The Art of Adventure Prep

In my time running D&D games, there is one constant that has plagued me – bad prep notes. Try as I might, getting all the information I need into a form that leaves me able to accurately run the game I planned has eluded me, leading to one of two outcomes; a game where I feel strangled by my notes, or an entirely improvised game that is fun to play, but overly complex to build over multiple sessions.

Here, I’m hoping to spend some time critiquing my various prep methods. I hope this is useful to you (and myself), planning games in future. Also, please let me know if you prepare your notes differently. I’d love to learn from you guys too!

The DM Folder.

Of all the methods I’ve used, this is by far my favourite, but by the far most unwieldy. In the Sunday Night games I ran (after which this blog is named), I had a lever arch folder split into various sections. These ranged from a section devoted to the city of Waterdeep (maps, charts for shops, detailed descriptions of areas of interest, etc), a section devoted to NPCs (name scratch sheets, stat blocks for NPCs the characters had met, or could meet), and a section devoted entirely to pre-built adventures and spare maps.

This method was wonderful for a number of reasons. I had everything at my fingertips, all in bullet pointed format and easy to rattle off. I could make notes to my heart’s content and print off additional material when I needed. Flicking to the place I needed was made easy by good sectioning, and good labelling. The method’s huge downfall is the sheer amount of space it takes up. Before even beginning to worry about DM screens, dice trays, handouts, minis, 3d terrain and maps, and the rest of those things that we DMs love to use, the majority of our gaming table was dominated by my folder, even on a 6’x4′ table.

This method is something I use outside of the game now. My Talomire setting is wrapped up entirely in one folder, giving me all the resources I need to build adventures and plan nights of gameplay. It’s not something I can use at the table anymore, unfortunately.

The DM Journal

This single item is responsible for the vast majority of my RPG related creativity over the last few months. Constantly carrying a journal that is dedicated to maps, concepts, mechanics and lore means that so much of what would once have been lost to the aether has instead been codified and kept. The rampant creativity, the ability to riff on ideas over time, the ability to come back to ideas and maps down the line; these are all invaluable, and I recommend it unreservedly.

When it comes to running games from a journal you gain a lot of the advantages of a DM folder, but without the ability to properly organise it. It also requires you to be disciplined in your creativity, writing what needs to be written in order. With the way my mind works, this makes it difficult to run anything beyond a one-shot from my journal. Truthfully, this is entirely down to my own lack of discipline. My second journal, I’m hoping, will be much more organised, but I’m not really too hopeful.

My Notebook

With my latest campaign I decided to try and combine the two methods I’ve tried before. I bought a ringbound notebook and took notes on the published adventure I was running. Edge of Darkness is a free Dark Heresy adventure, designed in the Warhammer 40,000 setting. I took bullet point notes on each of the areas, cutting out the descriptive elements from the adventure and highlighting all the elements of that section that I felt were needed. My issue with published adventures has always been making them my own. Reading from the book I feel I need to keep to their vision, and as a result I stop improvising and creating. With this adventure I felt I was able to tear out the things I needed, shave off the parts I felt were surplus, and really make the adventure my own.

The problems I found were mainly due to my failings as a DM, rather than the method. I found myself reading the descriptive text, rather than using it as a guide. As such my descriptions were two-dimensional and lacking a certain something to really make the city immersive. Which leads to…

Prep Moving Fowards

Moving forwards I have two games that I’m planning, and I’m planning on preparing each game in different ways.

  1. Warhammer 40,000
    My 40k campaign is designed to be an open world, investigative game. As a DM that means I have to have all of my information in one place. If the players decide they have a lead on one planet that leads to a completely different planet, then I need to be able to flip to that information. The idea is to condense all of the preparation I need to run the campaign into bullet point format, and run from a ringbound notebook. Each NPC will have a specific motivation, and their movements will be jotted in sections at the back so I can keep track of them. Rather than large block of descriptive text, I plan on filling the book with artwork that depicts the scene I want to portray, with notes on each of the five senses to add flavour (no pun intended).

    A lot of my conceptual preparation for this campaign will be done in my journal, then  moved across to the notebook fully formed.

  2. The Monthly Brew Dog Game
    The Brew Dog game is going to be made up of a series of one-shot games. As such, this game will be run entirely from my notebook. A single map, with each room named to give flavour, and a quick rundown of the mechanics of the encounter within will cover a double spread or two, allowing me to improvise as much as I want without having to worry too much about continuity.

Final Words

I hope any of this is helpful. I plan (when my PC decides to start working again) on making a video detailing how I prep adventures, which should make a lot of what’s written here make more sense. I’ll post that up here when it’s done.

If you’ve got any thoughts, fire me a comment or a message. I’d love to hear how you prepare your games, so please teach me your ways!

Cheers!

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The Chamber Of Red Fang

“Birthed in the belly of a demon, an ancient and terrible blade awakens. Across Alfheim heroes are drawn to the depths of Dur Moro, their Doom to seek amongst those ruins of old…”

001

1) The Pool of Lost Heroes, and the Tree of Death.

A dark pool fills most of the cavern. The water is stagnant, but shows no sign of the life associated with that state. Totally opaque, it reflects the scene like a mirror, giving no clue as to what lies beneath the surface. A tall willow tree rises from the centre of the water, it’s drooping branches terminating beneath the glassy surface. It’s leaves are grey, but show no sign of loss or decay. The stench of undeath is cloying…

As the party look into the pool, one of them makes eye contact with their reflection. The eyes begin to dim, becoming glassy. The flesh around the sockets shrinks and turns to grey. A dead face breaks the surface, staring idiotically into oblivion. Above, the willow begins to move, it’s branches rising from the deep. With them come the bodies of lost heroes, terrible unlife given them by powers beyond comprehension…

2) Hidden Depths and Terrible Sigils.

