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On the Wizards Panoply: Servants, Pacts, and Sanctums

Wed, 02/21/2018 - 18:05
A few years ago +Benjamin Baugh created a post about the accoutrements of wizards on Google+. It's a great idea and I wanted to examine the suggestions in greater depth.

The objects presented are talismansfocifamiliarscabalsraiments, servantspacts, and sanctums, in order of difficulty of acquirement.

Humans themselves are relatively poor conduits of magical or elemental energy.

The basic conceit of this system is that humans are incapable of safely wielding any magic beyond the first level of power. 

  • Attempts to cast magic of a level higher than 1st require a roll on a retribution table. 
  • This limit can be increased by the acquisition of accoutrements. They may be acquired in any order.
  • Each accoutrement acquired increases the level of spells the caster can cast by one. 
  • No type of accoutrement can be applied more than once, even if you own more than one. Each one only counts towards spell levels you can cast once. 
  • These are generally acquired and lost during play. 
  • If lost or destroyed, that type of thing can't be used again until you have gained a level or a year and a day have passed. 

Creatures from other planes can greatly increase your power. There are two primary methods to bind extra-planar entities. You can either bargain for a pact or capture a weaker creature. The way spell levels are used in the two forms varies.
PactMake a magical agreement with some otherworldly power, demon lords, demigods, ancient alien entities like mountains made of meat and mouths.  Pacts grant you power in exchange for service.  When you patron makes a demand, you must act to accomplish it or you lose its magical support and will never again be able to form a pact.  Each spell invested in the Pact gives you the power to demand a direct intervention from your patron once per month.  Bargain for Service: Each spell level granted to such a creature shows your devotion. As long as you adhere to the general ethos of the creature in your service, the creature can grant you static boons. This could be an inspiration use, a small permanent bonus, access to a special spell like ability, or other power within the purview of the patron. 
Solar: Assuming you can capture their attention (which is the primary difficulty in acquiring a Solar as a  patron) and you are pure of heart, a solar may accept your devotion. Examples of boons a solar might provide include: granting the caster the ability to detect any time a lie is spoken, the ability to detect evil at will, the ability for your spells to do radiant damage instead of fire damage, The ability to use Shield of Faith once a day, or the ability to restore 8d8 + 4 hit points to any creature once a day. The direct intervention is generally either asking the solar to restore someone to life, or the solar appearing and taking a shot at an opponent with a Slaying Longbow (if a target is hit, they must save or die). 
Dragons: It is not difficult for a magus to form a mutually advantageous relationship with a dragon. The danger is that the dragon may turn on you. Examples of boons dragons might provide include secret dragon magic, acting as defender of a building or property within its domain, a magical bonus to your charisma, the ability to utter a Suggestion three times a day, or the equivalent of a Legend Lore spell, once per week. Dragons grant their owner rods, which are designed to call them. 85% of the time(5 out of 6) when held, the dragon will teleport to the bearer when the bearer calls for aid, once weekly. They will assist with one battle or task before leaving. 
Kraken: Wizards who travel amongst the waves will frequently serve a monster of the deep. The disadvantage being that the influence of such creatures doesn't extend far on the land. Boons provided include the ability to control the weather while on the surface of the water, the ability to extend an obscuring cloud out to 60' in every direction once a day, In the water, the actual creature itself will come to the aid of the wizard weekly, but on land the aid is restricted to a Call Lightning as an 11th level caster (with a sixth level spell slot).
Pit Fiend/Devil: Wizards find that devils are only too eager to grant them service. The devil is able to grant a wide range of boons, access to spells, arcane tomes, problems solved. They are eager to extend their services, and they only ask for such small things in return like your soul, or the corruption of your friends. It's a small price to pay. When requesting boons from a devil, the character may bargain his soul as if it were equal to half his level in spell slots. This has no effect, except that if the caster dies, the soul becomes the possession of the devil and he cannot be raised. 

ServantForm an agreement of service with a creature -  demons, angels, elementals, dragons, fairy, and similar naturally magical creatures.  The creature must agree to serve you as a retainer - or be intimidated, threatened, bribed, or similar - and after, you can use its magical nature to reinforce your own.  Each spell level invested in the servant gives you one service you can request of it each day which it must obey.  A servant may agree to perform actions on your behalf, but only with investment can you ensure they obey in good faith.   
These creatures will act as a hireling with the investment of a spell level. They will follow the caster around, and during combat, the caster may use his action, move, or bonus action to cause the creature to take an action, move, or bonus action. 
Hell Hound: These beasts are excellent servants. Having one of these increases your bond to the infernal planes and the fire elemental plains. This grants you +2 damage on any spell that does fire or necrotic damage. 
Shadow: Famously Venger, son of Tiamat had a shadow servant. This creature is an excellent spy. It increases the power of ice, cold, and shadow spells, all acting as if they were cast a level higher then the slot used to cast it. 
Fairy: This category includes nymphs, slyphs, and other delicate fragile forest creatures. Because the very nature of these creatures is that they already have a bond with another being, the only way to secure their aid is to capture and imprison them. Only by imposing your will upon them can you make use of their power. Unlike normal servant relationships, they do not travel with you, and instead of investing levels in such a creature, they provide an additional spell slot of a level equal to their hit dice. Note that abusing and torturing such a creature is an inexorably evil act. 
Quasit: Such a creature loves spell energy and will willingly serve any master who provides it. Though they provide no special bonuses, invisible, flying, intelligent creatures who can shapeshift make excellent servants.
Mounts: Although few wizards choose too, this also allows them to secure the service of magical beasts, such as an Owlbear, Winter Wolf, Phase Spider, Giant Scorpion or Griffon.

SanctumFortify a place of power, and stock it to your requirements.  This can be done earlier, but you get this gratis when you level enough to found your stronghold.  So long as your sanctum remains secure, you can draw on its power even at a distance. Spell levels invested in a sanctum grants you the ability to cast a chosen spell of level equal to the investments at will when you reside in your sanctum, or to put such spells on a conditional release so they 'go off' when conditions are met.  
This requirement is frequently described by your system of choice. If your system has no rules, then simply requires the expenditure of 100,000 gold pieces to create a sanctum will function. Any spell levels invested may be used to create permanent enchantments that do not require material components. For example, a Wizard could enchant a room with a Identify spell, obviating the material requirement of a pearl. This would allow them to identify items within their sanctum. Spells of up to 6th level can be enchanted in this way. 

Part I is here
Part II is here
Part III is here
If you like this, let me know. Or check out the other stuff I write.
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Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

On the Wizards Panoply: Cabal & Rainment

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 14:00
A few years ago +Benjamin Baugh created a post about the accoutrements of wizards on Google+. It's a great idea and I wanted to examine the suggestions in greater depth.

The objects presented are talismansfocifamiliarscabalsraiments, servantspacts, and sanctums, in order of difficulty of acquirement.

Humans themselves are relatively poor conduits of magical or elemental energy.

The basic conceit of this system is that humans are incapable of safely wielding any magic beyond the first level of power. 
  • Attempts to cast magic of a level higher than 1st require a roll on a retribution table. 
  • This limit can be increased by the acquisition of accoutrements. They may be acquired in any order.
  • Each accoutrement acquired increases the level of spells the caster can cast by one. 
  • No type of accoutrement can be applied more than once, even if you own more than one. Each one only counts towards spell levels you can cast once. 
  • These are generally acquired and lost during play. 
  • If lost or destroyed, that type of thing can't be used again until you have gained a level or a year and a day have passed. 
CabalJoin an occult society, mystery religion, circle of conspirators, or cult and sign magical bonding oaths and compacts.  The force of the cabal's collective power backs your actions, but you will sometimes be called upon to act in the interests of the cabal.  Investing in the Cabal improves your status and position in the fraternity, allowing you to call upon it for aid (the loan of magic items, borrowed retainers, support in battle).  Such requests are honored with a 1 in 6 chance, plus 1 for each spell level invested in the cabal.  

Though wizards bristle at the need for anyone else, the cabals serve multiple purposes. The ritual frequently attracts 'cultists', those who follow the wizard in the hopes of accessing true or real power. They are normal humans, and beyond what power the wizards allow them to access from the cabal, they have no magical ability or potential.

Minimal membership in a cabal is fairly painless, costing nothing more than yearly dues. Investing more in the cabal attracts followers and power.Though cabals are joined in general principle, there are many schisms and fractures within them. They may provide both allies and foes.


Order of the Falling Star: The order of the falling star serves the visitors, who visit the world from the astral plane, to collect followers to join them on their journey throughout the planar spectrum. The travelers hope to save as many people as possible before something they call the 'scourge'. Initiates live an ascetic life and are rather humorless.

Guild of Naturalists: This society of wizards is devoted to the discovery and cataloging of natural specimens. Members join for various reasons, crossbreeding research, prestige, a love of the outdoors, access to monster information or resources. Prestige within the society is gained and lost based on new research and facts, and there are longstanding rivalries between members. This guild is open to any classes.

Pax Draconis: This society attempts to reach a true source of magic, draconic power. They are usually in service to the nearest old (or older) usually chomatic dragon nearby, granting their devoted service in exchange for whatever power they can manage to siphon. The dragons often find these arrangements palatable until they are not. Once initiated the mage is brought before the dragon who both asks a service and grants a gift.

