Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Fight On!

I had put in the order earlier last week and it was waiting for me when I arrived home yesterday. The “it” that I speak of is the first two issues of Fight On! Having heard the glowing reviews and having read the praise that I’ve seen heaped upon this fanzine, I was eager to see it for myself. Rather than go about and buy the cheaper .pdf version, I figured that if it did turn out to be half as good as I’ve been led to believe, it would be worth having it in a physical format. So I plunked down the $19 and let it ride, hoping that it would be worth the added cost and delivery time.

Best nineteen bucks I’ve spent in quite awhile.

I’m not going to get into the specifics and make a review out of this, but if you have any interest in old-school gaming and miss having Dragon magazine around to get even vicarious thrills, you should be ordering Fight On! right now. Assuming of course that, like myself, you were silly enough to wait so long to do so. If you’ve already seen the mag, then this is information you already know.

I polished off the first issue last night before I went to sleep – it being only 30 pages – and have the second issue waiting for me. Since issue #2 is nearly three times the size of issue #1, I fully intend to savor this one, seeing how I’ve got some time to kill before issue #3 is available.

I won’t claim that everything in issue #1 is a future classic, but the signal to noise ratio is very high for not only a fanzine, but for the inaugural issue of one. I saw more things to steal, inspire or modify in those 30 pages than I’ve seen in a 150 page 3rd edition splatbook. That’s even considering any bias I might have.

So, in short, if you haven’t already, get Fight On! Your Dragon-missing psyche will thank you for it.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Obscure Octavo

Even lesser known than the Fiend Folio is the Obscure Octavo, a tome of creatures misbegotten and bizarre. Lurking within these pages of the aged is a menagerie of critters better left undisturbed. Today, gentle reader, I boldly throw open the cover of said text to bring you two monsters to challenge your intrepid adventurers. Join me now as we confront this duo of the dark dungeons…


Climate/Terrain: Any
Frequency: Rare
Organization: Swarm
Activity Cycle: Any
Diet: Carnivore
Intelligence: Non- (0)
Treasure: Nil
Alignment: Neutral

No. Appearing: 1-10
Armor Class: 7
Movement: 15
Hite Dice: 2+2
No. of Attacks: 2
Damage/Attack: 0/1
Special Attacks: Poison Sting
Special Defense: Nil
Magic Resistance: Nil
Size: S (2’ long)
Morale: Average (8)
XP Value: 175

This nauseating creature appears to be a large black centipede, whose body ends in a curved stinging tail. The many legs of this creature are a sickly yellowish-green color. A bitter smell, probably originating from the viscous liquid that drips from the tail’s stinger, accompanies the creature. It makes an unnerving skittering sound as it crosses the hard stone of the dungeon’s floor.

Combat: A scorpipede shares the aggressive nature of its scorpion ancestor and is 95% likely to attack if approached. The scorpipede attacks with both a venomous bite and a poisonous sting, combining the worst aspects of its species of origin. The bite does no damage, but the victim must save vs. poison at +4 or be paralyzed for 2-12 hours.

The stinging tail packs a more powerful venom. A successful hit from the tail does 1 point of damage and requires a save vs. poison at +2 to avoid the Type A poison (15/0 points of damage). A scorpipede that is reduced to 1 or 2 hit points goes into a stinging frenzy, making two attacks with its tail each round until slain.

Habitat/Society: Scorpipedes are usually encountered in swarms found nesting within dark, dank caverns, ancient ruins, refuse heaps, and other unpleasant locales. While they are accustomed to living in sizable groups, they do not cooperate in hunting for prey, usually seeking to dine on small mammals, reptiles and insects. They will compete for the same prey, even resorting to attacking each other when food is scare.

Ecology: The exact origins of the scorpipede are unknown. Sages favor one of two theories: that they are either an experimental crossbreed created by an insane mage or that they were brought into being when the Gods of Eld created the first dungeon and, having forgotten whether they had stocked the upper levels with centipedes or scorpions, decided to split the difference. In either case, since their creation, they’ve found a comfortable niche in the” vermin” tier of the local ecosystem. While possessing no treasure, their venom is of use to alchemists and assassins, both of whom offer good coin for relatively intact specimens of the species.

Acid Shark

Climate/Terrain: Any large body of acid
Frequency: Very Rare
Organization: Solitary
Activity Cycle: Any
Diet: Carnivore
Intelligence: Non- (0)
Treasure: Nil
Alignment: Neutral

No. Appearing: 1
Armor Class: 4
Movement: Sw 24
Hit Dice: 3-8
THACO: 3-4 HD: 17
5-6 HD: 15
7-9 HD: 13
No. of Attacks: 1
Damage/Attack: 2-4, 2-8 or 3-12
Special Attacks: 1-6 points of acid damage
Special Defense: Immune to acid and poison (and most likely logic as well)
Magic Resistance: Nil
Size: M-L (5’ – 15’)
Morale: Average (10)
XP Value: 3 HD: 175
4 HD: 270
5 HD: 420
6 HD: 650
7 HD: 975
8 HD: 1,400

Acid sharks resemble a normal shark of their original species (great white, hammerhead, mako, tiger, etc) except for possessing a green coloration and the noticeable difference that it’s swimming around in friggin’ acid!

Combat: Acid sharks will bite anything that gets near them. They possess a ravenous hunger, stemming from the fact that they live in large bodies of acid, which are notoriously scant when it comes to things to eat. Their bite does normal damage to its victim plus an additional 1d6 points of acid damage. But considering that their prey is most likely already swimming around in a pool of acid, they’re probably either immune to acidic effects or have more pressing acid-related concerns.

Habitat/Society: Acid. Big honking vats of it. Not really that social, considering the difficulty of meeting new friends when you spend all your time SWIMMING IN ACID!!!

Ecology: Acid sharks are located at the apex of their food chain. They are also the only link in their food chain. Conceivably, black dragons might be their sole predators, but, let’s face it, black dragons are much too sensible to spend their time living in large bodies of acid…

The origins of the acid shark are unfortunately not shrouded in mystery. It is the creation of the mad arch-mage Yaque Kuztoe, who thought it be really nifty to have sharks that could live in acid. After plunging several thousands of sharks into his aciderium, he finally found one that didn’t seem to mind it so much. The multiverse shudders to think that he might someday find another shark that enjoys it, thereby establishing a breeding pair.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

"I've got a good feeling about this!"

Jim Holloway - B4 The Lost CityMost gaming groups acquire their own peculiarities over time. These can be in-jokes, unofficial mascots, quotes of renown, ways of doing business, etc. My own is no different. As of late, we've been plunging the depths of a dungeon known as "Dargon's Folly" and encountering the required vermin and traps most commonly found on the upper levels of such a locale.

Being the resident thief (that's thief, not rogue. Even says so on my character sheet), it's my duty to spot the traps before the rest of the group goes barreling into them. And as everyone who's ever played a thief knows: sometimes you do, sometime you don't.

The important thing is to maintain a positive outlook. Don't second-guess yourself. If you didn't find anything, then it must be O.K. to proceed. Just give a big thumbs up to the rest of the party and press on.

This attitude has been largely spurred on by the picture above. The piece is from dungeon module B4: The Lost City by Tom Moldvay. It's the work of Jim Holloway, an artist who, for some people, really epitomizes what D&D artwork is. While I can usually take or leave Holloway's stuff, some pieces of his really speak to me as a player. This is one such piece.

We've been referring to this particular picture a lot around the gaming table since we started the crawl. I figured I'd post it here for those of you who haven't seen it in in some time (or have never seen it at all).

