Saturday, July 30, 2011

Original Rules, Clone or Sequel?

I haven't seen a good name for "2nd generation clones" - games that use the OGL to mimic elements of D&D, but aren't creating a faithful retro-clone of the original rules.  So I'm going to start calling them Sequels, at least until someone smarter and wiser comes up with a cooler name (and no, not 'fantasy heartbreakers').  The sequel games I'm most familiar with are LOTFP or ACKS.  LOTFP goes lower magic, grim and grittier, with stronger character archetypes (niche protection), weirder magic, and a consistent skills set.  ACKS isn't even published yet, but it's looking really good.  It introduces a very strong campaign play mode that includes campaign roles for the core classes, domains, economics, and mass combat.  The class design approach mixes in some 3E style elements and might bridge the generation gap between new schoolers and old schoolers.  (I'm equating D&D new school = class customization and optimization).

True clones are things like Labyrinth Lord (BX D&D), OSRIC (AD&D), Swords & Wizardry (original D&D), and Dark Dungeons (Rules Cyclopedia/Mentzer D&D).

I don't know if it's nostalgia or comfort, but I find myself using different copies of the original rules as my primary references, and using the Clones or Sequels as a source of house rules.  30 years later, I still love the blue and red basic and expert books.  I can find things much faster in BX or the AD&D books than LL, for instance, although publishers are starting to move beyond basic publishing to usability at the table and layout - so my primary table references could change.  I have a hard time imagining using old-style thieves after using the LOTFP specialist - I also love the LOTFP encumbrance system, the skill system, and the focus on the fighter.  I've been getting all the prerelease rules of ACKS, and can see I'll be retiring my Companion domain economics  (among other things) once ACKS comes out, and play testing their own fighter tweaks.  I foresee my home games will be a mish-mash of systems going forward.

Seemed like a good idea for a poll.  Do you primarily run a purist game (Original Rules only), Original Rules with your own house rules, a Clone, a Sequel, or a Frankenstein mash-up of everything?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Recent Poll Results

Two recently finished polls are getting added to the polls page.


High Fantasy (6%), Low Magic Grim and Gritty (31%), Swords & Sorcery (61%).

I think of Swords & Sorcery as Conan stories and Lankhmar - picaresque and easy to make them episodic.   Perfect fit for D&D.  There's the belief that High Fantasy requires strong narrative control by the DM (and a ton of railroading) because folks remember thinks like Dragonlance or Time of Troubles or the DM will inflict his version of Lord of the Rings on the players, complete with Mary-Sue Gandalf and Elrond MacElminster.

Could a High Fantasy sandbox work?  I think it would be a fun project to try - maybe for my future "family campaign" I'll try and do something that incorporates all the familiar tropes of epic, high fantasy for the kiddos yet tries to keep the agency solely in the player's hands.


Rules only (6%), Rules and Adventures (11%), Rules, Adventures, and Campaign Setting (51%), Rules, Adventures, Campaign Setting, Ruler ship of domain (6%), Rules, Adventures, Campaign Setting, Ruler ship, Economics and Warfare (23%).

Some interesting choices here.  If folks are committed to the end game, they want to go all the way - economics and mass combat rules.  I like how the ACS project is shaping up, so we should have some solid rules in the near future to help out with the campaign side of ruling and running domains.

The majority of folks just want a campaign setting with some history to place their adventures in.  I like the 6% that said, "give me a good set of rules, screw the rest - I'll wing it."

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Award-Winning "Dreams in the Lich House"

Thanks Brian!  I've been nominated for a Recruitment Award for my efforts running kids D&D for our neighborhood kiddos.  We've had 7 kids in our kid's game (now being DM'ed by a neighboring dad), 3 more kids on the way, and a splinter group of older kids that are building their own Pokemon-based RPG.  A few of the 9 year olds are in our weekly adult game.

Gaming with kids is awesome.  One thing I noticed running kids through classic modules, it's a chance to reconnect with those amazing places you visited yourself when you were a kid.  The Keep on the Borderlands or The Lost City might be old-hat to your adult gamers, but it will be awesome to the kids; I'm a big believer in the shared experience of modules.  In this case, you can trade war stories across generations.

There are a few selfish reasons for starting the kids young, too.  Recruiting players may be hard - so make your own with the neighborhood moms, dads and kids.  Recruiting is DM job security!  Plus - I've noticed that if some of the adult gamers are bringing the kids to the game, it's a little bit easier getting time away from the spouse - gaming is a family activity instead of a "Dad" activity.

You'll hear some funny stuff at the table, too, and the kids will try some pretty entertaining things.  For a while, ours all went to the Looney Tunes school of tactics.

Here's an older post on things you might hear yourself saying when dungeon mastering for 9 year olds.

Adventure Review: Hammers of the God

Hammers of the God is a LOTFP adventure for characters levels 3-5.  As such, it's compatible with any old school D&D game.  I ran it for my Gothic Greyhawk group a few months ago (prior to Ravenloft).  It is a site-based adventure module that describes a lost dwarven temple and tomb complex. Like most of my reviews, I expect the folks that read reviews of adventures are DM's and considering a purchase, so there could always be spoilers.

The booklet is 84 pages, detailing 27 rooms.  Some time back, I decided to rate the richness and density of adventure modules  (some posts on Treasure by Adventure Module), so continuing in that manner, here is how Hammers of the God weighs in:

For levels 3-5

Treasure 24,950 gp
Levels gained  (.6)
Density: 29%

The modern aesthetic is more exploration and less combat grind, so this is right in line with a density of 29% - but it's also not terribly lucrative in terms of monetary treasure.  An average 4th level group would only gain half a level based on monetary treasure.  However, the module is magic-rich and I found this offsets the low treasure haul.  Plus, there's a trove of information that could be priceless, from a campaign perspective.

The temple complex holds a dark secret hidden by the dwarves thousands of years ago, and a savvy group may be able to piece it together through murals, runes, and a fully detailed library.  There are quite a few traps and interesting mechanical elements for experimentation by a party of adventurers.  Like other works by this author, many of the traps are extremely deadly but fair; a group that pays attention, collects clues, or uses the necessary care, will survive.

I really enjoyed the detailed back story and some of the intricate features to the rooms; some of the descriptions for a single room spanned multiple pages.  This is quite a bit different than the sparse notes and bare bones sketches I might use in an improvisational setting.  The dwarven secrets in the library, assuming you use them, could destabilize dwarven kingdoms in the campaign world and lead to religious wars - heady stuff!

In actual play, the tomb complex kept the players on their guard and required consistent engagement with the physical environment - pushing levers, prodding things, smashing things with hammers, taking harrowing submarine rides down a cavernous water fall.  Overall, they had great fun.  The play reports started back with Game Report 21 if one cares to see how it went with my group.

I give this 5 stars on the Beedometer.  My first question when rating is:  How would this adventure compare to something I'd homebrew?  And then to get a top rating:  Has this been done before?  Does it break new ground, redefine a genre?  It's a totally personal scale.  In  the case of Hammers of the God, the level of detail throughout the complex, and particularly in the synopses of the 100 library books (I'm not kidding - 100 individual write-ups) makes this feel like an archaeological dig and the unfolding of a murder-mystery - or in this case, a massive cover-up.  And who in their right mind would write up descriptions for a hundred fake library books?  And yet, it works here.  My group greatly enjoyed the library and returned on multiple occasions.  The atmosphere of the temple complex is oppressive and eerie, and there are mechanics that keep a bit of time pressure on.  If your group likes detailed exploration over fight, fight, fight, this a good one for you.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Black City: The Hippodrome

A note on the Black City:  It's been a few weeks since a Black City post.  The Black City is a sprawling alien ruin in the frozen north, recently rediscovered by Viking Northmen.  The project is a campaign setting I've been developing that includes islands, a ruined a city, and the dungeons beneath the city - you can skim the project here:  The Black City project.

The Hippodrome (area K on the city map) is the crumbling ruins of an ancient coliseum; the southern half of the coliseum crumbled long ago during an ancient earthquake, and explorers must make their way up treacherous blocks of stone and rubble to see the arena below.  There are three wide tunnels that lead from the floor of the arena into the warrens beneath the seating area, and ultimately connect to both the Transit Tunnels (dungeon level 1) and the Warrens of Decay (dungeon level 2).

There are small enclaves of White Apes throughout the city and the tunnels beneath it, but the largest population has staked a claim here, in the ruins of the Hippodrome, lairing in the tunnels beneath the stadium.

