These newsletters are being consistently more late as the year goes on. Early in the year I often wrote the newsletter on Saturday and posted in on Sunday. Now I’m reduced to writing these very, very late on Sunday night. Not a problem per se, and I’m only being so “late” because my sleep schedule is so nocturnal right now, but still an interesting calendar creep there. Maybe I should just start putting these out on Monday instead?
I’ve been mainly sitting on the computer this week, being productive in various ways. Running the two games I’m GMing, or writing stuff from the project board, or playing a bit of Legend of Grimrock because why not take a break now and then.
- Overview of the D&D adventure model
- Monday: Coup de Main #26
- Tuesday: Christmassy Lapfantasy
- Update on the Muster crowdfunding campaign
- Entertainment in review
- State of the Productive Facilities
Overview of the D&D adventure model
One of the actual, genuinely head-and-shoulders superior aspects of D&D as a game, when compared to other roleplaying games, is that it has an extremely playable basic adventure chassis in the dungeoneering adventure. It’s a pretty boardgamey conceit (not accidentally, considering the game’s roots), but that’s part of why it works.
I’d specifically like to draw attention to how dungeon adventures productize in a way that has no comparison in the history of roleplaying. In the trad gaming scene the way it developed over the ’80s, as the conceit of the game distanced itself from D&D’s, the adventures turned less and less usable. If you doubt this, please study both forms (the early D&D adventure module and e.g. ’90s adventure supplement for your trad game of choice) with real usability and usefulness in mind; I consider it obvious that adventures are at best fringe GM entertainment supplements in traditional rpgs, while in old school D&D they are a very real part of best practices play, particularly for sandbox campaigns.
Speaking of sandboxes, D&D also has a second adventure activity framework that has seen its fair amount of attention, namely the hexcrawl, or “wilderness adventure”. For whatever reason the hexcrawl hasn’t been such a massive commercial success as a format, it never carried entire publishing companies like the dungeon adventure modules have, but it’s still something that gets very clear procedures, and recurs routinely in the adventure stacks. Maybe something like 5% or so of present-day OSR adventure stuff is wilderness stuff? We know how to make these, how they work, why they’re fun, and there’s no particular reason why you couldn’t form the majority of your campaign content out of wilderness adventuring. Wilderness stuff — understood in terms of expedition management — also syncs up very naturally with dungeoneering and downtime play, so much so that it ultimately became something of an official doctrine at TSR that you “should” start a campaign with dungeons and then move onto wilderness expeditions + dungeons (basically, an adventuring site at the end of a wilderness journey) at mid-levels.
Those are the two D&D adventure content models that we can, historically speaking, consider established and successful. The vast majority of old school D&D adventures are of these types. For the sake of completeness I’ll also name and define a few minority formats — but don’t take this to mean that they’re common or important, as by and large they’re not. These are more like possible “paths not taken”.
Warfare gaming, or domain-level power politics play in general, is something that I guess GG really wanted to be part of D&D. It has had I would say nearly as much attention in orthodox sources as wilderness gaming (there are a fair number of domain play, large scale battle play supplements for D&D out there), but the practical popularity apparently never really was there. This kind of play has been exhaustively practiced outside D&D in wargaming, so we kinda sorta know how to do it, but an adventure format has never really cohered; we don’t know what should go into an adventure module focused on this, as such products haven’t been popular for D&D.
Adventure paths are what the rpg hobby developed over the ’80s both in D&D and general trad gaming. Still very popular today, to the extent that it’s the only adventure module format many gamers know. The key conceit is that the adventure is formed by a daisy-chain of scenes in a GM plot railroad. This being in methodological and creative conflict with much of old D&D, it’s mainly relevant for me as a contrast here; this is how you can’t write an useful adventure, despite the vast amounts of ostensibly-compatible trash that TSR pushed throughout the trad era.
