Monday, April 30, 2012

Your Default Setting

Lately I've been thinking I'd like to build a default setting for simple gaming.  We have a ton of kids in the neighborhood, and summer is fast approaching - the time when my son usually pesters non-stop to fire up another kid's game for the summer.  Since the adult game has featured a few weeks of Cthulhu (no kids allowed in that one), the cries for a kid's game have intensified.

Kids approach fantasy gaming with a different set of eyes.  They're not burnt out on fantasy tropes - this is the first time they're encountering "high fantasy", unless they've read The Hobbit or seen The Lord of the Rings movies.  I don't event think the grade school kids in the neighborhood learn medieval or ancient history these days until junior high or later.

So I've been thinking about sketching a simplistic setting as the go-to place for pick-up games and kid's games.  It'd be friendly to the tropes and stereotypes of medieval history and fantasy, and home to a simple megadungeon.  When I sang out my Ode to Karameikos a little while ago, I rediscovered how simple and classic is that place, and figured it was time to have my own default home brew setting.

I'm still working on The Black City, but that place is strange (a little too weird and horrible for the neighborhood kids), and The Colonial Hexcrawl is super interesting, but perhaps too rarified a taste (and also filled with horror).  My reading list for it is great fun, however.

I've been orating The Once and Future King for my oldest son (10), and was thinking a chivalric setting that mashes TH White with The King of Elfland's Daughter and Three Hearts and Three Lions would make for a classically themed default setting, great for a kid's game.

The idea has generated a couple of quick questions for readers - One, do you have a default home brew you've written that you return to again and again in between other games, and what's it like?  Two - what are your thoughts on getting kids involved, go with a classic fantasy approach, or would you pull out the stops and mix ray guns, robots, and orcs in a sci-fantasy mash up or similar fantasy niche?

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Where's the BX Love, WOTC?

I saw more rumors and announcements this week of WOTC reprints.  The AD&D 1st Edition books are being reprinted, there's a new version of the boardgame Dungeon!, and rumors that a reprint of 3.5 might be coming this fall.  Where's the love for the classic Basic and Expert books, WOTC?

Arguably the widest played retro-clone is Labyrinth Lord, a game that tracks very closely to those original BX red and blue books.  The well-regarded retro clones, LOTFP Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, and Adventurer Conquer King are essentially refined interpretations of the BX rules set (or the BECMI edit, if you're feeling pedantic).

I would love to see either the BX books or the BECMI books collected into a hardcover for reprinting.  Maybe even the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, although to be fair, I didn't like TSR's layout and art styles in the early 90's as much as the older styles.  We need that Erol Otus interior art and covers.

I've seen posts through the years that the classic D&D boxes were far and away the best selling versions of D&D because they were in mass market, box stores, and translated into various international languages.  (Frank Mentzer has frequently pointed that out on the boards).

The argument for reprinting them:  they're the best selling versions of D&D of all time, they're already optimized for introducing new gamers and kids (ie, building the hobby), and they're the darlings of the OSR retro clone movement.  What's the hold up, WOTC?

Seems like a good time for a new poll - posted to the right.  Which edition of D&D would you like to see reprinted?  Maybe this is the beginning of a period of "reprint madness" and we'll even see hard-to-find modules and supplements put into large collections or omnibuses.  One can hope.

Friday, April 27, 2012

SCD Game 1: An Arm and a Leg

We started our episodic Trail of Cthulhu game last weekend, called "Welcome to the SCD".  One of the regulars had to miss, we also had a new guy, so here was the crew:

Cast of Characters:

Detective Snyder, officer in the SCD (police detective):  Smitty
Father Vinny, trained psychiatrist and church exorcist (clergy):  Mike
O'Grady, burglar turned SCD informant (criminal):  Adam
Trevor, professional occult debunker (dilettante):  Keyser

Here’s as good a blurb for the adventure kick-off as any:

"We've got a report of a patrol officer being lifted into the air and ripped to pieces by an invisible monster in downtown, in broad daylight.  Snyder, why don't you take someone over to the morgue and check it out.  They've got a witness down at the precinct giving a statement - the gas station attendant.  Make sure you test him for booze.  If he checks out, it sounds like we might have a case."

The SCD - Special Crimes Division - is a sub-department in the NYPD that investigates crimes that are either weird, sensational, or involve the occult; the scant number of detectives consigned to the SCD are expected to work anonymously and keep the weird stuff out of the newspaper.  As such, they get to bring in a lot of contractors, and Snyder likes to work with the priest and O'Grady, and the occult expert, Trevor.  That's how the players justified the make-up of their group.

I'm not sure how I want to approach game recaps for Cthulhu… investigative games require research, facts, interviews, etc, and usually revolve around a big reveal, that moment when the players connect the dots.  It seems like a lot of work to do it in detail, and a recap still wouldn't do justice to the table top experience.  I think I'll try to quickly move through the facts each week, and just focus on one or two key scenes.

Snyder gathered his team, and the group performed the following actions:  interviewed the gas station attendant, visited the morgue, the gas station, performed some lab work on an unidentifiable botanical substance, visited the Columbia U library, spoke with dispatch, and ultimately found themselves driving out to the Jerome Park neighborhood in the North Bronx, armed with the following facts:  the dead cop, Weidner, was torn to bits in broad daylight and exsanguinated by an unknown assailant.  He had an unidentifiable plant-based hallucinogen in his system.  His last call was a neighborhood check in the Bronx to calm down a worried teenager.  Apparently, she thought she saw a dead arm flop out of a package being hauled into the house by the neighbor across the street, and called the police.

When Snyder pulled off of Grand Avenue into the neighborhood, a pair of gangster started up their sedan and drove off - O'Grady identified  one of them as Hammerfist Dempsey, an enforcer who works for a small time loan shark in Harlem, Fat Lips Louie.  Snyder let them drive off, and the group interviewed the mom, son, and babysitter that lived across the street from the suspicious Mister Corbitt.  Regarding the gangsters, O'Grady figured he could get in to see Fat Lips sometime later anyway, but they did wonder why a loan shark would be after Corbitt.

Barring the babysitter's tale, Corbitt had a sterling reputation in the neighborhood.  When they learned that Corbitt ran an import business, and often brought in rare orchids and tropical plants for his extensive green house, they saw a connection with the hallucinogen found in the dead cop, and decided to visit Corbitt's place.  Corbitt wasn't home.

Corbitt had spectacular flower beds and gardens, and his reputation as a green thumb was well-earned; the greenhouse door was open.  Trevor stayed back to peer into the house, and thought he saw something through a window - an odd glimpse of a leg or foot leaving a room backwards.

O'Grady went around to the other side and peered in another window - and shouted in fright.  Staring back at him through the window was a disembodied woman's head; attached to the sides of the head, where the ears should be, where a pair of hairy man arms, holding up the head like legs.  Sticking out the back of the head was a backwards woman's leg, with the knee sticking up and the foot facing back.  The head swayed back and forth, screeching at him through the glass, balancing on the tripod of arms and a leg, until it launched itself back into the house hopping like a freakish toad or startled cat.

O'Grady convinced Snyder there was a creepy thing in the house, they jimmied the lock to the back door, and Snyder entered, with his revolver drawn.  The head-thing scampered into the kitchen, and Snyder blasted it in the skull, "killing" it.  Green ichor dripped down the wall behind the twitching collection of ill-matched parts.

Snyder had O'Grady roll up the remains of the scampering thing in Corbitt's table cloth, so they could throw it in the trunk.  "Evidence".  Snyder thought he heard a noise in the basement, and after reflecting on the hopping woman's head, decided he didn't want to know what Corbitt might have in his basement, at least not yet.  They threw the head in the trunk and waited at the car to see if Corbitt came home that night so he could be brought in for questioning.

