Wednesday, March 30, 2011

More thoughts on The Wild Frontier

Take me home to the Isle of Dread
As usual, one of my half-baked theories (from last post) was challenged by Trey and it forced me to refine the idea further (thanks brother!).  Regarding Points of Light and Wild Frontiers - a frontier setting could definitely be presented as a Points of Light sub setting; however, it's the presence of a large civilized land (a huge swath of light) back in the settled areas that lets people zoom around the world and get out to the frontier in the first place.

For instance, X1 The Isle of Dread could be considered a Points of Light setting; there' s a single settled area (the native village  of Tanaroa) and everything else on the island is a wilderness hex crawl.  However, a party isn't even reaching the Isle of Dread (a good 700-800 miles across the Sea of Dread) without a degree of civilization back home that postulates large sailing ships available for purchase - shipyards, commerce, navigational technology, the whole thing.  Luckily, the Isle of Dread was part of the "Known World" setting, Mystara, which was a highly civilized, human centric campaign with a technology level of the Renaissance (and a high level of magic, too).

I think it would be pretty fun down the road to make a Wild Frontier campaign - Renaissance, post-Renaissance, or Age of Sail.  There could be politics, duels, and intrigue back in the civilized lands, and monsters, looting, and plundering ruins out on the frontier.  Throw in pulp action in far away lands - pyramids in the desert, forgotten ruins in the jungles, lost worlds filled with dinosaurs.  It'd also be easy to run this type of setting with some Gothic Horror, and put all the black and white 1930's era movie monsters in "the Old Country".  …Must… avoid… the… attention deficit…. disorder.

Quick idea for a poll - what historical era does your fantasy game *most* resemble?  I'm wondering just how common are Renaissance style ships and long distance ocean travel in folk's games?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Campaign Paradigm Theory - Wild Frontiers and Points of Light

One side effect of crawling through the huge pile of TSR era modules over the weekend was rediscovering how many awesome lost world modules are out there that I've never runDwellers of the Forbidden City and Isle of Dread are really excellent - but for my games, the tone usually isn't right.  Why not?  I started brooding on it.  Here's what I've come up with - there are two general paradigms for a D&D campaign, one with a local focus where adventure is all around the home base, and one with a cleaner line dividing civilized lands from the wild lands - I'll use the terms Points of Light and The Wild Frontiers.

Points of Light
Everyone remembers the term Points of Light from the 4E launch, when grognards everywhere said, "Big deal, I've been playing a Points of Light campaign since the 1970's".  The idea is that each town, village, or home base is a little island of civilization in a sea of darkness - monsters and danger are everywhere.

In the typical D&D game, the local farms are harassed by kobolds and goblins in the woods, there are bandits on the roads, and the kindly traveling priest is actually an agent for the Shrine of Evil Chaos, spying on the villagers.  No need to go far for adventure, it's all around you!

Most D&D settings have post-apocalyptic or fallen empire themes to explain all that gold in the ground and those magic items littering the ruins.  This works well for dark ages or early medieval settings, standard fantasy settings like Greyhawk and the Realms, future earth like Xothique, and ancient world/sword & sorcery games with isolated city states (like the Wilderlands).

Wild Frontiers
The other approach is to have an extremely civilized and mundane homeland "back there", and put the campaign firmly on the wild frontier - far from civilization, across the ocean, or on another continent.  The (famous on the internet) West Marches campaign followed this approach, and James Raggi's theory of Weird Fantasy in LotFP champions this approach.  This paradigm assumes a degree of stability, trade, and commerce back in the homeland that has pushed the frontier further out.

Games set in a late medieval period, the Renaissance, or the Age of Sail would fit this theme well; so would an ancient setting featuring something like the Pax Romana - the borders between the realms of Law and the wild frontier are clearly defined.

The Lost World Scenarios
Now I begin to see why adventures like the Isle of Dread, Dwellers in the Forbidden City, or the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan haven't been at the top of my queue - I usually run Points of Light style campaigns.  There isn't the social infrastructure for merchants or rulers to outfit seafaring expeditions to cross the ocean and exploit the Isle of Dread or explore the Forbidden City.  Adventurers in a Points of Light game are more concerned about the giants in the mountains, the sleeping dragon in the old ruins, or the rampaging orcs of the dim forest.  Why go to the big city and outfit a sketchy expedition to go far away, when there's a vampire in a castle right there on the map waiting for someone to kick him in the fangs?

If you make the homeland "mundane and civilized", then the party has to look for monster-bashing adventures out on the frontier - whether it's an island across the ocean, a distant continent, the center of the earth, or a lost world, there is a journey involved.  That whole paradigm just screams pulp action, doesn't it?

The theory has implications for The Black City setting, too - the discovery of the frozen island of Thule implies an environment where ocean travel and exploration of far away places is common.  (Bless the Vikings, they break all the rules).

Monday, March 28, 2011

Munchkins of the Old School - Revealed!

Warning:  edition gripes are imminent...

Yesterday I put up the first cut of the Treasure by Module list to help with campaign planning; I'll add more modules to it in the coming days.  A few readers pointed out in the comments that there are legitimate differences in the editions regarding experience and experience for monsters; I didn't think it could be that big, Guy provided an example, so I put it to the test.  I tallied up all monsters in the vaunted B2 Keep on the Borderlands, to see how the experience totals fared between BX, AD&D, and a few of the popular clone games.  Here goes - observations are below:

Moldvay Basic
Treasure:  31,000
Monster:  6,520
Total XP:  37,520
Monsters are 17%
Labyrinth Lord
Treasure:  31,000
Monster:  7,130
Total XP:  38,130
Monsters are 19%
Lamentations of the Flame Princess
Treasure:  31,000
Monster:  6,640
Total XP:  37,640
Monsters are 18%
Swords & Wizardry Core
Treasure:  31,000
Monster:  8,995
Total XP:  39,995
Monsters are 22%
AD&D 1st Edition
Treasure:  31,000
Monster:  10,846
Magic Items:  24,270
Total XP:  66,116
Monsters are 16%, 35% if you don't use magic item XP
You see that AD&D total?  You gotta be kidding me!  Using the various classic D&D rules sets, a group finishing the keep will be halfway to level 3 - but that will also depend on the number of henchman, attrition, things like that.  But the differences aren't that great between BX and the clone editions.

But the AD&D party doing the same adventure will be almost level 4 for doing the same work.  Not only are they soaking up more XP for monsters, but the XP for magic items is over the top.  Sure, go ahead and roll 4d6 in order, arrange the stats to get your 18/xx strength and min max like crazy, but let's double the XP too!  People need to level FASTER.

I guess I didn't see the impact of the power creep until laying it out like that.

Okay, let's forget the righteous bitching about AD&D for a minute - besides, if I looked at it 30 years ago, I would have figured it out then and the munchkinism would be old news; I'm sure plenty of folks house rule away magic item XP to restore their sanity.  I do have a legitimate campaign planning concern.  A big part of why we started a Greyhawk game last summer was to get the group to the point where we could do the G and D series of modules.  I considered it one of those bucket list items; "Someday I want to see a party of adventurers make it to the Vault of the Drow and loot the Fane of Lolth".  (And who knows, maybe by the time we're there, some enterprising OSR person will have created a fitting finale to the series, instead of the monstrosity that is Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits.  Hint hint.)

We've obviously been using a Frankenstein rules set  - core rules from LotFP, monsters and magic from BX, and a healthy does of Labyrinth Lord's Advanced Edition Companion for AD&D monsters; I figured AEC would help me convert those later AD&D modules.

However, since an AD&D party is getting almost twice as much experience as a Classic party doing the same work, I may have some bigger adjustments to make.  Those G and D series modules are combat heavy and magic rich, and a Classic group won't keep pace with just the gold XP alone.

Mythic Monday: Origins of the Fey

In recent weeks there have been posts on how the cosmology I'm using in Gothic Greyhawk simplifies the AD&D cosmology - there's a place for Law (the divine realms), a place for Chaos (the Elemental plane and the Abyss), a place of magic (Fairy), and an underworld for the dead - instead of 50+ planes.  Readers voted that the Realm of Fairy should have strong ties to Celtic folklore.   As I've been pondering the fairy folklore of Ireland and the British Isles, one thing has become abundantly clear - the imputed origins for fairies are really muddled!

Here's a brief survey of the  theories and then some notes on incorporating it into a D&D campaign.

Spirits of the Dead
Many creatures considered as fairies and having a role in the folklore seem to be ghosts!  Drowning water fairies like Jenny Greenteeth or Peg Powler were often maidens that turned into fairies/ghosts after drowning themselves.  The unseelie host (the Sluagh) was peopled by dead spirits, and many versions of the Wild Hunt include the dead as well.  (It was the pagan dead or the unbaptised that was at risk of going to Fairy...)