Urban adventuring is having pulp fiction adventures in urban locations; think Lankhmar stuff, that’s what all the D&D fiends are thinking when trying to do this. Like warfare and wilderness adventuring, urban adventuring has had some attention from early on; the conceit isn’t unknown to D&D. However, a solid structural framework has not cohered over time, and much of what gets billed as urban adventures is actually not distinct in any way: urban adventure modules are often either location-based adventures (basically a dungeon that just happens to be in — often under — a town) or adventure paths (a bunch of linear scenes set in town). Attempts at doing something else (e.g. check out GG in the DMG) have tended towards a kind of “block-crawl” thing where you roll random encounters on the street to meet townspeople.
Planar adventuring is what D&D ended up selling as the distinctive high-level concept when the power political domain game fell flat. The idea would be that when your characters are too powerful for wilderness adventuring, they could start adventuring on strange, intensely magical worlds of the multiverse. I have yet to encounter a planar adventure with a distinctive structure; usually they’re about a dungeon location in a far-off planar realm, possibly with some minor wilderness adventuring to get there. Not that different from going to adventure on a different continent from the usual. While the concept of “planar adventure” as something distinct is conceivable, I wouldn’t encourage thinking of it as something that already exists — if you want it, it’s either the exact same dungeoneering with different surface color, or you’ll have to invent the form yourself.
Naval adventuring, merchant play, mystery-solving, hardholding and other minor formats certainly come up on occasion, but not nearly enough to say much more than that. The game’s theoretical underpinnings are wide and varied, many kinds of activities can be “adventurized” in a meaningful way. The above adventure activity categories are just the ones that have gained significant consideration as formats.
A closer look at the urban adventure format
One of the creative goals I have for the Coup campaign is getting some real progress done on the urban adventure format — that is, figuring out how an urban adventure should be designed and prepared in a routine way, as a stable format. This has its roots in a long-term discourse we have had on the matter locally; ideas have been proposed. As the Coup campaign concept cohered around Greyhawk City, tackling urban adventure as one of significant content possibilities in the campaign seemed realistic.
I hadn’t expected the campaign to get into urban adventuring so heavily so early, but with one of the core players running a kind of social-operator Thief willing to jump head first into Thieves’ Guild intrigue, we’re actually having plenty of opportunity for urban adventuring. I haven’t yet solved the structural issues, we’re still more in the information-gathering phase of the project, but understanding is clearly cohering here — we’re making progress!
The conundrum of the urban adventure has two parts:
What is an urban adventure in this context is specifically a wargaming, the art of dynamic system resolution: what exactly are the moving parts, what is the system that our play is resolving? It’s not enough to answer the superficial “what are characters doing” question, that’s just color; the real question is about the deeper issue of whether there is something gameable in the “have an adventure in a city!” idea. Is it just going to be a dungeon set in town, or an adventuring part, or is there something uniquely dynamic to do in town that’s not pertinent in a dungeon?
How do you prep that as the GM is the second part of the question. Dungeon adventures have square maps and map keys, random encounters and opforce action scripts; wilderness adventures have hex maps and terrain typing, travel rules, monster dens and random encounters. Both of those fundamentally work, it is possible to put a reasonable amount of work into prep and produce something the GM can use for a positive creative turnover. What is the equivalent urban adventure format like?
A few observations on the nature of urban adventuring:
- The fictional subject matter of the scenario is usually criminal or judicial: performing heists of various kinds or stopping them. An investigation element, perhaps. Crime fiction is basically the go-to literature for inspiration.
- The terrain of operations is generally reusable, unlike with dungeons: adventures occur in the city, but the adventure is not about crawling the city through until it’s “finished”.
- Scenarios are much more time-limited than dungeons tend to be. Even just finding a scenario — an adventure hook in a sandbox game — implies, after setting up your information network, simply waiting for an opportunity to come up.
- The opforce consists mostly of human peers rather than fantastic monsters.
- Important tactical activities include information gathering, position maintenance (incl. counterintelligence), people-wrangling, putting mysteries together and having short, violent encounters for high stakes in the middle of town. Controlling the fall-out, too.
