Controlled randomness as a tool in adventure/character creation

Last night, I was working on the first level of a multi-stage dungeon for an upcoming D&D 5e session I’m running (I’ll be sure to put up the walkthrough after it’s over). I realized I was turning to a tool I’ve often leveraged at other times I create adventures or characters in RPGs: controlled randomness. I thought it may be useful to have a post on this tool for others, and I apologize if this is incredibly obvious to everyone but me.

What is controlled randomness? It is the use of random decisions with a general pre-determined framework to add depth and flavor to a RPG creation. That sounds like a line from an academic article, but I think it gets the definition. In many RPGs there are tables of adventure elements, character backgrounds and the like, in which the player rolls a dice to determine what detail to use. Controlled randomness uses these, but re-rolls as needed to find something that generally fits with the pre-determined framework.

I first systematized this when my old group and I were creating characters for Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. This is a fun character creation process (which I’ve discussed before), and involves detailing the motivations and complications behind the character. I was creating Arkdo, a Duros explorer I’ll discuss in a future Origin Stories post. I rolled for his motivation, didn’t like the result, and re-rolled it. One of the fellow players teased me for doing this, so I explained my reasoning.

As I envisioned him, Arkdo was basically a good guy who ended up on the wrong side of the law because of his ideals. I wasn’t sure how to flesh that out, so I rolled on the tables until something useful came up: dedication to the Jedi. Now, Arkdo wasn’t a Jedi, but he did admire the order and attempted to preserve their memory.

Thanks to controlled randomness, I had a cool backstory for my character. I knew generally what I wanted, but if I had just picked the most obvious motivation I wouldn’t have gone with his dedication to the Jedi. By re-rolling on the table within a pre-set idea, I was able to add more layers to this character.

Another example was my creation of Fonken, a gnome wizard in D&D 5e (this will be another future Origin Stories post). I wanted a LG gnome with a sage background, but beyond that I didn’t have much. D&D 5e includes tables to rolls for different aspects of the character’s background, including bonds, motivations and flaws. For flaw, I rolled something about reacting to a horrible monster’s appearance by trying to study it. With this roll, the character clicked, and I envisioned him as a cross between Ray Stantz from Ghostbusters and Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks. He was a lot of fun to play, and I even revived an older Fonken for one of my own adventures I created.

This reveals another reason to value controlled randomness: adding flaws. Fonken’s inquisitiveness led him to take unwise risks. This added some complications to my group’s adventures, but overall made things more fun. I’ve talked before about the value of adding flaws to D&D characters, and this is one good way to do it.

Controlled randomness works for adventure creation as well. In The Shadow in the Woods–one of my home-brew adventures–I had a general sense for a dungeon the group would explore. It was the subterranean dwelling of a hag who had summoned a beast from the Shadowfell. But that was it. So I used the encounter and dungeon creation tables in the DMG. I rolled up a castle submerged in a swamp as the setting. This gave me a lot to play with, as the corridors and rooms twisted at odd angles thanks to the castle sinking at an odd angle. I also was able to use this to create a dramatic escape challenge at the end. And I used the random dungeon tables to create a confusing series of passages and rooms that, thanks to my pre-conceived idea, followed the basic form of a multi-level tower connected by oddly-angled corridors.

I used controlled randomness to even greater effect in the dungeon I’m currently finishing (I don’t want to give too many details in case any players read this blog…). In this case, I knew the first level of the dungeon would be the basement of a ruined wizard’s tower. I wanted it to feel like part of a ruined structure, so I planned out the corridors and rooms myself. I also came up with a general idea for what each section would be: a cluster of rooms to entertain guests, a cluster for research, machinery, etc. I also had an idea of the combat encounters, traps and hazards the group would face so I placed them accordingly.

This is where controlled randomness came in. For each cluster of rooms, I rolled on the DMG random dungeon tables to determine the specific nature of the room, re-rolling when the result didn’t fit. I also rolled on the table for the rooms’ current states. This added some nice randomness, as I pictured certain rooms crumbling or becoming overgrown with vines, while others were sealed up and lest in a pristine state. The DMG tricks and obstacles tables were also useful; I had a few rooms that would contain some non-combat encounter, and these tables helped me come up with surprising challenges for the players. In this way, controlled randomness gave me a fleshed out dungeon that still felt coherent.

