Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Review from the vault: Stonehell Dungeon

One adventure I've owned for a few years, DMed it, but hadn't formally reviewed on the blog, was Stonehell Dungeon:  Down Night Haunted Halls.  It's one of my favorite OSR products, and The Society of Torch, Pole, and Rope was one of the first blogs I read and followed (long before I became a blogger myself).   There've been signs of life over at Torch, Pole and Rope regarding Stonehell 2, and I'm hoping we'll see it before the year is out.   Plus, the recent chatter on Dreams in the Lich House on megadungeons has me looking back at this product.  Stonehell is one of those cool books I'm always scheming how to build a campaign around it, so this will be one-part review, one-part Gamer ADD brainstorming.

First off, on the rating - it's a 5 of 5 on the Beedometer.  My subjective scheme is basically this:  how does this product compare to my typical home brew stuff?  If I home brew better and could've saved the money, the product isn't getting lauded.  We've had 30 years of meat and potato adventures that cover the basics, so I'm on the look out for things that have never been done.  Luckily, there are plenty of creative folks in the OSR doing just that - breaking new creative ground every day - so there's no lack of quality of stuff.

So that's how I rate things - if a product has opened up a new theme or style, is well written and evocative, or changed how I think about designing an adventure, I'm pumping it up.  Let someone else focus on the latest beginner dungeons - those are valuable and have a place for providing options, but I don't personally need them.  I'll probably go back and recalibrate some past ratings a little tougher as the Beedometer evolves.

The other thing about my reviews - I mostly write reviews about exciting products, products that I've run at the table and want to use, so most of my reviews are slanted towards things on the high end of the Beedometer - the standouts.  Maybe someday I'll put capsule notes and one-liners together regarding the pdf stinkers on my hard drive.  Life's short, though, and writing negative reviews just seems depressing when I've yet to exhaust the great stuff.

But let's get back to Stonehell!  The first thing to notice is the physical layout.  It's a 130+ page monster, all dedicated to a single dungeon, but its designed to have high usability at the table.  It uses a modified version of the one-page-dungeon, so that the pertinent details of each level are on the open left and right pages of the book.  Each quadrant has 30-40 rooms, so that's a lot of information on those two facing pages.  (Each level of the dungeon has 4 quadrants, and there are 5 levels, so there are 20 mid-sized dungeons detailed in Stonehell - at $6.50 for the PDF, that's a lot of dungeon for the dollar!)

The adventure itself is what you'd expect in a traditional dungeon modeled after Castle Greyhawk or the fantastic stories of 1970's megadungeons - there are whimsical locations, humanoid factions, a miniature trade town tucked away in the dungeon, and a fair amount of new monsters, magic items, traps, puzzles and specials.  My high praise of Stonehell has less to do with any one single mind blowing idea, and more to do with scope, sustained high quality, and usability.

Stonehell takes a curious middle ground between detailed set pieces, and leaving some room descriptions sparse to allow for DM improvisation.  The two-page dungeons present the sparse details and memory joggers, providing the DM the opportunity to improvise descriptions.  The intricate set piece locations are detailed in the preceding pages in the level notes.  It's a format that really worked for me - I don't need intricate details on every room, but if there's a macabre arcane machine in a given room with lots of levers and knobs, I'd like to know a little more about how it should be presented.

There had been a healthy debate in the community whether a printed megadungeon was even possible.  Gary never published Castle Greyhawk, after all, and Greyhawk was the pinnacle of what people imagined when they pictured a megadungeon.  Gary claimed to improvise much of the dungeon, using scant notes on a single page next to the map.  There are even photos of Gary DMing Greyhawk in later years, and you can see just how sparse were the notes.  (I'll try to add a pic later when I find one on my other computer).  From that perspective, the one-page-dungeon approach and it's evolution in Stonehell is a spiritual successor to how megadungeons were managed and conceived back in the 1970's.  Very cool!

Alright - this review has gone on long.  I learned over the weekend that one reason my blog sucks is because I'm not writing short posts - Hack and Slash posted "Why *My* blog isn't any good", and I'm sure he meant me personally, j/k.  So in the interests of brevity and appeasing -C, I'll put the rest of the article - brainstorming interesting ways to use Stonehell in a campaign - in another post.


Monday, May 30, 2011

Mythic Monday: The Honored Dead

Before getting on to the post, let's take a moment and remember  the soldiers and members of our armed forces, deceased and living, keeping us safe.  My grandfather was in Normandy, my dad in Vietnam, and Memorial Day has always been an important observation for us.
…A moment of respect...

Now on to something gaming related-

Hellboy: The Storm.  The honored dead return.
I'm an avid Hellboy reader.  A recent storyline involved "the honored dead" of England rising up again to serve the once and future king, because the sword Excalibur had been returned to the world.  Crypts of ancient knights were found open and empty, as if the 800 year old corpses inside had gotten out and walked from the churches where they were interred…

This seems like a folklore theme where I should be able to recall other instances of the dead returning… if danger calls or the homeland is threatened, the honorable dead sworn to protect the homeland will rise to defend their wards once again.  The theme is a bit like the ghosts from the Paths of the Dead in Return of the King.  It certainly seems fitting for a fantasy game!

The closest series of stories I can come up with involve Medieval revenants.  The modern weird tale and all those EC Horror comics and the Cryptkeeper and the Tales from the Dark Side often featured the dead coming back due to unfinished business - the lifeless murdered spouse "takes care" of the cheating husband and the home wrecker, for instance.  The traditional revenant is a short term phenomena - the revenant returns from the grave with the single-minded purpose of avenging his own death.

Anyway, I like this alternate "oath fulfillment" approach to the revenant a bit more.  "An oath or promise sworn in life can be so strong that the oath-maker can return even from beyond death to see the oath fulfilled…"

As an aside, are you watching A Game of Thrones with me on HBO?  If so, we'll see some revenants (though maybe not this season).  Won't name names for spoiler purposes, but there are definitely a few characters coming up that blur the distinction between life and death while they take care of business.

Oathsworn Revenant (for Labyrinth Lord)
No. Enc.: (varies)
Alignment:  Neutral
Movement: 90' (30')
Armor Class:   2
Hit Dice:   9
Attacks:   1
Damage:   By weapon
Save:   F8
Morale:   12
Hoard Class:  nil
XP: 1700

<Ack - apologies for the 4E style CompoundWord DoubleName - if someone has a better one than "Oathsworn", I'll gladly edit it.>

Some oaths are so powerful that the dead will rise again to see the oath fulfilled, becoming a type of revenant.  Regardless of age and composition, the bones of the revenant will reform and it will rise from the crypt to see its ancient promise fulfilled, returning to dust once the trigger has passed.

The Oathsworn can only be hit by +1 or better weapons.  Most Oathsworn were knights in life, and will appear in armor and wielding knightly weapons - two-handed swords or pole arms are favored.

Like other types of revenants, the Oathsworn cannot be turned and are immune to holy water, but otherwise share undead immunities.

DM Note:  obviously, an army of revenants would be over the top - I think I'd use one of these guys as a lone defender somewhere (like a knight that died protecting a sanctuary) or use them as a plot device, like the dead ghosts that served Aragorn in Return of the King.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Running a Better Sandbox Game

As a bit of a PSA, and because most folks probably scan my blog through a reader and don't bother to read comments, I'm going to repost something Matt Finch said the other day in response to the "megadungeon monotony" post.

There are tons of house rules, class variants, new monsters, etc, littering OSR blogs (two thumbs pointing to this guy - just as guilty).  Tons of resources on building a sandbox, too. But keeping a sandbox game going, keeping it interesting?  Yep, not so much - that's why I thought a note with solid practical advice on *running* the game is worth a special shout.

It is absolutely key that a megadungeon has distinct areas -- and I mean distinct enough that the players can make the distinction based on play, not that the DM happens to know that there's a greater chance of giant rats there. Not only that, but the distinctions need to be meaningful. This allows players the ability to make a decision about where to go in the dungeon. Without that, it is a fungible, undifferentiated, who-cares landscape.

It's incumbent on the DM to either create a dungeon where future missions can be perceived and planned, or to provide some missions the players might choose. Blind exploration gets old if not leavened with some purposeful expeditions that have planning behind them.

Upshot of both those points is that players have to be given meaningful choices and the ability to pre-plan at least some of their activity. 

The major potential failing of a megadungeon is not to realize that pre-planning and preparation are fun and integral to the player experience, and a megadungeon risks removing this aspect of the game if it doesn't provide information. Information flow and discoveries are critical components of a megadungeon campaign, or else there is no meaning behind player choices. Might as well flip a coin about our equipment, spell, and direction choices? Not fun.

Campaign Events for the Black City

Yesterday's post mentioned that I like to have things happening to the rest of the world while the party is focused on the megadungeon, creating events that could affect the local situation, complicate the player character's lives, or send the game in another direction.   Events help shake up the status quo.  Most of the action in a sandbox is player-driven, but it's fun from time to time to give them situations that require them to react rather than initiate.

Here's a list of campaign events for the island of Thule and the Black City.  Eventually I'll put together a loose map of the rest of the world (including the various Northman kingdoms back home) and the references to things outside of Thule will be more concrete.

Northmen explore Thule during the summer months, returning home before the extreme cold.  I'd probably have a few events prepared each season, or whenever the DM feels like introducing a new element.  These are not fully detailed ideas; it's up to the DM to turn them into side adventures, role playing opportunities, or use as background material if the party doesn't engage with the plot hook.

