Using 3 Pillar XP in D&D as 5 Questions

I posted in February last year about using XP awards to train your players, and the problems of various methods of XP accounting. I mentioned in that post that I would experiment with rewarding players for telling me more explicitly where they wanted to go in their next session. It turns out, that particular group of players never developed the habit of telling me explicitly what their characters’ goals were despite my repeated encouragement.

I also mentioned the reddit thread about Improved 3 Pillar XP, and said that I didn’t want to use it. I didn’t want to use it because it seemed like it would require more accounting than I was interested in doing. But since Covid-19 has moved all my gaming online and I’ve made more quick reference materials for myself in google docs, I decided that I’d try building a spreadsheet to run the Improved 3 Pillar XP calculations for me.

I think the golden moment for me—the moment that convinced me to throw together the basics of the Improved 3 Pillar XP categories in a spreadsheet—was seeing that I could simplify all XP gain into a series of questions at the end of a session. Those questions:

  • Did the PCs recover any notable treasure?
  • Did the PCs explore, defend (suggested by my sibs), or takeover an important location?
  • Did the PCs ally an important NPC, or align them towards PC’s causes / away from foes’?
  • Did the players interact with each other in character?
  • Did the PCs circumvent or defeat any foes?

When I shared my quick and dirty first notes with my sibs, they rapidly made a separate interface that I’m actually quite happy with.

Now I have a spreadsheet that will take direct input from me about how much I want to reward my PCs as a proportion of their next level, with input categories spread across exploration, social interaction, and combat. The best part, as far as I’m concerned, is that this is also flexible and easy to expand.

If I want to try adding other categories of behavior that I wish to reward, I can either include those as expanded qualifying cases for the above questions (by changing an existing question) or I can add another question and reward category. As someone who enjoys tinkering with spreadsheets, that isn’t a scary prospect… though I can understand it not being your cup of tea. Ideally, I’ll have all this put together in a good-looking easily-read format at some point. For now though, I’m trying it out and seeing how well it works. Do it bad quickly first, etc.

The first idea I had about expanding this was to try rewarding players for telling me about their characters’ plans and then having the PCs act on those. I realize that this doesn’t necessarily work with PCs who are too in-the-moment to plan ahead, nor does it work as well when the PCs are too busy reacting to every new garbage fire to forge their own path… but I think it could be useful in a more sandbox game, especially one with a more relaxed pace.

If you want to try building your own, I suggest copying all the various tables in the Improved 3 Pillar XP post into a spreadsheet first so that you know what you’re working with. If you’d like to try using what I’ve got so far, tell me so and I’ll look into sharing something that you might be able to use.

The Twin Falls

The Twin Falls drop in a single stream from a cleft cliff face. One river splits into two mouths at the cliff’s edge, their columns of water remerging into one for the plummet to the impossibly smooth waters below. Some strange trick of the depths beneath the falls sucks the roaring water into a still lake, the surface mirror smooth from the edge of the falling column outwards.

This, perhaps, is the true source of the Twin Falls’ name; standing on the low rise that rings the lake below like an amphitheater’s seats, looking into the lake shows two waterfalls, one dropping from above as the other meets it from below—an unbroken column across the plane of the lake.

The low rise is itself well shaped, as though it might have been intentionally sculpted into place. Here and there one may find tiny nooks carved into the rise, large enough for a picnic blanket were one to hew space from the jungle’s covetous grasp. Each nook offers a view of the falls, every one from a different angle. No large trees grow on the rise, though several tower along the cliff’s edge high above and many more soar in the space beyond the berm.

Where the lake’s water goes, no one knows.

It is said that people once lived around the Twin Falls. Certainly those who know where and how to look will see their traces. Those suspicious enough to pry or imagine will find plentiful fuel for their ideas—whether from those conveniently sized nooks and their alignment through the mouths of the falls with astronomical bodies above, or from the many hillocks that dot the rainforest beyond, or from the shapings still visible in the stone of the cliff face and the land past it. Regardless, none of those people still remain.

Stories are told of why they disappeared. Those with a predilection for the sword speculate that the missing people were invaded and subjugated, though little explanation is given for why no one remained. The more mystically inclined wonder at the deep knowledge needed to build such an astronomical sighting system, and argue that the people obtained enlightenment or found some higher truth of the world. Those whose suspicions run deeper speak in hushed tones of the lake itself, claiming that it must be a cenote deep enough to swallow the river above, with a belled top perfectly shaped by masterful stoneworkers in order to preserve the mirrored surface. These speculators, the especially paranoid and fanciful, whisper of the sun’s path on the longest day, the way it illuminates everything below, how the lake’s reflection twists for just a moment as the sun finally sets, and how there are stories of folk going missing in the jungles there on the longest day. Stories of a city in the lake, painted gold by the setting solstice sun, are easily explained away as sun-blindness.

