Friday, February 25, 2011

Because It Bears Repeating Often

"Although the rules have been thoroughly play-tested over a period of many months, it is likely that you will find some part that seems ambiguous, unanswered, or unsatisfactory. When such a situation arises settle it amongst yourselves, record the decision in the rules book, and abide by it from then on. These rules may be treated as guide lines around which you form a game that suits you. It is always a good idea to amend the rules to allow for historical precedence or common sense--follow the spirit of the rules rather than the letter."

Chainmail by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren, p. 8, 3rd Edition

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Come for the Rant, Stay for the Chart

Run, do not walk, to JOESKY's latest post. After a pretty lousy day, it was just what I needed to restore my faith in humanity.

P.S. to my players: I will be using that chart in future sessions. You've been warned.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Minutes from the Society of Torch, Pole and Rope – February Edition

I suppose I should make one more post before February becomes a memory and the winds of March begin to wail. My latest silence is the result of a mixture of intense activity and general malaise which is never the best of combinations. Let me bring you up to date before I dive back into the mess I have wrought.

I’m currently working on finishing up another book, one that’s been being honed for the better part of a year. With each refinement, the book comes closer and closer to what I envisioned when I originally pitched it, and I’m pleased with its growth. I’m nevertheless looking forward to when the final words are written and it moves off my desk and on down the line. I’m certain that if you’ve liked what I’ve done in the past, this next book will tickle you in all the right (and sometimes wrong) places.

As soon as this book is finished and I get the OK to move on to other things, I’ll be starting on the Stonehell sequel—no bullshitting around on that. As much as I love my megadungeon, knowing that I still owe the final book to you fine folks has been weighing on me like a quarrel-pierced seabird. I need to make sure that I have enough time to not only write the best book I can, but to deliver it before year’s end. Having been down this path once before, I’m fully aware of the detours and outright catastrophes that can cripple a book’s chances odds of meeting a deadline. The sooner started, the sooner finished, and that’s best for everyone.

Once Stonehell 2: Wrath of Kobolds is completed I will emphatically state that it is unlikely that I’ll be returning to the world of self-publishing any time soon. The occasional PDF or 32 p. module, maybe, but no more full length books—at least not ones that I have to do every damn thing to make happen. I enjoy writing them; I like better it when someone else works the magic to turn the manuscript into a book.

On the home front, I’m running out of steam on my Labyrinth Lord campaign. I wish I had better news, but between finishing the new book and looking at doing the Stonehell sequel, I just can’t muster up the gumption to get excited about my own fantasy world. A sea change is most definitely in the air, and I’ve already apprised my players that a sabbatical from "Watchfires & Thrones" may be in order for a time. Potential candidates have been discussed with no consensus on a replacement. We will be helping playtest a certain unnamed RPG in the weeks ahead, and if that proves to be to everyone’s satisfaction, the prospect of running a regular game of said unnamed RPG before it sees actual publication has an allure I find difficult in resisting, especially since I’m pretty impressed by what I’ve read so far.

To completely contradict the last paragraph, I’m doing work on another fantasy setting for another group, a world that’s been tremendously entertaining and inspiring. I get together with friends every two months or so for a night of board and card games, and these sessions have been a lot of fun. We manage to try out at least one new game each time we meet and the results have been 95% positive. One of the regulars at these sessions expressed an interest in trying out a fantasy roleplaying game (she’s never played before, but has an interest in the genre) back around Christmas time and I agreed to put one together. The book has slowed down my progress in assembling the introductory adventure, but that’s changed in recent weeks. I finally found a hook and system that works best for the mostly inexperienced players attending and also scratches all the itches that are being left untouched by the Labyrinth Lord campaign. It may just be the greatest setting I’ve ever developed.

What I like best about the setting is that it is personal. I’m crafting a game world that is not intended to see publication in a book or be blogged about here. I’m not writing it with one eye trained on commercial consumption concerns, but instead on the entertainment of just myself and a close circle of friends. After having spent so much time over the past two-and-a-half years writing with the public in mind, it’s nice to have that freedom again. I may talk about the setting some day, but for now it’s most definitely a case of “You have to be there” to enjoy it.

