Sunday, December 30, 2012

Black City Game 17 - Pig Knuckles

The Spitsberg Pirates - that's the name of the player's Viking adventuring company -  took some well deserved rest and relaxation back in Trade Town, resting, healing, spending loot, and taking in their experience points.  For instance, Brick had been dealing with a case of dungeon lice after sifting through a monster lair , and needed to spend some time scouring himself in the brisk salt waters of the fjord.  Valens Lascarius, the Byzantine representative of the High Hermite of Byzantium, was eager to hear if any of the Russian Elves or disciples of Himerius were able to find new sources of magic.

The players were keenly interested to see how "Pig Knuckles" was going.  I may have mentioned it here and there, but a long term project for them has been to establish a regular gambling hall back at camp; they scavenged knuckle bones from old skeletons in the dungeon and turned them into dice; they scavenged materials to make gambling tables; they hired guards; cut a deal with the jarl Bergfinn; bought supplies of ale; promoted a key retainer, Skoldig, as the main dealer that runs the games.  I built a spreadsheet to calculate nightly results taking into account who runs the games and the competition along with random factors, and then it nets out the winnings after taking out wages and the jarl's 25%.  After a few weeks of running the game while they were in the dungeon, the henchmen, retainers, and fellow ship mates have made an extra 400-500sp.  By the end of the summer, the captain of the player's ship needs to be able to pay back their lord back home in Zealand who funded the voyage, so this is another way they're accumulating enough cash to make the expedition profitable (note: NPC gambling winnings don't count towards XP).

When all the errands in Trade Town were finally exhausted, they planned another delve.  This time, the route was to bushwhack back to Central Command on the surface, take a look at the holo crystal they were carrying while in Central Command's domed structure, then descend to the transit tunnels, and journey north and resume exploring the adamant dungeon.

The holocrystal was another "new employee orientation video" showing the working of some apparatuses in the eastern adamant dungeon; with a skilled weapon-smith, there might be a chance to forge some of the raw adamant they found into weapons.  (They filed that information away for now, and stuck to their original plan.  Adamant weapons sound pretty good to me, though.)

Back in the adamant dungeon, they started pushing further south into the western wing of the dungeon, clearing a few small chambers and some minor fights, and then discovered a storage area that held a bunch of thulium discs and cylinders.  The players don't know all the uses for thulium yet, but they have learned that the discs can activate some of the machinery, like tokens, and learned just in this session that the cylinders act as batteries for other devices (like a wand of magic detection they discovered, or a rod that depowers other items).

One of the recurring monsters in this part of the dungeon are these flying "shockers" - they're like wingless dragonflies, with whip-snap tails that zap anyone they hit.  In one of the last rooms, they found a control room overlooking a large chamber with various vat-like capacitors, and a colossal shocker (the mega-shocker) was coiled in this room, slurping electricity from open conduits.  Nodules all over its body were buds forming new regular sized shockers, and a handful of the smaller versions clung to the mega-shocker like remoras on a big shark.  After noticing the players characters, the mega-shocker reared up and smashed the glass separating them from the overlook chamber; they players chose to flee, running down a passage to give themselves time to think.  The players were in this part of the dungeon on another mission for Odin, and their destination required them to get past the mega-shocker, so we'll start this week with an interesting problem.

This was our last game before Christmas, so it was appropriate for some exciting toys to be revealed.  Earlier in the evening, while exploring the room where they unleashed an extra-planar entity a few weeks ago, they discovered a few suits of elf-sized plate armor made out of that light-weight adamant.  Futuristic and form-fitting, this stylish segmented armor instantly transformed the two 1st level Russian elves into tanks.  Timur and Vitaly were ecstatic.  I guess it's a happy coincidence that elves are built similarly to space aliens.  As far as the players know, Santa was just taking care of some of his elves.

Cast of Characters
Agnar Beigarth, a Northman fighter (L2)
Mustafa of Arabia, a scimitar wielding desert warrior (L3)
Brutok the Strong, a dwarf (L2)
Borghild, a Norse cleric of Odin (L3)
Timur, Russian Elf (L1)
Vitaly, Russian Elf (L1)
Dominicus, Byzantine magic user (L1)

Retainers with the party:
Tribunas, Byzantine magic user (L1)
Brick Bunnybreaker (halfling L1)
Bottvild (cleric L2)
Visin Thorsteinson (fighter 3)
Hunlaf the Saxon (specialist 2)

* Visin and Hunlaf were members of an NPC party that ambushed the players, and were taken prisoner for ransom.  After spending a lot of time in tow with the players, Visin grew to have grudging respect for Agnar's leadership (particularly after observing the group's capabilities - two clerics, multiple spell-casters make them a formidable bunch).

Friday, December 28, 2012

Your World in the Balance

The green dragons that terrorize the Elderwood rarely cross the river; the stone castles along the borderland that face the river are built to withstand acid, and poison gas, and the men that guard those walls cut back the brush for 100 yards or more, to provide clear lines of fire for the massive ballistae that face across at the Elderwood.  At least once a year, a caravan tries to traverse the desolation of the dragons, and it goes heavily armed, with a column of sturdy knights and dozens of mercenary archers along each flank.  Even so, it's a risky business, guiding caravans across the wilds.

You shouldn't be asking the question, "Are things in the game balanced for the player characters?"  The world doesn't give a flip about the player characters or their level.  A better question is, "Is the world balanced to itself?"  Is there a reason the ogres haven't eaten all the orcs in the nearby forest, or the people are able to live in the valley while the giants live in the mountains?  Why do kobolds live on dungeon level 1, and the hobgoblins live on dungeon level 2?  Have you ever looked at the "number appearing" on any wilderness charts in the early editions of D&D?  The wilds are a dangerous place, and the only way to survive out there is to go big or go home.

When running an old-school D&D game, the DM's job is not to provide fair, balanced encounters for the players.  The player characters are not precious and unique snowflakes.  The job is to provide a coherent setting, an impartial setting, and give enough information for the players to make their own decisions.  It's not my fault if a 1st level party ignores the warnings, crosses the river into the desolation of the Elderwood, and gets promptly eaten by the green dragons that terrorize the place.  They should have listened to that old geezer at the tavern.

If your game world features a megadungon, then that place represents a bizarre underworld that follows different logic than the surface world, but it is consistent to itself, and it too holds your player characters in little regard.  It's up to them to gauge the amount of danger they can handle, not you.  In the underworld, monster encounters are loosely equal to other monsters also inhabiting the same dungeon level as themselves.  Your guess is as good as mine why it works out that way.  I suppose they're drawn to the deeps by the lure of treasure, but settle to an appropriate depth where they can survive and still hoard the most wealth.  It's why the underworld is such a strange place - the dungeon levels.  But it's not your job to fully explain it, either; make it coherent, so it follows its own internal logic, and then let the players figure it out from there.  Whatever you do, don't balance it down to their level of incompetence.

This is going to be my true test for 5th Edition, whenever we're able to see enough of the system to evaluate it - can it be used to create a coherent fantasy world?  If we're back to minions and solos and monsters that change roles and games stats in relation to the player characters, the answer, not surprisingly, will be no.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

D&D Professional Skills

From time to time the DM might need to determine if a NPC professional succeeds at a difficult technical skill or craft - does the blacksmith make a suitable masterwork weapon on the first try, can the sage answer an obscure question, that kind of stuff.  As I collate notes for my future (Caribbean-based) saltbox setting, this extends to solving for skills like sailing, navigation, and gunnery.

I've seen the simple 2d6 reaction chart from classic D&D turned into a skill resolution chart.  It assumes a modifier scale of -3 to +3 using ability scores.  (Historical note: Charisma was capped at +2 in the Moldvay rules, but this was changed for Mentzer and the Rules Cyclopedia).  For professional skills, I'm using the following descriptors to determine appropriate "ability modifiers":

Professional Experience:
Skilled:  +1
Expert:  +2
Master:  +3
Unskilled:  -2

Unskilled characters may not even get a roll in some cases.  The basic reaction chart goes like this:

Skill Resolution (roll 2d6):
2  serious failure
3-5 failure
6-8 partial success
9-11 success
12 great success

An example usage: if the players hire a skilled navigator instead of a master navigator for their ship, they'll pay less in salary or shares, but there's a higher chance of getting lost on the way to that hidden island.  As I develop the nautical rules, I'll work on specific guidelines when hired experts would make checks and how the dice results translate into specific outcomes.

