Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sword for Hire, Part 2

At long last here is the highly anticipated (??) second part of the adventures of Phineas the Red in the dungeon cellar of Mongo the Wizard. Once again, if you have not yet played Sword for Hire this will spoil many of the surprises. The image below is from the interior of the book and is by Brian McMrary.

Phineas waited in the dark, remaining as still as possible. Suddenly a red-robed priest carrying a torch and staff appears from the eastern passageway. He stops at the intersection and looks to the south. Then, a procession of five more priest file through the intersection. Phineas holds his breath, his hand slowly edging to the hilt of his sword, waiting for the cry of discovery and the inevitable fight. But it does not come. The priests walk through without a word and the priest on watch follows the others.

"That was close," Six Pack says while lighting another torch. "Those guys are crazy." Six Pack takes a long drink from his keg then offers one to Phineas. Phineas accepts the keg, but only drinks a mouthful of the strong ale.

"Lets keep going," Phineas says and leads the way to the intersection.

"I'm not sure I want to go where those priests did," Phineas mutters while considering which way to go. "Let's head to the east."

The corridor leads east for a short distance then turns to the north. Finally the hall ends at a rune covered door. Six Pack sniffs at the door, puts his ear against it, and finally gives the thumbs up.

"It should be safe to enter. I don't smell or hear any priests. But who knows?"

Brimming with confidence, Phineas tries the door handle and the door opens to reveal a torch-lit room in the middle of which is a large golden piggy bank set on an altar. At the northern end of the room is a large circular shaft with flames flickering from deep below.

"Payday!" Phineas exclaims and hurries over to the piggy bank. As soon as he places his hands on the golden surface, however, three ghouls materialize on the altar in a puff of smoke. They hiss and growl and Phineas and Six Pack through decayed mouths. The stench of their rotting bodies is almost too much for Phineas as he backpedals off of the altar and draws his saber and bank.

"Now you've done it," is all Six Pack says before he rushes the ghouls. The ghouls in turn sprint toward the retreating Phineas and reach for his throat.

In a quick move, Phineas decapitates the first ghoul that reaches him. Six Pack arrives and tears an arm from the second. The creature screamed but continued to attack. In the next moment it was over. Six Pack quickly finished the ghoul he crippled and Phineas cut the legs out from the third. In the end, the two adventurers suffered only a few cuts.

"Nicely done," Phineas says while cleaning the foul smelling fluids from his blades. "Now lets see about this bank."

"Wait!" Six Pack yells but it is too late. Phineas picks up the golden piggy bank. A cloud of green dust erupts from the altar and engulfs Phineas. He coughs and sputters as the dust settles. He looks around in concern, then sees Six Pack rolling on the ground laughing. Looking down at himself, Phineas sees that his skin is a bright shade of green and all of his hair has fallen out.

"Looks like you'll have to change your name," Six Pack says still laughing. "But seriously, that's a nice color on you."

Phineas grumbles to himself and inspects the piggy bank trying to ignore that fact that he was now hairless and green. Inside the bank are 50 gold coins. Surprisingly, the banks does not seem to weight that much. After he replaces 10 coins, the bank stops increasing in weight.

"Nice prize," Six Pack says in admiration. "Hopefully that will come in handy."

Phineas smiles and packs away the bank. Without a word he heads toward the fire pit at the north end of the room.

"Of course you'd go that way," Six Pack mutters from behind him.

Looking over the pit, Phineas can see nothing but flames coming from deep below. On the other side of the pit is dark tunnel continuing to the north. Around the pit is a narrow ledge.

"Let's make our way around toward the east," Phineas says. "Just be careful."

"Did you need to say that?" Six Pack replies.

Phineas presses himself against the wall and slowly makes his way along the narrow ledge. Halfway around the ledge, a stone gives way beneath his right foot. Phineas scrambles for a moment, but is able to maintain his balance. The stone skips and bounces from wall to wall and never seems to stop falling. Phineas looks ahead and sees that rest of the ledge is gone.

"We have to back the other way," he says grimly to Six Pack.

