Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Strigoi - Vampire Alternative for LOTFP

Zombies?  Nope - vampires!  The Strain.

To quote my teenage daughter, I've become "low-key obsessed" with Guillermo Del Toro's The Strain.  I binge watched the four season TV series on Hulu, and am working my way through the source novels (I'm on Book 2).  The novels were written with the help of Chuck Hogan, a spy novel author, and so they read like page turner thrillers with a horror twist.  The TV series presents a squirmy, gruesome re-envisioning of the vampire myth with plenty of visceral body horror.  It's a perfect take on vampires for your LOTFP game, and in time for Halloween if you're looking for some horror reading or viewing.

The books have been out since 2009 and the series came to TV in 2014, so I'm not spoiling any ground-breaking new show as I discus the general plot.  Be warned, some discussion of the plot will follow.  The series starts with the arrival of a dead airplane landing in JFK Airport, a 21st century re-imagination of The Demeter crashing into Whitby along the English coast.  In The Strain, the 200+ dead passengers on the airplane are infected with vampirism, going through a biological transformation while their bodies are sent to various morgues around the city.  They awaken at night and wander off to infect their loved ones and passersby, and suddenly a vampire plague begins to quickly spread across the Five Boroughs.

New York is honeycombed with subways and transit tunnels that give the vampires places to hide during the day, and the plot features wealthy opportunistic "human familiars" teaming up with the vampire lord, The Master, by spreading misinformation and slowing down the response of government agencies.  Instead of an apocalyptic zombie plague, New York faces a vampire plague, which spreads beyond the city, and the series eventually goes full-on apocalyptic, with nuclear winter providing safety from UV radiation for a dystopian future ruled by the vampires.  It's bonkers.

The Strain upends the glamor that has claimed hold of the vampire myth - there are no sparkling, handsome or beautiful sexy vampires here.  They are victims of a fast-acting, incurable, mutagenic virus, spread by worms, that rewrites their biology to turn them into giant leeches or ticks - they eventually lose their hair, sex organs, and even their nose and ears will wither away.  Instead of fangs, The Strain vampires (called the Strigoi in the series) have a six foot mouth stinger that lashes out and attaches itself to a victim, followed by a slow glug glug glug as it siphons out all of the victim's blood.  Anyone bit by the stinger is infected with the vampire worms, and anyone engaging in combat with the Strigoi risks getting infected if splashed by the vampire's white blood.  There are many moments of body horror in the series as wriggling worms burrow into open wounds or eyeballs to infect a new host.

From the cover of Book 1 The Strain.  It's gruesome.

Classic D&D vampires had that weird problem where they've got the blood-drinking fang equipment, but really what they want to do is touch you in melee and drain life energy levels.  The Strigoi represent a terrifying way to put blood draining vampires back into your game in an action-oriented style that plays well with classic fantasy and D&D style combat.

Strigoi (Munchers - the newly formed)

Unarmored, Move 120'. Hit Dice 1-4. Attack range 6' doing 1-4 damage + specials, Morale 8.  Chaotic.

Newly formed Strigoi start with 1 HD and gain a HD each week they're able to feed.  There are powerful free-willed strigoi (Lieutenants and Ancients) that are significantly more capable than "munchers" - we'll tackle them another time.  Munchers have animal instincts, with an innate desire to return home and feed on their loved ones.  However, they are connected through a hive-mind back to the Master, who can force groups of Munchers to apply tactics or carry out more complicated actions as the situation dictates.  Strigoi have 60' infravision and heightened senses, including hearing - sensitive enough to hear nearby heart-beats.

In melee, the Muncher uses it's 6' stinger attack.  A hit target must save vs paralysis or be helpless while the muncher drains constitution at the rate of 1d6 per round until the target dies.    The stinger is unarmored and can be severed in combat by an ally with an edged weapon attack doing 2 or more points of damage.  Anyone hit by a stinger in combat is infected with capillary worms (see below).

Glug-glug-glug.  This should terrify any D&D character.

Strigoi are vulnerable to silver weapons, and must make a morale check at -2 when confronted with silver weapons and each time they are hit by silver.  They will likewise shun silver mirrors, as such mirrors reveal their true nature (undead and riddled with parasitic worms).  They are destroyed in sunlight.  