Links Part 4

Here are three quick ones for a Sunday evening:

The Call of the Dungeon: A relatively new blog dedicated to old-school gaming. It’s author, JM, is a follower of this little electronic fish-wrapper that I call a blog, so I figure I owe him a solid with a link to his site. Check it out and spread the word.

Malevolent & Benign: Any blog that shares the subtitle of one of my favorite and much-maligned AD&D books is O.K. by me. It’s just not D&D either. Encounter Critical fans will find ample fodder for their games as well. The link to the pin-up archive was prize in the Cracker Jacks too.

Wilderlands OD&D: Unfortunately Wilderlands OD&D seems to be on a permanent hiatus. Still, I’ve never wanted to be involved in a hex-crawl game more than after reading through it. Scott uses a similar elven role-model as I do, so I really dug his posts on changeling elves.

Friday, September 26, 2008

What I Learned at the Orgy

About two weeks ago I was rhapsodizing on the old D&D rule that awarded experience points for treasure recovered during a dungeon expedition. After rationalizing the reasons behind this rule, I’m just about completely convinced to resurrect it for use in the “unnamed dungeon crawl” that I’ve been working on. Still, I wanted to poke around and see what other variants and/or systems might exist to supplement or countermand my decision.

It was in issue #10 of The Dragon that I discovered an unfortunately titled article “D&D Option: Orgies, Inc.” by Jon Pickens. I had read the article in the past, going so far as to have it bookmarked in my copy of the Dragon Magazine Archive under “Sad, Sad D&D.” Not being one to keep my mind completely shut, I gave it another run-through. And this time, I was inspired rather than depressed.

To sum up the article, it presents a variant experience point system wherein the players gain experience points through the spending of money and treasure, rather than winning it. This was presented as a viable system for DMs who had grown tired of their players having characters with vast bankrolls, but were worn out from trying to fleece/con/rob/tax those characters back into poverty. It puts the burden of blowing through cash on the player.

The base math is that a character earns (number of gold pieces/character level) experience points for spending wealth on one or more of five acceptable endeavors. Thus a 5th level fighter who spends 1,000 g.p. would accrue 200 x.p., provided it was spent on one of the five listed activities.

The five activities/causes named in the article are:
  1. Sacrifice: Available to any character, this money is basically donated to their personal church, temple, cult, or demonic representative. The DM is give the option of awarding a wish to any character who donates 100 g.p x level to their local religious institution. Tithes by paladins were included under this heading.

  2. Philanthropically Donated: Any Lawful (read "good") character could donate money to orphans, widows, retired soldier, etc. and gain the x.p. for doing so. Buying your henchmen better armor was not considered philanthropy.

  3. Magical Research: M-Us and Alchemists could indulge in research during downtime to whittle away at their purses. These experiments would have no real “in-game” effect, but would allow the character to trade gold for x.p. At higher levels, money spent on spell research was included under this activity, but not money spent to manufacture magical items.

  4. Clan Hoards: For Dwarves and other “clannish” folks (Neutrals are suggested). Basically you fork over the dough to your home warren, tribe, shire, etc. and reap the benefits of cash for experience. Like most of these activities, no “in-game” benefit is gained by doing so.
  5. Orgies: Available to Fighting Men (not counting paladins and rangers), Thieves, Bards and Chaotics (read "evil" - but not including monks.) Characters were limited to spending no more than 500 g.p. per level, per day at the orgy – 250 g.p. per day if at 50% of their hit points or less – and had the risk of reducing any psionic powers possessed by the character.
Looking back on this article now, almost 31 years after its initial publication, I’m not sure how to classify it. Is this another example of the wild and woolly early days of the hobby or is it an artifact from the swinging 1970s? Maybe a bit of both?

In any case, it certainly doesn’t meet my needs as a variant experience point system. Despite its old-school pedigree, it just doesn’t jive with my take on treasure-based experience points as a method of measuring qualitative character achievement.

However, I’d use a modified version of this variant at the drop of a dancing girl’s veil in a certain situation.

I could see this being an amazing house rule in a city-based campaign, especially one that involved a large percentage of fighters and thieves in the party. If I was shooting for a real “Conan” or “Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser” type of pulp fantasy feel, this rule would help drive that mood straight home. In fact, I’d open the floodgates on what treasure could be spent on. Luxurious inn rooms, rented villas, processions of musicians accompanying the characters on the streets, dancing girls (hell, dancing BEARS), 1,000 year old elven brandies- provided they were used to bath in, lavish weeklong parties thrown for fair-weather friends and hangers-on, etc. would all be worth experience points. I could picture the players concocting spending sprees that would put the those of Brewster’s Millions to shame. In the end, they’d be broke, a level higher, and itching to risk their lives for another grand haul, if only to watch it slip through their hands yet again.

Yes. I think there’s some value here after all. Just not for what I have in mind at the moment.

In the coming weeks, I hope to touch on this topic of treasure = experience points one more time. I’ve got one last point of discussion I need to explore, going back to the initial premise of why treasure awards experience, in a post entitled “He Do the Police in Different Voices.”

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Devolving the DM

At some point in my life I came under the misconception that I was a game designer/writer. Not an amateur one, mind you, but a professional one with an editor and style guides and such. This has been the biggest of my so-called “bad habits.”

Once this hobgoblin took up residence in my tiny mind, I was no longer satisfied with producing functional adventure notes. Instead, I had to produce laboriously written pieces that a least somewhat resembled the published modules that TSR was cranking out. With the advent of affordable PCs and writing software, this habit took a turn for the worse. The result was too much time on prep-work and production and not nearly enough time actually putting that work to use is a real game session. But talk is cheap, so let me demonstrate what I’m talking about with some choice examples from my past. Watch as the sickness grows.

click to enlarge The Early 1980s
This is an example of how I wrote out adventures in the early part of the 1980s. I would have been in my pre-teens at this time. The notes are pretty straight forward, consisting of nothing more than basic dimensions, monster stats and room notes.

Example: "This 30' room has a 30' ceiling. In the room is 8 kolbolds (AC 7 HD 1/2 Hp 6, att 1, Dmg 1-4 or weapon) armed with nets and short swords. In a store contier in the base of a chair is 200 cp gaurded by darts that do 1-4 hp damage."

Although the spelling and grammar leave something to be desired, my notes contained everything I needed to run this encounter - with the possible exception of what else was in the room besides the kolbolds and a chair, as well as an explanation on how 1/2 HD kolbolds managed to get 6 hp.

click to enlargeThe Mid 1980s
This had to be from 1985 or soon thereafter, since it was from an Oriental Adventures setting that I cooked up when that book was released. The descriptions and situations have improved a bit, although the source material might be suspect.

Example: "12 - This Observitory has a large telescope in the middle of the room. The walls are covered with star charts and drawing. A table has various other charts on it. Chained to the ground is the princess Chie-to Allo (AC 4 hp 13 At 0 Dam 0). She is in a point at which the sun will in 3 rounds be focused through the telescope frying her. The lock is intricit with a -10% to open and it takes 2 rounds to do so. The telescope crank is broken so it requires a combined strength of 30 to move."

Some improvement is evident in this example. The grammar is still atrocious, but I've provided more description of room, as well as providing the party with a challenge to overcome. I've outlined the possible hindrances to the challenge -slightly difficult lock and broken crank on the telescope - and established a time frame in which they have to act. As for the encounter itself, I can only assume that Goldfinger had been on TV that week.

clink to enlargeThe Late 1980s
With the ownership of a semi-smart typewriter, my dungeon notes improved to a more "professional" style. Although the appearance of my nemesis, "boxed text" would have to wait until I owned my first PC, I was still spending a little more time polishing text that ultimately would only be seen by myself (and now, you).

