Friday, September 5, 2014

American Ninja Cowboys - A Supers Setting

"American Ninja Cowboys" is the working title while I figure out what the game is all about.  I'm sketching out a campaign setting that draws inspiration from The Last Airbender, Legend of Korra, Naruto, Inuyasha, and sundry Miyazaki films - and puts similar elements in a fantastic, wild west North America that feels like an endless frontier.  Those anime titles are the sources the kids are familiar with - essentially fantasy settings with super powered characters that can fly around and shoot things and use amazing magic powers.  It's an intriguing alternative to super powered settings I've done in the past, which always used the modern world.

I'm placing American Ninja Cowbowys in a mythic (future) America, long after a cataclysm merged the spirit world and the mundane world and civilizations are rebuilt anew, albeit widely spaced across western North America.  Gigantic spirit animals lumber across the wilderness, and the early survivors drew guidance and wisdom from relationships with totem animals  in the years after the destruction.  I'd like it to have a Native American vibe - there are powerful totem animals like Coyote, Raven, Bear, and Snake.  There are mythic locales across America, places like Lost Mesa or Devil's Tower or the Ghost Town, where frightening or numinous experiences await the bold.

Youngsters in the setting that are gifted at channeling power from the spirit world are trained from a young age by the Five Nation as guardians and protectors - they're the Jedi Knights of FFA (future fantasy America).  Any of the typical power sources in a super hero game can be made to work fine for this kind of fantasy game.  There are monsters and mutants and demons from beyond the spirit world, too - for instance, everything east of the Mississippi is in the Scarred Lands, the Land of Tears, and westerners avoid the forbidden zones.  Somewhere in the Scarred Lands sleep the Four Great Beasts of the Apocalypse.

It's a bit liberating how totally gonzo a super hero setting can be imagined.  You can freely mix Gamma-World style super weapons (liberated from the Land of Tears, of course) with gigantic Kaiju style monsters, martial arts combat, and characters with amazing powers.  Human society is organized into the five great nations, but there is a subversive "6th Nation" made of criminal masterminds and super villains that manipulates them all.

My biggest decision right now is around naming conventions.  I really enjoy anime and the fantastic Asian sounding names - something like "Raikage" sounds much cooler than "Lightning Shadow".  But I'm wary of cultural appropriation and misusing Asian or Native American sounding names insensitively.  I also need to come up with a good name for the guardian characters in the setting.  Functionally, they'll be a lot like Jedi Knights in the Lucasverse - people with extraordinary powers that act as protectors and agents.  Do I borrow Asian sounding names like Bushi, Samurai, or Shinobi, or European names like Knight, Agent, or Hero?  How about Rangers and Sheriffs?  FFA (Future Fantasy America) is going to have places like Tree City, Star City, and Wind City, I could get behind hero group names like Tree City Rangers - sounds like a sports team.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Belated Gencon 2014 Report - and Kid Cosplay

The kiddo has embraced anime cosplay
I've had trouble keeping my mind on gaming lately.  I started a sizable remodeling project back in June, assuming I'd get it done before the summer was over, and then BAM! - I look up and it's already August and the summer is fleeing across the sky.  Gaming has been taking a back seat to ripping up carpeting and tackless strips.  At this point I only have a few more weeks to go on the project - some ceramic tiling to do, tearing out the last of the carpet, and then laying new floors throughout the house - I'm hoping to be done before the end of September and be back to normal.  Painting and crown molding was all done earlier in the summer.

For those reasons, my online presence pretty much flat-lined since August and RPG stuff has been quiet.  Still alive though!  Here's what I saw and did at Gencon this year -  a belated Gencon report.

Zombies
My big focus was finding a good zombie board game.  I spent quite a bit of time in the dealer hall this year doing game demonstrations at various publisher booths - it's a great way to get a 20-30 minute exposure to a game ahead of buying one.  In the zombie genre, I tried Zombies!, Zombicide, and Last Night on Earth.  I thought Last Night on Earth was the most fun and best value, and ended up picking up a copy.  We've had fun with it so far.

