Friday, September 30, 2011

Adventure 20 - Incident at a Tavern

Finishing off my September of short adventures...

This is a short scene that can take place in any tavern; it's especially apt in an area where evil is being hunted by the authorities.

While the characters are in the tavern enjoying a meal or having a drink, there's the sound of heavy horses coming to a stop outside, and then many booted feet clomping up to the front door; the front door is thrown open, and heavily armored soldiers clomp into the tavern followed by an inquisitor.

"One of you here is really a monster in human form.  No one leaves the tavern until we've found the monster or have a confession".

D&D is full of evil monsters that lend the game a sense of black and white and moral certainty; unfortunately, that misses the point that some of the worst monsters can be other people.  Power corrupts, and there's nothing greater than the power of life or death over other people.  The most frightening situation is when absolute power is in the hands of a fanatic.

The inquisitor is insane.  While there are others in his line of work who wield their power fairly to combat true evils, this man has lost all judgment and sees enemies where none exist.  His cadre of storm troopers fear his authority.  He holds a powerful place in the hierarchy and has been above reproach.

He'll work his way around the room interrogating the various guests in the tavern, making accusations about heinous crimes and demanding to know who is the murderous imposter.  Things will quickly escalate and get out of hand as the inquisitor moves towards physical coercion.

The point here isn't to play out a snuff scene for the players, but definitely put them in an uncomfortable social situation with a powerful and psychotic figure.  Although they're outnumbered by the guards, competent adventurers can easily win a physical confrontation with a bunch of zero-level guards, no matter how heavily armed and armored.  But can they handle the social consequences of defying (or killing) the inquisitor?  Or will they stand by and allow innocents to suffer?

Players are clever and resourceful and should definitely be able to turn the tables on the inquisitor, whether it's in a physical confrontation at the tavern, or at a social one later, and maneuver him to demonstrate his insanity and fanaticism publicly.  Stripped of his position, he'll become a long term enemy of the players.

Locale:  a tavern
NPCs:  various tavern guests
Monsters:  the inquisitor
Artifacts:  na

The Library of de la Torre: A Weird Fantasy Campaign Idea

Now that the September short adventures are almost behind me, it's time to start thinking about the next thing - if I were going to implement a wide area sandbox, what would the campaign be about?  The elevator pitch goes like this:

It's the mid 17th century.  The infamous witch hunter Luis Diaz de la Torre is dead, but his notes describe the existence of secret cults, blasphemous books, evil artifacts, and crazed wizards, working dire magic in remote places.  What will you do with the information contained in the dead priest's library?

The idea here is that at the beginning of the campaign, one of the characters, or perhaps a patron, inherits the library of this priest who was once part of the Inquisition.  In an alternate version of earth, those investigators carrying out the Inquisition do indeed come across evidence of sorcery and dark practices.  The characters inheriting the dead priest's library would come into possession of dozens of potential plot hooks right at the beginning of the campaign, and many of them could be local, allowing the group to plan their own expeditions and test the veracity of the priest's scrawls right away:

I fear the Bishop of Zaragoza is secretly a vampire - why does he shun the daylight?
Must investigate the coastal village of Braga - rumors of sea devils and gold trinkets from Atlantis.
They live beneath the streets of Cordoba, and they eat the corpses of the dead.  I will not go back down there.

Perhaps the priest's journal hints at a widespread conspiracy, or alludes to a global cult that links demon worship in the Levant with the sea gods of the Greek isles and horrible golden statues brought back from the conquests of Central America.  Many of the books in his library wouldn't be accessible at first, at least until the characters learn languages like Greek and Arabic, or fantastic languages like Hyperborean (or develop the right spells).  The plot hooks gained by reading the books, over time, would be more detailed, and would hint at larger places like the Nameless City, the sleeping god beneath a Teutonic Knight's castle in Poland, or how to find the entrance to the underground Serpent Men kingdoms in old Pictland (now northern Scotland).

The early modern period provides a lot of mobility with the advent of navigation techniques and good ships, and these plot hooks provide reasons for the group to travel across post-war Europe, into the Ottoman territories, or to see the New World for themselves.  The stories could be very modular, and many of the hooks could be developed as one-page "dungeons".

This campaign approach supports a strong aesthetic for weird horror; the human world is predominantly mundane - the waxing power of the church has marginalized arcane magic, and demi-humans (if they exist at all) live on the fringes of the human world.  Travel will have the usual hazards - bandits, pirates, religious intolerance, the risks of war, and plague; there will be banal challenges of duels, honor, social standing, and the law.  But when the characters explore the ruined tombs in the necropolis, the ancient catacombs beneath Paris, or the remote mountain fastness, they cross over into a place where the monsters are real.

If I go forward with this, where's that leave the Black City?  I'll just roll the timeline forward and use the idea of a ruined alien city on the island of Thule as is, except instead of a Viking camp up there, perhaps it's whalers that discover the city in the north.  I wasn't satisfied with how the vibe was developing; a little too much like a zoo for the weird horror aesthetic I originally wanted (unless I just embrace the gonzo and go 100% megadungeon with it).

I don't know that I'll definitely do the Library campaign framework - next up would be an overview of what the toolbox might look like if I were going to build this out, so I can get a better sense of the effort.  But once the basics of the sandbox are in place, the fact that the adventures themselves could be small and modular is very appealing.

Paying for Effort

On its face, my concern around plot hooks in the sandbox from the other day has a fairly simple solution; treat plot hooks as just another piece of "sandbox information".  Like anything else encountered in the sandbox, the players can act on the information (or not); but like any other choice, there are consequences.  Choosing to ignore the Baron's summons and ditching the court page by slipping out the back of the tavern is perfectly valid; the Baron may have a problem with it, so the players should expect complications.

Upon further reflection, the real underlying concern began to come into focus for me, and it involves DM investment in a situation.  The moment the DM is invested in seeing the players undertake a certain action, the more likely it is that the consequences of declining those plot hooks for an alternate choice will become onerous and the game slides into rail road.  It's human nature; if a DM has spent a considerable amount of time preparing a detailed lair or new dungeon or similar piece of game content, it's understandable they'll want to see it used.

Choice is expensive, and the DM pays the bill.  You can have an area loosely detailed for low effort, but detail is costly.

This seems like a good topic to get feedback from folks that run their own sandboxes - how do you manage your own sandbox triangles - balancing player freedom of choice versus DM effort and the level of detail in the sandbox?

The simple answer is avoid investment in any given situation or outcome; easier to do if you haven't spent a lot of effort on developing one area too much.  To me, this implies a loosely detailed sandbox - sparse notes for the hex crawl or dungeon, heavy use of improvisation and random tables.  The concern is lack of depth.

If the DM is invested in developing detail, how to ensure the work isn't wasted while supporting freedom of choice?  I'm wondering how many of you discuss with the players at the end of the game session where they're going next, what will they do next game session, as a way of hedging before investing too much time?  How often are there out-of-character discussions about the direction of the game, and ensuring alignment between the DM's effort and what the players will actually choose in-game?

My approach in Gothic Greyhawk, the current campaign, was something I called the sandbox of modules - building a series of hex crawls and seeding it heavily with published adventure modules.  Someone else (the module writer) did all the heavy lifting on the detail, and I have no investment if the players choose to act on one set of information or another.  However, as I look ahead to a more ambitious campaign setting, I want to explicitly get away from the modules, especially as I think of a campaign world to house an incarnation of the Black City.

Another option is the illusionist's trick - the DM is heavily invested in a situation, and will do a bit of the shell game behind the scenes to re-skin or shuffle it around, ensuring the content gets encountered regardless of player choice.  Illusionism is quickly dismissed here in the OSR blogosphere, but I hear it discussed as a valid tactic in other contexts.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Horror Adventure 19 - The Innkeepers

In the poorer sections of the city, it's hard to find a good place to stay - especially one with home cooked meals.  Good thing the greasy urchin is willing to point out a place to find cheap rooms for rent!

I'm switching the order here, because the situation warrants a closer look than the plot hooks.

At the same time I'm putting together this series of short adventures, I'm mulling what a D&D game might look like in the post-Renaissance; I'm assuming it's a world where magic is rarer, and folks in the settled lands don't think about monsters like their brethren on the frontiers.  It raises the question: which monsters, that prey on humanity, would thrive in an early modern, urban setting?  I've got a good list, so maybe I'll put together a near-future post just on urban predators - but today's spotlight is on the Ogre Mage (Oni).

The Oni is an ogre-like demon with magic powers to trick and deceive people, making it easier for the ogre to find victims to devour.  The AD&D interpretation of the Oni, named Ogre Mage, doesn't disappoint - it has all these abilities at-hand:  Fly, Invisible, Cause Darkness, Polymorph (to Human form), Charm Person, Sleep, Gaseous Form, Ray of Cold (those last 4 are once per day).  These guys are ready to move into the big city and wreak some havoc!

