Monday, January 31, 2011

Mythic Monday: The Witch

O friend and companion of night, thou who rejoicest in the baying of dogs and spilt blood, who wanderest in the midst of shades among the tombs, who longest for blood and bringest terror to mortals, Gorgo, Mormo, thousand-faced moon, look favourably on our sacrifices!'
-HP Lovecraft, "The Horror at Red Hook"

Recently in Gothic Greyhawk the player characters had the opportunity to travel to Witch Mountain and parley with the mistress of said mountain.  It was exciting to prepare for the session - I knew there was an article or two in Dragon magazine that featured the Witch.  I started looking at one, it began "Witches do not have a pact with Satan, or follow dark gods, that’s bad press they’ve been receiving since the Middle Ages…"  I stopped there because my head exploded.  What?  In fact, all the articles I scanned took the revisionist history,  'witches were just persecuted pagans' approach - I could imagine the copies of Marion Zimmer Bradley's works on the desk while they were writing.

Whatever happened to the horrible figure that inspired witch hunts, that eats children like Hansel and Gretel, worships the Devil, and zooms around cackling on a broom?  How about embracing the stereotype?

Luckily, there is an amazing Renaissance book (Malleus Maleficarum) that explains all about how to identify the *real* kind of witches and what they do.  It seems a bit misogynistic , hysterical and delusional  - just the kind of thing that could get a lot of innocent people killed if someone took it seriously.  Fortunately, we're only talking about fictional antagonists in a role-playing game, here.

Here's a short list of what makes (fake) witches happy:

  • Pacts with the Devil big supernatural adversary in your game
  • Devotion to Evil
  • Tromping on the Cross holy symbol of the big church in your game
  • Flying by night on a broom
  • Secret meetings - the Black Mass, the Witches Sabbat
  • Infanticide
  • Cannibalism
  • Sex with the Devil big supernatural adversary in your game
  • Orgies
See what I'm talking about?  Neo-pagan wiccans rediscovering their ancient roots… kinda boring.  Not for killing.  Satanic witches of folklore - totally for killing.  Or rocking out to 70's metal with them.  Of course, if you're a player in my game, the witch is also for hopping in to bed with and signing your soul away in a lust-filled haze of regret.  I imagine that's not as rare an occurrence as you think.

The Witch in Gothic Greyhawk
Real witches have picnics.. with big goats
Witches are female clerics devoted to the worship of evil and the Adversary.  The depiction in myth and folklore involves worship, ceremony, ritual, and pacts - all elements that take the witch out of the realm of arcane magic and towards clerical magic.  Hell is orderly and hierarchical, and belongs to the realm of Law; witches are Lawful.  (I suppose that would be Lawful Evil if you did the AD&D thing.)

In general, I'm not a fan of re-writing classes and sticking on new class abilities when an existing class already suffices; I would treat the witch as a regular evil cleric, except to note that certain spells off the Magic User list would be available to an individual witch as clerical spells to fit the theme - Charm Person, Change Self, and Suggestion were the ones that sprung to mind.  Plenty of (reversed) clerical spells already have the right feel, such as Curse, Blindness, Cause Wounds, and Blight.

With the help of their diabolical muses, the witch is able to make and use various magic items that would otherwise be the province of the Magic User; these include crystal balls and flying brooms.  Potions are popular items for the witch to make, including love potions (potions of charm person), flying ointment, and poisons.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Review: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing

Weird Fantasy Role-Playing is a "traditional fantasy role-playing game" - code words for early D&D clone rules based on the OGL.   You can get the full copy of the rules over at Indie Press Revolution, or get a free copy over at the publisher's blog - Lamentations of the Flame Princess (the download link is on the left).  It's low risk to check out the free rules first, but the art and the extra books are only in the paid version.  (So as not to confuse with Warhammer, I'll abbreviate it as LotFP instead of WFRP).

Like my recent module reviews, this is a play-test review; we got the LotFP rules back in September when we were playing Moldvay basic.  We introduced a number of the LotFP changes as house rules to our Moldvay game, and after a few weeks switched  the rest of the way.  We've been using the rules in weekly, active gaming for almost five months and have a pretty good feel for the system and how it compares to classic D&D - most characters have gained a few levels in that period.

My first impression of the rules was very similar to how we used it - as a restatement of classic D&D, with a healthy dose of house ruling, and a darker tone.  It has most of the usual suspects for classes - Cleric, Fighter, Magic User, Elf, Dwarf and Halfling.  You'll notice "race as class", which is very much in line with Moldvay's rules.  You'll also notice there is no Thief; it's been replaced by something called the Specialist.

The first big philosophical change is the implied specialties or roles present in other editions have been made more explicit.  Clerics and Magic Users continue to have their own magic styles, but now Fighters are the best attackers, Halflings have amazing saving throws and stealth, Dwarves are tough and hardy, and so on.    In most versions of D&D, for example, all first level characters attack equally as well as Fighters for the first few levels; Fighters are vanilla.  In LotFP, even beginning Fighters attack better than everyone else, and have better hit points; they are the workhorses of the party.

The Moldvay basic rules have an implied skill system built around the d6.  Every character has d6 chances for open doors, hear noise, find traps, and searching.  A few classes have d6 skills for secret doors or stone traps.   Only Thief skills use the percentile dice.

LotFP evolves the skill system in a logical way by replacing all the Thief skills with d6 versions and adding new skills like Foraging; it creates a unified skill system for all adventurers.  The Thief replacement class, the Specialist, is the class that takes the most advantage of this new skill approach.  The Specialist class gets skill points per level to customize their skill selection.

I can't emphasize enough how much of an improvement the unified skills and customization is over the traditional Thief; I think at this point it would be near impossible for us to go back and use the regular Thief in a classic game.  We still call them Thieves; it's just that they no longer suck at level 1.

A few of the classes are de-powered compared to their Moldvay era antecedents - namely the Cleric, Elf and Dwarf.  In the case of the Cleric, it's warranted and appreciated.  It's tougher on the demihumans.  While I'm glad to see the Fighter elevated to the place of premier warrior, the combat capabilities of Elves and Dwarves (both Fighter hybrids) have been taken down too far; the rules are very human centric in that way.

As for the Cleric, the class has had Turn Undead reduced to a 1st level spell, and the spell progression charts don't grant higher level spells as quickly as in Moldvay/Cook.  However, the Cleric gets more lower level spells, and my players found this to be an acceptable compromise.  Reducing the pervasiveness of Turn Undead is a good thing.

