Friday, January 30, 2009

Stonehell: Kobold Korners

With this latest upload, the first level of Stonehell, my Moldvay/Labyrinth Lord megadungeon, is now complete. You can get your hands on Stonehell: Level 1D here.

Let me state for the record that I’m not a big fan of the common kobold. When it comes to less than one HD humanoids to throw at a party, I’m a goblin-type of guy. I much prefer the stinky, flat-footed orange-green goblins to the rusty scaled kobold when I need something to challenge the 1st level party. That being said, however, the kobolds of Stonehell have grown on me. Largely this is due to my decision to make them a little something other than just walking experience points for the party to grind on at the beginning of their exploits. I like that the kobolds have another useful purpose in the halls of Stonehell and look forward to revisiting them in later levels as they serve in their capacity as custodians, trap repairmen, provisioners, and go-between for the bigger, stronger races.

But before I could say farewell to the scaly buggers for a bit, I really wanted to emphasize their role in Stonehell in a way that the potential party wouldn’t soon forget. Thus sprang to life the concept of “Kobold Korners.” Every party eventually comes to the point where they need to resupply and recoup. Usually this entails a trip back to the nearest town and a visit to the local tavern. While that option certainly exists for the explorers of Stonehell, I wanted to explore other options.

It started simple enough. The idea of a “scaly Casablanca” came to mind. I wanted to introduce a place where a tentative peace exists for the purpose of stimulating trade and to provide a safe haven for the various denizens of Stonehell to pursue recreation and cut deals and agreements. As the kobolds are the go-betweens for the races, it only made sense that their section of the dungeon would serve such a purpose. Readers familiar with the Forgotten Realms Undermountain megadungeon will recognize that Skullport served a similar function in that locale. But rather than wait until the 3rd level down to introduce such a place, I figured I’d introduce it much earlier.

The reasons that I decided to introduce this safe haven early are as follows: One, I wanted to demonstrate the unique role that the kobolds play in the dungeon. While the adventurers might run into them as they carry out their other duties on this level, I think once the party gets a look at Kobold Korners (which is of course not what the kobolds call their home), they’ll have a better understanding that the little guys might be more than they anticipated. Two, I wanted to make the players realize early that their actions in the dungeon have long-term effects. If the party has been in full-on “stabby mode” through the earlier sections of the dungeon, they’re about to find that all those dead kobolds left in their wake had a lot of friends. If the players have been a little more “old-school” in their exploits, occasionally parlaying and dealing with the kobolds in a less lethal manner, they’ll find that they have access to a somewhat safe place to rest and resupply.

There are hazards to relying on the Kobold Korners for safety and resupply, of course. Equipment might be cheaper than back in town, but you get what you pay for. There is a tentative truce between visitors to this section of the dungeon, but that’s not guaranteed. Even the gang of bugbears employed by the kobolds as a police force/goon squad can’t always keep the peace, and the dead body of a murdered shopper has more than once shown up for sale in one form or another in the market.

Of course, being the kind soul that I am, the party can avoid Kobold Korners completely during their exploits. There are at least four other means by which they can access Level Two besides the grand stairs in Kobold Korners, so enraging the kobolds isn’t a complete roadblock in their path of exploration. But it will mean that the party won’t a get a crack at a forgotten section of dungeon that waits to be discovered and has a few useful goodies for the taking. Oh well. Such are the consequences of rash actions in the dungeon depths.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

R'Nisian Glyphs - Part II

This is the second part of a two-part series detailing the variant versions of the 3rd level clerical spell, glyph of warding, in my homebrew campaign world of R'Nis. The first part may be found here.

Level 7 Glyphs

Eram's Passing GlyphEram’s Passing

This glyph destroys paper, parchment, scrolls and books by causing them to quickly age to dust. Any paper item in the possession of the victim of this glyph must make a saving throw vs. magical fire or be destroyed. This glyph is often used to protect repositories of knowledge where it would be better for that knowledge to be destroyed than to fall into the wrong hands.

Vaughn's Disaproval GlyphVaughn’s Disproval

This glyph is the bane to any item made of metal, including iron, steel, silver, gold, and other precious alloys. When this glyph is triggered, all items in the possession of the victim of this glyph must save vs. spell or be destroyed as if touched by a rust monster (q.v.). Armor, weapons, wealth, buckles, iron spikes, etc. all subject to the effects of this glyph.

Absence of Memory GlyphAbsence of Memory

The victim of this glyph must make a saving throw vs. spells or lose all memory of the past week’s events. In the case of spell-casters, this memory loss includes any spells or prayers currently memorized by the caster. Further effects might be suffered by the character at the referee’s discretion.

Level 9 Glyphs

Thorn's Betrayal GlyphThorn’s Betrayal

This potent glyph has the ability to permanently strip away 1 point from any single ability for each 2 levels of the casters. The victim of this glyph must make a saving throw vs. spells or suffer the loss from an ability score determined by the caster at the time of the glyph’s creation. A successful saving throw indicates no effect.

The Ineffable Sign GlyphThe Ineffable Sign

This glyph tears at the very sanity of whomever is unlucky enough to gaze upon it. The victim of this glyph must make a saving throw vs. spells or be struck insane by the knowledge conveyed by this glyph. An insane character babbles, froths at the mouth, tears at his own hair, curls into a fetal position, or suffers the effects of a confusion spell at the referee’s discretion. This insanity may only be cured by a heal, restoration, or wish spell.

The Endless Void GlyphThe Endless Void

This glyph has the power to drain the life essence of whomever triggers its power. The victim of this glyph must make a saving throw vs. spell or lose 1 life level if the caster was less than 20th level. If the caster of this glyph was 20th or more levels in ability, the victim of this glyph suffers a loss of 2 life levels instead. Any lost level may be regained through the application of a restoration spell or wish.

Monday, January 26, 2009

R'Nisian Glyphs - Part I

“Typical glyphs shock for 2 points of electrical damage per level of the spell caster, explode for a like amount of fire damage, paralyze, blind or even drain a life energy level (if the cleric is of high enough level to cast this glyph).” – 1st Edition Players Handbook p. 47.

That’s the extent of the spell description for the 3rd level clerical spell glyph of warding in the 1st edition Players Handbook when it comes to detailing the actual effects of the spell. Like a lot of earlier versions of the rules of the game, there’s a lot of room for the referee to extrapolate on this spell when it comes to his or her particular campaign. First off, the spell states that these are the effects of the “typical glyphs.” By that logic, one must assume that atypical glyphs exist as well. Secondly, the spell mentions that the most potent version of the typical glyph – the one that drains life levels – is only available to a priest that is “high enough level to cast this glyph.” No mention of the actual level required is present, leaving the referee to decide such things for himself.

When I was working away on Gloomrisk (formerly known as The Dungeon Not Yet Named™), I took the opportunity to play around with a few variant versions of glyph of warding to include in the depths of that dungeon. I also wanted to establish a few level guidelines as to when a PC cleric might find himself able to cast these variants. Image my chagrin when I discovered, after completing about 85% of that project, that Larry DiTillio had already covered a lot of this same ground in his article “The Glyphs of Cerilon” in Dragon #50. He’d even included illustrations of specific glyphs along with the article; a step that I had undertaken myself. Rather than being discouraged by this discovery, I did what any decent referee would do: I stole the parts that I liked and added it to my own work.

What follows in this post, as well as in Part 2, is a sample of my glyphs of warding for R’Nis, including my own house-rules for level determination of what glyphs are available to the cleric as he progresses. A total of twelve glyphs are presented in this series, with a few more held in reserve to protect their secrecy from possible delvers into Gloomrisk.