Students of the Pearl Tower: This is an academic group of researchers who seek out and collect magical power. In exchange for new magics, students may access the vast library available in the enchanted pearl tower.
RaimentYour garments and costume, the working clothing or finery which declares your profession and power not just to mortal observers, but to the Unseen Realms as well.  This is quite expensive, but protects from all natural extremes of heat and cold, and keeps you comfortable even in thunderstorms.  Each spell level invested in Raiment improves your AC by 1.   

This garment must cost at least 100 gold, though some of the most powerful and famous garment can be priceless.
ExamplesRobe of Eyes: This option costs little to create, but requires the collection of 100 eyes from beholders, basilisks, and gibbering mouthers. Mouthers are relatively easily controlled and harvested, but they won't grow new eyeballs without being fed people. Anyone who wears the robe of eyes can no longer be surprised, and can see in the dark, as well as into the ethereal and astral planes.

Robe of the Archmagi: This is a robe costing at least 100,000 gold pieces. Once the base material has been enchanted, the wizard may invest spell slots for various effects. Common ones include a +4 bonus to armor class from the investment of a single spell level. Granting the user 5% magic resistance per spell level investment. A bonus of +1 to saves per 2 spell levels sacrificed (capped at +4 for a 8th or 9th level spell, being the highest level investment), Or granting an opponent a -1 to saves per 2 spell levels sacrificed. They are specifically tailored to the creating wizard. Anyone trying on the robe who is not the wizard takes 11d4+7 damage and loses a similar amount of experience times 1,000.

Part I is here
Part II is here

If you like this, let me know. Or check out the other stuff I write.
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Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

On the Wizards Panoply: Focus & Familiar

Wed, 02/14/2018 - 18:25
A few years ago +Benjamin Baugh created a post about the accoutrements of wizards on Google+. It's a great idea and I wanted to examine the suggestions in greater depth.

The objects presented are talismansfocifamiliarscabalsraiments, servantspacts, and sanctums, in order of difficulty of acquirement.

Humans themselves are relatively poor conduits of magical or elemental energy.

The basic conceit of this system is that humans are incapable of safely wielding any magic beyond the first level of power. 
  • Attempts to cast magic of a level higher than 1st require a roll on a retribution table. 
  • This limit can be increased by the acquisition of accoutrements. They may be acquired in any order.
  • Each accoutrement acquired increases the level of spells the caster can cast by one. 
  • No type of accoutrement can be applied more than once, even if you own more than one. Each one only counts towards spell levels you can cast once. 
  • These are generally acquired and lost during play. 
  • If lost or destroyed, that type of thing can't be used again until you have gained a level or a year and a day have passed. 
FocusA large obvious magical tool used to focus and direct spells, such as a staff, rod, or occult weapon.  Each spell level invested in a Focus penalized a target's saving throws made against your magic by 1.

All wizards must carry a focus, even if it is devoid of enchantment or power. Those without a focus grant their opponents a +4 bonus on all saves or they have a -4 penalty to hit the target. Without the focus they cannot effectively direct their magical energies.

In addition, foci can act as spell batteries. For every 1,000 gold spent (in the form of precious gem dust), a focus can be enchanted with temporary power, or charge. Each charge is equivalent to a single spell level. A wizard can cast a third-level spell without it being lost for three charges. Most foci limit the types of spells these charges can be spent on, depending on the individual foci.

You can also discharge your magical energy through the focus. For every spell level of the spell you discharge, you can do 1d6 points of damage to a single target within 30. This damage is considered force damage, like a magic missile, and is blocked by the same magics that block magic missile (broach of shielding, etc.).

In addition, attempting to wield magic without a focus creates an astral disturbance, detectable for dozens of miles. Considering the possible danger of people wielding magic beyond their ability, there are certainly people who look for such things.

Oakenhart Wand: This is a gnarled branch, nearly 18 inches in length. It feels of livewood and is encircled by vines. A small quartz crystal is nestled in the tip. This focus connects wizards of weather and nature to the earth. Spells can be discharged through the wand to heal 1d6 points to a target per level of the spell discharged. The spell also allows the caster to transmute any of her spells of a greater level into one of the following: Pass Without Trace, Massmorph, and Plant Growth.

Crystal Ball: This is a translucent crystal sphere. It exudes energy that makes hair stand on end. Usually within a setting, this allows the user to bypass the line of sight requirements for targets—any target that the crystal ball scrys on can be the target of the spell. The wizard may expand a first level spell slot and the focus will levitate and orbit the user until the next exposure to dawn's light.

Rod of Dragon Control: This is a cold iron cylinder, with the head of a dragon on one end. The user may expend five charges or spell levels to summon a small red dragon hatchling, as Summon Monster III. The wearer can utter Commands, as the Cleric spell that affect only dragons. Dragons have a -4 to their saving throw versus this effect. Reaction adjustments for all dragons is at +2, and any dragons must save versus rods, staves, and wands before they can attack the holder of the rod.
FamiliarForm a magical bond with a small intelligent magical creature.  Familiars can't fight, but can scout, distract, and provide other useful aid.  Each spell level invested in a familiar allows the creature to aid you in performing some task, adding a 1 point bonus to your roll.  

The familiar is your constant companion. By the very nature of the magical bond between the caster and the animal, the animal is protected. When on your person it has access to a small, nest like, interdimensional space, rendering the familiar immune to damaging fireballs, exposure to the vacuum of space, drowning while the party spent 8 turns under the influence of a water breathing spell, and other fridge logic moments.

Familiars are usually small, normal animals. A robin, a small snake, a black cat, a toad, owls if you're creepy etc. Sometimes wizards desire more powerful aids. For every spell level sacrificed to the familiar, the wizard may have a more powerful familiar, with hit dice equal to half the level of the spell level sacrificed. Classic more powerful familiars include pseudodragons, imps, quasits, hell hounds, and shadows. For the cost of an additional spell slot, the wizard can see through the eyes of the creature.

In any case, because of your bond with the familiar you are effectively one creature. During combat, you and your familiar share actions. If your familiar dies, you lose 1d4 hit points permanently.

Part I is here

If you like this, let me know. Or check out the other stuff I write.
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On the Wizard

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 18:14
No Wizard is happy.

Imagine a doctor. Years of study. Chooses to become a proctologist. There's a reason. Yes, money, job security, comfort. Still, to devote so much time to assholes, looking at asses of mostly older men and women, thinking about what the health of a colon really means, nobody that has the opportunity to become a doctor would choose something like that if it didn't resonate with them at least a little.

So it is with wizards.

Whatever they are into, is not a topic of interest to most people. It's off-putting and strange. They didn't get to be so knowledgeable about such topics by wiling away their hours in idle pursuits. The study, social inexperience, and strange experiments and activities push them further apart from their fellow man. They wonder how much to care about the opinion of a person that can't even read.

You're a wizard
Magic never has the answer. Solitude, isolation, and the plain fact that magic is terrible for utility, why risk your very life toiling with such forces for such a meager payout? Magic leaves you destitute. Those with money or no future will seek tutelage from other powerful wizards, in exchange for either cash or servitude. Your habits of study and isolation leave you unclean—your spirit, hygiene, food even, are just annoying things that take you away from what matters.

And it does matter, when you finally bind the axial niffit from the dolorous realm to the resonant exoskeleton of the clockwork narix, allowing you to maneuver it under your control. You share your idea, only to be told the utility of such a thing is useless.

How do they not see the potential?

You have your awakenings, as all mortal creatures do. But revulsion and disgust on the face of the young man or woman you fancy, is it your stench? Unkempt hair? It doesn't matter. People speak in euphemisms. You are a 'magic-user'. You let go of the idea that you would spend hours, hours, every week engaged in such banal activities, just so other people found you palatable. What a waste! You have more important things to do.

The study of magic, is, at its core, based on a series of poor decisions. The energy for it comes from other creatures and other realms, filled with powers beyond the reach of men. Those willing to traffic in such knowledge often did not have better options. Unsuccessful sociopaths, power hungry criminals, those who would just as soon see you fail. These are your peers and sources of magical knowledge. Each as unseemly and untrustworthy as the next.

You start to realize what magic means. That people are really just harmonic wave reflections, made transparent by sacrifice of loric natodes. It is your will that you enforce upon the universe. Are people that do not even real? More and more you discover the limits, the forms and behavior that make up your so called "peers". They are revealed and controlled just as easily as a simple narix. Well, perhaps not a simple one, but. . .

If you're lucky, you have money, and can secure yourself a homestead and an apprentice far enough away from civilization for you not to be noticed. If not, you could find yourself a group of ner-do-wells and trade your services in hope of finding enough money. Allying with a group who's best plan was to sell everything they own; to roam around try to steal lost "treasure" from deadly monsters while hiding it from the government? You soon realize it wasn't the best plan. Like you, these people were poorly-suited for fitting in among civilized people. Except they didn't have intelligence to carry them. Assuming their poor judgement and ignorance doesn't get you killed, you put up with their abuse, because what does it matter what gnats say?

Finally, what's your success? Ultimate power and riches? Hardly. Now that magic's secrets are unfolding, you see the endless cost, and it becomes about tricks and techniques and resources to bear the weight of that cost. You see what you want, but just out of reach. Only another year or two of research. . . . If you're successful, you've created an isolated environment that allows you to actually do that research, and then just hope a bunch of armed and heavily armored thugs doesn't break into your home and murder you.