I still need to put together a formal bestiary article for the White Apes, but their origin is that they are the remnants of early humans, devolved along the evolutionary tree by the alien overlords of the city many tens of thousands of years ago to become a slave race.  Their stats will be somewhere between BX Neanderthals and BX White Apes - they have much higher than animal intelligence, simple tool building skills, and even a little use of fire, but are still a separate species from humanity.  The name "ape" is a misnomer, misapplied by early explorers, but these hairy brutes do have ape-like features and are covered with shaggy white hair.  They're like oversized, white haired chimpanzees - an arctic version of a stronger, tougher Australopithecus.

Violent packs of male apes roam the snowy wastes around the lip of the arena and surrounding streets, armed with bone clubs and rocks, and often enter into violent clashes with other groups of apes or men.  However, anyone that makes it into the arena area and comes into the awareness of the powerful females that dominate White Ape society will be greeted in another manner entirely.

Perhaps the apes are jealous of man's gracile form, or they innately understand the inter-species compatibility between man and ape, but male adventurers will be accosted in an inappropriate, yet arguably friendly, manner.  Any explorers that are able to wander the ape tunnels will see evidence that other raiders from Trade Town have been to the tunnels beneath the Coliseum and have taken advantage of the primitives; hybrid ape children can be seen and there's even evidence identifying one of the crews involved - a flag or standard that belongs to the long ship, Crow Feeders.

Ape society is strongly matriarchal, with females forming powerful alliances to control the males of the tribe and enforcing a communal lifestyle.  There's no sense of paternity among the White Apes, leading to the communal raising of all chimps, including the hybrids.  The most powerful male in the tribe has a degree of autonomy outside of the lair, and often leads violent patrols into the ruins of the city.  The White Apes have a primitive language and can also communicate through hand signals.

The apes hunt a number of animals on the ice, but desperately fear polar bears and some of the other predators that haunt the city.  They're often victimized by the inhabitants of the Tower of Terror.  For that reason, they descend to the Warrens of Decay to gather food and fuel in the sprawling caverns below, retreating into the colder upper tunnels of the city to escape the monstrous insects that inhabit the Warrens.

Unbeknownst to most inhabitants of Trade Town, the recent discovery of the Black City was not the first time the city was found in modern times; a ship was blown off course and landed here decades ago, leaving with a most unusual passenger.  Now there is a prominent person back at Trade Town that doesn't know he's a hybrid, returning to the island of his birth after decades living in the Northlands.  There's something in the air here, something in his blood.  If the players return to Trade Town with stories of the Ape Men and evidence of the hybrids, it might unhinge this person as certain connections are made and forbidden questions  are answered.

Ape Men of the Black City (White Apes)

No. Enc.: 2-12 (10-40)
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 120' (40')
Armor Class: 7
Hit Dice: 2
Attacks: weapon or 1 bite
Damage: 1d6 or 1-3
Save: F2
Morale: 7
Hoard Class: XX
XP: 20

The bestiary article will include societal details from the entry above, such as the matriarchal nature of the ape clans and the demographic break down of males, females, and children.

The Ape Men use primitive clubs and sharpened bone axes as weapons, and can hurl rocks for 1d6 damage.  Every clan will have an alpha male that fights as a higher HD monster; a 3HD monster if there are 20 or more apes in the clan, and a 6HD monster if there are 50 or more.  (It's true the number appearing in the wilderness is only 10-40, but I reserve the right to have larger clans gathered - DM fiat!)

Ten-foot tall Neanderthals

The Moldvay BX book says that Neanderthals are led by 10' tall male and female Neanderthals, that are not actually Neanderthals - they're from a similar, larger race.  And they're chosen to be the leaders by the Neanderthals themselves!  I'm going to call them Uberthals.  I'm thinking that the Uberthals must live apart in the wilds, then the Neanderthal clan sends some envoys out to where the Uberthals are hanging out in the big and tall shop, and the envoys appeal to them with gifts and honeyed words to send a pair of Uberthals to come and be their new leaders.  Or something.  It's such a throwaway line, yet implies so much about the Neanderthal world.

Does anyone with a wider grasp of pulp literature know from whence came the idea of 10' tall super-sized Neanderthals leading the regular-sized Neanderthals?  Another reason why I think of Moldvay BX as the beloved edition.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Overcoming the Spousal Bait-and-Switch

Show of hands - how many of your spouses or significant others changed something about themselves that was important to you in the years after you got hitched or moved in together?  For me, it had to do with Football and Gaming.  Ah, those were the days, when wifey curled up on the couch during Monday night football and got excited for hot wings and a Broncos game, or (gasp) actually played in my RPG games.  I'm here to tell you, those days are long gone, brother.  Gaming happens in the man-cave far away from the main activities of the house, and the only football game we catch as a family is the Super Bowl (and that's just for the commercials).

In the interests of full disclosure, she's quick to point out that "someone needs to watch the kids while I'm off pretending to be an elf and playing with my little plastic orc-men".  Oh, and apparently I used to have long hair like a hippie, which she misses, and I cared more about theater and did more improv theater back in the day, as well.  Touché.

So there we were, enjoying a quiet moment the other day, when I popped the question.  "So, I'm thinking when M- (our new son from Ethiopia) can read and write pretty well, of starting up a family D&D campaign.  For the whole family".  That sounds good, she says.  "Really?  Because it would be the whole family - both boys, our daughter, and you.  The four of you can be your own adventuring party".  Okay, she said.  No problem.

I had no tape recorder and no notaries were nearby to witness an affadavit, so I'm doing the next best thing - I'm putting it on the internet:

On or about 4pm, on Sunday July 24th, while sitting around the dining room table and holding casual conversation with her husband, Mrs Beedo did formally agree to play in the family D&D campaign.

Once it's on the internet, it's true.  I figure the youngest will take about 2 to 2 1/2 years to get to gaming age, so I'm probably looking at late 2013 or early 2014 before the family game will be a reality.  Muhahaha.

Meanwhile, kid's gaming has been partly successful.  You may recall, last year I was running two games - a weekly adult game and a bi-weekly kid's game.  It was eventually too much to keep up with, and not all of the kids were really ready for gaming, so we brought two of the older kids (now 9 year olds) over to the adult game.  One of the other dads picked up running a second (just for kids) game a few months ago, so now we've got a Senior circuit and a Junior circuit running in the neighborhood.  And there's a crop of younger kids in the 4-5 year old range that are just biding their time until they get to play.  Some of them are fooling with the Dungeon board game.  Good stuff.  Like I tell my kids - read, read, read some more - turn off the computer, turn off the TV; table top gaming is a literary activity and kids that can read well will have the attention span and imagination to make it work.

I figure I have two years before I need to get a campaign together that my daughter will love - a mash-up of knights, princesses, witches, elves, and tough fighting chicks with big swords like Eowyn.  I'm sure it will have to be part Hogwarts, part every kid's series they've read - Prydain, A Wrinkle in Time, Fablehaven, Narnia, and Percy Jackson.  But Eowyn is far and away my daughter's role model of what an adventuring girl should be like.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Mythic Monday: The Origin of Demons

It's been a few weeks since the last Mythic Monday - I'm finding I don't have as much time for reading, research, and writing with a brand new, non-native  4 year old in the house.  Every day is a little better though!

One thing that struck me when researching Azazel a few weeks ago were the conflicting ORIGINS for demons in folklore, magic and religion.  Whether it's a side ways mention in the Bible, the Book of Enoch, the rabbinic tradition, or the magical theorizing in Renaissance grimoires, each writer has a different theory whether demons are fallen angels, devils, spirits, djinn, or something else.

D&D is surprisingly silent on the origins of demons.   Here's about the most you can surmise from the various 1E monster books and Manual of the Planes:  The Abyss is an evil place, and the demons just happen to be the indigent race birthed there - they're demons because they're natives of the Abyss.  Other editions of D&D introduce the idea of the Blood War (you know - demons hate the devils, devils hate demons, grrr, fight, fight, fight).  4E goes a bit further by explaining an origin for the Abyss - the cosmology posits the placement of a Shard of Pure Evil that creates the Abyss (tearing a bottomless hole in the elemental planes).  Demons are corrupted elementals, and demon princes are corrupted versions of greater powers (like "Primordials").  Of course, it just shifts the question to "where did the shard of pure evil come from?"  In 4E, evil predates the gods.

However, real world folklore has some useable ideas on the origins of demons, so the Monday column for the next few weeks will be on how these could be used in a D&D game.  A few I'll be looking at are the war in heaven, the lost angels, and the old gods theory.

