Sunday, June 25, 2023

LOTFP Review: Bee-Ware!

Let's get back to looking at the Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LOTFP) catalog - the next book is called Bee-Ware!  Note:  there shall be spoilers.  It's been a few weeks since I reviewed Magic Eater.  I took a few weeks out to see a lot of Grateful Dead music at live venues (Dead & Company) with 30,000 of my good friends.  It was great fun.  But now it's time to take off the tie-dye shirts and birkenstocks, put away those good vibrations, and dress up like black-clad edgelords and dredge up some angsty LOTFP feelings.  Let's see what Bee-Ware is all about.

Bee-Ware is about honey, and mead, and a bunch of people that just want to be left alone in their insular village of Ambersham to brew and sell their really good mead.  They're hippy libertarians, live and let live - the type of people who'd have Be Kind bumper stickers (Bee Kind) on their VW vans.  Maybe the Grateful Dead universe and the LOTFP universe aren't so far apart.  I'm not feeling the edgelord from this one.

However, the bee-kind folk of Ambersham do have a dangerous secret… they are all shape-changing bee-people.  Beecanthropes, if you will.  They can transform from dour zero level bee keepers and farmers into 4HD player killers wielding terrifying save-or-die poison stingers.  There's a lot of villagers, and they're all very deadly - except if they use their stingers, they die as well, just like real bees.  Murder isn't their preferred option.

That's the essence of the adventure - Bee-Ware is a setting about a remote village full of deadly monsters that don't want to do any monstering.  The players can make an alliance with the leader of the bee people, they can go into business together, they can try to burn it all to the ground, or they can explore a ruined house near the village and discover from whence the bee people's power emanates.  There is a trapped, extra-dimensional swarm entity in the ruined house, which empowers the village leader and through her, the bee people.  The players can assemble spell-fragments recovered from within the ruined house to make a spell that can banish the swarm entity and de-power everyone.  The inside of the ruined house has a fun 1970's Dr. Strange vibe - a blend of Kirby dots, Ditko astral spaces, and weird geography.

These two monster hunters are ready to wreck your plans!

There are a few wrinkles to the adventure.  There are two bona fide monster hunters camped out near the village, certain that there is skullduggery afoot in Ambersham.  They can easily be played as psychopathic murder hobos (ie, holding a mirror up to the typical player party) and can be excellent triggers to disrupt whatever sensible course of action the players choose.  There are also a few anti-social villagers who can act as spoilers too.  Lest I forget, there is a local franchise of the Dog & Bastard tavern, and Geoff has managed to be imprisoned in Ambersham as well (if anyone out there is collecting all the Geoffs - and why wouldn't you be? - you'll need to plan a trip to Ambersham).

Bee-Ware is 50 pages.  The art and writing is by Kelvin Green - which means there are plenty of jokes and puns.  For instance, one of the monster hunters is Rimsky Korsakov… also the name of the composer of Flight of the Bumblebee.  I'd like to say Kelvin's use of puns is improving, but as we all know puns aren't mature until they're full groan.

I do like this adventure quite a bit.  It presents a curious locale and situation, with open-ended options, and is easy to put into a sandbox setting to ferment into something sweet.  My overall sense of Kelvin's style is to present scenarios that strike a balance between horror, comedy, and fiasco, which is a great aspiration for our D&D style games, so I'm predisposed to liking adventures such as this.  As usual for latter day LOTFP, it assumes a 1630 pseudo-historical setting (17th century England in this one) but there's very little in the adventure module that would need to change to transpose it to any bog-standard fantasy setting.  Like "Magic Eater" from last review, this one is an unqualified keeper - I'm recommending it.  You can grab the PDF over here at DriveThru:  Bee-Ware!

