Friday, November 30, 2012

Led Zeppelin plays the Adamant Bowl: Black City Game 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus 3 unnamed L0 sailors to help carry tents and supplies

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

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

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Game Shelf at the Lich House

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

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

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

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

I'd settle for a BECMI reprint.

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bruce Lee's Dungeon

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 26, 2012

Voodoo in D&D

As I continue to take in all things of a piratical nature, I've been reading Tim Powers' On Stranger Tides, the novel that inspired the Pirates of the Caribbean movie of the same name.  I've been meaning to read The Anubis Gates, so this was a convenient entry point to this author's work.  I'm enjoying the book a lot, more so than I did the movie, so I'll write a review/recommendation when done; today is just focusing on the thread of magic and sorcery in the novel.

In the story, it seems that nearly every pirate ship has a resident Bokor, a voodoo practitioner, and many of the rank and file know a few tricks themselves - at least, all the pirates moving in the same circles as Blackbeard have voodoo influences.  Magic is used to cure tropical diseases, heal wounds, bless ships, and protect in combat, among other things.  Hermeticists from Europe also find their arcane powers are increased in the Caribbean.  There's a conceit at work here; the New World in the 17th century is unformed, wild, and primal, and the significance of magic is stronger.  Magical effects described from the times of myth and legend are  possible again in the New World.  The Pirates of the Caribbean movies have a strong supernatural theme running through them, revolving around the influence of the 'heathen gods'.  This is great, great stuff if you're looking to run a historical fantasy game featuring a strong magic component, like D&D, but otherwise don't want to upset the historical apple cart.  The motif that the progress of time, civilization, and/or the Church drives the magic out of the world ripples across many literary genres and works.

The bit that fired my imagination is this idea that "every pirate ship has its resident Bokor…"  It sounds a lot like every adventuring party bringing along a thief, magic user, or cleric.  The Bokors in the story function most like healers and augurs, putting them in the same design space as the cleric in D&D.

I don't profess to know any more about Voodoo, Vodun, or Obeah than what one picks up watching movies and the occasional urban fantasy book; I also realize modern forms of the religions are heavily syncretistic.  It involves rituals and ceremonies invoking various powers of the spirit realm (the Loa), frequently equated to Christian angels, messengers, and saints in the modern view.

What would it take to make pirate-clerics in the Goblins of the Spanish Main campaign Bokor practitioners?  Very little, it would seem - renaming various clerical spells to fit the mood is a simple enough starter.  In On Stranger Tides, for instance, there is a spirit euphemistically referred to as Mate Care-For (the Loa Kalfu or Carrefour) that is frequently invoked to help heal injured pirates in the story.  The ubiquitous Cure Light Wounds could be referred to as "Touch of Kalfu" or even "Mate Care-For's Breath" and you 're ready to roll with it as is.  I can easily see players calling out, "Hey man, we need some voodoo up here - Hawkins just took a cutlass to the face."

There are perhaps a few signature elements of the popular conception of Voodoo that I'd want to address - zombification, voodoo dolls, and spiritual possession.

Animate Dead is typically a higher level (arcane) magic user spell, and calls to mind a necromancer calling forth hordes of skeletons from a desolate graveyard.  I'd probably make a lower level clerical version that allows the Bokor to create a single zombie.  Not sure yet if it would be the zombie powder version of The Serpent and the Rainbow or White Zombie - a living human transformed into an automaton - or an actual undead servant brought back from the dead.

All of the Bokor spells could be cast through a degree of Spiritual Possession, the level or type of spell dictating the degree to which the Loa needs to inhabit the Bokor's body during the spell casting.  For instance, augury or divination spells (when the cleric acts in the role of oracle or soothsayer) could require the caster to ecstatically channel the personality of the Loa.  Could be fun for the roleplaying opportunities.

I like the idea of making the Voodoo Doll a new type of magical construct that clerics can make, like scrolls (and about as difficult as a 1st level scroll - or perhaps the level of the doll = the level of the target).  In modern voodoo, the dolls are used more for sympathetic magical healing than sticking pins in their eyes.  Use of a doll would provide an interesting and flavorful twist to the typical clerical limitation of "laying on hands" by allowing a Bokor to cast different types of healing spells over a distance if an appropriate Voodoo Doll exists of the character.  Getting personal effects of an opponent to make an appropriate voodoo doll of that enemy offers some intriguing adventure ideas.

What about players wanting to play traditional European "clergy" in the Caribbean setting?  I expect that to be the norm, as long as we address the idea that fantasy Europe is lower magic than a typical D&D world as befits the weird fiction space.  It could be that actual miracle workers are rare, or clergy are uniformly low level and not capable of the vast wonders that adventuring clerics can achieve; perhaps magic-working clerics are members of secretive, mystical sects that perform clerical magic, and the mainstream clergy are mundane.  I prefer to keep the workings of the cosmology somewhat vague when developing weird fiction settings, since clear sides of good and evil and transparency about the cosmology undermines horror and mystery alike.

*The image is the M:TG Voodoo Doll card; my oldest kiddo just started playing Magic recently and now it's all he talks about.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

In Which Halflings Don't Suck

Black City Game Report - Session 13

Hope all the readers that celebrate such things had a nice Thanksgiving.  Sitting before a nice fire in the hearth, after putting up the Christmas tree earlier in the evening and entertaining some guests, my D&D thoughts are drifting towards that lover of comfort and the warmth of home - the Halfling.

Enjoying a bit of hearth and home in the late evening, Halfling style

I love the Halfling class in basic D&D.  Of course, the class is rarely played by us in accordance with how they're portrayed in the source material; I've used them as heavily armored front row tanks (because of their huge AC bonuses) with a pair of fighters behind them with spears, or they're used cynically as all-purpose crash-test dummies, checking for traps (the hard way) and testing potions for poison.  Mario and Luigi were two such Halflings in the last campaign.  But they have killer stealth abilities, and in that regard, they can function a bit like those sneaky fellows from the Middle Earth stories.  Basic D&D doesn't have much CharOps power gaming, but the Halfling is the one class most prone to abuse (ie, not using it for its intended purpose) and that makes them pretty interesting.  So I do like Halflings, which is why I'm mentioning up front that Halfling stealth made a huge difference during last week's game session.

In The Black City Campaign, Halflings are proper Britons from the south of England, typically taken as thralls in Viking raids and forced to work off a life-debt back in the Scandinavian lands; Halfling adventurers have earned their freedom and opted for the adventurous life of a raider.  My roots in Mystara are showing, since Mystaran Halflings are frequently pirates - nasty, brutish, and short.

This recap resumes when Brick Bunnybreaker, the party Halfling, climbed atop a large pile of rubble to keep an eye on the surrounding ruins while the others split into two groups to search the current ruined hex exhaustively.  (One of the players was convinced there would be an entrance to the first junction below ground somewhere in the hex - good instinct, but not this time).  When a murderous Hersir and his ring-men skulked up the path following the group's trail, Brick was instrumental in spoiling the ambush.  After  a bloody first round with the noble and his crew, Timur ended the fight with a Sleep spell.

