Monday, March 29, 2010

Watchfires & Thrones Session #3

We were down a player this week so my recap of yesterday's game is slightly longer and more detailed than previous efforts in order to keep him aware of the events missed in his absence. That write-up appears here.

Another player joined us yesterday and yet another came over to ask about the session during play. After a post-game exchange of emails, it looks like he'll be joining our ranks in three week's time, bringing the number of players up to seven plus myself. I still consider this our shakedown period so if we lose a player or two, that's no big deal, but so far most everyone seems to be having a good time despite the fact that I'm populating and detailing the world as we go--which can lead to the occasional "Let me get back to you on that."

The intent to move our sessions to a more private venue remains on the table but we keep getting new faces interested, which means putting off the move until everyone is comfortable with the player roster. If interest in the game remains on a continued high, it may be months before we make the move. But if it stimulates interest in the retroclones and OSR, I can handle such a delay.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Turnabout is Fair Play

The convention is over for me and it's now time to do a little last minute prep work for tomorrow's game. All in all, it was a good two days. There were a few cancellations of games, resulting in me not playing as much as I hoped to, but the social aspect of running into people I haven't seen in years, as well as doing a little shilling and bush beating for the blog, made up for the lack of table time.

The swag was fairly decent, too. I even snatched up a copy of Colonial Gothic from our own James Maliszewski. After my most recent archival project, one that required me to do a lot of research on colonial era Long Island, I'm looking forward to perusing this book when time allows.

The con did allow me to make good on a promise to myself as well. As I mentioned recently, I was inspired by one of my player's artistic efforts to better detail his characters. Seeing as how my Friday night's CoC character sheet had one of those "Draw Your Character Here" blank boxes, I gladly obligied. Since I featured my player's artwork without asking permission first, I feel it only fair that present to you my own "artistic" efforts in exchange.

Behold Professor Scott Baker in all his thumbnail sketch glory:
CoC doodle Never let it be said I'm too proud to mock myself.

A Much Reduced Body Count

Only one out of five investigators perished in tonight's Call of Cthulhu convention game, a big improvement over the full blown massacre that accompanied my last play session. And yes, 55 year-old History professors at Miskatonic U. can leap over mummy crocodiles to snag the fire axe off the wall. Even if they don't have tenure yet.

I've got a 10 AM appointment in Kingsport, MA tomorrow. Time to get some sleep.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Con Games

This is a reminder that I’ll be attending ICON 29 at SUNY Stony Brook this Friday and Saturday. Looking at the gaming schedule, I’ll most likely try to grab a spot in either of the two Call of Cthulhu games on Friday night (9PM-1AM), the Saturday morning Top Secret game (10AM-2PM), possibly the 4E take on Steading of the Hill Giant Chief just to see what all the fuss is about (3PM-7PM), and wrap things up with either another go at Top Secret (8PM-2AM) or The Savage World of Solomon Kane (7PM-11PM). Should I forgo the Saturday morning Top Secret game, I may, just may, try my hand at Battletech provided they encourage novices to sign up. There’s an AD&D game on Sunday but I’ll be running my third session of Watchfires & Thrones instead. I’d rather run my own game than sit in on someone else’s if that is an option.

If you’re attending and want to get something signed or just say “Hi,” look for me in those locations.

And Nobody Ever Saw Billy Again

I was out taking my daily constitutional yesterday when I chanced upon this:

Obviously, one of the local neighborhood wags had been up to some brief vandalism with a Sharpie marker, further limiting the chances of this particular domicile to sell in an already dicey real estate market.

Of course, being the guy I am, I couldn't help but construct a scenario where a terrified neighborhood child risked the wrath of whatever unholy entity dwells within that house to leave a warning for the other kids in the neighborhood. Sounds like the perfect start to a Little Fears one-shot.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Don't Listen to Gary

Fight On! #8 is available in print and PDF. You can buy the print edition here and the PDF here
Surrounded on all sides by monstrous aliens, cruel demigods, and ancient lich-kings? Pull out your +4 Plasma Blaster and Fight On! Issue 8, dedicated to cover artist Erol Otus, is ready to ROCK YOUR GAME with new races, classes, spells, tables, gods, monsters, traps, reviews, a ‘desert sandbox’ minicampaign, two longer adventures, eight minidungeons, and lots of other goodies to help you take it to the next level – or stop the PCs from getting there! With art and articles by Erol Otus, Kevin Mayle, Mark Allen, Lee Barber, Peter Jensen, Steve Robertson, Samuel Kisko, Patrick Farley, Kelvin Green, Anthony Stiller, Robert Lionheart, Ramsey Dow, Jeff Rients, Gabor Lux, Age of Fable, Baz Blatt, Zachary Houghton, Erin “Taichara” Bisson, Del L. Beaudry, Geoffrey O. Dale, Michael Curtis, Tavis Allison, James Maliszewski, Tony Dowler, and many, many more, this issue is jam-packed with the old-school action adventure you crave. Don’t miss out – grab it today!
I technically have both a writing AND an art credit in this issue. My article, "Sites to Seek" features photos of scenery models representing the locations detailed in the piece.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Just Roll the Dice

Boy howdy, can I pick a good time to take a break from the blogosphere and the intertubes or what? Maybe I'm not the only person who needs to walk away from the computer and concern themselves with other things for awhile, neh?

