Sunday, September 14, 2014

Background Events and Rumors

   In the last two posts, Zadok and the Grocery Boy and A Modest Proposal, I mentioned that Rear Echelon NPCs are usually interested in, and want to talk about something other than the dungeon.    Normally, these conversations are irrelevant to the party and are often skipped in play.  But these are prime opportunities for the DM to inject background material that make the campaign more than a painted backdrop for the theater of the dungeon.  Often there will be little no effect on the party from learning something about the world outside the dungeon, but they may also spark players interest in the broader campaign world.  I'll let you know how it works out.

In the table below the jump, percentile dice are used to generate a Background Event.  These background events may happen locally, in the immediate region of the dungeon or somewhere else in the world.  Local events are the most likely to have an immediate impact on the players and are the only 'true' events.  When these events happen in the province or somewhere in the world at large, they should be treated as rumors.  And the further away an event took place, the more the rumor grows.  Look at the examples for War

          Local - A large force of humanoids is approaching, all free men are required to muster at the East Gate in two days.  Here we have a consequence for the party, they'll either need to go hide out in the dungeon for a couple of days until it blows over, or expend some resources in defending their base.

          Regional - Rumor of war in the province. The governor is hiring mercenaries, the Scythians are going to attack or a coalition of Illyrian tribes.  No real consequences for the party, although some players may decide they'd like to recruit a troop of warriors and get paid in gold and loot.  That's up to the campaign, how it will work out.

         World - Rumor of war in a far away land. Not just the Seleucids and Ptolomey are fighting, but the Seleucids have replaced their elephants with dragons or Ptolomey has resurrected Alexander to lead his army.  Note how the much more fantastic the rumor is than the more prosiac Local and Regional events.  Is it true? That is completely in the DM's hands.

My intention is to roll d100 for the event, then d6 to determine if it is local (-3), regional (4-5) or world (6).  That gives me a rough distribution making far away events less common.  That too may change in play as I get a better feel for how those odds work out.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Modest Proposal for Modeling NPC Conversations

   As I stated in my previous post, NPC interactions in solo play require a means to limit the DMs omniscience.  What I'm looking for is a system that will let me determine degree of success the party has in obtaining information and the type of information they obtain.

Degree of Success
   Way back in the 1980's when I was attending a Safety Officer course in the Navy, the instructor informed us that in the real world, plagiarism is a form of research.  He was being a little over the top, but the gist was don't reinvent the wheel, if someone is doing it right use their system instead of building one from scratch.  In the context of degree of success in gaming, I'm turning to Mythic, I consider it an invaluable resource for solo play and a great aid for regular play.  I won't go into a lot of detail, but the core of Mythic is the Fate Chart which indexes Ability (Acting Rank) against Difficulty.  It's non-system specific, so it uses adjectives instead of ability scores, here's a snippet from the table..
Difficulty Class
Acting RankAverageAbove Average
Average10  50  91 7  35  88
Above Average13  65  9410  50  91

Interpreting the table - each cell has three numbers, the center number (larger) is the target for success.  Rolling that number (on percentile dice) or below indicates success.  Rolling above the number indicates failure.  The small number in front indicates what must be thrown to achieve exceptional success, the trailing small number indicates exceptional failure.  For example, a character with Average Strength would have a 50/50 chance of smashing through a flimsy door.  Rolling anything from 11-50 indicates that the character succeeded.  Rolling from 51-90 indicates they failed but may try again.  From 01-10 is an exceptional success, smashing the door into splinters and probably gaining surprise.  From 91-00 is exceptional failure, not only is the door still intact, but they hurt themselves in the effort.

Determining Acting Rank - I'm using ACKS for solo play and it's not skill based so I'll use the character's Charisma score, with a +2 for the Diplomacy and Mystic Aura Proficiencies if they have them.  I will not give them a bonus for a high Charisma score as that is already factored into the Fate Chart.  So to transfer Ability Score (+ Proficiency) to the Fate Chart Adjectives

Ability Score+Acting Rank
7-8Below Average
13-14Above Average

Difficulty Class - Getting information is not easy, especially if the parties aren't already acquainted.  So default will be High, but I'll readily modify it for bribes, purchases or other favors done by the party for the NPC.

What Do They Learn?
Depends on the type of NPC, RENPCs (Rear Echelon NPCs) will know general answers to 1d3+1 questions.  iNPCs (NPCs living in the dungeon) will know detailed answers to 1d4+2 questions.  If which questions are being asked aren't obvious, I'll roll a d6 (1) Who, (2) What, (3) Where, (4) When, (5) Why and (6) How.

