Saturday, December 27, 2014

D&D 5E is… Awesome?

In the aftermath of the holidays, I've been able to peruse the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons.  It's… an interesting game.  In many cases, it's an amalgam of the previous four major editions of D&D (AD&D 1E, 2E, 3.5, and 4th) cherrypicking some of the best or most iconic bits and making sure they're represented.  The mechanics are streamlined and simplified, and there's plenty of modern design thinking evident - things like inspiration points, or minimized book keeping and resource management.  Overall, it seems like a good game from a quick read through of the system.

Characters advance very quickly, have a wide range of abilities (even at level one), and they recover from adventures very quickly.  It supports a far more cinematic and heroic style of play than OSR D&D.  If Tolkien's literary roots correspond to the AD&D 1E experience, than D&D 5E is like the Peter Jackson edition.  There's even a mine-car chase pictured in the artwork.

I really like top-down adventure and dungeon design, and I was gladdened to see lots of material in the DMG to support encounter creation, experience budgets, challenge ratings - that kind of stuff.  4E did that well, although combats were typically long and grindy; 5E kept the math-based design aspects, but the higher damage output by characters and monsters looks like it will avoid the grind.  I need to get some drive-time with the rules in play, perhaps with the starter set or something, to fully calibrate how the encounter experience plays out at the table.  I've only done a few of the pre-release play tests.

I also liked all the options late in the DMG for adding things like madness, horror, honor, injuries, and other optional rules like firearms and gonzo science fantasy.  There are a lot of dials and levers the referee can adjust to alter the tone of their game.

There is some dissonance between what 5E is proposing as the style of play and how I run dungeon crawling with older editions.  For instance, consider the rate of advancement proposed in 5E.  A party of adventurers should advance to level 2 after the first game session, to level 3 after the second game session, and then to level 4 after the next 2-3 games - and that's the expected rate of advancement for the rest of the game, with the players earning a new character level every 2-3 game sessions.  Keeping with the Peter Jackson cinematic experience, characters will go from zero to epic hero in the course of the two hour movie.

This expected rate of advancement dramatically changes how you'd approach designing a sprawling dungeon, like the classic old school megadungeon.  No need for extensive 100-room dungeon levels when the players are going to be ready for the next level down after a scant couple of combat encounters.  Plus, all of the experience in default 5E comes from fighting, not recovering treasure like the older editions.  Figuring out how I'd do a large dungeon in 5E is one of the first things I'm going to consider with the system.  I have a few friends playing "The Rise of the Hoard of Tiamat the Queen Dragon" (sic) adventure path books, and they've remarked that they're fairly linear and feel like a railroad.  Could just be their referee, but I'm suspicious that most of the 5E officially supported materials might come out in that style, to support the way characters rocket through their character levels.  It's not my favorite approach, but some adventure paths are written better than others, no doubt.  WOTC could "get there".

We did a game last summer built around a dungeon called "Taenarum", the legendary road to Hades and the Greek underworld (before gamer attention deficit disorder drew me into the super hero game for a bit) .  5E could work really well for that style of game - powerful characters that quickly advance to a legendary status, myths and monsters, an epic setting.  I'm off work a fair amount in the next week and will start thinking about whether Taenarum 2.0 could be worth investigating.  Maybe 5E would work for Vikings and an updated approach to one of my older campaigns, the Black City.  Dunno.  I know the system is new, has anyone started working on a megadungeon style of play with 5E, or are you finding there's too much resistance built into the system?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Structure for a Colonial Horrors Games

The New World is a place of lurking horrors.  Ancient monsters crouch within the primeval forests of eastern America  The Native Americans avoid the swaths of land that are cursed or possessed by spirits that skulk and hunt humanity, but the European settlers of early New England hold no such knowledge and awaken slumbering evils.  And then there's the horrors they bring with them from Old Europe, riding like parasites across the seas, to infect a new land with their blights.

The New World needs monster hunters.

As I think through what a Colonial Horror sandbox could look like, there are some interesting challenges presented by a class and level game like LOTFP or D&D, and the sandbox model.  Why are heavily armed strangers allowed to roam around?  If experience points come from dungeon gold, how is that going to work in a Colonial setting?  What about game balance vs party levels?

I'd probably place such a game around 1650.  The Dutch still hold New York, English settlement is thriving in Massachusetts, and there's intense competition with French fur traders coming out of Quebec and Montreal.  I like the idea of an English authority figure - perhaps the aide of a governor - writing home to hire a band of Old World monster hunters to help bolster the colonies.  The campaign begins with the player's ship of passage pulling into Boston harbor or Plymouth.  The characters, at the start of the game, are just as "new" to the New World as the players themselves.  It seems to be a great way to avoid a pre-game info-dump and let the setting unfold naturally through play and exploration.

It also accounts for why a heavily armed band of miscreants is wandering from village to village, with papers from the governor, that let them seek out and prosecute creatures of evil and haunts of the night, Solomon Kane style.  Should they be called 'witch hunters'?  I'm not terribly interested in doing Salem the RPG, though I suppose some stance on historical witch craft is required by the setting.  It could go a lot of ways.

How about levels, experience, and danger?  I'm thinking of flattening the danger curve, so the sandbox is filled with a range of potential horror scenarios of similar (dangerous) levels - like all the adventures are suitable for character levels 1-5.  The horror referee should be indifferent to player survival, as long as the scenarios are developed such that players can succeed in resolving a situation with methods beyond straight combat.  Running and regrouping is often the best tactic in a horror game!  Because the danger level is high, the rewards would be equally large.  It'd feel a lot different than the typical fantasy game, where low level characters mug goblins for their copper pieces at sword point, and hold the kobolds upside down to shake coins out of their pouches.

One necessary addition might be something like a henchman or inheritance rule.  The lethality for beginning characters could be high.  The rewards would be good enough such that survivors will quickly level up in an old school system.   A mechanism for henchman or beneficiaries to step in for dead characters would get the job done.  Maybe I shouldn't worry about it.

There's a poll going on right now, regarding which setting sounds more interesting for horror - Gothic Yorkshire or early America.  England has ruined castles and monasteries, and mist shrouded creepy moors.  Now I've given myself an interesting direction regarding how a Colonial game could look - exorcists and monster hunters from the Old World, traveling to the colonies to stalk the horrors of the New.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Icons Game Reports - the American Ninja Cowboys Campaign

I took some time off blogging (and RPG gaming), but the gang is coming over this weekend to pick up again.  Our current \ active campaign is 'American Ninja Cowboys', a post-apocalyptic anime-inspired game set in a fantastic, future America, featuring lumbering spirit beasts, magic, and ninja cowboys.  The characters are super-powered members of the Pine City Rangers, a fighting team protecting Wood Nation and Pine City from the other nations and various super-powered criminals.  Pine City is in the Pacific Northwest, built over the thousand year old ruins of Portland.

I've really enjoyed Icons.  The system plays fast and loose, and allows (er, requires) a lot of player improvisation at the table.  It supports random character generation!  I can definitely see using it for more types of super hero games.

The official designation of the player's ranger team is "Orca Team 6", but they call themselves the Otters.  At the beginning of the campaign, the Otters had just finished a long patrol south of Origami City, the city at the southern end of Wood Nation.  They were on their way back to Pine City in time for the upcoming "Pine City Games", a super-powered competition in Trailblazer Arena.  They stopped in Origami City to visit their retired coach and mentor, Old Man Skinner.

Skinner and the Otters were ambushed by some criminals and thugs, directed by one of Skinner's old enemies, the synthetic android Replicant Dioxide.  Replicant was thousands of years old, a relic of the Ancients, made to lead robot armies in the time before the Fall.  He looks like a large metal skeleton, wielding ridiculously oversized anime-style weapons.  Now he operates as a bounty hunter and salvage specialist for various criminal entities like the secretive 'Sixth Nation'.  A fight against a bunch of sword-wielding thugs and a lone copy of Replicant Dioxide (he can multiply himself) was a good introduction to the Icons combat system.  Inazuma, their lightning fast electric swordsman, figured out that the replicant's metal form was vulnerable to lightning, and defeated the copy.

The second game session had the players trying to figure out Replicant's target.  He came from the Scarred Lands east of the Mississippi, and normally operated in Earth Nation, east of the Rockies.  Someone must have hired him to come to Origami City!  Through skill checks and roleplaying, the players identified a series of likely targets - the hidden shrine at Bullfrog Lake, or the mystic monastery.  The players guessed he was after the Crack'd Bell, a symbol of liberty kept in the highest spire of the monastery, whose ringing could drive away gigantic lumbering Kaiju from the spirit world.

A gang of Dioxide's replicants were attacking the monastery, apparently going after the Crack'd Bell.  Kid Galactus flew Tex towards the top of the monastery, while everyone else went towards the main gate as quickly as possible.  Tex made himself super-dense and was dropped on a replicant from high altitude, while Kid G started battling the replicant climbing the tower walls.  At the gates, Haruki, set up her unassailable Tower of Iron Wind defense to defend the gates, and Black Russian summoned inky tentacles from the Dark to wrap and restrain another replicant.  Unfortunately, the attack on the monastery was a diversion, and the ringleader (General Dioxide) was nowhere to be seen.  Then came a report that the Hidden Shrine was under attack!

