Monday, February 28, 2011

Horror Revisited

More musings on Horror in D&D

Horror in Dungeons & Dragons is a popular post here.  I wanted to point out a few situations from last game session and show how easily a bit of horror can work its way into the session (for the entertainment of all).  Note: spoilers follow for the module Hammers of the God.

Ankle Biters
Early in the game, the group walked through a room where a thick purple mist covered the floor.  They had just passed through the room a short while ago, but on the second time across, a pair of zombies huddling out of sight under the mist grabbed two of the characters by the legs and attacked them.

The group spiked the door to the purple mist room behind them (which also meant they locked themselves in the dungeon).  Later, they discovered the mist room had filled with zombies behind them - they were trapped.  They left a bunch of their gear outside the dungeon.  Did they have enough supplies?  Would they have to fight their way out?  The room had roughly 100 corpses - would they have to battle 100 zombies to freedom?

My Biscuits are Burning
Late in the night, they lowered their halfling by rope down a 40' shaft into a dark cave on the next level.  Yikes.  Scouting ahead alone can be a little stressful.  But when a hulking monster rushes out of the dark, breathing fire, it gets really stressful!  And when the fire is burning the rope, and there's a chance that everyone is about to see the scout get stuck down there, now we're speaking the horror language.  (There were cheers when the rope made its item save vs fire...)

Elements of Horror
The purple mist lent atmosphere and tension just by obscuring the floor, and created the opportunity for monsters to pop up and startle the characters (Atmosphere and Shock/Scare).  Getting trapped in a dungeon with a large throng of hungry dead between you and the door creates stress and Resource Pressure.   Getting ambushed by a big monster is Danger, and since everyone else is watching the train wreck, it's a bit of Vicarious Horror as well.  That James Raggi fellow knows a thing or two about putting good horror tools into the DM's hands (Hammers of the God is a flame princess module).

Any of the situations I described above would be a nice moment in a horror movie.  D&D characters are more immured to danger and capable of dealing with adversity, so these horror situations end up being thrilling, stressful (in a good way), challenging and exciting - moments to strive for in your table top game.

Threaten the character, stress the player, enjoy the game. 

Could be a new motto for me.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mythic Monday: The Sidhe

I met a lady in the meads, 
Full beautiful—a faery’s child, 
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I saw pale kings and princes too, 
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; 
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci 
Hath thee in thrall!”

--John Keats, La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Mythic Monday - using elements of folklore, myth and legendry in your game.

It's funny how many quotes you read, either from Gary Gygax or his defenders, that minimize the influence of Tolkien on Dungeons & Dragons and argue that D&D is based primarily on pulp fantasy.  Regardless of Gary's intention, every time a new person picks up a book, the first thing they see when they build a character are dwarves, elves and hobbits halflings - 3 out of the 4 character types are straight out of Tolkien.  It's inevitable the first thought is, "Oh, this game is based on Lord of the Rings!"  The Conan or Lankhmar advocates never stand a chance.  Our actual games may resemble the adventures of pulp fantasy more than high fantasy, but at that point, the horse has already left the barn.

There wouldn't be halflings in the game without Tolkien; I find the Tolkien influence is equally ingrained in the D&D elf.

The pre-Christian folklore of Europe is populated with mysterious, semi-divine beings that were the inspiration for the modern elf - the Alves and Vanir of old Norse, the Tuatha de Danann of ancient Ireland, the Daoine Sidhe of Gaelic folklore, the Fairies of medieval romance.  Yet with all that myth and folklore available, we get the Tolkien-style elves.  It demonstrates the long shadow Middle Earth casts on modern fantasy.

Luckily, many of the fantasy authors on the Appendix N list were well versed in folklore and willing  to develop interpretations of the Fair Folk that were quite a bit different than the esteemed Professor's.  I'm a realist; the Tolkien elf is so well-rooted in D&D and the popular conscience, there's no going back.  Rather than go down the path of "My Elves Are Different", we can leave the elf alone and use these different approaches to create a figure that fits the role of the elf of legend before Tolkien's powerful vision dominated the field.

The Daoine Sidhe of Fairy
The Daioine Sidhe (dee-na shee) are the immortal inhabitants of the Fairy otherworld.  I'm drawing inspiration for them directly from some Appendix N materials, The King of Elfland's Daughter, Three Hearts and Three Lions, and The Broken Sword.  (And a healthy dose of Hellboy comics and Dresden).

The Sidhe inhabit the fantastic palaces and forests of the twilit realm of Fairy.  There was a time when portals between the Fairy otherworld and the mortal world were common, and the Sidhe walked the forests of the mortal world and took endless delight observing and interfering in the world of men.  As the power of Law waxes throughout the realms of man, and the reach of the church grows, the realm of Fairy withdraws deeper into itself.  Encounters with the Sidhe are often tinged with the sadness of this long withdrawal and their loss of relevance.  The world is changing.

Morgan Le Fay, from Hellboy
The Sidhe exist with a morality defined by Chaos and magic, that predates the influence of Law.  Their motives are otherworldly and alien to mortals; they abduct peasants in darkened woods and play cruel pranks; they lure devoted spouses of both sexes into amorous trysts; they exchange mortal infants for sickly changelings.  Sidhe lords and ladies are haughty, dismissive and capricious.  Queens of faerie, such as Morgan le Fay (pictured), take particular delight in luring mortal knights (especially paladins) into the realm of Fairy and distracting them with sensual delights until their cause is lost.

The Sidhe are immortal but soulless.  They are gifted with magic and touched by Chaos, but their powers are limited against Law.  They fear the holy church and cannot intrude on consecrated ground without taking damage.  They are driven off by the sound of church bells, and are burned by the touch of iron weapons.  The church prosecutes a war against the inhabitants of Fairy by barring and sealing fairy portals with holy symbols and chains of iron.  Churchmen urge their followers not to be led astray by the guise of beauty these beings display through their glamours.

While many of the Sidhe recognize with sadness that the day approaches when the last Fairie portal to the mortal realm will close forever, there are those that fight back - they commune with demons and other thralls of Chaos, incite the pagan folk in the borderlands and wilds against the realms of Law, and seek  to return the mortal world to the eternal twilight before the cycles of day and night were established by divine decree.

Game Statistics for a Sidhe Lord
Laybrinth Lord / BX

No. 1(1)
MV 120(40)
AC 0
HD 10d6**
ATK  weapon +2
D 1d8 +2 or by weapon+2 or spell
Save E10
Morale 8
XP 2300

Suggested Spells:
1. Charm person, Darkness, Sleep, Ventriloquism
2. Detect Invisible, ESP, Levitate, Phantasmal Force
3. Clairvoyance, Hold Person, Lightning Bolt
4. Charm Monster, Polymorph Others
5. Geas, Flesh to Stone

The Sidhe lord will have fairy armor, shield and sword granting +2 enchantment bonuses in the land of Fairy, but will crumble to dust after spending too much time in the mortal world without exposure to the magicks of Fairy.

In game terms, the Sidhe are similar to elves in appearance, with some important differences.

All Sidhe can become invisible at will (limit  once per round); elves are not affected and can see invisible fairies.  There are rare magical ointments, spells, and boons that will allow mortals to pierce fairy invisibility (and the spell Detect Invisibility works as well).  The Sidhe speak their own language, Fairy, along with the common tongue, and numerous woodland dialects.  Elves have an increased chance of knowing Fairy (I'm using the excellent LotFP language rules).

The Sidhe have unusual vulnerabilities.  They can be turned by clerics as an undead of the same level.  (I would suggest waiving this in the realm of Fairy.  Additionally, I'm using Turn Undead as a 1st level spell, so it's not a ridiculous every-round super power).  They take 1hp per round of damage when intruding on consecrated ground, and take 1d4 hp per round from the touch of iron.  Iron weapons (not steel) deal an extra 1d4 hp per attack.  The tolling of a church bell will force a save vs death or cause the Sidhe to flee the area.

There are rules of magic that may place a mortal within the Sidhe's power.  A mortal forfeits the ability to make a saving throw against Sidhe magic (until the next dawn) whenever they partake of Sidhe food and drink or willingly enter a fairy ring beneath a full moon.  This vulnerability is most often used for Charm Person or Geas spells.

A very small percentage of mortals are born with the ability to see fairies (let's make it 1%).

Relation to Elves
The elves are those Sidhe that chose to permanently remain in the mortal world ages ago when the current relationship of the planes was fixed in place by the great powers of Greyhawk; the elves of that bygone age forfeited their immortality and some of their magic, but gained immunity to the vulnerabilities that plague their distant cousins.  The Sidhe consider elves flawed, lesser beings.

