Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Future is Then

I’ve been tinkering around with my idea for a Gamma World hex crawl game again in an attempt to downshift my brain away from the dungeon. Gamma World is a nice place to return to when the fantasy well starts to run dry and I need to relax and go a little “crazy go bananas” to compensate. I’m fairly certain that nothing will ever come of this setting but that doesn’t keep me from retreating there when I’m in need of sanctuary.

I’m still trying to hash out what the overall atmosphere of the hex crawl would be. Gamma World tends to have a gonzo reputation – one that’s hard to deny – but, with the right direction, it could be a gritty, merciless world just as easily. The more that I think about it, the more I realize that I’m biased toward the traditional gonzo method of play, largely due to the fact that I first was exposed to Gamma World in 1981.

One of the strengths of Gamma World is that it makes no apologies for being a product of its time period. I’m not speaking merely about the fact that it was written during a time when the long shadow of the Bomb still fell across the world. I’m instead referring to Gamma World’s tendency to embrace anachronisms as part of the overall game setting. Seeing how Gamma World was set almost 500 years in the future from the time it first appeared, it would have been all too easy to make that post-apocalyptic world totally alien from the time of its birth; to fill it completely with futuristic devices and make it unrecognizable to the players. Rather than go that path, Jim Ward and Gary Jaquet kept just enough of the then modern world to serve as touchstones for the players to identify with. A look at the Treasure List is the strongest indicator of this design plan. There we find such everyday devices as a manual typewriter, an office copying machine, a ballpoint pen, and a pencil sharpener. Even in 1978, it wouldn’t be difficult to guess that the world might see some improvement over these technologies in 500 years.

Honestly, I enjoy the fact that Gamma World is littered with anachronisms. It’s a facet of the game that’s just as important to the overall game world as death machines, life leech, and Mark V blasters. One of the reasons that the d20 version of Gamma World didn’t resonate as strongly with me was because there was an attempt to update the pre-apocalyptic world to conform to our advances in technology. This is a personal bias, one born from my brain firmly entrenching Gamma World in the late 1970s and early 80s, but I’m certain I’m not the only one with the mindset.

If I was to run Gamma World now, I would make an attempt to firmly ground the game in the time of its origin and to present an even greater retro-future world to explore. Some of the technologies found by the characters would be out of date even for the players, but indicative of the time period that spawned the game. Perhaps in some alternate history timeline, the 8-track tape remained the apex of music technology, synthetic materials became the preferred medium for manufactured clothing (making yexils everywhere happy), and Betamax proved to be the greatest advancement in audio/video recording. There’s a certain appeal to the mental image of a band of mutants roaming the wasteland in a custom ’77 Chevy G-Series (complete with airbrushed painting of a topless Valkyrie riding a saber-toothed bear on the side) while listening to Earth, Wind & Fire on 8-track that’s hard to deny.

And masers. One can’t forget masers…

Monday, April 27, 2009

Tales from the Front

One of the biggest differences that I've noted about writing game material versus general blog writing is that getting feedback on the gaming material is often hit or miss when compared to the posts on this blog. Writing a dungeon and making it available to the public is very similiar to giving birth to a child, then immediately putting that baby up for adoption. You hope they end up in a good home but you don't have any say in the matter once the child's out of your hands.

Because of that, it's always nice to hear that somebody is taking good care of your kid and raising him right. Just recently, I've learned that two of my creations are off living a good life with new parents. The Fane of St. Toad is apparently in good hands over at The Omnipotent Eye and Stonehell is helping bring families closer together over at the Tales of the Rambling Bumblers. I think Stonehell officially has had more vistors to its halls that any other dungeon I've ever written. Considering that that was my hope when I first started making it available, I'm most certainly pleased at this state of affairs. Hopefully, once the compilation is complete, tourism will be at an all time high.

Pardon the Interruption

As you no doubt noticed, today was the first time since I started writing the SoTPR that I missed an entry without prior notice of a delay or day off. For that, I apologize. With the coming of spring to the lower New York area, so has come the annual battle in which my immune system is pitted against the forces of contagion, and contagion seems to be winning. I can only take solace in the knowledge that, as far as I can ascertain, it’s not the strain of swine flu that has arrived on the shores of New York which I’m engaged in combat with. Today was spent catching up on some much needed rest, so the opportunity to remark upon my absence has only now presented itself.

Since I’m coherent enough to write a bit before I lapse into slumber yet again, I need to take to this opportunity to reveal some information of the “good news, bad news” variety. Following tradition, we will start with the bad news.

The bad news is that, until the end of May, there’s going to be a slow down on this electronic fish-wrapper. I’m not going completely dark, but the Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule is most certainly going to be set aside for the next few weeks. There are a few reasons for this, some of which is the “good news,” but the primary one is that I’m feeling burned out about thinking of, writing about, and creating new material for the original role-playing game. Everybody needs some time off occasionally, and I’ve been running mostly without a hitch for nine months now – a time which has indeed gestated both some beautiful and horrific children of the mind. The time has come to take a step back and breathe some fresh air. I’ve even taken a sabbatical from my weekly gaming group to allow me to ponder other thoughts and dream new dreams about something other than dank dungeons for a little bit. Postings here for the next few weeks will still be role-playing related, but it’s time to explore new fields and focus less on game mechanics for a while. In addition, these posts will come when time and the creative process allows, rather than a predetermined schedule. Once we get past May, it is my hope to return to the M/W/F schedule with a refreshed mind ready for another foray back into the dungeon.

Now the good news: by suspending the regular blogging schedule, I hope to redirect some of that time into getting the Stonehell compilation moved closer to the finish line. I’m still not making any announcements as to when that might see completion but it hasn’t been neglected in the least. I’ve met and overcome a few issues with how I was going to compile the entire upper levels of the dungeon into one supplement, and those victories have removed some of the major stumbling blocks from my path. I’m going to balance my time between completing Stonehell and taking a breather from the constant design process. I think the end result will be much stronger because I’ll have avoided a crashing complete and utter burn out at the very end of it. I’ll keep folks posted as to the progress on that work as it comes along, just so you know I’m not neglecting it.

This blogging slow down is in no way effecting my participation in the One Page Dungeon Contest, which is approaching the midpoint for the deadline, by the way, and I am anticipating looking at what the contestants have to offer it. A few new prizes have been added since the original announcement, so if you haven’t checked it out recently, or you’re still on the fence about entering, go visit that link.

Finally, I see two big announcements coming over the horizon. I’m extremely excited about both of them but can’t even hint as to what they are. I’ll only state that this summer looks to be a very exciting time for both myself and fans of this blog.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Medieval Church Inventory

Although I’ve been known to harp on the fact that I believe reality should never stand in the way of a good gaming experience, this doesn’t mean that I won’t reference actual historical sources in order to inspire and improve the game world. One of my favorite tricks for coming up with memorable weirdness in-game is to see what sort of bizarre hi-jinks humanity gets up to in the real world. Weird reality is too much fun not to use. In addition to the real but bizarre, I keep an eye out for itemized lists and inventories that date from the medieval period. These come in handy when it’s time to flesh out a location, dungeon room, or town business.

A few weeks ago, I was reading Life in a Medieval Village by Francis and Joseph Gies. That book details life in an English “open field” farm village circa the 12th and 13th centuries. Amongst the pages of that book was the following passage, which I found to be very useful in detailing what exactly might be found inside a church or temple in a pseudo-medieval setting:
In 1287 Bishop Quinel of Exeter listed the minimum furnishings of a church: a silver or silver-gilt chalice; a silver or pewter vessel (ciborium) to hold the bread used in Communion; a little box of silver or ivory (pyx) to hold the remainder of the consecrated bread, and another vessel for unconsecrated bread; a pewter chrismatory for the holy oils; a censer and an incense boat (thurible); an osculatorium (an ornament by which the kiss of peace was given); three cruets; and a holy-water vessel. The church must have at least one stone altar, with cloths, canopy, and frontal (front hanging); a stone font that could be locked to prevent the use of baptismal water for witchcraft; and images of the church’s patron saint and of the Virgin Mary. Special candlesticks were provided for Holy Week and Easter, and two great portable crosses served, one for processions and one for visitation of the sick, for which the church also kept a lantern and a hand bell. To these requirements a list dictated by Archbishop Winchelsey in 1305 added the Lenten veil, to hang before the high altar, Rogation Day banners for gang week, “the bells with their cords,” and a bier to carry the dead. Conspicuously missing were benches, chairs or pews; the congregation stood, sat on the floor, or brought stools.

