Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Reverse Engineering Random Tables - Campaign Events & Minor Magical Items

Two of my favorite random tables are Dreams in the Lich House's Campaign Events for the Black City and Dungeon of Signs' Starting Minor Magical Items for Darkly Haunted Noble Characters.

I like them so much, in fact, that I want to learn how to write my own tables like them. And the way to do that, I think, is to take them apart and see how they work. Having done that, I should be able to put my own lists together in the same way to achieve a similar effect.
Let's start with the campaign events. I've found that having something happen "in town" during the player characters' downtime expands the scope of the game a little bit and makes the campaign world feel "alive" - and by extension, when I've run ongoing campaigns without events, it can start to feel a bit too much like the characters are the only people in the world. (I mean, they sort of ARE, but you don't necessarily want it to FEEL like that. Suffocating claustrophobia is fine INSIDE the dungeon, but you want the outside world to feel more open.)

Lately I've come to appreciate that running a sandbox game requires giving players a surfeit of choice. If you want your players to choose their own goals and objectives, then you have to offer them a longer list of ideas to narrow down from. You need a map that shows them places they could go, you need a basic concept (at least!) of what each of those places is like, and you need to populate your world not just with monsters, but with people, with factions and NPCs who have names and personalities and agendas of their own.

And random events help with all that, because they mimic the unpredictability of a world where things happen because other people make them happen. I've used the Dreams in the Lich House random event list before, and liked it, so let's see what John Arendt is doing with this list:

1-2 Astral Conjunction
3-4 Bad Weather
5-6 Beached Whale
7-8 Bear Attack
9-11 Blood Feud *
12-14 Bragging Rights *
15-16 Dire Omens
17-18 Disappearance
19-20 Favor of the Gods
21-23 False Identity *
24-26 Fire *
27-28 Food Shortage
29-30 Foreigners!
31-32 Gold Rush
33-34 Great Weather
35-36 Herd of Caribou
37-39 Inflation *
40-41 It Came from the Ice
42-43 Long Live the King
44-46 Marvel Team-Up *
47-48 Massacre
49-50 Meteor
51-52 Missionary
53-54 New Sub Level
55-56 New Trade Route
57-58 New Trade Town
59-60 Pod of Whales
61-62 Population Change
63-64 Prize Fishing
65-66 Rampaging Monster Back Home
67-69 Rescue Mission *
70-71 Rival Wizard
72-74 Robbery *
75-76 Ship Lost at Sea
77-78 Sickness
79-80 Skilled Laborer
81-82 Stolen Map
83-84 Stormy Seas
85-86 Supply Problems
87-88 The Enemy Among Us
89-90 Vermin
91-92 Visiting Ship
93-94 Wandering Monster
95-96 Wars and Rumors of Wars
97-98 Where's the Wizard
99-100 Whirlpool

There are 46 events on there, most with a 2% chance of showing up, a couple with a 3% chance. I've marked the more-common events with stars. Reading through each entry, I tried to group them in a way that I think makes sense of what each event is doing for the game. With a very small amount of rounding, we get this:

10%  - positive event
10% - rival NPC interactions
20% - faction event
30% - sidequest opportunity
30%  - negative event

The specific events that make up those categories go a long way toward defining the environment. If you wanted to set your campaign somewhere that wasn't a Viking outpost beside an alien city, then you'd want to alter or reskin the individual entries. But the overall proportions are what interests me here.

About 10% of the time there's an event with a positive impact. Most of these are for one session only, a couple are ongoing. Notably a couple of these look like NPC events, but the effect is primarily an improvement of conditions, like when a skilled laborer opens a new shop in town, or when a new trade route adds a whole menu of foreign luxuries to the shopping list.

About 10% of the time, the player characters are forced into an interaction with some rival NPCs. These interactions can pose an immediate problem (like when the NPCs accuse the player characters of a crime and demand redress) or they can provide an opportunity for exploration (like when the NPCs offer to join the PCs on a joint mission, providing the personnel to do something more dangerous than usual) or they can just be a goad to spur the players to action (like when the NPCs are bragging about their own exploits). Regardless, this sets up a session where the players can do a bit more roleplaying. It also requires you to invent, or have on hand, some NPCs capable of serving as rival adventurers.