This adventure features a pair of Ogre Magi that run an inn in the poor part of the city; since they can polymorph at will into humanoid form, they appear as a corpulent innkeeper and his meaty, overbearing wife.  Their inn accepts all kinds of wayward, lonely travelers - if you're poor, down on your luck, and alone, there's a good chance there's a space for you at the inn.  They'll even serve you a hot meal.

The innkeeper and his wife prefer to nab meals directly off the street, sometimes invisibly following loners out of the inn to ambush them in a nearby alley or dark street; they'll abduct people directly out of the inn when the hunger becomes too much, clamping ogre strength hands on a victim's mouth to stifle any cries, or crushing a neck with an ogre-fueled snap, then bearing the victim invisibly away for their grisly meal.

A hidden room in the cellar connects with the sewer tunnels that drain into the harbor.  The monsters have a small lair down there where they gnaw bones at their leisure.  For a monster, this is the good life.

The whole strategy of a monster living amongst us is for the monster to stay undetected, to avoid notice and prey on those who won't be missed.  A poor inn, run as a charity in the poorer section of the city, seems like a good cover.  Many of those that arrive in the city are immigrants from across the ocean, much like the ogre magi themselves.  As such, it should be hard to discover them under normal circumstances.

Here's a story I might use that puts the PC's right on the path:  a powerful family has a coming of age tradition where a youth needs to find their way in the world for a period of time, perhaps learning a trade, before returning home to take their place in the family business.

The family has powerful enemies in a rival merchant house, and the PC's are hired to keep loose tabs on the family's eldest child who is heading out into the world for their 6-month sojourn; they're also given the identities of agents in the rival merchant house.  While they're busy tailing the merchant's scion, they're also running interference against the agents of the rival house trying to do the same.  It's somewhat of a red herring meant to keep the PC's focused on something tangential to a worse problem.  As you can imagine, somewhere along the way, our penniless scion finds his or her way to the ogre magi inn, and doesn't come back out.

Another lead might be the greasy street urchin, who often directs people to stay at the inn - what he calls the 'charity house'.  At a minimum, he'll confess under duress about the baubles he's sometimes given by the innkeeper and his wife for driving traffic to the charity house.  What's that - he's got possession of the scion's signet ring?  Good thing the characters caught up to him before he made it to his fence.

Locale:  the poor part of the city
NPCs:  the greasy street urchin; scion of a powerful merchant house
Monsters:  A pair of Ogre Magi
Artifacts:  na

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Adventure 18 - Children of the Wood God

Continuing the series of September Short Adventures (horror themed)... doesn't look like I'll get 25 done in September, but 20 seems achievable.

Squatters and woods folk are disappearing in the Old wood.   A forester seeks help to accompany him deep into the Old Wood looking for clues; in the heart of the forest is a hill with a bad reputation, shunned for as long as can be remembered.

Identify the appropriate enforcer of the lord's forest-related laws - stopping poachers, chasing out squatters, and collecting taxes - it could be a Warden, or a Sheriff, for instance, that is familiar with the layout of the woods and the various illegal settlements within.

Rumors have reached some of the villages beyond the woods that deep woods squatters, bandits, smugglers, and other dislikable folk have begun disappearing - smugglers miss their pickups, for instance.

Normally the forester would be glad to hear his normal targets are disappearing from the woods - saves him the trouble of keeping tabs on them - but the widespread rumors have him concerned something frightening is actually happening in the depths of the Old Wood.  He's authorized to hire escorts in the name of the local Baron and will offer the job to tough but trustworthy adventurers (hopefully the PC's fit that description!)

The forester first sets out for a specific shanty town he knows about near one of the larger muddy rivers that traverses the Old Wood.  Over the course of the journey deeper into the woods, one ramshackle settlement after another has been ransacked, everyone gone.  It will take a few days walking to reach the heart of the forest.  A huge beaten path leads deeper into the woods, making the attacking (humanoids) very easy to follow.

In the center of the woods is Haystack Mountain, the hill with the bad reputation; it juts above the trees and resembles a cone.  The hill is like a gigantic ant cone, hollow within, and boiling out of the nest each night like angry ants is a horde consisting of hundreds of subterranean carnivores.  I'd suggest something implacable like the Gibberlings from the Fiend Folio.

Every few decades, the nest awakens and for a period of days, the nest of Gibberlings rampages for miles around, stripping the land of animal life and carrying off captives.  It's unlikely characters will have time to conduct research before heading out with the forester, but old timers outside the woods might remember the scouring that took place 30 years ago; for a suitably creepy moment, the forester himself is in his 40's, and one night around the campfire retells a story from his childhood about something similar happening.

Folks had once tried to clear sections of the forest and build watchtowers and the like; make sure the group crosses a ruined tower from olden times before reaching Haystack Mountain; you might drop a hint how it could be somewhat defensible, or a good place to camp.

A small group of the Gibberlings (10 or so) got cut off from the horde and are cowering in a nearby shady copse, hiding from the sun.  The horses smell them, and are freaked out.  If characters investigate, they'll be attacked, and it should be an easy fight. They'll be able to learn the following facts:  the tracks of the horde match these creatures; there must be hundreds more of them.  The tracks seem to lead back to Haystack Mountain.  The creatures were blinded by daylight, and seem nocturnal.  It will be dark soon.  Did I mention there were 400 of them?

As DM, now it's time to sit back and enjoy the sense of doom and horror that settles on the players as they realize they're deep in the woods (days from a settlement), only a few hours before sundown, and not far from where hundreds of these things will come streaming out of the mountain again.  Good times.

On a more serious note, the group needs a PLAN.  If they noticed the ruined tower, they might retreat there and spend their last few hours of daylight laying in defenses; I'd love to run this as an overnight siege - all you need to do is make it through the night.  The Gibberlings attack in wave tactics, with no apparent strategy other than numbers; they're also afraid of fire, so a group that discovers that they fear flames will have another advantage.

A boat or raft might be an option; fleeing by horse through the woods during night should lead to broken fore legs and lame horses, but I like the image of terrified characters running for their lives (for hours) to get out of the woods.  Have fun!

Assuming the players survive and attempt serious research to discover the secrets of Hay Mountain and the reason behind these horrible swarms, here's the story I'd eventually use:  the Gibberlings are the children of the "god of the wood", released whenever the god drifts from deep dreaming to awakening, and notices the encroachment of humanity into his sacred places.  After a few days of near wakefulness, the god drifts back to deep sleep, and the Gibberlings return to hibernation deep in the hill.  Dunno how they'd learn this, but with Commune and Contact Other Plane and sages and whatnot, there's always the chance.

Locale:  the Old Wood
NPCs:  the forester
Monsters:  400 Gibberlings (AD&D fiend folio)
Artifacts:  na

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Adventure 17 - The Silent Brothers

Continuing the series of September short (horror themed) adventures...

A small monastery near a remote mountain village.

This is a "hookless" location that could be dropped into any hex crawl type map; a squalid little mountain village, less than a dozen small wooden cabins, huddles near the pass.  Higher up the mountain, a small stone monastery overlooks the village.  The poor villagers have no lodgings for travelers, and indicate the monks of the Silent Brotherhood, in the overlooking monastery, welcome all weary travelers.  They just need to go speak to the abbot.

If the characters visit the monastery, the doors are open and the place is well kept; a couple of monks are seen in their brown cassocks performing menial chores; they gesture towards the refectory (and also indicate their vows of silence).

The monastery has a simple layout; a walled compound, a small chapel, and a refectory for meals, sleeping quarters, and some offices.  A monk in the dimly lit refectory will nod in a welcoming manner and point the way towards the abbot's office.

The order is fallen into corruption and none of the monks are alive; they are all Huecuvas.  The Huecuva is a minor undead creature from the Fiend Folio, which can polymorph self; the monks appear as they did in life during the day, and at night walk the grounds as hungry dead, teeth clacking in their jaws.

The villagers have learned that if they direct travelers to the monastery, not only do the Huecuvas leave them alone, but a bundle of belongings, gear, and minor treasures is delivered to theclearing in the center of the village that night.  If too many months pass without the Huecuvas receiving an "offering", villagers go missing.  For this reason, they'll be very eager for any travelers to visit the monastery.

If the characters proceed to visit the Abbot, monks silently stream into the refectory from the grounds as well as from the living quarters adjacent to the refectory.; the characters will feel the presence of the monks behind them, waiting, while the hooded abbot finishes writing something on a scroll.  A suitably creepy image might be for the abbot to drop his hood, revealing the bared teeth and skeletal head of an undead monster, and then the gathered monks reveal their true forms as well.  There should be 10 or so Huecuvas.