Darkness. Complete darkness is all the party can see in the depths. Like an axe wound dealt by a vengeful god, the crevasse goes on forever. A single, sturdy looking but ancient bridge crosses from one side to the other. Beyond that a huge sigil sits in the cavern floor. The angles are deeply wrong, and seem to shift and change, subtly, before the eyes. The whole circle is carved of red stone, the deep channels running downhill to the centre, each one of them stained a deeper red. The circle demands blood, drawn by the giver’s own hand, and it will have it’s red toll.

3) Tunnel of Cracks and Circle of Stones.

A narrow ledge leads to a broken corridor. The rocks hold tentatively, and any wrong move could cause a devastating cave in…

Beyond, a circle of stones ring the figure of a dwarf. He breathes not, but he lives. As his eyes open, he sees you. He knows you. He cannot let you leave. Doom and Ruin are his weapons, Fate wielded as a blade. The future is his gift, and his burden.

4) The Chamber of Red Fang.

You look on, unsure, as your friend and companion walks certainly towards the sigil. Standing at it’s apex, directly in front of the wall behind it, he lifts his head. “Devour me, Lord; for your queen, She Who Seeks Ruin, I shall be your Fang, and you strong arm!” From nowhere a red, ethereal blade flashes into existence, as your friend raises his arm. As you cry out in anguish, he drives the blade deep into his own neck, tearing it out with gurgle of horror and awe. He falls, his life blood leaking out and filling the channels of the sigil around him. As the life finally fades from his eyes, the wall before him shifts and dissolves to nothing.

A clear pool of water, deep enough to submerge the tallest Hillman sits in front of the entrance to this new cavern. Behind it, on a tall plinth, is an altar. A body, wrapped in a black cloak and holding a res-bladed greatsword lies in state atop it. As you enter, the body shifts, then turns and sits up. Rising, it descends the stairs, stopping at the pool. Your watch as the friend you just watched die removes the cloak, flinging it into the pool, and raises the greatsword in a patronising salute to you. The cloak begins to sink, the water around it turning a deep crimson.

As your friend stalks towards you, you see a shape rise from the pool, now filled entirely with blood. Soon, a tall, lithe figure stands before you in a black robe. No body is visible beneath the hood, except for a trail of blood dribbling sickly from where the creature’s maw would be. One decrepit, decaying hand holds a jet black obelisk that seems to absorb the light around it. A red aura links this thing and your friend. Together they attack, and desperate battle is joined.

The Hall of the Tarrasque

“You enter the dank cave entrance, damp dripping down the walls. The passageway seems to go on forever, extending away into the darkness, your steps echoing into oblivion. Finally, after what seems like hours, you see a dim light reflected against the tunnel wall. You reach the opening, and look out into the vast cavern…”

The Map

Hall of the Tarrasque

The Hall of the Tarrasque

The Hall of the Tarrasque

The hall consists of six areas, each designed to test the party in some way. I’ll give a brief description of each room, but for more details on how I ran the mechanics, check out my Patreon page; the full run down will be up there by the end of the week.

Area 1

Area one consists of a narrow ledge, overlooking a terrifying drop, and a large, but empty, room containing two levers. Each of these levers open one of the secret doors which block areas 3 and 4.

Area 2

Area 2 is simply a circular, stone room. When the levers in area 1 are pulled, however, two large stones ascend into the ceiling, revealing areas 3 and 4.

Area 3

Area 3’s major feature is a deep, wide pool, riddled with semi-sentient vines. Deep in the pool is a melon-sized sphere, which glows blue. If a party member enters the pool, the vines attack and hold the player beneath the water…

Area 4

Area 4 is the scene from Temple of Doom; an altar stands on a plinth, with a melon-sized yellow sphere sat on top of it. The altar is trapped, and releases a rolling boulder which will hit players in its way, finally blocking the exit from the room as it begins to fill with sand…

Area 5

Area 5 is the ‘bridge’. The bridge consists of two posts with a small dent in each, extends a few feet over the abyss, then ends. The abyss itself contains an antimagic field. The field is dissipated, and the bridge completed, when the two orbs from areas 3 and 4 are placed on the two posts.

Area 6

As the antimagic field dissipates, the monster hidden high in the cavern awakes. The party must flee to across the broken masonry and rubble of the procession, and make it down the stairs, into the dungeon proper, all while the Tarrasque brings parts of the ceiling down on them, eventually stepping into the cavern and seeking the party out…

Further Thoughts

This cavern acts well as the entrance to a larger dungeon, and is based entirely around skill challenges, and thinking outside the box. I increased the difficulty, not by increasing the DC of the challenges (this would render the map subject to luck, which can be frustrating), but by utilising timers to give a feeling of suspense, and to focus the players’ thinking. Encourage the players’ creativity, and reward it.

I hope this gives you some ideas for running this map, or similar encounters, yourself, and hit me up with how it went! Until then, cheers!

Taking Back Initiative – A Look At The Order Of RPG Combat

Initiative in role playing combat is something I’ve always felt is lacking a certain something. It’s difficult, however, to change much about it without making it overly simple, or overly complex. The two systems I’ve used, and enjoyed, are the Index Card system of ‘clockwise from the DM’, and the D&D 5e system of ‘1d20 + Dex, highest goes first’. Both have their upsides, and both have their downsides.

Note: Everything is this post is derived from my own tables, and is not necessarily indicative of other people’s games. I put forward these ideas to spark debate, and hopefully inspire you to go away and create your own initiative system. I do not expect, nor believe that you should, use this proposed system at your own table; make it work for your own context, whatever that looks like.

Dungeons & Dragons

D&D’s major problems are of order and speed. With so much going on in combat, it can be difficult to remember the order players are meant to act in as the DM, and with each combat turn taking so long it’s impossible for players to remain completely engaged for the full combat encounter. Either of these issues, on their own, would be fine. Without each turn taking forever, players can remain more engaged and take more responsibility for the order they act. If turn order was simpler, turn length and complexity wouldn’t matter as much, as people could very easily know whether they’re up next or not.

