Thursday, June 27, 2013

Mapping in the Underdark

The new Dwarf-based Next playtest game we are starting is going to have a significant underground component to it - which means I've had to think about both above and below-ground mapping.

I'm pretty happy with how the aboveground map is turning out, and combining it with landscape/location shots on the tumlr is something that I think is really nice.  Great to give a visual feeling to the locations.  I'm also setting up a scaling world map, with nested hexes for increased detail.  All very nice and working well.

Underdark mapping is harder, though.  It doesn't lend itself well to a traditional hex or wilderness map, since your choices are limited to specific paths or routes.  This makes it inherently a node or path-based map.

As far as I'm concerned, there are about 4 critical features that I, as the DM, need to know on an underdark map.

1) Physical connections between locations.  Since you are limited to following tunnels or routes when underground, I need to know which routes go where, and what areas/locations they connect to.

2) How physically difficult the route is.  Underground travel is much more physically demanding and difficult than overland travel - similar to high mountains, but with added hazards.  A challenging route would potentially include serious climbs, narrow areas and water hazards.  Challenging routes mean slower travel.

3) How dangerous the route is.  Similar to how difficult the route is, but this measures likelihood of hostile random encounters.  It is also an indicator of how often the route is patrolled by friendly forces, or how well-guarded/secure it is.  Dangerous routes mean more random encounters, and more unpleasant encounters.

4) Connections up or down.  If a route or area goes to the surface, that's a big deal.  Technically, underdark maps should be fully 3d, but in practical terms, it's easier to design in z-levels, like Dwarf Fortress maps, so identifying various "levels" of the underdark and mapping what areas and routes go down or up is helpful.

Now, my feeling is that a good map needs to be able to transmit all important information quickly and in an intuitive fashion.

Underdark Starting Map
This version is a bit zoomed out, but the basics should be visible.  The locations are flagged and ID'ed by name using a gold-medallion icon.  For the tunnels themselves, I use the following key:

Line thickness indicates the physical difficulty.  The thicker a line is, the easier it is to traverse.  Bold black lines are the underdark equivalent of a paved road, down to the very thin lines, which are basically unimproved cavern, with all the hazards that implies.

In terms of travel time, I double it for each of the 3 line thicknesses.  So a 1-day journey would be 2 days on a mid-thickness line and 4 days on a thin line.

Line color indicates the danger level of the route.

Black – Safe. (roll d4 on encounter chart)
Green – Somewhat safe. (roll d6 on encounter chart)
Yellow – Unsafe. (roll d8 on encounter chart)
Orange - Hazardous. (roll d10 on encounter chart)
Red – Extremely dangerous. (roll d12 on encounter chart)

I'm going to use an expanding-dice encounter chart with this.  By scaling the dice you roll, you can use a large encounter chart for all areas, allowing the dice you use to filter out the encounters appropriate for each type of area.  Something like this:

1 Merchant with porters.  Probably friendly, likely inclined to swap stories or trade.
2 Paths Guild scouts/patrol.  Brisk, professional, curious about what you’re up to.
3 Lone prospector.  Roll d8 for reaction (1-4, coming in looking tired and beat.  5-6, going out looking rested and ready to go.  7-8, WTF are you looking at?  You’ll never find it.  NEVER.)
4 Kobold raiders – d6 skulking raiders looking for something to steal.
5 Giant Spiders – d4 Giant spiders with a hunger on.
6 Pechs –d6 pechs doing inscrutable things that probably make traversing the cavern more difficult
7 Goblin snatchers – d10 goblins looking for something to kill, eat or mate with.  They ain’t picky, either.
8 Duergar patrol – 1 fist (5 duergar) on patrol. They will kill to ensure they aren’t reported.
9 Basilisk – d2 Basilisks.  They like their meat with a thin crunchy coating…
10. Grey ooze.  Hard to tell it’s there until your boots start melting.  Oh, you were sitting down?
11. Earth Elemental.  Roll d8 for reaction (1-2 Passing through, didn’t see you.  Roll 1 attack an all party members as it rumbles through.  3-4 Curious.  Will examine the party to see if they are hostile.  5-6 Meat-things bother me.  Will likely attack unless placated or party flees.  7-8.  Goddamn, these things are everywhere!  Attacks immediately)

12. Something really weird from the special encounter list.

Locations generally will have connection up/down info included in the description.  For smaller sites, they are depicted with a circle.  White center means it connects to the surface.  Black center means it connects to a lower level.  Grey center means it connects to both.  Blue center means no connections.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Earthshatter & Ring of Feline Grace


Earthshatter is a 2-handed Maul, forged from steel and meteoric iron, in the angular, geometric dwarven style.  The weapon strikes for 2d6+2 damage, is unbreakable, and once/day it’s wielder can unleash a blow that, if it lands on stone, throws shockwaves that do 2d6 damage to everyone within 10 feet of the wielder.   Engraved on one side of the hammer in dwarven runes are the words “Earthshatter am I.  Grungni made me to open the way.”  On the other is a network of finely carved, twisting lines with a small inlaid anvil set among them.

(Harley Stroh) If wielded by an ogre-kin, Earthshatter launches itself at the wielder, automatically inflicting a critical hit each round it is grasped. Earthshatter cannot distinguish between ogres and those simply wearing gauntlets of ogre power. 

(Zak S) Use of Earthshatter enrages the Lithic Gods. No elemental spell which calls on the earth will ever agree to aid the wielder of Earthshatter, even indirectly, and the wielder's save or armor class against any such attack will be at minus d6. Earth elementals, if called into the presence of Earthshatter for any reason, will not leave until the bearer of Earthshatter is destroyed. Stone giants can feel the shockwaves of Earthshatter and will scheme against the wielder.

