Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Using VLOOKUP to Generate Game Content in Excel

Part 1 on Monday looked at using RANDBETWEEN and IF statements to generate random numbers, evaluate conditions, and return a result.  Today we'll take it another step of the way in terms of generating stuff for your game by showing how the VLOOKUP function in Excel works.  VLOOKUP stands for Vertical Lookup, and requires your content to be in a vertical list.  The first column is the lookup value -  the number you’d be trying to roll on a die in a table.  If your table consists of 10 wandering monsters, you'd expect column one to list the numbers 1 to 10, in ascending order.  The whole set of columns (B2 through E11) is an array.  Here's a simple table we'll use for an example:

The basic syntax of the function is =VLOOKUP(lookup value, array, column index of the data to retrieve).  In the example above, column B is index 1, C is 2, D is 3, E is 4.  Here's how a simple VLOOKUP formula would look to return a random 1st level monster from that table:


Let's break it down.  A random number (RANDBETWEEN(1,10) is substituted for the lookup value.  The array is the entire table - cells B2 through E11.  I also recommend going and putting dollar signs in front of the table array values so the actual formula looks like this:


The dollar signs lock the lookup (in Excel terms, it's called an absolute reference).  Normally a formula increments the cell values when you copy and paste the formula to other cells.  The dollar signs ensure the vlookup consistently checks the correct cells for values.

You can easily change which column the content is retrieved from by updating the column index -


By updating the column index to 3, a result of 7 on the RANDBETWEEN number yields "gray ooze".  You can even get fancy and make the column index a random number, too - let's say you didn't care if the VLOOKUP returned a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd level monster, you could put in a formula like this in place:


VLOOKUP is an important building block.  Along with the RANDBETWEEN and IF statements we looked at Monday, we're cooking with gas!  Let's look at a simple practical example I used in the Black City game to generate tons of Viking names on the fly.  Consider this logic I used for Viking names.  First you have basic names (given names).  A last name has a 50% chance of either being a father's surname, a location, or a nickname.  So Vigor son of Baldi could be Vigor Baldison, Vigor of Zealand, or Vigor the Hook Nose.  As long as you have content tables with the three lists - the first names, the locations, and the nicknames, automating name creation in Excel with the functions we've reviewed is a snap.

In this next example, here are 10 given names (out of around 300) to show how the concept works.  I called this worksheet "name content":

On the next worksheet, I'll go ahead and put the following formulas in place.  You'll note that when you highlight an array of cells in an external worksheet, Excel prepends the sheet name to the array - it shows up as 'name content'! in the examples below to let you know it's referencing another sheet in the workbook.

Column 1 - generate first name
Formula:  =VLOOKUP(RANDBETWEEN(1,10),'name content'!$A$2:$B$11,2)

Column 2 - use a random number to generate type of last name (1-4).  This is just a working cell to create a value for columns 3 through 5 to check against:
Formula:  =RANDBETWEEN(1,4)

Column 3 - check the value in column 2 to see if there's a surname (on a 1 or 2 out of 4); if so, retrieve a firstname from the 'name content' sheet, and append "son" to the end to make a Viking surname.
Formula:  =IF(B2<3,VLOOKUP(RANDBETWEEN(1,10),'name content'!$A$2:$B$11,2)&"son","")

Column 4 - check if the last name identifies the character's homeland; if so, retrieve a location and add "of " to the beginning:
Formula:  =IF(B2=3," of"&VLOOKUP(RANDBETWEEN(1,10),'name content'!$A$2:$C$11,3),"")

Column 5 - check if there's a nickname; if so, retrieve a nickname and add "the " to the beginning of the nickname:
Formula:  =IF(B2=4,"the "&VLOOKUP(RANDBETWEEN(1,10),'name content'!$A$2:$D$11,4),"")

Column 6 - Let's concatenate the first name and the content of the other columns together to make a handy column for use in the game:
Formula:  =A2&" "&C2&D2&E2

Here's the working table with all the formulas in action:

We get a nice list of Viking names (all with A's in the first name, since I only put about 10 in the content table.  But you get the idea).  Here's that list:

Aran Anirson
Agnar of Dublin
Agnar the Black
Alrek the Beer-Drinker
Anir the Bellower
Annund Armodson
Alfgeir Agnarson

Muhaha - what will you do with your new powers of Excel?  Many times, I generate a list of names and personalities in advance, and keep them saved in a text file for use during the game.  When a need arises, I'll just pull the top one off the list as necessary during the game.  When the players run into bandits, or traders, or start talking to a random guy at the tavern, the improvisation goes much better when I can rattle off that it's "Alrek the Beer-Drinker" who they're talking to instead of 'random Viking guy'.

