Monday, June 27, 2011

Going dark for a Week

Hey folks, I need to take a week off of posting.  You may recall back in April, I spent a few weeks in Africa as the first part of an international adoption for an orphaned youngster.  Part 2 is here!  My wife and eldest son just returned from Ethiopia with our new son, so I'll have my hands full this week while we figure out the new work-family-writing balance.  Don't worry, there will be plenty of work on the Black City and regaling tales of Gothic Greyhawk in the near future.  Wish me luck, and see you all online again shortly.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Get your reality out of my fantasy

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

Which way do you go as far as using social conventions in your game world?  Humans are not nice to each other.  Reading history is more shocking than any horror movie could be.  Forget about the large scale horrors of genocide and colonialism and war - even more mundane elements of past societies - the degree of racism, slavery, sexism, casual attitudes towards infanticide or child abuse - are revolting to the modern person.  (I hope they're revolting to the rest of you, too).

So the question is, how much do you aim for historical verisimilitude in representing your fantasy world?  I suppose I can see a number of common positions.  One is to put all the historical elements in place, and turn the past into a foreign country - the players need to learn the social conventions - "Slavery is okay here!" - in addition to adventuring.  Sword and Planet stories, right here on Earth!

Another approach would be to use anachronistic, modern social conventions - women and children aren't just property, for instance.  Modern players then don't need to grapple with social problems and can focus on adventuring.

Finally, in a fantasy world with an alternate power structure than 'might makes right', there doesn't seem to be any problems ignoring real world social conventions.  There are many leading female characters in fantasy worlds that don't have to deal with glass ceilings and double standards.  Magic is a great equalizer.

I see myself working more in the quasi-historical space going forward (not the Black City, mind you, that's 100% fantastic) so it's an interesting question to me.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Black City - more surface areas - E, G, and H

A continuation of the series describing special surface areas in the Black City.  As has been the case lately, I'm posting mainly descriptive stuff and saving stats and encounter details for the upcoming pdf.

E The Misty Hollow
There are a handful of prominent holes in this part of the city, deep shafts that extend down to the steaming caverns of the level 2 Warrens of Decay.   The caverns are heated with geothermal water, and excess moisture and warmth is vented up through the shafts that empty here.  The rocky ground surrounding each shaft is consistently slick and icy, and misty water vapor clogs the air.  The letter E hex and surrounding areas are perpetually foggy.

If any character is unfortunate enough to slip near one of the open shafts, there's a chance they'll slide into one of the deep air vents and drop 80' down a slide before emerging from the ceiling of the Great Warren, another 60-80' above the cavern floor.

The Misty Hollow surface area is particularly dangerous to explorers due to traps, the aforementioned ice, and the predation of a deranged killer, "Bonecracker".  Collapsed buildings have formed a deep cave, and the murderous Northman, Bonecracker, lairs there, sucking the marrow from the bones of victims dragged back to the cave.  While Bonecracker used to be from Trade Town, he has mutated beyond recognition due to roid worm infection (see the article on Black City berserkers for the details).  Bonecracker is a Stage 3 berserker - he stands over 8' tall and has stats similar to an ogre in combat.

The hexes surrounding the Misty Hollow are riddled with various man-killing traps, set by Bonecracker with wicked cunning.  Spiked armatures whip out of the mist without warning after a tripwire is triggered, impaling the unwary; booms sweep across a trail at knee height, hobbling trespassers; always there are the simple pitfalls, designed to detain a group long enough for the lord hunter of the area to arrive and claim his victims.

Despite his size, Bonecracker moves quietly and knows the terrain of the Misty Hollow intimately.  The infection has heightened his senses such that he can hurl giant-sized spears out of the mist with minimal blindness penalties.  Fear and terror are his allies.

G The Great Ramp
This colossal hole in the ground leads to a 40' ramp that descends into the darkness  at an incline, making a right turn every 120' or so in a great spiral.  The top area of the ramp is clear of ice and snow, but once the group gets beyond the first bend, the ramp is coated with ice and requires appropriate climbing gear to continue the descent.  The ice clears after a few more bends in the spiral.

The ramp circles downward until it connects to level 4, the Halls of Machinery.  The ramp is essentially a service entrance to allow oversized automatons in and out of the lower levels without using any of the vertical shafts / elevators in the Transit Tunnels that were reserved for lighter duty traffic and inhabitants.

Near the bottom of the spiral, the party will approach an opaque, shimmering wall of light (treat as a Wall of Force).  They will be unable to proceed further unless a member is carrying a green passkey gemstone.  Bringing such a gemstone within 5' of the wall of force will cause it to disappear, reappearing once the gemstone holder passes more than 5' away.

Tidewater glacier in Spitsbergen (inspirational)
H The Great Glacier
The great glacier is a river of ice, issuing from the nearby mountains, that splits the city.  Over tens of thousands of years, the ice has gouged a moraine through the center of the city, reducing everything in its path to rubble as it pushes onward to the fjord.  60% of the island of Thule is covered by glaciers, and its common for smaller ones like this to find their way to sea.

Crossing the glacier requires climbing ice that crests over 50' in the air and covers nearly half a mile across in places.  It's common for there to be variations in the ice flow that create crevasses and other climbing hazards.  Unless a group scouts ahead properly, there's a 1 in 6 chance the path they've chosen for ascent causes them to retrace their steps due to an impasse such as a large crevasse.

Unencumbered characters will have a 3 in 6 chance to climb the glacier without incident (roll per hex).  The group can improve their chances with climbing gear (spikes and hammers and axes), +2 per person.  Proper rope use won't reduce the risk of a fall but will negate much of the damage.  50' of rope is sufficient to rope two characters together.  Having a trained mountaineer, or specialist/thief, scout a proper course will also increase the chance per person by +1.  Encumbered characters take penalties to the climb roll, -1 per encumbrance level above unencumbered (-1 for light, -2 for heavy.  Severely encumbered characters can't climb).

Climbing the ice is extremely slow, and will take an unencumbered group an hour per hex to cross.

DM's note:  the glacier serves to separate the northern and southern halves of the city; the northern half is quite a bit more dangerous.  Enterprising groups might consider taking longboats or even long ships up the fjord to bypass the glacier, but it's crucial to avoid calving ice in the misty waters of the fjord; icebergs are common near the ruins of the city.

Glacial predators often follow the ice out of the mountains, and the glacier provides the chance to introduce unusual ice monsters (like whatever will be the Black City equivalent of Rhemorhaz or similar ice worm).  The glacier has its own wandering monster table, but it's likely I'll add something more bizarre when we start the playtest.  I may need to adjust the scale/size of the city as well, depending on how quickly players traverse it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


I caught wind of a new podcast through about The Unspeakable Oath.  The Oath is an old magazine put out by Pagan Publishing in the 90's that resurfaced a few months ago under new leadership.  The podcast is mainly of interest to folks that do some Call of Cthulhu type gaming, but the primary interview on this one was with Jon Tynes, and he had some things to say about game design that are worth looking at in light of D&D (so I'm putting it here).

About Jon Tynes - he was the founder of Pagan Publishing, writer of the totally awesome 1990's Delta Green setting for modern Cthulhu, an ex-WOTC employee, co-writer of WOTC's Cthulhu d20, now a video game developer.  I would imagine anyone that's done Cthulhu gaming knows Pagan, they were Chaosium's major licensee and produced excellent stuff.

One thing that really stood out in the interview was the recognition from a video game developer how video games fail against the table top experience in creating "derived stories" through a shared world.  Through the table top's collective 'Socratic method' - asking and answering questions about the game world - a story emerges through actual play that can't currently be matched by the disjointed cut scenes and limited decision trees in the video game world.  He went on to hold out the table top sandbox game as the highest form of RPG gaming because of the degree of agency given to the players and the shared world that emerges from those player actions.

On making the Mythos Coherent:
Our goal  (as monster maker/adventure writer) should be to make an amazing experience, not write the missing page in the Cthulhu Encyclopedia.

This was wrapped in a larger section on keeping a sense of mystery in the game by not providing explanations around the horrors and monsters in your game, coming up with your own interpretations of Lovecraftian monsters, and getting away from using published bestiaries.  Trail of Cthulhu attempts to keep the Mythos creatures fairly ambiguous.  I'm pointing it out here because we're seeing OSR folks like James Raggi advocate 100% custom monsters, and I can see the value in keeping all those things beyond the realm of man strange and unknowable.