Origami City is on the river and a center of the lumber industry for Wood Nation; the monks of the Mystic Monastery make boats.  Everyone jumped in a half-finished hull in the monastery courtyard, and Kid G picked it up and flew everyone out towards the distant Hidden Shrine at super speed.  The shrine was a smoking ruin, with dead monks scattering the grounds, and General Dioxide waited for the players in the clearing.  He had retrieved a giant clay jar from the depths of the shrine, carefully sealed and scribed with mystic sigils.  Kid Galactus dumped the players into the clearing and went straight for the General.  Meanwhile, a fresh set of replicant clones stepped out of the woods, ready to fight.

The great thing about kids with super powers is they love to blow things up!  General Dioxide taunted Kid Galactus, who blasted an energy bolt at him with everyone thing he had.   It was all a ploy to get Kid G to destroy the clay jar, which exploded into a million pieces, releasing a shrieking spirit beast into the air.  Genoskwa was free!  Genoskwa (at least in the game world) is a kind of Pacific Northwest Sasquatch demon, the herald of the Apocalypse Beasts.

Game session 3 ended with General Dioxide thanking the players for the assistance, since he couldn't break the mystic seals of Genoskwa's prison himself.  Now he's off to collect his commission from his patron!  When we resume tonight, I'm sure the players are going to try beating the tar out General Dioxide and his replicants to get some answers.

Cast of Characters:
Trapper Keeper
Kid Galactus
Black Russian

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Alien Races for the Weird Horror Sandbox

Here's more work from my continuing exploration of Silent Legions - some sample alien races.  The book is targeted at helping the referee brainstorm, build, and run a modern-day Lovecraftian sandbox, but I'm going to use the material for something in the 17th century - either Colonial America or Gothic Yorkshire.  I went into the process knowing that I wanted to do something that reflected themes of folklore.  I'm calling the alien races "angels", "faeries", and "devils", although those tags were just to help guide some of the idea creation.  I'm pretty happy with how the book has been helping the development.

Race 1 - Angels

The "angels" are ethereal beings that have lingered on the earth since the prehuman past.  The earth-bound angels are exiles from their own species- perhaps from a crashed vessel from elsewhere in the galaxy.  They can possess humans as vessels and thus pass through human society perfectly disguised.  A handful of relics or artifacts from human lore and mythology are eldritch weapons from the time of the fall.  They've influenced human civilizations through the creation of organized religions, and they once controlled entire empires before they were actively hunted by the other alien races.  These days they focus on controlling small cabals and secret societies within human institutions, remaining aloof from the other alien races that hunt them.  They are Machiavellian in nature, admiring treachery in their human minions and controlling them through blackmail.

In their natural state, angels look like gaseous wisps of glowing white light, with many spider-like arms waving in the air (giving a vague appearance of wings).  Angel-possessed humans have great strength.  Open questions:  there is a terrestrial element that is quite deadly to them (what is it)?  And what are they doing here in the campaign area - perhaps a lone angel-possessed human (a captain of industry) is performing salvage operations to recover some vital mineral or ancient relic.

Race 2 - Faeries

The Fey are a gruesome, amphibian race that lives in caves and dwellings in fresh water.  In their natural form, they look like giant toads with a humanoid torso and head instead of a toad head.  Their skin is translucent and they have large over-sized heads.  If killed, their forms melt away, and their underwater structure dissolve away if left unattended, leaving little or no evidence.  The Fey have influenced human DNA and inadvertently activated psychic (or clerical) powers in humans through abductions and guided breeding.  They view humans like lab animals fit only for experimentation.

The Fey are divided into 'courts' and most of their energy is directed at avoiding treachery from within.  They use mind-control technologies to project glamours that hide their true forms from human sight, but folklore-myths like the nuckalevee, water horse, drowning fairy, or Rawhide Rex point to a deeper truth.  The Fey have accumulated vast mineral wealth in their underwater cities.  They still abduct humans and keep human slaves for debased entertainments.

Race 3 - Diaboli

The Diaboli are a cthonic race that escaped an alternate dimension - a place known to humans as Hell, Limbo, or Pandemonium.  Their activities are focused on cleaning up evidence of their presence on earth, and preventing incursions from their former masters (one or more of the elder gods in the pantheon).  Humans are disgusting and loathsome to them, but the Diaboli have taught sorcery to discrete individuals and train such humans to assist in keeping their presence on earth a secret.  Knowledge of the true nature of the universe is their greatest strength, and they wage a shadow war against the other aliens on earth (and the baleful influence of the elder gods).

The diaboli admire secrecy and deceit, striking at their enemies from the darkness.  Their gross appearance limits their influence over humanity, outside of the bizarre cultists and mad wizards who heed their fevered whispers or make 'deals' with them for knowledge and power.  Their physical form is that of a legless crawler with skeletal, telescoping arms and hands, and a circular mouth like a bladed maw.  They're able to burrow through the earth, and defend themselves with a poison stinger (in addition to their prodigious mastery of sorcery and magic).

Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Pantheon for a Weird Horror Campaign

I decided a cool project this winter would be to work on a weird-horror sandbox style campaign.  Some of the ideas in a recent kickstarter, Silent Legions, inspired me to pick up with blogging again.  Silent Legions is explicitly based in the modern day, but I'll be using the sandbox creation ideas for a historical game featuring the LOTFP rules.  I'm not 100% sure on the setting, but I'm leaning towards Colonial America (mid-17th century, maybe 1650?) or Gothic Yorkshire, an area to which I'm inexplicably drawn.  Looking below, I think I can make the pantheons work in either locale.

I thought it would be fun to give the mythos some overtones of European folklore and Judeo-Christian mythology - many of the eldritch beings and alien races have been confused with demons, angels, faeries, that kind of stuff.  I'm starting with the pantheon.  There are two groups of elder beings - a loosely associated collection of demons, and then a handful of independent gods.  For now I'm making four of each.  These are just the briefest of sketches - they'll get developed further as I add alien races, cults, artifacts associated with them, etc.  I'm going to elaborate the pantheon organically as other setting elements come together.

The Demon Pantheon
The traits of the demon pantheon are "maltheistic and relics".  They are carryovers from an earlier reality, and are completely malevolent towards humans.  I'm thinking the beings of the demon pantheon are outsiders, originating beyond the world in another dimension, which has been confused or conflated with Hell through the ages (I'm going call it Hell until I get around to creating the alternate dimensions).  They are creatures of spirit that can only manifest in the physical world through possession of a vessel.  Here are the first four of them:

Descriel, Purple Seer of the 9th Circle
This being sits immobile in the frozen center of Hell, contemplating the heat-death of the universe.  It's portfolio is thirst, cold, and deprivation.  I imagine that mad wizards and sorcerers have been found in their sanctums, frozen solid, after reaching out to Descriel and failing in their ability to handle the contact.

Naziel, Murderous Arm of Torment, Prince of Malady
Naziel is a brutish demon of destruction.  It reeks of steaming jungles and the stench of blood.  It commands an army of lesser beings, and is frequently represented in stone idols as a blend of humanoid and bestial features.

Ohaniel, the Voracious Autarch
Ohaniel manifests as a spirit that possesses its cultists, turning them ravenous and insatiable.  Maybe those touched and abandoned by Ohaniel continue on as cannibals, like the wendigo myth.  The entity is associated with rage, hunger, and death.

Osetsopez the First Serpent, Crimson Dragon of Ruin
All of the primordial myths have snakes, dragons, and serpentine beasts of chaos, echoes of the first serpent.  Osetsopez is an agent of ruin and corruption, stalking the cities of men in borrowed flesh to foment destruction through war and vice.

The Independent Gods
There are four independent beings, not associated with the infernal pantheon.  Gnot and Bondaena are physical beings in the world, while Kehotek is a spirit of the barren wastes, and Kentharlzola descends from the depths of space.

Gnot the Sublime, Many Faced Destroyer of Worlds
Gnot is an embryonic being from the depths of space, crashed on earth in Neolithic times and regaining its power slowly over geologic time.  Its egg sac appears like a black, leathery geode, and has been steadily growing through the millennia.  If I place the campaign in England, Gnot is the being within the Black Cyst that lies in the depths of Harrow Home Manor.

It's traits are "immanent and wounded", and its portfolio is silence and pain.  Things to think about!

Kehotek the Sevenfold Seer, Opener of the Blind Gate
Kehotek is "indifferent and dissociated" and associated with visions and parasites.  I'm going to attach various cults of transcendence to Kehotek.  Cultists of Kehotek seek to transcend reality through mysticism and visions.  They infect themselves with progressively more disgusting parasites to achieve gnosis with Kehotek.  It grosses me out just thinking about the 'divine' worm infestations carried around by the cultists.

Kentharlzola, Winged Speaker of Flames
Kantharlzola is a deity woven through Middle-Eastern myths and the folklore of the deserts.  It is the phoenix, the efreet, the winged salamander, the fiery Ahura.  Contact with Kentharlzola is capable of imparting wisdom and knowledge of magic at the cost of years of life; cultists of the phoenix are withered beyond their years.

Bondaena the Hollow Sea, Anvil of Life
Bondaena is a monstrous leviathan in the ocean depths.  It is a forerunner of the life still yet to come on earth, protean and changeable.  It is a harbinger of mutation and disease.

Like I said, I expect these to change as I add other pieces to the setting.  I'll come up with better names, and elaborate the beings as I create some of the alien races, cults, and artifacts.  The tables in Silent Legion were fairly helpful in directing my imagination and brainstorming.  We'll see how it goes next week when I start developing some alien races.

