Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Power is still out by me, so the Lich House will be dark for a while.  I'm in eastern PA, Bucks County, and we had a power pole fall in the backyard, dropping the transformer on the ground.  It's going to be a while before the neighborhood gets power - a new pole was dropped off, but no one has been out there.  Princeton NJ is down too, the offices have been closed all week, and I'd say its 50-50 things get back up tomorrow there.

See you all in a few days, gaming thoughts are on pause here while we make do cooking on the camp stove, keeping the house warm with the fireplace, and picking up debris.  It certainly could have been worse!  Prayers and thoughts to anyone caught in a worse area.

A Halloween to remember.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Monstrous Monday: The Headless Horseman

Sleepy Hollow is a real place, not that far from where I grew up - it's just a short way up the Hudson River, across from Nyack.  I spent plenty of time camping and hiking up in Harriman, a state forest just a bit further up the river on the west side, or visiting Bear Mountain, a popular destination.  Like so much of the north east, it's steeped in history, and many of these places have significance dating back to the revolution.

I imagine the name "Sleepy Hollow" is today synonymous with the movie of the same name, but here's an excerpt from the original story by Washington Irving that relates the tale of the headless horseman:

The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback without a head. It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the revolutionary war; and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind. His haunts are not confined to the valley, but extend at times to the adjacent roads, and especially to the vicinity of a church at no great distance. Indeed, certain of the most authentic historians of those parts, who have been careful in collecting and collating the floating facts concerning this spectre, allege that the body of the trooper, having been buried in the church-yard, the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head; and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the Hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to the church-yard before daybreak.
--The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The Hessian trooper is a type of spectre, an undead monster that rides each night upon a ghostly horse to harrow the countryside, always seeking his missing head.  The movie embellishes the story further, providing a 'tree of the dead' which includes a doorway to Hell, and includes a witch that uses the Hessian's skull to control the spectre and direct its attacks  In game terms, we can treat the Hessian as a modified spectre:

The Hession, from Sleepy Hollow
The Hessian
AC as plate and shield, HD 6, ATK two weapons or thrown pumpkin, D by weapon type or special, MV 24, AL C, ML 11

The headless horseman attempts to slay anyone it encounters along its nightly course, collecting their heads.  It will only cease its nightly rides when its own head is returned to its grave.  It can only be damaged by magic weapons, and it has standard undead immunities.  It frequently carries a pumpkin or similar gourd carved with a leering face, which it can throw at a victim (once per night) to a range of 30'; anyone struck by the pumpkin must save vs death or die (at least, that’s how Ichabod supposedly dies in the story!)

The headless horseman cannot cross running water, even using a bridge.

A magic user that possesses the horseman's skull can use it to control the horseman, similar to a potion of Control Undead, and the horseman is barred from attacking the possessor.

In your campaign, any particularly wicked and powerful evil warrior, decapitated in a gruesome manner and buried without his head, could form the basis of your own headless horseman legend.

However, the headless horseman motif has its roots in an earlier headless monster, the dullahan from Irish folklore.  Like many of the dark fairies (unseelie or sluagh), the dullahan blurs the lines between fey and undead.  The dullahan acts like an angel of death, a figure that rides the countryside seeking out a specific victim; when it confronts them and speaks their name, they die.  Furthermore, it will dump a bucket of blood on anyone that crosses its path, marking them for a future visit from the dullahan; it can open gates and doors at will; it wields a whip made of human spines, and its decapitated head can breath fire.  You can easily adjust the Hessian to represent a dullahan, giving it a hellhound-style breath weapon and replacing the death-pumpkin with something more like finger of death.

The monster from "Chopper"
There was a cool version of the headless horseman on TV - well, I thought it was cool back in the 70's - in one of those old Kolchak: The Night Stalker episodes, a headless motorcycle rider taking revenge on its killers when its grave is disturbed.  It tracks down its killers and chops their heads off with a sword.  Kolchak finds the missing skull and hurls it at the rider as it's bearing down on him.  I'm sure somebody has made stats for Kolchak as a Call of Cthulhu or Chill character - he's the man.

Below are the other blogs taking part in this 'Monday before Halloween' blog hop - let's see what else is out there!

Saturday, October 27, 2012


I recently picked up the 5th edition of Pendragon (technically 5.1, I guess) and am rapidly devouring the book.  What an amazing setting!  Some readers mentioned it in the comments to the Prince Valiant post last week, and it got me thinking - I love Arthurian myth and lore, why haven't I picked up this game as a reference?  The oversight has been rectified.

Much like the Prince Valiant comic strip, the game ostensibly takes place in 5th and 6th century Britain, but borrows heavily from the high middle ages by transplanting technology, customs, and social norms, essentially enabling the stories and tales of the great Arthurian epics to occur in that earlier time with the later trappings.  Some of the unique bits to the game include a heavy emphasis on social traits (personality traits, virtues, and passions) and an epic sweep where years roll by quickly, allowing players to build families and lineages of heroic knights.

I'm in no rush to play, since my current D&D campaign is rolling quite well, but I adore the setting and could see myself using it almost whole cloth when my younger kids are ready to play.  They love knights and faeries and wizards, and the default Arthurian setting described in Pendragon is brilliant.  "Dungeons" aren't part of it, but there's an event called 'The Enchantment of Britain' which heralds a return of magic to the realm during Arthur's reign; it provides a handy excuse for old fey passages and forgotten holes in the ground to reopen, allowing the goblins and bugbears and other night creatures to return to plague the forests of the countryside by night.  My younger ones would enjoy such a setting quite a bit; my oldest just got finished reading The Once and Future King, and I'm sure he'd enjoy such a game as well.

Anyway - thanks for the inspiration, readers, but I have a further question - what are your favorite Pendragon supplements?  It seems like The Great Pendragon campaign is a must-have; I've seen it described on forums and whatnot as one of the greatest RPG supplements or adventures. Are there any other must-have Pendragon supplements for elaborating the setting?

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Quotable Cosmology

I saw this in a thread on megadungeons over on the RPGsite, and it's worth reposting:

IMC Law is in the sky, and Chaos is beneath the ground. Near the surface the chaos is weak; the deeper you go, the stronger Chaos grows. Weaker chaos things climb as high as they can, to keep their distance from the stronger predators beneath. Stronger chaos things need to remain in the depths where chaos sustains their power.

The higher you climb, the more perfect the order of the heavens, until you reach the sphere of the stars where everything moves in perfect circles. The light of the sun is the light of law, and it blasts most chaotic things out of existence. So the dungeon entrances are best avoided at night but the villages are, by and large, safe----even though they're often only a day's travel or so from the entrance to a mythic underworld teeming with terrible magical predators.

Early in time, Chaos made a thing that could live on the surface (elves). Law made a thing that could live beneath the ground (dwarfs). Neither was very satisfactory for their makers, and both tend towards neutrality; their makers abandoned them and now they're grouped with humanity.

Anyway, life is chaotic. It teems and seethes. Life can't survive in the heavens, but it constantly crawls and scuttles up from the depths. The dungeon predators eat one another, of course, but their numbers are always being replenished by the raw chaos beneath.

Chaos is linked to greed, so a thing created by chaos often has treasure on it or near it at the moment it appears. Generally a weak creature loses much of its treasure as it climbs towards the surface (in payments to stronger creatures for safe passage).
- -Author P&P (Papers & Paychecks)

I like how this ties Mythic Geography to both cosmic Alignment and demihuman origins, while also providing an explanation for dungeon depth = danger, and why treasure tends to pool in the deeper dungeon levels.  It's a fantastic background cosmology for your BX or OD&D game, and upholds the dungeon as an underworld.  Great great stuff.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Black City Game 9: Part 2; and Encounter Notes

Here's the second half of the game report from this past weekend.   I'm going to round out part 2 with some play observations on this session since the death toll was so high - there are some things I'd do differently as the DM.  DMing is a skill best honed through trial, error, and bit of reflection afterwards on.

Part 1 was yesterday; the basic situation was that the party surfaced into an area of the ruins far too dangerous for 1st level characters, and encountered an alien ghost.  The ghost destroyed two party members by possessing their bodies and running them down a street into a death trap where they were incinerated; two other party members were fiddling with an alien device, which exploded and sprayed their bits all over the rocks; everyone else was running for their lives at that point.