Campaign Events (roll d100 or pick)

1-2 Astral Conjunction
3-4 Bad Weather
5-6 Beached Whale
7-8 Bear Attack
9-11 Blood Feud
12-14 Bragging Rights
15-16 Dire Omens
17-18 Disappearance
19-20 Favor of the Gods
21-23 False Identity
24-26 Fire
27-28 Food Shortage
29-30 Foreigners!
31-32 Gold Rush
33-34 Great Weather
35-36 Herd of Caribou
37-39 Inflation
40-41 It Came from the Ice
42-43 Long Live the King
44-46 Marvel Team-Up
47-48 Massacre
49-50 Meteor
51-52 Missionary
53-54 New Sub Level
55-56 New Trade Route
57-58 New Trade Town
59-60 Pod of Whales
61-62 Population Change
63-64 Prize Fishing
65-66 Rampaging Monster Back Home
67-69 Rescue Mission
70-71 Rival Wizard
72-74 Robbery
75-76 Ship Lost at Sea
77-78 Sickness
79-80 Skilled Laborer
81-82 Stolen Map
83-84 Stormy Seas
85-86 Supply Problems
87-88 The Enemy Among Us
89-90 Vermin
91-92 Visiting Ship
93-94 Wandering Monster
95-96 Wars and Rumors of Wars
97-98 Where's the Wizard
99-100 Whirlpool

Astral Conjunction
A celestial alignment lasting 1-3 days empowers the spirit world.  No undead can be turned during the conjunction and summoning spells draw more powerful entities from beyond.

Bad Weather
3-8 days of unseasonable downpours create deep mud and limit excavation in the ruins.  Tempers run hot around Trade Town and reaction rolls are -1 through this period.  If it's spring or fall, the rains could be heavy snow instead.

Beached Whale
A whale is beached 2-5 miles from Trade Town.  It's up to the DM to determine the type of whale; suggested issues that could arise - the group that finds it might claim it, creating conflict; a whale is a valuable food source for Trade Town, provides valuable oil, attract predators, and might attract an unusual wandering monster.

Bear Attack
The camps are on alert after a sentry is mauled by a polar bear.  Is the bear a rogue animal, just passing through, or controlled by magic?

Blood Feud
Violence erupts into a full scale blood feud between two ship crews at the camps.  How does it affect the PCs?  Perhaps a brawl happens when they're in town and they get sucked into the melee.  A respected PC could be asked to mediate.  The feud might escalate and require a Thing to be called.  Or perhaps it's agreed to be settled at a spectacular duel.

Bragging Rights
An NPC group gets farther into the dungeons than the PCs and starts bragging about their exploits.  This is a chance to foreshadow some of the deeper dungeon areas and create a rivalry.

Dire Omens
The Odin Priest, Falki One-Eye, comes down from the hills bearing dire news that ill luck hangs over the camps after seeing a terrible omen.  (The superstitious might suffer saving throws at -1 until the omen is resolved).

Someone goes missing from the camp.  Roll a d6

1-3 Taken
4  Eaten
5  Murdered
6  Missing

The inhabitants of the Tower of Pain, who wish to learn about the camp, have carried off a subject for experimentation.

An appropriate wandering monster (either from the city or the wilds) has come hunting and mauled a Northman.

A body is found murdered and dumped, setting off an inquiry or investigation.

Perhaps a drunken raider falls in the ocean, passes out in the cold, or otherwise suffers a normal accident (the body may never be found).

Favor of the Gods
Opposite of dire omens, Falki pronounces a period of divine favor due to favorable omens; good luck is experienced by all the believers (+1 to saving throws during the favorable period).

False Identity
The players are falsely accused by an NPC group - this could trigger a blood feud, require mediation, lead to a duel or a Thing.  Sample accusations could be robbery, an ambush in the ruins, or a murder.

Fire is a deadly hazard; roll d6
1  Affects the players directly (their camp or ship)
2-4 Affects an NPC camp or ship
5-6 Affects a building in Trade Town

Food Shortage
Food scarcity, roll a d6:  1-4 affects Trade Town, 5-6 affects the camps.  Causes might include unusual vermin destroying supplies, a period of bad hunting or scarcity exhausts the stores, too much damp air creates mold that infects grains and dried fruit.  (This will probably force most groups to go foraging - use your system's forage rules to govern things like fishing, whaling, or hunting caribou and seal.)

Interlopers from a foreign country have shown up on Thule.  Options might include a ship anchoring in the fjord not far from the city and sending longboats; a competing camp is being established across the bay; foreigners start exploring the city (replacing some of the human encounters with foreigners instead of Northmen).  In the default setting of the Black City, this would likely be an exotic looking ship from one of the decadent city-states of the Inner Sea, like Karkhedon (part of North Africa and the faux-Islamic world).

Gold Rush
A trader group returns to town with stories of a mother lode roll d6: 1-2 gold 3-4 gems 5-6 crystals - in a ruined building.  Conflict ensues as other groups rush to "jump the claim".

Great Weather
The weather becomes unseasonably sunny and warm (reaching the 40's).  Excavation might be difficult if too much melting snow and ice creates mud.

Herd of Caribou
A herd wanders within a few miles of camp, creating an opportunity for hunting and laying in supplies.

As summer wears on, success in the ruins creates wealth with the raider and prices in the Trade Town begin to cycle higher.

It Came from the Ice
A group hunting in the hills or mountains nearby finds something of general interest.

Roll d6:
1 Entrance to a lost Hyperborean temple
2 Cave lair of a monster
3 Standing stones of the hidden people
4 Crater with a chunk of meteorite (star rock)
5 Crater with a fragment from deep space (satellite, probe, or ship fragment)
6 Encampment of berserkers

Long Live the King
The king is dead.  News reaches the islands via ship that a king back home has died, and the various jarls are competing for the succession and choosing a new king.  20-30% of the ship crews make ready to sail home early (there will be like 4-5 distinct Northmen kingdoms).

Marvel Team-Up
An NPC party approaches the group to team-up for equal shares.  It could be because (roll a d6:)
1-2 They want to help the party explore their current area
3-4 They want the player's help exploring the NPC party's current area
5-6 The NPC's want to ambush the group in the ruins

Stories drift back to town about a prominent NPC group being massacred in the ruins or dungeons; some kinsmen of the group offer a reward for justice.  Based on the PC's current activities, the DM will need to select an appropriate location that moves the game forward if the players get involved.

A meteor, drawn by the Beacon (see letter F - Central Command), streaks towards the island and crashes somewhere in the mountains near the city.  Was it just a star rock, or did it bring a space devil with it to menace the earth?

A foreign priest from the continent arrives on one of the longships - perhaps the captain is a convert to the new religion.  The priest spends time preaching to the 'pagan' Northmen and demonstrating miracles (spells) as a show of faith.  Do some of the Vikings convert?  Does this create conflict with the Odin Priest?  What happens after the missionary is found murdered?

New Sub Level
An NPC party returns to town with news that they've discovered a new sub level in the dungeons in an area that's previously been well-worn ground.  Perhaps a new excavation opened the way, or a secret door was found.  (It's a chance for the DM to slide in their own creation into the Black City.)

New Trade Route
The Northmen have discovered a habitable island to the south and west of Thule and a colony is being established there.  This will provide an alternate place for groups to spend the winter and will lead to more trade opportunities (and perhaps a bit more piracy on the open seas).

New Trade Town
A competing Jarl from another kingdom sends a force of Northmen to create a second beach head on Thule.  Do men from the existing Trade Town 'defect'?

Pod of Whales
A small pod of whales is seen off the coast, or perhaps in a nearby fjord, bay or estuary.  Time for some whaling!

Population Change
There's an equal chance that the camp gains or loses a handful of ships, either straining the resources in the camps or making the place feel empty.  A reason for a flood of new arrivals might be misinformation back home - a returning ship oversold the opportunity on the island.  Reasons for a mass departure could be any number of things - food scarcity, bad omens, disease, etc.

Prize Fishing
One of the groups that does a lot of fishing comes back with a prize catch - cheap food for all.

Rampaging Monster Back Home
A ship arrives bringing news of trouble back home - a rampaging monster(s).  Examples of newsworthy monsters might be the awakening of a dragon in the mountains, stirrings of the Jotuns (giants), or a giant sea beast (a sea serpent, kraken or dragon turtle) beginning to hunt in some popular fishing grounds.  Brave captains (and possibly the PCs) might leave to tackle the threat.

Rescue Mission
Survivors stumble back to camp with stories of how the rest of their group was captured in the ruins.  A reward is offered for someone to mount a rescue mission.  Likely abductors in the city include the Ape-Men of the Hippodrome, the inhabitants of the Tower of Pain, and Bonecracker (from the Field of Mists).  In the dungeons, they could be captured on level 2  by glass spiders, Morlocks, or taken to level 3 by servants of the Overmind.

Rival Wizard
A rival wizard arrives on Thule, begins staying in Trade Town and organizing expeditions into the Black City.  Unlike Shafat, this wizard might accompany some parties personally and see the city firsthand.  Roll a d6 for the wizard's homeland: 1-2, the decadent south, 3-4, academic from the continent, 5-6, a warlock from the wilds of Rus.

