Monday, August 30, 2010

Obscure Octavo: Bale Snail

I was out shopping the day before our last session of Watchfires & Thrones with the specific goal of finding a small plastic lobster. I wanted to introduce a giant crayfish into the next game and I was hoping to locate a suitably impressive substitute. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, one could simply not be found. However, I did come across a very nifty plastic snail at one of the arts & crafts stores (A.C. Moore) near me and I promptly decided that it was going to challenge the party in the next adventure. When it was revealed, amidst all the "oohs," "my gods", and "what's that?" that I heard yesterday was the following: "Mike's not allowed to go shopping any more." I love hearing that as a referee.

Without further ado, I give you the bale snail.

Bale Snail

No. Enc.: 1 (0)
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 45’ (15’)
Armor Class: 4
Hit Dice: 4+4
Attacks: 1 (bite, crush, or spittle)
Damage: 1d6+1/1d4/1d4+2
Save: F3
Morale: 7
Hoard Class: None
XP: 290

This fearsome mollusk averages 8’ in height at the apex of its gray-black shell. The creature gets its name from both its aggressive disposition and the naturally occurring pattern on its shell that resembles a stylized Death’s head similar to that found on some species of moths.

A bale snail attacks with either its rasp-like mouth or by spitting a gob of acidic mucus. This acidic spittle inflicts 1d4+2 points of damage and has a range of 60’. Anyone struck by the substance must save vs. breath attacks twice. If the first save is successful, the victim takes half damage from the attack. If the second roll is failed, the acid dissolves the victim’s armor or clothing (75% chance) or weapon (25%). Metal objects enjoy a +2 bonus to this saving throw. A bale snail may only make a spit attack once every other round.

This great mollusk may overbear its prey with its tremendous bulk. Provided the snail has enough movement to overrun it victim, it makes a normal attack roll to crush its opponent. The victim must make a save vs. petrification (modified by any STR or DEX adjustments the character has) or become pinned by the snail’s foot, taking 1d4 points of crushing damage each round. Victims pinned by the snail can free themselves with a successful STR check at a +3 penalty or be pulled free by a comrade making an unmodified STR check.

If a bale snail fails its morale check, it is 90% likely to withdraw into its shell until its attackers leave the area. While inside its shell, the bale snail has an armor class of -6.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

...And Things Are Good

The day's game session is over and everyone had a good time. The recap has already been finished and the pictures have been posted. Next week, the game is taking the weekend off so I'm free to not think about the campaign for a day or three and enjoy a well-deserved break.

I found The Chronicles of Amber Vols. I & II for sale at my local library for a buck apiece. Having never read any of the Amber novels despite an extensive fantasy background, I look forward to tackling them when their appointed slots in the reading schedule come up.

I've received the cover piece for my unnamed book this week and I'm very pleased.

Tonight, very faintly, you can smell the first hint of autumn drifting in the evening air.

I hope all is well with you.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

In Search of Last Minute Paper Minis

Due to various projects staring me in the face, I've grown slack in my miniature painting regiment. As such, I realize that I won't have certain pieces that I might need for upcoming sessions finished by game time. While I don't need minis, I do like using them when we play at the FLGS as they attract attention and get people wondering what we're playing.

I'm looking for some paper animal minis--horses, wolves, bears, cougars, even big game. I've taken a look on and I've seen a big sheet of them for $3.00. However, I'm feeling a little stingy at the moment and if I can find them for even cheaper ($0.99 is around what I'm willing to pay) or for free, so much the better. If anyone knows where I might be able to find some animals, please let me know. Orcs, adventurers, and monsters are a snap to find, but more everyday beasties are eluding me.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

Looking toward the Future (and Seeing the Mushroom Clouds)

Looking back over the list of Labyrinth Lord game sessions, I suddenly realized that March 7th was our first meeting. That means we’ve got one more session before Watchfires & Thrones hits our six-month anniversary. Where ever does the time go?

I’ve mentioned it before on this blog that I find that the average shelf life of a regular campaign tends to run about 18 months. After a year and a half of playing the same character in the same setting using the same rules, a lot of players start getting a little punchy and begin fidgeting in their chairs. That’s a good time to take a break.

If this rule of thumb applies to W&T (and I’m not certain it will yet, as the majority of the players are still finding their feet with their PCs after so many early characters perished), this means we’re a third of the way through the campaign’s lifespan. Looking at where the PCs are, this sounds about right. In another twelve months, the longest surviving PCs will be fast approaching “name level” and the focus of the campaign should be shifting towards establishing strongholds in the wilderness (I readily admit that this is pure presumption on my part and the actual in-game results might vary greatly).