The church was supposed to have a set of vestments for festivals and another for regular use. Bishop Quinel recommended a number of books to help the priest: a manual for baptism, marriage, and burial; an ordinal listing the offices to be recited throughout the church year; a missal with the words and the order of the Mass; a collect book container prayers; a “legend” with lessons from the Scriptures and passages from the lives of the saints; and music books, including a gradual for Mass, a troper for special services, a venitary for the psalms at matins, an antiphoner for the canonical hours, a psalter, and a hymnal. Books and vestments were stored in a church chest.
It’s an inventory like this that makes one of the more difficult aspects of refereeing a breeze – coming up with treasure. It’s always nice to spice up the treasure list of a dungeon with something other than yet another gold necklace or ruby the size of a fist. Taking a look at the above passage, we can see a plethora of objects that are just begging to be gilded, bejeweled, or adorned and thereby bump up their market value. This is also a good starting place for determining what exactly might be found in your name level clerics stronghold/church once it’s time to start detailing those things out. Although this inventory is for a small church of the Christian faith, it’s not too difficult to adjust it to fit any sort of religion – real or imagined – that may exist in your own campaign.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

They Burn Wizards, Don’t They?

A little time ago, I was reading the Necronomicon (not the actual Necronomicon mind you, just the Chaosium anthology of the same name) when I ran across this quote:

“Wisely did Ibn Schacabo say, that happy is the tomb where no wizard hath lain, and happy the town at night whose wizards are all ashes.” – The Necronomicon (Olaus Wormius translation), Fragment 8, Verse 3.
It is little things like this that goads my mind into packing its bags for another trip out to Bat Country. Just give me a little hint – a mere taste – of some seriously macabre possibilities and I’m hooked. The less I have to work with at the beginning, the better.

With this passage percolating away in my head, I began casting my thoughts back to one of the old standards of the sword and sorcery genre: the idea that wizards have, at best, a tentative control over the power they claim to command. The variations on this tune are numerous. Sometimes a wizard has engaged in demonic pacts to attain power normally beyond the reach of humanity. Other times, a wizard’s magic threatens to escape his control when he lets his attentions lapse in the slightest. Many of swords & sorcery tale has ended with a fiery explosion, a collapsing tower, or some other explosive event that coincides with the death of an evil magus.

Fertile ground from which to harvest, no? Let’s see what we can do with this idea.

Let’s start with the premise that magic-users do tap into powerful magical forces above and beyond the regular spells they cast on a daily basis. Perhaps this is a learned talent or maybe it’s a genetic quirk. In either case, it is this connection with the supernatural that allows them to cast their spells and do their assorted voodoo. In game terms, this is connection has no affect on game mechanics or regular play. Magic-users are clinging to their d4 Hit Die hard enough without gimping them some more. However, what if we brought this premise into action at a time when it would have little or no effect on the magic-user. Say, after his death? As the Necronomicon quote above seems to indicate, wizards can be most troublesome after they’ve sauntered off the mortal coil.

When a Magic-user (or Elf) dies, there is a chance that his now-uncontrolled attachment to the supernatural forces of the multiverse goes a little off-kilter, producing some unforeseen occurrence or event. Occasionally, this may even result in deadly ramifications to those around him. Not wanting to have every Magic-user in the game going off like a roman candle once he hits zero hit points, we’ll set this possibility at a reasonably low chance of occurring to start.

With this in mind, I’ve decided that for every level of experience the Magic-user or Elf possesses, there’s a 3% chance of some spectacular event to occur upon his death. With a nod to the old cliché that evil wizards tend to have more spectacular deaths, let’s modify this chance for Chaotic Magic-users and elves to 5% per level. Therefore, a Neutral 6th level Elf has an 18% chance of going out with a memorable effect and a Chaotic Magic-user of the same level would pop off spectacularly 30% of the time. If a percentile roll made upon the Magic-user’s death indicates a supernatural event, the referee then rolls on the table below:

The “When Dead Wizards Go Bad” Table

1 – Mage’s body turns to ash. A ghostly wind appears from nowhere and scatters the mage’s body to the winds. No resurrection is possible.

2 – As above but the mage’s body becomes 1d100+100 butterflies, wasps, ants, worms, maggots, or some other small insect or vermin. If these creatures are all somehow collected, the mage can be raised from the dead. However, these vermin will all die in 1d3 days, after which resurrection becomes impossible.

3 – The Lawful Church was right about the origins of magic. Knowingly or unknowingly, the mage made a pact with infernal forces in order to wield spells. A random demon or devil appears to collect his soul. At the referee’s discretion, this infernal being may collect his payment and leave, attempt to slay anyone else on the scene or offer nearby creatures a deal for their own souls. The dead mage’s companions may attempt to bargain with this being on the magic-user’s behalf. Chess, anyone?

4 – The mage’s remaining spells explode in a conflagration of eldritch energy. Treat as if a fireball spell has detonated with the mage at the center. The damage caused by this spell is in dice equal to the number of spells the mage had remaining in his memory. Particularly fiendish referees may instead rule that the blast does damage equal to the total number of spell levels in the dead magic-user’s memory.

5 – A curse affects the area in which the mage died. The exact effects of this curse are left to the referee. The area affected by this death curse is in proportion to the magic-user’s experience level. A low level mage’s death may curse a room or corridor. A name level mage’s death might curse an entire dungeon or village. The death of an arch-mage might lay a curse upon an entire kingdom.

6 – On the third night following the magic-user’s death, his body – if not destroyed – rises as a wight which seeks revenge (justified or not) on his friends and loved ones.

7 – As above, but the magic-user rises as a spectre.

8 – The mage’s body and all things (living or non-living) within 10’ of it become petrified. Sentient creatures may save to avoid this effect.

9 – The magic-user’s body dissolves into a puddle of water, phlegm, bile, venom, blood, or some other liquid. If the entire volume of liquid (50 liters) is collected, the mage may be raised.

10 – The mage’s death is accompanied by a foreboding omen. The moon turns to blood, an unforeseen solar eclipse occurs, cows give sour milk, chickens lay red eggs, a baby is born with two heads, a comet appears in the sky, etc. Whether these omens herald some misfortune to come is left the referee.

You can of course add to this list your own fiendish ideas. The possibilities are endless.

So the next time you stick a sword through some skinny guy or gal in robes, you’d better not let your guard down. Something interesting might just be about to occur.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

An Addition to Dungeon Design Philosophy

Long-time readers of this blog will know that I have a personal design philosophy when it comes to building dungeons. Inspired by the wild and woolly days of this hobby's beginnings, I've learned to let the need for realism and rationality to go on holiday if I think it's going to stand between me and a memorable dungeon experience. I summed up this philosophy some time back with the phrase, "Stop worrying and love the dungeon." That mantra still influences my efforts.

Today was one of those days where the universe syncs in a series of bizarre coincidences that causes one to revisit old ground. After commenting on how I wouldn't want a need for sensibility and rationality to stand in the way of the players assisting in adding levels of detail to the shared game world, I wandered over to Rob Conley's blog, Bat in the Attic. There, he was continuing his review of Dave Arnesen's First Fantasy Campaign. In a comment to that post, Jeff Rients mentioned that one of the cockamamie swords from FFC is floating around in his Cinder campaign. His rationale for this: "You know, just 'cause I can." This brought to mind the poem, "Some People" by Charles Bukowski, in which he writes, "some people never go crazy. what truly horrible lives they must lead."

I'm adding a sub-clause to the Society of Torch, Pole and Rope design philosophy of "Stop worrying and love the dungeon," which states, "Go crazy, just 'cause you can."

An Addendum to Spell Research

A new way to spice up the spell research process came to my mind last night and I think it’s a potentially cool one that allows the players to both contribute to the shared setting and rewards their creativity.

While I was researching the rules for spell creation in the various editions of D&D, one facet of it was repeated in both 1st and 2nd edition AD&D. In both those rules, the cost of spell research was based on the assumption that the character had access to a library (or shrine in the case of clerics). If they didn’t, the cost of research was either increased or they had to spend funds to first acquire a library.

While this is a little more convoluted than the spell research methods I intend to use, the idea of a personal research spell library is an alluring one – especially considering my profession as a librarian and archivist. I love adding new books complete with titles and authors to the game world for players to find and ponder over. It stands to reason that part of the monies spent during spell research goes to cover the purchase of arcane grimoires and obscure religious tomes to reference during the creation process, and this is covered within the abstract method presented in the game’s mechanics.

Rather than gloss this over, I thought that I’d integrate it with actual play a bit. My thought is this: for each 2,000 gp spent on the creation of a new spell, the player must give me the name and author of one book which was used in the spell creation process. The name must be indicative of a very specialized work that would pertain to the spell his character was attempting to create. So if Mack the MU was creating his magnificent mauler, Mack’s player might say that one of the tomes Mack bought to assist this process was Inquires into the Application of Conjured Downward Forces by Schumpti Rock-Dropper. That sounds specialized enough to me. It’s certainly more of a dedicated-sounding title than The Codex Supreme: Treatises on All Known Magicks.

Having deemed the book acceptable, both Mack’s player and I make a note of the fact that Mack now owns this book. At some future time, Mack’s player decides that there really needs to be a spell that would fill the gap that feather fall usually does (check the rule books, feather fall doesn’t show up until 1st edition AD&D). Deciding to fill that gap with a new spell called Mack’s delicate descent, our exemplary MU heads back to the spell lab. Now the cost to research such a spell would usually be a minimum of 2,000 gp. However, since Mack already owns a book dealing with conjured downward forces and thus being a reasonable reference source for his proposed new spell, I decide to give him a break on costs – say 500 gp. Mack only needs to spend 1,500 gp, Mack’s player has added a bit of flavor to the campaign world, and I have a springboard to use for new set dressing on future adventures. Maybe Schumpti Rock-Dropper has written other books and there’s an Inquires into the Application of Conjured Upward Forces to be found in the next arch-mage’s tower. Simple, imaginative, and conducive to the shared world experience - it’s a win-win for everyone.