The rest of the podcast might not be as interesting if you don't follow the Call of Cthulhu RPG or the Lovecraftian gaming scene.  Otherwise, you can find it over on iTunes under The Unspeakable Oath.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Gothic Greyhawk Game 31 - Ravenloft!

Cast of Characters:
Mordecai, a Cleric-5: Adam
Forlorn, an Elf-4: Bo
Mister Moore, Magic User-5: Mike
Soap the Wizard, Magic User-4:  Nogal
Barzai, a Cleric-4:  Ben
Shy, a Fighter-4:  JR
Arden, an Elf-1:  Z

Phat Kobra, a Dwarf-4
Zeke, a Fighter-4
Starkweather, a Thief-4
Grumble the Smug, Halfling-4
Serge, a Fighter-4

AD&D 1E, I6 Ravenloft

The road the party was walking along was obscured by a thickening mist, and they came across a pair of ominous columns of stone supporting iron gates across the road, as if traveling into the land beyond the gates would represent entrance to a twilight realm of mist and fog.  Familiar with the set up of the future Ravenloft setting, and not ones to meta game too much, the characters strode purposefully forward.  Within the hour, they emerged from the woods and came upon the town of Barovia, still obscured by light mists.  Somewhere high above the town, they got the sense of an ominous castle perched high on a cliff.

As described in the recent campaign recap, they wandered the empty cobblestone streets, passing numerous houses and cottages with doors and shutters hanging loosely, no sign of the people.  A few appeared to be inhabited, but no owners came to answer their doors.  In the town square, smoke came from a large tavern building, the Blood on the Vine tavern, and the group entered.

I'll skip a bunch of faux dialogue and get to the gist of what they learned after speaking with the bar keep, some gypsies at the tavern, and the village priest.  First, the villagers referred to the lord of the castle as The Evil One, and he returned after a long absence - a century or more - and began abducting villagers in the night.  Since before the winter, literally thousands of people went missing, but with the return of the lord of the castle, no one may leave the valley once they've breathed in the mists.  (The players are thinking they may be trapped too).  Only a dozen families are left in a town that once boasted a few thousand people.  The lord of the castle is an ancient vampire called Strahd Von Zarovich.

No one they met knew the details of Ismark's quest to return the magic long sword from Death Mountain, so no one could direct the players on where to take the sword.  Maybe Ismark's surviving sister would know?  So they went to the house of her father, who was also the mayor.  The stench of death pervaded the house, and they learned the mayor had died a week ago and his corpse was lying in a side room unburied.  His (gorgeous) daughter Ireena was living sequestered upstairs in the mansion.  They convinced her they were trustworthy, knew her brother, and would help her bury her father in the family plot.  There hadn't been enough able bodied villagers willing to help.

She pointed out that the vampire had visited (and bit her) twice before, and many now shunned her as marked by the vampire… she seemed grateful for any company.

That night, the characters on guard duty were startled when a huge snarling animal slammed into the front door, to be followed by another.  A pair of massive dire wolves were taking runs at battering it down.  Other characters spilled out of bed and trundled down stairs with weapons, and the group opened the door to let the wolves in before the door hinges were smashed beyond repair - front line fighters engaged them with swords, while the back ranks threw magic missiles or shot arrows.  During the battle with the wolves, an ominous figure stood beyond the iron gate to the mansion, classic vampire cape and collar, demanding to be invited into the residence.

Strahd remained on the scene long enough to cast a spell, mocked Ireena by telling her that her new friends wouldn't protect her for long, and that it was her fate to join him as his bride.  He was also leaving her a present.  He then flitted off into the night in the shape of a bat.  The taste of things to come.

Just as the battle with the dire wolves winded down, the animated corpses of the family dead, with the zombie mayor in the lead, shuffled from around the corner to continue the attack.  The echoes of Ireena's scream lingered in the night air long after the party quickly dispatched Strahd's "present".

*Picture is the cover of TSR's I6 Ravenloft, by Clifton Caldwell

Monday, June 20, 2011

Alignment of the Night's Watch

Game of Thrones: Oath of the Night's Watch

Night gathers, and now my watch begins.
It shall not end until my death.
I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children.
I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.
I shall live and die at my post.
I am the sword in the darkness.
I am the watcher on the walls.
I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men.
I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.

-The oath of the Night's Watch, A Game of Thrones

If you're watching HBO's A Game of Thrones adaptation, you're familiar with the Night's Watch - it's an order of rangers and soldiers that swear oaths to protect the realms of man, foreswearing all previous loyalties and family ties when joining the order.  They garrison a series of fortresses along a massive northern wall, protecting the civilized southern lands from threats beyond the wall.  (In the books, those threats are "wildlings" - barbarian north people - and creatures of myth and legend, like the White Walkers, a kind of winter wight).

The Night's Watch is not made of moral heroes - many of the members are criminals and rapers, sent north to take their vows after choosing between the watch or death.  And yet, throughout the Song of Ice and Fire series, the men of the watch continue to keep their eyes on the wild lands to the north in accordance with duty, while the many noble houses fight and backstab each other over control of the throne.

Now take a moment and contrast the mission and Oath of the Night's Watch with this introduction to the Keep on the Borderlands by Gary Gygax:

The Realm of mankind is narrow and constricted. Always the forces of Chaos press upon its borders, seeking to enslave its populace, rape its riches, and steal its treasures. If it were not for a stout few, many in the Realm would indeed fall prey to the evil which surrounds them. Yet, there are always certain exceptional and brave members of humanity, as well as similar individuals among its allies - dwarves, elves, and halflings - who rise above the common level and join battle to stave off the darkness which would otherwise overwhelm the land…

How about using alignment in the way Gygax is discussing here in the Keep intro?  There is the Realm of Man, and the borderlands beyond the realms of man represent Chaos.  It's a world view of man against monsters, civilization against the wilderness, regardless of parochial interests or loyalties.  The Keep is for all mankind.  And if good and evil are present at all, they are relative - good is equated with civilization, and evil with its absence, a very human centric viewpoint (with small exceptions tossed in for our faithful demi human allies).  FrDave had a similar idea over at Blood of Prokopius a few weeks ago when making sense of the Law-Chaos axis, and it's even a throwback to Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, where Law and the realms of Man were pretty much synonymous.

And this brings me full circle to the Oath of the Night's Watch - it is an Oath to Law, an oath to protect the Realms of Man against the forces of Chaos beyond civilization.

Some final thoughts - first, when you're using the three-tiered alignment system of old D&D, Law, Neutral, and Chaos, it's common to conflate Law with AD&D's definition of good and chaos with AD&D's view of evil.  After all, Moldvay's edition actually say, Law is *usually* the same as what people think of as "good" and Chaos is *usually* "evil".  But there are certainly ways to use the alignments of Law and Chaos beyond AD&D's ethics-management straitjacket.

I'm using something a bit different in Gothic Greyhawk - Law represents the divine order (both good and evil) and Chaos represents the elemental and magic realms - once again, neither good nor evil.  Alignments are like magic auras (and only folks that draw on divine or magic power actually radiate an alignment).  It's a supernatural view of alignment that works well in a game featuring themes of supernatural horror.  It's also almost identical to the LOTFP approach.

Oh - and next time I bust out Keep on the Borderlands, I just may make the garrison "sworn brothers" like the Night's Watch, bound by duty to take up a lonely vigil on the very edges of the Realm of Man to ward against the forces of Chaos beyond the walls of the Keep.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Gothic Greyhawk - Campaign Recap

Our campaign just hit a big turning point - all of the work that went into the characters forming their adventuring party and getting a handful of experience levels under their belt is done, and they're ready to start on the next arc of their careers - the mid-levels.  Last game session they entered the Valley of Mist, discovered the death-haunted village of Barovia, and before the night was through, came face to face with their nemesis - the vampire Strahd Von Zarovich.

I realize with intermittent game reports it's likely readers lose the scope and sweep of a campaign, so a recap of what has gone before is in order, tracing the events that led the group to the base of the high cliff on which Strahd's castle, Ravenloft, perches high above the deathly still village.  (There's an old campaign map at the bottom of one of the first Gothic Greyhawk posts on the blog).

Back then they didn't think of themselves as "heroes", they were just a bunch of low level guys that heard about an abandoned wizard tower a few days away from their home town of Mittleberg  (The Tower of the Stargazer).  They cleared the tower and claimed it for themselves, eventually walling a prisoner within the tower behind blocks of brick and mortar, "cask of amontillado" style, so they wouldn't have to listen to him beg.  They really weren't nice people back then.

