Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Goblins & Greatswords: An alternate resolution mechanic for the thiefly arts and other skills

A while back, I posted my ideas on how the skills of thieves (plus a few others) would work in my fantasy heartbreaker, Goblins and Greatswords.  I chose to stick with the percentile dice model used by most old school iterations of D&D, as opposed to a simple d20 or d6 mechanic.  One reason for this is that rolling two dice allows for special results to be triggered on a roll of doubles.  Another is that the percentile dice "roll-under" format allows degrees of success to be easily determined and scale in the right direction: just take the tens digit of a successful roll, and the highest degrees of success are possible only with the highest levels of skill.

However, there are some things I don't like about it too.  It's very inelegant when applying modifiers, for one, and ability score modifiers are something I very much want to include.  The standard -3 to +3 ability score modifier is dwarfed by a 100-point range.  Sure, you can convert those to plus or minus 5, 10, or 15%, but you're still asking your players to crunch bigger numbers at the table, and either adding them to the base chance or subtracting them from the roll, which feels weird.  Then there's the problem of looking up numbers in a table every time you want to do something.  It's a lot easier to remember that you have a +5 bonus to your Stealth skill than it is to remember that you have, say, a 47% chance of success.

So, I'm considering a system using a roll of two dice, but adding them together in a roll-over format.  My first thought was 2d6, but the range just isn't big enough to accomodate both improving skill by level and modifiers.  2d10 has the range to work, but the "success" point would have to be at some wonky number like 16 in order to start with reasonable odds, and 2d8 has a similar issue. 

2d12, now...that's interesting.  (Go here and click on the "At Least" tab if you want to follow along with a visual aid.)  There's a 10.42% chance to roll 20 or higher, which means that, if you set the target number at 20 (intuitive and easy to remember!) the average schmuck who has no bonus in a skill would succeed roughly 10% of the time.  Start out with a +1 bonus, and you're up to 14.58%, which seems good enough for a dabbler in the skill.  A more serious student of a skill might start at +2, for a 19.44% chance, which maps pretty well to the beginning percentages of most thief skills in B/X. 

Add a bonus for a high ability score, and a character could start with 25%, 31.25%, or 38.19% odds - a meaningful bump, but not so much that it swamps the whole system.  There's still lots of room for improvement, which is desirable because I want leveling up to mean something, and it doesn't if you're bumping against the 100% success ceiling too soon.

Rather than using a table of percentages, increasing at different rates for Basic, Good, or Elite skill progression, I'd use a relatively simple formula:  Basic starts at +1, and gains an additional +1 at odd-numbered levels.  Good starts at +2 and gains +1 at levels divisible by 2 or 3; thus at level 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14, 15, and so on.  Elite also starts at +2, and gains +1 at every level.  One interesting feature of this is that Good and Elite are essentially the same at beginning levels -- all the way through 4th, in fact -- but Elite slowly pulls ahead at higher levels. 

Here it is in table form, so you can clearly see the relative progressions.


Level
Basic
Good
Elite
1
+1
+2
+2
2
+1
+3
+3
3
+2
+4
+4
4
+2
+5
+5
5
+3
+5
+6
6
+3
+6
+7
7
+4
+6
+8
8
+4
+7
+9
9
+5
+8
+10
10
+5
+9
+11
11
+6
+9
+12
12
+6
+10
+13
13
+7
+10
+14
14
+7
+11
+15
15
+8
+12
+16

If levels top out around 15 (and really, there's not much reason to go beyond that, is there?) then a Basic skill ends up succeeding 61.81% of the time, Good 85.42%, and Elite 97.92%, before any ability adjustments.  That sounds about right to me.  

Of course, we also still have easy access to the special-effect-on-doubles mechanic.  It's the degrees of success which get a little funky: something along the lines of subtracting half the larger die roll from 7, to generate a number between 1 and 5 (no 6 - if neither of your dice are higher than 1, you obviously didn't succeed - snake eyes is always a failure) with higher levels of success reserved to those for whom lower dice rolls can succeed.  (I could simply subtract the higher die roll from 13, but that generates a number between 1 and 11, but thats an awful lot of range.  Some skills use the degree of success for the number of questions the player gets to ask of the GM, for instance, and any more than 5 or so seems like it would bog down the pace of the game tremendously.)  Only a couple of skills, as I've written them, really make use of degrees of success, so this might not be a big issue anyway.