And there was war in heaven...
The War in Heaven
Lots of myth cycles involve a war in heaven.  I imagine most readers are already familiar with the Judeo-Christian version.  Rebellious angels, led by Satan, fight against the Creator in Heaven; banished, they are consigned to Hell, where they plot to corrupt creation.  It's not exactly a Biblical story - there are a few oblique references in the big book, but most of the story about the rebellion and fall evolved in folklore in the early centuries AD.  The most famous retelling is in Milton's Paradise Lost - it's really excellent.

So why'd they do it - why did the rebel angels turn against the boss?  Milton's Satan is too prideful to take orders - he considers himself "above the law" - he denies the boss's authority, declares God a tyrant, and becomes the first rebel.  Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.  A similar figure is Iblis, also called Shaytan, in Islamic folklore; man is given free will and a soul, and the prideful Iblis disobeys the creator in respecting man, whom he views as a lesser creation and beneath him.  Another story of pride and arrogance.

The fallen angels in these stories are exiled to Hell and swear to spend eternity confounding mankind evermore.  The first thing Lucifer does in Paradise Lost is conspire to travel to the world and corrupt it.  However, you'd be right in thinking these guys are a better fit for the origin of D&D's devils instead of demons.  Here's the thing - Renaissance occultists didn't differentiate between demons and devils - they were the same thing.  Lists of demons in the Renaissance grimoires, like the Lesser Key of Solomon or other Goetic texts, are actually the names of the fallen angels.

Okay - I have to say, I'm not a big fan of using the War in Heaven theory as an explanation for bad actors like last column's demon, Azazel.  If the devils are all in Hell, how do we get these dispossessed demon spirits deep in the wilderness, possessing victims and causing mayhem?  Maybe some of them got lost on the way to Hell?  Could be that when some devils escape to earth, they got stuck here as the bodiless spirits we see in the demonic possession stories.  However, I do think we'll see some better ideas for demons in the coming weeks.

But there's no doubt that using the War in Heaven as a basis for a campaign cosmology is excellent.  It supports a fairly straightforward world-view of opposing sides with clear battle lines.  You can play it straight up (good vs evil) or build in some sympathy for the devil.  There's no lack of literary inspirations or ideas in popular fiction - I'd dip into books like Anne Rice's Memnoch the Devil, or The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman and his use of Hell and Lucifer (and of course, Milton's Paradise Lost).  Since plenty of fallen angels are named in the grimoires, there's no lack of cool and evocative names to find out there.  Drop a note in the comments on your favorite literary use of Hell or devils - I'm interested to hear what's out there.

Even if you don't use Angels and Devils, you can still use similar ideas by making the War in Heaven related to a mythological pantheon or some homebrew.  The War in Heaven theme isn't limited to the Judeo-Christian tradition -  for instance, the myth of the Titanomachy.  The Greek gods needed to kick the Titans out of heaven before they could assert ruler ship; even the Norse deities fought the Giants before the world was created.  The Percy Jackson series of kid's books bases its central conflict on the ongoing struggle between the Titans, representing pure evil, and the Greek gods.  Demonic spirits in a D&D game could be the cast down losers of such a War in Heaven, exiled to the prime plane as bodiless entities.

That's all for now, next week we'll take a look at the Nephilim and the Grigori angels of the Book of Enoch.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Sandbox Triangle

Yesterday's post on Sandbox vs Story created a lot of discussion.  The basic thesis was this - for my style of old school play, it means using a rules-lite system and running the world like a sandbox.  Not all games support the style - some are rules heavy, some require a heavy DM hand to guide a plot.  Part of it could be genre.  Can you run a sandbox in a modern setting?  Can you structure a mission-oriented sandbox for spies or supers?

To advance the discussion, I want to draw two definitions - sandbox as structure, and sandbox as technique.

Sandbox as Structure
The sandbox is a way to structure information about your campaign.  Most bloggers writing about how to build a sandbox are using it this way - sandbox is a noun.  For D&D, the basic sandbox might include a home base, a hex map, encounter listings, a few adventure sites, lists of NPCs, and maybe some helper tables - wandering encounters, rumors, things like that.  Sandbox as structure.

Sandbox as Technique
Sandbox as technique begins the moment you start playing - now the DM needs to present the sandbox.  How do you run the sandbox at the table?  For me, that means having NPCs introduce plot hooks, and having a schedule of events and timelines.  The overall goal in running the sandbox is to present information so that the players can make decisions and interact meaningfully with the game setting.

Those are my definitions - I've said before, there are lots of online guides on building a sandbox, but not as much advice on running one.  One thing I'm hoping to achieve with the Black City manuscript is putting some of my home-game techniques on bringing it to life, down on paper.

The Sandbox Triangle
There are some interrelated elements that provide constraints on how one structures and runs the sandbox.  You project managers out there are familiar with the Iron Triangle - time, quality and scope.  (Sometimes folks will refer to 'fast, good, and cheap - pick two' as a similar construct for products or product development).  There's a balance between the three points of the triangle - enriching one area will mean losing something somewhere else.  If it's fast and good, it won't be cheap; if it's cheap and good, it won't be fast, that kind of relationship.

For gaming, the Sandbox Triangle is Effort, Detail, and Freedom.

The more choice and freedom the players have to go anywhere, the more effort the DM needs to put into the setting, and the less detail on any one area is feasible.

The more the DM constrains player choice, less effort is needed to provide more detail.  (Adventure Paths are intricate and deep, or lazy - a few linear scenes can be sketched out literally minutes before game time).

To provide a lot of setting detail, effort needs to go up unless freedom is constrained.

To keep effort low, the DM needs to provide scant detail for a wide area, or provide deep detail and constrain the coverage by limiting player choice.

Back to Sandbox vs Story
There seems to be a misconception that in a sandbox the world doesn't change without the players interacting with it - the sandbox is passive - a quantum Schrödinger's box where the off-screen actors freeze when the spotlight moves to a different part of the stage.

When I run the sandbox, I do have events and timelines and elements that could be called "story" running in parallel with the player's actions, but the level of detail I put into those depends on player choice.

Let's contrast two adventure structures.  A story DM prepares a number of scenes for his adventure path or scene-based game:  Scene A -> Scene B -> Scene C.  The sandbox DM prepares three adventure sites - Site A, Site B, and Site C.  Effort for the two games is similar at this point.

However, as long as the first group is willing to go to Scene A, and be led or follow the hooks to B and C, none of the DM's effort is wasted.  The players have sacrificed some freedom of choice.

In the second example, if the players go to site B, site A and C could go unused - especially if B leads down a different series of choices - B -> B1 -> B2 etc.  Maybe B is the first level below the old monastery, and choosing to explore B lets them discover deeper levels below the monastery too.

Not only can sandboxes waste some DM effort, but it can be a lot to keep up with!  That's why I use a lot of published modules that are presented as adventure sites; I can seed them into the sandbox with minimal effort, and only invest time into preparing them if the players choose to go after those plot hooks.

The other mitigating factor that can help limit effort in the sandbox is one of those "social contract" kinds of things.  If the DM wants to invest an inordinate amount of prep time into something, he'd be pretty chapped if the players blow it off in the name of "freedom of choice".  So it's good to have out-of-game conversations to establish agreements.

"So, you guys have a number of choices in front of you - which way do you think you'll go next week?  Oh, back to the old ruins?  Good, that gives me an idea what to prepare…"

Okay - I really enjoy these blah blah blah theory posts, but next week I need to get back to some stuff on the Black City!

Gothic Greyhawk - Game 35 - The End of Strahd

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-2:  Z

Phat Kobra, a Dwarf-4
Zeke, a Fighter-4
Starkweather, a Thief-3
Grumble the Smug, Halfling-4
Serge, a Fighter-4

AD&D 1E, I6 Ravenloft

"We don't stand a chance in the castle without two clerics", began Mordecai.  "You've done your part protecting the village, Father Donavich, but soon there will be no village to protect.  Your best chance of saving the rest of your people is coming with us and helping us to put down the vampire".

Thus began our latest game of Gothic Greyhawk, as the group did a full-court-press with charisma and silver tongues to convince Father Donavich, the parish priest of Barovia, to join their ranks as a heal-bot.  Their words were true (or at least, the reaction roll was a good one!) and soon they were sitting down with their newest member to plan tomorrow's ascent.

If you're a regular reader, you probably saw Monday's "Die Strahd, Die!" and pretty much know that last game saw the death of the big guy himself.  It still might prove interesting to see how they got there.

It started with about an hour's worth of discussion, debate, and planning.  Reviewing inventories of scrolls, potions, and items.  Testing command words for the wand of fireballs until they were blue in the face.  (En Fuego was the winner).  Use of the wand, and discovery that they possessed Dispel Evil, buoyed their confidence.