Corbitt returned home shortly after dark, and the cops were waiting for him.  He went quietly to the station with Snyder and Father Vinnie, and seemed genuinely surprised to hear there was mischief in the neighborhood and he was a suspect.  Either that, or he was a sociopathic liar and fooled them with his kindly old gardener act.  Corbitt was taken down town without incident, and left in a holding cell at the station after some cursory questioning.  Snyder went back out to the house where Trevor and O'Grady were left watching the place.

They sat in the darkened yard, watching the creepy house without any lights on, and kept wondering if maybe they should check out the greenhouse, or poke around the house.  Finally O'Grady had a flash of insight, and decided to break into Corbitt's trunk.  There was a pair of galoshes, heavy rubber gloves and a dripping burlap roll… inside the burlap were body parts, a human heart, a liver, and the severed leg of a child.  It was wrapped in disposal plastic from one of the city's poorer hospitals, Polyclinic over on the west side.

We stopped there, after Snyder and Vinnie got back out to the house.  They decided it wouldn't be a horror game if they didn't venture into the creepy house and greenhouse in the dead of night (bravo, fellows), and decided they could leave Corbitt overnight in the station as a "person of interest".  (No Miranda rights in the 1930's.)

The group is thinking that Corbitt cut a deal with the mobsters to get access to body parts for his gruesome experiments, and that's why a loan shark is after him.  They learned from the neighbor that he lost his wife and unborn child years ago during her pregnancy, so they're expecting to see a surgical laboratory in the basement where Corbitt is working on building a new wife, Herbert West style.  Tune in next week.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Spreaders - a Menace for the Colonial Hexcrawl

I've had a busy couple of weeks at work, so blogging is taking a bit of a back seat.  However, we got the Trail of Cthulhu game started last weekend (a report is forthcoming); I've managed to get in some reading for the Colonial Hex Crawl idea; I'm still plugging away on the Black City, currently mapping and detailing The Black City's Tower of Pain.  All fun stuff.

This creature, the Spreaders, gives me great hope in the potential of the Colonial Hex Crawl.  They're dismissed as a rumor, a child's tale to scare hunters and trappers into avoiding pristine campgrounds while plying the waterways in the rich forests of western New York.  There are stretches of river and shorelines that have an evil reputation, and woe to the foreigner who ignores the warnings of a native guide or dismisses Indian tales out of hand.

The Spreaders are small faeries that emerge from their subterranean burrows at night to drag off unwary trespassers.  In concert, a number of these diminutive sprites can cast a powerful sleep spell, ensuring that no sentry or guards disturbs them as they trundle off a victim into the night.  When the victim finally awakens from their enchanted sleep, they'll discover they've been spread eagled on the ground, their arms and legs firmly bound with vines.  Sticks are wedged to keep each finger splayed, the legs spread apart, eyes propped open with twigs, and mouth wedged apart with wood.  It's quite likely a search party would walk right past a victim, covered in dirt and leaves (but for the eyes), or hidden in a bramble, unable to make a sound or move.

Victims that stumble into the spreader's domain usually do so at the end of a long day of river travel, making camp at a tempting spot just as dusk settles over the river.  Had they performed a more detailed search before dark, they might have discovered a nearby hollow filled with the cast off belongings of previous victims; the rotting remains of canoes and boats stretching back years and decades molder into rot where the Spreaders carried and hid them.  Here and there in the nearby woods are skulls and bones of past victims that unwisely camped near these dark faeries.  And below ground, deep in their diminutive tunnels and warrens, the Spreaders wait for the next evening.

The Spreaders - Malicious Forest Sprites
AC as chain, MV 6, HD 1/2, Atk 1 spell, see below, ML 7, AL C, No appearing (3-18)

Every 5 Spreaders acting together can cast a sleep spell once per day that induces a deep, magical slumber.  10 Spreaders can carry a sleeping victim off into the nearby forest and "spread" them in a secluded spot to die alone.  Abandoned victims lose a point of temporary wisdom per hour due to horror (minimum score 3) and die in 2-3 days from exposure and thirst.

The spreaders don't collect treasure, but the nearby woods usually have a spot where the belongings and canoes of previous victims are dragged and hidden, so there might be incidental treasure in the canoe graveyard.

*The art is from the Fiend Folio (the Forlarren, by Russ Nicholson). The spreaders are from an Abenaki ghost story retold in When the Chenoo Howls, a collection of eastern Native American monster tales.  For children.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Looking for Orcs in All the Wrong Places

I've been thinking about wilderness procedures and the issue around the 15 minute wilderness day.  Here's the quick recap if you didn't read the other post:  wilderness encounters tend to be infrequent, often days apart, so powerful groups can "go nova" and destroy the encounters by blowing all their Vancian magic and then rest, very similar to the 15-minute adventuring day.  It's especially problematic if the wilderness encounters are "balanced for level".

With that in mind, a simple approach is to use wilderness charts where "anything goes" similar to what you see in AD&D.  It doesn’t avoid the 15 minute wilderness day per se, but does lead to encounters where even a veteran group is going to have to think quickly and do something other than wade in swinging each time.  For example, the AD&D wilderness encounter for orcs is 30-300.  (-C posted examples at his place how those original wilderness tables could lead to some challenging encounters:  The wild wilderness).

What about this idea I have that wilderness encounters are spaced too far apart, always allowing rest and recovery?

I decided to step through the travel procedures for a few of the D&D versions I use to see how the systems differ.  There are striking differences.  For purposes of the examples, let's say the group is traversing a large forest - a trip of 30 miles, which should take a few days.  I tend to use 6 mile hexes, a BX standard.  The group is hoping to run into some orcs while they cross, so I included the default chance of meeting orcs using just the standard tables, too.

In AD&D, a group can move through a forest at 10 miles a day, so it will take 3 days to cross.  In AD&D, there are 6 encounter checks per day, but each check is only a 1 in 10 (assuming this is the wilds).

Math isn't a strong suit for me, but I'm thinking that 6 checks at 10% gives a 47% chance each day of at least one encounter happening - so the group should meet something every other day.  More specifically, there's a 35% chance of one encounter, 10% of two, and 1% or lower of 3 or more encounters.  But this something that's important - an unlucky group in AD&D could run into a string of encounters each day of travel!

The other thing about AD&D is the chance of getting lost per day is 70%.  That's massive.  Without a guide or following a river or trail, the AD&D party will take longer than 3 days to make it across the forest.

The chance of actually running into some orcs using the standard tables is low - only 5% for meeting humanoids, and then a 20% of rolling orcs on the humanoid table, seems to be 1% or so.  Gah, I wish I paid attention in statistics.  You'd think a gamer should know probability.

Our BX party moves 12 miles a day through the forest (fairly close to the AD&D rate).  They should clear the forest in 2.5 days, assuming they don't get lost like the AD&D group.  The chance of getting lost in BX without a trail or guide is 33% per day, so they have a much better chance at clearing the forest quickly.  There's only one encounter roll per day, and it's a simple 33% chance.  I think that means a 55% chance of an encounter every two days or so - so the group has a good chance of making it through without a single encounter, and there's no multiple encounters a day unless the DM house rules it.

The chance of actually meeting orcs is also pretty low - 1/8 followed by 1/12 (compared to AD&D's 1/20 followed by 1/5).

ACKS is influenced heavily by the BX style of D&D with refinements; it uses uses a 33% encounter chance for forest, just like BX.  However, the encounter chance is rolled per hex, not per day; our party travels 12 miles a day, clearing 2 hexes, so there's two encounter chances a day - a 55% chance of at least one encounter each day, and a slim chance of two encounters per day (also making the "15 minutes wilderness day" a risky proposition).  ACKS using the same chance of running into orcs as BX - 1/8 and then 1/12.  The ACKS procedures for getting lost are a bit different, since ACKS has a lightweight proficiency system; the default chance in woods is around 30%, fairly similar to its BX roots, but having a woodsman with navigator proficiency knocks it down to 10% chance of getting lost.

The Orc Encounter
How about if the group actually does meet some orcs in the forest?  How many is the group meeting?