So what then to do when the end of next summer rolls around?

On an earlier, now-defunct blog, I once ruminated on what games I have left in me. By this I mean, what RPG titles am I willing to run as extended campaigns rather than one-shots or weekend long crazy-go-bananas marathons? That list turned out to be incredibly short. When the dust cleared, I found myself looking at D&D (in whatever flavor), Call of Cthulhu, Wraith: The Oblivion, my “Weird Game” (a modern supernatural heart breaker), and, of course, the radioactive goodness of Gamma World.

Now that I’ve gotten to know the guys I play with fairly well, it seems that the only correct answer to the above question is Gamma World. Hard core role-players this group is not, so that takes Wraith and the Weird Game out of the picture, and I’m pretty certain the guys have had enough of dying under my cruel ministrations, which means CoC is probably not the best material to shift gears with. Plus, Gamma World has been mentioned once or twice in casual conversation as a “game I’d love to play again.” There’s a lot of assumption in making this decision (Will the same group still be together in a year? Will they be willing to trade in elves, dwarves, and barbarians for blaster-toting gorillas and vampiric humanoids? Maybe I should ask everybody before I start making judgment calls like this?), but a guy’s got to have goals in life, right?

A year gives me plenty of lead-in time to get the game world in order before the first eight-toed foot touches down on it. After my efforts to whip up a pulp sword & sorcery game world in short order for W&T didn’t turn out to be what I hoped it would, I’m a little gun shy about trying to build anything sandbox-like in too little time. And it has been a while since I really dabbled in the Apocalypse so the more time I have to fine tune the setting the better.

I figure with a year to work on things, plus Rob Conley’s helpful blueprint for building a sandbox setting, I could have a pretty damn exciting post-apocalyptic campaign world for the players to run amuck in—even if I put no more than two hours into it each week. One hundred and four hours of design time is a pretty solid amount of world building.

So that’s my plan then, provided the guys don’t shoot me down outright. The fall of 2011 will be Armageddon around these parts. Looks like it’s time to start preparing for fallout.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Capitalizing on Hysteria

Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls: Stonehell Dungeon is a classic-style megadungeon, filled with enough monsters, traps, weirdness, and treasure to keep you gaming for a long, long time. Explore over 700 rooms, encounter more than 40 new monsters, and discover 18 mysterious magical items -- and that's just in the first book! Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls details the first six levels of a megadungeon intended for use with the Labyrinth Lord™ role-playing game, but is easily adaptable to most early versions of the original fantasy role-playing game and its retro-clones. Featuring art by J.A. D'Andrea, Lee Barber, Marcelo Paschoalin, and Ralph Pasucci, Stonehell Dungeon gives the game master all the necessary information to run his players through the dungeon, while offering enormous opportunities to customize and expand on the site. Suitable for characters of levels 1 through 7.

Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls is done by amateurs for amateurs and features loads of clip-art and hand-drawn maps (that were later redone in Photoshop BY HAND!). STICK IT TO THE MAN AND BUY MY BOOK!!! ON SALE NOW at LULU.COM!!!

(Because if I didn't do it, somebody else would)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

“Egads, there are a lot of you!”

The Watchfires & Thrones group has developed a glandular condition and grown to an unnatural size. Last Sunday’s game saw me staring out at a sea of faces crowded around a single kitchen table. With the return of one player who had been away for two months on personal business and the addition of a new player, our formally tiny little band is now nine people (eight players plus me behind the screen). This tread seems to be continuing, too. Next Sunday, we’re going to have a guest player (a gamer who’s up visiting and will be playing the dwarf hireling) and possibly introduce another regular player to the group. It seem like just a few weeks ago it was me and one other player meeting up at the FLGS to try and drum up interest. We we’re looking for two more players to start with because, as I said back then, if we could get three, we could get more. My oracular powers are truly astounding.

But it’s an often-repeated fact that while size does not matter, being entertaining does (case in point: the 1998 version of Godzilla). This has been my number one concern since our group first began to show signs of growing robust. This campaign has been my first true refereeing gig since my brief turn behind the screen to playtest Stonehell—a session that revealed to me exactly how out of practice I had become during my time away from the hobby—and I’ve been anxious not to screw it up. Yet, from all indications, my players are seemingly having the time of their lives. The phrase “best campaign I’ve ever been in” has been used within my earshot on at least two occasions so I must be doing something right (either that or my players have suffered through a long string of completely abominable games before meeting me).