So new players and DMs may find this tool, controlled randomness of use. Come up with a basic idea for a character or dungeon. Then roll on the appropriate table. Re-roll if the result makes no sense with your idea, but push yourself to keep results that are unexpected or complicate your plans. I’d love to hear from anyone who tries this.

 

Out of the Abyss Session 3: Embroiled in Gracklestugh

Last time, the group made their way to Gracklestugh and realized something was amiss. Chaos was spreading in the orderly duergar city as they tried to find information on how to escape the Underdark…

The next day the group headed out into the city, in the hopes of finding some information on a way out of the Underdark (as well as a way to get out of Gracklestugh…). While walking around the market, they bumped into another group of orcs. The orcs, eying the half-elves, tiefling and deep gnome, decided to try and pick a fight. They didn’t have much luck until they made a crack about tieflings, at which point Barakus stepped up to the orc and deployed his monk martial arts, felling the orc in a flurry of blows. Suddenly 6 duergar appeared out of thin air, and ordered both groups to come with them. [I thought about warning the group that any fighting would lead to arrest, but this was more fun]

Navarre immediately began plotting an escape, but they agreed to go with the guards. The party was shackled, and led through the market. After a short distance, a horrid shouting interrupted their arrest. A two-headed stone giant was rampaging through the streets, crushing any duergar who got in its way. The group suggested the duergar release them so they can help, and—after assuring the group the punishment they would receive if they tried to escape—the duergar removed the restraints.

The group leapt into action, trying to counter the giant’s advance. As they began to fight it, Zinaella [thanks to a good insight check] realized that something was wrong; not only do giants not often have two heads, but this one seemed terrified, not angry. He informed the rest of the group, and they agreed to try and subdue it without killing it. The duergar were not interested in this course of action, but thankfully the group was able to get in several good hits before the duergar could mobilize. They brought the giant down without killing it.

After it fell, another giant (this one one-headed) came into the market, and bent over its fallen comrade. He informed the party that the giant had suddenly sprouted a second head and went mad, rushing out of their haven. The giants lived in the southern part of the city, helping the duergar secure it in exchange for maintaining their separate abode [the group didn’t ask why the giants were here, so I didn’t tell them any of this]. He expressed appreciation for the group’s mercy towards his comrade, and informed the guards that he wanted the group brought to see his leader.

The duergar grudgingly agreed, leading the group towards the giant’s enclave. They passed through strong gates into a furrow in the ground, with residential areas visible at each end of the furrow. The party then moved into the southern, secluded section of the city and were eventually brought to the giants.

Their restraints were removed, and the guards warned them they should not try anything funny, as they were being watched. The group moved inside, whispering to each other about how to escape as they went [I think they were over confident after their relatively easy escape from the drow]. They were brought before the giant’s chief, who thanked them again for their help and told them of his concerns for the Underdark. He spoke of horrors emerging from the shadows, and madness spreading. He also told them of a vision he had of a elven temple near the city of the Deep Gnomes that could guide them to the surface [they have been getting pieces of this information since their escape from the drow]. Finally, the chief gave them a stonespeaker crystal as a sign of thanks, and bid them farewell.

When they left the audience chamber, the duergar guards were waiting for them, so the group thought it best to cooperate. They were restrained again, and brought to the dungeons in the city government building. After waiting a few hours, they heard a group of duergar approaching.

Out of the gloom appeared several duergar guard, and a woman who was obviously their leader. She introduced herself as Errde Blackskull, and offered to release the group if they would do her a favor. They immediately agreed, and she told them of her concerns about corruption spreading throughout the city, which she attributed to the derro leaders. She wanted the group to find a derro she believed was their agent—named Droki—and track him to his compatriots. Agreeing, the party was given insignia that would grant them free movement throughout the city. Finally, after a long and eventful day, they grabbed a few more drinks at the tavern, then returned to their rooms at the inn.

