Bill White's roleplaying game design blog, with emphasis on narrativist or story-heavy games.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Fourth Age: Story-Gaming D&D

The heart of this idea is formalizing the “quest” (as discussed in the DMG), which links encounters to the game-world via the medium of the characters. It makes each encounter meaningful in the larger scheme of things, and gives players a lot of power to help author the game-world. It turns D&D into rather more of a pick-up game while at the same time attempting to preserve the coherence of the fantasy campaign.

Things begin with an oracle; in this case, the Deck of Many Things, a minor artifact from 1st edition days. Each card is assigned a canonical deity from the PHB. This leaves two cards without deities, so we get to "customize" the campaign by creating new ones--actually borrowed from my old 1st edition campaign as well.

The Deck of Many Things

  • Balance – Bahamut, the Platinum Dragon – justice, nobility, honor, protection.
  • Comet – Avandra, Goddess of Change – luck, travel, trade, merchants, adventure.
  • Donjon – Torog, the King that Crawls – the underworld, imprisonment.
  • Euryale – Zehir, the Serpent-King – darkness, poison, assassins, serpents.
  • Fates – Zerasho, Goddess of Fate [non-canon] – destiny, fulfillment, life course.
  • Flames – Bane, God of War – war, conquest, conflict.
  • Fool – Melora, the Wild Queen – the wilderness, the sea.
  • Gem – Tiamat, Goddess of Hoards – wealth, greed, vengeance (Alternately: Avandra; Tiamat is Comet)
  • Idiot – Tharizdun, the Mad God – annihilation, madness.
  • Jester – Corellon, the Fey King – arcane magic, beauty, arts, spring.
  • Key – Moradin, God of the Smithy – creation, artisans, family.
  • Knight – Kord, Lord of Battles – storms, strength, battle.
  • Moon – Sehanine, Lady of the Moon – trickery, love, autumn.
  • Rogue – Lolth, Queen of Lies – spiders, shadows, lies.
  • Ruin – Gruumsh, the Destroyer – turmoil, destruction.
  • Skull – Vecna, the Necromancer – secrets, undeath.
  • Star – Ioun, Goddess of Wizards – knowledge, prophecy, skill.
  • Sun – Pelor, the Sun Lord – agriculture, time, summer.
  • Talons – The Raven Queen – death, doom, winter.
  • Throne – Asmodeus, Lord of the Nine Hells – power, domination.
  • Vizier – Erathis, the Muse – civilization, invention, laws.
  • Void – Pazuzeus, the Soul Eater [non-canon] – chaos, entropy, emptiness

Starting the Campaign. Begin by laying out the “core assumptions” of D&D—that is, many races that mainly get along, a fallen empire, surviving “points of light” in a sea of darkness, and so forth—to the players so that everyone is on the same page. If you want to change these assumptions, now is the time to discuss that.

Take the Deck of Many Things and a blank piece of paper—preferably a big sheet, like posterboard. This is the World Map. Deal out three cards to each player (including yourself if you have enough cards). 

Tell each player: Take two of the cards and combine them in order to create a location on the map. The location can be a city, a landmark, a homeland, or a wilderness, e.g.

For example: Imagine a player decides to use Flames (war) and Idiot (annihilation and madness) in combination. He imagines a region that was once the seat of the Empire brought low in an orgy of violent destruction as rival factions descended into paroxysms of slaughter and devastation. Now all that is left is the remnants of those factions, huddled miserably in an impoverished land called the Cassecouer (the Broken Heart). The player outlines the boundaries of the Cassecouer on the map, sketching a ruined castle on a hill.

Tell each player: Now take the third card and, create an event that took place in a location you didn’t create; this can be a war, a reign or an abdication, a disaster, a romance, a migration, a birth, a death, a life, or anything else your imagination can come up with. Note the event on the map.

For example: Imagine a different player decides to use her card to create an event for the Cassecouer. She has Skull (secrets, undeath) in her hand and lays it down. She describes an event she calls “the Ravening,” when covens of necromancers unleashed their secretly amassed zombie legions upon the land. She draws a stick-figure zombie shambling within the borders of the Cassecouer, and writes, “Beware! The legions of the Ravening are yet girt for battle.”