Old Gods
Pre-Christian gods and nature spirits that lost their jobs with the coming of Christianity found new work as characters in fairy folklore.  Creatures like the Brown Man and the Green Man, with their fertility roles, the Lord of the Wild Hunt, and some of the water lords like Manannan mac Lir were gods in earlier traditions.

Fallen Angels
This origin is fairly interesting - the idea that when the rebel angels were thrown out of heaven, quite a few stragglers didn't make it to hell, but weren't admitted back to heaven, either, and were forced to find a new place to new live.  They came to earth and became the supernatural Sidhe.  The idea of fairies making a tithe to Hell shows up from time to time as well.  Could these fallen angels be echoes of the Nephilim stories?

This isn't an ancient origin, but more of a reminder that one aspect of the fairy folklore - the abduction experience - mirrors modern alien abduction stories.  (Thanks Trey for pointing out Keel's theory on ultraterrestrials as a catchall for faries, demons and aliens).

Conquered Primitives
Finally, we saw this with last week's article on the Brownie - much of the fairy folklore could be attributed to  memories of primitive, conquered races, that lurked in the nearby wilds, living in mounds and hills, and stealing what they could.

Implications for D&D
I'm beginning to see the Realm of Fairy as a nightmarish place that combines all the worst elements of these origin stories.  I'm thinking this will be the motto of the Queen of Fairy:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, so they can be turned into monsters...

The wretched refuse of history doesn't find it's way to America, it lands in Fairy and haunts the twilight as a thrall to Chaos.  What ties all these disparate creatures together is the mortal world has passed them by; they are remnants of a bygone age and have accepted a cursed form of immortality as creatures of magic.

The folklore theme, 'fairies fear the church', begins to make sense when you think of them as diminished pagan gods, dead spirits, and the soulless descendants of exiled angels; in game terms, this would be represented as "fairies can be turned by clerics".

Like last week's Brownie, I'll develop additional fairy types in some upcoming weeks (or at least re-envision some of the D&D versions so they cleave closer to the folklore).  For instance, real mermaids drink blood and crash ships!  Wahoo.
Next week:  Ariel, with fangs and a bloodthirst.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Some Observations on the Treasure by Module list

First off, there was some selection bias in the OSR modules listed - I picked ones I've reviewed, and the reviews were chosen because I've either run them or was most interested in them.  There are a lot of good ones still in the queue (and some I'll wait to review because they might be in the near future campaign).

One thing that jumped out is that OSR modules I chose tend to feature less encounters and gold, with a lower encounter density.  I find this leaves more space in the module for exploration; some of those TSR modules are grind-heavy.  YMMV, but I see this as a good thing.  I've been running an OSR-heavy campaign and my players tell me it's been some of their favorite games - modern publishers are definitely doing something right.

Another difference is that modern adventures purport to be built for the party of five, whereas TSR often advised a party of 6-8 adventurers, plus henchmen.  I'm sure that plays into why the TSR modules are treasure and encounter dense.  There's also a difference between "tournament modules" and "campaign modules".

Part of why I built the list is because our goals in doing Gothic Greyhawk as a campaign was to get to the point where I could run Against the Giants; since I'm seeding modules in a sandbox setting, having a handle on the "weight" of the modules will help me gauge the pace of advancement.  I'll be adding more in the coming week - Ravenloft, Night's Dark Terror, the C-series, and then whatever I review this week.

Check out this factoid - a party of 9th level characters will have accumulated like 2.5 million to 3 million gold pieces along the way.  I know smarter folks than me have bemoaned the D&D economy - should be fun figuring that one out!

Something that became apparent while working through S4 Lost Caverns, or the various G-series modules -   those weighty treasure volumes will require massive logistics to actually get the treasure out of the mountains - I'm seeing a small army of mercenaries, porters, mules, and wagons will have to go along just to cart off the spoils.

Something to look at next - are there significant differences in monster XP between editions?  Pat in the previous comments pointed out that monster XP is less than 10% in BX, where I thought AD&D was weighted heavier.  Also, does Basic BX or the clones address the lack of magic item XP by upping the amount of treasure?

I know that many of us convert between editions on the fly when running these adventures in our rules of choice, but there might be some subtle tweaks to experience that bear further investigation.

Treasure By Adventure Module

Here's that list of published modules with the treasure values.  As I do more OSR reviews, I'll add them below.  Notes:

Assumes party clears everything (doubtful), but doesn't loot the home bases.

I used a party of 5 PC's for estimating how many levels could be gained from the treasure in the module.  If your group is larger or uses a lot of henchman, you'll need to adjust the estimates.

For dungeons, density can help identify the proportion of combat  to exploration.  The number in parentheses after density is the number of keyed encounter areas.

Levels 1-3

Treasure:  31,000*
Levels: 2.5
Density: 80% (55)

*Excludes robbing the Keep itself

Levels 1-3

Treasure:  16,000*
Levels:  1.5
Density:  50% (38)

*The Palace has about 9,000gp in loot; the Princess will give the group 3,000gp per person if they didn't loot the palace, 1,500gp per person if they loot.  Either way, the group should get at least 15-16k in gold pieces.

Levels 1-3

Treasure:  71,000*
Levels: 3.75
Density: 63% (37)

*Extra 10,000gp if the group overthrows Gorm, Usamigaras and Madarua.

Levels 1-3

Treasure:  29,000*
Levels:  2.5
Density:  50% (52)

*Extra 5-10k if the group subdues the dragon

Levels 1-3

Treasure:  19,500
Levels:  1.9
Density:  25% (27)

Levels 9-14

Treasure:  320,000
Levels:  .26
Density:  *% (40)

*Not appropriate for hex crawls.

Levels 9-14

Treasure:  350,000
Levels:  .29
Density:  *% (31)

*Not appropriate for hex crawls


Treasure:  740,000*
Levels:  .62
Density:  **

*200,000 extra if they claim an evil statue
**Can't estimate # of encounters for the Vault, depends on party actions

Levels 8-12

Treasure:  245,000
Levels:  .4
Density:  51% (30)

Levels 8-12

Treasure:  570,000
Levels:  .95
Density:  72% (37)

Levels 8-12

Treasure:  925,000
Levels:  1.25
Density:  87% (54)

Levels 4-7

Treasure:  128,000
Levels:  2.1
Density:  *% (46)

*Density is not relevant for a wilderness crawl

Levels 1-3

Treasure:  32,000
Levels:  2.6
Density:  36*% (37)

*Density is for the dungeons only

Levels 10-14

Treasure:  300,000*
Levels:  .25
Density:  27% (9)

*The skull gems are 130k extra, but it seems unlikely to claim them.

Levels 5-10

Treasure:  64,000
Levels:  .8
Density:  40% (11)

Levels 6-10

Treasure:  233,000
Levels:  1.25
Density:  72*% (88)

*Density is for dungeon only.

Levels 1-3

Treasure:  36,000
Levels:  2.6
Density:  48*% (17)

*Density is for dungeons only

Levels 3-7

Treasure:  108,000
Levels:  2.5
Density:  *% (32)

*Density isn't relevant for a hex crawl.

Levels 3-6

Treasure:  170,000*
Levels:  3.2
Density:  70% (49)

*Plus an extra 3k-18k jewelry on completion per character.

Level 6-9

Treasure:  44,000
Levels: .25
Density:  *% (36)

*Density isn't relevant in wilderness.

Level 6-10

Treasure:  80,000
Levels:  .5
Density:  63% (47)



Levels 1-3

Treasure:  8,000
Levels: .8
Density: 35% (14)

Levels 1-3

Treasure:  7,900
Levels: .8
Density: 15% (14)

Levels 1-3

Treasure:  8,600
Levels: .86
Density: 46% (19)

Levels 3-5

Treasure:  21,000
Levels: 1.0
Density: *% (12)

*Story based adventure with limited exploration.

Levels 7-10

Treasure:  90,000
Levels: .28
Density: 50% (26)

Levels 5-8

Treasure:  24,000
Levels: .25
Density: 28% (21)

Levels 1-3

Treasure:  9,500
Levels: .95
Density: 30% (8)


We came, We Saw, We Leveled Up

Thoughts on treasure, experience, and rate of advancement in published modules.

One observation I've found myself dropping into my reviews has been the amount of treasure available in the published module.  All of the old school rule sets have kept 1 XP = 1 GP for treasure recovered, and most of a party's experience will come from treasure.  One of the things I notice is whether an adventure is over or under saturated with treasure.  That will determine the party's rate of advancement, and whether I need to tweak it up or down for the campaign.

