The Alexandrian

Go to Part 1

By 1982, urban RPG supplements had pretty much universally transitioned to become narrative-backdrop travel guides: The modern gazetteer format that generally features a history of the city, a description of notable locations, and a cast of important NPCs. (Vestigial rumor tables hung around here and there for a few more years, but generallyL5R: City of Lies - Greg Stolze faded away until the OSR began bringing them back into vogue.)

Which is not, of course, to say that there aren’t some truly fantastic city supplements. I actually ended up surveying a lot of great stuff while researching these posts: The City of Greyhawk boxed set, the truly prodigious combination of FR1 Waterdeep and the North with the Forgotten Realms: City System Boxed Set, Greg Stolze’s City of Lies for L5R, Monte Cook’s Ptolus, Chicago by Night, City of Freeport, and so forth. It’s just that they’re being designed for a narrative-based game structure that’s not particularly illuminating when it comes to urbancrawling.

Recently, however, we’re starting to see a resurgence in games that are willing to get a little experimental with their game structures. (This has been particularly true among STGs, but it’s also happening with RPGs.) The result has been a handful of “new school” urbancrawls.

DRESDEN FILES

Dresden Files - Volume 2: Our World - Evil HatWhen I first started chattering about urbancrawls, a lot of people pointed me in the direction of the Dresden Files. This game has gotten a lot of buzz for its robust city-creation system and I was told it might be exactly what I was looking for.

Unfortunately, it’s not.

The city-creation system in Dresden Files is really a campaign creation system in which the creation of the city is tied to the creation of the PCs and the players share narrative responsibilities in defining the themes, threats, and locations which define the city. It’s a nifty approach (and I recommend checking it out), but the focus is still on creating a backdrop for narratives.

NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS

Kenneth Hite’s Night’s Black Agents has an international focus, but it features two very clever systems for running conspiracy-based sandbox campaigns that I think may prove useful in our thinking about urbancrawls.

First, there’s the Conspyramid. When you’re prepping your campaign you draw up a Conspyramid with six levels of power: “Each ascending level has fewer, more important nodes.” So, at street-level power you’ve got six different nodes. Bump it up a couple levels to provincial powers and you’ve got four different nodes.

Conspyramid - Night's Black Agents

The Conspyramid is useful because it simultaneously shows the GM how the organization of the conspiracy works (in an abstract way) and how the PCs can investigate the conspiracy.

The Conspyramid is clever because Hite also ties it mechanically into the game mechanics: As the players fill out their adversary map (i.e., figuring out how the conspiracy hooks together), they gain dedicated pools of points to spend on ops targeting connected nodes on the Conspyramid. They can also use Human Terrain and Traffic Analysis skills to figure out the connections between a node they know and other nodes (i.e., generating leads).

That’s a default goal, a default reward, and a default action.

Hite then adds a second track in the form of the Vampyramid:

Vampyramid - Night's Black Agents

He describes this as an “escalating response algorithm” which provides the vampire conspiracy with a naturalistic response to the PCs: So the Conspyramid represents a largely static ‘crawl; the Vampyramid provides easy-to-manage active responses.

It’s the most innovative, creative, and gobsmackingly brilliant work I’ve seen on an RPG game structure in over a decade. Hite’s a genius and you should check it out.

While these structures cannot be directly applied to the type of urbancrawling structure we’re looking for, where I think the NBA systems are extremely informative is the intersection of investigative “layers” combined with default, mechanically-driven investigative actions. (We’ll come back to this idea shortly.)

VORNHEIM

Vornheim by Zak S. proffers a quote about Moving vs. Crawling which is so extremely useful that I’m going to provide it here in full:
Vornheim - Zak S.

In a dungeon or wilderness adventure everything is hard – navigating, finding food, getting a decent night’s sleep, etc. – and so everything is part of the adventure. Adventuring in a city is different from adventuring in a dungeon or wilderness because cities are actually meant for habitation. In most cities, many things will be easy and therefore not part of the adventure and the GM has to do a great deal of deciding when to “zoom in” and deal with the situations in more detail. For this reason we’re going to create a distinction between simply “moving” through the city and “crawling” through it. (…)

“Crawling” occurs when:

• The PCs are being chased.
• The PCs are in a hurry.
• A large number of elements in the city are actively hostile to the PCs (such as during an invasion or plague of madness).
• The PCs are systematically searching a small area of the city for something.
• The PCs are trying to avoid running into someone or something.
• It’s night.
• The city is transformed in some way such that it ceases to function like a city (post-nuclear bomb, etc.).
• The PCs don’t really know where they’re going.
• There’s urgency attached to the PC’s decisions about how to proceed for any reason.