In fact, I use long lists of personalities, quirks, and mannerisms generated through VLOOKUPS quite a bit. I don't do well improvising interesting people on the fly and can use a little help. I may not know how I want to portray the bandit leader (so they're not like every other bandit) when I roll a wandering monster, but once I see that the leader is violent, or jealous, or risk averse, I can take it from there pretty easily and make a fun encounter.  NPCs with personalities keep the game interesting for me, and you never know when that random encounter is going to lead to a memorable scene or a future henchman or an enduring villain because you took the time to give the character a name and a personality hook, and then something funny or meaningful happened.

Getting back to Dungeon Content, I try to have giant tables of empty room types and trap types to integrate into the random stocker, as well as monster customized for each level and area of the dungeon.  You should see how the same techniques of content lookups and concatenation used to generate the Viking names can be used the same way to integrate content for a dungeon stocker.  However, let's be clear about something.  This is not programming.  The goal is not to make a finished tool to publish.  The goal is to give you a reason to dump all those random tables and content lists you've been acquiring, to dump them in Excel and to arm you with some basic techniques to generate tons of cool content during your game prep - and to do it much quicker than rolling and flipping pages and writing stuff down.

However, one type of content where there's no substitute for hard work and brainstorming is 'Specials'.  The 1E DMG has a pretty good list of dungeon objects and special properties, and -C over at Hack and Slash put together a list of types of specials - descriptors like Riddles, Quests, Terraformers, and Shops.  For a large dungeon like Taenarum, I try to smash it all together and see if something inspires me while trying to make sense of a bunch of random inputs.

Here's an example from this morning:  I was working on a room on level 4 of Taenarum and it contained a 'Special'.  The random results indicated it was trapped, weird, involved a pillar or column, and was intelligent.  Furthermore, the trap had to do with blindness.  Yikes.  What to do?  Well, the adjacent room has 'tritons' which clambered up from level 5 below.  Tritons in the game are scaly fish men with bug eyes and gills.  I decided the thing in the room is an Obelisk (close enough to a pillar for my purposes) and the tritons are worshipping it.  They're triton heretics who have turned their back on Poseidon, and the Obelisk represents Dagon, who they consider a scaly lord of the deep.  Furthermore, Dagon is trapped in the Obelisk itself!  In truth, Dagon is no god or demon, but was an Atlantean sorcerer imprisoned in the rock by Poseidon before the sinking of Atlantis.  The Obelisk was retrieved from the depths and hidden in the dungeon by Dagon's followers - it was brought up from the sea caves below.  The Obelisk communicates telepathically and can strike unbelievers who touch the stone blind.  Smashing the Obelisk destroys the magic prison and releases Dagon from an interdimensional space.  He's now an insane wizard with a god-complex and a bad attitude.  Great fun, right?

This is why jamming together a bunch of random results from giant mega tables is entertaining.  Dagon the mad wizard could make for an interesting campaign plot twist if the Obelisk is ever found and broken.  I doubt I would have put something like it in that area of the dungeon without being forced to reconcile some random inputs.

I hope this series has been helpful.  I'm at close to 500 rooms for Taenarum, the new dungeon, and a big part of why it's going so quickly is having tools that I like.  Whether the end result is good or not is a judgment best reserved for my players, but the two groups seem to be enjoying the campaign so far.  We got in a couple of family games over the holiday weekend, so I'll have some game reports before the end of the week.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Excel and Random Dungeon Stocking

If you're familiar with a programming language, you can go pretty far in automating a random dungeon .  Not everyone is a programmer, but lots of people use Microsoft's Excel - it's been a workplace standard forever, and lots of students get access to Office at university.   Here are some tips on generating basic content with Excel that anyone can try.

