Monday, June 20, 2022

Pedantic Wasteland - Outlaws of the Iron Route

An Unacquired Taste

Some foods, drinks or games are described as an “acquired taste” as a sort of backhanded compliment for something that can only be enjoyed, or even be enjoyable, after repeated exposure. Well, let me introduce its inverse: a new backhanded insult, the “unacquired taste.” An unacquired taste is something that you used to be able to enjoy uncritically but, after repeated exposure to a superior version of that thing, you can no longer enjoy it at all. You’ve certainly encountered this phenomenon before: think of the coffee snob in your life (who well may be you) who is no longer capable of enjoying that swill by the same name that comes from the pot in the office break-room (by which I mean a Keurig, this isn’t 1997). Sophistication in taste can heighten your senses when appraising the tastes, smells and textures of the finer things, but you lose the ability to enjoy the swill. All this is to say, I am reviewing a D&D Expeditions adventure for D&D Fifth Edition, an adventure I ran and enjoyed nearly a decade ago, before becoming a game sommelier.

Outlaws of the Iron Route (“Outlaws”) is a 38-page adventure for three to seven 1st-4th level D&D 5e characters, written by Will Doyle in 2014, the first year of a new edition. Outlaws was the ninth D&D Expeditions tournament module for the Adventurers League. D&D Expeditions adventures were sort of the junior varsity adventures compared to the published behemoths Wizards of the Coast was putting out at the same time. Each season of Adventurers League was designed to fit thematically with whatever big adventure book was out at the time, which for Outlaws was the widely panned Tyranny of Dragons adventures: Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat. The author, Mr. Doyle, would go on to the big leagues himself with Tomb of Annihilation in 2017, which he co-wrote with more established names like Chris Perkins and Steve Winter. That adventure earned praise from our resident grumpy grognard Gus L., who called it “solid, interesting and usable in a way that prior 5th edition products haven't been.” Outlaws similarly has a certain charm lacking in other short, simple D&D Expeditions adventures, which were all too often a chain of combat encounters, sometimes interrupted by the veneer of a prescribed, preset story. I ran Outlaws (with modifications) for a handful of appropriately leveled 5th edition characters when the edition was still shiny and new circa 2015.

Why can I no longer appreciate the taste of a perfectly cromulent modern D&D adventure? It is largely a matter of playstyle. The read-aloud text boxes and railroady scene structure (the adventure tells you where the characters go next, instead of that being something the players playing those characters decide) simply does not cohere with my own playstyle focusing on emergent narrative and player agency. Nonetheless, there are bits in this particular adventure that are worthy of praise, even if it is constrained by being written for the modern, neo-trad/OC playstyle that dominates D&D 5e and tabletop gaming at large.

There are two sets of outlaws in Outlaws, a band of renegade ex-knights whose leader was falsely accused of attempted assassination and a force of fanatic kobolds who exercise brigandage in the name of Tiamat. After a months’ long bloody war, the gangs are set to meet at the King’s Pyre (more on this later) and negotiate a peace where they will divide the trade route between them. This is a strong premise already, with its hint at factions and intrigue, a recipe for more than just slogging through too-long combat encounters.

Outlaws is structured as a set of scenes, which by themselves are fine. My issue (again, a matter of playstyle) is that Outlaws just assumes the player-characters are along for the ride. Outlaws begins as a riot breaks out in the city (another fun premise), but for the adventure to continue, the characters must (a) save the quest giver (a retainer of a local noble house), (b) accept the quest giver’s quest (to hunt down the outlaw chiefs and restore peace to the city) and (c) go to the predesignated first lead, a remote prison tower. Outlaws does make good use of player handouts throughout, and starts with a wanted poster for one of the main outlaws. It is my general experience that, if you want to railroad players to a particular quest, give them a wanted poster handout for it. Something about having the physical handout makes players want to pursue that lead above all else.



Let’s Start (with) a Riot

A riot is a good way to start an adventure, but the way Outlaws handles it is mixed from a player agency perspective. It is good that Outlaws calls out that the characters can avoid simply massacring all of the rioting commoners by persuading or intimidating them not to fight (and it is a fault of the system, not the adventure, that this is handled by a “a DC 15 Charisma check (Persuasion or Intimidation)” with a note that “[o]utstanding roleplaying should grant advantage on the roll”). However, it immediately says that “between the adventurers and [the city watch], the riot is eventually quelled.” So another solution is implied. If the players neither fight the rioters nor lecture them not to riot, they can just stand aside and wait for the problem to solve itself. After all, they can’t afford to let the riot kill the quest giver, whose wagon is in the center of the ordeal. The adventure must slouch forward, even if it means relegating the player-characters to passive observers. Even if they fight, no real consequences of their actions are permitted: it says that the city watch will arrest characters if they killed any commoners during the fight, but that the quest giver will convince the cops to move along. No player action necessary. The guest giver tells them about the quest, and, among other information, that a member of one of the outlaw gangs was captured and is being held at the Grimshackle Jail. With no other leads, Outlaws decides it is time for the next scene in this story. 

If I had to fix this opening act of Outlaws, it would be to open it up to branching paths. Provide for what happens if the player-characters fail to quell the riot, the quest giver dies, but that doesn’t have to end the adventure. Instead, the players could recognize the quest giver as the person they were sent to see, or find the documents talking about the mission and Grimshackle Jail on his corpse. Even if they don’t investigate, the rioters are rioting because of the havoc being wreaked by the outlaws, so the real quest giver is the angry mob. And if the player-characters do kill a commoner or two in plain view of the city watch, there is no need to threaten players with a logical consequence of their actions but chicken out about making that consequence stick. If that happens, the players could just be taken to Grimshackle Jail themselves, where they will still meet the imprisoned outlaw, but in an entirely new context. These fixes offer a bit of branching, yet still follow the basic structure of the adventure without being wholly forced. And what if the characters receive the quest from the quest giver, but just don’t follow through because they have other, more interesting things to do. That should be fine too: provide a timeline of events! If the players do nothing, let them experience the consequences of the choices they’ve made.