A lot of the Old School Renaissance has largely spent its time regurgitating the forms and content of the ‘70s and early-‘80s. (And, don’t get me wrong, produced a lot of good material doing it.) Vornheim is a prime example of the OSR being a little more daring, grounding itself in the old school material, and then innovating.

For ‘crawling, Vornheim creates a pair of simple structures: If you’re crawling from neighborhood to neighborhood (i.e., trying to traverse the city) you generate one random encounter per neighborhood. If you’re crawling within a neighborhood (i.e., they’re trying to find something in the neighborhood) he uses a method of rolling 2d10 and using:

• The relative position of the dice to determine where the goal of the ‘crawl is relative to the PCs.

• The number on the die to determine the layout of streets between them and their destination. (Literally. You can check out the diagrams of how this works here.)

It’s a very clever and quick system. Where it comes a little short is in providing structure for making the journey from Point A to Point B a meaningful/interesting one.

What makes Vornheim truly invaluable in any discussion about urbancrawling, however, is the plethora of incredibly cool, incredibly useful, and incredibly original tools that Zak has designed for procedural content generation. (This is something I talked about in my Fun With Vornheim series, which you should check out for some awesome examples of what the book is capable of.)

TECHNOIR

Technoir is another system I’ve talked about quite a bit. It’s got an incredibly clever resolution mechanic, but what makes the game truly exceptional are its plot-mapping mechanics.

The short version is that the game is built around “transmissions” which each describe a city of the future. Each transmission consists of six connections, six events, six factions, six locations, six objects, and six threats. These are organized into a 6 x 6 master grid which allows you to randomly generate elements and add them to your plot map.

Technoir - Jeremy KellerBy itself, that’s a nice little procedural generator. But Technoir takes it one step further by including explicit mechanics for how elements are added to the plot map, and the primary method is controlled by the PCs: Whenever they hit up one of their contacts for information, an element is generated based on the contact’s current relationship to the plot and it’s connected to the map based on situational mechanics as well.

(A lengthier example of using the Technoir system can be found here.)

The result is a robust improvisational structure which has the delightful property of allowing the GM to discover the “true conspiracy” of their ‘noir adventure at the same time that their players are investigating it. (It’s also a system which could be very easily translated to any genre or setting.)

In terms of urbancrawling, the key insight from Technoir is the ‘crawl action itself: Hitting up your contact.

What makes this notable is that this is not a decision about geographic navigation, but it nevertheless fulfills the same exploratory function. The only limitation is that this is a mystery-based structure and, as you’ve probably gotten sick of me saying, mysteries don’t work for open table play. Technoir solves the problem of being unable to solve the mystery if you missed the clues in the first half (by utilizing a structure which constantly manifests new clues), but you still have the problem of players experiencing the first half of a mystery and never getting the satisfaction of its solution. (But if you want an urbancrawling structure and you don’t need it to support open table play, then I enthusiastically recommend Technoir.)

Go to Part 10: One City, Many Urbancrawls

One of the more difficult passages to untangle in Richard II is found in Act II, Scene 1. Immediately following the death of the Duke of Lancaster, Richard announces that he’s claiming all of Lancaster’s property for himself in order to pay for the Irish wars:

RICHARD And for these great affairs do ask some charge,
Towards our assistance we do seize to us
The plate, coin, revenues, and moveables
Whereof our uncle Gaunt did stand possess’d.

The Duke of York’s response is immediate:

YORK How long shall I be patient? Ah how long
Shall tender duty make me suffer wrong?
Not Gloucester’s death, nor Herford’s banishment
Not Gaunt’s rebukes, nor England’s private wrongs…

And he continues in this vein for 23 lines, laying out a point-by-point lamentation of Richard’s tyrannies, before at last exclaiming:

“Oh Richard: York is too far gone with grief,
Or else he never would compare between.”

And in response to this extraordinary tirade, Richard says:

RICHARD Why, uncle, what’s the matter?

It doesn’t seem to make much sense, and it causes York to deliver 22 lines in which he pleads with Richard to change his tune. Richard’s still having none of it when he responds:

RICHARD Think what you will, we seize into our hands
His plate, his goods, his money, and his lands.

York responds by leaving the stage and Richard moves on to formally announcing the beginning of his Irish campaign, going on to specify:

RICHARD And we create in absence of ourself
Our uncle York lord governor of England;
For he is just and always loved us well.

