Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Sandbox Wonders 3

Trying to come up with places that would evoke wonder in players exploring a fantasy sandbox.  Onward:

23. Tidal Sands - This section of desert acts like waters in a bay, receding to reveal hidden treasures, returning to catch the uncautious in smothering dunes.
24. Calving Cliffs - Rough cliffs above the sea.  They are lined with cairns along their edge (like the tomb of the eagles).  Every so often chunks of the cliff will break away and . . . float.  These floating islands sometimes calve with whole cairns on them, sometimes with a party of tomb looters stuck on them.
25. The Plug - A great lump of lead the size of a keep.  Rumored to have been created to encase a powerful evil.  Constantly hacked at by the poor and greedy-- the lead used to make shot for slings, roofing, pipes - each time some is taken away there is a chance of evil being released to wreak havoc (maybe something like vulture-headed pygmies appear, or worse depending on the amount of lead hacked off). 
26. Tar Glacier - I think just seeing a huge swath of tar filling an alpine valley, infinitesimally creeping forward would be trippy.  What other uses it might have I'm not sure.  (Leave your ideas below).
27. The Fickle River - Every few days this river will completely change the direction it flows.  Commerce and the towns and villages that line it are shaped by this, with different trade and small festivals happening when the current turns their way or remains their way for more than certain amounts of time.
28. Flower Trail Steppes - About a half hour after walking on the ground in this region small, bright flowers bloom all around the area walked on.  Impossible to cross without leaving a colorful trail.  Very dangerous, as bandits and large predators have learned to use this in tracking prey.  The cut sod is worth its weight in gold to potentates for use in gardens.
29. Old Chalk Hills - Rolling hills made up of powdery, grey chalk under a thin layer of grasses. This chalk preserves the life of anything buried in it.  Digging in the hills will uncover every type of ancient life, even humans, which, after catching a few deep, coughing breaths, will resume life.
30. Heavy Sands - These sand bars in a river delta fluctuate in color depending on the health of the ruler of the empire.  The grains act normally-- filling spaces, able to be made into glass-- but are as heavy as lead.
31. The Whirlwind - This persistent tornado is given different names by different cutures- Kasirga, Kimbunga- and is said to have a personality.  It moves randomly across the plains often just in sight, a deadly threat if it decides to come toward the viewer.
32. The Shy Sea - A vast plain of gravel, every few weeks a murmuring sound all around signals the rise of clear, fresh water bubbling up from below.  The waters of this new shallow sea, eventually about as deep as a human is tall, are said to have healing properties.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

5 OSR Table Types

Happy Birthday D&D!  I remember the moment I first heard of the game.  My friend was excitedly  telling me about it on the playground of our elementary school.  A game with knights and dragons and treasure.  I remember the first thing I asked him was "Does it have witches?"  So, from the very first, the gift D&D gave me was more the knowledge that you could play a game based in your imagination than a particular incarnation of rules.  And I immediately wanted to make things myself to add and use in the game.  In that spirit I'd like to celebrate 40 years of D&D by sharing with you cool stuff I learned in just the last 4 years of blogging hoping that you will find it useful in making your own stuff.

First, I'm working from an understanding of the game that considers randomness essential to play.  The dice remove responsibility from the DM to know and plan everything and they give the game a sense life in the way their unexpected results surprise and must be dealt with.  Those dice work most commonly by interacting with tables of possibilities.  And the possibilities of what you can do with those tables are a lot more exciting than simple lists.  I'll show 5 below. 

Another assumption I'm making is that you are doing it yourself, and when you re making your own tables, the more possibilities you can get from them the better.  So, many of these "Tables" actually involve multiple subtables greatly multiplying the possible outcomes.  The problem with that is they become ungainly, hard to fit even on one page, hard to use quickly or during play.  So, the tables below are mostly trying to resolve that problem: how do you pack in as many crazy possibilities as possible in a table while still keeping it useful as a tool?

I would be surprised if some of these kinds of tables hadn't shown up back in the heyday of D&D, but as a very enthusiastic hobbyist, I never saw them.  Feel free to point out examples of these I might have missed in old products or even other table types you've seen in the community.

Roll All the Dice

Years ago now, James R. "Grim" Cone posted a random NPC generator online.  You can still get it and two other tables of his here.  The innovation was that the dice types would help you keep track of the subtables.  But also it acknowledged that the amount of space you need for good results on a subtable varies.