Jailhouse Blues

It is a three hour trek to the jail upriver. Outlaws points out that the characters can hike along the river, charter a river barge or ride horses. I don’t know why it points this out because there is no consequence to the choice and no incentive (like random encounters) to travel quickly or stealthily. No matter how they travel, the characters simply arrive “cold and soaked to the bone.” (As an aside, you can see from the map that this is D&D’s junior varsity squad, but I quite like this compared to the overdone, overwhelming maps Wizards usually produces. This map has a lot of charm with the ribbons for the coastal locations and, more importantly, I could print this without draining all of the ink in my printer.)

This mission is a welcome respite from the initial railroad riot. The prison tower, the imprisoned outlaw, the jailers and their motives are outlined, after which the characters are exhorted to “approach the jail however they please,” with two potential options discussed specifically: sneaking inside and going through the front door. But then an element is introduced that has the potential to turn the scenario into a truly fun powder keg; one of the jail guards has been bribed by the outlaws to break out the very same imprisoned outlaw the players have come to interrogate. That is a great set up for some spy vs. spy antics, a welcome addition to any adventure. So this scene has a great premise, but how is the execution?

To help the referee run a covert entry by the player-characters, a map of the 4-story prison is provided, along with details of which doors are locked, where guards are stationed and how guards react to intrusions (i.e., violently). It is bare bones, but functional. I think I would prefer more detail about the patrols and how they change over time (e.g., when do the guards change shifts) so players that bide their time and observe are rewarded by learning when the ideal time to enter certain areas of the prison might be. Instead, the obstacles are fairly static from a timing perspective. The other option presented is to negotiate with the Grimshackle brothers for entry. This is mostly haggling over prices while the brothers’ thugs aim crossbows at the player-characters. Something I like, which Outlaws does throughout, is the inclusion of small bubbles about roleplaying certain NPCs, each of which has a single, evocative quote that the NPC might say. I differentiate this, as a tool, from read-aloud boxed text because the referee is not actually directed to read these quotes verbatim. Instead, they give a sense for how the characters talk. I often choose what kind of voice I will use for a particular NPC based on their first line, so it is helpful for getting me “into character”, so to speak. For instance, the quote for the greedy Grimshackle brothers is “This is definitely gonna cost you” versus the line for the aforementioned noble quest giver of “Get to the point!” Maybe it is just me, but these single lines are enough to quickly communicate a bit of personality for the NPCs, and a little bit goes a long way.

Even when Outlaws explicitly allows for branching paths and multiple solutions, box text (unlike a referee) cannot handle that. For some reason, everything about the interrogation section assumes the players negotiated their way in, from the read-aloud text describing the Grimshackle brothers unlocking the cell to the fact that the main way to get the prisoner to open up is bribing the jailers to improve her conditions (such as a blanket or better meals). It is pre-written based on an assumption of which solution the players would use. I assume that this situation would go differently if the player-characters were able to sneak their way to the cell, but that merits nary a mention despite the strong start for this section from a player agency perspective. The important quest information the prisoner provides is that the ex-knight outlaws and the dragon cultist outlaws are meeting at King’s Pyre to negotiate a truce.

The most exciting part of this section, by a country mile, is the prison break. When I ran Outlaws circa 2015, I had no issue with Outlaws directing me to “[l]aunch this event whenever seems appropriate,” but my now-refined palate now balks at this. The entire thing would be greatly improved if the players were unknowingly racing against a clock and if they don’t conclude getting to the prisoner and interrogating her quick enough, she might abscond beyond their reach. Nonetheless, this still plays out nicely, with the players being alerted by shouts from below, a clanging alarm bell and the whiff of smoke. Offscreen, the bribed jailer has released a dangerous, hardened criminal to cause enough of a disruption for the imprisoned outlaw to escape, and the hardened criminal has knocked over an oil lantern, causing fire to quickly spread across the prison. The player-characters must escape the burning tower, which they are presumed to be at the top of. Again, no timer is provided, but it would be more fun if the fire explicitly spreads a predetermined amount each turn. Two encounters also occur on the way down. I would maybe use a hazard die to determine both the chance of one of the encounters occurring and the fire spreading.

The first encounter is combat with the hardened criminal, who turns out to be Captain Walharrow, a minotaur pirate captain with a peg leg. (My players fucking loved Walharrow for whatever reason and ended up helping him escape; he became a campaign fixture for the next several years, to the extent that on low-attendance weeks, the players would play as Walharrow and his pirate crew in events happening concurrently with the main campaign.) This is an excellent example of a combat encounter for a couple reasons. First, Walharrow’s stated objective isn’t just to smash the players to a pulp, as is so often the case, it is to tear through everything in his path to escape the prison. Second, the environment has fires (the referee is directed to pick one or two squares on the map to start on fire and spread it as the combat progresses) and there are weak spots on the floor to fall through. Clever players can make use of either Walharrow’s motivation or the environmental hazards to their advantage. However, this solid setup is undercut by a warning that “[i]f characters are defeated here, Walharrow robs them of any gold and leaves them for dead. One of the surviving jailers revives the characters as soon as the minotaur departs.” Let the players fail, you cowards! The impossibility of failure throughout this module robs victory of its luster. The second encounter is a hostage negotiation, but the hostage is one of the Grimshackle brothers, who the player-characters have been given no reason to care about. I think this encounter only exists to introduce the bribed jailer and give him a chance to tell the players that this was all part of his plan to free the imprisoned outlaw. 


Truce Company

The player-characters final mission from the quest giver is to sabotage the truce negotiations between the two outlaw groups. The meeting occurs in a neat seaside location called King’s Pyre, an abandoned monument to an old king flanked by waterfalls, and the map thereof is a highlight of the adventure. This is basically an open air dungeon and a solid one by 5e standards.

The primary feature of this dungeon is the massive statue, which also serves to divide the two outlaw groups that have camped on either side. Tunnels in the cliff face provide a level of Jaquaysian nonlinearity to the location. It would, however, be nice if Outlaws included a map of these caves (a lá the Caves of Chaos) where the referee can visualize how they interconnect instead of just being told by the location keys. The zip line is also a fun addition that I don’t see enough in adventures. There are so many solutions players can bring to this scenario: they could silence the horn blowers and lookouts and take a more violent approach, they can dress as bandits and stage “false flag” attacks to turn the factions against each other, or they can sneak their way deep into the camp to try to take out or capture the leaders. This is the benefit of a location-based scenario over the scene-based scenarios used elsewhere in Outlaws and frequently in other 5e adventures, it leads itself more easily to the “tactical infinity” that is so often the goal of OSR and related play cultures. 