In other words, same stuff, just a different week.

Mustafa, the desert warrior, sprinted after the fleeing characters to help them regroup in the next hex over; he marveled at their wrinkled faces and age lines, since many of them aged 10 years after seeing the ghost.  The others caught up, and once everyone calmed down, they decided to sneak back into the starting hex and try to slip down the hatch without the ghost noticing.  By the time they got back there, they could see the body of the NPC Agdi off in the distance, being marched stalwartly towards his death while under the influence of ghostly possession.  Since the ghost was temporarily occupied, they slipped back into the "safety" of the dungeon and locked the hatch behind them.

This has been their longest foray in the dungeon, spanning multiple sessions of play; they were on their 5th day of rations in-game, frequently needing to fill their water in the dungeon, and it was probably a good time to start heading back to the entrance at the Well of Woe, which would be at least another 8 hours through the subway tunnels - meaning another overnight encampment was necessary.  Besides, since 3 player characters were greased by the ghost encounter, some of the guys were keenly interested in rolling new ones.  In the meantime, there were enough retainers alive that everyone continued to play.

The party started south, safely passing the lair of the Winged Terrors, and approached the Mist Dungeon.  It was theorized the orange door in the tunnel north of the Mist Dungeon might align with a domed structure on the surface - the dome was encountered a few sessions ago - so they decided to see what was behind the door.  It was a shaft upwards with a ladder.  The shaft did indeed lead to the interior of the great domed building on the surface.

The interior was a 60' dome, illuminated by an intermittent purple light, with a number of alcoves containing pedestals and glowing podiums with alien control beds.  The floor was sunken a few feet below an elevated walkway that circled the room.  A calcified alien cadaver, with bulbous oversized head and brain, sat in an a massive 'brainiac throne' in one of the alcoves.

Shortly after entering, the dust was disturbed and Brick the Halfling was pushed into the open shaft by an invisible assailant; he grabbed onto the ladder and avoided falling to his doom.  This was followed by other ghostly attacks against various character weapons, as the invisible force tried to snatch weapons out of the character's hands.  The group tried a few different tactics to identify the location of the invisible attacker (like throwing dust into the air and looking for a shape) but ultimately someone thought maybe the alien corpse was somehow to blame, and Mustafa sprinted up there and started smashing it with his scimitars.

All the telekinetic attacks around the room retracted and started attacking Mustafa defensively, and other characters  joined him on the walkway where the alien corpse sat on its throne.  Within a few minutes, they hacked it to pieces, but Bottvild was knocked below zero hit points during the fight, when her own weapon was wrested away and used to stab her.  She was successfully stabilized with first aid before dying (bind wounds house rule).

In the dust and rubble of the desiccated alien corpse was a spectacular indigo gem, a blue passkey (5,000gp value).  There were also numerous orange passkey gems all over the floor, 100gp each.  One of the players theorized that each gem was probably embedded in one of the creatures, which meant that each gem sitting on the ground is where one of the ancient creatures died and crumbled to dust.

We try to end around 11pm on Saturdays; this was closer to 11:30pm, so we stopped right there.  Next week they'll finish exploring the interior of the dome, and then head back to Trade Town and their encampment with a worthy haul of treasure and experience, and a chance to make some replacement characters.

Any time 4 characters die in a session, it’s probably a good time to step back and analyze if this was bad dice or bad luck, mistakes during play, bad design, and so on.  Not that my players were overwrought; this isn't their first old school game, and the death toll in Gothic Greyhawk was frequently catastrophic, especially during Ravenloft.  They take wide scale character death in stride.

The surface of the Black City is a ruined city, cut in half by a flowing glacier.  The area north of the glacier is obscured by mist and clouds.  The further north in the city you go, the more dangerous it gets, and the common belief is that no one in Trade Town has survived a trip north of the glacier (most folks in Trade Town are zero level men, or levels 1-3 if they have a class).  These are all facts that have been made available in the game.  So the players knew the area above ground was a dangerous area; they just didn't know how dangerous, and they were hoping to score a cool find in an untouched area, and scoot back into the dungeon.  (Note that no one actually went into the small cave that was teased!)

But I question whether the 1st level of the dungeon, which extends under both halves of the city, should have *any* egress points into the ruins north of the glacier, considering it's possible to jump from a 1st level of difficulty to encounters with golems and ghosts and whatnot - serious high level fare.  Note:  most of these dangerous encounters are bound to a specific location, which explains why they don't wander down into the first level of the dungeon and crush all the weenie monsters and low level guys.

I've also broken the paradigm of dungeon level = risk level in the sense that the 1st dungeon level is huge, such that the south part of the first dungeon level is mostly 1st level challenges, and the north/north east section of the first dungeon level contains 2nd level challenges.  The next level down follows a similar pattern, with the southern section of the caverns as level 3 challenges, and the north section of the caverns as level 4.  I'm wondering if it would have been better to have 4 smaller levels (stacked one on top of another in a more traditional megadungeon design) versus having these massive, sprawling tunnels and caverns, covering multiple character levels of danger.  One of the great opportunities in designing a megadungeon, and playing in one, is presenting a degree of control over the risk versus reward that the players choose, so a degree of transparency is important.  I'm second guessing a bit if this approach has undermined some of the utility - I'll have to talk to the guys.

I have no qualms about how the alien ghost encounter turned out; the players had plenty of time to flee the ghost, and the fact that it possessed an NPC first was a bit of a gift; had they abandoned him to a gruesome fate, they might all have gotten away without a lost character, although it would have been a bit cold and uncaring.  They've fought ghosts before, and experienced the body-hopping magic jar phenomenon first hand, and know full well that knocking out or disabling a host just encourages the ghost to snag a better ride in the next round.

I will adjust the Unstable Hyperborean Artifact™ however.  It fired a 30' disintegration ray, with a 1 in 6 cumulative chance of exploding for 3d6 damage after the 1st shot.  However, I really wanted to foreshadow that there was a mounting risk by having it grow progressively hotter with each shot.  Since it blew up after the first shot due to an unlucky roll, that prevented any chance to learn about the risk.  Going forward, I'd tweak the text so any such device won't start rolling to blow up until after the 2nd shot, so the players can experience it getting hotter.  I don't think a dungeon needs to be fair or balanced, but the players should have a chance to learn about risks and make intelligent decisions based on facts.  That's the "game" part of the dungeon crawl, the player skill part of it.

Special Bonus
The two encounters featured in last game session were actually written about here on the blog ages ago when I was brainstorming and thinking out loud about such things; you can read about them below.  (I will ask that my players, if any are reading along, go ahead and skip these links).

Plaza of the Watchers, Featuring the Alien Ghost
Psionic Ghost of the Hive Mind

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Black City Game 9: The Hatch of Doom

This game report features player characters dying in horrible ways.  Reader discretion is advised.

At the end of last week's game, the doughty group of player characters were led by the dark elves to a distant part of the undercity, many hours walking to the north, to an as-yet unexplored part of the dungeon.  Agnar was returned to the mortal world from the realm of Svartalfheim, and the Dokkalvir disappeared back to their own realm through the same portal.  They left behind a chalk wall sketch of the undercity with annotations - the players learned the location of an ice cave far to the north east under the city, where a group of dark elves led by Gunlaf was presumed missing; one of the central tunnels was marked "the Jotun's Head"; the area they were near was circled and a note about seeking "adamant" was penned next to it.

Agnar himself was not unfazed by his experience in the otherworld; the Queen of Air and Darkness had shown him frightening visions of the near future, and he was able to relay the following mysterious prophecies:

First would come the fish men, men wearing large scales like the sides of a fish; the player's ship, the Isgerd's Fury, would burn to the ground.  A great king would die, dark clouds would obscure the horizon, and then a massive fleet of viking raiders from a far off land would arrive on the island.

With those introductory notes out of the way, the players got down to the serious business of planning.  Cursory scouting of the area near the elf lair revealed a ladder heading up a shaft to a frozen hatch - another way up into the city.  They were so far north under ground, the hatch exit would place them in the city beyond the Great Glacier.