The next morning the group headed into the market to look for Droki. They attempted to question a few merchants, but had little luck and experienced more of the strange behavior. One merchant kept talking to what he claimed was his invisible twin brother, who advised the merchant to not help the group out. Eventually the group got frustrated, and began to search for themselves [the book instructed the DM to not have merchants tell the party about Droki, and I just told the group this after a few tries as I didn’t want them to get annoyed].

After walking around a bit, the group noticed a shifty looking derro with a strange tentacled hat darting through the stalls. They tracked him through the crowd until he noticed them following him and took off. The group decided this must be Droki [they were right] and ran after him. They lost him in the crowd for a bit, but managed to circle around possible exits and find him again as he went through the gates into the furrow.

Following behind, the group saw him heading towards one of the derro settlements at the end of the furrow. He knew they were behind him, and took off running but the group generally managed to keep up. At one point Zinaella tripped and fell in a pile of muck he hoped was mud, and Varys got slowed down by obstructions but Barakus and Navarre kept up with the derro. [I ran this as a chase with complications, although few came up so I tried to provide a narrative when characters rolled badly]

Suddenly they found themselves in a cramped, dank, filthy residential area. Crude huts were carved into the cavern walls and hundreds of derro milled about, screaming at each other when they bumped into another derro. Nearly as one, the derro noticed the interlopers entering their home, and followed them with their eyes as the group advanced, gradually closing in around the group.

The group tried to push through to keep an eye on droki, but were struggling thanks to the derro who now crowded around and occasionally pawed at them. They managed to carefully make their way through the district until they saw Droki disappear into a crack in a wall that leaked a strange glowing mist. Navarre suggested returning to Errde Blackskull to let her know where Droki went and get reinforcements, but when they turned around they saw the entire population of derro were now in the streets watching the group. They decided to press on, and figure out what to do about the derro later, so they went into the caves.

As they entered they saw Droki look back and notice them still behind them. He shrieked, ran to a crack in the wall, picked a mushroom and—after eating it—shrunk down to the size of a mouse and disappeared into the wall. The group moved forward when they heard a familiar sounding cackling behind them. Buppido stepped out of a side passage, thanked the group for coming to worship at his ascension, and asked them to join him in his haven.

The group was not interested, and ignored Buppido. He flew into a rage and attacked. The group rushed away from him in an attempt to follow Droki. They grabbed the mushrooms he ate, shrunk to his size and followed him into the crack. [once again, the NPC twist reveal didn’t work out]

The group ran through the crack behind Droki and emerged into a broader tunnel. He ran forward into a dense thicket of fungus and disappeared again. The party ran after him through the thicket. As they went, they inadvertently disturbed a swarm of centipedes who attacked.

This was a bigger danger than it would have been if the group was normal sized. The centipedes scored numerous hits, with Zinaella and Navarre in particular taking serious damage. Barakus and Varys managed to push their way through the thicket; once they were clear the centipedes stopped following them (focusing on their friends instead). Navarre soon made it out, injured but alive. Zinaella—about to fall to the centipedes—cast “misty step” and teleported past the thicket, landing on top of Droki.

The rest of the group caught up to them, helping to restrain the derro. Suddenly they felt a tingling and they all burst back to their full size. In the confusion, Droki broke free but the group grabbed him quickly and pummeled him until he submitted [I think they enjoyed that]. The group tried to get him to talk, slapping him a bit, but he wouldn’t say anything besides squeaks and snarls [bad intimidation rolls]

Eventually, the group decided to go through his pack. This set him off, and he became panicked when they found some strange pieces of rock and a sack of giant skin flakes and fingernails. He begged them to leave the objects alone, as “the cult” would kill him if anything happened. Realizing they were making progress, the group suggested they take the bound Droki and his objects to the cult themselves to see if they would talk. This scared him and he told them everything. He admitted to working for a cult of duergar attempting to corrupt and spread madness in the giants and eventually the city itself.

Satisfied, the group left the caves [there was a much bigger dungeon to explore, but we decided to move past it as we were running out of time in our session]. As they were leaving, they noticed a disembodied gnome hand crawling on the ground. The ghost of a deep gnome then appeared. He told the group he had been killed by Buppido and asked them if they could return his hand to Blingenstone so he could rest in peace. They agreed—although they were a little unsettled to have an animated hand in their packs—and headed out with Droki.