Alternatively, a rival wizard shows up and shuns Trade Town.  Depending on how high magic is your game, a lonely tower of stone appears across the fjord overnight, a floating island in the air hovers menacingly over the bay, or perhaps a floating ship hovers instead.  (In a low magic setting, a ship from the decadent south arrives and builds a competing camp with foreign mercenaries, similar to the 'Foreigners!' entry but led by the rival wizard-archaeologist).

A prominent robbery takes place - roll d6:  1-3 the players are targeted, 4-6 it happens to another group.  It could involve food, supplies, magic items, or treasure.  If the player group is leaving loot in the camp while they go on extended delves into the ruins, where are they keeping their stuff?  Do henchmen stay back to guard?

Ship Lost at Sea
News of a missing ship reaches camp and could generate searches or rescues.  Roll d6:  1-3, the ship was known to be scouting other islands around the archipelago, and never returned.   4-6, the ship was headed for a distant location and debris washed on shore (I'll eventually come up with that alternate earth fantasy map with better names, but for now, let's say debris washes up on the Orkneys, Scotland, Iceland or someplace similar).

It's up to the DM whether the group had friends, enemies, or another interest in the ship and it's cargo, and thus a reason to be concerned about the loss.

Disease spreads through the camps near Trade Town, or an acute illness strikes down a lot of men at once.  Obvious choices might be dysentery or a gastro disease, severe flu, or something new and alien (brought out of the ruins).  Ideas for an acute illness might be something like rampant food poisoning because of something served in Trade Town.

Skilled Laborer
A new skilled craftsman arrives on an incoming ship and begins offering work in Trade Town:

1 Alchemist / Healer
2 Bowyer
3 Carpenter and Shipwright
4 Cook
5 Goldsmith and Jeweller
6 Leatherworker

Stolen Map
A jealous NPC group makes a concerted effort to steal the player's map(s) and learn what they've been doing in the dungeon.  The DM gets to plan a heist!

Stormy Seas
Rough seas and bad winds make leaving the island impossible or extremely treacherous for a period of 3-10 days.  There's a 50% the bad weather moves local and is accompanied by heavy rain (see Bad Weather listing) and there's a 1-in-6 chance that of a storm surge or other severe tidal effect threatens to wash some of the longships out to sea, or swamp parts of the camp.

Supply Problems
Critical supplies in Trade Town or amongst the camps become rare, causing problems with daily life or making it harder to restock between expeditions.  The shortage affects something like light sources (torches, tar and lamp oil), leather or rope, metal for weapon and armor repairs, or maybe mead, beer and spirits.  (Food shortage is already it's own entry).

The Enemy Among Us
Trade Town represents an isolated outpost of humanity at the top of the world… ideal for a menacing anthrophage.  Some kind of predator of men is discretely hunting amongst the camps.  It could be something that stowed away on a recent ship, or an alien monster that came back from the ruins.

Examples might be a vampire or nosferatu (especially one that can survive in the weak northern daylight), a werewolf or lycanthrope, a doppleganger, something insidious like John Carpenter's 'The Thing', or perhaps a spiritual monster lurking in the shell of a man - demonic possession or the Wendigo.

The camps become infested with vermin - rats or mice brought on a ship eat food stores, chew backpacks and adventuring gear in the night, spread disease.

Visiting Ship
Unlike some of the entries that imply colonization and competition ( like New Trade Town or Foreigners!), this event involves a visiting merchant ship looking to trade directly with the Northmen; it could be merchants from one of the large, established Viking Trade Towns (looking to cut out the middle men) or a large, seaworthy vessel from the decadent south.  Luxury goods and comfort might flood into the camps temporarily.

Wandering Monster
A massive wandering monster visits Southern Thule like a force of nature - identify an appropriate monster, something with 20 HD+, like a dragon turtle, ancient dragon, massive kraven or sea monster, or equivalent.

Wars and Rumors of Wars
News reaches Thule that two Northman kingdoms back home are at war.  (Assuming there are 4-5 different loose nationalities represented in the crews of Thule, this could plunge 40% of the camp into immediate conflict).  Fights might break out at the camps, while some patriotic captains may ready their ships for return.  Piracy would also seem likely.

Where's the Wizard
One morning, the tower of Shafat at Trade Town is completely gone, with no trace of the wizard.  Or perhaps, the tower stands, but there are no sounds of life or activity within and the assistant no longer answers the door.  Groups returning from the city with satchels laden with artifacts can longer have them appraised by the wizard; they'll need to leave earlier at summer's end and point their ships to one of the other trading towns for bartering.  Does Shafat return?

Real-world whirlpools often form in the confluence of estuaries and channels between islands; a large whirlpool forms somewhere in the archipelago.  It presents a hazard to sailing and might lead to an undersea realm (or be caused by undersea entities…)

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Megadungeon Monotony

What are we going to do tonight, Brain?
The same thing we do every night, Pinky...

The same thing we do every night...
I've run a couple of megadungeon campaigns and a few sandboxes.  One thing I've noticed with a pure player-driven exploration game, is that it can become repetitive if you're not careful.  Making clever themes and stories for the levels and sub-levels in the megadungeon only takes you so far; there are more elements to the campaign than exploration and it can require some special effort by the DM when running a megadungeon.

Show of hands, how many folks have run a 6-month megadungeon (or longer) - and how did *you* keep it fresh and interesting?

Here are some of my techniques, would love to hear other observations, so see you in the comments.

Vary up the exploration by providing goals within the megadungeon.  Examples could include seeking a set piece location the group has heard about through rumors (like finding the famous fountain of snakes), or it could be a quest from a patron - the princess was captured by bandits and carried off to level 3, find her for a reward.

NPC Rivals
I like having multiple NPC groups involved and returning to the same town as the PC's.  It creates situations with bragging rights, spying, trying to steal each other's maps, and possibly a team-up.

Campaign Events
Just because the game is focused on a single (extensive) location, there are still things going on in the rest of the world that could draw attention, or give the players a reason to leave and come back.  (I've been putting together a list of campaign events for the Black City that will go up some time soon).

Active Resistance & Restocking
As the group clears areas, make the survivors change their tactics and get ready for fresh incursions.  New traps are set, areas are fortified or vacated, other monsters might start hearing about the PC's and know them by reputation.

Conversely, there should be a good campaign reason why the place is full of monsters in the first place.  Because of that, more should be arriving all the time, and cleared areas will get new inhabitants.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Advice on publishing / Helping a blogger out

I'm thinking about pushing the Black City towards becoming a downloadable PDF product, maybe even later this summer after we get in some play testing.  It's got some interesting things going for it - it has a sweeping scope, it's got some awesome art, and Vikings exploring a frozen, alien city is cool.  I think my role model would be Stonehell and Michael Curtis - he's the closest to a hobbyist blogger that posted pieces of his megadungeon campaign in starts and stops and pulled it all together into an awesome book at one point.

Self-publishing is well-worn ground for other folks in the blogosphere - does anyone have suggestions for tools?  The level 1 dungeons are all currently drawn on graph paper with hand-scrawled notes; I'll need to scan them and redo them as graphics.  Does everyone use Photoshop (I'd need to learn some basic GIMP) or is there a simpler dungeon mapper for making basic old school dungeon maps?

I'd have to learn the basics of laying out pages, too, so recommendations on a basic layout program would be helpful as well.  I'm not ignoring the epic amount of work to edit it - it's one thing blathering on a blog in verbose mode, another to write economically for a page count.

Finally, an "official" edition decision would need to be made.  It seems to be a practical decision of licensing and understanding the OGL (of which I haven't looked much into either, since my home games are Frankensteins cobbled across rules-sets).  I've seen plenty of hobbyists write Labyrinth Lord compatible stuff - Labyrinth Lord must be easy to identify.  I'm not sure if Realms of Crawling Chaos is open in the same way - I'd hazard to guess it is.  I think I've seen some hobbyist stuff that's Swords & Wizardry compatible, nothing for LotFP (probably means it's a closed license).  If folks have insight on the license side of things, it'd be super helpful.

Comments, links to posts on other blogs, or tutorials would all be welcome - before I reread the daunting effort outlined above and talk myself into keeping this just a blog project!  If you'd rather drop a line through email, you can send a note to dreamsinthelichhouse via gmail.

Thanks all!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Artifacts in the Black City

When generating hex contents, one of the results is "Artifacts".  This list is suitable to use for artifacts in the Black City.  In addition to being an outcome when searching a hex, artifacts can also show up in ruined buildings (also a result on the hex contents table), and I'll likely use this list for dungeon dressing, too.

Most artifacts a group could find will need to be chipped out of the ice, uncovered or excavated (use common sense, though).  If an item could be valuable, assume a value of 200-500gp to a suitable buyer (unless otherwise noted).

1-4  Ape-Men Tools
5-8  Battery
9-13  Container
14-18  Crystal
19-22  Cthulhoid Artifact
23-26  Device
27-29  Disc
30-34  Fiber/Conduit
35-40  Gemstone passkey
41-44  Hyperborean Artifact
45-49  Jewelry
50-53  Knife
54-58  Metal
59  Miscellaneous Magic Item
60-63  Mummified corpse
64-67  Obelisk
68-72  Picture
73-74  Rod
75-78  Roman Artifacts
79-83  Statue
84-88  Viking Artifacts
89-92  Wand
93-96  Watcher
97-100  Writing

Ape-Men Tools
The group discovers some bone implements left by the Ape-Men - these could be cutters, clubs, primitive axes for hacking, or a necklace of teeth.

