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Category: Developer’s Log

Developer's Log 0

Devlog: Tinderbox

Things that are,

things that were,

and some things that may never be. 


Asking Questions

We’ve been making Tinderbox releases for a while now, and we’ve never quite taken the time to explain it. What is it? Why is it? What’s up with these questions?

The short of it: Tinderbox releases start with questions that will tie the PCs to the story at hand. Using our Tinderbox Adventures for an example, you’d start the adventure by reading the short intro. Afterwards, there is a series of questions to ask the players. These questions link the characters to the story and often affect the outcome of the adventure. More importantly than that, they also get the players interested from the get go.


Buying Investment

This is the start of our Tinderbox Adventure, Honoring the Old Ways, which can be inserted into most any ongoing game. It can be a nice diversion while traveling. It starts out simple: the PCs find a shrine that has been forgotten for a long time. That in and of itself doesn’t really grab them or spur them to action. To do that, we use the Tinderbox questions to buy investment, giving the players a reason to follow the path ahead of them. 

This particular adventure centers around one of the characters. The questions give their character a sense of importance, allowing them to showcase the knowledge that they very well may have just made up. They get to decide which god the shrine is for, what they look like, and what the offering is. After fleshing all that out, they’re left with one actionable piece of info: the type of offering left at these shrines. Obviously, they’ll likely want to make an offering now.

If they leave an offering on the shrine, they notice a path they hadn’t seen before. Obviously not a coincidence, they’ll likely go down the path. The tinderbox is struck and the fire has started; you have buy-in. Once they start down that path, chances are they’re not going to turn around. They’ll want to see it through because that’s how human brains tend to work. Congratulations. You started running an adventure that the players had no reason to care about and gave them a big one. You have investment. 


Making It Personal

The Tinderbox questions make the situation personal. It basically takes the route of least resistance. When trying to figure out what ties a character to an adventure, why not just ask the player? Make them do the work. While not for every player, many will jump at the chance to take on this “pseudo DM” roll. Characters love backstory and you just gave them a reason to flesh out more of it on the spot. Not only that, whatever backstory they make is instantly important to the game. It’s almost like it’s an adventure crafted around their character and, in a sense, it is. 

Let’s consider the Tinderbox NPC, Bajorn Stonewarden

These questions do something else, however. It’s something hidden just below the surface. The questions are leading, and by answering them, they assign certain experiences to the character. For instance, by answering the above questions, it tells us that the character in question knows about the gods and knows what to leave for them. Since they know what the common offering is, that means they’ll likely want to leave it. Sure, the player just told the DM something about the adventure, but the adventure also just told the player something about their character. Since the player got to make some decisions about it, it doesn’t feel intrusive or like it takes power away from the player. Instead, it gives their creativity tools to use.

Take a moment to read his intro speech and the questions. There is a lot going on here. The first obvious question is, “what if this doesn’t work with a PCs backstory?”

Well, that’s possible. The very first thing you do, however, is ask which player he is talking to. This gives them a chance to opt in because they think this is exciting. Chances are, someone is going to take that bait to become the center of attention. If not, that is unfortunate, but don’t force it. Bajorn may just have a case of mistaken identity. This is the threat with prepping anything as a DM: if there is no buy in, you might just have to scrap it. 

If one of the players does bite, the next three questions both tie them to Bajorn and write a major piece of the backstory, almost without them noticing it. Sure, they get to fill in the blanks, but now the DM knows the player is being pursued because someone feels slighted by them. Bajorn is just a symptom of that overall disease. He’s a cool vehicle to deliver a potential plotline that could be ongoing through the entire campaign. 


Making your own.

If you’re feeling frisky, there is nothing stopping you from making your own Tinderbox supplement. Start with a short opening description. This doesn’t necessarily have to be read to the PCs, but it does give you a sense of where this adventure is starting. After that, think about what your questions could be. This is the trickiest part. If you’re doing it well, the questions aren’t questions for their own sake. They should fulfill some sort of role in the story. Ask yourself the following questions about your… questions. 

