Friday 19 October 2018

eXPloration - XP is selling a story about a thing

My hind-brain is working on a campaign of exploring an underground ocean. The big inspiration is Sunless Sea, which has you hunting trophies and secrets for a network of collectors and spies. I want to stimulate that kind of loot-all behaviour by baking it right into the experience system for improving player characters.


The starting point is Jeff Rients' eXPloration, where you earn experience points for discovering fantastic locations. More about this from Terrible Sorcery, Ynas Midgard, ZZarchov, Greyhawk Grognard. When I used eXPloration before, it worked as a dare list at the local adventuring guild but got diluted by other sources of XP. This post is about making all XP gains about discovering sites and information, and bringing back trophies of your adventures.


  • XP is tied to physical trophies of your adventures: the stuff with a story attached. There can be extra treasure without an XP value which is still worth money.
  • You convert these trophies into money and XP by selling them to interested parties. Ask if you know any likely buyers or suggest shady contacts of your own.
  • Bigger sites can involve multiple items to carry all the XP home. If the DM hasn't prepped specific items, feel free to suggest mementoes you could take with you.
  • Each coin of silver earned via trophies gives you 1 XP. This assumes a silver-based economy - adjust to taste.
    • The currency standard is the silver shilling, equal to 10 copper pennies, each of which is worth 10 brass farthings. Read published prices in gp as silver shillings, prices in sp as copper pennies, prices in cp as brass farthings. Gold is rare and dangerous because of its connection to Sunlight.

  • The DM assigns value in money (and XP) to sites, situations, monsters etc., and decides how many trophies are needed to harvest this entire value. 
    • I assume DMs can determine on their own how hard and valuable they want a site to be, in other words how long until the characters level again. I can tell you my group leveled every 3-4 sessions in our last game, but then we play day-long sessions once every six weeks.
    • Be up front about the amount of items needed to clear a dungeon if you want to avoid players packratting entire dungeons. (Then again, if they're set on wasting resources and encounter checks hauling home stuff to sell, by all means let them.) Just tell them when they've got enough loot to claim all the XP. If you have to have a skill check, this is where to break out Appraise. (Of course feel free to put part of the treasure in an extra challenging or hidden room.)
  • Just in case this needs to be said: no XP for killing random opponents or for just bringing home a haul of coins and gems. Unless.
  • Carousing is still a thing. I don't want it to overshadow the main XP sources, so will probably tweak the gains a bit. If the regular rate is 1 XP per silver, maybe have carousing give 1 XP per 5 silver.


Characters build up potential XP by having a wild experience and bringing home something to show for their troubles. Characters then cash in on that XP when they get those items to an interested party.

A wild experience
To earn XP and improve themselves, characters have to do something that others will find valuable, impressive or memorable. No XP for just having a fight with some mooks or getting singed by a corridor of traps. The basis is still to get out there, explore the unknown and have an adventure. The further from home and the more harrowing exciting your expedition, the higher the reward. For example, earn XP by exploring or arranging something:

Explore - head into the dark and strange places where normal people fear to go. Be the first to climb down the Pit of Light, cross the green desert of Yul, find the source of the river Oshun, navigate Dathooley's Rage, find the passage to Aestival, walk the silk ropes of Leng, sound the Hadic Abyss off the Sentinel Isles.

DM: make it known via rumour tables what these challenging destinations are. Start with an inner ring of lower value sites close to home base that the players may want to explore early on. These are the sort-of-challenging destinations you hear about in the chatter on the docks. Then add stories about the high value truly freaky and remote; something wild and far away to wonder about in tavern room stories. Make new tables for distant ports that have their own local rings of exciting places.

Arrange - transport people or precious cargo, smuggle a casket of souls, evade a blockade, insert or extract spies, gather strategic information, scout a fortress or sabotage a facility, recover a long lost vessel, capture the Pirate-Poet, stop a shipment of Red Honey or track it to its horrific source.

DM: some of these are quests that the players receive up front, others are things the players can stumble upon. Big nasty sea monsters are included here, as should particularly devious pirates or drug dens; something to brag about when overcome. Put the Kraken on the rumour table as a thing to run away from - or track down and fight if they're foolhardy.