I’m continuing to fine tune the game as we go, allowing it to develop organically through play and by where the PCs’ interests take them. Some house rules continue to be modified (we had a change in critical hit protocol last session) and others wait in the wings to be unleashed (counterspelling is going in the first time the adventurers meet up with spell-throwing enemies). I’ve planted the very first seeds to get people thinking about the D&D endgame now and to start casting their eye towards the frontier.

The biggest issue I’m wrestling with is when and if to say, “No more.” There is part of me (a very big part) that says, “Keep ‘em coming. I can take on all challenges,” and see if Watchfires & Thrones ever reaches the mythic numbers of Eld that required a Caller to keep things running smooth. I can’t lie: having a huge group of people playing old school D&D would be amazingly cool, especially since there’s plans underway to greatly increase our FLGS’s available gaming space so that it could accommodate a large group playing a single RPG. However, I’m not so self-deluded that I fail to see that my own ego is largely behind this desire.

Another option would be to investigate the feasibility of splitting the group into two separate parties that meet at different times and/or days. I’m not certain everyone would agree to this because the camaraderie of the players is one of the reasons to attend each week. Having to divide the players would impact the social aspect of the game now that we’ve gotten comfortable with one another over the last eighteen sessions.

The last course is to firmly set our limit and to turn away any newcomers. That number should be one lower than the amount of players I feel I can't comfortably handle. Unfortunately, I won’t know that number until I reach it. Back in college, I ran a very short-lived World of Cockamamie Darkness game that had either ten or eleven players running all types of critters from WoD titles. I’ve organized LARP games with thirty-plus players, but that sort of controlled chaos doesn’t really compare to sitting everyone around a table and keeping things flowing. The number of players I can handle in a Labyrinth Lord game remains an unknown. However, the fact that I spent all of last Sunday’s game literally on my toes (refereeing standing up) suggests that we might be getting close to that magic number.

All this brings me to the Number One Lesson I have learned since February of this year. It’s a pretty harsh-sounding one and some people might misinterpret my tough love for simply being a dick, but here it goes:

With very few exceptions, if you’re not playing the game you want to play, it because you’ve made the choice not to.

That’s a solid truth, people. If you want to play a certain title, go out there and make it happen. Don’t stop trying until you find the absolute minimum number of people you need and then start playing. If that group falls apart, find another one. Just keep at it. You might have to make some compromises (play online rather than face-to-face, letting the complete stranger who hangs out at the game store sit in on a game, coming out of the gamer closet and asking some non-gamer acquaintances if they want to try, or meeting once a month rather than once a week), but you will be playing the game you want to. To give up before you reach your goal is a choice on your part and you only have yourself to blame for it.

Jim Raggi’s got some excellent advice on how to go about drumming up a group. I’ll admit that I thought he was being abrasive in his presentation when I read the piece a long time back, but, after being out there and playing the game I want to play, I’m now in complete agreement with him. You’re the reason for your predicament, pal. Take this as your wake-up call and do something about it.

I no longer expect to ever be not playing the game I want. Should I find myself in a position where I’m not playing the game I wish I was, I’ll take steps to rectify that situation, and should I fail to do so, I’ll know that that is because I either consciously or unconsciously made the decision to. In some cases, that decision might be the correct one (like in the case of having a newborn baby or having to meet financial necessities), but it is still a choice I made.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Obscure Octavo: River Queens

From an undated letter signed by Praxel Nevarran:

I am not certain what to make of this latest, Grodari. Even to my ears, well-tuned as they are to the unbelievable stories that sprout in secluded villages, the most recent tale I’ve collected seems likely born from the fumes of strong spirits, yet I admit that there is something to it that strikes a faint but undeniable chord of truth. Perhaps your encyclopedic knowledge of folklore might pour more light on this story.

While staying at a drafty roadhouse located in the Stremenfold Valley, I overheard three of the local goodmen loudly discussing a recent death in the village. It seemed that three days prior to my arrival in the hamlet, the body of a young man was found in the reeds along the local riverbank. Although from the facts it seemed as if the lad was simply a victim of accidental drowning, certain wise folks—you know the sort—insist that his death was much more insidious. It was from the lips of these codgers that I first heard tell of the “river queens.”