Strigoi take half damage from normal weapons due to their mutated biology.  (Alternatively, I suppose you could say any damage roll in the lower half of the damage range is ignored, while a roll in the upper half represents a hit to a vulnerable area like the neck or head - whatever is less fiddly and more fun for your table.  I like the latter.)

Capillary Worms

Each time a Strigoi is killed in melee combat, roll a d6 - on a 1 result, the victor is splashed by Strigoi blood (including the parasitic capillary worms) which seek to burrow into the victim's flesh and cause infection.  Like rot grubs, the victim must immediately apply flame to the worms (1-6 hit points of damage) or a worm burrows into their flesh.  At that point, only a cure disease spell can end the transformation into a Strigoi.  (In the series, modern UV lights can also destroy capillary worms).  Anyone hit by a Strigoi stinger is automatically infected by worms.

The disease weakens the host over a 24 hour period as the capillary worms multiply and overwhelm the victim's system, colonizing the victim's organs and growing the vampiric hinged mouth and throat stringer.  Strigoi have heightened metabolisms and "burn hot" for purposes of infravision, a possible way of detecting them at a distance if your game uses infravision.  The newly formed Strigoi will arise the following evening and return home, seeking to infect their loved ones.


Although the TV series focuses on a biological, viral explanation for the Strigoi, there are mystical and alchemical elements in both the show and  novels that involve a Judeo-Christian mythological view of the vampires and their origin.  Their history is recounted in a book of esoteric lore called the Occido Lumen.  While the Strigoi disease appears to be a purely biological phenomenon, they are actually a supernatural plague and count as true undead, meaning they can be turned by clerics with a Turn Undead spell or ability.  Munchers are turned as Wights.

Potion of Longevity Ingredient

In the series, 3rd century alchemists created a formula to leverage the capillary worms as a component in a potion of longevity - more to come as I get deeper in the books.

I don't think I'm done with The Strain or the Strigoi yet, as I read further I'll likely provide some stats for the powerful free-willed "Lieutenants" and the terrifying "Master".  It's the Halloween season, after all.

Note:  All the images are from The Strain TV series, subject to copyright, and used here only under fair use as part of a review and discussion of the work.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

LOTFP Review: A Gift for All Norway

Is it?  Is it really a gift for all Norway?

Disclaimer:  Reviews are for referees.  I'm a spoiler.  Stay out, players.

I'll come right out with the judgment… I have some issues with this adventure for campaign play because of how much work is left to the referee, but it'd work fine as a one-shot at a convention.

A Gift for All Norway is a short book - 16 page pamphlet with a soft cover.  The dungeon involves the adventurers entering a cave seeking a stolen artifact, the Heart of Hrungnir, named after a figure from Norse legend, a Jotun.  Within a few rooms of the cave structure, it should be apparent the characters are traversing a gigantic digestive tract like the miniature scientists and doctors from the movie Fantastic Voyage.  Challenges include environmental factors (like lakes of acid) and oozes and slimes (crawling and slithering anti-bodies).  There aren't really NPC roleplaying opportunities in the dungeon, and little or no treasure (unless the players keep the artifact).

All gut-tract dungeons need more Raquel Welch.

If the player's find the artifact, there's a location where it fits in the dungeon, and funny things can happen.  I won't spoil all the fun!  It's definitely a gift for somebody.  I can imagine a party making it to the ultimate location, and deciding what to do next should be an interesting dilemma.

My knock on this one for campaign play is it requires a bit of hand-waving or a lot of referee work.  The players supposedly start in England, travel to Norway, and have to deal with an evil Nordic cult waiting for them at the village of Vihavn not far from where the adventure begins.  All that stuff is left for you (the referee) to figure out.  The evil cult is actually just called "the Nordic cult".  I asked ChatGPT to help me name it and the AI cranked out a handful of evocative names:

  • Frostfang Covenant
  • Rimeborn Disciples
  • Hrungnir's Cursebound
  • Jotun's Whisper
  • Jotunheim's Doomcallers
  • Frostforged Creed
  • Nidhogg's Vanguard
  • … you get the idea.

So you’re buying (and playing ) this one for an 8 room romp through a digestive track dungeon (no Raquel Welch in sight) and a LOTFP worthy decision.  For a one-shot, you could start the players already in Norway - right at the cave mouth - and probably get through the dungeon in a 2 hour convention slot.  I can see it being a satisfying short dungeon in those circumstances.