No matter the reasons, Twin Falls is a place of stunning grandeur. It does not take an overactive imagination to see why some might once have settled in the lands nearby. Nor, from the eager greenery that clings tightly and encroaches day by day, is it difficult to see why one might choose to leave. Molds fester in dark places, and rot takes hold and does not let go. Nor are the jungles around Twin Falls quiet. Hungry things prowl there, and travelers are wise to go armed and ready. The wild beasts of that place are territorial and indiscriminate where they are not simply predatory. Worse still are the dreams some say come to them there as the days lengthen, the call of the lake, the powerful tug of its waters and the songs heard from a city that hangs golden in their dreams just beyond the mirror of the setting sun.

The Churn, Starhome, Ozbek’s Folly

The Churn is a place of ancient cataclysm and ruination, a vast crater many miles across with a still molten caldera at its heart. Called Ozbek’s Folly by some, Starhome by others, the bowl of the Churn is shrouded in endlessly circling winds that carry the dust of millions dead. These winds harry sand over bedrock, stripping down all that cannot find shelter in a safe lee. Where ridge lines of fractured rock rise above the blasted terrain, narrow ribbons of greenery thrive in their wind-shadow. So too do crevasses harbor streams, rivers of life that the knowledgable may follow into the crater’s center where oases ring the caldera in the eye of the Churn’s storm.

The stories told of the Churn say that whatever caused it still lies at its heart, wreathed in the molten rock it wrought so long ago.

There are those who live within the Churn’s ever-windy desolation, people who have grown strange over time. They have changed in their generations of clinging to the green, of braving the scouring winds to find new life or old traces of the time before. They have altered themselves in their generations of imbibing the waters which rise from the rents in the earth near the caldera’s heat. Feared by those who live beyond the Churn’s high and crumbling walls, the crater-folk mostly keep to themselves.

When people from outside the Churn venture in, they all report being watched and tracked. Some outsiders who have visited and survived tell stories of their companions being eaten; some say by crater-folk, or by other hungry things which dwell within the churn—sometimes both at the same time. Others dismiss these claims, or accuse the storytellers of covering their own desperate cannibalism. These others point to the tiny but highly profitable trade with crater-folk as proof that they are not hungry monsters: some few have managed to exchange good tools and supplies for rare herbs and rocks, or for small precious otherworldly things much sought after by the outside world.

Despite its permanent dust storm and the vicious nature of travel within the Churn, people continue to seek its heart.

Those who call it Starhome claim that a fallen star sings from the center of the caldera, its song raising the winds which circle it without cease. They wish to gaze upon its beauty, and to discover its secrets. Some few, no doubt, would take it for themselves if they could. Starhome, to hear them describe it, holds at its center a marvel from beyond this world, something so purely divine that it could make one like unto a god. In their eyes, the caldera’s molten rock is merely the final barrier to the shining glory within, while the waters of the oases around it contain the essence of that star and may share its blessings on those who drink of them.

Those who call it Ozbek’s Folly put more weight in the stories told of the land as it was before the Churn. They say that the crater obliterated the city of Ozbek, a once towering center of might and learning. According to them, the city had such power as to seek the inner mysteries of the universe, and such poor judgment as to succeed. But because of their mistakes, which cost the lives of uncountable people and their city, the remnants of their civilization are now available for any who would venture within the Churn. At the city’s dead heart, now a smoking caldera, the most precious of their artifacts may yet remain.

Those who dwell within the Churn have other stories. But beyond hints which needle at the lies the curious tell themselves, the crater-dwellers keep those stories to themselves.

World Building: The Thousand Year Empire

I’m putting together a game for teens stuck in social distancing mode due to Covid-19, to be played over Discord. I’m using Exemplars & Eidolons, which I mentioned here. This is all being run through the auspices of the LARP camp where I work. I created this setting years ago, and have expanded it through several games since; for the quick and dirty version, think Romance of the Three Kingdoms meets Avatar: TLA, with a soundtrack by Lustmord and Dead Can Dance.

***

The Thousand Year Empress disappeared 20 years ago. No matter what else they disagree on, everyone can agree on that. Some say she was murdered, others that she died of disease or old age, and yet others claim that she ascended into the Celestial Firmament and left the mortal realm to its suffering.

