Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Scary Babies

Those of you who’ve been following these missives for awhile have probably deduced two of my loves when it comes to dungeon design: strange statues and weird real world events that can be mined for inspiration. Recently, I’ve discovered something that combines the two.

While Goggling my way across the Web, looking for weird statues to help feed a project I’m working on, I came across the works of the Norwegian sculptor, Gustav Vigeland. After looking at some of his works, specifically those installed at Frogner Park, I concluded that some of these piece –or at least their R’Nisian counterparts – simply must be found in the shrouded chambers of Ol’ Nameless.

As you’ll soon see, Vigeland had an interest in depicting the human form in his works. This field of artistic expertise goes hand-in-hand with my own preference of including statues that might prove to be a threat to parties of wandering adventurers as they spring to life, or otherwise suddenly begin demonstrating the ability to seriously injure or kill those who start poking at things they probably shouldn’t.

I don't like the looks of this old lady. There's something hag-like about her and her old man doesn't exactly inspire warm feelings either.

That's a ball of babies. It reminds me of a birthing group of baby snakes, coiled and intertwined. I'd hate to think what might happen if that horde of babies suddenly sprang to magical life and started heading towards the party with dead stone eyes...

I guess I don't have to imagine it after all. An attack of babies would look something like this.

And speaking of things that I'd hate to see come to life, this is definitely one of them. I can picture this horde of adult-sized figures climbing off one another and assembling before the the party in military fashion before closing in to seal their doom.

Monday, December 29, 2008

My Belated Holiday Gift to You

I like big maps. There’s something very visceral about unrolling a large piece of paper adorned with symbols across a table and staring down at an undiscovered land waiting to be explored. As part of my preparations for my planned Gamma World hex-crawl, I realized that a simple 8” x 11” piece of hex paper just wasn’t going to do. I needed something bigger. Something apocalyptic in scale.

With this in mind, I sat down at the computer and began working away with Photoshop. With the application of a little bit of patience and time, I soon had something much more suitable for what I hope to accomplish with the hex-crawl game. I was pleased enough with the result that I figured it was too good to keep to myself.

If you take a look over to the sidebar on the right, you’ll notice that I’ve added a new listing. Entitled “Equipment List”, this new category is going to serve as a holding place for any projects of mine that I’d like to share with my fellow gamers. The first such project is my Mega Blank Hex-Crawl Map. If you think you might find a use for this, please go ahead and download a copy for yourself, free of charge.

The Mega Blank Hex-Crawl Map measures 36” x 46” and takes up 1.73 MB of space. It’s in .jpeg format. After finishing it up, I took it down to my local Staples on a thumb drive and had them print out a copy for me on their ink-jet printer. That version was done at 17” x 22”, which is also the size of the old Judges Guild Wilderlands of High Fantasy maps. When printed at that size, the hexes come out to be ¼” in size each. After they whipped up the ink-jet version on glossy paper, I had them run it through their oversized copier and run off five duplicates on lesser grade paper. The total cost for the initial print and the duplicates came to $6.50. They gave me a break on the initial ink-jet print, so your own final cost might vary a bit.

The only downside to the Mega Blank Hex-Crawl Map is that I forgot to number the hexes. Looks like I’m going to have to label the edges of the map with letters and numbers just like the old World of Grayhawk boxed set maps in order to keep track of what’s where.

This is my test run to see if Orbitfiles works for me as a way to distribute any projects that I might whip up over the coming year. Let me know if you run into any problems with the link or the download process.

And you will know us by the dice in our hands…

I don’t talk about being a role-playing enthusiast outside of this blog and the circle of my friends who also indulge in this pastime. This holiday season reminded me of how uncomfortable I am talking about this hobby that I love with people not counted amongst the choir. As I moved through the social events of the past week, often finding myself in conversation with my extended family by marriage, I talked and chatted and joked as I am wont to, but not once did I mention the fact that I enjoy rolling oddly-shaped polyhedrals and pretending that I’m somebody else from time to time. It’s just not something that I can do.

I’m quite sure that I’m not alone in this reticence to speak of my gaming habits. Many other people find that it’s easier to gloss over this hobby of ours for reasons as varied as the games that we play. A lot of the older gamers remember the bad times of the 1980s. A time when the moral majority of America decided that D&D was the latest tool of the debbil to corrupt the souls of youth. Other gamers seek to keep their connection quiet to avoid being branded with the stereotype of the socially inept gamer dude. Still others of us have just grown tired of trying to justify their continued participation in a “childish pastime.” Some, such as me, remain silent for all of the above reasons.

This hobby is, and always shall remain, a niche activity. Despite a brief period of faddism that occurred in the 1980s, unfortunately accompanied by the anti-rpg witch hunt of that time, role-playing games are never going to be embrace by the public majority as an acceptable way to recreate. Similar pursuits, such as MMORPGs, have somehow managed to garner more public acceptance, but those of us strange enough to pretend we’re someone else without either a computer or a stage to prop us up will always encounter odd stares when we talk about these games. And that’s a damn shame.

I’m not going to indulge in cataloging all the positive things that this hobby has taught me. Others have done so in much better fashion than I possible could, and if you’re reading these words, you already know them yourself. I’m not going to point fingers at other recreational activities that do more damage to homes; families and livelihoods than role-playing games ever could, and yet still remain more socially acceptable to the public. I’m not even going to try and attempt to offer a solution to the ostracism that this hobby engenders. I simply don’t have one.

I know that my unwillingness to speak of my participation in this pastime does not make things better. That silence is compliance, and to do nothing to make things better is to accept the status quo. But, quite frankly, I’m too tired to swim against the tide and punditry has never been of much interest to me. So what’s a poor, recently-returned gamer to do?

It seems that my only option is to keep quietly guarding the flame. To continue to give back to the hobby that has brought me much joy. To instill in the next generation the pleasures of using one’s imagination as an escape from the sometimes cruel realities of modern life. To try and live my life as a reminder that, while we all have to grow old, we don’t always have to completely grow up.

That’s my real gaming resolution for the coming year. All of the ones that I mentioned last week are merely part and parcel to a greater goal. To all of you out there currently doing the same, I salute you. Every one of you who is currently blogging about this hobby, writing your own adventures and crazy-go-bananas homebrew rule systems, submitting articles to the professional publications and fanzines, taking time to teach your kids and significant others the fun of tossing dice and moving little plastic guys around a map, or just getting together with friends to occasionally share in this pastime, is feeding a little more tinder into the fire that’s been burning since 1974. I don’t care what game you’re playing, or even if your preferred edition jives with my own. The simple fact that you’re out there doing so is enough for me to gladly count you amongst the keepers of the flame.

Just don’t ask me to do it in public…

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Back from the Lesser White North

Dungeon Slide Show
I’ve just gotten back from my sojourn into the lesser white North of upper New York State and have begun the process of getting back into the post-Christmas swing of things. I’ll be catching up on comments and such over the course of the day and getting things in order for the upcoming New Year.

My trip upstate was just what I needed to relax and not think about too much about things role-playing related. As much as I love the game, sometimes it’s nice to turn of the referee part of the brain for awhile and just enjoy time with friends and loved ones. And eat. Oh yea gods, did I eat. I’ve never spent as much time with folks who take the feasting part of the holidays as seriously as I did during these past four days. I was running the risk of having the inflatable mattress I was sleeping on fold in half like some giant blue taco shell with myself as the overstuffed meat filling in the middle.

The trip was a reminder that age is slowly settling in. Back in my punk rock days, I wouldn’t think twice about piling into a car for an eight-hour trip to see a band play in a distant city, knowing that I’d probably be spending the night on the hard floor of someone I hardly knew, using a smelly duffle bag and a spiked leather MC as bedding. More often than not, I’d wake up with stale beer and cigarette butts plastered to my face and stinky feet from wearing my boots to bed. Now, I’m relishing the fact that I get to sleep in my own bed again and the four hour drive took more out of me than I’d like to admit.

I picked up some nifty old-school swag thanks to direct presents and gift cards, so much that I hardly know what to start reading first. That’s a problem that I’d like to have more often. Despite the great classic gaming products I received, the prize for best present has to go to this:

Not directly game related, but a very much appreciated gift from my brother that continues my family’s tradition of celebrating Christmas with nods to our Norwegian heritage. The shirt says: “If you can read this you are a Viking.”