Monday, April 20, 2009

By Salamander, Drake, and the Power that was Undine

One of the challenges of my trip back toward the roots of D&D – sojourning not unlike Ratatosk down Yggdrasil to visit Níðhöggr – are the spell lists contained in Labyrinth Lord. As LL closely resembles those found in B/X (and therefore those of OD&D), I sometimes find myself looking to include a particular spell or effect down in the halls of Stonehell, only to discover that the spell I had in mind was a later addition with AD&D. At first, I was disheartened by this development but I’ve since come to embrace the limited spell listing as a feature rather than a bug.

The relatively limited spells of LL provides an excellent opportunity to both rewrite the magical history of the game and to customize the campaign world to one’s personal tastes and style. By presenting the referee and the players with a fairly clean tabula rasa to play with when it comes to spells, it opens up the number of possibilities available for new and never before seen incantations. Provided one is willing to tinker with the rules.

Looking over the rulebook of LL, I noticed one fairly significant departure from the rules of D&D: level limits for crafting new spells. Further research amongst the various editions has shown me that this departure is unique to LL, which requires Magic-Users to achieve 9th level before allowing for the creation of both magical items and new spells. Let’s get rid of that straight away, shall we?

Further explorations into spell research show that the method for determining the cost in money and time, as well as the probability of success, varies from edition to edition. OD&D stipulates that spell research cost 2,000 gp for a 1st level spell and this cost grows exponentially as the spell’s level increases. The time required is 1 week per spell level. This provides a base 20% chance of successfully developing a new spell. The probability for success can be increased by an expenditure of additional monies with every amount equal to the base investment increasing the chance of success by an additional 20%. The time required appears unaffected.

Holmes suggests a similar method, although the cost is reduced to a flat 2,000 gp per spell level and no rules are provided for increasing the probability of success by spending more money. B/X states a cost of 1,000 gp/level and a time expenditure of 2 weeks per spell level with no possibility of failure indicated. Mentzer reiterates this. Labyrinth Lord, with the solitary addition of adding a level requirement before spell research can be attempted, mimics B/X to no one’s surprise. The flat 1,000 gp and two weeks per spell level is repeated from those earlier books. AD&D in its various guises complicates the issue to a much greater degree – one I have little interest in pursuing.

Since spell research may play an important role in future games, I’ve given a bit of thought to the matter and decided that, out of all the systems presented, I like a mixture of OD&D and Holmes the best. By combining the flat increase in research cost in the Holmes edition (2,000 gp per level) with the rules for increasing the probability of success by the expenditure of additional funds in OD&D, one comes up with a nice combination of both a money sink and a reasonable “out of game” time cost.

Given that the Old School blogosphere is the Synchronicity Highway that it is, it’s something less than surprising that while I was pondering the idea of spell research, Grognardia exhibited a post about the magic system of Blackmoor. The concept of magic-users needing to practice spells in order to advance sprouted tiny tendrils in my grey matter which quickly began to bloom. Having settled on a basic method of determining the success and cost of spell research, I decided to spice up the process a bit.

In my mind and for “gaming realism,” there’s a reason why the spells on the spell lists are limited in number. Stated simply, these spells are the hoary old chestnuts of spell weaving that have become stable rotes which are guaranteed to work. New magic is always possible but, as with any new creation, it lacks the benefit of having been proven time and again. To represent this in actual play, I’m considering the addition of a house rule that allows for a newly created spell to perform in a less than expected manner when it first debuts. Nothing that would seriously cripple the already fragile magic-user, but something that would make new magic a bit shaky for a short period while it was being test-driven.

Imagine Mack the MU has spent the time and money needed to craft Mack’s magnificent mauler, which he hopes to use to put a serious hurt on that tribe of goblins down on level two of the local megadungeon. Back in town, Mack’s mauler works without a hitch as he’s smashing big rocks and stumps out behind the inn. Once he’s down in the dungeon, however, with goblin arrows flying past his head and the screams of battle in his ears, it’s a different ball game. He’s trying to invoke and modify the rules of magic in a way that has no established history of success. Mack wiggles his fingers, utters his invocation and – poof!!! – nothing happens. Uh-oh. Looks like he needs a bit more practice and may have to fine-tune the spell a little more.

The actual game mechanics for using a new spell would work like this: every newly created (not newly learned) spell has a breaking in period where the success of the spell is not 100% guaranteed. Each new spell has a chance of fizzling the first few times it’s used in real play. This number of potential misfires is equal to the level of the spell + a roll of a d3 or d4 (I’m still spitballing here). Thus, a newly created first level spell has a chance of failing the first 2 to 5 times it is ever cast. The success of the spell would be determined by a Intelligence or Wisdom check, with a successful check meaning the spell worked as intended. A failure means the spell misfires with no effect (I don’t want to get into wild magic territory here). Once that number of castings has been exceeded, the spell is considered stabilized and has been fine-tuned enough to no longer require a check. It functions correctly from now on.

The purpose of this house rule is two-fold. First off, I’d like to play up the concept that the spell is truly a new creation, one never before seen in the lands of Men (or Elves). Generations of magic-users have grown to power and died without the PC’s new spell ever have being attempted or, if it was, it wasn’t stable enough to survive the march of time. Secondly, I’d prefer to allow for a testing period where both referee and player can see how the spell functions in actual play. If either myself or the player feels that the spell needs to be modified to make it more suitable for constant use and inclusion in the game world canon, this is the time to make those changes while still maintaining an illusion of verisimilitude to the game world. The reason why the spell now has a shorter range, smaller area of effect, or now requires a saving throw, is because the magic-user found that by making small adjustments to the spell (and thereby adhering closer to the established “Laws of Magic”), he can ensure the spell’s regular success.

At the moment, I’m of two minds. While I think this proposed system provides an interesting twist on new spell creation and does a good job at simulating the theoretical difficulties of altering the laws of magic without being too cumbersome, I don’t want to deter the players from creating new spells to add to the game world. This is very much a real concern since the spell selection available in the earlier editions of D&D is so limited compared to the later ones.

If anything, I want the PC spell casters to create new magics to either replace the spells from AD&D or to produce something never before seen and allow them to make a very important contribution to our shared game world. I think the possibility of going down in the annals of my own personal campaign world as a hometown Tenser, Mordenkainen, or Bigby is too much of a cool thing to dissuade. The subject bears further examination and I offer it here to see where your minds may be on the subject.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Spelunking 101

I'm getting the hang of using Photoshop and Dungeon Crafter together to come up with some pretty nifty maps. Even crazy cave systems are turning out OK with a little bit of patience.

I'd be a dirty, rotten liar if I said I didn't miss nice, straight dungeon corridors and rooms, however.

A Reprieve from Hell

If you’ll look to the right-hand side of this page, you’ll notice that I’ve collected all three of the upper levels of Stonehell into single zipped files, one for each level. Looking back at the work that I’ve done over the last four months, I’m very pleased with how the dungeon has developed incrementally during that time and I’m eagerly anticipating what remains to be done.

In the process of reviewing the completed levels, which is something I’ve been doing a bit of lately, I’ve begun to see little flaws in the overall scheme of things. Nothing too troublesome, but as the dungeon has evolved with each new section and level, I’ve discovered some minor details that I’d like to change now that I know for certain what lays deeper in the bowels of the place. For a while now, I’ve been considering going back and doing a small amount of rewriting in order to make the dungeon tighter and to give it a bit more of an overall thematic structure.

The more that I considered this, the more the idea began to grow on me. I saw the opportunity to improve on the general two-page format and began to consider collecting various background information and the dungeon’s crunchy bits under separate headings to make referencing those aspects of the dungeon easier during play. I’m now convinced that to do so would be for the best.

Due to this plan, I’m suspending doing regular releases of new dungeon sections for the foreseeable future. My plan is to go back and make the changes that I feel I need to do, collect the background, monsters, new magics, etc. into single chapters and to assemble a definitive upper works of the dungeon to help tie the whole thing together. Once this is finished, I’m going to collect these sections, along with Levels One through Five, and make the entire first half of the dungeon available as a single release. I think the end result will be a much better dungeon that can be explored canonically as a whole if one wished to do so, without sacrificing the ability to take parts of the dungeon and plug them into an ongoing game.

My decision to do this shouldn’t be misconstrued as a growing lack of interest in Stonehell; quite the opposite. I’ve already finished mapping the fourth level of the dungeon and have completed the notes for the first two sections of it. I’m writing those sections up in the slightly altered format that I intend to eventually apply to the completed levels in order to see if it functions the way I intend it to. So far, it looks good.