Other Horror Board Games
I tried a bunch of other board games as well, and a couple of horror games stood out.  I'd been hearing good things about Touch of Evil, another game from Flying Frog like Last Night on Earth, and it was pretty fun.  It's one to pick up before Halloween, the best holiday, and one that's going to be here before you know it.  In Touch of Evil, you play investigators in a Sleepy Hollow style setting, gathering quest items to confront classic supernatural monsters like the werewolf or the Headless Horseman.  (It feels a bit like Elder Sign, a game from Fantasy Flight, with a different theme).    I'd also heard good things about Level 7, so we tried Level 7 Omega Protocol, which was also a lot of fun.  Players take on the role of elite soldiers in a Halo-style world infiltrating a lab full of alien-like monsters.  It's a highly tactical team-oriented combat game with cool mechanics - it was a bit pricey for the Gencon budget this time out.

RPG's
I brought the 5E starter along with our gear, in case our group had some downtime and wanted to try 5E.  All of the official 5E events were sold out.  Many of the guys in our local game group have been going out to Gencon with their sons, so we usually have 7-8 people in our party - more than enough to run our own games at the Con without recruiting.  But things were busy enough that we never did break out the 5E starter.

My oldest kiddo has been on  a gigantic anime and manga kick lately - his cosplay character above is 'Gaara' from a manga called Naruto.  One of my Gencon priorities was to try some super hero games and find an appealing set of super hero rules to run an anime-inspired supers game this year.  I am now the proud owner of Icons, a lightweight super hero game by Steve Kenson (of Mutants and Masterminds fame).  Icons reminds me a lot of the classic Marvel Super Heroes (MSH) from the 1980's and looks fine for a rules-lite anime-inspired superhero game.  The Green Ronin folks were super friendly and didn't mind spending time talking about the mechanics and doing some demo games.

Cosplay
Last year, the oldest kiddo ended up packing his Legend of Zelda Link costume and wearing it at the Con.  I didn't think much of it - he saw a lot of cosplay the year before, so I guess he thought it looked like fun and wanted to join in.  This year, he went after the cosplay aspect with commitment.  We teamed up to make a fantastic "Gaara" costume, he dyed his hair, and made me apply some light make up each day.  It was like touring Gencon with a minor celebrity - he got like 40-50 picture requests a day just walking around the dealer hall and whatnot and it took longer to get anywhere due to picture requests.  Apparently a lot of people know that Naruto show, a lot of folks knew the character.  He might be on to something sneaky smart though - I saw plenty of young ladies complimenting his costume and getting chatty.

Purchases and Related Stuff
From an RPG perspective, my main get this year was the hardcover edition of Icons published by Green Ronin.  Pelgrane Press (Trail of Cthulhu) didn't release Mythos Expeditions in time for Gencon, so I'm holding out for that one - I think it just went on pre-order.  The D&D 5e PHB was around, but I figure I'll wait a little before taking the plunge.

In the board game space, I picked up Last Night On Earth and a card game called Once Upon A Time - something for the younger kiddos and my daughter to do.  I also got in plenty of Magic the Gathering, and won a win-a-box tournament - that's two years in a row winning a box at Gencon, w00t.

This was my fourth Gencon.  We're getting pretty good at getting around the con and have picked up some basic tips and tricks.  I've got to do a Gencon tips post before next year, and find out how readers who attend get the most out of the con as well.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Treasure Map Example

A reader the other day asked for an example of how I'm using treasure maps to give the players clues around the dungeon.  The maps are simple, and have been found in piles of discarded gear or other treasure hoards.

Here's an example of the treasure map (the original is in the player's notes!)  It was found stuck in a reed basket in a room that looked like other adventurers used as a camp at one point - it was snagged on the weave.  The players were carrying it around for months:


Here's the area of quadrant 1-4 referred to by the treasure map.  These treasure maps aren't high impact techniques, but the players got super excited when they realized they knew the map reference and found a hidden cache.  I think the evolution of the technique will see maps that cross entire dungeon levels, and putting backstory behind the map makers.