I’ll see you folks on Monday with all new ruminations and musings.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Twelve Gaming Resolutions: Numbers 4-1

4 – Work on a Gamma World sandbox game: This is the most ambitious project I intend to undertake in the coming year. Inspired by what people have been doing with the LBBs and the philosophy of “Imagining the hell out of them,” combined with the recent movement back to the sandbox-style campaign, I hope to do something similar with my second-favorite role-playing game, Gamma World. I believe that there is just as much room for home-brewing and pushing the limits of what is presented in the 1st edition of Gamma World as there is with OD&D. Adding a Wilderlands of High Fantasy-type hex-crawl setting to that game just screams out to me to be done. I intend to undertake this project without any preconceived ideas of what a Gamma World game should be other than what is presented in the original fifty-six page rule book and see what I end up with.

3 – Play test Ol’ Nameless: This one almost goes without saying. I’ve got everything I need in place to see if I still remember how to design and run an AD&D dungeon. Now all I need to do is actually find the time to run a group through the upper levels and see if I’ve managed to kick the rust off. If all goes as I hope that it does, I see what I need to tweak and where my weaknesses lie in the design department. Plus, it would be more fodder for posts around these parts.

2 – Finish up Ol’ Nameless through Level Five: This one really needs to wait until after I complete Number 3. The urge to keep going on Ol’ Nameless is still strong within me, but since I’ve already had to revisit previously covered ground in building the upper levels of Ol’ Nameless, I’m loathe to keep going until I see the results of those efforts in action. Once I’m able to see what I’ve done right and what I’ve done wrong with the top levels of the dungeon, I’ll be able to tackle some more of it without as much self-doubt. I’m trying to keep this resolution realistic. I’m more confident that I’ll be able to wrap up another three dungeon levels and six more sub-levels than I’d be stating that I plan to finish the entire thing by next year’s end.

1 – Find a name for Ol’ Nameless: The biggest of the Twelve. It’s become almost comical that I’ve done as much as I have with The Dungeon Not Yet Named™ and still haven’t settled on a title for it that pops to my ear. I think I came a little close last week during the commute home, but I’m still not 100% sold on any name that’s come to mind so far. The long this continues, the more likely that Ol’ Nameless is going to forever remain “Ol’ Nameless”.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Twelve Gaming Resolutions: Numbers 8-5

8 – Meet and play with some new gamers: Don’t get me wrong. I love my regular gaming group, but it seems that in this day and age of social networking, it can’t be too hard to meet some new hobbyists and have an opportunity to see how some other folks roll. The challenge is of course to find people who you can at least tolerate spending a long gaming session with. All too often we get comfortable with the familiar and we forget that our regular gaming buddies were all strangers once. Even if the game turns out to be a complete crapfest, at least you made the effort to meet other folks with an interest in the hobby. You might learn just something new out of the experience as well. Even if it’s just a sit-in session at the FLGS or at a con, I’m going to make an effort to play with some unfamiliar faces this year.

7 – Attend a local game convention: This is something that I haven’t done in a few years, stemming from my exodus from the hobby combined with the rising cost of attendance at the convention that occurs closest to me each year. For the past several years, the events and panels at that con haven’t been worth the price I’d have to pay to attend the convention, and since I was out of the hobby, those events and panels would be the sole reason for me to go. Now that I’m back in the game and looking to meet some new players, it’s time for me to return and see what’s happening on the gaming floor. A con would be the perfect opportunity to sit in on an old-school game or try some system that I’ve never had a chance to play before. The gaming schedule for that con should be coming out in the next few months. Hopefully, there will be something going on there to pique my interest.

6 – Get three things published or otherwise distributed: The past year has shown that there exists a viable market for people like you and I to get our gaming articles published. With the continued success of Fight On! and the high hopes that I have for Knockspell, 2009 proves to be the year to present some of my own material to a larger audience than that which this blog reaches. Even if those markets don’t work out, I can always take the road the Kellri has and make some of my own efforts available as free downloads. I got into this blog thing to help give back to the hobby that has brought me so much joy in the past. Being published outside of this blog is just another way to continue in that vein.

5 – Run a classic D&D short dungeon adventure: Despite my high hopes for Ol’ Nameless, there is still part of me that want to run a simple game of D&D. While AD&D is always going to be my game of choice, there’s a lot to be said for something in the LBB, Holmes, Moldvay or even Labyrinth Lord style. The nostalgia for 15 minute character generation and elves as a class is sometimes too powerful to deny. I fully intent to indulge in this guilty pleasure before the end of the coming year.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Twelve Gaming Resolutions: Numbers 12-9

Since this week is that of Christmas and the related holiday activities and responsibilities related to it, I’ll be on the road visiting family and friends for much of it. I will most likely have little or no access to the Internet until I return home on Saturday, hopefully burdened with gifts to enjoy and holiday cheer in my heart. Since many of you will also be attending to celebrations and traveling as well, this will be a light week of posting here. By light, I mean one post divided into three parts. So until next week, I wish you all happy holidays and good fortune in the coming year.

As the year winds to a close, it is only natural to reflect upon the year that has passed and to make plans for the coming one. While I have my own plans and agendas to pursue in 2009 in regards to matters of greater importance than this little hobby of ours, I thought that I’d reveal what my goals in regards to things gaming-related are for the next year. While some are grander than others and more difficult to achieve, none of them are outside of the realm of realistic expectations. I hope that around this time next year I will be able to place a big fat check mark next to each, satisfied that my goals were met and looking forward to those for 2010.

12 – Buy a copy of Outdoor Survival: I am not a completist by any stretch of the imagination. I do, however, possess an interest in what has come before as well as the desire to be able to examine artifacts from the past first-hand. These temperaments naturally lead to my career as an archivist, as well as spilling over into my recreational activities as well. So it comes as little surprise that when the means are available to get my hands on such an artifact without unreasonable expense or effort, I simply must pursue such a goal. Outdoor Survival has a special place in my heart as it is the only true “old-school” gaming product that I’ve actually owned and played during the developmental period of my introduction to gaming. That copy has long been lost. Seeing how it’d be cheaper and easier to get my hands on a replacement copy rather than a set of the LBBs, I’ll be practical this year and make Outdoor Survival my old-school purchase for 2009.

11 – Read at least six books from Appendix N that I’ve never read before: There been a lot of talk on the blogs about Appendix N from the 1st edition DMG this past year. While I am familiar with most of the more influential works on that list, there are noticeable gaps in my reading history. Thanks to the Internet and a greater understanding of the inter-library loan system in my area, it’s now time to start plugging those gaps. By this time next year, I hope to have finally gotten a chance to peruse at least six titles from Appendix N that I’ve never laid eyes on before. Perhaps untapped wellsprings of ideas wait to be uncovered.

10 – Assemble and paint Dungeons Invaders kit: This is another piece of gaming nostalgia for me. I originally owned my very own MPC Dungeon Invaders diorama set back in 1982. I painted and assembled the kit with as much skill as possible for a 10-year old boy who possessed absolutely no artistic ability whatsoever. The result was interesting to say the least. About five months ago, I saw another one of these for sale on eBay and snatched it up for a very reasonable $20. Now it sits waiting for me to take another crack at it. Hopefully, with greater patience and planning, the results will be somewhat better than my original efforts.

9 – Finish “Whispering Laurels” Call of Cthulhu scenario: Just before I dove back into this hobby with determined interest, I had started to put together a Call of Cthulhu one-shot for Halloween. The scenario was going to be a mix of two of Chaosium’s published CoC scenarios set inside the Haunted House published by Steve Jackson Games. Ol’ Nameless took center stage in my design efforts before I got a chance to finish that scenario, which was to be entitled “Whispering Laurels”. Since I’m probably 75% done with that scenario, I should just finish it up and get it off of my plate.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Man: 0, Dungeon: 1

I believe the phrase is “Missed it by that much.”

And thus ended the career of my thief after some fifteen months of running him through the various twists and turns of the campaign. Overwhelmed by gnolls, he died in a back alley of an abandoned dwarven city, his head caved in by a gnoll’s morning star after falling unconscious under their combined attacks. He gave it his best, managing to bring down two of his three opponents before he succumbed to his wounds. Before he died, he managed to learn much about the goings-on in the dungeon, uncovered the hidden lords of the dungeon, and managed to discern the location of the magical key that would open the secured treasure caches scattered throughout the level.

It was a very close match right up to the end. As is often the case in D&D, had the dice gone another way on two occasions (confirming two possible critical hits), he might have achieved his goal. But it was not to be. Now I find myself characterless and the rest of the party remains boxed in, a fate made grimmer because they now lack the magical gee-gaw to access the guarded magical key. A situation which I’m truly sorry to be the cause of.

I’ve had a few days to ruminate upon the demise of my character and in that time I’ve come to a few conclusions that I’d like to touch on now. I think I’ve learned a little something from the experience that might be useful to others and this is as good of an opportunity to share as any. Surprisingly, what I’ve learned in not “don’t get yourself surrounded in an alley by angry gnolls.” That I thought I already knew. Instead, I’ve had another insight into the nature of myself as a player and the hidden dangers of a too-successful campaign.