A number of options were floated around the table and voted on, but somehow opening the hatch and emerging into the city won the day.  It was only later, after all the screaming and the dying, that the players second guessed whether opening the hatch was actually voted on and won by a majority vote.  Nonetheless, Dag the Unwashed forced open the hatch and emerged into a grey, dreary section of the ruins, with drifts of untouched snow covering the street.

The whole party emerged blinking into the daylight, staring up and down a snow-covered street.  To the south, a large open plaza revealed a wide 20' tall platform, with giant stone heads on the edges.  A large cave was formed in the rubble nearby, where a few tumbled blocks created a natural void.  The group split up and started combing the area, looking for things.

A thing was indeed found, an arm-length metal device that resembled a crude blunderbuss (actually, in my notes it's referenced as an Unstable Hyperborean Artifact™ ).  They set about chiseling it out of the ice with hammer and spikes.

I should also point out, prior to the digging, Shamus used the levitation belt to float up into the air and scout the surrounding hexes.  When he did so, one of the stone heads on the large plaza to the south spiraled into the sky in parallel with him, and shot a gout of energy out of it's mouth his way.  He made it to the ground before the beam got him, and the head retracted to ground level and went sessile again.  "Wow, this part of the city has its own anti-aircraft weaponry", quipped Shamus.  "They don't like anyone flying around".

The ghost looked like this, but with a bulbous alien head.
While the group chiseled out the blunderbuss, Bottvild noticed an apparition appear in her peripheral vision.  A gaunt, emaciated alien head and torso, trailing off into mist below the abdomen, floating into her field of vision, it's teeth clattering in its skull.  She made her saving throw vs magic, and didn't run in fear or age 10 years.  Then everyone got the chance to roll a normal initiative.

The ghost broadcast a vicious telepathic message to the characters; the gist of it was, "You fleshy meatbags, crawling over the bones of my city like pink maggots, you're all going to die…"

A few characters acted before the ghost, and readied missile weapons or melee weapons, but ran away in fear (and aged 10 years) after beholding the monster and failing their saving throws.  The ghost, for its part, used magic jar to leap into the body of one of the NPC's, possessing him.  A couple of the guys continued to work on freeing the Hyperborean artifact from the ice, and Shamus set about aiming it into the sky and trying to activate it.  It fired a cool energy beam like a phaser.  One of the fighters decided to grab the possessed NPC in an armbar, while someone else slugged him in the jaw to knock him unconscious.

By now, the group had figured out they're facing a ghost, a monster far beyond the capabilities of 1st level characters, and they realized this part of the ruined city is all business; it was time to run.  Mustafa went sprinting after the characters that were fleeing in fright, hoping to run them down with his 18 dexterity.

Shamus and Dag the Unwashed decided to head back into the dungeon on their own, but first Shamus wanted to fire the Unstable Hyperborean Artifact a second time, this time targeting a nearby section of ground to see what it would do.  He rolled that 1-in-6 chance it would detonate, and it did indeed blow up, vaporizing Shamus, killing Dag, and ruining the group's Levitation Belt.

The ghost hopped out of the unconscious NPC and took over the body of another person,  a player character, Gareth.  Once Gareth was under control, the ghost ran him down the street towards the plaza of the watchers, where Gareth was incinerated by the stone heads a moment later.  They were down three characters now.  The ghost would ultimately claim a 4th victim, jumping back into the NPC's body, animating it, and running it off into the kill zone at the plaza, too.

Alas, dear readers - I'm out of time!  This session report waxes long.  I'll need to pick it up again with part two, when the characters run into a second ghost in the same session - the next ghost being the Psionic Ghost of the Hive Mind.

Here's how the lineup looked after the night's carnage:

Cast of Characters
Mustafa of Arabia, a scimitar wielding desert warrior
Dag the Unwashed, a fighter
Brutok the Strong, a dwarf
Shamus  Bloodstar, a Gaelic wizard
Gareth, a Norse Fighter
Agnar Beigarth, a Northman fighter
Borghild, a Norse cleric

Retainers / Fighting Men:
Ayerick the Young, Bjorn Fjordrunner, Grimson, Aldi
Skoldig (specialist), Brick Bunnybreaker (halfling), Bottvild (cleric)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Prince Valiant as a D&D Setting

75 years later, the weekly Prince Valiant comic series is still going strong.  There have been a number of different creative teams keeping the continuity through the years, and the comic strip has been compiled into a number of different reprint volumes; my local library has them, in fact.  I never fully got into the drama of Prince Valiant as a kid, but as an adult, I appreciate the unique narrative captions and the realism in the graphics.

But here's one thing you won't find in Prince Valiant - historical realism.  Prince Valiant's adventures take him from the Roman frontier to defending Europe from the Huns; as Gawain's squire (and then companion), he rubs shoulders with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round table, and spent time chasing viking raiders to North America.  The castles of Valiant's England are not wooden motte and baileys like you'd expect in the dark ages, but the massive stone structures of the high middle ages.  Prince Valiant was there for the fall of Rome, but still spent time on the crusades and went looking for Prester John; I wouldn't be surprised if Robin Hood showed up in one of the storylines, or perhaps even Genghis Kahn.  The writers pick and choose the most interesting bits from 700 years of western history to weave the ongoing saga.

The fantastic thing about the Matter of Britain is the way it exists somewhat out of time, eliding historical details to absorb later social conventions.  In this way, we get knights in armor, courtly love, and chivalry, all in 5th century Britain, no questions asked!  There's much to be gained in treating your D&D campaign the same way - learning how to stop worrying and love the glorious mess.  D&D draws from a wide range of historical periods and folkloric sources to populate the game with its myriad elements; we don't have to know all the ingredients to enjoy the flavor of the soup.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Monstrous Monday: Gaki, the Hungry Ghost

Image from the scroll of the hungry ghost
His belly is huge, his mouth is small, and his hunger is endless.

The Gaki is a kind of ghoul, a spirit returned to the world with unnatural hungers that can never be satisfied.  A quick image search online will turn up "the scroll of the hungry ghost", which shows images of various Gaki in lamentable poses of suffering.  The scenes are reminiscent of the accursed in Dante's inferno; the endless hunger of the Gaki echose the mythological torment of Tantalus.

Gaki are formed from the souls of greedy or selfish individuals who are not able to pass on to a proper reward in the afterlife; there's a Buddhist belief their poor karma has cursed them to return and feed on corpses.

The Gaki
AC as Leather, HD 3, Attacks 2 claws, 1 bite, Damage 1-4/1-4/1-8, MV 6, AL Chaotic.

A Gaki uses a form of polymorph self to live on the outskirts of a human settlement, assuming it's true form to dig up and feed on fresh corpses.  The folklore implies the Gaki can enter enclosed spaces, perhaps using its polymorph ability to change into something small enough to infiltrate a locked room.  A Gaki can be laid to rest by a powerful priest or an upright member of the Gaki's family performing proper ancestor services and offerings.

Dreamblade's Hungry Ghost
The Gaki is an interesting campaign creature; not so much a dungeon encounter as a type of non-combat challenge afflicting towns in the countryside.  The Gaki makes for a lamentable creature that can't control it's urges, a nuisance monster for characters to either drive off or lay to rest.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Review: Cabin in the Woods

Yes, you had "Zombies" (in the office pool).  But this is "Zombie Redneck Torture Family." Entirely separate thing. It's like the difference between an elephant and an elephant seal.

In order to discuss how this movie would be applicable to gaming, some spoilers may come up - go ahead and skip this one if you haven't seen the movie yet.

I recently had the chance to see Cabin in the Woods, and I enjoyed it immensely.  It's a well written script, and pokes quite a bit of fun at the horror genre - it's a meta-horror movie in much the same way as the 'Scream' series, but is perhaps even more deconstructionist.  The movie involves an archetypal group of young people, lured to a remote cabin in the wilderness on a weekend getaway, and unleashes a monster on them (the zombie redneck torture family) after they read an incantation from a journal in the cellar.  In the meantime, a facility full of government type workers are watching all the action on video screens, placing bets on the monsters and cheering for the kills.

