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Valley of the Sapphire Waves

September 22nd, 2014

Valley of the Sapphire Waves

Many moons ago I was talking with a guy online who claimed that, by the year 2017, computer games would exist which would allow GMs to create off the cuff in real-time just like they can currently do at the table. And I said, “Bullshit.” (For obvious reasons.) In the process of calling bullshit, however, I ended up creating an example of off-the-cuff design that would be virtually impossible to replicate in a computer game engine even with procedural content generators vastly superior to anything we have available to us today.

It’s nothing particularly spectacular, but it’s got a few touches of the fantastical that I think are rather evocative and worth sharing.

VALLEY OF THE SAPPHIRE WAVES

The Valley of the Sapphire Waves is filled with rolling fields of vibrant blue grass. Anyone standing in the waters of the valley will perceive the sun as eclipsed because Helios mourns the loss of his first wife (the Ur-Goddess of the Rivers, see hex 1).

HEX 1: The Falls of the Ur-Goddess. The 300 foot tall waterfall at the end of the valley flows up because it is the place where the Ur-Goddess of the Rivers was slain millennia ago.

HEX 2: Obelisk of Moonstone. Raised as a holy site by the Heresy Cult of the Ur-Goddess. The moonstone will heal anyone touching it at night, but under the rays of the sun it is cursed. (Anyone touching it suffers as per a bestow curse spell.)

HEX 3: The Stirge Mires. 1 in 3 chance of encounteing 1-6 stirges.

HEX 4: Goblin Moonstone Scavengers. Small tribe of goblins scavenging the moonstones scattered in rocky crevasses here.

HEX 5: Vale of the Dryad. This forestland is protected by a dryad whose spirit is bound to a treant. All the squirrels here can talk, many spontaneously forming acting troupes performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

HEX 6: Graveyard of the Moonstone Cults. 1 in 3 chance per turn of encountering 1-3 wights.

HEX 7: Medusa’s Vale. A medusa makes her home in the Sinkhole of Statuary.

HEX 8: Sphinx Guardians. Once a great tribe of sphinxes guarded the entrance to the valley (they were placed there by Helios), but their numbers are depleted. 1 in 3 chance of encountering a sphinx, which 75% of the time will be an undead skeleton. Remaining sphinxes will ask sun-oriented riddles before attacking.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen - Wizards of the CoastMeh.

The primary arc of Hoard of the Dragon Queen is disappointingly linear. Disappointing because the concept is so delightfully ripe for a non-linear approach: The Cult of the Dragon has abandoned its previous plans of turning dragons into dracoliches and has allied itself with a variety of living dragons and their half-breed offspring to free Tiamat from her infernal prison. In order to do this, feuding factions within the cult are seeking out five powerful artifacts which take the form of dragon masks (one for each of Tiamat’s chromatic heads).

Five masks lost in disparate locations? Multiple cult factions simultaneously pursuing semi-compatible goals?! When I first read the background I was absolutely convinced I was about to read the D&D equivalent of Masks of Nyarlathotep and have my brain blown at the prospect of node-based scenario design being used as the introductory campaign for an entire generation of gamers.

Sadly, not to be.

Instead, the campaign is a pretty rigid “go to X, then go to Y, then go to Z” affair. Hoard of the Dragon Queen makes up for this, however, by designing most of the individual scenarios along its path in a delightfully non-linear fashion: Enemy strongholds are set up to reward frontal assaults, physical stealth, and clever infiltration. Fractious factions can be turned against each other using a variety of methods. Alliances can be forged and broken in myriad ways. Enemies surrendering and being questioned (instead of fighting bloodily to the death) is gloriously well-supported. Token guidance is even given for PCs who go wandering off the intended path on wild goose chases. And all of this goes hand-in-hand with a very utilitarian presentation which is starkly at odds with the overwritten-to-useless style which has afflicted a lot of published adventures in the last decade.

Which makes the scenarios where this liberal and refreshing approach is supplanted by a rigid railroad all the more puzzling.