- Rewards — the loot, if you will — come in the form of quest payments from patrons, loot stolen from the opforce (stealing from competing gangs or a bank or whatever) and social esteem of the community (for the Hardy Boys types).
Urban Trawling, your basic urban adventure activity
A quick summary of where we’re at in terms of developing a stable urban adventure framework. We’ve had a bit of urban adventuring so far in the campaign, partly from emergent content (like the Kimchell stuff), partly from GM-originating “actual urban adventure” stuff like the entire Donmas Kaapu situation, and partly from repurposing urban adventures from formal sources (like the World’s End tavern thing).
First, because urban adventure maneuvers most of the time rely entirely on seizing initiative against the opforce, it’s entirely essential to maintain your own operational security while trying to uncover the enemy. The particulars will change from scenario to scenario, of course, but generally speaking you cannot defend unless you know the enemy is out there, and you cannot attack if you don’t have a target.
This implies that the basic core activity of urban adventuring is the Streetwise check (whether skill-based or not, doesn’t matter for this). The Streetwise check is like the “we advance forward through the corridor” maneuver in dungeoneering, the basic building block from which everything else springs.
Streetwise in this context, in case it’s not clear, is the skill (usually named “Streetwise” in D&D) underlying the activity of “urban trawling”: the character engaging in “streetwising” spends time checking in with contacts, observing the urban milieu, meeting new people and generally engaging in low-stakes casual interactions with the citizenry to arrange things. The same basic action can be used to find specific things (people, supplies, information, places) in town, support a shopping spree, develop contacts, etc. There are other ways to maneuver in urban adventuring, but urban trawling has so far been core. Needless to say, local knowledge is crucial to being effective.
The basic Streetwise action in Coup has settled, for reasons of gamifying simplicity, into an action declaration that takes the character a “half-day”, defined as 4 hours, to perform, and costs them 1 GP in assorted bribes and tips. Its expected yield by itself is pretty low, so you might have to keep repeating it for a while to get lucky. The player declares what they’re attempting to accomplish, makes a task resolution check to find out how well they do, and the GM interprets the roll as per campaign conventions. Characters can fit two urban trawls in a single day on top of the casual bullshit by default, or three if being very organized, or even four if working to exhaustion.
The basic urban trawl is complicated by the fact that both you and your possible opforce may have existing position in the form of an urban resource base. This consists mostly of social capital; the simplest form of it are your own hirelings and adventuring party, who can help you observe the urban landscape in various ways. However, the more important for the competent trawler are their casual and professional contacts-in-place; NPCs they can check with and ask for whatever it is they want. These may, obviously enough, vastly increase your trawling effectiveness; D&D traditionally tends to ignore the importance of the home ground advantage, but realistically speaking it is decisive. “Streetwise” isn’t magic, it’s not even an extremely difficult skill. What you use to expand your reach in trawling is familiarity with the town and social capital among its people.
Doing the urban trawling covertly is a matter of disguises more than stealth, but the difficulty of picking up on an urban trawl is very high unless you know who to look out for, and even then most people don’t have the resources to set somebody under actual surveillance, so usually you only need to worry about surveillance during “heated” time windows, when shit is going down and the enemy knows you’re there and so on and so forth.
The reason I discuss the streetwise trawl so extensively is that we find that you cannot actually do anything else without doing it first. Consider your typical urban adventure, a mix of investigation and social maneuvering and sudden violence, something crime pulp inspired. The adventuring party may know what they’re trying to accomplish (find somebody, avoid somebody, protect somebody, execute a heist on a stable target, whatever), but as long as you don’t know where your target is, where the opforce is, what their secrets are, and so on, you’re limited to passive preparation only.
One of the most fundamental urban trawling maneuvers is, of course, finding adventure hooks. The streetwise operator of your party is the guy who even realizes that there is an adventure to be had. In that sense the urban adventure always begins with a trawl, unless you’re so famous that opportunities come to you.