I’m not going to attempt to set a deadline for the completion of the upper half of Stonehell. As last week reminds us, one can never completely expect what each week will bring. I might plow through my rewrite quickly or it may be a slow, painstaking process. In either case, I will make Stonehell into a better place (from the referee’s point of view anyway. I can’t promise the adventurers an easier time). I’m comfortable taking the time to do this now because, if the post game reports that I’ve been seeing from people exploring Stonehell are any indication, I’ve got a big time buffer before any of those adventurers start edging close to Level Four. I’d also like to do this now rather than finish up the first half of the dungeon completely and then have to go back and make the adjustment over the entire thing. It’s less of a time sink that way.

I’m also anticipating being up to my eyeballs in One-Page Dungeons over the next month due to the One-Page Dungeon Contest, so I believe that it’ll be for the best to suspend regular posting of Stonehell levels so that I a) don’t burn out completely from staring at the template over and over again and b) avoid influencing Stonehell or unconsciously plagiarizing contest entries while I’m writing up each new section of the dungeon.

Please excuse this temporary state of affairs. I truly believe that the end result will be a much better dungeon because of it. Thank you.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Inspirational Passages: Magic

Like many role-playing enthusiasts, I am also a reader; possessing an appetite for books that is both voracious and omnivorous. The “Current Inspirational Reading” title displayed to the right of this page is usually only a single example of what I’m devouring at any given time.

Unlike a lot of readers though, I read accompanied by my commonplace books at my side. As I make my way through the pages of a new book, I regularly take the time to make notes in my commonplace books of any interesting fact, bit of trivia, or seeds for adventure ideas that I might come across. In most cases, these are abbreviated notations that will serve as a simple reminder or provide a germ from which to grow grander things.

Still, I sometimes come across entire passages in books that I find too evocative to be ignored but too lengthy to be included in my commonplace books. When such an event occurs, I’ll make a notation of the page and later copy that passage into a Word file for later consultation. Since I find these passages inspirational, I thought that others may benefit from exposure to them as well. As a new and occasional feature of this blog, I’ll post such passages from time-to-time to allow others to glean some wisdom or creative inspiration from them. In order to whet your appetites for the upcoming “Magic-User’s Week” here at the Society of Torch, Pole and Rope, I’ve posted a passage concerning magic and the powers of the gods. I hope you find it as much to your own liking as I did.
Wednesday said nothing for long enough that Shadow started to wonder if he had heard the question, or if he had, possibly, fallen asleep with his eyes open. Then he said, staring ahead of him as he talked, “I know a charm that can cure pain and sickness, and lift the grief from the heart of the grieving.

“I know a charm that will heal with a touch.

“I know a charm that will turn aside the weapons of an enemy.

“I know another charm to free myself from all bonds and locks.

“A fifth charm: I can catch an arrow in flight and take no harm from it.”

His words were quiet, urgent. Gone was the hectoring tone, gone was the grin. Wednesday spoke as if he were reciting the words of a religious ritual, or remembering something dark and painful.

“A sixth: spells sent to hurt me will hurt only the sender.

“A seventh charm I know: I can quench fire simply by looking at it.

“An eighth: if any man hates me, I can win his friendship.

“A ninth: I can sing the wind to sleep and calm a storm for long enough to bring a ship to shore.

“Those were the first nine charms I learned. Nine nights I hung on the bare tree, my side pierced with a spear’s point. I swayed and blew in the cold winds and the hot winds, without food, without water, a sacrifice of myself to myself, and the worlds opened to me.

“For a tenth charm, I learned to dispel witches, to spin them around in the skies so that they will never find their way back to their own doors again.

“An eleventh: if I sing it when a battle rages it can take warriors through the tumult unscathed and unhurt, and bring them safely back to their hearths and their homes.

“A twelfth charm I know: if I see a hanged man I can bring him down from the gallows to whisper to us all he remembers.

“A thirteenth: if I sprinkle water on a child’s head, that child will not fall in battle.

“A fourteenth. I know the names of all the gods. Every damned one of them.

“A fifteenth: I have a dream of power, of glory, and of wisdom, and I can make people believe my dreams.”

His voice was so low now that Shadow had to strain to hear it over the plane’s engine noise.

“A sixteenth charm I know: if I need love I can turn the mind and heart of any woman.

“A seventeenth, that no woman I want will ever want another.

“And I know an eighteenth charm, and that charm is the greatest of all, and that charm I can tell no man, for a secret that no man knows but you is the most powerful secret there can ever be.”

He sighed and stopped talking.

Shadow could feel his skin crawl. It was as if he had just seen a door open to another place, somewhere worlds away where hanged men blew in the wind at every crossroads, where witches shrieked overhead in the night. - Neil Gaiman, American Gods
I like that passage for several reasons but foremost is because so many of Wednesday's charms are duplicated in the spells available in D&D. One would be hardheaded indeed to believe that Gary and Dave were making up those spells out of wholecloth.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

.PDF or Perish

This is a reminder that anyone who has previously purchased Wizards of the Coast .pdf products from or has until 10 AM EST tomorrow (Thursday, April 16th) to download your lawful property before they're gone forever.

Details here.

The City's Shadows Alphabet: U-Z

U is for Ugly

Stated simply: the streets of the shadows are not pretty. Whether it be the piles of refuse and waste that accumulate like rancid snowdrifts in the Alleyways, the stink of fish and rotting wood down at the Docks, or the oozing substances that sluice through grates down into the Sewers, examples of the ugliness of shadow life is not difficult to find.

This ugliness is not limited to the streets themselves. The residents of the shadows share a common lack of comeliness. Broken and bent noses adorn the faces of tavern brawlers, gap-toothed smiles grace the faces of merchants and Yokels alike, and even the painted trollops of the Brothels often conduct their business is dimly-lit rooms and mask their disfigurements with paint and with perfume. When beauty does appear in the slums of the city it is often short-lived, as in the radiant innocence of children who are soon to be brought low by their surroundings, or it masks dangers that prey upon the inhabitants, who use glamours and enchantments to lure their victims close enough to take sustenance from them amidst the shadows.

V is for Vendettas

While Quarrels are loud, explosive releases of anger and hatred, other quieter conflicts rage down in the shadows: Vendettas. These plots of revenge and the settling of accounts are conducted with blackened Knives and hidden conjurations rather than in the relatively broad daylight of the streets. Cloaked figures stalk their transgressors from the shadows, eager for revenge.

Vendettas are often times slower and more precise than their loud cousin. A slight that occurred months or even years ago, is harbored in the breast of the mistreated, where it is nurtured by a steady diet of hate. Outside observers never gain the smallest glimpse that this desire for settling the score exists within the heart of the slighted, who is all smiles and “My dear, old friend” to his enemy. That is until the time to strike and to gloat has arrived.

W is for the Watch

The tramp of their march and the sound of a whistle often heralds the arrival of the Watch down in the city’s stews – that is, if well-placed and paid observers don’t detect their approach first. When the Watch brings its hammer down on the narrow shadow streets, the residents here scatter like the vermin they share their hovels with. The dwellers of the shadows know that when the Watch comes marching, Judgment is seldom far behind.

The Watch is composed of just as broad of a spectrum as the streets it patrols. Green recruits, hardened veterans, corrupt schemers, and devout believers in the laws of the city all are found within the ranks of the Watch. The residents of the streets are quick to identify who’s who amongst the Watch and make adjustments their own actions accordingly. A hardened soldier who knows that life is seldom what the bards claim it to be is treated with a grudging respect, while a corrupt watchman is quickly paid off and kept close – but not too close – in case his avarice is needed for future endeavors.

X is for Xenophilia

The city is a cosmopolitan setting and its shadows are no less so. Down here, it is common to encounter men and even stranger creatures from distant lands that have chosen to make the city their home. While amongst the upper classes, such foreigners are often looked down upon (unless they have the wealth to buy their place in society), outsiders have an easier time gaining acceptance for poverty is a great equalizer.

In the world of the shadows, the foreign and the alien are often seen as exciting or romantic – a temporary diversion from the misery and desperation of life on the street. A dusky-skinned merchant with fez perched atop his head or an ivory pale elf with tresses of liquid silver provide a welcome relief from the dirt and rags so commonly found here. Such individuals often profit from their allure. That coin is two-sided, however, for when a scapegoat is needed it is often easiest to blame those who don’t quite fit in with the rest of the shadow’s inhabitants.

Y is for Yokels

Like some deep-sea fish what uses a glowing lure to draw its prey close enough to strike, the opulence and grandeur of the city leads a steady stream of the naïve into its maw. For many of these yokels, a trip to the big city may be a once-in-a-lifetime visit, as their experiences within the city walls often quickly strips them of their illusions about the wonderment of city life. Despite these sometimes fatal disappointments, there is no end to the supply of wide-eyed farm boys and maidens who enter through the gates.

Even professional adventurers, who may consider themselves worldly folk based on their sojourns underground, are commonly ensnared and taken advantage off once they step into the city’s shadows. The dangers here are better hidden and more insidious than even the fiercest ogre’s lair and an adventurer’s cocky nature make him a tempting target for more than a thousand schemes and cons. Goodly-hearted adventurers are more-vulnerable still to such risks and the city regularly proves to be the crucible that tempers or breaks those who adhere to the straight-and-narrow path.