In looking back at the events that lead of to my thief’s death, I’ve noticed that a pattern had developed with the way I was running him most recently, as compared to the way I played him earlier on. In the past few months, I had grown a little bolder and a lot less cautious in the decisions that I had him make. While I’ve always played him as being more than willing to place himself at risk, the most recent game sessions have had a few moments when those risks were slightly higher with less margin for error. And while he was always a pleasure to run, I see that there was a lot less emphasis placed on actually role-playing him with the funny voice and whimsical gypsy expressions that I’d used in the past. I didn’t put much thought in this at the time, but now I’m beginning to suspect something.

I remember once reading in an issue of Dragon magazine that the average shelf-life of a campaign is about 18 months. At the time I thought that that number was rather arbitrary, seeing how many campaign are lucky to survive eight months, let alone eighteen. I also believed that, with a good enough DM, a campaign could survive decades of constant play. After all, hadn’t the campaigns of Gary and Dave lasted much longer than eighteen months? Players came and went sure, but the campaign lived on. But now I’m beginning to think that that 18 month average might be closer to the ballpark than originally believed.

The nature of this stems from the fact that most people, while abhorring change, do like variety in their lives. This desire for variety can vary from person-to-person, and from subject matter-to-subject matter. After all, one hopes that the desire for a change from time-to-time doesn’t apply to their marriages, children or career, but still looks to have some choices in what they eat for dinner each night. And role-playing games hopefully fall into a category of importance more similar to dinner options than marriage and children. As such, it’s not so surprising that the same character played on a regular basis can begin to lose its “new character smell” after awhile and begin breeding the contempt that accompanies familiarity. This is especially true when the character begins to reach the doldrums of mid-level, a place where the attainment of a new level and all the neat new abilities that accompany such an accomplishment are separated by wider gulfs of experience points. The desire to switch things up, whether it is a new character, a new campaign, or even a completely different game setting begins to creep in. This is not to say that every game is subject to this, but I’m willing to bet that it happens more often than not.

In the wild and woolly days of D&D, I don’t think that this campaign creep was as prevalent as it is today. In the days of yore, it was more common for a player to have a stable of characters to draw from and the more open nature of the dungeon “just outside of town” meant that if Bill had a bad day at the office and felt more like running Blood-Axe Skullcrusher than Medius, the Wizard Wise, it was a small matter to pull out Blood-Axe and let him crack some heads, thus letting Ol’ Bill blow off some steam via imaginary violence.

Even the DM got a break from time-to-time back then. In the beginning, it was not uncommon for gaming groups to have revolving referees, allowing the DM a chance to recharge his batteries on the other side of the screen while another took up the slack. In many of these cases, the players didn’t even need to roll new characters. The new DM just cooked up a magic portal to whisk them away to his campaign for the duration of his time at the helm and provided them a way back to the original game setting when the first DM was ready to take over again. In the case of the original Mid-West gaming groups, the players didn’t even need to leave the campaign world or even the dungeon they had been exploring. It was the same setting, just a different DM.

This is no longer the standard and I feel that the game and its participants have lost a little something because of it. Most campaigns have become little more than extremely extended “one-shot” games. Because the overall storyline has taken center stage, the players lose the ability to swap in and out characters as their moods and whims desire. They must march lockstep towards the conclusion of the overall story, if only to maintain some sort of continuity to the preceding chapters. Even introducing a new player and his character becomes something of a mangled and hand-waved event as the players and DM attempt to rationalize why this guy suddenly shows up midway into their quest to defeat the Lich Duke of Upper Provenus is accepted without question, rather than riddled with arrows on the suspicion that he’s a spy for the Lich Duke. The only real time that a change in characters can occur without such heavy-handed glossing over occurs when the story reaches its conclusion or one of the characters dies.

What has occurred to me over the last few nights is that my change in the way I was playing my thief was nothing more than “character fatigue” accompanied by the unconscious urge to remove him from the game, allowing me to replace him with a new character that I might get more joy out of playing. A form of fantasy role-playing “suicide by cop” if you will. Because I was consciously unaware that I was looking for a change, I wasn’t able to address this issue with my DM and work out another solution, something which I’ve done in the past. Fifteen months is a long time to spend three Saturdays a month with, especially when that relationship is as one-sided as the one shared between a character and his player.

As it stands right now, I’m not sure what I’m going to replace my thief with. I do have an older character available in the campaign world, one which I had a lot of fun playing in the past, but I’m not sure if revisiting old ground is going to be enough to keep my interest piqued for another 15 months of gaming. It might be best to start from the scratch, but I have nothing in mind that screams out to be played at the moment. I have some time to think about this with the holidays approaching and the “in game” time that must pass before bringing in a new character, and a period of downtime might just be what I need to rekindle my fire before jumping back in.

The above observations should in no way be interpreted as either a critique on my DM or an attempt to downplay my failure to keep my character alive during the solo session. I’m not trying to be passive-aggressive or justify the reason I lost a character. It is merely an attempt to come to terms with reasons begind my own subconscious attitude change and an observation on the way the nature of role-playing has changed over the years. I hope to take both of these realizations into account when it comes time to open Ol’ Nameless for its first customers.

Right now, after this satori I’m almost convinced that I’ll be using Sham’s entourage method in the initial forays into the dungeon. Failing that, Jeff Rients’ plan for his Labyrinth Lord dungeon crawl is a close second. Both of these methods look to be quite viable as a way to combat character fatigue, but in order to work best they’re something that needs to be introduced at the very beginning of the campaign, rather than shoehorned in at a later period. They’re both rooted deeply in the old-school and, since that’s the style I hope to convey with Ol’ Nameless, they should work just fine.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Drum and the Crib

I just got home from running through the solo session I talked about on Monday. Rather than go into detail about those events, as the hour is late and work beckons tomorrow, let me present you with two new magical items for your consideration. The drum is new; the Crib not so much, as it appeared over on Grognardia in the past. Rather than have to direct people off of this blog should I need to refer to it again, as well as to give it a chance for some new readers to take a gander at it, I'm reprinting it here.

Drum of the Beasts

XP Value: 2,500
Gold Piece Value: 6,000

This drum is crafted from wood and tanned animal hide held in place by leather cords. Around the lip and bottom of the drum are carved crude, almost symbolic, representations of animals. When found the drum will have 1d20 + 10 animal carvings on it. Inspection of the drum may reveal that in some places the carving appear to be missing. When played, the drum summons one animal from the list below. Roll 1d8 + 1d12 to determine what is called:

2 -3: Ape, Carnivorous (AC 6 HD 5 THACO 15 At# 3 Dam 1d4/1d4/1d8)
4 – 6: Leopard (AC 6 HD 3 + 3 THACO 17 At# 3* Dam 1d3/1d3/1d6 Special if both claw attacks hit may rake with rear paws for 1d4 each)
7 – 8: Wolf (AC 7 HD 3 THACO 18 At# 1 Dam 1d4+1 Special +1 save vs. charm)
9 – 10: Rat, Giant (AC 7 HD ½ THACO 20 At# 1 Dam 1d3 + 5% chance of disease)
11 – 12: Dog, wild (AC 7 HD 1 + 1 THACO 19 At# 1 Dam 1d4)
13 – 14: Jackal (AC 7 HD ½ THACO 20 At# 1 Dam 1d2)
15 – 16: Hyena (AC 7 HD 3 THACO 17 At# 1 Dam 2d4)
17 – 18: Wild Boar (AC 7 HD 3 + 3 THACO 17 At# 1 Dam 3d4)
19 - 20: Brown Bear (AC 6 HD 5 + 5 THACO 15 At# 3* Dam 1d6/1d6/1d8 Special a paw hit attack with a roll of 18+ does a hug for 2d6 additional damage)

The summoned animal obeys the commands of the drummer, remaining in existence for 10 rounds before vanishing in a warm breeze. Each use of the drum causes one of the animal carvings to vanish as if it were never there. When all the carvings have disappeared, the drum may still be played as a musical instrument, but summons no further animals. Note that the carving that vanishes does not necessarily depict the animal summoned.

The Crib of the Sleeper

Description: The Crib of the Sleeper appears as a reliquary measuring 2’ wide x 1’ tall x 1 ½' deep. It is constructed of the darkest mahogany and bound with gold and brass. It bears lapis lazuli, carnelian, onyx, chrysoberyl and ruby gems as ornamentation. The Crib is warm to the touch and seems to pulse and hum if held for more than a few moments.

