TURN: Post Mortem

 

I released TURN last week, on April 20 [1]. TURN is a trifold pamphlet that offers a generic (i.e., system-neutral or whatever) dungeon crawl procedure. It takes inspiration from the original hazard die from the blog Necropraxis [2], as well as the event die from the Errant ruleset [3]. It even takes certain cues from the original Dungeons & Dragons, though this might not be as readily apparent. Here is the explanation of the random turn procedure which is on the back of the pamphlet:

The function of the event die is to simulate the book-keeping of classic dungeon crawl games via random rolls. In doing so, it encapsulates in one table the totality of the classic procedural dungeon crawl: i.e., random encounters, resource management, and countdowns for spells and light sources. Only one of these events was randomly determined prior to the innovation of the event die. The rest required stringent time-keeping and note-taking.

Each turn taken risks any one of the six now-random outcomes, each posing an obstacle to the adventurer hopeful for treasure underground. Some events are, of course, more costly than others. Regardless, the more time you spend in the dungeon, the more resources you expend and the more harm you risk to your character’s self.

This pamphlet does not offer rules typically given in a book. You probably know well enough the consequences of exhaustion or the impact of a weapon. Besides, the procedure described herein is in itself a self-contained ’game’ of risk over time. You need only something for which you would risk life and limb.

In this post, I want to talk about some of the decisions I made for this pamphlet, with a view to my own preferences and also to how I think it serves as training wheels for anyone who wants to dip their toes into more procedural play (that is, play whose activities are guided by an overarching structure that facilitates interesting decision-making).

Exploration

The exploration procedure has four looping steps. The first is that the referee describes the surroundings of the players’ characters; I point out that this is not just a one-sided narration, but it can also consist of back-and-forth questioning (which is all the more interesting if these questions are explored by the characters in the imaginary world, not just posed as such by the players). I hope by pointing out that decisions should be informed ones, the pamphlet encourages open conversation between the players and the referee. I’m not a believer in rules texts, but I’ve noticed often if you don’t spell things out, sometimes people will follow things to the latter. That’s the last thing you want for a game where the only limits are those of language and of imagination.

The second and third steps are combined; they are technically discrete moments of play in practice, but I didn’t think it was worth writing separate descriptions for “You can do X, Y, or Z” and “This is how you do X, Y, or Z.” So, they are given in one explanation. I point out, with respect to movement, that long passages probably require more event dice to be rolled because they take more time to traverse. On the flip side, I mention that there is the possibility of small actions that probably do not take the duration of a full turn, but it’s for this reason that they are likely not actions significant enough to worry about keeping track of. I don’t want people to think about the turn as a restrictive structure, but as a way to model risk taken per time spent in the dungeon.

I give two examples of typical dungeon tasks: opening stuck doors, and searching an area. For this topic, the last thing I wanted to do was to suggest that players do strength checks or intelligence checks to attempt tasks as individuals. Instead, I am sort of simplifying the action economy of the original D&D. In that ruleset, you could assign three characters to open a door, each having a 2-in-6 chance of success. Likewise, you could assign characters to search a 10’ by 10’ square (one square inch on a tabletop). I like my version better because I think 50-50 odds are more fair. I think also matching characters into pairs is more fun and, for lack of a better word, intimate. Since there are less players in games now than there were back then, I think it’s also necessary to adjust the odds a bit. The benefits of using just six-sided dice for this are, I think, self-evident. You can just iterate from task to task, rolling as many dice as there are characters assigned to it.

The final step is rolling the event die. I actually had a discussion with my friends about this because we disagreed about when, in the turn procedure, should the event die be rolled. I like rolling at the end because I feel like it sort of punctuates the turn. Some of them liked rolling the event die in the middle of the turn, potentially interrupting action resolution. There being a divisive debate at all was what made me stick to my original order of operations, because I figured that if anyone disliked it then they could just do it how they wanted. Besides, I feel like the possibility for actions to fail already introduces the possibility that the party will be caught in the act of doing whatever it is they’re doing. To me, it’s a matter of how you narrate it.

Events (d6)

These events are probably not new to anyone who’s played this way before, but I’d like to think that I’ve innovated upon the typical set in a way that facilitates more diegetic play and less book-checking.

In particular, I wanted to look at the exhaustion and depletion events. The former is kind of a holdover from early D&D that has persisted even into the hazard dice of Necropraxis and the event dice of Errant. There’s usually an unspoken rule that if you roll the same result on an event die twice, you should ignore it for realism’s sake and also because it gets repetitive. Another solution is one I’ve seen by Gus L., taking cues from D&D Fifth Edition, where points of exhaustion are accumulated and only after certain thresholds are reached do they prove detrimental. My own solution was to rely on very simple state-tracking, using a buffer state between the default and the detriment. Characters become tired before they become exhausted. This means it takes two rolls of that event to start feeling its bad effects. This has the potential to create disparities between players’ characters, since there’s no reason that some characters can rest and not others.

