Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ramblings About Spirit Island

I'm traveling this upcoming week, but have some reading material with me and hope to get a few reviews posted.  A reader dropped a note asking about my process for gathering ideas for Spirit Island, and since I went a bit overboard in answering, the correspondence would work fine as a blog post, too.  I've been heartened by how many OSR folks are interested in seeing more D&D style of play in an Eastern setting, so here's where I'm at with the development and what you should see posted in the near future.

For starters, I've had a bunch of 'Arthurian Mythos' themed explorations going on at the house; I had just been reading 'The Once and Future King' with my oldest kid and we watched Excalibur (redacted) so he could see different interpretations on the cycle of stories.  The younger ones were just discovering Miyazaki ('Spirited Away', and 'Princess Mononoke') and the idea struck me - why not make my next project, after The Black City, a Japan-themed setting that combines the broad themes of Arthurian myth with a heavy dose of samurai and the spirit world?

I'm really early in the process and I have a ton of reading lined up.  Royall Tyler's 'Japanese Tales' has been very entertaining, and full of short, flavorful folk tales, many featuring monsters.  I've also been reading this guy's blog, it's translations of tons of short Japanese ghost stories:  Hyakumonogatari.

I finished Osprey Press's "Warriors of Medieval Japan" to get insight on equipment, organization, and tactics used by fighting men of the period (it covered samurai, ninja, ashigara, and warrior monks - sohei).

Other RPG writers have already done a good job of compiling cultural notes and daily life - thanks all for the many excellent recommendations - so I plan on getting ideas from games like Sengoku and Bushido on cultural ideas instead of focusing on primary sources, at least for now.   I recently became aware of a game called Blood & Honor, discussed over on the Age of Ravens blog, that looks like it provides lots of tools for building samurai clans and the political structures.

My goal for the main island is to briefly describe the high level political structure of the empire, clans, leaders, armies, etc.  The northern provinces, closer to the adventuring area, would be more detailed.  The remote island of Honshu will be created as a giant hex crawl, with scattered mini dungeons across it.  Most of the D&D style adventure will be on that island, renamed Spirit Island in the campaign world, but players can engage with politics and war on the mainland as they gain levels (assuming that's even interesting to them).

As of right now, I'm planning on doing it with ACKS - ACKS is an OSR type D&D (based on the Mentzer edition of basic D&D) that adds 3E style proficiencies and good custom class building options, two things that will help players achieve a bit of mechanical differentiation between types of fighting men.  ACKS also has a domain system I'll use to define the different provinces and daimyos.  I tend to view an economic system in an RPG as useful primarily insomuch as it provides guidelines on how large should be the different armies of the various lords, as well as what the players can afford if they get their own domains.  It's only a worthwhile exercise if the DM also thinks it's fun to do a bit of bean counting!

My reading syllabus includes those other RPGs, lots of folktales and Japanese horror stories, and a more detailed exploration of the construction, layout, and defense of Japanese castles and forts.  Readers have suggested lots of good anime, so my netflix queue is full for the foreseeable future.

Next up for the blog is more character class mapping and designs, and then I'll start developing hex maps based on Japan and outlining those high level provinces for the empire.  I won't actually tackle Spirit Island and the dungeons for a while - right now, ideas are just getting dropped into a brainstorming notebook as I find them.  I tend to keep a couple of long term notebooks handy, one for each campaign concept, just for jotting ill-formed ideas.  I highly recommend keeping good old fashioned notebooks on hand.  I'm currently keeping one for The Black City, the Colonial Hex Crawl idea, and the last for the Spirit Island campaign.

The Black City is on the front burner, so my priority is spending a few hours each week preparing for the next session - I try to do some writing in the early mornings. Evenings allow a bit of reading and jotting ideas in the notebook after the kids are in bed.  The Black City percolated and simmered here on the blog for nearly a year before it became the main game, so I expect to take a similarly slow development period for Spirit Island.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Grinding the Axe

I mostly stopped paying attention to message boards when I began blogging, although perhaps that was a hasty choice - entertainment springs aplenty on them.  I was drawn into reading a laborious thread over on the RPG site when Tenkar posted a link to a rant (the Osric guy rails against ACKS).  After a few years away, the acerbic dialogue generated a bit of nostalgia for the good old days of boards.

Sprinkled liberally amongst the complaints about the Dwimmermount kickstarter were charges levied against the ACKS system by various folks, most of them fairly pedantic or priggish - like, was the right population density factor and historical sources used for determining the economic assumptions - or because the game included a chapter on campaign rules, doesn't that mean it's completely abandoned dungeons and wilderness for bookkeeping?  In the aftermath, a few bloggers took up the call to discuss "How much reality simulation do you want in a fantasy game, anyway?"  (I'm a little pressed for time, so I'll see if I can get some links - but I know Noisms had one of those posts:  Medieval England did not have dragons...).

One of the complaints that's actually kind of interesting is that ACKS borrows too much from modern versions of D&D, like 3rd edition, by implementing a proficiency system that's reminiscent of 3rd edition's feat system.  Although the authors all play or run old school campaigns as well, it's clear they've had their feet in the waters of 3E as designers, players, and writers.  A handful of bloggers are running ACKS campaigns, but board discussion for ACKS seems to center on the big purple and Enworld, sites with more resonance amongst new schoolers, rather than old school hubs like K&K or Dragonsfoot.

The last poll I conducted out here is still on the pane to the right - 88% of the folks visiting the blog identified themselves as DMs.  This corresponds to the prior poll, where the majority of folks indicated they didn't need mechanics to differentiate their characters.  I wondering how much correlation there was between mechanics-light as a DM value, vs mechanic-heavy as a player value.

So how about this for a Friday theses; Folks that hang out on old school message boards and blogs are heavily skewed towards DM's that want to run lighter versions of D&D, without a lot of mechanical bits for player characters, whereas players generally would prefer a system with more player-facing toys.  There's nothing too revelatory in that statement; in my own current campaign, The Black City, my players have been clamoring for us to switch to ACKS, whereas I've been fairly content running it using the stripped down and lower-powered LOTFP rules.  I just think it's interesting to consider how we , players and DMs, come to the table with different expectations and agendas that need to be balanced.  (I did tell my players we'd run an ACKs trial for The Black City in the near future and try it on for size - there's plenty I like about the system, and I certainly expect to feature it heavily in my Asian themed setting.)

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Black City Game 8 - A Careless Transfixion

After what seemed like a month away from the role-playing table, we were able to get in another session this past weekend.  In fact, the weekend was a gaming bonanza - we also had a nice 4-player game of Dungeon Command on Sunday night, too.  But first, let's talk about how poor Arthur the Fair was transfixed by a giant lance and drawn into the mouth of a stone head and ground into a formless mass.