It can also be fun to resolve at the table , by players.  I praised it in a post way back here and have created several of them.  The one I use most often is probably my Hireling Traits linked in my sidebar.

So if you find yourself making a table and you can't squeeze everything you want into a single list, try laying out 6 lists with 4 to 20 entries and see if that works better.  Then pick a set of dice with a bright, easy-to-find color so you can grab them all when you need them.  And let your players roll and read out the results.

Sentence Sub-Tables

Okay, this isn't really a different table type but this simple innovation really helped think about my own tables differently and makes them much easier to understand when explaining to players.  Chris Hogan from Vaults of Nagoh posted a few roll all the dice tables that had a sentence up top with the subtables embedded as words in that sentence.  This showed how the subtables worked together.

The sentence in the image at right is basically the dice in order of magnitude, but they don't have to be.

I see blogposts to this day that would benefit from this kind of simple overview of what subtables to expect.  And, in looking, I realize I never added this to my older tables like hireling traits.  I'll have to do that.

Dice Drop

I think I probably encountered these first from Talysman's The Nine & Thirty Kingdoms where he calls them dice maps, but you may be most familiar with those that show up on ZakS' Vornheim covers.  He calls them die drop tables.  Both of them have been sharing ideas with blog readers for years of how to use the positions dice fall on a paper as well as their numerical results to squeeze out more information with the same effort.

(The images here are just examples I picked from the many they've posted to their blogs.)

When you roll dice they are going to fall somewhere, so why not use that info as well as the numbers on their faces to tell you something?

This can be efficient in telling you a lot fast, it can also be a showy way to have players roll up things.  One aspect I've also tried to explore is the "fuzziness" of the positions.  In other words, trying to use where the dice fall in an evocative way to push my thinking.  I tried that with my item generator here.

These tables probably aren't the most useful, the dice have a way of running off the table, for example, and putting these in a box to prevent that undermines the ability of players to see results, but they are fun and this kind of coming at D&D from a new angle is what keeps me excited and writing blog posts.


I don't have an example of this type, which I just made up the name for.  I also haven't made one of my own yet.   But it's been banging around in my brain for a long time waiting for the right table.  (It looks like I was thinking about it way back here and called the idea "stepped charts.")  Link me some good examples in the comments.

Basically this is a single table designed to give graduated results depending what type of die you use to roll on it.  So, for a critical hit results table the first four results on the table might be the mildest, and the 20th or 100th the very worst.  And then built into your critical hit rules would be calls for rolling different dice on that single table.  (Now I'm remembering one that gave results for random encounters during the day and night.  But I don't remember where I saw it.) 

This type of table is interesting because there will be some results that are impossible to get during certain contexts.  They would probably be most useful for determining random things that often have different contexts, like monster encounter tables, without needing to make bunches of tables.  Night time, bad weather, making lots of noise, being wounded, these all bump you up to worse results.

Update 1/28/14: Okay, some sweet examples from the comments: here James Young has being resurrected at higher levels doing different things.  Here scrap princess has drugs doing graduated results based on exploding dice, which very cleverly means the more drugs you take the more likely you bump up the results.  And here scrap princess has linear and bell distributions preferencing different parts of a table.


I don't know which of Roger the GS' posts first clued me in to this type of table, it might have been his genre tables.  But the idea is, you have one table that can act as one table, but has multiple subtable parts that can each be rolled on independently as well.  This blew my mind, because it solves the problem of trying to include the old standby genre-standard results you might want for any table, while allowing for mixing and matching those parts into something weirdly new.

In a way, this is like a graduated result controlled by the DM's understanding of the context.  Playing with a group of newbies?  Why not let them experience some things we might consider rpg cliches?  Playing with a more experienced group or getting a result the newbies have experienced several times now, tumble those subtables.

I incorporated this idea in my own Traps table (notice I've incorporated Chris' sentence idea on that one) and have it foremost in my brain when making a new random table.

Bonus Ideas
Buffers - I never saw a published random table with more entries than could be indicated with a die or set of dice.  But I've liked the idea that a) some entries you might not want to have come up more than that one time in your campaign, so you scratch it out and replace it with an entry from the overflow results and b) folks will have different tastes and it's hard to predict which results any one person will find cool.  My 100 Rare Wonders actually has 110 entries.  Since it's more work, this more about sharing and tables you make with other people in mind.