Index Card RPG

ICRPG’s system is the opposite of D&D’s. Turn order is simply around the table from the DM, with players being allowed to change their seating order between rounds in order to change the order they act. While this gets the party through mechanically complex, or large combat encounters incredibly quickly, I find it loses some aspects of D&D combat that I love. I find my parties tend to act less as a team, and more as a group of individuals. Strategy and tactics go out the window, as people fight the things they see as the biggest threat. Now, this isn’t wholly unrealistic, but I find it difficult to believe that people who have been fighting together for a long time have not learned to communicate and create simple plans on the fly, in the middle of combat.

Aiming For The Middle Ground.

My aim with my initiative system is to shorten the length of individual player turns, increase player agency and responsibility, without sacrificing mechanical complexity, or taking away the cool things players can do. I worked out the following (completely, as yet, unplaytested) system…

  1. The Planning Step.
  2. The Timer.
  3. The Initiative Step.
  4. The DM’s Turn.
  5. The End Step.

The Planning Step

This round happens at the beginning of initiative, before any effect takes place. The DM flips a timer (or sets off a timer on their phone; we’re not gonna be purists here), and from that point the players can talk to each other, and make their plan of attack. BY THE END OF THE TIMER the players must have their initiative decided, and marked down in some way (personally, I would use cards in the centre of the table, that the players can move around themselves).

The aim of this step is to speed up the decision making process of the round, meaning that the turns themselves are much quicker to run through, and that each other player has a vested interest in seeing how the round develops. It also gives the players a chance to act as a team, and develop a  team dynamic. The aim is not to allow the party to metagame, or to allow them time they simply wouldn’t have in a combat situation.

In terms of timers, my current thinking is between twenty seconds and two minutes, depending on the situation the party find themselves in. In a desperate fight for their lives I’d run a twenty second timer; something just long enough for them to decide on their own action, and run through the mechanics of that action (rolling dice, determining effects, etc). In something much more planned, where the players have control of the fight, I’d allow a much longer timer, up to around 2 minutes (adjusted, of course, with playtesting).

The Timer Step

This is the step where any turn/round timers, not carried over from the last round,  are rolled. The aim here is to balance the planning time the players have. While they might have control of a situation, random chance, and the actions of their enemy, will always impact that plan in ways they can’t guess. The main kinds of timers I use are as follows:

  • Monster action timers
  • Lair action timers
  • Narrative timers

Monster Action Timers are 1d4 turn timers. When the timer ends, one hostile creature can make a single action – it can move, attack, change weapons, etc. This does not replace their full set of actions they can make during the DM’s turn. This is to represent the eb and flow of combat, and make even simple creatures potentially lethal. These timers are rolled again when the monster’s action has been taken.

Lair Action Timers are 1d6 timers or 1d4 round timers. When they end, some huge lair effect happens; there is a minor earthquake, a new monster spawns, a platform falls into the lagoon, etc. These timers are rolled again when the lair action has resolved.

Narrative Timers are similar to Lair Action Timers, but relate to narrative elements, and don’t tend to be reset after they are finished. They can range from random timers (1d6, 1d12 rounds) to set timers (30 turns, or 13 rounds). The types of things governed by these timers would be how long it takes for the Tarrasque to wake up after the anti-magic field has been dropped, or how long it will take for the Riders of Rohan to arrive to Gondor’s aid.

You can have as many, or as few timers as you want. I suggest having at least one monster action timer per encounter, using more if you want the encounter to be more dangerous. Lair action timers are useful for adding a layer of mechanical complexity to the battlefield (such as having the battlefield shift and change layout), adding ever-spawning monsters, or creating dangerous elements, such as those found in a dragon’s lair.

The Initiative Step

This is the most conventional part of the system. The players act in the order they’ve chosen. The important thing, as the DM, is to ensure that player turns do not take too long. Their planning time is segregated, so the player turn should simply be a case of acting on the mechanical elements of the game. It should run fairly quickly, with the player describing, for the benefit of the DM, their action, and then acting through the mechanics of the action, be it moving their mini, rolling an attack, or describing a spell effect. The DM will then describe the result of the action, and the turn will advance to the next player.

Of course, due to circumstance, there will be times when the player’s action will be redundant. As the DM, it’s up to you how to run this situation. If you run combat narratively, then it might be appropriate to allow the player to choose a new action, or to redirect their action. Allow then a short period of time to do this, perhaps setting a short timer to avoid confusion. If you run combat in six second increments, and aim of a more realistic encounter, then I would recommend that the action still be taken. In the case of an attack, it makes sense that two people might attack the same target at the same time. In this case, neither might know which one killed the target, or even if the second attack was needed! It’s harsh, but so long as you warn your players that this can, and will, happen, they’ll account for it in their plans. Do NOT surprise them with this. It will annoy them, and they will see it as unfair.

The DM’s Turn

The DM’s turn is the turn in which all hostile creatures, controlled by the DM, act. NPCs can either act when the PCs feel they should act, according to their plan, or the DM can choose where to slot them into initiative. This step is fairly straight forward. It is also the turn in which you tick down round timers.

The End Step

This step is largely theoretical, and has few actual uses. It’s main aim is to clear up the battlefield, check hit point totals, and what creatures may or may not have died, and also to provide an end to the combat round before heading into the next planning turn.

One use I’ve considered is to not tell the players which creatures have died during their turns. If player 1 deals lethal damage to a goblin, I would describe the damage done to it. I might say “as you swing your sword you feel it shear through the goblin’s neck, as the head drops to the floor next to it…” if they dealt a lot of damage in one hit. I might say instead, “You slash the goblin across the chest, a deep gouge, and it staggers back in pain…”. The players don’t know, for certain, that the goblin is dead in either case. However, with the first example, they can make an educated guess. It is up to the next player in initiative to decide whether or not their planned action of attacking the goblin needs to be adjusted. I don’t tell them if the goblin is actually dead until the end step. The theory behind this is that during a six second timeframe, two people would act at the same time, so their actions would overlap. If one player’s action took three seconds, and the next player changes their action based on the result of it, then they logically cannot use the full three seconds. Giving them this uncertainty, in my opinion, adds to the realism of the players’ choices by leaving them unsure of the creature’s fate. I hope that makes sense.