Each area of the location has something of interest and includes plenty of non-combat encounters. Some highlights are the ogre effigy that is puppeted by a single kobold to scare off trespassers, a bard trapped in a grimoire who communicates to player-characters by rapidly flipping its pages and folding its page corners to point to individual words, the one bandit who “believes that a hag has cursed him, and he is convinced that the cry of a screech owl heralds the moment of his death” and will be basically incapacitated if he hears such a sound. 


Exeunt, Pursued by Orcs

All of a sudden, orcs attack. If that was an off-putting transition for this review, it is no less off-putting in the adventure, coming from left field. The referee is directed to “spring the orc assault” as the events at King’s Pyre “come to a climax.” I hate to sound like a Gygaxian broken record, but this too would seriously benefit from tracking time so that this event happens not merely at the whim of the referee. 

Apparently the outlaw band dedicated to Tiamat are actually heretical, so saith the dragon cult, which has paid an orc war band to wipe them out. For the players, this happens basically as a cut scene, with chaos all around them, and then two back-to-back combat encounters, first with a handful of orcs and then with their orog chief and his worg steed, with a few orc grunts as auxiliary forces. No matter what, the dragon cultist outlaws are decimated and the ex-knights either flee or suffer the same fate. Perhaps this stems from a worry that the players will make the “wrong” decision by allying or, heaven forbid, joining one of the factions. If so, it reminds me of a moment from the original Pokémon games in which the player is asked if they would like to join the villainous Team Rocket but is given no opportunity to say yes. That agency-defying move makes more sense in the medium of video games than it does in a TTRPG, regardless of play culture, because TTRPGs have the tactical infinity built in to handle the player characters joining the “wrong” faction. 

After the adventure, the quest giver pays the characters their reward. After all, the truce meeting was disrupted! But, again, it doesn’t really matter what the characters do; orcs would have rushed in and disrupted the proceedings no matter how they interact at King’s Pyre, or indeed if they are there at all.

While Outlaws has some interesting ideas and set pieces, it is marred by its fear of letting the players fail or, for that matter, succeed. The result is an adventure that moves on its own, bringing the players along for the ride, no matter what they do. The impact of the adventure is fully alienated from the choices the players make. They don’t have to lift a finger to stop the riot, the prison break only occurs after the characters get a chance to talk to the imprisoned outlaw, the characters cannot truly die at the hands of Captain Walharrow, and it doesn’t even matter whether the player-characters go to King’s Pyre or not; either way, the mission of disrupting negotiations is a success either way thanks to a band of orcs that happens with no foreshadowing whatsoever. What is the point of playing a roleplaying game if there are no consequences to your character’s actions? Just watch a movie with cool set pieces like prison breaks, burning buildings or gang wars instead. I remember liking Outlaws in 2015, and it is better than the other 5th edition adventurers of that time. But now I’ve written and read so many adventures that seriously consider information, choice and impact, that I have unacquired the taste for a scene-based railroad of an adventure, no matter how many neat ideas those scenes contain.


The Salvation of 5e 

There are enough nuggets of good ideas in Outlaws that I want to “fix” it, but I can’t fix a problem that is inherent to the play culture of 5e. For those that are unacquainted with the Six Cultures of Play set forth at The Retired Adventurer blog, the typical mode of 5th Edition adventures is described as “OC” or “Neo-Trad.” To understand this play culture in the broader context of TTRPGs, I hope you will indulge me in a brief history lesson: Dragonlance (and its authors) brought about a play culture, Trad, which was the dominant play culture of the hobby for roughly two decades. The goal of Trad games was to create an elaborate referee-lead narrative. OSR and Story Games both have their roots in rebelling against this dominant play culture, but Trad itself did not stagnate, it evolved. The OC/Neo-Trad play culture agrees with its forebear that creating a narrative should be the focus of the game, but shifts the focus from the referee telling their story to the players telling the story of their characters. If you have ever watched an episode of Critical Role, that is an example of this play culture, but it is also the most popular set of assumptions and beliefs in the 5e scene at large. With that background, I want to look at my primary gripes with Outlaws and determine whether they are purely a matter of the OC play culture not aligning with my own OSR-inflected play style, or something that can be “fixed” without disrupting the play culture. 

My first consistent critique was that the lack of timekeeping made results feel arbitrary and zapped tension from the scenarios. There are a variety of ways to gamify timekeeping across play cultures (e.g., the hazard die in the OSR or “clocks” in Story Games), but perhaps Outlaws does provide a timekeeping method that just didn’t read as such because of the mismatch in play cultures. At several moments (e.g., the prison break or the orc invasion), the referee is directed to launch the event “whenever seems appropriate.” But if the goal is for things to happen in a narratively satisfying way, perhaps this is better-suited to OC play than time advancing at regular intervals (the OSR) or as a consequence of player action (Story Games). However, I think adventures that take this approach should give guidance on determining when launching the event does “seem appropriate.” This could be as simple as listing a few likely types of moments that would be narratively satisfying to spring the event. For the Prison Break, it is obviously intended to happen after they’ve begun talking with the imprisoned outlaw. So Outlaws could say “launch the prison break event either after the player-characters have asked a dramatic question but before the prisoner gets a chance to answer, or when it seems like the conversation with the imprisoned outlaw is winding up.” For the orc invasion, maybe appropriate means whenever the outlaw gangs seem to have struck their truce, when the player-characters are in the process of aligning with one of the gangs or whenever there is a lull in the action. Even this modicum of guidance is better than “whenever seems appropriate” and does not clash with the OC style of play.