Collect the cards and shuffle the deck. Deal out two cards to each player. The first card is their character’s patron; the second is their character’s nemesis. The player can read the cards however they like to create their character’s background or motivation or both.

For example, imagine that a player draws Knight (storms, strength, battle) as his patron and Euryale (darkness, poison, assassins, serpents) as his nemesis. The player could say that his character is a dwarven cleric, fighter, or warlord sworn to Kord and engaged in a long struggle in the darkness against foes aligned with Zehir. Alternately, the character is a fighter with a high strength who has to struggle not to use his strength to evil ends: the darkness he fights is within himself. Yet again, the character may be a rogue who thrives on chaos (storms) but is either haunted by deaths she has caused or pursued by a hateful assassin in the employ of enemies she has made.

Playing the Game. Start the first session by coming up with a starting situation that incorporates the backgrounds and motivations created by the players. If necessary, throw a card to prompt your creativity. Let the fiction drive the starting situation for subsequent gaming sessions.

Sessions are divided into encounters and interstitials. Encounters are either battle scenes or skill challenges. Interstitials are how you get from encounter to encounter, and include role-playing as well as meta-game elements.

Quests. During an interstitial, quests can be created. A player takes an index card and writes a phrase like “Uncover the source that sustains the Ravening” on it. The format can be generalized as [Action] {Object}; e.g., [Uncover] {the source that sustains the Ravening}.

Quests are designated either as major or minor. It takes the consensus of all the players to create a major quest. There can be no more than two major quests in play at any given time. There can be as many minor quests in play as there are players at the table.

A major quest must take as its object something indicated on the world map; a minor quest can have anything as its object.

Major Quest: [Free] {the Cassecouer} [from oppression].

Minor Quest: [Convince] {my family} [that I’m worthy of their respect].

The player creating the quest gives it a level (which in this case amounts to how much effort it takes to complete the quest). Quests are completed by finishing encounters; each level of encounter can be allocated to one quest after it’s successfully finished. So, for example, a fourth-level encounter that has been completed successfully allows four levels to be distributed among the various quests that the party is pursuing. This allocation is done by consensus of the party, and should be accompanied by some rationalization, justification, or other reference to the events of the encounter.

A major quest requires its level times three worth of encounter levels to complete. A minor quest requires its level in encounter levels to complete. So a third level major quest can be completed with a level five and two level two encounters (which equal nine encounter levels) while a fourth level minor quest could be completed with a single fourth level encounter. Each character would be awarded 150 xp for completing a major third-level quest; if there were five players, each would receive 35 xp for completing a minor fourth-level quest.

When a minor quest is completed, players split xp equal to the value of a single standard monster of that level. When a major quest is completed, each player gains xp equal to the value of a single standard monster of that level.

Additionally, the quest may be resolved narratively by drawing a card from the Deck of Many Things and reading it as the (successful) conclusion of the quest. If at any time the party decides to abandon a quest, draw a card and read it as the result of their failure to act.

The Encounter Deck.  This consists of 10 cards. If the party is first level, the deck contains four Level 1 cards, three Level 2 cards, two Level 3 cards, and one Level 4 card. At the beginning of the interstitial, draw a card to determine the strength of the next encounter; at the end of the encounter, increase the level of the card by one and put it in a discard pile. At the end of the session, or after drawing the last card, shuffle the discards back into the encounter deck.

Battle Scenes. As per the DMG: multiply the number of players by the standard xp per monster for the encounter level to determine the DM’s budget for including adversaries, hazards, and obstacles. Play out the encounter; award xp for winning, half xp for losing.

Skill Challenges. The players must succeed at N skill rolls before failing three times; the skill rolls are DC 10 at 1st level and increase by 2.5 points per level (rounded down), so DC 12 at 2nd level, DC 15 at 3rd level, DC 17 at 4th, DC 20 at 5th, and so forth. You can opt to set up the skill challenge so that it’s more rolls at lower DCs or fewer rolls at higher DCs. The challenge is worth xp equal to the sum of the DCs times 10; a failed challenge is worth half the xp.

