Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Cleaved Head No Longer Plots

A Cleaved Head No Longer Plots
--Norse wisdom

In which our stalwart looters find a hidden area within the Well of Woe, and escape with a worthy reward.

Sometimes it pays to come on that night when a lot of the regular players can't make it, and the group turns to a bunch of retainers to help fill out the ranks.  Less full-share members to split the XP!

Back at their camp, the group started by inquiring amongst the crew of the Isgerd's Fury if any of the other explorers were good with locks, or sneaking around, or climbing - the Spitsberg Pirates had an immediate opening for a thief.  Ivar the Bow-Bender stepped forward, and was hired on after a short interview.  Apparently Shamus's reputation is growing, evidenced by Ivar's enthusiasm (and high potential morale).

The usual debate happened, regarding which destination should be tonight's goal - the upper ruins, the Well of Woe, or a deeper dungeon, like the mist dungeon?  Tonight they decided to finish exploring the Well of Woe.  I'm skipping all of the other transactional stuff, going to Trade Town to sell gear, rumor mongering, and putting in motion the plan of implementing the gambling ring.  (Yeah, that's a whole other story, their scheme to bring high stakes gambling to Thule).

This was interesting; after paying the toll and heading off into an unexplored section beneath the Well of Woe, the party found this curious inscription in the wall, engraved not by stone chisels, but by some otherworldly hand that melted the lines into the very stone:

To Those Who Come After
The Statement of Publius Labienus Murena
Principales IV, Classis Nemea
Our Ship is Ruined by Ice
Unable to Depart, We Descend to the Forest
To Build a New World
Many Fallen Are Left Behind
Year CCXXXI, in the Reign of Gallus

I should point out, it was engraved in Latin, although a few of the characters could read it; Shamus read it aloud.

Curiosity was piqued!  Could this mean there's a "forest" somewhere deeper in the dungeons, or were the Romans here in an earlier age, when the weather was different?  Someone reminded the other players of the warm, fetid odors coming up from the depths, when they stood before a hole in the floor of the mist dungeon.  Perhaps there really was a stinking jungle down in the dark?  Could descendants of the Romans still be alive, somewhere in the depths?

Over the course of the succeeding chambers, a Norse shrine was discovered, god poles and evidence of blood rituals around the room.  Various camp sites, replete with runic Norse graffiti were discovered, with such memorable slogans as "Halfdanson was here", or "I killed a man… twice", perhaps a reference to the dead frequently coming back to life.  One of the scrawls the group puzzled over was this: "The giant's head is here, it drips.  The body is in the ice!"  Some of the writings were traditional wisdom, like the piece at the top - "A cleaved head no longer plots".  I guess things were simpler in Viking times.  Office politics would be much easier to manage if I carried a battle axe.

The climax of the night was when the group discovered a hidden Roman ossuary, where dozens of skeletal remains lay in repose beneath standards of the golden eagle.  "Even if they're only gold plated, those standards would be worth a lot of money", quipped the thief.  Of course, it was a bit of a trap, and the group found themselves fighting dozens of 'hungry bones' - skeletons that loped on all fours, attacking them viciously with claws and bites, doing anything to pull flesh from the bone.  Anything swallowed by a skeleton fell through the skeleton's ribs, where its neighbors fought over the scraps while waiting their turn to attack the fresh, tasty people.

This was one of those hour-and-a-half, edge-of-your-seat battles, where the group formed a four-man fighting wall in front of the hatch, preserving their escape route if the line should fail, while the clerics did what they could to heal the front line, and fresh fighters could rotate in after a bit of first aid or cure light wounds.

We’re currently using the LOTFP rules for the campaign (though I fully intend to give it a test with ACKS as well), and I have to say, the Turn Undead treatment is high risk/high reward.  If you're not familiar, Turn Undead is a 1st level spell in the LOTFP rules, making for a difficult resource choice for the players.  The transit tunnels of the undercity have been crawling with undead, making me think two Turn Undead spells is necessitated, but the players gravitate towards Cures when they pick spells.  This time they had three clerics, so they took two Cures and a Turn.

In the LOFTP version of Turn Undead, the cleric can keep rolling to turn more undead as long as they succeeded on the previous roll; Bottvild the Valkyrie Priestess got on a hot streak, and ended up driving half of the skeletons back with her Asgardian chants.  I was impressed.  Judicious rotation in and out of the front line kept everyone alive, and the group ended up destroying over 15 of the skeletons without losing anyone.  The priestess kept the remaining undead cowed at the far end of the room, as a few of the characters stole forth to grab the golden Roman legionary (aquila) standards and beat a hasty retreat.  They closed the hatch behind them and headed for home with a worthy haul of loot.  We have a couple of characters that have hit 1,400xp and have their eyes fixed on reaching level 2, assuming they can survive a couple more games.

Just for the record books - here was this week's crew of player characters and retainers:

Cast of Characters
Mustafa of Arabia, a Fighter
Shamus, a Gaelic wizard
Brutok the Dwarf
Bottvild, a Cleric

Bjorn Fjordrunner, Ayerick, and Fafnir - fighting men; Borghild and Halam, clerics; Ivar the Bow-Bender, a thief

The Relative Importance of Plate Mail

BX D&D has a curious relationship with plate armor.

