Thursday, March 31, 2011

Informal Stonehell Poll: AEC or Not?

My design schedule is finally clearing up, allowing me to actually start looking at the Stonehell sequel as an actual task to accomplish rather than a wistful dream. I’m beginning to collect my scattered notes and to try and remember where I left off. As I’m doing so, a matter has arisen that the first book didn’t have to deal with: The Advanced Edition Companion.

When I wrote the first book, the AEC had yet to be released and all the material found in Down Night-Haunted Halls either came directly from Labyrinth Lord Revised or was homebrewed by yours truly. With the sequel, I now have access to official Labyrinth Lord supplementary material that wasn’t available before. And, quite frankly, I’m on the fence about what to do with it.

One the one hand, keeping Stonehell Dungeon in line with what’s included in the main rulebook allows me to keep the dungeon slim and sleek, and also provides impetus to create funky monkey homebrewed stuff to fill in the cracks normally occupied by materials from the Advanced game. On the other hand, by referencing the official versions of monsters, magics, and spells that I’d normally have to improvise and riff off of, that frees up space in the book to add completely new material, monsters, or more details about the dungeon. Both options have their advantages and disadvantages.

My question then to you folks who are currently running, borrowing from, or thinking about running Stonehell is “What would your preference be for the sequel’s rule base: AEC or strict Labyrinth Lord Revised?” I’ll state now that I’m extremely unlikely to include anything from Realms of Crawling Chaos or any other supplemental material that appears between now and the book’s release, simply because I want to make things easy for the largest percentage of gamers and I know that not everyone who follows the Labyrinth Lord path has all the supplements.

I have my own bias, but I figured I’d engage in a little marketing surveying before I commit myself. Chime in with comments or via an email and let me know what you think. Thanks!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Quick and Dirty Disarm Rule

This came to me the other day and I nearly forgot it. Rather than risk losing it to the mists of Time again, I’ll make a note of it here. Mayhaps you can get some use out of it.
A Fighter or racial Fighter-type can attempt to disarm an opponent during melee combat provided his opponent’s weapon is wielded in one hand. To disarm, the Fighter must strike an Armor Class equal to half the weapon’s damage die (a dagger is AC 2, a mace is AC 3, and a long sword is AC 4, for example). If the attack is successful, his opponent must make a saving throw vs. wands or drop his weapon. The weapon falls to the ground 1d10 feet away from the combatants in a randomly determined direction. The opponent modifies his saving throw roll by his initiative modifier if applicable. If the opponent makes his saving throw, he retains hold of his weapon and is allowed to either make an immediate attack against the Fighter (even if he has already acted this round) or automatically wins initiative against the Fighter on the next round (referee’s choice).
Not perfect, but easy to remember and implement the next time somebody wants to play Zorro.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Dragontales: “Out of the Eons”

The third story in the Dragontales anthology is by an author that will produce a response of either “Him?” or “Who?” depending on the reader’s familiarity with the Golden Age of Comics. “Out of the Eons,” the tale that concerns us today, was written by Gardner F. Fox, the man responsible for (in whole or in part) such comic book superheroes as the original Sandman, Flash, Hawkman, Doctor Fate, and the Justice Society of America. He also wrote the first Batman stories not penned by creators Bob Kane & Bill Finger, introducing some of the concepts and equipment now firmly embedded in the Batman mythos. In addition to his work in the comic industry, Fox penned numerous novels in almost every imaginable genre; sword & sorcery fans may best remember his creations Kothar, Barbarian Swordsman and Kyrik: Warlock Warrior, both of whom are listed in the famed Appendix N as inspirational reading. According to one source, Kothar’s first story, “The Sword and the Sorcerer” is responsible for the lich as we know it in D&D.

Neither Kothar nor Kyrik is the subject of “Out of the Eons.” Instead, the tale concerns another of Fox’s sword & sorcery heroes: Niall of the Far Travels. Niall may have the honor of being one of the few, if not only, fantasy heroes who owes his entire existence to Dragon magazine. Niall’s first appearance was in Dragon #2 in the story “Shadow of a Demon.” The hero would reappear several times in the pages of Dragon, returning in issues #5, #13, #23, #33, #36, #38, #44, and finally #55. “Out of the Eons” is located chronologically between the tales “The Cup of Death” from #38 and “The Lure of the Golden Godling” in issue #44. In the interest of full disclosure, “Out of the Eons” is the only Niall of the Far Travels’ tale I’ve read despite owning the first 250 issues of Dragon on CD-ROM.

“Out of the Eons” begins in an unpretentious manner: Niall, Commander General of the armies of Lurlry Manakor, king of Urgrik, is expanding his wine cellar. When his pick unearths a wall that simply shouldn’t be there, however, Niall inadvertently unleashes an ancient evil upon the world; a creature that escapes from “Out of the Eons.”

Almost immediately thereafter the reader becomes aware that Niall shares a special relationship with the goddess Emalkartha and her human avatar, Lylthia. The relationship is of an amorous nature and this becomes an issue throughout the tale. Thanks to Niall’s connection with the divine, he learns that what he unleashed was a being known as Adonair who once threatened the world—you guessed it—eons ago before being imprisoned by the gods. So long ago did the deities challenge Adonair that they not only forgot he was buried next to Niall’s every-expanding wine cellar, but they can't quite remember how they defeated him the first time around. To compound matters, Adonair, who appears as a green fire, decides he needs a physical body to conquer the world and deems Niall a suitable host.

The rest of the tale involves Niall’s quest to locate something the gods hope will defeat Adonair and their attempts to shield him from being possessed. As a protective measure, Niall is accompanied by the goddess Thallatta, which leads to problems on the home front when Niall starts “paying homage” to anther member of the pantheon, so to speak. Conan never had issues of this magnitude.

Speaking of the Cimmerian, “Out of the Eons” reminds me very much of a “King Conan” tale. Niall is not a wandering reaver, but a warrior of much renown and political status, and his duties to King Lurlry and his queen is what motivates him through much of the story—that and getting back into the good graces of Emalkartha.

“Out of the Eons” is pulp sword & sorcery, the first example of the genre we’ve encountered in Dragontales. Fox was exposed to the writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs at an early age and the impact that Burroughs had on Fox’s development seems to linger long after exposure. Niall is very evocative of John Carter, both in his being a warrior of skill in a position of great influence and his romantic relationship with a powerful, beautiful, and ultimately alien creature.