The 1980 Moldvay edition red book for D&D has a simple stocking approach on page B52 - one d6 roll for room contents, and a second d6 roll for treasure.  Today we'll automate those rolls in Excel.  The first Excel function we'll look at is RANDBETWEEN - it generates a random number between two end points.  For instance, type "=RANDBETWEEN(1,6)" in an open cell in Excel to generate a number from 1 to 6 (omit the quotation marks when you put it in Excel).

Because of how quickly you can copy formulas between cells in Excel, this is also handy for generating lots of random numbers without rolling dice.  I always have a spreadsheet open to the side when I'm running a game, with around 20 cells of "=RANDBETWEEN(1,8)" to generate lots of hit dice for wandering monsters.  I have similar lines for other common hit dice values - "=RANDBETWEEN(1,8)-1" for those 1-1 HD monsters like goblins (treating zeroes like ones) or "=RANDBETWEEN(1,8)+1" for hobgoblins.  You can add multiple results together -  "=RANDBETWEEN(1,8)+RANDBETWEEN(1,8)" adds two 8-sided rolls together for a 2 HD monster.  You can use this approach to generate ability scores on the fly for NPCs - a formula like the next one generates an ability score between 3 and 18:


I leave one cell free on the sheet where I type a letter or number - you'll see that whenever you make a change to that cell, all of the random values reset, effectively 'rerolling' all the random numbers.  There are many rolls that are important to roll in front of the players - attack rolls and monster saving throws, for instance.  But for set up items like hit points, it's great to have this kind of thing handy while you're running a session.

Getting back to the dungeon stocker, let’s take a look at using the IF function in Excel (a simple type of if-then-else you'll see a programmer use) and marry it up with our random roll.  We can nest a couple of "If" statements to generate room content in line with Moldvay's tables.  Assume you've put your 1-6 die roll in cell A1.  In cell B1, go ahead and put in a formula like this:  "=IF(A1<3,"Monster",IF(A1=3,"Trap",IF(A1=4,"Special","Empty")))"

Breaking it down step by step, the formula first checks to see if the dice roll is less than 3 (meaning a result of 1 or 2) in which case the value is "monster".  If it's not a result of 1 or 2, it checks to see if the result is 3, yielding "trap"; it goes on to check if the value is 4 (special) and anything else is "empty".  Simple, right?

We need to add a second dice roll for treasure in cells C1 and D1.  In C1, go ahead and put another d6 roll - "=RANDBETWEEN(1,6)" - and in cell D1, put a slightly more complicated "IF" formula like this:

"=IF(AND(B1="Monster",C1<4),"Treasure",IF(AND(B1="Trap",C1<3),"Treasure",IF(C1<2,"Unguarded Treasure","No Treasure")))"

By using IF and AND, we're able to evaluate two results at the same time - the room contents we generated previously and the new dice roll - to see if treasure is present.

To finish up today, go ahead and copy the four cells down the page.  An easy way to do it is to highlight the four cells containing formulas (A1, B1, C1, D1).  In the bottom right corner of cell D1 there is a little square in the highlighted outline - by clicking on it, holding, and dragging your cursor down the sheet, you can auto-copy the formulas down the page.  This way you can generate the contents of lots of rooms at once.

Even if you don't plan to do any random dungeon stocking, the random number generation available in Excel is really useful.  Let me know what you think.  In part 2 I'll cover how the VLOOKUP function can be used to retrieve actual content results from our content tables to make the stocker provide a little more value.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Game 3 - He took an Ogre to the Knee...

We left off last week with the regular group arriving at "the market", a place deep on the second level where denizens of the underworld crept towards the surface to trade with the surface dwellers.  The players had hired themselves out (as first level characters) as bodyguards to a trader and his retinue.

While Kyriakos the trader set about to conducting his business, the players wandered the market.  Grey dwarves rubbed shoulders with cloaked and masked strangers - referred to obliquely as "the Faceless".  A pair of nymphs wandered through, and the party saw multiple hags bartering with outsiders.  Other humans included goth-garbed followers of Hades, and other merchants like Kyriakos.  Narkessa, a blind seer, offered prophecies from behind a screen, but they never saw what kind of creature is Narkessa.  The players could only window shop, since they're fairly poor.  They learned there was an adjacent hospice run by one of the grey dwarves, and they were able to afford a place to sleep despite the exorbitant cost.

