Monday, July 28, 2014

Treasure Map Example

A reader the other day asked for an example of how I'm using treasure maps to give the players clues around the dungeon.  The maps are simple, and have been found in piles of discarded gear or other treasure hoards.

Here's an example of the treasure map (the original is in the player's notes!)  It was found stuck in a reed basket in a room that looked like other adventurers used as a camp at one point - it was snagged on the weave.  The players were carrying it around for months:

Here's the area of quadrant 1-4 referred to by the treasure map.  These treasure maps aren't high impact techniques, but the players got super excited when they realized they knew the map reference and found a hidden cache.  I think the evolution of the technique will see maps that cross entire dungeon levels, and putting backstory behind the map makers.

Plus you get to see part of quadrant 1-4 from the game reports.  The complex on the right side of the map is the palace of Atalante and the chambers of her pig-men; Connell died in room 11 when he was eaten by an Ochre Jelly; the Brew Crew were camped in room 9 when the players jumped them.  Room 15 is where they found the pit with the satyr-head potion-fountain sticking out of the wall.  The large 20' wide north-south corridor is the road of the dead, the frieze-lined passage that spirals into the Underworld.  Near the bottom of the map, it turns west and slopes downward, meeting up with level 2 of Taenarum.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Level One Boss Fight - The Lord of Bones - Taenarum Game 10

Moe took the week off, so Moe's Marauders were temporarily under the command of Etor, the party's ranger, who planned the night's adventure.  I try to start every game of Taenarum back at the adventurer's hall, with the characters huddled around the tavern table and planning their excursion - the same way the players leaned in over the table to peer at their maps to start the game.

"I know we told that sorceress we'd explore quadrant 3 and search for the source of the giant insects, but we've got to go through quadrant 2 to get there."  Etor laid out the maps and showed the path.  "And since we'll be in quadrant 2 anyway, why don't we just poke our head into this area over here where the 'Arch of Greed' is supposed to sit, and see if there's really a big treasure nearby?"  The players in attendance voted unanimously for the Arch of Greed over giant killer insects.

There were preliminary encounters with a horde of skeletal animals, jaws clattering and tiny claws clicking on the polished marble floors, and a few treacherous skirmishes with swarms of flesh-eating scarab beetles.  The swarms reduce any explorers killed in the zone to bones, stripping the flesh and preparing the remains to join the skeletal hoplites that patrol the area.  The party used up all of their supplies of oil burning the scarab swarms.

The Arch of Greed was real, and it glowed with reddish sigils and glyphs.  As the reddish light washed over the characters, they began to sense the gold and silver they were each carrying, until their new 'detect precious metal' senses became aware of the large pile of coins beyond the archway and their attentions were drawn towards the hoard.  Beyond the arch was a short hall, and flickering lights illuminated a great pile of silver and gold coins.  A number of characters - Etor, Thaddeus, and Jax (a new guy) - were overcome by magical greed and hurtled themselves down the hallway.  The champion of Poseidon made his save and held the rest of the party back.

Unfortunately, while the three ensorcelled characters kneeled before the treasure pile and threw coins into the air, giggling like Scrooge McDuck, various skeletal hoplites crept forward from the shadows behind them, lowering their spears to skewer the characters overcome by greed.  Once the rest of the party caught sight of the skeletons, they shouted warnings and ran down the hallway to intervene.

There was one awful round where the greedy kneelers, oblivious to the skeletal threat, were stabbed at again and again by the skeletal ambushers.  Blood sprayed everywhere.  Jax was butchered and perished, and the others were sorely injured.  The rest of the party slammed into the skeletons, joining the battle, and Mac the Dwarf Cleric of Hephaestus was successful at turning the remaining undead.  The damage was done already - one party member was slain, the others grievously injured and required the use of healing potions.  The magic coercion of the Arch of Greed wore away once the trap was finished.

The party scooped up a few thousand coins, mostly silver obols but a fair amount of drachmas, and they discovered a strange, heavy spear hanging on the wall.  It was black meteoric iron, with symbols on the blade.  Assuming it's magical, the paladin hefted it and claimed it, leaving his wooden spear in its place.

They continued north in quadrant two and discovered the throne room of the Lord of Bones.  The boss eidelon sat on an onyx throne, wreathed in purple  Asphodel flames  that surrounded the throne.  The eidelon appeared like a flaming skeleton wearing bulky armor and wielding a large bident.  He mocked them from the safety of his throne.

"If you're so tough, Lord of Bones, come down here to the ground and fight us, man to man," taunted Etor.  The Lord of Bones is easily provoked, and gave up the invulnerability of the throne to face Etor in hand to hand.  "Mortal weapons can't hurt me, fool", boasted the Lord.  He stabbed with his bident, and the players learned the aura of cold fire that surrounded him burned anyone that attacked him physically, meaning they had to kill him quickly or get worn down by cold fire damage.

