Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Lamentation Sales-O-Mania

Earlier this month our favorite Finnish iconoclast and free-thinker put on a massive Lamentations of the Flame Princess sale.  I haven't kept up with all of JR-4's latest releases so this was a perfect opportunity to add new books - I picked up a dozen or so recent PDFs.  Some are going to become LOTFP classics - I've had fun reading.  Kelvin the Green Machine is a workhorse over there.

I heard about the sale on Facebook, and saw that it was a response to bad actors in the RPG space targeting Lamentations of the Flame Princess.  A JR-4 video popped onto my YouTube feed - I watched several of his videos from the past year. 

The YouTube videos offer a troubling lens into the personal toll the industry persecution has put on our favorite prophet of the weird.  Video is a powerful medium, it offers rare intimacy, letting you experience the creator behind the byline.  James has had to deal with an overwhelming amount of crap for championing an artistic vision - gatekeeping, bans, and now freelancers getting dumped due to mere association.  I don't like to swear on the blog, it's lowbrow, but fuck all the book banners and their ilk.  It's a topical concern for Americans; you may have noticed we're having a moment over here.  It's maddening.

I may be currently running a classic Gygaxian Greyhawk game, but am very much aligned to the LOTFP project of mixing horror and weirdness into fantasy gaming.  I appreciate works that subvert worn tropes and push the boundaries of what our games can do and be.  Not everything they do over at the House of the Flame Princess is to my taste.  TSR had plenty of stinkers in their day, too.  But I support the creative freedom to try new things and see what works.  Our hobby is more interesting for it.

So what can I do to highlight what's going well over in Lamentations-land?  To that end I'm going to review the entire LOTFP catalog, at least one per week.  Granted, this is a half-dead blog, so it's not exactly the most life-changing way to get attention for a publisher doing good, interesting work, but hey, that's what I got here.  I think I own 75% of the LOTFP stuff anyway so it won't be a great stretch to acquire the stragglers.  I've been a fan ever since Death Frost Doom turned a section of Greyhawk into a zombie wasteland, and my group still talks about surviving those early Lamentations adventures to this day.  Let's find out what other treasures are hiding out in the LOTFP catalog.

Monday, May 29, 2023

ACKS Greyhawk: From Hommlet to Nulb

Here's the area map of Hommlet and Nulb referenced in the post:

One of the issues the players must contend with as they shift from exploring the Moat House to the Temple of Elemental Evil is the distance between Hommlet and Nulb.  The Temple of Elemental Evil is that little rectangle south of Nulb.  Since each hex is about 10 leagues or 30 miles, it's a full day back and forth between the dungeon and safety in Hommlet.

Nulb is a raucous, lawless pirate town.  The area is too remote from the town of Verbobonc, 3 solid days away, for the laws of Verbobonc to carry much weight in the area.  The population consists of scoundrels, brigands, and river pirates.  Staying in Nulb is possible for the player characters, but could be challenging for parties containing "lawful stupid" characters, and our player character group is full of clerics and paladins.  Cover up my plate mail so the locals can't see I'm a paladin?  That's nonsense!  So the cooler heads decided the party probably shouldn't stay in Nulb.  (Several games into exploring the dungeon, the players have re-thought the whole problem of stealth and being undercover and are taking a more circumspect approach to exploring, so lawful stupid can be fixed).

They considered rebuilding the moathouse, and even appealed to Lord Burne of Hommlet for dispensation to restore it and turn it into a hangout - he's considering their request.  It's a bit remote for their purposes of having a safe place to retire between adventures - it's only an hour or two outside of Hommlet.  One of my rules for this campaign is that the players need to start and end each session in a safe place so we can support episodic play and allow people to drop in as available.  The player roster is up to 9 players, but it's not uncommon to fire up a game night with only 3 or 4 players available, so the cast can change week to week.

Their ultimate solution?  They decided to build their own wilderness camp.  They were rolling in cash after overthrowing the New Master and claiming some bounties for ridding the moat house of bandits.  The players bought wagons, horses, some mercenary retainers, tents, supplies, even a few canoes.  They avoided Nulb entirely, staying within the Gnarley Woods and camping on the western side of Imeryds Run, the small river flowing through Nulb.  I'm a stickler for tracking rations, consumable supplies like torches and oil and arrows, using marching orders, night watches, and so on.  Strict time records must be kept!  Google Docs has become the player's friend.