There are tons of ways clever and paranoid players can avoid the monk trap; detecting the lies of the villagers (perhaps through ESP); detect evil at the monastery; noticing strange discolored stains on the refectory floor (which might be blood, or explained away as mud).  Perhaps the chapel has some flies buzzing outside; no longer used for it's original worship, the desecrated space is an ossuary for the bones of the Huecuva's  many victims.

Locale:  a remote mountain village and monastery
NPCs:  deceitful villagers
Monsters:  Huecuvas
Artifacts:  na

Monday, September 26, 2011

Plot Hooks and the Sandbox

One thing I've been mulling is the limiting factor "plot hooks" place on player agency in the sandbox.  There's a common sense element at work here; if a person is given limitless choices, it can be hard to make *any* choices.  But give someone three interesting options, now there's something to weigh and analyze and make a decision.

I kicked off a discussion about illusionism (The Shell Game in the Sandbox) a few weeks ago to work through how far a DM could go in having premade content to drop into the sandbox, before crossing over into illusionism and railroading.  There are similar pitfalls with "plot hooks".  There seems to be a slippery slope between a plot hook and being led along the DM's "story".

To establish a common lexicon, let's say that plot hooks are a subset of information about the game world.  Players can gather information Actively or Passively.  Active information gathering involves creating a plan to find information - it's a pull model; passive information gathering is pushed by the DM.  A "plot hook" is passive information pushed on to the players that provides a definitive chance to have an adventure - the classic plot hook is a job offer or similar patron encounter.   A plot hook is not a predefined story; it is a way of delivering specific, actionable information about the entry point to an adventure.  However, I'd be glad for folks to chime in on refining these views on presenting sandbox information - these definitions were off the cuff to help frame the discussion on plot hooks.

One of the biggest criticisms regarding the free form sandbox is identified in that very first paragraph; the players start in a tavern, with no idea what to do next, GO.  And they just sit there, mouth agape.  They could get jobs as dishwashers, or they could plan to rob the bank. They could walk in a straight line north-north-east out of town, for as long as they wanted.  They could start a bar fight.  If they have too many options, there's a good chance they'll seize up with the analysis paralysis.  The complaint "nothing happens in a sandbox campaign" really just means that the players are unprepared for the responsibility of active information gathering.

But my interest here lies in passive information:  the plot hook.  Plot hooks are practical, because they promise direct routes to adventures.  That's why players show up, to do something interesting, and not for living out their lives as fantasy dishwashers or scullions.  But how far can you go down the road of using plot hooks before it crosses into illusionism or railroad - ie, you have total freedom of choice, as long as you make my choice?  It clearly seems to be a type of railroad if there's only one plot hook offered; how about if there are only two plot hooks? Three?

I don't see much discussion regarding the use of plot hooks and patrons and job offers, and their intersection with a player-driven game.  If there are multiple (distinct) opportunities to pursue at any give time, I can see an argument that a game using plot hooks is still player driven; it's up to the players to pick which opportunity to pursue, and an open-ended plot hook should let them create their own plan on how to go about exploiting the opportunity.  But don't lose sight that the players have allowed their nearly limitless choices (in the active scheme) to collapse to a much smaller number of options when using plot hooks.

Megadungeons present an interesting problem; the DM has made the biggest choice for the players in the campaign - "This is a megadungeon campaign, if you show up to play, you're expected to explore the megadungeon".  It's the smaller choices within that larger decision where the players can execute the player-driven game  - preparing for each dungeon incursion, gathering information, deciding which entrance do they use, where do they explore.  This seems to cross over into a "social contract" area - they accept the game's gigantic plot hook and premise up front, out-of-character - it's a game about a megadungeon.  We certainly would consider these players bad sports if they showed up to the DM's new megadungeon campaign's first session, and promptly decided to leave town and head for the mountains, ignoring the detailed dungeon for the loosely defined wilds.

Thus, there's a question of fairness and equity in the sandbox, and it's related to the sandbox triangle (player freedom versus the DM's level of effort versus the amount of detail).  Imagine these two situations:  the DM prepares the next level of the megadungeon ahead of the game, the players show up, start planning the night's adventure, and decide to head north, into the wilds, to find the island of Avalon.  In the second situation, the players show up, continue their exploration of the dungeon, but at the end of the session, they mention to the DM that next week, they plan to head north and find the island of Avalon.

As DM's, we keep tools handy for generating content on the fly, so perhaps the first DM could improvise the overland journey to Avalon.  It's likely Avalon is just a name on the map, loosely detailed if at all; how well can the DM wing it?  And the DM's work on the megadungeon was a bit wasted.  Is there a duty on behalf of the players not to waste the DM's time and effort?  In the second situation, the journey to Avalon and the situation on the island will be more detailed before next game - more detail should also make it more interesting.

I've been thinking about these problems around plot hooks as I work through how a "wide area sandbox" would be structured.  In this case, the wide area sandbox would be the size of the Western Hemisphere - imagine Europe, the New World, the Spanish Main, the Mediterranean.  Quite a bit larger than a micro sandbox (the Keep on the Borderlands) or a regular sandbox laid out as a hex crawl.

In a micro sandbox or even a regular sandbox, I don't see why the DM needs any prepared plot hooks at all; those sandboxes can be so well documented up front that player choice is only limited by their active information gathering skills.  Plot hooks are only necessary to bail out players that fail Sandbox 101 - when the DM needs to light up the big neon sign that says, "Adventure is Here -->", via a patron, quest, or similar info dump.

In order to run a game that covers a much larger geographic scale, the plot hook seems to be a pragmatic necessity.  For instance, it's possible the players might randomly choose to outfit a ship and an overland expedition to the distant jungle colony on their own, but if that's where the DM has developed a number of future adventure sites, he might want to tip off the players a bit more directly - through a patron, rumors, a job offer, any number of approaches to make it clear, "there's gold in them hills".  My experience has been that most players don't mind following plot hooks to interesting adventure sites as long as they still have complete freedom in the execution - including the freedom to leave.

I don't know that I'm totally ready to reduce this to any game mastering principles, yet.  For now, it's enough to establish that there are different approaches to information gathering, which I'm calling active and passive; the size and detail of the sandbox defines the utility of the different information gathering approaches; the use of passive information gathering (plot hooks) constrains choice; however, plot hooks might be acceptable due to equitable factors (not wasting the DM's time) and fun - the players get to places that are more detailed and interesting to explore.

If I develop these ideas further it would be around that last sentence - acceptable use of plot hooks, and the trade offs between detailed content and freedom.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Death Systems, and Long Live D&D

These are observations about some recently completed polls - one about which set of rules people use at the table, the other about death and dying.


D&D or AD&D Original Rules  (3%), Original Rules w/ House Rules  (17%), I run a Clone (OSRIC, LL, S&W) (17%), I run a Sequel (LOTFP, ACKS)  (10%), Frankenstein (mix of the above)  (50%).

There are a few interesting numbers here:  Only 3% of us use a printed version of the rules as written, without any house rules.  That's surprising.  50% of folks that are now cherry picking across rules sets and house rules to truly run the game they want at the table.  How awesome is that!  Long live D&D.

I used to hang around D&D message boards more, and it seemed there was more bias against clones, house rules, and combining bits and pieces across editions - or the system purists were just more vocal in those places.  I'd say the big reason for the 50% vote in favor of mash-ups is the DIY attitude in the blogosphere.


Dead at zero or lower (31%),  Dead below zero (3%), Dead below the character's level (13%), Dead at -10 (27%), House rule - see comments (24%).

Most D&D systems use death at zero or lower - 31% folks use the official rules - although Gary's house rule (unconscious at zero, dead at negative = character level) was built into Swords & Wizardry and comes in at 13%.  The long shadow of AD&D is also seen, with it's rule of dead at -10 gaining 27%.

For myself, I always thought the -10 rule was the norm for *all* D&D systems, so it was a revelation that I was carrying around the AD&D rule as mental baggage and just using it in OD&D systems.  I like the house rule suggestion to make dead = 0 hit points or lower, but give a death saving throw to be unconscious instead.  However, my players are in revolt!  Years and years of using the -10 rule has them feeling anguish about the proposed change; I'm considering using the Swords & Wizardry approach to get the group used to less of a death cushion.

Here's the Swords & Wizardry rule:
"When hit points reach 0, the character is unconscious. The character actually dies if he reaches negative hit points equal to his level. In other words, a fifth level character only actually dies at -5 hit points."

I like the S&W rule quite a bit.  I don't have to worry about zero-level men or low level characters hanging on until -10, but it also gives higher level guys a better chance of being unconscious and able to be saved; seems like a good compromise between -10 and death at zero while my players get more adjusted to old school play.

ACKS has an interesting approach to the problem of death and dying - I need to get around to previewing it, after seeing it in action at a playtest last weekend.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Adventure versus Setting

I'm going to give this whole "Wide Area Sandbox" thing some thought and plot out how I'd build one.  By way of recap - the problem behind a Wide Area Sandbox concerns how to run a free-form campaign in a world where the players have a lot of mobility, and the traditional sandbox approaches don't cover enough real estate.  I'm going to look for ideas from games like Traveler, or Stars Without Number, and see what techniques in the Sci Fi RPG genre can be ported back into a game using sailing ships.