Does the answer affect the adventure?

If you’re asking the player who the big bad is, then it’s affecting the adventure. If it’s a question that’s made to influence the scenario in this way, you should have an idea where it concretely affects it. To take the earlier example of the big bad, that one is easy. The answer to that question decides the ultimate adversary. The question shouldn’t be so large that it can completely derail the adventure you’re working on. Try answering it yourself in a few different ways and see if you can break it. Don’t hesitate to add qualifiers and limitations to the question.

Does the question tie the character to the story?

If so, how? Are you asking them who they know that was kidnapped? What item was stolen from them by the villain? What member of their family was the victim of an unsolved murder as they themselves encounter someone recently dead without any suspects? 

Does the question open up a storyline for the character?

This is a big one. If it does, are you ready to follow that storyline through the course of the campaign? Will it detract from the current focus of your campaign in ways that are acceptable? You have to be ready to eat the can of worms if you open it. That’s a saying, right?

Does it do none of these things?

Well, what’s it for then? It’s possible you’ve discovered a use for them that I haven’t, and that’s rad. On the other hand, if the question isn’t getting buy-in from the player or creating a new storyline, maybe you need a different question. Make sure the point of the question isn’t just to stroke your ego. At their heart, a tinderbox question is about the PCs. Rethink what you wrote and decide if it’s necessary and helpful. 

After you have the questions written, you can proceed with the rest of the adventure. This can be a collection of notes about different people and locations or something as streamlined as a dungeon crawl. Make notes about times and places where the tinderbox questions could influence the adventure. Make sure your end payoff is inline with the questions and what came before. Think of any loose ends that might extend past the end of this scenario and whether that’s a good thing or bad thing. 

Congrats. You have a Tinderbox adventure. 


Inspiration

For the Gm, Tinderbox Adventures are a way to make you think on your feet. You can never script enough information before running a game to account for all possibilities and Tinderbox doesn’t even try. Don’t worry about it, you got this. Trust in your ability to improvise. If you don’t feel like you’re good at it, that’s all the more reason to practice. The more you do it, the better you’ll get; I promise. 
If you want to look at Tinderbox releases to inspire you or give you some practice running one, check them out here. Our Patreon members get access to all of them, plus a whole heap of other content. Try it out, and make your players do some of the work. You can’t do it all, right? Oh, and if you post your Tinderbox content somewhere, do us a favor and throw up a link to CrumblingKeep.com, huh? It’d also be cool if you wanted to drop us a line so we could check it out. We look forward to seeing what you create!

Developer's Log 0

Ships of the River Agrier

Rules for boating down the River Agrier

in Ket Ket 

Sailing the Agrier and Beyond

Our micro-campaign setting, Ket Ket, has a great and mighty river running through it. This river is responsible for much of the life and commerce in the land. It floods yearly, depositing rich soil and decaying plant matter, making farming possible. More importantly to the PCs, it is a source of travel. It’s possible they may wish to buy a boat or book passage on one. This blog post will help navigate that. 

When it comes to ship combat, roll an unmodified 1d20 for each ship. That is when the ship moves. It’s up to the players to agree on the movement of any ships they employ. 

Ships and Stats

AC: This is no different than AC anywhere else. This represents how tough the ship is to damage. 

HP: This is how much damage the ship can take before it is in danger of sinking. 

Speed: This is how many feet the ship can move in a round. Going against the current is considered difficult terrain. 

Distance per Day: These are the number of hexes the vessel can travel through in one day. The first number represents going against the current, while the second number is going with the current. Any ship that just floats will get carried downstream at a rate of 3 hexes per day. 