Having not been exposed to the Niall tales preceding this one, I was ultimately left to judge it solely on its own merits. As a whole, the tale is entertaining, but not remarkable; a story suitable to while away a quiet night or an afternoon at the beach. When I first read it, so many years ago, I do remember being more fond of it, but for a reason having little to do with the plot of the tale.

“Out of the Eons” can be read as a good example of the D&D endgame, the time when the PCs put down their swords and start dealing with issues that can’t be solved solely by riding out and smiting them with sharp objects…even if that’s what Niall eventually does. This tale introduced me to a sword & sorcery hero who was not a landless wanderer, and the events of the story laid the groundwork for how my friends and I did “name level” play. Our high level PCs often got involved with world-shaking events and hobnobbing with the gods, even as we dealt with the mundane concerns of building a new tower on our holdings or excavating a new wing in our thieves’ den. Looking back, I now know that “Out of the Eons” was responsible for this approach to dealing with high level play. I really should go and read the early Niall’s tales and see how he grows into his position. They may give me new insights on the D&D endgame that may be of use in my current Labyrinth Lord campaign.

I also love the beginning of the tale and how the event that launches the plot is so mundane. Digging a new wine cellar is about as incongruous a starting point for a tale involving alien powers and gods as you could imagine. It strikes me as just the sort of minor activity that would get Fafhrd and the Mouser embroiled in some wild scheme. This kind of dichotomy tickles my fancy and the story wins me over because of it.

Before I get to the game material, I should note that “Out of the Eons” is illustrated by Kevin Siembieda. Siembieda is one of those designers that I forget can produce art as well as write, much like Paul Jaquays. I always remember Siembieda more for his Palladium work and the occasional explosion that occurs over there than I do for his art, and every time I see his name scrawled beneath a piece of illustration, I always have that “Oh yeah…” moment. In rereading this story and encountering his work again, I must admit that I kept expecting to turn the page and confront some skull-motif, jackbooted Nazi thug laying in wait for me. The Rifts RPG has apparently done a number on my Siembieda art expectations.

Elixir of Desperate Measures
Many millennia ago, when the universe was a newborn dream, the gods gathered in their starry hall to address a lingering concern. As powerful as the gods were, the cosmos was a mutable place and there might come a day when one of their number became too powerful to be held in check by his fellow deities. Should that day ever come to pass, the cosmos would be at the mercy of that deity alone.

One of the wisest of Powers suggested that the gods pool their divine essences to create a substance that could slay a single god outright and that they thereafter secret this elixir upon the earth in a place impossible for any but a great hero to reach. If the day ever arose that one god needed to be put down, the location of the elixir would be revealed to a mortal hero and it would become their task to destroy that which the gods themselves could no longer challenge. The result was what the bards sing of as the Elixir of Desperate Measures.

When found, the Elixir appears as a glowing white liquid held in a silver cup of plain design. When a weapon is touched to the elixir, it spreads across the length of the weapon, running like water, but clinging like pitch. Once the weapon’s edge is completely coated by the Elixir, the liquid glows brightly for a moment, then fades away as if the weapon absorbed it completely, leaving no trace of the Elixir behind.

The Elixir’s power effectively turns the implement into a weapon of god-slaying. The weapon acts as an arrow of slaying against deities. Its enchantment is only good for one or two successful strikes against a god and it attacks as if a +5 weapon. Each time a deity is struck by the weapon, it must make a saving throw versus death as if it were a 1st level fighter. Failing this save results in instantaneous and irrevocable death. A successful save means the deity suffers damage as normal, provided that is possible given the weapon, attacker, and any other defenses the god might enjoy.

Suffice to say, the Elixir is nearly impossible to locate and it is protected by many magical and monstrous safeguards. No single god knows the location of the Elixir and only several working in concert can deduce the location of the substance and convey its hiding place to a mortal hero. They would only do so in the extremely unlikely event that one of their number amasses enough power to threaten the universe and is deemed a danger to the existence of all living and non-living creations in the cosmos.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Fantasy Game Tables Contest

No, not The Sultan—the kind you roll on! (Which I guess could include The Sultan if your partner is into that sort of thing…but I digress.) Fight On! magazine and Magician’s Manse are holding a contest to see who can come up with the most useful, intriguing, wackiest, neo-grognardic(?) tables imaginable for inclusion in a special book presented by Iggy Umlaut and Co. The best part: the prizes are randomly determined via special treasure tables! The deadline is May 31, 2011, so hie thee over to the Original Dungeons & Dragons Discussion group for more details.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

“Horses! Get yer Horses here!”

Want to make the horse-buying process something more than just subtracting gold pieces from a character sheet? Have a player who simply MUST know what kind of selection the horse trader has for sale? Has it ever occurred to you that the characters’ mounts are NPCs too? If so and you don’t know where to start, download this incredibly helpful PDF that I cobbled together from diverse sources such as Wikipedia and various game supplements. It’s one of the goodies I keep close at hand in my referee binder for just such occasions. Random tables are provided to make horse trading fun again!

Want to know more about horses? Consult your local library or listen to seminal Patti Smith album of the same name:

The Final Level of Stonehell Dungeon

I was going to post an incredibly useful PDF about horses, horse trading, and other equine pursuits today, but MediaFire has made “improvements” and I can no longer upload files to share with you fine folks. So, until they give me a workaround, here’s a sneak peak at the final level of Stonehell Dungeon. Get your vorpal swords ready!

Readers may recall that I was lamenting my lack of certain toys from my youth last year during the holidays. Amongst those I was missing were Presto Magix rub-on transfers. Christmas came and, lo and behold, I got a present from my brother in the guise of my two-year old nephew. He had forgotten about Presto Magix until my blog post reminded him of our misspent youth doing these things in front of our titanic wooden television set. He managed to not only track down a Star Wars set but several AD&D sets as well and presented them to me gleefully at Christmas.