Breaking from the many delves in the giant tunnels beneath the city, the group finally started exploring the topside ruins.  Our last session ended with them finding a belt of levitation, which Arthur now used to float near the ceiling, clearing ice and debris and pulling open a pair of clamshell doors that led from their part of the dungeon level into the cool, crisp air of the surface.

Arthur floated higher into the air, so he could crane his neck around and get a nice 360 view of the surrounding ruined city hexes.  They now have the start of a surface map for hex crawling.  Not far to the north of their position was the edge of the great glacier that splits the northern and southern halves of the city, and the heavy mist and clouds that obscures the north half.  Immediately to the north of the dungeon entrance was a fascinating domed building, fully intact when everything around it was tumbled, cracked, and fallen.  Most interesting!

But as Arthur looked to the south, he saw a troop of Vikings a few streets over, pointing up into the sky at him, and clambering up rubble piles to get a better look.  Arthur quickly dropped down out of view with the levitation belt.

"Did they see you?  Are they coming this way?"  Those were the types of questions peppering Arthur when he got back below ground.  Since the 'voice of reason' in the group had to miss Saturday's game, the callous remnants decided that "dead men tell no tales"; the best way to keep their new entrance to the dungeon secret was to ensure the guys that spotted them never left the ruins... alive.  Climbing ropes were made to get everyone topside; the group scouted a good vantage for an ambush; a trap was laid for the other party.  Despite a careful approach, the Hersir and his guardsmen didn't stand a chance against the player's hail of arrows and brutal charge on foot.  The bodies were dropped down the long shaft after the useful gear and money was stripped off the corpses.

"Those guys were just in the wrong place at the wrong time", remarked Shamus.  "Under other circumstances, we might have tried to talk to them.  But we can't have word about our special dungeon entrance getting back to the camps."

While everyone was together on the surface, the party went to investigate the large domed building.  It appeared to be made out of a dull brown metal, apparently impervious; they could see where ancient obelisks and columns fell onto the building, shattering themselves, but doing aught to the structure.  Arthur was invoked to go scout the entrance.

As the thief approached the entrance, a pair of large ball-like structures, flanking the entrance area, rotated in their sockets and revealed (previously hidden) stone faces with large gem-like eyes. Each stone ball was around 10' diameter.  The eyes glinted with a faint orange gleam.

The group was cognizant that certain structures in the city would open to someone bearing the right color gemstone passkey, and they were fortunate to have an orange gemstone; Arthur held it out in front of himself, and approached the two round heads.  He was able to get to the door, which also had an orange flicker on a nearby panel, and his gemstone opened the door to the domed building.  Beyond, he saw a large circular place, dimly illuminated by occasional purple strobes of light.  They had discovered an untouched structure that had escaped pillage and ruin!

Greed got the better part of prudence, and Arthur stowed the orange stone to retrieve a chisel and hammer - he had every intent of looting those gemstone eyes from the rotating balls that flanked the doorway.  The rest of the party, a safe distance across the square, watched in horror as the stone ball behind Arthur opened a mouth, lanced him with a long, spear-like tongue, and drew the wriggling thief back to it's mouth, where he was crushed and mangled.  It looked kind of like the set of "watchers" in the middle row of this picture:

They spent some time with a grappling hook and rope, trying to snag Arthur's crushed remains and drag them back to a safe distance, in the vain hope that the orange passkey gem was still in serviceable condition.  No such luck.  They had no way to get into the metal dome or safely approach the watchers.  A cairn was built for Arthur, and the group returned to the dungeon below.

There's not much more to say; they explored a handful of new rooms in the Mist Dungeon, getting into a few simple combats, and not discovering too much of great interest.  We ended after the party chiseled their way into a frozen vault, and braved the chill mist in the frigid room to behold a number of 'specimens' in large upright tanks; there was a long-haired human, a muscular Neanderthal, a white-haired man-monkey, and a thing that was built like the Neanderthal, but had ashen skin, vicious looking sharp teeth, and appeared blind or eyeless.  They grabbed some electrum plates off the wall, covered in alien dot matrix script writing, and retreated to a camp site in the dungeon.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Abducted by Fairies

So - what happened to your character while he or she was abducted by the faeries?

Fairy abduction is a common enough literary theme, but we don't use it very often in games - mainly because players hate losing control of their characters!  It's a fantastic plot device in a horror game because it underlines themes of helplessness and impotence against otherworldly powers.  In a fantasy or adventure game, time spent in the otherworld should give the character some kind of benefit to offset the inconvenience of having to play a backup character for a time.

Here's a small table of "benefits" that might happen to a character who has been spirited away to the otherworld.  There are cross-cultural similarities between fairy abduction, alien abduction, carried off by spirits (kami), or snatched by one of the gods, so replace the word "fey" with the other dimensional being of your choice.  Some modern UFOlogists even use the term "ultraterrestrial" to marry these phenomena into a singular theory.

In my current campaign, one of the comely male characters was whisked off by a group of Norse dark elves a few weeks ago, after the rest of the party was put to sleep.  Assuming he's returned to the world in the near future, here are the kinds of things that could happen to him after he's spent time with their dread queen:

1 Time Loss
2 Fairy Marked
3 Abused
4 Future Sight
5 Psychic Empowerment
6 Favored
7 Altered State
8 Scarred

Time Loss
The character might have been gone for only a few hours in our world, but years or decades had passed amongst the immortals of the fairy world.  Advance the category on the age track (if using an aging table), or increase intelligence or wisdom by 1 point and reduce constitution.

Fairy Marked
The character returns with a distinctive birthmark that improves reaction rolls with fey creatures by +1, and takes a similar penalty with inquisitors or enemies of the fey.  (We also see these called devil's marks or witch marks).

Many abduction stories have a sexual component.  The fey took something personal from the character - in time, a half-human offspring returns to the world, fully grown because of the time differences between the otherworld and the mortal world.  The offspring is a wicked changeling who will challenge the character's place in the world!  (Literary examples of this type of character include Valgard (The Broken Sword) or  even Mordred (Le Morte d'Arthur).

Future Sight
The character was offered a disturbing vision of an unavoidable tragedy that will befall the mortal world in the near future.

Psychic Empowerment
Time spent among the faeries unlocks a latent psychic talent, such as ESP, telepathy, clairvoyance, or postcognition.  This new ability can be used once per day.

The character won the favor of a fey noble while in the otherworld; they return with a whimsical title and a magic item appropriate to the role.  Unfortunately, they don't fully remember all that was required of them.  Future comedic interludes are assured.

Altered State
The character has been enhanced or altered in a bestial way through exposure or experimentation - increase 2 physical attributes by a point but reduce their charisma.  (If it happens in the Black City, the character is now partially troll-blooded).