Here's the plan they settled on.  First, they wanted to find the missing part of Ismark's magic sword before confronting the vampire.  They had a "Locate Object" spell but didn't have a good mental image of the missing piece.  Would a picture or description be available in the castle?  Father Donavich reminded them that the Tome of Strahd, a book he recommended they seek previously, might have such a picture or description.  Could they find the castle's library?

That became the plan.  Find the library or study in the upper castle, then the book; use the book to get a description of the magic sword; use the description to fuel their Locate Object spell to find the missing piece; assemble the sword of prophecy and go find the vampire, armed and ready.

No need to recount the particulars of the journey; once back at the mist shrouded castle, they visited the accountant Lief Lipsiege, to see if he knew where Strahd's library or study could be found.  He had a vague idea how to get to the study, and was willing to direct them (surprised and pleased that they were still alive days after their previous meeting).

Up a dark spiral staircase was a short passage and a pair of alcoves, from which two wraiths emerged out of the shadows to ambush the front of the group.  Both Kobra and Forlorn were level-drained and damaged, but the group quickly responded with magic swords and magic missile spells, and the wraiths were vaporized.

A few empty rooms later, and they found Strahd's study.  A roaring fire burnt in the hearth, and the master of the castle sat near it in a large high-backed chair, leafing through the very book they sought.  "I believe you're looking… for this…" he said, as he stood, put the book on the chair, and faced the group.  "I'm so glad we finally have the chance to speak in a civilized manner".

There was a bit of banter - Strahd recounted how he demanded their "Book of Unspeakable Shame" and would let them leave the castle (but not the valley), alive and unharmed, if they left the book and his bride (Ireena).  For the 20th time, Soap muttered under his breath, "I told you we should have tied Ireena to a tree and left her in the woods".

Once Strahd flashed the hypnotic peepers on Forlorn, who was carrying the Book of Unspeakable Shame, things quickly spiraled into chaos.  Forlorn was wrestled by the nearby fighters, Mordecai dug for the scroll, and the group quickly asked for time-out for table talk.  Could this be the real Strahd, they asked themselves?  Should we burn the scroll and risk it?  It might be our one chance.  Etc, etc.  The die was cast; Strahd lost initiative, the spell was read, and the rest is history - Strahd failed his saving throw, and the centuries old vampire was reduced to dust.

Stunned by such a surprising turn of events, the group rifled through their sheaf of scrolls for the one with Commune.  Mordercai asked the higher powers if the vampire was indeed destroyed… and the answer was YES.  Cheers erupted around the table (the 9-year olds were out of their seats, pumping fists like their team just won the Super Bowl) and high fives went all around.

Meanwhile, while searching the room, they discovered the magical hilt to their sword of prophecy was in the study all along.  Soap used a detect magic wand to find it, and the sword reassembled magically in front of them and became the Sun Sword.  Better late than never?

It was a Sunday (work the next day) so we stopped there.  It's been an interesting week on the blog discussing the turn this game has taken, and I'm looking forward to what the players do next.  Everything they've done up to now has been about getting the magic sword back to Barovia.  That quest is done, and the master of the castle is gone, and the next phase of the campaign is wide open.  Do they clear the castle, in an effort to recover treasure?

I have no idea what we'll be doing.  Well, I have some ideas, but who knows what they'll actually choose!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Sandbox versus the Story

Where does your game fit?

The Old School Primer lists a series of identifiers that distinguish old school games from their modern descendants - precepts like "Rulings not Rules", and "Player Skill over Character Abilities", and so on, as hallmarks of old school games.  It's a good starting point, but it doesn't articulate for me why old school adventures and campaigns are so radically different in structure from what gets published today, outside some OSR guys.  So there's more to it than just being rules-lite.  There's a whole paradigm of exploration (and by necessity, player initiated adventure) that differentiates today's adventures from the stuff I read from the 70's and how they play at the table.  I've read some adventures recently, published to be "old school game compatible", that I wouldn't consider old school style and it got me thinking there's more to it than just using an old set of rules.

The Sandbox vs the Story Adventure
The sandbox adventure involves areas to explore - large hex crawls, sprawling dungeons, site-based locations.  It could be star sectors and planets, like in Traveler.  The sandbox is usually supplemented by lots of random tables - either for use in-game (like the D&D wandering monster table) or pre-game - like the Traveler planetary generation systems.  Randomization is the enemy of game balance, so character death can be frequent.  But sandboxes give the players near-universal agency to go and do what they want.

Modern adventures present a series of interconnected scenes, events, or locales, and the characters move from scene to scene as the story develops.  Character is important, and many modern adventures spill ink on back story and motivation.  If the players  deviate from the plot line, it forces the game master to do some serious on-the-spot improvisation for the things the author didn't take into account.  In the D&D space, things like Adventure Paths or linear 4E delves fall into this model.

Some notes on the Diagram:
Classic D&D and it's adventures
Fast, disposable characters, lite-rules, site-based locations, heavy emphasis on exploration - welcome to old school style play.

1E AD&D and adventures
Characters are a little more complicated and detailed, but most AD&D adventures are site-based and still free form.

Dragonlance and later adventures
Detailed characters, pages of back story, story and event-based modules, rail road plots.  stamp: NEW SCHOOL.  Next.

Call of Cthulhu
Disposable characters.  Adventures tend to be a mix of site-based and plot-driven - the later in the publishing history, they more they resemble plotted stories.

Characters are more detailed and intricate than D&D, with lengthy background generated through chargen.  Heavy focus on exploration and randomly generated subsectors, planets, flora and fauna.

World of Darkness
Fairly detailed characters and scene-based stories.  NEW SCHOOL.

3.x and 4E
Intricate characters (feats, skills, and prestiges, oh my!) and scripted adventure paths and delves.

4E has no support for sandboxes or randomization (the system is enslaved by balance) whereas 3.x did have it's outlier publishers - Necro, Goodman - that developed some old-school site-based adventures.

Final thoughts:
What do you think of the thesis that only "Rules-Lite" + "Sandbox Play" = old school gaming, and "Rules-Lite" + "Story-Driven" is not?  Conversely, does anyone feel that when they were playing 3.X but going through a Goodman Adventure or the Necro JG Wilderlands, they were re-living the glory days of their youth?

If there are other modern games that feature quick and easy character generation, scant rules, and a heavy focus on exploration and sandbox play, I'd argue they fit the old school paradigm.  I don't know - something like Mongoose Traveler or the Stars Without Number game, even though chronologically they're modern games.

I just need to come up with some names for the quadrants.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

ACKS report - Adventurer Conquer King

So check it out - I signed up for the ACKS kickstarter and have had the chance to read the rules a couple of times.  Here to bring back some news from the sidelines.

I signed up because I was intrigued by the prospect of a D&D rules set that followed in Mentzer's footsteps and tried to improve on the Dominion economics, ruler ship and demographics rules from the old Companion set.  Ever notice how you can pinpoint someone's formative RPG years through their writings, discussions, and "go-to" set of rules?  The ACKS team has one foot in Mentzer and Moldvay's classic D&D, one foot in D&D 3rd.

The economics stuff seems well-thought out and usable at the table - it includes rules for castle building (along with hideouts for thieves, towers and dungeons for wizards, temples for clerics, and the demi-human equivalents), settling the wilds, growing the kingdom, taxes, revenue, army building, and trade.  As a world builder and someone who thinks too much about this kind of stuff already, I love it.  There were some problems with the old Companion economics (such that there have been a few attempts - either by Bruce Heard in Dragon or the old Mystara gang at Vaults of Pandius) to fix them.  I plan on sitting down with Greyhawk and Sterich and applying them to my current campaign as a trial run to get a sense on how well they work in practice.

Point is - if you play campaign style D&D and expect to reach high levels, the campaign rules will be super useful.  I expect I'll have them at the table regardless of system - 1E, classic, retro, whatever.

I'll save discussion of the classes and rules for another time - I'm hoping to drop in on an ACKS play test at Gencon and get the chance to see it in action.

I was a bit skeptical that a retro clone would get sufficient support as a kickstarter fund-raiser, but the project blew through the target goal in like 2 weeks (ie, the books will be funded) and now they're looking to co-publish the mass combat rules at the same time, which should get funded shortly as well.  I'm a bit surprised more folks in the OSR aren't talking about it.  Backed by the publisher of the Escapist, it's an entrant to the OSR world that comes backed by some muscle.   I'll post a longer thought about it, but we could be seeing the start of a new model - large online media property and publisher publishes games on the side but can leverage a new model for reaching gamers, beyond word-of-mouth or the book  shelf at Borders.