… wait a minute. Did Richard just watch the same scene we did?

It’s a challenge routinely faced by actors playing Richard II: How do you listen to York rant at you for 50+ lines and then act as if (a) you didn’t hear him and (b) it didn’t actually happen?

Many critics have judged Richard’s trust in York as an act of folly and point to this moment as proof of its foolhardiness. But there’s a rather large line between “making a mistake” and “being completely disconnected from reality to the point that it shatters the audience’s suspension of disbelief”, and Richard seems to be rather firmly crossing that line.

THE PUBLIC SOLILOQUY

When something doesn’t make sense to me in Shakespeare I find it helpful to assume that I’m the one making a mistake. Shakespeare wasn’t always perfect, of course, but I’ve often found it valuable to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that I’ve either overlooked something or based my conclusions on a poor assumption.

Which brings us back to the root of the problem: How can Richard possibly hear everything York says and then respond the way he does?

Maybe he doesn’t.

One of the truths in working with a Shakespearean text is that most of the stage directions are missing. Even basic entrances and exits are often omitted, and finding a description of the internal action of the scene is a little like discovering buried treasure. Without those stage directions, we’re often left looking for clues in the text to guide our understanding of how a scene is supposed to be played.

So what if our common sense is misguiding us here? What if York isn’t talking to Richard (who just finished speaking), but to himself?

Saying, “Why, uncle, what’s the matter?” is absurd if you’ve just listened to York deliver a 23-line speech describing exactly what the matter is. But it’s completely different matter if you’ve suddenly become aware that your uncle is in some sort of distress on the opposite side of the stage.

First, is this staging possible? Yes. Richard has just issued a formal decree that Lancaster’s possessions are to be seized. It proved remarkably easy for Richard and his nobles to immediately “huddle up” to discuss the details of the plan, move up stage, and leave York alone to speak with the audience.

Second, is the staging plausible? In the case of Richard’s response, we can see that that this staging actually helps to make sense of his line. But is it consistent with what York is saying? This is a more complicated question. On the one hand, York begins by speaking of Richard in the third person (“… have ever made me sour my patient cheek or bend one wrinkle on my sovereign’s face”), which would be consistent with a soliloquy. But then he begins to speak in the second-person as if addressing Richard directly: “I am the last of noble Edward’s sons, of whom thy father Prince of Wales was first.” This language certainly leads one into the more traditional interpretation of direct confrontation. On the other hand, it’s not unusual for Shakespeare’s characters to address others rhetorically even when they aren’t available for a response. (For example, when Hamlet says, “Remember thee? Aye, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat in this distracted body.” We don’t need to assume that the Ghost didn’t actually exit several lines earlier, as indicated in the text, in order for the line to make sense.)

(In the rehearsal room we also experimented with York talking to someone other than Richard in a private conversation, but when we did we found the rhetorical device of referring to Richard in the second person without Richard being present stopped working. Not all experiments are destined to succeed.)

Third, are there any textual clues that strongly support our interpretation? Here we find nothing definitive, but in our exploration we spotted a few elements of the text which certainly proved very effective for our purposes.

For example, York closes his first speech by saying:

Oh Richard: York is too far gone with grief,
Or else he never would compare between.

Shakespeare’s “O” (or “Oh”) is generally a large moment. It’s an open syllable that can be easily extended to any length while allowing an actor to pour an immense amount of emotional content into it. If York is speaking to himself, then we need a large and clearly delineated moment at the end of his speech which can draw Richard’s attention from across the stage. And Shakespeare, in building York’s anguish to this “Oh”, has given us such a moment and coupled it directly to Richard’s name.

Richard’s line, of course, is the driving force behind our concept. And it is followed by the beginning of York’s next speech:

“Oh my liege, pardon me if you please; if not,
I please not to be pardon’d, am content with all:”

In general, one would expect to ask forgiveness for something already said or request pardon for something they about to say. It’s possible that York is trying to do both here, but it’s interesting how naturally this reads like a response to an honest question of concern from Richard. (“Since you’ve asked, I’ll tell you. But please forgive me for what I’m about to say.”) And perhaps some clue to its nature as preamble can be found in that colon which so neatly launches the actor into the speech to come.

