dead souls go, whether for good or ill. Hell is an alternate world, not where the wicked end up automatically, but rather an alien reality, and the Dreamworld is where the contents of dreams come from and go back to once the dream ends.