The group finds a battery cylinder suitable for powering Grey artifacts.  There is a 50% chance it still has 1-100 charges.  Grey wands uses charges on a 1-to-1 basis; 2-to-1 for rods, and 4-to-1 for staves.  (Example:  a Grey staff would use 4 battery charges when using a power that normally drain 1 charge from a standard magical staff).

The group finds an object suitable for holding things - a bowl, decanter or flagon made out of alien crystal, space metal or an otherworldly substance (plastic).

Black City crystals appear to be large, perfectly formed quartz crystals about a half foot long.  Each one is worth 30-180gp.  There are three types - fuse, hologram and memory crystals.  Fuse crystals are clear; hologram crystals appear to have traces of rainbow colors in them; memory crystals are black/smoky.  The DM should keep track of any crystals the party chooses to keep, as there are "machines" in the dungeons where they can be accessed (fuse boxes, hologram viewers and memory readers).

1-2 Fuse
3-4 Hologram
5-6 Memory

Cthulhu Idol*
Cthulhoid Artifact
The Greys worshipped the outer gods and knew of the old ones, including finding some of the old ones sleeping on Earth.  The group has found a Mythos relic; roll d6 1-4 idol, 5 star stone, 6 pebbles.

An idol will be an unsettling representation of an outer god or old one; possession will lead to bad dreams and could allow the entity to influence the holder.  Pebbles are inscribed rocks used in summoning Deep Ones; you ought to know what a star stone is...

The group has found a technological device of the Greys.  Here are two common examples:

Obedience Collar & Enslavement Ring:  Wielder of the ring can lock/unlock the collar.  When placed on a human, demi-human or humanoid, the ring provides the ability to invoke pain or pleasure on the wearer of the collar - in game terms, treat it like a combination of charm person, hold person, and command (at will).

Levitation Disc:  A drink coaster sized metal disc that adheres to a flat surface.  Activating the disc (by running a finger along the edge) negates an objects gravity; an object can be made buoyant and can be made to fly.  The size of the object doesn't matter, but structural integrity is an issue.  Lev-discs will have 1-10 hours of lift remaining.

A disc is a platinum object (10pp value) marked with the Grey dot matrix script.  It will either act as a protection scroll or contain a single magic user spell.  Casting the spell burns the magic off the face of the disc.  It will take a read languages to understand, and an additional read magic if it contains a spell.  Thieves cannot decipher the Grey language.

The group finds some exposed cabling - could be coiled in rubble, a cracked conduit, or loose end.  The cabling is either crystalline fiber or gold.  The group can recover 10-100' of cabling during a search period; gold cable is worth 1gp per foot.

Gemstone passkey
The group finds one or more gemstone passkeys.  Roll d20 on the following table:

1-8 Red (10gp) 2-5 gems
9-11 Orange (50gp) 2-4 gems
12-14 Yellow (100gp) 1-3 gems
15-16 Green (250gp) 1-2 gems
17-18 Blue (500gp) 1 gem
19 Indigo (1000gp) 1 gem
20 Violet (5000gp) 1 gem

Hyperborean Artifact
The group finds an ancient weapon lost by the Hyperboreans.  The device looks like a blunderbuss and shoots a 30' disintegration ray (save vs Death Ray).  It has a cumulative 1 in 6 chance of exploding for 3d6 damage, affecting everyone in a 20' radius.

A piece of crystalline jewelry is found.  The piece is damaged and only worth 300-1800gp.  It will either be an alien headdress or tiara (1-3) or an intricate series of amulets (4-6).  Crystalline jewelry was used in certain worship rituals as noted in the dungeon text.

A wavy-bladed religious dagger is found.  The object is space metal (non-magic +1 to hit).  There is a 25% chance it is inhabited by an alien psyche (treat as a malevolent intelligent weapon, with intelligence and ego score that will attempt to control a weakened character).

Shards or sheets of alien space metal are found - roll for size.  1-2, small; 3-4, medium, 5-6 large.  The alloy is light, durable, and nearly impossible to bend; if the right smith were found back in the world, it could forged into non-magic +1 armor or weapons.

Miscellaneous Magic Item
An enchanted item for a previous culture is found; it's survived the ages because of it's protective magic.  Roll d6 for culture:  1 Roman, 2 Viking, 3 Hyperborean, 4-6 Alien.  Alien objects will function like a standard magic item but the form and use will vary; example - instead of a rope of entanglement, a power ring of entanglement (Green Lantern style, baby!)

Mummified corpse
An ancient corpse is found in a niche safe from predation - stuck in a crevice, encased in ice, buried under a slab or rubble.  Roll for culture (d6 - 1-2 Roman, 3-4 Hyperborean, 5-6 Alien) and incidental treasure.  There's a 50% chance the creature animates as a mummy when least expected - preferably hours later - and begins hunting the group that freed it.

The characters discover a partially buried obelisk, 8 to 15' feet high.  The obelisk is black stone and chiseled with alien dots and glyphs.  The obelisk will have unusual properties:

1  Electrical glyphs - shocks anyone within 5' for 1d8.
2  Haunted - character touching it gains a poltergeist.
3  Spell -the runes and glyphs form a spell (requires read language and read magic to understand, then would need to be transcribed)
4 Polymorphs the character touching it into a bovine (food).
5 Intelligence - first character touching it gains a point of Intelligence as alien math floods their mind.
6 Absorption - character touching it is absorbed into the obelisk. The previous prisoner pops out nearby.  Uh oh.

A form of pictorial representation of something from the alien culture.  Roll d6 (1-2 tablet, 3-4 a slab , 5-6 a section of wall).  Examples could include (d6):  1 a space ship, 2 a mythos entity, 3 a procession of Greys, 4 cult worship, 5 a great moment in alien history, 6 something abstract or symbolic.

The characters discover a Grey rod with attached battery cylinder.  The rod will have d100 minus 50 charges (if applicable).  Each use drains double the listed charges from the battery.  Roll on the following table:

1-3 Discipline Rod*
4 Rod of Absorption
5 Rod of Beguiling
6 Rod of Cancellation

*The discipline rod is a limited Rod of Lordly Might - paralyzation power and hit point drain powers, only.

Roman Artifacts
The group finds some piece of Roman gear a few centuries old, left by a lost expedition.  Mundane gear is likely pitted and useless except for historical interest, but there is a 5% chance the item is magical.

Roll d6 to determine type of item: 1-2 weapon, 3-4 armor, 5-6 gear

Similar to a picture, this is a 3-dimensional representation of something from the alien culture.  Roll for size, d6 (1-2 medium,3-4 large,5-6 huge).  Examples of what could be represented include (d6):  1 a space ship, 2 a mythos entity, 3 a procession of Greys, 4 cult worship, 5 a great moment in alien history, 6 something abstract or symbolic.

Viking Artifacts
The group finds a piece of equipment left behind by a recent party (less than a few years old).  Mundane gear is 50% pitted and useless, but there is a 1% chance the item is magical.

Roll d6 to determine type of item: 1-2 weapon, 3-4 armor, 5-6 gear

The characters discover a Grey wand with attached battery cylinder.  The wand will have d100 minus 50 charges (if applicable).  Roll on the following table:

1-3 Mundane wand
4-6 Roll on the wand table

* Mundane wands - the Greys controlled many aspects of their city and technology with wands - mundane wands provided basic light, heat, fire, cold, or other simple cantrip level effects - mage hand, minor healing, etc. (1 effect per wand).  There's a 33% a mundane wand has no discernible function - for example, it might control a vehicle that no long exist or an automaton long since destroyed.

The group finds a Watcher (see the bestiary).  Roll encounter distance 20-120 yards; if within 60 yards when the group stumbles upon the Watcher, an active Watcher will start blasting characters without a proper passkey.

A sample of Grey language dot-matrix print on a piece of stonework (d6, 1-2 slab, 3-4 a tablet, 5-6 a section of wall).  Here are some ideas on what the writing could be about - roll d6, 1 history, 2 operate machinery, 3 inspirational, 4 biographical, 5 devotional, 6 tactics.  Even with read languages, the grammar will be disjointed and senseless.

*The cool Cthulhu Idol is for sale at this place.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Weird, the Normal, and the D&D

So the Gamer ADD is hitting me hard.  I've been reading the new Weird Fantasy thing and this idea of converting Chaosium's Lovecraft Country sandbox has been ricocheting around my cranium, and my typical Gamer ADD risk mitigation strategy - parking the idea in the Junkyard - didn't work the first time out.  I wrote an article a while ago on Gamer ADD management strategies - mitigation, acceptance, avoidance and transference.  Parking an idea in the Junkyard until the time is right hasn't failed me yet!

There were lots of interesting comments yesterday about "What is the Weird?"  The thing I come back to is the general agreement that Weird needs Normal for contrast.  I have a hard time with Normal in a regular D&D world.  Normal is all about mundane, every day stuff; a fantasy world is built to instill a sense of wonder.  Normal is in the mind of the players - the default elements of the world need to feel familiar for the players.  (Sword and Planet, get the heck outta here - don't let the door hit you on the way out).

Alright, you say - just make your D&D world low magic, an analog to a real-world historical period so it feels grounded.