Conclusions, And Variations

Like I said at the top, this is not a system for everybody (I’m not even sure if it’s right for my table; I haven’t played with it yet). I do think, though, it has it’s merits and it’s advantages.

There are a few variations I’m considering alongside this…

Mike Mearls’ Method

Mike Mearls recently published a short run down of his initiative system. Each player decides their actions for the turn, then rolls dice corresponding to each action (1d4 for ranged, 1d8 for melee, etc), with the lowest roll going first. Then, at the start of each round, everyone rolls initiative again with the actions they plan to use that turn.

I considered doing the same thing, but changing the dice rolls to the following:

  • Melee/ranged attack with a light/finesse weapon – 1d4
  • Melee/ranged attack with a normal weapon – 1d6
  • Melee/ranged attack with a heavy weapon – 1d12
  • Casting a spell – 1d8 + Spell Level
  • Changing equipped gear – 1d8
  • Other actions – 1d6

In addition, players can move, and/or take a single bonus action, adding 1d6 to their initiative roll.

Therefore, if a player wanted to move up to an enemy, attack them with a light weapon, and disengage as a bonus action, they would roll 1d6 (movement), 1d4 (attack with a light weapon) and 1d6 (bonus action), adding the results together to get their initiative score. The lowest score goes first, then proceed in order.

Enemy Initiative

Putting the enemies at the end of initiative simplifies the process, but for bigger, badder enemies it feels a bit…flat. There are two ways I’m thinking of getting around this.

1 – Timers

One concept I’m playing with is giving each ability the enemy has a timer. They can break their movement up over the course of these actions, but otherwise the monster is run entirely on timers. My major worry with this method is that enemies begin to feel either random, or somewhat predictable and formulaic.

2 – Initiative Dice

The other idea I had, assuming  we use the Mike Mearls system, was simply to give the creature/group of creatures an initiative dice to roll. This gives the battle a more fluid feel, and combined with timers should make it all feel a bit more dynamic.

Final Thoughts (I suppose this is the conclusions bit I mentioned in the last segment…)

This is a set of theoretical house rules that I have yet to run. I do feel, however, that there’s merit to them, with some playtesting. If you want to try them, feel free (and please tell me how you find them at your table). I’ll post any updates I make over time. Till then, cheers!

The Freedom of Simplicity – The ICRPG: Core Review

What is ICRPG?

Index Card RPG: Core is a self contained roleplay system written and designed by Hankerin Ferinale of Drunkens and Dragons fame. The system pulls together much of what Hank has espoused on his YouTube channel for the last couple of years, from his thoughts on room design and encounter construction, to his love of clean mechanics and player agency.

It is worth noting, before we continue, that this product is not the first to carry the ICRPG moniker. Volumes 1 was released in December last year, with Volume 2 following close on its heels. These two PDFs are completely system agnostic, and are designed to be used as tools for the DM, either for story construction, or as visual aides during the game. They’re well worth the $6 they each cost, and play a role within Core, but are not what we’re talking about today.

What do you get?

ICRPG is available in both physical and digital formats, with the two bundled together at a discount. I don’t have a physical copy (though I do hope to grab one at some point), so I won’t be reviewing that here.

The digital copy consists of :

  • The Core rulebook. This includes the rules of the game, the stat blocks of monsters, a section on game mastery, d100 loot tables, and primers for a sci fi and a fantasy campaign setting.
  • Print and Play minis. This includes a huge number of player characters for both the sci fi and fantasy settings, as well as the monsters within the rulebook.
  • The Character sheet as a separate PDF.
  • An online play kit.
  • A Tabletop Simulator Mod.

It should be pointed out that the last two were not available at launch. Hank has done a great job of updating, correcting and adding to Core, and is constantly talking to the community about what is coming, and responding to feedback from the community. The one element I do feel is missing here is a change log file which would quickly and easily draw attention to any major revisions of rules, additions, etc. That said, this whole project is overseen by one man who only has so much time to work on these things, so I’ll let it slide.

Bookcraft

Good stuff

The core rulebook is stands at 121 pages and is, in the most part, very well laid out. The colour scheme of black and white with red highlights is bold and eye catching, without becoming wearying to read. The chapters make sense, and can be printed as separate books to create the more traditional D&D, three-book format. The language and descriptions are well written, concise and easy to understand. The artwork is truly wonderful; simple and evocative, and reinforcing the concepts described in the text in a way that makes learning the rules incredibly simple.

The not-So-good stuff

There are two issues with this book, one of which has been corrected in PDF v1.1, but is still worth mentioning as it will be a part of the current print release (note, this is the reason they are currently reduced – 7/5/17).

The first is typos. There are, by Hankerin’s own admission (and grovelling apology), a number of typos in v1.0. These have since been corrected, but will still exist within the first edition print copies. Unfortunately I can’t detail these errors, as I only have v1.1 available to me at the moment.

The glaring issue in v1.1 is that of confusing text. The worst example of this is in character creation. In the starting equipment section it states that you may choose three items from the list, one of which is a common weapon. The common weapon text states that you may take up to three of these weapons. The confusion I, and many others, had was this – does each weapon count towards one of your three starting item slots, or do all three count as one slot? This has since been answered by Hank on the Google+ forum (turns out all three weapons count as one slot), but it’s not the only example.