Z is for Zoological Enclosures

Although the Watch and the Guilds do their level best to protect the livelihoods and possessions of the residents of the city, some prefer to ensure their wealth remains unmolested with guardians of the four-legged – in not more – variety. Behind the walls that protect the city’s Palaces, strange creatures prowl. Some of these animals are of mundane origin: packs of hungry wolf-hounds or sleek furred lions that pad the green verges of a villa’s grounds. Others are obscure or bizarre, and it would not be unheard of for house breakers to encounter manticores with clipped wings or gleaming-eyed gorgons defending their master’s property.

But not all zoological enclosures are private. On rare occasions such places are erected for the enjoyment of the common denizens of the city as well. Ranging from the benign zoological menageries sometimes found in city parks, to the violent bear pits and dog arenas of dingy, waterfront taverns, animals of large stature are not as uncommon as might be believed. Even some Cults husband and care for large and fierce animals within their sacred holdings, and more than one thief has returned from a heist with tales of titanic serpents and rodents of a most unusual size that protect certain dark sancta sanctorum beneath the shadowy streets of the city.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The One-Page Dungeon Contest

The time has come, my friends, to set aside the petty rivalries and Wars of Edition; to gather together in the confines of our collective Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Mansion and celebrate the dungeon lairs that tie us all together as role-playing enthusiasts. It is in this spirit of gaming brotherhood that I’m pleased to announce “The One-Page Dungeon Contest!”

As many of you are no doubt aware, some months ago, Sham of Sham’s Grog n’ Blog unleashed a horrible beauty upon the gaming world: the concept of the One-Page Dungeon. Following closely on the heels of that birth was Chgowiz’s fine template that solidified Sham’s idea into an easy-to-use (and modify) download. Inspired by both the concept and the template, I grabbed the idea and started running. For a time, the One-Page Dungeon dwelled solely in the realm of the Old School Renaissance. Recently though, that One-Page Dungeon was discovered and embraced by Philippe-Antoine – better known as Chatty DM – and the virus has spread across editions. With this cross-infection, now comes yet another permutation of mad genius: The One-Page Dungeon Contest.

Brought to you by a collaboration between Chgowiz and ChattyDM, the contest invites all of you to submit your best single page dungeon to vie for dominance in the field of Dungeon Brevity. Readers are asked to submit a dungeon level using the One-Page Dungeon Template and detailed in an “edition neutral” format (e.g. you can name your monsters but leave out the game stats) which will then be judged in a number of different categories. Think you have the stuff to take the prize for “Most creative use of a trap” or “Funniest dungeon?" Or are you bold enough to try for “Best All Around?” These are just a few of the criteria against which entries will be judged. Those of you lucky and talented enough to claim the top slot for each category will be rewarded beyond the dreams of Croesus! Or at least take home some cool RPG swag. Once we've named winners, we'll be compiling a FREE PDF of the winners/runner-ups and releasing it to the community at large.

The contest begins today, April 14th and runs through at May 14th at midnight EST. Entries will be evaluated by a panel of six judges and prizes will be awarded to the winners of several different categories including:

  • Best All Around (Contest Grand Prize)
  • Grand Prize Runner-Up: Old School Dungeon Design
  • Grand Prize Runner-Up: New Edition Dungeon Design
  • Alternative prize categories: Most Creative Trap, Funniest, Most Gonzo, for example. Due to the bevy of prizes available, other categories are bound to be considered.
The Judges

Consisting of bloggers representing both the Old and the New Schools, the One-Page Dungeon Contest will be judged by an inner cabal consisting of:

Contest Rules

1. Participants create a one page dungeon using the template found here. For a contest entry example see here. NOTE TO SoTPR READERS: While you’re free to consult my Stonehell levels for inspiration and examples, contest entries must be limited to a single page as per the original One-Page Dungeon Template.

2. The dungeon must have the following features:
  • Name of Dungeon
  • Map
  • Dungeon Key (in an edition-neutral form: Description of monsters, Treasure, Traps, etc... No game stats)
  • OPTIONAL (If you can fit them on one page...)

    • Wandering Monster or Random Event tables or a list of scripted "events" that can occur over the adventure
    • Background
    • Additional descriptions that add to the dungeon, such as detailed description of trap or trick or unique feature.
3. Only one entry per participant. Entry may win grand prize or one of the runner up prizes, plus any number of alternative prize categories.

4. Participants are allowed to modify the template, provided it remains a one-page entry.

5. Submission must be emailed in PDF, Word or Open Office format at the following address:

6. Submitting a dungeon to the contest releases it under the Creative Common Share-alike license (US 2008) with credit to the contest participant.

7. Contest closes on May 14th 2009 at Midnight EST.

Now for the good stuff: the Prize Swag Bag! Category winners will have their efforts rewarded with the following goodies:

Grand Prize
Patron membership of Open Design
Quarterly membership of Dungeon a Day
Fantasy Grounds II License
1 year membership to Obsidian Portal
50$ Gift Certificate for PDFs

Grand Prize Runner-Up: Old School Dungeon Design
Bundle of Necromancer games product
Bundle of Brave Halfling Production products
Otherworld Miniatures Demon Idol Miniature
Bundles of Fight On and Knockspell issues
Bits of Darkness Bundle
6 month membership Obsidian Portal

Grand Prize Runner-Up: New Edition Dungeon Design
WotC's Dungeon Delve
Fantasy Grounds II License
Quarterly membership to DungeonADay
6 month membership Obsidian Portal

To divide among other Categories
Kobold's Guide to Game Design
Bundle of Brave Halfling Production products
Bundle of Knockspell and City Encounter PDFs
Bundle of Fight On Magazine (issues 1-4)
Bits of Darkness Bundle
Deck O'Names Set
WotC's Adventures
Otherworld Miniatures - Pig Faced Orcs (Or Box of Minis)
Goodman Games Random Esoteric Creature Generator

Contest prizes have been provided by the following kind sponsors:
Brave Halfing Publishings
Fight On Magazine
Goodman Games
Malhavoc Press
Mythmere Games
Necromancer Games
Obsidian Portal
Open Designs
Otherworld Miniatures
Tabletop Adventure

If you have any questions about the contest, please feel free to contact either Phil ( and/or Michael (

I join my fellow judges in wishing all the contestents “Good Luck!” and I’m eagerly looking forward to see what awaits all of us in the month ahead.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Visitation Information for Dave Arneson

The following information has been provided by the Arneson Family:
The Arneson family would like to thank everyone for their support over the last several days, and for the support the entire community has shown Dave over the years.

Cards and letters can continue to be sent:
Dave Arneson
1043 Grand Avenue
Box #257
St. Paul, MN 55105

Visitation will be on April 20th
Time: 4pm - 8pm
Bradshaw Funeral Home
687 Snelling Avenue South
St. Paul, MN 55105

Contact the Arneson Family: Email

Memorials preferred to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International

The City's Shadows Alphabet: P-T

P is for Palaces

At the heart of the city, like a dragon atop his hoard, sits the palace. From the dingy stews of the city, the residents gaze upon its whitewashed walls and shining spires with mixed emotions. For many citizens of the shadows, the Palace represents all there is to hate about their lives; for it from within the walls of the palace that the edicts which seldom take into the account the wants and needs of the destitute are issued. For other residents, the palace represents the one big score that stands between them and a new life filled with riches away from the city’s shadows.

But not all palaces in the city are home to nobility. There are other palaces strewn about the city’s wards and quarters. Great gaming houses gleam with opulence; grand arenas break up the squalor of the streets with gleaming edifices depicting epic combat, and wealthy Brothels, plush with velvet and silk, await the appetites of those wealthy enough to call upon the talents of those within. Although the occupants of such lesser palaces lack the temporal power of nobility, the treasures that are cached within are no less impressive, nor less protected, than those of the city’s heart.

Q is for Quarrels

Both the action and the item are commonplace down on the city’s mean streets. In the cramped confines of apartment houses, the sounds of arguments echo down the filthy halls, outpaced only by the stink of cooking meals and the odor of human suffering. In marketplaces, taverns, Inns, and the Docks, quarrels between disagreeing parties quickly bypass words and progress to the unsheathing of Knives and the spilling of blood. Even the Guilds, with all their power and influence, are not above petty bickering between bodies, which can quickly escalate into all-out street battles that affect all who live down in the shadows.

And if the quarrel as a verb was not dangerous enough, the noun is doubly so. In the winding streets of the city, the weapon of choice for killing at a distance is the crossbow, which is found in use by the Watch and assassins alike. With the snap and twang of the string, a quarrel shoots through the night with deadly accuracy, snuffing out another life and ending another problem. Seedy tenements sport concealed loopholes that hide arbalesters in the pay of the guilds, who oversee and protect their employers’ activities. Down in the Sewers, hired killers prepare quarrels with lampblack to hide the steel’s gleam from the Watch and with venom to ensure the kill. It is only in half-jest that the quarrel is sometimes called the “bird of the city’s shadows.”

