Wednesday, February 16, 2022

How To Survive A Zombie Attack: Improvised Seige Mechanics

I recently started a new short-term campaign for some friends, using Dolmenwood and The Black Hack. At one point, they were celebrating Thistlemote's (one of the PCs, a woodgrue) birthday by having a huge bash in the Laughing Pig, their town's tavern.

Some time after midnight, a Vague began. They are in the middle of winter, and occasionally during winter in the Dolmenwood an unseason of mists and undeath occurs. They see, through the fog, a horde of horrible figures shambling towards the town. I wanted a dawn of the dead style scene where our heroes try to fend off zombies that are punching their way through the windows and doors of a ramshackle building and they have to fight to survive and protect the villagers trapped with them, franticly shoring up the walls and taking out zombies with whatever's lying around.

So I improvised some siege survival mechanics.

The tavern has 20 HP, represented by a d20 placed in the centre of the table. As the tavern took damage and was shore up round by round it was fun to change the number on the die and have tension when it went down quite low.

I rolled 3d8 (1 HD per player, in line with Black Hack's recommendation of "HD budget" for a random encounter) to determine the number of zombies that were attacking, as an abstraction. I ended up with 20 again (very Magic: the Gathering, 20 HP a side...). As PCs whittled away the number of zombies from the pool, the number would go down. I treated it as that specific number of zombies, all with just 1 HP--but 20 zombies isn't really a "horde" so I kept the number of zombies vague for the players, with occasional hints like "there's about half of them left" or "you've downed most of them".

Each round, (which I abstracted as Minutes in the Black Hack way) each PC could do one thing, as usual, with the following alterations:

If they attack the horde of zombies, they make the attempt as normal, with each point of successful damage taking out that number of zombies from the pool.

In addition, each PC could ALSO command some underlings. In this case, there were three groups of underlings in the tavern: some visiting woodgrues, some burly porters, and a few villagers. One group for each of my PCs. In order to get any given group to listen, first a commander has to make a charisma test.

If they succeed then they can either get the underlings to do something, like attack the horde, or shore up the tavern's defenses. No matter what they did, the porters had a d8, the woodgrues a d6, and the villagers a d4. So if you get the villagers to shore up the tavern they roll a d4 and add that result to the tavern's HP--but instead you can get the villagers to attack the horde, in which case they'll do d4 damage to the pool of zombies. (I improvised sensible average numbers for the underlings attacks, like 8 for the villagers, 12 for woodgrues ranged attacks, etc).

At the end of each round, the zombie horde attacked, with no chance of failure since they're just battering the side of the tavern. I'd roll a d6 for each surviving HD of zombies. So while the number of zombies was above 16 I rolled three dice for damage, when it went below I rolled two dice, and when there were less than 8 I rolled a single die. In addition, I would use a d6 for damage dice while more than half the horde was intact, but once less than half were left I used d4s.

That's it!

This simple on-the-fly abstraction led to interesting decisions being made each round, a constant juggling of taking out zombies and shoring up the tavern, while finding other ways to end the seige (Thistlemote used her pied piper ability to lead away some zombies to drown in the river, while the elf Smiles-Tolerantly snuck out with some porters to find the thing that the leader of the zombie horde was after).

If I were to use it again, the numbers could use some rejiggering as at times it felt too easy to shore up the tavern for a lot of HP -- once there were less than half the zombies left it basically was inevitable that the players would succeed, sucking much of the tension away. I also had the NPC tavern owner act on his own each round, shoring up for a d6 of HP each time, which helped the PCs a -lot-. I think maybe individuals should only be able to shore up for a d4, or not at all and let it only be an underling group ability. Maybe some sort of test for a group to successfully shore up would be good too.

One thing I wish I'd thought of was to use morale checks for the underlings. Once a PC had succeeded in their charisma check to command a group, they never had to do one again and their underlings would always do what was commanded. I would do morale checks for the underlings, probably when they fail an attack or when zombies reach a certain threshold of damage. I'd planned on making them all do morale checks if the zombies breached the walls (at which point they'd start taking out underlings)--but the zombies never got in. I think the closest they got was when the tavern was at 5 HP, but the following round three different groups all shored it up and it was nearly full again.