Finally, when magic gives you real power, when you've twisted and folded your very being that the cost for what you want is finally enough to bear. You look around and realize you are alone. Your path leaves you few friends and many enemies. You yourself have become old. You no longer recognize the land, the songs they sing are strange, and it feels as if you walk among a cardboard stage. Any who see you whisper and those that meet you recoil in fear.

You spend an age using your power to grant you all your lost desires. You form a demi-plane and within your dreams come true. Even you are intelligent enough to realize the base urges and simplistic ego structures that make up such a fantasy are empty and devoid of value. You live there for years after all the joy has fled.

Finally, assuming you avoid running to the unknown or other self-destructive behavior, you realize all that's left is your engagement with the mysteries of magic. All worldly concerns cease to be yours, your environment idiosyncratic, your only company, those few of your peers who have survived, but can't really be trusted. Your intermittent communications with them the only telluric enterprise that remains.

Eventually, you die while at work, as your body gives into the ravages of a life unbalanced.

This is the life of a wizard.
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On the So-Called Wilderness

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 13:00
The seminal work on this topic is done by
Victor Raymond in Fight On #2 & #3It's Citizen Kane all over again.

It says it right on the cover of Dungeons and Dragons Volume 3 of Three Booklets: "The underworld and wilderness adventures."

"The Wilderness:
The so-called Wilderness"

Those are the first five words Gygax wrote on the subject. Victor Raymond makes it clear that the phrase "The Wilderness" doesn't mean the actual wild, but all non-dungeon content—dangerous wilds and other civilizations and civilized areas—that the players might encounter.

But what about the wild? The planes of fairy and the unknown? The mythical wood? The archetypical wilderness that threatens civilization? The line beyond which the cartographer writes, "Here, there be dragons."

Nearly every adventure published for Dungeons & Dragons follows these hidden and archetypal guidelines in design, here we are just going to uncover them and make them explicit. Strap in.

AwarenessPeople are breathing all the time, yet aren't really aware of it. There's this fundamental underlying structure to role-playing games, an archetypical truth, that we all know about yet remain unaware about.

Dungeons and Dragons is literally about taming the unknown. There's this central idea of a human narrative, where a person goes out into the unknown and retrieves knowledge and then returns. It's pretty central to the idea of us as a species, showing up again and again in psychology and fiction.

The basic structure of any role-playing game, is that players have a character. That character exists in a literal limbo, until the Dungeon Master utters a setting. Once within that setting (right after play starts) areas are delineated as adventure locations. I am speaking in categorical terms. An adventure location may be a scene, a conversation with a non-player character, or a cave entrance.

You are, sitting at the table, in possession a character, and several adventure options. You have an idea of your current (safe) location, which you leave to engage with the adventure option.

The adventure is fundamentally about exploring these unknown spaces. What's in the cave? What does this person think? You uncover the unknown. Literally. The majority of Dungeons and Dragons play is exploring dungeons, which are represented as darkness or blankness and then are filled in as we explore. What's more, you are given a score for this activity; (or alternately the activity allows you to acquire a score). When you return successful, this score allows you to become a better explorer of the unknown.

This is a fundamental human instinct.  We go absolutely bonkers for frontiers. How exciting is the boundary between what is known and unknown! And here's a whole game where the entire structure of play is focused on rolling back the frontier!

If you're wondering, that is why 95% of role-players are playing Dungeons and Dragons or some derivative thereof.

Hell, Gygax figured it out, wrote down his excellent system of handling this from his seat of understanding, and then it was immediately misconstrued and lost, ignored by almost all, leaving us to discuss endlessly what's going on with hexes, and coming up with iterations like pointcrawls.

Archetypal Assumptions
A lot of this work proceeds from the excellent guidelines and overview provided by Victor Raymond. I encourage you to read his articles in Fight On #2 and #3 on this topic. For now, let's have an overview of his key points.

First, the wilderness doesn't refer to the mythical wild, but rather all uncivilized AND civilized areas that are unknown to the players.

Second, barring travel through the wilderness, a topic well covered in AD&D, other styles of wilderness adventure mentioned by Gygax include "Exploratory Adventures" and "Clearing the countryside of monsters"

Third, 20 miles is given as the amount of territory a stronghold can keep clear of monstrous influence.

Fourth, don't treat the wilderness as generic. Think of it as a collection of places and conditions. No terrain is "Forest" or "Hills" It's old rotted oaks, with a matting of decaying leaves, or mostly bare hills, with steep sides covered in grass and moss.

This is the core of his analysis that we are going to build off of.

The first thing to note is that the idea of wilderness is adjacent to chaos. The original game had three alignments, because the original game was about the conflict between law, and the rise of civilization, versus chaos, the wilderness and the unknown. The players are almost universally lawful, because their very actions involve imposing order upon the world (by discovering new territory and killing monsters).

That is the Terminus Est. Dungeons are pockets of chaos that exist within civilized lands (usually close enough to be within the 20 mile range of safety). The Wilderness is the chaos beyond.

The third Original Dungeons and Dragons book outlines the entirety of adventure. You can adventure in the Underworld or the Wilderness.*

ApotheosisSo, what use is this?

Concretely, D&D is a game, organized as a collection of procedures.

Designing a wilderness: This is covered in the article by Victor, but needs little description. You can generate a wilderness yourself, or use phenomenal online tools, or use pre-existing maps. This topic is extensively covered.

Travel to a destination: This is also very explicitly covered. This is where the wilderness rules for getting lost apply, wilderness encounter tables are used, and where hexmaps at a scale of 25-60 miles are useful.

An Aside:This journey should often be structured as a resource management exercisein food, lives, and loss.Having unique systems for unique terrain greatly enhances this mode of play.(That link leads to the marvelous wilderness mini-games by Telecanter)

Exploratory Adventures: This is the process of discovering the lay of the land. This procedure is outlined in Volume 3.

"When players venture into this area they should have a blank hexagon map, and as they move over each hex the referee will inform them as to what kind of terrain is in that hex. This form of exploring will eventually enable players to know the lay of the land in their immediate area. . .  Scale: Assume the greatest distance across a hex is about 5 miles. Turn: Each move will constitute one day. Each day is considered a turn. At the end of each day, the referee will check to see if a monster has been encountered. "

This assumes, of course, that the Dungeon Master is using a map with already labeled castles/strongholds. If that's not the case, the essential CDD #4 Old School Encounters Reference places fortresses at about a 1 in 20 chance per hex.

Essentially this exploration allows the players to both identify the terrain of the hex and informs them as to an outstanding features of the hex—is there a castle? a lair? a tribe of humanoids? It seems like the type of adventure for 7th-8th level players to engage in.

Clearing a hex: This process is clarified on page 24 of ODD.
"Clearing the countryside of monsters is the first requirement. The player/character moves a force to the hex, the referee rolls a die to determine if there is a monster encountered, and if there is one the player/character's force must remove it. If no monster is encountered the hex is already cleared. Territory up to 20 miles distant from a stronghold must be kept clear of monsters once cleared—the inhibition of the stronghold being considered as sufficient to maintain the monster-free status."

What does this mean logistically? You have to clear the site of your castle, and out to four hexes in every direction (at 5 miles a hex). That's 95 hexes, for an average of 16 encounters. Here are the 8 encounter options presented for a forest hex:
1. Men (30-300)
2. Flyer (Ex. Rocs 1-20)
3. Giant (Ex. Orcs (30-300)
4. Lycs (2-20 werewolves)
5. Lycs. (2-20)
6. Men (30-300)
7. Anmls. (Ex. 10-100 pixes)
8. Dragon

So, you can see that clearing 20 miles may present a bit of a challenge.

This provides a core of wilderness play. It covers design, travel, discovery, and taming. A process for pushing back the frontier. acquiring territory, and moving into conflict with other fortresses and lords.

As complete as this is, there is still something missing.

AvidityWhat we have is not enough. We need more. What of the mythical unknown?

One of the stipulations that Victor notes in his search for when the wilderness encounter table is used is that even though those 20 miles may be cleared, the wilderness always encroaches. So from 0-5 miles you roll city encounters. From 6-10 miles you might have level 1 dungeon encounters on the list. From 11-15 miles you might have level 2 dungeon encounters on the list, and from 16-20 miles you might have level 3 encounters.

The other thing he notes is that dungeons, often, lie within civilized lands.

So what we are left with is the idea that "exploring" and "clearing" the hexes just addresses the proud nails. What's left is suitably wild, though perhaps not of particular interest to name level characters.

So in addition to having unexplored dungeons in civilized lands, and somewhat more controlled groups of monsters (maybe a gnoll raiding party numbering 20, versus the 220 gnolls the lords killed), you can also have pockets of mythical wilderness!

This is where pointcrawls and zones (to avoid the genericness of area) come into play. The general idea is, much like the dungeon is an area of high resistance, so is the mythical wilderness.

In each hex are four possible kinds of areas. Bastions of civilization, rolling terrain covered with wandering monsters—the local ecology—not power groups that are rolled for and cleared when clearing or exploring, point crawls which are mythical wilderness-style areas that are treated as areas of ineradicable wildness and magic. And finally zones, (usually at the many points of a pointcrawl) which are simply small maps (like dungeons and ruins) that are uncovered and cleared (though the possibility of restocking always exists). Zones are usually dungeons, but treating ruins, abandoned keeps, and small clearings, caves, and lairs as alternate zone types provides a lot of variety on the players end. Reference the video games Baldur's Gate 1 & 2 (or any of it's many spiritual descendents) for exceptional and creative use of zone wilderness design.