Another major improvement is the new encumbrance system - it's very simple to apply, and the players can calculate and adjust encumbrance throughout the game without bringing the action to a grinding halt.  It's really helped with resource management and keeping resource pressure in the game; especially when treasure is found.

Other things to notice are the various adjustments to combat - there are sensible combat options to provide fighting types more strategy, shields are slightly better, and there are aiming rules for crosswbows.  Ah - here's a big one - LotFP uses ascending Armor Class similar to a d20 era game; I found it easiest to put some cross-references together to convert old-style AC on the fly.

There is a fair amount of "implied setting" in the rulebook; for instance, the equipment list would fit a late Medieval or Renaissance period (sans firearms).  There are rules for investment property, and maritime adventuring, that imply a merchant economy and ocean-based voyages like the age of exploration.  If you're expecting feudalism, that stuff can seem a bit odd.

There are a few issues I'd raise with the boxed set.  The collection tries very hard to be an introductory game, but I wonder if it's as new-DM friendly as could be.  Although monsters and treasure are significant parts of adventuring, they're given short shrift in the referee's book.  The author provides good advice on customizing monsters and using monsters, but I don't believe it's realistic for a new DM to have the confidence to create all of his or her own monsters without a bestiary.   I'd submit that creating monster statistics is more art than science, and requires a fair amount of experience as a DM.  I tend to keep my Basic/Expert books  handy for its random tables, monster statistics, and treasure tables while using LotFP.

The rest of the referee's book is advice on running games and campaigns in a 'Weird Fantasy' manner;  I would highly recommend reading it.  There's a lot of practical advice on adventure styles, campaigning, and achieving a weird horror vibe in your game.  Invaluable stuff, good as gold.  As I looked it over again for the review, I realized many themes I've touched on at Dreams in the Lich House are already covered in the referee's book.

The rules include a magic book that recreates most of the standard repertoire from classic D&D, minus a few 'troublesome' spells like Raise Dead and Resurrection.  Quite a few have adjustments to the descriptions to fit the darker theme.  The magic book has a nice system for magical research, spell transcription, and item creation.

There's also a Tutorial book with a choose-your-own-adventure style of programmed adventure, beginning player advice, and a long example of play.  Everybody dies.

Would I Recommend This?
Yes, yes I would - I consider it a fresh update to the classic D&D rules.  After 5 months, the players still really like this rules set.  They rely heavily on Fighters (both PCs and henchman), and I previously mentioned I can't see us ever using a classic Thief after having the flexibility of the Specialist.  The combat options have been very popular as well.  The only issue is the players have petitioned for a house rule to improve the lot of Dwarves and Elves in combat.

It's no secret we used to play 4E,  a system that puts formal class roles into the game.  This was one of the elements of LotFP that struck a chord with my group as we made the switch back to old school gaming.  As mentioned, the implied specialties present in older editions have been strengthened.  The players scout with their Halfling, the Specialist focuses on locks and traps, the Dwarf hauls a ton of gear, their casters throw spells, and the Fighters take on the bloody grunt work.

From my (DM's) perspective, the approach to encumbrance has been very useful at the table, and easy to administer during treasure gathering, when PC's are prone to overload themselves.

I found the referee's book instructive and inspirational; if you've followed this blog at all, you know I aspire to run as free-form and sandbox-oriented a game as possible, while creating situations that feature high adventure and horror.  The referee's advice lines up well with my own inner compass.

Friday, January 28, 2011

A Tale of Two Trolls

In praise of randomness and  the difference between old-time D&D and 4E

A comment from last post involving sandboxes and NPCs got me thinking about how an encounter from our last game session would have required such a different approach in our 4E days. 

The Old School Approach
Last game, the characters were trudging overland in the Joten Mountains.  On the hex map, I have a key with the major lairs, ruins, and strongholds, but I make liberal use of the random encounters in the Cook Expert book for D&D.  The guys are currently a mix of 2nd and 3rd level characters.

The party descended into a shallow valley; from somewhere down the length of the valley was coming a noisome stench of decay - a cave mouth.  Emerging over the far side of the ridge was a large troll; it saw the group, howled a war cry, and came bounding and snarling down the side of the valley to where the characters were taking a momentary rest.

The players had 2 rounds to respond while the troll hurtled towards them; the fighters formed a defensive wall while a few of the shooters tried peppering the troll with arrows.  The magic user cast invisibility on the thief, who snuck to a vantage point where he'd have a backstab attempt once the troll went past him.

When the troll engaged the front line, the thief stepped in and scored a 20 on his backstab, maxed his sword damage, and killed the troll with one epic thrust.  The table erupted in cheers.
The characters were almost surprised by the second troll coming out of the cave lair behind them, but the thief was looking that way and alerted the others.  Thinking quickly, the magic user blasted it with his wand of paralysis, and the troll missed the save.  They quickly doused the bodies with oil and started a fire.

The 4E Approach
First off, a basic Troll is a 9th level monster, and 2nd and 3rd level characters shouldn't be facing one; level appropriate challenges for an encounter should be in the N to N+4 range, where N is the character level .   The main issue is that armor class, attack, and damage all scales in 4E,  so once the monsters get too far ahead of the party, they become unhittable and too damaging.

Of course, if the DM picked a Troll encounter, they could always scale the Troll down a few levels so it would be level-appropriate for the party.  One or two trolls wouldn't be enough for an encounter - a 4E encounter would be a mix of monsters covering different monster roles, such as brute, leader, controller, artillery.  (Trolls are brutes).  Or the troll could be beefed up to be what's called a "solo"- a single monster tough enough to take on a character group without support.

Much of this is hypothetical - 4E doesn't have or use any wandering monster tables or random encounters whatsoever.  None.  If I wanted to orchestrate a Troll encounter during our 4E days, I would've planned it in advance, built a challenging and interesting level-appropriate encounter with a mix of monster roles (brutes, soldiers, artillery, leaders, etc) and I would've introduced this as a faux-random encounter at a time of my choosing.

Wow - I'm sitting here re-reading how different the two experiences are from the DM's perspective.

In the old school approach, I have no idea what the party could meet out on the road.  Fights could be easy, they could be tough.  A pair of trolls for 2nd and 3rd level characters seems on the tough side.  The game emerges for the DM at run-time just as it does for the players.  Who knows what will happen?  That is very, very entertaining.