History: Much of the history of the Crib remains obscured by the shadows of time and secrecy. The little that is known has been pieced together by sages, priests and madmen.

It is said that during the Years of the Rotted Moon, a cult of devil idolaters arose in the cities to the South. Their hunger for wealth, power and prestige led them to bend their knees to one of the Dukes of Hell, offering grim sacrifices in return for his aid. Those who have witnessed the powers of the Crib believe that it was unto Mammon that these idolaters gave tribute, although Baal and Belial have also been connected to the Crib’s origins, albeit in hushed whispers.

Regardless of their patron’s identity, he was pleased with their devotion. In return, a dark messiah was promised: A child born of human and devil who would lead the cult to the assumption of their desired position of power in the lands of Men.

So it came to pass that on the night of the first new moon of winter, the cult gathered to bear witness to the birth of their infernal master’s progeny. Amongst screams and blood and the clash of steel, something was given entrance into this world. But something went wrong.

The sages debate what exactly occurred on that night. Some argue that the child was stillborn, arresting the promised campaign before it could even begin. Others adhere to the belief that the child survived its birth, but had not yet come fully to term. In either case, what was born that night was placed within a reliquary and secreted away by the cult.

In the following years, a schism arose between factions within the cult. Crumbling from within, it was not long before the secrecy of the cult’s activities was breached. Alerted to this threat, the paladins of Law were marshaled and put the cultists to the sword, the pyre and the noose. Amidst the chaos, the cult’s heresiarch and the Crib of the Sleeper escaped.

During the years that followed, rumors of the Crib’s reemergence have appeared. For a short time it was said to lie within the treasury vaults of Eastern merchant-prince, only to be stolen by two rogues during the Feast of St. Amencia. One of those thieves was found the following night; his massive frame emaciated as from hunger, his mouth sewn shut by green silk thread and his eye sockets filled with flax seeds. The fate of his partner is unknown. Others have whispered that the Crib is now in the possession of the Snakes That Walk as Men, who dwell in the southern jungles. Still other rumor-mongers speak of torch-lit rites that are practiced on a certain rocky strand abutting the western sea.

What is agreed upon is that whatever sleeps within the Crib must one day awaken, and if the powers of the Crib are any indication, the Sleeper will awaken hungry…

Game Details: Whoever possesses the Crib of the Sleeper gains several powers. They may cause darkness 15’radius 3 times/day, gain the benefits of a ring of protection +2 while physically holding or touching the Crib, and are immune to any sort of fear during their ownership of the Crib. In addition, they may cast suggestion up to twice a day and, with their bare hands, causes serious wounds on a successful attack. The major power of the Crib, however allows the possessor to bring forth the assistance of the Nine Hells itself. The Crib’s owner may once a day summon either 1 bone devil (25% chance) or 1-2 bearded devils (75% chance) with a 70% chance of success. Drawing on this power awakens the hunger of the Crib, causing any creatures friendly to the possessor, but excluding the possessor himself, within 20’ to take 5d4 points of damage as their life force is drawn from them.

In addition to the powers granted by the Crib, ownership has its side-effects. The possessor of the Crib serves as a conduit between the physical world and the Sleeper itself. The Sleeper gains nourishment threw the owner of the Crib, causing him an intense hunger and thirst. The owner must eat and drink six times the normal daily amount to sustain both himself and That Which Sleeps. Failure to obtain the required nourishment results in 5d4 points of damage as the Crib siphons of the life force of the owner.

Also, the Crib of the Sleeper requires further nourishment in the form of the blood and the souls of living sentient beings. Before each new moon, 45 HD worth of such creatures must be sacrificed to appease the hunger of the Sleeper Within. Failure to do so brings about dire repercussions for both the owner and those around him. If the Crib does not get the required sacrifices, it draws the life energy of its owner, perhaps slaying him in the process. The Crib draws (45 – total number of HD already fed to the relic) levels or HD from the possessor. For example, if 32 HD of creatures had already been slain to appease the crib, the owner would lose 13 levels of experience or HD. If this number is equal to or greater than the owner’s total number of levels or HD, he is slain and is unable to be resurrected by any means. Should this total still not reach the required 45 HD, the Crib will begin siphoning of energy from the next closest living sentient creature, continuing outwards until the full 45 HD has been accumulated. This effect has no distance limit, ending only when the Crib has been satiated.

The above powers are suggestions for use requiring no additional work on the part of the DM. For DMs wishing to customize the Crib of the Sleeper for their own campaigns, the suggested number and type are listed below in accordance with the template described in the 1st edition AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide:

3 x I ____ ____ ____
2 x II ____ ____
1 x III ____
1 x IV ____
1 x V ____
1 x VI ____

Monday, December 15, 2008

Man vs. Dungeon

Today’s post will be one of my briefer efforts as the demands of the holidays, the real life job, and another project of mine are eating up most of the little downtime I have remaining nowadays. I’m hoping to get most of my irons out of the fire by the beginning of next week so as to be able to enjoy the holidays without too much responsibility hanging overhead. I intend to continue my regular posting schedule through the holiday weeks, but they will most likely be shorter efforts since most everyone is preoccupied during that time anyway.

In the D&D campaign I play in, things reached an interesting turn of events at the end of last Saturday’s gaming session. For reasons too convoluted to explain, the session ended with most of the party battered and bruised. One PC was dead, our druid had been knocked into negatives twice, and his bear and wolfhound had seen the far side of zero as well. Hit points were pretty low all around and, due to some house rules, the folks who had been knocked into negatives were going to be very helpless for the next two days. The dead dwarf was raised but had lost the obligatory point of Constitution, and our druid, continuing a tradition with his ability scores being whittled away, had lost a permanent point of Comeliness thanks to an “accidental” nose job by the party’s mage. To aggravate matters, the party was now locked inside an old dwarven mausoleum with a horde of superstitious gnolls keeping watch on the doors. The gnolls weren’t coming in, but things might turn very “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” when the party makes a break for it.

When I say “party”, by the way, I mean everybody but my thief. During the events that led up to the current situation, my thief was able to escape from the mausoleum, scale a chasm, and avoid any wandering monsters to make it back to base camp safely. In addition, he’s now in possession of the magical gee-gaw we busted into the mausoleum to retrieve in the first place. Now, alone and uncertain of the fate of his fellow party members, he’s had to make some hard choices as to what he’s going to do. After weighing what I know about my character, I came to the conclusion that he’s going to attempt to delve into the section of the dungeon that contains the key the opens all the various magically-protected treasure caches littered throughout the dungeon. A key which we needed the magical gee-gaw to retrieve. Hopefully, with access to the treasure vaults, he might be able to find something to help determine the fate of his compadres, and rescue them if they’re still alive.

I’m delighted by this situation. I know that by the end of a special mid-week solo session, I’m either going to have cemented the reputation of my thief as a miracle-worker and “the greatest thief alive” or be rolling up a new character. While I’m obviously hoping for the former, I’m ready to accept the later, just as long as I go down striving.

This turn of events strikes me a very “old-school”. I’m reminded of the tales of Gary and Rob’s Greyhawk dungeon delves where players would occasionally make solo runs into the dungeon in order to get their hands on certain treasures or to earn bragging rights at the table. It harkens back to a time when a player really lived or died by his wits and the chance of the dice. It was dungeon crawling without a net. No carefully balanced, numerically sound, logically designed encounters to ensure “maximum fun”. You lived and bragged, or died, mourned, then rolled up another character to try again.

No matter what happens in the next few days, I’m going to enjoy in the challenge. One or two of the other players will be dropping by to watch the solo run, but there’s a part of me that wishes it was just the DM and I and that, in the event that everything goes pear-shaped, no one besides the two of us would ever know for sure what happened to my thief during his “alone time” down in the dungeon. Of course, if I do die, I’ve got the magical gee-gaw, so things might get VERY interesting for the rest of party even if they do survive their break-out. Maybe this way they might have an idea where to find my corpse.

Wish me luck.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Oozing Charm Redux

With the theme song to “The Blob” now stuck in your heads, and the permanent psychological damage that might accompany such unholy knowledge fully underway, I’m afraid that’s not the end of the story. A dear friend of mine who quietly follows the goings-on around here was kind enough to point out that I missed another connection between B-movie horror and the origins of the “clean-up crew” from the LBBs.