Note:  I'm going to add a quick poll around what sounds more interesting for a horror-themed sandbox - Colonial America or Gothic Yorkshire.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Easy Historical Gaming

Brendan asked a question yesterday about running historical games.  Historical research is time consuming and has the potential to deplete all your time in a futile pursuit of veracity.  I'm assuming the game is about something other than the major events of the period - it's just using the period as a backdrop.  Horror scenarios, exploration or ruins, or investigative gaming set in a historical period fits the mold.  If that's all true, here's how I approach campaign preparation for a new historical period.

First, I try to find a good map online.  Quite often you can find a modern map, perhaps from a history book, that shows the campaign area during the period in question - major settlements, borders, that kind of stuff.  Modern maps are good for terrain and can be superimposed with the period map.  I develop notes about the settlement and period about as deep as you can pick up off of Wikipedia articles and similar survey level resources.  I care about demographics, major industries, and a bit on political allegiance and similar factors.

The important research for me is around the texture of daily life - what are the narrative bits that are going to create a good picture of the era for the players?  Things like the type of food and drink in taverns (assuming there are taverns), what are beds like, what's the normal clothing of the time, names of currency and coins, days of the week, names of ordinary people, that kind of stuff.  Pretty much all of the juicy details you're not actually going to find in a history text book are what's actually important for an RPG experience.  This is where all the research energy goes.

Luckily, we live in a time where historians and researchers are concentrating on this type of historical period writing!  You can usually find titles along the lines of A Day in the Life of Ancient XYZ and put all those rich details of the setting at your fingertips.  A lot of books for kids take this approach as well, since they prioritize creating an experience for the young reader over bland recitation of facts.  Don't be afraid to raid the kid's section of the library.  Then it's just a matter of finding a good calendar, a list of common names of the period (and building a name generator to make names on the fly) and you're cleared for take off.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Look Ma, No Dungeons

I'll admit, I love dungeons.  They limit the player's options of movement, allowing the referee to focus his or her preparation time on the important aspects of the environment.  There is usually an artificial explanation for why deeper levels are more dangerous, giving the players a built-in tool to gauge their level of risk vs reward - the dangers on the upper levels are less dangerous, but the potential rewards aren't as good, either.  The progression of levels in a dungeon-based game parallel the advancement of class and levels of the PC's on the player's side of things.  It's all nice and neat.

If you're not using dungeons, what are you doing?  You might be preparing the next set of adventures and plot hooks to lead the players to challenges and lairs that are right-sized for them at this time.  I get it - 1st level guys go into the woods, they meet goblins, the 4th level guys run into ogres, the higher level guys run into dragons.  The contrivance drives me a bit nuts.

There are ways to avoid the hellish contrivance, sure.  You could put the goblin woods, the ogre woods, and the dragon woods, right on the map, as three distinct destinations, right from the beginning.  Okay, you're first level, you don't believe me there's a dragon living in the dragon woods?  Fine, everybody dies, make better choices with your next set of characters.  I can respect an approach that puts multivariate dangers into the setting right from the beginning as a nod towards decreasing the amount of contrivance in a level-based game.

What about flattening the danger curve for your non-dungeon-based adventures?  There would be lots of adventure opportunities in the area, of indeterminate danger, and it's not going to be possible to fully gauge the level of danger until the characters learn a bit more about what's going on.  There is precedent - I've even seen published adventures with broad level ranges - good for character levels 1-8, or 1-5.

The interesting point about flattening the danger curve is that it flips the typical approach of D&D style games on its head.  Wizards and spell-based characters (the problem solvers) are particularly weak at low levels, so exploration in default D&D requires a steady stream of fighting and melee combats.  Fighters and combat skills become less relevant as the traditional campaign goes forward and characters gain levels - spells take the prominent role.   In the horror themed sandbox, if a first level party squares off against a higher level threat, combat is the worst option and the group is forced to find alternatives to fighting.  When was the last time a horror movie was resolved because the heroes had more hit points than their opponents and went toe-to-toe  in melee with Freddy, Jason, or the Xenoform?  (Arnold gets a free pass in movies like Predator, I'm sure his contracts stipulate he always gets to be a 10th level Chaotic Neutral Bad Ass.  Same goes for Vin Diesel).

As I start to work with the material in Silent Legions, the flattened danger curve is how I'd implement the horror-themed sandbox.  While the players are constrained by classes and levels on the player's side of things, there are no such constraints on the elder horrors and squamous things lurking in the sandbox.  However, true to the tropes of the horror genre, there are usually macguffins, silver bullets, or non-combat resolutions available if the players survive long enough to get the necessary information during the scenario.

You could see why this approach has me excited to work on some OSR material again!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Summoned Back... by Silent Legions

RPG gaming has been on a hiatus for me this fall.  I have a family commitment most Sunday nights, Friday night is usually tied up playing Magic, and it's been hard to make Saturday's work.  Still, kid's soccer season is done, I'm wrapping up the summer home remodeling projects, and there's renewed hope we'll be able to reform the group as my weekends get clear.  Cold, wintry nights in the northern hemisphere are well spent around the gaming table.

And then the kickstarter for Silent Legions showed up in my inbox.

I'll reserve a complete rundown for an actual review, but Silent Legions is a blend of game rules and campaign creation to create your own sandbox horror setting.  It's ostensibly set in the modern day, but after a quick read, it seems like it could be easily adapted to an earlier period.  In fact, that's what I'll be trying to do here on the blog.  I like the blend of D&D and horror, and Silent Legions uses a class and level system with strong OSR roots.  Putting it in a setting with fighters, clerics, and magic users is easy.

The elevator pitch for the book is something like this - many horror writers have created their own settings and horror mythologies as a backdrop to their stories - HP Lovecraft's New England, Stephen King's Maine, or Ramsey Campbell's Severn Valley all spring to mind as authors I've enjoyed.  Silent Legions provides systems and tables to guide the referee through creation of their own unique pantheon of elder gods, alien races, cults, artifacts, and grimoires to populate their own weird horror setting.  It offers a framework for creating flexible investigative scenarios to funnel adventurers into the stories through creation of scenario templates.

Anyway, this book had me at 'horror sandbox'.  Working through the material should be a fun project, and I don't see why I can't post any creations to the blog as I make my way through the book.  Stay tuned, it starts this week.

Meanwhile, what's been going out on the OSR blogs that I've missed?  From a cursory scan, the honeymoon between OSR gamers and 5E appears to be going strong.  Do we like the system that much?  I've maintained some distance and skepticism from the WOTC RPG team, but with the holidays looming, this seems like a good time to put the books on some wish lists and jump in.  I'll be sure to check out any play test reports I come across - let me know if you have any over at your own blog or web space I should check out.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Character Generation for Icons - the American Ninja Cowboys campaign

Earlier in the week we I posted a review of Icons, a superhero RPG.  We're taking a short break from dungeon crawling to give the players a chance to play super powered soldiers in my anime-inspired 'American Ninja Cowboys' campaign.  It takes place thousands of years after the apocalypse.  In the wake of the great fall, the barriers separating the magic and spirit realms from Earth are weakened, and humans have developed the ability to perform spirit-crafting.  The 5 Nations of future fantasy America (FFA) have each developed a super-powered police force to maintain peace between the nations and combat the threat posed by the giant, lumbering spirit monsters (kaiju) that wander the wastes between nations.  At the start of the game, the players are all citizens of Pine City and members of the Pine City Rangers, the elite fighting force that helps protect the wooded northwest.

Most of the players rolled characters randomly using the Icons random generation method; one of them was fixated on a character concept and opted for the point buy.   Here's how it went.

The group leader is Tex, an ex con-man criminal from the Earth Nation that is turning a new leaf (haha) in Pine City.  Tex has the ability to become immaterial (the Texas two-step), create clone duplicates of himself (summoning the Republic of Tex), and can increase his density to add strength and damage resistance (because everything is bigger in Texas).  Unbeknownst to Tex, shadowy forces in the Earth Nation arranged for him to be in Pine City and join the rangers - he's an unknowing sleeper agent!

Inazuma is one of the Five Legendary Swordsmen of the mountains.  He uses the sword lightning style, which gives him a touch of super speed and electricity control (he electrifies his swords into lightning blades) and he's a master swordsman.  He can also leap multiple city blocks with 'lightning leaps'.  This character was made by one of the kids using point-buy.

Haruki's parents were agents for Pine City and perished on a mission, leaving her a pair of enchanted iron fans and a kabuki style mask.  She's a talented martial artist with enhanced strength, but she can form an impenetrable barrier with her fans (called something like 'Iron Tower Fan Defense') and can even reflect ranged attacks back at the attacker.  Haruki's defenses are a handful for the referee.

Trapper Keeper (TK)
TK also possesses an enchanted item, it's something like 'The Cursed Jade Mask of the Oni' or similarly named - I don't have the sheets with me.  He appears like a smallish man wearing a heavy cloak and hood with only the Oni Mask visible.  He can drain strength from opponents with the Evil Eye and manipulate their fears.  The mask grants immunity to mental attacks as well.  The player got the name when he was brainstorming… "Well, I see myself hunting and trapping dangerous occult beings, and then keeping them…"

Kid Galactus
The character's actual name is Kodama the Forest Spirit, but I've been referring to him as Kid Galactus because of his power level.  He's not of this world, an unearthly creature of the spirit world that believes it's a human and was raised by animals in the forests.  He can transform into an energy being and gains the ability to absorb magic attacks.  He flies, shoots magic energy, and also has super strength.  He's the over-powered heavy hitter of the team.