Available Glyphs

Upon reaching the 5th level of experience (deity permitting), the cleric gains access to the prayer, glyph of warding. At 5th level, the cleric may invoke the power of his or her deity to cast two versions of this glyph as determined by the player and the referee. The two initial glyphs must be of the 5th level variety (see below). For each level of experience past the 5th, the cleric gains access to another type of glyph from this list. Upon reaching the 7th and 9th levels of experience, the cleric (with the referee’s permission) may chose a glyph of warding from the appropriate higher level lists. In addition, the cleric may encounter alternate glyphs during his adventures (on scrolls, in prayer books, or some other format). Should this event occur, the cleric may either seek out the guidance of a higher level priest or, if high enough level himself, consult his deity for permission to be able to employ these new forms of glyphs. To gain permission, the cleric must either cast, or have cast for him, the 5th level spell, commune. After doing so, the cleric will learn if he may invoke the powers of his deity to use these glyphs and, in the case of a positive response, may add them to his available repertoire.

5th Level Glyphs

Holy Light

The victim of this glyph is struck blind by a radiant light of divine origin. The effect is permanent unless the victim makes a successful save vs. spells. If the saving throw is successful, the victim is only blinded for 2 rounds per level of the caster. A blind character suffers a -4 penalty to its attack rolls, and all opponents gain a +4 bonus to their attack rolls against the character.

Righteous Shout GlyphRighteous Shout

The victim of this glyph is deafened by the sound of celestial horns or demonic roars, depending on the caster’s alignment. The effect is permanent unless the victim makes a successful save vs. spells. If the saving throw is successful, the victim is only deafened for 2 rounds per level of the caster. A deafened character is surprised on a 3 in 6 chance and has a 20% chance to miscast spells. A dispel magic will restore the character’s hearing

Agony of the Heretic GlyphAgony of the Heretic

The victim of this glyph is wracked with pain, causing them to drop to the ground in agony if a save vs. spells is not made. This pain effectively paralyzes the victim for 2 turns per caster’s level, but causes no actual damage. If the saving throw is successful, this glyph has no effect.

Astra's Caress GlyphAstra’s Caress

The victim of this glyph is subjected to a blast of electrical energy that causes 2 points of damage for each level of the caster. A successful saving throw vs. spell will reduce the damage inflicted by half. Due to the divine nature of this electrical power, the referee may deem that any magical protections the character possesses against electricity offers limited or no protection against this glyph.

The Burning Touch of Imix GlyphThe Burning Touch of Imix

The victim of this glyph is subjected to a blast of burning flame that causes 2 points of damage for each level of the caster. A successful saving throw vs. spell will reduce the damage inflicted by half. Due to the divine nature of this fiery power, the referee may deem that any magical protections the character possesses against fire offers limited or no protection against this glyph.

Uller's Embrace GlyphUller’s Embrace

The victim of this glyph is subjected to a wave of chilling frost that causes 2 points of damage for each level of the caster. A successful saving throw vs. spell will reduce the damage inflicted by half. Due to the divine nature of this freezing power, the referee may deem that any magical protections the character possesses against cold offers limited or no protection against this glyph.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Castle of the Mad Archmage

To paraphrase an old adage: “Disappoint me once; shame on you. Disappoint me twice; shame on me. Disappoint me more than that and I’m going to take matters into my own hands.” Which is exactly what Joseph Bloch of Greyhawk Grognard has done.

After years of being told that the dungeons beneath Castle Greyhawk would eventually be published and the half-assed attempts and aborted efforts to fulfill that promise, Joseph has finally had enough and decided to make good on that empty promise once and for all. In a recent post, Joseph declared that he was going to write up his own fan version of the legendary dungeon and, as of tonight, he’s undertaken to first steps to complete that promise. Labeled as WG-13: The Castle of the Mad Archmage, the first level of Joseph’s homebrew version of Castle Greyhawk is now available.

While this is assuredly not the first time someone has decided to flesh out Gary and Rob’s dungeon for personal use, I’ve got to give Joseph a hell of a lot of credit for not only undertaking this project, but for making his work available to the world at large. There’s no way that any one man’s view of this famed subterranean locale is going to meet the expectations of every Greyhawk fan now that Gary has passed away, but Joseph didn’t let that stop him. After having has a chance to read this first installment, I must say that, while nobody but the Dungeon Master himself could achieve complete success at such an attempt, Joseph does a damn fine job of channeling Gary in his fan version.

For the sake of full disclosure, I’m not a Greyhawk buff and possess only the knowledge earned by a long-ago reading of the World of Greyhawk boxed set and the various module published that were set in that milleau, so Greyhawk maniacs might form other opinions. I’m also one of the people listed in the “Special Thanks To” section of the work, but that didn’t color my opinion. It’s a solid, classic dungeon in the old-school style and well-worth the time to examine for yourself.

I congratulate Joseph on his successful first foray into Gary and Rob’s playground and wish him continued success in the months to come. I’m certainly going to be watching this with great interest.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Stonehell: The Contested Corridors

I meant to have this up earlier in the week, but events of a positive nature conspired to delay my completion of the third quadrant of Level 1. Stonehell: Level 1C – The Contested Corridors is now available.

This section of the dungeon presents the adventurers with an opportunity to influence the balance of power on the uppermost level and gives them a chance to make some allies that might either assist their efforts to explore the dungeon or at least not hinder them. It’s quite possible that a party can go charging into this area with spells and quarrels blazing and survive, but negotiations and good reaction checks will have their own rewards.

The Open Sore Orcs have recently dislodged a gang of goblins from their home section of the dungeon, resulting in an almost complete annihilation of the goblins. The goblins are desperate to reclaim their home area, but lack the strength to dislodge the orcs. They’d be more than willing to come to an arrangement with the party to reach this goal. Of course, the party might wipe out the orcs without even running into the goblins, resulting in a power vacuum within the dungeon that the goblins, or perhaps another humanoid band, would be quick to fill. If the party presses on deeper into the dungeon, they may discover that their line of retreat has become blocked by an unsuspected new threat that’s moved in behind them.

The idea that the dungeon should constantly be changing based on the party’s efforts and the duration of their absence from its subterranean halls is a concept that goes back to the origins of the game. It’s absolutely required to keep the dungeon fresh, especially if you’re using the megadungeon as the campaign’s “tent pole”. While the town and outdoor adventure are often touted as the time and place for the players to witness the influence of their character’s actions upon the overall face of the campaign world, there is no reason to limit this influence to just those types of adventures. The party’s decisions and actions should always have long-term effects on the game world, no matter if these actions occur above or below ground. This increases the vested interest that the players have in the game world and reminds them that everything they do has an impact, for better or for worse.

As with anything, it’s always best to begin small and allow the players to see that they do have an effect on the world in a manner other than wanton violence and accrued wealth. Whatever plays out in this small section of the dungeon is sure to have later repercussions as the party explores deeper and increases in power. A good referee will take note of these events and insert whatever ripple effect they might have into the campaign later on down the line.

Section 1D, the final quadrant of this level is currently in mental note form only. I hope to get to work on it over the weekend and, with any luck, I’ll have it up next week. Until then, have a great weekend everybody.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


The blognards draw water from a tainted well, oftentimes contaminating their thoughts with the same infectious waters and turning the blogosphere into an electronic equivalent of the 1854 London Cholera outbreak. Sometimes this infection is by design; one of us riffing of the thoughts of another, while other times it’s an accidental outbreak, the seeds of the contagion growing in separate mental Petri dishes. The current blog infection that’s making the rounds is that of Science Fiction’s place in the grand game. This subject has been covered recently over at Grognardia, Monsters and Manuals, and Greyhawk Grognard in one form or another. Now I’d like to ramble a bit on the topic myself, as my own particular brand of Sci-Fi/Fantasy mashup hasn’t been mentioned.