In fact, they were concerned that other people (a band of thieves) might know the location of their new tower hideout, too, and wanted it kept secret - so they tracked the thieves to a ruined village to make sure they'd keep it secret - permanently.  Dead men tell no tales.  They ended up fighting the rival party down in a death-trap puzzle dungeon and then went on to explore the whole thing (The Grinding Gear).

It was close to the autumn equinox and a nearby village, Poignard, was hosting its annual tournament, and the fighting men amongst the group chose to compete.  Along the way they stopped a madman from opening a demonic gate and flooding the countryside with shadow demons (Blood Moon Rising).

One other thing that happened was they helped a fairy Pookah named Hogsbottom reopen a portal to the Otherworld and allowed a sidhe lady, the Lady of Dawn, back into her sacred grove.  They learned a bit about an ancient struggle between Law and Chaos, and that Chaos was on the move again.  Some of the characters received boons from the fey.

The group's next major patron was Ismark, a gypsy man from a remote mountain village named Barovia.  Ismark had been given a dire prophecy by a fortune teller - an evil that lay sleeping in the mountains would soon awaken, but a great weapon against the evil lay beneath the mountain of death.  Ismark had descended from the highlands seeking a group of adventurers for hire to go and help him find this powerful item on Death Mountain.  The good news is, the group found Ismark's magic sword.  The bad news is, Ismark died beneath Death Mountain in the dungeons of a death cult.  The worse news is, they unleashed an ancient vampire - a servant of Orcus - and 13,000 hungry dead, which proceeded to overrun their hometown of Mittleberg and turn the settled parts of the upper valley into a lifeless wasteland.  (Death Frost Doom).

The group still had Ismark's letter of credit, promising 10,000gp for the sword if they returned it to Barovia, so they went in the opposite direction of the zombie horde and went deeper into the mountains, taking the long way around to avoid the carnage.  (Still not acting much like heroes at this point).  Along the way, they made a pact with an evil witch to retrieve an elf-killing hammer for her to aid the side of Law in an upcoming struggle with Chaos, and sacked a dwarven tomb to find it (Hammers of the God).  The players began to learn that Law and Chaos don't necessarily correspond to good and evil...

By this point, the cleric was having trouble getting some of his 3rd level spells - his lack of faith was, in fact, disturbing.  So he took a vow of poverty and rededicated himself to smiting evil - "We really need to get this magic sword back to Barovia".  The 10,000gp promised reward might have motivated some of the others, too.  It was like 4 months of game time prior when they first met Ismark, before winter, and he had warned them he needed to get the magic sword back "before the ancient evil near Barovia fully awakens…"  Months later, they finally set out for the remote 'Valley of the Mists'.  (They wintered over at a dwarven mountain stronghold named Stonegate).

Before entering the valley of Barovia, they detoured down a worn track off the main road that led to a warm and inviting mansion - which turned out to be a monster-filled haunted house (The Cursed Chateau).  It turned out to be only a slight delay.  But Barovia was soon in sight, albeit without too many people around.  "Maybe we should have got here sooner", they remarked, walking down the empty cobblestone streets, doors and shutters on the numerous abandoned houses banging gently in the winter breeze.

They would soon find out why there didn't seem to be anyone left in Barovia… (I'll post the next game report in a day or so).

So that's where we stand.  The players have lost touch with the progress of the zombie war down in the valley; the last refugees that made it to Stonegate spoke of how the ghouls and zombies overran the upper villages and were now swarming down the valley, into the more peaceful and populated lowlands.  Meanwhile, the Flannish hillfolk of the mountains, ever hateful of the lowland Oeridian knights and lords, had declared sovereignty over the upper valley.

If the characters survive Barovia and ever leave the isolated Valley of Mists, it's likely a civil war will divide the Earldom of Sterich as Flan Hillmen and Oeridian knights of Istvin take up arms against each other (assuming the ghoul apocalypse is even contained).  And all the time, supernatural agents of Law and Chaos begin to make their presence known.

A few other interesting notes - we started this campaign as BX, switched to LOTFP (Deluxe Rules) while we were playing all the cool exploratory OSR modules, and now that we'll be doing Ravenloft (and a slew of AD&D modules to follow), we switched back to BX with the Advanced Edition Companion in effect.  The players really wanted the higher powered spells and options from AEC to be in effect with those meat-grinder TSR AD&D 1E modules.  I find I prefer the more investigative, exporation-based modules, but c'est la vie - the tour-de-Greyhawk is still huge fun.

Incidentally, a while ago I did a treasure-by-adventure module post that tied in encounter density, XP and treasure to get a sense on how some of my favorite new school modules were comparing to the golden age - one thing is clear, a lot of those TSR modules were packed with fight fight fight.  No wonder each new rules set had the power creep!

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Suits have left the Building

Is this the best time to be playing D&D or what?  I mean right now - in 2011.  If you're reading this blog, chances are you're a gamer, and you like the older styles of Dungeons & Dragons.  And this is the best time to be playing old school Dungeons & Dragons… ever.  And tomorrow is going to be even better than today.

We've got the freedom to write about how we play, to publish the kind of books we like, and to buy the books we like that other folks are publishing.  The suits are gone - long live old school D&D.  Let's enjoy the bounty.  I'm enjoying the bounty.

And just cause I don't see as he gets near enough kudos, I want to throw a shout James's way for continuing to publish OSR News on The Underdark Gazette, without which I wouldn't know about half as much of the awesome stuff being put out by we gamers.  Now that it's completely our game.  Can I get an Amen, or a So Say We All?

The Bucket List for D&D

What's on your D&D "bucket list"?  Meaning - what kind of games do you want to run or play before you finally hang up your dice for good?

Are there any monsters you've never had the chance to fight that you hope your DM will match your group up against someday?  How about gaming with the kids - is there a certain published adventure you can't wait for your kids to experience to see if it's as magical for them as you remember when you were like 12 or 13, yourself?

I spend a lot of time on the blog projecting ideas for future campaigns, but the current one (Gothic Greyhawk) grew out of a bucket list discussion from the players and just snowballed from there.  Most of the guys had never played the classic G Against the Giants and D (Descent into the Depths of the Earth) series modules, or the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, and we started imagining doing a tour-de-Greyhawk to experience these legendary and classic modules.  At the time I really wanted to do some supernatural horror (good vs evil type stuff) and I was sold on turning the World of Greyhawk into "Gothic Greyhawk" when the players pointed out that we should include Ravenloft, too.  (The module, not the setting).  At the time, the OSR was getting me all pumped up with old school love, so I hastily put together a bunch of hex maps detailing Sterich and Geoff for the old Darlene Greyhawk map, sketched out the towns and adventure sites (liberally dropping OSR modules and the tour-de-Greyhawk AD&D modules into various hexes) and away we went!

There's a few classic modules we'd like to get to in one of these campaigns - top of the list would be The Isle of Dread and Castle Amber - I ran both years ago, but not with my current players.  I know one of the guys has never played Keep on the Borderlands - that might be a good one for the kids.

I have that massive 4E Orcus mini looming over the playing space on the shelf - the players are pretty convinced that Gothic Greyhawk will conclude at some future time when they throw down with the Prince of Undeath himself, a notion I don't dispel.

But for now, it's Strahd!  That's right, friends and neighbors, we've started Ravenloft!  Look for the first game report shortly.

While you're waiting, drop a note about those things on your own D&D bucket list.

Edit:  One thing cool about getting together and talking about running the same adventure that other gamers have also run / played, is the shared experience of modules.  Simon's comment about running the LOTFP modules got me remembering - oh yeah, we did those!  They were awesome.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Quick Review: Backswords & Bucklers for Swords & Wizardry

Backswords & Bucklers is a variant off of the Swords &Wizardry Whitebox set put together by Tied to a Kite Games (you can get books 1 and 2 from Lulu).  The basic rules are free, and book 2 is less than $2 (pdfs).  It covers taking the basic Swords & Wizardry game and using it to play rogues, scoundrels and ruffians in Elizabethan England.  I got a recommendation to check it out the other day (thanks Von! - brilliant) as a low magic rules & setting, and liked it quite a lot.