In AD&D, the Monster Manual calls for 30-300 orcs (3d10 x10, I'm guessing) putting an average number somewhere near 165.  There's a 35% chance they're in the lair, which means there would be females, young, and various lair monsters there, too.

A BX wilderness encounter with orcs is only 10-60 (1d6 x10) - an average of 35 - and no differentiation between a lair or not.  In ACKS, the monster encounters express a hierarchy between dungeon encounters and dungeon lairs, and wilderness encounters and lairs.  The smallest orc unit is a gang (2d4 members, average of 5) and a wilderness encounter is a war band of 2d6 gangs (lets say 7 gangs, meaning around 35 orcs).  This is right in line with BX.  However, ACKS went back to including "percent in lair" language like the original monster manual, so the orcs are 35% in lair like in AD&D; this bumps the number up to include 1d10 war bands in the lair, making an ACKS orc lair encounter at around 190 orcs.  The ACKS lair encounter also includes the females, young, and lair monsters like AD&D.

Hope this brief survey is interesting to people - it was useful for me.  Going back to my original "problem", the 15 minute adventuring day, here are my conclusions:

The default wilderness tables in AD&D (and the ACKS clone) are plenty dangerous, but the humanoid encounters in the BX tables likely won't challenge a mid-level party.  In addition, the encounter frequency in BX supports a single encounter a day, unless the DM house rules something like "blood in the water" where a loud combat encounter triggers another check.  On the other hand, both ACKS and AD&D provide the chance for multiple encounters per day, dialing up the risk and challenging the 15 minute wilderness day.

It's clear the situations I noticed the 15 minute wilderness day happened because I was using straight BX encounter chances as written, or running The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, where wilderness encounters are intentionally paced far enough apart to allow players to go nova without a risk.  Running the wilderness AD&D or ACKS style should eliminate the issue.

Here's a follow up question - if you play AD&D, how closely do you adhere to the AD&D rules on getting lost?  70% chance of getting lost per hex seems to imply a significant amount of backtracking and remapping!

One tool that's been very successful for me was coming up with aids to help me identify the local terrain and what the party is doing at the moment an encounter occurs - some tables I put together back in December get frequent use during our hex crawls:  Too Busy Looking at the Map to Notice the Monsters.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dracula Meets Cthulhu

"You play Conan, I play Gandalf.  We team up to fight Dracula."*

D&D is a kitchen sink game - the core books and monster manuals are an eclectic mix of genres, mythologies, cultures, and legends that create a generic fantasy soup where anything goes.  The Cthulhu genre has a different aesthetic - man is alone in a hostile cosmos inhabited by inimical alien beings.

It always seemed a bit odd to me that the Call of Cthulhu book had stats for vampires, werewolves, and ghosts, supernatural monsters from the gothic tradition.  Traditional monsters never seemed to fit into the alien cosmos implied by Lovecraft's mythology.

On the other hand, a few tales cross genres; Dreams in the Witch House features a "satanic" witch, driven off by a crucifix, and rites to the Black Man (a persona of the devil).  It's an odd tale for Lovecraft; explicit references to Christianity or Judeo-Christian mythology are conspicuously absent throughout Lovecraft.

One of my upcoming books I'll be looking at is Shadows Over Filmland, the collection of Trail of Cthulhu stories that take the gothic monsters of 1930's Hollywood movies and presents short scenarios featuring them, each with a Lovecraftian twist that attempts to blend traditional (romantic) gothic horror with the Mythos.

That seems to be a common approach for inclusion  - allow the "traditional" monsters but give them an origin or explanation that ultimately aligns with the Cthulhu Mythos or eldritch sorcery.  These days, I also find myself putting more traditional monsters in Cthulhu games, but developing my own explanation for them.

There's a big problem with overthinking it, a trap I often fall into - the trap of explanation, the trap of classification.  Monsters don't need explanations or justifications; they just exist.  The players don't need to know where they come from, and it's usually better if they don't. Our need to classify and explain and have a "grand unified model" undermines the sense of wonder and terror.  Keep it WEIRD.  I need to come up with a pithy motto along those lines, tape it to my monitor when I'm writing.

Anyway - today's woolgathering was inspired by a more articulate post over at Ephemera on mixing demons into a Cthulhu game; (Hauntings the Final World). Ephemera is an intermittent blog that features excellent ideas for Bookhounds of London (for Trail of Cthulhu).

*The immortal description of everything awesome about D&D, from Jeff's place.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The 15 Minute Wilderness Day

I'll be upfront in this post - I don't have the answers today, just pointing out what I've experienced as issues, and hoping to get a sense from experienced DM's if they see the same thing as a problem, what they do about it, and so on.

Here's the problem statement:  The infrequency of wilderness encounters means that a party can unload all or most of their expendable resources against each encounter; it turns every wilderness encounter into a 15 minute adventuring day.

I really saw this problem when we dabbled in 4E, because there were these uber "daily powers" and players would dump their dailies against wilderness encounters while traveling.  I didn't play a ton of 3E, but I know 3E moved away from random encounters.  In our current 1E game, the group is mid-level (levels 6-7) and the magic users and clerics have serious firepower.  They can brute force most encounters, knowing that hit points will quickly be restored through magical healing, and the mages can dump magic missiles and lightning bolts with little risk.

The referee has a couple of levers and dials to adjust the pace of wilderness adventuring:

  • The frequency of wilderness encounter checks
  • The probability of wilderness encounter checks
  • The difficulty of the encounters

Let me cite a recent example of failure - the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth.  The wilderness trek could be an exciting part of that adventure, but the encounters are a) staggered to each occur a few days apart, and b) set around the same challenge level of the party.  The result is that a group can go "super nova" on each encounter, and the encounters are basically speed bumps and time killers.  S4 Tsojcanth was originally a tournament adventure, so perhaps that's why the wilderness piece is crappy - either it was bolted on later, just for publication, or the wilderness encounters were just meant to delay groups before reaching the main structure.

Coming up with an effective approach to managing encounters in the hex crawl is a fundamental requirement.  Wilderness encounter tables are "implied setting" - they should not be overlooked.  It seems terribly important to me to get them right.  Tosjcanth is a fail.

Anyway, this is what I'm thinking about right now in the D&D space.   I don't know that anyone has done a survey on how the frequency and probability of encounters has changed over time, but it's an interesting subject to me.  Default classic had a 1d6 check per day, with a 4-6 indicating an encounter when out in the barren wilds; there were lower chances in settled areas.  The Rules Cyclopedia added a 1d12 check while camped or overnight.  ACKS has a random encounter check occur for each new 6 mile hex.

Think of the variability in the types of encounters, too - there's a big difference between tables that include mundane encounters (like peasants) versus only monstrous encounters.  Consider also the variability in difficulty; running into a weak group of goblins in one encounter, and then fleeing a wandering giant the next encounter, creates a much different experience than having most encounters in the same difficulty range.

I'm going to shift around the books and do some research.  I have a high opinion of the ACKS effort, their conclusions have seemed rational so far, so I'm curious to see how their approach to wilderness checks compares to the editions.  The ACKS hardcover just arrived, and I can research in a brand spanking new hardcover.  Behold the glory:

New books make for a happy Monday

I love me some shark-headed giant centipedes

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Review of Stunning Eldritch Tales

We're kicking off our New York City pulp detective campaign for Trail of Cthulhu later this week, so I've been reading through some books I had previously overlooked in the Pelgrane Press catalog.  Let's start with a look at Stunning Eldritch Tales (available at the Pelgrane Site: Stunning Eldritch Tales).

Stunning Eldritch Tales is a Robin D Laws book, 82 pages, and covers four scenarios featuring different themes in the pulp style of adventure.  Here's the blurb on each from the Pelgrane site:

Devourers In the Mist
A rugged adventure tale in which the survival of island castaways is tested not only by the elements — but by the twisted shapes of half-seen, sadistic entities who haunt the atoll’s jungled interior!

Shanghai Bullets
Guns-blazing danger portends and international intrigue unfurls in the city of conspiracy, the licentious, opium-infused Berlin of the East. In the shadow struggle between nations, no weapon is more fiercely coveted than the star mirror. It brings blood-draining death from beyond the stars!