For basic D&D, I like decoupling professional skills from the class and level system and treating them as background skills for NPCs; it keeps the major emphasis for class advancement on adventuring and developing adventurer capabilities.  Nonetheless, I can see the players asking if they can develop any degree of professional skill (especially these nautical skills) if they spend enough time on a boat.

This post from an older blog (Skills: The Middle Road) provided some recommendations for education around professional skills, so I'll use those values as a starting point and will see how it goes:

Learning a Profession:
Skilled - 1 month, 1000gp
Expert - 3 months, 3000gp
Master - 6 months, 10,000gp

If a player character commits to spending time in the rigging, learning how to furl and unfurl the sails, close-haul a ship, tie the right knots, swab the deck, and so on, they can be a skilled sailor after a month of effort and a bit of money on the side.  (For sailing, assume the money goes to gambling, carousing, repairs, clothes, basic gear, dues, and so on; ordinary folks pick up the same skills at a slower pace without all the money spent).

Alternatively, I can look at a hybrid game like ACKS, that bolts a new-school inspired feat and proficiency system onto the old school chassis.  Navigation and Seamanship are already represented as choices in ACKS, and Gunnery is easy to add.  ACKS also addresses when someone would be qualified as a "master" by stacking extra picks on a proficiency.  I'm not sure the high-fantasy tone of ACKS is what I'm going for, so the actual decision on rules flavor is for sometime down the road.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

I Changed My Mind

Why should I keep blogging?  That is the question I'm asking myself this week.  I recently passed a 2nd year anniversary, of sorts, two whole years of steady posts at The Lich House.  Have my games gotten better?  Is there some element of the craft that has improved?

There is a side benefit to the effort of writing… it challenges you to express complex ideas with simplicity and brevity.  Writing forces organization on those voices in your head, turning them into a narrative for transcription.  Sure, that’s valuable.

But have my games gotten better?

I do a lot of things at the table differently these days.  My table manners have changed.  I don't use a game master screen any longer, and I used to mandate them.  I keep my notes  or map off to one side, but I'd much rather be present in the player circle during the action.  I roll all the important dice in the open these days.  I don’t alter any rolls; there's an immediacy to the results, and it's very clear when someone is going to live or die, or when the monster just got wrecked by a player's massive roll.  I used to think the DM knows best, and I'd discretely alter the results for dramatic purposes.  Ironically, the games are far more dramatic and interesting now.  I also stopped requiring backstories as much as possible, figuring that if the information was important, it would come up at the right time.

On the other hand, I'm a lot more open-minded about scenario structures; I've come to view it as finding the right tool for the job; in some types of games, an adventure path or plotted narrative or "mission of the week" is warranted, and a sandbox style won't work.  That's an improvement over my opinion a few year ago, which was 'if you're not running a player-driven sandbox, you're doing it all wrong wrong wrong.'  See that?   A modicum of maturity and growth.  I prefer site-based locations and a sandbox format, but I understand the need to deviate.

As the calendar moves into January, I'm going to sift through the blog's back catalog and pull out those ideas here and there where I've noted changes in my approach or identified something to distillate.  Blog posts are ephemeral and fleeting - I think it's fair to ask the question from time to time, is the blogging worth the effort?  But this is rhetorical, since I'm not closing shop.

What kind of things do you do differently since you've encountered the blogosphere?  The internet often seems like tribes of angry folks yelling at each other across a room, and no one ever changes their mind.  (See also, Edition Wars et al).  I've changed my mind about some things.  How about you?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Journey of the Magi

It's hard to avoid "nativity scenes" in America around this time of year - the poor parents with their newborn in a manger, surrounded by animals, the 3 Wise Men kneeling before the child and forking over the gifts.  Bah, I discount the whole scene - it's a conflated mess, pulling ideas across sources, piled on with sentimental embellishments from centuries of tradition.  Even the authoritative source for the Magi story (the book of Matthew 2) implies that the Magi visited Jesus when he was a child, in a house, quite some after the birth.  When the jealous king Herod declares the slaughter of the innocents, attempting to slay his prophesied rival, he starts with 2 year-olds!

Don't think I'm hating on the Christmas - I love the season, and fully embrace it as an important time of the year to reflect on faith, beliefs, and family.  I admire the folks in my life that have taken up a religious calling in service to others.  But I also can’t help turning a critical idea to the sources of ideas, customs, and traditions.  Santa is a representation of Odin and the Wild Hunt, Jesus wasn't born in December, and the Wise Men never showed up at the manger.  But you probably knew all that already; gamers are a discerning bunch.

Nonetheless, the journey of the Magi is an amazing story from the perspective of the mythic themes involved.  The end of an age and the beginning of a new one is a time of signs and portents; the idea that foreign astrologers and esoteric masters from far away places have read the stars and come on a lengthy pilgrimage fires the imagination.  What if a bunch of exotic and powerful strangers showed up in that muddy village your D&D characters call "home base" and suddenly proclaimed the bawling toddler of a serf down the road was the new king of the world?  Hah.  Interesting things would ensue, would they not?  What would the players choose?

People in power fight to maintain it, and the "slaughter of the innocents" as an attempt to defeat prophecy is a theme that appears elsewhere in literature and fantasy, too.  It has historical antecedents in the birth legends of both Sargon the Great and Moses, other children that escaped murder attempts in response to prophecy.  It's a motif that was featured in the film Willow and that Sword of Truth TV series (based on those Terry Goodkind books).

Of course, I can't discuss the Magi without reflecting on the knowledge they brought home with them of the impending changes to their world.  Tradition has the Magi visiting from Ethiopia, Arabia, and Persia, although the term "Magi" comes from Zoroastrianism, a predecessor to Christianity.  Imagine the alienation one would feel after learning the prophecies were true, and the traditional world-view would soon be eclipsed by a new religion that would sweep the ancient world and overturn the old order?  I've been reading a lot about the conquistador's role in Latin American history and the role of prophecy in the downfall of the Aztecs; we just passed our own "apocalypse" of sorts - that Mayan 2-21-2012 excitement - apocalyptic thoughts have been in the air.

I'll close this brief meditation with excellent words from the poet TS Elliot.  Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, all!

"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

TS Eliot; The Journey of the Magi

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Black City Game 16

We took a "Hobbit Holiday" last weekend for a mix of Christmas prep, and letting folks get out to the movies to see "An Unexpected Journey".  Since we skipped gaming, I'm tardy on the last game report from two weeks ago - but since we play tonight night again,  here goes.

The crew had just survived the vicious ambush by Visin Thorsteinson and company, and then spent some time in a secure series of rooms resting and healing.  In a previous week, they had promised to return to Odin within 9 days, and the days were growing short.  ("Odin" is an otherworldly  entity they discovered on the other side of a portal in the top of a lonely spire in the city).

During the long march down the Transit Tunnels, they took a detour up to "Central Command", a domed structure on the surface, accessible from the deep tunnels by a ladder hidden behind a secret door.  The party was carrying an irregular "holographic crystal" which fit a device only found in Central Command; they also knew that it would be quicker to exit the ruined city by going topside rather than continuing through the dungeons, so this was also a shortcut.

Unfortunately, a detachment of rubbery alien servitors was waiting for them.

During a game sessions weeks ago, while they were in Central Command the first time, they had inadvertently opened a hailing channel (like a video call) to various control rooms in the depths of the complex, and some servitors were dispatched to "quell the unruly bipedal mammals that were abusing the delicate equipment".  There were a pair of strong guys, a stretchy guy, and a hypno-unit that was able to put the mind-control whammy on the "primitive hominid cortex".

This turned into a great, edge-of-your-seat fight, where the probability of a TPK loomed large.  The alien servitors started attacking as the player characters cleared the top of the ladder, and the players were hard-pressed to clear space to let more folks get up the ladder.  The heavy fighters paired off with the tough-guy aliens, while the hypno-alien used mind-control to take some of the guys right out of the fight.  The stretchy guy would reach long distances with his oversized hands, snatch a character out of the melee, quickly wrap them up in a bear hug, and then secrete acid and dissolve whatever he was holding.  It was nasty. Ayerick the Fighter was killed by the stretchy guy, and Vitaly the Elf narrowly escaped getting dissolved into elf-soup a couple of times, slipping out with lucky rolls.

After surviving the fight, the group decided not to mess around with the holo crystal.  They had less than a day to get back to Odin, and I guess they didn't want to risk any kind of sidetracking.

The rest of the game was getting back to the top of the Tower of Astronomy, stepping through the magic portal to "Asgard", and consulting with "Odin".  Odin's powers were greater after the group had reconnected power conduits to Central Command in a previous week, and he gave them some new ideas for additional missions while they negotiated potential rewards.  They also learned about opponents with powers similar to Odin, such as the rogue god "Loki" who was trapped in a strange blue obelisk, and the villainous Zoltan the Welder, who was also scheming to extend his power in the undercity.