Mix-n-match - I've had an idea for a long time for a way to use sets of subtables to build different tables to roll on based on context.  The idea in my head is magical effect that can be applied to a player.  You have many subtables of types of effects and whenever you make new dungeon with a migic pool or statue or something, you can tailor the effects those cause by your choice of subtables that you assemble.  I blogged about it here.  The 1e system of artifact effects is kiiiind of like this, if they were more about determining random effects for for artifacts in-game and not just determining a single static effect that artifact has beforehand.

p.s. - Am I the only one that has always interchangeably called these random doohickeys tables and charts?  I had to keep catching myself in this post to remain consistent.

Update 1/28/14

Toss & Trace

This isn't what I normally think of when I think "table" but Josh W is absolutely right, this is like the opposite side of the coin of the dice drop table.  Here you drop the dice and then create something based on where it fell and its result.  Josh mentions How to Host a Dungeon, which I don't own.  But this technique is near and dear to my heart, it's how I make most of my cave dungeon maps.  This technique really shines when you want to make something that is more organic in its placement like  caves or cottages in a village.

Here is my pyramid campsite which uses four-siders to get a simple topographical map of where the party is camping.  Here's my post about making caves.  I learned later to use the dice results to indicate elevation and even/odd to help me determine which caves are connected to each other with tunnels.

1d30 used this technique to make the scattered buildings of a village.  Check out the Babbling Bane's use of pocket change to make a village here.

Bonus 2
JD has kind of flipped the idea of the graduated table, rather than multiple ways to read a single table, multiple ways to read a single toss of the dice, here.

I love all the examples from the comments, thank you so much. There are probably tons of cool tables I've seen but now forgotten, if so I apologize for not mentioning them here.

Wouldn't it be cool if D&D Next used some of these kinds of tables?  They are simple to use and I think even simple conceptually.  So I don't see it hard for players to use.  They do take more work to make though.  The layered tables, for example, require a good sense of the core aspects of what you are making a table for (like classic treasure items, or classic trap types) and ways to divide them up into columns that will lead to fruitful results when rolled separately.

Update 1/30/14

Split Column

This is similar to the Layered table, but I think different enough in intent to be considered a different type.  It is essentially reducing the clutter and confusion of multiple little tables by associating them together.   Zak shows how to consolidate small tables here.  So, each of Jeremy's sub-tables can be incorporated into a single table that is easy to read across.  For a simple, fast result you roll 1d6, or to mix up things you can roll all 5d6 and read the tables individually.  Zak's Vornheim uses this several times and makes for efficient generation in limited space.  Why have 50 aristocrat names, when you can split first and last into two columns and double multiply the possibilities.  Why have a big list of npc details when you know you will want several details for each npc encountered in-game.  Instead have a split column chart with three details per npc entry and you can always roll them separately if you need to.

How is this different than what I called layered?  Well, it would be layered if the fast, simple result was a core trope, or genre expectation you wanted to make sure was possible to generate, and the rest were weird and unexpected.  I makes more sense for some topics than others.  Treasure items, traps, quests, might all have some results you might like to have possible with weirdoid results possible too.

Ah, it might be splitting hairs.  If it helps you make more useful tables in the end I'll be happy.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Sandbox Wonders cont.

More things to find when exploring a fantasy world:

13. The Abrupt Forest - When the sun rises on this it is a flat, treeless plain. But soon saplings push out of the sod and grow.  And grow.  Trees will grow to adult height by sunset (or alternatively noon).  Depending on the type of forest they may grow as fast as a meter a minute or more.  Once night falls they recede back into the earth.  Cuttings and saplings can be taken.
14. The Hidden Forest - Opposite of above; the trees of this forest grow quickly once night falls and recede to a flat plain in the day.
15. The Forest that Isn't - A normal forest at night but the light of dawn turns the timber to birds or butterflies which fly away only to come settle back into tree form when night falls.
16. Water Rise - Water that flows up.  Sometimes found underground where they are a unfamiliar hazard to explorers.  On the surface their waters "fall" straight up to space.  Can be bottled.
17. True Ice Walls - These sheets of ice are somehow pushed vertically from a great frozen plain or lake.  Rows and rows.  Some pressed tight like the strata of a tilted mesa, some with space enough between for a human to walk. When someone is seen through the ice their true feeling toward you are visible in their face.  Crews harvest sections with saws and sleds to place in faraway palaces.
18. The Dammed Muds - Flats of mud that stretch for miles and that never dry.  Even if dug up and moved to somewhere else the mud will remain mud.  Said to be treasured by mages in the making living statues.
19. The Shards - A flat landscape, as far as the eye can see, covered with shards of inscribed pottery.  Like a great library, the writing on the shards can be searched for spells, recipes, or the locations of famous treasures.  Except some essential bit of information will always be missing, the one shard that bit was on lost to the ages (spells will misfire in random ways, recipes have side effects, treasure maps will have some riddle that needs answering or might point to two equally possible places).
20. Where God Waits - The landscape of this whole area is actually the shape of a human lying on its side.  The hip a great hill.  Two cults have sprung up around it, one that protects the figure in expectation of its waking day, the other secretly digs out its grey, clayey flesh at night to eat.
21. The Graveyard of Gods - A set of canyons filled with white bones too big for even dragons.  Ribs as big as rivers, Hills of solid bone.  Operations have been set up to "mine" the ivory, cutting out solid blocks as big as wagons can carry. Interesting murals might be scrimshawed in hard to reach places.
22.  The Battlefield - A Great rocky depression filled with the bones of thousands of warriors and most of their gear.  Weapons and armor, ancient, weird, or of excellent quality can be found if long enough is pent rummaging partial or broken gear scattered through the rocks.  Some say those who take from this place are cursed by doing so.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Wonders Worth Exploring For cont.