Last night, we had snow yet again here in New York and I decided to while away the hours by making a mash-up of both types of Presto-Magix sets. You can see the final result by clicking the image below. The entire time I was creating this masterpiece, the only thing I could think of was that this looks like either the ultimate battle in Stonehell Dungeon or just another day in the world of Encounter Critical. Incidentally, I’m also pretty certain that this is what’s going on inside of Jeff Rients’ head at any given moment…

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Stonehell Dungeon on Facebook

For reasons many people would undoubtedly consider “quaint,” I do not have a Facebook account. It has recently been brought to my attention, however, that my dungeon does. Organized, or perhaps orchestrated, by one of my regular players, the Stonehell Facebook Fan Page exists and can be found here (I hope that link works since, not having a Facebook account, I can’t make certain). If enough people join, maybe, just maybe, I’ll have to bite the bullet and surrender my last vestiges of a simpler time by joining the unwashed digital masses in their Mafia Wars nonsense. Until then, you can all talk about me behind my back with my regular players.

EDIT: I've been informed that the Stonehell Fan Group has flourished from a mere six people to thirty-six. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to sign up and express their interest in and enjoyment of Stonehell Dungeon. I'll see if I can make something special happen for you fine folks...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

“R is for Roslof”

When I learned that Jim Roslof was ailing, I sat down to write him a card. I had never met the man, but he was one of the cadre of old school artists Joseph Goodman wrangled together to contribute artwork to The Dungeon Alphabet. I’m certain that for Mr. Roslof this was just another illustration gig, one no different from the many he had done over the years. For me, however, the fact that this artist, one who was responsible for so many iconic illustrations in TSR’s heyday, was participating in my first professional book was mind staggering. I had never been able to express my appreciation directly and I wanted to do so before it was too late.

The card that I sent Jim and his wife, Laura, was not one of condolences or best wishes in times of trouble, but a simple “Thank You” card. In it, I expressed the heartfelt joy and boundless wonder that Jim’s work had engendered in me over the years as well as my sincere gratitude that his work graced the pages of the Alphabet. Unfortunately, from what I’ve read, it is highly likely that Jim had already slipped into unconsciousness before my card made it to Wisconsin, so I fear he never got a chance to read my words. I can only hope that they were of some small condolence for Laura Roslof and that the card was just a drop in a torrent of well-wishes, support, and thanks.

There has been a bevy of remembrances and tributes to Mr. Roslof over the last few days—and he deserves all of them. His contributions to the hobby are immense, even if he didn’t receive the recognition that other TSR artists from that era commanded. And although glory may have eluded him, so many of his pieces helped define D&D and the fantasy roleplaying experience that it is almost impossible for gamers who got their start in the late 70s and early 80s to separate those images from their own memories.

From what I’ve read recently, Jim wasn’t only responsible for ushering in the next wave of influential fantasy artists at TSR, men with names like Holloway, Elmore, Caldwell, and Easley. He was also a great boss by some accounts. Jim Holloway said he was the best boss he ever had and shared this picture he took of Roslof during his tenure as art director:

How could you not love and respect working for a boss like that?

When I got my author’s copies of The Dungeon Alphabet, I had a brief moment of déjà vu as I flipped the pages. Seeing Roslof’s work inside the book took me back to my youth and I remembered the sense of wonder I experienced then while leafing through a new module and seeing his awesome illustrations waiting for me. I could almost taste the Red Hots candies and the Snapple Crystal Cola.

Jim’s art had a way of expressing both the "otherness" of a world populated by monsters and magic as well as the sense that his subjects were not heroes, but hard-working regular Joes looking for that one big score. He often took us into the middle of the action, his subjects portrayed in media res, leaving it up to the observer to determine what led to the image he was now witnessing and to conjecture on what would happen next. This mixture is why I particularly love his piece for “I is for Inscriptions” from The Dungeon Alphabet.

As a bibliophibian, archivist, and writer, words are important to me. They play a pivotal role in any game I run, often possessing great power and hidden secrets. I use inscriptions, books, sigils, and signs with great frequency, and having Jim do an illustration that could easily have come out of one of my own games was immensely cool. That it also depicts his usual mixture of the odd and the ordinary was utterly wonderful. Correct or not, I will always consider this piece to be my own, personal Roslof work. I only wish he could have known how much it touched me.

I could keep saying it year after year and it would never be enough. Nevertheless, I’ll say it again: Thank you, Jim, for everything. I’m sorry I couldn’t have said it to you in person, but thank you especially for “I is for Inscriptions,” my very own piece of your incredible magic.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I’ve Always Wondered

It’s not been a good week for blogging, but it has been a productive one for writing. I’m closing in on the end of one manuscript and hoping that I have enough time to tackle a short piece of my own before I move on to the next project. I’m also doing a rundown of the various gods and goddesses of Stonehell Dungeon for an inquisitive fan (Be done soon, Mike). I’ve got some more Dragontale posts coming and some assorted other bits in the pipe. Look for them next week. Until then, let me leave you with this observation:

Today, while out and about, the familiar strains of The Pretender’s “Back on the Chain Gang” came strutting out of my car speakers. As I listened to the song, bopping along to Ms. Hynde, I again wondered about the provenance of one of the song’s lyrics.

Ever since I learned of the existence of Robert E. Howard's tale “Pigeons from Hell”, I’ve wondered if Chrissie Hynde is alluding to Howard’s work with the line “Got in the house like a pigeon from hell.” If that is the case, it officially makes Chrissie Hynde the coolest rock n’ roll goddess the world has ever seen.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Jim Roslof is Gravely Ill

I know this rumor was going around not too long ago, but it appears there is further confirmation from Steve Sullivan, the old friend of Jim Roslof who first mentioned it on his twitter account. According to sources, Sullivan has posted this on his Facebook account:

Old friend and former TSR Artist/Art Director Jim Roslof is rapidly losing his fight with cancer. His wife, Laura said cards are welcome and seem to cheer him up. Please send kind thoughts to: Jim & Laura Roslof W5409 Kenosha Dr, Elkhorn, WI 53147
In addition to Jim’s work as TSR’s Art Director, he produced many iconic images that graced the pages and covers of various D&D books over the years. I fear that despite his hard work and talent, his efforts were often overshadowed by some of the other luminaries working for TSR in the early days.

Mr. Roslof was one of the legends who contributed work to The Dungeon Alphabet, something I’m very grateful for. And not to dismiss the other great artists whose work fills the pages of my professional debut, but Jim’s take on “I is for Inscriptions” and “P is for Pools” are perhaps my personal favorites of all the illustrations. He truly sums up the old school adventuring experience with those two pieces.

