Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What Hat is the DM Wearing?

Yesterday's brief post about my big mouth generated some good comments - the issue of the DM or gamemaster offering advice to the players is fairly nuanced.  Is the DM's role that of an impartial referee?  Is the DM an adversary?  Is the DM a coach?  In many cases, the DM is the most experienced gamer at the table (or knows the rules the best) so one could argue the DM has a duty as coach and teacher of the rules.  Does that drop away when the players are sufficiently experienced?  How about coaching for strategy and tactics?  When the players are tossing ideas back and forth regarding how they're going to attack their current problem, should the DM interject and point out which ideas would or wouldn't work, or should he or she keep quiet unless directly asked, and let the players execute their plan, making the rulings then?

Then there's the bad poker player, the DM that's having a hard time keeping their mouth shut about that obvious thing the players are overlooking... that was me with the bear, the bad poker player.  But in this age when folks have a ton of things on their mind, distractions at the table, faulty memories, should the DM play it close to the vest at all?  These questions are a bit of a parallel issue to Stuart's GMing badges regarding game mastering philosophy, albeit these are more subtle elements of presentation.

My own position is that the DM needs to give the players space to execute their own plans; success or failure should come from their own efforts.  When they succeed, they've earned it, and they can feel great that it came honestly.  And don't fudge the dice.  If there's a crushing defeat, after the session I might spend some time tossing out some alternative approaches they could have used if the players seem stumped.  It's their game, and they need to have the freedom to play it - and sometimes that means they miss things, or choose a sub optimal tactic, or forget they're carrying the silver bullet all along.  At the same time, don't you take a lot of pride in your players when you throw everything you've got at them, and they pull out an amazing victory? I know I do.

Oh, and lest I forget - sometime's the DM should even play the fool -  this video exhortation over at Alexis's place was great:  Vlog the Fool.  We need to be able to put on that silly hat and that performer hat from time to time as well.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The DM Has a Big Mouth

Let me ask you if you have this problem, too.  The party just got pasted by a monster, they run out of there dragging their dead companions and cursing the unfairness of gaming, the session wraps for the night, and you mouth off about all the things they forgot.  "You didn't even have to fight the Elemental.  What's-his -name has the Protection from Evil 10' radius spell and you guys could have hedged it out and moon-walked across that room…"

If I have a fatal flaw as a DM, it's giving the players the DM's perspective after their failures and not letting them figure this stuff out for themselves through head banging, frustration, and trial and error.  It's one thing doing an after action review with some newbies, but I'm always blabbing my mouth off about play refinements, even with the seasoned vets.

Case in point from the other night, and this one came back to get me.  The party was making camp in a stand of evergreens (they're way up in the mountains) and their ranger scouts noticed a small group of grizzly bears come down out of the opposite trees and start splashing in the river that split the valley.  Then one of the bears rises on it's haunches, sniffing the air.  Did it smell their horses, or the cooking meat?

The druid goes out there with a sack of food, cautiously uses Speak with Animals, ends up convincing the bears to be on their way, after giving them a few weeks worth of rations to drag off.

So they're camping later that night, and I snicker, "Good thing you didn't remember you took Animal Friendship…"  That's the spell that lets druids turn an animal into a permanent companion.   The gears started turning in the minds of the players… could they afford to miss a day of travel, and have the rangers and druid double back and track the bears, so the druid could attempt Animal Friendship?  Dang it!  By the next night, the druid was working on teaching his new bear companion some tricks, after burning a few Speak with Animals and Charm Mammal spells out in the wilds.

In all truth, this was a fine turn of events for the players, the druid guy loves his new animal companion - "I have a bear!" - the players laugh during Speak with Animals when the bear talks like the Yogi Bear cartoon character, and seeing a grizzly bear maul hobgoblins later in the session was entertaining all around.

But seriously, I need to learn to shut the hell up!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Desperately Seeking Tsojcanth - Gothic Greyhawk Game 51

In which the quest to find fabled Tsojcanth is begun...

Cast of Characters
Mordecai, a Cleric-7: Adam
Forlorn, an Elf-5: Bo
Mister Moore, Magic User-6: Mike
Shy, a Fighter-6:  JR
Leonidas the Paladin-5:  Nogal
Digit, the Elf Thief-7:  Z
Konstantine, Magic User-5: Smitty

Phat Kobra, a Dwarf-5
Grumble the Smug, Halfling-5
Donavich, Cleric-4
Boris, Druid-4
Meatshield 1, Sean, Ranger-1
Meatshield 2, Declan, Ranger-1
Ireena, a Fighter - 5
Vlad the Inhaler, Magic User-1
Meatshield 3, Mason, Cleric-1

*Italicized characters are back in Barovia

Yes!  Last week, we officially started AD&D Module S4, The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth.  (I say it "Zoy-Kanth", although as a kid I pronounced it "Zodge-Kanth").  The groundwork has been laid for a while in the campaign background; the players have crossed paths with many powerful, supernatural entities in their short career:  an ancient vampire lord from antiquity, a Satanic witch, a vile master wizard, a lady of the Fairy Otherworld.  Now that word has leaked out regarding the lost location of the Demonomicon, these factions (and other, yet unrevealed, players) have plunged into the Crystalmist mountains seeking to find the Lost Caverns and be the first to claim the Demonomicom.  Last week, the players launched their own expedition to find the book

The players are following a gypsy map that shows many of the valleys and passes in and around Barovia, and they've headed into the mountains with weeks of rations, animal feed, horses and mules, wending their way through the high passes.  Their first objective is to find something they're calling the Gnome Vale; from Strahd's journal and library notes, it should be within about 50 miles from Barovia, and one written account indicated it wasn't far from the Horn of Iggwilv, an important landmark for finding the Lost Caverns.

Work is kicking me in the head right now, otherwise I'd have made some e-versions of the new maps we're using, and post them on the blog; it's also making it impossible to work on the Black City.  It's good stuff though - in the midst of a job change, initiating a few large projects, completing some carryover projects.  I'll get some Tsojcanth related maps up in a few weeks - I've adjusted them slightly for local geography.

In fact - I should be getting back to some work-related reading this afternoon, so I'm only going to briefly narrate what happened.  Boris had used Druid mojo to gain an animal companion, a hawk, and he's trained it to return.  Each day in the mountains, he's using Speak with Animals to send it out searching, and then using a second Speak with Animals later in the day when it returns to learn if it's seen anything important.  In this way, the players quickly found the location of the Gnome Valley, but they don't yet know how to reach it - the hawk was able to fly over impassable ridges.  The initial goal has shifted from finding the hidden vale, to finding a pass that will lend egress to it.

The party fought an entire army of goblins (if you count nearly a hundred goblins as "an army") and demonstrated how awesome a party of 6th level guys can be when they unleash a ton of magic; they Slowed a large section of goblin infantry, Hasted their front-line fighters, blasted the back ranks with Fireballs, sniped sergeants and leaders with barrages of Magic Missiles.  It was over before the goblins knew what hit them.  We all know there are monsters out there that will beat the snot out of adventurers, but as the players remarked amongst themselves, they felt like Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn single-handedly taking out a horde of orcs.  Even I was impressed.

Some other points that may come up in future games:  familiars, the dream of Leonidas, and the charter.  Familiars:  both Mister Moore and Forlorn used their downtime in Barovia to summon familiars; Forlorn now has a weasel companion, and Mister Moore, the very picture of Lawfulness and Goodness, attracted a Brownie.  I've never seen a player roll that 5% chance to get a special familiar, so that was quite remarkable.  His name is "Packer", and I suppose I'll need to learn a wee Irish accent when I need to take on the role of Packer the Brownie.

Leonidas had a visionary dream which he claims came straight from Zeus, his patron deity, in which he saw a golden eagle circle an amazing glowing sword (he thinks it's a holy sword) stuck in a rock, Excalibur-style, at a stone tomb edifice in the gnome vale.

Finally, the group amended the BK Charter, their corporate adventuring papers, to include that they have the right to call all 1st level henchman "Meatshield" until such time as the henchman earns level 2, and will be given a proper adventuring nickname.  Except for Vlad the Inhaler, whose party-given name is too good to lose.  I think Bo is taking a stab at formally writing the BK Inc Charter as a mock legal document.  The charter was first introduced way back here:  The Player Charter, and has been a mainstay of the group's treasure strategy ever since.

Does your group have a Charter?  They should.  Charters are fun, and fun is good.

*Image is by the incomparable Erol Otus, from the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth cover.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Mentzer Madness

You may note how from time to time I climb to the top of the soapbox and proclaim great things about classic D&D, the BX sets, the Known World of Mystara.  But I tend to be curiously silent about the Mentzer editions that dominated the classic D&D line after 1983.  No longer!  You shall know the truth.

It goes like this:  Mentzer D&D,  BECMI, is the greatest series of D&D sets... that I shall never play again.  BECMI, incidentally, comes from Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, Immortal - BECMI.

