Friday, February 26, 2010

The Eldritch Frontier Wiki

I've gone ahead and made my Obsidian Portal site for the forthcoming Eldritch Frontier campaign open for viewing. There are still a lot of little details that need to be added and the whole thing needs to be gone over with an eye for typos, but my goal was to have it up today.

Looking it over, I get the impression that it doesn't quite convey all that I have in mind for the world and seems a little too vanilla in places. The spice will have to wait because I'm certainly not going to tip my hand before the campaign even begins. A lot more will be revealed in time and the campaign's atmosphere will certainly be much more palpable around the table when dice start clattering.

Wiki is here.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Treasure Type to Hoard Class Cheat Sheet

Although it’s pretty obvious what Moldvay Basic treasure types translate into Labyrinth Lord's hoard classes when you have both books open in front of you, it’s a bit harder to do in your head in the middle of a game. To compensate, I whipped up a handy cheat sheet to include in my notes. Being the swell guy that I am, I’ll share it with you here.

D&D Treasure Type (Moldvay)

Labyrinth Lord Hoard Class













































Here it is in a convenient 3x5 sized PDF.

Stonehell Interview and Review

Carl Nash, one of the contributing artists on Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls, has written a review of the book for website, Eye of the Vortex. In addition to the review, Carl conducted a brief email interview with me which is featured in the review. You can witness me waxing philosophical on megadungeons and speculating on what will appear in the Stonehell Dungeon sequel by clicking on this link here.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Where I Shall One Day Retire To...

I’m playing the name game of world-building at the moment. Despite how much of the world I’ve put together, I remain amazed at how many little but important places need at least a name before play begins.

Names are one of those facets of role-playing design that some people excel at and others just can’t do. I like to think I fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. Knowing that I do have difficulties from time to time, I regularly add new words to my commonplace books. These can be words that either sprung to mind or ones that I encountered while reading or watching the History Channel. Anything interesting or odd enough to catch my eye gets scrawled in as insurance against the day I reach creative bankruptcy.

I can be notoriously choosy about names too, which doesn’t help the process any. Oftentimes I think I’ve matched some feature with the perfect name only to go to sleep and awaken the next morning completely dissatisfied. That’s one of the benefits and curses of creating on the fly during a gaming session—with no time to second-guess yourself, you play what you’ve got. Unfortunately, in the case of a real stinker, you’re also stuck with it (and with the ribbing you’re bound to take from your players).

To further complicate matters, the perfect fantasy name has already been created and it wasn’t by me. I know that no matter how many more years I spend at these pursuits, I will never, ever top this single creation. And it’s not an overly obscure one either so I don’t even have the option of ripping it off.

What is it, you ask?

Ool Hrusp.

Just say it out loud and savor how it rolls off the tongue. With all due respect to the Professor, Fritz Leiber wins the fantasy name contest as far as I’m concerned. That’s one great name.

Of course names are highly subjective things. Just look at the current spate of Hollywood baby names: somebody thought those sounded good.

While I’m sticking with Ool Hrusp, anyone have a personal favorite from either literature or the home sandbox? Send it up the flagpole in the comments section and we’ll see if anyone else salutes it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Obligatory Alignment Post

There seems to be an unwritten rule that every blogger writing about D&D must at some point discuss alignment. What it means, why it works or doesn't, and the pros and cons of the ninefold system must be featured in at least one post before your cease to blog. I've made it almost a year and a half without mentioning the "a word," but now my time has come.

The following was prepared for the Eldritch Frontier wiki after the topic of alignment came up briefly at Sunday's meeting. It's not the end-all-be-all solution for what some folks call "the alignment problem," but it will hopefully give the players a better understanding of what the threefold alignment system of early D&D means in the context of the Eldritch Frontier campaign setting.

Law vs. Chaos

What exactly “Lawful,” “Chaotic,” “good,” or “evil” means in the context of a D&D campaign has been debated for more than thirty years with various degrees of success. I’m not going to attempt to provide a definitive answer that solves the debate once and for all. Instead, this page defines what alignment means in terms of the Eldritch Frontier campaign.

Before we begin, I’ll state outright that the concept of alignment in the Eldritch Frontier is extremely human-centric and does not take into account the philosophies and outlooks of most of the other (fictional) races, nor does it necessarily reflect the attitudes of me, the referee. The following alignment descriptions are also specific to this campaign setting and do not represent a one-size-fits-all definition that can be applied to any D&D campaign. Please keep this in mind before you choose to argue with my depictions.

Like in original Dungeons & Dragons and its descendent Holmes/Moldvay/Cook/Mentzer Dungeons & Dragons, Labyrinth Lord features the threefold alignment system of Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic alignments. According to the descriptions given in the Labyrinth Lord rulebook, Lawful is equal to being a “good” person, Chaotics are “bad” villains, and Neutrals are wishy-washy individuals. Simplistic but useful when deciding what sort of moral compass your character has. Since I’m looking to run the Eldritch Frontier campaign in a style closer to its historical hobby roots, I’ll be keeping the threefold alignment system. The definitions of each alignment, however, are somewhat different from those given in Labyrinth Lord (and earlier versions of D&D). A better explanation of the threefold alignment system in the Eldritch Frontier campaign is presented below.

The underlying theme of the Eldritch Frontier campaign is “civilization vs. the wilderness.” At the beginning of play the player characters find themselves in a settlement on the edge of the frontier. To the east lies the civilized lands, while the west contains tracts of wilderness occasionally punctuated with areas of law and order. The alignment of each PC generally determines where they stand in the conflict between civilization and the wild lands beyond the River Ahkyl.