The default classes are fighting man, scoundrel, and wise woman/cunning man.  There are no spell-casting classes just yet (the wise class uses a bit of dowsing and herbalism to achieve some game effects).  Equipment and money are Elizabethan.  There are some tweaks to combat - missiles and firearms are very deadly, and there's a neat rule around zero hit points and dying that makes rapiers and puncture weapons deadlier that could be worth pulling into any D&D game as a house rule.

However, the strength of the two products is in providing a campaign framework and advice for running urban D&D style adventures in lieu of dungeon delves.  Their term is "Tavern Trawling", and it's introduced in the first rules book but developed further in book 2.  The idea is to build a tavern environment as the home base, replete with regulars, occasional visitors, and patrons, and use the urban landscape for missions that take the place of dungeon delves.  It's very episodic and would feel quite a bit like a TV show in terms of ensemble cast and narrative structure.  Characters hail from the lower echelon of society, and the missions, adventures, and fictional interludes are in the picaresque vein, more like the fiasco situations that spiral out of control in a Tarantino film than the grand moments of high fantasy.

Here's why I went bizonkers over these books and wanted to do an immediate review - the techniques presented for generating the taverns and patron situations are very toolboxy and could be used in a wide range of settings for brainstorming urban adventures.  I could easily transplant the suggestions to any D&D game where there's the potential for city adventuring.  I'll definitely return back to this product sometime after the Black City, when I work on that future low magic/horror themed sandbox.  And for folks wanting to use the books to run their own Elizabethan urban crawl as is, there are like 12 scenarios in outline form and a full blown adventure ready to go.  The ratio of value-to-cost is really high and I'd recommend checking it out.

Note:  let me state the obvious - I'm aware of the Vornheim product, it's sitting in my "to-read" queue.  I realize the marketing has said it's designed for urban crawling, so it'll be interesting to compare and contrast the tavern-trawling structure when I get to it...

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Defending The Horror

My band marches to a slightly different beat.  The games I run, and things I make, tend to feature a bit more horror and take their inspiration from similar sources.  The recent discussions around game art got me thinking - are my own ideas outside the D&D mainstream, too?

I'm not going to change anything, but it got me thinking why horror is such an important part of my game.  Let's say you think horror has no place in the game - as if giant poisonous spiders dropping down on characters and creating near-death experiences doesn't spike the fear and terror at the table.  You might say, demon-possessed serial killers going around doing vile things to innocent people is quite a bit different than running into a few horrible monsters in the dungeon.  There's a qualitative difference between fear and fear/disgust (oh - and check out Roger's excellent disgust articles for a deep dive)  I guess the concern is  that running a dark game is lurid and would arouse prurient interests or generate moral feelings of disgust.  "And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee…"

Melan said something on the "You're No Hero" post that really stuck with me - "The great moral dividing line in sword & sorcery stories lies not between altruism and egoism, law and lawlessness, or hero and antihero, but humanity and inhumanity… A roguish protagonist is not fundamentally different from one who respects law and order when we compare them to inhumane cultists and sanity-blasting horrors from beyond. "

And to steal a line from everyone's favorite peddler of shock and controversy, the darker the game world, the greater the light even a single candle will shed.

The Black City might have a few horror elements, like getting abducted and vivisected in the Tower of Pain, or drinking the wrong water and devolving into a mutated cannibal berserker.  Bah, mere occupational hazards.  I actually see the setting as a rip-roaring romp with totally awesome Vikings.  With big axes.  Fantasy Vikings = pirates, and what's more fun than being a pirate?  Am I right or what?  The ninjas may have real ultimate power™, but I'll take booty and wenches and rum (or in this case, mead) any day.

So make it horrible and dark, and put some squeamishness and icky stuff in your games.  Even amoral rogues that stand up against your horrors will seem "heroic" by comparison.  I'm not advocating role playing the icky stuff and running a "let's do snuff" game, but after all, a man's greatness is measured by his enemies.  Give your players something worthy of fighting.

I really enjoyed my Monday post on demonic possession in D&D - I'm kinda tired of retarded looking demons with vulture heads and gorilla bodies, and am going to spend some time working through a few alternate demons that follow the "immaterial, unclean spirit" approach, and play up the exorcist angle, too.  But I would be interested in hearing if folks think those kinds of articles cross any blatant lines about mixing real world beliefs with gaming.  I'd hope that you'd consider the comment section a safe place to dissent.  My own feeling tends to be, if it's used as a hideous monster in the movies, chances are I'll consider pulling it into a D&D game.

Carry on.  Make it monstrous, make it horrible, keep it Weird.

Planetary:  something about 'keeping it strange' just felt right for this post...

The Black City - the Well of Woe, the Sunken Vaults, and the Maze

The Black City is a ruined alien city in the frozen north that I'm building out as a campaign setting for eventual publication.  You can follow the project here.

The Well of Woe
A The Well of Woe
If a group follows the trail from Trade Town along the fjord they'll reach the sprawling ruins of the Black City, entering near the Well of Woe (letter A on the city map).  The Well was the first entrance found by the early explorers that accessed the sub-levels below the city - it's nothing more than a large, 30' across steaming hole in the ground, surrounded by rubble.  Descending the hole by ropes or ladder will place the group on dungeon level 1 (Well of Woe area) in area 1.

Last year, Bergfinn's Bashers created a small checkpoint to guard the hole.  They have a defensible shack made of rubble walls and a hide roof.  They keep a few ropes and rope ladders handy, and throughout the season send a crew of 4 guardsmen and a sergeant each morning to assist groups in and out of the ruins for a small fee (effectively 1gp per person, paid up front).  The detachment keeps a small fire going at the shack and also acts as an aid station.

The leader of the detachment is one of Bergfinn's veterans, a weathered seaman named Bluenose.  Bluenose tends to look disdainfully at new visitors to the ruins, and has an oft-repeated message for first-timers:

Failure to follow these simple instructions will cost you extra.  When you're coming back up, make a light so we can see you down there, bang your shields so we can hear you, then we'll drop the ladders.  Anything else is extra.  If we have to drop a torch to see you, it's extra.  We don't take chances, we drop rocks on anyone we can't see.   We don't do extractions - if we have to get involved in a fight, it's extra.  We don't get involved in disputes between parties, either - if we have to get involved, it's extra.  Any questions?  Good, no questions - answers would be extra.

Bluenose's crew will drop rope ladders for any paying customers seeking entrance to the dungeons via the 30' deep well (they don't allow non-paying customers to use this dungeon entrance at all while the shack is manned).  When a group returns to the Well from below, they'll need to make a loud noise to alert the guards to drop the ladders again.  Each evening, Bluenose and the crew haul the ladders and similar gear back to Trade Town.

Bluenose and his men are an excellent source of rumors about the ruins, as they see many adventuring groups firsthand, and they try and keep tabs on where some of the groups are going.  Of course, getting rumors out of Bluenose will cost extra.

C The Sunken Vaults
The vaults are a series of massive voids in the ground.  The holes themselves extend deep beneath the surface - some of them are 100' deep - but are almost entirely filled with ice.  Even the warmest arctic summers aren't enough to melt more than a few feet of surface ice, forming wet pools on top of the ice.  There's a series of 8 such vaults in the area.

Groups will be able to find stairs and walkways leading down around the outside of some of the vaults, leading to observation decks that allow some visibility into the murky ice through a translucent glass-like plastic.  On sunny days when the light reaches deeper into the ice, it's possible to see the shapes of large behemoths frozen in the depths.

D The Maze
There was a point in the city's distant past when this area passed for what would be meditative parkland to the ancients - a sprawling, black walled maze with periodic open areas set for reflection.  Used for instruction, the walls of the maze were covered top to bottom with the ancient Grey dot-matrix style writing, describing magical rituals and alchemical formulae for study by students.

Now the maze is strewn with rubble - many of the glossy black rock surfaces are chipped, cracked and ruined, and it's hard to find complete tablets amongst the rubble, but there are a few.  Each wall-sized tablet recovered from the maze is either a new spell or an improved version of a basic spell , but a group would need serious rock-moving equipment to move one of the 2-ton slabs out of the rubble.  Alternatively, they could camp in the maze and attempt to transcribe the new spells right at the dig site.

'Improved' spells have a 25% greater effect than the standard spell, but will be the same level.  An example of an improved spell would be an improved magic missile that does 3-9 damage instead of 2-7 (d6+3 instead of d6+1).

There is a drawback to using an improved spell that won't be immediately obvious to players.  Repeated usage of improved spells will slowly reduce the character's spell slot capacity, effectively removing one of their level 1 spell slots for each 5 improved spells they memorize and cast.