I find myself coming back to two periods in particular - post-Renaissance and the Roman Empire.  The historical Dark Ages and the Medieval periods seem too provincial and claustrophobic; the cosmopolitan nature of the Roman world and the Renaissance world supports a lot of the elements that modern folks take for granted in the world - autonomy, freedom of movement from place to place, a merchant class, inns and taverns and restaurants, mail and communications, commerce, and a degree of sophistication in culture and government  that creates art, theater, and politics.  An alternate earth in those periods could be made to feel "normal" to a modern sensibility - the Renaissance perhaps more so than the Roman world.

So I'm kicking around the idea that my sparse, Lovecraftian Weird Fantasy sandbox will either be placed in the South of (fake) England or France during the Renaissance, or will be at the height of the Pax Romana.

The Renaissance gives you overseas travel, the beginning of the Age of Sail and the colonization of distant places; there's definitely a pulp vibe to discovering vile cults in distant jungles.  I've previously remarked that the thing I miss the most when doing a standard D&D Dark Ages sandbox is the sea travel and exploring distant jungles or lost islands - it just doesn't fit the Medieval theme.

Chaosium has a whole Cthulhu expansion built around Rome (Cthulhu Invictus); it takes mythos entities and maps them to the creatures and stories of Greek and Roman myth (and vice versa).  Scrolls and relics, gods and new religions poured into Rome from the conquered territories and hinterlands; this would provide lots of opportunities for adventures involving cults, artifacts, and "books" of forbidden lore right in the capital city, let alone putting the campaign on the frontier and dealing with the unknown earth beyond the rule of law.

The game would be low magic D&D, most likely LOTFP rules, and draw heavily from Realms of Crawling Chaos and the Mythos stories.  While the Black City is still my main focus, I think I'll start keeping a second brainstorming notebook while I work through these ideas and see if one of them has mental legs.

I thought about going full circle and making the Viking Age a setting for both a Lovecraftian sandbox and the Black City megadungeon in the same milieu.  The world could be presented as low magic, gritty, and "realistic".  However, the tone of the Black City as a campaign dungeon, the gold-rush nature of having a sprawling ruin with lots of active adventuring parties plumbing the depths in competition, means supporting so many of the tropes of D&D that the dissonance might be too much for me.  It's awesome fodder for a D&D campaign with a touch of Lovecraft; not so much for a Lovecraft game that just happens to be using D&D rules.  But I'm brooding on it.

Anyway, next up, some more table-related items for the Black City (building the megadungeon project is still the top priority).

Monday, May 23, 2011

What is the Weird?

The other day I mused about taking all of the Call of Cthulhu "Lovecraft Country" supplements and making a D&D sandbox out of them - man, the Gamer ADD is hitting me bad on this one - I may need to start a notebook on it.  It's one of those ideas I wish I thought of years ago.  More on that in another post.

Trey wondered in the comments if Weird is becoming too commonplace.  I've come across a few recent adventures that I would classify as "Weird" - we just played Hammers of the God, and a recent review was Spire of Iron and Glass.  For me, a Weird adventure needs to put horror, fantasy and science fiction into the blender, and keep the nature of reality and the cosmology very ambiguous.

But what really is the definition of Weird?  Is it one of those, "I can't define it, but I'll know when I see it?"

Does the Weird need Normal to create contrast and context?  If the whole campaign world is a gonzo mix of sci-fi and magic and horror, is it still Weird or is it just Gonzo?  I've been reading through/enjoying my LotFP grind-box and Mr Jim is clearly in the camp that the world should be as normal as possible - low magic and gritty, so that there's a clear demarcation between the Normal and the Weird.  It's a very compelling idea, but where does that leave Xothique, or Hyperborea?  In the realm of Gonzo?

I don't know that I have an answer, but would love to hear from *you*.  The Black City project I've been plugging away on has a blend of sci fi, horror and fantasy that nudges it towards my definition of Weird, but I'm undecided about the nature of the larger campaign world and rules set.  Does context matter?

Here's a good question, like a thought exercise - is an alien ruin in a historical Viking game different, in terms of Weird vs Gonzo, than placing it in a high-magic fantasy campaign loaded with magic items and high level wizards?

Mythic Monday: I Sold My Soul for D&D

On using the devil of folklore in your D&D game.

The party of the first part, that's you
Agrees to render up her soul now and forever more
To the party of the second part, that's me
Shall we go?

Want a donut?
Flip through the various monster manuals and peruse the section on devils, and you don't see anything resembling "The Devil", as we've seen it portrayed in folklore and myth.  The "devil as tempter" has a strong foothold in the folklore of western culture - from the stories of the Bible and the early saints, through Faust, Washington Irving, and eventually "The Devil and Daniel Webster".  Robert Johnson went down to the cross roads, sold his soul, and became a famous blues musician;  Homer Simpson sold his soul to Devil Flanders for a donut.

I realize the TSR folks were averse to church controversy; in addition, the default cosmology for AD&D doesn't support the dualistic conflict between good versus evil from which the myths of the tempter devil arose.  In games with 9 alignments and 27 outer planes, there's a degree of moral relativism across the options -every ethical approach has it's own special set of divine beings, outer planes, and a tailor-made afterlife.  Why choose "good" when there's nothing to lose with being lawful neutral, for instance, and finding the lawful neutral divine being to worship and looking forward to the lawful neutral afterlife?

What I've done with Gothic Greyhawk is to simplify the beliefs of the world's inhabitants to include two choices (a belief in the good place and a belief in the bad place), and set up an eternal struggle between the creator deity and his dualistic Adversary.   Now you're getting close to the kind of environment where so much of our supernatural horror film and literature takes place.  D&D supports many kinds of fantasy genres, and the inspiration for Gothic Greyhawk are things like gargoyles, angels, church graveyards, vampires, witches and... the Devil.

Using the Tempter in the game
Mechanically, I wouldn't bother with statistics for the Tempter - I would consider The Devil a plot device and not a physical adversary with hit points and an armor class.  It's a universal spirit of evil that appears and offers wealth, riches or youth to the greedy, and tries to tempt "good" characters into abandoning their choices.

The enticement in game terms can be represented as an extra powerful Wish Spell.  The terms of the agreement should be up to the bargaining skills of the characters involved; Faust gains the service of his own personal devil for 24 years, whereas Daniel Webster gets like 7 years of wealth, and things end badly for old Tom Walker.  In the folklore and popular culture, there should be the proverbial contract signed in blood, and the deal-maker should have to carry some kind of skin discoloration (like a birthmark) going forward - the Devil's Mark.

I can see a lot of interesting stories by having "Old Scratch", as he's called in Washington Irving, or his second-in-command (Mephistopheles), casting favors in the game world.  A prominent NPC has a meteoric rise to fame, fortune and wealth; is he the proverbial rock star that sold his soul to the devil?  Perhaps a loved one or NPC made a terrible bargain with Old Scratch and the characters have the chance to play out their own version of a trial to save the soul of the loved one.  (Pop culture clichés are still good for gaming).  Atonement and quests for redemption are strong stories as well.

Easley's Takhisis from Dragonlance
If you can't get over using a powerful entity as a plot device without having stats and fitting it nicely into the AD&D cosmology, I would use Tiamat.  In AD&D 1E, she's listed as a lesser god, and rules the 1st Plane of Hell.  In later editions, she morphs into an evil goddess of envy and greed, and would be ideal as a temptress and seductress (when appearing in a human guise) that provides wish fulfillment in return for a pact.  I always liked Tiamat as Takhisis in Dragonlance.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Game Report - Gothic Greyhawk 28

Cast of Characters:
Mordecai, a Cleric-5: Adam
Forlorn, an Elf-4: Bo
Mister Moore, Magic User-4: Mike
Soap the Wizard, Magic User-3:  Nogal
Barzai, a Cleric-4:  Ben
Shy, a Fighter-3:  JR
Arden, an Elf-1:  Z

Phat Kobra, a Dwarf-3
Zeke, a Fighter-3
Starkweather, a Thief-4
Grumble the Smug, Halfling-3
Serge, a Fighter-3

Unnamed OSR Module

Feast or famine! - A month before my Africa trip, we were down to 3 adult players.  Then we promoted a few of the kiddos that were ready to hang with the adult game, bringing us up to 5.  Now two previous players were able to return, bringing us up to 7, and a third guy (who played 1E with us from before our 4E experiment a few years ago) is set to rejoin too.  8 regulars, wahoo.

At the end of last game session, we discussed our go forward edition plan - I'm going to be providing opportunities for the group to engage in an AD&D module-heavy game here on out in Gothic Greyhawk, starting with Ravenloft just around the corner (their long term goal has been to get to the village of Barovia, after all, and return a magic sword).  Now that they're done with their time at Stonegate, the Dwarf Hold, they've set their sights on heading to the remote mountain valley called The Valley of Mists, home to the sleepy village of Barovia.

With that in mind, we've made an edition adjustment for Gothic Greyhawk - our go-to edition is now Labyrinth Lord with the Advanced Edition Companion.  I'm still a big fan of the LOTFP rules set, but if I'm running a gauntlet of AD&D modules, the higher powered LL/AEC options will mean less retrofitting, especially with the insane AC's as AD&D 1E scales upwards.  Barring a TPK, which I do try to inflict every week, this campaign will become a tour-de-Greyhawk - Lost Caverns, Against the Giants, Descent in the Depths, the full monty.  None of them have played those, so it's been a long-standing request.