The leader of the other group was a youthful nobleman, but rather than take him prisoner and ransom him back to his ship, a common practice, the group just killed him and his gang outright and took their gear - fine broadswords and chain armor, hacksilver, and a wealthy fur cape.

If the party's reputation is drawing attackers, it's also lending to their mystique; in a further hex, they intimidated some poorly equipped bandits, and claimed the rights to search a pyramidal structure the bandits were scouting.  Brick found a secret door entrance, and the only furnishing inside was a 15' tall obelisk made of lodestone in the center of the pyramid.  When no one else had the guts to touch the obelisk after fruitless searching, it was Brick they asked to touch it.  Alien math flooded his brain when he touched the obelisk, and he gained a point of intelligence (a one-shot boon).

"Don't think I haven't figured out why you keep asking me to touch things", said the now-brainy Brick Bunnybreaker, whose intelligence went from 12 to 13.  "I'm too smart to do anything foolish now."

I told you it was Brick's night, and he proved key in the next scene as well, creeping up to the large hole in the ground the party previously used to leave the Mist Dungeon from below.  They had successfully bushwhacked a way from the Well of Woe to the Mist exit, across 8-9 ruined city hexes, and now that they reached their goal, they were grumpy someone else was down below in the dungeon.  Smoke and voices drifted up from the 20' opening.  Brick crawled forward, Ninja-Halfling style, eavesdropping and spying on the interlopers.

"It was horrible," cried an injured man on a hoist.  A large group of northmen circled the hole, where ropes and hoists with men in harnesses were being pulled out of the chasm.  The other two men that were hoisted from the deep cavern below were dead - one of them mangled and dripping blood, the other bloated and poisoned.  "The bottom was crawling with giant bugs… a spider jumped on Olaf, Holvir and I were attacked by huge beetles…"

"We'll have to prepare better", said a wheezy, hoarse voice from the shadows.  "We'll send down heavily armed veterans instead of scouts, and more fire with them, so we can defend a position".  Brick had heard enough; the voice was Galm, one of their rivals, so he crept back from the hole to inform the party.

DM's Note:  Galm was an early retainer of the party; during one of their adventures, he opened a lead -lined chest and an otherworldly ghost wasp flew into his head and infested his brain (this was session 1 or 2).  They cashed Galm out back in town and parted ways, wanting no part of a possessed henchman in their service.  Galm went on to recruit other dungeoneering groups, desperately seeking a way into the lower dungeons.

In a recent game session, the party saw an entire  hive of those ghostly devil wasps in the dungeon deeps, after they turned on some alien equipment and gained short glimpses about those dark places.  Galm worried them.

Now, Galm was apparently close to his goal - he had a large party of mercenaries and veterans, and was building hoists down to the caverns beneath the first level.

Because this was a day or so after previous events in the recap, the party had  recently camped in the ruins and gained their Sleep spells back; now the magic users (Tribunas and Dominicus) crept forward to nuke Galm's mercenaries from above.  Once the magic users started chanting spells, I gave the guys down below regular initiative rolls to try and plug the magic users with arrows.  Luck went the party's way, and multiple Sleep spells blanketed the area below ground.  Some of the men near the edge pitched forward into the void as they slipped into unconsciousness.

The group quickly dropped their own ropes and scurried down to kill the sleeping opponents.  What to do about Galm himself?  The topside group urged Mustafa and Brutok to bash his head in and loot the body, but at the last minute, Mustafa got cold feet and merely shoved Galm's limp body into the void.  They couldn't decide if killing Galm would just free the devil wasp to possess someone else, and they didn't want to be the ones to find out.

A few prisoners were trussed for questioning, while the rest were pushed into the void.  Galm's group had apparently cleared the Mist Dungeon, finding the missing parts of the robot the players were collecting - Galm had the missing treads and arms.  (The party had found the torso and head on previous capers, and the pieces were securely stashed in a hideout).  They left Galm's survivors, bound and gagged, and decided to go retrieve their own robot parts and try and put the thing together finally.

A wandering monster check (ghoulish zombie gjengangers) meant that the prisoners were eviscerated when the party finally got back to that room, having been discovered by ghouls, and the monsters stopped ripping out the guts of the dead captives to attack the front line; the party made short work of them.

The game ended in a desperate fiasco.  Another useful item the party had sequestered in their secret cache was a control unit related to the hole in the floor and the various clamshell doors.  It turns out there was also an elevator or platform deep in the cavern, and the party was bringing it back up to the surface.  Unfortunately, they'd been dumping corpses down the hole over many sessions… and the area below was crawling with monstrous vermin.  Climbing on the mound of revolting bodies were a trio of giant tiger beetles.  Borghild frantically pushed buttons on the control unit, trying to get the elevator platform to reverse course, while everyone else got ready for a beetle onslaught.

These vicious predators have thickly armored carapaces (plate armor) and bites that deal 2-12 damage per round - that's terrifying for 1st and 2nd level characters!  Someone quickly tried to drop an oil flask on one of the beetles before the elevator finished the ascent, and others pelted the monsters with arrows and spears.  It was a desperate fight when the elevator drew flush with the floor, but Brutok (recently armed with the enchanted Ingomer broadsword) was the hero of the fight, holding the line with his 17 hit points and crushing one of the beetles with some vicious strikes.

Looking ahead to this week, the party is considering assembling the robot; possibly selling it to the wizard; looking for more topside landmarks; or perhaps finally moving on to the Adamant Dungeon.  I ask, but I don't usually get a clear answer to guide my prep.  You know how it is; "Just be ready for anything, DM".

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

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

Plus 3 unnamed L0 sailors to help carry tents and supplies

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Call of Cthulhu vs LOTFP

Jim LOTFP has been trending towards placing his LOTFP material in an alternate earth and featuring more explicit horror adventures.  It does raise the question, beyond system, what's the difference between LOTFP and a period-based Call of Cthulhu game?

The difference in tone is huge.

In Call of Cthulhu (COC), characters have a moral position.  COC characters investigate eldritch horrors from a sense of responsibility, thus the frequent "save the world" story lines in Call of Cthulhu games.  This lends a tragic undertone to the sanity mechanic - you are putting your character in harm's way and will eventually be driven mad or forced to retire.

In D&D style play, even with the horror theme, the party traditionally consists of roguish sorts motivated by treasure.  If they run into the occasional eldritch horror, it's an occupational hazard that turns the game into a desperate fiasco to survive.  Certainly not a mandate to do something heroic.  This is why the sandbox works so well for the one approach, while the other assumes the characters will see the plot through to a finale.

On a separate note, would you refer to a period-based horror game as "alternate earth", "secret history", "pseudo-historical", or something else?  These are the burning questions for which G+ excels, and I'll inquire there as well.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Junkyard Necromancy

"What is the most resilient parasite? An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it's almost impossible to eradicate..."

