Heroquest Battlemap #3: The Orc Lord’s Stronghold

Well, I guess making Dungeondraft maps of Heroquest adventures is going to be a regular thing! This time, the differences between the Dutch and UK texts were quite big, and that was really interesting. Moreover, I keep seeing people making both day and nighttime versions of their maps, so I figured I’d give that a go as well. It’s been another educational process, that’s for sure! I’ll keep to the same post structure for consistency, as it’s been working for me so far.

Interpreting the maps and making decisions

A first glance at both versions of the map gives a couple of hints as to what kind of structure we can imagine here. However, once again there are some minor changes made between the US and EU versions that puzzle me. Below are both maps side-by-side for reference.

As you can see, aside from the greater number of monsters in the US version, the second room’s table is placed centrally in the US map. Secondly, there’s a pit trap next to the chest in the final room; however, in the Dutch version the final chest itself is trapped, so that is fairly equivalent. I did notice, interestingly enough, that the EU version uses the cave-in map tile for both cave-ins as well as dungeon walls but it appears the US version had a dedicated wall tile. Now that should help distinguish the two a little more in the future!

A larger view of the Dutch version of the map.

The order of the rooms in the map seem a little curious to me, however. The top right is an entry hallway, which makes sense, but then it leads directly into what appears to be a dining room, given that there is a big old hearth in the next room over (suggesting that might be a kitchen). Another interpretation could be that it’s a guard room followed by a barracks but then I’d wonder where these people get their food! Let alone that such a prominent table in a guard room seems a little counter-intuitive. I’d have placed some smaller tables and some weapon racks there to enable people to respond swiftly. So, let’s say it’s a dining room followed by a kitchen.

Down the hallway and around the corner we then find an armory. That makes sense to me: you’d want a good place to store weaponry but have it a little out of the way so that invaders don’t just take all your weapons the second they get in. Across the hall from what we’ve now deemed the kitche nis a separate set of rooms. A small entry way, a sizeable room with a cabinet, an empty room, and finally Ulag’s room followed by a small treasury. To me, these really seem connected into a solid little living area. In fact, the first thought that pops to my mind is an office space: a little hallway, a waiting room, some offices, and then the boss’ office with attached private facilities (though I haven’t yet added lavatories to my maps).

So, this time, the map is quite evocative—hooray! The main question is how to flavor this map. Is this a dungeon? A cave? An old, decayed temple the orcs are squatting in? There’s plenty of options, though I’d argue the structure of the rooms suggest a measure of intentionality. For a good prompt, I next turned to the flavor text.

Information from the flavor text

Oh, what lovely deviations we see between the texts this time! Have a gander at both below:

As before, I’ll provide a quick translation of the Dutch version:

The Stronghold of the Orc-General

Prince Magnus has given the order to find and kill the Orc-General Ulag, as he was responsible for the kidnapping of Sir Ragnar. Whomever kills Ulag will be rewarded with 100 gold coins. If you find treasures in Ulag’s stronghold, you may keep these.

My translation of the Dutch original flavor text.

And here is a more legible version of the English text:

A larger version of the US flavor text

Like last time, the Dutch version assumes Sir Ragnar was “kidnapped” rather than “imprisoned” (or “captured”, in the previous map), and again the “Orc Warlord” is called “Ork-Veldheer“, which could equally be “general”, “commander”, or “warlord”.

This time, however, the English version uses quite biased language to push the players. The Orc Warlord is in a “lair” (though later referred to as a “stronghold”), a place for wild animals or criminals, and the players are asked to seek out and “destroy” him, again reducing Ulag to an animal (euthanizing rabid or stray animals is sometimes referred to as “destroying” as well). So, essentially, one of then fourteen quests Mentor has set to put the adventurers on the path to become true Heroes is basically a revenge killing. You know, I’m less surprised now that Zargon/Morcar, Mentor’s previous pupil, turned to evil.

The Dutch version has some interesting differences. Unlike the US text, the Dutch version consistently refers to the place where Ulag is as a “vesting“, which is a fortification, keep, or stronghold. Give n that the word “stronghold” is also used in the US version in-text, I’ve chosen to take that as the canon interpretation. This works well given my previous map, where I also chose to make the map into a warcamp rather than an underground dungeon. Making this map into an above-ground, constructed area would be consistent.

I also noticed a smaller thing in the text, which doesn’t specifically affect the mapmaking proces but I thought was funny to include at this point. The English version points out that “any treasure found . . . may be kept by the finder alone”, setting up some manner of PvP sentiment to the game; the Dutch text, on the other hand, just states that if you find treasures in there, you can keep these. Essentially, you just get permission to loot the place as you execute the Prince’s plans. I wonder why the US version chose to introduce that little PvP aspect here.

Either way, regardless of that little side-note, I now had enough information to create the final maps.

Translation into a final map

Knowing that I wanted to make this map into an above-ground structure, and that this was supposed to be the stronghold of a general, I wanted a stone structure this time. Strongholds or keeps are usually built on fortifiable places, so I figured a nice cliff-side structure would be quite a nice view. As well, earlier I’d remarked that the map seemed to consist of two separate structures (dining & armory versus offices), so I figured that the hallway would be an outside space. Seeing as how I chose to put the structure on the side of a cliff, a parapet with crenellated walls functioning as a balcony seemed quite suitable.

This time, I had to resist the urge to go far off-map. The original map doesn’t have any barracks or places for bathrooms, which makes me wonder whether they just do their business out on the parapet and sleep under tables! I chose to assume that this was just the keep, and there’d be some more rooms down the pathway to the north. Alternatively, I could have added a stairwell down at the bottom right of that hallway, and suggested a second level that would have had plenty of space for whatever practicalities are needed.

Given how often I see maps posted in a daytime and nighttime version, I wanted to try my hand at the same thing to see how that would affect the map. Below are small versions of the map for a quick comparison:

It’s intersting how the daylight version looks flat and muted in its colors compared to the nighttime version, which is more lively with its various colors of light and lighting conditions. However, in setting up the nighttime version, I did run into some challenges that I don’t quite know how to solve yet. Dungeondraft mostly deals well with light and blocking light, as the light is kept clearly within each room and yet allowed to shine through windows. However, there are some moments where I would want some shadow casting, such as in the room in the bottom left. The chairs in front of the fireplace would trail some shadow behind them, but the standard “block light” option in Dungeondraft either has them fully lit or fully darkened (compare to the objects in the little workplace at the top-right).Just before uploading, I was editing up the windows in the nighttime version, as they were blowing light. I notice that during that editing, I moved some of the shadows to the desk at the bottom right.