I'm also finding that between blogging, working on the Black City, (adopting a new kid!), and game night, I don't have time to run two games each week; Nogal and Z, the two kid's game regulars, are already in the adult game, and the other kiddos had intermittent attendance and interest.  So in-between adventures, they're bringing their characters over from the old game and there are some character swaps happening.  (As Nogal was jubilant to declare, "Soap is in the HOUSE".  Soap the Wizard had quite a reputation in the kid's game...)

On to the game.  Experience was doled out.  Mordekai had enough to become a level 5 cleric, but his adherence to anything resembling piety is fairly low, and he learned that he'd need to start acting like a holy man before gaining level 5 spells.  Zeke would continue to suffer the curse of the ring of weakness (he's been at 3 strength for a while), Mordekai took a vow of poverty, and is now striving to do good.  (Mind you, it was just last week he turned over an artifact of elf-killing over to the evil witch).

The group spent enough time with the Dwarves to heal, buy a couple of mules, clean up their camping equipment, and load the mules with a few weeks of iron and standard rations, water, and feed.   Everyone  had heavy winter clothing for the mountain trek (it's Sunsebb on the Greyhawk calendar) and the median temperature in the mountains is in the mid-30's Fahrenheit.

After a few days of slow trudging along mountain trails and following the river valley upward, a morning came when they were attacked by a trio of hunting wyverns swooping out of the misty morning air.  Mister Moore identified the threat immediately - the wyverns would be attacking the mules - and the group tried to form a defense as the wyverns swooped in.  One debatable tactic I allowed was for the magic users to cast their webs, but hold their action (since they won initiative) to actually release the spell when the wyverns were within range.  I let them do it in-game, but will probably develop a formal ruling on holding spells for next time (I realize other editions have explicit rules about when spells actually take effect after casting).

So one of the wyverns got caught in a web and tumbled nearby, it's wings stuck in a gooey mess of webs, while they other two landed and started stabbing their tails at the panicked mules.  It was a good fight, lots of tactics and movement (we use minis for fights like this), with some guys trying to lead the mules out of harm's way, the fighters trying to interpose, casters sending off magic missiles, etc.  Grumble and Shy both took tail stings during the fight and made their saves, always a dramatic moment when there's save or die poison.  And one of the mules needed serious healing.  Exciting and challenging, but they won.

They decided not to scout the surrounding cliffs to see if the wyverns had a lair.  Hmmm.

That evening, they found the road that led into the valley and realized they were close to Barovia.  However, the trail intersected the road at a spot where there was also a worn cobblestone lane leading into a side valley where they could see the distant lights of a walled mansion in the gloom.  Not knowing how far was Barovia, they decided to inquire at the mansion if they could spend the evening.

The mansion was a two-story affair, walled, with a large iron gate.  They could see candles lit in the upper windows, and a pleasant fountain in the courtyard (which was cleared of snow).  Starkweather snuck through the gate, invisibly, but they quickly lost track of him and he stopped responding to voice calls.  "Here we go again!"  They all followed through the gate, onto the grounds.

Once inside, the trick was apparent - the mansion was a crumbling ruin, hanging shutters clanging against the walls of the mansion in the slight breeze.  The courtyard was choked with snow and rubble, the fountain clogged with ice and muck.  The gate snapped shut behind them (and wouldn't open).  Was that a slight chuckle they heard from the depths of the house?

"We're low on magic, and it's dark - let's search those outbuildings, find a place to bed down.  We'll tackle this place in the morning."  Mister Moore took charge, guiding the group to explore some nearby sheds.  One was a small black smithy, the other a stables, and they chose to clear the stables and make camp there.  Watches were set, and they settled in to sleep.

Most of the group was awakened by the baying of hounds in the night, and when said hounds began digging at the door of the stables, they decided to set an ambush.  Starkweather peeked through a crack, saw when the hounds snuffled and snorted little bouts of smoke and brimstone puffed out of their nostrils, and Moore declared, "Hellhounds".

Starkweather flipped the bar off the stable door (invisibly) and let the Hellhounds rush in to a waiting wall of shields and steel.  Unfortunately, he learned the hard way that Hellhounds detect invisible, and he was quickly fried to a nice crisp (1 hit point left in the first round).

That convinced Mister Moore to bring out The Equalizer - his wand of paralysis - to blast the Hellhounds at close range.  It was his second-to-last charge - I'll be glad when that thing's gone!  Mike's an excellent player, but they're a solid group all around.  Without the wand, my dreams of a TPK will nudge closer.  Muhaha.  Three of the four Hellhounds succumbed to paralysis (along with the crispy Starkweather) and the fighters waded into the last one and hacked it apart.

We stopped there for the night, after first aid.

Can anyone guess which (OSR) module the group has stumbled into next?

Whew - that catches me up on some recent game reports before the rapture, next game night is tomorrow.  I expect all of my players to show up.

Game Report: Gothic Greyhawk game 27

Cast of Characters:
Mordecai, a Cleric-4: Adam
Forlorn, an Elf-3: Bo
Mister Moore, Magic User-4: Mike
Grumble the Smug, Halfling-3: Nogal
Barzai, a Cleric-3:  Z

Shy, a Fighter-3
Phat Kobra, a Dwarf-3
Zeke, a Fighter-3
Starkweather, a Thief-4

Hammers of the God:  Spoilers

It feels like a long time since I posted a game report - it's been a long time!  This covers the actual last two play sessions (and one of them was before my trip!) so details will be light.

When last we left "Buzz Kill Incorporated", BK Inc., as they called themselves, they had just concluded a bumpy submarine ride, down a huge whirling toilet waterfall, landing in a distant cavern.  The thief swam to shore, leading the submarine by a tether, and they debarked to investigate some dwarf statues on the shore.

Behind them, a handful of dripping dwarf zombies emerged from the drink, and there was a quick battle.

Past the beach and the dwarf statues were 3 passages forward - two side passages and a main passage.   One side passage was generating a ton of raucous noise, like a pitched battle was happening in there.  It was a bizarre floating creature with many eye stalks, but they made fairly short work out of it.

The other passage led to a mold-covered room with pulsating gobs of mold - no thanks, had enough mold for one adventure.

The main passage led to a massive vaulted chamber.  The way out was blocked by a 40' tall golden door, with no hinges or handles -stuck in place, as if the gods themselves deemed it to be locked!  After puzzling over it, the group lit a fire in the huge clamshell fire pit in the center of the room, and the fire was reflected by the spectacular mother-of-pearl inset into the sides of the fire pit, lighting up the entire chamber - including a spectacular, million gold piece diamond set as the keystone.  A few minutes were spent theorizing how they could liberate the million gp diamond, and then notes were made to come back to this place when they were 17th level.

The other thing noticed due to the brighter illumination was the presence of two alcoves about 90' up the two side walls.  How to get up there?

I forgot to mention a previous time where the group explored a small side passage and discovered a handful of gaseous form potions; it's important here because Phat Kobra quaffed a potion to become gaseous, which the players theorized would let them float up to one of the platforms.

Here ensued one of those entertaining moments of rules lawyering and interpretation:  first off, would gaseous form allow a player to float upwards, and second, do clothes and gear become gaseous too?  The interesting thing here, Holmes, BX, and AD&D 1E all treat gaseous form slightly differently.  (My ruling here was that gaseous form allowed floating, and gear became gaseous.)

Kobra floated to the top of the right hand platform, and them materialized.  At the end of the niche was a switch inside a glass bubble, and another switch just outside the bubble.   Kobra could see a similar set of switches across the way, and called for someone else to imbibe a potion and join him.

Unfortunately, the group didn't quite piece together that Kobra had sipped one of the new gaseous potions, and it was lasting rounds instead of turns (because it was old and degraded).  They gave a second one to Shy, and he only made it halfway up to the second ledge before he materialized, crashing some 40' to the ground, and set off a frantic flurry of healing attempts before he died (the fall put him at negative hit points, but they had the technology, they could rebuild him).

They had a legitimate gaseous form potion from a previous adventure, ended up giving that to the thief, and then needed to wait an hour for it to wear off before he and Kobra could experiment with their respective switches.  It wasn't hard to figure out they needed to throw them in unison, the glass bubbles lifted, and then they could throw the second set - and that opened the golden door.

Beyond the golden door, they encountered… well, let's just say you can't trust everything you read in books.  There was a dwarf library early in the adventure, and they jumped around the 100 or so titles randomly reading books, and happened to discover two of them that involved this part of the dungeon.  One of them was right on, and they avoided a death trap.  The other thing they read must have been wrong, as it led them to make a tragic choice - they boldly opened a door, expecting it to be safe, when in fact it was trapped with poison gas that blasted outwards, engulfing them in a cloud of death.

One by one, we went around the table and witnessed the Save or Die versus Poison rolls.  Boom, boom, boom, down the line, everybody made it.  I've never seen 7 out of 8 characters (PC's and henchmen) reel off such an improbable string of successful saves.  That was going to be it - my chance to start the Black City play testing early!  Gah.

In all the jubilation of making save after save, it took everyone a second to realize Mister Moore, their magic user, was rolling on the ground, choking.  Mordekai burned his first charges on the Staff of Healing to lay down a neutralize poison.   (Staff of Healing is another interesting magic item that's changed quite a bit in editions, forcing you to put a stake in the ground on how it works).