I'm still a little bit on the fence about this, so please weigh in: If you were running a game, which one would be easier, more fluid, more intuitive to use?  Is this the respect the humble d12 deserves, or is 2d12 for one of the game's core resolution systems just too weird to stick?  Would the moderate fiddliness of calculating degrees of success with 2d12 make you not want to use that particular mechanic?  Is there something else that strikes you as broken or unworkable?  Let me know in the comments!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Battle of wills

I keep meaning to expound more on the topics of character classes in my fantasy heartbreaker, and on campaigning with micro-settings, but sometimes a new idea pops into my head that's just too intriguing (to me, at least) to wait.

One thing about the D&D magic system that's always bothered me a little is the standard saving throw.  Unless an effect causes direct harm through hit points of damage, it's usually a starkly binary outcome: Fail the save and the spell has full effect; make the save and the spell has no effect at all.  That means that a spell-caster takes a huge risk in casting a non-damaging spell, especially if it's at a single target, because if the target makes its save, the spell is simply wasted.  And since saving throws depend entirely on the level or HD of the target, and usually not at all on the skill of the caster, even a high-level wizard is hesitant to use a big-ticket spell on a particularly formidable opponent (and at the same time, reluctant to waste potent magic on a low-level pushover.) 

Most of the time, in fantasy fiction, a hero doesn't just fall under a spell instantly, nor does he just shrug it off.  There's almost always a great battle of wills between the hero and the villainous wizard or priest.  Sometimes it's shown as a battle inside the would-be victim's head; others, it's depicted outwardly with alternating shots of hero's and villain's faces grimacing with the tremendous effort of overpowering the other.

Hmm...overpowering.  Thinking of it in those terms reminded me of the grappling system I cooked up for G&G.  It's essentially one character trying to overpower another, except mentally/spiritually/magically rather than physically.

Here's the idea:

Whether the saving throw is made or failed, unless with a natural 20 or 1, respectively, a spell can result in a battle of wills between caster and target. 

If a save is failed, then the target may continue to resist, and if the save is made, the caster can continue to force the spell on the target.  The "loser" of the initial save must overpower the winner for a number of rounds equal to the difference between the number needed to save and the actual result of the roll. 

For instance, if Monfort the magician casts a charm spell at Wilfred the warrior, and Wilfred needs a 12 to save but rolls a 9, Wilfred may still fend off the charm if he can resist Monfort for three rounds in a battle of wills.  If Wilfred made his save with a 16, Monfort could still force the effect into Wilfred's mind by overpowering him four rounds in a row.

Each rolls 1d6.  The caster adds the adjustment for his or her Presence ability score (Charisma for standard D&D) and half his or her level of experience.  The target adds its adjustment for Wit (use Int or Wis in D&D) and either its level (for spell casters) or half its level (for non-spell-casters, rounded down.)  High total wins.

If you like, use the target's Might (Strength or Constitution) for spells which affect the physical body, like polymorphs.   For monsters, use half the creature's Hit Dice plus whatever adjustment you deem suitable for its mental strength, or just its full HD for body-affecting spells. 

Also if you like, the target may take damage when losing a roll, either psychic/subdual damage or real physical damage, depending on the nature of the spell, at a rate of 1 point per point of difference in the magical overpowering rolls. 

During each round of struggle, the caster and the target are limited in their actions.  The caster must maintain concentration, may move at only half speed, and cannot attack or cast other spells.  The target may move at half speed and engage in combat if it wins the round's overpowering roll, but at a -4 penalty to its combat rolls (or attack rolls, for D&D.)  The caster may abandon the spell at any time.  The target may likewise give in and allow the spell to take effect, which is a viable option if damage is inflicted on a failed roll. 

If the caster's concentration is disturbed, such as by an attacker making a successful combat roll, the target automatically wins the round.  If the caster is targeted by another spell, he or she may abandoned the overpowering attempt to defend against the other spell, or may maintain it while defending, but adding only half level to the 1d6 rolls.

This is all sort of hastily cobbled together, so of course feel free to point out fatal flaws or suggest tweaks or revisions.




Sunday, January 10, 2016

Goblins & Greatswords: Characters, part 1

Characters are pretty important.  The first thing you do when you're playing a new RPG, after you read the books, is make some characters.  What do characters look like in my fantasy heartbreaker?

There are only four ability scores: Might, Wit, Agility, and Presence, rolled 3d6 in order.