The black meteoric spear was indeed magical, and the champion of Poseidon stabbed the Lord of Bones a number of times with it, cutting through his ghostly form with the magic blade.  "The key you seek is in the room nearby,"  said the Lord, as he disintegrated and died.  "Enjoy your fleeting victory, mortals; my master will just create a new Lord of Bones in a few days..."  And then he faded away.

Among the treasure of the Lord of Bones was an over-sized skeleton key.  Way back in Game 3 (He Took an Ogre to the Knee) the players had wandered into quadrant two and found a mural room where the creature you touched on the wall materialized and fought you.  When the summoned monsters were defeated, the room revealed a secret door and a large glowing keyhole - the same size as the over-sized skeleton key.  The players wasted no time in navigating across the quadrant to the mural room, and readied themselves.  Instead of touching "ogre", this time they picked "goblin", and quickly fought off 8 magically summoned goblins.  It pays to be prepared.

The skeleton key fit the glowing key hole that appeared, and beyond was a simple treasury - a silver-inlaid drinking horn sat on a simple stone pedestal beneath a shining pillar of light from the ceiling.  The paladin picked it up, and the horn thrummed with power.  Players being what they are, they poured some water into it and took a drink - anyone who sipped the water was healed!  No, they didn't find the Holy Grail - this is the Drinking Horn of Hades, one of his 7 special objects, a piece of the Regalia of the Death God  (although the players don't know that yet - the significance or why it's important.  They're just to glad to have a cool healing item).

As they turned to leave, glowing red letters began to appear on the stone table.  The players gawked in dismay as the swirling letters arranged themselves to read thusly:  "Alantir of Athens now owns the Horn of Hades.  Alantir's current location:  Taenarum."  They threw a cloak over the pedestal to hide the lettering, and left the room.  Hopefully it would be a while before anyone else discovered how to get past the mural room and see the inscription of the table.

That's where we ended last game.  Pretty good all around.  At least half the group is on the cusp of leveling up, they've defeated a major boss and gotten an important quest item (even though they don't know they're on a quest).  What more can a referee want?

Cast of Characters
Alantir, Champion of Poseidon
Etor, Spartan explorer
Jax the Hunter (newly joined - and dead)
Maribel of Christmasland (Elf Enchanter - newly joined)

Fighting men - Dorus, Eutropios, Dunixi, Apostolos

Barnabas - a thief
Thaddeus - a fighter

Stayed Home / Player Unavailable
Moe, a Bard
Talus, a Magic User

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Treasure Maps

I've been enjoying using treasure maps in Taenarum.  They come up as random results on the magic items table, and I've placed them manually to add interest to a treasure hoard and relocate treasure to someplace more appropriate.  They serve a useful, self-referential purpose in the dungeon.  They give the players a reason to circle back and discover something previously missed, or offer them a useful clue they need to hold onto until it makes sense - when they can match the map snippet with the treasure  against their larger map.

I'm firmly in the camp that a megadungeon needs lots of empty rooms and fly-over terrain.  The players aren't meant to laboriously explore every corner of every room; they're frequently passing quickly through empty spaces en route to an actual destination or quest.  It creates space for them to find a reason to return to an 'empty' area later when they find a map or clue indicating a hidden cache.

My creation process is straightforward - I determine the room where the treasure is hidden, first (randomly, of course) and drop a quick note in the room description where the treasure is hidden.  Then I'll make a small map, usually showing the treasure room and a nearby room or hallway.  The objective is to give the players a small pattern on a snippet of graph paper - whenever they've mapped enough of the larger dungeon to match the snippet, they now know where to search.

I've placed a few verbal treasure maps as well, little rhymes such as "Black water beneath the cypress tree, third step down to find the orange key".  So far, none of these have shown up in game reports, though at least one is hidden on somewhere on level one.

Eventually, the treasure maps I use will be more elaborate - they'll point to areas outside the dungeon that require quests and wilderness travel.  For lower levels, the self-referential maps are fine.  I don't want to over think them, and don't let them become blockers.  They're completely optional for the players - bonuses for the vigilant.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Catching Up with the Taenarum Campaign

Taenarum Game 9 - Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Hobo's Life For Me

It makes sense every few months to put a summary or preface before one of these game reports, to help orient new people or provide a refresher.  What is this Taenarum of which I speak?  Taenarum is a sprawling dungeon built around the legendary road to the Underworld.  It sits at the farthest end of Mythic Greece, below Sparta in ancient Laconia.  The nearest village is a small coastal cove named Psammathous Bay.  In the years since the legendary heroes returned from the Trojan War, lesser heroes now make their way to haunted Taenarum to wrest gold and glory from the minions of Hades, god of the Underworld.  The spirit behind the campaign is merging the quintessential D&D experience with Greek myth and legend.

