Wednesday, January 17, 2018

An Aside on Riddles

Riddles are something of a love-it-or-hate-it element in adventure/dungeon design.  Probably the "hate" is somewhat more fervent here: people who dislike riddles really dislike them, and it's easy to understand their perspective.  Placing a riddle in the party's path can be like dropping a giant roadblock right out of the sky in front of them.  Especially if the rest of the adventure rides on their answer---whether the "riddle" is in the classic "Speak Friend and Enter" barred door, or figuring out the significance of a clue in a murder mystery; failing to solve it can mean the mission is abandoned, the dungeon exploration ends there, etc.

In point of fact, this has been my attitude for most of my DMing career; having been on the receiving end of some real bad "solve the riddle or the adventure ends" scenarios, which in fact pretty much ended the adventure.   Recently however as is obvious from my last post, I have come around to allowing that riddles can have a place in adventure/dungeon design.

So let's look at the example riddle I offered and why I think it shouldn't get me defenestrated from DM School.

"I'm hot and sweet, known to be hysterical
They never hear me coming, though my spots are inimical
I'm a master of stealth and silent off the branch I fall
Which is just as well, because I can't hear at all
What am I?

(The answers "Def Leppard" or "a deaf leopard" would be correct)

First of all, riddles obviously don't have to come in the form of a lame couplet, Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry or in any kind of poetic form at all.  At the broadest level, "in the room ahead is a chasm crossed by a gently swaying rope-bridge.  Directly under the bridge is a giant heap of dead bodies in armor and adventuring equipment, all in postures suggesting death by falling," is a riddle of sorts. But for our purpose,s let's assume we're just talking about the familiar guessing-game style riddle I wrote for my dungeon entrance.

The first thing to do, as I suggested last post, is know your audience.   I have two players who were teenagers in the 80s and another at least familiar enough with Butt-Rock to likely know the lyrics to "Pour Some Sugar on Me (In the Name of Love)."  Just pulling some brain-teaser off a website is likely to leave your players annoyed if not stumped; tailoring the answer to them will likely make the riddle 1) more amusing and; 2) more solveable.  And you want the riddle to be solveable.  This is the even more important second thing to do: design the riddle to be beaten.  Absolutely softball that shit.  If experience has taught me anything it's that four guys at a dinner table late in the evening have the collective problem-solving ability of one very drunk guy early in the morning. 

More often than not if you ask a riddle thinking "no way they can't solve this," what you'll get is someone figuring the answer out in the first minute and then the collective intelligence of your players defeating itself as someone else makes a counterproposal, and the "obviousness" quickly disappears in a roundtable of suggestion and rebuttal.   Hence, err on the side of caution.  Make the riddle as "obvious" as you can.  I mean, stop short of "which president had the given name George and the surname Washington?" but you want to make it easy hence A) aim for areas of knowledge where you know at least one player is strong; B) stack your clues. 

If you look at the example riddle I wrote you can even see how it might quickly become "not so obvious" after a round of collective thinking.  "Falling off the branch" may suggest leaf, stem, moss--if they get themselves into thinking about trees rather than butt-rock, "hot and sweet" might suggest sap.   Hell, they might come around to thinking about fantasy creatures and guess "Decapus" since that's a predator that lurks in trees or other heights in Pathfinder's bestiaries.   If the players think too literally, "hot and sweet" stops being a helpful clue and becomes a serious obfuscation. 

This comes back to: remember, you want your players to solve the riddle.  You don't want to "outsmart" them, especially not if the riddle is related to the adventure progressing. 

It's common advice to say: if you want to include riddles/puzzles in your dungeon or adventure, don't make solving them correctly necessary to any progress.  You might, say, have a side treasure room or ancilliary wing of the dungeon locked behind a riddle---relegating it to "bonus content," not the core of the adventure.  

That is good advice indeed.  If the game grinds to a halt because the party has been posed a question it can't answer, you have a problem.  However, there are more ways to deal with this than relegating "Speak Friend and Enter," conundrums to the strictly ancillary.  In my example, while (effective) character death is a possible outcome of guessing incorrectly, there is a possibility that even with no correct guesses some or even all of the party members emerge as Golden Ones---altered, but able to continue exploring the Stonehold.   With this dungeon in particular, altered states and mutations are going to be a strong theme; in other adventures the penalty for guessing wrong might simply be a loss of convenience, an increased risk, losing time or some other resource.