In a bout of OCD yesterday morning, I started compiling a table of treasure-by-module for most of my favorite TSR era adventure modules, as well as OSR modules I've reviewed and played.  Then I realized it would be even cooler if I circled back and added in some metrics for encounter density.

Okay - take a quick look at this partial chart and I'll post some notes down below.


Treasure:  31,000*
Levels: 2.5
Density: 80% (55)

*Excludes robbing the Keep itself


Treasure:  71,000*
Levels: 3.75
Density: 63% (37)

*Extra 10,000gp if the group overthrows Gorm,
Usamigaras and Madarua


Treasure:  9,500
Levels: .95
Density: 30% (8)


Treasure:  24,000
Levels: .25
Density: 28% (21)


Note how the Keep of the Borderlands has a density of 80%.  Exploring the Caves of Chaos is just fight, fight, fight - very little exploration.  Compare that to the two OSR modules, with density of 30% or lower, and you can see there is a lot more space for exploration and problem solving without the grind.  Moldvay's dungeon stocking tables suggest putting monsters in about 33% of the rooms - Tom didn't follow his own advice when making the Lost City, which comes in at 63%!

So the first thing the table will quickly tell you is whether the adventure is weighted towards exploration or fighting.

For levels, I took the average (fighter experience) needed by a party of 5 for the recommended levels.  This doesn't include monsters - monsters will typically add another 25% or so on to the total.  And no, I won't be going back and calculating monster XP in these modules encounter by encounter.

Going back to the chart:  A party will be almost 3rd level by the time they finish the Keep.  A party will be almost 4th level after finishing the surface levels of the Lost City (especially when you bump it to include some monster XP).  For a combat heavy module like the Keep, monster XP will be even higher than 25% (bump the treasure amount by 33%).  Advancement through the Lost City is fast - the Keep nets you an average of 563 gp per fight, the Lost City 1919 gp per fight.  If you need to run a fast moving campaign with folks that are used to leveling every few weeks (like the 4E crowd), or kids, the Lost City could be a good way to go.

The two OSR modules are a little light on treasure and leveling up, but are also quite a bit shorter - Stargazer only has 8 combat encounters (compared to the Keep's 55).  The number after the density percentage is the number of encounters.

Below is the table I used for determining the rate of advancement.  I assumed a party of five, and a typical party member needs 2,000 XP at first level (fighter experience).  Your game of choice may adjust the XP tables slightly (fighters are different between Moldvay Cook and AD&D 1E for instance) so this is just a guideline.  Henchman will suck away some XP, as will character deaths.

I'll post the rest of the table tonight - it includes the 6 or so OSR modules I've reviewed and my favorite 20+ TSR era modules.

Party Level / Experience Needed

1  10,000
2  10,000
3  20,000
4  40,000
5  80,000
6  160,000
7  320,000
8  640,000
9  1,280,000
10 1,280,000

Friday, March 25, 2011

Black City Friday - Sketch

Follow up to last post: Introducing Black City Friday.

The Northmen discovered Thule a few years ago and began exploring the Black City.  The first raiders that returned with gold and artifacts created a gold rush type atmosphere, and now there's a summer trading camp further south along the fjord each year for adventurers to use as a base.

My friend Felt put together this neat sketch of a viking descending to the first level of the dungeon (the transit tunnels) using the Well of Woe entrance.

Black (City) Friday

Introducing a new regular column - Black City Friday.  One way to ensure I do consistent work on developing the Black City is to make a column about it - I've been pretty good about keeping up with Mythic Monday, my weekly foray into myth and folklore, so this seems like a good plan.  Through sheer accretion of material, the dungeon will get built.  My other weekly goals are to do a game report and a review each week.

The idea behind the Black City is to make a weird horror megadungeon influenced by the works of Lovecraft, REH, and Clark AShton Smith.  It's an ancient ruined city, once inhabited by alien beings that experimented on terrestrial life, introduced arcane science to the world, and enslaved early humans.  It's located on the frozen island of Thule, part of an arctic archipelago.  The city itself is perpetually obscured by mist.

Below is a map of the city (work in progress - I expect to tweak the color palette to make it more arctic).  For a while I struggled with different versions of it on graph paper, and ultimately decided it was best to represent it as an abstract, sprawling, ruined hex crawl.  The surface ruins will be a mix of set locations and random hex contents (an idea I picked up from the excellent Lesserton & Mor).  I like the idea of "show don't tell" Zak is championing over by DNDWPS and this seems like a good philosophy to follow as I build out the Black City.

Here are some teasers on the surface locations:

A The Well of Woe
B The Great Glacier
C The Watchers
D The Plaza
E The Great Ramp
F Hippodrome
G Sunken Vaults
H The Blue Obelisk
I Palladium
J Maze
K Tower of Pain

If you want to get caught up on the (verbose) background of the city (the tell not show approach) here are some early posts:

Megadungeon Concept:  The Black City
The Creators of the Black City
Who Were the Greys?
Cross Section of the Black City
A Brief History of the Black City

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Game Report: Gothic Greyhawk game 24

Cast of Characters:
Mordecai, a Cleric-4: Adam
Forlorn, an Elf-3: Bo
Mister Moore, Magic User-4: Mike
Grumble the Smug, Halfling-3: Nogal

Shy, a Fighter-3
Phat Kobra, a Dwarf-3
Zeke, a Fighter-3
Starkweather, a Thief-4
Barzai, a Cleric-3

Hammers of the God:  Spoilers

Last game ended in the tomb of an ancient dwarf emperor.  The group had just completed a difficult battle against the undead honor guard of the emperor, as well as a huge enchanted statue that guarded the crypt.  Two additional enchanted statues had animated outside the room, slammed the doors shut, sealing the party in the tomb.

After the battle, Mordecai the cleric used the staff of healing on the injured and dying.  Grumble the Smug was restored to consciousness, but Barzai was only brought to zero hit points.  Because he had spells left, they decided to give him the only healing potion.

Then they turned their attention to the last crypt - the central one that held the dwarf emperor himself,  Mar-Rune.

Starkweather had unlocked it last session, triggering the undead attack, so all that was left to do was to open it.  Inside the crypt was the ancient corpse of the dwarf emperor…  and it stayed dead.  (The group had weapons poised for a fresh battle, expecting a nasty undead).  Instead, they looted the body greedily for enchanted plate mail, a shield, a ring, and a massive 2-handed hammer .  Unfortunately, Mar-Rune's hammer was not the Elf Bane, the magic hammer that was the actual object of their quest.  They had seen a mural with Elf Bane, and knew it was a war hammer; this thing was a maul.  They would have to seek elsewhere in the complex for Elf Bane.

Rather than immediately try and get past the statues blocking the outer doors, the group decided to rest in the tomb as best they could, memorize spells, and start fresh the next day.  They didn't recover hit points, and the night was uncomfortable because of the lingering death all around them, but I ruled they could recover spells and use the staff of healing again.  Then the fighters  started strategizing how knock the doors open.

They overloaded one of the doors, won an opposed check, and pushed the statue holding that door back far enough to spill out into the next room.  Immediately the two statues switched to beat down mode and starting smashing characters.

Both spell casters had prepared magic missile x 2 and began unloading on the first statue.  Unfortunately, horror and dread descended on those members of the party that had taken Mar-Rune's things, as they discovered the "treasures" were cursed!  Phat Kobra's armor was plate mail -5; Shy's shield was -2; the ring taken by Zeke was a ring of weakness!  Zeke, a front line fighter, suddenly became strength 3.  Muhaha.

The other memorable bit from the battle was the halfling, Grumble the Smug.  When the others looted the body of the dwarven emperor, Phat Kobra took the maul, freeing up another magic item (in this case, a +2 mace), which they gave to Grumble.  Grumble, bolstered by his first magic item, went running  around the battle to enter the fray behind one of the statues.  He hammered on it's knees, wielding the mace 2-handed - I think he rolled an 18, 19, 20 and 20 over the course of several rounds, smashing the statue that had taken magic missile damage and landing the killing blow on the second one.  His new nickname was Grumble the Barbarian!

Nogal (Grumble's player) is still pitching in to our adult game while we recruit (although we could end up merging the two games if this goes on) and it was pretty cool to see him have a moment of awesome and get kudos from the long time gamers.  (It was all he could talk about the next day).

The rest of the game was logistics.  How to get the gilded plate armor (12 suits of it) across the chasm bridge, up the well shaft, and back to their camp?  Boring stuff - lots of time keeping, and a clever scheme with a floating disc scroll to get up the well shaft.

The group's strategy to get everything up the 40' well / shaft was entertaining.  The thief climbed the dangling rope they left, then started helping the fighters up the rope from above.  The magic user cast floating disc, tied the rope around his waist, and the fighters at the top of the shaft hauled him up the shaft, manually.  The disc followed behind him like an elevator.  In this way, they moved everything up by riding the disc; they just had to keep dipping and lowering the magician-on-a-rope.