At first, these local boogities seem to be of the same vein as the nixies and the rusalka, both of which we’re well acquainted with. But as I pried more of the tale from these men, the particulars diverge from ones associated with those entities, leaving me to believe that there is either nothing more to these tales than pastoral imaginations run amuck around a winter’s night fire or that this creature is something scholars have yet to document. Here is what I could get the men to divulge:

A river queen seems to be a hitherto unknown type of vampiric elemental, one tied to a local body of water as the name suggests. Yet, despite this connection, the creature is encountered away from her sodden den and is most commonly found in the midst of the local community—candidly, of course, for if her true identity was known, she would be unable to feed and be driven off. (I use the feminine pronoun when referring to this creature, but this is simple convenience. If truly elemental in nature as the tales suggest, gender is likely neuter or simply not applicable.)

A river queen appears as a human woman, one of slight, almost boyish frame, and frequently with short, dark hair. She is unremarkable of form, being neither too comely nor too plain to attract the notice of anyone other than her victim, and she bears the physical traits most common to the region—again so as to attract no attention to herself. Although elemental in nature and aquatic as well, there are no telltale signs to alert observers to this fact. Amongst those who have survived the attentions of a river queen, a few report that her body bears marking similar to those worn by Etrani sailors or northern savages. In these cases, the marking were all located in places upon the body covered by clothing and only became visible when the river queen disrobed.

A river queen’s prime purpose to walk amongst civilization is to feed, and it is in this aspect of her diet that she resembles the wampyr or succubus, for she draws sustenance from mortal energy. However, unlike the wampyr who drinks the blood of its victim, or the succubus who sustains herself on sex and the fluids associated with that act, the river queen feeds on the creative energies of her victim. She is a negative Muse, drawing power on the very act of creation, much to the detriment of the creator.

She does this by attracting the attentions of one with an abundance of creative power, typically an artist, musician, writer, or performer, but in times of severe hunger, an over-imaginative farm hand or dreamy eyed dairy maid will suffice. Such creative individuals are often shunned by less imaginative peers or have removed themselves from society to pursue their chosen art form, making them easy prey for a river queen who comes with attentiveness and flattery. She works herself into her chosen victim’s confidence, often striking up a friendship or even more intimate relationship with the subject. In many cases, this newfound attention is enough to cause the victim to embark on a sudden binge of creativity with the river queen serving as his or her Muse. This obviously is to the elemental’s boon as she feeds on this torrent of imaginative energy.

Over time, the river queen’s feeding outstrips her victim’s ability to produce, leaving the artist uninspired and desperately grasping for the touch of inspiration. It is during this period that the river queen’s attentions become most obvious, for the victim begins suffering from insomnia and the physical traits of that affliction begin to manifest themselves on the subject. The subject may begin to abuse alcohol or other intoxicants at this time, leaving them with the physical signs of that decline as well. All too often, the artist, sensitive soul that he is, will ultimately take his own life in depression over the loss of his creativity. The river queen, her food source exhausted, now moves on to her next meal.

Although both the wampyr and succubus are nocturnal entities, the river queen seems unaffected by such restrictions and has been encountered both day and night by her victim and his or her associates. It is known that a river queen often removes herself from the presence of her victim, often for days at a time, but the purpose of these absences is unknown. It is possible that she must return to her watery lair to reinvigorate herself in her natural element, but it is also just as likely that she only engaging in a form of conservation, allowing her prey to recharge their own creative energies in order to prolong the duration of her feeding.

These absences are often the sole indicator that a subject is being victimized by a river queen. According to folklore, some friends of a river queen’s victim will seek out the creature during a time when she is away from her prey. Believing that the river queen is nothing more than an over-controlling paramour, these good intentioned acquaintances hope to beg the creature to leave the subject alone, but their efforts to locate her home or find anyone else who knows her always comes to naught. Her inaccessibility applies to her victim as well. Many victims of a river queen become enraptured with their victimizer and miss her destructive attentions when she’s away. These poor souls wander about in search of their poisonous Muse to no avail. If they were of sound mind, this vanishing might alert them to the identity of their quarry, but alas the victim’s judgment has been compromised at this stage.

(There is an exception to the above in a singular tale. In this one case, the victim of a river queen attempted to contact his fiendish lover during one of her absences. While his attempts to locate her were unsuccessful, he did encounter a fellow of crude appearance and rough manners who claimed to be acquainted with the river queen—in her mortal identity. He agreed to pass along a message to her and vanished himself soon after. The river queen reappeared the next day but whether this was a result of her victim’s message is inconclusive. This exception to the normal behavior of a river queen remains suspect, but, if it is true, it could suggest that some river queens are served by human or human-seeming servants much in the way that some wampyr are.)

Unfortunately, there seems to be no known way to destroy a river queen. Some old folks swear that salt will burn a river queen like lye and that the blessing of the river queen’s watery den by a faithful soul will cause it to flee the area, but, as far as the tales go, there is no known case of a river queen’s death being witnessed. In most tales, she simply disappears when sated and returns after a long period has elapsed to hunt again.