The Adventurer Conqueror King site
The ACKS Kickstarter

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Will of the Dice

The dice know all, see all.

I have a decent commute every morning - I'm on the road about 30-40 minutes each morning getting to the office - and I've gotten into the habit of listening to podcasts.  My two favorites are Hardcore History and the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast, but I also listen to some fantasy sports, some Cthulhu gaming stuff (, and an AD&D podcast - Roll for Initiative.

Listening to a recent Roll for Initiative podcast, a realization took hold - I no longer play the game like those guys do.  Somehow the topic of fudging dice came up, and they were talking about the importance of making their monster hit when they wanted it to hit, or making a monster auto-miss if they didn't want to kill someone - basically changing the results any time the dice disagreed with what the DM wanted to happen.  I know on a previous show I got all fired up when they were talking about moving encounters around to make sure the group ran into the encounter the DM wanted them to meet (a bit of Illusionism).

I used to DM in this style  - I did a lot of event or scene-based games and always guided the action to a degree.  In fact, lots of game systems and game mastering styles require the DM to have a strong hand in laying down the story - super hero games and modern genres pretty much necessitate this style.

However, one of my recurring talking points on the blog is the sense of discovery the DM gets by allowing the game to unfold through a healthy amount of randomization.  Over on Mule Abides, I read the phrase "oracular power of the dice" and that's really a fitting phrase, isn't it?  The oracles from antiquity prophesied the future, but there was a fair amount of interpretation that needed to happen to the pronouncements.  Any time the DM is randomizing elements of the game and incorporating new things on the fly, they are acting as improviser and oracle and fellow explorer.

So here's how this ties back to the Strahd post from yesterday.  Strahd was a random encounter!  The group was making their way to the study, looking for the Tome of Strahd, and the random encounters in Ravenloft are set up so that one of the results is Strahd himself.  When that came up on the dice, it certainly sent things in another direction.  Strahd was aware of the PC's quest and decided to meet them in the study.  He'd been chastising them in his nightly visits for not approaching him and having a "civilized" conversation face-to-face, so he would force it upon them.  There he waited in the sitting room before the roaring hearth, leafing through the Tome of Strahd.  He had no idea he was about to be nuked!

Things would have turned out differently under the management of 1990's Beedo.  I might have fudged the Strahd random encounter, or had him automatically make the saving throw, and definitely would have had it be a fake-Strahd decoy.  Getting randomly gacked by a spell on a scroll just wouldn't have fit my sense of drama.

These days, I'm finding there's a lot to be said for never fudging the dice, never swapping out encounters or otherwise manipulating things behind the screen.  The players can always tell; making up dice results affects the game's integrity.  Letting the dice fall avoids any perception of favoritism.  The game develops in unexpected ways, pushing me to improvise and incorporate unforeseen elements.  Sure, characters may die for unplanned reasons - random reasons - but it's old school, we expect a bit of that, and the victories the players enjoy are sweeter because they know I'm not pulling punches.  For my own enjoyment, there's this sense that I'm discovering what's going to happen at the same time as the players, and that's pretty dang cool.  It's not all laid out ahead of time and carefully plotted.  Trust in the wisdom of the dice, eh?

There's plenty of advice on the other side - most DMing manuals have a blurb right near Rule Zero that says something like, "Don't let random dice results ruin your game..."  I guess my definition of 'ruin' has changed - I'm having a hard time seeing a random result ruin anything.

Since I brought up the podcasts - anyone have their favorites?  Let me know why I should add your recommendation to my iTunes queue!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Die, Strahd, Die!

My group killed Strahd last night - destroyed him, literally.  I'll get around to a game report this week, but the story of how he died is worth discussing on its own merits.

Discouraged by getting the snot kicked out of them last week, they dug deep and spent half the session pooling resources and making battle plans - very strategic, fun stuff.  Planning is fun.  Digging through the inventory meant reviewing every spell scroll for any advantage.  It went kind of like this:

"On this one, we have Dispel magic, Sticks to Snakes, Speak with Animals, Continual Light, Dispel Evil…"

Stop.  "What did you just say?  Dispel Evil?  Doesn't that destroy undead?"

Frantic flipping of pages.  Boo yah - they had a nuclear option.  And that's what happened - wandering the castle looking for Strahd's study, they found the vampire waiting for them in his sitting room.  He charmed Forlorn to hand over the Book of Unspeakable Shame, and while the group focused on wrestling Forlorn, Mordercai popped off the Dispel Evil scroll and employed the WIN button.

Strahd burst into flames and quickly reduced to a pile of ash.

Okay, okay - I was suddenly presented with all sorts of questions.  Was that really Strahd?  Is the story of the vampire bigger than the game - meaning he can only be destroyed dramatically and theatrically, ideally after fighting the way to the tomb and staking him through the heart?  You can't kill my villain like that!

Boba Fett fell into a worm's mouth and Darth Maul got cut in half - that's all I'm saying.  Villains frequently die like chumps.

The group had also been sitting on a scroll with a Commune spell, and figured this was a good time to reach out to the higher powers - "Did we really just destroy the vampire, Strahd?"  And the universe answered:  YES.

So - here's the question to readers, and it goes right to the heart of your DMing style - would you have done something to make Strahd immune to certain high level spells (Raise Dead wouldn't slay him, or Dispel Evil wouldn't destroy him)?  If this happened to you, would you have made it a double or replica or decoy Strahd to draw things out?

I'm really comfortable with how it turned out.  I try to avoid Illusionism and fudging dice and the railroad, and this was a good plan, executed well.  Strahd may be a genius, but in his arrogance, he failed to perceive the 4th-5th level guys as a threat, he lost initiative, and he failed a save.  BOOM.  Dead boss villain.  The group erupted in cheers when they learned the pile of smoking ashes was indeed the great vampire.  One of the guys said it was the coolest game moment in 30 years of D&D.  This is an excerpt of some emails the players passed back and forth late last night:

Wow, I'm still blown away, I can't believe it! Good job everyone. That was totally Awesome!

It really didn't sink in until the drive home.  I'm as blown away as Strad.  Z- had a good idea on the ride - we should gather up his ashes to put in the trophy room at our Tower.

Great idea:)


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Gothic Greyhawk - Game 34 - 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

"Hey you in the mansion", called the vampire from beyond the gate.  "I know you can hear me, I can smell you cowering in fear behind the barred door.  That was both brave and foolish, spurning the hospitality of my castle.  You have something that I want - something beyond just getting Ireena.  I wanted to be able to talk to you about it, in a civilized way, but now you've holed yourselves up in that house and won't invite me in.  I expect you to be back in my castle tomorrow, ready for our visit - the carriages will be waiting for you.  Otherwise, I'll return tomorrow night and fireball this place...  The flight down from the castle is tiring - I must now go and feed on the peasants.  And it's all your fault".

That's how we opened last week's game of Gothic Greyhawk (and this report will catch us up to the present - next game is tomorrow night).  The characters spent the rest of the night resting and reflecting on the vampire's words, and much time was spent in the morning debating potential courses of action.  Should they fortify the mansion and spend an extra day making preparations?  Should they take the carriage rides the vampire offered and try and survive in the mansion?  Ultimately, a vote was held, and the group settled on spending an additional night in the town so they could have two days of the cleric preparing continual light objects for their foray into the murky crypts beneath the castle.  On the second day, they would set out at the crack of dawn, and finish the vampire off in a single day.  Best laid plans.

So they spent the first day healing, recovering spells, reading books and testing magic items.  Arden has been toting around a wand, presumably a wand of fireballs, but he doesn't know the command word.  So he spends all his free time pointing it somewhere safe and throwing out random command words.  "Flame on.  Inferno.  Blammo.  Burn.  Burnorama.  Burnomatic.  Burn baby burn!  Cinder.  Cinderama!"  And so on.  No luck so far.  And Forlorn has finally decided to start reading the Book of Unspeakable Shame they've been carrying around, a grimoire liberated from Death Mountain that describes all the vile practices of the Death Cult - the necromancy, necrophilia, necrophagy, and other fine points of Orcus worship.  I guess there's just something about that fresh Barovian mountain air that inspired him to start such an interesting page turner.

They did learn a valuable lesson in all this - the Lord of Barovia doesn't lie.  When he says, "If you're not in my castle tomorrow night, I'm going down there to fireball your mother-frackin' house", you can bet the mother-frackin' house is getting torched.

Across the dirt lane from the front of the mansion were some village houses - the edge of the town.  Shortly after nightfall, Soap - on watch - noticed something streak towards them from one of the rooftops - like a bright star cluster shot from a roman candle.  It kept getting bigger.  "Incoming!"