I should say that this all was inspired by a distant memory of a seige system I'd read about on some OSR blog that I fully can't find anymore, so if I've copied someone else's work entirely-- whoops!

In any case, there you go: an easy, hackable system for a seige!

Monday, August 10, 2020

Gaming Wants: #RPGaDAY2020 10

Today's #RPGaDAY2020 prompt is


What do I want? (GAMING when do I want it a reasonable portion of my time)

This prompt has me thinking about what I actually want out of gaming. Kind of as a companion piece to an earlier post about how my approaches to gaming have changed in the past, maybe this one is about looking to the future. So, unordered:

A weekly game. There's something about the regularity, of meeting with the same friends in the same world week after week, that builds into something marvelous. And maybe this is only with a long-running campaign, or maybe weekly one-shots would work just as well. I think it's the high frequency that matters--I don't think its something that can be captured with an occasional pick-up game, or monthly. Maybe bi-weekly. Too bad that it's impossible to find a time that works for everyone as adults.

A healthy discourse. There was rpgnet and then G+, there was the Forge and Storygames, there's always been twitter (feels like), now there's the discord and The OSR Pit, but there's still no sensible critique, no teaching, no professionally-run recognition (did you see the ENnies??). This is an indie scene, people swirling around the same ideas and disagreeing, sometimes violently, and while that has advantages with a low barrier to entry and punk/zine/DIY aesthetic it also means that it's too easy for toxicity to just fester and for poison to spread and for good ideas to get lost and forgotten. There is building-work coming out tho, in multitudinous forms (did you see Anti-Sisyphus?? and the RPG Design Zine is so cool). I dunno, building a scene is hard. Ask me about magicians some time.

Interesting stories. There's a lot of different ways to get these, and I'm not sure I have a preference. Shared narrative control is just as cool to me as emergent story from gameplay, so OSR ideas can overlap with weird GMless improv exercises and both with everything else like bennie systems to Fate-ian aspect-calling. And what about baking the story into the system through genre-specific actions like PbtA playbooks or mechanics like Dread or even hard-coding characters and plot like Lady Blackbird? There's more than one way to bind a book.

Players who want to try new things. I think conditions have to be right for this, and they all involve the above three things. People who meet regularly, built trust together, and maybe want variety. Players need to feel they're not trying something too esoteric or toxic or otherwise off-putting, and maybe have a vague familiarity with alternate systems. And the game needs to be worth playing, by the resulting stories being fun/memorable/engaging.

What do you want?

Under A Ruined Mall: Weird Occultronic Flora and Candlesnuffers

Planning out the dungeon for Gygax 75 Challenge using the weekend prompts from #RPGaDAY2020:

SHADE & light

The dungeon is the underground structures below where the mall used to be, amidst the ruins of the cyberpunk dystopia. A bunch of these steps are not done but that's fine, the Gygax 75 booklet specifically says that unfinished stuff each week is ok and you just move on and come back to it later, citing Hemingway's technique of ending writing sessions in the middle of a sentence so it's easy to start up again when you come back to it.


i. "Describe the entrance to the dungeon in 7-10 words".

Collapsed ramp into parking garage overgrown with metallic thorns.

ii. "Set aside at least one page of your journal for a point-to-point map."

I did this as well as drawing a quick sketch of the overall structure for myself just to keep the relative locations of things straight in my head. Also I'll probably run it as a pointcrawl anyway.

iii. "For each level, include d6+6 rooms/areas and connect them"

iv. "Include d3+1 ways up or down per level"

v. "Come up with three themes (one per level). Roll d3+2 for each to generate a budget"

So each level has some randomly-determined numbers. I rolled em all and kept track in a table:

Dungeon Level: Parking Garage Subway Sewers and Undercity
Rooms/Areas: 12 9 10
Exits: 3 2 2
Theme Budget: 3 5 3

The themes for each level--if this is an introductory dungeon in this setting then I want it to explore some of the core aesthetics of the setting.