The solution, I think, would be to later more and more shadows behind the objects manually. At that point, though, I wonder if I should rather learn how to do some post-processing in a separate program like Gimp. While layering shadows in Dungeondraft would work, these would also only be soft shadows. The reason is that the “shadows” I use in Dungeondraft, Krager’s Shadow & Light Pack, are actually just little (parts of) circles with various transparencies and fall-off that you can color. Hard shadows, like those that should be cast from the tablelegs in the dining room, for instance, wouldn’t be possible with these.

This time, I also tried to create more depth in the map as a whole. I tried to create three separate levels in there: the water level below, a ground level for most of the map, and a cliff level that the keep itself is situated on. I added small shadows and bits of moss on certain parts of the cliff asset I used to defined the rock outcropping in the hopes of making more depth to that image. Overall, I think that made the cliff pop a little more, and I’m happy with how that worked out.

A slightly larger version of the daytime map.

The great thing about this map was that more and more became clear as I was building it. After finishing the upper area of the stronghold, the lower area suddenly started becoming more of a story: there was the small hallway where visitors would be checked, followed by a little waiting room. Beyond the waiting room would be a private discussion area for individual talks; of course, you’d want that to be a little impressive, so there’s paintings on the wall, a statue in the corner, and a big moose-head on the wall to emphasize his hunting prowess. Finally, there’s the study with a big meeting room ready to go (agenda’s laid out, and breadsticks provided). The more I constructed this, the more alive the map became.

A slightly larger version of the nighttime map.

The dark version of the map, by contrast, almost looks cozy. Particularly that room on the bottom-left looks like a place where Ulag would invite his confidants for a late-night talk over a good cup of tea. That little table and chair that I’d idly put in the upper-right room suddenly is a calm spot where the night sentry reads a book during the quiet hours. The parapet turns from a bleak little passageway to a place to huddle by the fire as you stare wistfully out at the lake.

I’ve learned a lot from making this map, and I’m quite pleased with the outcome. If you’d like to see a full-sized version of the map, you can find this over at the Reddit post I made about it:

Burning Wheel: Foundry VTT Compendiums

I have been enjoying playing Burning Wheel on Foundry Virtual Tabletop tremendously. Not only because the game is going well and I enjoy hanging out with my friends but also because of the really useful features of Foundry VTT. A major component of running Burning Wheel on there has been StasTserk’s system plugin for Foundry, that automates quite a bit about running the game. However, a major feature that’s missing by design from his plugin is Foundry Compendiums that contain the Skills, Traits, Lifepaths, and so on needed to run Burning Wheel. He’s made the explicit choice not to include these, as his project is free and has unofficial status.

Some anonymous person at one point coded a whole set of these Compendiums into Foundry, and a zip file of this has been shared on the Burning Wheel Discord that had all the Common Skills and Common Traits and two of the Settings but lacked a set of other things. To me, getting the Skills and Traits in there would have been the bulk of the work and that was a main thing preventing me from doing it myself. However, with that wonderful start (thank you, unknown person!), I decided to take up the work from here and add the other Settings and missing features bit-by-bit. Given that it was also a little tricky to install initially, thanks to the help of a kind fellow who goes by Agolp on Github, we now have a module that can be installed via its Manifest URL!

You can find the files and installation instructions on the GitHub page, as well as a way to file issues in case you discover something that needs adding or changing. The project is only halfway through so far, but I’d say it’s in a workable state for average play. The things that are still missing now are more niche things, like Monstrous Lifepaths, Traits, and Skills, and so on. I hope this helps you get started with Burning Wheel on FoundryVTT!

The Foundry BW Compendium is available on FoundryVTT and can be updated from there as well! How cool is that?
The current list of compendiums available in FoundryVTT

Heroquest Battlemap #2: The Rescue of Sir Ragnar

I enjoyed making a Dungeondraft version of the first map of Heroquest so much that I figured I’d do the same to the second map. So, I dusted off my old manual once again, and went to prepare. Since the procedure I used making the last battlemap went so well, I figured to follow the same procedure this time around as well.

Interpreting the maps and making decisions

This time around, I wanted to not only reference the original Dutch version of the map from my manual, but I also found a map of the UK version to compare it to. Below you can find both for your reference.

Curiously enough, the UK version of the map contains more monsters than the Dutch version. I wonder what prompted that change? Fortunately, though, for our concerns, we’re not placing monsters on the map, so we can ignore that aspect of it, although we could have it inform our ideas of the room functions.

Speaking of that, there seems to be less of a cohesive concept in this map. For one, the UK version has a torture chamber in the staircase room, for some reason. Is that really where you’d put your prisoner: right next to their opportunity to escape? I suppose that is a torture all of its own, though! Five rooms on this map are just plain empty, which doesn’t help us much to interpret any other functionality from it. That little room right next to Sir Ragnar’s room is obvious enough: a small room with a person right next to a cell? That’d be the jailer. Apparently, though, he had to be hidden away; to me, that implies that they’re expecting somebody to come and get him. The other rooms are rather plain purpose: two rooms with a table, one with a bookcase. Not much to go on at all, really.

So, with the maps not giving us much to work with, let’s hope that the flavor text gives us some more clues!

Information from the flavor text

Much like last time, the flavor text varies a little between the two language versions. In case you can read Dutch, below you can find both versions side-by-side.

This time, the differences in flavor text are minor. The Dutch version changes “emperor” to “king”, and “captured” to “kidnapped”.

Given that it’s more likely that you don’t speak Dutch, however, below I’ve translated the Dutch version of the text:

The Rescue of Sir Ragnar,

One of the strongest King’s Knights, Sir Ragnar, has been kidnapped. He is being held prisoner by Ulag, the Orc General. Ye must find Sir Ragnar and bring him to safety. Prince Magnus will pay the rescuer 200 pieces of gold. The reward may be shared by various adventurers but if Sir Ragnar is killed during the escape, no reward will be paid.

