Wednesday
Jan082014

An Old School Polish Sandbox

While I played first edition D&D back in the day, I was a SF fan and so pretty quickly moved on to Traveller, 2300AD, and other GDW games. In college I played in a friends Twilight: 2000, but it was in a gonzo modern campaign, and had nothing to do with the original game setting.  So it wasn’t until fairly recently that I picked up T2K 1st ed. and its core modules to read for the first time. And I was surprised to discover that it is a classic sandbox game- but hampered by poor organization.

The original rules for Twilight: 2000 give an initial adventure called Escape from Kalisz, where it sets up the PCs are solders in WWIII cut off behind enemy lines. They have escaped a disastrous battle in the middle of Poland, and are on their own. Furthermore the game has established that all of Europe has been devastated by the war, so there is no law and order for hundreds of kilometers in any direction.  They have limited information about their surroundings, and there are Soviet soldiers and marauders in all directions. It is a 'points of light' setting where the PCs are free to continue to fight for democrocy, or set themselves up as warlords themselves. The intro module does not have plot- just descriptions of the various villages and towns of central Poland in the vicinity of their starting point, and what kind of help or threats can be found there.

The PCs are not given an objective- they have some information about what is in their area- but there is no place they being directed to try to make it to, other than some rumors that Krakow is supposed to be safe. They are on their own to decide which direction to go, and how best to survive. But the first 5 modules published continued and completed the default campaign:

 

  • Free City of Krakow – a freeform module that details Krakow and expands the sandbox south to the Czechoslovakian border.
  • Pirates of the Vistula – a structured module that has the Party travelling to the northeast on the Vistula River to Warsaw. Details the towns along the river.
  • The Ruins of Warsaw – a freeform module that details Warsaw and expands the sandbox to the east.
  • The Black Madonna – a freeform module set in Silesia. Expands the sandbox to the South West, to the Czech/German Border
  • Going Home – A structure module (although not as structured as the Pirates of the Vistula) that has the PCs trying to make it to a port in Germany to catch the last transport ship home to the USA. Expands the sandbox to the west, through Germany all the way to the French DMZ.
  • Also issue 25 of Challenge magazine had an article titled The Baltic Coast: A Looter's Guide, which expanded the sandbox to the north, along the Baltic coastline.

 

(After Going Home, GDW began producing adventures set in North America, and gradually switched to more structure modules- which were more the preferred style by the late 1980s. Later modules returned to Europe and Poland, but did not return to the sandbox format.)

…So split between these publications, quite a bit of Poland was detailed with adventure hooks and threats. If the party chose to strike out into a random direction, the GM has plenty of information about what they would encounter.

The biggest stumbling blocks to this is that all this information is split up between multiple books, as well as the locations were not keyed except by the town name. So looking up polish location names in a map, and then hunting thought various books to see if that location has an entry was probably too unwieldy for most GMs.

My solution: I went through the laboured process of collating the sandbox information from the publications, and keying it to a hex grid overlaying the maps. Theoretically this would help a GM run a sandbox game set in Poland, since it would be much faster to look up a hex number to see if it has a description. I also made a more detailed handout for the players explaining the events leading up to the Escape for Kalisz adventure.

The files:

Escape from Kalisz: The Death of a Division (Player Background for the start of the campaign)

Eastern European Hexmaps - The Maps of Poland and German, with a numbered Hex grid superimposed.

Eastern European Hexmap index - compiled list of the sandbox content, keyed to the above hexmaps numbers.

These are provided solely as aids for GMs to improve their Twilight:2000 gaming.

Saturday
Apr302011

...from the files from the Reno Renegades

Between 1990 and 1992 I ran a home-brewed RPG generally known as "Jed's Conspiracy" game.  Largely inspired by Mark Vest's Twilight 2000 Mercenary game, it emphasized a freewheeling sandbox type game where each week's adventure was devised mostly on the fly.

The basic structure was inspired by Marks game (have players roll up fairly normal characters in the 'real world', give them access to money and weapons, and then have super powerful organizations be constantly trying to kill them for no clearly defined reason.  I was also inspired by Silence of the Lambs, and the idea of an FBI procedural game struck me as a novel approach.