One of the players is pretty much convinced that "Odin" is an alien supercomputer, and wondered if these other "gods" are more of the same.  I can neither confirm or deny such speculation.

After what seemed like two months in the dungeon (6 or so game sessions) the group finally returned to Trade Town, a chance to rest back in their permanent camp and take a few days to score experience points.  They now have a level 3 cleric, a level 3 fighter, a retainer advanced to henchman status, and Ayerick joined the campaign dead pool.

Cast of Characters
Agnar Beigarth, a Northman fighter (L2)
Mustafa of Arabia, a scimitar wielding desert warrior (L3)
Brutok the Strong, a dwarf (L2)
Borghild, a Norse cleric of Odin (L3)
Timur, Russian Elf (L1)
Vitaly, Russian Elf (L1)
Dominicus, Byzantine magic user (L1)

Retainers with the party:
Tribunas, Byzantine magic user (L1)
Brick Bunnybreaker (halfling L1)
Bottvild (cleric L2)
Ivar the Bow-bender (specialist L1)

Ayerick the Young:  melted by acid

Friday, December 21, 2012

What's on Devil Island?

This is a follow up to yesterday's post about the Isla del Diablo, where rumors of a wrecked galleon promise a fortune on the sea floor.  What else do we know about it?  The island is a rugged place, with jungle covered slopes and a deep valley cut by freshwater stream; a church was built along the northwest hill sometime in the 16th century, in the lee of the central hills.  There are catacombs beneath the church where a buried secret lies, and there are remains of camps or a village in the jungle.

Does anyone live on the island?  Here are a handful of ideas for stocking it:

  1. Homicidal Tribesmen:  Descendants of the insane lunatics marooned on the island in the past have formed a dystopian society like something out of Lord of the Flies; they follow a madman named "the Colonel".
  2. Cannibal Cultists:  Corrupt mainland natives invaded the island some time ago when they were driven off by the Spanish; now they practice their inhuman ceremonies and cruel rites on Isla del Diablo.  Ia! Ia! Cthulhu Fhtagn!
  3. Unclean Spirits:  There's an unavoidable experience of being watched, followed, and stalked any time an explorer steps into the cool shade of the jungle.  Disembodied planar entities hunger for new vessels to posses and finally escape the island.  Is that dog head speaking to me, telling me to kill them… kill them all?
  4. Alien Ghosts:  Those mentally deranged castaways were under the influence of alien intelligences stranded on Earth; the entities have used the years on the island to begin the construction of a space craft or beacon to return to the stars, but they've been stymied as their original hosts die from age or disease.  They'll feign friendship to lure visitors to their village, bringing new hosts into proximity of their brethren awaiting fresh bodies.
  5. Ritual Murderers:  A few survivors of the Spanish shipwreck made it to the island, but the baleful influence of the dark Loas that inhabit the place has turned them into serial killers, each staking out a different territory.  One of them stays near the lowland swamps, and uses poisoned arrows and deadly snakes; another lays deadfall traps in the central hills; the jungle stalker slits throats in the night.  The signs and trappings of evil voodoo hang all around the island.
  6. Abandoned:  Roll again, but the island is uninhabited now, and all that's left are the eerie remains of the previous group.
  7. Buccaneer's Camp:  Rowdy French buccaneers are behind all the (false) rumors of Isla del Diablo, to divert attention from the secluded inlet on the western shore they use to careen their ship and launch attacks on the mainland.
  8. Cimaroons:  Escaped Africans form their own societies all over the Caribbean when they slip the slaver's yoke, and Isla del Diablo is home to a free colony of escaped slaves.  They will fight to retain their hard earned liberty and slaughter any Europeans that learn of their presence.

Of course, I might just end up using all of these ideas, spread across different islands.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Isla del Diablo, From the Journal of de la Torre

The idea behind the Spanish Main campaign is to put the players in possession of a large number of leads, in the form of excerpts from the journal of a deceased monster hunter, the Spanish priest Luis Diaz De La Torre, a Solomon Kane figure in Catholic garb.  The Spanish Empire has exploited the Caribbean for 150 years before the start of the campaign, long enough for there to be ruined castles, lost colonies, and dark secrets littered across the turquoise sea.  De La Torre encountered both monsters and vast wealth during his decade in the Caribbean.  As I accrete material for the campaign here on blog, I'll also sprinkle in excerpts from De La Torre's journal.  It’s a pretty interesting approach to providing plot hooks for a sandbox game.

July, 1636, Off the Mosquito Coast
Today, I caught sight of the Isla del Diablo from starboard, but the superstitious captain would not lay to and launch a boat.  We continue on towards Campeche and then Vera Cruz for my "appointment" with Senor Gomez.  I've marked the place as 12° 12' north, 81° 40' west, nearly 100 miles off the Mosquito Coast.  It is an ominous place, with an ill and foreboding look.

I had heard rumors about Isla del Diablo even back in Madrid, from Cardinal Anaya.  Unable to quell an outbreak of demoniacs appearing in the highlands around Seville, the holy church endeavored to exile them with the annual flotas to New Spain.  This forsaken island was chosen to be a kind of prison - it was believed the demons would be trapped on the island, ringed as it were by hundreds of miles of trackless ocean.  I'm thankful the practice ended decades ago, and we now have humane treatments for folk afflicted with "evil spirits".  The cardinal's records indicated a church was built on the island back in the time of Phillip II, and I hoped to visit such a ruin, give it what blessing I could, and bear witness to the many deaths on the island during those less enlightened times.  It’s unlikely any could have survived the decades of deprivation and tropical disease.

Unfortunately, the captain informed me that all ships of the flota chart a wide berth around the place, and he is forbidden by his contract to pass nearer to the island - he only dared to come this close out of respect to my station.  The fear stems from an incident in 1627.  During that summer, a galleon foundered on the eastern shoals of the island while making the trip from Cartagena to La Habana.  A survivor claimed they were drawn by lights in the dark, appearing like the stern lanterns of the ship they followed, and the helmsman steered the galleon directly onto a reef.  150 men were lost, and tons of Venezuelan gold and emeralds must still lie among the wreckage in a few fathoms of water, for no salvage was mounted.   Landing parties were sent to explore the island for survivors, but it's unclear what they discovered; the captain told me that some of the explorers were driven mad on the island, and came to reside in the monastery at Vera Cruz.  Perhaps they're just sailor stories, for these men are a superstitious lot.  But fear of the place runs very deep, and it was even stricken from many charts.

For now, my investigation into the practices of Senor Gomez, and the cloud of suspicion that surrounds him, is of paramount importance, so I will have to delay any further inquiry into the mysteries of Isla del Diablo until such time as His Grace and the will of God allows.

Wow, that little excerpt ended up as more words than I hoped.  Perhaps brutal editing can winnow it down to something more manageable for the players.  Let me know if you agree.  The meat of the rumor is meant to convey a lost island, possible inhabitants abandoned for decades, and a sunken ship full of wealth waiting for someone with a stiff backbone.  Are there actual demons there?  Maybe the exiles were just insane folks, mishandled by ignorance, and now feral and hostile.  Or perhaps there were actual possessed people, but the spirits are like the alien Yithians from Lovecraft, and not demons at all - inimical star creatures.  Or just maybe the Church was right, and the island is now a demon-haunted waste, while the larger world is just a bit safer.  (If so, stay away from the wild pigs, oink oink).  It's wide open.  Players with a ship are free to mount a salvage operation, hiring divers, and standing off the coast of the island while recovering sunken loot.

But the lure of clean water, firewood, game animals, and fresh fruit is probably too great to resist sending at least one landing party to look around, am I right?  It only takes a little opening to let the horror in.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Goblins of the Spanish Main - Project Outline

Famous "monster hunter" Father Luis Diaz De La Torre is dead, leaving behind his field journal and library describing the existence of secret cults, blasphemous books and artifacts, fantastic treasures, crazed wizards, and dire magic spread across the remote areas of the Caribbean and New Spain.  The players have the father's notes, a worthy ship, and a large sandbox to explore covering the mid-17th century Caribbean and the Spanish Main.

I've added a page to the blog where I'll post links as campaign material gets generated.  Whenever this campaign is ready for the players, the public posts will stop (other than game reports).