In my first read through I found there was a strange splitting of the rules in the book. The first section detailed how to play the game, but missed out topics which are detailed later in the book, such as initiative order, hard and easy rolls, and ‘dynamic dice’. I came to understand what I think is the principle behind this; that these concepts are for the Dungeon Master, not necessarily the player, and are therefore kept in the Game Mastery section. However, I feel that this puts those things into the hands of the DM, where they should be the responsibility of the player to keep track of. Let’s take an example.

You walk into a wide, open space, with a narrow, but deep, gorge. You know you need to leap the gorge, but are worried about the room DC, which is 14. You have no Dex bonus, so the idea of rolling a natural 14 is terrifying. You pull the grappling hook from your bag and throw it at the tree branches above you. You miss, but on your next turn you try again. Because you failed to complete this action last turn, the roll is now considered ‘easy’, so you get a -3 bonus to the target DC.

In my opinion, in a circumstance like this, it is the job of the player to remember that they are entitled to the easy roll. As a DM I want to offload everything I can, and that is appropriate, to the players so that I can just get on with running a dramatic game. I feel like including these sections within the players’ handbook (so-to-speak) section of the book would greatly benefit this. There is also the matter of these sections’ placement within the Game Mastery section. They sit between sections on DM theory, such as adventure construction, how to use hearts to denote levels of challenge, and using ICRPG as a plug-in for other games systems. This feels weird, and I don’t feel helps the flow of the DM’s section of this book. In my opinion, the rules should be together, with more story-centric concepts given their space in the GM section.

The rules

The bit you all wanna hear about. First things first, it’s important to note that ICRPG, at it’s core (no pun intended…wait, who am I kidding?), is the offspring of WotC’s 5e OGL. While they might be hidden behind different terms, many of the ideas and mechanics D&D 5e is known for reside here too; AC is now called armour, the classic, six attributes are there, the system is d20 based, and, as far as I can tell, most of the maths is roughly the same.

To call this a D&D variant, though, feels reductive, and ignores much of what makes ICRPG appealing. The system feels more a love letter to the game, taking the best from it, while adding something new, and unique to the game. Rather than give a page-by-page account of the rules, I want to focus in on what I think are the most important, or innovative ideas in the book.

Lastly, to paraphrase the game’s own designer, ICRPG is less a game system, and instead more of a philosophy on how to run an RPG. I’d agree. But I’ll talk more about that soon.

Effort

This is the big one that people have been talking about, and is probably one of the two biggest influences on how this game actually plays. In ICRPG there are two fundamental types of rolls – checks and attempts. A check is the same as it is in 5e; your character tries to do something, and you roll a d20 to see if they succeed. A stealth check, for example. An attempt, however, works differently. If you want to do something that does not have a binary result (such as picking a chest, lifting a heavy rock, etc), you roll a check to see if you can do it. If you succeed, you roll the appropriate effort die, and that ‘Effort’ is added to the amount required to complete the action. This means that several people can lift a heavy rock, and it may take multiple turns to finally meet the amount of Effort required.

Effort is also tied in with another key mechanic of the game; Hearts. Hearts are central to encounter building in the game as they denote the amount of effort required to complete a challenge. They also denote the hit points of monsters and of players. A heart is, simply, ten effort. So, a two heart encounter will require a total of twenty effort, be it in the form of weapon damage against an enemy, or of Basic Work opening a chest.

Time and Initiative

When I read the rules for the first time, Time was the one thing I thought I’d ditch almost immediately. I relish the free form nature of 5e, and the way that people can jump in and out, in a very real way.

Having played ICRPG, I can promise you I will not be dropping this mechanic (though, it is worth saying, I will not be incorporating it into my 5e game). In ICRPG, there is never a moment when you are out of initiative. From start to finish, the game runs in initiative. On top of that, initiative is never rolled. Turns are taken, in seating order, clockwise from the DM (although astute and cheeky players are welcome to swap seats in order to change initiative, in order to do thing in specific order, or to gain advantages during a fight. If you’re sceptical, let me explain why it works in ICRPG.

  1. Quick turns. The turn sequence in ICRPG is incredibly quick, and simple to understand. You can move ‘Far’ (read: Dash), you can move ‘Near’ (read: normal movement) and take an action, or you can stand still (I go a little further and say you can take a couple of steps) and take two actions. Since characters have almost no special rules (something I’ll come back to), turns tend to fly by. In a group of 7 people, no one ever really had time to get bored, which is unheard of in D&D.
  2. Player Agency. Can I be real here? I’m ‘One Of Those Players’. The long time DM who knows the rules, and can jump into character at the drop of a hat, having needed to do so with NPCs forever. It also makes it very easy for me, in a traditional RPG setting, to become the de facto leader, often at the expense of other people’s agency. People wait to see what I do, because they’re not as experienced, and don’t feel able to jump in over the ones who are usually louder and more self assured. This isn’t a good thing. If a character is easy to push around, and follows the will of those stronger than them, that’s fine, but only if it is a narrative choice made exclusively by the player.

    This is not a problem when initiative order is enforced, because every player is, every turn, specifically asked what they would like to do. They don’t need to assert themselves; the DM asks them what they want. I love this. I really do.

  3. It’s really not that different anyway. Let’s face it, it’s just not. Especially when you factor in the ability to swap seats and the like, it doesn’t change anything. You still get to do all the cool stuff you did before, just now the DM can control time better. Which, speaking of controlling time, brings us too…
  4. Controlling time. Controlling time is a huge thing for DMs. It allows you to ramp up suspense simply by rolling a d4 and saying “something bad happens in 3 turns”. Initiative makes this less arbitrary, and gives the players a very clear idea of how long they have. Physical timers are great, but I feel they have a less terrifying effect. They also have the problem of being completely arbitrary. 3 turns, for example, is around 18-25 seconds, depending on how you break up time. A three minute timer, however, is enough time for the players to either pick a lock and argue, or batter the door down, search the room, kill the skeleton they find, and still manage to escape. That could be anywhere between eight seconds and ten minutes. Control time, throw those d4s, and make your players scared.