But a preliminary problem is that of setting.  Is the game mostly about exploring the setting, or exploring the adventures within the setting?  For instance, a Swords & Planet game is as much about discovering the new world in all its strangeness, as it is about any adventures there.

I have a specific tone I mean to establish, between the mundane civilized areas (which don't need the hex-by-hex sandbox treatment), and the distant areas where hex-by-hex exploration is warranted.  It's an evolution of an idea from last March, where I mused how wild frontier settings could be distinct from points of light - Wild Frontiers Part 1 and Wild Frontiers Part 2.  It's funny how older ideas don't die, they just wait for the right time to be expressed.

I find myself firmly in the camp of using a real-world model for the Wide Area Sandbox; I want the "Known World" to be familiar and mundane; adventures with monsters mostly happen in wild, out of place areas, and the frontiers.

And that brings me to the point where I'm having some questions:  For those of you that use the real earth as the model for your fantasy campaign, do you use actual earth places and names, or do you create that stuff whole cloth, only using the earth for inspiration?  I'm leaning towards using the real world, with a touch of magic and fantasy woven into history, and using real places, events and names.

If the characters find a magic sword in a tomb, and they learn it once belonged to the grandfather of the current king, it seems more sensible to be able to flip open a history book and see that it was made for Blah Blah Blah, the King of France, instead of making up false histories.  Time would be better spent on crafting excellent adventures.

The two candidate time periods for the wide area sandbox are the mid-17th century, and the Roman period.

The 17th century provides a backdrop of war and chaos in Europe, as well as frontiers across the ocean in the New World and early explorations of Africa.  The dark heart of Europe can still serve as a setting for classic monsters in the Gothic horror tradition; Dracula is timeless.

The Roman world is very cosmopolitan across the Mediterranean, but offers wild frontiers on all sides, just beyond the camps of the Legions.  It's ideal for a D&D game with a bit more armor and traditional weaponry because of the lower technology, but I'm not ignoring the fact that the Roman mindset is more removed; the past is a foreign country, after all.

Gothic Greyhawk Game 39

Cast of Characters:
Mordecai, a Cleric-6: Adam
Forlorn, an Elf-4: Bo
Mister Moore, Magic User-5: Mike
Shy, a Fighter-5:  JR
Phat Kobra, a Dwarf-5:  Jeff K

New Guys:
Leonidas the Paladin-4:  Nogal
Digit, the Elf Thief-5:  Z

Zeke, a Fighter-4
Grumble the Smug, Halfling-4
Serge, a Fighter-4
Ireena, a Fighter-4

AD&D 1E, I6 Ravenloft

Time for a game report!  It's been a few weeks since the last session, and we've got a game set for tonight, so I need to hurry up and get out the last report.

Recent events had seen the group return to the village after destroying one of Strahd's brides, Sasha the Vampire Queen.  The villagers greeted them as heroes and liberators, but the greatest regard was saved for Ireena, the daughter of the previous mayor.  Concerned about losing control of Barovia to Ireena, Mister Moore agreed to marry her; he'd hold the title of Lord of Barovia and she'd be Lady Mayor of the town.

When we resumed last session, the group had returned to the tavern to share the news of the future wedding with the gathered townsfolk.  The news went over well, but they noticed some furtive glances from the gypsies.  The gypsies clearly had a previous arrangement with Strahd, and it seemed natural they'd be uncomfortable with the changing power structure in Barovia.  They decided to put the gypsies to the test.

Mister Moore discretely quaffed his Potion of ESP, and Mordecai conversed with the gypsies while Moore sat a discrete distance away to eavesdrop on their thoughts. This gave them the chance to glean useful information about the gypsy concerns.  Seeing as memory of any dialogue is a few weeks stale in my mind, I'll just skip to the results:  they moved from meeting the gypsies in the tavern to visiting Madame Eva outside of town; they brokered a deal whereby the gypsies would continue to act as scouts and guides for the new regime and would continue to be paid well

Two threats were emerging as the next obvious targets - they knew of a vampire in the woods that called herself the White Lady and haunted the fields and streets of the village; from the gypsies they learned that Strahd consorted with a coven of witches.  The witches were deemed the more immediate threat.

Horses were bought from the gypsies at an exorbitant price, and some carpenters were engaged to head up the mountain with them in the morning; the first order of business was to fix the drawbridge to make it safer to enter and leave the castle.  A wagon loaded with planks and lumber was prepared.

I should point out that a few of the players added new characters after they lost their previous ones at the hands of the Banshee a few sessions ago; these travelers were met in the tavern and billed themselves as vampire hunters, and were willing to join BK Inc (the player character's adventuring corporation) in return for shares and the chance to face undead.  One of the new guys is Leonidas, a Paladin; the other is Digit, an Elven Thief.

The following morning, the party set out early to ascend the mountain and reach Castle Ravenloft's gate; the carpenters built a ladder to help the group climb the inner wall, and then set to repairing the draw bridge so it could bear future horse and wagon traffic.  A few of the PC's stayed behind to help guard the carpenters, while the rest went hunting for the witches' coven.

The witch fight was anti-climactic.  Madame Eva had indicated the large tower was where Strahd did his magic rituals with the witches, so the group had a starting point for exploration.  Leonidas guided them fairly well to the summoning chamber and confirmed a great evil beyond a heavy door.  Concerned with spell casting, Mordecai prepared Silence 15', and when the group won initiative upon forced entry, the Silence Spell proved decisive.  A half dozen witches were quickly slaughtered by hand weapons; witches with daggers were no match for heavily armored fighters.

While the party cleaned blood off their weapons, they noticed a weighty tome propped on a lectern near the witches' cauldron.  It reeked of evil, remarked the Paladin, but it also looked old and valuable.  Unsure what to do with it immediately, Zeke went to pick it up and slide it into the Bag of Holding.

As soon as he touched the book, he begin to convulse and shake in pain, and collapsed to the ground at zero hit points, near death.  To be continued...

Friday, September 23, 2011

Adventure 16 - The Hole

Continuing the series of September short (horror themed) adventures.

A peculiar book shows up in the city, with hints referring to amazing eldritch secrets beneath a crumbling estate outside of the city.

An NPC patron is looking for some retainers to accompany him to a nearby ruined mansion.  The NPC, a book collector and chaser of rare knowledge, has recently come to own a most peculiar journal after trolling the market.  The book describes an underground shaft that provides ingress into the fairy realm, beyond which the author experienced myriad delights and learned many arcane secrets after passing through to the Fairy Otherworld.  The journal alludes to him passing into an immortality.

After reading the book, the patron is ready to see this for himself, and only wishes for adventurers to help with gear and guard his way (Hah!  The party gets to be retainers!).

Outside the city is an overgrown estate, fallen into disrepair; in the cellar is a raised circular slab, covering a hole in the floor - a deep vertical shaft.  The instructions indicated the possessor of the book needed to descend down the shaft (in the dark) in order to cross over into the Fey realm.

A fragrant smell of spring flowers wafts up from below.

The journal is a cursed artifact; the text's ancient secrets, rumors of immortality, and descriptions of the Fairy Otherworld are intriguing, but anyone reading the book must furthermore make a Save vs Spells or become obsessed with entering the Otherworld (treat like a Geas).

The shaft isn't a passage into the Otherworld, but it is the entrance to a lair of horrible Meenlocks*.  They generate the fragrant odors, and use their telepathy to convince the victim he's crossing over.  Of course, the horrible cries coming from the shaft might belie that perception.  Perhaps the journal didn't completely lie; those that are forced to join the Meenlocks live together with them in the dark, forever.

The cursed journal always seems to find it's way back into the world, ensuring another victim arrives to join the Meenlocks in their underground realm.

Although the shaft emanates evil, the patron is convinced he'll be okay.  This is a good chance for him to describe the descent, his excitement, his sensations, the welcoming telepathic thoughts, and then the horror when he gets yanked into a side shaft by the Meenlocks and borne off into the darkness.  Then it all goes silent.

Did he leave the book behind?  Does anyone else dare to read it?  Do they venture down the narrow shaft to try and find the entrance to the lair?

Good times.

Locale:  A dilapidated mansion and cellar
NPCs:  the too curious Patron
Monsters:  Meenlocks!
Artifacts:  The cursed journal

*Meenlocks:  Meenlocks appeared in the Fiend Folio, and I made a post on them previously:  Mythic Monday, The Meenlock.  They appeared in the original Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, and also in the recent remake (where it's intimated they might be dark faries).  That gave me the idea for this short adventure.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Wide Area Sandbox

There's an idea I can't get out of my head - it keeps rattling around in there since I got exposed to Stars Without Number and the idea of generating a sector of space as a sandbox - how can we take the standard D&D sandbox, blow it up in size, and let the players cut loose with serious mobility?