The final issue was the main zombie room, the mural room that had all the purple mist.  The last time they visited this room, there were dwarf zombies beating on the metal door between the party's hallway and the room.  This time it was quiet.  When they peered in, they saw that the purple mist had cleared quite a bit since the party propped open the exit door out of the tomb.  Now the mist only wisped over the floor instead of completely obscuring it.  As their lights shone over the floor, they could see bodies everywhere, but no sign of any zombies.

Surmising that the bodies occasionally animated themselves and became zombies, they came to a fateful decision.  Everything would need to be destroyed.  Burned.  They set about organizing work crews and guards with lights, and started dragging all the corpses and piling them against the wall.  There were like a hundred bodies and this was going to take a while.  (By way of reminder, since it's been a few weeks - the purple mist apparently acted as a preservative, keeping the remains of this thousand year old battle from decomposing, too).

From time to time, a few of the dwarf bodies would stumble to their feet as zombies, attacking the work crews.  The process was fairly tedious, dragging the bodies, fighting off the few that re-animated and attacked as zombies.  It was all done with ghastly pragmatism.

We ended the night when they poured a dozen flasks of oil over the corpse pile and lighted it ablaze.  The plan was to leave the tomb and camp in the fresh air up the canyon (where they had tents, bedrolls, and extra gear).  The outer door to the tomb was propped open, and it was hoped the putrid smoke would flow out into the open air as the fire raged overnight.

Hmm, I wonder what might be attracted to the canyon by huge gouts of acrid corpse smoke wafting into the mountain air?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

New Poll: Clerics, Deities, and Losing Spells

The past couple posts, discussing the "policing" of clerical practices in the game, got me thinking how many DM's actually do that - monitor the behavior of the cleric, and if it doesn't adhere to the deity's tenets, they get a stern "talking to" by agents of the deity, and can even lose their high level spells.   Check out the new poll, let me know you how do it.

In the DMG on page 42, when discussing the Atonement spell, Gary suggests USING ALL CAPS IN A BOOMING VOICE TO CHASTISE A BAD CLERIC!!!  That makes me chuckle - it can be interpreted as autocratic, or totally campy.

Piety Police: Part 2

Yesterday (Piety Police and Karma Cops), I laid out some notes culled from the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide and Deities and Demigods Cyclopedia on how the DM was advised to manage clerics back in the early days: the DM should establish the tenets of the cleric's deity, and the cleric's ability to get higher level spells (or atone for transgressions) would be subjectively determined by the DM based on how closely the player adhered.

I'm a bit surprised the concept of "judging your cleric's behavior" doesn't get more discussion; it makes me about as uncomfortable as dissecting behavior for determining alignment.  Do folks ignore clerics and their gods?  Build frivolous deities like Pabst the Beer god and just let the cleric exist as a heal-bot?  (I've laid out the argument for a "godless" cleric when we do a future campaign to cleave closer to the ambiguous cosmology in most literary weird horror).

The backdrop for Gothic Greyhawk is supernatural horror, and postulates a strong monotheistic church and an ancient conflict between Law and Chaos, and to a lesser extent good versus evil.  Elements of the cosmology were laid out in previous posts on cosmology, Law, and Chaos, and the monotheistic deity was identified as Pholtus from the original Greyhawk campaign.  With that in mind, here's the approach I'll be proposing for clerical beliefs in Gothic Greyhawk.

Clerical Investiture
Spell casting clerics are a different breed from trained clergy.  Trained clergy run churches, temples, and monasteries and perform a similar role as in the (early) medieval world - scholars, protectors of knowledge, hospitalers, and theologians.

Spell casting clerics are chosen by supernatural fiat and come from a wide range of backgrounds.  A humble farmer might have an angelic or supernatural visitation and suddenly manifest the ability to do clerical magic.  Many of these people are taken in by the church and formally trained, and most of the highest ranks in the church hierarchy are filled by spell casters.  However, some clerical spell casters never join the church, and remain outside as prophets, mystics, reformers, and heretics.

In this way, a player can be a cleric with or without formal church training while they figure out the direction of their character.  It provides an interesting opportunity to have a "reluctant cleric".  Also, using the Bible as a mythic source, most of the spell casting / miracle worker types didn't really ask for a special destiny, they were chosen.

Higher Level Spells
3rd level spells and higher are bestowed by servants of the deity.  Once the cleric achieves enough experience to cast 3rd level spells, they need to reach out through prayer to these supernatural agents.  In Deities and Demigods these are listed as angels and demigods, though I'll include saints in lieu of demigods to reinforce the medieval pseudo-Christian theme.

The gaining of 3rd level spells will be the first point the cleric's adherence to the tenets of the church will matter (mechanically) - somewhere around 5th level for most editions.

Tenets of the Church
I'm going to keep the tenets of the church fairly high level and straightforward from a behavioral standpoint; as I mentioned, I think it's important for the campaign theme that the church have meaning and stand for something, but I'm not interested in micro-managing player behavior, either.

The two monotheistic churches of Pholtus (there was a schism) stand for the twin virtues of compassion and justice; the Church of the Blinding Light in the Theocracy of the Pale focuses more on the justice side of things, the Church of the Eternal Spirit (in Veluna) emphasizes the compassionate side of the creator.  Compassion and justice are slippery enough (taken together) that a clever player should be able to align most of his activities with furthering one or the other, as long as it's for the greater good.

Both churches emphasize the need to liberate humanity from pagan gods, nature spirits, devils, demons, and the fairies of Chaos - all supernatural entities that lead people into false worship (according to the church).  From the DM's perspective, this ensures there's a healthy amount of conflict between believers of Pholtus, and everybody else - no shortage of bad guys.

Finally, the teachings of the church posit an afterlife in Pholtus's heaven that requires both the god's mercy and a pure soul; engaging in pilgrimages, religious observances such as feast days and rites, and even military service (crusades) are ways for believers to work off the burden of bad behavior - once again reinforcing the medieval themes.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Piety Police and Karma Cops

What to do about clerical "transgressions"?  I've got a situation in the campaign where a cleric's behavior out in the wilds wouldn't be endorsed by his church back home; I did some research in AD&D to see how Gary the Great advised the DM to manage the cleric in the campaign back in the 70's.  Incidentally, Tim asked a similar question over on Gothridge Manor about "handling clerical responsibility" so that was enough to get the wheels turning and make me crack the books.

First some background - what the heck is a clerical transgression, anyway?  The Dungeon Master's Guide has advice on the acquisition of clerical spells in AD&D; it assumes the following conditions exist:

  • Clerics serve a deity in the campaign
  • Clerical training involves learning the rites, rituals, ethos and precepts of the deity
  • 1st and 2nd level spells are enabled by the cleric's training
  • 3rd-5th level spells are granted by the deity's servants through prayer
  • 6th-7th level spells are granted by the deity itself through prayer
  • The cleric is expected to act in accordance with the deity's religion to gain 3rd and higher level spells

The 1E AD&D approach goes on to point out how the DM is the subjective "judge" that determines if the cleric is acting in accordance with the deity's precepts.  When the cleric is determined to be out of bounds, the DM should decide on things like appropriate penances, sacrifices, quests, and so on, to get back into the deity's good graces - or kiss their level 3 or higher spells good bye.  Holy Schmow!  We joke about the DM being the creator of his campaign universe, but here (and in the DMG section on the Atonement spell) the DM is literally expected to act as a judging god!

You may note, my group has been using Moldvay BX and the LotFP flavor for basic D&D because I prefer those rules, but for campaign advice, I love heading to the 1E DMG and seeing what Gary had to say; it's an awesome book when running a campaign.

What's interesting troubling here is that a DM is expected to lay out the tenets of a belief system for each deity in the campaign, sketch out the expected behaviors for clerics, and then score or rate how players with clerics behave against the ideals.

I'm finding this whole concept a bit jarring because I've already reduced alignment from Alignment as Ethos to Alignment as Allegiance.  I've been quite proud that my roguish players have been free to loot the sandbox without me having to create a naughty or nice list and do side coaching on what exactly Chaotic Neutral with good tendencies means; the sandbox has its own consequences for 'bad behavior'.  I've been able to avoid micromanaging their ethical choices.  And yet, here it is again - the requirement to subjectively judge player behavior in game, and attach mechanical penalties based on the DM's rulings.  (Dingle!)

I'll put some notes together on the state of affairs in Gothic Greyhawk and my next steps, but in the meantime, a question for readers.