My other, primary issue with Outlaws is more significant, but also more fixable. For every instance of possible failure (e.g., the riot or the fight with Walharrow), Outlaws gives a lazy cop-out that the referee can deploy to undo the failure. But the issue here is because Outlaws assumes that failure means either player-character death or the end of the adventure, both of which are at odds with the centrality of the characters and their narratives to the OC play culture. But this is too narrow a view of failure. I already offered some ideas for how “failure” during the riot scenario doesn’t have to end the adventure. Instead, these failures, the death of the quest giver or the arrest of the player-characters, simply change the path of the adventure, but not the direction. This is the ideal OC/Neo-Trad approach to failure. But what about that failstate loved best by the OSR: player-character death? Outlaws provides an opportunity for death (at the hands of the minotaur pirate) but also provides a cheap safety net. 5e, as a system, already provides such a safety net in the form of the death saves, but death is still possible. I agree with Outlaws that, due to the OC play culture, the mechanical safety net is not enough. An OC player should basically never have their character die unless they choose to die. But being reduced to the near-death state should still have interesting consequences, and being revived by a random, surprisingly altruistic jailer is not very interesting. Instead, I would say that, if Walharrow defeats the party, he does not choose to inflict death. Instead, he heats up his stylized nose ring in the fires all around them and “brands” the players with it. Perhaps this is Walharrow’s modus operandi, and it opens up the possibility of people recognizing the brand and knowing that the characters got on the wrong side of the dread pirate captain. This may also make the characters want to track down the minotaur pirate and get revenge. Whatever happens, this consequence of failure enhances OC/Neo-Trad’s emphasis on creating narrative more than a lazy backstop.

The flaws of Outlaws are not simply a mismatch between an OSR reader and an OC adventure. There are ways to write interesting adventures in the OC/Neo-Trad style without obviating player agency. It just requires some creativity, but solutions are possible.

Where to Find Outlaws of the Iron Route

Outlaws of the Iron Route was designed by Will Doyle. A PDF is freely available on Wizards of the Coast’s website. You can also purchase it in multiple file formats for $2.99 at the DM’s Guild


Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Mundane Vacations - What We Give To Alien Gods

A vast unpredictable nebula! Three mysterious pillars rising from the clouds! This week our tour is landing somewhere in Gaelar XII, or The Amaranthine Nebula as they call it.

What We Give to Alien Gods is a 70 page full-colour zine module for the Mothership RPG, written and published by Lone Archivist (known for Primeval). It was funded during ZQ3, pitched as a slow burn scenario about exploring your character — a crossover between Event Horizon (1997) and Arrival (2016). As a big fan of both I did not hesitate to dive in.

Summary: reading and playing Alien Gods is in a way like deciphering alien writing. Beautiful and fascinating, but can be difficult to wrap your head around at times. In this review I’ll take you through my plights with this module, propose some solutions when I can, and see where Alien Gods excels.

I've playtested the module with a group 4 more experienced OSR players and a group of 2 less experienced players. We used my modified 0e rules, including a derelict die to track turns. It took us 6 hours to complete the module with the two player group.

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Conviction

Conviction is a key theme in Alien Gods. To represent it, characters start with a new stat (appropriately named “conviction”) that starts at 10 and goes down every time their core belief is contradicted. That core belief can be chosen by the player or rolled up on a table, where results range from Starship Troopers (“shoot first and ask questions later”) to Fermi-level (“humans are the only sapient life in the universe”). So far so good. I always enjoy solid ways to provide depth to characters. During our session, it helped a bit with worldbuilding and led to some unexpected situations. Would be interesting to see how characters with opposing convictions would interact.

When a character’s conviction reaches 0, they become susceptible to the influence of the alien god. Even helping it if the player chooses. The alien god fills the void left by the character’s fading beliefs. There is an interesting optional rule in which your character can no longer inhale oxygen. Brutal I know, but it ties into the mystery of the module later.

I was reminded of a French story game called Sphynx. For one, it has a similar idea of using beliefs as a character detail. As in Alien Gods, it presents the players with a series of questions about the world. Not all of them will be answered, but they are the main drive behind your character’s exploration.

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Xenolinguistics

It wouldn't be Arrival inspired if it didn't have alien glyphs. After our beliefs are set, we are introduced to the two languages the crew will encounter. One set will be used most of the time as they are the language of the constructors of this place. The other is how a cosmic voyager communicates with the crew, so you won't be using it as much.

The glossary is the strongest part of the zine for me. The glyphs have a simple and unique logic to them that ties into the rest of the scenario. If your players (or you, dear reader) are into fantasy writing systems, this module is for you. This part can be used even outside of the module, on a different derelict on another planet.

Translating glyphs is resolved with a xenolinguistics check or to retrieve a tome of glyphs as a sort of Rosetta Stone that will allow you to translate them.

This section also includes guidance on how to create your own glyphs. Both languages follow a certain set of rules, but are freeform enough that you can express any concept within them.

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Universal Paperclips

Before diving into the nebula, we are presented with several ways to integrate our crew into this scenario. I like hooks 5-6 (payout for chamber exploration) and 7-8 (trapped in the middle of it all) since they provide the strongest motivations for the players to venture into the pillars.

There are three tracks that will fill up during the scenario based on different conditions.

Two of these tracks are responsible for tracking the alien god's escape. The god will escape either on their own or with the help of an NPC. The tracks are advanced after periods of real world time and after PCs trigger certain events. Solely based on real world time progression, the alien god will escape in 2-6 hours of gameplay. If you want to extend the game I would propose tracking in game time instead (with ~10 minute turns). You might also want to combine the two tracks into one since they essentially track the same thing. For me it helped to lower the cognitive load and was a bit clearer as to what the status is right now.

Trithal Fluency track shows how many Triathal glyphs you have translated. When you reach 10, you are considered fluent in Triathal and are not required to make checks to translate glyphs (and are changed by the new knowledge). My house rule would be to roll a d10 under this track to see if you understand a glyph. This makes fluency a more gradual thing instead of a binary state.

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Cohesion Control

The scenario itself is divided into 4 acts: a hex crawl, three pillars of the temple, the shrine and the aftermath.