Level one: the parking garage. Theme: cursed vegetation. The occult calamity did all sorts of weird things, but one of the most omnipresent is the fusion of electronics with nature. Wiresnakes, electric berries, metallic thorns. The parking garage, being the level closest to the surface, will have the most contact with the "natural" world above and so will be overgrown and infested with weird occultronic flora and fauna.

Level two: the subway. Theme: technocultists. This is a way to explore the "occult" part of the setting. There is opportunity for some truly strange imagery, not just hooded figures and electric devil skeletons but also rituals and bargains and maybe an actual evil computer. Plus maybe the cultists are in the subway area because the connection to "transit" is important--are they trying to get somewhere else? Bring something here? Change something?

Level three: the undercity and sewers. Theme: shade and light (ha, there's the #RPGaDAY2020 prompts!). I'm basing this on my memory of the Seattle Underground Tour, of the city underneath the new one built on top. A cyberpunk dystopia absolutely would have layers of old buildings at the bottom. This idea of a huge futuristic neon world sitting on top of the ruins of the past literally left in the dark is very evocative. I was thinking things like areas of magical darkness, and bottomless pits, and will-o-the-wisps-but-they're-tiny-drones, and some kind of creature called a "candlesnuffer".

vi. "Make a list of 11 different monsters and place them".

TODO but for a start, there's: wiresnakes, technocultists, electric devil skeletons, candlesnuffers, wispdrones, rats, sewercrawlers, underdwellers, memory ghosts, empty spines, and man-eating plants.

vii. "Spread d6 features throughout the dungeon."

I rolled 4.

viii. "For each room/area, note whether there is treasure."


ix. "Name three wondrous items and locate them in the dungeon."

What kind of stuff can I pull from the source material to use here?

x. "Spend any remaining theme budget adding detail."

What kinds of sensory details fit into the areas of this map? And specific things to see?

Extra Credit:

"Map out all three levels on graph paper."

No that's hard let me just do a pointcrawl.

"Create a wandering monster table."

11 slots, probably different from the ones I stocked the dungeon with in step vi. WELP time to reskin a bunch of random monsters from the old books.

Lots of things to come back to!

Friday, August 7, 2020

Crooked Considerations: #RPGaDAY2020 7 - Couple

I've been doing the #RPGaDAY2020 daily blogging prompts, which this year come in the form of a dungeon map:

RPGaDAY blogging prompts in the form of a classic gridded dungeons and dragons map

Today's prompt is


On and off over the past decade or so I've run a one-on-one game for my partner. I think the way an rpg plays with one GM and one PC is really fascinating and still an underexplored space. I've taken to calling them "duets", after a series of articles by Kirk Johnson-Weider on RPGnet several years ago.

Part of what is really interesting about duets is the close relationship you build during play. The focus is always on the PC--there are no other players to share the spotlight! It demands full engagement from the single player throughout, and a singular focus from the GM. It is very easy to build attachements to characters when the player-GM relationship is that close, and that leads to some difficulties when gameplay is stopped by PC death or other incapacitation. I think it's what I was trying to capture when I wrote guiding principles for developing Crook and several started with "there is only one player". If the PC dies, there is nobody else to continue the adventure. Even if the player rolled up a new PC on the spot, how would that new PC get involved in an adventure that was driven by the unique narrative of the previous PC?

Most systems assume that there will be multiple PCs. This is a big deal when play is assumed to be heavily combat-based or co-operation based--D&D for example, but really in most RPGs that aren't narrative-led. One way to account for this is to simply adjust the difficulty level. D&D 3 and up has CR calculations that can help; the OSR has Scarlet Heroes' clever way of translating ranges of damage into single digits based on hit dice. It also has the "fray die", which essentially gives the PC a way to taking out low-level baddies each turn for free. This generalizes into giving the PC extra powers, or increasing their power level. Heck, you could just "cheat" and give the player multiple PCs to control, or hirelings and henchmen.