I mentioned in the above-linked post that Might affects rolls for hit points, but exactly how was still hazy in my mind at the time.  I'd really like to avoid both hit point inflation and abysmally low hp.  The solution I came up with is to (mostly) divorce hit points from class.  Instead of class-based Hit Dice, the default is a d6.  Might of 13 or more kicks this up to a d8, while Might 8 or lower knocks it down to a d4.

Characters gain new Hit Dice only at even-numbered levels, including level 0.  At every new level, all of the character's HD are rolled.  If the new total is greater than the previous total, the new total is used.  If the old total is greater, the character still gains +1 hp, except at 1st level.  Hit Dice top out at six, at level 10, with one more roll at level 11. Thereafter, 1 hp per level is gained.

So, a character with an average Might score, starting her adventuring career at level 1, rolls 1d6 for her 0-level hp, and then rolls again for 1st level, keeping the better roll of the two, and reducing the odds of starting with a miserable 1 or 2 hp.  Let's say she ends up with 4 hp.  At level 2, she gets another Hit Die, and rolls 2d6.  If the total is higher than her previous 4 hp, she takes that as her new hp total.  It's mathematically possible, though unlikely, that she could roll 4 or less; if so, she starts level 2 with +1 hp, for a total of 5.  At level 3, she rolls her 2d6 Hit Dice again, and once again takes the new total or her previous hp +1, whichever is greater.  At level 4, she'll roll 3d6, and so on.

Now that's out of the way, here are the human character classes.  I've changed the names to give them a little different feel from their D&D counterparts.

Warrior

Men and women who train for physical combat.  They are skilled in the use of all weapons, allowing them to deal damage most effectively, and their training and toughness allow them to survive where others would fall.

Best Combat Rating improvement rate
+1 hit point per level
+2 to maximum damage with all weapons
May divide Combat Rating between offense and defense starting at level 2

Mage

Individuals who study the mysteries and theory of magic and learn to cast spells. 

Slowest Combat Rating improvement
Learn and cast spells from any two (of four) spell lists
Read magical writings
Sense magic at will within 10'

Knave

People who are skilled in the arts of stealth, deception, and getting into and out of difficult places.  Some are proper thieves; others are simply adventurous rogues and misfits who survive by their wits.

Medium Combat Rating improvement
Skills: Stealth, Tinker, Alertness, Climb, Cipher, and Sleight-of-hand at Good proficiency
May improve any skill to Elite proficiency by reducing another to Basic, and may apply their elective skill choice to improving class skills instead of choosing a new skill, if desired

Dedicated

As in dedicated to the service of a religion, deity, or spiritual ideal.  Either by the strength of their faith or the intervention of divine beings, the dedicated gain the ability to work miracles in the form of spells while still sparing some attention for martial training.

Medium Combat Rating improvement
Learn and cast spells from either Divine or Nature list
Reduced penalty for spell-casting while armored
Sense holy/unholy creatures, objects, and enchantments within 10'


A character of any class can use any weapon and wear any armor, but activities such as stealth and spell-casting are more difficult in armor, and the benefits of weapons are limited in the hands of those not skilled in combat.  So, for instance, knaves would probably find it to their advantage not to wear metal armor, and mages to avoid armor altogether and carry light weapons, but they aren't outright prohibited from donning plate and mail and swinging halberds.

All human characters may choose one additional talent, which they may practice at Good proficiency, or two at Basic proficiency.

 Demihuman classes are similar to the human ones, but with their own special quirks.  Those will come soon in a post of their own.




Thursday, January 7, 2016

Review: Smile With Us, Friend

Full disclosure: The author has provided me with a copy of the product for review.

Smile With Us, Friend is a short (22 pages, including cover, title page, table of contents, map, four full-page illustrations, and two pages of OGL legal stuff) adventure location written by Edward Lockhart of Violent Media.  It's a quick read, with brief but evocative descriptions, minimal stat blocks, and just enough background for a game master to get a good sense of what the place is all about.  The PDF is cross-linked, so clicking on, say, a location on the dungeon map will take you to the relevant area description, plus there's a clickable navigation bar at the bottom of every page should you need to refer to another section at any time.

The layout is clean and sharp; content is neatly organized with clear headings.  Graphic design is pleasing to the eye without being distracting.  Illustrations are uncomplicated, capturing the unnerving alienness of the creatures in the module with rough strokes and the sharp contrast of orange-against-black color schemes.