Once back where they started, Phineas and Six Pack make their way around the pit to the west. This time a belch of gas erupts from the pit. The fumes make Phineas dizzy but he once again maintains his balance. Six Pack reaches out and helps to steady Phineas. Finally they arrive at the northern edge of the pit.

"I think I may have been here before," Six Pack says as he look around and sniffs the air.

"All I know is that it's dark," Phineas says and scrounges through his pack for his lantern. Lighting it, he starts to look around himself. He sees that they are standing in a L-shaped tunnel with branches leading to the west and south. Not wishing to cross the fire pit again, Phineas leads the way to the west.

"You're not looking so good there chief," Six Packs says to Phineas pointing to the numerous blood stains on his tunic and pants. "You might want to do something about that before we go on."

"I'll try the amulet," Phineas says and presses the pendant to his heart as instructed. He feels a warmth spread through his body, and all of the cuts, scrapes, and bruises vanish.

"A nice bauble," Six Pack says looking astonished. "Drink?" Six Pack takes a swig of ale and heads down the western tunnel.

Eventually the tunnel ends at a T-intersection. A water-filled canal fills a tunnel running to the north and south. Next to the tunnel entrance is a horn hanging from the moss-covered wall.

Phineas points to the horn and shrugs.

"Why not?" Six Pack says and takes another drink. "What's the worst that could happen, greeny?"

Phineas ignores the comment and takes the horn from the wall. He waits for a trap to spring, but then puts the horn to his lips and blows. In response, a barge slowly emerges from the south tunnel with a red-bearded, one-eyed dwarf at the helm. When he arrives at the tunnel entrance he waves impatiently at Phineas.

"Hurry up and get on board youngster. I'm late. Hey there," he says suddenly noticing Six Pack. "I haven't seen you in a while."

Six Pack looks at Phineas then whispers, "I've never seen him before. I think we should kill him and take his barge."

"No, no," Phineas says, "we can't just go around killing everyone we see. Let's see where this canal goes."

Phineas climbs on board the barge, dragging the complaining rock demon behind him. Once on board, Phineas sees that the barge is loaded with bulging leather sacks. Making himself as comfortable as possible, Phineas watches as the dwarf steers the barge away from the tunnel and down the canal to the north. Soon a female dwarf emerges from the cabin.

"Can I offer you any refreshments?" she asks. "I have wine, tea, and milk."

"Tea would be wonderful," Phineas says enthusiastically.

"Nothing for me," Six Packs says from a pile of leather sacks. He takes another long pull from his keg then belches loudly.

The dwarf returns with a large cup of tea which Phineas drinks quickly. As he drinks the warm beverage he starts to feel quite good. He feels just a little stronger and bit healthier than he has in quite some time. Phineas thanks the dwarf then returns to watching the tunnel ahead.

"Danger ahead!" the one-eyed dwarf suddenly announces from the helm. "Put out that lantern!"

Phineas quickly extinguishes his lantern, then draws his sword and dagger in case of treachery. The barge passes unmolested through the stretch of dark tunnel and eventually the dwarf relights his torch.

"I'll take whatever gold you can spare for the ride," the dwarf says pointing to a small box near the helm. Phineas drops ten gold coins from the piggy bank into the box as the barge pulls up at a cross tunnel.

"This is where you get off," the dwarf says matter-of-factly. "Come again."

Phineas and Six Pack prepare to climb off the barge, noticing that there are landings to the west and east.

"I think the way west will be quicker," Six Packs says searching his memory. "But the way east is far more interesting."

"West it is," Phineas says not wishing to see what a Rock Demon considered interesting.

The tunnel west quickly turns north and ends at a wooden door. Opening the door, Phineas steps into a torch-lit room. Another door stands in the northern door on the other side of the room. Standing in the middle of the room is a 5 foot tall werewolf. The hairy beast growls and lunges at Phineas.

"Look out!" Six Pack shouts from the doorway.

Knowing the danger that he faces, Phineas draws the magic sword Mongo gave him and the enchanted poniard he found in the snake cult's temple. Phineas thrusts and stabs expertly, wounding the werewolf, but not before it rakes a claw across his forearm.