Next up, we'll take a look at "Just a Stupid Dungeon" by the legend himself.  I'm using a LOTFP checklist to go from the most recent publications backwards, so there is another book on the list with the high-falutin title "Beware the Mindfuck!" that wasn't available on DriveThruRPG.  (Shocking they wouldn't carry that one).  So we'll have to forego being "mindfucked" for now.  Use your imagination about what you could be missing.  We'll settle for plumbing the recesses of a "stupid dungeon" instead.  Bee seeing you.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

ACKS Greyhawk: A Gnarley Interlude

A principal role of the dungeon master is to be an information dispenser - to feed the players stuff they can use to make decisions and exercise agency in the setting.  Most of the time that's going to come from narrative descriptions during exploration.  From time to time I'll put very brief "cut scenes" into my game when I want the players to know something their characters don't know - like foreshadowing.  I suppose it's not a very old school technique but I use it when there are interesting opposition characters that won't get a lot of screen time (before they die) and it makes their deaths more memorable.  Face it, module writers spend lots of time regaling the reader with their villain's backstories and plans, the players show up and are "I waste him with my crossbow."  The cut scenes let you get a little more value from those villains.  We're going to cover one of those situations tonight.

Several game sessions ago, the players left Hommlet with horses and carriages, camping and fishing gear, and canoes, and made a big show (in Hommlet) of making it seem they were going fishing - they said they'd be heading to the Nulb area to camp near the Imeryds Run, the river that flows out of the Gnarley Woods and through Nulb.

One of the first cut scenes - a 30 second blurb at the end of one of the game sessions a while ago - involved a mysterious hook nosed stranger, tall and cloaked, riding into Nulb and sauntering through the bat wing doors of the Waterside Hostel.  Mr Hook-nose sidled up to the bar and slipped some coins to the bartender, Dick Rentsch, for a whiskey and a question.  "Howdy, Dick, it's been a minute.  My duties have been keeping me away.  By chance have you seen a group of 'fishermen' come through town with wagons and canoes?"

A future cut scene involved Hook Nose hiring a group of disreputable Nulbian brigands, led by a hard luck mercenary captain (Captain Stephen), and another involved the captain and his motley crew of cutthroats setting out along the local roadways looking for Hook Nose's missing fishermen - their searches were fruitless.

Not sure if anyone else does stuff like that, I admit it's idiosyncratic.  But it give the players an ominous sense there are villains and NPC's out there moving against them without it being directly actionable.  Once in a while they'll kill a guy and be like, "oh man, you know who that actually was, it was the stupid priest plotting against us all this time.  I wasted him with my crossbow.  Bwah hah hah…"

Last game session saw the pay off related to one of these little side plots.  The players figured out which characters and NPCs were going on the adventure and set out again for the dungeon.  They canoed across the Imeryds Run and made their way out of the Gnarley Woods north towards the temple.  The two rangers in the group noticed a thin line of smoke across the river, looking west - on the same side of the river as the player's encampment.  Trouble.

The elven ranger, Glyndal, is in possession of an elven cloak and is very hard to detect in the wilds.  He crept through the rushes at the river's edge to spy on the other side.  A dozen or so grubby brigands were setting up a small camp on the far side.  A few officers on horseback sauntered around the camp… the commander nudged his horse down the waterline for a drink.  "I do like to be out in the field on maneuvers - reminds me of my time in the army", he said with a drawl.

The players decided to bail on the dungeon excursion, went back to the forest to their canoes, and prepared the camp for a possible attack.  They didn't set up any traps or ambushes on the approach between the brigands and where the player encampment was down river a few miles… a pair of brigand scouts went into the woods mid-afternoon, and almost got away with the location of the player camp.  After killing the scouts, no one in the player group made the connection that forward scouts would be missed at some point, and the brigand commander would move his force into the woods looking for them.  So glorious battle was had after all!  Huzzah!

No, that's not quite right.  The camp's magic user had a full bevvy of sleep spells and the brigands were eliminated with very little bloodshed (or glory).  Captain Stephen was surrounded, surrendered, and proved to have little loyalty to the man who hired him, "a dislikable fellow that went by the name of Gremag - though he seemed well known to the folks that ran the Waterside Hostel up in Nulb…" 

Although we haven't been back to Hommlet for many game sessions, at least one of the players remembered a Gremag as a proprietor of the trading post - they've sold a lot of dungeon gear back to the traders.  Next week will likely see a trip back to Hommlet.