My translation of the Dutch original flavor text.

There’s not too much crucial difference here. The Dutch version offers a little less money (probably to offset the lower number of monsters?), and makes Sir Ragnar a knight of the King rather than the Emperor—not much issue there at all. The most interesting difference here, really, is that the English version of the text states that Sir Ragnar has been “captured” whereas the Dutch version states he is “kidnapped”. A capture would happen during a battle situation; i.e. Sir Ragnar is a prisoner of war. If he’s “kidnapped”, that would mean some miscreants snuck up on him and took him in the most underhanded manner. Interestingly enough, the UK version also shows more uncertainty: there is “reason to believe” Ulag has him, whereas the Dutch version is far more firm, stating “he is held prisoner” by Ulag. I guess there must have been some kind of hostage note in the Dutch version?

A final interesting concept is that the Dutch version calls Ulag an “Ork-veldheer“. “Veldheer“, like so many Dutch words, is a compound of two words, “Veld“, meaning “field”, and “heer“, which means “gentleman”, “noble”, “lord”, and so on. “Veldheer” can mean both “General” as well as “Warlord”—the choice of translation is mostly spin, I suppose (like choosing between “terrorist” and “freedom fighter”). I chose to translate it as “general” just because I prefer to read against the grain here. Clearly, traditional fantasy encourages us to think of orcs as inherently violent and criminal, so I prefer to read it in a more noble light to see what that does to our interpretation.

Either way, to me the UK version of the story is far more interesting. Not only does a simple kidnapping job remove all agency from Sir Ragnar, it also once more paints whomever you’re fighting against in the darkest light possible. The Dutch version’s antagonist is called “Morcar” (as opposed to the UK version’s “Zargon”) but both version’s helpful narrator is called “Mentor”; now, given how the Dutch version keeps sending the players into such black-and-white situations that seem far more dubious on further consideration, I prefer to read the little “M.” signature on the bottom of the Dutch flavor text as though Morcar and Mentor are the same person here, and the player characters are the victims of a long con here.

Translation into a final map

So, taking my cues from the UK version of the flavor text, Sir Ragnar has been captured by an Orc general. That means that there must have been a recent battle, and given that this band of four heroes is sent to rescue him then he’s probably not underneath Mount Doom in the middle of enemy territory being tortured for his secrets. More liklely, he’ll be somewhere close to the field of battle before being sent onwards.

So, rather than interpret the map as being another dungeon mined out below the earth, I’ll choose to interpet it as a warcamp close to battle. Your average warcamp will just be army tents of various kinds and surrounded by piles of camp followers (merchants of various ilk that seek profit from the army). However, let’s assume that this war that’s been going on between the orcs and the Emperor’s forces has been going on for quite a while. That means that the camp will likely develop some more semi-permanent structures. A palisade, some wooden buildings, and so on. That gives us some more to work with!

As a secondary reason, I’ve made a few underground maps now and those usually end up being dark with torchlight flickering here and there, and that’s great to do but I also want to practice some more outside scenes as well. So, I chose to make this an open structure, in daylight, with some more natural views in sight. The only thing left at that point, then, is to give some more purpose to the individual rooms.

If this is some manner of prisoner facility for a high-ranking prisoner, we have some more prompts to work with. There will have to be guards, and they’ll have to sleep somewhere, so a guard barracks it is. Guard need to eat, so there’ll be a dining room, and there’ll be downtime, so as well a relaxing chamber. Given that this is some kind of high-priority prisoner that warrants being hidden in this space, there’ll be an additional guard chamber, and most likely this will house some other choice treasures. Lastly, you don’t just leave a high-placed prisoner alone—you’ll have a top person on-site to deal with him. So, the last room I wanted to reserve as an office for a high-ranking individual.

A tricky thing to consider was where to put the entrance, as the original map assumes everything to be an underground dungeon and placed the entrance right in the middle. Making this an outside area means that becomes impossible. So, I had to make the choice to shift that a little up and to the left, and making that a gap in a palisade. While I could also kept the central room as a full-on room, it seemed more interesting to me to make that a central courtyard. So, I made it a much more open space to reflect the more semi-permanent feeling I wanted to give the map.

The last intersting problem I had to deal with was how to handle the secret door entrance to the dungeon area in the bottom left. Dungeondraft doesn’t particularly have any secret door assets, though the Crosshead Studios assets I’m using does have one secret door for a stone environment. The standard option that gets recommended frequently is two make two versions of the same map, where one has just a regular wall and one is opened to show a passage. For example, this post on Reddit:

However, I wanted the map to tell the story in one go rather than have this. I considered potentially making a door in the wall and then layering over another wall with only very slight opacity. That way, there is a wall there, but if players look very carefully they could see the outline of a door in it. That would be kind of a metagame way for the players to discover. However, I ended up choosing a much more direct version: just literally put the door in and put something in front of it that would block vision. Then, when used in a tabletop enviroment, that would form its own logical secret door. On top of that, given that this is a semi-permanent structure, this also seems the most logical way of doing this.

Knowing these crucial points, I now translated the prompts from the manual into this final form:

The small version of my Dungeondraft map

A larger version of this map can be found on the Reddit post I made about this below:

Burning France: Session 3

Yesterday, we ran the third session of my “Burning France” Burning Wheel game. The write-up of session two can be found here. Our game is really starting to get going, and this session was more action-packed than the previous two!

The Story

Our recent fumble is a problem; the people of Avignon must be convinced of the righteousness of our deeds.

Bertrand’s Third Belief

We last left Bertrand and Benoit at the scene of a crime, where the now-murdered guard captain Matthieu had alerted the entire guardhouse with his dying cry. Benoit legged it at top speed, beating out the guards rushing out from the guardhouse with B5 Speed (+1 Fork) vs B4 Speed, rolling a magical 6s vs 3s. Meanwhile, Bertrand did his best to deceive the guards, saying he came to investigate the strange noises. Rolling B3 Falsehood (+1 Persona) versus the guards’ B4 Perception, it ends up in a tie with 3s vs 3s. Bertrand, however, relies on his good luck, and swings +1s success (Fate reroll). The guard are convinced that nothing serious is amiss.