During all this mingling, they paid a guard some 'information money' to learn a little about the dungeon outside the market.  This part of the dungeon had a large temple to Ares and a cult of bloodthirsty followers of the war god.  The market was neutral ground.  A band of Amazons established a hideout somewhere south of the market and were conducting raids on the Ares cult.  There was also a witch that often came to visit the market.  But the most important thing they learned is that there are nearby stairs going up and down!  A shortcut up to level 1 would cut the trip to the market by half at least.  Agreeing to meet back up with Kyriakos later in the day, the adventurers left the market to scout for the stairs.

The stairs up weren't too hard to find, and they ascended back to the level 1 dungeon to look around.  Almost immediately, the air was split by the sound of a klaxon - the ear-splitting screech of "shriekers".  Matthias thought this was worth a Burning Hands spell, and scorched the shriekers; the melee guys quickly finished them off.  However, the damage was done, and within a minute, a troop of patrolling skeletal hoplites marched into the room from the north and assaulted the party.

Even the regular group has a couple of kids in it (three sons of dads - all twelve year olds).  Every time Connell the Celt does something, the kids all start singing "Con-nell, he's the greatest warrior ever, a hero of renown…" and playing air guitar - I realized they've given him the Billy-song from Adventure Time.  I can see how they think of Connell a bit like Billy - Connell just runs headlong into most fights, swinging a giant 2-handed axe.

This is pretty much how the kids treat Connell the NPC
Billy, er… Connell, indeed ran headlong into the skeletons, busting out "berserkergang", a proficiency.  A couple other guys joined him, and they quickly smashed the first rank.  Then Mack called on Hephaestus to banish the undead, and a successful turn undead roll drove the skeletons away.

The last room of the night was far to the south.  The players were trying to find an easier way back to the main road out of the dungeon.  They found a large room where the walls are completely filled with bright mosaic tiles.  Outlined in the tiles are the likenesses of various monsters - a lizard man, a goblin, a white ape, and so forth.  Searching the walls, they found a secret door, but as they touched the wall, the mosaic of the ogre they touched flashed briefly; the ogre mosaic disappeared, and suddenly two very real ogres materialized in the room behind them.  Yikes!

Two ogres for first level guys is rough.  Necro-Leo (Leonidas the Necromancer) had a Sleep spell for one of them.  When he does his sleep spell, a black cloud appears above the target and the victim dreams black thoughts - or so the player tells me.  For the remaining ogre, they went to wolf-pack tactics, getting 4 melee guys around the ogre  so they could take it out quickly.

Connell got smashed by the ogre's club, below zero hit points, and went flying out of the fight.  The other guys cut down the ogre before anyone else got smashed; the dwarf crushed the ogre's leg with his hammer, and then skull cracked it when it dropped.  It was a big night for Mack the Dwarf.

The death and dying rules for ACKS are quite a bit different than regular D&D.  Basically, the guy is considered to be lying there in an indeterminate dying state (or not - Schrödinger's dying character) until someone checks on him, and then you make a roll to see the extent of the injuries.  In this case, Connell was just below zero hit points, Necro Leo was a trained healer and got to him immediately, and Necro Leo rolled amazingly high on a giant 'mortal wounds' table.  Connell was only knocked out, and recovered with 1 hp - but he now has a permanent injury, a -1 to initiative due to scarring - perhaps a bad knee.  After which Moe immediately quipped, "I used to be an adventurer like you, until I took an ogre to the knee…"

After the ogre fight, the remaining mosaic tiles in the room had faded.  They could still see the outlines of the other monsters, but they were no longer vivid.  Where the ogre mosaic used to be, there was now a keyhole for an oversized skeleton key.  A mystery for later.

The players were low on resources and hit points.  They made their way back down the stairs to the market on level 2, meeting back up with Kyriakos and his retainers.  The plan is to use the hospice room to rest overnight in the dungeon, regain spells and some hit points, and then escort the traders back to the surface.  They need to try and recruit a couple more zero level guys back in town to act as fighters.