Hexes fail when applied to finer terrain. This is the key insight behind the development of pointcrawls as a middle point between Zone style play and hexploration. It is simple. The 6 mile-hex is our minimum structure. Our atom. You can't subdivide it into further atoms without serious issues. So instead, we deal with the hex as having an interior structure made up of structures, people, and sites. ("Citadels & Castles”, “Ruins & Relics”, “Idyllic Islands” and “Lurid Lairs”.) Once located within the hex, each represents a point, with the distance between covered by wandering monster checks, weather, and a specific one-line description of the terrain. Voilà! It's game structures all the way down.

But how to maintain that sense of discovery? Where is the wonder and awe in exploring the wilderness. This idea must feed back into design.

We must assume that even though the hex is cleared, that this has only eliminated major threats. Smaller, hidden threats, can still be present. Secondly, in addition to many landmarks being visible on the hypothetical pointcrawl, many should not be, and should only be locatable by actually visiting the location. The fact that the landmarks visible are not sequential (they have more to do with their location and visibility in the hex) means the path through the pointcrawl to them, as well as other features remain hidden to be discovered by the players during exploration. Finally, there can be both obvious and unobvious paths, much like secret doors, requiring either foreknowledge or wilderness expertise to locate.

Further, this is what differentiates wilderness exploration from dungeon exploration. When you begin wilderness exploration, many landmarks are already visible, as opposed to all being obscured by the dungeon.

The above outlines the core of the adventure within wilderness exploration.
The following amazing resources are some of what I use in play and design.

CDD#4 Old School Encounters Reference
Telecanter's Wilderness Travel Mini-games and challenges
Telecanter's list of Geographic Wonders

*It's important to note here, that by no means did Gygax exclude the idea of chaos being iminical to civilization. He also postulated exploring cities as adventure, because there are types of chaos that can lie beneath a veneer of civilization. As noted in the possible city and castle encounters, he included the unknown city interior as wilderness. 

Also, I'm able to spend time working on these topics thanks to your support. If you liked this article and want to see me continue to produce content, please support me on Patreon! Thanks for keeping me from starving to death!
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Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

On Deathless Gods III

Wed, 01/31/2018 - 17:36
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

On Deathless Gods II

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 15:56
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

On Delving Dragons

Wed, 01/24/2018 - 16:44
It's the lack of imagination that is shocking.

I read a response to my offhand statement about Dragons being memorable horrors in megadungeons and the immediate assumption were that dragons were these immense creatures that would somehow be trapped.

Dragons are the ultimate result on the table. Each one should be a memorable occasion with something unique or bizarre.  Again, megadungeons are just stage backdrop for the drama that comes from the first few encounter rolls. The result determines your scenes for the evening.

A Megadungeon is a threatening realm of the unknown beyond the threshold, where we risk encounters with chaos. Dragons are the purest representation of the threat of that chaos, requiring them to be unknown wildcards. Which is why dragons are so important!

Let's look and see.

Here is Madamagor, a vicious animal-brained monster that stalks prey like a serpent with acid breath.
Or perhaps you prefer Quexgor Salmagar, who will go to great efforts to befriend a party before waiting for an opportune moment to betray them, killing as many as possible for their rich treasures. The thing that's interesting being the way these encounters (which are always inimical) strike at fears of not only the characters but the players. An unstoppable monster who feeds on you. Chaos that seeks to seduce you before stabbing you in the back. After a Quexgor betrayal, as the characters stare fixedly at the spreading red stains of blood as their life leaks away; the players will have a real sense of what an encounter with draconic chaos is like.
Anyway. It's fun. A good time. 
Dragons, more than just another regular encounter.
For those of you who don't know, of course there's a ton of content in Megadungeon #1 and #2 that you can use in any game you are currently running, whether that's Numenhalla, another megadungeon, or even a more traditional campaign. Please buy my beautiful work because I like food and having a place to sleep at night. Patreon is another way to provide support! 
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Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

On Megadungeon #2

Tue, 01/23/2018 - 12:54
Announcing the release of Megadungeon #2!!

Print and PDF and combo available!

In this issue, explore the labyrinth of Tethys while hunted by a horrible beast.

Also explore the chains of sorrow and the dark iron horror. New rumors, treasure maps, and quests. Fascinating dragons and NPC's, Numenhalla specific monsters like the Anthropophagi, Ranadin, and Prismatic Octohedrons. A new faction, the Hengeomoth.

Articles by John Bell on Wandering Monsters and Chris H on FLAILSNAILS memories. Prolifically illustrated by Kent Miller, Sean McCoy, and Todd McGowan. Cover art by the brilliant and talented Sam Mameli!

Kill two birds with one stone! Grab the latest in brillant gaming supplements and help me continue to produce great content like this.

Buy it now!

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Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

On Deathless Gods

Mon, 01/22/2018 - 16:44
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

On Overloaded Abundance

Tue, 01/16/2018 - 11:15
There is too much.

My daughter wanted music on the way home. Her in her carseat, "MUSIC!" she shouts. Can you imagine still having yet to hear Bowie or Radiohead? Knowing what I know, her excitement seems reasonable. I have music, burned on these tiny silver rings, hours and hours. Flipping through them, I saw "New Music" and thought about how nice I was to myself.

Upon insertion, the verberating tones of "On Call" ring out, I realize the new music I made to listen to is 10 years old. That's not new. What's new? Just how much music have people made in the last decade?

Let me tell you how much.

So much.

This is the world. Even if you are into a hobby, there's so much of so many of everything! This is the future writ large. Worlds unknown. Not metaphysically either. Take, for example, this gentleman, who spent his hours slaying the Dragon of Chaos, by determining through experimentation what the results of 100 Alkamos runs are. The fact that you may not even understand what an Alkamos run is, proves the point. New games and releases used to happen on Tuesday, with 20 or so titles. Now there are 100 new steam releases every day. There are 15,000 Dungeons and Dragons related releases on RPG.now. That database isn't getting smaller.

I mean, this is great. It's the universe endlessly reflecting and iterating on itself. But it can be a little overwhelming.

That's where the robot helpers come in.

I don't store things discreetly anymore.  How does a drive with music on it, or a DVD collection even work in this new world? Now, if I want to listen to music, I go to the music page and I type in the music I like.

Then it knows me, and what people like me like. And it gives me what I want. We are going to have to trust the computer, and that's terrifying*. But it's a lot of work keeping up with what's new. The people I follow on whatever platform, I follow because they are interested in what I am, and they use their time to present their explorations into the unknown. Yet now, the past has become so much larger with so much content because we do more and more each year. Every exponentially larger production of "content" slips into the past, year, after, year, after year. . .

What I'm saying is follow me on twitter (@Hackslashmaster). No. Wait. That's not what I'm saying at all. What I'm saying is that this is awesome?

Yes. This is awesome. And really, that's what this space and time is about. I am a complete person, but that's not really relevant to my hobbies. An issue I've been wrestling with these last few years is how to interact on social media. I am certain I am not the only one.

But the thing is, a knife is a knife and a fork is a fork. I tune into Star Wars for space opera. I like things. Especially when they are flawed. This blog, G+, twitter, facebook, they are about fractions of me. But the parts that are contentious and complicated, those that think deep and politically, those that seek change and desire—there is too much.

So maybe that doesn't go there.

I've been in freefall. I thought it started recently after crises. The insight from the crisis was that I'd always been falling. Terrifying as that is, after all the screaming and nashing of teeth, it's pretty fun. You might as well enjoy the terrifying descent. Those in the past only spent their time with so few ideas, in small communities or from people who wrote books. Now we have a chaotic flood of more everything than anyone, individually, can hope to process.

I'm enjoying the journey. I hope you are too.

Megadungeon #2 is finished and in pre-press! 
If you liked this article, you should feel completely free of any guilt if you're not supporting me on Patreon! Or, if you're not into that, I really suggest you check out Megadungeon and some of my other publications!

*I mean, clearly we had better be on the guy who's setting up and running the damn computer no?
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Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

On the Dungeons & Dragons Problem

Sat, 12/30/2017 - 21:51
Recently Gus wrote this rather comprehensive article about the history of gold for experience and utilizing it in modern play. He discusses murder-hoboism in this context and ends with this statement.
Murderhobos aren't a problem unless there's a prescribed end point to you campaign and a set of scenes that the GM is willing to force to get there.  Which is sort of a signal drum for the OSR ascetic to rally around and decry. For good reason, yet it leads to a certain myopic view that doesn't fit the needs of a lot of players.

The problem is that logistically, Dungeons & Dragons is a social tribal ritual. There's nothing insightful about this statement. It is simply factual. It involves a group of people, led by a member of that group, who follow a strict set of rules to have a shared experience.

I speak as plainly as I can. This requires a group of people, and a facilitator.

The "Group of People" while somewhat of a challenge, is a surmounted problem due to the influx of new wave Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts. Critical role, HarmonQuest, and increased televised exposure have translated into more people buying and playing Dungeons & Dragons then at any point in history.