For purposes of scale, I'll say something like Keep on the Borderlands, with its limited wilderness area, town and cave complex, is a micro-sandbox; a regular sized sandbox is in the 6 miles per hex range, covering 2-4 hex crawl sized maps.  The regular sandbox is a good size if your group is trudging around or even traveling by horse; journeys are measured in hours and days, but rarely weeks.

The Wide Area Sandbox
Mobility defines the scale of the Wide Area Sandbox.  Consider the idea of the "Saltbox" I'm seeing the cool bloggers talk about; the group is traveling from place to place on ships and time is measured in days, weeks, maybe even months.

I'll use a historical setting like the Spanish Main as an example; it covered an area roughly 2,000 miles by 2,000 miles; it would be one of my first inspirations for a Saltbox.  You've got excellent home bases like Port Royale, Havana, Tortuga, Charleston, or Porto Bello, international competition between privateers and ships flying national colors, pirates, tons of uncharted islands, dangerous jungles laden with gold.

It seems to me that the current state of the art could handle such a setting quite well - larger and smaller scale hex maps could be created, random tables for island stocking, one could even adapt the Stars Without Number style of tags for islands, and tools for generating a wide range of ships, crews, and missions on the fly.  The DM could have some prebuilt ruins and similar encounters ready to go for when the results called for it.  I've got to fool with Vornheim some more, too, and see if some of the loose ideas on presenting an undefined city could be extrapolated into the wilderness.

The Macro Sandbox
Let's talk about going bigger.  Let's start the group back in the homeland - I'll use the early modern period as an example, and the group is considering hiring on with the West Araby Trading company after asking around for exciting opportunities - they learn that the following high risk jobs are available:

Travel to an exotic port near the desert lands, where the company is outfitting caravans to head into the desert and conduct searches for lost tombs, from which they hope to recover artifacts that could be thousands of years old.

The church is sending missionaries to a distant jungle land to preach the faith; dangers include pirates, privateers, and hostile natives.  There's the chance to stop on uncharted islands, recover lost pirate treasures, and discover civilizations and lands untouched by the "civilized nations".

So this is one of the things I'm thinking about - what kind of tools would support a macro-sandbox?  Is there a way to take the current state of the art - the techniques we use for sandboxes and saltboxes, and configure them to support play that supports an even grander scale of travel?

I'm also kicking around the idea of what something akin to an early modern D&D game would be like for me - there would be highly civilized lands, where adventures would be necessarily mundane and magic would be rare.  Monsters would be fairly rare in downtown London, for instance.  So the plot hooks would involve traveling extraordinary distances to remote frontiers where the possibilities would still be wide open - the Spanish Main, African continent, the gothic heart of old Europe, the frozen areas near the arctic circle.  Here there be dragons.

Maybe I've answered the question by repeatedly pulling in real-world analogues - that such a far flung campaign would have to draw heavily from the real world so the DM could shortcut a lot of the creation of the mundane cultures and just focus on sandboxing the frontiers - and then whatever techniques would be used for the Wide Area Sandbox would be extended to the frontiers (each frontier is basically a Wide Area Sandbox).

Just thinking out loud at this point.  What's the most ambitious geographic scale you've seen in someone's home fantasy campaign?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Adventure 15 - The West Araby Trading Company

Continuing the September series of (horror-themed) adventures

A large mercantile company in the port city is looking for some skilled adventurers to help hunt down a monster that's threatening the company's officers.  They pay extremely well.

Although this is meant for D&D, the setting feels like Renaissance or early modern to me.

The West Araby Trading Company is a wealthy consortium of merchants that have come together to form an early corporation; the chief financial officer of the company was recently murdered in his townhouse and the other officers are nervous.  Notices are posted around the city for qualified adventurers, in addition to the investigation being performed by the constabulary.

Adventurers responding to the job offer would need to prove their expertise, particularly for dealing with supernatural mischief.  If the job is awarded, various contracts are required on both sides - confidentiality agreements, non-performance clauses, and so on; the corporation is known for its deep legal expertise and skilled barristers.  However, the job offer pays extremely well and the company will pay reasonable expenses, including access to sages and NPC spell casters, if such exists in your game world.

Characters will be able to view the corpse, where it was moved to a private morgue.  The body is in an advance state of decomposition, as if it had been decaying centuries instead of a mere days.

The corporate officers are being hunted by a Night Hag (see the AD&D 1E monster manual for guidelines).  When the Hag kills a victim, it steals the soul to transform it into a larva; the soulless body immediately molders away, leading to the advanced state of decomposition.  Shortly after the investigation begins, perhaps another officer (the chief counsel) reports bad dreams and can describe the hag, giving the characters a lead.

Here's the important back story:  All of the ranking officers of the company are also members of an exclusive social club, humorously referred to as the "Friends of Mammon".  They engage in lavish parties in the countryside, masquerade balls and costumes and decadent activities like the 18th century hellfire clubs ("Do what thou whilt").  Friends of Mammon is more than the club name; the Club engages in devil worship, and much of the corporation's wealth comes from advantages gained through infernal knowledge and its extensive use of unfair contracts.

Some time ago, the corporation learned of the existence of a series of Resurrection Scrolls, potent artifacts recovered from the desert.  They know the fate that awaits them after death, and seek to cheat the devil; one of their members helped the Club test one of the Resurrection Scrolls on a member that passed on last year - the previous Chairman.  His soul was plucked from hell, and the arch-devil Mammon was furious about the breach of contract.  The Night Hag was sent to the mortal world to accelerate repayment of all debts owed by the officers of the West Araby Trading Company.

I'm considering two alternatives as the officer's goals:
  1. The officers are desperately seeking enough Resurrection Scrolls in the desert lands to cover all the signers of the original contract with Mammon.  Their goal is to commit ritual suicide, as their contracts are fulfilled at death when their souls go to hell; resurrection will allow them to return to the mortal world, their debts paid; then they just to need secure an alternate destination for their souls after death.
  2. Alternatively, the officers are seeking the corpse of the centuries old necromancer Paracletus; they hope to learn the secrets of undeath from him and cheat the servants of hell, forever.  It would be a great crime to return Paracletus to the world, he who murdered thousands in his cruel death experiments.

Zowie, this set up could have lots of interesting things happening.  For starters, the players will need to figure out how to stop an ethereal Night Hag from murdering the officers, one at a time.  The image of a sleeping officer, disappearing before your eyes into the ethereal plane after an intrusion by the Hag into the sleeper's dreams, is just super cool - a taste of A Nightmare on Elm Street.
However, if they choose to dig into the affairs of their employers, it won't be hard to discover the existence of the Friends of Mammon; there could be the chance to spy on one of the club's decadent parties, or learn the secret nature of the club as devil worshippers, in the arched chambers below the rural estate.

There's also the club's prized treasure, the indestructible Covenant with Mammon, kept under permanent lock and key at the corporate offices.  They might also learn of the secretive ex-Chairman, who supposedly died last year but has been spotted on occasion leaving the Company offices - most unusual.

The arch devil of hell, Mammon, furious about the double cross, might encourage diabolical agents to stop the characters from stopping Mammon's collections agent, the Night Hag.

If the players learn the Club's true aim - the resurrection of an infamous necromancer, or to cheat a King of Hell, would they try and escape their own contracts with the Company?

Locale:  The city, corporate headquarters of the Company, a lavish estate for the Club
NPCs:  Company Officers as cultists, the ex-Chairman
Monsters:  The Night Hag
Artifacts:  The Resurrection Scrolls, the Covenant
*Picture is from Eyes Wide Shut; fits the theme of the Friends of Mammon Club

A Visit to the Mule

Last weekend I had the chance to head up to the city with one of my players and visit some of the folks behind The Mule Abides blog, Tavis and Charlatan.  A pair of kiddos came with, so we ended up with a group of 3 kids and 4 adults (plus the DM) for a nice 3-4 hour game.  It was a chance to see a bit how Tavis's approach to the Saltbox works, play some ACKS (Adventurer Conquer King), use an alternate type of 0-level funnel, and then get in some general RPG discussion.

As is the case with most games with kids, it ended with death and violence in the classic tradition; by borrowing tactics from cartoons.  After being marooned on an island by a dislikable captain, the party excavated an entrance to some caves beneath the island.  Confronted by a long, slime-filled tunnel deeper in the cave complex, the adult players puzzled over how to safely navigate the treacherous length of cave - walk carefully and probe with poles, tie ropes and rappel down?  Cutting the proverbial Gordian knot, two of the kids quickly fashioned a toboggan out of wooden planks and went zooming down the tunnel through the slime, hooting and hollering.   It seemed like so much fun at the time, but then there was the giant slug, and the guys that slipped and slid down the tunnel after them, and then the screaming and the dying.  (In other words, a successful D&D game).