Noisms from Monsters and Manuals gets close with his discussion of steampunk, but it’s not quite what I think of when I consider adding obvious technological advancements to the fundamentally fantastical world of D&D. Like a lot of folks, I can’t quite make the leap to commit myself to adding ray guns and androids to my homebrew campaign world. Despite D&D having deep roots in both the pulp genre, which often featured such mashups, and the precedent-setting Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, there remains a deep chasm that I’d have to leap before being willing to mix Science Fiction and Fantasy and present it for players’ consumption.

Science!, however, is a completely different story.

Science!, a term first coined in GURPS IOU and GURPS Atomic Horror, refers to that broad school of technological innovation that covers every scientific advancement ever achieved in 1950s sci-fi films. Science! Is not about lasers, masers, teleportation and hyper-drives. It’s about brains in a jar, Teslatrons, thought-transference with wire-adorned colanders and the like. It is white-coated scientists tampering where man should not tread. It’s gonzo, stinks of ozone, and usually overloads, causing the destruction of the model castle that housed it. I have no problem mixing Science! with my fantasy.

Science! is of itself fantastical and therefore slips quickly and easily into place amongst the fantasy tropes of the game. It’s not quite as jarring to discover that the crazy sorcerer down on sub-level six is wielding a lightning cannon while his mento-enhanced white apes clean the clocks of the party, then it would be to face a horde of androids armed with Mark V blasters. As the 21st century rolls along, the latter become much more feasible than the former and thus remains more firmly rooted in the realm of plausible rather than fantastical.

I also prefer Science! to Science Fiction because, with no disrespect to Arthur C. Clarke, I like my technology to be discernable from the magical. I don’t wish to beat the players over the head with it, but I enjoy the look in their eyes when they see that they’re facing something that’s obviously mechanical, not magical, rather than waiting for them to slowly realize that their wand of fireballs is actually a ray gun. We’re in this game to stretch the imagination, so let’s get the stretching out of the way early. That way it cuts down on pulled mental muscles when we really start to run.

To give you an example of the way that I’ve slipped Science! into the game, I should mention the god Wonder, who occupies a place in the local pantheon of my homebrew setting. A long time back, I established the idea that not all the gods of R’Nis are local and that some of the gods and goddesses, heroes and saints had taken up residence in this section of the multiverse after previously existing somewhere else. Wonder is one such deity. He’s often depicted in statuary as a thin, mustachioed human male, dressed in strange, otherworldly clothing. His temples are adorned with the Holy Words that read “Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does all the work.” Cagy readers will have deduced the real identity of this god. With a plot device like that, it becomes pretty easy to wander into the realm of Science! to challenge and thrill the players.

This topic has been on my mind a bit as of late because I’ve been reading Fred Saberhagen’s Empire of the East. The first book of that trilogy features a local satrap searching for “The Elephant”, an article of Old World technology that could threaten his reign. I’m not spoiling the plot much by revealing that “The Elephant” turns out to be a futuristic nuclear-powered armored tank. While introducing such a device into my own game would be a little much for me, I could probably see myself doing something similar. Rather than a future tank, I would consider the possibility of having the party come across a World War I era tank that had arrived via some magical gate. The idea is attractive to me because of the wonky, clunky factor that a WWI tank would have over an obviously sci-fi armored vehicle. It serves the same purpose in the grand scheme, but without the stigma of being a piece of futuristic high tech. For me, wonky and clunky seems more at home in a mixed genre setting than smooth and streamlined.

So take this as a warning should you ever find yourselves wandering the lands of R’Nis: the orangutan men have lightning guns!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Gryphon Has Landed

As some of you folks probably know, offers a bevy of free downloads pertaining to this hobby of our. Amongst this trove of free riches is Silver Gryphon Monthly, a periodical in .pdf form put out by Kevin Rohan & Ben Overmyer, the guys behind Silver Gryphon Games. The latest issue, Silver Gryphon Monthly #4 is now available.

Perhaps suffering a temporary lack of better judgement, Ben Overmyer approached me a little ways back and asked me if I'd consider letting my post "With New Old Eyes" appear within the electronic pages of Silver Gryphon Monthly. After some schedule wrangling, I managed to produce a version that stood on its own away from the confines of this blog. That version, along with myself as a special Guest Columnist, appears in Issue #4.

I personally guarantee that the article alone is worth the price. Go grab an issue and see for yourself!

Monday, January 19, 2009

In Which a Certain Something Gets a Name

As much as I proudly wave the banner for weirdness, whimsy, and the nonsensical when it comes to matters subterranean, I’m not a complete stranger to verisimilitude. One could even call us passing acquaintances. Much like the Winchester Mystery House, a locale of great personal fondness, if the weird is going to survive the test of time; it must be anchored with strong foundations in the real.

This attitude does have its drawbacks, however. While I’ve done much to free myself from the bonds of reality when it comes to dungeon design and world building, there still remains a central need within myself to make allowances to the plausible, which can lead to the binding of my creative hands. The greatest example of the frustrations that this need to placate reality can produce has been my inability to come up with a name for my megadungeon, despite having worked on it regularly for almost eight months.

I’ve taken a rather joking stance at this roadblock, referring to it fondly as The Dungeon Not Yet Named™ and Ol’ Nameless, but my fear has been that this temporary name would eventually stick too firmly to be easily shed when an actual title presented itself to me. Thus my declaration that finding a name for Nameless would be my #1 resolution for the coming year.

The problem that I’ve had coming up with a name lies not in - I hope - a lack of creativity within myself, but rather my need to produce a name that made sense in light of the back story which I created for the dungeon. Since the dungeon’s history is not that of the classic deathtrap or insane wizard’s den, I found myself limited to what avenues of thought I could pursue. Nameless was built by a rich patron of the arts who desired to leave a creative work as his legacy, despite the lack of any artistic talent himself. Certain modern art pieces notwithstanding, I just couldn’t see the good Baron calling his creation “The Catacombs of Horrible Death” or “The Infernal Delve” or “Dr. Fong’s Tiki Hut of Nookie” (well maybe that last one). Yet at the same time, I wanted to give it a name that sounded like it could be a dangerous place to venture and that only the brave need dare its depths. It’s been finding something that serves as a compromise which has caused this overlong delay.

But I’ve found the answer.

I’ve long had a fondness for the way language and names change over time. (Come on. It took me months to finally come up with a name; you don’t think I’m going to stretch out the reveal? The impatient can probably jump down a few paragraphs.) The simple way that a word can be contracted, altered, or otherwise rendered similar, yet alien, from its original spelling or pronunciation. This very realistic occurrence was the signpost that I needed to lead me down the correct path. Once I realized this, I knew I was getting close.

In regards to a certain need to acquiesce to verisimilitude, I had long ago established some loose guidelines for coming up with the names of people, places and things in my campaign world of R’Nis. While these guidelines are nothing like the Professor’s creation of an elvish language, they do serve the purpose of establishing some conformity in nomenclature. In the particular region of R’Nis where Ol’ Nameless is located, I tend to create names that have either a base in Latin, but modified with the heavier consonants and pronunciation of certain Eastern European languages or I use English terms and names that have become archaic over time. I prefer the harsher spellings and pronunciations when it comes to words. I have a habit of writing down archaic or uncommon English words in my commonplace books for later reference, and one of my greatest tools when it comes to designing and world-building is not the Dungeon Masters Guide but a 1959 edition of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. If you’re looking for a great reference tool for world-building, find yourself a fifty-year old dictionary. Trust me on this.

I found myself flipping through my commonplace books last week thinking that, just maybe, I had written something in there that I had overlooked the previous hundred and fifty times I looked through them. Sure enough, on one of my lists of words that don’t see a lot of play nowadays, I noticed “gloaming.”

Hold it right there. Gloaming: twilight, dusk. From the Old English glōming, from glōm twilight. Dusk, twilight. A murky time; a period of change; just before darkness covers the Earth. I think we’re onto something here! Now all it needs is the right “something-something” to jazz it up. A sound with a nice harsh bite to it.