For the sake of time, I narrated the rest of their time in Gracklestugh. They made their way past the derro crowds, and returned to Errde. They told her of the cult, and she ordered her forces to arrest all suspects, and to prepare plans to get rid of all the derro [this was meant to be some hints of Errde’s own madness, but the group didn’t focus on it]. She then gave them exit papers for the city and general directions for Blingdenstone, thanking them for their help.

The group, now accompanied only by Topsy (and a disembodied hand) headed back into the Underdark, hoping they were getting closer—and not farther away—from escape…

And that was session 3. I am a little torn on whether or not skipping past random encounters is a good idea. They provide a lot of flavor for the journeys through the Underdark, but do take up a lot of time. I’m anxious to keep the story going (as we’re not even halfway through the campaign) so I think the approach I used this time works, but I’ll continue to adapt in the future.

The hook horror hunt was a good set encounter. Just a straight up battle, but it had some foreshadowing of more serious developments later, especially after the group rolled history checks to identify “Yeenoghu…”

And Gracklestugh was a lot of fun. I’ve seen others complain about it, and it was rather complicated (this site even had a flowchart for the chapter). It was basically the characters being forced into adventures, and there was little they could do with the stone giants (although being merciful did help them out, even if they don’t know yet what the crystal can do…). That being said, there was a bit more to do than with Neverlight Grove.

My only complaint would be clearer evidence of demonic corruption in Gracklestugh. There are hints of madness spreading, but nothing as dramatic as seen in Neverlight Grove or Sloobludop. But it was still a lot of fun, and I think my group enjoyed it even without a dramatic boss battle (thanks to us skipping most of the Whorlstone Tunnels dungeon).

Next time the group will be heading to Blingdenstone, and hopefully freedom from the Underdark…

Out of the Abyss session 3: Entering Gracklestugh

Last time, the group travelled through the Darklake and escaped the horrors of Neverlight Grove with the remaining myconids, heading ultimately for Gracklestugh. Between the two sessions we had some personnel changes- Varys (half-drow ranger) was back, and Kerasa (dwarf fighter) and Brynn (gnome wizard) were away. We also had Barakus (tiefling monk), Navarre (half-elf rogue), and Zinaella (half-elf paladin). The only remaining NPCs were Buppido, the derro, Topsy, a deep gnome, and a kuo-toa the group rescued from the Darklake.

The group had been travelling with the myconids for a few days when Sovereign Basidia announced it was time for them to part ways, as the myconids had to find a new home. Kerasa had left shortly after fleeing Neverlight to continue on her mysterious mission. Brynn told the group the myconids were allowing her to travel with them, which she saw as a great opportunity to learn more about the Underdark. She said she would catch up with them in one of the major Underdark cities.

Barakus, Navarre, Zinaella and the NPCs set off, hoping to find more information on escaping the Underdark in Gracklestugh. After about half a day, the tunnel they were travelling through began to slope upwards, and they heard a commotion ahead. Sneaking forward, they saw a group of orcs on a rope bridge that crossed a ravine, arguing with a familiar half-drow- Varys.

The group came forward as the orc leader was challenging Varys to fight. He noticed the rest of the “weaklings,” as he called them, and accused Varys of an ambush. The orcs wanted the group to back off and let them cross first. The group agreed, so the leader came across, with the rest of the orcs following on the bridge and their shaman waiting on the other side.

As the discussion continued, Barakus leapt forward and smashed one of the posts holding the bridge up with a well-placed kick [a great acrobatics and attack check]. Several of the orcs tumbled into the ravine, and the orc shaman was trapped on the other side. Combat broke out.

The orc leader managed to score a few good hits on Zinaella and Navarre, but Varys’ archery backup helped them take him down. The shaman’s spells weren’t helping much, so she fled. The group then carefully made their way across the one rope holding the bridge up and continued into the Underdark after catching up with Varys.

