Monday 14 August 2023

An OSR approach to Spotlight

This post is based on a conversation I had with Ben L. in response to his recent post over on:

Ben's post proceeds from what I understand to be the orthodox view of "spotlight" in RPGs, which is that of a player management technique. This threw into relief for me the fact that even from my earliest, most uninformed days as a DM I seem to have understood spotlight in a heterodox fashion, as when I've used this practice I've used it towards managing the amount of attention player characters receive during the session, such that hopefully all or most get their chance to shine. I think this approach actually might be more conducive to OSR style play and address many of the problems Ben grappled with in that post, and does skirt around the cases in which putting a human being "on the spot" at your table and demand they perform as well as maintain an equal level of attention and engagement at all times; though as I hope to show, engaging characters dovetails with engaging players more than you might think.

As Ben notes, the tabletalk portion of an OSR session generally involves the entire real-life table chatting and deliberating about a way to engage the given problem at hand, before relaying the decided course(s) of action to the GM. In my experience, there's a sort of shared ownership of everyone's characters in this phase, where the capabilities and resources of all the given characters in the fiction being offered and suggested rather promiscuously, but once a plan it settled in, its usually the responsibility of the specific players of those characters to actually "lock in" and perform those actions, as it were, whether that be by rolling dice and/or narration. For me, what this means is that for several reasons, even in the ideal case where all players are actively participating in tabletalk and contributing to conversation, if the game is in a state where only a few or one of the characters performs every action in the fiction then the game is in an unengaging state.

If there can be said to be an orthodox OSR answer to the question of the role of narrative in RPGs, its that narrative occurs post-hoc to the game itself rather than being created from the mechanics and procedures of the games. The stochastic interactions of systems for encounters, resource depletion, and movement coalesce after the fact into a picaresque series of anecdotes and vignettes attached to the larger context of the campaign milieu, materialized as repeated stories and session recaps; when we encode memories of a game, we do so by and large via this post-hoc narrative of events for the most part, rather than the specifics of real-life conversation and deliberation that occured at the table. From this narrative point of view, a session in which every problem was solved by Billy Bob the Wizard casting a spell appears to as dull, uninteresting, and unmemorable.

Even if we were to dismiss the idea of aiming to create memorable gaming narratives as a worthwhile goal, I'd argue that this leads even to poorer gameplay in the context of a long-running campaign; the narratives that emerge out of a session are, in my experience, the bread and butter of a Referee in creating an emerging, dynamic, reactive sandbox world, drawing connections between events past and future to mine for interesting potential for adventure. Games in which few characters are robustly expressing their agency within the world become anaemic in their ability to respond and hook characters and their attendant players into adventure and shenanigans.

One approach for an OSR ethos of spotlight management, then, would be leaning into the traditions of adventure design, crafting our adventure sites to allow for and necessitate variegated approaches such that different characters and their toolkits have their moments of relevancy (not unlike how levels in immersive sim videogames are built to accommodate combat, stealth, social, etc. approaches).

Does this actually solve the issue of engaging players who are, for whatever reason, reticent or disengaged at the table, however? Is not the inverse state of affairs, for example, where only a few players are talking and directing what actions many player characters should take, not equally as undesirable? Reader, these are rhetorical questions you know I am going to answer with "no."

Lets circle back to our "session recap lens" while keeping in mind the point that generally the player controlling a character has to actually enact the decided-upon actions in the game space, regardless of whose idea those actions actually were. This would mean that 1) at least for those moments, that player would by necessity have to be speaking/participating and 2) both in the moment, at the table, and at the moment of narrative formation (e.g. the recap) narrative agency is being ascribed to that player. Regardless of who comes up with the idea of Billy Bob fireballing the room full of goblins, when Joe the player is making the damage rolls we're all watching him with bated breath, and him we gas up when all the goblins burn up in a crisp, or commiserate when they make their saves and come out barely scathed; and when the story of that session is told, its always "Yeah, Joe did that and it hilarious/awesome/tragic!"

The ideal outcome I guess is that through repeated instances of narrating character/player agency in these ways, of reputation & renown growing in-game and out from being a name on the lips of many, that a player it might actually inculcate greater engagement from that player as the campaign goes on, kind of a longer tail approach to fostering player engagement rather than the "put on the spot each session" style. In the case of a disengaged player who perhaps lacks game knowledge, maybe enacting out plans and suggestions from other players provides a less stressful avenue towards contributing to a session while gradually familiarizing them more with their capabilities, allowing them to begin contributing more as they understand more what they can offer. 

There are a few rhetorical tricks that can be used to nudge towards these outcomes:

1. Making a point of directly addressing the player whose character is doing any given actions at that point with regards to asking for or making clarifications, working out specific and fine details, resolving ambiguities, and specific commitments and adjustments. As well, asking them to narrate in their own words how their character enact any given action(s), even if a detailed plan has been heard from someone else.

2. After the chaos of deliberation, take a moment to recap and ascribe actions to associated players and/or characters: "Ok Joe, so Billy Bob is going to throw a firebomb from the ledge above? And Dave, Sir Pouncealot is going to be greasing all the exits out of the room before that happens? Got it." Alternately, ask the party to recap their plan one by one with everyone explaining their part in the action.

3. Semi-ironically, I used to tell my players I wouldn't refer to them by their in-character name until their character had survived to level two, so as to not get overly attached. I do find that I end up organically referring to players by their actual name during the deliberating tabletalk phases of the game or pre-action resolution, and by their character name in more social situations or post-action resolution. I think that being judicious about when to conflate player with character vs when to disjunct them is important when it comes to tying together character spotlight to player spotlight.