While Cabin in the Woods is not terribly scary, the movie is interesting, funny, and full of twists and surprises.  It's chock full of easter eggs for long time fans of the genre.  It reminded me thematically of the old The Wicker Man, with the theme of luring in a willing sacrifice, as well as another horror-comedy movie, the old David Warner Waxwork movie from the late 80's, where the victims choose their own monster deaths.

The movie uses the institution and the workers at the operations center to underline the ridiculous plots of many horror movies - real characters would only make the kind of unintelligent choices made by characters in a typical slasher movie, if they were chemically altered and drugged, to impair their judgment and lower their inhibitions.  Furthermore, the corporate stooges running the office pool and belittling the efforts of the protagonists are stand-ins for anyone who gets a little bit too excited during torture porn movies.

Inspiration for Gaming
The first thought I had was to draw inspiration directly from the movie, and subvert the tropes of a typical dungeon.  We already see a bit of this in games like ACKS; the reason the world is full of dungeons is because wizards build dungeons to attract monsters, and then hire adventurers to go clear them out so they can harvest monster parts for their experiments.  The game master could take it even further, and have a dungeon that's been built to harvest adventurers.  Consider this quote from the movie where one of the corporate workers explains why the victims need to be lured to their deaths:

They have to make the choice of their own free will. Otherwise, the system doesn't work. Like the harbinger: creepy old fuck practically wears a sign saying "YOU WILL DIE". Why would we put him there? The system. They have to choose to ignore him. They have to choose what happens in the cellar. Yeah, we write the game as much as we have to, but in the end, if they don't transgress, they can't be punished. 

It wouldn't take much more than rumors of easy coin to lure in the typical greedy adventurer.  The DM could put together a killer dungeon that exists purely to kill dungeon crawlers, whose greed and lust for wealth draws them beneath the ground so they can be sacrificed for the greater good.  It'd be especially funny if the masterminds behind the dungeon consider themselves to be the real heroes.  I'll just point out, Jim Flame Princess pretty much hit this target already with The Grinding Gear adventure module a few years ago, but you could have fun doing you're own version and work in the supernatural sacrifice angle.

The other bit that is pure gold is the cellar full of dire artifacts.  Each artifact is tied to a different monster (once again, similar to the old Waxwork movie), so the victims inadvertently choose the nature of their own deaths when they mess with items in the cellar.  A dungeon location where the characters unknowingly select their own opponents would hit a similar note.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Survival Horror in D&D

Wahoo.  The new season of Walking Dead is back, and thoughts turn to Halloween.  Has anyone done a survival horror scenario or campaign in their game?  The core elements are limited resources, overwhelming or seemingly endless opponents, and one of two objectives - holding out until help arrives, or escaping to somewhere safe.  In campaign mode, no place is safe... for long.

Here's a simple one-shot scenario:
The dungeon is at the old ruined wizard's tower, where an attacking army met it's demise in ages past at the hands of the wizard's curse.  When character's return from the dungeon beneath the tower with the cursed book, the dead rise from the ground around the tower and swarm over the rubble.  Can the characters find a defensive position and hold out until dawn?

Plenty of published D&D and OSR scenarios have danced around the edges, touching on themes of resource scarcity while the characters maintain a precarious position.  Only a few of these are actually horror themed, but they're all good inspirations for how other writers have created memorable resource tests:

I6 Ravenloft
The players are trapped in a vampire's castle, and hunted until they either kill or get killed.  Level drain slowly whittles the party away.

B10 Night's Dark Terror
There's a fantastic siege sequence, where the players arrive at a remote homestead tower as night falls and multiple goblin tribes attack; the players have to plan a defense with limited defenders and repel varied attacks over the long night.

A4 In the Dungeons of the Slavelords
The players have to escape the Slave Lord's dungeons without any equipment, scavenging gear along the way.

WG4 Lost Temple of Tharizdun
Although not technically a defensive siege, the entrance hall fight throws wave after wave of well-organized defenders after the party, testing the resolve and draining the resources of even the most prepared groups.  (G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King presents a similar tactical tour de force - Gygax loved those challenging tactical puzzles and really knew how to build them).

Here are a few OSR scenarios I've reviewed that put characters in similarly desperate situations:  The God That Crawls traps characters in a labyrinth where they're hunted by an implacable monster; Death Frost Doom potentially unleashes 13,000 undead; The Grinding Gear traps characters in a dungeon with a time limit; Inn of Lost Heroes shifts the characters into a dark otherworld inspired by Silent Hill.

Seems like we should be able to borrow ideas from all these scenarios for building a Halloween survival horror adventure.

What other elements (mechanical or otherwise) would you put in a survival horror piece?  How do games explicitly set in a zombie apocalypse, like All Flesh Must Be Eaten, do it?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Review: F3 Many Gates of the Gann

I had the opportunity this weekend to read Many Gates of the Gann.  The adventure is a 34 page PDF published by Chaotic Henchman, available at the usual suspects like RPGnow link: (F3 Many Gates of the Gann).  The book uses a simple 2 page layout, very easy to read, with maps in the back.  It's meant to be compatible with the 1st edition of the world's most popular RPG, although you could play it seamlessly with any retro clone, too.  It's suggested for adventurers level 3-5.

The premise of the adventure is simple; a portal exists in the nearby wilds, a dungeon door flanked by giant ape-heads, and local legends warned that those who have approached the gates are either destroyed or devoured.  That all changed a few months ago when the portals opened from the inside, and hyena-men raiders started boiling out of the dungeon into the countryside.  Other adventurers have tried to enter the place, and never returned.  A number of suggested plot hooks and rumors are provided to give the players a reason to come and investigate it for themselves.

The complex itself was created as a laboratory and vault by an interloper from elsewhere, the titular Gann.  The three dungeon levels describe the servitors, traps, and defenses left behind by The Gann to guard a nuke-like super weapon, the Apocalypse Seed.  Furthermore, the dungeons have been breached from below, introducing other factions besides the servitors.

The module uses a blend of unusual monsters that complement the labs and defenses to give the complex a weird science vibe; trained servitor apes are the backbone of the work force, along with ape variants (like flesh golems made of misshapen stitched ape parts).  Additional atypical monsters are culled from the various AD&D monster books like the Grell, Cifal, or Sandman, and they are situated in the environment rationally and logically.  There is a fantastic new monster, the Zerpanax, which merges symbiotically with a human thrall, that will be sure to unnerve players, and an old classic from the Monster Manual makes a well-conceived appearance as a mastermind and major boss monster.

I'm predisposed to like a module like this, with all those lumbering ape servants in a mad wizard's laboratory calling to mind Hellboy and the kriegsaffe working for the Nazi scientist brain-in-a-jar (never mind Red Ghost, Monsieur Mallah, Gorilla Grodd, or any number of enhanced simians in the comics).  Apes and weird science mix like chocolate and peanut butter.  Giant ape-head stone guardians with disintegrator eye beams hit the sweet spot.  I could see filing off the serial numbers and using this in one of the lower levels of the Black City campaign, which shares a bit of a weird science vibe, replacing The Gann with one of the ancient Greys.

Otherwise, this is a three level dungeon that can fit into just about any campaign. The challenges require a crisp level of play and take advantage of AD&D's baroque complexity to address factors such as ethereality, the use of unseen servants, and various wizard locked doors.  If the players are lucky enough to persevere to the end, they might gain possession of a devastating weapon, capable of laying waste to a kingdom, and creating some ongoing messiness for the campaign - always a good thing.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Monstrous Monday: Nukekubi

If you're like me, you first saw these freaky creatures of Japanese folklore in the pages of Mike Mignola's Hellboy - they're featured in the short story "Heads", and also in the animated piece, Hellboy: Storm of Swords (pictured).  Mignola loves classic folklore and the pages of Hellboy are full of unusual creatures.

Like many supernatural creatures in Japanese folklore, it's ambiguous whether Nukekubi are demons, cursed humans, a kind of undead, or spirits.  They appear almost entirely like normal humans during the day, and often live in a family group of 2-5 members, somewhere remote.  When night falls, their heads separate cleanly from their bodies and fly off in search of human prey.  In human form, a Nukekubi can be identified by a thin red line along the seam where the head cleanly separates from the body each night.