In 1968, a movie titled “The Green Slime” was released. While I have never personally seen “The Green Slime”, it has been on the periphery of my awareness, being much lauded by friends of mine who are connoisseurs of crappy and campy cinema. The Internet Movie Database bears the following plot synopsis:

A giant asteroid is heading toward Earth so some astronauts disembark from a nearby space station to blow it up. The mission is successful, and they return to the station unknowingly bringing back a gooey green substance that mutates into one-eyed tentacled monsters that feed off electricity. Soon the station is crawling with them, and people are being zapped left and right!
Judging from that description, I think it’s safe to say that the green slime from D&D has no direct correlation to the entity in the movie. However, since the release of the film does roughly coincide with the developmental period of the game, it could possibly have served as inspiration for everyone’s favorite dripping ceiling monster if in name only. I leave this to better scholars than myself to elaborate upon. Anyone in need of an off-beat Master’s thesis, please feel free to pursue this venture.

There is one thing regarding “The Green Slime” that I can state with confidence, it also being the reason that this film is embraced so warmly by fans of campy cinema:

Like “The Blob”, it has a pretty hip theme song.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Oozing Charm

Let me explain this so you don’t think I’ve made a permanent sojourn into Bat Country. It all started with Sham AKA Dave’s excellent look back on the Little Brown Books. Amongst this week’s offerings, he ruminated upon the “clean-up crew” of the various oozes, slimes, puddings and jellies that plague the dungeon depths. While these beasties have no direct correlation to monsters of myth or literature, it was generally agreed that the 1958 film “The Blob” served as inspiration on some level.

This reminded me that I had watched that film again a few months ago thanks to its inclusion in my local library’s video collection. It was every bit as goofy and great as I remembered it to be, plus you can never, ever go wrong with Steve McQueen, so it turned out to be an enjoyable 86 minutes of my time. But the real pleasure was the film’s theme song. I had either completely forgotten it or never paid much attention the first time around, but on this go-around I thought that I could stop watching immediately after the opening credits and still be satisfied. At a game session a few weeks back, I tried to expand the horizons of my fellow gamers by singing a stirring rendition of the theme song, but my hazy memory of the lyrics – the single repeated stanza that it is – and lack of any natural talent failed to convey the greatness of the piece.

It has come up once or twice since that time, and I kept meaning to track it down to play for them, but I kept forgetting to find it. Now, thanks to a twisted train of thought that started at Sham’s intellectual train station, I’ve finally arrived with the goods. So if my DM is reading this, play the below video for Karis. Everyone else, I dare you to listen to this – composed by Burt Bacharach! – and not hear this in your head the next time you run into a black pudding or ochre jelly in a game.

Friday, December 12, 2008

“The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope”

No, that’s not a mistake. I want to talk about the Society of Torch, Pole and Rope, but not THIS Society of Torch, Pole and Rope, if you get my meaning. Instead I want to talk about the idea of an Adventurers Guild.

As a quick bit of background, since I haven’t ever mentioned it before, the name “The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope” originally sprang from a list of possible “group names” that I quickly jotted down once when my party was trying to come up with what to call ourselves. That list included several which were serious, several which were humorous – I remember “Big Brother and the Holding Company” was one of the possible choices, as well as a few random non sequiturs. For whatever reason, “The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope” didn’t make the cut, but I’ve always thought that it summed up old-school dungeon crawling pretty well. And not being one to throw out a good idea, when the blog started to coalesce, it seemed like a natural choice.

With that aside out of the way, I’ve been thinking about the concept of proper Adventurer Guilds in campaigns, or more specifically “classic-style campaigns”. There’s something to be said about a professional organization of adventurers in a campaign, as it serves as a nice resource for funneling adventure seeds, rumors, replacement adventurers and other services to the party, as well as being a possible way of removing some of the characters’ hard-won treasure from play and feeding the vicious cycle of dungeon-delving. On the other hand, the idea of an professional organization of adventurers is a little too post-modern. In my head, I’ve always pictured adventurers to be similar to the prospectors and mountain men of the American Old West: rough and tumble types with little need or desire for organizations and by-laws. The idea of organized adventurers who pay dues and fees sounds as likely as a full house at a “People Who Hate People Party” caucus. Something just doesn’t jive.

I’m mugwumped on this one for the moment. To try and settle my internal debate, I hashed out a rough idea as to what the benefits and responsibilities of joining a professional Adventurers Guild might be should I decide to include one. That guild would be the Society of Torch, Pole and Rope, of course. I outlined the potential by-laws below to allow you folks to see what I’m thinking. Any and all of it is subjected to change in the event I actually decide to incorporate this into the game. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and experiences on the idea of a professional adventuring guild in your personal games and campaigns. Comment as you will. My own thoughts and reasoning appear in italics under each entry.

The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope

Membership Fees and Dues: The cost of joining the Society of Torch, Pole and Rope is equal to 1,000 gp x character’s level. In cases of multiclass or dual classed characters, the cost is 1,000 gp x the character’s total levels. On the first day of the New Year, all guild members must pay 500 gp x the character’s level in dues for the coming year.

I’m not making any “in game” rational reasons for the steep cost of membership. In a real world situation, these costs would be astronomical for the average usually-out-of-work adventuring type. But, as I’m fond of pointing out, Dungeons & Dragons is a game, not a realistic simulation.

Membership Benefits: All guild members in good standing receive the access to the following benefits and services:

Room and Board: Any adventurer may claim room and board at any of the guild’s chapterhouses free of charge. An adventurer is entitled to remain in any and all chapterhouses for a period not to exceed 35 days in total during any given year.

A month in the R’Nis calendar is 35 days long, hence the somewhat strange cut-off point for freeloading adventurers. Room and board is of the most basic variety: three hots and a cot in the common area.

Discount Spell Work: A guild member in good standing may hire the services of a guild-friendly magic-user or cleric for the fees listed on pp. 103-104 of the 1st Edition Dungeon Masters Guide. Guild members are free to seek the services of non-guild aligned wizards and priests, but their fees and success rates are in no way guaranteed by the Society.

I figure Gary had those prices listed for a reason. Some folks might think they’re a tad high, but they serve to take excess treasure out of the game and make the players rely on their own wits and the abilities of their characters first and foremost. By having them guild-aligned at those prices, I can cut down on the amount of “party splits up in town and haggles with everyone so the game drags for a few hours” moments in the game.

Appraisal Services: A member of the Society in good standing may employ the use of one of the guild’s approved jewelers or lapidaries to appraise gems, jewelry, or objects d’art. The cost of this service is 1% of the objects actual value.

I went with 1% because I thought 10% is a bit high for supposed guild members and I really wanted to make calculating the cost as easy as possible for me, the referee.

Annals of Accomplishments: A Society member is good standing may choose to have an account of his accomplishments in the field recorded in the Society’s “Annals of Accomplishments”. No fee is required for this service, but the testimony of any given member must be witnessed by and sworn to by at least two other members in good standing if said members are bonded companions of the individual, or by a single member in good standing if he is not aligned with the individual’s regular party of adventurers.

This is really to assist the following benefit of Society membership.

Placement Assistance: Any member in good standing who find himself without a bonded group may make himself available for hire on chapterhouse premises during regular hours of operation. If there is an account of his deeds in the “Annals of Accomplishments”, he may ask that the potential employers be given access to his recorded deeds within the Annals so as to be better able to judge his qualifications and skills. Any hiring done on the Society’s grounds will require that 10% of the agreed upon wages be paid by the employer directly to the Society, and the agreement be witnessed by one of the chapterhouse’s clerks before the hired hand joins the bonded group.

I like the idea of a common area teeming with grizzled, out-of-work adventurers. Not only does it become a one-stop shopping area to pick up new hirelings and henchmen, but I envision these down-on-their-luck types trying to undercut one another in desperation for work. Of course, the party might get an idea of what they’re in for if they show up looking to explore “The Screaming Tomb of Contessa Rowiana” and nobody but nobody seems to want to join up with them.

Vaults for Rent: The Society shall make available to any member the right to rent and maintain one of the storage vaults located in most chapterhouses. For a fee of 100 gp per month, a member or bonded group of members may secure a private 10’ x 10’ vault for storage of goods, supplies and/or wealth. Each vault is equipped with a stout lock and protected by a watchman on the premises at all times. Members are free to add additional security measures at their own expense, provided the chapterhouse’s security warden is apprised of the nature of these additional securities and lends his permission to their inclusion. The Society provides no guarantees of safety for any items stored within these vaults, and any damages or loss of life resulting from the storage of dangerous items and/or entities is the responsibility of the renter.

With banking not yet common in most places, I thought this would be a reasonable benefit provided to adventurers. I’ll remind you that these are not MMORPG bank vaults. If they players rent a vault in City A, but operate in City B or on the road a lot, they better not leave anything important in storage.