As I was trying out different variations in my head, I noticed that “gloam” kept wanting to mutate into “gloom” and that’s when the penny finally dropped. A little “DM magic” later, and the name that Baron Kahyaten had given his personal masterpiece became The Gloamrizg, which in the local dialect meant “Twilight Palace”. A very apropos name knowing what lies within.

But of course, with the dangers that lurk within, it’d only be a matter of time before that name changed into something similar, yet more sinister. I figured that, given a few retellings of the legends that surround the place, it would only be a matter of time before the tavern tales no longer referred to “The Gloamrizg”, but “The Gloomrisk”. After all, anyone foolish enough to enter that place was surely putting their very lives at risk down there in its gloomy halls. At long last, I had a name that served its two masters of realism and the fantastic.

I’m writing this on Tuesday night, so if this post sees the light of day come Monday morning, it means that I’ve had almost a full week to sleep on it and have decided, once and for all, that The Dungeon Not Yet Named™ is now officially Gloomrisk.

Now what do I call the tavern?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Stonehell: The Quiet Halls

Playing around with the Crabaugh Method got me a little sidetracked over the last week, so I hadn’t had much time to get back to exploring more of Stonehell. I had the next quadrant drawn up and a few notes sketched out, but that was the extent of it. On Wednesday, I got a comment from The Grand Wazoo, who happens to be an old friend of mine from college (and one hell of an artist as well). He’s been running a regular game group up in the Saratoga Springs area of New York and it seems that he’d recently thrown his players into the first section of Stonehell. If I may indulge in a little personal back-patting, here’s what he had to say:
“I just ran a 4 character party through Stone Hell, and they loved it. Players exclaimed it had a real classic feel, and tread very carefully through its halls.”
“The format presented is very easy to use and leaves enough to improve… Love it. Love it. Love it!”
Whether these comments were intended to get me back to work on the next section in time for this coming week’s game session, I refuse to speculate. In any case, I did go back to work and have uploaded the next section, Level 1B: The Quiet Halls, for public consumption. You can get it here if you so desire.

Since my thoughts are posed in this direction anyway, I wanted to elaborate on two of the monster-types that show up in the corridors and chambers of Stonehell. I’ve not gotten a chance to write up a general introduction to the dungeon for potential referees, but there’s something I should mention in light of the fact that people are currently exploring its halls (A fact that gives me a heck of a lot of girlish glee). Whether or not the referee wants to take this into account is up to him or her.

The Kobolds: The various bands of kobolds that currently occupy Stonehell are the direct descendents of the tribe that was imprisoned there as part of one of the vizier’s “adjustments” to his grand experiment (as mentioned in the history). The only reason these kobolds managed to survive in such a hostile environment is that they quickly identified and occupied an open position in the prison’s social hierarchy. The kobolds became the custodians and general menial workers of the prison, a role that they still maintain to the current day. The kobolds are responsible for resetting sprung traps and cleaning up the carcasses that the various oozes, slimes, and other members of the “cleanup crew” haven’t devoured, as well as repairing dungeon features and performing general upkeep of the place.

After the prison was liberated, the kobolds have stayed on in this capacity. When bands of fiercer humanoids moved in, the kobolds kept themselves from being wiped out by demonstrating their usefulness to their stronger fellow residents. In fact, the kobolds have expanded their duties to include serving as messengers for the other humanoid tribes, as well as operating as traders and provisioners to the separate groups throughout the dungeon levels.

It should be noted that this function hasn’t turned them into goody-two-shoes or bumbling comic relief (unless that’s the way you want to play them), but the kobolds of Stonehell are more likely to be fearful and subservient to any potential threat they encounter, rather than chucking javelins first and asking questions later. They understand that in order to survive as a species they must appear to maintain an aura of servility and neutrality. Neutrality most of all, because if any tribe of humanoids thinks that the kobolds have taken sides with an enemy, they’d most likely be slaughtered for this perceived betrayal. As such, the kobolds are very careful as to what information they divulge about Stonehell and its residents. They can be bribed, threatened, or cowed into submission, but will always attempt to preserve their neutral status in the eyes of their fellow dungeon denizens.

And since it’s bound to come up sooner or later, each band of kobolds in only familiar with certain small sections of the dungeon, being whatever area they serve and maintain on a regular basis. So charming one kobold is not the key to learning the location of every single trap, secret door, and waiting enemy in the entire place. As a rule of thumb, the kobolds are familiar with the layout and occupants of whatever quadrant they are encountered in, but have sketchy knowledge of anywhere else in the dungeon. Unless of course, the referee decides otherwise.

The Berserkers: Although they’re listed in the dungeon key as “Berserkers”, one shouldn’t consider them frothing at the mouth, Scandinavian warriors. The berserkers of Stonehell are the degenerate descendents of the prison’s original inhabitants. Hirsute, unkempt, and raised on a cannibalistic diet, they equip themselves with the cast-off weapons and armor of the other denizens of Stonehell and prowl the corridors looking for their next meal. Their bonus to hit and willingness to fight unto death comes from the madness and hunger that affects all of their kind.

I hope to finish up Level 1C over the weekend, weather and personal matters providing. If I do, I'll have it up on Monday. So until then, keep them from going south, Jim!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Old-School Litmus Test

It is not uncommon to come across the ongoing debate as to whether playing “old-school” is dependent upon the use of certain editions of the rules or is merely a mindset that can be adhered to regardless of what rules you’re using. Visit any RPG message board long enough and you’re bound to stumble across a thread or three dedicated to this particular argument. While it is not my intention to bring this topic up for debate here (as such discussions usually end poorly, with the tearing for raiment and the gnashing of teeth), but there is some truth to both sides of the argument. If only there existed some sort of device that could analyze one’s game and determine if you were truly playing in the old-school fashion or not…

But unless Professor Frink is currently is at work on such a device, I doubt we’ll ever witness the appearance of an easy-to-use way to determine the exact levels of “old-school” (oldschoolibars?) present in our games. So one must rely on less precise forms of measurement. One could always assign values to certain old-school tropes and use that as a measurement – 3d6 in order to generate ability scores: 100 oldschoolibars; each 10’ pole owned by the party: 25 oldschoolibars, etc. – but again, this is not an exact form of measurement.

Luckily, I’ve recently discovered something that might serve as a stopgap scale, albeit highly relative, in which to use to determine exactly how “old-school” your campaign currently is. While perusing through the back of the game closet, I stumbled upon the 1980 AD&D Dungeon Masters Adventure Log. While this item could be considered a mere curiosity arising from an era without access to the document creation tools commonly found on a personal computer, there are a few tidbits of interest to those of us who study the history of this hobby of ours. One of the most useful for our efforts is found on the “Sample Adventure Log Pages”, which I’ll reproduce it here:

Adventure Log Sample Even a cursory look at this list of Unusual Events can tell us a lot about the “old-school” style. Before I continue, I’ll acknowledge the fact that a few of those names over to the left are going to look very familiar to anyone brought up on Moldvay’s Basic Set, but let’s carry on.

“Morgan Ironwolf’s Const. +1 From Magic Chair”: Forgive me if I read too much into this, but that says “magic chair”, right? Not magic throne, but chair. The idea that somewhere in this example adventure lay a simple, yet enchanted, chair that magically raises Constitution simply smacks of the “old-school” to me. A trait from a time and place where the poking and prodding of strange things in the dungeon was either rewarded with unforeseen gains or brought about the doom of the incautious adventurer. You could never be certain if a magical dinette set would grant wishes or eat you alive. The gain in Constitution is also very much part of the classic dungeon delve. When the modifications for superior abilities weren’t quite so important in the grand scheme of things, and most adventurers had scores based on the rolls of 3d6, the occasional ability raise was a welcome but not power-unbalancing event.