The character returns with hidden scars, chunks of missing time, and a bad attitude.  Their hatred grants them a +1 when fighting fey creatures.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Magic and the Spirit World

Spirit Island is an Asian themed setting for old school D&D I'm working on, based on folklore and traditions of feudal Japan.

Shamans describe the spirit world as consisting of a number of interconnected realms - the Summerlands and Nightlands,  Natsunokuni and Yorutochi; the Celestial Court, where the greatest of the kami dwell; the Pure Land, a place of great beauty and enlightenment; Yomi, realm of the dead; the Hells, the place where devils and Oni originate.  These distinct places are considered smaller realms within the larger spirit world, because it's understood by the wise that spirits, and the rare mortal visitor to the spirit world, can cross from one realm to another while on a spirit walk.

The Nature of Spirits
There are a near infinite variety of spirits, ranging from simple spirits personifying a particularly distinct tree or landmark, to the majestic spirits that rule the Celestial Court, like the Sun and her brother, the Moon.  Spirits range in appearance from horrible aberrations, such as giant clawed centipedes with human faces or the terrible 8' tall Oni, with their green skin and glaring red eye, to the glorious divine presences of the gods, who sometimes appear as men or women of great beauty.

Spirits do share some basic characteristics.  In the spirit world, they are physical and tangible, but in the mortal world, they are invisible and immaterial.  Many spirits have the ability to become visible, and some are powerful enough to manifest physically  in the mortal world.  Most spirits that can assume a physical form can only do so near an anchor in the physical world, such as a landmark or gate to the spirit world.  Immaterial spirits can only be affected by magic or their spirit bans.

The life force of lesser spirits is usually tied to a physical anchor.  A mountain spirit would be tied to its mountain; a tree spirit is anchored to a special tree or grove.  Destroying the physical anchor destroys the lesser spirit.  Greater spirits are not tied to a location in this way.

Spirits are usually affected by one or more bans that limit and control their interactions with the world.  Many spirits can only manifest at night; some can't cross running water; most can't travel far from their physical anchor.  There's no limit to how strange or weird are the possible bans; a spirit might be forced to appear when its true name is said a certain number of times in a row; some can't cross the threshold of house; a river spirit may never be able to walk backwards; a spirit may be forbidden from speaking certain words; another spirit is obliged to eat anyone appearing before it and not carrying a juniper sprig, while the next can't attack anyone holding a turnip.

Learning a spirit's ban is a difficult but important step to safely interacting with the greater spirits.  It's common for spirits to become fascinated with mortals, and folklore is full of spirits that have physically manifested and become the lovers and spouses of humans.  In most cases, the human is placed under a ban that will dissolve the union and send the spirit back to the spirit world if the ban is broken; common bans for these marriages include things such as never revealing the true nature of the spirit spouse, or remaining faithful.  The offspring of these marriages are the spirit folk.

Magic and Spirits
Detect Invisible is invaluable for dealing with spirits, as it reveals the presence of lurking spirits, and also reveals spirit gates - doorways to the spirit world.  (True Seeing also works).  In the mortal world, spirits are otherworldly creatures and can't affect someone with Protection from Evil.  They can't cross an Anti Magic Shell.  Dispel Evil can destroy a spirit or sever its connection to an anchor.  Gate can be used to open a direct path to one of the spirit realms.

Immaterial spirits can only be damaged by magic or magic weapons, assuming the spirit can be detected while it is invisible.  Physical spirits can be damaged by normal weapons, although the more powerful spirits are still immune to normal weapons, even in physical form.

Spirits are creatures of order.  Their actions and goals are governed by rules that are nonsensical or inscrutable to humans, but are binding to the spirits.  The greatest of the kami shaped the spirit realms and brought order to the primordial chaos.  Spirits are Lawful, and spell casters that draw on divine power are similarly Lawful.

Law is a cosmic alignment and an indicator of divine power; it does not reference good versus evil.  The majority of humans are plain old Neutral.  A human gains the Lawful alignment by drawing on spirit power, such as the various clerical spell casting classes, or otherwise gains a supernatural allegiance to a powerful kami.

Chaos is the echoes of the primordial void, the roiling elements before the creation of the mortal world and the spirit realms.  Monsters seek to subvert the natural order, destroy civilization, and return the world to the primordial chaos; they have the Chaotic alignment.  Magic Users and elementalists gain the Chaotic alignment by drawing on these powers of the void for their spells.

Note:  Although spirits have the Lawful alignment, many of their actions are evil when viewed through the lens of human morality.  Furthermore, most spirits have dual natures and aspects, one benign and helpful to humans, the other destructive and terrible from a human perspective.  Priests and shamans are often invoked to appease wrathful spirits and help them transition back to their benign nature, calming the angry spirit.

What's Next
I need to go back to working through character classes and class options; I did a bit on samurai as fighters a few weeks ago, and will continue with korobokuru, hengeyokai, spirit folk, and the other options for humans.  I'm using ACKS and the ACKS players guide, so it opens up some neat class options like the shaman, witch, and warlock.

I'll be starting to post spirit creatures here and there as I build out a bestiary.  I've tried to keep the cosmology loose and ambiguous, so interactions with spirits remain a bit vague, mysterious, and unsettling.  One thing I need to work into the mix is the nature of the undead, Japanese ghosts, and spirits of vengeance, and how they differ from ancestor spirits or the enlightened souls that reside in the Pure Lands.

*The image is Nayug, the spirit realm from Moribito: Guardian of the Sacred Spirit.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Aristotelian Traps of Game Creation

I've been mulling the nature of the Spirit World as part of the development for the future "Spirit Island" campaign.  It's a setting I hope to use next year by repurposing some OSR rules to cover ground similar to AD&D's Oriental Adventures.

Ideas are whirling around my brain - inspirations culled from anime like Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Spirited Away; concepts drawn from J-horror properties like Silent Hill, Ringu, Ju-On, or Dark Water; it's even territory that has been trod by roleplaying games, like Werewolf: The Apocalypse.

It's hard to break out of the western, Aristotelian, impulse to explain how everything fits together.  As a game master and world-builder, you're expected to have answers, statistics, and mechanics, to reduce the great mysteries to a mere set of numbers for game purposes.  A glance at the appendix in the Player's Handbook, the original Deities and Demigods, or Manual of the Planes, with those baroque drawings of the relationships of the planes, reveals an orderly pantry where everything is set neatly on its own shelf.  A careful model with turf set aside for every conceivable alignment or relationship to elemental matter is depicted in the classic view of the multiverse.  Were I a learned occultist, I could probably trace the inspirations for that model of the planes, perhaps to the Theosophists or the Medieval hermeticists.  That Gygax fellow was well read and had a mind for harmonization and syncretism.