4. There's a reason "how do you want to do this?" has become the iconic phrase for Critical Role. Its entirely mechanically meaningless but its a moment in which narrative agency is handed over to the player and they are invited to leave their mark on it. What Mercer does here is tactically deploy the second person pronoun in order to encode agency. Inversely, I'll often will narrate generic inputs from players in flourished up ways, especially if it's the result of a good roll. Take "yeah I attack it with my sword" and turn it into "ok, yeah, you duck under it's swing and slice upwards, lopping off the spiky tips of its tentacles. It's rearing back, you definitely really hurt it, good job." This in general often results in the players feeling gassed up; it feels like a way to give a compliment through Refereeing, a way to gift engagement rather than demand to receive it.


As a little coda to this post, all of the above still presumes a view of engagement at the table as being primary. But one thing I think the "session recap lens" is helpful for understanding is that not all "engagement" happens during the session, a lot of it is before or after. I imagine as a player that if I come to the end of a campaign, even if I wasn't the most active participant during discussions of the session, if I look back over the course of events and see how integral my little avatar was to the journey that unfolded I'll feel a meaningful sense of investment/ownership of that game.

More so than that, players engage before, after, and during the game in different ways, whether it be excited chatter in the group server, tinkering with character builds or custom spells to research, drawing maps, taking notes, doodling or sketching characters all become part of the shared archive of memory for the campaign. Even things like the sense memory of food or decor or music someone contributes to hosting a session are ways of engaging with the game.

The art in this post is from my friend Kim Cuthbertson, who I played with in a 5e game many years ago. That campaign still remains one of my most memorable, and a large part of that is due to the sense of attachment and visualization Kim's art, from detailed character portraits to quick doodles, contributed.

Thursday 29 September 2022

hexcrawls ARE pathcrawls

This is a post I had hoped to write back at the start of July, and so by now the little conversation I hoped to contribute to is far from au courant (especially given that the parties involved have all published follow up pieces [new links]), but I'll say my piece nonetheless.

The conversation was started by Joel over at Silverarm, regarding his preference for pointcrawls over hexcrawls:

A dungeon of 50 rooms laid out in a grid with all with doors leading to six other rooms wouldn’t be the most satisfactory for exploration. The overload of choices makes navigation a series of random choices with minor information.
Why are so many hex crawl sandboxes formatted this way then? The same joys of making travel choices based on relevant information and limitation shouldn’t be left at the dungeon exit

It was picked up by Nova of Playful Void, who devises what she calls a "pathcrawl", a system that models the relative ease or difficulty of traversing a hex based on its terrain and the types of paths within it:

As anyone who has travelled in the wilderness will tell you, the wilderness has walls and hallways. The wilderness is a dungeon. You can’t just climb a mountain. Certainly not in full armour carrying weapons and treasure. You have to take a path. You can’t just cross a river. You have to ford one. 

Now, I have no problem with either of these statements; I do quibble with their conclusions however. I do not think what Joel and Nova are describing are endemic features of hexcrawls at all; rather, they simply seem to be describing bad hex map design.

To bring it back to Joel's comparison of the hexcrawl vs dungeoncrawl, the solution to the arbitrary decision making and/or choice paralysis presented by the hypothetical grid dungeon with identical exits out of every room isn't devising an alternate system for navigating dungeons; it is making sure that the contents of your dungeon provide meaningful information that allows the players to navigate it. This is making sure your room exits, hell even your hallways, are differentiated; its about using clues, rumours, architecture, factions, and NPCs to all provide insights into the structure of the dungeon to make it navigable.

I suppose a hexcrawl might seem to only provide aimless, pathless wandering where one exit is as good as the other if you've got a map that looks like this...

with really only terrain being the differentiating factor; no paths, no landmarks, no rivers, barely a coast. Though I don't think I have ever really played with a map that looks like the above. I might be biased here because for the past 3 years or so, I've been running a Dolmenwood campaign, which might have one of the best designed hex maps I've seen. Here is the version I made in HexKit for my players to use (which has some differences from the original).

So just immediately at a glance we have roads of differing qualities, bodies of water (combined with elevation for differences in upriver vs downriver), landmarks visible on the horizon, towns and settlements, and different terrain types making up distinct regions of the map. This is not even getting into the stuff that isn't apparent, like the various overlapping territories of political control by various factions, the differing monster ecologies between regions, the various magical effects of the ley lines criss-crossing the wood etc. which the party pieces together from rumours, intelligence, and experience and mark up on their map. Given all of this, my players never arbitrarily decide which hex they want to move into; usually their path is quite considered, even when just in aimless exploration mode. They tend, as is smart, to stick to roads, shorelines, or forest lines to avoid getting lost, only going off track when absolutely necessary to reach a destination.

I actually would like to zoom in on a specific routing decision they made in one of our last sessions to break down the various factors going into their pathing decisions:

So in this case the party was located in hex 1004, and needed to get to hex 0903. The most direct route here would have been to go through hex 1003, but based on terrain, that would have seen them arriving at their destination at around nightfall. Important to note here is that the pink delimits the area under control of an enemy faction, whereas the red is the area under control of their faction. Instead of choosing to arrive at their destination at night, while travelling mostly through an area of enemy control and having a river to ford, they choose to go around, given that they had bases in 1104 and 1103 with known routes between them all (and hence no chance of getting lost), and spending the night camping at 1002 before entering hex 0903 in the morning. 

So there are obviously many factors that go into making a hexmap meaningfully navigable, and on the system level Nova intuits that the most important factors are paths and terrain and their effects on slowing or speeding up the party's time. I suppose what I am perplexed by is, as evinced by my player's behaviour above, such considerations are already a standard part of hexcrawling rules. For example, here are the specific travel modifiers I use for terrain, which are largely equivalent with those found in B/X (OSE pictured).