They travelled for a few more days [I skipped over a lot of the random encounters to keep the story going] when they entered a narrow, winding tunnel. Suddenly, two hook horrors burst from a side passage, and ran past the group down another narrow tunnel. The group heard the distinctive cries of a pack of gnolls behind the hook horrors, and tried to get out of sight.

Several gnolls rushed past the group and ran after the hook horrors. They group followed carefully behind them. The passageway ended in a broader cavern where the gnolls had the hook horrors cornered. As the gnolls moved to attack, the group attacked them from behind. One of the gnolls wounded Barakus pretty badly, but the rest fell.

As the group tried to decide what to do about the two hook horrors, they heard more howling behind them, including one distinctive word, “Yeenoghu.” The group readied themselves for another attack. Two gnolls burst into the room and fell under the group’s bows and blades. The remaining gnolls were more wary, and managed to break their way in and provide cover for their leader. The leader severely wounded Varys, while Navarre took a few more hits. Eventually the group picked off the weaker gnolls, and killed their pack chief. Exhausted, they all jumped as a mist rose from the gnoll leader, and a haunting voice filled the cavern, “Yeenoghu will remember this…”

The hook horrors were wary but didn’t attack, as they could tell the group wasn’t chasing them. So the party carefully backed away from them, found their way through the twisting tunnels, and continued to Gracklestugh [this was the set encounter “Hook Horror Hunt”].

After several more days of travel, the ground they walked on began to change. The tunnels became more orderly, and paved stones started appearing on the ground. One night while they were preparing camp in an alcove to the side of a passage, the group heard something approaching. They hid, and soon a wagon driven by two deep gnomes, full of carts, passed by them. The group called out, and the wagon stopped. The deep gnomes were wary at first–and Topsy tried to remain hidden, so wasn’t much help–but realized the group wasn’t a threat.

Navarre hoped to sell some of the items they had, or trade for useful goods but the deep gnomes weren’t interested. They had a shipment of weapons that were needed for the defense of their home Blingdenstone. Barakus asked about the rumors they’d heard of a way to the surface, and the deep gnomes said some of their scouts had found accessible paths, but as they were traders they didn’t have much information. After sharing a pleasant meal, the gnomes moved on and the group went to sleep.

After about another day, they came to massive gates, and realized they were at Gracklestugh.

Buppido had claimed to be a person of some importance, so the group urged him to secure their entry [the group claimed he said this at some point, I couldn’t remember but played along]. He confessed to having lied, and said derro tend to not be very popular with the duergar gate guards. So Zinaella approached the gate to discuss.

They claimed to be fleeing the drow and wanted passage into the city; the group also mentioned returning one of its citizens. The duergar warily let the group in, but warned them not to cause any problems. They also told the party they would be unable to leave without official approval. Not given much choice, the party agreed.

As they passed through the gates, however, a side passage opened and a duergar walked out. This was Gorglak, a corrupt duergar guard. He claimed to know they were lying, and demanded something to keep quiet. The group offered gems they had found—including some gems taken from the eyes of a Lolth statue in Chapter 1—and he agreed [after a successful persuasion check] but passed on the Lolth gems…He told the group to take the gems to his contact, Werz, in the docks, and disappeared back into the wall.

They entered the city, and were immediately hit with a wall of heat and noxious fumes from all the furnaces running inside the city walls. Buppido guided them towards the docks, travelling through the city market. On the way they saw many odd occurrences—they watched a duergar become insanely angry with a deep gnome after he offered to sell something to the merchant, then inordinately polite as he attempted to sell something to the gnome. The group stopped to unload some of the merchandise they’d uncovered, but the merchant’s first counteroffer was to “chop off the tiefling’s head” and take all the gear. Because this was said in a friendly, rather than hostile, manner, the group was confused, and continued negotiating with the merchant till they had sold their wares.

The party began pressing Buppido to help in some way, as he’d been the one pushing them to come to Gracklestugh. He said he would need some time to find his contacts, and would return in about a day, then rushed off into the crowds. Meanwhile, their kuo-toa companion said he noticed a kuo-toa boat at the docks, and wanted to talk with them so he left as well.