The next morning, Bertrand and Geoffrey head to the guard house to try and sway the loyalty of the guards now that their captain is gone. (Duel of Wits).

Elisa employs the guard; we work for Elisa, so you work for us. We are certain the nobles did it, and they should be seen as the main threat.

Statement of Purpose Bertrand & Geoffrey, Body of Argument 7

Thank you for your kind donation of money; however, the guard will remain independent with regards to this murder case. Please leave us to it.

Statement of Purpose Guards, Body of Argument 4

The guards, initially trying to brush them off with a standard spiel, get turned around when they find their guests agreeing with them Obfuscate B3 Falsehood 2s vs Point B4 Persuasion 1s; not only that, Bertrand and Geoffrey manage to redirect their attention to the nobles hiding out in the forest: clearly, given that they were just about to close a deal with the captain, the nobles must surely have killed him Point B3 Falsehood (+1 Help, +1 Oratory) 4s vs Rebuttal B4 Persuasion 0s defend & 1s attack. Who can withstand such ruthless logic? The guards, thoroughly convinced of this evidence, agree to make the nobles their prime suspects.

My companions are a liability for me. I must act in their best interests, even if they disagree.

Those who resent you are dangerous, and should be scared into obedience or destroyed.

Geoffrey’s First and Third Beliefs

Meanwhile, Benoit has been spending time with Elisa to find out how he can help her. She admits to being overwhelmed by her new responsibilities, and worries that the village’s food supply will not last because crop yields have apparently been falling for a while. There are a myriad of tiny problems besetting the village: farmers not using proper techniques, others are not cooperating, others are full-on fighting. Benoit and Elisa end up spending the afternoon touring the village, making an index of all of these issues B3 Farming (+2 FoRK Trouble-wise, Foraging) 3s. He encourages Elisa to take the lead in this, seeking to empower her through his experience.

Now that everyone is equal, we should all be able to shape our lives according to our own wishes.

Benoit’s First Belief

The trio meet back up with Léonce, the woodsman B2 Circles (+1 Golden Boy reputation, +1 Named Contact) 1s vs Ob 1, who was asked to scout of the location of the nobles. He informs them that he easily found them, spotting about a dozen people and counting about three or four hired muscle among them. Rather than looking to set up a counter-revolution, they seemed instead to be struggling to make due. The trio decides to let them simmer in their misery for a week or so before showing up with food and supplies to try and sway the nobles back peacefully.

We must find the deposed nobles and their sympathizers and make sure they don’t stage a counter-revolution.

Benoit’s Third Belief

During that time, Bertrand decides to rewrite his manifesto to sway the new revolutionaries to accept new leadership (namely: his); sadly, with a B3 Write (+1 Persona, +2 Fork Rule of Law & Philosophy), 2s vs Ob4 the final product does not end up being as good as Bertrand believes it to be, and it will net him a +1Ob in future tests. Benoit has a look at the developments among the farmers, and with a graduated test B3 Farming (+1 FoRK Trouble-wise, +1 FoRK Rumor-wise) 3s he notices that it is going quite well indeed. With some hard work on his side, not just the crops but the mood in the village is also doing better, making the whole place more homely. Lastly, Geoffrey wishes to get back into his old business, and decides to advertise the intimate services offered by his husband and wife, as well as set up a rudimentary spy network through them. Sadly, as it turns out, villages are more tightly knit than cities are, and the spouses of his new customers are not happy at all that he has started up business B2 Haggling (+1 FoRK Protitute-wise, +1 FoRK Persuasion), 1s vs Ob3.

Meting out justice is what’s required, but is it not justice to be considered first among many?

Bertrand’s First Belief

With that, time enough has passed for our trio to prepare to head into the forest and finally confront the nobles.

The Session

During this session, everything really started flowing much more naturally and easily. I’m getting the sense that the players are starting to get a good grip on who their characters are and what they want to do with them, and the Beliefs are coming into play more and more. It was quite satisfying to run this session, and I was impressed that with this increased clarity, I actually had almost no prep time for this evening.

Being more on point gave us the opportunity as well to engage in a Duel of Wits, as we got into our first difference of opinion in the conflict with the guards. While it was a little involved to try running this, it was also over before I realized it. I tried to give my players a decent hint at what the guards were going to do, and I’m happy that my players picked up on exactly that. Roleplaying the interaction worked relatively nicely, and I think once we get some more familiarity with this conflict resolution system, we can use it more naturally as well.

One thing that I slipped with this session was clearly laying out the risks of failure for rolls. I think this started with me neglecting to specifically ask after and confirm Task and Intent, and therefore forgetting to set consequences. Fortunately, it didn’t cause any issues but it’s a thing I should keep an eye out on.

Overall Impression

I’m really happy with where we’re going with this game. Every session I get more ideas of where to go as the fiction now starts writing itself. I’m also getting more comfortable setting Obstacles on the fly and estimating relative difficulty for Tests. One thing that I need to work on is a bit of time management. I was well on time for most of the session but near the end I wanted to have a little vignette to skip time before the next session, which ended up costing us much more time than I figured it would have. As a result, we again couldn’t do Belief workshopping at the end of the session as we should. Well, something to focus on next time!

Heroquest Battlemap #1: The Trial

A few days ago, I was talking with two of my brothers about game nights, and we reminisced about how we used to play Heroquest back in the early ’90s, when my brother got the game for Sinterklaas. I recalled that I still actually have the manuals for that game, even though the original gameboard may be molding away in our parents’ garage. Leafing through those booklets was a wonderful nostalgic trip and even though I didn’t realize it at the time, this was probably my first tabletop RPG-like experience.

Interpreting maps and making decisions

Figure 1: A scan of the map from the first quest in the Heroquest manual. This is the copy that my brother got for Christmas back in 1989, so it’s the original Dutch version.

As I saw that classic, lovely look of the maps presented in the booklet, I got motivated to see if I could work these out in Dungeondraft into a full battlemap. After all, it’s already a grid-based map that was meant for combat, right? Plus, having the concept of the dungeon and the basic design already worked out allowed me to focus fully on trying to create the map itself and working with the program, rather than also having to work out what to make to begin with. Given that I’m not running an RPG that uses battlemaps right now, any battlemap I’ve made has been somewhat divorced from purpose, which has made it all the more difficult to make it. Now, that purpose would be built in.