While this doesn't necessarily foreclose some types of terrain like Nova's pathcrawling system does, it does make them disadvantageous (especially when compounded with reduced movement rates from being heavily equipped) enough such that you are unlikely to attempt it except in specific circumstances.

This seems to me to be an issue of game design vs level design. Certainly these maps need a coherent travel system that accounts for variable movement, makes the passage of time meaningful via risk, etc. to present interesting navigation choices, but by and large I think those systems are present in our standard hexcrawling systems we have available (and of course, tweak and adjust the specific modifiers and so on to your taste, whether you want 6 watches or 4 watches in a day etc.). The other half of the heavy lifting though is done by the design of the map (and its contents) itself, using techniques like rumours, landmarks, and other means of connecting hexes meaningfully together.

In Joel's defence, I do think hexcrawling as originally intended, and the map presented in the original Avalon Hill Outdoor Survival that was the standard for campaigns is designed more for the kind of aimless exploration designed to clear wilderness, rather than focused directed travel. So why make the case for hexcrawls? Precisely because it works equally as well (in a small enough region) to account for both modes of travel without having to switch between systems; it can provide the flexibility and the nuance for players to go off-road, make foolhardy decisions to trek perilous terrain, or even navigate specific hexes at granular levels of detail (hexes that contain a road also contain much square mileage that isn't a road, that players can also explore). And of course, as demonstrated by Joel and many others, hexcrawls and pointcrawls are not incompatible at all, with pointcrawls being able to be layered both on top of and inside of hexes. 

This style of hexcrawling is a more modern playstyle, in my estimation, and sometimes there are clashes in expectations between the original rules written presuming a roving quasi-wargame style of play, and the more intimate exploration focused play typical of the OSR and its descendents, but that is a topic I hope to address in another post (for now though, do read Dwiz's criminally underappreciated post on hexes as rulers vs hexes as containers, which I think elucidates a crucial aspect of this divide). 

Friday 17 June 2022

Alternate Thieves for OD&D

What if Greyhawk...but good?

I've begun editing Marcia's OD&D retroclone Fantastic Medieval Campaigns. Since the aim of her project is not clarification or interpretation, but rather fidelity to the original text, we have been having a fair amount of conversations about the game's exasperating idiosyncrasies. One such conversation turned to the possibility of presenting an alternate universe take of Supplement I: Greyhawk that is actually, well, good. In particular, how to design a thief class that does not take away from the core locus of play in OD&D to the extent that the version released in our timeline does, while still retaining a design sensibility that doesn't feel out of place in the 1974 context. This is my take on such a challenge that emerged from our conversations.

Art by Dave Trampier


Hit die, attack progression, experience progression, prime requisites, equipment restrictions, and saving throws all remain the same. Don't use variable weapon damage.

I) Thieves may use all magic items, scrolls, potions, etc. regardless of any restrictions (either of the magic item, or the thief's own equipment restriction).

2) If a thief steals an item of treasure from a monster with a value in gold pieces equalling or greater than the monster's hit dice multiplied by a thousand, they may once per day use an ability of that monster, e.g. if the thief has stolen a torc worth three thousand gold pieces from a wight, then once per day they may attack using a wight's level drain ability. Each treasure can be utilized only once per day, and the thief may only utilize in total a number of treasures not exceeding their level. Items stolen for these purposes do not contribute their value in experience points when recovered. 

3) Thieves may be awarded experience above a 1 to 1 basis.

4) Thieves may be awarded experience above what is required to increase them by one level in a session.

Additional Rule

All classes are able to backstab to receive a bonus to hit and damage. Backstab damage increases in accordance with increases in attack group: fighters three levels/group; clerics and thieves four levels/group; magic-users five levels/group.


So the problem often stated with thieves as they appear in Greyhawk is that by codifying rules for common adventuring skills, they limit the play capacity for what should be ordinary dungeoneering skills for every type of player character. As is often said, "every player character in D&D is a thief."

With that in mind, I removed abilities that would ostensibly make thieves "better" at thieving than other character types (though thieves are, notoriously, awful at thieving as written in the original rules). With that in mind, given that every character ought to be a "thief", I also think it applicable to allow backstab bonuses for all characters. Instead, thieves are rather rewarded more, and thus incentivized more, for thieving. They are thieves not be virtue of ability, but by desire. 

They do of course have a seemingly supernatural propensity for theft not just of physical goods, but of immaterial attributes themselves. This is probably the mechanic least in line with a 1974 design ethos, but there a couple of interesting things I like about it.

First of all, beyond encouraging thieves to go after high ticket items from dangerous creatures, it adds a little bit of friction to group play in a way that I find interesting, rather than infuriating. It is a cliché for the thief in the party to attempt to filch items from other players or from the treasure hoard before anyone sees; while this kind of antagonistic PvP play is generally not conducive to good table experiences, there is something appealing in its quintessential fantasy, the almost stereotypical idea of a classic Gygaxian adventuring party. By removing high value items from the shared experience pool, there remains this tension of the selfish thief somewhat apart from the party, but it is a tactical decision that can be decided upon by the party: give up some XP in exchange for an ace up the sleeve. I imagine amongst a group of mature players it could be pretty fairly negotiated if the party decided that they didn't think the XP loss was worth the upside.

There is also the tension introduced by the thief potentially being desirous of all magical items. I think this adds a bit of flavour, but in practice I don't see it causing too much conflict; the proper distribution of magical items I think will remain obvious, with the thief getting the items that are otherwise underutilized or unusable by any other party member.

Finally, the last two abilities are me engaging playfully with what I think are some of OD&D's more baroque and nonsensical rules. 