It's kind of weird this batch of LOTFP adventures had two "crawl around the inside of a giant ancient being" adventures - don't forget we had Meanderings of the Mine Mind earlier, and now A Gift For All Norway.  They are very different - we're talking about Night at the Museum vs Fantastic Voyage.  The Mine Mind is all about interacting with anachronistic people, while this one is Man vs Nature (and by Nature, I mean gigantic digestive and respiratory tracts).

You can get this one at the usual places, the LOTFP store and DriveThruRPG:  A Gift for All Norway.

Saturday, September 9, 2023

Game Reports - York 1630 and ACKS Greyhawk

I'm a few weeks behind on game reports - so today is a two-for-one.

York 1630 (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)

At the end of last game session, the players were seriously depleted after battling about a dozen "mosquito bats" (stirges in your BX parlance).  They were exploring an abandoned inn, The Grinding Gear, and the mosquito bats were nesting in the attic.

The players secured themselves in an upstairs room away from the bats and bandaged themselves, healed as best they could, and rested.  Their fighter, a 30 years war vet, is also a medic.  In the morning, they hatched a plan to remove the bats from the attic - they smoked them out!  They created a smoky fire with oil-soaked rags in a cook pot and opened the trap door into the attic just enough to slide the smoke pot onto the attic floor.  Their stealthy halfling crept out of the front of the inn where he could spy the smoke billowing out of the attic hole, and he watched as the flocks of mosquito bats fled into the nearby forest to escape the smoke.

When the coast was clear, the players put a lid on the smoking pot, retrieved the treasure from the attic, and found a place to hide it in the inn before considering their next move - finding the underground tomb complex they believed was in the area.  The one thing they hadn't fully inspected yet was the statue in the courtyard, the one surrounded by a field of drained bodies, and they suspected the tomb entrance was tied to the statue.

Since the players experienced the mosquito bats in the attic, they surmised that's how the bodies around the statue became drained; they just didn't understand the mechanism.  So there was some trial and error, with one person going forward to mess with the statue (the halfling) while the rest of the party stayed far away and watched.  In this way they were able to observe the statue's sleep gas trap, and how the smell of the gas coaxed mosquito bats out of the woods to slake their thirst on the sleeping victim(s).  They were able to save the halfling and use the trap door in the statue's base to get into the dungeon.

The most interesting thing that's happened in the dungeon so far was when they discovered a barred door - an NPC party was hiding in the room.  "Don't come through the door or we'll sleep you - we have a wizard!" they warned through the door.  None of the players had considered this was a thing that could happen… that there could be NPC magic users, and opposing magic users could have sleep spells too, and the entire party of first level heroes could be put to sleep and knifed in a dungeon.  Yikes!

The elf player whispered to his companions, "Don't worry - elves can't be put to sleep.  They don't know about me.  Start chopping it down!"  Our party's artist captured the moment when "The Pillories", as they're called, chopped through the door and the elf put the 3 humans in the room to sleep anyway.

ACKS Greyhawk - Temple of Elemental Evil

The best news about our Greyhawk game is that we held it.  We missed a bunch of weeks due to scheduling issues and attendance.  The core group is now on board with a bi-weekly cadence, which works perfectly with a bi-weekly LOTFP game.  This way the regulars should be able to make all the games going forward.

Otherwise there hasn't been a lot to report lately! The players are obsessed with grinding their way through all of level 1, exploring everything, and indulging their completionism urges.  This can be the bane of running a megadungeon (or in this case, large dungeon).  However, I'm hopeful they've learned enough about level 2 to head down there soon.

Last game they also discovered one of the final roleplaying oriented encounters on level 1 - the torturer and his bugbear sidekick.  The thief heard an active 'torture session' in progress through the door, and the players were able to get the jump on the torturer.  A mercenary on the rack cried out for help, the hapless farmers in the prison cells cried out for help, and the torturer was willing to parley after a sleep spell put the bugbear down (the torturer was level 5, unaffected by sleep, but outnumbered like 8 to 1, and he failed a morale check).

The paladin honored his promise to the torturer of safe passage in return for answers, keys, and freeing all the prisoners.  The players learned a back way down to level 2, as well as the location of more prisoners.  The torturer scooted off, the players freed the mercenary and the prisoners, and their militant "bladedancer" - a cleric trying to build an army for the goddess of war - made a recruitment pitch to the mercenary to join her budding force.  (The player rolled terribly on the reaction roll and the mercenary declined - "I ain't in this for your revolution, princess".)  This is why they usually let the paladin recruit the survivors.  But then the mooks are more loyal to the broader group than Shakti's weird crusade for the war goddess (Shakti is the bladedancer).