The reasoning is pretty simple.  36 levels is just way too much room to advance.  There is absolutely no way I'll stick with a campaign long enough for a group to get a fraction of the way, and when I stand at the base of the Mentzer Mountain, gazing longingly at the cloud-wreathed peak where the "Paths to Immortality" lead folks beyond the sky to the Immortal Playset, I turn around and say, keep your mountain, you bearded sadist.  I'm off to play a game we can actually "finish" in a few years.

So there you have it.  You've learned that I have a low attention span, but possess enough self-objectivity to recognize this monstrous flaw.  See, a few decades ago it was the opposite;  "Who wants to stop playing at level 14, like that unfinished Cook Expert set, when Mentzer lets you go all the way to level 36?  The sheer genius!"  Oh how we change.

Here's the problem - playing 3-4 times per month, our old school characters are leveling once every 3 or 4 months.  After a year and a half, our current set of guys is level 6 or so.  I've resisted the urge to nuke the campaign so far, but how long can I hold out?  My brain is exploding with ideas.  I'm always on the edge.

The thought of trying to spend 144 months (that's 12 whole years, brother) trying to get to the top of Mentzer Mountain, just to find out there's a whole series of Immortal levels to start climbing, is just too much for my comprehension.  I had to turn my back on BECMI.  When we dabbled with the 4E, with its mad-fast power-leveling, guys would level once per month, meaning that an end-to-end campaign would be about 3 years.

These days, I much prefer the achievable level curve in Moldvay-Cook's BX edition (level 1-14, even though they hinted at 36 levels).  Even with AD&D, I don't recall folks playing it after levels 10-14 - about the time they got knee-capped by The Tomb of Horrors.  Even if I didn't nuke the whole setting, I'd be ready by then to retire those characters in the campaign and start over.

That all being said, there's no greater model for what should be in WOTC's new D&D than the contents of those BECMI books.  They want modular, Frank Mentzer gave us modular.  Everyone starts out kicking doors and stabbing monsters in the face with the Basic Set; when the dungeon shtick gets old, you're ready for towns, hex crawls, and nautical jaunts in the Expert Set.  Player options, mass combat, and domain ruler ship are in the Companion Set; Artifacts, Paths to Immortality, and Planar Travel are the Master Set, and finally you have the Immortal end game.  Is that modular, evolutionary game play or what?  Oh well, what do I know?

It seems about time for a new poll.  So tell me, o wise and knowledgeable readers, what kind of level range do you like to see in your D&D games?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

On The Trail of Cthulhu - a Review

I'll just come out and say it; Trail of Cthulhu is controversial.  It's a new school game and uses mechanics that feel very different from the simulation approach of 1970's games.  It shares a common setting with Call of Cthulhu, and it's fairly easy to convert back and forth between the two systems.  Furthermore, Pelgrane Press is challenging the status quo with a lot of interesting supplements, many of which I'll review as the year goes on, so Trail of Cthulhu is worth a close look.

The physical book is amazing - much of the art is photo realistic, brooding, and ominous.  There are many full page prints of intrepid investigators or explorers dwarfed by alien ruins, strange monuments, or haunted locales, and it captures the spirit of the game perfectly.  It’s written by Kenneth Hite, and there's a ton of Mythos scholarship and useful ideas for Cthulhu games.

The book is published by Pelgrane Press and uses their Gumshoe system; Gumshoe shows up in most of their games: Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, Mutant City Blues, Ashen Stars, and the upcoming Night's Black Agents.  Before we get too far talking about all the things Trail of Cthulhu does right, let's take a side track and talk about how the Gumshoe system works.  (I'll refer to Trail of Cthulhu as TOC here on out).

Gumshoe Abilities
Gumshoe characters don't have Call of Cthulhu (COC) style attributes like strength, intelligence, size, education, etc., instead they have abilities like Athletics, or Forensics.  The player can surmise an athletic character is probably strong, and a guy with good technical skills is probably smart.

A character with skill in an ability (for instance, forensics) is an expert in that area.  TOC is an investigative game, and a guy with skill in forensics will automatically find the appropriate clues just by searching a scene and bringing forensics.  The other thing about having a rating in a skill is that it also gives you a pool of points you can spend during the investigation to excel.  Let's say you have skill with Latin; you could normally translate that loose page of De Vermis Mysteriis in a few hours back in your study.  But if you spend a point out of your pool, maybe you can read it directly, on the fly, or translate it in a fraction of the normal time - as long as the player can come up with a snappy reason for their moment of excellence.  The GM can also assign bonus clues for point spends, but I prefer treating point spends as rewards for quick thinking and player improvisation.

Besides the investigative abilities, all of the conflict skills are abilities, too - "general abilities". Conflict skills require dice rolls, and points can be spent to improve the chance of success.  A typical guy can be hit in combat on a 3 or higher on a d6, so even a single point spent on the d6 roll improves the odds dramatically.

What the two sets of pools means is that TOC puts a lot of emphasis on resource choices.  Players need to gauge how much they're going to need those points later and spend wisely.  Investigation skills only refresh in between completed adventures, whereas general ability pools refresh daily, or partially after periods of short rest.

It can be a little hard to visualize how this plays out differently from a Call of Cthulhu situation, so let's look at how a few situations might be handled in the two rules sets.  Building gun-oriented characters in a Cthulhu game isn't generally a good idea, but let's assume you're a Morose Veteran of the Great War with 80% in rifle (COC style).  Early in the game, late in the game, doesn't matter, whenever your guy drops prone with his rifle and takes a shot, he'll be shooting at 80%.  Whether he makes an awesome shot is out of the player's control; he needs to roll the dice and see what happens, explaining the results after seeing the roll.  You don't get to choose when you're awesome (but when you do roll that 16% and make a critical/impale, everyone cheers).

In the TOC system, the same character would have a lot of points in firearms (let's say he has Firearms 12).  Many monsters have higher hit thresholds (4 or 5 on a d6) so the player might need to spend 2-3 points per shot to ensure he's always hitting his target.  Unlike the COC player, the TOC player can choose to pump a lot of points and ensure he hits.  He may even get an extraordinary result with a good roll, exceeding the monster's hit threshold by enough to do extra damage.  But later in the session, when all of those firearms pool points are spent, he's down to straight rolls.  "I'm spent".

In TOC, you lose some of the suspense that comes when all of your success is contingent on a dice roll.  The tension is different; you're constantly wondering, will you need those points later, did you choose to spend wisely?  It has echoes of resource management from the survival horror genre, as points dwindle and choices get tough.  It's a different qualitative feeling than hoping for lucky rolls.

Another difference is that Trail of Cthulhu resolves narrative investigation differently than dramatic conflict.  Let's take the example of a locked door.  During an investigation, a character with the locksmith skill can automatically get through the door to the clue on the other side.  However, when the group is being chased by a hideous monster, and they need to open the same kind of lock to escape, a dice roll is required and the player would need to spend some points to ensure success.  The mechanics change depending on whether it's exploration or combat.

Before you cry foul, keep in mind that versions of D&D have had things like take 10 or take 20 on skill checks, implying that skills during exploration are different than execution under a pressure situation.  The ability to refresh pool points at arbitrary intervals is not much different than 4E's use of replenishing Encounter or Daily powers, or even spell memorization.

I tend to think older gamers, ingrained in 70's and 80's RPG styles, are more comfortable with success based on dice rather than the resource spends.

Gumshoe Clues
I've seen questions regarding the Gumshoe clue system; what fun is it if characters always find the right clues?  Here's the thing:  you built your guy to be a professor of dead languages; you find the cultist's journal, and it has notes in archaic Greek; since you can read ancient Greek, you can read the notes.  The fun isn't whether you make or fail a roll, it's what the group does puzzling over this new bit of information you've discovered, and how this changes their plans moving forward.

In games where skill rolls are required to get basic clues, you can end up doing a fair amount of "pixelbitching" once the main guy fails his check.  "Crap, I missed my Greek roll on the journal.  Now what do we do?"  Invariably, it involves using a fall back skill (like Luck or an Idea Roll) to see if a Deux Ex Machina is around to help with that translation; or worse, the barely trained other characters in the group make off-the-wall rolls hoping for a critical success.  "Yeah, I only have 5% in Ancient Greek, but I rolled a 04% - take that, Professor!  Looks like your 90% in Ancient Greek were points well spent, har har!"

It's no fun when groups miss necessary clues through bad rolls.  If they ask the right questions and have the right skills, they should get the clues.  Most Call of Cthulhu Keepers familiar with the problem either fudge dice or ignore the skill check rolls for necessary skills; TOC makes it an explicit design element.

New School Roleplaying
Another way that TOC is a modern design vs an old school design are the mechanics that shift narrative control to the players.  I already alluded to the investigative abilities, and how a player can choose to spend points, do a little improv, and generate their own spotlight moments.  For instance, having the right Flattery skill might get you into the hotel conference; spending some Flattery points and making up a little story for the hotel clerk might get the players a room on the same floor as their target, or a back stage pass.  Cha ching.

TOC characters have a new mechanic called a "Drive" - a drive is the personality quirk that makes them open to investigating eldritch horrors in the first place.  It could be something like Curiosity, a sense of Adventure, or boredom (Ennui).  When characters fulfill their drives, they replenish mental Stability points.  Drives can also be a stick that penalizes them when they're ignored.  Let's look at an example.

