Friday, July 25, 2014

What Makes a Great Sandbox Adventure Great?

For going on six months now I have been doing an on-again/off-again read/reread of favorite or suggested sandbox products. Unbidden the same driving question keeps popping into my broken brain: what particular set of things makes this product so damn good? (What makes it shitty or mediocre being an interesting and useful question for another time.)

I have something like 30 unfinished blog posts beating, beating in tell-tale-heart urgency from my draft box and some of them are various attempts to move those margin notes into a blog series. Reckon it's time to whip those recalcitrant posts into publishable shape.
Before I kick off the series though let me set the frame. Imagine the standard disclaimer here these elements are what make a particular sandbox pop me for me, your own mileage may vary blah blah blah. You will note that how I frame the criteria precludes a number of much beloved sandboxes and hex-crawls.

Lines had to be drawn.

That said I am curious to hear if you the reader were making this list what would you include? What particular thing inspires you or helps you run it? And what products would you through on your High Fidelity Top Five list?

What constitutes an exemplary sandbox adventure:
  • Main frame is a large, but bounded wilderness or outdoors environment.
  • Open ended and allows (may even explicitly plan) for different outcomes and play (though most often having loose overall goals or player motivations wired in).
  • Combines the adventure-site exploration with another deep axis (political maneuvering, interesting NPC goals, timelines or whatever) to make it multi-dimensional.
  • Site description is in my utterly subjective “sweet spot” (between terse hex crawl and baroque setting books).
  • Has distinctive color and texture.
  • Often has something that enhances or bends the system it is designed for (say mechanics for running particular natural obstacles or mythical wildernesses that bend standard rules).
  • Has a map that is either aesthetically inspiring or has interesting play choices built in. 

Sandbox adventures to be examined (ranked loosely by personal inspiration):
  • Griffin Mountain (Runequest)
  • Twilight 2000 adventures
  • Heart of the Sunken Lands (Midkemia) 
  • Vault of the Drow (AD&D)
  • John Stater's Land of Nod/Hex Crawl Chronicles
  • Pitzburke (Gamma World 2e)

Almost rans (ballpark goodish, that may or may not be thrown in):
  • Leviathan, Prison Planet, Tarsus and Beltstrike (Classic Traveller)
  • Isle of Dread (B/X)
  • Night's Dark Terror (BECMI)
  • Qelong (LoTFP)

Friday, July 11, 2014

"Fast Packs" for Boot Hill

I am a little behind in prepping for the Boot Hill Cantons mini-campaign I was going on about a few days back, but here's something of potentially wider use for folks running Boot Hill and other western campaigns. Texas-sized thanks to those beautiful broken minds on this Google Plus thread that helped me crowdsource the baroquely over-done table at the bottom. 

Starting Gear
All starting characters come with cheap but functional range clothes, bed roll, canteen, poor-quality horse and $5 to their name. Roll on the following charts for the rest of your gear.

Distinctive Piece of Finery
Pick or Roll d20 Once
1 Buckskin Jacket
2 No Name Poncho
3 Ten-Gallon Hat
4 Civil War kepi
5 Threadbare Butternut Confederate Artillery Jacket
6 Union Cavalry Uniform pants and suspenders
7 Furry Bear Coat
8 Top Hat
9 Sombrero, Campesino
10 Sombrero, Mariachi band-style
11 Bolo Tie
12 White Mexican Federale uniform, patched
13 Derby, arrow-stuck
14 Cowboy Hat, bullet ridden
15 Duster, bloody cuffed
16 Beaver Coat, full length
17 Spanish Boots, Spanish Leather
18 Fancy Mexican Riding Boots, silver spurred
19 Chaps, sequined
20 Calico Dress

Hogpieces and Other Primary Killin' Implements
Roll d10 Once
1 Repeating Rifle, 9-shot
2 Double-Barrel Shotgun
3 Fast Draw Revolver, 5-shot
4 Fast Draw Revolver, 6-shot
5 Single Action Revolver, 5-shot
6 Single Action Revolver, 6-shot
7 Buffalo Rifle
8 Civil-War Repeating Rifle
9 Repeating Carbine, 6-shot
10 Three Sticks of Dynamite, short fuse

More Killin' Dee-vices
Roll d10 or Pick Twice
1 Comanche Lance
2 Big Ass Bowie Knife
3 Throwing Knife (x2)
4 Tomahawk
5 Single-Shot Derringer (x2)
6 Two-Shot Derringer
7 Old, but Well-Oiled Cap & Ball Revolver
8 Long-Barrel Revolver
9 Calvary Sabre
10 Rusted Scatter Gun, 10% chance of it exploding when fired.