As one last point of interest, some of the oldest tales imply that the river queen’s unassuming human form is not her real one but merely a glamour that hides a more hideous appearance. Unfortunately, those tales imply rather than describe this horrid guise, giving no clues as to what a river queen might actually look like when its true shape is assumed.

I am most anxious to hear your thoughts, Grodari. I have posted this missive through the local lord of Aldwater, the master of this valley hamlet where the lad’s death occurred and I am currently residing. I hope to pry deeper into this matter and see what more there might be to learn. The identification and proper classification of such a creature would be quite a feather in my unadorned bonnet, old friend. If you can find nothing on this creature or one like it in the Grand Archive of Tvar v Tvarax, it confirms my thought that this could be an unclassified entity. Send word to the lord of Aldwater whatever your results might be.

Friday, August 13, 2010

I'm Certain Another Response Was Intended

I'm in the process of putting together another retrospective about the Forgotten Realms. It's a work in progress but it has been an enjoyable task. I've tracked down a couple products that I missed when they were initially released, and that's been a mixed bag looking them over. I'll cover that in more detail during the actual retrospective.

Today, I got my first look at the 4E Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide. I didn't purchase it, merely read through selected sections of it to get an idea of what's changed. I knew about this Spellplague thingamajig and the fact that they bumped the timeline ahead 100 years to accomodate all the changes that were made to 4th edition D&D, but I never took the time to see what that meant in actual game design terms.

I threw up a little when I read the book.

I'll be the first to admit that my general disgust is entirely on me. My memories of both the setting and the fun I had with it go back more than twenty years (a fact I still can't wrap my head around), so I'm obviously going to judge any new Realms product on that very subjective scale. Knowing this doesn't make the pain of watching something once so beloved become a travesty of all it was. I couldn't help be feel like I was experiencing the inverse of Nothing But Flowers.

Something needs to be done about this.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

“This is where Forrestal cashed in.”

It has been mentioned previously that I consider the Moldvay Method of Dungeon Stocking to be the epitome of arbitrary dungeon contents generation. I’ve used it for so long that I no longer need to consult the actual chart in order to utilize that method. Recently, however, I rediscovered a table that gives Moldvay a run for its money. It doesn’t surpass Moldvay, but it is interesting in its own right.

The method is found in the booklet that accompanied the Adventures of Indiana Jones: Judge’s Survival Pack of all things. This supplement, published for use with TSR’s The Adventures of Indiana Jones role-playing game, was released in 1985 and the booklet has been the “Flying Dutchman” of my role-playing game collection: always turning up when least expected and disappearing just as quickly.

The booklet itself is a buffet of ideas, some useful, some not, but nestled amongst the various chapters is a section on random ruin generation for use in a game of Indiana Jones. Not surprisingly, there’s much in that section that can be lifted for use in a D&D campaign, including ruin geomorphs and inspirational charts to help determine the ruin’s history. The most useful of all is the “Noteworthy Room Table.” This d% chart gives you an entire array of possible room contents that is further broken down into sub-tables for each result.

I’ve only reproduced the main table below, but just looking it over will demonstrate why I consider it another great candidate for random dungeon stocking: it simply has everything you could ever wish for in a dungeon all on one table. The entries for the sub-tables are given below the chart and a resourceful referee could easily construct his or her own version of these charts. The one major difference is you’re going to be less likely to encounter monstrous creatures to fight, but some rearranging of the probabilities could easily get around that. Or you could simply use the table as is to create a “less fighting, more thinking” dungeon location. I'd simply roll a d6 and on any result of 3-6, I'd consider the room noteworthy to go along with Moldvay's 4 in 6 chance of any given room having something of interest in it. Treasure, traps, and monsters would be resolved by the usual tables; everything else would be determined from the examples given below or similar possibilities.