R is for Rooftops

No trip to the city would be complete without a frantic dash across madly-tilted rooftops accompanied by sling bullets and Quarrels whizzing past one’s head. Add to this scenario the desperate leaps needed to vault across the Alleyways that separate buildings and you have a classic city encounter. It’s this kind of Excitement that makes adventures in the city’s shadows unique.

The rooftops of the city’s shadows are both an extension of life on the streets below as well as a world unto themselves. Nestled amongst leaning chimneys and ramshackle pigeon coops, some desperate souls trade shelter from the elements for addition protection against the dangers of live on the streets. Up here, life is just a cheap but the air and view is slightly better. The rooftops are not only the demesne of Lower Class, however. Sorcerers conduct mystical experiments whose successes are aligned with the stars, assassins lie in wait with cocked crossbows in hand, and priests and oracles observe the sky for omens. The rooftops might be separate from the street below but they host a similar variety of inhabitants.

S is for Sewers

Dark, stinking, subterranean corridors are not limited to the dungeons from which the adventurers pry their riches. Beneath the streets of the city run miles of tunnels that can be just as dangerous as the fiercest dungeon. Although constructed to protect the city from disease and flooding, it doesn’t take long for the dwellers of the city’s shadows to put them to other uses.

Down here – should one be willing to venture into this foul world – Cults gather to conduct their obscure and obscene rituals, safe from nonbelievers. Behind hidden doorways and down secret passage ways, the Thieves Guild plots to liberate the wealth of those who have failed to pay the Guild its proper due. Monstrous creatures, both natural and those created, then abandoned, by insane wizards, prowl the sewers, occasionally venture into the upper air to snatch a tasty morsel from its bed. Amidst these assorted perils, rat-catchers and sewer men eke out a meager livelihood in their toils; often supplementing their wages by selling the secrets they discover in the course of their duties to curious ears above ground.

T is for Temples

Like their secular counterparts, the Palaces, temples are looked upon with a mixture of emotions. For many, the temples are places where a brief solace from the weariness of life in the shadows can be found: adherents of many faiths lose themselves in the rites and grandeur of religious expression. A whispered prayer or heartfelt offering raises hopes that the gods might have pity upon their sufferings and make tomorrow a better day.

In the eyes of the less devout though, the temples make a tempting target. In these bastions of sanctuary down in the shadows, treasure troves of varying quantity await those brazen enough to risk the displeasure of the greater powers of the multiverse. Jeweled ornaments, gilded religious tomes, and the ever-present offering box promise a much more concrete and dependable source of respite against the drudgeries of the slums, with often only a handful of corpulent priests and novices standing between those items and the hard men who covet them. Such temptation is difficult to resist…


Sunday, April 12, 2009


A few items that don't warrant separate posts:
  • My local newspaper ran an obituary for Dave Arneson on Saturday. Astonishingly, it was a bigger obit than the one they ran for Gary. I'm not certain whether I'd attribute this to a slow news day or perhaps this was of karma's way of finally attempting to balance the scales.
  • This week will see me finishing up the City's Shadows Alphabet and a contest-related announcement. The following week, from all initial indications, looks like it's going to be "Magic-User's Week" at The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope.
  • I came across the following cartoon from Dragonmirth as I was going through my files. I remember saving it back when I did my initial design on the Fane of St. Toad sub-level. Somehow, I never got around to incorporating it into the level.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

In Memory of Dave Arneson

I'm going to suspend finishing the City's Shadows Alphabet in light of Dave Arneson's passing. I will leave this post here at the top of the page for the rest of the week and through the weekend. We'll return to the Shadows Alphabet on Monday.

When the incorrect news began to spread Tuesday that Dave had passed, I sat down to think long and hard about how I wanted to honor his memory. I considered doing a lengthy post here where I would talk about how Dave had influenced me and of the deep respect that I had for him not only as a game designer but as a man. I ultimately rejected that idea because so many similar posts were appearing and mine would just be another easily lost among the masses.

I then remembered that I had in my notes from my first attempt at a megadungeon a sub-level that was largely influenced by Dave’s Temple of the Frog. I thought that it would be quite an appropriate tribute to his life to dust that sub-level off, polish it up, and dedicate it to him. I was mid way through those preparations when the word began to spread that Dave’s death had been misreported. Although that was a relief to hear, having lost loved ones to cancer, I knew his reprieve might be very short lived.

Knowing this, I continued to work on the sub-level, entitled The Fane of St. Toad, with the hopes that I could turn it from a piece honoring his memory to one that celebrated his life.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time to do that. I was still in the process of readying the Fane when the confirmation that Dave had passed away on Tuesday night came.

I chose to keep working on the Fane throughout the rest of the day because, quite frankly, I didn’t know what else to do. Despite knowing Dave only indirectly through his presence on the OD&D Discussion board, his passing has struck me deeper than I had expected. By finishing the Fane I hoped to achieve some sense of equilibrium between the sadness at his loss and the celebration of his life. Last night, I put the final touches on the Fane and I do feel as if I’ve created something, however insufficient, to honor Dave. I think I’ll set it down and, barring any grave errors, step away from it for good now. It’s a poor substitute for Dave himself, but it’s the only thing in my power to provide.

I won’t dare presume what Dave might have thought of the Fane but I do hope you all might find some enjoyment and perhaps even some solace in it. I want to especially thank both Gabor Lux and Jeff Rients who each allowed me to use one of their creation in the Fane. I hope they’ll agree I treated their babies well. So with that, here it is:

The Fane of St. Toad – Dedicated to the memory of Dave Arneson

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The City's Shadows Alphabet: K-O

K is for Knives

Although kingdoms are carved from the wilderness and settled with the help of the sword, once the walls of the city have been erected it becomes time for another weapon. The knife takes the place of the sword as the need for utility replaces that of brutality, with one being worn on the belts of tradesmen, fishermen, and farmers alike. But in the shadows, the knife is often put to more violent use.

Unlike the sword or axe, both of which attract attention, the knife can be concealed easily on the body. Stashed in boot-tops, at the nape of the neck, inside boot soles, concealed in belt buckles, or strapped to the forearm, the knife provides security without alerting your opponents to your advantage. Usable both in close quarters and thrown from a distance, it is no surprise that the knife is the most versatile and common weapon to be employed in the city’s shadows. Even the smallest blade, once coated with a liberal application of venom, becomes a lethal weapon in the hands of the smallest opponent. Adventurers used to the clash of long blades in the dungeon corridors are often surprised when the most benign looking resident of the city suddenly flashes steel in hand and plunges it into an unsuspecting back before slipping into an Alleyway, purloined purse in hand.

L is for the Lower Class

Although the city has its share of noblemen, wealthy merchants, and rich clergymen, such individuals are seldom encountered down in the shadows. Other then the occasional slumming nobleman’s son or a merchant lord of Guild business, the majority of the seedy side of town’s residents are members of the lower, if not lowest, class. Unwashed, illiterate, and often loutish, they eke out a meager existence half a step ahead of Death.

Due to modern assumptions about the lower class, most players might believe that this social niche is composed solely of the impoverished. This is not always the case. It is quite possible for members of the lower class to be cash rich while remaining status poor. In addition to the poor, the lower class consists of professional actors and performers, gladiators and pit fighters, tradesmen who practice professions deemed unclean by cultural or religious mores (tanners and butchers might fall into this category), apprentice and journeymen Guild members, prophets, sages, and grave diggers, as well as transient adventurers such as the party members themselves. It is not always money that separates the classes and even if a resident has enough money to buy his way into polite society, he may never escape the stigma of his profession.

M is for Money

Whether it takes the form of brass bits, copper benders, gold marks, gleaming gems, rare goods, or a less seemly form, money is the lifeblood of the city. Down in the shadows, money becomes even more talismanic than it is elsewhere, if solely for the reason that it is so rarely found here. Murders are committed over sums that nobles wouldn’t deem to bend down to retrieve. To display currency or wealth in a vulgar manner down here is to invite a swift and brutal death.

Adventurers visiting the big city with a plethora of coins may have become used to the fawning servitude that such wealth usually engenders in the villages, towns, and hamlets outside the city walls. They may even have this impression of the residents of the shadows at first. Time will quickly dispel any such notions when they discover that honor and loyalty is indeed for sale down here and the cost of such is very, very cheap. A silver guilder tossed to stable hand to ensure good treatment of a horse comes back to haunt them once the stable hand has sold this fact, along with a crude map of which room the adventurers are staying in, to the Thieves Guild for three silver coins.

N is for the Night Market

You can buy whatever your heart desires in the city, provided you have two things: the money and the knowledge of where to find a seller. For many adventurers, flush with coin pried from the dungeon depths, the first is not a problem. It is finding a seller that complicates matters, especially if their heart’s desire is something rare or illegal. By asking the right questions and parting with some of that coin, however, they can learn the location of the city’s night market.