I'm running Taenarum using ACKS (Adventurer Conqueror King), a BX retroclone that adds a lot of additional classes to the core 4.  ACKS characters are a little stronger than traditional BX characters, lending to the heroic atmosphere.  Although my first gaming love is horror, the tone of Taenarum is whimsical and fanciful to support gaming with the family and some younger kids.  Currently two groups are exploring Taenarum; some of my adult regulars and their older kids in one game, and the younger kids and family in another.

Last game, the adults group - Moe's Marauders - were forced to attend a banquet with a capricious sorceress, Atalante.  Each level of the dungeon is separated into quadrants connected by the road to the Underworld, and Atalante's palace is in quadrant 4, near where the road to Hades slopes downwards towards dungeon level 2.   Over dinner she would decide whether to let them live,  turn them all into swine, or transform them into pig-men to join her company of pig-men soldiers.  In a previous game, the players accepted a mission to rescue a prisoner from Atalante, a merchant's son named Jude.  They tracked a pair of pig-men back to the sorceress's palace and requested an audience with her.  They learned that Jude wasn't a prisoner at all - he was a willing apprentice of the sorceress and didn't want to return home.

That's as good a place as any to start this week's game report.

Atalante's servants presented the characters a banquet of fresh fish and Mediterranean vegetables, all cooked to perfection, while nearby in the hall her lines of pig men slurped out of troughs and buckets.  "You've presented me with a dilemma", the sorceress addressed them over dinner.  "I appreciate your honesty about your goals, and you're clearly resourceful.  But I have a reputation to maintain.  My operation here can't run unopposed unless bandits, miscreants, and adventurers are deathly afraid of getting turned into boars or pig-men at my whim.  You see why I shouldn't let you go.  Take the incident that happened just a few days ago, where some looters broke into a section of my palace and looted a store room.  There must be repercussions."

The players quickly picked up that the door was open for negotiation, and hammered out a deal with the sorceress - they would deal with any other adventurers on level 1 that had taken up the rescue mission, and would find the looters that broke into her store room and deal with them.  (The irony is that the players were the ones that looted the palace, unknowingly).  They would tell the merchant back in town that Jude was a pig-man and beyond rescue.  Since pig-men were fine as guards but weren't great at exploration, they even agreed to enter her service as occasional explorers and mercenaries for hire to carry out occasional explorations.  This was one of those nights where half the session was table talk, roleplaying, and learning a bit about the dungeon.  Atalante had a number of targets to explore in quadrant 3 of level 1, quests for future game sessions.

In the meantime, the focused on another adventurer group that needed to be eliminated - some rivals from back in town called "The Repo Men".  The party scoured the area of the dungeon where they thought the Repo Men might be camping out, found them, ambushed them, took them out with a Sleep spell, and then killed the lot of them.  It was brutal!  Players are funny.  They could have attacked the sorceress and done away with her threats, they could have kidnapped Jude after knocking him on the head, they had options.  They chose to eliminate the competition - and then blamed the robbery of Atalante's palace on the dead Repo Men.  Murder hobos!

There were some other entertaining moments.  I've placed a lot of treasure maps in Taenarum, and the players already have a couple of fragments from way early in the campaign.  Adam, one of the players, was absently shuffling through his notes at the beginning of the session and suddenly called out, "I know where this treasure map goes!"  The players had covered the area a couple of game sessions ago, and only tonight realized there was a hidden treasure in a previous room that wasn't searched thoroughly.  They circled back for some easy loot.

In another empty room, there was a small, dim pit.  The dwarf hung over the side with a torch (for no apparent reason) but it was fortuitous - the light illuminated a camouflaged section of wall hidden in the shadows of the pit.  The thief discovered that a gray cloth was draped over a piece of statuary sticking out of the wall - a carved satyr's head, mouth agape like a fountain.  There were dried green stains on the ground and a coin-sized slot in the satyr's head.  Someone had scrawled a nearby note in charcoal, hard to read - "This one takes about 500…"

The thief dropped a coin in the head, and it made an arcade-like plink plink plink sound as it disappeared within.  They dropped another.  They pooled their money, everyone pitching in 50-75gp, and laboriously slotted 500gp into the head, like it was a giant piggy bank, eager to see what happened.  The floor started to vibrate, machinery clanged, and the satyr's mouth started spewing green liquid.  The thief expected it, and had a waterskin ready to catch as much liquid as possible.  It turned out to be the equivalent of two healing potions!

"This is too valuable to let other adventurers know about it, let's cover it back up."

Overall this was a good session.  Lots of enthusiastic table talk and planning, they now have a patron in the dungeon, and one of Atalante's future missions included finding the source of the giant insects in quadrant 3.  "There is some force or magic power there that causes normal bugs and critters to swell to gigantic sizes… my mistress is interested in studying this source", Atalante said, hinting at a greater power that sponsors her presence in the dungeon from elsewhere.  She's patterned herself after Circe, after all.