Those characters who align themselves with the forces of Law are working to bring order to the wilderness beyond the frontier, usually by way of introducing civilization. The farmer who clears the woods abutting his land so he has more arable fields for his crops is Lawful; the warden ranger who patrols the frontier and fights the humanoid tribes who dwell in the wilderness, thereby protecting the farmer and his family, is also aligned with Law. The local lord who collects the taxes from the farmer to pay for soldiers to patrol the streets and hunt down bandits works to maintain civilization and is thus a Lawful ruler.

However, not all who seek to impose civilization on the wilderness have the best interests of everyone in mind. The despot warlord who carved a barony out of the wild lands and now maintains his holdings through crushing taxation, slavery, and sacrifice to blasphemous godlings would also be considered a Lawful creature in the context of the “civilization vs. wilderness” theme. The assassin who ruthlessly slays the opponents of westward expansion into the wilderness would also be serving the cause of Law in the Eldritch Frontier. “Lawful” and “good” are usually synonymous but not always.

In short, if the character is generally looking to leave the world a somewhat better place than he found it (for himself, his allies, or descendents anyway), he is considered to be of Lawful alignment.

At the other end of the axis is Chaos, which seeks to prevent civilization from expanding into the wilderness—and not through passive resistance. The forces of Chaos put the “wild” in wilderness, actively seeking to thwart the goals of Law and civilization at every turn. The goblins, orcs, and other humanoids who ride out under darkness to burn down a farmer’s croft and put him and his family to the sword serve Chaos. The bandits and brigands who prey upon merchant caravans and stifle the growth of free trade work to advance Chaos. The undead whose very existence defies both the natural law and the concept of orderly cemeteries where the dead remain unmoving are forces of Chaos.

As with Lawful creatures, not everyone who opposes the spread of civilization does so for personal gain or because of antipathy towards men. Some are enemies to civilization because of the threat it poses to the wilderness. In the Eldritch Frontier campaign, the druid—long the poster child for Neutrality in D&D—is considered to serve Chaos since he seeks to defend the wild lands from the forces of law and order. He is an enemy of progress as far as Law is concerned, placing him firmly on the far side of the alignment axis. Some militant elves and hurgs are also aligned with Chaos solely due to the fact that they wish to keep civilization from taming their forest homes and will pick up arms to deter pioneers from entering their lands.

If your PC actively—that’s the key word here—seeks to oppose the spread of human civilization, he serves the forces of Chaos. He’s likely to be in the minority along the frontier so secrecy should be his watchword.

Lastly, there is Neutrality, the center of the alignment axis. In the Eldritch Frontier campaign, Neutrals simply do not care one way or the other whether civilization grows. Instead of seeking to advance or thwart order, they simply live amidst it, usually with no larger goal than daily survival or fattening their purses. Tomorrow will bring what it will and the best way to meet it is by looking out for oneself. It’s best not to get involved with bigger ideals.

If your character is only concerned with himself and how he can best make a buck, he’s in the middle of the alignment axis and serves neither side.

Monday, February 22, 2010

John Dee Would Have Approved

Yesterday, I met with the two guys who will likely form the nucleus of my proposed Eldritch Frontier campaign. We all seem to share similar gaming backgrounds and expectations for the campaign, which is a good thing for this soon-to-be referee. Trying to organize a gaming group from scratch is hard enough without personality and goal conflicts coming into play.

As we left the store, I was asked if I could put together a background sheet for the campaign so that the players would have a handle on the setting before play began. Uh-oh. It’s amazing what you forget to do when you’re doing the pre-game shuffle and juggle, isn’t it? I hadn’t thought of putting such a PC prep sheet together, even though I’ve done so in the past for other games.

I got home and started to try and arrange something that was at least moderately informative without being akin to a dry collegiate thesis. Unfortunately, I discovered that although I know a lot about the campaign setting, I don’t have it all that well organized in my head or in my commonplace books. I know where everything is, but, unless you’re me, it’s difficult to access. I started to go off on tangents while writing the prep sheet, making the damned thing much too long and overburdened with information for my purposes. I deleted the whole thing and decided to start anew.

However, before I began again, I suddenly remembered Obsidian Portal. I had looked half-heartedly at the site in the past, but, since I wasn’t running a regular game, it didn’t capture my attention at that time. Now it might just serve my purposes.

After a little hesitation, I’ve since created an account over there and I’m in the process of putting together a bare bones wiki that contains the necessary player background for the game. Having never had any experience working with a wiki, I’m discovering both the allure and the danger of putting one together for a campaign. The world-builder in me loves it, especially since creating one on Obsidian Portal is turning out to be such a snap to do. But I can also see how some game masters can burn themselves out by trying to create the ultimate campaign world reference wiki before the first dice even hit the table. Having had my brush with overbuilding the campaign world, I’m not likely to fall into the same trap twice, yet it remains something to be cautious of.

Once I get the basics in place, I’ll be publishing the wiki for public viewing. When that happens, I’ll post a link here so that those of you who are interested can check it out and play along vicariously from home.