This really only afflicts a couple of the scenarios, but unfortunately one of them is the first scenario and it’s laughably atrocious: There’s a lengthy sequence where the PCs are besieged in a castle (after getting railroaded into it, of course). The PCs are then supposed to go to the local duke (who basically has a yellow exclamation mark over his head) and get a quest to fight their way out of the besieged castle and accomplish some goal in the town. Then they fight their way back through the respawning kobolds on the drawbridge, return to the duke (who the adventure literally says waits for them in the same spot on the castle battlements), get their next quest, and then fight their way out again.

And if they do that two or three times, they’ll unlock a dialogue option where the duke tells them about a secret passage leading out of the castle so that they can bypass the respawning drawbridge encounter going forward.

It’s kind of astonishing that I kept reading the adventure after that.

Can I also take a moment here to point out that the campaign hook for Hoard of the Dragon Queen is absolutely ridiculous? The PCs are approaching a random town, crest a hill, and discover that it is being attacked by a dragon. Okay. That’s fine. But then the campaign assumes that the 1st level PCs are likely, when confronted with that sight, to decide that their best course of action is to walk into the town.

(Did I mention that the dragon is also accompanied by an entire army?)

Maybe I’m just spoiled by having players who aren’t seriously brain damaged, but I literally cannot imagine a scenario in which that hook would work.

But what kills Hoard of the Dragon Queen is not its inconsistent design. Nor its occasional absurdities. Nor the plentiful continuity errors. Nor the horrific editorial shortcomings. Nor the completely inadequate maps (some of which appear to be missing entirely, some of which don’t match the text, and many of which lack keyed entries they’re supposed to have).

No. What kills Hoard of the Dragon Queen is that it’s so incredibly boring.

And I’m not talking about one of those adventures that’s just boring to read on the page. I mean that the contents of this adventure, basically from top to bottom, are generic and dull and trite and uninteresting: There is no kobold that isn’t a generic kobold. There is no bedroom that isn’t a generic bedroom. There is no swamp which isn’t a generic swamp. And there is absolutely nothing fantastical or wonderful or unique or memorable.

(The obvious rejoinder here is that a good GM could still take this material, work miracles upon it, and make it totally awesome during actual play. Of course they could. But a good GM would also know better than to use such a flat and uninspiring foundation in the first place.)

To be fair, there are a couple of exceptions to this general dullness. (Flying stolen wyverns to intercept the flying castle of a giant is the most notable one.) But for a campaign which I’m assuming will take at least 40-60 hours of table time to complete, those slim exceptions are wholly inadequate.

Which, ultimately, brings me back to the reaction I had most consistently and finally to Hoard of the Dragon Queen:

Meh.

Outside of a few truly awful sequences in the first scenario, there’s nothing here that’s really terrible. But there’s also nothing to be found between these covers to justify spending $30 on it (let alone another $30 on the essentially mandatory second volume). Most damning, however, is that Hoard of the Dragon Queen also lacks anything which will reward the countless hours of ponderous and forgettable playing time that you would languish upon it.

Grade: D

A guide to grades here at the Alexandrian.

Exit, Pursued by a Monster - Alex Drummond (Legends & Labyrinths)

An idea that I’ve toyed around with for years is creating a hex map for the Underdark. I still haven’t done it. But recently I’ve been running a huge technological complex for Numenera with a hex map that shares a lot of similarities with the Underdark. If the idea of running a hexcrawl through the Underdark is something you’d like to try,  I think there are a few key points to consider:

(1) What makes a hex map work is that it abstracts the actual terrain of the game world. If you’re doing a wilderness hexcrawl, you shouldn’t try to map every tree… or even every single country lane. If you do that, you’re defeating the entire point of the hex map. Similarly, if you’re designing your Underdark with a hex map you should not try to map every individual tunnel. (You might map major thoroughfares, the same way that major highways or rivers would be indicated on your wilderness hex map.)