Cast of Characters
Moe, a Bard
Talus, a Magic User
Alantir, Champion of Poseidon
Etor, Spartan explorer

Fighting men - Dorus, Eutropios, Dunixi, Apostolos

New NPC's
Barnabas - a thief
Thaddeus - a fighter

*The picture is Curse of the Swine, a Magic card in last year's Theros block.  It's pretty awesome that last year's Magic sets featured lots of Greek myth inspiration - I've been loving it.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Catching Up With Supernatural

I blinked, and a week went by without blogging.  My eyeballs have been on the TV screen (or more frequently, the iPad) finishing the last couple of streaming episodes of the TV series Supernatural in a binge of media consumption.  Not once in the past 9-10 years did I bother to tune into that one while it was broadcasting; my wife, an ardent Dr Who fan, relentlessly implored me to commit to watching the first season of Supernatural a couple of months ago proclaiming it would strike a similar chord.  It's actually been great fun.

Let's say, like me, you're somewhat averse to the television and were equally oblivious about the show - here's the theme:  Supernatural is about a pair of brothers who hunt monsters as their life's mission.  The show postulates a world where there's a brotherhood of "hunters", urban fantasy warriors that roam the backwaters and by-streets of America, staking vampires and laying ghosts to rest, combing the papers for gruesome murders and bizarre deaths to find the next case.  There are overarching metaplots that invoke Judeo-Christian mythology, involving rogue angels, scheming demons, and sundry Biblical monsters.  Beyond the metaplot stories, each episode is basically a "monster of the week" showcase, and the writers have definitely looked far and wide to fill out 9 seasons with critters.

Supernatural isn't a horror show, but you can still get plenty of ideas from it for your horror or D&D gaming.  It's pretty much someone's "Hunter the Reckoning" campaign made into an ongoing saga, the way True Blood is a Masquerade campaign brought to HBO.  I've gotten some good ideas for staging a few obscure monsters, and it's shown me that there's quite a bit of monstrous material in the Bible - ideas for some upcoming posts, perhaps.

Meanwhile, the kiddos have discovered Naruto.  I've been hearing quotes from the show non-stop for the past two weeks:  Dad, I feel really good about my red deck for this week's FNM - I'm going undefeated this week, believe it!  Which reminds me, the latest core set for Magic the Gathering dropped last week, so we've also been busy sorting cards and updating our standard decks.  I'm a decent sealed player and took second at our prerelease; for standard, I've been on pack rats and demons all season, so black devotion was easy to update with M15.  I figure there's a small amount of overlap between readers who are just table top gamers and those that play the Magic; you've either been loving the past year of swamps and demons and black horrible things or you can't wait for October and no more black versus blue showdowns.  Anyway, I'm pretty excited to have "Urborg, the Tomb of Yawgmoth", back in standard, believe it!

Despite the distractions of television and the playing cards, we've had some great sessions with the gaming groups exploring Taenarum.  I have a few game reports to post this week.  I also picked up a copy of the 5th Edition Starter Box to peruse, and an author sent a few adventures over to review.   Plenty to catch up on.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Excel for Campaign Events

A couple of commenters on yesterday's post asked for some tips on putting together their own campaign events sheet for their campaigns; glad to help.  Here are some simple Excel techniques for generating campaign events and setting them on a month and day.  It's not too sophisticated, I frequently use Excel to generate large batches of raw (random) content, plug it into my notes, and then take it from there.  If you need to generate ideas for multiple domains or regions, or multiple years, it makes sense to take the extra ten minutes and put it into Excel with some formulas instead of rolling out dice manually.

Here's how the Excel looks:

Formulas go in cells E, F, G, H.  The formula in cell E generates a random number from 1,100, nested in an IF statement to return a "Yes" if the random d100 is less than or equal the target number in column C.  Formula:  =IF(RANDBETWEEN(1,100)<(C2+1), "Yes", "No")

Cells F and G generate a number from 1 to 12 or 1 to 30 for months and days respectively, after checking to see if an event was indicated in column E.  Formula:  =IF(E3="Yes", RANDBETWEEN(1,12)," ")

Finally, column H concatenates it all together, plugging in spaces and commas.  Formula:  =IF(E3="Yes", "Month "&F3&", "&"Day "&G3&"  "&A3, " ").  I copy the final notes from column H to my actual calendar and add details from there.