At 60gp a suit, there's a really good chance most 1st level fighters will be able to afford plate, assuming they made a good roll on their starting money.  Additionally, plate seemed to be the default fighter armor for NPCs in those early games , too.  We'd kick off most campaigns with the Keep on the Borderlands, where just about every rank-and-file soldier in the keep is dressed in plate.  It seems far too ubiquitous and democratic to be the cap-a-pie of the noble born medieval knight on a destrier.  Later in the BECMI D&D line, "field plate" was added as a new armor type to represent armor reserved for the wealthy nobility.  Nowadays, most of the retro clones and later games have upped the price on plate, making those 1st level fighters wait until they've survived an adventure or two before they upgrade to it.

However, I wonder how much of the assumed survivability for low level fighting types was contingent on AC 3 or AC 2 (or better) right from the first excursion?

It becomes an interesting question in light of the last post, where it was suggested the high middle ages of Europe might not be the best analog for the ideal adventuring society.  When you shift the milieu to the Spanish Main or the Roman frontier or some early modern period, medieval plate mail no longer makes sense as an armor choice in the wider world.

I find myself evaluating two contrary positions.  The rules approach assumes armor classes are absolute, and the medieval knight in full plate represents the armored pinnacle of personal protection.  The unarmored musketeers of the 17th century are easy to hit, in game terms, and the legionaries in their lorica segmentata or lorica hamata would be ill-protected against a medieval knight as well.  Most characters in a colonial-era game would be AC 9 in BX D&D terms!

Alternatively, you can assume the game assumes the premiere fighter of the time period should be difficult to hit, and come up with an alternate scale to allow fighters to achieve better AC regardless of the military technology of the period.  Perhaps the fighter in the 17th century increases their base AC like a monk to represent the ability to duel or fire and maneuver with better skill?  The heavily armored roman legionary in segmented lorica would be armor class 2 or 3, the pinnacle of the armored warrior of his time?

I fall into the first camp, where armor classes are absolute, and one of the side effects of shifting out of the Medieval paradigm and dropping plate mail as a choice, is that front line fighters will be less protected.  In a game with muskets and firearms, cover and concealment and personal dexterity increase in importance, and that seems like the logical progression.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

An Elf, a Dwarf and a Cleric Meet in the Tavern

There's a spate of D&D posts in our space acknowledging that the apparent medieval assumptions underlying D&D aren't a great fit for the kind of society that produces free-wheeling adventurers; nor does it support an environment that allows the kind of autonomy and accumulation of wealth you see in our D&D stories.

It’s important to emphasize the context here is sandbox D&D; a style where a group of adventurers is free to gather rumors and information, plan their own exploits, and then go off and do them.  They're not lackeys of Lord So-and-So or retainers on missions from Baron Blah-Blah-Blah getting story awards for fulfilling heroic quests given by a patron; they're part of the middle class and they're interested in using their liberty to travel around and find loot.  I called these factors out as autonomy and frontiers some recent time ago when I was trying to create a list for myself that articulated what elements needed to be addressed, for a game to adhere to D&D's tropes.

The other caveat for the discussion here is historical inspirations; it appertains to D&D settings that model the structures and elements of a real-world period.  Thus we end up talking about things like adapting D&D to the early modern period, the Thirty Years, the Spanish Main, colonization of the New World, and so on.  My own campaign is currently in the Viking Age.

It’s fun to jeer about the cliché campaign starting off with an elf, a dwarf, and a cleric meeting in a tavern, but it's actually a pretty good litmus test for whether the milieu would support a good sandbox game; Frankish manorial estates in the early Dark Ages didn't have taverns and inns and well-established market economies, so there wouldn't be a place for an elf, a dwarf, and a cleric to meet up and plan an excursion in the first place.  It fails the tavern test.  Heck, I'll probably start using the 'tavern test' to evaluate the agency inherent in potential settings - if there's no place to get a drink and hire someone, without permission from the local authority, it's probably not ideal for a free-roaming sandbox.

Since the beginning of the blog here, the time periods I've discussed most often on my "setting wish list" all feature adventurers with great personal autonomy, markets and market towns, and open frontiers.  I just wasn't conscious of articulating the key attributes why they seemed like a good fit for sandbox games.

  • Pax Romana
  • The Viking Age
  • Age of Exploration
  • The Thirty Years War
  • Golden Age of Piracy
  • Colonial America

Noisms elaborated the discussion of autonomy and frontiers a bit further in this post, historical context of D&D, bringing in societal elements like unemployment or lack of opportunity at home, technological improvements that open new frontiers, and a high ratio of perceived reward relative to the risk.  New eras are suggested for adventures, ones I hadn't considered, like the colonization and discoveries of Africa or Asia by Europeans during the Victorian age.  Check it out, it's a good read.

If you're making your own sandbox fantasy campaign in a home brew world, you've probably assumed some kind of freeman class, markets and market towns, and frontiers, without a second thought to whether it aligned with any historical period.  Living in the first world, it's second nature to assume the setting will allow great personal liberty to the characters.  Of course the elf, dwarf and cleric, or a pair of halflings, will have a place to buy some ales and plan their adventures - and the ale definitely comes in pints.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Gaming BBQ Pics

Still taking it easy on the blog after a travel and training week for the job - here are some pics from our gaming BBQ last week.  For folks that follow our weekly game reports, you can put some faces with the regular characters.  Missing from the pictures was Brutok the Dwarf; he made the bbq but it must have been after we grabbed some quick pictures on an ipad.  Regular posts to resume again next week.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Pirates and Ninjas and Osprey Books

I recently discovered these Osprey Publishing books when I was looking for reference information on Viking military structures for the Black City game; after I picked up a couple of the smaller books, I learned that Osprey has collected some of them into hardcovers, so I've been looking for those on ebay here and there.  Scourge of the Seas collects their books on pirates, privateers, buccaneers, and pirate ships; Warriors of Medieval Japan collects the sub books samurai, ninja, ashigura, and warrior monks (sohei) into one volume.