Much of what makes movies like Spirited Away or the various incarnations of Japanese horror so compelling is the ambiguity, the not knowing precisely how things hang together.  It represents a loss of control - a realization that our narrow slice of being exists in a much larger universe where we don't understand the rules.  In The Ring, for instance, we almost start to get a sense on what motivates Sadako (or Samara, in the Americanized version), but just as we get close to comprehension, the rules apparently change.  It's quite different than most American horror movies, where there's usually some kind of silver bullet, some rational explanation that provides a solution, if the protagonists can only persist long enough to see it through.

So the challenge in developing an alternate cosmology for use in the Asian setting is this problem of creating a set of rules that govern how things work, but placing the comprehension of the rules beyond the purview of any of the characters (and maybe even the mundane inhabitants of the setting).

But certainly, some things are known about the functioning of the spirit world?

As the name implies, it is the source of spirits, both light and dark.  Powerful spirits of light might have been worshipped as gods in the past, and humans have sought to please them, whereas the powerful dark spirits can only be appeased.  It is said the spirit world is a reflection of the waking world, and prominent landmarks have their own analog on the other side, altered to exaggerate characteristics that resonate the emotion of the place.  Depending on how and where one crosses over, the spirit world can be bright and sunny, and is referred to as the Summerlands, or it is dark and forsaken, when one crosses into the Nightlands (the realms of Samārando and Yorutochi, respectively, although they could be one and the same).

There are rare places where the veil between the worlds is thinner, and mortal magic can create a bridge to walk physically into the spirit world - others can only project their consciousness, leaving their mortal form behind.  It's also easier to enter the spirit world during the times of the solstice, when the walls are thinner, or when using certain drugs, or eating special plants.  These are all closely guarded secrets.  Of course, at these hallowed locations or celestial phases, the spirits can more easily enter the mortal plane, too.

Water and mirrors act as conduits, and there are rumored to be deep pools lost in the wild through which a swimmer can surface on the other side.  Ponds, lakes and certain springs are all associated with spirit creatures, the most  dangerous of which are the dragons.  Other spirits range from small scuttling things, to powerful incarnates representing early gods.  Stories also persist of people encountering spirits of their own family ancestors.  But many spirits are abstract concepts, personifying such varied elements as mountains, trees, and landmarks, to emotional properties like spirits of madness, fear, and rage.  Have we created them through our dreams, or is it the other way around?

*The picture is a still from the movie Avatar, depicting the wilds of Pandora.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Delta Green News and a New Podcast

"Be careful what you wish for…  "  The Cold War is over, and the investigative power of government agencies has never been greater than in the post-911 and post Patriot Act period.  These new powers will only be used for good, right?  That seems to be the theme of the new version of Delta Green in development.  (Delta Green is a popular modern setting for Call of Cthulhu, kind of like The X Files meets the Mythos).  Delta Green's enemies from the 1990's are gone, government agencies like the FBI have more power than ever, and things are worse.

I missed the Delta Green panel at Gencon, but it was recorded and posted over at The Unspeakable Oath.  In the original Delta Green, most of the "weaponization of the Mythos" was being done by monolithic agencies with roots in the Cold War and World War 2.  They're all gone now, and the myriad occult experiments and research projects that were once centralized are now loose in the wilds.  Dennis Detwiller posted an art piece from the upcoming book, and the FBI has traded in their signature suit and ties for tactical gear.  I don't think we have to worry that the new game will be "Rainbow Six and the Mythos", however.  Bullets still won't hurt Yog Sothoth.

I'm not going to get *too* excited just yet, the product has no publishing date other than "sometime in 2013", but I'll be tracking it closely.  Kenneth Hite was on the panel; it sounds like he's joining Delta Green regulars Dennis Detwiller, Adam Scott Glancy, Shane Ivey and Greg Stolze on the new book.

Speaking of Ken, I've been listening to a new podcast on the morning commute:  Ken and Robin talk about stuff.  It's a general roleplaying and writing podcast hosted by Kenneth Hite and Robin D Laws, but it also dips into history and Ken's deep research on matters occult and mystical.  If you like their stuff, I recommend giving it a listen.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Scoreboard: Grading the Crowdfunding

So - how are you feeling about your pledges to various Kickstarters and Indiegogo's these days?

Smarter folks than me have discussed the new tools at length.  I've decided to group projects into one of three broad types and categorize them roughly.  I've observed crowdfunding is being used for:

1) venture capital for an undeveloped product
2) a way to expand or polish a nearly complete product
3) an alternative to a traditional preorder

All three uses seem pretty valid - the problems crop up when you think you're pledging to one type of program and you find out later it was another.  The key is understanding what you're being asked to support and make sure you're willing to accept the risk if the project falls into another category.

Many of these gaming projects are being done by hobbyists in their free time, not professionals as a day job.  There are likely going to be delays - even under the best of circumstances.  Heck, even professional and corporate products are frequently late.

I decided to run down the various kickstarter-a-gogo's I've been funding, relate how they're doing, and point out how they fit into the "three point model".  Since many of these are hobbyist products, it's unsurprising how many are running behind schedule.

ACKS Player's Guide
The player's guide was a number 2 - a full manuscript was ready early on.  However, the rewards system allowed backers to increase the depth and breadth of the book quite a bit, expanding the initial manuscript.  The hard covers for this one are running a few months behind the estimated date.  However, backers have had access to the final draft of the work for a while, pacifying anyone lacking a little patience.

Adventurer Conqueror King
ACKS seemed to be a number 2 to me; the rules draft was available almost immediately, but backers had the chance to tune the final rules while art was solicited.  This was a great project to support.

Barrow Maze 2
On schedule
This is clearly a number 1; Barrowmaze 1 was excellent, and the online response motivated the author to create a sequel; the funding project launched before the manuscript was in place.  However, it seems to be on schedule, so far, so good!

Bumps in the Night
Pagan Publishing used Kickstarter mostly as a preorder mechanism to get this collection of horror scenarios for Call of Cthulhu printed (#3).  It was ready for Gencon.

The campaign promised a July delivery; from what I see with the updates, this one looks like actual delivery will be sometime next spring - 9 months or more behind schedule.  The natives are restless.  It is what it is at this point - a project that's behind schedule.

Horror on the Orient Express
On schedule
The campaign isn't even done yet; I'm pointing this one out since it blurs the line between 2 and 3.  HOTOE is a finished product using Kickstarter to get reprinted, much like a preorder, but Chaosium is also using the kickstarter to do updates and overhaul the presentation, adding flavors of a number 2 project.

LOTFP God that Crawls and Monolith Beyond Space and Time
Partially Late
Both of these were presented as number 2, finished manuscripts that needed art, layout, and finishing.  Vagaries of layout and page counts have introduced delays and additional writing, creating split shipments.  However, communication has been up front, backers are being treated well, so I haven't seen torches and pitchforks forming outside Finland.