Black Russian
We don't know a lot about this character yet - he always wears his cloak and stays in the shadows.  Highly trained, he's focused on stealth skills and martial arts.  He can manipulate darkness and shadows, and is accompanied by Sergeant Ruffington, a talking, highly intelligent spirit hound that can slip between the real-world and the spirit world, and turn invisible.  Black Russian isn't very smart, but Ruffington is a genius and has a suite of super senses.

The core group is 3 adults, 3 kids; GPL's player is technically a 4th kid, but I don't think he's going to keep playing.  He's wandered off through both game sessions after about 45 minutes and then completely disappeared.  Apparently I'm just that good of a referee!  His character can control air currents, which provides a blend of air powers and telekinesis type effects.  He wears one of those anime-style 'swords too big to hold and swing' on his back, and lets his telekinesis swing it around.

Officially, the player's group name is Orca Team 6 to their commanders back in Pine City, but their unofficial name is something like the Northwest Otter Patrol.  I was really happy with how character generation went and some of the concepts created by the players; score another check mark for random generation inspiring creative concepts and backgrounds.  It took until the first game session for most of the players to land on the Qualities they wanted for their characters; I'll work those into the game reports as appropriate.

Next up, a look at how the game sessions went.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Playtest Review: Icons, The Assembled Edition

At Gencon last August, I had a mission:  to find a super hero rules set that would work well for a game inspired by the anime and manga loved by the kids in the gaming group.  Furthermore, I wanted something that didn't have too many rules, was easy to learn and run, and had a tremendous amount of flexibility to bring to life the crazy trump-filled battles you see in manga-inspired anime shows.

We settled on trying Icons as the rules set, and I couldn't be more delighted.  Here's a look at the game.

As a physical artifact, the Icons Assembled Edition book is nicely done  - it's comic sized, smaller than a typical hardcover, with mid-sized print making it an easy read.  Icons is written by Steve Kenson, the author of Mutants & Masterminds.  You may wonder why a writer would put out two competing super hero rules sets.  Mutants & Masterminds has all the crunchy bits and levers to fine tune character building and optimization for the d20 crowd.  It's a much different experience than the fast and loose character generation and game play of Icons.  The Icons material has a distinctive art style by Dan Houser, reminiscent of Bruce Timm's work for various animated DC properties that brings to mind high-paced animated adventures.

The actual game mechanics are simple, using a scale of 1 - 10 for most abilities and one or two 6-sided dice for the dice rolls.  The core dice mechanic involves opposed rolls, combining an ability and a d6 roll versus an ability and d6 roll from the opponent.  I have no prior exposure to the mechanics of the Fate system, but it's mentioned a few times that Icons borrows from "Fate Core".  There is also a standard list of super powers in the core book, along with a large set of proposed extras and limits to customize the powers.  The centerpiece of Icons is the flexible use of Qualities and Determination Points to fuel creative expansion of character abilities and super powers during play.

Qualities were the most difficult thing for my players to develop for their characters, and after two game sessions, they're still trying to refine them as they elaborate their characters.  Qualities are descriptive phrases about the character - why they're special, or what motivates them,  their catch phrases, things like that.  If you read comics or watch the super hero movies, it's easy to identify qualities for your favorite characters or teams:

  • The Dark Knight
  • The World's Greatest Detective
  • Faster than a Speeding Bullet, Able to Leap Tall Buildings with a Single Bound
  • Last Son of Krypton
  • With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
  • I'm the Amazing Spider-Man
  • Children of the Atom

For the anime fans, a popular character like Naruto could be expressed like this:

  • I'm going to be Hokage someday, believe it
  • I never go back on my word, that's my ninja way
  • I carry the chakra of the Nine-Tailed Fox sealed inside me

A lot of the game play during an Icons adventure involves using Determination Points (a limited, expendable resource) to creatively extend the character's abilities for single-use advantages, and accepting problems thrown at the character by the referee to get more Determination Points.  It's an improvisational, back and forth mechanic, which allows the game to represent an endless number of maneuvers, powers, capabilities, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities without laboriously documenting them in the rules and power descriptions before game play.

Icons has measured up well to our expectations.  As a fan of old school games, I love that it uses a random character generation method.  Nothing forces a player to engage creatively more than having to make sense of a pile of random abilities and super powers.  That being said, the character generation supports tailoring the character once the basics are rolled randomly, so it's definitely possible to nudge them towards a vision.  For the faint of heart, there is a point-buy option.

Icons uses qualitative descriptors for abilities that hearken back to the halcyon days of TSR's Marvel Super Heroes game.  We have characters with Great stamina, Amazing strength, and Incredible awareness.  It's a small thing, but I appreciate the tip of the cap back to the earlier days of the hobby.

The author calls out repeatedly that this was developed as a "beer and pretzels" super hero game - well suited to one-shots and pick up games.  We'll see how it goes for a few weeks before I gauge whether the players want to run a regular campaign with Icons (versus the dungeon crawling we were doing earlier in the summer).  All signs point to yes.  There are some basic advancement rules to support campaign play and character development.  Game balance with the random characters is a consideration for campaigns as well.  We have one character nicknamed "Kid Galactus" - the kids in the group refer to him as "totally OP, man".  A future house rule could be to add a range limit to the character's point totals, so that there isn't a wide a gap between the player character power levels if one of the random characters seems overpowered.

We've run two games in my anime-inspired FFA setting - Future Fantasy America.  I've also been calling it American Ninja Cowboys.  The players have been having a good time.  The 'American Ninja Cowboys' (or Rangers) of "Orca Team 6" from Pine City have been battling the evil Replicant Dioxide, an artificial life form built by the Ancients in the time before the current age.  I'll post game reports and additional notes on the setting later this week to provide more insight into what we've been able to do with the rules.

Friday, September 19, 2014

OSR Tools in the Super Hero Setting

I had some time this week to make progress on my super hero setting for Icons, a fantasy mash up I'm calling 'American Ninja Cowboys'. It draws inspiration from martial arts and super power themed anime like Naruto or The Last Airbender series, in a setting that's distinctly American and post-apocalyptic.

As a long time fan of OSR materials, I'm pleased and surprised by how much reuse I'm getting out of OSR publications and technology. Super hero plot hooks tend to be more mission oriented and reactive than what happens in a D&D sandbox - but that doesn't mean sandbox techniques don't have a place.  I'm structuring Future Fantasy America like a giant hex crawl with random encounters.

One of my go-to source books has been The Red Tide Campaign Setting.  Originally written for Labyrinth Lord, Red Tide has solid tools for creating interesting Border Sites, Cities, Courts, and Ruins.  It's vaguely post-apocalyptic as well.  The sandbox material is very strong, and the Red Tide specific material is superficial enough that it's easy to file off the serial numbers and use the sandbox techniques in any fantasy setting (even one with super heroes).  Pine City (the home base) and the environs in the Pacific Northwest are getting generated using Red Tide's sandbox systems.  There's a source book for running cities called Vornheim that I'm keeping on-hand as well to help with getting around, chases, that kind of stuff.

Icons has a handful of rules-light and old school attributes - foremost of which is random character generation tables!  With that in mind, I built an excel-based random character generator similar to what I'd do for a dungeon stocker in a D&D style game.  I've been able to generate NPC heroes and villains at a shocking pace.  Plus I lifted a lot of my NPC generators (traits and personalities) from other settings.

Ideally, I'd like to get some kind of random mission or plot hook generator put together, along with a relationship generator.  Characters in anime (and even comics, to a lesser extent) are always remembering pre-existing relationships with the villain they just encountered.

However, I'd like to have either a light touch or non-existent hand at pushing plots on the players - years of running plotless dungeons have conditioned me against scripting too much.  Hopefully the players develop some goals or ambitions that provide player-centric direction.  In the meantime, I'm considering how something like the 5-Room Dungeon can be adapted to super hero situations to help me structure scenarios.  Here it is again:

Room 1: Entrance And Guardian
Room 2: Puzzle Or Roleplaying Challenge
Room 3: Red Herring
Room 4: Climax, Big Battle Or Conflict
Room 5: Plot Twist

You can replace the concept of room with the phrase "encounter"; Entrance and Guardian becomes the initial problem, conflict, or crisis that manifests - ex: a murder in the city, or a rampaging monster from the spirit world.  Encounter 2 implies puzzle solving or investigation, Encounter 3 is a potential false lead or dead end, Encounter 4 is the confrontation with a main challenge, and 5 is the plot twist or lead into a future session.  The 5 potential encounters aren't linear, either - the 5-Room structure has been depicted lots of ways (here are some examples:  Gnome Stew's 5-Room Dungeons).

With any luck, I'll be able to get the players together this weekend to (randomly generate) some characters and be in position to try out the setting and system. I don't want to overdevelop it in case the idea bombs, either.  Of course, this is pre-release weekend for Khans of Tarkir (Magic the Gathering) so I should be off playing some Magic at least one of the weekend days.  The supers may need to wait a week.

Any other tools I should consider for generating content that would work well in Future Fantasy America?