“Fred 9802 Talked Back To Odin – And Lived!”: Moldvay-raised gamers probably remember Fred as the dwarf companion of Morgan Ironwolf, Silverleaf, Sister Rebecca and Black Dougal in the examples of play from that set. Somewhere along the line, Fred seems to have misplaced his numerical surname. The fact that Dave Cook was running a dwarf named “Fred 9802” probably says as much about Dave as it does for the time period. One can’t help wonder what the 9802 indicated. Where there 9801 previous incarnations of Fred the Dwarf? Was it his Miners Union number? Whatever the case, the simple fact that there was a Fred 9802 (as well as a “Elron Hubbard” – listed in the party roster but not in the example above) reminds us that this is a game that we’re playing and that sometimes humor, bad puns, and play on words have their place at the table. It may not be for everyone, but if your gaming group is the type that appreciates a good groaner or belly-laugh, I’m not going to be the one to say you can’t play that way.

That Fred back-sassed the All-Father and got away with it is another touch of the old school. You can be sure that if Fred got away with such heresy, it’s because of the way that Dave Cook was playing him. His survival had to do with Dave's role-playing, as well as the way he used his knowledge and chutzpah as a player, rather than Fred 9802 having a Diplomacy skill of +35. Challenge the player and not the character indeed!

“Black Dougal Slain By Fire Giant”: Poor Black Dougal, forever doomed to go down in history as the whipping boy in play samples. I’m not certain if this destiny reflects the actual fate of Kevin Hendryx’s character or if it was just a running joke at TSR, but either way the name Black Dougal is forever going to be associated with a bad end. Which in its way is very old-school. We’re dealing with characters that have no protection by way of plot immunity or the fact that character generation is an hour-long process which tends to keep them alive for the sake of keeping the game flowing. Characters die. Sometimes by Fire Giants, sometimes by big bugs. It’s never pretty, but the taste is victory is so much sweeter after tasting the bitter harvest of no more hit points.

“Knock Grafton Pocketed Ring of Delusion Without Knowledge of Party”: We’ve all been there. As much as we like to pretend that this is a game of cooperative efforts to overcome adversity, sooner or later someone’s going to stick it to the rest of the party. Sometimes it’s accidental; the result of a charm or possession or whatever, but other times it’s intentional. While this isn’t to say that old-school players are greedy bastards looking to screw over their fellow players and their characters, the accounts of Greyhawk have their share of tales where a player would slip down into the dungeon without the knowledge of his fellow gamers in order to score some more treasure and levels. There were certain risks associated with such actions, and by looking at the example above, I can guess that Ol’ Knock Grafton is in for an object lesson about absconding with magical rings.

“Sister Rebecca Falls In Valiant Combat With A Black Dragon”: Judging from some of the comments made by the gamers of the “new school”, one might get the impression that old-school gamers are masochists. That we get our jollies by marching an endless procession of characters to their deaths at the hands of wandering monsters and covered pits. That the old-school has no place for story, preferring to rely on esoteric random tables to determine the events of adventures. This is actually antithetical to the truth. The old-school loves a good story as much as the new-school, we just don’t want to be confined to the narrative predetermined by a frustrated writer in the guise of a Dungeon Master. We don’t gain pleasure from losing characters to random events, but we know that, perhaps deriving from some strange Protestant work ethic, success isn’t anything to be celebrated unless you worked and toiled for it, taking your lumps along the way. Here we have a perfect example of this. Sister Rebecca didn’t just die or was slain by a black dragon: she fell in “valiant combat” with one. Maybe the dice didn’t go her way or she found herself cornered with no hope for escape, but in the end she went down swinging. When the players sit back and recount the events of the past, to tell their stories if you will, the demise of Sister Rebecca and her valiant efforts against that ebon wyrm are going to be remembered. As with our own lives, we don’t set out to tell a story. A story is merely the stringing together of events that have occurred once they have past. It is not determined by a script that we follow to the letter. Why should our games be any different?

This adventure log sample, meant to be no more than a demonstration of how to use this game product, actually tells us a lot about what the old-school gaming experience was, and still remains, all about. Whimsical, sometimes nonsensical, magic; humor; role-playing; challenging the player and not the character; senseless death; the occasional intraparty conflict; learning lessons the hard way; letting the players tell the story by their actions. If your game has these traits, you’re probably playing in the old-school mindset, even if your rule books aren’t as old and tattered as mine.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Final Word on Simple

In the Good Old Days, the days of the original three books of the Dungeons & Dragons game, the number of variants on the rules was roughly equal to X,where X was the number of players in the game.

Alas, we all get older and more conservative, and with the publication of the more detailed, more structured D&D Basic Set, variant rules tended to become one with

There’s no reason why that has to be so. The D&D game, by virtue of its inherent simplicity, is an excellent platform for experimental rules…

- Paul Montgomery Crabaugh, author of “Customized Classes” from Dragon #109

The above quote sums up one of the reasons that people still find the earlier versions of this game so damn attractive, especially in light of the rule bloat that accompanied 3.5. While that edition did a lot to provide rules to solve just about any situation, it came at a cost of brevity and the room to tinker. With a structure as rigid as the d20 System, alterations to one part of it often causes stress fractures throughout the rest of the system.

One of the things that I’ve learned over the last year is that, when it comes to house rules and home-brewing, it’s often better to strip things down to the skeleton and begin regrowing bits from there, rather than attempting to graft parts directing onto the thick carcass of the established rules. For years, I’d been slowly building my own D&D Rule Golem in my mental lab. The result was functional, but extremely clunky and subject to complete collapse if too much strain was applied. If I’ve learned anything from the old-school movement, it’s that you need to start with the basics and work up from there if you want to home-brew.

This lesson has been put to good use over the past few months. I’ve got a lot less sacred cows than I once had, and my willingness to cull the herd has opened me to new ways of thinking about things. Most recently, it’s allowed me to overcome my final personal hobgoblin of the mind that had held me back from complete acceptance of the earliest editions of the game: race as class.

As I discussed last week, the idea of race as class had been a sticking point for me ever since I was first exposed to AD&D. As it turns out, it wasn’t so much the idea of race being a class; it was the limitations that accompanied its treatment in that manner. Basically, every dwarf or halfling being a fighter (or fighting man if you go back far enough) and every elf being a fighter/magic user was just too narrow for my own personal taste. I’m past that now, simply because I’ve found a way that allows for more choices in this matter, while still remaining true to the original intent of the game.

After much tinkering and experimentation, I’ve discovered that the method first laid out in “Customized Class” – which I’ll refer to as the Crabaugh Method after its author – provides an easy solution to this problem with a few minor alterations. Quite elegantly, the Crabaugh Method allows for the creation of racial variants to the standard human classes without the need to divorce race from class, which was the solution that the Supplements and AD&D presented. Furthermore, this method also provides a consistent system for home-brewing new classes. Since new character classes, sometimes in the gonzo, wahoo, crazy-go-bananas vein, were a staple of the original game, I find that the Crabaugh Method is very much in the spirit of the wild and woolly days. Armed with this method as a guideline, I could easily take on the challenge of letting a player run whatever he or she felt like throwing at the dungeon.

One of my recent decisions in regards to design and game prep has been to do only as much work as is necessary to get the game off the ground and running. To depend more on decisions made at the table, rather than at the desk, and let the game grow from there. Despite this, I needed to run my modified Crabaugh Method through its paces a bit to see if the alterations I made to it would stand up to the strain. In the end, I generated a few racial variants and two new classes suitable for the earlier additions of the game. While I used Labyrinth Lord as my reference rules during this process, those rules, by their retro-clone nature, provide easy inclusion into the Holmes/Moldvay & Cook/Mentzer rules, as well as OD&D with little or no modification.