Players get to describe what they’re doing to face the challenge or help another player instead. Players who make a daring effort (+5 DC) are awarded an action point if they succeed. Players can attempt a skillful recovery at +5 DC by spending an action point; success negates a failure.

Treasure Tokens (Green). Both battle scenes and skill challenges generate “treasure tokens ” equal to the level of the encounter. During an interstitial, the party can decide to spend treasure tokens to roll on a treasure table in the DMG. This decision doesn’t have to be unanimous; in fact, a single player could decide to spend the party’s treasure tokens in order to find a treasure while off somewhere alone. This is a time-honored D&D trope with origins in Bilbo's finding the Ring.

Spend tokens equal to the party’s level for one roll on the table equal to the party’s level, equal to half the party’s level for one roll on the table equal to its level minus one, and equal to twice the party’s level for one roll on the table equal to its level plus one.

Optionally, for a particular session the GM may wish to create treasure cards reflecting the particular treasures that may be found, each with its own treasure token cost. Once all treasure cards are awarded, no more treasure is available and treasure tokens are ignored.

Blood Tokens (Red). Whenever a player blows a d20 roll, he or she takes a “blood token.” These can be used later for +2 to a d20 roll (e.g., skill roll, attack, or save) or +1 to damage. The token can be spent after the d20 roll but must be spent before a damage roll. Blood tokens go away after any brief rest.

Interstitials. Interstitials are used for meta-gaming: creating quests, buying equipment, conducting rituals, acquiring treasure and magic items, and resting either briefly or for an extended time. Remember that rests are a game-mechanical rather than a purely narrative or in-game device; it’s possible for days and days to pass, but if the players desire, they can assert that no rest has taken place.

Interstitials are also used for setting up the next encounter. Draw a card from the Deck of Many Things and read it when the characters embark upon a course of action and you’re not sure of the consequences, when they’re looking for information and you’re not sure of the answers, or when they’re wondering what happens next. Read the card with an eye towards creating the next challenge for the characters.

Travel is particularly appropriate as an interstitial event. Give each player a card and let them narrate it as a person, place, object, or event that they experience in their travels. Allow them to add to the world map as they move forward. Similarly, while they are “in town,” do the same thing, but allow them to read the card as their experiences in the town, possibly creating a separate city map upon which to record the people, places, and things they meet.

Action Points (Blue).


Bruce said...

Hi Bill

Very nice technique. Thanks for sharing.

I haven't commented here before but now seems like a good time to say that, since first reading Ganakagok and Rune Saga on your blog some years ago, I've very much been a fan of the sort of oracular card mechanics you seem to favour. Done right they are a fantastic means of stimulating the imagination and you obviously have a talent for assigning fruitful meanings to such systems. I'm hugely impressed.

It's great to see you around and posting again. And I very much hope that you've got more great ideas to share along these lines.

Thanks again and keep up the great work



Bill White said...

Bruce --

Thanks for your comment. I really appreciate it -- it's pure validation! I think oracular mechanics are beginning to gain favor with gamers for exactly the reason you suggest, and I hope to explore them further.

-- Bill

Bruce said...

Hi Bill

Kind of 'off topic' for this post but what the heck.

I was wondering what the situation was with the revised version of Ganakagok? When's it likely to be available? How different is it from the previous version?

I also wanted to ask whether you had any plans for Rune Saga, which I really liked the idea of?

And, do you have anything else coming up that I should be looking out for?

Many thanks


Bill White said...

Hi Bruce --

Revised Ganakagok is "in layout" -- my friend Dave is revising the cards and typesetting the game. I expect him to be finished by mid-July, and I have printers in mind for both the book and the cards (though there's some uncertainty about the latter that I expect to be cleared up by the time the cards are ready). I hope to have the game available through IPR by mid-August or so.

The new version of the game is much tighter procedurally, much more playable "straight out of the box," so to speak. There are more examples and more advice to the GM, and the "metaplot mechanics" for advancing the time from Night to Morning work much more smoothly, with fewer moving parts. The revised cards will be cleaner looking and the text will be re-arranged so that the important stuff is bigger and more legible.