Unknown to the players, each improved spell carries in its spell formula a mental virus that leaves behind spell fragments in the caster's memory; after 5 such fragments are left behind, the fragments recombine into a new spell.  When this happens, the character will know a new spell has formed in his/her memory but will have no idea what the spell does; it's a viral implant put there by the ancient master that crafted the improved spell in the first place.

There is a simple chart for determining what actions some of these viral spell implants perform; note that the effects of some of the viral spells might be of a higher level than the character would have been able to memorize on his own.  The character may eventually choose to cast the unknown foreign spell just to clear his memory and get the spell slot back!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Setting vs Rules

Thinking about the last post, I'm wondering if folks have a preference for which rules support different styles of play better or worse?  Standard versions of D&D do fine in the High Fantasy and Swords & Sorcery space.  D&D and the clones are fairly high powered and need some surgery to work in the low magic space - those green 2E historical books always had a healthy chunk of things to cut out to make the game more grounded.

Regarding the new games, DCC RPG looks to live in that Swords & Sorcery place, with the wizard pacts and moral ambiguities that come across in the rules.  I can't see Gandalf slashing his arm to spill blood to Blodbu…  - whatever the frog god thingie is in DCC -  to empower one of his spells, despite how awesome it would be.  (Although as an angelic Maiar, maybe his patron would be a being of light - what do I know?)

LOTFP goes after the low magic style, with grittier combat and toned down spell lists.  Note that both games ditch the 9 point alignment scale to work with Alignment as Allegiance and not Alignment as Ethics, further getting away from the good vs evil vibe of standard D&D.

As a DM, I choose low magic more often because I can model more elements from the real world (ie, general DM laziness) without needing to project the massive changes to society that would come about due to Raise Dead, common magical healing, Plant Growth for mega crops, Continual Light, and all the other reality-bending things we can't even predict.

Players, on the other hand, want Swords & Sorcery.  They'd prefer loose alignments (if any) to maximize freedom of choice, tons of race and class options, and more powerful options all around.  Just generalizing, mind you - your players might be different.

Just an aside - does anyone know of a setting or treatise that take magic to it's logical conclusions in a D&D setting?    The closest ones I can think of were in the Known World Gazetteers - Glantri and the Empire of Alphatia.  Both were ruled by wizards, had magical construction on a wide scale, flying ships, changes to agriculture and the social structures due to magic, etc.  But the Known World (Mystara) also postulated meddlesome gods (immortals) that kept the world in line and reacted if any group got too powerful.  I never read Eberon, but I I know it featured quite a bit of magic-as-technology.

Your Turn: Low Magic, High Fantasy, or Swords & Sorcery?

Moving on from the discussions about heroism and D&D, rules sets, and taste in art.  One element I see lurking behind the discussion is the style of play and the type of setting you run, since that sets the tone.  Besides, it was time for a new poll!

Here's my attempt at characterizing the settings types.  Drop a vote on the poll about which setting style you prefer.

The High Fantasy Setting
Most folks understand high fantasy - big, sweeping storylines that tell an epic story of good vs evil.  Morality tends to be black and white and is supported by a supernatural cosmology.  The bad guys are easy to identify because they look evil and use lots of humanoids and other disposable servants that can be killed in great numbers.

Magic is not rare.  Demihumans like elves and dwarves (and even more fantastic races) are common, and the power curve extends from the human to the superhuman.  Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, and standard D&D stuff is all high fantasy - you've got the Elminsters and Manshoons, the Iuzs and Mordenkainens all running around.

The Low Magic Setting
A low magic setting usually mirrors a fantasy version of a historical period on earth.  The morality involves lots of shades of grey.  Magic is limited - troublesome, world-changing spells like Raise Dead or Continual Light are cut.  Wizards and spell casters are mistrusted, if present.  The world is human centric - characters fight other humans, and demihumans exist on the fringe of society, if at all.  I consider the various AD&D 2E historical books as examples of this type.

Sword & Sorcery
If low fantasy and high fantasy are the extremes, Sword & Sorcery splits the middle.  It takes the moral grey areas and rare magic of the first type of setting, and pairs it up with a more fantastic world that doesn't emulate any real world history.  Sword & Sorcery doesn't care about a global struggle of good vs evil or big storylines; the stories are episodic and involve action, adventure, picaresque rogues, and a bit of swashbuckling.  Most D&D games seem to follow a Swords & Sorcery narrative structure (episodic stories) but use higher magic than the source literature because the game itself is high magic.  Despite the name, I think of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy as the best S&S setting, and Dark Sun was S&S as well.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mythic Monday - Unclean Spirits of the Wilderness

A look at using demonic possession in your D&D game.

…Immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit… And no one could bind the man anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him…  And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.”
-The gospel of Mark, chapter 5

The Exorcist, The Rite, Fallen, Paranormal Activity, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Dominion, Rec 2.  There are a lot of creepy exorcism movies out there to fire up the imagination!  Although D&D and the cleric have strong roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the original designers took a radically different approach to portraying demons and devils in the game - they're basically big monsters with tough AC and hit points, meant to be smacked around with swords.  Not really how demons are portrayed in real world story and folklore.  Let's fix it!

In the "real world", demons are immaterial spirits and you need some Holy Power™ on your side if you're going to stand a chance.  Here's a quick look at the demon possession phenomena and some ideas on using demonic possession in D&D.

Demonic Possession
The chapter in Mark quoted at the top lays out the prototypical demonic possession - it's worth a quick read if you're not a Biblephobe.  An "unclean spirit" inhabits a human, and the person begins to act unnaturally - they might be harmful to themselves and others, demonstrate super human strength, fly into a rage at anything holy, appear to be insane.  In horror movies, the demon possessed are often serial killers!

Some of the tests used by the Catholic church to differentiate possession from mental illness include whether the victim is demonstrating special knowledge, or fluency in languages not known by the possessed.  Special knowledge is things only the demon could know - secrets about other people in the presence of the possessed, foretelling future events, descriptions of things happening far away.

And in the best spirit of film and movie, the possessed should be able to manifest physical changes - stigmata or lesions, scars and spontaneous injuries, green vomit and walking around double jointed like a human spider!  Yeah, that's the stuff!  Horrible!

Using Unclean Spirits in the Game
Demons can't be fought traditionally - they're immaterial and immortal.  If you're using the traditional cosmology - the Nine Hells and the Abyss - then I'd keep devils as devils, Abyssal demons as demons, and use these entities as they're called in the Bible - "Unclean Spirits of the Wilderness" - fallen spirits from an outer plane that now inhabit the Prime.  But I suggest keeping the cosmology vague and have NPCs call everything 'demons'.  A peasant isn't going to differentiate between types of extra planar entities - a demon is a demon is a demon.

Demonic possession is a plot device and not a great monster encounter, although killing the victim could be part of it - the victim would have greater than human strength and be difficult to grapple.  A murderer or serial killer could be demon-possessed, or you can go with a common horror approach and involve possession of an innocent - poor Linda Blair.  A section of dungeon could be demon haunted, or a lonely ruin in the wilderness.  There are excellent sequences in Stephen King's Dark Tower series where a jawbone is demon possessed, or Roland must deal with various demon haunted locales while traveling Mid-World.   An object could be the demon's vessel - the Dresden series features a collection of silver coins each bearing the soul of a demon that possesses the owner of the coins - the 30 pieces of silver given to Judas.

The demonic attack is basically a form of Magic Jar, with the demon whispering promises and exerting mental pressure to "get in", and the failed saving throw representing a moment of weakness leading to the possession.  If possession happens to a PC, it's a good opportunity to take the player aside and let them know to start fomenting mayhem.  Demons are destructive and evil, after all.  Otherwise, the demon can choose to take control and override the host's actions at any time; the demon knows everything the host knows, but can't use any of the host's special abilities (like spells).

The basic counter to demonic possession is the 5th level cleric spell, Dispel Evil.  However,  I'd allow for the existence of an Abjuration spell (as a 4th level cleric spell) with a limited scope - basically the same effect as Dispel Evil, but only effective against demonic possession.  In fact, an AD&D 1E version of Abjure is described in S4 The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth as part of the Demonomicon of Iggwilv, and AD&D 1E has an Exorcise spell.  Your world could also have Abjuration in a special book or holy text, unavailable through regular prayer - something like the church's Roman Ritual - the Rituale Romanum - De exorcismis et supplicationibus quibusdam.