I’ve collected those classes under one title, New Classes and Racial Variants for Basic Dungeons & Dragons and made them available to you fine folks. In addition, you’ll find the modified tables to the Crabaugh Method included therein, but for legal reasons I’ve left out a crucial table and detailed instructions. You’ll have to own a copy of Dragon #109 if you want to test drive the process or check my math.

Here’s a summary, along with a few notes, of the classes contained therein:

Barbarian: A new class for humans, just because you know someone’s going to want to play one sooner or later. The Barbarian benefits from a larger Hit Die, but suffers restrictions on usable armor and magical items.

Dwarf Cleric: Appeared last week as the Deeppriest, but I decided to strip the fancy name as it begins to smack to much of the prestige class syndrome I so dislike. KISS and call it what it is.

Elf Cleric: Elves get a lot of treatment as you’ll see. This is largely due to the fact that so many people seem to love to play them; they’ve traditionally had the most access to various classes, and were the first multi-class. I wasn’t going to bother with Elf Clerics at all until it came up in the comments about my race as class mental block.

Elf Druid: Originally I was going to create two types of Elf Clerics: one with the ability to turn undead and one without, as I thought that an Elf Cleric without that ability fit in quite nicely with the whole “connected to nature” elf thing. But ultimately, I decided to make that type of cleric into more of a nature priest. Although the name is the same, and there certain similarities, people expecting a class more in line with the Druid of AD&D will be disappointed.

Elf Fighter: I wanted to see how the Crabaugh Method would work when I stripped the multi-classed Elf down to but a single class. Not too bad as it turns out.

Elf Jack-Of-All-Trades: While I intended to stay away from multi-class characters during testing, seeing as they are outside of the scope of what I wanted to do with the system, I needed something to stress the system to see how it would handle really outlandish class ideas. What better way to do that than recreate the fighter/magic-user/thief? While I’d still never play this, and certainly discourage someone running one in my game, the Crabaugh Method managed to produce a pretty balanced result.

Elf Wizard: Like the Elf Fighter, but stripped of the combat benefits of playing a regular Elf.

Halfling Thief: What else would I chose for a Halfling?

Hireling: This is strictly an NPC class. Inspired by one of the sample customized class in the original article, it makes a nice catch-all class for any semi-skilled assistant a dungeon-delving party might hire. A brave farm boy or local militia man could easily be run as this class. The Hireling has low experience point costs for progression, but a 8th level cap and the fact that most NPC don’t get full shares of experience make this a NPC class that won’t outshine his employers.

Grab the download for yourself here.

Friday, January 9, 2009

A Brief History of Hell

Last week, I mentioned that during my experiment with the One Page Dungeon Level Method, the name and history of that new megadungeon just popped into my head. I present that history for you now. It’s strange to think that after all the years I’ve spent in this hobby, I’ve never actually designed a “dungeon” that actually was a dungeon. I’m glad I finally got around to doing so. I think there’s a lot of possibility to this megadungeon complex, and I’m going to explore it some more in the future. I mentioned that one of my goals for this year is to run a Holmes/Moldvay-Cook/Labyrinth Lord game. Stonehell looks to be the setting for that game.

The Sterling Potentate possessed many qualities, but mercy and trust were not numbered amongst them. The grandson of the man who first unified the squabbling city-states and wild tribes of the West under an iron fist, the Potentate ruled from a precarious perch above his subjects. Having neither the charisma nor fair heart which consolidated the rule of other kings, he relied on stark fear and an overzealous police force to keep the flames of rebellion from burning his realm to ashes.

His subjects soon learned to fear the knock on their doors at midnight, an event that was invariably accompanied by the Potentate’s secret police force, the Red Wyverns. Loose talk in a tavern could lead to the sudden vanishing of entire families, leaving behind only rumors as to their ultimate fates and warnings that the Wyvern’s spies were everywhere.

Before too long, the Potentate learned that, while his draconian methods kept his kingdom under control, these midnight arrests quickly filled his prisons to capacity. As the years of his rule progressed, his dungeons became overcrowded, his oubliettes filled to capacity, and his executioners weary from the strain of swinging their axes. A solution had to be found.

Luckily for the Potentate (and quite unfortunate for his subjects), amongst his advisors was a certain vizier known to dabble in such obscure arts as necromancy, demonology and – most worrisome – philosophy. Seeing his master gripped by paranoid thoughts of an open rebellion birthed from these overcrowded gaols, this vizier proposed a plan that would alleviate the Potentate’s worries as well as provide himself with a fertile laboratory to conduct his experiments into the dark hearts of men.

Detailing his scheme to the Potentate, he was pleased to find it one that his master readily embraced and he soon began the preparations needed to bring in to fruition. After a month of necessary scouting, the vizier announced that he had found a location suitable for his experiment. Soon after this, one hundred prisoners were drawn from the ranks of the Potentate’s dungeons and carted to the eastern border of the realm. There, in a small box canyon, the prisoners were forced into a small cave system and handed tools of excavation. They were then commanded to begin digging.

The vizier had long held the belief that man, although an adaptable beast, was an animal nonetheless. Concepts such as honor, kindness, and “for the common good” were merely fragile veneers supported by the needs of civilization. Strip away the supports of civilized life and man would show his true nature: baseness, cruelty, and the vicious drive to kill to retain what little he owns. This small cave system would be the crucible in which he would separate the dross of civilization from mankind’s base soul.

A prisoner who worked would be fed. A prisoner who resisted would not. Anyone who attempted to escape was killed. The guards who watched over them, many of whom had been assigned to this duty based on their own cruel natures, did nothing to maintain order within the ranks of the prisoners. As long as the work proceeded, they fed these wretches, but this was the sole concession to law and order.

There are sages and holy men who would like to believe that the prisoners soon banded together to overthrow their overseers and seek freedom from this bondage. But the sad fact was that many of these inmates conceded defeat and abandoned their dreams of escape, replacing them with the urge to make the best of their condition by any means necessary. When they did band together, it was to dominate weaker inmates and to carve out a subterranean domain of their own. The vizier had wisely chosen his seed prisoners for the experiment.

As the excavations grew and the numbers of prisoners thinned from violence and exertion, more inmates were funneled from the dungeons into this unholy project. With each new group, the established prisoners found additional numbers to increase their ranks, and the underground holdings of the various factions grew larger and deeper. The site became as if it were a great beast with an endless hunger; devouring scores of men, women and children who would never see the sun again. A visiting scholar who toured the site would write, “These doomed souls are condemned to the earth. Without the possibility of pardon or parole, they will spend the rest of their days in a vast stone hell of their own construction.” The name stuck.

The vizier, encouraged by the initial success of his inquiries into the debased nature of man, soon began to add variables to the experiment. Food rations would be halved, even stopped, without warning to see how the prisoners would respond. Fell beasts would be captured, then set free amongst the underground halls of the prison. When the Potentate’s drive to expand his empire uncovered a warren of kobolds in the north, these scaly humanoid were chained and thrown into Stonehell to see what effect these intruders would have on the prisoner population. Many of these and other “adjustments” were observed by magical means, their effects recounted to the Potentate and his court for their entertainment.

In time, even the bravest or most callous of guards ceased to patrol too deeply into Stonehell. Rumors begin to abound as to how deep the prisoners had dug into the earth and as to what they found within those inky depths. Attempts to conduct censuses of still-living prisoners were failures. Stories were passed from prisoner to prisoner about the cannibalistic petty kingdoms some of the oldest inmates had established in the deeper levels of the dungeon. Stonehell had indeed lived up to its name.

It is unknown what the ultimate fate of the prison would have been had it not been the eventual, almost inevitable, coup d’état that would oust the Potentate from power. The atrocities that he committed daily upon his people eventually grew to the point where they could no longer be ignored. When his palace was set ablaze and the Potentate forced to flee for his life (royal treasury in tow), the gates of Stonehell were throw open to release those unjustly incarcerated during his rule.