The hex map does not present interesting choices to the crew. There is only one visitable location (the temple itself) and the random table does not provide enough risk/reward to counteract that. The Derelict Merk-o-Tek ship is labelled on the map, but not keyed nor mapped. If you do run the hex crawl, my advice would be to populate the map a bit more using the derelict generator found in Dead Planet, or with locations relevant to your campaign.

The temple is the grand location of this module where the crew will spend most of its time. Outside it looks like three gigantic pillars, floating together as if tethered. Unfortunately it does not have a map or a flowchart of all its rooms, but the keys are clear about their relation to each other. I managed to draw up a flowchart in an evening. The structure consists of several hubs from which the rooms can be accessed. Usually the rooms have one core thing that can be interacted with or retrieved in order to learn about the place or delve deeper into the temple. 

All of the keys have a clear hierarchy of information. Hidden entrances, items and loot are highlighted in different ways which makes it easy to reference. The clarity with which the rooms are presented is on par with Gradient Descent, and running it was quite smooth.

Each pillar represents a certain theme (based on the Triathal brain structure): logic, abstract and hyperspace. Some rooms don't have much to them, but others can really mess with the character's convictions. This module would work ideally mid-campaign, when PCs have some background to them which can be used by the Warden as ghostly visions, or reminders of the past. Much of the interactivity in Alien Gods is based on subverting expectations (established beliefs).

The shrine is where space-time starts to break down. Being the core of the temple, it is neatly tucked away in a pocket dimension. This is where the crew will probably meet the alien god. The final chapter of the scenario is the aftermath that explains what happens after the crew’s visit to the shrine, and the repercussions of their choices in the shrine.

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Well of a Thousand Thoughts

Overall it is useful to think of Alien Gods as a collection of scenes, rather than rooms. Even the zine aptly names each part of the adventure act 1, act 2 etc. Each scene is an opportunity for characters to confront each other about their convictions, or to confront their own beliefs. The temple and it's inhabitants are there to facilitate these interactions.

When I was reading Alien Gods I kept thinking about early 00s adventure video games. Navigating from screen to screen, solving obscure puzzles, picking up items that don’t have an apparent use at the moment but will be super important later. Alien Gods incentivizes learning by doing, like the first level of Mario Bros or Myst. Players will have to deduce what had occurred before them through the environment and objects they find.

Speaking of items, the back of the book presents everything you can find in the temple on a couple of neat spreads. The list ranges from weird to really weird. One thing I struggled with was making the function of the objects interesting for the crew to figure out. For instance, one of the items is a tuning fork that will show hidden areas when struck. It involves a very specific action to work and I wasn’t sure how to telegraph that to the players without spoiling it outright.

If the crew manage to find the tome, they can use its entries for two purposes. One is getting answers to the mystery. The tome is a record left by a Triathal in the final moments of their life. The second purpose is using the tome to translate complex glyphs. Each entry in the record focuses on a single concept, the glyph to which the crew can then translate.

The zine provides multiple entrances to the temple, making bypasses for those who aren’t keen on puzzle solving. On one hand - great, the more entrances the better. On the other hand, I question the necessity of a puzzle in the first place. Some later puzzles don’t have such bypasses and will have to be solved to delve deeper into the temple. Puzzles work best when everyone can meaningfully participate in them, so be mindful of your play group.

When my players entered the temple they were very hesitant to interact with the alien language. For the most part they were afraid of negative consequences for failing a puzzle (even if there wasn’t one). Most of the tension came from random encounter monsters chasing the crew around. Eventually they decided not to try to test their luck with the portals and to find alternative paths. Some characters acted based on their convictions, which was nice to see (and made the session a bit more chaotic).

What I felt this module lacked was some sort of unifying struggle or conflict. As written, the scenario will progress towards the god’s escape; there is no one to counteract that except the players. Instead of acting as mindless husks, I could definitely see some of the wandering monsters establishing a settlement in the old temple and fighting for their new home, but maybe that’s a different story altogether.

Alternative hook idea: you are a crew of a colony ship stuck in the nebula. This old temple is the only viable option to survive. Your goal is to clear out space for the settlement and make sure it doesn’t get destroyed by an Alien God (or will you turn to its side and reclaim its rightful domain?). 

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Apotheosis

The essence of Alien Gods is about isolating the crew from the rest of the world and confronting their core beliefs about it. It is an exploration of conviction, channeled through the environment of a derelict.

Alien Gods is a demanding adventure to Warden. There is plenty of info to keep in mind (individual room climates for one). The Warden will be the one to create tension and present arguments against the characters’ convictions. I will be looking forward to the Warden and player materials coming out in the future, which will hopefully help with the issues I’ve outlined.

What do I Give to Alien Gods? M + λp − α out of 10. M being your Mastery of scene based scenarios,  λ - captivating Lore, p - Page layout, and α - the Amount of tinkering to fit the group.

Monday, May 23, 2022

Ludic Dreams III - My Body is a Cage


At long last, I turn my Ludic Dreams series to what I probably should have been doing all along: reviewing games and adventures about dreams, the dreamlands, and general phantasmagoria. It’s like coming home—if your home was Dylath-leen. I have a few more in the pipeline, so stay tuned!

This time I am reviewing My Body is a Cage, a game by John Battle, with editing by Jared Sinclair, and seven accompanying 2-page dungeons written for the system by Alex Damanceno, Ema Acosta, Jim Gies, Josh Domanski, Maria Mison, Nevyn Holmes, and Julie-Anne Muñoz (who also illustrated several of the other dungeons). You can buy it as a PDF here or here for $20. 

I play-tested My Body is a Cage over 3 short sessions (~2 hours each for a total of about 6 hours), running 3 players through “The Atkinson Hotel” by Ema Acosta, one of the 7 adventures included with the game. Two of my players, Nick Kuntz and Aleks Revzin, play in my long running dreamlands campaign. The third player was Bones’ own Anne, author of the Dungeon Dioramas series. Since this game is in some ways a crossover between indie and OSR sensibilities, it is worth saying that all three of my players had broadly OSR type expectations and preferred play styles. After the final session we spent a little while debriefing the game.

