Tuesday 27 June 2023

Combo Encounters

I’m a big proponent of rolling twice on an encounter table and combining the results. 1d6 goblins plus a wandering knight becomes stumbling across a knight fending off goblins mid-battle, or a lost knight who has convinced the gobbos she is their god and keeps giving you “play along” looks, or whatever.

However! I’m also a big proponent of not making extra work at the table. Work isn’t bad, and games probably aren’t games if there isn’t at least a *little* work somewhere, but at the end of the day we’re here to play. And making stuff up on the spot is work, even if it can be fun, and gets in the way of play.

So instead of getting the GM to come up with what these combos mean at the table, how about writing your encounter tables as a list of combos in the first place? This has the added benefit of starting a lot of your writing for you - coming up with 3 encounters, then combining them in every possible way (1+1, 1+2, 1+3, 2+2, 2+3 and 3+3) basically doubles your initial ideas. You can also show some of the location’s faction interactions of ecology in a more direct and useful way.

This example table is loosely based on the first “stratum” of the megadungeon in Etrian Odyssey V (which I recently dredged up my old 3DS to play again once I saw how much they’re charging for the new Switch remasters). That game has some fun inter-monster interactions in encounters, but with our medium we can of course go further!

1. Acorn-men + Acorn-men. These cheeky little bastards are born when wildfire spirits settle in hollow nuts and fruit pits. Love making noise and mischief. Water douses their spark. When multiple groups gather, they have loud and raucous parties that can start forest fires if left unchecked.

2. Acorn-men + Wild hog. Hogs love eating fallen nuts from the forest floor, and do not seem to care if the nuts come alive and protest. Consuming the wildfire spirits within gives them temporary flame breath.

3. Acorn-men + Flinging vine. The long, green tendrils that hang from boughs here are in fact not vines but a type of parasite. They are blind but react to touch, coiling their sticky bodies around their victims and bashing them against tree trunks or throwing them as far as they can. This causes the acorn-men to explode.

4. Wild hog + Wild hog. A breeding pair, the larger stronger female holding back unless threatened, the smaller, aggressive male picking fights with anything that enters their territory. As they need to bulk up to feed and defend the coming offspring, they are easily distracted by food and will go for the simplest target.

5. Wild hog + flinging vine. Smaller hogs are easily flung aside and know to stay away. The largest seem to enjoy the tug of war and sometimes even pull the parasites down from their perches. The disconnected vine then flails wildly like a whip, sticking fast to the hog until it dies.

6. Flinging vine + Flinging vine. When two or more vines get tangled, they unintentionally create a deadly trap. Touching the knotted vines causes them all to pull and attempt flinging at once, which can bring down the trees they are attached to and crush their would-be prey.

Friday 16 June 2023

1d6 Fun Crimes

 I love character creation in Graverobbers. It can take less than a minute, it’s thematically relevant and you can die. That being said what’s out right now is still the Bare Bones, and I’ve had all sorts of ideas rattling around for how to flesh them out, add more (optional) steps to chargen.

The issue is the same one that always occurs when adding rules, especially to minimalist stuff, which is whether the added steps of mechanical complexity justify their effects. I’m a harsh judge of this stuff, and none of my previous concepts panned out. I wanted something like MoSh’s d100 patches or trinkets, elegant and dense with flavour, but more specific. Also something tuned as much towards straight up gameability as character - like Bastionland’s failed careers (check last post for a great video on these)

Anyway, long story long, this week I cracked it. The way the Pocket Guide is shaping up so far there’ll be a little space, so right now the plan is to fill it with d66 Minor Offences. These are extra crimes to accuse your characters of during creation. Nothing as involved or career-criminal as the main Crimes, but still actual things from London’s irl history.

They’re mainly about selling, stealing, swindling or causing some kind of public nuisance. Each comes with one item, and I’m already having way too much fun rolling up little weirdos and seeing how these juxtapose with the other facets on the sheet. And just seeing them all in a list gives me the clearest image I’ve had of this city of criminals. Can’t wait to share.

While I tinker with these and get them to play testing, there are exactly 6 in the list that my word processor is putting that squiggly red line underneath that says they’re not real words. They are, just obsolete - so I thought I’d do a little dive on each one and its real history!