In short, we found this approach extremely effective in the rehearsal room. In the process we began referring to it as a “public soliloquy” ““ a speech in which we find a character expressing their innermost thoughts using the same techniques as the soliloquy, despite the fact that they aren’t truly alone onstage. In doing so, we inadvertently unlocked a deeper understanding of the play as a whole: These public soliloquys can be found throughout the entirety of Richard II, often emphasizing a character’s frustration, impotence, or humiliation. Richard, in particular, engages in the act of public soliloquy frequently, but (as we can see here) he’s not the only one. (They even arguably manage to find their way offstage, if one interprets Bullingbrooke’s “Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?”, reported by Sir Exton in Act V, Scene 5, as the public expression of a private thought.)

Thus, interpreting this passage as a public soliloquy not only helps to solve an immediate textual problem, but also proves to be consistent with both the theme and structure of the play as a whole.

Originally posted on September 28th, 2010.

Ex-RPGNet Reviews – Dice Wars

January 24th, 2015

Tagline: “Have you ever wondered what your dice when you’re not using them?” You’re about to find out – whether you want to or not.

A couple of days ago an interesting e-mail cropped up in my mailbox: Seth Ben-Ezra, lead designer and publisher of Dark Omen Games, was inviting me to review their new game — Dice Wars — which was freely available from their website. Well, hell, who am I to say no to those who seek me out? Besides which he was groveling (no, really, he told me he was groveling), and I just hate to see that in a grown man. So I popped over and took a look.

CONCEPT

“Have you ever wondered what your dice when you’re not using them?” You’re about to find out – whether you want to or not.

Basically once you’ve got a taste for the game’s concept the rest will quickly become obvious: Your dice are alive. They form societal units based on their die sizes and types (“a black die probably won’t get along with a sparkly pink die, for what should be obvious reasons”). There’s a fairly well-developed and semi-extensive (given the short nature of the rules) section on die-type personalities: “The four-siders are the craziest of all dice…” “The d10s are the shock troops of dice wars. Many defenses have crumbled before formations of d10s…” “d8s, as a rule, suffer from an inferiority complex…” And so forth. My favorite is the section on “Monstrosities”: “Legend speaks of other dice. Dice that have been mutated beyond recognition. Old dice whisper stories of dice with 16 sides, 30 sides, and even 100 sides.”

Every so often, though, the dice are seized by “the Rage” – capable of sending an entire dice bag into a complete frenzy of violence.

That’s when you have…. Dice Wars!

THE RULES

The game consists of a set of rules (available in HTML, MS Word, and Acrobat) and a “Battlemap” (available as a set of GIF files and a PDF).

The game itself is scenario-based – you set the dice up for combat based on pre-designed scenarios. Many of the scenarios contain victory conditions. Unfortunately, this leads us to my first set of major critiques of the game.

First, there are only two scenarios include: “All Out War” and “Saving Private Ryan”. The former being a basic combat scenario, the other being a “rescue the captive die” scenario in which some special rules are presented for that. Just some basic, and fairly obvious, variants (“capture the flag”, “battle of the monstrosities”, etc.) leap to mind with ease. This wouldn’t be such a problem except for the fact that no coherent rules are given for the creation of new scenarios.

Second, the rules state: “Additionally, regardless of the scenario, one victory condition always applies. If you lose all of the dice that you assigned to the battlefield, you lose.” Personally, as many of you know, I like to keep as much flexibility as possible. When someone lays down a “thou shalt not” like this my first response is: “Oh yeah, what about situation X?” In which situation X would be a plausible scenario in which such a victory condition would not apply. For example, the capture of an enemy die as your victory condition – kill all the enemy and you lose. Keep your options open.

Third, I downloaded the PDF versions of the rules. Each scenario is supposed to be accompanied with a diagram of how to lay your dice out on the BattleMap – unfortunately this diagram is missing.

Moving on: Each scenario gives an army size for each side, which is then created from the forces in your dice bag. For example, in a 100-sided game you’d take a selection of dice which totaled 100-sides between (five d20s; one d20 and eight d10s; etc.). You then your “general staff” (a concept which is never explained) to determine initiative in placement – whoever wins places one of their dice, then the other, and so on until all dice are placed. Depending on the scenario you may then select a “Fearless Leader”, a die which has certain positive combat effects (but also causes you to lose initiative on the next turn if it ever dies).

To begin the actual game you again roll your “general staff” (still don’t know what it is) to determine “activation initiative”. The player who wins “activates” (an arcane wargame term which means “move”) one die – the fewer sides a die has, the farther it can move on a given term. Once a piece has been activated, you should place an activation counter under it so that you don’t accidentally move it again on this turn. Activation then alternates, just like placement.