Sadly - no family-kids game this weekend.  Another sleepover foiled my attempt to get everyone to the game table.  My children clearly have more of a social life than myself.  : sigh :

Cast of Characters
Moe, a Bard
Talus, a Magic User
Mack, a Dwarven Craftpriest
Leonidas, a Necromancer (Necro Leo)
Connell (Billy) - NPC

Missed the Game:
Etor the Explorer
Alantir, Paladin of Poseidon

*Image is "Billy" from the Adventure Time cartoon

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Developing the Dungeon through Progressive Elaboration

I'm a general manager these days, but most of my industry experience is in IT project management.  Software projects are notoriously high risk and prone to under-delivering or killing the budget.  Over the past 10 to 15 years, different approaches to structuring  software projects have come into vogue to help guide the creative process.  I always enjoy seeing how I can apply stuff learned on the day job to the night job - campaign creation.  Your campaign development is a work product.

Traditional project approaches use a structure called 'waterfall'.  All the activities of a phase are completed before moving on to the next set of activities.  In software terms, that would be identifying all the requirements for the software first, then creating designs and blueprints, then building it, then testing it, and so on.  The work product from the previous phase is an input flowing into the next phase, usually represented through a step chart (gantt chart), therefore the term 'waterfall'.  In campaign creation, you could imagine creating all the hex maps first, then maps for all the towns and cities, then descriptions of all the towns, and so on - exhausting one activity completely before moving on to the next thing.

Scrum (a type of "agile development") is focused on quickly getting a working iteration of software published, putting it in front of the customer, and moving on to the next iteration while incorporating feedback and customer insights.  If the waterfall approach had you building one large layer at a time, the Scrum approach involves a 'vertical slice of the cake' that has a snapshot of all the layers accounted for in that mini product.  In dungeon terms, imagine creating a few rooms, fully mapped and detailed and keyed and packaged, and then getting some players to experience those limited rooms.  You'd incorporate what you learned in the first game session when you prepared for the next session.  That;s a bit like a Scrum project.  I'd say most just-in-time campaign creation uses that approach.

The approach I've been taking with Taenarum involves "progressive elaboration".  There was a software project management approach championed by IBM in the late 90's called "RUP" - the rational unified process - that used progressive elaboration as a core method.  One of the driving metaphors was developing a walking skeleton, and slowly adding on to the skeleton the way a sculptor would add clay to a metal frame.

In Taenarum, I've started with expansive maps of the dungeon levels, without adding too many details - just the layouts and number of rooms.  I make some notes on the theme of the level, and a list of monsters to plug into the random stocker.  Then I use a random stocker to quickly add raw content to the rooms.  These few things give me that underlying 'metal frame' - the walking skeleton.  Sometime later I do another pass over the level, harmonizing  and rationalizing the random results to make it either coherent or interesting… (and sometimes even both).  Doors, secret doors, and other map objects get added in.  Treasure is added where appropriate - first as gross sums to balance the level, and then it gets decomposed into more interesting forms when time permits.

Here's an example.  After the first pass through the random generator, I'd have an entry like this:  Room 7, monster & treasure:  Traders.  Next it becomes a 'trader camp' with 5 traders and 800gp treasure.  On the third pass through, I decide to give the main guy a name and personality (table driven) and change the raw treasure total into something more interesting.  (Pro tip:  the ACKS book has handy tables for trade goods as replacement treasures for coins - the tables are massively useful, regardless of system).  Here's how the final room ended up looking in my notes:
7.  Trader Camp
Pillared chamber used as a camp by a party of traders led by Kyriakos of Gytheio - a handsome man with earrings and the attitude of a practical joker.
5 Traders (level 1 fighters) and 3 slaves (normal men).   Incidental weapons (spears, clubs) and leather armor
Trade goods:
6 bundles of fox pelts (90gp total)
2 casks of distilled wine (400gp total)
3 rugs (15gp total)
8 weeks of food, water (40gp value)
100gp, 1500sp
10 +1 arrows with bronze tips, carefully wrapped
I use a little excel sheet to generate hit points on the fly, and can improvise or derive combat stats as necessary, so I'd usually never put that kind of thing in my notes.