So what are you doing for International Traditional Gaming Week? I'm breaking my online fast for a brief minute to tell you what I did before I return to my Fortress of Solitude. I spent four hours playing Labyrinth Lord today with five players and ten PCs. We then got the opportunity to teach a kid and his father about retroclones and give them the links to some of the free PDFs available online. Now said kid wants to come play with us next Sunday. All of this while clutching his soon-to-be-forgotten copy of the 3.5 Players Handbook in his hand. Not a bad way to "put butts in chairs," which is really what this whole week is supposed to be about, correct?

At the risk of embarrassing one of my players, who'll remain nameless because I didn't ask permission for what I'm about to do, wouldn't you rather be hanging around with these guys than getting riled up online?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sanity Sabbatical

Vacation time for Mike After consulting my workload and weighing it against certain deadlines, I’ve decided that a short break from blogging is in order. I’ve been steadily approaching the need for an extended sabbatical and the reverberations in the echo chamber have been grating a bit on my nerves the last few weeks—a sure sign it’s time to step away for a bit before returning with a healed mind and renewed enthusiasm. As such, I’ll be away for the Society for next two weeks at minimum and cutting my online time down dramatically. During this period, I hope to make some progress on a project or two and generally enjoy the warming weather here in the American Northeast. Posting will recommence once my various mental contusions have healed. Behave yourselves in my absence.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Stocking the Hexmap

Over the weekend, I prepared a rough hexmap of the immediate territory surrounding the campaign’s starting city. After placing the terrain, settlements, and dungeons, I now need to flesh out the map with lairs, ruins, and other interesting features. The problem is that I’m uncertain as to how to go about it. Looking through my books, I can’t find any guidelines as to how often these sites should be encountered, let alone a helpful Moldvay-style random stocking table.

In lieu of such tools, I’ve been experimenting with various types of dice to see what the results spread would be if I decide to randomly stock the map. I divided the map, which is 17 x 25 hexes, into five sections comprised of 85 hexes each (five columns of 17 hexes). I then when through the sections rolling a different type of die for each hex found within. On a roll of 1, I made a note that a ruin or something similar is found in that hex; on a result of a 2, a lair would be encountered. What follows are the results for each:

Method I (d6): 25 events (30% of the total hexes)
Method II (d8): 23 events (27% of the total hexes)
Method III (d10): 17 events (20% of the total hexes)
Method IV (d12): 15 events (18% of the total hexes)
Method V (d20): 12 events (14% of the total hexes)

Leaving out castle and citadels for the moment, I’m thinking that Methods III & IV give me the nicest percentage for a pulp sword & sorcery campaign. I don’t want the PCs tripping over something every few hexes, but don’t want to make overland travel uninteresting. Does 18%-20% of the map sound about right to you folks? Anyone know the Wilderlands breakdown off hand?

The random method has also produced a few groupings of results, where two or more lairs/ruins lie next to each other. I’m thinking about turning those results into a single, large ruin or lair rather than numerous smaller ones. Right now, however, I’m still experimenting with the results.

For those of you who have stocked hexmaps of your own, how did you go about it? Did you use a random method, perhaps one suggested in some rulebook that I’ve overlooked, or did you just place sites and encounters as you saw fit? Or maybe some combination of the two? I’d be very interested in exploring other options so please comment away.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Back from (Stone)Hell

Despite the windstorm and occasional torrents of rain, I made it safely home from my journey to the Northlands. That drive gets a tiny bit longer each time I do it, but the reward is always worth the trip. This time was no exception. Before I get down to recapping the weekend’s events, I want to again extend my thanks to Jim, Joe, Melissa, and Ralph for getting together for a game, feeding me oh so very well, and making me feel a little bit like a rock star.

As I posted on Friday, the main event of the weekend was me getting a chance to experience my own dungeon at the pointy end of the stick for a change. As commentator Chris pointed out, it’s an exercise that every designer should go through at least once. It’s a much different experience than play testing it with you at the helm.

For one thing, it’s an obvious test of keeping one’s mouth shut in order to preserve the mystery for the other players. I decided prior to playing that I would merely follow the other players as to what to investigate, what to poke or prod, and what doors to kick in. Over the course of the session, I regularly chose to search all the places that didn’t contain secrets or treasure (even managing to discover a mysterious key that the referee had placed into his own version of Stonehell), letting everyone else discover the loot that the dungeon conceals in its curious crevices. I was really proud of this group and, if I didn’t express it adequately enough on Saturday night, I was very impressed with everybody’s play style. Even with my self-imposed silence, the group managed to find all the hidden goodies in the rooms that we chose to explore. However, I am mortal flesh and did engage in one spectacular piece of metagaming just prior to the session’s end. I’ll get to that in a moment.

Although I did get a good feel as to how the dungeon flows from the players’ end, I was reminded that every adventure is a highly subjective event whose performance for good or ill relies on not only the referee but the players and the rules themselves. It was because of this that I found some difficulty evaluating the dungeon from the other side of the screen, mostly because we weren’t using any version of D&D rules—or any other published rulebook for that matter.

Upstate, you see, they’re playing something that got cooked up during more than a year’s worth of basement game sessions. I’m not even sure if there’s a name for the rules these guys are using. Some portions of it are vaguely recognizable, such as the percentile-based resolution system that kind of, sort of, looks like the Basic Role-Playing rules if you stand on your head and look at it cross-eyed, or the random character background table which was cribbed from Traveller. But most of it evolved in its own unique gaming environment, which makes going into it cold a little daunting. Even with roughly thirty years of gaming experience under my belt, I felt like a novice when confronted with the system—which was a good thing. It’s been a while since I’ve felt that way about a game.