I did have to make some decisions, however. As you can see in the map above, part of the board is blocked off (which happens in almost every Heroquest map) with the “fallen rock” tile. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean a collapse—that tile is simply the only tool in the Heroquest toolbox to block off a map, as there was no “wall” tile. So, firstly, I decided that the fallen rocks tiles on the right side of the map were probably meant to just limit space. The top-left tile, though, was a bit of a mystery: why would anybody build a hallway to nowhere? So, I decided that this hallway would end in a collapse. Probably, there used to be a room there at some point, but it’s just no longer accessible.

The other decisions were less easy to make, however. Due to the simple nature of the boardgame, there’s little detail to these maps. Some rooms indicate some purpose (a room with a weapons rack will likely be an armory, a room with two bookcases will be a library) but there’s even a room with just two Orcs around a table—what is that supposed to be? There’s two rooms there that have nothing in them but monsters. Mechanically, of course, they’re just bags-of-hitpoints roadblocks for the player characters but for a map, we’ll need a little more. Fortunately, each map comes with a little flavor text.

Information from the flavor text

Figure 2: A scan of the original text of the quest. My brother got the game for Sinterklaas in 1989, so this is the original Dutch printing of the manual. The A-D items below the flavor text are map prompts on for treasures and monster details.

The Trial

Friends, ye have learned well. The time for your first trial has come. Travel from here to the east and find your way to the cellars of Verag, a horrible monstrosity. The tomb of Fellmarg is guarded in these cellars. This test is hard and some of you may not return from it . . . They who survive will continue their training here. This, friends, is your first step towards Super Hero . . . Tread that road carefully.

The Dutch flavor text to the first quest, my translation

Now, this has a really interesting contrast with the official UK version of that same flavor text:

The Trial

You have learned well, my friends. Now has come the time of your first trial. You must first enter the catacombs which contain Fellmarg’s Tomb. you must seek out and destroy Verag, a foul Gargoyle who hides in the catacombs. This Quest is not easy and you must work together in order to survive. This is your first step on the road to becoming true Heroes. Tread carefully my friends.

The official UK version of the same flavor text

The Dutch version differs quite interestingly from the UK version. The UK version clearly indicates that these are catacombs, and that Verag has hidden away in them; hence, the heroes are sent to clean out these catacombs. The Dutch version, however, does not call this a catacomb (“catacombe“) but a cellar (“kelder“), and makes Verag the owner of them. What a twist! Interestingly enough, the Dutch version also doesn’t actually instruct the heroes to do anything. Go there, and do what? I wonder why these choices were made but I’ll happily make use of the increased ambiguity here! Aside from the introduction of the English phrase “Super Hero” in the Dutch text rather than using “ware Helden” for “true Heroes”, there’s only one interesting difference to me.

In Dutch Verag is called a “gedrocht“, which translates to “freak” or “monstrosity”, whereas in the English version he’s a gargoyle. In Dutch, gargoyle is “waterspuwer” (as you can imagine, “water spewer/spitter” if translated literally into English), and refers almost purely to the gothic architectural feature—i.e., a grotesque that is fitted with a spout to move water away from roofs. It’s understandable to me that an alternative word would have to be found, because a “waterspuwer” just wasn’t a common monster in the Dutch fantasy scene. “Freak” or “monstrosity” certain flavored the text, though, and gives the translation an interesting twist.

Translating it into a new map

Because the Dutch translation offers so much more ambiguity, I chose to creatively interpret that text over sticking close to the UK version. Now to use that flavoring to start making some definitive decisions.

We know that “the tomb of Fellmarg is guarded in these cellars”, which means that the players are asked to enter a religious site and murder all the inhabitants. I’m starting to have some doubts on whether this Mentor (the absent character who canonically provides the flavor text) is a good guy after all. Looking again at the original map above, I suddenly see that there’s a library at the bottom right, there’s an orc reading a religious text on the left, with a set of people in rooms leading up to a tomb. There’s also a study at the bottom of the map. This is just some kind of temple-like structure! The Dutch text mentions that it’s “guarded”, not “desecrated”, “despoiled” or “ruined”, so we’re not even dealing with a monster invasion but a people honoring one of their dead. The only odd thing is that torture chamber at the bottom left—what is it even doing in the map and how does it fit with the rest of the rooms? It’s almost like the people making this map were lost in making a cool temple, then realized that it had to be an evil place, so they just figured: let’s put a torture room in there. See? Evil things. So, you know. It’s okay to kill these people.

So, with these decisions made, I could start on translating this basic map into a full version. Based on my reading of the flavor text, I chose to make it an underground kind of structure, and one that was relatively homely as well, as to me a cellar sounds like it’s underneath a home or an inn. Furthermore, since the tomb of Fellmarg is guarded here, I figured it would be something like a pilgrimage site for them, so there would be something of a religious bent to part of the map aside from just a guardpost. I did decide to keep the torture chamber in there because I wanted to stay true to the original map. Additionally, it does form an interesting and odd contrast: on the one hand, our sympathies should lie with the people guarding this tomb but on the other hand, what were they doing with that chamber?

That ruined hallway turned out to inspire what I think is a really interesting feature of the map. I knew I wanted to have a cave-in there to block the way and I also had that empty room right next to it that I needed to figure out a purpose for. I decided that the cave-in was the result of some flooding and decided to have that water spill over from outside the map into that room. Before you know it, those four connected rooms suddenly had a purpose: the first room is a prayer room with the religious text, next up a pilgrim may cleanse themselves at the pool before proceeding to the antechamber, and finally the dark and quiet tomb of Fellmarg. Each room successively also has lower light conditions, starting with the perfectly lit room, a low fire in the room of ablutions, low-smouldering braziers in the antechamber, ending in the dark and quiet tomb of Fellmarg.

With a clear image of what I wanted to create, I now set to work mapping this thing out in Dungeondraft, and I’m quite happy with the final result. I made the scene dark, to emphase the gloomy nature of the cellar, added some small lights and experimented with different light colors using yellow, orange, and red lights and differing intensities to highlight parts of the scene. What went less well is that in my inexperience, I really messed up with the object layers, and had to fumble and rework several parts to make sure that items would lie on top of tables, that the fountain was underneath the water and so on. All in all, though, I think it’s become an interesting map that is nicely filled and believable.