The front of the mansion exploded into flame, spewing fiery debris everywhere and doing 10 points of damage per character (most of them had ditched behind furniture and overturned tables, reducing the damage) and the fireball was really aimed at destroying the second floor and burning down the mansion, anyway.  Arden was unconscious, and while they tended to him (slipping him the wood, duh huh, duh huh), others cleared a path through the wreckage so the party could escape out the back door.

As they watched the house burn from the backyard, they heard the wrought iron gate get wrenched out of the ground (tossed over the house by immense strength) and something large and bulky began smashing it's way through the burning ruin.  Whatever it was, it kept coming, smashing supports and timbers to expedite the collapse of the house, carrying burning sections of the house on its shoulders.

When it finally smashed through the back wall, showering the group with cinders and shards of wood, they saw a 16' tall misshapen thing made of earth and rock, wielding a burning timber.  An earth elemental!

The group quickly fell back from the elemental, forming a battle line with the fighters moving forward.

You might think a 16HD earth elemental is too much for a group of 4th and 5th level characters, but when the group is rested and has all their spells, they're formidable.  The casters unloaded their magic missiles (the clerics supported via Holy Chant and Bless - so good!) and the elemental only lasted a few rounds - just long enough to send Zeke sprawling out of the fight, badly injured.  3d8 per hit plus burning will leave a mark.

Unbeknownst to the players, Strahd had been moving half speed around the mansion in the dark, controlling the elemental, and with the destruction of his conjuration, he launched into the second part of his attack - the players heard the command words of a spell off to their left in the trees, and then Barzai the cleric was suddenly gone!  Arden, with keen elven sight, saw a mouse scurry into the scrub from where Barzai used to be standing, and they feared a polymorph spell was used on him - but Strahd was practically in their face, and the group wheeled to the left, quickly lighting torches from the burning remains of the mansion and moving into the trees to engage the vampire before he could keep casting.

Their torchlight revealed the vampire just within the tree line, putting the final touches on yet another spell.  The vampire launched skyward, his shape melting and sprouting wings as he jumped into the air.  The fighters braced for some new sorcerous attack, but quickly lost the vampire in the night sky

Everyone had forgotten about Barzai.  In the dark field beyond their vision, there was the piercing cry of a bird of prey on the attack (some kind of large owl) but no new attack came from the vampire.  Later, the Barzai-mouse couldn't be found.

They gathered themselves together and went to find a new shelter in the village - there was no dearth of empty, unoccupied dwellings from which to pick.  However, they finally chose to go to the village chapel and seek sanctuary with Father Danovich.  "Our friend Barzai has been lost to us, Father Danovich", began the charismatic Mordecai.  "It's time you became a man of action, and went with us to fight the vampire - we can't do it with a single cleric.  If we don't team up and act now, there won't be a village to protect".

I like it - not even a moment of silence for poor fallen Barzai - they immediately put out the "Help Wanted" sign and went right into recruitment.  We ended there for the night.

Epilogue / Cut Scene:
In one of the highest towers of the castle, the vampire held the terrified cleric Barzai dangling off the ground, pinning his neck to the wall.  "Who has it?  Who has the [X]?  Stare into my eyes and tell me what I want to know."  Hypnotized, the cleric told the vampire all the details about what he was after.  A moment later, Barzai's corpse, drained of life energy, was tossed casually aside.  The vampire stepped out into the night air and looked down through the mist at the village, a thousand feet below.  "Soon will my plans come to fruition".

This scene was presented in game, but much like here, I omitted the identity of Strahd's target so as not to reveal anything to the players they shouldn't know yet...

I ran plenty of White Wolf stuff in the 90's, and loved the emphasis on putting cut scenes and foreshadowing into my sessions… one of the flaws in a straight 2nd person narration is that any villains the DM creates often don't get enough face-time with the PCs to develop a relationship.  How can you really hate someone if you only see them in the boss fight and listen to their crappy monologue right before they die?  The sense of achievement when finally defeating them is constrained.

Ravenloft is nice from the perspective that the villain naturally recurs due to vampiric resilience and tricks.  Giving the players an opportunity to see what's happening in 'Strahd's world' only deepens the hate they're feeling towards him.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Gothic Greyhawk Game 33 - 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 previous game ended shortly after the group arrived at Castle Ravenloft, meeting a mannequin of the vampire lord and then battling a bunch of Strahd zombies.  We resumed.

The castle is a sprawling Gothic structure with intricate spiral staircases and towers, and it's very easy to change levels within the structure - finding the right stairs hidden in a  niche or down a side passage seems to be a main way to get around.  Down a secret hall, they took such a winding stair up and entered a dusty audience chamber.  Track marks in the dust led to a locked side door, and while the thief searched the door and started getting his tools ready to pick the lock, a pair of monsters climbed a far set of stairs.  They looked like squat armadillos with bushy antennae.

Rust monsters.

Some monsters evoke an inordinate amount of fear and terror.  I mean, rust monsters don't even do damage, and here is a group of 40 year olds squealing like frightened pigs and calling me "cheesy" for sending rust monsters after them.  (I'm sure Strahd has these pet rust monsters wandering the castle specifically to strip would-be invaders of some arms and armor).  Anyway, the rust monsters charged, and Kobra's armor was struck - his +1 plate mail was drained of magic, and was ready to rust next turn.  But one of the magic users webbed the rust monsters to the ground, and the group was able to step back and kill them easily at range.

The track marks they were following in the dust led to a room inhabited by a human - a villager chained to a desk who was laboring as the vampire's accountant.  He clutched a rope hanging through a hole in the ceiling, which he threatened would ring a gong that would bring a horde of monsters if the players threatened him.  At the same time, he wanted to help them (as long as he could maintain some deniability) since he only agreed to do the monster's accounting to avoid being eaten.  But all his chips were on Strahd.  "You're not the first group that's come to the castle looking to put a stake in the Lord".

They talked for a while, and the players got another perspective on the return of the vampire, the disappearance of so many villagers, and how the accountant came to be a servant.  He ended up drawing for the group a basic map on how to get into the crypts and find the tomb of Strahd, with the caveat that he had no idea what kind of traps or guardians could be on the way.

"No problem, it's a straight shot to the crypt", they said.  "But for now, we'll head out the castle front door, walk back down to the village, stay there in safety overnight, and come back tomorrow to finish off the vampire".

"Um, you can't leave the castle.  The red dragons will eat you first".


Yes, so the players learned that the huge stone dragons that guarded the entry chamber would animate into ferocious man-eating red dragons if they tried to leave.  Slight change of plans.  "We're going over the wall", said Mister Moore.  "Get ropes".

They left the accountant to his work, who wished them well: "Go team-vampire-slayers, go", as they left.

They did in fact rappel down the walls of the keep into the courtyard, bypassing the guardian red dragon statues.  Now they were faced with clearing the outer walls by dealing with the raised draw bridge, dropped portcullis, and a series of heavy (magical) locks on the drawbridge mechanisms.  They ended up burning a memorized knock spell (Soap) and digging for a knock spell scroll (Mister Moore) to get the draw bridge mechanisms unlocked and lowered.  Then there was the matter of the green slime, the loose boards on the draw bridge over the 1,000' drop, the howling winds beyond the walls… Strahd really didn't want people leaving.

By the time they were descending the mountain, the sky was gloomy and daylight was waning.  When they came to the castle earlier that day, it was at breakneck speed riding as passengers in Strahd's enchanted carriages.  How long would it take to walk down the switchback mountain trails?

It took too long - it was well past dark when they made it to the halfway point, a major stone bridge across a gushing mountain stream.  The gypsy camp wasn't far, but beasts were in the woods, pacing them, and the howls of wolves were everywhere.

When they made it to the gypsies, they learned there would be no sanctuary there.  "We survive because we are on neutral terms with the Lord of the Castle", pointed out one of the gypsy leaders.  "You can camp with us, share our fires and food, but should the master come from you, we won't protect you".  The camp wasn't very defensible, so they decided to walk the rest of the way back to town (another hour and a half).

A bad night became worse when a ragged female thing dropped from an overhanging tree and savaged the characters, claws, fangs and manic undead strength - one of Strahd's many vampire spawn.  "So hungry, so cold… hold me." it cried.  The thing connected with Starkweather and the group looked on in horror as he lost two life energy levels to level drain, and then they unloaded on it with magic missiles and Ghostcutter (Shy's sword against the undead).  The vampire was quickly dissipated, but they watched as it reformed as mist and flitted across the ground, back towards the safety of its lair.  They had the choice of pursuing the fleeing mist across foggy countryside in the dark, or limping to the "safety" of the village.  They went for the village.