Noteworthy Room Table

01-10: Treasure
11-16: Find
17-31: Trap
32-36: Secret Way
37-43: Creature
44-53: Obstacle
54-59: Predecessor
60-63: Spectacle
64-66: Incredible
67-72: Dilemma
73: Treasure & Trap
74: Treasure & Secret Way
75: Treasure & Obstacle
76: Treasure & Predecessor
77: Treasure & Dilemma
78: Find & Trap
79: Find & Creature
80: Find & Incredible
81: Trap & Secret Way
82: Trap & Creature
83: Trap & Obstacle
84: Trap & Predecessor
85: Trap & Spectacle
86: Trap & Dilemma
87: Secret Way & Dilemma
88: Creature & Obstacle
89: Obstacle & Predecessor
90: Obstacle & Spectacle
91: Treasure-Trap-Secret Way
92: Treasure-Trap-Obstacle
93: Treasure-Creature-Predecessor
94: Treasure-Obstacle-Dilemma
95: Find-Trap-Spectacle
96: Find-Creature-Incredible
97: Trap-Obstacle-Predecessor
98: Secret Way-Predecessor-Dilemma
99: Treasure-Trap-Predecessor-Incredible
100: Find-Trap-Creature-Dilemma

Examples of Finds: Calendar Stone, Stone Tablet, Scroll, Codex, Monument, Plaque, Map, Clay Tablet, Tapestry, Figurine, Grave, Skeleton, Skull, Burial Cloth, Ashes, Mummy, Hand, Raiment, Bust, Death Mask, Idol, Signet Ring, Seal, Scepter, Crown, Helm, Robe, Medallion, Horn, Banner/Flag, Gem, Platter, Necklace, Bracelet/Bracer, Ring, Coins, Goblet, Sculpture, Belt/Girdle, Masks, Throne, Chariot, Ark/Shrine, Boat, Wheel, Vase, Totem, Pottery, Chest, Table, Spear, Sword, Axe, Breastplate, Shield, Staff, Flail, Throwing Stick, Net, War Club, Rare Plant, Rare Animal, Dinosaur, Giant, Sea Serpent, Fabled Creature, Vanished Race, Evolved Race, Intelligent Animal, Prehistoric Man, or Secret of (Mysterious Ruins, Lost Civilization, Fabled Lands, Relic, Catastrophe Site, Wheel of Time, Fountain of Youth, Philosopher’s Stone, Unicorn Horn, or Shape shifters).

Examples of Obstacles: Lava, Stairs, Ramp, Slide, Shifting Ground, Brambles/Thorns, Balcony, Rushing River, Geyser, Narrow Space, Chocking Vapors, Cliff Face, Windy Ledge, Stinging/Clinging vines, Chasm/Broken Bridge, Hot Springs/Lime Terraces, Blockade/Dead End, or Marsh

Examples of Predecessors: Opened Doors/Chests, Bloodstains/Campfires, Footprints, Scratched/Scrawled Messages on Walls, Dropped Gear/Map, Broken Down Wall/Door, Dead Creature, Defaced Furnishings/Stolen Treasure, Triggered Trap (with or without corpses), or Corpse Shot/Stabbed in Back.

Examples of Spectacles: Balancing Rock, Moaning/Howling Wind, Area Glows With Eerie Light, Eerie Feeling/Dread, Lifelike Sculpture/Painting, Clinking and Chiming, Feeling of Peace, Network of Lightbeams, Mirage/Reflection, Swirling Lave, Beating/Pulsing Sound, Statically Charged Air, Clanking Sound, Feeling of Nausea/Dizziness, Bottomless Pit/Darkness, Gonging, Gilded Walls/Dancing Light, Panoramic View, Looming Monument/Idol/Tower, or High Vaulted Ceiling (60’).

Examples of Incredible: Mammoth Solar Calendar, Huge Natural Magnet, Natural Laser, Wind Tunnel, Natural Magnifying Glass, Huge Windmill/Turbine, Glowing Crystal, Echo Room, Giant Lightning Rod, 60’ Tall Gong, Giant’s Room, Midget’s Room, Non-Human Room, Giant Insect Colony/Rat Den, Crystalline Chamber, Immense Waterwheel, Dancing Swarm in Hive, Amplification Room, Heavenly Voices/Natural Radio, or Crude Electrostatic Generator.

Examples of Dilemmas: Nerve to Pass, Climb, Balance, Jump Across, Jump/Dive Down, Swim, Swing, Dodge, Care, or Endure.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Interview with Tom Lynch of Miskatonic River Press

Longtime readers of the Society of Torch, Pole and Rope know that Call of Cthulhu is one of the titles on my short list of favorite RPGs. It's also one of the titles that I very seldom get the chance to play. In fact, during the past year, I've had exactly two chances to stand up against the forces of the Great Old Ones, which is far less than either myself or the fate of humanity requires.

Although my opportunities have been limited, I've had the benefit of walking away from each session with more than just a few hours of entertainment to show for it. The first session, which took place back in November at my FLGS "Cthulhu Day" event, introduced me to Tom Lynch, the president and managing editor of Miskatonic River Press. Tom ran the group through a playtest of the scenario "Engine Trouble," which resulted in the deaths of all involved.