The Concept


John Battle says it best: 

"Awake: You’re broke or struggling. Life is hard. You go to school and work a job, just trying to make enough for rent. Maybe you wanna be a youtuber, or draw your web-comic. Perhaps you want to travel, or at least move out of your parents’ house. You gotta find a way to make money. In this game you play as a person, someone other than yourself, in a slice-of-life story. 

Dreaming: When you sleep you dream of a dungeon. It’s filled with treasure. If you steal it, you awaken richer. This is your chance to fight back against the struggle of life. But the dungeon holds dangers, and you are still just a person. So be careful. Good luck, don’t die."

Here at Ludic Dreams, I hope we can all agree: that's a great concept. 

Char Gen and Gameplay Loop


Character generation is genuinely interesting in this game. Players dice three times each on two d100 tables, one of positive sounding adjectives (e.g. lucky, cool, innocent), and one of negative sounding adjectives (e.g. overwhelmed, fraudulent, paranoid). The player then assigns these as their six stats, each with an ability modifier that ranges from +3 (the strongest stat) to -3 (the weakest stat). 


One neat thing about this use of stats is that it allows you to assign positive sounding adjectives to one of your penalty stats, and negative sounding adjectives to one of your bonus stats. For example, Anne played Stephanie, assigning the adjective “Cool” to the worst -3 stat position, deciding that Stephanie wanted so badly to look cool that it was a liability. Similarly, Nick assigned Fraudulent to the +3 stat for their PC Simone, on the rationale that Simone was a very compelling fraud.

The personality of the character takes shape from the assigning of stats and is further elaborated as you pick bonds that tie you to other PCs, select a flaw that your opponents can target, an ideal that you can voice once a game to your advantage, and two weirdly specific skills. You also roll once on a “genre” for your character, which can be a musical, cinematic, or literary genre that is somehow the theme of your character, which you can evoke one time per session to double your dice on some roll. Character generation caused us to laugh out loud several times. It created memorable PCs who were tied to one another in interesting ways. We all had a real sense of who the characters were before we started playing. I definitely recommend doing it together at your first session. I's fun to collectively watch the characters take shape and for people to play off one another.

The game employs a loop perhaps influenced by the Persona series of games. (So Nick tells me, I haven’t ever played the games.) There is a daytime period that is charted out over a calendar month, with a daytime action available whenever the character has a day off (at least I think this is how it works). This is randomly determined as you have a 1 in 8 chance each day in the month to have a day off (oof, life is tough for the PCs). While the daytime system is never spelled out, there is a sample map of a waking world city that shows how the GM might construct daytime activities for their players. 



These includes wilderness hiking to heal your character, researching topics in the library, apartment hunting with associated living expenses (and bonuses for living somewhere fancy!), selling your dream treasures at "the dream merchant", visiting the mall to have your fortune told, going to the movies to add dice to your dice pool for the next adventure, etc. The presupposition seems to be that the daytime portion will involve a mix of dice rolls and perhaps scene-based play, with some pressure coming from “big events” like rent being due or final exams or family events on set calendar dates.

After the daytime portion comes the nighttime portion set in the dream dungeon, which has an exploration turn based structure, familiar from old school games, and appropriate to a high peril environment. This phase is the more familiar “dungeon crawl”, although in a dreamy form. It is left open how these two phases relate. Perhaps the players decide how frequently they will enter the dream dungeons, allowing them to set their pace throughout the month under the pressure of making rent or tuition payments. Or perhaps the adventuring happens at set times, say every two weeks.

In our playtest, we used the waking world mainly to characterize the player’s relationships to one another and to an NPC who sent them into the dream dungeon. In other words, we focused mainly on the dream dungeon segment of play. This is too bad, because I think in an extended campaign the waking-dreaming loop would make for fun and dynamic play. The waking world portion would require probably the most investment from a GM, because Battle gives you a lot less to work with than in the dream dungeons. Battle does build some connections between the two phases by tying NPCs in the waking world to NPCs in the dream dungeon, with effects that can cross into the waking world in interesting ways. Were I running a campaign, I would probably develop more connections across the two cycles of play – including more ways to affect dreams by doing things in the waking world and vice versa. What would a rival adventuring party look like in a game like this?



The Atkinson Hotel and The Other Six Dungeons


The adventure we ran was "The Atkinson Hotel". It’s a very memorable location, a vaguely creepy turn of the (20th) century hotel, with an alarming staff and treasures from real world luminaries (e.g. Borges’ typerwriter, or a larger version of Duchamp’s painting The Bride) who used to frequent the hotel in their dreams, and may even have died there. I prepped for the dungeon for about 1 hour, mainly to flesh out the rooms and connections between a bit. Otherwise I was easily able to run the dungeon from the two-page spread. Two-page dungeons are hard to make work, but this dungeon is a masterclass in layout and design.

The three hotel staff NPCs are presented with brilliant lucidity: a tiny paragraph, three one line motivations or quirks, and a clever way to make a state block look interesting. They absolutely came alive in play with almost no effort. Check out the list of treasures at the bottom of the dungeon as well! I always love memorable treasures and the idea of using heirlooms from literary and artistic luminaries in the waking world is a gorgeous premise.

The dungeon itself is a pointcrawl between eight hotel rooms. The starting room is very dynamic with three different exits, one normal (hotel room door) and two surreal (at the back of the closet, under the bed). In our playthrough, the players reported the dreamlike quality of the dungeon came through strongly. There were some memorable moments that emerged in play, including the surreal experience of climbing out of a small and claustrophobic (indeed shrinking!) storage room into a huge storage room surrounding it. Another memorable moment involved Aleks’ character Alecs waking the perennially sleepy hag he carries on his back (random “equipment” he started with) with the tempting smell of soup, and setting her off into kitchen to taste all the soups to the hysterical consternation of the bustling chefs in the room. A final memorable moment came when Stephanie shot the infernal title to Borges’ typewriter out of the hands of the hotel manager with her bow, sticking it to the wall, right before the PCs made their getaway back to the waking world, Borges' typewriter in hand.

The players liked the dungeon on the whole, although they did feel limited by its linear pointcrawl nature. Although you can get on the crawl 3 different ways from the first room, each other room has one entrance and one exit, meaning that once you made your initial selection you are always on a linear path. Were I revising the dungeon I would Jaquays it by introducing maybe 4 extra rooms, looping paths, and multiple exits from most rooms. 