And that, my friends, is that. See you when I see you again.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Five Books, Four Authors, Three Castles, Two Months, and One Long Wait

In case you missed these posts here, the finalists for the first Three Castles Award have been publicly announced over at the NTRPGCon forums. The five works going on to the final adjudication by Paul Jaquays, Tim Kask, Robert Kuntz, Dennis Sustare, and Steve Winter are:

B/X Companion by Jonathan Becker
LotFP Weird Fantasy Role-Playing by James Raggi
Stonehell Dungeon by Michael Curtis
The Dungeon Alphabet by Michael Curtis
The Majestic Wilderlands by Robert Conley

At the risk of sounding full of myself, I was confident that one of my two entries would make it to the final round, but having both of them accepted was quite unexpected. They are in astounding company and I wish James, Jonathan, and Robert the best of luck. No matter who wins, we all benefit—and I don’t just mean we four authors. Hopefully this award and the names attached to it will draw more attention to this thing of ours and encourage others to continue (or start) writing, designing, and illustrating classic role-playing game supplements that support the style of gaming we prefer.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Acererak Caper

Once upon a time, I caught some forgotten comedian’s bit about men and heist films. His contention was that, deep down inside, men want to participate in a heist. There is some primal, masculine allure to the idea of hanging upside-down in an air vent, spraying aerosol to detect invisible trip beams while another guy sits in a van three blocks away screaming “They changed the code!” into his headset mike. The challenge of defeating the undefeatable and walking away with a fortune is tempting no matter how law-abiding one is in everyday life, which is why the heist remains a popular crime genre in both fiction and film.

As I was out walking yesterday, The Tomb of Horrors burbled up to the surface of my thoughts for some reason. As my readers undoubtedly know, that module is largely considered to be the most challenging dungeon ever written. In fact, the Tomb of Horrors is so notorious that I’ve had younger gamers, ones who’ve never even seen the module in the figurative flesh, tell me with complete and utter sincerity that it is unbeatable and that everyone who enters the Tomb dies. They don’t believe me when I tell them otherwise.

Personally, I’m of the school of thought that there are no truly unbeatable dungeons or deathtraps—provided one has a fair referee and enough time and money to spend. I maintain that the Tomb can be navigated with greatly reduced risk if a) the referee is neutral, and b) you’re willing to take a financial and magical loss on the venture. Again, when I mention this, these younger gamers assume I’m talking about buying every last sheep in town and driving them ahead of the party to serve as mine detectors when they explore the tomb. Not so, my friends.

The key to defeating the tomb is patience, money, and research, not livestock. One of the great things about the Tomb is that, when inserted into a campaign setting rather than used as a one-shot, there is no time limit present when confronting the lich’s crypt. This gives the smart and cautious player all the time in the world to plan his foray before he gets within sight of that skull motif hill.

In a world where sages can be paid vast sums to dedicate all their time to researching the past and unearth forgotten scraps of information, why not do so? When priests quite literally have access to the knowledge of the gods, who wouldn’t consult them to inquire what lays beyond the entrance to the Tomb? Genius mages can cast spells that access other planes of existence or delve into legend to retrieve scraps of knowledge, so it would be foolish to not hire their services. And in a milieu where magic items exist that can detect traps, contain spells of augury or divination, see through illusions, detect poison, magic, and evil, reveal secret passages, and otherwise access the unknown and unseen, why wouldn’t you take as long as was necessary to buy, beg, borrow, and steal those items to take with you?

It then occurred to me that all this prep work was the fantasy equivalent to putting a crew together in a heist film. Why not make the entire campaign one big heist job with the Tomb of Horrors as the once-in-a-lifetime score?

The set-up would be simple enough. First, figure out what treasure makes the players drool and stash it in the Tomb. Staff of the Magi? It’s in there. Hammer of Thunderbolts? Acererak stole it. A diamond the size of a baby’s head? The lich has six of them.

Then start the players off at first level and let them know exactly what’s in the Tomb. Give them a scrap of information to get them started and then let them figure out how to get it. They’ve got 10-14 levels to plan their heist.