Puzzles and riddles have a longstanding place in not just adventure games but adventure stories in general---the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade both being iconic examples.  Very importantly, I've recently (while running Maze of the Blue Medusa) found that they create important shifts in the rhythm of an adventure/dungeoncrawl.  Without 'brain teasers' ranging from explicit riddles to simply interpreting clues, dungeons can easily become repetitive grinds of procedurally poking each  room and corridor with a 10ft pole and scouting for traps followed by yet another combat. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Dungeon Entrance

Given time, this loose collection of ideas will hopefully congeal into a good-sized dungeon module.   For now working title is Stonehold of the Shaper.  It's a classic "explore the wizard's lair" scenario: there was a powerful wizard, he was a very bad man, he has died in a spectacular and public fashion (or has he...) and his sanctum with all its treasures and strangeness lies open to plunder. 


The stonehold lies inside of a massive plateau of limestone, carved out of living rock over decades by a clan of contracted dwarf masons.  These are probably the guys who gave your PCs the lair's coordinates: they were sworn to silence, but only so long as the Wizard lived.  Getting inside the plateau is a matter of walking across the tableland, a landscape of scrub grass and stunted windblown oaks.  Then the plateau's west cliff face must be scaled downwards some 40'.  In the cliffside is a sunken, smooth hole six feet in diameter like a knothole in the sheer stone, virtually undetectable from above or below.

kind of like this but more barren up top

Obviously rappelling down the cliff in heavy armor would be nigh-impossible, unless you run one of those campaigns that skips over such annoying details.   Carrying out something as large as a chest of treasure is likewise going to present serious difficulties.  The cliff towers a little more than 100' high over the grassland below.  If your players want to hire some laborers to build scaffolding or a crane at the top of the cliff I would have it take little more than a month for the necessary materials to be moved out to this remote location, via riverboat partway then mule train to the plateau.  It would then require a few weeks for building; during that time other treasure hunters might attack the worksite, but there won't be any activity coming in or out of the entrance.

There is at least one secret entrance into the Stonehold directly from the tableland, although I haven't figured out where to place it yet.   Another interesting feature of the plateau is a collection of stacks of massive granite blocks, stacked into short pyramids.  The light-colored granite cubes are 5x5x5 feet and each weighs approximately one ton (it should probably be more but we'll assume a fairly low density granite...) There are dozens in all, and although the PCs can't know this yet they cluster directly above the area in the Stonehold called the Arena.  The granite blocks themselves might be valuable to somebody but appraising and moving them would obviously be a serious undertaking. 

Once the PCs reach the hole in the cliff, they'll find that it leads into a smooth funnel of scraped limestone which slopes six feet down into a short drop at one end of a roughly cubical hollow in the plateau.  This chamber is 40x40x40 feet.  Against the wall opposite the entrance is a fourteen foot high band of polished flecked black granite, set into the limestone.  In the center of this wall is what at first appears to be a giant, projecting sculpture of wetly shining gold.

 The smooth gold surface looks like a man's head, half-sunk into the granite, eyes shut and expressionless.  It measures 10' high from bald crown to chin.   The first time someone comes 30' or nearer its eyes open to show smooth gold orbs and the golden mouth moves as fluidly as flesh, or as if the gold were still hot from the smelter.   It will ask the PCs a series of riddles, up to four, opening for one person at a time after each answer (right or wrong) and then admitting as many people as want in after the fourth.   Rather than provide you with a series of riddles I would suggest a DM should think about his players and tailor the questions to them.   For example for my players, I would ask something like:

"I'm hot and sweet, known to be hysterical
They never hear me coming, though my spots are inimical
I'm a master of stealth and silent off the branch I fall
Which is just as well, because I can't hear at all
What am I?

(The answers "Def Leppard" or "a deaf leopard" would be correct)

The head doesn't introduce itself or anything, it just asks questions.  It's not intelligent.  Of course, the PCs could just attack the head---but although its made of soft gold it's heavy enough to blunt and damage any weapons continuously beating on it.  If the PCs attack it with tools, given a few hours' work they might crumple and finally dislodge the giant head (its total weight is probably close to two tons).   Of course they'll have made enough racket by then to be heard throughout the Stonehold.

After a question is answered (right or wrong) the face stretches its mouth impossibly wide apart like The Wall album cover [EDIT: Actually I seem to be thinking of the film poster], the silky wet gold of its lips pulling away from teeth above and below to create a large entryway, through which can be seen the first chamber of the Stonehold proper.   Once a person (it doesn't have to be the one who answered) steps into the mouth, it snaps shut like lightning, leaving the hapless entrant trapped against a giant tongue.  The aperture to the Stonehold squeezes shut as the construct's gold mouth-juices wash over the entrant.

If the answer to the riddle was correct, the person is shunted out through the sphincter in the back of the head, and lands on the floor of the Stonehold coated in gold saliva but otherwise unmolested.  Their voice will be audible if they call back to people in the entry chamber, and vice versa.