I’m not sure how to properly make a full-sized version available, but either way below you can find a small version:

Figure 3: my Dungeondraft version of The Trial, which I’ve named “The Cellars of Verag”, as that’s what the location is called in the manual.
EDIT 2021.01.07: I’ve uploaded a larger version of the map in a Reddit post I made

Tablet for RPG Reading First Experiences

Yesterday, I got the tablet we ordered as my Christmas present. Tracy chose an awesome Kindle Oasis 2021 model, and I decided to get a Lenovo Tab M10 FHD Plus (2nd gen). Ironically, we were both looking for the same thing but for exactly different purposes: she wanted a tablet allowing her to read full books with a more calm light (and the Kindle Oasis has been great for that—she’s been glued to it for days!), whereas I wanted a tablet that I could use to read pdfs, news sites, and so on.

I spent some time reading reviews online to find out what rough pricerange and model types would work out, as tablets nowadays come anywhere from low-end budget versions costing around €50 to high-end monstrosities of over €1000. Tracy and I talked it out, and €200 seemed like a good ceiling for this kind of purchase—anything too budget would just lead to regret and wasted money, but anything more than €200 seemed excessive for what I needed. One of the issues I’d run into researching tablet choices is that much of the discussion online is centered around the American market, where the prices are radically different than in the Dutch or EU market. So, the advice there didn’t fully fit. For example, a frequently advised budget tablet in America is the Amazon Fire HD 10, which just isn’t available in the Netherlands. Another frequent suggestion is the Lenovo Tab P11, which starts at $189 in America (that’s around €168) but in the Netherlands costs around €260. I’m not sure what the exact cause of the price difference is but if I were to take a guess, I wouldn’t be surprised if partly it’s import taxes, but largely it’ll be the result of the global supply chain issues and the global microchip shortage.

So, I was left to having to interpret the discussions on tablet choice from a Dutch perspective. That’s how I ended up settling on the Lenovo M10 Plus (the FHD in the name seems to be optional). From my reading, there seemed to be two crucial considerations as far as pdf-reading on tablets is concerned: firstly, that the tablet has an HD screen, to ensure that the fonts are suitably legible; secondly, an appropriate screen ratio. For an EU audience, The A4 paper ratio is 1:1.414, though for US-based publications, letter size will be more common (1:1.294) followed by digest size (around 1:1.5, but it varies). Since publications come in such varied ratios, it’s always going to be an odd fit. It’s telling, though, that both the Pixelbook and the Surface Book come with a 1:1.5 screen ratio. I found an article that recommended 4:3 or 16:10 as decent alternatives to 1:1.5. As luck would have it, the Lenovo M10 happens to be one of the few lower-price tablets that has a 16:10 screen ratio (as 16:9, i.e. 1:1.778, is the most common ratio for budget screens). Restating 16:10 as 1:1.6 shows how close it is to that sweet spot 1:1.5. That ratio will reasonably fit A4 as well as digest-size US publications.

I’ve spent yesterday testing out the tablet with various RPG books, such as R. Talsorian Games’ The Witcher RPG and BWHQ’s Torchbearer, both of which were wonderfully legible on the Lenovo M10. I picked those two, because they seemed to represent two extremes: The Witcher RPG‘s full layout tends to have two to three columns per page with a quite busy layout (it does come with what they call a “phone” layout, incidentally, which is far simpler); Torchbearer, on the other hand, is a digest-sized publication with little extra fanfare. These two pdfs allowed me to test two extremes of pdf publications. I am quite happy that I found both easy to read on the Lenovo M10. For each, the font was indeed crisp and easy to distinguish. The screen ratio also seemed to fit the pages quite well, and I never felt like the page was crammed into the screen or that I had to zoom or pinch around to get a good overview. Interstingly enough, I found the Kindle app to give the best reading experience so far, though I’m still at the start of exploring the app spaces available for pdf reading.

All in all, I’m quite happy with this tablet, and I look forward to many evenings reading RPG books with a happy cat purring on my lap.

Tablet for Christmas

I bit the bullet and ended up ordering a tablet for Christmas, so that I can finally get around to more easily read all those tabletop RPGs that I have. It seemed like such a weird waste to read them at the PC, and reading on my mobile phone just was too small and fiddly to deal with. My laptop may have been a good compromise, but whenever I sit down downstairs, my lap gets colonized by a small herd of cats, preventing the use of any laptop. So, a tablet it is! I hope it’ll work nicely for me.

Nobilis: Session 4

Yesterday evening was the fourth session of Nobilis, which was the last of this story arc. While it signified the end of the first arc, it nevertheless set up quite a few things for the following sessions. Two of the players could not be present for this session, which drastically changed the feel of the game, as the different group composition led to different focal points. Another thing that made the session a little more awkward to me is that we switched to Dutch for this one, as before it was in English for the benefit of one of the players. Though I’m born and raised in the Netherlands, I’ve never played RPGs in Dutch nor do I consume Dutch-language media. So, outside of professional situations, I don’t have a particularly large vocabulary in Dutch, which hampered my ability to be as allusive and metaphorical as I attempted my character to be in English.

Brief Summary

We started off in the reception party to present the newly-decanted Noble of Coal, which was an promising scene of social conflict. Our group was clearly the odd one out, and it slowly became clear that we were invited as a courtesy—the previous Noble of Coal was murdered on our Chancel territory, so inviting us to the ceremony was probably a matter of good manners. Anxiety isolated himself from all the potential stress in the corner of the room, inadvertently ending up next to Mo-An, another courtesy-invite who later on turned out to be a crucial person for us to talk to. Marcella started to go around the room to make some new connections (meeting Olivia Neiros, the Lady of Nightmares) and finally ended up flirting with Janna, The Lady of Mercury, while chatting with Azar, the new Noble of Coal. This allowed Ariana to individually speak with Mira Zophis, the Imperator of Coal, about the murder case. Mira Zophis tried to dig a little into the specifics of the murder case, but Ariana kept him at a distance for the talk.