In the Hellboy story, the Nukekubi offer Hellboy hospitality at their remote villa; when he wakes in the night, he sees all the headless bodies sitting in the parlor, grumbles in the usual fashion, and then the heads start hunting him.

AC as leather, HD 4, attack 1 bite,  damage 1-6, MV 12, ML 10, AL Chaotic.

Nukekubi emit a frightening scream when they fly into combat, causing Fear (as the spell), to panic their victims and break a group apart.  They'll track a target into the night, biting, rending, and tearing the flesh.

A Nukekubi head takes damage from normal weapons, but isn't destroyed when it reaches zero hit points; instead, the head is forced to flee and return to it's body.   The only way to destroy a Nukekubi is to prevent the head from rejoining the body by dawn, by hiding the body or locking it someplace secure.

Nukekubi are another cool monster for the future Spirit Island campaign, and also a contribution to Tim's weekly Monstrous Monday in honor of Halloween:

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Buccaneers in the Time of Dragons

Lately my reading into colonial history has taken me to the 17th century Caribbean basin, and the rise of buccaneers, and later pirates.  One striking component, as you read about the life stories of notorious buccaneers and pirates, is how their rise to glory or infamy parallels the murder hobo career of characters from D&D or your favorite retro clone™.  They start out as poor fighting men, usually ex-hunters or military, who turn to raiding to earn a better life.  Early success wins them a ship, and as their name grows, more and more men flock to their banner and they become capable of launching larger raids - sometimes with multiple ships or small armies of buccaneers, eventually sacking major towns and forts.  In the twilight of their career, they take their fortunes and retire to governorships,  plantations, or high stations in the military - or they're killed in action.  It's a 50-50 proposition.

The issue I see with such a campaign arc in D&D is that it doesn't handle large scale combats very well, and certainly not if characters are just low level participants.  I imagine smaller raiding and boarding actions can be handled tactically, using the standard rules, but it would become unwieldy once more than 50 or so combatants per side are engaged.

If you were to go outside of D&D to borrow ideas from a system that handled ship-to-ship combat, chases, boarding actions, and similar aspects of high seas action, what would it be?  I also think it beneficial to shift the scale as appropriate; perhaps the distance-based combat ship-to-ship starts abstract, but when the ships reach boarding range, play moves from a strategic scale to a tactical scale and the players resolve the remainder of the combat using standard rules.

I'm not averse to looking at Sci Fi either, I imagine a starship-based game could have similar issues where the combat needs to shift from ship-to-ship combat to personal combat.  Not everyone can be the captain, after all.  I might be missing some game approaches that handled transitions and troupe play.

Incidentally, following the muse a bit, I've been sketching notes for a short horror scenario in colonial waters that involves a derelict Spanish vessel drifting along the coast.  Was it part of one of the famed treasure fleets, lost in a storm, or is something else at play?  The adventure hook is being asked to join a merchant's expedition, either out of Jamestown (to the north) or up from the Bahamas, to find and recover the derelict after it was spotted by a vessel just making port; adventurers are needed for the kind of fighting and exploration of which the regular sailors are ill-prepared.  Although it's free form, some of the potential encounters involves French pirates, native villages along the coast, and a dark horror from the Mesoamerican hinterland.  It's shaping up to be great fun. But it's got me thinking again how an actual saltbox type campaign might be played out.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Lessons of the Black City

Today you get some cool maps!  Following yesterday's topic around running an effective megadungeon or sandbox game, I promised some reflections on the Black City campaign so far.  Let's talk about information, first.

When players arrived on Thule, they got a brief introduction, akin to what was posted here (the italics section, on starting out on board The Isgerd's Fury).  That kind of "new arrival orientation speech" gave them enough information to decide to head to Trade Town, do some rumor gathering, visit the ruined city, and use the Well of Woe entrance to enter the dungeons.  Bluenose, leader of a guard detachment at the Well of Woe, has also been a regular source of information.  For instance, the players learned about 'The Killers in the Mist', one of the tougher upcoming encounters, from Bluenose, tavern rumors, and even an encounter with other adventurers, before some NPC's approached them with a job offer to take care of The Killers.  The information flow has been firing on all cylinders.

Another item that paid off in dividends was including a "subway style schematic" near the entrance.  Check out this picture:

The players found the basic diagram etched into the wall immediately on entering the Well of Woe; they've since been able to verify the nodes correspond to junctions beneath the city where the major tunnels join.  Rather than fill up an endless sheet of graph paper with rooms, I felt monotony could be best avoided (for both me and them) by having smaller dungeons, geographically distinct.  I'm not a fan of endless rooms packed on a single sheet.  Yes, that means there are 9 dungeons, just on level 1 of the under city.  I put some notes on the diagram for folks reading the game reports, so you have a sense on where the Dokkalvir (evil elves) guided the party after the last game session.  The schematic has been invaluable in allowing the group to plan excursions and take control of the game.

Here's a quick peek at the Well of Woe dungeon (cleared and bypassed by the players now).  The individual dungeons represented by notes aren't exactly big, just large enough.

Other elements that are working well include the wide number of factions.  Other humans make up some of the more dangerous and interesting encounters, from berserkers suffering from 'Dungeon Madness', to crews from other ships (filling the BX roles of bandits, veterans, nobles, traders, and NPC parties).  That means I have some large charts, so when bandits are encountered, they're not bandits; they're ill-equipped raiders wearing black raven cloaks, using a Russian accent - they came on the ship Hugin, from the Kiev area.  And they’re trying to kill you and loot the bodies.

There have been some mild rivalries, and numerous showdowns - reaction rolls are always dicey, I am a strong proponent of randomization.  The group is starting to understand there are some monster factions, too, but for the most part, the city seems to be haunted by the living dead, mutated beasts, and strange automaton servants left by the ancients.

I'm a prophet of keeping a consistent campaign calendar and planning worldly events in advance, so the DM can continue to advance the larger world when the players get lost in dungeon time.  After last game session, where a character was restored after spending time in the fairy realm, it's a snap to look ahead at some of the events and see what dire visions were revealed by the fairy queen.  I have a piece on building a calendar here: Happy New Year, Greyhawk, if you'd like pointers, and here is an earlier list of sample events for the Black City that can happen while on the island for the summer:  Campaign Events.  It's probably best if my players skip the Campaign Events page, assuming they didn't read it in the past.

I promised problems!  The Well of Woe entrance is meant to generate resource concerns - mainly time management, but a bit of water, light, and encumbrance as well.  The players need to pay a tax to the guard detachment, to descend rope ladders through a hole in the street to enter.  That's interesting and a little different.  But the distances involved in tromping to some of the remote dungeons chew up time, encouraging longer stays in the dungeon.  This runs head-to-head with another worthy goal, which is episodic play; the players should leave the dungeon every session, so we can have a rotating cast every week.  Similarly, the chasm in the tunnel between the Well of Woe and the First Junction has encouraged the group to seek alternate entrances.

Distance also means greater opportunities for wandering monsters, though I have tweaked the frequency of checks in the larger tunnels so it's not a constant beatdown.  There's a fine balance between enough wandering monsters so the group makes meaningful decisons about when and where to search, versus too much wandering monster noise.

I took all that advice to heart around "treasure shouldn't be just another bag of coins…"  Many of the treasures the group has found have been things like rare oxide powders in huge clay jars, giant furry snake hides, or large metal boxes.  Unusual treasures, and difficult to transport.  More often than not, the group makes a note on their map, leaves the unwieldy loot for later, and continues exploration (often losing the opportunity when some other party stumbles along - "So long, and thanks for killing the monsters".).  The decision *not* to engage in logistics planning to get non-standard loot out of the dungeon is a valid choice, especially when exploration is more interesting, but the net is that we've played 9 sessions, and no one has leveled up to level 2.  A few guys are between 1,500 and 2,000xp, very close.

Furthermore, a few major treasures have been well-hidden, and were completely bypassed, making some of the levels seem poor in wealth.  I'm not a miser, really!  I still think a less even distribution, aggregated in a few larger hoards, is more interesting, but there is that risk the group misses the hoards if they're not really thorough.