If two or more people try to step into the mouth simultaneously any time before the fourth riddle, all but one (pick randomly) will be spat out.  

If the answer was incorrect, the mouth also closes over the entrant.  They are trapped and washed in sticky gold saliva as before, but the fluid isn't inert.  They must make a Fortitude save (DC 15).  A failure causes a complete physical transformation as the former PCs' mind is destroyed and body remade into a golden aberration, head replaced by a whipping tendril, limbs or more tentacles randomly erupting from a twisted humanoid form that looks made of beaten, slickly shining gold.  In game terms it will either have HD as the PC's level or at minimum 3, plus a tentacle and two claw attacks (multi-attack assumed), and DR 5/bludgeoning from their metallic hide.   Armor and other worn gear is destroyed; nonmetallic gear (bedroll, scroll-case, probably rations) is ruined from soaking, but metallic or preserved objects (a sealed jar of oil, a sextant etc.) may be recovered. 

So this, but like a 24-karat sculpture

The aberration is then spat back out of the giant mouth and immediately attacks the party.  It will fight until slain.  Following its demise, the giant head simply asks another riddle and awaits an answer.

If the Fortitude save is made, the entrant is ejected out the sphincter in the back of the head.  They are however partially transformed into a new creature called a Golden One.   Unlike a full mutation, this does not explode any worn equipment though some gear may be lost due to being soaked in vinegar-y gold saliva.

As a Golden One the mutated person is changed into a hairless, shining gold version of themselves with jet black eyes.  Any prior imperfections in their physique are erased, their new flesh of gold beautiful in contour and proportion.  Their type changes to Living Construct (see the rules on 3.5's Warforged), and they will no longer suffer physical drawbacks from aging.  If their Charisma was 12 or lower, they gain plus-two charisma; they also gain plus-two natural armor and a natural slam attack (d4 Med creature, d3 small).

Like this, but naked-er and more uncomfortably sexy

Transformation into a Golden One incurs a DC 17 Will save.  On a failure, the transformed person's alignment changes to Chaotic or Neutral Evil, and they become a willing servant of The Formless Many.  They will seek to spread chaos---wild magic, hedonism, social decay--by whatever means necessary.  The mentally transformed Golden One gains the following supernatural abilities: Detect Law at will, Charm Person 3x/day, True Strike 1x/day.  If the Golden One is at least third level they also gain Glitterdust 1x/day, and at eighth level they gain Chaos Hammer 1x/day.   Relevant casting stat is INT or CHA, whichever is higher.  On a successful save, the new Golden One retains their ego/personality but does not gain any (Su)s. 

If a PC gets transformed into a Golden One who serves the Formless Many, take that player out of the room or pass them a note.  Explain their new personality/allegiance to them. Ideally they should pretend to have been only physically transformed and remain with the party, biding their time to spread disorder or advance the cause of the Formless Many and its earthly cult.  However some players may not like the idea of playing a "traitor," and if that's the case I suggest allowing them to treat their transformed PC as a casualty and roll up a new character, while the newborn Golden One retreats deeper into the Stonehold as a now openly-hostile NPC.

The face will impassively and implacably ask its riddles three times, each time admitting only one person to step through and discover their fate following an answer.  The fourth time, it will ask a final riddle and then admit as many people as want to step into the mouth.   On a correct answer, they all get squished together and then shunted out through the sphincter, nothing hurt but their dignity.

On an incorrect answer, multiple entrants must all make fortitude saves.  Those who pass are shunted out the back as individual Golden Ones and make their Will Save as normal.  Those who fail are transformed into a single combined Aberration and spat out the mouth.  Begin with an Aberration of 3 HD minimum, then add at least 2 HD per person fused (or HD equal to level whichever is higher).  At 5 HD the Aberration is Large, at 8 HD Huge and so on.  For each person in the fusion it gains an additional tentacle or claw attack and +2 natural armor. This final monster's appearance is of multiple bodies, stretched and welded topsy-turvy together into a trunk of gold flesh crowned with branching tendrils and staggering on two human legs barely adequate to its weight. 

What if on the fourth riddle, people give separate answers and then enter together?The Golden Head is only programmed to accept one answer at a time, so in this situation randomly determine which answer it accepts either by rolling d3+ or via eenie-meanie-meiny-moe.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Blogs Are Where the Good Stuff Is

 EDIT:  Also, need to say somewhere: I went to see The Shape of Water last night, and it was pretty alright.  Probably won't watch it ever again but it's Guillermo del Toro doing his Fairy Tale + Melodrama thing again so you probably know if you like that kind of thing by now.  8/10, solid stuff, a good case for making Fishman an RCC in your campaign.