Other observations:

Gaming with Kids
I've run a bunch of mixed games with kids and dads, and we've used two approaches - running a kid's game that happened to have dads in attendance, or running a regular game that happened to have kids.  The difference is focus.  For the kid's game approach, the dads are like silent partners; the dads can offer suggestions on strategy, but the kids make all the major decisions and have to discuss amongst themselves (come what may).  That approach tends to keep the kids really engaged.

However, sitting amongst the players in a mixed group of kids and dads in a regular game session, I noticed that the conversation has a tendency to go beyond what 9 and 10 year olds can process; it's a good practice to slow down at key decision points, explain the issues simply, and make sure the kids get a chance to offer their opinions and vote.  It seems like common sense that you should expend some effort making sure everyone is engaged, but it's easy to get out of the habit without an occasional reminder.

The ACKS Funnel
We were heartily encouraged to have retainers; to that end, a number of stat lines were generated up front (3d6 in order, yeah baby!) and the best chosen as the PC; retainers were selected from amongst the other rolled stats and paid like mercenaries (zero level men).  The party easily had 30+ guys - plenty of fodder, and replacement guys that could receive a promotion if a PC died.  Not all 30 guys went into the dungeon.

Playing ACKS
When ACKS is released, folks will notice there's almost no learning curve.  AC and to-hit rolls are calculated slightly differently, but it's otherwise all very familiar.  Proficiencies - a basic skill system - were unobtrusive and didn't change the table experience - we were still pushing, pulling, prodding and cajoling in an old school way (nary a spot check or diplomacy roll in sight).

One thing I found interesting - Individual Initiative!  Okay, I know this has been an optional rule in many variants (and LOTFP used a version of it), but I've used the Moldvay BX style of Initiative by Side for as long as I can remember, with different combat actions happening in sequence - movement, missile, magic and melee, and then the other side goes.

Initiative by Side lends itself to detailed group strategies; the players are forced to coordinate their tactics closely as actions happen in sequence.  I found Individual Initiative to be much more chaotic; it could also have been because this was a one-shot (more like a convention game, since we weren't Tavis's regular group).  Do other folks have similar observations - group initiative leads to more strategic coordination across the party, whereas individual initiative creates a more free form, chaotic muddle during the battle?  The experiences were very different and I can see pros and cons to each - group initiative is explicitly a game mechanic, individual initiative throws more "fog of war" and "din of battle" into the mix.

The other big difference is zero hit points and dying. It's been a hot topic for me lately in the home game as we're switching from using the death at -10 hp AD&D rule to the Swords & Wizardry approach.  ACKS has a much different death at zero rule; it's interesting enough that its worth its own post.

The other thing I'll save for another post is the idea of using Troupe-Style Play in D&D; the campaign roles and domain rules in ACKs make you want to try out the mid-range and high level stuff sooner than waiting 2-3 years to get there organically, so I think it's worth considering if there are sensible ways to structure a campaign to support multiple ranges of character levels.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Adventure 14 - The God in the Box

Continuing the series of short (horror themed) September adventures...

The setting is the poor Immigrant Quarter in the city during Halloween or a similar holiday in the fantasy world.  A stalwart priest has been warned to leave the quarter on Halloween night, but he's committed to staying the course.

A few ways come to mind on getting characters involved with the situation; if they have ties to the church through a PC cleric, perhaps a senior church official, worried about the priest, asks the PC to hold vigil with him on the holiday night; the Immigrant Quarter hasn't been kind to church property.  Another simple hook would be the stalwart priest himself seeks some mercenaries to help protect his little chapel.

The church has always had trouble keeping the chapel of Saint Whatzit (pick a good name for your world) open in the Immigrant Quarter; last year, the chapel was burnt to the ground and the previous priest lost in the blaze.  The stalwart priest has received friendly warnings to leave on Halloween night, 'for his own good', but he insists on keeping the chapel open for the needy.

The Immigrant Quarter is festive in the afternoon before Halloween evening, including lots of appropriate harvest festival activities - let's go with an anachronistic American spirit for the day - bobbing for apples, baking contests, masks and costumes, pumpkin carving, and so on.  Some kindly folks have even decorated the chapel with corn dollies and festival decorations.

The stalwart priest will arrange to have the characters arrive before sundown, so they're in the quarter before the gates close.  The watchmen point out that it's city policy not to patrol the Immigrant Quarter after dark on this night, and the characters will be on their own.  Shortly after sundown, the streets are mostly empty and deserted, the many cottages and tenements barred against the night.

Some of the immigrants here have come from across the sea, but most are from the hinterland.  Though they outwardly converted to the Church, many persevered in their old beliefs and brought their practices with them, including the "god in the box".  This relic of the pagan faith required a harvest sacrifice to ensure a good harvest the following year; when those old time immigrants left their distant fields for the city, they dug up the god in the box and carried it with them, burying the icon beneath the cobblestones.  For a while, the annual ritual of blood sacrifice (in the form of an execution) was held at an intersection called Bloody Corners, and this ensured the hungry god in the box was sated.  Eventually those pagan practices were completely outlawed, and followers of the old faith have needed to come up with more creative ways to see that the god gets its due.  This year, the stalwart priest has been denoted as the sacrifice; the many corn dollies and other harvest decorations draped around the front of the chapel include markers for the god in the box.

As night settles on the quarter and the moon rises, the characters might hear a scream or two elsewhere in the quarter as a passerby catches glimpses of the god seeking out its due.  If the characters are in the chapel, build up the sense of impending trouble as the ground starts to shake with the footsteps of an approaching titan; there's the sound of heavy breathing like a large beast snuffling just past the door; and then the chapel starts to shake as the wall is tentatively pushed (before being smashed in next round).  It'll be even more exciting if they wait outside!

The god in the box appears like a huge four-legged skeletal beast, part armored bull and half wolverine claws and half snarling wolf, with vestigial bat wings and what appears to be the skull of a longhorn steer (for stats, something like the AD&D Bulette stats should horrify low and mid-level characters - two claws and a nasty chomp - it should also be immune to non-magic weapons and have regeneration).

The god will smash and rampage through the chapel trying to get at its intended victims.  When it smashes through walls and doors, there's a round or two where its head is stuck, giving characters a chance for some free shots (or running).  The horror theme here is DANGER - a big unstoppable monster is trying to eat you, so how do you put ground and obstacles between you and the monster?  A good tactical map of both the chapel and Immigrant Quarter would be useful for staging a chase.  The rest of the city is gated off, but characters could consider climbing the walls.  They might flee into the sewers, or try and reach the harbor and escape on the water.  Once the characters have been marked, the god in the box is an infallible tracker and will follow them throughout the night, continually smashing buildings to get at them, but it can't pursue outside the Immigrant Quarter.

To provide some vicarious horror, the DM could ensure the stalwart priest had some zero level men on hand to help watch the chapel as well; this gives the DM plenty of folks to munch first while working its way toward the PC's.  Crunching a zero level guy for 50 damage is where it's at - show the PCs what's coming!  Remember, you don’t have to outrun the god, just the hired help.

It's suggested that characters hear about the plot hook such that they meet the stalwart priest just before sundown - enough time to hear the spooky history of the chapel, get second thoughts about spending the night, but not enough time to do deeper research until the day after.  It may not work out that way, and its fine if the players are better prepared.  It's possible suspicious players will suspect there's something wonky with the festival decorations, and redirect them elsewhere before sundown - if thrown out, perhaps an innocent person trash picks them on the way home.  That's fine, too, let the god in the box rampage elsewhere - as long as it's loud and violent, it'll still be fun!

If the characters try and gather information, one place might be the old grizzled captain of the guard, who remembers "Bloody Corners", the place where people that followed the old faith were known to conduct a stoning or similar executions.  Those folks were cleaned out many years ago, arrested, and the church converted everyone in the quarter to the true faith, but it still seems that every year, something bad would happen near Bloody Corners around Halloween time.  After a riot some years back, now the guard just vacates on Halloween.  Some years it's vandalism, or street violence, or arson like the chapel burning last year.  One way or another, the god is fed on Halloween.

There are other sources of information to check into besides the watchmen; the characters could "convince" one of the older immigrants to talk about the pagan practices - "My mother learned from her mother and this is passed on mother to daughter, blah blah blah" about the darker reason for the festivities.  Searching church records in the church's headquarters (the diocese) will reveal how many priests have been killed serving in the quarter.

A daytime search of Bloody Corners might not reveal anything obvious, but detection spells like Detect Evil will immediately identify an evil aura in a spot where the cobblestones can be pried up, and a large box uncovered; inside is what appears to be an ancient cow skull, with horns and sharp teeth and fangs instead of flat cow teeth.  Destroying the skull releases the curse that allows the god in the box to manifest each Halloween.