My hopes and prayers for a miracle go out to Jim and his family.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Dream Casting and Sacred Cows

Now that At the Mountains of Madness is reportedly dead, it won’t be too long before the Hollywood McNugget machine starts looking for their next franchise with a built-in fan base to exploit. I’m honestly glad that Mountains met its demise. While del Toro is a fan of Lovecraft and has the chops to pull off a Mythos film, I remain skeptical that At the Mountains of Madness needs to see a big screen treatment—especially one featuring Tom Cruise. If I want Antarctic horror, I’ll watch The Thing.

Although it’s been popular to say that Hollywood is creatively bankrupt, recent trends do more to support this statement than dismiss it. In tough economic times, the movie industry is looking for sure bets, which often means doing sequels, reboots, or developing properties that have an audience already attached, such as comic books and popular fiction. This is, for fans, often more curse than blessing.

Back during my own time in the Hollywood salt mines, I was involved with a project to develop Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga for a TV miniseries. In retrospect, I’m relieved that that project never saw the light of day. And although Elric, like other properties, is one which constantly drifts through Hollywood in various stages of production, I think the world can grind along without the need to see the White Wolf battling CGI monsters. I’d actually prefer an Elric rock opera before a big screen blockbuster. Nevertheless, the possibility of an Elric movie remains a constant threat.

This speculation led to some intriguing ruminations on my part, mostly because I’m currently revisiting Moorcock’s creation. Taking a page from Grognardia’s Open Friday and Cyclopeatron’s recent revelation that blog readers prefer posts they can say “Me too!” to, I present these two conundrums to my loyal readers: “What genre series/stories would you like to NEVER see adapted into film?” and “If you had to see a movie based on a story or character you didn’t want adapted, who would you accept in that role?”

For the last question, I’ll break the laws of time and space and allow you to choose any actor, person, or personality, living or dead. For example, if I had to see an Elric film, I would love it to star Iggy Pop circa 1975 as the White Wolf.

As for adapted stories, my own answers are both Elric and the Fahfrd and Mouser tales. I can’t even speculate on who I would like to see take on the latter roles in a worst case scenario as I’ve already created the perfect version of the Twain in my own head and no living actor could compete with my own creation.

How about you?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Dragontales: “Dragon’s Fosterling”

The second story in the Dragontales anthology is “Dragon’s Fosterling” by Ruby S.W. Jung and illustrated by a “M. Kay” according to the signature on the accompanying pieces. Moving away from the genre of game fiction, “Dragon’s Fosterling” is more in the vein of the faerie tale or chivalric romances, but it takes its own path once the story gets going. Starting with the commonplace scenario of a young maiden being abducted by a dragon, the tale treads less stereotypical ground before too long.

Ms. Jung, like John L. Jenkins before her, seems to have been an amateur writer as a web search for additional work under that name was inconclusive. And unlike Jenkins, it is impossible to speculate whether she was (or is) a gamer based on her single credited story. Whereas the game influences are prevalent throughout “The Wizards Are Dying,” “Dragon’s Fosterling” owes a greater debt to the women empowerment movements of the late sixties and early seventies.

“Dragon’s Fosterling” is the story of Asgara, the daughter of a duke who finds herself abducted by a dragon and carried back to his valley lair. The dragon grows tired of rolling about in his treasure horde and occasionally kidnaps maidens so that young knights will come to rescue them and provide him with a bit of diversion. The 184 swords & shields that adorn his cave and vale attest that these brave souls are never successful in their quests.

Asgara finds herself a coddled prisoner, unable to leave the dragon’s vale but given full access to the wonders of the wyrm’s cave—including its library of esoteric lore. In time, Asgara grows to womanhood, still imprisoned by her scaly captor as knight after knight falls beneath the dragon’s claws. Eventually, she decides to do something about her situation…

In my youth, “Dragon’s Fosterling” was not one of my favorite tales in the anthology. Too young to see what Jung was doing with the format and too male to identify with the girlish antagonist, the story rated low amongst the book’s ten tales. But, as I mentioned at the start of this series, one of the joys about returning to Dragontales as an adult was to find that certain stories were far better than I remembered them. “Dragon’s Fosterling” is one of those.

Having spent my undergraduate years in pursuit of an English degree and taking far too many interpretation and criticism courses, I now enjoy this story for its depth and complexity—something that “The Wizards Are Dying” lacked. Jung’s tales drips with so much subtext that it’s difficult to see what she intended the story to be interpreted as.

On one hand, it can be read as a “Fractured Fairy Tale,” a story that takes the expected scenario of “dragon abducts maiden and knight comes to the rescue” and turns it on its ear, which is in itself an enjoyable read. Scratch the surface and look a little deeper and you’ll see other possible interpretations lurking below the veneer.

In light of it publication year (1980), one would be hard-pressed to completely dismiss the influence that the women’s rights movements of the previous decades had upon the story. In this tale, Asgara is no pale maiden desperately pining away for her knight in shining armor. She quickly becomes disillusioned with traditional gender roles and sets about freeing herself from captivity. By tale's end she has not only become a hero in her own right, but also come to terms with and embraced her sexuality. This is pretty heady stuff for a story appearing in a TSR publication, even one under the Dragon Publishing imprint.

But this is just one of a few possible interpretations; others remain to be explored. The dragon—he is given no name, demonstrating that when there is only one dragon in the neighborhood, names are unnecessary—is older and wiser than Asgara, and although kind to her, he demonstrates a streak of cruelty in dealing with her would-be rescuers/suitors. It’s not hard to see the dragon as a father figure, making this tale one of a young girl and her Electra complex. It could also be interpreted as a cautionary tale to young women about the dangers of becoming involved with an older man—although they have great wealth and treat you with kindness, this comes at the cost of one’s own freedom. All this complexity, even if it can be argued that this says more about me than the author, makes “Dragon’s Fosterling” one of the best tales in the book.

Jung has an admirable command of language in addition to her skill with story structure. There are several choice lines throughout the piece, including my favorite, “Her hair was black as treachery,” which given my fondness for dark-haired women, resonates on a much deeper level with me. Her early depictions of the relationship between Asgara and the dragon are also well written and they draw the reader into this strange relationship, which is necessary for the success of the story. I only wish that the illustrations was equal to the prose it accompanies. I'm not certain who “M. Kay” is, but his or her style, although competent, is not one I prefer.