  • Professional skills
  • Table of ship types
  • Chases
  • Maneuvers
  • Ship combat
  • Boarding actions
  • Wind and Current
  • Small Arms
  • Dueling and Fighting Styles


  • Map of the Caribbean
  • The Library of De La Torre (contents)
  • Home Base - Port Royal
  • Home Base - Tortuga
  • Settlements and Colonies
  • Ship Encounters
    • Ship tags
    • Random cargoes
  • Island Encounters
  • Rumors
  • 17th c. Name Generator

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Towards Simple Naval Combat

There are already RPG games that focus on swashbuckling campaigns.  They're lighter in tone, and feature the cinematic action, or perhaps a bit of politics and intrigue.  I'm coming at the pirate genre from the perspective of horror fantasy; ghost-haunted ruined Spanish castles on lonely promontories; dank swamps with zombie masters, jade idols, and mindless undead hulks; fallen jungle ruins with blasphemous temples and a fortune in gems.  The idea is to make a large wilderness hex crawl, a "saltbox" instead of a sandbox, with the sailing vessel as the primary conveyance.  The mode is D&D style play, exploration seeking  after treasure, but with the chance for a bit of opportunistic piracy on the high seas (both for and against the players), and some rowdy carousing back in Port Royal or Tortuga.

The challenge is to build simple, abstract, flavorful nautical rules that capture situations during the Age of Sail without requiring a lot of nautical interest to enjoy the style.  So far, the ship combat rules in Flashing Blades: High Seas (FBHS) strike a good tone of abstraction and flavor when compared to the fiddly bits in competing rules sets, but there are a few things to change and/or add, to adapt them to D&D style play.

First thing to add is some basic skill resolution for professional skills - unskilled, skilled, expert, master - for specialized (non-adventuring) skills like sailing, navigation, and gunnery where resolution is going to matter.  Plenty of OSR types have adopted 2d6 skill systems modeled after the reaction roll chart.  Player characters can gain knowledge of professions over time, but the system is mainly for determining how hired experts contribute during a conflict.

An important segment of a nautical encounter is when sails are spotted on the horizon, quickly followed by a decision to evade or give chase; the zoom level of FBHS is a little too tactical (yards instead of miles), skipping the whole dynamic of evading until night fall to escape the pursuer after dark, or using fog and foul weather, for the same.  Should be simple to extend the FBHS process a bit.

When a ship has successfully overtaken another, there's the opportunity to maneuver.  FBHS has solid maneuvering rules, covering positioning for broadsides, chasers and stern guns, crossing the T, etc, and suggesting how to use ship handling and a bit of piloting skill; players don't need to know about the wind gage or leeward approaches, it's abstracted into fairly simple skill rolls once they decide on a broad strategy.

I'm a big fan of the humble d6 when you need to roll a ton of dice - too many years of Axis & Allies.  Batteries of cannons should be resolved with a handful of d6's.  Some of the rule sets involve calculating a ton of d20 modifiers and rolling dozens of times for a broadside on the d20 scale.  Meanwhile, FBHS has a single die roll for an entire battery, which isn't ideal to me either, so I'll adjust to include chucking handfuls of d6's and adding up hits.

Regardless, the strength of historical buccaneers was their crack shots with the musket, so there need to be adjustments to the combat approach to account for actual historical strategies like picking off helmsman, suppressing gun ports with withering fire, and otherwise clearing the deck with small arms while closing the gap to board.  The type of buccaneer ships in the game are typically lightly armed (unlike the 3-4 mast monsters used by pirates in the later age).

There are a number of points at which a merchant ship's reactions (or morale checks) are critical; when spotted (to determine if they lay to, evade, or come about); when they’re overtaken - do they fight or roll over; when they're boarded, do they surrender, defend the decks, or set traps and retreat to closed quarters.  Reputation for the buccaneers and pirates will be a factor influencing morale checks.

FBHS has fast, abstract rules for handling the boarding - although, like I mentioned above, the assumption seems to be two heavily armed ships slugging it out with broadsides, movie-style, and not fast rovers raking the decks with small arms and then quickly overwhelming with a boarding action.  It also omits grenades, a practical weapon, albeit one you usually don't see in the swashbuckling movies, either.  Otherwise, the FBHS rules feature a simple d6 system that would work well with the Axis & Allies style mass d6 rolls.

Ship Stats
It'll be important to define some standard ship "types" that make sense to me, by my understanding of the ships of the period; number and types of guns are important, structural hit points, handling ability (for maneuvering), typical crew sizes, and I'll even have to solve the cargo management problem (without having to micro-manage every single item loaded onto the ship).

I plan on yoinking some firearm rules from AD&D's A Mighty Fortress (although I assume the LOTFP gun book will be available long before this campaign is ready) and I'll be scanning Backswords & Bucklers again for ideas as well.  I also need to pick up Flashing Blades sometime, I really like the approach in the nautical supplement.

So that's a statement of purpose.  More to come.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Loading that Ship

I noticed a funny thing when comparing how different games have handled ship statistics.  For example, let's take a look at a well-known historical ship, the "galleon".  The galleon in LOTFP needs a crew of 150 and can carry 150 tons of cargo.  The d20 Skull & Bones book has the galleon at 400 *tons* of cargo (crew 200).  Flashing Blades: High Seas puts the galleon at only 24 tons of cargo, and offers more nuance differentiating minimal sailing crew from gunnery crews from max crew.  With all these variances, I don't think it's pedantic to question why 3 games defining the same ship would vary by a factor of 16(!) for a vital statistic that ought to be historically verifiable.

Only, it turns out it's not that simple to verify, at all.

For starters, a common ship like the galleon was made in a wide range of sizes over a 200 year period, from 100 ton hulls up to 600 tons and even larger.  In normal usage, the tonnage of a ship is a volumetric calculation related to hull displacement, and not the actual amount of weight loaded on the ship, dead weight tonnage, which makes it sit lower in the water.  There's a calculation for the volume of a ship (length x beam x depth)/100, which calculates the volumetric tons - also represented as tuns - estimating the number of tun-sized barrels that could fit in an area for determining admiralty and harbor fees.  Measuring the loaded weight and water line is something different,  and can only be done empirically (ie, actually measuring the water line as a ship is loaded).

Game designers haven't been particularly clear what they mean by "cargo" - the 150 and 400 ton "cargo" statistics could just be representing hull volume and not how much dead weight the ship could actually carry, whereas the 24 tons for the High Seas galleon probably represents the dead weight amount the rules are suggesting.  I'm just guessing at this point.  When you read historical accounts of pirates and buccaneers, 20 tons of precious treasure was a vast sum; Drake's famous capture of the Spanish galleon Cacafuego netted 24 tons of treasure, and it was carried on a 120 ton galleon.  Other examples to put into perspective:  Black Bart captured 240,000 pieces-of-eight from a heavily laden galleon, which represents just under 8 tons of silver; Ganj-i-sawai, the famous capture by Henry Every in the Red Sea, had closer to 10 tons of coins.

A funny way of considering the problem:  the ton of feathers weighs the same as a ton of coins… but who wants to worry about calculating the volume differences?

In addition to the conflation of terms, there's a paucity of written records - lack of detail on how certain ships were actually rigged and armed, for instance.  Further muddying the waters, many ship types use the same name for a radically different vessel - a pinnace sometimes refers to a towable, single-masted ship's boat used as a tender, but also referred to a 3-mast merchant ship in its own right.  Some of the games have missed that nuance as well.

Back to weight versus cargo, it'd be very easy to go completely down the rabbit hole, and start considering how many cannons are being carried, how large the crew and provisions, and worry about how much those things add to the overall burden.   Cannons are fairly heavy - 1,000 lbs or more per gun - and the games don't indicate whether they've taken armaments into account when presenting their ship values.  A compliment of cannon, shot, and powder could weigh 20 tons or more on even a small sized ship.

There's a strong argument to be made for using a totally abstract system for something like cargo, much the same way encumbrance rules are easier to manage as equipment slots instead of micro-managing pounds and ounces (or kilos, for anyone not mired in imperial).  The Pirates of the Spanish Main RPG went completely abstract with ship sizes and cargo.  Otherwise, you're always going to run into "that guy", who makes pedantic arguments about accuracy and what the game statistics represent.  Oh, wait a second… I'm the one being that guy.  :blush:

As gamers, I wonder how many of you prefer flavor and usability over deep historical accuracy?  I don't see my own players quibbling tons over the tons.  The closest gaming analogy is probably Traveller (again) because of its emphasis on trade and cargoes.  One of my old gamers accused my Traveller game of requiring accounting skills to prepare a ship's manifest; this was back in the 90's, and I missed the forest for the trees with more frequency back then.  I certainly don't want to recreate that experience of endless manifest management while running a nautical D&D game.