In COC, the group of characters follow the bloody footprints out of the front door to the street, where the man-hole cover lies ajar.  "Dude, I am not going into that dark sewer following a rotted corpse.  Let's go back to the mansion and come back in the morning.  With shotguns".  That's how gamers think - like gamers, not like the neurotic protagonists in a horror story.  TOC's Drives ensure the characters have a good reason to throw caution to the wind like their literary forebears in the horror genre.  In this situation, at least one of the players would want to slide the manhole cover aside and look down the hole, for the chance to score some quick Stability points by demonstrating their insatiable Curiosity, or sense of Adventure.

TOC kept the same kind of Sanity death spiral you see in COC, so there are plenty of options for investigator madness; keeping with its tone of encouraging more player control, many of the insanities involve the entire table "reinforcing" the insane investigator's new, warped world view.

Trail of Cthulhu's Improvements
The book has a lot of elements that are useful in regular Call of Cthulhu campaigns, even if you skip out on the Gumshoe system.  TOC introduced the idea of Pulp vs Purist styles of play - more gun-wielding, weird adventure versus the bleak nihilism of Lovecraft's grim stories (think of The Dunwich Horror as a pulp story, and The Colour Out of Space as a Purist story).  There is great practical advice on structuring investigations and building out mystery scenarios, and examples of "campaign frames" - narrative structures for investigation games.  The original COC rules don't provide any of that campaign support, and I look at the TOC ideas fairly often.  I owe the readership here an article on narrative structures for Cthulhu gaming, so I'll defer a discussion on campaign frames for now, and return to it real soon.

The Mythos monsters and entities are very well done, and each major entity is given numerous rationales or explanations that surrounds the beastie with a sense of mystery and horror.  The COC book, with it's dry statistics and monster-manual-style of presentation, has had the unfortunate effect of making those Mythos horrors a bit banal after 30+ years.

Finally, Pelgrane Press has created a praiseworthy body of work, stretching the limits of Cthulhu gaming with titles like Bookhounds of London, Shadows over Filmland, Cthulhu Apocalypse, and The Armitage Files.  I'll be reviewing many of the Pelgrane titles as the year goes on, as they hold interest for both TOC or COC Keepers.  Because both games are light on rules, I find it's really easy to convert back and forth, running TOC materials using the COC rules - after a while, you stop seeing green code fragments, just blonde, brunette, red head….

We've played a fair number of Trail of Cthulhu one-shots the past few years; the greater emphasis on pregenerated characters with back stories, Drives, improvisational role playing, and bleak, Purist destruction, makes it ideal for one-shots and change of pace games - everybody dies or goes bonkers.  I expect we'll be doing some classic Call of Cthulhu games this spring and summer, while importing some of the TOC enhancements to the art.  Although I like it quite a bit, we've never given Trail a run as a campaign game.  Hopefully I've given folks that aren't sure which style they'd prefer, Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu, some qualitative information to illuminate the differences and help any decisions on system.  I'm glad to discuss the two games more in the comments.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Does anyone know of some good blogs on Cthulhu and Lovecraft gaming?  I regularly read Ken Hite's and Dan Harm's blog (when they post), and Pookie's Reviews from R'hlyeh.  AD&D Grognard started a blog for Cthulhu board games.  There are lots of places that discuss Lovecraft fiction, but other than the campaign journals on yog-sothoth.com, not a lot of blogging.  (Flames Rising sometimes has COC or Trail stuff, but mostly World of Darkness).  Let me know what I'm missing!  thanks-

Monday, January 23, 2012

Converting to AD&D

1E is back on top!

Ever since the announcement that 1E is being reprinted, my group has been asking the question whether we should switch completely to AD&D.  We're using Labyrinth Lord and the Advanced Edition Companion, so we're pretty much playing AD&D with classic D&D stats and race-classes already - we have a Paladin, for instance.  But we're not actually using the old 1E books at the table, despite one of the players (Mike) bringing up the idea of converting at every available opportunity… for months.  With the 1E announcement, he's been able to sway the table - the group voted to switch whole cloth to AD&D.  The Trampier cover is back in the house.

There are some obvious things to change - the Dwarf becomes a fighter, the Elf becomes a fighter/magic user.  The more interesting question is what to do with the stats?

On 3d6, the average roll is 10.5; on 4d6 drop the lowest, the average roll is 12.24  AD&D characters have an average of 10+ more points spread across their ability scores.  And it shows.  A fighter in classic D&D gets +1 to hit at strength 13; that same fighter needs a strength 17 to get the same bonus in AD&D.  Stat inflation, baby.

What have you done for converting existing "classic: characters to AD&D's higher stat requirements?  The two options we discussed were re-rolling using 4d6 drop the lowest, but arranging the scores in the same relative order - so if Character A was highest in Intelligence, he would put his highest new stat back into Intelligence.  The simple approach is this - since AD&D characters have much higher stats, 10 more ability points, on average, just give everyone 10 more points to spend.  That fighter with a 13 strength can pump 4 points into strength, giving himself a 17 and staying on course.

I'm enthused by the 1E reprinting.  We don't know how limited will be the print run, and whether it will stay exclusive to hobby stores; I'd be delighted if it was successful and they chose to roll the reprints out to retail.  I don't need to go looking for cynical reasons to justify the reprint;  WOTC is helping the cause of getting new folks to pay attention to older games again, and that's just dandy.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Gothic Greyhawk - Game 50 - Pounds, Rations and Mules

Cast of Characters

Player Characters:
Mordecai, a Cleric-7: Adam
Forlorn, an Elf-5: Bo
Mister Moore, Magic User-6: Mike
Shy, a Fighter-6:  JR
Leonidas the Paladin-5:  Nogal
Digit, the Elf Thief-7:  Z
Konstantine, Magic User-5: Smitty

Ireena, a Fighter - 5
Phat Kobra, a Dwarf-5
Grumble the Smug, Halfling-5
Donavich, Cleric-4
Boris, Druid-4
Vlad the Inhaler, Magic User-1
Sean, Ranger-1
Declan, Ranger-1

In which the party learns about the ancient sorceress Iggwilv, and makes plans to find her lost trove of treasure…  and a request for Wiki software recommendations near the bottom.  Hold tight folks, here comes an exciting yarn of logistics, diplomacy, planning, and library research - the very Meat and Drink of High Adventure.  The kids were banging their heads on the table by the end of this one.  "Pounds, rations, and mules, oh my", grumbled Nogal.

While opening trade negotiations with the Flannish highlanders down in the river valley, the party learned their old enemy, the witch known as Grizelda (Auntie G), was heading into the Crystalmist Mountains with her troop of orcs, trolls, and gargoyles, seeking the lair of the legendary sorceress Iggwilv.  They didn't know anything about Iggwilv, other than she once owned a book of Evil Chaos, so they headed home for the distant valley of Barovia to research in Strahd's old, but voluminous, library.

But first, Mordecai reach out to Cadman, the chieftain of the hill folk, to see if they could hire a few sturdy mountaineers (level 1 Rangers) to accompany them back to Barovia and act as guides.  Boris the Druid did his best to infiltrate the druids of the hill folk to see if there would be a backlash against Mordecai's healing of the chieftain and the boss's subsequent adoption of the new faith and decision to build a church.  There was a high druid that counseled the chieftain, and each of the 10 clan leaders had their own druidic advisors.  As a group, they conspired to take no immediate action against the new chapel, but to influence the various clan chiefs to ignore the new church for now and watch it disappear through neglect, especially with Mordecai returning to Barovia.

Days later, back in Barovia, the party got a sizeable info-dump as they consulted Forlorn, their 200+ year old Elf, and also surveyed Strahd's library.  The elves remembered well the tyranny of Iggwilv, when cartloads of tribute were sent into the high mountains and the powerful sorceress cast a shadow over Geoff, Sterich and Keoland.  She was the most powerful wizard of her age, binding demons to her will and documenting her methods of demon summoning in a notorious tome, The Demonomicon.  The player conveyed to the others it would be bad if it fell into the hands of Cyris Maximus, an avowed servant of the demon prince Orcus; the book would give his apparent new ally, Calcidius, the ability to open a demon gate for the prince.

Further research indicated Strahd himself had been seeking Iggwilv's lair, a place called Tsojcanth, a hundred years ago.  He was ultimately driven out of the mountains by a powerful holy man, and compelled through divine power never to set foot out of Barovia again, consigning the land to Strahd's powerful curse.  But the players discovered that there should be a gnome valley within 50 aerial miles of Barovia, and this would be a landmark towards finding the ancient mountain called the Horn of Iggwilv, the location of Tsojcanth.

There were details about the treasures, something about a magic lantern, stuff like that.  Surveying the map, the party theorized they had a fair shot at finding Tsojcanth ahead of some of the other questing, supernatural villains - Cyris Maximus, Calcidius, the Witch, the Red Duke, and the Prince of Lost Dreams. Plans were quickly made to secure the barony while they were gone, and they loaded rations, feed, horses, mules and gear, and prepared to set out (it took about a week for preparations).