I see it every day.  An excitable game master runs straight to the internet, carrying TNT and a plunger, to blow up their existing campaign because they absolutely *must* run that new game system or bring their players to a new setting.  You can't run a long term campaign without effective coping strategies for the gamer attention deficit disorder.  This is a serious problem, my friends, I know it well.  Ideas are a two-edged sword yielding creativity and madness.  How's that expression go, "I'm not just the president of the hair club for men, I'm also a client…"

My name is Beedo, and I have a problem with gamer attention deficit disorder.

My own coping strategy involves classic project risk management - Gamer ADD is the risk, and you either need to mitigate, accept it, avoid it, or transfer the problem.  I created a section on the blog called The Junkyard to park ideas that are exciting, but I don't want them to take up too much time and capsize the boat.  Getting them down in print is a coping strategy - I just tell myself I'll get back to them, someday.  Here's the Junkyard's mission statement:  This is the place where I put campaign ideas, notions, and high concepts that just haven't gotten built.  Yet.

Sometimes though, one section of the junkyard gets pretty full, and a towering mound of discarded ideas threatens to topple into the orderly little campaign next door and introduce some real collateral damage.  I had an epiphany this weekend that a half dozen or more ideas I've been circumnavigating are all about the same type of campaign - in fact, one campaign could include them all!

It's alive!
Arise, you dead ideas consigned to the junkyard, arise, and live again as a stitched together frankenstein campaign!

I've been sketching out a small horror sandbox adventure.  The initial launch of the campaign involves the players acting as marines on a small merchant vessel or privateer in the mid-17th century.  It could start in Jamestown, Bermuda, or somewhere in the Caribbean (Port Royal, or New Providence), but takes the group to the Carolina coast to investigate a derelict Spanish galleon adrift in colonial waters.  An abandoned, derelict ship is such a classic horror locale.  Before all is done, there are French pirates, hostile natives, and a reawakened heathen blood god of the Aztec world.  Assuming the players survive or flee, there's a good chance they'll have their own sloop and be free to start cruising around a Caribbean saltbox breaking things.  Yo ho, me hearties.

The back story of the galleon involves a Spanish witch hunter escorting a dangerous artifact back to Castile (and ultimately the Vatican).  As these things are wont to do, the wrong person messes with the artifact and madness, bloodshed, and death ensue, turning the ship into a floating abattoir.  I've often mused that a cool way to kick off a horror sandbox would be to inherit the library of a retired or recently vanished monster hunter like Solomon Kane.  The journals detailing his exploits and unfinished investigations allow a group to follow in his footsteps.  So why not put the guy's journal and library right on board the derelict ship?  The players can come out of this first adventure with a ship and a long list of journal entries describing eldritch horrors and lost treasures discovered by this Catholic witch hunter across the Spanish Main.  Time to raise the colors and set sail.

I mentioned that a number of my recurring campaign ideas have coalesced around this particular adventure, it's nice to realize the convergence.  Pirates, guns, ships, and weird horror.  Here are some of the many older posts littering the Lich House involving the theme of a 17th century sandbox for the Age of Sail:

The discussion of Gamer ADD and risk management was here:  Winter is Coming, and so is Gamer ADD.  Now I just need a name for the new campaign (although Goblins of the Spanish Main is kind of catchy, even if there are no actual goblins…)

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Black City Game 12 - Free Odin

Last game ended with the players staring into the starry void of space, while standing on an orbital platform high above the earth - with a 7' tall Odin in front them, declaring, "Welcome to Asgard".

As it turns out, that wasn't exactly true.  "Asgard" was more like an orbiting telescope in geosynchronous orbit high above the Black City, and Odin claimed that the ancient builders of the city bound his godly form to the platform in the distant past.  Long has he waited for the bold men of Midgard to discover his prison and set about to freeing him.

The first hour and a half of the game was Q&A with Odin, as he explained what he knew about the city, the workings of the devices back in the tower, and what it would take to free him.  The group learned how to safely open portals to the other 9 Norse worlds, including the homeworld of the ancient builders of the city, where super weapons lay deserted in the wasteland.  The players are beginning to wonder what kind of damage they can do with laser rifles and their own flying saucer.

They also learned that Odin was stripped of much of his power when he was imprisoned, and by connecting him to other parts of the city, his powers will increase and he'll be able exert himself beyond the tower.  They agreed to a mission to make some repairs in the domed building, which Odin called "Central Command", and fixing his connection to Central Command will extend his consciousness.  In terms of godly powers, he's demonstrated telepathy, a degree of clairvoyance, and the ability to generate matter from energy - he created 100 large crystals for them (about 1,000sp in treasure, using 1sp = 1 xp).  They're wondering if Odin can make a magic sword - he scanned one of their weapons, commenting on its "unusual compositional matrix and atypical energy signature..."

None of the players think the real Odin is actually trapped in space (although the characters are acting that way) - "Odin" is either a demon or hideous entity bound in servitude by the ancient Greys, or the projection of an insane alien super computer.  Either way, he's got POWERZ and they're hoping to benefit financially from helping him out.

After agreeing to return in 9 days with their mission complete, the Spitsberg Pirates returned to the tower - as Odin attested, the tentacled, globular, "opener of the way", was gone, and it was safe to leave.  However, some miscreants had set up an ambush at the base of the tower, waiting for them.

A mean looking halfling, with a desert-clad Arab fighting woman at his side, stepped out onto the path, and the group became aware of some archers and axe-men off to the side.  This NPC group, Awen's Looters, were in a foul mood after being stymied by the tower guardians time and again, and demanded to learn how the party entered unscathed when they lost so many men themselves.  When Awen learned about the passkey gems, he demanded a chance to buy or trade for some, having plenty of arctic fox pelts in their camp.

Interestingly enough, instead of launching Sleep spells and just crushing these guys, a few members stepped forward and essentially talked the halfling out of the ambush, convincing them of the futility of taking on the totally awesome crew of Isgerd's Fury.  Awen's crew chose to leave peacefully.  Maybe they saw Mustafa's duel or something - their reputation is growing.

The second half of the night was hex crawling around the ruins north of the Well of Woe, trying to bushwhack a trail to the clamshell doors that lead down to the Mist Dungeon.  The party is looking for an alternate entrance to that mini dungeon, something to make salvage easier.  Along the way, they explored a few extant buildings, fled a haunted chamber that seemed to be crawling with dark shadows, found a ceremonial building with a bas relief carved alien procession marching up a ziggurat, and followed blood trails from a battle site to where a group of hungry Viking ghouls - gjenganger - were pulling the guts from a few dead vikings.  They gjengangers charged, only to be cut down and decapitated fairly quickly.  Another night of D&D was in the books.

We had a nearly full crew this evening, including some guys who had missed recent weeks, so some of the new names in the party are either elves or magi that came with the Byzantines and hired on seeking arcane lore in the city.

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

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

Plus 3 unnamed zero-level sailors to help carry tents and supplies

Retainers back at the boat:
Grimson (Fighter L1)
Fafnir (Fighter L1)
Skoldig (Specialist L1)
Halam (Cleric L1)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Two Houses, Both Alike in Dignity...