Once all your dice have moved, combat takes place between any enemy groups which have found themselves in the same space. Basically it works like this: The “attacker” (a concept which is not clearly defined, but I assume means the person moving into a square which was occupied first by the other player) pair off dice into sub-grouping called melees – in other words, he pairs up some of his dice with the dice of the other player. For example, the attacker might pair his d10 up against the defender’s d6; his d20 and d6 up against the defender’s d10.

At this point you then roll each melee (adding multiple scores together) – whoever has the higher score wins, and the other dice are removed from play. (Note: At the end of a round there may still be dice from both sides left alive in the square. You stop after a single round of combat resolution.)

It shouldn’t take more than a couple seconds for you to start seeing the problems: While there are some rules limiting exactly how the attacker can distribute the dice (the player who has fewer dice has melee groups of only one die each, and the other player cannot have three dice in a melee group until all of his groups have two dice in them), this is still hugely unfair to the defender – who, actually, should logically be able to determine what formations his or her defenders are in.

The simplest fix for this unbalance is to simply give group assignation chores to whoever has more dice. Given the rules concerning even dice distribution this makes sense – since whoever has fewer dice will never have any choices about melee groups, anyway.

Or, for a slightly more complicated fix: If the space was occupied by a single player’s dice for a whole turn before being attacked by the other side (in other words, at least some of your dice have been standing in the space by themselves without any enemy dice present), then they get to set up whatever defensive groups they want (whether that’s one big group or lots of little groups is up to them. Then the attacker defines his attack groups (if you want to make defense a lot easier, you can let the standing defender have the ability to define lop-sided combat groups, while forcing the attacker to evenly distribute his forces – in order to represent that ability for the defender to prepare defenses, while the attacker is acting while on the move). If, on the other hand, both sides moved into the space for the first time on this turn (or are continuing a combat from a previous round in which this was true) then the rules of my simple fix (side with more dice defines evenly-distributed melee groups) apply.

To wrap things up, you can also have artillery units – which are placed in special spaces around the edges of the BattleMap. To fire artillery you roll all of the dice in the artillery pool, and then count the spaces directly in front of the artillery based on the number you roll. For example, if you rolled 1, 3, and 4 (on three artillery dice) you would count out 1, 3, and 4 spaces from your artillery – a single die is removed from every one of those spaces (whether friendly or not). There’s some additional rules on how to determine which side loses a die if the space contains troops of both sides.

SUMMARY

I’m not going to lie to you: There are quite a few problems here.

First off, the overall package suffers from an unprofessional lay-out and presentation. Details are missing, there are several broken links off of the web-pages, and the language used in the rulebook often descends into a far too casual voice (replete with unamusing attempts at humor).

Second, the rules are too cluttered (for lack of a better word). At its heart Dice Wars is a very simple, Cheapass-esque, game. But the rules often use terms which are better left to the realm of Advanced Squad Leader (“activation” being a key example). The failure to honor the KISS principle, in combo with some generally unclear language (much of which has been cleaned up in my short presentation of the rules above – particularly in the area of combat resolution), makes it so that you have to decipher the game in order to enjoy it.

Third, the rules simply aren’t flexible enough. Or, to be more precise, they aren’t as flexible as they easily could be.

Fourth, the BattleMap is too damn small – it’s useful for some squad-level stuff, but you just don’t have enough maneuverability. I’d suggest using a chessboard which is oversized enough to fit multiple dice into each square. It’ll be more fun and you won’t have to cut-and-paste.

Finally, and perhaps most damning, the rules don’t deliver on some of the neat concepts discussed in the promo material at the beginning of the game. I’d have especially liked to have seen more detailed rules on the Monstrosities, and for the “powers” of different types of dice (gems, solids, etc.).

But, at the end of the day: Should you check this one out? Well, if you were paying any significant amount of money (even at, say, a Cheapass level) for the package I’d say no. But it is a freebie. With some minor modifications and decipherment (most of which I’ve implied or done here in this review) the game becomes the simple, quick, fun playing experience I think it’s ultimately meant to be. In particular I’d highly recommend it for quick play while you’re waiting around for that perpetually late member of your gaming group to show up – you’ve already got the dice just sitting there, the rules are easy to remember, and the board is easy to improvise.

Style: 3
Substance: 2

Author: Seth and Crystal Ben-Ezra
Company/Publisher: Dark Omen Games
Cost: Free!
Page Count: n/a
ISBN: n/a

Originally Posted: 2000/03/12

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

Go to Part 1

This will be a rather eclectic round-up of some additional old school city supplements I surveyed while doing my urbancrawl research.