You may wonder - why bother with all those iterative passes over the same material, when I could have jumped right to creating the entry for room 7 on the first pass?  It comes down to balancing scope and detail.  The barebones version of the level, with a map and raw content, lets me improvise as necessary if the players wander farther into the dungeon than are fully prepared.  Any one of us could improvise a room like the Trader Room - the worst case is that it might slow the game down a little if you need to roll a bunch of dice at the table.  By starting with the skeletal framework, I've been able to sit down with a couple of hundred more rooms available than otherwise - Taenarum is over 300 rooms in just a few weeks of development.  The finishing details get added as time permits, or when I know there's a good chance the players will visit a given area in an upcoming session.

Back before I mused about becoming the Anti-Beedo, I was definitely a 'vertical slice of cake' kind of referee, who would have completely finished  Room 7 Trader Camp before moving on to Room 8 - I developed things serially.  Anti-Beedo wants to cover as much ground as possible, and is willing to leave the finer details ambiguous until time permits or it's necessary for clarity.  The approach is working, and I've been happy with Anti-Beedo's results so far.  I have more dungeon material in Taenarum in just a few weeks than I had in the Black City after many many months.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Dungeon Gold and the Nearby Town

There are a handful of small things that are different between ACKS and the other retro clones in delivering that classic dungeon delving experience; the big area where ACKS is significantly different is the amount of space allocated to setting creation and campaigning.  The core rules balance detail and utility to provide a straightforward approach to structuring domains, from the largest cities down to the smallest villages.  If the player characters stumble into an otherwise non descript village, answering these types of questions is a snap - the odds of finding a few hirelings, whether there's a cleric with a cure disease spell, or just how tough is the local knight.  There's nothing stopping a referee from winging it based on the needs of the story, but in ACKS, you don't actually have to wing it.  There's an underlying method.

One area where I found the rules silent was the effect adventurers have on a local economy.  Characters return to town with thousands of gold pieces over the course of a level, and the local lord is taxing them along the way.  10% seems to be a fair rate, both in ACKS and from the 1E DMG's recommendations.  If the player characters are the only adventurers in the area, perhaps there isn't a noticeable effect from an occasional windfall to the local lord.  If you’re using scattered lairs across the countryside, the effect of adventurers is diffused.  But when you're considering a well-known megadungeon, with lots of rival adventuring parties launching similar excursions, the amount of gold returning from the dungeon becomes significant.  A week ago, I pointed out how a standard party would return a few million gold pieces from a 10 level megadungeon.  That's a lot of money to tax.

Castle Greyhawk wasn't that far from the free city of Greyhawk.  Adventurer's gold wouldn't warp the economy of a major city.  But how about that frontier village or borderlands castle where a stream of dungeon gold represents more revenue than the annual economy of the place?

What I'm doing in the Taenarum game is assuming that consistent exploration (and retrieval of dungeon gold) has shifted the economy of the village higher on the revenue charts.  The charts use population to derive the base income, market class, and demographics of the village.  The dungeon gold gives the town more income than an equivalent village that isn't near a giant megadungeon.  This results in a higher class of market - more readily available adventurer goods and hirelings - along with a tougher local thieves' guild and a stronger local ruler.  It's a nod towards the gold rush \ boom town effect where glory seekers head to the frontier to find their fortunes, along with merchants and specialists to service them.  However, it's only shifting the class of market slightly when compared to other small habitations.  The player characters still need to travel to the nearest major city for significant expenditures, powerful spells, and rare items.

Adventurers are knuckleheads, and putting a lot of them in the same place at the same time guarantees tavern-clearing brawls that spill into the streets.  Our little frontier town needs a "sheriff".  The higher income supports a demographic shift for the major NPC's in the town - an in-game explanation for why the local lord is a retired 8th level fighter, or why there's a higher level cleric on hand for 3rd level spells.

One area I'm less knowledgeable about is inflation.  Do any of you put inflation into your games?  In Taenarum, the village of Psammathous Bay is less than a day's journey by boat to the nearest city.  It's not that far for resupply.  Still, it seems reasonable to assume adventuring gear is at a premium.  ACKS has some arbitrage rules.  They seem like the next thing to look at to determine an appropriate inflationary modifier for adventurer gear on the frontier - as long as it's not too complicated.  At the end of the day, it's still a game about the dungeons and the dragons, and not papers and paychecks.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Taenarum Game 2 - This Little Piggy Went to Market

Players!  If there's a choice out there that sounds interesting, they're going to take it.  You'd better be ready, DM!  That's my cautionary note from last week's game.