What the prisoners’ would-be rescuers discovered was beyond description.

Those who were present that day refused to speak about what they found beyond the doors of the prison. It is known that some of the prison’s total number of inmates were freed, staggering into the blazing sunlight and cool autumn air that they had not experienced in decades. Of these, many would never be able to return to polite society, their experiences in the prison and the crimes they were forced to commit for daily survival being too great for them to bear. Attempts were made to recover other prisoners who had fled deep into the depth of Stonehell, but these missions came to naught. These deeper prisoners were too far gone, or too well adapted to their subterranean nightmare world to return to life on the surface. With heavy hearts, the well-intentioned rescuers took what few prisoners still bore the spark of civilization and humanity back to the cities and left the prison and its inhabitants to their ultimate fate.

Almost two hundred years have passed since the liberation of Stonehell, but in that time the prison has not rested easily. Like a festering wound in the earth itself, Stonehell will not heal or grow quiescent. During those years, the site has served as a hideout for countless bands of robbers and bandits. It has been utilized as a laboratory for insane wizards who sought solitude to conduct their bizarre experiments. Practitioners of grim religions have sought sanctuary within its haunted halls in hopes to avoid the prying eyes of the forces of light. Roving bands of orcs, goblins and other fierce humanoids have sought shelter and respite within Stonehell’s chambers, their numbers swelling with the passage of time.

The years have done little to quell the rumors as to what lies within the crumbling prison. Tales of cannibal kingdoms, inhabited by pale-skinned ghouls who carve fortunes of jewels from hidden veins within the earth compete with yarns of obscene magical experiments gone awry that still stalk the corridors below. Bands of fearless adventurers often attempt to plumb the depths of the prison. Those who return often do so laden with riches pried from the hands of that which still malingers within. Many do not return at all. While taproom gossip and the stories of bards and wordsmiths hint at what lies beneath, only those brave enough - or foolish enough - to enter themselves will ever know the truth…

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A General Update

Just a few words on recent events that don’t warrant the use of a full day’s post:

Outdoor SurvivalResolution #12 Completed: Today, a belated Christmas gift to myself arrived in the mail. I returned home from work to discover a used copy of Outdoor Survival waiting for me. I haven’t had the time to sit down and play out one of the scenarios yet, but just rummaging through the box brought back a lot of memories from my first tentative steps into this hobby of ours. The set is in pretty good condition and is complete, right down to the Avalon Hill Catalogue for 1981. If only I could order a copy of Squad Leader for $17.00 or Magic Realm for $16.00…

Fight On! #3: The latest issue of the best thing to happen in classic fantasy role-playing in 2008 arrived the day before yesterday. All I can say so far is “It’s huge!” Clocking in at 150 pages, if I get the same amount of use out of this baby as I did with issues #1 and #2, the $15.00 for the print version and shipping is, again, the best money I’ve spent on a role-playing product in recent memory. Can you even buy a role-playing aid from WoTC for $15 anymore?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A Simple Solution

Well, maybe not so simple. But one that was simpler than I originally thought.

After taking into consideration all the input I received on Monday in regards to my dissatisfaction with the “Race as Class” syndrome, I started looking again at the article, “Customized Classes.” The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my problem isn’t so much with the idea of races as classes, but more with the limitations that way of portraying races imposes upon the game. In retrospect, I’m a little enamored of the idea of having race built in, so to speak. The idea of having to pay a little extra in experience point costs in gain the special abilities that demi-human races provide appeals to me more than divorcing race and class, a la AD&D. It still gives the player the option of running a demi-human race, but keeps the game more inclined to be anthrocentric.

On my second go at “Customized Classes”, I started monkeying with the number values presented in the system in the attempt to alter their values enough that the system would generate the original seven classes with experience point costs more in line with those presented in the basic rule variants. With a little trial and error, I managed to make enough changes that, when using this system, you end up with classes whose experience costs are within 60-80 points of the original rules. Close enough for me. I can just rule of thumb from there.

I have a sneaking suspicion that I might have compromised the custom build system on some level that I can’t quite put my finger on. As I mentioned, mathematics is a field where I suffer some delinquency in ability, and I’m fairly certain that someone more left-brained than myself might be able to see the central flaws in my monkeying. But from my experiments with the altered system so far, and by using it in the somewhat limited manner that I intend, I haven’t seem to have broken the rules too much. Time will have to tell.

As a test run, I puzzled out a Dwarf Cleric variant to see how the numbers would look. I’m about 95% satisfied with the result. There’s a little bit more work I’d like to do with the experience point costs, but if I’m successful, I think I’ve found the Rosetta Stone for solving my long-running problem with the earlier systems of the game. So without further ado, I give you the Deeppriest.

Deeppriest (Dwarf Cleric)

Requirements: CON 9
Prime Requisite: WIS and CON
Hit Dice: d6
Maximum Level: 9
Attack as: Cleric
Save as: Dwarf

Deeppriests are the rarely seen clergymen and women who attend to the spiritual needs of their clans. In recent years, some of the more fervent churches of the dwarven strongholds have been sending representatives of the faith to interact with the surface folks. The primary mission of these deeppriests has been to help reclaim ancient dwarven delvings and to carry out their holy crusade against their ancient humanoid foes. To help complete these missions, it is not uncommon for a deeppriest to join bands of adventurers, since the explorations of these reckless folks often take them into areas once occupied by dwarfs, where they commonly encounter the ancient enemies of the dwarfs.

Deeppriests may wear any armor and use shields. Like their surface counterparts, the clerics, deeppriests generally shun the use of bladed weapons, with the sole exception of the axe. The religious heritage of the dwarves is rife with axe symbolism, and a deeppriest’s own axe often serves as a symbol of his faith and devotion as well as a weapon. They cannot use two-handed weapons of any type.

Deeppriests possess all the racial abilities of Dwarves (60’ infravision, detect traps, false walls, hidden construction, and sloping passages). They cast spells and turn undead with the ability equal to that of a cleric of the same level. A deeppriest must have at least 13 in both prime requisites in order to get the +5% to experience. They must also have a WIS of 16 and a CON of 13 to get the 10% bonus. Deeppriests speak the common tongue, dwarvish, and his own alignment tongue. Because of their frequent interaction underground with these creatures, deeppriests will also speak goblin, gnome, and kobold.

Reaching 9th level: When a deeppriest reaches level 9, he may establish or build an underground stronghold that will attract devout dwarven followers of the deeppriest’s faith. If the deeppriest is in favor with his deity, the cost of constructing this stronghold will be half the normal price for such a structure. After completing construction of the stronghold, the deeppriest will attract 1st and 2nd level dwarf followers (numbering 5d6x10). They are completely loyal (never checking morale) to the deeppriest.

Deeppriest Level Progression



Hit Dice (1d6)




























Monday, January 5, 2009

Simple Love

My experience with putting together a two-page dungeon level last week has had an unintended side effect. Quite unexpectedly, I started to find myself captivated again by the simple beauty of the older editions. I used Labyrinth Lord to cook up Level 1A, but this retro-clone reminded me of why I fell in love with the game in the first place.

I suspect that part of the attraction I feel for the simpler form of the game comes from the character fatigue I’m still suffering from. Saturday evening was game night again for our group, and when I found myself faced with the decision of starting a new character from scratch or bringing in an older one, I decided to play the one that I had already rolled-up. My decision in this regard stemmed largely from having little desire to go through the whole 3.5 process of making a new character, especially one that would jump in the game at 4th level. I just wasn’t up to doing the build. It was much easier to upgrade the older character to make him more appropriate for established party level.

Whenever I flip through the Holmes, Moldvay/Cook, or Mentzer editions, or even its modern cousin, Labyrinth Lord, I always find myself thinking that this is the system that I should be running. While I love AD&D and all the wonky, creaky and baroque rules that accompany that edition of the game, sometimes the lure of the simple pleasure is too much to deny. Despite this siren song, there’ always one aspect of these rules that rises up to ruin my fun: Race as Class.