Death Laughs Last
When philanthropist and gadabout Addison Bright is found bizarrely murdered in his own New York mansion, only a team of doughty investigators can protect his reputation—and the sanity of mankind—from the awful truths lurking in his tragically colorful past.

Dimension Y
A scientific experiment yields the promise of a glimpse into an adjoining reality, a repository of man’s dreams and memories. But when the heroes peer through this window… they find cosmic horror peering back at them!

We played "Devourers in the Mist" as a one-shot a few years ago, and it works really well in that capacity - it's short, self-contained, comes with pre-generated characters, and super deadly.  I'd dare say it would be difficult to fit into an ongoing campaign without stretching credulity.  It has a strong theme of man-against-nature, with hideous monsters.

"Shanghai Bullets" introduces an element of underworld treachery, smoky nightclubs, and frequent betrayals and reversals.  "Death Laughs Last" involves big city criminals and a masked vigilante in the style of the 30's pulp action heroes.  "Dimension Y" is weird science run amok.  While "Dimension Y" is creepy and stressful, the Mythos is very much a secondary element to "Shanghai Bullets" and "Death Laughs Last" - these are pulp adventurers first and foremost, with a side serving of horror.

As Gumshoe adventures, the collection does an excellent job of presenting the strengths of the system, blending core clues, investigation, and resource pool spends to navigate complex plots with lots of non-player characters.  Using "investigative spends" is one of the more free form areas in the rules, so it's valuable seeing how the designer suggested them in his own published scenarios.

I previously bypassed running the other pieces in Stunning Eldritch Tales because they were so action-oriented compared to my regular tastes; my usual approach to Cthulhu gaming has been with "accidental investigators" like professors or antiquarians or unlucky journalists stumbling unwittingly into the world of horror investigation.  But the new campaign is going to feature a lot more "badges and guns" action, and I'm finding the tone of this collection is perfect for inclusion.

What goes around comes around.  I wouldn't have recommended this book when it came out a few years ago (not bleak enough, I guess...) but I appreciate that Cthulhu gaming is diverse and supports different styles like "pulp" or "purist".  Now I find it's an absolute perfect fit for the new campaign since I'm running something on the pulp side of things.  I'm glad to see there are plenty of scenarios out there to support the style - a few of these stories are going right into our queue.  The investigations in Stunning Eldritch Tales are intricate, sophisticated, full of action, and effectively capture the pulp vibe implied by the title - I recommend the collection to fans of crime novels and 1930's action serials - or if you just want to put more bullets and fists into your Cthulhu gaming.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Launching the Colonial Hex Crawl

After a positive reception to Monday's post on a 'colonial hex crawl', I started sketching out the ideas this week for it, and I'm really warming to the idea as a mini-project.

I like hex crawls that involve mostly human encounters, because of the wide open possibilities for negotiation and parley in lieu of fight, fight, fight.  The American wilds in the early 17th century had a scattering of frontier forts and trading posts of the Dutch and French, colonies for the Dutch, English, and Swedish, and larger French settlements in Quebec and Montreal.  The native Algonquin and Iroquois populations are both allies and antagonists, and the two nations themselves were made of tribes that competed with each other.  I'm envisioning a wilderness where common encounters could involve patrols of soldiers associated with a fort; fur trappers; traders and merchants; natives of many types - farmers, hunters, traders, and warriors; various Christian missionaries - English Protestant or French Catholic.

The frontier suggests a portable alternate to the gold piece economy - animal furs and pelts were the major currency between Europeans and the natives.  There are plenty of sources that lay out the value of beaver pelts vis-à-vis common goods.  Returning home with stacks of pelts instead of gold pieces and gems is flavorful.

It's easy to map standard classes to period archetypes - fighters and specialists are soldiers, hunters, trappers, outdoorsman, and native guides; clerics are missionaries or native shaman; magic users represent witches, warlocks, and hermetic scholars that have engaged with the dark powers.  (They should probably stay away from Plymouth, or Salem.)  I don’t have strong opinions on the demi human classes, yet, but will probably make them Old World rarities or isolated throwbacks.

Okay, great, I have an idea to make an early modern period work as a frontier hex crawl - what makes it over the top?

The exciting bit is to create an American horror mythos that works for the older period - something like Lovecraft's New England or Ramsey Campbell's Severn Valley, but set in 1630 and heavily flavored with Native American folklore.  The mundane challenges of foreign nationals and hostile natives contrasts with exploring the wilderness and discovering slumbering monsters and awful gods.  Meanwhile, the colonists and traders themselves bring their own civilized horrors with them - the curses of vampirism or lycanthropy cross the ocean with the colonists, escaping into the wilds and preying on peoples not accustomed to dealing with them.  Those two themes - "modern" people encountering ancient horrors in the wilds, and "native" people dealing with the blight of civilization - that's what makes it really interesting for me.

*The awesome Wendigo interpretation is by Monkey Paw on deviant art

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Angry Mutant Apes of the Black City

I was working on the ape men colony in the Black City's ruined arena, and had some fun with worm madness and the ape men.  Here's the simple version so you don't have to go back and read stuff from a year ago:

The ape men were slaves of the aliens in the city, white haired hominids like the Australopithecus, created for labor and servitude.  The aliens bred them by devolving early humans down along the genetic tree to a more primitive state.  The other factor to consider is worm infection.  The Greys bioengineered a parasitic worm that mutates and enrages its host (roid worms)- if you want a blast from the past, here's a whole article about worm infection: Worm infection and berserkers.  So what happens when a white ape gets infected with worm madness?

Angry Mutant Apes.

When the ape men see first signs of infection in a member of the band, they dump them in the pits, a series of warren-like passages beneath the tunnels where they lair.  There's a ramp leading into the arena from the pits, with a grate barring the way, and the ape men lift the grate to release the hungry mutants whenever the area is invaded.  I figure it's like Barsoom with snow and ice.

Angry Mutant Ape
AC as leather armor and shield, MV 12, HD 4, Atk 2 claws, 1d4/1d4, and see below, ML 7, AL N.

The ape men have learned to avoid infected water sources like the well in the Transit Tunnels, but there are still pools on the level 2 Warrens that have worm infection.  When a white ape is infected with worm madness, the unstable DNA of the ape men combines with the worm infection to transform the white ape into an actual 4HD carnivorous gorilla monster; 50% of them mutate further and gain one of the attributes from below.

1  Extra Arms - the mutant ape can make 4 claw attacks instead of two
2  Horn - a huge horn grows out of the mutant apes skull, granting a gore attack (1d6)
3  Vicious Bite - the mutant can bite for 1d8 damage
4  Oversized (extra HD) - the mutant is 5HD instead of 4HD
5  Sharp Claws - each claw attack is 3-6 damage (1d4+2)
6  Fast Healing - the mutant regenerates 2hp per round
7  Purple!  - 8HD and fist pounds that do 2-12 damage per fist
8  Gore slathered:  AC as unarmored, +2 attack/damage, morale 12, roll again
9  Super Intelligent:  has used low level telepathy or empathy to turn the other mutants into its followers
10.. ?

This table can easily be expanded.  What's your favorite ape mutation that belongs on the mutant white ape table?

* The picture is a mash-up of Trek, Congo, and the four-armed white apes from the Jon Carter Movie.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Review of Book of War

Last week, we spent about half our regular game session running a play test mass combat using the Book of War rules - here is the actual review.

Book of War is a short pamphlet (24 pages) that provides simple, easy to use rules for war game style miniatures combat with D&D troops, mercenaries, and monsters.  It's published by fellow blogger Daniel J Collins (Delta of Delta's D&D Hotspot).  In the foreword and design notes, Delta calls out three goals - to faithfully abstract the math and probabilities behind D&D combat, to create a war game that could be used during D&D or stand on its own as a side game, and to strive for a degree of Medieval realism.