In practice, this means the thief will want to push farther, deeper, and longer than other players, because the rewards for them are greater. It also creates a bit of a trinity of countervailing forces regarding the thief's level progression: they have the fastest level progression of all classes, but this is throttled somewhat if they choose to accumulate treasure for the purposes of using monster abilities, but can again be accelerated should they choose to attempt riskier delves on deeper dungeon floors. A pleasing calculus of risk vs reward that fits rather thematically, in my opinion; a greedy ne'er do well, the devil on the party's shoulder whispering to them to push their luck. "One more roll, one more room, we're on a hot streak, we can't lose!" 

Level fast, die young.

Thursday 16 June 2022

Adventure Forecasts

Mark The Date

There has been a fair amount of discussion around calendars and time-keeping lately ([1] [2] [3] [4]). Time is the important but ill-considered corollary of space that girds location-based exploration play. As Eric at Methods & Madness notes, much has been made of the Quantum Ogre problem, which constitutes railroading-in-space (whether you go east or west, you meet the ogre), but the practice of railroading-in-time, lets for now call it the Quantum Birthday problem, is generally more accepted (whatever day you arrive in town, it is the ogre's birthday). 

This is an issue that I flagged in my review of Willowby Hall, as that adventure assumes a floating timeline of events anchored to the point in time at which the party arrives at the titular manor. In my review I expressed that this felt "videogamey" to me, and though I proposed that within a campaign setting one could simply assign the events of the module to a specific date and time in one's calendar, there was an element of this that felt unsatisfying to me. While old-school play proceeds with the assumption that not all content will be explored, when the content is a more-or-less static locale, there exists at least the possibility that it may eventually be visited, or at the very least recycled into different venues. A time-specific adventure feels, perhaps aptly, far more fleeting; if it is missed, it is missed forever (assuming that it is a unique incident, and not a regularly reoccurring one). 

That being said, there are a number of techniques, new and old, such as rumours or job boards, that are used by Referees in order to direct players to the spaces where particular adventures occur, and here I would like to outline such techniques that can be used to orient players along the temporal axis as well.

I draw inspiration here from the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series (or at least entries 3 to 5) in which the calendar serves an incredibly important role in directing player activities. The calendars in each game forecast different predictable or semi-predictable events (phases of the moon, weather, schedules of targets) that circumscribe the possible actions the player can make on a given day, as well as provide deadlines by which certain activities must be completed.

Persona 4 may provide the most interesting example in this case, as its calendar system is the most dynamic. In Persona 3, the calendar is marked by phases of the moon, which are regular and predictable, and the player is shown the entire month's calendar in advance. 4, by contrast, relies on a weather schedule which, while predetermined in the game's code, is not so easily inferred through natural logic on a blind playthrough; only a week is shown in advance. Therefore, while in 3 the amount of time given to complete the next phase of the dungeon will always take roughly 27 days, in 4 the deadline is based around when the next foggy day will be; if one spends too much time tarrying with other activities, they may find themselves hard pressed to finish the dungeon in time and avoid a fail state. Notably, despite this irregularity, the rules for what events and activities occur during which weather states is predictable.

I will list several techniques to be used in conjunction with a calendar and a campaign timeline of events to forecast an ordered logic around time that can be used to clue players in on when the action is, so to speak. Like the principle behind the Three Clue Rule, these techniques have their effect amplified the more are used, and the more redundancy there is, particularly when you wish players to have the possibility of discovering extremely unique time-sensitive events (e.g. occurs on one particular day, or even a few particular hours, and then never again). 

Day & Night

The first technique, and the one already most common, is creating a differentiated list of encounters and events that happen during the day vs during the night. This is generally for predictable, reoccurring patterns of behaviour rather than unique events, though it can be used to add a dimension to those as well. Players can use ecological knowledge to know that if they wish to collect a bounty for owlbear hides, it is better to attack during the day when they sleep; if they are investigating murders in a village where victims are found desiccated in their beds with two suspicious marks on their jugular, perhaps they had best set a stakeout at night. 

Phases of the Moon

This is very similar to the above, on a slightly longer scale, and with a slightly more ethereal nature. Beyond werewolves and lycanthropes, one can reinforce the logic that the veil between the natural and supernatural is thinnest at the time of the full moon, as well as the observable real life phenomena that crime and public disturbance is at its highest levels. I'm sure this has applications for maritime adventures relating to the tides, but I'm no waterologist.

Seasons & Weather

Again, applying quasi-ecological principles here gives players a heuristic for what kinds of adventures, events, and creatures may be encountered when. On the basic level, note which animals and monsters are inactive vs active in different seasons and create random tables accordingly. From there, one can also extrapolate when in the timeline certain adventures may occur; a module that heavily features ents likely won't be happening in the winter.

The use of weather tables tied to different seasons also defines the conditions in which certain events might occur. Notably, in Persona 4, certain rare and beneficial events can only occur during rainy days; applying this logic in a campaign setting may be interesting in order to force the party to venture forth in less-than-ideal weather in hopes of finding say, a mystical treasure-laden island that only appears in the lake during a thunderstorm, or a mysterious wish-granting demigod that moves through blizzards. If you wish to be an extra-diligent dungeon master, you could create different encounter tables that are sensitive to day vs night, the season, and the weather.

The Errant Weather Table

Depending on how you structure weather in your game, it will also give you an idea of what your players will be doing during the different seasons. Given how inadvisable it is to travel during winter in Errant, I anticipate players spending the season hunkering down in a settlement. So, winter is the season that I will load up with all the urban adventures, murder mysteries, and court intrigue.