Faeries in my Gothic Greyhawk game
Pig-headed Pooka from Helboy
There was an incident earlier in the campaign where the characters were accosted by a pooka, Hogsbottom, at a cross roads.  Hogsbottom appeared as a small pig-headed fairy wearing a suit and vest with buckled shoes.  In the best tradition of slippery deals with faeries, he managed to get the players to agree to perform a service for his mistress, sight unseen.  I loved it.

They later learned the job was to remove the iron chains and holy symbols draped all around the faerie circle in a local grove, placed their by the devout churchmen of the nearby village (Poignard).  The grove was a fairy crossing for Hogsbottom's mistress, the sidhe Lady of Dawn, and he desperately wanted to let her and her court of revelers back into the mortal realm in time for the equinox.

The players liberated the grove, and decided to visit the fairies on the night of the equinox and collect their boons in person.  Much fun and revelry was had ala A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the Lady of Dawn turned out to be pleased that her crossing was opened.  However, their cleric at the time, Friar Crimson, didn't fare well in the deal - they were separated from him during the revel, and he ended up cursed, stripped, shaved and tattooed for his troubles.  They found him sometime the next day, caught in a bramble.  It was funny watching him explain his new appearance back at the monastery.

Upcoming Development
One of the next cosmology articles will feature the Realm of Fairy, and I'll include details on fairy crossings and portals.

New header for Dreams in the Lich House

I've put up a new Dreams in the Lich House header.  One benefit of moving back to the east coast, I reconnected with a great friend from high school, and he kindly agreed to put together that awesome header (the text overlay is still a work in progress on my part).  You can check out some of his online sketches here:  psychiatry album.

Oh, and we've been chatting about the Black City - when he heard about vikings in an alien city with mesoamerican themes, he doodled the sketch below.  The Black City and AD&D Implied Setting are neck and neck in the new projects poll!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Law in Gothic Greyhawk

In the beginning, Oerth was without form; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit moved upon the face of the waters…

The first mythic act of the divine being is to bring order to Chaos, to create the heavens and the Oerth.  This is the second article adding detail to the cosmology of Gothic Greyhawk.  Last week, when we looked at Chaos, we touched on the Elemental Chaos that existed before the world.  This week, we'll look at the "one god" , the divine realms, and the role of Law in Gothic Greyhawk.

There are two principle divine realms that concern the mortals of Gothic Greyhawk.  The realm of Heaven is the abode of the god called Pholtus, who revealed himself as the creator to the great prophet of Nyrond  cy320 (when Nyrond threw off the yoke of the overlord of Aerdi).  The worship of Pholtus swept through the west lands with evangelical zeal.

Theologists debate the nature of Pholtus - is he the uncreated prime mover, or an outside being that enforced order on a fallen material universe when he imprisoned the Chained god?  Were the titans and Tharizduin the creators of the world, and Pholtus only the savior of man?

In the northlands of the Theocracy of the Pale, Pholtus is also called the Blinding Light; in the Archclericy of Veluna and places south, he is referred to as the Eternal Spirit; Velunites do not call their deity by name.  The two denominations are rivals, and disagree on theological differences about the nature of their god and the universe; however, both churches put aside their differences in the face of larger external threats, and there are many.

Heaven - Home of the Blinding Light, the Eternal Spirit
The churches of Veluna and the Pale both preach of an eternal, unchanging heaven for believers that uphold a life of goodness, virtue, and law.  They claim Pholtus is the sole god in the universe, and that all other "gods" worshipped by the pagan folk of Greyhawk are demons or mere spirits; evangelism and conversion are important church functions.  They believe only followers of the light will achieve eternal salvation.

A visitation by Pholtus?
Pholtus operates in the world through the actions of prophets and champions gifted with divine powers (clerics and paladins, respectively).  Both the Theocracy and Veluna have large bureaucratic churches managed by non-spell casting clergy.  Actual spell casting ability is bestowed by angelic messengers of Pholtus on prophets, mystics, and the unlikeliest of people.  Guided by divine messengers, these god-touched folk become clerics and get thrust into the front lines of the cosmic war against Chaos.  The churches find and draw clerics into their sphere of influence, and many clerics join the hierarchy, but there have been famous clerics that operated outside of the church institutions as reformers.

Pholtus is served by a host of divine messengers known as angels; his other heavenly servants are saints.  Devout clergy and spell casting clerics  over the past few centuries have been canonized as saints, and can intercede on behalf of the faithful and inspire clerics.  One of the most famous of these saints is Saint Cuthbert of the Cudgel.

The evil one looks like David Warner
The Nine Hells
Similar to Heaven, the Nine Hells are a divine realm in the astral sea.  Both the realms of Heaven and Hell are built on principles of cosmic order and law; however, where the realm of Heaven promises eternal good for the faithful, the Hells are a place of punishment and torment.

Theologists of Oerth argue about the nature of the Hells; is Asmodeus a fallen angel that turned against the creator with an army of faithless angels?  Are the Hells part of a divine plan - do the devils play an important role as Accusers of the mortal races, to lure the unworthy off a righteous path so only the worthy advance?  The devils are in the forefront of the war between Law and Chaos, fighting demons in an eternal struggle known as the Blood War.  Are the devils the ancient soldiers of Law, turned into monsters due to their constant fighting, or is their rivalry due to something else?

Regardless of their origins, the devils delight in laying snares for mortals.  Limited to haunting lonely crossroads or appearing through mystic summons, they  act as testers, tempters, and deceivers - especially versus followers of Pholtus.  The lords of Hell are worshipped from time to time by the misguided, and grant limited powers to anti-clerics and witches.  There are ways to sign a pact with the devils of Hell, wagering one's soul for  temporary youth, knowledge, wealth, or power; such victims may never be Raised or Resurrected.  The devil doesn't give up his due.

Good vs Evil
I'm using Alignment as allegiance - more specifically, alignment is a supernatural aura for creatures that draw power from either the divine realms (Law) or Chaos.  Clerics (both good and evil) are touched by Law, and magic users and elves are touched by Chaos.  That doesn't mean they have to act a certain way - just that they're detectable as users of power.

Good and evil are important concepts in the game world, I just don't want to manage them as game concepts  with rules tied to them.

Clerics without gods?
In a setting where the powerful churches espouse monotheism, where do "other clerics" get their powers?

You may recall that in Deities and Demigods, there are provisions for demons, devils, and lesser beings to grant some clerical spells.  Greater gods are the only beings that can grant 7th level spells.  Lesser gods can grant 6th level spells.  Demigods grant 3rd-5th.

Clerics of Pholtus will be the only ones able to cast 7th level spells -though I'm not sure how many 17th level clerics are hanging around right now!  Some of the powerful saints (like Cuthbert) will be able to grant 6th level spells.  I'd like to limit followers of demon princes or arch devils to 5th level spells, where possible.

A History of Greyhawk Deities
Long time fans of Greyhawk may think this monotheistic approach is too far out there.  What the heck is Beedo thinking?  What about Obad-Hai, Pelor, Hextor, Nerull and the rest of the "beloved" Greyhawk deities?

Ironically enough, the earliest campaign used deities from the real world - Zeus, Odin, guys like that.  Gygax introduced some monotheistic, faux Christian churches thereafter, such as the church of St Cuthbert, or the Church of the Blinding Light (which later became Pholtus).  You can see the faux-Christian influence in early locales like Hommlet, which feature tension between the church of Cuthbert and a pagan Old Faith.  This makes sense, seeing as the cleric is basically a medieval templar with a touch of Van Helsing.

The World of Greyhawk was published in 1980, but the Greyhawk deities that became so popular in later years (I'm thinking of 3.x Living Greyhawk, for instance) weren't published until 1982  in Dragon magazine, and then were added to a published version of Greyhawk in the boxed set of 1983.   We do know a few demigods were in the campaign earlier, such as the ones that were freed in the depths of Castle Greyhawk.

However, I'm fairly comfortable using the early version of the published World of Greyhawk, without the gods that were tacked on later.  Interlopers!  I'll likely work them in here and there where possible (not as gods, but other types of beings - like St Cuthbert as an actual saint).

Further Development and Notes
Cosmology, religion, the role of clerics - these are big topics.  I had created a large list of saints, religious orders, and tenets to give the church of the Eternal Spirit a bit more depth and interest; detail on the churches may make future appearances.