Looking back on “Dragon’s Fosterling” from a role-playing design perspective, I see that this was likely the tale that introduced me to the concept that a dragon’s lair need not just be a cave in the earth containing a dragon and his wealth. The dragon in this tale has several amenities in his lair, both for the comfort of his occasional abducted guest and as testaments to his own prowess in battle. I’ve used these and other touches to personalize dragons’ dens over the years.

“Dragon’s Fosterling” is a good story, but not one that I would recommend to a young child. This is not solely for content reasons, although it does feature implied sex, adultery, and other mature themes. Rather, I would wait until he or, especially, she was old enough to enjoy the tale on its many different levels and revel in the subtle flavors it has to offer.

Magical Properties of Dragon Hearts
Some hoary tomes profess that he or she who eats of a dragon’s heart gains preternatural abilities. This statement is difficult to prove due to the difficulties of conducting field tests. Should the referee decide that the heart of a dragon grants magical powers to the eater, he or she may roll or choose on the table below to determine its effects. Only one person can benefit from the consumption of a dragon heart and that individual must either be the one whose blow killed the wyrm or who dealt the greatest amount of damage to the creature prior to death (referee’s choice). All granted abilities are permanent.

1) Eater gains the ability to understand the speech of one class of animal (mammal, reptile, avian, fish, etc.)
2) Eater gains 10% magic resistance.
3) Eater gains a +4 to all saves vs. breath attacks.
4) Eater can cast one magic-user spell of level 1-3 each day regardless of if they are a spell caster or not. If a magic-user, this spell does not count against their total daily allotment of spells.
5) Eater regenerates damage at the rate of 1 point per hour.
6) Eater can see invisible creatures and objects.
7) Eater can breathe fire for 2d6 damage up to 20’ away once per day.
8) Eater can fly for 1 hour each day.
9) Eater can breathe underwater for 1 hour each day.
10) Eater gains a natural -1 bonus to his or her AC.
11) Eater gains 1 point in each ability.
12) Eater transforms into a dragon and becomes an NPC.

Curse You, Carlo Muad'dib!

Offered without commentary, but he knows what he did!

Dream Fragment: Batman

Last night, a very strange fragment of a dream burbled up from my subconscious. I'm not going to do anything with it, but it struck me as having possibilities for an alternate reality superhero roleplaying campaign.

The dream was very brief, nothing more than one long visual image, but it posed this question: "What if, instead of Gotham City, Batman haunted the nights of Baghdad?" I dreamed the Caped Crusader was perched atop a highway traffic sign, dismantling an IED with a Bat device. By extension, one could easily imagine him hunting down insurgents or taking on corruption in the new government. In the dream, it was Dark Knight-style Batman, but one could simply replace Bruce Wayne with a native Iraqi and conjure up some new Bat-costume to cloak him in.

For all I know, as I don't follow the exploits of Batman outside of the occasional movie (which made the dream all the much stranger), DC Comics has already explored this idea. If not, please feel free to use it yourself. If the writers at DC want to take a crack at it, a small story credit is all I ask!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

An Evaluation of Watchfires & Thrones: Year One

Please forgive the cross-posting as this article appears on both Archive of the Rotten Moon and The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope. It appears on the former since it concerns the Watchfires & Thrones campaign and has been repeated on the latter as it deals with old school roleplaying campaigns in general and may be instructive to those thinking of starting or at the beginning of a classic D&D game.

This Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of our Labyrinth Lord campaign. In the past twelve months, we’ve met thirty-nine times for a rough total of 150+ hours of gaming. The original intent was to have a game schedule of three weeks on/one week off, making for forty meetings a year. As you can see, we came very close to hitting that mark.

The Hard Numbers and Mechanics of the Campaign

When the campaign began, each player created two characters to help them survive the very lethal first two levels of campaigning. Many of those characters have come and gone, and with the exception of one player, no one has an original PC left on their roster. The largest experience point total for a single character is 14,848; the lowest is 2,500. We’ve had two players leave the group due to real life issues and a third player who had to take two extended leaves of absence for the same reason. Of the original three players from the first session, two remain active.

Player character deaths were rife in the early months of the campaign, but stabilized as the survivors advanced in level, a change was made to the critical hit house rule, and the players themselves learned from the mistakes of the past. There have been a total of twenty-two PC deaths (two of which were later raised from the dead) and three NPC deaths (including two dogs). The most PCs lost by a single player is nine.

The campaign itself has spanned two worlds: the original pulp sword & sorcery venue largely centered in and around the city of Rhuun and my traditional D&D campaign world of R’Nis. Between those two worlds the party has explored a dead sorcerer’s tomb, a temple dedicated to the Black Goat, a megadungeon that was built by aliens, Stonehell Dungeon, the ruined cellars of a wizard, a series of insect-infested caves, a ruined monastery holding the blood of a goddess, and (tentatively) a crumbling temple inhabited by hobgoblins. They’ve also participated in a street fair gone amok and defended a frontier homestead against an army of goblin raiders. Although many of the adventures have been homebrewed, other material has come from “The Ruined Monastery” by James Maliszewski, Night’s Dark Terror by Jim Bambra, Graeme Morris, and Phil Gallagher, The Horror on the Hill by Douglas Niles, Temple of the Ghoul by H. John Martin, The Veiled Society by David “Zeb” Cook, and “The Pits of Bendal Dolum” by Doug Lyons.

There have been many rule selections and changes over the past year, and some have worked better than others. The campaign began using the Original Edition Characters rules for Labyrinth Lord, but changed to straight Labyrinth Lord minus thieves after two sessions, mostly due to the fact that I wanted to have monsters with variable damage dice. Character generation was 3d6 in order and two rolls allowed for starting hit points. Once the PCs left the pulp campaign world, Advanced Edition Companion rules were added to the game and starting attributes changed to 4d6 arranged where desired. Thieves also became available to players at that time. Critical hits were initially handled as a “20” results in double damage. This rule changed around the middle of the campaign to a roll of “20” meaning full damage. This resulted in less PC casualties. Clerics cannot cast spells at 1st level and must wait until reaching 2nd level to access their first daily prayer.