To recap - work on the project so far has included snagging a few maps of America, replacing city names with generic FFA names like Pine City or Star City; I've used Red Tide's tagging and sandbox generation to make a handful of places (and scenario ideas emerged fairly spontaneously from there); I've used Excel to build some random generators.  It's been easy so far!

Friday, September 5, 2014

American Ninja Cowboys - A Supers Setting

"American Ninja Cowboys" is the working title while I figure out what the game is all about.  I'm sketching out a campaign setting that draws inspiration from The Last Airbender, Legend of Korra, Naruto, Inuyasha, and sundry Miyazaki films - and puts similar elements in a fantastic, wild west North America that feels like an endless frontier.  Those anime titles are the sources the kids are familiar with - essentially fantasy settings with super powered characters that can fly around and shoot things and use amazing magic powers.  It's an intriguing alternative to super powered settings I've done in the past, which always used the modern world.

I'm placing American Ninja Cowbowys in a mythic (future) America, long after a cataclysm merged the spirit world and the mundane world and civilizations are rebuilt anew, albeit widely spaced across western North America.  Gigantic spirit animals lumber across the wilderness, and the early survivors drew guidance and wisdom from relationships with totem animals  in the years after the destruction.  I'd like it to have a Native American vibe - there are powerful totem animals like Coyote, Raven, Bear, and Snake.  There are mythic locales across America, places like Lost Mesa or Devil's Tower or the Ghost Town, where frightening or numinous experiences await the bold.

Youngsters in the setting that are gifted at channeling power from the spirit world are trained from a young age by the Five Nation as guardians and protectors - they're the Jedi Knights of FFA (future fantasy America).  Any of the typical power sources in a super hero game can be made to work fine for this kind of fantasy game.  There are monsters and mutants and demons from beyond the spirit world, too - for instance, everything east of the Mississippi is in the Scarred Lands, the Land of Tears, and westerners avoid the forbidden zones.  Somewhere in the Scarred Lands sleep the Four Great Beasts of the Apocalypse.

It's a bit liberating how totally gonzo a super hero setting can be imagined.  You can freely mix Gamma-World style super weapons (liberated from the Land of Tears, of course) with gigantic Kaiju style monsters, martial arts combat, and characters with amazing powers.  Human society is organized into the five great nations, but there is a subversive "6th Nation" made of criminal masterminds and super villains that manipulates them all.

My biggest decision right now is around naming conventions.  I really enjoy anime and the fantastic Asian sounding names - something like "Raikage" sounds much cooler than "Lightning Shadow".  But I'm wary of cultural appropriation and misusing Asian or Native American sounding names insensitively.  I also need to come up with a good name for the guardian characters in the setting.  Functionally, they'll be a lot like Jedi Knights in the Lucasverse - people with extraordinary powers that act as protectors and agents.  Do I borrow Asian sounding names like Bushi, Samurai, or Shinobi, or European names like Knight, Agent, or Hero?  How about Rangers and Sheriffs?  FFA (Future Fantasy America) is going to have places like Tree City, Star City, and Wind City, I could get behind hero group names like Tree City Rangers - sounds like a sports team.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Belated Gencon 2014 Report - and Kid Cosplay

The kiddo has embraced anime cosplay
I've had trouble keeping my mind on gaming lately.  I started a sizable remodeling project back in June, assuming I'd get it done before the summer was over, and then BAM! - I look up and it's already August and the summer is fleeing across the sky.  Gaming has been taking a back seat to ripping up carpeting and tackless strips.  At this point I only have a few more weeks to go on the project - some ceramic tiling to do, tearing out the last of the carpet, and then laying new floors throughout the house - I'm hoping to be done before the end of September and be back to normal.  Painting and crown molding was all done earlier in the summer.

For those reasons, my online presence pretty much flat-lined since August and RPG stuff has been quiet.  Still alive though!  Here's what I saw and did at Gencon this year -  a belated Gencon report.

My big focus was finding a good zombie board game.  I spent quite a bit of time in the dealer hall this year doing game demonstrations at various publisher booths - it's a great way to get a 20-30 minute exposure to a game ahead of buying one.  In the zombie genre, I tried Zombies!, Zombicide, and Last Night on Earth.  I thought Last Night on Earth was the most fun and best value, and ended up picking up a copy.  We've had fun with it so far.

Other Horror Board Games
I tried a bunch of other board games as well, and a couple of horror games stood out.  I'd been hearing good things about Touch of Evil, another game from Flying Frog like Last Night on Earth, and it was pretty fun.  It's one to pick up before Halloween, the best holiday, and one that's going to be here before you know it.  In Touch of Evil, you play investigators in a Sleepy Hollow style setting, gathering quest items to confront classic supernatural monsters like the werewolf or the Headless Horseman.  (It feels a bit like Elder Sign, a game from Fantasy Flight, with a different theme).    I'd also heard good things about Level 7, so we tried Level 7 Omega Protocol, which was also a lot of fun.  Players take on the role of elite soldiers in a Halo-style world infiltrating a lab full of alien-like monsters.  It's a highly tactical team-oriented combat game with cool mechanics - it was a bit pricey for the Gencon budget this time out.

I brought the 5E starter along with our gear, in case our group had some downtime and wanted to try 5E.  All of the official 5E events were sold out.  Many of the guys in our local game group have been going out to Gencon with their sons, so we usually have 7-8 people in our party - more than enough to run our own games at the Con without recruiting.  But things were busy enough that we never did break out the 5E starter.

My oldest kiddo has been on  a gigantic anime and manga kick lately - his cosplay character above is 'Gaara' from a manga called Naruto.  One of my Gencon priorities was to try some super hero games and find an appealing set of super hero rules to run an anime-inspired supers game this year.  I am now the proud owner of Icons, a lightweight super hero game by Steve Kenson (of Mutants and Masterminds fame).  Icons reminds me a lot of the classic Marvel Super Heroes (MSH) from the 1980's and looks fine for a rules-lite anime-inspired superhero game.  The Green Ronin folks were super friendly and didn't mind spending time talking about the mechanics and doing some demo games.

Last year, the oldest kiddo ended up packing his Legend of Zelda Link costume and wearing it at the Con.  I didn't think much of it - he saw a lot of cosplay the year before, so I guess he thought it looked like fun and wanted to join in.  This year, he went after the cosplay aspect with commitment.  We teamed up to make a fantastic "Gaara" costume, he dyed his hair, and made me apply some light make up each day.  It was like touring Gencon with a minor celebrity - he got like 40-50 picture requests a day just walking around the dealer hall and whatnot and it took longer to get anywhere due to picture requests.  Apparently a lot of people know that Naruto show, a lot of folks knew the character.  He might be on to something sneaky smart though - I saw plenty of young ladies complimenting his costume and getting chatty.

Purchases and Related Stuff
From an RPG perspective, my main get this year was the hardcover edition of Icons published by Green Ronin.  Pelgrane Press (Trail of Cthulhu) didn't release Mythos Expeditions in time for Gencon, so I'm holding out for that one - I think it just went on pre-order.  The D&D 5e PHB was around, but I figure I'll wait a little before taking the plunge.

In the board game space, I picked up Last Night On Earth and a card game called Once Upon A Time - something for the younger kiddos and my daughter to do.  I also got in plenty of Magic the Gathering, and won a win-a-box tournament - that's two years in a row winning a box at Gencon, w00t.

This was my fourth Gencon.  We're getting pretty good at getting around the con and have picked up some basic tips and tricks.  I've got to do a Gencon tips post before next year, and find out how readers who attend get the most out of the con as well.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Treasure Map Example

A reader the other day asked for an example of how I'm using treasure maps to give the players clues around the dungeon.  The maps are simple, and have been found in piles of discarded gear or other treasure hoards.

Here's an example of the treasure map (the original is in the player's notes!)  It was found stuck in a reed basket in a room that looked like other adventurers used as a camp at one point - it was snagged on the weave.  The players were carrying it around for months:

Here's the area of quadrant 1-4 referred to by the treasure map.  These treasure maps aren't high impact techniques, but the players got super excited when they realized they knew the map reference and found a hidden cache.  I think the evolution of the technique will see maps that cross entire dungeon levels, and putting backstory behind the map makers.

Plus you get to see part of quadrant 1-4 from the game reports.  The complex on the right side of the map is the palace of Atalante and the chambers of her pig-men; Connell died in room 11 when he was eaten by an Ochre Jelly; the Brew Crew were camped in room 9 when the players jumped them.  Room 15 is where they found the pit with the satyr-head potion-fountain sticking out of the wall.  The large 20' wide north-south corridor is the road of the dead, the frieze-lined passage that spirals into the Underworld.  Near the bottom of the map, it turns west and slopes downward, meeting up with level 2 of Taenarum.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Level One Boss Fight - The Lord of Bones - Taenarum Game 10

Moe took the week off, so Moe's Marauders were temporarily under the command of Etor, the party's ranger, who planned the night's adventure.  I try to start every game of Taenarum back at the adventurer's hall, with the characters huddled around the tavern table and planning their excursion - the same way the players leaned in over the table to peer at their maps to start the game.

"I know we told that sorceress we'd explore quadrant 3 and search for the source of the giant insects, but we've got to go through quadrant 2 to get there."  Etor laid out the maps and showed the path.  "And since we'll be in quadrant 2 anyway, why don't we just poke our head into this area over here where the 'Arch of Greed' is supposed to sit, and see if there's really a big treasure nearby?"  The players in attendance voted unanimously for the Arch of Greed over giant killer insects.