Despite the challenge to the newcomer, I’ve got to say that this system works for these folks. Even though most of the rules are based on rolling under an average of two attributes and thus employed a bit more math that the standard +1/-1 modifiers, they knew the system cold and were able to banter the nuances of the rules back and forth the same way most grognards can discourse on the finer points of D&D. It’s obviously a system they’re comfortable with despite (or probably because of) the fact that it’s one in a constant state of flux and refinement. Each new player adds something to this rules and I hope I did so as well (in the form of the spell, Milo’s Mighty Mackerel—not just a feast but also a weapon). We in the old school renaissance like to go on about how we’re making the game our own again—these folks are making their own game period. I heartily applaud their efforts and look forward to sitting in with them again sometime.

Alas, our session inevitably drew to a close. With an early start home the next morning and a half-hour’s drive through rural back roads to get back to my brother’s place, we packed it in at 10:30 as the party stood before a closed door. It was at this moment that I broke my own rule about metagaming. Since fate guided us to this specific location in the dungeon and our time was at an end anyway, the session ended with Milo, my character, saying, “Want to see something neat?” He then reached over, twisted a brick in the wall, and revealed the secret door leading down to level three of the dungeon. I couldn’t help myself. Consider it a gift from the mysterious power behind Stonehell Dungeon as a reward for an excellent game session.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Dungeon Alphabet Has Sold Out

And not in the “I signed a deal with McDonalds for Dungeon Alphabet Happy Meals™” sort of way.

The entire first printing of The Dungeon Alphabet is gone from the Goodman Games warehouse (which I picture looking similar to the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark). If you haven’t purchased a print copy and you see one on your FLGS’s shelf, snap it up because it’ll be a while before it’s back in print.

A second printing is in the planning for late May and Goodman Games is currently taking pre-orders for the second print run. The second printing corrects a few minor typographical boo-boos and will feature Peter Mullen’s truly groovy endsheets printed in a 1980’s-TSR-module blue ink.

To have The Dungeon Alphabet, my first professional gaming book, sell out in three months is just the latest in the long string of unbelievable events for me regarding the book. First, Goodman Games rounded up a cadre of great artists, some who are legends in the hobby, to contribute artwork. Then, “Zeb” Cook, a designer who has influenced my own writing, was lassoed into doing the introduction to the book. After its release, the Alphabet became one of if not the best reviewed products Goodman Games has put out. And now it’s burned through the entire first printing. To paraphrase Captain Renault, I'm shocked, shocked to find that you all have embraced the Alphabet to the extent you have!

I am deeply humbled and thankful.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Off to Visit Stonehell Dungeon

This weekend, I have the unique opportunity of being subjected to my own creation. I'll be upstate visiting friends and family, which gives me the chance to sit in on a role-playing group that is currently exploring the depths of Stonehell Dungeon. The catch is that I'm sitting in as a player, not the guest referee.

It stands to be an interesting experience. Hopefully this Curtis guy knew what he was doing when he wrote the damn module.

You folks have a great weekend. I'll see you Monday morning.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Post By Lord Byron


I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went--and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires--and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings--the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consumed,
And men were gathered round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other's face;
Happy were those who dwelt within the eye
Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:
A fearful hope was all the world contain'd;
Forests were set on fire--but hour by hour
They fell and faded--and the crackling trunks
Extinguish'd with a crash--and all was black.
The brows of men by the despairing light
Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
The flashes fell upon them; some lay down
And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest
Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smiled;
And others hurried to and fro, and fed
Their funeral piles with fuel, and looked up
With mad disquietude on the dull sky,
The pall of a past world; and then again
With curses cast them down upon the dust,
And gnash'd their teeth and howl'd: the wild birds shriek'd,
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl'd
And twined themselves among the multitude,
Hissing, but stingless--they were slain for food.
And War, which for a moment was no more,
Did glut himself again;--a meal was bought
With blood, and each sate sullenly apart
Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;
All earth was but one thought--and that was death,
Immediate and inglorious; and the pang
Of famine fed upon all entrails--men
Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;
The meagre by the meagre were devoured,
Even dogs assail'd their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish'd men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lured their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answered not with a caress--he died.
The crowd was famish'd by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heap'd a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they raked up,
And shivering scraped with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame
Which was a mockery; then they lifted up
Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld
Each other's aspects--saw, and shriek'd, and died--
Even of their mutual hideousness they died,
Unknowing who he was upon whose brow
Famine had written Fiend. The world was void,
The populous and the powerful--was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless--
A lump of death--a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirred within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp'd
They slept on the abyss without a surge--
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon their mistress had expir'd before;
The winds were withered in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish'd; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them--She was the Universe.
One of the benefits of having an English Lit degree is being well-versed in poetry. I was searching out "Ozymandias" when I rediscovered the above poem by Lord Byron. I'm certain old George Gordon didn't know it at the time, but he graciously gave me the name of the new campaign in this piece--to paraphrase line 10, the campaign will be known as "Watchfires and Thrones," both of which appear in abundance in the sword & sorcery literature that I'm drawing inspiration from.

For Clarification Purposes

The unearthly "idol" that attacked the party during their early exploration of the tomb of Akthul looked like this:

I figured there was no sense waiting before introducting the xenomorphs into the game.

EDIT: A special thanks to player Rob A.K.A. Fandomaniac for turning my two previous images into one super cool one.