LOTFP Hard Cover Reprint
On schedule
This involves a straightforward reprint of an existing product (essentially a #3) but included a funding goal to get a brand new Ken Hite adventure written (# 1).  The risk of a professional designer not delivering seems fairly low.

LOFTP Grand Adventures
On schedule
This was clearly a risky # 1 - soliciting backers to fund a bunch of elevator pitches from folks known for work in adjacent games or media.  If a lot of unproven writers had gotten funded here, there probably would have been quite a bit of glass breaking at some point.  As it is, the selections that got funded all seem dependable.

Sense of the Sleight of Hand Man
This is a niche Call of Cthulhu product by Dennis Detwiler, a co-author of Delta Green.  It's a number 2, a manuscript that used kickstarter to fund artwork and enhancements.  It doesn't seem far behind schedule for a one-man product.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Seneca Crane Must Die

I had this guy as a DM once...

The Hunger Games movie recently hit DVD, so most of you should have had the chance to see it, assuming you didn't read the book last year.  My wife fanatically tore through all three books of the trilogy last year, eventually loading the audio books and making them mandatory listening on one of our overnight road trips this summer.  In this way I've managed to take in the first two books, and am working my way through the third now.  As an avid table top gamer, it's hard not to see parallels between the referee and the role of Seneca Crane - the Head Game Master of the 74th Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games novel describes a dystopian future where a vicious central authority, the Capital, has its boot on the throat of the twelve districts, after a bloody civil war concluded some 75 years ago.  As punishment for the rebellion, the districts must send a pair of children each year to the capital to compete in "The Hunger Games", a 24-person elimination blood sport where only a single child emerges alive from a specially prepared wilderness arena.  The annual games are designed to demonstrate the impotence of the districts, and the futility of struggle against the might of the Capital.

The main character of the story, Katniss Everdeen, volunteers to attend the games on behalf of her kid sister, who gets selected in the random lottery to represent District 12.  But I don't want to discuss Katniss; let's just take a look at the games themselves and the character Seneca Crane.

Each year, the games are held in a specially prepared arena designed with meticulous care by the current Head Game Master.  It's a sprawling wilderness terrain littered with natural hazards such as poisonous plants and dangerous fauna.  The 24 players (Tributes) begin at a central depot called 'the Cornucopia', where the Game Master has provided weapons and gear for the taking.  Players thrust into the game must choose between fleeing immediately into the wilds, or trying to weather the inevitable bloodbath that erupts at the Cornucopia as players fight to the death over weapons and gear.

Here's a crucial piece of the equation; the Hunger Games are televised throughout both the capital and the districts as entertainment and political message.  Seneca Crane's role doesn’t stop with the creation of the arena;  he's expected to deliver exciting television to the viewers back home and send an object lesson to the districts.  Fairness in the games is irrelevant.  If a player moves too far away from Crane's action, the arena is manipulated to guide them back towards harm's way.  If a player or group of players is doing too well, Seneca Crane inflicts additional hazards on them.  We see an example in the movie, when Katniss continually eludes her opponents, and Seneca orders her to be herded arbitrarily towards a group of murderous Tributes by a rampaging forest fire.  Along the way, she is blasted by fireballs and seriously injured, further decreasing her odds of survival.  Later, Crane conjures mutated hounds to chase her down as she continues to elude him.

Seneca is no hidden creator, no unrevealed prime mover, who lifts the curtain on the stage and then steps out of the spotlight.  He is a celebrity in his own right, interviewed on national TV by Caesar Flickerman.  He covets the stage.  He considers himself quite important - after all, he is privy to the secret thoughts of the President.  He has an agenda, and he will not be denied.  His manipulations infuriate the players, just as much as his meddling infuriates us as readers.

I would hope the applications to table top gaming are evident.

Capsule Review:
Stepping off the soap box a moment for a capsule review, I will say the books are an entertaining, fast read.  The series follows in the footsteps of great dystopian works like Brave New WorldFahrenheit 451, The Handmaid's Tale, and 1984, holding up a mirror without too much overt proselytizing.  The parallels to reality TV and the Survivor phenomenon are compelling.  As a fan of mythology, I appreciated the allusions to Theseus and the use of the term "Tributes" to describe the unlucky children chosen for the games.  It's a theme that echoes in the other books.

I recommend the series if you like science fiction, and don't mind it toned down just a bit to fit the 'young adult' genre.  Young adult does't mean unintelligent.  You might even pick up a few useful ideas for tricks, traps, and puzzles from the arenas, for use in your own role playing game setting.  I certainly did.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

ACKS and Oriental Adventures: The Samurai

My future campaign setting, Spirit Island, is heavily themed on feudal Japan.  I'll post bits and pieces here on the blog and file them under 'Spirit Island' and 'Oriental Adventures'.  While I work out maps and provinces in the background, I'm starting by posting a rundown of classes and character options here on the blog.

The most fateful decision I've made is to build the game using ACKS as the rule set - Adventurer Conqueror King. The career arc that's strongly supported in ACKS - dungeon and wilderness exploration transition to campaign roles and domain management - perfectly fits my goals for the campaign.  The proficiency system in ACKS provides sufficient customization to the core classes to model archetypes from feudal Japan using core classes.  I am strongly biased towards using existing classes where possible, since it encourages compatibility across editions.  Where there's not a good fit, like new race-classes for an Asian setting, then I'll build them using the ACKS player's companion.

First off, let's look at one of the core classes in the setting, the Samurai template for the fighter class.  We previously discussed here on the blog that the fighter covers everything from Roman legionnaires, Mongol horse archers, European knights, to the Samurai.  ACKS does the fighter justice, equipping the class with extra damage, built-in cleave, and proficiencies to customize the fighting style.  Between extra damage and cleave, a mid to high level samurai will be able to wade through lesser opponents in the finest Chanbara film style.

Perhaps the biggest reason to make the Samurai a fighter is the inherent social mobility in the historical period I'd like to emulate.  During the Warring States period, there are many examples of common-born warriors distinguishing themselves on the battlefield, getting promoted into the ranks of the samurai, and eventually founding their own clans and daimyōs.  Samurai shouldn't be a "class" that you have to start at level 1; if you’re not born into a noble family, you can still get a promotion to samurai status through service to a lord and feats of arms.

That's the essence of excellent old school gaming - where character is something you become through play and survival and advancement, and not fully formed at the beginning of the game.

The Samurai - A Fighter Template for ACKS
The samurai are the military elite of feudal Japan.  The role is defined through service to a lord as a vassal.  A samurai is oath bound to follow a moral code called bushidō, which requires loyalty to lord and family, martial prowess, maintenance of honor, and willingness to die in service.  A samurai is expected to be an expert rider, archer, spearman, swordsman, and versed with various meditative arts, such as gardening, calligraphy, ink-painting, poetry, and the tea ceremony.