When running 4E, the encounters were pre-planned, and the difficulty level was pre-set - I almost always knew how an encounter would go.

I don't recall seeing this particular distinction - that the randomness inherent in older game systems keeps the game just as fresh and unknown to the DM as it does to the players.

So here's to random encounters, reaction rolls, morale rolls, and treasure generated on the fly!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Death to Kings

In Which A New Poll Makes an Appearance

Honor and fear were heaped upon his name and, in time, he became a king by his own hand...
The sandbox mantra X is for killing got me thinking about one of my favorite D&Disms to question - can the PCs in your game sack the town, kill the town guard, and ride off with the plunder like Wild West outlaws?  Can they kill the king and put themselves on the throne?  (See the poll on the right!)

Are the guards, knights, rulers and kings in your game mostly 0-level men, or are they higher level characters? 

The Argument for Tough Rulers
The boss comes out on the side of high level rulers - all the rulers of Greyhawk are high-powered.  A patrol of knights in Greyhawk could be led by a 9th level fighter.  Even Gygaxian setting modules like Keep on the Borderlands or The Village of Hommlet have NPCs with levels appropriate to their rank.

Gygax points out (p 91 DMG) that adventurers will be viewed as dangerous characters in the settled lands, like gunslingers in the Wild West.  The rulers and NPCs have better things to do than adventure, and will be too glad to encourage the adventurers to stay out on the frontier, risking themselves against monsters.  He clearly envisioned the  settings of your campaign being one where adventurers were capable of threatening the stability of the natural order.

Arguments Against High Level NPCs
Help me with the argument why you wouldn't make the rulers or their retinues tough enough to withstand the first band of adventurers that comes to town.

Maybe the DM lays some ground rules, like 'That's not the kind of story I tell, I don't allow evil parties'.  Fine - but what about evil (NPC) adventurers?  Wouldn't the first group of NPC adventurers that returns to town with experience and a bunch of magic items roll over the town?

And what DM is going to tell Conan he can't make himself king of Aquilonia?

Perhaps NPCs don't have levels because you can only gain levels through adventuring .  Wouldn't a lifetime of warfare and sword practice toughen the king's retinue of veteran knights?

One argument I can get behind is to get rid of Mary Sue NPCs that steal the center of attention.  (EGG's position is that those types of folks should have better things to do.)

Disclaimer:  we persevered with almost two years of 4th Edition, so I know all about running games where the players are expected to be "special chosen heroes" with amazing powers and everyone else in the world is "a normal Joe".

I'd rather not put those kinds of restrictions on players any longer.  The sandbox is able to maintain its own order through natural consequences.  If it's in the game, it's meant to be killed… if you're tough enough to do it, and deal with the consequences.

Principles of Sandbox Rulership:
  • Adventurers are common in the world
  • Adventurers are dangerous, and not all of them are 'good'
  • Adventurers are capable of taking over settlements
  • A world with adventurers has elements in common with the Wild West
  • The end game for adventurers is becoming rulers themselves
  • Law and order must be tough enough to handle adventurers
  • Rulers (or their retinue) must be tough enough to hang on to power
 Anything you'd like to add?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Inspirational View of the Black City

Picture this, with ice, snow, and vikings.
What would a city built by aliens look like?  Yeah, I had no idea either - so I consulted the experts.  I dove into the realms of pseudo-science and conspiracy theory to see which earthly cities were inspired by the aliens.  Pseudo-science to the rescue!

Did you know that the pyramids of Giza and Teotihuacan were built off the same "blueprint", delivered by an alien culture to early man? The pyramids in both places are aligned to represent the stars in the belt of the constellation Orion.  Teotihuacan, City of the Gods - perfect inspiration for what the Black City might have looked like on the surface.

I've had some real-world stuff going on that kept me from finishing the Black City map last week (family, kid's birthday, plus actually DMing a couple of table-top D&D sessions…)  Back on track, it's coming along well.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Mythic Monday: The Ghoul

The Walking Dead: Zombie or Ghoul?

Film-makers and the popular culture need to get their stories straight.  Hungry dead that shuffle after the living (to eat them) are not zombies, they're ghouls.  No wait, maybe zombies only eat the living and ghouls only eat folks that are already dead?  What about those mindless dead brought back by a voodoo guy with the magic zombie powder - are those the *real* zombies?  And which ones are in D&D?

I'm so confused.

Deep breath.  Let's take a moment, try to wade through the folklore and see how this could all be straightened out, and hopefully answer the question - what exactly is a ghoul?

The folklore origins are kind of scarce.  Ghouls show up in One Thousand and One Nights - mostly as a bunch of over-sized mountain (humanoids) that like to eat people - seemed more like hillbilly ogres to me, than ghouls. 

Lovecraft has ghouls.  Lovecraft's ghouls live underground, sneak into graveyards, and chew on corpses.  There's even a process to turn yourself into a ghoul, through cannibalism/necrophagy and a ritual (like Pickman!).  Alright, now we're getting somewhere horrible.   Except the ghouls speak in meep-meep-meeps - what kind of monster "meeps"? - and they go all commando with Randolph Carter and assault the Castle of the Old Ones in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Khadath; teaming up with meeping ghouls to go storm the castle kind of diminished some of the horror for me.

Could popular culture come to the rescue?  I Am Legend is the first zombie apocalypse story, except the monsters aren't zombies, they're vampires, but they shuffle around and eat people, like ghouls.  I loved The Last Man on Earth version.  In the 2007 remake, the monsters were like ghoul-vampire hybrids (they hungered for flesh like ghouls, but had the UV and garlic allergies of vampires).

Night of the Living Dead called its horde of monsters ghouls.  They ate (living) people.  George Romero didn't think of his creatures as zombies; to him, they were ghouls.  Now we're really getting somewhere.  Could the D&D ghoul be based on Night of the Living Dead?

Let's see, what did Gary have to say about it?

"When I devised the ghoul for the D&D game it was most assuredly with non-living energization, that is undead status, that enabled these creatures to exist and hunger for the flesh of dead humans and their ilk.

The principal motivation for classifying them as undead was to have a progressive level of such monsters--skeletons, zombies, ghouls, etc.

IMO, merely eating human flesh is quite insufficient to alter one to become a ghoul. Otherwise, many a remote tribe of savage aborigines would be ghouls, not humans.