When I first created my alternate Greyhawk timeline, I put the great prophet of Nyrond at the time of the revolution from the demon-infested Great Kingdom; using a historical model, that would put the churches in the same mode as the late Roman era in earth history.  Spirited philosophical differences have arisen as the churches confront theological questions, but the decadence and corruption of the papacy in the middle ages is remote and distant.

To develop gothic themes, it was important to me to have a pseudo-Christian church in Greyhawk, replete with gothic cathedrals, stained glass windows, and that rich supernatural atmosphere of the medieval church.

As for Hell, I wanted to keep the origins ambiguous, but otherwise plan to use Hell pretty much as is (Ed Greenwood's Dragon articles detailing Hell do just fine).  The Monster Manual is woefully missing the archetypical silver-tongued "tempter" devil, so expect to see one in an upcoming Mythic Monday.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Game Report: Gothic Greyhawk game 22

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

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

Hammers of the God:  Spoilers

Back at the table again!  We did a recap of last week - the group is exploring a dwarven tomb and had ended the night fighting some dwarf zombies.  The entry areas of the tomb were permeated by a purple mist that preserved anything that was lying in the mist - bodies were still fresh after falling in a battle a thousand years ago.  And the tomb had worship areas  with various murals depicting dwarven progress and peace.  The players began to question whether the tomb was actually dedicated to an evil god or not…

Forlorn was certain the purple mist had something to do with the 5 dwarves that had arisen as zombies, and he convinced the group to return to the tomb entrance and spike open the door to the outside.  It would let cold, fresh mountain air pour into the tomb and disperse the purple mist.

On their way back from the entrance, the group was waylaid by a pair of dwarf zombies that reached up out of the mist as they traversed the massive mural room - both Grumble and Mordecai were cracked for some damage, and then the group shifted into beat down mode on the zombies.

Something funny happened - Starkweather had this ring of invisibility from a previous adventure, and he thought it would be good to use invisibility to get behind a zombie and do a backstab.  But the zombie saw him while invisible!  Both of the zombies were enraged that he used the ring to enter the shadow world.

He quickly pulled off the ring, and the zombies were destroyed before they could inflict too much punishment.  ZOMG, does Starkweather have the One Ring?

Perplexed that zombies seemed to spontaneously awaken in the mural room, they chose to heavily spike the door behind them when they left the mural room.  Immediately they questioned whether dispersing the mist was a good idea.  What if the mist was actually keeping the zombies asleep?  Everyone started musing whether this was Death Frost Doom all over again.  (James Raggi is turning my players into meta gamers).

Down the hallway to the south, they found a library.  A dwarf library.  As in, each book was 40lbs and made out of stone.  There was even a "card catalog" of sorts - or at least, an index.  They decided to spend time puzzling over the index, to determine the proper chronological sequence of the books.  They asked me to read off the title of every book, and they took notes on the interesting ones.  Very meticulous.  There were like a hundred books.  Mister Moore dryly remarked, "Obviously the books are here for us for a reason…"  (Did I mention the players are becoming meta gamers?)

Anyway, they literally spent days in the library - just not all at once.  On this pass, they read a book or two from the early days, and a book or two from the end, to learn that the library started with an "In the beginning…" narrative about the ancient burrower (old miner?) - possibly the first god of the dwarves.  Later books had to do with a secret, heretical cult of the old miner. They did learn about some possible traps elsewhere in the complex, and this hooked them on the value of the library.  They even picked some random titles distributed amongst the hundred to see if they'd hit on something super useful. They had 3 or 4 party members that could read dwarvish, so they used a divide and conquer approach.

Meanwhile, daylight was burning because each book was taking hours to read.  They had started the delve mid-day, many hours had passed since then, and they knew they'd be approaching exhaustion.  They left the library and decided to explore another door off the hallway to see if there was someplace defensible to camp.

But first they sent the halfling up the hallway to listen to the main door back into the mural room - the heavily spiked door.  He listened, thought he heard some noise, tapped on the door lightly.  His knocking was answered by hungry moans and the sound of many dwarf hands smacking in frustration on the other side.  The mural room was full of zombies!

Groans from all the adults around the table.  "Here we go again".  Then they noticed Nogal, Grumble's player, out of his seat, fists pumping in the air, and gyrating his hips in a crazy happy dance.  "What are you so happy about?"

"I'm living the dream", he said.  "Only 9 years old and I'm in my first zombie apocalypse."  Where he came up with the phrase 'living the dream', I don't know - but kids are awesome.

The DM got to do some chuckling next.  The group had made a big production last session of dumping their heavy gear, tents, and bedrolls out in the canyon, hiding them out of sight behind some boulders, to free up encumbrance for treasure.  Looks like they'll be spending some uncomfortable time sleeping on the cold stone floor.  Muhaha.  Plus, now there was a limit to their time in the dungeon - just how much food and light were they carrying?

They scouted the next couple of rooms, discovering strange walls carved with layered runes.  No time to puzzle over them, so they plunged forward.  In one room, they were attacked by an amorphous monster that changed its attack each round - it was black and indistinct, and generated blade-like appendages, quills, and acid spittle.  As its form shifted, so did its defense.  Since they expected to rest soon, the the magic user and elf dumped all their magic missiles into it, and it was destroyed fairly quickly.

The small complex of rooms had a door leading out, and they wanted two doors between them and the zombies, so they camped near a small fountain.  No healing in the dungeon, but since Mordecai has a staff of healing, they were able to recover hit points.  Backpacks were used as pillows, cloaks as blankets, and guards were set.

The next morning, they noted the zombies hadn't broken through the main door - maybe they where all waiting for them in the mural room?  So the group split up.  The 3 readers took the lantern and a guard back to the library and continued pouring over books.  The big dumb fighters went into the last rune-room and started to work on opening the pedestal by torchlight.

Let me explain about the pedestal.  At the end of the previous day's scouting, the last room had a three foot tall column with a large hole in the top of it.  The hole led to a deep shaft. They sent a rope down the shaft, with the lantern on the end of the rope, to see how deep it went.  It ended in a cave.

"You've got to be kidding me", complained Mister Moore.  "Sure, we can squeeze through the hole - if we dump our armor and backpacks.  I hate this frackin' place already".  Then they noticed the column was built onto the floor and bolted, and a plan was hatched.  They had plenty of heavy hammers and a maul, and figured that if they took enough time, they'd be able to knock the pedestal off its mooring and have a decent sized entrance to get down to the cave.  Since this part of the dungeon was a closed-loop, they weren't too worried about wandering monsters from the noise, as long as the zombies didn't come through the mural door.

Hours later, the pedestal was smashed, the readers took a break, and a call went out for the halfling.  "Yeah, send in the halfling", croaked Mordecai.  They tied Grumble to the end of the rope, stuck a lantern in his hand, and lowered him down the shaft.  "You'll be fine, buddy.  It's your job to scout."  The cleric made some holy signs - last rites? - the dwarf took off his hat to pay his respects, and they lowered the halfling.  When he got to the bottom, he had just enough time to see a large, slug-like bulk ahead in the cave, and then it's mouth gaped open and a stream of liquid fire spurted all over him.  "Get me out of here", he yelled up the shaft.  "I'm burning!".  Luckily, the rope didn't catch fire, and they were able to haul the burning halfling back up.  He was able to tamp out most of the flames by the second round, and still had a few hit points left.  "That sucked".

That was a good place to stop, and it will give them some time to think about how to tackle the shaft and the slug monster.  Nogal has his own take on the session over at the kiddo's blog:  Zombies all over again.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Too many projects?

Perhaps it's "new blogger exuberance", but I'm finding that I keep proposing new projects for myself, and I need to do some prioritizing or I won't get any of them done.

The Black City
I've crumpled at least 3 map attempts to make a surface ruins of the Black City that I like; I've been feeling a bit blocked (but my friend Dave has come to the rescue with some super cool inspirational sketches).  I feel a blitz of cool Black City development coming on, once I get a workable surface map.  (Or I'll just skip the surface for now).

War Machine and Domain Economics for Greyhawk
The progress of the Ghoul Plague in my weekly game (and getting to use the companion set War Machine) got me thinking how cool it would be to stat out all the Greyhawk nations similar to the old Known World of Mystara, and create the standing armies in War Machine terms.

AD&D Implied Setting
I've been using the AD&D DMG more and more at the table for ideas (not rules) and it got me thinking about going through the whole thing and creating a list of attributes that would be part of any core D&D setting if one played 100% by-the-book.

For instance, if you use the training rules in the DMG, it implies the ready availability of paid trainers in some of the home bases, which would imply an economy where adventurers show up for training... maybe even adventurer guilds for networking with trainers.  That's just one element, and the DMG is full of them!