Two households, both alike in dignity, 
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, 
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, 
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

Alignment is one of those things… you'll get 100 different answers from 100 different DM's how (or if) they bother to use alignment in their games.  95.32% of the time I don’t bother using it as a behavioral yardstick; I usually have a simple Law vs Chaos axis and treat alignment as a kind of supernatural fingerprint; anything with a divine power source is Lawful, and arcane is Chaos, and all non-magic characters are Neutral, and it has nothing to do with moral choices.

Today I'm suggesting we look at alignment as "dramatic allegiance".  To facilitate the discussion, I'm going to borrow some screen writing and fiction terms - dramatic characters, iconic characters,  procedural scenes, dramatic scenes - all concepts picked up while listening to Robin Laws describe narrative gaming.  Note: I'm not turning in my old school ID card to be a dramatic story gamer, just borrowing some lingo to help the discourse.  Dramatic characters, the type we most often see in movies and TV, undergo story arcs where their viewpoint changes over the course of the story; iconic characters are steadfast (action heroes).  Likewise, procedural scenes are action-oriented and built to get things done, dramatic scenes are emotional and character oriented.  A dramatic character is usually pulled by competing poles over the course of dramatic scenes - such as, the need to earn the trust of a spouse, versus the need to get revenge on their enemies.  A dramatic character wrestles with those poles, lying to the wife in order to go and whack a rival; an iconic character doesn't vacillate.

Alignment as Ethos or World View
In this view, alignment is a (dramatic) behavioral choice, a way of indicating which side you're on like an affiliation.  Lots of fantasy features a conflict where a dramatic character either straddles the line or switches sides in the conflict as an external symbol of their changing viewpoint.  Anakin Skywalker starts as a Jedi Knight, seduced by the Dark Side to become a Sith, then switches back to the light side of the Force when he's been saved by Luke.  Snape is a Death Eater who covertly joins the Order of the Phoenix in the Harry Potter series.  Stephen King's Dark Tower features feudal gunslingers facing off against the Crimson King and his allies, the Man in Black and Farson the Good Man.  Even in Lord of the Rings, Sauron starts as a being of light who becomes one of Morgoth's lieutenants in the First Age.  Lots of Judeo-Christian folklore features themes of the fall from grace and the possibility of redemption - and consider romances like Tannhauser, or the tribulations of the knights during the Grail Quest, not to mention the historical lives of many saints.  The chivalric tales of Arthur and Charlemagne I've been discussing feature the Christian world in conflict with the pagan world, the Muslim world, or the realm of Faerie.

In "Appendix N" literature, I've always had a soft spot for The Chronicles of Amber, where members of the House of Oberon switch allegiance to the Courts of Chaos, or choose to defend the Pattern.  I take guilty pleasure in the Dresden files series of novels, and Harry Dresden's allegiance ends up ping-ponging all over the map (these days he's on the outs with the wizardly White Council, and has sworn allegiance to Queen Mab as her Winter Knight - quite a soap opera.)  Alignment in fiction tends to be fluid.  It's also true that these conflicts frequently feature only two sides, simplifying the conflict for the reader.

In all these cases, alignment combines elements of political affiliation, group membership, social goals, and values - it incorporates many more distinctions than a vague conception of  'good' or 'evil'; the nuances of affiliation are elaborated by the fictional world and the power structures.

D&D as written isn't a great game for dramatic role playing; it's not laden with supportive mechanics for governing a behavioral scale, like Vampire's humanity path or virtue paths, or Pendragon's traits. In fact, alignment change (by-the-book) authorizes the DM to drop a giant hammer that nerfs the character until proper atonement is made - in the 1E DMG, punishments are draconian and swift, involving loss of level and the wrath of god(s).  In other words, D&D characters are meant to be iconic, unchanging action heroes.  You make a choice at 1st level and stick to it, and see it through to the bitter end - or else.   The mechanics governing alignment are otherwise limited to esoteric alignment languages (ignored by all), the insufferable paladin or druid requirements, and various detect and protection spells.

Considering how much value old schoolers place on emergent character, it's surprising alignment is set for life at character creation.  We joke about not naming characters until they survive to level 2, but the unchanging life-long value system of these un-named characters is set before a dice is rolled during game play.  Shouldn't these allegiances and world views materialize through play?

Mechanically, one of the only D&D settings I can recall that presented dramatic alignment shifts in the way that mirrors fiction was Dragonlance - it had those White, Red, and Black robed wizards and the moons and the towers of High Sorcery.  Of course, Dragonlance was a setting based on a series of novels - alignment was a vehicle for the fiction.

I've got some ideas on implementing dramatic alignments - grist for an upcoming post.  In the meantime - how about you?  Have you used alignment in a dramatic, literary sense, with two sides both alike in dignity in fair Verona where we lay our scene - something like the Jedi vs the Sith, or the Pattern vs the Logris, encouraging players to switch allegiances as appropriate when their values change?

Tl;dr:  D&D alignment choice should be fluid to support emergent characters, and involve nuances of the fictional setting rather than bland, generic descriptors like good or evil, law or chaos.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Challenges of the Saltbox

The archetypal D&D game, where a beginning group of adventurers meet in a tavern and head out to the local ruins, doesn't necessitate skills beyond those inherent in the class descriptions; fighters are already good at fighting, magic users cast spells, clerics can affect undead, and so forth.

Not so when you consider staging a maritime adventure.  The roles on a ship demand specialized skills - navigators need to read charts, calculate dead reckoning, mark soundings, and take latitude measurements; crewmen need to know the proper rigging of the sails and ship maintenance; gun crews need to know the elevation and targeting of cannons and the measurement of charges based on range and shot.  The captain is perhaps the most knowledgeable and experienced sailor on the ship, as well as requiring a strong personality and commanding presence.

Old school (rules-light) D&D doesn't provide much support in the rules for adjudicating these situations.  Which is fine, the game is Dungeons & Dragons, not Sloops & Sailors.  I imagine one reason many campaigns don't feature significant ocean travel is precisely due to discomfort by the DM.  If you're going to run the saltbox, you need a plan.

Hiring Experts
The by-the-book answer is to require adventurers to hire navigators, a captain, gunnery crew and sailors; there's no real provision for player characters to have said skills (unless perhaps the DM is using background professions or something like the 1E DMG).  This is fine if the ocean travel is a means to an end, like getting to the Isle of Dread; not so much if most of the campaign will revolve around the sea.

How would you handle this in an old school game?  Hybrid systems that split the new/old school line (like ACKS) have a proficiency based skill system, so player characters could add specific skills over time.  Alternatively, the DM could rule that characters spending enough time ship-board could learn these professions after a sufficient period as on-the-job-training.

Hack n Slash pointed readers towards an old post on A Rod of Lordly Might that broke professional skills down into categories of unskilled, skilled, expert, and master, and provided ideas on costs and times to pick them up (outside of the class and level system).  I like the idea of requiring experts initially, but letting the players add the skills as professions if they really want to allocate time and effort in game to pick them up for their characters, too.

Adjudicating Skill-Based Situations
In the dungeon environment, rules-light skill decisions on the fly are handled through a negotiation; the player describes what they want to do, the DM comes up with a success chance, the players think of ways to enhance success, and we either agree on a ruling or a roll that needs to be made and move on.