Boris used the time to go find an animal companion (level 1 Druid spell), a hawk, with the hopes that he could use Speak with Animals and training to get the animal to do some long distance scouting out in the wilds.

Forlorn had been reading a book liberated from Death Mountain and the Orcus cult, The Book of Unspeakable Shame, and after months of reading it, it was complete.  (The Book of Unspeakable Shame traces all the way back to LOTFP's Death Frost Doom).  He would either be permanently feebleminded by the blasphemous knowledge, or ascend to godlike wisdom; Forlorn now has a 25 wisdom.  But he possesses wisdom that know mortal should own, and a cloud has passed over his heart.  Forlorn drew twice from the Deck of Many Things a few months ago, and both times he selected The Flames, indicating the presence of a powerful enemy in the world.

Perhaps the demon prince Orcus doesn't want his book in the hands of a mortal Elf?  Muhaha.

We've had a couple of sessions now with heavy book keeping and planning, as we transition into mid-level play and domain ruler ship; we're considering setting up a campaign wiki so the players can work out their domain details and equipment lists and whatnot during the week, maximizing time at the table.  Does anyone have experience with Obsidian Portal, or have recommendations for simple (cheap or free)Wiki software?  Thanks!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Points of Darkness for Horror Gaming

Last year I spent some time thinking about how I'd run a historical D&D game in a "weird horror" mode, and I called it the 'Wide Area Sandbox'.  Points of Darkness is a simpler and more evocative term for horror gaming; I saw it over at Brendan's blog (points of darkness) and it stuck with me.

The idea behind the Points of Light trope is the fantasy world is essentially a dangerous place, and the DM can structure it as civilized settlement (a point of light) surrounded by a vast swaths of wilderness that are unfriendly or hostile (the darkness).  It's a great approach for starting a standard D&D campaign, which typically involves a fallen civilization and lots of ruins.

Lovecraft Country: not for hex crawling
Horror gaming often takes place in the regular world - it could be 17th century Europe, the Victorian age, 1920's America, or the modern day.  Day to day life may be different than our world, but it's still fairly mundane; whatever supernatural threats or horrors exist, they do so on the fringes of society - the remote mountain fastnesses of Transylvania, untouched tombs of Egypt, sleepy New England coastal towns where the forefathers made a pact with aquatic horrors.  The points of darkness where eldritch horror lurk are few and far between, and they keep themselves secret and hidden.  This is a problem for putting players in touch with the horror!

The traditional 50 miles of hex crawl centered around a medieval manor or barony doesn't work as an organization structure for a globe-spanning horror game set in the mundane world.  The characters aren't going to hex crawl through New England before discovering the weird events surrounding the lonely Akeley Farmhouse (from The Whisperer in Darkness).

The plot hook becomes the primary method for ferreting out the existence of a Point of Darkness, and so the horror game is defined by its approach to plot hooks.  I haven't always appreciated the plot hook; it's very easy for a DM enamored with their own ideas of "story" to slide from presenting plot hooks as information into plot hook as rail road.

There are two basic approaches I've seen to using plot hooks in horror games; the first approach emulates the literary genre by associating the plot hook with character back story, the second approach functions more like a police procedural.

In genre emulation, the protagonists often have a close, preexisting connection to the plot hook and the Point of Darkness; they’re already in the wrong place at the wrong time when the story starts.  Henry Armitage gets involved with The Dunwich Horror because he happened to be the Professor at Arkham University; Francis Thurston of The Call of Cthulhu (story) was the nephew that inherited the papers of his dead uncle, and pieced together the fragmented tale of the Cthulhu Cult; Walter Gilman in The Dreams in the Witch House happens to be the student that chooses to stay in the Witch House and has those bizarre experiences.  The protagonist's initial involvement is almost passive.

You see a similar approach in game materials that try to emulate horror source literature; everyone has to play pre-generated characters that come loaded with a back story that places them in nexus with the upcoming horror.  Many Trail of Cthulhu adventures use this approach.  Alternatively, everyone makes a character, but they're required to have an appropriate background before the first session - "The adventure involves Mayan ruins, so you need to be an archaeologist, or someone associated with a dig site, at the start of the game".

That approach is fine for one-shots and limited engagements, but doesn't work so well in a campaign where the players want to use their own characters.  The "police procedural" approach puts the players in some kind of narrative framework that provides access to plot hooks over time, and the group chooses to conduct investigations that could ultimately lead back to a Point of Darkness.  A good example from television was The X-Files; the main characters were FBI agents who often investigated murders and abductions that put them in contact with supernatural or alien forces.  Most TV shows that have a recurring horror element have a narrative framework that puts the protagonist in touch with frequent plot hooks - one per episode, right?

The nice thing about the procedural approach is that it gives the players quite a bit of agency in how they actually carry out their investigations.  They still need to buy-in to the basic premise of the game, first; "I know we said we'd be occult investigators working for a rich philanthropist, but that sounds kind of dangerous.  How about we all become bankers instead?"  Short game.

So what's the point about this analysis?  Really two-fold.  When taking a look at published scenarios, you should be able to ferret out fairly quickly the approach the writer is expecting.  Most early Call of Cthulhu materials used back story or connections to a friend or benefactor to get the characters engaged; thus, it was often a struggle having a rationale for introducing replacement characters as the body count rose; be warned.  Later publishers in the space have offered various forms of narrative frameworks supporting the procedural approach, obviating the problem and supporting ongoing campaigns that feature degrees of mortality.

As a scenario builder, you'll likely start with a horrible situation in mind, and have to work backwards to getting the players involved (starting at the center of the onion and adding layers).  It'll be helpful to know which approach you mean to use - will the players encounter the plot hooks passively or actively?  In an upcoming post, I'll discuss common narrative frameworks for games like Call of Cthulhu, and then pivot to discuss different ways writers have presented investigations and adventure sites.  After all, what we want are free form sandboxes that maximize player agency!  I've got a review of Trail of Cthulhu almost done as well.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ode to Mystara

I Got Your Gonzo Right Here, Buddy

Hey, I just found a new blog (Stocking the Dungeon) and noticed it's dedicated to campaigning in my old favorite, Mystara.  These days we are strong with the power of AD&D and Greyhawk, running a campaign featuring all the classic AD&D modules, but I spent most of my DM career campaigning in Mystara.  For many years, the Grand Duchy of Karameikos was always the starting place for new campaigns.

Mystara tends to be overlooked by the old school crowd, folks that got their start in the 70's and early 80's; by the time Mystara was hitting its stride, they had checked out of TSR and its 2nd Edition and its death from a thousand settings.  Mystara followed the pattern of the time, releasing book after book after book, describing all the nations of the Known World in Gazetteers, the Hollow World, and something I can only describe as RACE CLASS MADNESS (in other words, those four Creature Crucible books and Orcs of Thar).

But while many of the TSR settings of the 2E period went for different flavors of theme and simulation, like Al Qadim or Kara Tur or Maztica or The Horde, Mystara saw that, raised them, and then went gonzo.  As in, "the moon is ruled by katana-wielding Cat People Samurai Ninjas, who ride giant saber tooth tigers, in space."  That, my friends, is either stupid, or awesome.  Or as Jeff might say, stupidly awesome.

This is what happens when you're the red-headed stepchild of AD&D.  The suits ignore your product line, and you're given freedom to have some fun.  Basic D&D is for kids, right?  Sit tight and see what happens when the inmates run the asylum.

First off, Mystara kept Dave Arneson's Blackmoor firmly in the setting's prehistory (for those that wanted some time travel, there was the opportunity to jaunt back to the Temple of the Frog or visit the Egg of Coot in the DA series of Blackmoor modules for Mystara).  The good ship FSS Beagle crashed on Mystara, and its nuclear reactor exploded, destroying the ancient world of Blackmoor and turning the globe into a prehistoric nuclear wasteland.  All magic on Mystara is fueled by low levels of background radiation, and the existence of magical creatures can be traced back to magical mutation.  The first step to awesoming up your setting is putting a global thermonuclear catastrophe in the ancient past and declaring that magical races (elves!) are actually unwitting radioactive mutants.

In the Glantri book, there are even ways for wizards to learn how to manipulate radiation-magic directly (it's called The Radiance) and a practitioner will either become immortal or get turned into a Lich suffering from radiation sickness.  But don't worry, the 20th level wizards wasting away into radioactive Lichdom fit in with all the vampire wizards and werewolf wizards in Glantri.  It's a party.  Too much manipulation of the Radiance can actually alter the flow of magic on Mystara, causing Potions of Longevity to fail and magical creatures (elves) to slip into lethargy.

Before I forget - a little Clark Ashton Smith makes any setting better, so those whacky Mystaran writers transplanted the whole crew from Averoigne right into Glantri by way of Castle Amber.  I love the fact the Enchantress of Sylaire graces the cover of the Glantri book.

The Mystaran sky is filled with various nations that have mastered air ship technology, like the expansionist Heldannic Knights of the Heldann Freeholds, or the Alphatians, descendants of the Atlanteans of Earth myth.  The Alphatians went on an inter-dimensional odyssey before ending up in Mystara...  every setting should have ties to sunken Atlantis.  We learn that Alphatia is ruled by a council of no less than one thousand 36th level wizards.