Turn: Turn is how far the ship must move before making a 45 degree turn. For instance, the Skiff must move 5 ft between each 45 degree turn. If it wanted to turn around, it would have to move 5 ft, turn 45 degrees, move 5 ft, turn 45 degrees, move five feet, turn 45 degrees, move five feet and turn the final 45 degrees. 

Crew: The first number is the minimum amount of people needed to crew the ship. The second number is the maximum it can hold.

Crash: If a ship crashes into another ship, it does this much damage to both vessels.

Sink: When a ship loses all its hit points, place the sink dice on it. At the end of every combat round, roll the dice. If the result is a 1 or 2, reduce the dice size by 1. (A d12 becomes a d10, a d10 becomes a d8, etc.) If the dice is a d4 and a 1 or 2 is rolled, the ship sinks. This dice must also be rolled whenever a ship is at 0 hit points and additional damage would be done to it. Any ship that would be reduced to negative HP equal to the amount of its starting HP in one attack is instantly dashed to pieces and sinks. 


The Ships

Skiff

A Skiff is a small vessel made of papyrus reeds. These ships were mostly used to fish and for short journeys, rarely being put out at sea. 

Price100 gp
AC10
Speed30
Distance/ Day2 / 4
Turn5 ft
Crew1 / 4
Crash1d4
Sink1d4

Khabra Ship

The city of Khabra is known throughout the region for the seaworthy vessels it produces. The Khabra Ship is used by both traders and military alike, as it can hold a good number of people.

Price1000 gp
AC15
Speed45
Distance/ Day3 / 5
Turn15 ft
Crew5 / 30
Crash1d8
Sink1d8

Khufai

The Khufai is a Ket Ket funeral barge, normally reserved for taking God Emperors to their final resting place, from one side of the Agrier river to the other. There is a death cult in Ket Ket who worships Ozire, the god of the dead. They will sometimes use these vessels, crewing them with a mixture of the living and the dead. 

Price10,000 gp
HP25
AC12
Speed1 / 2
Distance/ Day1 / 2
Turn20 ft
Crew1 / 6
Crash1d6
Sink1d6

Fire

Fire is a danger. If you’ve ran a D&D campaign for more than 20 minutes, it’s likely a PC has tried to burn something down. What does that look like when a boat and flaming arrows are involved?

First, it’s not just a matter of lighting an arrow on fire with your flint and steel and hoping for the best. In truth, it was really hard to make flaming arrows that worked (and still is.) The act of shooting them makes them want to extinguish. However, there are some historical documents pointing to their existence. Also, this is a fantasy game and flaming arrows are cool, so that’s a win. 

First, the arrows must be prepared. The materials to do so cost 4 gp per arrow (making each arrow cost 5gp.) Think pitch soaked cloth and things such as that. Ten arrows can be prepared in this manner during a short rest. When used, they must have a source of fire nearby with which to light them. Having a source of fire on your boat can be just as dangerous to the side shooting the arrows…

Let’s talk about ranges. These arrows are now a lot heavier and a lot less aerodynamic. When using a fire arrow, divide all ranges in half. This means a longbow has a range of 75/300 and a shortbow has a range of 40/160. 

Damage is going to change. For the sake of the game, we’re going to say that all that binding around the point of the arrow makes it a lot harder to penetrate it’s target. Instead of it’s normal damage, the arrow is going to do 1d6 fire damage. It’ll be the same for either type of bow. So why would anyone want to use fire arrows? Well, because something might just catch on fire. 

If the arrows hit, roll their damage. If the result is a 4 or above, the creature or item is now aflame. It’ll take damage from the fire at the end of every turn. If it is a creature, it can take an action to extinguish the fire. Otherwise, that creature takes 1d6 fire damage each turn. Realistic? Maybe not, but creatures burning round after round and not being able to put out the fire will really change the game in ways that might not be fun. 