Suggested proficiencies
Riding, and either two-handed weapon fighting or precise shot

Suggested equipment
O-yori armor, kabuto helmet, katana (long sword), wakizashi (short sword), yari (spear), daikyu (great bow), quiver and 20 arrows, additional equipment - kimono robes, sandals, rice ball rations, canteen, riding horse, saddle, pennant (sashimono)

What's missing?
Perusing the standard ACKS proficiency list, there are not many gaps.  One of the famous elements in the samurai media and literature is the quick draw capability, the techniques of iaijutsu.  An encounter moves from parley or verbal confrontation into a duel at blinding speed, with katana whirring from their sheaths and striking down opponents all in one fluid motion.

Iaijutsu:  The character excels at quickly drawing his or her weapon and making an immediate attack.  The character gains a +4 bonus on initiative rolls during the first round of combat, before weapons are drawn.

The huge importance placed on etiquette and artistry seem affectations of a later time period, when court politics rose in prominence, but Zen has a long history throughout the period.  I'm on the fence whether an etiquette proficiency should be added (even if a player believes calligraphy, tea ceremony, poetry, and so on is important for his samurai character); most likely, I would just treat arts proficiency as covering the samurai arts, and diplomacy covers etiquette.

The primary samurai unarmed technique was jujutsu, comprising a series of chokes, armbars, throws and holds, the forerunner of modern judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.  ACKS has a proficiency that boosts unarmed striking.

Jujitsu:  The character is skilled at chokes, armbars, wrestling throws and holds.  When the character attempts to wrestle in combat, the normal penalty of -4 on the attack roll is reduced to -2, and the opponent receives a -2 penalty on the saving throw to resist the maneuver.  (Note:  I realize this is exactly the same as the 'combat trickery' proficiency, which actually does cover wrestling - I like the updated name for flavor).

Over on the Autarch forum, Alex (the author of ACKS) had posted a system for reputation that he uses in his home game; it would work well here and I'll see if it can be cross-posted.

Other proficiencies that make sense for fighters on the samurai career track include combat reflexes, command, fighting style, unarmed fighting (atemi waza!), and weapon focus.  Useful general skills include art (samurai art skills), diplomacy (etiquette), intimidation, leadership, manual of arms, military strategy, and riding.

Intimidation raises a good question - what about the 'psychic duel' from Oriental Adventures?  This was the idea that two swordsmen would have a battle of wills before a fight, with the loser admitting defeat before a sword was even drawn.

I can imagine a few different (and simple) approaches working for psychic duels; perhaps it's generated as a reaction roll modified by charisma, Intimidation skill, and reputation (since the reputation modifier is a factor of experience level and deeds).  The character that gets the highest psychic duel roll in the stand-off gets a bonus on attack rolls if the fight actually happens.  The loser has an opportunity to bow out before initiative is rolled.

Alternatively, Psychic Duel could be a new proficiency that allows a character with the proficiency to force a morale check before combat even starts with a successful throw.  Like the Intimidation proficiency itself, it would be limited to working on lower level flunkies only.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Upcoming in the Black City: The Warrens of Decay

It's been a long time since I posted anything on the Black City, other than game reports.  I'm usually running my home group through it as our weekly game, giving me a chance to test things out and make necessary changes.   But I haven't been musing much about the upcoming stuff.  Let's talk about the massive second dungeon level below the city, the Warrens of Decay.

Spoiler warning:  if you're a player in my home game, you should skip this one  - it'll be much more fun discovering this first hand.  But I won't leak anything too important on the blog.

Below the Transit Tunnels is a massive cavern complex filled with an underground mushroom forest, drawn out on hex paper to cover miles of terrain, similar to the Vault of the Drow.  Back when the city was functional, automatons and workers inserted organic matter (ie, dead animals) into the growth matrix to support a rich biosphere of alien mushrooms for feeding the overlords of the city.  One of the classic sci fi tropes of the city is that the AI's and other systems are still running in the absence of their interplanetary makers.  The fungus still grows, and corpses are still inserted into the matrix to provide nutrients for the biosphere.

The warrens are crawling with oversized insects - all those giant spiders, beetles, centipedes, ants, and other creepy crawlies that litter the pages of our favorite D&D bestiaries.  Rage worm contamination has forced many normal species to grow to gigantic proportions, while amplifying the creature's aggressiveness.  There's even a deep chasm separating two halves of the warrens, inspired by that gruesome chasm with all the giant bugs and worms from the King Kong remake.

There are a handful of intelligent factions that have claimed different sections of the underworld - a kingdom of Neanderthals, serving their blue skinned goddess; the horrible bat-worshipping Morlocks, who curry favor with deeper denizens through their blood sacrifices; the automatons themselves, who maintain a degree of order, led by the hordes of 'glass spiders' that scurry across the cavern ceilings looking for organic matter to insert into the matrix.

I loved the old 30's sci fi movie with "She Who Must Be Obeyed", and so the Neanderthals are led by an immortal priestess-queen who is yearning for some new company, ie, the player characters.  SWMBO found the ancient Neanderthals across the sunless sea in their homeland, and it's possible for players to piece together their ancient exodus by studying the Neanderthal mythology, and thus learning about that lost homeland.  The origins of the Morlocks, Neanderthals, and the White Apes of the upper ruins, are all entwined with an ancient eugenics program that happened in the breeding caverns beyond the sunless sea.

Much like a modern theme park, there are secret areas in the caverns from which scurry the glass spiders and other automatons that maintain the systems, and these entrances provide access to some of the smaller dungeons, as well as the deeper dungeon levels below the warrens.  If you've followed the game reports closely, you may recall there was a Latin inscription found by the players that implied a lost colony of Roman sailors, stranded on Thule centuries ago, abandoned the frozen surface world to carve out a new life in the underground forest.  There are clues to the fate of those lost colonists to be found, as well.

The Warrens are structured for characters level 3-4, and the guys are still level 1, so the home group is still some time away from being able to survive the caverns.  But it's fun to provide some teasers about the upcoming areas.

Underground "mushroom forests" have been an inspirational part of D&D and similar games since the beginning; the top picture is from B1 In Search of the Unknown; the middle one is from 4E's book on The Underdark, and features the troglodyte mushroom city; the last is just a screen shot from Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Dreamblade Monsters

The latest campaign idea I've started throwing some energy behind is to develop a setting inspired by feudal Japan, the warring states period, but put a lot of the action on a nearby mist-shrouded island I'm calling "Spirit Island".  Spirit Island is a place where the walls between the mortal world and the spirit otherworld are thin; beings can slip sideways between the worlds on Spirit Island - especially near the shrines and dungeons the players will be seeking out.