Here's a functional Excel example you can snag from my dropbox to start modifying yourself:

Campaign Events Sample

Friday, July 11, 2014

Campaign Events in Taenarum

The next step of bringing the Taenarum campaign to life is the addition of a calendar and campaign events.  For game calendars, I usually just replace the names of the Gregorian months with flavorful names that fit the setting.  I'm not interested in leap years or alternative durations for weeks or months; that kind of stuff isn't high impact on the game and is too much of a chore for everyone to remember.  It'd be like replacing feet and miles (with apologies to the rest of the world).  For Taenarum, the Gregorian month names get replaced with month names like Gamelion, Anthesterion, Elaphebolion, Mounichion, Thargelion, Skirophorion, Hekatombaion, Metageitnion, Boedromion, Pyanepsion, Maimakterion, Poseideon.  In the campaign, the current month is Thargelion, corresponding to May in the Gregorian calendar.  Finally, I add a bunch of holidays, festivals, and religious observances to the calendar to round it out.

Next I develop a giant list of potential events, with a percentage chance of annual occurrence.  One of the themes I want to develop in Taenarum is that the gods are petty and manipulative, and frequently intervene in human affairs to the detriment of ordinary people.  Per the Deities and Demigods approach, they're supernatural bullies statted out like big old monsters.  There are a handful of events on the list that are explicitly divine - like when rampaging beasts or gigantic 20 HD monsters are sent out into the world, to punish some city or region that offended one god or another.  I've also included a straight 50% that any major event has a god behind the scenes pushing the matter.  Storms are natural events, for instance, but there's no reason a god couldn't also be behind pounding a region with a storm.

Here's the giant list of events (so far):

  • Assassination - 10% (Unnatural)
  • Bandits - 50% (Unnatural)
  • Birth in Ruling Family - 20% (Unnatural)
  • Border Skirmish - 40% (Unnatural)
  • Comet - 30% (Natural)
  • Cultural Discovery - 10% (Unnatural)
  • Death (natural) - 10% (Natural)
  • Death of Official (accident) - 25% (Unnatural)
  • Divine Disfavor - 15% (Divine)
  • Divine Favor - 15% (Divine)
  • Divine Plot - 25% (Divine)
  • Earthquake - 10% (Natural)
  • Epic Hero - 10% (Divine)
  • Explosion - 10% (Natural)
  • Famine - 10% (Unnatural)
  • Fanatic Cult - 10% (Unnatural)
  • Fire, Major - 10% (Natural)
  • Fire, Minor - 50% (Natural)
  • Flood - 30% (Natural)
  • Great Beast (10+ HD) - 75% (Divine)
  • Hurricane - 15% (Natural)
  • Insurrection - 10% (Unnatural)
  • Lycanthropy - 15% (Unnatural)
  • Magical Happening - 30% (Unnatural)
  • Market Glut - 20% (Natural)
  • Market Shortage - 25% (Natural)
  • Marriage - 20% (Unnatural)
  • Meteor Shower - 20% (Natural)
  • Meteor Strike - 1% (Natural)
  • Migration - 10% (Unnatural)
  • New Religion - 2% (Unnatural)
  • Plague - 25% (Natural)
  • Plague - 10% (Unnatural)
  • Population Change - 20% (Natural)
  • Pretender\Usurper - 10% (Unnatural)
  • Raiders - 25% (Unnatural)
  • Rebellion (minor) - 10% (Unnatural)
  • Resident Specialist (new) - 20% (Unnatural)
  • Resource Lost - 10% (Natural)
  • Resource New - 10% (Natural)
  • Sea Monster (20+ HD) - 75% (Divine)
  • Sinkhole - 5% (Natural)
  • Spy Ring - 60% (Unnatural)
  • Storm - 80% (Natural)
  • Tornado - 10% (Natural)
  • Trade Route Lost - 15% (Natural)
  • Trade Route New - 15% (Natural)
  • Traitor - 30% (Unnatural)
  • Vengeful Stranger - 10% (Divine)
  • VIP Visitor - 25% (Unnatural)
  • Volcano - 2% (Natural)
  • Wandering Monster (20+ HD) - 75% (Divine)
  • War - 40% (Unnatural)
  • War in Heaven - 10% (Divine)
  • Waterspout - 25% (Natural)
  • Whirlpool - 25% (Natural)

I used the list (and excel formulas) to calculate whether an event happens that year, and then calculate the month and day.  Taenarum is in southern Laconia, the region of Sparta, so I went ahead and created events for the year for that region.  If the players ever travel, I'll do the same for the remote regions.  I use a random list of Greek gods to determine whose favor or disfavor is earned if a divine event is indicated.  I also have a list of the major cities, their rulers, and ruling houses, to randomly generate the other party where an event implies an outside power.  The famous rulers of Greek mythic history - villains like Menelaus and Agamemnon - make great power mad tyrants to put in the game world, starting wars and stirring up trouble and intrigues.  I have a hope that any high level Taenarum campaign becomes 'A Game of Thrones, Greek Edition'.