Secondarily This requires* a facilitator. The facilitator, and I mean this in the most clinical sense, must act as Shaman for the group. This is not mysticism. Factually, the way humans structure their societies include the ideas of wise men, artists, priests, and entrepreneurs who's purpose is to direct and lead group experiences. The most ancient of titles is aidraz. Ealdormann who are, fundamentally, the people in front.

The Dungeon Master is the people in front.

This ipso facto is the problem.

Trivially, it requires someone who can manage group power dynamics and someone who is emotionally mature enough to take on the responsibility of facilitating the exercise as a neutral arbiter, without perverting it by their own unexplored or unmanaged psyche.

Again, concretely, this translates into things such as: failing to kill characters due to fear of—or inability to manage negative feelings about—confrontation. Failure to provide real stakes trivializes the importance of the shared experience. If failure doesn't matter then it is not a very engaging vision.

However, people do not like to fail!

I know this is a sequence of obvious statements, but it's rarely addressed in this manner. Here is the problem.

Almost universally, people running a game have little relevant training in acting as a shaman. They aren't versed in social power structures, conflict resolution, negotiation techniques, clinical theory, psychology, et. al. This makes nearly everyone who has a game subject to the Dunning-Kruger effect.

It may be difficult or impossible for them to articulate what is actually occuring during play.

An example, from the 5th Edition Group on Facebook
tldr; dm is stole my social security money because I missed a session due to mental problems and is now punishing my player character because of itI do not want to leave his game because it's my first ever DnD character. He has threatened multiple times to have other players play my character who are known to be reckless and have been through countless characters due to their reckless and stupid choices. He also stated that I will be getting 3d10 upon awaking from my next sleep in game. He stated as well that no matter what happens to my character now, he will go to his versin of hell in his world. My character is lawful good. I do not understate my case. Examples abound**!

Granted, the readers of this blog, and indeed most gamers will skew higher in IQ, which as an objective determiner, helps with the process of acting as Shaman. Generally, you would want your spiritual guide to have at least a reasonably high assessment of general functioning.

Yes, you probably can articulate what occurs and what is relevant in play. Your ability to do so is not relevant.

So many people are playing D&D now. Six million people have watched Critical Role. I haven't watched Critical Role. But somewhere six million other people did.

Is there an non-arrogant way to say this? You got a lot of dumb monkeys throwing shit at each other. The first time this happened in the early 80's, most of the experiences, weirdness, and offensiveness about these failures that drove people away, (which the OSR communally have extensively documented). The second time, this didn't happen.

Because following a linear path and killing monsters in battles you are supposed to win with extensive objective rules for in game actions is wayyyy easier then leading a group of people to a  powerful shared vision quest. Which, again, is just the literal statement of fact. There's a quest, and everyone imagines a shared vision.

This isn't a slam. The linear paths do provide superficially similar experiences to the vision quests, at the cost of being heavily scripted and naturally neutering player agency. And they are simple to use. You start at the top and work your way down to the bottom. We all learned that in school! Thanks Uncle Sam! In addition, neither the players nor the Dungeon Master has to seriously consider the risks of failure. Nobody likes to lose.

The independent games movement (indy games) and the Old School Renaissance have been approaching the core issues like two halves of a turning fork, with most of the hard work being done by a few singular innovators (e.g. Vincent Baker for fronts, ChicagoWiz and Sham for the one-page Dungeon Template), who are then widely copied and iterated upon.

The work, of course, being producing usable tools that assist the facilitators in running a meaningful vision quest. Concretely, tools that insure agency, allow access to the collective unconscious***, and provide enough structure to create emergent gameplay.

It is this emergent, unplanned chaos that makes the vision a quest. The unknown self-developing reality that we auger, provides a dragon of chaos, again, literally just the darkness and the unknown, to threaten our success. More directly; the adventure we recount had an actual threat from the unknown that one overcomes. That unknown is unknown and meaningful, because it is emergent, making it truly unexpected and chaotic. A literal real threat from the void.

Fifth edition makes a surprising and brave attempt. Granting the Dungeon Master an official mantle of power. Dungeon masters are in charge. Coated thick with warnings and explanations of value, along with examples, and plenty of guidance, with a stern warning about not being dicks. Don't do it! Being a dick is bad! Then it takes an extra step and spends thousands of words talking about what that concretely means  in terms of play. In addition to an official twitter to interact with the entire world of players in a conversation about how to engage with the game.

That power people have invested in the Authority has been granted back to us, TSR is dead, Long live TSR. Many squander it, but we become better and better at creating a world and tools where that becomes a much less attractive situation.

Hi! This is literally my job now. The end of the year came with surprise unemployment, along with the rest of the trials of the past few years, cancer, divorce, custody fights, the death of my father, and let's not forget surprise unemployment! I'm not complaining though: if you liked this article, you should feel completely free of any guilt if you're not supporting me on Patreon! Or, if you're not into that, I really suggest you check out Megadungeon and some of my other publications!

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*  Of course we are all aware of "DMless" systems like mythic, and play against automated or programmed opponents (Arkham Horror, etc.), but less clinical and more colloquial, they lack tactical infinity, which really places them into a different category. tl; dr, Dungeons & Dragons cannot exist without the Dungeon Master

** Just trivially taking apart this post; "He also stated that I will be getting 3d10 upon awakening from my next sleep in game". Ignoring the fact that this is nonsensical, what was the actual social situation at the moment that the DM communicated that. Is that what he said? Under what context are the conversations occurring?  I'm certain that all statements aren't represented accurately. Digging down into meaning could require thousands of words.

*** If you're wondering how you know if an adventure is tapping into the collective unconscious, it's almost always when you feel something is really cool, alien, and interesting. Patrick Stewart and Arnold K. are virtual machines that act as conduits to our collective psyche and nightmares. A large focus on the "Weird" in the OSR is that it's a very direct way to tap into things that resonate with the unconscious of the audience. Specific hooks redirect to vague outlines of memories in childhood, movies seen once on VHS, dimly remembered, a cloud of knowledge just out of our vision, primal and modern fears.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

On Megadungeon #1 in Print

Tue, 12/19/2017 - 18:40
Megadungeon #1 is in print!

Get it here at rpg.now with a bundled .pdf for free!


Or pick up a slightly more affordable print copy from Lulu!


Megadungeon #2 is going to be even larger, and is on target to be finished before the end of the year!

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Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

On a the Secret of Megadungeons

Wed, 12/13/2017 - 15:12
"But it's just Hack & Slash Gameplay!",
"You can't role-play in a dungeon.",
 "It seems like a lot of boring, empty, rooms.",
"There's nothing exciting about a megadungeon."

Not a lot of people play or have played Megadungeons. Those that have, know people who deride megadungeons haven't played in a megadungeon campaign.

Most gaming experience is with adventure paths or loose sandboxes. A Megadungeon campaign is significantly different from either of those. I will say that again, because it is important. Megadungeon campaigns are significantly different from Adventure Paths and Sandboxes. Attempting to run a Megadungeon like either of those types of games will result in a bad end.

If you run a megadungeon campaign like an adventure path, then it immediately becomes a tedious slog of combat after combat. If you try to run it like a sandbox, the structure of the megadungeon itself works against you. Not only can you not see the other areas of the sandbox, most other actors within the dungeon have plans who's scope likely excludes the characters. Who cares what happens into the depths, when they are trapped in the mythic underworld? Megadungeons are not designed to facilitate player driven goals that are necessary for a sandbox to function.

Megadungeons are about The Mythic Journey
They have the player
(in the guise of his character)
Sit down at a table,
Race his peers and unknown threats
To retrieve the most valuable things,
from the darkest, secluded, places
and the denizens who live there
Who are not human
Who are not kind
Who do not care

There are elements of strong game structure in megadungeons, particularly revolving around encumbrance, time and light, movement and vision. These don't make any sense in Adventure Paths and are frequently less useful in sandbox games.
These are important because they provide weight to the idea of the Megadungeon as an inimical place. If you go 120' forward, You've caused a hazard die roll and resources available have decreased. Every step has a cost, and trying to get something—anything!— of value out this place is hard, because it pulls on you, weighing you down, refusing to leave.
It makes it mean something to the players. Territory explored is not only revealing the map; it's gained knowledge, that allows you to descend deeper in the depths of the mythic unknown. It is compiling this knowledge that empowers the player to engage in every more risky challenges in the depths. 
Megadungeon Meaning and Roll(e)Megadungeons are mostly empty, because they are a Stage.And us, the players.
It must serve three functions. It must obstruct and confuse characters in a way that challenges the player, it must be mostly empty so it can hold the emergent drama between players and dungeon actors while exploring, and it must contain treasure at intervals to provoke a reward response in players.
What happens is that while the players explore, they quickly become aware of other groups of monsters or players that are moving through the same dungeon area as they are. Most are not immediately hostile, but everyone in the dungeon is an opportunist. Fights against equally powerful non-player character parties are often fatal, but after they've fought a manticore, it might be a different story. It's likely they think the same about you.  These relationships and rivalries persist from session to session.  It is a sea filled with pirates and sharks. And since the door only opens once each week, you're stuck dealing with who you run into this session, while you're trying to accomplish your goal, meaning things usually go one way. . . or the other. 
Sometimes, there are dragons. 
Have you ever been hunted as a mouse? If your character survives to tell the tale, it will be memorable. If they could slay such a beast? Unforgettable.
So, no. Not like a Sandbox or Adventure Path. Yes, more focused on some unusual rules. More like an emergent adventure that challenges the player themselves. A fun game to play with a rotating group of friends. Friendly rivalry.Sort of like a party game with dares. You know—a Megadungeon!Are you going to cast Fireball or Protection! Which one! Quick!
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Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

On Megadungeon #1

Mon, 12/04/2017 - 15:29
I decided if I didn't take steps to get this done, it wouldn't ever happen.