But what if you don't want to change the power dynamic of the PC compared to the game world? I think in general, out of an instinct for self-preservation, most PCs that are on their own will try to avoid combat or difficult team-based challenges. Solo PCs will avoid situations where they could be taken out of play through death or otherwise. And that's not just out of self-presevation, that's to keep the duet game going!

Now that's not to say that the threat of death can't still be omnipresent. Foolish actions can (and if you're playing in an OSR style, should) still lead to dire consequences. But if the PC will be avoiding mortal peril, how else can you bring conflict into the game? I think it can come from risk-reward decisions, moral choices, and consequences for actions which lead to new adventure opportunities. Situations where it's unclear what might happen, and where potential outcomes drive the story further. To borrow from several modern rpg systems, we want the PC to fail forward: failure shouldn't throw up a wall that stops them from continuing, but it could throw up an alternate, more difficult, path.

I think (to clarify my own thoughts here explicitly), I'm saying that "you die" is the same kind of play-blocking as "you fail to pick the lock".

So for Crook, I want to have something that avoids blocking, something that has specific rules for failing forward or success by degrees/with consequences. Something in the realm of games Powered by the Apocalypse and its progeny (Blades in the Dark for sure), or Mouse Guard. Fate Accelerated is quite good for this too! NB these are games where the player is given some more narrative agency over things external to the PC, but I don't think that's strictly necessary to have a mechanic that avoids blocking play upon failure.

SO: In Crook, failing means that things don't go the way the PC wanted (whether that's slightly or catastrophically), but the PC can die only if they really deserve it AND if the player agrees to it.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

/\/\U%2D00/\/\: #RPGaDAY2020 6 - Forest

Today's #RPGaDAY2020 prompt is


I've been doing the Gygax 75 and have been developing a post-apocalyptic post-cyberpunk setting. The challenge guides you to flesh out a dungeon map after making a general local area for your PCs to explore, but I wanted to flesh out another area of the map. Here's the description I wrote before:

Malfunctioning Solar Forest South edge of map. I read somewhere that in the future we'd have fake trees covered in solar panel leaves that rotate to face the sun, atop trunks full of filters that remove CO2 and toxins from the air and produce algae. This forest's broken though. And full of wiresnakes.

This leaves us with a couple of key questions we can use to flesh out this area:

Why is the forest malfunctioning?

In principle, the solar leaves themselves could still function. However, the servos that rotate them toward the sun have rusted through due to lack of maintenance. Also, wires and connectors have come loose to to scavenger, animal and occult activity. And some of the trees are just engulfed, ironically, in real vegetation. The vast majority of the batteries that store charge from the solar trees have been looted or broken. The air filter and algae pool systems have also failed.

What are the consequences?

Clouds of toxic gases hang in the forest like mist, and the algal bloom has gotten so out of control that there are areas of noxious slime. Some of them are corrosive. Some of them, perhaps, sentient.

Many of the wires here became wiresnakes after the occult calamity. They lie dormant, hungry for energy. Other creatures live in this forest, eating the algae and the twisting metallic vines and electric berry shrubs that have reclaimed and integrated with the artificial forest. Things like rats and pigeons and cyberowlbears. Predators too: lazerhawks and wild dogs.

What can people do here?

It's a place to gather resources. The various kinds of algae probably have uses, as do foraged foods(?) like electric berries. It'll be hard to find any charged batteries, but some might not have been looted, especially deeper in the forest. The solar leaves themselves are absolutely still usable. And if you had some unfathomable use for a whole bunch of wiresnakes, this forest has got you covered.

It's also a place of power. As one of the locales where the natural world has fused most completely with occult computing, technocultists and reality-hackers come here to perform rituals and commune with the Web.

Why would the PCs come here?

Here's some hooks and rumours:

  1. Technocultists kidnapped an old man and took him to the solar forest.
  2. The old control centre in the middle of the forest still has fully charged, giant power cells.
  3. Young Fila swears they saw an owlbear climbing a solar tree.
  4. Doc needs 20 live wiresnakes for a thing. Don't ask.
  5. A reality-hacker calling herself /\/\U%2D00/\/\ is offering a way to jack into the Web without getting a virus, by hooking up to a specific solar tree.
  6. On the summer solstice, all the solar trees wake up again and everyone can charge their batteries--but the creatures are all really agitated.