I threw another quick poll on the side there - which project is most interesting to readers?

Oh, and to help apologize for some blatant navel-gazing, here are some interesting quotes on sandboxes vs railroads to ponder - since I mentioned I'm introducing some metaplot to my sandbox:

Sandbox: An imaginary environment within which the game master builds enough railroad tracks to create the illusion that the players aren't being railroaded.

--Frank Mentzer, BECMI author

Railroading is a perjorative term for a game where something gets done.    Most players would rather be on the Orient Express than standing in the station waiting for something to happen.

--Ken Hite (Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu author)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Chaos in Gothic Greyhawk

Spoilers:  note to my players, because I muse about some future adventure opportunities here, you may want to skip this one...

One of the trends in urban fantasy I wanted to pilfer for D&D was to turn some of the "great powers" of the world into recurring characters that interact with the player characters from time to time, more so as they become powerful and noteworthy.

I'm sure you've read of plenty of stories like this - I'm thinking of the works of Mike Mignola (Hellboy and BPRD), the stories of Neil Gaiman, even the Dresden Files.

This ties right into the cosmology post I made a week or so past.  I'll start with the powers of Chaos and build from there in future posts.

Chaos and the Abyss
There are many elemental lords and suzerains throughout the elemental chaos, including the elemental Princes of Evil (from the Fiend Folio).  The following powerful entities  are the ones currently exerting the most influence on Greyhawk.

Symbol of Tharizdun
The Chained God
Most myth cycles begin with the universe in a state of Chaos, and the first act of creation is to bring order to the maelstrom by subduing  the monsters of chaos.  Whether it's Marduk quelling Tiamat, Ymir slain by the Borrs brothers, or Kronos defeated and imprisoned by the Greek gods, it's repeated again and again; so it was the same in the mythic past of Oerth.

A primeval force of Chaos, the Elder Elemental God, was imprisoned at the dawn of creation, and ever has it strived to break it's bonds.  Illicit cults in Greyhawk call this primeval monster or titan, Tharizdun.  The Chained "God" represents ultimate evil and the source of all corruption.  It's presence in the Elemental Chaos created the Abyss, and the door to its prison is the lowest lair of the Abyss.  The first act of creation was when the Eternal Spirit (known in the Theocracy of the Pale as the Blinding Light) defeated Tharizdun and imprisoned it, bringing order and stability to the mortal world.

There are many who strive to learn the way to open the prison and free this entity.

I can envision a time in the future where the party will have the opportunity to explore a forgotten temple to the Chained God, and perhaps run into a cult of drow that have forsaken worship of Lolth for the chained god as well.  :wink:

Best Orcus picture ever
Orcus is the Demon Prince of Undeath and is responsible for unleashing corporeal undead on Oerth, particularly ghouls and vampires.  (Yeenoghu is associated with King of Ghouls in the 1E MM, but I'm stripping him of that misplaced honor).

Orcus is the source of the vampire curse, the ghoul curse, and the ghoul sickness that is currently tearing up Sterich.  His long term agenda is the cessation of all Oerthly life.  He's the patron for Cyris Maximus, the vampire freed on Death Mountain, and it's Orcus's dream sendings that cause Strahd to reawaken from his ages long sleep in the Valley of the Mists.

Other entities
Other powerful entities that will play a role as the campaign develops are Lolth, demon queen of spiders; the demon prince Graz'zt, Iuz the Old; and Iggwilv, greatest of evil magic users.

Metaplot and the Sandbox
There is no single force of Chaos; there are many factions that draw on the power of Chaos for their own destructive ends.  The power of Chaos is waxing as the Ghoul Plague spreads.  Orcus will begin to marshal the forces of his death cult to find lost Iggwilv's trove and return the demonomicon to the world, while striking a blow at his rival, Graz'zt.  Will the players compete with the death cultists and race to be the ones to find the demonomicon first?

Meanwhile, rogue drow in league with the Chained God will see the opportunity to extend their dominion to the surface world.  The instability brought to Sterich by the Ghoul Plague will make the land a ripe target for the giants.  (At this point, I haven't gotten far enough in my War Machine work to know if the plague will be contained in Sterich or if neighboring kingdoms like Geoff or Keoland must lend aid).

The trick to having big metaplot type events in a sandbox, is to have them going on in the background and let the players ignore them if they want.  I know the group's mid-range goals involve visiting Barovia.  After that, they hinted that they might return to Sterich and see if they can help with the mop up.  I expect the Flannish hill and mountain people to reclaim the upper valley in the power vacuum, throwing off the yoke of Istivin, and that could result in a civil war between the Oeridians and the Flans - something ideal for the players to choose sides and tip the balance - and maybe get their own dominions, too.  Meanwhile, the death cult would be hunting for the artifacts, and the giants would be making preparations for war.

Monday, February 21, 2011

New Poll: Emulation vs D&D Fantasy

Yesterday's post about Goodman and emulating Appendix N source material got me thinking how many DMs use D&D to emulate their favorite fantasy setting or historical era, or use a homebrew or published setting, with most of the D&Disms intact.

With that in mind, feel free to drop a note on the new poll.  How do you use D&D or AD&D in your current setting?

I voted for # 3 - I'm running the World of Greyhawk in our current campaign, and I'm not overhauling the fundamentals of D&D to do it.

Mythic Monday: The Bodak

Mythic monday - using elements of folklore, myth and legendry in your game.

'O,' answered Fergus, with a melancholy air, 'my fate is settled. Dead or captive I must be before tomorrow... Upon authority which never failed a person of my house. I have seen,' he said, lowering his voice, 'I have seen the Bodach Glas.'
--Sir Walter Scott, Waverly

The Mothman was a Bodak
The Bodak (in folklore, Bodach) is a Scottish ghost or spirit that foretells doom.  In Scott's tale, it's a spectral figure that appears on the moors whenever great disaster was impending, and always before approaching death.  In folklore, the Bodach (literally old churl) could slither down the chimney, creep along the floor, and torment children like a bogeyman.

I like Walter Scott's interpretation, that the Bodach is a harbinger of doom.  I'd argue "the Mothman" from The Mothman Prophecies legend was a Bodach, as were the bizarre shadow creatures in the horror movie The Eye.  (I may have a small thing for Jessica Alba, so I can be forgiven for seeing it).  In both cases, otherworldly shades are drawn to a location where a great tragedy is about to happen.

When Gary Gygax created an AD&D version of the Bodak in S4, the Lost Caverns of Tsocjanth, he did a funny thing - the Bodak no longer observes upcoming death as a witness, it literally sees death everywhere through it's own death gaze!

The 1E version of the Bodak is described as a monster from the Abyss, a mortal transformed into a demon spawn, and it shares immunities with demons.  By the time 3.x and 4E rolled around, the Bodak was made into an undead, fitting the folklore a little better.

Here is a version we can use in our classic D&D game:

The Bodak (for BX and Labyrinth Lord)

No. 1(1)
MV 60(20)
AC 5
HD 9+9
ATK  weapon
D 1d10
Save F9
Morale 12
Hoard None
XP 3800

Bodaks are shadowy, spectral undead drawn to locales where great amounts of death or tragedy will occur.  Their visage is tormented and hideous.  Mortals slain by a Bodak will return as a Bodak the following night.  Bodaks are vulnerable to sunlight, and take 1hp per round of exposure to direct sunlight.  The Bodak is turned as infernal/special.

Bodaks have the standard undead immunities, and can only be hit by +1 or better magic weapons.  The Bodak will typically carry a large pole arm (like a halberd).  However, the Bodak's fearsome attack is it's Death Gaze.  The gaze of a Bodak, when met, causes death unless a save vs Death Magic is made.  The range of this effect is 30'.

Using the Bodak in Your Game
Going back to the folklore, I like the idea of the Bodak as a harbinger of death and tragedy; the Bodaks, as servants of Death and the Wyrds, are able to read the skeins of fate, learn of upcoming tragedies, and follow them back to the tragic victims.  They're also known to stalk particular families through the generations.

As harbingers of doom, the monster shows itself to a victim on successive nights to torment them and foreshadow the upcoming doom.  The Bodak will stay at a range outside of the death gaze to prevent inadvertent killing.  If the victim somehow cheats their fate, the Bodak is well equipped to step in and correct the situation itself with it's Death Gaze!  (The Bodak always gets his man).

Under some circumstances, a locale that has seen a great amount of death will be claimed and guarded by a Bodak forever, such as a gruesome battlefield slaughter.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Goodman Games and the Genius of Gygax

Planning the next adventure at the Shady Dragon...