The group continued on to the docks when they saw two masked duergar appear out of thin air, pull out glowing daggers, and begin to viciously stab a duergar walking along the docks. Topsy urged the group not to intervene, but Navarre was interested in the glowing daggers [it’s not the most noble of parties] so they tried to help. They easily fought off the attackers, and revived the victim. It turned out to be their contact, Wertz, who asked them to take him to the nearby tavern.

Inside, the duergar bought the group a round of ales and shots of some fiery liquor that several of the group struggled to keep down [bad constitution checks]. The group told him of their deal with Gorglak, and he took the gems, then offered them some money if they could take another bag of gems to Blingdenstone. The group agreed, and began asking Wertz for more information on the city. He suddenly became rabidly hostile, screaming at the group for their rudeness, and stormed out. As he did, two of the other patrons attacked each other. The group separated them, and neither of the duergar could remember what they were fighting about.

The bartender was appreciative of the group’s help, and gave them another round of shots. Varys became a bit ill, but managed to hold it together. The bartender was impressed with the group [good charisma checks] and tried to help. He mentioned the city had been getting more chaotic and tense recently, which was strange for the orderly duergar. He also told them he’d heard rumors of demon attacks on nearby settlements.

Stumbling out, the group thanked the bartender and headed towards the only inn that would serve outsiders. As they were walking there, their kuo-toa friend returned and said the boat would be leaving in a few days and they may be able to escape on it; he then left the group to return to the boat. The party secured rooms and food, partnered up and went to bed. Topsy tried to get a room to himself, but the group laughed at him, and made him room with Varys [I wasn’t sure if this was supposed to be a punishment- I pretended Varys was particularly flatulent].

In the middle of the night, Varys heard a noise coming from the closet, and saw that Topsy was gone. He opened the closet and saw a wererat that resembled Topsy. The wererat asked him not to tell anyone, and to just let him stay in the closet for the night. Varys told him to get out, and then went back to sleep [this big reveal of Topsy’s lycanthropy was not as shocking as I’d hoped].

Next week, the group becomes more embroiled in the growing turmoil of Gracklestugh…

The moment it clicks: Getting new players into RPGs

If you met my brother (the middle child of 5 in my family), you wouldn’t think he is into tabletop games. And he never thoughts of himself as someone who likes to game. He thought of me as the intellectual (when we were getting along) or nerdy (when we were fighting) brother, and those games were for people like me. But I finally convinced him to try Settlers of Catan on one family vacation and he loved it. On a later visit, the two of us played over and over, even trying some of the expansions. He loved Munchkin and Dominion just as much when we tried those out.

Even though he loved these tabletop games, pen and paper RPGs seemed a bridge too far for him. Maybe it was the lack of a board to ground the experience. Maybe it was memories of childhood, when our other brother and I would play D&D and exclude our younger siblings. Whatever the reason, he’d just chuckle and shake his head when I asked about trying a RPG. I’ve encountered this attitude among other gamers—they love games like Catan, but just don’t think they would ever like something like D&D.

But one recent Christmas, I finally convinced him and a few other family members to try one out, Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars: Force and Destiny (see my discussion of it here). This game focuses on force sensitive characters learning how to become Jedi. I think part of it was the recognizable Star Wars universe, while the inclusion of a map and character icons in the F&D starter set I owned helped too. I also explained how the rules for this game differ from D&D, and are more inclined to story-telling rather than math (see my recent walkthrough of an adventure from a related Star Wars game for more on this system).

The adventure included in the starter set was pretty basic; the characters had to find a temple and rescue their mentor. My brother and the other players picked their character, and I GM’d. It started out kind of slow, everyone was pretty tentative when I asked the infamous GM question, “so what do you want to do?” But then, suddenly, everything changed.

The characters needed to cross a bridge blocked by a few bandits. As starting characters they were pretty weak, and had already been through a few tough fights. Charging the bridge directly would probably have led to a few of them dying in their fragile state. The party was deliberating an alternate path when my brother looked at his character sheet and saw he had a force power that could lift and move objects.

“So,” he asked me, “could I lift up the bandits and throw them off the bridge?”

“You can try,” I responded. And he did.