I have to check my Greyhawk calendar - in the T1 module, there's a mention that a high level assassin will travel to the area looking for those who killed the New Master below the moathouse some 5-20 days later, and I know I rolled it and put it out there - it has to be coming up soon.  You have to plan all that stuff out on a calendar to be a fair dealer.  For instance - I already knew when the brigands of Captain Stephen would come to the player's area and start searching the woods, it was already on the calendar.  Had the players chosen to do something different that day (like go back to Hommlet early) maybe the brigands would have come upon a camp filled with a half dozen zero level guards; they'd kill everyone, steal the players loot.  The players would get back and cry foul - but no, it was on the calendar that way all along, you just picked a bad day to leave your camp.  Sorry.  Keeping a good calendar avoids conflicts of interest and illusionism.  So with any luck, a certain foul-tempered assassin will be showing up in Hommlet about the same time the players want to settle their unfinished business with Gremag.

Post script - our cast of characters

I have 8 or 9 players on the distribution list, but we typically get 3-4 available for any given game session.  This week we had the following folks:

Barfred - L3 paladin of St Cuthbert

Shakti - L3 priestess of a war goddess, wants to build an army to cleanse the world.

Sana - L1 henchman of Shakti, a religious fanatic (fighter)

Glyndal - L3 elven ranger (archer) from the Gnarley Woods.

Kayden - thief - Glyndal's L2 henchman


Elmo - Hommlet's rock star ranger.

Spugnoir - an NPC from Hommlet, he who puts bad guys to sleep.

Jack - a zero-level guy rescued from the dungeon, kitted out like a champion with recovered equipment.

A player typically controls Spugnoir (and we've had guests run him) but ideally the players will out-level him and he can become a henchman.  Elmo is getting ready to have other missions that take his attention elsewhere, he's too much of a Mary Sue to let the players keep him around as a crutch - the module advises he may accompany the first several times into the temple dungeons and then recede.

Okay - until next time!

Friday, June 9, 2023

Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu Actual Play Series

 A few months ago, Chaosium published their own "actual play" series for Call of Cthulhu.  It's only four episodes, but they went all out for them - especially for a a small game publisher.  They use period costumes, props, a great looking studio, talented actors, and guests who drift in to play the roles of NPCs.  The game master (keeper) does a great job.  I was impressed by the production.

The episodes introduce the viewer to Call of Cthulhu game play, with sidebars that introduce the rules.  The keeper also explains how things work.  I can see why a game company would leverage well-produced actual play episodes to show how their game is fun and easy to pick up.

I seem to remember that several publishers experienced an OGL-bounce when WOTC imploded during their self-inflicted OGL debacle.  Pathfinder was selling like hotcakes, and Chaosium sold through their stock of Call of Cthulhu boxed sets (the starter sets).  The video series probably seemed like an even better splurge once WOTC had their meltdown and new people were looking to try the game.

The scenario presented in the video, "Bookshops of Arkham", appears to be written especially for the production.  It has some neat bits - there's a sequence in an insane asylum that's fairly creepy (I think it was episode 2).  Without further ado here they are:

Bookshops of Arkham, Episode 1:

Episode 2:

Episode 3:

Episode 4:

Monday, June 5, 2023

Magic Eater: LOTFP Review

There will be spoilers…

Let's begin the reviews of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess catalog.  I'm going to start from the most recent releases and work backwards.  I'm also focusing on the PDF format and items available on RPGNow… er, DriveThruRPG.  There's a range of usability of the Flame Princess stuff, so I prefer to grab the PDFs first and hold off on hardcovers for the things I really like.  Since LOTFP evolved from the golden age, almost all of the modern LOTFP adventures now assume a low-magic pseudo-historical 17th century setting.  Magic Eater is a neat little adventure that can easily be ported out of 17th century England to terrorize the players in your preferred campaign setting.  This one is less about horror and more about "the weird".