Artifical forests with cyber-occult wildlife are cool.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Barbarian Must Write A Poem: #RPGaDAY2020 5 - Tribute

Today's #RPGaDAY2020 prompt is


It's always interesting for a character to have to give something up in order to continue on their path.

Now that could be something physical that they're carrying--for example to make room for treasure because otherwise they'll suffer encumbrance--but what about other things they could give up?

Say they are travelling through land controlled by an entity that demands tribute. And this faction has resources enough to be nonplussed by bags full of gold.

Perhaps the despotic ruler demands that the PCs swear fealty to his rival kingdom. Or wants them to proclaim something publicly that the PCs might not agree with. Maybe they're a religious leader and want the PCs to worship a specific deity.

Physical offerings can also be made more interesting and serve as adventure hooks. What if the tribute must be a fruit from a specific tree in the twisted woods to the south? Or a carved image of a false idol, made by a local craftswoman?

What resources do the PCs have other than their stuff? If it's a domain management game, maybe they need to give a share of their crops to the king, or a portion of their population to join the army. Or they have to round up some monsters for the parliamentary zoo.

Hell maybe they are actually called to pay tribute at a special event to soothe the ego of the egotistical queen so she doesn't pull out of a peace treaty. The bard has to write an ode to her; the barbarian must fight in the ceremonial gladiatorial tournament. Or the other way round!

Make your PCs pay tribute in a way that can't be solved with a bag of gold. It'll make for a better story.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Laservision and Squeeze Focus: #RPGaDAY2020 4 - Vision

Today's #RPGaDAY2020 prompt is


I hate vision mechanics.

What's the difference between infravision and darkvision? Or low-light vision? How does dim light affect combat? What about fog, or magical darkness? What if my character is blinded? How far does my torch cast light? Is there an aura of dim light around that? What if I move during an enemies turn and change the lighting condition they're in? How far can I actually see? Which creatures have which kind of vision?

Et cetera, et fucking cetera...

There are -too many interactions- for there to be rules for these things. This is the clearest case I can think of where "rulings over rules" makes literally everything easier for both the GM and the players. Nobody wants to look this stuff up in play and nobody is going to remember all the different multi-dimensional Venn diagrams of overlap and superceding rules.

If it's dark, you can't see unless you have a light source or your species can see without light. Everything else is subject to ruling by the GM. DONE. (If you want infravision because it works in a weird way and exlains why old monsters have red eyes GO NUTS you don't need rules for that)

OH and like, the party where everyone's a dwarf or elf and can see in the dark but there's -one- human so they all have to use a torch? It means that in 90% of circumstances the see-in-the-dark ability just doesn't matter and the other 10% of the time it's just sending someone ahead to scout outside of the torchlight. It's a pet peeve and annoying (just like the party where everyone can move 30ft but the halfling only moves 25ft so -everyone- has to slow down, and this especially fucks the player who took an option that doubles their move speed), but I guess it can lead to some interesting inter-party conflict or tactical decisions. However I think it would be better to find differentiation between species like Arnold K suggests for the GLOG, with active abilities rather than passive ones. Or giving them an interesting trade-off.


Laservision: You can cause your eyeballs to shoot lasers that bounce off things and return to you carrying distance and temperature information, functioning over the length of a huge underground cavern. However, this causes your eyes to glow red, which can be noticed from a good distance away, and also there is a 1-in-8 chance your eyes overheat, causing you to go blind for 1d8 hours.


Squeeze Focus: By working your orbital muscles you can shift the liquid in your eyeballs to give you the ability to see miles further than usual, with perfect acuity. However, this gives you incredibly blurred vision for anything near you. This effect lasts for 2d4 rounds.

I think these would be immensely more fun to play with than just plain "60 foot darkvision".