Course of Empire

While doing my readings on the wilderness, I came across a reference to a series of paintings done by the American artist Thomas Cole. This series, entitled "Course of Empire," depicts the rise and fall of an imaginary city over the course of five paintings, each showing the city at a different stage in its development. The city is merely a symbol of civilization on the whole, and Cole's series reflects popular American opinon at the time of its creation (1833-1836).

The series had a sizeable impact on my decision to swap campaign worlds. Not only are they wonderful pieces of art, but they inspire me to explore that very same topic of the rise and demise of culture.

The Savage State

The Savage State

The Arcadian or Pastoral State

The Arcadian or Pastoral State

The Consummation of Empire

The Consummation of Empire
The Destruction of Empire

The Destruction of Empire


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Intellectual Stickup Artist

In some dimly-remembered science course during my college years, the topic of an “open universe” versus an “oscillating one” was discussed. To briefly summarize, the open universe theory postulates that the universe is expanding ever outwards and will continue to do so. The oscillating theory surmises that, if there is sufficient matter in the universe, this outward spread will eventually slow, then reverse direction as matter collapses back in upon itself and returns to the densely compact point it was prior to the Big Bang.

For the record, I’m hoping it’s an oscillating universe: the idea that this universe may just be one turn of many on the cosmic wheel speaks to me on a deep level. But the other reason I’m an oscillating universe fan is what it might mean for time. Although we obviously can’t know for certain, there is one theory that, as the universe contracts, the flow of time will also reverse itself, perhaps allowing that which has once been to be yet again.

It’s a fun theory, one good for cocktail parties or in between bong hits and I’ve never forgotten it (despite the cocktails and bong hits). I’ve long wanted to do something with it in a game, but since I’ve never been one for GURPS Time Travel or the Doctor Who RPG, the opportunity hasn’t appeared—at least, until now.

As T.S. Eliot wrote in a review that is forever being misquoted or paraphrased: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Now, I may be mature or immature, but I’m certainly going to be stealing from all those authors who I listed as influences to build this new campaign world. The trick was trying to decide how to squeeze all the bits that interest me into a single setting without cluttering up the place. The oscillating universe theory allows me to do exactly that.

This new setting is one where the universe is contracting and the previous ages of the world now are being replayed. From the pinnacle of evolution and scientific advancement, the world has now devolved into a new ancient period; a time when civilization was still a new phenomenon and the world a much rawer place. Because of the collapse of linear time, empires that are simulacra of previous eras have risen again and the events that have occurred long, long ago are being reenacted with new roles cast in the cosmic play.

As the world resurrects its ancient empires in new guises, it’s also become a temporary sanctuary for beings from the stars that have fled their planetary homes ahead of the inward collapse of the universe. On this world, some of these races hide amongst the teeming masses, some raise themselves as gods, and others merely gorge themselves on the unwitting inhabitants.

Because of the fluid nature of time, most of the world is completely unaware that the cosmic clock is winding down. Time still seems linear, although the past has become a muddied thing. Those wise enough or mad enough to perceive that the universe is in its death throes have fled this world to other dimensions, universes, or at least worlds closer to the universal center. In their wake, they’ve left behind the gates, platforms, and portals that lead to these unexplored places. Most of these portals were one-way, but a few have allowed things from other dimensions to walk in this world unannounced. And as time continues to break down, relics from previous ages begin to take the stage again. Maybe a cluster of dinosaurs has returned to play out that epoch in some peaceful valley or dark jungle.

I think I’ve just about stolen from everyone with this setting. Dying world? Check off Vance and Smith. Ancient empires that look familiar and exist side by side? There’s my nod to Howard’s Hyboria. Aliens from the outer black terrorizing this world, hiding amongst us, or being worshipped as gods? Paging Mr. Lovecraft. I think you can squeeze Burroughs’ Martian tales in with either the dying world, the relics from other times, travel to other worlds, or—oh! Did I mention this world is hollow? I don’t quite have a suitable Moorcockian antihero vibe going, but I’ll leave that up to the PCs to explore. They’ve got a good start on “shades of grey” Leiber urban fantasy motif.

The one thing that I don’t want to do is make this too much of a sci-fi setting dressed up in magical armor. Others are already doing a much better job of that. The pulp swords & sorcery theme allows me to throw a bit of sci-fi in if I so please, but it’s not going to be a recurring event (other than the alien angle but that’s more of a “look what came here by flying through cold vacuum” thing than “Hey, a saucer just landed!”). This is why I latched onto universal collapse instead of nuclear war as the reason for a return ancient civilization levels. There’s less rayguns and hard radiation hanging around that way.

Of course, this is all just a framework for my benefit and none of it really impacts the characters. They’re just adventurers out for coin, fame, and glory. Having this sort of structure in the back of my head serves me by providing loose guidelines as to what I can include and yet still have an overall pattern to the mess. Even that is tertiary to the players’ and my own enjoyment.

It’s not the greatest campaign concept ever but I’m not looking for that. I just want to find an angle that keeps me and the players excited and coming back for more. This one seems like the perfect balm for a soul weary of a pseudo-medieval fantasy setting and I’m looking forward to building on this framework and eager to see what the players (and their PCs) do with it.

Campaign Kickoff

I’m not going to make it a habit of doing post game reports. My intention is to update the adventure log on the wiki with important notes and the bullet points for each section, but the idea of doing a short novelization of each week’s session is too much additional work.