It took two game sessions for the players to figure out the camp logistics, set up camp, and explore the Temple surface ruins (outer works) and then explore the Temple itself above ground.  They astutely chose to stay away from the tower in the north east of the ruins, and haven't been back there yet.  (Anyone familiar with T1-4 probably knows the tower - it's a Gygaxian locale that can slaughter an inexperienced group).  Inside the temple they discovered at least 4 ways down into the dungeons beneath the site.  I'll pick up with their first forays into the dungeons next time and these game reports will get up to date.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

ACKS Greyhawk: Hommlet and the Moathouse

We agreed upon a reasonable backstory for the adventuring party - the merchant guildmaster of the town of Verbobonc (Mistress Fernhall) had fielded complaints of expensive shipments of trade goods from the Elven kingdom of Celene  going missing in the vicinity of a small village in the south of the Viscounty.  The Viscount's steward authorized a bounty of 10gp per head for any bandits brought to justice, dead or alive.  The players each came up with a good reason why their fresh-faced level 1 character wanted to hunt bandits and earn some money, and we were off and running - the sleepy village, Hommlet was a 3 day's ride south of Verbobonc 

Looking at my Greyhawk  calendar, the players spent 7 game sessions adventuring in and around Hommlet.  First there was arriving in the village, seeing the sights, meeting people at the inn, the church, the trader's, the druid's grove, and eventually presenting their writ of bounty to Lord Burne, the erstwhile liege lord of the area.  Neither Burn nor his guard commander, Rufus, were aware of bandits or missing caravans, although Rufus suggested it'd been some years since anyone had ventured out to the ruins of the old moathouse a few miles outside of town.  Ruins, you say?  We specialize in ruins, said our characters, and they were soon off to investigate their first dungeon.

If you're not familiar with the Temple of Elemental Evil, as my players were not, they learned the local history along the way.  A decade back, an epic battle between the forces of Law and Civilization, led by the Viscount of Verbobonc, with allied armies from the northern kingdoms, members of the knightly orders, and friendly forces of elves and gnomes from the nearby Gnarley Woods and Kron Hills, fought a significant pitched battle about a day's march away at a place called Emridy Meadows.  A varied force of evil soldiers, wicked clerics, humanoids, and monsters, had vomited forth from a vast dungeon and evil temple nearby, to bring Chaos and destruction to the countryside.

The armies of Chaos were routed, the evil temple was defeated, the dungeons (supposedly) cleared, and ancient evils locked away once more.  The moathouse near Hommlet was a smaller outpost from the Temple of Elemental Evil, overthrown via siege in the aftermath of the temple's fall.  Two of the player characters were members of the Church of St Cuthbert, the local dominant religion, and they knew this history well - the church's spiritual leader, the Patriarch Serten, was one of Law's casualties in the fight against the temple's forces, and clerics and paladins of St Cuthbert memorialized Serten's sacrifice.

This adventure, the T1 Village of Hommlet was originally published for AD&D back in 1979 and written by Gygax, later to be joined in a campaign book called T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil, written by Frank Mentzer with access to Gygax and his notes.  T1 is a solid introductory adventure, although the 1970's edition always felt like a teaser, alluding to the nearby temple and a much grander story - alas, we'd have to wait until 1985(!) to see the full thing.

I'm going to elide the play-by-play and focus on the big picture in these summarized recaps.  The players spent several sessions exploring the upper ruins of the moathouse, facing over-sized swamp critters and discovering that bandits were indeed lurking in the ruins.  Sadly, the bandits did not have any of the rare elven trade goods, so the players surmised there was another factor.  The dungeon beneath the moathouse yielded a further mystery.  The characters discovered secret stores of arms and equipment, evidence that someone other than the bandits was using the dungeon as a staging area for future military action.  They found monstrous humanoids lurking in those dark chambers - gnolls, bugbears, and even a man-slaying ogre.  Ultimately they faced off against a small force of mercenary humans led by a powerful, evil cleric - the New Master.  Among the spoils in the master's treasury they found the rare elven wines and crystals, the missing trade goods and luxury items from Celene.