Anyone else a big fan of Osprey books for historical military reference?  Which ones have you read?

One element that's worked really well in the Black City campaign so far is the idea of lots of hostile groups of men forming a big part of the threat as the players explore the alien ruins.  It's given me lots of ideas on how similar approaches could work in the context of a pirate D&D campaign, or showdowns between rival samurai groups in an Asian-themed game.  To my mind, I don't know that I've ever seen a large published dungeon for an Asian-themed D&D campaign - the wheels are turning.  The Isle of Dread would be an excellent backbone for a pirate-themed campaign; the island is part of an archipelago, and the DM could expand the campaign to cover the whole island chain.

Anyway, it continues to be a light posting week, while I cook my brain in a data warehousing class and try to catch up with my regular job in the evenings.  Let me know if you have any Osprey recommendations - I'll probably be tracking down some of the books on the Roman military, next.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Skeletal Legionaries

Lazy post today -  here's another moment from Saturday's Black city game captured on Felt's sketchpad.  I don't recount all of the details when posting a game recap, especially not all of the wandering monsters.  At one point, the group found themselves trapped in a dead-end hall by a "patrol" of skeletal legionaries wearing antique Roman armor.

Here's a picture of one of the characters, Bjorn, charging in against the skeletons with a spear.  (He quickly switched weapons when he saw the spear was doing minimal damage).

Thanks for the great sketch, Felt!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Black City Game 5 - The Geekfest

Howell dishes punishment to a pair of frost gremlins

We had everyone available for this weekend's game, including a VIP guest (Felt).  It became a combo game-day / BBQ that ended up with the name "Geekfest" - I have a few pics to put up when I get the chance.

Our adventurers are spoiled for choice, and the first chunk of the game involved weighing the pros and cons of exploring different mini-dungeons they've discovered.  (So far, they’re not too interested in wandering the sprawling topside ruins, despite some job offers).  They had partially explored the Well of Woe, discovered some rooms near the first junction, and just cleared the 'killers in the mist', opening a new dungeon.  The majority wanted to press on into the mists, figuring that it was "new ground", so that was the decision.

Other crew members of the Isgerd's Fury were invited to join; the new characters were Howell the Halfling, and the valkyrie sisters Bottvild and  Borghild (both clerics).  They set off the next morning.  Here was this week's crew:

Mustafa of Arabia, a Fighter
Arthur the Fair, a Thief
Shamus  Bloodstar, a Gaelic wizard
Brutok the Dwarf
Agnar, a Fighter
Molnar, a Cleric
Bottvild, a Cleric
Howell, a Halfling

Bjorn Fjordrunner, Fafnir - fighting men; Borghild, a cleric; Skoldig, a thief

Here's one good reason why you'd want to find alternate entrances to the undercity; the walk from the Well of Woe entrance to the misty dungeon takes about four hours through the subway tunnels!  Unless they start sleeping in the dungeon or camping in the city ruins, exploration time is becoming curtailed.  Plus, there's the ever-present risk of running into hostile explorers.

This time out, they were ambushed by some nasty veterans hiding in the dark, men wearing black cloaks and raven feathers.  They waited in the stretch of tunnel between the chasm and the first junction, watching the party approach with lanterns.  The Ravencloaks had the jump on the party, and the leader almost planted his axe into the surprised Mustafa before calling a halt to the attack.  "I know these men!"

The Ravencloak leader, Hamdir Hildigrimson, had spent some time with the Varangians near Byzantium, and had fought in some conflict with Mustafa in the desert lands.  The encounter quickly turned from a near fight to a chance to break out some mead, share a drink, recount recent exploits, and wish each other good hunting.  (DM's note:  Behind the scenes,  any time there are extreme reaction rolls, good or ill, I have a quick check to randomly determine the kind of "unfinished business" between the characters and the other party.  In this case, they turned out to share a few people who were old war buddies).

When the group made it to the mist tunnels later, Brick was out front scouting, and he heard a light scrabbling sound in the mist.  Something emerged out of the tunnel ahead of him, a reptilian gremlin creature with a small cage in one hand, and dangling a rat by its tail in the other hand.  It smacked him upside the head with the cage during the surprise round (doing minimal damage) and then uttered a ghastly shriek, which was answered by a handful of additional shrieks just ahead.  Here they come!

The group formed a 4-man front in the wide tunnel and met the charging frost gremlins; they're not much tougher than goblins, so it wasn't a long fight.  Here's a nifty pic of Howell the halfling giving a gremlin the business side of his short sword; never underestimate the coolness of having a sketch artist sitting in on your game session (thanks Felt!)

After the fight, they found a few more rat cages (with rats in them) and then they entered the misty dungeon itself.

This was a longer game session, with a lot of exploration that I'm not going to cover in great detail - don't want to put you to sleep!  There were secret doors, water conduits beneath the floor, fuse crystals in wall sockets, and similar elements that stretched the bounds of fantasy.  In one set of rooms, they found a web-choked access tube with a ladder going down.  Dank, hot air wafted up the tunnel - their first discovery of a way to a deeper level.  One large room was so obscured by mist, they needed to walk across it carefully to find its furthest extents.

