Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fantasy: The Power of Random Limitations

So it's been a while since I've posted anything about "Spirit of the Sword," or "Swords of FATE," or "Heroes of FATE," or whatever we call it when we bother to call it anything. But most of the San Diego group got together to play it again on Saturday, and it went swimmingly. I forgot to use my own Scale and Size Factor rules when they fought that drake, but... whatever. I have a feeling the results would've been more or less the same, apart from John's character essentially one-shotting it (which was still cool and cinematic and good).

Most notable about that impromptu adventure was its impromptu-ness, powered as it was by the random adventure/NPC/opposition generator I am writing/have written/wrote for Legends of Anglerre. Call it a stress-test of an untested piece of RPG hardware. I have to say it worked pretty great. Referring to it as an adventure "generator" may be a bit inaccurate, as it doesn't determine every single detail of the adventure for you, but it does provide more than enough, in my experience, to give you the inspiration for an adventure, which is then easily created by you and your mind.

When it comes to creative pursuits, there are two things that always get me going: limitations and randomness. I love the old AD&D DMG's endless array of tables, tables, and more tables for randomly determining just about anything from the bonus on that longsword to the air quality in a room. An especial favorite of mine was the random dungeon generator -- I never got tired of that thing and the "What the hell is that doing there?" moments it invariably produced every time I used it. My own adventure generator takes a lot of inspiration from the DMG, most important of which is placing random limitations on adventure creation and forcing the user to justify how any of this makes sense.

The adventure ended up being this: The party (recently returned from the Free City of Neyid, where their defeat of a necromantic cult has earned them some renown back home) is hired by an incanter (i.e., a magic-user-type) named Abarrotz to escort him from one city to another. Exactly why he needs an escort is obvious to all: The road passes through a forest that's home to some especially fierce and dangerous bandits, led by one Kaxen, another incanter. Why an incanter has taken to a life of crime isn't known, but then again few have escaped his clutches intact enough to tell speak about it. The party agrees, and the encounter with Kaxen & Co. happens right on cue, with the party emerging victorious (no thanks to Abarrotz, who pretty much plays the victim the whole time).

Once they pass through the forest, they arrive in a small town, a waypoint for travelers along the road. Thanks to Kaxen's reign of terror, the townspeople haven't seen a ton of business lately -- so they're understandably pleased when the party shows up with Kaxen in tow. The innkeeper's prejudices make him reluctant at first to host the weirder members of the party (which consists of a human military-type-guy, a satyr shaman, a troll writer, and a jungle elf... jungle elf), but some choice words from the human and a lot of goodwill from the townsfolk eventually change his mind. Plus, the troll tells the story of the fight with Kaxen (and his "one and one score" bandits) a few times, and everyone's down for hearing that. One of the merchants in attendance even picks up the tab for their lodgings that night, although Abarrotz insists on quarthers of his own instead of rooming with his employees.

The next morning, Abarrotz is gone. Door's locked, window's ajar. The satyr and jungle elf find evidence of his passing down below, behind the inn, but starting a good 30 feet from the inn itself. There's been some effort to cover them, as well, but not enough to fool the jungle elf's Legendary (+8) tracking effort. Following the tracks leads them into a deep forest, where they're soon set upon by giant wolf spiders -- literally. They have wolf heads set upon big black spider bodies. One of them is clearly larger and nastier than the others, who seem to be her "pack." The fight ends with the party victorious (but poisoned, in at least once case -- a Moderate consequence that the satyr fails to heal). While Abarrotz is nowhere to be seen, in the webbing they find his hat.

Traveling on a little further, they come upon a hill and the sounds of battle. Atop the hill, they see Abarrotz, bleeding from a dozen small cuts and surrounded by a couple dozen gobliny-koboldy things that we immediately start calling "gobolds." The gobolds are clearly having too much fun making sport of him to kill him right away. After a brief discussion among themselves, and a shouted negotiation with their erstwhile employer for higher pay, the party takes on the gobolds, though sorely outnumbered. (And the troll takes a Severe consequence of "Spear in the Eye"! Yay, Severe consequence!)

Once that's over, Abarrotz apologizes for the deception and confesses his true purpose. He only needed the party to get past Kaxen, but his mission after that required such discretion that he couldn't risk telling them about it. Out here in the forest, according to his research, is a powerful but forgotten artifact, the Chalice of the Dragon. While he was able to avoid the wolf spiders through magical means, he was caught completely off-guard by the gobolds, who have infested the area without anyone knowing. Their presence here may indicate that they have found the Chalice, which would be very bad indeed, for it purportedly lets whoever drinks from it summon and control dragons. (Dragons are extinct in the setting, so this is an especially big deal.) Though they bear no particular love for Abarrotz, the party grudgingly admits that gobold-controlled dragons would be insanely bad and worth stopping. Plus, I manage to compel all but one of them into wanting to keep the Chalice for themselves, so they have a personal stake in it too.

The gobolds' tracks through the hills leads them to some ruins and a gobold shanty town/hut-rich village that's sprung up around it. From a distance, they see dozens more of the things going about their daily lives -- and the jungle elf sees a glint of silvery metal from within a ruined stone structure. The players, all good little metagamers, instantly agree that it's the Chalice. They come up with a plan that involves the sneaky types (the jungle elf and satyr) circling around to the side to snatch the Chalice, while the non-sneaky types (the human and the troll) provide a distraction with a frontal assault. Both teams end up fighting (and eviscerating) a bunch of gobolds, but it all goes to hell when an important-looking gobold in fancy clothes drinks from that damn Chalice. Suddenly there's a huge spitting drake thundering through the village, terrifying/trampling any gobolds that get in its way. After some back and forth, the jungle elf runs up its back and jams the pointy end of his taiha into the thing's skull, instantly killing it.

When the party recovers, elsewhere in the village they find Abarrotz and the fancy gobold playing tug-of-war with the Chalice, until the satyr charges up and headbutts the thing out of their hands. Who ends up with the Chalice is something we'll tackle next time.

Okay, so -- I didn't type that out just to go on about my game. I typed it out as an illustration of what the random generator randomly generates. Sure, it didn't name Kaxen or come up with the wolf spiders (that was the work of one of the players) or determine that they'd fight a drake in the end, but it did come up with the seeds for all that. It told me that the main plot would be about escorting someone somewhere, but that en route there'd be plot complications involving a missing person and a guarded treasure. It told me that the first encounter would be with a spellcastery leader and his 21 minions in a forest, that the next scene would be in a village (also in a forest) and that the innkeeper there would be prejudiced, and that the last encounter would involve something with Legendary (+8) (!) Ranged skill and a lot of minions. Et cetera. It gave me all the components of a solid adventure and demanded that I make sense of them, and I'm really pleased with the results. Some stuff I came up with in advance, some stuff we came up with together at the table (e.g., the players decided the artifact would be a chalice, and I was pretty quickly able to figure out what it did). Behold, the power of random limitations.

I just wish I'd remembered the Scale and Size Factor rules for that drake....
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