The negative energy of the ghoul is the reason for its paralyzing ability. Elves, having great positive energy, are thus immune to the effect."

What?  What did he just say?  I think my head exploded when I read that "Elves have such great positive energy".  And the ghoul wasn't thought about any deeper than filling a slot between Zombie and Wight on the Turn Undead chart?  Bah.

Third Edition of D&D puts the cannibal influence back into the origin.  It also gives a little nod to the zombie apocalypse genre, introducing Ghoul Fever as a disease. Beedo rubs his hands together, now we're getting somewhere again.  Nary a mention of Positive Energy or Negative Planes or any new age hooey, either.

It still leaves open the niggling question about paralysis and elves.  What did the boss say - ghouls give off negative energy?  Really?  Like putting a fountain in the corner, breathing in the positive ions, adjusting the feng shui is going to turn that energy around, flip that frown upside down.   That's about how I feel about the Tolkien elves.  If you were a nigh immortal hippy tree-hugging superior being with a groovy aura and lots of crystals, I suppose ghouls wouldn't affect you, either.  Sigh

Smarter folks than me say the ghoul-elf paralysis thing goes back to Chainmail - ghoul units paralyzed enemy units with fear, elves were made immune arbitrarily due to unit costing and game balance, and we've been rationalizing it in the RPG ever since.

Ghoul Fever comes to Greyhawk
I had considered reclassifying the undead into three types - animated zombies, plague zombies, and ghouls.  Animated zombies would be the classic voodoo style - can't cross a line of salt and all that.  Animate Dead would generate the voodoo-style zombies.

Plague Zombies would be the infectious zombies that have become such a part of popular culture.  And ghouls would be… well, not much of a difference between how plague zombies would act and ghouls, is there?  (Except ghouls have the negative energy aura paralysis thing).

Henceforth, ghouls will be the cannibal undead of my game.  Cannibalism will be one of the great evils encouraged by demons and the unclean spirits of the Abyss - especially Orcus.  Cannibalism curses those that practice it with ghouldom after death, and the risk of possession by demons while alive - stories of the wendigo attest to such monstrous transformations.

The touch of a ghoul is a supernatural affliction that attacks the soul, temporarily paralyzing the victim and transforming the victim into a ghoul after death through the ghoul curse.  (Since elves have no souls, that's why they're unaffected.  Soulless elves makes me laugh).

I could even see an infectious version of the ghoul curse that could be used to create a plague of ghouls:

Ghoul Sickness*
After being bitten by a ghoul, make a saving throw vs death; failure means the character is infected with the curse and will begin the transformation into a mindless, but cunning, ghoul.  Elves are also immune to Ghoul Sickness.  (They still have no souls).

Ghoul Sickness requires a new saving throw every 2 hours; each time a save is failed, the victim loses 3 wisdom points.  When wisdom is reduced to zero, the victim dies and rises as a ghoul.  There is no normal recovery from Ghoul Sickness; it is a supernatural curse that corrupts the character's soul with obscene hungers.

As the character's wisdom drops, they'll find themselves drawn to the taste of blood and raw meat, and will begin noticing that everyone around them is starting to look like a meal.

Ghoul Sickness can be cured with Remove Curse; receiving a Bless or consuming Holy Water will halt the disease (automatically make the next Save).  Once cured, lost Wisdom will regain normally.

Of course, the pernicious nature of the curse is such that if a character willingly engages in cannibalism,  the spread of the disease halts for the day, and the character immediately regains all of their lost wisdom.  At that point, it would be best to make a new character, anyway.  But way to embrace the horror, dude.  Say hi to Orcus for me.

*I suppose if I'm going to post blog-ish stuff that could be used in other people's games, I'll have to learn the whole OGL "designate as open game content" thing.  Duly noted.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

X is for Killing

Musings on freedom in the sandbox

I have a bit of a confession to make - I used to be a story-focused Game Master.  (We used to play 4E, too, but that's another confession.)  I spent most of the 90's and early 2000's running games for systems like Vampire The Masquerade, super hero systems like Mutants & Masterminds, and horror games like Call of Cthulhu.

What does a story DM do?  He makes up lots of interesting characters, develops an over-arching plot, and lets the players take on the role of characters in the DM's story.  At its best, everyone comes together and tells an epic and memorable story; at its worst, the players feel like their choices don't matter too much - a fixed ending is never in doubt.

The players in the current campaign are still talking about last week's game, and the zombie apocalypse they unleashed on southwest Sterich.  "How could the DM let that happen?", they wonder.  "All those NPCs we've met and befriended in places like Mittleberg, Poignard, and Beggar's Tomb Mine are all dead…"*

This is how I've come to love the sandbox and let go of the story.  No one knows how it's going to turn out.  Various NPCs in the world still have their own goals and agendas, and if left alone, they'll do what they can to move their agendas forward.  For instance, Lord Lennox of Mittleberg was preparing for war in the spring, to punish the pagan mountain folk for beheading a church missionary.  One of the characters, Phat Kobra, was knighted, and expected to be in the vanguard of Lord Lennox's expeditionary force.  Everyone was planning for the war.

Funny how 13,000 hungry undead swarming down the mountain can generate a change of plans.

Which brings me to my new sandbox mantra, X is for Killing.  I saw this list over on Il Male's blog; it made me laugh, and reinforced the direction my campaign is taking: 
  • Gods are for killing;
  • Clerics worship gods, therefore are for killing;
  • If it's not human is for killing;
  • If it's human but a little weird, it's probably for killing;
  • Magic-users are for killing 99.9% of times;
  • Dinosaurs are either to ride or for killing;
  • ...and so on.
What a wonderful set of principles.  No one is safe.  There are no Mary Sue's.  No one has plot immunity.   If the players don't stop the Shadow Demon attacks (Blood Moon Rising) in time, the entire village could be wiped out.  Half of Poignard *was* wiped out, in fact.  If the players awaken the dreaming dead (Death Frost Doom), the world will never be the same.

Nothing is written, no outcome is foreordained.  No one knows how it's going to end, least of all the DM.  Whatever story is there, will emerge or change from the choice and intervention of the players.

I loved the moment in our game last night, where the players gazed over the hex map with all its potential freedom and wondered… "We've just destroyed our world.  Where do we go from here?"

Anywhere you want, fellas, anywhere you want.

*Note:  It's not clear that all the settlements in the valley were destroyed, since the players went the opposite direction into the mountains.  I'll need to wait until they return to that part of the world to reveal what happened.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Does a Sanity Mechanic belong in D&D?