I will admit that I remain somewhat hesitant about committing too much campaign information to the web. I am a Luddite of minor repute, having lost enough of my writings over the years to power failures, corrupted data, and the like to be 100% at ease with the wiki being the sole repository of my game notes. I’m composing everything on my home PC where I can back it up before cutting and pasting it to the web. Obsidian Portal has no reputation for losing data as far as I know, but I’m simply too paranoid to do otherwise.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Hex Dressing

One of the ways that the Dismal Wilderness campaign differs from your standard fantasy sandbox is that exploration and the mapping of the uncharted wilderness becomes almost a game in itself. Such was the rationale behind including Frontier Experience Points into the setting: to encourage the party to explore the wilderness, rather than just pass through it.

Of course, by encouraging the PCs to scour each hex, it won’t be long before everyone gets tired of spending a full day searching a hex only to find that doesn’t contain a lair, a dungeon, or some other keyed site. The referee can’t place something in every single hex but surely there must be something of interest in a 5 mile hex, right?

Each hex the party explores has a 1 in 6 chance of containing a minor bit of set dressing (2 in 6 if sharp-eyed elves are present). These sites might be mere color, have some game mechanic attached to it, or serve as a mini-dungeon to explore. If the party’s search turns up a interesting feature, roll on the table below to determine what exactly is encountered. Once located, the referee makes a note of its presence in his key and, if he’s smart, starts brainstorming a way that it fits into the overall game world.

You’ll notice that some of the sites listed on the chart have modifiers to trapping roll or “provides the benefits of shelter.” These are two more sub-systems I’m playing around with, but haven’t fine-tuned enough to my liking yet. Further details will be revealed once I’m satisfied.

Hex Dressing Table

d20 Roll

Hex Contains…


A vein of ore visible in an exposed rock face. Roll to determine the ore type: 1-4, tin; 5-8, copper; 9-15, iron; 16-18, silver; 19-20 gold.


A lightning-stuck tree. The blackened and splintered wood of the tree can be used to craft a wand of lightning bolts with an above-average number of charges or to serve as the basis for a staff of power or wizardry at the referee’s discretion.


A stream or pond teeming with fish. Any attempts to find food while in this hex receive a +1 bonus.


A rocky promontory, tall tree, or other height that provides an unobscured view into all neighboring hexes. If any of those hexes contains a special location, lair, or other unique feature noticeable from afar, it is easily visible from atop this point.


A gorge 1d10x10’ deep and 3d20+10’ across. If there is a river or stream present in this hex, the water flows through the gorge in a series of whitewater rapids. PCs traveling by boat must save vs. wands to successfully navigate the rapids.


A rock face or boulder that looks like the face of a humanoid creature. This is most likely a natural oddity, but it may be the work of an intelligent artisan at the referee’s discretion.


A ruined cabin constructed by a trapper, hunter, hermit, or other solitary individual. Although collapsing and empty of useful items, the structure provides the benefits of shelter if caught in a storm or blizzard.


An abandoned mine or old dwarven quarry. Old mines may or may not be currently occupied by monsters. Old quarries have filled with rainwater, creating artificial lakes of extreme depth (50+1d100 feet), which may now be home to any manner of aquatic beastie.


A natural spring, its waters heavily-laden with aromatic minerals. There is a 10% chance that drinking from the spring a produces special result in the drinker.


Difficult terrain caused by flooding/mudslide/avalanche/deadfalls. Movement through this hex takes twice the normal time unless the party has some means to bypass the obstacles.


A beaver pond and dam. During the fall and winter months, a lodge in the center of the pond is home to 1d4 adult beavers and 2d4 young beavers. All trapping attempts in the hex receive a +10% bonus.


Ley lines that cross to form a concentration of natural mystic power. This location can serve as a druidic circle or other nature-worship site. There is an 80% chance that the location is protected by a magical nature guardian such as sprites, treants, dryads, or a unicorn.


A waterfall that plunges 1d6x10’ into a 2d10’ deep pool. There is a 25% chance that a natural cave system comprised of 1d8 chambers is hidden behind the waterfall.


The remains of a recent forest or brush fire. Due to the scorched landscape, no foraging is possible while in this hex.


An area of exposed rock containing numerous fossils. These relics may be that of prehistoric creatures or more mystical beasts depending on the campaign world. There is a 50% chance these fossils are worth 1d6 gp each to alchemists, magic-users, or curio merchants.


A barbarian burial ground. The area is occupied by cairns, barrows, graves, or sky burial platforms, and may (20% chance) be haunted by undead. There is a 25% chance that each burial site contains Hoard Class VI treasure.


A treacherous bog. Although small in size, this marshy section of land is rife with quicksand (2 in 6 chance of falling into a pool; save vs. petrification each round, with death occurring after three saves are failed). After dark, there is a 50% chance of phosphorescent gases creating an eerie light display above the bog and a 25% chance that this is actually a will-o-wisp on the hunt.


A large hollow tree. Although it provides the benfits of shelter from the elements, there is a 2 in 6 chance that some creature already uses the tree as a lair. If occupied, roll on the applicable table to determine the tree’s occupant.


A natural amphitheatre containing the totemic altar of a humanoid tribe. This slab of stone or outcropping of rock is appropriately bloodstained and adorned with the bones of previous sacrifices. If encountered after dark, there is a 1 in 6 chance that rites are being conducted here by the tribe (increase to a 4 in 6 chance on the nights of the full moon).


Prehistoric ruins left behind by the Ancients. This may be a crumbing statue, a small bridge, an overgrown plaza, or similar piece of “set dressing.” Alternatively, the ruin may be more sizable and contain monsters and treasure. In this case, consult either The Book of Ruins (Judges Guild, 1981) or choose an appropriate mini-dungeon from another gaming book or periodical.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"It's smiling at me."