The result would be a sandbox-style campaign with a definite end game. The players would have to determine what information, equipment, magic items, favors, assistants, etc. they would need to breach the tomb and then figure out how to get access to that material. This would lead them to tracking down the possible resting places of a gem of true seeing or a wand of secret door and trap location. They might have to do a few favors for the Great Oracle in order to gain her favor so she will contact the gods to see within the tomb. A council of mages might need pacification before they’d agree to use their crystal balls and legend lore spells to peer beyond the veil. And, of course, the Thieves Guild is going to want in on a heist like this…

To make it true to the heist genre, you could even start the campaign with a single PC and have him decide who to recruit. As he puts his list of needed accomplices together, the other players come in as possible candidates, leaving it up to the first PC and his player to best determine how to go about recruiting them to participate in the caper. Now would also be the time to slip in a mole or secret rival too.

Like any sandbox, this would require a lot of prep work for the referee, but with a predetermined campaign goal to consider, he could concentrate his efforts on people, places, and things related to the ultimate heist. No need to design a ten-level megadungeon, just lots of little dungeons that hold secrets and heist-related magical items, for example. You could even use James Raggi’s The Grinding Gear as a low-level dry run to give the PCs an idea of what sort of challenges lie ahead.

One thing that would be required of the referee is complete 100% fairness. The Tomb’s a tough nut, and with it as the focus of the campaign, he might even want to make it 25%-50% more deadly ahead of time. Although, once that’s done, he can’t toughen it up again later on down the line if the PCs become better prepared than anticipated. If the players are smart and take steps to learn and overcome the Tomb’s dangers, they should be rewarded for doing so and not have to face a Tomb “adjusted for their challenge level.” On the other hand, if they fail to make the correct preparations, there’s nothing wrong with the campaign ending with the death of everyone.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I think I have the concept for the next Labyrinth Lord campaign I run.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Siege of Fort Wolf’s Head

Last Sunday saw the players in my Labyrinth Lord campaign defending a remote frontier settlement against a horde of goblins. The scenario was lifted directly from Night’s Dark Terror, although the events leading up to the siege were a result of the players’ own actions. Putting them in charge of the fort’s defense was a great way to shake up the game for a session before returning to the dungeon crawl that seems to be the preferred style of play. I almost, almost sent out an email to players to suggest they watch Zulu or Assault on Precinct 13 before the game, but decided to not tip my hand ahead of time. Michael Caine references were made nevertheless.

The biggest problem in preparing for the battle was that I didn’t have a map of the frontier fort that accompanied the module. My copy of B10 is secondhand and is missing the big map and counters. If I was dealing with people who maintain a reasonable business model, I would normally have the option to buy a PDF version of that adventure and print out the map in pieces to tape together. Alas, Hasbro has an interesting method of doing business. Thankfully, someone was kind enough to provide me with a copy of the map so I could reproduce it on a sheet of Gaming Paper ahead of time. I’m attaching a photo of that reproduction to this post—just in case anyone else out there was wondering what the map of the outpost looks like.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Looking for a Specific Weird Adventure Seed

The fog of age seems especially thick this morning; perhaps you can help.

I vaguely recall an adventure seed that appeared is some modern horror rpg supplement from the past five or six years. It involved the discovery of a pale, almost feral girl in the foothills of a local mountain chain. She gets brought back to civilization, gets examined and tested, and ultimately escapes back into the wild. It later turns out that she is a survivor or descendent of a group of school children who got buried in a cave system or fallout shelter in the mountains—and there’s a whole passel of them still out there. Does this strike anyone else’s memory bell?

I thought it appeared in White Wolf’s Mysterious Places, but a quick perusal of that didn’t find it. It might be in another WW book or in a modern CoC supplement, but I can’t remember for certain. I’m pretty certain I didn’t make this one up on my own—it’s a bit off the beaten trail even for me—but I could be wrong…

EDIT: It's "The Girl from the Snow" located in the back of WoD Asylum for those playing along at home.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Owlbears of a Different Feather

I just got hipped to this post over at the ArtOrder blog thanks to the webcomic Darths & Droids. It seems that back in September of 2009, ArtOrder has a competition to redesign the owlbear. The entries range from the noble, to the silly, to the outright creepy. As someone who likes alternate takes on old classics, I found the submissions to be excellent design fodder for the next time the players run across D&D’s favorite hybrid. Do yourself a favor and check them out.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Radioactive Theatre: Cherry 2000

Another selection from the dead PA movie website. This time around it's the Melanie Griffith/Sam Treadwell vehicle, Cherry 2000 (1988). Enjoy!