Festivals & Habits

We move from the purely ecological to the social dimension of time (though of course the two are mutually reinforcing). These should always be known to the players and clearly forecasted on the player-facing calendar (if the players have a map, they should also have a calendar): when and where are the major festivals and events in the setting. Make sure these are big and impactful, something the players will want to make an effort to go to, rather than just something that just occurs. Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, not like the feast day for St Francis of Assissi; a destination event with a clearly unique benefit/upshot. Its easy to seed specific adventures around these, as such nexuses of activity will always have something notable happening, but also a sly and enterprising Referee can place specific adventures along the most common routes to the location of the events.

At a lesser scale are the sort of regularly reoccurring social events, like market days, church days, or even NPC schedules and routines.

Both these larger scale "festivals" and smaller scale "habits" should be mirrored in the underworld/wilderness, not just civilization. Is there a week perhaps where all the dragons in the region meet on a mountain summit for a moot, to resolve grudges, redraw borders, renew allegiances, and pay debts? Do the fae commemorate each solstice with a procession of The Wild Hunt? Do the Goblins have Goblin Mardi Gras?

The Market

The seasons dictate production, and production dictates activity. Being able to signal to players the state of the economy can provide yet more clues, and give guidance to the Referee about what types of adventures will occur. Economically depressed cities will have high incidence of crimes and political instability; prosperous regions will have frequent caravans patrolling routes that will make attractive targets for bandits and intelligent monsters; areas rich in natural resources may be targets for invasions, assassinations, or coups. 

To some extent this is also an element players can impact. At sufficient levels, your typical adventuring party wields enough purchasing power to grossly destabilize regional markets (this post is a good example). Errant likewise attempts to account for this through an abstracted inflation system determined by how much Supply (an abstract item resource) the players purchase in a settlement over the course of a month.
The Errant Inflation Table

Similarly to seasonal/weather dependent encounter tables, the Referee then may wish to have different city encounters and adventures ready to deploy based on the economic conditions.

To more explicitly tie this into an adventuring context, one could utilize quest boards/adventuring guilds that forecast what kinds of jobs are likely to occur when. This could either be explicit, like a sign that declares "GOBLIN SEASON OPENS IN 2 WEEKS", or perhaps just the regular information conveyed by other members: "yeah, winter its all the shit bodyguarding jobs, but if you make it up north before the first thaw you get your first pick at those lucrative caravan jobs." 


We could think of this as time-sensitive information vs time-agnostic information. Time agnostic information is the stuff that lets players know about the regular ecological and social rules of how time is structured: when the seasons change, when Goblin Mardi Gras is, where the king settles down for summer court, etc. Some of this will be immediately obvious (day vs night), a lot will be covered by the player-facing calendar (seasons, festivals), and others will have to be discovered either by lived experience (getting attacked by witch owls at night) or information gathering (the local yeoman telling you the migration pattern of the deer, the above example of the adventurer informing you what jobs are typically available when/where). Having a variety of NPCs with specialized information on specific subjects that players can access is important for conveying this kind of knowledge: rangers and druids for ecological knowledge, clerics and wizards for the supernatural, and bards are pretty much one stop shops for everything else.

Time-sensitive information conveys to players when the more specific events are occurring, or will occur. Rumours are generally quite useful for this, although they are not generally the fastest or most specific. But for broader scale events, such as "there's rumour the Mountain Lords are marshalling their warhordes to march come summer", they're perfectly adequate. Sages, oft underutilized, I think come into their own here, especially if you run them as having oracular powers. Provided players pay a fee, you have the opportunity to hand out information on incredibly specific and unique events: "on the 17th day of the 3rd month, there will be an attempt on the monarch's life."

On a broader, more infrastructural level, the party can hire retainers whose sole purpose is to observe and report from different areas of the setting; say, one such person posted in each of the four major cities of the realm. Of course, the players will need to invest in some communication network in order to facilitate speedy arrival of such information, whether that be a courier service, messenger pigeons, or magical message sending. Ideally they would also have invested in reliable and fast transportation in order to capitalize on such information; vehicles and mounts and ships, and at the domain level investment in infrastructure like roads and (if a higher magic campaign) teleportation networks (I would, if running this, circumscribe such networks to only be able to have a limited number of nodes and only be situateed and transport through leylines, in order to implement a strategic layer for the players in the most efficient configuration of this network). 

This can also be baked in on the level of systems & procedure if using an overloaded encounter die. A corollary to the "encounter sign" at the dungeon or wilderness level is a "forecast" of the next major campaign event that will occur, or perhaps the next one in the region. Using this mechanic also allows one to add some dynamism to destabilize otherwise staid or static timelines by randomly introducing new threats, developments, disasters, etc. 

Cheating, of a sort

With all of the above providing lots of avenues by which players can orient themselves to when adventure is happening, here are a couple of ideas to still make it easier for them to access that content.

First is taking advantage of character rosters and retainers. Players can distribute them strategically throughout the setting, such that if at the end of one session they hear that the Tomb of Tarluk will open for one week before closing again for a century, they can start next session assuming control of their characters in the region already near the Tomb of Tarluk. Metagamey? Perhaps. But we're playing a game, and the aspect of player skill was finding the information and having the setup to be able to capitalize on it; plus if a PC several miles away is aware of something happening, surely the one located closer to it is too.

Second is affording some in game method of time travel. If you've got adventures in your campaign like Willowby Hall that essentially take place on one day specific day in your calendar, and your players discover it in the aftermath, I would also place around the campaign world a limited number of items, locations, or characters that allow the PCs a circumscribed form of time travel. Essentially I'd let them go to a specific place and time for X hours before being brought back to the present. Make whatever magic sends them off specifically have some sort of causality limiter so you don't have to worry about all the butterfly effect ramifications and paradoxes (unless that's your bag); they keep the treasure and etc., dead NPCs remain dead, everything else in the timeline remains mostly intact.

In Practice

Lets use the above to try to fix my problem with Willowby Hall, both situating it within a calendar and hopefully giving the players enough information to be able to navigate to the adventure on time.