Funeral Arrangements Gratis: Any member in good standing who is loses his/her life by means accidental, premeditated or natural, whose body is recoverable and not subject to resuscitation shall be buried, cremated, or otherwise interred according to the member’s wishes, free of charge. Arrangements shall be made that are simple, yet dignified, and the location, date, and circumstances of the member’s death shall be recorded in the Society’s records for posterity.

Needless to say, the character doesn’t get a grand send off or spend eternity in a fancy mausoleum. He or she gets laid to rest in a Society plot that’s just a step up from a potter’s field. These sections of the cemetery are often referred to as “Fool’s Field” or “Ten-Foot Pole Hill”.

Obligations of Service: In the event of war, natural disaster, acts of the gods, or other crises, the Society reserves the right to draft any and all members into service for a duration not to exceed one year. This obligation supersedes any prior commitments of familial or commercial nature, but does not exceed obligations to nobility, one’s faith or nationality. Any member not excused from duty for the preceding reasons is required to report to his closest chapterhouse for assignment. Failure to report within two weeks’ time from the announcement of assembly will result in the member being stripped of membership, blackballed from ever rejoining the Society, and the seizure of any goods and/or property in the Society’s possession.

With great power, yadda, yadda, yadda….I tacked this on as a possible way to get adventures rolling should I ever need some loophole to get things moving. I’d be loath to use it in most cases, since it violates my “no choo-choo” policy when it comes to D&D. I wouldn’t think twice about drafting the party into service, however, if it was they who were responsible for the “war, natural disaster, act of the gods, or other crises”. One reaps what one sows after all.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Scribbling on Vellum: -5% chance of failure

I’m nursing a bit of head cold and wasn’t feeling much up to tackling any post of depth for today when I received the news that this here electronic fish-wrapper was deemed worthy of a Superior Scribbler Award. Things such as this very much surprise me, considering the relatively short amount of time Pole and Rope’s been on the old-school blogosphere, and I’m still amazed that the few stones that I’ve thrown in the Grognard Pond have made as big of a splash as they’ve had.

James Maliszewski, who’s “Grognard’s Challenges” were primarily to blame for me starting this blog, had these kind words to say:
Michael Curtis truly embodies the spirit of OD&D and the early hobby. His posts include many I consider instant classics, like the multi-part "The Dungeon Alphabet." Michael is positively brimming with ideas and is never afraid to reconsider long-held notions in the pursuit of fun.
I’m indebted to him twice now - once for getting me blogging, and secondly for picking me as one of his five recipients. As one of the stipulations of claiming this award, I must now pick five blogs that I feel worthy of being acknowledged for their contributions to the blogging community at large.

Rather than burden myself with the tracking down who the latest slew of recipients have chosen, I’m going to nominate the five that I constantly visit and consistently walk away from with new things to ponder or steal for my own use. I suspect that more than one of these five has been nominated in the past, but take their return to the award podium as another confirmation of their skills, rather than laziness on my part. In truth, my selection pool is not as deep or broad as I’d like. There are many, many fine blogs out there, but in the short time that I’ve been following the old-school blogs, I’ve not become nearly as well-acquainted with the sum of what’s out there as I would have liked.

Kenneth Hite’s Journal: There is no one in the gaming industry with a more esoteric collection of historical and pseudo-scientific facts than Kenneth Hite. While I often find myself doing mental gymnastics to try and follow his train of thought, these intellectual exercises do nothing to keep me away from visiting his LiveJournal on a regular basis. If only I could gain access to his personal library, I’d be a happy man.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Opinionated, sure. But that’s one of the reason’s I like James Raggi’s blog as much as I do. He speaks his mind and does so with little need for niceties, and while this can rock some people’s boats, he also isn’t afraid to put his money – in this case, Euros – where his mouth is by publishing gaming materials he wants to see out of his own pocket. I like the D.I.Y. frame of mind, what can I say?

Sham’s Grog ‘n Blog: I know for sure that Sham a.k.a. Dave Bowman has been chosen this round, but I can’t emphasize enough how much I enjoy his blog. His various treatises on OD&D are enough to make even the staunchest 3.5 or 4th edition player rethink his choice of edition, and almost completely swayed me to drop AD&D for OD&D.

Uncle Bear: Berin Kinsman’s been blogging about games and geekery since before there was a term for all this. His blog is a roller-coaster of highs and lows, ranging from utter enthusiasm for the hobby to periods when he just wants to chuck the whole mess out the nearest window. While not always agreeing with him or feeling empathetic to his state of mind, I still keep coming back to see what’s coming next.

Wilderlands OD&D: This might be cheating a bit, since Scott has moved on to World of Thool as of now, but it was Wilderlands OD&D that really got me itching to play in a sandbox hex-crawl, so I’m choosing his original blog as worthy of the award. Chances are his new one will continue the good work he’s done previously, but I’m certainly glad he came back from in absentia to tie up some loose ends in Wilderlands OD&D before he made the jump.
Of course, as with every Bloggy Award, there are A Few Rules. They are, forthwith:
  • Each Superior Scribbler must in turn pass The Award on to 5 most-deserving Bloggy Friends.
  • Each Superior Scribbler must link to the author & the name of the blog from whom he/she has received The Award.
  • Each Superior Scribbler must display The Award on his/her blog, and link to This Post, which explains The Award.
  • Each Blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit this post and add his/her name to the Mr. Linky List. That way, we'll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives This Prestigious Honor!
  • Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on his/her blog.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Illusion of Depth

It must always be remembered that I know no more of Nehwon than I have put into my stories. There are no secret volumes of history, geography, etc., written before the tales themselves were spun. I rely wholly on what Fafhrd and the Mouser have told me, testing them against each other, and sifting out exaggerations and lies when I must. And while my conferences with the Twain have been rewarding, they also have been fewer than I’d wish. I have handled no little books of Ningauble or scrolls o[f] Srith.
- Fritz Leiber, The Dragon #1
Let me begin by stating for the record that I have a profound amount of respect for Ed Greenwood. Poor Ed gets a fair amount of grief heaped on him, mostly by those looking for an easy target to blame for the disintegration of the home-brewed campaign world. TSR and WotC certainly did their best to turn Ed’s home-brew world into a cash cow, but that decision was made by marketing, not the man himself. I won’t deny that Ed probably saw his bank account swell a bit, but given that the man is still working his day job as a librarian proves he’s either dedicated to his career or that his compensation was something less than grotesque piles of cash. I also think it is fair to say that some of the ill-will pointed at Ed comes from pure jealousy. Ed managed to achieve every referee’s dream when his boxes of game notes were bought and published by TSR. I’ll admit that if someone came along and wanted to buy my campaign notes outright I’d probably delay only long enough to find a pen to sign on the dotted line with. When I was younger, I idolized Ed for managing to pull this off and I set about to mimic his method of world design with the assumption that, if I just did it the way Ed did, TSR was sure to come knocking on my door. And thus, one of my biggest old bad habits was formed.

When I heard the stories that Ed literally had boxes full of game notes for the Forgotten Realms, I was certain that he had some sort of encyclopedic knowledge of his entire world. He could probably tell you whose face appeared on the smallest coin minted in the most obscure kingdom of the Forgotten Realms, I surmised. So I began to plot and plan and draw and design, all in the insane effort to document every historical period and great event that occurred in my campaign world since the gods first wandered out of the primordial chaos at the beginning of the universe. I drew a gigantic map that spanned four sheets of poster board, sketching in details down to which way the ocean currents flowed. I made list after list of names and titles so I’d be able to just plug them in when I needed to properly record the achievements of ancient rulers. In short, I temporarily went crazy.

After such a period of frantic creativity, it was no wonder that I began my slow decline and gradual exodus out of the hobby. I’d overwhelmed my senses with a fantastical world of sword and sorcery to the point where I just lost interest. If it hadn’t been for the fact that this burnout occurred just as White Wolf’s Storyteller games where getting off the ground, I probably would have stopped gaming right then. As it was, the first edition of Vampire: The Masquerade was so diametrically opposed to Dungeons & Dragons in just about every way, that it provided a temporary respite on my way out the hobby door.

When I made the decision to come back to the game as more than a casual player, I did so with the caveat that I wouldn’t make the same mistake when it came to world-building. One of the charms of classic D&D is that you don’t need to write a personal version of The Silmarillion before you get running. All that is required is a base of safety and a dungeon to poke around in. You don’t even need a full dungeon. Gary points out in Underworld & Wilderness Adventures that all you really need to start are three levels fleshed out. Everything else comes later. I strive to stick to this wisdom, having stopped working on the Dungeon Which Still Remains Unnamed After a Ridiculous Amount of Time™ after level two was completed.