He rolled the required dice, got the necessary successes, and both bandits flew off the bridge. The reason why these games were so fun finally clicked for my brother. He started getting really creative with his force powers and other character skills, finding ways to deal with all other obstacles they encountered without resorting to melee combat. I’m not sure if he’ll ever get a D&D or Star Wars group together on his own, but he’d probably be open to playing another session when we get together again.

This is the moment we need to replicate if we want to get more people interested in RPGs like Star Wars: F&D or D&D. They need to realize these games aren’t just people running around pretending to be wizards, or completing complex mathematical calculations (although some games get close to that, as I’ve discussed). They are vehicles for translating creativity into open-ended gameplay. Of course, as I am writing I can see that sentence turning some potential gamers off. So what can we do to help new gamers realize this?

I think the scenario my players encountered in the F&D starter set adventure is one way to do this: a non-obvious puzzle requiring a creative solution. This wasn’t a locked room with various levers that had to be pulled in a certain order; such a puzzle may be fun for some players, but could end up rather tedious for others. But because the players knew they would struggle with a frontal assault on the bridge, it became a puzzle; they were incentivized to be creative.

We can see various versions of this in advice for new GMs. One example is The Angry GM’s guidelines for creating adventures, with an emphasis on “decision points” for characters that requires them to solve problems, and not just kill monsters. Another is the advice in Roleplaying Tip’s discussion of 5-room dungeons.

So when designing introductory adventures, we could be sure to include encounters that are open-ended and disincentive face-to-face combat. What do you think? Do successful intro adventures you’ve run or played as a character include this sort of situation? Have you seen anyone suddenly “get” RPGs through other means?

Crusader Kings 2 walkthrough: Reclaiming Charlemagne’s Empire, part 2

Sorry for the delay in this post–I was busy with 4th of July celebrations. My group ran its third session of Out of the Abyss, and I’m working on the walkthrough, but here’s a post in the meantime. I made it a little longer than usual to make up for the delay.

In a previous post I presented part 1 of a walkthrough for Crusader Kings 2, an excellent PC historical strategy game. This is the second part, as Raymond-the son of Clotaire, Duke of Valois, the last descendant of Charlemagne-continued his father’s efforts to restore the Karling family to glory.

Raymond returned to the Duchy of Valois from Germany with high expectations. His father had tripled his family’s lands, and Raymond was a skilled diplomat ready to further increase the Karling prestige. He followed his father at first, consolidating the family lands; specifically, he revoked the County of Orleans from his half-brother—as the land had been divided after his father’s death—and gave him a barony in compensation. He also maintained the trade route his father had started and built new cities and a bishopric in his lands.

But then Raymond became distracted. As he had been among the Germans during the religious strife in France, he had not absorbed his father’s cautious approach to the conflict. A pious Catholic, Raymond decided he would return France to the true Church. This seemed to come to fruition when a Crusade was called shortly after Raymond became Duke; France fell to the Catholic armies, and the Pope installed Hugh Capet—the brother of Philippe who had remained loyal to the Pope—as King.

This success was short-lived as the former Bourges King was returned to power shortly after the Crusading armies left [there was a faction that organized and the King gave in]. Raymond then became even more devoted to his cause. He first tried to gain support among the lords to become the next King, as Philippe had instituted an electoral succession rule in response to his subjects’ pressure. This went nowhere, as—despite his great diplomatic skill— Raymond was seen as an outsider.

Raymond then began to organize behind Hugh. He supported him as heir and tried to gather support for his claim. He also tried to assassinate the King’s son, thinking this would open up the election. This failed, but earned him the enmity of the Prince, which became problematic when he ascended to the throne. Raymond persisted in his attempt to get rid of Fratricelli rulers in France, a struggle that ended suddenly when he was assassinated at age 50. The list of enemies he had made was long, but most suspected his half-brother, who never forgave Raymond for revoking his county.

The inheritance process grew complicated on his death. His eldest son inherited Franconia, and thus could not inherit lands outside of the Holy Roman Empire. This left his second son, who became very skilled in intrigue. He was actually in line to become the next spymaster of Valois after the retirement of the Duke’s close confidante currently in that position. But Raymond’s eldest son had two sons of his own, and because neither were landed (the oldest being 4), they could inherit Valois.