The core rules are really simple to pick up - units attack with a d6 and a simplified armor value, and the rules around movement, formations, and the turn sequence cover about 5 pages.  The scale is 10 to 1.  Advanced rules in the same booklet cover things like units with special abilities and monster units, along with heroes and wizards.

Besides using Book of War to model military units in a D&D game, the book is set up for use as a stand alone game. Costs of units are balanced so that players could each build a force for the same points total, randomly generate terrain and weather, and play a table top game of movement and combat in lieu of a regular D&D session.  The author's blog features quite a few recaps of table top battles using various point builds.

One area where Book of War varies from attempts in other D&D mass combat systems is it diminishes the effect of leveled characters on the battle, unless the character is well above name level.  The concept is that when using the large numbers and averages calculated into Book of War's simplified dice, mid-level characters don't sway the outcome; it's how the math works.  For a party of player characters against special groups of monsters, the most satisfying approach for the players would be to have a hero versus monster side-battle using the standard D&D rules, rather than reduce their survival to a single d6 roll while embedded in a unit of troops.

The players really enjoyed this approach to mass combat.  The rules are simple enough that our 10 year old players could pick them up during the game, and start making their own moves (with nudging from one of the dads).  We've used the abstract combat of War Machine in our campaigns in the past, and this was greatly preferred - the players enjoyed be able to do table top maneuvering, and use terrain and tactics.  War Machine is basically "build a force, show up, make a single dice roll" to determine the results of a battle.  That being said, they recommended using War Machine for off-screen battles involving NPC kingdoms, and to use Book of War for player-facing combats.  One of the players does a lot of 40k Miniatures, and felt it was familiar, but simplified for fast play - thumbs up.

I'd recommend checking out Delta's blog; there were quite a few design notes last year that analyzed the math, and new units are added from time to time, expanding the selection of choices.  For instance, Delta recently covered lesser undead to provide stats for units of skeletons and zombies.  The book is available at Lulu in pdf version or print.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Moses is a 16th Level Cleric

Charlton Moses

We just passed Easter and Passover, and the pompous Cecil B Demille version of The Ten Commandments was on TV this past weekend.  The kids had never seen it, so we put it on the DRV; at four and a half hours, it was too much for a single sitting, and there are too many commercials.  We just finished.

Our kids are well trained geeks.  My 10 year old declared, "Moses is at least a 13th level cleric".  My daughter said he was a water bender like Ang the Avatar. When Ramses decided to plunge his chariots into the canyon of water, my wife is like, "Where is Admiral Ackbar when you need him?"  Then my son started conjecturing whether the fiery pillar was a flame strike spell or a wall of fire.

Assuming that the plague of hail is a suped-up Weather Control spell, I'd actually put Moses at 16th level  in AD&D terms - Weather Control is a 7th level cleric spell.  I think old Gygax must have liked that Cecil B Demille movie quite a bit.  You could argue there was Sticks to Snakes, Insect Plagues, Flame Strikes, Part Water, Control Weather, and even a bit of Commune in it.

As for the whole angel of death bit, regular clerics have got nothing.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Colonial Hex Crawling

I keep coming back to the idea of putting together a hex crawl for colonial New England - something in the mid-17th century, before the Salem witch trials, probably even before the Dutch lost New Amsterdam to the English - 1650 or earlier.

For our upcoming Cthulhu game in 1930's New York, I've been reading up on the history of the city, and it struck me how the early Dutch colonies of New Amsterdam had the frontier qualities of the American Wild West.  You have these European fur traders landing in the new world to make some money, heading up rivers and tributaries to trade with natives and trap animals, then returning to the settlements to get hammered and have a good time.  Basically the types of things you’d expect from adventurers.  Accounts of life in those Dutch colonies are quite a bit different from the theocratic colonies of Plymouth and Rhode Island.

Once you overlay the tropes of Lovecraftian horror, the idea of a fantasy game hex crawl in this type of setting becomes real interesting to me.  The native Algonquin and Iroquois nations struggle with degenerate neighbors that worship ancient horrors sleeping beneath the ground.  Alien terrors like the Mi-Go have been visiting earth for millennia, mining rare minerals and performing heinous biological experiments, such that remote ranges of hills are considered taboo for their evil reputations.  Beneath the ground, atavistic cave-dwellers emerge on moonless nights seeking flesh.

Many of the early colonists came to escape religious persecution; in a weird fantasy game, why wouldn't there also be witches, cultists, wizards, and sorcerers leaving Europe to avoid the inquisitor's pyre, either hiding in the settlements or striking out on their own?  American folklore has a tradition of "deals with the devil" - as the Black Man, or Old Scratch - happening out in the dark woods.   There's a theme of 'chaotic wilderness' versus 'law and civilization' that can be developed as well.

Part of why Lovecraft's body of work is so compelling is how he's created an intricate mythology for New England, blending science and cosmicism with supernatural horror in a self-referential body of work.  Stephen King carried the torch in a similar way with his Maine mythology.  I'm also enamored with Ramsey Campbell's treatment of the Severn Valley in England.  So I'd mine those sources for ideas on creating a sprawling hex crawl wilderness representing the eastern seaboard, littered with locations for these ancient horrors.

There could be opportunities for traditional dungeon crawls, too - cavern complexes and underground lairs of the atavistic cannibals, the lightless caverns carved by unknown hands implied by The Festival, the lost civilization of K'n-yan (from The Mound), or the subterranean dungeons carved by wizards to hide their experiments - like Joseph Curwen's dungeons from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

I admit, it' an unusual idea - I see a frontier of isolated colonies of competing nationalities, and then small border forts penetrating the interior of a dark and foreboding land, and then the discovery of monsters.  I usually carry around a brainstorming notebook for ideas, I'll keep it handy for jotting down notes for the colonial hex crawl and see if it generates a real spark.  Must be something about the zeitgeist, Chaoisum released a monograph called Colonial Terrors, there's an entire rpg called Colonial Gothic, and Sixtystone Press has a Colonial Lovecraft Country book penciled in for next year.  All of these works seem to be 18th century or so, around the time of the Revolutionary War, and they focus on traditional horror investigations, and not exploration and adventure.  Doing this type of thing as a D&D setting allows the use of technologies that explicitly support free-form wilderness exploration, like the D&D hex crawl and dungeon crawl.

With a cover like this, the LOTFP Grindhouse Edition looks tailor made for the colonial hex crawl:

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Ode to Karameikos

I'm way behind on listening to podcasts.  The combination of fantasy baseball preparation and working my way through YSDC's Shadows by Gaslight audio recordings, has me way behind on gaming podcasts - so it was just the other day I listened to a Bruce Heard interview over on the Save or Die podcast*:  Bruce Heard on Save or Die Podcast

I've observed that many of the folks visiting here love the BX editions of the game, and probably know that Bruce led the D&D line during the late 80's and 90's, launching the gazetteer line, the Rules Cyclopedia, The Hollow World, and many other excellent products of the time.  If you like that stuff too, the interview is a cheerful peek into how some of those books came to be produced; I particularly liked the discussion of Dave Arneson's Blackmoor and how it was retrofitted into Mystara's past, showing up in Glantri, the Broken Lands, the Hollow World, and the DA 1-4 series of time traveling Blackmoor adventures.

One conclusion that emerged a few times in the interview was the importance and relevance of the gazetteers, and how underrated they were by gamers of the period, who were focused mainly on AD&D 2E.  I've been meaning to put together a retrospective on GAZ 1, The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, so this is a fine debarkation point.

Karameikos showed up in both versions of the expert rulebook (the 1981 Cook/Marsh version, and Mentzer's edit).  The 1981 version is extremely minimalist - we're introduced to Specularum, Luln, the Black Eagle Barony, and various humanoid areas stamped right on the map.  Mentzer's version adds a few more places, the towns of Kelven and Threshold.  However, it's the 1987 Gazetteer, The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, that really expands the setting and embellishes the culture and themes of the region.