This is where I'm at, comparing maritime rules across games.  In a world where some of this information exists, in books, there's no reason not to strive for accuracy, but the system also needs to be simple, usable at the table, and not lose sight the game is about fantastic exploration over bookkeeping, even if there's the chance to engage in some high seas piracy and buccaneering along the way.  Resource management is fun, but only to a point.

BTW, the D&D Expert rules has a large sailing ship, representing the Medieval cog; Cook lists the ship as carrying 300,000 coins of treasure, which reduces to 30,000 lbs, or 15 tons of dead weight - and that's at Basic D&D's inflated 10 coins to the pound size.  The largest cogs seemed to be in the 100-120 ton volume range.

I've had a running conversation with Richard from Richard's Dystopian Pokeverse; he's been able to bring some sanity to the discussion around calculating ship volumes, suggested crew sizes, potential armaments, and so forth - rules of thumb.  Here's perhaps the most cogent advice; when all else fails, use G+ to "Contact Other Plane" and summon a PHD!

*The image is from a National Geographic, (c) Roger Morris.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Second Year in the Books

Two years of writing are in the books here at the Lich House.  (Um, happy birthday, blog?).  If I had to characterize the two years, I'd say the first year was all about rediscovering old school gaming and soaking up ideas from the many great blogs and bloggers that went before; year two has been all about putting theory into practice.  The Black City campaign has been great fun, and I've developed valuable experience running a large megadungeon first hand.

Looking ahead, I predict year three for me will be all about expanding the form beyond the dungeon.  I've been scheming about nautical themed games, colonial hex crawls, wide area sandboxes, and putting the players in control of a larger troupe (like their own sailing ship and crew), and these disparate notions are cresting to where the Black City concept was a year ago.  Dungeons are too central to leave behind, but year three should involve a lot more blogging about gaming in the larger world and making those long wilderness treks just as exciting.

Sincere thanks to all the readers, commentators, and fellow bloggers; your suggestions, recommendations, and encouragement along the way have been invaluable, and my games have been much better for it.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Perils of D&D War

There are few die well that die in battle.
--Henry V

Just as many D&D campaigns avoid domain management, and stay in the "sweet spot" of dungeon crawling and fighting monsters, war and mass combat is also avoided.   Mass combat significantly alters the table top experience and role of character - in other words, agency.  As I ruminate over naval combat and the pirate sandbox, I see the problems are the same.

We may protest that old school D&D characters are not special, unique snowflakes, but who would be satisfied if their character dies from a random artillery shell (or cannon fire) while walking to the battlefield?  But if you rule that player characters don't get affected by the vicissitudes of war, you're effectively granting them a degree of plot immunity - bullets fly, lightning bolts zing around, shells explode, but no PC will ever get scratched off camera.  Blech.

I'm not a fan of granting player character plot immunity, so here are some ideas to handle the player role when the characters are in a mass combat action.

Shared Fate
When the player characters are part of a mass combat without individual actions, one way to share the fate of the larger army is to reduce their resources proportionally to the larger army.

Nautical Example:  Two ships trade cannon fire and break it off, and 50% of the crew is killed; it seems fair to reduce player character hit points by 50% (and potentially spells, too, if magic was assumed to be part of the battle).

The players still have a degree of plot immunity - you're not killing 50% of them, like the standard crew - but they feel a portion of the pain when their side takes casualties and damage.  Would you give players a saving throw for their characters to avoid the same fate as their unit?

I seem to recall BECMI War Machine might have worked like this as well.

Individual Combats
While the larger battle rages, the DM apportions some of the enemy forces to attack the player characters directly, running a standard combat  for this side event.  It may not have a material effect on the larger combat, other than stressing player resources.

Nautical Example: Boarding and grappling, or even close range small arms fire, where players are confronted by a subset of the opponents, can be handled by letting the players resolve the action using the standard rules.

Heroic Action
Instead of engaging in the main fight, the PC's are able to conduct a parallel action that could influence (decisively) the main action. In traditional D&D mass combat systems, this usually involves "hero figures" on both sides (ie, the players take on the squad of ogre stormtroopers or the dragon, while the regular army fights the orc footsoldiers).

Nautical Examples:  I don’t see that there always will be opportunities for heroic action - but you could imagine the following scenarios during a ship-to-ship combat:  Singling out the opposing captain for a duel; jamming the rudder; destroying the sails and rigging; going below decks to ignite the powder.

More often than not, player "missions" would involve intelligence gathering, ruses, land sieges, or maybe even solo efforts against an enemy ship, and the player's side gains a material advantage during the mass combat due to their successful side missions.

It looks like I'll be doing a basic home brew system for naval combat for the pirate game.  I really like Flashing Blades: High Seas, it's a fairly abstract system that looks like it would move quickly to the player action.  Player characters would lose resources (the shared fate approach) during the early stages, as ships engage in cannon fire and then firing swivel guns and muskets during the boarding actions.  Once the initial boarding turn is resolved, player characters would have the chance to look for individual targets.

The picture is Henry Every, by Angus Macbride from the Osprey book Pirates 1660-1730.  His work is frequently in the Osprey books, a great reason for checking them out.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Return of Nogal

The eldest kiddo, admiring my dedication to the web blogging and inspired by Ark's kiddo (at Rather Gamey), started his own blog about a year ago, and then promptly left it for dead.  Apparently he's caught the bug again and has been churning out a barrage of posts on sundry gaming subjects - from a 10-year old's perspective, naturally.  To peruse a (young) players-eye-view of the recent Black City campaign, you can check it out here:

Some More Things to Catch Up On

Drop by, give the kid a friendly nod, it's all part of the master plan to ensure there are dungeon masters in the neighborhood for when I hang up my dice.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

D&D Pirates and the Sandbox Engine

A number of posters have recommended Savage Worlds, and a Savage Worlds licensed setting, Pirates of the Spanish Main (POTSM), for the nautical weird fantasy campaign I've been discussing here lately.  After many such recommendations, I picked up the POTSM book last week - it does a really great job of laying out a Caribbean setting, using the ships and characters from the old POTSM miniatures game of ship combat.  I'm really enjoying it a lot (thanks for all the good suggestions, fellows!)

Old School D&D isn't the best game for a nautical setting, since its early editions omit the kind of skill systems and professions that would help adjudicating action on the high seas.  However, it's the ideal system for running a plotless sandbox game.  The key game conceits for the sandbox are Class Level = Power Level, and XP for Gold.

Class Level = Power Level means that much of the gratification for playing comes about when your character goes up in level, gaining survivability or the option to do new and cooler things.  In other words, regardless of which fiction you drape over the game world, no small part of why players enjoy playing the game is because their characters get to level up.

XP = Gold means that gaining money through adventuring is the best way to gain those levels.  These two factors(Levels and the need to acquire Treasure) create an underlying engine that drives the sandbox game forward without requiring any plot or emotional attachment to a story.  As long as sandbox preparation involves seeding the world with lucrative and interesting opportunities, the player's ambition and the game engine does the rest.  Players choose their own adventures to ensure they'll get money and make their characters cooler.

To keep the sandbox engine moving forward, many DMs also add things that drain party gold - taxes on player wealth like upkeep rules, carousing requirements, things like that.  Seems to me the old Sci Fi game Traveller always did a good job of making sure the players were eager for the next employment, because Traveller characters had an expensive starship to maintain.  Provisioning supplies for a sailing ship, sharing out wealth with the crew, and keeping it maintained ought to do the trick in the pirate sandbox.

These days, I'm (obviously) really enjoying the sandbox approach to running a campaign and focusing on tools and techniques to help in the running - the Black City has been a really successful experiment.  After trying a horror sandbox earlier this year using Trail of Cthulhu - which was more work than the payoff - I stepped back and came to appreciate that campaign structures are a matter of finding the right tool for the right job.  In other words, there are good reasons to use game systems that use plotted adventures.  But for a player-driven sandbox game, D&D has a powerful reward and incentive system that is unmatched in other games - as long as the players buy into playing rogues, treasure hunters, and scoundrels.  In other words, PIRATES.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Teach Your Kids to Game Week - Palace of the Silver Princess

I was traveling all last week, but was able to kick off a short kids D&D game the other night to introduce the young ones to some basic D&D.  They're starting in a simplified version of Charlemagne's France near the bewitching Enchanted Forest, long rumored to hold a secret glade where a mysterious Elven princess held court while protected by glamours and illusions.