Sidebar - how to rate sites?
Jeff's original post spells out how he awards XP for discovering amazing sites. He maxes out at 2000 XP: that's a couple of levels worth for a level 1 character, petty change for someone at teleport level. Finding an awesome site isn't the only source of XP in my game, but it will be important.

A break-down of sites in 5 tiers. I've added some real-world and Sunless Sea examples.

  • Tier 1 - Island with commoners, local landmark. Expect fetch quests or prepare to collect rat tails.
  • Tier 2 - Trading port, haunted keep, remarkable regional natural site. Visit the three sisters of Hunter's Keep, check out the local dolmen, trade zailor stories in the harbour and check out who's moving what.
  • Tier 3 - Enemy or unaligned military installation, den of vile criminals, Otherlife settlement, ruined city. Visit Tortuga, talk to the exiled aristocracy of Hell at Port Palmerston, scout out the occupying Venetian fort of Spinalonga for the Cretans, haggle at the Brass Embassy, see the ruins of Carthage, trade sapphires with the tiger uprising in Port Carnelian
  • Tier 4 - Rival capitol, ancient city, sites of high weirdness, stunning landmark. Months from home. See the Niagara falls or Northern Lights out on the ice, plumb the depths of Godfall, visit Troy or Knossos, see Machu Picchu, obtain a license to trade at the Khanate, trade stories for a day in Adam's Way...
  • Tier 5 - Eldritch location, unique landmark. Find the source of the Nile, ride the Maelstrom, climb Mount Everest, reaching the North Pole, see the Sun and Surface.
  • Tier 8 - Mythical or otherworldly site - Shambhala, Atlantis, Irem of the Pillars, Plateau of Leng, Kingeater's Castle.
  • Tier 10 - Cosmically important  - to Hell, the Dreamlands or Parabola behind the mirrors.

Possible information you can bring home includes the following. Note that many villages and boring islands won't offer more than a location - recent news from a small, quiet settlement is unlikely to be interesting at home unless it's about a huge disaster like famine, disease or zombie invasion wiping out the entire hamlet:
  • LOCATION - 50 * tier XP - discovery of the site and its location on the map - can be earned only once. 
  • FIRST EVER DISCOVERY of a tier 3-5 site - 500 * tier XP - discovery of the site and its location on the map - can be earned only once.
  • NEWS - 50 * tier XP - location, size of port & populace; recent news. What you can learn from the dock. Sketch of coastline.
  • STRATEGIC INFORMATION - 150 * tier XP - up-to-date information on armed forces & power groups, if present; chart of surrounding waters with navigational dangers. What you have to ask around for.
  • VITAL INFORMATION - 500 * tier XP - up-to-date information on active plots, secrets implicating traitors, smuggling routes, hiding places. What you have to get your hands dirty for.
  • A DREADFUL CONSPIRACY - scale this to the danger it poses if left unchecked. For instance 50 XP for a localized plot: someone wants to murder the Sheriff out of spite, 200 XP for something with regional impact: proof that a necromancer is plotting to unleash a warren of Ghouls on the town, 1000 XP for far-reaching plots: show that the Vizier is being framed for the King's poisoning by the princess, who wants to turn the country over to the sea devils,... 

Always remember to bring back...

Something to show for your troubles
To get experience points for your adventure, get recognition from the folks back home. This means proving that your story is real by bringing back mementoes, trophies, maps, a token of delivery etc. Not when you find the Tomb of Eternal Light, but when you get the haul and secrets home safe do you have a chance to earn your XP.

Here is the crux: while you can get some money (and recognition) off a good yarn in the tavern, real reputation comes when a serious buyer is willing to pay for what you discovered. You will need something tangible before they pay you.

Treasure - something decorative. Art, jewelry, tools (a famous animated painting, golden statuettes, clasps, rings, amulets, circlets and so on, sacrificial daggers, tomb carvings, mosaics, statues or frescoes, if you can remove them intact...)
Tools - something useful. A schematic for an upgrade to engines, the secret of passing through mirrors, a spellbook, specialized ammunition, high grade fuel and where to find it, a sword that cleaves truth from lies, augmented weaponry or engines or the tools to build them.
Trophies - something with a tie to a person or monster. A personalized item (wizard's staff, pirate's flag or cutlass, noble's signet ring,...) or remarkable body part of a monster (the head of the mummy, an angler crab lightstalk, kraken tooth, eyes of a basilisk, unicorn's horn, live vat beast from the clone urns...)
Information - charts and maps, information on riddles and traps, secrets, rumors, lore from the Cities that Came Before, books, scrolls, rubbings of carvings, sketches of rooms or objects, dossiers on spy networks, rebel plans, military presence or diplomatic overtures going on,...

