Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Dungeons & Dawn Patrol

I seem to be getting older every damn day. It used to be that I wouldn’t think twice of starting a six or eight hour session of D&D at 8pm or later. Now I can turn into a big grumpy butt if I don’t get to bed before 10 or 11. When a session runs late I reach a point where I just want to stop, no matter what is going at the table. At some point into the night I’m no longer interested in bringing the session to a logical stopping point. Finding a ‘good place’ to end the game invariably involves at least 30 more minutes of play. And by the time I start thinking about ending the session I’m already starting to run out of steam, so those last 30 minutes will probably involve the shoddiest GMing of the night. Clearly, there’s got to be a better way to bring a session to a close.

Back when I ran my gonzo 3.5 game there were a few sessions where near the end of the night I found myself fading fast in the middle of a bigass tactically-crunchy five-foot-stepping ‘combat’. ( I put the word ‘combat’ in scare quotes because the more distance I get from WotC’s idea of how battles work the less I see rules for fighting and the more I see some sort of hideous Kabuki Improv/Extreme Chess hybrid that has little to do with the blood and thunder I want out of a combat system.) So what I did back then was to arbitrarily declare the combat over: “And then the bad guys run away. End of session.” Not exactly the most dramatic of methods, but it got the job done.

With Labyrinth Lord and most of my favorite iterations of D&D long drawn-out combats aren’t that big of an issue. The combat system moves along at a better clip and the badguys actually do run away regularly thanks to the morale rules. I still don’t get why 3e/3.5 lacked morale rules. Moldvay and Mentzer had great morale rules, so much so that I’ve actually penciled Moldvay’s morale ratings into my copy of the OD&D monster book. AD&D’s morale rules were more fiddly and I could rarely find them in the DMG when I needed them, but they worked. Second edition’s morale rules were an improvement over first edition, but as I recall a sizeable chart of situational modifiers kept them from being as clean as Tom Moldvay’s version.

My real problem with old school D&D at the end of the night is the dungeon environment. What do you do if it’s past your bedtime and the players are still on level seven of the dungeon? In a modern set-up you could just freeze frame the game, make a note as to the room and level the party is on and pick back up in the dungeon next session. I have three objections to that arrangement. First, between sessions many players get ideas about things they want do at the start of the next game. If a player comes up with something pro-active like that I don’t want to tell them no unless absolutely necessary. Second, my plan for my next campaign is to run a no-commitment-required open table at the friendly local game store. Under that arrangement I can’t guarantee that session five’s table will have any of the players from session four.

Third, I don’t like the impression stopping in the middle of the dungeon gives the players. If we’re talking about a canned adventure or a smallish dungeon that they’re trying to clear in one go then I don’t mind too much. But for big honkin’ campaign-centerpiece mega-dungeons I just don’t like the message sent by stopping in the middle of the complex. Sure, the players all understand that the game is halted as if you pressed paused on a video game. But alongside that rational knowledge of metagame time management is the subtext that their characters are just hanging out in the dungeon for a couple of weeks, completely safe from harm until the players next sling dice. It’s not that hard to imagine the adventurers hanging around some dismal chamber, smoking cigs and playing cards until the players get back to the game. While pretty funny (especially if you imagine the monsters joining in the card game), that’s not exactly the image I want in my players’ heads. I want each visit to the dungeon to be a desperate battle of wits with half-illumined horrors, where just getting out alive is a victory.

All of three of these objections to ending a session deep in the dungeon have led me to consider some sort of half-baked house rules. I want to provide the players with a reason not to try “one last room” when we’re twenty minutes from the appointed end time for the session. OD&D Discussion Board regular korgoth offers a great take on solving the problem with his excellent Table of Despair. Dig it:

The Table of Despair

Directive: Roll a ten sided polyhedron and weep, mortal.

Lachrymose Catalogue of Results:

1-4: Thy flesh is consumed by underworld denizens!

5: Thou art lost to time and space.

6-8: Naked and bereft dost thou escape the nightmare below.

9-0: Thou emergeth unscathed!

I love that chart, but it’s designed for Empire of the Petal Throne. I’m told EPT tends to have pretty wicked dungeons, closer to the Tomb of Horrors or an average Call of Cthulhu hellhole as opposed to delightful little romps like the Caves of Chaos. So I’ve been kicking around other approaches to achieve the same basic effect. Enter Dawn Patrol.