Finally, I built level 1 so that it becomes more dangerous as you go north and east (with the north east dungeon really suited for level 2 characters).  However, there are easily available passages down to the next deepest level, the Warrens of Decay, a sprawling cavern system representing dungeon levels 3 and 4.  There have been a few times the unprepared group, with resource depleted 1st level guys, considered going down to check things out, nearly precipitating a tragedy.   So I've fretted about so many available entrances to the next major level, even though we'll be thankful for them when the group is ready to delve a bit deeper.

Those are my major concerns, otherwise this has been generally successful, as far as putting theory into practice.  I have asked a few times if the players are enjoying the campaign, the responses are fairly positive, and they show up the next week.  The largest player-facing complaint seems to be rules-based (preferring the higher powered default BX approach, or ACKS, to LOTFP).  We'll try the game using ACKS at some point and see how much it changes the default assumptions - I'm working with ACKS as I work on the next big thing, the Spirit Island setting (a feudal Japan, warring samurai thing).

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Lessons from Running Mega Dungeons

A few years ago, I ran a summer-long campaign using the Stonehell dungeon.  The lessons learned were invaluable, and heavily influenced some of my decisions in structuring my current campaign, The Black City.  Some of the things I got right; there are plenty of things that still need refinement.  Running your campaign using a megadungeon, campaign dungeon, or tentpole dungeon (pick your term) as the centerpiece offers a lot of benefits, but it's not a risk free proposition.  There are a couple of basic things you have to absolutely get right, or it's going to crash and burn on you.

Feed the Player Choice Engine
Choice (or agency,as the cool kids call it) is the magic engine that makes the mega dungeon work.  Information is the fuel.  The megadungeon needs an interesting background to engage the players, and they need to learn enough about the dungeon to plan their own capers.  Making blind decisions is no better than a coin flip, and when the players don't have the right information, they're choices are meaningless.  OSR luminary Matt Finch said it much better than I could on a comment here at the Lich House:  Running a better sandbox game.  Read and gain 1 point of Wisdom.

Information tools include things like campaign background, rumors in town, clues picked up within the dungeon, rumors from other adventuring parties or dungeon inhabitants, treasure maps, and so forth.  These tools are tried and true.  The players need to be able to plan, and their plan needs inputs.

I would elevate this as the # 1 reason, bar none, mega dungeons fail - failure to feed the engine.

Interesting environments develop engagement.  You've all heard the advice - make sure your megadungeon has some distinct levels and areas, to limit repetition and monotony.  Design set piece areas, that are intricate, tactical, or otherwise very cool.  Add factions to the dungeon so the group can engage in non-combat roleplaying, or a bit of politics.  Make sure the rooms have interesting encounters that provide a challenge, or the chance to learn something (even if its an empty room).  This is all common advice, good advice.  My list is not exhaustive, and one can certainly argue more or less special ingredients need to be in that sauce.

But engagement requires information, first and foremost, and that means feeding the engine.  Putting in a wicked cool 'Fountain of Serpents' as a major set-piece location is less valuable when the player characters don't hear about it, learn why it's cool, and get enough information to plan a mission to try and find it.  Multiple competing factions are irrelevant if the group doesn't discover how to take advantage of the rivalries.

The Dwimmermount Controversy
Tenkar over at Tenkar's Tavern recently ran his crew through a level of Dwimmermount (Closing the door on Dwimmermount) and it spawned discussion there, and on TheRPGSite.  The players didn't like it - and ink has been spilt.  Dwimmermount discussions always seem to have popcorn value, since it's a high profile project that has veered off the road a bit.  James Mal has one of the largest pools of OSR readership, perhaps encouraging a bit of schadenfreude - I just know, mention Dwimmermount, and folks come out swinging hatchets.

However, if players aren't excited to step foot into the dungeon or plan a targeted excursion, they clearly don't have the right information.   I can't say if the drafts are to blame - I'm a project backer for Dwimmermount, but haven't bothered with the downloads yet.  Tenkar's group did explicitly set out to run the levels they used "as is", without heavy improvisation or enhancement by the DM.  It's spawned lively discussion about empty rooms, evenly distributed copper coins hidden in rat poo, and nothing less than the very death of the megadungeon format!

No published megadungeon can capture the magic of the campaign that birthed it.  Running a game session is performance art, and the more sparse are the published notes, the more improvisation is required to bring it to life.  The manuscript needs to fire the imagination and give the DM something to work with, too.  Keep your popcorn handy, where will this saga go next?  I should I probably get off my keister and actually download some of the evidence, experience the drama firsthand.  I'm still a popcorn muncher.

I had expected to spend time talking about what's going wrong and right with the Black City, but I'll have to save that for tomorrow.  My soapbox is about to collapse under the weight of self-importance, and I've got enough bruises this week already.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Black City Game 9: Visions of the Future

The game has been going on for a few months now; here's a quick background for anyone new that would like to start following our weekly campaign recaps.

The Black City is my home brew mega dungeon - it's a ruined alien city, on a frozen island far above the world, and the characters are all Norsemen who've come by ship to explore the ruins.  Each summer, dozens or more long ships beach on the shores of Thule Island, a seasonal trading post called Trade Town is established, and many doughty parties of warriors head into the ruins, excavating, fighting monsters, and claiming artifacts and rare pieces to sell in the southern markets.

The players have been focused on slowly exploring the dungeons beneath the city, entering via a huge hole in the ground called the Well of Woe, and working their way north in the sprawling tunnels beneath the city.  When last we broke, they camped over night in the third dungeon they've discovered beneath the city, which they've been calling 'The Mist Dungeon' since it was full of fog and mist when first discovered.

You can also just filter on The Black City Campaign label and browse past Black City posts (both game reports and content) that way.

Mustafa of Arabia, a scimitar wielding desert warrior
Dag the Unwashed, a fighter
Brutok the Strong, a dwarf
Shamus, a Gaelic wizard
Gareth, a Fighter
Borghild, a Norse Cleric
Brick Bunnybreaker, a Halfling

Fighting men:  Bjorn Fjordrunner, Ayerick the Young, Agni, Grimson
Others:  Skoldig (specialist), Bottvild (Cleric)

Last game, the group covered a fantastic amount of ground, mapping a large portion of the south eastern Mist Dungeon.  Strange and wondrous sights were discovered; a gigantic 4-armed polar bear, with a scintillating unicorn horn, apparently preserved in suspended animation behind a glass enclosure; they fought one of the city's massive furry snakes, a monster-sized constrictor that tried to eat them; in a side room, they found the head to the big robot.

Regular readers may remember they found a large metal torso in one of the rooms; in another chamber, they used an alien token to view a holographic projection crystal where one of the city's ancient residents, resembling our modern depictions of 'grey aliens', apparently demonstrates the functioning and control of the large metal automaton of which the torso belonged.   Keyser, one of the players, calls it the "new employee orientation video".  Finding the head vindicated their belief that scattered around the dungeon, they might find the parts to the big metal man, and be able to put it back together.

The level of play was sharp last game!  The group safely eradicated a nest of hairless, mutated giant shrews, using their levitation belt to scout the nest safely from above, and then destroy the monsters with flaming oil from above.  They avoided a nasty slide trap that could have dropped part of the group down into the deeps below the transit tunnels, a level of danger far beyond their 1st level characters.  And they managed to turn the tables on the Dokkalvir (evil faeries) that had kidnapped and  stolen one of the player characters (Agnar the fighter), off the faerie realm of Svartalfheim, a few weeks ago.

The Dokkalvir were met again, chiefly as a wandering encounter, while the party puzzled over a series of heavy duty hatches and levers far to the south in the Mist Dungeon.   The evil elves had come to tell them that their Queen would be returning Agnar to the mortal world in a few days, and that they'd be stranding him in the dungeon - the leader of the Dokkalvir, Aelfwyn, gave the group a crude map on where to retrieve Agnar.  Borghild, who had some previous dealings with the dark elves, had "lent" them some silver and jewels, and used fairy logic and the knowledge that they fey can't break a promise, to compel Aelfwyn to guide them back to his camp and return the treasure.