Every other week I DM a game of Pathfinder, the more fancily-dressed close cousin of D&D Vers. 3.5.  This Sunday will see the fifth session of my friends playing a run-through of Maze of the Blue Medusa, which interrupted our ongoing Wilderness Sandbox-cum-Power Politics campaign, dubbed The Eastwylde.  I don't know how long we will be playing Maze--my original idea was to run it until the players discovered the Megadungeon's exitway, which as I had correctly guessed took three sessions.  I then gave them the option of going back to Eastwylde, but having just endured a near-TPK they were "hot" to get back into the thick of the module and defeat it.  So, the game remains Medusa Maze for the forseeable future.

I wouldn't be running Medusa Maze at all if I hadn't spent the last two years ensconced in the world of OSR (or DIY if you prefer) Blogdom: a world which holds, in the words of my once-favorite webcomics author, "a catacomb so deep there ain't no goodbyes."  A glance to the right at my list of linked blogs provides a sampler of the biggest and best among those I read but there's always more; more creativity popping off like fireworks in this community at a superior level of average quality and originality towards anything else.  No one has ever written a line for Paizo who was fit to wash Arnold K's socks, seriously--or if they had such talent they had to suppress it for corporately-mandated Ikea prose describing the Warmed-Over Lovecraft/Burroughs Do Final Fantasy that is the World of Golarion.

Which brings me colliding into the contradiction at the heart of this blog.  Why am I breaking my back and consequently flopping like a fish to give the tone and pitch of all this rad, mad OSR stuff to my Pathfinder game when I could just, uh.... play AD&D or OD&D or any of the inspired descendants like ACKS and LotP?  I've sounded out my friends on this and they are in fact down to play AD&D or even Three Brown Books if it's what I want; two years behind the screen has earned me the benefit of the doubt at least I guess.

As I've covered elsewhere, I think 3.5 has  certain virtues of its own that aren't to be taken lightly.   And as much as I'm not a fan of most of Pathfinder's "improvements," at its core it is still that game.  There's also the practical bit, that it is basically the game I've played for 17 years.  I know the environment/light rules, and the elevation/crouching/prone/one-half vs three-quarters cover rules, and the rules for grenadelike weapons and even what to do if you want your character to grab an opponent.  That's not nothin'!   A good crunchy combat system is maybe worth the tradeoff of each Player Character being a super-tough battleship of interlocking systems such that PC death becomes a rare calamity. 

But the fact remains all the interesting ideas are in that OSR/DIY orbit.  I mean, have you ever visited Paizo's official forum?  GitP?  The Gaming Den?  By and large dead zones of the imagination.  Efficient counsel if you come to them with a specific rules question, but like, where are the ideas?  Why doesn't 3.5 have a Zak S and False Patrick making some really off the wall shit?  What is so deadening when the PCs can cast light at will and magic missile  three times per day?  Malnourished hacks have managed to write adventures for Superman for 80 years with a better success rate than you'd think so the answer is definitely not "power level."

 One thing I am not is a causologist.  I just made that word up.  What I mean is I don't think the fact that there aren't (or I haven't seen) any really inspired dungeons or settings or whatever coming out for 3.5/Pathfinder right now means there must be some failing inherent to that system; the simplest explanation may be no one's done it yet because no one's tried or the right tryer has yet to come along.  Heck, I could be that tryer.  I won't, I've got other things to do; in theory though, I could.

For the last couple weeks my out-of-session "homework" as DM has simply been to translate Zak and Patrick's combined madness into the rote numbers of a Pathfinder-compatible dungeon: tweaking and making a few small changes (like in room 206 I added an earth floor with a multitude of mushrooms, and I heavily altered room 1.  That's it).  In lieu of doing a lot of creative heavy lifting I have given my fumbling graphite drawings a little more exercise.  I've discovered actually filling in the background with blackness (as you'd see wandering in dark corridors by torchlight) will elevate a rude sketch quite a bit.  I've largely backed away from a lot of the original module's lethality and acquiesced to Pathfinder's base assumption that everything  can be resisted/evaded with a successful saving throw.  Even if the danger's not as high the Maze is still a weird, wonderful place my players have enjoyed nosing around in.  And they haven't even met any of the Torne Sisters yet, each of whom I want to introduce with a BIG (14x11") cool drawing.

 Since I began writing this post I have forgotten what the point I was coming to actually was.  This happens A LOT and is a big reason I blog infrequently.  That means I probably already made the point I wanted to so let's leave off here.