They had a deeper criticism which comes from what I think as the "dream aesthetic dilemma". In dreams, scenes are often disconnected, spatial logics break down, and "people" often function more as symbols than living beings with their own distinct agendas. Old school dungeons by contrast work on spatial logics. One explores the space, learns to navigate it, and works it to one's advantage. The people one encounters are not figments or parts of tableaus, but factions with their own agendas and desires, who occupy regions on the map or move through it in intelligible ways. This (fantastic) naturalism enables lateral thinking, problem solving, and open-ended negotiation. The dilemma is that the absurdist, disconnected, symbolist aesthetic of dreams pushes against this. (As you might imagine, I of all people have thoughts about ways to navigate this dilemma, but I'll save those for another time.)  

It's not surprising that my (OSR style) players remarked that there clearly was no map of an actual hotel, but only dream scenes snipped from a hotel and connected by pseudo spatial connectors. They had the sense that each was a static scene that would stay where it was when they closed the door. They noted that this limited their sense of agency, which depends on the logic of real world space, and made the dungeon less interactive than more “naturalistic” dungeons. For some of the NPCs, they also wondered how much "they were really people". 

Still, I think this is an excellent starting dungeon for this game. I would wholeheartedly recommend a less linear, properly Jaquaysed version of it as a near ideal introduction to My Body is a Cage.

Behold the Nyxosphere in all its glory!

The other dungeons included in the game are more variable in their quality. Two more of the seven are roughly of the caliber of “The Atkinson Hotel”. One is the gorgeous “Nyxosphere” by Alex Demanceno, a sort of open world demonic dreamscape with a more classical D&D in dream hell vibe. It especially leverages the mechanics of monsters in interesting ways. It also has a more naturalistic approach to (an absurd demonic) space, so it will probably run more like D&D than some of the other dungeons. The other is “Animalia” by Jim Gies, a text-heavy two-page adventure that pulls a trick on the players by having them appear in the dream dungeon in the form of animals. The dungeon is interesting and it would be a delightful second or third adventure to run. It certainly opens with a bang, with the players dicing to see what animals they are and replacing one of their stats with a suitable animal trait.

In a second tier we have two dungeons that have excellent material but need some work. The first is “The Desert”, a depth crawl by Josh Domanski. It’s evocative and interesting. It uses a nice mechanic of randomly generated locations + details + events, with modifiers for depth. But the different locations don’t give you quite enough information to make them interactive and playable, and there is no treasure even listed. The second is “Seasons Amiss” by Nevon Holmes, illustrated by Julie-Anne Muñoz. This “dungeon” has an amazing concept. It consists of a pointcrawl across a surreal map. At the starting place there is a lantern that can be turned to red or blue light, shifting the whole map into summer or winter phases. Certain things are revealed in each phase, given the map a wonderful interactivity and puzzle solving vibe. Excellently, the two lights also introduce countdown clocks to environmental hazards in the form of heat waves or blizzards that will punish the players and keep them moving. While I adore the concept of the dungeon, it contains no encounters, no monsters or NPCs, and no treasure. 

In the third tier, we have dungeons that work less well. "Stiff Bargains", another team-up by Nevyn Holmes and Julie-Anne Muñoz, consists of a punny series of fetch quests for absurd NPCs. The whole is alarming and absurd enough that it could be fun for a certain group. But the linked chain of fetch quests is not the best format for a dungeon crawl. The last adventure I hesitate even to speak about. It is called “The Seven Orifices of Omniscience”. It is not clear who wrote it or what it is. It reads like something from the Book of Revelations. It is in no way a dungeon. 

Core Mechanics


Let’s talk about the innovative mechanics of the game. The games core mechanic is that when your character does something, a GM or another player can ask you to roll. You choose one of your attributes to roll on and apply the modifier to a 2d6 roll. If the roll is unopposed you must roll a 10+ to succeed. If the roll is opposed then the GM or other player rolls 2d6 as well, perhaps adding a modifier. Whoever rolls higher gets to say how the thing turns to their advantage, and the loser can choose to up the stakes and try again if they want. Combat uses opposed rolls but works a little differently. I’ll talk about that below.

You can add extra dice to your rolls in a number of ways, including most importantly from a dice pool that functions as a kind of meta-currency. You are incentivized to employ negative attributes because whenever you roll an attribute with a penalty you add a die to the pool. You also add dice to your pool if you use all six attributes over the course of the adventure. Most importantly, you add dice to your pool by selecting a bingo card that corresponds to a class for each session (both daytime and dream dungeon). The bingo card incentivizes playing to the type of the relevant character class. You get a die each time you cross off something on the bingo card. You get a whopping 10 dice if you get bingo by completing a row, column, or diagonal. At the end of an adventure, unused dice in your pool can be converted to treasure or used to buy skills, bonds, or a chance to raise an attribute. This flexible use of the meta-currency is interesting.

The players in this game had mixed feelings about the meta-currency aspect of the game. On the one hand, they experienced the core mechanic as straightforward and intuitive. Since near certain failure (rolling to hit 10+ with an attribute penalty) is incentivized by the meta-currency, and since adding dice nearly always ensures success even on opposed roles, the players experienced themselves as often choosing between failure and success. They found this a little strange. But this is also a game where you play to win in high peril circumstances (dungeons). This meant that they were incentivized to choose strategically to fail in low stakes situations in the service of collecting rewards (dice saved as treasure or XP style rewards) or storing up meta-currency ammo to win in higher stakes circumstances. This “failing in order to win” dynamic felt unfamiliar to them and they didn't entirely love it.

There was also a lot to keep track of on the character sheet in terms of the meta-game currency, including attribute modifiers, dice pools, a few other ways of boosting dice (genre, bond, skill), and the massive bingo card. As OSR players used to assuming that “the answer is not on your character sheet”, they found the meta-currency worked against this expectation. Since the meta-game currency dominates the players strategic experience, the players reported feeling like the answer to pretty much everything really was on their character sheet. 