Roughly 20% of the time, there's a faction-level event happening. Unlike their rival NPCs, the player characters aren't necessarily forced into getting involved in whatever's happening - but it will change the social environment of the town going forward. Maybe one faction leaves town, maybe a new faction arrives (or a whole second town springs up!), or maybe there's conflict between two or more of the existing factions. The players could try to ignore that, offer to mediate it, or join one side against the other. For this to work, each faction needs a somewhat distinctive identity, and probably a couple representative NPC members. Because none of these events involve the player characters directly, they get more freedom to decide how to interact with what's going on. As Necropraxis suggests, let the players decide who their enemies are.

Roughly 30% of the random events are opportunities to go on a sidequest. (The default main quest being looting the megadungeon ruins of the alien city.) Most of these involve the temporary appearance of a new adventuring site or a new quest activity - check out that meteor crater! or catch that whale! Some of these seem like negative events, but the effect of them turns out to be a chance at redress, rather than a reduction in the living standard. You might try to investigate what happened to someone who's lost (and rescue them, if possible) or make a plan to kill a monster who's built a nearby lair. What defines these events is the opportunity to go on a mission that varies your routine, whereas the negative events generally don't open up new venues for play.

The final 30% of events impose some kind of negative impact. Again, most of these are single-session events, but a few present an ongoing problem that doesn't necessarily have a solution. Some of the negative events target the player characters directly (like if their campsite is robbed or catches fire), while others are of a more general nature. The key here is variety. I love that good weather provides the opportunity to narratively describe the setting a little differently - and makes travel and digging harder because of the mud. Some problems, like pests or disease, help contribute to the hardscrabble feeling of the environment. Others - like price increases, goods shortages, or offshore weather that makes leaving the island impossible - emphasize the isolation from society. A couple problems are magical, but most of them are mundane, quotidian. They're the kind of problems that remind the players why their characters took up the adventuring lifestyle in the first place - to get away from the poverty and filth of a mundane world that dirty and broken.

I don't know if I ever would have hit on this 10-10-20-30-30 distribution of events if I were making my own list, (I'm certain that I WOULDN'T have attempted a 3-to-1 ratio of negative events to positive, left to my own devices), but I've used this one, and it seems to work well in practice. It requires pretty minimal bookkeeping to run, and still allows the players to impact the game world, by deciding how their characters will react to events not of their own making. More complicated, and deserving of a post of its own sometime, would be the task having dynamic lists so that the frequency and severity of negative events responds to character actions. But as I said, that's for another time, so for now let's turn our sights to something else, instead.
Specifically, let's refocus our attention on the enjoyable task of handing out treasure to the player characters. What Gus L has written is a table of treasures. He intends to give them to starting characters from aristocratic families, to give those characters a sense of inheriting heirlooms from their noble house. I really like this idea, and it certainly fits with Metal Earth's advice to make starting characters special right out the gate. You could also use a table like this to award treasure during play.

There are a couple reasons to use treasure tables instead of inventing what kind of treasure is found on the spot. The first to maintain a sense of fairness and to avoid the appearance of favoritism when handing out treasure. You, the referee, aren't letting your personal feelings about the players determine what treasure they get, you're letting the dice decide, and your campaign is better for it. The second reason, though, is that it can be difficult to imagine treasures, especially new magic items, right there on the spot. A key reason to plan anything in advance is to end up with something better than you'd get from inventing it in the moment at the table.

Anyway, as with Dreams in the Lich House's random events, my sense is that Dungeon of Signs's starting treasures offer a nice mix in a good balance, and that I could learn something by looking closer at it. So let's do that:

1 Jewel Moth Robe
2 Distilled Chanteuse
3 Dueling Cane
4 Butler's Fork
5 House Sword
6 Healthful Wand
7 Fanged Idol
8 Masquerade Helmet
9 Simian Automaton
10 Vestarch's Crest
11 Remonstrator
12 Ring of Hate
13 True Liturgy
14 Uhlan's Armor
15 Sack of Coinage
16 Seraphim's Pinion
17 Revivifying Tipple
18 Parfume d'Maudlum
19 Porcelain Steed
20 Magister's Snuff Box

Again, it's worth noting that the treasure table, like the random event table, is a good place to do some worldbuilding for your campaign. The names, the style of language, the imagery all help to establish what sort of place these treasures come from, and I think just looking at both lists, you can see how different the two campaigns are from one another. The baroque, decadent flavor is obvious from the names alone. As before, I'd like to try putting these into categories:

20% weapon
15% combat trick
25% armor
25% tool
10% retainer
5% cash

4-in-20 of the treasures here are weapons. We get a good variety - a sword, a club, a wand, and a point for a spear.