Another thing all agree on: the Empire has suffered ever since.

Without the Empress’ guidance, her vast Empire has descended into chaos. Provinces take up arms against each other, proclaiming themselves Protectors of the Empire or rightful people’s rebellions. Several provinces claim to have the Empress’ true heir to guide them: sometimes one of her children or more distant descendants, sometimes claiming to have the reborn Empress herself.

Drought, flood, and famine scour the lands. Bandit armies rise and maraud. Some provinces fall to plague. There are rumors of disappearances, of demons, and of other worse things. And it is known that in some places the dead themselves rise and set themselves against the living. Some even say that the dead walk at the behest of the Empress, whose talking corpse leads them to retake her domain from beyond the grave.

The Empire as it was is gone.

But it need not be so forever; there are still pockets of stability, and many struggle to protect the land and each other. Many members of the Empress’ ancient knightly orders—both honorable and disgraced—and many of her ministers still strive to prevent bloodshed, to restore peace, and to build upon what they saved from that which came before. Here and there provinces band together in amity, supporting each other against the dangers of the world. It is a dangerous time, but it is a time when a dedicated few may make a difference.

What will YOU do?

Cold War Spies in Blades in the Dark

Last winter I revisited a game idea I’d had: inspired by Saladin Ahmed’s suggestion to tell a spy story about spies from disadvantaged minor nations during the Cold War, I wanted a game that would push the dilemmas experienced by those intelligence agents to the forefront. How do you achieve your goals when you’re tiny pieces playing a much larger game? How do you make sure your nation isn’t simply eaten and discarded? How do you achieve your own goals, and how do you do all that while holding onto your humanity?

I knew that GURPS and a good storyteller *could* do all that, but I wanted something that felt more like Monsterhearts (more on my love for that game here) with mechanics that pushed those experiences to the forefront. I spent a while jotting down notes and trying to puzzle out how it would work. I came up with the idea of people choosing particular trainings for the characters, each relevant level of which would give them another die for a skill roll. I thought of measuring stress as a clock (Apocalypse World style) to denote the growing burden of keeping your cool while everything around you is going to hell.

And then I bought a copy of Blades in the Dark (and here) and realized that what I wanted had already been developed.

Now, admittedly, I don’t yet know of a BitD hack that does everything I am looking for. I also haven’t dug deep into the pile of BitD hacks out there, either in circulation or in development. But I no longer think I need to design all of this from the ground up. I think Blades in the Dark, with some modification, should work extremely well for what I want.

I still must find some way to reward continued player-player interactions, encouraging some collaboration without assuming that everyone is on the same side all the time. I don’t want to sacrifice the experience of questionable loyalties, self doubt, and second guessing your own judgement—but I also don’t want to make those things so grating or dominant in the game that it’s impossible to play without giving yourself ulcers. Similarly, as long as I’m letting player characters not all be on the same side all the time (or even all be part of the same Crew) I’ll need to find some way to either replace the Turf mechanic or modify it, and some way to alter the underlying Crew dynamic.

Suffice to say, there’s still a lot for me to figure out. But this looks fun, and maybe some of you would like to see it?

Please let me know if you’ve seen other Cold War spy BitD games. I’m thinking more Quiller Memorandum or The Witch Who Came In From The Cold, less James Bond.

Here’s a few of the other BitD hack resources I’ve found, though none do quite what I’m looking for:

(https://www.reddit.com/r/bladesinthedark/comments/8l5ysh/has_there_been_a_simply_spy_thriller_hack/)

(https://forums.somethingawful.com/showthread.php?threadid=3713405)

(https://itch.io/t/420201/share-your-projects-forged-in-the-dark)

(https://thysane.itch.io/the-spies-that-death-forgot)

And, of course, the Forged in the Dark forums:

(https://community.bladesinthedark.com/c/forged-in-the-dark)

Haunted Mines of Frozen Time

In the western hills, below the growing height of the volcano Tupol, ancient quarries etch the slopes and lay bare the stone beneath. Near their bases, where erosion paints runnels through the scarce remaining dirt and channels the upslope waterfalls into a well-fed river, tunnels gape like burst cysts in the quarries’ walls. These tunnels eat into the hillsides, following the thick sheet of soft, mottled blue-green glass which miners first sought ever deeper under the old, cold lava flows which buried it.

The trees which grow on the abandoned mines’ tailings twist in odd shapes, their forms uncannily human. The forests below, fed by the river which leaches those tailings, echo those uncanny forms over and over again. The forests are well-known for being haunted.