Magic Eater is written by Kelvin Green, and weighs in at 35 pages; 30 pages for the main adventures, with 5 pages added for a strange little bonus adventure, A Rough Night at the Dog & Bastard.  The premise of the main adventure is simple… a gang of thieves robs the player characters - not their persons, but the loot left behind in their hideout, rooms, or home base.  The players acquire clues that ultimately lead them to the thieves' lair; the players either assault or infiltrate the fortress; there's a climactic set-piece confrontation with the eponymous Magic Eater.  The gang of thieves, the Loquesmyths, prioritize stealing magic items, and that's what ultimately gets the players motivated (enraged).  There is a long tradition of meta-monsters that attack player's stuff, like rust monsters and disenchanters, and this adventure leans into that motif.

When I use this one, I'll try to work the elements into the campaign background, wherever the players have an investment property or home base where they keep their stuff.  Examples include underworld actors such as the cat burglar Grimalkin or the Loquesmyth's gang.  Many LOTFP seem to be targeted at the levels 1-3 crowd, but this one could be used for the next tier of levels, especially if the players are prone to aggressive negotiations - more reason to make it part of an ongoing campaign.  For that matter, the Loquesmyth hideout could become player character property at the end of the adventure, too.

The assault on the Loquesmyth's ruined castle offers the players several options - they can do a frontal assault, use stealth and infiltration, or use roleplaying to take advantage of schisms in the gang.  There is a cult within the Loquesmyths who treat the Magic Eater as a god, and their revolting practices have begun to mutate them into something more and less than human.  The cultists live in the dungeon, while the other half of the gang stays above ground, offering a chance to drive them off or co-opt them.

The Magic Eater himself is a 5HD bulk with a range of random abilities, earned by devouring magic items, and the climactic combat will engender a blend of disgust, horror, and comedy. When I run this one , I will probably portray the Magic Eater like the Mike Meyers grotesque "Fat Bastard" character from Austin Powers.  He'll have the uncanny ability to sense any magic items the players still possess and declare they need to "get in his belly".

That's a nice sword you got there.  It'd be a shame if something happened to it.

Let's pivot and discuss the writing.  Adventure writing is ultimately a type of technical writing - there's information that must be effectively communicated for the game master to run the scenario.  Once this basic requirement has been met, there's a lot of space for an author to develop a voice.  This is a strength of Kelvin's style - he'll mix in puns, self-deprecating jabs at himself, jabs at players or at LOTFP tropes, and directly address the game master via sidebars.  His books are fun to read.  There are recurring quirks of the Kelvin-verse - the ever-present Dog & Bastard, or poor Geoff (typically requiring rescue).  Perhaps the Kelvin-philes can shed some insight from the Kelvin-files (ho ho) how these things became fixtures?  I imagine the Dog & Bastard is an eldritch franchise that attracts these otherworldly forces to it's vicinity…

Speaking of that ubiquitous tavern, the book ends with a short side adventure called "Rough Night at the Dog & Bastard".  You could place it at any of the franchise locations - they're all over 1630's England and Europe.  Some kind of storm or similar external event keeps the guests and player characters stuck at the inn for a night.  It just happens to be the same night a few sex cultists happen to be there with their magic idol, along with an intertwined cast of desperados and… nuns.  For my version I'd go full Quentin Tarantino and run this like "The Hateful Eight" - I'm sure homicidal player characters will oblige - fiasco is usually the default play mode for murder hobos.  It's a peculiar vignette that could happen while traveling between adventure sites and is worth at least one night of hilarity and hijinks.

Before wrapping up the review, I will warn there are elements that push the boundaries - your threshold for gross or adult material may be less than mine.  (Everyone with the slightest taste difference from me is either a prude or a jaded and depraved maniac).  The Magic Eater cult from the first adventure does awful things with the Magic Eater's excrement (gag, barf), and the second adventure involves the hijinks of a pair of sex cultists with their blasphemous idol.  It's still tame by LOTFP standards.  But there you go.

For me, Magic Eater is a keeper - fun to read, looks fun to run.  You can get it at DriveThruRPG for $5.99 here:  Magic Eater.  Next review also takes place in the Kelvin-verse, "Bee-Ware".  Until next time - be seeing you.