Introducing Megadungeon #1
.pdf is 5.99$, print version coming very soon* at 9.99$.

It's awesome.
What is it? It's a magazine about Megadungeons. It details the famous OSR megadungeon Numenhalla, but material is usable in any campaign. It is dual-stated for B/X and 5e.

I drew all the maps

*Very soon for values of I've had trouble with RPGnow's POD before. It's processing now. Assuming it's a success, it'll take 7-10 days for the proof to arrive. So if there are no problems, expect POD on the 18th (and knowing how things work, that's really probably after the start of the year.)

Hopefully #2 will be much faster. :-)

If you're a Patreon  you should know you've already received your free .pdf this weekend!

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Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

On a Mountain Shore

Wed, 11/29/2017 - 14:33
I did this a while ago, and I'm just now getting it scanned and uploaded. If you'd like a high quality version, one is available on the patreon.

It's nice. It's like looking around at all the adventure you could have!

Are we excited about what is going to happen on Friday? I'm excited.
Hint: It starts with M and ends with egadungeon.
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Basic Megadungeon Play and Procedures

Wed, 11/15/2017 - 13:00
A megadungeon campaign differs mechanically in several important ways from a normal campaign. This is often treated as "information everyone knows" and yet never documented (much like the actual procedure for hexcrawling). 
Sessions are objective-focused not plot-focused. Each session revolves around the completion of a specific quest. Sometimes this is a request from someone with a reward granted upon successful completion, sometimes this is the players with a specific goal, such as finding the location indicated on a treasure map. The dungeon is a puzzle (or death trap) designed to be solved, rather than a story to be completed.
Movement and turns are tracked rather strictly and in a game-like fashion. Historically turn is approximately 10 minutes, there are six turns an hour. This is not rigid, a turn means “the time it takes to complete a significant action". During a character’s turn the whole party may move,  or each character can engage in an individual action, such as picking a lock, try to bash open a door, looking for secret doors, etc.
Players may move a number of 10’ squares as indicated by their movement. An unencumbered 5th edition party may move 12 squares or 120’. Encumbrance slows this pace. A 5th edition party with an encumbered character can only move 8 squares. This is assuming careful, quiet, cautious observant movement. Players that move more quickly over unknown ground receive substantial penalties—always surprised, trips all traps, no mapping or distances given, hazard die rolled every turn, etc.
Traditional dungeon exploration uses an encounter die that is rolled, with a 1 indicating an encounter. More modern old-school takes on this turn this die into a “hazard” die with every result indicating some sort of decay of resources. This die is traditionally rolled every other turn, or three times in an hour. Often this die is rolled additionally in response to players arguing, making noise, or wasting time. The Hazard Die for Numenhalla is as follows.
1: Encounter2: Monster Sign3: Torches Burn4: Torches & Lanterns burn, Ongoing effects, conditions, and statuses end.5: Rest or gain a level of exhaustion. 6: Dungeon Effect
EncounterI generally pre-generate 6 encounters or so, and select one randomly when this occurs. It is perfectly acceptable to generate encounters on the fly, which often happens when players exercise their agency to go anywhere in the dungeon they wish.
The encounter begins per the standard rules 20’—120’ (2d6x10 feet) away from the party as long as they are within detection range. If you roll 100’ for the distance, and the farthest visible point of dim light is 80’ away, start the encounter at 80’. If you roll 100’ and the party can see 60, but psionically detect opponents to 100’ then start the encounter at 100’. If either party is surprised, then the encounter distance is 10'—30’ away.
This will frequently require adjustment based on the layout of the immediate area!You are encouraged to use your judgement to create a reasonable scene based on what the dice tell you. If you are in a giant room, and are surprised by trolls, have them drop from the ceiling or climb out of a secret hatch in the floor, or burst through a nearby door moving to the encounter distance indicated by the die.
The combination of the randomness of the encounter and your skill at integrating it into the current action contributes significantly to the emergent gameplay of the megadungeon.
Monster SignThis is identical to an encounter roll; except the players will usually be aware of the monster somehow and the monster will be in the dungeon out of sight. Perhaps the players hear the monster or see signs of its passage. You choose a location for the monster, and when the players take a turn, the monster moves its movement in a random direction or a direction based on your judgment. They then become another entity moving around the dungeon. If the players continue to follow where it has been, then they will continue to see signs of its activity. Alternately, the players may attempt to track down the monster.
It is this cat and mouse that make the feature of empty rooms significant.
Torches BurnTorches are either brightly lit, dim, or burnt. Each time this result occurs, lit torches decay. Brightly lit torches provide 40’ of illumination, 20 feet of bright and 20 feet of dim.Dim torches provide 20’ of illumination, 10 feet of bright and 10 feet of dim.Burnt torches do not provide light. 5 torches are a significant item.
Torches and Lanterns burnLanterns are always brightly lit. A single flask of oil will survive 3 depletions. On the 4th depletion, the lantern goes out. A lantern is a significant item. A flask of oil is a significant item.
Some things to keep in mind regarding lanterns and torches. They take a hand to use. If holding a torch or lantern in your shield arm you cannot use your shield. If dropped, lanterns have a 2 in 6 chance of breaking and starting a small fire. If torches are dropped they become dim, dim torches that are dropped become burnt. It takes a move action to set a lantern down gently.
Also, variable effects such as nausea, paralysis, temporary blessings, or other limited conditions end when this result is rolled.
RestCharacters must spend this turn at rest, checking their equipment, eating, catching their breath. If they do not, they gain a level of exhaustion. Adding this to the hazard die, rather than attempting to recall when 6 turns have passed makes this easier to keep track of. Unencumbered characters may ignore this result one time.
Dungeon EffectEach area in the dungeon has certain features that help distinguish it from other areas. When this is rolled, one of the listed effects occurs. This can be anything from sounds in the distance, to monsters being released, to blessings, curses, flooding, tunnel collapse, wormsign, etc.
Doors are inimical to dungeon explorers. Unless otherwise noted, doors are stuck. Most doors have a listed difficulty. If not, they have a Strength check DC of 13 + 2 * the Dungeon level to open.
On a failure, they door does not open. The players may try again, but no matter what they roll, the door won’t open.
Once open, unless a player specifies that they are holding the door open, the door rapidly shuts. Players may choose to spike a door open, but this triggers a roll of the hazard die. Unless they are one way doors, players need not check to open an already unstuck door.
Finally, if you are unable to kick down a door, you may if the door is wooden (or rarely stone) hack the door apart. A wooden door takes 1 turn to hack apart, if reinforced by bars 2 turns. A stone door can be destroyed in 4 turns. If players are hacking down or through a door, roll for encounters 3 times each turn as nearby wanderers investigate the noise and assume all monsters in rooms within 200' are aware of the attempt. If an inappropriate non-magical weapon is used it may break. Some doors may not be destroyed.

Hack & Slash 
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Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