I’m fairly certain that I’m not the only one who feels this way. I just can’t get past the idea that every elf is a fighter/magic-user or that every dwarf is solely an axe-wielding warrior. For better or for worse, AD&D let that genie out of the bottle and there’s no putting it back. Knowing my own quirks as a player, I can’t help but project that people coming to play at my theoretical gaming table are going to feel the same way, and it will only be a matter of time before someone wants to play a devout dwarven cleric or a wizardly elf without all the melee nonsense.

I’m quite aware that this hang-up goes against my own cardinal rule of “Stop worrying and love the dungeon.” In theory, I should just be able to say, “Them’s the rules,” and press onward. But I’ll be first in line to admit that the rule of “Stop Worrying” is easier to apply to the dungeon itself than it is for those who venture into it.

I’ve been thinking rather hard on a way to move past this stumbling block, but answers are not readily forthcoming. I’ve little desire to try and recreate AD&D is D&D format – one of the faults I found with Mentzer as those series of rules progressed. But at the same time, I’d like to accommodate the desires of the players, hopefully without a lot of "away from the table" design work if possible.

I thought that I might have found the answer in an article in Dragon #109 called “Customized Classes”, which give a streamlined method of building D&D classes. With a little math, I thought that making a Dwarf Cleric – for lack of a better class name for the moment – with these rules might be the answer. Unfortunately, after looking over the method detailed in those rules, I find that the math doesn’t quite add up to match the established classes presented in the earlier editions of D&D. Since I possess a lack of aptitude in matter mathematical, I’m not sure how to go about rigging that method to generate results closer to the original classes as presented. I’ve given the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game rules a once over, and while that system is indeed closer to what I have in mind, I’m not quite sold on them right now. Another look might be in order, but I suspect that a solution that would appeal to my own aesthetics lies somewhere in between the two.

I wonder if anyone has any suggestions, anecdotes, or other advice to help me overcome this mental stumbling block?

Friday, January 2, 2009

Dungeon Jazz

One of the key elements of jazz is that it incorporates improvisation into its basic structure. A skilled jazz musician can interpret a tune in individual ways, taking a composition into new territory with the help of his mood, his fellow musicians, or even the audience in attendance. Over the last few days, here in the blogosphere, a few fine folks have been doing the same with the art of megadungeon design.

It all started on Monday, when Sham was waxing philosophically on a thread over at the Original D&D Discussion forum. It seems that Sham got the idea to figure out a way to do a one page note sheet for the levels of his megadungeon. After some initial success, Sham grew discouraged. That’s when Chgowiz picked up the slack and pounded out a One Page Dungeon Level Template. Sham put that template to use and you can see how beautifully he turned Chgowiz’s design into a functional one-page note sheet for a section of his dungeon.

When I saw what the two of them had come up with, I simply had to give it a shot myself. Chgowiz was kind enough to email me a copy of his template and I went to work. I’ve been a little burned out from putting Ol’ Nameless together over the past year, so I didn’t have great expectations for the my own crack at this one-page experiment. But as it turns out, this was exactly what I needed to do.

One of my earliest realizations after coming back to the hobby was that I needed to devolve the way I write my dungeon notes. I had developed the bad habit of getting more detailed than was absolutely necessary, and the additional work had a negative impact on the joy I received from building dungeons. The One Page Dungeon Level Template almost completely solved that problem in no time flat (I’ll get to “almost” part in a moment). Not only did it focus my design, the whole concept and background of this brand spankin’ new megadungeon leapt from my mind fully formed – an Athena of dungeon creation – complete with a name and a rationalization for it being a dungeon in the classic-style. Next week, I’ll post the dungeon history so you can see the what, why, and how of it all. For now, all you need to know is that the first section of Stonehell is complete and ready for visitors. You can take a look at Level 1A: Hell’s Antechamber by downloading it here.

Now for the “almost” part.

My crack at using the One Page Dungeon Level Template resulted in me having to expand it to the Two Page Dungeon Template. The reasons for this have nothing to do with any inherent flaw in either Sham’s plan or Chgowiz’s template. I’m wholly to blame. Once I started sketching out my section of dungeon, although constrained by a set 30 square by 30 square boundary, I ended up with almost forty rooms. Forty rooms was much too big to fit conveniently in the space allotted in the template unless I shrank the font size to near-illegibility. I had to add a second page to incorporate all of my thumbnail room sketches. But rather than get discouraged by this need to expand on the original template, I turned it to my advantage. With extra space available, I began throwing in a few random tables to flesh out the room descriptions and even included a short “random name list” in case I needed a name for some encountered NPC. Even with two pages, I can have the entire dungeon section notes – including map – open in front of me, eliminating the need to flip back and forth when refereeing it. I’m absolutely dumbfounded by how elegant and useful this method of writing dungeon notes is.

I’ll briefly cover the strengths and weaknesses of this One Page method, but once you take a look at it for yourself, I’m certain these will be apparent. Consider this me selling you the sizzle, before you buy the steak.


Short turnaround time: From start to finish, my crack at Level 1A took between 8-10 hours. Considering that I started noodling around with Ol’ Nameless back in November of 2007 and still have only managed to complete the upper few levels, thirty-nine rooms drawn, stocked and keyed in half a day is pretty damn impressive. This method of design focused my energies like a laser.

Greater Ratio of Design Time vs. Play Time: Despite my swollen number of rooms, a section of dungeon comprising a 300’ by 300’ area could quite easily occupy 2-3 game sessions of 4-6 hours each, depending on your dungeon and players. Getting almost a month of steady gaming out of half a day’s design time is pretty damn impressive, at least to my mind.

Modular Construction and Adaptability: I’m not sure that this was part of the original thought process, but what struck me while designing this first section of dungeon was how quickly I could compensate and improvise in the event that the adventurers wandered off the beaten path. The square geomorphs from Dungeon Geomorphs: Set One to Three are 21 x 21 squares. Should the characters head into unmapped territory, I could slap down a geomorph and use that in conjunction with the Monster & Treasure Assortment to keep the players occupied until the end of the game session. Once safely home, I could place the geomorph into a new template – while still retaining 90’ on both the X and Y axis to customize the map – and flesh it out with my notes on the monsters and treasure they encountered. Then simply slip the completed template into your referee 3-ring binder and you’re set for next week.

Illusion of Depth: This has been my latest battle cry and the One Page Dungeon Level Template works wonders to keep this in the forefront of my mind during the design phase. Limited space means less room to add overzealous and extraneous game notes into the dungeon. As Mike Mearls pointed out, “When you invent stuff during play it's there to challenge the PCs or advance the game.” The One Page template forces the referee to expand and build on the fly, rather than waste design time on stuff that might not have any immediate use in your game.


Not for Beginners: While there are always exceptions, I don’t think the one-page method is a viable option for beginning referees. People taking their first turn behind the screen would probably feel more comfortable with more expansive notes to work with.

Not for the Disorganized: If you plan on using the one-page method, you damn well better be good at taking notes and remembering to update your level keys regularly. You’ll be doing a lot of thinking on your feet with the one-page method, and your players are going to notice if you don’t keep track of certain room specifics, resulting in statues that are on one side of the room one adventure and on the other side during another, unless of course, you’re like me and have lots of wandering statues.

As you can see, the weaknesses to the One Page Dungeon Level method have less to do with the method or template itself, and more to do with those who use it. A referee who thinks quickly on his feet and takes good notes shouldn’t have any problems with this form of keying a dungeon.

I have to give both Sham and Chgowiz a hearty round of applause for their efforts. My method of dungeon design may never be the same again. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a few hours to kill and Level 1B is calling.