What about an object though? This is going to go past the use of flaming arrows. Whenever an attack that does fire damage hits a flammable object (in this case, we’re mostly talking ships), roll the damage dice. For each damage dice that rolls a 4 or above, a fire starts. Leave the dice on the object to symbolize there is a fire in that location. It is only going to get worse from here. 

At the end of every round, roll damage again. Just pick up the dice that represent those fires and roll them. If any of them roll max damage, the fire spreads! Upgrade the dice to the next side up (a d6 becomes a d8, a d8 becomes a d10, etc.) That’s the dice you’ll use for damage next turn. A fire can not become larger than a d20. 

Any creature can take an action to attempt to extinguish the fire. To do so, they pick one fire within 5 ft of them (in other words, select one dice) and roll it. If it’s a 1-3, the fire goes down one dice size. If it’s not, well… better luck next time. This makes a fireball particularly devastating when it comes to ships. Fire damage does play into the sinking of a ship, forcing a sink dice roll if a ship is at 0 hp as mentioned above.

Developer's Log 0

Dev Log: Operation Hex Crawl

Things that are,

things that were,

and some things that may never be.

The Fiction

So the goal is to make a hex crawl game for 5E, right? In this I’m creating two things: a way to play and an adventure to use these rules in. The initial idea was simply just a card deck where each card was a new hex location, which would be a non-linear, location based adventure where I could count on nothing happening sequentially. The rest of the rules started coming in when I realized I needed to give players mechanics for interacting with these cards and how to hex crawl in general. This blog post deals with the fiction of the adventure. 

First, let’s start with one of the biggest premises of Hex Crawling as I’m running it- the players are there to explore. They don’t know what’s around the bend and finding that out is part of the excitement. The fiction of this game has to support and be centered around this core concept. I also wanted to stick with the idea that civilization is generally safe while the wilds are generally not. If I have people starting in this safe town, it brings up two questions: why do they want to leave and explore, and why haven’t they (or anyone else) done it yet?

Being as this is a fantasy game, I opted for the easy way out: magic. 

Seriously, though. 

I started putting together the city in my mind. It’s working title right now is Godsmark. It has been sealed off from the rest of the world for one thousand and one years by magic as a means to protect it. This means life went on as normal in Godsmark, but who knows what happened outside of it? Yes, I absolutely think this has been influenced by this quarantine. Six months or so isn’t that different than 1001 years, right?

Why was the city closed off? I started with this question to inform my fiction, which in turn will feed into my mechanics. So before the city was closed off, the mad God Grund went… well, mad. He spread chaos throughout the land, warping it and changing its inhabitants. Refugees fled to Godsmark where the great Wizard, Ravenschild, cast the spell to shield it from the outside world. No one in, no one out. 

This gives us a big uncertain situation. What the hell did Grund do out there while everyone was stuck inside? Any information from the before times can’t be trusted anymore, right? While the people of Godsmark were confined to the city, the world changed drastically around them in ways they couldn’t’ expect. As the game takes place right after the magical protection ends, people are going to be excited to see what’s out there, and perhaps a little scared. 

Somewhere along the way, I had an idea relating to the whole aspect of “civilization=safe/ wilds=danger”. Godsmark is going to be this safe place amidst a sea of traps, encounters, nature, dungeons, and other bad things. I won’t lie; I definitely thought a little bit about Sigil in this moment. What if Godsmark used to be the city of a god of travel? They left long ago, leaving the city behind because traveller’s gonna travel, right? Their legacy is the city’s many portals.

The problem is that no one knows how they work. They were sealed off just like everything else was and they seem to be a one way route leading into the city. Most people don’t even know where they are. Some may be obvious, others might be through the oven at the bakery or an innocuous looking archway. Now that the city is open again, so are the portals. The idea behind this was to make safety and portals a resource. Knowledge of these bad boys really is power. 