One of the things I'd like to do is build out a bestiary of strange and unusual creatures… and then it hit me, I have this gigantic collection of Dreamblade figures just hanging out in the garage.

Anyone out there also play Dreamblade back when it was in print?  I was all in on that game - tournaments, qualifiers, the whole thing.  Game play featured a strong analytical component like chess, requiring constant calculations of future moves and probabilities.  It ended up being a bit too intense for the casual crowd, the random boosters were pricey, and I'm sure the design costs for the minis were high; Dreamblade was killed after 5-6 sets were released.

There are nearly 400 sculpts across the various Dreamblade sets, drawing inspiration from a wide range of cultures and themes.  The figures are usually a bit weird and unusual, and many of them are horror-themed.  I should be able to find some excellent inspiration for the bizarre and otherworldly inhabitants of the spirit realm by browsing the Dreamblade figure pool.

Listed in the picture is the dreadmorph ogre, the windborne blademaster, the thunder sultan, the inspired samurai, the boneblade serpent, and the fleshless reaper.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Stop Fretting About Running a Historical Game

I didn't go to nearly enough seminars at Gencon, but one that made a big impression was called "History, Panic, and History Panic".  It was chaired by Kenneth Hite and Jason Morningstar, two authors that have both published period-based Cthulhu scenarios.  The seminar was entertaining, filled with anecdotes and interesting vignettes from the author's experiences; my second-hand notes of it are rather dry.  Nonetheless, here are the excerpts  - they're very topical for me, as they'll be guiding principals as I lay the groundwork for an upcoming Japan-themed D&D campaign.

The overarching advice that came out of the seminar, a guide to solving all problems that arise when running a period game, is to use common sense, don't be an ass, and have a clear understanding what everyone at the table wants from the game.  If the players are there to stab monsters in the face, spending inordinate amount of time on Victorian social customs is going to bore the snot out of everyone but the GM.

You have permission to change things up, so don't feel constrained by future history or making sure events unfold like the books.  Future events from actual history are a 'What If' scenario.  As Ken quipped at one point, "You've stuck vampires or Great Cthulhu or magic into the setting - you've already voided the warranty".

The social arrangement goes both ways; the game master needs to understand the expectations of the players, but that one player with a PHD in Egyptology needs to understand the game master has a day job and might get some minutiae wrong.  Players need to curb their pedantry for the greater good.  It was also suggested the game master incorporates the expertise of knowledgeable players into enriching the game by letting them act as guides into the details of the setting for the other players.

If players don't know history, a new period can be daunting - especially because the GM has probably read a ton about the history and customs; that's why he or she thinks the setting is interesting in the first place.  The past is a foreign country.  Lay a trail of breadcrumbs so players can learn about the setting without an infodump; for example, recommending cinematic examples of the setting can help ease players into it.  Teach about the setting through observing NPC interactions or getting direct pointers from NPCs, following the popular "show don't tell" advice.  Avoid punishing the players for lack of setting mastery through the use of those helpful NPCs or NPC examples.

What about issues around social justice in the historical game setting?  How should you approach racism, slavery, genocide, caste relationships, any number of awful historical institutions that engendered injustice and worse?  Once again, keep in mind what the game is about, avoid dictating how players should feel or act, and ensure the players have free agency.  Thus, if your game is at the height of the Roman Empire, and the players don't like slavery, you need to be willing to let the players do something about it instead of overriding choice, ala "Your character wouldn't feel that way".  There could be in-game consequences for player actions, such as when they choose to let a bunch of slaves go free, but players need to be free to make their own choices for their characters.

So how would these become guiding principles for my Spirit Island game?

All you have to do is flip through other RPGs that are based in a setting like feudal Japan, and you see that 50% or more of the content is all about caste, customs, and social skills - I'm thinking of Bushido, Sengoku, or L5R, where so much of the game is posited on social interaction - saying and doing the right things, in character, in order to interact with the setting appropriately.  That's great if all the players are deeply bought into the setting and are invested in getting the etiquette right.  My game is going to be about D&D type stuff - encountering weird inhabitants of the spirit world, exploring misty islands, solving puzzles, kicking in doors, and getting into fights with other samurai.  At higher levels, I'd expect the players to have domains and lead their own armies, too.

I'm sure my players would be interested in following some of the conventions of feudal Japan, that's all part of the secret sauce and flavor of the thing.  But realistically, they're not going to read a 50 page guide to customs before making characters and wanting to throw down with some monsters.  Easing the culture in via breadcrumbs, show don't tell, and using NPC "guides" will be crucial, along with taking the social side of things slow.

Placing the initial adventures on a mist-shrouded island lets the players focus on doing D&D stuff, while giving them a chance to discover the social side of the setting piecemeal as they gain levels.  I think it should work fine.

Note:  it seems to me this advice around historical gaming applies equally well to the Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk, where suitcases of minutiae, trivia, and endless sourcebooks and novels, have created all the same problems with setting mastery and pedantry you might encounter with historical gaming.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Review: Betrayal at House on the Hill

A horror-themed board game in a neat 60-90 minute package

Back from vacation, and it's time to fire up the blog again.  While I'm mulling where to go next with the Asian-themed D&D setting, and plugging away on the Black City's dungeons, I'm taking a quick side trek to review a horror-themed board game.  I like board games as a change of pace when we don't have a full table for the weekly RPG, or as a way to get the non-gamers and family to the table when they don't want to commit to a 3-4 hour role playing session.

Betrayal at House on the Hill quickly builds suspense and excitement as players explore a haunted mansion of their own design, encountering spirits and frightening omens that foretell their fate. With an estimated one hour playing time, Betrayal at House on the Hill is ideal for parties, family gatherings or casual fun with friends.

This is a tile-based game where the players cooperatively explore a creepy haunted house, building the game board as they go along.  When a player moves his or her miniature figure into an unexplored room, a new room is pulled from the deck of room tiles and revealed - so the board is always different.  The house has a ground floor, an upstairs, and a basement - of course.  Any given room will usually feature a creepy Event, a useful Item, or a dire Omen.

About halfway through the game, the number of Omens discovered reaches critical mass, and one of the players will be revealed as "The Traitor".  That player takes control of the monsters and tries to squash everyone else, who team up to defeat the scenario.  There's a clever mechanic that cross-indexes the triggering Omen, the room it was discovered, and the current characters, to identify which monster and scenario is involved and which player becomes the traitor.  There are 50 scenarios in the 1st edition of the game, more in the new one, providing a ton of replay value.