Consider hiring a trawler NPC hireling, by the way; it’s reasonably safe work, and adventurers might have better things to do themselves. Get several, makes it more difficult for them to cheat you. Food for thought.
Social Web, the terrain of the urban adventure
So urban trawling is your generic move when “traversing” the urban adventure. However, there are of course “clues” as well, direct indications to go to place A to do thing B. The traditional urban D&D adventure doesn’t feature the trawling (that’s more of an emergent feature of our trying to play a very authentic, dynamic game where things actually have to work for them to work), it’s more like the quest-giver gives you the necessary facts on a silver platter, already researched.
But trawling and clues go together perfectly fine; in fact, trawling is a necessity for a challengeful wargame scenario in the first place, as a typical mystery railroad “find clue A to find clue B to find clue C” breaks horribly in a game without fudging; players miss a clue, cannot proceed further. Trawling fills in as a backstop for many urban adventures, it’s sort of a generic action that may allow you to find new clues in different parts of the social web you’re investigating.
Social web? We’ve been speculating for years that urban adventures fundamentally feature a web-like abstract structure, and should probably be written that way: instead of an adventure location map, or an adventure path of sequential scenes, what you want to prep for the urban adventure seems to me to be the web of individual people and places involved in the scenario. That’s the real terrain of the urban adventure.
So here’s how it all plays out, as per our current theory: the adventurers and other possible active operators in town maneuver across the urban landscape, attempting to build a picture of the social web and its associated urban geography. (A person of interest lives in a house, for example; useful to know where that house is.) They trawl, but they also interview people, look to their own defenses and prepare concrete operations against the enemy. Because this is D&D, the social web provides opportunities for violence: when you discover a legitimate target in the social web, you now have the option to attack them.
Everything I’ve said here should remind you of urban gang warfare simulation, because that is what we’re talking about here. The PC adventurers are a gang, they’re trying to exploit a rival gang, and the interaction basically consists intelligence work (knowing who what where, etc.), diplomacy (meet with various characters, figure out who’s an enemy and who’s an ally) and these sharp, quick urban gang raid attacks that attempt to seize or destroy enemy assets.
There might be other kinds of adventures to be had in urban landscapes, but I’m pretty happy with how much this model already encompasses. And it’s reasonably D&D-like, this isn’t some super-proge “let’s play tea parties instead of adventures” situation; there is lethal stakes, loot, tactical maneuvering (more social than in the dungeon, which is a nice change of pace) and even monsters. (More on those later, this is all still work in progress.)
At this time I feel like it should be possible to write urban adventures in a format that approaches the usability of the dungeon and the hexcrawl. I don’t know that anybody has done so, laying an entire urban adventure module out in a neat and usable format, but it seems to me that it should be doable.
Monday: Coup de Main #26
The reason for why I chose to discuss urban adventuring as the feature piece here is, of course, that we’ve been doing it in Coup de Main! Rob Banks the 4th level Thief has moved to the big City to disrupt an arms trade deal conducted by a rival to his mob-boss-to-be, Donmas Kaapu. Rob was shortly side-tracked earlier by falling sick with consumption, but boldly stealing from the temple of Rao got him ship-shape, so now the hunt was on.
The premise of the scenario is simple, and illustrates urban adventuring: Rob had been told that the competing arms trader, one Ragnar Gundersson, would be having a meeting at the World’s End tavern and inn on a certain date. He also got the name of the buyer. Rob’s task was to disrupt the deal, prevent it from going through by any means he chose.
(The dumb 2e source this adventure comes from basically makes this whole thing a simple encounter battle: the party goes to the appointed place at the appointed time, and then we fight, and that’s that. I call this dumb because, well, it shows not a whit of strategic sense. The setup is easy to expand, though, simply by treating it more dynamically, so it’s all good.)