If "magic as technology" isn't your thing, you might be annoyed by Mystara.  There are flying carpet courier services, islands set up as theme parks for ordinary folks to experience "the adventurer lifestyle" on holiday, and Glantri City is lit by continual light spells.  An entire kingdom of gnomes floats high above the ground in their orbiting clockwork city of Serraine.

In case the surface doesn't have enough wahoo, consider that Mystara is hollow.  There are huge voids at the north and south pole where an explorer could literally walk around from the outside to the steaming jungles of the inside world, but powerful divine anti-magic prevents flying ships from making the trip.  The hollow world is a night-less place where the immortals of Mystara transplant dying cultures in a kind of world-sized bottle city; it's filled with analogs of the Aztecs (with dinosaurs), the Romans (with dinosaurs), and the Egyptians (with dinosaurs).  One of the hollow world deities is Ka, the patron god of dinosaurs, so the place is crawling with prehistoric monsters and the scantily clad barbarian princesses that ride them.  It's ideal for a savage world, swords & sorcery style game (with dinosaurs).

I mentioned that Mystara featured RACE-CLASS MADNESS.  It's what happens when you can't resist the urge to turn any monster or humanoid race into a  playable class.  I mean "Pegataurs", really?  Mystara took the Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling classes, as laid out in Moldvay BX and Mentzer, out to its logical conclusions.  There are race classes covering every type of lycanthrope, lots of woodlands creatures (centaurs, pixies, sylphs, dryads, satyrs, and more), all manner of aquatic races, and every kind of monstrous humanoid.  One could even run an entire humanoid campaign centered on the monster realms in the Broken Lands - wouldn't it be fun to visit Trollhattan, or Bugburbia? Mystara didn't take Gygax's "humanocentric vision" very seriously, and enjoyed plenty of in-jokes.

In addition to stretching the bounds with gonzo weirdness, the D&D line featured products that took classic D&D out of the dungeon and added new dimensions to game play, like mass combat, domain rulership, and quests for immortality.  I haven't been shy about talking up my support for Adventurer Conqueror King, especially because it's improving the systems first field tested on storied Mystara.

The story line that was begun in X4 Master of the Desert Nomads and X5 Temple of Death reaches fruition in module X10, Red Arrow, Black Shield - a double sized adventure that plunges Mystara's Known World into a continent spanning war against "The Master" and his desert hordes.  It's really two games in one, first a series of player character quests as the players traverse the Known World as envoys enlisting the kingdoms of the world to rise up against the Master.  It's also a continent spanning military campaign using old school hexes and cardboard military counters to track the progress of a war spanning dozens of nations and hundreds of army units.

Domain rules are fully embraced in C1, Test of the Warlords, which opened up the Norwold region of Mystara for colonization, allowing your 15th+ level PC's to carve out wilderness domains, raise armies, and hold off various invasions.  Norwold would go on to be a mainstay in the M-series of modules as well, and thrust the players right into the middle of the conflicts between Thyatis and Alphatia, the world-spanning empires on Mystara.

I'm going to skip discussing Mystara's approach to Immortals and quests for Immortality, seeing as this Ode to Mystara is waxing long.  Wrath of the Immortals was a boxed set that put this element of play front and center, and probably deserves it's own post at some point (it's both ambitious and controversial).  Suffice it to say, Mystara's approach to integrating gods, known as "Immortals", was just was wahoo as the rest of the setting, centering Immortal politics around a location on the moon known as the Vaults of Pandius that's presented a bit like the halls of the Justice League.

Let's hope part of WOTC's appeal to lapsed buyers gamers includes putting those old PDFs back on sale; there's a lot of great stuff in the Mystara catalog that should be experienced by modern gamers and mined for ideas.  The Grand Duchy of Karameikos is still the best campaign starting area ever published...

Monday, January 16, 2012

Call of Cthulhu's Old School Roots

One goal for this year was to write more frequently on subjects with nexus to Call of Cthulhu - reviews, discussions of the literature, how to play the game and run campaigns.  If you've hung around here a bit, you know in my D&D discussions I'm biased towards the rules light, old school style of play; a good place to start any discussion of Call of Cthulhu is how it measures up as an old school game.

My power trio of early games is Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller, and Call of Cthulhu.  One important element that ties all three games together is they attempt to simulate a game world, with a set of coherent rules where conflict and skill resolution are handled by dice; you don't see any of the things that creep into later generation games like dice pools, resource pools, action points, or similar elements that support cinematic, action-hero play.  The game master exerts strong narrative control, and all three games lend themselves well to free form, exploratory scenario design.

The default approach to Call of Cthulhu is to play ordinary folks in the 1920's, who through one reason or another, begin to investigate occult mysteries.  It's the game that pioneered such exciting character choices as "Antiquarian", or "Historian".  The action oriented might choose to be a "Police Officer", or "Private Detective".  Characters are generally fragile, and the scale is human (as opposed to the super-human action heroes that grace power fantasy gaming).  Like other games of the period, COC uses random character attributes.

Conflict and Balance
All of the chief conflict resolution systems use dice for resolution - combat, skill checks, and sanity rolls.  Like Traveller, character skill is an important element to the game - investigators are typically armed with such exciting skills like reading ancient languages, or knowledge in various scientific fields like botany or zoology.  (Gun skills are useful for dealing with cultists and mortal foes, but not so much against monsters).

There is no "game balance" whatsoever.  Invariably, the investigators will cross paths with cultists armed with terrifying spells, or horrible monsters from the Cthulhu Mythos.  Survival during an investigation is primarily dependent on player skill, since physical conflict against monsters is a bleak proposition.  The ability to analyze clues and information, marshal resources, and solve problems, is critical to successful Call of Cthulhu play, and the game challenges the players far more than their characters.

Paradigm of Investigation
Characters in Call of Cthulhu perform investigations, which are essentially fact-finding, exploratory scenarios.  One of the things I'll highlight in some upcoming posts is how investigative scenarios are basically virtual dungeons; you can flow chart an investigation much like a traditional dungeon (and I find it's helpful in scenario design to avoid a linear experience).  One issue we'll visit below is that poorly done scenarios are essentially rail roads.

Rules History
Call of Cthulhu was first published back in 1981; the first few releases were boxed sets, followed by progressively more elaborate core rules.  I've heard there have been something like 30 different unique printings of the core rulings in one form or another, although the game is officially on the 6th edition, with rumors of a 7th edition in the works.  Unlike D&D, that generates wide-scale changes between editions, COC typically features only minor variations, and early edition supplements remain completely compatible with the latest and greatest set of rules.

We tend to have big debates in the D&D world about play styles and DM approaches; sandbox play is right, and rail road play is wrong, that kind of thing. Similarly, in the Cthulhu space, one can find scenarios that are written in a linear style with foregone conclusions and elements we'd describe as a rail road.  One of the things I'll get to discuss over the course of the year is which published scenarios and campaigns support free-form exploration in the old school style, and which campaigns and scenarios are linear rail roads, and how groups have different expectations.  For instance, many Call of Cthulhu devotees are more interested in good horror experiences than character agency, and don't mind a linear plot if the situation provides a novel experience.

Another thing that drifts from old school play, is when scenarios put significant emphasis on character background and back story, more than we're used to in old school Dungeons & Dragons.  This isn't inherent in the game system, it tends to be the foible of a specific module writer.  You folks that complain about the pre-generated characters in Dragonlance know of which I speak.

The original game doesn’t provide a lot of guidance on campaign structures that allow a group of disparate investigators to come together without straining credulity; it really becomes a problem when the body count piles up and replacement characters need to be introduced.  "This is Bob, my other character's second cousin's brother…"  Call of Cthulhu D20, Delta Green, and Trail of Cthulhu all added useful tools for structuring campaigns that provide an ongoing rationale for character involvement, and I'll explore these ideas in upcoming posts as well.  Despite the issues, Call of Cthulhu is absolutely an old school system, and it's possible to structure the same kind of free-form, exploratory adventures in COC that we enjoy so much in old school D&D.  It'll be fun to discover here on the blog.

My goal is to do a Cthulhu-related post or so each week, but not overwhelm the D&D stuff; judging by how the side poll is going, the majority of folks that come by here are either COC players or somewhat interested in the game and genre, so that should be fine.  Let me know how it's going!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Gothic Greyhawk - Games 48-49 - Founding of a Barony

Cast of Characters

Player Characters:
Mordecai, a Cleric-7: Adam
Forlorn, an Elf-5: Bo
Mister Moore, Magic User-6: Mike
Shy, a Fighter-6:  JR
Leonidas the Paladin-5:  Nogal
Digit, the Elf Thief-7:  Zee
Konstantine, Magic User-5: Smitty

Ireena, a Fighter - 5
Phat Kobra, a Dwarf-5
Grumble the Smug, Halfling-5
Donavich, Cleric-4
Boris, Druid-3
Vlad the Inhaler, Magic User-1

On Monday, I posted a brief campaign recap to date, but here's the actual report (or should I say memoir?) of the last two game sessions.  Whew, this one is long, and covers politics, diplomacy, religious conversions, and an exciting joust.