The glass those long-dead miners sought still lingers in the hills, precious and coveted by archaeologists, alchemists, and artificers. It shivers in the cold, and shimmers with a light from within that waxes with the dying of the moon. In the deepest dark of the new moon, the glass is even said to whisper, growing louder and louder as it Continue reading

Don’t Know Where the Story’s Going, Quick Thoughts

This post follows Be Boring and Be Hungry. It’s all about making characters for roleplaying games, and how to think about RPG character creation from the perspective of a writer.

Playing RPGs recently, one friend of mine was struggling with how to make and play her character. It was not her first time playing RPGs, but she felt less experienced than most of the other people at the table and was anxious to make a good impression and make good story contributions. She has a writing background, and is familiar with arcs and storyboards and how to make a good dramatic narrative. But she was foundering as we sat at the table, sinking beneath the weight of making a character who would be interesting enough to the rest of the players, a character who would have a complete story. She couldn’t see a way to do that, couldn’t see a way to tell the stories that seemed right for the character she had, and couldn’t reconcile her knowledge of how to tell stories with the structure of our RPG.

In a darkly funny sort of way, Continue reading

Temple in the Blasted Plain

North of the mountains of The Spire lies what was once the heart of an empire. That stretch of fertile rolling plains is now untrammeled, abandoned. The capital city which once dominated that horizon, gone.

A vast temple complex stood at the core of that capital, dedicated to the god of agreements and law, ruler of his pantheon. From there the priests of the empire oversaw the rise and spread of a power few have since matched. Certainly no realm which now rules lands once claimed by the empire can rival its ancient might.

Now that city lies buried, stricken at its height. The central temple is the only building which still emerges fully intact from the land around it, crowning the city’s tallest hill, uncomfortably preserved against the passage of time.

The fall of a god is unkind, never gentle.

Now, few ever visit the city’s stricken corpse. Fewer still dare to enter the holy grounds of the fallen god of order. The skies above wreathe themselves every day with the same storm, an eerie and unrelenting echo of the city’s swift and brutal end. It rolls north from the mountains, the gloom-black cloud front grinding across the sky like a sarcophagus’ closing lid. By the height of midday, the ruined city’s only light flickers from cloud to cloud in dazzling arcs. The blasts, when they come, fall in endless succession; they smite the city’s ruins again, every day, exactly as they did the day the city’s god was deposed and swept, fragmentary, into the abyss.

At midnight, the storm dissolves once again.

This endless cycle has played out for centuries. It has pulverized the ancient empire’s remains. Those who dwell in the lands nearby know not to travel near that god-cursed ground.

But others—the faithful, the learned, the foolish—seek to know what has preserved the fallen god’s sacred place in the center of such destruction. Their stories are inconsistent.

Those few who arrive untouched at the center of the storm, those few who see the fallen god’s holy house, cannot agree. Some find the pediment as it was, the order of the world from top to bottom in gleaming bas relief, the god front and center and larger than life. This temple still stands, but its doors are shut with verdigris and time. Others claim that the temple still stands, yes, but has been replaced by something wrong; the god of that temple screams from his carved likeness, the rain falling from his open mouth as blood. That temple, to that overthrown god, echoes from within with sounds unsought: the voices of those you thought safely dead, the secrets you wished kept, that which will undo you. Its doors stand wide open.

Some claim that those gray-green doors sealed by ages long past have opened at their touch. Few believe them. No one claims they’ve entered the open temple, but a lie of omission is still a lie.

The adventurous speak of other temples taking pride of place in that storm-wracked necropolis, others found instead of the two most well-known. They have told tales of wooden statues brought to life, of warm and welcome darkness with a heartbeat inside, of torchlight and the endless sounds of drums. They have spread rumors of passages into the several hells ruled by the shattered lord, of ways into the precarious past before the fall, of awe-inspiring visions of the broken god’s injustices and of his all-encompassing rule.

But it is the crazed who speak the truth as to why any still venture into that land of lightning and destruction: they would have a glimpse of that old god… and seize a shard of his power for themselves.

Paradise at the Titan’s Feet

Twin buttes rise above sparsely forested foothills, close together and nearly parallel. Unlike other buttes, they broaden towards their rough tops, nearly touching. They’re known as the Titan’s Feet—their eerie resemblance of ankles and calves is made worse by the way their foothills only stretch in one direction, sloping down to end in smaller hills known by locals as The Toes. Though the resemblance isn’t perfect, no one denies it exists.