Player Characters.

PCs are easy and quick to build, easy to learn to play, and easy to inhabit.

Oh, you wanted more detail?

Building

You have six points to spend, each one representing a +1 modifier. You can add these to any of the stats on your character sheet, be it an ability score, armour, or effort. No derivative maths, no calculations, you just put +1, +2, +3, etc after a few stats. Yes, different bio-forms (Hank, I prefer Xenos, or Species to Bio-Form, but it’s the same difference; you took race out of RPGs. Good lad.) have additional bonuses, but the six point system is the core.

Once you’ve sorted your stats you choose a class. Classes, unlike in 5e, don’t have specific bonuses or abilities. Instead they only come with recommended gear, and an additional piece of starter gear. This means it’s entirely possible to build a kickass fighter who can cast healing spells right from the get-go. It’s hugely flexible, and deliberately so. Each class comes with, however, Milestone Rewards. These are what replaces the levelling feature of most other RPG systems. When the DM feels you’ve done enough to warrant it they will either choose a reward for you, or ask you to choose your own milestone from the list. It’s elegant, simple, and saves players leafing through three to six bits of paper trying to work out what they can do.

Playing

As I said above, playing is simple. You have almost nothing to memorise, which means you can get to the business of being creative and having fun. Even damage dice are simplified to d6 for common weapons and d8 for magical ones. It’s wonderfully easy to play, and makes roleplaying so much easier.

Inhabiting

With such simplicity, you no longer have to find mechanical reasons to do narrative things. That makes the whole business of inhabiting the character so much easier. Just think what they would do, and talk to your DM about it, rather than searching for the mechanic that will help you be your character, only to discover it doesn’t exist.

Universal DC

I cannot believe that I like this, but I do. The idea is that every room has a ‘Target’, and every check that is made, every monster that is attacked, you need to roll above the Target to do so. The thing I love about this? If something considered ‘easy’, the target is reduced by 3 for that roll. If it’s ‘hard’, increase the target by 3. No more arbitrary DCs off the top of your head. Just decide how difficult it is, and either add three, subtract 3, or leave the target as it is.

So, how does it play?

There’s plenty more I could say about the rules, but I feel the most important thing is how it feels at the table. I’ve already covered this a little bit from the player perspective, so I’ll focus more on the DM side here.

Firstly, the game will, at times, almost run itself. During a large encounter you can boil things right down to simple mechanics, and get out the way. My players, for example, jumped into a submarine to get away from an alien Kraken. The Kraken attacked every 1d4 rounds, with 1d4 tentacles, in random sections of the sub, each dealing 1d12 damage. Each tentacle had 1 heart and dealt an additional 1d4 every turn it was on the sub. Honestly, I could have left the table, and the players could have finished that fight themselves. It ran itself, which allowed me to focus on story, description, and helping the players. I loved it.

The hard/easy mechanic also takes a load of stress off the DM. I hate having to make up DCs for things I’ve never thought of; but assuming 12 as a base DC, should the party go to a town I hadn’t planned, or what-have-you, you can set DCs ahead of time for specific areas, then  add or subtract three. Even better, the players should be able to see the DC, meaning that you aren’t even having to tell them if they’ve succeeded! The players are responsible for so much more!

All in all, I feel this game works really well for fast-paced, mechanical games. Turns are fast, the system is low stress for everyone involved, and is incredibly social on the whole. I love it, and see myself playing it for a very long time. With that said, it lacks much of the complexity that I love in 5e; I love cracking out that specific ability with my Paladin, that little thing that gives me a slight edge. But saying a system is not as good as another because it lacks complexity is ridiculous. 5e is a great game, ICRPG is a great game. They both cater to different styles of game, and both have much to learn and take influence from one another.

So, in closing, I can’t recommend this book enough. At the very least there are swathes of the rules (not the mention the amazing Game Mastery section that I simply haven’t had the space to properly talk about here) that you can farm out for your other systems. The world settings are incredible (shout out to my Warp Shell homies), and I hope to write more about them in the coming days. And the whole system is set to get better with time. Expansion 1 was released a couple of days ago (at time of writing), and introduces new loot tables, tables for random characters, and a Warp Shell adventure, including new player races and paper minis. It’s a living system that is being updated constantly at no extra cost. Also, to get the full experience, get involved in the ICRPG Google+ group; the Torton race began life as a homebrew for one DM’s friend, and is now a canonical part of the Warp Shell mythos. The people there are scarily talented.

Anyway, thank you if you got this far. If you have any questions, hit me up at sundaynightdm@gmail.com, @Chris_Hately on Instagram, @SundayNightDM on Twitter, or Sunday Night DM on YouTube – there is also a Warp Shell game (the adventure from Expansion 1) I livestreamed here.

As always, if you enjoy my content and want to help support it, feel free to check out my Patreon. I’m planning to get in there and start updating my goals and reward tiers, so make sure to check back regularly, and contact me if you’re worried about specific rewards changing after you pay for them. I don’t want anybody feeling hard done by!

Cheers guys!

Index Card RPG – First Look

Index Card RPG: Core is the work of Drunkens and Dragons creator Hankerin Ferinale. It’s a complete RPG system, built off the back of his Index Card ‘Volume’ packs, designed to give DMs the resources they need to either build stories on the fly, write adventures, or even do away with the traditional map systems some people use. I love the ‘Volumes’, and I have done since I first saw them used here. Hankerin talked a lot about the book in a Facebook livestream, and on YouTube, and they’re both worth watching in order to gain a fantastic insight into his thinking behind the rule set. Here, though, I want to give my rough first impressions on the ruleset as a whole, and a few initial thoughts on how to introduce elements into your existing games. Next week I hope to have a full review out, if I get the opportunity to actually play the game!

offline glyph

Overview.