This doesn’t mean that I can’t attempt to create the illusion of a deeper world. I came across the above quote from Fritz Leiber just about the time that I settled in to work on Ol’ Nameless and I think it’s the best example of how a referee should go about building the details of the greater campaign world. What Leiber is saying is that he never bothered to plan the particulars of his world until they were explicitly needed to tell a story, either as background elements to add depth to his tales or to advance the plot. A referee could do much worse than follow this philosophy. Any time and creative energy spent on developing parts of the world other than what immediately pertains to the party and their adventures is, at the very least, time and energy that could be better utilized for the instant gratification of everyone involved. At its worst, extraneous details can lead to the referee desiring to show-off his latest world-building project, which is often the precursor for railroading the players into what the referee wants them to do and see, rather than letting the players decide what shenanigans they’re going to attempt - a definite “no-no” in old-school playing style.

To later-day gamers, the idea of using the dungeon as a way to add depth to the campaign world may seem odd. After all, the dungeon’s just a hole in the ground that you go down to hack up monsters and steal their stuff. How on Oerth is that going to add to the complexity of the overall campaign world?

The answer is: by sheer deception.

In my notes for Ol’ Nameless are many small details jotted down which pertain to some of the set dressing that the characters might encounter during their forays. In every case, these details are three sentences or less. A statue might bear the note: “Tane the Dog-Lord. Led barbarian rebellion against the Old Empire in 984. Captured but escaped public execution to rally the tribes against the city of Forr-var the following winter” or a painting detailed as: “Silpeh Mahin, gnomiss wizard and inventor. Silpeh created many technomagical wonders including: the first submersible ship, a clockwork chariot and horses, a gristmill that turned raw ore into finished armor, and a tin-man who could answer any question”. It never goes any further than that. I don’t even concern myself that these short details might contradict other historical details. History is a subjective field, so someone probably recorded something wrong.

What I hope to accomplish with this is to imply to the players, and thereby their characters, that the world has a history that extends further back then their own efforts and trials. They are standing in the shadows of giants at the moment. But with effort and a bit of luck, perhaps one day they will be immortalized for their achievements. The casual gamer may take this information and promptly discard it, with the assumption that these details have no long-term value and are merely presented to set the scene. A more dedicated player might make note of this information in the hope that this knowledge might serve useful in their coming adventures. In either case, with just three sentences I’ve increased the depth of the world and how the players perceive it. There is no need to drive myself crazy in establishing the particulars as to why Tane rose up against the Old Empire, or where exactly Silpeh carried out her experiments. A resourceful player might even use these shreds of history as an adventure seed, deciding that Tane might have a burial barrow to plunder, or that Silpeh’s creations might still survive, waiting to be rediscovered.

Whether through wisdom, sloth, or sanity, I’ve firmly planted my tent in the camp of “Less is More” when it comes to working on R’Nis. I no longer have the misconception that I need a campaign world of “Greenwoodian” detail to be successful. (I’ve since learned from statements from Ed himself that the Forgotten Realms, while very detailed, was not as well documented as I was initially led to believe.) I need just enough to make it look like I know what I’m doing and to keep the players and myself entertained. I’m not against having more details, but I’m certainly not going to invest the time needed to cultivate extraneous elements at the expense of more pressing matters. It’ simply not worth the stress which detracts from the enjoyment that I’m supposed to be getting from a recreational activity. After all, one third of any RPG is “game”.

Friday, December 5, 2008

With New Old Eyes

With the upper levels of Ol’ Nameless finished, I’ve had some time to look back upon the design process and reflect upon the choices that I’ve made during that time. I encountered more than a few forks in the road while fleshing out those levels, and I’d like to elaborate on the lessons that I either learned or remembered while undertaking this project. Some of the decisions that I had to make were purely reflexive, brought about by rote instinct honed by almost three decades of gaming. Others were not so easily solved, requiring a bit of thought and the need to jettison some of the bad habits that I’ve acquired through exposure to more modern games and genres. As a result of both instances, I now find myself more in tune with my classic gaming roots than I was at the start of my journey. I’m again looking upon D&D with eyes free from the scales of modern rationalism, which have served as an encumbrance for so long.

There are a few lessons that I’d like to share with you as a result of this new-found freedom. For many of you, they might seem trite or old-hat, having either never allowed yourselves to be burdened by the limitations of rational dungeon constructions, or having shed your own shackles at an earlier time than my own satori. But for those of you still suffering within the confines of the rational, they may serve as a dim light to guide you back to realm of old-school fun.

#1: “Stop worrying and love the dungeon” – Take a deep breath and repeat the preceding mantra. Keep doing so until you feel your design chakras align and the clang of your sundered chains of realistic simulation resound on the dungeon flagstones. All too often, we forget that this hobby is, first and foremost, a recreational activity meant to engender fun and excitement. It’s not supposed to be a scientific exercise to create a rational and plausible world simulation, although there are those of us who seek to achieve that exact goal. If you are the type of person who gets enjoyment out of such an exercise, then, by all means, continue to do what you do. However, if you’re the type of person who finds themselves bogged down by such matters as ecology, realistic construction feats, inter-societal co-existence, and plausible economic systems, then relax, close your eyes and repeat the above. The dungeon is always going to be funky, quirky, illogical and implausible. You can control how funky, quirky, illogical and implausible, of course, but never feel the need to completely eradicate all of these charms from the dungeon. If your players truly wanted a realistic subterranean locale to explore, they’d have taken up spelunking, not fantasy role-playing.

#2: “Balance Realism and Fun, but when in doubt, Fun always trumps Realism” – Even with Lesson #1 in mind there’s something to be said about a balance between the realistic and the fantastical. Completely giving into the urge to make every room and encounter as whimsical, nonsensical event leads to frustration on the part of the players. A few of the old-school dungeons got the well-deserved reputations of being nothing more that lethal funhouses, with most of the fun going to the referee as the dungeon ate characters at an alarming rate. If you want to keep your players both interested and on their toes, a balance between the two must be achieved. Not every door should require a complex puzzle or riddle to by-pass, nor every chamber filled with traps, tricks, and special events. On the other hand, when left with the decision of including yet another 30’ x 30’ room or adding something a bit more memorable for the party to run across occurs, always lean toward the fantastic if the overall balance would not suffer from its inclusion.

#3: “The Fantastic, when cranked up to eleven, somehow equals the Realistic” – I’m not quite sure why this one works, but it does. Some players, despite the fact that they’re participating in a game where magic is common, flaming lizards rule the sky, and they regularly encounter creatures from myth and legend, absolutely maintain that certain things are “not realistic” and will refuse to cease to point out what you “got wrong” in designing the dungeon. In many cases, the only way to react to this type of closed-mindedness is to raise the ante to unbelievable levels. Somehow, if things get weird enough, they become acceptable. The player who steadfastly believes that the Tyrannosaurus Rex you’ve placed on Level Three is completely ridiculous will suddenly switch gears when informed that the thunder lizard is actually composed completely out of magical chocolate, or was grown in a giant test-tube by the Alchemist Gremlins. You know it’s a regular old Tyrannosaurus Rex with stats right out of the Monster Manual, as do I, but he thinks that it now “all makes sense” and plays along without complaint.

#4: “Never be afraid to say ‘no’ to the dice, but also never be afraid to say ‘yes’” – Many times in the design process, the referee needs to go to the dice for results. From random stocking, to generating treasure, to determining magical items, the charts and the dice tell us what might be found within. At these times, the dice may give us strange results, indicating that something is lurking down there that just doesn’t jive with our preconceived ideas about the dungeon. Never feel the need to blindly accept what the dice tell you. If something just doesn’t feel right, either reroll or choose for yourself. At the same time, don’t be so hasty to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If the dice indicate that something you hadn’t considered is present, pause for a moment and see if you can make this work to your favor. Amongst the many listed traits of a good referee, one often hears things such as “makes combat exciting”, “creates interesting NPCs”, or “presents a very immersive world”. What is seldom mentioned is “creatively interprets unforeseen results”. This is mostly because it happens behind the screen and is not readily apparent to the players. Despite the lack of inclusion of this trait, I still feel it’s easily in the top five skills a good referee needs. I pride myself in the ability to take something that’s completely out of sync with whatever master plan I might have and weave it into the canvas without the ragged edges being too obvious.