Raymond thus left the Karling name at best the same as when he received it, and at worst in an uncertain situation. Karlings now ruled two Duchies in two realms, and Valois had developed into a thriving commercial center. But the family lands remained divided, and Valois was in for some tension as a 4 year old German became the Duke, pushing aside his bitter and scheming uncle. Raymond turned away from his father’s single-minded focus on expanding the Karling name in an attempt to shape France’s political stage, and, to be blunt, failed.

Clotaire II: Clotaire II became the Duke of Valois at the age of 4 during a time of stability for France. The realm was still divided among Roman Catholic and Fraticelli Dukes, but the King ruled peacefully and focused on rebuilding the land. Clotaire II grew up surrounded by his grandfather’s loyal councilors, who trained him well, and also made sure he knew of his grandfather’s struggle to retake France for the true Church.

Clotaire II came of age shortly after the old King passed away [I was a little disappointed his uncle with high intrigue did nothing to take power- scheming uncles are rarer in this game than they should be]. He began following in the steps of his namesake, focusing on expanding his lands. Clotaire II had his chancellor fabricate claims to the counties in the Duchy of Orleans—which had been split between several Dukes—and, seizing them, named himself Duke of Orleans in addition to Valois. He also followed his namesake in another way, having a series of affairs, including, shamefully, the wife of his eldest son and heir [this was an event that fired randomly, I didn’t initiate it]

The new king, nearly as young as Clotaire II, then appointed him his spymaster, in an attempt to avoid the trouble his father ran into. This proved to be a mistake.

Almost as soon as he arrived in the Bourges capital of Rennes, Clotaire II began plotting against the King. He proved successful, having the King assassinated—but word spread quickly that Clotaire was the culprit. This led to an escalating series of plots and rivalries between the Karlings and the Bourges, although Clotaire II had the upper hand as many of the Bourges were scattered throughout Europe in strategic marriages.

Several Kings later, the throne passed to the young prince of Gwynedd, son of the Duke of Gwynedd and the eldest Bourges sister. The thought of an underage, Welsh King—who would likely absorb France into his father’s lands once he inherited them—did not sit well with the French Dukes, and series of rebellions broke out. Clotaire II saw this as his chance. He launched a rebellion in favor of the last Capet—now Duke of Burgundy.

This did not succeed. In a disastrous battle, Clotaire II’s troops were routed and he was arrested. He spent the next several years in jail while the remaining rebels were defeated. The young Welsh King did not enjoy any peace, however, as he died from a wound suffered in one of the battles shortly after coming of age.

Now released from jail, Clotaire II reevaluated his plans. The throne passed to another underage Bourges nephew, this time the son of the prince of Scotland. Clotaire II realized his family’s scheming was doing more harm than good; indeed, much of the chaos engulfing France in the last 100 years was because of the Karlings. And Clotaire II felt guilty about the late King, who was taken from his home as a child to a land he did not want, and spent his entire life fighting rebellions.

Clotaire II thus swore loyalty to the new King, and was soon appointed his steward and regent. Clotaire II raised his armies to fight alongside the throne’s when the inevitable rebellion broke out, helping to defeat it. He raised the King well, betrothed his eldest granddaughter to him, and excitedly awaited his entry into office.

Shortly after the King came of age, however, he was converted to the Fraticelli faith by a courtier [this happened way more than it should, and I think it was a bug in the new patch in the game]. He also renamed France Brittany—in solidarity with his Celtic culture; the King’s grandfather had incorporated Brittany into France, but maintained the title as a separate administrative unit.

Clotaire II was devastated, seeing it as a personal rejection; he broke off the betrothal, even though he remained the King’s Steward. This paid off when the King retook Toulouse from the Holy Roman Empire and Clotaire II maneuvered to have his son and grandson gain some of the conquered lands.

Clotaire II died at 70, well-loved by all, including the King he had raised. He learned from the mistakes of his youth, helping to bring stability and prosperity to his family lands and all of France. But the outlook of his line was still uncertain; he was no closer to regaining Charlemagne’s glory, and France was still ruled by a heretic, foreign King. [this is another issue—it really should be harder for a foreigner to rule France]