BOOT HILL

Boot Hill - Tactical Studies Rules (1975)The original Boot Hill was primarily a wargame for running gunfights in the Wild West with a light roleplaying element draped over the top of it. (This is probably because it was released in 1975 and people still hadn’t quite figured out the whole “roleplaying game” thing.)

It does contain some advice on setting up a town: “Each building used (excluding the small ones with half-moons cut into the doors) in a town must have a complete plan drawn for each of its floors, including any cellars or basements.”

Hmm… Probably not that useful.

EMPIRE OF THE PETAL THRONE

Also released in 1975, M.A.R. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne had a much firmer grasp on the whole “roleplaying game” thing. It also includes some intriguing guidelines for urban-based play (exactly the sort of stuff missing from OD&D and AD&D):

  • “Initial Encounters in Jakalla”, which serves as a random generator for people looking to hire the PCs and the missions they want to hire them for.
  • “Erecting and Buying Buildings”, which calls to mind Arneson’s Blackmoor as described in the First Fantasy Campaign.
  • “Advertising”, which the City State of the Invincible Overlord was also providing guidelines for almost simultaneously. (It seems likely that this focus is the direct, organic response to actual players.)
  • “This will require (a) a terrain map of the area, (b) a surface map of any city or cities to be developed, and (c) maps of the Underworlds of those cities. A detailed terrain map of a single hexagon can also be drawn to scale, if the details of a particular region are required (e.g., for a military campaign).”

 

THIEVES’ WORLD

The Thieves’ World boxed set was released in 1981 as a generic supplement based on the series of fantasy anthologies and featuring stat blocks for a couple dozen different RPGs. Let me lead off with a quote from designers Yurek Chodak, Steve Perrin, Greg Stafford, and Lynn Willis:

While fighting, arguing, and other sorts of adventuring are important and have their place, all adventures conclude, and even the greatest adventurer goes home to spend his profits. If he is like most of us, he will try to impress others with his success. Those other people are found in cities, as are rooms, markets, taverns, libraries, and gyms.

The city is the natural home of every adventurer. The ebb and flow of city life gives opportunity for every type of character. A city is the only environment proper to a full-time thief. Only in cities do many strangers meet, and only in cities is information plentiful. The bigger the city, the more readily are exotic items found or sold.

Earlier I described the early Judges Guild’s approach to cities as a mish-mash of color, information gathering, and carousing. This quote seems to sum it up elegantly.

Thieves' World - Chaosium Box SetAlso of interest is this quote:

Contrary to most fantasy role-playing games, the gamemaster should not try to run too many players at one time while running a city. We find a mix of 1-2 players to be optimal, with 4 being a very real maximum even with experienced players. If more players are run, someone will always be bored, since the G.M. can only interact with one player at a time. Conversely, the number of characters is not particularly important, as only one character can be active per player at any given moment.

The notable assumption here is that city-based adventures will typically feature characters acting independently instead of collectively as a group.

In terms of practical material, what interests us particularly in Thieves’ World is the rich and robust encounter system. The tables are designed to be used every 10-15 minutes (a timeframe which appears to refer to the real world and not the game world).

A significant number of encounters start with “accidentally bumps…” This represents the jostling the characters would receive in any busy street and helps to prevent thieves from becoming too obvious.

The encounter tables are then broken down by neighborhood and some specific regions within each neighborhood are given specialized tables. The exact procedures for generating encounters are not particularly notable, but the sheer scope of the system is an escalation of the old Judges Guild methods (which the Judges Guild was simultaneously abandoning with City State of Tarantis).

Also of note are the Business Generation rules, which the GM can use to randomly stock the largely unkeyed map of the city.

PAVIS

Released in 1982, the overall approach of the Pavis boxed set for RuneQuest is purely narrative: It’s explicitly designed for use in an “episodic campaign” and it includes a 64-page book which consists entirely of adventure scenarios for you to build your campaign around.

Pavis - ChaosiumDespite this, Pavis does include a couple of interesting resources for use in urban play.

First, there are guidelines given for seeking long-, medium-, and short-term employment. These caught my eye in part because the presented a unique angle on expectations in an urban campaign, but also because they emphasized the ability to handle time in the campaign on different scales. (Something which can be very useful in managing open tables.)

Second, some really interesting guidelines are given for different ways in which PCs can research information in Pavis:

  • Collecting gossip and rumors from taverns and markets.
  • Searching the records of appropriate cults and guilds (diaries, receipts, letters, ledgers).
  • Hiring a sage.
  • Paying a fee to gain access to a library.