Example: "3. Storage: In this 40' x 40' room, the priest store items for the temple. Large boxes line the walls. A torch braket is in the south wall but is empty. The tops of the boxes are dusty.

The boxes hold incense, food, water in kegs, braziers, Symbols of Bane wrapped in velvet and parchment. Under on of the boxes lives four giant centipedes. They have no treasure.

4 centipedes (AC 9 hp 2, 2, 1, 1 at -1 dam poison)"

This era would end what I consider the best balance of my notes in regards to description, effort and "useability". In the coming years, my sickness would flourish as it slept...

The 1990s

I have no D&D notes from this time period, simply because the 1990s saw my gradual retreat from D&D and playing more White Wolf titles. After college, I retreated completely from table-top gaming, eventually leaving the hobby completely. But as we'll soon see, my bad habit took the opportunity to grow while I was away.

click to enlargeThe Early Aughts
Oh yea Gods! Shaded boxed text, over-the-top background details, attempts to cover every action a party might undertake while in the dungeon, these notes have it all. When I came back to gaming, I came back with my habit in full bloom.

These two pages are from a short side adventure that I'd put together for a party of three players to encounter on their way to the main dungeon setting that I had planned. From what I recall, we never even got a chance to run this adventure due to one of the three being sick. I do remember still slaving away at the computer up to two hours before I was supposed to run this thing. I was spending too much time coming up with cute random "things in the pantry" tables and creating new magical items to put in as treasure. I was working as if I was getting paid real money for this thing and the editor was breathing down my neck.
click to enlarge What should have been a simple romp turned into a nightmare of game design for me and I had no one to blame for it except myself. My players would never see this end of it. All that mattered to them was what happened when the dice hit the table and I start describing the scene. But I couldn't see past this. I was too busy stroking my own ego by attempting to produce a quality product.

Unfortunately, I'm still afflicted by this tendency. One of the reasons that my initial expedition back into this hobby almost failed was that I was still trying to produce dungeon notes that look like this while familiarizing myself with 3.5 D&D. An almost guaranteed recipe for self-implosion.

I'm trying to get better. I've settled on a style that more closely resembles how I did things back in the late 1980s. I'm more willing to work without a net when it comes down to it. And I've completely banished boxed text from my notes forever. That only creeped in from reading too many TSR modules. As a player, my eyes glaze over whenever box text gets read. Why would I expect anything less when I was reading it aloud?

To return to my roots, I need to devolve in some ways. Not intelligently, but stylistically. I need to learn how to stop worrying and love the dungeon in its funky, clunky way that defines classic Dungeons & Dragons. To remember that it is a game, and not a paycheck. That it is recreation I'm after and not frustration.

Let's hope I get Cro-Magnon on my notes from now on...

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Wandering Chamber Table

As I mentioned previously, a lot of the layout of the upper levels of the nameless dungeon have been created using a variant of the Random Dungeon Generation tables from the back of the 1st Edition Dungeon Masters Guide. The random method goes along great with not only capturing the classic D&D spirit, but it also ties in nicely with the Winchester Mystery House theme I’m using. The first few levels are big, with lots of weird angles, abrupt dead ends, and chambers of odd shapes and sizes. I’m very pleased with the results so far.

My problem lies with my need to know a room’s purpose before I can elaborate on it. If I know what a room is, or used to be, before the monsters moved in, I have an easier time fleshing the room out in my notes. While a bare 30’ x 30’ room might have been perfectly acceptable in 1974, it just doesn’t quite cut it now that our expectations as gamers have grown a bit. Anti-old school thinking? No, just a logical design process.

When looking at the results of my random design, there are rooms that just don’t “pop” for me, meaning I draw a complete blank about what function these rooms might have served before the monsters moved in. The rooms are either just too plain or too weird to suggest something to me. I end up staring at the graph paper until beads of blood appear on my forehead.

That is, until I rigged up a stopgap solution the other night.

If I’m already using the random Dungeon Encounter tables to determine monsters, why not take it one more step and use a similar table to determine the room?

Turning to page 138 of the Monster Manual II, I dug out the guidelines for creating your own random encounter tables, wherein Gary suggests using the following table:

2 – Very Rare
3 – Very Rare
4 – Very Rare or Rare
5 – Rare
6 – Rare
7 – Uncommon
8 – Uncommon
9 – Common
10 – Common
11 – Common
12 – Common
13 – Common
14 – Uncommon
15 – Uncommon
16 – Rare
17 – Rare
18 – Very Rare or Rare
19 – Very Rare
20 – Very Rare

Results are determined by the sum of a d8 + a d12. Simply plug in the monsters based on their frequency and – viola! – instant random encounter table.

Instead of monsters, I’d just plug in room types. All that was necessary was to determine how common or rare certain types of rooms might be. Obviously sleeping quarters would be found in greater numbers than throne rooms, so after a few minutes of dickering around with the types of rooms possibly found in dungeons (p. 220 1st ed. Dungeon Masters Guide) and adding a few of my own, I had this:

Common Rooms
Bedroom, Average
Dining Room
Guard Room
Waiting Room

Common/Uncommon Rooms
Training/Exercise Room

Uncommon Rooms
Meeting Chamber
Reception Chamber
Sitting Room

Uncommon/Rare Rooms
Bedroom, Elite
Cell, Monk’s
Dressing Room

Rare Rooms
Cell, Prison
Game Room
Meditation Chamber
Music Room
Robing Room
Torture Chamber
Trophy Chamber

Rare/Very Rare Rooms
Audience Chamber
Banquet Chamber

Very Rare Rooms
Conjuring Room
Court Room
Divination Chamber
Hall, Great
Throne Room

A very rough ratio of Common to Uncommon to Rare to Very Rare is 5:3:2:1. Depending on your own dungeon, the frequency of certain rooms may vary.

Another three minutes of work produced this:

Table One (1-3 on a d6)
2 – Treasury
3 – Library
4 – Audience Chamber
5 – Game Room
6 – Bedroom, Elite
7 – Salon
8 – Meeting Room
9 – Bedroom, Common
10 – Barracks or Guard Room
11 – Dining Room
12 – Bedroom, Common
13 – Storage
14 – Workshop
15 – Kitchen
16 – Study
17 – Music Room
18 – Shrine
19 – Harem/Seraglio
20 – Special*

Table Two (4-6 on a d6)
2 – Special*
3 – Chantry
4 – Banquet Chamber
5 – Classroom
6 – Shrine
7 – Kitchen
8 – Pantry
9 – Dormitory
10 – Dining Room
11 – Bedroom, Common
12 – Storage
13 – Waiting Room
14 – Study
15 – Armory
16 – Bath
17 – Meditation Chamber
18 – Amphitheatre
19 – Crypt
20 - Laboratory

* Special – Trick/Trap or just plain weird

With the roll of a d6, a d8 and a d12, I could now harness the oracle powers of the dice to help break a case of DM’s Block. And it worked! My first result with a room that I hadn’t any clear idea for produced “Dining Room.” With that in mind, it seemed logical that this smaller room over here would be a kitchen. That room there would be a lounge where guests would gather before the meal and this small cave close by was obviously a natural “cool storage” pantry. In fact, this whole section off of here was a support wing, which would make this larger room a servants dormitory and common area!

I had gone from a complete blank to a fully fleshed out dungeon wing in just under a half-hour. While I wouldn’t determine the function of every room in the dungeon via this method, it certainly worked to loosen the mental log-jam that I’d developed.