Catacomb Entrance Nothing bad could possibly come from opening a door with this on it, right?

Realms of Fantasy Review and More

Helpful reader Tim Shorts has pointed out that the review of The Dungeon Alphabet from Realms of Fantasy magazine has been posted on their website. I've known what the review was going to say for a while and I'm still waiting to get my hands on a hard copy of the magazine, but you can view it here (just scroll down a smidge).

Meanwhile, Reviews from R'lyeth has a review over the book over here, Akratic Wizardry conjures up a review, give the book a slot in its weekly reviews, and, lest I be accused of whitewashing things, Treebore doesn't get what all the fuss is about in this Enworld thread.

If I've missed anyone else's recent reviews, I apologize. It been a hectic week round these parts.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Waaj

Several decades ago, the Cosmic Imperium developed a problem— a sanitation problem to be precise. With over ten thousand world under its control, the Empire was fast running out of places to deposit the massive amounts of refuse its worlds created. With all of the Imperial trash worlds reaching capacity, hundreds of scout crafts and garbage scows were dispatched to the ends of the galaxy, each with orders to find new dumping planets to handle Imperial sanitation levels.

At the farthest reaches of the galaxy, in the nearly forgotten flyspeck of a solar system designated SK-FG, the garbage scow I.S.S. Molly Hammer came across a planet known only as M262 on the Imperial star charts. Initial scans of the planet detected the presence of massive amounts of hard radiation and most of the world’s surface was wasteland—with the exception of a small 3 x 4 mile island whose sole feature was a crumbling stone castle set amidst lush greenery. Assuming the castle to be ancient remains from a pre-cataclysmic age, the Molly Hammer began preparations to redesignate M262 an Imperial trash heap.

As the scow laid out its primary markers, the ship’s LIDAR chirped to life, indicating a human-sized, unidentified object rising from the castle and heading on a direct course for the Molly Hammer. Once in visual range, the bridge’s view screen revealed this object to be a skeletal figured dressed in rotting robes and seemingly flying without any visible means of propulsion!

Attempts to establish communications with the figure were unsuccessful, but, to the command crew’s surprise, they suddenly found themselves in telepathic contact with the flying skeleton. The robed form identified himself as Waldorf, Overlord Supreme of Planet Waldorf, and decreed that the scow was in violation of Waldorfian airspace. Furthermore, the bony warlord pronounced, the penalty for committing such a gross transgression against the Overlord Supreme was instant death.

Upon passing this grim sentence, Waldorf the Flying Skeleton made several passes with his hands and bolts of lightning and blasts of fire streaked from his fingertips to impact on the Molly Hammer’s forward defense screen. The captain looked at his first officer and sighed. His first officer looked at the helmsman and nodded. The helmsman pressed a button on his console and the Hammer’s three-terawatt maser incinerated Waldorf, Overlord Supreme of Planet Waldorf.

With the question of planetary ownership resolved, M262 became the first of the latest wave of Imperial trash heaps, with unmanned ships making regular circuits to waste world. Unfortunately, one of these drone ships carried more than mere trash in its hold. A clan of Waaj had stowed away as well.

The Waaj are nuisance race. Standing an average of one Imperial meter in height, with only their glowing eyes visible in the depths of their traditional scarlet robes, Waaj clans crisscross the galaxy, selling second-hand technologies to primitive worlds. Since most of their clientele have never seen high-tech devices and are easily impressed, the Waaj save on costs by providing their na├»ve customers with refurbished tools scavenged from trash heaps and waste worlds. The Waaj stowaways had been in the process of searching the drone ship’s hold for choice pickings when the ship lifted off for M262, trapping them onboard.

Upon arrival at M262, the drone ship dumped it cargo of trash along with the inadvertent Waaj stowaways. The Waaj, being a highly adaptable and near-indestructible race, were unbothered by the planet’s high radiation levels and promptly claimed the world as their own, naming it “Utinni,” which means “Glorious newfound garden world of riches destined to improve the lot of our people across the galaxy.” If nothing else, Waajese is a compact language.

Once the Waaj began spreading across the face of Utinni, one small band discovered the green island with its crumbling stone castle. Always on the lookout for good junk, these Waaj found that the ancient stronghold held a bizarre collection of knickknacks, gewgaws, and tsotchkes—many of which had the delightful tendency to discharge energy blasts, render its possessor invisible, or make it wearer impervious the harm. Most impressive, however, was the glowing stone ring that lay in the castle’s deepest sublevel. After much experimentation, the Waaj learned that by the manipulation of certain levers, dials, and switches, the ring could be made to function as a portal to other worlds, many of which were grossly impoverish when it came to technology, but extremely rich with precious metals, gemstones, and weird curios.

Since that time, Waaj merchants have travelled to worlds formerly undreamt off, trading high-tech tools of questionable provenance and predictability for mineral and magical wealth. These tiny traders appear without warning, make as many deals as possible before their merchandise breaks down, then vanish back through a magic portal to Utinni, where they restock and start the process anew on some new world. Occasionally the Waaj will set up mercantile outposts in large population centers, provided that their customer turnover is brisk enough for them to sell the goods to successive waves of gullible buyers.