In a situation where specialized knowledge affects frequent encounters and combat, I'd like to push more of this resolution towards a defined system of rolls.  Can the crew get more speed out of the ship in a pursuit and evasion situation; can the captain's maneuver to get into a broadside position succeed; was the grappling and boarding attempt successful; did the navigator succeed in guiding the vessel to that remote island across the trackless ocean?

Looking through the BX rules, there are some guidelines for adjudicating these types of maneuvers, but they don't have a variable element for individual skill.  So one approach is to elaborate these generic guidelines for solving common situations, like pursuit, maneuvering, boarding, and navigation, and then apply modifiers based on player choices at the table.

An alternate approach is to add appropriate individual skills to the mix - use something like ACKS's proficiencies, extend the LOTFP d6-based skills to include some nautical skills, or use professional descriptions like unskilled, skilled, expert, or master to provide some common modifiers.

Agency and Autonomy
I've talked about this in the past, that playing crewmen on someone else's ship doesn't provide a lot of agency and authority to the players - they take orders, they don't give them.  As such, maritime adventures are postponed until the group has sufficient wealth to hire and outfit their own ship.

For a low-level campaign, I like the idea of the group starting with vessels small enough for them to afford, or ensuring one of the earliest adventures puts them in ownership of a suitable vessel.  Lots of real-world pirate careers started with canoes and pinnaces, trading up over time to progressively bigger vessels.  I've been working on a kick-off adventure for such a campaign, where the characters start as conventional adventurers, and gain an opportunity to seize an appropriate vessel and become privateers by the end of the adventure.  I'd use privateers because  I tend to think my players would rather be 'legal pirates' with patriotic targets, rather than murderous, indiscriminate raiders.

A useful thing about the 16th and 17th century colonial waters, the Spanish Empire of the time can be portrayed as universal, unsympathetic villains, the way early 20th century films frequently demonize Germany.  The destruction wreaked by the conquistadors was widespread and massive, dimmed only by 5 centuries.  But that's grist for another mill.

Anyway, that's where I'm at - gathering ideas for resolving common maritime problems, consulting what's been done in BX and AD&D 1E while looking at other game systems (currently looking at how Flashing Blades: High Seas handles similar situations).  James at LOTFP threatened to develop a maritime supplement at some point, but I don't see it on the near horizon (though hopefully the LOTFP guns supplement is inching closer...)

I'm also considering how player characters can gain some professional expertise in these non-dungeoneering professions, if desired.  Not only would this stuff be necessary for a Spanish Main setting, it'd be useful in the Black City - in another couple of months, the Spitsberg Pirates will be ready to buy their own longship or knarr and going where they will.

Game masters that have run a heavy nautical campaign seem few and far between; it's an idea that's occasionally discussed, but infrequently executed.  But if readers have suggestions on these issues, I'm thankful for any insights!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Twilight Zone Sandbox… with Pirates

Earlier in the week, Talysman over at the Nine and Thirty Kingdoms mused how the old Twilight Zone episodes were like mini weird tales, featuring a strange or horrific twist at the end.  It got me to thinking how easy it would be to 'file off the serial numbers' and use the weird element from the episodes for a short game situation.

I've been spending a lot of time here thinking out loud about Arthur, and Britain, and Feudal Japan, but I never really stopped kicking around ideas for a Colonial or Caribbean themed game (Goblins of the Spanish Main?) with privateers or buccaneers in the 1600's, and I'm slowly building out notes for using it for a setting - I have a kick-off adventure for the campaign already outlined.  If I were to build a Caribbean saltbox/sandbox area, could some of the encounters use weird twists inspired by the excellent writing from The Twilight Zone?

So that was the experiment - I scanned only the first 10 or so episodes of The Twilight Zone season 1 (which I had watched earlier this year) and picked out a few where I got an immediate hit on an adventure hook to see if the idea would work as a weird vignette in a nautical sandbox.  Consider there are over 150 episodes to mine for inspiration!

Here are some ideas:

Mr Denton on Doomsday
This is the episode where the two gunfighters confront each other, and realize they're both using the same steady-hand / speed elixir from the snake oil salesman; there's also a theme of fate intervening.

Sandbox:  A patron is obsessed with finding an old hermit in the mountains of Hispaniola to learn the secret of finding the legendary crystal skull, lost oracle of the Maya.  The one-armed hermit offers dire warnings about seeking the relic and receiving its visions, but the group sets off for the Yucatan coast, avoiding Spanish forts to land on the deserted coast and hunt for the crumbling Mayan ruin.  The group guides the patron to the chamber of the skull, and the patron loses his hand in a gruesome way, just like the old hermit, a heavy price for consulting the pagan oracle.

Escape Clause
This one involved a hypochondriac guy who makes a deal with the devil for immortality, but then gets life in prison for the murder of his wife.

Sandbox:  A timid man who became immortal and then turns into a daredevil / thrill seeker makes for an interesting recurring character - he's long since bored and his death-wishes constantly endanger everyone around him.  He may start out like a 'normal man' sailor who always seems to come out of scrapes okay, no matter how dangerous the assignment for which he volunteered.  The only thing that frightens him is the prospect of captivity - life in jail, in fact.

The Lonely
A convict consigned to a distant planet falls in love with an android.  His rescuers shoot the android in the head when they come to get him.

Sandbox:  Marooning and madness are fantastic pirate themes.  This vignette involves finding a castaway that doesn't want to leave the island without his "wife", although the players can't find any evidence of her during the day.  Wifey only shows up in the dark of night, when it's time for her to feed - and she doesn't want her "husband" taken away from her, either.

Time Enough At Last
Poor Burgess Meredith is finally left alone with all those books, only his glasses break.

Sandbox:  This one made me think of the The Curse of the Black Pearl, that first Jack Sparrow movie - the theme involves wanting something really bad, paying a heavy price to get it, and then not being able to enjoy it once you have it through irony - like the pirates claiming the cursed Aztec gold.  I could riff off a similar theme around wish fulfillment.

Judgment Night
This was the u-boat captain who wakes up on board a merchant ship, and keeps relieving a u-boat attack from the other perspective.

Sandbox:  My first thought was to have an exploring group discover a careened ship, and a broad trail leading to a nearby fort where the crew has set up defenses; they urge the party to join them in the defense, because some horrible pirates will be attacking soon.  As clues pile up, the party realizes their fellow defenders were all vicious pirates themselves, now strangely humbled; perhaps only the pirates can see and experience the ghostly attackers?  I don’t know yet, just thinking out loud, but I like the thought of simulating what it would be like to get pulled into someone else's nightmare.  In fact, all of the defenders are phantoms.  The party spent the evening in the company of ghosts consigned to relive the hellish horrors they themselves inflicted on others, after they were cursed by a powerful Obeah woman murdered on their last raid.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Black City Game 11 - Kneel Before Odin

I hate having two game recaps in one week - as other bloggers can attest, they tend to be the least read, and understandably so, unless you write like Hemingway or something.  I put them out here mainly to keep a campaign log for the players, although from time to time they spur some useful discussions on choices I made, mistakes, and lessons learned.  Since I already spent much time regaling the awesome duel from last game (Game 10), this one is bare bones, just to get it done before tonight's game and provide a recap.  I'm behind on game reports because I lost that week of power and internet due to the storm.