Ring of Feline Grace

This simple ring appears to be carved from solid orangey stone, banded with black like a tortoiseshell cat.  If the wearer of the ring is struck by a critical hit, the black spots spread slightly and the critical is turned into a normal strike.  The ring will function d8+1 times before becoming useless.

 (Gus L) Upon exhaustion of the charges, the black spots will spread to the wearer, permanently disfiguring him with a leopard like pattern.  While this only reduces CHR by 1 point, it also causes animosity in all canine creatures (automatic -3 to reaction rolls).

(Zak S) Each time the ring functions, the wearer is seized by a wave of urbane apathy. S/he will immediately leave the party once combat ends and try to climb onto a nearby surface at least one foot above the head of the tallest party member and rest, licking his or her wounds until offered food.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

My Favorite NPC: Rohan Tomat

It's weird - when I think of NPC's that I've really liked, none of MY NPC's come to mind.  Which is actually pretty concerning.  Note to DM self - you need to spend more time on NPC's.

The NPC that really stands out from all the years of gaming was from our numerous Vampire: the Masquerade games in university.  My buddy Nic was a truly standout DM - able to manage complex political plots, multiple well-fleshed-out NPC's and basically playing really good Vampires.  His games were always tons of fun, even if we were often the simpletons among the scheming, subtle Kindred.

But of all the manipulative bastards that we encountered in those games, Rohan Tomat was by far the most bastardly.  And he was truly horrible because he was likable.  You KNEW that Rohan was fucking you over, but the smile and the carrot were always too much to resist.

We never learned much in the way of specifics about Rohan - his allegiances, history and motives were things he kept close to his chest.  I think he was some variety of Sabbat, but certainly not a very invested one.  Rohan's loyalties were generally to Rohan - or to whatever plot, scheme or machination Rohan was cooking up.

This is how I picture Rohan.
I remember several times that the party decided that they needed to call in Rohan to help out with an
insoluble problem.  It was always an agonizing decision, because you were aware that you were going to get screwed, and that it would *seem* like it was worth it, yet deep in your mind, that niggling feeling that you were getting short, poo-encrusted end of the stick was always there.

I don't remember ever putting one over on Rohan, although I'm pretty sure we defeated his minions a few times.  He never hung around for that, though - when the fangs came out, Rohan was never around for the shit-storm.

We liked him, hated him, fought against him and allied with him.  He was sly, slick and utterly unscrupulous, and we never, ever out thought him.  The very best thing about him was that Nic played him utterly fairly.  No DM fiat, "magical" protection or anything.  Just cruel smarts and the willingness to use them.  I'm sure now he was kind of a "mary-sue" NPC for Nic, but that doesn't matter.  When the topic of NPC's comes up, Rohan stands above them all.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Next Playtest: Dwarves - Session 1.5

We did a couple of introductory sessions in the last few weeks to do character creation, basic introductions to the setting and background.

The party are individually recruited into the Paths Command as part of a new scouting initiative.  The dwarves of Goldenhills have been isolationist under the Ironhammer Clan for the last 100 years - only limited trade with humans and gnomes to the north, other remnants of the Old Kingdom of the dwarves to the south and elves to the west has occurred, and there has been almost no outside contact at all in the last 25 years.

In the introductory sessions, the characters are recruited into Paths Command.  Khidre Eigar, by benefit of his clan relationship with Ragkon Eigar, the Paths Commander, is appointed as squad leader.  Hilbo Huggins, recently released from his service with the Goldenhills Guard, is recruited and re-instated to his previous rank of sergeant.  Korrum Kargonath, having completed his training as a storm-priest of Moradin, is recommended to Paths Command by his superior in the priesthood, High Hammerer Morim, and decides that his previous experience with underdark guide and messenger work makes the position appropriate.

Finally Stalagmite, the feral dwarf found in the southern tunnels by Paths Command scouts, is assigned to the squad. His uncanny skills and odd elemental magics seem like they would be useful.

In the first briefing, Senior Scout Duggan Kammering lays out the assignment.  All communication with Shalecliff, the northernmost mining settlement , has been lost.  Nothing has been heard in the last 2 weeks, and 2 squads of soldiers sent to investigate have failed to return.  Paths Command has advocated a stealthier approach, and the new squad's assignment is to head to Shalecliff, investigate the situation and return with a report as quickly as possible.

Accordingly, the squad gears up and heads out immediately, taking the Great Tunnel northwards before breaking off into the High Pass tunnel and climbing the 2,000 stairs to High Pass Watch, a small 3-story tower manned by Scouts from Paths Command.  The party heads out into the pass to make a bit more ground before dark, then camps and set out in the early morning.

Stalactite checks in with the local wildlife, which he seems to be able to communicate with.  The pikas which live in the pass prove to have little useful information, other than mentioning the recent passage of groups of armed dwarves, headed north, which the party assumes were the previous Guard detachments.  Nothing has come south, although the pikas note the presence of several golden eagles with considerable alarm.

In the morning, Khidre does a quick forage for supplies, coming across several large pikas, who seem both distracted and unconcerned about his approach. Some handy crossbow work nets a hearty breakfast for the party, and they set off across the alpine valley towards Shalecliff.

About half a days hard march brings them close to the entrance to the colony, but the group pauses out of sight of the watch-towers that guard the outer gates.  Khidre, Korrum and Hilbo have all been to Shalecliff before, and Hilbo spent many years with the guard detachment there.  After some discussion, they elect to not approach the gate directly, but instead to enter the mines through a tailings dump, then work their way back to the hold.

Initially, this approach works well, although the normally busy mines are eerily quiet and abandoned.  After a few hours, they come to the main hoist, a platform lifted by geared pulleys that drops from the back entrance of Shalecliff all the way through the processing and smelter areas, down to the mine layers, where the party enters Shalecliff proper.