There were preliminary encounters with a horde of skeletal animals, jaws clattering and tiny claws clicking on the polished marble floors, and a few treacherous skirmishes with swarms of flesh-eating scarab beetles.  The swarms reduce any explorers killed in the zone to bones, stripping the flesh and preparing the remains to join the skeletal hoplites that patrol the area.  The party used up all of their supplies of oil burning the scarab swarms.

The Arch of Greed was real, and it glowed with reddish sigils and glyphs.  As the reddish light washed over the characters, they began to sense the gold and silver they were each carrying, until their new 'detect precious metal' senses became aware of the large pile of coins beyond the archway and their attentions were drawn towards the hoard.  Beyond the arch was a short hall, and flickering lights illuminated a great pile of silver and gold coins.  A number of characters - Etor, Thaddeus, and Jax (a new guy) - were overcome by magical greed and hurtled themselves down the hallway.  The champion of Poseidon made his save and held the rest of the party back.

Unfortunately, while the three ensorcelled characters kneeled before the treasure pile and threw coins into the air, giggling like Scrooge McDuck, various skeletal hoplites crept forward from the shadows behind them, lowering their spears to skewer the characters overcome by greed.  Once the rest of the party caught sight of the skeletons, they shouted warnings and ran down the hallway to intervene.

There was one awful round where the greedy kneelers, oblivious to the skeletal threat, were stabbed at again and again by the skeletal ambushers.  Blood sprayed everywhere.  Jax was butchered and perished, and the others were sorely injured.  The rest of the party slammed into the skeletons, joining the battle, and Mac the Dwarf Cleric of Hephaestus was successful at turning the remaining undead.  The damage was done already - one party member was slain, the others grievously injured and required the use of healing potions.  The magic coercion of the Arch of Greed wore away once the trap was finished.

The party scooped up a few thousand coins, mostly silver obols but a fair amount of drachmas, and they discovered a strange, heavy spear hanging on the wall.  It was black meteoric iron, with symbols on the blade.  Assuming it's magical, the paladin hefted it and claimed it, leaving his wooden spear in its place.

They continued north in quadrant two and discovered the throne room of the Lord of Bones.  The boss eidelon sat on an onyx throne, wreathed in purple  Asphodel flames  that surrounded the throne.  The eidelon appeared like a flaming skeleton wearing bulky armor and wielding a large bident.  He mocked them from the safety of his throne.

"If you're so tough, Lord of Bones, come down here to the ground and fight us, man to man," taunted Etor.  The Lord of Bones is easily provoked, and gave up the invulnerability of the throne to face Etor in hand to hand.  "Mortal weapons can't hurt me, fool", boasted the Lord.  He stabbed with his bident, and the players learned the aura of cold fire that surrounded him burned anyone that attacked him physically, meaning they had to kill him quickly or get worn down by cold fire damage.

The black meteoric spear was indeed magical, and the champion of Poseidon stabbed the Lord of Bones a number of times with it, cutting through his ghostly form with the magic blade.  "The key you seek is in the room nearby,"  said the Lord, as he disintegrated and died.  "Enjoy your fleeting victory, mortals; my master will just create a new Lord of Bones in a few days..."  And then he faded away.

Among the treasure of the Lord of Bones was an over-sized skeleton key.  Way back in Game 3 (He Took an Ogre to the Knee) the players had wandered into quadrant two and found a mural room where the creature you touched on the wall materialized and fought you.  When the summoned monsters were defeated, the room revealed a secret door and a large glowing keyhole - the same size as the over-sized skeleton key.  The players wasted no time in navigating across the quadrant to the mural room, and readied themselves.  Instead of touching "ogre", this time they picked "goblin", and quickly fought off 8 magically summoned goblins.  It pays to be prepared.

The skeleton key fit the glowing key hole that appeared, and beyond was a simple treasury - a silver-inlaid drinking horn sat on a simple stone pedestal beneath a shining pillar of light from the ceiling.  The paladin picked it up, and the horn thrummed with power.  Players being what they are, they poured some water into it and took a drink - anyone who sipped the water was healed!  No, they didn't find the Holy Grail - this is the Drinking Horn of Hades, one of his 7 special objects, a piece of the Regalia of the Death God  (although the players don't know that yet - the significance or why it's important.  They're just to glad to have a cool healing item).

As they turned to leave, glowing red letters began to appear on the stone table.  The players gawked in dismay as the swirling letters arranged themselves to read thusly:  "Alantir of Athens now owns the Horn of Hades.  Alantir's current location:  Taenarum."  They threw a cloak over the pedestal to hide the lettering, and left the room.  Hopefully it would be a while before anyone else discovered how to get past the mural room and see the inscription of the table.

That's where we ended last game.  Pretty good all around.  At least half the group is on the cusp of leveling up, they've defeated a major boss and gotten an important quest item (even though they don't know they're on a quest).  What more can a referee want?

Cast of Characters
Alantir, Champion of Poseidon
Etor, Spartan explorer
Jax the Hunter (newly joined - and dead)
Maribel of Christmasland (Elf Enchanter - newly joined)

Fighting men - Dorus, Eutropios, Dunixi, Apostolos

Barnabas - a thief
Thaddeus - a fighter

Stayed Home / Player Unavailable
Moe, a Bard
Talus, a Magic User

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Treasure Maps

I've been enjoying using treasure maps in Taenarum.  They come up as random results on the magic items table, and I've placed them manually to add interest to a treasure hoard and relocate treasure to someplace more appropriate.  They serve a useful, self-referential purpose in the dungeon.  They give the players a reason to circle back and discover something previously missed, or offer them a useful clue they need to hold onto until it makes sense - when they can match the map snippet with the treasure  against their larger map.

I'm firmly in the camp that a megadungeon needs lots of empty rooms and fly-over terrain.  The players aren't meant to laboriously explore every corner of every room; they're frequently passing quickly through empty spaces en route to an actual destination or quest.  It creates space for them to find a reason to return to an 'empty' area later when they find a map or clue indicating a hidden cache.

My creation process is straightforward - I determine the room where the treasure is hidden, first (randomly, of course) and drop a quick note in the room description where the treasure is hidden.  Then I'll make a small map, usually showing the treasure room and a nearby room or hallway.  The objective is to give the players a small pattern on a snippet of graph paper - whenever they've mapped enough of the larger dungeon to match the snippet, they now know where to search.

I've placed a few verbal treasure maps as well, little rhymes such as "Black water beneath the cypress tree, third step down to find the orange key".  So far, none of these have shown up in game reports, though at least one is hidden on somewhere on level one.

Eventually, the treasure maps I use will be more elaborate - they'll point to areas outside the dungeon that require quests and wilderness travel.  For lower levels, the self-referential maps are fine.  I don't want to over think them, and don't let them become blockers.  They're completely optional for the players - bonuses for the vigilant.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Catching Up with the Taenarum Campaign

Taenarum Game 9 - Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Hobo's Life For Me

It makes sense every few months to put a summary or preface before one of these game reports, to help orient new people or provide a refresher.  What is this Taenarum of which I speak?  Taenarum is a sprawling dungeon built around the legendary road to the Underworld.  It sits at the farthest end of Mythic Greece, below Sparta in ancient Laconia.  The nearest village is a small coastal cove named Psammathous Bay.  In the years since the legendary heroes returned from the Trojan War, lesser heroes now make their way to haunted Taenarum to wrest gold and glory from the minions of Hades, god of the Underworld.  The spirit behind the campaign is merging the quintessential D&D experience with Greek myth and legend.

I'm running Taenarum using ACKS (Adventurer Conqueror King), a BX retroclone that adds a lot of additional classes to the core 4.  ACKS characters are a little stronger than traditional BX characters, lending to the heroic atmosphere.  Although my first gaming love is horror, the tone of Taenarum is whimsical and fanciful to support gaming with the family and some younger kids.  Currently two groups are exploring Taenarum; some of my adult regulars and their older kids in one game, and the younger kids and family in another.

Last game, the adults group - Moe's Marauders - were forced to attend a banquet with a capricious sorceress, Atalante.  Each level of the dungeon is separated into quadrants connected by the road to the Underworld, and Atalante's palace is in quadrant 4, near where the road to Hades slopes downwards towards dungeon level 2.   Over dinner she would decide whether to let them live,  turn them all into swine, or transform them into pig-men to join her company of pig-men soldiers.  In a previous game, the players accepted a mission to rescue a prisoner from Atalante, a merchant's son named Jude.  They tracked a pair of pig-men back to the sorceress's palace and requested an audience with her.  They learned that Jude wasn't a prisoner at all - he was a willing apprentice of the sorceress and didn't want to return home.

That's as good a place as any to start this week's game report.

Atalante's servants presented the characters a banquet of fresh fish and Mediterranean vegetables, all cooked to perfection, while nearby in the hall her lines of pig men slurped out of troughs and buckets.  "You've presented me with a dilemma", the sorceress addressed them over dinner.  "I appreciate your honesty about your goals, and you're clearly resourceful.  But I have a reputation to maintain.  My operation here can't run unopposed unless bandits, miscreants, and adventurers are deathly afraid of getting turned into boars or pig-men at my whim.  You see why I shouldn't let you go.  Take the incident that happened just a few days ago, where some looters broke into a section of my palace and looted a store room.  There must be repercussions."