The mining town of Paradise lies nestled in the high saddle between the buttes. Everyone living there is connected with the many mines which dot the buttes, either as a miner themselves or as someone who supports the miners. Ruled by a junta of powerful locals, Paradise is beset on all sides. It has only remained under local control for so long because of the town’s natural fortifications, and through careful manipulation of its neighbors.

The products of the buttes’ mines are wildly precious and widely sought after. Reputed to have magical, mystical, and alchemical properties, the long veins of precious gems and rare metals command attention from all over. Unfortunately, that includes the attention of various warlords and pretenders to the throne. Originally a crown holding, Paradise’s independence has been tested constantly ever since the realm encompassing it fell apart in political crises and succession wars. Many say possession of Paradise is proof of legitimacy; certainly, controlling access to its resources and drawing from its wealth could sway the tides of war.

In better times, both learned folk and occult practitioners devoted their lives to studying the Titan’s Feet and their origins. The Feet rise out of a broad plain, some days’ ride from the nearest large rock formations. They are entirely distinct from the local bedrock. And though some have tried to explain the Feet as a natural phenomenon, most explanations simply cover speculation with a thin sheen of intellectual authority. Many scholars have acknowledged that they are better off collecting local folklore.

Some stories tell of a blessed woman who swore an oath to hold her ground in the face of a god’s wrath, a woman who grew in stature to match her obduracy, yet was petrified by the upset deity for having defied them. Other stories say that the Feet were built by unknown ancients, a beautiful statue of marvelous height now mostly-missing. Yet others claim that the Feet grow taller every year, bit by bit, and that one day they will finish growing the rest of their body.

Some miners who’ve spent too long underground in the Feet swear that they hear a heartbeat. Others tell of how the stone flexes around them at times, nearly like living flesh, or of how the buttes’ stone tries to close itself as flesh would a wound. These stories are shared around Paradise but often derided; few tell them while sober, or admit to believing them even when drunk. Regardless, everyone agrees that the Feet aren’t truly safe. Though they’re fabulously rich in gems and ores rarely found elsewhere (let alone in conjunction), they also contain strange things that scuttle in the darkness or which have made their own small tunnels. Much like the encroaching warlords, reports of these strange things in the mines have grown worse since the fall of the Crown.

Some people think that the problems are related.

The Wreck of the Lucius

Crystalline waves break on the shores of a large cove, water cool and deep green lapping up on white sands beneath the palm trees that mark the land’s edge. This cove once served a bustling merchant fleet; the old wooden docks have rotted and been blown away by vast storms, and only their piers remain. The city that stretched from the hinterland to the cove’s prominent hook lies abandoned, decaying and buried by time and tide. Only a few inhabitants yet remain.

A strange metal sight rises from the heart of the cove, recognizable to any sailor as a ship set prow-first into the cove’s depths. Its hull still gleams, metal untarnished but for bizarre scorched gouges that have opened its sides, and its masts jut proud and perpendicular from the brilliant brass of the deck. The ship dwarfs any galleon which once called this harbor home, its stern rising high above the waves. Letters in indelible white proclaim the ship “Lucius,” written in large script beneath the chromed gunwales.

The water around around the Lucius holds a strange consistency, gradually thickening from liquid to slime to gel as one approaches. The learned scholars of the dead coastal city once proposed that this oddity, brought by the ship’s arrival, was to blame for the sudden waves of plague and deformity which wracked the city’s populace. But rigorous avoidance of the cove’s water did nothing to slow the death which rolled through the city. This, on top of the destruction wrought when the metal ship plummeted from a clear sky into the harbor’s center, sealed the city’s end.

No life has stirred from within the metal ship—none that any nearby can see. Of the adventurous souls who have attempted to board the shining vessel, only two have returned. The first died within weeks of a terrible wasting disease, raving about the oceans between stars, the brave folk who dare to sail them, and the terrible things which stalk those sailors through the darkness. The other adventurer, perhaps more obdurate and dull, merely showed several small golden statues they’d retrieved and noted that the ship was filled with marvels beyond compare. That second adventurer disappeared soon thereafter. Many of those who heard their story died of ague.

The few fisherfolk that still make this cove their home claim that the Lucius sings on some nights, a keening dirge that washes from one end of the harbor to the other. On those nights, they say, lights and figures can be seen moving about aboard the ship, above and below the water. They claim it’s worst on the nights with no moon, and that the Lucius has been changing slowly over the years: that there are new scorch marks, that the “ghosts” struggle harder, and that the ship’s song has grown harsher. The oldest among the fisherfolk says she’s worried for the ship’s crew.