For the first game, each character was drawn by a vision to meet at the crossroads, where a ghostly "Protector" explained that a terrible curse had befallen the secret valley where the Silver Princess held court, and now she needed help from brave heroes to explore her palace and break the curse.  The players agreed that sounded like great fun, and followed the Protector down the Elf Road to the entrance to the palace, and thus we began the adventure.

I'd really like to try Keep on the Borderlands and Horror on the Hill with the kiddos in the Carolingian setting, but felt that the more simplistic "fairy tale-like" Palace of the Silver Princess would be a better intro because it's less of a wide open sandbox.  We enlisted my 6 year old adopted son, his sister, my oldest son and one of his friends, their grandma who was visiting, and wifey.

Here's who they brought along:

Sir Gordon - a knight
Sir Mungo - a halfling knight
Louis the Robber - a thief
Princess Tolula - a magic user
Father Seton - a cleric
Johnny the Elf - an elf

We used pre-rolled characters with "Ye Faste Packe" so all they had to do was name their new character, sit down and play; I simplified the options quite a bit (presenting things almost in a 'Choose Your Own Adventure Style' of choice); we paired the youngest kiddo (who can't read yet) with an adult to help out.

The best piece of advice I can give is to support and encourage those wacky and unusual tactics kids think up on the fly; they haven't read the rule books and their imagination isn't calcified by the prescribed combat options.  Creative maneuvers show their engagement with the game, which is all you can really ask from the young ones.

Examples from the game included the time Princess Tolula jumped on the monster's back to throw her sleeve over its face, blinding it, to give  one of her fellow adventurers an assist;  Mungo figured out that giant beetles are hard to hit because of their tough shells, so let's flip them on their back and hit the soft squishy parts on the bottom; Johnny thought that if he moon-walked while shooting his bow, he'd be harder to hit;  Father Seton tried to review his equipment during every round - "How about now?  Is now a good time to splash the Holy Water?"

An hour or so is about the attention span limit for the kids under 8, so we wrapped after 5-6 rooms and called it a night.  Everyone is hoping we can make it a regular thing - we'll see how it goes.

Last foray into a kids focused game was more than a year and a half ago, when their older brother and his friends started (a few have since moved into the regular game) - looks like I can trot out some of the same table rules from back then:  Dungeon Mastering for 9 year-olds.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Black City Game 15 - The Delicate Sound of Blunder

In which a terrible monster from the screaming void is granted entrance to the realm of man, and a henchman takes an arrow to the face.

Cast of Characters
Agnar Beigarth, a Northman fighter (L2)
Mustafa of Arabia, a scimitar wielding desert warrior (L2)
Brutok the Strong, a dwarf (L2)
Borghild, a Norse cleric of Odin (L2)
Timur, Russian Elf (L1)
Vitaly, Russian Elf (L1)
Dominicus, Byzantine magic user (L1)

Retainers with the party:
Tribunas, Byzantine magic user (L1)
Brick Bunnybreaker (halfling L1)
Ayerick the Young (Fighter L1)
Bjorn Fjordrunner (Fighter L1)
Bottvild (cleric L1)
Ivar the Bow-bender (specialist L1)

We had our full crew this week - all 7 regulars!  With henchmen, that makes them a veritable army tromping through the dungeon.  When they ran into some mean looking NPC's in one of the junctions, the gang of Visin Thorsteinson, Thorsteinson ceded the path, letting the party continue on to explore a new area of the dungeon.

Little did the players know Thorsteinson and his raiders were laying a nasty ambush for when they emerged from the newly discovered western section of the Adamant Dungeon.

There were a couple of typical dungeon fights along the way that the party handled adroitly through Sleep spells - flying, wingless dragonflies with buzzing tails, and a room of Morlocks.  Things got interesting when they found a control room overlooking a large series of apparatuses (like huge, sparking tesla coils) and what appeared to be a magic portal in the center.  Naturally, they wanted to mess with the beds of glowing crystals that operated as controls.

"Don’t touch it man", opined Brutok's player.  "Every time we touch these things, it turns out it's already set up for good things, and then bad things happen when you mess with the controls because you don't read Alien".

Yes, but even if the players are told it's the shiny red button that erases history, they cannot resist the red button, the candy-like red button.  And I love them for it.  In this case, one of the control beds was scrambled, and a horrible invisible monster came through a portal from the screaming void; it was mostly invisible, but the players could see it's fearsome shadow against the far wall, illuminated by intermittent flashes from the electrical coils.

It got worse when they messed with the other control bed,  as the coils exploded down in the room, and then everything went dark.  They could hear the monster, caught in the explosion, screaming in rage.

They ran for their lives a moment later when the enraged creature started smashing on the heavy duty translucent material separating the control room from the large chamber it overlooked.  Scratch marks appeared down the glass-like surface, and fine cracks began to form where it pounded against the window.  They didn't wait around long enough to see if could break through.

Back out in the main junction, they blundered right into Thorsteinson's ambush; his group waited in the dark - thieves with bows hiding in a secure shooting area, while the melee men lurked in a side passage.  The archers opened the ambush when the group approached the side passage by releasing a deadly volley, and then Thorsteinson's fighters roared out toward the party flank.

Bjorn, one of the henchmen who had been with the group since the beginning, took an arrow to the head and was killed instantly.  One or two other front line fighters were dropped by the arrows (double damage sneak attack style).  When the party reacted, their two female Odin clerics ran berserk down the hallway at the archers, spears out in front, and impaled one of the archers, killing him instantly - it was a glorious moment.  Then the rest of the group reformed a front line to try and handle Thorsteinson's fighters.

Most of Thorsteinson's men were 2nd or 3rd level, so this wasn't an easy fight, and it looked like multiple characters would be ascending to Valhalla.  Elves and magic users, not accustomed to combat, were forced to engage furious axe-men bearing ring mail and shields.  But the party's numbers were too great, and Thorsteinson miscalculated how injured the party would be after coming out of the west wing; had the party explored deeper and depleted themselves further, this really could have been a TPK.

Instead, Thorsteinson called out for a truce during a break in the swings, asking if the party would accept terms since it was clear he was going to lose.  (He threatened to fight to the end if no oath was forthcoming, so the party accepted his surrender to avoid losing anyone else).  Thorsteinson and one of his men relented, giving up their loot and their arms, in return for the party agreeing to take them back to Trade Town and ransom Thorsteinson back to his ship.  "Alive, I can pay a blood debt and ransom for the man we've killed; dead, and my crew back there will never stop trying to avenge me".

The players were really hot blooded - this was a nasty ambush, and Bjorn was well-liked - but Agnar made an oath, and they wanted the extra ransom money.  Thus, Thorsteinson was disarmed and bound, ready for the long march of shame out of the dungeon.

Note:  I've skipped details here and there, particularly around treasure.  At this point, the party has amassed quite a ton of wealth and pent-up experience!  I think they'll be heading out next week.

With the death of Bjorn, here's how various characters have died in the Black City:

Bjorn:  Shot in the face during an ambush.
Gareth Bellringer:  Possessed by a ghost and marched into a death trap.
Dag the Unwashed:  Blown up by Seamus.
Seamus the Gallic Mage:  Died fiddling with the unstable Hyperborean artifact.
Uther the Orphan-Poet:  Shot in the neck by a bandit.
Falki Auldason:  Killed by a gjenganger.
Kolfina Ian Svarti:  Killed by a gjenganger.
Irena Edvards:  Killed by a gjenganger.
Molnar the cleric:  Lost his grip on a rope and fell into the abyss.
Arthur the Thief:  Killed by a gjenganger.

Hring the Twig-belly:  Covered in oil, burned alive while rats were eating him.
Herap:  Killed by a gjenganger
Agdi:  Possessed by the ghost and marched into the death trap.
Galm:  infested by a devil wasp and turned into a villain

A few guys left when they failed morale checks in between adventures:
Ulf Skullcrusher
Visin Thorolfson

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Charlemagne Triumphs Over Arthur

A few weeks ago, a simple poll here was "Which legendary realm is better suited for adventure, Arthur's Britain or the Empire of Charlemagne?"

I expected Arthur to win in a landslide, but the Holy Roman Emperor knocked off the King of Britain, 57% to 42%.  (Um, go Franks?).  Seriously though, there's a strong old school D&D sensibility in Charlemagne's Saxon frontier and the theme of civilization vs the barbarians.  I'm going to put some notes together for a simple, yet literary, setting for the younger kiddos to learn the beloved classic D&D, and a fantastic version of the Frankish Empire would be fun, and serve a bit of education too.  Hopefully we can kick it off while it's still "teach your kids to game" week.