The depletion event, which causes light sources to burn out, operates on a similar logic but only for lanterns. At first, I was just going to say it was true of torches and then say nothing about other light sources. I decided instead that it’s okay for torches to be a light source that you just burn through. I think giving lanterns this basically structural advantage (i.e., that they dim before they burn out) over torches makes them more compelling as a choice of light source. I could have instead specified that lanterns have X number of depletions, but I think getting into numbers makes the whole thing more finicky and less graceful.

We’re all familiar with the random encounter at this point.

Encounters

I offered a procedure for encounters without rules for combat. I felt clever about it. On one hand, I feel like—seeing how many ultralight rulesets there are now—we are all now well acquainted with every possible way to representing swinging a sword with dice and math. On the other hand, I think the absence of these rules is sort of conspicuous and thus significant. I’ve always been of the opinion that if combat is a state for which you risk death, then the typical model of hit points fails us in representing an immanent risk of death. So, what happens if they’re out of the picture and you have to make the choice to supply them? What if you just don’t? I’m excited to see what mishaps happen.

I list the encounter procedure as having four steps, but the first three of these are done once at the beginning of the encounter and not again. The procedure is ultimately a setup routine rather than a loop, at least with respect to what's formally defined. The first step is determining the type of encounter. I offer a template for a 2d6 table, where entries towards the middle are weaker but more numerous; the entries on the extremes, however, are in smaller numbers but pose greater threats as individuals. I suggest, basically, using one half of the table for ‘monster’ enemies proper (i.e., beasts) and the other half for intelligent ‘humanoid’ entries. This was my attempt at, on one hand, trying to recommend that encounters represent a sort of conflict endemic to the ecosystem of the dungeon. Sometimes, conflicts are between factions. Here, I opted for a sort of nature versus civilization conflict because that seems stereotypical of the D&D fiction. It’s enough to work with.

The reaction table was fun for me to figure out. I wanted to encode a way to make sure to, again, push out of their comfort zone people who follow things to the letter. I think 2d6 plus or minus 1 depending on context does well enough for this. It poses, at least, the question of what context is there? Should they react more positively or negatively to the party’s presence? It happens also that a +1 causes a negative reaction only 1-in-6 times, so it feels fair as far as you’d expect random reaction to go (if you were certain about an outcome, why would you roll about it?). I specify for the neutral outcome that reaction should be rerolled upon receiving more context. I hope this encourages people to not feel confused by such a result, and instead to view it as the NPC party itself being sort of confused or unsure of where to go next.

Originally, with surprise, I had written that there’s a 2-in-6 chance (like in the original D&D). I even tried to see if I could fit variable numbers of surprise rounds as per AD&D, because I think that’s fun. However, when I rewrote the action economy for the exploration procedure, I reevaluated whether the chance of success here shouldn’t also be 50-50. It at least feels like more of a gamble, and makes trying to surprise someone more worthwhile. So, you know, why not? I specify that light and noise eliminate the chance of surprise entirely. Something I haven’t seen before is a specification that the party cannot be unsurprised if no one is paying attention to the party’s surroundings, by being busy. I hope this interacts in interesting ways with the action economy laid out before, since it basically says, “You need someone to keep watch or else you will be surprised.”

Finally, with the initiative step, we reach the repetitive loop of combat where now we’re exchanging blows until one side gives up or is dead. I mention giving up first because I think that should be an option upfront. As for the specifics of the encounter itself, again, I think it’s interesting to not offer any specifics about how it should be done. Maybe you have a ruleset you’re plugging together with this (God knows how many rulesets offer only rules, not structure), maybe you don’t. This pamphlet doesn’t really care, and I think that’s what makes it interesting.

I hope this sheds light on my decisions in putting together this thing, and I hope you all find it useful! In a later post—actually, in a couple of different posts—my own issues with event dice will come up, pertaining especially to how they no longer have the possibility of independent events converging and becoming even worse. However, I think this is a version of the event die that I’m happy and willing to compromise with. It at least does what it says on the tin, which is to reduce book-keeping and note-taking for what can otherwise be very tedious.


[1] https://traversefantasy.itch.io/turn

[2] https://www.necropraxis.com/2017/11/22/hazard-system-v0-3/

[3] https://errantrpg.carrd.co/#procedures

Comments

  1. This is a nice little project, helpfully narrowing in on an aspect of play that is often present in books but just as often glossed over or poorly understood. Developing it in isolation is a neat idea. :D

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