Sorry for the lame delay, work got busy again.  My last post asked what we hope to find when we explore a sandbox.  I've been doing some thinking for myself and hoping to come to some general principles that could help us generate stuff.

My main conclusion so far was that scale doesn't really work as a inducer of wonder in an imagined landscape.  The grand canyon is awe inspiring in real life, probably impossible to convey in D&D.  Of course, that doesn't mean you can't try.  In my own game I had a huge hole in the ground based on the Cave of Swallows and I would show new players a video of someone parachuting into it to try and give them a sense of its size.

A couple other ideas related to scale.  I think it is partially personal based on familiarity.  If you know rivers and I tell you the dimensions of this fantasy river, its width, speed, depth-- that might have a potential to awe you.  Likewise for anything, mountains, pine trees, particular animals.  But in general, you wouldn't know as a DM who has enough knowledge to be amazed by the thing you made up.

Also, I noticed that my whole last post seemed to assume wilderness features.  Can't wonders be found in a dungeon?  I think so, sure, but the very dungeoness of dungeons, their constrained underground space, will make it harder to awe.  So in this case scale does seem to matter.  A room full of petrified trees is not as impressive as petrified trees as far as the eyes can see.  And maybe the underground, being the mythic underworld, is expected to be weird, so something must be that much more impressive to invoke a sense of wonder.

Features of a wonder
Okay, so we have not relying on scale as a feature, what else?  Here are some ideas I had:

Something that is a semi-permanent part of a landscape.  A miniature city or a tree that has diamonds for fruit might be cool, but the fact you could dig them up and carry them off in a wagon detracts for me their wonder.  The wonders we want will be locations players can return to again and again. (I guess, in a sense, this is another way that scale does matter).

That being said, it might be more of a draw in a game if players can take souvenirs-- bits of the landscape, vials of liquid-- that have value or strange properties from these sites.

Odd, but not deadly.  Deadly can be awesome too, but I think it is much easier to evoke fear in someone then a sense of wonder and I'm shooting for the latter.  So, we'll try to keep them survivable even if they are dangerous.

A toy to use or figure out.  Either they have some pattern or system to them or they might have potential uses for players.  This doesn't have much to do with wonders more with any building block of a game where players can make choices.