I saw the preview for Realms of Crawling Chaos, and it looks great.  However, perusing the table of contents, there's not a sanity mechanic.  No sanity mechanic in a Cthulhu supplement?  Is this heresy?

To answer, let's take a look at the role of sanity mechanics in the two Cthulhu games I've played - Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu.

The Call of Cthulhu (COC) Style
COC comes at sanity from the perspective that there are truths to the real nature of the universe so awful, it shatters the mind.  The more you learn the truth, the less sane are you.  As your Mythos Knowledge skill increases, your maximum sanity steadily dwindles.

I find the sanity mechanic is a big fail.  It's hard to role play an insane person at the table; most of the time players try it, it devolves into camp.  Funny, but not scary.  Sanity can act as a resource pressure; it's a precious resource (like hit points), and players want to preserve it and stay in the game.  Resource pressure keeps them on their toes and can be an instrument of horror.

Unfortunately, COC sanity has the exact opposite effect of reinforcing the genre; instead of plunging forward like an intrepid Lovecraftian delver who goes too far and learns the awful truths of the universe, the sanity mechanic in COC actually discourages learning those awful truths.

The Trail of Cthulhu (COC) Style
Okay, how about TOC?  TOC maintains a watered down sanity mechanic, but its primary mechanic is something called Stability.  Stability more or less functions like mental health - mental hit points.  Any scare, fright, or eldritch horror makes an attack against your character's mental health.  As stability erodes, the character's ability to function and use skills decreases.

However, the stability mechanic is counter-balanced by a mechanic called a drive.  A drive is that thing that causes the character to willingly embrace the tropes of horror - to go alone into the dark basement, to keep reading the evil book, or to urge everyone forward to see the thing on the doorstep.  When a character allows their drive to push them into harm's way, they get a mechanical benefit - they heal some stability back because they're following their inner muse.

The combination of stability and drives emulates how characters in a Lovecraft story behave better than the straight sanity mechanic.   In a COC game, everyone knows something creepy is in the basement, and because of the potential sanity loss, they react as gamers - "I'm not going in there - no way.  Let's come back in the morning." In a TOC game, everyone knows something creepy is in the basement, it's midnight and the moon is out, but everyone wants to gain some stability back by following their drives - "I feel compelled to press onward and see what's making that noise..."

The D&D Approach
Here's the real question though - do any of these approaches belong in Dungeons & Dragons?  D&D is primarily about exploration and recovering treasure; at least, that’s how characters are rewarded by the system. Monsters are only an obstacle; fighting is often the least preferred option.

Would D&D benefit from a sanity mechanic that discourages exploration?  (No)

Does D&D need an additional mechanic (like drives) that encourages exploration?  (No)

Dungeons & Dragons characters are already adventurous and inured to awfulness.  You don't need a sanity mechanic to tell you when to act scared.  There are plenty of other ways to add horror to your D&D game.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Most Anticipated Gaming Products - 2011

Today is a light posting day - won't have the chance to write later tonight.  When I head home from work, it'll be a birthday party for my son (he's turning 9), and we've had family in town, keeping me from locking myself in the study and working on The Black City.

If you've followed the kid's game over at Dragonsfoot, be sure to wish Soap the Wizard a happy birthday; he'll be having a sleepover tomorrow and I'll be running a special game of B4 The Lost City for the assembled youths, while we take a short break from Stonehell Dungeon.

Thinking ahead to the rest of the year, here's a bunch of stuff in the world of D&D and Cthulhu gaming to which I'm looking forward.  How about you?  What are your most anticipated gaming products for 2011?

Goblinoid Games - Realms of Crawling Chaos
My head exploded when I saw this announcement; it went right to the top of the wish list.  Sounds like it's less than a few months away, so I won't wear a hole in the carpet pacing back and forth in anticipation.  I recently got my hardback of Mutant Future, so that should help wile away the time.

LOTFP - Various Things
I'm looking forward to getting a high production value version of Carcosa; I go for a lot of PDFs but will break the rules on this one.  The Island of the Unknown is interesting, as is Death Ferox Doom.  I'm still on the fence about the Grindhouse Edition - it might depend on the box; I'm not sure about a not-safe-for-kids game when the game room is constantly invaded by 8-9 year olds.

Trail of Cthulhu - Cthulhu Apocalypse
There's been 30 years of epic, world-spanning campaigns in the Call of Cthulhu line, and someone has finally asked the question - okay, what if the first group of investigators/heroes failed to stop the end of the world, and the PC's are the ones trying to figure out how it happened, after a Great Old One returned and wrecked everything.  Cthulhu and post-apocalypse; almost as good as peanut butter and chocolate (D&D and Horror).

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG
I don't exactly need another set of rules, but I'm intrigued by the 'back to Appendix N' approach, and from what I've seen about the proposed magic system, it might fit the pulp source literature and sorcery better than D&D's system - it's worth watching.  Not ready for Gencon, though?... ouch.

There are some other items I'll be picking up or keeping an eye out for - I tend to get some PDF adventures from the little guys, and will continue to do so; I'm still keeping an eye on Frog God Games as they get rolling; there's a good chance I'll get the Cthulhu Invictus campaign (Cthulhu Invictus is for Cthulhu gaming in historical ancient Rome); I'm intrigued by Sword and Sanity - it's right in my wheelhouse of interests.  And I'll hope to hear that Chaosium will finally reprint Beyond the Mountains of Madness...

Perhaps the best news - looks like I'll be heading out to GenCon.  The recent OSR announcement was enough to overcome my malaise and inertia.  Besides, I want to be there playing Moldvay, Labyrinth Lord or WFRP when WOTC announces 5th edition...

Weird Adventures
Trey over at From the Sorceror's Skull just posted a preview for Weird Adventures - I forgot that his stuff might be compiled as a book in 2011; that one goes right on the list too.  D&D classes and monsters in a pulp action world reminiscent of early 20th century America.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Review: Blood Moon Rising

Continuing my practice of reviewing recently played modules, next up is Blood Moon Rising from Small Niche Games.  It's available through the usual suspects as a PDF - RPGnow & Drivethru RPG - for the affordable sum of $4.95.  I'll include play test notes at the end, and of course, there will be spoilers.