The second CoC game I had the opportunity to play in was back in March at I-CON, the local scif-fi convention here on Long Island. That game was run by MRP partner Oscar Rios and served to introduce me to longtime Call of Cthulhu contributor and editor, Scott Aniolowski, who graciously agreed to be interviewed for this site.

At I-CON, Tom Lynch also agreed to answer a few questions about Miskatonic River Press, writing material for Call of Cthulhu, and the difficulties of running a small gaming company in the 21st Century. Despite attempts by the servants of Things That Should Not Be to scuttle that interview, it at long last sees the light of day. I still have a copy of Our Ladies of Sorrows sitting on the slush pile, waiting for a read-through. Maybe I'll actually get to that by Halloween of this year.

Interview with Tom Lynch, President of Miskatonic River Press

What was your introduction to role-playing games in general and Call of Cthulhu specifically? Were you familiar with Lovecraft’s work before you encountered CoC?

Oof…okay, role-playing games in general would be Dungeons & Dragons in 6th grade. I wasn’t one of the cool kids though. They all had characters who were gods. I had a thief named “Tarken.” When he died, I had another thief named “Tarken.” I got better at that over the years, but drifted away from DnD when fewer and fewer friends played.

Then I went on vacation to a place up in the Vermont woods (!) where I happened across a couple guys about my age (I was 15 at this point) who were playing DnD. They asked if I wanted to join them, and I did. Suddenly, I was playing rpg’s again! The two introduced themselves: Alex, the inn-owner’s son, and Paul. Carrick. The epic Cthulhian artist. Yeah…I met him then. About 25 years ago (ack!).

I continued with DnD through high school and into college. My sophomore year, my roommate (a gamer, of course), introduced me to another game. We played Cthulhu Now. A friend down the hall in the dorm, ran us through some Classic CoC. That friend turned out to be best friends with none other than Paul Carrick! (Small world.) So we went to visit him at RISD in Providence and played some Call of Cthulhu in Providence. Very fitting indeed.

I’ve never looked back…it’s been CoC since and is still today.

As to Lovecraft, I learned of him through the game. I’m descended from a line of people who love a good scare (my grandmother loved her nightmares to the point where she figured out a position to sleep in to give nightmares). I picked up his writing, and some others, and have continued my quest for a scare through Call of Cthulhu.

Did you have any experience writing game material before your involvement with MRP?

Professionally? No. I’d done my share of writing, but I’d never done anything for publication. I have reams of notes though, from all my past outline-style scenarios and adventures.

In the short time I managed to work with Doc, though, I learned an immense amount. Let’s just hope it’s enough.

Miskatonic River Press was the brainchild of Keith “Doc” Herber. How did you come to know him and get involved with the company?

Heh. Funny story, that. If you listen to the interview he did at (Yog Radio #34:, he says I “literally crawled out of the woodwork,” and so I did. He announced that he was starting up his own thing, and asked if people would be interested in participating (writing, illustrating). Now, I knew I was competing with others who’d done much more than I had, so I figured I’d try the direct approach. Doc listed his AOL Instant Messenger account on YSDC. So I used it! I introduced myself and struck up a conversation.

Doc, being the gentleman he was, chatted with me daily, until he told me it was official, he had a name and papers and everything. I pointed out that was an available domain on the web, and I suddenly found where I’d be useful. Doc was designer, but had never thought of how to get the web aspect going, so I offered up some free hosting, and built the web site.

After all this, he named me his partner, and the rest is history.

MRP hosted a panel recently on operating a small publishing company in the 21st century. Could you talk a bit about some of the challenges MRP has faced and how it has overcome them?

Ah challenges. Well, there are many and varied challenges these days.

One of the topics we covered at I-Con was being a tiny but global company. We have people working for MRP on four continents. Five if you count our super-secret bunker in Antarctica….ooops. Staying in touch with and on top of people that widely dispersed is very difficult. What I suggest here is have documentation up front. Have contracts. Have written agreements: who’s doing what and by when. Establishing that will alleviate much stress.

Another huge issue with the economy and how people are in general these days is money. MRP has been blessed by meeting people willing to help simply because they believe in the future of the company. Add that to the fact that the partners don’t get paid a cent, and you discover that you *can* run an RPG company with almost no budget.

The final challenge I’d like to share is the issue of will power. There are times that this is crushingly difficult to do. The money is terrible (ie – there is none), the hours stink (you’re doing it whenever and wherever you can), and there are no benefits (except for the company car and corporate jet…yeah right). Sometimes you just have to step back and take a break. That’s okay! You’ll come back to it. If you’re not having fun doing this, it’s not worth doing! (So long as you come back to it.)