The book, in its entirety, is 121 pages, and includes separate pdfs of the character sheet (which, incidentally, is also in the book), and printable, paper minis. But the size belies what makes this system look so appealing; it’s is so, so simple. Combine that with Hankerin’s ability to concisely present concepts I have rarely seen explained well and you have a book that is quick and easy to read, while conveying everything you need to run, or participate, in the game.

The book itself is split into a few distinct parts, each of which I’ll look at seperately:

  • The Introduction,
  • The Rules,
  • Characters,
  • World Primers,
  • Game Mastery,
  • Monsters,
  • and Loot.

The Introduction.

The introduction is really what it says on the tin. It explains generally what you need in order to start a game, how to build the paper minis cheaply and well, and it gives you, the players and Dungeon Masters, the permission to do things your way. This last bit is what makes me most happy – “The game simply says ‘Let’s run with that.'”. Adaptation, houseruling, and flying by the seat of your pants are hallmarks of great RPG groups; your group doesn’t play like mine, which doesn’t play like the group Arveene exists in, which doesn’t play the way Critical Role does. They shouldn’t play the same. Hell, the rules are barely the same. That’s the way it should be. New groups take time to learn this, and I feel having it started, at length, is wonderful.

The Rules.

The meat of what you want to read, I’m guessing, but one of the smaller sections of the book! I’m not going to dive deep into the rules, but there are some things I want to pull out and highlight after my first couple of read throughs.

“On Your Turn.”

In the space of two pages, this book breaks down everything a new player needs to know about how to play the game. Not only that, it does so by reinforcing the text with images so evocative and simple to understand, that the text is barely needed in the first place. I have spent hours, over the last three years, explaining to players how combat works, or that their imagination is far more important to the game than knowing the mechanics of doing what they want to do. These two pages do that wonderfully.

Effort, and the Simplification of DC.

The game, at it’s heart, is D&D 5e. That said, it strips away so much obfuscation and complexity that it becomes it’s own creature. DCs are set at 12, with a +/-3 modifier depending on the difficulty. A hard jump, for example, would need a 15, an easy one a 9. Rolls are made on a d20, with the associated ability modifier (note, skills are nonexistent in ICRPG) added. And that’s that. Pretty much standard fare for 5e.

The major difference here, though, is the concept of ‘effort’. In ICRPG, binary checks are made as they are in 5e – you either succeed in jumping over the gulf, or you fail. Climbing a wall, on the other hand, isn’t a pass or fail. It’s something that you do over time, and that people can help with. First you make your climb check, a single d20 roll, plus your Dex bonus. You pass! So now you roll you ‘effort dice’. This is either a d4 (for basic effort), or a d8 (for magical effort). This, usually, has to add up to 10, and can take multiple rolls over multiple turns. Once you’ve gained the requisite effort, you complete the challenge. I love this concept; it’s a great throw back to the skill challenges of 4e, but over more mundane elements of the game. It’s one example (though there are others) of complexity of game mechanics sacrificed in order to bring life to the game by creating new challenges. What was once a single dice roll, with tension and suspense created by the DMs description, is now tense in itself. How quickly will you climb that wall, with the monster stalking behind you?

Time.

In ICRPG, initiative is not a temporary state. It is a constant of the game, the only distinction being the length of time a ‘turn’ denotes. Initially this was a problem to me; I feel like it would ruin the flow of the game outside of combat. In the context of things like recovery, or even the effort system (and how checks differ depending on how long the turn is designed to take), I can see this working. Personally, I don’t think it suits my style of play, or the players I tend to play with, but I do feel it’s worth mentioning.

Recovery and Death.

I love the recovery system. It simplifies the sometimes difficult Hit Dice system to this – if you spend a turn in ‘Recovery’, you gain a set number of hit points back. In a ‘Moment’, you gain a single hit point if you roll a 20. In ‘Hours’, you regain a full heart (10hp), and a ‘Day’ puts you back to full hit points.

Death, too, is simpler (see the pattern yet?). On your first turn after being reduced to 0hp, roll 1d6. You have that many turns to live. At the start of each of those turns, roll a d20, and on a 20 you leap up with 1hp to fight again. During the countdown any player can use their action to stabilise you, with no check required; that halts the countdown until medical aid is administered.

Again, both these systems are great. In this ruleset they’ll work incredibly well, and the death mechanic is one I’m considering introducing to my home games.

The Banana.

Just a quick one. If you use minis, Hankerin suggests using the Banana rule for movement. Range is broken down into three stages – Close, near and far. Near is a single banana length, and close is base contact.

Now, I realise, using a banana to measure distance in an RPG is as ridiculous as it is arbitrary. One banana will be bigger than another, after all. And that, in my mind, is the whole point! It’s an allegory for this whole ruleset! The game is meant to be fun and fluid, focusing on what really matters, rather than becoming bogged down in the minutiae of the game mechanics. That said, don’t expect to see me using this one.

Characters.

There’s only one thing I really want to talk about here.

Characters.

Do not.

Level up.

You read that right.

Characters advancement in ICRPG is made in one of two ways. Each character class has a number of ‘Milestone Rewards’, which the players can choose for themselves when directed to by the DM. Loot, however, is the most common way of advancing your character. But we’ll talk more about loot later on.

World Primers.

The world primers are pretty damn good. They describe the Alfheim, fantasy setting (one which Drunkens and Dragons fans should be aware of), and Warp Shell, Hankerin’s sci-fi setting. Both settings are nicely described, with just enough information to give DMs plot hooks and atmosphere, while leaving them open for individual groups to build their own mythos.

Game Mastery.

Required reading. Worth the money for this section alone. It even goes so far as including a section about how to fit elements of ICRPG into your own prefered game system. Other things include story construction, encounter achetypes, stuff like that.

Monsters.