The basic idea behind the module is that there is a week long festival and feast in a nearby village, and aspiring fighters from the surrounding areas come to the village to compete in a tournament that lasts the festival week.  While the day-to-day events of the tournament are unfolding, each night features a gruesome monster attack that ramps in intensity as the week gets further along.  The adventure is for 1st-3rd level characters.

The contents of the module describe the village and local monastery, the lands surrounding the village, a couple of adventure sites/delving opportunities, lots of villagers and visiting NPCs, a schedule of events for the week, and a large number of random events to bring the festival to life.  It's jam-packed and really gives the DM a lot to work with.

I've read a few of this publisher's pieces, and his strength as a writer is in developing characters and situations that drive a story forward.  In the case of Blood Moon Rising, that means there are events that will happen daily regardless of the actions the players take; the world goes on without them.  I like that -  it feels like the world is in motion.  Ideally, the DM will provide sufficient motivation for the players to compete in the tournament (there are prizes to win), and their sense of heroism or adventure will get them to intervene as the nightly attacks escalate.   While the adventure isn't explicitly horror, there is plenty of potential to nudge the story in that direction; it's fairly dangerous for low-level characters.

The module is written for Labyrinth Lord, but I wouldn't call it "old school".  My narrow view of old school modules is that they should be site-based; once you start getting into story and a schedule of events, you're emulating modules of a different era.  Stylistically, this one reminds me a lot of the mid-90's Night of the Vampire.  That being said, since everything in the module revolves around a village, it's still fairly easy to drop it into an existing campaign world and have the location parked and ready to go for whenever the DM wants to kick off the festival week.  Unlike other "story" based adventures, I found no railroading was necessary.

One criticism I have is that the maps aren't great; there are maps for the village and nearby area, as well as a few small dungeons.  They're serviceable, but won't excite any cartographic junkies.

Overall, this played extremely well in the campaign and I'd rate it highly - 3.5 out of 5 on the Beedometer.

How did it work out when we played it?
Let me preface the notes by saying the players considered Blood Moon Rising one of the most fun adventures we had played in the 3+ years we've been together as a group.  While I'm glad to take most of the credit due to my stellar Dungeon Master skills and presentation, I feel obligated to share at least some of the credit with the author…

The plethora of detailed NPCs gave us villains, foils, rivalries, and allies that will see use in the campaign for the foreseeable future… well, they would have seen use, if they survived the recent undead invasion.

The tournament was a lot of fun; at one point, I ran the sword-fighting matches as a 32-seed single elimination tournament with tournament brackets, cheering fans, and lots of cheating (especially by the player characters).  My players were so hyper-focused on tournament participation, they ignored many of the ancillary plot opportunities until the monster attacks became impossible to ignore.  (I think it's a strength of the set up that players can ignore the writer's plan and still get the job done).

The finale of the adventure was quite dangerous, and could easily have been a TPK; as it was, 2 player characters and a henchman perished.  Very deadly, but extremely exciting.

If you're so inclined, the detailed campaign write-ups are over on Dragonsfoot:

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Shared Experience of Modules

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day

Since publishing my campaign recap of Death Frost Doom, a few folks have posted in the comments about how it went in their own campaign, or that they're looking forward to running it themselves.

One of the overlooked benefits of running a published module is having these shared experiences.  When a lot of us started in the hobby in the 1980's (in some cases, even the 70's) TSR was the only show in town; their modules got heavily played.  One could argue JG had a few classics as well - Tegel Manor, for instance.  Most everyone has a Keep on the Borderlands story, or a Village of Hommlet or White Plume Mountain story, or even a Tomb of Horrors story.  Most gamers could tell war stories about what happened the first time they met the captured Medusa prisoner in the Caves of Chaos.

WOTC had a similar thing going in the early days of 3x and even 4E when everyone knew who Meepo was, or could relate how they got TPK'd by Irontooth.  (If you don't know either of those characters, well, good job.  Ignorance is bliss and all that.)

So I'm left with two thoughts - first, this shared experience is another benefit of running modules.  Sharing the war stories.  Building on the Sandbox of Modules, my defense of modules continues.

Second, would Death Frost Doom be the first OSR module that's really developed a community of shared experiences?  I still need to go back and catch up on some of the OSRIC stuff - I would think Pod Caverns of the Sinister Shroom might seem to get some mention as well.

Would love to hear thoughts and comments.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Mythic Monday: The Medusa - Female Rage Unleashed

Ancient Minoan Snake Priestess
One of the patterns repeated again and again in mythology is that one culture's gods and exalted beings become the next culture's demons.  There are examples that will be familiar to folks that know their Old Testament - myth figures like Baal (or Baal Zebub) get demonized in medieval folklore as Beelzebub.

The Medusa is a subtle and unusual example of this kind of demonization.  Anthropologists have identified the pre-Mycenaean culture of Greece as primarily matriarchic; when the patriarchal warrior culture of the Mycenaean's conquered mainland Greece, the matriarchies were consigned to places like Crete, where Minoan culture persisted (at least until the Minoans were also subsumed into Mycenaean culture).  What we think of as Greek myth in the classic period emerged from this fusion of Mycenaean culture and the conquered peoples.

Echoes of this ancient subjugation linger in Greek myth.  Symbols of female power, like the earth and the snake, are demonized in the image of the Medusa.  The usual suspects in patriarchal myths, sky gods and male heroes that dominate the earth, are heavily featured in the Medusa story - like Perseus and the Pegasus.

When I see gamers talk about how to use the Medusa in their games, they're usually afflicted with "Clash of the Titans" syndrome; they want the Medusa to be a legendary, unique monster.

I'm going to suggest a different tact - instead of trying to imitate the superficial elements of the myth story, let's look deeper to the actual source of the myth for inspiration.  Namely, a patriarchal culture moves in with their sky gods and displaces an older, matriarchal culture.  It's cliché, but it works - and history is on our side.  Okay, here we go.

A different way to use Medusa in your game

The peaceful, agrarian worshippers of the Beautiful Mother were invaded by northern barbarians in the distant past.  Idols of the Beautiful Mother were smashed, sacred circles were toppled, holy places were burnt to the ground, priestesses were slaughtered.

In a world where a god's or goddess's power is proportional to the number of their followers, the overthrow of this ancient religion was devastating to the Beautiful Mother.  What goes through the mind of a goddess as her power helplessly drains away into the usurper, a pattern repeated again and again, from land to land?