The torturer had given them some bad advice (mean people suck) and some of the "prisoners" he directed them towards were actually zombies in cells - but were easily handled with clerics and old school Turn Undead.  One of the cells had an actual living prisoner, a gnome named Wonnilon, who desperately wanted to find his gear, but the night was getting late and the players had to leave the dungeon for the night.  Wonnilon left with them, with the promise they'd finish looking for his gear the following week.

Final thought - it's interesting running two different OSR-derived games at the same time (bi-weekly) and seeing the nuances in them (and how their rules sets compliment the subtle differences in the expected game play).  Both ACKS and LOTFP are not true clone games but rather include strong authorial voices and design philosophies.  Grist for a future post.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

LOTFP Review: Faecal Lands

I group Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventures in two broad categories, Type A and Type B.  I sift through the catalog looking for the Type A adventures - they are grounded and gritty, focused on themes of exploration, discovery, and building horror, with real consequences and that LOTFP weird twist - like running a Call of Cthulhu adventure but using the familiar BX rules set.

Type B adventures push the limit of what you can do with a table top adventure - all the "shock for shock's sake" art pieces - the classic James Raggi 'damn the torpedoes' mindset that gets things banned on DriveThruRPG.  As an observer of the Type B phenomenon, I used to think James enjoyed triggering people, but nowadays I see him more like an eclectic publisher that puts a lot of mixed stuff out there and hopes it finds the audience that appreciates it.  I'll shrug my shoulders and say, "well clearly this thing wasn't made for me", and move on with my life.  When you throw a lot of stuff against the wall as a publisher, not everything has to stick.  But I'm always on the lookout for more of that Type A stuff, because when they're good, they're really good.

Faecal Lands is not a Type A adventure.  But it might find an audience, so let's get into it.

I imagine a hypothetical idea pitch would have gone like this - "You know, James, Lamentations needs its own planar adventure.  Lots of modules in the history of fantasy gaming feature jaunts into the elemental planes, where the players are grappling with a hostile environment and battling planar entities until they can escape back home."  Oh yeah, that sounds interesting, but what's the weird twist?  "Oh that's the best part.  Since the elemental planes of air, earth, fire, and water are so banal and overdone, I was thinking it could be the plane of poop.  It'll have poop demons, and lakes of pee, and poop dragons, and a final poop boss guarding the poop fortress".

If that sounds like the kind of thing you've been waiting for your whole life, I have great news for you my friend - this is your day, and this is your book.

The cover is so gross I almost didn't want to review it (so I'm not putting the cover here, there's a link below if you like).  But the setting is done earnestly and with an eye towards challenging game play.  I've read plenty of more serious adventures that wish they had the amount of gameplay, usability, and design this crappy book holds, even if it's built around a bad joke.  It includes a hex crawl, points of interest and mini-dungeons to explore, large wandering encounter tables, environmental hazards and diseases, a rudimentary ecology and bestiary, and interesting items and fetch quests.  For a gag book it is shockingly well done.  That makes it perplexing - it'd be much easier to write off if the game content was bad - it's not.

Edit:  I thought it'd be helpful to show a snippet of a page - most of the encounter areas are like this, with functional maps that combine room key descriptions and maps in one neat layout (referencing a bestiary in the back).

At this point, I don't no plan to use this one.  But I won't say never, because there could be that game situation where things go pear-shaped and the party is landing in a metaphorical world of sh*t, and the referee just wants to say, "F*ck it, you twits are landing in a literal world of sh*t too.  Good luck escaping the Faecal Lands, dolts(1)."  This is what Type B LOTFP brings me to - profanity.

The book is 32 pages and written by Glynn Seal, author of The Midderlands.  (There are even several references to Great Lunden).  Glynn also did the art, layout and cartography, and it's all good.  However, much like some criticism I leveled at Meandering of the Mine Mind the editor here missed a few things.  It's as if this batch of LOTFP releases was rushed, or the editors were only looking at spell check and not the big picture.  Small things, like a missed table reference here, or the wrong type of skill check in the text (LOTFP uses d6 skill checks, not % skills).