When in doubt, trust the dice.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Tech Help

Problem resolved. Moving along then...

Friday, September 19, 2008

Dire Shark Week: Shark Pirates of Vakarös

The following is an adventure idea. While set within my own homebrew campaign, the scenario and magical item presented are generic enough to be used in any D&D campaign. No NPC levels are indicated, allowing the DM to customize its power level to suit his players.

Someone or something is attacking the merchant ships in the water surrounding Vakarös. Within the past six weeks, twelve merchant vessels have been boarded and stripped of their valuable cargo. The crews have been slaughtered, leaving the decks awash in gore. The attacks have left no survivors, but the harbormaster and the sea-watch have reported that some of the crews have been hacked apart, while others bear wounds inflicted by slashing teeth. Many of the old salts along the docks mutter grimly and lay the blame at the scaly feet of the dreaded “sea devils,” or sahuagin, who are known to have a city many days sailing distance to the north. If the sea devils are on the march, it is only matter of time before Vakarös itself comes under attack. The merchant lords of the sixteen houses of trade have pooled their resources and offer a sizable reward to whoever can identify and stop this menace.

The culprits of these attacks appear straightforward at first. With a known sahuagin city relatively close to the port, it seems logical that the sea devils are to blame. With their fierce reputation and savage ways, it’s easy to shoulder the blame upon their scaly shoulders. This is of course exactly what the real culprits hope.

The attacks are in fact the work of a band of pirates, led by the Captain Eree Nuz. Captain Nuz is normally a mediocre pirate, and if not for a random bit of luck, would have spent his career taking lightly defended ships before vanishing into obscurity. As Chance would have it, the Captain and his crew stumbled upon the smoking remains of a tiny tribal village while taking on stores of water several weeks ago. The village had been raided by a neighboring tribe, who killed most of the men and elders in the village, and carried off the rest as slaves and future meals. The sole survivor was the village witch doctor, who fled the village after being gravely wounded in the raid. Nuz and his crew would have normally left the old man to his fate, had the witch doctor not offered to provide the captain and his men powerful juju in exchange for saving his life. Looking for any edge he could possibly get, Nuz agreed and took the witch doctor aboard his ship.

The “juju” that the witch doctor has provided are potions of the sea fiend. A single draught of a potion always the drinker to assume the form of a half-man/half-shark for a limited time, transforming Nuz’s mediocre pirates into fierce sea raiders for the duration of their attacks on ships. The ability to approach a ship undetected and surprise its crew has proven the pirates unstoppable so far.

What Nuz and his men don’t know, however, is that with each use of the potions, the chance of the condition becoming irreversible grows. The witch doctor is aware of this slight problem, but has so far kept it to himself. He hopes to escape from Nuz and his men before they become aware of this. Unfortunately, the pirates have no intention of letting the witch doctor escape, holding him under constant guard both aboard ship and while in their camp.

Depending on the DM’s desires and the PCs actions, the sahuagin red-herring can be played out for some time. Ultimately, however, events should take place that put the party onto the right path. This may be accomplished in several ways.

Should the characters accompany a likely target ship, they might find themselves in the thick of the action as the pirates attack them at sea. Similarly, the party may chose to stake out the sea lanes, either by using themselves as bait or employing magic or stealth to observe potential targets or threats. In both cases, a rollicking battle aboard ship may ensure.

If a more land-based encounter is desired, the party might be patronizing a local wharf-front tavern when a gang of pirates comes carousing. One or more of the pirates has consumed a potion of the sea fiend prior to their night out. In the midst of a heated card game or brawl, the pirate(s) assume the vicious man-shark form and proceed to inflict heavy casualties on nearby patrons. Capturing one of the pirates leads to the location of the pirate camp, hidden in a secluded cove, allowing the party to stop the threat at its source. Should the DM wish to add another level of intrigue, the pirate(s) had consumed enough potions to make the effects permanent, leaving the party with strange half-man, half-shark corpses at fight’s end and more questions than answers.

In the final showdown between the party and the pirates, the witch doctor will not hesitate to assist the party, but will attempt to escape from both the pirates and the adventurers when opportunity allows. Characters of a lawful persuasion might wish to bring him to justice. After all, it was his magic that allowed the pirates to plunder so many vessels. This pursuit of justice could lead the party deep into the surrounding jungles, where perhaps the witch doctor has sought refuge in an ancient temple or ruined city.

New Magical Item: potion of the sea fiend

Drinking this potion gives the imbiber the ability to assume the terrorizing shape of a man-shark hybrid. Towering some 7 to 8’ tall, the form resembles a humanoid shark with webbed feet and stubby semi-human hands. Its head is that of a mako, tiger, hammer head, or great white shark. The effects of the potion last one hour, during which time the character can assume the man-shark form once, and return to normal form once, at will. In any case, at the end of the potion’s duration, the drinker returns to his normal form.

The potion acts similar to a potion of heroism, granting temporary HD to the imbiber. A zero-level man gains 4 HD while in shark-form. A 1st-3rd level character gains 3 HD, a 4th-6th level drinker gains 2 HD, and a 7th-9th level character gains a single HD. Characters greater than 9th level gain no additional Hit Dice. Any damage take while in man-shark form is deducted from the temporary hit points gained in the transformation. Unlike the druid’s ability to change form, returning to normal shape recovers no lost hit points. Additionally, while in this form, the drinker’s higher thought processes are suppressed, making him more bestial and aggressive. His Intelligence suffers a -4 penalty until he returns to normal shape. While the man-shark form may seem to be a type of lycanthropy, it is not. The imbiber gains no special protection against attacks, and silver, magic weapons and wolvesbane are no more effective than against a normal man.

While in this hybrid form, the drinker can use simple melee weapons such as clubs or swords, but cannot use missile weapons more complex than thrown weapons. He cannot speak or cast spells. Any items, clothing, armor, etc. on the character is automatically shed during the transformation, remaining on the ground where the change occurred.

Potions of the sea fiend have a potentially serious side-effect. With each potion consumed, there is a cumulative 5% chance that the man-shark form become permanent when assumed. If this occurs, the only cure is a remove curse or some version of a wish spell. Even death will not restore the drinker to his normal form.

While in the hybrid form, use the following stats for the imbiber:

Sea Fiend (man-shark)

Armor Class: 5
Hit Dice: 4 to 10
Movement: 9, Sw 18
THACO: 4 HD – 17, 5 to 6 HD – 15, 7 to 8 HD – 13, 9 to 10 HD – 11
# of Attacks: 1 bite
Damage per Attack: 4 to 6 HD – 3d4, 7 to 9 HD – 4d4, 10 HD – 5d4
Magic Resistance: None
Special Attacks: None
Special Defense: None
Morale: Steady (11)
Size: L (7 to 8’ tall)
XP: 4HD – 120
5HD – 175
6HD – 270
7HD – 420
8HD – 650
9HD – 976
10HD – 1,400

Links Part 3

I like to become familiar with a site's content before I add it to the list. That's why the blog roll is growing slowly. If I figure the site is something that I'm going to read on a regular basis, it gets added. If it's still new or not regularly updated, it gets backburnered until I get a better idea of its use to me as a resource or entertainment source. An established site concerning topics of interest to this blog, but not yet linked to, most likely means I'm working my way through its archives and will appear in the near future.

Here's three new ones:

Jeff's Gameblog: Jeff Rients' blog is the the second-longest running blog concerning old style gaming that I've encountered so far. Jeff has a wonderful enthusaism for gaming, and it's apparent in his writing. It's become a regular stop for me. The earlier postings are a little scattered in focus, but as the site evolves, so does his writing. I'd advise jumping in around the mid-2006 time period if you're visiting for the first time. I think that's when things really start to gel.