We only had one game night last weekend instead of two.  My daughter decided it was more exciting to have a little girl sleep over with a bunch of her friends.  D&D lost out to American Girl Dolls.  That's fine, the family game night should be back on for this weekend.  The regulars were able to come as planned the following night.

Lykourgos, proprietor of the adventurer's guild hall, commended them on surviving their first week, but also remarked that 150gp wasn't enough to get them on the scoreboard.  "If I put every adventurer group that survived one or two trips into the dungeon and came back with a little gold, the wall would be full of the nobodies.  Survive a few excursions and get a thousand gold or more, then we're talking.  You'd still have a long way to go to be like the Nine".

A new player joined this week, playing "Mack", a dwarven craftpriest of Hephaestus.  Once the recruitment and introductions were in order, Moe's Marauders made the sun drenched walk down the peninsula to the sea cliffs where the brooding entrance to Taenarum beckoned.

This time they followed the massive main passage, remarking on the detailed frieze near the ceiling showing scenes of daily life - ordinary folks stalked by little winged deaths.  The road to the Underworld is broad and wide, and everyone walks it eventually, or so it implied.

Where the main passage turned northward, a split appeared in the wall, forming a black-lipped magic mouth with gruesome teeth, enunciating this short message:

Tablet, key and door rewards
with treasures from the death god's hoards;
In order to conclude the quests,
You'll need to find the seven chests.

Heading north, the players found a typical dungeon side passage, and down the side passage was a door.  Connell, their burly Celt, slammed it open, and they were surprised to see a lit room with a handful of humans camped out.  These men, traders, ended up surprised as well, so the two groups scrambled for position and warily got ready for combat.

The NPCs were understrength compared to the party, and it was obvious they were traders with quite a few trade goods.  It was a perfect murder hobo opportunity.  Instead, Moe and Alantir stepped out to talk to the leader and diffuse the situation.  The leader was a handsome guy with an earring named 'Kyriakos of Gytheio', and he was intent on finding the dungeon market on level 2 - 'where the creatures of the underworld meet in truce with surface dwellers and trade underworld rarities…'

Moe immediately blurted out - "We'll guide you there for a modest fee.  Looks like you could use a strong escort."  The wide-eyed guardsmen of Kyriakos huddled with their boss and seemed pretty happy to accept help.  You wonder  if he told them they were going deep underground into a scary dungeon when they were first hired.

Moe's Marauders had heard a rumor in town about a dungeon market, where hags and dark dwarves and creepy inhabitants offer safe haven to surface dwellers that come to trade.  Not knowing anything about the size and scope of the dungeon, it was fairly entertaining that they immediately volunteered to go down there.  An accord was reached with Kyriakos and his men, and they all set out shortly thereafter.  Kyriakos explained that members of his merchant house back in the city of Gytheio roughly knew the way to the market, but this was his first trip.  The great road to Hades spiraled down into the earth, with sprawling dungeon corridors to each side, but as long as you stayed to the main road, you'd reach the market - assuming you survived.

Of course, the players didn't realize it would take them about 6 hours (game time).  The main road spiraled through areas where the floors were worn smooth by countless feet, and the sound of bones clicking on polished marble echoed in the dark.  There as an area where roots and growth of unknown vines threatened to clog the passages.  Another area bespoke of habitation, with sconces mounted on the walls and small oil lamps lighting the way.

There were a lot of 'wandering monster' checks.  The party encountered a patrol of Pig Men.  They butchered a group of goblins fleeing out of a side passage, and then quickly moved on so they wouldn't have to face the 'Red Horror' that the goblins were fleeing.  On level 2, a shambling crowd of moaning zombies shuffled out of the darkness ahead.  The most interesting encounter was with a floating, skeletal figure with piercing red eyes and a burnished crown.  The characters were such low level they were frozen rigid on the spot, most unable to even meet the lich's gaze.  Lord Skotos is the "Dungeon Master", charged by Hades with adding new areas and traps to the dungeon.  After scaring the bejeezus out of the players, the floating skeleton merely admonished them, "Don't destroy anything in my dungeon.  I don't like it".  I can honestly boast my first level party encountered a lich as a wandering monster.