Just an aside to readers, one of the factors in the Black City is that 'mythological creatures with relationships to the Vikings' - the dark elves, the Dverge (evil dwarves), the Asgardians, and so forth - have sent their own groups to scout parts of the Black City as well, out of curiosity aroused due to their spying and dealings with the Norse.  It's allowed me to have a peculiar and diverse bestiary, doubtless.

Protected by faerie invisibility, the party accompanied the Dokkalvir on a journey that took them far away, out of the Mist Dungeon, and up the large subway-style tunnel that extended far north under the city - much farther than the group intended, I'm afraid.  Stranger sights were seen - the group narrowly avoided detection by a trio of floating "Winged Hunters", flying lobster creatures armed with high tech weaponry and glowing antennae.  The Dokkalvir pointed out where the Winged Hunters had burrowed smooth circular tunnels through the stone with their fell weaponry, granting egress to float up to the surface world and down to the deeper caverns with their otherworldly levitation.

Finally, near the small side room where the Dokkalvir had a camp, a shambling party of Gjenganger attacked.  The gjenganger are dead Norsemen, returned to unlife by unknown properties within the dungeon; the monsters were dispatched after a short combat, with no serious losses to elves or men.

Finally, the elves performed the ritual that opened a way to Svartalfheim, and Agnar was returned to the mortal world.  Knowing this was upcoming, I developed a table for fairy abductions a few weeks ago, and Agnar's result was 'Visions of the Future'.  In his short time as play thing to the Queen of Air and Darkness, she revealed chilling views into upcoming events.  We ended the session then, because we were over time, but I can tell you all one of the visions Agnar will proclaim:  the adventurers all came to Thule as crewmen on a ship called The Isgerd's Fury; in a few short months, Isgerd's Fury will be completely destroyed in a conflagration, stranding them on the island.

More revelations to come.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Mundane Adventures

We use plenty of inadvertent oxymorons in the game - war games, realistic simulations, living dead, giant dwarves, little giants, chaotic organizations, and plenty of random logic.  Here's another one to put in the mix - mundane adventures.

Have you ever run an adventure, where the characters get hired to do something, and no fantastic elements make an appearance?  They rob the rich merchant, and get away with all the loot without triggering any magical countermeasures; they escort the caravan to the next city for mere mercenary wages, and no monsters attack from the hills?

There's a principle of contrast to consider - the weirdness of monster-filled adventures juxtaposed against the banality of everyday life.  But I question if anyone bothers worrying about creating such a contrast when table time is limited.  I recently reviewed Death Love Doom, where the group believes they're going to loot an abandoned mansion, and instead it's all blood, horror, screaming and running.

A setting or gaming milieu can be so removed from the player's everyday experience that nothing seems banal even though it's mundane… Traveller attempted to get away with games lugging trade goods from one star system to another via arbitrage as an 'adventure'.  How'd that work out?  No, seriously - if you were a big fan of classic Traveler - did the rules lead to interesting games because everything else was so extraordinary?

I spent most of last week down in Williamsburg, VA, taking in all the exciting historical sights (and sites) - Jamestown, Yorktown, Colonial Williamsburg - it's truly spectacular.  The notebook I'm using to keep my  Colonial Hex Crawl notes has gotten some heavy work!  Adventures in the setting will be in the horror / weird fantasy vein, and less of an ongoing campaign, more like one shots.  But it got me thinking about a game set along the eastern seaboard in the early 17th century and the types of mundane adventures had by the explorers of the time - scouting the frontier, prospecting for resources, trading or negotiating with Indians, dealing with pirates and foreign agents.

The "problem" of introducing mundane adventures primarily shows up in a sandbox game, particularly a game set in a low-fantasy or historical setting where the fantastic is less commonplace and verisimilitude would dictate a percentage of opportunities that having nothing to do with supernatural intrusions and the blood, horror, screaming and running.

I've been equivocating myself - on the one hand, there's the Call of Cthulhu model; it's a historical game, but we don't run mundane scenarios and players rarely have a wide range of choice among plot hooks; regardless of milieu, it's a given that every COC scenario is going to cause some character-sanity damage and result in the screaming and the running.  Like Scooby and the Gang, no matter where the party goes, they happen to be the "lucky ones" that uncover all the eldritch horrors.

Opinions or examples of how you've used or avoided mundane adventures are most welcome, as I work through the pro's and con's myself.  Like most things at the table, the social element favors not making such a decision unilaterally, but consulting with the players around their preferences as well.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Monstrous Monday: Children of Mukade

Mukade was a gigantic centipede monster living under the bridge Tschitta, in Totomi.  It was said to have glowing eyes that could boil a man's blood, and venomous breath.  Mukade was dangerous enough to hunt dragons, and was eventually killed by the hero Hidesato with an arrow through an eye.

Children of Mukade are monstrous centipedes descended from the legendary demon.  They don’t fear man and frequently attack on sight.  Provincial lords pay a bounty to any hunters that return with dead Mukade, as nests of the beasts disrupt travel and can make remote bridges unusable.  This is a monster I'll eventually use in the Spirit Island campaign - and probably create a gigantic demon centipede for use in the Night Lands.

Children of Mukade
AC as chain, HD 4, Attacks 1 bite, Damage 1-8 plus poison, MV 18, ML 9, AL N

The children are 12' long monstrous centipedes, with red legs, a green body, and red head and mandibles.  They are extremely swift, quickly attacking from beneath a bridge or ruined habitation.  Their virulent poison is strong enough to kill a man.

The image is from an interpretation of Mukade by Arta01 over on deviant art.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Review: The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time

Part 4 of my Tour de LOTFP, reviewing the recent spate of adventure modules by LOTFP

I had saved reading The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time until last; when this adventure was released, I remember seeing some reviews here and there that blasted it as a railroad with encounters that were patently unfair or poorly designed, so I wanted to wait and let things settle.  I finally took the time to read it last week.

The premise of the adventure is that a mysterious valley has appeared within the milieu; if/when the player characters choose to investigate, they have the chance to encounter the reality-bending structure at the center of the valley, the monolith... from beyond space and time.  The core of the adventure is basically the following conceit; characters that manage to view the monolith are forever changed, and the only way to resolve the situation involves a monstrous choice.  In that regard, the adventure module is a fantastic success.  The monolith creates the kind of situation that the players will puzzle and equivocate over for quite a bit of time.  The 'agonizing choice' is a familiar trope in horror adventures, and this one presents an excellent dilemma.  For that reason, it's probably most important to place this adventure in an ongoing campaign.  It's unlikely many of the side effects of exposure to "beyond" would be noticed until leaving the valley of the monolith, compelling the characters to revisit the valley in search of answers or resolution.  Playing this as a one-shot misses out on the interesting campaign ramifications of the monolith.

The adventure includes rules for traversing the valley of the monolith, along with a handful of sample encounters to be had while there.  The encounters do a decent job of portraying the valley as a nexus where things from different times and places interact due to the presence of the monolith.  That being said, a few of them function more like traps, and not necessarily well designed ones, either.  The author encourages the referee to create additional encounters for the valley, and I would probably swap out or alter some of the ones provided.

Physically, the books is in LOTFP's now standard A5 format, with easy to read text in a two-column layout and simple design.  The art is fantastic, with many full page pieces by Aeron Alfrey.  Monolith weighs in at 46 pages.

So how would I rate this book?  It's another strong horror offering in the LOTFP line, but I place it behind Death Frost Doom or Death Love Doom.  Here, the horror issues from the alterations that happen to the characters, and the consequences that ensue; it's very personal and creates a significant quandary for the players.  That said, this adventure errs more on the side of "high concept" and seems to be a statement regarding what a referee should be willing to do to achieve The Weird Aesthetic ™.  Some of the encounters and situations are heavy-handed and push the artistic agenda more than I like.  I'd still rather have an intriguing adventure like this one, which breaks new ground and promises complex, messy situations, than a retread dungeon crawl.