Rob and his party of 1st level hangers-on (plus his bosom buddy Sven the 3rd level Barbarian, let’s not forget him) only had a couple of days to prepare for the arms deal after Rob’s health crisis had concluded, so time was of the essence. Their strategic analysis concluded that they’d prefer to disrupt the trade by interfering with the relevant parties in advance of the date, but that would require finding them first. Thus, urban trawling.
In hindsight the core issue with the party’s tactical approach was target fixation: they found Ragnar Gundersson’s boat (a cog type sailing ship reinforced for surviving the perils of the lake Nyr Dyv) early on, already convinced that it was an important piece of the puzzle. (It was clever to look for the ship to locate the man, I’ll grant them that.) Most of the party’s trawling resources (time and effort) were then targeted very much at the boat. Das Boat (as we discovered Gunderson’s boat to be called) became the absolute focus of the investigation, with the party breaking into the harbormaster’s office and surveiling the boat day and night.
The unfortunate part was that Gundersson — probably unaware of Rob being on his case — didn’t keep illegal contraband in the boat, didn’t sleep there, and only had a skeleton crew on premises. So what little time the party had for maneuvers was spent not necessarily with maximum efficiency here.
Getting desperate, the party concocted a plan for foiling the trade: they would send Gundersson a scary note via his crew. I’m cool with that, obvs. — let’s write a note and see what the man might think about it. The adventurers would obviously only find out when Gundersson (whose location was a complete unknown) either appeared or didn’t for the meet.
A funny side project: We Sell, the dishonest acolyte of Rao who betrayed his temple and ran away with Rob in the last session, discovered completely by accident that the innkeep of the World’s End (this place where the arms trade is supposedly going down later) is his long lost father! Small town, Chicago. (Greyhawk is Chicago in this simile.) This had the side effect of making the party much, much less inclined to burn the place down. (Yeah, I know — arson is monstrous and irresponsible. That’s murderhoboes for you, they like simple solutions.)
This was all quickly heading towards if not catastrophe, then at least the maneuver space reducing so much that the party would have to do the 2e scenario as planned, by crashing the arms trade meet itself. (Terrible idea in sandbox gaming; you usually don’t have party weight to survive a fair fight and the resulting complications.) However, Sven the Barbarian rolled a total fluke on the last night before the trade was to go down and stumbled upon one of Gundersson’s men in town. Finding out where the man stayed, he fingered Gundersson himself as well! So now the party know where one of the principals of the trade is staying; they have one night and some of the next day to still do something or other.
Gundersson is a potent Fighter, the party know, so it’s not exactly an easy call, but at least they can now attack the man with surprise or whatever. We’ll see — the breakthrough happened right at the end of the session last time, so the first thing tomorrow is figuring out what to do.
Shows how in D&D it’s better to be lucky than smart.
Session #27 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 14.12., starting around 16:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like.
Tuesday: Christmassy Lapfantasy
As discussed last week, we decided to continue with Christmassy Lapfantasy. The game can proceed largely on a postal basis (or chat server basis, anyway), but I like having the players touch base at an appointed time, so we got most of the team together on Tuesday.
One more player (for a total of seven) joined the game, which was nice in that we could fill most of the session for most of the players with eager diplomacy towards the new player. The one player who missed the session was also the one I was counting on for certain feature events, and I was running late on producing the turn reports the game involves, so having a new player bring in a dramatic new faction/character (Saana the Giant, one of the ancient Jotunn from before time began) filled the program nicely.
Aside from that I don’t think I’ll report on the matters too much here, most of the game’s proceedings are need to know only while we’re still playing. It’s developing well, though; some of the players are focusing on diplomacy, others on magic, and yet others on warcraft, which is sort of the theme I was looking for when developing the scenario. We can discuss the details after the game.
From what we talked last time it’s possible that the players are so scenario-committed that we’ll continue with the game (with maybe a bit of Christmas hiatus) into January. The play has been so careful that they’re certainly not resolving this all before Yuletide.