It’s interesting to note, in general, that these elements – which would have probably received mechanical sub-systems just a couple of years earlier – are instead rendered as merely guidelines (except for the hiring of sages).

Go to Part 9: New School Urbancrawls

Go to Part 1

City State of the Invincible OverlordIn our quest to understand urbancrawls, let’s turn our attention now to the Judges Guild. Despite a recent resurgence, I think that most people still vastly underestimate the seismic influence they had on the early development of the hobby: They were experimental. They were groundbreaking. They were cutting edge. And a lot of the stuff that was revolutionary when they did it had become “business as usual” in the hobby just a few years later. A lot of it remains business as usual even today.

(This was most recently impressed upon me afresh when I realized that the hexcrawling procedures in AD&D were based almost entirely on the material developed by Judges Guild: The structures from OD&D were essentially abandoned completely.)

CITY STATE OF THE INVINCIBLE OVERLORD

City State of the Invincible Overlord is not only the first city supplement ever published, it’s also one of the first adventure modules to be published (being predated only by Palace of the Vampire Queen and the original version of The Lost Caverns of Tsojconth).

The first thing I note as I page through the book is that Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owens have a very clear concept of how this material will actually be used at the table. There’s a definite, utilitarian structure to everything they present. Unfortunately, what their practices actually were – what specific procedures they would have used when running the City-State – are unclear almost to the point of being an enigma.

The key for City State of the Invincible Overlord is organized by street. For example, the description of the city begins with a list of all the notable locations on Barter Street:

Barter Street - City State of the Invincible Overlord

Each location entry generally consists of notable NPCs and a brief description. These are not terrible different from what you’d find in a city gazetteer today and not particularly helpful from a structural or procedural standpoint.

There are, however, two points of interest to be found here: First, each street has an encounter keyed to it. For example, Barter Street:

PROB 38% of being surrounded by Street Urchins demanding 1 CP each to go away

According to the standard procedures hidden away on page 5, these encounters are “rolled on alternate turns (on the turn that a normal encounter is not rolled)”. In order to check for the encounter, you roll 1d6. If you roll a 1, you then roll the percentile check of the keyed encounter.

What constitutes a normal encounter is, as far as I can tell, not explained. (We’ll have to turn to the Ready Ref Sheets for that, which we’ll do in a moment.) Also unexplained is what constitutes a turn. In OD&D there were both underworld turns (10 minutes), wilderness turns (1 day), and combat turns (1 minute). (Although, to be fair, OD&D itself is pretty vague about which type of turn is used in many situations.)

For our purposes, this sort of detail isn’t particularly relevant. What would be nice to know, however, is exactly how Bledsaw and Owens handled movement at the table: Were the players, in fact, navigating street-by-street? The fact that specific turn-by-turn time was being kept and encounters being generated based on exactly which street they were on during a particular turn rather strongly suggests that they were. (And this is reinforced by guidelines like, “There is a 20% PROB of blockage by Wagons, Horses, and Goods. A 10% PROB exists of an object being dropped from above per turn. Distances 10-60 feet.”)

The second point of interest is that each keyed location includes a Rumor or Legend, such as:

Legend, the Cauldron-Born: A Lich in the Dearthwood is creating an army of Synthetic Giants.

Or:

Rumor: A Djinn is coming south on Constable’s Street.

These are obviously very similar to the rumors we see later in Keep on the Borderlands and The Village of Hommlet. Taken in its totality, however, I think we discover that City State of the Invincible Overlord provides a much richer and more robust urban environment: The players are expected to truly explore the city in order to retrieve the rumors which will propel them towards adventure. And in the process of that exploration, the city will impose itself upon them in the form of encounters.

This basic structure is then supplemented with a variety of ancillary material: Town criers and vigilantes; a sub-system for being questioned by city guards; an entire method for placing advertisements and determining the response; and so forth. Add in little sub-systems for intoxicants, gambling, and the like and it’s not hard to see that the city was a mish-mash of color, information gathering, and carousing.

MODRON

Modron - Judges GuildFast forward a year and we have Modron: Not to be confused with the polyhedral monsters which would later use the same name, this is actually an often-overlooked city supplement written by Bob Bledsaw and Gary Adams.