This session ended with the group realizing that leaving the castle before each nightfall would be resource intensive - especially if the night time countryside is crawling with wolves and vampire spawn.  "It's going to wear us down".

Whew - almost caught up!  I'm still one session behind (from last week), hope to get that one done in the next day or so before we play Sunday.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Fear in a handful of pages...

Chances are you've already seen this collection promoted on another site, but if not - go ahead and get 13 Flavors of Fear, a free download that contains over a dozen campaign setting ideas for a Weird fiction game (a couple of download options are in the RPG net post).  Get it, read it, be inspired.  Jack and Jeremy did an awesome job.

I already want to create a mash-up of a number of sub settings in a macro-setting.  One of my ideas for the future is to do a weird horror/Rome type setting like Cthulhu Invictus (or just convert Invictus to D&D).  I'd borrow heavily from the Weird Rome here in 13 Flavors of Fear, and then build out a few borderlands areas where the Weird is encountered more directly.

On the northern frontier - perhaps border encampments on the Rhine in the dark woods of Germania, or in northern Brittania along Hadrian's Wall - you could have something like 'The Cold Northern Wind'.  Rome is ideal for the contrast of civilization to the dangerous lands beyond the rule of law where things go bump in the night.

"Behind the Façade of the Seaside Town" could be placed anywhere along the Italian coast or any number of islands in the Mediterranean - Mare Internum Nostrum.  Just why did the ancient Phoenicians conquer sea travel so well?

Legionaries mustering out as farmers to the provinces, and wealthy landowners creating their massive plantations (latifundia), would encounter plenty of indigenous people - as would anyone in a remote trade town or seat of government in the wilds of Roman Europe - providing opportunities for Weird scenarios like 'Pilgrims in a Strange Land' or 'Pagan Outskirts'.

I'm going to file this in the Junkyard so I return to it for brainstorming and development - I even know what I'd call the setting - Terra Incognita.  I love it!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ape Men of the Black City

The happiest White Ape

I started to put my notes together for the Ape Men of the Black City, and realized - there's probably a line being crossed in my thinking, and I wanted to get some reader feedback on what would fly in their own games.  (And remember, I game with kids, so there's going to be some things in the Black City manuscript that wouldn't be fully expressed if one of the kids is playing - I don't have the luxury of running 100% adult content these days…)

In the Hippodrome section of the city, there is the crumbling ruins of an ancient coliseum that's been inhabited by different troops of White Apes that live near the surface.  The apes live near the frozen surface, but hunt and gather food down in the fecund warrens of level 2.

Here's the thing - the literary references to white apes involve seedy ape-human interbreeding.  There's the Tarzan story about the lost city of Opar that has ape-human inbreeding (such that all the men of the city are misshapen ape hybrids).  The other famous tale I can think of is Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family, by Lovecraft.  Your momma was an ape!  Or in Arthur's case, great grandmother.  Ack, I must now go immolate myself.

So how to use these ideas in the Black City?  The ape men will be related to humans; both races having been genetically tinkered by the city founders  in the distant past.  I'm thinking the ape men were humans that were devolved by Grey bio-engineering to create a more durable, physical slave race for the aliens, and furred to withstand the climate.  Descendants have continued to inhabit the ruins and some of the nearby mountains and glaciers. (I'm sure there will be a  'devolution tank' in the city like the sensory deprivation tank in the movie Altered States, that can devolve a normal person into a White Ape hominid).

The dictates of good taste would leave things there.  But there will be some unscrupulous (human) raiders that have beaten down some of the tribes, taken 'ape wives' and fathered hybrid children in the ruins.  There's a dark exploitation theme regarding more sophisticated cultures taking advantage of the unsophisticated one that still plays out today in the third world - in this case, it's cross-species.  Most gamers "tolerate" half-orcs because orcs are monsters and "do that kind of stuff".  Orcs are just born bad.  And some folks like to play bad-dark-angsty anti-heroes - my daddy was an orc.  Even Lovecraft's deep one hybrids are inflicted on humanity by monsters.  It's awful, but humans are the victims.  But what about the callous, uncaring crew of some adventuring rivals being the abusers?  It's about looking into the mirror and realizing the monsters are us.

I'll see where the comments go - there's certainly a literary precedence for cross-species relations in horror.  White Apes and White Ape hybrids are race-class choices in Realms of Crawling Chaos, one of the supplements I'm using for inspiration.  Hybrids had to come from somewhere...  It lets me put some ugly secrets into Trade Town that some of the other adventuring groups would kill to keep secret.

I wonder what my players would do, if they discovered another crew of adventurers had done "bad things" to a bunch of simple primitives?   Not exactly sure, but I think it would involve axes and swords and a heap of frontier justice.

Note:  A radically different approach would be something like the Great White Ape of Mars and make these guys massive, carnivorous and ultra-violent, but so many things in the Black City already want to eat you, and it seems more interesting to make the White Apes into a bunch of peace-loving hippy primitive hominids.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Firmly Grasp Your Staff, Brave Cleric

Or… how my group's humor operates on the level of an 8th grader

In classic D&D, Moldvay BX, the staff of healing is the best early magic item in the game, able to bestow a cure light wounds to each person once per day - no charges, no bookkeeping, it just keeps on working.  The thing is money.  In a party of characters and retainers, that could be a dozen cures a day!

But let's not overlook the other benefit - touching everyone in the group with the magic staff each day provides an endless supply of dick jokes.

Let's see, it started with simple snickers and giggles months ago whenever the cleric said things like this:

"I will touch him with my staff."
"Let me whip out the staff and lay it on you."

After 8-10 months of having the staff of healing around, the dick jokes never seem to get old to the players.

I brandish the staff in my hand...
Slip him the wood, Brother...
...Come, rub your hands on my magic staff and be healed.
I will bestow the gift of the wood...
Let me whip out my staff and take care of that for you…
Touched again with the magic wood...
Magic wood to the rescue...

They took it to a new high (low?) the other night with these choice innuendoes:

Phat Kobra the dwarf held off getting healed until they were turning in for the night, then he finally said:

"Make sure you give me the magic staff before bed, I want to wake up healed and refreshed."  Snickers all around.

Then, after the cleric healed himself with the staff:

"You can do it to yourself?"

"Oh yes, when it comes to working the staff, sometime it's best just to take it into your own hands.  I slide my hands on the staff and it works just as well on me as it does on you."

The cleric player was laughing the whole time he said that one.  Yep, playing D&D with 40 year olds, with the humor of a bunch of 13 year olds.  Unfortunately, pretty soon the (actual) 9 year olds at the table are going to figure out what all the 'staff of healing' laughter has really been about.

I don't look forward to the day the party gets a Rod of Lordly Might.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Beedo's Hierarchy of Campaign Needs

With apologies to Maszlow

Some things over the weekend got me thinking about where D&D and the OSR thing is going.  Folks have noticed that rules guys are moving beyond retro clones to keep the old games in print; designers are publishing new formulations that aim to smooth over some of the rough spots, incarnate common house rules into the base rules, or otherwise reflect the writer's take on the genre.  More rules are fine, but I'd also like to see the creation of more tools to help the DM run a better game.

The hierarchy chart is how I want my campaigns to go - start with a rules set I like and some monsters I like.  Present compelling adventures.  The setting isn't that important if the first two needs aren't met, but once you've got the basics out of the way - yeah, it's good to have a nice setting with some history and depth.  Then the goal is to see a campaign live long enough to reach name level.  The 1970's rules have some support for castle building and attracting followers, but it's limited - it's hard to go further and reach that pinnacle of the pyramid without making up a whole lot of stuff.

I used to love Mentzer's BECMI because it was an all-in-one system that included army building, mass combat, naval warfare, sieges, and economics, but then I realized my campaigns don't last more than a year or two on average, and no one was getting to level 36.  And the economics are a bit off.

Domain level play is an end goal each time out - I've talked here about converting all the Greyhawk armies to War Machine and statting out some of the nations with the dominion economic rules (I only got as far as Sterich for the current campaign).  The ghoul war has been played out using War Machine - so even in Gothic Greyhawk, I have that end-game in sight.

Isn't that how we should view a campaign - start by making sure the basic adventuring needs are met and the game runs well and folks are having fun, then focus on the long range goals - building out the setting and providing a framework for the players to seize ruler ship?  After all, Kings are for Killing.

As I look out onto the OSR publishing landscape, it seem like folks are starting to move up the pyramid with their projects.

Taking a look at my book shelf, here are the products I see on it that light up the pyramid for me - you've got 2nd generation rules items, like the LOTFP game or supplements like Realms of Crawling Chaos.  For adventures, my reviews page has a number of things in the 4-5 star range that have broken new ground and demonstrated some OSR muscle.