Do you take on the personal "voice" of the deity or deities in your campaign and rule on the ethical and religious behavior of the player clerics in your game?  Do clerics have to act "appropriately" to get their higher level spells?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Mythic Monday: The Brownie

Conquered slaves on the verge of revolt
Mythic Monday - using elements of folklore, myth and legendry in your game

Let's take a look at the typical D&D brownie. Flips to page 11, Monster Manual. "Lives in quiet, pastoral areas... helps lawful good characters... repairs things... acts as a guide?" Bizonkers, it sounds like a Keebler Elf! Yawn. I want the Brownie to be creepy and surly - a household spirit to be appeased. Time for some remodeling.

Before we give the Brownie a makeover, let's take a step back and look at a potential origin for fairy myths*. A number of folklorists have theorized that some fairy stories have their origins in the prehistoric clashes of cultures (and possibly even species). An invading culture conquers and drives out an indigenous primitive group; the indigenous group is wood wise but primitive, and is forced to retreat to the hills and caves; remembrances of these primitive folk driven to the hills become the first fairies. The fairy vulnerability to iron is an echo of the technological superiority of the iron age invaders and the fear and awe the primitives had for metal weapons and implements. Stone age arrowheads from earlier cultures were actually known as "elf-shot" in Scotland. The Picts of northern Scotland make a good historical stand-in for this kind of mythic forebearer of the fairies; in fiction, think of the neolithic primitives in the film The 13th Warrior (the book version was called Eaters of the Dead, by Michael Crichton - a good read).

Taken a step further, it's not hard to theorize how a fairy myth like the Brownie might have evolved. A primitive ancient culture was enslaved and forced to labor by their iron age conquerors. The other race would be of smaller stature, lurking on the outskirts and fringes of the new settlements, forced to live in mounds and the woods, performing domestic services and labor in return for offerings or gifts of food. They'd be blamed for pilfering goods, stealing cattle, maybe even children. They'd view the conqueror's livery and clothing as a sign of servitude and slavery. Thus the myth that a gift of clothing would drive the Brownie away…

I think we're ready to go.

The Brownie of Gothic Greyhawk
The various races of creatures in the Fairy Otherworld have diverse origins, but all of them share a common trait; they are thralls and servants of the great powers of Chaos that rule the Fairy Otherworld (the Archfey). In the case of the Brownies, they were a primitive pre-human race driven out by the ancient Flan; they fled through crossings into the realms of Fairy. These primitives made a pact with one of the Archfey of the realm and were transformed into the Brownies; soulless but immortal, they're cursed to follow obscure and confusing rules of behavior as part of their eternal servitude.

Brownies are compelled by their pact-curse to slip into the mortal world and perform services for a chosen household each evening. They hate this servitude and look for any chance to evade the terms of the pact; there are circumstances that will allow the Brownie to abandon a home. If the mortals leave out payment or an article of clothing for the Brownie, it will quit the place forever. If the mortals see the Brownie at work, or discuss the work of the Brownie openly, it will become surly and perform pranks on the members of the household. On the other hand, the mortal family must leave out offerings of food and drink discretely to appease the spirit. The Brownie will expect a small amount of honey, milk, cream, beer, or bread, to be placed on a corner platter or outside the cottage door, taking the offering when no one is looking.

Brownies that leave their chosen household will flee back to the Fairy Otherworld; eventually, their ancient pact curse will compel them to return to the mortal world and find a different household to serve.

Kreacher was a Brownie
The Brownie (remade from Labyrinth Lord)
No. Enc.: 1
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 120' (40')
Armor Class: 3
Hit Dice: 1d4 hp
Attacks: 1 (weapon)
Damage: 1d3
Save: M1
Morale: 7
Hoard Class: X, XI, XIII
XP: 12

Brownies lurk near rural households, compelled by their fey pact to perform minor domestic services for a household in return for simple offerings of food. They become surly and annoyed if seen by mortals or confronted while performing their nightly chores, and will leave forever if paid or given a gift of clothing by a member of the house. Surly Brownies are known to perform pranks on the household, and must be appeased if possible.

When they're not performing their domestic services, it's possible to bargain and seek aid from a Brownie - there's a 50% chance such a Brownie would grant a boon in return for doing something for the Brownie; they cherish the chance to borrow or use craft goods, manufactured tools, and other items of "technology". Because Brownies are immortal and often stay in a household for generations, they're a good source of local history and lore, but it might be hard to reach a suitable bargain - bargaining might involve tests of wit, riddles, or engaging in similar fairy past times.

Like most creatures from the Fairy Otherworld, Brownies are magically inclined and can become invisible to mortals once per round (like the Sidhe), though they prefer to be visible while working. They take double damage from cold iron weapons. Brownies can cast the following spells one time per day: confusion,continual light, dancing lights, dimension door, mirror image, protection from evil, and ventriloquism. Brownies speak common, elven, pixie, and sprite.

Brownies as familiars: The magic-user is granted an effective DEX of 18. In addition, the magic-user receives +2 to all saving throws, and is never surprised.

--Image is Kreacher from Harry Potter

*I used The Vanishing People, Fairy Lore and Legends, by Katharine Briggs for most of the folkloric ideas here, she had a neat chapter on theories for the origins of various fairy stories.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Review: The Spire of Iron and Crystal

The Spire of Iron and Crystal was another item on the wish list that I got during GM's week; instead of RPG Now, you can get this one over on Lulu for $4.95.  It's a 36 page adventure module that covers a 4 level dungeon.  It's written by Matt Finch, and the stats are flavored Swords & Wizardry (but it's seamless to convert to BX or 1E D&D).  It's for a party of levels 5-8.

The cover does a good job of portraying what is the dungeon - a cluster of giant crystalline eggs perched in twisted, ornate metal girders - at the bottom of each egg is a maze of rooms and laboratories.  The structure has stood on a cliff side ledge for centuries without ingress.  At the beginning of the module, the players have discovered how to enter.  (This was originally  a tournament module; in a campaign, I'd suggest seeding the location in the sandbox early and let the secret of entry to the tower get discovered organically).

Let me just say up front, I found this to be one of the strongest adventures that's been published by the OSR.  A few of my favorites (that haven't been reviewed here yet) include Stonehell, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and Death Frost Doom; The Spire of Iron and Crystal is right up there in terms of creativity and scope and is a must-have.

The dungeons of the Spire mix fantasy with themes of science fiction in a way you see in works like the Tales from the Dying Earth.  It's a bit less of a mash-up than the old Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and should work in a wider variety of campaigns - no fear of introducing cybernetic powered armor or blaster rifles to your D&D game and throwing off game balance forever or messing with your campaign tone.  (From that perspective, this is Barrier Peaks done right…)  All of the science elements are magical in nature, and this should work in just about any fantasy campaign - at it's heart, it's just a really really unusual wizard's tower and laboratory.

Here are the elements I loved about this one.  The spire is not easy to enter, or to move from level to level, presenting puzzles that will challenge and delight your players.  The dungeon levels expand the adventure vertically in a way I haven't seen done before in a published work - and there are locations the players won't even be able to reach unless they learn to take advantage of the new space.

Just about every monster in the module is custom and fits the theme of fantasy with a touch of weird science.  It's guaranteed the players will be off-balance in the unfamiliar setting, dealing with unusual new monsters.  There are plenty of puzzles, traps, things to tinker with, and strange elements of "dungeon dressing" that reinforce the atmosphere (in addition to the challenges of getting in, out, up and down).

The issues are minor.  Treasure might be a bit light for a party to gain a level of experience (I'm going to open this as a separate blog topic during the week - curious what people think).  I appreciate interesting site-based adventures that allow the DM to seed it into their campaign as they see fit, without having to drop any story elements or plot to make it work; this adventure is right in that mold.

It's a clear 5 out of 5 on the Beedometer for creativity, challenge, and fun, exploring a side of fantasy literature that hasn't gotten a lot of attention.  I need to find a way to get this into the current campaign, or the next one.  My players are going to love it.

The Other Fantasy Obsession

Non-frivolous posts to resume shortly.

Power hitting Prince Fielder is the Orcus of Baseball

I had a low number of posts this week, as I spent much of my free time getting ready for the other fantasy obsession, fantasy baseball.  The drafts happened this weekend.  I'm in one keeper league and now co-manage a team in a second.  I won the league last year, giving me some extra pocket cash for GenCon.

Here's hoping Prince Fielder smacks 40+ home runs and is indeed the Orcus of Baseball!