Called by other names such as the “black market,” “the thieves’ market,” or in cases where magic is the prime commodity, “the witches’ market,” the night market can be either metaphorical or literal. In some cities, the night market earns its nomenclature due to the hidden locations and secretive measures practiced by its merchants. In yet other cities, the night market is a true nocturnal phenomenon. As night falls, stalls and vendors suddenly appear in formerly deserted plazas and squares, springing up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Dim illumination provided by small oil lamps, jars of fireflies and glow worms, mystic incantations, or magical glow rods turn these plazas into deadly fairylands of commerce. In this gloom, illicit goods and services are hawked, money passes from deft hand to deft hand, and the entire market vanishes at dawn or at first sign of a Watch patrol. Although there are measures of caveat emptor in any business deal in the city, it is especially true when dealing with the night market.

O is for Obscurement

The underbelly of the city is not referred to as the city’s shadow world without reason. While the broad marketplaces and wide avenues of the city rarely lack illumination, even in the dead of night, the back streets and narrow Alleyways of the city are seldom so clearly visible. Leaning buildings throw shadowy gloom over narrow streets even at HighMarch and the thick grey fogs that flow off the Docks limit visibility to a mere hand span’s distance. Once the night has fallen, darkness fills the streets of the city’s under belly as many of the street lights and lanterns have been stolen or are arranged to go dark to abet some clandestine crime.

Visibility to the eye is not the only obscurement that takes place in the shadows though. This concealment also applies to the plans, plots, and the identities of its denizens. Anonymity is the key to both survival and success down on the mean streets. Every plot or Vendetta is obfuscated by double blinds, lies, and half-truths. Disguises are worn to conceal the identities of criminals or to throw the Watch off their trail. Even simple tavern tales have grown tall with the telling or have been made more elaborate with blatant lies to enhance the prestige of the teller. If these lies cause the deaths of those foolish enough to believe everything they hear, it’s of little consequence to the liar. He’ll always find another ear to tell his stories to in exchange for a purchased tankard of ale.


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The City's Shadows Alphabet: F-J

F is for Festivals

The streets of the city are crowded and vibrant on even the slowest of winter days, but when the seasons turn or the stars align in their proper places, the city erupts in cacophonous celebrations. Revelers, penitents, pilgrims, and merchants arrive to participate in the annual festivals that occur within the city walls. For the duration of these festivals, the city becomes unrecognizable from its day-to-day façade and even lifelong residents are reminded of the city’s many visages.

The nature of these festivals is as diverse as the city’s population. Some are somber events held in memoriam of ancient deaths or turbulent battles. Others are jovial bacchanalias where masked revelers take to the streets accompanied by food, drink, and laughter. Some festivals are stranger still and are held to appease odd gods or weird powers that require bizarre rites to incur their favors. Regardless of purpose, festivals are a time when even the most downtrodden residents of the city can forget their troubles in something larger than their daily lives and a time when the shadowy world of the city can grow fat off the riches, tithes, and tributes these occasions bring. Adventurers are bound to find Excitement during the festivals but not always to their benefit.

G is for the Guilds

While the Lord Mayor and his council may rule from the halls of power and hold dominance over the whole of the city, their edicts are often distant concerns for those in dwell in the shadows. Down here it is the various guilds that impact the daily lives of the Lower Class more than any well-dressed city official. It is far better to break the laws of the Lord than it is to run afoul of the guilds.

The guilds, both legal and otherwise, are the power blocs of the shadows. With numerous members banded together by Obscure rites and a shared common purpose, the guilds dictate policy between themselves and over the residents alike. Sadly for the common folk, these policies are usually in the best interests of the guilds, taking little account of the betterment of the people. The guilds guard their trades zealously and any new arrival or independent operator is bound to come into conflict with the guilds’ long established rules and regulations. The only options for these newcomers is to either join with the guilds, usually at great personal cost in both money and obligations, or to tread carefully in hopes of avoiding notice. Should such attempts fail, however, it won’t be long before the guilds come down on them like a smithy’s hammer. If the transgressor is lucky, they will only have to deal with their profession’s guild instead of the Assassin’s Brotherhood.

H is for Hedge Wizards

Magic, like any commodity, is controlled by the rich and the powerful. While noblemen might have access to the skills and talents of arch mages and high sorcerers, those who live amongst the city’s shadows have a much shallower pool from which to draw from. The practitioners of magic who live in the city’s underworld are no mighty wizards dwelling in high towers. Instead, they are men and women who possess the merest skill in the magical arts and reside in rundown shanties in the Alleyways of the city.

Such hedge wizards make their living by dispensing cantrips, ointments, and philters – all of varying potency and power. Often they make just enough from these services to keep them in enough wine or drugs to kill the despair they feel at the loss of their dreams of being shapers of worlds. Unforeseen events and poor decisions have stripped those dreams away from them, forcing them to eke out a meager existence down here in the shadows. Occasionally, one might discover a hedge wizard or witch who has chosen this life in order to hide their powers from those who seek their destruction but such individuals are rare. If discovered, it is only usually because they seek some service from transient adventurers who wouldn’t be missed if that service goes awry. Adventurers must weigh the benefits of such employment against the possible consequences of displeasing a powerful and secretive wizard.

I is for Inns

The adventurers’ home away from home or, for some, the only home they will ever know, inns become as familiar to those in the shadows as the Knives they carry. Like those selfsame knives, the inns in the city’s shadows are just as well worn. Down here, one does not find much in the way of amenities at the inn. A flea-ridden bed and coarse blanket in the common room, accompanied by the snores of drunks and the well-practiced false moans of prostitutes is the best most have to offer. If the adventurers are lucky, they might have enough coin to rent a private room for the night, meaning only that the entire party must squeeze a drafty, roach nest of a room instead of keeping careful watch on their belonging until dawn. Some inns offer what passes as an opulent chamber in the shadows for an evening’s repose. The price is steep but the lodger is guaranteed privacy – until the innkeeper slips into the room via a secret passage to slit his guest’s throat in the night and steal his possessions.

Despite the limited luxuries of the inns, they still remain common meeting places for itinerant adventurers and mercenaries. More than one fortune hunt has begun in the tap rooms and dining halls of inn with such names as “The Torch & the Rat,” “My Sin Inn,” “Rest N’ Pieces,” and “The Wayfarer’s Last Chance Inn.” Such quests are usually spawned by winning a map in a game of chance, the last utterances of a gut-stabbed brawler, or drunken boasts, however. Mysterious, cloak-clad, old men are usually blackjacked and rolled for their money pouches before they can saunter up to unemployed adventurers to send them on quests. Such is life in the city’s poorest inns.

J is for Judgment

Life in the shadows often requires the residents to bend, if not break, the laws of the realm if only just to survive another day. A stolen loaf of bread or the rolling of a nobleman’s drunken son is often all that stands between the Lower Classes and the Reaper. Although such actions are commonplace, this regularity does nothing to mitigate the consequences if one is caught in the act. For those unlucky souls, the hangmen and the axe both await with insatiable hunger.

Some high-minded or kindly-hearted souls speak of the merits of justice in ensuring a civilized city and protecting the lives and liberties of all its inhabitants. Those who live in the shadows mock such lofty ideals for they know nothing of justice - only judgment. Without the money or influence to buy "justice," they know that if they are ever apprehended by the Watch their fates are predetermined. After all, what’s the loss of another impoverished soul compared to the preferred ordered and carefree world of the wealthy? The desperate are not cowed into submission by the threat of death, for it shadows their daily lives at all times. It is better to risk the noose and feed a hungry belly than it is to adhere to empty ideals while starving to death. They know that one day the rich and powerful will face judgment at the hands of a higher power and then it will be their turn to scream when they learn there is no justice. That is if they don’t meet judgment at the hands of the mob once the citizens of the shadows have finally had enough and rise up against their oppressors. Certain secret bands work tirelessly to ensure that day comes sooner than later. When it does, the axe will swing often and the nooses shall be legion.


Monday, April 6, 2009

In Other News: Ford Discontinues the Edsel

The word went out the WotC is ceasing the distibution of out-of-print D&D materials in .pdf format through distributors such as Drive Thru RPG and Paizo Publishing. Apparently Drive Thru has already suspended the sale of WotC .pdf products (including those you may have already purchased and still have downloads remaining on) and Paizo must cease at midnight tonight.

The best reaction to this movement I've seen so far is this one.

But to be honest, I'm not all that broken up about this. I do feel bad for those folks who have bought or were hoping to buy legal copies of these products and now no longer have that option, but as for how this affects me personally? Let me just look at what role-playing products I've purchased over the last year:
  • Labyrinth Lord (printed version bought from Lulu)
  • Mutant Future (printed version also from Lulu)
  • Fight On! issues 1-3 (hard copies from Lulu)
  • Knockspell #1 (.pdf from Lulu)
  • Castle Zagyg (boxed set from Troll Lord Games)
  • The Book of Marvelous Magic (used copy from FLGS)
  • Creature Catalogue (used copy from FLGS)
  • The Ruins of Undermountain (used copy from FLGS)
  • The Arduin Grimoire Vol. IV (used copy from FLGS)
  • Supplement II: Blackmoor (used copy from FLGS)
  • Supplement V: Carcosa (bought directly from the author)
  • Outdoor Survival (used copy bought on eBay)
  • Pathfinder Chronicles: Classic Monsters Revisited (printed version bought from Paizo)
  • Metamorphisis Alpha (Drive Thru RPG)

As the joke says, "Every time the post office raises the cost of stamps, they get 10,000 emails saying 'So what?'" and as I've said, "The nicest thing about about 4th edition is that I don't have to bother checking the game shelf at Borders anymore." As far as I'm concerned, this latest maneuver by WotC has no effect on me whatsoever. So good luck on your pirate crackdown, Wizards. You've just made the old school retroclones that much more pertinent and keep encouraging me to "buy local" when it comes to RPG products.