On the Megadungeon and 5th Edition Play

Mon, 11/13/2017 - 13:00
Numenhalla was designed and playtested using the Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert set of rules (colloquially B/X), which were optimized for dungeon style play and campaigns. The 5th edition of the worlds greatest role-playing game is designed around the three pillars of adventure, Exploration, Role-Playing, and Combat.
This differs significantly from the pillars of Megadungeon play. Whereas exploration in 5e is about discovery, exploration in a megadungeon is about resources. Combat occurs in a megadungeon often as a failure state. Role-playing in a megadungeon has more to do with “taking the role” of an individual hero, rather then representing a specific character. The challenge is for you, the player, to outwit the megadungeon, not develop a dynamic personality that comes out through interactions with non-player characters.
No one will take your books away if you decide to play differently, but embracing pure mega-dungeon play has a number of tremendous advantages. It allows free drop in and out play, supporting up to dozens of different players. No “catching up on the plot” is needed. Characters are in charge of determining their own risk/reward. Characters have complete agency within the dungeon. The design of such creates constant choices between risk and reward, making player choice significant.
However, 5th edition nearly obviates megadungeon design. Encumbrance is often handwaved, if used at all; this eliminates an entire pillar of play of figuring out how to safely extract treasure from the dungeon. When used, it’s complicated and non-intuitive (E.g. Strength to pounds, coins to pounds as opposed to Strength to coins.) The treasure itself becomes irrelevant because it no longer provides experience. Getting experience from combat means players are disincentivized to build positive relationships with factions. Gaining levels happens very quickly, granting the players powers and abilities that trivialize many encounters. Cantrips quickly remove any sort of resource management associated with exploration. Many of the skills are irrelevant to dungeon exploration.
Thankfully, only a few minor changes are needed. The below are the suggested changes to use 5th edition in a megadungeon campaign.
ChangesExperience is only given for combat when the players are attacked. If the players attack neutral creatures or non-hostile or non-attacking beings, or if they intentionally incite creatures to attack they gain no experience from the fight. Players gain no experience for random or wandering encounters.
Experience is given on a 1:1 basis for gold.
Experience is reduced by the difficulty level of the area. Areas are given a challenge rating. Adventuring in an area with a challenge rating lower then your level gives you experience equal to the the challenge rating divided by your level. (E.g. a level 4 character in a CR 3 area would get 3/4 experience. A level 2 character in a level 1 area would get 1/2 experience. A level 6 character in a level 2 area would get 1/3 experience.) This goes for all experience earned in easier areas, no matter what it comes from.
You can carry a number of significant items equal to your Strength. A significant item would be a suit of light or medium armor, a weapon, a bundle 5 of torches, a potion, a vial of oil, a lantern, 200 coins, etc. A suit of heavy armor or a bulky item takes 2 slots. If you have more than 1/2 your slots filled, you are encumbered per the variant rules in the 5th edition Player’s Handbook on page 176. If you are wearing a suit of armor that grants disadvantage on Stealth (Dex) checks, you are encumbered. If you have more than 3/4 of your slots filled, you are heavily encumbered. Let common sense carry the day.
Eliminate the “History (Int)” skill and replace it with “Appraisal (Int)”. Eliminate the “Survival (Wis)” skill and replace it with “Devices (Wis)”. The history of a megadungeon should be discovered, not already known. Survival is useless for the scale of exploration measured in hours and not days. A successful appraisal roll will give you the approximate value of a piece of treasure if it is examined for 1 minute. A successful devices roll will allow you to repair or disarm traps, repair machinery or equipment, or activate or use machinery. In Numenhalla, it will also allow you to install and repair Augatic parts.
Remove Darkvision from Elves, Half-Elves, Half-Orcs, and Tileflings. This leaves Dwarves and Gnomes as the only races that can see in the dark. For an adventure game, it would be tedious to track light sources. Megadungeons are more survival horror then adventure. Trying to survive in a pitch black underground environment filled with nightmares and terrors, light is a resource that must be carefully managed. Removing the ability of the dark to encroach upon the party significantly reduces the tension in megadungeon play.
The following changes are made to the spell lists:
  • Light is a 1st level spell for all classes.
  • Continual Flame is a 3rd level spell for all classes.
  • If Produce Flame is used 6 times, it consumes a first level spell slot.
  • Spells that do thunder damage or cause noise, immediately draw a hazard die roll.
  • Spells require material components. Identify is powerful in a megadungeon, less so if it requires 100 gp in pearl every time it is cast.

Revisions in PlayThe above were the initial changes I made when playtesting Numenhalla. I also discovered rather quickly that resources available to 5th edition players rapidly outstrip even high-level basic characters, in spite of the math curve on the proficiency modifier almost exactly matching that of Basic. Characters gain levels faster, have much larger pools of hit points and output greatly increased damage compared to basic characters. Encounters that would be challenging for a 5th or 6th level basic party due to numbers, would fail to challenge an equivalent 5th edition party.

Addressing this has to be carefully balanced against the feeling of character progression. Obviously if you just increase the danger everywhere as the players level, then they really aren't accomplishing much.

The issue is that the megadungeon is an open campaign, and should contain a variety of monsters that provide a threat to players of various skill levels as they advance. Often players will be retreading the same ground, but with new challenges. But the power-curve crawls so high, so quickly, in 5th edition that deadly encounters become trivial to even mid level parties. Whereas because of the lower power curve, a deadly encounter at first level is still a difficult and challenging one for a 7th or 8th level party in Basic.

Philosophically, this comes down to expectations in play. Modern games like 5th edition contain a large component of 'character advancement' as reward. But if the activities in the game don't change due to this advancement, then it's functionally illusory. You are simply rolling larger and larger dice. The activities and opportunities in a megadungeon do change as basic characters advance, they gain more endurance and the ability to address new a difficult problems. This is also true of 5th edition characters, but the scale is simply much, much more extreme.

A basic fighter will have about 6 hit points at first level, 19 at 3rd, and 39 at 6th level. A 5th edition fighter will have about about 12 hit points at first level, 28 at 3rd level and 52 at 6th level. 5th edition monsters have a more gradated curve of damage output in order to handle the higher abilities of the characters. The encounters and areas must also follow this design in order to provide challenge for the players.

Here are my thoughts on how to address the issue.

  • I've separated 5th edition advancement into separate tiers of play. When entering a new area, it becomes 'locked' at the tier in which the party entered. Later, when restocking, the tier can be adjusted. Note that there is no reason for this to be exploitable. You're a human being. If they haven't been to an area other than to stick their head in, then it isn't locked as anything. This is simply a way to address difficulty without yanking the rug out from underneath the players in terms of expectations of growing in power. 
  • Each of these tiers has their own encounter table and monster encounters for each faction and encounter in the area. 
  • Certain monsters and traps will be considered legendary, having access to a higher threat level based on the average threat of the area. This will still allow dangerous things in areas as well as allowing players to return to an area to defeat a tough opponent. 
Adventurer covers level 1-4, Heroic covers levels 5-8, and Super-heroic covers levels 9-12. Higher then 12th level in 5th edition, and you're coming up against the bounds of what a static environment like a mega-dungeon can provide. Basic characters don't even gain hit points past level 8. Note that 12th level is only 100,000 experience, which in Basic games would only allow you to rise to level 6. 
It's suggested for this reason (more rapid advancement, greater power, etc.) that the general experience available for megadungeon play be (severely) constrained. Players shouldn't gain a level every session or two, aiming for a more traditional rate of 1 level every 4-6 weeks to level 7, and then every 8-12 sessions after that. 
For those of you reading the above with jaws struck slack at taking 2 years to get a character to level 8 or 9, that is the way things used to be. It would often take even longer being that tables had 6-12 people in a session and megadungeons often had around 50-60 players. The list of people who've been to Numenhalla is easily that long. 
Megadungeons are about challenging the player through rewarding play experience, rather than rewarding the player with advancement for experiencing play. I love leveling up and getting new powers as much as the next person, but that excludes wonderful styles of play. The above is how I hope to address it.

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On a Grim Dawn After a Titan’s Death, Part II

Fri, 11/10/2017 - 13:00
The Dawn of. . .grimness?After Iron Lore and Titan Quest had been put to sleep, lead developer Authur Bruno wasn’t done. He still wanted to keep working on the Action Role-Playing genera.
Because Iron Lore had approached THQ with a working engine, THQ owned all the titan quest intellectual property, along with all the graphics and assets. It turns out however, that Iron Lore still owned the rights to the underling engine.
Obviously there are fans of this type of game. But at the time, late 2007, Torchlight, Path of Exile, and the rumored Diablo 3, all stood on the horizon. What’s a small time developer to do?
Over 12,000 people and half a million dollars later, there was a budget to finish the game. And the work stands as an ode to what Titan Questwasn’t. Now, when you swung your weapon at enemies, they visibly reacted, flying into the air or gibing when killed, sprays of blood arcing across the screen. They might have gone a bit overboard after all the restrictions from THQ.
It also positioned itself in the market, catering to what the other Action RPG’s didn’t. There was no competitive multiplayer. No streamlined simple builds for causal players. No endlessly running maps. There was just this impossibly large, single player, traditional three-difficulty, action RPG, with 15 different class combinations (28 after the expansion), and hundreds of different builds and options.
Then, the game went into early access on Steam, late in 2013. And although Grim Dawn has been out of early access since February of 2016, early access defines the way this game was made.
Grim Dawn
What is it about Grim Dawn? How is it so different from everything that came before?
The essential truth about it is that Grim Dawn isn’t about money. It’s a small team with expertise, doing a small do it yourself project, that is a thing they want to see in the world. If they wanted money, they wouldn’t be pouring their skills into this project. They would be selling their substantial technical skills to the highest bidder. 