Karameikos is a frontier of the Thyatian Empire, colonized by a Thyatian Duke that invaded the land 30 years ago after trading his ancestral (Thyatian) lands for the rights to rule the colony.  This sets up a simmering racial tension in Karameikos between the Thyatian Duke, Stefan Karameikos, his loyal nobles from the empire that accepted positions of nobility and power, and the indigenous people, the Traladarans.  It has echoes of the Saxons versus the Normans in 11th century England, with ousted Traladaran nobles, stripped of their titles, competing through mercantile tactics, crime, and banditry, against the interloping Thyatians.  There's a similar conflict between the imperialistic Church of Thyatis and the native Church of Traladara.

Make no mistake; the themes may echo from the Norman conquest, but Karameikos is not England; it's a misty, mountainous land of evergreen forests and things that howl at the night on the moors.  Vampirism and lycanthropy are common, and the setting introduces a new kind of vampire, the Nosferatu.  Some of those sleepy Traladaran villages, nestled in the countryside, are ruled by nobles that only drink… blood, like the Nosferatu wizard of the seaside village of Sulescu.  The Karameikan countryside evokes Romania or Transylvania, and the native people, the Traladarans, have a Hungarian or Roma quality to their names and dress and customs that would work well if one wanted to turn up the volume on the Gothic horror.  (As written, the setting is very much high fantasy).

The Gazetteer is an extremely well-rounded DM's resource for culture and verisimilitude; it covers customs, dress, coins, calendars, holidays, politics, names, religious organizations, thieves guilds, heraldry, even ancient history and mythology.  There's a large section on personalities, providing statistics and practical DM notes on staging Karameikos's powerful figures in games.

Quite a few of the classic modules from the "B" line were fitted into Karameikos, and the later modules in the line were explicitly placed there.  X1, The Isle of Dread, ostensibly departs from Specularum.  Of course, the absolute high water mark for adventures is B10 Night's Dark Terror, which embellishes much of Eastern Karameikos, and exploits the land's mythic past, introducing ancient ruins and a desperate race to find the ruins ahead of a gang of slavers.  It's one of TSR D&D's greatest adventure modules, bar none.  Just don’t try to find it a nice version on E-bay, unless you want to pay (a lot).

Karameikos begins the excellent practice in the Gazetteer line of providing battle ratings for the various military units in War Machine terms, and scenario seeds on introducing wars - and in Karameikos, that means the revolt of the Black Eagle Baron.  The Baron is a roguish Prince John figure rebelling against Richard Coeur de Lion - if not the historical version, at least the Prince John of Robin Hood tales and Errol Flynn movies.

Karameikos is one of my favorite Gazetters to this day, and it’s my go-to setting for pick-up games with the neighborhood kids, because it has such readily identifiable historical tropes and themes.  I should point out, the Gazetteer is not without a bit of controversy; the early versions of Karameikos in the expert sets were far more sparsely populated, and the populations were increased by a factor of 10 to support a more populous and cosmopolitan Medieval kingdom (or should I say, Duchy); one comes across such nitpicks from time to time where those things malinger, like older message boards.  Don't be dissuaded; The Grand Duchy of Karameikos is an excellent book.

Well, let's hope that the suits at WOTC do the right thing and reintroduce their electronic PDF program for vintage games.  The Gazetteers were well produced, professionally written, and deserve to be enjoyed by newer gamers rediscovering classic D&D.

*I don't regularly listen to Save or Die, though I do check out the related one (Roll for Initiative) from time to time, but the interviews are a great way to catch up with various TSR figures from back in the day.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Review of the Black Drop

Shortly after reading The Black Drop, I knew it was one of the first Trail of Cthulhu adventures we had to play.  It has the right blend of exotic locale, real world history, weird horror, and moral difficulty to generate a memorable horror game.  Plus - for the D&D and fantasy gamers out there - the ideas behind this one make for a great inspiration in your fantasy or weird horror game, if you don't mind filing off the serial numbers.

The adventure involves the Kerguelen islands, a small cluster of islands in the far south of the Indian Ocean just outside of the Antarctic circle.  A steamer (with the characters on board) is headed to the islands to retrieve a failing French colony of shepherds, while across the islands are littered encampments from the age of whaling.  Unbeknownst to the players at the start of the adventure, a sinister group of Nazi scientists are on their way to the islands as well.

The Kerguelens are the topmost remains of the sunken Kerguelen plateau, which was home to the ancient Lemurian empire; as the players explore the island, they even encounter Lemurian artifacts.  The adventure revolves around the stirring of an ancient god, a 30 year astronomical cycle, ambiguity whether the colonists or the scientists can be trusted, and some difficult moral choices that force horrible decisions on the players.

The scenario is fairly open ended, and the players have a lot of choice around where they want to go and how they want to explore the island.  Time is a factor, as there's an impending astronomical event that drives some of the action, and antagonist reactions also drive some events, but otherwise this is a freer structure than many investigations.  It also offers a lot of interesting role playing situations for the keeper.

Some groups don't like body horror, or psychological horror, or having to do bad things, and this adventure confronts the investigators with decisions concerning the latter, so there's some fair warning.  My own group is not comprised of horror enthusiasts, and they thoroughly enjoyed the scenario, although the body count was quite high.  I'd recommend using the pre-generated characters and running this one as a one-shot, rather than integrating it into a campaign.

I highly recommend the scenario, it's one of the strongest in the Trail of Cthulhu line, and the investigation ends up feeling quite epic and action oriented for such a short jaunt.  I've often called it the "lite" version of Beyond the Mountains of Madness.  It's written by Jason Morningstar, an RPG designer in his own right (Fiasco), and the PDF format makes it a great way to test drive Trail of Cthulhu - the adventure is 40 pages, with 6 pre-generated characters, maps and handouts, and should cover two nights of gaming (6-8 hours).

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Book of War Comes to Gothic Greyhawk

It's been a few weeks since we had a game session - we reconvened this past weekend.  Our last game ended with the player's receiving a messenger pigeon with a note explaining how  a distant battle turned out - but I decided it would be fun to let the players command both sides in the battle, and play it out this week, using Delta's Book of War rules for miniatures.  Their own actions would determine the course of the battle, and thus the contents of the note.

First - a step back, to orientate readers.  I'm calling this current campaign arc "Race for the Demonomicon".   It began when the characters learned, while trading horses with hill men in the Sterich Valley, about their old enemy, the Witch, marching off into the wilds with her army of orcs.  She was seeking a foul book, the Demonomicon, and had claimed to have learned a clue regarding its resting place - the horde of Iggwilv, at THE LOST CAVERNS OF TSOJCANTH*.

The players researched the book back at the well-stocked library they inherited from the vampire, Strahd, and learned that Iggwilv (a legendary Greyhawk villainess) had compiled her multiple lifetimes of demon lore and demon magic into a famous grimoire, the Demonomicon.  They gained additional clues as to the location of the lost caverns, and set off into the mountains on their own expedition.  This was many game sessions ago.

On the DM's side of the screen, a number of powerful forces at work in Greyhawk have also launched expeditionary forces to be the first to find the book.  Based on their starting locations, I've been plotting their progress and identifying when they'll be in the area of southwest Sterich on the calendar.  There are many interested parties after the book.  While the characters were on a side quest to THE FORGOTTEN TEMPLE OF THARIZDUN, their gnome allies had a small force guarding the area of the Lost Caverns when the witch - the first seeker of the book - arrived in the area.

I set up two sample forces for the battle between the gnomes and the witch's orcs.  The gnomes were heavily outgunned, but the player's goal was to inflict some losses on the witch (knowing, as metagame knowledge, it would make their ultimate job a little easier since they might eventually have to face the witch themselves).  Enter, Delta's Book of War.

Book of War
Book of War is a supplement for OD&D that provides simple rules for running large scale miniature battles using D&D math around armor classes and hit dice.  I put together two basic forces for the players, added some scenario rules, briefed them on how to play, and then helped referee the skirmish.  (I'm going to put together an actual review of Book of War sometime in the next few days).