Here's a quick look at a practical example for Laconia.  I created a list of events for the Laconia region; 13 events are happening over the course of the year, and by dint of random results, 4 of them are happening in the current month (Thargelion).  Here's the list:

  • Day 13 Fire, Minor
  • Day 19 Famine
  • Day 22 War in Heaven (Hades and Hermes)
  • Day 24 Storm

The day 13 event is also where I've placed the festival of Thargelion on the calendar.  Thargelion is a fertility festival honoring Apollo, involving sacrifices and fires - criminals were even used as human sacrifices in earlier times.  Dice indicated the fire is divinely influenced.  Allowing the inspiration to guide me, here's how I'm interpreting the results:  the local lord (a bit of a malefactor) has framed a political rival as a criminal so he could hand him over to the priests for the Thargelion sacrifice and burn him alive.  Displeased with the injustice, Apollo causes a fire in the town that ends up destroying the granary, causing an immediate food shortage for the isolated home base of the campaign (the famine).

The players may or may not be involved in the events - I'm perfectly comfortable if the events happen behind the scenes (as news and rumors when the players return to town) or whether they become potential plot hooks.  The players might hear about the unjust arrest and someone might try to hire them to foment a rescue.  Perhaps the local priests ask for help appeasing Apollo in the aftermath.  I just like having interesting things going on in the background when the players return from the dungeon.  Additionally, omens and oracles are an important part of the Greek theme, and the list of events provides plenty of material for supporting prophecies and omens and foreshadowing some major future catastrophe.  Maybe the players have a vision in the dungeon (there are plenty of oracles and seers down there, hags and magic statues and scrying pools and whatnot) and some of these events can be foreshadowed through visions.

Looking ahead to Day 22, 'War in Heaven', consider this:  Hades is the god of wealth and the Underworld, which makes him the ideal patron for a dungeon like Taenarum and its many vaults of gold and wealth.  Hermes is a god of Thievery.  I'm thinking the 'War in Heaven' event will involve a bold heist in the depths of Taenarum by Hermes or one of his well known followers - it's the kind of event that could have ripples throughout the dungeon.  It suggests more potential plot hooks for the players, too - like if Hermes or a messenger approached the players undercover to do the heist, or Hades approaches them to foil it.  "Wait a second, that cloaked stranger literally disappeared in the alley - were we just visited by a god?"  Great fun, right?

Anyway, wrapping up this particular post - these steps aren't that hard to do - build a calendar, create a list of possible events, generate a list of actual annual events for the local region, and then use inspiration and dice to add details and get them ready for play.  The mileage you get out of a small amount of work is phenomenal.  Time-bound events add a ton of inspirational value to the referee, while adding depth and dimension to the setting.  What are you waiting for - get out there and add campaign events to your game!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

A Framework for D&D Horror

It's no secret I've been casting about for the right vehicle for running a campaign merging horror and D&D styles.  I have a deep passion for the genre, although it's not always the best fit for my gaming groups - especially when I have a bunch of kids at the table.  Earlier this year I put horror development on hiatus to focus on developing an adventure campaign appropriate to all ages - regular readers are familiar with Taenarum, my mythology themed megadungeon.  Taenarum is going great, but that doesn't mean I won't revive the horror side projects.  It's just a matter of finding the right approach.

Specifically - I need something that lends itself to episodic play and small scenarios so we can do some one-shots and interpolated games.  It also needs to merge the key tropes of D&D and horror.  Before delving forward, let's take a moment and identify said tropes.

Old school D&D emphasizes exploration and recovering treasure over combat, separating it from newer iterations.  Settings assume gold and treasure is sequestered in old ruins guarded by traps and monsters, lending itself to a player-driven sandbox style.  Exploring old ruins to recover treasure, while avoiding combat - these shouldn't be too hard to work into a horror game.

Traditional horror game scenarios are almost always presented as mysteries.  The players are engaged with defining the mystery, then presented with clues and evidence that allow them to ultimately confront the danger or solve the mystery.  The mystery structure lends itself to horror when you overlay uncertainty, isolation, and the weird and unnatural over the top.  The place where horror gaming tends to break down is the ongoing campaign.  Either the entire campaign represents a macro-mystery, or you need a good narrative explanation for why the adventurers keep running into  the horror of the week.  Monster hunter shows, while greatly entertaining, usually  don't generate much terror or horror.

Stepping back, I'm thinking the theme of "bad places" supports blending the genres.  Picture a countryside littered with mysterious and forbidden ruins, each surrounded by peculiar lore and shunned by the locals - for good reason.  A handful of horror writers have gone down the path of mythologizing a local area with lurking horrors - HP Lovecraft's Massachusetts, Ramsey Campbell's Severn Valley, or Stephen King's Maine spring immediately to mind.    Creating such an area as a D&D style sandbox, with most plot hooks represented as legends and lore around lost treasures, seems well within grasp of our available technologies - the hex crawl, the site-based location, the conventional mystery structure.