"I can't hurt it!" Six Pack shouts.

Phineas and the werewolf are evenly matched for a short time, exchanging only minor injuries. But then, Phineas spots an opening and slices off one of the werewolf's hands with his magic longsword. The creature howled with pain and gripped the bloody stump. Phineas quickly took advantage of the crippling injury and thrust his sword once, then twice into the beasts heart before it crumpled to the floor.

Panting and bleeding, Phineas stood triumphantly over the werewolf watching as it transformed back into a human male.

"Sorry about that," Six Pack said. "It's a good thing you had that sword. Hey take a look at that!"

Phineas turned from the corpse to look upon an altar in the center of the room. Sitting on the altar was a 8" tall jade statue of a knuckle duster. Six emeralds sparkled from small recesses in the altar itself. Phineas drooled over the wealth that sat just within reach. Then he noticed the six, life-sized green statues of warriors arrayed around the altar.

"I don't suppose these are just for decoration," Six Pack says while patting one of the statues on the butt. "No, I didn't think so either. You're move chief."

Phineas walks up to the altar and uses his poniard to extract the six emeralds while keeping an eye on the statues. He marvels at each emerald as he pries them loose. Each must be worth at least 200 gold coins. He manages to free the last emerald without disturbing the statues.

"That was easy," Six Pack says from below. "Grab the statue."

Phineas reaches out and snags the jade statue from the altar. As expected the warrior statues respond. Surprisingly, however, only one comes to life. It advances toward Six Pack with a axe raised menacingly.

"Get him!" Six Pack shouts. The battle is over before it is started. Phineas leaps into fight and together they smash the statue to pieces before it can swing it's axe.

"I like this room," Six Pack says happily. "Well worth the trip."

Phineas admires the jade statue, worth at least 1000 gp it should keep him fat and happy for a while.

"Let's get going," he says finally. "We should be near the exit by now."

Phineas open the northern door and steps into another room. As soon as they pass through the doorway, the door slams shut and a grinding noise tells Phineas and Six Pack that it is locked. Neither really cares, however, as filling the room are rows of small rune-covered oak kegs. Six Pack jumps up and down in excitement and starts to wander from keg to keg muttering strange words.

"Malt, stout, light, dark, bock...Look! A dark heavy malt!"

Six Pack grabs a mug from off a peg set in the wall and fills it from the dusty keg. He thrust the mug toward Phineas for the first drink.

"I'm not sure that's a good idea," Phineas says to the Rock Demon. "Drinking and delving just don't mix. Let's keep heading to the north."

Six Pack looks insulted. He throws down the mug and grabs another off the wall for himself.

"I'm not leaving here until I have a drink from each and every one of these kegs, maybe more than once too."

With his back turned, Phineas has an idea. Sure the Rock Demon was a little unstable, but he was helpful to have around. Slowly, Phineas snuck up behind Six Pack then hit him in head with the flat of his sword. Six Pack passed out cold on the floor. Phineas quickly gathered his belongings and dragged Six Pack through the northern door.

After while the rock demon came too.

"What happened?" he asked.

"We were jumped by some dwarves," Phineas explained. "You were busy drinking when six of the little buggers broke into the room. I fought them off but not before they hit you in the head and knocked you out. I was able to drag you out before more of them showed up. You don't remember?"

"No..." Six Pack says slowly rubbing his head. "No I don't. But nice work though. Stupid dwarves. Drink?"

Before them was a rune-covered door leading north. The door south was now securely locked.

"Dwarves," Six Pack says in disgust turning the doorknob uselessly. He then turned and opened the door to the north. Suddenly, he sniffed the door and backs away.

"A Death Vortex Lock. Nasty trap. But I know how to fix that."

Six Pack shakes his keg vigorously and points the spigot at the door. Opening the spigot, Six Pack blasts the door with foam. Calmly, the rock demon goes up to the door and kicks it open.

"Hurry," he says from the other side. "The trap will reset in a few seconds."