As the power of the Beautiful Mother waned, her hatred twisted her into something spiteful and vengeful; her last act as a goddess before sliding into eternal demonhood and plummeting from the celestial realm to the Abyss, was to gift her remaining priestesses with the power to punish their oppressors.  The elements of the goddess religion transformed into the instruments of this punishment; beauty was used to lure men to their doom; earth and stone were used to petrify; the snake's eternal youth and power over life and death became weapons of poison and terror.

Wrath of a fallen goddess
Even today, in the "modern age" of your campaign world, the race of Medusas continues to wage their war against the human men that caused the fall of their goddess in the distant past.

They hold a special antipathy for male clerics.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Death Frost Doom campaign recap

Spoilers / Death Frost Doom / You've been warned...

Seeing as Dreams in the Lich House got a big bump in traffic because of the Death Frost Doom post - welcome! - I'll oblige by cross-posting the finale of Death Frost Doom here, along with a brief recap of the immediate past.  Parts 1 and 2 are in detail over on the regular campaign journal at Dragonsfoot;  I typically try to keep game reports there, but will make an exception for the zombie apocalypse.

Note:  just because the players unleashed ancient horrors on the campaign world, doesn't mean it's over; on the contrary, now it gets interesting.

Detailed Recaps (or read the brief recap below):

Brief Recap:
The basic set up (if you skipped parts 1 and 2); the players were hired by a gypsy man, Ismark, to help recover a magic sword from an evil temple in the mountains.  (Death Mountain, specifically).  Ismark comes from a place called Barovia, a town in the Valley of Mists at the headwaters of the Davish River.  A long slumbering evil is re-awakening in Barovia, and a gypsy fortune reader foretold to Ismark that an ancient weapon, the magic sword at Death Mountain, needed to be returned to the land.  On behalf of the lord mayor of Barovia, he's offered the PC's 10,000gp to help him return the sword.

An expedition was formed and carefully equipped (it's October in-game, cold in the mountains).  They made a base camp in the foothills near Death Mountain, and on successive forays there, explored an ancient graveyard, a cultist cabin, and a sprawling necropolis and shrine beneath the ground, all dedicated to a death cult.  It's taken 3 separate day-long delves for them to get to where the story picks up now.

Cast of Characters:
Mordecai, a Cleric-3: Adam
Shy, a Fighter-2: JR
Forlorn, an Elf-2: Bo
Mister Moore, Magic User-3: Mike

Phat Kobra, a Dwarf-2
Zeke, a Fighter-2Louie, a Halfling-3
Starkweather, a Thief-2

Left guarding the camp:
Anderson, a Fighter-3: Jeff (missed)
Mario, a Halfling-2
With the rest of the necropolis and shrine behind them, the group decided the only way forward was to enter the final shrine, the farthest room they could reach in the dungeon.  Up until now, there hasn't been a single fight in the dungeon, only a few tricks and traps.  All they've seen are endless corridors of the ancient dead, entombed in catacomb niches and sealed in by thin plaster coverings.

Across the shrine room, they could see a small altar, goblets, a book, and the likeness of Ismark's quest sword, just sitting out for the taking.  But their way was blocked by a massive plant thing that covered a hole in the floor and stretched up into a shaft in the ceiling.  It was covered in spikes.  Much of the plant must have been hollow, for as wind blew up and down the shaft, it created a piping music through the plant that reverberated throughout the dungeon.

"Well, what are we waiting for", exclaimed Ismark.  "It's time we hack through it".

"Here you go", said Phat Kobra, handing him his spare battle axe.  Ismark strode forward and swung at the plant, which promptly flailed him with a strip of spikes.  "Ouch!  It moves!"

Plan B involved dousing it with oil from a distance, and setting it on fire; then some of the fighters stepped forward with spears and swords and pushed it back, hacking.  A way was cleared, and the piping stopped.  "Let's be quick and get out", said Forlorn the Elf.  "Something about that music was important.  Anyone else get the sense that there's a giant sleeping monster at the bottom of the well, the way the wind rhythmically sucks in and out down the shaft?  I don't like this place".

Forlorn had an eye-piece that let him read the awful language of the death cult; there was an inscription on the wall (on a secret door he found) that intimated the only way through the secret door would be to splash it with the innocent blood of a human sacrifice; it would lead to something called the 'greater tombs'.

Meanwhile, Ismark strapped on the sword; the others looted the altar, grabbing a pair of goblets and something called the 'Book of Unspeakable Shame'.  Kobra found another secret door to the north.  That was when the first zombies attacked.

The nearest set of catacombs to the characters held the long-dead remains of children; a flood of desiccated child-zombies stumbled into the room, attacking the rear-guards.  As they started to growl and moan, the noise was picked up by more child-zombies, and then even further back by zombies from the other catacombs, and soon the entire underground was buzzing with the sound of anxious flesh-eaters;  fresh prey had been spotted, and thousands of the walking dead were now on the move.  "Oh crap", murmured… everyone.

Forlorn looked dolefully at Ismark and squeezed the pommel of his dagger.  An innocent must be sacrificed to open the secret door.  Sucks to be the NPC, he thought.  But then Kobra pointed out that the northern secret door had an opening mechanism, and Ismark was spared.  Mordecai laid down a Turn Undead spell, to drive the front line of zombies back into the oncoming horde, hoping to buy a round so the group could perform a fighting withdrawal through the secret door.  Mister Moore cast Hold Portal from a scroll.

Once on the other side of the secret door, Hold Portal kept the door sealed while others jammed the mechanism with spikes; they also did first aid on the injured.  They could hear the sound of the hungry dead, smashing themselves against the stones, scratching and digging against the mortar.  How long could the door hold?

"Don't forget, we're in the Greater Tombs now", said Mordecai, the Prophet of Poignard.  "If undead are waking up out there, they're probably waking up in here, too".

In a moment of blatant meta-gaming, the group took a long look at the map and tried to 'guess what the module writer was thinking'.  They realized how everything that led them to this point ensured they would be trapped with thousands of undead blocking the way out.  It was all so clear now.  Why didn't we put crowbars in some of those wheel-locks, keeping them from opening?  Why don't we even have crowbars as part of our gear?  "Of course there has to be a way out if we press forward", they theorized.  "No one would leave us like this".

Their first path led to a dead-end, with a pit in the floor, and an inscription on the wall.  While Forlorn would read similar inscriptions with the eye-piece (this hasn't been the first inscription), he's been careful not to read the notes I passed him with the translation out loud.  Paranoid, I guess.