Still rarer are the subterranean bazaars that some Waaj have established in dungeons and other hazardous underground locales. In these dim marketplaces, Waaj dealers make money hand over robed fist by selling unpredictable wares to rival humanoid tribes and iterant adventurers alike. More than one dungeon-delver has avoided certain death thanks to the strange device he purchased from a Waaj salesman, but many more adventurers have inadvertently destroyed themselves with some faulty piece of high technology. When dealing with the Waaj, caveat emptor

Friday, February 12, 2010

Jawas Wanted

Oh, the ideas I get sometimes…

I’m looking to get my hands on a few of the old Jawa metal miniatures produced by West End Games during the 80s and 90s. There appears to have been just a single type manufactured, but it appeared in both the boxed set A New Hope (product #40304) and the blister pack Denizens of Tatooine (product #40427). If you happen to have a spare West End Jawa you’d be willing to part with for either cash or trade, I’d be interested in acquiring him. I’m looking for a total of three (3).

I know someone is going to suggest it so let me state now that I know there are pre-painted plastic figures available from the recent WotC Star Wars Miniatures Game, but I’m specifically looking for the West End lead/pewter ones. Painted or unpainted, it matters not to me. If you want to do business, either pull your sandcrawler up to my desert space igloo or drop me an email at poleandrope[at]gmail[dot]com.

Die-roll Dungeons

Most people in this hobby have a favorite chart. As strange as it might sound to non-gamers, some of us simply enjoy certain little collections of numbers and results such as the Harlot sub-table (“Oh no, it’s a Sly Pimp!”), the Potion Miscibility Table (“DISCOVERY!”), or Rolemaster’s crazy-ass critical tables (“Reduced to a gelatinous pulp. Try a spatula”). I’m no exception.

As cool as the ones quoted above might be, my favorite is a much more pedestrian albeit useful one. It’s the Stock the Dungeon table from Moldvay Basic, a table that I’ve put into use more times than I could count over the last twenty-some years. So often have I employed it that I no longer need to consult the actual table to use it.

The “Stock the Dungeon” table, much like Moldvay’s morale rules, is one of the bits of genius that came out of that rulebook, making referees around the world wonder why it took so long for such a simple and useful tool to make its way into the pages of Dungeons & Dragons. Earlier books gave advice as to how the referee should stock his dungeons with monsters and treasure, but the quality of these suggestions varied. Underworld & Wilderness Adventures gives us the 33% rule of monsters (a 2 in 6 chance of monsters occupying any given dungeon room) as well as determining that treasure is found half the time in room with monsters and 17% of the time in empty rooms. Holmes Basic repeats the 33% rule of monsters but omits any reference to unguarded treasure. The Monster & Treasure Assortment instructs us that “a dungeon level should have monsters in only 20% or so of the available rooms and chambers, about 20% of monsters should have no treasure whatsoever.”

Tom Moldvay, however, assembled all these bits into one comprehensive table and added two missing dungeon features—traps & “specials.” He also provided a simple sub-chart for determining the presence of treasure in each room, guarded or not. The end result was a table that was simple to use and remember, while remaining true to the original philosophy of how often something is found in the dungeon.

I’m a proponent of the randomly stocked dungeon. I follow Gary’s advice to determine where the important monsters and treasures are found, then dice to see what else is down there. For me, this is half of fun of designing the dungeon in the first place. Random determination of contents often gives me results I hadn’t anticipated, challenging me to come up with offbeat solutions or interesting backstory to justify the presence of an object. And, as I’ve stated in the past, the ability to creatively interpret the unforeseen results of a die roll is one of the overlooked skills of a great referee, so it pays to develop and constantly hone this ability.

Still more interesting for me as a referee is that, by using a random method to stock the dungeon, the dungeon itself sometimes informs me of what it wants to become rather than what I had in store for it. My most recent dungeon has done exactly this. I started with the intent to make it a delve suitable for 1st level PCs, but, as a result of several dice rolls, the challenges awaiting the players have made it more suitable for 2nd and even 3rd level characters. And I think it’s a much richer adventuring site because of this. A few of the specials found within it have also added to the history of the campaign world and the background events of the sandbox setting. None of this would have come about if I had gone about deliberately inserting each element into the dungeon and worried about maintain a certain level of difficulty.

So here’s to Moldvay’s Stock the Dungeon table, a bit of underappreciated genius in the history of our hobby. A table full of possibilities for fun, adventure, danger, and excitement all gathered into a few simple columns. May your Treasure? rolls always come up ones.

Latest Lulu Discount

To celebrate Presidents Day, Lulu is offering 15% off any purchase made this weekend. Just enter "WASHINGTON" at checkout to get the discount. I've already put it to good use and grabbed copies of Labyrinth Lord Revised and Advanced Edition Companion. You might consider buying those or another title (ahem...Stonehell Dungeon) yourself. The offer is good until Feb. 15th.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Simple Ring

ring of anti-charm: The wearer of this ring is immune to the effects of charm person, potions of human control, and rings of human control.

This came to mind yesterday while I was writing up my little dungeon. I can't be the first to have thought of this simple, elegant, and most useful magical item, yet I can't remember ever seeing something like it in any published game book or magazine. Maybe it's indicative of the type of world I run, but one of these rings would come in quite handy for just about any adventurer or people who have to deal with adventurers on a regular basis.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow & Ego-feeding

If there’s any justice in the universe, by the time you’re reading this I’ll be enjoying a nice cup of tea and watching the snow accumulate outside my window. I’ve stocked the larder with snow day treats and rented a few movies to wait out the predicted storm with, but I’m anticipating doing some hobby-related writing during much of the day. I have some sandbox filling to do in preparation for the forthcoming campaign and I’ve just stumbled upon an adventure hook I want to explore, one involving failed prophecies and fallen notions. Perhaps Balthazar has found the saucer news?