But, just to give you a general sense of where the campaign stood on Sunday afternoon and to introduce the PCs who may be referred to in future blog posts, here’s a brief recap of the first session:

The PCs

Bannath: Hunted cleric of Yg, Father of Serpents. The Yg sect has been all but eradicated in these lands—a development Bannath intends to correct.
Danek “Armbreaker”: Dim-witted man-at-arms. A charismatic warrior once you get past the mouth-breathing and slack-jawed stare.
Malbane the Green: A novice magic-user whose talent for climbing comes in handy in a scrap.
Mordakis the Silent: A horribly scared dwarf. As if his scars weren’t bad enough, Mordakis’ tongue was cut out, leaving him mute.
Reddannon: Red-headed cleric of Uun the Unknowable (until we flesh out his religion that is).
Syl: A fighter who pursues his vocation with quiet competence.

The Introductory Scenario

The characters had arrived several days ago in Rhuun, a trade outpost on the edge of the Desert of Demons. For different reasons, each was looking for the anonymity and opportunity that this wasteland settlement could provide. Unfortunately, a three-day-long dust storm effectively closed the town down, making sleep and finding employment almost impossible.

Just as things were about the get desperate, each of them were visited by a sending from the sorcerer, Jathal the Hexmaker, who promised them work and coin if they arrived on his doorstep before the Hour of Scorpions the following day.

The next morning saw our six PCs standing on the portico before Jathal’s house. After brief introductions and confirmation that they all received the same sending, the six were granted entrance by the sorcerer’s seemingly mute slave.

Inside, the lanky wizard offered the assembled adventurers 50 gold jitais and his good favor if they would provide him with the skull of Athkul, a sorcerer of modest repute whose tomb lay in the Hills of Scowling Bones just northwest of town. Eager for coin, the sextet departed after gathering their gear and filling their wineskins.

From a map provided by Jathal, they had no difficulty finding the lopsided pyramid that served as Athkul’s tomb. Venturing within, they found a large temple chamber which seemed empty aside from peeling frescoes, pillars inscribed with an alien alphabet, and an unearthly idol placed in a niche above an altar of volcanic rock. At least, it seemed to be an idol.

When the black-bronze and bat-winged thing launched itself from its perch to fall upon them, the PCs unleashed a hail of missiles at strange creature and striking it down before it could injure any of their band. Having proven their merit in battle, the six continued to explore the tomb, uncovering a large cell haunted by skeletons (which proved little threat with two clerics in the group), a room full of religious accoutrements (where they lifted some silver candlesticks and decided to don the midnight-blue robes they found there”just in case”), and a empty study /library that was overseen by the mosaic of a bald, bearded man. Despite a thorough search and the fact that the mosaic seemed to be focusing its attentions on a certain stone table, nothing was discovered therein.

Finding the stairs to the tomb’s lower level, the party ventured deeper into the complex. A walled-up niche was broken open to release a desiccated corpse that even the clerics’ mighty faith could not dispatch (but spears and axes could) and which held a well-made falchion of possible enchantment. A fight with a few more skeletons (quickly turned) and a giant scarab beetle (quickly squashed) left the party facing a door that leads still deeper into the complex…

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Under the Influences

The prime reason for the last minute switch of campaign worlds was my own changing tastes. The world of R’Nis has been part of my D&D lexicon for most of my years playing this game—perhaps not quite as realized or textured as it’s become, but the germ of the world was always present. As such, much of the creative bedrock upon which the world is founded was formed during my adolescent years. I was not quite as well-versed in genre literature at that time, nor had I had a chance to experience other role-playing games not produced by TSR. And while I was later able to bolt more mature elements and influences on to the campaign, I did find that I was limited by some preconceived notions and world history. The result was a patchwork quilt that didn’t always please me.

If boiled down to its essence, R’Nis drew much of its influence from Tolkien (both the books and the various animated features based on his work), the King Arthur cycle of tales, the first two Dragonlance trilogies, with a dash of Gygax’s first two Gord novels. It was a world biased towards high fantasy. My teenage years saw me using the Forgotten Realms as a campaign world, which also hews close to the high fantasy tradition so there wasn’t much happening to expand my tastes in genre.

It was only during my college years that I got the opportunity to sample from a much broader array of fantasy literature. For some unknown reason that I’m extremely grateful for, my college library had the entire Gray Mouser and Fafhrd books in its collection. Prior to this I only knew of the twain from my dog-chewed copy of Deities & Demigods (although that was more than enough to stoke my interest in learning more). Remember that this was still a time when the Internet was a strange new thing and Leiber’s work was hard to find in print, so uncovering the complete series in an academic library was something of a minor miracle. I sat down and promptly devoured the books.

The result of this bibliomantic feast was that I completely changed my attitude about what I thought D&D should be about. Being a young man at the time, I was already predisposed towards a fantasy atmosphere that was a bit darker, a bit grittier, and a lot less highfalutin than I’d been using for years—I just didn’t know how to invoke it. Leiber started me down that path and remains one of my top five influences on the game.

After Leiber came Lovecraft. Again my college had a sizeable Lovecraft collection, mostly stemming from the fact that Robert Waugh, a Lovecraftian research of some renown, was (and remains) a member of the college’s English department. I had the pleasure of taking a poetry course taught by Professor Waugh during my undergraduate career and his occasional Lovecraft aside reintroduced me to Howard Philips.