(A year after the game wrapped-up, the X-Files premiered on FOX, and I realized I probably should have thinking more about screenplays then RPGs.)

At that time I was working as a DJ on the student run radio station WRFL, doing the early morning shift on Saturdays.  Back then the station had an AP machine (basically a dot-matrix printer hooked up to the AP's news wire network.  It was constantly printing out news updates, as they 'came off the wire'...) and so I had lots of time to read random news stories in the early morning while playing records.  So I for the game, I would look at the stories with an eye toward secret events happening in the world.  (I was deep into Foucault's Pendulum at the time, as well as Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and a host of other Conspiracy books available over in the front room at Sqecial Media on S. Lime.)

Since I had been playing RPGs with some of the players since high-school, and we had shared interested, I was worried that they would figure out the conspiracy pretty quick.  So I decided to approach things a little differently- I wrote up 9 different secret organizations that were all (for the most part) un aware of each other's existence.  They were varying styles, ranging from a high tech corporation in Boston using computers to predict future history (ala Foundation) to an ancient order of Psychics based out of Europe, to Rasputin who was secretly still up to no good.  All of them would do anything to avoid being exposed, and all of them (with one exception) were absolutely convinced that they were heroes out to save the world from a threat only they could see.

Into this I dropped the players, and put them right on the spot when two of the powers would first encounter each other, and naturally each thought the PCs were working for the other guy and tried to kill them.  The original players were: 

  • Chaz Haws as FBI Agent ???
  • Trent Reid as FBI Agent Jack Keck
  • Chad Martin as Timothy "Hopper" Morgan, typical liberal arts college student at UC Berkley
  • Mark Tarter as Insurance Investigator Stone, generally known simply as Insurance man.

The Party's natural talent for mayhem, (particularly Insurance man's) meant that the more the powers tried to kill the party, the more additional powers were alerted to their existence.  Also they were labeled in the news outlets of the game world as the 'Reno Renegades' (no relation to the minor league hockey team.)

JJ, Chaz, Chad, Rebecca, Chrys, Ian, and TrentFor whatever reason the game really gelled, and took on a life of its own.  I think part of it was that I used a version of a set of streamlined rules vaguely based on GURPs, that Silver Gordon and I had worked out.  (the entire rule set fit on a single sheet or paper.)  So the rules were very minimalist, which kept the game moving along at a good clip.  The other element was that many of the people who joined the game later had not played RPGs before, and so they would being a different kind of thinking to the table.  And also, any player who joined the game after the initial session, had a secret agenda that was tied back to one of the powers, whether they knew it or not.  It took a surprising amount of time for the Player to realize that EVERYONE was a double agent.  JJ Haws' character Charley Holl was an acute case of a character whose position as an unwilling double agent resulted in some classic moments in the game.

Character death was pretty frequent, and I think Chad's character Hopper was the only one to make it all the way through the campaign in one piece.

The game generally varied between 4 and 10 players, and went on for about 2 and half years, happening almost every Thursday night.  I rarely knew what was going to happen in a particular game session, other then having an idea in my head about what the powers knew and were in the process of doing and a few news story printouts.  In my mind, I was playing the as much as any of the players- it was just that my character was 'the world'. I had a huge amount of fun, simply trying to keep track of the multitude of parallel threads going on in the game.  In most sessions, I would spend over half the game time in separate break-away discussions with different groups players, and they worked out their plans without being sure who in the group they could trust.

In the end, with graduation looming, I decided to end the game in a big finish, rather then let it die off like most other games.  So I ran a pretty epic final game session down at the Virtual Gallery that had me running from room to room GMing non-stop for 14 hours.  

A week or so afterwards I was riding back from a concert (or something) in Louisville, and JJ was having me explain the hows and whys of what had been happening to the game.  So I was explaining who was working for who, why the Vatican was trying to kill the time-travelers, the secret behind the Tijuana shellacked frog, how the psychic storm in china was started by Rosenthal in the Swiss Evian bottling plant- all of it.  And after listening to this for a while, Mike Hager turned around from the front seat and declared that that was the "biggest wad of Role-playing shit" he had ever heard.  I took it as the highest form of complement.  :D

Anyway, I found some of the documents from the game, and am posting them here.  I think JJ wrote the Intro pieces, as well as the prison escape piece.  While I was running the game, I rarely had time to actually document what was happening.  I will post more when I dig them out of storage.