Exceptional Success
For RENPCs, they have the knowledge chances of an iNPC.  Essentially, you lucked out and asked the one guy in town who knew exactly what you wanted to find out.  For iNPCs, they know detailed answers to all questions, they may be a former ally or disaffected employee of the villain.

Exceptional Failure
For RENPCs, they make sh*t up and ask you to pay so you think it's valuable.  Don't expect to see them around if you make back out of the dungeon.  For iNPCs, they'll either tell you something to get you into trouble, like 'The door isn't trapped' or they'll immediately hie off and let the bad guy know to expect you.

What's on their mind?
The last piece is what do the NPCs want to talk about.  As I discussed in the earlier post, iNPCs want to discuss getting rid of their heavily armed visitors.  RENPCs will inform the party of Background Events and Rumors.  I'll post a generic table of those later.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Zadok and the Grocery Boy: A Tale of Two NPCs

     In HP Lovecraft's tale The Shadow Over Innsmouth , the protagonist, while visiting the town, has conversations with two NPC's: the grocery boy at the First National and Zadok Adams, the ancient town drunk. I bring these up as examples of two types of NPCs characters can interact with and of the information that can be gathered from each.
    While visiting the nation's capital after Labor Day, I was working on a way to model NPC interactions for solo play.  Traditionally, the party needs to ask the correct questions of the DM in order to gain information.  In solo play, the option is either the proverbial Chinese Wall inside your head or develop a way to model asking the questions.  Naturally, I chose to try to model it.  I wasted a lot of time building random tables based on my solo play milieu, Castle of the Mad Archmage before I realized that not only are there only six questions, but there are two types of

The six questions, as we should have learned in about fourth grade or at least in Journalism 101, are Who, What, Where, When, Why and How.  Obviously, these six basic questions have a near infinite number of permutations, but they can be used to categorize the type of information the NPC imparts.
     Who - Personal information, such as the true name of the wizard.
     What -  Consequences. What happens if I assemble the Puzzle Door?
     Where - Location, for example, of the temple of Orcus.
     When - Time of occurance
     Why - History of an object, location or person hat explains their existence or motivation.
     How - Activation words for wands or methods to get past three headed dogs.

Modeling a conversation isn't just about which of the questions can be answered, unless of course, the part has captured an NPC and are interrogating them.  Instead both sides have agendas, or topics that they want to discuss.  For the party, it is getting answers to the questions, but the NPCs are usually interested in other things.  And this leads into categorizing NPCs.

Two Kinds of NPCs
  Broadly and with an acknowledged overlap in definitions, NPCs either reside in the dungeon or outside of it. Having said that, NPCs are by nature mobile and where the encounter occurs does not necessarily dictate the kind of NPC encountered.

NPCs living inside the dungeon (iNPCs) can usually answer more of the questions and in greater detail than those living outside the dungeon.  When the party interacts with an iNPC for the first time, the iNPC's primary agenda is almost always getting rid of these heavily armed intruders who just showed up to chat.  That's not saying that they're going to make the party's attempt to get information easy, the iNPCs will always present their knowledge to protect themselves and if possible harm their rivals.  One group of orcs might tell the party truthfully that they can access the next level down a certain way, but not volunteer that they'll be traversing another group's territory. After all a fight between the party and the other orcs will at least soften up the rival group.

NPCs living outside the dungeon, or to borrow a term from the Army, Rear Echelon NPCs (RENPCs) tend to possess less detailed information and their main concerns have nothing to do with the dungeon.  Examples of RENPCs are innkeepers, clerics and merchants the party obtains goods and services from.  They may have gained incidental information from other groups of adventurers, but it's not central to their lives.