I noticed a week or so ago that the second designer's blog for the Dungeon Crawl Classics game got posted.  This one focused on Joseph's deep dive into the Appendix N material and his efforts to try and build a game that cleaves closer to the Sword & Sorcery inspirations.  By way of reminder, a fair statement of the DCC manifesto seems  to be:

It is a version of what D&D could have been, if the early pioneers had access to an existing, robust rules engine to which to adapt their Appendix N inspirations.

This new post has lots of things to me make smile - a discussion of the source material, mention of such characters as Skafloc and Valgard and Holger Danske, figures I recently encountered in my own reading .   I've learned the new game will have race-as-class.  It sounds like the designers are still figuring out what to do with divine characters and clerics.  The focus of the game will be on grand adventures - does that mean out of the multi-leveled dungeon?  This is an intriguing project; I'm sure most of us would love to see an old-school style game make it big again and get back into wide spread distribution.  It's still mostly hype while we wait for the betas.

One thing I wonder about with this focus on Appendix N… is literary emulation actually a good thing?

D&D is a self-referential genre of fantasy.  Our D&D campaigns are filled with "D&Disms" that have now crept into popular culture, modern fantasy novels, and the world of computer gaming.  They've become institutionalized.

Let me throw out some examples.  Raise Dead.  Buying and selling magic items.  The social status of the adventurer.  Classes and levels.  I would define a D&Dism like this: If the game concept presents problems when you're adapting your campaign to emulate specific literature or a historical period, it might be a D&Dism.  The related problem is that D&D is a kitchen sink pastiche, borrowing from everything, so we have an additional issue - not every D&D element fits into every campaign world.

Let's look at Raise Dead.  The DMG provides explicit costs for going into a town or city and buying Raise Dead for a fallen character.  There's not much discussion of religion, deities, limitations or exclusions; the implied setting Gary Gygax is presenting would make Raise Dead an available resource for the right price.  One of the most common campaign nuances I see are DM's placing limitations or exclusions on raise dead.  (I'm guilty).

Magic items have prices in the DMG.  A long campaign will see a fighter get progressively better magic weapons.  What to do with that 'now crappy' sword +1?  The implied answer is sell it, but many genre emulators will limit magic or otherwise ignore the magic item price tables.  Conan never went to the bazaar to get some chainmail +1, after all.

Our games are often influenced by historical periods that lacked the social mobility to support armed adventurers rolling into town, swaggering up to the bar at the nearest tavern, and leaning over to the barkeep, "So - I hear y'all got an Orc problem 'round these parts, partner.  We're here to clean up the mess."  Pardon the bad gunslinger dialogue, but Gygax actually compares adventurers to Wild West gunslingers in the DMG, and the metaphor has stuck with me - that's how we play!

The implied D&D world has a level of social mobility that lets freemen or sons of nobles head out onto the road and seek adventure in a way that just wasn't possible in many of the eras we emulate.  I confess - I love the idea of historical settings with a veneer of magic smeared on top, whether it's ancient Greece, dark ages Germany, or the Viking Age.  But it's hard to reconcile these D&Disms in a world without inns, taverns, cities, shops, or even much trade.  Where do wandering adventurers stay, or buy and sell their items, in such a world?  When I've done those types of games, it's always involved  a patron sending retainers on choice missions - the Greek king of the city state, the Thane or Jarl, the Frankish Count.  It provides the structured home base necessary to support adventurers, but it's not a great match for the free-style sandbox, go-anywhere-you-want style of adventure I prefer nowadays.  I want the Wild West in our fantasy games.

The commonness of adventurers in the implied setting goes further in the DMG.  Take training and advancement.  The DMG implies that there are commercial trainers available to improve your ability to adventure, or teach new spells to magic users.  Training costs are practically a mandate in the DMG.  I don't know that the 1E DMG ever explicitly calls out the existence of Adventurer's Guilds, but it's a logical evolution - where else do adventurers find the trainers?  And how often did our old  games start in the tavern, "I'm going out to the old monastery to seek my fortune, and I need a cleric, a wizard and a thief.  Who's with me?"  And thus the adventuring party was formed.

It would be interesting to list out these implied setting elements of D&D and AD&D and create a checklist.  When designing a campaign, the checklist would be the types of things that would need adjusting if you're adapting it to emulate a historical or literary setting.   A few are rules related, but most would be social.

As I read sections of the 1E DMG and take in Gary's campaign advice (these days, with a fresh eye!) I continue to be impressed by how many of these conventions are explicitly laid out in his suggestions on running a world with adventurers.  30+ years later and his ideas are still on point.

I'm sure some smarter folks than me have already generated a list of D&D tropes out there - I'll do some digging and see what I turn up.

How about you - do you emulate other genres in your D&D games, cutting out the things that don't fit, or do your worlds incorporate most of the elements of the implied setting?

As the guys over at Goodman Games develop their "fresh take on the Appendix N literature", it makes me wonder how they'll provide alternates to many common D&D tropes and problems.  Stay tuned - should be interesting.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Game Report: Gothic Greyhawk game 21

In which an ancient dwarven tomb is breached, and the players have the opportunity to remark "Purple haze all in my brain, lately things just don't seem the same..."

Cast of Characters;
Mordecai, a Cleric-4: Adam
Shy, a Fighter-3: ? (Gary)
Forlorn, an Elf-3: Bo
Mister Moore, Magic User-4: Mike
Grumble the Smug, Halfling-3: L

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

In the month or more the group stayed at Stonegate dwarf hold, dwarven patrols began to return with refugees that were drifting up the valley, trying to escape from the ghoul plague.  Reports from the refugees indicated the main force of ghouls and zombies had marched north, along the river, into the heavily populated lowlands.  (Note:  none of the players chose to ask whether the refugees were followed, or whether they were screened for infection with the ghoul curse.  Muhaha.)

The characters recruited amongst the refugees for henchmen, and were able to find a new player character (Grumble the Smug, a halfling) and Barzai, a clerical retainer for Mordecai.   Gear was purchased and food was stocked, and they headed to the surface to seek out the entrance to the tomb.

They decided not to set up a camp, but to hid their heavier gear (bedrolls and tents) in the box canyon where the tomb entrance was located.  They went right to exploring.  It was mid-day, and the weather was bright, cold and clear.  It's mid-December (Sunsebb in Greyhawk), and the altitude is in the 8,000 foot range.

Using the witch's map, they were able to find the entrance to the tomb.  However, the various new people were unable to perceive the entrance at all.  The obfuscation went beyond illusion; until a character that knew about the tomb entrance explained to one of the others it was there, and guided him to it, it was as if the tomb didn't exist for the him.  Strange effects were at work.

The entrance to the tomb was engraved with symbols bespeaking an ancient dwarven demon, something like 'ancient burrower' or 'old miner' - an early 'god' from the dwarves' bloody, pagan past.  Phat Kobra remarked this might be an evil place.  The word Shame was emblazoned equally prominently on the door.  Meanwhile, a peculiar purple mist seeped from beneath the door.  Grumble sniffed it and declared it to be 'Not poison'.  They entered.

The corridor beyond was tall and majestic, and the floor was obscured with thick, purple mist that came up to their knees.  They went forth very carefully, testing the floor with poles and spear hafts because of the poor visibility.

Over the next few rooms, they made a bizarre discovery.  Anything covered by the mist was completely preserved.  They were fishing thousand-year old footwear and cloaks up and out of the mist, as if they were just dropped on the floor yesterday.  In the main temple room, there were well over a hundred preserved bodies just beneath the surface of the mist, obscured from sight.  They would plunge their hands down into the mist, and pull up a dwarf or human corpse, eyes bulging and throat engorged as if they asphyxiated and fell to the ground, choking.  Many of the dwarves were killed violently by weapons, and their slick blood was still fresh and slippery.  The players were quite disturbed by it all.

It took a long time to explore the dwarven temple.  They puzzled over the corpses lining the floor, signs of an ancient struggle.  They theorized that heavily armored humans had been attacking robed and shoeless dwarves in this sanctuary.  Many of the dwarves had shaved heads, or were beardless.  Wasn't this supposed to be a tomb?

The walls had spectacular murals that showed the forging of the banes, the great weapons of war.  There were depictions of a time when dwarves and humanoid races were at peace.  There were pictures that showed the technological advances of the dwarven race.  Kobra was expecting the temple to be a bit darker in tone, for a demon shrine.