Original D&D Discussion: This forum was one of the major influences on me to get back to my gaming roots. Primarily concerned with OD&D (the little brown books), it has enough resources, ideas, and general atmosphere to be of use to anyone looking to indulge in the type of gaming they enjoyed so many years ago.

Philotomy's OD&D Musings: Another major influence in my return to what I think off as D&D. Philotomy waxes philosophical on OD&D and its rules. Pound for pound, one of the most useful sites to visit for indulging in old-school game theory and design.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Dire Shark Week: Mechanical Shark

As a child, I’d spend the summers on Fire Island, reveling in the sand, sea and poison ivy so common to a barrier beach environment. Things maritime were always within my sphere of awareness during that time, so it’s no surprise that the summer of 1975 was memorable to me despite my young age. The summer of 1975 was “the summer nobody went swimming,” seeing how Jaws was released that June.

Being all of about three, I didn’t see Jaws in the theatre, but you can be sure that I was aware of it. I was certain that it was the greatest movie ever, simply because of a misunderstanding. I was either told, or had overheard, that the shark in the movie was mechanical. The person revealing this information meant to convey the fact that they used a mechanical shark in the production of the movie, not a real one. Of course, in my mind, Jaws was no longer about a shark terrorizing a beachfront community. It was about a MECHANICAL shark terrorizing a beachfront community.

I filled in the obvious gaps in the plot by picturing a wild-haired mad scientist lurking in his sea cave lair, complete with Tesla coils and Joshua tree electronics buzzing in the background. With the final twist of a wrench and the crackle of lightning, he unleashes his mechanical monstrosity on the town of Amity. “Laugh at me, will they?” he intones. “I’ll show them the meaning of true terror!!!”

Of course, when I eventually saw the movie many years later, I was disappointed. Terrified, but disappointed. To make up for this lack of mechanical sharks in the universe, I’d like to present you with one for your own use:

Mechanical Shark

Climate/Terrain: Any water
Frequency: Very Rare
Organization: Solitary
Diet: None
Intelligence: Non-(0)
Treasure: See below
Alignment: Neutral

Armor Class: 4
Hit Dice: 6 to 8
Movement: Sw 18
THACO: 6 HD – 14, 7 to 8 HD – 13
# of Attacks: 1
Damage per Attack: 6 HD – 2d6, 7 to 8 HD – 3d6
Magic Resistance: 10%
Special Attacks: None
Special Defense: Only hit by magical weapons
Morale: Fearless (19-20)
Size: L
XP: 6 HD – 1,4000 7 to 8 HD– 2,000

The mechanical shark appears as an articulated metal reproduction of large shark of any species, usually made of brass. Its eyes are constructed from large pearls, with white being the most common, but occasionally black pearls are used in the largest version. The shark swims and moves almost as well as its biological counterpart, suffering only from a slightly slower rate of speed.

The mechanical shark attacks with its fearsome bite, ripping its prey to pieces before consuming it. While a mechanical shark requires no regular food to function, the nature of its technological and magical construction allow it to convert any organic material consumed into energy that can be used to repair itself. For each HD of creature it consumes, it can heal itself 1d4 points of damage.

Due to the same hybrid construction, the weird creation process of the mechanical shark gives it a 10% magic resistance. In addition, any electrical attack on the shark heals it of 1 hp for each die of damage the attack would have done.

Those who have successfully defeated a mechanical shark have been surprised by the strange internal construction of the beast. Instead of the clockwork and gear mechanism they’d expected to find, a strange collection of a flexible ceramic material, opaque bladders containing glowing liquids, twisted metal wires, and spinning magnets were concealed within the brass outer shell. The origin of these parts, examined by sages and mages, remains unknown.

While mechanical sharks do not seek out, or hoard treasure, their construction and habits present some opportunity to acquire some treasure. The pearl eyes of the beast are worth 250 gp each at minimum, if of the white variety. In larger mechanical sharks, constructed with black pearls, the eyes are worth a minimum of 500 gp each. Additionally, like real sharks, the mechanical variety has something of a reputation for being a swimming refuse heap. The DM should roll two or three times on the chart below to determine what might be lodged within the shark’s mechanical stomach:

1) Grappling hook with 5’ of rope still attached.
2) Suit of Halfling/gnome sized plate mail. (5% the armor is magical)
3) 1d8 horseshoes
4) 1d4 gems of random value
5) Bent crowbar
6) 2d6 iron spikes
7) Medium shield (10% chance magical)
8) Dented metal flask containing a random potion
9) Any random metal weapon (10% chance magical)
10) A metal oddity (key, talking metal head, steel tablet with unknown writing, something from the Barrier Peaks, etc.)

The construction process of the mechanical shark has either been lost to the ages, or is a closely guarded secret. What is known is that mechanical sharks have been found in a wide array of locales, ranging from arctic waters, to tropical beaches, to lurking in watery pits deep in a dungeon. Its sole limitation is the ingenuity or insanity of its creator.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Dire Shark Week: The Blade of Bru'ce

The Blade of Bru’ce

Description: This odd-looking cutlass is constructed of an unknown wood. In place of the traditional sharpened edge, dozens of shark’s teeth adorn the weapon, providing it with a razor-sharp blade. The Blade of Bru’ce is accompanied by a curved wooden scabbard wrapped in shagreen.

History: The Blade of Bru’ce was originally created for a tribal chief amongst the islanders of the Maoli-p’Tan Archipelago. Crafted by his tribe’s shaman, the weapon draws upon the powers of the tribal totem, the God of Sharks known as Bru’ce the Tireless Eater. Passed down through the ruling generations, the sword’s power gave the tribal leaders a fierce reputation as wanton killers in battle.

The explorations of Yannu Kuk, the great half-orc sea captain, brought him and his men into conflict with the tribes of Maoli-p’Tan. In his initial successes, Kuk defeated the ruling chief and claimed the Blade of Bru’ce as tribute to bring back to his royal financiers. Kuk’s explorations turned sour soon after, leaving both him and most of his crew dead on a tropical beach. The surviving members of the exploration limped back to the pirate haven of Breezy Bay, where the Blade was lost in a game of draughts. Its current location and owner is unknown.

Game Notes: The Blade of Bru’ce acts as a sword of sharpness; its razor-toothed edge slicing through the exposed flesh of an enemy’s extremities. In addition, the magical energies which give the sword its power, grants the weapon an animalistic sentience.

The Blade possesses an INT of 12, an Ego of 3, and is of absolute Neutral alignment. It can detect invisible objects in a 1” radius. The Blade is docile when first encountered and will not attempt to initially influence or dominate the wielder. Once combat begins, however, and the Blade has drawn blood, the animalistic energies of the Shark will attempt to drive its owner into a frenzy of bloodletting. Resolve this potential personality conflict as described on pp. 167 of the 1st edition AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. In the event of a conflict, the Blade will demand that the wielder attack the greatest threat currently facing the owner, seeking to quench its blood-lust in doing so.

Should the sword dominate its owner, the wielder immediately succumbs to a frenzied rage. In this state, the wielder gains +2 on all rolls to hit for the duration of combat. He is immune to psionic attacks, charm and fear. All damage inflicted upon the wielder is reduced by 1 point. He will disregard any commands to retreat, cease fighting or spare an enemy while frenzied, seeking to only to slay his opponent. Once that task is accomplished, the wielder will seek his next enemy. There is a 20% chance that he will simply attack the next closest living creature, even if that being is a boon companion. Otherwise he will engage the nearest enemy.