As far as what's next is concerned, Dave and I have been talking about a time travel game. Your interest in Rune Saga has made me think that I should dust that off and playtest it this summer to see what it needs and what I can do with it.

Bruce said...


Thanks for the reply.

The revisions sound cool. I reckon I'll be updating to the new improved version of Ganakagok in August then!

And I'd certainly like to see you develop Rune Saga some more. That would be great! If I could get a group together I'd have a go at playtesting it myself.

Anyway, I hope you'll keep updating the blog with thoughts and developments. It's always really interesting to hear your ideas.

Many thanks once again


Raven Daegmorgan said...

Just came across this today. Love it, quite creative, and gives me a reason to take out that DoMT I received with Dragon magazine oh-so-many-years-ago. Also reminds me a bit of the Mythic Game Master Emulator, but set-up for D&D specifically.

Robert said...

Hi, Bill!

I found this page by searching for your house rules after listening to the full recording of your session on, which I listened to after listening to Virtual Play #34, which was linked from Narrative Control #39. You or your brother should add a link from VP#34 to this blog entry; my finding it was a bit of a fluke, and I'm sure others who enjoyed that podcast would love to see these thoughts.

I really like the ideas here and in your AP recording, and am itching to try them out on my group next time we need a pick-up game at short notice, or with my kids next school holidays. Thanks!

If you're still playing your game, I'd love to hear more recordings. Also, you had the brief confusion about readying an action early on in the game... I've done a cheat sheet of all the standard 4e actions that fits on one double-sided page that might be of interest.

Thanks again for these ideas!

Bill White said...

Hi Robert! Good idea, and one I should have thought of! I'm working on a follow-up episode that talks about the mini-campaign I ran over the summer. I want to talk about what worked and what didn't, and move toward a sustainable model for pick-up, no-prep D&D 4e.

Robert said...

Excellent - looking forward to it!

You've obviously come a long way since the first session with the Great Ritual at Wizards' Clash, so this comment may be completely moot, but something that occurred to me as a refinement to the questions/quest system: sometimes, relating the question to a quest required a bit of awkwardness in the phrasing. I reckon you could get the same effect more naturally if you stipulated that the question or the answer must relate to one of the quests. That way, if the question is something like "where does this vortex lead?", that's fine, but the answer then needs to relate to a quest (as happened in the game). Alternatively, if the question was "where do the vorticies created by the Great Ritual's failure lead?", the answer could be more open ended. Either way, you get a quest to attach the question/answer pair to.

BTW, is it just me, or is the Virtual Play site down at the moment? I get blank pages when I go there.

Bill White said...

Robert --

It's not just you; Mel is waiting to hear from the podbus folks just what the deal is.

-- Bill

Robert said...

In case it's of any interest, I've done up a PDF of the cards you outline in this article, both the "oracle" cards and the encounter cards:

I tweaked the encounter cards somewhat... if you imagine that once through the deck without re-shuffling in the "incremented" cards is one level's worth of XP, then the numbers don't quite add up; you get too many XP, although the treasure tokens add up nicely. So, some of the encounters are marked as "Gain N treasure", which just gives you the treasure tokens without the encounter (or rather, you re-draw and get an encounter with bonus treasure tokens).

I've also summarized Stalker0's skill challenge rules on the backs of the encounter cards, which wasn't quite the system you were using in the podcast, but which I like.

Anyway, I've been using them in a game with my kids (aged 8 and 10), and it's been going really well. I was delighted with their creativity when we were doing setting creation, and they're really enjoying having control over the unfolding plot and developing quests they created.


Bill White said...

Hey Robert --

I love the cards! They look great. It pleases me enormously that you can use this to have a fun and creative experience with your kids; that's awesome.

And here's a heads-up: Mel and I will be making a new start with AP podcasting here; we'll put up some of the old stuff and move forward with new stuff there soon.

About Me

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A communication Ph.D., I teach public speaking and media-related courses in the middle of PA. I do research on scholarly/scientific communication, and I write & play roleplaying games.