Plus you get to see part of quadrant 1-4 from the game reports.  The complex on the right side of the map is the palace of Atalante and the chambers of her pig-men; Connell died in room 11 when he was eaten by an Ochre Jelly; the Brew Crew were camped in room 9 when the players jumped them.  Room 15 is where they found the pit with the satyr-head potion-fountain sticking out of the wall.  The large 20' wide north-south corridor is the road of the dead, the frieze-lined passage that spirals into the Underworld.  Near the bottom of the map, it turns west and slopes downward, meeting up with level 2 of Taenarum.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Level One Boss Fight - The Lord of Bones - Taenarum Game 10

Moe took the week off, so Moe's Marauders were temporarily under the command of Etor, the party's ranger, who planned the night's adventure.  I try to start every game of Taenarum back at the adventurer's hall, with the characters huddled around the tavern table and planning their excursion - the same way the players leaned in over the table to peer at their maps to start the game.

"I know we told that sorceress we'd explore quadrant 3 and search for the source of the giant insects, but we've got to go through quadrant 2 to get there."  Etor laid out the maps and showed the path.  "And since we'll be in quadrant 2 anyway, why don't we just poke our head into this area over here where the 'Arch of Greed' is supposed to sit, and see if there's really a big treasure nearby?"  The players in attendance voted unanimously for the Arch of Greed over giant killer insects.

There were preliminary encounters with a horde of skeletal animals, jaws clattering and tiny claws clicking on the polished marble floors, and a few treacherous skirmishes with swarms of flesh-eating scarab beetles.  The swarms reduce any explorers killed in the zone to bones, stripping the flesh and preparing the remains to join the skeletal hoplites that patrol the area.  The party used up all of their supplies of oil burning the scarab swarms.

The Arch of Greed was real, and it glowed with reddish sigils and glyphs.  As the reddish light washed over the characters, they began to sense the gold and silver they were each carrying, until their new 'detect precious metal' senses became aware of the large pile of coins beyond the archway and their attentions were drawn towards the hoard.  Beyond the arch was a short hall, and flickering lights illuminated a great pile of silver and gold coins.  A number of characters - Etor, Thaddeus, and Jax (a new guy) - were overcome by magical greed and hurtled themselves down the hallway.  The champion of Poseidon made his save and held the rest of the party back.

Unfortunately, while the three ensorcelled characters kneeled before the treasure pile and threw coins into the air, giggling like Scrooge McDuck, various skeletal hoplites crept forward from the shadows behind them, lowering their spears to skewer the characters overcome by greed.  Once the rest of the party caught sight of the skeletons, they shouted warnings and ran down the hallway to intervene.

There was one awful round where the greedy kneelers, oblivious to the skeletal threat, were stabbed at again and again by the skeletal ambushers.  Blood sprayed everywhere.  Jax was butchered and perished, and the others were sorely injured.  The rest of the party slammed into the skeletons, joining the battle, and Mac the Dwarf Cleric of Hephaestus was successful at turning the remaining undead.  The damage was done already - one party member was slain, the others grievously injured and required the use of healing potions.  The magic coercion of the Arch of Greed wore away once the trap was finished.

The party scooped up a few thousand coins, mostly silver obols but a fair amount of drachmas, and they discovered a strange, heavy spear hanging on the wall.  It was black meteoric iron, with symbols on the blade.  Assuming it's magical, the paladin hefted it and claimed it, leaving his wooden spear in its place.

They continued north in quadrant two and discovered the throne room of the Lord of Bones.  The boss eidelon sat on an onyx throne, wreathed in purple  Asphodel flames  that surrounded the throne.  The eidelon appeared like a flaming skeleton wearing bulky armor and wielding a large bident.  He mocked them from the safety of his throne.

"If you're so tough, Lord of Bones, come down here to the ground and fight us, man to man," taunted Etor.  The Lord of Bones is easily provoked, and gave up the invulnerability of the throne to face Etor in hand to hand.  "Mortal weapons can't hurt me, fool", boasted the Lord.  He stabbed with his bident, and the players learned the aura of cold fire that surrounded him burned anyone that attacked him physically, meaning they had to kill him quickly or get worn down by cold fire damage.

The black meteoric spear was indeed magical, and the champion of Poseidon stabbed the Lord of Bones a number of times with it, cutting through his ghostly form with the magic blade.  "The key you seek is in the room nearby,"  said the Lord, as he disintegrated and died.  "Enjoy your fleeting victory, mortals; my master will just create a new Lord of Bones in a few days..."  And then he faded away.