DM: ideally all these items are memorable. The players should be torn between selling them or holding on for bragging rights. Start thinking of what the players can take home from an adventure site or encounter. You can always think up a distinctive red scarf for the bandit chief post vorpal sword, but bonus points if you've woven it into the descriptions and rumour tables beforehand. Turn the big obstacles into the trophies that the party will want to take home.

Stuff that glowing statue in a chest, hide it from the Revenue Men, and bring it to...

An interested party

These are the ones who will pay good money to get at what you uncovered. Some parties pay better than others, some only work on specialized collections, so cultivate a diverse network.

Think collectors, spy masters, museum curators, zoo keepers, alchemists and engineers, journalists, chroniclers, mapmakers, investigators, chirurgeons, biomancers or other explorers like yourself.

DM: for every NPC or faction you think up, you already think of what their goals are and how they would like to involve the characters. Make this specific by noting what kind of trophy or information they will buy, or what deeds they will ask to be performed. Bonus points if these reward givers have their own nefarious ambitions. Extra bonus points for them being at cross purposes.

For instance:
  1. the Admiralty or navigator's house should like to receive updates on navigational hazards, pirates, monster infested waters and exact locations of landmarks after the latest Twist of the Zee.
  2. a local storyteller or journalist can give you inside info (or, if they're a hack, money) for information that shouldn't become public. Maybe they will even publish it - or hide it in a vault to protect reputations or interests.
  3. the Admiralty or Diplomat's Office are very interested in reports, strategic analyses or details about plots from the far isles and powers of the Zee.
  4. the University will gladly exhange coin or library access for valuable finds or information.
  5. the Brass Embassy of Hell shall be delighted to trade in the more spiritual trade goods - Red Honey, casks of souls or information about their breakaway cousins at Mount Palmerston.
  6. chirurgeons and biomancers seek new life from the dark and deep.
  7. law men and anarchists look for advantage in your tales from the Zee.
  8. engineers are eager to try out new technological schemata you discovered.
  9. a trader from the Corsair's Forest will be quite eager to take any salvage off your hands.
  10. what grave robber or "archaeologist" wouldn't like help in the form of treasure maps and descriptions of priceless finds?
  11. chirurgeons and biomancers will pay good money for the vital organs of magical beasts
  12. collectors and museum curators are interested in mounted and live specimens of strange fauna

Friday 12 October 2018

Jungle Trek session 8 and last - why did it have to be snakes?

Last time on Jungle Trek, the players finally got info on the fortress of the snake cult that's been bugging them. This time, we agreed beforehand to wrap up the campaign and head for other sights. One session to wrap everything up...

My players excel at making choices. At the start of this last session in the ruined jungle city of Pra'Xirek, I asked them: what do you want to do?

  • hunt down the bastard Snake Rakshasa SixGlyph, who has been impersonating the Drow high priest Vulkoor? (success!)
  • try and find the holy Fang of the Sky Serpent / Stinger of Vulkoor Artifact? (not done, but one player moving in on the thing as we fade out)
  • track down the underground cult of snake themed abominations that is trying to piece together their broken demigod, the Sky Serpent? (they are dust)
  • fly back to the Giant sky fortress with its mutatomagic altar and depleted uranium teleportation drive (surely the original owner hasn't found a way to revive her clone by now)? (didn't make it there)
  • haul ass out of this crazy place and make for the safety of the flesh eating jungle? (one player manages to)
  • something completely different? (nope; thank god, they did something I actually prepped)

And players being players, their answer turned out to be "let's just tray to get all of this done in the next couple of hours". Thus said, thus attempted.

We time skipped our way through Pra'xirek's encounter tables. Quicky encounter with crab men trying to flood a section of underground city (ignored - it'll take longer to flood the underground than the players expect to be here). Back to the Drow camp to find the start of an underground river. Encounter with an underwater Chuul that paralyses Indy but gets blasted by Woody.