I also like having Abjuration/Exorcise as a 4th level spell for the following reason - if you're using traditional class titles, a 7th cleric is a Bishop, and bishops in the Catholic church are given power over determining when exorcisms happen.

When an Unclean Spirit is cast out via Abjuration or Dispel Evil, it has to go somewhere.  Once again looking to mythology for inspiration, let's say the cleric performing the exorcism spell can indicate a nearby vessel for the spirit - another human, an animal(s), or a specially prepared object.  This lets us loop in the dramatic twist of the Exorcist movie (the priest takes the evil spirit into himself); the animal involvement of many Biblical stories - the swine of Mark's Legion story; and the Medieval folklore around 'trapping the Devil in a box'.  Entire monastic orders could be built around an ancient exorcism that resulted in an Unclean Spirit trapped in a physical vessel, and the order has existed ever since to keep the evil one under lock and key, sealed from the world.

The Protection from Evil and Protection from Evil 10' spells could be helpful here.  I see the potential for high drama as the group corners the demon-possessed madman who's been hacking apart villagers, and now they need to restrain him and Abjure the spirit, trapping it in a specially prepared metal flask and protecting themselves with Protection from Evil so they don't get taken over in the meantime.

Finally - there is the name of the spirit.  Most of these accounts have a dramatic moment where the priest or prophet demands that the creature reveal its name - "Pazuzu", "Azazel', or "Legion", for example.  I'd probably make this something a cleric could achieve by succeeding with a simple Command spell , and if the spirit is forced to reveal its name, it takes a -4 to the saving throw against Abjuration or Dispel Evil to reflect the power the cleric now has over it.

Demons - Unclean Spirits of the Wilderness  (flavored for Labyrinth Lord)
No. Enc.: 1
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: as human host
Armor Class:  as human host, +1 to AC
Hit Dice:  as human host, +1 per hit die
Attacks: by weapon, +3 to hit
Damage: by weapon +3
Save: C10
Morale: 11
Hoard Class:  nil
XP: 2400

Superhuman Strength
The victim possessed by the demon will have an effective strength of 18 and increased speed and toughness.

When the demon is not in a host, it can perform an attack similar to Magic Jar once per round versus one target within a 120' range.  Unlike magic jar, the demon doesn't displace the possessor's soul; it dominates the victim and can override the victim's actions at will.

Demons are immaterial spirits, unable to move unless possessing a host.  When not possessing a victim, the demon is rooted to a locale or physical object.  Such an object or locale would radiate powerful evil if a Detect Evil spell is used.

Demons can be turned; an immaterial demon can't flee, but would be suppressed for the duration of the effect.  A possessed victim will flee a cleric that turns it.  A demon takes a penalty to saving throws (-4) versus a cleric that know it's true name.  The spells Dispel Evil and Abjuration* (new level 4 spell, or use AD&D's Exorcise) are effective at freeing a victim of demonic possession.  When one of the spells is used in conjunction with the demon's true name, the caster can indicate a vessel for the demon when it is driven out of the previous host.

Closing Thoughts
The tradition of Unclean Spirits goes back to the beginnings of civilization and begins with the ancient Sumerians; demons originate in the lonely deserts of the world and are brought back to more civilized areas hitchhiking inside people.  I would recommend including a bit of archaeology into the back story of each demon as well as notes on the demon's "personality" - some might be murderers, others hedonists, others with a completely different (but evil) agenda.

The demon will have the benefit of thousands of years of experience, and demons should have a range of intelligences.  A genius level demon running rampant through a city as a serial killer could be a challenging opponent for high level characters because of its ability to jump hosts and elude capture.

The actual removal of the demon is mechanically simple (ie, using the right spells and being prepared), so the challenge in using this kind of antagonist is in identifying the work of a demon, tracing the history, finding the possessed victim, and isolating the thing for the exorcism.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Let's Kill Monsters and Take Their Stuff

Existensialism and the dungeon - confessions of a knuckle-dragger

For me, Dungeons & Dragons is all about going into dark holes in the ground, kicking open doors, killing the monsters, and taking their stuff.  I'm here to say, I am a role playing knuckle-dragger.  But go with me here for a bit, because there is a method at work.

Looting places is the default paradigm of most of the golden age modules - check out this list below:

B1 In Search of the Unknown
B2 The Keep on the Borderlands
B4 The Lost City
B5 The Horror on the Hill
X1 The Isle of Dread
T1 The Village of Hommlet
S1 Tomb of Horrors
S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth
U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

None of these adventures have over-arching plots or storylines, or intricate plot hooks to get the players started.  They are all simple site-based adventures with not much more to them than "Here's an interesting place to find adventure, ready-set-go".  You may say, "Beedo, when I played that module, we helped so-and-so, or we discovered such-and-such evil plot, it was a great story, it had nothing to do with looting."  Yeah - but it didn't need to turn out that way - that was your choice to make it about something, not the DM's plot.

This is the strength of site-based adventures, of sandbox play, the reason I'm still playing D&D 30+ years later.  Compelling stories emerge through play.  Story and plot isn't forced onto the game from the outset.

When I've played a plotted a game, I've had the experience of leading the players through the story.  It is fundamentally more passive than presenting a locale and turning over decision making authority to the group.  For the players, gaming in a sandbox goes from passive entertainment into an exercise of existential choice.

And this is where the idea of heroism in D&D should really matter - forget about making the premise of the game, "You're a hero".  Make the premise of the game, "You're whatever you want to be", and let the players be heroic or villainous or amoral through their choices.  If they choose selflessness over self-interest in a sandbox game, now you have heroism with meaning.

I've played B2 with multiple groups (mostly younger) where they tried to sack the Keep on the Borderlands.  Or the group attacked the (good) Cynidicean factions in the Lost City to loot their golden masks.  Or they tried to rob Rufus and Byrne in the Village of Hommlet.  And I've played with groups that made heroic choices in the same circumstances.  But the difference in an old school game is the players have that choice to decide.

You'll note that I'm equating old school play with free form dungeons and site based locations (sandboxes).  There's an implicit idea in these adventure structures that the DM presents a location, and the story emerges from player choice and interaction with the setting, and the sum is much greater than the parts.  And this is why D&D is still my game of choice 30 years later, and despite dabbling in scripted, plotted games, I come back to the sandbox and the basic dungeon delve over and over again.

And yes, a corollary statement is you can play a new school style plotted story adventure with old time D&D rules, and I would say it's not an old school game - old school is as much about adventure style as it is about the rules system.

Tying this back to DCC and yesterday's "You're No Hero Post".  The issue I can see with the DCC ad copy is the explicit statement "You're not a hero", as opposed to saying something like, "You could be a hero, or a reaver, or a thief…"  I certainly don't think it's a fatal mistake, people!  Let's read it and discuss the game on its merits.

Note - thanks to Stuart over at Strange Magic (again) for providing the motivation to defending the killing of monsters and taking their loot, and to Limpey for putting the focus on heroic choice.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

You're No Hero

"Tell me, Bronn. If I told you to kill a babe . . . an infant girl, say, still at her mother's breast . . . would you do it? Without question?"

"Without question? No." The sellsword rubbed thumb and forefinger together. "I'd ask how much."
--Bronn, A Game of Thrones

I just got done reading Tim's nut-kicking of LOTFP over at The Other Side blog, and the statement that he likes to play heroes got me thinking about the role of heroes in D&D.  In old school D&D, folks play heroes despite the system.

On said nut-kicking:  it's pretty entertaining, I don't agree with it, but it's a good read-through and the comments were interesting.

We're going to see a contrast between heroic vs non-heroic gaming come up more in old school discussions because of the hype generated by DCC RPG and their ad copy - "You're a reaver, a cutpurse, a heathen slayer, a tight-lipped warlock... you're no hero."  I would put forward this thesis;  games and gaming play styles ultimately emulate their inspirational sources, and the divide between old school and new school gaming has just as much to do with the difference between pre and post 1970's fantasy literature.

Pulp era fantasy featured rogues and ruffians and barbarians that smashed and tricked their way to temporary wealth, and this heavily influenced the original versions of D&D.  Since that time period, we've seen the massive popularity of Tolkien and a sea-change in fantasy that lead to one epic fantasy series after another, followed by the Grim-Dark antiheroes of the 1990's (looking at you, Lestat), and now the popularity of post-modern fantasists like George RR Martin, with their realpolitik grim and gritty approach to fantasy.