Not needing to be told twice, Phineas rushes through the door and finds himself on a sandy beach in a cavern. A dark lake fills the cavern. Starting at the beach and leading around the lake is a narrow ledge leading east. Sitting on the beach is a bamboo raft and some poles. Alongside the raft is a giant lilypad skiff.

"Decisions, decisions," Six Pack says. "I'll leave this one to you."

"I've never ridden a lilypad," Phineas says considering the option. "It seems pretty ridiculous, but then what hasn't been down here. Let's go."

Phineas and Six Pack push the lilypad out into the lake and climb on board. Six Pack holds the lantern while Phineas pushes off with a wooden pole from the raft. At first, Phineas is able to keep the skiff under control and follows the ledge toward the east. But then the skill swings toward the center of the lake.

"What are you doing?" Six Pack asks with rising concern in his voice.

"Nothing," Phineas says with equal concern. "I'm not steering anymore."

Six Pack suddenly points toward the center of the lake. Under the water Phineas sees a huge glowing orb slowly rising from the depths. The skiff is heading straight for it.

"See you!" Six Pack says and jumps into the water.

The magic keg he carries pops to the surface like a cork with Six Pack hanging on. Phineas quickly jumps from the skiff as well aiming for the floating keg. He just makes the jump and latches onto the keg. His lantern is gone however, lost to the depths of the lake. In the darkness, Phineas can see that the cavern has a faint glow. The orb and skiff are gone and the two drift on a strong current that carry them to the east and into a tunnel. Eventually the water becomes shallow enough that both Phineas and Six Pack can stand. Ahead is a circle of light coming through a small waterfall.

Phineas and Six Pack wade through the base of the waterfall and find themselves standing in a small stream in the woods near Mongo's tower. They have found the secret entrance! Phineas staggers over to the shore of the stream and collapses. Suddenly there is a flash of green light and Mongo appears.

"I'm glad to see that you have made it out safely," the wizard says. "Did you make a map?"

"Yes I did," Phineas says still lying on the ground. He rummages through his belt pouch then pulls out the piece of parchment. "It's a little wet, but still intact. That's one hell of a basement you have there."

Mongo accepts the map happily and looks it over.

"You have completed your task. I thank you. Now what else have you found?"

Phineas drew himself up and emptied the treasure from his backpack. Mongo's eyes study the gold and jewels arrayed in front of him.

"If you would like to keep the sword I gave you, you may buy it for 10% of what you have collected."

"Sure thing," Phineas says and hands over two emeralds. "A pleasure doing business with you sir."

"My thanks to you, warrior," Mongo says after pocketing the gems. "Good luck in your travels. That is a lovely shade of green by the way."

With that, Mongo vanishes in another flash of light.

"Is he gone?" a voice asks from a dense hedge near the woodline. Six Pack's head pokes out of the thicket and he looks carefully to the left and right. Satisfied that the coast is clear, Six Pack drags himself free of the branches, vines and thorns. Reaching back in, he extracts his rune-covered keg.

"I can't have that wizard taking this from me. Hey, that's a nice pile of loot. Shall we divide the spoils?"

"Certainly," Phineas says, "50-50 as we agreed. There's more than enough to go around."

Phineas and Six Pack sort through the treasure and take their shares.

"I guess that's that," Six Pack says. "Thanks for helping me get out of there."

Phineas bid the rock demon farewell, not wishing to remain in his company too much longer. Rock demons are demons after all and a fickle lot at that.

"May your cup never go dry," Phineas says and heads back toward town.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Solo Design Part 7 - Making Use of Equipment

Delving requires equipment. That does not simply mean weapons and armor, but also more mundane items such as sacks, rope, torches, oil, chalk, hammers, spikes, even string. You never know what will come in handy when exploring a cave complex, a ruined temple, or a haunted mansion. In a GM-run adventure it is quite easy for players to make use of the wide variety of items that their characters might have crammed into their backpacks. The players simply need to announce their intentions as to how to use the equipment and the GM can decide whether or not it will work. In solo adventures, however, making use of equipment requires some careful ques from the writer.