The secondary reason for spending the (potential) snowbound day writing is that it’s time to get those muscles flexing again in preparation for the Stonehell Dungeon sequel. Next month marks the return to those night-haunted halls and a journey deeper into its forbidding depths, so it’s time to get back in creative shape. I’d hate to disappoint with the sequel, which are notoriously uneven by their very nature.

Regarding Stonehell, I do have a request for you fine folks. I’ve noticed that a few of you out there are either currently using the dungeon in your campaign or plan to do so in the near future. I’m extremely curious to hear of you and your players’ experiences with the dungeon. By this, I don’t mean “They love it” or “It sucks mud, Mike” (although feel free to pass those along if you wish), but instead HOW you are using the dungeon. If you regularly do post-game write-ups, I invite you to send me a copy of your exploits. If you’re blogging about the game, drop me a link so I can follow along. I’m mostly interested in what you’re doing to make the place your own.

Of the write-ups that I know of out there, James Miskimen of The Call of the Dungeon blog writes my favorite. Not only does James do them in character, but he’s truly made the dungeon his own beast, which makes reading about the place very interesting for this author. It was my hope that people would take this exact approach with Stonehell Dungeon and I’m pleased James has been doing so for so long (James and his players first started exploring Stonehell when it was just a bunch of PDFs). You can catch up on his reports here.

So why not win fame and renown for yourself and your players by clueing me into your own exploits into Stonehell? Leave a comment here or send an email to poleandrope[at]gmail[dot]com. I’d love to hear from you.

Monday, February 8, 2010

One of My Favorites

I spent the weekend getting over a cold rather than writing. Nevertheless, I wanted to leave you with something to ponder this fine Monday morning. The title of another blogger's post this week reminded me of my most favorite of the many editorials Roger E. Moore wrote during his tenue as the editor of Dragon magazine. I've reproduced it below and, if you look at it carefully, you can see it's a pretty good account of the way this game of our was played once upon a time.

Legend (Editorial by Roger E. Moore, Dragon #144)

The mountain pass was called the Demon Tongue, which implied there might be a demon and treasure there, so the party headed for it right away. The characters were hungry for combat and cash – lots of each. I was the DM. We were gaming on the pool table in the medical company rec room in West Germany, a decade ago last fall.

Not many of the details of that adventure are left with me now, but I remember what happened when the adventurers got to the Demon Tongue. The paladin was the point man, mounted up and armored like a tank (he had volunteered for, no, demanded the position). Some distance behind, the wizard was checking the landscape with his amulet of ESP, hunting for enemy thoughts. Everyone else was gathered near the wizard, weapons ready. They were on a narrow road in the pass itself, with a slope up to the left and a sheer drop to the right, when the wizard got a reading.

I rolled the dice and checked the books. The party had found the demon, but the amulet of ESP had malfunctioned. I scribbled a note and passed it to the wizard’s player. He read it and gave me an incredulous look.

“Hey, guys,” said the wizard, reigning in his horse. “That demon is here, but that demon is the Demogorgon. We are doomed.”

Everyone stared at the wizard’s player, then at me. Everyone had read the Monster Manual. The entire party came to a halt. Then the characters began to guide their horses back the way they had come, looking around with nervous grins.

All but the paladin, that is. He stopped where he was, stood up in his stirrups, raised his sword, and shouted, “COME OUT AND FIGHT, YOU MISERABLE @#$ + §&%*!!!” at the top of his lungs. Seconds later, a giant ball of darkness appeared on the road ahead.

Before anyone could react, one of the characters was telekinesized off his horse and hurled into the canyon beside the road. He took 20 dice of damage and became a memory. Every one of his companions bolted – except for the paladin, who roared, “SHOW YOURSELF, DEMON!!!” (The rest of the players screamed that they were riding away all the harder.)

The darkness fell away and there was the demon, not Demogorgon but it hardly mattered as it was one of those brutal 11-HD Type IVs. It grinned through its boar’s tusks and traced a symbol of fear in the air as the paladin spurred his horse and charged the monster. The paladin made his saving throw and cut through the demon with his sword – easy enough to do as the demon was a projected image. The demon just laughed.

Enraged, the paladin began cursing the demon in language that most of us assumed paladins would scarcely admit to knowing, much less using, but the most telling insult was “coward.” I figured that any demon worth his evilness would take offense at being called a coward by a mere mortal, so the projected image vanished – and the real demon appeared on the road, roaring out its own challenge. It began tracing another symbol in the air as the paladin charged again.

The paladin made his saving throw and struck at the demon – and his sword bounced off the demon’s hide, as the sword wasn’t powerful enough to affect the monster. The paladin’s player realized his character had only one weapon left that might do the trick. Wheeling his horse around and coming back for another charge, the paladin drew his dagger +2, then leaped off his horse and tackled the demon.

Had this been any other player, I would have pointed out the usual problems involved in leaping off a charging horse in plate mail to tackle a 10’-tall demon with a dagger, but the paladin’s player had that look on his face that said he was really into it. He wanted that demon badly. He got it. Screaming and roaring, the paladin and the demon tore into each other, dagger against claws and teeth. The paladin slammed home every attack, but so did the demon. Worse yet, the demon began to levitate itself and the paladin over the road. Dice rolled, blood flew, hit points plummeted, and the other players began shouting, “Get ‘im! Get that thing!”

The demon died at an altitude of about 100’. Its levitation spell shut off. The paladin, still attacking, clung to the demon’s body all the way down. When the rest of the party finally mustered the courage to ride back, they found the paladin – in the single digits of hit points, but alive.