Mike “St. Carmichael” Carr’s Dawn Patrol, originally known as Fight in the Skies, is a game of World War One dogfighting. When I’m feeling ornery I like to make the claim that “Triggerman” Carr actually created the first RPG product, not that Johnny-come-lately duo Gygax and Arneson. I feel half-justified in making such pronouncements because Fight in the Skies places a lot of emphasis on the pilots in a way that looks very familiar to modern role-players. Pilots are given individual names, tracked over multiple sessions and as they rack up experience they gain bonuses in combat. The pilots can also earn medals, promotions, and the opportunity to fly newer, better planes. But for my purposes here the most important part are the rules for being shot down over the front.

In Dawn Patrol if you are shot down over the front you have a 50% chance of escaping into friendly territory. Otherwise you make a d6 roll to see if you are captured or killed: 1-3 captured, 4-6 killed. If captured you get one roll at 1 in 6 odds of escaping capture to return to play. If you blow that roll your dude is a P.O.W. for the remainder of the war. Here’s where it gets interesting: “If a plane … is about 70% of the way to safety, then the chance of being killed or captured is only 30%”. I read that to mean that there’s a sliding scale of danger based upon how close you are to enemy lines. The default assumption of the game is that you’re dogfighting directly over No Man’s Land, so a downed plane could end up being controlled by either side at equal odds. But the closer you are to your own lines the better your chances of getting out alive when you’re shot down.

So for my new campaign I’m proposing that at the end of each session any character still in the dungeon must roll to see if they escape No Man’s Land. The basic roll is 50%, corresponding to situations where the character level matches the dungeon level. Each level’s difference alters the chances by 10%. So a fourth level character on the third level of the dungeon has a 60% chance of getting out unscathed, while a first level PC on level 3 only has a 30% chance of making it. A roll of ‘01’ always succeeds and ‘00’ always fails. A character with a greater than 100% chance to survive can share the love with lesser compadres, lowering their own chances to 100% and distributing the extra points as they see fit. Fly, you fools!

If you fail the percentage roll to escape, then you are sent to the table below:

Triple Secret Random Dungeon Fate Chart of Very Probable Doom (d20)

1. You lucky dog! You manage to somehow escape the dark forces of the dungeon. You return to civilization, naked and half-delirious.
2. Waitaminute, Lefty’s not right handed! Situation appears to be #1, but you’ve been replaced by a shapeshifting badguy.
3. Maimed. You escape but suffer the effects of a random critical hit. Also, 50% of your stuff is gone, randomly determined.
4. Alas, you are no more. If any comrades escape they are able to bring your remains and your stuff back to civilization.
5. Pining for the fjords. If any comrades escape they are able to bring your remains back to civilization, but your stuff is lost.
6. Dead as a doornail. The general location of your body is known to any surviving comrades.
7. Your stuff has become part of a dragon’s hoard and your body part of a dragon’s supper.
8. That is an ex-character. The location of your body is unknown to all.
9. Bought the farm. Your body and possessions irretrievable due to dragon fire, ooze acid, disintegrator beam, etc.
10. Also dead. Your body is irretrievable due to dragon fire, ooze acid, disintegrator beam, etc. but your stuff is still around for some other jerk to nab at a later date.
11. Held for ransom by seedy humans. A member of the Thieves Guild can arrange release for 1,000gp per character level. 1 in 6 chance the money disappears.
12. Captured by monsters. Escaping comrades know the level you were captured on and the type of monster holding you captive.
13. Captured by monsters. Escaping comrades know the level you were captured on, but not the type of monster involved.
14. Captured by monsters. Escaping comrades know the type of monster involved, but not what level to search.
15. Captured by monsters. Unseen monsters spirit you away to an unknown location.
16. A fate worse than death. Drafted into the ranks of the monsters. Roll d6: 1-2 undead, 3 lycanthrope, 4 charmed, 5 polymorphed, 6 other.
17. You and your stuff are sacrificed to the loathsome Frog Gods in order to gate in d6 Croaking Demons that are added to the dungeon key.
18. A gorgon or somesuch has petrified you. Escaping characters know what level to search for your statue.
19. Lost in the dungeon. GM sets your location each session. Re-enter play if the party finds you.
20. Opportunity for betrayal. Pick one other character who got away safe. Roll 1d6, 1-4 he takes your place and has to roll on this chart while you escape, 5-6 you both suffer the fate rolled by your victim.