My intention was to run an open sandbox campaign where the players could choose what adventure seeds to pursue against a backdrop of a vibrant, constantly changing, living world. The plan was that the PCs would build their fame and fortune and eventually acquire or build a stronghold of their own. This endgame would effectively bring this portion of the campaign to a close.

Evaluation of the Campaign and its Progress

In my eyes, the Watchfires & Thrones campaign has been a successful one. I approached the game with an equal mixture of excitement and trepidation. This was to be my first time in the referee’s chair for more than session or two in almost a decade. I was confident with my decision to use Labyrinth Lord as the ruleset, but simply knowing the rules cold is by no means a guarantee of success. There are too many X factors that can scuttle a campaign before it hits its stride and I was out of practice in how to handle them. To my relief, the rust came off quickly and I’ve been able to handle most of the in and out of game issues with aplomb.

It is the rare campaign that is 100% successful, however, and Watchfires & Thrones is no exception. Looking back on the past year, I can see several missteps that I wish I had avoided and paths I should have taken. These might not have always been noticeable to my players, but they were glaringly apparent to me.

My first mistake was succumbing to gamer A.D.D. on the cusp of the campaign’s start date. Although I had been preparing to run things in my longtime campaign world of R’Nis, I decided at the last minute to switch gears and do a more hardcore pulp swords & sorcery setting instead. This meant that I effectively put myself back to square one in regards to prep work, which would continue to haunt me during the early sessions. I felt that the setting never really came to life for the players as I myself had no clear understanding of the campaign world outside of a handful of idle thoughts stung together on the flimsiest of frameworks. I was constantly trying to do work on the campaign world and was barely a step ahead of the players at any given time, which if you’re trying to use your roleplaying game as a recreational escape is not the best route to take.

That constant scramble led to my making the decision to transport the entire party to my regular campaign world via a magical portal. This allowed me to keep the campaign moving with the established characters while giving me access to all the work I had already done. But there were unforeseen, long-lasting ramifications to that decision.

The swapping of campaign worlds also occurred not long after the release of Advanced Edition Companion for Labyrinth Lord. Since the world of R’Nis had been forged in my days of playing AD&D and its inhabitants skewed in the direction of those rules, I threw open the floodgates of character generation for all subsequent PCs starting play in the new world. This meant that formerly verboten classes like thief, assassin, monk, and others were now playable. It also affected the manner in which attributes were rolled. Rather than using the 3d6 in a row method, I allowed “roll 4d6, drop one and arrange.”

While this decision didn’t result in a gross unbalancing of the game, I personally feel that it didn’t add anything to the campaign either. I had been concerned that the campaign was missing something by reducing the probability of someone rolling scores good enough to play a ranger or paladin and I wanted to allow those classes to be played. But after representatives of those classes entered the game, I discovered that they really don’t bring all that much to the table and, like I discovered with thieves, a campaign can roll merrily along without their presence. After having seen both methods of character generation in play to compare and contrast, I’ve come to the conclusion that 3d6 in order is the superior method for classic style play and I will likely be sticking to that system of character creation from now on. I’ll also be limiting other material from AEC in future games as well, preferring to rely on homebrewed materials that make the campaign world more uniquely my own over “stock fantasy D&D.”

My other major issue was my failure to take the desires of the players into account when working on the campaign. I should have questioned the players more often and earlier to better determine what they wanted out of the campaign. The problem, to my eyes anyway, was that I had anticipated running this wide-open sandbox world, one where the players would be free to chose from any number of adventure seeds. I did a lot of preparation to allow for this once we swapped worlds, only to discover that the group was pretty enamored with Stonehell and would happily continue delving there until they reached name level, uncovered all its secrets, or the campaign collapsed—depending on which came first. As the old line states: “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight…and don’t bring the whole sandbox when the guys just want to play in a hole in the ground.” It’s not a game-breaking issue by any means, but it does mean that I could have used my energies in a more productive manner by concentrating on my campaign tent-pole instead of the surrounding, never-to-be-visited locales.

There were (and remain) a few minor quibbles and reevaluations, but since this campaign was intended to get me back up to fighting weight, referee-wise, I’ve looked at these as lessons rather than problems. Amongst them are whether I will have future starting players roll up two characters and run them off and on. There are benefits to this, especially at starting level, but the dividing of experience amongst multiple characters makes for a slower level progression, which in turn limits me in regards to what fun monsters and magic I can throw at the party. I may allow a player to run multiple PCs in the future, but this would be by player choice rather than campaign design.

Somewhat connected to this issue is the use of training to advance in level, resulting in a time and money cost. I’m currently using training in my game, but I’ve come to the conclusion that this is baggage from AD&D that doesn’t have a place in original or basic D&D and their retro-clones. I’ve got a simpler system in mind, one that allows for more player choice when it comes to advancement, and I think my next and subsequent campaigns will do away with training completely if this other system works as intended.

One final problem bears mentioning as it is something every referee who runs a game long enough encounters: burnout. A few weeks ago, I was feeling this to great effect. My energy levels were running low and there was even one session that I really didn’t feel like having because I was at the end of my creative tether. I thought the campaign might be overdue for a temporary sabbatical as I recouped and regained my energy. However, I’ve continued to push through these feelings and it seems that I’m getting back into the groove of the game. The last two sessions have done wonders for my attitude, and although other real-life concerns remain to plague me and I have a tendency to want to do anything but sit inside and play once spring arrives, I’m hopeful that by continuing to work through the slack times the campaign will continue until it reaches its natural ending. My advice to other struggling referees: Keep pushing until you break on through the wall. It’s worth it.

Despite all these concerns, which may be more apparent to myself than my players, the Watchfires & Thrones campaign has been a great source of fun for the guys who come to the table each week. Some have stated on more than one occasion that this campaign is simply the best one they’ve ever played in. I’m prone to be modest in the face of such praise, but so long as everyone else is having a good time and keeps coming back for more, I’ll accept those compliments as intended.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Dragontales: “The Wizards Are Dying”

The first story in Dragontales is “The Wizards Are Dying” by John L. Jenkins and illustrated by James Holloway. The story tells of an adventuring group brought together by chance who embark on a quest to defeat a lich that is killing the practitioners of magic. Running thirteen pages in length, it is the second-longest story in the anthology.