There was an altar at the head of the room, with golden mining implements on it (and a massive chunk of meteoric star rock nearby).  Bo had to miss this game session, so of course they picked Forlorn, his character, to take the golden hammer and sickle.  Just in case they were cursed.  (They haven't seem to be cursed so far, Bo).

Then it was off to the right, to start exploring the rooms beyond the temple.  After exploring a northern 'shaving room' and then dipping south, there was the sound of a heavy door closing behind them.  The party doubled back and ran into a small mob of dwarven zombies.  It seemed as if some of the 100+ dwarves lying on the floor of the sanctuary climbed to their feet and shambled after the party.  (Uh-oh, not this again, the group groaned).

They joined a battle with the dwarf zombies in the corridor, using their standard 'hall-fighting' tactics of shield-men up front with smaller weapons, and spearmen in the second rank.  They managed to beat down the zombies without too much difficulty, but found that spears (puncture weapons) were minimally effective against zombies.

The group fell to musing about the 100+ corpses in the sanctuary.  If they opened the door that lead out, would all 100 dwarf corpses be standing in the purple mist, waiting for them?

We stopped there for the night.

Note:  We may be losing a player or two due to work/timing issues, so we're definitely recruiting.  If you happen to live not far north of Philadelphia, drop a line!  Otherwise we may consider promoting a few of the kiddos who are ready for the "serious" game.

Friday, February 18, 2011

War Machine for Greyhawk?

Does anyone know if stats were ever produced for the armies of Greyhawk for the War Machine rules?  War Machine was published in the Companion rules for classic D&D (BECMI) and again in the Rules Cyclopedia.  The War Machine rules are quite a bit more abstract and simpler than Battle System.

Here's the need - there's a zombie/ghoul army raging across Sterich, and I'm starting to create troop ratings for the remaining Counties.  I had started this campaign with the idea of building towards Against the Giants, so it makes sense to create statistics for the Giantish armies, as well as the defenders in Sterich, Geoff, Keoland and the Yeomanry.  The instability created by the plague of undead will give Chaos the opening it needs to strike!

Here is a snapshot of a typical War Machine write up from back in the day.  A big part of the War Machine ratings involved knowing the leaders and officers within the force; I'm not sure that level of detail was ever presented in Dragon magazine, so it'd need to be made up whole cloth.  I recently discovered Grendelwulf's place and there are write-ups of some armies, though I don't believe he covers the countries I need.

I'll do some more poking around the internet, otherwise I feel a new project coming on.  I'll be glad to post War Machine stats here.

Recipient of the prestigious Newbie Blogger Award

Welcome to the Award Winning Dreams in the Lich House blog.  Thanks Tim, over at Gothridge Manor, for the kindly attention - it's very cool.  If you're new here, I like to explore the intersection of fantasy and horror gaming and the awesome literature supporting it; since I'm working hard to grow a new crop of younger gamers, there are also some  posts on how the kids are doing in their game.

If you're just dropping by for the first time, here are the posts that seem to be the most popular (based on page views):

Horror in Dungeons & Dragons
An exploration of how to slip some horror elements into your D&D game

I just nuked Gothic Greyhawk
Death Frost Doom campaign recap
The two posts about my players unleashing a zombie apocalypse on the campaign setting through LotFP's Death Frost Doom adventure.

Gothic Greyhawk - My Current Campaign
An overview of the current campaign setting

Winter is Coming… and so is Gamer A.D.D.
Some techniques for handling Gamer Attention Deficit Disorder

Useful, (non-self-promotional) posts will resume shortly...

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dungeon Mastering for 9-year olds

Things you find yourself saying when DMing for 9-year olds.

No dice stacking.
No pog stacking.
Don't try to stack miniatures, either.
No,  I don't have an elf miniature throwing a spear; I'm sorry you think that miniature sucks.
Could you stop rolling all your dice over and over again?
Put up your hand to ask a question.
No drumming with your hands, please.
Pencils aren't drumsticks either.
Try to roll your dice *on* the table.
Quick, get your dice off the floor before the dog gets it.
The dog got your dice.
Please stop tearing chunks off your character sheet.
Who's kicking the table?
Ahem.  No dice stacking, remember?
Someone's kicking the table again.
Careful with the water pitcher… uh.  You did it.  You swamped your character sheet.

Also, my son decided to start his own blog.  Chronicles of Nogal.  He just turned 9, so we have plenty of work to do with basic gammar, but he's getting pretty good at typing.  Here are his thoughts on the recent kid's game:

Kids game part 1
Kids game part 2

Kids Game Report - Session 10


Current Cast of Characters:
Soap the Wizard:  MU-3, played by L age 8
Glass the Second: T-1, played by B, age 8
Arden the Elf: E1, played by Z, age 9
Topaz the Fighter: F1, played by G, age 9
Henry the Conqueror: F1, played by J, age 10
Lennon the Dwarf: D2, played by D, age8
Morgan:  E2, played by Adam – a dad
Wallaby:  H1, played by Bo - a dad
Friar Shane:  C1, played by Jeff - a dad

Serge:   F-3, henchman to Soap

We've been playing an intermittent kid's D&D game over 6 months; the previous session reports are over at Dragonsfoot.  Due to the extremely high mortality rate, the fact that the kids play only 1-2 times per month, and the games are limited to about 2 hours, advancement has been fairly slow.

Quick campaign recap: 
After taking on a job as caravan guards, the group left Geoff and traveled across the Sea of Dust.  They became lost in a sandstorm and discovered the Lost City (module B4).  The descendants of the ruined city live deep underground, dark-dwelling humans know as Cynidiceans.  The pyramid is now home to different factions of the Cynidiceans.  After exploring the upper two levels, the kids made friends with members of the Brotherhood of Gorm, an ancient cult of the Cynidiceans trying to restore the old ways of the culture.  The three ancient gods of Cynidicea are Gorm, Usamigaras, and Madarua, but the decadent elements in the culture turned to the worship of a demon, Zargon.

Unfortunately, the Brothers of Gorm have a grudge against magic users, and when the group's resident chaotic magic user, Soap, heard that the Brothers hate magic, he tried to plunge a dagger into the back of the leader of Gorm, yelling  "Death to Gorm the oppressor of magic!"  Soap was subdued and imprisoned; that's about where we resumed.


Arden's player must have been thinking about the game between sessions, because he came into this session with a bold plan.  "We need to figure out how to get the Brotherhood of Gorm and the other factions working together against the Priests of Zargon.  If we can convince them to let Soap go, Soap can help us make an alliance with the Magi of Usamigaras."  It was some excellent role playing, especially because the 9 year olds are usually a bit shy when it comes to talking to NPCs.  Arden articulated his plan to Kanadius, leader of the Brotherhood, and managed to free Soap, negotiate a truce with the Magic of Usamigaras, and got the two groups to agree to work together.  The party promised the Brothers and Magi that they would track down the Priest of Zargon that was terrorizing the factions in the pyramid.

The Brothers had a base on the second tier of the pyarmid, the Magi had their hideout on the third tier of the pyramid, and the groups believed the Priest of Zargon would be found on the larger fourth or fifth tiers.  The Magi guided the party to the entrance down to the fourth tier and wished them luck.

The fourth level of the pyramid was dark and fairly quiet.  The corridors were dusty and formed from huge dressed blocks of stone.  After descending a ramp, heading out into the corridors, and finding a room, they were attacked by a dozen or so skeletons that moved from their waiting guard positions.

They quickly smashed most of the skeletons and Friar Shane turned the last few, which were also quickly destroyed.  Then the kids went into action.

Lennon the Dwarf wanted more fighting and started smacking the flat of his axe on the wall and howling.  Henry the Conqueror upped the ante by picking up various pottery jars from around the room and smashing them to make more noise.  Just in case that wasn't enough chaos, Soap started yelling, "Monsters, monsters, come and get us, come and eat us", or something similar.  They shouldn't have been surprised when a pack of screaming rock baboons burst through the door.

Soap got nailed in the head by a rock and dropped unconscious; everyone else ducked or absorbed the impact of the rocks, and the battle was on.  It raged for a turn or two, until the cleric was able to give the magic user a Cure Light Wounds, and he recovered enough to Sleep the baboons.  At this point, a few of the dads started in with the lecture, "We're trying to avoid monsters and stay alive, not attract them.."

Their next exciting moment came when they found a spectacular sarcophagus room - a sarcophagus on a dais, surrounded by burning brass urns, and pillars that supported a marble dome over the dais.  Spectacular.  The kid's reaction to the room was here: tomb robbers.