The 1st Edition box cover
I have the 1st edition of the game from 2005 or 2006, and there were plenty of issues - the FAQ document that provides errata and clarifications was like 20 pages long!  However, the 2nd edition that was released in  2010 purports to clear up most of the issues, while adding additional cards and scenarios.  It looks like the 2nd edition retails for around $45, with online purchases around $35-$40.

The game uses dice to resolve combats between the players and the monsters, and whether characters can solve puzzles or avoid being affected by creepy things in the house, losing sanity and other attributes.  The end-game is an elimination game, as the monster tries to kill off all of the explorers and take dominion.   The game plays quickly, getting done in 60-90 minutes, and the desperate fight against the monster usually goes very fast.  There is a lot of swing to the endings; sometimes the explorers need a room or an item that hasn't even been found yet, and they're quickly trying to find the missing stuff while the monster hunts them down; sometimes the explorers have everything they need and can take the fight right to the monster.  Either way, It seems the monsters win more than half the time - isn't that how it should be in a horror game?

That was our experience when we played over the weekend; our brainy scientist player was exploring the upstairs of the house, when he discovered a magic skull.  Unfortunately, picking it up allowed the Worm Ouroboros to take over his body, splitting out of his corpse and quickly spreading its coils around the upstairs of the house.  We had to kill the two snake heads of the demigod before too many body coils entered the mortal plane!

The guy playing the little girl character sent his dog to retrieve the magic skull, and he handed it off to my character, Peter Akimoto, who faced down one of the snake heads.  It took a few rolls, but the scenario allowed me to cast a magic ritual that weakened the Ouroboros and made it temporarily mortal.  Now all we had to do was kill the two heads.  Unfortunately, Peter was eaten shortly thereafter and I was out of the game.

The last two players desperately tried to catch up to the snake heads before Ouroboros became unstoppable.  The little girl had the mystic "blood dagger", and was able to use a secret passage to get upstairs and stab one of the heads to death after a few rounds of combat.  But our hulking tough guy, Ox Bellows, was constrained by all the body coils that snaked down the stairs into the foyer, stretching throughout the first floor, and he couldn't catch up to the other snake head before Ouroboros burst completely into the mortal world, destroying the rest of the house and killing all the explorer players in the rubble.  The monster player won.

Every game of Betrayal at House on the Hill is different; it's quirky, fun, and has plenty of enjoyable horror atmosphere and themes.  Although Arkham Horror and Mansions of Madness have 'bigger' names in the horror board game field, the fact that Betrayal gets done fast (60 minutes or so) is a big plus for me - we can play it and still get in other games as well.  I definitely recommend it.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Black City Game 7: Some Unfortunate Events

In which our player characters were subdued by a Sleep Spell, robbed blind by a trio of villainous elves, and praised by a gang of berserkers.

These unfortunate events happened after the group spent too much time searching the hallway outside the first junction, and were taken unawares by "wandering monsters", a trio of dark elves (Dokkalvir).  The guards didn't notice them coming down the north passage, until the elves were close enough to hit the party with a Sleep spell.  Sleep and 1st level characters is a bad combination.  Borghild the cleric was left awake, but she succumbed to an Elven Charm spell that was cast by one of the others.

After Borghild helped her new friends borrow various pieces of party treasure, she even helped prepare the sleeping Agnar for a visit to go see the Queen of the dark elves, Mab.  "She likes the handsome humans", the laughing elf told her, "but we'll make sure your friend is well taken care of when we get him back to Svartalfheim".  Agnar was quickly trussed and carried off by the dexterous elves, who were careful not to wake anyone.

"Be a good dear and let your friends rest a bit longer," they said as they carried off both the loot and Agnar.  "We'll be sure to bring back the silver at our first opportunity, and Agnar will be so relaxed after a stay with the Queen".  Multiple failed saves ensured that Borghild trusted the assurances of her new friends implicitly.

While waiting for them  to awaken, which took hours, there was time for a gang of berserkers to come stalking in from the east.  More wandering monsters is what happens when the entire party falls asleep in a high traffic dungeon crossroads.

"Well, well, well, what have we here… a wee woman, all by her lonesome in a big dark passage," said a leering berserker.

"Hey, what do you make of all this," said another one, peering around and seeing all the sleeping guys.  "There are guys all over the floor here, sleeping."

This caused some consternation in the berserkers, who were dumbfounded that anyone would make a camp right in the middle of a dangerous hallway.  "When you're the baddest dude in the dungeon, I guess you sleep where you want.  Look at that fat dwarf on the floor, snoring like a baby, not a care in the world.  You wanna wake him up?  Momma always said don't kick a hornets nest.  Let's roll, brothers."

In this way, the group avoided being slaughtered in their sleep by a gang of berserkers, who instead gave Borghild the universal tough-guy head bob, flashed some peace signs, and stalked off looking for easier prey.  Random reaction rolls FTW.

That whole sequence of getting spelled to Sleep happened about halfway through the night, after the party explored a number of rooms near the junction, ran into a couple of other small Viking groups along the way, and dealt with a psychotic "plastical", a rubbery plastic alien swinging a mean wrench.

Much later in the evening, after the group awakened from the magical Sleep and dealt with the loss of Agnar and their treasure, they marched north a few hours to the mist dungeon and resumed exploration.  On a previous visit, they had secured various hatches open to clear out the mist, and now they were able to clearly see the contents of a large room that had clamshell doors in the floor opening into a yawing chasm; there was a second pair of clamshells in the ceiling, leading to the ruined surface of the city.  Perhaps this is the alternate entrance to the dungeons they've been seeking?

The Dokkalvir had let slip that one of the party's gems was an "orange passkey", which confirmed the group's suspicion that there was something going on with all of the red gems they'd been finding.  The last time they were in the clamshell room, they were stymied by a door they couldn't open, and it had a red flashing light next to it.  Now Shamus approached it with one of the red gems held out, and the door whirred and slid open, revealing a room beyond.

This game report is getting a bit long, so I've got to wrap things up.  They found a lot of interesting stuff in the rooms beyond the red blinking door, levers that controlled hooks in the ceiling of the clam shell room, a pylon of blinking gems, and a secret storage that had metal discs and a cool belt.  Lots of stuff to play with.  There was a slot in the base of the pylon for inserting one of the discs, and the group was treated to a short holographic movie (with a real alien grey) apparently explaining the operation of the levers, along with how to give commands to a large metal automaton, though they didn't understand the alien's clicking and buzzing language.  The belt that was found had a dial on it that made the wearer float up and down, lighter than air, similar to a levitation effect.  They were delighted.  Now it seemed like there could be a viable way to exploit the clamshell door entrance, rigging some kind of repeatable way to enter through the ceiling.

Unfortunately, we're off to the shore this weekend (last ocean visit before fall) and I've got out-of-town company next week, so it appears we'll have to skip a few weeks before the Black City continues.