Sunday, June 24, 2012

Advice for 0-level Character Funnels

Posted an advice article over on rpggeek on designing 0-level character funnels that has received some positive reviews, so I figured I would re-post the information here on my old blog that I never use. This is an attempt to resurrect my writing and channel some of my creativity.

Rule Number One - The players should be given opportunities to kill themselves.

This means that you do not put in a slew of death traps, or make deadly encounters that are necessary for progression. Deadly things should definitely be in the adventure, but they should be the player's choice. You should always keep risk vs reward in mind.

For example, the game in the post above the players did not know when the riders would be returning that they saw leaving the fortress. They did not know how many more would be in the fortress. If they had tried to jump in front of the speeding horses it would of cost them severely. Instead they chose to wait for hours for the riders to return, setting up some traps and hoping that another patrol did not ride out in the meantime.

Later, with the encounter with the Big Bad Goresnatch, they decided to pour the holy water on the queasy symbol they found, instead of just leaving. They decided to close with Goresnatch instead of trying to outrun him.

In most trap based 0-level funnel adventures I have ran, there is always some player dependent trigger for the traps, and always clues planted around the room for answers. The tomb of a saint allowed single people to pass through its halls, as single people are not likely to be thieves. If more than one person walked down the hall at once, the traps would trigger.

Some of my standbys I like to use: Intimidating statues holding weapons, treasure on display, damaged bridges over gorges as shortcuts to avoid monster infested territory, glowing archways of magic, levers inside of a statue's mouth. Not all of these are always bad, and when you keep the players guessing you keep them interested.

Rule Number Two - Player Choice is essential

Players like to feel that their actions have meaning. So try to design your adventure with problems without necessarily setting the solution in stone. In a dungeon, give them different directions they CAN go, not directions they MUST go. Give them options to try to avoid fights or traps, but put rewards in place as carrots to draw them in. Let them decide if that gold chalice on the pedestal is worth braving the intimidating iron statue with a sword in the corner of the room.

Even when designing puzzles, you should always leave room for the players to come up with their own solutions. They might not see the solution you came up with, but if they come up with a something that is acceptable you should let it work. The best thing is when you don't even tell them that you "gave in". That would ruin their sense of accomplishment.

For death traps, always leave clues that there might be something odd about the room. I never have truly "empty rooms" in my dungeons. There is always something in a room, be it broken furniture or whatever. Actually, that will be a rule further down (See below). Back to death traps, if you have such a thing (which you really don't need in a 0-level funnel. I have found that a d6 damage is usually enough to kill most characters), you should leave clues.

If a room is empty save dust on the ground and small bits of rock. They look around and notice stains on the ceiling and marring on the stone. The players may realize that something in the room might crush them, if they don't and step inside, you should feel that you gave them plenty of warning and left their fate in their hands.

Rule Number Three - Scale is important

Like older editions of a certain fantasy role-playing game, there is no set difficulties for DCC levels. I try to make my games sandboxes, but when it comes to the funnel you need to consider that some of these PCs need to survive. Through play, I have figured out the following rules of thumb when it comes to setting HP, DCs, damage, etc.

0-level characters will generally have 2 HP, 9-11 AC, 0 to saves, and 0 to hit.

This means that for every one point over 10 you raise a challenges DC, you will probably kill a character.

So, if I have a challenge that is required, I generally set a DC of around 10-12 if the players do it without thought (jumping over a gorge). Or 5 if they put thought into it (Hammering some spikes in the wall and using a rope to get across the gorge). This allows me to stay true to rule number 2, even with required challenges.

For optional challenges I like to sit at that 10-12 range, with failure resulting in 1d6 damage. For traps, this sets the DC at 10-12.

A sub rule to this, is that if something makes sense and there is no drawback to failure.. Don't bother rolling dice. If the PCs think of a clever way to disable a dragon statue breathing fire on them, then don't make them roll dice to do it. If they avoid the trigger then they outsmarted the trap.
During the course of a funnel I tend to offer chances for the remaining PCs to grow a little stronger. They can take armor from dead enemies or find weapons in an old chest. I tend to limit myself to the following:

Padded or leather armor. With one or two sets of studded, and if there is some severe challenge, then it could possibly have scale or chainmail. Usually if I give these "better" armors, I will say they are rusty or damaged, and have them have a steeper fumble die until they are repaired back in town. (Once again, putting the risk vs reward choice in the player's hands)

I try to limit weapons to the d6 level during the funnel. With some better ones as rewards at the end. I do this to keep the characters trading weapons until they find what they like, and it keeps damage in the range of one or two strikes to kill.

Your Big Bad, whether it's a monster or a challenge, should be two to three times as difficult as anything else in the adventure. This will be the thing that finishes off those last few level zeros, and will leave the survivors feeling like they are destined for greater things.

Rule Number Four - Think of the future or add in that planar weirdness early

These zero-level characters may be farmers and gravediggers now, but after this adventure they are supposed to be classed heroes. Although the game is very gonzo, I like to keep some sense of realism in my game. So I always make sure to include a few things in my zero level funnels to allow players to pick certain classes if they want.

Clerics - I try to include some supernatural/undead/holy area in my zero level adventure that allows the characters to either feel the danger of the other worlds, or feel peace and security because of the Gods. In the adventure linked above one of the PCs used his family holy symbol to try to turn Goresnatch the demon-thing. They also destroyed his magic with holy water, and also restored a desecrated temple.

Wizards/Elves - Wizards in DCC aren't exactly the learned scholar types of other games. They tend to be power hungry warlocks that gain their knowledge from other places. I try to include some source of magic in a zero level funnel to make a wizard career more plausible after the adventure. In one adventure I had a tomb bound in flesh, when the elf and another PC (who was thinking of being wizards) touched the book, the ink ran off the pages and was absorbed into their skin. In the above adventure, they shattered a dark glowing jewel in the desecrated temple. The PC that kept the jewel to study it felt whispers in his mind opening himself up to offered power.

Warriors and Dwarves - They need an opportunity to get a few nice weapons and at least studded leather armor. Combat, if any existed, will probably help those that want to be warriors decide on this career.

Thieves - I find that 0-level funnels always tend to attract a lot of thieves in the group after the funnel is over. For some reason people like sneaking around and not getting killed after being through my funnels, I wonder why? (Evil Laughter)

Rule Number Five - Room Design, never leave an empty room

Rooms need to have contents. In your house do you have any room that is truly empty? Why would someone dig out hundreds of cubic feet of stone to not use the room for anything?

Most rooms served a purpose. Even if we're running some weird astral-demi plane dungeon that was created by a mad wizard, he did not leave any of his rooms empty. Even in my megadungeon that has 600+ rooms on the first level, I don't have empty rooms. There may be just some trash or broken furniture, but at some point that room was used for something.

By not having empty rooms, you keep your players guessing. They don't know what room will contain monsters or hidden treasure or traps. All they know is that this room has some barrels and spider webs, and we need to search it to see if there is anything of value.

Rule Number Six - Give them somewhere to go

This rule is important for both the beginning and the end of the funnel adventure. Most of the occupations assume a small to moderate sized town. These are places that are great to start your funnel, but shouldn't be where the funnel ends. These characters need to go out and become adventurers. Give them some place that is just beyond where they have ever been. A mist filled forest twenty miles out of town, or an old keep on the other side of the lake. It should be close enough that the characters can be familiar with the area, but far enough away that they are leaving the comfort zone of the town.
When the adventure is concluded they should have some reason to move on and continue to adventure. Without this reason, what is to prevent them from going back to their old boring lives? You gave them a taste, give them a hint of even greater glories and treasure and send them on their way.

So, that's about it for zero-level funnels. I think the main thing to remember is that you want to kill off 75% of the characters, but do it with player choices in mind. When the halfling goes out to collect firewood he gets caught in a giant spider web. When a farmer bulls a lever he gets sealed in a room. Put clues there and danger and watch them kill themselves.

I think this is very important in zero-level funnels, it sort of makes a silent agreement between you and the player. They know there is reward there associated with risk, and if the risk the characters they want to keep they are inviting loss. If you just kill them randomly, they will quickly lose interest in the game.
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