When they exited the room through the other door and started down another corridor, a rolling boulder trap was triggered.  The hallway shook as the huge round rock rumbled side to side in the hallway, dust dropped from the ceiling, and then a massive 10' diameter sphere, filling the whole passage, rolled to the edge of the latern light.

I gave the table time to discuss.

A few plans were discussed, but someone (one of the dads, I'm sure) pointed out that if everyone just jumped back into the room, the boulder would pass harmlessly by.  I started to go around the table to ask actions.  Soap, Morgan, Serge, Shane, Arden, Topaz, Glass, Wallaby… all back into the room.  Then I got to Lennon.

"I start humming Indiana Jones and run down the hall in front of the boulder".  You're kinda slow buddy, you're a dwarf.  In plate mail.  Carrying a ton of gear.  "I don't care", said Lennon.  "I do it too", blurts out Henry the Conqueror.  And both kids start humming Indiana Jones, ignoring the pleas from their dad that this wasn't such a great idea.  Meanwhile, Soap decides to run back into the corridor after the boulder passed, to see what happened to his friends and jump in on the "fun".

Thump-thump, squelch.  Uh oh, I think it rolled over Lennon.

Meanwhile, Henry found himself running (alone) into the dark, since Soap had carried the group's lantern back into the room with him.  "I just keep running as fast as I can straight ahead", said Henry,"I don't want the boulder to catch me like Lennon".  The boulder was right behind him.

The problem with sprinting in the pitch dark, is when the corridor turns, there's a stone wall right in front of you.  I gave him a save vs paralysis to see if he was able to shake off the effect of running face first into a stone wall in the dark, and get out of the way of the boulder before it smashed into him a few seconds later.

When Soap made it that far (hundreds of feet down a dark corridor from the party's room) all he could see was an arm reaching out from behind the boulder.  Boulder 2-0.

"Well, what have we here?  A lonely human all alone in the dungeon, without any armor or weapons?"

A group of hobgoblins with spears were attracted to all the noise, and they proceeded to stick spear points into Soap's face.  "I totally give up, and can fork over some treasure", Soap answered in hobgoblin, flashing a cheesy grin.

"Hey, he speaks the lingo - he's like a goblin brother", said the hobgoblins, rolling an 11 on the reaction roll.  (Friendly).  I decided that 'friendly' hobgoblins would take Soap's backpack and equipment belt, and leave him standing in the dark with just his lantern.  "The Priest of Zargon thanks you for your contribution", said the hobgoblins, and they sauntered off laughing.

"That wasn't so bad", said Soap, as he headed back up the corridor. "Are you kidding?", pointed out the DM.  "Those hobgoblins walked off with your spell book and your wand of magic detection".

Groan.  "Soap would want to kill himself", said the player, "but now I don't even have a knife!"

We ended when dead Henry's player declared, "Ha ha, Soap got mugged.  By hobgoblins."

Dm's note: 
After the session, I realized Lennon might have been able to get away - his movement rate is only 20' per round, but with running he might have stayed a little ahead of the boulder, and with infravision he wouldn't have run head first into a stone wall like Henry.  I'll have to chat with the kiddo, see if he wants to make another level 2 guy.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Cosmology for Gothic Greyhawk

If you haven't noticed, I try to draw inspiration from real-world myths and folklore for gaming.  With that in mind, let me just say, the AD&D cosmology bugs the crap out of me.  Al over at Beyond the Black Gate appears to be starting a review of AD&D, and every time I look at those amazing hardback books, it brings me right to the crux of the matter - is it a more satisfying exercise to play a version of OD&D and add in elements you miss, or play AD&D and gut or house rule huge swaths of the rules?

A good example is the default cosmology.  I start reading about Negative and Positive Energy Planes, Para-Elemental Planes of Dust and Vapor, the rules for Ethereal Travel, and the 17 Outer Planes (all arranged according to Alignment, no less) and my eyes glaze over.  An outer plane for neutral good chaotics - really?  If anyone has a clue where such ideas came from, or whether they were created whole cloth, by all means - would love to hear it.

Let's take a concrete example - the cosmology we see in Greek myth.  We know of a few supernatural realms - Mount Olympus, Hades, perhaps Tartarus (I'd argue that Tartarus is just an extension to Hades, but whatever).  The gods live on Olympus, Hades rules his eponymous underworld, and the imprisoned titans are stuck in Tartarus.

But when our 1E Hades hangs out his laundry to dry, what does he see?  Unwanted neighbors.  How did Hel, the death goddess of Asgard, afford some real-estate next door?  And why are those moving trucks unloading boxes for Nergal of the Babylonians?  There goes the property values.

Apparently Bast, the cat goddess, enjoys the snows of Asgard - she got stuck in Gladsheim.  Lots of deities inadvertently find their mail being delivered to the Nine Hells, like Hecate.  (Sure, she's not an Olympian, but sticking her in Hell? That's just mean spirited).  Basing the cosmology around alignment doesn't work for me, and certainly doesn't make sense with how these mythic places are depicted in literature.

I'm finding quite a few OSR bloggers like myself that tried 4E, grew dissatisfied with it as a role playing game (it's a decent tactical combat game), and returned to earlier editions.  Some of the 4E ideas on cosmology, monsters, and assumptions about a D&D style world, work really well, and are worth porting back into older editions.  Just jettison the 4E rules.

Take the divine realms - 4E calls them "astral dominions".   Built by the gods, they're no longer organized by Alignment, but by pantheon.  The realm of Asgard no longer needs to host interlopers from Egypt who just happen to share the same alignment; Bast is free to go home to wherever the Egyptian deities hang their sandals.  Hades can issue eviction notices to Hel and Nergal; Hel can now have her own little realm of Niffleheim adjacent to Asgard, even though her alignment is different.  There's no problem with Ares, a god of chaotic evil, sipping nectar or ambrosia with the rest of the (chaotic good) Olympians.  You get the idea.  Each pantheon can "own" it's own conception of the underworld and hereafter, too.

The 4E cosmology gets rid of the ethereal plane, the elemental planes (as well as the quasi, para, pseudo, demi and whatever other unusable elemental planes got tacked onto it) and throws them in the trash along with the positive and negative planes; all those "inner planes" get rolled into the Elemental Chaos.  In the traditional 1E elemental planes, you die the moment you get transported there - the Plane of Fire is nothing but fire, Earth is solid earth, etc.  Not very fun or useful for adventuring.

4E also adds two mirrors of the mortal world, the Feywild and the Shadowfell.  Pretty hard to say those names with a straight face, I agree, but the concepts are solid; the Feywild is essentially the realm of Faerie, a realm of magic ruled by Archfey and home to faeries of all sorts.  Lots of literature posits a realm of Faerie that intersects the mortal world.  The Shadowfell is the realm of the dead, a benighted land of shades and ghosts.

What I like about these mirror worlds is that the same location will have parallels between the three of them; a sprawling city in the real world, crammed with people and filth, might be a blighted place in the Faerie world, and a crumbling ruin haunted by shades in the Shadow realm.

A Cosmology for Gothic Greyhawk
I haven't given a ton of thought to how the cosmology works in Gothic Greyhawk (yet), seeing as the group is only about 3rd and 4th level, but porting some of the 4E approaches back to OD&D makes it easy to present a simplified cosmology.

Divine Realms
The divine realms of Heaven and Hell exist as dominions out in the Astral Sea; the main deity of the Church is the Great Spirit, served by legions of angels and exalted saints.  Hell is populated by the devils and the fallen angels.  (I would argue how I'm using this dualistic approach draws more from Zoroastrianism than Christian theology).

The Mortal Realm
The various pagan "deities" are more akin to powerful nature spirits, inhabiting the mortal realm

Realm of Faerie
Faerie is an alternate earth with numerous portals and ways of crossing back and forth; it's ruled by powerful arch faeries like Mab, Queen of Air and Darkness, or Titania, Lady of Summer.  I especially like this approach as a lot of the medieval romances and pulp fantasy place Faerie as an alternate or adjacent dimension to the mortal world.

Realm of the Dead
The shades of dead mortals drift into the Realm of the Dead after death.  Many find their way beyond the Realm of the Dead to one of the divine realms; those that get stuck here become incorporeal undead - ghosts, wraiths and spectres.  (Corporeal undead are created in the mortal world by the power of Orcus).

Elemental Chaos
This is an amalgam of the inner planes from 1E AD&D and home to Djinn, Efreet, Elementals, Slaads, and some notable locations, like the City of Brass.  However, when high level mortals travel there, there is air to breath and places to stand, unlike a realm of pure [insert homogenous element here].