The master's forces had black garb embroidered with the crimson eye of fire, one of the many evil symbols worn by the forces of the Temple a decade ago, and recorded in the annals of the Church.  In the aftermath of the exploration of the moathouse, the players convinced the village council evidence pointed back to the cult of Elemental Evil.  The threat posed by the cult of elemental evil endured and was once again creeping forth to threaten the countryside.  The players made schemes to carry their explorations to the temple ruins themselves… but we'll cover those next time.

There are a few more points to make.  First, agents of evil had infiltrated the village, and some of them even joined the player group, seeking to betray them at opportune moments.  One such agent was the mercenary Zert, who tried to keep the players from returning to Hommlet with evidence of the crimson eye of fire.  There are other agents still in Hommlet the players haven't discovered yet.

One of their allies, the beefy farmhand Elmo, turned out to be an agent of good, serving the Viscount of Verbobonc himself.  The players would never have survived the moathouse without Elmo's sturdy axe and copious hit points.  At the end of these adventures, Elmo recused himself to report to his superiors in Verbobonc, and has vacated the story for the time being.  The party also relied heavily on an NPC mage, the greedy wizard Spugnoir.

Let's meet the players - our cast of player characters includes the Cuthbert worshippers Brother Grayson (cleric), and Barfred (paladin); a fighter Randolph; an Elven Ranger, Glyndal; an exotic scimitar-wielding priestess of a foreign deity, the temple dancer Shakti.  Several of them reached level 3 by the end of the moathouse, but the others are trailing based on attendance.  In future games they added Magnus, a mage, and Dunne, a whiskey distiller who happens to be able to fight, along with various henchmen and mercenary hirelings.  Casualties during this arc were relegated to hirelings, NPCs, and mercenaries, although there have been some lucky saving throws, and Barfred was mauled by a giant lizard, leading to some permanent scars (courtesy of the ACKS mortal wounds table).  Until next time!

Sunday, May 21, 2023

How'd We Get Back to Greyhawk?

I won't spill a lot of ink on our decision to put 5E on the bench.  It had gotten a bit boring for me, the players weren't challenged, and complex battles had gotten tedious.  We don't play long game session, just a few hours, so it wouldn't be uncommon for intricate 5E battles to stretch over multiple nights.  I missed the fast and furious nature of OSR gaming.  They're all solvable problems, but at some point it's just easier to use rules that already lean into the style you want.  WOTC's attempts to revoke the OGL was the final trigger - I decided I'd either play games we already own or put my money behind the independent publishers of the industry.

We had some discussions and took votes, both on a choice of setting and campaign inspiration, and then which rules to use.  For setting and theme, we discussed a LOTFP style horror sandbox, an OSR megadungeon, or AD&D classic hits.  (Classic hits won, I'm going to call it the Tour de Gygax).  To me that meant Greyhawk - but which rules set?  Of course we put out their AD&D (OSRIC), classic D&D (Labyrinth Lord), or perhaps a modern clone like LOTFP or ACKS.  The player's picked ACKS - several of them liked it from back in the day.  The characters are a little more powerful and have a lot of options; I like the whole domain end-game possibilities, which I loved from AD&D and which other clones overlook.  Historically, we've had several long running LOTFP games (Gothic Greyhawk and the Black City come to mind), and used ACKS for an extended Dwimmermount campaign.  I was a little sad they didn't pick the low-powered horror sandbox, but I'm sure we'll strap on those flintlocks and rapiers and get in some LOTFP style games here and there.