Of course, each place necessarily represents a challenging, 'screw you' style of dungeon - as in, you woke the dead, now deal with it.  I've repeated it before, horror is ultimately conservative, and victims and protagonists alike bring the horror down on themselves by treading into the forbidden.  Monsters stand as warnings and signposts at the limits of humanity, guardians of the frontiers.  Striving to learn things 'man was not meant to know' calls for destruction.  (Grave robbing old tombs and recovering secrets best left buried fall into the same category).

This reminds, I saw something either this week or last where a reviewer was making cranky complaints about Death Frost Doom and the way the twist  in that dungeon can screw over the players.  I tend to view this as misalignment of audience.  Spoilers about Death Frost Doom:  In a moment of greed, the scenario sets the players up to destroy a thing that unleashes ancient horrors, sending the adventure into a radically different direction.  It's brilliant.  But it is very much true to the tropes of the horror genre, not heroic  adventure fantasy.  Springing a survival horror twist on the players is fair game in a horror scenario.  There has to be alignment of expectations between the players and referees (and I guess, in some cases, module reviewers) around the nature of the game and the genre we're actually modeling.

Anyway - this is where I'm at with it.  Start small, with a simple hex crawl and a few scattered lairs, and craft the sites into locations filled with mystery and horror.  I'll post an example in the next day or so to demonstrate the flavor.  Some of the more interesting questions fall into whether 'the horrors' should revolve around traditional monsters imagined fresh, or creatures generated whole cloth ala Lovecraft or Campbell.  What do you guys think?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Taenarum Games 7-8 Hey Jude Don’t Let Me Down

One aspect of having the blog I truly enjoy is getting to discuss tools and techniques, then running the games, and having the chance to reflect on how they did in action.  Your campaign is one big empirical experiment.  I'm a few sessions behind on game reports, so I'll just touch on the major actions of the past couple of sessions.

We resume with a merchant ship standing at anchor in the quiet waters of the cove for the past few days.  Normally the visiting ships drop off some cargo and go; this particular merchant had business in town that required an extended stay.  The players heard about it back in the Adventurer's Guild Hall; Barnabas, a scurvy criminal working for a competing adventuring group, explained that a merchant named Feodor was offering a reward for a rescue from the dungeon.  He told the players about a cool location his group had found in the northwest of level one:  "We're calling it the arch of greed, a mystic arch behind which was all sorts of gold and treasure piled up.  Would have plundered it ourselves, but a bunch of skeletons came along and we split.  Now the boss lady wants to work for the merchant so I figure there's no harm letting you know about the archway."

The players made their own appointment with the merchant anyway, meeting him at the Moxie Nymph, the other tavern in town.  "500gp to return my son from the dungeon," the portly man offered.  "He was all set to inherit the family business, we're importers you know, and then was lured off by a sorceress.  I've tracked him all the way from Athens to this remote place.  She turns her victims into pig-men or pigs, I hear.  500gp to the adventurers that rescue him."

So the players planned an excursion into section 1-4 (the southeast quadrant) of level 1 to rescue 'Handsome Jude' from a sorceress.  They've fought plenty of pig-men and heard the same rumors - a sorceress creates them from her captives.  The party bard sang 'Hey Jude' on the way to the dungeon, of course.

Once they made it to the correct zone in the dungeon, a decent 40 minute walk, they carefully explored the areas nearest to the entrance passage.  They found a large chamber decorated and outfitted like an Athenian courthouse; they ran away from a room where stony bats fluttered out of the darkness and bashed into them; they tracked a clean swath of passage into a large chamber holding an ochre jelly.  The jelly split into smaller jellies until they realized they needed to burn it; the worst thing about that particular battle was they lost their hefty Celtic NPC, Connell, who was devoured by the jelly and reduced to steaming bones.  After burning the jelly, they said a few words over his bones and moved on.

Things got serious when they confronted another party of adventurers in one of the rooms in this area.  Moe recognized Barnabas from town - this was the Brew Crew, one of their rivals on "the scoreboard."  Here's the problem - the Brew Crew is led by Tisiphone the Witch, an unhinged spell caster with a bad temper.  She called for defense and began preparing a spell.  The players spent a bit of time table-talking over their options - try to parley and risk getting "Sleeped" and killed, or throw all in and Sleep the Brew Crew first?  They chose the latter.  Talus their magic user rolled well on initiative, and the Brew Crew went to sleep -except for Tisiphone, who was higher level.  The fighters ended up charging her and sticking sharp things into her gut, which made her die.  Getting an axe planted in your collar bone or a shortsword rammed up your gut will do that.

It's funny how the murder hobo games devolve to these situations - two gangs of dungeon looters throw down against each other in a quick, violent struggle, and now the players are staring down at their trussed rivals trying to figure out what to do.  Loot them and kill them?  Give them the chance to join?  Make them swear oaths and cut them loose?  Their leader's quickly cooling corpse lay nearby in a pool of blood.