Ostensibly, this is supposed to be the most "Lovecraftian" LOTFP adventure to date.  Post-Lovecraft myth makers introduced the motif that exposure to the "numinous beyond" spreads madness and corruption to those that learn the true nature of the universe.  In that regard, I'd consider this a modern interpretation influenced by post-Lovecraft writing and not a pastiche like many Call of Cthulhu scenarios.  The otherworldly encounters in the valley and monolith would seem equally at home in an episode of the Twilight Zone or Outer Limits, or reality-bending sci fi films like Solaris or Event Horizon.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Review: Death Love Doom

Tour de LOTFP continues this week with a third review, this time the controversial Death Love Doom adventure module.

The back of Death Love Doom indicates it's a limited printing of 200 copies, with a big red warning "18+ graphic content"; I imagine it's sold out at this time, but a review is worthwhile since you could still get the PDF.  This is a gruesome adventure guaranteed to horrify and frighten players just in time for Halloween.  The physical book is a 20 page A5 sized pamphlet, with a detachable cover so the referee can keep the maps handy at all times.  The detachable cover with maps hearkens back to those modules of yore; that's about the only thing in common with those 1970's adventures!  Like The Magnificent Joop van Ooms, I'm going to grumble the text is awfully small and cramped, zine-like, on the tiny pages.  Spoilers abound, so read no further if you intend to be a lucky player in this one.

The premise of the adventure is simple; word spreads around the London streets that something has happened to the household of a wealthy merchant, and his country estate is open for looting.  The characters are assumed to be one of the first or second groups of robbers that heads out to see if the rumors are true.  There is a great fortune waiting out there to be had, well over a hundred thousand XP or more by my quick count.

Shortly after breaching the grounds, it's very clear that something is wrong - bodies of the staff and family are found, gruesomely mutilated and altered.  And then the characters discover that not everyone is dead; some of the agents of destruction are ambulatory and actively searching for intruders.  Yikes!  This adventure is guaranteed to create delicious tension at the table; there is lots of treasure and loot lying around unguarded, but the players are experiencing mounting horror; how long will they continue to place their characters at risk of a fate worse than death, just to earn tons of easy XP? This adventure puts the risk-reward management firmly in the player's hands.

There are very few adventure modules in the D&D space that perfectly capture the tone of a horror movie, and that alone makes this an amazing piece.  For that matter, I can't think of many Call of Cthulhu or horror scenarios that do the job this well, either.  In most COC scenarios, the players are committed to see things through, and they march in stalwart fashion with grim resignation towards the end of their characters.  The players here completely control their decision to enter the mansion, and how long to stay, and the weight of choice makes all the difference.  Unfortunately, there are some pieces of information, once known, that can't be forgotten - and if the occurrences at the mansion are not resolved, the matter doesn't end just because the characters flee into the night.

There were some early reviews that flipped out about Kelvin Green's gruesome artwork in this book.  Yeah, it’s beyond the pale for a typical fantasy gaming book; once you recognize that this is a horror adventure, and compare it to equivalent properties in the horror genre, it's not much different from what you'd see in the Hellraiser or Exorcist franchise of movies.  Creepy mangled humans, spider-walking backwards with their heads rotating around unnaturally… except the folks in the module are all naked and their "junk" has been messed up.  Pinhead and his Cenobite colleagues would be kin to the primary antagonist here (if Pinhead was buck naked).  So this is definitely not a book to leave lying around for the youngsters to leaf through.  Don't download it at work, either.  Or read it in a public place.  Your spouse may question your judgment, as well.  Beyond that, it's all thumbs up.  / grin /

Should you buy this one?  Like I intimated above, it's a fantastic horror adventure for your retroclone or D&D style game, and Halloween is coming up.  There is some solid refereeing advice on how to present the location and continually ramp up the tension for the players.  I would love to run this one at some point.  The biggest question to ask yourself is whether your players would enjoy setting out on a simple B&E caper, and could handle the mounting horror when they find themselves at the scene of 'My Bloody Valentine', with Pinhead's demon-possessed naked Grandma hunting them with a pair of freaky scissors?  Can a horror adventure actually get much better?

The defense rests.  Bravo, James & Co. - encore, encore.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Review: The Magnificent Joop van Ooms

Part 2 of my reviews of recent LOTFP books while I'm off traveling and not working on my campaigns.

The Magnificent Joop van Ooms is a small pamphlet published concurrently with The God That Crawls, so it was an easy 'upsell' to add my order.  It's an 18 page A5 sized pamphlet, soft cover, with a basic two column layout.  Unfortunately, the text is rather small.

The book describes the studio and capabilities of Joop van Ooms.  He is indeed, magnificent; a 17th century creator with extraordinary talent, combining magical ability with great skill in the arts and sciences.  He's part Leonardo da Vinci, Jules Verne's Captain Nemo, Lovecraft's Randolph Carter, and Shakespeare.  He possesses reality altering powers like you might see in a Twilight Zone episode - his paintings become true, his plays can render magic inert, the angles of his architecture can kill his enemies.  There is horror here, too, lurking within Ooms' ability to paint a future that comes true..

The book does not contain an adventure; it describes Ooms and his oddball retainers, his studio, his amazing abilities and agenda, and then lists a page of plot hooks on how to use Ooms to generate plot hooks for your own adventures.  There's a little historical background on Holland for the early 17th century, and tables covering some Amsterdam encounters and black market trading to support player activities in Ooms' home city.

While this is a useful pamphlet, I can't recommend rushing out to get one shipped from Finland; if you're getting other stuff, it's a fine toss-in or PDF purchase - all the LOTFP books I'm reviewing this week are primarily available in the LOTFP online store.  A character like Ooms is a fantastic patron and a worthwhile addition to your campaign's roster of recurring NPC's, just remember that this book is an appetizer, and not a hearty main course like some of this author's published adventures.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Review: The God that Crawls

I'm traveling this week, so it's given me a chance to catch up on some reading - I've finished Night's Black Agents and a bunch of the recent LOTFP releases, so I'll be spewing forth opinions (ie, reviews) as time permits.  First up, let's take a look at The God That Crawls, the latest adventure for LOTFP.  As usual, there will be spoilers in the review.

Physically, the book is a pleasing quality - the pages are a nice texture, feature a distinctive edge fade, in two column layout.  Like most of LOTFP's publications, they're roughly 8 x 5 (paper size A5, I believe).  The maps are embedded in the text in greyscale, but there is a nice poster fold out of the maps at the end of the book, in color.  This project was funded as crowd-sourcing, and the publisher, James, doesn’t mess around with quality.

The premise of the adventure involves a winding labyrinth beneath an old church, inhabited by a monster with a shameful origin - the 'god that crawls'.  The villagers and priest, while not evil, are complicit in preserving the secret beneath the church.  Furthermore, the secret labyrinths were used by the ancient church as a sort of 'Area 51' for securing dangerous artifacts, so it's possible that adventurers that plumb the labyrinth could discover those forgotten, ancient vaults that still hold some bizarre and dangerous items.

Regardless of how the characters first get into the labyrinth, once they're in, they're likely trapped until they find an alternate escape route.  Similar to The Grinding Gear, this is a classic dungeon crawl that puts a lot of pressure on resource management, forcing players to choose between speed, encumbrance, careful searching, and time management, while they're tracked by 'the god that crawls' through the labyrinth.

I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the adventure module, and the interweaving of historical details to fully realize the features of the church and labyrinth. There's been a trend-line in the LOTFP catalog to place these adventures in a real world setting similar to 17th century England, and it works well to contrast the mundane details with the horrors of the adventure site.  My only criticism is that some of the weird items in the vaults are both too baroque and outlandish; they're almost trying too hard to be non-standard magic items.  Maybe they'd still be fun in actual play.

I highly recommend the adventure; every adventure in the LOTFP catalog promises a unique and memorable experience for both players and the DM, this one included, and that alone is a fantastic reason to pick this up for running. Like most of the modules in the LOTFP catalog, The God That Crawls is for fairly low level adventurers.  The author's decision to situate more of his published works into 'the real world' is worthy of a longer discussion, but it's a move that makes a lot of sense for the tone and themes of these LOTFP adventures.  I'll have the chance to post notes on The Magnificent Joop van Ooms, Death Love Doom, and The Monolith Beyond Space and Time in the next few days.