Many of my readers are familiar with the Open Game License created by Wizards of the Coast , allowing third-party publishers the opportunity to write game material for Dungeons & Dragons and other d20 titles. They might not be as cognizant with Chaosium’s policy regarding third-party publishers. Could you explain how MRP is allowed to produce Call of Cthulhu material?

Doc acquired a license to produce four BRP Call of Cthulhu game titles per year. After Doc passed away, Charlie and I documented the fact that the license has now passed from “Keith Herber” to Miskatonic River Press. That way, the license is in the name of the company. So we are permitted to make these books, and we send a portion of our print run to Chaosium, for them to sell.

If anyone is interested in attaining a license, I encourage them to contact Charlie [Krank, president of Chaosium]. Quick hint about that: use the phone. He’s inundated with email and will probably never, EVER catch up. But he is usually the one to pick up the phone at Chaosium headquarters.

MRP has managed to entice some well-known Call of Cthulhu writers like Scott Aniolowski, Fred Behrendt, and Kevin Ross under its banner. You’ve worked with some fairly new writers as well. What’s your submission policy in case some of the readers are interested in playing in Lovecraft’s sandbox and producing new Call of Cthulhu material?

To give credit where it’s due, Scott, Fred, and Kevin, as well as Gary Sumpter, Todd Woods, J. Todd Kingrea were all pals of Doc’s. When he told them he was back in the biz, like the Great Old Ones, they awakened from their slumber and started writing again. MRP is truly blessed to have people like that to call on not only for content, but to bounce ideas. These are the guys who were writing for this game when we all first started playing, so not only have they seen it all…they’ve *written* it! Having access to their knowledge and expertise is a great thing.

As to our submission policy, it’s pretty open. If you have an idea, shoot it over to us! If you have a completed scenario, hey, we’ll look at that too! No guarantees, of course, since we have our own plans as to what books we want to do and when, but as I learned, the only way to get into this business is to take the chance and raise your hand. Take that chance:

What is planned for the future of Miskatonic River Press? Any upcoming releases you’d care to plug?

Well, sure…if you want to drag it out of me, we have three projects currently underway in varying stages of completion:

More Adventures in Arkham Country – MRP brings the players back to Lovecraft Country in the 1920’s, and hosts the triumphant return of Call of Cthulhu great Scott David Aniolowski. Incidentally, this one’s available for pre-order now if anyone feels the need ( At this point, that book should be out this summer.

The Legacy of Arrius Lurco – MRP partner and prolific CoC author Oscar Rios will be sharing a full length Cthulhu Invictus (Cthulhu in Ancient Rome) campaign with the world.

Tales of the Sleepless City – New York City. 1920’s. What else do I need to say? Okay, well, I’ll offer that Scott David Aniolowski will be joining us again for this book of scenarios, as will Dan Harms author of The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia.

I'd like to offer my thanks again to Tom for agreeing to take the time out to answer a few questions. As both of fan of CoC and someone who has experienced the trials and joys of producing gaming material simply for the love of the hobby, I'm always interested in hearing about how others go about the same process. Tom and Oscar both run a great game; if the opportunity ever presents itself, do yourself a favor and sit in on one of their sessions. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

R.I.P. Derf Scratch of FEAR

It’s been adequately demonstrated that on a hypothetical Venn diagram, this blog falls within the sets of both “old school D&D” and “punk rock.” Both came to prominence during the 1970s and both have had a tremendous influence upon yours truly. Unfortunately, the two have another commonality: the passing of their elder statesman. That punk even has any elder statesmen remaining is surprising enough, but that doesn’t make losing another any less somber of an event. And, as Pitchfork is reporting, Derf Scratch, the original bass player for the seminal Los Angeles punk band FEAR has joined that ever-increasing list of dead punk rockers.

There’s a very nice summation of his career over on The AV Club, so I’ll merely state that FEAR is one of my top ten favorite bands to come out of the L.A. punk scene. Longtime readers might remember that I saw the current lineup of FEAR play just last summer. Although not as musically competent as some artists or socially aware as others, FEAR was a band that always evoked a response from its audience—and that’s what every artist hopes to do. It also was at its best when original members like Derf and Philo were on the band’s roster. Derf also gave us the saxophone track on the very anti-New York City “New York’s Alright (If You Like Saxophones)”—a song which I should theoretically despise as a native New Yorker, but nevertheless brings a smile to my face.

Here's to Derf.