While the idea of a poop dimension full of poop demons has a distinctly adolescent quality to it, this is executed seriously and would be a challenging adventure locale.  My sense is it would work best for a competent group of players with characters in the level 4-6 range.  (I think the LOTFP crowd has given up suggesting level ranges).

You too can be grossed out by visiting the LOTFP webstore or DriveThruRPG:  Faecal Lands

(1)  Here's an example of how one could tie this easily into a recent adventure: In Magic Eater, there is a gross cult that also involves a poop theme.  The Magic Eater is an unstable monster that should explode when he dies, blasting everyone in the room (cultists and player characters alike) over to the Faecal Lands to be grossed out even further.  You're welcome.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

Spotlight on ACKS: Where Orcs are Evil

I'm overdue to say something about Alexander Macris's video channel.  Alex is the writer of Adventurer Conqueror King and he's been doing a YouTube channel for several months now where he tackles game theory and being a better referee.  He's got a collegial style and well-articulated positions.  Last week he tackled the question of whether your RPG should have "inherently evil races" (video is posted below).

This question has been around.  It's been a lightning rod in D&D style games since the Keep on the Borderlands introduced tribes of humanoids just up the road from the Keep (and it's usually accompanied by a debate on colonization in gaming).  Over 40 years, designers and authors have granted more sympathetic attributes to the humanoids in their game worlds, prompting Wizards of the Coast to declare there were no longer evil humanoids in modern incarnations of D&D, but rather they would have all alignments like humans - a sort of "Fantasy Star Trek", where through cooperation, inclusivity, diplomacy, and cultural exchange, everyone can find common ground and have a place in the Federatio… er, Forgotten Realms.

At that point, might as well admit James Raggi was right 15 years ago when he dumped fantasy settings for the early modern and said, let's just place adventures in the real world and have complex conflicts with human antagonists without the furry costumes… but that's another game, another post.  Alex is clinging to heroic fantasy with its panoply of sentient races.

Alex offers a workable solution to the question of innately evil races.  An "innately evil race" would be one where coexistence is not possible at all - the evil race represents an existential threat to human civilization.  The example he uses in the video is the xenomorph from the Alien series.  You're either on the side of civilization or you’re siding with the enemy and betraying it.  The scientific term for this unresolvable clash of species is "competitive exclusion theory".

The problem is that humanoid depictions became relatable and too human.  Orcs are a misunderstood culture, like a fantasy version of  Star Trek's violent yet honorable Klingons.  They're no longer Tolkien's implacable forces of destruction and death.  In the movie Return of the King, there's a visceral experience of orc hatred of humanity when the orc commander proclaims, "The age of men is over, the time of the orc has come."  The battle of Minas Tirith is an extinction event - the stakes are victory or the fall of civilization.  In Middle Earth, Fantasy Star Trek is reserved for the humans, elves, dwarves, and hobbits to become kissy-kissy allies and cohabitants.  The spawn of Morgoth (and the orcs) have no place in Eriador.  (And yes, I'm side-stepping any broader discussion of the orcs based on Tolkien's letters or life experiences - here I'm just reacting to the representation in the fiction).

Tapping back into the Trek universe, maybe the Borg are the best example of that existential threat.  Or the Gorn.  In fantasy, something like GRR Martin's White Walkers are a foe with whom there can be no compromise.  But for mainstream fantasy games, 40 years of treating orcs, goblins, and hobgoblins as variant people, has gone too far to reclaim them as an irredeemable enemy.  Were the seeds sown as early as the 1E Monster Manual, with it's complex and naturalistic depiction of humanoid tribal life?

But we will do as we will, in our home games.  Here is the video:

One parting thought - I'm intrigued by the idea that depictions of orc-like monsters and boogeymen in fairy tales and literature may hearken back to some "species-memory" of conflict between homo sapiens and the Neanderthals during the Ice Age.  Instinctual memory sounds like goofy pseudoscience, but it's fun to think about.  It brings to my mind the horrible "Wendol" from the movie The 13th Warrior (Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead novel), where the Wendol are a nigh-supernatural force of Neanderthal-like primitives that emerge from remote caves to terrorize Viking villages.  There are no universal translators, parleys, or requests to negotiate anywhere in sight - just battle axes, swords, and a doughty crew of Northmen to hold the line and stand for the survival of mankind.  Along with Antionio Banderas.