Random Crap
Roll d100 Twice
01 Dead US Marshal's Badge
02 Silver-Plated Single Action Revolver
03 Tombstone
04 Three coils of 60-foot rope
05 Small herd of goats (five)
06 Stubborn Old Mule named after an Old Sweetheart
07 Braying donkey named King's Kent
08 Silent mute “trail wife” but loyal
09 Hillbilly Musket (treat as Army Rifle)
10 A velvet-lined coffin
11 Silver whiskey flask with monogram
12 30 Silver Dollars
13 Keg of Gunpowder marked XXX
14 Ten pounds of Deer Jerky
15 Three jugs of corn liquor
16 Holy Bible with cut out derringer space
17 Gold snuff case
18 Two pounds of chewing tobacco and spitoon
19 Bottle of Scotch, peaty
20 Amputation hacksaw
21 Prison manacles and chain
22 A set of spurs pitted and rusted
23 Rattlesnake, live
24 Guitar or banjo
25 Lonesome-sounding harmonica
26 Grave-diggin' shovel
27 Pocket watch on chain, Dad's
28 The prospector's will
29 Bearer bonds (50% confederate)
30 William Blake poetry, slim volume
31 tobacco, wacky, 2 "twists"
32 Small pouch of gold dust
33 6 silver bullets
34 Assorted ladies hosiery
35 Deck of cards, marked
36 Deck of cards, unmarked
37 Piano tuning equipment (fork, hammer, mutes)
38 Old cracker tin containing several peyote buttons
39 Wooden leg, pilfered
40 Dime store novels, random assortment
41 music box
42 String of Chinese coins
43 One-horned ox
44 Dentistry kit
45 Undertaker's tools
46 Bible, natty
47 Miniature Vest Bible, steel-backed
48 Three sasquatch teeth
49 Scalps, notable figures
50 Scalps, comrades
51 Diploma, college
52 Dead or Alive Wanted poster, you
53 Dead or Alive poster, twin brother
54 Bullwhip, lovingly maintained
55 Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment, Made From Genuine Rattlesnakes
56 Pabst's Okay Special (22% alcohol, take 2 teaspoons 3x daily)
57 Dr. Wengert's Hepatica Pills
58 Dromgooles Bitters
59 The Mormon Elders' Damiana Wafers, for Strengthening the Brain, Nerves, and Sexual Organs
60 Crane's Laxative Mint Chewing Gum
61 Kickapoo Indian Sagwa Renovator
62 Jayne's Vermifuge
63 Saddlebags with secret compartments
64 Ridiculously ornate shotgun, small bore, once used by a Portuguese Duke to shoot partridges.
65 Worn but still razor-sharp skinning knife.
66 2 pound bag of coffee beans
67 Coffee hand mill
68 Autograph book
69 Ten Confederate gold pieces
70 Gold pocket watch
71 Vial of nitroglycerine with dropper
72 French's ladies' underwear, made in Chicago. Red satin & black lace
73 Cargo manifest and letters taken off a Civil War smuggler/blockade runner
74 Domino mask or red handkerchief, conceals identity perfectly
75 Crystal skull, stolen
76 Head in a box wrapped in brown paper and string
77 Last letter from a famous gunslinger
78 Hound dog, scrawny but tenacious
79 Child named William
80 Branding irons in small shapes that can be used to 'correct' brands on cattle
81 20" cast iron skillet with lid
82 Harness and tack for plough-mule
83 Three iron blades for ploughs
84 Rusty sickle
85 Five axe-heads in various sizes, just add handles
86 Sixty-two pounds of nails in an oily sack
87 Apache medicine bag
88 Three sacks of oats
89 20-pound Bag of flour
90 Plunger Detonator, 26 notches cut in box
91 Belt buckle big enough to hide a derringer behind it
92 Basket of paper roses.
93 Letter promising a job in Machine, Montana. It's a month old.
94 Knife with an elk horn handle.
95 String of Five Wild Horses, Unbroken
96-00 Upgrade Your Horse (stackable)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Hill Cantons Run Red Mini-Campaign

It's summer and I have been predictably getting a little restless and low in the batteries. Time for another mini-campaign to break up routine.