Primo: waste Rakshasa demon previously impersonating Drow high priest

Finding the temple of the Silver Flame, where self-flagellation visions say their Rakshasa quarry is hanging out. Standing in awe at the 20 meters high central pillar of demon binding fire, fed and reflected by gigantic mirrors at four corners of the cage. Whip-throwing a couple of snake-themed mooks and Drow-turned-snake-cultist into said purifying fire. Hauling ass when a section of wall opens and AZATH, a 40k year old mummy priest of the Silver Flame walks out - all 20 meters of cloud giant of the guy, who in a booming voice commences to cleanse his temple from all this FILTH. *stomp* ABOMINATION. *splatter* VILE. *smear*

Woody, catching their Rakshasa prey about to board a canoe and opening up with the maximum amount of hurt from his soul stealing dagger. How much damage for an empowered, maximized fireball anyway?

I take a page from Skerples and go narative to reward this reckless use of vulgar arcana. Hellfire runs wild and turns demon and attending Drow minion into so much ash, their canoe disappears as does a spherical section of water, walls crack and the surface briefly turns into lava.

Woody barely makes his save not to get sucked into hell on the spot. In the distance, Indy is catching up as Azath the mummy obliterates more mooks.

Part Deux: snake cult 

Where are these guys hiding out again? Interrogation of snake-armed spellcaster last session gave hints to the Songraa tribe of dino taming giants. They keep the Big Guy in a special pallisade - of course Woody and Indy work to break the not-fully-tamed T Rex free from its cage. Mauling commences as the beast wrecks the camp.

Meanwhile, inside the pallisade is an enormous granite block anchoring a chain with links the size of people, leading off down into the earth. Some exploration turns up the long sought Godforge, aninverted pyramid hanging from massive chains in an abyss, where the giants of Xen'drik tried to create their own custom demigods as an upgrade to the regular ones. It crawls with snake-themed abominations

The front entrance, you say? Let's just for this once try the other option. Bot and Gnoll sneak into a hanging balcony, lit from inside by purple-golden fire. And guarded by a patch of red sunflowers. Fuck, it's the telekinetic plants again. Another fireball takes care of half the crop, Indy and his stolen divine sword take care of the rest.

Inside the pyramid: a raging column of divine essence, churning away at its control crystals all the way since the fall of the giant empire. Gravity of the soul sucks at everyone who steps into the central chamber - the guys have wandered into relatively unguarded engineering section. Stairs lead up to the higher levels, but to get there they have to brave the pull of a naked singularity of godly essence.

Woody tries to spiderclimb the walls, gets ripped off laughably easy, and teleports to safety. Indy thinks ahead and uses a protection vs chaos spell to resist the pull on his soul.

In a truly bizarre twist, the group decides not to wreck the terribly exposed control crystals for the temple. Perhaps they're afraid of the pillar of divine fire breaking free?

In any case, this turns out to be the final area of the campaign. Mooks in the higher levels get either blasted or thrown directly into the raging godfire, until the team finds Das Big Bad of the cult - a mound of snakes in all colours that houses a chunk of essence of the dismembered Sky Serpent demigod project. The pile slowly levitates from its basin-throne and proceeds to throw mindmagic at the invaders.

It seems like I'll finally get to wack a player character - but it turns out that for all their resistances, reskinned Mindflayers are weak against one thing: overclocked hellfire to the face.

Wrap-up time 

It's getting late, so I invoke keystone army. The cult's snake abominations turn into regular (well, huge) snakes when their leader bites it, Woody snaps up a big snake scale the size of a pauldron which is the second of the three pieces of the Sky Serpent, and the group even get to free the real Drow high priest from the cult cells. Woody is now torn between serving his demon dagger and the voices of the Sky Serpent in his head, Indy makes a quick calculation and leaves the increasingly unstable wizard-golem to its fate.

In the background, a giant mummy is coming - fade-out time. It's been a fun run with characters that I am very happy will stay in the jungle instead of making their way back to poor, innocent civilisation.

Next up: I'm a player!

At least for as long as it takes Robert to either run a mini campaign of 20th level Pathfinder, or we high level retirees decide to cut our losses and lounge in my wizard's private demiplane-slash-tiki-bar.

Next on this blog:

More prep work for an upcoming Trail of Cthulhu adventure (5-7 sessions) and thoughts on merging 5e D&D with the Sunless Sea setting.