Months have passed in the valley of Barovia; over the winter, the characters have begun fixing up Castle Ravenloft, laid plans to replace the wooden church with a larger stone edifice, and negotiated terms with the Barovian gypsies to act as wardens, scouts and border guards.  The group was anxious for spring weather, so they could descend from the high mountain valleys back into Sterich and find out what was going on in the world.

In case you're interested, we're using the ACKS (Adventurer Conqueror King) playtest rules to determine things like domain population, castle upkeep costs, domain morale, building costs, all those cool things that come with domain rulership.  A previous post on Castle Ravenloft, Under New Management, lays out some of the initial work I did, and they took it forward from there.

The individual characters had their own agendas.  Wizards set up laboratories in the castle and began transcribing spells and making "percent change to learn" rolls.  Mr Moore assumed the title Baron of Barovia, with his betrothed, Ireena, as the future Baroness.  Forlorn has continued reading the Book of Unspeakable Shame.  Mordecai, now a 7th level cleric, is Bishop of Barovia, and he and Father Donavich worked diligently at preaching to the villagers and performing miracles on their behalf.  They also recruited an acolyte.

Another funny thing became evident; Leonidas the Paladin started extolling the virtues of Zeus, in opposition to Mordecai's church.  I guess this detail had drifted into my subconscious, but when the group had frank discussions about the Church and the religion of the townsfolk, Leonidas's player (Nogal) reminded me that he was dedicated to the old gods and Zeus as Ruler of the Universe.  "Who wants to be a holy paladin when I can be a paladin of Zeus?"

Mordecai is a "prophet" of the Eternal Spirit - he was a simple farmer that had an angelic visitation, and found himself bestowed with clerical powers.  Since the beginning of the campaign, clerical spell casters in Gothic Greyhawk are selected through divine fiat, for unknown aims, and they are infrequent.  As such, he hasn’t developed formal ties to the institution of the Church, and has been fairly laissez faire regarding other faiths.

I hadn't planned on having echoes of the Greek gods in the medieval framework of Gothic Greyhawk, but I certainly want to encourage the kids in the campaign to make creative additions to the world.  So now Nogal is quick to google a picture of the Spartans from 300 whenever he feels the need to remind me what his guy looks like.  "His armor and helmet looks like this guy, only there's more armor because it's plate mail, and more clothes because it's cold".  And they have a druid henchman, too.

I'll leave it up to the players to figure out how they work together with three different "faiths" in the group, whereas NPCs and inhabitants of the world are another matter, as you'll see further in the report.

While the magic users continued their group spell transcription, Leonidas announced that he was having visions of a magnificent war horse, and he needed to leave the valley and enter the low lands.   (You may recall the AD&D Paladin can 'call a war horse' at 4th level).  His horse was in the hands of a brutal master, whom he swore to find and challenge.  A bunch of characters signed on to go with him in pursuit of the vision, and so a sortie was planned.

Mordecai, Shy, Leonidas, Digit, Ireena, Phat Kobra, Grumble, Donavich, and Boris, went on the journey, along with Vladimir, a level  1 magic user apprentice recruited by Moore's guild.  Ireena considered this an official state act, and their first stop was to head into the foothills on the way out of Barovia and visit Constantine's old village (which I learned from the players was called Stradia).  Ireena decided that Stradia would need to become part of Barovia, and the lord of Stradia, Tzefronis, would be given the chance to pledge fealty to the new Baron.

Now, nothing is more boring to me then relating lots of role playing, and this was a session heavy in it.  I'll try and touch only on the high points.  There was a scene akin to a Monty Python sketch trying to get admitted to Lord Tzefronis's tower - "We're envoys of the Lady of Barovia." No, you're not.  We have one already - don't need anymore envoys.  "Open in the name of the Baron".  Nope, don't think so.  Besides, Barovia doesn't have a Baron.  "There is a new Baron!"  How imaginative you are, giving yourself titles.  Good day.  (That kind of stuff).

Eventually, Tzefronis's wily gate guard was overcome, Lord Tzefronis brought to heel, and a few days later the group had descended out of the high vales and re-entered the Upper Davish river valley, anxious to see if there were zombies or ghouls about.  Instead, they ran into a Flannish patrol.

The nice thing about a wilderness trek is I got the chance to use my "What is the party doing when the encounter happens" tables.  A Flannish patrol came across them while they were taking a map break, and Ireena was busy telling a bawdy joke about her husband.  "Oh yes, the phrase, stop fondling your little wooden wand has taken on a whole new meaning to me…"  Gotta love henchmen making fun of their bosses, especially when it's a future wife.  Meanwhile, the new magic user apprentice, Vladimir, sneaking off for a quick smoke, earned the nick name "Vlad the Inhaler".  He was surprised when a patrol of highlanders on small rugged horses rounded the corner.  The players remarked, "His love of the halfling's leaf has clearly clouded his mind".

They made peaceable contact with Egan, the patrol leader, and learned much of the changes wrought in the valley since the previous autumn.  As mentioned in the campaign recap, the Flannish highlanders were at odds with the lowland Oeridians of Sterich.  The Oeridians were the folk that lived in the settled towns of Bovia, Poignard and Mittleberg, and the lord of Mittleberg was preparing a campaign to convert them.  I meant to call to mind historical conflicts like the Franks and Saxons, or the English and Scottish or Welsh.

Egan pointed out how a plague of undead wiped away the decadent lowlanders, and the undead followed the refugees down the valley, attacking Bovia after Poignard and eventually threatening the rich farmland around the capital, Istvin, hundreds of miles away.

Meanwhile, the Flans have moved into the void, slaying any straggler undead left by the horde and forming a large moot in the ruins of one of the old Oeridian villages.  The party traveled with the patrol back to the semi-nomadic encampment over the next few days.  Although many of the characters were Oeridian in race, as representatives of the new Barony, there were opportunities for peace and trade between the two groups, and Egan held in high esteem those who had overthrown the ancient vampire lord of the mountains.  And the Flans wanted allies for when the folk of Istvin tried to reclaim their lost lands.

When Leonidas described the vision of his war horse, Egan confirmed it.  "I know that red-haired man you described in the vision, his name is Bran, and we know that horse as well.   It was caught in the wilds of the valley, perhaps running free after the death of the lowlanders, and Bran's men haven't been able to break it in.  He beats the animal cruelly.  But he's a proud man, and won't easily give up the animal."

When they arrived at the sprawling encampment, there was a pall over the camp.  The chieftain, Cadman, was wasting away after falling victim to a witch's curse.  In the large audience hall, he was attended by healers while he slunk low in his wooden throne, and heard the character's story.  They agreed to peaceful contact and to trade some horses, then they heard Cadman's tale of the witch:

A few nights ago, we were visited by a powerful witch.  She was moving her forces across our lands, a foul woman that walked with a devil at her side.  She had a legion of orcs and a vicious trolls in the nearby hills, and was flown by gargoyles on a palanquin.  

(The players have had at least three run-ins and quests with the witch, so they know her well).

When I told her we wouldn't join her quest, she mocked me.  She said, "The great war is coming.  What does it matter if you've finally won back your lands? One of the great wizards of yore has returned to the world of men, one who knows the lost secrets of Iggwilv and her book of Evil Chaos.  He has joined with the blood drinker that leads Orcus's horde, and together they turn west  to be the ones to rediscover the book first.  They are the first of many to join the hunt - the Red Duke is coming to the south from the Horned Lands, and the Prince of Lost Dreams has crossed into the mortal world in Geoff".

Her speech was amazing and fearful, but still we would not join forces with that foul one.  And so she told me that if we would not lend her our strength, we would have none ourselves; she pronounced a terrible curse upon me, one that none of our druids has been able to cure.  I fear I am dying.

Cadman also went on to report that scouts had reported that the siege of Istvin was dispersing, as if the horde of zombies and ghouls had suddenly become leaderless and returned to their mindless pillaging.  It seemed to corroborate the witch's story that Cyris Maximus, the vampire lord that took control of the horde, had changed his focus, and was now seeking out this evil book with the help of a dark wizard.  The players are convinced the dark wizard is none other than Calcidius, the vile wizard they trapped behind brick and mortar in the Tower of the Stargazer.

This was all bad news for the players.  In previous encounters with the witch, they knew she was a servant of Hell, and was preparing for an upcoming conflict against the forces of the Abyss.  The beginning of her great war seemed nigh at hand.

Mordecai volunteered to attempt a healing the following day.  There was a haughty exchange between Mordecai and the high shaman, the druid Dallas, like Moses versus Pharaoh's wizards, but the chieftain agreed to give Mordecai an attempt on the morrow.  Mordecai prayed for Remove Curse, and the following day, restored the chieftain to full health.  The chieftain decreed there would be a new god in the halls of his people, that there would be space for this "Eternal Spirit" amongst his people, and the druid stormed off, enraged.

Leonidas stepped forward when the chieftain asked if there was some final favor to grant for his health, and he described the warrior Bran.  "I would like to challenge him for the right of the white horse," said Leonidas, and Bran was summoned.  "I will not give up my prize mount to this outsider", spat the horse lord, but Leonidas had been coached on invoking the proper challenge, and Bran agreed to ride against him in a joust.  It was set for that afternoon.