Among the treasure of the Lord of Bones was an over-sized skeleton key.  Way back in Game 3 (He Took an Ogre to the Knee) the players had wandered into quadrant two and found a mural room where the creature you touched on the wall materialized and fought you.  When the summoned monsters were defeated, the room revealed a secret door and a large glowing keyhole - the same size as the over-sized skeleton key.  The players wasted no time in navigating across the quadrant to the mural room, and readied themselves.  Instead of touching "ogre", this time they picked "goblin", and quickly fought off 8 magically summoned goblins.  It pays to be prepared.

The skeleton key fit the glowing key hole that appeared, and beyond was a simple treasury - a silver-inlaid drinking horn sat on a simple stone pedestal beneath a shining pillar of light from the ceiling.  The paladin picked it up, and the horn thrummed with power.  Players being what they are, they poured some water into it and took a drink - anyone who sipped the water was healed!  No, they didn't find the Holy Grail - this is the Drinking Horn of Hades, one of his 7 special objects, a piece of the Regalia of the Death God  (although the players don't know that yet - the significance or why it's important.  They're just to glad to have a cool healing item).

As they turned to leave, glowing red letters began to appear on the stone table.  The players gawked in dismay as the swirling letters arranged themselves to read thusly:  "Alantir of Athens now owns the Horn of Hades.  Alantir's current location:  Taenarum."  They threw a cloak over the pedestal to hide the lettering, and left the room.  Hopefully it would be a while before anyone else discovered how to get past the mural room and see the inscription of the table.

That's where we ended last game.  Pretty good all around.  At least half the group is on the cusp of leveling up, they've defeated a major boss and gotten an important quest item (even though they don't know they're on a quest).  What more can a referee want?

Cast of Characters
Alantir, Champion of Poseidon
Etor, Spartan explorer
Jax the Hunter (newly joined - and dead)
Maribel of Christmasland (Elf Enchanter - newly joined)

Hirelings
Fighting men - Dorus, Eutropios, Dunixi, Apostolos

NPC's
Barnabas - a thief
Thaddeus - a fighter

Stayed Home / Player Unavailable
Moe, a Bard
Talus, a Magic User

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Treasure Maps

I've been enjoying using treasure maps in Taenarum.  They come up as random results on the magic items table, and I've placed them manually to add interest to a treasure hoard and relocate treasure to someplace more appropriate.  They serve a useful, self-referential purpose in the dungeon.  They give the players a reason to circle back and discover something previously missed, or offer them a useful clue they need to hold onto until it makes sense - when they can match the map snippet with the treasure  against their larger map.

I'm firmly in the camp that a megadungeon needs lots of empty rooms and fly-over terrain.  The players aren't meant to laboriously explore every corner of every room; they're frequently passing quickly through empty spaces en route to an actual destination or quest.  It creates space for them to find a reason to return to an 'empty' area later when they find a map or clue indicating a hidden cache.

My creation process is straightforward - I determine the room where the treasure is hidden, first (randomly, of course) and drop a quick note in the room description where the treasure is hidden.  Then I'll make a small map, usually showing the treasure room and a nearby room or hallway.  The objective is to give the players a small pattern on a snippet of graph paper - whenever they've mapped enough of the larger dungeon to match the snippet, they now know where to search.

I've placed a few verbal treasure maps as well, little rhymes such as "Black water beneath the cypress tree, third step down to find the orange key".  So far, none of these have shown up in game reports, though at least one is hidden on somewhere on level one.

Eventually, the treasure maps I use will be more elaborate - they'll point to areas outside the dungeon that require quests and wilderness travel.  For lower levels, the self-referential maps are fine.  I don't want to over think them, and don't let them become blockers.  They're completely optional for the players - bonuses for the vigilant.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Catching Up with the Taenarum Campaign

Taenarum Game 9 - Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Hobo's Life For Me


It makes sense every few months to put a summary or preface before one of these game reports, to help orient new people or provide a refresher.  What is this Taenarum of which I speak?  Taenarum is a sprawling dungeon built around the legendary road to the Underworld.  It sits at the farthest end of Mythic Greece, below Sparta in ancient Laconia.  The nearest village is a small coastal cove named Psammathous Bay.  In the years since the legendary heroes returned from the Trojan War, lesser heroes now make their way to haunted Taenarum to wrest gold and glory from the minions of Hades, god of the Underworld.  The spirit behind the campaign is merging the quintessential D&D experience with Greek myth and legend.