(2) One key distinction between a wilderness hex map and an Underdark hex map is that, generally speaking, travel is always assumed to be possible through the side of a wilderness hex. This is not necessarily the case in the Underdark and one thing you’ll want to develop is a key indicating a minimum of three states for each side of the hex:

  • Open (there are lots of tunnels leading from this hex to that hex)
  • Closed (there are no tunnels leading from this hex to that hex)
  • Chokepoint (you can get from this hex to that hex, but only by passing through a specific keyed location)

Note that the existence of a given chokepoint could also be a secret that needs to be discovered (by either obtaining the information elsewhere or perhaps by performing a detailed survey of the area).

(3) The RPG industry has developed a fairly standard “vocabulary” of wilderness terrain types. (These actually predate D&D and were inherited from Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival when Arneson used it as a template.) These terrain types also have the benefit of being familiar to us in our every day lives: We know what forests are. We know what mountains are. And so forth. IMO, you’re going to want to develop a similarly interesting vocabulary of at least 4-5 different Underdark terrain types. And you’re going to have to figure out how to clearly communicate those differences to a group that probably doesn’t contain spelunkers (and certainly no fantasy spelunkers). The point of this, obviously, is to make the map more interesting: This both rewards exploration (a key component of any hexcrawl), but also to make the actual description of the PCs’ journey more engaging.

(4) The Underdark is fundamentally three dimensional in a way that the surface of the world is not. Keep that in mind, but don’t worry about it too much: The surface of our planet varies from 1,400 feet below sea level to 29,000 feet above sea level but we still successfully visualize it as a flat plane. Consider the minor elevation shifts I discussed in Jaquaying the Dungeon and apply the same logic at a macro-scale here: You can probably make your Underdark more interesting by saying “you have to go down and then over and then up to get to there”, but vast slopes and slants and descents and climbs can be abstracted onto a two-dimensional map. So go back to Point #1 above and remember to embrace the abstraction of the hex!

 

Numenera: Into the Violet Vale - Monte CookMonte Cook’s Into the Violet Vale was released yesterday. This is the Numenera adventure I ran at Gencon this year. It features a nifty in media res opening that will make the adventure a little more challenging to incorporate into an ongoing campaign, but which works great if you’re looking to run a one-shot. On the other hand, it’s also remarkably flexible and non-linear compared to most convention scenarios I’ve experienced, so I definitely think it can be worth the effort. I’ve run it 4 times and found it to be delightful and mind-bending every time.

As part of my prep work for running the adventure, I put together a bunch of resources and an expansive cheat sheet that I think y’all might find useful. And now that the scenario has been released to the public, I can share them with you.

SPOILER WARNING

Numenera: Into the Violet Vale - Cheat Sheet

(click here for PDF)

This cheat sheet for the GM supplements the adventure in several key ways:

First, I’ve prepped a specific MISSION BRIEFING featuring three specific questions to help players orient themselves into the scenario. This is designed to retain the in media res quality of the opening while providing enough context to meaningfully inform roleplaying without requiring the players to simply listen to a big wall of text. (In practice, the answers to these questions often had a radical effect on shaping what followed.) The final question (“How are you securing and transporting Sinter?”) is designed to transition with a hard pivot directly into the opening scene.

Second, I’ve included a lengthy REGLAE REFERENCE. During my playtest, the players really wanted to tear the titular, dimension-warping flowers apart. So I whipped up some really weird, non-terrestial biological traits to reward their attention.

Third, several of my players commented that the adventure felt too “generic fantasy” and didn’t do enough to really highlight the awesome “weirdness” of the setting (particularly early on). In an attempt to address this, I’ve added some EXTRA WEIRDNESS to the abandoned camp at the beginning of the adventure. I’ve made some similar additions to Lady Weiss and her brute bodyguards.

I’ve specified FRIN’S CYPHERS. These were just pregenerated randomly, but it let me include them on the cypher cards I prepped for the adventure. (See below.) If you don’t want to use those cards, there’s no reason you can’t just generate them randomly during play.

I’ve added a bit where the PCs can theoretically MURDER FRIN and reverse engineer an alternative (but dangerous) method of escaping the valley. (This also changes the method Lady Weiss uses to help the PCs escape the valley.)