One of the players in particular wished that more of their attributes were relevant to the kinds of physical actions on performs in a dungeon, which is a very physical space. Sometimes that reported that it felt like a stretch to find an appropriate attribute, most of which refer to personality traits, to roll on for physical tasks.

None of this is to suggest that the meta-currency core mechanics don’t work. But the mechanics do perhaps push towards a different playstyle than old school play. If you are open to a fusion of indie and OSR styles, then I think you may like this. If you are more solidly OSR in your preferences, you may find some of the mechanics a stretch.

Combat


In combat, one uses opposed rolls with the winner scoring a hit against the loser. Damage is recorded by marking off inventory slots and sometime incurring conditions like burning or bleeding that also occupy inventory slots. The use of inventory slots as hit points is elegant. Having conditions occupy inventory slots--as Mausritter does--created an elegant unified mechanic. I especially enjoyed the robust role for conditions in the system, although we didn’t see this in our play test, which had little combat. For example, the condition of burning spreads to additional inventory slots until the fire is put out, and if you are stressed you lose 1 die from all your actions (!), but you can pass to other players, presumably by unloading it on them. 

The application of this system to monsters works elegantly too. Monster have inventory slots corresponding to their HD. These slots contain their various attacks or abilities, so you incapacitate your foe as you score hits against them. For example, if you can score enough hits against a giant lobster you might break its claw. 

My Body is a Cage also uses a lower-is-better initiative system that has you roll different sized dice depending on how time consuming or slow what you’re doing is. You can do up to 3 things in a single round, but you have to roll all 3 initiative dice if you do. So there's an economy between going first, or doing more things in each round. 

I found opposed rolls a strange fit with the otherwise innovative individual initiative system. Opposed rolls represent a struggle as a two-sided affair, combining the activity of both sides in a single dramatic face-off roll. But the individual initiative system seems more geared to representing attacks as one-directional affairs, where each participant gets their own separate actions that are resolved in sequence. If I’m understanding the system, then if someone is facing multiple foes, they get a very large number of attacks each round in the form of opposed rolls: each of their opponent’s attacks trigger an opposed roll (up to 3 attacks each), and on top of that, opposed rolls are also triggered by their own actions (again up to 3).

In play I stumbled over this system, only coming to the above understanding by the time I was done running it. I started out thinking that there was only 1 opposed roll per pair of combatants, but then realized that this didn’t work with the individualized initiative system and multiple actions a round. It was a little strange that I walked away from reading the brief rules about combat so unsure about how they were supposed to work. Maybe if Battle had said a little bit more, it would have been clearer to me from the start.

Graphic and Information Design


This brings us to questions of design. My Body is a Cage is laid out in landscape orientation. Each page or two-page spread is colorful and uniquely designed, focused on a single idea or rule. Sometimes there’s a paragraph of text, or a big table, and sometimes there’s just a few sentences.

If you love this kind of thing you’ll probably like this a lot, and if you hate it then you probably won’t like it here either. Personally I’m agnostic about this trend in graphic design. I did find that it worked in one specific way for me here. Many of the rules and ways of tracking things used in My Body is a Cage have a gimmicky toy-like feel. Each character has a bingo card that you print out and mark up in play. There is a word search you complete to get random starting equipment. You stack dice in a little circle on your character sheet to represent your dice pool. There’s a paper fortune teller that the GM cuts out and assembles to determine random treasure. The bright and splashy layout made it feel like the game was composed of activities drawn from a colorful children’s activity book—the kind you might have bought in a convenience store before getting on a long family trip or bus ride. While it won’t come across quite as clearly in online play as it would in person, with a little prep it and having players print out sheets in advance, I think you can capture a fair bit of this activity book vibe.



This is an ambitious design choice that was relatively well-realized. Some of these features could use a little fine-tuning. The character sheet presupposes you will record your dice pool by stacking dice, and the bingo card seems to presuppose you will use tokens, since there's no way to mark off a black square with a pen. We found this awkward for purposes of storage when an adventure was spread out over multiple session, as they often will be. (Skills are also missing from the character sheet, by the way.) But the basic thing I want to say is that it's impressive how well John Battle pulls off this tactile, festive, childlike feel in the design. The aesthetics of the graphic design have a real point that fuses with the rules for the game in interesting ways.

When it came to information presentation the design of the book does less well. The book wastes no words on explaining how the rules work in play or even fit together, often assuming you’ll sort of infer the logic of the game from the different terse but colorful rules spreads. I found this frustrating. I spent far more time trying to understand the game than I would have had there been more text to help me. Not all minimalism is sleek information design; sometimes less is actually less.

Exacerbating this problem, there are several things that seem to be implied by the rules but do not otherwise appear in the game. For example, the initiative system is geared around weapons of different size, but there are no mechanical effects for different sized weapons. Another thing is the selection of character class for each session. The only mechanic presented is the bingo sheet that incentivizes certain kinds of behavior for each class by adding to your dice pool when you check off the box. But the game includes a list of spells that you’re supposed to dice for. Do you get a spell if you took the magic bingo card? But do you also get something if you take the fighter or rogue bingo card? Maybe one of those weapons of different size? 






This raises an interesting design question. I’m all in favor of systems that enable hacking and presuppose that everyone who plays them will trick them out to play in their own special way. How do we distinguish that as a positive design goal from a game being unclear or half-baked? One test might be whether you have to spend energy just trying to figure out what the rules to the game are or how they work together. Although the rules for My Body is a Cage are neat, I found Battle’s strong preference for saying as little as humanly possible about his game left me guessing at times or having to piece it together. 

In Sum


My Body is a Cage is an interesting game that blends indie and old school playstyles to produce something new. It has a great premise. It suggests a promising gameloop structure, with a strong separation between slice of life downtime in the real world and adventuring in dream dungeons. Some of the mechanics might need revision (i.e. combat), but others are creative and well-suited to the game. The dungeons that it presents have a dreamy vibe at the cost of less open environments and lateral thinking. The aesthetics of the whole will contribute to your play, especially if the group can meet around a table and enjoys tactile activities. There’s an excellent game in there if you’re open to old school games that are played in an indie style. 

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