If the PCs find a portal out in the wilds that leads back to Godsmark, they have a new path they can use. Let’s say it’s like ten hexes away. Going with the idea that resting isn’t easy or safe  in the wilds and that supplies are incredibly necessary, knowing there is a portal that can lead you to safety can be a game changer. You no longer need enough food and water to travel to that far off hex and back again, you just need enough to get to the portal. In a game where encumbrance will be a focal point, that seems pretty important. 

The portals will need keys, of course. Maybe a magic word, perhaps an item worn as you pass through them. These keys will be worked into different hexes, meaning the pieces of these puzzles might be quite spread out. This is just another reason to go exploring. You know there is a portal but you haven’t found the key? By the logic of the game, it’s out there somewhere. 

This is how the fiction of Godsmark came to be. The mechanics and story needed a way to play together. Sure, there is a lot more to flesh out. I love world building, but I’m going to try and resist the urge to get into really small bits of minutia. Well, at least in the core game. I can’t promise I’m not going to blog about it. I will try and make sure whatever fiction I present has some mechanical effects. It is a game after all. 

What ideas did this spawn in you? What do you want Godsmark and it’s surrounding chaos lands to hold? I’m looking forward to exploring this all by writing, hopefully as much as you look forward to playing it. If you have ideas, hit me up. Someday, in a post Corona world, I look forward to leaving my own Godsmark and seeing what our new normals are. What a time to be alive, huh?

Developer's Log 0

Operation Hex Crawl

Things that are,

things that were,

and some things that may never be.

Survival and Exploration

It occurs to me, as I get older, that I came into RPG gaming at a very specific time. I cut my teeth on 2nd ed AD&D. Things had moved away from the original editions to something with more customization and rules for every situation. The amount of books released during 2E was staggering, and I’m not sad about it. The game had yet to move to it’s more streamlined present, and one could expect to either make a lot of calls on the fly or flip a lot of pages.

In those very first games I played, I learned how to play by watching. The DM set a stage, and then the players showed me what was possible. More importantly, they showed me what was expected. The flow of the game made sense because I got to see other people do it. This is something that isn’t really written into the rules – at least not anymore. I never much thought about the importance of it until reading about Game Structure  on The Alexandrian. The series of articles really turned my thinking on its head. 

I had a lot of takeaways from it, but one of the biggest, and most pertinent to my current discussion, is that if you give players a tool, they will use it. Let’s examine what that means.

Give a player a tool and they’ll use it. 

If you are making an RPG and give players a strength skill, strength is suddenly important. If you give them a perception skill, suddenly perception is something they’ll use. If you give them a fishing skill, guess what they’ll do when they get to a river? Probably something horrible at first, but eventually, they’re going to want to fish. You can almost think of each tool like this as a mini game. Do you want to lift heavy things? Do you want to know if you see something? Want to fish? Play the appropriate mini game using the appropriate skill and see what happens!

Consequently, this is one of the things I really liked about 2E: Non weapon proficiencies! (Yes, I know they technically started in 1E.) The list of these is incredible. In 5E, you have the catch all survival skill. In 2E, you have Survival, Tracking, Set Snares, Mountain-fricken-eering… It’s intense. You needed to use a proficiency slot to read and write, otherwise you were illiterate – and I fricken loved it.

For me, it was less about what you couldn’t do and more about what you could. If you have the charioteering non-weapon proficiency, chances are you’re going to want to drive a chariot. Yes, land based vehicles covers that currently, but is it as evocative? Do you see yourself racing a chariot through the city streets using it? What about Reading Lips? Perception would be the default today, but you know someone with Reading Lips is going to want to use it in all kinds of situations. 

Game Phases.. in the Dark

Let’s shift focus away from D&D for a moment and look at Blades in the Dark. This game does a lot of cool things, and I find it among my top RPGs at the moment. It does fast and dirty stories like no one’s business and flows really smoothly once you get into it. System aside, I really dig the gritty, thief ridden, pseudo-victorian, ghost world thing it has going on.  Seriously, it’s a great game. 