Once combat has ended, the blood-red rage leaves the owner of the blade, leaving him extremely fatigued. He suffers a -4 to all his attribute scores, saving throws and combat rolls. He movement is reduced to ¾ his normal rate. This condition remains until the character rests for two consecutive hours, engaging in no activity more strenuous than eating and drinking. After such time, all attribute scores return to normal as does his movement. Depending on the results of the previous combat, however, there may be some long-term damage to his reputation amongst his fellow adventurers.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Call Lightining Strikes Twice

The results of Grognard's Challenge #4 came in at the end of last week. It is with a great amount of pride and joy that I announce that I did it again.

The responses to it have been very kind, indicating that I'm on the right track back to my roots and to where I want to be as I put the dungeon complex together. I'm scrambling to get ahead a bit in my project, simply because I'm facing a dungeon crawl as a player and I don't want to be overly influenced by what I run into in that game. I'm interested to see if the similar years of playing between myself and the DM are going to produce similar design results.

Grognard's Challenge #5 has been announced but I think that I'm going to sit this one out. Not from hubris, but because the entry that I'd like to submit involves source material I have packed away in storage. Recovering it would be a challenge in and of itself. Perhaps when events permit, I'll write it up and post it here after the fact.

In the meanwhile, I'll now have two of the LBB Supplements to peruse for inspirational reading.

To the Right of the Screen

While the intent of this blog is to chronicle my return to my gaming roots and the construction of the dungeon complex that accompanies that return, it might become necessary to mention some of my experiences as a player as well. Thus, To the Right of the Screen is born.

The title refers to my location at the gaming table as a player, as opposed to my position behind the screen as a DM. While the experiences and attitudes between the two positions can differ vastly, there’s nothing a good DM can’t learn from playing as well as running a game. The latest edition of D&D might be trying to equalize the two roles in the game somewhat, but coming from the apprenticeship program of learning to run a game from an experienced DM that many old-school players grew up with, a good DM must always remember that his players will make or break any campaign.

A recent turn of events in the game I play in makes those experiences pertinent to what I intend to discuss here. That event is our first actual dungeon delve. Because of the structure of the campaign, we’ve had a few cave crawls, a keep clearing and a tower travesty, but until last night, we’ve never actually set foot in a dungeon with the set goal to get every piece of loot we could and woe-be-it to whatever stands in our way.

It should be interesting, if simply only because of the demographic of the players. We’re a group of six including DM, with an age range between the mid-twenties and early fifties. On occasion, we’re joined by one of the player’s fourteen-year old daughter. Experience-wise, it runs the gamut from 25+ years of playing to the novice. For one person, this is going to be their first dungeon crawl. I’ve already let the rest of the group know that I’m going to be taking a backseat in the exploration process, simply because I don’t want to rob some of them from that first “not quite sure what we’re doing” flavor of dungeon exploration.

I did nominate myself to buy the supplies for the expedition though. In addition to the kit we normally carry, the shopping list looked like this:
  • 20 large sacks
  • 24 iron spikes
  • 2 hooded lanterns
  • 20 torches
  • 12 candles
  • 20 flasks of oil
  • 12 pieces of parchment
  • 1 crowbar
  • 1 pick axe
  • 1 10’ pole
  • 50’ of rope
  • 10 1 lb. bags of salt
  • 1 5 lb. bag of flour
  • 1 jar of grease or lard
  • 1 bag of caltrops
  • Pack mule w/ pack saddle and bag

The joy I had putting this list together was immense. Just seeing it written out on paper brought back a slew of memories. Some of the items brought about a few questions from the less experienced players. In fact, when questioned about the salt, one guy asked if I expected to run into “giant slugs or something?”

The answer, without an ounce of sarcasm, was: “Possibly.”

Friday, September 12, 2008

Smart Money

In my ongoing quest to recapture the feel of old-school AD&D while designing the so-far unnamed dungeon, I’ve found myself looking back at some of the rules and tropes of the old editions of the game. I’m still trying to resolve my post-modern gaming instincts with the spirit of the original rules, meaning that I’m looking for the reasons why things were laid out as they were. What was the intent of certain passages of the rules canon? Why this why and not that? It’s easy to say that they’re there because that’s what seemed like a good idea in the quaint and wild-and-wooly days of yore, but I don’t think that always the case. Perhaps I’m just engaging in ret-conning if only to delude myself, but it stands to reason that if I can deduce a purpose for a rule based on what else exists within the books, there might just be a method to the madness.

With this in mind, I recently re-examined one of the more laughed at rules in the both the original D&D and the 1st edition AD&D game: money = experience.

By the original rules, every gold piece worth of treasure you managed to haul out of the dungeon was worth 1 x.p. This of course was the reason why old-school adventuring parties entered into foul, dank holes with a mule train and enough hirelings and henchmen to stage a Broadway production. More grunt labor meant more wealth being able to be recovered, which meant more experience.

I’ll admit that I laughed at the concept that money somehow made you smarter and better at what you did. I accepted it, of course, but when they eliminated this rule in the 2nd edition of AD&D, I wasn’t sorry to see it go. At last we could go about getting our experience from much more obvious sources like role-playing and thinking up good plans and strategy. My, weren’t we all so silly before they dropped this rule?

But now I’m beginning to see the logic behind it.

I came to this conclusion while pondering the combat system in the pre-3.0 era. As you may or may not remember, combat rounds were originally one minute long and you rolled a single time during that round to determine if your attack was successful. Of course, many players pointed out that this was ridiculous. “I can swing my sword more than once a minute. Why do I only get one attack?” they cried. What they were forgetting, and what had been pointed out many times, is that the combat round in D&D is an abstract representation of battle. That d20 roll does not represent a single blow, but rather a full minute of dodging and weaving, parrying, thrusts, and counter-attacks. A high roll meant you were successful in doing damage to your opponent during that minute. It didn’t, and was never meant to, represent a single attack. A fact which the D&D rules have since disregarded.

With this abstract representation of combat in mind, I re-examined the “money for experience rules” and things began to clarify. It is not the money in and of itself which is awarding you the experience. Rather the money is a concrete measurement to determine and reward the intangible worth of the planning, execution and out-right luck that went into gaining the treasure.

That 10,000 x.p. you get is not from the crown and ruby scepter you pried from the Cold King’s Tomb. That 10,000 x.p. is the reward for gathering the information at the tavern about the death trap in the Chamber of Maidens. It’s for remembering to buy more iron spikes than usual after the incident in the Kobold Kaves. It for using teamwork to distract the fire-breathing zombies that guard the Cold King’s crypt. It’s a way of assigning a quantitative number to a qualitative series of actions. Perhaps this has been explained in this way in the rules before and I just missed it. If so, then I solely blame myself. But if not, I think I’ve seen the machinery behind the façade and it’s now very clear to me why the experience points for money rule was included.

With this in mind, I’m now heavily leaning towards going back to this method of calculating experience for an adventure. Some can argue that the addition of rules awarding x.p. for good ideas and role-playing makes this rule obsolete, and I’ll agree that that school of thought does have its merits. I recently pitched my tent within that very camp. But now that I see the reasoning behind the original rule, I’m much more open to embracing it in my own game.

This is only part of the discussion in regards this topic. There’s another aspect to the “money means experience” rule that has been on my mind, but there’s a lot going on this week as you can see, so I’ll return to this in a week or so with Part Two, tentatively entitled: “What I Learned at the Orgy.”