Numerous crowds gathered on the tilting field, as this was considered great entertainment by the hill people.  Bran and his supporters were on one edge of the sward, Leonidas on the other, with spears and swords.  Bran didn't ride the white horse, but had a small, sturdy war horse.  Although the fighting wasn't meant to be to the death, tempers were hot and Bran wasn't going to hold back.

On the first pass, Bran caught Leonidas with a spear and unhorsed him soundly; the paladin fell flat on his back and had lost half his hit points between the double damage charge and the fall.  (Nogal slumped his head on the table in despair - kids take these moments hard).  He quickly got to his feet and pulled his sword, chopping at Bran's spear and forcing the horse lord to dismount as well and fight hand to hand.

Leonidas was a better swordsman, and quickly made up ground as they started trading sword blows, and the final round ended up with simultaneous initiative; Bran rolled a critical, and double damage brought Leonidas down to 2 hit points left.  But Leonidas rolled heavy damage himself, and this was enough to knock  Bran loopy (zero hit points); in terms of the duel, that gave him position to force a submission.  Leonidas had won, and Nogal cheered!

Leonidas won his companion war horse, but as a paladin he arranged to offer recompense to the horse lord, paying a fair market value for the animal and soothing over hurt feelings with his clansmen in the interests of peace.

Now the group turned for home.  They had come away with the purchase of a dozen and a half horses for their use in Barovia, they had annexed a new village, Stradia, established peaceful trade with their new Flannish neighbors, planted a new church, and learned that various forces of evil were on the move.  Future discussions with the Flans might include an alliance against Istvin, but the group didn't commit.

My guess is they'll want game time to advance to where the wizards are done with all their spell transcription (I'll need to consult the calendar, but I think there was about a week left) and they'll use that time to plan a quest.  I'm thinking they'll throw their hat into the ring and mount their own expeditionary force to track down the witch, and find this evil book ahead of Calcidius and his vampire companion.  Should be fun!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Happy Friday the 13th!

My kind of M:TG card!

It's Friday the 13th, and the mind invariably drifts to slasher flicks and cheesy killers in hockey masks.

Okay, well that's what I was thinking about today, at least. Such a long dreary week.  Don't Be Afraid of the Dark came in the mail, and I'm excited to experience the Del Toro remake.  Tonight is a good night for some horror!

Far and away, the worst opponents in any horror game are the psychotic humans - the mad, deranged killers, and the hillbilly clan of cannibals.  When the group's attention is focused on monsters that look the part, they often fail to notice that they've entered the domain of a two-legged monster, that looks just like them, until it's too late.

Implacable and insane human opponents play a key role in a few of my favorite Call of Cthulhu scenarios - let's take a look at The Worm that Walks, and The Hills Rise Wild.

The Worm that Walks is one of the chapters in The Shadows of Yog Sothoth campaign; while the group is visiting a benefactor, they discover a lead that takes them out to an old cabin ("Don't go in the woods!") where something occult may have happened; what's really waiting for them out there are a bunch of characters straight out Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  The signature scene is when one of the killers bursts out of a pile of bones, startling any adjacent investigators, and whacking one of them with a huge axe.

In The Hills Rise Wild, the adventurers are trekking overland in rural Dunwich looking for a fallen meteor.  When they take advantage of some country hospitality, they put themselves at the mercy of a deranged cultist and his downbeaten and abused family.  It's quite creepy.

For a literary reference, take a look at Lovecraft's The Picture in the House.  It's one of the earlier tales, and has an ending reminscent of an Edgar Allen Poe story.  It's an excellently creep story.  A traveler in the Miskatonic Valley enters a lonely farmhouse when caught out in a storm; the minimalist story begins to get unsettling when he starts flipping through an old book and has a progressively more disturbing conversation with the menacing owner of the house.  I don't want to give the ending or twist away if you haven't read it; it's a short story so go check it out yourself.

I haven't been mean enough to put a nasty family of hillbilly cannibals into a regular D&D game; players accustomed to only seeing monsters where they have green skin or tusks would be far too easy to lure in - like shooting fish in a barrel.  But it's time I rectified this egregious oversight.  In the meantime, let me know how you've used "cannibal hillbillies" in the comments.

I'm off to see Don't Be Afraid of the Dark!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Recent Poll Results

I'm off to "the Big City" today, so not much time for a deep thought post.  How about we take a look at how things went with some recent polls?


Yes - If it happens, time to roll new guys (31%), No - The story would be over before it began (69%).

See - I tricked you - I put in the words "story" in the second answer, a clear tip off that making rulings to fit some notion of a predetermined story is the wrong answer, prima facie.  By now you should realize story is irrelevant; no player characters have plot immunity.  If they choose to hop in a boat and head into unsafe waters without precautions, of course the ship can sink.  Blub blub.  That all being said, I appreciate the well-thought out comments in the post - many folks were fine with raining havoc down on players that sailed unwisely into ice-berg laden northern waters, but rather than making a sinking ship equal instant death, they advocated a wide range of complications - ship damage, lost cargoes, lost resources, man overboard, forced to abandon ship to a lifeboat, tons of options that still get the point across.  I'll be a wiser judge with all your useful suggestions in hand.


3d6 in order, no adjustment (44%), 3d6, rearrange and adjust (14%), 4d6, rearrange and adjust (12%), Modern point buy (7%), Something else (21%).

3d6 in one form or another was the popular choice in my circles; from the comments, I got the sense the folks that picked "something else" were doing 3d6 with the adjustment scheme from Moldvay BX, and I probably needed to call that out specifically - BX called for 3d6 in order, limited adjustments, but no rearranging.   From previous polls, I get the sense by-the-book AD&D sits around 10-15% in terms of active play so the 4d6 result makes sense.  I see a lot of Advanced Edition Companion in use with classic D&D versions.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The 1970's Sandbox as a Post-Modern Experience

We often use the term "emergent stories" to describe what happens in the free-form sandbox style of play.  The DM presents an environment for play, without a preordained plot or story, and the players exert freedom of choice in how they choose to interact with the setting.  As they move about the place, gathering information and making decisions, we derive enjoyment from the resolution of conflicts, the approaches used to overcome challenges, the successes and failures.  Many things come together at the table - the DM's artistry of description and presentation, often humorous role playing by the players, and the anticipation of seeing how the dice roll at a given time.  "We explore dungeons, not characters".  The story "emerges".

Herb pointed out an observation he made regarding emergent story in the sandbox - he called it Memoir as Story.  (Definitely go read it, if you missed it previously).  Herb's analysis hit me hard in two places - first in how it should define the goal of actual play, and then how it informs the after-play report.

When you step back and consider a person's day-to-day life, it's a meaningless string of incidental events - morning coffee, a drive to work, stop at the drive-thru for a bagel, reading the morning email.  Is that upcoming meeting with a client important on a cosmic scale?  How about on a personal scale?  It's only after the fact that we fully appreciate the meaning of life's mundane events.  Herb's point was that the biographer or memoir writer superimposes importance on life's mundane occurrences in order to create a narrative out of an otherwise undifferentiated string of incidents.  Your life is a sandbox adventure, my friends.  We all suffer a bit from apophenia and pareidolia - we're the unsung protagonists of our individual lives.

It's been many years since I've stalked the halls of academia, so forgive me if I'm misusing the term, but when comparing the sandbox to story games, wouldn't that make the D&D sandbox a post-modern experience?  The argument is that the individual creates a narrative where none exists, by attributing subjective meaning to things.  The party happened to stumble into the toughest monster on a dungeon level at an inopportune time, but they manage to prevail due to some lucky rolls; it's only afterwards, when resistance crumbles and they learn they're left as the toughest hombres on the block, that they declare, "Boy that was some climax to clearing that dungeon level".  Prior to fixing the definition in place, the entire experience was sans plot and fairly elastic.  Who knew how it would turn out?  The other piece that's interesting is that there's no one version of the truth; since each individual constructs their own mental narrative, If you have five players, they could come away from the experience with five distinct stories.

Speaking of the number five, I'll reserve special antipathy for that darling of the new school set - the "five room dungeon".  I'll defer the invective for now; I don't want to derail this post too much with an impromptu barrage of vitriol.

Back to the main item, the other place the Story as Memoir metaphor holds truth is in the process of writing a campaign journal or session report.  The journal becomes an external artifact reflecting this internal process of attaching meaning to events; categorizing, sequencing, sifting, and otherwise editing our memories in order to present a view of what happened that's compelling for someone else to read.  I know when I write game reports for Gothic Greyhawk, I try and skip as many trivialities as possible.

Here's the lesson for sandbox dungeon masters; don't get caught up with concerns about story or driving the action in your campaign to any preordained conclusions.  The human condition is such that your players will take care of superimposing a narrative structure on what's happening for you; when it's all said and done, the group will be able to reminisce when a story arc started, when it was getting intense, and when it concluded - even if there was no premeditated story there to start.

Your job is to fill the sandbox with compelling elements - interesting places to visit, challenges waiting to test intrepid adventures, and strongly characterized NPCs.  The rest will take care of itself.