Finally, I’ve prepped NPC ROLEPLAYING SHEETS for all of the major NPCs (Sinter, Lady Weiss, Frin, and Meriod). I’ve talked about these before, but the short version is that I derived this format for NPCs from Mike Mearls’ In the Belly of the BeastI’ve found that it makes quickly referencing their information and assuming their character so incredibly simple.

OTHER RESOURCES

In addition to my master cheat sheet, I’ve also prepped these resources:

  • Handout: Grodon’s Journal: A one-page version of the handout with a fancy-looking font. (The font is SF New Republic. I use it as a kind of lingua franca in the Ninth World.)
  • NPC Portraits and Graphics: These depict Lady Weiss’ Tower, Lady Weiss, Frin, and Meriod. They’re formatted to be printed as 4×6 photos. The character portraits have been heavily photoshopped from the group portrait on pg. 10 of the scenario so that you can present each NPC individually. The picture of Lady Weiss’ Tower comes from here. (Check it out, it’s pretty cool.)
  • Cypher and Ability Cheat Sheets: These are designed to eliminate book look-ups for the pregenerated characters included in the adventure. I’ve found that they save about 20-30 minutes of playing time, so their use greatly improves pace if you’re using Into the Violet Valet as a one-shot for introducing people to the game.
  • Cypher Cards: These are for all the cyphers that the PCs can find or gain during the adventure. (This includes the three cyphers that Frin brings them, see above.) These cards are designed to be printed on Avery 8471 business cards, but can easily be printed on any paper or cardstock and then cut out. (There are two full sets so that I could just print the page once and have enough for both of the sessions I was scheduled to run at Gencon.)
  • PC Tent Cards: Once again featuring the pregen characters. I prep these and put them in the middle of the table. As people approach, they can select whichever character looks appealing to them and put the tent card in front of them. It’s a nice, quick way to facilitate character selection and also means that you (and other players) can quickly identify who’s playing who with a quick glance during play. These files are designed to be printed with Avery “Small Tent Cards” (template 5302), but you could also just print them on normal cardstock. What you need to do is take each A file and then flip it and print the matching B file. (Each sheet has four tent cards, so I’ve designed the three files so that I get two complete sets of character names if I print all three (to minimize wastage). If you just want one set, print sets 1 and 2 and you should be good to go.)

Numenera: Into the Violet Vale - Monte Cook

Numenera - Monte Cook GamesThe design ethos of Numenera is focused on providing the GM with a strong mechanical structure for making rulings while keeping those mechanics minimal so that he GM is free to make those rulings. That, all by itself, pretty much lands the system right in the middle of my sweet spot. But what really elevates the game to the next level – the thing that really makes it shine – is the GM intrusion mechanic.

Which is why it’s unfortunate that I’ve seen so many GMs struggling to grok the mechanic.

I understand where they’re coming from: I was skeptical about intrusions, too, until I saw them in actual play. They’re an unusual tool and it may break some of the expectations you have as a result of how RPGs typically work, but based on my experience it will be well worth your time to embrace them.

BREAKING THE RULES

For those not already familiar with Numenera, here’s a brief overview of how the mechanic works: The GM announces that they are making an intrusion and hands the player whose PC is the primary target of that intrusion 2 XP. That player can either spend 1 XP they already have to cancel the intrusion (returning the 2 XP to the GM) or they can accept the intrusion, take 1 XP for themselves, and give 1 XP to another player.

The core functionality of the GM intrusion is that it allows you to make things worse than the mechanics of the game would normally suggest. An easy example is having a PC drop their weapon: If you’re playing a game that doesn’t have an explicit fumble mechanic for that, it would be really unusual for a GM to announce that this happens on a failed attack roll. It would be even more unusual for a GM to decide that it happens on a successful attack.

But that’s what the GM intrusion allows you to do: You thought it would be cool for the PC to hit the mammoth-saur with his axe so hard that the axe got stuck in the creature’s thick hide and wrenched out of his hands. In any other game, this would usually cause the players to disconnect from the game world and be wrenched into the metagame because the GM is “breaking the rules”. But the GM intrusion mechanic not only lubricates this interaction (allowing the player to stay focused on the game world), it also includes a feedback mechanic by which the player can say “no, you’ve gone too far, I reject the intrusion”.