Cogger. Just an old word for a dice cheat, cog meaning “trick” but generally around games of dice. Nothing that fun around this one but it’s a nice word, and the item you get with it (pair of dice, 4d) makes it self-explanatory. As I’ve said before, any time i use a weird old word or esoteric reference it should be clear from context or eminently googleable

Maltooler. So as it turns out Victorian London had a lot of specific words for pickpockets and petty thieves, dependent on what one was stealing and how. An old version of this list had more of them but I whittled it down to the best ones. A Maltooler used specialist tools to pickpocket as opposed to doing it by hand, things like little knives to cut purses or even tiny mechanical grabber claws. my version starts with a magnet which is fun

Overmourner. The only one that’s not a word - overmourn is, and means what you think. But did you know it’s illegal in England to linger at a grave after a funeral? I could find records from as recently as 2015 of someone getting the rozzers called on them and incurring a fine for lingering too long at a loved one’s graveside. This fucking country man

Pudding-snammer. One of the highly specific thief terms. These were people who grabbed stuff off you as you were exiting, say, a bakery. I enjoy that these say as much or as little as you want about a character - remembering that these are alleged crimes. Maybe you bought that apple turnover fair and square, who’s to say.

Tregetour. Someone who does tricks and magic, often a juggler which is the usage I’m going for here. A lot of these petty crimes are victimless, just people going about their day or trying to earn a living, but the idea is that players get more of an insight into the anti-canon and what exactly the House considers worthy of legal retribution.

Whipjack. And finally… a couple on the list are terms for specific varieties of scam artist. A whipjack is someone who pretended to be a sailor, out of luck and stranded due to a shipwreck or some such. Like this one guy who for years used to push his motorbike up and down a street near me, stop cars and ask for petrol money. Wonder where he is now. Probably not far, he’s got no petrol.

The final list will have 30 more of these, and you’ll find it in the Pocket Guide to Smocklehythe or some supplementary material thereof. Get it now while it’s cheap!

Tuesday 13 June 2023

It Came From The Blogosphere: The Return

 I used to do this more often, sorry! Blog posts I’ve read recently that I liked. Just so happens that a bunch of really good ones have come along in relatively short succession, hence:

Zedeck just posted about how Tone Is Bullshit and I concur! I’ve had questions of tone rattling around in my head lately as I create more Graverobbers stuff, but those always go out the window when it comes to actually writing or playing. Of course art can be funny and scary and sad. That’s life!

(“But you write for a horror rpg” yes and there is always a cat on the spaceship or an NPC called Kevin Tremendous. Also MoSh doesn’t attempt to scare its players, just their characters, but that’s a discussion for another time sooooooo)

I always enjoy Marcia’s very thorough yet accessible looks at old D&D from a modern context, and this overview of Collapsed Tiers of Play is no different! It’s neat to see how old assumptions in the rules have turned into something more… approachable? through play over time. And I love the whole dungeon/town loop, so good food for thought in this one.

I bounce off “proper, academic” texts like criminal charges off a cop, so it’s a testament to Enziramire’s writing that I was so engrossed by An Empty Africa, a look into Pathfinder’s attempt to do an African fantasy setting. Well argued and researched, and while it’s not something I can speak to directly it helps me think about how I use “real places” when designing game worlds.

Speaking of - one last blog, non-gaming this time! The London Dead is, if you’ve read any of my Graverobbers stuff, clearly going to be a perfect source of inspiration from the name alone. I appreciate David’s insights and stories into how we treat our dead and death in general. (I’m glad the first I learned of the Hardy Tree’s falling was in the recent post about it’s possible regrowth!)

Side note - Chris “Bastionland” McDowall does great live streams over on his YouTube channel, reading through and playing games, giving thoughts and insight. Check out his recent flip-through of BREAK!!, and tune in tonight where he’ll be going through Electric Bastionland’s failed careers - definitely worth a watch!