They finally made it to the turn off for the market right as we were nearing time in the session.   A pair of ashen, black clad dwarves lurked in a side passage, illuminated by a smoky torch.  They whispered it was 'This way to the market', and the party headed the way the dwarves indicated.  Dwarves in the campaign are broadly separated into two bloodlines, the tan skinned followers of the Forge God, who favor volcanic mountains and the crafting of exquisite devices; the others are the sullen, ash-skinned followers of Hades as Pluto, god of wealth and the underworld.  These 'dark dwarves' have foresworn the surface for mining the veins of the earth, and they're known to cavort with the undead.

There's no way Kyriakos and his men would have survived the trip to the market without the players.  "Whatever we agreed to pay you, it wasn't enough", Kyriakos remarked, as the injured travelers entered the underground market.  We stopped there, with the players about to enter a strange place, far deeper into the dungeon than any first level party can be expected to go.  Aren't sandbox games fun?

Cast of Characters
Etor the Explorer
Alantir, Paladin of Poseidon
Moe, a Bard
Talus, a Magic User
Mack, a Dwarven Craftpriest
Connell (NPC)

Missed the Game:
Leonidas, a Necromancer
Olympos, an Assassin

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Revisiting the Magic Shoppe

You've got a problem, DM.  Your players are going to earn a lot of gold over the course of their dungeoneering careers (somewhere around 4 million gp).  Unless that money goes somewhere, the quest for treasure is going to lose its motivating force.  On the other hand, draining the coffers through taxes or training costs is fairly irritating.

The campaign should encourage the players to shape the world - provide reasons to build things, hire people, use that wealth to exert force against the setting.  But don't discount the idea of buying magic items, either.  The popular imagination jumps to Crazy Eddie's franchise of Ye Olde Magic Shoppes, one in every city, where "the prices are so low they're practically insaaaaane!"

Let's step back and look at what happens in the real world with rare, unique, and precious items.  They’re typically bought and sold at auctions.  There's a fun Call of Cthulhu adventure (The Auction House) that takes place at a Vienna locale where various occult and mythos artifacts come up for sale - including the Brazen Head.  Half of the fun of that particular adventure is the roleplaying opportunity introduced by meeting all the weird visitors to the auction and trying to appraise and research the provenance of the items before the auction begins.

Apply some imagination and make the commercial side of it worth playing out at the table.  The campaign is already built upon interesting NPC's - perhaps the magic auction is something that happens a few times a year, invitation-only to characters of a certain reputation and wealth.  It's somewhere exotic and secret, attended by the agents of emperors and kings and wizards, and rivals of the adventurers, past and present.  Competition at the auction can easily spill over to the streets once the auction is done - the agents of the Warlord of Thar don't take it lying down when they've been outbid on that heirloom Atlantean sword coveted by his august presence, Thar of the Shining Horde.  Just learning about the auction house itself requires footwork and becomes its own adventure.  It sure sounds like a memorable way to let the players spend a few hundred thousand gold.

Commissioning items is the same - make it quest driven and advance the development of the campaign world.  For Taenarum, the campaign in development now, I'm planning on having the 'Forge Followers of Hephaestus' as a remote sect of dwarves and priests whose holy mission is to craft imbued items in homage to the forge god.  Traveling to their volcanic shrine and commissioning a suit of golden plate armor is an end in itself.  Or perhaps the wizard Darius the Proud refuses to be outdone by his rivals in distant Araby, and can be motivated to craft those Boots of Speed because of a story that a desert wizard did it first.  The key is to put the onus on the players to do their own research, travel plans, and role playing to find creative reasons to spend their money on the items they want or need.  As referee, you just need to leave the door open - none of this "No one ever buys or sells magic items in MY campaigns…"

People with too much money buy and sell rare and unique items every day in the real world.  It's going to happen in the fantasy world too - you just need to figure out how to make it interesting.