Update on the Muster crowdfunding campaign
There’s a bare two weeks left on the campaign. I don’t know what I was thinking when starting this, because on the one hand I’m positively delighted by how many people have shown interest, but then on the other hand I find myself thinking that it’s not going to fund — the accumulation of backers has slowed down so much. Apparently I never even imagined this succeeding if I can have more backers than I expected and still have a fair chance to fall short.
I wrote a detailed project treatment (strategic broad strokes, content outline, etc.) for Muster over the weekend, explaining my plans for the book in more detail; good reading if you’re on the fence about backing it, should help decide it either way. The article is part of my fun Patreon delayed gratification scheme, so it’ll become public on Wednesday; I’ll post an update in the campaign itself about it then.
My thinking on any marketing maneuvers at this time is that I’ll stick with what I’m good at, namely content. I’ll be writing a few more updates for the campaign over the next couple of weeks, hopefully fun and inspiring ones, and if you have contacts in the scene then by all means do help spread the word, but I don’t think I’m personally made for active marketing work; I don’t have the character for it. I do tremendously appreciate everybody who’s helped get the word out over the last two weeks; without you it’s literally impossible for something of this sort to get anywhere.
Entertainment in review
Let’s say a few words about the week’s entertainment while I’m at it. I feel like sharing.
One weird thing that I’ve been doing a bit over the fall (I forget if I’ve discussed this before in the newsletter) is watching some reality tv in an effort to educate myself. (Yeah, I’ve never watched reality tv — draw your own conclusions.) I watched a fair amount of Storage Wars a few months back, mainly.
So what I’ve been doing this week has been watching Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team in between working on stuff. The premise of the show is that the NFL rugby team Dallas Cowboys has the world’s greatest cheerleader dance team, so lots of people want to join that, and they hold a great annual cull to get from 400 applicants to 36 dancers. Lots of crying is involved.
While the show has the production issues common to reality tv, what I like about it is the professional nature of the underlying culture industry machine that the cheerleading team is. It’s a bit like the Japanese pop idol business in that it requires young women to train and live very rigorously to conform to the requirements of the job, but despite the expectations this doesn’t translate into a horrible exploitation circus a cynic might expect. I’ve been thinking that it’s pleasant how generally humane the interactions involved in running the business are depicted to be. Many culture industry projects only wish they had managers with this amount of care and talent with so few ego issues. The show features a lot of perfectly reasonable artistic feedback, generally without anything resembling a hissy-fit. Just a bunch of professionals trying to figure out how to get the product ready by the deadline, even if doing that necessarily means picking who gets into the team and who doesn’t.
Meanwhile, what I’d really like to be doing instead of this dumb productivity stuff is playing Legend of Grimrock, but there’s limited time for that; I like to play long sessions when I play a video game like this, so I’d rather just not start it at all on a work day.
I played the game a bit half a decade back, and going back to it now is something of a whim. I find myself enjoying it to start with, no idea yet if that lasts. Or if I have time for it next week.
The core conceit of Grimrock is that it’s a very simple and straightforward Dungeon Master clone. So that’s its strengths and weaknesses. I like the exploration and the puzzles, and even the traditionally stilted charop is nostalgic (played a bunch of similar games in my time). The real-time combat with square-based movement and menu-based maneuvers is loathsome (I mean, who wants to be searching the inventory for the healing potion under time pressure?), but that’s always been the case in the subgenre, so you live with that.
The real aesthetic impact here is that less is more, and simple is good. I don’t know how long the game is, but I hope it proves relatively short; it’s the exact sort of game that would benefit from not overstaying its welcome. Rather put out sequels than overplay the simple thing on offer.
I’ll come back to this one if I end up finishing it. I’ve played the first three floors I think (basically the first actually challenging bit), and it could go either way here depending on how I feel about the puzzles later on.
State of the Productive Facilities
As explained above; working hard on the crowdfunding and keeping the Patreon correspondent circle happy. Good times! I’ll probably focus on creating marketing material for the Muster campaign next week; we’ll see.