This time about I am going to swing back to the murderous rapine of that Boot Hill (second edition) one-shot I ran a while back. I'm unsure exactly how many sessions this thing will go before it ends, but I think I am going to just expand off of the last dust-up.

Keeping the same town (with a hex map of the surrounding area) and keeping a scoring system in place. Points are going to be scored either individually but with the option to share for collective activities if the players want to. For example if they rustle a herd of cattle they can take individual shares of the point take (or one player takes all if he decides to cross his fellow's and kill them off).

At any rate one player is going to win--or at least several tie. That should punch up the mayhem factor a few notches. It will be interesting to see what happens with a variant of the Prisoner's Dilemma game in place. Hell I will probably even throw in a prize for the winner.

So without any further adieu the revised Marauding Point System, local NPCs and the starting hooks. (Hex map of Cantones County coming later.)

Marauding Points
Each “combatant” killed: 50
Each scalp of a combatant taken: 10
Each non-combatant killed: -50
Each $1 of loot or bounty earned or taken: 1
Total destruction of an inhabited building: 20
Poor horse, mule, or donkey stolen: 20
Fair horse stolen: 30
Good horse stolen: 50
Excellent horse stolen: 100
Cattle per head rustled: 10
Sheep per head stolen: 5
Horse or Cattle Thief hung: 25
Getting killed: lose half your points

NPCs
Captain Ferral. Former Confederate bushwacker, discharged from the Texas Rangers for being too psycho tunes for that outfit. Meanest son of a bitch you ever met, though he never killed a woman who didn't have it comin'. Heads up the Moderators.

Jay Augustus Jissom. Semi-famous cattleman and trail-breaker of the Jissom Trail. Has set up a dry goods store in Cantones de Los Montanos to rival the monopoly of the Evo's-- and consequently touched off the Cantones County War (the Evo-backed Moderators vs. the Jissom Boys).

Claude Evo Jr. Cattle baron son of the gunned down Claude Evo. A spitting image of his father right on down to that damned bolo tie.

Frank Stripes. former doctor run out of his Mississippi practice for unwholesome phrenological studies with the craniums of dead convicts and vagabonds. Every once in a while--deep into his jug of corn liquor--he will slip up and introduce himself as “Phillip”.

Vilem “Bohemian Bill” Psanec. Fastest Moravian in the West. Laying low in the area after the Bad Rye Massacre. Has a fondness for slivovce. Officially neutral.

“Wild Bill” Hickock. Still in the area after the big shoot out drowning his sorrows in whisky and gambling. Fixin' to run on up to a little town called Deadwood.

Bat Masterson. What authorities there are over in the county seat in Broken Oath City have employed this dead-shot lawman to bring a little law and order to this side of the county. He's rumored to have a six-month contract in place before he moseys up to Dodge City.

Boss Peckerwood. Chubby, petulant former opera singer. Chief foreman at the Big Moran Mine and colder than a whore's heart on Sunday.

Paco and Tuco Ramirez. Twin brothers and “comancheros” (traders who illicitly trade with the Comanche).

Local News courtesy of Breezy Pete
Reckon that the Moderators and The Jissom Boys are hiring gunslingers seeing as they are evenly matched with five pistoleros a piece. See each of their bosses for hiring on.

It's said that the Ramirez brothers want no one less than Bohemian Bill dead but of course are too low down and yellow to do the deed themselves. They are offering 150 silver dollars to any one who cuts him down.

Speaking of the Ramirez brothers it is said one can buy just about anything contraband in their back room up to and including Comanche captives that they trade off for

Well and come to think of it speaking of killing for profit, I reckon those locked out silver miners up there want that old sow Boss Peckerwood dead too. Bet they'd be willing to hand over a few boxes of dynamite and some proceeds from the Western Federation of Miner's mutual aid fund to anyone who does him in.

Claude Evo Jr. has been outdoing his pa, no mean feat, in accumulatin' the biggest herd of longhorns this side of the Little Pecos. Everybody knows it's through rustling but who's going to stop the Big Man?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Hill Cantons Bestiary: The Vodník

I am up to 18 unique monsters in the Slumbering Ursine Dunes mini-sandbox (now in its fourth editing iteration and about to roll onto to take off), the monster bestiary now starting rival the actual pointcrawl and adventure site write-ups in size. A big fan of new critters to torment and befuddle players this, naturally, makes me supremely happy.