We're trying to model a view of heroic Greek virtue that emphasizes battlefield glory, individual honor, and bravery rather than Christian virtues like mercy.  The bard woke up the prisoners one at a time, gave a speech about bravery, no honor in defeat, and so on, as part of a pitch to join Moe's Marauders.  A few of the prisoners were 'sent to the Underworld' but Barnabas and one of the fighters didn't have too much loyalty to Tisiphone and threw in with the players, at least for now.

One of the next areas they discovered was the large north-south hall that connected this quadrant to quadrant three, and also spiraled down to level two.  This piece of the underworld road was lit with intermittent torches and lamps, and felt inhabited.  The players broke into a room off the main hall (chopping down a door, in fact) and ended up discovering a small treasure trove.  There were coins, supplies, and expensive trade goods like fine wines and drinking glasses.  It was a miracle no guards were attracted to the sound.  The players loaded themselves up with loot and decided this was a good time to leave the dungeon.

Quadrant four is a fair distance from the dungeon entrance, and their escape was complicated by some wandering monsters, but they made it back to town intact and tallied a few thousand GP in earnings.  It was the time of the Bendideia, a festival to Artemis, and the players capitalized by auctioning the wine and glasses in the village square.  It also became clear in the Adventurer's Guild Hall about the fate of the Brew Crew.  Moe's Marauders had absorbed a few Brew Crew members, and jumped the now defunct Brew Crew in the standings on the Scoreboard.  "My kind of scum", cried out Lykourgos, the proprietor of the guild hall.  "They're not above stepping on the heads of some rivals to climb the ladder of success.  This round is on the house.  To Moe's Marauders!"  Unfortunately, getting called out as cutthroats in front of your peers isn't something the players craved.  All around the room, they could feel other groups making mental notes - watch out for Moe's Marauders in the dungeon, they kill other adventurers!

After a day of recovery, the players traveled back to the dungeon to scour zone four again.  They encountered some pig-men sentries shortly after entering the area; the sentries fled, the players gave chase, and the players were able to take the pair of sentries down with arrows and thrown spears before the pig-men made it to a door off the main hall.  The players ended up storming the door, and quickly entered the actual audience hall of the sorceress herself.  A small pool and fountain separated the entrance area from the lady's throne, creating an obstacle.  Pig-men soldiers stood on guard nearby.  It was another one of those moments - do they banzai attack around the fountain, or stand down and try a chance at parley?

Moe's player is comfortable with the social aspects of the game and stepped out from the group to engage the lady in conversation, explaining they were there to rescue Jude of Athens - but that it was open to discussion.  "Jude doesn't need rescuing", explained the lady.  "He's one of my apprentices.  He's here willingly.  Assuming I choose not to turn you all into swine, or make you join my legion of pig-men, I'll let you talk to him and ask him yourselves.  What amusement can you provide that would stay my hand from transforming all of you on the spot?"  She grasped a wand loosely in her left hand (one of Circe's wands of mass polymorph).

As it turns out, a fringe benefit of being a bard is you can perform music, recite poetry, and tell stories.  The party earned an invitation to dinner and a stay of execution transformation.  They were escorted to the giant pig-man banquet hall to await dinner.  In the meantime, a messenger was sent to another part of the dungeon palace to retrieve Jude - a good-looking youth in his early 20's, who seemed to be working in the kitchens.  "So, my father sent you to retrieve me?  I'm not going back with him.  Here in Taenarum I'm learning magic under the guidance of a sorceress that learned from Circe herself - I'll even have the chance to travel to Circe's island some day.  Or I can go back to Athens and waste my life as a grain merchant counting barrels of wheat imported from Egypt.  My dad wasted his trip.  Oh, and good luck not getting zapped into pigs this evening.  There's a first for everything, I suppose."

That's where we ended last game session.  I was glad to see some recent creations from the referee's workshop have immediate effects on play; I've been extolling the virtues of rumors and quests in the megadungeon, and the players enjoyed the opportunity to focus on a specific goal by joining in on a quest.  I'm also a big proponent of calendars and campaign events, and you can see the first evidence in the mention of the Artemis festival.  In an upcoming post, I'll lay out what I've done behind the scenes to build out an event structure for the Taenarum game.  The combination of festivals, political events, and machinations of the gods adds depth and background as we begin tracking time in earnest.  It feels the campaign is starting to come together well.

Looking back over my session notes, I did a fair recap of the past few games.  I did have two player quotes noted - first, the murder hobo motto - "what happens in the dungeon, stays in the dungeon."  "Wake up and smell the bacon" takes on a different meaning when you're facing transformation into a pig.

Thanks for reading!

Cast of Characters
Moe, a Bard
Talus, a Magic User
Alantir, Paladin of Poseidon
Etor, Spartan explorer
Connell the Celt (Billy) - NPC - died this session

Zero-level fighting men - Dorus, Eutropios, Dunixi, Apostolos

New NPC's
Barnabas - a thief
Thaddeus - a fighter