They made it into the final treasure room - the resting place of the Banes!  It's been so long, anyone who read the early game reports would have forgotten - the reason the players came to this dungeon in the first place, was because a witch gave them a map and wanted them to retrieve a hammer for her, Elf Bane.  In return, they could keep all the other loot.  During their explorations, they learned the dwarves had actually forged a bane for each of these races - humans, giants, elves, goblins and dwarves - and they were distributed around like nuclear deterrents to keep everyone honest.  But at some point, they were all brought together here, to this place.

Except when the group penetrated the chamber of the Banes, they saw they were all gone except one - the vault holding Elf Bane was still shut.  There was a riddle, and the group debated using a knock spell to open the vault, or doing what the riddle wanted, and they did the riddle's answer - they placed  a pair of 5,000gp golden hammers discovered earlier, into a box.  The golden hammers were whisked away, and the secret compartment hiding the bane popped open, and now they had a hammer of Elf Slaying (or a close equivalent).  The DM laughed a little that they gave up 5,000gp for a magic hammer they weren't going to keep anyway.  The players just grumbled that it was another "Raggi Module", what do you expect.  (They love that guy's stuff).  :P

On the way out, a significant amount of zombies were waiting for them on the beach, dripping wet, as if they clambered out of the drink to stop the group from leaving with the Bane… there was a pitched battle, with much expenditure of web spells, but in the end, 20 zombies were more of a speed bump than anything else.

They maneuvered the submarine back into the lake and sealed the hatch near the waterfall (saving a light spell for use in the sub) and Kobra began the arduous task of cranking them up the waterfall by spurts and stops.  Good times.  Once back in the main part of the dungeon, they had one last place to visit before emerging back into the light.  They had previously ignored a fountain pool that had a number of glowing gems just below the water, and figured if this was it, it was time to loot.  Starkweather grabbed the first gem, and thrusting out of the gem (and out of the water) was a metallic rod with a peculiar red glowing eye on the end of it, rotating around and observing all the stunned characters near the fountain.  Then it quickly pulled itself back into the gem.

"No thanks, we're leaving."  They left the rest of the gems alone.

As expected, the Witch of Witch Mountain was waiting for them (bringing out the obligatory "which witch is which?" from the players).  Mordekai, the confused cleric who had brokered the deal with the witch, gladly forked over the hammer for killing elves (Forlorn breathed a sigh of relief to see it go away…)

Wrap-up involved logistics - getting the various gilded suits of plate mail they looted from their camp and back to the dwarf hold of Stonegate, and then explaining to the dwarven leaders about the existence of the secret temple to the Old Miner and the library of lost lore.  The group ended up giving the suits of gilded plate to the dwarven chief as a gift.  The funny thing is, they read a random selection of books in the library, enough to know the library would be important to the dwarves, but not enough to know how scandalous is some of the information they missed.  The rediscovery of this ancient library is going to rock the powers of Stonegate.  Should be interesting!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Gamer ADD Junkyard: Lovecraft Country for D&D

"What is the most resilient parasite? An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it's almost impossible to eradicate..."

The Junkyard:  This is the place where I'll post campaign ideas, notions, and high concepts that just haven't gotten built.  Yet.

Folks running D&D games love to talk about putting a touch of Lovecraft in their D&D games .  I'm sure I'm not the only one who returns again and again to the idea of tweaking the tropes of D&D and running a Lovecraftian D&D game world.  The popular Weird Fantasy Roleplaying game nudges D&D that way, toning down the clerical and arcane magic, and amping the grittiness.  But just the other day I had one of those simplistic ideas that's just crazy enough to work - instead of trying to put some Lovecraft into my D&D game, how about putting some D&D into a Lovecraft game?

Here's the basic idea:  Chaosium created a Call of Cthulhu sandbox some years ago by publishing sourcebooks penned by Keith Herber for the major areas of Lovecraft Country - Arkham, Dunwich, Kingsport, Innsmouth, even Tales of the Miskatonic Valley.  The towns are fully detailed, populated with NPCs; each book has a few mini-adventures, and provides the ability to play follow-up stories to some of the famous Lovecraft tales.  It would not be hard to transplant these 3-4 sleepy little New England towns to someplace like the south of England, late in the Renaissance or during the age of sail, and run Lovecraft Country as a magic-light D&D game.

Arkham featured the famous Witch House (Dreams in the Witch House… has a familiar ring to it, eh?), along with Keziah Mason and Brown Jenkin; there's a graveyard that's home to dozens of ghouls, the famous Miskatonic University restricted collection, and plenty of other Lovecraft stories are in Arkham.  The University frequently finances expeditions to distant ruins, and could serve a similar role here.

Dunwich has the sorcerous Whateleys, of course, but the Chaosium Dunwich adds a huge twist to the area in the form of sprawling underground caverns and a secret entrance to the lair of an elder god.

Kingsport is one of my favorite locales; there's the worm that walks, and an ancient cult of Tzulcha worshippers that travel to the lightless caverns beneath Central Hill (featured in the short Yule story, The Festival), and the The Strange High House in the Mist - a portal to the Dreamlands on the high cliff overlooking the town.  Awesomeness!

Innsmouth, with it's Deep One hybrids and Innsmouth look, seems cliché to me as gaming grist these days, but would still be fun to include.  I might emphasize more the sunken Deep One city of Y'ha-nthlei and the threats past the reef, though the Esoteric Order of Dagon does make an excellent villainous cult.  We could mix it up.

Statistically, it'd be an easy campaign to pull together - mash-up LOTFP Weird Fantasy with Realms of Crawling Chaos by Goblinoid Games.  There'd be no humanoids, limited or no demihumans, and low magic.  The benefit of having a few hundred sketched out NPCs and living/breathing towns (re-skinned for the 16th century) and littering the countryside with Lovecraftian plot hooks - that's the draw. Presto, instant Lovecraftian sandbox.  Heck, since it'd be in an alternate England, you could put in the Severn Valley and Campbell's Goatswood locations, too.  I love Y'golonac and Glaaki.

An obvious hook for the campaign would be the University and the College of Magic.  (Perhaps magic is still studied as a black science, though the church works tirelessly to get it completely banned).  One of the Arkham plot hooks in the Chaosium books involve some of the scientists at the University hearing about a recent meteorite and sending a group out to Dunwich to recover it; it very quickly plunges the characters into exploring both Arkham and Dunwich.  This would work fine to kick off a Weird Fantasy version, and then let the players run with it from there.

There's tension between arcane casters and clerics in the weird fantasy tradition (that whole witch hunt/heresy thing), but adding the Cthulhu Mythos creates a new dynamic.  Arcane casters can argue there actually is blasphemous magic involving Elder gods and insane cults that threatens them all, and gives clerical party members a plausible reason for temporarily teaming up with them, despite the church hierarchy crusading to close Miskatonic completely.  (I would make the standard magic user spell lists the 'acceptable magic' from the perspective of the majority of arcane casters, and the Mythos spells, from something like Realms of Crawling Chaos, as the banned magic found only in blasphemous Mythos tomes).

I think the big mental switch for me is this - I would approach this like setting up a sprawling Call of Cthulhu sandbox, where you place monsters, cults, and adventures irrespective of challenge and levels, but run low-level D&D guys through it.  It seems like a much different thought exercise than creating a D&D game, with the tropes of D&D in mind (classes and levels and magical rewards).  For instance, the Black City, while it might turn out to be an excellent mega dungeon setting, is clearly being built with D&D style adventuring in mind - it envisions much more pulp action, even with some of the horror.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Plaza of the Watchers - Special Encounter I

A follow-up to yesterday's bestiary article...

In a large plaza in this hex (letter i), there is a 150' diameter raised circular platform - the platform rises about 20' over the surrounding plaza.  Positioned around the edges of the platform are a series of over sized Watchers - five free standing Watchers and five dome-shaped revolving Watchers.

In the distant past, the revolving Watchers on the plaza were capable of pushing skyward on large columns of stone.  The bases were connected with interlocking 5-pointed stars that would flare to life with a red glow when the defenses were activated, and these overpowered Watchers would be able to target invaders of the city, miles away, from their vantage high above the streets.  In their current depowered state, the Watchers can only draw on their own inherent animating magic, and are no more powerful than the standard Watchers in the bestiary article.  If a  group were able to clear the debris, ice and snow off the platform, they'd be able to see the faint pentagrams still etched in the surface.

8 of the 10 Watchers are still functional, meaning that any approach towards the platform will likely result in the adventurers being targeted by 3-4 of them (a few of each style).  The base of the platform is littered with the smashed bodies (now reduced to skeletons) of previous victims - mostly Ape-Men.  The Watchers will not attack characters carrying indigo gemstones passing by the plaza.

There's a slim chance that an adventuring party could fully power up these Watchers through (unlucky) actions performed at the Electric Co (level 1 dungeons) and in Central Command (area F on the city map).

However, Xeph-Ka the Scientist is actually the most dangerous threat in this area.

Xeph-Ka the Scientist, Ghost
Xeph-Ka was a scientist-sorcerer of the ancient Greys who studied the necromantic arts, attempting to pioneer the magics necessary to attain lichdom.  Xeph-Ka's attempt to become a full-blown lich failed, but he succeeded in ripping his spirit from his body and tying it to a fetter in the mortal world, a precursor to the lich's phylactery.  The lich formula was eventually perfected by a descendant, the wizard Kar-Qo.