EDIT: I encourage you all to also buy local and help out other old school publishers when possible. In that vein, James Mishler has just announced the Adventure Games Publishing Appreciation Sale. Swing on over there for details.

The City’s Shadows Alphabet: A-E

Back in November of last year, I posted a little piece called the Dungeon Alphabet on this blog. I had originally written that piece for two reasons. One was to allow me to take a week off from regular posting and the second was that I was looking for a way to organize the classic dungeon themes and clichés for easy reference while I was working on my megadungeon. I was bewildered, albeit gratefully, when I started getting a lot of positive feedback on the piece. The Dungeon Alphabet was singlehandedly the piece that brought The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope out of obscurity and turned it into the somewhat bright light that it has become.

Despite the success of that piece, I’ve been hesitant to try and recapture the magic again by doing another alphabetical style series of postings. I’m equally aware that it might have been a fluke the first time around, as well as being wary of going back to the well yet again. As everyone knows, sequels tend to suck. But I found myself needing to do another alphabet to help me organize my thoughts on adventures outside of the dungeon. I waffled about posting it but finally decided to let the chips fall where they may. If I’m lucky, somebody will get some use out of it and that’ll be worth the risk.

Now that I’ve got the first three levels of my megadungeon all fleshed out and ready for its grand opening, the LBBs tell me it time to start looking at life outside the dungeon and to prep the sunlit lands for adventure. I’ve got a pretty good mental picture of the local settlement, just needing to scratch out a rough map and a few general notes to populate it. While I was thinking about life in the sticks, however, I started looking ahead at the nearby “big city.” While I’m not doing any work on that area yet, I figured it be a good idea to at least organize my thought for the day when I have to start thinking seriously about fantasy city life. And thus the City’s Shadows Alphabet was born.

Frequent readers of this blog might have gathered that, when it comes to my favorite flavor of fantasy role-playing, I’m deeply entrenched in the “Low Fantasy” camp. I’ve been in my fair share of “Rescue the Princess and Save the World” campaigns over the years and, while I had a great time playing them, the excitement for those style games has waned considerably. I credit the works of Fritz Leiber for establishing what I consider my default D&D type games: dirty and down-to-earth. Leiber remains the biggest influence on me when it comes to fantasy role-playing for many reasons but the grungy world of Lankhmar is the primary draw for me.

In my own mind, adventurers occupy the same societal niches as thieves, whores, actors, and madmen. By choosing to pursue a rather suspect career path, the professional adventurer is regulated to the shadowy lower class world when they venture into the big city. They might work themselves up the social ladder if given enough time and success, but they’d better get used to flea-ridden inns, watered down ale, and the constant threat of knives in the back until they prove their worth. Because of this assumption, I turned my attentions to writing an alphabetical list that organized the less seemly side of life in the big city. While the themes and clichés within are suitable for a “Thieves Campaign,” they were written with a broader picture in mind. This is the world of low level adventurers of all classes upon entering the city for the first time, even if they’re honest and law abiding (ah yeah, right…) at heart.

I’ll be posting the entire alphabet over the course of the week with a new post each weekday. While I can’t promise with complete certainty that this will be the last alphabet to ever appear here, I certainly have no intention of making it a regular feature. Hopefully you’ll find this sequel at least somewhat equal to its predecessor.

The City’s Shadows Alphabet

A is for Alleyways

Like the strands of a spider’s web, the alleyways of the city radiate out from the urban heart to ensnare the unwary. Stinking, trash-strewn, and labyrinthine, alleyways serve as the highways for the denizens of the city’s shadows and the homes for the truly downtrodden and lost. It is within these narrow channels that thieves, whores, madmen, and the wretched reside, far away from the opulent chambers and homes of the rich and powerful.

To step into the alleys is to leave the brightly lit world of the honest man behind, even if you can still glimpse those clean, bright streets at the alley’s filthy mouth. The world of the alleyways have rules of their own and those who do not take the effort to learn the rules of that world soon find themselves devoured by it. The alleys are gateways into places never seen by the honest and righteous, who shun such places with good reason. Adventurers, however, often must tread these paths as part of their sojourns into the city. The cramped shops and hovels off of the alleyways are the domiciles and places of business for Hedge Wizards, sages, the Thieves Guild, and other quasi-legal operations. Many alleyways contain the rusted, offal-choked grates that lead into the city’s Sewers, making them the only place to enter that subterranean world unobserved. The alleyways are also the last resort for desperate men when the Watch is hard upon their heels and they need a place to vanish from the law.

B is for Brothels

From dingy, dirty hovels to decadent pleasure Palaces, the brothels of the city are just as vital to its livelihood as the marketplace, the granaries, and the Docks. Within these houses of ill-repute, temporary bliss is sought to relieve the burdens of both power and poverty alike. With clienteles as varied as the neighborhoods of the city itself, the brothels provide entertainment no matter how bizarre one’s tastes may run, the contents of one’s purse being the only barrier standing in between.

In addition to the carnal pleasures the brothels provide, they serve other purposes as well. Literal hot beds of intrigue and spying, more than one powerful official has been brought to his knees because of the secrets he let spill is a post-coital haze. Adventurers gather to deplete their stores of gold and jewels won from the dungeon’s depths, finding it then necessary to recruit new members in the brothel’s common room to help replace those riches. The brothel is also, sadly, sometimes the last resort for young women and men whose dreams of city life have been crushed under the realities of urban existence. Many become lost souls within the flesh trade but some actually survive and thrive in that world, building powerbases that rival those of the most influential city officials.

C is for Cults

It is said that sometime even the gods themselves cannot see into the shadows of the city, resulting in a million pleas and prayers going unanswered in the dirty homes therein. In response to such unheard prayers, many are forced to turn to lesser known and darker powers for even the briefest respite from the horrors of daily life. The priests of these cults know this truth and often start their congregations in the abandoned warehouses, filthy Sewers, and other forgotten corners of the city.

The members of these cults, despite their shadowy places of worship, consist of a broad sample of the city’s citizens. A lovelorn seamstress, hands clenched in adoration and dreaming of a man she cannot have, kneels beside a powerful Guild leader who seeks the pleasures of avarice and to crush a hated business rival. The gods and powers invokes by these cults are equally as diverse. Some cults are little more than the scheme of the charismatic con man who seeks to line his pockets, while others worship a very real and very power patron whose existence might be better forgotten. Because the tenets of these cults are often dark and bloody, those who interact with the shadow world of the city must constantly be on watch. They can never know if the smiling barmaid who brings them their ale is secretly serving a malignant power who craves them as a sacrifice.

D is for the Docks

Trade is the lifeblood of any city, with goods arriving from across the nation or across the world to flow through the city’s markets. While many of these goods pass through the gates of the city, even more arrive at the weather beaten wharfs that line the waterfront. Unlike the goods that arrive under the careful scrutiny of the City Watch at the gate, however, the arrivals on the waterfront are often of a less seemly nature.

Whether the docks abut the deep blue ocean or a muddy, languid river, the wharfs are vibrant with activity of both legal and illegal business. Scar-faced smugglers haggle in waterfront bars, press gangs roam the docks looking to fill the quotas, dead bodies bob in the water amongst the flotsam and jetsam, and rats scurry amongst the crates of illicit goods piled high in ramshackle warehouses. These nightly dances are Obscured from the sight of honest folk by the thick fogs and dense mists that blow off the water. The smell of fish and exotic spices vie with the clang of ships’ bells and groans of pain to fill the evening air. Spend enough time in the city and sooner or later you’ll find you have business to attend to down at the docks. Keep your Knives and wits keen and you might just see the dawn rise…

E is for Excitement

The old adage is that “city never sleeps.” While attributed to modern urban centers, this adage is no less true when applied to pseudo-medieval cities as well. The first time visitor to the city, acclimated to the sleepy village where he’s led most of his days, is overwhelmed by the hustle-and-bustle that fill the city’s thoroughfares, marketplaces, and taprooms. Even the dark of night is not enough to quiet the city, with brawls spilling into the muddy streets, the temple bells chiming to mark the hours, and the laughter and screams of citizens sounding in the shadows.
The pace of live should never slow down for adventurers in the city. Festivals fill the streets with revelers and pilgrims alike, Quarrels streak through night as a thief leaps across the Rooftops, and pleasure and danger meet the adventurers head on in equal measures. While it is possible to find a quiet corner in which to escape the crowds, such places are few and far between and generally come at the cost of lost opportunities if taken solace in. Each visit to the big city may be the adventurer’s last; it is best if they didn’t waste the opportunity to seize the day (or night) and take full advantage of all the city has to offer.