One of the things that really amazed me, however, was how they laid out the game structure early on. The game is played in distinct phases. There’s Free play, which encompases a lot of what we think of as standard RPG. Players can request scenes they want to have, they gather info, figure out what their next score will be, etc. This isn’t where too much of the action happens; that comes soon enough though… 

Post Free Play, you make an engagement roll. Long story short, this tells you where you’re going to start off in the adventure. It sets up the score phase, which comes next. The score phase starts off when your characters are already in the thick of things. The planning is over. Game play starts at the first obstacle and proceeds from there. A good engagement roll means things start off well for you: you’re sneaking past the guards, the target is already drunk and you try to guide them from the bar. A bad engagement roll means you’re already fighting those guards and the target has two big bodyguards around them.

Genius, really. 

After the score phase, which is the meat of the game, comes Downtime. This is the part that really amazed me. Downtime is a record keeping phase. While there can be some roleplaying in there, it involves a bunch of rolling on charts and doing upkeep. The world moves around you. Things just happen. As part of downtime, your character might get picked up by the police and roughed up. The crew can pay them off or suffer the consequences. This doesn’t happen through roleplaying; it’s just part of the game! It happens, it affects future scores, you deal with it and move on. 

Then there is all the record keeping. You can advance your crew’s stats at this point. You mark down how much you “heal”, take care of your vices, and move money around. Like… it’s an actual record keeping phase. It takes all the paperwork and makes a dedicated time for it. This makes it feel less like a chore, as it’s all tidy and gamified in some cool ways. You get downtime actions that you don’t play through. They just get you cool stuff (or get rid of less cool stuff for you).

Again… Genius. 

One last piece of this puzzle: Hexes

I’ve been enthralled by the idea of Hex Crawls ever since I read about Ben Robbin’s West Marches Campaign. The idea that you could write a story that wasn’t linear or chronological, but instead was locational, really excited me. The emphasis of the game became about exploration into the unknown. What was this land before you got here? Who are its inhabitants? What’s in that tower? This really played into my ideas about enticing the players with knowledge instead of xp or magic items. Like, that’s why we read books, right? No one rewards us with gold pieces after finishing a novel. We read it to find out what happens. We can also play to find out what is around us.

The Pot

Let me stir this whole stew together now. After having a discussion with Jezsika Le Vye (who is an absolutely outstanding fantasy artist – go and fall deep into her work!) and talking about what RPG content would look like on cards, I decided to create a Hex Crawl card deck. Each card would be a different hex. Think about it: in reality, it’s an adventure module, just with the locations randomized and presented in card deck form. The DM doesn’t have to read forward on anything; they just have to focus on the singular scenario on the card in front of them. They learn the adventure as the PCs do. It gets to be the survival hex crawl campaign of my dreams, but all in small digestible pieces. 

You may have noticed that Crumbling Keep has a thing for small digestible pieces

But here’s the thing: 5E doesn’t have the game structure to support this, at least not in the way I want it to. This was going to need to be more about making a card deck; it’s going to have to provide rules and structure for how to play this way. How many hexes can we go through? What happens during camp? How do I fish? (You think I’m kidding about fishing? I am so incredibly serious.)

The goal is to have that old school hexcrawl feel, but with the 5E sensibilities. I want it to flow. I don’t want it to feel like doing taxes, and it doesn’t have to. Blades in the Dark taught me how to get around that. There can be phases – I can’t wait to tell you about the “camp” phase! This Hex Crawl business is going to be awesome, and I’m so excited about it!

This is the first of the Devlogs related to it. They’ll be more coming out as I flesh out more ideas surrounding it. Inventory management, food, hunting, what do rations look like, traveling… there’s a lot on this plate right now, and it looks like a real pretty feast. 

Thoughts? Questions? Drop a comment. Let’s chat. I’m open to inspiration, so if you know systems and games which do this well, lemme know. 

See you in the undiscovered country side.