Because the Frankish frontier with the Saxons is one long borderlands area, a few classic adventure modules jump out as being immediately relevant:  B2 Keep on the Borderlands, or B5 Horror on the Hill.  Both involve forts or castles on the frontier facing off against a wilderness where monsters lurk.

Any other adventure modules (TSR, D&D, AD&D, OSR, or whatever) come to mind as being well suited for chivalric adventures, or at least easy to dress them for the part?

I don’t see any issues with plate mail or Medieval stone castles if you're basing the milieu on the anachronistic stories of the chansons de geste, so it's not going to reflect the historical 8th or 9th centuries.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Sea Dogs, Buccaneers, and Pirates

The idea behind combining D&D with piracy is pretty simple… pure old school D&D rewards bold plans that lead to lots of treasure - the paradigm of the game is XP for gold, by hook or by crook.  Furthermore, by placing adventures within reach of a ship, you introduce the resource planning and mobility from a sister game like Traveller - your dungeon crawlers become sea rovers.  It's a peanut butter and chocolate kind of marriage (if you like the Reese's cups, as I do).

I envision many of the adventures in such a campaign still featuring traditional D&D style delves once a given destination is reached - buried treasures in caves, ruined forts and monasteries abandoned by the Spanish, lost colonies, forbidden islands, ancient ruins of the Maya or Aztecs, and a healthy mix of mythological sites and artifacts. Plus, you know, acting like pirates once in a while and plundering.

The Caribbean changed a lot over the two centuries of Spanish colonization, and the kinds of raiders that pillaged those warm waters included French corsairs, Elizabethan sea dogs, Dutch freebooters, English buccaneers, French filibusters, and eventually pirates (after 1690 or so).

I'd rule out placing the setting in the 16th century, as most of the raiders were privateers working long distance out of European or English ports, and I think the region is much more interesting in the 17th or early 18th centuries when there are foreign colonies and local outposts competing with the Spanish.  Outlaw towns like Tortuga and Port Royal during the buccaneer period offer the kind of "adventuring home base" you need for gathering rumors, picking up crew, and setting out on the next jaunt.  For the pirates of the later period, there are new home bases like New Providence in the Bahamas, or mythical Libertaria in the Indian Ocean.

This is a bit of a history nerd question, but do readers have opinions on which period would work better for adventuring?  1690-1720 is considered the golden age of piracy; since most privateering was outlawed or strictly controlled by then, sea rovers during that time had no choice but to work outside any conventional law.  During the earlier periods, it was much more likely one governor or another could sponsor a ship, giving the raiders a fa├žade of legality in one port or another.

There are other differences too - buccaneers tended to raid Spanish shipping and ports, hauling away the pieces of eight and gold doubloons of pirate lore, and they had their loose code as "Brethren of the Coast".  The Jolly Roger of pirate fame was an artifact of the later age, and the pirates of the golden age typically captured prosaic merchant goods instead of coin-filled chests of booty (although some of the treasure hauls of the Indian Ocean were massive).

I suppose a third approach is to go unhistorical and dump all the ingredients into the soup at the same time; for instance, in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the time is later (1720 or so) when the East India company and navy are cracking down on piracy; however, the movies use Port Royal as a base (30 years or so after it sank into the ocean, in the real world), and Tortuga is still a pirate haven in the films, 60 years or so after it diminished in significance.  There's a cogent argument to be made that once you add undead monkeys, ghost ships, pagan gods, and dark magic to any milieu, there's no use crying over a bit of mixed up history.

Seems like a good time for a poll, buckos.  Cast a weather eye over to yon right hand column, if you will, and please be leaving your mark on me latest inquiry.

The image is Howard Pyle's painting, The Buccaneer was a Picturesque Fellow

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

More Reasons Why You Shouldn't Believe the Map

This is just  a brief follow up to yesterday's post (Everything You Know About the Map is Wrong)  about making the player's map incomplete, vague, or abstract as a way of stressing exploration and discovery.  Here are two more reasons why player maps might be misleading, even if the area was previously surveyed and accurately mapped by other explorers:

Maps make excellent propaganda pieces.  Having trouble convincing settlers to go to a wintry island capped with glacial ice?  Why don't you name it "Greenland" on the map and let them fill in the blanks?  Closer to home, I was looking at a German map of colonial Pennsylvania, where central areas had labels like "Happy Valley" and "Greensboro" in order to encourage settlement - a contributing factor to PA's modern communities of Pennsylvania Dutch and large influx of German-Swiss settlers.

A borderlands or wilderness map could be filled with misleading names and labels, calculated to lure colonists and settlers to stabilize the frontier (or lure adventurers into clearing out areas filled with monsters).

Borders Are Political Statements
Going back to colonial mapping, there are competing maps by French and English cartographers that show vastly different claims to the New World by those countries respectively.  This idea really amuses me - cartographers in remote offices back home, drawing arbitrary and artificial claims on maps, maximizing their nation's illusory influence over untamed wilds (just because they can).  These illegitimate claims then contribute to border conflicts, wars, and land grabs by colonists and traders on both sides!

Competing border claims along the frontier is a situation fraught with gaming opportunities.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Everything You Know About the Map is Wrong

Hic Sunt Dracones.  Terra Incognita.

Certain knowledge is an enemy of wonder.   We frequently see advice on begetting uncertainty through monster usage; use a custom bestiary, or mix up the characteristics of monsters to keep the players on their toes.  For me the problem goes further - the very act of creating statistics to define a thing limits the possibilities by bounding them.  I consider this a curse of Westernism, and blame Aristotle.  This is not escapable on the DM's side of the screen; to define a thing is to reduce it, and as game masters, this is what we do.

But today I'm considering a complimentary topic, regarding the hex map; as modern people, we take for granted that maps are accurate.

Where do fairy tales take place? It's always "once upon a time in a land far, far away", an indeterminate period in an indeterminate kingdom  - the tales can be anywhere in Europe, but left to the reader's imagination.  The great 1930's horror movies I like so much are vaguely placed in central Europe or Germany, someplace east of the Alps but west of Russia - a foggy land of pre-modern technologies and lonely castles and superstitious peasants you also won't find on any maps.

As the game master, you need to know the monster statistics, just as you need a firm grasp of the geography of the game world.  A map is an awfully convenient way to organize information, after all.  But the intent behind custom bestiaries is to keep that sense of discovery and unknown in the encounter system; can't we do a similar situation with our maps and exploration?

I've never placed a high premium on wilderness maps for the players that deviate from the game master's map, but my opinion is clearly changing.  Sure, I've used the simple approach of leaving white space, but for a scrawled warning of "beyond here, there be monsters" or "unknown lands".  How about distortion of scale or coastlines, the way old maps of the globe show a clearly defined Europe, but vague outlines for the New World continents?

Another approach is presenting the map like old street directions.  For instance, I really liked a Salisbury player's map I saw in Pendragon; it was an abstract collection of heraldic devices, landmarks, and walking distances, delineating the extent of player knowledge through areas known via oral tradition.  I could see a similar approach in a nautical campaign where the "map" consists of sailing directions and distances.

What it comes down to is appropriately defining the well-known local world of the players, while keeping the larger world vague or incorrectly described to reinforce the thrill of exploration and wonder.  A nice side effect is that maps of far off places become a much more important source of treasure.  Englishmen in the Age of Sail were knighted for returning home with maps and charts taken from the experienced navigators of the Spanish or Portuguese.  The value of a good map is apparent if you're going to travel off the edge of the world.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Led Zeppelin plays the Adamant Bowl: Black City Game 14

The title of this week's post came from the players.  There was this moment where the group solved a puzzle room, unlocking a piece of the floor that rose towards the ceiling, revealing  a circular hidden chamber that lifted from below the ground.  There was a bright light that made it hard to see what was surfacing, and one of the players quickly blurted out - "Wouldn't it be cool if it was a stage and Led Zeppelin was down in the hole and they just started wailing on guitars?"  Which was followed by, "The aliens have been keeping Jimmy Page in a fridge", "Woohoo, Led Zeppelin rocks the Black City", that kind of stuff, and then one of the kids jumps up playing air guitar and sings, Been dazed and confused for so long it's not true…

The problem is whatever was actually in the hidden room isn't nearly as awesome as Led Zeppelin would be in the dungeon.  Hindsight is 20/20.  :sigh:  What they actually found was a dazzling crystal that gave off eternal light, and a few slabs of raw adamant, the hardest metal in the universe.  Good finds, just not as cool as an impromptu Zeppelin concert.