Xeph-Ka maintained his telepathic connection to the Grey overmind after death, and the scientist was driven insane when the Ovemind died and caused the Grey mass extinction.  But his spirit was fettered to the city, and he endured.  His laboratory was not far from the plaza of the Watchers, and though the building is tumbled, the diamond that served as his spirit's mortal world fetter still pulses with unholy light beneath the rubble.

The ghostly scientist loathes the fleshy meat bags that crawl across the corpse of his ancient city like maggots, and schemes to lure interlopers into the Plaza of the Watchers to be pounded into dust by the Watchers.  As an ethereal being, he passes safely amongst the ponderous stone guardians.  Xeph-Ka can range up to 2 hexes away in any direction from the plaza, and will often appear as a distant torchlight or flickering glow like a will-o-wisp to trick a band of Ape-Men into entering the plaza.  In recent years he's even been able to guide a party of Northmen that made it past the glacier to their deaths.  (If a careful search of the plaza were possible, it would yield trinkets and minor, incidental valuables).

In game terms, Xeph-Ka is a Ghost (Labyrinth Lord, AEC stats) with the ability to create simple auditory and visual illusions.  His undead form kept the basic telepathy once possessed by his people and he'll use this to gain an advantage over the invaders; Xeph-Ka is of genius intellect.  If a group doesn't get lured to the plaza through his trickery, he'll resort to magic jar attacks to possess a victim, and physically run one of them into the barrage of Watchers after dropping any gemstone passkeys they might be carrying.

Xeph-ka will physically manifest and use ghostly attacks (gaze and physical aging touch) if a group attempts to destroy the Watchers in the plaza, or discovers the hiding place of his spirit diamond beneath the rubble in an adjacent hex.  Smashing the diamond is the surest way of dispelling the ghost, and a higher level group might have access to commune, find the path, or some other magical way of discovering the ghost's weakness and getting at the diamond.  If Xeph-Ka manifests physically or is viewed on the ethereal plane, he appears as a gaunt, emaciated alien whose abdomen becomes transparent before drifting off into a trailing mist.

It would take a few days of labor and proper equipment (block and tackle) to move the tons of stone necessary to get into Xeph-Ka's lair without magic.  In a dim underground chamber is Xeph-Ka's pulsing spirit diamond (15,000gp), a slew of ancient potions in crystalline vials (longevity x3, human control x2), and various platinum discs with the alien dot-matrix style writing.  The metal value of the discs is only 50pp but it's likely the wizard Shafat in Trade Town would pay more for them, as the writing contains a new spell (Create Ghost) detailing how to create a ghost by tearing the soul from a mortal subject. (Eventually I'll be putting together a list of new spells for the Black City).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Black City Bestiary - Watchers!

Scattered  around the city are various monolithic carved alien heads - the Watchers of the Black City.  These stone monuments were once part of the city's ancient defenses.  There is a cluster of them near letter I on the city map; others stand guard near the most secure extant buildings and will be noted in the text.  Adventurers may also stumble upon a lone Watcher while wandering the city (Watcher will be an entry on the artifacts sub table when searching hex contents).

Types of Watchers
The two basic types are free standing and revolving.   Free standing Watchers look a bit like Moai of Easter Island - 20-30' tall, with heavy glassy eyes embedded in a durable igneous rock.  Revolving Watchers look like a dome or ball set into a 30' diameter ring; when activated, the ball will roll back revealing the eyes and mouth of the Watcher.  Free standing Watchers can swivel 360 degrees on the base but with a limited plane of attack.  Revolving Watchers can rotate along any plane, including attacking straight up.  (The upcoming "Face in the Ground" is an example of a massive revolving Watcher).

The men of Trade Town have encountered some Watchers near a tower with many spires - area B on the city map, and there's an associated rumor on the rumor table.

Rules for Watchers
Random Watchers should be split evenly between free standing and revolving.  There's only a 50% chance the animating force in any given Watcher is still functional.  Watchers can detect invisible and track nearby movement (range 60'); they'll attack targets not carrying a proper pass key gemstone.  Roll on the following table for security level:

1 Red, Orange, Yellow
2 Green
3-5 Blue
6 Indigo, Violet

Note:  a higher gemstone allows passage past all lower security levels - for example, a character with a blue stone can get past green-level doors or Watchers.

Watchers (per Labyrinth Lord)
No. Enc.: 2-5
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 0' (stationary)
Armor Class: 5
Hit Dice: 10
Attacks: 1
Damage: by attack type
Save: F10
Morale: 12
Hoard Class:  none
XP: 2400

Watchers are a limited form of stone golem; they can only be damaged by magic weapons and are immune to most spells (Rock to Mud acts as a Slow spell and Stone to Flesh makes it vulnerable to all attacks for 1 round).

Attacks vary, but here are some basic ideas:

Revolving Watchers
Claw and Chain
A metal claw fires out of the Watcher's mouth, striking the target for 3d8 damage and grasping the target unless a save vs paralysis is made.  A grasped target is dragged back to the mouth for chomping (automatic 3d8 damage each round) unless a save is made to escape.

A long metal shaft fires out of the Watcher's mouth, dealing 3d8 damage.  On a natural roll of 18-20, the target is also impaled.  On the following round, the shaft will retract into the Watcher's mouth at high speed, slamming an impaled victim into the stone face for another 3d8 damage and dropping the target at the Watcher's feet.

Free Standing Watchers
Eye Blasts
A pair of eye blasts fire from the Watcher's glassy eyes.  They target a single opponent.   Roll two attacks; each hit causes 2d8 force damage and will knock the target down.

Gout of Flame
A cone of fire blasts from the Watcher's mouth, incinerating everything in the 30' cone for 3d8 (save vs dragon breath for half damage).

*Artwork by Felt

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Most Dangerous Animal

"Man is the most dangerous animal of all."

Some notes on violence and law on Thule

Quite a few of the "monsters" in the early areas of the Black City ruins are of the human variety - the wandering monsters and hex contents have plenty of opportunities to run into obvious enemies (Bandits and worm-infected Berserkers) and the not-so-obvious ones - Nobles, Traders, Veterans, and NPC parties.

Taking inspiration from the golden age of Pirates, the American Wild West, and the historical Viking period, interactions with other humans in the ruins should be fraught with violence, banditry, and skullduggery.  Once outside the "safety" of Trade Town, the city is a free fire zone.  Dead men tell no tales, there's no honor among thieves, and you can't trust other pirates.  "Take what you can, give nothing back".

Piracy between Vikings during the historical Viking age was common (at least from the historical resources I've perused).  Scandinavia was divided into multiple kingdoms, and even within the kingdoms loyalties were split amongst Jarls and lesser lords.  Personal loyalties mattered more than national loyalties on the high seas.

This is carried over to the crews on the Island of Thule.  Outside of Trade Town, running into a rival group of Vikings could be a dangerous affair - especially if there's some preexisting bad blood.  I'm recommending a new (secret) pre-encounter reaction roll - call it a Disposition Check - each time a mannish group is encountered.  The disposition check is meant to determine if there's any pre-existing history between members of the two sides that could effect the encounter - a hostile result would indicate pre-existing bad blood, and a positive result would mean pre-existing good relations.

2 - Very bad history, -2 to encounter reaction roll
3-5 - Bad history, -1 to encounter reaction
6-8 - no modifier
9-11 Positive history, +1 to encounter reaction
12 - Very positive, +2 to encounter reaction

Hostile dispositions could mean the existence of a feud back home, a heated rivalry at camp, or something similar.  For positive dispositions, perhaps a brother, cousin or relative by marriage is in the other group, or some of the men sailed together previously as comrades-in-arms.  I'm going to put together a list of picaresque reasons for there to be bad or good blood by NPCs towards someone in the player's group - it could be a really funny list.  The world isn't that big, and lots of these groups have a history, sailed together, etc - this seems like an easy way to add some of that verisimilitude.

Once the disposition is known, the DM can proceed like any other monster encounter, with a formal reaction roll with charisma modifiers to help determine encounter friendliness or hostility, modified by the disposition.

Law in Trade Town - Duels, Mediators, and The Thing
In Trade Town, Bergfinn and his guardsmen (the Bashers) keep the peace as much as feasible.  Emotions run hot, and it's common for grievances that started in the ruins to come back to town to be settled.  These can result in duels, mediations, and finally - a Thing.

Dueling is common, and the offended parties can agree to duel with wooden weapons to first hit, to first blood, or to the death.  (For first-blood duels, the duel takes place on a large white sheet - the first one to drip blood onto the sheet is the loser).  Bergfinn's Bashers are glad to oversee duels and watching a duel is a popular entertainment in the camp.  From a rule's perspective, the first person to half hit points is 'blooded".  Historically, there was something called "island-going" - the duelists would row out to a small island, hold the duel there, and the guy that actually comes back was the winner - that type of 'Thunderdome' could be fun in a game setting, if not over done.

Another common approach is to have a mediator.  The aggrieved party picks someone with high status to go to the offender and negotiate a blood money price (weregild).  When I publish the details of Trade Town, I'll include a set of example weregild prices - players being players, there'll be plenty of carnage.

For more serious grievances or resolving blood feuds where even a mediator can't help, one of the groups can request a "Thing".  The Thing is basically a large open air hearing with a jury.  By custom, all the ship captains get a vote on the jury, with Bergfinn acting as the tie-breaker.  The Thing shuts down normal camp life for days at a time, as the two parties campaign and employ politics to get the different captains to vote with their side.  Lots of potential there for a change of pace, different style of play for the heavy role players in the group.