Agnar negotiated with the Byzantine visitors to Thule, learning that the detachment commander, Valens Lascarius, served Himerius the High Hermite and Thaumaturge of Constantinople, a wizard of some repute.  At Himerius' request, Valens and company hired a longship to guide his group and some Varangian guardsmen to distant Thule.  The players secured the services of a magic user and a trio of Russian elves, members of Valens' detachment, who needed guides into the city.  The party was desperately in need of magic muscle and this worked as a way to introduce some new and exotic PC's.

Treasure was disposed of, taxes were paid, and time was spent negotiating with Shafat's servant, Milkyaton, to buy a pair of rare and enchanted blades from far off Carhedon.  Shafat is the eccentric wizard outside of Trade Town who lives in an onion-domed tower in a nearby ravine; Milkyaton frequently points out how the master's genie servant whisks him away each night to the desert lands of North Africa from where he returns the next day laden with wonders from those distant bazaars.  When the group set out again days later, they had a scimitar made in remote India by the Moghul's wisest, featuring a cobra skin handle and a blade imbued with basilisk venom; the other weapon was a Viking style broadsword engraved with the name of the legendary smith, Ingomer, and forged of the crucible steel.

The players were spoiled for choice on where to go and what to do, but ultimately decided to investigate a lonely spire in the south part of the city.  This basalt tower was sealed by guardians, but since they had enough orange passkeys for all, they slipped past the watchers without incident and explored the interior of the tower; in my notes, it's called The Tower of Astronomy.

Within the tower, they fought an otherworldly spirit monster that looked like a man in faded Renaissance finery; good thing they had a few enchanted weapons, this one could have been ugly.  They messed with arcane machinery and summoned an eldritch horror from beyond space and time, the Opener of the Way; fleeing the iridescent globular tentacles of the Opener , the party retreated higher into the tower, escaping through a magic portal to find themselves in Asgard, far above the world and facing the starry void, standing before a 7' manifestation of Odin himself.

At least, that's how the figure identified itself.  Let's see how it goes tonight.

DM's note:  The party was "this close" to stepping through a dimensional portal to Carcosa from within the tower; at times I think the only way this campaign could get any cooler, would be a side trip to Carcosa and return with laser guns and blasphemous rituals.

:sigh:  Another time.

*If you're going to have an Odin show up in a gonzo D&D game, of course it should look like Kirby's rendition from Marvel comics - pictured.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Charlemagne vs King Arthur

Both of these legendary kings feature prominently in the medieval romances and tales of adventure as related in the Matters of Britain and France; and in both sets of stories, the realm of Fairy and the influences of enchantresses are keenly felt.

In the stories of Charlemagne, there is a clear frontier beyond which dwells barbarians and pagans; this is the Saxon frontier, and the peers of the realm campaign across the Rhine with Charlemagne for a period of almost 20 years.  For D&D purposes, it sets up a fantastic borderlands and wilderness, clearly demarcating the realms of Law from the realms of Chaos - there's a visceral sense of crossing a no-man's land when the Franks leave civilization behind and enter the pagan realm.  In Three Hearts and Three Lions, the frontier is further mystified by placing the Twilight Realm there, the  land of Fairy from which the forces of Chaos contrive to return the world to eternal gloom, banishing the sun.

Arthur's land of England has no such frontier of evil; there are conflicts with Saxons, the Orkneys, and Cornwalls, on the fringes, but encounters with magical realms happen nigh anywhere on a quest, usually when a knight is deep in a forest, or conveyed by boat to a strange place across water.  Chaos is very much where you find it, as if commonplace and ordinary woods and lakes can transform overnight, thrusting a questing knight into contact with the numinous or the enchanted.

So here's a fine question for a Friday - in which legendary realm would you rather place your D&D style adventures?  The enchanted forests of 5th century Britain, last haunts of the druids, or the dark, brooding woods past the Rhineland, home to pagan barbarians beyond the very frontier of civilization?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

D&D is the Search for the American Dream

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

In other words, heavily armed strangers ought to be allowed to wander the countryside, look for ruins to explore, monsters to kill, and treasures to loot.  I don't need a white picket fence and a backyard barbecue, I just want to get to name level, build a castle, and attract 5-50 followers.

On Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, they talked a bit about historical role playing and why people choose to play in fantasy settings instead of the real world; this loose paraphrase of their convesation sums it up for me:  "People want to play in a historical setting like the dark ages, but they don't want serfs, they don't want an all powerful Church dictating the rhythms of daily life, they don't want any social constraints on free movement and agency.  They want to play Vikings and still let that one guy in the group be a ninja.  They want the wild west, with swords."

It summarizes quite well why I mentally come back to the Age of Sail as the consummate historical era for gaming, even though D&D's technological sweet spot is hundreds of years earlier.  It's why my current game is built around free-wheeling Vikings.

The past is a nice place to pretend to visit, but we wouldn't really want to live there.

Black City Game 10: Rocky Balboa vs Clubber Lang

Relating the ongoing adventures of a group of Vikings, the Spitsberg Pirates, as they attempt to plunder a frozen alien ruin on the shore of distant Thule, in the land of the midnight sun.

There was high drama during this game.  The party was challenged to a duel by an irate ship captain, a fierce, hulking Viking named Sturla the Berserk Killer, "I will break you", setting up the Rocky Balboa versus Clubber Lang situation when they sent their much smaller fighter out to battle him.  We live near Philly, and the Rocky theme is pretty much the local anthem, so of course the boy started humming the Rocky music in the buildup to the big fight, getting some of the adults to join in.  The players had a lot of silver coins on the line in side bets, counting on their underdog to pull off a big upset.

But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit - the group was still in the dungeon at the start of the session, ending last week shortly after they defeated the "psionic ghost of the hive mind" and smashing the mummified remains of the alien psion.

The players chose to camp their characters right in that domed structure where they defeated the psionic ghost; one of the henchmen was at zero hit points, so they needed magical healing in the morning (from the PC cleric) to get her back on her feet and moving.

The dome proved to be a secure campground; both the dungeon entrance (down the shaft) and the surface entrance (past a pair of stone "watchers") required orange passkey gems to enter, so the chance of wandering monsters was low.

There were  a lot of "toys" to play with in the dome, various pedestals and podiums topped by crystalline structures and beds of lights; the details of all the tinkering, pushing, and prodding are dull to relate, but one of them proved to be quite entertaining - it had a number of colored stones matching the light spectrum - red, orange, yellow, green, etc… up to violet.  Touching a stone seemed to open up a two-way communication to similar posts throughout the deeper dungeon levels, giving the players an interesting sneak peek of "things to come" - and in some cases, deeper denizens got a good look at them!  Romanoid Praetorians, the Dreaming Hyperborean, the Secret Masters, the Devil Wasps, offspring of the Dark Goddess...there were a few times they had to "change the channel" really quickly when they came to the attention of something really gruesome from the dungeon depths.