To give readers a sense of the flavor of these write-ups I am posting one of the new additions blog-side, my weirdo twist on the Vodník, a watery “bogey-man” still sometimes used to scare the living poo out of kids today back in the mother land.

Vodník
No. Enc.: 1-2
Alignment: Chaotic (Evil)
Movement: 120’ (40’)
Armor Class: 4
Hit Dice: 4
Attacks: 1
Damage: 1d6 special (see below)
Save: F4
Morale: 10
Hoard Class: XX
XP: 300
It is said that among the Old Pahr people that a pessimist is someone who thinks that things couldn't be an worse--and that an optimist believes that it can! Pushing aside the old wives tale that a surfeit of strong drink drives men to melancholy, learned men attribute this pervading culture gloom to the surfeit of malovelent spirits and faeries in that people's mythology.

A particularly nasty example of the inimical Pahr spirit is the vodník, a male water nymph of a particularly sour and murderous nature. Vodník often lurk at the edges of lakes and rivers waiting for lone or small groups of village folk

Vodník are invisible in the the water before they strike, but rise as a translucent seeming serpent when they do. Each strike does 1d6 damage but worse is that the spirit serpent will attempt to drag the victim down to a watery doom. Failure to save vs. paralysis will mean that the victim is dragged into the water.

Once the Vodník has a victim under water it will shift into its true form, a pot-bellied old man covered in fine scales, and concentrate on drowning the hapless victim. It will drown a person in 1d6+1 rounds a process that can only be stopped with the creature's death.

The Vodník will only take one hit point of damage from piercing or slashing weapons, but takes full damage as normal. Fire magic will have no effect on the monster. Electrical magic will double in intensity. Casting Purify Food and Water on the creature will kill it outright.

The Vodník will become strangely mellow (read non-murderous) for 1d6 turns after the witching hour, often appearing on rocks or floating on the water smoking a carved pipe. Fishermen as such will often leave offerings of pipe weed to placate local Vodníki.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Running Small Battles in Oldish D&D

That D&D has its roots in wargaming is an old story. Thirty years down the road support for running battles larger than party-sized remains surprisingly and woefully uneven. A small not terribly spectacular range of compatible miniature and abstract large battle rules exist.

But holes stubbornly persist. The biggest gap I have encountered time and time again in the campaign is the lack of simple and fun ways to run battles that are larger than the standard kind involving the party and also too small scale or tactical to run with a wholly abstract system say like the Warmachine rules from the D&D Companion set.

What follows is the first part of what I tongue in cheek am calling By this Poleaxe, an adaption and extension of pen and paper small battle rules Deep Evan and I have been using in the Feudal Anarchy playtests into a more oldish D&D format. I plan on testing them in the heat of battle in the nasty brutish border war currently brewing in the Hill Cantons.

It's intended to allow a GM to run small-scale battles or skirmishes involving 15-120 combatants on each side in a hour or so without miniatures.  (If you want or need battle rules for miniatures you might want to check out By this Axe rules).  

If you would like to see the rest of the draft (this first part to give readers a sense of where this is going) give me a holler at my email address or on good ole Google Plus.
By this Poleaxe: Pen and Paper Oldish D&D Small Battle Rules
Each “squad” is made up of up to 5 combatants. A squad is represented by a single figure in a miniatures game and will generally be part of a battle or conroy (a larger unit) in battles involving more than 100 combatants. A squad must be at full strength (five combatants) if possible.

Squads have five attributes: Attack Value, Defense Value, Morale Value, Hits to Kill and Movement.

Squad Attributes
Attack Value (AV)
The measure of the squad's ability to hit on a d10. Total Hit Dice and divide by 5.
Base AV
1
0-level Human, monster under 1 HD
2
Man at Arms-1st level, up to 1+1 HD
3
2-3 HD
4
4-7 HD
5
8-10 HD
6
11+ HD
Mounted +1
Crappy weapon (dagger, club, hoe) -1
Two-handed weapon +1
Fighter or Trained Leader over 6th level/HD “stacked” in unit +1
Attacking from the flank, rear or from surprise +1
Minor Special Offensive Ability +1
Medium Special +2
Major Special +3