Moorcock follow Lovecraft, and a second-hand copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ second Martian Trilogy showed me that he could do more than Tarzan, but it would be several more years before I experienced pure, unadulterated Two-Gun Bob. I never read the Lancer/Ace editions of Howard’s and other’s Conan tales when I was younger, experiencing the barbaric tales of the Cimmerian through Marvel’s Conan comic book and later The Savage Sword of Conan. I witnessed the Schwarzenegger film once it reached cable (having to wait until everyone was asleep before viewing such verboten video), but never experienced undiluted Howard until the recent Del Ray editions. Damn near criminal of me, I know.

I never heard much about Jack Vance other than he had some influence on the D&D magic system, so when I purchased Tales from the Dying Earth omnibus in 2000, I was again both pleasantly surprised and furious with myself for missing out on Vance’s prose for so long.

But the ultimate influence still remained to be discovered and the route to it was a roundabout one. In 2001, I walked into a used bookstore in Long Beach, CA. On a dusty shelf at the dim rear of the store, I chanced upon a copy of Shadows Bend by David Barbo. The novel is pure fiction, postulating what might have occurred if the Cthulhu Mythos were real and Lovecraft and Howard teamed up to battle them. I was acquainted with Lovecraft and Howard at this point so the novel was entertaining in that aspect. As the events in the novel unfurl, the two writers find need of further wisdom and seek out the Bard of Auburn, Clark Ashton Smith, for assistance.

At the time that I purchased the book, I had just returned to L.A. after spending nine weeks in Auburn, CA. Due to my unfamiliarity with Smith, I didn’t know the significance of that town until after I read Shadows Bend. Of the three writers in the book, it is Smith that is portrayed as the most level-headed and well-adjusted of the Weird Tales Trio. With Howard’s mother issues and Lovecraft’s numerous peculiarities as a counterpoint, Smith ends up displaying all the qualities one would normally associate with the hero of the tale, even to the extent of bedding the love interest that Howard is too insecure to woo and Lovecraft too disinterested. This portrayal of Smith, which I later learned to be an accurate one, piqued my curiosity and I wanted to learn more about an author I had previously only associated with Castle Amber.

It would take until 2008 before I finally got my hands on The End of the Story, the first volume of his collected works. I was absolutely stunned by Smith’s imagination and wordsmanship. My only disappointment was that, despite living the longest of the Howard-Lovecraft-Smith trio, Smith only wrote fantastic fiction for such a brief period. I wish the well of his fantasies was a much, much deeper one to draw from. Smith is the second-biggest influence on my believes as to what a fantasy campaign could and perhaps should be, and only misses out on being number one because I’ve not yet had the chance to fully digest his tales and assimilate them into my own imagination.

Influence-wise, I’ve gone from Tolkien, White, Weis & Hickman, and Gygax to Leiber, Moorcock, Vance, Burroughs, Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith—the two groups are almost polar opposites. With this in mind, you’ll have a better understanding of why I took the dramatic step of throwing away the entire world I had previously used to game with. It just wasn’t going to support the style of play and the imaginative elements that I wanted to experience this time around.

I’ll be following this post up with an overview of the campaign world. In it, you’ll see that I’m not at all ashamed to blatantly steal from my fantasy heroes, especially since it ends up building a world that excites me so much that the energy I’m radiating hopefully becomes contagious to the players. Such are the signs of an excellent campaign and the everpresent hope of the referee.

The Devil's in the Details: Orcs

Although the campaign it was created for is no longer going forward, I did put together another Devil's In the Details table for my homebrewed orc class. It was sitting in amongst my drafts waiting for a time when I found myself in need of a post but not have the time to write one.

However, since James has thrown down the proverbial gauntlet and vambraces by challenging the blognards to produce more Kesher-eqsue tables, I'll present mine now. Although intended for campaigns were playing a full-blooded orc is a viable option, you may also use it for half-orcs, psychopathic barbarians, mutant bikers, etc.

d20 (Roll 3 times or pick 3)

Many Orcs…


Wear masks, veils, or broad-brimmed hats when forced to go out into the sun.


Believe possession is 100% of ownership.


Measure personal wealth and status by their collection of hunting and battle trophies.


Believe that thunder is the voice of their gods and take it to be an omen.


Need to be beaten in a fight before they’ll take orders.


Enjoy blood-based beverages.


Are tense and jittery unless they kill something once a day (even small animals helps take the edge off).


Decorate their bodies with long-lasting dyes and the blood of their enemies.


Hate all music that doesn’t involve drums and screaming.


Don’t recognize their own get, leaving their offspring’s rearing to the tribe.


Are hosts to fleas, ticks, leeches, and other nasty parasites.


Won’t leave their lairs under any circumstance while the sun is in the sky.


Pierce their bodies with barbed objects as a fashion statement.


Will live in ruined buildings over any other available lodgings.


Are polygamists.


Are suspicious of holy men not of the orcish persuasion.


Are wary of dwarves but covet their arms and armor.


Will bully gnomes and halflings any chance they get until the runts prove themselves in a fight.


Think humans and elves are too prissy and need to toughen up.


Grudgingly respect hurgs for the strength and size.

Roll d16 (1d8 + high/low die) once

Some Orcs…


Are highly superstitious and won’t start the day without consulting the bones or other form of divination.


Raise wild beasts such as wolves, jackals, and coyotes to be lapdogs.


Regularly use psychedelic substances.


Can run cross-country all day without tiring.


Will never use a missile weapon, preferring to kill their opponents at close range.


Can track a blood trail for miles by scent alone.


Dedicate themselves to becoming the ultimate hunter, always searching for bigger and more dangerous prey.