We explore dungeons, not characters:  Does anyone know who originated this quote?  I recall it was part of Evreuax's Sig on Dragonsfoot some years back, so it predated my entry into blogging.  Just curious - it sums up the old school gaming experience on so many levels.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Gothic Greyhawk - What's it About?

We finally got to resume my long-running quasi-AD&D campaign this past weekend.  I say quasi-AD&D, because we're using basically the BX rules with Labyrinth Lord's Advanced Edition Companion - all the good stuff from AD&D without the dubious sub systems.

There are two good reasons for a quick overview of the campaign - first, it seems like two months since a campaign report, and second, the latest events in the campaign hearken back to the earliest days of the campaign, two summers ago.  Memories just aren’t that good for campaign minutiae.

Why Is It Called Gothic Greyhawk?
I have a deep respect for all the creative things touched by Gygax, despite my quibbles with some rules , so when the players clamored for a return to a traditional Dungeons & Dragons experience after our divorce from 4E, it had to be Greyhawk.  Most of these guys had never played the early AD&D modules and they specifically requested a campaign that featured the classics.  Ravenloft was also on the list.

My vision of Greyhawk was to treat it like a folkloric early Medieval setting, emphasizing a strong monotheistic church, devils and fallen angels, ghosts, faeries, vampires, werewolves, witches, and things that go bump in the night.  We set the campaign in the misty river valleys of the Earldom of Sterich, placed the hidden valley of Barovia at the headwaters of the Davish river, and unleashed a bevy of 1st level characters into a hex crawl sandbox centered on Mittleberg - this all began a year and a half ago.

Recent History
The last 6-7 months of the campaign took place in Barovia, where the characters matched wits with the vampire lord Strahd von Zarovitch.  Strahd was nuked by a Dispel Evil scroll about halfway through the time period, but the group spent months fighting a guerilla war against all the free-willed vampires, previously under Strahd's control, that now strove for supremacy over the castle and village.  Notable energy drainers appeared, such as The White Lady, The Top-Hat Man, sexy Gertrude and Helga, Sasha the Vampire Queen, and various minor vampire spawn - including risen PC's previously killed by the vampires, like the cleric Barzai the Wise.

Before the holidays, the group concluded the campaign against the vampires and were in sole possession of Ravenloft Castle (under new management); Mister Moore pledged marriage to the daughter of the previous mayor of Barovia, Ireena, and they've assumed the titles Lord and Lady of the new land.  They immediately started rebuilding the valley.

The next campaign journal resumes with the characters sending envoys out of Barovia, back down into the lowlands, to determine the state of the world.

Useful Background for Upcoming Journals
The big event that characterized the early days of Gothic Greyhawk was when the group released 13,000 hungry dead out of Death Mountain (the LOTFP adventure Death Frost Doom); the tide of zombies and ghouls swept into the river valley, overrunning the human settlements of Mittleberg and Poignard (see map here).  The player characters made a deal with the ancient vampire, Cyris Maximus, to avoid the horde, and they ended up going the opposite direction, deeper into the Joten Mountains.  Along the way they had encounters with a powerful witch, lycanthropes, and the dwarven citadel of Stonegate.

Another element that should be remembered as the story resumes is the conflict between the lowland Oeridians and the Flannish hill folk.  In the early days of the campaign, the lord of Mittleberg was supporting the Church in its effort to send missionaries into the high country to preach to the hill folk; when the latest missionary was murdered by the hill shamans, plans were drawn up for a spring campaign to march an army into the hills and sack the vales where the druidic shamans held sway.  The folk of Mittleberg were swept away by the zombie horde before this campaign ever happened.

The folk of the hills, in their high mountain vales, persisted.

Cast of Characters
Here's the crew - although I need to confirm the current levels are accurate.  Since the campaign started, we’ve had 16 character deaths.

Player Characters:
Mordecai, a Cleric-7: Adam
Forlorn, an Elf-5: Bo
Mister Moore, Magic User-6: Mike
Shy, a Fighter-6:  JR
Leonidas the Paladin-5:  Nogal
Digit, the Elf Thief-7:  Z
Konstantine, Magic User-5: Smitty

Henchmen:Ireena, a Fighter - 5
Phat Kobra, a Dwarf-5
Grumble the Smug, Halfling-5
Donavich, Cleric-4
Boris, Druid-3
Vlad the Inhaler, Magic User-1

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Do you hear The Call… of Cthulhu? A New Poll.

A simple question for a Sunday, before I head out to do some chores and then settle in for the late afternoon football game.  D&D was the primary fantasy game I played in my youth, but we messed around with Gamma World, Traveller, and Call of Cthulhu.  Besides D&D, I kept up with Call of Cthulhu, and played a fair number of campaigns in the 90's and early 2000's.

There's a significant intersection between Weird Horror D&D and Call of Cthulhu, so it's natural I've been thinking a lot lately about Call of Cthulhu and its relations (Trail of Cthulhu, Realms of Cthulhu).  What kind of experience do you have with Cthulhu gaming?  There's a new poll over to the right, and feel free to drop a comment.

I'm off to chainsaw some logs and split wood with a wedge and  maul - fun stuff.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Games Don't Need Plots to Have Stories

I saw a prominent blogger (JB over at the Blackrazor blog: ranting in the new year) taking the game to task for being low-brow.  JB is fun to read because he brings a lot of passion to his blog and isn't afraid to step on the soapbox.  Going into dark holes, kicking down doors, and stabbing monsters in the face is dumb; it doesn't tell the kind of story you read about in fantasy novels.

It's true, you don't see much looting in fantasy novels.  But games shouldn't worry about emulating fiction; they should worry about being good games, first and foremost.  Dungeons & Dragons is a very good game.  There's a reason it's endured in a sea of forgettable RPGs, each trying to tell a story.  When a game is good, and you play it over and over again, excellent stories emerge after the fact.

Let’s talk about another game that's just a big dumb game - Pro Football.

Here we are on the verge of the NFL play offs, and the beloved Broncos are a day away from getting crushed by the Steelers in the play offs (again).  It's a good time to reflect on the NFL season and how things developed this year.  Football is just a dumb game - a bunch of big dudes, with helmets and cleats, trying to jam an odd shaped brown leather ball across a line in a field of grass.  It's got some funny rules, and a referee.  No novelist or screenwriter sits down to script out how the NFL season is going to unfold.

Denver Post:  Tebowing
This year, the big story with the beloved Broncos was Tim Tebow.  Who saw that one coming?  Tebow was the 3rd string quarterback coming out of Broncos camp, and the new coach considered him a wasted draft pick by the previous regime.  Kyle Orton was the starter.  And then Orton's Broncos started the season 1-4.  The fans were restless.  Colorado has a strong evangelical presence and folks clamored to see Tebow hit the field; they even bought billboard space across from the stadium to campaign for their guy.  It was Tebow's chance to pilot the team after the bye.

The Broncos went and ripped off a string of 7 straight victories, many of them in dramatic, 4th quarter come-from-behind fashion with Tebow's late game heroics.  People started to notice.  A story about the Broncos began to emerge.  I would imagine even those of you who dislike sports have seen some kind of mention of Tebow over the past month; there was even a Saturday Night Live sketch with Jesus in the Broncos locker room poking some fun at the phenomenon.

This particular story took a nosedive when the Broncos finished the season 0-3, getting killed by the Patriots and Bills, limping into the playoffs, and now facing the hard-nosed Steelers in tomorrow's game.  I don't have high hopes, but it's been a fun and memorable season nonetheless.  Real stories don't need endings like books.

The lesson here is simple.  Football is a simple game, a bunch of big dudes smashing into each other and running around.  But when you toss in the high drama elements of competition, rivalries, grudges, egos, strong personalities, amazing athleticism, tactics, strategy, dynasties, history, the media, the fans, then the stories become larger than life.  Every minute counts in the NFL and there is no tomorrow.  These emergent stories are much better than anything someone could have scripted, because no one predicted them.  Consider how often you're watching something and can tell where a movie plot is going to end up, or how a book is going to finish?  Why would you want to copy that in a game?

The confluence of factors that come together in Dungeons & Dragons make it an excellent campaign game and thus an excellent vehicle for emergent stories.  Lairs, dungeons, wilderness hex crawls, and landscapes filled with petty rulers for toppling, are fertile ground for a player-driven campaign.  The character class structure of D&D fosters team work and group planning.  The XP for gold structure provides a built-in overarching objective.  Compared to the motivations that drive literary characters, looting wherever you go is a bit shallow, but it's very very good for ongoing gaming.

I find that when I let go of the notion of genre emulation, and let the game do what it does best, we don't lack for amazing stories.  My campaign journal is full of them.

Note:  The idea that games should stop trying to tell stories and just focus on being good games is not new or original; I remember hearing a Microsoft video game designer talking about the football and story analogy on a podcast and it made a huge impact on me.  I've never played Minecraft, but I hear similar things about it as a plot-less game.  Video games with their cut scenes tell the designer's story, but fail when compared to the amazing and original stories that emerge from a good tabletop sandbox game.

Photo: Daniel Petty, The Denver Post