Locales:  the Immigrant Quarter of the city; a chapel; Bloody Corners
NPCs:  the Stalwart Priest, the grizzled guard captain
Monsters:  the god in the box
Artifacts:  the god in the box

Turn Undead, Meet the Nerf Bat

As a Dungeon Master, there are few abilities I loathe more than Turn Undead.  It's the one ability that neuters an entire class of encounters; in the post-zombie hype world, it turns an entire style of campaign - the undead zombie apocalypse - into a non-starter.  After 30 years of D&D, Turn Undead is a fairly iconic power of the cleric, but other than Hammer Horror films, it doesn't have a strong literary tradition.  (Clerics turning fairies is another matter…)

There are some options.  A DM could accept the status quo, and just use lots of other monster types - default D&D is fairly "wahoo" and full of monsters; when undead are encountered, the cleric just racks up auto-wins for the party.  When an undead is important to the adventure, the DM makes sure it's a much higher level, hurting the chances it gets affected by the "I Win" power of the cleric.

Apparently Gary Gygax had issues with the ease that clerics Turn low level undead, seeing as even the introductory adventure,  Keep on the Borderlands, features a cave full of undead each with an amulet making it harder to turn.  There's an important lesson there; when the DM doesn't like a power the players have, it's okay to cheat and nerf it.  No - I'm lying - that's a horrible solution, especially coming from the author of the rules.

In AD&D, the DMG presents an optional way to nerf the power - if the undead are in a group, the DM may opt to make the undead unable to be turned unless the strongest undead can be turned.  It's a variation on the option above - don't let the Cleric be awesome by making sure the threat is outside of his range - but now it extends an umbrella to the minions, too.

If you're playing a low magic setting modeled after the pulp fiction, monsters are rare and undead feature heavily in those types of settings; a zombie or skeleton would be an unnerving experience in such a setting.  But not if there's a level 1 or 2 cleric nearby - Turn Undead is a deal breaker.  I like the approach Raggi took in LOTFP, converting Turn Undead into a level 1 spell.  It's still a "I Win" power, but now it brings the ability into the realm of strategic and tactical choices, as well as resource management.  Turn Undead becomes more like a Sleep spell - potentially decisive, but requiring a meaningful choice.  I like that approach better than the artificial patches - constantly equipping the undead with "Amulets of Protection from Turning" or jiggering the "important" undead encounters to overload the cleric.

But maybe that's just me - seems like a good time for a new poll - posted up to the right.  Do you nerf* Turn Undead in your game?
  • We use it as is; clerics are awesome
  • We use mixed groups of high and low undead
  • I limit its daily use (like LOTFP)
  • We don't use clerics
  • House rules - see comments
*Nerf:  reducing the effectiveness of a game element (named after the popular foam toys...)  I figure most gamers know the term, but you never know...

Monday, September 19, 2011

Aiming that Fireball

The Talmudic analysis of D&D's myriad rules continues out in the blogosphere… in this case, the "lifelong reading of the text" belongs to Delta over at Delta's D&D Hotspot, where he's done an analysis of the fireball spell through the ages.

Here are the problems:  when does the fireball explode?  Can a caster aim it at a spot in the air, causing an airburst, precisely measuring the beginning of the blast radius to maximize hitting the enemies and avoid the friendly's?  If it requires aim, why isn't there a to-hit roll?  I don't recall seeing any language in any versions of fireball like the magic missile rule.  Should grenade fire rules apply, allowing the fireball to miss its spot?

The discussion is very topical for me, because a) we sometimes use minis and a vinyl grid with erase markers, and b) the players have a wand of fireballs with a ton of charges.  Whenever they can see the grid, they're always micro-managing the location of their figures in a room to line up the best possible fireball placements (or Silence 15' radius placement, or Prayer and Bless radius, etc).  Using the grid, it's hard to argue against lining up a fireball that burns the monsters in melee with the party's front rank, while stopping just short of the front line fighters.

The Cook/Marsh Expert set and Rules Cyclopedia both require the fireball to strike a target.  To me, this precludes the airburst technique and makes fireballs much riskier to target when the front line is engaged in melee - it only blows up when it hits somebody or something.  Labyrinth Lord and the Advanced Edition Companion go with AD&D 1E style "point your finger, pick a range and distance and that's where it blows up" - supporting the idea of an omniscient Magic User with perfect awareness of spatial relationships and distances who can always calculate exact ranges and trajectories while gesturing and tossing out material components.  Bah.

Adventurer Conqueror King maintains the AD&D approach (point finger, enjoy your perfect air burst) whereas Raggi-style LOTFP bans the fireball entirely - you munchkins with your flashy magic - although prior to his divorce from flashy magic, he supported targeting a location, too.

My players would flip out if I started using a grenade-style rule for adjudicating whether the fireball goes short, long, or off to the side, even though that does mirror the risks in real-world artillery - and that's basically how fireballs are used - "Incoming!".  So I'll probably need to reconcile myself to allowing perfect placement of fireballs, all the time.  :sigh:

How about you guys?  It's one thing when you're using exact "measurements" by counting squares on the grid, do any of you adjudicate fireball differently when combat is purely abstract?  When the player says, "I place the fireball 20' behind the front line of monsters, in the air, so the burst catches the monsters battling our party's front line, but doesn't burn any of our guys" - is the Magic User always infallible?

Otherwise you run the risk of douchery - "I said the front line *seemed* to be 15' away from you, but appearances are deceiving in the misty air of the dungeon, and your fighters were actually 20' away and got caught in the blast - fighters, start making saving throws…"

This discussion seems really similar to the "firing a ranged weapon into a melee" discussion.  I need to check out Delta's place and see if he did the text comparison on that one; I know that Moldvay BX and Labyrinth Lord allow unfettered firing into a melee, whereas AD&D has the random chance of shooting your friend in the back (as does LOTFP).  One way of adjudicating the "precision fireball burst" might be a straight percentage chance that melee combatants on the edge of the burst get caught in the flames - even if the Magic User lined up the perfect placement, the little forward and backward steps, circling and dodging of melee means that the fighters could step into the blast radius while swinging.

I don't know that any grenade House Rules are forthcoming - it goes against 30 years of accumulated experience with infallible placement of fireballs.  It's a situation exploited when using minis and the grid; it's probably easier in abstract combat to disallow the ability to place the fireballs so neatly that it harms some combatants and misses others.

Adventure 13 - I was a Teenage Demon

Continuing the September series of short (horror themed) adventures...

Megan Fox:  coming to a D&D table near you
Any hamlet or settlement small enough to call a town meeting - a less dangerous civilized backwater is preferred.  Ideal for when the PCs are just passing through.

A teenaged boy has been found dead in the copse of trees near the old mill house, and torches and pitchforks are out!  The dried out nature of the corpse (life energy drained) has everyone thinking a foul spirit, ghost, undead or similar monster is lurking nearby.  The reeve or constable is organizing patrols.

Player characters might be staying at the crossroads inn or tavern, and will certainly overhear the ruckus as townsfolk gather in the market square.  In a manorial system, the local reeve is likely in charge, while word has been sent to the lord and sheriff for extra help.  The characters might have the chance to see the distraught parents ("He was just sneaking out to see some girl he was sweet on…").  They might also pitch in and help with the patrols, etc.

Old Man White, the creepy guy with the run down farm out near Raven's Bluff, even shows up with his gorgeous teenage daughter, "Megan".  Perceptive characters will notice how many of the village boys try and get Megan's attention, who blushes demurely, while the father ushers her around protectively.  Old Man White gives some sensible advice about searching the graveyard, points out that he's too old to help with the search himself, and reminds everyone that he needs to get his daughter out of the night air.  "She has a delicate condition, and she needs special herbs and teas each evening so she doesn't develop the same condition that killed her mother, bless her departed soul…"

In folklore, the offspring of a devil and a human is a Cambion.  The succubus story from last post got me thinking how much fun it would be to have an adventure that featured such a creature.  In AD&D, there's a creature called an Alu-Demon that's the offspring of a Succubus (demon) and a human; and that works well enough here.

Old Man White is a chaotic Magic User that has "retired" to this little backwater village to raise his daughter and hide; Megan is the unknowing offspring of a Succubus.  For a campaign twist, assume there is a cult out there that works on arranging these human-demon pairings with Succubi and Incubi and caring for the issue, and Old Man White stole away his own offspring, fleeing the cult and seeking anonymity.  This works a little bit of the Rosemary's Baby theme into the story; even now the cult hunts him (though that may not matter in this particular situation).

Megan has been kept ignorant of her Abyssal heritage; she's been brought up since childhood with the belief that her delicate constitution will make her sick in the night air, and she drinks a daily infusion of herbs and teas (actually a potion similar to demon control) that keeps the demonic side of her soul suppressed.  She's a sweet teenager with unearthly charisma and beauty owing to her Succubus mother.