Find setting things on fire to be high comedy.


Will practice cannibalism if the chance arises.


Fear bears.


Only eat uncooked food.


Will fly into a rage at the smallest slight or insult.


Refuse to wear clothing unless they took it from a slain enemy.


Are fascinated be civilization and wish to be part of it.


Will be attacked by a horse if they try to ride it.


Are captivated by magic and magical items, coveting any that they find.

d16 (1d8 + high/low die) 1d3 times

Common Traveling Gear


A bottle of orcish blood wine.


A small pouch of hallucinogenic mushrooms.


Steel- and spike-toed boots.


A dwarven-made axe or sword.


A skull belt buckle.


A helmet with an animal’s head attached to it.


A set of bloodstained clothing.


A shield bearing the tanned face of a slain opponent on the outside surface of it.


A necklace of ears.


A set of files for sharpening teeth and tusks.


A pair of bone sun goggles.


A bag of divination bones.


A bearskin cloak.


A animal hide drum.


1d4 jars of body dye in various hues.


A coil of rope made from the scalps of slain opponents.

Monday, March 8, 2010

In Which Mike Does Something Rash

Yesterday was the first meeting of my new Labyrinth Lord game, the one I’ve been harping on, creating a wiki for, and spent almost the last year-and-a-half writing notes for. It was this campaign that would feature Stonehell as the “tent pole dungeon” and whose geography would be based on the Outdoor Survival map. We’d be using Labyrinth Lord as the rules engine, but a modified version that included some of my homebrewed ideas that have appeared on this blog such as new classes, random tables and charts, and other bits of miscellanea that have accrued since this site first came into being. Yes, one could say that I had the lion’s share of background work completed for the game.

I trashed all of it 48 hours before the game began.

It started simply enough. A few days ago, I briefly mentioned the importance of finding (or rediscovering) my “referee voice”: that which makes my own game sessions unique from someone else’s. This got me thinking about what fires my imagination and stimulates my creative energies. As I pondered this, I realized that my likes and dislikes have changed over the years. I won’t say evolved, as that implies that they were once inferior to those I possess now, which is not the case. They’re merely different.

Unfortunately, my longtime campaign world is very much reflective of my older tastes. Having been my default homebrew world for more than a decade, it was a place greatly influenced by what I was playing and reading in the years prior to its creation. And while it remains a place close to my heart, it just wasn’t conducive to the elements that interest me at this period in my life. Certainly I could make them fit, but it would involve a great deal of smashing round pegs into square holes.

The other strike against my default campaign setting was that it was too easy. Not for the players and their characters, but for myself. I’m very much at ease in that world and running a game in that setting seemed lazy to me. The whole purpose of this new Labyrinth Lord campaign is to stretch my creative muscles and see what might develop as we examine a “history that could have been” of the game. That simply wasn’t going to occur using my established world. So Friday night, I threw the whole thing out the window and started anew. And, all praise to my players, they were crazy enough to go along with me.

When we sat down today to make up characters, I told them what was on my mind and left the final decision in their hands. If they wanted to go on with the campaign as promised, I would do so without as much as a look behind us. If they were willing to trust me and go along with this crazy scheme of an almost completely undefined world, however, they might find themselves in for a much better experience.

Here’s the kicker, though: I even threw out the planned rules.

OK, maybe not really, but I decide at the 11th hour to use the Original Edition Characters rules instead of straight Labyrinth Lord, effectively trimming the allowed character class list to five instead of my proposed nineteen (I threw halflings from the OE rules under the proverbial bus).

So that’s how yesterday saw me starting a new campaign with only an inkling of an idea, a handful of literary references to use to sell this crazy plot, and an introductory scenario that I started writing at 9 PM on Saturday night and finished an hour before the game.

You know what? I think I made the right call. Not only did the players not mind, but I feel 100% more secure and excited about future sessions. I’ve got a ton of work to do in the next two weeks before we meet again, but the prospects look good. Even the characters turned out to be pretty interesting (Note to self: when clerics make up a third of the party, the undead aren’t a big challenge).

I’ll be writing about this new campaign world in future posts. You’ll be learning about the campaign in real time along with me, because, right now, I’ve only got a few stray threads of ideas and a whole lot of good intentions. I aim to weave those all into something that challenges me as a referee, a designer, and, most importantly, as an entertainer. If my players are satisfied at the session’s end, I’ll consider myself a resounding success.

A Peek Inside the Dungeon Alphabet

My favorite group of Spanish bloggers, Adventuras En La Marca Del Este, has done a photo review of The Dungeon Alphabet. If you've been curious as to why so many people have been praising the artwork within the pages of that tome, check out the review here for some fine examples of the artwork of Otus, Easley, Roslof, Mullen, and others (whom I can't identify only because their work is not signed, not because of a lack of talent and distinctive style).

Then go kick yourself for not buying a PDF copy during GM's Day.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Labyrinth Lord and Otherworld Miniatures Super Team-up

I've known about the following for some time now and I think that this stands to be one of the cooler things to come out of the OSR so far. I'm proud to be part of it and, even if I wasn't, I'd certainly be dropping some serious scratch to get my hands on these sets once they start rolling out.

This Summer, Otherworld Miniatures and Goblinoid Games will launch a partnership project. Starting in August 2010, a range of boxed sets of ‘Official Labyrinth Lord Miniatures’ will be available, featuring 28mm figures made by Otherworld Miniatures. Most of these models will come from Otherworld’s existing ranges, but some will be designed and sculpted specifically for the new Labyrinth Lord sets.