Now, on to the meat of the product.  Smile With Us centers around a small cult of humans-turned-spider-things, whose invitations to join them cause hideous mutations in those who decline.  It's unabashedly weird, in ways both overt and subtle, but it's a weirdness that could easily coexist with classic fantasy tropes.  Whether your game is made of weird stacked on top of weird, or you just want to spice up a vanilla fantasy campaign with a dash of weirdness, it's worth a look.  You could drop it into a Grimm fairy tale faux-Europe, a Lovecraftian New England, or an ersatz Middle-earth without breaking the integrity of the setting.

If you're the sort of game master who likes to have everything fully fleshed out right out of the box, so to speak, Smile With Us might seem a bit sparse.  It doesn't have a specific plot, nor are the environs around the lair detailed or any connections to the wider world specified.  If you're the sort who prefers to use published material as a jumping-off point for your own imagination and not be written into a corner by a module author, however, that's a feature rather than a bug, and the module is loaded with possibilities.

The cult's lair is an underground complex of a dozen or so described areas for a party of adventurers to explore.  Besides the cultists, there are a handful of new creatures, one of which is mildly dangerous and the others innocuous but creepy.  You won't find any standard orcs or ogres here, and the atmosphere is the better for it.  Treasure is mostly in the form of household baubles and trinkets, silver, and...hats (it makes sense in context!) rather than gold, gems, and jewelry.

Eight cult member NPCs are detailed, each with a distinct personality, appearance, and mannerisms.  Who and what they are generates conflict with the (not otherwise detailed) local villagers, but with an absence of malice.  They're antagonists without necessarily being villains, and that's something of a rarity in D&D-like RPGs in my experience.  Most of them are even sympathetic characters in their way, all the while they make your skin crawl, which makes for some interesting choices and great role-playing potential.  Played well, they could evoke pity and humor as well as horror and revulsion. 

Given the power level of the NPCs and the amount of loot, it's probably best suited to smallish parties of beginning adventurers. Higher-level parties won't be seriously threatened, but could still enjoy a good role-playing experience if overt violence is taken off the table.  The dungeon does include a portal to another world, in which more seasoned parties might find greater challenges, though.  Only a few tantalizing hints of that bizarre place are provided to seed your imagination; the rest is up to you.

Other than a few instances of words you couldn't say on broadcast TV, which you don't even have to speak out loud while running the module, the material seems perfectly suitable for younger gamers as well as those of us who got our RPG start way back in the 20th century.  I'm looking forward to running it for my nieces and nephew.

Bottom line: If you and your players relish role-playing, interesting ethical dilemmas, and a hearty dose of whimsical weirdness, it's well worth the price of $3.69. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

2016 gaming and blogging resolutions

I'm not usually keen on New Year's resolutions, but I have a few things I want to accomplish, and a few missteps I'd prefer not to repeat, so what the hell, let's go ahead and make it internet official.

1. Finish my fantasy heartbreaker project, a.k.a. Goblins & Greatswords.  Also actually play-test it.  (See item 5, below.)

2.  Publish something.  I've been writing about RPGs for a few years now, and I still haven't produced anything other than blog posts.  I'm not sure what, exactly, but I'm leaning toward some micro-settings, such as I've been talking about the last couple posts.  Probably free; at most pay what you want.

3.  Pick up the pencils and sketch pad and draw something.  I used to dabble in D&D-inspired art, but I haven't done much in the last 20 years or so.  Maybe "art" is too strong a word for what I did, but I'd still like to do some again.  Plus, you know, if I'm going to publish a game-related product, it might be nice to have even some mediocre art to take up space on a few pages.

4. Post more consistently.  I think averaging a post a week is a reasonable goal to shoot for.  As a corollary resolution, no more long hiatuses stemming from anxiety/depression breakdowns.  If nothing else, I should at least be able to hammer out an idea for a new monster or magic item or something once a week.

5. Play the goddamn game again!  It's been way too long since I've done more than think and write about it.  If the nieces and nephews aren't interested anymore, I'll just have to bite the bullet and go to a game store or something. 


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Ingredients of a micro-setting


Last post, I rambled about micro-settings in D&D: Pre-designed and stocked areas without any particular plot attached.

Making a micro-setting is both similar to and different from building either a standard adventure or a large-scale setting.  It requires the former's granularity of detail and the latter's focus on open-ended potential rather than specific events and actions.