A casual search of the web fails to turn up more works of fiction by John L. Jenkins, and Dragontales is his sole gaming-related credit according to the Acaceum, making it likely that Mr. Jenkins was a hobbyist gamer who could turn a phrase well enough to catch the eye of editor Kim Mohan and not a professional author or game designer. Whatever the case, the story does demonstrate that Jenkins had both decent writing chops and an understanding of D&D.

“The Wizards Are Dying” is unabashedly game fiction. Nowadays, in the wake of the glut created by TSR, WotC, and every other game publisher with a brand to sell, game fiction is treacherous ground. Some folks love it; others despise it, but there’s no escaping it. Back in 1980, however, game fiction was the exception rather than the rule. Outside of the pages of Dragon magazine and other professional or amateur gaming periodicals, there wasn’t much of a market for the stuff. Andre Norton had started the ball rolling with Quag Keep back in 1978, but it would be another six years before the TSR game fiction machine churned out the first official D&D fantasy novel.

With that thought in mind, you might be better equipped to understand just how mind-blowing “The Wizards Are Dying” was to my young mind. I was reading a story that used all the elements of D&D that I had come to know over the last year in action. It was like experiencing an adventure come to life in a much more vivid form than the “Example of Play” from the Basic rulebook and the DMG could produce. There was a cleric that healed wounds, a dwarf with an enchanted axe, an elven wizard who threw fireballs, and a bevy of liches, trolls, and even manticores to do battle with. I was in roleplaying rapture!

At the time, “The Wizards Are Dying” was one of my top three favorite stories in the anthology. Now, however, it has slipped a bit in ranking, mostly from my having read better examples of gaming fiction. But this is the fault of the reader, not the writer, and I’m still impressed with the job Jenkins does considering there weren’t many examples of this type of story to draw upon back in 1980. And although the story itself may have lost a little luster over the years, in rereading it I still see the influence that it had upon me and how it shaped my preferences for both gaming and fantasy fiction.

The first half of the story involves assembling the party and getting them apprised of the situation they face. Because of this, we see a lot of what we gamers would call “party downtime”: the adventurers stop for a meal in an inn (where the party naturally forms); they lounge in the inn room and discuss the task ahead; they go seeking a scholar to help them learn of what they face; even the journey to the adventuring site via caravan is covered. I’m probably in the minority, but I always find these parts of a fantasy yarn especially interesting. It is during these quiet moments that we learn the most about our protagonists, and when especially well-written, I often consider them to be superior scenes to the fire and thunder action that occurs later on. For example, my favorite scenes in “Ill Met in Lankhmar” are those which occur after the robbery that brings Fafhrd and Mouser together: the walk back to Mouser’s abode and the meeting and revel that the foursome share upon arrival. These quiet moments, filled with the mundane details of life, shine all the brighter when compared to the foreign extravagances that happen once the plot begins it unfold in earnest. Looking back on the “Wizards Are Dying,” it is entirely possible that this tale helped shaped this love of mine.

As for its influence on gaming and campaign building, the story added a few things to my repertoire. Jenkins sets the tale against a standard fantasy backdrop (and one can only wonder if it was based on his home campaign), but there are a some interesting nuances that may have crept into my developing design proclivities. The Crystal Hills, a place where much of the last half of the tale occurs, may have influenced the encounter with Song of Night Screams in Stonehell Dungeon for example. And it remains an evocative enough locale that I had to make certain it wasn’t something lifted from the World of Greyhawk, making it a creation of Gary Gygax.

One cannot talk about the story without mentioning the illustrations that accompany it. “The Wizards Are Dying” features several pieces by TSR artist and illustration workhorse, Jim Holloway. I’m uncertain of when Holloway got his start with TSR, but I must assume that he was at the start of his career when he did these. This is not to say that they are poorly rendered; anyone familiar with Mr. Holloway’s work will recognize his style immediately upon glimpsing them. The pieces do have a certain “roughness” that is absent in his later work, though, and those who usually claim to find Holloway’s work “ too cartoonish” may find these rawer pieces more to their liking. The only quibble I have with them is that the gnome featured in the tale is depicted as a halfling, but that may simply be a miscommunication between writer, editor, artist, or all three.

“The Wizards Are Dying” is not going to win any awards for writing, but it does accomplish what one supposes it intended to: Tell an entertaining tale firmly grounded in the D&D setting. It provides enough pleasure and comfortable diversion that forgiving its flaws is easy enough. Those whose roots are older and run back deeper into the hobby’s past will undoubtedly get more enjoyment from the story than those who grew up on the more recent products of the game fiction machine.

As now, as promised, something inspired or stolen from "The Wizards Are Dying” for your own fantasy campaign:

Faendril’s Fireproof Cloak: This red but otherwise nondescript article of clothing possesses two abilities. First, it is immune to damage from normal flames and provides the wearer with a +1 bonus to all saves vs. magical fire. Secondly, it has the power to cloak a flame source from sight, effectively “turning off” the fire for a time. To do this, the cloak must be placed over or in front of the fire source. A campfire with the cloak draped over it would cease to produce light as would a torch placed within the folds of the garment, making it perfect for the adventurer who needs to hide his light source without permanently extinguishing it. So long as the flame source is covered in this manner, it produces no visible light or heat, but continues to burn fuel at its normal rate.

(For those of you who need them)
Experience Point Value: 500
Gold Piece Value: 3,000

Friday, March 4, 2011

E.G.G. 1938 – 2008

Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion

-Albert Einstein.
Thank you, Gary, for the many, many strange worlds and the gift of persistent illusions.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Save on Stonehell Dungeon and Other OSR Stuff

If you haven't already taken advantage of the Game Master's Day Sale over at RPGNow or DriveThruRPG to save you a few bucks and you'd like to complete your collection of books written by me, Lulu is also offering a sale through March 7th. Enter the code GIANT305 at checkout to save 20% off the cover price of Stonehell Dungeon or any other Old School goodies available through them.

Tales of Dragons and the Shaping of Perceptions and Expectations

In the nearly three-years that I’ve been following and participating in this thing of ours, I have read hundreds if not thousands of blog and forum posts written by people who wanted to muse upon the hobby and the sources that birthed and shaped it. These discussions invariably lead to what gaming products form the core of fantasy roleplaying by virtue of establishing the tropes and atmosphere that we now take for granted almost forty years later.