Gamers emulate their inspirational sources; D&D was birthed out of the pulp influences in Appendix N and rewards roguish looters, heroes need not apply.  Paladins and Rangers and good vs evil seem a little odd in AD&D 1E because the reward mechanism in the game didn't change, other than people just looted and pillaged "evil" humanoids and didn't worry about their consciences.

I mostly checked out during the Dragonlance and post-Dragonlance period of TSR, but looking back it seems that the heroic influences of mainstream fantasy infected the game, and the focus was on big quests and being heroes.  I'm not very knowledgeable about AD&D 2E, but I'm guessing it introduced alternative XP systems other than XP for gold to support heroic quest styles of play.  After all, Aragorn never stopped to loot Moria - though it would be funny to see the companions figuring out how to get wagon loads of mithril out of the mines.

We seem to be thankfully past the Grim-Dark anti-hero period of game play, but it raises some interesting questions for me about the OSR, the revival of old school dungeons & dragons, and the new emphasis Goodman is placing on the amoral pulp rogues of Appendix N.

Is it the zeitgeist of the time that's making the return to the roots more popular now?  Are there spiritual connections between the pulp "heroes" of old time fantasy that plays well to the violent post-modern fantasy influences we see nowadays?  Or is it because we grew up playing D&D in the 70's and 80's and when you're in your thirties and forties you get nostalgic?

Shield me from the bandwagon!

Musings on the shield debate and the Goodman Games DCC - jumping on two bandwagons in one post.

I've been using a Shields Shall be Splintered house rule for almost a year (you can see the full list on this old house rule blog post).  A shield becomes a portable save vs death for any fighter carrying it, and creates a real difference between the two-handed fighters and the sword-and-board styles.  Since most D&D fighting is either one-on-one or small groups, sacrificing a shield in a duel is meaningful and dramatic.

If I were running a game in the ancient world without heavy knights in plate mail, I'd adapt something like the following chart I saw over on Strange Magic to reflect the importance of shields to pre-plate warriors:

Unarmored: AC 9
Leather: AC 8
Chainmail: AC 7
Shield only: AC 6
Leather + Shield: AC 5
Chain + Shield: AC 4 (same)
Plate: AC 3 (same)
Plate + Shield: AC 2 (same)

One might consider giving legions and phalanxes with advanced shield tactics an even higher AC boost for their shields when in formation.

The DCC Hoopla
Wow - I barely got the Goodman DCC RPG Beta downloaded and onto the tablet and the blogosphere is already flooded with a million "I love the art" posts.

I'm trying to reserve judgment until giving it a good cover-to-cover reading and projecting how it would play at the table (I doubt my group will want to playtest it ahead of time, and Goodman is ignoring GenCon for hosting a playtest).  We still have 6 months before it officially comes out.

I imagine the analysis will be an exercise similar to evaluating retro-games - "Okay, they changed X or Y from traditional D&D, why'd they do it, and is this a better game for it?"  From what I could see on a quick read through, DCC RPG has a lot of swing - critical tables, random spell results tables, and disposable characters.  I like swing, Swing is Fun, but it will need to be experienced to really judge it.

But all the classic D&D art copies made me laugh.  A+ for nostalgia.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Tower of Pain / The Black City

The Black City is a ruined alien city in the frozen north that I'm building out as a campaign setting for eventual publication.  You can follow the project here.

The Decapitated Oracle
The Tower is area L on the City Map.  It's a lonely ruined spire north of the great glacier in the eastern part of the city ruins.  Whereas much of the Black City blends science fantasy and high adventure with Vikings, the Tower is one of the areas with a horror theme.

When the alien inhabitants of the city died in a mass extinction event, one of the last conscious acts involved turning on the Beacon, a massive radio signal to deep space requesting aid from other Greys.  No rescue ships came, but over the ages, various alien predators and space devils that lived in the void followed the signal back to earth, and some inhabit the ruins of the city even today.  One  group of these invaders is a colony of Mi-Go, alien scientists featured in the Lovecraft story, "The Whisperer in Darkness".

Early in the campaign, the characters might come into contact with rumors from other groups exploring the ruins, and hear how one of their sentries went missing, or other lone members of their expedition disappeared without a trace… as if they were lifted right up into the sky, leaving no tracks.  They've been taken by the Mi-Go.  The Mi-Go range outwards from the tower at night, looking for lone humans or Ape-Men to paralyze with their high tech implements and carry back to the tower.  (This is an ideal fate to inflict on a henchman, hired mercenary, or NPC friend of the players if they camp within 10 hexes of the tower).

If the characters somehow catch a glimpse of a silhouetted Mi-Go flying against the night sky, or discover the tower on their own, they'll find the tower is guarded by the headless bodies of Ape-Men, altered through Mi-Go surgery to have mouths in their abdomens along with body armor and bio weapons.  Alien symbiotes control the body's nervous systems and serve the Mi-Go.

Fighting their way up the tower to the higher levels, the characters might discover the Mi-Go "project" - an attempt to commune with an alien intelligence deep beneath the city through creation of the Decapitated Oracle.  The missing heads of the Mi-Go victims have been preserved and linked in a psychic circuit to allow the Mi-Go to contact the lingering thoughts and dreams of the dead city.  (In game terms, the Decapitated Oracle can be used to achieve a "Commune" effect for anyone with enough guts and mental toughness to put their hands on the control orb and try to use it… everyone else will be afflicted with Confusion as the various heads of the Oracle shout conflicting messages, prophecies and warnings all at the same time.)

The Mi-Go are one of the more insidious threats in the city, and the risk of a nightly abduction will become greater the more time the characters spend in the city, and the deeper into the ruins they push.  The players could experience some vicarious horror when an abduction happens to an NPC group first, building up the tension and fear of the unknown.  A disquieting sequence would involve one of their henchmen going missing, then battling the henchman's headless corpse sometime in the future if the characters discover the tower and come into contact with the Mi-Go servitors guarding it.  They'd learn the awful truth when the Oracle was finally discovered and the henchman's severed head spouts doom-filled prophecies at them.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Dungeons & Deep Ones, Dagon & Dragons - Musings on Call of Cthulhu as a D&D Game

What makes Call of Cthulhu play differently than Dungeons & Dragons?  Would it be fun to run a D&D game in a Lovecraftian world?

After posting a week or so ago about turning Chaosium's Lovecraft country into a D&D sandbox, I've been giving quite a bit of thought to a future project creating a Lovecraftian sandbox for D&D.  This would be something totally different from the Black City, as it would be more horror investigation than a dungeon delving.

In a Call of Cthulhu adventure, there might be some opponents that can be overcome physically, but there are usually greater horrors that can only be thwarted, delayed, or contained.  In D&D, you can usually kill anything if you have a big enough sword.  Old school game play throws balance out the window, and player skill is required to gauge when to fight, when to run.  The investigative horror game would place more emphasis on those table skills.  "We see evil cultists performing a rite, let's get in there and stop them," versus,   "Oh no, the rite is over and here comes the Elder God, run!"

Chaosium already has published two intriguing historical supplements for CoC  that  cross over into the realms of fantasy - Cthulhu Invictus (for the Roman era) and Cthulhu Dark Ages.  In both games, characters have the chance to strap on some armor, grab a spear or sword, and head into the wilderness.  So a natural first question might be why not just run an Invictus or Dark Ages game?

Here's a quick rundown on how I see some of the differences:

Investigations versus Dungeons
If you ever look at a dungeon map abstractly, it's basically a flow chart where the doors and passages represent player choices.  A plotted investigation game with clues can be drawn up the same way - the rooms are scenes, the clues leading to the next scene are passages.  An investigative game *can* be run as a sandbox, with no need for railroading - many of the "dungeons" will be plotted as investigations.  Once the players reach an actual site-based adventure, you can run the game like a traditional dungeon.

Call of Cthulhu is more lethal than D&D.  Experienced Call of Cthulhu characters still have the basic hit points of any human, and are just as easy to kill throughout their whole career.  On the other hand, a high level D&D fighter can take a lot of punishment.  A Lovecraft game run using D&D rules will have a pulp action feel, since the characters will be more willing to hang with a monster and try combat instead of cutting and running as quickly as their CoC brethren.  Folks used to more D&D action will enjoy leveling in lieu of "realism".  Of course, powerful Mythos entities will still crush any group.