It was in this large chamber that two party members almost met their deaths.  Thick fog obscured vision, and the characters weren't particularly careful walking across the room - a yawning 20' wide chasm was the source of the fog, as hot air from below met colder air from above, and two characters tripped on the edge.  They both made saving throws the allowed them to either cling to the edge or grab the dangling clamshell doors that hung down into the chasm, and the others were able to pull them up.  No one knew how far down went the lightless abyss, but like the access tunnel they had discovered, the air was hot, damp, and fecund.

The torso of a large metal humanoid was found in the expansive room, and the players theorized it was a piece to an automaton (robot, golem?).  They're considering bringing it back for salvage, but ultimately left it behind for two reasons - it would be difficult to carry, and they're wondering if there are other parts lying around?

Exploring some nearby rooms brought them into contact with another group of deranged berserkers torturing a couple of men hanging upside down by their feet.  The berserkers tried to convince the group that the prisoners were the ones with "dungeon madness" and possessed by demons of madness, but they ended up "sleeping" the berserkers anyway with a spell.  I guess the players have seen that movie and know how it ends (with battle cries and axes and never failing morale and death of PC's).  They freed and healed the bandits, found more of their compatriots hiding nearby, and forced all of them to swear oaths of loyalty, at sword point, to the Isgerd's Fury.  The group decided they need to keep replacing crew back at camp, so they have enough sailors to make it home at the end of the summer.

We ended with a mystery.  They encountered the first "powered door" that still functioned.  The hulking fighters were unsuccessful with crowbars to pry open the hatch - it kept closing automatically with a whir and whoosh.  A dull red light flashed intermittently beside the door on one of the stones.  Red, red, red, what could it mean?  Apparently that was too much for brains fried after 7-8 hours of outdoor gaming and BBQ, and it was time to pack it in and head topside.  They began the long march back to the Well of Woe.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Nightmare Fuel - Devotees of the Maimed One

I don’t have a ton of nightmares, but I tend to enjoy and remember them when they happen.  I had a nasty one the other night that is surely rife with some gaming inspiration.

When I was growing up, I had some cousins that lived in in a neighborhood of row houses, very urban with minimal front yards and long narrow back yards.  The dream was in that type of neighborhood, and a group of loud nihilists moved in next door.  They had outlandish hair styles and seemed to be into extreme piercings.

The horror part of the dream started when all these folks started maiming each other, cutting off body parts as tribute to the 'god of pain', the maimed one.  Hands and fingers and ears were chopped off, males castrated themselves, tourniquets and cauterizations were done so they could stay alive just long enough.  "Our parts don't matter, since none of us are coming back from this," they were saying.  Then they went off through the neighborhood with knives, hatchets, and samurai swords, and started cutting, chopping, and slicing everyone they met, dragging people from their homes.

At that point, the dream degraded into a bit of chase, a really common trope in nightmares.  We ended up at the beach (a fast change of scene that only happens in a dream) and were hiding in a boat house that stretched into the surf.   Except "Jaws" was in the boat house too, sneaking under the seaward end, and we wouldn't dare go into the water or take a boat with the head of a gigantic white shark munching everything in sight, beached as it was in the surf and stuck in the boathouse.  That part was too nonsensical, and then I woke.

The bit about the devotees of the maimed god was pretty disturbing.  Dreams usually aren't that visceral, with people cutting off their own noses and ears and other parts and then going on a murderous rampage.  A rather grueseome gaming scenario could be constructed around "the new cult that moves into town"; it seems innocent enough at first, but as members get indoctrinated into the belief system and suppress their will to the cult, it builds into a murderous rampage of self-inflicted trauma and carnage.  Sadly, murder-suicide has become so commonplace in the world that such a scenario might intrude too much reality into one's fantasy game.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Prometheus Review

I went to see Prometheus a few weeks ago, caught it while it was still in the theaters, and I'd been meaning to circle back and put up a brief review.

The first thing to do if you see it is to check your expectations.  I wouldn't consider Prometheus a horror movie, or a prequel to the original Alien.  It's more like a science fiction movie, with a dose of horror on the side, and it only happens to share some similar themes to Alien.  It's a movie that takes place in the same universe as Alien.

Thematically, I felt that Prometheus had more in common with a pure sci-fi masterpiece, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, than a space slasher movie.  (In fact, there are quite a few visual cues to 2001 during the film).  It’s all about big questions and big ideas - ancient astronaut theories, the source of terrestrial life, myths of the war in heaven, the role of faith in a materialistic universe, allusions to Mary Shelley's work, the relationship of a created being to the creator.  The horror scenes with alien things tend to be incidental to the story themes.  The lingering horror is the many questions left unanswered by the film - why did "they" do this to "us"?

There are some flaws; I found myself a bit irritated at times by some of the unintelligent choices made by the scientists… like the xenobiologist that tries to pet a revolting wormy thing that emerged from a slime pool, "here, wormy wormy wormy".  Munch.  It goes badly for him.  It’s easy to discount horror scenes when people make stupid choices; I much prefer horror scenes where the protagonist 'does everything right' and it still goes wrong for them.

But it was well worth seeing; the visuals are stunning, and it's one of the few films I'm looking forward to getting on DVD; I'd love to see it again, especially if there's a director's cut.  The door is left wide open for a sequel, so I hope it was commercially successful and a sequel indeed finds its way to the cinema.

Inspirations for Gaming
This is a gaming blog, after all, so I can't leave you without some ideas.  The obvious one to borrow from something like Prometheus (and the original Alien, for that matter), is that of mistaken identity; misreading the prophecy or misinterpreting the signs.  "It wasn't a distress signal that lured us to the planet, it was a warning beacon".  "This place isn't a temple, it's a weapons dump.  No, wait, it's not a weapon's dump, it's a space ship…" You get the idea.  "This isn't the tomb of Karlyle, it's the prison of Karlyle - and the ancient vampire is still trapped in here.  And now we're trapped with him!"

Prometheus has a clever idea around biological weapons; stores of substances that generate new life forms and infect intruders so that they become their own monsters.  I have a similar idea in place in the Black City game (rage worm infection) but it's not nearly as squirmy and tentacled as the kinds of things that burst out of people in Prometheus.  I should probably amp up the ick-factor.  Heck, the whole movie of Prometheus could be inspirational for something like the Black City, an ancient ruin built by aliens.  I just need to get HR Giger to do the art.  Maybe one of the dungeon levels should lead seamlessly into a buried starship.  Quick - I'm off to pen a new sublevel!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

It's Not Arbitrary When Chance Decides

My pendulum is swinging further away from improvisation towards writing more stuff down in advance.  There are some good benefits to having  written notes!  You can feed the players more relevant information through rumors, patrons, divination spells, and so forth.  You can drop content with a variety of danger into the setting, and generate verisimilitude by leaking information.  The game world depth becomes abundant and unavoidable.

We spend a lot of time out here on the blogs generating our random tables.  They're inspirational.  They let us throw some dice and abdicate a bit of decision making, opening up different avenues of creativity.  You know, the whole 'better to riff off a seed idea than start with a blank page…', that kind of thing.

When I started running the Black City campaign a month or so back, I planned to use random tables pretty heavily at the table, but decided that random tables were too slow for play. Then I dumped all of the random tables into excel and used various random generator algorithms to quickly build out content.  It still needed refinement and mental elbow grease to put some meat on the bones, but I had a good skeleton for getting started.

Musings about "preparation versus inspiration" have cropped up on the blogs the past few days.  Roger has an excellent post about the burdens of improvisation; the responsibility of making up content threatens to drive the DM towards balanced encounters, which risks a bland campaign.  He muses whether you would you knowingly throw your players against unbeatable opponents made up on the fly?  Noisms questions the zealotry of prep as the one-true-way; preparation is nice, but dropping the 4th wall once in a while isn't the apocalypse, either.  Whereas -C is also firmly on the side of preparing in advance.

I'm certainly seeing the benefits of preparing more in advance.  Geez, it can be a lot of work, but it feels good to have that stuff at the game table right at your fingertips.  So let me tip a hat towards my wise compatriots; prepare in advance, even if it just means scratching the barest notes you need.  Put your notes down in writing; pregenerated content is impartial and provides plausible deniability when crap hits the fan.  "No, seriously, there's always been a dragon in that room."  Improvise the details from your bare notes when you must.  When you need to create stuff whole cloth on the fly, use the dice and random factors to avoid your dull personal biases.  The dice are free to be arbitrary.  The dice are free to be interesting.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Death Waits in the Mists: Black City Game 4

Low level dungeons are rough on retainers and henchmen.  Characters die frequently, but the henchmen usually have it the worst.  After seeing the group set Twig-Belly on fire last week, one of the other retainers, Visin the Frey cleric, decided to go elsewhere for employment.  The group went back to Trade Town and the Njord Hall looking for more hired help.

Shamus wasn't the only hiring agent hawking an open position; there were groups looking for guards to keep dig sites secure or clear out nearby hexes, and patrons wishing escorts to seek entrances to the tower, or the sunken vaults, two landmarks visible from the city overlook.  I think it's important that the party realizes there are other patrons, and other adventuring groups, also trying to exploit the ruins.  They have competition, and if they're not sure what to do for an evening, they can also just take a job offer.

Menlir, the hairy-faced bard at the Njord Hall, told Shamus that someone was actually looking for him specifically, a man named Eilef of Trelleborg, with a job offer.  Eilef's crew was on Herthjof Haraldson's ship, a longship out of Trelleborg that was far down the strand.  Shamus went off to see why someone was seeking him out.

Eilef had learned 'through sources' that the group had a wizard able to put many men "to sleep" at one time.  His crew wished to hire them to take care of 'the killers in the mist', a group of vicious berserkers that haunted a fog-shrouded tunnel north of the Well of Woe.  Eilef offered 500sp.  The group countered with 600sp, and a shadowy figure in a nearby tent nodded assent - it was a deal.  The party had agreed to their first mission for hire.

The party picked up a few more retainers, Fafnir and Herap, a pair of fighting men, and Halam, a priest, and they set off.  Tonight's party consisted of:

Mustafa of Arabia, a scimitar wielding desert warrior
Uther of Alfheim, an elf
Shamus, a Gaelic wizard
Falki, a Northman thief
Ireena, a fighter

Arthur the Fair, Bjorn Fjordrunner, Fafnir, Herap - fighting men
Halam - cleric

Here's the thing about the undercity; you descend into the Well of Woe, where there's a cluster of rooms and passages right off the well entrance, but there's also a large tunnel that heads north under the city, twenty feet across with a high rounded ceiling.   Following Eilef's directions to the mists took the party north into this long echoing passage.

The tunnel was very long - in fact, it would take them nearly 4 hours to reach the misty tunnels, a literal highway underground.  There were other folks using the tunnels to get around, too, and there were large side passages.  At one point, the way was blocked by a 10' chasm, with a rope to swing across before continuing.  There was a tense showdown at the chasm as another group, carrying torches, appeared out of the darkness ahead, demanding to use the rope swing first.  The two sides eyed each other warily as the group of veterans swung to the party's side and then continued south.

Near a junction further on was another group of explorers, a nobleman (a hersir) and a few of his guards, drinking water and taking a breather.  Bandaged wounds, blood, and grime indicated they had recently seen a tough fight.  "We tried our luck against the mist", said Klaengson, the leader of the men.  "I lost two men before we retreated, and then they dragged the bodies of our dead off into the mist, cackling.  We could hear them go back to sharpening their axes, long slow strokes across the whetstones.  It's unnerving."  The party left them behind, peaceably, also bypassing a second highway tunnel out of the junction, and another cluster of doors.  The first dungeon level is constructed as a series of geographically remote mini-dungeons attached by these larger arterial tunnels.

Within another two hours of heading north, the group entered the mist, and began planning the attack.  They had spoken to enough eyewitnesses to piece together that a large group of battle-crazed men, "berserkers", seemed to live in a junction in the dark, sharpening their axes and waiting for intruders with murderous intent.  They would be drawn to the party's torchlight like moths.

The party tossed torches ahead, and Shamus cast his sleep when he heard the reactions of the berserkers.  The spell was poorly placed and only put a few of them asleep, so the fighters formed a wide front, four across, and planned to receive the charge.  The berserkers came out of the dark, axe-wielding mad-men with corded necks and bulging eyes,  An axe was buried in Ireena's chest, killing her, but otherwise the party was successful in slaying the remaining five or so berserkers after a brief but furious scrum.  The group looted some axes and coppers, made a decent map of the junction, identified the entrance to another mini-dungeon there, and decided to head back for their reward.  Nine berserker heads were piled into sacks, and Arthur and Uther carried the body of Ireena back for burial.

Apparently the group forgot the admonition that the dead sometimes return to life in the dungeons, for within a few minutes of setting out, a zombie version of Ireena twisted and writhed in Uther's arms, biting him and clawing into his legs.  They dropped her in a hurry and went to work, killing her for the second time.  This time they burned the body in place.

Another party of Northmen was met along the south route, the two groups able to see the others' torches in the black tunnel.  A volley of arrows came out of the darkness, as the second group announced their intent to kill the party and take their stuff.  NPC murder hobos FTW!  A few characters lobbed their own arrows, while Mustafa and Bjorn sprinted the distance to engage in melee.  After four of the bandits were cut down by superior sword play, the final two surrendered and were trussed with ropes.  It was then the group saw that Uther had taken an arrow to the head during the missile volleys, and a second party member was dead.

An accord was reached with the two bandit prisoners, and they were allowed to walk in the front rank and carry spears.  "I'd rather die in combat against a monster with a spear in my hand than tied up like a hog to the slaughter.  I give you my word we won't turn these pig-stickers against you."

Never trust an NPC.  The party let the bandits swing across the chasm rope first, and they promptly ran off into the darkness.  They were good for their word, though; they didn't actually attack the group.

This session was an object lesson in why you don't dicker around in the dungeon giving the DM too many free wandering monster checks.  Rather than just swing across the chasm quickly, the group made these rope harnesses, so if someone fell off the swing, they wouldn't drop down the chasm to their death.  Makes sense, but all that tying and untying of harnesses takes time.  Enough time such that when half the group was on the south side of the chasm, the north group heard the low moan of hungry dead shuffling out of the darkness towards them.

Mustafa, Shamus, Falki, and Herap were still on the north side of the chasm.  A quartet of moaning shamblers shuffled out of the dark.  Shamus made a distinct "Eep, eep, eep" sound as he knocked everyone out of the way and flung himself on the rope, leaving the other three to face the zombies on their own.  Better to be a living chicken then a dead hero.

This was a dramatic battle!  The adult players convinced Mustafa to try pushing the zombies into the chasm; they were lurching off-balance, and he has a natural 18 dexterity, so I had to quickly come up with a way for him to attempt to toss the zombies - essentially lowering his defenses to grab and toss, making a hit roll, the zombies could make a saving throw to avoid being pitched, and a failed save sent the zombie teetering over the edge.  He ended up tossing three zombies that way over the course of the fight, with Mustafa's player (one of the 10 year olds) becoming more and more animated with excitement.

Meanwhile, Bjorn and Fafnir quickly swung over to the north side to assist the fighting and improving the odds.  Zombies do a brutal d8 damage, and both Herap and Falki were crushed by the undead before Mustafa got over there to push the zombies over the edge.  The death toll on the evening was up to four dead party members (Ireena, Uther, Herap, and Falki) - and three of them were player characters.

On their way out of the dungeon, the group paid the sergeant, Blue Nose, some hush money to keep it quiet that the party had silenced the killers in the mist and found a new mini-dungeon.  They didn't want word getting out that the north tunnels were open before they had a chance to collect their money, rest, and return for a first crack at an unspoiled dungeon.

We'll start early next time to give a few of the players time to roll up new characters.

Friday, July 13, 2012

LOTFP Campaign Target: Broodmother Sky Fortress

If you're out here following different OSR blogs, I'm sure you've seen a mention or two or five about the LOTFP adventure campaigns - James Raggi's ambitious (or insane) plan to get a slew of LOTFP adventures funded and published.  You can follow the link and go read a bit more about the campaigns and authors.

Here's an observation: I would guess there's a fair amount of "analysis paralysis" and wait-and-see going on; some of the higher reward levels involve funding one campaign, but getting free books from the other campaigns, but those perks only make sense if multiple campaigns actually get funded.  (To mitigate the risks, James is offering a sizeable store coupon if not enough campaigns get funded).  Heck, I'm still undecided the best approach myself, bouncing between going and funding a few individual campaigns that I really like, versus putting a big chunk down on one and hoping more get funded on their own.

So let me offer a suggestion:  if you're on the fence about which one to pick, let's get behind the Broodmother Sky Fortress campaign.  Here's the author's recommendation:

You know what your crapsack campaign world needs?  Giants made out of sharks and elephants, lurking in a haunted house in the clouds, ready to jump out of cyclopean shadows and murder your PCs right in their stupid faces.

If that's not enough to motivate you, the author, Jeff, has a video blog over at his place talking about the adventure in a bit more depth and seriousness:  Jeff's video blog.  Who doesn't want an adventure inspired by Against the Giants, that breaks new ground on structuring encounters and challenges with giants?  Jeff is a prolific OSR blogger, and having read quite a few of his game reports, I have to think he'll come up with an excellent adventure.

I'd be remiss without pointing out that the artist is a big draw as well (Stuart Robertson).  Stuart puts some art on his blog from time to time (Strange Magic), and his style is heavily influence by Mike Mignola and all those Hellboy comics I love.  This looks to me like the can't-miss team up.

For practical purposes, a reason to get behind the Broodmother Sky Fortress campaign is simple; it's the front-runner and is almost half funded already.  There are a bunch that sound real interesting to me; I love Jack Vance's writing, so I'd love to support  The Seclusium of Orphone.  The House of Bone and Amber also sounds good; I've really enjoyed Kevin's games, and I own great stuff from many of the other authors as well.  But I'm going to throw some weight behind Broodmother Sky Fortress, and we'll see what happens from there.  It's possible that when one of these things gets over the hump, folks on the fence will start supporting the next runners up.

Do you listen to podcasts?  I usually listen to some on the way to the office.  The Jennisodes podcast has been featuring various LOTFP authors talking about their campaigns.  I recently heard Jonathon Bingham, Vincent Baker, Kevin Crawford, and Ville "Burger" Vuorela talk about their story ideas.  It's a good chance to hear the authors explain their ideas, as well as some of the other games they've worked on.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Lamentations of the Polar Bear

There are polar bears all over the island of Thule, for the Black City campaign, so I was adding stats for the bears to the bestiary.  While looking at how some of the games have handled them, I saw quite a bit of variation by edition.  Check it out.

BX Version:  The Moldvay edition puts the polar bear at 6HD, with claw/claw/bite attacks doing 1-6/1-6/1-10.  If both paws hit, it does a "bear hug" for an additional 2-12 automatic damage.  6 HD makes the polar a serious threat for 0-level men and low level characters; bears are the terrors of the island.

I couldn't find any evidence that real bears "hug" anyone or anything, so I wonder where the expression originated.  The most I saw was that a bear will rear up and rend repeatedly with a flurry of claws.  Going forward, I'm going to treat the "bear hug" as such a rending attack, but keep it otherwise the same mechanically.  If someone knows more about real bears doing bear hugs, I'd love to hear or see it!

AD&D didn't have a polar bear in the monster manual, but it does eventually show up in MM2.  At that point it's given HD 8+8, doing damage of 1-10/1-10/2-12 and a hug for 3-18 if one of the paws scores an 18 or better.  This version is significantly tougher than the BX version, as well as the brown bear from the first monster manual.

The king of 'over-the-top' polar bears is the version in LOTFP's Weird New World:  this guy is given 12 HD!  Damage is 1-8/1-8/1-10 with a hug of 2-16 - above BX, below AD&D, but the sheer toughness of 12 HD (and the attack roll bonuses it gets) means this guy would challenge even a high level party.  I'm not sure why James beefed the polar bear up so much; he had a weight guideline for predator HD and a 1500 lb bear is right in the 6-8 HD range.  Regardless, all those Speak with Animals type spells suddenly become a lot more important when 12 HD man-killers are walking around.  They don't see people, they just see 'Big Mac', 'Quarter Pounder', 'McNuggets' - that's the party halfling...  (McNuggets would be a great name for a halfling character, by-the-by...)

Speaking of LOTFP, I need to get a post up about the 'grand campaign'.  There are a few of the proposed adventures that are pretty dang interesting.  Seems like a good Friday post for tomorrow.

ACKS usually follows BX pretty closely, but the Polar Bear and Cave Bear are switched around in order, so I think that's just a typo or mistake.

The BX version will be fine for my assumed demographics; a 6 HD polar bear is plenty threatening to a group of 1st or 2nd level characters, easily capable of killing a character per round.   I might save a bigger HD version for a 'demon bear' or similar monster.  It does raise an interesting question, which is how do you size your 'real world' monsters against fantasy monsters and people?  That 12 HD polar bear could probably kill a white dragon.  Should a bear be able to kill a Hill Giant, assuming your campaign has such monsters? What level of hero should be able to go out alone with spear and helm and be able to best a bear in single combat?