There are two basic ways to approach the use of equipment in solo adventures. You can either make certain pieces of equipment necessary to acquire a treasure or overcome a monster not connected to the final goal or make some items necessary to complete the final objective. It is obviously a good idea that if your solo requires a specific piece of equipment to overcome the primary obstacle of the adventure it should be made available somewhere within the adventure. These items can be found as part of a monster's treasure horde, on the corpse of a fallen delver, or locked away in an ancient storeroom. An alternative to this is to design an adventure where the character can return to a town or store where new equipment can be purchased.

Here are just a few examples of the types of equipment that could be required and ways to utilize them in a solo adventure:

1. There can be dark areas that require light sources such as torches or lanterns. This is fairly easy to incorporate into a solos design. Simply give the player the option to enter the darkened area without a light source or to prepare a torch or lantern.

The passage in front of you is dark and foreboding. You may either enter the dark passage immediately and go to 24, or light a torch before entering and go to 57, or light a lantern and go to 78.

Of course a torch and a lantern can always produce different effects. Perhaps the unconstrained flame of that torch will ignite a pocket of flammable gas near the ceiling? Entering a dark room or tunnel can have equally bad consequences. Who knows is lurking in the darkness waiting to pounce upon unsuspecting delvers. Those who have played any of my solos know that wandering around in the dark is never a good idea.

2. Food and water are typically not considered in most solos. If the adventure takes place over a long time or involves travel over great distances, however, it certainly should. Characters should be expected to obtain food at least once per day. Characters may have started with provisions as part of their equipment (although these are oddly missing from the expanded equipment tables in 7.5) or you could allow foraging or hunting. The price for not eating at specified times would be to lose one or two CON or STR points due to starvation.

You travel across the sweeping plains for an entire day seeing no sign of another living thing except for small rodents that scurry into deep burrows and birds of prey soaring high above you. As the sun begins to set you find a place to stop for the night. After the days travel you are famished. You can either consume a days worth of provisions or try to find some food in the wilderness. If you want to try to hunt, make a L2-SR on LK. If you make the SR you manage to find enough food. If you fail the SR, you do not. If you are unable to obtain food, you bed down with your stomach grumbling and lose 1 point of STR and CON.

3. Rope, grappling hooks, hammers, and pitons are needed to cross various obstacles such as chasms or pits, climb walls, or even retrieve items. Coming up with situations requiring these items and providing options for their use is almost as simple as with torches and lanterns.

The ground suddenly gives way beneath you and you fall into the darkness below. You have fallen into a deep pit. You don't suffer any injuries but you are trapped for the moment. You stand up, dust yourself off, and look around. The walls of the pit are made of densely packed earth with no good hand or foot holds. If you have a hammer and at least four pitons you could climb up the wall of the pit. If you have at least 30' of rope and a grappling hook you could also try to catch one of the large branches overhead. If you have a hammer and pitons, go to 34. If you have a rope and grappling hook, go to 76. Otherwise, go to 13.

4. Obviously you can't cart of everything you manage to find tucking away thousands of coins, statues, and necklaces into your pockets. Packs and sacks should be part of any delvers equipment. Some may find requiring the use of containers to haul away treasure a bit tedious for an adventure, but I think of it as simply another obstacle to overcome. Sure you found a horde of 5000 silver coins. But how are you getting it out of that cave and back to town where you can spend it unless you have a bag of some sort? But sacks are useful for more than just carrying shiny coins and glittering gems. There are more creative uses for these rather mundane items that can be worked into an adventure.

You spy the small bird in the clearing ahead. It is busy pecking at the ground eating ants and does not seem to notice your slow approach. If you charge the bird and attack with a hand weapon, go to 89. If you have a bow, you can try to shoot the bird by going to 65. If you have an empty sack, you can try to capture the bird alive, by going to 34. Otherwise you can try to catch the bird with your bare hands by going to 12.