That’s it for now! Happy reading x

Thursday 8 June 2023

Building Smocklehythe - Slang & Sundries

The thievery was boasted about and romanticized until it seemed a kind of heroism. It did not have any taint of criminality and the whole of the south coast had pockets vying with one another over whose smugglers were the darkest or most daring.” - Paul Theroux

Work continues apace on A Pocket Guide to Smocklehythe, the upcoming starter set for GRAVEROBBERS, my ttrpg system for adventure games of stealth & sedition. A reminder that you can buy in now and get the Bare Bones, then get all the rest of it for free when it’s finished and goes up to full price. Click here!

The final version changes shape as it grows. What was going to be two adventure sites is now one, the Smocklehythe Sewers: a fun little dungeon of foul tunnels players will have to smuggle items through - and can delve into for tosh. (I’m expanding the other site, the Old Graving Dock into its own thing and planning to release it alongside the final Guide, so if anything Smocklehythe is expanding rather than shrinking.)

While I was able to fit both in the tiny format I’m allowing myself for the guide (13 sides of A6!), it felt almost too minimalist, even for me. I’m so used to whittling down and distilling things into pamphlets and one-shots that it feels nice to loosen the belt a little tbh!

Also leaving the core Guide are all the little gubbins I wanted to add on, “flavour” stuff like the recipes and in-game card game. I’m being as ruthless as I can with only including the essentials in the Pocket Guide itself (going as far as having practically 0 NPCs because the game technically doesn’t need them), and as much as I love that kind of fluff it isn’t 100% necessary to gameplay (the fishing minigame is staying, dw. That’s essential). I want to collect it all and release it alongside instead, like the Old Graving Dock adventure. Maybe as a handout.

One thing I’m thinking of putting in there is a guide to rhyming slang. I had the pleasure of seeing the new Spider-Verse last week, and while there’s a million things to gush over in that movie, how they realised Spider Punk honestly meant a lot to me. It’s not usual to see working class Londoners celebrated like that, the way we talk especially. Daniel Kaluuya absolutely killed it. BIG STEPPAAAAA

Anyway, there’s a visual side gag in that movie “translating” some of Hobie’s rhyming slang, which sort of connected some dots in my brain that had been floating about for a while. I’m at an advantage in running Graverobbers, being from the part of the world its world is based on. I can pull out authentic accents, reference places, etc fairly easily. Packaging that up so that any Dealer running the game can do the same is impossible, and the only way I’d thought to come close would be through huge, boring lore dumps - pretty much the antithesis of how I make games.

So while I’d have loved to include a guide to fictional Lanton slang on that “fluff” handout, it didn’t seem doable. It also feels disingenuous - slang is natural speech that evolves through group communication, not a code you learn from a book. The best Smocklehythe slang would always be what each table comes up with. So I can’t prescribe anything anyway, really. But! If we present it as a game…

I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of this sooner tbh - just use actual Cockney rhyming slang. (A perfect fit. It’s literal thieves’ cant, just like how toshing is literal dungeon delving. See? I know what I’m doing) The twist is to not pre-list any terms and make it an exercise in lore-learning, but to give players the mechanics necessary to generate their own at the table (if they want to, obviously this is all optional funsies). And for that I’m literally just going to lay out the actual mechanics by which rhyming slang is devised.

Which, if you’re unfamiliar: take the word you want to say, substitute a rhyming phrase, then (usually) leave out the end (the bit that rhymes). Now each group can take that formula and do what they want with it. I’m guessing mostly making jokes, but for the one or two groups where something sticks, it’ll be a proprietary and completely unique part of their game’s world. (And idc about people doing it wrong or embarrassing themselves with dodgy accents, because I don’t have to play at their tables lol. As long as they’re having fun!)

Anyway, I think that’s most of it. Other than that I’m just scouring local history for more fun bits to put into the dungeons! No spoilers, but I did just come up with something based on playwright Christopher Marlowe. Specifically how he was murdered in a Deptford pub (probs by the queen’s assassins) and buried in an unmarked grave at the nearby medieval-era church of St Nicholas - the skull-and-crossbones gateposts of which (pictured below), according to legend, inspired Captain Morgan (yes, that one) to invent the Jolly Roger. I love this shit man

Don’t forget to check out Graverobbers here! More soon x