Since early access and after release, every few weeks, there is an update. The updates constantly pour new free content in the game. They contain quality of life increases. They adjust things for better balance. In large part, they do this, because the employees at Crate love their game and are playing it. These are additions they make because they want to see them. This constant nearly decade long stream of constant development isn’t a thing that will last forever, but it is an amazing thing to be part of this process for as long as it lasts.
Grim Dawn is a game for old people. Not a catchy sales pitch, I know, but it is a game designed in the old style, by people who miss the way games used to be. This doesn’t just mean that the game systems are complex, or that the game doesn’t hold your hand, or that the game has 80’s references. It’s more than that. Grim Dawn is an old game, built on a solid foundation and worked and worked into a masterpiece of what was. No global multiplayer. Local multiplayer. Personal servers. And secrets.
Lots and lots of secrets.
Speed runs of the Veteran Difficulty take somewhere around 40 minutes. A non-glitched run can be done in under a few hours. A significant and substantial part of the game involves hidden content. There’s a whole zone with a shrine and a golden chest behind a secret wall in an underground hive. There are dozens of zones with no integration to the main quest, but that provide useful and unique rewards. There are at least three completely hidden secret quest lines, two of which can only be completed on the ultimate difficulty. Finally, depending on which factions you choose, certain areas only become available after you’ve reached maximum reputation with the faction.
One update included the “Path of the Witch Gods”, 4 bosses, a secret mega-boss hidden within a secret area, a new dungeon, and a bonus skill point, and four areas completely hidden within the main game, with hardly any information on how to even begin the quest.
Arthur has an extended post on the Grim Dawn forums where he talks about his design philosophy.
In his own words: “I think we’re probably unique . . . While most studios are redesigning their games to be more casual-player friendly, we’re busy making Grim Dawn more complex and probably casual-player hostile.
An example of this are the number of overlaying systems within Grim Dawn. On top of picking some combination of two classes and gear, there’s a separate overlaying devotion system. As you restore shrines around the world, you get a pool of up to 55 points that allow you to select benefits from constellations. Running a critical build? Work up to Unknown Solider and have a shadow double run around and attack things critically. Do you like being defensive? If you use a shield, get the obelisk and turn into living stone when you get hit. Any of these are available no matter what your base classes are, giving you entirely new options for character development.
He continues, “I think older, traditional PC games had a certain magic that has been lost in most modern games. . . Publishers and developers are increasingly looking to boost their sales by attracting more of the casual market and increase their revenue by getting this larger audience to make a lot of small purchases. . . We’ve come a long way from my childhood, where failure in most games caused you to start completely over from the beginning, to a point where it is impossible to fail in many games and in some you can just pull out your credit card when you decide it is time to win.
The sad reality though, is that this isn’t some evil corporate executives have perpetrated upon humanity, it’s what people want. At least, some people. Well, as it stands, it appears to be quite a lot of people and that is why the industry and gaming is largely trending in this direction. This is all anathema to what I love about games and is much of the reason that I’ve forgone earning an income the past couple years and instead slave away, with a few other dedicated souls, to create a game that we hope will embody some of what we loved about the games of yesteryear.
Which is why I say, Grim Dawn is a game for old people. No seasons to keep up with. Pause and quit anytime. You are able to play and make progress in short bursts. You can play with people you know or your family, without worrying about lag or online competition. It’s huge and complicated and there’s always something new or interesting to find or do. You buy the game once and never pay again. If you want more, there are expansion packs to buy with more content. All things done in the old style.
GameplayWhen other games in the genera are long dead, Grim Dawn will remain. It is a monument. Not because of the updates. But because of the systems, gameplay design and refinement.
All the systems in the game are designed with the end-user experience in mind. For example, the reputation system. Each faction, both friendly and hostile, tracks your relationship. Rather then this being a grindy annoyance, it’s well designed. Friendly factions, once you reach your maximum reputation, offer a scroll that gives a 100% to faction relationships to any character that reads it. So while your first time you have to put in the work to reach revered with a faction, subsequent characters can do the same though just regularly playing the game.
This also provided them with the opportunity to create rewards for your actions in game. the more you slaughter a faction, the more the faction hates you. The more they hate you, the more heroes they spawn. The more heroes that spawn, the better loot you get.
The level system is another example. The recently released Ashes of Malmouth expansion raised the level cap to 100. Doesn’t that sound grindy? Only, once you get a good relationship with the Malmouth factions, you get access to a potion that grants 100% bonus experience. Now you can level up even faster, if you want to.
That’s another thing that’s nice about Grim Dawn. There is no endgame. There’s no rushing through the leveling process, because although you can farm, after you finish the game on ultimate, the game is basically done for that character. It’s time to try a new build and take on the challenges again. The endgame is the game.
That’s really the core of the game play design. The way the game is structured, is it’s always most rewarding to actually play the fun part of the game, rather then farm or grind. Moving forward means new shrines, new one-time chests, new quest rewards. You’re never encouraged to just farm and farm and farm. All systems are most efficiently maximized by simply exploring and playing the game. 
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On a Grim Dawn After a Titan’s Death, Part I

Wed, 11/08/2017 - 13:00
Death is only the beginning” - Reanimator
One million copies sold as a studio dies. It gives rise to a slow burn, do-it-yourself, action role-playing game that stands poised to be one of the best ever created. Was there ever any failure? How did the Crate team get to use the Engine from Titan Quest in Grim Dawn? What is the key to Grim Dawn’s ultimate success?
Iron Lore and Titan Quest
Iron lore died quickly, even among gaming studios. It closed its doors after 8 years in February of 2008, citing “unrelated issues” that resulted in a failure to secure funding. Its sole work at the time was Titan Quest, and Soulstorm an expansion for the Games Workshop branded real-time strategy game Dawn of War III.
8 years isn’t long. The first two years were spent on the pitch for Titan Quest, which was their only project till its release in 2006. The Titan Quest expansion “Immortal Throne” came soon after in 2007, though it was less an expansion, closer to the final act of the game. Substantial work on the expansion had already been completed by the time of the games release. The Dawn of War expansion was finished from 2006-2007, and then the company ended early the following year.
So why?
Well, Michael Fitch of THQ has some ideas.
if. . . people who pirated the game had actually spent some god-damn money for their 40+ hours of entertainment, things could have been very different today.” -Michael Fitch
Now Titan Quest sold a million plus copies. Is that the end of the story?
What Michael goes on to explain is that the copy protection scheme they paid for to prevent piracy caused the game to randomly crash if it was cracked. This led to a lot of chatter online about how the game was unstable. The onerous copy protection scheme drove many legitimate owners to use the crack so they could play the game.  
This is on a game that made money and sold a million copies. He goes on to say:“Some really good people made a seriously good game, and they might still be in business if piracy weren't so rampant on the PC. That's a fact.” -Michael Fitch
Your eyes might dart over to Crate Entertainment and their Digital Rights Managment-free highly successful game Grim Dawn at this point. He further complains about the modular personal computer hardware market and goes on to say:
Which brings me to the audience. There's a lot of stupid people out there. . .PC folks want to have the freedom to do whatever the hell they want with their machines, and god help them they will do it; more power to them, really. But god forbid something that they've done—or failed to do—creates a problem with your game. There are few better examples of the "it can't possibly be my fault" culture in the west than gaming forums.” -Michael Fitch
What’s going on here? Where’s his disconnect? Even at 40$, one million times should be enough to keep any studio in business.  This was over a decade ago, before the dominance of Steam. Another popular game of the time, Sins of a Solar Empire also had no copy protection and made a bundle of money for it’s publisher. What actually happened with Titan Quest and Iron Lore?
It has a great deal to do with how publishers (like THQ) and development studios (like Iron Lore) function. First, the studio makes a pitch to the publishers. If accepted, the studio gets an “advance”. Then once the game is complete, the sales should pay off the advance, until a profit stage is reached. However, much like movie studio accounting, very few games ever are shown to make a profit, and unless you have a breakout hit, developments studios will never see a dime past the advance. 
Arthur Bruno, head of Crate Entertainment, lays out exactly how they didn’t get any money from the sales. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that many, if not most independent studios, make little or no money off the actual sales of games they develop. If you take the case of Titan Quest and Immortal Throne, information I’ve been given put the combined sales over a million copies in late 2008. At that time I heard that it had reached profitability for THQ. Since then it has continued to do surprisingly well in digital sales given its age. Yet, the owners of Iron Lore never and probably will never receive a royalty payment due to the structure of the funding deal.
What this means is, they need to have another project ready to go after a project is completed in order to secure another advance. This did not happen for Iron Lore. Arthur explains, “Ultimately though, all the decisions the company made and all the events that transpired, lead to a situation where Iron Lore couldn’t survive a gap between projects.
So not only did it sell a million copies, the publisher didn’t have to share that profit with Iron Lore. How did the game get viewed as a failure? 
Early bad press and obnoxious copy protectionDuring the release, leaked and hacked pirated copies surfaced, and due to the copy protection crashed to the desktop. This combined with the obnoxious procedure of inserting a random disk on launch in order to play the game, means that many legitimate users used a crack in order to play more conveniently. 
This led to a great deal of early press talking about the games instability, even though for a new release it was reasonably bug free. This word of mouth caused release sales to be very slow.
Unrealistic ExpectationsBoth Brian Sullivan the director of Iron Lore and THQ believed that this action role-playing game would sell more copies than the sims. John Walker recalls "[Brian Sullivan] said, as I interviewed him for PC Gamer, how he expected Titan Quest to be a break-out success, to be a game that reached a non-gaming mainstream audience—that it would do for the RPG what The Sims had done for management games. And I didn’t really know what to say, because, well, no it wouldn’t. It was a game about hitting mythical creatures with an axe. It was slightly awkward.
Studio InterferenceIn pursuit of that ideal, THQ played a heavy hand. Arthur (née Merrida) talks about it on the Grim Dawn forums, “There seemed to be a constant fear during the development of Titan Quest about upsetting this or that segment of the audience or someone's grandmother. I was literally told by one of the higher-ups that the game should be designed so that his grandmother would want to play it (even though his grandmother had never played a game before in her life).
Some examples of the changes they were forced to make:
  • They were required to remove snow, because people might not realize it snowed in Greece. 
  • Enemies were not allowed to be shown using language or building any structures. 
  • Humans were never allowed to die. 
  • Human corpses were not allowed to be shown.
  • No Greek ruins were allowed to be shown. 
  • Greek mythology had to be relegated to dialog boxes because addressing the gods, either though gameplay or in the story was too religious.

Quests were removed, ideas were formed, and the team moved on from Titan Quest. But that still doesn’t tell us how Grim Dawn managed to get made. We'll be taking a closer look at that on Friday.
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