I can't emphasize enough how much this opens the door for me to have excursions from the depths as these malign hidden forces send probing search parties to the upper levels.  Here are some quotes from one of my favorite TNG episodes expressing my sentiments about the players revealing themselves to the deeper horrors in the undercity:
Q:  You are about to move into areas of the galaxy containing wonders more incredible than you can possibly imagine - and terrors to freeze your soul...
Picard:  Perhaps what we most needed was a kick in our complacency - to prepare us for what lies ahead...   They will be coming.
Guinan: You can bet on it. 
The next day was the long trip out of the dungeon.  They'd been exploring for 5 days, covering a lot of dungeon ground, and leaving a number of hard-to-carry treasures scattered around.  So now they spent  time tracking down hidden caches and hoping to avoid wandering monsters.  A few of the items were gone, perhaps evidence that other adventurers had come along.

Lots of things happened back on the beach when they finally returned to Trade Town.  The most exciting thing was being challenged to a duel by that furious captain, Sturla the Berserk Killer, as I foreshadowed in the opening.  You have to understand, the group has frequently encountered hostile groups of explorers in the ruins, and many times these meetings end up in brutal combat; when NPC's surrender to the player characters, they make them swear loyalty oaths to the Isgerd's Fury and join the crew.  It’s the pirate way!  In this manner, they've replaced retainers and lost seamen with capable members from other groups, while making enemies among the other crews.  Sturla was one of the captains that had enough.

Sturla got right up in the grill of Agnar, the party leader, calling him a coward and declaring that the men of the  Isgerd's Fury had tainted his warrior's honor by stealing members of his war band.  Sturla is a striking figure, draped in a raven feather cloak, bristling dark beard, a robust mountain whose fat hides piles of knotty muscles.  A crowd had formed from nearby ships and crews, because everyone wants to watch a fight.

Agnar is charismatic and strong himself, and ignored Sturla a bit, playing to the crowd; as the challenged side, he could name his champion and the terms.  "We accept your duel, Sturla, but seeing as this whole matter is beneath me, my champion will be him…" and he gestured to Mustafa, the group's scrawny desert warrior.  There were gasps from the crowd at the insult, and Sturla was livid that Agnar wouldn't do the fighting.  "Furthermore, it will be wooden weapons, to the first knock out - I don't want my man spoiling his blade on your blood".

It was totally on.  Mustafa was quickly established as a 3-to-1 underdog, as tough Northmen warriors from some of the nearby ships sized him up, some going so far as pinching his biceps and shaking their heads at the lightweight matching scimitars he favored, over a sturdy axe or heavy broadsword.  Sturla was going to crush him.

A formal duel was big news on the strand, and the jarl's men got involved to make sure it would run according to custom, in a large dueling ring outside the town.  That evening, the offended parties attended the jarl at his hall, reaffirmed their grievances and intent to fight, and enjoyed the jarls's hospitality.  Agnar told some tall tales about the group's exploits in the dungeons, to help unnerve Sturla, who glared from across the hall.

The duel itself happened the next day.  Skoldig, a retainer-thief with a fair amount of charisma, was tasked with laying bets on Mustafa amongst the crowd, putting down 500sp of hack silver in various side wagers with other captains.  The jarl himself presided, since the first formal duel of the season was a big event and promised rich entertainment for the rowdy crews.  Sturla stared across the sandy field at Mustafa from behind his shield and heavy club, who warmed up with a pair of lighter clubs so he could mimic his dual-scimitar fighting style while in the arena.

Ship captains are typically 3rd level fighters, with some of the larger longships commanded by 5th level fighters; Mustafa was only 2nd level.  However, he has an 18 dex and really high defense, whereas Sturla was stronger and heavier (higher strength and con, but low dex).  It was a classic fight between a faster, lighter, combatant, and a big bruiser with twice the hit points.  Sturla strode right out across the arena when the horn was blown, swinging wildly with his heavy club.

Besides his speed, Mustafa's other big advantage was "Bless".  We're using the LOTFP rules, and a number of common spells have been changed, sometimes subtly, sometimes not; Bless no longer gives a short term bonus, it gives the blessed person actual points to spend at any point throughout the day.  Mustafa had something like 12 bless points stored up, after getting a couple blessings from the clerics, to spend on rolls (saves, attack rolls, that kind of stuff) - the key factor is that the player must decide to spend the points before they make the roll.  It’s a neat, strategic take on the Bless spell.

Mustafa was spending a point or two of Bless per round, while using called shots (-4 to hit) to try and knock Sturla in the knee to slow him further; once he laid a good crack on Sturla's knee, he switched tactics to circling and swinging at Sturla's head to improve the chance of a an immediate knockout.  After a few rounds of inconclusive fighting, Sturla was only softened a little, and then he landed a crushing blow on Mustafa, taking him from 13 hit points to 3 hit points with a bruising 10 point smack.  The next shot would knock Mustafa out cold.

A few of the players put their foreheads on the table at this point.  They were about to forfeit 500sp, lose a good retainer, and also become the laughingstock of the camp.  It's fine to talk a big game, after all, but you have to be able to back it up.

And here is why you don’t fudge dice in these games, why you roll in the open.  Groans escaped from the  players when Mustafa lost initiative next round, and the group waited for defeat as I shook the attack dice and tumbled it across the table… only to see Sturla's attack roll (my roll) miss horribly.  Mustafa had a chance.  The player decided to use all of his remaining Bless-points on one final attack, trying to strike Sturla on the side of the head while he was over-extended from a big swing… everyone leaned in anxiously to watch the player roll… and it was a natural twenty.  20!  The bless points weren't even necessary.  Double knockout damage from the head shot, and Sturla crumpled to the sand after Mustafa cracked him across the temple with a telling blow that echoed around the stunned dueling circle.  The table erupted in cheers.

You just don't get the same sense of immediacy when the DM acts like a puppet master, hiding rolls behind the screen and keeping open the possibility he's ignoring the dice arbitrarily.  Let the dice fall, win or lose, and whatever emerges is usually pretty dang interesting.  In this case, the legend of Mustafa, the wiry desert man who knocked out the Berserk Killer, was born out of improbable odds in front of an assembled mass of incredulous Vikings.  Good for the players.

In addition to tripling their money, the morale amongst the henchmen and retainers was high, and Agnar now had the ear and goodwill of the jarl.  The players have been working on a long term project to start a gambling ring on the beach, and now the jarl is willing to provide some muscle and let them give it a try, as long as he gets a piece of the proceeds.  "Pig Knuckles" is in business.

Other news in the camp was that a foreign ship had arrived in the same fjord as Trade Town, and rather than beaching near the fort, the foreigners made a remote camp across the sound.  Rumor was that they included Byzantine warriors, and Varangian guardsmen from the distant empire.  During the council session in the jarl's hall, some voices counseled sending a war party to crush them as interlopers, whereas others called for envoys to open talks and declare the jarl's law.  Agnar and the players agreed to be those envoys, further cementing their good name with the local boss, but placing themselves in harm's way on a potentially risky mission confronting a large party of outsiders.