“Got ‘im,” said the paladin, brushing himself off.

A legend came to life that evening, though we had not meant to create one. We had courage, heroism, danger, and excitement, all there in the rec room of an Army barracks far from home. Ten years later, the thrill and the glory of that paladin’s triumph still live with me. It doesn’t matter that the paladin wasn’t even my character.

I like a lot of things about roleplaying games – the friends, the laughter, the bad puns, the munchies –but creating a legend is the best part of all. It sure beats playing bridge.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Frontier Experience Points

This is perhaps the most potentially controversial rule modification that I envisioned for use in an unexplored wilderness setting, so I’ll get it out of the way early to see if I’m completely off the beam here.

I want to introduce a new form of experience points in the setting. These points are completely unassociated with experience rewards for treasure and slaying monsters, and are instead awarded for successfully navigating and surviving the wilderness. They are kept track of separately from normal experience and are abbreviated “FXP” or “Frontier Experience Points.”
FXP is a method to determine how much acumen each PC has regarding the outdoors. As a character earns FXP points, he gains small bonuses and modifiers to accomplishing tasks associated with frontier life and survival. Examples of these bonuses include a +1 bonus to hunting or foraging rolls; a +1 bonus to saving throws to survive outdoor calamities (avalanche, frost bite, lightning strike, etc.); a base chance to craft survival tools in the wild; a base chance to set traps; a bonus to avoid becoming lost, and even a potential +1 gain to Wisdom or Constitution scores.

Each bonus would be gained when the PC reaches a particular number of FXP, but, unlike character classes, there is no actual “level gain,” merely the acquiring of a new bonus and the adding of a new notation to the character’s record sheet. Right now, I’m thinking of using the progression table from 1st edition Gamma World as a base to determine when new bonuses and modifiers are acquired. This breaks down to the following:

3000 FXP
6000 FXP
12000 FXP
25000 FXP
50000 FXP
100000 FXP
200000 FXP
500000 FXP
1000000 FXP

Continuing with Gamma World as base model, I’ve also decided that the modifier each character gains upon reaching each tier of Frontier Experience would be randomly determined by rolling on a table. Thus, one character might gain a bonus to hunting roles upon earning 3000 FXP, while another might enjoy a bonus to outdoor saving throws. While I think the random method helps maintain the illusion that the PCs are picking up knowledge and survival skills through “in the field” learning rather than by formal instruction, I must admit I also just enjoy a good random PC table too.

So how does one earn FXP? The answer is: By survival, exploration, and successful completion of frontier tasks. What follows are examples of FXP rewards based on completed tasks. I’m not wedded to these numbers at the moment and they’re just serving as placeholders, but it will give you an idea of what I’m thinking.

Exploring and mapping one 5-mile hex (requires 1 full day of activity): 100 FXP
Successfully bringing down game for food: 20 FXP per Hit Die of the animal
Trapping animals for profit: 1 FXP per gold piece value of pelt
Surviving an outdoor calamity (landslide, avalanche, blizzard, forest fire, etc.): 50 FXP
Discovering a Point of Interest (borrowed from an idea by J. Rients): Variable based on accessibility and prestige
“Going Wild” (survival in the outdoors with no gear other than a knife): 25 FXP per day

There could be more categories added as inspiration hits.

I enjoy the idea of rewarding the PCs for surviving in the wild, but not advancing them in levels. This way, I can also have crazy prospectors and trappers in the wild who might only be 2nd or 3rd level NPCs, but still able to survive the challenges of wilderness living.

So what do you think? Too crazy of an idea or just crazy enough to work?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Save vs. Paralysis

There is a phrase that gets kicked around my house from time to time: “Analysis leads to paralysis,” which is one way of saying that when tasks become too numerous or problems seem insurmountable, it’s easy to get caught up wondering how to approach the problem and therefore never make any progress. I’m going through such a period at the moment, which explains my negligence in posting. To compound matters, the “what if?” switch in my head kicked on like an oil burner in the dark of night, leaving me with a new idea to contemplate when I should be concerned with more immediate matters. Let me try an organize things a bit so I can move forward.

First off: The Dungeon Alphabet. I know some of you are no doubt tired of hearing about the damned book, but, let’s face it—it’s my book and my blog, so of course I’m going to talk about it. Especially when you consider that the PDF is currently #2 on’s list of Hottest Items and that the book itself is the best-reviewed product that Goodman Games has ever released. To be honest, I was a bit skeptical as to how people were going to receive the book. It’s not your traditional supplement filled with stat blocks, new monsters, and concrete concepts, and I was worried that people might feel cheated by the book’s format. I wrote a book that I would want to have as a reference source and, luckily, it seems that I wasn’t alone in this regard. Having such a stellar cadre of artists and Zeb Cook adding to my meager prose, all with a $9.99 price tag, took the book to places that I couldn’t dream of doing alone, so as proud as I am of the book, I know I’m but one member of the remarkable team that ensured its success.

I know there are issues with certain sites having the book on backorder or with unreasonably long shipping delays. Unfortunately, this is something that I not only have no control over, but also have no information regarding. As much as I’d like for everyone to get their hands on a copy, I’m unable to assist or expedite the process. My apologies. As for reviews, Goodman Games has done a fine job of collecting online reviews of the book on The Dungeon Alphabet’s web page. One that doesn’t appear there is the review that will appear in Realms of Fantasy magazine, which hits the newsstands on February 4th. I also believe that Allan Grohe has provided a review of the book for Knockspell #4, available in the near future from Black Blade Publishing.