These boxed sets will be level specific, with the first sets featuring the weaker monsters found in the upper labyrinth levels. Later sets will contain progressively stronger monsters which dwell in the deeper levels. Some wilderness-themed sets will also feature woodland inhabitants and creatures found in a marshland habitat.

This range of boxed sets will be tied together by a set of mini-adventures which are included in the boxes. Individually, they’ll make an entertaining evening’s adventuring, but together they make up an exciting mini-campaign. Adventures will be written by some of the best writers of the old-school gaming scene, including Jeff Talanian, James Maliszewski, Rob Conley and Michael Curtis, and many others.

“I have been a role-player and miniatures enthusiast for over 30 years. Otherworld Miniatures now produce the figures that I wish I had been able to buy when I first started gaming. They are inspired by old-school imagery, but we use modern sculpting techniques and production standards to make miniatures that would never have been possible in the early years of our hobby. Goblinoid Games follow similar principles with their Labyrinth Lord game, and I think that we’re ideally suited to work as partners.”

Richard Scott
Otherworld Miniatures

“Richard started Otherworld Miniatures right about the same time I started Goblinoid Games. Over the last 3+ years I’ve been totally blown away by the figures they have produced. Not just because of their quality, but also because they truly do produce figures that capture that period of time in gaming history when everything seemed new and dungeons were filled with gritty danger. I’m very excited at this partnership. Our companies have both come a long way since 2006, and it seems only natural for us to team up now to promote our mutual goals of keeping the old-school torch burning.”

Daniel Proctor
Goblinoid Games

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Devil’s in the Details: Gnomes

Those of you who’ve had the opportunity to peruse the early issues of Fight On! are no doubt aware of the excellent three-part series written by Kesher of Sandbox Empire called “The Devil’s in the Details.” For the uninitiated amongst you, the series featured a set of random tables intended for use when a player rolls up a demihuman PC (or when the referee wants to flesh out an NPC). Although some entries on the table were unique to the author’s home campaign world, most were broad enough to be used with any D&D game.

I’m intending on using these tables (with a few substitutions) during character generation this Sunday. Unfortunately, the original series only covered dwarves, elves, and halflings, which wouldn’t be a problem if I was running a by-the-book game. But my campaign world also offers three additional races as player character classes: the gnome, the orc, and the hurg (a “hairy man of the forest” which owes equal debts of gratitude to old episodes of “In Search Of…” and the article “The Wuuky!” by Moritz Mehelm and Frank Ditsche from Fight On! #5). Therefore, I’ve had to come up with three more sets of tables done in the style of the originals.

Below are the tables for gnomes. Like Kesher’s originals, a few entries are unique to my world but they’re mostly suitable for any traditional D&D campaign. I’ve purposely tried to return the gnome to his roots as a woodlands and forested hills resident and not the technological wiz kid he’s since become. Although I have no problem mixing technology with fantasy, I just don’t think the gnome is the way to do it.

d20 Roll (Roll 3 times or pick 3)

Many Gnomes…


Have skin the color of walnuts or rich loam.


Know all the animals that live near their homes by name.


Believe that the mastery of puzzles and riddles is a noble goal in life.


Have trouble growing facial hair.


Do wear red caps, but of the stocking variety not the pointed kind.


Find practical jokes to be the highest form of humor.


Know hundreds of different knots.


Are fascinated by gemstones.


Keep family journals dating back generations.


Build their burrows near rivers and lakes, enjoying boating in the warm months.


Can create woodworking wonders.


Enjoy spirited debates and will only end an argument after it has been sufficiently discussed.


Tend to secret gardens in the forests and hills.


Share a burrow with their extended family.


Despise trolls and trollkin for their enslavement and mistreatment of gnomes.


Enjoy bowls as a sport and take matches between villages very seriously.


Treat elves as if they were kin, only taller.


Look at dwarves as respected father figures and big brothers.


Like humans but wish that more of them respected the natural world.


Enjoy playing practical jokes on hurgs.

d16 Once

Some Gnomes…


Wear wooden shoes as daily footwear.


Never speak while above ground, preferring to revel in the sounds of nature.


Can detect hidden springs by scent alone.


Have a small mammal as a companion.


Are envious of dwarven beards and grow wispy chin hairs to compensate.


Husband glowworms to light their burrows.


Can speak the language of badgers and hedgehogs.


Have a fear of heights.


Succumb to the lure of Chaos and dwell in the deep places of hill and hollow.


Have a fondness for halfling pipeweed.


Pan for gold and gems as a hobby.


Attract butterflies when walking about the woods.


Take up portraiture and painting landscapes.


Have metallic-colored hair, with silver and copper being the most common of these hues.


Dedicate their lives to find a single, perfect gemstone.


Are constantly dirty, as they find earth, leaves, and flowers to be the finest smells in the world.

d16 (1d3 times)

Common Traveling Gear


A red stocking cap.


A hedgehog companion.


A saw-back dagger.


A knife-handled walking stick.


A brass lantern inscribed with intricate designs and holding numerous glowworms.


A parasol.


A waterproof poncho of many interior pockets.


A coil of rope they can knot in seconds.


A jeweler’s loupe.


A long-stemmed, clay pipe.


A set of paints and brushes.


A chapbook on beard fashions throughout the ages.


A wooden puzzle box.


A case containing carpentry and woodworking tools.


A gold prospecting pan.


A pair of wooden clogs.