 

Tuesday
Feb152011

What the heck is class?

So I know this is a well worn line of discussion, but I have been mulling over what exactly a Class in D&D is.  Its not the character's job, since in the original rules there were several races that were counted as class,  (dwarf, elf, hobbit).  And there is no income or stipulations around how a character behaves in their class, with the exception of the Paladin.

It's closer to being a description of a character's career- no matter what they are doing at the moment, it is a pithy explanation of what they are. A class write-up defined their powers and limitation, mechanically.  So a wizard can't fight well, (or pick up a sword even) but on the other hand has a large spellbook of power they can wield.  But the main thing is the ability to in one term sum up how the character works, and what they can do.  Saying Vang, son of Vland is a master of the 4th circle means nothing to other players- they just want to know if he can heal or throw fireballs.  So 'Class' is a kind of shorthand for how a character works.

Beyond that, the only other thing a class gets is its XP progression chart- a description of how much XP it takes them to advance their levels, and how they grow and become more powerful.

That seems like the key bit.  What that chart describes is the character's destiny.  It is the road of success and power that lies in front of them, assuming they persevere and don't get permanently killed.

So the idea I am mulling over is the idea that class is a bit like Nephilium, where there are certain 'great souls' that are reincarnated into mortal bodies every so often, and they are the souls of heroes.  Each soul has its own unique abilities and weaknesses.

The upshot of this is that there can only be one cleric in the world at any time.  there are priests, and other spiritual folk, but the "Cleric" is the only mortal alive with that particular destiny.  If he is killed then some other candidate inherits the soul, and now has the path of destiny ahead of them.  This means only one player can be a cleric, but another could choose to be a druid, or some other class devised for them.

Will have to think on this more...

Tuesday
Jan042011

Traveller and Sandboxing

I have been thinking about SF Sanboxes of late, since with the new year, Farscape has shown up on Netflix streaming.

Anyway the odd thing about sandbox games, is that you need a region of unexplored territory near a town or a home base.  The tricky part is the question of why hasn't anyone in the town gone and fully explored the region already.

The answer is usually either a barrier has recently gone away, or the home base was recently moved.  In fantasy, the barrier is frequently some sort literal magical barrier, or line that no one was able to cross.  but then around the time the heroes arrive, the barrier inexplicably weakens, and they are the first ones to explore what is on the far side.  They are able to go and fight monsters and gain treasure, but return to the safety of the town at regular intervals.  It occurred to me that this is what ST:Deep Space 9 perfectly encapsulate- a well established town that suddenly has a door to an unknown region appear on its doorstep.

But an even more common case is where the whole town is shifted into terra incognito, and the heroes are exploring their environment.  This is the shipwrecked genre, and the 'town' are the people the heroes are protecting.  Shows like Lost, Farscape, BSG, or ST: Voyager are more in this vein, where the heroes have to protect a group after then have been cast into a dangerous environment.

Now I dig the great sector maps of traveller as much as anyone- especially the ones Judges Guild put out.  But I am now thinking about how a sandbox SF game could work.  Here is what I am thinking:

 

  1. The GM rolls up a bunch of systems using the Traveller system generation rules, on some 5x8 index cards.  for inhabited worlds, he gives it a little flavor text, but leaves most of the back of the card clear.  Each card should have an Index Number.
  2. He gets a sheet of Hex Gaming Paper, and marks a hex near the middle of the paper as the starting point.
  3. For the new campaign, he has players roll up characters for the SF game they are using (Traveller, Stars w/out Number, 2300AD, Star Frontiers, etc) and provides them with a sector map, such as the Spinward Marches, and points to one of their stars as their current location.
  4. Somehow (either following up on a legend, or a quest given to them) they go to explore a nearby region of space that is reported to have strange properties, and is a sort of Bermuda Triangle for ships.  There they find a Stable Wormhole, that via Deus Ex Machina they are pulled through.  
  5. Now they get the big blank sheet of gaming hex paper, and find they are surrounded by unfamiliar stars, and can choose their direction to explore.  Its too dangerous to jump blind into an uncharted hex, so no matter their ship's normal jump rating, can only explore at Jump-1, but when going back to already explored hexes, they can move at their normal Jump rating.
  6. Every time they enter a new Hex, the DM rolls on a chart* and if it comes up that there is a system in any of the neighboring unexplored hexes, and he draws a card from his deck for any that have systems.  He then marks on the Gaming paper with that card's index number.  The party can then choose to land on that planet have have an adventure there for the week, or keep on exploring.  They can mark their path on the map, to keep track of their explorations, or at least mark empty hexes somehow to show they have already been visited.