Results 4 through 7 on the chart allow the surviving members of the expedition to swear vengeance against the killer(s), as per the You Shall Be Avenged! rule in the Cinder draft house rules. Result 3 offers the same option if you make it out of the dungeon only to succumb to some lethal critical hit effect.

Anyone who is captured gets one chance to escape on their own power. The base chance is 1 in 6, increased to 2 in 6 if their character level is higher than the dungeon level of their prison. Treat successful escapes as result ‘1’ on the chart above. If more than one PC is trying to escape, all escape rolls are at 2 in 6 (3 in 6 for higher level characters). If you don’t escape you must be rescued or maybe ransomed. For each session of play that you languish in captivity or wander lost there’s a 1 in 6 chance of some worse fate befalling you.


  1. That is absolutely awesome!

    I'm going to copy that table and make sure that players who need encouragement are fully familiar with it...

  2. ligedog9:22 PM

    I like it! I find myself stopping the game in the middle of the action a lot these days. Though I think I might give my players bonus xps if I thought they had thought of anything clever in the week(s) between sessions.

  3. "I put the word ‘combat’ in scare quotes because the more distance I get from WotC’s idea of how battles work the less I see rules for fighting and the more I see some sort of hideous Kabuki Improv/Extreme Chess hybrid that has little to do with the blood and thunder I want out of a combat system."

    That's the funniest thing I've read on the internet in three days!

    I'm with you on the losing steam late in the evening and just wanting to cut it off right there. I had to do it in my last Aces & Eights game and the players were a little miffed. A nice reaction, but I still felt like a jerk for not giving them the full meal gaming deal they deserved.

  4. Brilliant!

    I've run across that exact issue numerous times myself. Now I've got a wonderful "motivator".

    I wonder if this is too harsh a system to utilize in my daughters LL game? Hmmmm....

  5. Now I recall holing up in the Golden Frog temple's hidden room at least twice during the Mungeon of Moom. Of course, Jim had more trouble getting out of the dungeon than I did. Or rather, I got out earlier than he did.

  6. Anonymous1:45 AM

    Fantastic! It's everything I'd been hoping for. Thank you, as always, for sharing with us.

  7. Anonymous4:11 AM

    I like it, though it is a bit harsh. Still it gives something for the players to agonize over while they wait for the next session.

  8. Interesting. What happens if you get a result of "20", but nobody else made it out?

  9. Love it. Consider it stolen for personal use! I love the betrayal of a 20.

  10. "I put the word ‘combat’ in scare quotes because the more distance I get from WotC’s idea of how battles work the less I see rules for fighting and the more I see some sort of hideous Kabuki Improv/Extreme Chess hybrid that has little to do with the blood and thunder I want out of a combat system."

    LMFAO... i'm going to have to have a 'Kabuki Improv/Extreme Chess hybrid' skill challenge now in my next session... the PCs are captured, and are forced to put on a show... bwhahhahaha... OK.. back to reading the rest of your post..

  11. This is great stuff, and frankly puts the "game" back in role-playing game.

  12. I did somthing similar in my first sandbox game. Though the rule was much much shorter: If you did not leave the dungeon by the end of the session, you were dead. This is much better, and I never considered anything outside of "you are dead."

  13. What happens if you get a result of "20", but nobody else made it out?

    Probably a reroll, unless the player is astute enough to say something like "What about the dwarves on level 3 we befriended? I throw one of them under the bus!"

  14. All I can say is "We're not worthy".

    Still stealing it though. In fact my "rpg notes" file is half filled with stuff from your blog now.

    You really should publish a compendium "Cinder Rules" (pun intended) someday.

  15. My wife now hates you for creating this chart. She rolled a 17.


    Coincidentally she was escaping the cavernous lair of the demon toads when she got lost in the wilderness and had to roll on the table.

  16. hewhosaysfish9:14 AM

    One potential problem I can see is that either you have to try and ensure that the end of the session lines up nicely with a logical in-character point to turn back (which, correct me if I'm wrong, is exactly the kind of hoop you don't want to have to jump through) or face a situation where the PCs will be tromping through a dungeon when suddenly they throw up their hands and cry
    "Oh no! A completely arbitrary point in time! This has absolutely no significance but we must now flee for our lives lest we be overcome by some as-yet-unspeciified doom! Flee! Flee before the rocks fall and we die!"