#5: “Plant many seeds, but only tend the ones that grow”Ol’ Nameless is set up to be a classic megadungeon complex. As a result, the reasons for the adventurers to enter are simple: fortune and glory. They are not entering its dim halls in search of the kidnapped princess of Klemph or in search of the Knick-knack of the Grand Wazoo, so they have no set goal to achieve from the start. Instead, I hope that they might latch onto one or more of the adventure seeds that I’ve carefully scattered amongst the rooms and encounters. With this in mind, I’m completely aware of the fact that they might not show interest in any or all of the “suggested adventures” made available to them. As such, I’m not painstakingly placing all the needed clues and MacGuffins associated with those quests just yet. To spend too much time developing a quest string that they might never as much as nibble at is to waste time and effort. The introduction to those quests have been planned and fleshed out, as well as the first clue or item required to complete them, but that is all. If the adventurers start to take the bait, then I’ll start adding more details. With eight more levels and at least sixteen more sub-levels to go, I’ve got more than enough time and space to fill in the blanks.

As I’ve said above, these five lessons may seem obvious to some, but for me they were a mix of things long forgotten and newly acquired wisdom, mostly thanks to putting a lot of my fellow blognards’ suggestions and observations into practice. As with every experience, I had my share of missteps and false starts, but in the end I’m very pleased with the results I’ve achieved. The mistakes that I made were each an education in itself, allowing me to learn what not to do in the future. I’ll be taking a look at those mistakes in the near future. Hopefully, by outlining where I went wrong, someone else might avoid the same loss of time and effort that I suffered through. Until then, stop worrying, love your dungeon and have a great weekend.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

For Klarkash-Ton

One never knows what lurks within the dank confines of the dungeon depths. Here is the Formless Spawn of Tsathoggua converted from Call of Cthulhu to 1st edition AD&D, which I recently found myself in need of. For some reason...

Formless Spawn of Tsathoggua

Frequency: Very Rare
No. Appearing: 1-2
Armor Class: 5
Movement: 15”
Hite Dice: 5+5
% in Lair: 100%
Treasure Type: Nil
No. of Attacks: 4 or 1
Damage/Attacks: 3-10 or 6-36
Special Attacks: Swallow whole
Special Defense: Blows, cold and
lightning do not harm
Magic Resistance: Standard
Intelligence: Average
Size: L
Alignment: Neutral (with evil tendencies)
Psionic Ability: Nil
Attack/Defense Modes: Nil
Level/X.P. Value:
VI/575 + 6/hp

“When the men of K’n-Yan went down into N’Kai’s black abyss with their great atom-power searchlights, they found living things – living things that oozed along stone channels and worshipped onyx and basalt images of Tsathoggua. But they were not toads like Tsathoggua himself. Far worse – they were amorphous lumps of viscous black slime that took temporary shapes for various purposes. The explorers of K’n-Yan did not pause for detailed observations, and those that escaped alive sealed the passage.”
- "The Mound", H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop

Appearing as viscous pools of black quicksilver, the Formless Spawn serve as guardians of places sacred to Tsathoggua. When called upon to fulfill their obligations as sacred protectors, the Formless Spawn sprout a menacing head with gaping mouth, long tentacle-like arms, and dozens of legs to support their amorphous form.

“The basin ... was filled with a sort of viscous and semi-liquescent substance, quite opaque and of a sooty color.... [T]he center swelled as if with the action of some powerful yeast [and] an uncouth amorphous head with dull and bulging eyes arose gradually on an ever-lengthening neck ... Then two arms — if one could call them arms — likewise arose inch by inch, and we saw that the thing was not ... a creature immersed in the liquid, but that the liquid itself had put forth this hideous neck and head, and [it was now forming arms] that groped toward us with tentacle-like appendages in lieu of claws or hands! ... Then the whole mass of the dark fluid began to rise [and] poured over the rim of the basin like a torrent of black quicksilver, taking as it reached the floor an undulant ophidian form which immediately developed more than a dozen short legs.”
—Clark Ashton Smith, "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros"

A Formless Spawn may attack with either four of its tentacles for 3-10 points of damage each, or may attempt to bludgeon an opponent with its massive bulk doing 6-36 points of damage. In addition, the Formless Spawn may choose to attempt to devour a victim whole. On an attempt to swallow a creature whole, the Spawn must roll an unmodified 16 or better to-hit. If successful, the victim is engulfed by the creature and trapped within its amorphous shape. The victim loses 1 hp on the first round after being swallowed, 2 points on the second, 3 on the third, and so on, until either the victim or the Spawn is slain. If a Formless Spawn has devoured a creature, the Spawn may continue to attack as normal, but may no longer move. To pursue other opponents it must either wait until the swallowed creature is dead, or expel that creature from its gullet, which it may do at anytime.

A Formless Spawn may flow through cracks and under doors much like a Black Pudding (q.v.), and possesses similar defenses against physical attacks, cold, and electricity. A Formless Spawn merely absorbs these energies and disperses them harmlessly. They do not cause a Formless Spawn to split into multiple entities as is the case with a black pudding.

Formless Spawn generally remain within the confines of the area they protect, sinking back into quiescence once a threat has been destroyed or has fled. It is not unknown for Spawn to sometimes pursue those who have dared defile a Temple of Tsathoggua, however, so retreat is not a guarantee of safety for unlucky adventurers.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Identify Spell Needed

Thanks to a comment to Abode of the Toad from Scott of Wilderlands OD&D fame, I got to browsing YouTube, looking to see what people have done with songs from Blue Oyster Cult and the like. During that search, I came across "Elric - Requiem for Melnibone." Can anyone out there identify the song that is playing in this video? I've been known to use music in my games, but I try to avoid your standard Ren Fair stuff whenever possible. This is most definitely a modern piece, but is strongly evocative nonetheless. Any ideas?

EDIT: Never mind. It's Era's "The Mass". I should occasionally pay attention to those text thingies they sometimes put under the moving pictures.

Abode of the Toad

As of Sunday afternoon, I put the last of the large details into place for Ol’ Nameless, thus ending the design process that began in earnest some eight months ago. There still remains a small laundry list of last details that I need to tackle, but the upper levels of the dungeon are roughly 99% complete. Overall, the competed sections of the dungeon contain the above-ground manor and keep under which the dungeon is located, another above-ground tower – which I call the Workshop of the Telescopes, Dungeon Levels One and Two, and Sub-levels One through Four. I can safely say that it is the single largest dungeon I’ve ever designed in my twenty-some years of gaming.

The smartest thing that I did during this design phase of Ol’ Nameless was to leave an area that I hoped I would really enjoy putting together for last. I assumed that, by the time I was reaching the end, my creative fires would start flagging and I’d need a shot in the arm to regain my drive. It was a risky gambit, possibly leaving me with a hack-job of an area that I had high hopes for, but in the end it paid off. I think. The ultimate test will be when the adventurers set foot within those confines, but it looks good on paper as of now.

In designing the dungeon, I’ve hewn close to the tradition of the individual levels being roughly equal to the levels of the adventurers. This is not to say that each level is a mathematically-designed group of encounters designed to ensure “maximum fun”, and to allow the characters to be protected by some inherent right to be heroes. There are plenty of opportunities for a careless party to bite off more than they can chew, and any ill-conceived belief that everything they encounter is within their ability is going to lead to bodies dropping on the flagstones. But, for the most part, there are no demon lords on Level One, or demi-liches in the basement.

To ensure that the party never takes anything for granted, however, I play a little looser with those guidelines when it comes to the sub-levels. Each main dungeon level has at least two sub-levels accessible from it. On those sub-levels, they might encounter anything from a cakewalk - allowing them to effectively clear out a bastion of safety from which to conduct further forays, to almost certain doom at the hands of things much more powerful than they are. Hopefully, this will leave places on the upper levels for them to come back to and explore once they’ve gotten a few more levels under their girdles. I like maintaining this balance of uncertainty as a reminder to never take anything in the dungeon for granted.

One of those sub-levels is what I call “The Fane of St. Toad”. Consisting of only twenty-three numbered encounters and completely self-contained, it is nonetheless a sincere love letter to the roots of fantasy gaming. The Fane draws heavily from the works of Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard. It makes allusions to the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. It draws from both the Temple of Elemental Evil and the Temple of the Frog. In short, it is everything that I love in classic role-playing adventure.

In designing it, I pointed my inspirational automobile straight in the direction of Bat Country, turned on the cruise control, and headed deep into that land. During that creative road-trip, I picked up quite a few odd hitchhikers along the way and brought them home to stay with me for awhile. I also pulled a few choice knick-knacks from the first two issues of Fight On! Jeff Rients and Gabor Lux should be pleased to know someone is getting use out of their contributions to that magazine. When I put the final touches on the sub-level, I took one last look at it, laughed maniacally, and rubbed my hands with glee. If I had to sum up the final product, the words “unnerving”, “nauseating”, and “Oh yea gods, we are NOT going in there!!” come to mind. If I get those responses from the players, I will be a happy referee indeed.