The players quickly picked up that the door was open for negotiation, and hammered out a deal with the sorceress - they would deal with any other adventurers on level 1 that had taken up the rescue mission, and would find the looters that broke into her store room and deal with them.  (The irony is that the players were the ones that looted the palace, unknowingly).  They would tell the merchant back in town that Jude was a pig-man and beyond rescue.  Since pig-men were fine as guards but weren't great at exploration, they even agreed to enter her service as occasional explorers and mercenaries for hire to carry out occasional explorations.  This was one of those nights where half the session was table talk, roleplaying, and learning a bit about the dungeon.  Atalante had a number of targets to explore in quadrant 3 of level 1, quests for future game sessions.

In the meantime, the focused on another adventurer group that needed to be eliminated - some rivals from back in town called "The Repo Men".  The party scoured the area of the dungeon where they thought the Repo Men might be camping out, found them, ambushed them, took them out with a Sleep spell, and then killed the lot of them.  It was brutal!  Players are funny.  They could have attacked the sorceress and done away with her threats, they could have kidnapped Jude after knocking him on the head, they had options.  They chose to eliminate the competition - and then blamed the robbery of Atalante's palace on the dead Repo Men.  Murder hobos!

There were some other entertaining moments.  I've placed a lot of treasure maps in Taenarum, and the players already have a couple of fragments from way early in the campaign.  Adam, one of the players, was absently shuffling through his notes at the beginning of the session and suddenly called out, "I know where this treasure map goes!"  The players had covered the area a couple of game sessions ago, and only tonight realized there was a hidden treasure in a previous room that wasn't searched thoroughly.  They circled back for some easy loot.

In another empty room, there was a small, dim pit.  The dwarf hung over the side with a torch (for no apparent reason) but it was fortuitous - the light illuminated a camouflaged section of wall hidden in the shadows of the pit.  The thief discovered that a gray cloth was draped over a piece of statuary sticking out of the wall - a carved satyr's head, mouth agape like a fountain.  There were dried green stains on the ground and a coin-sized slot in the satyr's head.  Someone had scrawled a nearby note in charcoal, hard to read - "This one takes about 500…"

The thief dropped a coin in the head, and it made an arcade-like plink plink plink sound as it disappeared within.  They dropped another.  They pooled their money, everyone pitching in 50-75gp, and laboriously slotted 500gp into the head, like it was a giant piggy bank, eager to see what happened.  The floor started to vibrate, machinery clanged, and the satyr's mouth started spewing green liquid.  The thief expected it, and had a waterskin ready to catch as much liquid as possible.  It turned out to be the equivalent of two healing potions!

"This is too valuable to let other adventurers know about it, let's cover it back up."

Overall this was a good session.  Lots of enthusiastic table talk and planning, they now have a patron in the dungeon, and one of Atalante's future missions included finding the source of the giant insects in quadrant 3.  "There is some force or magic power there that causes normal bugs and critters to swell to gigantic sizes… my mistress is interested in studying this source", Atalante said, hinting at a greater power that sponsors her presence in the dungeon from elsewhere.  She's patterned herself after Circe, after all.

Cast of Characters
Moe, a Bard
Talus, a Magic User
Alantir, Champion of Poseidon
Etor, Spartan explorer

Fighting men - Dorus, Eutropios, Dunixi, Apostolos

New NPC's
Barnabas - a thief
Thaddeus - a fighter

*The picture is Curse of the Swine, a Magic card in last year's Theros block.  It's pretty awesome that last year's Magic sets featured lots of Greek myth inspiration - I've been loving it.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Catching Up With Supernatural

I blinked, and a week went by without blogging.  My eyeballs have been on the TV screen (or more frequently, the iPad) finishing the last couple of streaming episodes of the TV series Supernatural in a binge of media consumption.  Not once in the past 9-10 years did I bother to tune into that one while it was broadcasting; my wife, an ardent Dr Who fan, relentlessly implored me to commit to watching the first season of Supernatural a couple of months ago proclaiming it would strike a similar chord.  It's actually been great fun.

Let's say, like me, you're somewhat averse to the television and were equally oblivious about the show - here's the theme:  Supernatural is about a pair of brothers who hunt monsters as their life's mission.  The show postulates a world where there's a brotherhood of "hunters", urban fantasy warriors that roam the backwaters and by-streets of America, staking vampires and laying ghosts to rest, combing the papers for gruesome murders and bizarre deaths to find the next case.  There are overarching metaplots that invoke Judeo-Christian mythology, involving rogue angels, scheming demons, and sundry Biblical monsters.  Beyond the metaplot stories, each episode is basically a "monster of the week" showcase, and the writers have definitely looked far and wide to fill out 9 seasons with critters.

Supernatural isn't a horror show, but you can still get plenty of ideas from it for your horror or D&D gaming.  It's pretty much someone's "Hunter the Reckoning" campaign made into an ongoing saga, the way True Blood is a Masquerade campaign brought to HBO.  I've gotten some good ideas for staging a few obscure monsters, and it's shown me that there's quite a bit of monstrous material in the Bible - ideas for some upcoming posts, perhaps.

Meanwhile, the kiddos have discovered Naruto.  I've been hearing quotes from the show non-stop for the past two weeks:  Dad, I feel really good about my red deck for this week's FNM - I'm going undefeated this week, believe it!  Which reminds me, the latest core set for Magic the Gathering dropped last week, so we've also been busy sorting cards and updating our standard decks.  I'm a decent sealed player and took second at our prerelease; for standard, I've been on pack rats and demons all season, so black devotion was easy to update with M15.  I figure there's a small amount of overlap between readers who are just table top gamers and those that play the Magic; you've either been loving the past year of swamps and demons and black horrible things or you can't wait for October and no more black versus blue showdowns.  Anyway, I'm pretty excited to have "Urborg, the Tomb of Yawgmoth", back in standard, believe it!

Despite the distractions of television and the playing cards, we've had some great sessions with the gaming groups exploring Taenarum.  I have a few game reports to post this week.  I also picked up a copy of the 5th Edition Starter Box to peruse, and an author sent a few adventures over to review.   Plenty to catch up on.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Excel for Campaign Events

A couple of commenters on yesterday's post asked for some tips on putting together their own campaign events sheet for their campaigns; glad to help.  Here are some simple Excel techniques for generating campaign events and setting them on a month and day.  It's not too sophisticated, I frequently use Excel to generate large batches of raw (random) content, plug it into my notes, and then take it from there.  If you need to generate ideas for multiple domains or regions, or multiple years, it makes sense to take the extra ten minutes and put it into Excel with some formulas instead of rolling out dice manually.

Here's how the Excel looks:

Formulas go in cells E, F, G, H.  The formula in cell E generates a random number from 1,100, nested in an IF statement to return a "Yes" if the random d100 is less than or equal the target number in column C.  Formula:  =IF(RANDBETWEEN(1,100)<(C2+1), "Yes", "No")

Cells F and G generate a number from 1 to 12 or 1 to 30 for months and days respectively, after checking to see if an event was indicated in column E.  Formula:  =IF(E3="Yes", RANDBETWEEN(1,12)," ")

Finally, column H concatenates it all together, plugging in spaces and commas.  Formula:  =IF(E3="Yes", "Month "&F3&", "&"Day "&G3&"  "&A3, " ").  I copy the final notes from column H to my actual calendar and add details from there.

Here's a functional Excel example you can snag from my dropbox to start modifying yourself:

Campaign Events Sample

Friday, July 11, 2014

Campaign Events in Taenarum

The next step of bringing the Taenarum campaign to life is the addition of a calendar and campaign events.  For game calendars, I usually just replace the names of the Gregorian months with flavorful names that fit the setting.  I'm not interested in leap years or alternative durations for weeks or months; that kind of stuff isn't high impact on the game and is too much of a chore for everyone to remember.  It'd be like replacing feet and miles (with apologies to the rest of the world).  For Taenarum, the Gregorian month names get replaced with month names like Gamelion, Anthesterion, Elaphebolion, Mounichion, Thargelion, Skirophorion, Hekatombaion, Metageitnion, Boedromion, Pyanepsion, Maimakterion, Poseideon.  In the campaign, the current month is Thargelion, corresponding to May in the Gregorian calendar.  Finally, I add a bunch of holidays, festivals, and religious observances to the calendar to round it out.

Next I develop a giant list of potential events, with a percentage chance of annual occurrence.  One of the themes I want to develop in Taenarum is that the gods are petty and manipulative, and frequently intervene in human affairs to the detriment of ordinary people.  Per the Deities and Demigods approach, they're supernatural bullies statted out like big old monsters.  There are a handful of events on the list that are explicitly divine - like when rampaging beasts or gigantic 20 HD monsters are sent out into the world, to punish some city or region that offended one god or another.  I've also included a straight 50% that any major event has a god behind the scenes pushing the matter.  Storms are natural events, for instance, but there's no reason a god couldn't also be behind pounding a region with a storm.