A good adventure should involve more than just killing innocent monsters. Other obstacles should be included that require a little creativity and, of course, equipment. When designing a solo, you don't have to provide the equipment required to overcome all obstacles such as these in your adventure. These are items that a delver could be expected to have in his/her possession. If not having the item would lead to the death of the character or prevent the completion of the primary goal of the adventure, however, you may want to give the player a chance to find the item somewhere ahead of time. If lacking the equipment simply causes some extra damage, prevents the acquisition of some treasure, or leads to some other annoying hardship then it should not be expected. There should be some reward for being prepared after all.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Solo Design Part 6 - Replay Value

How many times can I play this solo? This is a question that comes up often. The simplest answer is: until you stop having fun.

Maximizing replay value and keeping the adventure fun after several runs can be difficult when designing solo adventures. If there is a specific quest to be completed, one could argue that the solo could not be played again once the objective has been achieved. After all, how many times will that foolish nobleman's son get kidnapped by the goblin raiding party?

In some cases, it may be a while before the quest is completed. In Sword for Hire, the wizard Mongo hires warriors to enter his basement, explore it's corridors and chambers, find an exit, and provide him with a map. Obviously Mongo will keep hiring warriors until someone finally makes it out alive with a map. Even then, that map would likely not be complete so he would need to hire more warriors to fill in the missing parts. This is an excellent example of a simple quest that can be undertaken by many characters, one after another even after the quest has been completed.

Here are some ways I've considered to increase the replay value of a solo adventure:

1) Provide a lot of choices. If you only give a very limited number of choices in the adventure, a good player will quickly exhaust them all after only a few runs. If you provide many options even if the player has successfully completed the adventure there may still be oddities to investigate, monsters to fight, and treasure to steal in rooms that have already been explored. This is a topic I discussed in detail in my previous post.

2) Add randomness. This is another topic I have previously discussed. Random elements ensure that not every adventure will be exactly the same. This could be as simple as including multiple possibilities for the contents of chests, desks, and cabinets. It could also be as complex as making the contents of each room random. Each time you open a door you roll a die to see what is beyond. This technique is best used in Ken St. Andre's Khosht solo. This is a Gristlegrim in miniature where you are magically teleported from room to room. Where you end up depends on a die roll. This mechanic ensures that each adventure will be at least somewhat different.

3) Include multiple endings. Sure, there are always many ways to lose in a solo adventure. You could meet your end in combat, fall victim to a trap, or even become a captive. But most solo adventures include only a single successful ending. The inclusion of multiple avenues to varying degrees of victory is a sure way to keep the interest of players over the long haul. Perhaps your quest was to find the location of a goblin camp, kill their leader, and rescue a wealthy merchant that they captured. A character may complete one, two, or all three of these tasks to complete the adventure. Perhaps you found the camp, but were unable to sneak in to find the leader and his prisoner. You can still report back to the locate magistrate with the location of the camp. Or, maybe you found the camp and killed the leader but the rest of the goblins escaped with the prisoner.

You could also include multiple quests to be completed for different individuals in the same location. A great example of this is the Fighting Fantasy book Scorpion Swamp by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. In this adventure, the player can choose to undertake a quest from a good wizard, an evil wizard, or a neutral merchant. If your character manages to complete one quest, you can always go back and try another.

4) Sheer size. This is perhaps the simplest way to increase replay value. A large, sprawling adventure takes time to explore completely. This can consist of a ruined castle with fifty chambers or even an entire city. Along with this 'megadungeon' theme, you could include the possibility of the character leaving and returning later to continue his/her exploration. This type of design also works well with adventures focused purely on exploration and looting rather than the completion of a quest. A good example of this is the 316 paragraph Castle Death by Andy Holmes. Yes all delvers like to do good deeds every now and again, but we still have to pay the bills. With lots of room and even levels to investigate there will be no shortage of new discoveries for different (or even the same) characters.

Of course all of these methods require a great deal of creativity from the author. They will also result in long adventures consisting of 100s of paragraphs. But I feel the end result will be worth the effort. In the end, however, you must remember that the ultimate limit on replay value is when the player stops having fun.