This year's Team Beedo:

C Mike Napoli
1B Prince Fielder Orcus
2B Aaron Hill
3B Evan Longoria
SS Elvis Andrus
OF Matt Holliday
OF Jacoby Ellsbury
OF Adam Jones
DH Adam Dunn

Travis Snider and some prospects

Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, Brandon Morrow, Ted Lilly

Frank Francisco, Brandon League, Joel Hanrahan

Only about a week and a half until opening day.  Wahoo.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Review of Lesserton and Mor

Lesserton and Mor is a big package.  It's published by Faster Monkey Games and goes for $16 pdf over at the usual suspects (RPGnow).  I can't speak about the print version, I sprung for the PDF during the heady sales of GM's week.  The package consists of 3 books: a 16 page player's guide, a 68 page guide to Lesserton, and a 28 page guide to Mor (112 total pages).

Mor is an ancient ruined city in the nearby swamp, crawling with humanoid factions.  Lesserton is the nearby town and home base used by scores of adventurers to plumb the ruins; it's literally "the adventurer's paradise".  The city of Mor is loosely detailed, whereas Lesserton is detailed to a level far beyond the typical home base in scope and depth.

That's an important point to understand about this product.  The DM is being handed a toolkit to develop adventures in the ruined city of Mor, and a short sample adventure is provided.  But Mor will require a fair amount of preparation by the DM to create additional adventures as the party explores.  I'll put more notes below.

On the other hand, the home town, Lesserton, is extremely detailed.  The town of 7,000+ is meant to be the home base for an ongoing campaign (as well as an adventure site of its own).  In fact, 75% of the product page count is devoted to describing Lesserton and giving the players an introduction to the home town through the player's guide.  This product, Lesserton and Mor, is a home town campaign setting, with a slice of ruins on the side.  That being said, the town of Lesserton is extremely well done.

Lesserton is basically a swords & sorcery frontier town that embraces the tropes of D&D.  The frontier economy is built on adventuring.  There are opportunities to buy and sell magic items, carouse, train, get healing, perform research, and buy anything.

There are numerous subsystems in the Lesserton book to make adventures back in town interesting.  There are simple systems for generating results when haggling, making bribes, carousing, gambling, and searching for love or adventure.  In fact, most locations in the town have additional properties that provide modifiers to these activities.  There are a handful of local gambling games (the giant centipede races are funny).  Lesserton implements an idea tossed around on OSR blogs - earning experience by spending money, giving characters a reason to live large back in town.

The ruined city of Mor book provides a framework and toolkit.  The ruined city is presented as a large hex crawl, and the DM is provided tables to generate hex contents (rubble, vegetation, ruined buildings, along with sub charts for building sizes, floors, and basements), and then plenty of random hazards and monsters to populate them.  Four of the major factions of humanoids are given more detail, as is the various ways to approach and enter the city.

Two sample adventures are provided with the referees books, a murder mystery in the town, and a simple assault on a humanoid lair in the ruined city.  The samples adventures really aren't the strength of this product.

I *loved* the town of Lesserton - if I don't use it, there would still be lots of ideas, subsystems, and rules to borrow.  But I will find a way to work Lesserton into a campaign - it's well done enough to be used whole cloth and I think most players would have as much fun back in town as in the dungeon.  What more could you ask for in a home base?

Mor is an interesting idea for a supplement - instead of a fully realized locale, it provides the DM a toolkit for generating adventure sites randomly.  Is the OSR ready for such a product?  I could certainly use some of the randomization ideas in the Black City.  One creature I loved in Mor is called the Petromorph Queen - the mythic progenitor of all cloakers, mimics, piercers, and more.  It's an excellent monster.

Overall, I'd give Lesserton and Mor a 4.5 out of 5 on the Beedometer.

I'd be hard pressed to recall a more detailed home base, or one with as many interesting things for the players to do back in town.  My players would love all the carousing, gambling, and adventure seeking opportunities.  I also haven't seen the approach to generating a sprawling ruins through random tables and hazards in a published work.  The one issue is that this is an expensive product compared to a lot of other OSR products in the $4-7 range - I don't think that changes the rating, but folks will need to dig a little deeper beneath the seat cushions for loose change.

The Beedometer

Here are my thoughts on why I give a certain adventure module a certain "rating".  The ratings are absolutely subjective and qualitative, and I'd recommend you (the reader) ignore them - if an adventure sounds interesting, get it anyway, and if it's not interesting sounding, who cares how I rated it?  The scoring is really there just to help me calibrate reviews.  I'm hoping to do one review per week.

5  Defining
This module turns a genre on its head, breaks creative new ground, and otherwise stands above the crowd.

4  Exemplary
Breaks creative new ground or demonstrates a level of effort far beyond what I'd do for the home game.

3  Good Effort
Worth buying!  Either a polished home brew or the start of something creative and new (but unpolished).

2  Home Brew
This adventure is something I'd expect a creative DM could home brew on their own; you're not missing anything.

1  I Want My Money Back
I try to be risk averse not to buy modules that could be in this category, but I suppose it could happen.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Spell Casting as Ritual for D&D

When scanning other OSR blogs, I come across other bloggers that have returned to older editions after playing some 4E.  I loosely think of us as Stalwarts and Prodigals - the Stalwarts either never left, or abandoned WOTC much earlier (like early 2000's) and the Prodigals are folks like my group that gave 4E an extensive run but ultimately found the experience too different and went back to an older system.

One of the biggest adjustments my group had to make was when I started making encumbrance, light, and resource management a center piece of the game.  Suddenly, tough choices needed to be made each session about gear.  Tracking rations was meaningful.  Getting loot out of the dungeon presents consistent logistical challenges.  (I point this out just to highlight that encumbrance capacity is a valuable resource in old D&D).

One thing 4E did was split magic between combat and non-combat magic.  Combat spells became "powers" that characters used primarily in encounters; utility spells were converted to rituals.  In order to use a ritual, a caster needed it in his book, needed material components, and needed time (typically 1 turn).  Note:  a lot of 4E players *didn't* like the ritual implementation, because the material components costs eat into the party's ability to buy uber-gear, since treasure is primarily used to buy better magic items.

Scrolls could fill the role of rituals in older D&D.  The resource and time costs are high to write a scroll (unless you're playing Holmes edition) but the encumbrance penalty of scrolls is non-existent.  Given time and money, all utility spells could be managed as scrolls.

An alternate approach would be to allow spells to be cast as rituals.  I'm lazy and not interested in rewriting the magic system, so I wouldn't split the spell lists or classify combat vs non-combat spells.  I would just add a house rule that any spell could be cast on the fly with sufficient ritual components and time.  (This would be different than using the spell book as a scroll; it wouldn't consume the page).

A simple system could use the geometric chart below, where each spell level has a material items cost.  Every 100gp of material components would cost 1 encumbrance slot.  We're not playing 1E AD&D, so there are no current material components required.  We *are* using the LotFP encumbrance system which uses item slots to quickly generate encumbrance on the fly.  Most players can have about 10 slots filled, more if unarmored, less if heavily armored, and still move at a good rate.  Some small items either don't encumber or take a single slot for a group (like arrows in a quiver).  Encumbrance slots are definitely at a premium - it's common for the group to be dropping gear mid-adventure in order to pick up more items.

I would estimate a typical group could free up 4-8 encumbrance slots (maximum) for material components if they were really pushed (not counting bags of holding or similar workarounds).  Higher level spells wouldn't be practical as rituals cast in the dungeon, but could be done back at the home base if there was a store of components.

For exploration, this would mean many common utility spells (read magic, read langugages, knock, levitate, etc) could be done on the fly by consuming resources and performing the ritual.  Right now, when those situations come up, the choice is to camp and prepare the necessary spells.  The costs to the player are time, the risk of wandering encounters, and the opportunity costs from not continuing.

Allowing a ritual approach shifts the problem into one of logistics and planning (expending money up front and planning encumbrance to allow for some components).

I would suggest allowing this for both magical and clerical spells, but requiring separate types of components for each.  While both groups might use chalk and candles, the magic user might require eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog and all that stuff… the cleric might need incense and censers, holy water, symbols, bells, special stoles and vestments.  Either way, the components get ruined and consumed.

Current Approach:
Utility spells often get ignored at first in lieu of combat spells.  When the group needs a utility spell, they retreat and camp (sacrificing time) or burn a scroll if they have one.  For important utility spells, the group might consider making scrolls.

Proposed Approach:
Utility spells still would get ignored in lieu of combat spells.  However, when planning an adventure, the group could budget for some utility spell usage by sacrificing money and encumbrance (instead of sacrificing time later).

So far, this is just thinking out loud - 100% theoretical.  The players have asked a few times if I'd consider a ritual type approach and I've been mulling it over.  We'll likely test it out for the next adventure.

The Rules:
Clerical components:  100gp per parcel, 1 encumbrance slot each.
Arcane components: 100gp per parcel, 1 encumbrance slot each.