Monsters feel fairly similar to those from D&D and it’s kin. The stat lines are incredibly simple, however, with monsters gaining a flat bonus to all rolls, for the most part, as well as other abilities. I don’t feel I can say much else until I actually get to use them, but the simplicity of the stat blocks has me wondering whether it wouldn’t be a better option to what I do right now.

Loot.

Loot is rolled up from d100 tables, and is what drives character advancement in this game, with each item giving a bonus of some kind. The really cool thing is a appendix at the end covering class-specific quests, and the types of loot that characters could be given at completion.

Conclusions (For Now)

I really like the look of ICRPG. It looks really damned fun, and I’m stoked to play a game of it. That in itself is strange; I’d pretty much decided that 5e was my jam, and that I could hack it to do whatever I wanted! Turns out that now I wanna play someone else’s 5e hack!

If you’ve looked through the rules, do let me know what you think. If not, then I heartily recommend checking out the two Drunkens videos linked above and deciding if you can fork out the $17 for the book. Check it out here. As always, thanks so much for dropping by; this month has been amazing, and it’s all down to your support. Thank you. Seriously.

Draft Cartography: Lair of the Xanathar

The final arc of the game I ran in the Forgotten Realms involved the party (11 people in total, at that point) returning to Waterdeep for Midsummer. In the midst of the festivities, Dexter Halebrakt, the renowned illusionist of Baldur’s Gate, displayed his incredible skills. As the show ended, the screaming started. The children of the Sea Ward were gone…

A series of investigations, fights and Skullport-related shenanigans the party fought Dexter, in the illusory guise of a two-headed, golden dragon, and the Ulitharid controlling him. After a brutal fight that the party won, they found the children, only to be approached by a Beholder, representing the Xanathar organisation of Skullport…

The Premise of the Dungeon.

This dungeon was designed to cap off an adventure through the middle layers of the Undermountain, specifically Wyllowood. The Beholder (known as Altas Verdax) is looking to overthrow the leadership of the Xanathar, and needs to clear house in order to do it. Fights, danger and moral quandaries ensue, but that’s not why we’re here. The Xanathar’s Lair is a dungeon level designed to test and kill characters, as befits one of the most powerful Beholders in Faerûn. It had trick doors, a sea hag, and a blinded Beholder.

The Dungeon.

The Lair of the Xanathar

My original notes and sketches of the dungeon.

Rather than brush over every aspect of the dungeon, I’d like to focus on three encounters within the dungeon:

The Sea Hag’s Lair

Immediately after one of my favourite traps (regular readers may recognise the ‘one-player-trips-the-plate-then-the-next-player-gets-trapped-between-two-walls’ concept…this is the dungeon I designed it for!) is a flooded cavern, in almost complete darkness. Broken stone stairs lead into the water, too deep to wade through, too high to keep your head above water. This is the Sea Hag’s lair. Now, of course, for eleven level 5/6 players, a CR 2 sea hag isn’t much of a challenge. In obscured conditions, underwater, with very few air pockets, however…

The intention here is to have the players approach the hag secretly, in very small numbers, taking out the hag, then leading the other party members through the flooded cavern. I designed the encounter to test the tactical aptitude of the party, and involved a creepy, evocative monster with enough magical ability to flounder magical attempts to remove the water. It’s about as simple as that, really.

The Blinded Beholder

Of the three encounters, this is my favourite, and the one I want to focus on the most. The concept is to introduce the party to the mechanics of the Beholder, a creature with the ability to annihilate them if they go about things badly, in a way that allows them some degree of leeway.

The room is large, round, and dimly lit. In the centre, chained to a plinth, is a large, scaled Beholder with a milky white eye, rocking fitfully in it’s sleep. Hiding in the shadows are tiny Beholders, dreamt into existence by their larger kin. This is the central mechanic of the room; the central Beholder creates enemies for the party in reaction to various stimuli.

The room contains a number of Gazers, and a new Gazer comes into existence beside the Beholder randomly, assuming nothing else has happened. The Gazers watch the party, and only attack if they see an opportunity to gain an unfair advantage. As the party make their way through the room, they roll stealth checks against the Beholder’s passive perception. If they fail, the Beholder lashes out in it’s sleep. Randomly choose an eye ray, then make an attack roll at disadvantage. If the attack hits, then the ray has hit its target; resolve the ability as usual, focussed on the relevant character. If it misses, then ignore the rays effect. If the party attack the Beholder, there is a 50/50 chance that it spawns a Death Kiss. The end goal is to reach the doorway leading to a riddle, then take the item disgorged from the riddle area to a second doorway in order to escape (PS; I’m a big fan of not letting my players know if they got the riddle right. Hand them a magic item either way, just make it cursed, or otherwise bad, if they get the riddle wrong).

The trick here is to be stealthy, but escort the characters who can solve the riddle, all while trying to avoid tiny Beholder-kin and eye rays. It’s also a good way to beat out murder hobos –  a blinded Beholder is one thing. Multiple CR 10 Death Kisses, on the other hand, with no real way to escape? Nah thanks.

Xanathar – The Death Tyrant

The idea of Beholders dreaming kinda caught me. Any individual so afraid of their enemies that they build the ridiculous, convoluted dungeon we’re looking at must be terrified of their own demise. It makes sense, then, that they would limit visitors, or cut them out entirely. It turns out that Beholders who are obsessed with their own death become Death Tyrants. That’s kind’ve it, really. The big reveal – the Xanathar is not the entity they were expecting, but something else entirely.

Conclusions

I hope this dungeon has given you some ideas for yourself. The dungeon is by no means complete. The story arc was abandoned when I split my D&D group and handed both parts off to other DMs who were in the group, but it was a very formative dungeon for me, one that has bled into several things I’ve written and developed since. If you’ve got questions about anything else in the dungeon (like the ziggurat with the 50ft drop where you have to save against broken bones – something I flipping love), feel free to leave a comment or drop me a line. If there’s enough support for it I might even do up a proper map and PDF, if I get the time.

Anyway, cheers guys!