Greyhawk, however, is an awesome setting.  For me it brings to mind the wonder and mystery of first discovering AD&D back in the 70's and 80's, before you knew what an elemental was, or a rust monster or a mind flayer.  The original Greyhawk books are idiosyncratic - they go into great detail on things like coats of arms for obscure principalities, weather patterns, the migration routes of ancient humans, and random encounter tables by geography, without telling you much about any meta story or what to do with the setting.  It's an open invitation to create your version of Greyhawk.  Our last Greyhawk campaign cast the Earldom of Sterich as a mist-ridden backwater filled with haunted moors, howling werewolves, and vampire's castles.  This time around we're leaning into a Lord of the Ring's vibe; fractious human kingdoms struggle with alliances and politics while forgotten evils creep back into the light of day to threaten Law and Civilization.  What role will the players have in rekindling old alliances or ensuring slumbering evils never awaken?

The only significant house rule is that every week, the players are committed to leaving whatever dungeon they're exploring and returning to a safe place, be it town or wilderness camp, where they have supplies, a place to rest, and the missing player characters and henchmen.  In this way we can roll with whoever is available to play the following week.  I like the inspiration mechanic introduced by 5E (where players can earn an extra die roll by doing something inspirational) so we're still using that one - it's already blunted the hard edge of some save or die rolls back in Hommlet's moathouse.  Players can nominate each other for inspiration for good roleplaying, tactics, flooring the table with a fine joke or quip, that kind of stuff - but the DM's say is final.  We use 3d6 in order for attributes, but let the players roll 5 sets of ability scores and pick the set of scores that best fit the character they want to make.

We never returned to in-person gaming after the pandemic.  Several of my long time players moved out of town, and using a virtual table top and video conference capability has been too useful to stay connected.  It's easy to scan old map images from TSR-era modules into roll20, obscure them with fog of war, and then leverage online maps and dice rolling.  However, we are not using tokens at this time, just "theater of the mind".  I'm really trying to avoid slow tactical combat after too many years of 5E, and I'm loathe to reintroduce miniatures… maybe later.  We use a discord voice and video channel for communications, and the players make good use of google documents for sharing notes, marching orders, communal supplies (like their campsite gear), posting images, tracking names and henchmen, that kind of stuff.  We don't get to share pizza, doritos, and pepsi, but otherwise online gaming has been pretty good.

I’ll put a couple summaries together of our first few months of Greyhawking to get caught up on the game reports - that'll be for during the week.

Friday, May 19, 2023

Arise Dead Blog - I Have Need of You

That moment when you're done with that Seattle company.

It was always a matter of when, not if.  Our long sojourn with 5E has ended.  I tried to stiff upper lip the Mos Eisley Cantina effect and the easy mode buttons as long as I could.  The kerfuffle over the OGL a few months ago was too much - I ditched my D&D Beyond Subscription and shelved 5E for good.  It's all over except for the selling.

We've been playing a Greyhawk-based D&D game for several months now (a classic clone).  We're up to 8 players (a 9th may join this week) and I'm running it almost like a West Marches game - every week starts and ends back in town so we can roll with whoever is available the following week.  It's been a fine approach with busy adults with varied schedules (and there are always a few stalwarts who rarely miss a game).

The players have been asking if I'd write up the game sessions on the blog, so arise dead blog - I have need of you.  Game reports will help absent players catch up on what they missed, while logging the player's mishaps.  We're playing a campaign built around Gygax's greatest hits, starting with Hommlet and the Temple of Elemental Evil (Gygax and Mentzer, I know).  Since we're a couple of months in, the players are already exploring dungeon level 1 of the Temple proper.  I have some work to do to get caught up.  I'd love it if we're able to proceed to Tsojcanth, the Giants, and then Erelhei-Cinlu.

There's some housekeeping to do.  There are a zillion spam messages to clear out of the comments and unapproved messages waiting.  I'm sure there are broken links and missing images - don't ignore your blog for years, I guess.  Oh, and LOTP just put all their PDFs on sale for like $1, so I grabbed a bunch of missing stuff.  I skimmed a few of them and burned my eyes out.  Those guys dance to their own drum beat, that's for sure.  And they like pictures of dongs.  Some "reviews" will be forthcoming.  It'll be great fun.

Seems like it will be an interesting summer, too, as various publishers try to extricate themselves from the OGL and flip WOTC a well-deserved double bird.  Time to roll the boulder away from the cave entrance and stumble out into the sunlight.