For magic users, the spell must be in the spell book and spell must be present.  For clerics, the character must pray and mediate as part of the ritual.

Spell level/component costs:
  1. 100gp
  2. 200gp
  3. 400gp
  4. 800gp
  5. 1,600gp
  6. 3,200gp
  7. 6,400gp
  8. 12,800gp
  9. 25,600gp
Encumbrance costs are 1 Encumbrance slot per 100gp of components.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Mythic Monday: St Patrick

Last week's column focused the spotlight on the idea of Dueling Clerics.  Fantasy literature has given us plenty of dueling wizards; clerics don't typically feature in fantasy literature.  But in the myth and folklore of the western tradition, there are plenty of fighting priests that challenge their rivals in other religions in dramatic priestly showdowns, and then rise to the level of legends.  As I pointed out last week, "This town ain't big enough for two gods" seems to be a fairly common sentiment.

One of the greatest figures in this style of legendary clerics is St Patrick.

His biography itself is larger than life - son of Romans living in late 4th century Britain, he was kidnapped by pirates, sold into slavery in Ireland, learned the native culture, and escaped quite a few years later.  He traveled from Britain to Gaul, where he studied to become a priest, and was eventually sent on a mission back to Ireland as a bishop.

His legendary deeds are even more amazing.  In numerous showdowns with the pagan druids or in audience with the Irish kings, he's attributed with amazing feats like flinging opponents (magically) up into the air, building unquenchable fires,  creating food and water, raising the dead, healing the sick, causing enemies to be swallowed whole by the earth, controlling the weather, and even shape changing he and his men into deer(!).  In addition to contests with the druids, there are stories that involve confrontations with demons and showdowns with pagan gods themselves, like Crom Dubh and the 11 idols*.

St Patrick in a D&D Game
I like the idea of having legendary figures like St Patrick in the campaign setting, and certainly would like to build a similar figure for the church of Pholtus or the Eternal Spirit in Gothic Greyhawk - like an early champion of the faith that carried the church's beliefs south from the Theocracy of the Pale towards places like Keoland when they were still pagan and Suel.  Powerful legendary figures like St Patrick left behind a wealth of places and items that gained mythic significance in the ensuing centuries; pilgrimage sites like the mountain of Croagh Patrick, or his burial site at Down Patrick, or the various churches and monasteries erected at places where the saint is attributed with performing great deeds.  There are relics, like the bell of St Patrick, and the lasting symbols, like the Celtic cross and the shamrock.  (Granted, the shamrock likely had pagan significance as well, but it's been long since preempted).

When building this kind of mythic figure for a game, here is a short list that comes to mind when placing churches, monasteries and shrines:
  • Great battle sites
  • Sites of miracles
  • The saint's burial site
  • Location of relics
  • Famous artifacts related to the saint
  • Symbols
  • Feasts and festivals that persisted to the modern day
  • Founder of a clerical order
Hope this spurs some ideas!  Oh, and for the Irish amongst us and all those who will be wearing some green this Thursday, Happy St Patrick's Day!  At the Beedo place, we'll definitely be having our Guiness, corned beef, cabbage and soda bread.

*For a neat movie with Crom and medieval Irish Christianity, check out last year's excellent animated feature  The Secret of Kells - about the making of the book of the Kells.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Humanoid Poll: Gygaxian Naturalism?

After the last post (The Orcs of Gothic Greyhawk) it seemed like a good time for a new poll.  Regarding humanoids, do you use the Gygaxian Naturalism approach (as presented in the 1E Monster Manual) in your game, or do you take a whimsical approach to humanoids?

I've taken a whimsical approach - first, because I want the most important conflicts in the game to have a moral quality grounded in the "real world" that I think you can only achieve when the conflict is people vs people.

I do like the whimsy factor; Orcs are made in cauldrons by witches, and the various Goblinoids all grow on vines from pumpkins and squashes in the Fairy Otherworld, hatched by the Goblin King.

Plus, when DMing for 8 year olds - I don't want the neighbor's kids having to torch the humanoid nursery.

However, I tend to think this will be a minority approach and the idea of Gygaxian Naturalism is well ingrained; the 1E Monster Manual presents a comprehensive simulation of a fantasy setting in it's myriad details, and AD&D is still the gorilla in the room.

The Orcs of Gothic Greyhawk

When I was getting ready to run the kid's game, I considered The Keep on the Borderlands.  On the one hand, it's a really great example of a home base, wilderness and dungeon crawl all wrapped in a nice package.  The politics, personalities, and roleplaying opportunities will sing in the hands of a skilled DM.

On the other hand, "clearing" the Caves of Chaos would require a crew of (at the time) 8 year olds to slaughter humanoid women and children in cave after cave.  Just wasn't sure if I wanted to have that discussion with a bunch of kids just there to roll dice  - "Yes, monsters have wives and babies too, but trust me, they are all so invariably evil that you're actually doing a great service to the Keep by putting every last one to the sword."   (I can only imagine what might be said after the game when they go home…)

As much as possible, I'd rather keep the humanoids monstrous and ditch the tribal qualities and naturalism.  In the adult game, that means the real heinous villains are other people.  Humanoid monsters are still around, they just have magical or monstrous origins - and there's no chance the 8 year olds are going to have to burn down the Orc nursery.  I have great respect for EGG's work, but we part ways on occasion.

Orcs are made, not born
Orcs in Gothic Greyhawk
There was a defunct blog a year or so ago called Mandragora, where the author (Scott) was laying out a framework for a fairy tale inspired campaign.  It didn't really go anywhere, but was chock full of awesome ideas while it was active.  One that stuck with me was his idea for Orcs.

Orcs are the reincarnated souls of evil humans, spawned in cauldrons (chemical vats) to serve the witches of Gothic Greyhawk.  Their psyches are twisted by the torments they've chosen for themselves in the hereafter, and they relish the opportunity to inflict pain and misery on lesser beings.  The hierarchy of Hell conditions the Orcs for orderly (lawful) behavior.

The characters got to see this first hand in a session a few months back; the witch they met had a fire pit that let her peer all the way through to the fires of hell in the coals, and she had magic tongs that would could reach through the barriers and seize a larva.  Larva are the evils souls of the most selfish humans, reduced to crawling through the lower plane and used as currency by the devils.  She would dunk the larva in a massive cauldron and grow them into Orcs.

So there you have it - Orcs are made, not born.

In a future game, I may just go with a bunch of human lands named Orcland, Goblinland, Ogreland, etc - after The Worm Ouroboros.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Adventure Review Archive

I'll be putting up a lot of adventure reviews over time.  To help keep everything straight and do some calibration, I'm also going to keep a summary and list here, and how I ranked them.

Plus, I want a place to circle back and re-score things over time - for instance, my opinions and rankings on some of the modules might change after a playtest.

The Spire of Iron and Crystal  5 stars
Challenging trek through a weird wizard's tower with sci-fi themes.
Tower of the Star Gazer:  5 stars
Awesome introductory adventure, fresh take on the cliched wizard tower.
Blood Moon Rising: 4 stars
Solid mix of time-based events, sandbox, random encounters, dungeons, and a tournament.
The Grinding Gear:  4 stars
Fresh take on the classic trap-filled dungeon built by a mad manipulator.
Lesserton and Mor  4 Stars
Richly detailed adventurer's town and sprawling ruined city nearby
The Nameless City:  3.5 stars
Evocative and inspirational approach to a classic pulp fantasy lost city.
The Hidden Serpent:  3 stars
Re-envisioning of the old B1 as an active fortress.

Rating Guide - The Beedometer:

5  Defining
This module turns a genre on its head, breaks creative new ground, and otherwise stands above the crowd.

4  Exemplary
Breaks creative new ground or demonstrates a level of effort far beyond what I'd do for the home game.

3  Good Effort
Worth buying!  Either a polished home brew or the start of something creative and new (but flawed).

2  Home Brew
This adventure is something I'd expect a creative DM could home brew on their own; you're not missing anything.

1  I Want My Money Back
I try to be risk averse not to buy modules that could be in this category, but I suppose it could happen.

Recent poll results

I find that I put up a lot of polls.  I'm going to add these to the poll archive but thought I'd share the recent results.

Which Approach to the Realm of Fairy is Most Interesting?
Celtic (39%), Alien and Bizarre (27%), Law vs Chaos (24%), Shakespearian (9%), The Dresden Files (0%).

The crowd has spoken.  Celtic faeries, with a touch of the alien and bizarre.  Cut to Jim Butcher sitting in his living room with a fat zero:  "What's wrong with me?"

How do you use D&D or AD&D in your current setting?
My setting uses most of D&D as is (55%), I've overhauled D&D to fit my homebrew   (26%), I tweak D&D to emulate a literary or historical setting (17%).