The Abyss
The Abyss is a great hole torn into the Elemental Chaos and descends down into the 666 layers.  It is the home to demons.  In the 4E view, demons are elementals corrupted by the shard of pure evil at the heart of the Abyss.   Works for me.

There - reduces 33 various planes down to 6, and 3 of them are mirror worlds.  My work here is done.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Literary Review: The Broken Sword

I had finished Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword as part of my Appendix N reading a few weeks ago, but hadn' t gotten the chance to circle back and do a review.  Pondering The Ring yesterday made me remember how many common elements the stories share, since they draw inspiration from the same myths.

Like my other 'literary' reviews, I'll only provide some general impressions of the work, then dive into what elements I found inspirational for gaming - why it's part of the Dungeon Master's Guide reading list in the first place.

The Broken Sword takes place in Norse England, the Danelaw, during the Viking Age.  It tells the story of the doomed hero Skafloc and his villainous "brother", Valgard.  Skafloc is abducted by the elves as an infant and raised in the mythic world amongst magic.  Valgard is a changeling, son of a troll and an elf, substituted for the infant Skafloc and raised in his place.  The story details the rise to prominence of the two brothers in their respective spheres, Skafloc becoming a hero to the elves and Valgard becoming a murderous leader for the trolls.

The story is epic in scope.  Much of the major action revolves around a war between the elves and the trolls, but the story includes gods, giants, monsters, magic, quests for a magic sword, fate, destiny, and plenty of blood, gore and violence - much more so than the other book I read of Poul Anderson, Three Hearts and Three Lions.  There are many common themes with The Ring cyle of operas, such as the incestuous love between a brother and sister (who tragically don't know they're related), the re-forging of a broken magic sword, and the certainty of fate.

The Broken Sword is an easy read, and would be good general inspiration for a Viking-era game or one with Norse themes.  Here are some more specific elements I liked:

The Sword of Wrath
I don't believe the broken sword is named in the novel, but it's the sword Gram (or Nothung, from The Ring) -  a gift of the gods that is forged anew through the efforts of the hero.  In The Broken Sword, it is cursed to always kill when it's been drawn from it's sheath, and fated to bring doom to its wielder.  Along the way, it lends great strength, cuts through anything, and turns Skafloc into an engine of destruction.  What gamer doesn't want to be an engine of destruction and get to have their own Stormbringer or Blackrazor?

Machinations of the Gods
Was Poul Anderson channeling some post-war geopolitics?  The gods, as superpowers, intervene in the mortal world only through proxies, and let their followers battle it out.  Neither side (the Asgardians or the Giants) wants to commit themselves to the mortal realm and bring about Ragnarok, so they arm the combatants and provide indirect help like the Cold War.  It’s a model that would work well for D&D.

Both of the fantasy novels I've read by Poul Anderson put Christianity directly in conflict with the magical world, but in both cases, the power of belief in Christianity trumps all other magic.  In The Broken Sword, the armed combatants fight in the mythic realm and mostly avoid the civilized world with its churches and parishes, lest they wake the sleeping giant, the religion of the "White Christ".

I remember a conversation with James Raggi where he mentioned using a monotheism that "shut off" pagan faiths as it became the primary belief system in an area; I get the sense the ideas would be game-able and create interesting conflicts between faiths.  I find these questions come up any time I consider settings that mix polytheism and monotheism and I'm trying to reconcile which belief system is 'true'.

Note:  I have yet to see a cleric that can turn undead in any pulp fantasy, but there are tons of priests that turn elves.  Funny stuff.

The Mythic Realm
Urban fantasy has co-opted the idea of the mythic realm that's all around us, we just can't see it; at some point I'd like to trace that idea back and see how deep that rabbit hole goes.

In The Broken Sword, the mythic realm overlaps the mortal realm; ordinary folks catch glimpses of trolls and elves during storms and foul weather, on certain nights of the year or during the largest of battles.  But mortals can be ensorcelled so they can see elves and trolls and creatures of magic all the time.

I don't recall any D&D settings taking this tact - making the world extremely mundane, but having a coterminous secret world where anything goes.  I do like the idea of making the mundane and magical world's adjacent - the magic world is across the river, or just past the old forest.  It's out there.

Too often I use maps rooted in real-world ideas of countries and borders, where each country has it's own little borderlands or sections of chaos.  How about a map where a large homogenous region is settled, mundane LAW, and everything past a certain point - across the river, perhaps - to the very edge of the world, is CHAOS?

I feel some West Marches style EGADD coming on...

EGADD - too good not to repost

Sifting through recent comments, I meant to call out this one left by C'Nor regarding my approach to managing GADD - Gamer ADD.

"So… is Electronic Gamer ADD (the version specific to bloggers), EGADD?"

Yes.  Yes it is.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Mythic Monday: Down with Love

Mythic monday - using elements of folklore, myth and legendry in your game.

Love in the Time of Dungeons & Dragons
I pondered what elements of Feb 14th's folklore would be interesting for gaming - perhaps the story of the St Valentines, the imagery of Cupid, something to do with the Roman Lupercalia feast?  How about love itself?  How often do themes of love appear in your games?

I know, I know - "We explore dungeons, not characters".  Leave those fruity stories and plot narratives at the door when playing old school D&D - we kick down doors and kill monsters.  The D&D character's role in the game world is defined by their actions, not by their relationships.  (See White Wolf for that).

But tales involving magic and love make a few appearances in D&D's source literature, and certainly in the larger ecosystem of folkore, fairy tales, myth and legendry.  Perhaps your medieval game has elements of chivalry and courtly love.  Maybe your long-running campaign has seen characters create dominions and (gasp) take spouses.  What I've typically observed is that the character in a D&D game is more likely to have a regular room at the brothel instead of a spouse or love interest.  And how does this relate to the cheesecake art discussion?

Players don't need to initiate a love story.  In a world where geases and quests are real, where magical curses, oaths and promises are binding, why not adopt the classic (Disney) trope - "true love's kiss can break any curse".  Curse a character with a malign effect that no spell caster's magic can undo, but can be broken through the kiss of a princess or the character's true love.  I can hear my players groaning now, "You have got to be kidding me".  Muhaha.  Could make for some interesting problem solving.

How about the theme of forsaking love to gain power?  It has mythic roots and would work well for a D&D villain.  I'm a big fan of Der Ring Des Nibelungen; I've managed to see live performances of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, and Siegfried through the years, though never yet gotten to see Götterdämmerung.  The Ring is an epic cycle of operas that draws heavily from themes of Norse and Teutonic mythology, the Edda, and the Nibelungenlied.  One of the central themes of the cycle is love versus power.

Early in Das Rheingold, a lecherous dwarf, Alberich, lusts after the beautiful Rhinemaidens.  They taunt him, laugh at him, flash their boobies, and splash away through the water, while driving the dwarf to extremes of rage.  In their taunting, they reveal that they possess a wonderful treasure, the Rhine gold, which can be used to forge an all-powerful ring; only "he who forsakes love forever" can steal it.  Certainly they have nothing to fear from the lustful Alberich, mock the nymphs.  But Alberich, realizing he can't win the attention of the water nymphs with either his charms or by chasing them down, renounces love forever, steals the gold, and goes on to forge the ring of power.  He enslaves the race of dwarves and industrializes them.  (He uses his new found wealth to get a lady, too, fathering the villainous Hagen; even in Teutonic pre-history, money can't buy you love, but it can get you laid).

As the story develops, the ring is cursed.  It becomes an artifact coveted by the Norse gods, the giants, and various heroes; it spends time in a dragon's horde, and it brings doom to all its owners.  The stories are rich in symbolism and open to multiple interpretations, but a simplistic reading is that exploitive, antisocial behavior results from the absence of love (especially sexual love).  Loveless people turn to materialism and power politics; they use their power to enslave those around them.  It's a simple interpretation that makes me laugh - "He never found love, so he turned to a life of utter evil."

Industry and exploitation are the opposite of the romantic ideal.  Power displaces love.  I see elements of it in The Lord of the Rings movies with the despoiling of Isengard:

The old world will burn in the fires of industry. The forests will fall. A new order will rise. We will drive the machine of war with the sword and the spear and the iron fists of the Orc.  - Saruman

Spoken like a  true mad wizard who's not getting any love action.  Think how differently the trilogy could have been if Saruman had a girlfriend.

Time for a new poll
I had a dominion game a few years back where a player's character got married, but those situations tend to be rare.  More often than not, D&D is our beer and pretzels game and there are very few relationships in the game.  How about your games?  Drop a comment and/or chime in on the new poll.

Happy Valentine's day!