The island of Thule is modeled after Spitsbergen island, and polar bears are a serious threat, even today.  I remember reading at one point that all new citizens have to take mandatory rifle training and always carry a rifle with them; while there are strict protocols governing when a bear can actually be shot, it seems that every year someone is killed by a bear while walking outside of the towns without a gun.

Black City Update
I've been second-guessing the decision to create a description for every hex of the ruined city.  You may recall a few weeks ago I was struggling with the use of random tables during game play, versus using them in advance to facilitate creation, and wondered if I shouldn't just generate everything in advance.  320 hexes later, and I now have something like 60 pages of brief notes.  What's done is done, and it will certainly 'play fast' at the table.

Here's a point on the importance of good NPC's:  many of the serious enemies in the ruins are other adventuring parties, and NPC party stats take up a large footprint of page space.  Once you're in the ruins, law and civilization melt away, and these armed bands of Norse explorers behave like a mix of outlaw bikers, vicious pirates, and bandits from the American west.  Trust no one, and keep your axe ready.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The D&D Park

I'm back from vacation, and getting caught up.  We spent a week in southern Illinois, right near the Kentucky border, where the in-laws have a house on one of those large lakes in coal mining country.  Spent some time boating, fishing, swimming, that kind of stuff - a real break from the daily circus.

If you find yourself in the vicinity of Carbondale, Illinois, here's something to check out, particularly if you have kids:  the Boo Rochman Memorial Park.  It's a free park out on Giant City Road; instead of jungle gyms and merry-go-rounds, the park apparatus is a large, maze-like wooden castle with multiple levels.  There are places to sit and have lunch, and plenty of shady areas with various D&D-themed statues as well (wizards, druids, dragons, tombs, guys in the trees, and so forth).  Naturally the three kiddos convinced me to play a few rounds of hide-and-seek in the large castle.  Here are some pics of the place:

It's a private park, open to the public, and a placard indicates the park was created as a memorial to a son who died young - probably right out of high school.  If you find yourself in the vicinity of SIU, it's worth a drive out to the park, especially if you have kids.  What an awesome way these folks have chosen to remember their son - bringing a little happiness to kids everywhere that love wizards, dragons, knights and castles.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Caretaker of Harrow Home

“The nethermost caverns,” wrote the mad Arab, “are not for the fathoming of eyes that see; for their marvels are strange and terrific. Cursed the ground where dead thoughts live new and oddly bodied, and evil the mind that is held by no head. Wisely did Ibn Schacabao say, that happy is the tomb where no wizard hath lain, and happy the town at night whose wizards are all ashes. For it is of old rumour that the soul of the devil-bought hastes not from his charnel clay, but fats and instructs the very worm that gnaws; till out of corruption horrid life springs, and the dull scavengers of earth wax crafty to vex it and swell monstrous to plague it. Great holes secretly are digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.”
--H.P. Lovecraft, The Festival

One of the ubiquitous figures met throughout the dungeons of Harrow Home is the enigmatic Caretaker.  Clad in dark robes like a Medieval monk, only a bland porcelain mask stares out from beneath the hood.  No voice has ever issued forth from beneath the mask; when the figure communicates, if at all, it's through simple hand gestures, or scrawlings on the stone wall in a script unrecognizable to a 16th century explorer.

The Caretaker takes no sides in the internecine struggles between the Houses; it only visits those seeking deeper truths about Harrow Home itself, aiding their quest for knowledge.  This may even mean assisting parties of adventurers from time to time, particularly when its aid will place them in a position to learn sanity threatening knowledge and lore.  An example might be pointing out the location of a secret door, behind which lies an eldritch library that could draw the players closer to using the same kind of dark magic that defines the inhuman residents of the dungeon.

Beneath the robes, the figure is made entirely of roiling vermin; worms, beetles, and spiders, that clack and rustle with each step it takes.  The Caretaker has been attacked and dissipated before, leaving behind dead bugs and an empty robe and mask, only to reemerge at a later time from the dungeon's depths completely restored.  The sorcerers of Harrow Home don't cross the Caretaker; they remember when the Caretaker opened its robes to completely consume a victim beneath a tide of devouring insects, when an unwise sorcerer forcibly tried to extract answers from the Caretaker.

It's quite possible the Caretaker is the oldest inhabitant of the dungeon, the one figure that has learned to commune with the thing in the pit through the black dreams experienced only by the dead.  The reasoning behind this theory is simple; whenever the Caretaker's gloved claws take up chalk to scrawl a bit of writing on a dungeon wall, it's in the language of the antediluvian Hyperboreans.

The idea of "the Worm that Walks", was created by Lovecraft in the story (above), and then developed in early Call of Cthulhu adventures.  It was brought into D&D with 3E's Age of Worms campaign, although one could argue 1E's Fiend Folio first had the Sons of Kyuss as worm-dripping undead and then Kyuss was built out as an elder evil for 3E.  It carried over into 4E as the "larva mage".

I see the Caretaker as a harbinger of madness and a corrupter, a figure more like the King in Yellow wearing the pallid mask, or Nyarlathotep in the Mythos.  It guides seekers towards greater and greater knowledge and power, as long as such knowledge will bring them spiraling into depravity and madness.

I'm on vacation now, so I don't expect to have much time for blogging - see you all in a week or so.

* I believe that pic, found on the interwebs (wikipedia), is 4E's larva mage - can anyone confirm if that was 4E or maybe from the 3E Age of Worms campaign?