I'm on record as disliking the CoC sanity system because it discourages investigation, which is what the game is supposed to be about; I like the Trail of Cthulhu approach because it encourages exploration, but I feel that D&D style adventurers don't need extra motivation to expose themselves to awfulness.  I'd leave this out of the game and be happier for it.  (The previous post was 'Does a sanity mechanic belong in D&D?')

If I'm going for horror and can't create a sense of dread without requiring a roll and forcibly telling the players, "You're scared now", it's time to hang up my dice.

CoC characters have professions, which define their skills.  A fair amount of CoC mechanics are tied up with skill checks.  Old school D&D has only an abbreviated skill system.

I don't think this is much of an issue for an old school DM, as he'll be comfortable with "rulings over rolls".   Game mastering an investigative game requires the DM to understand the important clues that will drive the investigation forward and give the players the opportunity to discover the important clues, regardless of skills or rolls.

Languages and Books
A big component to Call of Cthulhu investigative play involves eldritch tomes, dead languages, and Mythos magic.  The LOTFP game has excellent language rules for a D&D style system, and Realms of Crawling Chaos brought interesting tome rules into D&D - we have this element covered.

Healing and Clerics
In Call of Cthulhu, mental health is more of a long term factor for healing than physical health, and the game uses various sanity healing mechanics.  I'd be ditching sanity, so no need for psychoanalysts.

The cleric, as a wielder of divine power, has no analog in Call of Cthulhu.  There are no higher powers on the same side of humans in the standard Lovecraftian universe.  I tackled my approach to reconciling the cleric and deities for use in a Lovecraftian universe months ago:  Fear and Trembling and Dungeons.

If you're playing old school D&D, you probably love the roles at the table implicit in classes - fighters fight, clerics protect, magic users cast spells, thieves bring special skills.  It's an instant hook for roleplaying, and part of the game's enduring charm.  In an investigative game, skill and role playing are more important.  With the old school approach to skills, classes shouldn't be an impediment during investigations, and will be familiar ground during combat.

In Call of Cthulhu, the only magic is bad magic - Mythos magic.  Every spell has a deleterious side effect.  In the standard D&D game, magic is a useful resource.

There are a few approaches I'm considering to reconcile the two approaches - one is to create a whole new class of ritual magic to cover Mythos spells, useable by anyone (or any magic user) with the right eldritch tome.  One could just adapt the Call of Cthulhu spell lists and bolt on the new magic system.

The other option is to convert the most common Lovecraftian spells into actual D&D magic user spells and make them rare and dangerous - they're not part of the commonly known spell lists.  That's the approach in Realms of Crawling Chaos, and it seems it would mesh well with the darker tone of magic in LOTFP.

D&D characters get most of their experience for treasure, so traditional campaigns often have an element of avarice to them.  Characters are more often rogues than heroes.  By the book play rewards the biggest haul of loot.  Still mulling it over, but XP might be an area to make a change - you want the group investigating the murder at the old mansion, not looting the mansion and ignoring the mystery part of it.  (Call of Cthulhu doesn't use an experience or level-based system; skills improve gradually through use).

I think D&D could work fine to run a Lovecraftian investigative campaign; the group will be tougher than a standard party in Call of Cthulhu, so fights against minions and mooks will go the party's way more easily, but Mythos monsters will still be scary.  The familiarity of the D&D system and class-based roles is a big draw (and the fact that there are a ton of D&D players versus Cthulhu players).  I know I wouldn't have any problems with my own player group trying a Lovecraftian sandbox with D&D mechanics, but their interest in Call of Cthulhu itself has mostly been one-shots.

Oh - and as I mentioned in the Gamer ADD post a few days ago - you'd have the benefit of being able to convert 30 years of Cthulhu campaigns.  Masks of Nyarlathotep or Shadows of Yog Sothoth would be a ton of fun as 16th century horror campaigns played out in post-Renaissance Europe with D&D mechanics.

This project goes in the queue after the Black City!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Institute, Plaza, and Spire of the Black City

There are three other places on the city map that are bad news for low level characters:

O Institute of the Arcane
The Institute is a long squat rectangular building that was used for testing the magical capabilities of Grey sorcerers.  Magic was taught freely in the city to members of the scientific caste, but only a capable wizard could hope to pass through the gauntlet of magical tests, traps and puzzles, and become a full member of the Institute, with access to the deeper mysteries.  If any PC magic users are capable of clearing the gauntlet, they'll gain the All-Seeing Eye and be able to pass into the abandoned Institute at will.

Near the entrance vestibule are teleport circles only activated by members possessing the Eye.  Entrance to the Institute building itself requires passing a pair of Watchers requiring indigo colored gemstones.

The Institute houses a library of Essential Saltes (the blue dusts to resurrect long dead creatures ala "The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward").  The entertainment value of the players resurrecting long dead aliens from distant worlds is terribly exciting to me.  I've got my Random Esoteric Creature Generator all ready to go.

The Institute can also be accessed from level 6 in the dungeons, the Greater Halls of Science.

P The Great Plaza
If someone were to follow the column-lined processional boulevard all the way through the city, they would arrive at a huge plaza, surrounded by religous ziggurats, and towering over the plaza is the Spire of Thaumaturgy.  The only objects on the icy, windswept plaza are a pair of massive fifteen foot high dull iron boulders.

Unfortunately, once someone steps foot into the plaza without violet passkeys, the boulders unroll themselves and stand erect, unfolding into massive 4-armed Iron Golems with misshapen alien heads and bulbous eyes.  They'll smash anyone trying to cross the plaza or step foot on the crooked stairs leading to the Spire of Thaumaturgy.  A kind DM might allow the characters to see the crushed remains of the Golem's last victims out on the plaza, and retreat is certainly allowable.

Q The Spire of Thaumaturgy
"I have harnessed the shadows that stride from world to world to sow death and madness..."
 -From Beyond

The many floors of the spire are dedicated to summoning chambers, magic circles, and libraries of knowledge about beings "From Beyond".  (I'm going with the D&D definition of Thaumaturgy as summoning, and not the historical meaning).  I imagine the tower will be filthy with invisible, floating, amoeba-like monstrosities that leaked through an improper summoning circle somewhere in the tower.

The undead inhabitant of the tower is the ancient alien lich, Kar-Qo (descendant of the Ghost Scientist Xeph-Ka near the Plaza of the Watchers).  Where Xeph-Ka failed to create the lich formula, Kar-Qo succeeded, attaining immortality and severing his connection to the hive mind; he "survived" the mass extinction because of his separateness and has spent untold millennia pursing different agendas, uncaring of the ruined city around him.  However, he'll be upset at being disturbed by fleshy pink bipeds.

Besides the plaza entrance to the tower, there is an elevator available from levels 7 and 8 in the under city that ascends to the Spire of Thaumaturgy.

Black City Decisions

I've made some decisions about the Black City project.  I'm going to go forward with publishing it, of course - it's too much fun to write, and I'd love to see it fully realized in print.  Committing myself to a project should help overcome the gamer attention deficit disorder.   I have MS Publisher on all my PC's, so I'm looking into that as the layout software (if not, I'll go with Scribus).  Felt is on board for drawings, Il Male has volunteered to help with photoshop maps, so we have the makings of a team.  (Probably will need an editor, I'm sure, and will see if anyone else wants some art credits).

The book will cover both a basic campaign setting and megadungeon, so the scope will include the Thule Archipelago detailed as a hex crawl, Trade Town as an adventurer's home base, the surface ruins, the first two dungeon levels (100+ rooms each), and a high level overview of the Viking north lands.

It'll be months of work still - I need to finish mapping and stocking level 2, and sign up my players for some play testing - I'll shoot for July for a run-through with the group.  I need to take all the blog posts that have had Black City content and rewrite them for presenting the setting as a cohesive book (blog posts tend to be repetitive, disjointed, and overly wordy).

I'm pretty sure the stats will be system neutral, and we'll playtest with LOTFP Weird Fantasy Roleplaying (which basically means system neutral, too, if you've seen LOTFP stats); it was a fan favorite in the recent poll, and Viking pirates will work really well with a rules set that favors fighters and weird magic.

One last decision is whether to use Realms of Crawling Chaos for some of the Lovecraftian bits (and psionics) or develop them independently.  So far, the only Lovecraftian things in the ruins include Mi-Go and perhaps some new spells - like the resurrection spell from "The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward".  The rest has been inspirational.  (I've mentioned a Lovecraftian D&D setting that would make heavy use of Realms of Crawling Chaos - that's a future project.  Black City is more high adventure than horror).