A DIGRESSION ON DISSOCIATION

Some of you may now be pointing your finger in horror and crying out, “Dissociated mechanic!” And, yes, that’s true. The mechanics of XP spending in Numenera is very similar to the use of fate/luck points in other systems and they’re tied directly into the intrusion mechanic.

But as I’ve mentioned many times in the past (and, most notably, in the Brief Primer on Dissociated Mechanics), it’s not the end of the world for an RPG to include some dissociated mechanics as long as those mechanics are providing a valuable function.

In the case of GM intrusions, the function of liberating the GM to take huge creative risks while being “protected” by a safety net which allows the players to seamlessly rein them in if they go too far is absurdly valuable.

It should also be noted, for those who are particularly allergic to dissociated mechanics, that GM intrusions are incredibly flexible tools which are used entirely at the GM’s discretion: You can use them all the time, you can use them rarely, or you can use them never. More importantly, the nature of each intrusion is entirely up to you. That means you can make them as associated or dissociated as you want: It’s very trivial, for example, to only use intrusions which a PC could avoid or negate through the actions they take.

USING THE INTRUSION

This ties into something that’s really important to understand about GM intrusions:

The primary purpose of an intrusion is NOT to punish the players.

Intrusions are actually doing the exact opposite of that. In fact, if you’ve ever had the experience of having a really cool idea (like a character’s axe getting stuck in their opponent) and then rejecting it because it’s kind of a bullshit move and it feels unnecessarily punitive to your players… well, GM intrusion greases the wheel for it.

But intrusions aren’t just a method of injecting awesome into your campaign. Of equal importance is their other primary function:

Use GM intrusions to handle outright shortcomings in the rules.

Rather than provide laborious technical detail, Numenera trusts the GM to make specific rulings from generic guidelines. But it also realizes that useful abstractions can frequently give rise to illogical situations when applied to the details of specific situations: GM intrusions provide a useful omnitool for restoring logic.

An example given in the rulebook is a PC who decides to turn his back on an armed opponent in order to raise a ladder into position: According to a strict interpretation of the rules, there’s no reason that the PC can’t do that (he has initiative and so he takes and completes his action before the NPC). The GM, however, recognizes that this doesn’t make sense in the specific context of the action being proposed, so he uses a GM intrusion to give the NPC a free attack on the PC.

Couldn’t the game have included a full suite of mechanics for “attacks of opportunity” or something like that? Sure. But what do you do about the next corner case? And the next one after that? Just keep adding more rules? Pretty soon you end up with a rulebook that looks like Shadowrun 5th Edition. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but Numenera is giving you a different way of dealing with the problem.

NARRATIVE CONTROL

Because GM intrusions are such a flexible tool, they can also be used as a narrative control mechanic. What’s interesting about their use in this context is that the GM is still the ultimate arbiter of when the intrusions will be used, which means that the GM can run a very traditional game while opening up specific arenas within the game world for negotiation.

An example frequently used in the Numenera rulebook is the appearance of unexpected reinforcements: The GM uses an intrusion and two more chirogs drop out of the leafy canopy above you!

Let’s break down the options here:

  1. The GM could decide NOT to have any reinforcements up.
  2. The GM could decide that the two chirogs are DEFINITELY there and the players have no say about it.
  3. The GM could decide that the two chirogs MIGHT be there and use a GM intrusion to negotiate their arrival with the players.

A purely traditional RPG only offers the first two options (and those options still exist in Numenera); but the intrusion mechanic offers the third.

And this third option – the narrative control option – can really be pushed even further than the rulebook takes it: Any element of the game world that you’re willing to open up to negotiation with your players can be slickly handled through the simple interface of the intrusion. Is their best friend secretly betraying them? Has the king been replaced by a technological doppelganger? Are the rat things actually friendly and misunderstood (instead of vile and evil)?

As these examples also demonstrate, it’s not necessary to think of an intrusion as a singular point in time, either: They can have wide-ranging and irrevocable implications for the future. Or, alternatively, seamlessly retcon the past with terrible revelations.