Defense Value (DV)
The measure of the squad's ability to shrug off hits, used as a savings throw. Average the AC of the party.
Base DV
1 Unarmored (AC 9 or 10)
2 Light AC (AC 7-8)
3 Medium AC (AC 4-6)
4 High AC (AC 1-3)
5 Very High AC (AC 0 and lower)
hard cover +2
soft cover +1
Minor Special Defensive Ability +1
Medium Special +2
Major Special +3

Morale (MV)
The measure of a squads ability to not break and run.
Typical Base MV
Peasant levy, kobold, rabble
4
Average soldiery, orc
6
Veteran, hobgoblin, white ape
7
Knight or other elite
8
Fanatic, berserker
9
Undead
10
Modifiers:
+1 in a “secure position” (behind cover, in a pike phalanx, bless spell etc)
+1 leader CHA 15-17 (non-stackable)
+2 leader CHA 18 (non-stackable)

Hits to Kill (HTK)
The number of hits the squad can take before being Out of the Fight.
HTK
Human levy or half hit dice
1
1 HD or Man-at-Arms
2
2-3 HD
3
4-5 HD
4
6-7 HD
5
7-8 HD
6
9-10 HD`
7
-1 if squad has 4 members.
-2 if squad has 3 members.

Movement (M)
The number of abstract “move spaces” that a squad can move per combat turn. Movement is with the by-the-book standard rates if a map grid is is in use.
60 feet or less
1
90 feet
2
120 feet
3
150 feet or more
4



Monday, June 9, 2014

North Texas RPG Con After Action Report

Totally happened. 
Got back yesterday after a rather grinding trip home from this year's North Texas RPG Con. So amazingly bone tired that despite the deeply scandalous time that was had by me and the other degenerates that I call my friends there, I am going to pass on writing the full gossip column of North Texas Confidentials of years past and instead trot out this not terribly deep and utterly subjective list of high and low lights.
The Hill Cantons session pregens. 
Highlights
Hanging out in general with people from the blogging and G+ nexus. "Doc" Trey Causey, Robert “Half-Giant” Parker, Brad "Skullcrusher", James "the Mad Beekeeper" Aulds, Justin "The Sixth Blackrazor" Davis, "Shirtless" Jason Braun and others. Like real world conferences the event is made as much or more (no more) in the hallway conversations and bar table banging story swapping than in the official events.

Running my first full Hill Cantons Con game. This being a run through of the Golden Barge adventure site in the Slumbering Ursine Dunes mini-sandbox (which is in its last and final draft before editing). The party (Brad playing the talking bear, James Auld playing a feral dwarf and two Louisiana gentleman the Black Ratter and Ool the Dandy) managed to whip competently through the biomechanical barge in 3.5 hours and grab the long-lost macguffin of many a G+ Hill Cantons game, the Jewelled Codpiece of Radegast. Yay them.

Having Jim Ward buy us a round of drinks, sit down at our bar table and proceed to spin out a deep dark round of tall tales about TSR. I promised not to tell. Give me another week.

Great conversation with Chris Holmes, son of the dude who launched my long strange trip through this game (J. Eric Holmes naturally). Incredibly wonderful stories about he and his father's writing and gaming side careers (lots of fascinating unpublished and/or out of print stuff out there). Look for an official interview in weeks to come.

Running for a half an hour of Tree Maze of the Twisted Druid after an extended whiskey binge and before having one of the players (cough cough begins with a B) pass out SITTING UP. Then realizing that I was too far down into my cups myself to continue running the adventure.

Barely surviving the worst hangover of the past four years (related to that above) and playing a cutting torch wielding pleasure robot in James Aulds's Anomalous Subsurface Environment game (I being apparently one of the 8 people in old schoolish circles who haven't read the game). Props to Gus L for the nifty hand-drawn character sheet and James for putting up with my seasick self.
Also happened.
Lowlights
Skipping too many sessions. Seriously this happens every single time I am at a con of any subcultural stripe. While I don't regret missing some of the carousing, I missed a welter of hot gaming. No one to blame but myself.

Not as many pickup games. The last time I went to the Con there was a lot of impromptu side action that really was more fun than the official sessions. Either I wasn't paying good enough attention (a distinct possibility with the slow poisoning of alcohol) or it was that the larger number and wider range of official sessions were enough in themselves, but I saw very little of that action this year.

Too many dudes. I mean really.