That didn't stop the majority of the group from looking into the pit, and getting enthralled by the hypnotic spiral pattern that led into the depths.  A few the characters even started to lean inwards.

"Oh crap", said Kobra.  "Let's get 'em outta there".  He and Moore started dragging entranced guys away from the pit, starting with Forlorn and Mordecai.  When they turned back, a scene of horror was enfolding.  A giant-sized spider had emerged from the hole; Kobra and Moore were surprised.  The spider planted it's fangs in Ismark's gut, bundled him up with it's front legs, and started pulling him into the hole.  Ismark snapped out of the trance, a look of panic in his eyes, but already he was convulsing and spasming from the awful spider poison flooding his system.

"He's got the magic sword!", cried Moore, and Kobra sprung into action - not to save Ismark, but to grab the sword hilt and twist the magic sword off of his belt.  There was a brief tug-of-war between the spider, pulling on Ismark's limp body, and Kobra, pulling on the sword and scabbard, but then the leather thongs snapped and Ismark disappeared into the darkness.  "At least we have the sword and the promissory note", said Moore.  "We can still get the 10,000gp in Barovia".

They went down the other passage, still hearing the insistent pounding of the hungry dead echoing from the area of the secret door.  Would the spikes hold?  The next hallway led to a series of barred and locked rooms; many of the doors were decorated with gruesome devices - skeletal hands, chains and flaying hooks with remnants of shriveled flesh, awful murals and spikes.  Many times they could hear pounding and scratching on the other side of the doors, more insistent undead desperate to get out and feast.  They chose to bypass all of these barred rooms, hoping to find egress further on.

The last room they discovered was unbarred and unlocked, with a sun mural on the door.  In the mist-obscured room past the door, there was only a stone crypt.  They started searching the far wall for secret doors, praying for a back-way out.

"You won't find what you're looking for back there", said the smiling vampire that coalesced out of the mist, blocking the door out of the room.  He wore an archaic military uniform and cloak, with cropped hair and beard like some ancient Roman general.  "I am general Cyris Maximus, supreme commander of the Armies of Death, and I need a way out of this place as well.  Let's talk."

This dilemma ended up being fun, from a DM's perspective.  The players sharpened their pencils and took stock of their resources (4 magic missiles, a wand of paralysis, and a pair of magic weapons +2 and higher) and tried to gauge whether they could 'take' the vampire, while also wanting to hear what he had to say.

Cyris explained that he was trapped by those powerful druids that also made the plant creation that kept the dead sleeping; only by being invited out of the crypt by a mortal could he leave.  His deal was simple; if the characters swore an oath to guide him to safety, he could command the zombies in the outer temple to let them pass, and he would also agree to safely part ways once both sides were clear of Death Mountain.  Live and let live.

"What will happen if we free you?", asked Mordecai, scared of the implications.  Cyris smiled.  "I plan to find the remnants of the death cult, or it's most powerful agent in this day and age, and resurrect the worship of the death god.  Over time, freeing me will lead to the deaths of thousands upon thousands of innocents.  But you, you will be allowed to live".

Ultimately, the players decided that if they made the deal and freed the vampire, they could live with themselves if they put 'tracking him down and killing him', somewhere on the do-list.  But first they had to survive and gain some experience levels.  "Speaking of treasure", said Forlorn to the vampire, "Now that all the crypts are emptied, I'm sure the zombies have knocked all the gold, jewels and gems out of the niches and onto the floor in the catacombs.  What do you say, on the way out, we scoop up some loose  change for our troubles?"

The vampire laughed aloud at the elf's callous nature.  "I will command the faithful zombies out of the catacombs, to stream down the mountain.  They will drive the ghouls on the surface before them.  By nightfall, we shall head in the other direction, deeper into the mountain range.  On the next peak, I shall call forth to some of my allies.  You will be responsible for carrying my coffin during the day and escorting me safely.  However much gold you choose to carry, it cannot encumber you, or I will make you leave your packs and equipment behind.  Choose wisely".

They went to a place in the shrine where a special oath would be enforced by the powers of Hell itself, and the characters made their pact and swore mutual oaths with the ancient vampire.  Then the looters started dropping non-essential equipment so they could carry the extra gold and not suffer encumbrance problems.

Then it started to dawn on them… they had a camp at the base of the mountain!  Horses, wagons, food, supplies, henchmen and an absent player character.  Cyris shook his head, "Not any longer.  The sleeping dead on the surface are victims of the cult, returned as ghouls.  As they broke the surface, they started ranging for food; by now they are galloping over ridge and dale, a tide of undead hunger that will burst upon the valley.  They do not tire, they do not sleep, and they always run.  You don't have any friends down there, not any longer".


Wow!  So that's where we ended.  Crazy fun stuff - what an awesome adventure.  Mike wondered if we should start a new campaign now that they turned Sterich into The Walking Dead.  Adam (Mordecai), was concerned about his character; in-game, how could he return to the side of good and live up to being a chosen cleric.  "If Mordecai was a better person, he would have let himself be killed rather than make a deal with the vampire".  Bo pointed out that the damage was already done by the time we met the vampire, as the undead were already loose.  By surviving, the players can make it a goal to fix it.

But not right away, Bo pointed out.  "We need xp, and xp means money, so let's take the cult's gold, head to Barovia, and collect our 10,000gp, too.  We'll circle back and deal with Cyris sometime in the future".  Very pragmatic of him.

So between now and next week, the players are going to chatter about next steps via email.  Of course they'll guide Cyris to his safe place; after that, who knows?  They know there are a few potential refuges in the mountains - Witch Mountain and Stonegate (a dwarf hold).  They could head straight to Barovia.  They could try and make it back to the Tower of the Stargazer - they stocked it for a siege.  They could try and discretely follow the horde, and see if they can help with the defense of the lands below.   A final idea they threw out there was crossing the valley, finding the Flannish folk, and seeing if the druids of the hill folk would help save the Oeridian valley people.

Meanwhile, I'll be busting out the Companion Rules War Machine and Siege Machine rules, and statting up the undead forces and the various deployments for Lord Lennox and the counties to the north.  I'll run a military side-campaign and track the progress of the war of civilization versus the dead.  In a world with few spell-casting clerics like Gothic Greyhawk, who knows how far the undead will be able to spread?  Sterich could be a depopulated wasteland by the time the characters return.

Here's the updated campaign map with some of the player options displayed: