Friday, December 23, 2016

Game On

Nobody found my phylactery in time.  The long sojourn pursuing arcane studies in the ivy-covered halls of academia has come to an acceptable conclusion.  The portal to the sepulchral tomb creaks open, and the lich re-emerges.  The master of the Lich House has returned.

After a year and a half of grinding my way through a master's degree, I'm back.

I've kept tabs on the D&D blogosphere - mostly OSR stuff, naturally, but I follow a little 5E too - and continued to run some games.  I was still running Dwimmermount up until September, but the last semester was crushing.  When you rank work, family, kids, school (defending a master's thesis), running games, and then writing about games, the actual running of games beat out writing about them.  The Lich House had to go dark.

The Dwimmermount group is going to pick up next week (right after the holiday) and I'll do some kind of summary of the missing game reports to get caught up.  We were on session 36 or so, and the published game reports petered out around 18 or 19.  It's a spectacular megadungeon.  The players were battling back and forth with the Termaxians over control of the Great Machine and the power to open the prison of Turms Termax.  We're right at the best parts.  I'm going to run Curse of Strahd for 5E, but I'm especially looking forward to working on my own stuff again.

I'll also catch up on game reading - lots of good stuff came out the past year that I haven't given much attention yet.  I've got Maze of the Blue Medusa, Brood Mother Sky Fortress, ACKS Lairs and Encounters, and Operation Unfathomable queued up to read.  After powering through a book per week for months and months for school, I'm looking forward to catching up on fun gaming reading.  What else did you guys like this past year?

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Dwimmermount Game 19 - How to Make a Smurf

Our Cast of Characters:

Marthanes the Summoner, (level 4 Mage)
Tancrede, a level 4 cleric of Typhon (henchman)
Wulfengard,a level 4 dwarf fighter
Drev, a level 5 bard
Bud, a level 3 dwarven cleric
Bart, a level 4 fighter
Mumford, a level 3 fighter
Malthena, a level 3 thief (henchman)
Arethusa, Mage 3
Kawku, Mystic 2

I just finished some course work for my master's degree, and have the chance to get caught up on some blogging.  I'm way behind on game reports, but had this partially written (and unposted) from a month or so back.

A few game sessions ago, the players had ascended to explore a hidden level in Dwimmermount, the level 0 "Divinitarium".  It seems targeted at 6th level characters, and they're level 4, so there was a lot of fleeing and dying.  But the players escaped with a treasure trove of lost works describing the secret origins of the gods of Dwimmermount. While the players shifted back to exploring level 4, they were reading the books on the side, so I gave them another chunk of Dwimmermount's 'secret history' at the start of this game, representing the results of reading in between sessions.  They learned the gods were golem-like servitors created by "the Ancients" to channel divine power; over time, their metallic exoskeletons grew and the gods blasted off for orbit. I picture them like Marvel's Celestials. In time, all knowledge that the gods were originally man's creations was lost, and they were worshipped as divine beings .  These are major revelations!  But the sources were suspect, so one of the main characters, Marthanes, began to wish for more scholarly works with similar information… and this search for knowledge would drive the action in this next game session.

Last time out they allied with some wererats on level 4, and assaulted many of the wererats' enemies among the minotaurs, including the Minotaur King.  The first thing the players did this session was to guide the wererats out of level 4.  Their dialogue with the rats involved forming an alliance, and then educating them about the surface world, since the tribe had been trapped in Dwimmermount for 200 years.  The players agreed to get the wererats en masse to the city of Adamas so they could infiltrate the underworld and become wererat gangsters.   (One scene had the pirate Drev flying to Adamas on his magic carpet, surrounded by a dozen wererats in rat form, like some Pied Piper in reverse).

The players also gave part of their library of Dwimmermount books to the Seekers, which they'll rue by next game, and we also did the typical morale rolls for henchmen in between adventures. They had a guy named "Sloth the Mook" who decided it was time to head out on his own… partially because his patron was Wulfengard, who has a 5 Charisma.  A new PC joined the group in Muntburg, a monk named "Kwaku the Mystic", taking the place of Utor, the elf enchanter PC who died last game when he became a slime zombie.

After sufficient "town time", the players returned to Level 4.  From the wererats, they knew about a library on level 4, and another library on level 5 (but fiercely guarded). They decided these two libraries made good targets for the night's adventures.

On level 4, the players first encountered a "cloning chamber".  Picture a mad scientist's laboratory with two capsules, one for the source character, and one where the clone would be created.  Arethusa, the ancient mage they freed from stasis, knew how to work the chamber, and Wulfengard immediately volunteered to become cloned.  Right before flipping the switch, they noticed a fly buzzing around the chamber with Wulfengard!  The younger players had never seen the horror movie, "The Fly", so they don't know how close they were to cloning a hybrid blood-sucking fly-dwarf monster.  Instead they got a level 1 clone of Wulfengard.

The real comedy started when they found a nearby 'alteration chamber' and Wulfengard agreed to put his Wulfen-clone in the bed for some alterations.  In short order, the Wulfen-clone was turned into a dwarf woman, then she was turned blue, a smurf, but eventually had her color changed to a deep brown.  Keep in mind, there are no female dwarves on the world of Telluria - all dwarves are made male, so the Wulfen-clone is pretty unique as the world's only(?) female dwarf.  I laughed for 5 minutes when she got turned blue and I realized they made the world's first Smurfette.  But the player got very upset at the notion of playing Smurfette, demanding that the folks controlling the alteration table give it one more spin, and was happy when his dwarf lady got turned brown instead.  After a series of attempted names - Wulfen-mook, Wulfen-clone, Wulf Jr. Wulf-Daughter, Mini-Me, and Baby-Garden, he settled on Baby G for the new character.  She would go on to be generated as a level 1 dwarven barbarian - the alterations of gender and color changed the cloning process so her attributes could vary a little from Wulfengard, and barbarian fits her bad attitude.

Game 19 concluded with a massive battle.  The players found the stairs down to level 5 and discovered the Great Library, a location they learned about from the wererats.  Unfortunately, it was the lair of a powerful demon and a horde of manes demons.  The demon was one of those ultra-magical Type 6 Marilith types with a massive armor class (AC 15 in ACKS terms) which meant most players needed a 23 or higher to hit.  However, the simplified conversions in Dwimmermount didn't include Magic Resistance, and that was decisive.  The players had two magic users with multiple Magic Missile spells, including a Wand of Magic Missiles, and they were able to take down the demon through magic.  Along the way, the demon kept cloaking the players in Darkness, with clerics using Light spells to try and cancel pockets of darkness.  Wulfengard, Bart, and Mumford were all dropped by the demon, and Mumford and Bart were badly injured - their adventuring days were over, barring Restore Life and Limb.

Level 5 and 6 of Dwimmermount is where the players start running into really tough fights; I need to keep my eyes open to see if anyone else is running into those areas as well.  I'm way behind on game reports due to work and school priorities, although we've still kept playing every few weeks; for instance, we just ran game 28 even though I'm only reporting game 19.  I may just compile a bunch of capsule reviews and try to get caught up before the next summer courses kick in.  Over halfway to my Master's degree, only about 5 more months to go.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Magic (MTG) and D&D: Games are Colliding

Wizards of the Coast quietly posted a PDF document over on their Magic: The Gathering site this week that has potential to eradicate barriers between the company's two flagship (fantasy) creative teams.

Here it is:  Planeshift: Zendikar

For the first time ever, we have a Magic guide to using one of Magic's premier settings a D&D milieu.

So what's the big deal?  Magic has been a 30+ year gaming juggernaut, steadily embracing more and more story elements to drive the gameplay.  The Magic card game features a series of powerful, magic-using characters called "Planeswalkers", whose  soap-opera intrigues and conflicts take them from plane to plane in the Magic multiverse.  In this way, every two or three sets of Magic cards shifts the action to an entirely different thematic world.  The Magic creative team works very hard to develop fully realized fantasy settings for each new set of cards - including settlements, civilizations, monsters, threats, culture, and character names.

Let's just look at the past few Magic settings:

  • Ravnica:  the world is dominated by a massive metropolis, the city of Ravnica, where 12 competing guilds each seek to control the city - it's full of intrigue and urban noir fantasy
  • Theros:  inspired by Greek Myth, the city-states of Theros are beset by a pantheon of jealous gods and titanic monsters
  • Tarkir:  Tarkir is a war-torn plane where clans inspired by the cultures of South East Asia fight for dominance - it's seriously cool
  • Zendikar:  - Magic's high fantasy "adventure world", where Cthulhoid monsters, the Eldrazi, rise from the ground and terrorize civilization
  • Innistrad:  Magic's Gothic horror setting, full of vampires, demons, ghosts, and werewolves

There is a nice online gallery of the major planes in Magic:  MTG: Planes

What really drives Magic's storytelling is the amazing art for all of the cards. Magic's visit to one of these planes is embellished over a couple of card sets, meaning the creative team will commission several hundred pieces (400-700 paintings) of evocative fantasy art to convey  the story and themes of the world.  By contrast, a D&D book might have a few dozen pieces of art at best, and many of them are mini portraits or maps.

With Zendikar, Wizards of the Coast released a coffee table style book called The Art of Zendikar, which acts as both an art book and travel guide to the plane.  With the recent Planeshift: Zendikar, they've complimented the art book by providing guidelines on game stats and using D&D to run RPG games set in Zendikar.  Based on the survey attached to the article, this is also being looked at as a market test, to evaluate potential new products.

The test makes sense; the Magic product line invests in a massive portfolio of art, and leveraging that art and intellectual property for D&D game worlds gives them more opportunities to drive value from the art investment.  It's "low hanging fruit".  They can create more planar-guide coffee table books to sell the art, or shift these Zendikar-style game supplements into formal pay-to-own game supplements.  Plus, it might enhance both brands by getting some Magic players to try D&D, or getting D&D players to pick up a Magic deck.

Meanwhile, it's becoming clear what is the D&D 5E strategy and how it's working.  The core books are evergreen products, and the design team has been true to their word on keeping away from splat books and rules sprawl - no Player's Handbook 4, for instance.  (Thank you).  Instead, the product team seems focused on  releasing two "stories" per year, a large adventure campaign hardcover book, which is then cross-developed in novels, board games, and computer games.  Play the adventure, read the novel, buy the t-shirt, and then download the video game, that kind of stuff.  Something for everyone.  The quality of the stories seem to be improving as it goes along - Out of the Abyss was better than the previous two campaigns, and Curse of Strahd is absolutely full of win.  (I should get around to posting a review of Curse of Strahd, but it will gush with enthusiasm).

Overall, this foray into cross-promoting Magic and D&D is super interesting.  I'm guessing the Magic creative team is thinking like entrepreneurs and looking to harvest value from their creative work, with D&D fans getting a chance to benefit now that the iron curtain is falling.   5E seems to be doing well as a product line. The PHB is back in the Amazon top 100.  I greatly appreciate that the market isn't getting flooded with official splat books like DMG 2 and PHB 3, and this focus on multimedia stories is fairly benign; I can focus on the tabletop specific stuff and let folks enjoy the other media if that's their thing.  There's no downside.

I'll be watching the space closely.  The latest Magic set is Shadows over Innistrad, a visitation back to Magic's awesome Gothic horror setting.  The next set of cards for Innistrad will come out mid-summer, and that would be a good time to see if WOTC is going to publish a Zendikar-style art book and setting guide for D&D Innistrad.  I'd love for them to go back and do some recent worlds like Theros or Tarkir, but it seems more likely to be a forward-facing change.

Magic does nice trailers for each upcoming set, here's the recent trailer for Shadows Over Innistrad:

Shadows Over Innistrad Trailer

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Dwimmermount Game 18 - Flight of the Drevelator

The further adventures of our adventuring party, The Investors:

Marthanes the Summoner, (level 4 mage)
Tancrede, a level 4 cleric of Typhon (henchman)
Wulfengard,a level 4 dwarf fighter
Sloth the Mook, level 1 fighter (henchman)
Drev, a level 4 Squindian bard
Bud, a level 3 dwarven cleric
Bart, a level 4 fighter
Mumford, a level 3 fighter
Malthena, a level 3 thief (henchman)
Arethusa, Mage 3 (henchman)
Utor, level 3 Elven Enchanter

The last game ended on a major discovery.  By way of recap:  our stalwart heroes used Drev's flying carpet to ascend up the elevator shaft in Dwimmermount; in this way, they were exploring a secret area they knew no other adventuring party could reach - a totally new space.  Unfortunately, this Level 0, the Divinitarium, is really, really dangerous to an underpowered group that doesn't have access to Cure Disease.  Most of the monsters are slimes, oozes, and fungi with hideous infection attacks.  We stopped last game session when the players discovered a wonder beyond imagining - a full sized interplanetary space ship, the Astral Vessel, parked in a massive hangar.  It blew their minds to think the setting would let them go to other planets.  "We will invade Aeron and conquer the Eld!".  However, a half dozen or more slimy zombies slurped to their feet halfway across the dimly lit hangar, blocking the way.

We started this game with the players, standing across from the zombies, developing their battle plans.

They Astral Vessel was too awesome not to try and seize; how dangerous could a bunch of slimy zombies be?  The fighters started peppering the slow moving zombies with arrows, while Drev shot forward on the flying carpet, with Utor and Arethusa on board.  The two mages had Burning Hands spells and they figured they'd do a couple of back and forth fly-bys, raining fire down on the slime zombies.  The combination of magic items and spells as technology is giving the players access to 'modern' battle tactics.  Queue the Ride of the Valkyries theme.

Unfortunately, no one looked up at the vaulted hangar ceiling to realize it was covered in patches of Olive Slime, which started dropping like bombs.  Incoming!  Drev tried to weave, but a pocket of slime landed on Utor.  "I am very sorry, Mr Utor", said Drev's player in his Squindian accent, "but I will not be having any slime covered elves standing on my special carpet".  And Drev gave Utor a sharp kick in the rear, launching him into the air.  Drev used to be a Squindian pirate, so he flashes his Chaotic tendencies from time to time.

Poor Utor.  He found himself on the ground, disoriented from the fall, going numb from the Olive Slime creeping over his flesh, with several Olive Slime Zombies craning their way towards him, blindly groping for him.  He took out his Wand of Fear, aimed it back at his own face, and let loose with a charge, blasting himself at point blank. When I asked him why he'd do such a crazy thing, he said, "I'm going to scare that slime right off my body!  I think it's going to jump right off in fear!"  What really happened is that Utor ran off into a dark corner of the hangar in a total panic, at least until the Olive Slime permeated enough of his nervous system to take control.  Somewhere in the darkness, a new elf-sized Olive Slime Zombie shuffled to its feet and started walking towards the players…  brains...

Drev looped his carpet back to the players, avoiding the falling slime attacks from the ceiling, and the players agreed this was more than they could handle, and retreated from the hangar.  "We need Fireballs and Cure Disease and then we'll be back to claim our space ship."  Utor's player took the abandonment of his character in stride.  "I'll play Arethusa (a henchman) until I get the chance to make a monk character.  I want to do kung fu."

The players had enough with The Divinitarium, creatively dodging various wandering monsters to get off the level and make their way back to town.  Bart was still shuffling along in the background with his serious head injuries from last session, Utor was dead, and they had sacks of juicy history books to read back in town.

We allowed a few weeks to pass in town so the players could fully recover, level where warranted, and read the books.  Marthanes also lent the books to his allies, the Seekers (this would come up as a full-blown issue in one of the upcoming games, game 20).  Because "The Secret History of Dwimmermount" requires a lot of exposition, I don't give it out mid-game; I send a document out after the session, incrementally adding the new knowledge.  This way, the 2-3 players that really care about it (and don't mind reading) can absorb it at their leisure, and it keeps the game moving in session.  The players have a 'knowledge tracker' so they can see how they're doing versus the "big questions" and where their knowledge has gaps yet to be found.  Like I said in my review of the campaign book, this really is a nice quest \ scavenger hunt mechanic for the dungeon, and it's created forward progress and interesting player choices.

In "campaign time" it's now early winter, and flakes are falling outside Muntburg as the mountains fill up with snow.  The players trudged back to Dwimmermount, bundled against the cold, and decided they would now head down the elevator shaft and try out level 4 (the Halls of Lesser Secrets).  They've dubbed Drev's magic carpet the Drevelator, as in, "we'll take the Drevelator down to level 4."

Level 4 was partially cleared by the Seekers, so the players knew about some of the entry rooms, and the presence of Minotaurs somewhere on the level.  They managed to get the actual elevator working fairly early on, so they wouldn't be reliant on multiple trips on the Drevelator (which can only ferry 3 at a time).  However, the Seekers failed to warn their "allies" about various teleportation traps in the major intersections, and the player group was quickly scattered across level 4!  Bart and Wulf ended up fighting an Ochre Jelly on their own, but Marthanes sent Tancrede through as an experiment, and the pair quickly figured out a method to get everyone together again at a single rally point - although they had no idea where the rally point was located on the level.  They would need to map, explore, and try to piece it together until they found landmarks.

Glossing over exploration, the interesting bits of level 4 emerged when the party encountered some wererats, and broached a parlay in lieu of combat.  After being brought to the wererat leader and exchanging some knowledge about the outside world (in return for information about the inside of Dwimmermount), here was the deal that was brokered:  the wererat leader is interested in escaping to the capital city, Adamas, and becoming a player in the crime underworld there.  If the players promise to  help the wererats get to Adamas, the wererats will help map the level, and point out some of the choice treasure locations.  The players just need to go kill the Minotaur King first.

If you think this deal sounds too favorable for the wererats, you're right, but the kids were happy to expedite their fight with the minotaurs, and the thought of having crime lord allies in the city is too cool to pass up at their age.  They're thinking long term.  The alliance was formed.

The wererats led the players to a hallway that would take them into Minotaur territory, and ultimately the throne of the king.  They assaulted the minotaur king (and a group of guards that looked shockingly similar to the king, almost like clones…)  The fight ended up being anti-climactic - minotaurs are just dumb brutes, an attrition battle.  Drev's mobile fighting platform floated above the battle, providing a safe vantage for a few of the shooters, while the fighters waded in (along with Tancrede).  "You have one job, Tancrede", chided one of the fighters, "stay back and heal the people that need it.  Why are you always clogging the front lines?  One job."  Bud, the other cleric, is actually a better fighter than Tancrede, but Tancrede always beats him to the front line.

The other noticeable development in player strategy has been Marthanes, and his discovery that "It's just awesome being me".  Marthanes has a helm (circlet) of teleportation, which lets him blink around, once per turn.  There's basically a 1% chance he goes and never comes back, lost in the ether.  When he first got the helm that 1% chance was a mental barrier, and he swore to only use the helm for emergencies, but now it seems he's willing to assume the risk and teleport around just to show off.  When the king jumped into the fray, Marthanes teleported behind all the minotaurs to sit on the throne and gloat.  His typical prattle to the other players goes something like this, "Just another perk of being Marthanes, world's greatest summoner.  Forgot something in town?  I can go back and get it for you, instantly.  Because I'm awesome".

After slaying the Minotaur king and his clones, the players looted the throne room, regrouped with their new wererat allies, and made their way out of the dungeon.  We'll pick up with more mad-cap antics of The Investors next week, when they demonstrate how a clone chamber and an alteration bed can be used to manufacture your very own Smurfette.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Dwimmer Games 16 and 17, Magic Carpet Rides

When I last discussed the Dwimmermount game, the characters were picking themselves up off the floor after getting horribly beaten by a tomb with mummies, at least until they rallied and destroyed the horrors.  This session began with the injured (and infected) characters dragging themselves to the surface with all the loot they recovered from the tomb.  Their first order of business (after burying the dead guys) was to head back to Adamas and try to get the curses lifted from everyone suffering Mummy Rot.  There's no healing while cursed, with Mummy Rot.

The players recovered some amazing magic items from the mummy's loot - a magic carpet, a flaming sword, and a helm of teleportation.  Drev, their Squindian Pirate Bard, now rides everywhere on a magic carpet.  Wulfengard calls his new flaming sword, the Kylo Ren sword.  Marthanes got the helm of teleportation working in Adamas… his player remarked, "Can Marthanes get any cooler?"  Oh, and Bart hired an expensive animal trainer to train a bear for him, in Muntburg.  He wants to own an armored bear that he can send into battle.  I guess it's like the D&D equivalent of those rich boxers that keep pet tigers around.

Here's how all the characters look after spending time in the city, selling stuff and leveling up:

Marthanes the Summoner, (level 4 Mage)
Tancrede, a level 4 cleric of Typhon (henchman)
Wulfengard,a level 4 dwarf fighter
Sloth the Mook, level 1 fighter (new henchman)
Drev, a level 4 bard
Bud, a level 3 dwarven cleric
Bart, a level 4 fighter
Mumford, a level 3 fighter
Malthena, a level 3 thief (henchman)
Arethusa, Mage 3 (henchman)
Utor, level 3 Elven Enchanter

Before the new dungeon stuff got rolling, the players returned to Dwimmermount (level 3) and went through the portal to Volmar, to try and convince Arethusa to come adventuring; last session, her friend Collothus, died in the mummy tomb.  It had been some weeks that they left her stranded in Volmar, and she was starting to adopt their ways.  But a good reaction roll and  the promise of a hefty share encouraged her to return with them to Dwimmermount.

The emperor was irritated they'd been gone so long without a report, so they needed to make a full accounting.  The emperor was very irritated to hear the Eld had returned and invaded "his dungeon", so he declared war on the planet Aeron.  Since the players had pacified most of level 3A, the Volmarians would start moving in and taking over the Eld portal.  On some level, I think they'd like to see a Volmarian army march out of the front gate of Dwimmermount at some point, just for the chaos and craziness of it all.

With Arethusa back in the fold, and assurance that Volmar would conquer level 3A, the players returned to the dungeon.  They knew there was no apparent way from level 3A down to level 4  - they had searched the level with 'Locate Object spells' - so they deemed it was time to return to level 1 and start messing with the elevator shaft.  They could use that to get down to 4.  No one had figured out how to use the elevator, but they had a magic carpet.

However, rather than going down, the players went up - the shaft went in both directions, implying there was a level up above level 1.  In the Dwimmermount book, this is a special level 0, the "Divinatarium".  It was both older than anything else they'd explored, and more "high tech" as well.

It was clear to me the players were seriously outclassed, but they persevered regardless.  There were battles with slurping algae men, who incapacitated swathes of characters with brutal mental blasts (algoids).  They fought muscular grey men, with wickedly spiked plate armor and large two-handed swords (Astral Reavers).  There were obviously bad rooms holding slimes and acid monsters the players astutely avoided, and a few rooms infested with terrible fungal monsters, where only a lucky saving throw (and a quick retreat) avoided a gruesome infection.  Without a Cure Disease spell available, it seemed that every other encounter was a roulette roll with death.

As usual, the game had a series of interludes that only the kids can author.  We may have seen our last "I Bart the Door" from Bart.  One of the rooms had a rune covered door, which Bart triggered (explosively) due to his impetuous nature, before anyone could get the chance to warn him that runes could be bad.  He staggered back, dying.  "Medic!"  In ACKS terms, the system is fairly forgiving of characters that end up near death, as long as a cleric can get to them quickly and perform first aid and magic.  But Bart would be stuck at 1 hp and bandaged for a few weeks.

Tancrede, their balding and asthmatic cleric with the 8 constitution and the combat death wish, started wearing the armor of an Astral Reaver, spiked shoulders and gauntlets and a crazy helmet.  They now call him their "death metal accountant" - the most dangerous accountant in the world.

There were a few signature discoveries on this visit to the Dinivatarium.  In the office where Bart blew himself up, they found a centuries old library of conjectural works on the Ancients and the origins of the gods - like the Dwimmermount equivalent of von Daniken's "Chariots of the Gods".  There was a Book of Infinite Spells in the library, too.  But the most mind-blowing discovering was in a large observatory chamber - a full-sized space ship!  Assuming the characters can figure it out, they potentially have a way to travel to the stars and planets.  The players really want to own a space ship.  Dwimmermount continues to push the bounds.

We had to end the session here, as it was getting late, and a half dozen or more slime-covered zombies slurped to their feet and started slowly shambling across the large hangar towards the characters, blocking access to the space ship.  There was an intense table debate whether to fight or retreat; the younger kids usually want to fight everything.  "You've found the absorbatory, Marthanes, now let us fight these zombies - this is a demarkusry, so we get to vote", said one of the 9 year olds.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

5E: Fear and Loathing in Fifth Edition

I've been playing a lot of the video game, The Darkest Dungeon, when I get some free time.  It's an addictive little skirmish game with a great Lovecraftian horror theme.  As a player, you're constantly trying to manage the stress and insanity of your squad, which compounds with the length of an expedition and the mounting horror.  Most versions of D&D have some kind of mechanics to enforce rests and exhaustion during exploration (with wandering monsters as another mechanism that creates pressure).  Very few of them have actual horror mechanics (even LOTFP, with all that great horror artwork and scenarios, is about tone and referee style over mechanics).  Surprisingly, 5E has a set of simple but evocative horror mechanics.  (These are cleverly concealed in the depths of the DMG).

5E has two groups of related rules - Sanity Rules and Madness.  Sanity is a 7th 3d6 attribute.  If you're using Sanity, you add another "11" into your array for assigning attributes.  Sanity is there mainly as a source for Sanity saving throws and skill checks against Sanity challenges.  Failed Sanity checks can lead to being frightened (a status) or short, long, or indefinite madness.  Long and indefinite madness also causes the loss of a Sanity point.  There are a few tables with effects for the different types of madness.  Indefinite madness represents a permanent personality issue for the player, much like the "negative quirks" characters pick up in The Darkest Dungeon.

5E also suggest a few basic spells to interact with madness: Calm Emotions, and Lesser and Greater Restoration to recover from longer term madness and recover lost Sanity.  Dispel Evil and Remove Curse still remove magical sources of madness.  I don't think it would be hard to also add a few camp or town-centric mechanics, like carousing, as alternative ways to recover lost sanity and put some choice into downtime activities.  The major missing piece in 5E is a list of example situations (or sanity destroying monsters) that would trigger short or long term madness Saving Throws; the referee that wants to run a 5E horror game has to figure all of that out on their own.  It doesn't sound like Curse of Strahd covered this type of stuff.

The discovery of Madness and Sanity rules tucked away in 5E is intriguing (and speaks to the foresight of Mearls and Co., too, in supporting alternative styles of play right in the core.  Sanity is adjacent to the Laser Pistols and Muskets in aisle 15.)  Anyone who has played 5E knows how hard it is for characters to die in the game.  They're like the old Chumbawamba song - I get knocked down, but I get up again, you're never going to keep me down…  5E characters are remarkably resilient, physically.  One short rest, and they're ready for the boss fight in the next room.  Pretty much the opposite of antagonists in a horror game.  But their brains are vulnerable!

The Sanity mechanics offer an alternative angle to wear characters down over time.  Fear, as a status effect, forces Disadvantage while the character is Frightened.  Disadvantage doesn't rob agency the way "old school fear" makes the character run away, but it's irritating as hell for the players and can be safely overused.  Sanity is an attribute that will degrade over time, which means the character's Sanity saving throws will get worse, and they'll become more susceptible to future fails.  This is the classic Call of Cthulhu death spiral - we're all doomed in the end.

I picked up a copy of Torchbearer to read through; after some internet search, it looked like there was even some talk between Burning Luke and The Darkest Dungeon guys about making a mash-up for table top, but that was a while ago and there hasn't been any news.  The gothic horror megadungeon is still available as a project (Bueller, Bueller?)  In the meantime, I'm going to scan some other editions on how well they anticipate things like stress and madness, versus light, food, and exhaustion.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Dwimmer-Game 15 - All Mooks Die in the End

Cast of Characters:

Bud, a level 3 dwarven cleric
Marthanes the Summoner, (level 4 Mage)
Tancrede, a level 3 cleric of Typhon (henchman)
Wulfengard,a level 4 dwarf fighter
Drev, a level 4 bard
Bart, a level 4 fighter
Mumford, a level 2 fighter
Malthena, a level 1 thief (henchman)
Akmed, a level 1 fighter
Collothus, the Thulian (mage 1)

"The Investors", the name the players have given themselves, had discovered a portal to the Eld homeworld of Aeron on level 3A of Dwimmermount near the end of the last game session; they defeated a patrol of Eld and Bugbears, and captured the Eld leader.  We ended that game outside the dungeon, with the players in the woods outside of town figuring out what to do with the Eld leader.

Marthanes insisted on keeping the Eld prisoner alive for debriefing; the Eld were basically immortal, and he surmised they'd be able to learn "Eld secret history" if they could get him to talk.  If you've read my review of the Dwimmermount book, you know that piecing together "secret history" is one of the great mechanics that's been added to the dungeon, and a few of the players have really focused on it as a motivation.

This objective, getting information from an Eld prisoner, forced the players (most of them teenagers) to work through a number of alternatives and options on the best way to get what they needed.  Some of the options, like intimidation or torture, you don’t exactly want your teenagers getting too excited about or describing in any detail, but the larger context of the problem forced them to do critical thinking, weighing alternatives, and strategy.  This is where tabletop gaming is such a great medium.

For example, would it be better to camp in the deep woods and do their 'nasty business' far away from town, or smuggle the Eld into Muntburg surreptitiously?  If they decided to smuggle the Eld, how could they get him into the town without the guards and authorities finding out they had a living Eld?  Could they charm the guards, or scale the walls at night, Sleep some wall guards, or hide or disguise the Eld somehow?

I enjoyed the debate and thought they came up with a clever solution all around.  First, they decided an ESP spell would be a better way to get information (from mind-reading) than torture or intimidation; there's hope for their ethical growth yet.  Second, they decided the best way to get the Eld into their cottage basement would be to smuggle him in the front gate, hidden in a wagon.  They Charmed and bribed a simple peddler out on the road, hid the unconscious Eld in a barrel, and got him in that way.  Drev, their Bard, started an impromptu musical performance near the gate on the way in, distracting the guards with his charisma (and stories of the party's latest exploits) to make it easy for the peddler to slip through the gate without much scrutiny.

While a few new players have joined, we haven't seen one of them in a long time, meaning his character is a near-permanent resident of Muntburg and the cottage.  So Parquas the Elf has been tasked with keeping the Eld prisoner secure and fed.  The rest of the players planned a journey to Adamas to buy an ESP spell for addition to Marthanes book.  They had a treasure map to the Adleigh Woods, something they've been sitting on since the first game session, and decided this was the time to go find the lost treasure, while they were near Adamas.  (A number of characters were close to leveling up, so they figured recovering a sizable treasure would push them over the top).

I don’t know if I've mentioned it before, Simon Forster (fellow blogger and ACKS-phile) published a book of lairs for ACKS on RPGNow (Book of Lairs); it's nicely done and is a handy tool for wilderness lairs and treasure maps.  I love these kinds of supplements for quick use at the table.  I pulled a lair to use as the destination right from the book, an old tomb filled with mummies on a misty island out on a pond.

In theory, the players only had to fight a mummy at a time, if they explored carefully, posted guards, and kept their wits.  Mummies are pretty dangerous to low level characters, since their paralyzing fear can (and did) take out huge chunks of the party.  In this case, they defeated the first mummy fairly easily, then allowed their Protection from Evil spell to lapse, started bickering and fooling around, as they're kids, and thus were completely surprised when another 2 mummies shambled out of the darkness behind them, paralyzing just about everyone.

Drev, the bard, ended up dragging Marthanes away from the mummies, who were stooped and rending falling characters, spreading mummy rot and death.  Marthanes ended up summoning two heroes and a squad of berserkers, and sending them in to fight the mummies.  "Pick up any weapon off the ground", he exhorted, "It was probably dropped by one of our frightened guys and is enchanted".  Meanwhile, Drev continued to look for openings to drag other guys out of the room so they could recover from Mummy-Fear and attempt to re-enter the fray.  This one was clearly pointing towards being a full on TPK until Drev (one of the adult gamers) settled on the plan of saving Marthanes first, getting Marthanes to send in some level 4 heroes and occupy the mummies, so he could pull more guys out of the fray.  They owe that guy big time, and he single-handed prevented a restart to the campaign.

This game ended with two dead henchmen (Collothus, the ancient Thulian they freed from a stasis tube), and Akmed, the Volmarian mook that went from zero level mercenary to first level fighter over the past few sessions. All mooks die in the end.  The survivors were beaten badly and suffering from Mummy Rot.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

I love "The Darkest Dungeon"

My 14 year old picked up this game on Steam a couple of weeks ago, "The Darkest Dungeon".  I watched him play a few minutes and didn't think it was great - it has this low tech 2-D graphics and combat techniques out of something like 4E or an MMO, full of buffs and de-buffs.  But then I watched the trailer to the game…  "Ruin has come to our family. You remember our venerable house, opulent and imperial, gazing proudly from its stoic perch above the moor…"  It's a theme straight out of HP Lovecraft, about a decadent ancestor that dabbles in forbidden lore and awakens an eldritch horror deep beneath the ruined mansion.  In the game, you take your squad of four stalwart warriors through dungeons filled with cultists, fish-men, undead, and horrible Lovecraftian bosses like the Inchoate Flesh, the Collector, and the Shambler (which looks a lot like a Shoggoth).  The art is reminiscent of Mignola's work with Dark Horse comics, full of stark shadows.

What drives the Lovecraft theme home are the stress and afflictions suffered by your party.  The party takes on stress damage in many ways - any time the dungeon gets too dark (and you let the torches go dim), any time you run out of food or the right equipment, whenever a monster scores a critical, and many monsters do psychic damage to the characters.  Stressed out characters develop afflictions, like paranoia or abusiveness or fearfulness, and stop responding to your inputs - they may not let the party healer fix them, or pass their turn when you need them to attack.  Characters also develop quirks (both positive and negative), like addictions to material things, or a thirst for strong drink.  Whenever you return to town, it's common to check most of the survivors into various institutions in the hamlet for stress relief - the tavern, gambling hall, brothel, prayer or meditation, for instance.  There are doctors to cure diseases and a sanitarium to remove quirks.  There's always new adventurers arriving on the stagecoach, because it's common to need new guys (or abandon mentally unstable characters that pick up too many bad quirks).  You end up managing a troupe of 20+ characters - it's awesome.

Of course, the game-play itself is really about resource management - maintaining the health and sanity of your party, making sure they have the right skills for combat and camping, managing your money, buying the right gear for the dungeon delves.  Actually, gear is very important, as there are lots of things in the dungeon that react positively if you use the right equipment on it - like getting a benefit from the unholy fountain if a character pours holy water on it.  You're constantly outfitting parties and planning a wide range of delves.

Naturally, the mind wanders to consider how the game play in The Darkest Dungeon could be adapted to the table top.  I like the stress mechanic, since it gives the referee a nice in-game reason to drain money in-between game sessions when players spend time at the tavern or chapel, or getting their various grotty diseases cured.  Quirks and afflictions are a little harder in the OSR space, as blogger theorists get really upset at any mechanic that threatens player agency.  For instance, you may come across some nasty barrel of rot gut in the dungeon, and that one guy who is addicted to alcohol will run forward and take a drink before you can do anything during the game, picking up a disease.  That type of mechanic doesn't port as well to the table top, but there might be a way - D&D is full of charm monsters, for instance.

Anyway, I've been in India a couple of weeks, away from the states and away from the gaming computer.  Writing about The Darkest Dungeon is going to help me with my own withdrawal symptoms.  It's worth checking out if you'd enjoy what's essentially a squad-based tactical game with a theme and monsters heavily influenced by the Cthulhu Mythos.  It'd make a fantastic setting for LOTFP.

Here are some links to check out on YouTube:

The Darkest Dungeon Trailer
Intro to the Game (to get a sense of the story)

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Dwimmer-Game 14 - To Slay the Eld

Cast of Characters:

Bud, a level 3 dwarven cleric
Marthanes the Summoner, (level 4 Mage)
Tancrede, a level 3 cleric of Typhon (henchman)
Wulfengard,a level 4 dwarf fighter
Drev, a level 4 bard
Bart, a level 4 fighter
Mumford, a level 2 fighter
Malthena, a level 1 thief (henchman)
Akmed, a mook
Collothus, the Thulian (mage 1)

We ended last game in the dungeon.  The players had met and engaged the Eld, and once the Eld made hostile gestures to seize Marthanes, battle was declared.

I may have mentioned before - laying out the battle map, and giving the players chits and tiles to represent players and monsters, is a sure fire way to signal a battle is difficult and requires tactical care.  The battle against the Eld was in a large circular room, 60 or 80 feet across; the Eld were on a raised platform occupying the center of the room, guarding the portal, while the bugbear muscle (6 bugbears) was along the perimeter.

What was awesome about this setup was that the 6 Eld, all spell casters, stood back while the bugbears charged into combat; the players sent up their own fighters, while their casters and archers fell back as well, to shoot at the Eld.  This formation would end up dominating the evening, taking two and a half hours to complete as a table top battle.  It was intricate, tactical, and quite a lot of fun, bringing a bit of war game tactics to our table.  The sides were like two offensive lines crashing into each other, to borrow a term from American football, with various 'quarterbacks' behind the lines lobbing passes. (Go Broncos).

In the case of the Eld, those passes getting lobbed over the bugbears were Sleep spells, Burning Hands, Choking Grip, and Charms.  Winning initiative was key, because any time an archer tagged an Eld early, it spoiled a spell attempt.  Meanwhile, Marthanes summoned his Hero and a squad of berserkers to reinforce the player's front line.  Drev (the Squindian bard) and Malthena were the primary archers - although Malthena and Collothus were frequently getting knocked asleep by magic and required wake ups.

It was a fun and intense battle.  Wulfengard, the Dwarf fighter, was one of the player MVP's, climbing the platform and taking the fight directly to the Eld.  But the actual turning point was when Mumford quaffed the speed potion and chopped a hole through the line by taking out a bugbear, and then used his super speed to bum rush the Eld leader.  He got out his mace and clubbed the Eld leader senseless.

No one died on the player's side, though Akmed was choked unconscious by Choking Grip, and Collothus spent most of the night asleep.  The Eld had unusual weapons and armor, including a laser pistol.  Bards in ACKS can do 'arcane dabbling' to learn how to use items, so Drev was able to learn how to use the pistol.  Now he has a turban, a scimitar, and a laser pistol tucked into his sash.  I'm not exaggerating when I say he becomes even more awesome after finding a bona fide 'flying carpet' in the near future.

Luckily, the  actual portal to Aeron was closed. The players trussed their Eld prisoner and decided to make their way out of the dungeon.  There was an interesting debate between returning with the Eld to Volmar, their new allies, or trying to smuggle the Eld into Muntburg where he could be interrogated at their leisure.  They chose Muntburg.

We ended this one once the players got out of the dungeon, giving them some time in between games to figure out how they would smuggle an angry Eld prisoner past the guards and over to their house…

Friday, February 19, 2016

Dwimmer-Game 13 - Return of the Eld

Cast of Characters:

Marthanes the Summoner, (level 4 Mage)
Tancrede, a level 3 cleric of Typhon (henchman)
Wulfengard,a level 4 dwarf fighter
Bart, a level 4 fighter
Mumford, a level 2 fighter
Jay and Akmed, 2 mooks, plus Owenheim
Malthena, a level 1 thief (henchman)

Game 13 began with the party entering the Palace of Sempiternal Wisdom in the hot, desert city of Volmar, via a portal from dungeon level 3A.  They were accompanied by Opilio, a cleric of Mavors, and a squad of Volmarian soldiers.  The characters were guests and allies of Opilio, so they were escorted through the palace and given an audience with the Emperor and his advisors, as there was great interest in far Dwimmermount among the court.

Volmar is only introduced in the campaign book as a far off remnant of the old empire.  In advance of the game, I decided Volmar was this world's Byzantium, a fragment of the Thulian Empire that clung to the old ways in the far south east, on the edge of a vast desert - beyond which are the desert nomads, dangerous raiders that would threaten the City-States if Volmar didn't block their advances.  Politically, the Imperial advisors are split between those that believe all attention must go to the south, and those that want to reconquer the north; there's a minor faction that suggests an alliance with the City-States is in order.  The Emperor, sitting on the purple throne, sides with defense against the south, but hopes that Dwimmermount holds powerful magic and secrets that will allow Volmar to reconquer the north.  The patron of Volmar, is Mavors Invictus, the war god of the Thulian pantheon.

After the kids got some exposure to Imperial Volmar, I gave the kids some license to add additional color to the threadbare continent maps and setting.  What I got, was a vivid description of a statue like Iwo Jima, showing Mavors helping the first Volmarians conquer the city and raising the Imperial banner on a hill (the banner is purple, and features a scorpion, I discovered).  Also, there is a large island off the coast called Squindia - the people of Squindia are pirates, and they wear turbans like Sinbad, and their symbol is the Squid.  I think they just compressed the words for Squid and India.  The players immediately retconned that Drev, their pirate bard, is a Squindian, and must forever be described as wearing a turban and using a scimitar.  It was convenient that Drev's player wasn't present.

Because Dwimmermount belonged to Thule at the time it fell, and Volmar is the successor state to Termaxian Thule, the Emperor laid claim to everything in the dungeon.  It all belongs to him.  He doesn't need to pay the characters because letting them keep his treasure when they explore his dungeon is payment enough.  At this time he agreed to let them keep everything they found, as long as they made him aware of permanent fixtures, like the Pool of Life.

They were given an escort to go the markets and buy stuff, and then the kids were chomping to get back to the dungeon.  We established they spent about a week in Volmar, leveling up where appropriate.  Collothus came with them (he was the guy freed from a stasis tube last game), but Arethusa, his 3rd level mentor, wanted to stay in Volmar longer and learn more about the modern world.  The players also hired a pair of mercenaries, Jay and Akmed.

A big chunk of the session time went to Volmar, but the players made great time motoring through the dungeon.  They worked their way north (and eventually east) from the gate to Volmar.

There was a fight with some gnolls, and one of the mercenaries was killed in that battle.  A pile of rubble in another room concealed a nest of giant boring beetles, and they were nasty - 5HD terrors!  Owenheim, another mercenary, died in that battle, leaving just Akmed as a mook.  One of the guys found a potion of speed in the rubble when the beetles were all gone.

The night ended with the players discovering a large circular room with a large upright portal.  On guard in the room was a squad of tall, gaunt, elves, with reddish skin and black hair. The Eld!  There were also a half dozen burly bugbears with them.

Marthanes immediately started talking to them in ancient Thulian, praising the Eld for their scientific genius and pointing out why they should be natural allies to retake Dwimmermount.  However, once he mentioned that he had taken over the Pool of Life and was eager to build an army worthy of the Eld, the commander's reaction soured.  'Take this hairless monkey into custody so we can dissect his brain…'

We had run right up to time on a school night, and since the gang agreed to regroup on the weekend, we stopped in the dungeon, ready to go for next time.  Boss fight!

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Dwimmer-Game 12 - My Orc is Binky

Cast of Characters:
Bud, a level 2 dwarven cleric
Mumford, a level 2 fighter
Utor, the elf enchanter (level 2 Mage)
Jarvis, a level 2 fighter
Bart, a level 2 fighter
Marthanes the Summoner (level 3 Mage)
Tancrede, a level 3 cleric of Typhon
Wulfengard, a level 3 dwarf fighter

The players started game 12 back in Muntburg.  It had been a while since the group was going to spend time in the castle, and I wanted to make sure they saw that the world around them was being changed by the incursions into Dwimmermount.  The castellan of Muntburg, Legate Verodart, invited them to a moot with the other adventuring parties to get a view on what was happening in the dungeon.  A few of the interested characters went to the war council while the others trained or went to the bar.

In game, this was more of a  Q&A, but you readers are getting this like an info-dump.  The players learned that the Delvers and Fists of Typhon had discovered the Temple of Law; a number of the fighters in the Delvers had prayed in the temple and converted to paladins, and the two parties were working together to open a pilgrim's path to the temple.

The Seekers had cleared a bunch of slimes and oozes from the elevator shaft to level 4, had dropped ropes, and begun exploring level 4.  They encountered minotaurs, and a succubus.  After an encounter with a dark altar, Marguerine (one of their mages) had gone 'goth' and the Seekers were worried about her mental health and allegiance.

Meanwhile, rumors were pouring in from around the countryside.  The Necromancers of Ythelrom were organizing an adventuring party to come to Dwimmermount.  The Despot of Retep was supposedly mobilizing an army to march on Dwimmermount in the spring, concerned that the Despot of Adamas would gain too much power if he controlled Dwimmermount on his own.  Retep was far away, so it wasn't clear if this rumor was true.  It's currently "October" on the game calendar, so the players figured they had 5-6 months before the spring.  The last rumor was that the High Priest of Typhon in Adamas would appoint a special Inquisitor to come into Muntburg, to keep an eye on encroachment of Chaos - and also make sure adventurers weren't succumbing to the dark powers, or sympathizing with Volmar.

Anyway, a few of the guys really like to think about the larger world, whereas the kids are more interested in getting back to the dungeon.  They were glad when the war council was over.  The party quickly returned to the sub-level on 3A so Marthanes could figure out how to activate the Pool of Life.

Like last time, it took many hours to figure it out.  There were wandering monster encounters with a Gelatinous Cube, and a couple of Gray Oozes.  This time the party was a little more diligent about posting guards and watching for monsters.

When Marthanes finally figured out the controls, they decided to make some orcs.  I described the scene like something from Isengard in the Lord of the Rings, with muscular snarling orc warriors rising out of the pool to see who called them forth.  Utor, the uber-charismatic Elf, waited near the Pool with a Thulian War Mask (which gives command bonuses over Beastmen) and his glamour that makes him seem commanding.  Utor name the orcs as they rose out of the pool… Binky, Pinky, and Pork.  Although Pork was quickly renamed Travis the Orc.  "Thank you for our names, Master.  Is it true that Binky is a fierce warrior name?  I want to be fierce."

Binky, Pinky, and Travis accompanied the players for a few rooms, but Binky and Pinky were destroyed by some gnolls before the end of the session  - their reign of awesome was short-lived.  Travis ran off into the darkness, to sharpen knives in some dungeon corner.  Maybe he's still somewhere on level 2A?

Bart and Wulfengard got blown up in a room full of upright stasis tubes.  Most of the tubes were empty, but a few of them had vague inhabitants upright in them… and Bart and Wulf started smashing the side of the tube with a hammer, which exploded outwards and brought them both to near death (3-18 damage). The wisely used their Rod of Opening to safely open the other tube.

Inside the tubes were 2 Thulian survivors from 200 years ago, Arethusa and Collothus, who survived the fall of Dwimmermount by escaping into stasis.  Marthanes, the party scholar, was quick to befriend them and hire them - while offering to get them 'up to speed' on the state of the modern world.  Collothus was a good follower for a few sessions, but died versus some mummies a game or two ago, but Arethusa is still a henchman as of game 17.  The players debriefed them in between sessions and learned a ton of secret history about the Termaxians.  They realized that Dwimmermount, in its hey-day under the Termaxians, was full of science and machinery.  Arethusa and Collothus were bureaucrat-mages that knew how a bunch of machines worked (magical engineering).

It was inevitable the kids thought about becoming monsters, living in the dungeon all the time, and building an army of gnolls.  But they realized that higher level adventurers would come after them, and they decided to defer building their gnoll army until they were ready to march it out of Dwimmermount.  They did befriend a bunch of wild gnolls elsewhere in the dungeon, and Marthanes took on the mantle of "Master Soap", heir to Varaxes, and set them to guarding the Pool of Life on his behalf.  It is interesting that the kids usually try to talk to the humanoid monsters (and have the charisma and magic masks to pull it off).

The final piece of this session involved getting to level 3A.  Arethusa had a Locate Object spell and helped the party find the stairs down.  In one of the first rooms they encountered on level 3A, they met a squad of soldiers and a war-priest from the Empire of Volmar.  (The Volmarians are half a continent away from Dwimmermount).  There was an active portal between Volmar and the dungeon.  The players knew that Volmarian agents were getting into the dungeon somehow, but didn't realize it was from within the dungeon itself!

The players suggested an alliance with the Empire of Volmar, and Opilio, the war-priest of Mavors, invited them back to Volmar to meet the emperor in person.  This game ended with the players stepping through a portal on level 3 of the dungeon into the sweltering heat and opulence of the Imperial Palace of Volmar.

Next game:  To Volmar!  Dwimmermount continues to show why it's such a fantastic campaign setting.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Dwimmer Game 11 - Discovering the Pool of Life

Cast of Characters:
Bud, a level 2 dwarven cleric
Mumford, a level 1 fighter
Utor, the elf enchanter (level 2 Mage)
Jarvis, a level 2 fighter
Bart, a level 2 fighter
Marthanes the Summoner, (level 3 Mage)
Tancrede, a level 3 cleric of Typhon
Wulfengard, a level 3 dwarf fighter

Once again, I'll remind the readers that I've let myself get quite a few game sessions behind the current date.  Assuming we get to play Tuesday night, it will be game 16 and the players are trying to pick up the pieces after a near TPK and loss of numerous characters on a side quest that went horribly wrong.  I've been lackadaisical about writing the reports!

Game 11 saw the cast of characters make their way back down to level 2A, the Eld sub-level of "The Laboratory".  Marthanes read about a 'Pool of Life' in some old Thulian Archives they had found over on level 2B.  "…the Emperors looked to the remnants of the monstrous armies left on Telluria by the Eld as a means to maintain Imperial authority.  Exceptional beastmen were recruited, cloned through the use of the Essence Machine and Pool of Life… in time, the now-familiar races of humanoid beastmen began to emerge from the Chaos of the Eldritch troops."

In the early games, the players befriended orcs on level 1.  The orcs had rebelled against a new master, Varaxes (Varazes in the text, but I prefer the sound of Varaxes), who birthed the orcs from a pool on the Laboratory level.  Piecing together the backstory of the orcs, with the information gleaned from the archives, was enough for Marthanes to develop delusions of grandeur, with visions of his very own beastman army.  Everybody needs a dream.  At least his plan is a little more ambitious then "I Bart the door and open the boxes before anyone else can see", like most of the kids.  It's going to be interesting to introduce these guys to the ACKS mid-game and see which ones develop an interest in non-dungeon stuff, if any.  At least they bought a house.

They were already close to finding the Pool of Life when the game started.  On the way, they freed an alchemical cat from a stasis flask, Mr Fluffles, who was adopted by handsome Utor as a pet.  They fought a bunch of injured gnolls in a room (the gnolls were injured because Marthanes sent some berserksers screaming ahead with orders to kill anything), and Utor charmed the largest gnoll and called him Leaderor (which is apparently the name of a character on a cartoon called 'Gravity Falls' the kids watch).  They used their Rod of Opening on the secret door pointed out by the sapient rats last session, and discovered a 200 year old Thulian fallout shelter with various survival gear items tucked away behind the door.

The highlight of the night was finding the Pool of Life, a sprawling room with a sunken pool of white viscous liquid, various essence vats in niches around the room, and a large control panel.  We treated this like a boss fight, vinyl map board and miniatures and all, as the players took on Varaxes and his large squad of gnolls.  Varaxes was from Volmar, like Marthanes, and decried him as a traitor.  Regarding the battle map, I've determined that the kids do a little better with tactics when they can gather around a large map and plan tactics visually, like forming a wall with their fighters, and letting the ranged guys take shots from behind the line.

Wulfengard quaffed a potion of invisibility before the fight, so he snuck around to assassinate Varaxes.  Unfortunately, he missed on his attack roll, the magic was broken, and he got 'dog-piled' by a pair of gnoll bodyguards.  But Wulfengard is consistently the fighter MVP of the group, and can usually hack his way out of any bad situation.  You know how some players always seem to roll 6's on initiative and 20's on their attack rolls?  That's Wulfengard - clearly on friendly terms with lady luck.

The fight devolved into a front-line skirmish between fighters and gnolls, whacking at each other, while Varaxes hurled spells at the players from his position behind his gnolls.  Weak characters in the back fell asleep, but Varaxes rolled too low to sleep more than a few guys.  Marthanes began targeting Varaxes with the wand of magic missiles, winning a few initiative rolls and disrupting the enemy spells by zapping Varaxes first.  Actually it was a pretty cool battle from that perspective, two casters facing off from behind their lines of fighters and tossing magic.  It only took a few shots to kill Varaxes, and once he was dead, the players cleaned up the rest quickly.  Marthanes exhausted the wand of magic missiles, but Varaxes had his own wand in the loot (a wand of fear, it would turn out).

Marthanes began to investigate the workings of the Pool of Life with manic glee.  He has both magical engineering and a high intelligence, but he needed to clear three successes - and he only got to roll once per hour.  His dice were ice cold.  The players waited and waited, dealing with one wandering encounter after another, while Marthanes repeatedly failed his engineering rolls.  Attrition set in.

The last straw was when the party saw large spindly legs coming around the corner at the end of a nearby hall - a trio of giant black widow spiders walking along the ceiling!  Those things are terrifying - instant death via the poisonous bite.  The players were still using the battle map, so they formed defensive positions and shot at the spiders with missiles for as long as they could.  Leaderor, their charmed gnoll commpanion, was sent down the hall to engage the spiders in melee.  He died.  Marthanes also summoned his 4th level hero to charge down the hall and keep the spiders from advancing; he died too.  But the overall tactics were sound, and the kids survived without meaningful casualties.

They forced Marthanes to desist messing with the pool ("because you suck, Marthanes, anyone can roll better than you"), and they headed back to Muntburg to heal and recover.  Next game sees a return visit to the Pool of Life, success from the mage, and the creation of Binky, Pinky, and Travis, the short-lived orcs created by the players.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Dwimmer-Game 10 - I Splash through the Puddle. Oops, Green Slime!

Cast of Characters:
Utor, the elf enchanter (level 2 Mage)
Jarvis, a level 2 fighter
Bud, a level 2 dwarven cleric
Bart, a level 2 fighter
Marthanes the Summoner, (level 3 Mage)
Tancrede, a level 3 cleric of Typhon
Wulfengard, a level 3 dwarf fighter
Mumford, a level 1 fighter (former henchman, now a new player)

Game 10 was another school-night game where my kids petitioned me to run a short pick-up game for their friends on a night when my wife was out doing her theater stuff.  The players returned to the Eld sub-level of dungeon 2A in search of the Pool of Life.

I'm going to breeze over this game session since the exciting stuff starts to happen in games 11 and beyond.  I need to hurry up and get the games caught up to the present.  When the reports are current, I’ll be able to start asking meaningful questions from the readers on what should happen next.

The players returned to the Eld sublevel and began exploring.  They found a machine where a carcass scavenger lived behind it, entered a room with archer bushes, and another room with vampire rose bushes, killing everything they met without incident, other than grumbling about no treasure.  They helped out some sapient rats in a desperate fight against a throgrim (thoul), and the rats repaid them by scrawling on the player map where there was a secret door up ahead.

It wouldn't be a D&D game with kids without at least one signature knuckle-head moment.  After waving goodbye to the sapient rats, the players noticed a greenish wet area on the floor, and a discarded weapon nearby.  A green slime had fallen on a gnoll and eaten it.  But of course these guys aren't very experienced with old time D&D stuff, so Bart decided to splash through the puddle.  He screamed in agony on the other side as the green slime quickly destroyed his boots!

The players tossed torches across to Bart so he could burn it off his feet and boots, while the players started pouring oil on the slime to destroy it.  While Bart was stranded across the burning oil puddle, a Gray Ooze came along too, and he needed to kill it with minimal help.  He was horrified to learn that Gray Ooze can melt magic weapons, and quickly started switching to disposable weapons to survive the ooze attack.

It was a short night due to school, so after retrieving Bart, they headed back to Muntburg.  Coming next time, the Pool of Life…

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Dwimmer-Game 9 - Bart the Door!

Cast of Characters:
Bud, a level 2 dwarven cleric
Utor, the elf enchanter (level 2 Mage)
Marthanes the Summoner, (level 3 Mage)
Tancrede, a level 3 cleric of Typhon
Wulfengard, a level 3 dwarf fighter
Jarvis, a level 2 fighter
Drev, a level 3 bard
Bart, a level 2 fighter
Mumford, a level 1 fighter (former henchman, now a new player)

There are some key things to making a megadungeon 'come to life' and create drama and interest with the players.  It's important to give them interesting options each game, provide a few compelling quests and rumors, and news on rival activity so there's time pressure and opportunity costs to the player's choices.

This session, we started with them learning about rival activity in the dungeon while hanging out in Muntburg's tavern.  The Fists of Typhon had started exploring level 2A, killing some orcs and freeing dwarven prisoners.  The Delvers had gotten really beaten up on level 2B by Throgrim, and were out of the dungeon a few weeks to heal.  But the Delvers had found stairs to level 3B, and the players offered to buy a map from them so they wouldn't have to keep searching for stairs on their own.  Finally, the Seekers, a more powerful group, had gotten a Knock spell to help with the elevator doors, and had started exploration of the deep shaft (all the way to level 4).  The shaft was filled with slimes and similar horrors, so it was slow going for them.

From the Secret History the players had gathered a few game sessions ago, they knew about a Pool of Life and Essence Machines on level 2A.  One of the big discussions was whether they should compete with the Fists of Typhon on level 2A, or use the Delvers' map to 3B and get a jump on the Delvers.  In town, they sent the Curate of Typhon after the Fists of Typhon to pester them with his quest to find the Temple of Law on level 2B, hoping this would keep the Fists out of their way while the players searched for the Pool.  As fellow Typhonians, how could the Fists say no?  Don't underestimate the fun and shenanigans some rivalries can add to your game!

This game saw the players pocket the map to 3B for now and instead focus on covering as much ground on level 2A as possible.  Armed with a number of level 2 fighters, they were able to quickly clear a whole series of rooms inhabited by the fragments of the orc tribe on the east side of the dungeon with workmanlike efficiency.  Cleave and damage bonuses turn ACKS fighters into death engines versus low level humanoids.

One of their fighters, Bart, is obsessed with getting to the largest treasure hoards as quickly as possible; they frequently skip detailed searches, and they don't listen or sneak around (and they don't care about the increased wandering monsters, either).  They've definitely missed some goodies, only getting 'saved' by having multiple dwarves and an elf who sometimes find secret doors through their demihuman senses even though they skipped a formal search.  Meanwhile, Bart has 'dungeon bashing' proficiency which makes him an expert at forcing open doors, leading to another signature phrase from the players when he charges from room to room - "He Barts the door."

One source of drama while playing with teens, and Bart is the worst, is the mad scramble over magic items.  "In this room, you see a bunch of boxes…"  Before I even finish the room description, Bart's player is saying, "I open all the boxes.  Before anyone else.  I'm taking any magic items, and putting the gems in my pockets…"  I frequently have to remind them that D&D is a team sport, and their party agreement involves sharing treasure and a fair distribution of magic items.  I can empathize with school teachers and coaches who see their mandates as part education, and the rest civilizing a bunch of 'Lord of the Flies' hooligans.

There was a terrifying wandering monster encounter with a Gelatinous Cube that sneaked up on the players while they were involved in one of their treasure \ item squabbles, but the Summoned Hero of Marthanes ended up putting in good work against the Cube and no one died.  The highlight of the night was when they found an arch and short flight of stairs leading down - still part of level 2A, but to earlier construction featuring precise architecture and alien doors - the Eld sub-level!  The players descended to the Eld section of level 2A, discovering eldritch technology (Glow Bulbs) beyond an adamantite hatch.

By this time, it was getting late, so we wrapped up.  Marthanes loves the idea of the Eld, and has everyone excited to explore the Eld sub-level and find the Pool of Life.  They were already looking forward to continuing this exploration next game.

I'm really enjoying Dwimmermount and running it with the ACKS rules.  The players are a little overpowered for the current dungeon areas, but they're working quickly to get deeper, and having plenty of fun.  The depth of the dungeon background, and stories that are emerging from the player's exploration, is shaping this into a very memorable campaign.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Dwimmer-Game 8 - The Brad Pitt of Elven Salesmen

Characters for this game:

Utor, the elf enchanter (level 2 Mage)
Marthanes, a desert sorcerer (level 3 Mage)
Tancrede, a level 3 cleric of Typhon
Wulfengard,a level 3 dwarf fighter
Jarvis, a level 2 fighter
Bart, a level 3 fighter

This game was on a weeknight where we had a smaller group again - my kids have been petitioning me to run pickup games midweek for them and a few of their friends.  It's very cool to see our local gang of middle school and high school kids jumping on the RPG bandwagon and discovering the fun in the hobby.

At the start of this game, both Tancrede and Bart had need of the city; Tancrede was cursed with disbelief in the gods (a real problem for a cleric), and Bart had a maimed leg due to injuries.  Furthermore, the players had nearly 100lbs of rare metals salvaged from the dungeon.  They finally voted as a group to visit the city of Adamas.

They bought horses and gear in Muntburg, and traveled with one of the merchants that had a weekly route between Muntburg and Adamas, to increase everyone's safety.  None of the wandering encounters were such that they'd threaten or bother an armed merchant train, so they made it okay to the city.

I busted out the ACKS trade rules and had the chance to consider the player's request to auction their precious metals in the market square.  Of course, the fun part was making Utor's player practice his sales pitch and drum up interest as a infomercial style pitchman;  "Step right up and check it out!  Rare Azoth, Aeronite, Adamantite, and more, straight from the legendary Dwimmermount!"  Between his 16 charisma, and his character's additional +2 due to "glamour", one of the teens quipped, "Utor is like the Brad Pitt of Elven used metal salesmen".

I still wasn't sure how much gameplay I wanted to happen in the city, so I let the players create what they wanted to do and where it would happen.  For  instance, the guys that needed magical healing ended up going to a temple of Typhon called the Church of St. Wasabi the Disciplinarian; some of the player's new-found wealth was quickly spent at Goode's Magical Goods; the merchant that finally agreed to buy all the Dwimmermount metals was simply called "Oswald the Merchant"; they bought a pack animal called Sparky the Donkey.

After the kids blew a lot of cash in the city, they journeyed with the next merchant to Muntburg, and quickly found their way back to the dungeon as well.  "Skyrim Fast Travel" has altered the landscape of table top RPG's; 'Can't we just fast travel back to Muntburg and fast travel to the dungeon?  Walking seems so slow.  Oh, and we're not taking any mercenaries or mooks this time, because they just sponge XP from the players.'

Back in the dungeon, the players worked their way back to dungeon level 2B, the Reliquary, and resumed exploring the eastern side of the dungeon, following a broad, cavernous twenty foot wide hall.  The Reliquary  level is filled with monumental architecture, temples, colonnades, and ceremonial structures from the time of the Thulians.  The players were hoping to find stairs down to level 3; the Curate of Typhon had implored them to seek the great "Temple of Law" lost in the Reliquary, but that didn't interest them.  "Lawful is boring".

The players searched up and down the main hall, not finding stairs down.  They interrupted a room full of Eldritch Bones and quickly defeated them.  No stairs.  They discovered a room full of Shadows, and then an amazing hidden shrine of healing.  Boring, still no stairs.  Time ran out and the players had to head back to Muntburg.

"I need to get Locate Object", schemed Marthanes.  "That'll really help us find things.  I'm going to hire a merchant to find one in the city".  I've never ran a game where the players looked for help in the spell lists and decided only Locate Object could save them; it's interesting to see how the size of the megadungeon (and the desire to delve deeper) drives planning.

After the wealth the players got from selling the salvaged metal, most of them are level 2 and a few guys are already level 3 (such as Marthanes and Bart).  Low level fighters jump up in power in Adventurer Conqueror King once they get to 2nd and 3rd level - the combination of higher damage bonuses and cleave lets them take over fights against weaker monsters.  It was clear during this session they're ready for level 3 challenges.  The players relished being able to destroy the Eldritch Bones in melee combat, after being terrorized by them for the half dozen game sessions, so I'm glad they got to savor some success.  Meanwhile, Marthanes chose another new spell from the ACKS Player's Companion, Summon Hero, as his 2nd level spell.  The Summoned Hero was employed against the Shadows.   "I have a new name… I'm no longer Marthanes the Sorcerer, I am Marthanes the Summoner!  Muhaha."

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Hell Freezes Over in Finland, and other 2016 Things to Watch

Since I've started blogging again, and the calendar turned to 2016, there have been a whole series of announcements on things I didn't expect to see this year.

Jim LOTFP is Going to Gencon
I was really surprised to see the news that LOTFP is going to Gencon.  I ran some LOTFP at Gencon years ago, and there were controversies a few years back where some prudish Gencon organizers didn't want the LOTFP games or modules on display in the dealer hall and whatnot - can't have gore, horror, and boobs on display in Indianapolis!  I never expected to see an announcement that Jim LOTFP is making the long haul from Finland to Indianapolis.  I'd love to make it out there - get a bunch of missing LOTFP stuff in person.  My teenager is looking to play some "edgy" D&D with his friends, and LOTFP's early stuff (Tower of the Stargazer, Grinding Gear, Hammers of the God) strikes a good balance between classic dungeons, weirdness, and horror, so I have him checking out Stargazer (he played through all those, plus Death Frost Doom, back during a game I called "Gothic Greyhawk").

Does that mean the long-awaited Referee Book is getting done this year?  That one's been kicking around a few years now.  That seems like the kind of product and release that would warrant an appearance at gaming's biggest convention.

Delta Green Trail of Cthulhu?
I like the Delta Green world, but haven't played BRP in a long time; any recent horror games have been Trail of Cthulhu.  One of the bits of news coming out of the recent Delta Green kickstarter is that Pelgrane Press is doing a 1960's Delta Green setting book (written by Ken Hite, naturally) called The Fall of Delta Green.  That one is going right to the top of the pre-order list.  Maybe we'll see a full-blown Gumshoe Delta Green book at some point, too.

The Auran Empire for ACKS
The guy(s) over at Adventurer Conqueror King are making some moves; the president of a video game company joined the management team, they just had their Lairs & Encounters kick starter clear $25,000, they're publishing articles via a decent-sized Patreon, and now news that the Auran Empire setting is coming this year.  I've played ACKS intermittently since it came out in 2011, and I thought the Auran Empire was going to be the company's "Castle Greyhawk"; that product that was talked about since the early days but never managed to see print.  2016 could prove me wrong!

The Return of Strahd
It's been all over the blogosphere, the next 5E sourcebook \ adventure is a return to Barovia (The Curse of Strahd).  Love it!  Looks like it's going to include more about the lands of Barovia and an updated delve into Ravenloft in an adventure for levels 1 - 10; I guess they need something for those low level guys to do before they can fight Strahd.  My players had a lot of fun beating that guy a few years ago in Gothic Greyhawk.

I'm doing school on the weekends so there's no chance I'll be working on any grandiose 5E megadungeon this year.  I eagerly await the efforts of an enterprising 5E designer with old school sensibilities who creates a (good) epic 5E megadungeon - I've got some money right here.  5E doesn't play out the same as the old school clones because of the power levels and wahoo magic stuff, but it's a really fun game and I hope this OGL brings some good things to the market.  Splatbooks and rules bloat need not apply - although I could be persuaded by an updated setting like 3E's Midnight, or a well done Asian-themed setting.  Speaking of which, I need to pick up a copy of Yoon Suin this year and check out Stonehell 2 - those were a few old school products from last year that slipped by while I wasn't blogging.  I may get my first Indie game this year too, something like Dungeon World (after some recent recommendations here).

Now if someone could announce they got a Traveller license for Star Wars or Star Trek, 2016 would be completely bananas.

What are you looking forward to this year in the RPG game-o-sphere?

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Wandering Monsters, You Will Serve Me

Wandering monsters are an important component of the megadungeon experience.  From a  story perspective, they create the illusion that the dungeon is an inhabited place with an ecosystem of monsters that have their own agendas and missions - they don't just lurk in the dark, waiting for adventurers.  Conceivably there are tombs and smaller non-living dungeons where the monsters do just lurk and wait, lurk and wait, but the megadungeon is giant, and has a panoply of critters.  Wandering monsters set the thing in motion and ensure the dungeon remains a hostile environment.

From a game perspective, wandering monsters exert positive pressure on the action.  They ensure players don't endlessly search without consequence; they drain party resources; they are  a principal tool you have as a referee to create problems for the "15 minute work day".  The 15 minute work day refers to entering the dungeon, visiting a room, expending all the party's resources at once, immediately leaving, resting overnight, returning to the dungeon, and doing it all over again…  Your players might still have to abridge their delve for legitimate reasons (such as having their keisters handed to them) but wandering monsters ensure it's not a great strategy.  Resource management and planning is one of the skill aspects tested during extended dungeon exploration.

In very large dungeons, the irritation factor of wandering monsters also increases the worth of elevators, secret stairs and short cuts, and alternate dungeon entrances.  Anything that cuts out superfluous encounters has value.

However, with my current campaign, I am noticing a few things I don't like due to our constraints.  First, I'm trying to run shorter pickup games here and there, sometimes only 2 hours or less.  Hitting one or two wandering monsters while trying to reach the unexplored areas can lop off a fair percentage of table time when the sessions are so short.  Similarly, if we're targeting a specific end time (like 8:30 for a school night), the players want to keep exploring right up until 8:29 and 59 seconds…  not leaving any time in case they hit wandering monsters on the way out of the dungeon.  (I could certainly make them stop 15 minutes early each night to account for travel, but that's not entirely satisfying, especially if I don't roll encounters and they could have used the time).

With these concerns now expressed, I'm considering some adjustments to the standard approach for our short games:
  • When traversing areas that have been cleared by adventurers (and are slowly re-stocking), the incidents of wandering monsters is greatly reduced - 1 in 6 per hour instead of 1 in 6 three times per hour, for instance.
  • When leaving the dungeon at the very end of a session (to meet our time constraints), the wandering monster rules are abridged.
  • When leaving the dungeon at other times, roll checks as normal.

However, I'm not suggesting to ignore the dice if I don't like a wandering monster result… dice fudging is verboten.  If it's worth using the dice to determine an outcome, it's worth rolling them in the open and letting the dice fall.  Dice create drama and consequences, and using them temporarily shifts the referee into a spectator of the unfolding story much like the players - none of us know what's going to happen when the dice are rolling, and that's exciting.  Dice are the neutral arbiters of fate.  If you don't want to the possibility of a negative result, don't even roll them.  Make a ruling instead.