As usual, the game report is getting long, so I'll tell you how the visit with the Byzantines went… next time.  After many excellent sessions of play, here is how the party composition now looks - surviving PC's are level 2, and a few of the zero-level men matriculated to level 1 fighters.   Players needing new characters introduced some of them in session 11.

Cast of Characters
Agnar Beigarth, a Northman fighter (L2)
Mustafa of Arabia, a scimitar wielding desert warrior (L2)
Brutok the Strong, a dwarf (L2)
Borghild, a Norse cleric of Odin (L2)

Fighting men retainers:
Ayerick the Young (L1)
Bjorn Fjordrunner (L1)
Grimson (L1)
Fafnir (L1)

Other retainers:
Skoldig (specialist L1)
Brick Bunnybreaker (halfling L1)
Bottvild (cleric L1)
Halam (cleric L1)
Ivar the Bow-bender (specialist L1)

*The picture is Rocky Balboa vs Clubber Lang from Rocky 3, a classic underdog vs big uncouth bruiser - you've got to have the eye of the tiger, brother!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Feudalism Ate My Sandbox

You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.  You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile.
--Fight Club

Desperate rogues and cutthroats swigging ale in a smoky tavern, pouring over old maps, and swapping tales of plundering ancient ruins is the meat and drink of the D&D experience.  This vision of freebooters is quite removed from the feudal manorial system, where the majority of people are tied to the land as servants or defenders, and there are no inns and taverns for hard luck adventurers to plan their next delve.

Of course it’s odd, because the default tech levels in D&D reflect the early medieval world, and tales of knights, chivalry, and adventures with the fey realms would be ripe for inspiration.  I loved Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, and it certainly seemed inspirational for many elements in D&D.

The good life
Joking about running feudal era characters, someone posted this on the RPGsite as a potential character background table:

Roll d10,000:
1 nobility
2 clergy
3-6 merchant
7-15 craftsmen
16+ serf

The point is well taken; running a dark ages campaign has always seemed problematic because of the social conventions.  Who would be the typical D&D style adventurers in such a setting?  Desperate outlaws that slipped their manorial bondage to live in the woods as bandits?  Everyone else is too tied to the system.

HR2 Charlemagne's Paladins, the 2E era historical reference for 8th and 9th century France, puts the characters in the role of members of a noble household - sons, daughters, and fosters of a Frankish count.  I've been reading Pendragon lately, the Arthurian game, and it's somewhat similar - everyone starts the game as a newly made knight, owner of their own manor and possessing a fair amount of starting wealth - at least by 1st level D&D standards.  Even a poor knight in Pendragon starts with armor, weapons, a pair of riding horses, a squire, a warhorse, and a sumpter pack horse, along with a small manorial holding and annual income.

That's one way of solving the problem of a feudal setting - letting everyone start the game as a noble with a degree of standing, and not a hard luck scrabbler eager to mug some goblins for their coppers.  Dark ages nobles were a rough and tumble lot, required to defend their small manors and support their lieges with military power, so it's not a bad role model.  But it turns the D&D end-game on its head, since knights are usually represented by mid-level fighters or higher, and the typical D&D character doesn't get property until name level.  It also undermines the desperate need for that next pouch of drinking money that underpins swords & sorcery and picaresque adventuring.

I ran a dark ages sandbox some years ago, with the players starting as members of a noble's household, and it left me a bit unsatisfied as a sandbox; too many of the adventures were "what is the noble count going to send them to do now?", since the players were essentially vassals (like everyone else in the setting) and it ended up more like 'mission of the week' and less like the players planning their own delves.  You need to be able to turn the keys over to the players, put them behind the wheel.

Another approach would be to cheat the historical aspect a bit and slide in some market towns and the occasional inn and tavern, de-emphasizing the feudal manor as the starting point.  There's an old school sensibility to the idea that knighthood and standing is something earned during play by proving one's worth through feats of arms (instead of being born a snowflake).  In the chaos of the dark ages, shrewd counts and kings will elevate tough and worthy warriors to the nobility through enfeoffment.

The feudal world has been on my mind lately, as one of my kiddos has been reading King Arthur stuff, and I had picked up Pendragon before the storm.  I tend to think if I did a feudal sandbox, it would be the latter approach, allowing the players to exist outside the manorial system and move into the ranks of landowners later in the campaign.  The dungeons and adventures in such a setting are topics for another day.

How about you, have you run a sandbox game in a feudal setting, and if so, how did you reconcile the freedom and autonomy inherent in a D&D style sandbox?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Today in D&D School

I had the thought to do this article before the big storm, so it's been sitting on my computer while the power was down, waiting to post.  The moms of one of our players said something nice to my wife: "Your husband is doing a good job with the D&D game, the boys are learning so much about history while they're playing".

So I asked the kiddo what kinds of things he's learned in our current campaign.  Here's what he had say:

Real vikings didn't wear horned helmets.  The vikings went everywhere and drank beer or mead - Russia, England, France, and even Canada.  They ate dried, salted, or smoked fish in the winter,  and lots of pickled stuff, like pickled cabbages.  But if you didn't eat fresh stuff every few weeks, from hunting or fishing, you could get scurvy.  Their boats are called longships or knarrs.  The men are either jarls, karls, or thralls depending on whether you're a noble, freeman, or slave.  They do crafts during the winter in those big halls and drink more beer (beer was like food you could store all winter).  They used cone helmets with nose guards, wooden shields, and axes.

I'm sure he knows a lot more, like how island shelters are constructed, how names are formed, what everyday life is like back home, that kind of stuff.  We also watched the recent Nova episode that showed the forging of an Ulfberht sword and the guys talked about it during one of the games, so he now knows a bit about how crucible steel is made and why it was superior to local steel.

I had overlooked this as a benefit of a setting based on real-world history - I like getting ideas from real myths and legends, using real maps and place names, but there's this huge educational upside to also consider if you game with kids.  Besides, if you like history, the research and reading inherent in preparing the setting is pretty dang fun.  The real world is endlessly strange and fascinating.

My home library is slowly accreting 'day in the life' books, like The Time Travelers Guide to Medieval England, Everyday Life in Viking Times, or A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome;  I appreciate the modern approach to scholarship that's painting these vivid pictures of ordinary life by piecing together bits from anthropology, literature, archaeology, art, and written history.  As Black Vulmea said over here - Booke Faire - many children's history books also feature curious bits about everyday life to help kids place themselves in the period;  these sources are really fast and accessible for the harried game master.

I've actually had a few  parents on the block wrinkle their nose when their kid went home and asked if they could sit in on one of the kid-focused D&D games during the summer - like it's the late 1980's again, and D&D is only something for... I dunno, weirdos or something.  Meanwhile, they don't blink when their kids play gory TV-MA video games and blow the heads off zombies or loot bodies in Skyrim.  I'll stop judging.

TL;DR version:  You can slide in plenty of historical knowledge into your tabletop game, ninja-style, the way some moms are known to puree healthy stuff like carrots and mix it into their kid's food sight unseen.