Here's the giant list of events (so far):

  • Assassination - 10% (Unnatural)
  • Bandits - 50% (Unnatural)
  • Birth in Ruling Family - 20% (Unnatural)
  • Border Skirmish - 40% (Unnatural)
  • Comet - 30% (Natural)
  • Cultural Discovery - 10% (Unnatural)
  • Death (natural) - 10% (Natural)
  • Death of Official (accident) - 25% (Unnatural)
  • Divine Disfavor - 15% (Divine)
  • Divine Favor - 15% (Divine)
  • Divine Plot - 25% (Divine)
  • Earthquake - 10% (Natural)
  • Epic Hero - 10% (Divine)
  • Explosion - 10% (Natural)
  • Famine - 10% (Unnatural)
  • Fanatic Cult - 10% (Unnatural)
  • Fire, Major - 10% (Natural)
  • Fire, Minor - 50% (Natural)
  • Flood - 30% (Natural)
  • Great Beast (10+ HD) - 75% (Divine)
  • Hurricane - 15% (Natural)
  • Insurrection - 10% (Unnatural)
  • Lycanthropy - 15% (Unnatural)
  • Magical Happening - 30% (Unnatural)
  • Market Glut - 20% (Natural)
  • Market Shortage - 25% (Natural)
  • Marriage - 20% (Unnatural)
  • Meteor Shower - 20% (Natural)
  • Meteor Strike - 1% (Natural)
  • Migration - 10% (Unnatural)
  • New Religion - 2% (Unnatural)
  • Plague - 25% (Natural)
  • Plague - 10% (Unnatural)
  • Population Change - 20% (Natural)
  • Pretender\Usurper - 10% (Unnatural)
  • Raiders - 25% (Unnatural)
  • Rebellion (minor) - 10% (Unnatural)
  • Resident Specialist (new) - 20% (Unnatural)
  • Resource Lost - 10% (Natural)
  • Resource New - 10% (Natural)
  • Sea Monster (20+ HD) - 75% (Divine)
  • Sinkhole - 5% (Natural)
  • Spy Ring - 60% (Unnatural)
  • Storm - 80% (Natural)
  • Tornado - 10% (Natural)
  • Trade Route Lost - 15% (Natural)
  • Trade Route New - 15% (Natural)
  • Traitor - 30% (Unnatural)
  • Vengeful Stranger - 10% (Divine)
  • VIP Visitor - 25% (Unnatural)
  • Volcano - 2% (Natural)
  • Wandering Monster (20+ HD) - 75% (Divine)
  • War - 40% (Unnatural)
  • War in Heaven - 10% (Divine)
  • Waterspout - 25% (Natural)
  • Whirlpool - 25% (Natural)

I used the list (and excel formulas) to calculate whether an event happens that year, and then calculate the month and day.  Taenarum is in southern Laconia, the region of Sparta, so I went ahead and created events for the year for that region.  If the players ever travel, I'll do the same for the remote regions.  I use a random list of Greek gods to determine whose favor or disfavor is earned if a divine event is indicated.  I also have a list of the major cities, their rulers, and ruling houses, to randomly generate the other party where an event implies an outside power.  The famous rulers of Greek mythic history - villains like Menelaus and Agamemnon - make great power mad tyrants to put in the game world, starting wars and stirring up trouble and intrigues.  I have a hope that any high level Taenarum campaign becomes 'A Game of Thrones, Greek Edition'.

Here's a quick look at a practical example for Laconia.  I created a list of events for the Laconia region; 13 events are happening over the course of the year, and by dint of random results, 4 of them are happening in the current month (Thargelion).  Here's the list:

  • Day 13 Fire, Minor
  • Day 19 Famine
  • Day 22 War in Heaven (Hades and Hermes)
  • Day 24 Storm

The day 13 event is also where I've placed the festival of Thargelion on the calendar.  Thargelion is a fertility festival honoring Apollo, involving sacrifices and fires - criminals were even used as human sacrifices in earlier times.  Dice indicated the fire is divinely influenced.  Allowing the inspiration to guide me, here's how I'm interpreting the results:  the local lord (a bit of a malefactor) has framed a political rival as a criminal so he could hand him over to the priests for the Thargelion sacrifice and burn him alive.  Displeased with the injustice, Apollo causes a fire in the town that ends up destroying the granary, causing an immediate food shortage for the isolated home base of the campaign (the famine).

The players may or may not be involved in the events - I'm perfectly comfortable if the events happen behind the scenes (as news and rumors when the players return to town) or whether they become potential plot hooks.  The players might hear about the unjust arrest and someone might try to hire them to foment a rescue.  Perhaps the local priests ask for help appeasing Apollo in the aftermath.  I just like having interesting things going on in the background when the players return from the dungeon.  Additionally, omens and oracles are an important part of the Greek theme, and the list of events provides plenty of material for supporting prophecies and omens and foreshadowing some major future catastrophe.  Maybe the players have a vision in the dungeon (there are plenty of oracles and seers down there, hags and magic statues and scrying pools and whatnot) and some of these events can be foreshadowed through visions.

Looking ahead to Day 22, 'War in Heaven', consider this:  Hades is the god of wealth and the Underworld, which makes him the ideal patron for a dungeon like Taenarum and its many vaults of gold and wealth.  Hermes is a god of Thievery.  I'm thinking the 'War in Heaven' event will involve a bold heist in the depths of Taenarum by Hermes or one of his well known followers - it's the kind of event that could have ripples throughout the dungeon.  It suggests more potential plot hooks for the players, too - like if Hermes or a messenger approached the players undercover to do the heist, or Hades approaches them to foil it.  "Wait a second, that cloaked stranger literally disappeared in the alley - were we just visited by a god?"  Great fun, right?

Anyway, wrapping up this particular post - these steps aren't that hard to do - build a calendar, create a list of possible events, generate a list of actual annual events for the local region, and then use inspiration and dice to add details and get them ready for play.  The mileage you get out of a small amount of work is phenomenal.  Time-bound events add a ton of inspirational value to the referee, while adding depth and dimension to the setting.  What are you waiting for - get out there and add campaign events to your game!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

A Framework for D&D Horror

It's no secret I've been casting about for the right vehicle for running a campaign merging horror and D&D styles.  I have a deep passion for the genre, although it's not always the best fit for my gaming groups - especially when I have a bunch of kids at the table.  Earlier this year I put horror development on hiatus to focus on developing an adventure campaign appropriate to all ages - regular readers are familiar with Taenarum, my mythology themed megadungeon.  Taenarum is going great, but that doesn't mean I won't revive the horror side projects.  It's just a matter of finding the right approach.

Specifically - I need something that lends itself to episodic play and small scenarios so we can do some one-shots and interpolated games.  It also needs to merge the key tropes of D&D and horror.  Before delving forward, let's take a moment and identify said tropes.

Old school D&D emphasizes exploration and recovering treasure over combat, separating it from newer iterations.  Settings assume gold and treasure is sequestered in old ruins guarded by traps and monsters, lending itself to a player-driven sandbox style.  Exploring old ruins to recover treasure, while avoiding combat - these shouldn't be too hard to work into a horror game.

Traditional horror game scenarios are almost always presented as mysteries.  The players are engaged with defining the mystery, then presented with clues and evidence that allow them to ultimately confront the danger or solve the mystery.  The mystery structure lends itself to horror when you overlay uncertainty, isolation, and the weird and unnatural over the top.  The place where horror gaming tends to break down is the ongoing campaign.  Either the entire campaign represents a macro-mystery, or you need a good narrative explanation for why the adventurers keep running into  the horror of the week.  Monster hunter shows, while greatly entertaining, usually  don't generate much terror or horror.

Stepping back, I'm thinking the theme of "bad places" supports blending the genres.  Picture a countryside littered with mysterious and forbidden ruins, each surrounded by peculiar lore and shunned by the locals - for good reason.  A handful of horror writers have gone down the path of mythologizing a local area with lurking horrors - HP Lovecraft's Massachusetts, Ramsey Campbell's Severn Valley, or Stephen King's Maine spring immediately to mind.    Creating such an area as a D&D style sandbox, with most plot hooks represented as legends and lore around lost treasures, seems well within grasp of our available technologies - the hex crawl, the site-based location, the conventional mystery structure.

Of course, each place necessarily represents a challenging, 'screw you' style of dungeon - as in, you woke the dead, now deal with it.  I've repeated it before, horror is ultimately conservative, and victims and protagonists alike bring the horror down on themselves by treading into the forbidden.  Monsters stand as warnings and signposts at the limits of humanity, guardians of the frontiers.  Striving to learn things 'man was not meant to know' calls for destruction.  (Grave robbing old tombs and recovering secrets best left buried fall into the same category).

This reminds, I saw something either this week or last where a reviewer was making cranky complaints about Death Frost Doom and the way the twist  in that dungeon can screw over the players.  I tend to view this as misalignment of audience.  Spoilers about Death Frost Doom:  In a moment of greed, the scenario sets the players up to destroy a thing that unleashes ancient horrors, sending the adventure into a radically different direction.  It's brilliant.  But it is very much true to the tropes of the horror genre, not heroic  adventure fantasy.  Springing a survival horror twist on the players is fair game in a horror scenario.  There has to be alignment of expectations between the players and referees (and I guess, in some cases, module reviewers) around the nature of the game and the genre we're actually modeling.

Anyway - this is where I'm at with it.  Start small, with a simple hex crawl and a few scattered lairs, and craft the sites into locations filled with mystery and horror.  I'll post an example in the next day or so to demonstrate the flavor.  Some of the more interesting questions fall into whether 'the horrors' should revolve around traditional monsters imagined fresh, or creatures generated whole cloth ala Lovecraft or Campbell.  What do you guys think?