INTRUSIONS AS UBER-FUMBLES

Perhaps the most common use of the GM intrusion at my table is the “uber-fumble”: Wow, it sucks that you failed that check. Here, lemme make it a little bit worse for you.

Cranial Slugs: Not Even OnceNotable examples from my last few sessions include:

  • You try to dodge out of the way of the club, but you duck the wrong way. It slams into your chest, lifts your from your feet, and sends you hurtling backwards… directly through the dimensional rift.
  • The psychic assault emanating from the cranial slugs burrowing into your skull suddenly forms a horrific neural net that short circuits through your synapses. Take 3 Intellect damage… and the creature has taken spastic control of your limbs. You’ll attack Sheera next round.
  • Your razor wing hurtles towards his face, but his hand snaps up with lightning speed, snatches it from the air, and whips it back towards you. Give me a Speed defense check.

I find that these moments provide spikes of intensity and interest that can break up the normal cycle of a combat: Whenever the pace of an encounter seems to be lagging or has settled into a predictable cycle, the use of an intrusion immediately shakes things up. (Using unusual actions and events during a combat encounter is just good advice in general, of course, but intrusions really let you dial the intensity up to 11.)

One of the unique ways you can leverage intrusions to accomplish this, however, is by merely threatening the intrusion before the dice are rolled. This technique is particularly effective if you’re using the Numenera XP cards: As the player prepares for the roll, simply grab two XP cards and hold them up for the table to see. The message is clear: If Heather fails her roll, something extra horrible is going to happen.

This is a form of metagame special effect: By raising the stakes of the roll, you focus the table’s attention and passion on the die roll. This works particularly well in Numenera because the modifiers to a task are all applied to the difficulty: By the time you roll the dice, you know exactly what number needs to appear on the face of the die for success. When the die lands, there is an immediate and explosive release of all the tension built into that roll (one way or the other).

FREQUENCY OF INTRUSIONS

The Numenera core rulebook recommends one GM intrusion per player per session.

If that works for you, great. In practice, though, I’ve found that I’m using them about three times more frequently than that. I don’t really have a specific goal of using X number of intrusions per session, of course. I just use them when it feels right (which usually means whenever I’ve got a good idea).

By the same token, you don’t want to overuse your intrusions, either. Only use an intrusion if you’ve got a really awesome (or really horrible) idea. You want your intrusions to mean something.

The other thing you should be cautious of if you find yourself using lots of intrusions is the accumulation of XP: If your players are frequently spending XP to reroll dice, purchase short-term benefits, and the like you probably won’t run into any problems. If you end up with a table which is consciously hoarding their XP and refuse to spend it on anything except character advancement then plenteous intrusions can make the problem worse.

(In general, though, hoarding XP in Numenera produces a sub-optimal experience in any case. So you should try to figure out how to get your players to use XP in the way the game intends: That might mean that you should be doing a better job of offering awesome short-term benefits to encourage XP expenditures. Or it might just mean talking to your players and making sure they understand the opportunities they’re passing up. Or, as the rulebook suggests as an alternative solution, you could also just impose a ratio of short-to-long-term XP expenditures.)

DON’T NEGATE SUCCESS

The final word of caution I would give about the use of intrusions is this: Don’t negate success.

The rulebook talks about using intrusions in order to force a task check even when the character would normally succeed automatically. In my opinion, such intrusions should be used very sparingly. And what you should never do is take a successful die roll and turn it into a failure. It’s cheap and it’s frustrating.

To be clear: It’s okay to complicate success. Just don’t negate it.

If their sword gets stuck in the mammoth-saur, the mammoth-saur still gets hurt. If they shoot the rope holding up the numenera device creating an interdimensional portal, the device still falls (even if the intrusion reveals that it’s going to fall on top of them). If they succeeded in following the bad guy’s tracks, they still succeed in finding the bad guy (it just turns out he’s laid an ambush for them). And so forth.

I suppose this can probably be broadened into a general principle:

Your players should hate your intrusions, but they should love to hate them.

Numenera XP Cards - Monte Cook Games

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