Another 3-in-20 are combat tricks that provide some kind of advantage. Again, we get a good variety - one facilitates escape, one temporarily incapacitates your enemies, one reduces their initiative and gives a penalty to their attacks.

5-in-20 of the treasures are armors or protective items. We get a robe, a ring, a helmet, a suit of plate armor, and a talisman. Some improve AC, one improves saving throws, a couple offer protection against specific types of damage. One of the items also grants an additional benefit besides protection, and another imposes a penalty.

5-in-20 treasures are what I'm calling "tools" - they're all items that mimic the effect of a specific spell and provide a utilitarian benefit. We get a lockpick, a divination device, a healing potion, a scroll to turn undead, and a blood-drinking idol that lets you re-cast an already-used-up spell. Like the combat tricks, the healing potion has a limited number of uses; the scroll, I think, can only be used once; and the lockpick, like one of the weapons, has a chance to become useless until next session. The idol can be used freely, but imposes a price in hit-points for each use. A variety of restrictions, alongside a variety of functions, makes each item feel distinct from the others.

2-in-10 of the items are retainers. One is a monkey butler that can't be used for combat, the other is a magical horse (also blood drinking, a repetition that contributes to a sense that these items come from similar sources).

And finally 1-in-20 treasures are just cash money. The amount is enough to buy a magic item if a market were available, so presumably you could substitute another "magic currency", like Eberron's dragonshard crystals or Black Powder Black Magic's demon ore, to achieve a similar effect.

With both the lists here, the point is not necessarily to become beholden to someone else's design decisions, but rather to better understand what those design decisions actually were so that you can make better-informed decisions of your own. As I said, it wouldn't have occurred to me to make so many campaign events negative, but looking at the list, I can see the logic. I also don't know if I'd have thought to make so many tools, and I know I wouldn't have thought about combat tricks, if I hadn't been looking at this treasure table.

A huge percentage of the events on Dreams in the Lich House's list are goads to spur the players to leave town and go explore, whether it's something negative that pushes them out or something positive that pulls them. These aren't just random events with no impact on play, they're events that make one session feel different from the rest, and continuously open up new possibilities for adventure. Even if you don't want the "dung ages" feel of rats and pestilence in your setting, it's good to think of ways to remind your players that their characters aren't homebodies, they're meant to get out there and do things.

Another sizable portion of the events entangle the player characters in the affairs of NPCs. Populating your game world with other people and giving your players reasons to interact with them prevents their dungeoneering from feeling like a totally solipsistic activity.

The entries on Dungeon of Signs's treasure list are all quite different from each other. There's no "ho hum, just another magic sword" or "great, another unidentified mystery potion" here.

They're also all items that are meant to be used during play. There's no incentive to hoard these items, you'll want to use them, even if it means using them up. Half the items have some impact on combat, where you'll be willing to use them just to stay alive. Most of the others have an obvious use in a common situation where using the item prevents hitting a frustrating dead-end. Others are "always on" or have more open-ended applications.

The fact that many of the items do have limitations also helps prevent a handful of early treasures from totally dominating the rest of the campaign. You're not going to stop adventuring because you've already found as much as you could ever carry, and you're not going to turn up your nose at later treasures because they're inferior to what you already own. If you really like an item, even finding another that has the same effect with a different restriction would be a boon. At the same time, only one item is a "one and done" so you do get some sense that your character is defined by the things they've found so far, just not to the extent that you are only defined by what you've already found.


  1. If you need more Fallen Empire Magical Treasures there's a few more sets:
    "In the City at Night - Trade your Dreams for Tawdry Fashion"


    "Forty Fallen Empire Magic Items"

    1. I've done a sort-of inventory before, and you've written a LOT of magic items! But you're right, I like the Fallen Empire aesthetic for magic. It's very gothic in a way that I enjoy.

  2. Interesting to see someone do this formally - this has been an off-the-cuff trick I've used a few times but it'd be worth sitting down and maybe analyzing what makes it work

    1. I think the main benefit of formality here is getting a sense of the way the tables are weighted.

      Obviously writing interesting entries is going to be pretty crucial to the success of any table, but I think considering the weighting is important for any table you plan to reuse.