Unfortunately, as she matures into a woman, the potions are losing effectiveness, and demonic transformations are beginning to happen at night - she sprouts bat wings, claws, fangs, and flies off in search of life energy to suck.  Amorous trysts arranged by gorgeous teenage "Megan" often end up with the victim dead at the hands of her demonic alter ego.  At best, Megan remembers it in snatches of nightmare, which her worried father does his best to dispel the next morning.

I love this set up for a number of reasons - one, it travels the well-worn ground of hormonal teenagers getting smoked in the woods by a monster.  I loved the horror movie Jennifer's Body and it cracks me up to put Megan Fox in a D&D game.  On a darker note, the situation presents moral questions for a party of adventurers that could require them to step back and consider options; the teenager Megan appears to be completely innocent.  Her father, while once part of a dark cult, seems to be trying to turn a new leaf.  If they're confronted, I'd work to make Megan and Old Man White come across as innocent as possible to muddy the waters.  And yet there is a monster in the village.  Have fun!

The situation is meant to be somewhat fluid and free-form, so the adventure could evolve different ways based on player action.  The pitchfork and torches patrols won't find anything (though it would be a great red herring to root out a ghoul or some minor undead lurking in the graveyard, to throw off the hunt).

But boys will continue to court Megan, who just keeps looking better and better, and teenage corpses will be found shriveled and sucked of life.

Assuming players move on or don't intervene, Megan will soon piece together that the dying boys are the same ones she's meeting; her foggy dreams and nightmare snatches are her own fragmented memories, and she'll confront her father to learn the truth - the classic, "Father, am I a monster?" scene.  Where does it go from there? My default position would be that the release of suppressed memories, when she learns the truth, merges her two personalities, and the Alu-demon form becomes the dominant persona going forward.  After slaying her weak father, she goes off in search of Mom's side of the family.  Of course, other DM's might take a more sympathetic approach.

Locale:  a small hamlet
NPCs:  the Reeve, distraught peasants, Old Man White, beautiful Megan
Monsters:  Megan, the Alu-Demon
Artifacts: Old Man White's demon control infusion

Other Blogs Posting September Short Adventures:
Here's a handy link to all the OSR blogs taking part in the challenge - 25 adventures in September:

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Adventure 12 - The Night Visitor

Continuing the September of Short Adventures...

The churches in the city are under attack; priests are found dead in their quarters.  Similar deaths happened to a number of smaller churches and parishes out in the countryside.  Can the characters help unravel the mystery?

There are a number of ways player characters could learn about the dying priests; PC clerics get informed by their order, and are asked to investigate; injured characters returning from a delve learn about the shortage of healing and clerical magic; characters with no ties to the church might be approached due to their reputation as professional adventurers.

The city is the seat of a bishopric, with a number of smaller churches around the city led by priests and acolytes.  Assume there's a bishop, canon or curate, 6+ priests, and 1-2 dozen acolytes.  At the time of the adventure, the bishop, a priest, and one of the acolytes has been found dead.  Word has been sent to a larger church city - the seat of the archbishop - but it will be weeks before help arrives.

The church is militant in it's crusade against evil and the influence of outsiders; what's to say the forces of darkness don't launch their own campaigns to strike back?

In a setting like Gothic Greyhawk, there's a powerful monotheistic church (the Church of the Eternal Spirit, also called the Blinding Light) that reinforces a European Medieval vibe, and witches are cast in the Medieval stereotype - servants of evil that gain spells from pacts with infernal entities.

A powerful witch has gained control of a demon's amulet, allowing her to summon and control a succubus.  She's launched her own one-person crusade against the church, and has wiped out numerous smaller churches in the surrounding towns and villages before coming to the city.

The witch's strategy is straightforward; a scrying mirror is used to spy on clergy and gain knowledge of a target's movements and habits.  The succubus is able to use clairaudience and teleport without error to bypass all manner of physical security and enter the most secret chambers.  In the darkness, the thing uses its shape change and ESP to assume the most alluring guise imaginable before slipping out of the darkness, augmenting its overwhelming beauty with charm and suggestion to quickly disarm any resistance, allowing the succubus to feast.  After returning to the witch's lair, the creature is returned to its magical circle prison until the witch has picked another target.

The theme here is information scarcity: it's unclear how the priests are dying and what is doing the attacking; there are dozens of targets to protect, and its also unclear who will be targeted next.  There might be some internal politics as well and general secretiveness of the clergy ala The Name of the Rose that might make information gathering difficult at first; these attacks could lead to a loss of faith and confidence in the congregations, and it could prove embarrassing when  it's learned that a succubus is behind the attacks (even if the seductive demon is achieving its ends through magic).

Once they have the trust of the key members in the local hierarchy, give the players full access to the accumulated spells of the surviving church clergy so they have access to magic that will help gather facts - things like Augury, Speak with the Dead, etc - assuming the PC's don't have it themselves.  What kind of precautions might prove effective to stop the attacks?  The witch has also compromised a servant or worker that has access to the churches, and this way she's getting personal effects, clippings of hair, and other trappings that are allowing her to scry the individual clergy - that might be another lead.  Meanwhile, the deaths continue to pile up, creating a sense of time pressure.  If the witch learns about the investigation through her cat's paw, maybe the succubus is turned loose on one of the characters.

This would be a fun problem solving adventure - the group first needs to decipher what's happening, then identify a demon is at involved, then try to find the witch's lair in the city and confront her.

If the succubus is destroyed in combat, the amulet crumbles away; if the amulet is somehow forced from the witch's grasp during a confrontation, the succubus will immediately teleport to the witch, and carry her off to the Abyss, for an eternity as a demon's pet.

Locale:  The city, various refectories and churches
NPCs:  Various clergy
Monsters:  A witch, a succubus
Artifacts: the demon's amulet, the scrying mirror

Other Blogs Posting September Short Adventures:
Here's a handy link to all the OSR blogs taking part in the challenge - 25 adventures in September:

Friday, September 16, 2011

OSR Mashup Idea - The Red Tides of Stonehell

Outside the sorcerer-ruled city of Tien Lung, a cruel vizier built a unique prison to house the city's many criminals.  It was a dungeon, a prison dungeon, that would be dug deeper by the prisoners themselves.  The prison dungeons would be vast and holde countless criminals; in this way, the sorcerers of Tien Lung would be assured an ongoing supply of victims to use in their cruel magical experiments.

But then, a century ago, a corruption took hold in the dungeons, twisting prisoners into monsters and driving out the guards; Soon control of the the prison was lost to the inmates. It's been theorized that the corrupting mist of the Red Tide somehow reached into the heart of the island, finding a fertile womb in the minds of the mentally imbalanced and despairful prisoners.  Over the past hundred years, all manner of monsters and corruptions have crept into the ruined halls of the prison.  Something dark lurks in the heart of the dungeon; the sorcerers of Tien Lung are aware of it, and it frightens them.  They've begun offering rewards for adventurers that return with maps, captives, and most importantly, information.

Here's an idea that needs to go right into The Junkyard - a mash up of Red Tide, Stonehell, Vornheim, and maybe even Lesserton and Mor.  If you're new here, The Junkyard isn't a bad place - it's a place where I park campaign ideas that I don't quite have time to work on right now; it's part of my Gamer ADD mitigation strategy.  Instead of scrapping my current campaign whenever a kick-ass idea comes along, I write some notes about the idea and park it for future rediscovery.

There have been some really excellent campaign supplements published in the past year or two since I've returned to old school gaming; last time I posted about Stonehell: Down Night Haunted Halls, I mentioned how Stonehell and Lesserton & Mor would work really well together, or how Stonehell would be cool as an Oriental Adventures dungeon.  (Stonehell is a 5-level megadungeon, with 20+ small dungeon levels in it; Lesserton & Mor is a well detailed home base town and a nearby ruined city.)

Thus, the mash up.  Stonehell would also work really well with Red Tide.  The dungeon was built as a prison by a cruel despot and vizier, and could sit nicely near one of the darker-themed Red Tide cities on the main island like Tien Lung.  The corrupting influence of the Red Tide, Dream Lords, and Tidespawn compliment Stonehell's themes of madness and insanity and outside influences.

A DM using these two together would be able to start a campaign with a solid, 5-level megadungeon, and have a full-blown sandbox setting at his fingertips whenever the PC's wanted to wander elsewhere.

Then there's Vornheim and Lesserton and MorVornheim is a kit for generating city adventures and would help with adjudicating the large cities in the Asian-themed areas of Red Tide (I don't have a review of Vornheim up, but there are plenty out there).  And there's plenty of room on the islands to place Lesserton & Mor in a borderlands region.  It's an instant sandbox campaign with fully realized mega dungeon and multiple adventure sites.

This one goes right on the front burner if there's a TPK in the regular campaign.  There are even Vikings in Red Tide and an arctic area, for whenever I get the Black City done.