Details which are important to the form are:

Maps: As the name implies, a micro-setting should be relatively small.  How small?  There's no objective limit, but I would say small enough that all points of interest can be explicitly marked on the map.  A macro-setting map, such as a hex map of a kingdom or a continent, only shows the most notable feature in each hex, such as a city or a type of terrain.  In reality, a six-mile hex can contain a lot of interesting stuff, far more than a single icon would indicate.  The hex map might show a village beside a river, but there might be a wizard's tower on a tiny island in the river, a monastery on a rocky crag overlooking the village, a ruined castle in the boggy area by the riverbank south of the village, and a cave where the local youths go for mischief which unknown to them contains a secret entrance to an ancient underground stronghold.  The micro-setting map should be of high enough resolution to show all those things and where they lie in relation to one another.

A base of operations: A complete micro-setting should include a place of relative safety, where the characters can rest between adventures, restock and upgrade equipment, store treasure, gather information, and recruit help.  It could be a fortress, an trading post, a village, a fleet of ships at anchor, a clan-steading of dwarves or elves, or even a lair of friendly monsters.  May be mapped and keyed, a la the Keep from B2.

People: Important, influential, and interesting NPCs, such as leaders and authority figures, mercenaries for hire, merchants and traders, professional services, rivals, mentors, and potential employers. Some bare-bones stats are a good idea; a few personality traits and motivations for each one are even better.

Factions: Organizations of people and monsters, whether formal or informal: guilds, families, tribes, houses, clubs, secret societies, religions, etc.  What are their interests and aims, and how do they relate to one another?

Dungeons: Dark and dangerous places to explore for fun and profit.  The setting should include at least one good-sized dungeon or several lesser ones, each fully mapped, stocked, and ready for play.  (Some published micro-settings make exceptions as a teaching tool for new DMs; the Cave of the Unknown in B2 is an example.  You'd still want to fully map and stock it if you intended to use it as part of the overall setting, though.)

Adventure hooks: Basically any fact about the setting that might lead to adventure opportunities.  Often presented in the form of a rumor list.  These may appeal to the party's sense of heroism or helpfulness (i.e. the needs and concerns of the common folk regarding things dark and dangerous) or to their curiosity or self-interest (rumors of treasure, magic, or just weird things.) 

Of course, what you don't write up in detail is nearly as important as what you do.  Anything that isn't directly relevant to running a game in that micro-setting should be left vague or unspecified, no matter how interesting it might seem.  This allows the micro-setting to be easily inserted into someone's game world, or for you to re-use it at some later date in a different game world without having to gut it to avoid conflicts.  It truly is a "module," plug-and-play.

Focus on the Right Here and Right Now.  No extensive history, no intricate connections to the wider world.  We don't know why the Keep is on the Borderlands, except that it's an outpost of Law that stands between civilization and the forces of Chaos.  We don't know how long it's been there or who built it.  We don't know where the castellan came from or how he was appointed to this post.  Leaving all these spaces blank makes a micro-setting flexible and versatile.  According to the needs of the particular campaign and world, the Keep could be new or old.  It could be pushing back the frontiers of civiliation into the wild, or the last bastion of a retreat.  The castellan could be a humble enlisted man who won his position through grit and determination, or the bastard son of a powerful noble shunted aside with this remote posting.

It's a setting, not a story.  When you're populating your micro-setting with people and creatures, think about motives and goals, not actions.  Actions come later, when the campaign is in motion.  Instead of writing up what a monster or a faction will do, figure out what it wants in the long run.  A typical plotted adventure might have the evil cult kidnap the local ruler.  In a micro-setting, the cult might wish to quietly infiltrate and corrupt the local good church, entice new members to join, and ultimately establish itself as the most powerful organization in the setting.  Broad objectives like this allow the DM a lot of freedom to decide just what methods and tactics the cult will use, and adapt to changing circumstances and opportunities.  If and when it makes sense for it to kidnap the ruler, it will do so.  A lot depends on the actions of the players - they are the wild cards in the game, after all, and their decisions can simultaneously close some opportunities for the other forces in the world, and open others.

I think that wraps up this particular topic.  Next up, thoughts on making adventures in a "plotless" setting or micro-setting meaningful (i.e. plotting on the fly during the campaign.)




Monday, December 7, 2015

D&D micro-settings

When I think of "settings" for D&D-type games, I think of two different sorts of products.