Later at the Chancel, our trio discussed Ariana’s theory on the murder. She suspected that the former Noble of Coal had an affair with the Lady of Candy, which would be a major transgression. They decide to do a ritual where Fantasy and Enlightenment together weave a representation of the dreams and desires of the former Noble of Coal to see if he indeed dreamed of the Lady of Candy. The ritual shows that the former Noble of Coal fantasized purely about power. Looking back on my notes, we knew this already, of course: in the second session we had done a ritual on his corpse directly, where we found that power was what he desired.

Our after discussion was interrupted by Pari, a subject of master Fenas, a disturbing lady in a robe and veil, covered with wounds that weeped rubies. She bluntly informed us that her master invited us to be educated, and promptly left.

We finished up doing a little information gathering, as we traded a favor with Olivia Neiros, the Lady of Nightmares, to find out a bit more information about our murder suspect. We left the group poised to take action.

The Session Itself

Like with other diceless games I’ve played, I still don’t mesh much with Nobilis. I do miss a sense of it being a game rather than sitting around and telling each other a story. I’ve been trying to work out more what I mean by this, and two things I think I miss is that sense of stochastic outcomes—that mechanical restriction that breeds creativity which tells you “no, this thing fails” leaving you to decide the how and why, and a feedback loop from mechanics that pushes you in certain directions.

Having said that, the GM has been doing a great job at keeping the responsibility on us to drive the plot forward, while trying to offer each player vignettes of what we’re looking for. When Edward, Lord of Anxiety, separated himself at the party, the GM understood that the player was looking for awkward silences and uncomfortable interaction, and that’s exactly what he gave out; Marcela was given fun little vignettes of party interactions and some flirting that started in the last session already; while Ariana was provided an opportunity to dig into the mystery at hand.

As far as world-building goes, I think we’ve got a good view of the situation now, but as players we keep circling around the same point a little without advancing. The GM has been explaining the situation that there are two factions within the Dark, a more authoritarian-style faction that sees strict hierarchy as necessary to winning the war with the Excrucians, and a more libertarian (for lack of a better word) faction that’s more about individual sovereignty for the Nobles in the Dark. Our incident is the result of a conflict between those two factions. To my mind, that’s not so much a murder mystery as it is an invitation to make a choice: we can choose to let things be, or we can choose to tip the balance in one side’s favor. That’s an interesting ethical choice, because, practically speaking, we could very easily drop this without any problem. In fact, it seems that multiple people are gently asking us to drop it. So, the question becomes: should we even intervene?

Final Thoughts

At the end of the session, the GM announced that this was the end of the first arc of the story (Act 1 certainly seems completed), and reminded us that we all decided to give the game a first arc and then decide what we wanted to do. I felt uncomfortable making any choice about this with only three of the five players present, and on top of that I was as tired as I always get at ten-ish, so I was glad that we relegated that discussion to Discord for the coming days.

It’s a tricky choice. I enjoy the unusual setting and the unheimlich feeling that the GM is trying to create, and he’s doing a great job at GMing the game. However, as I’ve said, I’m not really connecting with the game system itself. On top of that, I still feel as though my style of gameplay is quite different from some of the other players, which has made things feel disjointed for me. From my side, though, given how tired I get in the evenings (I’m high energy in the mornings starting at around 5am up to early afternoons), I’ve made scheduling quite difficult for everybody else. I tend to set my availability to weekends, as it’s hard for me to play after workdays, but that leaves my schedule the most restricted of the players, which severely limits our options.

I’m not too sure yet of what I want to do with this, and will give it some quiet thought before I get into the discussion on Discord.

Burning France: Session 2

Yesterday was the second session of my “Burning France” Burning Wheel game. The write-up on the previous session can be found here. It gave me a good chance to try out a new thing or two in Foundry VTT, such as using some ambient music for a scene and practising help and extended tests in the Burning Wheel game system for Foundry. I felt a little more comfortable running this time, and the awkward start to the session was a little shorter this time than last.

The Story

Our band of characters, Benoit the Farmer, Bertrand the Bastard, and Geoffrey the Barkeep, started off discussing what their next moves would be. Last session, they heard that the previously deposed nobles of Avignon-sur-Chantre had been exiled to the woods to the north of the village, which made them a looming threat to the post-revolution village. They gathered around a rough map of the village to plan out their next move.

A map of Avignon-sur-Chantre made in Wonderdraft using assets from 2-Minute Tabletop

Reviewing the map, the team wondered who was guarding the palisades and the gates, realizing that there was a group of guards of unknown affiliation—who were these people even loyal to? Benoit used his connections among the villagers to do a B2 Rumor-wise against Ob 2 (+2 FoRK, +1 help, passed with 3 successes) learning that the guard leadership had been brought in from outside, and since the revolution has been distant from the villagers. Despite no longer being paid, they nevertheless had enough money to spend in the tavern every night.

“We must find the deposed nobles and their sympathizers and make sure they don’t stage a counter-revolution

Benoit, Belief #3

Meanwhile, Bertrand desired to find a woodsman capable of scouting out the woods to the north to find trace of the hiding nobles. A quick B2 Circles against Ob 2 (+1 Affiliation Insurrectionists, +1 “Golden Boy” Reputation, passed with 2 successes) brought him to Léonce the Woodsman, a local trapper who was an appreciative follower of the revolution. He quickly agreed to take a day to scout out the forest.

“Benoit is a sincere follower and obviously looks to me for guidance; I will show him how a true revolutionary deals with these filthy nobles near Avignon.”

Bertrand, Belief #2

Meanwhile, Geoffrey spoke to Elise, the house servant of the previous lord of the manor of Avignon-sur-Chantre. The group had decided that Avignon needed new administration, and Elise was the most capable person around. Elise quickly agreed, and sent out for people in the village to turn her de-facto position into a fixture of the village.

Finally, the trio decided to confront Matthieu, the captain of the guard, and see whether he could be swayed to their side or whether he needed to be taken out. After some quick carousing with him, Benoit and Bertrand decided that the man could never be convinced and needed to be taken out then and there. Geoffrey made a Exp 3 Beginner's Luck Drinking vs test Ob 4 (+1 help, +2 FoRK, 3 successes) which even after a fate re-roll resulted in both Geoffrey and Matthieu being absolutely sloshed.

“Those who resent you are dangerous and should be scared into obedience or destroyed.”