It’s notable because it marks an evolution in Bledsaw’s approach to urban supplements: Although encounters are still keyed by street, the gazetteer of locations is now organized by area (Stadium Area, Open Market, The Docks). Rumors and Legends are gone, however, leaving the city as a utilitarian husk colored with the occasional random encounter.

READY REF SHEETS (1978)

In 1978, the second edition of the Ready Ref Sheets finally reveal to us how a “normal encounter” is determined in the city. In practice, it turns out to be an incredibly rich method for procedurally generating urban content.

Ready Ref Sheets (1978) - Judges GuildFirst, check for an encounter. Encounters have a 1/6 chance every other turn. (Thus matching the same rate as dungeon and wilderness encounters, although once again the length of this “urban turn” is left undefined.)

Second, determine the type of encounter: Attacked by Surprise, Attacked, Slanders/Insults, Questions Player(s), Propositions Player(s), or Special Encounter.

This second step is what really makes the whole system work: Basically everything else in the process simply determines who you’re encountering, but this initial step colors the encounter. (Combine it with the “Attack Reasons” table from pg. 74 of City State of the Invincible Overlord and you’re really cooking with gas.)

This is all the Ready Ref Sheets have to offer us, but I think it’s important: Understanding where the procedural content generators are and how they work in a ‘crawl is vital to keep the ‘crawl vibrant and alive over the course of a campaign.

CITY-STATE OF THE WORLD EMPEROR

City-State of the World Emperor is a really weird product.

City State of the World Emperor - Judges GuildFirst, it has an entire volume dedicated to 80 pages of generic, unnamed shops. And none of these shops are actually keyed to the map: The GM is supposed to place them wherever they find convenient.

The other significant volume of the set is just a giant mish-mash of completely unorganized information. It includes both a table of “Rumors” and a table of “Random Rumors” (although what the distinction is supposed to be between these categories is left completely unexplained).

Gone are the street-based encounters and the rumors keyed to specific locations. In their place, however, Volume II: Shops has a robust “cache” system: Each location indicates how many caches of loot it possesses, and you can use the cache system to determine where it’s hidden; how it’s hidden; and how much is hidden. This is coupled with the following rejoinder:

As a general state of affairs people in the City State of the World Emperor tend to be a level or two higher than those in the City State of the Invincible Overlord owing to the tougher level of competition. Also since more trade flows through Viridistan the level of cash flow and total of treasure are slightly greater. Beware; since the guards and traps are tougher too!

The impression one is left with is very much of a “hack ‘n slash” urban environment and the expectation seems to be that the PCs will be kicking doors down and looting the premises.

Also of note, however, is that Volume III: Guidebook to the City includes an explicit “Play Guide”. This leads off by saying, “It is important that played characters interact with NPCs.” It then includes a robust system for handling rumors, tracking how long abstract interactions with NPCs take, mechanics for “establishing camaraderie”, and play tips for successfully gathering information (“talk with everybody… encourage the relating of rumors… learn about sudden unusual behavior… concentrate on getting to know persons of one’s own rank, position and interests”). So the collection of information is still clearly placed in center of the urban spotlight and it’s particularly interesting to see the mechanistic way in which these interactions are handled. For example:

One rumor (maximum) can be heard per every two hours in an eatery (food or drink). One rumor per hour can be heard in an inn (food, drink, and beds). Three rumors per hour can be heard in a tavern (drink). One hour of conversation equals four turns of interaction if with different people, or six turns of interaction if with one person. Ten interactions equal one turn. One interaction equals two verbal statements (or questions) and two retorts (minimum). About 50% of rumors are true.

FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE JUDGES GUILD

Here, however, our time with Judges Guild draws to a close. In 1983 they would produce a final city-state product – City State of Tarantis – but this product moved entirely to a modern gazetteer style: These are the books that read like a Baedeker’s guidebook. They provide the backdrop for adventure City-State of Tarantis - Judges Guildwithout really giving us anything in the way of structural clues.

In reviewing what we’ve learned from the Guild, I’ll start by saying that I’m probably not interested in using strict turn-by-turn timekeeping while exploring a city. The kind of street-by-street navigation that seems to be getting advocated here might be interesting for a short while during an “explore the new city” phase, but I don’t think that it would represent effective pacing in the long run. (Featuring, as it almost certainly would, a lot of decisions that nobody at the table really cares about.)

The idea of keying content to specific streets, however, is an interesting one. Consider the possibility of combining this with target-based movement: When the PCs are leaving or arriving at a location, could we check for encounters keyed to those streets in order to provide color to the urban environment as they move through it on their errands?

Go to Part 8: Other Old School Cities

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