“I’m only a Celestial Dolphin, ma’am.”

If the Discovery Channel can get 21 years out of “Shark Week,” it’s only fair that the gamers get some mileage for a similar concept. Starting Monday, September 15th, Berin Kinsman of UncleBear has declared it to be “Dire Shark Week.” During those five days, UncleBear will be posting shark-themed items on his site and has invited the gaming bloggers to join in on the fun.

As a long-time fan of UncleBear, I’m pleased to be chumming up the waters with my own contributions. During the coming week, each post here will also be featuring a shark theme. Scheduled right now is a shark-themed magic item for AD&D on Monday, a shark-related trap and new monster on Wednesday, and on Friday, which is International Talk Like a Pirate Day, a post combining the enticing flavors of pirate and shark will be featured.

Why Dire Shark Week, you might ask? Venture over to UncleBear for further information and shark-related goodness.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Resolving Challenges

There’s an axiom amongst the old school gaming crowd that goes: “Challenge the player, not the character.” While this has been applied to various aspects of the game, it mostly has to do with resolving challenges that the character might encounter during the course of his adventuring career that are not easily covered by D&D’s “class and level” style of character definition.

By this I mean that D&D in its original format provided no system for determining the success or failure of a character’s actions outside of what is laid out in the rules. Combat, spell-casting, hearing noise, climbing walls, assassination, detecting secret doors, etc. all had set rules for resolving the outcome of those actions. But what happens when a fighting-man from a pre-industrial fantasy world wants to say, design and construct a hot air balloon? Or mend his own armor? Or navigate dangerous rapids in a crude kayak?

As the rules originally stood, such decisions where entirely within the realm of the DM’s fiat. The referee could allow, restrict or assign a random chance of success based on what he felt was appropriate. There’s nothing wrong with this method, as it is part-and-parcel with the original spirit of the game. If those rules are established at the start of the game or campaign, then we have no problem. But as the game evolved in various editions and more and more rpgs were published with alternate task resolution rules, this was no longer good enough for many players.

These players were the first of the D&D rules lawyers and represented a shift in attitude away from the rules designed by wargamers for wargamers that OD&D was. As TSR sought to expand its market from a niche into a national phenomenon, it would have to address the “sketchy” nature of its original rule set to make it more friendly to those potential players who were used to having the rules detailed on the inside cover of a box.

If my memory serves me, the first attempt to rectify task resolution was the “roll under your ability” method. The taking of a d20 and hoping you roll low. I’m not sure when or where this rule “suggestion” as it probably first was offered appeared. It may have been in an issue of The Dragon or buried amongst the convoluted organization of the 1st edition DMG. It certainly had to be in effect by the time that Oriental Adventures saw publishing, since OA introduced the concept of using proficiencies for task resolution.

The proficiency-based model would be elaborated on in the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide and would eventually come to full bloom in the 2nd Edition of AD&D. I know more than my fair share of gamers who were convinced that the proficiency system “killed AD&D,” either for being the final nail in the coffin of the freewheeling earlier style of the game, or for adding yet another kink to character creation and thus prolonging the process, which of course subtracts from how much time you have to feed your latest creation to the slavering jaws of a dungeon beastie.

3rd edition saw the official introduction of skills to characters, although I understand it was available as an optional system under 2nd edition. It also, as far as I’m concerned, reached the apex of the flight from “challenging the player, not the character” way of thinking. Apparently, WotC seemed worried that people were still using Charisma as a dump stat. So to rectify this, they started loading a whole slew of abilities under the oversight of Charisma. From turning undead to sorcerer’s spell casting to gathering friggin’ information, they were determined to make sure that every attribute had a purpose. This, my friends, is challenging the character.

A “Gather Information” skill? Whatever happened to buying a few rounds in the tavern and keeping an ear open, or gods forbid, asking the NPCs intelligent questions? It seems determining the success of such tactics was still too vaguely defined for some people…

So with this in mind, I had to make a decision as to how I might approach such challenge resolutions. I was going to be using AD&D, but was I going to allow the optional proficiency system? (Even in 2nd edition it is optional and labeled as such right in the Player’s Handbook.) I waffled on the matter for a day or two before I made my decision. In the end, I would include the use of proficiencies in the game.

There were two reasons why I decided to. The first was because that I feel that proficiencies actually bring more to the game in regards to character back-story. There’s nothing to prevent a power-gamer from loading up on what he feels would be useful proficiencies like Blind-fighting, Mountaineering or Tracking. I can cope with that. It’s the character who takes proficiencies that may not seem particularly useful, but are very appropriate to the character he or she has in mind, that really add to the game and I reward such choices by making them useful.

The second reason is that I feel that using proficiencies and challenging the player are not in and of themselves opponents. I use proficiencies as gateways to provide the players information, not to solve problems themselves. What the players do with that information is entirely up to them.

While this continues to separate me from a true “grognard” in gaming style and design, it does reflect what I think of when I picture Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and when I hope to convey in my games and design. I’ve slashed the number of proficiencies available at character creations and rolled a few of them under a single heading, but they’re still there. I’ll modify the chance of success by anywhere from -10 to +10 to the roll based on probability of success, but I find that that is easier for me than concerning myself with DC #s and the like.

That’s the plan as it stands, but as we known, plans rarely survive contact with the enemy. I’m leaving myself open to change.

Monday, September 8, 2008

I Must Be Doing Something Right

It seems that I've managed to restart both my brain and my creative output in the manner that I was hoping for. A few weeks back, Grognardia had a contest to design something of a "Gygaxian" nature, be it spell, item, mosters, etc. At the last minute, I pulled something from the dungeon and submitted it.

It ended up taking the prize.

This was the boost that I was looking for and it helped motivate me to get this blog up and running. I've submitted an entry for Grogard's Challenge #4, which win or lose I'll post here in the next few days.

In dungeon news, the long Labor Day weekend allowed me to finish up most of upper works of the dungeon. I'll get into details on that in the near furture, along will a quick review of an Metzer era Basic D&D solo module I picked up cheap.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Everything Old is New Again

In addition to purusing the blogs and forums dedicated to the earlier versions of the game while trying to shift my mind back into an old school creative design mode, I’ve started looking through some of my old notes left over from games of yore. Amongst them I found the first D&D world that I ever created. This is half of the original world map. The right-hand half of it has been lost to time.

Looking at it, I can certainly see that the influences of the Known World setting from the Moldvay B/X versions of D&D are very apparent. Not necessarily a bad thing, considering. There are a lot of pulp sword & sorcery influences to it. That patch of green all the way to the left is a jungle surrounded by a forbidding wall. Shades of “King Kong” via “The Isle of Dread.” The “Spider Forest” seems to be Mirkwood’s poor cousin. The city on the oasis in the middle of the Dust Desert I believe is a straight lift from the Known World map included in the Expert set.

There are several pages of city maps bound up with the campaign notes. They’re all very orderly street maps laid out on graphs paper, looking exactly like they were created by a 12 year old boy rather than any sort of city planning. I also notice that there seems to be a lot of brothels and taverns…

I’m interested to see how much, if anything is salvageable from those notes. Most likely anything I pulled would need a good polish and a “reimagining” if I was to include it in my current project. It might be an interesting little series of posts to do. Produce the notes verbatim from what I originally wrote and then follow it up with what I did with my own work some quarter of a century later.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Reasonable Facsimile of Reality

I certainly didn’t shy away from a challenge when I decided to return to the game. By setting the goal of creating a megadungeon with an old-school charm, there was no edging back into the pool from the shallow end. It’s a sink-or-swim project.