    This seems to me to be an even harder kick in the suspension of disbelief than the whole "characters hanging around playing cards for two weeks" issue.
    Harder because it is happening as an explicit and accepted event in the game world, while the cards thing is just speculation at the back of a player's mind.

    Worse, in my experience, players in any game are more willing to accept a potential blow to their suspension of disbelief (and by "accept" I don't just mean "put up with", I mean "take things as present and not even notice the problem") when it's something that works in their favour than when it's something that harms them.

  17. But the problem is having characters remaining in the dungeon between sessions. He can't have them hanging out in there because the next game Party B may encounter them and the Party A players aren't around to roleplay.

    Alternately, a few players from Party A play every session, which leaves the remaining Party A players standing around in the dark and the damp while the session continues.

    So he's including an incentive to get them out. Something that encourages them to want to leave rather than him just saying that they were forced to escape to the surface at the end of every session.

    One answer may be to create horrific conditions in the mythic underworld that surface-dwellers cannot abide. But those conditions can be pushed back to a reasonable radius by the Light of Largo or whatever sun-deity you have. The PCs on the surface can get the High Priest of Largo to fill up their chalice with sunlight, which keeps the mythic underworld aura back. But the light lasts a variable amount of time - until right about when the session ends.

    Now if they escape before the Light extinguishes, no problem. If the Light extinguishes and they're still in the dungeon, the darkness closes in and it's every delver for himself. The hungry roars of far-off monsters, the tentacles of darkness clutching at your sputtering torches, the sudden profusion of slimes and fungus, all of it combines to create a madcap dash to the surface. Or death / some misfortune if you fail to get there in time. This escape is modeled by the percentile roll for escape. If you fail to escape completely, you roll d20 to determine how poorly you failed (maybe only a little failure) and the precise result.

    This encourages exploration to find shortcuts, secret passages, and alternate ways down that can skip dungeon levels. Ideally, a party will be able to hang out on the first level of the dungeon long enough to get their feet wet, escaping easily every session. Early on they'll find the stairs down to the second level. But they should find a shortcut from the second level to the fourth, and later on they may open up a previously-blocked shortcut from level 1 to level 3 or even level 5. This way, with decent maps, the party that wants to adventure on the 5th level will have to shuffle through only a few rooms on level 1 to get to the 1-3 shortcut, then a few rooms on level 3 to get to the 3-5 shortcut.

    And think of the entrance to level 5 as the "way out" if they've already fought their way in that far. By taking the shortcuts they reduce the time they waste getting down there. But if they get down there, the way above should be clear. Short wandering monsters, but we can ignore that at the end of the session. So you really don't need to get back to the surface, just the level entrance you came in from.


  18. ...

    If you want to worry about random encounters on the already-trailblazed levels above, roll once per level and place a rolled encounter on the transition 50% of the time, or else an intersection between the two access points on that level. You shouldn't have more than one encounter, and players should try to avoid random encounters in most cases anyway. They just have an extra incentive to do so at the end of the night.

    But you have to put a definite limit on when the session will end. Players need to stay on top of things. One method might be to set an alarm on your cell phone or watch for 15 minutes till end, and when it goes off (silently) the DM tells the party their Light Chalice is faltering. I'd recommend doing this anyway just so they know they don't have to watch the clock. 15 mins should be enough to flee an existing battle and get to the stairs.

    At first I wanted to go easier on them on the uppermost floors, since theyre so close to the surface and probably low-level if theyre up there. But wait! Low-level characters die easily, so we want to model that. Also the dungeon after the first room in is the mythic underworld - it's that faint circle of light above you that represents freedom. You can be snatched back at the last moment by ravenous darkness! Finally, you include a bonus chance to escape in the percentage roll for characters on a dungeon level too easy for their character level. If the 5th level PCs escape to the first floor, and get bogged down by a random encounter when the final buzzer goes off, you end the session and roll the escape percentage for each of them. But it's 90% each because they're 4 levels above the dungeon level. So you see? It all works out.

    I definitely like this, and if I ever run a standard megadungeon this will be a part of it.