Talking to Zadok
To illustrate these concepts, lets go back to Zadok and the Grocery Boy in Innsmouth. The dungeon is the town of Innsmouth, which observant readers will note is where both of the NPCs are encountered.  Yet the Grocery Boy is a RENPC, as I said the categories are broad and location does not determine the kind of NPC encountered.  The first thing the protagonist learns from the Grocery Boy is the topic the Grocery Boy feels is most important.  He's not from Innsmouth, he rooms with a family from Ipswich and he only lives there because of the job.  Afterward he imparts information the protagonist actually wants.
     Where - a sketch map of the town and locations to be avoided.
     Who - Zadok Adams, the 94 year old town drunk can give more detailed information
     How - get Zadok liquored up and he'll talk

Old Zadok is an iNPC, having grown up in Innsmouth and witnessed it's transformation to a place of horror.  As he's a counter-culture rebel within the town, (and the protagonist is only armed with bootleg whisky) he's not trying to get rid of the protagonist right away.  After a couple of blown Gather Information skill checks on the part of the protagonist, Zadok finally provides a lot of information.
     Who - Obed Marsh, sea captain and wizard
     What - Summoned and made a pact with the Deep Ones that ended up with half the town being killed off.
     Where - Devil's Reef, visible at the mouth of the harbor is where human sacrifices take place
     When - Obed encountered the Deep Ones in the Pacific in the 1830's and took over the town in 1844.
     Why - To obtain gold for himself and good fishing for the town initially.  Later for the promise of immortality for his descendants.
     How - Throwing a carved lead tablet into the deep waters off of Devils Reef summoned the Deep Ones

Obviously, having a single NPC that could provide the entire back story was a plot device for HPL, but this still illustrates the difference in the breadth and depth of knowledge available to NPCs.  In my next post I'll detail the system, based on Mythic , which I will be using for solo play.    

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The DM as the Font of All Knowledge

     It's axiomatic that the DM is responsible for describing their world to the player characters.  And it's an area where I've seen many DMs, including myself, struggle for consistency.
     When I examine the first sentence I wrote, which I doubt any one disagrees with, I see that one of the reasons I've struggled with consistency is the way I've traditionally phrased it.  Looking at it the way I would look at a business requirement for designing an application, my response to the author would be, "OK, so what?  You haven't actually provided any requirements, just a vision statement.  A good requirement is when X occurs do Y, all you have given me is the Y."  So that gives me a starting point for my analysis, define the Xs, i.e. what occurs during play that triggers the DM to communicate with the player characters.
     First and foremost is describing the environment in response to character actions.  They open the door what do they see?  Do they find the secret door?  What monster is trying to melt their faces?  The answers to environmental questions are handled by the mechanics of the game and only need a little fleshing out.  'It's a 10x10 room' is a boring description, fleshing it out to 'it's a 10x10 room with a water stain in the far left corner' can be done on the fly or set up in advance with any number of random dungeon dressing tables.  Fleshing out descriptions adds depth to the narrative and engages the players' interest.  Similarly, you should avoid 'You found a secret door', instead let them find the trigger, but describe it in a way that keeps the players in suspense while prompting them to on what actions are available.   'You found a hole the size of your finger in the wall, are you going to poke it?'  If they respond, 'I'm checking it for traps', the response could be 'The back of the hole gives way to your probe with a click, and a section of the wall slides open' or you might say, 'There's a snap and your probe comes out shorter than it went in'.
     The second trigger actually occurs first, background information and house rules at the start of the adventure. Sometimes derogatorily referred to as 'fluff';background information provides the players with common knowledge the characters are expected to have - like when the society has a penchant for burning witches,informs the players of the initial goals the DM is prepared for the characters to pursue and may assist the players in developing motivations for their characters.  The actual amount of background information may be limited to "I'm going to run a meat grinder funnel.  Roll up a dozen characters and we'll see who survives."  On the other hand, the background information on Forgotten Realms runs to hundreds of pages, not counting the hours of semi-canonical game play.Even when I run a campaign set in the Realms, I provide information on the starting area and any character restrictions.  I also make sure to provide a teaser of what the first adventure will be, after all I don't want the players to expect a standard dungeon crawl if I'm preparing to have them doing second story work in the city. In regard to house rules, I try to start by accepting anything from the core rule set (regardless of system), but splat book additions need my approval on a case by case basis.  I've seen some discussions on the RPGBA boards about "safe words" and codes of conduct this year; neither of which has a place at my table.  If your character is an a-hole, it's my responsibility to deal with it in game. If you are an a-hole, I'll let you know and I expect you to feel free to inform me when I am one.  If you are too fragile a blossom to speak up for yourself,don't sit down at my table.
   The third trigger for DM communications is PC interactions with NPC's, whether it's the barkeep or the goblin guarding the cage, this is where the term role playing comes from.  I do find it hard to do characters and I need to improve prompting my players to be in character themselves during these interactions.  When the roles are stripped out of the interactions, I find a lot of the fun of the game goes away too.  As far as the types of information NPCs impart traditionally it has been rumors, but John Arendt over at Dreams in the Lich House had a couple of good posts on Campaign Events last month.  I like the idea of using campaign events to give the world a feel that there is more than just the town and dungeon and that the characters are not necessarily the biggest fish in the pond.  As far as rumors, well that's a topic for another post as there is a lot that can be done with them.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Gearing Up