I’ve mentioned my “bad habits” in a previous post or two and I believe now is the time to elaborate on what I consider to be “bad habits.” The use of the parenthesis is indicative of the fact that I don’t actually consider these habits of mine to be detrimental to running role-playing games. I’m just not sure how conducive they might be painting with old-school colors, so to speak. Role-playing has evolved from the “loot and scoot” dungeon crawl, where dragons dwelled in 20’ x 20’ rooms and a hundred flavors of monsters lived under one roof like contestants in a reality series. There’s an emphasis now a days on realistic dungeon ecologies, inter-tribal politics, and a general need to find a thin shred of plausibility to suspend your disbelief from. On one hand, this is obviously a good thing. We’ve gotten older and more sophisticated, so we hope that our hobby reflects that. On the other, however, this need to justify every last critter you stock a dungeon with can tie your hands on a project.

I’m trying to find the thin line between the gonzo dungeons of yore and the post-modern role-playing mindset that has crept into the referee section of my brain. It’s not always easy. Sometimes I’m forced to tackle the problem by thinking, “what would Dave or Gary do?” More time than not, that allows me to loosen things up a bit and I’m often pleased with the end result.

So the problem facing me from the beginning was how was I going to justify the existence of a massive underground structure filled with monsters and loot and still maintain a shred of credibility? The answer, like it often is if you look hard enough, rests in a real place.

From a very young age, I was fascinated with “real” monsters like Bigfoot and Nessie, ghosts, weird places, etc. Amongst the various books that I read regarding those subjects, I learned of the Winchester Mystery House. The quick synopsis of the Mystery House is that Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester Rifle fortune, was told that she was haunted by the spirits of those killed by the “gun that tamed the Wild West.” To confuse and/or appease those specters, she was advised to construct a house and never stop building. Construction occurred until her death, with the end result being a bizarre residence with a convoluted floor plan.

I’m stealing the Winchester Mystery House. Not whole cloth, mind you, but enough to use as a frame work to build the dungeon around. This random construction idea also throw open the doors to allow the entrance of another tool that I had hoped to use in the design of the dungeon, namely the “Random Dungeon Generation” tables from the back of the 1st Edition DMG.

I’ve mapped out the first two levels so far using this process and I’m pleased with the way things are turning out. But that’s for another post.

Links Part 2

Two more new links have been added.

Greyhawk Grognard – Joseph’s blog turns the grognard gaze on the home of the original Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting. Which is only fitting. In addition to some keen insight on the classic Descent to the Depths of the Earth, he also has a few homebrewed OD&D goodies available for public consumption.

The Brothers Grim Games and Collectables – A free plug to the place that I’ve been finding most of my old school books. If you’re in the Suffolk County area of New York, it might behoove you to take a trip out to the Brothers. Just keep your hands off the boxes on the bottom shelves. Those puppies are mine!

Monday, September 1, 2008

Labor Day Rerun: War Story

The following originaly appeared on my other personal blog. In light of it being Labor Day, I'm taking the day off to work on the dungeon and spend time with friends. Here's the story of my favorite gaming memory:

Every hobbyist, no matter what their particular flavor of recreational activity, possesses a collection of anecdotes, recollections, funny tales, and non-sequiturs related to their preferred form of “non-work.” Without exception, these stories are usually only interesting to other hobbyists of the same pedigree. Individuals who don’t indulge in these activities, when forced to endure retellings of these stories, tend to drift off, roll their eyes, or politely redirect the conversation on to more broad topics (“Shut your pie-hole before I’m forced to clear leather on you, nerd-boy!”). For this reason, such tales are often referred to as “war stories.”

I’m no exception to this. I have my own treasure trove of stories that are usually safely hidden away until my dinner guests, dates, potential employers, or heads of state are in a position where escape is impossible. Only then will I start regaling them about the time Pootak MacDin MacCool managed to snatch an evil squirrel straight out of the air, hurl it back into a cave to be shish-ka-bobbed on an Elven arrow, and STILL catch the edge of the cliff before plummeting to his death below.

I’m going to tell one of those stories now. Since you supposedly reading this of your own free will, you may graciously escape before I start.

Still here? Okay then…

When it comes down to it, I’ve done a lot, and seen a lot, of great things through the eyes of imaginary people that exist solely as a collection of words on a piece of paper. I’ve done the usual heroic tasks of saving the world, defeating the grand beastie, leading armies to victory, breaking eldritch curses, etc. Despite the pleasure that I found in those game events, not one of those is my favorite moment that I ever experienced in a role-playing game. In fact, my favorite moment is most likely unrepeatable, no matter how much time, effort, creativity and planning was attempted to recreate it.

My favorite moment (and moment it was, since it lasted no more than a minute or three in real time) occurred during a campaign I played in during one of my many college years. We had a rather large party (6-7 if I remember correctly) and the players were all friends of various closeness in real life. I was playing Erik of Cullenport, a pretty standard 1st edition Fighter, who due to his high Charisma, was leader of this particular band.

The party had just finished a quest to secure a place of sanctuary for a newborn child. The boy might, or might not have been, the last legitimate heir to a usurped throne. A throne that the party all had reasons to see returned to its rightful bloodline. After experiencing the rigors to obtaining provisions for a newborn without a lactating woman of any sort in the party (“O.K. we’re taking the goat with us. Brother Hank can cast Purify Food and Water on the milk. That’s just like formula, right?”), discovering that babies put a crimp in adventuring opportunities (“Come on! Babies love caves. Let’s go in!”), and losing a party member to a ferocious stump (“It’s just a rabbit.”), we’d finally entrusted the prince to Brother Hank’s religious order and were headed south along the Western Sea to meet with the Elvish Court , for reasons that escape me. We knew peril lay ahead once we reached the forest, and having just barely escaped with our skins in the previous adventure, tensions were running a little high in the group.

Then, we had a beach party.

The DM said nothing more than we camp for the night on the beach. Immediately after saying that, the party (by which I mean the players) decided that a little R&R was needed. Our wizard announced she was looking for sharks, the ranger built a big bonfire with the wood that the thief gathered, I kept watch, and everyone else engaged in light role-playing for a minute before the wandering monster rolls turned up nothing for the night and we moved the game along.

That was my favorite game moment out of some twenty-something years of playing.

In those few minutes, using nothing more than a few casual descriptions, my mind painted the most vivid picture I’ve ever experienced during a role-playing game. I still have bits of it. I still see Gillian standing on the shoreline, eyes scanning the black waves as she holds the bottom of her robe up to avoid the surf. Her dog, Duncan, is splashing at the water’s edge, barking at the low rollers. Mirk the Fodder and Thea are throwing driftwood onto a roaring blaze, their silhouettes black against the fire. Erik is sitting on a low dune, watching the scene below. His armor is stowed safely by the fire, but his sword still lies close at hand. His mind is relaxing for the first time in many days. His friends are safe and can let their guard down, if only for a night. Erik doesn’t quite have that option, for the responsibility of leading this band still weighs on him. A weight that, much like his sword, can be put down for a little while, but never fully abandoned.

Fifteen years later, I swear I can still dimly smell the salt air and hear the waves break. I can feel the strands of beach grass blow against my bare arms as the breeze blows off the sea. I can still feel a little bit of that peace, the one that Erik must have felt that night, in my heart.Something was just right during that moment of that game. I’ll never quite know what it was. That’s why I’m sure it can never be recreated.

But I still try. One day, if everything is just perfect, I might experience something like that in a game again. In the meantime, I’m content to experience the good times that happen around a gaming table, and look forward to tomorrow night’s game.