The players randomly made some terrain roles for the battle map, rolled for sides (the two 10 year olds ended up with the witch's overpowered forces) and away we went.

The gnomes fielded 8 Infantry Units, 3 Archer Units, and a parcel of magic weapons on one of the units.  The witch's side had 6 light Orc units, 3 Orc Archers, 5 light Evil Men, a Gargoyle unit (5 gargoyles), and a Troll hero.   I swagged the point totals, but I had it loosely at 50 to 75 in favor of the witch, a big gap.

Here's the set up (using little wooden blocks and discs for the troops - each block or disc is 10:1, so the 8 gnome infantry blocks at the top of the picture represent 80 gnomes, with 3 blocks representing 30 archers nearby).

Book of War is easy to play, so the kids quickly moved out their forces, even learning how to "wheel" their orc infantry.  We discovered the leather-clad orcs, with movement 12, had a significant movement advantage over the heavily armored gnomes, which only moved 6.  The dad's side had a few rounds where their archers, on the high ground, rolled nothing but low numbers - it already wasn't looking good for the grown ups.

The kid's figured out if they attacked the archers with the flying gargoyle unit, the magic items were too far away to help (and my test scenario is horribly flawed!).  Continuing their unchecked aggression, the kids charged their evil men over the hill, and finished wheeling the orc spearmen to bring them in on the gnome flank.  It was all over.
The guys really liked Book of War, it plays fast and fun, and they liked having something less abstract than War Machine, which we've used in the past.  We'll have to work in more Book of War opportunities (with evenly matched sides).

Meanwhile, back at THE FORGOTTEN TEMPLE OF THARIZDUN, the players read the note that contained the account of the gnomish rout they just played.  They spent a long time considering their next move.  Their last major action was a 3-week epic battle (3 weeks of game sessions) at the entrance to the Forgotten Temple, in which they fought wave after wave of humanoids and giant-kin.  They were exhausted and spent, but they had the strong belief that the dungeon was drained of armed resistance, and they'd soon be able to moon-walk around the dungeon from one unguarded chest to another, looting.

Unfortunately, the excursion to the temple was meant to be a side trek for them, and the witch and the Lost Caverns were their original goal.  Do they abandon the empty dungeon, leaving all that possible treasure unguarded, to hurry back to the gnomish vale and take on the witch?  It would be a 3-4 day tough march back to the vale, and who knows how many days further north would be the actual Lost Caverns?

On the other hand, if they stayed to explore the Temple, they were giving the witch unfettered access to the Lost Caverns, and a huge head start on finding the Demonomicon ahead of them.  A true dilemma.

After much debating, the following viewpoint won out:  The Witch was "lawful", and served the devils, not the demons; the group theorized that she wanted the Demonomicon to keep it away from Orcus and his minions, and wouldn't use it herself.  They knew where she had her lair - Witch Mountain, of course - and figured the worst case was they'd have to besiege her mountain to get the book if she beat them to it.  But their main bit of rationalization was that the forces of the Forgotten Temple were previously a major threat to their allies, and they owed it to the gnomes to make sure the place was properly pacified.  They also believed that a Holy Sword awaited them in the dungeons.

They descended into the dungeons of Tharizdun, experiencing black obsidian floors, and walls of mauve with ropy purple tentacles writhing just beneath the surface of the stone.  Each next room was asdisquieting and bizarre.  Minor treasures were found, and a bronze ladder was discovered in a secret room.  It descended down a shaft into the endless dark, only a cold draft coming from deep below to hint at what lay below.

The players are convinced the purple striations are evidence of the Mind Flayers, and the awful tentacle motif is more evidence that this place was an illithid temple.  The bronze rung ladder surely leads to the Underdark.

We needed to end for the night shortly thereafter, with many unanswered questions.

*Proper Gygaxian etiquette requires the capitalization of all vintage AD&D TSR products, just like in the DMG.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Headless Jotun

One of the areas I was revising for the Black City campaign last week is the Great Glacier.  The city is cut in half by a glacier that's pushed through the ruins, calving off ice chunks into the fjord along which the ruins sit.

A curious item to be found in the dungeons is the severed head of a jotun - the never-ending ichor that oozes from the neck has formed a pool which spawns nasty frost mites and other pests in the dungeon.  The headless body, on the other hand, is still frozen in the glacier…

The Headless Jotun
The jotuns are mythological ancestors of the races of giants, semi-divine beings dwelling beyond the world in their realm of Jotunheimr.  The passage beyond Midgard was once near the icy north of Thule.  This jotun's head was sliced off by an energy beam from the city's defense system, the Face in the Ground, and the ichor-covered head quickly melted into the glacier.  The headless body dropped onto the glacier - it radiates extreme cold and has long been covered by ice and snow.

Characters searching in the hex [I'm redoing the map, so I'll add the hex number later] have a chance, equal to finding a secret door, of noticing the 20' tall, blue, headless body, buried under 5-10' of ice.

If the Jotun Head is dug out of the dungeon and reunited to the body, the jotun's power is restored and the being will come back to life.  Roll a standard reaction to determine if the jotun immediately starts eating characters; if the reaction roll is positive, perhaps it offers a divine boon before stalking off to the north.

One other thing - the Face in the Ground may have been reactivated during excursions into the ruins; if so, it's entirely likely the Jotun is attacked all over again.

Fornjot the Jotun
AC as plate and shield, MV 18, HD 20, Atk By weapon or smash, damage 7d6, ML 11, AL C.

The jotun radiates extreme cold when angry, causing 1-3 damage per round to characters in melee with it.  The Jotun can cast magic user spells as a 13th level magic user, preferring spells of illusion, wind, or cold.

I always loved the part of Princess Mononoke where the mercenaries are running around with the head of the forest god of the wood, so I'm amused to have a bit with Vikings carrying around the head of an immortal giant.  I'm sure players will wonder what a jotun's head is worth, and it could lead to interesting problems if brought back to camp.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Cthulhu Gaming Patronage

Pagan Publishing had an amazing run of hit books starting in the late 1990's culminating with their Delta Green setting for  modern Call of Cthulhu.  I keep hearing on the message boards that an update to Delta Green is in the works, as well as a move towards publishing their books in PDF through One Book Shelf.  In the meantime, a few of the authors that contributed to Pagan's catalog have some related kickstarters to check out:

The Sense of the Sleight of Hand Man
This is a Dreamlands campaign starting out in 1920's New York.  Pagan's previous forays into the Dreamlands are more on the nightmare side than Lord Dunsany, so there's no doubt this will be a darker interpretation of the Otherworld.  Dennis Detwiller is a creative double threat here, writing and drawing the campaign himself; he has a lot of cool stuff on his blog to check out:  Nothing Can Stop the Blog.

Bumps in the Night
John H. Crowe III wrote and contributed to a number of Pagan's early Cthulhu books, like Mortal Coils and Coming Full Circle, and is the author on this collection of 5 non-Mythos horror scenarios for COC, Bumps in the Night. Pagan still has a loyal following and this one blew through the goal in less than half a day (both of these kickstarters are going pretty strong).

Pelgrane Press:  Night's Black Agents
Not a Pagan update, but since I'm on the subject of promoting horror gaming:  the next Gumshoe book, Kenneth Hite's Night's Black Agents, is in pre-order and is targeted for this summer (I'm hoping by GenCon).  Players take on the role of spies and ex-military in a shadowy world of vampire conspiracies.  The spy thriller genre is a great fit for Gumshoe's resource management - it should handle secret identities, hidden weapon stashes, underworld contacts, all that spy thriller stuff, really well.  I can see myself using this to do a mash-up of Trail and Delta Green and Night's Black Agents - alien vampires guiding the world towards the nihilistic ascendance of Nyarlathotep.

Pulp Cthulhu Inspirations

Pulp Cthulhu: Reckless Adventures in the 1930's jumps into the decade of pulp adventure! Enter a time when the world changes. Economic despair brings a nation low, while an eldritch shift in the fabric of reality unleashes dark horrors, and tempts heroes. Join in as secret societies and occult leagues battle against horrific creatures in a timeless struggle for existence.