   The Marine returned from his five years in the Corps in April and has now moved back out, this time to scenic Grand Forks ND for school.  Thank those of you who are taxpayers for footing yet another college education, this time commercial pilot with a side of air traffic controller.  (They have a world class aviation program up there).
  The meaning of that for my blogging is that I have my home office back and more time for writing and playing in 'my space' in the house.  I've decided to convert my Epirus Nova campaign from 1e to ACKS; especially as I left it at essentially a TPK.  Also for the dungeon I decided to use the inestimable +Joseph Bloch 's Castle of the Mad Archmage for the delvings.  I'll change some of the details to match the pseudo-Classical setting; for example the artifact on Level Seven, room 41 goes known as "Gregor's Little General" to the "Stragtegion of Phillip".
   The last time I did a solo play, I ran it with a mixture of Mythic and 1e random encounters as they looked for the Keep on the Borderlands.  I liked the variability that Mythic offered, but wasn't enthralled by running bare encounters.  This time I'm working on a different approach, I'll still use Mythic for variability, but will structure the play more like I would if I was running an adventure, with a definite beginning and end to each expedition.  The standard flow can be diagrammed like this.
Adventure Flow
Back story is just character creation, of course as characters meet their various grisly demises, it become an ongoing function of game play.

Adventure is the goal the party is trying to accomplish - and probably a weak area for me as a DM is in setting goals for the party.  It does impinge on the question of player and character agency, but the GM at least needs to offer initial guidance on what goals can be.

Outfitting: Buying crap to meet anticipated threats.  This is also where the characters interact with NPCs and have a chance to learn things the easy way.  So I'm working on methods to determine what kind of information the player can get about the dungeon as well as what's happening in the world outside the dungeon.

Encounters: We all know what they are, killing things or role playing opportunities.  Killing things is easy in solo play, role playing not so much.  Again I need that common method to determine what the party can learn from the NPCs.  Encounters are also resource sinks, after each one the party needs to determine if they have sufficient resources to continue the expedition.

Disposing of the loot is the natural end to an expedition, it's another time the party interacts with the NPCs and can learn things other than what size teeth the monster has.  It also leads to the question, re-outfit and go back in or chose another goal for the party to pursue.

More to come, hopefully in less than two months.

Friday, June 27, 2014

What I've been reading

Not really a Book Report, but I finally updated my current reading links,  As I posted below, NPCs is definitely recommended reading for the gaming crowd.  I read The Worm Ouroboros with every intention of doing a book report on a classic in the Fantasy genre, but frankly it's all potential and no delivery to me. (I know heresy to some.)

I recently finished Theodor Mommsen's A History of Rome, Mommsen being the dean of the 19th century German Latin scholars.  I really should do a formal write up on it, but in the mean time, I need to add it to Appendix N.  It's an important resource for anyone doing a Classical campaign.

In the meantime, I've started Victor Davis Hansen's Ripples of Battle, on the recommendation of the recently discharged Marine.  Anything by VDH is worth reading, in particular for wargaming and understanding of how non-European's have viewed conflict, I recommend his Carnage and Culture.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Book Report -NPCs

Picked up the ebook from Amazon over the weekend.  The story starts in the genre of the original D&D novel, Andre Norton ' s Quag Keep, where in players are transported to the fantasy world of their characters. But in this case they quickly poison themselves and all die in the first tavern they come to.
   Unfortunately, for the main characters of the story, the PCs had been tasked by the local Mad King to report in for a little job he needed to have done. The Mad King being notoriously indiscriminate about who he has killed when he doesn't get his way, the heroes decide to impersonate the dead party to save their villlage.
  The story is well written,  the characters are believable and they develop during the course of the story.  The insight on how NPCs see and interact with adventurers is refreshingly unique. The action scenes are well paced and the comment on treating royalty like toddlers made me laugh out loud. To be honest, the author does a better job of writing than Andre freaking Norton did with the same theme.
   And Grumble, the diety of minions everywhere, should be added to your pantheons immediately.
  Five skulls on this one.