Cast: David Andrews (Sam Treadwell), Melanie Griffith (E. Johnson), Tim Thomerson (Lester), Pamela Gidley (Cherry 2000)

Setting: 2017. A time when humanity has apparently become stupid and has forgotten how to manufacture certain high-tech equipment.

Violent Mutants Present: No

Plot: When Sam Treadwell’s robotic wife short-circuits, he journeys to lawless Zone Seven in search of the Robotic Graveyard. Assisted by a rough wasteland tracker, he seeks to find a new body for his beloved sex-toy, but a bandit leader has other plans for Cherry 2000’s personality chip.

Rating: 2 Nukes

With a title that sounds like a soft-core porn film, you can hardly watch Cherry 2000 expecting a great film. I first saw this film on Cinemax during my post-adolescent years and remembered it as being a somewhat entertaining film. Then again, I thought Hell Come to Frogtown was pretty good when I saw it in college (Warning: Watching certain films under chemical enhancement can color you perceptions of reality).

The film can be fun, especially if you go into it with no expectations (a trend which Hollywood seems to encourage). It’s hardly Mad Max, but keep an eye open for some familiar faces and learn to roll with the ridiculous.

The plot involves uptight, mid-management stooge Sam Treadwell (David Andrews), a man who loses his wife/sex-toy Cherry 2000 (Pamela Gidley) to an electrical accident involving a wet kitchen floor and some over-active hormones. When he learns he cannot get a new body to reinstall Cherry’s personality chip and “resurrect” his beloved robot, he journeys to the lawless zones in search of a replacement. Along the way, he teams up with a hard-as-nails tracker named E. Johnson (Melanie Griffith) and runs afoul of a wasteland despot named Lester (Tim Thomerson). I won’t ruin the ending, but I’m sure you can figure it out on your own.

If there’s any reason to rent this film, it’s Tim Thomerson. Many folks will recognize Thomerson from the Trancers series, Dollman, and about a hundred other B-movies. Thomerson can be hysterical as Lester. He rules his band of wasteland outlaws as a cross between a maniacal despot and a 1960’s sit-com dad. Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and white fedora, Lester entertains his troops and unwitting guests in a potluck barbecue setting. His hideout looks like post-apocalyptic swingers' resort. Thomerson is just too much fun to watch.

Griffith, while being baby-doll cute, is just not believable as the hardened wasteland tracker. Her breathy, little girl voice counteracts any of her attempts to get the audience to accept her as a tough and rowdy desert rat. Andrews’ role as Treadwell almost makes you think that the movie might have been better if another actor played the lovesick corporate pawn. Maybe Steve Guttenberg, perhaps? Two other actors in this film deserve brief recognition. The first is Brion James (Bladerunner, Steel Dawn) as another tracker who Treadwell attempts to recruit. James is always fun to watch. If I were ever going to make a movie involving wrestling, James would be on my A-list to play the film’s heavy. The second actor is…Lawrence Fishburne. Yes, Cherry 2000 is pre-Othello. Keep an eye out for Fishburne’s brief appearance. First one to spot him is Lord of the Wasteland for the night.

Cherry 2000 Pros:

1) E. Johnson’s Ford. They don’t make cars like that anymore. Even if you’re not a gear-head, you’ll still want one for yourself.
2) Tim Thomerson. Tim Thomerson. Tim Thomerson.


1) As Joe Bob Briggs would say, “Gratuitous Rocket Launcher Fu”. Not only does every other bandit seem to have one, but they all went to the Imperial Stormtrooper Training Academy and Firing Range to learn how to aim them.
2) The dramatic crossing the river scene. We’re supposed to believe that she does this EVERY time she wants to cross the friggin’ river?