These posts typically contain the usual suspects list of sources: For fiction, it the great Appendix N and the authors and works listed therein; for game products the titles “Keep on the Borderlands,” “Tomb of Horrors,” “Against the Giants,” “Arduin,” “Wilderlands,” and other appear again and again for good reason. But perceptions and expectations are formed by unique, personal experience, shaped by forces as varied as those affected by them. It is perhaps due to this that I have yet to see anyone speak of the book that had more effect on my nascent understanding and expectations of the game than any other. It is time to put that to rights.

It was Christmas of 1981. My interest in fantasy role-playing was formed the previous holiday season while visiting relatives and I was given a copy of the Moldvay Basic set earlier in that year. As I opened my presents, I found a slim parcel mixed amongst them. It was the right shape and size for an adventure module (something I had undoubtedly asked for), but when I opened it I discovered something else awaiting me. I was now the owner of a special issue of Dragon magazine entitled Dragontales.

This anthology of stories was the first (and to my knowledge, only) collection of fantasy fiction produced under a separate cover by Dragon Publishing. Released in August of 1980 under the editorship of Kim Mohan, the book features ten fantasy short stories written by a collection of authors ranging from the renowned to the unknown—some are even quite surprising.

In the months and years to come, I would pour over this anthology again and again, reading and rereading each story within until I knew them by heart. They covered quite a gamut of style so it was difficult to grow bored with them. Some were pulp sword and sorcery; others, trippy fantasy whose roots grew out of the psychedelic landscape of the previous two decades.

Remember that this was 1981, a time before TSR began churning out game fiction by the truckload and the fantasy genre in general was not as glutted as it stands today. My exposure was swords & sorcery fantasy had so far been limited to the Bass-Rankin productions of The Hobbit and Return of the King and whatever my local library had on its shelves—which was not a lot. To me, Dragontales was a fantastical feast that not only whetted my parched thirst for fantasy but also used the races, classes, monsters, and terms that I had been reading about for the last year in my rulebooks. It was a dream come true.

Somewhere along the line I lost my copy of the book. It was probably discarded after I read the thing to pieces and could recount the tales within by memory. As time went on, the stories began to grow dim and my interests moved on to other things. The market was now flooded with fantasy and straight-out game fiction, so the novelty of these stories was no longer there. It is not surprising that Dragon never produced a second anthology of tales.

Just a few years ago, not long after I started this blog, I discovered that a friend owned a copy of Dragontales and I asked to borrow it so that I could reacquaint myself with its stories and authors once again. I requested this with more than a little trepidation. Would the stories stand up to my memories of them after all these years or would a more mature palette find them lacking and result in another fond childhood reminiscence sullied by an ill-advised revisit to the halcyon days of the early 1980s? To my delight, I found that the stories not only retained their ability to entertain but in some cases were actually improved by a greater understanding of both the genre and its authors.

Looking back on those stories again also made me realize how much they helped shape my attitudes and expectations about D&D. With the exception of Leiber’s Fahfrd and Mouser stories (which I didn’t read until college), no other single source had more of an impact on my fantasy campaigns than these ten stories. Reading them again was not only a passport back to my own youth, but also to a different time in fantasy fiction and the gaming business. It was a rougher, wilder time back then, not sleek and slick as the pages of a splatbook like they are now. Dragontales reflects that time, a snapshot of a place impossible to return to.

This past weekend I asked my friend if I could borrow the book to take that journey once again. In the weeks to come I will be doing a post on each of the tales included in the anthology, talking about how they influenced me and returning the favor by using the stories as inspiration (or outright burglary) for new game material. I’ve started to read the first story today and I can already feel the mixture of nostalgia, expectation, and sheer entertainment rising up within me. In fact, I had to break my resolution regarding the purchase of books this year and order my very own copy of Dragontales to replace the one I lost long again. Until it shows up though, I have the borrowed version to peruse. If you’d like to come along for the trip and are missing a copy of your own, both Noble Knight and Amazon have some for sale. Place your order now or dig out your own copy and meet me back here next week when we take a look at “The Wizards Are Dying” by John L. Jenkins.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Miscellaneous is the Largest Category

Here’s a few bits and pieces that I wanted to touch upon before I forget. Look for real posts tomorrow and the weeks to come.

1) RPGNow and DriveThruRPG are having a Game Master’s Day Sale from now until next week (somewhere around Tuesday or Wednesday). Enjoy 25% off or more from a slew of publishers including old school favorites like Brave Halfling Publishing, Fat Dragon Games, GM Games, Goblinoid Games, Goodman Games, Rogue Games, and more (apologies to those I missed). If you haven’t picked up a PDF copy of say The Dungeon Alphabet (let’s get it to a Popular Electrum Pick, people!) or Realms of Crawling Chaos for that shiny new iPad, now is the time to do so. It’s also the perfect opportunity to buy something nice for your own poor, beleaguered game master who puts up with your antics week after week with no thought of himself…

2) Obfuscate and Deny: Remember that thing I said about starting the Stonehell sequel as soon as I finish my current manuscript? Well, forget it. Another gig stepped in to take its place in the queue. The good news is that it’s not only a funky fresh opportunity, but it’s something that any old school gamer would be a fool to not be a part of. The turnaround time is short so there will still be plenty of time for me to finish Stonehell before year’s end (crossed fingers knocking wood).

3) Local Gamers Take Note: To anyone in the tri-state area looking for something to do on the weekend of April 15-17, turn your browsers to the homepage of ICON-30, Long Island’s biggest science fiction convention. This year’s gaming guest of honor is Mr. Frank Mentzer.

4) All the finalists’ entries for the Three Castles Award have been sent to their doom the judges for adjudication. Quote one unnamed judge: "The package arrived today, in good condition. Since there were no gold coins hidden inside, I doubt any of them will win... In fact, I was astonished by the excellent quality and professional appearance! I was afraid I would be judging amateurish entries hand-written on legal pads (well, maybe not that bad). What a great group of products for the first award. I hope all five get good recognition from this. Looking forward to judging them." I knew I forgot to put something in my parcel…