I'm running Taenarum using ACKS (Adventurer Conqueror King), a BX retroclone that adds a lot of additional classes to the core 4.  ACKS characters are a little stronger than traditional BX characters, lending to the heroic atmosphere.  Although my first gaming love is horror, the tone of Taenarum is whimsical and fanciful to support gaming with the family and some younger kids.  Currently two groups are exploring Taenarum; some of my adult regulars and their older kids in one game, and the younger kids and family in another.

Last game, the adults group - Moe's Marauders - were forced to attend a banquet with a capricious sorceress, Atalante.  Each level of the dungeon is separated into quadrants connected by the road to the Underworld, and Atalante's palace is in quadrant 4, near where the road to Hades slopes downwards towards dungeon level 2.   Over dinner she would decide whether to let them live,  turn them all into swine, or transform them into pig-men to join her company of pig-men soldiers.  In a previous game, the players accepted a mission to rescue a prisoner from Atalante, a merchant's son named Jude.  They tracked a pair of pig-men back to the sorceress's palace and requested an audience with her.  They learned that Jude wasn't a prisoner at all - he was a willing apprentice of the sorceress and didn't want to return home.

That's as good a place as any to start this week's game report.

Atalante's servants presented the characters a banquet of fresh fish and Mediterranean vegetables, all cooked to perfection, while nearby in the hall her lines of pig men slurped out of troughs and buckets.  "You've presented me with a dilemma", the sorceress addressed them over dinner.  "I appreciate your honesty about your goals, and you're clearly resourceful.  But I have a reputation to maintain.  My operation here can't run unopposed unless bandits, miscreants, and adventurers are deathly afraid of getting turned into boars or pig-men at my whim.  You see why I shouldn't let you go.  Take the incident that happened just a few days ago, where some looters broke into a section of my palace and looted a store room.  There must be repercussions."

The players quickly picked up that the door was open for negotiation, and hammered out a deal with the sorceress - they would deal with any other adventurers on level 1 that had taken up the rescue mission, and would find the looters that broke into her store room and deal with them.  (The irony is that the players were the ones that looted the palace, unknowingly).  They would tell the merchant back in town that Jude was a pig-man and beyond rescue.  Since pig-men were fine as guards but weren't great at exploration, they even agreed to enter her service as occasional explorers and mercenaries for hire to carry out occasional explorations.  This was one of those nights where half the session was table talk, roleplaying, and learning a bit about the dungeon.  Atalante had a number of targets to explore in quadrant 3 of level 1, quests for future game sessions.

In the meantime, the focused on another adventurer group that needed to be eliminated - some rivals from back in town called "The Repo Men".  The party scoured the area of the dungeon where they thought the Repo Men might be camping out, found them, ambushed them, took them out with a Sleep spell, and then killed the lot of them.  It was brutal!  Players are funny.  They could have attacked the sorceress and done away with her threats, they could have kidnapped Jude after knocking him on the head, they had options.  They chose to eliminate the competition - and then blamed the robbery of Atalante's palace on the dead Repo Men.  Murder hobos!

There were some other entertaining moments.  I've placed a lot of treasure maps in Taenarum, and the players already have a couple of fragments from way early in the campaign.  Adam, one of the players, was absently shuffling through his notes at the beginning of the session and suddenly called out, "I know where this treasure map goes!"  The players had covered the area a couple of game sessions ago, and only tonight realized there was a hidden treasure in a previous room that wasn't searched thoroughly.  They circled back for some easy loot.