Geoffrey, Belief #3

The group used this to their advantage, as Benoit made a Exp 3 Beginner's Luck Conspicuous against Ob 2 (+1 FoRK, +1 Advantage, 2 successes) which meant that Benoit and the drunken Geoffrey were the loud and obvious distraction to Bertrand and Matthieu slipping out quietly. Geoffrey was dumped in a small nearby alleyway, as Bertrand and Matthieu made their way to the docks to the north of the village.

The final step of their plan was to knock Matthieu on the back of the head with Bertrand’s mace, and dump the body into the river. Hopefully, everybody would assume he fell in it while drunk, hit his head, and that’d be the end of that. With Benoit rolling B3 Mace vs B3 Perception (+1 Help), it came out at 1 Success for Benoit versus 2 Successes for Matthieu, meaning the captain caught sight of what was happening just too late, crying out loudly as he now messily fell onto rocks below before being swept away in the river.

The session ended with clamoring and alarums raised in the nearby guard post. How will our team get out of this one?

The Session

The session went more smoothly than last time, to my feeling. The players had a more clear idea of what they wanted to achieve, and I was able to prepare a little more beforehand as well, so that I would have some knowledge of rules prepared. This time, the beliefs came out a little better as well, and I’m getting the sense that they’re starting to click more for the players as well, as newer beliefs have been more focused on practical.

There were two big errors that we made, though (which probably enraged those familiar with the rules in my description above). Firstly, FoRKs aren’t supposed to be used for Beginner’s Luck tests. We weren’t exactly sure in play, so we just went with it and figured to look it up later. Now, I’ve seen that BWG p.36 explicitly states that FoRKs apply only to skill tests, and BWG p.37 notes that Beginner’s Luck tests are stat tests. Luke Crane, the author of the game, also explains as much in a reddit reply.

By the way, the “You are a monster” comment jokingly refers to the original poster, who asked “If I allow players to FORK into beginners luck tests, am I a monster?”

The second big error that we made is that during the large extended test that was getting the captain drunk and disposing of him, we forgot to track the advantage/obstable modifiers. So, technically, the failed Drinking test should have increased the obstacle of the following Conspicuous test, which means it should have failed. Similarly, the mistakenly succeeded Conspicuous test should have added a +1D advantage to the Mace test. Well, either way, we’ll move forward with what we have, as this is pretty interesting too.

We had a minor struggle at the start, incidentally, as initially the group was exploring the manor to potentially find ledgers and figure out how the guards were being paid. One player wanted to point out that it seemed like the game was heading towards a middle-management simulator genre, which he wasn’t particularly interested in. Fortunately, nobody else at the table was interested in that either, so we abandoned that thread quickly. I can see where the player initiating that scene was going, though: he was attempting to get a test to determine that the guards were receiving outside money, and thereby have new information to act on. The difficulty was that none of the characters had the relevant skills to do this, so that ended up with a bit of fumbling.

Funnily enough, I was hoping to drive the players towards a Duel of Wits with the guard captain in the tavern, as each character had a Belief that involved him as a sympathizer of the nobles. To me, that made him a big enough character to deserve a spotlight in one of the more involved conflict mechanics. So, naturally, in the roleplaying at the tavern, I made him oppose the position of the players. However, the impression of one of the players was that this made him impossible to convince, hence opting for the murderous alternative. My assumption was that if I made him more amenable to dealing with them, such as dropping a line like “Well, for the right amount of money, anything is possible” then that would remove the need for a Duel of Wits in the first place. I’m not sure yet how I should set that up so that I more clearly communicate the distinction between the in-fiction opposition yet the narrative-level opportunities available.

Overall Impression

Overall, though, the story started flowing, and I got the impression that the characters started getting more aligned in their actions and intentions. While we struggled a bit with the mechanics of the extended test in both a game-mechanical sense (how are you supposed to factor learning new skills again?) and a technical sense (how to work out learning new skills in Foundry VTT), we had a clear and concise session that didn’t go for too long. Elements were set in motion, and the fiction was detailed a little more.

I think with more experience working with Beliefs and a little more comfort with the mechanics, we’ll have the story flowing more smoothly and start advancing. I was relatively happy with the pacing of the second half of the game, as we moved to important scenes right away, and we focused more directly on actionable Beliefs, which meant that we rolled more tests as well. I realized at times that I still needed to emphasize the consequences of test failure, so that’s a thing I have to keep in mind to do in a timely fashion.

Oh, and lastly, I’ve just been having a lot of fun using the sessions as inspiration for building some maps, so I updated the world map as well:

The map of Occitania, made in Wonderdraft. The trees are an asset called Tree Clumps

Playing Around with Wonderdraft and Dungeondraft

The past few days I’ve been enjoying playing around with my two new pieces of mapmaking software. It’s been really fun to work directly on something that I can also use in my RPG sessions. I’ve tended to have general ideas of what I’d want in maps but I currently lack the drawing skills to realize those ideas. These pieces of software have allowed me to sidestep that part with nice results.

Wonderdraft

I’ve been working bit-by-bit on the map for my Burning Wheel campaign, slowly adding a thing here or there. The first version can be found in this post. However, since then, I’ve updated it, both based on what happened in Session 1 as well as just my growing understanding of the software.

Figure 1: The campaign map for my Burning France campaign

It’s rather empty by design, as I want the players to have the freedom to create the world through play. I’m quite pleased with the coloring so far, and the mixing of foothills and mountains.

Dungeondraft

In Dungeondraft, I haven’t been creating things that I can use directly, as I’ve been making small vignettes to practice with the software. It would be interesting to see whether I can make use of them somewhere in the future, though. The second map I’ve made in this software gave me a chance to try a little environmental storytelling:

Figure 2: I tried to use the objects to make the whole scene look a little bit more active, suggesting recent use.

I’m fairly happy with the objects in this map; I feel like there are enough to make it varied, but not so many that it looks cluttered. Furthermore, I tried to make the scene as a whole suggestive of far more through the use of the objects themselves. What I think could use improvements is the muddy little courtyard – it’s quite plain so far, and next time I would like to improve it by adding more clutter in that part. Perhaps some differently colored sections, a splash of water on the ground suggesting recent rain, or some hoofprints would have been good.