Let's start with the elements and go from there:
1. Walking rocks - A great flat plain filled with rocks of various sizes.  Each night, they slide along at walking speed in one of the four cardinal directions.  They range in size from pebble to huge boulders you could build a keep on. (sort of like sailing stones).
2. The Teeming Plains - Vast plains with many overlapping fossilized tracks.  Apparently caused by some near-instant calamity in the ancient past.  If you learn to distinguish the tracks you can follow those of mages, warriors, and angels to where they stop, dig there, and find caches of ancient magic left where they died.
3. Everburning Fire - In some far away hollow surrounded by wastelands is a fire that will never go out.  It can catch fuels on fire and burn them up, but will remain, burning on the ground even when the fuel is burnt up.  Burns in the rain.  Burns in the snow.  Smothering it might put it out.  Have a sentient species of creatures covered in this fire (they just want to be friends) or obsidian trees that blossom with it ever spring.
4. Cold Fires - Found in a crater this fire can be spread by normal fuels - carried on a torch, in a brazier - but will never consume the fuels.  It burns underwater.  It burns eternally but is not hot.  
5. The Great Mirage Lake -  A huge, dry, sea.  When a water craft is pushed into it water forms all around, lifting it up.  This water might be collected in a container from inside the craft.
6. Lesser Mirage Lake - A beautiful blue lake in a dry land.  The waters recede from any living thing.  It might be possible to catch some with a suitably long pole.  It might be possible to explore sunken cities hidden in its deepest parts.
7. The Blanched Moors - Low, wet lands covered with shallow, bitter pools.  In these are the perfectly preserved bodies of creatures that have died here, all white.  White stallions, white cocks, white apes, albino princesses.  Perfect for those searching for material components or extinct beasts to revivify.
8. The Solid Fogs - At certain times of year the mists across some bays coalesce into solid clouds.  These are a danger for ships.  There are tales of mages gathering the stuff with shovels and saws to place in the air and build towers on.
9. Lethe Fogs - Said to rise from the ground in fell bogs.  It smells faintly of over ripe apples and eats away at the memory (lose XP ever day you travel in it).  If bottled could cause memory loss in targets elsewhere.
10. The Sweet Wind -  A chance wind that arises on a certain lost plain.  It smells faintly of vanilla.  It clears the air and sharpens those that breathe it (extra XP for anything that grants it bonus chance for checks like casting spells to be successful). 
11. The Crowding Grove - A forest of trees that press in on any living thing, becoming impassable.  Cuttings and twigs taken will have similar properties.
12. The Shy Thickets - Thick brush that parts for anything living.  Plantings can be taken.  Might function as a good anti-undead defence.

Okay, some of those don't fulfill all of my own criteria, but hopefully they would be suitably interesting and trippy if encountered by your players.  I have a few more ideas, including human-made wonders, for a later post.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Wonders Worth Exploring For

I love exploring in sandboxes.  But what does that mean?  What do I-- and you hope to find?  I suppose the largest parts of it for me is finding the edges.  In this sense, exploring is less about geography and more about understanding how things work.  How big is the world?  What happens when I reach the edge?  If there is a snowy region will I suffer from the cold?  Can I swim?

With the last few questions I realize I am mostly thinking about video game sandboxes.  Because of the limitations of technology they are never really able to model reality, you have to figure out what this particular sandbox decided to try and model.  Can I jump this little fence?  Can I break this door?  But an RPG sandbox is presumably free of the technological limitations that cause this.  Anything in our imaginations is possible.  If I want to break the door, or jump the fence I say it and it happens.

Ironically, the freedom of the imagination means we are still uncertain of the world because the RPG sandbox is not required to model the world.  Water might burn in this world and all doors made of lead, or dragon scales.  Which is fine, because it means there is still the pleasure of figuring the world out.  But it does leave us back at the beginning with our first question unanswered.  What do we hope to find?

I suppose something that does reveal a bit about how the world works would be one answer.  So, if planar travel exists finding a portal and how to use it would fit the bill of understanding the edges of the world.  Or, a shrine that allows time travel.  Or just examples of what geography is possible- burning seas and crystal forests on one end, and just confirmation that, yes, deserts do exist, on the other.

Because there is a type of pleasure in genre expectations being fulfilled too.  So in a world that we get to explore, we will probably want to encounter terrain types that we are familiar with from real stories of exploration: deserts, tall mountains, undersea ruins.

But I think there is more to my desire to explore than that.  I think there is a part of me that hopes to be surprised and awed.

One of the difficulties of the RPG sandbox is that although anything is possible, the majority of it will be limited by what we can describe using language.  And so the things that might have awed actual explorers like the Grand Canyon or the giant Sequoias, Angel Falls or the Pyramids, are going to be far less impressive when just described.  Heck, even standing right beside a giant Sequoia it's hard to perceive its size.

So, I think there are limits to our ability to create awe or wonder through description, at least if we limit ourselves to using sensory details.  The imagined wonder might need to be more conceptual.

So not the tallest waterfall, but one that flows backwards, not the biggest tree, but one that grows in a single day.  Maybe.

I've been gathering some ideas.  I'll share them soon.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

More NPC Portraits

Here's another batch of public domain images you might find useful as NPC portraits. These are all public domain. Some don't really meet the quality standard I'd like, but I thought I'd just put them up and let you decide. Lots of moustachioed men in uniform here, perfect for your 1850s Cthulhu campaigns. (ps, be on the look out for celebrities).