First, Bonebreaker Tom lives in a flying castle near the town of Turnip Hill. So regardless of time, that floating castle is there, the town is there, and Willowby Hall itself is nearby, discoverable at any time. The floating castle is probably a known landmark which the PCs can easily learn about. Alternately, instead of it being static, the castle could move around the map, and with a bit of information gathering its route may be inferred. Either way, lets say that, at the time the adventure takes place, the castle will routinely be near Turnip Hill.

So when should the adventure take place? Well, the instigating event revolves around Mildred, the golden egg laying goose. Geese lay eggs typically, between February and May, in the spring. We can pick any date there and stick to it. 

Lets assume that Tom, while reclusive, occasionally has dealings with humans. Its known by now that in the spring time, around Turnip Hill, there arrives in the local market an influx of golden eggs. This means that there's a bit of a boomtown vibe, and so adventurers in particular journey to the region to take advantage of the economic activity in the area. Hell, lets even put a fairly large festival that occurs in Turnip Hill a day or two before the adventure begins, given all the merchant caravans that will be arriving in anticipation of the purchasing power that will arrive in the region soon. This of course also provides backstory behind how the NPC adventuring party would know about Tom's goose, and where his castle would be.

Enterprising players who want to get some more information on what they might find nearby Turnip Hill might pay a sage, who will directly tell them when and where the events of Willowby Hall will occur. Less solvent players may have to settle for the rumours from a bard, or from a local tavern, where whispers of a planned heist into Bonebreaker Tom's castle may be circulating. Players who miss going to this region during this period will soon hear about the aftermath of Bonebreaker Tom's rampage via rumour, and may decide to either follow the trail of the giants and the adventurers, or go on a quest for a time travel Macguffin to get back to the start date of the adventure.

Tuesday 22 February 2022

Errant Deep Dive #7: Downtime

 Oops, it’s been a year since I last posted one of these. We are skipping ahead in the book, leap-frogging past The Zealot and The Occult and their respective magic schedules, as well as travel and exploration procedures, to talk about the final (and most extensive) chapter in the book: Downtime. Check out the rules at to follow along!

The reason for this, specifically, is because Ben Laurence is currently Kickstarting a compilation of his original Downtime Activities blog post series, which is the main mechanical basis for Errant’s downtime system, along with Nick Whelan’s work. But really, this is just pretext, because Downtime is honestly my favourite part about Errant as a system and what I was most excited to explain in these posts, and I was really bummed I didn’t get to do that while the Kickstarter was running.

If you back modest you're a coward

To set the context for why that is, let me outline the current situation in my home Errant campaign set in Dolmenwood: the players started off in Lankshorn where, after their starting adventure (Winter’s Daughter) they got involved in the local power play between Lords Barrathwaite and Malbleat. They set up a few businesses, which were then promptly sabotaged; they hired a spy to find out who was behind this, and were informed that it was a woman by Madam Shantywood, the madam of a renowned pleasure-house and ruler of the independent territory of Shantywood Isle. After an intervening adventure, they travelled to Shantywood Isle to confront her, whereupon the Madam revealed that this had been a set-up to get them into a room with her, and offered a deal: that the party relocate their base of operations to Shantywood Isle, such that their adventuring proceeds funnel into the local economy and thereby provide resources for Madam Shantywood to grow her sphere of economic and political influnce, in exchange for her patronage (mostly related to increased partying opportunities for more XP and reduced lifestyle expenses because of provided lodging, as well as a more favourable interest rate on her debt). They spent some time doing this, mostly venturing to the nearby dungeon, before they decided to head off north to check out the nearby town of Prigwort. When they got there, they learned it was a renowned brewer’s town, and so they sought to broker a deal with the brewer’s council for a wholesale supply of booze to Madam Shantywood’s brothel; in the course of doing so, they found that both the town’s booze supply was under threat from what was thought to be kobolds (but ended up being a malevolent sentient fungus, the kobolds were chill) and that the local Lord had just died and his children gone missing (the result of a covert plot for usurpation). The party managed to be quick enough so as to narrowly deal with both problems, and for their efforts were rewarded by the local Lord with a plot of land in a northerly hex, which is currently untamed and chaos-blasted; the party’s next move is planned to be surveying and clearing that hex to begin establishing a domain there (though this may contravene the spirit of their agreement with Madam Shantywood). They’re all about level 3.

All of this happened with basically no planning or forethought on my part; it all came together as the result of one fortuitous (or unlucky, for the players) roll that happened in the second downtime turn the party took, around the 6th session of the campaign, which is the sabotage setback that happens as a result of rolling a mixed success. From there spun out pretty much the entire rest of the campaign. And this is not by accident; this is by design. The way the downtime mechanics are structured in Errant basically makes them function as an engine for generating adventure hooks, becoming both the pumping heart of the campaign events and the glue that binds them all together. If you read Ben’s Downtime in Zyan zine you’re likely to experience an eerie sense of deja vu, as he says basically the same thing, but this is something I had planned to write since last year, basically down to the word; we arrived to the same conclusion independently, I think, because anyone who spends some time actually playing with these rules will experience this effect first-hand for themselves.     

This is, I think, quite significant because while there is no dearth of downtime systems available (domain play could even be said to predate D&D qua D&D itself), most of the traditional ones end up being so complex or onerous, involving calculations of taxes and incomes and tithes and square footage of land, so as to predominate gameplay to the point of subordinating traditional adventure based play. If one prefers a phased campaign structure like traditional classic D&D, where there is a transition between the dungeon mode, the wilderness mode, and the domain mode as characters level up, each mode being characterised by a different gameplay structure, this might make sense (though even then, what tends to happen is that the campaign becomes stratified among these modes, with players having characters at every phase, and thus the domain level play tends to need its own special time to occur, whether that be specific domain sessions or as inter-session homework for players/referees). But I, and I would wager most modern players, prefer a variety/smorgasboard/masala style campaign, where each of these elements is present in varying proportions throughout the campaign length, with dungeon style adventuring remaining the focus. 