See, this is where I realize most DMs are lazier wiser than me, letting D&D play to its strengths.  I've tried to do countless historical settings (I usually get burnt out at some point on the sheer amount of details available).

Which Lich House project is most interesting?
The Black City   (61%), War Machine for Greyhawk   (6%), AD&D's Implied Setting   (31%).

Well - there's a clear message - get off the fence and work on the Black City again!  I've crumpled a bunch of maps (literally and figuratively) and realized I was making the surface ruins too complicated - I've got a plan now - check in early next week.

I still plan on working through the DMG on the AD&D implied setting, and will need to do a few bits and pieces of the Greyhawk War Machine as my current campaign moves along.

Do you use love in your D&D games (from Valentine's Day):
Random harlot chart, page 192 1E DMG (50%), We explore dungeons, not characters (41%),
Characters have gotten married   (41%), Our games feature chaste, courtly love   (23%), My character is a fantasy heartbreaker  (8%).

These results kind of speak for themselves.  Though I would think more people who voted for the random harlot table might have thought of their characters as fantasy heartbreakers.

Oh yeah, I forgot - most folks use 4d6, drop the lowest, arrange as you like, and make Charisma a dump stat.  Har har.

Game Report: Gothic Greyhawk Game 23

Cast of Characters:
Mordecai, a Cleric-4: Adam
Forlorn, an Elf-3: Bo
Mister Moore, Magic User-4: Mike
Grumble the Smug, Halfling-3: Nogal

Shy, a Fighter-3
Phat Kobra, a Dwarf-3
Zeke, a Fighter-3
Starkweather, a Thief-4
Barzai, a Cleric-3

Hammers of the God:  Spoilers

We resumed this episode shortly after the group hauled their halfling, Grumble the Smug, up to the top of the well and doused his flames.  The fire throwing bulk never came to the opening to be attacked, so they started strategizing how to go get it.  And strategizing.  And talking about sports.  And strategizing some more.

<Thirty minutes later…>

Their plan involved dropping a light spell on a copper piece, and dropping it into the cave to light up the area.  They sent the thief, with the invisibility ring, down the hole dangling upside down to scout; he identified the monster as a horse-sized slug clinging to the near wall.  Then they used a phantasmal force to create an illusion of the bottom of the  shaft, so when they lowered people into the shaft, they'd be screened by the illusion.  Mister Moore anachronistically referred to the ploy as "looping the closed circuit TV video with an illusion so the guard doesn't notice".

The first fighter they lowered down dropped to the floor with a loud clang of armor, and all the preparations were for naught -  the slug heard the noise and started spraying the area with a jet of fire.  Zeke the fighter charged the slug.  Shy came screaming down the rope next round using gauntlets, and joined the fight, whereas Phat Kobra lost his grip while sliding and fell flat on his back; then joined the fight after recovering.  The slug died quickly under a hail of sword blows.

Past the slug room, they wandered down an interminable passage that opened into a massive vault that dwarfed their little globe of 30' light in darkness.  Across a measureless chasm stretched an arched bridge.  The bridge was a marvel of engineering.  As the group stood on the edge of the abyss, they could hear sounds of life, as if they were on the verge of a subterranean jungle.  Water rushed deep below, they heard the sonar of bats and other dark dwellers, the chirp of giant cave crickets.  They readied their weapons, and set off warily across the bridge.

"Oh my god, I can't believe what we're going to be fighting!", blurted out the halfling.  That's what happens when a crumb-snatcher plays D&D; they angle themselves to peek behind the screen and spy on the map and notes. Nogal quickly related to the others that he saw a picture of a huge winged serpent attacking adventurers on the bridge.

Give the people what they want.  Just then, said winged serpent attacked out of the darkness.  The monster undulated through the air, and screamed a sonic blast at the characters.  The sound effect messed with their equilibrium and gave the victims intense vertigo.  Rather than risk standing, a few of the guys chose to drop to their knees and cling to the bridge.

The fight turned out to be a bit anti-climactic, because once Mordecai used the staff of healing to remove the dizziness effect from himself and then Mister Moore, Moore successfully webbed the creature's wings together, sending it plummeting into the abyss.  As usual, a few minutes were wasted as the players made jokes about Mordecai "Gripping his staff, laying his healing rod on the others, slipping some wood", and similar juvenilia, all done in a Beavis and Butthead accent.  Gamers.

On the far side of the abyss, the bridge led them to a chamber where a pair of guardian statues, 7' dwarves with heavy stone hammers, flanked a bejeweled door with a mystic-looking alloy bar on the outside of it.  They took the valuable looking bar, left the gems alone, left the statues alone, and pulled open the sealed doors.

The doors led to an ancient crypt, and a swirl of dead air blasted past them.  Beyond the door was a room with 12 sarcophagi, some stone boxes, and a central crypt under a massive dwarf statue (wielding a hammer).  The ceiling stretched into the inky blackness above them, and their lone dwarf, Phat Kobra, could swear he saw the forlorn ghosts of dwarves swirling in the darkness over their head.

No matter, it was time to loot!  The twelve sarcophagi each had an ancient dwarven mummy, with spectacular gilded plate.  The armor went into the corner, the mummies got piled up.  "I feel a little bad about doing this", said Mister Moore.  "But we're going to be rich if we can get this armor back".

Why stop at sacking an ancient tomb when there's money and meta gaming at stake?  What would Cugel do?  WWCD?  "You know, dwarf zombies keep popping up behind us and animating dead bodies", mused Mordecai, the morally confused cleric.  "I also want to point out there's a big chasm not far out of the room - like, walking distance.   Who cares if they turn into zombies when they're at the bottom of the abyss?"

Sometime much later, after dumping the dozen or so desiccated corpses into the void, they realized all of their food and water was spoiled at the next rest break.  Was the group cursed by their desecration, or something else?   "Barzai will just have to take purify food and water tomorrow, we can hang in there until then."

The next order of business was to investigate two stone boxes in the crypt, a box of sacred knowledge and a box of forbidden knowledge.  In both cases, the crash-test halfling, Grumble, ensured the box wasn't trapped and retrieved a sheaf of clerical scrolls and a sheaf of magical scrolls.  (Many random rolls later, and the players had a treasure trove of excellent magic).

The final thing in the crypt was the main the tomb itself.  The tomb had a locking mechanism on the top of it, and the heavy statue behind it was set in such a way that it's massive hammer would smash down on the poor thief picking the lock.  It didn't take much imagination to see the death trap.

Mister Moore and Forlorn huddled, intense whispering, and Forlorn came back with a plan.  He webbed the statues arms back to the wall.  "According to my calculations, an ogre-strength creature will snap through the webs in a round or so, giving the thief enough time to roll off the top of the tomb".

Starkweather went to work, the statue sprung into life and started tearing it's hammer out of the webs.  The surprise came when the two statues outside of the crypt, the ones the party ignored, also sprang to life and slammed the door, locking the group in the crypt.  Then the dozen dwarf zombie mummies the group threw into the canyon materialized back in their crypts and started to clamber out.

"You've got to be kidding me!  That is so fracking cheesy!  Dingle.  We threw those mothers over the side and now they're back.  Cheesy!"  That was a pretty consistent reaction from the players, who felt like tainting their reputations with tomb desecration was now for naught since the zombies teleported back into the room anyway.  I said, "It is what it is, fellas.  You've got a dozen angry dwarf zombies climbing out of their boxes to get at you".

This fight quickly turned south for the party and was spiraling towards a TPK.  Mordecai and Barzai each tried turning the zombies, and their spells had no effect.  "What the hell!"  Barzai was then put unconscious and dying, Grumble was put unconscious, and the survivors were getting swarmed.  Mordecai reached for the EMP switch - Dispel Evil on a scroll.  "Dispel Evil will destroy undead, and could even disenchant the enchanted statute", he quoted from the book.  The spell was cast; nothing happened to the zombies.  "What the hell!  Teleporting zombies that laugh at turn undead and dispel evil - so cheesy!"

The statue, on the other hand, *was* destroyed.

Mister Moore has a saying, "When the going gets tough, the tough pull out their wand of paralysis and start blasting", at least for 5 more charges worth.  Earlier in the campaign, I confirmed that magical paralysis via the wand is not the same as a hold person, and works on undead.  So he started madly blasting pockets of dwarf zombies until the horde was manageable, and by manageable, I mean that Shy the Fighter was able to cleave through them with his magic sword vs the undead, Ghostcutter.

Time was late, and we ended after first aid was done on the unconscious guys and they were restored to positive hit points with the staff of healing and some cure light wounds.

Now they need to decide if they continue opening the final crypt, or do they deal with the fact that a pair of stone statues has them trapped inside?  Good times.