One is the sort in which an entire campaign may take place, detailing in broad strokes a fairly large geographic area.  Many settings of this type have been published, and you probably know at least a few of them by name if not more intimately: Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Dragonlance, and the Known World (a.k.a. Mystara,) among many, many others.  With this type of setting, you generally get a map, a description of the various regions, the nations and cultures, major NPCs and factions, history and legends, and probably some adventure hooks and a few new character classes or sub-classes.

It's the second kind that I want to talk about today.  Exemplifying this type of setting is B2: The Keep on the Borderlands.  While it (and most other examples of the type) was published as an adventure module, it's really a mini-setting, without an explicit plot or any of the other common trappings of most adventure modules.  Instead, we get a very detailed base of operations in the titular Keep, a small-scale wilderness map and a few outdoor encounter areas, and a sprawling map of the Caves of Chaos.  All areas of Keep and Caves are fully stocked, with stats for all inhabitants.  Each area is described in detail, with furnishings and treasure.  Relationships between the factions of monsters are described, with hints on how they might interact and how the players can manipulate them to their benefit.  A table of rumors provides adventure hooks, which the players may pursue or not.  There is no predetermined goal, no "win" or "lose" conditions, nothing expected of the player characters but to go forth and explore something.

In a way, a micro-setting is like the fabled megadungeon in that it's meant to be visited again and again, changing with time and the characters' actions instead of appearing once and never seen again.  Unlike the megadungeon, the micro-setting isn't meant to sustain an entire campaign on its own, though a phase of a campaign may center around it.

There's a lot to love about these little settings.

Having pre-mapped and stocked micro-settings without plots means I can run whatever I like, or whatever the players want to pursue.  A good mini-setting has the potential for a variety of different kinds of adventures.  The Keep, for instance, has opportunities for scouting, rescue, search-and-destroy, and exploratory missions, service to good and noble causes, and treachery and betrayal.  It's all there, and my group can pursue whatever they like.  I won't have to scrap some elaborate adventure I've written up for the night's session nor improvise something more to their liking completely off the top of my head.  If the players decide they'd rather investigate where those skeletons and zombies are coming from instead of searching for the merchant's wife, I'm prepared and ready to roll with it.

Re-using familiar locations gives a campaign continuity, which makes it more believable and gets players more invested in it, in a way that making new locations from scratch for every adventure doesn't.  Having recurring locations, characters, and factions figure into each new adventure makes the world feel real and organic, not just a series of vignettes unconnected by any common thread but the same protaganists.  Instead of inventing a new mercenary outfit to support the next villain in his plot to overthrow the castle, you can use the goblin tribe the players ran out of the cave complex three sessions ago.  The goblins have a reason to hate the PCs, and the players have an emotional stake in proving that their first victory was no fluke.  Plus, they get to use whatever they've learned about these goblins' strengths and weaknesses, which makes their past encounters meaningful to current events, instead of just war stories to tell around the tavern.

You can build a campaign world from the bottom up by stringing together several micro-settings.  It's a process of discovery from both sides of the screen.  Players discover the world by playing in it, and you discover how each micro-setting relates to others to form the greater world.  All the bits in between micro-settings can be fleshed out as-needed rather than set in stone in advance.  Without the overarching plan that a detailed macro-setting imposes on the campaign, you're free to build your world on the fly for the greatest enjoyment of your group.  What's beyond the dark forest that they players have declared their intention to cross?  Not some generic village that you put on a map because it looked like there should be something there, but another micro-setting bubbling with adventure potential!

You can use a mix of your own micro-settings and published ones.  I don't know about anyone else, but it can be creatively liberating for me to drop a micro-setting ready-made by someone else into my game and figure out how to put it to use.  Because it's sprung from a different mind than my own, it forces me out of unconscious patterns, but because it's a micro-setting full of possibilities and not a story with a predetermined plot, my imagination is set free to fly on new courses rather than simply put in a different straitjacket. 
 
Using other people's micro-settings in your campaign also reduces prep work for you while still allowing maximum detail.  If the players decide to explore that ruined keep looming on the hill, you've got it all mapped and stocked, and if not, you haven't spent a ton of time writing it up for nothing.  With a mixture of your own creations and published works, you can have a ton of very detailed areas with a fraction of the effort it would take to do it all yourself.

Unfortunately, the supply of micro-settings available seems to be a lot less than that of macro-settings and plotted adventures.  If you know of any other good micro-settings, feel free to post titles and links in the comments.

Next up, I talk about the ingredients that make a good micro-setting.