How about campaign support products?  I'm seeing lots of cool hex crawl books.  I liked the random ruin hex generation in Lesserton and Mor, and the urban crawl rules in Vornheim.  I seem to remember the Dungeon Alphabet just got an award, too.  I still keep Kellri's huge compilation of random encounter tables and NPCs handy.  So there have been some tools that support campaign play.  I'm not recalling any new settings that lit the world on fire, though.

I don't know that any other recently published rules have taken on the economics of D&D, yet, which is the lynchpin to getting army building (and ultimately mass combat) to work as a game element and not a story element.  Economics seems like a rabbit hole.  Every once in a while I check in on the Tao guy's place and see that he's still building spreadsheets that calculate the price of imported walrus tusks from Greenland to Central Asia in the 17th century, down to the penny, and I despair.  Oh that way madness lies, says good King Lear.  Or at least, if I tried to run my campaign with that level of detail, I'd lose my job and be divorced for neglect.  Perfectionism or OCD, right there.

What are you guys seeing as far as new projects out there that are developing campaign supplements and tools?  I'll be following the progress of the Domain Game effort over at Hill Cantons and the ACKS game over on the Autarch blog (Adventurer Conqueror King).  There's a trade off between minimal bookkeeping and abstraction, and realism.  If you go for minimal bookkeeping and abstraction, you get War Machine and the Companion set economics approach.  Or you could have oodles of spreadsheets calculating free market commodoties from the 17th century.  Not an easy balance to maintain without making the game Papers and Paychecks.

Seems like a good time for a poll.  How far up  the hierarchy of needs do you focus your campaigns?

Friday, July 8, 2011

ACK! Adventurer Conqueror King (System)

ACK - it was inevitable...
ACK - Adventure Conqueror King System, another wordy sounding "I'm not a retro clone" game has shown up on the radar, with a name almost as unfortunate as Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying - which I tend to just abbreviate as LOTFP these days, and refer to it as Lamentations with the group - as in, "When we're done with this campaign, the next one will be back to using Lamentations rules".  So now I can foresee a future where we're referring to the ACK rules like so; "We're still using Lamentations for classes, but I love the ACK system for economics and dominions".  Maybe saying it A-C-K (Ay-See-Kay) will work.  (Hopefully it's as good as LOTFP too).

After seeing a note on Mule Abides, I started following the new blog for it here ( ).  It's been super interesting reading so far and I highly recommend checking it out; as a world builder I love systems that address background demographics and economics, and so far the designer has focused on tackling those issues right up front.  The post on "The demographics of heroism" is excellent.

It's funny, a few weeks ago I remarked how this is such an amazing time in the RPG hobby for D&D players - the suits have left the building, and in the post-OGL world we can build the games we want and redress the omissions perpetrated by the corporate machinery.  James can put his frisky Medusa art in LOTFP, and build a better thief and a better magic-user spell list and beat the tar out of the cleric with the nerf bat, and Goodman can wallpaper Rolemaster-style critical and spell effect tables all over the place, and now these ACK guys can put together a rules set that fulfills D&D's early promise about castle building and army building and ruling your own kingdom and having it all make sense.

Anyway - it's way too early to say whether we'd play ACKS or just borrow from it, and it's even unclear if they'll get off the ground (unlike a lot of hobbyists, they're going with a kickstarter event up front to raise money).  But I'm willing to check out any rules-set that marries old school D&D classes, sandbox gaming support, beaucoup random tables, and dominion economics (done right).  After playing LOTFP, the old school percentile-based thief is a drag, and so is old style encumbrance - I want to port that stuff into every D&D game I play.  I foresee people's home games becoming more and more like "Frankensteins", as designers create incremental improvements to old school D&D - we'll pick and choose the best rules bits and subsystems for home use, not married to any one rules set.

Good luck ACKS guys, it looks promising so far.

PS:  I didn't realize the Hill Cantons domain game was going to be a print product too - looks like there will be two supplements in the near future that support name level dominion play!

Gothic Greyhawk Game 32 - 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

Our second episode of Ravenloft in Gothic Greyhawk began with the burning of the mayor.  His corpse was reanimated by the vampire during the previous evening's attack, and all agreed it was best just to burn bodies from here on out.  A pyre was built out behind the mayor's mansion.

The mayor's daughter, Ireena, attached herself to the group, which they didn't mind, seeing as she was, you know, quite beautiful - in an 80's feathered bangs kind of way.  Except that she claimed to have been bitten by the vampire.  Mister Moore began to wonder if there could be a Mrs Moore in his future and decided to take the comfort of Ireena as his secondary mission in life.  Primary was staying alive, which involved not getting so close to Ireena that she could bite him, if she were a vampire-in-training.  A dilemma.

They were off to see the gypsies outside of town - Madame Eva would know what to do with Ismark's magic sword and how it would help defeat Strahd.  Compared to the dreary, deserted town, the camp was vibrant - a half dozen covered wagons, at least 20 men tending camp and a few standing guard.  Madame Eva's wagon was the archetypical fortune teller's domicile - dark interior, velvet curtains, candles and a card table.  Not big enough for 12 people to enter, so 5 of the main characters got the reading.

This is one of the nifty things in the old I6 Ravenloft module - a number of the important elements to the adventure are randomized through the card reading.  I had a prepared deck and ran it straight up, but I can't really repeat the results here - one or two of the guys read the blog, and if they don't have good notes already, too bad.  But they learned that the sword had a missing piece (some place in the castle) and that the strongest weapon against the vampire, a holy artifact, was likely in his crypt.  I think the rest went over their heads or was promptly forgotten.  "Clues, blah blah blah!  Let's get to the killing."

Some gypsies had reported that Strahd's carriages had descended from the castle earlier that morning and were waiting  by the bridge up the trail - it was the master's classic invitation to visitors.  Willing to follow the script, the characters hopped in to the two horse drawn carriages and were taken on a hair-raising ride along twisting mountain paths, before crossing a drawbridge over a deep chasm, and finally ending in the courtyard of Castle Ravenloft.  The main doors of the keep were open, warm light spilled out from within, and the sound of baroque organ music.  (I had Bach's Toccata and Fugue playing in the background).

They followed the music and line of lit torches through some entry chambers and down a hall to a room with a sumptuous feast.  Across the room, a caped figure pounded the organ keys before bringing the piece to a suitable close, standing, and addressing the party.  "Velkome to my castle", spoken in a ridiculous vampire accent (more German than Romanian).  "You have something that I vant.  I vill see you this evening, and ask you for it, and you vill give it to me, or you vill die.  Until then, gut eating, and auf wiedersehen…"

The figure disappeared in a puff of smoke, and all the lights went out.  A wind roared through the castle, doors slammed, and a piercing scream echoed.  It was on.

The action started with a Scooby Doo moment.  Stuck in the dark, the characters debated the best way to start a light - rummage for flint and steel and light a torch, or just cast a light spell?  There was the sound of shuffling feet and a putrid smell overpowered the aroma of the feast - and what was that new noise?  Teeth chattering and champing?  (In Scooby Doo terms, the 12 pairs of eyeballs in the dark - the party - was joined by like a dozen more pairs of bloodshot glassy eyes all around them.  Everybody blinked.)

Mordecai cast a light spell and the group was face to face with a dozen twitching zombie villagers.  Fun!  "C'mon, this is easy, we totally got this one," said the fighters, and they waded into combat, forming a loose front line while the clerics 'turned'.  That's odd, remarked the clerics - we can usually turn zombies.  Mordecai banged his holy symbol on the side, is this thing on?  Batteries dead?  It got stranger when the hacked off limbs of the zombies kept moving, wriggling on the ground and grabbing ankles and legs in an iron grip.  "Definitely not regular zombies".

That's right, bitches, welcome to Ravenloft!  Where even the zombies are 4th and 5th level monsters… and they just keep coming.  Muhahahaha hahahahaha hahahaha hahahaha hahahaha hahahaha hahahaha hahahaha hahahahaha hahahahaha hahahaha.

Maybe I didn't laugh that much - they beat down the souped-up zombies fairly quickly, and then scouted the nearby areas - including finding a secret door behind the pipe organ, and a floating vampire mannequin that was also totally ripped off from a Scooby Doo episode.

Our second night ended with some basic exploration, and a discussion about what Fred and Daphne would *really* be doing when the Scooby crew split up to explore a haunted house.  (If the Mystery Machine is a rockin', don't come a knockin').  That inspired Moore to chime in, "If we split up to explore, I'm with Ireena".

See you next time.