Friday, June 2, 2023

ACKS Greyhawk Report: Dungeon Level 1

We’ve had four game sessions exploring the first dungeon level of the Temple of Elemental Evil and the players have explored most of the southern half of the map.  The game sessions are usually two and half hours when they land on Sunday night (we all have early mornings) although we'll stretch them to three or four hours if we switch game night to a Friday or Saturday.

One of the more interesting game nights we've had in the dungeon involved an escalating series of "ghoul fights".  The players discovered a prison room with a bunch of manacled, naked people; while they're talking to the hysterical prisoners and figuring out how to get them free, the ghouls in an adjacent room step out to see who is messing with their food supply, and away we went.  Each room in the chain had another 6 ghouls, so the melee quickly got out of hand with a fresh wave of ghouls joining the fight.

A few magic items from the moat house dungeon played a significant role.  One of them was a clerical phylactery of action - the player had no idea what it did, but it made him immune to paralysis, including the touch of a ghoul.  (Although I got confused which cleric was wearing the phylactery and bestowed the bonus on the wrong cleric - oops.  Yeah, that was a big miss).  The other item was a potion of undead control, which allowed the players to bolster their fighting force with a handful of charmed ghouls.  It was a giant glorious ripping and shredding ghoul fight.  When it was all done, they killed eighteen ghouls, a couple of ghasts, and needed to get a dozen or so naked people back to the surface.

The grindiest fight we experienced was verse an elite cadre of earth temple warriors, clad in bronze plate mail, facing off against the player front line (also in plate mail) with everyone needing 17's or 18's and higher to hit each other.  The players used the time-honored tactic of front line melee fighters, spear-wielders in the second rank, and it felt like a dungeon-sized version of a Roman phalanx.  All of their sleep spells were exhausted earlier that night, and this one came down to morale rolls and hit points and keeping the fighters healed.  I was surprised tension and engagement stayed high, but it was an exciting session and the group enjoyed the battle of attrition.

I'm finding that combat without miniatures or tokens lets us get through 4-6 encounters in an evening of dungeon crawling.  It's a huge change from 5E.  Old school "sleep" is a terrifying weapon in the player's hands, amplified when we play shorter game sessions.  I'm fine with it, the tyranny of sleep shall pass in a few game levels.  Module writers don't put nearly enough level 1 magic users in their settings to give the players a taste of their own medicine.  Every dungeon needs some weaselly wizards with a sleep or two and some daggers ready to sleep and slice.

I did have to give the group a variant of the "lawful stupid" speech.  Some members of the party took great pains to find robes and garb to be able to disguise themselves like dungeon inhabitants (earth temple cultists) so they could try some parleys; when they finally found a room where this tactic could work, the characters in the front were like, "I'm a paladin, I'm not skulking in a disguise" or a cleric would say "We don't talk to cultists, we kill them, it's my alignment", and suddenly it's "roll for initiative" and the other half of the group is dragged into a combat - so much for the talk first plan.  It's not my place to tell the group how to play, but it is the DM's place to clarify the rules and how things like alignment work in the game world.

For instance, I'm using a simple lawful-neutral-chaotic axis - law stands for defending the realms of man.  I'm giving the paladin and cleric players great leeway to determine their character's strictures and religion, so if a player wants to play "St Cuthbert needs us to exterminate every inhabitant of the Temple of Elemental Evil" that's their choice, it's not something the DM is foisting on them as an alignment straitjacket.  They could just as easily make the choice that law calls for them to eliminate just the evil clerics leaders, or just the supernatural evil beings like demons, and let the mooks and goons slink off.

We talked about this out of game at the start of the next session.  I suggested they chat as a group about their goals for the dungeon how they want to play - would they ever use stealth, roleplaying, and subterfuge, or is everyone on board with the "kill them all, let the gods sort them out" attitude of the zealots.  The players had a good conversation and the zealots agreed to give the roleplayers a chance to talk their way out of some encounters, or befriend some dungeon inhabitants to collect information.

We worked through these issues and more during sessions 9, 10, 11, and 12; next ACKS report will be game 13 and I'll include details on the specific characters, choices, tactics, and players.  Until next time.