As well, in traditional gold-for-xp campaigns players tend to amass wealth so quickly that the question of why they would continue to adventure becomes ridiculous in the face of the diegetic logic that they could just retire and run a bakery; and when players are allowed to open their bakeries, both the low-risk and simple pleasure of it, and the fact that there isn’t any structure to facilitate the running of the bakery thus requiring the logistics to be handled on a sort of detail-by-detail basis, threaten to turn Dungeons & Dragons into Danishes & Donuts. Which is a fine game and all to play, but not the one I signed up for. I want to allow my players to make meaningful investments in the world without the game becoming a bean-counting or business-management simulator.

Ben and Nick’s systems, with their abstracted turn structure and generally simplified accounting, go a long way on their own to reducing the overhead downtime exerts on play, but there’s a few things Errant does that I think facilitate this even more. The lifestyle rule, which sees an errant’s remaining money halved at the end of their downtime turns, in addition to simplifying book-keeping, solves the accumulation problem and keeps an incentive to adventure. In addition, it encourages players to spend, waste, and invest all their money so that they still gain some value from it, rather than it being removed with nothing to show for it; the net effect of keeping the players cash-strapped is preserved, but the players become more invested in the game world. 

The fact that the downtime structure proceeds such that players spend fixed amounts of money (on buying equipment and investing in businesses/training/etc.) before proceeding to a phase where they waste a random amount of money often means that they will end up wasting more money than they actually have; this nets them extra XP, but puts them in debt, essentially allowing players to level up on credit. But the debt rules mirror the lifestyle rules, with debt doubling at the start of every downtime turn, which prevents them from gaining any XP; this tends to light a fire under the ass of players to go adventure and get enough money, and tends to push them to take bigger risks going deeper into dungeons than they usually would, while the power bump they got from their “credited” XP usually means that they just barely have the capacity to take such risks. (I discussed these two rules in a previous deep dive somewhat).

The other factor that keeps the focus on adventure is an innovation that resulted from the admixture of Ben’s 2d6 downtime rolls and Nick’s complications table from the haven turn hazard die. For several activities, but most notably improving an institution, in Ben’s system, a mixed success of a 7-9 indicates a setback that requires the completion of a task (generally understood as an adventure) to resolve before that activity can be completed; in the case of institutions this also renders the players unable to benefit from the institutions benefits until the setback is resolved. This dovetails nicely with my waste rules, so I specified that such setbacks grant XP to the players when they happen; I then adopted the 2d6 structure Nick uses for encounter tables for the downtime complications table, so that I could make the result of 7 automatically trigger a setback for one of the player’s projects. This means that about 5% of the time (closer to 3% but let's round up to nice d20-based numbers) the game itself will proc an event that both passively rewards XP to players without requiring an action or resource to be spent, which incentivizes them to make such investments so that it can pay dividends so to speak, but also by its very nature spawns an adventure hook. The rest of the downtime complications table also in general create hindrances to what the players may normally want to do during a downtime turn, which is why downtime turns are structured so that the event die is rolled before player actions, allowing them to “suspend” the downtime turn so they can go on an adventure to remove the complication. This mechanic, and also the fact that I expanded the “on a mixed success, go an adventure” to be on almost every downtime activity (Ben and I differ slightly in this regard, he prefers to reserve the rolls that have mixed successes a bit more judiciously) means that the game will constantly be generating adventure hooks for the party to capitalise upon. 

The other results of the downtime event die serve to prevent the game world from becoming staid, by introducing prompts that make the game world change dynamically, much like random encounters do at the wilderness and dungeon level. This also introduces spaces for collaborative worldbuilding, as downtime offers a space outside of the challenge-based gameplay of exploration, and so allows for more “white space” where the DM can share authorial control; a prompt of “a new NPC arrives in town” is a chance for the DM and players to collaboratively work on adding to the setting. Other mechanics such as accounting for the presence, movement, and activities of rival adventuring parties, long-term campaign threats/BBEGs, and factions are all mechanically pinned to downtime turns and the downtime event die, allowing all of these factors to neatly coalesce around a singular mechanic rather than having to manage them all in turn. This provides the DM great latitude in allowing for the machinations, conspiracies, and agendas of all manner of world powers and secret societies into their game without great burden. It also means that when the players ascend to that stage themselves, they will be slipping into an already pre-existing structure designed to facilitate their desires, like a pair of already broken-in shoes.

In general, the way downtime turns integrate what is generally considered high-level domain play from the very start of the campaign is something that I find incredibly rewarding. It really makes sandbox play cohere on a structural level. Before I implemented downtime turns, I would always have players who had ambitions like starting a revolution or founding a cult or somesuch, which is I think ideal in a sandbox campaign; you wanted players to have self-directed motivation for interacting with the game world and the various powers in it. Hell, The Zealot class basically directly incentivizes players to spread their religion far and wide. But I never had a way to deal with these ambitions that felt satisfying; again, I could resort to dealing with it on a nitty-gritty, detail-by-detail pace at the level of adventure play, or I could just sort of hand-wave it as a reward for doing a given quest, but neither ever felt really satisfying or meaningful, either taking up too much time or kind of agency robbing. As a player I’ve also been in campaigns where I had such goals but would quickly become burnt out on such characters as there was never any game phase where I could handle the advancement of those goals in an abstract level, and so would have to basically always be “on” in terms of recruiting NPCs one by one, managing transactions one by one, etc. Which is a bummer, because those characters are the most rewarding and fun to play, but invariably I would retire them in favour of playing a simpler character who just wants to fight-n-loot.