Pulp Cthulhu expands upon the [Call of Cthulhu] setting and rules system, allowing for fast-paced, cinematic game play. It provides rules for insane scientists, reanimators, mentalists, gadgeteers, professor-sorcerers, supernatural detectives and much more...
--From Chaosium's Pulp Cthulhu blurb

Chaosium has been talking about Pulp Cthulhu for nearly 10 years - I remember hearing about it back when Cthulhu d20 was released, and I seem to recall an early version was even supposed to be a dual-stat product (BRP and d20).  That's a long time ago.

As I'm working through the background for our upcoming Trail of Cthulhu campaign, I realize the game is already going to be heavy on the pulp side of things - the characters will be a bit more stalwart than the nervous, sensitive types in Lovecraft's bleaker stories; the struggles will be a bit more real-world and physical than philosophical and dread-inspiring cosmic nihilism.

Note:  Ultimately I would like to run a campaign that features Lovecraft's bleaker themes, but I think it's something we'd either build up to, or run some one-shots in the Purist mode first - Trail has quite a few excellent Purist one-shots I'll be reviewing in the near future.  But a pulp campaign is a safe start for D&D gamers on their first foray into Cthulhu gaming.

I recently re-read Stunning Eldritch Tales, and it struck me how much two-fisted pulp action is already in some of the Trail of Cthulhu books - you've got sinister Nazi and Japanese agents, vicious Chinese triads and gangsters, jaunts to deserted islands, and weird science.  There's even a masked crime fighter like the Shadow, or the Green Hornet, in one of the investigations.

I'm working through the Dramatis Personae for the campaign, and we've  got plans to make player characters in a couple of weeks.

I've been thinking about pulling out my Mignola Lobster Johnson stories for some extra inspiration.  So here's the question for the readers - what's your favorite bit of pulp inspiration?  It could be a film, a comic, or even a gaming supplement or book.  Thanks!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Avoiding the RPG Railroad

Going off the rails on a crazy train

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
--Inigo Montoya

Earlier this week, Drance asked the question, "Can one merge the techniques behind railroading and the sandbox style of roleplaying?"  I quipped off an answer, something like "there is no style of railroad campaign, railroading is a technique, not a campaign style".  I've often observed the term bandied about to describe Paizo's adventure paths, or any investigative scenario, as if an entire class or style of gaming is railroad after railroad.  "We don't do adventure paths, because we don't do railroads".

The problem is one person's "railroad" is the other guy's great night of adventuring.  Lots of people buy and play those Paizo adventure paths and seem to enjoy them, so something seems fishy denigrating the whole lot of them.  I had some guy telling me recently the AD&D Ravenloft module was the worst railroad ever written.  I don't know which Ravenloft he read; the one we played was a 6 month guerilla war waged against Strahd and his coven of vampires, where every session tested the player's planning and resource management.  It was an amazing sandbox game.

This goes beyond nomenclature and definitions -  the whole issue is ridiculously subjective.  There is a sliding scale around constraining player choice, with varying shades of grey, and no clear demarcation point where diminished choices become an actual railroad.  Back when a few of us were discussing quantum ogres and whether the DM could fudge dice like Al Pacino, my concern with Illusionism was that if it was well done, the players wouldn't know the difference - so where do you draw the line?

Sidebar:  Illusionism is the technique of giving the players the appearance of choice, but the DM foists his or her own plan on the situation regardless.  The idea behind the quantum ogre involved moving the DM's precious ogre encounter into whatever woods the players entered first.  If you're Al Pacino, you can get away with it, and the players are none the wiser.  But Illusionism is the Railroad's cousin.  If I had to settle on a simple definition for Railroad, it'd be something like this, "imposing a predetermined outcome on the game's events" - at least to get past the semantics.

To give you an idea of the problems with subjectivity, consider these scenarios:  Is a trap with only one solution, a railroad?  How about if the town guard is after the party, and there's only one safe way out of town?  Does your answer change if they robbed someone, precipitating the man hunt?  How about when one NPC after another keeps giving them the same, tired plot hook, leading towards the DM's prepared adventure site? Is a linear dungeon a railroad?

My own solution to the problem of subjectivity was to look at things from the game master's side of the table, and to apply the objective test based on my definition of railroad:  Is the DM predetermining the game's outcomes?  Looking at the situations above, each one of them can be construed as a railroad if the DM has predetermined a singular solution or a particular outcome - if there's truly only one way to beat the trap, to get out of town, where to adventure, or how to proceed.

The interesting thing about blogging, you get exposed to new ideas, you get the chance to reflect and mature your own thinking.  These days I don't believe the objective test goes far enough - the opposite of the railroad is agency and choice, which means the players have explicit influence on the actual events.  The test of whether player choice matters is subjective from the player's perspective.  It's not enough for the DM to do the right thing from the DM's side of the screen, but he or she needs to let the players know they're playing it straight, too.

Consider this pair of railroad examples to illustrate the concern around influence and choice:

  • No matter what the players do, the villain is going to escape - invisibility, fly spell, teleport - the villain will pull something out of the hat and escape to return later in the adventure.
  • No matter what the players say to the duke, they're not going to change the duke's mind.

We've all seen adventures from the 80's that required a villain to make an appearance, do some bad things, and then escape to return later.  (Poor Dragonlance, always taken to the wood shed).  When the players slap a Silence 15' spell on the evil wizard, and he uses a teleport spell to escape anyway, that kind of apparent cheating seems to cross the line - it's like the classic dice fudging problem, not letting the players win when they've played well and should have won.

But consider how the answer changes if the players subsequently learn the big bad guy wasn't actually a wizard at all, but a demon in human guise using spell-like abilities to teleport (thus circumventing the Silence spell).  Likewise, the duke has been mind controlled by his wicked vizier and the players have no chance of convincing him of their innocence because of the enchantment.  It's only when they're surreptitiously visited by the previous adviser to the Duke that knowledge about the charm comes to light and they understand why things unfolded poorly for them.  In both cases, the player's lack of influence can be mitigated when they get the rest of the information - which is why I'm putting an emphasis now on going the extra mile in terms of player-facing information.

Here’s the summation.  The appearance of being railroaded is going to come up in any game - it's subjective, because there's a sliding scale of constrained choice.  The scale starts with resource constraints and mild nudging on the one end of the spectrum, and goes all the way to the DM's heavy hand forcing the action with Mary Sue NPCs, pixelbitching traps,  and undefeatable villains on the other side of the spectrum.  It's important for the DM to avoid predetermined outcomes, but it's just as important to allow the players to influence events through their choices, and ensure that they see that they have influence, too.  The TL;DR answer to the railroad comes back to the simple principle of "saying Yes" during gaming and ensuring that choices matter.

Getting back to Drance's question, my answer stands - there's nothing inherent about a sandbox game that makes it immune to the railroad, because the railroad is a bad technique that pops up whenever the DM starts reducing choice and influence; it's not a campaign style.  There are plenty of opportunities for the DM to introduce antagonist reactions and chokepoints in a sandbox that force the direction of the game, even if the sandbox started fairly wide open and player-driven.  I tend to think what he's really asking is whether the DM can introduce events, antagonists, plot hooks, and other elements of story-driven games into the sandbox, and still give the players a full range of agency.  The answer is YES, but use these things judiciously.

There are campaign styles that are more susceptible to the railroad technique than traditional site-based locations, which is how the adventure paths and story games get implicated.  I'm doing a lot of prep for our upcoming Cthulhu games, and the investigative genre is fraught with peril.  Impactful horror games rely on the big reveal, and if you're not careful, you can find yourself taking shortcuts through nudging and leading and railroading to ensure the players get to the payoff moment.  That's a big enough topic - avoiding the railroad during horror gaming - to make it a separate, upcoming post.

*The picture is Blaine the Mono, from the cover of Stephen King's The Wastelands