In the last bit of DA-related news, the winner of The Dungeon Alphabet Pre-order drawing was John Seibel of Milwaukee, WI. Congratulations, John! You’ve won yourself a copy of the book autographed by Erol Otus—something that not even its author owns.

Next up: Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls. Sales of the book and PDF have finally seemed to have plateaued. Although this was expected, it was expected much sooner and I’m extremely grateful that the book has done as well as it has—almost 220 copies have been sold when I predicted I’d move around 50. The book continues to sell, albeit slowly, and if you’ve yet to pick-up a copy, Lulu is having a 15% off sale today and tomorrow for Groundhog’s Day (of all things). Just enter the code: SHADOW upon checkout. If you’d rather not pay for a copy, you can always test your luck in this year’s One Page Dungeon Contest. I’ve donated a copy of the book to the prize swag bag; I thought it only fitting.

I intend to start on the sequel next month. I’m currently enjoying the downtime I have, but ideas are beginning to percolate in my mental stewpot. I’ve also seen the preliminary sketch of the second book’s cover piece (done again by J.A. D’Andrea) and it has gotten me excited to revisit those halls. I will be upfront about one thing: Some people felt that the first book’s format (the two-page dungeon) and the organization of the dungeon into quadrants lead to an artificiality in the dungeon and that it was the book’s biggest flaw. Although I can and do see the validity of their argument, I have no plans to change format for the sequel. There will be certain modifications—most of which were planned well in advance and hinted at by the evolution of the maps as one descends—but no gross changes. I leave that to the referee to do should he wish to.

On the home front: The Eldritch Frontier campaign and a new Long Island Meet-up group. I’ve gotten one definite player and one possible lined up for my intended Labyrinth Lord campaign. My flyer has been up a week and somebody else has taken one of the tags off it—but that means nothing, as anyone who’s posted one in a game store knows.

In an attempt to both dig up players and to determine how big of an interest there is on Long Island for old school gaming, I’ve created The Role-Playing Game Historical Society, a Meet-up group with an emphasis on older titles. There is already a Long Island Role Players Meetup group, but they seem to be mostly playing current titles and all of their meets occur in Nassau County, which isn’t very accessible to those of us in the wilds of Suffolk. The Role-Playing Game Historical Society is my attempt to determine if A) there is a dedicated old school gamer community on Long Island, and B) see how many are not located in Nassau County or willing to cross county lines to play. My lease on the group is for three months. If it dies on the vine, no harm, no foul, but if it helps some OSR people connect, I’ll consider it a success. All L.I. area old-schoolers are encouraged to join.

Speaking of Long Island-related gaming, I’ll be attending ICON 29 at SUNY Stony Brook this year (March 26-28). The guest list doesn’t do much for me so I fully expect to be haunting the gaming area for the weekend. If anyone else is planning on attending and wants to say hello or have me sign a copy of Stonehell or the DA, drop me an email and we can try to coordinate schedules.

The thing I’m thinking about when I should be thinking about other things: The Dismal Wilderness. This is the idea that sprang into my head and doesn’t seem to want to leave. While doing pre-work for the planned Eldritch Frontier game, I watched a few frontier/pioneer-themed movies and read a few books regarding similar subject matter. My intent was to inspire myself, but not in the matter I did so.

As it stands, the Eldritch Frontier sandbox is set up to be a traditional old school setting: town, dungeon, and wilderness. But the wilderness in the EF is more along the lines of borderlands between political states, with small duchies and free city-states separated by tracts of forest and mountains—plenty of places for a PC to carve out a holding while still being able to introduce wars and political maneuvering between rulers if that’s what the PCs are into.

The Dismal Wilderness idea, on the other hand, is nothing but wilderness. Vast miles of unexplored, unnamed, and unbelievably wealthy (and dangerous) wilderness. A place where treasure is comprised of rough gemstones and raw precious metals sifted from streams or the pelts of giant lynxes and beavers that dwell in the forest primeval. A place where crumbling ruins of eon-dead civilizations still can be found in deep valleys and atop soaring mountains, guarded as sacred ground by the barbarian tribes who haunt the forests.

I’m not certain if this type of wilderness setting has been approached before, but it’s gotten under my skin. During my lunchtime walks, I’ve started fleshing out a few sub-systems and rules modifications for a pioneer-style wilderness campaign, and I’ve spent a few hours sketching out a very detailed wilderness map on a Judges Guild 17” x 22” hex map. I’d like to play test a few of these ideas, so I’ve decided that the Dismal Wilderness can be found to the north of the Eldritch Frontier. If the PCs ever want to try their fortune in the undiscovered lands, they’re free to do so. Depending on whether or not I get to play test these systems and ideas, there is a chance that I might write up a digest-sized book covering this type of wilderness campaign and the rule variants to help run it.

I also had to beat to death the desire to run a White Box Barsoom game last night. Some things are just better put down before they start to occupy the mental landscape.

As you see, that is a lot of mental inventory and it’s with little wonder that I’ve been stymied to put words together for a post. I didn’t realize myself how much I’ve been pondering, but it does feel better to get it out into full view. I’m going to try and get one of the rough ideas I’ve had for the Dismal Wilderness into a post in the next day or two, just to see if anyone salutes that particular flag. Additionally, once I take care of one more pressing real life issue, I might be a little more relaxed to start outputting some more material. Stay tuned.