There’s a lot of functions in downtime turns that also scale and metamorphose into something new as players advance in level. For example, the Supply/Inflation mechanics, which at low levels is there to sort of gate player access to resources like torches, healing kits, armour, etc. at high levels becomes more about managing region-wide inflation as the players undertake the economically taxing work of supplying an expedition for clearing and settling domains and building castles/estates. The progression of settlement types from hamlet to metropolis then also tie in to activities in downtime like setting up institutions and domains (i quite enjoy how there’s almost a step-by-step order for building up a domain from scratch, progressing from expedition to building an estate, setting up a settlement, then a loop in which institutions allow settlements to expand which then allow institutions to expand, with the domain-kingdom level also being added to the loop at a certain point).

Mechanically, the downtime turn essentially functions as another level of “rest” above and beyond the 10 minute dungeon rest or the night’s sleep at the travel level, with the “full HP/exhaustion” restore being pegged at the downtime level (armour restore at the dungeon rest level, and partial HP/exhaustion restore at the travel level). It also creates a little binary between the travel rest classes (The Violent/Occult) whose abilities are hard-coded and resources restore on a night’s rest, and the downtime rest classes (The Deviant/Zealot) whose abilities are soft-coded and resources restore on a downtime rest. It also functions as a “speedbump” moment to deal with all the little things like shopping, socialising, paying retainers, receiving bonuses from institutions, and so on. I think of it almost as equivalent to something like the upkeep/untap phase in Magic: The Gathering.

Because of that mechanical function, along with providing the opportunity to take campaign level actions, downtime turns are a resource that players are generally going to want to take advantage of. This solves the issue many campaigns have of functioning in “Die Hard time” where they’re rushing from target to target, quest to quest, with many significant events happening in a compressed amount of time. Especially, I like to keep them at the level of a “month” because it gives the campaigns the same quality as many picaresque stories like those of Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser or Conan where we follow their adventures over a scope of time, usually with little preambles at the beginning that set the context of what the characters were doing in their off-time between adventures. It also allows the feeling of the deepening of character relationships over time, as in-game time will start to align to real-world time (if you play weekly and take a downtime turn every 3-4 sessions). You get to have cool “getting the band back together” sessions, and if you allow your players to take several downtime turns in a row (say if they take the winter off of adventuring), then you could feasibly start to enter into generational play territory for some characters. Its important to balance downtime turns a little bit, where you generally want to ration out a downtime turn per 2-4 sessions of adventuring, but the lifestyle and debt rules tend to end up self-regulating for players who take too many downtime turns anyway.

On a purely “game-feel” level, I find that the downtime turn tends to make the game feel structurally complete. It slots into the action economy of travel/explore/fight quite well, forming a pleasing chiasmus where there are two turn lengths at a more ‘abstract scale’ (downtime/travel) and two turn lengths at a more ‘concrete scale’ (exploration/initiative), and also two turns where actions are taken at the party level (travel/exploration), and two where they are taken at the PC level (downtime/initiative). 

There’s a lot of sources that served secondary influences or reference points for the downtime system as I’ve developed Errant that I think are worth checking out. These include Leback’s Into the Wild, Crawford’s An Echo Resounding, Metzger’s The Nightmares Underneath, Cocking and William’s Beyond The Wall: Further Afield, Diaz Torres’ “Playing Cute”, Kutalik’s article on “Pendragon Epic-Time”, Gundobad Games’ “Simpler Downtime” series, and Manola’s “Meet the New Boss” post.


Also, I’d like to take this chance to plug a bunch of ZiMo projects apart from Ben’s zine. I would be remiss not to mention Barkeep on the Borderlands, which is a pleasing mirror-reflection of what I’ve been talking about in the way that it turns a traditional downtime activity (carousing) into something played at the adventure level. There’s also going to be a tonne of content in there applicable to more traditional downtime style carousing as well. Also ya girl is an editor and guest writer on the project.

Friend of the blog and contributing artist for Errant Lazy Litch is also running a Kickstarter, completing his zine trilogy of Willow and The Haunted Hamlet with The Toxic Wood. I’ve known Litch longer than anyone else in the RPG scene; we started as accountability buddies while he was working on Willow and I was still developing Errant (yes, he has literally lapped me twice in terms of releases). As a result, I’ve gotten to see an in-depth look at his maturation as an artist and designer, and with no hyperbole every project he does is better than the last. Check this one out.

Finally, there are a few ZiMo projects that are itchfunding right now which I’ll also be editing. These definitely need more love, as breaking off of Kickstarter is really hard.

Emiel Boven is starting the first issue in a series of zines called The Electrum Archives, which will Vaults of Vaarn-style detail a science-fantasy setting of Orn. I previously worked with Emiel on editing DURF and its associated adventure Lair of the Gobbler, as well as him contributing some art for Errant, and everything he does absolutely oozes personality.

The inimitable Evlyn Moreau needs no introduction in the old-school zine. She’s writing a delightfully uncomfortable scenario for Liminal Horror called The Potato King, about an eldritch god who is being unwittingly fed to the inhabitants of a small town via a fast food stand. Besides the merits of the adventure itself, Evlyn is one of the kindest and most generous folks I know in this scene, and I’d love to see her get more support. Oh, she also illustrated the delightful naked mole rat people in Downtime in Zyan, whose majestic bepises were unjust censored by the overlords of the bird site.

Finally, there’s SageDaMage’s city supplement of Discordantopia for Pulka and Troika. Everything I’ve seen of the art work and writing has been stellar so far, so if you're a fan of weird science fantasy I recommend checking it out!