In another empty room, there was a small, dim pit.  The dwarf hung over the side with a torch (for no apparent reason) but it was fortuitous - the light illuminated a camouflaged section of wall hidden in the shadows of the pit.  The thief discovered that a gray cloth was draped over a piece of statuary sticking out of the wall - a carved satyr's head, mouth agape like a fountain.  There were dried green stains on the ground and a coin-sized slot in the satyr's head.  Someone had scrawled a nearby note in charcoal, hard to read - "This one takes about 500…"

The thief dropped a coin in the head, and it made an arcade-like plink plink plink sound as it disappeared within.  They dropped another.  They pooled their money, everyone pitching in 50-75gp, and laboriously slotted 500gp into the head, like it was a giant piggy bank, eager to see what happened.  The floor started to vibrate, machinery clanged, and the satyr's mouth started spewing green liquid.  The thief expected it, and had a waterskin ready to catch as much liquid as possible.  It turned out to be the equivalent of two healing potions!

"This is too valuable to let other adventurers know about it, let's cover it back up."

Overall this was a good session.  Lots of enthusiastic table talk and planning, they now have a patron in the dungeon, and one of Atalante's future missions included finding the source of the giant insects in quadrant 3.  "There is some force or magic power there that causes normal bugs and critters to swell to gigantic sizes… my mistress is interested in studying this source", Atalante said, hinting at a greater power that sponsors her presence in the dungeon from elsewhere.  She's patterned herself after Circe, after all.

Cast of Characters
Moe, a Bard
Talus, a Magic User
Alantir, Champion of Poseidon
Etor, Spartan explorer

Hirelings
Fighting men - Dorus, Eutropios, Dunixi, Apostolos

New NPC's
Barnabas - a thief
Thaddeus - a fighter


*The picture is Curse of the Swine, a Magic card in last year's Theros block.  It's pretty awesome that last year's Magic sets featured lots of Greek myth inspiration - I've been loving it.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Catching Up With Supernatural


I blinked, and a week went by without blogging.  My eyeballs have been on the TV screen (or more frequently, the iPad) finishing the last couple of streaming episodes of the TV series Supernatural in a binge of media consumption.  Not once in the past 9-10 years did I bother to tune into that one while it was broadcasting; my wife, an ardent Dr Who fan, relentlessly implored me to commit to watching the first season of Supernatural a couple of months ago proclaiming it would strike a similar chord.  It's actually been great fun.

Let's say, like me, you're somewhat averse to the television and were equally oblivious about the show - here's the theme:  Supernatural is about a pair of brothers who hunt monsters as their life's mission.  The show postulates a world where there's a brotherhood of "hunters", urban fantasy warriors that roam the backwaters and by-streets of America, staking vampires and laying ghosts to rest, combing the papers for gruesome murders and bizarre deaths to find the next case.  There are overarching metaplots that invoke Judeo-Christian mythology, involving rogue angels, scheming demons, and sundry Biblical monsters.  Beyond the metaplot stories, each episode is basically a "monster of the week" showcase, and the writers have definitely looked far and wide to fill out 9 seasons with critters.

Supernatural isn't a horror show, but you can still get plenty of ideas from it for your horror or D&D gaming.  It's pretty much someone's "Hunter the Reckoning" campaign made into an ongoing saga, the way True Blood is a Masquerade campaign brought to HBO.  I've gotten some good ideas for staging a few obscure monsters, and it's shown me that there's quite a bit of monstrous material in the Bible - ideas for some upcoming posts, perhaps.

Meanwhile, the kiddos have discovered Naruto.  I've been hearing quotes from the show non-stop for the past two weeks:  Dad, I feel really good about my red deck for this week's FNM - I'm going undefeated this week, believe it!  Which reminds me, the latest core set for Magic the Gathering dropped last week, so we've also been busy sorting cards and updating our standard decks.  I'm a decent sealed player and took second at our prerelease; for standard, I've been on pack rats and demons all season, so black devotion was easy to update with M15.  I figure there's a small amount of overlap between readers who are just table top gamers and those that play the Magic; you've either been loving the past year of swamps and demons and black horrible things or you can't wait for October and no more black versus blue showdowns.  Anyway, I'm pretty excited to have "Urborg, the Tomb of Yawgmoth", back in standard, believe it!

Despite the distractions of television and the playing cards, we've had some great sessions with the gaming groups exploring Taenarum.  I have a few game reports to post this week.  I also picked up a copy of the 5th Edition Starter Box to peruse, and an author sent a few adventures over to review.   Plenty to catch up on.