As a design conceit,  though,  it'd be pretty fun to make an entire level secretly themed after Zeppelin songs… they'd encounter the dazed and confused maze; the black dog guarding the houses of the holy; a chance to sit with elders of the gentle race; meeting the lady whose sure all that glitters is gold, and so on.  I have strong memories associating D&D with Led Zeppelin and the animated The Hobbit, having discovered all three around the same period in the late 70's, right about the time Space Invaders showed up in the arcades.  Don’t forget the black light posters, either.

Enough of this rambling on, it's time to sing my song, or at least get on with the game report.

Where play ended last week, the group had raised an elevator from the far deeps, and it dredged a huge pile of corpses (crawling with giant beetles) up to their level.  They smashed the beetles last week, but one of the corpses they actually wanted - the leader of the explorers, their nemesis Galm - wasn't on the platform.  They ended up using ropes to send Vitaly the Russian Elf all the way down to the cavern floor to look for Galm's body.

I'm bringing this up because it totally highlights the fickleness of player choice.  First, they had an elevator - I'm not sure why they thought tying a guy into a harness and lowering him on a rope was better than sending him down the elevator, armed and ready.  Second - everyone was afraid that the ghostly devil wasp that had infested Galm's brain would be hanging around down there, so anyone going down might be possessed, but that didn't stop the player.  Third - they've been dumping corpses into the hole for a while, and apparently the corpse pile was attracting giant insect scavengers down there, so this had a good chance of being a suicide mission.  Fourth - they could have actually looted Galm last week, but were afraid of disturbing the devil wasp hiding in his skull, so that's why his sleeping body was pushed into the void in the first place without first searching it.

Apparently none of those risks matter when (potential) treasure is involved, and rational decisions made in the cold light of clarity last week, are quickly shelved by gold-colored treasure-goggles this week.

So that's how you get a 1st level elf tied into a harness and lowered like a human sacrifice into the stygian deeps, to scavenge for Galm's broken corpse and loot his pockets amongst the mushroom forest of the caverns.  The elf didn't die, Galm's body did in fact have treasure, and the devil wasp didn't seem to be around.  I let the dice decide, and they chose, "the Russian Elf lives".  Plus, the party got a firsthand peek at the glories that wait below the Transit Tunnels.

The rest of the night was spent far to the north of the Mist Dungeon - the group traveled hours through the Transit Tunnels, returning to the Adamant Dungeon to start exploring someplace new.  By the way, I don't name these things "Mist Dungeon" or "Adamant Dungeon" - I have far more prosaic names in my notes for them, but the players made up these names themselves.  Some Dokkalvir in a previous session left behind a map with the word "adamant" scrawled on it, and that's how this northern dungeon got its name.

The eastern section of the Adamant Dungeon consisted of numerous rooms with alien machinery and tools, including that neat puzzle room that unlocked the glowing crystal and slabs of unbreakable adamant which I discussed in the open.  Alas, it did not have Led Zeppelin.

There was quite a bit of fighting as well.  They awoke a nest of Morlocks, which attacked them in wave after wave; it turned into one of those tactical, desperate fights where front rank fighters were getting knocked down, withdrew to the back, and fresh combatants moved forward, while clerics tried to keep the fighters on their feet and magic users tossed Sleep spells.  Meanwhile, the group moved inexorably forward towards the heart of the nest.  There were like 18-20 Morlocks in the nest; they used massive two-handed war picks, doing double damage on a charge, and it was amazing no one in the party truly died.

The other big fight of the evening involved a pair of hulking, mutated cannibals.  The group has long suspected that some folks in the dungeon get infected with "dungeon madness" and turn into berkserkers, with bulging veins and bloodshot eyes.  These two guys were like berserkers that had grown into 7' tall raging cannibals.  They dropped one of these big lugs early in the fight, then used a Charm Person to confuse the other, but the unreality of having a Russian Elf as a 'close friend' was too much for the magic, and the ogre-sized berserker eventually made his saving throw.  Once he broke free of the spell, the monster immediately bashed the elf's skull into the rock wall and renewed hostilities.

They dropped him quickly, but now their elf is in a coma.  Before he went bizonkers, the big cannibal gave them an idea on where they could find a treasure room guarded by a flock of buzzing air leeches, so the party retreated to rest and prepare for next week's adventure.

See you next week, when we return to these men that come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.

Cast of Characters
Our Players
Agnar Beigarth, a Northman fighter (L2)
Mustafa of Arabia, a scimitar wielding desert warrior (L2)
Brutok the Strong, a dwarf (L2)
Borghild, a Norse cleric of Odin (L2)
Timur, Russian Elf (L1)
Vitaly, Russian Elf (L1)
Dominicus, Byzantine magic user (L1)

Retainers with the party:
Tribunas, Byzantine magic user (L1)
Brick Bunnybreaker (halfling L1)
Ayerick the Young (Fighter L1)
Bjorn Fjordrunner (Fighter L1)
Bottvild (cleric L1)
Ivar the Bow-bender (specialist L1)

Plus 3 unnamed L0 sailors to help carry tents and supplies

Retainers back at the boat:
Grimson (Fighter L1)
Fafnir (Fighter L1)
Skoldig (specialist L1)
Halam (cleric L1)

*The image is from The Song Remains the Same, the excellent Led Zeppelin concert movie.  Apologies all around for my awful use of Zeppelin song names throughout this post.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Game Shelf at the Lich House

The first picture includes the items currently out for use (older games like AD&D 2E or various super hero games are boxed in the attic).  Most of that top shelf is Pelgrane Press and Chaosium stuff for Call of Cthulhu; you can also see DCC RPG, Delta Green, ACKS, and a stack of OSR publications.  Shelf two is mostly AD&D (with multiple copies of the core books) with a few mint BX boxes (I have play copies for the table).  The bottom shelf has some Rules Cyclopedias, gazetteers and modules, and then a bunch of martial arts books (judo, BJJ, boxing).

The middle picture is a detail on various OSR or Indy publications that I wanted in print - I tend to use Realms of Crawling Chaos and the Mythos Encyclopedia the most.  Red Tide should be in there somewhere, it's cherished, and you can see ASE 1 peeking out (I'm surely getting ASE 2 sometime after the holiday season).

The last picture is what comes to the weekly game table for the Black City; we're using LOTFP as the main rules, but I don't go anywhere without Moldvay/Cook BX.

I have a theory about WOTC and these reprints we're seeing - as much as I like AD&D 1E, it has some deep flaws; it's safe to reprint.  But we'll never see a reprint of Moldvay BX, because otherwise, how would WOTC ever sell another version of D&D?

I'd settle for a BECMI reprint.

*This post is a continuation of Grognardia's bookshelf meme sweeping some of the old school D&D blogs.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bruce Lee's Dungeon

It is like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don't concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory. Do you understand?
--Enter the Dragon

I had an epiphany recently:  plotted adventures fail because of crappy writing; sandboxes fail because of crappy table play.  Furthermore, the map of a sandbox game is not the territory, to cross metaphors a bit, and Gary Gygax is the Bruce Lee of D&D, pointing at the moon with this picture of his famous Castle Greyhawk dungeon:

When you peer closely at the picture, you notice just how sparse is the key that goes along with the map, and the truth of what I'm saying becomes evident;  the gap between the comprehensive experience of the game session, and the written version of the adventure key, is extreme.  I mostly value utility (as in ease of use), and sparse but evocative detail in a published adventure, the very opposite of what makes it a compelling, readable artifact in its own right.  The final presentation at the table of sandbox material is at least 75% improvisation off notes and reacting to the activities and interrogations of the players.  However, if you had to work off Gary's key, you'd probably be in the realm of 90-95% presentation skills to make that dungeon come alive.

Consider how this gap between the artifact and the experience has warped the ability to publish any type of adventure, let alone a megadungeon where each successive delve takes the dungeon further away from its initial state.  I'm 20 years removed from the university, but I'm sure there are terms of criticism to describe the individual experience of a text in contrast to the author's intent; in our domain, the act of play adds a significant, additional layer of remove, much like the transition from written drama to director to theater - and each successive performance is different than the last.  No wonder table top experiences can be so difficult to discuss.

Ah well, thanks for indulging a ruminating Tuesday post.  My blog is nearing it's 2nd anniversary - two years of discussing games here at the Lich House - and much of the time has been spent rediscovering sandbox style gaming and building up useful tools and techniques here and there.  I confess, there's a tendency to fetishize the style as the be-all, end-all, but that's a post for another day.