 

Over time, they should have a pretty detailed map of this new area of space.  The DM can decide whether they have the option to pass back through the wormhole anytime they need supplies, or sell their accumulated loot- or if they are stuck here (like John Crichton ) and their story arc involves finding a way to open the wormhole in the other direction.

*A chart for what is in a hex still needs to be created.  It could be a simple as a D12 (or a D20 if you want a less dense region of space) with a 1 chance on there being a system in any given hex, or it could be a more detailed percentage where other random space phenomena could be encountered.  

The party should be required to manage supplies- i.e. each jump is a set amount of time, and their ship can only jump so many times before they run low on food, air, and fuel.    

Now the limit of information the party has, is another issue.  In a wilderness sandbox, you can only see as far as you have line of sight, so you really only can see into the next 5 mile hex at any time.  But in space, you theoretically can see everything, so filling in the map one hex at a time seems odd.  Here are my initial thoughts on how to address this:

You are in a totally new space, so you don't have millennia of stellar observation to refer to.  A small near star, and a big distant star look pretty much the same.  And if you take the time to try and map all the visible stars looking for the nearest ones, you will run out of air long before you have anything useful.

or you happen to be in a nebula or cluster, and the sensors are too confused to make accurate readings.

Star maps in this region should be super rare and highly guarded, or most of the worlds are pre-spacefaring.  Allowing them to go to the local Astrogator's guild and fill in big chunks of the map seems like it would kill the fun in the game.  (but if the party is getting frustrated with the pace of exploration you let them find a fragment of the map as a reward.  (They find an ancient derelict ship, and its astronavigation computer holds the data for a region of space... of course it may be on the far side of the map from the party, and be centuries out of date...)

If the DM is interested in having bigger arcs to his campaign, then Random Planet of the week, he could in secret come up with the bigger interplanetary forces at play in this region of space, and sketch out on a separate hex map the rough areas they are active.  then when the Players reach one of those areas, any system cards drawn there should have a bit of that larger story added to them.  (i.e. the card might be for the planet of happy woodchuck people, but the DM drew it in a hex that falls in a region that is home to the evil overlord, then he can update the flavor on the back of the cart to the effect that the woodchuck people are being cruely oppressed by the overlord's forces.)  The idea is that some interesting scenarios should emerge.

Also if the PCs are able to travel back through the wormhole reliably (Perhaps once they have found the wormhole regulator maguffin) then a different region of play happens, as they decide what to do with this knowledge.  Is the evil overlord on the other side also able to come through the wormhole to invade the Spinward Marches?  Can the PCs rally the planetary governments in time?  As the holders of the only map of the other side, can they use that for wealth and power, or will they be hunted by all those that want to know the secret of the wormhole?

 

Saturday
Dec182010

OD&D Alignment Chart

The Character Alignment, Including Various Monsters and Creatures chart in the Men & Magic Book I seems unnecessarily confusing to me.  It is a set of three lists of races & creatures, one for LAWFUL, one for NEUTRAL, and one for CHAOTIC.  Additionally many creatures appear on more then one list (to indicate that you can find examples from multiple alignments.)  So creatures that appear on both the Lawful and Neutral list get an asterisk, and those that appear on both the Chaotic and Neutral list are underlined.  Three of these have both an asterisk AND are underlined, since they appear on all three lists.  Confusing, what?

So I made a sort of Venn Diagram to show the breakdown, and also not have any monster's name appear more the once.  Let me know if this is more or less confusing.